There were problems with having questions and suspicions. None of them were answers. In that the wolf man from the field had once again been right to say "deal with what is". I'd been struggling to turn that advice into practice over the last few days but quiet time came with too many thoughts. Soon though, soon there'd be answers.
As the next day approached, Jenn and Momma got ready for a trek while I grew increasingly nervous. They insisted I didn't pack anything. We were going on a day trip this time, not an overnight on The Mountain. I wondered what might happen up there. The revelations to come could be mind numbing, or a let down.
Parts of me prayed that I'd imagined all these recent events. That someone would come pat me on the head and say "It's okay Chase. Ain't nothing bad out there out to kill everyone you love and care for. There’s no war. The mountain ain’t a living monster eating men. It ain’t your job to find it’s hidden orb of untold power that caused deaths of angels.” I also knew such wishing were for children and I'd long stepped away from being a child.
I'd spent months hoping one day daddy would walk back into our home and everything would be alright again. Here I were, physically in the same place I'd been when I'd learned of his death. Mentally and emotionally, I'd traveled miles. If trials were what a made a man, then by any measure I felt grown up.
But still just as lost. Being an adult didn’t come with all the answers and learning that made me shake. I kept righting my mind, telling myself we were headed off to get the information needed to move forward.
Losing my voice took it’s toll. Communicating took too much work. Jenn hadn't been too into talking ever since her change and most of the conversation that came out of her mouth involved derision of men in general. Momma prattled and not a lick of it meant anything deep.
Still, I wrote down questions, mostly as notes to myself. Those jotted scribbles helped me focus on what I wanted to know from Cassandra and the others. Hound, Fallen Angels, Searching for?, visions, and others. I got the feeling momma had the same questions because of whatever happened to daddy, and this time momma would beat the answers out of anyone within eyesight.
Jenn arrived with a trio of mules. We rode them to the crossroads then marched up the winding path. By carriage and flaming horse, this path had taken hours. It'd take us longer by foot. We were lucky that The Mountain would be mostly clear based on the moon's phase. Though I kept an eye out for monsters using both Eyes of a Man and the Heartseeker splattering.
Momma and Jenn moved on like women possessed. I followed slowly, feeling exhausted but happy to be out and about. Something about roaming the fields made me shiver. Hair stood on end and goosebumps formed each time I sensed a small ink beast. There were a few smaller critters but they'd stayed far into the tree line.
There were human figures wandering the woods. I pointed one out to momma and she flipped off the bushes.
"Don't think I don't know you're out there Wan! I still remember what you and Ash did to Becky Watermen. Poor girl, being stranded in the woods like that. You're a prick!"
"I was twelve, ain't fair to hold that against me after all these years!"
"You ain't changed none," momma yelled. She frowned then shook her head. “But I live for the day you prove me wrong.”
Wan laughed loud enough to carry through the trees. I hadn't ever heard him do that any time during our testing.
"Pleasure to have you back, Widow Craig!" Wan shouted.
I hadn't known which person were out there, but apparently momma knew right away. It made me wonder why she could pick them out when even my various methods of sight hadn't been able to tell.
"Don't think this means I'm returning to you lot." Momma muttered. She waved a hand dismissively but never once slowed down her trek through the trees and up toward the top. Were she really so mad today that she could venture up this path, when she hadn't been able to go after daddy died?
She kept on babbling away. "It's always Wan. Him and Ash comb this path every day. Always have. Rangers got their assignments, you'll see."
"Obsidian roams near town," Jenn said. "Hardwood always follows the carriages. Normally at a distance or a few hours before. Can always smell her first. Then I'd know you'd be by."
Momma paused and stared at Jenn. Her chest deflated for a moment then momma turned and marched back up the path while muttering. "Should never have left you out in the woods to rot like that. Shame on me for not thinking straight." I couldn't tell if she were apologizing or simply chastising herself for all that time she'd locked herself in a room and shut out the world.
"Chase helped," the Flop said. "He's stupid, but not bad." Jenn's volume lowered further as she continued with, "and warm."
I flushed red and pretended she'd said nothing. Her comment reminded me that I needed money more than ever. If nothing else, we could build a proper room for the Flop. After all this other nonsense got straightened out.
Momma cupped her hands and hollered toward the woods, "You let that witch know I'm coming!"
"Ranger Ash is already on his way. They'll roll out the red carpet I'm sure."
"I'm sure they won't." Momma shook her head.
We continued on the path up the hill, walking the long path that normally were used by Hell Steed’s and their carriages. It gave us plenty of time to think. Though momma had no such thing as an inside voice. She continued to complain about the trek up the hill, the damned Rangers, and proceeded to give us a history lesson on every Ranger she'd ever met.
Not a useful kind of history. We learned that Hardwood had become a Ranger after Tawny. He'd only become one after nearly dying and taking on a series of yellow markings that apparently made him even more sickly. Momma didn't know what the markings did or how they helped him qualify as a Ranger, only that his gaunt features had gotten worse after joining Obsidian.
Obsidian she didn't like at all. Momma went on to explain that he'd used to be a peeping Tom as a child. He'd snuck around Bell Town looking for ladies changing rooms to view. Though momma didn't know that first hand. She'd been told that by another gossip in Chandler's Field.
The stories went on and by the end of our climb, I almost felt like the Rangers were real people. Hardwood had a home out in the woods that had cats. Apparently she'd once killed one of Cassandra's hounds for killing her litter of kittens. They still worked together but there were no love lost between the women. Momma thought they were both stubborn as mules. Jenn snorted at that, then proceeded to explain that mules were all stubborn as idiot men, even the ladies.
I let all the knowledge wash over me then fade away. It wouldn't mean much in light of what came next. What had been building ever since that day months ago when I'd decided to ask for a marking. Maybe before that, when Lily had left and I realized it were time to move on with my own life.
"Almost there. Cassandra will be waiting above the heart. She's flashy like that. All those colors in her robes. Like a god damn peacock. Never seen a woman so obsessed with being flashy. Not even them girls working the docks. Think it's fools the lot of us and none of us see her for what she is." Momma's head shook. She walked slower than before. Whatever steam she'd had at the beginning of our forced march had faded as we hiked up the painfully long trails.
I didn't tell momma that those swirling colors had hypnotized me before.
Jenn paused then shivered head to toe. "Almost there."
The temple at the top were impressive in the daylight. Last time I hadn't been in the right frame of mind to notice the work that went into it. The building were almost as a big as Poss's mansion but reverent with rounded edges and a pointed steeple, where Poss's home were posh and decadent with carefully twisted ironwork and metal polished window frames.
We walked through a garden that had overgrown with rose bushes. The pathway were the only thing with any sort of clearance. Under the bushes were thick solid bricks that made up a wall of sorts. A spicy smell hung in the air. I got the impression that the plants hadn't been touched in an age, but the paths were so clean that they must have been scrubbed recently. Around a corner the actual wide area to the mountain's heart came into view.
There were no liquids. No bubbling mass. I stopped and stared at the spot where I'd fallen. What did coming back here mean? Why did we even need to return to this location?
I'd die happy if I never needed to see this hellhole again. Only then I'd never get answers. It were unlikely Hounds could spend all their time in the sunshine in a place safe away from The Mountain.
Cassandra and three other Rangers were waiting for us. I recognized Hardwood, Obsidian, and Tawny. They'd been there when I got my first marking too. That meant they'd known all along where this might end up.
Jenn grabbed the back of my shirt and tightened a clump in her fist. It felt even smaller than before. I'd finally grown into my daddy's clothes and I weren't sure I liked it. They felt stuffy.
"Should be clerics," Jenn muttered. "Never seen this place without any. Should be all over."
There hadn't been anyone at Kenneth's little church either. They might have been related but what could cause that to happen? What possible event might have caused both spots to be emptied out?
"Cassandra ain't one to let clerics tell her what to do. She may have others fooled into thinking she's only a tattooist, but I've been around enough to know who holds the real power out here. It's been that witch for generations. A schemer. That's what she is. A viperous one who's set her fangs on my boy. Shouted have gutted her in the night all those years ago."
Momma's voice carried. She weren't being shy about letting the others know we were here.
I didn't know how to put all that into perspective. Momma had alluded to lots of knowledge from the years gone by, but her distaste of Cassandra ran deep. Deeper than I'd ever expected, and ignorant me had run to the tattooist for my first real marking. If I'd known, would anything have changed?
We stood at the edge of the garden path, staring across at the other four. They faced us in a strange half circle with Cassandra in the middle. She smiled while staring at me. I'd seen Felines that were less feral with their expressions. Hungry. Happy. Excited. Cassandra were a girl who'd been brought a treat that she'd worked hard to earn.
Momma took deep breathes to steady herself. Despite the fire she'd demonstrated charging up the path these last few hours, she needed a moment to get herself steady. I could ese traces of exhaustion pinching at momma's eyes. It might have been age wearing paths along her skin.
It felt like forever since I'd really studied her for changes. Somehow the younger woman from my memories blurred into an older figure that had been held down by the weight of history. The others were much the same. Old. Set. I could see the inking sitting calm on the skin. Hardwood's leather jerkin didn't block my eyes. Briar patches lined her sides. Roes spun out of them. It made me imagine her body as a sort of garden, wild like the one behind us. Aged.
"Don't like it up here," Jenn said. "Too quiet. Too close."
"You're a brave girl and no one'd think twice if you wanted to go home. Been stronger than anyone has the right to ask. Lord knows my boy gave you a scare enough when came to." Momma kept finding new reasons to frown. Her expression would lighten for only a moment before both lips curled into a scowl that would have made the devil hisself think twice about backtalking.
Momma took the lead and strode forward. One hand waved at the others.
"Come on you four! Always been you. A little cabal in a special order of monsters. Every time something wrong happened around here, who do I find out's in the middle? You all. " Momma walked over until she stood a dozen paces away from the others. She crossed her arms over her chest, sucked in a lungful of air then let it out slowly. The hissing as her chest deflated itched my hearing like a scratch on a toe.
"Don't like this," Jenn said. She stood beside me but I felt her body shift slightly. Her furry toes slid along the ground, grating like a cow might shift in a hay field.
I patted her hand and walked up slowly. It felt smoother than I'd expected to be. My gaze kept shifting to the empty well that would dip down to the mountain's heart.
Had I really been down there? I wondered, followed by, How had I survived?
It simply weren't possible for every single changed creature to jump into the top like that. Wildlings, as an example, cast themselves into the depths, seeking death and a return to the mountain. Jenn hadn't though. Likely Poss's Feline servants had been given a quiet room. Delvers were all changed somewhere in the mines. It didn't matter how they changed. What mattered is that I had. I remembered falling down into that hole.
I stopped short of where momma stood and stared downward. It looked peaceful but endlessly deep. A faint hint of rainbow drops could be seen a few dozen feet below. I held up my hand and let the tattoo that hid my markings slip. The rainbow drop spidering across my palm faded into view. Blackened fingertips shown on the other one.
Behind me I Jenn gasped then backed up. I could hear her heartbeat speed. If my fingers moved right, I could tell exactly where she stood behind me. I thought about it briefly and realized that her body were half rabbit. Or something of the sort.
Hound, I thought. They were hunters to her. Hounds were used to herd sheep, dig out small game, protect the home. It weren't simply a role or a title. It were everything in between. How could I keep going if what I'd become scared Jenn?
"You're going to tell me exactly what happened to my boy."
"I don't have to tell you anything," Cassandra said.
The other Rangers stayed quiet. I turned to study the lot of them then walked up closer to momma. Obsidian didn't watch me. Hardwood glared every so often but her puckered face seemed a moment away from spitting in disgust. Tawny looked like a strong breeze might blow him into the mountain's heart.
"The hell you don't. I'm calling in every favor you owe me. All of them, including repayment for killing my husband."
"I didn't kill him," Cassandra responded.
"Damn well did. You all but put a gun in his hand and pointed it at his head. Filled his noggin with tails of grandness. Played your game upon his love for his dead daddy. I'd say you did the same to my boy but I know you weren't stupid enough to try that twice."
Cassandra put up her hands in mock surrender and smiled. "He came to me.”
"Course he did. Should have known and kept an eye out and warned him but we're past that now."
"Of course we are. By the time you would have noticed, we were already set on this path."
"Don't I wish it were otherwise," momma said quietly.
My head jerked to the side abruptly. The two women were glaring at each other. Hardwood frowned at me then spit at the ground. Obsidian stared off into space as if nothing being said mattered to him in the slightest. Only Tawny showed a sign of being embarrassed, and that might have simply been sweat from standing up in this air, which apparently took a toll on his body.
Cassandra might have looked ashamed to any other person. To me she simply looked bored, as if anything momma had said didn't matter. Despite the passive expression, she nodded then motioned to a chair that had been sitting, unnoticed, nearby.
"Well?" Momma said. "What happened this time that means he won't end up like his daddy?"
Cassandra caved first and my jaw dropped. "That's a fair question. I need to look and see how deep the change took. How far it reached and what became of the offerings before him." She pulled me to the side.
"Offerings?" Jenn asked.
I'd wanted to ask the same question but all that came out were a rough whimper of noise. Not fully formed, like my throat couldn't make normal sounds anymore. Tawny came up with a chair and set it nearby.
"You should know girl." Cassandra pushed me toward the chair. "You were there. You brought up the dead pup and tossed it in with him."
Jenn stepped back away from the lot of them and didn’t respond.
"They did the same to his daddy, only something made it worse. Made him toss in a wolf pup they'd stolen from the east. Said his grandpa had to hunt down the wolf himself for his offering." Momma's jaw tightened and she glared at the Rangers.
Jenn's toes tapped then her legs shivered abruptly. I could imagine it making her body wave in interesting ways, but now weren't the time to give a care for a woman's backside. Likely it'd only serve as further proof that Jenn needed newer clothes. Everything took money that I didn't have.
This is the wrong time to think about money.
"Why?" Jenn asked after some time.
Cassandra continued to urge me toward a chair while Tawny answered, "The stories say that the first changes for any place like the mountain, here, Lake of Galahad, the devils triangle, they're all based on the types of creatures that are first put in. Out here, it's said rabbits, a bobcat, and a mole, were the first to cross over. Breaking that pattern ain't easy. Creating something different new ain't easy."
"It's dangerous and always has a cost," Cassandra added.
"The Mountain wants to create certain patterns. Things it, controls." Tawny's eyes shifted toward Jenn. “Remember what I told you boy? That one day The Mountain would reach out and touch you back?” He pointed to the gapping hole below. “Here we are.”
Jenn's large toes wiggled uneasily under his endless glare. Her discomfort reminded me why I'd even started on this path. It weren't to hunt down some mythical orb from a dream. Valor and dreams of heroes fighting back the monsters weren't my motivation. I'd taken my first marking with the goal of earning money. This were for momma, and Jenn, who I'd slowly come to realize needed the support as well.
They needed more.
I buckled against Cassandra's pushing.
"What?" she asked.
I rubbed my fingers together at Cassandra. Her gaze winnowed and an eyebrow lowered I took that to mean she didn't have a clue what I meant or why I didn't simply bow down to her wishes. There'd been a time I might have done anything due to the sweetness of her voice, but I were too tired to even properly look at the woman. Exhaustion served as strange purpose in making it harder for her swirling dress to bewitch me again.
"What's that gesture mean?" Cassandra asked.
Funny how I no barely thought of her as a tattooist. Something about the ventures I'd been on served to make them more human. As if they were no longer stations to be peered up at, but simply people. Maybe their roles no longer mattered to me.
"Money," Hardwood interrupted.
"Money?" Obsidian echoed. He pushed up from the platform wench he'd been leaning against and slowly walked toward me.
I nodded then made the motion again. None of this information meant a damned thing if I couldn't get enough money to give momma live a better life. If she couldn’t go, or I couldn’t, then we needed more than a run down farmhouse with barely enough room. I needed money to afford better clothes for Jenn and food enough to help fill everyone's belly. Daddy had supported us. I considered a man to be someone that could provide for family.
Obsidian's head tilted toward me and he asked again, "Money? This lot threw you into the mountain's heart, exposed you to the purest form of ink we've ever seen, and you're asking about money?"
My head nodded then shook. If we were all stuck here for reasons that had more to do with God then Country, I’d claw my way up to Poss’s level. Never again would I let her look down on me over money. I'd be damned if I ever heard Poss look down at me again, telling me I didn't make enough coin to those around me.
For the first time I could recall, the shadow shrouded man laughed. His body shook with mirth so out of place that even momma's stern glare couldn't make him stop. He put up a hand, waving at us as his body doubled at the waist.
"He's not a Hound, he's a mercenary!" Obsidian resumed laughing.
I'd worked in the mines for months, risking life and limb for a wage. If they'd been paying attention for any measure of time, they'd know that I'd always been a bit of a mercenary. Other's, like Ducky, wanted to join the Rangers to be heroes or prove their valor. I'd never been such a man.
Cassandra stepped toward me. Obsidian shut up almost immediately but couldn't stop mild laughter from shaking his body. The tattooist said, "If money's your motivation, then there's plenty to be found. But nothing will come until we see what changes took. Sit here."
"And if you don't, we'll throw you back in. Dead this time," Hardwood said. She had a hand over one of her markings, though I couldn't tell which one without switching my vision around.
Now didn't seem like the time to question. Momma stomped a food on the ground but said nothing. I took that as a cue that no matter what the outcome might be, even momma agreed that Cassandra should have a look. I sat down on the stool, there on a small platform that overlooked the mountain's heart.
But I'd come back to money eventually. God, The Mountain, and these damn Rangers may have their plans, but plans of almighty powers couldn't stop bills from needing to be paid.
"Shirt," she said.
I took off the hand-me-down from daddy and let Cassandra see whatever she cared to. My back felt strange, being exposed to the air like it were now. Something about the afternoon light and the emptiness below me made skin crawl. It might have been how her finger traced along my flesh almost immediately. She used both hands, following lines I couldn't see without a mirror.
A sudden breeze across the mountain's top made me shiver. The sudden motion repeated. A chill from the open air crawled into my bones and refused to get out no matter how hard I shook. My teeth chattered.
"Hold still. I need to see what's happened to your body."
"Ain't nothing that happened to him that ain't your fault. Of course, that's assuming you even knew what would happen. Poking around in a person's soul like that. Acting like he's some fancy alchemists potion."
"Now. Be civil. And you and I both know that the alchemists of Witchwoods have a lot to teach us about the powers."
I'd never heard of the Witchwoods, thought it were likely another source of ink like The Mountain or the Lake of Galahad.
"I'll civil," momma's words were cut off as Hardwood and Tawny stepped closer. "You two agree with this nonsense? Ain't bad enough you killed my husband, but you put my boy at risk too? You ought to be ashamed!"
"What else would you have us do Connie? We need a Hound. Always have, always will until The Mountain's done and gone."
"Like hell. You survived for years aplenty without one," momma said.
I frowned in the same manner as momma. It'd been an age since anyone used her first name. Town’s folk called her Missus Craig while daddy were alive. After that it'd been changed to Widow Craig. Almost like her name and existence didn't matter beyond a position.
"Trying to tell me you needed another sacrifice for your fool's quest is like telling fish they should learn to fly. It don't make sense and never will to any idiot with sense enough to know what's what."
As momma prattled on, defending me against something passed done, I wondered what might happened. What would she be called in the future? They people around town might start referring to her as "Chase's momma" and nothing else. It made me wonder if she had any real friends. I'd never seen her talk to anyone outside myself and Jenn recently, though she certain had ways of getting gossip.
I started to say something but all that came out were a harsh barking sound. Not a yip like puppies might, but one where my throat felt parched and phlegm filled.
Throughout their entire conversation the tattooist kept prodding my back. She traced fingers down one side then up and across the other. A ripple passed under my skin. I activated one of the Eyes and could see as ink trailed along under the surface of flesh. All sorts of colors. A twisting rainbow that swirled and drowned under black before shimmering into another part of the rainbow.
"Knew it," Cassandra said. She tapped on my back and the ink under my skin rippled, as if someone had touched the surface of a puddle and all the water were busy rocking back and forth.
I felt sick. The sight of all that nastiness flowing along my body, like a regular man might have blood, made my scalp numb and stomach crawl upwards. It kept on crawling no matter how many times I told myself that everything would be alright. This were simply a new part of my life that I’d have to learn to live with.
"Knew what?" Momma demanded.
"You know what. I'd told your husband he'd have a better chance with the eyes but that fool didn't want to take them."
They argued and I told myself that what'd been done couldn't be undone no matter how hard I cursed the powers above. Or on the other side, where ever they'd tucked themselves away.
"That's because eyes are a first or not at all marking! You taught me that yourself. Then you gave him those damn fool paw prints," momma said.
I sucked in a fresh lungful of air and held it tightly. Momma had learned about tattoos, from Cassandra of all people. Suddenly more details started to make sense. Momma didn't have markings. Tattooist Cassandra didn't have any either, but she'd held a certain power for sure. Had momma been training to be a tattooist? From Cassandra of all people?
"He could have still taken them," momma said.
"You know damn well that would have pushed him over!"
During all this Jenn stayed rooted where she'd been. Not one step closer since we ventured out of the garden. I turned a bit to get a good view of her but the Flop weren't looking at me. Her eyes were cast toward the giant hole in the ground while her mouth hung open in half muted terror.
"But your boy saw the visions. He knows. He remembers. Didn't you Chase? I can see the marks of the truth, clear as the nose on your face." She pressed a spot on my back that might have been near my heart. When she touched it, a vision of the golden birds chasing down that black winged creature flooded my vision.
I craned my neck to glare her. Whatever she'd touched, it brought back the dreams. It weren't right for anyone to be able to force me to see things. Imagines from inside the mountain had been bad enough. Her having the power to mess with my brain weren't right.
Momma kept on talking. "Doesn't matter. You gave him something he thought he wanted. He got something he didn't want and lost what he never knew he'd miss. That's how it always is and not a one of you had the sense to tell him."
Hardwood's feet shuffled. They were rougher than the other Rangers. The way she stepped were more like a slide across the wooden platform. "And where were you during all this? Come on Connie. You're his mother. You knew what happened to your husband. You saw it all! Don't have the gall to stand here and judge us because you weren't hard enough to do what needed to be done."
I kept them in sight with my head partial turned.
Momma sniffed, jutted out her chin, and said, "Lose Tawny and tell me I ain't hard enough. Go on. Lose your niece. Lose family and see if you can crawl your leathery ass out of a bottle for the next month."
"I don't have the luxury of going to a bar in the first place you milksop. We lose Rangers every year and do our duty."
"Lose someone who means more," momma said. Her jaw locked and eyes were wet with unshed tears. “You all are such assholes to each other it’s no wonder you don’t miss each other when your dead.”
"Chase is right there," Jenn muttered from the garden entrance. Her words weren't a whisper at all, but certainly loud enough to make everyone else pause for a moment. "You idiots. Talking like he can't hear. Mute. Not deaf."
I wanted to pat Jenn on the head. She probably wouldn't like that. Our relationship had entered strange territory and I hadn't put enough thought into where we were going. She were like a little sister at times. I wanted to take care of her. I had been in my own underfunded way. At the same time, I'd have pursued her for a more personal relationship, were she to show a remote interest in men.
I'd put aside that confusing perspective for later. The others had all shushed but I could still hear them shuffling about. My hearing excelled since coming out of The Mountain's test. Cassandra's fingers kept on roaming across my skin. Down one arm as she trailed a stream of twisting ink. What she read there, I didn't know, but that were the impression I got. She read the ink my body and what it did as easily as I might have read a shopping list.
"Here," she poked. "Then there. A nexus at each joint. This is nothing like the major twists."
"And the hands. Don't think I'm blind. His hands are practically two pieces of the same puzzle." Momma uncrossed and crossed her arms uneasily.
"A happy accident, but maybe part of the reason it succeeded."
"You mean you don't know for sure?"
Cassandra’s hair fluttered softly as her head shook. "Despite your anger, I don't know everything. That's part of the problem."
"If we knew everything, then this hole, and every other one, would be closed. Or better controlled at least," Tawny added.
My fingers curled into question bouncing question marks.
Tawny sighed and waved a hand at Cassandra. "And despite seeing what you said he’s seen, he knows nothing."
"That's not special. We wouldn't tell recruits the truth for at least two years. Only after they've taken the first heart and learned enough to handle them without turning." Cassndra’s dress were loud as it ruffled with her shrug. “Even that Lake boy only knows as much as he does because his father told him.”
"You're ignoring Chase," Jenn repeated quietly. “Again.”
"No. We're talking. Chase is listening. I can see here, and here. His neck and ears are all changed. Like a Feline, but under the surface." Cassandra poked soft spots behind either ear. I yawned abruptly and listened to them pop. My neck ached and body felt stiff.
"What's next? How do we know that'll he'll survive this between change? His daddy didn’t. Died two months in.” Momma shuddered uneasily then kicked a rock in our direction. “Bad enough I left Chase to take care of the house all on his own. Bad enough I let him dream of being a Ranger.”
Momma stepped closer while wagging a finger at Cassandra. “So help me, if there's a chance he'll go the same way as his daddy, that'll be the end of it. I swear. I don't care what vow's we've made Cassandra, I'll see us both drown in The Mountain's heart before I let him die.”
I stopped being able to process their conversation. It were too much too fast. Answers, I'd expected. But one at a time with enough room between for me to breathe. Yet I'd been stormed by a deluge of information without even a moment to do more than piece bits together. Momma knew what had happened. It'd happened to my daddy. Jenn were caught in all this because I'd invited her to the family home. Those Rangers simply stood there.
It were too much.
Cassandra placed a warm hand on my back. My skin crawled and I heard the world distort like I'd fired off a gun next to my ear. "Now," Cassandra said from somewhere close by and miles away, "We fully wake the hound in him."
Then she pressed her hand into me. Or near enough that I couldn't tell the difference, and by the time I processed that though, my chest burned impossibly cold.
Breath escaped. I shot up from the seat and waved my arms to grab at the air. It refused to return where it should have been. Block spots appeared and swirled. Both legs buckled. Down I fell, hands grabbing the edge of the platform I'd been placed on.
The bottom were out of sight but for a moment, only a moment, I wondered if I might find air down in the depths of that endless hole. Below, I could breathe in blue ink, even while encased. I'd breathed for days, or weeks, or time untold. It would be natural to swim in that mixed blood of creation.
The spots grew. My head rocked without any permission. Side to side it went and the walls of the mountain's pit warped. I pushed myself backwards and heard a snap. My brain tried to process the distant sound then another piece of bone crunched. It reminded me of those slobbering, chewing, twisted version of Delvers. My chest heaved and bent awkwardly. I almost got fresh air.
Itched spiraled down one arm, too fast for me to register entirely. I grabbed the limb and felt bristly material poke at my hands. I opened my mouth but still couldn't find enough air to scream. More cracked, pain caught up with me, and I saw fur spouting all along my skin.
My mouth hung open but nothing came out. Momma yelled in outrage and lifted an arm. Jenn ran toward me but one of the Ranger's held her back. My body arched abruptly making the world seem inverted. I wanted to see what were happening to the girls but couldn't.
Everything moved in spurts. White swallowed black spots as pain blotted out any other form of thought. People were shouting but their words were a dull roar compared to the agony riding my mind like a cowboy on a bucking horse.
"Move him!" a woman shouted.
Someone grabbed me. Muscles spasmed and continued to pop. Dirt clumped under fingernails that felt bowed and hooked.
Oh god, I thought between bursts of pain. Both legs were longer then they had been by a mile, and covered in fur, same as my arms. I had a moment of frozen wonder. Did that man in the field feel this much agony? How’d he done it?
A fresh wave drove the question away. I found myself staring at the garden we'd trekked through moments ago. Words were clearer, but at the same point, too loud for me to process. The hurt came still, pushing at me in smaller, tighter bursts. I worked to get myself up on all fours. Someone's muddy boots were planted nearby. My eyes couldn't travel far upward enough up to see who’s they belonged to.
Muscles in my neck felt wrong. Nothing bent or turned how it should. My legs kicked and down I went again. I couldn't even remember standing.
Something were singing.
"Way down we'll go," the voices sang. "Where the ink's our foe, foe, foe."
I could hear Harold. His voice carried through the dirt and earth, up the heart of the mountain, and itched at my ears. The humming noise made my head heavy. Slowly I got lost, remembering what they'd said about chasing away the monsters with their song. Did those creatures of ink feel the same way I did when hearing the song? Sleepy perhaps, tired, relaxed and ready to lay down.
"What happened to Chase?" Jenn asked quietly.
My head shook slowly.
My legs vibrated with energy. One jerked, then the other. They dug into the ground until I managed to push myself up right.
Standing felt wrong. My body bowed and head hung lower than both shoulders. Even with bowed back, I stood a foot or two taller than momma. Jenn were a tiny girl who might have come up to my chest, if she weren't busy cowering behind someone.
"God above," momma said.
It took me a moment to register the tone. It sounded lighter than it’d been. Thinner. Fairer too, if that were possible. Momma's voice had always been an annoying prattle but with those two words she sounded like an angel should sound.
I tried to say something, anything that might let her know it'd be okay. Though I felt anything but right and still couldn’t talk. At least the pain had started to recede.
"Is it forever?" Momma asked.
Is what forever? I wondered. My fingers started to curl to question marks only they refused to work right either. They were hardly even fingers anymore. My arms lifted poorly and were locked at the shoulders from coming too far up.
"Hard to say. The eyes should allow him to hide it, but his great grandfather had different markings that worked in another manner. No accounting for how the soul will twist each tattoo. Even then, we’re told no two hounds are the same."
Momm reached a hand up to my face. It felt wrong. Too long for her tiny hand. She kept staring at me like I were an impossible monster. "You said me there's only ever been three."
Cassandra’s voice came from behind. "We’ve only had three here. All from your husbands line. But out there? At the other fonts? Some have had hundreds of hounds, or something similar enough. Sometimes they have so many searching that they send their extras toward our places. That's why we had the last war with the Sacreons."
Hound, I thought. That’s a good name for what I’d become. As much a Hound as any Flop were a rabbit. My colorings weren’t right for a wolf though. Not like the man I’d seen in that other place. These patterns were softer, dirtier, and reminded me of the endless dogs that Cassandra had at her homestead.
"Listen to you weave a tale. You must be happy." Momma sniffed and reached out toward me. I held still, because my body still felt wrong and hyped up.
Cassandra walked around us in a slow circle, studying my new form. She shook her head. "I ain't happy. We were too weak for this game. Too weak by far, and those governments can only think about lining their pockets. But with a Hound? One that can blend in with those untouched by the source. One that can sense and hunt down our foes. One that might find us the key to truly controlling this font.”
Momma put her hand down and stomped a foot at Cassandra. “What of it? You think controlling this will change anything for us? That somehow we’ll storm the gates of the White House, charge across the seas to conquer King and country? Perhaps you want to march upon Heaven’s door.”
"Perhaps I do. But this is our chance," Cassandra said with a half smile. “And a chance is far more than we had playing to the whims of other powers.”
I felt foggy headed and heavy, but there were a nagging vision plaguing me. One that’d I’d slowly started to realize as the pain pulled back far enough for me to breathe
Beyond my own form, the cowering of Jenn, and how the Rangers stood passively to the sides watching me, there were another item of note. At Cassandras heart were a blackened empty spot, round like the orb from my dreams. Behind her back were something stranger. Large black wings spouting to either side that reminded me of a crows. I could see them, stiff and wide, glowing briefly like ghosts before hey faded.
Momma had a pair too.
What, I wondered, do those wings mean? Followed by another thought.
What comes next?