My body jerked with a sudden abrupt sneeze. Blankets tangled around both legs and a dozen half jumbled thoughts displaced me from the room. I sneezed again before fully registering the third.
“Chase!” someone shouted.
I rocked to one side and jerked a leg out of the twisted cloth.
“Chase, something’s burning!” Momma’s voice faded. A second later the door slammed hard enough to rock the house.
Fire. Exhaustion pulled at me and I almost passed out on the floor. Each breath took serious effort. The air in my tiny room felt thick and heavy. A tingle crawled along my spine as the thought registered again.
Fire. Something’s burning.
Weak hands pulled up for the window. I cracked it wider and a roar of heat seemed to reach across the fields toward my face. The world were too bright. Dark night sky bled into a orange ground. It were a familiar sight but I couldn’t figure out why.
I took slow breathes took measure of the problem. The flames were far enough away that we weren’t in immediate danger. Jenn’s garden and the livestock were on the other side of the house. We didn’t have a river near enough and the well wouldn’t supply enough water to stop the damage. At most it might save the side of our house if the fire got this far. We’d been lucky to have rain the night before. Our summer had been long and dry.
We’d likely be fine but whatever lay in that direction might not fare as well. On the front door I went. On went the still muddy vest. I couldn’t waste more time to figure out proper attire for a field aflame.
I’d hoped that we might be able to get some real livestock. More than a few chickens. I’d hoped to one day complete the half built fence left behind by daddy. We could have fortified it and surely got a cow.
Thinking of all the things that fire might take away filled my time. I ran, catching up with momma. She wore a night dress and her hair were already starting to mat from sweat.
“That’s Jenn’s old home. Sure it is. That fire’s the exact same one that burned down her house before. We should be okay. It won’t reach us here. There’s that gully over there,” momma pointed to a long ditch that ran between our homes. “That’s the property line. Near as we ever got. Fire couldn’t jump it last time. Won’t jump it this time either.”
Momma must not have believed that. She started breaking branches all along the small ravine. I stopped and helped her remove some brush. Anything that seemed like it might be used for a roaring fire to leap over to us were removed as quick as we could.
I felt thankful that even in sleep I hadn’t been able to drop the knife. Momma didn’t even ask, and I didn’t have the heart to explain that I kept it for comfort. Dreaming of a purer green and silver at night helped. I’d never seen silver on my blade, but I believed one day I might.
“That one over there. Then those. That should be good enough. It took a few hours for the flame to burn over this far last go. When your daddy,” she drifted off.
The last few bushes were hacked to pieces and the castoffs tossed as far onto our property as I could manage. Momma stood there, staring into the distance.
“I know what happened,” she said.
“Go find that girl. Jenny.” My heart started to pound louder. Momma kept on going, “Sure enough she’ll be hiding out in the shed again. Whatever’s left of the old thing. That’s where she hid last time. Don’t know why she’d feel safe there, knowing what happened. Maybe she couldn’t.”
The rest of her prattling were lost as I leapt across the small gully. My ankle hit wrong and I rolled to one side. It didn’t stop me. I got back up and activated the two Eyes. Darkness Ward and The Watchful. Whatever darkness survived the fire’s light became useless. There were small critters running away. None of them had ink in their blood or bones.
Jenn, I thought.
The Flop had been avoiding me. She’d burned down her house again. Those were related somehow. I knew it, sure as I knew that I’d been lost in my own world since this whole mess began. But this, I remembered. That’s why the fire looked familiar from my bedroom window. It’d been the same years ago.
Where’s the shed? I couldn’t remember. My marking would let me find Jenn without needing to know.
I ran, as much as I could along uneven ground. Wilted grass gave way. The fire in the distance cracked. Sparks flew off, catching new growth aflame. The fire ate slowly grew.
If Jenn had survived the first fire, then daddy had got to her fast enough or it were far enough away to be safe. I couldn’t risk it and the extra light kept interfering with my other sights. Switching back and forth while being exhausted made my head spin. Dreaming of green hadn’t helped.
Overgrown fields were all around. Fruit trees hung in awkward clumps. Dead apples littered the grass from a late season. The bones of the house that had overgrown with ivy served as tinder for the bonfire. It looked like someone had piled even more broken boards into the home to make the spectacle even larger.
None of that helped me find Jenn. I circled around the house in hopes that she’d be a nearby. Sure enough, on the other side of the house I found the Flop screaming. Rust fur flickered a sharper red than normal as the final remains of a dilapidated home continued to burn.
She stared at the mess that had been her childhood home. I stopped a few dozen feet away and wondered what the hell to do next. Jenn weren’t in immediate danger, but this fire might get out of hand soon. Momma had been wrong. There were bushes and shrubs everywhere. The reason this fire might have been okay last time were more about a farmer tending his land.
Closer to the still Flop I went. Her body had frozen, like a statue of herself. I lifted my fingers and wiggled them. Jenn’s gaze lifted in dead jerks. Like a puppet without strings or some sightless beast from The Mountain.
She stared at me.
Both forefingers crooked to question her.
Her nose twitched. I couldn’t figure out how to ask if she were okay, but I pointed slowly to her then the fire and between the two.
Jenn simply stared.
I checked the damage to see if it were encroaching on us. We had minutes, maybe. The speed of fire were outside my understanding. I’d only seen a few near the mines and those were controlled.
My throat felt drier than at home. I coughed then pointed at her. She continued to gaze at me without even a twitch.
One foot lifted and forward I stepped. Wood crackled then burst into splinters.
Jenn shuddered violently, turned toward the fire, and screamed. My shoulders bunched. “I burned it. I’d burn it down a dozen times more! With him in it! That stupid fool. His foul smell. His drunken breathe. I can’t get it out of my head!”
She spit an endless stream at the house until I’d felt sure she’d have nothing left.
The fire grew closer. I took another step forward, intent on picking up the tiny woman and dragging her away if needed.
She turned toward me.
“I fucking hate you!” she stomped her feet back and forth in a rapid pitter-patter of useless defiance. “I hate you. I hate you.”
Down to her knees she went. I stepped closer because nothing else made a lick of sense. Jenn’s were still lifeless but her voice cracked.
“I hate you, Chase. I hate you.”
Life’d never taught me how to respond to that. Even if my voice worked, there were no words. All I could think were that momma would have my hide over this, on top of the ruined clothes. Assuming our house didn’t burn to the ground.
“I hate you, but you’re all I have.”
Jenn fell on me, sobbing wildly. My hands went slowly around her back. She had on a bare slip of a shirt and pants that felt like they’d burn quickly if that heat got to us. I turned her slightly so that no sparks would jump over and destroy what little she had.
“Why do you get to go back? Why can’t I be me again?”
There it were. What she’d been upset over. Flops were stuck as monsters, along with Delvers and Felines. But not me. I’d told Cassandra once before that Flops and the other races didn’t bother me. Not from a dislike sort of meaning. But they made me sad. They couldn’t help what they’d been made.
She kept on blubbering, repeating herself uselessly.
“Ain’t right,” she said at last, before going silent.
Jenn’s eyes were still dead. Her face a mess. I picked her up, gentle as I could and didn’t get a kick in the balls. Jenn hardly weighed anything, and Obsidians exercises over the last few months had helped me build some muscle. Enough to carry a waif back to bed.
My ankle hurt but we cleared the fire well enough. Jenn hadn’t been out of her mind entirely. There were signs that she’d made breakpoints to keep it controlled, though where she’d learned to do so I didn’t recall. I barely could get a fire going before working with Obsidian, and even now it took me a moment.
The trip back were less rushed. Momma said nothing but stared at the tiny girl in my arms. Or woman, depending on how one remembered her. Jenn.
I stared at momma and wiggled a finger in a questioning crook.
She shook her head. There were no answers to the works I couldn’t ask and the dead of night couldn’t be the right time. Maybe there were a way to help her. Maybe there weren’t. We had all the magic in the world but nothing seemed capable of removing The Mountain’s taint.
Back I went, carefully setting down the exhausted Flop onto the bed. I pulled the blanket I’d had trapped around my legs over her then went back to keep an eye on the burning home. Momma stared off, arms around her sides to fight the cold.
I couldn’t bring myself to send her back to the house. It weren’t my place to tell her what to do.
With enough dirt, time, and a lucky rainfall, the remains of Jenn’s home sputtered out. I kicked over ashes and ground out embers. By the end of the night I had even less energy than before, but felt sure that nothing else would happen.
Momma stayed through it all, ignoring the rain and keeping an out.
I pulled off the vest and passed it over. She barely noticed.
“So much has changed,” she said.
Home we went, and I put aside my questions for a time when we both rested and could see. Starlight made writing down questions difficult, and reading them more so.
Jenn snored and kicked one foot. I put the kicked off blanket over her then found a chair to nap in. By the time I woke up, both girls were gone and my chance for questions had passed.
I’d woken up later in the day than expected. Obsidian had told me to go see Cassandra today, which meant I’d need to get a move on. My clothes were cleaned, which meant they’d seen me and decided to let me rest. Likely Jenn didn’t want to deal with my fingers wiggling at her, and momma had to be out in the same place she’d been vanishing to for months, where ever that were.
Fresh clothes went on. My old ones were set aside. I surveyed the damage from last night and found that one of our other neighbors a mile away had also stopped to visit. I couldn’t remember his name. The man had a gut that bulged out a mile and arms that were even thicker.
“Chase.” He tipped a wide brimmed hat at me.
I waved back.
“Some fire last night. Saw you had it under control. Thanks for that.”
A fire that large wouldn’t be completely ignored. Not out here. Brush fires to clear land were advertised to ensure everyone wouldn’t panic. Especially within sight of The Mountain, where a burning field might cause monsters to run amok.
“Saw you carrying Jennifer out. This was her folks home right? Seen her squatting out here sometimes.” He glanced at me then back to the fire. Both arms crossed as he pondered what to say next. “She okay?”
I shrugged then bobbed my head. Jenn’s physical wellbeing seemed fine. Her mind though, I’d worried about that off and on for years.
“None of my business I suppose. Mister Craig told me that it was an accident last time. Suppose it was an accident this time too.”
“We were lucky. You tell little Jennifer to be careful with the next accident. I like my fields as they are and a wildfire won’t do anyone any good. Or at least give us a bit of warning. Sent my horses into a near fit. Thought we had a bobcat on the loss, or worse.”
He had a point.
I nodded then gave my best reassuring smile.
The neighbor left and I felt thankful I’d stayed up most of the night to make sure the fire went out for good. It also helped that other people nearby seemed concerned for Jenn’s wellbeing. Though I suspected this event would end up being the gossip of the town for at least a week.
I did a lap around the home again to make sure nothing had been missed. The floorboards were utterly destroyed, both by the first fire, years of exposure, then the second. It said something of the craftsmanship that it’d survived this long. I wondered if my own home would withstand the same level of damage, should it come to that.
A problem for another time. One where I might have the luxery of time to build a proper fence, money to spare, and God knew what else.
On I went to town, moving slowly but steadily. It wouldn’t do to run there on all fours with a bundle of clothes, and truthfully I weren’t up to that much hustling around. My legs hurt worse today than yesterday. Pain lanced up from my foot with every other step.
Chandler’s Field were hours away by foot. I made it as the sun started it’s decent. Cassandra’s homested were a bit north of the town. I’d hoped to find a cart headed out that way and save myself walking.
Instead, Derek Lake, a man who mostly thought of as Ducky, found me.
Ducky had become and official Ranger. Or a trainee, because they apparently didn’t consider anyone full fledged until they’d survived a year or two of doing the job. Rangers like Hardwood probably wouldn’t consider someone like Ducky to be a real Ranger, even if he died as the hardest man to ever delve The Mountain’s depths.
I turned my path away from town, straight toward Cassandra’s homestead. Finding a ride played second fiddle to escaping Ducky.
Of course not, I thought as Ducky jogged over. He wore a smirk that only stuck up pricks and rich lords from the Empire wore, though I’d never seen real nobles before. I suspected they looked like Ducky but with finer clothes and puffed up chests.
“Where you headed Chase?” Ducky asked.
I’d hated speaking to Ducky before losing my voice. Derek Lake had never been on my list of friend,s even when I’d been little and the world felt full of possibilities.
I pointed off toward the crossroads.
“Off to see the Tattooist then?”
Hiding what I knew were different than lying. Plus if I said yes, maybe Ducky would shut up and leave me be.
“I just came from there. Cassandra told me I’m going to go back east. Traveling with some of the Rangers to gather the dead from New York.” He threw up his hands in joy. “You believe it? Me, going to the biggest city we got. Ain’t never been further then down the Mississippi. That asshole Obsidian said I’d make a fool of myself, but to hell with him.”
Ducky turned out to be as chatty as momma. I tried not to imagine him quacking away happily but couldn’t stop myself from interjecting the noise.
“We’ll be taking the rail back. There’ll be less Ranger’s here on the full moon next week. You’ll have to actually do some work.”
I wanted to walk quicker but couldn’t find the energy. Desperation to get away from Ducky’s prattling couldn’t outweigh the dire need for rest. I’d have to ask about getting a real green marking soon, and what the possible side effects might be. Assuming anyone actually knew what markings might do on a Hound. Apparently there were no guidebooks.
“Maybe I’ll even find a real woman there.”
My eyes fluttered briefly.
“You ain’t one to talk. Not that you could. Hah, I should call myself a prophet. The great mute Hound of Butcher Hills. All bite, no bark.”
I stopped and lifted a fist. My back twitched and The Watchful activated, showing me every inch of his markings. Three now, along with a twisted arm that were like my Rainbow drop, but worse. Ducky had his own tattoo and it felt like ages since we’d fought.
He smiled that asshole smile and kept talking.
“I don’t mean anything by it. No point in us feuding up and down the mines anymore. We’ve both moved on to better things. Besides, you wouldn’t be here if men from the mountain didn’t go out to find fresh blood.”
I couldn’t figure out Ducky were being crude or simply factual. Probably a mixture of both. It didn’t matter. He’d said he were leaving for weeks at least, that meant I’d be freer of his prattle than normal.
The truth of it were simple. Despite my desire to send Ducky on his way with a black eye, the best answer would be not to fight at all. He hadn’t insulted me, spoken the truth. My parents had taught me a lot over the years. Much of it proved useless, but I felt sure that neither one would approve of me fighting a man because he were right.
Ducky’s smirk faded briefly and he backed up. I took that a sign of retreat and felt somewhat better.
“You remember my parents?” he asked.
I did, in a sense. Though we’d never been officially introduced. I’d seen two folks that I assumed to be his family. They were Wildlings, leaders of their group or something close. They’d been the first to tell me what the black swirls on my fingertips meant.
Heartseeker. I wonder if they ever told Ducky what that means.
“They been telling me stories. When I can see them. The other Rangers don’t like that I consort with Wildlings but my pop has so much information. Stuff that not even Cassandra knows about. Secret ways into The Mountain. Knowledge of the inks.”
The other Rangers didn’t seem to like of anything. They were a disapproving lot, but hard workers. Still, Rangers were a far cry from the heroes I’d been told about as a child.
“My pop, says he has something for you too. Wanted me to tell you to come visit on a new moon. When you can.”
I nodded. The message had been delivered. Now I had yet another errand to find time for. Though maybe a twisted Wildling who knew my granddaddy might have something useful to tell me. Cassandra might too, if I dared ask her. Something about the Tattooist worried me though.
Those black wings, for one. I didn’t feel safe sharing everything I knew with her. That meant I couldn’t share with the Rangers, since they were close knit despite arguments. It also meant I couldn’t share everything with momma, since she somehow had been tied to Cassandra.
Too many damn questions. Not enough answers.
“Anyway. Glad to finally catch you. Cassandra said you’d be by today, and I’ll be gone tomorrow, so this worked out. Next stop Bell Town, then down to the river. I haven’t been on a boat in years!”
I glared at Ducky. He smiled like a self righteous lord who got candy while the rest of us peasants were stuck with salt. Or they smiled like him. I’d find out one day and probably still detest his face.
“Be seeing you Chase!” Off Ducky went.
My chest heaved in a slow sigh. Holding a grudge against him were pointless, and he’d delivered me a possible ray of hop. On top of that, my dislike for him had become nearly one sided. Since being kicked into the Mountain by Kenneth, and he’d become a Ranger and I a Hound, Derek were disturbingly friendly. Like he’d gotten what he wanted, I’d gotten something good, and there were no reason to fight or be jealous.
I envied him the ability to move on. That ability served as yet another blessing that other people had and I didn’t. Feeling upset about that got chased by another thought.
Why do you get to go back? Jenn had asked.
For all the things I didn’t have, there were plunety I’d been given without expecting. Markings that could let me see monsters. A higher calling I still didn’t rightfully understand. The ability to look and pass for human.
Jenn didn’t have that.
I pulled out my paper and scrawled a question across it. I wrote. Can we do anything to change people back?
That’s what I really wanted to know. Enough to actually ask the question instead of simply watching and waiting for answers. Daddy had been a man of action, and I’d been one at times too, but becoming a Hound, learning my markings, figuring out a place in with the Rangers had taken time. Especially upon becoming a hairy dog creature.
I felt sure enough about my place and abilities to move past that. Last night with Jenn told me I’d been past due to go forward with life. It’d taken her burning down her house a second time and Obsidian being near dead.
Ducky clearly were moving on.
On I went, toward Cassandra’s. Once I knew what she wanted, I’d have a better idea on what to do next.
Somewhat north of the crossroads were a line of trees with colored ribbons bound around them. They served as Cassandra’s flag on the road, and anyone in the know could follow them in to find the Tattooist’s house.
A half mile in her dogs found me, well before I caught sight of the house. They wove a circle around me and yipped excitedly. I kept both hands off my weapons and scratched any mutts coming close. They fought each other and licked wildly.
Wading through the dogs had taken courage the first few times. Now, I were practically one of them.
In a way, that’s exactly what the truth had been. I’d wondered and attempted to clearly ask Cassandra multiple times about using one of her Hounds as a sort of sacrifice. She’d refused to illuminate the issue beyond that first night where she’d all but spilled her guts to momma.
And I couldn’t help but get distracted. Cassandra had a way about her where focusing on anything but what she wanted to talk about proved difficult. Jenn had called her a siren. Said I’d been charmed.
I blamed the dress and her voice. It might have been something about her control over the ink. Maybe it were more about not having been with a woman since Lily left.
A spicy mixture made my nose tingle. She smelled like ground sour apple. It hung in the air, overpowering scores of near wild dogs. I narrowed my eyes and relied on a sense of smell and hearing to figure out Cassandra’s position. The tattooist laughed lightly then moved steadily closer.
“Chase Craig. Still a funny boy.”
The question had to be asked before her dress or voice caught me with it’s hypnotic powers. I held up the note in her direction then let my opens open the rest of the way. Momma would call it rude, but I didn’t care.
She glanced at the words then lifted her eyes to meet my gaze. Cassandra stared at me.
Seemed like folks were doing that a lot. Holding their thoughts tightly behind clasped lips and an unblinked gaze. Everyone knew more than they’d ever say, and asking even a single question took work. I couldn’t let muteness stop me.
Well fuck them. They had their plans and wants. I had my own.
If I couldn’t get momma away from The Mountain because of some higher calling. If life had conspired to put me on a fools quest for some bit of magic, then so be it. But I’d help Jenn. That were my decision, with whatever power remained to me as a main with too many masters.
“You want to free someone from the mountain?”
I nodded then swayed as her dress fluttered. The dogs knocked it around making the swaying motion more pronounced. My eyes felt heavy and tongue dry.
“Silver. That’s what the stories say, from the Tower of Night, to the Lake of Galahad, down south and up north, the answer’s always the same. Silver, only silver, releases us from where we’ve been touched.”
Silver, I thought. That were an answer.
Only she’d sent me chasing a legend. No one had ever seen silver, and I’d only seen it once in my life. When lowering my daddy down into The Mountain’s heart. The day he returned to where we’d all have to go.
Silver. Of course it’d be silver.
The Delvers might know. Harold had been in the mines as long as anyone still alive. If there were any truth to finding such an elusive color, he’d know.
“You intent on finding some?” she asked. The dogs yipped and ran in a circle that were dizzying.
“You want to be free of being our Hound?”
I nodded then shook my head slowly. Then it registered I’d answered her questions without so much as a second thought. Were her mutts moving around us of their own volition or had she hypnotized them too? My body rocked slowly as they surged about us.
Cassandra smiled. “No. Not you. Not our little Mercenary Hound. Men who fight for money always have someone to send it to. You want someone else to be free.”
I said nothing and managed to hold myself still. My eyes were locked on hers. I couldn’t quiet figure out their color. Her dress, the dogs, that scent in my nose, yet how did she do that without a lick of ink on her skin?
Is it the wings?
There they sat around her shoulders, spread wide like a stuffed crow. What then, could momma do if she tried?
The question chilled me.