“A goal is good to have,” she said then turned away but continued speaking. “Goals focus the mind. Clears away the muck. There’s enough dirt between people’s ears as it is.”

The dogs charged off into the distance. Both legs surged with energy and I almost lost myself chasing with them. One hand locked against a tree and kept me upright.

I fought to regain breath. My chest worked slowly and sweat dripped down the nap of my neck. Cassandra ignored it all, headed back to her home and likely expecting me to follow.

Fool I, went after her. Thoughts muddled together like they always did in her presence. Before becoming a Hound, it had been her dress and voice. Now it were the smell. Apples. Honey suckle. Field flowers in full bloom, sweet and enticing.

Would silver free me from her mechanisms? If inks’ magic is based on color, then what on Earth could a hue said to be purer than any other, do?

Asking the question I had, and getting an answer, were more than enough risk with Cassandra. Until I understood what those wings were all about, and how it related to my dream of flying hawks stealing treasures from heaven, I’d keep my few secrets close.

“Well, come on.”

I’d been going after her already, but apparently not fast enough.

The home itself had been assembled from simple wood. There were storerooms outside that I knew housed dried inks of all colors. The tattooist didn’t seem to fear anyone trying to rob her, and with a mess of well trained dogs and a hypnotic presence, she had security few could measure up to.

“We’re having a sit down inside,” Cassandra said.

The kitchen had a few dishes and a running water that must have come from below the house somehow. I could see tings of blue inks mixed with a bit of green somehow being used as plumbing. I had half a mind to figure out such a setup in my own home, but the cost of using ink as plumbing would be more than any simple marking. It’d taken me an age to save up for one, which had also turned out to be pointless.

Turned out, Cassandra also had another guest. One of the other Ranger’s I’m come to know over the last few months stood inside her house sipping a spiced tea.

“Brat,” Tawny said.

My head dipped in a nod.

I liked him more than Obsidian, but that meant little. He’d disapproved me me joining their ranks in any form, or being privy to the secrets of The Mountain. I suspected Rangers as a whole hated anyone new.

Tawny’s body took sunken to a new level. His gaunt skin pulled over sharp bones. Under his clothes were markings made of skulls and gravestones. What they did I’d still never learned, aside from keeping him frail. Despite limbs that seemed like they could snap at any moment, Tawny were capable of handling himself against monsters.

I’d seen him raise the corpses and make them fight their comrades once. I hoped one day to unsee it. There were things in this world that weren’t right, and knowing the dead could be controlled after their expiration were one of them.

“Done staring?” he asked.

“Curiosity is good for a Hound.”

“Curiosity gets a Ranger killed. We value preparation.”

I snorted which made Tawny’s gaze go flatter than normal. He shook it off then sighed.

“Suppose it’s for the best that it’s not my say so. Obsidian says you’re denser than a cow with rocks for brains.”

My lip pulled back. Cassandra handed me a teacup. I held onto it, savoring the warmth but not sipping. The smells from earlier came from this tea. I lifted an eyebrow and hoped they’d get on with their reason for this conversation. So far we’d started with hypnosis, an answer, and an insult.

“Your companion Derek is headed to New York to pick up some returnees. The problem will be on the way back.”

“People have been intercepting the dead,” she clarified for Tawny.

Dead Flops, Felines, and Delvers all had to come back to The Mountain for their burial. Though it were less a burial and more like throwing them back into an ink pool on the full moon. Most of those dead were deposited without regard for the person they’d been in life. Humans with markings had to come back too. Some were treated with respect, as I’d tried to do for my daddy after he passed. It also served as the only time I remembered seeing silver as an ink.

“We can’t have that,” Cassandra said.

I nodded, then shook my head. It were hard to guess how they’d take either response.

Tawny set down his cup. “What’s that mean?”

Messing with the dead ain’t right, I thought then wrote it down.

He didn’t bother reading my scrawl. “Pah.” Tawny waved me off then turned to Cassandra. “You got any markings in that Bible of yours that might fix his voice?”

“None you’d want him to have,” she said with a smile.

His lips curled.

“No I suppose not. How about any of the other tattooists? Unke. Or Blair at Bell Town? What about that fool from Mississipi, Tom, Thomas.” He snapped his fingers and gazed out a window in thought. “Timothy?”

“Tibbers,” Cassandra said. “And no. Other’s are all too noisy. They’d ask why, or insist on doing the markings personally. Then they’d know we’ve got ourselves a Hound again. Bad enough we have to rely on them to watch the port towns.”

“Right. We wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for them failing to do their jobs.”

I didn’t entirely follow the conversation. Over the last few months and from mutterings, I got the impression that not every Tattooist or Ranger were on the same team. Which went contrary to what I’d been raised to believe as a child. That Rangers fought back the monsters and Tattooists gave them the magic to do so.

Life, it turned out, were rarely black and white.

Tawny sighed. “Even if we did find something, he’d end up with another cost. But what’s the use of a mutt that can’t bark?”

“That’s why you’re wife is less a fool than you. She knows a dog that can’t bark is the best kind. No one ever hears them. Not surprising she saw the voice effect coming a mile away.”

“That Lake brat saw it.”

Ducky had seen nothing.

“He has an advantage,” Cassandra defended me.

I wanted to know why but felt that interrupting their conversation might make her take longer to get to the point. She wanted me to do something, involving the dead bodies that came back. They’d wanted Ducky to do the same. Were it because we were special?

It felt obvious after a moment of thought.

It’s because we’re new.

“That why you sent him with the others?”

Cassandra said nothing to Tawny’s question, but her eyes flickered toward me then back to him. He took the hint and went back to his tea.

I wanted to know more but decided to save some questions for Derek’s father. It’d likely all make more sense once I asked someone outside of Cassandra’s circle. Though clearly she also know about the secrets Ducky had. I filed away the other tattooist names, along with the rest of their conversation, as pieces to a larger puzzle.

Puzzles like this were annoying. I didn’t want to pick at them. I didn’t want to dwell on all the maybes and missed details that I’d been too distracted to get. For me, I functioned best with orders. Go to the mines. Earn money. Go kill monsters. Earn more money. Reality were simpler if I focused on what needed to be done and nothing more.

What do you need me to do? I wrote.

“You’ll be going to Bell Town. There you’ll get a job on the docks. Get to know Corso. Check the whore houses. Anything seedy down there is likely part of the problem.”

I wrinkled my forehead.

“You’re not going to be a thug. You’re going down there to have the lay of the land and simply be a set of eyes no one knows about.” Tawny almost looked cheerful. A skull under his shirt, made of yellow ink, did shift to a toothless smile. I found myself forcing my eyes away from the grinning tattoo that any normal person wouldn’t be able to see.

“You’ll have two months. You’ll come back on the full moons. New moons too. Excuse is you’ve failed the Ranger test, quit the mines, and are looking for regular work closer to home. All for Widow Craig.”

That wouldn’t be too far from the truth. I nodded.

“The best lies are ones that don’t require a ounce of fibbing. You aren’t a Ranger. You aren’t working at the mines anymore. And you’ll need to earn some money. We can’t keep paying for your expenses. Not even trainee Rangers get us to pay their bills for them.”

“He’s been earning money by fighting the spawn. That’s enough for a first year.”

“He was given a warriors mark. He used half a pristine heart, which could have been fed into a dozen other markings. Plus he stole a rainbow drop.”

Cassandra smiled at Tawny. “He earned the mark. For three favors. And only after his test. And anyone could have been touched by a drop.”

“You’re excuses to test him are nothing. And don’t get my started on your bullshit favors. Even Connie knows they’re a ruse.”

I blinked slowly. It hadn’t felt like a ploy at the time. It’d felt like I’d owe her my life and then some. Maybe it’d been a bit of hypnosis like everything else about Cassandra.

“Doesn’t matter. He owes me two more,” Cassandra said.

Her words didn’t stop the scrawny man. He lifted a finger then wagged it. “And those that touch the drops normally die. He should be happy enough to live after that. Bad enough I had to talk the Clerics down. They wanted to take his hand.”

That were the first I’d heard of that. To my knowledge, I’d gotten away without a lick of trouble aside from the chaotic marking and frequently feeling like my arm were on fire.

“Why are you so set on making this difficult?” she asked.

“Because we don’t need a Hound!” Tawny shouted. The teacup banged on the table and a chip of porcelain cracked off the rim. “You and my fool wife think we need to pull continue some archaic tradition that hasn’t worked for the empire. It hasn’t worked for our last two Hounds, and even if it does, God will strike this place down!”

Silence engulfed the room. My heart thudded louder than either of them breathing. For a moment the marking on my hand warmed up and I were reliving the dream. One where angelic birds of black stole from the heavens. Down poured lightning, scarring the landscape. Down came the other birds, made of gold.

“We need a Hound. Not just for the source, but because others aren’t doing their jobs.”

“We don’t need them.”

“Then we’ll agree to disagree, and you’ll abide by my decision beucase you’ve got no right to argue.”

Tawny’s lips tightened and he fingered the cup’s broken edge. “A quirk of blood. That’s all you are. That’s all he is. Blood don’t make you better than us.”

“Makes us what we need to be.”

I fought to keep my fingers from flexing with question marks. They’d done well enough carrying on the conversation without me. I checked my markings briefly and realized that I’d habitually activated the Hidden Soul eye.

Does that somehow make me harder to notice?

I knew it helped me avoid monsters of ink, or at least, it had during my time of changing.

Tawny stared at me, dispelling the nonsensical idea. They’d known I were here the whole time, but chose to bring up a clearly ongoing disagreement.

“A few days from now, well after your friend’s got on the boat across the river and on his train, you’ll go to Bell Town. You’ll find a job on the docks. And you’ll work your ass off to get onto any crew that unloads cargo. You’ll need to Corso for that, he runs most of the rackets down there, including smuggling. If anyone’s diverting dead bodies, Corso will know. If he ain’t doing it himself.”

I nodded slowly.

Tawny left the room without finishing the rest of his tea.

Mine drink grew cold. I stared at the chair long after he’d gone and wondered exactly how all this had been put on my shoulders. The Ranger’s views on me had shifted slowly over the last few months. Tawny started apologetic, upset, and turned into a bundle of anger that I’d even become a Hound. Cassandra seemed focused upon my use to her, and every other word out of her mouth were suspect.

“May need another mark for you.” She glanced at the teacup that Tawny left behind. Her head shook slowly. “May not be a good idea. What you had before hasn’t changed much, but anything after?”

My shoulders lifted. I didn’t know what else to do about the situation. There were a mile more markings that anyone could get, and in theory they’d eventually be overloaded then transform into one of the other races. I didn’t know what would happen if I overloaded as a Hound.

Might be nothing. Maybe I could wear every marking known to man, though each would come with aside effect. Or one more would make me unable to return to being human. Momma had given me a list of terrible possibilities and becoming a mutt permanently were one of the major ones.

“Connie given you any ideas?”

Connie were my momma’s first name. Hardly anyone but Cassandra used it. Nearly everyone called her Widow Craig, on account of my daddy being dead. Momma has once said my hands were practically two pieces of the same puzzle, whatever that meant.

Both hands came up and rocked back and forth until they found an equilibrium.

“Balance. Of course. That’s why the eyes worked. That’s why the Heart Seeker and Wildling Touch haven’t broken you yet. But I have to wonder if your body knew and shaped it, fate played a part, or we just got lucky?”

Lucky. I wrote on the pad of paper.

She read it then snorted.

“Live long enough Chase, and you’ll learn there’s no such thing.” She’d been the one to say luck first, not me. Felt stupid for her to contradict herself but maybe Cassandra weren’t all-knowing either. “Everything’s up to fate. Ordained if you will, though I don’t like the thought.”

What did that say about me then? Cassandra might be foolish enough to believe a higher power had plans, and given my visions, she might be right. But being a Hound didn’t seem like a planned thing, at least not by some higher power. It were more like some people got together and said “let’s try it”. I’d seen miners do the same thing a dozen times with their dice games. It were all a roll.

“Balance then. Something with two points. Or three. Doesn’t leave us much to work with. Could do the staffs like Ash. Fire and ice. Might be more powerful if we align them with their extremes. Or they might go wild.”

I hated markings. I’d grown up thinking there were a sort of science to them, which had been a wrong assumption. They were literally an art. But in design and application. That, along with my old black and white view of the world, were slowly being replaced by reality. Daddy were a failed Hound. Momma knew more about markings that I’d ever suspected.

And Jenn hates me.

The last thought rung in my ears long enough to miss what Cassandra were on about. She had a book down from her a shelf.

“With a hint of azure we could enhance the eyes. Maybe something a bit more eastern. A pyramid? Been an age since I’ve made one of those markings.” She shook her head. “No, no good’s ever come out of them. Cursed marks, every one. With your line’s twist, it’d be worse I’m sure. Unless you’re secretly a king. You a king?”

I shook my head.

“Course not. A strange kid, but not royalty.”

She continued musing over her book, flipping through page after page then discarding the item presented. On she went to the next book.

Green, I wrote.

“That’s a thought. Maybe somethings with a hint of endurance. Something paired? Or we could mix two. One gives, one takes away. Though those are a danger to the user.”

She swirled the dressed and sat down with her latest book, flipping through a list of weapons. I sat down too and flipped through the pages. I’d never actually pursued a open listing of markings like this before. There were all sorts, and the notes written along the edges were tiny and hard to read.

“Be careful with that. It’s almost worth more than you.”

I didn’t know how much that meant it were actually worth in dollars. I’d been paid by the barrel in my prior job and Cassandra seemed to value Hounds at a high premium. I carefully turned the pages. At least Cassandra had an edge over Poss, she’d likely demand I put the book down then go wash my hands.

This section had a bunch of faces. Expressions that changed the users mood. Smiles, smirks, frowns, angry growls. There were some formulas up on the sides that might have meant something to an actual tattooist. I skipped a chunk of pages to another section. These were all sorts of flowers. Some of the flowers would create scents that played different roles. One enticed flies to the user. On the opposite page were a plant with sharp teeth and a fat head. The scrawled notes said this one would keep all sorts of bugs away from the user. There were notes about ink amounts and bars on the bottom. If I were reading it right, they were a sort of mixture.

“Here. See these?”

Cassandra leaned over and pointed a two spots on either page.

“These bars show how much of a serving each marking can take. There’s a bit of wiggle room there depending on the size of the person. Bigger markings will draw more power. Same sized markings on two people of different builds will put them toward thresholds at different times. But I’ve seen short people get a herd of oxen on their back and walk away.”

My eyebrows tightened. That sounded awfully complicated.

“Your momma could tell you. Got her own book somewhere, with her own studies. She started learning an age ago, back when she first came back with your dad.”

I wondered why Cassandra were being forthcoming. She’d always struck me as woman who kept her secrets close to her chest. I looked up at her. She seemed to read my mind or expression and smiled. It were the kindest smile I’d ever seen out of the devious woman.

“Not a secret. Not exactly. But since your marks are, harder, it’ll help for you to know some of the basic. But the truth is no matter how much I’ve measured, me or any other, it’s never exact. There’s something more we can’t pin down that impacts how each mark twists.”

My head bobbed like it made sense. It sort of did, but at the same point this were all utterly new. Cassandra went back to her perusing while I flipped through, searching for pictures that were at least interesting.

There were one of a Blink Hound.

“Spirit animals. Won’t work for you though on account of you needing a balance. Unless we put a two headed dog on your ass,” she laughed at her own joke.

I didn’t share her amusement. The idea of dog heads on my butt cheeks were revolting.

“Could do two smaller ones. But all spirits are big marks. Or heavy. They have to be to get a lick of sense out of them. Though Unke, she’s down the river a ways, makes a living giving people tiny pets. Small handheld spirit animals that can hardly lift up a sheet of paper. Charges a premium to make them a bit smarter. Can you imagine? A cat that fits in your palm. A dog that’ll never grow bigger.”

Cassandra had more than enough dogs. Puppies were cute and all but I imagine that after the tenth or twelfth litter that dogs would be a headache. I had yet to divine why she kept so many of them around.

“Best part is they don’t shit. See all these dogs around? Takes an age to train them to shit in the woods well away from here, but between that and all the dead beasts, I’m safe enough.”

That must be her secret to surviving out here. Dog shit and burned beasts. I’d only recently learned that burning the dead bodies served as a way to drive off other monsters. It served as a warning, though I weren’t sure why.

I should have burned those Rock Snakes.

There were dozens of animals across the pages. Each one peered out of the book as if alive and watching my every move. I lifted the page and tilted it slightly, staring as their creepy eyes followed me. Cassandra ignored my confusion and kept scanning through her own pages, making notes on a small piece of paper she’d picked up at some point.

It were kind of nice to simply pass time looking at artwork. My first markings had been so strange and out of the blue. This felt more like how a tattooist should work. They’d have an office and a table. They’d have a wall of pictures for people to chose from. They’d discuss the art and what it might do. That’s what I’d expected.

Instead I’d been bent over a rock and had my back worked on, after being exhausted. That were a ritual of sorts. This, this were more like business. Not something I’d ever expected from Cassandra.

I wrote a note down on my crammed piece of paper.

Do I have a limit?

“Likely. Your line may be different, but they’re not exempt from the rules. A soul can only bear so much. Or so I’ve found.”

I couldn’t stop from scrawling out another poorly written question. Different. Family, or Hounds?

“Either. Here’s a puzzle for you to sort out in your idle time. Why is when we found The Mountain, your family were here first? What does that mean? I’ve pondered it since you popped up. Your grandfather could work the ink like no one I’d ever met. He said his father had even more skill. Though he died before my time.” Cassandra smiled as she handed me a bundle of confusion. The town weren’t that old, but The Mountain couldn’t be that old either, could it? How old were this place? I couldn’t picture a world without The Mountain, but if there’d been no Rangers, no people mining the ink, then this place had it’s own balance that didn’t need any of us to be around.

Then there were that other idea. That my family traced itself back before her time. Momma had implied that Cassandra had more than her share of years. That she’d looked much the same for almost two decades. Momma showed some signs of aging but she didn’t seem to be a forty year old either. She almost had skin like Poss, especially now that she’d started taking better care of herself. I wondered if physical looks were somehow held tight by the wings but didn’t know enough. That gave me a new goal. I flipped through the book looking for winged creatures.

It were that or dwell on something useless, like Cassandra’s ageless features. I’d been brave enough to ask her about my family and a limit because those concerned my life. Her living longer than any woman ought to, especially in light of all the markings she had access to, meant nothing. I’d be better served by continuing to roam through her books while she didn’t care. Knowing my luck Cassandra would never let me see them again. Even if my momma had a book, it probably didn’t measure up to these.

I wondered about starting my own notes. It might be worth looking into given time to write. Plus nights would be quiet. Obsidian had told me to think about how to counter markings so m

There were no obvious notes in here regarding immortality. None of them mentioned a marking that hid marks, but she might have something like the Eyes of a Man.

“Wait,” she went back to the first book that had the pyramids. Back through the pages she went, flipping along looking for something specific. She stopped on a page with snakes. “A combination, perhaps. Something that might translate to a stronger Hound, in every form. Weapons of a sort, claws, of a sort, green, but with a give and take balance.”

Another book were propped open to a page with the weapons. Some were daggers, others staffs like what Wan used. Long tips that showed focuses of different colors up on the top or bottom. Most of them seemed to have high requirements, based on what I understood of the bars along the bottom. There were one that had a maul of some sort, a huge item that required intense strength to use.

She flipped through the pages some more, landing near the end, where some strange sort of gauntlets were lined up. Cassandra’s face lit up. She nodded repeatedly then took a sip of tea.

“Oh this’ll be good. It’s sure enough to fit, I can feel it.”

I wiggled my forefingers.

Cassandra looked up like I were a ghost. She frowned suddenly and all traces of pleasantness vanished. Up she stood, waving me away. “Go away! Go, do whatever it is boys like you do with your spare time. I’ve got to find Connie, she’s the only one I’d trust to even begin to second guess me. Don’t tell her I said that. You’re moms enough of a blabber mouth. Bit of a thief too. Don’t tell her I said that either.”

Seemed to me that Cassandra were being enough of a blabber mouth for the two of them. Talking about markings really got her excited.

She grinned at me, and for once I saw Cassandra without the charms and siren’s call. She were excited. The ghostly raven wings at her back practically vibrated with energy. They were, somehow a bit more real, then they faded.

“Get going! You’ve your role. I’ve mine. And if I design these right, that fool Corso will think you’re a spy from another country. He won’t even begin to suspect that you’re from us.” Dogs barked in the distance. Cassandra tiled her head as if listening to a conversation. “And tell that other fool Wan to come right on in.”

The animals made little sense to me despite my recent abilities. Turning into a dog part of the time didn’t give me a mystical connection to suddenly understand their barks and woofs of noise. Though I gathered one of the other Rangers, Wan, were outside somewhere.

I flipped another page or two then stood up before the tattooist could get too upset. She frowned at me over her teacup then pulled the book away. The horde of dogs flew toward the door as it opened, jumping at my hands and trying to knock me over.

Cassandra’s voice reached me, despite the dogs braying and my own footsteps. She said, “Wait until those idiot Saracons see this.”

Get going, I thought while waving at the dogs. Moving around were hard enough on my own two feet some days, especially when both thighs still ached from yesterdays practice. Didn’t help that my head felt heavy and eyes blurred from reading all that chicken scratch written into the lines by markings. Studying had never been my strong point but I’d need to do better.

It’d be worth getting a notebook of my own to jot down all the possible ways to counter people.

Sure enough, Wan, a thin man, stood at the edge of Cassandra’s property. He nodded to me then smiled a grin that reminded me of cats.

“Got a moment?” Wan asked.

Will today never end? But since I couldn’t answer, I nodded then waited for Wan to move on with his useful idea.

A note from FrustratedEgo

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Dude @Dude ago

Thanks for the chapter