I’d marked Ash and Wan as a bit of a creepy pair. Always skulking about in the woods. Momma didn’t seem to like either one, and from the impressions I’d gathered, they’d all grown up together, or at least they’d come from the same place as my momma. I’d yet to reconcile her childhood in a rich family and time on a coastal collage with knowing about their childhood. Maybe she’d simply gotten the stories out of other people from around the town.
That had to be it. She’d told me she belonged to a rich family on the coast before daddy swept her away. I’d have to ask about our real history and see if momma said anything to clear it up.
Wan were normally the quieter of the pair. Not shy by any means, just content to let others do the talking.
That wouldn’t serve him well with me. The Ranger in front of me chewed on his inner cheek, then spit. We stared at each other for a bit before he jerked.
“Right. Voice.” He pointed to his thin throat.
“That’s a shit cost for anything.”
Both shoulders lifted in a shrug. There weren’t anything that could be done about losing my voice, yet.
“Heard you in there with the miss.”
My eyes fluttered for a moment then I put the idea together. He hadn’t been close to the house. Wan had a number of markings though. Which one gave him the ability to hear at a distance? The mess of ink formed under his clothes made a bit more sense, but before I could align any of his pictures with the ones from Cassandra’s book, Wan turned to the side.
He lifted his eyebrow.
I realized my spying had been caught. I’d need to find another mirror and double check my own markings to see if anything happened when using the eye. That or all the Rangers were familiar with my abilities and prepared to deal with it. That further proved my own need to think ahead.
How could I spy on someone without their notice?
“Figured the miss be getting you something innate. Weapon to carry with you. Every Ranger gets them in short order, that way we’re never caught off guard. Hardwood has her gun. Ash has his staff.”
I pointed at him.
“Oh I use anything, means getting one specific weapon is useless.”
My nose twitched. Him being a scout sounded like horse shit. Wan had put down another man during the trails, or whatever those were, and choked the life out of him. Though there were a possibility his abilities were more about sneaking around.
“Obsidian can’t teach you how to use whatever the miss gets you, but I can.”
I pointed at him.
My head shook. It didn’t matter if he could teach me or not. I didn’t disbelieve him so much as wonder what he wanted. Everyone wanted something out of me. Even Cassandra’s nonsense mission likely came with strings. They were right though, going back into the mine wouldn’t work. Being a Ranger were exclusive with being a Ranger, and going to Bell Town in general would let me see more of the world.
My heart jumped. I hadn’t been that far in ages. Not since well before daddy passed away.
“Surprised Obsidian hadn’t beat you with a stick for getting distracted.”
I blamed it on exhaustion but realized that excuse wouldn’t last me long.
“You’re headed to Bell Town. I’ll ask the miss to be your contact. But you’ve got to do me a favor.”
Now we were getting back to the right part of the conversation, what exactly it were that Wan wanted.
“You’ll be bringing packages to another person I trust.”
My fingers wiggled in question.
“Well, trust is a strong word. He’ll make deliveries without snooping.”
That weren’t my question. My piece of paper for the day were running out of room. I wrote down me, and him, and what on it. Hopefully he’d understand that I wanted to hear clearly what we both got out of this deal.
“You’ll get a few lessons in weapon the miss gives you. My contact will help you too. I get someone no one suspects making my delivery.”
What? I pointed to the word again and again. Wan pursed thin reedy lips then nodded.
“Money. Goes to family back east. My kids are there. But I can only send cash as I make it and they need clothes and food. Proper school costs a penny too.
Money. It always came back to proper funds. Wan had enough or he wouldn’t be able to spare any to send off to the coast. It did help me a bit, to know that had I become a Ranger and not been caught up in this other nonsense, then there’d be enough funds to keep momma supported. Though Wan had brought up a problem I hadn’t even considered. How did one get money back to family somewhere else?
Trust were a hard thing.
I nodded slowly. The deal seemed without strings. I suspected that if this Corso guy were really as unfriendly with the Rangers as Tawny and Cassandra implied, then every Ranger showing up in town would be watched. It’d only take one back ally stabbing to kill someone carrying funds. Mail in Chandler’s Field had never been under lock and key and I got the impression that Bell Town were lawless on a good day.
I didn’t used to think so badly of folks.
“So we have a deal? Once a weekend.” When I didn’t say anything, Wan nervously kept going. “You’ll be coming home I assume, to visit your family. We can make the trade then. You’ll have a bag for supplies during the week and the package can be hid in there. No one will ever have to see me in Bell Town, and no one will suspect you.”
I nodded faster this time.
“I’ll give you a few hours and some exercises every weekend. Your Flop can watch too. She’ll need to learn some self defense.”
Jenn, I wrote. Calling her that Flop were disrespectful.
Wan shook his head and gave a wary smile. He didn’t apologize, which made my eyes flutter in annoyance.
“I’ll let you go then. The miss expects me in. To report. I’ll tell her about our deal too, that’ll make her happy and get Mister Tawny off your case.”
Off he went, and back to town I headed, mulling over all the information that had been shoved at me recently.
There were too many markings in the world. I’d only seen some of the mainstream and cheaper ones on mine workers. We, they, didn’t have a surplus of funds to be spending on the fancier ones. There were also the possibility that tattooists like Cassandra simply never advertised the more complicated ones, or worked in a bit of extra here and there while no one noticed.
I’d need to keep a journal on me. A notebook to jot down all the artwork I’d seen, compare that to the books that Cassandra had, or momma’s if I ever got to see them. Then I could write down counters. With the Wildling Mark I might be able to use most elements in small doses, which gave me options.
Though truthfully, a knife in the dark often worked just as well as a full on war between one power and another. Obsidian drove that into my head repeatedly during our last few months together. There were no substitute for a simple stabbing when a man weren’t looking. Unless that man had a green focused on self healing, or a blue that let them detect enemies.
Ink were a giant mystery. How one item could lead to so many methods of use were nearly insane. A man could be locked up in a loony bin trying to wrap their head around every option out there. I’d have to sort through it bits at a time while trying to ingrain myself into Bell Town’s questionable side.
What struck me most, were that Csassandra implied my family line, on daddy’s side, had a lot of power over ink. Or at least in shaping in somehow. Making it useful. Then there were those wings, if momma were a tattooist like Cassandra, then maybe there were something that came down from that end too.
Does working the ink have anything to do with that other place? With these visions?
Everything from my time in the cocoon and being throw in the mine’s top were suspect still. The only confirmation I had were Poss’s feline companion, but even that didn’t mean the rest of it were real. It only meant I’d learned a bit of information from a dead woman. Given some of the markings in Cassandra’s book, such a thing were easily possible without even needing to be in The Mountain. There were a mark of this faceless man over a grave called a “Dead Talker”.
Along side that were a dozen others of the same vein. Dead Visions. Visions of Death. Eyes of the Unliving. Animal Talker. All of them focused on speaking to something other than a human. Cassandra might have one of those marks that let her work with the dogs. It might be her presence.
I almost drove myself mad during the walk to Chandler Field. From there I quickly wove a path home, stopping only to get some supplies from the store. Two pocket journals were ordered too, but those would take a week to come in from Bell Town as the general store were out of supplies. I’d use one for communication with others, and another to write down what markings I witnessed around town.
What a mission.
Someone were stealing the dead and what, repurposing their inks? That were almost like grave robbing. Having my own abilities would likely make me a target, but that meant my Hidden Soul would need to be on nearly all the time. I’d gotten used to hiding the blotches of rainbow and blackened swirls on either hand. Whatever additional mark Cassandra gave me would mean more to hide.
A thought occurred to me, an exercise in control that Obsidian had never suggested. But maybe I could use the Hidden Soul to only hide some of the marks. It wouldn’t be like Wan turning slightly to cause my vision to go wonky, or Obsidian who could somehow see when I were peering at his abilities.
I made it home and went about handling what chores didn’t make my legs hurt. Dishes, feeding the chickens, and staring off the back porch toward the looming mountain range.
Boogieman of the frontier. They’d been there when we first pushed west. They were still there, somewhere over the hills. I’d once heard stories about a larger settlement, further south along the Mississippi where our armies rallied every other day. They’d gather in great squadrons and march off to keep our enemies back, throttling their ability to push the far north. The theory went, that if we kept them south, they couldn’t come up and attack the mines.
And Cassandra wanted me to pose as one of them, in a way. Worse still, she wanted me to pose as one of them while pretending to be a simple man searching for work. That’d likely make no sense because anyone with half a brain could ask around. Unless Bell Town were so much bigger compared to Chandler’s Field.
I barely recalled the city from my childhood. The one time I’d been there, there had been a lot of buildings. Farm more than our spread out town and scattered homesteads. Brick and mortar compared to our wooden homes. Plumbing and electricity all around, compared to Poss’s one mansion on the hill which claimed all the posh amenities.
The thought of Poss worried me. I hadn’t seen her more than once or twice since confronting her about the Feline named Charity. I hoped she’d been holding up okay, but we were in different social circles, especially now that Greg and Lily were gone.
I wondered what they might think of this Hound nonsense. Greg would go on for ages about it. He’d ramble about all the things he wanted to know and he’d be foolish enough to ask without regard for who knew what.
At nightfall, neither Jenn or momma had returned. I washed up and put myself to bed.
In the morning the house were still empty. My questions for momma and concerns for Jenn would have to sit. I felt good enough to pick myself up then bundled up all the clothes. From there, I made ready to shift back to the hound body. Everything got twined together along with a small oiled sack I’d borrowed from Wellbrook mine. It’d hold raw ink as well as anything else and shouldn’t stain.
Practice. That’s what it were, endless practice. Part of me also enjoyed the newness to everything about me. Smells were intense on a level I’d never expected. Exciting sounds jumped out at me from every bush. It were the memories twisting together as I changed that bothered me.
It were the twisted meshing of a dozen different memories that dug at me. They came in a rush, blending together moments that hadn’t happened with ones that did.
As they had been lately, these memories were of Lily. Flowers. That’s what I smelled. A field of tulips that Lily’s family had tended for decades. Their sweet scent hung in the air. I’d swear I’d become a man watching Lily bend over to pick up fresh blooms for bouquets.
Poss sat with her arms wrapped around her knees and stared off toward the lake. She’d never been one to venture out with us children, but she talked to Lily all the time. Every week for years she’d been buying flowers. Whatever were in season.
Poss spoke. “I’m getting married next month. A late spring, but still spring wedding. Like we always talked about.”
I pretended to be invisible. That’s what the girls wanted. I’d shown up to play with Lily, then Poss had shown up to talk. At some point we’d moved away from being friends from across town. Lily had a real grown up woman to speak with. One with curves who’d fill out a dress.
“Spring? Lovely. I’ll get the flowers ready. Of course, my dad won’t let me give them away for free.”
“It’s okay. The Proctors can afford the best.” She turned and smiled. I pretended not notice them ten feet away.
Lily smiled and my world went fuzzy. “Okay. When I grow up, I’ll get married in the spring too. To some man rich enough to sweep me off my feet.”
I fought to keep my mind straight. This couldn’t have been how the conversation went. Lily had been kinder back then. Full of dreams but always willing to talk and play.
“But don’t hang out with Chase anymore. He’s got fleas.” Poss said. She handed Lily a dress that had barely any fabric up top. “Here. Wear this. It’s sure to get the men’s attention.”
I went to scream but found myself hoarse. Even the words I’d spoken back then were blocked by my mute lips.
Dog again. All four legs functioned. I picked up my package and ambled off through the fields toward where I’d left the dead Rock Snakes. I gathered them up and put their drying carcasses into the oiled pouch. They’d preserve fine in there until I could figure out how to grind them down to make a repellent. With my extended absences, I wanted to leave behind something to help Jenn keep safe.
Assuming I ever see her again.
That were an annoyance I’d never expected. In the wild, a rabbit being afraid of a dog made sense. Rabbits typically cowed away from everything. She’d skipped right over that unease, sort of. Jenn were upset because I could go back. To what?
At an empty home, with my two bags badly being lugged behind me, I returned to human shape. The images of Poss and Lily chatting together hung in my mind. I pushed them aside as I abruptly realized.
I could be fully human looking. Jenn couldn’t. She was stuck as what her daddy made her to be. A pleasure slave. A little girl who hadn’t known any better were stuck with the constant reminder of her kin’s violations.
I felt like the stupidest man this side of Butcher Hills.
Silver. That’s the cure.
Working with ink were beyond me. Even if I stumbled across an endless seam of silver ink somewhere in the mine’s depths, how would I use it? It might require another tattoo. I’d have better luck reworking their original markings while walking widdershins and sacrificing a calf. Witchery were near enough to folklore though. Legend said all the real witches came from back across the water, with the Empire.
I’d been practicing controlling my own markings. I’d also been told countless times working at Wellbrook, not to touch raw ink.
Cassandra had also said my family had a strange relationship with ink. Would it be possible I could learn some of her abilities? Momma had been able to. Or so I suspected since they both had those ghostly black wings.
Too many mysteries. I fought back the urge to tear open my sack of dead Rock Snakes and play with what ink remained in their bodies. There were the possibility I’d discover something about myself, but I might also cause irreparable damage and become a Wildling. If I even could.
What I really needed, were something with my knowledge about being a Hound.
There were that giant wolf on The Field. A place he’d named like it were the only one in the world. A place where he said all the dead touched by ink went to fight eternally. There he’d battled one of those tin cans made of rust. That red rust had been the same as in my dreams.
It all fit together. I could see what were happening by comparing what he’d told me against the dreams I’d had upon first becoming an Hound. I just didn’t understand how to use my knowledge of what happened an age ago, in the here and now.
I walked to my room and straightened, as if that might help my cluttered mind. It didn’t. I put the Rock Snakes out on a drying rack outside that momma used for clothes. They hung from clothes pins. One of the porch chairs were pulled up and I stared at the carcasses.
Rock Snakes were made of a few dirty colors. Mostly brown and black. A hint of dark green. That should mean they were tougher and could carry poison. I thought back on that other place I”d been. There, according to a Feline I’d met, everything were made of the ink. Everything held that power of creation given an outline.
If I could use it there, ride it like that old wolf-man had said, then it might be possible to use it here too. Being immersed in a cocoon made of the muck and using ink were different than being alive and trying to wrest control of it.
The real line would be how much I’d changed since being reborn as a Hound. Since clawing my way out of that darkness past the visions of not-Harold and not-Kenneth. Since I’d discovered those damn wings.
Did I have any? Were they from a family trait like some people had sharp noses?
I’d survived a huge pool of ink. I’d bathed in The damn Mountain’s heart. I should be able to handle a little raw ink without problems.
Something about that idea felt wrong.
Despite any reservations, I needed to know what would happen. Momma might have clues based on my daddy’s past, but he’d also been half a failure. Word were that he’d died before even a few months had passed.
I’d survived the change longer. I were younger and had different markings. Having eyes to see by made a huge difference according to Cassandra. Though I couldn’t say how, unless somehow being able to see the ink played a part in the transformation process. That suspicion hadn’t been proved one way or the other and likely never would be. Unless I had a dozen brothers and sisters out there that no one knew about.
I felt fairly certain that daddy had been faithful to a fault. From the sounds of it, my granddaddy had been a one woman sort of man as well, though she’d died during childbirth.
But I hadn’t known daddy were a Hound, a failure of one, until he’d been dead and buried for a year. Who could say what other surprises might be out there waiting to rear their heads.
Deal with what you know.
I reminded myself that speculation were as useless as tits on a bull. Only results and what had happened mattered. Even if I now existed in a world of potential dangers.
First, Pull out a clump of ink from the dead monster. See if it had a heart like the larger beasts. I’d never personally checked or done either despite being trained by Obsidian to an extent. Then figure out how I reacted to raw ink. If nothing else I’d remember my exercises to refuse to let anything take hold.
God help me. I’m talking myself into touching raw ink.
The idea hadn’t let loose. I’d likely not find much alone time in the future. Bell Town probably had too many people. It felt like a fitting cap on today’s nonsense.
I reached out slowly for the Rock Snake. My hand wavered a bit as I realized I had no clue what to do. The refiners up on The Mountain were a secretive lot and I’d never seen much besides the drying racks they used for fresher ink.
This weren’t even fresh. It were twined into a dead monster.
Jenn would call me stupid no matter what choice I made. Obsidian would tell me to think and figure out what might happen. Momma would want me a million miles away form this nonsense but still let me walk into danger. Or at least, that’s what she’d done.
I were going in circles once again.
No one could live life guessing all the time. The real question were if I should dig through the dead bodies or not. I used the bag and knife to carve one of the dead monsters apart. It’s skin were like a week old bread, stale and hard despite the knife’s sharpness.
There were one lump, maybe the size of a marble, that reminded me of the bear’s heart. I cut it from the rest of the ink and stared at the material. This, if my studies were right, is what made the markings gain their abilities and lose the wild edge. Raw ink brought up memories along with it’s power. The tempered material would be ground together with a color or ten and be usable.
I poked at it. The heart felt warm to the touch but otherwise sat inert. No beat or pulse and even the murky black surface were dull compared to the last heart I’d seen. That one had spun with every color at center, sinking and swirling together.
This one were a useless lump.
Emboldened by the lack of impact from the heart, I moved onto the remaining ink I’d filleted from the snakes. Ugly green felt sour and make my tongue numb but didn’t bring on any memories. The brown were thick, almost like poking real dirt that were half slime. My throat dried.
It did nothing. It didn’t hurt or overwhelm me like the rainbow drop had when it’d first touched me. With that one dropped I’d been sent to my knees and flopped around mumbling that I’d die a man. Maybe this were simply nothing compared to the deep pool that transformed me into a Hound.
Hardwood could hold a much bigger heart and never care one whit about the results. I’d watched Ash wade through guts of transformed monsters without batting an eye. I’d killed more than a few of the lesser ones myself without problem.
I simply never stopped to really study the problem before.
After that first change I’d slept for nearly a week. After each one my mind crawled back from the brink of a dozen different memories. Now it were simply another minor inconvenience.
I rolled the ink together and studied the goop. The sour smell intensified. Thoughts of pissing on rocks as a child were swiftly buried.
Could this be used to make a new marking? If someone took a dead human, Flop, or any other race then drained it until nothing else remained, they’d easily get enough mark for a handful of markings. That’d be worth a horse or two per dead body. Corso, if he were really involved in this mess, could turn returning dead into a money mill.
I thought of how I’d sifted through the Rock Snakes body and realized that it’d be even worse than suspected. They could gut Felines, take arms off dead soldiers, and no one would know because a body had been returned.
My back tensed. It took me a moment to realize that there were this feeling that continued despite the rambling in my head. Like something sat in the air just out of sight. The setting sun cast shadows that couldn’t be right. I smelled dampness and felt something clinging to my skin. It hummed and twisted and writhed. My stomach felt sick. I couldn’t even see the thing but I didn’t feel alone.
“Tsk, Tsk. Tsk.”
My skin crawled on it’s own. Goosebumps lifted. Something else were right here with me. In my own yard. The other presence chuckled. A low hum that vibrated my eardrums until they threatened to pop. “Ah, my little Hound.”
I hastily dropped the snake onto the ground. There the gutted remains sizzled in afternoon light.
The other voice didn’t return. Hairs on my neck stayed stiff. I whipped my head around and activated the Watchful Eye to see what might be about.
There were nothing and no one but me and the dead Rock Snakes.
Now I have reasons not to touch raw ink.
I’d also been given a whole host of questions. It’d been months since I’d heard that voice. It’d been almost that long since I’d had a vision of them winged creatures flying over the land. Here I’d mourned the lack of direction on how to proceed with this Hound business. Sure they’d ask me to watch the docks at Bell Town, but that didn’t help in the grand scheme of things.
If I saw not-Harold by holding the monster’s body long enough, could I see that old man from The Field? Lord knew I needed answers and he’d said that there were always someone older and wiser the first time.
I grabbed the ink again.