At first, there were nothing. Then presence solidified. Right out of the corner of my eye. Something huge and impossibly sideways.
That presence chewed wetly in my ear. “Ants. Little ants marching one by one to their doom. That’s what your kind are.”
The tendril of brown slowly wove a path around my arm and anchored on like ivy. My arm crawled. Skin wriggled and warped. I jerked, dropped the guts of ink then tore off the bits sinking their way into my flesh. Blood gushed from where my nails dug in too hard.
Leftover Rock Snake hit the dirt, sizzling under the afternoon sun.
My arm bled freely. I eyed them and moved the skin around a bit to gauge how badly I’d been hurt. The wounds were small but deeper expected. Watchful Eye let me see the normal trails of ink down in my bones that went with being a Hound. There were no signs of anything strange left behind.
That had been foolish. I’d also learned something. The Mountain, or whatever fat-assed angel dwelt in it’s depths, were tied to the dead monsters. Specifically their ink. That lent credibility to that old man I’d met on The Field. He’d said they sent people out into the world to kill.
It also made the mystery of heart’s all the stranger. I’d felt nothing at all when handling the smaller marble. Were it an actual heart of some sort that somehow bound with the ink and changed it? If so, how exactly had it shifted from the other material? There were more to it than a disembodied voice.
I’d need to test that again, but not right now. I’d had enough excitement for the moment.
The sun’s further down.
How much time had I lost? Based on the new placement of shadow and an ache in my legs, I’d been standing a fair bit longer than I could remember. It would have freaked me out, but I remember being told I’d been in The Mountain for weeks upon becoming a Hound, when it only felt like days at most.
I were smart enough to put two and two together. Time warped unevenly when I handled ink. It had done much the same when Cassandra put the Eyes of a Man on my back.
“Chase. Where are you son?” Momma’s shouts came from the back end of the house.
She’d be out the door in a second. I turned to cover up my carcasses a second too late. The back door slammed opened. Wood banged onto the back porch and I dreaded thinking of the damage to the hinges. It were a silly thing to care about.
“Dear lord. What in God’s name have you brought out here son?”
My eyes drifted to one side. Hiding were useless, so I went about gathering up the dead ink piles and putting them back into the bag.
“Tell me that isn’t a dead beast. Tell me you didn’t bring it back here and carve it up like a chicken.”
Plucked it first, I thought dryly. That hadn’t exactly been true but momma’s question were silly. Of course I’d brought it back and carved it up.
“What’s the point of all that? Dead things should go back to the pits they came from. It’s for the best.”
I pointed at my eyes then toward the bag.
“You wanted to see something?”
My head bobbed.
“See what? There ain’t nothing to see. Only things that ought to be wiped from the face of the Earth. Lord knows that this world would be better off without such rot running around everywhere ruining things. Then you’d daddy would be alive, and that wicked witch Cassandra would have both feet in the grave. She wouldn’t be around mocking my attempts at figuring out the,” momma drifted off.
My mind still whirled at the connection between dead monsters, their ink, and that voice from The Mountain. It felt like if I simply lay all my cards on the table, everyone else would be able to make the connections. They’d know exactly what it all meant and we’d have an answer to the greatest puzzle ever.
It also felt like that none of them would think it were my business. Nevermind me being this stupid Hound thing. Or half a Ranger. Or Cassandra’s pet project. They were all keeping their secrets.
What had momma said?
The back door banged again.
“Get all that cleaned up! Might as well make use of the carcasses. I’ll show that girl of yours how to turn them into a warding powder. Never mind that she probably already knows. That girl kept herself alive in the wild for years so she’s must have a few tricks up her sleeve, but might be she just ran away.”
The bag went up on a hook under the rafters to keep dry. Having dead bodies inside the house wouldn’t go well. Though we’d have to get it cleaned up before the next full moon. There’d be no sense in risking creatures coming down this far on the feeding frenzy.
“Not too hard a thing. A little bit of one with the other. The hearts are the keys. They’ve told you that right? I know when you were up at Wellbrook they probably didn’t tell you any such thing. No one ever does. Those poor boys up there slaving away without a clue of the riches they’re tossing back in. But I suppose that’s fair.”
I wandered inside and continued to listen to momm’a prattling.
“It’d be like telling them that they can get rich playing with dynamite. The only ones who know are Rangers, Tattooists, and the odd person in the know. You’d be one, of course, being what you are. I heard Cassandra tell that she’d let you see some of the books. That’s always a good idea. Learning. That’s what you need to do.”
Momma jumped from topic to topic in rapid order. I followed after her trying to keep up, but even after years I’d never managed to get a handle on her speed. She left little room to interject.
“Not like that idiot Neb. Can’t believe they made both him and Derek into Rangers. Or trainees. Assuming either one has a lick of sense and managers to survive a few years. Though Neb’s likely to be the next Sterling. Never a good end those Sterlings. Born of fools on a fool’s quest. Seen five or six come and go like the wind.” Momma paused by the kitchen table then leaned toward me while wagging a finger. “Don’t expect anyone that names themselves after a silver to survive.”
I nodded quickly.
Silver’s the cure though.
Momma didn’t read my mind. She bustled around the house straightening up objects that didn’t need it. The house had been untouched for the most part during the last week. I barely had time at home and Jenn spent most of her awake time outside in the garden. Jenn loved chickens for reasons beyond me.
“That boy Derek though. He’ll get something fancier. Azure or some other high blue. If he survives. His arm’s as likely to kill him as anything else. Cassandra confirmed as much, saying he’d been touched by a rainbow drop like you had. Though he’d done a poorer job of keeping his mind still. Much as it pains me to admit it, that boy’s got something special.”
She turned abruptly. I bumped into her. Momma reached up and pinched my cheeks. “Not like my son though.”
There were a dozen more ideas to unpack in her ramblings. I struggled to keep sense of it and wish that my pocket journals had already been delivered. It’d help to have notes for all these questions that kept popping into my head.
Momma spun her way to a recliner in the front room and plopped down. Dust shot out. “Dererk’s problems aren’t for me to share though. Shouldn’t have said anything. Lord knows I ramble enough as it is. Worst still after talking to Cassie. Every time I talking to that witch I have to gag her with some rope just to get a word in edgewise.”
My eyes blinked slowly. Cassandra had talked a lot more than I’d ever experienced when it came to tattoos. The idea that she could somehow beat momma to the punch in a conversation were downright impossible. Of course, maybe those hypnotic dresses and tone played a part. I were also mute so my ability to put up a fight were limited.
“This Hound nonsense. Can’t find a lick of lore about it anywhere. Doesn’t matter what Cassie said. All over in Empire my ass. All over the south. She’s either lying or pulling answers of a dream. Your uncle’s never heard of them at all.”
My head shook. Momma had once again ended her ramble on a confusing detail. I swear it were natural. She simply picked a piece of information that would cause other people to be jumbled, and used that moment to take a breath before rambling onward.
Family could wait a moment. Anyone she’d talked to probably had to be by post. I’d know if any uncle of mine were close by. So that left her side of the family. The rich ones we never spoke about until now.
But I’m a hound, I wrote. Momma read the note and shook her head.
“Dogs bark,” momma said dryly followed by, “You ain’t a hound. If you were a hound, you’d bark. That’s how magic works. Iconography converts energy into creations.” Her voice shifted a bit from it’s normal rough pattern. The words were a bit softer and more refined. I’d never heard momma used any sort of technical language at all and it threw me for a loop.
One eyebrow went up. My fingers jerked a rapid question mark.
“Oh I know what they said. I know the clerics up top did their test, and Cassie did her sacrifice, but it don’t line up. Something’s different. It’s not just that they gave you eyes, but you’ve got more in you than you daddy ever did. I can see it down in your bones. Past them, if such a thing is possible.”
She hadn’t understood my question, but I hadn’t had time to write down anything too detailed. It’d be near impossible to formulate a proper way to ask all the questions occurring to me now anyway.
Momma put her feet up on a small rocker and leaned back. She pulled up a thin knitted blanket. Her head tilted to one side as she continued to talk. “Said too much for one day. You’ve got your studies and I don’t have the sanity to watch you scrawl out a wall of questions. That’s what’ll happen too. One question begets more questions until you tread on God’s realm. If I were a betting woman, I’d believe that’s how this whole mess started. Someone asked a question, then couldn’t take silence for an answer so they stole one instead.”
Momma’s tired eyes looked up enough to catch my mouthed word or confused expression. Her head dipped slowly but she brought it back to bear.
“I’m tired son. Tired and my head’s near to stuffed with too much information. I’ve been in Bell Town reading, and elsewhere besides for days. I need to rest before I even try to keep up with your confusion. Confused enough myself.”
She nodded and swooned. Whatever energy she’d had to babble away like a raging brook had dwindled.
“Write out your questions on a paper. Nicely. If you’ve heart to ask, I’ll try to answer. Though I don’t know everything. Been trying to catch up on what I’d neglected for too long since your daddy died.”
I swallowed a lump then tried again. The stickiness in my throat stayed as my face felt chill. Her head swung slowly to a side. The chair she were in couldn’t be comfortable. The blanket were too thin. I needed money to buy a properly thick one stuffed with cotton. With winter coming up the house would be colder.
I put aside the thought of pestering her with questions or trying to get momma to wake up. Off I went to get a pillow and another blanket. They went over her first thinner blanket.
She looked so dammed tiny. Not like Jenn, but nothing like the tall woman from my memories. A tear rolled down her cheek slowly leaving a glistening trail.
“I miss him,” she mumbled.
I miss him too.
Then I crept out of the house quietly and tried to get a grips on all the stuff she’d said. Some of it I knew. Some of it I’d guessed at, but in a way most of it didn’t matter right now. Momma were clearly still torn about daddy’s passing. But there were no markings to bring back the dead. Not for real. Animating a corpse were one thing, but those that had passed couldn’t come back.
I thought back to my confirmation of The Mountain having a voice. Being something more than a looming clump of bedrock. If that were real, then everything else would be too. I’d suspected it with Poss’s servant but had still felt unsure.
Were daddy over there, fighting the war on that field? Another slave endlessly fighting against an encroaching evil? That giant gruff man might have been him but I’d become certain that were my granddaddy at best.
At least I knew momma were alright. As much as could be expected given our situation. She’d likely sleep an age and be hungry beyond belief once she woke. I’d need to keep the house together and make sure there were food. The garden had a few last vegetables to pull, from a late planting. The fruit trees were mostly barren and I hadn’t enough to jar up for preserves. Nearly all of those supplies had been used during momma’s moods after daddy’s passing.
Off I went, doing my best to keep the house in one piece. There were buckets to clear, outhouses to check, I walked the property line keeping an eye out for beasts made of ink or less insidious creatures. There weren’t many predators to care about. I’d heard stories of actual wolves's back east that roamed in packs taking down livestock.
While taking care of chores, I wondered about all the things momma had let spill in her heated rush. I’d expected plenty of other people to confuse me in life, but never momma. She’d simply been full of gossip about everyone else in town. I suspected it to be because she loved to talk but wanted to keep me away from this mess. Now though, I’d entered the other side of my parent’s world and the curtains on how clueless I’d been were slowly being pulled back.
Where then, were momma going to read all this information? It couldn’t be Bell Town, not really. It didn’t make sense to leave anything important or secret so far away. I had another choice. I could change into a dog again and try to follow momma’s trail backwards. It might lead me somewhere useful, or simply to the carriages at town.
Once my basic chores were completed, I set my clothes aside again.
My body jerked upright and I reached for the clothes to cover myself up. I turned, modesty covered, and found Jenn sitting behind me on a thick log. She’d seen me in worse state but whatever our relationship were, being naked in the woods probably existed outside the bounds of our agreement. Unstated as it were.
The Flop’s rust colored fire blended with the sunset behind her. Her eyes were hard to see under ears that she’d pulled to the front. Holes at the knees made me disappointed in myself.
I need to find her some better clothes for the garden.
I needed to get my own trappings back on. Jenn stared at me, sniffing. Clothing got adjusted and I pointed at her then motioned for her to turn around.
“Nothing Jenn ain’t seen before. You’re not that special.”
That were mean and utterly wrong. Apparently I were that special despite any desire to be otherwise.
“You walk around all puffed up just." Her words falttered then started again in a sullen tone. "Just cus you can become normal looking whenever you want to.”
Today had all the markings of a day from hell. Yesterday hadn’t been much better. All the world had simply bided it’s time until dumping on me at once.
Believing I were being conspired against had no point. I had to deal with what I knew. Jenn were mad at me, and we needed to talk about it. I sighed and decided waiting for her to spare me a bit of decency would take forever.
I turned around. On went the pants. Jenn said nothing. When I turned, my cheeks were a bit flushed but the cold air balanced that out. It weren’t most impressive display, but I’d skinny dipped with Lily. My head shook at the thought. This and that were different, no matter how much they were alike.
Jenn’d left me enough room on the log to sit. Wood shifted and squished under me. I waited to see if she’d say anything else, but not a peep came out of her. Only her ear twitched now and then.
I couldn’t figure out how to take that. Jenn were a girl, but some of her body language had been by the creature she’d become years ago. Flops weren’t rare, but they weren’t common about town. Most preferred solitude, or being hidden away in their human like dens. They tended to be of two minds about Felines. Some they liked a lot, others they hated and avoided like the plague. There were no in betweens.
The only real indication I had of her feelings, were Jenn’s wiliness to sit next to me. Her hands were tightly clasped and one foot bobbed from a quick patter. The neck muscles stayed tight as her eyes locked on the distance, past where I’d been standing, naked, a moment before.
Keeping a pen and paper were handy. I folded the sheet carefully until all the old nonsense were tucked away.
I’m sorry, the note said.
“Shouldn’t be mad. Not your fault Jenn is what she is. Is a man’s fault.” Her eyes darted around briefly. “It’s his fault. Dead old sad sack with his smelly butt hole.”
She were back to talking about herself like some distant creature to be studied. Coupled with her drudging up the past, well it annoyed me. I poked at her shoulder but got no reaction.
Down on the paper a new note went. Silver can cure you. With a finger I jabbed at the writing over and over until Jenn looked back to my pad. Her face twisted and nose wiggled.
“Silver’s a myth. No such thing. Only idiots believe in it.”
One slow finger pointed toward the distance mines. The fat mountain smiled back at us. A thick ring of red hung over it like a crown. The kind of devils hisself. He were surely laughing at my stupid attempts to find a cure to his plagues.
“There’s no silver anywhere Chase. None for you. None for me. Only dumb men expect anything beyond death and being thrown in.”
Where we’ll be chewed on.
That thought disgusted me. I half gagged then fought back the unease in my stomach. I remembered the first time I’d seen not-Harold in the other world. He’d chewed upon the flesh of the dead with a dozen other creatures that were somewhere between Delvers and Wildlings. Unbalanced bodies like someone had stitched mismatched grown men’s limbs on children.
We threw bodies into the heart every full moon. Were might well be sending him a meal.
“Jenn knows he’s dead. Knows. Doesn’t matter. I still see him in my dreams. Fat and disgusting. Grunting. I’d kill him a million times over if I could.”
What were it about people lately? I suspected it had to do something with me being mute. People simply filled the silence. Jenn didn’t have anyone to talk to but my momma and neither one had been at home for any length of time.
“Why were you going to go? There’s no reason. You’ve only got a few days left before they want you to go. Idiot Rangers and their dead.”
My body chilled. Jenn’s head tilted toward me slowly then bobbed back. She lifted a finger and tapped her long earrs.
“They work better than that scary Wan’s. He thinks he knows how to sneak around, but he’s nothing. All my marks. All the ones that foul,” Jenn stopped speaking and shook briefly. I sat there, afraid to reach out and touch her in comfort, but unwilling to go further away. “Jenn’s markings were all to make her quiet. To make her hide. Most Flops get the same. But Jenn’s dad wanted to keep her hidden away. So he asked for those marks.”
They carried over a bit of their power to her Flop body. I nodded. It fit with everything else I’d learned. When folks transformed into the other races, they got to keep some of what made them shift. I had my own marks from before the change. It made sense that somewhere under her rusty fur, she had some marks.
“What’d you expect to find?”
Jenn shorted. “Which one?”
She had more than one? Better still, Jenn seemed to know about them.
“No. Jenn doesn’t know nothing. She thinks.” She took a deep breath and shivered a toe to head shake. “I. I think all the time Chase. Not much else to do but think. That’s why everyone else is stupid. They don’t think. They run here. Run there. Don’t watch. Don’t look.”
My finger tapped on the question again.
“Makes sense for her to have a secret. A place to get answers that ain’t that siren. Not sure where she goes. Jenn.” She gulped and banged herself on the head abruptly. I put my hands up but Jenn pulled away. She swallowed again then continued, “I follow, and it’s like she becomes a ghost. I get tired. Fall asleep. Then she’s gone somewhere. Never happened before when I was watching her. Never.”
Momma did have secrets. In the few months since I’d become a Hound, I never bothered trying to follow her around. I’d been too caught up in my daily exercises and resting.
I should have paid attention sooner.
Regret were a useless rot that solved nothing. But thinking about what momma were keeping secret gave me another concern. Even if I did leave behind a sheet of questions for her to answer, who could say I’d get an ounce of truth out of her? Momma might tell me a lot, or confuse the situation even more by prattling on. I suspected that where normal folks couldn’t ramble on a sheet of paper, momma would find a way.
I didn’t know what else to do. Jenn turned mute as I were and showed no signs of leaving me alone to pursue scenting around for momma’s trail. Shifting to that dog form would likely make her feel even worse, or madder, or whatever nonsense got in a woman’s mind.
That were my real problem. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my own woes. Jenn had too many problems and I considered a win that she slept indoors now most nights. Momma were too busy trying to make up for lost time and not let me go the same way daddy had, which were silly since I’d already survived longer. Cassandra couldn’t be trusted completely. None of the Rangers could either. Derek were a twit in need of an elbow to the face. Kenneth promised to lend his good ear, but I still felt unsure about him since being thrown into the mountain.
I missed my friends. Lily had always made me feel at ease. Nervous as a butterfly, but without any other thoughts in my head but her. Greg had been a great guy. Full of energy that nothing seemed able to drain. An infectious smile and a way with people that I’d never understand in a million lifetimes.
Right as the sun dipped down the last inch, Jenn fell onto my shoulder and snored softly. I used an arm to steady her but kept my touch light. She flinched and groaned quietly but made no other move.
Who did Jenn have? Momma and me. Who did momma have? All the other gossips in town, but I doubted any of them were privy to these secrets. She professed to talking with Cassandra but I suspected they were guarded with each other. They’d certainly been standoffish up at the temple.
I thought of striking up a conversation with Neb Lincoln. My body jerked with a muffled laugh. Neb and I, friends. He’d tell me all about the others in his family, reminding me each time of their entire names. And I’d be unable to escape until he wore himself out. Tears streamed down my face, from exhaustion, mirth, or stress. I couldn’t rightly tell.
Mean as it may be, I felt like the lot of us were too busy staring at our noses to do anything useful. That’s what my last few months had been. Dwelling on inward crap while trying to get into what Rangers called “Useful shape”.
Ducky and Neb had it worse. They were out there shadowing real Rangers and working on the job daily. They patrolled Butcher Hills, the woods, Chandler’s Field, Wellbrook Mines, and everything else between.
I had a new job to do. Jenn needed time. Momma wanted to be asked questions. No thoughts I’d have now, in the dark, would give me an answer.
I lifted Jenn carefully and took her back inside. Into bed she went then I started penning a long letter to momma. Longer than any I’d ever written, with every question I dared ask and a mile more besides. Then, when I were sure that everyone else in the house were still asleep, I slipped out and stripped off my clothes. My head hung low and sleep pulled my eyelids downward, but I needed to get more answers.
The visions that came with changing were faint. Along the path I went on four legs, following a nearly dead scent of momma’s path. Up it went, toward Butcher Hills, away from Cassandra’s homestead. She’d come along this path multiple times. There were broken branches and crushed leaves. Those were signs that Obsidian had taught me to look for, in case my Heart Seeker failed.
Two hours brisk trotting away the scent of momma’s travel come to a cave. A single light flickered inside, waving back and forth in defiance of the wind. I stared at the bit of illuminated darkness and took slow careful sniffs of the air.
It smelled like rot. That and a hint of the berries that momma washed her skin with.
The candle lifted up. A barely illuminated creature held the light up toward the tunnel. Forty feet away or more, but too close for comfort. I backed up one paw at time. Fur stood on end. The creature in there looked less human than a Wildling, and it were chewing on a thick bone.
Is that Harold?
I brushed the idea off as a fool’s fancy. Harold still worked Wellbrook mine, and Delvers weren’t that tall. This couldn’t even be The Mountain that’d spoke to me earlier. That had to be something further away.
This were probably a wild man. A hermit of sorts that she’d come out to talk to. Or it might be someone that didn’t even know about momma’s travels. If her travels made Jenn fall asleep, it might make this person pass out as well.
What is momma doing here?
I didn’t have enough time to get it sorted. Cassandra and Tawny expected me to get leave by morning. I circled around the are a few times making sure I had a good idea of the landmarks. It wouldn’t do to come back here later and become confused like Jenn said she’d become.
Once I felt sure I could find the place come rain or shine, I trotted away. It were too late at night to risk venturing into that unknown. Momma had come this way more than once, she had her ways to stay alive. I couldn’t help but wonder if it had to do with her black wings, or learning from Cassandra, or daddy being a failed Hound.
More confusing still was that man that smelled of dead flesh. Either what he’d been eating were so rotten it stuck up the air, or a worse possibility.
Who was that?
I shook my tired head and walked the path home, double checking to make sure I’d followed the right scent. It seemed right, but I had no way to know for sure without asking. The concern of the man in the cave went onto the letter as well.
Momma had explaining to do.