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The paper were gone in the morning but Momma hadn’t left me an answer to any of my questions. I hadn’t expected them, not really. She’d still been dead asleep by the time it came for me to leave but must have gotten up to steal a glance at the words I’d spent time scrawling before passing back out. Meanwhile, I got dressed, packed myself clothes, and reminded myself of my goals.

First, get to Bell Town and find a job. Anywhere there with employment, but ideally something at the docks. Then I’d come home on the coach soon, hopefully in time to catch the new moon. Then I could go find Ducky’s daddy and see what secrets he might know. Meanwhile I’d practice using my Hidden Soul marking to obscure some markings at a time.

By the time I got to town, my tiny bag were filled to the brim. I had a sack with two changes of clothes, daddy’s gun, and a few other small supplies. There were enough money buried in the bottom to get me through the week plus Ranger Wan had shoved me a stuffed letter to hand over. He refused to pay me until I brought a receipt of some sort from the person he used for post.

Wan came and went quickly.

Tawny showed up a second later. He put one hand against a fencepost and huffed long tired breathes. His face were worn and skin pallid.

“Make sure to say nothing.” He swayed unsteadily. Tawny seemed a man who needed a month’s worth of sleep to catch up. “About any Ranger. About Cassandra. This first week has one goal only. You’re searching for a safer, better paying job, nothing more, nothing less. Anything that isn’t the mines.”

I nodded. He exhausted me simply standing there, but I’d also been carrying too many supplies. I hoped whatever marking Cassandra were cooking up came with strength as a side effect.

“If they ask about your time at Wellbrook, be honest. If they ask about the Ranger trials, tell them you failed on the full moon leg of the tests. Nothing more, nothing less. Anyone else who knows exactly what happened is smart enough to keep their mouths shut.”

I doubted that held true for Neb, but could have been wrong.

“Be careful with your markings. Especially the Heart Seeker. No one outside the Rangers has one of those.” He frowned the glanced to one side. His lips twisted with a brief snarl. “No one should. You see anyone there with a Heart Seeker, you be wary.” Briefly my vision flickered to see the marking on his chest. A skull face frowned then yawned.

I didn’t like that statement. The warning were appreciated, but the implications weren’t. Bell Town sounded more dangerous with every statement Tawny made.

“One week. That’s all. Come back with the supplies next week and go home. We’ll have someone find you. Me, Hardwood, Obsidian. Don’t trust anyone else to make your report. Not even Widow Craig.”

My eyebrow lifted and out came my scrape of paper.

Wan?

Tawny read the one word question and shook his head. “I know he’s got you running chores. That’s fine, no one should care about a man asked to deliver a letter. But keep yourself to yourself when you can. Obsidian should have taught you a bit about that.”

Wan also knew my goals from overhearing Cassandra talking. He’d probably been able to hear Tawny’s speech yesterday as well. My shoulders lifted in a shrug. That weren’t my problem to sort. I’d have time to ponder why they wanted to keep my momma out of the loop too. Likely because she and Cassandra didn’t see eye to eye.

“Next week,” Tawny repeated.

My head bobbed slowly.

Tawny’s thin lips puckered with distaste.

“Integration. That’s the word for your mission. Visit the docks. Watch a boat. Visit the whore house. I don’t care, but be seen exploring the town. Ask about work. Find a job.” He paused then huffed. “You remember the inn?”

Golden Gun.

Tawny nodded at my note. “Good. Rent a room for the week. They’ll demand it up front, their beds might have lice, but make they don’t charge more than two dollars a night and you’ll need to look poor. Which shouldn’t be hard, you will be. The best part is no one steals from the Golden Gun.”

I’d forgotten to take lodging into account. My money from working the mines had dried up. Momma and Jenn operated on a barter system for goods so had nothing to spare. I were set to go to another town a day’s ride away, full of strangers, while being flat broke. Then I’d have to hope to find employment to afford food. Life hadn’t prepared me to handle such a task so far from home. At least with the mine, Wellbrook had advertised and took anyone that wanted to work.

“Use a bank if you’ve need. Your mom’s name should help build a reference.”

Once again I nodded. Being mute made me feel like one of those dipping bird toys. A useless bobbing creature that had no brains.

“Worst case, stay healthy. Can’t have you kicking the bucket on us.”

I frowned then jotted down another note. Hound.

Tawny sighed heavily then yawned. After fighting back the exhaustion he shook his head.

Maybe it were my realization last night that I had no one to talk to. Maybe it were spilling out a wall of questions to momma in a letter. I dared an admission and scribbled a much longer message.

No idea what to do as a Hound.

He read it and nodded. “Not just you. Cassandra is fool enough to believe it’ll just come to you. That you’ll stumble across the secret because Hounds are special. They see stuff that we can’t. They hear things we can’t. But no one knows how that’ll work, and any of us that knew your grandfather, don’t know how he did his job either.”

Tawny stared directly at me. His body rocked unsteadily and he lifted an arm to poke my chest.

“What we know is that Hounds are dangerous, to everyone. They find stuff people want to be buried. They dig up secrets of The Mountain. Stories say they work ink in ways that normal people can’t. The fact that you’ve touched a heart that black and still can tie your own shoes is proof of it.” His shoulders lifted. “Cassandra says some of that’s from your line, and some from being a Hound.”

I crooked an eyebrow. They’d been talking about what I were behind my back. Of course.

Someone shouted further down the line. I glanced over and say a pile of wagons along with military guards standing by. There were other passengers throwing luggage into the back of a wagon.

“Dammit.” Tawny scratched his head. “No time to go into this. Leave it for next weekend. You’ve got to get going before they leave without you! You’ve got to arrive with this group or people might suspect you’re lying. Stick to public transportation.”

I couldn’t afford my own horse anyway. The fees to stable it would be too high. Unless I stumbled into a field of monsters to kill for the hearts and somehow got them to the refinery, I’d likely never be rich enough to afford a horse.

Tawny stepped away and headed toward the general store. I go onto the back of a wagon filled full with people and dreamed of having my own steed. Something that gave me elbow room and made it easier to carry a pack of supplies.

There were a few regular horses carrying our cart. The one ahead had Hell Steeds. They were stockier horses with hooves that could turn to small fire. Their eyes glowed in the dark and diet consisted of inked beasts. Hell Steeds were reserved for heavier loads or ones that needed protection.

That cart held tightly locked chests that contained piles of refined ink. Every week at least one wagon of magical tattoo reagents went out, if not more. Every week, food and anything else people ordered came on back. That were the lifeline between Chandler’s Field and Bell Town.

Military guards stared with dead eyes at our crammed cart. I shrugged. They were there to make sure we didn’t interfere with the shipment, but that were it. The wagon I’d found a space on were simply trailing behind their escort. It were safer for us to go with the calvary rather than brave a monster filled wilderness alone. I’d heard stories of people being ambushed between towns. Prayed upon by Saracon scouts and stray monsters from the mine. Other stories said that bandits lived out here, praying on those alone and leaving people with little more than their britches.

The cart ventured onward. Clomping hooves and low conversation filled the air. I concentrated on my Hidden Soul marking and let it cover up everything. Sound and smells dimmed as whatever made me a Hound were muffled.

Our first few miles were dull territory I’d seen before. The road out to the crossroads came and went. I sat up straighter, excited to see where this branch of the road went.

“Cards?” a man near me asked.

I shook my head.

“Your loss.” They turned away to find someone else for their game.

An hour later, amid the snores of other riders, I realized that this stretch of land were like every other one in the area. Boring and without much wildlife besides the birds. By high noon we were all sweating. The men next to me smelled rip even with my nose being dulled. There were signs of old camp fires a few yards out, where people had stopped to hunker down when it got too dark. Still the horses clomped onward. The Hell Steeds wouldn’t need an ounce of rest, and if we wanted to keep safe behind the soldiers, our horses couldn’t afford to linger behind.

Obsidian had been trying to force me to think and be prepared. I considered my weapons in the event of an attack. Three markings, that’s what I had, and something that made me transform into two beast shapes. One part human, one all dog. That one probably couldn’t be shown to simply anyone, Cassandra had told me that. What I couldn’t figure out, were how Cassandra expected a fourth marking to confuse Corso, or anyone with half a brain. They could ask anyone else on this wagon about the people that came in. Hiding would be impossible.

There’d been two stops for restroom breaks but otherwise everyone ate while on the wagon. Those brave enough got down, pissed in a bush, then ran to catch up. I caught up on my sleep in between abrupt dips in the road. By nightfall we still hadn’t reached town.

Further than I remember.

While I hadn’t been to Bell Town since little, there were surely enough people about to recognize my face. One of the girl’s who’d done the Ranger trials knew Ducky. Everyone in the county knew Neb Lincoln, by reputation if not by sight. Surely they’d know me too. Widow Craig’s son.

I replayed the terrible cover story in my head and wished they’d never told me about Corso or the dead bodies. It were easier to act ignorant if I really didn’t know. Not knowing had it’s flaws too, because I could have found myself in deep waters without a clue why. They’d told me because I needed to know what to watch for, but left it up to me on how to reach that goal. I suspected that if any Ranger had an actual solution, they would have applied it by now. That meant that they were banking on me being a Hound and somehow stumbling across the answer, or I were simply another set of eyes.

A sharp voice cut through the din. “Listen up!”

Dozens of riders turned toward the front of the wagon. Our driver waited until everyone stopped talking.

He nodded. “We’re a few hours away from Bell Town but the horses are overworked. I’ll be stopping up ahead. The soldiers are going to pull ahead with their delivery. Anyone worried about robbery should keep walking, but we’re safer in numbers.”

“What about those damned monsters?” the person who’d asked to play cards said.

“You new here?”

He nodded along with a few others.

“Alright, for those of you that were headed to Wellbrook but decided on the wiser path, you should know that monsters rarely make it out this far. Those that do are few and far between. Any you do see are tougher than normal so give them a wide birth and let soldiers solve it.”

“So we’re on our own?” the card player asked.

The driver’s eyes rolled.

“You paid for passage. You’ve had safe passage. You lot wore my horses out and they need to rest. If you’ve got to be to the whores before sunup, then run. Otherwise wait until we’ve a bit of rest. Got shit in the woods or have a meal, whatever does it for you, but we’re here until right after sundown. Then we’ll cover the last leg.”

His sharp tone managed to make the entire speech sound mechanical. I stared at him briefly then looked along the road. Faint lights could be seen far away. There were a lot more than I remembered, spread across the distance.

Even in the dark, I could tell that Bell Town were huge.

I’d sat enough. Going in on my own were fortitudes. There’d be no one to question where I’d arrived from. Given a choice I might even be able to lie and say I’d come from further down the river.

My stomach twisted at the thought. It hit me how hungry I were and waiting for the horses were no longer an option. I hopped off the back, nodded to the driver, and ambled off. He didn’t even wave.

A few others were already headed off ahead of me. I kept their feet in sight and pondered the next few steps. No one would believe me if I pretended to be from anywhere along the river. A liar I weren’t. I’d never even tried to be good at it. My parents had always known and called me out on fibbing. Knowing my luck I’d also get caught. If Corso were half as dangerous as they’d implied,azxed then I’d better not give them reason to doubt me.

If I even warranted attention in his mind. It seemed more likely I’d get attention from Corso’s thugs, a terrible name given to the collection of people under his control. I’d heard nothing but rumors about how they took a piece of protection money from everyone along the docks. Rumor had it they tried to steal from the government shipments when they went out.

Either they had more power than expected, or we were simply spread too thin. With an ongoing war against the Saracons it were likely we simply didn’t have the manpower. That cart in front of us had been worth thousands of dollars, if not more, and it’d been guarded by a handful of soldiers with weak markings.

“Hey!”

I turned briefly to eye the person shouting. The loose shirt and green bag were familiar from that long ride. The card player had followed me.

Great.

The city ahead of me loomed like a giant creature spread across the river. If The Mountain were a fat king lording over the residents of Chandler’s Field, then this place were it’s gateway to the rest of the world.

Braving the mine’s entrance took a moment every single trip. It hadn’t mattered how many times I’d gone down there. Going here, a place that were dangerous because of the people, would be as bad for different reasons.

It’d help to have someone to talk to.

My eyes rolled. I couldn’t stop thinking of myself as able to talk when needed.

“Hey!”

My pace slowed. The other man jogged up next to me. He smiled and I gave a fleeting grin back.

“You from the area?”

A shoulder lifted in a noncommittal answer. He sniffed then shrugged back.

“Guess it doesn’t matter. People coming and going every day for Wellbrook. That’s where I was.”

The man paused. My head dipped in a nod.

“From New York myself. Not upstate. No, parents come over on a boat for jobs, only to find that all the jobs there were taken too. So I came out here to find a place that had money, but I’ll be buggered before I take a job with all those damn monsters.”

I nodded again. Communicating like this were going to get tiring. In Chandler’s Field everyone had known I didn’t speak. Now I’d have to deal with ever new face being confused.

The man continued chattering nervously. I’d seen it before in new miners. The seasoned ones always acted like near death were normal, but the new folks were a wreck. I’d been one myself, but I’d also been numb after daddy’s passing.

“You feeling okay?” My head lulled to one side. He nodded then kept right on going. “Tired. I get that. I can leave you be if you want. Just figured it’d be easier to have company. Darkness, then thieves, or we’ll end up in the gullet of some hamster from hell. Like those horses. Jesus Wept, I’d never seen anything like that until I got across the Mississippi.”

There’s got to be a mark that will give me back my voice.

“Going a job lined up on the docks. They’ll pay a pretty penny to unload the boats and there’s always cargo moving. Though I’d moved on from that because those thugs came around asking for a share of my earnings. Figured it might be greener pastures up at Wellbrook, but that went out the window. Couldn’t even last a month up there. Can you believe it? Ther were miner’s that had been going down into that hell for years. Decades even. And the Delvers?”

He shuddered.

“Disgusting.”

That almost made me hate him. Part of me understood how people could find Delvers weird. They had bug eyes and thick limbs. Their funny words and obsession with song might drive some folks mad. I’d found it sort of comforting, until hearing a twisted reflection of their tunes.

Still need to talk to Harold.

There were miles to go. At the rate he walked, the wagon might catch up with us before we made it into town. I kept up Darkness Ward to see the ground easier. Lights in the distance were blurry. A giant wall ran north to south with torches every few yards.

“You don’t talk much, do you.”

My finger tapped on the throat. I opened my mouth and mouthed the word “mute”.

“Damn. Really? Used to know a kid back home. Poor black kid whose parents had hit him once too many times. He’d been cut up thought. Scars all up and down his neck. Kosh. That was the kid’s name. Could only make faces. Think he died.”

He chattered as much as momma. Apparently me being unable to talk made him want to speak more. He kept his bag huddled tight and stood too close. I couldn’t see any signs of ink on his body and felt fairly sure he were simply scared. I stepped away to keep arm’s length between us anyway. It’d be a poor showing of my duty as a Hound to get stabbed before even reaching Bell Town.

Momma would probably find a way to get some marking and yak my ear off in the afterlife too.

“Those horses though. My old man used to tell me about the dragons of the empire. Said they ate monsters for dinner and breathed fire. Thought that was a story until I saw them.”

He yammered on about the wild stories his daddy had told him and how they measured up to what he’d seen at Wellbrook. I half hoped for a horde of Dirt Rats to pop out of the soil and chew his leg off. There were none in sight as far as I could see, so I suffered his babble.

“Can’t believe people do that every day. Go down into that shit hole and act like it’s natural. I mean, we got some folks with tattoos back east, but nothing like here. Every thug in Bell Town is marked down to their assholes with one power or another. I heard that they get different marks based on what they do.”

I could see houses built outside the wall. They were mostly dimmed but a few had candles or some other light in the windows. There were hope in sight. After we got through one of the gates I could ask a guard where the Golden Gun inn were. Hopefully it’d be close because the day’s trip had left me mentally worn.

Obsidian would pitch a fit if I didn’t keep up my exercises but that could be done in a room.

Anyone who attacked us probably wouldn’t have any extra powers. People with guns were dangerous enough. I’d been in scraps in the mines but none of them were life and death. Not the ones against people. Monsters were something else entirely.

Neb and Ducky had an advantage there. They’d been training against the actual Rangers while handling their assigned areas. They’d both likely be a bit faster in a fight with people if it came to a brawl. I fingered the Wilding Touch and wondered how fast I could channel fire into the weapon and stab someone, if I really had to. Monsters were easier. They looked nothing like people.

Stabbing or shooting people took an edge I didn’t know if I had.

I couldn’t imagine myself stabbing a person in the face. Shooting them with intent to kill.

“You ever worked up there?”

My head bobbed.

“Man. So you couldn’t take it either? All those monsters crawling around day and night. Thought it was a story but then I saw them swarming about on a full moon. Was in the refinery. I guess? That place is like a fortress and I could see why. Creatures of all sorts crawling up the sides. Those Ranger folks shooting them down. Then they tell me dead go up on the other side, all peaceful as can be. What the hell kind of place is that?”

He shivered again then put his bag strap over the other shoulder.

“They gave me an ax. An ax! Like that would be the key to surviving. Got jumped by my first beast. Huddled in the infirmary for a day then went to get a ride back to town. Candy Field?” My head shook. “Shindlers?” I shook my head again. “Sorry. Been to so many towns this last year searching for work. Well, whatever it was, they wouldn’t let me go because I’d been wounded before the full moon. I spent nights up there watching those beasts outside. Saw one with a man’s face on a pig’s body.” He shuddered again and I frowned slight. “You don’t understand. It was eating the others!”

Monsters eating each other were normal for The Mountain. They’d eat anything living, including each other. Obsidian had taught me that they did that to grow stronger. It let them concentrate more ink into one body. Strangely, Hell Steeds were much the same, normal horses fed a bit at a time until they were put down for being too dangerous. Then those bits would be fed to other Hell Steeds. Their cycle of life had been twisted beyond recognition just so we wouldn’t have to pull our own carts.

“Maybe you’re used to it. You look like a local.”

He had maybe a year or two on me tops. I gathered he’d been all over searching for work but it sounded like he simply couldn’t hack a real job. I’d toughed it out in the mines. I’d probably still be there if it weren’t for how sideways the venture to become a Ranger had gone. I could have lived out of my life as a worker for Wellbrook until one day I became a Delver, or died to a monster that escaped the Ranger’s lunar purges.

The card player continued talk despite my stray thought process. “Did dishes for a week just to afford food and a place to sleep, got enough saved up and I’ll find a better job here in Bell Town. At least they’ve got girls. Right?”

I’d heard that from more than one source over the years. Bell Town had three things, and they were the only things anyone found worh talking about. Whores, thugs, and a way out to the rest of the country. Momma had spoken the ocean once. I didn’t know what a sea looked like. It could have been like the pond that Lily, Greg, and I had gone dipping in. It sounded bigger.

“We made it!” he shouted. “Goodnight sir. Good luck finding a job. Unless it’s one I want, then you know.” The other man shrugged then ran off. I stared as he practically fled toward the city.

We’d made it faster than expected. He’d filled my head with useless drivel about stuff I already knew, but maybe to a traveler from the coast all this were new. The guards at the gate didn’t bat an eyelash. They got a name, wrote it down in some log, then waved him in without an ounce of worry. I didn’t know what they should be worried about but a wall that big and long around the main parts of the city implied a sense of fear. No one built a wall unless they needed to keep someone out.

My lips tightened.

Whores, thugs, and escape. A proper den of inequity with a wall around it to keep the real dangers outside. And I needed a job there to blend in.

A Hound on the river. Chase Craig, Widow’s son. Ranger washout.

They’d call me a coward for turning away from the mines to find work. They’d be wrong but I couldn’t even raise voice in my own defense.

Assuming anyone gave two shits about another drifter coming into town for a buck. If the man who’d ran ahead of me were to judge by, Bell Town had it’s share of people simply passing through for a week or two. I had to believe I’d blend in. Though God, if there were such a man sitting up there on a cloud somewhere, likely had plans to the contrary.

Tawny had implied Hounds stumbled into trouble.

I thought back to that strange vision. Golden winged birds, angels as I thought of them, circled around to create the first Hound. That implied a sort of higher power had a hand in making whatever I were. Momma thought that’d been wrong because Hound’s barked. It were strange to think of her as right on that front, even stranger to realize that Obsidian had agreed. Images and names meant something.

My thoughts kept me entertained on the approach to town. One of the guards stepped in front of me, hand on his gun holster.

“Business or pleasure?”

I reached for a pad of paper. The man reached for his gun faster and pulled it out.

“Careful,” he said slowly while lifting the weapon slightly.

My forehead wrinkled in confusion. That other person hadn’t been greeted with any sort of aggression.

I put up a hand and tapped at my throat.

“Cat got your tongue?” the other guard asked.

That were close enough. I nodded.

“Ain’t seen a mute in a while. Except that Xavier. You know Xavier?”

My lips pursed slowly then straightened. The assumption that I’d know another mute simply because I couldn’t speak had to be one of the stupidest I’d ever heard. That were like assuming all Flops knew each other.

“Well?”

I shook my head.

“He’s fresh from Chandeys Field.”

A man ran up next to me. The same person who’d charged ahead to get into town without nary a thought. His bag slipped to the ground. He huffed unsteadily but managed to gasp, “I came with him,” while waving his face.

“Chandler’s? Oh, is it that time already? You should have said so.” The first guard almost smiled as he holstered his gun.

His companion’s eyes rolled. He took down a book that hang by the wall. A poor pen were inside. I could see a flash of purple mixed with green inside. They swirled unsteadily against each other.

“Got a name for the registry? We mark everyone down who comes in and leaves.”

An eyebrow lifted. No one had ever cared enough to do that at Chandler’s Field. Maybe no one had ever asked me because I’d lived in town my whole life. Everyone knew me by sight if not by name and reputation.

“Your friend got a name?” the first guard asked the card player.

I pointed at the pen. The guard handed it over without a concern.

Chase, I penned.

The man in front of me must have stopped too. The name right above mine said Simon.

The second guard turned to Simon and nodded. “Alright Simple, you and your friend need to get out of the way. You here means we got wagon load coming through with the soldiers and lord knows this gateway’s crowded as hell come daylight.”

Simon threw an arm over my shoulders and pulled me along through the gateway and I got my first glimpse of Bell Town proper in years.

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Jokeradk @Jokeradk ago

 Ah an new chapter and now, the beginning  of the new arc?

l nimbus @l nimbus ago

Thanks fo da chap. Loved it.

Also, review has been delivered, as promised.

Whaddya think of it?

    Author

    FrustratedEgo @FrustratedEgo ago

    Read through it - glad the characters achieved their goals. I've been told one of the things I"m good at is making people get right in the boots of the main character - so it's nice to see that holds true even on a new series. APparently it means the parts that drag to the character, drag to the reader, and so on.

    If you have any spots or specific confusion points, please let me know.

    There'll be more typos as this goes on since my wife isn't caught up proof reading. She's focusing on another series I'll start releasing by the name of Lairs Called - but I'm hoping to do at least 1 release a week on this fiction until completion...dunno where that's at. At least 3 books are plotted with an unknown end.

Jokeradk @Jokeradk ago

finally the review is complete, good luck for the ranking author