The next few days passed without much fanfare. Simon and Douglas were there almost every afternoon. Sometimes we worked together, other times we went to different projects. There wer always The later shifts were colder but the line moved quickly. By the end of each night I had enough to afford the next night’s rent, food, and a drink. If I were lucky, I had a dollar or two left over, which I’d been saving to get momma and Jenn some food or clothes.
Truthfully, I could have made more hunting monsters all over Butcher Hills and turning in the inks and hearts to the refinery. I hadn’t known while working at Wellbrook exactly how much they paid for hearts. Though there were miles more danger involved in fighting beasts.
That’s one situation I noticed the most of. People here weren’t as afull of markings, except some of the workers. They were simply people. Felines stuck to the inner city, though there weren’t many. Flops I could see through walls in people’s backyards along the roads. Likely planting food to save the poorer areas a few bucks. Not a delver to be seen. Simon and Douglas hadn’t talked about the other races either.
As requested, I made myself obvious about town. Lots of wandering from one end to another, getting used to the sights and smells of a world different yet strange similar to the one I’d grown up in. The tall buildings startled me near every morning. The amount of people living under one roof at the inn were too many for me to deal with. I’d hear them through the walls doing anything and everything. Some nights they invaded my dreams.
Then there were Jewels. I could see her markings through the walls. Faint and blurry on account of all the walls, but still obvious enough to stand out. A distant balloon, fit to pop. She spent most mornings currently into a ball and holding still.
It worried me, but not enough to run down to her door and knock. Not even the need to touch a woman would drive me to banging on her door in the middle of the morning. I swallowed all my own worries and stayed sober the rest of the week.
I hadn’t managed to make it to Our Lady’s Piece while they were open. The hours in the window kept changing with each visit. Wan’s package might have to wait until I got better instructions out of him. Playing games with someone I didn’t know were a frustrating way to start each morning.
Come Friday evening, I were done and ready to go home. To sleep in my own bed, and see if Jenn and momma were alright. Though that also meant there should be a mile long letter full of explanations waiting for me.
We stood in line. Friday proved to be busier all around. Based on quiet mutterings from the others, it were because everyone sought a few extra dollars before the weekend rolled around. It sounded like it’d get even worse come the next of the month.
“Big plans for the weekend?” Simon asked.
I shook my head.
“Headed back home? Chandys or whatever?”
My head bobbed.
“Can’t believe anyone would want to move back to that hell hole. Too many monsters.”
Fingers rubbed together. Simon blinked a few times then shrugged. “To each their own.”
My motivation for money were pretty much established by the end of the week. A few workers recognized me, and while none of my my markings were for strength or stamina, they were
“I’ll be here all weekend. Need to get enough for a ticket up north to those rails. That’s where the real money will be. Then if I’m lucky, I learn how to run the trains. Imagine that, all day, going back and forth across the country. Waking up to a new town every day?”
Simon surely had wanderlust. In the week we’d been working together, he’d always mentioned going somewhere else. The minute a job were mentioned out of town, he perked up and asked questions.
“Monsters everywhere. And those guys that kill them. What do you call them?”
The weather were cold but having gloves on my hands helped with both the work and keeping myself warm. I fumbled anyway with the pencil and wrote out an answer.
“Insane, that’s what. Rangers? What kind of name is that. Might as well be Minions of God, or Cowboys. Could call themselves, what are they. Noble Knights? That’s what I’ve heard them be called back in the empire. Noble.”
Noble Knights sounded far better than Rangers. Rangers sounded like a stupid name for someone who hid in the trees watching people. Though, that weren’t exactly far from the truth. Wan and Ash did exactly that.
“Think a week or two and I’m going to move on. Maybe three.”
My eyes rolled.
Where, I wrote
Simon squinted at my note. The dwindling daylight made it harder to read but he’d been perfectly willing to try. I liked Simon. He didn’t care that I were mute. Didn’t care that he had to read a piece of paper to get my side of the conversation. He chatted a mile on his own.
“North! Weren’t you paying attention?”
I had been, but I wanted to irritate him a bit by pretending otherwise. Greggory Chandler had been fun that way too. Always willing to talk and drag others into his grand plans. Gregory had been a man with gravity. A pull.
Simon didn’t have that, but he were fun to listen to anyway.
“Do that for a month or two. Bet they don’t have union dues up there. Bet they don’t have people demanding protection money from the shops. What’s that one you keep visiting? I’ve seen you outside their door three times this week, but you never go on.”
I frowned briefly then shook it off. Simon likely got up and mossed around about the same time I did, and the store were between the docks and Golden Gun so chances were pretty high he’d venture by when I did.
Though I weren’t sure I put much stock in coincidence with this many people about town.
“Don’t like it here. Too lawless. The only time this place shapes up is when the military comes through and that’s only once or twice a month. This place will be hell come next week.”
Simon nervously shuffled his feet back and forth where we stood. The people in front of us glanced our way in unison but went back to their chatting.
Their sudden gaze made me think twice about Simon’s words. There had been talk all week between him and Douglas about groups to join and union dues. I hadn’t taken it to heart but maybe there were issues. Corso and his thugs, a group notorious to hear about back in Chandler’s Field, had a reputation for a reason.
“You guys with a union?” Simon asked.
“Jesse,” the younger said. The other man elbowed him in the side.
The pair in front of us were father and son. I didn’t want to stare but couldn’t help myself. They whispered to each other and smiled at jokes. He had to be about my age, and his father reminded me of my own daddy.
Douglas waved at us and came to our spot in the line. Someone grumped, which made Simon turn around and wave a hand. “It’s alright, he’s just talking. His spot’s back there by the man who think’s plaid is in fashion.”
Simon pointed back to a wall of folks wearing the same clothes.
“Thanks,” Douglas said dryly.
“No problem. Don’t want people to think you’re cutting.”
“Never,” he deadpanned in response.
I shook my head at their banter. Even if I never saw them after this weekend, I’d enjoyed the company in a new town. It helped to have a familiar face, especially people that weren’t annoying pricks like Ducky.
“Enjoyed your first week in Bell?” Douglas asked. He stared blankly at me. Douglas didn’t seem like the smiling sort. He were frank and detached from everything. “Been to see all the sights?”
Some, I wrote. The line were moving along still and if we were lucky, Simon would get a job in the next batch. One thing I’d learned, no one liked it when the line were skipped, not the workers, nor the employers. Once we were gone, Simon would have move to the back.
Simon waved. “There’s not much to see around here. Water. Boats. You want real piers, go to New York. Makes this place look like an outpost at the edge of the world.
“It pretty much is,” Douglas said.
“And all those wagons? I suppose there’s a lot of horse shit, and them Hell Steeds are something. Don’t get those back west.” Simon shook his head. “East I mean. Didn’t get enough sleep last night, had company over.”
I hadn’t gone to see the stables. Hell Steeds were one of the more common ink modified critters out there. People had tried with other beasts like sheep and pigs, hoping for some perfect livestock. Daddy had shared a story about how a neighbor tried to feed ink to pigs. He’d come back a week later to find one pig at all the others, half the fence, and broken loose. Calling the results disastrous were kind.
“Couldn’t get into the magical beasts. Though tales from the empire say they ride great big lizards. They call them dragons. Even got these little wings. Though I’d only seen them in second hand artwork. I’m going to go see the museums at Washington, get a glance of those original versions, see if they have wings there too or if that was just my friends pulling a great big joke on me.”
I missed my daddy’s stories. There’d been so much there that’d never quiet made sense. He’d probably been to the museums. He’d been back east for a summer and met momma there. Then they came back and settled down, had me.
“It’ll cost me at least fifty to get a train ticket up there. I could get on first class for one hundred and change. Get me a nice stewardess in one of those tight outfits. Or I could buy me a horse and go anywhere I want. Kind of funny that one ride costs the same as a horse.”
“People steal horses.”
“Suppose that’s true,” Simon said with a nod.
The longer I sat here in Bell Town, the more I realized I didn’t know a damned thing about my own family. Daddy had been all over Chandler’s Field. The mines, the hills, all over town. Everyone had known him but no one had told me about his real calling. To be half a Hound, like my granddaddy. Families were big to other folks around Chandler’s Field. I’d always been told mine were hard working, focused folks. The miners were like that. They’d liked him.
Out here, no one knew me. No one called me Widow Craig’s son.
The pair in front of us left. Simon stepped up to the front of the line. Almost immediately someone came by and grabbed him, then another person me, and on went the night. Manual labor in exchange for coin. I suspected the workload would die down eventually. Wellbrook’s workload ebbed as the month went on, then spiked again as everyone came back in.
Strangely, working the piers made me think of Kenneth. He were the pastor at a church outside of Chandler’s Field. I suspect he were also a head cleric of the temple up The Mountain, helping folks with returning their ink tainted dead to whence they came from.
This only reminded me of him because the full moon would be soon. Not this weekend but next. Based on my understanding, the dead should be returning soon. Which meant next week I’d likely need to keep my eyes out for anyone pilfering parts from the deceased in an attempt to get cheap ink.
That ink wouldn’t be processed as neatly. I knew from my own markings that the application process changed it, bound it somehow with the body. Though I hadn’t put much thought into my marks, the hot and cold sensations always lingered on opposite hands, weaving a path that connected at my heart. I kept them suppressed by way of the Hidden Soul marking on my back, which let me hide my own inks.
Hours passed. Night descended, and by the end I wanted a drink and to curl up in bed. Tomorrow I’d catch the wagon ride home and deal with whatever came next.
Douglas had marched off an hour ago with barely a wave. I wanted to say farewell to Simon, in case he took off over the weekend for better pastures. Next week might be harder if they were both gone, especially since I’d need to start getting up earlier and work morning shifts.
Simon’s pattern this week had been to work all night, grab a drink and gamble away some earnings. He weren’t anywhere obvious along the main piers. I continued down until reaching the edge of the docks, passed the workers gathering sign.
“Don’t know what you mean,” Simon said. His voice were barely above a whisper and sounded rough.
“Now, I’ve been over our accounts.”
The second voice I couldn’t place. They were firm but wobbly sounding. Muffled, like they were underwater.
“Paid in full, right?” Simon asked. A dull thudding sound echoed twice. “Or maybe not.”
I followed the sounds slowly, taking care to lighten my footsteps a bit. Obsidian had been a bastard, but he’d also taught me that it were all in how one’s foot were set down. My shoes weren’t as good as his custom made bits since they were leftovers from my mining days.
Sneaking around turned out to be pointless. Simon were downright cornered in an alley with crates piled high. There were three men surrounding him. None of them cared a whit about me. Based on the size and piles of markings on two of men, they were used to being left the hell alone.
A smart person would see their bare arms all inked up to high heaven and find a wiser path.
“You’re in arrears. Plus interest from two months ago.”
Simon’s head could be seen trying to find a clear path to escape. It bobbed up and down behind the other men like a fishing lure. “Can’t be behind. I’m sure I made a payment before I left.”
“Then it looks like our books have a disagreement, which means we’ve a problem.”
I stepped closer, keeping myself against a wall and using careful footsteps.
The walls of meat were burley. Markings all along their arms were crude but lent themselves to bursts of strength. They’d hit like freight trains and keep on going until the user ran out of steam. I couldn’t remember the downside, aside from frequent muscle tears. Self damage did me no good in the short term, and certainly couldn’t help Simon.
“No problems. Not with me boys. I’m just coming off the job now. Got a couple of dollars for you. I swear.”
The third thinner man did all the talking. He kept his hands pressed together and his head listed to one side. One of the markings on his forehead were for eyesight but the other one took me a moment. I felt fairly sure I’d seen it in Cassandra’s book. A brain in a book made of blue bits mixed with lots of gray. It should help with memory and filing away details.
His head rocked to the side. “Simple, Simple. You were warned about not having paid your taxes after the grace period.”
“I was going to pay,” Simon said. “That’s why I went to Chandys. I swear. Had to get a better job. Came back with ten bucks all told.”
The scrawny man snapped his fingers. His hired muscled reached out and grabbed Simon by the shirt and lifted him to the wall. Simon’s arms grasped along the wood behind him for a weapon or door. His knees jerked but didn’t last out.
The halted motion confused me.
Is he deliberately not fighting back?
It made sense. Fighting those walls of meat would probably make matters worse.
A hand clamped down my shoulder and sent a ripple of force through my body. A knee wobbled and threatened to give out. The person with a hand on my shoulder squeezed and pushed me forward.
My eyes tightened. I’d been so focused on studying their damn markings that I’d forgotten to check behind me. Of course they wouldn’t leave the entrance unguarded. For a moment, I debated trying to punch the man, but surely that’d leave me hurting. I hadn’t mastered using the leeching green that looked like stomach sickness yet, or it might be easier to recover.
Damn Obsidian’s exercises.
What image went with the green again? A swirling hole sucking down swamp water. Whatever swamp water were. I couldn’t think of something I’d never seen before, like Simon and his damn dragons.
“Who do we have here?”
I stared at Simon, blaming him for getting us into this trouble. Never mind it’d been my own damn fault for nosing around.
“I doubt that. He knows you. I can see it in my eyes.” He tapped at one of the markings I hadn’t fully identified. A pair of eyes with threads. Maybe that let him see which people were linked together somehow.
That made me nervous. Markings had too many functions. I needed to study the possibilities even more so I could have a better idea of what I were against from the jump.
“Just a coworker. Mister Chase.”
Scrawny looked back and forth between us slowly. His tilted head made me dizzy. Or the pressure on my neck and shoulder that felt like a giant held me in place. “A friend of yours?”
“Coworker. We’ve had a drink together. That’s all.”
“He’s inquisitive for a drinking buddy. Perhaps he can help you pay your debt?”
“Him? No way. He’s mute. Like Xavier. Needs every penny he earns. He doesn’t know anything about this. His grace period doesn’t end until next week. Right?”
The thin one kept his hands clasped and lifted them slightly. Ink on his neck flared briefly as the brain in the book glowed. I closed out the Watchful Eye and pretended not to notice.
“Is that true?” the thinner one asked.
I nodded slowly and without a clue what this grace period were, but it likely had to do with these dues and whatever Simon were in trouble for.
“And I thought you hardly knew him Mister Simon.”
“Hardly. We just met.”
“But you’ve got a fate together.”
A shiver raced up my backside and it weren’t from the man holding me. This unknown with the out of the way markings made my skin crawl.
Simon were trying to help. “No we don’t. Not at all.”
Thanks, but I don’t think it’ll matter.
I didn’t have time to write it out and they were set on doing me harm. It were in the eyes. Monsters in the mine had looked at me the same way. A strange mix between dispassionate and hungry that made it seem like I were simply a meal being served up.
“Well. I think Mister Chase needs to help you pay what you owe.”
His fingers snapped.
A walls of meat that had been cornering Simon walked toward me. Markings under their skin crawled with a series of dirty gray inks. He reached up to his neck, where an image of chains rested, pressed against it and the ink swam in an eager curl. One breathe later and he had a weaving pile of chain wrapped around his fingers and arm.
wHe strode toward me.
Simon had been wrong a few days ago. Making friends weren’t free. It came with a cost, and without a voice I couldn’t exactly explain that I wanted nothing to do with this nonsense.
“It’s simply a lesson Mister Chase,” the one in charge said.
I couldn’t back away. They were moving slowly though, giving me time to understand that my face were about to be beaten until momma didn’t recognize me. Only one of the thugs continued a slow approach. My eyes drifted to the chains. They were like the spirit animals, but a weapon. Hardwood had one, a gun. Ash had his stave's. I didn’t have anything of my own, and hadn’t realized a simple chain could be a weapon.
My own markings weren’t suited to battle without a weapon to channel through. A knife, a gun. I’d foolishly brought neither. They were back in my pack at the Golden Gun. It’d been stupid to think this forsaken town were safer simply because there were no monsters. I should have kept my knife in a boot. Now I knew.
In the time it took me to figure out an option and find a weapon, the man had strode over and had his handful of chains draped between his hands. It registered. They didn’t need to kill me. They needed me to learn my place.
They needed a show.
I had no such simple needs. They wanted to hurt me, and everything that had done so would be killed. Only Ducky had survived when I set my mind to kill something.
Where Simon hesitated, I couldn’t.
My foot lifted behind me. The man holding me tightened his legs. I pushed backwards and sent us falling backwards. He weren’t stupid. His hands came up to cover his face and as his large bulk quickly rolled out to one side.
I weren’t a complete idiot either.
He got up, but I moved quicker. Monsters from the mine had more tricks than humans.
The man who’d been holding me stood. The second one rushed past his friend with the chains holding both arms wide. A snark like marking shimmered under his clothes. That should be a grappling based marking that would squeeze the life out of me. I grabbed nearby crates and toppled them in his path while backing over his friend..
He stumbled into the pile of wood, shattering boards. Bone snapped as he fumbled wildly. The strength markings had worked against him but it’d be one down, if he didn’t have a way to recover quickly.
“Stupid,” the one with the brain in a book said.
I silently agreed.
Maybe it were being in the mine for ages, but part of me simply treated these guys as another form of monsters. I’d seen spiders with human faces on their bellies. I’d seen snakes that looked like sticks and dogs that blinked across distances to appear where least expected.
Subtly be damned. Spying were too hard. I grabbed the nearest object, a emptied sack and channeled fire into it. Images of Ducky’s snarling face as we tussled flooded my mind. Down the image went as flame jumped along the bag’s length, turning it to kindling. It weren’t as good as a blade but it’d work.
I tossed it at the man with broken bones then kicked at the one who’d first grabbed me. He pushed away from me writhing in the midst of broken boxes. The broken boness man screamed louder as his clothes caught fire. He rolled, screaming and clawing at his body. I grabbed a board and let the rage and Wilding Touch channel more burning.
Down I swung the kindling onto the man who’d held me. Metal clanked against my wood, shattering it. I’d ignored the first guy too long. He bellowed as his chain whipped out toward my face. I fell backward to get away but it caught my face, dragging metal across it at an angle.
Simon screamed. A solid thud filled the air.
“With each other. You idiots need to work with each other!” Their leader sighed heavily.
One were flailing with a sack of fire. The one with the chains were still standing, huffing and walking slowly. I realized his marking must somehow be slowing him down. He hadn’t been trying to intimidate me, he simply couldn’t move fast while using that marking.
His price were a speed reduction.
“Corso will have your heads.”
The remaining man looked at his boss. His partner I’d kneed and knocked over pushed me away using the same debris I’d been using.
I threw a my burning plank at the one with chains. His arms worked fine as he lashed out again, sending the aflame wood splintering across the alley.
So far, I’d only used the one mark. My others weren’t useful in this fight. Not even the Heart Seeker, which would only point out where my foes were.
I lifted up my gloved hands and got ready to grab at them. Simon slipped further back but stilled when the thugs leader eyed him. As I backed the other direction, my foot lashed out at one of the men, who’d somehow fallen again. Fighting monsters at Wellbrook had taught me plenty, but one fact stood above the others. Once an enemy were on the ground and weak, lettering them back up would be a foolish idea.
Their leader froze, almost literally. He glanced behind me. I couldn’t be sure it weren’t a trick and kept my eyes locked on the lot of them with all four men in plain sight. Even Simon were visible. He’d somehow managed to get on the far side of all this nonsense.
If we both ran now, we should get away cleanly. Him in his direction, I in mine, and these goons could stay here and rot.
“What? What the hell is going on here?” The new voice bounced off the walls down the alley.
All three thugs halted. Even the man who’s body were burning held still like his life depended upon being quiet more than putting out fires. It took me a moment to register it, but they were dripping with sweat that didn’t come from our quick scuffle.
I tensed and fumbled around for another weapon, resolving never to leave my knife behind again. Finding nothing, my back went to a wall trying to get a better view of the newcomer but I refused to let any of the foes out of my sight.
A new man had appeared at the mouth of the small alley. He leaned against a box, a blade in one hand, picking his teeth with a point sharper than daddy's. A smirk crossed his face despite the knife in his mouth. A second later, after looking proud we were all focused on him, he pushed upward and walked slowly across the twenty feet toward me.
He waved a hand back and forth like one of Poss’s fancy butler’s but with no food. “Who’s this?”
Behind him, Douglas stumbled into view. He wove an unsteady path and paused, staring at the mess of people in the alley. His head reeled back slowly as he also asked, “What’s going on?”
The man picking his teeth with a knife turned toward Douglas, his face scrunching into a ball of tight fury. “I didn’t ask for your opinion!”
His blade flashed, and almost immediately Douglas hit the ground at the alley’s mouth.
“Argh,” my coworker clutched his foot and whimpered.
“Shut up! If I want you’re opinion I’ll shove it up your ass like a puppet.”
I took a moment to realize Douglas’s food had been penned to the ground by the blade in our newcomers hands. My arms lifted, ready to fight or grapple with this new enemy, only there were a fresh weapon already prepared.
“Sir.” I shifted slightly to eye the man with his stupid brain in a book marking. He kept his hands together and bowed deeply toward the newcomer. “Corso sir. We were simply collecting our dues, as ordered.
My face drained of feeling and body slacked. The men I’d been fighting were Corso’s thugs and this were their leader. Said to be one of the most dangerous men in all of Bell Town.