Exit Strategy

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Deke’s sleep was restless and fitful. The book haunted his dreams, turning scenery to glyphs, people to paper. Deke tried to speak to them, though he was not sure whether he was attempting to seek help or provide it. It didn’t matter either way. When they responded, all he heard was the rustling of pages fluttering against each other.

Deke woke with the early light of dawn. From below him, he could hear the low conversation of Taylor and Father McCaig as the priest set out once more on his daily pilgrimage. Glancing over to the door, Deke saw that the chair he had placed near it to warn him when Taylor returned had not been moved. Taylor had given up even pretending to sleep.

Quietly, Deke withdrew the book from beneath his mattress. He cautiously opened it, halfway believing that when he did, he would be greeted again by blank pages, the words having evaporated in the night. Contain was still there, though, in all of its restrained power. Deke puzzled over the two pages of symbols he had written below it, but still could make no precise sense of them. They said the same thing as Contain, only more so—yet also less. They were less true than Contain, and therefore perhaps more acceptable to reality. They did not press on it the same as the pure glyphs did, tearing the fabric beneath their weight.

Beneath Deke, the front door of the boarding house opened and closed, and Father McCaig set out on his walk. Deke watched him go, noting how his once-tight cassock fluttered around him, how his previously round face was now jutting angles, cheekbone standing out beneath the thick leather eyepatch that hid his corruption.

Deke’s vision blurred slightly, and he rubbed his eyes, wincing as he did so. His skin was raw and painful where Porfirio had smeared the paste of Reveal upon it. Deke was usually fairly quick to heal, but something told him that this would be slow to recover. He flexed his right arm, feeling the muscles twinge from disuse. This town was taking its toll on him.

Taylor’s voice drifted up to him from below, the words distinct and pitched to carry. “I’m off to the mine. When that layabout pa of mine finally gets up, you tell him I plan to see him there tomorrow. Even if I have to drag him there myself!”

Clarinda laughed at this as if it were a joke, but Deke felt an involuntary shudder pass through him. He’d been threatened a thousand times in his life, and never before had he felt the stark inevitability of his fate. Always before he had had a plan, an escape route. For the first time in his life, he truly felt cornered.

That didn’t mean that he was going down without a fight, though. Deke waited until he heard Taylor leave, then rose and dressed for the day. He added several extra pencils to his saddlebags, carefully wrapping them in a thick oilcloth to keep them safe from damage. He nestled the book on top of them, packing it in tight with a rolled-up shirt. The other bag held his canteens and all the spare ammunition he had with him.

“Morning, Miz Blaumer!” Deke waved as he passed through the front hallway, saddlebags slung over his shoulder.

“No breakfast, Deke?”

“Believe I’ve about had my fill of porridge. If you’ve any sort of jerky or suchlike, though, I wouldn’t say no to having some of that to bring along.”

“Off to the mine?” Clarinda exited the kitchen with a small paper-wrapped package of dried meat, which Deke accepted with thanks.

“Silver’ll have to keep for one more day. I’ll be checking the snares today, seeing if my traps worked.”

“Good luck, Deke.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I believe I just might need it.”

Deke made his way out to the stables, the faint smell of rot once again assailing his nostrils as he opened the doors. His horse looked up expectantly as he entered, rubbing its nose against his shoulder and nudging at his hand.

“I know, Buce. I know. Not an apple to be found around these parts. It’s a damn shame, is what it is.”

Deke rambled on as he saddled the horse, promising it pastures and ponds and freedom. He led the horse outside and swung himself up onto its back.

“Thing is, we gotta go out into the sun one more time first. You know how it is. You ready?”

The horse snorted out a breath.

“Close enough. All right, gee up.”

Horse and man rode on into the rising sun, heading for the path that theoretically led to Contrition. Deke let the horse amble at his own pace. If all went well, they’d be in Contrition in just a few hours. And if it went poorly, he’d do well to have a fresh, strong horse beneath him.

The path was different, stranger than it had been just two days ago when Deke had last ventured out with Father McCaig. The rock walls loomed higher, forcing the path into narrower channels. The twists were more abrupt, the rocks sharper. Cerro Muerte was a worn-down sort of mountain, the edges long since rounded off by wind and rain and wagon wheels. These cliffs were newer, fresher, more threatening. Even the drops seemed steeper and longer than before.

Deke rode on, scanning the walls for the symbol he had seen before. Finally, they rounded a sharp corner to find it glaring down at them. Obey, demanded the rock, calling upon the strength of the mountain itself. Obey.

The horse slowed to a stop. Deke tore his eyes from the imposing glyph and drew the book from his saddlebag. He opened to the first blank page and readied his pencil as if preparing for battle.

“All right,” he said, eyes on the page. He took a deep breath. “Ready.”

Deke locked his eyes on the symbol and felt it sear into him. His body fought to kneel, but Deke resisted with every bit of willpower within him. He set pencil to paper and began to draw, smooth lines belying the titanic struggle going on within him. A lifetime of refusing the rules forced upon him strengthened his grip, steadied his hand, kept the pencil moving.

It took a moment, or it took a year, but it was done. Obey stood stark upon the page, and Deke’s pencil flew beneath it, sketching out line after line of unfamiliar symbols that explained it, empowered it, and bound it. He slumped over his horse’s neck when it was done, the book pinned beneath him, his heart hammering in his chest.

A voice rang out behind Deke, echoing off of the rocks.

“‘Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.’ That symbol was not yours to take, boyo.”

Deke turned slowly, looking back over the horse. Father McCaig stood at the turn, half-hidden by the rock wall. His gaunt form seemed to have stretched like the walls, and his single eye glowered accusingly at Deke. Shadows shifted menacingly behind him, suggesting that he was not alone.

“Father,” Deke said tiredly, “any chance I could get you to take it on faith that I’m doing right here?”

Father McCaig slowly shook his head. “Sorry I am to see it come to this, Deke. But I cannot let you lead my congregation astray.”

A hissing, chittering noise arose from behind the priest, echoing off the cliff walls. Deke slowly slid the book back into his saddlebag, easing his gun free of its holster even as he did so.

“You could just let me go, Father.”

“I wish I could do that, Deke. I truly do.”

Father McCaig raised both of his hands. The cacophony behind him crested and, with a howl, the twisted shapes of his congregation surged forth.

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