Book Learning

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The padre’s body toppled lifelessly to the ground, Reveal somehow still undamaged despite the blood gushing forth from the bullet hole in its center.

No emotion showed on Deke’s face as he watched the blackish blood soak into the dusty path. He holstered his gun, reached into the saddlebag and pulled out the book and a pencil. The gush of blood slowed to a trickle, and the lines of Reveal stood clearly amidst the wreckage of Father McCaig’s face.

“Hell of a task we got here, Buce,” said Deke, beginning to draw.

The sun had shifted measurably by the time Deke had committed Reveal to the book. The lines of unreadable explanatory text below it filled a half-dozen pages. They were less organized than the others had been; the notes for both Contain and Obey stayed in orderly lines, with clean and empty margins, but Reveal had glyphs full of small boxes cluttering the pages, pointing back to sections of the main paragraphs.

As Deke’s attention faded back in, he became aware of a soft hissing noise around him. He turned slowly, seeking out the source, but it seemed to come from all directions. It took him several seconds to realize that the sound was coming from the corpses of Father McCaig’s congregation, and almost a full minute to spot that they were slowly crumpling in on themselves.

Deke dismounted from Bucephalus and walked cautiously over to the nearest one, a furred ophidian creature the size of his horse. Sticking out his foot, he gave the body a tentative poke with his boot. To his disgust, the toe of his boot sank in easily, the fur falling away in tufts as if from a corpse long-dead.

Deke yanked his foot back. Through the hole it had made in the creature’s skin, he could see yellowed bones peering through gray, rotted strands of meat. The collapse continued beneath Deke’s fascinated, revolted eyes. Months of decay sped by in minutes, the whole process producing the gentle susurrus that had attracted his attention in the first place.

Bucephalus whickered behind him, and Deke tore his gaze away. “You’re right. Daylight’s burning and the devil’s on our tails.”

They set off at a comfortable pace, far slower than the frantic gallop that had brought them here but still faster than a walk. So it wasn’t long before Bucephalus trotted down a low ridge and turned a corner to reveal the distant buildings of Rosin’s Hollow, staring mockingly from where Contrition should have been.

Deke swore, emphatically and with feeling. He stared at the town, then back at the path, then over at the mine.

“What do you think, Buce? Want to just ride over there and get this over with?”

Bucephalus, long used to being the target of Deke’s monologues, just stood patiently.

“Bullet or two through his vitals oughta do for him like it did for the others. With luck, anyway. Which seems to be drying up right along with the food supply around here. Shoulda realized that that was all brought in from the outside on the regular. This ain’t the kind of place that makes luck.

“Don’t much matter, anyway. He gets put down, and then you and I what, ride around in a loop until we leave our bones down there with the padre? Not precisely the retirement I’m aiming to have.”

Bucephalus continued to wait. Deke cast a critical eye around at the mountain, then dismounted the horse.

“Last time I tried a thing like this, I just about didn’t make it back. So I’m not tying you up here just in case we hit a repeat. But if I come back down and you’ve run off on me, you can find your own damn way out of here. Hear me? And I’m taking this just in case.”

Deke withdrew the book from the saddlebag and waved it at the horse, who did not care. After a moment of considering how best to carry the book, Deke tucked it awkwardly into the back of his waistband and cinched his belt tight. It was uncomfortable but secure.

Ignoring the path entirely, Deke set out straight up the side of Cerro Muerte. The terrain wasn’t too bad at first, just a scramble over boulders, but soon enough Deke found himself at the foot of a pockmarked cliff.

“Well,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Let’s hope that the padre ain’t got no more congregation hanging around.”

So saying, he placed both hands on the wall, secured his grip and found his first foothold. Slowly and steadily, Deke began to climb.

Minutes slipped by, stretching out into an hour as Deke slowly progressed. The mountain was treacherous, and more than one handhold crumbled away as Deke tested his weight on it. The sun baked him, sending stinging sweat into his eyes. A gust of wind stole his hat and sent it tumbling off into the air. Deke, a hundred feet and more above the ground, made no move to catch it. He simply gritted his teeth and continued to climb.

Finally, he reached the top of the spire. It culminated in a tiny plateau, no more than a dozen feet across. Deke stood, shielding his eyes with his hand, and turned in a slow circle.

From here, he could see Rosin’s Hollow far below. He could see the path winding its way down the mountainside, and way down in the valley he imagined he could even see the tiny town of Contrition itself, the ordered squares of its streets standing out amid the windblown swirls of the surrounding desert.

Deke had hoped that the issue with the path would be clear from above, but from here the path looked just as it always had. It twisted and wound back on itself, but no more than any other mountain path did, and it clearly led downward and off of the mountain. No branches, no circles, no way to get lost.

Deke stared in frustration for a minute longer before getting out his knife.

“I didn’t want to do this,” he said to his distorted reflection in the blade. “Believe me, I did not.”

With a grimace, Deke put the point of the blade to the palm of his left hand and, very lightly, began to cut. He drew the outer sweep and the twisting lines of Reveal with the knife, his own blood welling up to define the rune. But he drew them backward, a perfect mirror image of the symbol in the book.

Unlike writing in the book, Reveal flowed easily here, happy to be free. Seconds after he had started, Deke was done. A bloody, backwards Reveal stared up at him from his hand. Deke frowned, steeled himself and pressed his palm firmly to his open left eye.

An explosion detonated in Deke’s head, staggering him. He dropped to one knee as his head swam and his balance tottered. The pain lasted only a second, though, and then Deke retook his feet and, right eye squeezed shut, took a second look at the world around him.

The path was twisted, shattered just as the sky had been. But where the emptiness of the night sky had made it impossible to discern the pattern, the path spelled it out clearly. Contain, it said, winding in, around and through itself, passing in impossible directions to spell out the glyph in miles of trail. Overlook was there, too, a sharp-angled aberration that was new to Deke and painful to look at. And one which said Erase was drawn there as well, completing the path’s ouroboran loop.

Deke took out the book and began to write, returning Overlook and Erase to the pages they had escaped from. As he drew them back, they lost their hold on the path, reality reasserting itself as their grip lessened. The path never moved, the scenery never changed, and yet somehow each time Deke looked it was closer to normal, to what it once had been.

The sun was starting to set by the time Deke closed the book again. His pencil, brand new that morning, was worn down to a nub. Deke tossed it away into the gathering darkness and tucked the book back into his waistband.

The mountainside was in full shadow, but Reveal still burned hot on Deke’s face, and his movements down were quick and sure. He descended far more rapidly than he had climbed, and soon found himself striding back toward Bucephalus, who was still patiently waiting.

“C’mon, Buce! We’re getting out of here.”

Deke started to swing himself up onto the horse, then stopped as he felt the thick lump of the book poking him in the spine. He pulled it out of his waistband and held it in both hands, staring into the stained circles on the cover.

“You’d like that, though, wouldn’t you? If I just carried you off out into the world. You wouldn’t mind that at all.”

Reasonably, the book gave no response. Deke stuffed it into a saddlebag and climbed onto the horse.

“Hell. Buce, we ain’t done here yet. Let’s go.”

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