Lights and sound spilled from the saloon, clear signs that the miners were home for the day. Deke grimaced, slowing his horse as he considered his options. Taylor’s cockiness still worried him, and he had no interest in running into him just yet.
Deke thought again about just turning tail and running. The path was open, he was sure of that. He could drop the book off of a cliff, leave it wedged in some forgotten crevice for the wind and sand to wear away. He’d cut his losses and be clear of this place.
It wasn’t an option he could take. Deke sighed and hitched his horse outside of the boarding house. Many men would have told themselves that it was a heroic act to stay. Deke knew himself better than that. He was staying because the situation here was so far out of his control that if he left, he’d spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, waiting for this to catch up to him. It was no fitting end to the life of carefully planned deceit he had led. Better to die here fighting than to live like a coward.
“Well,” Deke muttered, knocking the worst of the dirt off of his blood- and ichor-stained boots, “best of all to win, actually. Let’s see if we can’t keep that streak going.”
“Evening, Deke!” called Clarinda as he entered the boarding house. “Any luck with the—out! Out of my house this instant! What on earth have you been up to? Is that blood? What happened?”
She bustled toward him, making shooing motions with her hands, but Deke stood his ground.
“I’ll be honest, Miz Blaumer. It has not been the best day.”
“You can’t track that in here. Go wash up in the creek!”
“Miz Blaumer, you need to leave.”
“What? I certainly do not.”
“You’re out of line, Mr. Dambacher,” came a voice from the kitchen doorway. The speaker was a tall man, lounging casually against the frame. His clothes spoke of moderate wealth. His attitude was one of ownership.
“John Blaumer, I assume,” said Deke. His right hand moved slowly toward his gun.
“Assume?” Clarinda looked puzzled. “Deke, you know John.”
“Thing is, Miz Blaumer, I do not. John Blaumer died before I ever rode into town.”
“What? No, I—he…” Her confusion melted away as John crossed the room to stand behind her, placing a hand possessively on her shoulder. The glyph at her shoulder, visible only through Deke’s left eye, flared brightly, pulsing strongly enough for him to momentarily glimpse it even through her clothing. Desire.
“Don’t confuse my wife, Deke. She’s a simple creature.”
Deke drew his gun and fired, sending a bullet straight through John Blaumer’s face. Clarinda screamed. John smiled and patted her shoulder again, sending another pulse through Desire. She smiled at him happily, the moment forgotten.
“You see?” said John, tapping his undamaged head. “Father McCaig believed. He made things of flesh and bone, gave them life and solidity and freedom. Whereas Clary here merely wants.
“And in some respects, that’s very limiting. It’s no real life I’ve been given here. I’m tied to her, half a figment. But on the other hand—”
Suddenly he was in front of Deke, slapping the gun out of his hand. “—I don’t always have to respect all of the rules of reality, either. It’s a tradeoff.”
He punched Deke in the face, grabbed him by the collar and booted him toward the front door. Deke crashed shoulder-first into the door, knocking it open and stumbling outside to sprawl down the steps.
John was already there, kicking him in the ribs as he landed. Deke rolled with the blow, fetching up against Bucephalus’s feet. The horse snorted and stomped nervously as Deke grabbed the saddle to haul himself up.
“You can still run, Deke. Get on your horse and go. Give up your little collection, tuck tail and run.”
“Yeah?” Deke spat a glob of blood onto the street. “This collection?”
He withdrew the book from its saddlebag and held it up in front of him, opened to Contain. “Tell you what. Why don’t you come and take it.”
John gave him a grim smile. “You think I won’t?”
“I don’t see you doing it.” Deke advanced on him with the book.
John snarled, then vanished. Deke’s lips started to curl up in a smile, but before he could even finish the motion, a sharp blow struck him in the back of the head. He flinched, swinging out with the book, but John was already flickering out of sight again.
“Deke! John! What are you two doing?” Clarinda was silhouetted in the doorway, the rune a red brand in the shadow. Only the top of it was visible, but as she said John’s name, it glowed just a little brighter.
“Tell me about John Blaumer!” Deke shouted, tucked in on himself to avoid the erratic punches, book held in front of his face like a shield.
“You can’t turn her against me, Deke,” John hissed in his ear. “She made me. She Desires me.”
Clarinda’s mark glowed again as he said that, brightly enough for Deke to catch the outline once more. He swung a fist at John, missing as the man vanished again. “I know she does. In fact, I’m counting on it.”
To Clarinda, he yelled, “Tell me what you love about John!”
Deke scrabbled frantically in his saddlebag for a fresh pencil. Curling up to protect himself as best as he could, he opened the book to the first blank page and began to sketch the lines of Desire.
“Well, he…he’s tall, and handsome,” she began uncertainly. “He came from money, but not enough so he was conceited about it. He’s always been kind, strong and loving. He’s encouraging. He’s not afraid of risk or new things.”
Deke’s pencil danced through the jagged outer edges of Desire, inscribing them into the book. His body ached from the repeated punches and kicks, but he gritted his teeth and pressed on.
“Keep going,” Deke urged. “Tell me about when you were first married. Tell me a story about him.”
John changed his tactics and began to strike for Deke’s eye, quick sharp punches that Deke was forced to lean into and take on the forehead. His head began to throb and the vision in his right eye blurred, but the image seen through Reveal remained unwavering. Deke bent low over the book, peering over the edge to see and otherwise keeping his face behind its pages.
“John—oh! John’s favorite food,” she said, laughing. Her face lit up, and Desire glowed stronger than ever, its lines now standing out clearly through the fabric. “When we first got married, any time I asked him what he wanted to eat, his answer was always the same: potato cream soup. I believe the man would eat that three meals a day for life if I’d oblige. Such a simple thing, except that it turned out he wanted it a specific way, the way his nanny used to make it growing up. Of course, he had no clue how she’d done it, so I had to just keep trying different things until I got it right. I must have gone through an entire field of potatoes finding the right soup for him!
“But I remember the day I got it right. He tasted the soup, looked up at me and said, ‘Clary, you’ve done it.’ I was as proud as if I’d invented the idea of soup myself. Of course, then he didn’t want me to make anything else! I don’t think I’ll ever forget that recipe as long as I live.”
Deke’s hand traced impossible lines, drawing the center of the rune. John’s attacks increased in intensity as Clarinda recited the recipe.
“Celery, onions, potatoes and butter, seasoned and cooked down to a mush. Add the stock, simmer, sieve and clarify, then add hot cream and serve. I’d occasionally top it off with grated garlic or sometimes…”
The symbol flashed one final time and vanished from Clarinda’s body. The finished form stared up at Deke from the book. His pencil flew faster than before, filling the page with lines of explanatory symbols.
“…rat poison.” Clarinda’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, my poor Johnny.”
She slumped to the porch, sobbing. John cast a final, hate-filled look at Deke as he faded away. Deke’s hand cramped as his pencil raced across the page, desperate to finish its work.
Pages later, he was done. Deke got painfully to his feet, his entire body aching from the beating he had taken at the hands of John Blaumer. He reached out a hand to help Clarinda up from the ground, but she pushed him away and curled up on herself.
“Why would you make me remember that?” she asked. “I did what I had to do, and I’d do it no differently now. But forgetting was a blessing. Having him back this way, before things went bad, before he went sour, was a blessing. You’ve done no good for me today, Deke.”
“I did what I had to do as well, Miz Blaumer,” Deke said gently. “I’d do it no differently.”
She said nothing, and after an awkward moment, Deke added, “The path’s open. I’m aiming to take it in the morning, but I’ve got some work to do here yet. I think maybe you should go now. Take Bucephalus. He knows the route well enough. He’ll keep you safe on it tonight.”
Clarinda still said nothing. Another long moment passed, and finally Deke stepped off the porch, turned away from the lights of the town and headed out into the desert.