Clearing the Way

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Deke spat, half to clear the thick scent of the rot grubs from his mouth, and half in general disgust.

“Suppose this’s no different’n usual choices,” he muttered. “But it’s no fun knowing that someone already knows if you’re choosing right or wrong.”

He closed the book and tucked it away in his waistband again, opting for the clearer protection of the gun. The mine tunnel stretched away in two directions, intermittent lights keeping the dark at bay. Deke pondered which way to go. 

The book offered its suggestion with a faint pulse at his back. The glyph for Know loomed in his mind, barbed with teeth.

“Don’t think so,” said Deke. “You said it yourself: that ain’t a price I’m willing to pay. Got this far on my own. Guess I’m gonna keep pressin’ my luck.”

Deke opened the glass on the lantern before him and studied its flame for a few moments, noting which way it shivered. Though its movements were subtle, it indicated a slight wind from one direction, presumably the way out.

“Deeper in or to the surface?” Deke asked himself. Fleetingly, he missed the surety of his guided steps through Porfirio’s labyrinth. After a moment’s hesitation, though, he trusted to his instincts and headed toward the outside.

Deke was rewarded a short while later by the sound of voices in casual conversation. Gun in hand, he pressed himself against the wall, partially concealed by a support timber, and waited.

“…here?’ Say yes here,” came Ray’s rough tones.

“Yes?” Elmer’s voice, slightly questioning. Both men were drawing closer.

Ray continued: “‘Then by jabers!’ says the Irishman. ‘Put me on the scales!’”

Ray laughed long and loud at his own joke, the noise echoing off of the walls. Elmer joined in politely. The two men were still laughing when they rounded the corner. Their laughter died abruptly as they saw Deke, gun drawn, waiting for them.

“Deke,” said Ray. “‘Bout damn time you got here. You don’t look real ready to work, though. What’s with the piece?”

“Been a rough sort of day,” Deke told him.

Through his right eye, Ray looked normal: clothes worn but serviceable, a mild grime of rock dust from the mine, pickaxe carried over his shoulder. Elmer looked much the same, with the addition of a lantern and a helmet. Both looked wary, but not threatening or alarming in any way.

Deke’s left eye, still marked with Reveal, told a different story. The flames Deke had seen on Ray at the bar still wreathed his hands. They flickered and flared up restlessly, looking for something to burn. Down near Ray’s ankle, glowing dully beneath his thick work pants, was a light that Deke knew came from Contain, the symbol he had seen carved there earlier. A similar light shone from Elmer’s left arm, illuminating the fabric of his shirt from within.

Ray took a slight step to the side, subtly positioning himself so that Elmer was between him and Deke. “Well, you can see it’s just us, now. So lower the gun. We ain’t armed.”

“Got them axes,” Deke replied. “So I’ll just keep this up and we’ll all keep our distance.”

“What are you doing, Deke?” Elmer asked, his voice pitching higher than normal. “It’s us! Taylor’ll be along in a moment. You know us.”

“I do know you. I do,” Deke said reflectively. “But I don’t know about that thing you got carved onto you.”

Elmer flinched, left hand rising to brush his thumb against his shoulder. “What—what thing?”

“You got no poker face, Elmer. That symbol on your shoulder, beneath your shirt there.”

“How’d you know about that?”

“Ray told me.”

“Don’t you go pinning this on me!” Ray exploded. “I didn’t tell you nothing. And you’re a fine one to talk about symbols, with that thing creeping on your face. Reveal, ain’t it?”

Ray’s mouth contorted around the alien syllables, and for a moment the world rippled. The silver streak vanished from the mine walls, leaving scarred rock in its place before reappearing. Deke’s finger tightened on the trigger.

“I know what I’ve done, and what it’s cost me,” Deke said. “Say a word like that again and I’ll shoot you before you can finish it.”

Elmer shrank back against the wall. Ray followed him, making sure to keep the younger man between himself and Deke.

“C’mon, Deke,” Elmer pleaded. “It’s us. You ain’t gonna shoot us.”

“I don’t aim to. But there’s something I need you to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Take that symbol off of your arm.”

“I can’t, Deke! It’s not a come-off kinda thing. I carved it.”

Deke pulled his knife free from its sheath, never lowering the gun. He tossed it toward Elmer, letting it clatter onto the tunnel floor. “Then uncarve it.”

“You can’t be serious!”

“I’m dead serious.”

“Deke, I—” Elmer’s frightened eyes tracked the gun barrel as Deke shifted slightly to aim past Elmer’s shoulder.

“Ray,” Deke said evenly, “you’re gonna want to stop edging away.”

“I wasn’t!”

“Powerful glad to hear it. Musta been some kinda error in my sight. Either way, go ahead and add ‘sneaking off’ to the list of things that’ll get you shot right now. Elmer, pick up that knife.”

Slowly, Elmer placed the lantern and pickaxe on the ground and knelt to retrieve the knife. He stood back up, knife in hand and eyes on Deke.

“Deke, it ain’t doing no harm. It’s just letting us work better.”

“That’s as may be. But I’m clearing those symbols out of this town, and I can’t let you leave if you’re wearing one.”

Elmer rolled up his shirt sleeve. Contain glared out at Deke, written in bloody gouges.

“It’s cut deep, Deke. How’m I supposed to take it off?”

Deke motioned to the cuts in his shirt. “Breaking the lines’ll do it. But I want you to mar that up. I don’t want no one recreating it from what they can see.”

“There’s gotta be another way!”

“There is,” said Deke. “But neither one of us wants it.”

Elmer raised the knife with a shaking hand and placed the blade against his arm, flinching. He pressed down with the edge, dimpling his flesh, then stopped.

“Deke, I can’t. I can’t!”

“Oh, gimme the knife,” snarled Ray. He snatched it from Elmer’s hand. With quick, decisive cuts, he slashed the symbol beyond recognition.

Taylor wailed and crumpled to the ground, blood gushing from his arm. It spurted in great arterial gouts, splashing against the wall and pooling on the uneven floor. Ray and Deke both stared in shock.

“Step back,” Deke said, motioning with the gun. Ray took a halting step backward and Deke advanced, awkwardly tearing a strip from his already tattered shirt. He closed the distance toward Elmer in quick, decisive strides.

As Deke knelt to bandage the spurting wound, however, fire flared in his left eye. He whipped his head up to see Ray, fists blazing, swinging his pickaxe in a killing blow aimed straight at Deke’s head.

Deke pushed off of the wall into an ungainly somersault, the book digging into his back. The axe slammed into the floor, sending up chips of rock. Deke rose to his feet in time to see Ray rushing toward him, axe already swinging for another strike.

Deke stepped inside of the strike, pressed his gun against Ray’s chest and pulled the trigger. The report was deafening in the confined space.

The axe clattered against the far wall. Ray staggered backward, a look of disbelief on his face. A red stain bloomed on his shirt, cascading downward.

“You…you…” he began. Blood spattered onto his lips, forming a pink froth at the corners of his mouth. “I’ll kill you!”

He rushed at Deke again. Deke stepped backward, picked up Ray’s fallen pickaxe and swung it in a low arc, burying the point in Ray’s ankle.

Ray choked out half of a scream as his legs crumpled beneath him. He hit the ground heavily and lay still.

Deke wrenched the pickaxe free and knelt to examine the wound. His aim had been true; the gash was just off-center of the mark that had been Contain.

Deke stepped over Ray’s body and returned to Elmer, who was still moaning and clutching his arm. With swift moves, he wrapped the cloth bandage around Elmer’s upper arm and patted him gently on the shoulder.

“You’ll be all right, boy. You’re better off without that thing anyway, no matter how it feels now. Go home, get your wife and get out of here.”

Elmer made no reply, but the stern woman that Deke had seen before flared briefly into life in his left eye, standing over him. She shook her head solemnly, then vanished.

“I don’t even know what you are,” Deke told the air where she had been, “and I don’t much care. This boy’s getting to Contrition. And you, and whatever made you, are staying here.”

Deke resheathed his knife, adjusted the book and set off slowly down the tunnel.

“Taylor?” he called. “Just you and me now, son. Time to talk this out.”


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