Aftermath

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Cora Everill was halfway to the path out of town when the explosion belched forth from the Cerro Muerte mine. A shockwave rippled the ground beneath her feet, causing her to stumble into Elmer. He gritted his teeth in pain but made no complaint, simply steadying her as they both looked back at the mine. An enormous plume of rock dust had been flung into the air and was slowly drifting toward them.

“You think Deke made it out?” Cora asked.

“Darlin’, I don’t even know if we’ve made it out yet. C’mon, we gotta go.” He tugged at her arm.

“Easy for you to say! I’m the one carrying half our house here.” Cora sniffed. “Not quite the carriage and dresses you promised me, Elmer.”

“I’d carry it if I could. You know that. I’d carry you. But I’m barely walking right now, and even that’s only because I’m more afraid of what’s behind us than I am of falling off of this mountain.

“You can drop the pack if you want to. It’s just stuff. As long as you and me get out, we’ll be okay.”

“Aw, Elmer. It ain’t that bad. I’m just complaining.”

“Once we get to Contrition, I’ll find some kinda work and we’ll get back on our feet. There’ll be dresses for you yet, Cora. You’ll see.”

“Elmer, we still owe the bank—”

“Doesn’t matter! So long as we got each other, we’ll work it out.”

Cora cast another look back at the town. “Are we…are we really the only ones left?”

“Yeah, I think so. Weren’t that many of us to begin with. I saw Deke shoot Ray down, and I know Deke and Taylor were in the mine when I left. Ain’t seen Porfirio in days, and I couldn’t rouse neither Miz Blaumer nor Father McCaig when I shouted. All three of them could be out ahead of us, I suppose.” Elmer didn’t sound particularly hopeful.

“Elmer, look! Someone’s coming from the mine!”

“Cora, get down!” Elmer hissed, but they’d already been spotted. The distant figure broke into a slow trot, quickly covering the ground toward them. As the space between them closed, they recognized Deke. He was shirtless, bleeding and filthy, but he had a smile on his face.

“Elmer! Cora! Ain’t you both a sight for sore eyes?”

“Deke!” exclaimed Cora. “What happened?”

“Bit of a long story, that. But short version is that everything got fixed.”

“And the mine?”

“Mine’s staying closed. For a good long while.”

“Shame about the silver,” Cora sighed. “That woulda been nice.”

“Deke,” Elmer asked. “How’d you make it out?”

“More poorly than I’da liked. Charge went off sooner’n I expected, and I woke up to find myself lying outside, chucked out with the rest of the rubble. But I’m walking away from it, so I’ll count it as a success.”

“Did you find Taylor?”

“Not precisely,” Deke said. “But close enough.”

“Deke,” Cora said again. “What happened?”

Deke sighed. “I’ll tell you as best as I can. You got a spare shirt that might fit me in there? We got a long walk to Contrition.”


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Confrontation

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Talk this out, out, out, echoed the mine, bouncing Deke’s voice back at him. Deke advanced slowly, eyeing every shadow suspiciously. The tunnel was surprisingly well-lit, but even so, every timber concealed pools of darkness, and the rough-edged walls seemed to crawl with strange shapes.

Up ahead, the tunnel appeared to end. Deke approached it to make sure that there was no passageway concealed by a shadow, no small crawlspace to exit through, but the wall was solid. The silver veins were most prominent here, spidering out in thick, grasping fingers, and it took Deke a minute to realize that he had been to this part of the mine before. It was different now than it had been; one wall had been reshaped, blown out by dynamite, and the silver had not previously been visible. Or perhaps simply not present.

This was the hallway where he had buried Taylor. Back when things stayed dead.

“Too convenient a set piece by half, son,” Deke said, his voice pitched to carry. “If you ain’t here, I’m disappointed in you. Thought you knew how to put on a better show than that.”

“Tap, tap, tap on the glass, little scorpion,” came Taylor’s voice, apparently from nowhere. “Discovered yet that there’s no way out?”

Deke turned slowly, gun drawn, looking for the source. All he saw were blank walls and bare timbers. “Believe I found a couple, actually. Just decidin’ which one I like better.”

Fetch,” said Taylor, the tormented syllables crawling over each other. There was a rustle at Deke’s back, and then the book was gone, snatched away by unseen hands. Taylor’s laughter rang out, pealing through the rocky corridor.

“You think you’ve been tricking me? Escaping me? You think anything you’ve done with this book has been a surprise to me?”

As Taylor spoke, his voice slowly ceased coming from everywhere and focused in on a single point. It was coming from one of the walls. With cautious steps, Deke approached the source and discovered a narrow crevice, barely wide enough to fit an arm through. It was pitch-black inside, but the echo in Taylor’s voice suggested a chamber of at least moderate size lay beyond.

“You never got it, Pa,” Taylor said mockingly. “You never had a chance. Let me show you what you misunderstood. Light.”

The crevice flared with an unpleasant glow as a cold fire lit the rocks inside. It revealed a hidden room, a chamber with smoothed walls and intricately carved symbols set into a large circle on the floor. The symbols surrounded a tall stone chair, itself marked with more runes. Scattered bones littered the seat and the floor around it. It was a place of power and beauty, deeply at odds with the rough-hewn walls of the mine in which Deke stood.

Taylor lounged against the far wall, the book held loosely in his hands. He grinned. “What you—”

“No speeches,” said Deke, and shot him through the heart.

No blood spilled. Taylor laughed, brushing at the hole in his shirt. “Look with your good eye, old man. With my eye.”

Taylor tapped his left eye. Deke reluctantly shifted, moving so that his left eye, still painted with Reveal, had a clear view through the crevice.

The chamber was alive. Every rune etched into the floor was a razor waiting to spring forth, each a deadly seed ready to blossom. They were deadly but dormant, yearning for a source of power.

Chains hung from the ceiling and draped the stone seat, brittle and broken. The seat glowed with a fractured power, drawing a thin current from the bones that lay around it. The bones themselves were etched like coral, chewed through with holes that hurt to look at for too long.

And at the back of it all stood Taylor, grinning and triumphant. His body whispered as he shifted position, paper against paper, pages sliding past each other. He turned slowly, arms outspread, showing off for Deke. From every angle, he was nothing but paper, a book viewed edge-on. The pages shifted constantly, rings of paper flowing forever into each other, an endless progression of subduction and renewal.

From all over Taylor’s body, riding restlessly on the shifting tides of paper, runes glowed darkly. Harm. Alter. Wealth. Fly. Command. Sight. Power. Consume. Release.

Word after word, dozens of them, nouns and verbs in that forgotten, terrible language. All jostling for place. All demanding that Deke see them, speak them, know them.

“Do you get it now, Deke?” Taylor asked. “I am the book.”

The book in Taylor’s hands fluttered open. The runes that Deke had so painfully ripped from the world and pressed back into its pages sprang forth, leaping from the page to join their brethren on Taylor’s body. They nestled into place, taunting Deke with the ease with which they moved.

“You never had a chance,” Taylor told him. “I always held all the cards. I wrote the rules. Hell, I invented the game.”

Deke smiled, his mind racing. “You made a mistake.”

Out of Taylor’s view, Deke drew his knife firmly across his right palm, drawing forth a rush of blood. He gripped his gun tightly, letting the blood flow over it. One shot left. One final chance.

“What mistake was that?” asked Taylor mockingly. His pose oozed confidence. The runes strained against his body, eager to be unleashed on the world. Deke shifted to focus through his right eye, blocking out the distractions of Reveal. He breathed deeply, calmly, focusing.

“You wrote the rules.”

“And?”

“There’s never been a rule I couldn’t find a way around.” Deke fired.

Obey, barked the gun, in blood and fire. It hurled its tiny lead missile through the small crevice and across the chamber faster than the eye could follow. With unerring precision, it struck true—directly in the center of bottom-most ring stamped into the book’s leather cover.

Taylor screamed, a cry of pure agony. The blood that had not flowed when Deke shot him now spurted from the book, gushing forth in a rich red wave. Taylor clutched at the wound, fingers vainly attempting to hold back the tide. He fell to his knees and dropped the book to the floor, leaning both hands on its cover to increase the pressure.

For a moment, it seemed to work. The blood stopped. Taylor looked up with a shaky snarl.

“Nice effort, but—”

Taylor faltered, his voice rasping. He turned away from Deke to look down at his own hands, which were now leathery and skeletal against the book’s cover. Taylor tried to sit up, to pull away, but the book held fast to its prize as the dessication spread up Taylor’s arms and into his chest.

It moved with astonishing rapidity. Within seconds, Taylor was nothing more than a dried-up corpse slumped over the book, looking as though he had been left to dry in the desert air for a hundred years. His body clattered to the ground, bones rattling loudly inside the shriveled skin. On the floor sat the book, unbloodied and pristine.

Deke regarded the book balefully. It stared back, its interlocked rings unblinking. Deke’s left eye showed that the runes were gone from Taylor’s body, presumably reabsorbed into the book. The carved symbols on the floor yearned for the book, desperate to touch it, to taste it, to drain it and keep it forever.

But the spectral chains visible through Reveal still hung broken and useless. The stone chair still dripped its power uselessly into the air around it. The prison was smashed, unusable. The book had built itself an escape once. It would do so again.

“But you made the rules,” said Deke. “And I can bind you with them.”

A wrist-thick vein of silver ran along the wall just beside the crevice. With his knife, Deke scratched the lines of a symbol into its shiny, ragged surface. The knife skittered on the uneven rock, but Deke knew this symbol perfectly. He had walked in it for hours, days, a timeless, eternal period. He had traced the path it had written in the blood of Ol’ Sal and of Porfirio. It was the only symbol in the book with no lines of text beneath it, where the title itself was the entire explanation. With careful, controlled marks, Deke scratched out Know.

“Still wondering whether this is my path or Porfirio’s?” the grey-suited man had asked, sitting next to Deke. It had been a pleasant summer’s day, and the two had been fishing from a rough wooden bench by the pond. Swift silver fish darted through the cloudy waters, bright scales flashing in the sun. A metal pail sat at their feet, the fish they had already caught swimming in slow circles within it. The fish in the pail were all black, Deke remembered.

“Not enough to ask,” Deke had replied. “You said I wouldn’t like the price. I took you at your word.”

“Ah yes. We are men of our word. Such as it is.”

Deke had said nothing. The grey-suited man glanced at him in amusement. “So if not that, then what is it you need?”

“I need to know how to put the book back in its cage.”

“A sizable request!”

“Can you do it?”

“I know how to, yes.” The grey-suited man had slipped a hand into the pail and pulled out a wriggling black fish the length of his forearm. “But this is quite a catch. What can you offer me in return?”

Deke recalled staring out at the lake, at the half-glimpsed fish swimming lazily through its waters. His fishing line dangled among them, its bait ignored.

“I could pick for you,” the man had suggested.

“Thank you, no.” Deke thought for another long moment. His rod dipped as the line pulled taut. Standing, he began to reel in his catch. The fish jumped and thrashed, breaking the surface of the water. It was large and fought hard, but Deke steadily reeled it in, inch by inch, until the fish dangled loosely from his hand. He held out the line to the grey-suited man.

“I’ll offer you this,” Deke had said. “Lessons learned from Cerro Muerte.”

The man grinned, sharp teeth showing. “Really. All of them?”

“All lessons, yeah. The good and the ill. Everything I should have taken away from this. The memories are mine. What I’ve learned is yours.”

“That’s a big offer.”

“Then make it worth my while. Give me what I need to seal this book away.”

“A deal,” said the grey-suited man. He carelessly tossed the black fish in his hand into the lake, where it vanished with a splash. Then, seizing the fish Deke had caught, he had fallen upon it like a starving animal. Silver scales flew. Pink flesh tore. The man buried his face in the writhing fish, crunching through its bones and eating its raw flesh even as it died.

Deke stared at the thin lines of Know. No time had passed. The conversation with the grey-suited man felt like no more than a memory that he had just happened to recall, but along with it Deke now knew exactly how the book had been sealed away before. It felt like he had always known that. Only the presence of the symbol scratched into the wall assured him of the price he had paid to receive this knowledge.

With sure strides, Deke set off back the way he had come, heading down the tunnel to where he had left Ray’s corpse. He retrieved the bloody pickaxe, giving the body a final kick for good measure, and returned to Taylor and the book.

A few minutes’ hard work with the pickaxe widened the hallway crevice into a hole large enough to crawl through. Deke clambered inside and set to work arranging things as he knew they should be.

He collected all of the bones from the chair and set them carefully aside, making sure that he retrieved every tooth, chip and fragment. He took off his tattered shirt and used it to sweep the chair and circle free of dirt, then placed the torn cloth on the stone seat. He regretfully removed his gun from its holster, rubbing his thumb over the glyph he had etched into the barrel. The gun had served him well, but it had to stay here. He placed it gently atop the shirt.

Next he lifted Taylor’s withered corpse from the floor. It was feather-light, drained of all vitality. Deke set it lightly on the seat and addressed it.

“Didn’t have to be this way, boy. You coulda just listened.”

Deke turned to the book. As he picked it up, it occurred to him that he didn’t have to bury it here. He could take it with him, and now that it was fully back in itself, he would be in sole control of its power. There would be no risk of it running wild like it had done here. He would be able to use it as he saw fit. All it would take was the desire, the will and a small drop of blood to bind it to him. To bind himself to it. Simple. Easy. Powerful. Permanent.

Deke placed the book firmly in Taylor’s lap and wrapped the corpse’s bony hands around it.

“I may have given up the lessons learned here,” he told the book, “but I’ve been able to spot a sucker’s game like that since long before.”

Deke carefully wiped the dried blood of Reveal from his eye. His vision burned and blurred, but Deke ignored it and wiped his hand on the arm of Taylor’s shirt.

“That’s the last of it, then. Time to seal you in.”

Deke crawled back through the hole, dusted himself off and trotted up toward the front of the mine. In the necrotic glow of the chamber, everything was still. The book was silent. The air did not move. Yet slowly, painfully, Taylor’s left index finger began to slowly peel away from the book. Minutes passed, and it was joined by the next finger, then the next. The hand slowly drooped downward, releasing its hold on the book.

The hand was clinging on by barely a pinky, and the right forefinger was beginning to slowly slide away when Deke thrust himself back through the hole into the chamber. He was dragging with him a small wooden keg, which he used to sprinkle a light trail of black powder around the confining circle carved into the ground, tracing the loops and lines of Contain.

Completed, Deke stepped back to admire his handiwork. He noted the corpse’s fallen hands and gave a slight grin.

“As you said, son: nice effort, but….”

He wrapped Taylor’s hands back around the book, then stepped carefully away from the stone seat and made his way out of the chamber one final time. Once outside, he struck a match on the wall and tossed it inside.

The false glow of Light died as the circle flared up in fire. It burned a royal purple shade that quickly subsided down to a dark blue glow coming from the runes themselves. The entire chamber had the look of being deep underwater.

Deke spared one last glance for Taylor. “Pleasant dreams, son. May they last forever.”

He stacked up rocks to cover the entrance to the chamber, then retreated toward the mine entrance. On the way, Deke dropped the powder keg against one of the walls, then opened up a lantern and leaned it against the wooden container. The flames licked at the seasoned wood, slowly gaining purchase.

Satisfied that it would soon catch, Deke turned to scramble up the tunnel. He could see the morning’s light ahead of him when a deafening boom exploded from behind, sending a murderous cloud of fire, rock and ash hurtling up the tunnel even as it collapsed the mine in on itself.


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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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Choose

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Deke did not look at the book as he drew. He did not think about his steps. He did not consider why the monument had grown so dramatically in size, or why the walls now bled, or why deep purple stains mottled the bony columns. He simply walked and drew, as if there was nothing else in the world but him and the book.

Hours passed, and then abruptly the path opened up into a gargantuan chamber, so tall that the ceiling vanished into darkness. The floor stretched out, empty and abandoned, for what looked like miles. Deke glanced down at his book. His pencil was near the center of the symbol, the line almost looped back on itself. This was the final piece.

Deke stepped forward. His boots sloshed through a thick, bloody slurry covering the ground to a depth of several inches. It smelled rich and rotten, the slightly-sweet stink of infected blood. Deke ignored it and pressed on, stepping carefully in case the liquid hid treacherous ground beneath. His pencil inched ever closer to its final connection.

Ahead of him, two cavernous pits loomed in the wall, each one twice his height. Both were filled with an inky blackness, looking like deep ponds somehow turned onto their sides. An enormous purple mark stretched up along the wall, intersecting the rightmost pit. Its contours were a perfect mirror for the winestain birthmark that was Porfirio’s most memorable feature.

Deke stopped in front of the twin pits, uncertain what to do next. Porfirio had placed his hand against the darkness to activate it, but Deke had no idea how Porifirio had caused it to show what he wanted to see, or how he had made it function as a portal. For that matter, Deke had no real idea what it was that he wanted here. He had been following the path as a method of completing the rune. When he made the final mark, Know would be completely inscribed in the book.

The other escaped runes had vanished from their spots when he had re-added them to the book. Deke was inside of this one, in some sort of space-bending, stretched-out version of reality. Deke wasn’t certain what would happen when he completed this glyph, but he suspected that he would not have hours to find his way back out along the path.

Deke waved at the portals. “Porfirio? Any tips, hombre?”

There was no response, no reaction. Deke frowned, pondering. The book shifted slightly, its leather cover sliding smoothly against his hand.

“Yeah, yeah, I know your solution,” said Deke testily. “Keep getting more dependent on you until I’m just another body for you, like Taylor. Well, you ain’t my only friend here.”

Deke looked around the empty chamber. “So long as I can get him to notice me, anyway.”

Abruptly, Deke swore. He knelt, carefully shifting the book to his right knee again, and freed his knife from its sheath with his left hand. Working the tip into a fold of his shirt, Deke gingerly slid the knife in and ripped upward.

It sliced a ragged hole through the fabric, cutting through several key lines of the Overlook rune Deke had painted onto his shirt to avoid the grubs. The word was severed, and suddenly the room felt less empty, more attentive. The two empty black pits seemed to regard Deke like a tremendous pair of eyes.

“Howdy,” said Deke. “Got me now? I could use a tip, if you’ve got anything for me.”

The pit on the right brightened. The featureless black surface suddenly showed a rock wall framed by thick overhanging timbers, a lantern dangling from the crossbeam. The lantern’s light glinted off of a dingy vein of silver streaking the wall, threading through the rough-cut rocks. The tunnel appeared empty, but the presence of a still-burning light suggested that the miners were still nearby.

At the same time, dim light poured from the left pit. This one showed Bucephalus plodding slowly along a winding mountain path. White patches stood out on his sides, thick rectangles where his cuts and gouges from the fight with Father McCaig’s congregation had been patched up. He looked none the worse for wear, though, still moving steadily along, solid and reliable.

Clarinda Blaumer was on his back, dressed in what looked like an old pair of her husband’s pants for riding. She looked tired but focused. The rocky expanse of Cerro Muerte loomed behind her. Ahead of her rose the buildings of Contrition, mere blocky shadows against the near-dawn horizon.

Deke broke into a grin. “That’s something, at least.”

“The paths are open,” said a familiar voice, startlingly close. Deke jumped, grabbing the book and rising to his feet. The grey-suited man stood at his left shoulder, smiling his wolf’s grin. “Which will you choose?”

Deke regarded him with distrust. “So it’s a trap, then.”

“A choice, is all.”

“And one is wrong?”

“Both lead to different results.” The man’s grin grew wider, enjoying Deke’s irritation.

“Which one do I want?”

“The correct one, of course.”

“And which would that be?”

“This one,” indicating the portal on the left, “takes you to Contrition, as you can see. You leave. You escape. You rejoin Miz Blaumer and make of that anything, or nothing. You move on with your life.”

“Carrying the book with me to tempt and taunt me until I finally give in, I imagine?”

The grey-suited man shook his head. “No, you’ve already turned that option down. You would leave the book here. You complete my word, you close the book, and you leave it here as you make your exit. The word is drawn into the book, and the book is still inside the word. It all wraps up into a very neat package. You never see it, or any of this, again. As I said, you move on.”

“And the other?”

“That one leaves you in the mine, as you can see. You take the book back where it came from, and you make your own way out from there as best as you can, as far as brains and brawn can take you.”

“Which one is better?”

“I’ll tell you this,” said the man. “Porfirio opened one of those paths. I opened the other.”

“Which is better?”

“For you, personally? My path. Though Porfirio obviously meant well.”

Deke suppressed a snarl. “And which path is yours?”

The man shook his head. “You don’t want to pay the price that answer requires.”

Deke turned away from him, regarding the choices before him. The option to leave called to him, buoyed by the promise that it would truly end if he took that choice. The book and all of its madness would be left in the past. Life would resume.

It was appealing, too appealing. It felt like a trick. He turned his attention to the mine.

The silver shone like a mocking smile, the reality of everything Deke had tried to fake. The book had been unleashed from there somehow, released by his actions. He had the opportunity to go back and set it right, to fix what he had made wrong. He could beard the monster in its lair, defeat it once and for all, then ride off or die with a clean conscience.

It was appealing. Too appealing. Just like the other, it felt like a trick.

“Some kinda choice you gave me here,” Deke muttered. 

The grey-suited man grinned, his eyes dancing. “Complete the rune and choose.”

Deke took a deep breath, then choked. A wave of stench rolled into the room, drowning out the warm tang of blood. His eyes snapped to the doorway, where several colossal grubs were jostling for space. They spilled into the room, their odor of filth a dark herald of the danger to come.

“Time’s short. Choose now.”

“Will you tell me whose I picked after I go through?” Deke’s pencil hovered over the page. The man merely smiled.

Deke hesitated for one final second, then stepped firmly toward the mine. As his body passed through, his pencil completed the rune. A rush of foul air shot past Deke as space contorted, collapsing in on itself, and the lantern before him swung briefly, its flame dancing.

Deke stood in the mine. Behind him was nothing but a blank rock wall. The book sat open in his hands, Know leering up at him. A final sentence rang mockingly in his head, the last words delivered by the grey-suited man as Deke made his choice:

“I will not.”


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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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No Way Out

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“Bucephalus, go!” shouted Deke, digging his heels into his horse’s flanks. The horse bolted forward with the fangs and barbs of the horde hot on its tail. Deke pressed himself low into the saddle as Buce took the twisting turns of the mountain path at breakneck speed.

The sounds of the pursuing mass began to diminish. Deke risked a look back and saw nothing behind him.

“Easy, boy,” he soothed his horse, putting gentle pressure on the reins. “We made it. Don’t you run us off the m—hya!”

The smell hit Deke first: a stench like a bloated corpse, potent enough to make bile rise in his throat. Deke’s unconscious mind recognized the smell and instincts of self-preservation kicked in. He hauled hard on one rein, and Bucephalus screamed and staggered as his head collided with the rock wall.

As the horse stumbled, a dark shape shot past overhead, a horrible winged thing that was a twin to the one that had attacked Deke on his attempt to climb down the mountain. Its talons missed Deke by inches or less, and he could feel its stink like a physical presence in the air. It shrieked its fury and disappointment as it recovered from its dive, sweeping out over the drop to swing back for a second attack.

Deke slid off of his horse and steadied his arm, doing his best to ignore the growing sounds of pursuit he could again hear. He focused his attention on the creature swooping toward him, shutting out all distractions and sighting down the pistol. He watched its wings beat, saw its feet flex in anticipation of tearing his flesh. He waited until it was nearly upon him and then fired four shots in rapid succession, shattering the front edge of one massive wing.

Feathers exploded outward. The creature’s wing folded beneath it, and its hunting shriek cut off abruptly as it smashed into the rocky path. It tumbled twice before striking the rock wall with a sharp snap, teeth and black blood flying free in a ghoulish spray. Its body rebounded bonelessly to lie at Deke’s feet. He gave it a vicious kick and sent it tumbling over the cliff edge to break on the rocks far below.

Short though the encounter had been, it had eaten all of the lead time that Deke had managed to gain. “C’mon, Buce. Go!” Deke urged, only half in the saddle as the first of Father McCaig’s congregants rushed around the corner.

Bucephalus ran. Blood oozed across the horse’s face and neck from where it had been slammed into the wall, and Deke patted away what he could to keep it out of the horse’s eye. The sounds of pursuit again fell away, and after a few wary minutes scanning the skies, Deke allowed himself to begin to relax.

“We still gotta carve us an exit, Buce,” Deke told the horse, slowing as they navigated a sharp bend to enter a cleft between the rocks. “This don’t—well, hell.”

Up ahead, Father McCaig knelt in the middle of the path, his hands moving over the corpse of the winged monstrosity that had assaulted Deke above. Blood dripped from his fingers as he finished the path of the Obey symbol. As Deke watched, gun raised, the thing raised itself from the ground like a puppet being drawn to its feet. Bones shifted, clicked and snapped back into place as its body knit itself back together.

“I could just shoot it again, Father,” Deke said, gun pointed at the monster.

“And I could raise him. You can’t win this one, Deke. They obey me. You can, too. Kneel. Obey.”

Although Deke had returned the word to its place in the book, he still felt the power in Father McCaig’s command—as if the reanimated body before him was not proof enough of that. It sparked an idea, though. Deke drew his knife.

“Not my style, padre. You know I always liked your sermons. I think you did well by the folks here.” Deke switched his gun to his left hand and gripped his knife close to the tip, holding the blade gingerly as he pressed the point to the hard metal of the gun.

“Sure, and what does ‘do well by’ mean to a man like you? That I kept them in line? That I taught them gullibility where they needed shrewdness, patience where they needed action? You used me, Deke, as you’ve used everyone. You’ll not talk your way out of this one.”

“Ain’t looking to talk my way out, padre.” Deke’s eyes never left the priest as he scratched smooth lines into the barrel of the gun, motions he knew by heart. His fingers tightened involuntarily on the blade as he drew the lines of Obey. The blade bit into his skin, drawing rivulets of blood which the glyph eagerly sucked up, drawing them into itself. “Just looking to buy a little time.”

Father McCaig smiled. “You and me both, Deke. You and me both.”

The demon-thing stretched its feathered wings and shrieked, sending a gust of foul air toward Deke. It bared its jagged teeth at Deke in a threatening display, demanding his attention.

Always before, the creature had attacked, never postured. Deke knew misdirection when he saw it. Listening closely, he heard soft slithering and clicking noises surrounding him, heralding the stealthy arrival of the rest of Father McCaig’s congregation.

The creature before him beat its wings heavily, raising up a cloud of dust. It shrieked again, and Deke shot it directly in its open mouth. As the bullet exploded out the back of its skull, all of its old injuries reappeared. Its wing crumpled. Its neck snapped. Blood spurted. It tumbled to the ground, broken.

“What have you done?” shouted Father McCaig, aghast.

“He obeys me now. And I say let the dead stay dead.”

Father McCaig howled, and his congregation howled with him as they attacked. They leapt from the rocks, rushed in from the path and scuttled in along the walls. They attacked with teeth and claws, stingers and blades, weapons both natural and improvised. They attacked without hesitation or thought of safety.

On Bucephalus’s back, Deke struck out with knife and gun. His horse reared, kicking out at those it could reach, while Deke’s knife skittered across armored plates to find soft gaps in between. These blunt and bladed weapons merely knocked the assailants back, however. It was the gun that did the true work, each bullet issuing commands that the monsters could not ignore in the very language that had created them.

Deke’s hand burned each time he pulled the trigger, the metal biting into the fresh cuts on his fingers and drawing forth new blood. His grip never slipped though, and when Deke spun the cylinder free to reload he saw that none of the blood had even made it as far as his palm. The gun drank every drop of it, feeding off of it to fuel the dark pact of Obey.

Eternal, painful moments later, it was over. Deke’s legs, forearms and sides were scored in a dozen places, and Bucephalus dripped blood from a dozen wounds of his own. But Father McCaig’s congregation lay dead around Deke’s feet, and the padre himself knelt in the path, surrounded by dust and blood.

“Will you let me by now, Father?” Deke asked, though he knew the answer. “Is this the only way?”

The priest smiled up at him, a mad grin. “It always was.”

Father McCaig reached up to move his leather eyepatch, and Deke shot him directly through his ruined eye.


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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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