Burning Questions

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Indecision held Deke in place in the street for a moment longer, and then he heaved a sigh of resignation. No situation had ever been improved for long by ignoring it, which meant that there was really only one thing to do here. Like a moth drawn by the light, Deke walked slowly toward the blazing saloon.

The flames put off no heat and no wind. Deke took his first tentative step onto the saloon’s porch, which was burning feverishly beneath his feet, and still felt nothing. He smelled the char, but it was the scent of old ashes kicked up by a wind, not new-burnt wood. Staring at his feet, Deke experienced a painful tripling of his vision. He could see the dusty wood of the saloon porch, worn but unburnt. He could see the fire eating it, gorging itself on the planks. And he could see the charred remnants, a treacherous blackened platform threatening to collapse beneath his feet at any moment.

These three things could not coexist, and yet they did. The impossibility made Deke’s eyes throb. He looked away from the porch, but the rest of the saloon was no better. The entire building seemed to exist in three states at once: unburnt, burning and destroyed. It did not shift between them. All three were happening at once. Time was as folded in on itself as the sky.

Deke stepped through the saloon doors. Deke passed through a curtain of fire. Deke walked through charred beams framing an empty hole where the doors had once been. All of these things were true. Deke’s mind struggled to process, buckling under the overwhelming onslaught of input.

In desperation and self-defense, Deke zeroed in on the bartender, taking quick steps across the filthy/blazing/burnt floor to cross the saloon as quickly as possible. He raised his right hand to his eye as if shielding it from the sun, closing out the view of as much of the saloon as possible.

“What’ll it be, Deke?” Will was a horror, and yet a relief compared to the rest of the saloon. He was actively burning, his skin crisping and curling away while the muscle and fat beneath popped and cooked. The left side of his face was a shattered ruin, shards of white bone floating in a gristly soup of flesh. Deke could see Will’s back teeth when he talked, his tongue writhing grotesquely within his mouth. Will occupied only a single state, though, and Deke nearly let out a cry of relief as he focused all of his attention on him.

“Whiskey.” Deke’s head pulsed as Will took a bottle from the shelf/from the shelf/from the floor and poured it/poured it/passed it over. The amber liquid reflected the overhead lamps. The blue flame danced merrily on the surface of the whiskey. The bottle was shattered, empty but for ash and dirt. Deke squeezed his eyes shut and pushed aside the glass/the glass/the bottle. He focused again on Will.

“Not to your liking, Deke?” Will grinned knowingly. His left eye rolled unpleasantly in its broken socket.

“Don’t think it’d sit right just now.” Deke waited for Will to say something, but Will seemed content to let the silence grow. The flames raged around them, consuming everything. Will’s face dripped blood and fire.

Deke finally broke the silence. “Will, you’re the bartender.”

“Correct so far. You going somewhere with this?”

“It’s your job to know what’s going on.”

“It’s my job to pour the drinks.”

“Like hell it is. If all you did was pour drinks, you’d end up—” Deke stopped.

“End up what, Deke?” Will looked down at Deke, fixing him with a stare. His left eye was tilted slightly. Flames crawled up the side of his face, igniting his hair. He was still easier to look at than the rest of the bar. “End up letting folks drink too much? End up letting fights start? End up shot? With my bar burned down? That where you’re going with this?”

“So you do know.”

“I know some things, sure.” Will relaxed. “Too little, too late, but ain’t that always the way?”

“I don’t believe it has to be, no. Ask the right people the right questions and you can get ahead of just about any situation.”

Will laughed. “Ahead? Then ask your questions.”

“What—” Deke started, but Will raised one burning finger to stop him.

“Not me. Go ask him.”

Will extended that same finger across the saloon, and Deke reluctantly tracked it. Ray was sitting at a card-strewn table/flaming column/empty spot in the char, bragging with fellow miners/corpses/no one at all. As he talked, he chewed noisily on peanuts/cinders/squirming grubs. Deke’s stomach churned, bringing it in line with his brain.

Like Will, Ray was easier to look at than the rest of the bar, as long as Deke focused on him and not anything he was doing. Unlike the rest of the bar, Ray was unburnt. The flames had avoided him entirely except for his hands, and even there they did not burn him. Both hands were wreathed in orange flames which spread to everything that Ray touched, but beneath the fire his own hands were undamaged and pristine.

“You come to lose some money at cards, Deke?” Ray asked. The other miners rolled their dead eyes to regard him. They burned like candles, flesh dripping away from their bodies, the flames nearly hiding the lethal wounds each bore from bullet and bludgeon.

“I’ll play, though I can’t guarantee I’ll lose,” Deke said, keeping his gaze tightly focused on Ray, to blot out the rest of the saloon. Ray shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny. His pant leg rode up as he did so, briefly exposing the glyph carved into the side of his leg. To Deke’s eyes, the symbol glowed more brightly than any of the flames.

“What’s that on your leg?” he asked, more to see what Ray would say than anything else. A single glance at the word had been enough to sear it into his mind. Contain.

“That? Oh, some damn fool thing your boy talked us into up at the mine. Got Elmer to do it, too. Said it’d bring good luck, or some such.” Ray spoke dismissively, but Deke heard the tone in his voice that indicated lies mixed with truth.

“Has it worked?” Deke let Ray think he’d gotten away with the lie for now. Easier to pursue the question later when his guard was down again, if necessary.

“I think it just might have. I’m sure feeling luckier than these boys tonight. Wouldn’t you say so, boys?” Deke let out a roar of laughter.

“Luck’s a word for it,” said one of the men. His eyeballs had burst and were running down his cheeks like thick tears.

“You calling me a cheater?” Ray’s momentary good humor was gone, and the flames around his hands flared up as he pushed his chair back, hand near his gun.

“Nobody’s calling you nothing, Ray. Sit down and play your cards.”

“That’s right,” said Ray. He slowly pulled his chair back to the table. “That’s right. I will.”

Ray tossed another peanut/cinder/grub into his mouth. It popped audibly between his teeth as he chewed while talking.

“So you joining us, Deke?”

“Well, if you’re as lucky as you say you are, I may just sit this one out.”

“Your arm’s looking decent healed. Come join us at the mine. You’ll have all the silver you can lose.”

“I aim to do that real soon, Ray.”

“All right. Well, if Deke’s not in, what’re we sitting around jawing for? Deal the cards.”

Deke turned and made his way back to the door, picking his way around gaping holes in the floor that he was only mostly sure were there. He exited the dusty/flaming/ruined building and stood silently on the street for a moment, ignoring the dancing firelight at his back and letting his eyes readjust to seeing only one thing at a time.

While he waited for reality to resettle, Deke turned Ray’s lie over in his head. He’d said that Contain was Taylor’s idea, that Elmer had it too, and that it brought luck. The last part was obviously a lie; its purpose was clear to anyone who looked at it. The middle part, about Elmer having one too, was probably true. The boy was a born follower.

Which left the first part. Had it been Taylor’s idea? That felt like truth. Ray liked to seize on other people’s ideas. If Taylor had shown him some advantage to having Contain on him, he would have gone for it in a heartbeat.

Deke was struck by a sudden desire to know what exactly Taylor looked like through the eyes of Reveal. He set out for the boarding house to find him, but he hadn’t taken two strides before he was seized from behind and something heavy, wet and rough was dragged across his face.

“It’s me, Pa! It’s me!” cried Taylor, dancing back as Deke whipped his knife from its sheath. He held a dirty towel up in front of him like a shield. “Damn, I’ve never seen a man so unhappy to have mud cleaned off his face.”

“Sneaking up on a man like that is a good way to get yourself killed,” Deke said, heartbeat slowing back to normal. He touched his face, his fingers coming away with no sign of the black gunk that Porfirio had slathered onto him.

“Sneaking up, nothing. I called your name a half-dozen times. You get a little too much of Will’s poison?”

Deke glanced around. The saloon was whole and unburnt. The constellations were back where they belonged in the sky. And Taylor looked completely normal, untouched by any revealing visions.

“Miz Blaumer sent me to find you,” Taylor continued. “Said you seemed to have gotten lost on the way to the washroom.”

“Just taking the long way around,” Deke said. He was sure that Taylor was lying to him. Worse, he was sure that Taylor knew that he knew that, and didn’t care. For the moment, he was trapped, which meant that there was nothing to do but play along. “Appreciate you coming to find me. You ready for supper?”

“I hear there’s more porridge on,” said Taylor, making a face. “You have any luck with those snares?”

“I might have,” Deke said. “We’ll see tomorrow.”

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Deke landed heavily on his back, cracking his head against a straw-strewn earthen floor. Dazed from the impact, it wasn’t until he heard a horse whicker that he realized he was somehow in the stables. The strange living walls of Porfirio’s monument had been replaced by familiar wood planks, the confusing geometry abandoned for the comforting simple angles of the stalls.

The stench of Ol’ Sal’s death still lingered lightly here, seeming to ooze out from the walls themselves. Deke climbed slowly to his feet, rubbing the sore spot on the back of his head, and made his way out into the final grey light of evening.

Something was wrong outside. Deke noticed it well before he could put his finger on what it was, a lifetime of carefully-honed instincts screaming caution at him. He breathed slowly and looked casually around himself, but the area around him was empty and the night sounds were normal.

It wasn’t until Deke looked up that he spotted what was bothering him: the stars overhead weren’t forming any sort of constellations that he recognized. He could see bits of what might have been familiar patterns, but the pieces were fractured, scattered across the sky. It was like the sky had been bunched up and sewn together along the creases. The seams were invisible, but the effects were obvious.

This didn’t seem to be the sort of problem that Deke could address at the current moment, so he filed it away and headed for the boarding house. The problem of not having supper was one that could be fixed in a timely fashion.

As he headed toward the house, Deke realized that between the trip to the monument and whatever had gone on inside of it, he hadn’t managed to set a single snare all day. He cursed quietly to himself and began sifting his brain for an acceptable excuse or deflection. Plenty of wild animals with sharp teeth; plenty of ways for simple traps to fail. The trick was not to paint himself in a bad light.

Deke was still sorting through his options when he saw Elmer and Cora Everill up ahead, walking along the main street toward their house at the edge of town. They were accompanied by a stern-looking woman closer to Deke’s age walking a pace behind them, a hand on each of their shoulders. Deke thought at first that they were leading her, but as he drew closer he saw that her hands were not supportive, but restraining. She appeared to be trying to push the two apart, perhaps to wedge her way in between. If Elmer and Cora were bothered by this, though, or even noticed, they gave no sign.

“Evening, Deke!” called Elmer. Cora gave a small wave. The unfamiliar woman ignored him completely.

“Evening, Everills. Ma’am,” Deke said politely. Cora gave him a slightly quizzical look, but changed it to a smile.

As he walked along, Deke wondered idly who the woman was. Either Elmer or Cora’s mother, likely. He could have made a case for either one of them based on similarities in facial structure and build.

Deke was opening the front door of the boarding house before the import struck him. There was someone new in Rosin’s Hollow. Who this woman was didn’t matter compared to how she had gotten there. If there was a way in, there was a way out. Presumably, at least. And if not, at least there was a way for the supply wagon to arrive.

“In or out, Deke, but close my door either way,” Clarinda called down the hall.

“Apologies, Miz Blaumer.” Deke hesitated a moment longer, uncertain whether he should go after the Everills now. “Who’s the new arrival?”

“The what?” Clarinda stepped out of the kitchen to hear Deke more clearly. A look of amused shock crossed her face. “Deke, what have you done to yourself?”

“Your—” Although Miz Blaumer was dressed as neatly as ever, her right hand ran with blood, great rivulets of it dripping from her fingers. It should have been forming a small lake on the floor, but where it hit the ground it vanished entirely. “Sorry, what?”

“Your face.” Clarinda raised her bloody hand to her own eyes, gesturing. Droplets of blood flew everywhere, disappearing where they should have landed. A bright red handprint stood out on her left cheek, the edges slightly raised against the surrounding skin as if she had just been slapped. At her neck, the edges of a symbol glowed, something painted onto her skin beneath her dress.

Clarinda seemed unaware of any of this. “Did you fall into something?”

“Oh, this.” Deke touched his right eye where Porfirio had smeared the black gunk. It felt dry to the touch, but his fingers still came away blackened. Pieces began to click into place. Father McCaig, who could see too much. Reveal. The wolf consuming Porfirio. The stern woman. Miz Blaumer’s bloody hand. Deke didn’t know what any of it meant, but at least he understood why it was happening.

“Yes, that. What did you think I meant?”

Deke smiled, slipping into the expression like a familiar lie. “It’s been a long day in the sun, Miz Blaumer. Could be any of a number of things wrong with my appearance at this point. But to your question, I was digging in a mudhole to get some water. I aimed to soak my shirt, cool off a bit. Managed to snap a root in half, I think. I didn’t properly see what happened, but one minute I was digging and the next there was this stick quivering in the water and I had two eyesful of mud. Had the devil’s own time cleaning it off, too. And I never did get to any water I was willing to dunk my shirt in.”

Clarinda laughed. “Well, there’s water and soap here, and you can’t sit at my table looking like that. Go clean yourself off and I’ll see what I can do for you for dinner.

“Much appreciated.”

As soon as Clarinda had returned to the kitchen, however, Deke slipped back outside. He had a mind to see what the path out of town looked like, find out if anything was clearer. Even by moonlight, he might learn something new.

These thoughts were driven from Deke’s mind as soon as he stepped outside and saw the raging inferno burning down the street. The saloon was on fire, flames leaping upward to touch the broken sky. The entire building was engulfed. Fire spat from every window and danced through gaping holes in the roof. The interior was a hellscape.

Deke broke into a run, but his steps faltered as three things processed. The first was that the fire made no noise. There was no crackle, no rush of air, no groaning of falling timbers. It burned brightly but completely without sound.

The second thing that slowed Deke’s steps was that he could see figures inside, moving about as if nothing was wrong. Even from here he could see the gangly shape of Will Long, tending bar even as his body burned. He showed no signs of distress.

And the third thing, which finally brought Deke to a complete halt in the middle of the street, was that he had seen this before. Not the calm figures inside, and not in eerie silence—but the saloon had burned down before. Shortly after he had arrived in Rosin’s Hollow, it had caught fire and claimed the lives of a half-dozen of the remaining citizens of the town. It had been one more nail in the coffin of Rosin’s Hollow, and with so few people left, the saloon had never been replaced.

Which raised the question: where had he been drinking so many nights recently?

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Behind Porfirio, the ground shimmered in the rising heat. For a moment, the scrubland behind him disappeared in a mirage, replaced by the fleeting image of a dark, still lake. Its vivid appearance brought a memory to the surface of Deke’s mind unbidden.

In the memory, Deke stood on a path in a well-manicured park, a place of solitude and tranquility. It was a cool and peaceful day. Puffy white clouds drifted languidly across the sky. Lush grass grew on either side of the path, a thick green carpet completely unlike anything in the desert. It stretched down a gentle hill on each side of the path, leading to a pair of lakes.

Each lake was alive with fish, tiny darting shadows flitting briefly in and out of view. In one lake, the fish were silver, their scales bright enough that they reflected the sun back in sudden glints when they came close enough to the surface. In the other, every fish was black. Their subtle shapes were harder to see in the murky waters, but they were no less lively for that.

As Deke had stood there watching the fish, a man in a neatly tailored grey suit had approached him. The man’s poise and bearing spoke of an easy confidence learned through years of practice. His smile was open and friendly, his manner warm. Everything about him was welcoming. Deke liked him immediately, and trusted him not at all. He recognized too many of his own attitudes in this stranger.

“Hail, fellow,” the man had said, a smile resting lightly on his lips. “Fellow artist.”

Deke had raised an eyebrow, and the man had shrugged. “Artisan, if you prefer. We know our own.”

They had looked at the lakes in silence for a while before the grey-suited man spoke again. “Amazing that they can contain so much life, is it not? And so much more beneath the surface, so many we’ll never see.”

He had paused reflectively before continuing, “And yet—every one is the same. Seems almost a shame, does it not? No variety, not truly.”

Deke had noticed then that the man carried with him a metal pail filled with water. Inside it was a jet-black fish twice the size of Deke’s hand, swimming in slow circles. Its body curved to avoid the edges of the bucket, but even so its fins and tail regularly bumped up against the sides. The container was far too small for it, and Deke had felt an urge to seize it from the man and release the fish into the lake.

Instead, he had asked, “You get that from that lake over there?”

“No,” the man had said, surprise tingeing his tone. “Rather the other way around, in fact.”

“You saying that the lake got the fish from you?”

“Indeed, but there are more interesting questions to be asked here.” The man had cast his gaze up and down the path, as if searching for someone. Finding no one, he had shrugged.

“Well, let us force the issue.” The grey-suited man had indicated the lake full of silvery fish with a tilt of his head and a slight heft of his bucket. “Do you mind?”

“Ain’t my lake.”

“You’d be surprised.” With that enigmatic statement, the grey-suited man had stepped lightly down the hill, heading for the lake. He had closed to within a half-dozen feet and was lifting the bucket to dump it in, when a sudden turmoil in the water caused him to stop.

Silver fish had scattered in every direction as Porfirio strode forth from beneath the lake, water cascading off of him. He had come to a halt before the grey-suited man, his body a physical barrier separating the man from the lake.

“Porfirio,” the man had said pleasantly. “Or did I leave you even that? No matter. We all must be called something.”

Porfirio had simply stood unmoving, giving no sign that he had even heard the grey-suited man.

“I wasn’t going to trade him, you know,” the man continued. “We made no deal. He would have gotten this for free.”

The grey-suited man had twisted around then, calling back out to Deke, “You still could! Would you like this?”

He indicated the bucket again, and added, “It’s a simple thing, this one: knowledge of how you survive Cerro Muerte. I can give it to you. Free of charge.”

Deke had shaken his head slowly. “In my experience, there’s nothing that costs more than a stranger’s free gift.”

The man’s smile had slowly expanded, revealing sharp white teeth that seemed to stretch farther back into his mouth than they should. For a moment, though nothing obvious changed, he had looked more wolf than man.

“You would know, fellow artist. Fare thee well.”

Still smiling, he had turned his back on Deke and Porfirio and walked away, bucket swinging at his side. Deke watched him until he disappeared into the forest surrounding the park. As the man had entered the wooded area, Deke swore he saw him drop to all fours, but between the distance and the shadows he couldn’t be sure.

Deke had turned back to find Porfirio sitting on the far side of the path, looking down at the lake filled with black fish. He had felt he should say something, but was unusually at a loss for words. So instead he had simply taken a seat next to him, and together they had quietly watched the dark fish trace patterns in the water.

Deke shook himself, scattering the memory. He still stood sweating in the heat with Porfirio, not sitting on a hill by a calm lake. Around them was scrubland, not manicured grass and carefully arranged paths. And above him still loomed the earthen monstrosity whose shape he could not quite fix in his mind. He was not at the park, no matter how vividly he recalled it.

In fact—had he ever truly been at the park? He could not recall where it was located, how he had gotten there, or what he had done after. It was a disconnected moment in time, unattached to the rest of his life. And surely impossible, for he had only met Porfirio after arriving in Rosin’s Hollow. None of it made sense.

An image from the park briefly resurfaced in his mind: the lake full of silver fish. And in between them, almost unnoticed among their glinting scales, a single tiny black fish swimming with the school, pretending to be one of them.

“Porfirio,” Deke said. “The park. Was that—were you there?”

If Porfirio was listening, he gave no sign. He was turned partially away from Deke, staring up at the monolith before them. He seemed to be waiting for something.

And then, without warning, Porfirio stepped forward, closing the final distance between them and the towering rock edifice. He walked to its edge and then into it, disappearing into a previously hidden crevice between its stones.

“Porfirio! Porfirio, hey!” called Deke. There was no reply.

Deke hesitated, cursed himself and followed Porfirio inside.

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The Congregation

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Father McCaig left his hand on Deke’s shoulder as they walked, a move presumably intended to provide both guidance and comfort. It was hard-pressed to do either, though, as more and more footsteps joined the first that Deke had heard.

At first, Deke attempted to count the number of those behind him by listening to the footsteps, but they followed no pattern with which he was familiar. Both he and Father McCaig walked with a regular tump, tump beat, but the noises coming from behind them sounded nothing like that. The ones that Deke’s practiced ear could pick out included a rapid tump tump tump followed by a pause, a steady tik tik tik tik like marbles bouncing off of each other, and a continuous soft swishishishish. There were many more, their quiet sounds joining together and echoing off of the rock wall until even though Deke could see the clear path ahead, it sounded as though they were completely surrounding him.

Deke’s neck prickled, but Father McCaig’s gentle grip kept him facing forward. After a short while, the padre began to speak.

“‘And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the Lord. And there was no water for the people to drink.’

“‘Wherefore the people did chide with Moses and said, give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, why chide ye with me? Wherefore do ye tempt the Lord?’

“We are all of us in the wilderness of sin, all of us thirsting for that water of truth and knowledge and salvation. But in our error, we feel that we can demand it, that we can earn it. This water, this life-giving truth, is not a thing to be found by man, but a gift to be given by the divine. We cannot deserve it. We can only humble ourselves and hope to be given it, if the Almighty believes it right.”

Not a thing to be found by man, Deke thought. But what about by whatever follows us?

“We are all of us mortal,” Father McCaig intoned, his voice booming off the rocks. “We are all children of the Lord, seeking his grace and mercy. Though we be imperfect in form, still were we made in the image of the Lord. Still he loves us. There is a way out of this wilderness, out of the mountain that surrounds us and the sin that envelops us. That way is Jesus, for did he not say ‘Where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know’?”

A mutter arose from the following crowd, but whether it was of agreement or censure Deke could not say.

“Father,” he murmured, his tone low enough to carry only to the priest next to him. “Don’t you think you ought to know what you’re preaching to, to make sure they’re getting the message right?”

“There is no message but the Truth,” the padre declared, his voice echoing. “And the Truth needs no modification to be received. ‘Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’

“Jesus!” he barked, his volume increasing to nearly-painful levels. “Jesus is our savior! ‘At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!’ Obey!”

The last word left his mouth as a physical force, a wave of compulsion that Deke felt wash over him. As the word traveled, the path ahead of them changed without moving, bending in subtle and impossible ways. Nothing was altered as the word rolled over the landscape, except that it was no longer the same. Deke tried to find the words to describe it and failed. Somehow in that moment the twisting path had been recreated just as it had always been, while retaining none of the characteristics it had always had.

“Is that—” Deke began, but Father McCaig squeezed his shoulder and Deke quieted. Behind them, the sounds of the congregation began to fade away, dissipating by ones and twos. There had been no branches to the path, yet still the followers split off until none remained.

At last, Father McCaig removed his hand from Deke’s shoulder, and Deke looked back. The trail behind them was empty, the rock wall unbroken.

“Was that it, Father?” Deke asked, his voice hushed.

Father McCaig shook his head. “Not yet. On the day my faith is rewarded, my congregation will remain. We will leave this wilderness together, and the path will be opened for all.”

“But the path—”

“Is altered, as it is every day I walk it. Satan lays his tricks thickly here, and though I wield the words of God, I do so imperfectly, as a mere man. It will take time and trials to overcome.”

“Father—these words. How can…” The feeling of Obey burned like a brand in Deke’s mind, its painful demand pulsing. Nothing about it felt holy.

“How can I be sure they’re God’s words, you mean?”

Deke nodded.

“He has given me the sight to see them truly. For even in my weakness he has restored me, made me more than I was that I might serve him better. Behold!”

Father McCaig pulled aside the patch covering his ruined right eye. Deke, expecting a closed lid or maybe a milky orb, recoiled. The priest’s eyepatch covered an empty hollow torn into his face, a tarry hole which stretched to a concerning depth. Its edges were red and raw, its sides lined with a thick black sludge shot through with yellowish-white streaks. It throbbed and oozed like a heart turned inside out.

And yet all of that faded into insignificance compared to what surrounded it. Slashed into Father McCaig’s flesh was a symbol, another word unfamiliar yet instantly understood.

Reveal, it said, a baleful razor-edged eye rooting through Deke’s thoughts. Deke cowered away from it, knowing even as he did so that there was nowhere to hide, nothing it could not see.

An eternity elapsed beneath its gaze before Father McCaig settled the eyepatch back into place. Nothing could remove the knowledge that the symbol was there, but without it directly before him Deke found himself able to move forward again.

After a scattered moment, he found his voice. “Fath—” His voice cracked, and he swallowed and started again.

“Father, how can you be sure—?”

He trailed off, but Father McCaig understood his meaning. “With this, I can see all that is hidden. It is a tool for revealing evil, for finding the true nature of things. Surely such a power could only come from God. I have faith that it is so!”

Madness burned fervently in his remaining eye. Deke was far from convinced, but said nothing—knowing even as he remained silent that it did not matter. Father McCaig knew what was in his head.

The day wore on into evening before a turn of the path brought the two men down a slope and back to Rosin’s Hollow. Deke’s shoulders sagged, but the padre appeared undaunted.

“Tomorrow I try again,” he said, clapping Deke on the shoulder. “Will you join me?”

“Perhaps, Father,” said Deke, meaning no.

Father McCaig smiled. “Doesn’t take the eye of God to see what you mean there. Not to worry, boyo. You’ll find your path.”

As Deke turned toward the boarding house, the priest continued walking.

“Not joining us for supper, Padre?” Deke asked.

“I have some business at the church! I’ll make do tonight.”

While taking off his boots, Deke thought back over the day. Although the journey had been long and taxing, he had not seen Father McCaig eat so much as a bite of food on the way. Nor take a drink of water, come to think of it.

Deke’s own throat was parched, so he simply filed this information away until he knew what to do with it and headed into the boarding house for some much-needed food and rest.

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“I’m glad for your company today, Deke. Your arm’s improved, then?” Father McCaig walked with an easy stride, the kind designed to be maintained all day. Deke marveled again at the man’s rapid weight loss. In the last week, the padre had easily dropped fifty pounds or more. He had been a hefty man, and certainly the amount of walking he was doing would take the pounds off, but that much that quickly was worrisome. Deke’s previous attempts to address it had been shrugged off, though, and so he did not bring it up today.

“Better’n it was, for sure. Ain’t staining the bandages yellow no more. Not much, anyway.” He flexed the affected arm, feeling the bite where his muscles were only just beginning to knit back together. It would take significant time and effort before it was back to full strength, but the arm  was at least functional now.

“This is, in any case, a day for legs,” Father McCaig said. “Unless you were planning on attempting another climb?”

“Can’t say as how that worked out well for either of us last time, padre. I believe I’ll stick to the path today, such as it is.”

“Perhaps a second set of eyes can reveal the true way.”

“A second set, padre?” Deke cast a glance at the priest’s eyepatch.

Father McCaig smiled. “As you like. I see more than you’d think. But the path still twists beneath me, leading me back here every day.”

“Why do you still walk it?”

“It’s what I’m meant to be doing, boyo. I cannot yet understand it, but I hope to in time.”

The two men entered the narrow cleft that marked the start of the path out of Rosin’s Hollow. A large eyeball was drawn onto one of the rock faces, staring down at them.

“That’s new,” remarked Deke.

“Aye, it’s been there since I lost my own.” The priest seemed unperturbed by it.

“Father, it don’t disturb you that manmade things are appearing where no man put them?”

“No man, perhaps,” Father McCaig replied cryptically.


“Deke, m’boy,” the priest said, turning to look at him as they walked, “you are a liar. I don’t say that to cause offense. It’s just a fact. It doesn’t bother me; we are none of us perfect, and we need Jesus to redeem us all.

“But a liar expects to be lied to. So when you see something you cannot explain, you assume that there is man’s agency in it. You look for the person behind the trick.”

“And you’re saying this ain’t a trick?”

“I’m saying, Deke, no person is behind it. Observe the ground.”

Deke did as he was instructed. At first he saw nothing in particular in the earthen path, just stones, sand and small, struggling plants. The occasional footprint was visible from where Father McCaig had passed before, as well as the prints of some sort of hoofed animal.

Deke frowned. He could think of no animal on Cerro Muerte that had hooves like that. There simply wasn’t enough vegetation to sustain any sort of wild herd. Looking closer at the ground, Deke saw other, stranger prints as well. Three-toed tracks like from a bird, but the tracks were almost the size of Deke’s own boot. The bird that left those would have to be ostrich-sized or larger. There were dots like someone had been walking with a cane, but there was never a footprint near the dot. Some parts of the path looked to have been brushed, as if something heavy had been dragged across it and swept it clean.

“You see them, then? I do not walk alone out here.”

“What are they, Father?”

“I do not look upon them. They are my congregation, and that is enough. They follow me and I preach to them. They are lost, just as we are. My hope is that if I can save them, my job will be done and I’ll find the way to Contrition at last.”

“You don’t look at them?”

“I’m only human, m’lad. I think it would disturb me to see what follows while I walk out here. So I keep me eyes forward and my voice strong, and I do not think about what my congregation of the lost might look like.”

The symbol Obey throbbed down at them from a rock wall, demanding their attention. Father McCaig made the sign of the cross and continued walking, but Deke drew slowly to a stop.

“A minute, padre.”

Deke unshouldered his knapsack and withdrew the blank book he’d found hidden in Taylor’s trunk. Although he’d replaced it yesterday, this morning he had found himself again drawn to the book, thumbing through it as if he had missed meaning in its blank pages. Finding nothing again, he had put it back where it came from—or so he had believed until he had been placing water bottles in his knapsack for the day’s trip, and had spied the book tucked into his own bag. With Taylor right there chatting with them, there had been no way or time to return the book to where it belonged, and so Deke had simply closed his bag again and said nothing.

Deke had not forgotten the Obey glyph, though he had been trying hard to do so. He could have drawn its sinuous, sinister form blindfolded. Seeing it here on the rock wall reinforced its power in his mind, refreshing its demands. But just as Deke knew what the symbol meant without knowing how he knew, so too did he know that that symbol belonged in the blank book. The book should have been full of that language. Instead, it was blank and the words were at large, twisting the world.

With the steadiness and precision of a forger’s hand, Deke opened the book to the first page and began to draw the symbol. But though his hand was firm and his lines were clear, before his eyes they faded away. The lead beaded up on the paper like ink, running down the page to vanish in a puff of dust as it reached the edge. Deke tried again on a new page, with the same result. Any stray marks he made stayed on the paper, smudging slightly if he rubbed his finger across them. Any lines that should have been part of the symbol, though, refused to adhere.

“It seems it’s not yours to have, boyo.” Father McCaig stood a short distance away, watching the process.

“Never seen a drawing with an opinion before,” Deke muttered, putting the book away. “I swear it belongs in there.”

“Perhaps. But it must serve a greater purpose by being out.”

“Why do you say that?”

“If it did not, you would surely be able to draw it like anything else.”

“Faith again, Father?”

“Always faith.”

A footfall sounded on a rock behind them, and Deke started to turn. The priest grabbed his shoulder, keeping him facing forward as they walked. “Do not look! My congregation approaches.”

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At the end of the day, the three men convened again outside of the mine. The differences between them were even more striking than they had been at lunchtime. Taylor, though sweaty and encrusted with rock dust, exited the cave with a spring in his step and his tools held lightly over his shoulder. Elmer, on the other hand, looked to be barely putting one foot in front of another. His gunnysack hung heavily across his back, slowing him still further. Envy crossed his face as he looked at Taylor standing tall in the evening sun.

Even Elmer looked fresh as a daisy compared to Ray, though. Ray slumped forth with his eyes fixed to the ground before him, too exhausted to even lift his head. He was a man in search of a bed, or any reasonably flat surface that could serve as one.

“Ray?” Elmer asked. “You still with us, feller?”

“I had it,” mumbled Ray. “I had it!”

“I know,” said Elmer soothingly. “I know.”

Ray had been convinced that they were just one well-placed blast away from exposing a large swath of the silver vein and walking out rich beyond their wildest dreams. Nothing that Elmer or Taylor said could dissuade him from planting the dynamite. They tried to counsel reason and patience, but Ray would have none of it.

“You’ll see,” he told them, nestling the dynamite into place. “You were gonna bang around at the edges, getting scraps for weeks. I’m saving you from that. We’re all going home rich tonight.”

Ray lit the fuse, and all three men vacated the area. As soon as the explosives blew, though, they knew it had gone wrong. The initial bang was followed by a long, sustained rumble, one that the miners knew meant that the blast had been anything but clean.

Ray’s face fell. “Maybe it ain’t so bad,” he offered. “There was always gonna be some rock to have to clear away.”

When they trooped back to investigate, however, the extent of the damage became clear. Ray’s blast had, as intended, sheared away part of the wall, but it had also brought down a significant section of the roof. Far from freeing the silver, it had buried it behind additional tons of fallen rock.

The three men stood in silence until Taylor broke the awkward moment.

“Well,” he said, giving his pants a hitch, “guess we’d better get to moving all of this.”

That had been long, exhausting hours ago, and the progress they had made was minimal. To his credit, Ray had worked the hardest of them all, relentlessly pushing himself onward without breaks. Despite that, it was clearly going to take days just to get back to where they had been before, possibly longer if what remained of the tunnel ceiling was no longer stable.

“It shoulda worked,” Ray muttered, bringing Elmer back to the present moment. “I had it all figured out.”

Elmer said nothing. Taylor clapped Ray on the back. “We’ll get it back. The silver’s not going anywhere without us. Go home and get some sleep now before you keel over here in the desert and end up food for the coyotes.”

Ray dragged himself away down the path, too tired to even utter a response.

“It’s sleep for me too, then,” said Elmer bitterly. “And back at it tomorrow.”

“It’ll be all right!” Taylor told him. “Don’t let this setback get you down.”

“Easy for you to say! Some of us are going home beat. We ain’t all got magic keeping us going.”

“I told you, it’s not magic. You’ll find your time to apply the symbol. Once you do, you’ll never run out of energy again. We’ll get through this cave-in in no time, especially if Ray carves his on, too.”

“Ray looks like he’s gonna have to sleep for two days just to raise his status to ‘dead.’”

“And if we don’t see him for two days, and then he shows up marked and indefatigable, that’s time well spent in my book. Can’t rush things, Elmer. Gotta let them take their own time.”

“So long as they start taking their own time a bit faster, that’s all,” muttered Elmer.

When Elmer arrived home, Cora greeted him at the door with a kiss. “Evening, Elmer! How—oh. That kind of day?”

That kind of day,” Elmer agreed glumly, dropping heavily into a chair. “Tell me you got something hearty for dinner.”

“It’s rabbit tonight, Elmer. I’ve been setting snares. It’s getting a little thin without the supply wagon, but I patched together enough for a pot of rabbit stew. It’ll keep us for a few days, at least.”

“I love you, baby,” Elmer said as Cora put a bowl of stew in front of him. “You take good care of me.”

“You only say things like that when you think I might feel like I ain’t getting enough attention. I guess you’re planning on going to bed right after this, then?”

“I’m sorry, Cora, truly I am. But I am absolutely beat. It ain’t fair to you, and I know that, but I promise you it’ll be worth it. We just gotta get through this last bit.”

Cora smiled wryly. “Sure, Elmer. We’re almost through it.”

By the time Cora was done clearing away the bowls, Elmer was in bed and snoring. She picked up his clothes from the floor by the bed and took them outside to shake off the worst of the dirt. They’d be good for another wearing yet, she reckoned, hanging them on the line to let the sweat dry.

Back inside, she glanced in the stew pot. Already lower than she’d expected, and once that was gone, there was nothing left but what they could scavenge from the mountain. Rabbit was only going to keep them going for so long with nothing else to go with it.

Still, she thought as she climbed into bed next to her snoring husband, at least we got each other. And maybe we really are almost through the worst of it.

She was awoken hours later by the feel of Elmer’s hand running down her side.

“What is it, baby?” she asked sleepily. It was still dark outside, with only the barest touch of grey starting to lighten the night.

“Nothing,” Elmer whispered. “Sorry I woke you. I was just looking at you and thinking how lucky I was.”

His hand strayed lower, producing a tingle as his fingertips brushed down her hip and across her thigh. Cora rolled over in bed to face him.

“Yeah? And how lucky are you?” she asked teasingly.

“I got you,” he said with sincerity. “That’ll do for luck.”

She kissed him, sweetly at first, then with growing passion as their bodies pressed up against each other. The sheet was tossed aside as Elmer pushed her onto her back and moved on top of her.

“Guess you got your energy back,” Cora said, running her hands across his body.

“I guess I do,” Elmer agreed. He blinked suddenly, startled, as if something had just occurred to him.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. You stay right there. I gotta do something real fast.”

“What?” Cora sat up and looked at him in confusion.

“I ain’t gonna get you fired up and leave you unsatisfied, baby, but I gotta do this real quick. Just you lay there and think about what we’re gonna do in just a minute. I promise this won’t take no time at all.”

Cora lay back in bed, nonplussed. She heard Elmer rustling about in the small house and twisted her body to see what he was doing, but in the darkness she couldn’t make it out. She heard a hiss of pain through clenched teeth, the clatter of something metal on the counter, and cloth ripping. Then Elmer was back, tying a knot in a rough bandage around his left upper arm.

“Elmer, what was that?”

“Just something I had to do. Come on, where were we?”

“No, you can’t just do a thing like that and expect me to leave it be.” But his hands and mouth were on her body again, and hers were on his.

“You’ll tell me what that was about, Elmer Everill,” Cora whispered, biting his shoulder.

Elmer nodded fervently against her. The bandage on his arm slowly reddened, the blood seeping through in a surprisingly contained pattern, a perfect image of the eldritch symbol he had carved into the flesh beneath it.

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“Taylor,” Elmer asked, gnawing on a piece of salted meat. “What’s your secret?”

Taylor, Elmer and Ray were seated outside of the Cerro Muerto mine, eating their lunches in the shade of a rock outcropping. A desultory wind stirred the dust around them, but did little to cool their sweaty bodies.

“How do you mean, Elmer?”

“Well, look at us. We’ve all been in there doing the same work. I know I’m beat half to hell. Ray there is asleep under his hat.”

From his slumped position against the wall, Ray waved a hand in a dismissive gesture, but did not lift his hat from where he had tilted it down over his eyes.

Elmer continued. “But you look like you’re still raring to go. You got some kinda patent medicine in that lunch of yours that keeps you pepped?”

Taylor laughed. “I’m just excited by the mine, that’s all. Ain’t you looking forward to being rich?”

“Sure as shooting I am, but that don’t stop me from being tired right now. Excitement don’t make energy, not over any kind of long haul.”

“Well…” Taylor hesitated. “Hell. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Sure I would, Taylor.”

Beside them, Ray lifted his hat and straightened up, never one to miss a secret.

“All right, look. I’ll tell you. You ain’t gotta believe me, but I don’t want to hear no mockery out of either one of you. You asked, I’m telling, so here it is. You don’t like it, you don’t gotta listen.”

“Lay it on us already, Taylor,” Ray said irritably.

Taylor pushed his shirt sleeve up his arm as far as it would go. At the top of his arm, almost to his shoulder was a blackened symbol, a thick rune etched into his skin. It was unpleasant to look at, and yet Ray and Elmer both unconsciously leaned forward, drawn to it.

“That some kind of tattoo?”

“Pretty much, Ray, yeah. It says Contain.”

Taylor’s mouth did not say “contain,” though that was the word that Ray and Elmer heard. They nodded regardless. They had already known what it meant, though they could not have said how they knew.

“It’s a word from an ancient language. Back when words had real meaning, and real power. It fell out of the world long ago. But things like that, it’s hard for them to stay buried forever. They got a way of waiting until their time comes around again.

“An old man taught me this one. I saved his life in the desert, found him and brought him back when he thought he was going to die out there. In exchange, he told me this word, and how to use it.”

Elmer was enraptured. “What else do you gotta do besides draw it on you?”

“First, you can’t just draw it on. It’s gotta be part of you, forever. A knife’d do, though. Or a brand, if you had one. Anything that’ll give you a deep enough mark. You don’t want to let this thing fade. There’s a price to be paid for messing with power like this, but you’re safe as long as you don’t screw it up. So if you’re doing this, you be damn sure you’re doing it right.”

Taylor hitched his sleeve up another inch to give them a clear view of the entire symbol. The lines that made it up were uncomplicated, though somehow they gave an impression of interlocking in a way that a crudely inked diagram should not have been able to do. Each line crossed both in front of and behind each other one, as well as passing in some other dimension that neither man had either previously noticed. Despite that, both were certain that they could draw it from memory, with their eyes closed if necessary. It was not the sort of thing that one forgot. It stamped itself into their minds, its weight almost a physical ache.

“Got that? Okay, second: when you do it matters. It says Contain, right? So if you were to do it right now, this is all the energy you’d ever feel. It don’t add nothing. It just keeps in what’s already there. So you want to wait until you’re feeling great, real flush with life. That’s when you want to mark it on. It’ll keep that feeling in you then, keep it in your bones. I ain’t had a bad day since I got this on my arm.”

“And that’s it?” Ray asked. “Wait til we’re feeling good, put your magic word on our arms, and bam?”

“It ain’t magic. It’s power.”

“Does it have to be our arms, though?” asked Elmer.

“Cut it into your foot for all I care. A body’s a body. Put it wherever you like.”

“Hell of a leap of faith we’re taking here,” Ray said. “Turns out you’ve lied to us, we’re stuck with this damn mark forever.”

“Now why would I lie to you?”

“How should I know? Maybe someone sold you on this lie when you got that tattoo, and you just don’t want to be the last idiot to fall for it. Maybe it’s some mark that’s gonna get us in trouble with the law somewhere. Maybe you’re just heat-crazy.”

Taylor shrugged. “Like I said, you can believe me or not. But here.” He hunted around on the ground for a minute and came up with a rock about half the size of his head. He passed it to Ray.

“What would you say that weighs, about ten pounds?”

“Sure,” Ray said. “So?”

“So hold it out in front of you. One arm, straight elbow, shoulder height.”

Ray held the rock out as instructed. After a few seconds, his arm began to shake. He gritted his teeth. “How long am I doing this for?”

“You can drop it whenever.” Ray let the rock thump to the ground, and Taylor continued. “So that was real hard, yeah? But it was easy for the first coupla seconds, when you first stuck your hand out there.”

“What’s your point?”

Taylor bent down and picked up the rock, holding it out in front of him the same way he’d showed Ray. “That’s ‘cause you spent that energy. But mine stays contained. This doesn’t make me any stronger than I ever was, so I can’t do anything I couldn’t do before. But anything I can do, I can do forever.”

He continued to hold the rock casually as he talked. His sleeve was still rolled up, proving that no trickery was occurring. Seconds ticked over into a minute, and still Taylor showed no signs of exertion.

“It was easy at the beginning, so it’s easy now. I could stand like this all night. Well, except that I’d get bored, hungry and probably sunburnt. But I wouldn’t get tired.”

“I still ain’t convinced that this ain’t a trick,” grumbled Ray.

“Then don’t do it,” Taylor said, dropping the rock and rolling his sleeve back down. “Ain’t no nevermind to me. Elmer asked, so I told him. What y’all do with it is on you.”

Contain,” said Elmer, reflectively. He did not see the way his mouth moved to make the alien sound. Taylor did, though, and hid a smile.

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Words of Power

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“Whatcha kicking at there, Pa?” Taylor emerged from the boarding house and breathed in the rapidly-warming morning air.

“Nothin’. The padre was showing me part of why he thinks the path out is tangled like it is. I’m kicking it out so it don’t confuse nobody else.”

“Confuse ‘em how?” Taylor knelt to peer at the strange symbol, still half-visible despite Deke’s efforts to efface it.

“Confuse ‘em like wondering why someone’s drawing pictures in the street outside the boarding house, that’s how. Don’t ask so many questions.”

“I believe that’s the first time you’ve ever told me to question things less, either as father or in your ‘business capacity,’” Taylor said, making the quotes with his fingers.

Deke bristled. “You shut your damn mouth,” he hissed. “We are barely off the porch and the walls here just ain’t that thick.”

Taylor stood and brushed off his knees. “Hardly matters much since there’s actual silver after all.”

“Matters to me. And I ain’t seen this silver yet, so I ain’t convinced.”

“You think I don’t know what silver looks like? Or what, you think I’m conning you? Think I threw in with Ray and Elmer to pull one over on you?”

“I think you’re getting careless, boy.”

“Looks Arabic,” said Taylor, ignoring the insult and Deke’s dark look.


“That thing in the street. Looks Arabic.”

“You don’t even know Spanish, and you can recognize Arabic?” Deke glanced back down at the broken symbol, then immediately looked up again. Even damaged as it was, it still nudged at him, insisting his attention and obedience.

Taylor shrugged. “Sure. They use ‘em in the drawings in the dime novels. Strange mystics from the East, and the like. They do that curly writing across the top and as borders and stuff.”

“So you think that curly writing made the path out all curly, too? How does that make any sense?”

“Makes as much sense as anything else, don’t it?”

“You got a point there, I suppose.”

The two men stared at each other in silence. The moment stretched out until Taylor finally spoke again.

“Something’s for sure going on,” he said, turning away to look at the mountain. “It ain’t normal, and it ain’t right. So why not magic words?”

“No such thing as magic words, that’s why.”

“No such thing as demons, neither, but Ol’ Sal’s still dead and your arm’s still weeping.”

Caught off guard, Deke had no response.

“I read a story once,” Taylor continued, “‘bout one of them books of power. Necronomicon, it was called. Written by a man name of Abdul Al-Hazred. The power book, I mean, not the story. Al-Hazred went grasping for knowledge and found something so true it drove him insane. It was too big for sanity. It nearly killed him outright, but he lived. He lived and he wrote it down.

“They say the book was a horror. It was half poetry, half spells and half a continuous, written scream. All of that got packaged up and crammed into the pages, and it overfilled them. Al-Hazred was crazy, but the book was crazy, too. It had its own madness, separate from his. The truth drove even the book crazy.

“The story kinda followed the book at that point. Books can last an awful long time, and this one was canny, made sure it was well taken care of. So it turned up over and over throughout history, letting people see bits of the truth, warping the world with the weight of its knowledge.”

“So you’re saying that a made-up book from one of your books is here, with a truth so heavy it’s bending the mountain into a pretzel,” Deke said dryly.

Still looking at the mountain, Taylor shrugged. “I’m saying that all books got a bit of truth to them.”

After a moment, he added, “You really oughta come out to the mine, Pa. See the silver vein, set your mind at ease, know for sure that I ain’t looking to rip you off.”

“Nice of you to look out for me.”

Taylor laughed. “I told you yesterday, we need all the hands we can get to move them timbers. So even if you only got one hand to spare, bring it on up. That’s one more than we had.”

“I’m healing, boy. You don’t rush healing. That’s how you end up unhealed.”

“Well, heal faster, old man.”

“Your book got curly writing to do that for me?”

“Ain’t my book! But you know, yeah, I saw old Abdul up at the mine yesterday. He said come on up and he can heal your arm. He was just behind that rockfall, so we’re gonna have to clear it out and put a few more timbers in before we can get to him to heal you.”

“Clever, boy. Sure, I’ll just pop right up there today.”

Taylor laughed again and clapped him on the back. “Do things in your own time. I’ll try to save you some silver.”

The mid-morning sun was streaming into the boarding-house room. Taylor had long since left for the mine, carrying what he needed for the day in his pack. Most of his possessions remained behind in the room, where Deke was methodically going through them.

He made note of the location of each bag, box and book before moving it, and was careful to replace each one exactly where it had been when he was done examining it. The books he flipped through with a gentle but practiced hand, checking for loose paper, sewn-in pages or handwritten notes. The boxes had their contents removed, sorted through and set aside. Deke then tapped every side of each box checking for hidden compartments before re-packing them.

Deke didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, only that he would know it if he saw it. He was beginning to believe that there was nothing there to be found—and then he opened up a weathered leather satchel to reveal a large book bound in leather that he was sure he’d never seen before.

Gingerly, Deke lifted the book from the bag. Its cover was scratched and mottled, but the binding was solid and overall the book appeared to be in good repair. It had three interlocking circles branded into its cover. The bottom two had been stained with some dark ink.

Aside from the circles, the outside of the book was featureless. It bore no title, no author. There was no writing on the spine or on the back. Deke turned it over in his hands several times before finally opening it.

The pages were a thick vellum, yellowed with age. They were still supple and strong, though, and turned easily beneath Deke’s fingers. They were also completely blank.

Deke flipped through the book with increasing confusion. What was Taylor doing hiding a blank book? He held the book up to the window, letting the sun shine through one page, but it revealed nothing. No scratched-off ink, no hidden message, not even an impression in the page where a writer might have pressed too hard on a page above. As far as Deke could tell, this book was and always had been completely blank.

After subjecting the book to every examination he could think of, Deke finally admitted defeat. He replaced the book in its satchel, placed the bag back in Taylor’s trunk along with the rest of his possessions and relocked it. He then sat down on his bed, chin in his hands.

He’d been so sure that he’d find something in Taylor’s trunk that would explain what was going on. Instead, he’d just found a new mystery. Questions without answers were piling up, and Deke did not care for it at all.

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Faith and Free Will

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Deke was up early, having slept poorly the previous night. He’d been woken by the sounds of Clarinda’s carnal pleasure through the thin walls, and had been kept awake by the realization that Taylor wasn’t in his bed. For a moment Deke thought that it was Taylor who’d found his way to Miz Blaumer’s room, but seconds later Taylor crossed the room, walking quietly on bare feet. Acting on instinct, Deke shut his eyes, watching Taylor through the fringe of his eyelashes as he pretended to be asleep.

The boy wasn’t doing anything wrong, only cleaning his boots. Still, the hour was late and Deke’s reaction to any unexpected action was to wait and watch. In this case, he resolved to watch only until Taylor went back to sleep.

The problem was that he never did. After the boots, he cleaned and oiled his gun, then took up a thin dimestore novel and began to read. Taylor was still awake when Deke slipped back from pretending to sleep into actually sleeping.

Deke awoke with a start in the grey light of false dawn. Taylor was gone, seemingly never having slept at all. From below, Deke could hear the faint murmur of hushed voices. Though the words were indistinct, Father McCaig’s Irish accent clearly marked him as one of the speakers. Deke was willing to hazard a guess that the other was Taylor, engaged in his standard early-morning conversation with the preacher.

Deke’s arm throbbed. The edges of the ragged wounds were still pustulent and hot to the touch, but it was clearly healing. He rose and wrapped it in a fresh bandage, listening all the while to the quiet discussion below him. He could only pick out the occasional word clearly, but something about the conversation felt off. The flow, the rhythm—something about it didn’t parse correctly.

Deke pressed his ear to the floor, straining to hear better. As he did so, though, the floor creaked beneath him.

“Sounds like Pa is up,” he heard Taylor say.

Abandoning subtlety, Deke drew on pants and a shirt and ambled downstairs. Father McCaig was packing a small canvas satchel, and Taylor sprawled in a chair watching him. They both turned at the sound of Deke’s footsteps on the stairs.

“Morning, Father,” Deke greeted them. “Morning, son.”

Taylor grimaced. “That what passes for a witticism ‘round here now?”

“It’ll do for this hour of the morning. Padre, you off to find us a route to freedom today?”

“God willing, I will. Jesus wandered in the desert for forty days before he found what he needed. The Israelites were lost for forty years. All things will come in their time.”

“I don’t mean to press, padre, but we’re not gonna make it forty days here. We just ain’t got the supplies.”

The padre smiled at him. “‘And the children of Israel said unto them, “Ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then said the Lord unto Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you.”’ Have faith, and the Lord will provide.”

Deke eyed the priest skeptically. Father McCaig’s cassock hung loosely on his frame, suggesting that the once-portly man was undergoing serious weight loss. “How much will he provide, Father? He’s lettin’ you waste away a bit there.”

Father McCaig continued smiling as he placed two water bottles into his canvas bag. “Is it not written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’? My faith shall sustain my flesh, and my flesh sustain my faith.”

“How do you know?” Deke pressed him. “If you’re walking the same path and just waiting for something to change, how do you know anything ever will?”

“Faith,” Father McCaig said simply. Seeing the argumentative expression on Deke’s face, he raised a hand. “And not blind faith, m’lad. I have received signs that I am on the right path.”

“Signs like what?”

“Signs like this.” Father McCaig motioned for Deke to follow him outside. He knelt in the street and, taking up a sharp rock, carved a strange symbol into the hard-packed dirt.

Deke stared at the symbol, feeling his stomach twist. The symbol seemed somehow to glow darkly, untouched by the faint morning light filtering over everything else. Its curves were unnatural, unpleasant. It called to Deke, speaking its name inside his head.

Straightening up, Father McCaig intoned, “‘Then came in all the king’s wise men: but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof.’”

“Obey,” said Deke, half to himself.

Father McCaig laughed, delighted. “We’ll make a convert of you yet! You see, then? You believe?”

“I see it, padre.” Deke tore his eyes away, refusing to look any longer. The symbol still hummed in the back of his mind. “You saw this on the path?”

“Inscribed on a rock wall, where it never had been before. I am not the only one who walks these paths. Others go before and behind, clearing and smoothing the way. Whatever devilry has twisted it will be removed in time. This I have been promised.”

Father McCaig glanced up at the rising sun. “And for my part of that promise, I must be on my way. Care to join me today?”

Deke gestured as his bandaged arm. “Can’t say as how that ended so well for me last time, padre. Nor for you.”

“But you are healing, and I am healed. The Lord has provided.”

“He forgot about Ol’ Sal in his provision, padre. Not to mention your eye.”

“‘And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.’ I lost an eye that I might see. I lost a mule that I might walk. Everything serves its purpose, Deke. You and I neither more nor less than anything else.”

“Whatever happened to free will, Father?”

“Free will gives you the ability to fight against your purpose, and to suffer for it. Choose to serve freely, and you will be exalted.”

Obey, said the symbol in the back of Deke’s mind, its curves tightening. Deke forced his thoughts away from it.

“Will you come, Deke?”

Obey, pulsed the symbol. Obey.

Deke shook his head fiercely. “No, padre. At least not til I’m healed.”

“As you choose, then. I’ll see you tonight, lad. Or with God’s grace, I’ll see Contrition and send you word of freedom.”

“Go with God, padre.”

Deke stood outside and watched the priest’s form disappear into the distance. At his feet, the sketched symbol still taunted him with its command, daring him to look again.

“You’re nothing but dirt,” Deke said to the air, not looking down. He scuffed viciously at the street with his bare foot, scratching his toenails through the padre’s drawing. “Nothing but some stupid drawing.”

Obey, whispered the image in the back of his head, unmarred by his vandalism.

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Behind Closed Doors

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“We won’t make it the week.”

“Won’t make it the week doing what?”

Clarinda turned away from the mirror on her vanity to smile at her husband. “Sorry, John. I was just talking to myself.”

“I’d still like to know your thoughts.” John propped himself up on one arm in the bed.

Clarinda sighed—not at him, but at the situation. “The larder, John. I made up that list earlier, like I said. By the end of the week, we’ll be out of basic staples.”

“So soon?”

“Well, every day we’re feeding myself, Deke, Taylor and Father McCaig. Though he hardly seems to eat at all anymore. I swear he’s thinner by the day, the poor man.”

“And me.”

“Hm?” Clarinda wrinkled her brow in confusion.

“We’re feeding me, too,” John clarified.

“Oh! Of course. Yes, obviously you as well.” Clarinda stared into a corner of the room for a moment, trying fruitlessly to recover a lost thought. “Regardless, the point stands: by this time next week, I’m not going to be setting a full table. Or much of any table at all.”

“What can be done about it?”

“Hunting, I suppose. We can supplement it with rabbits, grouse, whatever we can snare. Not much grows out here, but there’s onions at least. Might be I can get Cora to help me collect some of those. Though she’s got her own problems, I’m sure.

“And of course, there’s always the hope that Father McCaig will find his way back to town, or that the supply wagon will come through. It’s eerie, isn’t it? Being cut off like this. We were never convenient to town, I suppose, but it was always good to know that we could get there if we needed. I haven’t left the Hollow in a year or more, but now that I can’t—”

John cut her off. “But what can we do about it right now?”

“Now?” Clarinda looked over her shoulder at her husband. “Not much we can do at night. We’ll start in on this tomorrow.”

“If there’s nothing we can do about it right now, then quit fussing and come to bed.” John lifted the edge of the sheet. “I can think of things we can do at night, though I confess they do not directly address the problem you’re describing.”

“Mr. Blaumer!” Clarinda put a hand to her lips in mock horror, though the blush in her cheeks was real. “I am a married woman.”

“And I’m a lucky man.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled. “So come to bed.”

“In just a minute.” She turned back to the mirror.

Desire, said John, though that was not the shape his lips made. With his thumbnail, he scratched a bleeding sigil into his opposite palm, then pressed it to his chest.

A wave of emotion swept over Clarinda, powerful enough that her knees would have buckled had she not already been seated. Lust was strong in it, the kind of hungering need that demanded to be sated, but there was a complex mix of others as well. Love was there, that heart-filling kind where Clarinda knew that her life was more complete with John in it. Not that he provided what she was missing, but that he allowed her to fully become herself. If lust was the ignition spark, this love was the enduring flame that the spark set.

Need was there, too, the uglier side of love. This was the fear that she wasn’t enough, either for him or without him. It was a gnawing question that defied logic to persist, lurking at the edges and waiting to strike. With it was loneliness, a heavy crushing weight of time. It was empty beds and a lack of human contact and a fear of dying alone and forgotten. These added urgency to the equation, a demand to seize the opportunity now before it passed.

And woven throughout was romance, big and small. Long walks to nowhere, touching hands. Their wedding day. John’s half-bashful, half-business-like proposal to her. A thousand small things from their courtship, and the fact that those gestures had not stopped into their marriage. His attention. His respect. His love. His desire.

As the crash of emotion subsided, Clarinda realized she was gripping the edge of the vanity hard enough to bend her short nails. Her vision swam, and she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. Eyes half-lidded, lips slightly parted, chest heaving—she was the picture of a woman entranced.

“Come to bed,” John said again, and this time Clarinda obeyed without further argument. She started to slip beneath the covers, but at a glance from John, she stopped and let her nightgown fall to the floor before joining him in the bed.

John’s mouth was on her neck, his fingertips tracing thin trails of fire along her skin.

“John,” Clarinda whispered, her hands on his back. His skin was smooth and cold. A memory tugged at her mind. It was something important, something she’d forgotten. She reached for it, sure that it was nearly within her grasp.

Desire, John whispered in her ear, his lips writhing in impossible patterns against her cheek. He pressed the hand with the bloody sigil to her left breast, and Clarinda moaned under the onslaught. The thought fled, lost in the night and the need.

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