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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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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