Choose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A choice, is all.”

“And one is wrong?”

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

“Which one do I want?”

“The correct one, of course.”

“And which would that be?”

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

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

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

“And the other?”

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

“Which one is better?”

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

“Which is better?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Time’s short. Choose now.”

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

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

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

“I will not.”


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Knowledge

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The moon overhead was mockingly bright, filling the land with strange shadows. In Deke’s left eye, though, the way ahead was as clear as if it had been laid out in a painted line. Every piece of scrub that had been touched by Ol’ Sal’s tainted corpse, every rock knocked out of place stood out like a bleeding wound on the landscape.

Deke followed it deep into the desert, step after relentless step, refusing to be slowed by the exhaustion dragging at him. The book seemed to have grown heavier with the weight of the words added back to it. It pulled at him, attempting to slow his pace. Deke gritted his teeth and pressed on.

Hours passed. The moon rose higher and the stars slowly wheeled overhead. Still Deke followed the gruesome trail. Its wrongness never eased, but at one point Deke caught himself wondering: what if this was how things were supposed to be, and it was everything else that was wrong?

The idea was strangely compelling. Deke couldn’t fix this path, couldn’t change it back to the way it was. But he could bring everything else into alignment with it. The book would let him do that. A few simple words, some inscriptions—

Deke shook himself. “I don’t do your thinking for you,” he told the chill night air. “Don’t try to do mine for me.”

A dark shape loomed ahead, a black silhouette blotting out the stars behind it. Porfirio’s twisted monument drank in the night around it, refusing to reflect the moon’s light even as Deke grew closer. It had grown larger than when Deke had previously visited, and now stretched sixty feet or more into the air, its stones piled up in seemingly precarious towers.

Nothing about it felt haphazard, though. Every rock was exactly where it needed to be. Like the words from the book, the monument sat on reality like a heavy weight, slowly bending things around it.

Deke squinted at the structure, trying to grasp the shape of it. Even with the bloody shape of Reveal overlaying his sight, though, the total aspect eluded him. He paced around the base, considering it from every angle, but the parts did not add up to a coherent whole.

“Shoulda known I wasn’t gonna get this one from the outside,” Deke muttered. He hesitated for a moment, then slapped the book firmly against his thigh to spur himself forward. “Nothin’ for it. Let’s go on in.”

Hidden within the pillars of stone, Deke found the same narrow passage that Porfirio had led him along previously. He stepped inside, one hand trailing along the shadowed wall to keep from walking face-first into a rock.

Two steps in, Deke stopped, considered, and stepped quickly backward to the entrance. He opened the book, its blank page practically glowing in the moonlight, and set the point of his pencil against the page. He did not stop to consider where he should start. Beneath the weight of the monument, he could not have drawn it incorrectly if he had tried.

Forward Deke walked, book in his left hand, pencil in his right. Every step he took advanced the pencil a miniscule amount, tracing the shape of a word that was both map and territory, guide and location. He walked on, shoulder rubbing up against the wall for stability, light from the moon overhead illuminating the page. Deke kept his eyes fixed on the darkness ahead, letting his pencil trace its own slow dance across the page.

Slowly, the path lightened, shadows fading as a muted red glow began to come from the walls themselves. The torso-sized stones of the outside gave way to the large sandstone slabs Deke had seen before, the bone-white pillars rising between them like the arches of a cathedral.

The walls were redder than before, and wetter as well. A thick red liquid oozed slowly down them, causing strange ripples in the light. Channels scored the walls at erratic intervals, deep, wrist-thick gouges as if a monstrous chisel had bitten into the stone. Deke kept pencil pressed to paper and continued walking.

The path forked, then forked again. Deke chose directions at random, retracing his steps when he felt that the pencil was too eager to move with him, anxious for him to make a mistake. The words still did not want to be returned to the book.

Onward Deke walked, step by steady step. Time passed, or possibly stopped. The rooms and hallways Deke walked through grew gargantuan, cyclopean pillars supporting ceilings thirty feet or more above his head. The doorways dwarfed him, the lintels so far above his head that he would have had to jump to touch them. Each one was splashed with purple, a deep wine-colored stain marking his path forward.

A familiar stench hit Deke, the olfactory assault making his eyes water and the hallway ahead blur. It was the smell that had come from Ol’ Sal, the smell of the rot grubs. One of them was coming.

Deke dropped to one knee, balancing the book carefully across his thigh, pencil never leaving its place on the page. He reached awkwardly over the book and drew his gun with his left hand. He pointed it down the hallway and waited.

The smell grew worse, and finally a grub trundled into view. Like its surroundings, it had grown. It stood as tall as a horse, a rippling, doughy mass of pale flesh. It sped up as Deke watched, charging down the hallway as fast as he could run, intent on making him its next meal.

Deke fired, but the bullet simply vanished into its pulpy mass without even slowing the grub down. He shot it again, producing nothing but a slight spatter of pus from the back of the grub. It rushed onward.

The distance between them closed rapidly. Deke held his breath, steadied his aim and focused on remaining calm. When the grub was less than a dozen feet away, Deke fired his remaining four shots directly into the monstrosity’s blank face, each shot tearing the hole wider.

The beast’s momentum still carried it forward, and Deke stumbled backward, dropping his revolver to maintain his grip on the book. The grub slid to a stop, unmoving. A chunky, unhealthy goo drooled from the ruin of its body. Deke prodded it experimentally with his foot, but it gave no response.

He breathed a sigh of relief, then gagged and almost retched. The stench was overpowering. Deke quickly retrieved his revolver and hastened down the hallway, the smell lessening as he went.

A few corners later, Deke judged it safe to breathe again, at least shallowly. He knelt to balance the book again and checked his pockets. Only three bullets remained. Working with just one hand, Deke awkwardly loaded his gun and snapped the cylinder shut.

The stench began to rise again. Deke snapped his head up, searching out the source. It was coming from ahead of him, so at least the grub he had killed was staying dead. With only three shots remaining, though, it seemed like Deke might soon be joining it.

The book rustled slightly. Deke glared at it.

“Don’t think you’re pulling one over on me,” he said. “I know you ain’t on my side.”

Reluctantly, he flipped back through the pages, careful to keep his pencil exactly where it was. As the smell of the grub intensified, Deke reached up and rubbed his left hand against the bloody, oozing wall. It came away with a thick, clotted handful.

Eyes on the book before him, Deke carefully smeared the shape of Overlook across his chest. He finished, wiped his hand on his pants, and stood just as the grub came into view.

Deke pressed himself against the wall as it squirmed by. It was close enough that he could feel the heat from its pustulent body, but it never paused in its motion or registered his presence at all.

The symbol in the book was half-done. Breathing carefully through his mouth, Deke continued on, deeper into the monument.


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Book Learning

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The padre’s body toppled lifelessly to the ground, Reveal somehow still undamaged despite the blood gushing forth from the bullet hole in its center.

No emotion showed on Deke’s face as he watched the blackish blood soak into the dusty path. He holstered his gun, reached into the saddlebag and pulled out the book and a pencil. The gush of blood slowed to a trickle, and the lines of Reveal stood clearly amidst the wreckage of Father McCaig’s face.

“Hell of a task we got here, Buce,” said Deke, beginning to draw.

The sun had shifted measurably by the time Deke had committed Reveal to the book. The lines of unreadable explanatory text below it filled a half-dozen pages. They were less organized than the others had been; the notes for both Contain and Obey stayed in orderly lines, with clean and empty margins, but Reveal had glyphs full of small boxes cluttering the pages, pointing back to sections of the main paragraphs.

As Deke’s attention faded back in, he became aware of a soft hissing noise around him. He turned slowly, seeking out the source, but it seemed to come from all directions. It took him several seconds to realize that the sound was coming from the corpses of Father McCaig’s congregation, and almost a full minute to spot that they were slowly crumpling in on themselves.

Deke dismounted from Bucephalus and walked cautiously over to the nearest one, a furred ophidian creature the size of his horse. Sticking out his foot, he gave the body a tentative poke with his boot. To his disgust, the toe of his boot sank in easily, the fur falling away in tufts as if from a corpse long-dead.

Deke yanked his foot back. Through the hole it had made in the creature’s skin, he could see yellowed bones peering through gray, rotted strands of meat. The collapse continued beneath Deke’s fascinated, revolted eyes. Months of decay sped by in minutes, the whole process producing the gentle susurrus that had attracted his attention in the first place.

Bucephalus whickered behind him, and Deke tore his gaze away. “You’re right. Daylight’s burning and the devil’s on our tails.”

They set off at a comfortable pace, far slower than the frantic gallop that had brought them here but still faster than a walk. So it wasn’t long before Bucephalus trotted down a low ridge and turned a corner to reveal the distant buildings of Rosin’s Hollow, staring mockingly from where Contrition should have been.

Deke swore, emphatically and with feeling. He stared at the town, then back at the path, then over at the mine.

“What do you think, Buce? Want to just ride over there and get this over with?”

Bucephalus, long used to being the target of Deke’s monologues, just stood patiently.

“Bullet or two through his vitals oughta do for him like it did for the others. With luck, anyway. Which seems to be drying up right along with the food supply around here. Shoulda realized that that was all brought in from the outside on the regular. This ain’t the kind of place that makes luck.

“Don’t much matter, anyway. He gets put down, and then you and I what, ride around in a loop until we leave our bones down there with the padre? Not precisely the retirement I’m aiming to have.”

Bucephalus continued to wait. Deke cast a critical eye around at the mountain, then dismounted the horse.

“Last time I tried a thing like this, I just about didn’t make it back. So I’m not tying you up here just in case we hit a repeat. But if I come back down and you’ve run off on me, you can find your own damn way out of here. Hear me? And I’m taking this just in case.”

Deke withdrew the book from the saddlebag and waved it at the horse, who did not care. After a moment of considering how best to carry the book, Deke tucked it awkwardly into the back of his waistband and cinched his belt tight. It was uncomfortable but secure.

Ignoring the path entirely, Deke set out straight up the side of Cerro Muerte. The terrain wasn’t too bad at first, just a scramble over boulders, but soon enough Deke found himself at the foot of a pockmarked cliff.

“Well,” he said, taking a deep breath. “Let’s hope that the padre ain’t got no more congregation hanging around.”

So saying, he placed both hands on the wall, secured his grip and found his first foothold. Slowly and steadily, Deke began to climb.

Minutes slipped by, stretching out into an hour as Deke slowly progressed. The mountain was treacherous, and more than one handhold crumbled away as Deke tested his weight on it. The sun baked him, sending stinging sweat into his eyes. A gust of wind stole his hat and sent it tumbling off into the air. Deke, a hundred feet and more above the ground, made no move to catch it. He simply gritted his teeth and continued to climb.

Finally, he reached the top of the spire. It culminated in a tiny plateau, no more than a dozen feet across. Deke stood, shielding his eyes with his hand, and turned in a slow circle.

From here, he could see Rosin’s Hollow far below. He could see the path winding its way down the mountainside, and way down in the valley he imagined he could even see the tiny town of Contrition itself, the ordered squares of its streets standing out amid the windblown swirls of the surrounding desert.

Deke had hoped that the issue with the path would be clear from above, but from here the path looked just as it always had. It twisted and wound back on itself, but no more than any other mountain path did, and it clearly led downward and off of the mountain. No branches, no circles, no way to get lost.

Deke stared in frustration for a minute longer before getting out his knife.

“I didn’t want to do this,” he said to his distorted reflection in the blade. “Believe me, I did not.”

With a grimace, Deke put the point of the blade to the palm of his left hand and, very lightly, began to cut. He drew the outer sweep and the twisting lines of Reveal with the knife, his own blood welling up to define the rune. But he drew them backward, a perfect mirror image of the symbol in the book.

Unlike writing in the book, Reveal flowed easily here, happy to be free. Seconds after he had started, Deke was done. A bloody, backwards Reveal stared up at him from his hand. Deke frowned, steeled himself and pressed his palm firmly to his open left eye.

An explosion detonated in Deke’s head, staggering him. He dropped to one knee as his head swam and his balance tottered. The pain lasted only a second, though, and then Deke retook his feet and, right eye squeezed shut, took a second look at the world around him.

The path was twisted, shattered just as the sky had been. But where the emptiness of the night sky had made it impossible to discern the pattern, the path spelled it out clearly. Contain, it said, winding in, around and through itself, passing in impossible directions to spell out the glyph in miles of trail. Overlook was there, too, a sharp-angled aberration that was new to Deke and painful to look at. And one which said Erase was drawn there as well, completing the path’s ouroboran loop.

Deke took out the book and began to write, returning Overlook and Erase to the pages they had escaped from. As he drew them back, they lost their hold on the path, reality reasserting itself as their grip lessened. The path never moved, the scenery never changed, and yet somehow each time Deke looked it was closer to normal, to what it once had been.

The sun was starting to set by the time Deke closed the book again. His pencil, brand new that morning, was worn down to a nub. Deke tossed it away into the gathering darkness and tucked the book back into his waistband.

The mountainside was in full shadow, but Reveal still burned hot on Deke’s face, and his movements down were quick and sure. He descended far more rapidly than he had climbed, and soon found himself striding back toward Bucephalus, who was still patiently waiting.

“C’mon, Buce! We’re getting out of here.”

Deke started to swing himself up onto the horse, then stopped as he felt the thick lump of the book poking him in the spine. He pulled it out of his waistband and held it in both hands, staring into the stained circles on the cover.

“You’d like that, though, wouldn’t you? If I just carried you off out into the world. You wouldn’t mind that at all.”

Reasonably, the book gave no response. Deke stuffed it into a saddlebag and climbed onto the horse.

“Hell. Buce, we ain’t done here yet. Let’s go.”


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No Way Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Exit Strategy

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Deke’s sleep was restless and fitful. The book haunted his dreams, turning scenery to glyphs, people to paper. Deke tried to speak to them, though he was not sure whether he was attempting to seek help or provide it. It didn’t matter either way. When they responded, all he heard was the rustling of pages fluttering against each other.

Deke woke with the early light of dawn. From below him, he could hear the low conversation of Taylor and Father McCaig as the priest set out once more on his daily pilgrimage. Glancing over to the door, Deke saw that the chair he had placed near it to warn him when Taylor returned had not been moved. Taylor had given up even pretending to sleep.

Quietly, Deke withdrew the book from beneath his mattress. He cautiously opened it, halfway believing that when he did, he would be greeted again by blank pages, the words having evaporated in the night. Contain was still there, though, in all of its restrained power. Deke puzzled over the two pages of symbols he had written below it, but still could make no precise sense of them. They said the same thing as Contain, only more so—yet also less. They were less true than Contain, and therefore perhaps more acceptable to reality. They did not press on it the same as the pure glyphs did, tearing the fabric beneath their weight.

Beneath Deke, the front door of the boarding house opened and closed, and Father McCaig set out on his walk. Deke watched him go, noting how his once-tight cassock fluttered around him, how his previously round face was now jutting angles, cheekbone standing out beneath the thick leather eyepatch that hid his corruption.

Deke’s vision blurred slightly, and he rubbed his eyes, wincing as he did so. His skin was raw and painful where Porfirio had smeared the paste of Reveal upon it. Deke was usually fairly quick to heal, but something told him that this would be slow to recover. He flexed his right arm, feeling the muscles twinge from disuse. This town was taking its toll on him.

Taylor’s voice drifted up to him from below, the words distinct and pitched to carry. “I’m off to the mine. When that layabout pa of mine finally gets up, you tell him I plan to see him there tomorrow. Even if I have to drag him there myself!”

Clarinda laughed at this as if it were a joke, but Deke felt an involuntary shudder pass through him. He’d been threatened a thousand times in his life, and never before had he felt the stark inevitability of his fate. Always before he had had a plan, an escape route. For the first time in his life, he truly felt cornered.

That didn’t mean that he was going down without a fight, though. Deke waited until he heard Taylor leave, then rose and dressed for the day. He added several extra pencils to his saddlebags, carefully wrapping them in a thick oilcloth to keep them safe from damage. He nestled the book on top of them, packing it in tight with a rolled-up shirt. The other bag held his canteens and all the spare ammunition he had with him.

“Morning, Miz Blaumer!” Deke waved as he passed through the front hallway, saddlebags slung over his shoulder.

“No breakfast, Deke?”

“Believe I’ve about had my fill of porridge. If you’ve any sort of jerky or suchlike, though, I wouldn’t say no to having some of that to bring along.”

“Off to the mine?” Clarinda exited the kitchen with a small paper-wrapped package of dried meat, which Deke accepted with thanks.

“Silver’ll have to keep for one more day. I’ll be checking the snares today, seeing if my traps worked.”

“Good luck, Deke.”

“Thank you, ma’am. I believe I just might need it.”

Deke made his way out to the stables, the faint smell of rot once again assailing his nostrils as he opened the doors. His horse looked up expectantly as he entered, rubbing its nose against his shoulder and nudging at his hand.

“I know, Buce. I know. Not an apple to be found around these parts. It’s a damn shame, is what it is.”

Deke rambled on as he saddled the horse, promising it pastures and ponds and freedom. He led the horse outside and swung himself up onto its back.

“Thing is, we gotta go out into the sun one more time first. You know how it is. You ready?”

The horse snorted out a breath.

“Close enough. All right, gee up.”

Horse and man rode on into the rising sun, heading for the path that theoretically led to Contrition. Deke let the horse amble at his own pace. If all went well, they’d be in Contrition in just a few hours. And if it went poorly, he’d do well to have a fresh, strong horse beneath him.

The path was different, stranger than it had been just two days ago when Deke had last ventured out with Father McCaig. The rock walls loomed higher, forcing the path into narrower channels. The twists were more abrupt, the rocks sharper. Cerro Muerte was a worn-down sort of mountain, the edges long since rounded off by wind and rain and wagon wheels. These cliffs were newer, fresher, more threatening. Even the drops seemed steeper and longer than before.

Deke rode on, scanning the walls for the symbol he had seen before. Finally, they rounded a sharp corner to find it glaring down at them. Obey, demanded the rock, calling upon the strength of the mountain itself. Obey.

The horse slowed to a stop. Deke tore his eyes from the imposing glyph and drew the book from his saddlebag. He opened to the first blank page and readied his pencil as if preparing for battle.

“All right,” he said, eyes on the page. He took a deep breath. “Ready.”

Deke locked his eyes on the symbol and felt it sear into him. His body fought to kneel, but Deke resisted with every bit of willpower within him. He set pencil to paper and began to draw, smooth lines belying the titanic struggle going on within him. A lifetime of refusing the rules forced upon him strengthened his grip, steadied his hand, kept the pencil moving.

It took a moment, or it took a year, but it was done. Obey stood stark upon the page, and Deke’s pencil flew beneath it, sketching out line after line of unfamiliar symbols that explained it, empowered it, and bound it. He slumped over his horse’s neck when it was done, the book pinned beneath him, his heart hammering in his chest.

A voice rang out behind Deke, echoing off of the rocks.

“‘Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.’ That symbol was not yours to take, boyo.”

Deke turned slowly, looking back over the horse. Father McCaig stood at the turn, half-hidden by the rock wall. His gaunt form seemed to have stretched like the walls, and his single eye glowered accusingly at Deke. Shadows shifted menacingly behind him, suggesting that he was not alone.

“Father,” Deke said tiredly, “any chance I could get you to take it on faith that I’m doing right here?”

Father McCaig slowly shook his head. “Sorry I am to see it come to this, Deke. But I cannot let you lead my congregation astray.”

A hissing, chittering noise arose from behind the priest, echoing off the cliff walls. Deke slowly slid the book back into his saddlebag, easing his gun free of its holster even as he did so.

“You could just let me go, Father.”

“I wish I could do that, Deke. I truly do.”

Father McCaig raised both of his hands. The cacophony behind him crested and, with a howl, the twisted shapes of his congregation surged forth.


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Within

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The assembled rocks seemed solid enough, and they had held up under Porfirio’s weight, but Deke still gave them a tentative kick before taking the first step into the structure. Nothing budged, and so he plunged in.

The passageway was a narrow cleft between the towering rocks. It was lit well enough from the sun overhead, but shadows gathered and seemed to move at the base of the pillars. The passage twisted and turned, making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Porfirio was nowhere to be seen, but as there had been no branches off of the path, he still had to be somewhere ahead.

A small spiral staircase built of flat rocks took Deke to a second level within the structure. He had no idea how far into it he was, his sense of direction tangled by the tortuous path. The walls were smoother now, large slabs of stone that looked far too heavy for even Porfirio to lift. They were a reddish sandstone, their colors seeming almost liquid in the shadowed light.

Step, turn, twist. Long minutes had passed without a sign of Porfirio. Deke was starting to question whether he’d missed a turning after all. The sandstone slabs in the walls were interspersed with enormous white pillars embedded in between the slabs now, great towering structures as broad as Deke’s waist that looked like nothing so much as tremendous bones. The red in the walls had deepened. The floor was slightly sticky underfoot. Deke looked down, but saw nothing but darkness. He could barely make out the shapes of his own feet.

“Porfirio!” Deke called again. In the narrow confines of the rock, he expected his shout to ring in his ears, but instead there was no echo at all. It was as if he were in the middle of an endless void, with nothing anywhere to hear his voice. Deke touched a wall for reassurance, and found it warm and slightly yielding to his touch. His fingers came away sticky and red.

Up ahead, the path split at last. Deke paused at the three options, unsure which one to take. He started down the leftmost, only to hear a strange squelching sound from ahead.

“Porfirio?” he called, drawing his gun from its holster. Again, his voice returned no echo. Deke stepped cautiously forward, gun at the ready.

Four steps took him to the next twist in the passageway, where he was hit by a stench intense enough to make his eyes water. Through the haze of tears he saw some sort of white, dog-sized creature rearing up at him from the ground. He staggered back a step, thumping his back into the semisoft wall, and the creature advanced. Deke fired two shots at it and was rewarded with a squeal and a thud.

Wiping away the tears and covering his nose and mouth with his hand, Deke knelt to examine the thing he had shot. His bullets had torn through it like soft cheese, splattering the walls with a pulpy white mass. The creature itself appeared to be some manner of grub, only grown to incredible size. Deke had never seen anything like it. The smell, however, reminded him of the rot that had festered inside Ol’ Sal. Deke wiped his hands on his pants, spat on the ground, and turned back to try another path. It seemed unlikely that Porfirio had simply stepped over this thing.

The next option Deke tried also had a grub, but this one was dead, its body split open from where it had been kicked into the wall. Deke covered his mouth again and hurried past, glad to be on the right track again. He had lost track of both distance and time, but it felt as if he had been in here for half an hour or more. He glanced up to see where the sun stood in the sky, only to realize that the walls now closed together in a vaulted ceiling overhead. The light within was unchanged, seemingly coming from the walls themselves. The sandstone was redder than ever, its swirled patterns standing out against the stark white pillars still appearing at regular intervals.

Up ahead, the path forked again, but this time one wall was marked with a smear of lumpy white pulp from a grub. No dead grub was visible nearby, so Deke assumed that Porfirio was simply carrying a handful of that with him. He imagined the smell and nearly gagged. A man might never get that stench off of his hands.

Deke followed the path, dependent entirely on his unseen leader. At one point he had thought to turn back, and had retreated to the previous junction only to discover that he did not know which tunnel he’d come from. Deke pictured being lost in here among the endless red walls, day and night unchanging, eating rot grubs to survive. His stomach lurched, and he turned back to follow Porfirio again.

For miles, the path seemed to stretch on. Deke simply followed, eyes alert, hand on his gun. The red walls were soft enough to yield to a finger’s touch now, bending like a thick sheet of rubber. Even with his knife, though, Deke couldn’t manage to make a scratch, and the white pillars were as hard as any granite. From deep within the walls, however, Deke could hear a slow grinding noise, a steady chewing. He did his best to shut his ears against it.

Without warning, the path opened up into a large, dimly-lit chamber. Deke couldn’t make out the ceiling or the far wall, but he could see in front of him clearly enough. The main feature of the chamber that Deke could make out was a pair of pits carved into one of the walls, a dozen yards ahead on the left. One was packed full of the oversized grubs, a restless, squirming pile of them which seemed about to spill out onto the floor. The other was a smooth, inky black, flat like a mirror.

Porfirio stood in front of the pit with the inset black disc, staring at his dark reflection. Deke hesitantly approached him.

“So,” he said. “I came all this way with you. Want to tell me what I’m looking at?”

Porfirio looked at Deke intently, then reached out and placed his hand against the blackness. The disc bulged slightly, and then suddenly Deke was staring at Father McCaig, as close as if he’d been sitting in the first pew at church. The padre was in the middle of a sermon, his face red and the scars around his eyepatch burning as he preached.

“‘But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect! And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, “Why art thou wroth? Why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well: sin lieth at the door!”’

“Wonder not to whom I speak, Deke Dambacher!” Father McCaig thundered. Deke started, hand twitching for his gun. “I speak to you, for though you be distant, I know ye be listening. All is revealed to me now. All!”

Father McCaig reached up a hand and tore away his eyepatch with a flourish, revealing that horrible, marred hole where his eye had been, and the terrible word carved into his flesh. As if to make sure that Deke could not avoid it, the picture zoomed in, allowing Father McCaig’s ruined eye to fill the entire disc. Its pustulent streaks and tarry ichor loomed large in the cavern, and Deke stumbled backward as the eye enlarged.

Porfirio, however, reached out and into the picture itself, his hand reaching into Father McCaig’s magnified eye to scoop out a thick handful of the black tar. Father McCaig roared, a booming sound that shook the cavern, and then the picture went black, the disc returning to a dim, featureless mirror.

Porfirio advanced on Deke, his hand dripping with black ooze.

“Oh, no,” said Deke, backing away. “You keep that away from me. I don’t need no part of that.”

Still Porfirio came, closing the distance with large strides, and Deke pulled out his knife.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Porfirio, but I ain’t letting you touch me with that.”

Deke held the knife in front of him, and when Porfirio stepped into range, lashed out. He intended to score a hit down the outside of his forearm, a cut designed to hurt, not to damage. But Porfirio stepped into it, grabbing Deke by the upper arm and causing the knife to stab him in his side.

Deke felt it glance off of Porfirio’s rib and winced, trying to pull the knife free. Porfirio clamped down on his arm and held him in place, making it bite in deeper. With his other hand, he reached out and smeared the black goo from Father McCaig’s eye across Deke’s face, slathering it across both of his eyes.

“Hell! Get it off!” Deke cursed, staggering away as Porfirio released him. He reached up to wipe his face clean, only to feel his wrists seized in two giant hands. “Let go of me, you big damn idiot!”

Deke opened his eyes to aim a kick at Porfirio, but what he saw froze him in his tracks. Were it not for the winestain birthmark covering what remained of his face, the man in front of Deke would have been unrecognizable. Half of his face was missing, all the way down to the bone underneath. The eye sat loosely in its bony socket, staring unblinking at Deke.

The rest of his body was no better. Skin, muscle, even organs were gone, ripped away in large chunks. At his feet sat a large wolf, its muzzle buried in the calf muscle of Porfirio’s right leg. It tore it away as Deke watched, blood spurting to cover the wolf’s face. Ice-blue eyes locked with his above a bloody grin, and Deke recognized the eyes of the grey-suited man from the park.

If any of this hurt Porfirio, he gave no sign. His skeletal hands still held all of his usual strength, and he dragged Deke across the floor. Deke followed numbly, unresisting, trying to piece together what he was looking at.

Before he could find the words to ask the question, Porfirio pushed him through the black disc, and Deke fell into darkness.


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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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