Learning to be Human

[Y’all Hazred has ended! To start at the beginning, click here. This story is not part of the main arc, and will not spoil anything in it. It is the tale of the being who will eventually become the grey-suited man associated with the Know spell. Read and enjoy!]


A long time ago, when the Earth was much younger and things were more True than they are now, the world belonged to the animals. They ran across the savannas, climbed through the jungles and swam through the oceans freely. They lived in the moment, and did not trouble themselves with what had been or with what would be.

One day a new sort of animal arose. It walked on two legs and made use of tools and called itself Human. The new animal cared very much about the past and the future. It kept memories. It made plans. It changed things around it. The other animals often suffered for this, and began to learn to stay out of the way of humans.

Humans spread and became populous. They lived on the savannas and in the jungles and at the edge of the ocean, for there was no environment that they would not attempt to bend to their will. Sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they were not. But where one failed, others would try again. Humanity was relentless.

And so they expanded their domain, step by bloody step, shoving back the world. The animals retreated with it, and humans began to be a thing apart.

In the forest lived a wolf, one among many. He ran with his pack and lived among the trees and did not trouble himself with what had been or what would be. When hunting was good, he ate well and lazed about. When it was poor, he starved and became lean and focused. The seasons came and went, the cycles of life turning and turning, and they carried the wolf along with them.

Humans lived nearby, in an artificial clearing that they had made. The wolves knew this and avoided them, for killing a human was like striking a beehive. One would die, but all of the others would come out for vengeance. They would kill anything in the area indiscriminately until their bloodlust was satisfied. And so the wolves learned to leave them alone, for there was easier prey to be had.

But when the lean parts of the year came, even difficult prey began to look tempting. And so when this wolf one day found a human off walking by himself in the woods, he stalked him silently, slipping from tree to tree as he glided through the forest. His jaws dripped as he pictured the fresh blood in his mouth, and once he was certain that the human was alone, he slid from the shadow of a tree and stood before the human, hackles raised, death in his eyes.

“Wait!” said the human, speaking to him in the language of Truth.

The wolf sat back on his haunches, surprised, for he had not known that humans could Speak.

“For what should I wait?”

“Do not eat me. I will give you food.”

“Very well,” said the wolf.

The human detached a section from his back and set it on the ground. Opening it, he withdrew a thin slab of leathery flesh that smelled of charred wood and disuse. He offered it to the wolf, who wrinkled up his nose in a snarl.

“This is no proper food. You insult me.”

“Wait!” cried the human again, seeing that the wolf was prepared to strike. “I will give you something else.”

“What else will you give me?”

“I will tell you what it is to be Human.”

“Very well,” said the wolf, who was curious.

The human sat down and began to speak. The wolf laid down across from him and gnawed on the dried meat as he listened. It was no true food, but it sated some of the hunger and granted him patience.

The human told the wolf about families, and the wolf nodded, for this was like the pack. He spoke about hunting, fishing and farming, and here too the wolf saw parallels. He explained status, respect and friendship, and the wolf saw the many ways in which they were alike.

But he spoke also of the desire to create, to control, to own. He told the wolf about greed, jealousy and envy. For these, the wolf had no understanding, no real reference. The pack was the pack, and the land was the land, and that was that.

The human could see that the wolf did not understand, and so he proposed a trade. “Let us wear each other’s skins. I will be a wolf for a day, and you a human. We will see each other’s lives, and understand each other the better.”

The wolf was wary, but his hunger spurred him on. The human had spoken of a stockpile of food in his camp. A wolf would be immediately driven away. But a human could simply walk in and help himself. The wolf’s belly growled, and he agreed to the trade.

Their skins fit each other strangely, but not poorly. The wolf felt strange and awkward on two legs, but the human assured him that he looked fine. As for the human, he looked as though he was no more comfortable on four legs than the wolf was on two. They practiced for a few minutes, though, and each began to figure it out.

“When you reach the other humans, be careful,” the human cautioned him.

“Why?” asked the wolf, surprised. “Do I not look like you?”

“You look human, yes. But my skin stretched over your body does not look much like me in particular. Do I look like you?”

The wolf considered him for a moment. “I suppose not. But you smell like me, and that is the important thing. They will let you in.”

They agreed to meet back in a day’s time and then went their separate ways, the wolf to be a human and the human to be a wolf.

When the wolf approached the humans’ camp, one greeted him in the tongue of the humans.

“Traveler! Where are you from?”

“A distant camp to the north,” said the wolf, who had not thought to invent a story.

“Did you see my brother Tirigan in the woods?”

“I did. He was well. We shared food and exchanged stories.”

The human smiled, so the wolf smiled back. The man drew back slightly, and the wolf closed his lips, worried that he had done something wrong.

“What is your name, traveler?”

“Tirigan,” said the wolf, who had not known that the humans put such stock in names.

“What, just like my brother?”

“Yes, the same.”

“Well!” laughed the human, smiling again. “Then you shall be my brother while my brother is gone. Come!”

That night the wolf feasted at the humans’ fire, eating better than he had since the summer. He laughed with them, drank with them, and listened carefully as they offered up stories and memories, trading them freely. In their stories he learned of generosity and giving, but also of selfishness, harshness and anger. He heard laughter and vitriol, humor and hatred. He absorbed it all, and wanted more.

The next day, the wolf bid the humans farewell and returned to the woods. He waited where he had met Tirigan the day before, but the human did not return. Hours passed, and finally the wolf began to go in search of his skin.

He found the human among the pack, still in his wolf skin. The wolves regarded him cautiously as he approached, unsure what he was.

“You must give me back my skin,” said the wolf.

“No,” said the human, chewing on a bone. “I prefer this life. You may keep my skin.”

The wolf smiled, revealing long teeth behind his human lips. “Then I will. But you still must give me back mine.”

And before the human could rise from the ground, the wolf clubbed him over the head, crushing his skull and staining the ground with his blood. The other wolves howled and bared their teeth at him as he slipped back into his wolf skin.

“Stop, stop!” he told them. “It is me! See, there was another here pretending, but I am back now.”

“No,” the pack leader said. “It is not you. You have been among the humans, and you have come back changed. You belong here no longer.”

And so the pack chased him away, nipping at his tail and legs as he ran, awkwardly switching between four legs and two. They chased him until he fell down a slope and into a stream, and there they left him.

Wet, angry, and tainted by humanity, the wolf took off his sodden skin and dressed himself again as Tirigan. He made his way back to the humans’ camp, where he collapsed in front of them, limp and bloody.

“What has happened?” they cried.

“Wolves,” he uttered. “They attacked me in the woods. I saw a body. I think they have killed your brother Tirigan.”

The humans looked grim.

“Wolves grow desperate in the winter,” one said.

“We must protect ourselves,” said another.

That night the humans again told stories, tales of Tirigan and his life. The wolf listened and absorbed them all, and still wanted more. And the next day when the humans came to exterminate the wolves, he was at the front of the hunters, yelling “For Tirigan!”

The wolves fled or died. The humans expanded their domain. And hidden amidst them was the wolf in his human skin who had learned too well the lessons of humanity, urging them onward, always hungry for more.

Confrontation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wrote the rules.”

“And?”

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

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

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

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

“Nice effort, but—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A sizable request!”

“Can you do it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a big offer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Clearing the Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d you know about that?”

“Ray told me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

“Take that symbol off of your arm.”

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

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

“You can’t be serious!”

“I’m dead serious.”

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

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

“I wasn’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s gotta be another way!”

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

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

“Deke, I can’t. I can’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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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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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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Awareness

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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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The Call to Worship

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Father McCaig cleared his throat. The sound echoed off of the bare walls around him, magnified into a ringing call. He lowered his gaze to the book in front of him and continued reading.

“‘A certain man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge about it,’” he intoned, his Irish accent lending a rich tone to the archaic words. He paused to look out over his paltry congregation, attempting to catch each person’s eye. “‘And digged a place for th’ winefat, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country.’

“The Bible often speaks to us in metaphors. We are the Lord’s children, and He our Father. Like any parent, He gives us His message in ways we can grasp. We are each a’ us livin’ in the Lord’s vineyard.”

McCaig’s voice boomed out across the room, unnecessarily loud in the small space. The room’s ten pews, arranged side-by-side in two rows of five, sat mostly unoccupied. This was no referendum on Father McCaig; in fact, every person in town had turned out. There simply weren’t that many souls in Rosin’s Hollow anymore.

Deke, seated in the back, kept his head fixed forward. At a glance he was the picture of attentiveness. However, his eyes drifted around the tiny church, settling briefly on each person before  moving to the next.

In the pew in front of him sat Raymond Ewart, a short, brash man with a penchant for solving problems with his fists. In church, Raymond was quick with the amens, his enthusiastic voice a half-step ahead of everyone else’s as if he felt religion was a contest to be won. Raymond was one of the men whose share Deke had attempted to buy upon his arrival, but Ray had spit at his offer and thrown him out. Three weeks later, he had approached Deke and magnanimously offered to take him up on it after all. When Deke told him that the price he was willing to pay had halved, Ray spat at him again and took a swing at Deke’s head. That time, Deke had been the one to do the throwing out. These days, the two of them maintained cordiality largely by ignoring each other.

Across the aisle in the same row was Porfirio, his shoulders hunched as if to conceal his massive stature. A giant port wine stain covered the left side of his face, standing out against the olive hue of his Hispanic complexion. He clutched a Bible in his huge hands as if it helped bring him closer to Father McCaig’s words. Deke knew little of the man. He had come as hired help with one of the big mining companies, and stayed on for reasons that were unclear once the mine stopped producing. He rarely spoke, but he was always prepared to lend a hand for any manual labor that needed doing.

The middle row held Elmer and Cora Everill, a young couple who had thought that this was their chance to make it big. Deke hadn’t bothered making them an offer when he and Taylor had arrived in town. He knew the look in their eyes too well. He’d seen it a thousand times in the eyes of gamblers down on their luck, convinced that just one more roll of the dice would reverse their fortunes. There was no saving them. They’d be here hoping against hope for a lucky strike until the desert killed them both.

Father McCaig’s round syllables continued to roll out over the church, washing around Deke’s thoughts like a gentle tide. “‘But th’ husbandmen said amongst themselves, This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours. And they took him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard.

“‘What shall therefore the lord of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the husbandmen. And he will give the vineyard unto others.’”

Clarinda Blaumer sat in the second row, nodding her agreement with the padre’s reading. Her hair was pulled up tightly on top of her head, the stiff collar of her dress matching its severity. Deke suspected that of all of the residents of Rosin, Miz Blaumer would miss Father McCaig the most. He and the others showed up on Sundays because it was the thing to do, and because even a bland change in the daily routine was better than none at all. Miz Blaumer attended services because the words truly mattered to her in a way that they did not to anyone else.

Or so Deke would have said last week. But this week, sitting in the front row and hanging on every word, was Taylor. Usually he sat in the back with Deke, watching the others and keeping an eye on the mood of the town. But since coming back from the mine, he had been different. More energized, more alert. A strange shift in any man, and doubly so from one Deke was certain had recently been a corpse.

Deke had hidden his shock last night in the bar. He’d whooped and hollered with the others, slapping Taylor on the back and calling for drinks. Taylor had looked him dead in the eye and grinned, and Deke had seen nothing but sincere joy in the boy’s eyes. No malice, no mistrust. Nothing to suggest that he remembered the fight they’d had earlier. Certainly nothing to indicate that he recollected Deke stabbing him through the heart.

And hadn’t that been a killing blow? Deke had certainly seen enough blood staining the sand from it, pouring out like an endless river. He’d wrapped the boy up, covered his face in thick canvas, jostled him along on a horse and dropped him on his head on the ground. Not to mention collapsing the mine onto him, an action lethal all by itself. Yet here Taylor sat, vibrant and alive. Deke must have been wrong somehow, the boy merely wounded.

Deke shook his head slightly. When things seemed amiss, he knew better than to believe his own eyes. For now, though, best to play along until he caught up to what was happening.

“‘In the bush,’” Father McCaig was saying, “‘God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.’”

“Amen,” called the congregation. Taylor’s voice rose above the others, more insistent even than Raymond’s. Father McCaig beamed forth at them all.

“The Lord has reached forth his hand and bestowed upon ye all a gift. ‘Tis a second chance, both for the mine and for this town. And so ye find yerselves at a crossroads. Will ye turn this wealth to earthly pleasures? Or will ye use it to the glory a’ God?”

“Glory!” cried the congregation, Taylor’s voice again rising above the rest. Deke cocked his head, narrowing his eyes almost imperceptibly. The boy’s voice carried a subtle tone, a note of amusement. It was slight, so slight that Deke couldn’t say for sure that he hadn’t imagined it. But it was one more touch of wrongness in the accumulating structure.

He had tried to speak to the boy last night, but the thin walls of the boarding house made it unwise to talk freely. Deke had had to content himself with pointed but defensible questions: “How are you doing? Where were you all day? Why didn’t you let me know you were going out to the claim?”

Deke’s eyes searched Taylor’s face as the answers came back: Fit as a fiddle. Working the claim. Really thought he must have, but couldn’t quite remember.

Each answer appeared perfectly honest, completely free of subtext. Deke, who prided himself on reading people, could find no deceit in Taylor’s voice, face or body. And he could not voice the questions he wanted to ask: Is the silver real? Do you remember telling me you didn’t need me anymore? How did you actually walk out of that mine?

Those he had postponed until later, for greater privacy than the boarding house offered. Deke had learned well the virtue of patience, and so he had let the matter lie, sleeping lightly with a knife under his pillow while Taylor slumbered across the room. He had broken his fast with the boy in the morning, listening to Taylor wax eloquent about the vein of silver he’d found deep in the mountain. He’d walked with him to church to hear the padre’s final homily before leaving, and through it all, he had shown outward calm. But inside, the questions were boiling like a kettle left too long over the fire.

“Good t’see your boy so attentive,” Father McCaig told Deke after the sermon, as they walked back toward the boarding house. “Perhaps ‘tis a fancy I tell meself, but I believe he does truly understand that this is a miracle from the Lord’s own hand.”

“He may, padre. He may,” agreed Deke. “Certainly it’s a change from the cold gruel life’s served us lately. Or will be, once we free the silver and turn all our fortunes. There’ll be plenty to tithe and plenty to take then.”

“Careful, me boyo,” said Father McCaig, smiling. “For did not Jesus say that the poor widow put in more than all the rich men had contributed together? ‘She of her want did cast in all that she had.’ ‘Tis not the amount that matters, but the meaning.”

“If that’s true, padre, then the Lord can have all of the meaning I can find in the mine. I’ll just keep the amount.”

Father McCaig laughed. “I have faith that ye’ll do the right thing. And ye’ll have your son for guidance.”

“As may be, padre,” Deke said neutrally. “As may be.”

The priest extended his hand to shake, then swept Deke into an enthusiastic hug. “‘Tis a sign, m’lad. Me work here is done, and so the Lord now passes on to all a’ ye the chance to prove yourselves. Rosin’s Hollow will thrive again, with you its new shepherds. Be steadfast in your task, for Jesus be with you.”

“I’ll do what I can to deserve your faith in me, Father.”

“You’re a good man, Deke Dambacher. Follow your conscience and it won’t steer ye wrong.”

Deke thought about blood dripping from his knife as he looked down at Taylor’s lifeless body lying under the stars. He thought about the hiss of the burning fuse fading into silence as he rode away from the mine where he’d left Taylor’s corpse. And he thought about a locked trunk in his room which contained a number of rocks of the same type found in Cerro Muerto, all threaded through with distinct veins of silver.

“It hasn’t yet, padre,” said Deke, returning the hug.


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