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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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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Desire

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Lights and sound spilled from the saloon, clear signs that the miners were home for the day. Deke grimaced, slowing his horse as he considered his options. Taylor’s cockiness still worried him, and he had no interest in running into him just yet.

Deke thought again about just turning tail and running. The path was open, he was sure of that. He could drop the book off of a cliff, leave it wedged in some forgotten crevice for the wind and sand to wear away. He’d cut his losses and be clear of this place.

It wasn’t an option he could take. Deke sighed and hitched his horse outside of the boarding house. Many men would have told themselves that it was a heroic act to stay. Deke knew himself better than that. He was staying because the situation here was so far out of his control that if he left, he’d spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, waiting for this to catch up to him. It was no fitting end to the life of carefully planned deceit he had led. Better to die here fighting than to live like a coward.

“Well,” Deke muttered, knocking the worst of the dirt off of his blood- and ichor-stained boots, “best of all to win, actually. Let’s see if we can’t keep that streak going.”

“Evening, Deke!” called Clarinda as he entered the boarding house. “Any luck with the—out! Out of my house this instant! What on earth have you been up to? Is that blood? What happened?”

She bustled toward him, making shooing motions with her hands, but Deke stood his ground.

“I’ll be honest, Miz Blaumer. It has not been the best day.”

“You can’t track that in here. Go wash up in the creek!”

“Miz Blaumer, you need to leave.”

“What? I certainly do not.”

“You’re out of line, Mr. Dambacher,” came a voice from the kitchen doorway. The speaker was a tall man, lounging casually against the frame. His clothes spoke of moderate wealth. His attitude was one of ownership.

“John Blaumer, I assume,” said Deke. His right hand moved slowly toward his gun.

“Assume?” Clarinda looked puzzled. “Deke, you know John.”

“Thing is, Miz Blaumer, I do not. John Blaumer died before I ever rode into town.”

“What? No, I—he…” Her confusion melted away as John crossed the room to stand behind her, placing a hand possessively on her shoulder. The glyph at her shoulder, visible only through Deke’s left eye, flared brightly, pulsing strongly enough for him to momentarily glimpse it even through her clothing. Desire.

“Don’t confuse my wife, Deke. She’s a simple creature.”

Deke drew his gun and fired, sending a bullet straight through John Blaumer’s face. Clarinda screamed. John smiled and patted her shoulder again, sending another pulse through Desire. She smiled at him happily, the moment forgotten.

“You see?” said John, tapping his undamaged head. “Father McCaig believed. He made things of flesh and bone, gave them life and solidity and freedom. Whereas Clary here merely wants.

“And in some respects, that’s very limiting. It’s no real life I’ve been given here. I’m tied to her, half a figment. But on the other hand—”

Suddenly he was in front of Deke, slapping the gun out of his hand. “—I don’t always have to respect all of the rules of reality, either. It’s a tradeoff.”

He punched Deke in the face, grabbed him by the collar and booted him toward the front door. Deke crashed shoulder-first into the door, knocking it open and stumbling outside to sprawl down the steps.

John was already there, kicking him in the ribs as he landed. Deke rolled with the blow, fetching up against Bucephalus’s feet. The horse snorted and stomped nervously as Deke grabbed the saddle to haul himself up.

“You can still run, Deke. Get on your horse and go. Give up your little collection, tuck tail and run.”

“Yeah?” Deke spat a glob of blood onto the street. “This collection?”

He withdrew the book from its saddlebag and held it up in front of him, opened to Contain. “Tell you what. Why don’t you come and take it.”

John gave him a grim smile. “You think I won’t?”

“I don’t see you doing it.” Deke advanced on him with the book.

John snarled, then vanished. Deke’s lips started to curl up in a smile, but before he could even finish the motion, a sharp blow struck him in the back of the head. He flinched, swinging out with the book, but John was already flickering out of sight again.

“Deke! John! What are you two doing?” Clarinda was silhouetted in the doorway, the rune a red brand in the shadow. Only the top of it was visible, but as she said John’s name, it glowed just a little brighter.

“Tell me about John Blaumer!” Deke shouted, tucked in on himself to avoid the erratic punches, book held in front of his face like a shield.

“You can’t turn her against me, Deke,” John hissed in his ear. “She made me. She Desires me.”

Clarinda’s mark glowed again as he said that, brightly enough for Deke to catch the outline once more. He swung a fist at John, missing as the man vanished again. “I know she does. In fact, I’m counting on it.”

To Clarinda, he yelled, “Tell me what you love about John!”

Deke scrabbled frantically in his saddlebag for a fresh pencil. Curling up to protect himself as best as he could, he opened the book to the first blank page and began to sketch the lines of Desire.

“Well, he…he’s tall, and handsome,” she began uncertainly. “He came from money, but not enough so he was conceited about it. He’s always been kind, strong and loving. He’s encouraging. He’s not afraid of risk or new things.”

Deke’s pencil danced through the jagged outer edges of Desire, inscribing them into the book. His body ached from the repeated punches and kicks, but he gritted his teeth and pressed on.

“Keep going,” Deke urged. “Tell me about when you were first married. Tell me a story about him.”

John changed his tactics and began to strike for Deke’s eye, quick sharp punches that Deke was forced to lean into and take on the forehead. His head began to throb and the vision in his right eye blurred, but the image seen through Reveal remained unwavering. Deke bent low over the book, peering over the edge to see and otherwise keeping his face behind its pages.

“John—oh! John’s favorite food,” she said, laughing. Her face lit up, and Desire glowed stronger than ever, its lines now standing out clearly through the fabric. “When we first got married, any time I asked him what he wanted to eat, his answer was always the same: potato cream soup. I believe the man would eat that three meals a day for life if I’d oblige. Such a simple thing, except that it turned out he wanted it a specific way, the way his nanny used to make it growing up. Of course, he had no clue how she’d done it, so I had to just keep trying different things until I got it right. I must have gone through an entire field of potatoes finding the right soup for him!

“But I remember the day I got it right. He tasted the soup, looked up at me and said, ‘Clary, you’ve done it.’ I was as proud as if I’d invented the idea of soup myself. Of course, then he didn’t want me to make anything else! I don’t think I’ll ever forget that recipe as long as I live.”

Deke’s hand traced impossible lines, drawing the center of the rune. John’s attacks increased in intensity as Clarinda recited the recipe.

“Celery, onions, potatoes and butter, seasoned and cooked down to a mush. Add the stock, simmer, sieve and clarify, then add hot cream and serve. I’d occasionally top it off with grated garlic or sometimes…”

The symbol flashed one final time and vanished from Clarinda’s body. The finished form stared up at Deke from the book. His pencil flew faster than before, filling the page with lines of explanatory symbols.

“…rat poison.” Clarinda’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, my poor Johnny.”

She slumped to the porch, sobbing. John cast a final, hate-filled look at Deke as he faded away. Deke’s hand cramped as his pencil raced across the page, desperate to finish its work.

Pages later, he was done. Deke got painfully to his feet, his entire body aching from the beating he had taken at the hands of John Blaumer. He reached out a hand to help Clarinda up from the ground, but she pushed him away and curled up on herself.

“Why would you make me remember that?” she asked. “I did what I had to do, and I’d do it no differently now. But forgetting was a blessing. Having him back this way, before things went bad, before he went sour, was a blessing. You’ve done no good for me today, Deke.”

“I did what I had to do as well, Miz Blaumer,” Deke said gently. “I’d do it no differently.”

She said nothing, and after an awkward moment, Deke added, “The path’s open. I’m aiming to take it in the morning, but I’ve got some work to do here yet. I think maybe you should go now. Take Bucephalus. He knows the route well enough. He’ll keep you safe on it tonight.”

Clarinda still said nothing. Another long moment passed, and finally Deke stepped off the porch, turned away from the lights of the town and headed out into the desert.


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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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