A day’s ride away from Chandler Field lay the Wellbrook Mines, said, by those unlucky souls sent into its depths, to be the latest doorway to hell. Nobody around it called it Wellbrook Mines though, except the foreman. To the locals it had one name—The Mountain.
It were the most hateful creation in the entire range of the Butcher Hills, which stretched north and south. Our president called the Hills a God-sent barrier against the heathen country on the other side. No one around cared about the Saracons, who supposedly waited just over the hills. We had our enemy right here, looming above town every day. According to my daddy, once The Mountain had you, there were no getting out alive. But Wellbrook Mines paid, and I needed money.
I sat at the entrance of a two-track pathway cut into The Mountain’s side. In a display of ingenuity, the Delvers had widened the path so more people could get in and out of the depths. Still, the entryway looked like a gaping mouth swallowing up my fellow workers.
“Remember, Ducky, sector eight, deliver the goods to Ali’s crew. And you get no pay until you bring back a filled-to-the-fucking-brim barrel!” The foreman rapped on Ducky’s dusty helmet with his knuckles. “Bring them a barrel. Bring back a barrel! If they ain’t done, then you help ‘em get done. Else you’re lookin’ at another day of half pay!”
I sighed then glanced down. Like Ducky’s, my own cart was full of supplies. We brought down three barrels a day to work crews so they could keep slaving; sometimes more if needed. Other times we pulled out dirt from new mineshafts or brought back barrels of ore. Those went to another site farther north to be refined.
The sharp sound of knuckles hitting metal echoed. “Do good work, get paid good money! Be like Chase!” the foreman said.
Ducky, the teen in front of me, turned my direction then wrinkled his nose. His scrawny form was covered head to toe by cloth until only his face remained visible. He shook his head in such a way that could have been agreement or disgust then shouted, “Sir, yes, sir!” as the foreman wanted us all to do.
“Clear track two!” the foreman yelled.
Ducky charged with his load of supplies into the gaping maw.
The foreman turned and muttered, “I swear, Neb would be better than the lot of you some days. Least he works hard.”
That were unfair. Neb were the village idiot. He rambled on something fierce if anyone made eye contact. Ducky may have been annoying, but he weren't Neb.
Ducky went into the mine’s entrance, and I swore The Mountain smiled, thankful for the feast of another soul. That were the game we played; miners went down to steal riches and barrels of ink. Up here in the safe daylight, we started the process of turning it into money. For the price of a horse, anyone could get enough ink for a tattoo. Even me, with enough cash. I had nearly enough, then the next stage of my plan would start.
“Chase! Get a move on—I ain’t got all day!” the foreman’s voice carried.
I shook off my drowsiness then hastily approached him with my cart. Oiled wheels rumbled along tracks silently until smacking into the blocker.
Foreman Kindle weren’t a bad guy. He had a large, balding forehead, an asshole that stunk up the outhouse stalls, and he cheated at cards when no one watched—but the man were fair about our workloads. Working harder meant more money; being a lazy cuss like Ducky meant less. Foreman Kindle worked at keeping honesty a part of our job. He helped those who needed it by letting me, a man who hadn’t struck eighteen, toil away with the other laborers. Mostly on account of my daddy being a former lifer who had died.
Daddy said, “A good man will give you a chance.” Momma’s response became, “A wise man ain’t to let that chance go by ungrabbed.” Years ago, I would have called Momma the good one for giving Daddy the chance, and him wise for taking it every time he could. Now it was harder to tell because his death had hurt us all.
Knuckles smacked my helmet, causing the light atop it to splash around. The foreman’s face looked blackened by exhaustion and soot.
“I swear, boy, you get more daft every day. It’s like your sense drifted away with your voice,” Foreman Kindle said. “Your pap woulda been a sore one to see you working here.”
“All right, appears the quartermaster got you fitted. All food, replacement pickaxes, gloves, and more than ear-nough supplies for a two-day work. Aw look, she even wrapped your lunch with a wittle bow. In’it cute,” he said with a gruff tone. Foreman Kindle poked the barrel-sized container of preserved meat and fresh fruits. The miners below ate both in large quantities. Once emptied, they’d fill the barrel with our mine’s main commodity—roots of ink.
I nodded then weakly smiled.
“Everything’s in order. You’ll be headed out to twelve first! You ready?”
Sir, yes, sir. My head jerked up and down three times.
Foreman Kindle scowled then waved me on. “Clear track two!”
I pushed my cart into the hungry entrance and down the track, letting the slope of the mineshaft do most of the work. Before each turn of tracks, I slowed to check the junctions so I went to the correct destination. Twelve were a second-floor mine, which meant a longer trip, but less waiting for barrels because the depth hadn’t been tapped out like the first floor. Even this late in a moon’s cycle, we could still pull out dozens of gunk-filled barrels each day.
Darkness got pushed back by a small tube of faint red ink that wrapped around my forehead, lighting all directions. As the substance splashed through the tube and jostled into the container walls, it flashed a renewed light. That was how reds functioned; they were a color of violence and demanding attention. Shaking the container harder would cause it to light up more, but the substance did little else until applied to skin. My daddy had called red “Blood of the Mountain.” Only down here, in The Mountain’s stomach, would red shine so brightly.
The cart rattled forward, the pulse of splashing red keeping my path lit. I strained tired muscles down tracks, around corners, and checked the required stops along the way. It weren’t hard. As red cast out light, blue told me the purity of air. It were bound in another tube laced on my right sleeve. Darker blues meant dirty air, bright meant clean. It brightened the farther down I went. Blue loved the air down here, and only rarely did it get dirty with poisons.
Five tired-looking folks walked along the track ahead. Their helmets were lit like my own with a pulsing red. Despite being on five different heads, the red splashed in unison, either mimicking The Mountain’s heartbeat or giving off the illusion of one. Like most, I aimed not to think too deeply about the phenomenon.
I slowed my cart then pulled off to the side so their cart wouldn’t run into mine as they returned to the surface. They shuffled out of the mine to end what were likely a long shift. Their arms hung loosely while most of their gear had been stowed away in their heavily pouched pants.
“Chase,” the man in front said then lifted a pickax in greeting.
All five of the folks were named Jeff. Foreman Kindle had thought putting them in the same squad over and over would be amusing—and in the five years since, no one had broken the tradition. They did their quota every month without fail to the point where when one Jeff passed a year ago, a new one replaced him. So I were told. Foreman Kindle held to his superstitions.
I raised a hand with fingers wide in an exaggerated wave. The trail of men noticed and waved back.
“Hey, Chase, you making the rounds, yeah? Headed down, yeah?” he asked.
I flattened my lips then nodded. The entire crew spoke funny, even the newest Jeff. The lot of them shared a name and spent too much time together for anyone to stay sane. But this were The Mountain’s innards and not one of us down here had all our marbles. We left them at the door—to be picked up on return to civilization, like a clean pair of clothes.
“What number you on next?” the Jeff in front asked.
My right hand went up, my thumb holding down the ring finger. They knew what I meant.
“Twelve, yeah?” he asked, and I nodded. “That’s one of the deep crews up for a jaunt. You best be wary, those fellas ain’t seen daylight in an age. Makes ‘em funny in the head.”
My eyebrows lifted slightly and eyes rolled. I rubbed my thumb against the other four fingers repeatedly.
“Just doing your job, yeah? All for the money. We hear that, don’t we fellas?” Leader Jeff addressed his group.
They all chuckled, which made their red lights break the rhythmic sway for a moment.
He turned back toward me then said, “They give you trouble, make sure to tell the foreman, yeah? Let him know if a fella ain’t doing right down here. None of us can afford to be selfish or The Mountain’ll take us all.”
The Mountain will take us all anyway. My shoulders lifted sharply, then I nodded twice.
“Good lad. You’d do your father proud if he could see how hard you work. Lord knows you and Widow Craig need the money after he returned to The Mountain. Lord knows—” He stopped and shook his head. With a hand, he motioned the other Jeffs onward.
They ambled by, headlights once against swaying to the same beat.
A Jeff yelled back, “Never mind us. You be good, Chase! And take care of Widow Craig!”
The other Jeffs echoed him. I nodded then pulled my cart back onto the track. Their suggestion were pointless; I intended to take care of my family. Dad had made me promise as much before he died. Even though Momma had turned sour, I still intended to earn enough to get her out of here and set up somewhere comfortable, such as a state back east where there were no wars.
The path went farther in. Going down were easy. Like any hungry beast, The Mountain welcomed me by making the air cleaner and ground brighter. Red and blue tones mixed to a violent crimson coupled with sky blue. Still, farther down the cart and I traveled until we reached a destination two miles of track later.
Two hundred souls roamed the mine’s depths. Four or so were runners like me. Another ten did nothing but shuffle dirt around. Some went up top, while most went back into already cleared mine shafts. Seventy belonged to the deep mines and had taken too much ink to find their way back out. The rest rotated poorly and showed up when they deemed fit. Some were out of town handling trading deals or visiting family. Others shirked work because once a week, someone died, only to be replaced by another desperate hopeful hard up for cash.
The refinery were another crew entirely. They were dedicated to refining and purifying the resources miners borrowed from below. Each barrel equaled enough money to feed a large family for months, or a horse at local rates, or half a building in Chandler Fields. I’d heard that horses were cheaper back east, but the price of a full tattoo went up for every state line crossed.
That was how we measured the mine, by how much ink could be pulled out of the dark and refined. Ten barrels from the depths would be a slow day. Three would have been terrible. Our average of fourteen still failed to measure up to the larger mines back across the ocean. They often got thirty to forty barrels. Manpower wouldn’t solve this problem, only time and death.
Rumor said one of the ink-spawning pits in Ireland poured down from a fountain. A beautiful sight that were swarmed by monsters on all sides. Our mine could be controlled through Rangers, traps, and fighting back the beasts below.
Repetitive banging echoed down the shaft. With each step, I heard a rhythmic fall that sounded like high-pitched drums. The sound of deep voices wove between, humming low and advertising life to anyone venturing this way. There were Delvers about. They were a separate breed from a group like Jeffs. They went after colors like reds and blues, which kept us safe.
The cart hit the track’s end then slipped off onto dirt. I pushed harder, following a worn trail beaten down by footprints. Bumps slowed me, but the cart were light enough to push over the obstacles. I rounded the last corner to station twelve and finally found the mining crew. I knew this batch well enough. They had all been friends of my father, as were many of the mine’s lifers. Lifers were those who worked the mine with no hope of escape. I aimed not to be one.
Time spent pulling roots of ink out of the walls had changed my father’s friends, but even their new bodies couldn’t touch the stuff without protection. Two used their axes and leverage to work out large boulders. Another set hammered away, breaking a dislodged rock into smaller bits. A fifth piled already demolished rock into a cart to be excavated. The sixth, a squat fellow with large hands, pulled at a single thin thread of purple ink. The material looked like a long root made of dried snot and bedrock. All the while, they sang.
“Way down we’ll go”—two voices carried the strongest while swinging away. The others echoed the last word softly—“go, go, go, go.”
Their song carried through the earth, making my toes vibrate. I quietly pulled out the supplies and set them in a clear corner of the work area while listening. Their next line didn’t come until the vibrations of the first had died down entirely.
“Where the ink’s aglow,” the front two said. Four voices once again kept the last word lingering.
I set down the pail of food as one of the six broke away and approached me with a sad expression. His large eyes were too big for a normal head, and the pupils were nearly fully dilated. He nodded then grabbed the barrel of food, slowly rolling it along the ground while softly grunting.
“That’s where we gonna go, go, go, go, go.”
I helped him move the barrel of food into place, then I pulled off the lid and brought out the carefully packed meals. Harold, the one who had helped me, was too short to get into the top without a step stool. He took the meal and set it down, waiting for the next one.
Their voices lifted in a sloppy but harmonic unison on the next line. “Till all we know is woe,” five of the six sang at once. They dropped off one by one until the last singer let it die down.
They left the twisted mass of purple and black hanging from a wall. Ink came in three forms, and what we mined almost always belonged to the solid type. Pure liquid ink usually only existed at The Mountain’s core. Once it sat in bedrock long enough, it became a mass with a texture somewhere between the roots of a tree and wet noodles.
The five remaining people lined up, placed large hands over their chests, then bowed at once. I returned the gesture. They removed their gloves and set down pickaxes. All of them had the same build, but two were female. Whatever they’d had for tits had been lost in the transformation of ink exposure.
The team leader had been a friend of my father’s. The rest were also, I’d been told, but I’d remembered seeing their leader back when he’d been human. There were two ways a person might change, and both involved a lot of skin contact with raw ink. Harold had fallen in one day, survived with his mind intact, and emerged a Delver. Their entire race looked the same, no matter how they were exposed to ink. Their hands were larger than a normal person's by far. Their arms were thicker and legs shorter. They didn’t have a lot of leverage due to height but their strength canceled the problem out. The real secret to Delvers were their ability to feel the ground and its flow. They knew the soft rocks and could wiggle their fingers deep into an ink cropping to pull out entire strands. No one else filled barrels faster.
“How are you, young Chase?” Harold’s voice was absurdly soft compared to the deep thumping rhythm that had been banged out in the room before. That was how Delvers were—all whispers or deep, jaw-aching rumbles of noise, with little between.
I smiled then held out both hands palm up. They shuffled up and down. His companions moved forward for their meals but stayed quiet. I blinked repeatedly while looking at the crowd that gave weak smiles but never met my eyes.
“Fair, then?” Harold asked.
I nodded then pointed back at the short man.
“We too are fair, and perhaps a bit better. There is hope that this vein will be enough to fill a true purple bucket.”
My eyebrows went up and my scalp pulled back. My face tightened and eyes lifted, then I clapped softly.
“It would be a good prize for us. Purple is a rare color. So little of the mine has it. Though we long to find a fresh silver.”
My nostrils flared and head shook. My hands clasped in mock prayer, but a flat expression should get the rest of my message across. Silver meant purity. Silver might turn a Delver back into a human. Silver might as well be a myth, along with gold ink.
“Of course. Young Chase believes us to be foolish dreamers, to lust after silver so,” Harold said.
“We are foolish dreamers,” one of the two females said in equally soft tones.
They all sounded similar, almost like the Jeffs above, but for different reasons.
“Yet though we lost our humanity, even we can dream. Is that not allowed, young Chase? For a sub-human to dream?” Harold asked.
His crew stared at me while eating. The wide eyes of a small gaggle of child-sized people almost made me laugh. Instead, I smiled wide enough to strain my ears and move the helmet. My head bobbled, but my hands kept busy loading up discarded leftovers from a prior meal. Their refuse pile sat near a half-filled barrel of purple ink, which shone in a corner. Layers of flattened roots yanked from the rock’s foundation slowly compressed inside. Under the red glow of a half-dozen headbands, the ink looked like any other color. I trusted the label on the barrel’s side though. They had no reason to lie about finding purple.
“See, as I told you, we are allowed to hope and dream.” Harold smiled at me, and I felt sad. He’d been a friendly giant when I was a young lad. Now our sizes were reversed. “Young Chase is one of us. He also dreams. Maybe even of silver.”
They all nodded, and I let their judgment slide without response. I didn’t feel like a dreamer so much as a boy trying to honor his father’s dying wish. Maybe that were the fantasy, to fulfill my oath then be free to be my own man.
Loading the cart didn’t take long. Delvers were a tidy lot, almost fastidiously so. Everything went into the right place, everything completed in the correct and proper order. I tightened bundles and stowed away tainted gloves. The garments were tossed in a bag that would be opened at the surface and dried in sunlight to cleanse them of ink.
I flinched at unexpected contact then straightened myself. Harold had placed one of his giant hands on my elbow. My finger crooked up and down at the Delver miner. He didn’t frown or smile, only stared with giant black eyes lit up by our red and blue glowing ink.
“Young Chase, I need your assistance with something,” he said. “Two shafts over, there was a disturbance.”
I crooked both pointer fingers while lowering an eyebrow.
“This way.” Harold shuffled to a small rack laid against a wall. He grabbed a short shovel and dagger.
I pulled back a cheek and hissed air between my teeth.
Weapons meant a breakthrough or monster. I had my own tucked in a pocket but never needed to use it. Runners like me traveled well-patrolled paths. Normally only the deep mines, four or five layers down, had problems. I’d heard the colors were richer down there, but the danger was also higher. Our weekly death almost always came from those venturing far below.
“Lads, young Chase will help me. Please continue eating. Keeping strength up is important. We’ll be here all night to pull out that vein.”
“What of the full moon? It is soon, is it not?” a female asked.
I squinted and tried to make out who she was, but the name didn’t come to mind.
“Is it?” Harold addressed me. “How long do we have?”
I looked up briefly then held up a palm, moved it in a circle, then pointed down twice. Tonight marked the start of a waxing moon, and Harold would know based on my gestures. Most of the mine workers had been confused by my signals at first, but after four months of me running the carts, they were used to the basics. We worked together to ignore each other’s shortfalls.
Harold nodded and also gazed upward. The mine shaft’s ceiling loomed directly overhead. Delvers didn’t need as much headspace as the rest of us. Only when chasing a vein did they open up the area and dig out more room.
“Three days then. If the vein stays true, we can do it in three days,” he said.
“And the flooding?” the inquisitive female asked.
“We’ll create a pocket,” Harold answered.
“What about supplies?”
“We’ll ask Young Chase to deliver more.”
I nodded then held up three fingers. Harold responded with four, portraying how large his hand was compared to mine. I nodded again and agreed to four more barrels. They would need at least two more barrels of food if they intended to ride out a full moon. Four would let them work day and night. I’d pack in a tube of the liquid blue, which gave miners a way to create breathable air during cave-ins.
The moon were important because the mine above closed two nights before and two nights after a full moon. By the time I returned to work in a week, after Rangers had cleared the place out, Harold’s crew would have a full barrel of purple to deliver. They knew how to mine and stay safe at the same time. They were Delvers.
“There you have it, lads,” Harold whispered. “Come on. We’d best take care of this mess. We’ll need the room, that we will, young Chase.”
The first few times I heard a Delver talk, I’d thought he sounded like someone with an extremely sore voice trying to speak up. I later learned it was closer to reverence for the mine’s depths. Only when singing did their voices carry.
Sometimes I wasn’t even sure he was Harold. Delvers all looked similar. They weren’t like the Felines or Flops, where their fur patterns changed along with the rest of their features. As with most things about the mine, I didn’t give seeking the truth much space in my brain. There were questions worth asking, and the truth of Delvers weren’t one of them.
“We had a breakthrough. A minor pocket, you see,” Harold whispered while waving. He moved fast with his short legs and large feet. “We were looking for the colored ink. We could feel it and took a wrong turn.”
We traveled around two bends. There were no cart tracks down this way. Passages narrowed and ceilings ran low. I slowed my breathing to not waste the air down here, but it were pointless. The blue ink on my arm stayed bright. The Mountain wanted us inside, so why should it supply dirty air?
“Here.” Harold stopped next to a large pile.
I walked over and angled my head down to let the red light cast better illumination. Not more than a foot away from the Delver sat a mass of huge, limp creatures. Teeth and long scaled tails stood out in the jumble. Air hissed out of me and I fumbled to ready a weapon. The small blade shook.
My dad’s gun at home were too far away to do a damned bit of good, but the small blade would help. I needed to be able to face these monsters or my entire plan would fail. Rangers weren’t afraid of these beasts, and I wanted to be a Ranger. Creatures spawned of the deep mines could rend a man to pieces if he didn’t fight back. Rangers were simply the best at fighting the darkness.
The Delver stood there with his large hands placed firmly on his narrow hips and shook his head. “The filthy things. They might have been rats or moles or snakes before their fall. Down into the belly they went, or were sent. Out they came again, changed. Then up the side the filth climbs, through the tunnels in search of daylight. In search of release.”
I waved the knife while alternating my gaze between the unmoving pile and Harold’s passive form.
“There should be no need for weapons, young Chase. These are dead.”
A single stab through the eye would make sure.
Muscles between my shoulders felt like a rock. My head bobbled as I took deep breaths. Red light danced chaotically as each change of direction made liquid splash and flare. Each burst of light brought with it an image of savagely stabbing the monsters. The knife in my hand were lighter than expected.
Only the foolish believed monsters were so simple. My false confidence got pushed away as I ventured closer. Their teeth were huge. Barbs sat on the end of their tails. One glance at the walls revealed where they had been clawing.
Harold spoke in soft tones. “Your father and I dealt with many such beasts. Now though, my hands are only good with the earth. They sift through and find treasures I could only dream of as a tall-man. But there are too many of the filthy beasts. I am too short to lift them, nor could foolish Delvers hurl them far enough without springboards.”
He slammed the shovel’s tip into the mass of deceased. I held my breath then waved the knife in front of me in case one roared to life. None moved, and Harold shrugged.
“We opened the tunnel in search of pure colors. Silver we hoped for, but instead found a mass of monsters attempting to nest.”
I nodded then lowered the knife to my side. They were dead, and my focus were better spent checking surroundings for more. Monsters weren’t rare once a body entered Butcher Hills, especially around Wellbrook Mines. Nor were they unique to our part of the world. But knowing about it, being prepared for it, and liking it were all different ideas.
“Young Chase, if you’re curious…” He walked farther into the opened shaft.
I will never be. The mine’s mysteries can stay locked in its depths. All I wish for is money enough to honor my promise. The idea never reached my lips, and Harold continued with his presentation.
“Here is where they got in.” Harold waved at a hard-to-see slope our lights didn’t reach. Its angle was just enough to keep the wall stable, but I couldn’t see the other side from here. A bright splash of color welled up on the other side—overpowering the red and blue lights we used.
Down that way had to be The Mountain’s heart. It were a shaft that went straight down into the earth and flowed all manner of directions in its attempt to reach the surface. Most mines, like Wellbrook, were carved into the side of these ink wells in order to get the precious resources. But here, we shouldn’t have been so close to the main line. There were rules against tampering with The Mountain’s heart, which were watched over by priests stationed above.
“It’s safe,” the Delver softly insisted.
I nodded then crept closer to confirm Harold had broken through to the heart.
If the dead monsters were simply bad, then the hole which Harold stared out of bordered on blasphemy. The red on my helmet beat faster. I took quick, shallow breaths. I refused to get too close. The inside of that pit scared me. I could see from here the curve of earth and rock that led into a rainbow of swirling colors. Around the hole’s edge, light of all sorts bled through. Not dried ink that felt like wet noodles. This was a stained rock that hung slick with moisture from the pool below.
Harold stepped closer to the slope. One large hand pressed against the wall to prevent him falling. He waved the other hand toward the hole. “You see down there? Its core. There lay The Mountain’s bed. Way down there is its heart. At the bottom, it’s said someone slumbers, dreaming of demons and angels and the sun.” His head shook rapidly, and the short man backed away. “Churches on the coast claim these pits are where angels fell. They say all angels’ wings vanished at the same time, and down they crashed. They say they lay there still, bleeding out the sins of humanity. They say that’s why monsters are born. Hungry. Loathing us.”
Harold looked at me. I pressed against the rear wall, letting the pile of dead monsters and the brave Delver stand between the hole and me. My hand waved angrily at the entire mess with four fingers on top smacking rapidly into the thumb, signing “no” over and over.
I could almost hear the other Delvers singing. “Way down we’ll go, go, go, go, go. Even if Chase says no, no, no, no, no. To join his father below, low, low low, low.” The words echoed inside my skull and dizziness struck.
My hand pressed against an ear to drown out the nonexistent noise. My eyes closed briefly so I wouldn’t think about how both our red lanterns beat in unison. I panicked then checked the blue vial. It glowed brighter than ever. Harold dragged a gloved hand against the rainbow wall. Liquid pooled slowly then slipped off the grease-soaked material.
“Rainbow drops,” Harold said. “A fortune that not even we Delvers dare steal.”
My lips tightened and forehead sloped. One arm shook while the other tried to lock in place. The sight made me sick to my stomach. Like my father before me, I lived down here, terrified but desperate. Foreman Kindle knew better than to send me near this part of the mine. I may need the sure paycheck working here provided, but seeing into the heart disturbed me.
We shouldn’t be peering into the core.
“Ah, yes. You’ve been gifted a rainbow drop before. For your father’s sins. I am sorry to mention it.”
I stepped away from the wall and approached him. My fear wouldn’t rule my actions. It were like acrophobia—fear of heights but an inner need to look down.
As for the rainbow drops, they were valuable, of that there was no doubt. Smuggling any out would be impossible. They required careful handling and a sealed container painted black—with regular ink, not the stuff we mined. Touching it raw could kill a weak-willed soul.
“It is sad. A barrel of this would make a man rich. Wars are started for a mine’s control and the lesser colors. Yet the priests above watch us to make sure no fools dare touch that which is truly valuable. Only on the full moon, when it wells to its highest point, is anyone ever given a drop. Even then, only kin to those being passed back to the mountain receive the gift.”
His soft voice calmed me a little. I tried not to take note of the swirl of colors, but at the same time, I found myself approaching the hole. A sliver of the fall wall came into view, and the pattern across from us took my breath away. It shifted and moved like a heartbeat, though the priests would say it was simply a reaction to the heat billowing up from below. I pointed up and lowered both eyebrows. My finger bent up and down repeatedly to signal a question.
Harold smiled. “We are safe enough, young Chase. They should not be able to see us from this angle. We look down into the hole, not across or up. Even if they notice, it will only be the falling beasts they see. Should they question even that, then we are simply doing our duty.”
I flattened my lips. My head shook in denial, and I turned to walk away. Tearing my eyes from that alluring vision hurt, but I’d done it before. I would do it again if needed. There were barrels to get so the Delvers could work through the full moon. I would deliver their supplies to the other mine shaft, nowhere near this one. As Daddy said—only foolish men knowingly risk improper temptation. Momma said improper temptation was how they’d gotten hitched in the first place.
“Young Chase!” Harold’s voice rose in volume.
The earth under my feet rumbled. I clenched my eyes, inhaled, then spun to face the short man.
His head rocked and arms were held out toward the pile of dead. “I need you to cast the spawn back. I cannot lift them alone.” He strained to keep himself at a whisper. “They must return from whence they came. It is the way of things.”
To hell with the rules. By my count, there had to be hundreds, if not thousands, of such creatures roaming the deepest recesses of our mines. They would be down there in droves where the man-carved shafts gave way to a latticework of naturally formed tunnels. Their hungry eyes and demanding faces would stay calmly tilted upward, waiting for the next full moon. Then they would flood the mine, drowning themselves in wells of ink and dying in purposely set traps. Those that reached the surface would be shot dead by Rangers.
“Please. Help me send them back,” Harold begged. He reached for one of the corpses then dragged it to his fresh hole into The Mountain’s heart. The sight were pathetic.
I rubbed my eyes violently. The pounding from a budding headache wouldn’t stop. Jobs were meant to be laborious, but not this sort of labor. The dead bothered me, even that of an inhuman creature. Still, those deceased scared me less than that welling of bright colors. Not because of how it belonged to The Mountain, but because of how I wanted to peer into its depths and never look away. Until I too fell into the heart. Weaker men and women had given themselves to The Mountain before.
Joining them only required a step or a slip. The priests Harold spoke of had dared ask me if I wished to go with my father on the night we buried him. I almost gave in and leapt into the pool where I’d either drown or come out changed. Few survived, but grief eroded sensibilities and caused some to risk the dive.
I pointed at the pile, then the hole, and ended by brushing my pointer and middle finger back and forth.
“Of course, young Chase. Once you’ve helped me, it would be best to go. I owe it to your father to make sure the mountain doesn’t get you yet. But rules are rules, and I haven’t the tools here. My springboards are all below, and the nearest Returning Chamber is hours away.”
Springboards made no sense to me. I imagined them to be something related to the traps down in the mine’s deepest levels. When monsters were killed down there, they had to be returned to the mountain as well. Returning Chambers were the usual method. Below, there were rooms dead monsters got stuffed into. During the next full moon, The Mountain could reclaim those dead.
I stared at the Delver and pursed my lips while tucking back a cheek. Harold moved on to the next body, dragging it closer to the edge. He left them waiting near that sharp tunnel exit. Harold’s brown fur coloring became more obvious in the mixture of rainbow lights. Delvers had a thin layer of fur all over their body, similar to moles.
My hands clenched tightly then loosened as I resigned myself to the task. Money burned while I dithered in this corner of the mine, and rules were rules. I grabbed a foot sticking out farther than the rest and yanked.
The creature came to life, bending at the middle and shrieking.