We docked in Hell.

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Fengbo eased himself into a dock near a large building that squatted above the dock like a malignant toad glaring down at the world. As the wind shifted, it carried the stench of filth and human suffering to us.

“Why are we here?” I asked. “Is this where we’ll find Gao?”

“No,” Fengbo answered, and his voice was filled with bitterness. “This is where you will find our brethren. Mouth-speakers who resist.”

“How many will we find, Fengbo?” Liu asked.

“I am not certain,” the ship replied. “Last week, I was forced to deliver twenty-three men. There is no way to determine how many have been killed and eaten.”

“We’ll find out,” I muttered.

Together, Liu and I left the ship.

As we climbed the long path that led from the dock to the front of the prison, I asked in a low voice, “Where the hell are the guards?”

“There are none for these places,” Liu answered. “At least not outside. There are not enough to pose a threat. The only guards we will find will be equal parts, jailer and butcher. They are more concerned with the preparation of meat than they are about caring for their prisoners.

I shook my head, and a moment later, we reached the main entrance. It was open a fraction, and I saw a single guard sitting with his back to the door. He was sitting on the ground, both boots off as he examined his feet.

I drew my knife and slid the door open. Without a sound, I crept up behind the man, covered his mouth with one hand, and then slipped the blade between his ribs.

I laid the dead man down, and Liu and I stepped through the secondary entrance to find a man before us. His face was composed, despite the fact that he knelt upon chains, that his legs were secured in a brace, and his arms outstretched on a pole, suspended by his thumbs.

He looked at us, and Liu whispered, “Brothers.”

The man’s eyes widened. “Brother.”

We freed him from his bonds, and I asked, “How many are still alive?”

“Perhaps ten,” he answered.

“Take him to Fengbo,” I told Liu. “I’ll gather the others.”

“Alone?” the stranger asked.

“Aye,” I nodded and drew my Colts.

With the .44s in my hands, I went looking for our brothers.

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Unwanted Attention

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We did our best to avoid them.

We saw the other ship only an hour so after we’d raised our anchor and put Zhao in the water. Those on the other ship waved and hailed us, their shouts echoing through my mind.

Our Thinker, whose name is Fengbo, crowded on his sail and tried to tack away.

It didn’t take long for the other crew to realize something wasn’t right. For a moment, a brief, sweet moment, I hoped they’d let it lie.

They didn’t.

They came ‘round hard to starboard and sailed after us, moving in behind us to cut off our wind.

“Are they sailing a Thinker?” I asked Fengbo.

“No,” he replied, “but I’ve seen that style before. It’s fast, and I’m old. They’ll catch us soon.”

Defeat filled his words.

I gave the rail a pat and said, “Keep yourself steady. I’ve work to do.”

Liu and I went to the aft of the ship, and I laid down on the deck. Liu did the same.

“Load the clips for me,” I said, “and we’ll see if we can’t keep them honest.”

Liu frowned, confused, but he loaded the clips nonetheless.

I slipped the first clip in, chambered a round, and sighted on the nearest target. It was a white woman, laughing and pointing to us as she kept her hat pressed down with her free hand.

I let my body fall into the rhythm of Fengbo’s movements, and as we rose up on the crest of a wave, I took her hat and the top of her head off. Brain and blood exploded over her companion’s face, and he clawed at his eyes as he tumbled overboard. Their dingy, bouncing along beside the ship, crushed him beneath its prow.

For a heartbeat, the chasing ship slowed.

Then the crew yelled and tried to put on more sail, and so they chose to die.

Again and again, I fired the rifle. Some died while others tumbled into the water.

The last few scrambled into the dingy, and after I reloaded my rifle, I focused on the small craft. The boat looked as though it had seen better days, and with three men crammed in, the vessel rode low.

As they cast off and fumbled for the oars, I took aim at the boat. Shot after shot went into the hull, and after the fourth bullet struck the side, the wood split open, and the water swept in.

The men, we saw, never learned how to swim.

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Aboard Ship

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Soaking wet, we climbed aboard the Thinker.

I’d had a hell of a time keeping the pistols dry, and Zhao had carried the rifle and its ammunition. Liu had led us straight on and helped us get up the side and over the gunwale.

As soon as I stood on the deck, I could feel the vibration of the ship.

It might be made of wood and tar and iron, but it was a living creature I had climbed aboard. Of that, I had no doubt.

Liu reached out and rested his hand on the gunwale, motioning for me to do the same. I did, and I felt the pulsating life against my flesh.

“Hello, Thinker,” Liu whispered, and he introduced us all.

A slight voice, hardly more than a bit of whistling wind, reached my ears.

“A Blood?” the voice asked. “It has been a long, long time since I’ve had a Blood aboard me. Welcome, friend. Will you do me a kindness?”

“If I can,” I answered.

“Beneath my deck, there is a room, my mistress,” the ship spat the last word, “resides within. She knows something has happened, but I feign ignorance. She is fearful and will not leave.”

“We’ll take her out,” I stated, drawing my knife.

“She is strong,” the ship warned. “Be wary.”

I went to take the lead, but Zhao moved in front of me and hurried to the ladder that led below deck. Liu and I hastened to keep up with the man.

Zhao reached a closed door, grasped the handle and threw it open.

He staggered back, a long, graceful knife protruding from his chest.

As Zhao crumbled to the floor, I sprang forward, my own knife in hand. A woman sat in a chair, a look of hatred and disgust upon her face. A powerful scream struck my mind, caused me to stagger, but it did not stay my hand.

She tried to rise up from her seat, and I caught her by the front of her shirt. The woman reached up to one of the ornate buns on the side of her head and drew a knife. No sooner did the metal gleam in the well-lit room than I buried my blade in her neck.

The woman stiffened, the knife fell from her hand and clattered to the floor, and I cut the rest of the way through her throat.

Blood spurted from the wound, and she toppled over to the floor.

We left her where she lay.

We had a friend to bury.

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Down to the Sea

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I hate the Hollow.

I hate how many different worlds it connects to and how I can’t destroy it.

And I hate how big some of these places are.

The Angry Sea, as Liu calls it, is a prime example.

We traveled to the outskirts of the town I’d found them in, and we made our way along a narrow trail. It curved down, doubled back on itself and soon opened onto a cove that stretched out to a sea the color of amber. A ship lay close by at anchor, and Liu nodded to it.

“With that, we will be able to travel to Gao,” he stated, and the three of us hunkered down. I could see a dozen men at least aboard the ship, and while I wasn’t worried about the men, I was concerned about something a bit more practical.

“Three of us can’t sail a ship that size,” I remarked. “Not with any success.”

“True,” he said and flashed me a grin of yellow, stained teeth. “But that ship, my friend, is a Thinker.”

I frowned, and Zhao chuckled.

“There are ships, and then there are Thinkers,” Liu continued. “Old ships, older than most of these towns. The Thinkers were found here and there, raised up on blocks and left. Thinkers, my friend, can sail themselves. They are alive, in a way. Only the wealthy have them. Only a Thinker can sail into the Port of Chang’e, where we will find Gao.”

“Will the ship work with us?” I asked.

Liu and Zhao nodded.

“They have no love for those who cannot speak,” Liu stated. “Those men have imprisoned the Thinkers, binding them with spells.”

“Well,” I said, shrugging the rifle off my shoulder and stretching out prone on the ground. “I suspect we can break some spells.”

I looked out over the iron sights, found my first target standing at the rear of the ship, and pulled the trigger.

The sound of the shot rolled out across the water as the man tumbled off and splashed into the water. His shipmates raced around, trying to see where the shot came from, and I killed four more of them in their panic.

One of the men got the bright idea to go over the side, and I counted six more who followed.

I reloaded the rifle and took my time killing those in the water.

When I finished, we went down to the water and swam out to meet the Thinker.

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Interesting

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They were quite a sight.

I came upon the pair of men as I moved through a back alley and found them behind a house.

They were images of misery with great squares of wood locked around their necks, and as I approached, they moved aside.

I paused a fair distance away and asked, “What the hell is this?”

“It keeps us from fleeing,” one of the men spoke, and I was surprised his words issued from his mouth.

He nodded, as did his companion. “Yes, we do not speak with our minds. Only our mouths.”

“You can both speak?” I asked.

“No,” the man stated. “Well, we could. Zhao, though, would not stop speaking once they captured us. So, they took his tongue and ate it in front of him.”

Zhao looked down as he settled into a seated position on the ground.

“That a fact?” I asked.

They nodded.

“Why are you locked up like this?”

The man answered, “Because we speak with our mouths. We are chattel. Nothing more.”

“They’re going to eat you?” I asked.

The men nodded again.

“These,” the man said, tapping the wood around his neck, “mark us for what we are. If we try to run, our deaths will be slow. If we accept our fate, we will die quickly.”

“You don’t have to die at all,” I remarked.

The man frowned. “No one will help us.”

“I’m not from around here,” I stated, “and I don’t give a damned what is or isn’t acceptable.”

I stepped forward, crouched down and looked at the lock on the back of the wood around Zhao’s neck. Nodding, I drew a Colt and said, “Cover your ears.”

Both men did so, and I pulled the trigger. The iron lock shattered and sprang open. As Zhao cast aside the wood, I stood up and freed the other man.

After a moment, they stood before me.

“I am Liu,” the man told me, and they both bowed. “Where are you headed?”

“I’m on my way to kill Gao just as soon as I find him,” I replied.

Liu smiled. “We can lead you, though the way will be difficult.”

“It always is.”

Liu led, and Zhao and I followed.

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Small Talk

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I came upon the outskirts of a town and met a group of men eating.

They were not pleased to see me.

“What do you want?” one of the men asked, gesturing with a chopstick as his words rumbled through my thoughts.

“Gao,” I answered. “I need to speak with him.”

The men chuckled and shook their heads.

“No,” the one man said, “Gao will feed on you and then upon us for sending you to him. Go and leave us in peace.”

I felt the urge to reply in an unpleasant and impolite way, but I held my tongue and stilled my hands. My anger had gotten the better of me lately, and I didn’t like it.

“Why do you need to speak with him?” the man asked before I’d gone more than a step.

I turned back to face them. “He killed a friend and took some home to cook.”

“Why are you so concerned?” The man shook his head while his friends looked on. “You are worth little, if not nothing. You should be thankful your friend filled Gao’s belly.”

One of the others must have spoken, for the man nodded.

“Yes, Tsing is right,” the man smiled. “Gao might be pleased if we brought him fresh meat.”

I put my hands on the Colts. “Think about what you’ll say next and what you think you want to do.”

“I know what we want to do,” the man said, putting down his chopsticks and getting to his feet. “We want to kill you, little pig, and bring your flesh to Gao. He’ll pay us well.”

The man reached behind his back and brought out a curved knife.

I drew a Colt and put a round in the center of his chest.

He stood there for a moment, blood spreading across his shirt and darkening the silk. The knife fell from his hands, and he sat down with a hard and heavy thud. His comrades watched as he reached up, touched the stain, and then slipped off the back of his seat and lay on the ground.

“Anyone else fancy taking me as meat for Gao?” I asked, drawing the other Colt.

The men shook their heads, their faces noticeably pale.

“Good,” I said, and while I had a strong mind to feed their friend to them, I left them to their meal.

Still, I was in a town. Someone, I hoped, would let me know where that bastard was.

Or they wouldn’t, and I’d need to finish my chores.

I was fine with either one.

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A Trap Sprung

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Something wasn’t right.

The man slept propped up on a bit of wood. To the left stood a tall tree of a species I’d not seen before. Behind him were a thinner pair of the same.

The grass twisted beneath my feet as though trying to gain purchase on my boots.

I took out my pipe, packed the bowl, and retrieved my matches from a pocket.

The branches of the trees rustled, and the grasses’ efforts to take hold of the leather quickened.

I struck the match, and the world went still.

Bringing the flame to the bowl, I let the fire flicker for a moment before I drew down and let the tobacco burn. As the smoke curled up, the grasses fell back, and the trees ceased their movement.

“You know,” I observed, “it’s a damned shame that you’ve tried to snare me.”

The large tree on the left shook, creaked and twisted toward me.

“Who are you?” it asked, his voice a harsh, hollow sound that battered my ears.

“Duncan Blood,” I answered, and the grass pressed itself to the earth.

The younger trees leaned closer to the elder.

The elder tree chuckled. “Is that so?”

“Aye.”

“Spit on the ground, youngling,” the elder tree stated, “and I’ll know the truth. I’ve seen many a man with pistols like yours and claims to the same. The spit tells the truth, though.”

I took the pipe stem from my mouth and obliged the tree.

Blades of grass dipped into the saliva and then pulled away.

The elder tree straightened up. “Damn my bark. You are a Blood. And pure at that. We are well met, Blood.”

I nodded, then pointed to the sleeping man. “He looks alive.”

“He was,” the elder tree chuckled. “Thirty or forty years ago. Our sap keeps him preserved. More than a few have stopped by. Most to see if they could rob him. All get too close.”

“I imagine that works well for you.”

The elder tree laughed, its branches shaking. “That it does. We felt the vibrations of a battle this morning. I take it that was you?”

“Aye, it was.”

“And who did you kill, youngling?”

“Demigods and priests,” I answered.

In a soft voice, it said, “Oh, you’re as pure as they come.”

I snorted.

The tree laughed. “Not your morals, Blood. Your skills. Go and finish your chores.”

With a nod, I went on my way.

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The Attack

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I should have known there’d be priests.

I’d gone a mile from the shrine when the priests attacked.

There were four of them, and they fought a damned sight better than the gods they served.

The men came out of a small building on the edge of the road, and when they did, they attacked. No warning. No bluster. Nothing at all.

And that was fine by me.

They meant business, and it looked as though they knew it too.

I drew the Colts, but the men were quick. Their movements flowed in a fighting style I’d never seen before. I managed to get off a pair of shots but did nothing more than wound one of them, which left me to the mercy of the others.

Their strikes were coordinated, fast, and hurt like hell.

The first blows broke my left ribs, the next round knocked my right eye from its socket and crushed the bone around it. My nose was smashed across my face, and blood exploded down my mouth.

But the man in front of me stumbled, tripping on his own entrails as they spilled out of the gaping hole where his lower back had been. The other wounded man tried to help while the remaining two continued their assault.

One of the men reached out and latched onto my throat with an iron grip, so I slammed a Colt up into his underarm and pulled the trigger twice. He stared at me, his arm falling from his body and dropping from my throat.

The last man ignored the fate of his comrades and nearly killed me.

He placed a kick on the side of my head that sent me spinning to the ground. As my loose eye bounced against my cheek and pain electrocuted my body, he came in for the kill.

The man leaped into the air, pulling his legs up and then extending them straight down for a blow that would have collapsed my chest.

But I had the Colts.

I fired off a shot that caught him square in the neck and took his head off his shoulders. Still, I had to roll away as the body came down, legs still prepared to kill.

Grunting at the pain, I got to my feet and saw the other three priests trying to rise.

I put a bullet in each of their heads.

In the deafening silence, I reloaded my Colts, and sat down on the ground beside the headless corpse.

It would be a long time to heal.

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Embittered Gods

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The bastard lied.

I have to admit, there’s a bit of grudging admiration for him.

He’s the first one in a long time, though, who sent me to a place he thought I was going to die.

When I came upon the shrine, I knew he’d sent me on a wild goose chase. With a sigh of reluctance, I took the Colts out. The rifle I’d taken from the dead soldiers was fine, but when it came to dealing with a god, well, the Colts were the only things for it.

The ground shook, and the trees trembled as I approached the shrine and passed beneath its entrance. Ahead of me, the shrine stood waiting, and as I drew closer, the doors slid open.

I could barely see them. They were hints upon the ground, slight shadows of creatures best left unseen. Had the sun not been shining, I might not have caught even a glimpse of them.

As it was, the sun stood high.

I planted my feet, and I called out to them.

“I need directions to the next town.”

Whispers raced around me, but none answered my question. Instead, I heard promises of pain and torture, descriptions of vile acts performed on still-living flesh.

I’d get no answers from these.

I let my eyes flicker over the grounds, marking where I saw the shadows. I realized a moment later I could see them better from the corners of my eyes, though I did not enjoy the sight.

They were large, twisted creatures. Distorted mouths and too many limbs. Loose flesh and oozing holes from which dark eyes peered.

No, they’d not answer my questions.

I thumbed the hammers back on the Colts and then gave the gods a choice.

“Let me leave, or I’ll cut you down.”

Their laughter was louder, and they surged forward.

The Colts roared.

The slugs tore through the flesh and severed limbs from bodies, heads from necks. Stunned and horrified, the gods paused their assault.

I didn’t.

I fired all twelve rounds, and as I reloaded, the remained gods fled to their shrine.

I stalked over the corpses of the dead, and as I approached their haven, the doors slammed shut. I put another pair of rounds through them, and a shriek of agony pierced the air.

“East!” one of them screamed, the word barreling through the world. “Go east!”

So, I went east.

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A large surprise.

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My belly was full, and my wits were sharp.

I had a fair supply of Or fruit in my bag, and I didn’t mind the discomfort of the added weight. Not when it meant I had food.

I walked out of the hills and onto a stretch of land. As I walked east in the hope of finding another town, I came upon a man and a large stone statue.

The statue towered over the seated man as the man smoked a long, thin pipe, and my eyes shifted from him to the statue.

The statue was weathered and battered. The face on his belt was as impressive in its gruesomeness as the one on its head.

I came to a stop a fair distance from them and asked, “How far to the next town?”

The man let out a long stream of smoke, and his thoughts slipped into mine.

“You have a day’s travel, perhaps more, if you follow your easterly path.” From a pocket, he withdrew a scroll, glanced at it, and then smiled. “I don’t think you will have to worry about it, Blood. I’ll be taking you in for your bounty.”

“Best to leave off. It’ll save us both time.”

He shrugged, and the statue drew its sword.

There was a hissing as its massive joints ground against one another, and the eyes on the belt opened. The creature yawned, chuckled and asked a question I did not understand in a voice that shook my bones.

Once more, the seated man gestured toward me, and the statue lumbered forward.

I don’t know if they expected me to run or at least retreat, but I did neither.

Instead, I drew my Colts, and I let them talk.

The first two shots caught the statue in the chest, but the rounds only ricocheted off. Both the man and the statue laughed, but that laughter died as I put the next few shots into the creature’s open mouth.

I could hear the bullets slamming about, destroying whatever passed for innards.

The smile froze on the man’s face as the statue fell to its knees, wavered, and then tumbled over onto its side.

I walked up, put the barrels of both Colts in its mouth and emptied them.

Sliding the revolvers back into their holsters, I drew my knife and turned on the dumbfounded man.

“Now,” I said softly, “let’s talk about how to get to town.”

He told me everything I wanted to know.

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