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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Hungry as hell.

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I was hungry.

Since I didn’t know what I could and couldn’t eat in this place – I’d made mistakes regarding food when I was much younger – I went looking for a shop.

I found it in the form of a small building about a dozen or so miles from where I’d encountered the soldiers on the bridge.

When I entered the building, I was greeted by a tall, thin man seated behind a counter. On the walls to either side were jars on narrow shelves and dried meats hanging from the ceiling. The man nodded, smiled, and asked in their penetrating way, “How may I help you?”

“I’m hungry,” I answered, ignoring his surprise when I used my mouth to speak. “I’d like to purchase some food for the road.”

He blinked at me, then his eyes widened in recognition.

“You’re the one they’re looking for,” he told me, a note of awe in his words.

“Probably,” I replied dryly, “unless there’s another person wandering around who happens to speak through his mouth. Now, I’m wondering if I might get some food.”

He reached down, and my hand dropped to the butt of the Colt. Instead of bringing up a weapon, he held a scroll. His hands trembled as he released the string around it, unrolled the paper and turned it to face me.

I couldn’t read the language it was written in, but a wanted poster is easily understood, regardless of the language.

I saw a well-done drawing of myself, and I looked angry as hell.

“So,” I said, letting go of the pistol. “You’re not going to sell me any food.”

He shook his head and put the scroll down. “It is not worth my life.”

“I don’t blame you.”

My stomach growled, and as I turned to leave, he said, “The fruit of the Or tree is a soft yellow. It is filling and sustaining.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I asked, “Is it in season?”

He nodded. “It cannot be missed. The trees are tall, the fruit hangs low, and the birds gather around it.”

“Thank you,” I said and made my way out of the building.

With my stomach still growling, I wondered who had drawn my face so well, and I went in search of the Or trees.

The fruit, I soon discovered, was as sweet as fresh honey.

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Fugitive

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They wanted to take me back.

I had finished stripping down, cleaning, and reassembling my newly acquired rifle when the scout stumbled into my camp.

“If you’ve a mind for some tea,” I told him, “you’re welcome to sit. If you think I’ll stand up and go anywhere, I’ll put a bullet in your gut for your trouble.”

A moment later, his shaky voice sounded in my head.

“You’re to be brought back to the city,” he told me. “They know you’re hunting Gao, and we’re to stop you.”

I shook my head. “Get on back to your commander and tell him I said to leave me in peace. If he pushes the issue, I’ll kill everyone in my way. Gao needs to die. No one else.”

The soldier’s eyes flickered to my rifle. When I didn’t pull the trigger, he turned and bolted from my campsite.

Soon, I was on the path.

I’d gone no further than a mile or so when I came to a river. A pair of soldiers stood at the head of a long, narrow footbridge, across which more soldiers were moving. When the two soldiers saw me, they brought up their rifles and opened fire.

I killed them both.

On the long, narrow footbridge, the soldiers brought their own rifles up, but I dropped down behind a bit of deadfall, sighted in on the first man and killed him. The man beside him swore, tried to avoid the body of his comrade and ended up in the river instead. Others behind the corpse pushed forward, and I cut them down. A few tried to climb over their dead and failed. The soldiers continued to fire, trying to pin me down, but my position was good, my line of sight fine.

Some men attempted to get into the river, but the current swept them away. The men on the bridge were pinned down.

Finally, after almost half an hour, the men ceased firing and hunkered down. A man at the far end remained standing, gesturing and slapping soldiers with the flat of his saber.

He brought the weapon up once more, clearly trying to drive his men forward, and I put a bullet in his left eye. As he collapsed to the bridge and tumbled into the river, his men stood, turned around, and went back the way they’d come.  

And as they went on their way, I went on mine.

Gao was waiting.

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Gunfight

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I woke up rested.

When I bade Liu Sanjie goodbye, there was no response. The entire cemetery, I noticed, was silent. The air was absent of birdsong and the voices of insects.

I was alone with the trees and the dead.

Life was as it should be.

I adjusted the Colts in their holsters and made my way out of the cemetery.

I’d gone less than a mile before the birds returned with force. Their song tore through the air and shook me as wind slammed into my chest and threatened to push me back.

While the birds sang, the air settled into a gentle breeze, and crickets added their voices to the cacophony around me.

The noise brought a smile to my lips, but the smile didn’t last long.

In less than a hundred yards, as I turned down around the right side of a grassy hill, I spotted a group of soldiers. Ten of them dressed in cotton uniforms and armed with rifles and long-handled grenades.

I came to a stop when I saw them, and the ten looked at me.

One stepped forward and, in the strange manner of the people here, spoke directly into my thoughts.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“A traveler,” I answered. “Nothing more and nothing less.”

“Where is your passport?”

“I don’t have one,” I admitted. “You’re the first to ask. Where would I get one?”

“Back in the city,” he stated. “We will escort you there.”

I shook my head and planted my feet. “I’ve been there. I don’t much care for it. I’ll be on my way if you don’t mind.”

The men unslung their rifles, and the leader glared at me.

“I am not giving you a choice,” he snapped. “You are coming to the city with us, and we will see who you are.”

“You want to know who I am?” I asked, lowering my hands to my Colts. The soldiers cocked their rifles.

“My name is Blood,” I snarled and drew the Colts.

The impact of my name stunned them, and before they could fire, the Colts thundered.

None of them escaped.

The leader died last, a hole in his head and his face pointing to the sky.

I reloaded the Colts and robbed the dead for their coins and what little food they had. I took a rifle and as much ammunition as I could carry.

With the rifle slung on my shoulder, I stepped over the dead and went on my way.

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