In Gods’ Hollow: May 26, 1912

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I carried the blind boy on my back and sought an exit from my mother’s warren.

The cat had fled with the death of its mistress, and the raven had led the other boys into the room. No one spared a glance at the corpse of the Keeper.

“She was young here,” the raven observed as we found a narrow passage.

“Younger than she was when she gave birth to me,” I replied.

We walked on in silence, the boys behind us marching in single file.

“Do you think there are others of her here?” I asked.

“No,” the bird replied. “You are far too dangerous, Duncan Blood. They cannot risk having you kill more than one at a time. It throws off the balance.”

“The balance of what?” I inquired.

“Of everything,” the raven stated, blinking his good eye at me. “This is nexus, as surely as the Hollow is a nexus. You will close this when we leave?”

“Of course,” I answered. I glanced over my shoulder at the boys behind us. “How many?”

“Thirty-seven,” Grimnir answered preening. “They will stay with you.”

“Me?”

The raven nodded. “Until it is time for them to move on.”

“When will that be?” I asked, trying to think as to where I might put thirty-six boys, some of whom I doubted spoke any language I knew.

“Some tomorrow, others the day after,” the bird stated. “Quite a few will drift out to your islands on Blood Lake. They will remain there, living out their days in solitude and reflection. Such is the way of our world.”

I shifted Johnny’s weight, and the boy sighed.

“He is asleep,” the raven observed.

“Good. She took his eyes.”

“Ate them, to be precise,” Grimnir informed me. “Then made him sew his own lids closed.”

I swore, and the bird nodded. “Yes. It is good she is dead, Duncan Blood. Tell me, what will you do when we leave this place?”

“I’ll burn it to the ground.”

“Good.”

For hours, we walked in silence. When we finally climbed out of a tunnel and into the Hollow, with the sun shining upon us, I set fire to my mother’s warren.

Then, as the day ended, the boys gathered around me, and we watched her world burn.

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In Gods’ Hollow: May 25, 1912

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From beyond the door, I heard laughter and the mewling of a cat.

“He is there,” Grimnir said, “in that room, with the Keeper.”

The raven dropped to the floor and peered at me with his one eye. “I will watch over the children, Duncan Blood. Do what must be done.”

I nodded, and without a look back, I opened the door and entered the room.

I was in a narrow breezeway, paneled with dark wood and lit by flames contained within brass lanterns. I heard a violin as I slipped my Bowie knife out of its sheath. The light of the lanterns danced along the edge of the blade, and I advanced quietly.

At the end of the breezeway, I found a heavy, maroon curtain, and I pushed it aside to enter a large room.

The violin stopped as I looked about me.

Johnny Coffin stood by a fireplace, his eyelids sunken and stitched together. Dried blood was caked on his face, and in his hands, he held a violin. He was thin and ragged, and he shivered where he stood.

A few feet away from him, the Keeper sat.

She peered at me with disdain, a cat on her lap. Her lips twitched and then curled up into a wicked grin.

“There is no recognition in your eyes,” she told me, and her voice struck me like a blow. She laughed. “There it is. I was beginning to fear you would never make it.”

“I made it,” I told her, taking a step closer.

“So, you most certainly did,” she smiled. “Few of you come this far. None of you have left this room. Will you not draw your pistols and shoot me down?”

I shook my head and edged closer.

The smile on her face faltered for a moment. “You think a knife enough for me?”

Without a word, I threw myself at her. The cat sprang away, and the young woman tried to launch herself out of the chair.

My knife caught her beneath the sternum, and I drove the blade to the hilt. Slamming her against the wall, she vomited blood over me, laughing as she did so. Twisting the knife, I heard bone break. With blood-stained lips, she smiled.

“What,” she whispered, “no kiss for your mother?”

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In Gods’ Hollow: May 24, 1912

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Death greeted us.

When I opened the door into the next chamber, I found a set of stairs leading up and the body of a child.

As I walked towards the small corpse, the boys filed in behind me. They formed a protective wall around the dead boy on the stairs and me as I crouched down beside him.

Gently, I turned the body over and looked upon a face that had known far too much sorrow and pain in his young life. There was no sense of ease, no sense of peace upon his fine features. Only the stamp of sadness was there.

I don’t know what if anything killed him. He may simply have died. He may have given up and refused to awaken.

I returned his body to the position in which I had found it and settled down on my haunches. Around me, the living boys remained silent, waiting.

It was the raven who broke the silence.

“There is nothing to be done for him,” the Gallows god informed me.

“I know it.”

“We are nearing the end.”

I looked at Grimnir in surprise, and the old raven nodded his head.

“Soon,” he continued, “we will come upon the domain of the Keeper. You will face the Keeper alone, Duncan Blood, and I will stay with the children.”

“And what of them?” I asked, motioning toward the boys.

“Worry about your fate and no one else’s,” the raven informed me. “It is all you can do at this time.”

It was a statement I disliked, but I accepted it for what it was – a gentle reminder that death comes for us all, as the body on the stairs showed us.

I stood up and nodded to the boys around me.

Without a word, we left the corpse on the stairs.

My hands found the hilts of my Colts and touched the cool wood. After a moment, I shook my head.

“What is it?” the raven asked.

“I’ll not use my guns to kill the Keeper.”

“What then?”

“My knife,” I told him. “This killing’s personal.”

The laughter of the Gallows god filled the air as we made our way up.

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The War of the Rebellion: Virginia, 1865

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Sometimes, the only monsters I find are men.

I came upon the encampment shortly after noon and found no enlisted men, only officers, a lady, and a dog.

When I had first entered the encampment, I had heard laughter and raised conversation. As I passed along the center road, glancing at the various structures, I had seen a great deal of fresh supplies. Meat, fruit, casks of wine, and a healthy selection of liquors. There were even barrels of beer and kegs of tobacco.

Yet there were no soldiers that I could see.

I suppose that is why the officers and their guest fell silent when they saw me approach. When I reached them, I came to a stop. When I did not salute, an officer in a ridiculous hat demanded to know my business.

“I’m passing through,” I explained.

“Then you best continue, sergeant,” the man ordered.

“Where are the men?” I asked.

The officers snickered, and the lady let out a pleasant laugh.

I didn’t smile.

“There are no men here,” the man replied, patting his dog. “We are the only ones.”

“You’ve enough supplies for a brigade, at least,” I remarked.

“For the right buyer, yes,” the man stated. “However, no one has been willing to meet our price yet, so the food will sit where it is and rot.”

“There’s an artillery unit back a ways that needs fresh food,” I told him, lowering my hands to my Colts.

None of them noticed my movements, and the woman pointedly yawned.

“Yes, we’re well aware of that,” the officer in charge replied. “Their colonel refuses to pay the price, so his men and his horses will starve.”

“No. They won’t,” I told him and drew both Colts.

The group burst out laughing and only stopped when I blew the woman’s brains out. The men went for their weapons, and I put them all down as their dog ran away. When the echoes of my Colts faded, only the officer in charge was still breathing. I had shot him in the groin and he knew he was dying.

“Do you me to end it?” I asked.

He nodded, sweat standing out on his forehead from the pain.

“Hm. Those boys wanted to eat, too.”

I cleaned my Colts and watched him bleed out.

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The War of the Rebellion: South Carolina, 1865

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He screamed as he came rushing up from the depths of the trench.

It was not the rebel yell, nor any other sort of war cry which issued forth from his blood-flecked and foaming mouth.

No, this was a scream of pure terror and agony, his eyes wide with a fear few men have ever survived, and one he was certain not to.

I had both Colts drawn and leveled on him as he came to a halt, his bare feet skidding on the dirt. He looked past me, through me, as though I wasn’t there. Perhaps, at this point in his life, nothing existed save the pain. I watched as he ripped up his shirt and clawed at his belly, and it was then that I saw his stomach. It writhed and undulated as if there was something sinister beneath the skin, and in a moment, the Secesh in front of me proved there was.

Blood exploded from his mouth as he gouged out a space in his stomach, reaching in and pulling out a handful of his own entrails. He collapsed backward as an unknown creature snapped and howled within the confines of his belly. There was a brief expression of relief on the Secesh’s face, and then he was dead.

But his stomach did not cease.

In fact, the unseen creature redoubled its efforts, and I knew it would be a matter of moments before it chewed through the dead man’s entrails.

I stepped forward and unloaded one of the Colt’s into the dead man’s belly, only to see the creature’s head appear.

It had more eyes than a spider, and it had legs reminiscent of a crab. The damned thing shrieked when it saw me and tore itself a wider hole in its attempt to escape its now rotting prison.

With the other Colt, I blew it to pieces. Then, as it lay twitching half in and half out of the dead man, I stepped forward and crushed it beneath my bootheel.

A foul stench escaped from its carapace, and as a last act, I set man and beast afire.

Standing upwind from them, I loaded a pipe, lit the tobacco, and wondered how the in hell I would clean my boot.

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The War of the Rebellion: Georgia, 1865

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I don’t know what the hell he was, but he was damned foul.

It was one of the few days where I was not hunting. I was looking forward to a fine whiskey recently liberated from a commanding officer’s private collection, and a long smoke with my dog, Henry.

As we walked along, Henry’s nose to the ground and the birds singing a fine song around us, we came upon a large collection of corpses. What struck me as odd was the fact that there were both Federal and Secesh mixed together. This was not the normal procedure. Secesh were, more often than not, either left to rot where they fell or buried by their brethren who had been taken prisoner. We took care of our own, of course.

Yet here were these stacks of dead men, and I do mean stacks. Easily four and five feet high and running along both sides of the road.

Henry was no longer interested in whatever scent that had caught his attention, and the singing of the birds had lost its beauty. Ahead of us, I saw a large tent. A man was standing outside of it, and there was a body on a set of boards in front of him. The stranger was operating some sort of contraption, and he smiled broadly at me as I approached.

It was a smile filled with far too many teeth.

The hackles on my dog stood up, and I dropped a hand to my Colt, resting it there and returning the man’s smile as I came to a stop a short distance away.

“Good morning,” the man said, bowing slightly. “I take it you’re a scout?”

“I am,” I lied. “What are you?”

“A surgeon,” he answered, and I knew if for a lie as well. “I’m embalming this gentleman here. You’ve heard of the practice?”

I nodded. I knew of it and knew the man was not embalming the corpse. He was extracting something, and when I caught sight of a faint glow about the corpse’s neck, I drew my pistol and blew the surgeon’s jaw off. As he staggered back, I put three more rounds in his head.

It’s one thing to rob the dead. Quite another to steal their souls.

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