Lin was lying in a tent next to the newly formed River of Tears, when Judith Prosperi came in with a Chinese man. He recognized the man as Ao-Sang Leung, a monk of the 37th Chamber. Judith motioned towards Lin and the monk, carrying a rucksack that looked liked it was full of rocks, came next to his bed.
“How are you feeling, brother Lin?” asked the man in Chinese.
“I’ve been better.” Lin answered. “What brings you here, brother Ao-Sang?”
“Master Wong asked me to check on you” Leung said and lowered his heavy looking backpack to the ground, opened it, and took out a small wooden box full of needles. “Mind if I give you an acupuncture?”
Lin turned on his stomach and the monk started sticking needles to his back. “How’s the temple? Did it survive the flood?”
“Oh yes, the temple and all the other brothers are fine. This isn’t just a courtesy visit, I’m afraid.” Leung said with somewhat more serious tone. “The 37th Chamber has a task for you. Have you heard of Clover Mesa?”
Lin glanced at the Tombstone Epitaph next to his bed. He had just read about it earlier today. “Yes, I have. The mesa that miraculously emerged unscathed from the aftermath of the Great Flood. Or that’s what the papers call it.”
“That’s the one. Did you also know that the Iron Dragon has a base of operations there called Six-Hills Railhead?”
“It was mentioned in the paper. What does the 37th Chamber want from Kang?”
“There’s a man called Du Fu in his service. Master Wong wants you to get rid of him.”
Lin turned his head slightly towards Leung. “Get rid of him? Why is that?”
“Master said that this Du Fu is well versed in the dark arts. We believe that he is dangerous. You don’t necessarily need to kill him if you can persuade him to abandon his dark path which, to be frank, seems highly unlikely.”
The long-haired monk finished the acupuncture and took out another box from his backpack. Inside the box were the robes of the 37th Chamber folded neatly and a sai.
“These are for you” Leung said, smiling slightly. “The sai will protect you from Du Fu’s dark magic and it has some additional benefits as well.”
Lin stared at the robes for a moment. He did owe the 37th Chamber a great deal, but killing people wasn’t their usual way of doing things. Maybe this Du Fu was simply too dangerous to be left alive. “Fine. I’ll do it,” he said after a moment. “I will leave for Clover Mesa as soon as I’m able.”
“That’s the spirit!” Ao-Sang Leung said happily.
That night, Pennington-Smythe’s house in Perdition was a lot more crowded than usual. Aside from the old Captain himself, there were two faces that were at somewhat familiar to Lin. Those faces belonged to Ace Sinfall and Alex Ross or as he now called himself, Agymah Coujoe. There were also five men from the Explorer’s Society who were under Agymah’s command. The three adventurers and one ex-adventurer were sitting at the table, discussing recent events when a nervous looking man came out of the kitchen carrying plates. This man was Juan Vargas, Agymah’s new “sidekick”. Vargas looked like he would be scared witless even if someone said hello to him unexpectedly. The groups chatting was disturbed by a knock on the door. Juan placed the plates on the table and opened it. There were six men, all dressed in black, standing outside. The foremost man was dressed in an armored duster and had a gatling pistol on him. Those were both telltale signs that this man was an Agent. “Good evening,” the man said. “May I come in?”
“You may,” Smythe responded.
The agent turned around and told the others to go to the Fallen Angel saloon and then stepped inside. He was a man in his early forties with shoulder length hair, handlebar mustache and brandished a walking cane.
“My name is Jonathan Reynolds and I work for the Agency.”
Reynolds sat at the dining table and said “So, I have heard that you three are of capable sort”, motioning towards Ace, Agymah and Lin.
“Well at least I am,” Ace responded. “Dunno about the others though.”
“They all were a significant factor in bringing down Grimme” Smythe said.
“Good, because I have a job for them. Do you know about…”
“Wait wait wait. An agent has a job for us, a dirty Reb, ex-Ranger and a Chinaman? North must be knee-deep in shit if they have to ask us for help?” Ace interrupted.
“Well, the circumstances surrounding the mission are somewhat sensitive, so we can’t afford to send in an army or anything. As I was saying, do you know about Colonel Curtis?”
“Tombstone Epitaph mentioned that he was sent by the North to Clover Mesa to lead the mining operation.” Agymah answered.
“Yes, and now it seems he has gone rogue. He has declared that Clover Mesa is an independent nation and all attempts to approach it will be met with violence, so we have no choice but to send in a small team. Most of Curtis’ men probably don’t even know that they have gone rogue, so we need to handle this very carefully.”
“So we have to go in and take this Colonel Curtis out?” Lin asked.
“Yes, but as I said, me and five of my men will be joining you.”
“So, this sounds awful lot like a bounty hunt to me.” Ace said, with a sly smile on his face. “And if it’s a bounty hunt, there’s always a bounty. How much?”
“Upon Colonel Curtis’ capture or death I’m authorized to pay you eight-thousand dollars.” Agent Reynolds declared.
“Count me in then. I have some unfinished business waiting me in Clover Mesa anyway” Ace said almost immediately.
“I’m in too,” Agymah said. “Eight-thousand dollars is a lot of money.”
Lin pondered for a moment. Eight-thousand dollars was indeed a lot of money and the others might potentially help him with his own task. “Alright, I’m in too,” Lin said finally.
“Great. I have a boat waiting in the harbor. We’ll leave tomorrow so you gather whatever supplies you think you might need.”
Early next morning, the posse was on their way to Clover Mesa in a knifeboat armed with a gatling gun. Their destination was Little Gibraltar, a small mining settlement that would function as their base of operations.
“Alright, we’re getting close. There’s a smaller mesa up ahead. We can use it to scout out a little,” Reynolds shouted over the wailing of the ghost rock boiler and the engines. One of Reynolds’ men steered the boat next to a tower-like mesa that was overlooking Clover Mesa. Lin, Ace, Agymah and Reynolds climbed up to get a better view. Clover Mesa really was like a clover, four mesas divided by steep canyons and in the middle of it all, a huge pit full of water. The whole thing looked like it was struck apart by a lightning strike. Heavy fog shrouded parts of the mesa, making this sort of reconnaissance a bit ineffective. But despite the fog, they all saw the warship coming their way.
“I think we should get going,” Reynolds remarked and started climbing back down. The others soon followed.
Back at the boat the Agency hirelings were already setting up a gatling gun. The posse jumped in on the boat and started speeding towards Little Gibraltar. Unfortunately, the ironclad was surprisingly fast for it’s size and was already nearly upon them when they got on the boat. Six men with jetpacks and gatling shotguns took flight from the ship’s deck and backing them up was a sniper perched on the deck.
“I don’t think we have what it takes to fight that,” Agymah yelled. “Get us out of here!”.
Then the men with the gatling shotguns opened fire. A hail of lead tore at the small knifeboat, making holes here and there. Ace was the first to return fire. He drew his revolver and started taking potshots at the closest flying soldier. The hireling manning the gatling gun fired on the ironclad, but without much effect. Agymah saw this and took out his bracelet and started murmuring something in a low voice. The gatling glowed purple for a second and all the bullets that it fired afterwards seemed to leave a purple chink of light behind them. The knifeboat was taking heavy fire and it seemed almost ready to sink. The ironclad was almost beside them. Lin amassed all his available chi and threw a heavy punch at the ironclad. Surprisingly, the punch was powerful enough to leave a dent. The ship’s captain apparently noticed this and the ironclad started pulling back a bit. Ace had apparently decided that the flying soldiers were too elusive and was now focused on taking down the sniper. One well-placed shot later and the sniper’s scope exploded into pieces. The posse’s boat was nearing Little Gibraltar when the ironclad decided to give up the chase. Perhaps they thought that the heavily damaged knifeboat would sink and it’s passengers would become shark food. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t that far from the truth. As they closed in on the docks of Little Gibraltar, the boat started slowly but surely to sink. The raging underwater currents didn’t make steering the hole riddled boat to the harbor any easier. The last nail to the boats coffin was an underwater rock near the docks that nearly severed the boat in half. Luckily, everyone made it to the shore before the boat sank. A rather large crowd had gathered to watch their arrival. “There goes our ride back,” Agymah said while watching the sinking boat next to the pier.
Reynolds sighed. “We’ll take care of the boat, you go up to the town to check things out,” he said to the others while the Agency hirelings started hauling the wreck up from the water.
“Well, you’ll find me from the nearest saloon,” Ace muttered and started walking up the path leading to Little Gibraltar.
Lin and Agymah soon followed Ace up the path. Little Gibraltar was indeed little. It was basically a tent town that was centered around a boulder called “Lil’ Gib”. Aside from the tents, there were few more permanent buildings, including a saloon and a hotel called the “Thirsty Seagull”, a mining office, a general store and a tailor. After a quick tour, the rest of the posse made their way in to the saloon, where Sinfall was already downing whiskey shots. Aside from Ace, there was only one other person in the whole saloon and that was the apathetic looking bartender. Lin walked up on the counter.
“Do you serve food here?”
The bartender lazily shifted his gaze to Lin. “Well, we have beans.”
“Just beans? Nothing else?” Lin asked with some disappointment in his voice.
“Nope, nothing. Just beans,” the bartender confirmed. “Want some?”
“Alright, give me a bowl,” Lin answered with a sigh.
Reynolds and his men had apparently successfully gotten the boat wreck to shore as they had joined the others at the table while Lin was ordering food.
“So, what’s our plan then?” Agymah asked while looking at Reynolds.
“I think the best course of action would be to ask around Little Gibraltar if they know anything about Curtis or his whereabouts. Maybe do some scouting on the side. Then tomorrow, we could scout out the center of the mesa, check out the mining operation,” Reynolds explained.
“Right, I heard some miners talk about some fuckin’ ghosts that come ashore at night and drag people away or some shit. Might be worth checking out the shoreline at night,” Ace grumbled.
“Might be,” Reynolds confirmed. “But for now, let’s just gather what information we can and rest up. We’ll meet at the docks by nightfall.”
The night sky was almost cloudless, and the sickly pale moon shining above made the already menacing looking waters of the Maze somehow look even more threatening. The posse had gathered to the docks of Little Gibraltar in hopes of catching a glimpse of these ghosts that were taking people, but so far they had seen absolutely nothing.
“Maybe whatever is taking the townspeople doesn’t even exist. Maybe the miners simply wander to the beach after a night of drinking, fall to the water and drown,” Lin suggested.
“Or maybe these monsters are too chickenshit to face us,” Ace said while checking that his revolver was loaded.
“Let’s check the other end of the beach. Maybe we can lure the monsters out if we split into smaller groups.” said Agymah.
Lin, Ace, Agymah and Reynolds started walking towards the other end of the shoreline while their hirelings and Juan Vargas stayed at the docks. Soon enough, things went sour. Like ghosts, making no sound, four creatures rose up from the water. They had the head of a fish, a body that was a mix of man and frog and they had hooks, lines and pieces of fishing nets attached to their bodies. And they smelled like waterlogged corpses. One more of the creatures climbed to the docks, and the hirelings reeled from terror and most of them fled up the hill. Gunfire rang out and the creatures staggered from the hits, but seemed mostly unaffected. Juan and one of the Agency soldiers fired upon the lone creature, but all their shots splashed harmlessly into the water. The monsters charged and waved their clawed hands wildly at Agymah and Reynolds, but luckily they were able to dodge the attacks. Lin engaged one of the monsters and threw two punches at it in quick succession. The first hit did practically nothing, but the second one hit the monster on the head and one loud crack later, the creature fell to the ground dead.
“The head! Aim for the head!” Lin yelled.
One of the monsters was closing in on Ace, but fell a with two bullets in it’s skull before it could reach him. Reynolds dispatched one fishman with his gatling pistol. Now, there were only two left. The one attacking Agymah was killed when Lin leaped up in the air and landed a solid punch right on top of it’s head. Juan and the hired soldier were still struggling against the last one. It had taken a few hits, but was still very much alive. Lin started sprinting towards the docks. As he closed in on the creature, it slashed Juan with it’s claws right across the chest. To everyone’s surprise, Juan didn’t just fall to the ground, but disintegrated into a pile of ash. Everyone stared the ash pile and the monster in disbelief. Just then, the Agency hired soldier landed a clean shot at the fishman’s head with his rifle and it fell back in to the water, dead.
Everyone gathered around the pile of ash that used to be Juan.
“What the hell? Why did he turn to ash?” Reynolds asked.
“Maybe the creatures claws are somehow poisonous?” Lin suggested.
Agymah was taking this the hardest. “I’m so sorry I let you down, Juan,” he said silently, almost inaudibly. Then he grabbed a handful of ash and started mumbling something. After few minutes, his shoulders slumped and he let out a loud sigh.
“It’s no use, I can’t contact his spirit. The only thing I feel is…deep darkness,” he said.
“Alright, let’s dump the bodies back to the water, don’t want the miners to seem them. Get to work you cowards!” Reynolds yelled to his somewhat meek looking underlings. After they had disposed of the corpses, the posse walked back to the Thirsty Seagull, with a defeated look on their faces.
Excerpt from the dime novel “Return to Manitou Bluff”