Hard Burn for a Bullet

Prologue: Hua Tou

"When you meet a swordsman, meet him with a sword." - Chán Buddhist Kōan

As the garbled broadcast echoed through the nearly-vacant household, fading to an incomprehensible hiss, time seemed to slow. Two tears, born from eyes wide with disbelief, trailed honey-toned cheeks before beading on the edge of a smooth jaw. Once sturdy fingers hung listlessly, and the ebony blade they had clutched fell to the polished marble floor— first the edge, then the hilt, then the edge again, each bounce ringing like a distant gunshot— a clattering calando finding rest in a puddle of freshly-spilt blood.

He twitched, eyes opening imperceptibly, yanked from his meditation as the world around came flooding into his senses— the cooling winds of evening Oxbow, chasing the fleeting sun; the distant, echoing clink! of mining machinery from lonely Shiverton, barely visible on the violet horizon, flickering lights piercing its smokey haze; his rough, wool clothing scratching against his sun-cured skin; the otherwise overwhelming solitude of Oxbow, for which he had chosen as his home. Slowly and deliberately, he unfolded from half-lotus position, dusting the dry earth out of his robes as he returned to his makeshift lodging carved into the rocky hillside.

He pulled tight the twine cords wrapping his clothed arms and legs— protection against the oncoming desert cold— and slew onto one shoulder a pre-packed burlap duffle-bag containing his meager belongings. Supplies were once again wearing thin and coin was nonexistent, so with the harsh Oxbow sun fading, the time to hike to Shiverton for transport had arrived. Though he might’ve survived with only the supplies available in the small mining town, he preferred to earn his meager keep as an occasional deck-hand aboard one of the many rotating transport ships— a brief respite from the constant solitude, and a rare opportunity to broaden his perspective.

Upon exiting, he plucked with his free hand a string of large prayer beads off of a rusted nail in the entryway. Though he disliked the show, with little else for identification, they were often his only means of acquiring passage dockside. As he began his hike toward the growing glow of Shiverton, his fingers teased the symbols recessed into each wooden sphere, and he used the opportunity to contemplate their meanings.

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