Thursday, July 25, 2019

Judge of the Wastes Part 3


The bandits returned in force.
Beyond the distant sands, a chorus of high-pitched roars filled the noon air. They grew louder and louder, closer and closer, gathering in force and numbers. Then, boiling out of a mirage, five buggies charged the camp at top speed. Two minutes out, two of them broke away, circling around to the side entrance. Tribarrels swiveled back and forth, hellguns nervously swept every field of fire, covering the towers and the gates and the river and the hills and anywhere else an ambush might spring from.
Nothing happened.
As one, the buggies halted by the gates. The bandits dismounted, gathering in squads. A whistle blew shrilly, answered by another, and both squads charged into the camp. Fanning out, they dashed between tents and huts, calling out their findings, heads and weapons scanning, looking for something, anything, that would betray their enemies’ presence.
Nothing happened.
They regrouped by teams, congregating in the heart of the camp and in the open space between the captives’ tent and the other dwellings. A brief moment of hesitation, and a squad trepidatiously approached the huge tent. 
All this, Gideon observed from the watchtower, lying prone on the wooden floor, exposing as little of his face as possible. He picked himself up, ignoring a sudden jolt in his back, flexed his fingers. 
Pointed.
Spoke.
Ten beams of light blasted from his fingers and out into the sky. The clouds gathered and darkened and roiled in the space of a breath. Ten blazing pillars screamed from the heavens, eradicating ten different bandits in ten thunderous blasts. Shockwaves pummeled smaller tents and huts, collapsing flimsier structures, flinging more men about. Fires caught among the buildings, spreading quickly within the camp.
"FIRE!" someone shouted.
Fire poured down from the towers. Three tribarrels he had plundered from the bandits, operated by the women. Long, long, long bursts of bolts chopped up the bandits, the tents, the houses, burning and destroying and annihilating everything they touched. The weapons themselves were easy to use; just align the red holographic crosshair on the target and squeeze the trigger. Even so, most of the bolts missed, striking only the dirt or igniting the camp’s huts, yet the sleet of hellfire sent the bandits into a frenzy.
Meanwhile, a figure burst out from the captives’ tent, cradling a tribarrel. The gunner dropped to the prone, braced the weapon’s tripod on the soil, planted its butt against her shoulder, and sprayed another stupendously long burst.
Princess Anabelle, leading by example. 
Right behind her, four more women emerged from the tent, formed a line beside her, and sprayed everything they saw with their captured hellguns. Bolts flew thick and fast through the air, the claws of a wrathful God ripping up the earth and tearing apart the flesh of sinners.
Replenishing his bracers, Gideon watched the slaughter coldly, dispassionately, tracking targets and fields of fire. The display of firepower was awesome, and the women were hellbent on taking their revenge, but they lacked training. The extended bursts wasted power and burned out barrels; most of the bolts had struck far too wide or too short of their marks; with the sole exception of Annabelle, the gunners seemed more interested in demolishing buildings than destroying men. Even now, he counted at least five survivors, running for the safety of the central hut. 
He took careful aim and fired. 
A line of bolts washed over the squad. 
All of them dispersed. 
He blinked.
It was as if the bolts had struck an invisible shell, exploding harmlessly like raindrops. The bandit in the middle had both arms raised, yelling gibberish, his hands cycling through gestures, his body glowing with light.
A sorcerer. 
No matter. He would run out of mana eventually. Gideon fired another burst. He didn’t aim; he didn’t have to, he just had to wear down the force field. Set to continuous fire, the hellgun blazed bright, the superheated barrel quickly growing red-hot.
Too soon he expended his power cell. He ejected it and reached for a fresh one.
And, suddenly, the camp went quiet.
Everyone had run out of power. 
Now the bandits shot back, blasting away in every direction. Explosions rippled through the watchtowers and set them afire. A bolt hissed past Gideon’s ear and blew off part of the roof. Cursing mentally, he pointed at the ground. Spoke.
And warped.
His boots softly touched the soil. Behind him, the watchtower crackled merrily. Wooden beams snapped. 
He ran.
A stream of bolts chased him. 
From behind.
Now he swore out loud, sprinting as fast as he dared. The princess was firing at him! Just as well that she was such a poor shot, or he’d be dead already. He dashed around a burning hut and the shooting stopped.
A Word rumbled through the cosmos.
Shafts of fire erupted from the ground, consuming the watchtowers whole. Women shrieked in panic and fear. All outgoing fire ceased abruptly. Gideon bit down a blasphemy and scanned—
There. The bandits were sprinting for the gate. Just three of them left.
Hellgun at the shoulder, he advanced on them, finger pulsing a burst of quick snap shots, feet taking him to the scant protection of a half-collapsed hut. A barrage of bolts lashed out at them, shattering against the shield. 
One last bolt, and the shield collapsed in incandescent light.
Gideon found his crosshairs superimposed over a bandit. He fired, watched him explode. Swiveled right, saw the sorcerer—
—he vanished in a dark blur—
—Kept turning and saw the last bandit, spraying blindly at Gideon’s direction. Gideon shifted his aim ever so slightly, pressed the trigger, saw him burst open.
A high-pitched roar cut through the air.
The sorcerer was fleeing. 
Gideon pointed at the main gate. Spoke. Warped.
He appeared by a buggy. Slightly off to his right, another buggy tore through the desert at top speed, rapidly disappearing into the distance. 
Gideon gritted his teeth. The sorcerer wasn’t getting away. He would face justice this day, the justice of Man and God. 
He climbed aboard the rear of the closest buggy and took up its rear-mounted tribarrel. The sighting module projected a bright red crosshair and the power indicator was full. He slewed the weapon around, training the sights on the fleeing buggy.
It was racing up a distant dune, nearing the crescent. Through the sighting unit, it was a dark dot the size of a pea.
He held down the butterfly triggers.
A river of light scorched from the weapon. The barrels rotated swiftly, screaming and whirring, slowly glowing red. Blazing white and blue light washed out the sight. He danced the dot back and forth, triggers held down, deluging the dune with fire, watching for—
A mushroom cloud bloomed. Flames licked the air and ground. Thunder followed in its wake. Debris went flying.
He released the triggers and slumped down.
It was finally over.
###
The Band of the Scorpion was annihilated.
But so were five of the women who had volunteered to fight alongside Gideon. All three watchtower gunners, plus two civilians who had fought alongside the Princess. Of the former there was nothing left to bury; the latter’s remains were too gruesome for the civilians to handle. 
Accompanied by the Princess, Gideon armed himself with a shovel, dug two graves by the water, and lowered the mangled corpses into the grave. 
He stood by the bodies, lowered his head, and clasped his hands together.
"Lord God, we return the bodies of Maria Nolan and Elizabeth Hill to the earth, and commend their souls unto Thee. Receive them at the gates of Heaven and salute them with an honor guard of angels, for they have fought alongside us as bravely as any warrior. Thank You for letting us know them for such a brief time, and lead them on to eternal life. Amen."
"Amen," Princess Anabelle said.
There was no funeral or eulogy for the bandits. The women didn’t want to touch them, and Gideon had no desire to waste his strength on outlaws. They simply left the bodies to rot where they were.
Under his and Anabelle’s supervision, the civilians raided the camp for essential supplies. Food, water, fuel, weapons, munitions. Between the magic and the wild shooting, there was precious little left to scavenge in the camp. But the bandits had laden packs in their buggies, still intact. 
There were just over fifty survivors. But only six buggies—including the one Gideon had taken. The children and most grievously abused took the vehicles. The rest walked. 
Princess Anabelle was among them. So, too, was Gideon. 
He led from the front, retracing the long lonely road back. He kept a sedate pace, slow enough that the civilians could keep up. With tight rationing, they would make it to Jericho. He hoped. 
Gideon preferred to keep his own counsel. But Princess Anabelle was a talker. She wouldn’t speak of what she had experienced, instead prodding Gideon to reveal his tale. He humored her by honoring her request, careful not to dwell too deeply on the details of his one-man war. It wasn’t meet for a man to burden a woman’s soul with stories of too much death and destruction. 
When he had finally talked himself dry, his tongue was parched and the sun hung low in the sky. The civilians stopped by the highway and made camp, forming a laager with their vehicles. Gideon lit a fire in the center of the circle, while the Princess ensured everyone was fed and watered. As the civilians recuperated, Gideon drifted away from them, keeping watch at the edge of the light.
His route took him on an elliptical orbit around the laager. Taking care not to look directly at the light, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the growing dark. The air was cool and dry, filled with the smell of cooking meat and the laughter of children. 
He smiled. The former captives must have suffered greatly, and yet now they were healing. Slowly, perhaps, but healing nonetheless. He had little skill in nursing the wounds of the body, and none at all in tending to battered hearts. All he could do was pray. And get them to a place where they could find the healers they needed.
A foot scraped against the sand. He turned.
"Your Highness," he said with a nod.
"Anabelle, please," she said.
"As you say, Your Highness."
"You’re not a Judge any more. There’s no need to stand on ceremony."
"On the contrary, now that I lack the privilege of that office, I have one more reason to maintain protocol, Your Highness."
She laughed.
"Are all Judges like you?"
"I do not know. If the stories I have heard of other Judges are true, they are surely much better men than I."
"You single-handedly destroyed a gang of bandits and saved our lives. Don’t put yourself down."
"As you say, Your Highness."
She laughed again. Sighed. Shook her head.
"You know, there’s still one part missing from your tale."
"Oh?"
"You haven’t told me why you came to rescue me. To rescue us."
"Your father requested my services. I accepted."
"My father? I thought he’d send his army, not a… not one man!"
"He did. But the Band of the Scorpion proved too elusive for his troops. Whenever the Army went on the march, the Band disappeared into the desert. It frustrated King Harold to no end. When he heard that a former Judge was abroad in his lands, he summoned me to his court."
"He sent you out alone?"
"It was my decision. One man can move more swiftly than an army."
"But you took on fifty bandits all by yourself!"
"It worked out, didn’t it?"
This time, they laughed together.
When the last chuckle faded, Anabelle said, "What’s your next step?"
"My mission is to return you home. After that, I shall continue walking the Wastes."
"Take me with you."
Gideon froze. 
"What’s wrong?" she asked.
"No," he said quietly.
"No? Why not?"
"War is not women’s work."
She straightened, her voice turning ice cold.
"I believe I acquitted myself in battle."
"So you did. But you were born and raised in a castle, in civilization. Life in the Wastes is unforgiving to those not born to it."
"I can learn."
"Why do you want to travel with me?"
"I have seen the horrors in the Wastes. I cannot, will not, close my eyes to them. If I return home, Father will simply marry me off for some political advantage. If… if I can still be deemed worthy of marriage. But if I travel with you, I can make a difference."
He sighed. 
"No."
"Why not? Because I’m a woman? Too weak for the Wastes?"
"No. Because you’re a Princess, too valuable for the Wastes."
"What do you mean?"
"I am an old man, a relic of a long-gone age. The future belongs to you. If you wish to make a difference, then return home and build a nation. A civilization. Build us a world where the Wastes are reclaimed, where the innocent no longer suffer at the hands of the wicked strong, where there is no longer a need for Judges."
"I… see. But I have one condition."
"Yes?"
"Serve by my side in my court."
"I cannot."
"Why not?"
"You come from a land ruled by law, but here, there is no law but the law of the gun. Until the Law returns to the Wastes, my place is here, as Judge of the Wastes."
"You can’t be a Judge forever."
"It is the only life I have known."
She sighed heavily. "I can’t talk you into coming with me, then."
"I am too old and too set in my ways, Your Highness," he said gently.
"Very well. But you will at least accompany me home?"
"Of course."
"Thank you, Your Honor."
"You’re most welcome, Your Highness."
 --

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Judge of the Wastes Part 2


Robert had spoken true.
Gideon had scarcely believed it himself. He had gone a hair’s breadth from turning back, until he sighted the river. A calm, shallow stream lined by patches of tough grass and hardy shrubs. Chastising himself for his lack of faith, he headed upriver until he found the hill. Lying on the military crest of the hill, his face so close to the ground he tasted the ancient dust, his binoculars to his eyes, he saw the camp.
Ringed by a tall, sturdy palisade, a collection of makeshift huts radiated from a central bonfire. Around the edges, smaller groups of tents were clustered together in tight knots. By the southwest corner, a huge tent stood alone, protected by a pair of stationary guards. Buggies and trailers were parked by the main gate. A smaller gate opened out into the stream. At every corner of the settlement stood a watchtower and the defiant black-on-red banner of the Band of the Scorpion. 
As dawn broke, the camp awoke. Men lit cooking fires by their tents and gathered water. Others trudged to the gates and watchtowers to relieve the night guard. A motley crew wandered out the rear gate and into the river, stripping themselves off as they went, their laughter drifting to his ears. 
Gideon stayed perfectly still, and watched.
The bandits followed camp discipline, rotating through eating, washing, and working. A fatigue party carted off garbage to a heap downwind from the camp. Older and scarred bandits congregated inside the central hut. Younger ones tended to weapons, equipment and vehicles. 
A party of five bandits emerged from a large hut. Three with wheelbarrows filled with waterskins and loaves of bread, two with hellguns. They entered the guarded tent. Long, long minutes passed. A man shouted lustily. A woman shrieked. An illegible shout, and the guards entered the tent. A soft pak, like flesh slapping bone. 
More time passed. 
Finally, the men left. The wheelbarrow party returned to their tent, the guards to their post. One of the guards hitched up his pants as he walked, a stupid grin on his face.
Gideon’s blood ran cold.
There will be justice, he vowed. They will answer for their crimes. 
But there were fifty of them. He recalled a time when even that was no match for a single Judge. A Judge clad in full armor, armed with the finest weapons and munitions of the Kritarchy, backed by the overwhelming power of the military. Here, he was only one man, not a young man at that, and his gear was long overdue for replacement. 
A head-on battle was suicide. He hadn’t the mana to call down hellfire or lightning, not enough to slay every bandit in an instant, and he hadn’t gotten this old by charging recklessly into the teeth of his enemies’ defenses. 
 He rolled to his side and checked his hellgun’s power cell. A full charge. He had three more cells on his person. His hellpistol, rarely used, was at a hundred percent, and he had three spare cells too. All told he had eight hundred man-killing shots at his disposal.
More than enough. 
And the bandits had to leave their camp someday.
###
The land around the encampment rumbled and crackled with the sounds of war. 
The Band of the Scorpion left their camp in teams of four or five. They came stumbling back in ones or twos, gibbering of gunmen in the hills, hellgun fires from nowhere, men erupting in clouds of blood. If they came back at all. Once they found a four-man team at a checkpoint, their throats cut, their weapons and supplies stolen. 
The bandits adapted, sallying forth in squads of eight or ten or twelve. They returned as traumatized knots of four or five or six, the scent of blood and battle clinging to their clothes. They spoke of a man who hounded their every step, a ghost who stepped out the desert to lance them with fire and fade back into the dust, a man who spoke only with a blazing hellgun. 
Their nemesis was unpredictable, his tactics ever-changing. One day he sniped a four-man checkpoint from half a mile away, leaving a single survivor. The next he hosed down a three-buggy convoy with a tribarrel, the sun-hot bolts eradicating everything they touched. The day after an entire squad failed to return to their lair; they were found in a burned-down encampment. A few had been stabbed, most blown up by a massive explosion, the rest gunned down. 
In the night, around their fires, the bandits whispered of other things. Strange words that rang clear and true, coming from everywhere and nowhere; immediately followed by spears of light or pillars of fire or thick mists or skin-shredding dust storms. No matter how they tried, their mouths and tongues could not reproduce the words of power. There was a sorcerer out there, or even a Judge from the fallen Kritarchy, but every time they set forth to hunt him and avenge their fallen, their bolts screamed uselessly into the empty desert and their echoing cries were left unanswered. 
The week after the campaign begun, the bandits had reached their breaking point. Reduced to half their number, they were nervous, trigger-happy wretches. They fired at everything that moved, attacked suspicious shadows with overwhelming firepower, retreated in the face of long-range incoming fire. At last their leaders resolved themselves and set off to hunt their skulker. Roaring out the camp in buggies laden down with men and munitions, they scattered to the winds, leaving behind only a token force to guard their lair. 
Four watchmen on the towers. Two to guard the hostages. That was all.
In the hills, Gideon slowly crawled out of his concealed hide. He was no stranger to long campaigning, but war was surely a young man’s game. His joints had grown stiff, his muscles tense and tight. He allowed himself five full minutes of deep stretches before setting off. 
He approached the camp from the southwest. There was no cover or concealment, just bare desert and lonely tufts of grass. The watchmen were on high alert, ready to mow down anyone who came too close—or at least, he had to assume they were. He didn’t know if there were sensors or booby traps in the dead zone around the palisades, but he noted that no one ever ventured too far from the gates or the dirt path carved by the tracks of countless buggies. 
He pointed at a patch of dirt just by the rear gate. Focused. 
And spoke.
The world before him compressed. Yellows turned green, green to blue, blue to black, blurring and streaking into a rainbow that bent around him like a hemisphere. Sounds shrank into unintelligible babble. Behind him, the world expanded outwards. Blue became green, green to yellow, yellow to red. Through chaotic streaks of colors, his eyes sensed smears of matter screaming past.
Just as abruptly, sanity returned. Now he stood by the gate, under the gaze of the watchtower guards. 
Hellgun at the shoulder, he entered the camp.
The camp planners had made a fatal mistake. The guards watching the captives’ tent had no clean line of sight to the rear gate. Arrays of tents and huts blocked their way. The watchtower guards themselves were all peering outside the camp. 
No one had seen him.
He crept to the nearest tower. Every movement was an exercise in stealth and deliberation. Gingerly, he raised a rubber-soled boot half an inch off the ground, slid it forward a foot-length ahead of its partner, and carefully lowered it to capture all sound. 
Sweat poured off his brow. His thighs and back and hands ached. He breathed and continued.
Ten agonizing minutes later, he reached the tower. There was only one way up: a long wooden ladder that spanned the length of its struts. He slung his hellgun over his shoulder and climbed.
Slowly, slowly, he ascended. He kept his boots to the sides of the steps and his hands firmly on the rails. He took his time, moving in complete silence. He breathed long and smooth and deep, keeping his muscles strong and his heartbeat down. His world narrowed, the sole purpose of his existence to reach the top without making a sound. He lifted his boot like he had countless times before, rested it on a rung—
It creaked.
He pulled himself up and carried on. Just a half-dozen rungs to go. He sped up, his duster rustling softly as he moved, the time-worn wood betraying his movements. His left hand grabbed the top rail—
And the guard appeared above him.
"What the—"
He hauled himself up, grabbed the bandit by the belt buckle, and yanked. 
Hard.
The bandit sailed over his shoulder, screaming and flailing as he went, and landed with a wet CRACK.
Gideon scrambled up into the watchtower. Kept low. Listened.
"What was that? What happened?"
"Hey! Ryan! Was that you?"
"I don’t see him! Did he fall?"
Gideon poked his head up and scanned. The remaining watchtower guards stayed put. Two bandits guarded the captives’ tent. The two floaters hurried over to the corpse.
Gideon unsheathed his knife. Pointed at the tower before him. Spoke. 
He warped across the world in a flash, re-emerging by the side of a bandit. 
"What the—" the bandit began.
Gideon circled around him, gaining his back. He circled his left forearm around the man’s forehead and pulled back, reeling him into his knife. The blade punched deep into his kidney. The man gasped. Gideon retracted the blade, punched it into his neck and cut out.
Blood gushed from the massive wound, accompanied by a soft burbling noise. Gideon slowly lowered the dying man to the floor.  Wiped his blade on his back. Pointed at the next target. 
Warped.
He materialized right in front of the bandit. The target lurched in surprise. Gideon sprang up, ramming the web of his left hand into his throat and his knee into his groin. The guard convulsed. Gideon pitched him straight down, slamming the back of his head against the frame of the guard tower. Just to make sure, he cut his throat too.
"Oi! Tom! What happened?"
Gideon pointed at the last tower.
Warped.
Right in front of the last guard. 
The bandit blinked.
Gideon blasted in on his left, free hand seizing the bandit’s gun arm and shoving it aside, knife hand driving the blade up into his throat. The bandit shuddered. Gideon cut out, spinning as he went, and slammed his left palm into the man’s temple. He drove his hand straight through, unbalancing him, then reversed his momentum and slashed his arm down to his left, slamming the bandit down.
"Ryan’s dead!"
He wiped off the knife. Sheathed it. And looked out.
From his vantage point, he had a clean view of the survivors. Two bandits standing at Ryan’s watchtower. Two more by the captives’ tent. He pointed both hands at both groups and spoke.
Nothing happened.
He cursed. Must have run out of mana. 
"Pete! You said something just now?" 
Gideon brought his hellgun to his shoulder and flipped the safety to continuous fire. The guards by the tent were on high alert, sweeping their weapons back and forth and man height. The other two were backing away from Ryan’s body. One of them had turned to look up at the tower.
At Gideon. 
Gideon fired.
The star-hot bolt burst his chest open. Still holding down the trigger, Gideon lifted the weapon a fraction of an inch and to the left. A line of bolts lashed the bandits, exploding them into scarlet clouds.
"What the hell was that?! Who fired!"
Gideon swung around to the remaining guards. Now they were finally looking up, but they were so close he could cut them down in a single burst. He aimed—
The tent is flammable!
—switched to single shot and fired. 
The left-hand guard went down in a hot crimson spray. His buddy jumped away the mess, away from the tent, pointed the gun in Gideon’s direction—
Gideon fired.
The guard collapsed.
Gideon breathed. Scanned. 
A deathly silence fell upon the camp. No bandits emerged from the tents or huts or hideaways. 
Gideon recharged his weapon with a fresh power cell. Refreshed his bracers. Slung his hellgun and slid down the ladder. Weapon at the ready, he approached the captives’ tent. 
The guards were violently, messily, dead. He searched what remained of them and found a scorched key ring. Holding it by his side, he entered the tent. 
A powerful reek assaulted his nose. Sweat and grime and human waste, piled on so thick it was almost visible. He breathed shallowly through his mouth and scanned. 
Cages.
Two rows of steel cages, all of them crammed with emaciated women and children, their clothes ragged and soiled, their faces and limbs streaked with dirt. They stared wild-eyed at him, flinching at his approach. The older women huddled the girls behind them; the boys protected their sisters with their bodies.
"I am Gideon, formerly a Judge of the Kritarchy. I am come to rescue you."
Whispers passed from mouth to ear. Then naked mutterings and murmurs. And, at last, a flood of excited cries and tearful pleas and joyous shrieks.
Gideon moved from cage to cage, unlocking them as he went. He paused only long enough to usher the prisoners out and check that no more remained before moving on to the next. He hustled the former captives out into the open, out into the sun, then checked the tent one last time before leaving. 
There were maybe sixty civilians in all. They squinted against the sun and shielded their eyes. Many gasped when they saw the remains of the guards; more cheered and jeered and kicked at the corpses. Gideon stood before them all and spoke.
"Is there a Princess Anabelle among you?"
As if by magic, the crowd settled. Women and children stepped back, forming an opening in the press, revealing a tall, slender woman. Her blond hair was matted with dirt, her dress shredded to rags, her exposed skin covered in cuts and scabs, yet she held herself with an unmistakable air of dignity and grace. 
"I am she," she said.
Gideon touched his right palm to his chest, swept out his left hand, scraped his right foot along the hard-packed earth, and bowed.
"Your Highness, I am glad you are well."
"Thank you for rescuing us. I was unaware that Judges still walk the Wastes."
"The Judges are gone, yet the Law remains."
"Your conviction and your skill are admirable, good Judge. But I see there is only one of you."
"You see true, Your Highness."
"How do you plan to take us from this place? Surely you do not expect us to walk. Not in our condition."
"The enemy shall gift us his vehicles."
"What do you mean?"
A harsh burst of static erupted from a fallen guard. The captives jumped. Someone spoke.
"Scorpion Base, Scorpion Lead. Come in, over."
Gideon motioned the civilians to step aside and knelt over the corpse. A voice emanated from a radio mounted on his belt.
"Scorpion Base, Scorpion Lead. Come in. Do you read, over?"
"What do we do?" the Princess asked.
"We say nothing," Gideon said.
"Scorpion Lead to all units. Comms compromised. Switch to Channel Two. Out."
Gideon unhooked the radio and examined its settings. It was festooned with buttons and dials, but no channel settings. Only frequency numbers. 
He rose to his feet. 
"The Band of the Scorpion are returning to camp. Ladies, prepare to defend your children."
--

For more stories of hard men doing the right thing in a fallen world, check out my novel HOLLOW CITY!
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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Judge of the Wastes Part 1

Jericho was gone. 
What was once a thriving village of five hundred souls, a village remembered for being older than the Kritarchy and the nation before it, was now a smoldering ruin of shattered timber and broken stone. Greasy smoke hung thick in the air, mingling with the scent of sweet pork. Bodies lay sprawled on the street, trapped under the debris of collapsed houses, dangled from windows, impaled upon the water fountain in the central plaza, left exposed to the elements. All of them bore long bloody cuts or red-weeping craters that passed clean through their torsos; many were missing heads or limbs. The survivors, a mere two dozen of them, had gathered in the plaza, to weep, to mourn, to attempt to rebuild.
He clenched his jaw.
Men will die for this. 
He cut a striking figure as he marched down the main street. Gray and weathered with age, yet clean-limbed and proud, he carried his head and spine tall and erect. With every step, his boots floated off the ground in a graceful arc and landed soundlessly on the cracked gravel. His dark oilskin duster fluttered in the smoky breeze. Powerful hands gripped a battered hellgun slung around his neck.
As he approached, the survivors, almost all of them children and maidens and seniors, shrank away. All but a tiny wizened grandmother, nearly bent double. 
He remembered a time when such an affliction could be cured through routine surgery. But those days were long gone. A thousand years of suffering seemed piled on her small shoulders, and yet she drew herself as straight as she could and stared at him in the eye.
"Who are you, stranger?" she asked.
He met her gaze. She flinched at what she saw in it. But only a little.
"Call me Gideon," he said. "What happened here?"
She blinked. Rallied. And spoke.
"Bandits. At the break of dawn, they fell upon our village, burning and looting and killing. Our men tried to defend us, but they were no match for hellguns and motors and magic. All they could do was buy us time to hide or run. What few of us were able to. The rest who couldn’t…"
Tears welled in her eyes. She looked away.
Gideon removed a faded rag from his pocket and handed it to her. 
"Dry your eyes, grandmother."
She accepted the rag, nodded her thanks and dabbed arthritically at her eyes and nose. 
"The bandits… they slaughtered the men. Had their way with the women. Some of the children, too. Those who survived their depravities were carried off. I saw it with my own eyes as I hid in the attic of the church. You see now all that is left of Jericho."
"My condolences."
She waved a hand.
"Thank you. But words are not enough. Jericho is dead. We must find a new home, somewhere in the wastes."
Gideon’s voice hardened.
"I swear to you, upon the dead of Jericho, upon all that is good and holy, that I shall find the ones responsible, and deliver unto them the justice of men and God."
She scoffed.
"You are but a stranger to these parts. Why do you care?"
Wordlessly he rolled up his sleeves. 
She gasped.
On each scarred arm he wore a bracer. Covered with scratches, the gray star-metal alloy had long lost its luster, yet the delicate carvings and flutings remained. Starting from his wrist, the etchings gathered into a tiny port, then expanded outwards to describe an egg-like hump that spanned half the length of his forearm, and flowed into the image of an eagle. An eagle with wings outstretched, left talon grasping an olive branches, its right seizing a dozen arrows, framed within a six-pointed star. 
She dropped to her knees.
"Your Honor! If I had known you were a Judge—"
He gripped her shoulders lightly and pulled her up to her feet.
"Rise. That title belongs to the dust of the previous age. I am only an old man now, not far removed from yourself."
"Sir, as a child, I have heard tales of the Judges and their exploits. If you were one of them, I daresay you have far surpassed manhood."
Gideon shrugged. "I am sure my colleagues lived up to their legends. I only have my duty. Tell me, Grandmother, what else can you recall of the bandits? Their numbers? Their names?"
"There were perhaps thirty of them, but I didn’t count. I was… hiding. Afraid."
"Perfectly understandable. Did they have leaders? Uniforms? Signs?"
"Leaders, yes. There were men who gave orders, but I was too far away to hear them. I saw weapons not unlike yours, including bracers. They had no uniforms, but some of them carried banners. A black scorpion against a field of red."
"The Band of the Scorpion," Gideon said darkly. "Did you overhear any of them say anything about Princess Maybelle?"
"No, I barely heard anything." She swallowed. "Your Honor, I heard the Band captured the Princess. Is it true?"
"Aye. I quest to recover her and deliver justice to her captors. Now they must answer for this crime too."
"All by yourself?"
"I alone am enough. Do you know where the bandits went?"
She pointed a trembling finger in the direction of the blood-red sun.
"West."
"Thank you, Grandmother. While I wish nothing more than to help, my mission compels me to pursue the bandits. I shall arrange what assistance I can muster when the opportunity arises."
"Wait!"
"Yes?"
"Why do you aid us? The Judges are gone, the Kritarchy is gone, and we have naught to offer you in return for your assistance."
"The Kritarchy might have fallen. The Law has not."
"There is no law in the wastes but the law of wolves."
"This is a world of men. They will answer to the laws of men and God."
###
For a day and night, Gideon headed west, following the bandits’ trail.
They were an ill-disciplined lot. Everywhere they went, they left signs of their passage. Just outside Jericho they had left a long trail of tire tracks, etched deep into the soft soil. Here and there they had tossed empty waterskins, the leavings of cacti stripped of their spines and cores and drained of water, and discarded rags stained with blood and filth. 
The trail ended in an ancient highway. The hard bitumen and long-faded markings betrayed no signs of passage. On the other side of the road, there was only endless desert.
He paused and considered his memories of the region. The bandits would need a source of food and water and victims, and merchant caravans still journeyed along the old highways. If he followed the road, sooner or later, he would encounter someone who had answers. Or someone who knew where to find someone with answers.
But which way? North, where giant mesas loomed in the horizon against the clear blue sky? Or south, a road that rose and fell with the curves of the earth and disappeared into the distance?
He closed his eyes and pressed his palms together.
Lord, guide my feet, that I may do Thy will.
He emptied his mind of thought, directing his consciousness to his body. The slow, steady beat of his heart, the rise and fall of his belly, the weight balanced between his feet, the play of muscles that held up upright. 
He leaned to the right.
North.
He walked.
And walked.
And walked.
The undulating earth gradually revealed itself with every footstep. Flanked by dried-up brush and small shrubs, the road swerved around gentle mounds, conformed to dips and bumps, and cut through a cave carved into an inconvenient hill. 
The sun was setting, and the cave was dark. He stepped off the road, took a long curving detour across the desert, and continued his march across the time-worn asphalt. 
A forbidding ridge rose abruptly from the world, closing off the right flank of the road. More hills crept in from the left, slowly advancing on the highway. In the distance, he saw a strange sight.
Cars.
Burnt-out carcasses of cars from the old era, so old and gone all that was left were rusted frames on exposed axles. Arranged haphazardly across the road, they barred his way, leaving only a small opening for a man to pass through.
An engine roared.
A buggy leapt from the crest of a hill and landed heavily on the packed earth. Bouncing on huge rubber wheels, the vehicle raced towards him. As it closed, he saw four men. A driver. The front passenger, manning a heavy hellgun mounted to the frame. A third man behind him. Standing in the rear, a gunner manning a tribarrel. A flag fluttered proudly next the gunner.
A black scorpion on a field of red.
Fifty paces away, the buggy halted. As the gunner swiveled the tribarrel to cover Gideon, the other passengers poured out. Forming a crescent, the foot-mobile trio approached Gideon, hellguns trained on him. As they advanced, they kept their distance, giving the gunner a clean arc of fire. 
"Ho there! Don’t move!" the man in the middle shouted.
"Are you road agents?" Gideon asked.
The highwaymen laughed maliciously. 
"We are from the Band of the Scorpion!" the leader declared. "Reach for the sky!"
Gideon released his weapon and raised his hands. His head pivoted left to right, smoothly and slowly. The bandits hadn’t come from nowhere. They must have seen him. How?
As if in response, light glinted from the slope of the hill the bandits had come from. 
A spotter. 
The bandits continued their approach.
"You traveling alone, stranger?" the leader asked conversationally.
"Aye."
"You seem calm. Very calm."
"It’s not my first time dealing with road agents."
"Then you know the play. Stand and deliver, or die."
"My purse is in my left pocket. May I?"
"Yes. Slowly. No tricks, or you feed the worms tonight."
The highwaymen stopped. 
Gideon lowered his left hand, keeping his right hand high. As his arm crossed the horizontal, he pointed his left index finger at the bandits, and his right at the sky.
"What are you—"
Gideon spoke a Word.
The sound resonated back and forth across the cosmos, bending it to his will. His bracers grew hot. The sky darkened and rumbled. The air crackled with unseen energy, gathering and compressing into a singularity. 
And released.
Bolts of blinding white light seared from the heavens, striking down the highwaymen. In the distance, a pillar of light blazed across the crest of the hill. Thunder blasted through the wasteland, bending the bushes, shaking the world, buffeting Gideon’s duster, throwing up thick yellow clouds.
The light faded. The dust settled. A fine pink fog hung wetly in the air. Burned digits and scraps of clothing drifted the blasted earth. In the distance, the hill the bandits had emerged from was seared a deep black. 
The leader of the bandits lay twitching on the dust, mouth flapping, eyes staring incomprehensibly at the darkening sky. 
Hellgun in hand, Gideon approached.
The survivor shook his head. Groaned. And lifted his weapon.
Gideon fired.
A lance of light burned through the bandit’s right arm. Another trigger press, and the left arm erupted in boiling pink smoke. The bandit shrieked in pain and horror, scrabbling away, leaving behind his severed limbs and a pair of shallow craters.
"I… You… What did you—"
"I have questions," Gideon said, training his weapon on the bandit’s heart. "You will answer."
The survivor backed up against a burnt-out car, propping himself against the weathered frame. "Who… What…"
"Speak, and I shall heal your wounds."
Blood gushed from the bandit’s stumps. He looked down at the wounds, his eyes and mouth open in utter disbelief. A precious second later, he looked up.
"Are you a Judge?"
"Do not waste your breath or blood. Answer my questions."
"What do you want to know?"
"What is your name?"
"Rob… Robert."
"Robert," he said slowly, savoring the name. "Robert of the Band of the Scorpion."
"Yes!"
"Where is your lair?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"I will find it, no matter what. The only question is whether you will bleed to death first."
Robert spat a curse and gestured with his right stump.
"That way. Six hours’ drive. You’ll reach a river. Head upstream until you find a hill. Past that is our camp."
"How many of you are there?"
"I don’t…"
"Focus. Do you wish to bleed?"
"No! No. I… fifty. Fifty of us! You can’t possibly—"
"What about your captives? The women and children you stole from Jericho. Are they in your lair too?"
"Yes! And you, if we catch up to you, pray we will merely—"
"Princess Anabelle. Is she with them too?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"I can see for myself and leave you to die. Or you can tell me, and I will heal you."
Robert swore again.
"Yes! We’re keeping her with the hostages!"
"Thank you."
"Are you going to heal me?"
Robert spoke another Word.
Cool white and blue light washed over the man’s stumps. The bleeding stopped instantly. Torn flesh closed over exposed bone, leaving rounded stumps of soft, pink tissue. 
The bandit shook his head. 
"A man of honor. Now I’ve seen everything. Are you a Judge?"
"Once," Gideon said. 
"Not any more, right?"
"Not anymore."
"I answered your questions. Are you going to let me go?"
Gideon aimed at his head.
"Hey! What the—"
"I only said I will heal you. Now it is time for judgment."
"What are you doing?!"
"I charge you with the crimes of banditry, attempted robbery, and unlawful use of weapons. How do you plead?"
"You said you weren’t a Judge anymore!"
"The law remains. How do you plead?"
"There’s no law out here!"
"I am here. How do you plead? Innocent or guilty?"
The bandit snarled.
"Guilty, damn you! Get it over with!"
"Very well. By the Criminal Code of the Kritarchy, the sentence is death."
Gideon fired.
The sharp report lingered in the air.
Stepping back, he scanned the wastes around him. No more threats. He rolled up his left sleeve and popped the egg-like cover from his bracer, revealing a white crystal suspended in fluid behind a thick glass window. The crystal pulsed slowly and dully, almost like a heart. The fluid was almost gone, no more than a finger left. He checked his other bracer and saw a similar sight. 
He remembered a time when an engagement like this would have barely expended half of the bracers’ mana. The crystals were aged and worn, well past time for replacement. But the knowledge to build them had died with the Kritarchy. Mayhap there were hidden places where people still remembered the secret arts, but he had yet to find one. 
Sighing, he opened his duster, revealing a faded brown belt. His hellpistol lay snuggled in its holster over his right hip. On his left hip was a large leather pouch. Inside the pouch, organized in two neat rows in a metal frame, were tubes of clear liquid. He had twenty of them, but only six were filled.
He removed a precious tube from the pouch, uncapped the lower end to reveal a syringe, and plunged it into his bracer’s remaining port. Mana gushed into the bracer’s tank, submerging the crystal. The crystal glowed brighter and brighter, until it became a second sun. 
There was a bit of mana left in the tube. He sent every last drop into his other bracer, then returned it to his pouch. There were still places in the Wastes where a man could obtain fresh mana—but he was a long way from the closest, and he had no time to waste.
By the last light of the sun, he inspected the buggy. It was in excellent shape. There were scorch marks where the gunner once stood, but otherwise it was perfectly intact. The weapons seemed clean and well-maintained, and barring some spots of rust and patches of torn-up upholstery, the buggy was functional. The engine was still rumbling, still ready to roll. And in the back were haversacks filled with supplies. 
But no mana for his bracers.
It could be worse.
He climbed into the driver’s seat and touched his foot to the accelerator. The engine hummed, the tires bit into the sand, and the buggy shot forward. He eased off the pedal and swung the buggy around, aiming at the darkening horizon, and drove.
--

If you want more stories of hard men handing out righteous violence, check out my superhero novel HOLLOW CITY here!