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.”
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.”
“You are but a stranger to these parts. Why do you care?”
Wordlessly he rolled up his sleeves.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
The bandits continued their approach.
“You traveling alone, stranger?” the leader asked conversationally.
“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.
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.
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?”
“Robert,” he said slowly, savoring the name. “Robert of the Band of the Scorpion.”
“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?”
“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!”
“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?”
“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.”
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!