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.
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—
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.
He hauled himself up, grabbed the bandit by the belt buckle, and yanked.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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.
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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