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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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.”

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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!

DUNGEON SAMURAI VOL. 2: KAMI NO KISHI is live!

Six months after being spirited away to a land filled with deadly monsters, Yamada Yuuki and Hiroshi Matsuo are about to face their toughest challenge yet. They and their fellow samurai must dive deeper into the world-spanning dungeon, going where no man has gone before, in a quest to confront the demon who brought them to its realm.

But as the samurai grow in skill and power, so too do the monsters. Legions of bloodthirsty beasts stalk the shadow-filled halls of the labyrinth, far more dangerous than those on the upper floors. Strange spells echo in the corridors, visiting death and madness to the unwary and the unfortunate. An ocean of agony and suffering lies between the humans and the bottom floor.

To stand fast against the coming onslaught, it is no longer enough for Yamada and Hiroshi to serve as samurai. They must don the mantle of the Kami no Kishi: the Knights of God.

The second novel of the Dungeon Samurai trilogy, KAMI NO KISHI, is live exclusively on Amazon! Backed by an incredible group of supporters, KAMI NO KISHI builds on the previous novel, KAMIKAZE, bringing more desperate battles in the dark, more bloodthirsty monsters armed with more powerful skills, and more romance!

DUNGEON SAMURAI is the most authentic isekai dungeon crawler yet written, a grim campaign through a winding labyrinth where death awaits behind every corner. If you’ve missed the first installment, check it out here!

Work on the final volume is underway, and is expected to be released in July. Sit tight and keep your eyes peeled for DUNGEON SAMURAI VOL. 3: SEISEN!

The Golden Mile Part 8

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The Babylon Night

There was just one last thing left to do.

Connor, Karim, Fox and Wood pulled security in the hallway. Tan, Ngo and Yamamoto rushed into the server room. Tan retraced his steps through the aisles and made his way back to the terminal server.

Many servers were melted and destroyed, but the laptop lying on the floor was still intact. He glanced at screen.

And grinned.

“Yes!” he shouted, pumping his fist.

“Something good happened?” Yamamoto asked.

“We’re in!” Tan said. “We’re inside their systems! Their data, their records, everything they have, I’ve imaged it on my computer! We own them!”

“Well done,” Yamamoto said.

Ngo grinned. “You’re the best, Z. With this, we can take down the Void Collective once and for all.”

“Not yet,” he said. “Much of the information is secure. It needs to be decrypted before we can use it.”

“Decryption can wait,” Yamamoto said. “We are getting the hell out of here.”

Tan packed up his things. No cops or guards came to interrupt. Together, the team rushed up on the roof.

The gravcar was waiting. Battered and blasted, yet still going strong, it had parked itself in the middle of the parking lot. At least the autopilot still worked.

All around Tan, lights flashed and sirens wailed. Babylon PD cruisers had formed a cordon around the arcology, hovering at street level and the first sky garden. More were vectoring in, wending through the distant skyscrapers, approaching the other sky garden and the roof.

But none approached. And there was no sign of the Black Marias of the STS.

Mortal law ended at the boundaries of land held by the New Gods.

They piled into the gravcar and took off into the night.

No one followed.


A half hour later, the car settled down at the city’s edge. There were no skyscrapers here, only townhouses and low-rise apartments and wide walking paths. And, three blocks away, was a transport hub. From here, anyone could catch a bus or train to anywhere in Babylon. Anywhere in the country.

“Thanks for helping out,” Tan said.

“No worries,” Wood said.

“Ms. Ngo, can you make your way from here?” Yamamoto asked.

“Yes. I’ve got relatives in Riveria,” she replied.

“Do you have anyone else who lives elsewhere? Someplace where the New Gods aren’t?”

“The New Gods are everywhere,” she said sadly.

“The VC doesn’t have much of a presence in Riveria,” Connor said. “And after what we did there, the New Gods would think twice before they do anything. Just keep your head down.”

“For how long?”

“As long as it takes.”

“I can’t do that. I’m Public Security, just like you guys. I can’t just sit down and do nothing. I can’t let the New Gods off the hook.”

“What can you do? Report to the PSB?”

Her eyes blazed with conviction.

“Yes.”

“Sister, that’s the last thing you should do,” Fox said.

“Why?”

“The PSB are in bed with the New Gods,” Connor said.

“No way. No fucking way. Where’s your proof?”

“Riveria. The Court of Shadows, the Pantheon and the Liberated, they were all at each other’s throats. The Directors used us—the STS—to knock down the Court of Shadows a peg. All sides broke the law, but we were told to back off from the Pantheon and the Liberated.”

“The PSB doesn’t want to enforce the law,” Yamamoto said. “They just want to keep the balance of power.”

“What the fuck? That’s… that’s not true. You can’t prove it!”

“Director Pearce told us, in no uncertain terms, the true mission of the STS,” Tan said. “And, I recorded him.”

“Shit… You’re not… you’re not exaggerating.”

“I wish I were.”

“What do we do next?”

“For the PSB to do what they do and get away with it, they must have strong ties to the New Gods,” Yamamoto said. “Brokers, middlemen, informants, couriers, a whole network of agents to facilitate deals and transactions. If we expose these links, the PSB and the New Gods will be too busy to go after us.”

Tan patted his backpack. “I’ll start with the data I extracted from the VC. If they have any records, any dirt, anything at all to do with the PSB, I’ll find them.”

“Excellent. We’ve got to disperse and dump the evidence. Can you take care of things from here?”

“Yes.”

“Good luck. I’ll get in touch with you soon.”

Tan and Ngo stepped out the car. Tan shouldered his pack, wrapping his jacket around himself, concealing his plate carrier and pistol as best as he could. With a quiet hum, the bullet-riddled gravcar lifted into the air and rocketed off into the shadows.

The transport hub was a beacon of light in the darkness. This time of night, the trains were all shut down, but the buses ran on a 24/7 schedule. Silently, the two approached the entrance.

Tan kept his head on a swivel and his hand on his pistol. Every shadow hid a possible hit man, every corner concealed a watcher. Or so it seemed. After what he had seen in the Golden Mile, after seeing the Elect of the VC teleport from darkness, he couldn’t be too careful.

Ngo stayed close to him, her hand brushing against his.

The main hall of the hub was mostly deserted. Small groups of people huddled together on cold benches; other individuals occupied entire rows by themselves. Scattered in the corners, groups of haggard men and women lay curled up under blankets and inside sleeping bags. A lone transit security cop walked the floor, casting a wary eye on the sleepers. Ticket machines stood watch by the walls. Massive display windows showed lines and departure times.

The last bus to Riveria was departing in ten minutes. They hustled to the nearest machine. Ngo bought her ticket, and looked at Tan.

“Do you want to come with me?”

“I have things to do in Babylon.”

“It’s going to get lonely without you.”

“If you need me again, you know how to reach me.”

“Won’t you be too busy playing hero?”

“Not for you.”

She smiled.

A short queue snaked out from the bus bay. Women and men and the odd child, bundled up in warm clothing. As Tan and Ngo approached, the bus pulled into the bay. The double doors opened, and the passengers shuffled aboard.

“Well then,” Ngo said. “This is it, I guess.”

Tan nodded. “Yeah. Do me a favor?”

“Yeah?”

“Once you get to Riveria, check into a hospital. A private one, not one run by the New Gods. It’ll be expensive, but it’s better than being tracked. Get that wound looked at and remove the implants the VC installed in you. Last thing you need is to be turned into a zombie again.”

She laughed. “I will.”

Silence, again. The line of passengers slowly vanished into the bus. They continued staring at each other.

Finally, she spoke.

“I… You sure you don’t want to come with me?”

“I’d love to, but…” he shrugged.

“Duty. Always duty.”

“Yeah.”

She chuckled. Sighed. Smiled.

“That just makes you who you are.”

He shrugged and said nothing. She smiled.

“Well… thanks. For everything.”

She tiptoed and pecked him on the lips.

He blinked. She smiled again.

“You’re welcome,” he said.

She laughed.

And walked away.

He stood where he was, watching her go. As she boarded, she turned to look back. He waved. She waved also, and disappeared aboard the bus.

The doors closed. The bus drove off.

He sighed.

Stretched his neck and arms.

And walked out into the Babylon night.

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Love action, adventure and horror? Check out my latest novel DUNGEON SAMURAI VOL. 2: KAMI NO KISHI!

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DUNGEON SAMURAI VOL. 2: KAMI NO KISHI now available for preorder!

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Volume 2 of the pulse-pounding DUNGEON SAMURAI series is now available for preorder in Amazon! Featuring more samurai action, more ferocious monsters and more DOKI-DOKI, Vol. 2 is the most authentic dungeon crawler isekai story yet. To find out more about Vol. 2, check out the blurb below.

Six months after being spirited away to a land filled with deadly monsters, Yamada Yuuki and Hiroshi Matsuo are about to face their toughest challenge yet. They and their fellow samurai must dive deeper into the world-spanning dungeon, going where no man has gone before, in a quest to confront the demon who brought them to its realm.

But as the samurai grow in skill and power, so too do the monsters. Legions of bloodthirsty beasts stalk the shadow-filled halls of the labyrinth, far more dangerous than those on the upper floors. Strange spells echo in the corridors, visiting death and madness to the unwary and the unfortunate. An ocean of agony and suffering lies between the humans and the bottom floor.

To stand fast against the coming onslaught, it is no longer enough for Yamada and Hiroshi to serve as samurai. They must don the mantle of the Kami no Kishi: the Knights of God.

Kickstarter backer Xayvier posted this glowing review:

The way that Kit Sun actually shows the humans constantly adapting their tactics and equipment to newer threats and situations is refreshing compared to some stories that I have read where things remain somewhat stagnant. Not only that, but he also continues to show the ‘behind-the-scenes’ parts of military endeavours such as the miners, the farmers, the blacksmiths, etc, that fuel the war-machine, as it were, without getting bogged down in minutiae. Every little glimpse of this background detail is woven in to the story seamlessly, and you barely notice it happen without looking for it. Our heroes also constantly adapt too, growing as individuals, and as a group.

If the story had remained like the original entry, I would have been fine with it, but Kit Sun manages to not only take the original entry’s strengths and maintain them, he manages to amp things up without them being overwhelming.

Overall, this is a great sequel to the original entry, and manages to not only match it’s predecessor, but surpass it in every way. Definitely worth reading!

If you dare the depths of the dungeon, buy Dungeon Samurai Vol. 2: Kami no Kishi here!

And to stay updated on my latest writing news and promotions, sign up for my mailing list here!

The Golden Mile Part 7

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The Void

Vast emptiness.

The ritual hall was empty. An expanse of empty space, large enough to cram a small army, stretching from the doors to the end of the hall. There was no incense, no ceremonial props, no altars, just… nothing.

Nothing sacred.

At the far side of the hall, there was a flat half-disc of infinite darkness. A gateway to an abyssal, unending void. But it wasn’t empty. It was full.

Things wriggled and writhed in that living dark. Tiny motes of light drifted aimlessly through the Void. Other eldritch geometries impressed themselves into Tan’s eyeballs, at once familiar and alien, curves and lines and bulks rotating and churning through branes and dimensions he could scarcely see.

Standing before the Void, his arms outstretched, was a tall, thin man in a cloak of midnight hues.

“Hands up!” Yamamoto shouted.

Voices, thousands of them, resonated in the empty hall. A rough, grating, discordant chorus of male and female and sexless voices, merged with sibilant hisses and the growling of beasts and the steady beating of a million drums thumping as one.

“You are too late.”

“Stop the ritual! Now!”

“We are the Void. We are all, and we are the end. Nothing can stop nothing.”

“I don’t think we can talk to it,” Tan whispered.

“You are potent warriors, one and all. Together, we will become more. Join us.”

Every word was a hammer blow, driving deep into his brain. The voices slithered through his ears and down his spine, mapping his neurons and muscles and bone and sinew. The stars within the cosmic void beckoned him forward, calling to him, willing him to dissolve within itself, to give himself entirely to it and become one with something more.

“No,” Yamamoto said.

“If you will not join us, we shall take you.”

“Shut it,” Connor said.

And fired.

The bullet snapped the Hierophant’s head back. The Hierophant stumbled. Behind him, the stars whirled about, arranging themselves into a dazzling constellation.

A smile.

The Hierophant righted himself.

Smiled also.

And launched himself backwards.

The Void swallowed him whole. The lights dispersed in a frenetic swarm, glowing brighter. The writhing mass congealed, taking shape and form. Through the portal, Tan sensed an immense presence, impossibly huge, radiating malice and humor and coldness and contempt in equal measure.

“Embrace the Void.”

A mammoth bulk of amorphous shadows lurched from the portal. It was an impossible thing, a creation of anti-creation, breaking down and absorbing into itself everything that wasn’t itself. Millions of eyes and mouths opened and closed up and down its length. Countless feelers and tentacles and arms and claws and horns blooming from its body. Billions of voices sang and cried and roared and shrieked and whispered and chanted in awe and praise and horror and fear. Sentient rainbow shades blazed across its body, dissolving into prismatic shades and recombining into pure white and fading into blackness.

Its existence defied every law in the universe. It was unending, surging from the portal, growing larger and stronger, washing over the hall like a tsunami of sentient darkness. It was inescapable, its edges sloshing about and rushing down the walls to encircle the humans.

It was the Void.

Connor fired. Tan fired. Then everyone fired, pouring out a maelstrom of fire and steel. The Void absorbed the bullets and continued oozing towards the humans. No blood, no ripples, no sign of damage.

As one, the guns went click.

Awful laughter, immense and mocking, filled the world.

“We are unstoppable. We are invincible. We are the Void.”

“No,” Yamamoto said.

He drew himself upright held up his cross.

The cosmic creature flickered. It froze in place for an instant. Then it surged forth.

“Your puny trinket has no power over us.”

It picked up speed, sloshing towards them. Marcie yelped, compacting herself into a ball. Tan moved to her, raising his pistol. But against the vastness of that bulk, his weapon was tiny, offering only a handful of insignificant stings.

“If you wish to see the Void, look at me.”

Calm.

Complete, utter calm radiated from Yamamoto. His spine and neck perfectly erect, he stood loose and relaxed, completely grounded, utterly still—and yet capable of bursting into motion in an instant. His cold green eyes stared unblinkingly at the thing, his face smoothened over into an inscrutable mask. Yet his expression seemed so fragile, hiding a valley of fear.

No, that wasn’t it. Yamamoto was calm. He had always been calm. But in this moment, he was a perfect mirror, reflecting everything and everyone who looked at him. Into him.

Tan was seeing his own fear in Yamamoto, nothing more.

Tan breathed and looked. Truly, looked.

Yamamoto was serene. A samurai staring down an army with complete composure, having long ago resolutely accepted the inevitability of his death. A cleric burning with inner light, with no room in his heart for anything else. No emotion, no mental turbidity, just… nothing.

Ten thousand eyes, white and lidless, popped open across the body of the Void. All of them stared at the humans. At Yamamoto. Ten thousand more materialized, then more, and more and more. The thing’s entire being was becoming a protoplasmic mass of eyes.

It shuddered.

And all its eyes closed.

“What are you?” it demanded.

“A man. A man who has seen the emptiness of existence. That is all.”

The words didn’t make sense. Not to Tan. Existence could not be empty. But whatever it was, it seemed to hold the creature in check. Perhaps it was looking at itself, reflected in the mirror of Yamamoto’s soul—and it was frightened by what it saw inside.

“You are like the other New Gods,” Yamamoto continued. “A false god that propagates heresy and calls it doctrine. Before the emptiness, this true emptiness, you are powerless.”

A sound emanated from the portal. An indescribable sound, a wave of energy that transcended mere sound, a deafening, clamorous force that shook the foundations of the world, hammering at Tan’s ears, shaking up his organs, bashing his brain.

Yamamoto stood firm.

The world went dark.

All light vanished. A totality of darkness so perfect Tan saw absolutely nothing. He heard Ngo’s rapid breath, the rustling of clothing, but he couldn’t see anything.

No.

There was something in the dark. Wriggling, writhing things that bubbled and oozed all about. He spun around, trying to get a better look, but they slunk away to the edges of his vision.

“This is the Void. This is the end.”

Light.

Pure, blazing light.

The light slashed through the darkness, burning a circle of illumination. Of reality. In that light, Tan saw Ngo gazing in wonder, Connor and Wood aiming outwards at the dark, Karim’s jaw dropping open, Fox smiling.

And in the middle of the circle, Yamamoto, holding his cross high, pure light pouring forth from the thin metal necklace.

“God said, let there be light, and there was light,” Yamamoto said.

“There are no gods! There is only the Void!”

“See now the light of Light, the light of Creation, the light of God! Dare you deny the truth before you?”

Another thunderous blast issued from the darkness. But now it was… different. Less a scream of defiant wrath, more a howl of anguished futility. It didn’t reach inside Tan the way the previous one had.

They were winning.

“Before the Void, before you, there was God. The Uncreated Creator, the Prime Mover, he who separated light from darkness and spoke all of creation into being. He is the One and the All, he who commands all things, the Lord before whom all will kneel.

“Witness, now, the Light and the Truth and the Glory! You cannot touch us, for we stand in the light! Therefore, be humbled before the God of all! He who is Lord of Lords and God of gods! You might delude men, but God you cannot mock!

“He comes quickly, enkindling fire before him! It is he who abjures you! He who casts you out! He who expels you! From his mouth proceeds a sharp sword, he who is coming to judge the quick and the dead by fire and steel!

“Release now all the souls you have taken! Flee to the Abyss and await your final judgment! Leave this world and never return!”

A terrible howl drowned out the world. Yamamoto raised his voice, shouting above the eldritch chorus.

“Leave! In the name of God, the Light and the Glory and the Truth, I abjure you, I command you, I exorcise you!”

A tormented shriek reverberated in the dark. The writhing things melted away. A vast bulk retreated, pulling back the night with it.

A flash of light.

And the darkness was gone.

Now the ritual hall was empty. Completely, totally, empty.

There was only Marcie Ngo, the operators of the Black Watch, and Yamamoto, his cross held high.

Yamamoto heaved a sigh of relief and tucked his cross away.

“Is it over?” Ngo whispered.

“Yeah,” Yamamoto said, wiping his forehead.

“My God… is the Void gone?”

“It’ll be back,” Yamamoto said sadly. “They always come back.”

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The Golden Mile Part 6

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Cosmic Horror

“OPEN FIRE!” Yamamoto yelled.

Shaking off their hesitation, the team laid down a storm of steel, tearing into the creature. Tan raised his carbine to his shoulder, switched to full auto and held down the trigger, walking rounds up and across the closest abomination. At this range he couldn’t possibly miss.

Rounds tore into the creature, digging out divots of oily matter and geysers of pale fluid.

He smiled.

Whatever it was, it could bleed.

It could die.

Abruptly the horror deliquesced, dissolving into a puddle of dark evaporating goo.

And two more undulated forth, taking its place.

“DIE!” Tan screamed.

He walked his fire from left to right, hosing them down. Growths and polyps burst open. Lights winked out.

An arm lashed out with blinding speed.

He ducked and covered.

The limb licked out above him, barely missing his head, and retracted. He popped up, raised his carbine—

“WHAT THE FUCK?!”

Half of it was… gone. Just, gone. The barrel, the forend, it had simply vanished.

A soul-deep chill sank into the knuckles of his left hand, as though kissed by the embodiment of cosmic cold.

Without thinking, he released his carbine and drew his pistol. One of the abominations, then the other, keeled over. Huge mouths opened in its body, issuing terrible keening cries.

In a human voice.

He didn’t dare to think of the implications. He simply aimed at the closest pistol and worked it over, stitching a line of lead up its amorphous bulk. He saw no head, no brain, nothing to aim at except the expanse of limitless darkness reflected in its body.

The thing screamed, this time in a human voice, and melted into the floor. He turned to the next threat—

Which was gushing towards him.

Cursing and crying, he jumped back, pistol barking away. The thing advanced inexorably, flowing into and through the door—

No, not quite. It was passing through the walls, like water flowing through a sieve.

He ran.

Racing through the maze of servers, he made his way to the other exit. He looked back and saw that terrible mass flowing towards him, flowing *through *the server racks, dissolving and destroying everything it touched, arms outstretched for a fatal embrace. He blasted it once, twice—

CLICK

And reached the door.

He burst out into the roof access hall. Crossed the corridor, entered the Hierophant’s home. Ran across the living room. Looked behind.

And there it was, relentlessly charging him, melting a hole through the door and wall, arms flying—

He leapt aside.

A tendril sank into the floor, missing his face and foot by fractions of an inch.

“BLUE BLUE BLUE!” he yelled. “COMING OUT!”

“COME OUT!”

He flung the door open and rushed out. Arms brushed past him, slamming into the floor. He stumbled into the midst of operators. Ngo caught him, holding him fast. Turning around, he saw the limbs punch clean through the floor, erasing everything they touched.

“Tango inside the living room!” he shouted. “Take it out!”

And, through the open doorway, the black thing surged into view.

The Black Watch reoriented on the threat and opened up. Tan’s hands flowed through a reload, ejecting the empty magazine, slamming in a new one, thumbing the slide release, bringing up the pistol to bear, sights on black mass, finger to trigger.

He fired and fired and fired and fired and fired and suddenly there was nothing in his sights.

Lowering the weapon, he scanned.

Smoking black mounds clogged the hallway. Spewing thick clouds of smoke, they faded to white and white to nothingness. The walls and ceiling and floor became solid again. But everything in the abominations’ path—shell casings, furniture, potted plants, bodies, blood—had been devoured so completely there was nothing left. In the space of heartbeats, the hall was completely and totally empty. As if nothing had happened here at all.

“What in the name of all that is holy was that?” Connor asked.

“The thing!” Ngo whispered. “The thing from the Void! It—it eats everything! Plants, rock, people, everything! And it turns them into—into that!”

She gripped herself, rocking back and forth.

“Right,” Tan declared. “We are getting the fuck out of here.”

She snapped upright.

“No! You can’t! Not yet!”

“Why not?”

“Can you feel it?”

He did.

It was a titanic bulk leaning hard against the fabric of the world. Its psychic pressure radiated from everywhere and nowhere at once. Blackness crept at the edges of his sight, a blackness filled with icy, inscrutable stars. Lines of force and tension ran through his skin and into his brain, building a picture of the monstrosity lurking at the edges of reality.

It was huge. Unimaginably huge.

But it was also the tiniest fragment of something far larger.

“We. Have. To. Go,” Tan whispered.

“No!” Ngo said. “It’s coming! It’s passing through the veil into this world! We have to stop it before it eats everything!”

“How the fuck do you fight a cosmic horror like this?!” Connor shouted.

Ngo pointed.

At Yamamoto.

At the cross dangling from his chest.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Tan muttered.

“You neutralized the QRF’s Void powers!” Ngo said. “You can do something about the Void!”

Yamamoto took his cross in his bloodstained hands, staring at it.

“Boss? It’s your call,” Fox said.

He closed his eyes. Sighed.

Lifted the cross to his lips.

And opened his eyes.

“The Void has power over space-time,” Yamamoto said. “If it gets out, if it reaches the roof, it can destroy us when we fly out. We have to go in.”

Ya Allah,” Karim whispered.

“Who’s coming with me?”

“I am,” Karim said. “You need backup.”

“Me too,” Connor said.

“We’re all going,” Tan said.

Yamamoto nodded. “Good. Once more into the breach.”

Taking up their weapons, they entered the ritual hall.

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The Golden Mile Part 5

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The Charnel House

Tan wasn’t going to march into the belly of the beast. Not with just a handgun.

But he didn’t have to.

Inside the trunk of the gravcar were two duffel bags. Go-bags, laden with mission-essential gear, one belonging to Yamamoto, the other to Tan. Tan took his, found an empty patch of ground, and unzipped it.

Ballistic helmet, reinforced with rifle-grade applique plates, and fitted with fusion goggles. Plate carrier, stocked with magazines, tools, front and side and rear trauma plates. War belt, weighed down with pistol, more mags, more kit. M83A1 carbine in an ultra-compact configuration, red dot sight paired with super-short barrel and suppressor. And as much spare ammo, batteries, food and bottled water he could shove inside the bag.

Every STS operator kept a go-bag near his person at all times for emergency rapid deployment, capable of keeping him supplied for 72 hours of high-intensity operations. The last thing the Black Watch did before leaving HQ was to take their go-bags with them. Bringing them out on an unsanctioned operation like this was illegal.

But if only they got caught.

His carbine was fitted with a brass catcher. No worries there. He picked a pistol off one of the QRF’s corpses, dumped his old mags into his bag and filled his pouches from the dead man’s ammo. Yamamoto did the same.

Five minutes later, Tan was dressed for war, carbine slung around his neck. Patting down his pouches, he saw Yamamoto rise to his feet, slipping an honest-to-God short sword into his belt on his left hip.

“Do you really need that blade?” Tan asked.

“Yes,” Yamamoto said simply.

“Can’t be a samurai without a sword,” Fox remarked.

Yamamoto chuckled. “Let’s move out.”

They took the elevator up. It was a risk. Everything about this job was a risk. But they had the tools at their disposal to mitigate that risk to almost acceptable levels. For regular humans, anyway.

Tan worked the elevators and the cameras like a virtuoso. Every camera on the forty-fifth floor and above blanked out. Every elevator that fed to the top twenty floors moved in total synchrony, marching up the upper face of the Golden Mile.

On the forty-fifth floor, they stopped. Climbed up to the forty-sixth. Stopped again. And on and on they went, starting and stopping and starting again, all in robotic lockstep.

There was no way the enemy could predict how the Black Watch was heading up. Their only option was to spread themselves thin, cover every possible avenue of approach.

On the forty-seventh floor of the west lobby, the Black Watch got out of the elevator and headed up the emergency stairs.

One hand on his carbine, the other on his phone, Tan took up the rearguard, muttering commands into his argees. Arcology security was finally playing catch-up, but he was burning too hot for them. They’d locked out the account he’d used to seize control of the drones downstairs, but he already had three more lined up. He burned one of them to program the elevators. As the VC’s techs attempted to override his commands, he used one of his hidden accounts to trace the sysadmin playing defense and dump a load of data-destroying viruses into his machine. He generated two more accounts and consulted GuardNet.

The top floor was neatly divided into two halves, with a single corridor running down its center to connect the two lobbies. Halfway down the corridor, another line bisected the northern half in twain, leading to the stairs. A dozen blue dots were crammed into the hallway.

All of them human.

The opposition didn’t want to risk him hijacking the drones again.

But there were other ways he could monkey with the system.

He set off a fire alarm on the forty-sixth floor. Canceled the general alarm, then activated more alarms up and down the Golden Mile. Sent requests for reinforcements to the non-alarmed areas. Enforced general lockdown on every floor but the sanctum and the sky lobbies. And when the sysadmins came for him, he unloaded his arsenal of cyberwar software.

As viruses and antiviruses warred in the Net, the Black Watch stacked on the doorway to the sixtieth floor. Connor took the lead, taking position by the door knob. Karim set up on the opposite side of the door. Yamamoto pulled a flash-bang from a pouch, held it out for Connor to see, then pulled the pin.

Karim transformed.

It was sickening, yet fascinating to watch. The human shrank away, while the wolf within emerged. Clothing melted and reformed as huge muscles and dense bone. Nose and mouth fused and elongated, forming a snout. Dense fur sprouted across his face, arms, legs. His fingers and toes remained, but now they terminated in retractable claws.

This was Galen the White, incarnate in Karim Mustafa.

Karim-Galen grinned a mouthful of gleaming razor-sharp teeth.

Connor flung the door open.

Yamamoto tossed in the flash-bang.

A flash of light. A peal of thunder.

And the werewolf charged through the doorway. His carbine barked with every step, delivering a fusillade of precision semi-auto fire. More gunfire resounded from within.

Karim-Galen growled. The shots might have stopped a mere man, but in this moment, the guards faced the wrath of a minor god.

And the Black Watch.

The moment the werewolf cleared the doorway, Connor flowed in. He went rock and roll, stuttering out short, sharp bursts. The rest of the team piled in, advancing and firing. Tan followed them up.

Then positioned himself by the guardrail and aimed down the stairs.

His blood screamed at him to join the fight. But in a building full of hostiles, the Black Watch couldn’t afford to be flanked.

Ngo was next to him, armed with a stolen carbine, but she was an investigator. Not an operator. Not STS caliber, most definitely not Black Watch material.

Doors flung open. Boots pounded. Tan waited.

A team of security officers trooped up the stairwell. They weren’t blindly rushing up; they had their weapons up at their shoulders, aiming up the topmost floor, ready to engage targets of opportunity.

How did they know we’re here? he wondered, and fired.

The point man went down in a spray of blood. The others rushed past him, carbines stuttering, laying down suppressive fire. Ngo screamed, blasting away in their general direction. Tan headed down the stairs, pivoting as he went, making himself a moving target even as he rushed to greet them, stitching them up with short, precise bursts.

Rounds whizzed past him, smashing into concrete. Ngo shouted and the shooting stopped. He pushed on, swiveling and shooting, his rounds finding heads and throats and chests.

And suddenly, there were no more threats.

Just four broken bodies crumpled on the concrete.

Those guys were good, he thought. They didn’t hesitate when their point man went down. They didn’t fall back. They just pushed through the assault. That’s not behavior he expected from ordinary security guards. Hell, even top-tier operators had trouble maintaining the momentum without proper training.

The other Void operatives they had faced had fought like that. Constant forward momentum, utterly heedless of their own lives or those around them. What kind of training did it take to transform people into warriors like that? Was this what the Void did to its members?

He thought about the strange files he’d seen in the VC implants. VOID. Maybe it was a brainwashing program. It wasn’t out of the question; the Singularity Network used a similar, if smaller-scale, program to keep its members in line. And after they had exorcised Ngo and disrupted her implants, she seemed to be doing… if not, fine, then better.

He could ponder that later. He still had a job to do.

He patted himself down. No wounds. But there was a neat warm hole in his armor carrier, right above his belly. At the lower edge of his rifle plate. A few inches lower and the round would have struck him in the groin.

He headed back upstairs, swapping out for a fresh magazine. Ngo propped herself against a wall, pressing her left hand against her biceps, gritting her teeth.

“Marcy! You okay?” he shouted.

“I’m hit!”

“Show me!”

She peeled her hand away, revealing a bloodied furrow through her flesh.

“It’s a graze,” Tan said. “You’ll be fine.”

“Clear!” Yamamoto called.

“Clear!” Fox echoed. “Trailers, move up!”

Tan led her inside.

The sanctum was a charnel house. The Black Watch had blown in like a hurricane, knocking down everyone and everything in their path. Bodies lay strewn across the main hallway and the lobbies, behind overturned tables and potted plants, lying on a lake of blood and gore and expended bullet casings, all of them shot in the chest and the head. More corpses littered the corridor leading to the roof access stairs.

Without speaking, the team swung into action. Fox tended to Ngo’s wounds. Wood and Connor covered the lobby.

Yamamoto, Karim and Tan went up.

Neat rows of gravcars were parked on the rooftop, all of them precisely placed, perfectly aligned. The team inspected the cars with their weapon-mounted lights, checking between and under them, and regrouped at the edge of the roof.

“Clear,” Yamamoto declared.

“Clear,” Tan said.

Karim-Galen shook. And shrank.

His fur receded. His snout parted into a nose and a mouth. His clothes returned. Muscles and bone diminished to mere human proportions.

“Farmer, get the gravcar up here,” Yamamoto ordered. “Rest of you, on me. We’re strongpointing the lobby.”

Wood punched orders into his phone, sending orders to the gravcar’s AI. Back on the sixtieth floor, Tan consulted his map and headed to the Hierophant’s home, sited on the western half of the building. There were two doors, a side door and a main entrance, both of them thick and sturdy, no doubt capable of resisting shotguns and breaching rams. An RFID reader controlled access. Tan swiped his phone over the reader.

The reader flashed green.

Tan smiled, putting his phone away. The VC were careless. Or maybe they hadn’t expected anyone to penetrate their innermost sanctum. He steeled himself with a breath and entered the apartment.

Tan had expected the Hierophant to live in the lap of luxury. It was just how things went: the top cat always got the cream, everybody else got the dregs. Instead, the Hierophant’s home was as clean and minimalist as Ngo’s.

A large living room with sofas and tables. A small dining area paired with a spotless kitchen. A walk-in wardrobe filled with ceremonial robes and ritual tools. A tiny bedroom and an even tinier bathroom.

That was all. No computers, no holovision, no library, nothing a regular person used. This was just a place to sleep, to bathe, to eat, and nothing more. This wasn’t a place for living; just for existing.

Back outside, the Black Watch was busy. They had rearranged the furniture, setting up a barricade of overturned tables just past the main doors of the Hierophant’s home. Half the team locked down the main hall, the other half watched the lobby. Ngo sat against a wall, her wounded arm bandaged.

“Found anything?” Ngo asked.

“Nothing,” Tan replied.

“Maybe there’s something in the other room,” she said.

“There’d better be,” Connor growled. “Any second now, the rest of the arcology will come rushing up at us.”

Tan hustled. Once more, he lifted his phone to the reader, and once more, the door yielded.

A server room.

Packed wall to wall with server racks locked behind secure cages, the cavernous room sucked warmth and light and humidity from the world. The cold penetrated Tan’s skin, sinking into his muscles and bones. Miles of cables ran between the bars of the cages, connecting every server to every other machine. Faint blue light strips revealed a maze of aisles and corridors. LEDs blinked on and off at random. A faint hum filled the world.

As he walked the room, he had an uncanny sensation that someone, something was watching him.

No, that wasn’t it.

The computers were watching him. Judging him. Somehow.

He couldn’t quite describe it. It was like a subtle weight pressing his skin, lines of force and tension radiating outwards from the server banks and the cages. The flickering lights reminded him of eyes. In the dim light, he thought he saw tendrils of shadows snaking across the world.

And it was too quiet. No whirring of cooling fans, no machines running, just the hum of the AC. Unreal.

This place was getting to him.

As he navigated the maze, he saw a door set into the left of the room. A secondary exit out to the hallway. Next to the door was a simple switch that controlled the lock. He noted its position and moved on.

At the rear of the room, he found what he was looking for.

A terminal server. A massive machine that connected every server in a single hub.

He opened the rack, revealing black, blocky electronic modules. A holographic window appeared at eye level, demanding authentication.

Ignoring the window, he studied the modules.

And grinned.

The machines were custom-made for the Void Collective, but they still used industry-standard ports, plugs, indicator lights and other equipment.

He set his backpack down, pulled out his laptop, and turned it on. With a long ethernet cable he connected his machine to the terminal server. Then he turned his cyberwar arsenal on the server.

It didn’t matter how good their defenses were. Every virus and utility, every rootkit and bootkit, every last line of code was written and compiled by the best in the business. Including himself.

If there was anything stored in here, he would own it.

Gunfire rang out.

“CONTACT! CONTACT!” Connor yelled.

Tan charged for the exit, hit the lock switch, opened the door—

“What the shit?!”

It was a… a thing. Its body, if it could be called that, was a dark, oily mass whose surface shimmered in iridescent colors. Motes of sinister light danced within its body, illuminating it from the inside. Polyps and bulbs blossomed across its body, forming and melting and reforming. Glowing red slits opened and closed alongside the odd growths. The lower half of the central bulk rolled along the floor, propelling it forward, yet the rest of it remained utterly still. Arms splayed out from its top like a damned crown, creeping along the ceiling and the walls, branching towards him. He tried to count the arms, but they seemed to intersect with each other in weird ways, passing into and through each other, spawning a fractal army of increasingly-smaller limbs. Just looking at the thing churned his insides and spiked his temples and clawed at his eyes.

And whatever it touched—the floor, the walls, the ceiling—shimmered and wavered, as though reality itself was losing its grip on mere matter.

He stared, transfixed by the sight of the shuffling abomination. A sense of mounting dread crept over him. He’d been trained to fight Husks and Elect, yes, and in the STS he had put plenty of them into the ground. But this, this was a whole different breed of horror.

And, from the open door to the ritual hall, more of them vomited forth.

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The Golden Mile Part 3

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We Can’t Fight a God

Reaching into their jackets, the men donned thin tactical gloves. Just in case.

Yamamoto rolled up his jacket sleeve, revealing a paracord bracelet. He unbuckled and unraveled it halfway, leaving a braided handle in his hand and a dangling bight.

Tan waved his phone against the RFID scanner.

The door unlocked.

Yamamoto opened the door. With swift, deft movements, he tied the paracord around the chain.

“What are you doing?” Ngo yelled.

Yamamoto ran the paracord across the upper edge of the door.

“Leave! Now! Security is on the way!”

Yamamoto closed the door.

Held on to the handle.

And opened it again.

With a metallic clatter, the door chain disengaged. Tan barged in.

The apartment was beyond minimalist. A sofa, a glass coffee table, a holovision. Vast swathes of empty space.

And Ngo, in the kitchen, standing by the island.

“Get out! Now!”

Her voice mutated and rippled, a mezzo-soprano transmuting into a discordant chorus of a thousand tongues.

Tan rushed to her.

“Alarm!”

She fled deeper into the kitchen.

He followed.

She yanked a drawer open, revealing a set of knives.

“NO!” Tan shouted.

Her hand snatched up the largest blade.

Tan lunged for her.

She turned towards him, knife whirling for his neck.

He speared his arms out. His left forearm slammed into her knife arm. His right palm smacked her forehead.

Shrieking, she staggered back. He closed his fingers, but found only empty space. She thrust again, going for his belly. He crashed in, sweeping her knife hand away, seizing the back of her elbow, driving his skull into her shoulder. He twisted his left wrist around and captured her own.

She roared in his ear, pulling away from him. Her arm retracted, aligning the point towards him. He stepped out, sliding his right hand down to her wrist, snaring the back of her elbow with his left hand, and crashed into her again, driving her back, back, back.

She bumped up against something. Twisting around, she tried to claw his face. He crushed his left forearm against her bicep, kneed her leg, and brought her crashing down in an armbar.

She caught herself as she fell, her palm smacking against the floor. He planted his knee on her back and lifted her arm high, twisting her hand with both of his to loosen her grip—

She pushed herself off the floor.

Tan’s knee slid off her. His hands clamped down tight, locking down her knife. He threw his weight forward, trying to hold her down—

Yamamoto hooked his boot around the crease of her arm and lifted the limb away.

She went down, smacking against the floor. As Yamamoto locked up her free arm, Tan peeled the knife from her fingers and wrenched her arm behind her back. Yamamoto gave him the other. He pressed both wrists into her spine, holding them down firmly with all his weight. She bucked and screamed, but he had control.

Yamamoto dug out a pair of zipties from his pack and cuffed her hands.

“WE HAVE MARKED YOU! THE VOID WILL CONSUME YOUR SOUL!”

“There’s a syringe of gray fluid in my upper front pouch on my backpack,” Tan said. “Take it out.”

As Tan held her down, Yamamoto unzipped his pack and rustled about.

“Here,” Yamamoto said, holding it out.

“Inject her in the neck,” Tan said.

Yamamoto scooted over, kneeling by her head.

“NO! STOP! YOU CAN’T—”

Yamamoto did.

She shuddered. Convulsed. And screamed again.

“WHAT DID YOU DO TO US?!”

“Easy, easy,” Tan said. “I’ve dosed you with suppressant. It’ll disable the implants. That’s all.”

“THE VOID CONSUMES ALL! NOTHING CAN STAND BEFORE THE VOID!”

Yamamoto dug under his jacket, holding out his necklace.

“Do you see this?” Yamamoto asked.

Ngo looked.

And shrieked.

“Witness the Creator, the Alpha and the Omega, He who is the beginning and the end of all things—”

“I WILL EAT YOUR GOD!”

“He who is lord of the heavens and the earth—”

Incoherent screeching issued from her mouth. There were words, but not in a language Tan knew. They tore at his ears and ripped at his brain. He gasped—there was pain, but there was no pain, there was pain in his brain but his brain could not feel pain so what the hell—

“Aum.”

The word washed over Tan. A hint of white light flashed through his sight. The alien babbling ceased. Ngo stared, dumbstruck.

“Marcie Ngo, I know you’re in there,” Yamamoto said. “Are you?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice normal again.

Then the chorus came back.

“NO!”

“Marcie, do you wish to be free?”

“Yes!”

“NO! SHE IS PART OF US! SHE BELONGS TO THE VOID! SHE IS NEVER COMING BACK!”

“Father God, Lord of All, please come to our aid. One of your children is in the grasp of an unclean spirit, and she cries out for salvation. Free her from the clutches of this unholy being, and send it back to the Abyss.”

The demonic babbling returned, filled with rage and fury. But there was no pain now. Ngo struggled, but weaker this time, unable to resist Tan’s body weight.

“Shine your light on her, oh Lord. Dispel the darkness that has unlawfully taken possession of her. Free her from bondage and restore her to her full strength!”

The thing within her screamed. Ngo screamed too, her voice filling the world.

“Marcie,” Yamamoto said, “do you see the light?”

“I do! I do!” she shouted.

And out the corner of his eyes, Tan saw a faint light shining through Yamamoto’s clenched fingers.

“Focus on the light,” Yamamoto said.

“I will!”

“Well done. As for you, foul spirit, I speak to you now. Tremble now, in the light of the Lord, before whom all the denizens of Hell kneel! I abjure you, most unclean spirit, by all that is holy and good. Cease all resistance now, for you stand against the Creator of All, he who created all from nothingness, he who divided light and darkness, firmament and waters, heaven and earth!

“In the name of God, I command you, along with all your minions, to leave Marcie Ngo now and forever!”

She screamed. It screamed. Ten thousand voices screamed with it. A dark cloud spewed from her mouth, streaming and dissipating into the air, the voices fading with it.

She exhaled.

And went limp.

Tan wiped his brow. “That was intense.”

“Yeah,” Yamamoto said.

He released his grip and let his necklace swing free.

It was a cross. A cross whose bars ended in three lotus petals.

Tan held out the knife to Yamamoto.

“Take this and cover me. I need to monitor the suppressant and flush her system.”

“Gotcha.”

Yamamoto took the knife. Tan rolled Ngo over to her side, whipped out his phone, and synced with the suppressant. It was slowly coursing through her, identifying and disrupting all implants it could find. The micromachines in the fluid would bind themselves to the implants’ receptors, effectively jamming them up, but the only way to be truly free of the implants was surgical removal.

That could wait until they were out of here.

Footsteps echoed against wood.

Tan looked up.

A pair of VC security officers burst into the apartment, training handguns on him.

“FREEZE!” they shouted.

Tan froze.

“HANDS UP!”

He rose his hands.

They marched towards him, covering him with their weapons.

“Easy there,” Tan said.

“SILENCE!”

“No one has to get hurt—”

“SILENCE OR WE SHOOT!”

Tan shut up.

The guards entered the kitchen, pistols held out in both hands.

And Yamamoto, crouching behind the island, pounced.

Yamamoto slapped down the nearer guard’s arm with his free hand and drove his knife under the arm and into his throat. The guard shuddered. Slashing his way out, Yamamoto seized the guard’s shoulder. Spun him to face his partner. Shoved.

The dying man fell on the other guard. The guard flinched, pushed him side, turned to face Yamamoto.

But Yamamoto was already behind him.

He wrapped his arm around the guard’s forehead from behind, forced his spine back, and drove his blade into the man’s kidney. He gasped, his mouth falling open. Yamamoto retracted the knife, punched it into his neck and out the other side, and cut out. And pushed the man down.

The dying guards fell together in a messy, twitching heap. Yamamoto knelt on them, planting his knife on a fallen guard’s spine, and waited.

The men flailed. Twitched. Gurgled. Bled. Summoning the last of their strength, they tried to pick themselves back up. Yamamoto didn’t fight them; he simply slashed their muscles and tendons. All strength fled their limps, and they flopped about like fish drowning in air. Blood gushed over the floor.

After a long, long, minute, they went still.

Yamamoto wiped his knife off a guard’s shirt.

“Are you done?” he asked.

“Almost,” Tan replied. “The suppressant is making a final check.”

Yamamoto placed the knife on the island and picked up a pistol. Pointing it at the floor, he eased back the chamber and shoved it into his waistband. He took the other pistol, checked it also, and handed it to Tan.

“Thanks,” Tan said.

He pulled back the slide and a jacketed hollow point bullet winked out from the chamber. He carefully stowed the weapon in his waistband and retrieved two spare magazines from the body of a fallen guard. As he stood up, his argees emitted a cheery beep.

“Suppressant is set,” Tan said. “All her implants are suppressed.”

Ngo groaned. “What… what happened?”

He rolled her on her side. “Marcy, it’s me, Zen. Do you recognize me?”

She blinked.

“Zen! My God! How… why… what—”

“Do you remember anything?”

“No! No, I… why am I cuffed? What’s going on? And… Holy shit! Why are there dead people on the floor?!”

Tan sat her up, placing her against the island.

“It’s a long story,” he said. “What happened when you sent me the email?”

“I…” Her eyes wandered up the ceiling. “The security team barged in while I was composing the email. They told me to stop. I said I couldn’t. One of them hit me a stunner. But I sent the email with a voice command on my argees. They pinned me down, injected something in my neck and…”

She blinked. Blinked again.

Her mouth fell open.

“Oh. My. God.”

“What?”

“They… they put it inside me! They—those sons of bitches!”

“What did they do? What did they inject in you?”

“It! The Void!”

She shuddered, compressing into herself.

“Marcie?”

“The Void is not a void! It’s not empty! It’s full! It’s—”

“Marcie!”

She startled.

“You okay?” Tan asked.

“Yeah, yeah. My God… the… whatever it was, it took control of me. It’s… it’s like being locked up inside your head, watching and feeling something… something else drive your body. It was… My God, my God…”

He gripped her shoulders and pressed her into him.

“Shhh. Relax. It’s over.”

She heaved a sigh of relief.

“Yeah. It’s… it’s gone now. Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Yamamoto cleared his throat.

They recoiled from each other.

“Um, hi,” she said. “Are you Zen’s friend?”

Yamamoto nodded. “Call me Yuri.”

“Thanks for helping. Are you STS?”

“We were,” Tan said.

“Were? What happened?”

“Long story,” Yamamoto said. “We can explain later.”

“Could you cut me free first? I promise I won’t try to kill you again.”

Tan stood her up. Yamamoto carefully braced her hands, then sliced through the ziptie in a single, swift motion. She rubbed her wrists.

“Thanks. What’s next?”

Yamamoto stuffed the severed plastic loops into his bag. “We get you out of here.”

“No, not yet,” she said. “There’s an initiation ceremony tonight. I think it’s started already. We have to stop it!”

“Marcie, look at us,” Tan said. “It’s just you, me and Yuri, and there’s only two guns between us. There is no way in hell we can fight our way through the arcology.”

“But the Void! That… thing! They’re going to put it inside more people! Can’t you feel it?”

Absolutely. It was a pressure building up in his head, pressing against the branes that divided the cosmos from his brain.

“There’s only three of us,” Tan said. “We can’t fight a god. But once we get out of here, we can call down the wrath of the STS on this place. Hell, we can call in the military if we have to. But we need you to survive so we can deliver your testimony to them.”

She sighed. Sharply. “Fine. Let’s go. What’s the plan?”

“Wait one.”

Tan called up his phone and logged into the cameras. And swore.

“What’s wrong?” Yamamoto asked.

“They’ve locked down the ground floor. The guards have sealed off the stairs and elevators. Look.”

The cameras showed rows of armed guards standing by the elevator doors and stairwells. More guards walled off the doors and hustled civilians out the arcology.

“We’re not going down that way,” Yamamoto said.

Tan switched to the cameras observing the elevators. And swore again.

“They’re sending up the QRF. Give me a sec.”

He summoned a virtual keyboard on his argees and played his fingers across the air. A moment later, he cracked a grin.

“There. I’ve stopped the elevators. They won’t be coming up anytime soon.”

“We can’t go down either,” Ngo added.

“Plan B?” Tan asked.

“Plan B,” Yamamoto confirmed.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“The upper sky garden,” Tan replied.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

If action, adventure and horror are right up your alley, check out my latest novel DUNGEON SAMURAI VOL. 1: KAMIKAZE!

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