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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
His boots softly touched the soil. Behind him, the watchtower crackled merrily. Wooden beams snapped.
A stream of bolts chased him.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Serve by my side in my court.”
“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?”
“Thank you, Your Honor.”
“You’re most welcome, Your Highness.”
For more stories of hard men dispensing rough justice in a fallen world, check out my novel HOLLOW CITY!
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