Ring of Bullets

I tightly gripped the barrel of my rifle as I settled down in the dirt and gazed over the ridge at the red desert sprawling before me. The landscape was a red and orange scene of mesas and plateaus, as if a god had taken a carving knife to the ground. The sunlight beat down relentlessly, hot and heavy on my back. A dusty road ran through the red cliffs, with intervals of shade where the rock walls blocked the sun.

I would have given my best gun to be in the shade, but Castro had ordered the crew to lay prone on the ridge atop the Mesa. It was the best ambush spot in the Drylands, he said. And if the stories about their quarry were true, they would need every advantage.

The Red Sun Sons were the best bounty hunters in the Drylands. It had been Castro’s idea—the gang and the name. The gang was an excellent idea, we were all rich and dangerous—everything a man could hope to be out in this waste. The name…well, an infant could have come up with a better one. Castro thought that the double meaning of son and sun was magnificently clever. It wasn’t.

Normally we took bounties alone and returned with the gold. If the target was especially dangerous, sometimes we would go tandem. Never before had any more than three of us been on one hunt together, but five of us lay atop the dusty mesas, our rifles trained on the road below us. Castro hadn’t even wanted the job, but Ray had forced the issue.

“We didn’t become the most feared hunters in the Drylands by shying away from the tough jobs,” he had argued, and he had been right. The Red Sun Sons had taken down some of the most notorious bandits and some of the most powerful lawmakers. As long as the gold was good, no prey was off limits for us.

If that was the case though, why did five of the most dangerous men in the Drylands demand a king’s ransom before taking this job? Why were our palms so slick with sweat, making it difficult to keep our rifles from slipping? It wasn’t greed, and it wasn’t the sun.

We had been in place for over an hour when he approached on his white horse, his wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his face and a short beige poncho draped over his shoulders. As he grew nearer, I could see a pistol on either hip, a rifle slung over his shoulder, and a long sword hanging from his saddle. His skin was deeply tanned, and he sported a scruffy black beard, and he was entirely underwhelming.

This was the man that had required five of our best to hunt?  The legendary Whiteshot, who was seven feet tall and impervious to bullets? The bandit who had single-handedly created ghost towns?  I glanced towards Ray, who lay 20 meters to my left, and raised my arms questioningly. He nodded once before settling the stock of his rifle into his shoulder and returning his attention to the rider.  I took a deep breath and aimed my own rifle. My breath came easier, and my palms felt drier. This I could do. The man before me was no god, just a bandit the like of whom I had dealt with before, on my own, without the luxury of an ambush.

We allowed him to enter the pass. That was the plan: fire from the top of the cliffs on either side, from all angles. I pulled at the brim of my hat to shade my eyes squinted down the sight of my gun.  Whiteshot entered the pass at a slow canter, and I began to count. Three seconds from when he entered, Castro had said.

Three…

I lined up the rider in my sights.

Two…

I cocked back the hammer.

One…

Five men fired in unison, an earsplitting crack running through the air as the shots discharged.  Our quarry didn’t even have time to duck.  It was a perfect ambush.

As it turns out, Whiteshot didn’t need time to duck.  He didn’t even have to lift a finger.  The five bullets, one moment speeding towards him, suddenly stopped, hovering in the air a meter from his body, sunlight glinting off the bright steel.  He was surrounded by a ring of bullets, completely unharmed.  They started to rotate around him, still suspended in the air.

My original fear was nothing compared to what I felt now.  I was facing a man who could stop bullets midair.  It was worse than the rumors, because I knew it to be true.

Ray was a braver man than I, because he fired a second shot before I even thought to raise my gun again.  His bullet joined the others, but the shot gave away his location.  Two of the bullets left their orbit and sped towards him, faster than a shot from any gun.  They tore through his head and he collapsed dead to the dust.

As I fumbled with my gun, my other companions fired again.  Castro, Tom, Mick—all met the same end as Ray.  I watched as they were killed by their own bullets, held immobile by the sickening realization that the hunters had become the hunted.

I never fired a second shot.  I lay silently as he continued through the pass, my one bullet still circling him.  It wasn’t until nightfall that I found the courage to move, but I haven’t stopped moving since.  I lay in the grip of terror, but I will never again let it control me.

I still hunt him, because I made a deal.  In the Drylands, two things are sacred—your gun and your word.  I gave my word, and now my gun will see it through.  I am a Red Sun Son, and we always finish the job.

The River’s Mask (Arden #3)

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

Arden looked up from his cups as the fishermen entered the Hobbled Harpist; three of them, their clothes soaked and torn. One was a haggard looking old man, muscled from years of plying his trade along the river. The other two were young enough to be his sons; one skinny but healthy looking, the other tall and heavy, with bloody scrapes on his arms and knees and a half-drowned look about him.

Jon set aside his dishrag and crossed to them. It was just past midday, so the common room was empty, most of the town being hard at work. “What happened, Jaron?” Jon asked, helping the bloody fisherman into a chair.

Jaron, the old fisherman, took a seat before taking a deep breath and beginning. “We were out on the river, good day for it too, our nets were full. We were getting ready to bring our catch in early when they came.”

“River pirates,” the thin man spat.

“They boarded quickly,” Jaron continued. ” We didn’t have any choice but to jump overboard. Bracken’s crew wasn’t as lucky.”

They were indeed lucky. Arden had seen the rafts and small fishing boats that plied the river. He often thought they were lucky not to capsize. None of the fishermen stood a chance against an armed boarding party.

“We set up our nets where the river was at its narrowest, upstream from here. They came from the river and shore at once. We let the river carry us back to Crickhall, but Hus here was hurt when the current threw him against the rocks of the river bed. Taro and I had to carry him here.”

Arden looked at Taro’s slight build and imagined Jaron must have done most of the lifting.

Jon fetched bandages from behind his bar. “We’ve had pirates here before,” he said, applying them to Hus’s wounds. “I’ll send Gorden up to Kingston tomorrow morning, have him fetch some militiamen. Pirates will usually lay low for a while after an attack.”

“These weren’t any regular pirates,” Jaron said. “They were led by a man in an iron mask, forged in a demon’s appearance.”

Arden had been watching Jon apply bandages to Hus, but now whipped around to stare at Jaron.  Are you sure?” he asked.

“Sure as the sun rises.”

A series of images–memories–flashed before Arden’s eyes. The sign outside the Hobbled Harpist shorn in half; flame licking at the splintered wood.  A man stepped into view, masked in a demon’s visage. The flickering flames danced over his dark iron mask and the broad head of his wicked, curved axe.

“Don’t send Gorden in the morning,” Arden said. “Send him tonight.”

“Is it that serious, Arden?” Jon asked. “He caught us by surprise last time, he won’t be able to do damage like that again.”

“It’s more serious than you know.”

“Who is this pirate,” asked Taro, “and why do you fear him so?”

Arden emptied his mug with a long drink. “He calls himself the River’s Mask. He’s vicious, greedy, and utterly without mercy. And he’s proud.”

“What does his pride have to do with anything?” Taro asked. “It’s his blade we have to worry about.”

“His pride matters because it’s what drives him. He wears the mask because it helps him build a reputation. When I defeated him, I took a shit on that reputation.”

“Why do you know so much about a river pirate, Arden?” Jaron asked, suspicious.

“I make it my business to know my enemies. That way I know what they mean to do. The Mask didn’t show much interest in your fish, did he?”

“No,” Hus put in. “Cut them away like they were worthless.”

“A waste,” Jaron interjected.

“How did you know?” Hus continued.

“The Mask doesn’t care about loot this time around. His fight is personal, revenge for his loss. It means he’ll be more rash that otherwise.”

“And you plan to exploit this,” Jon said. It was not a question.

“Send Gorden to Kingston,” Arden said.  “If he rides hard and the militiamen listen they should return by tomorrow night or the morning after. In either case, I intend to greet them with the Mask’s head.”

*

Arden stood at the front of the raft as Jaron and Hus poled it along. They were far upstream from Crickhall, where the river narrowed and trees grew densely on either bank, giving shade to the water’s edges. “Is this where you were attacked?” he asked, without turning around.

“We’re nearing the spot,” Jaron called, ” but I don’t see why they’d stay here. Most pirates go to ground after an attack.”

No sooner than he spoke, small boat with a reinforced prow came rushing around a curve in the river.

“These aren’t most pirates.”

The steel prow of the other boat opened a massive hole in the raft, and water immediately washed over the deck. Arden was thrown into the river.
The water was a shocking cold, and forced the breath from his lungs. Arden surfaced quickly, gasping down sweet air, and kicked out for the shore. Grabbing a protruding root, he pulled himself from the river and onto the muddy bank. He saw the fishermen doing the same, Hus with some help from the other two.

The pirates’ boat slid onto the bank beside him, and the Mask leapt to the ground. He was taller than Arden remembered, but his axe was as wickedly sharp as ever. The other pirates moved to surround Arden, but the Mask waved them back.

Arden smiled; that’s what he had been counting on.

“Come back to lose again, have you?” Arden taunted as he rose to his feet, drawing his sword.

The Mask answered with a swing of his broad-bladed axe.

Arden’s confidence swelled as the fight began. The Mask was an even worse fighter than he remembered. His strikes were clumsy and rage-filled, easy for Arden to avoid.  He danced past one blow and thrust downward, his blade cutting through the Mask’s calf and sinking into the mud.

The Mask screamed in pain, and that’s when Arden knew he had failed. He knew the Mask’s voice, he had been hearing it in his head since learning of his presence, and the scream he was now hearing was not the same voice.

“You never were one to be cautious.” That was the right voice, but it was behind him. He felt a flash of searing pain as a blade opened his back from shoulder to hip.

He hit the ground and rolled over, allowing the cold mud to soothe the terrible cut.
His brother stepped over him, without his mask, his face scarred and burnt.

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

 

Sunset

My killer stood before me, silhouetted by the setting sun. The light made him faceless, a shadow with sword in hand, ringed in fire. His blade was wicked and curved, icy steel that seemed to leech the radiance from the sun behind him. He called the blade Night.

I took my sword in hand. It was long and straight, spotted with rust and nicked upon the edge. It was the blade that was supposed to have killed a king.

On my surcoat, a golden sun crested a distant horizon. It was meant to be a rising sun, but now it seemed to be setting.

A crowd was gathered in a wide circle around us, stomping their feet and calling for blood. I could hear the prince address them in his high, nasally voice. “This man before us stands accused of killing my father, our late King. He has been given, as is his right, a trial by combat. If he is innocent, may he prove it now in the sight of gods and men. If he is guilty, may he die painfully.”

This was no trial. The crowd knew it. I knew it. The prince and his champion knew it. This was an execution by combat. The charade angered me. The prince would never allow me to win, this facade just made a mockery of justice. No doubt the prince had ordered his champion to make my death long and excruciating.

The sun dipped further behind the horizon as I stepped forward and raised my sword. The sky was darkening quickly.

The executioner raised his curved blade, and my trial began. We fought back and forth, locked in a dance of death, moving to the rhythm of the crowd’s stomping feet. Swords flashed, steel, clashed, and the crowd cheered as each blow fell.

My death was a show to them; I let that fuel me.

I beat my killer back, scoring cuts across his pauldrons and chest plate. I thrust my sword at his hip, and the tip came away bloody. A hush fell over the crowd. I couldn’t turn from the fight to see the prince, but I imagined him white with fear. Then I imagined him dead.

For a moment, the sun burned bright.

He righted himself, and caught my next stroke on his cross guard. He began to move slowly forward, raining blows upon me and forcing me steadily back. I parried most of them, but one cut my shoulder, and another opened my arm from shoulder to elbow.

The sun was further eclipsed. My enemy was no longer surrounded by a burning brand, but faintly outlined with a dim yellow glow.

He slashed at my hamstring, and I fell to my knee, my breath labored.

The last rays of light painted the sky.

I raised my sword above my head, and he struck it with a flurry of savage blows until he beat it from my hand and sent it skittering across the ground.

The sun set, his sword rose, and Night fell.