Guardless


Most cities are dangerous, but Armoede takes the danger to the next level.  The king sits upon his gilded throne in Aumont, but the city was run in dim rooms and back alleys, by men with far more gold than morals.  Those were the men whose gangs caused the city folk to bar their doors throughout the day and nobles to bring a contingent of guards with them every time they left Aumont.

The king ruled nothing more than the palace he hid in, leaving his subjects at the mercy of the gangs.  Only one man—one man in tens of thousands—dared to walk the streets alone.  The gangs called him Guardless.  They said that he was eight feet tall, with bulging muscles and startling red eyes, that he was a demon summoned by the king to restore order.

They were wrong.

In truth, I was just over six feet, with lean muscles and muddy brown eyes.  I wasn’t a demon, and I certainly wasn’t working for the king.  He never would have sent me; he was more than content to sit on his royal ass while his people lived in fear.

No, I worked alone.

My target today was a butcher’s shop in the Market District—a front for Jakov’s gang. It was a small shop, but the amount of gang members I had observed coming and going suggested some rooms underground, like those I had found over in Toven’s Square.

I pushed my way through the front door into a low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, a counter at the far end.  Behind the counter, a heavy, pockmarked butcher was wiping his bloody hands on his apron.

He looked up, obviously surprised to see me alone.  I could see fear flitting behind his eyes.  Could I be Guardless?  But, of course, I wasn’t eight feet tall or breathing fire, so he disregarded me as a threat.

“How can I help you, my good sir,” he said, tapping his cleaver on the counter four times in quick succession.  A signal.  There was likely a group of cutthroats somewhere in the back, now making their way into the front room.

“I would like to speak with Jakov.”  I stepped closer as I spoke, moving up to the counter.

The fear returned to his eyes.  “Why would I know where Jakov is?” he asked.  “I live my life trying to avoid the gangs.  Everyone in the city does.”

The back door burst open, and two men ran in, swords out.  One was thin and wiry, the other tall and bearded.  They both had swords drawn.

“Looks like you haven’t done a very good job,” I said, and punched the butcher hard in the throat.  He dropped to the gory floor, gasping for breath.

The two gang members charged me, and I met them with steel, ducking past the thin man’s blow and slashing my sword across his left hamstring.  As he fell, I drew my second sword and caught the bearded cutthroat’s blade on it.  I then flicked his sword to the side and drove my other blade through his heart.

My blades had been unsheathed for less than a minute, and already one of my enemies was dead and the others were incapacitated.  I flicked my sword across the other cutthroat’s neck and killed the butcher in a similar fashion.

That was how I fought—ruthlessly and efficiently, leaving no survivors.  The longer a fight lasted, the better the chances of one of my opponents landing a lucky blow or escaping.  I never let an opponent escape; my reputation was part of what kept me alive.

I stepped into the back room, a cramped space filled with hanging meat, and found what I was looking for: an open trap-door in the far corner.  I made the drop down the shaft and found myself in a dark hallway.  At the end, a sliver of light shone from under a closed door.

I walked up to the door, not bothering to sneak, and kicked it.  The timbers exploded inward and I came face to face with Jakov.

The gang leader was short, far smaller than I had expected, but had the distinctive scar that I had heard of—a crescent from his eye to his chin.  The crime lord sat calmly at his desk, his hands folded in front of him.  As I leveled my sword at him, he began to chuckle softly.  “Thanks to you,” he said, “it seems we’re both guardless.”

“I would hardly call those men guards,” I said.  “They barely offered me a moment’s distraction.”

“That’s the issue, isn’t it?  It’s so hard to find good help.  Nearly all of my men are base thugs.”  He leaned across his desk.  “Not like you.”

I lowered my sword, incredulous.  “I’ve spent the last two years hunting the gangs of this city, and you are trying to recruit me?”

Jakov shrugged.  “You could still hunt gangs,” he said.  “I would send you against my enemies, the other gangs in the city.  It isn’t any one gang that destroys Armoede, but the competition between us.  You could be the man ends these gang wars.”

“I came to kill you, not to make a deal.”

“When I take control of the city, you will be the second most powerful man in Armoede.”

I lashed out with my sword, opening another cut on his cheek.  “Were you really so confident in your offer that you would put yourself in this kind of danger?”

He smiled.  “My master was relatively sure that you would accept.”

His master…? I growled in frustration and stabbed the man through the chest.  The reason that he had seemed too short to be Jakov was because he was too short to be Jakov.

I pushed his body off the desk and began searching the room.  There had to be something that could help me.

***

Jakov leaped with surprise as I stepped in front of him and pressed the tip of my sword to his jaw.

“All that trouble you went through—hiring a double, leaving a token guard at the butcher shop—and you let your double keep a list of your safe houses on his person.”

Jakov grimaced.  “That bastard was supposed to be more careful.”

“It is hard to find good help.”  Sweeping my sword through the air, I separated his head from his shoulders.  I wiped the bloody blade on his tunic and left him there on his own drawing room floor.

It would add to my reputation.  Guardless, the one man in Armoede with nothing to fear.

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Carnivore Coast

General Kail Richards leaned against the railing of his balcony, a thick cigar smoldering in one hand and a crystal glass of dark rum in the other, watching as, down in the beach, his white-jacketed officers forced the savage chief up to the headsman’s block.  Beyond that, his soldiers held back a crowd of the savages with long spears. Kail could just hear the shouts coming from the flame-haired mob.

“Don’t you want to go down to the beach, sir?”  His bodyguard, Wyn Bruce, stepped up to the railing, his rank insignia glittering on his breast and his white tricorn hat tucked under his arm.

Kail shook his head and puffed a cloud of smoke out towards the beach. “I don’t blame to get any closer than this balcony,” he said. “It’s the small things that make life worth living, like being able watch an execution without ever leaving my house.”

When Kail had first come to land on the Carnivore Coast, a storm of steel before the primitive natives, he had built his manor into the side of Ember Mountain—a dormant volcano with a commanding view of the coast and inland rainforests.  He had come as a conqueror, but the savages had rolled over as easily as he expected.  From those rainforests, they had mounted a furious resistance.  That had been six months ago.

“Have a drink,” Kai said, pointing to the bottle that sat on the nearby table.

“I’m on duty, sir.”

He should have known—Wyn was a stickler for the rules.  He had been a colonel, but had been demoted when his practice of checking the Officer’s Field Guide before making maneuvers in battle had ended bloodily early in the campaign.

“When the king hears of our victory, we will be richly rewarded.  I believe that’s worth celebrating.”

“I’ll celebrate when I’m off duty.”

“Your loss.”  Kail turned back to the beach, shading his eyes against the bright tropical sun.  That had been a disadvantage at the beginning, his men having to adapt from their rainy homeland to this bright continent.    Since, they’d learned how to survive, though Kail swore his skin was a few shades darker than it had been six months ago.

Down on the beach, two of Kail’s officers held the savage chief roughly by the shoulders as the paraded him before his people.  The chief’s face had been scrubbed of its vile markings, and his fiery red hair had been cropped short, as a man’s hair should be.  But his expression…

“Does he seem happy to you, Wyn?”  The savage’s face was turned skyward, his lips slightly curved.

Wyn leaned over the railing and squinted towards the crowd.  “Not happy, sir.  I’d say he looks at peace.  He has likely realized that we are right to kill him.  He never should have resisted civilization.”

That must be it.  Why else would a condemned man be smiling?  Still it nagged at Kail.  His officer’s instincts told him that something was wrong; he just didn’t know what it was yet.

“Hand me that spyglass.”  Wyn passed one over, a long tool of polished wood, and Kail brought it to his eye.  His instinct had never failed him; something was amiss.  What was it?  “Something is wrong with the crowd,” he muttered.

“What’s that, sir?”

“They don’t seem distraught that their leader is being killed.  I know that they’re barely human, but they did show emotion in the field, at least in regards to their own dead.”  What was wrong?  “They aren’t doing anything.”

“Of course not, sir.  Our spearmen are holding them back.  What can they do?”

“It’s not that.”  There was no tension in them, no emotion but determination.  “They aren’t even trying to get past our spearmen.  In the rainforest, they would throw themselves on our swords just to recover their own dead.  Now, they just stand there, easily five yards from our men.”

“What’s that, sir?”  Wyn had procured a spyglass of his own and was focused further along the beach.

“What’s what,” Kail snapped.

“Behind them, sir.  Those four men.”

Kail turned his gaze to the spot Wyn had indicated.  There were, in fact, four men gathered around a fire, holding their palms out as if to warm their hands.  Only their lips moved.

“How could they be cold in this weather?” Wyn asked.  “I haven’t stopped sweating since we reached this continent.”  Then, having forgotten his decorum in his moment of confusion, he added, “Sir.”

They couldn’t be cold.  The temperature hadn’t dipped below seventy degrees in the last six months, including nighttime.  Then Kail noticed a swirling tattoo on one of the men’s legs.  These weren’t just any savages; they were the sorcerous shamans that had tortured Kail’s armies, causing the very forest to attack them.  Suddenly, everything fell into place.

He grabbed Wyn by the shoulders and yanked him around to stare into his eyes.  “Get the news down to the beach as fast as you can,” he said.  “All of our men are to focus on killing those four savages around the fire.  Forget the chief, just kill those four.  Do you understand soldier.”

Wyn saluted, “Yes, sir!” and ran off of the balcony screaming for the servants to saddle his horse.

Kail turned back to the beach, what he was seeing confirming his suspicions.  It was subtle, but the savages were arranged in a defensive formation similar to that of his white-clad soldiers.  They were protecting the shamans—why, he didn’t know, but if the savages wanted it, he would do whatever he could to deny them.

Wyn reached the beach even faster than Kail had expected, his horse moving down the steep path at more of a fall than a run.  He shouted something that Kail couldn’t hear, and the soldiers leapt at the savages.

The flame haired tribesman pulled forth concealed weapons and fought back fiercely, but Kail’s men were the best in the world, well trained and merciless.  They began to steadily push towards the shamans.

Kail allowed himself a sip of his rum, thinking that he his quick thinking had solved the problem.  The shamans didn’t stand a chance.

Then, the very mountain rumbled beneath his feet.

Kail, stumbled at the violence of the shock; his glass slipped from his hands and shattered on the balcony deck.  Pulling himself to his feet, he looked back to the fight.

His men had almost reached the shamans and the beach was littered with dead savages, but the view still filled him with dread.  The fire that the shamans stood around had grown.  It now blazed ten feet in the air and glowed as brightly as the Carnivore Coast’s accursed sun.

The mountain shook again, and this time Kail was thrown bodily to the ground.  He came up tasting blood.

This couldn’t be.  The savages were powerless primitives, only capable of animating vines to trip and whip at his soldiers.  How could they be moving mountains?

The campfire flared, spurting a gout of flame thirty feet into the sky, and the mountain exploded.

***

Wyn Bruce looked up as the top half of Ember Mountain disintegrated into a fountain of lava.  The soldiers around him saw it too, and began to run.  Wyn followed, knowing that once an army broke, they would never again turn and fight.  His only chance was to run faster than the rest.

Unfortunately, he had taken a leg wound during the first minute of the fighting.  The other soldiers easily outpaced him, and before he had gone twenty yards he was tackled to the sand.

A fire-haired savage straddled him, knife held high.

“How?” Wyn asked.  How did this happen.  Structure and order were the hallmarks of civilization.  How had a tribe of primitive, chaotic people defeated the most disciplined army in the world?  “How?”

The savage answered by sliding his knife into Wyn’s ribs.

The Dragon

The streets of New Orleans were nearly deserted.  Once, this would have been an anomaly, but it was now a weekly occurrence.  Every Friday the city left their jobs and homes to come together.

El turned the corner onto Sugar Bowl Drive, her head down and her hands in the pockets of tight, torn jeans.  Even in the muggy heat, she wore a grey hooded sweatshirt.  Her dark hair was pulled up into a bun, and her tanned skin smoldered like embers.  She was heading towards the Superdome, following a muted roar.

It was the roar of an entire city, emanating from the massive stadium, which had been expanded to hold hundreds of thousands.  What was it that could bring the entire city together?  It wasn’t football, not anymore.  The war had changed things.

All men are created equal.  It was the mantra of a nation, and the nation held on to it so tightly that they hadn’t known what to do when it simply wasn’t true.  Superhumans had arrived, and humans were forced to accept the existence of superior beings.  They hadn’t taken it well.

Superhumans lost the war badly and now fought each other for the amusement of the victors.  The entire city turned out to watch the bloodbath.  It was slaughter for sport on a scale unseen since Rome.

The guards at the entrance looked up from their burgers as El approached them.  One was short and round, the other just as round, but much taller.  They looked surprised, thinking that everyone in the city would already be inside.

“Stop there,” the short one said, pulling a small device from his belt.

“What’s wrong?”  A wisp of smoke escaped El’s mouth as she spoke.  She was still working on controlling that.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he assured her.  He obviously didn’t see her as a threat.  After all, what did he have to fear from a slight, twenty year old girl?  “We just have to run a quick test to make sure you aren’t one of those freaks.  It’s a formality.”

“A test?”  El made her voice quaver.

The guard moved his device toward her finger.  “I just need a bit of blood, nothing dangerous,” he said.  “You have nothing to fear unless you’re one of those monsters.”  He chuckled.  “You aren’t a monster, are you?”

Her answer was to attack, ripping out his throat as her fingers grew into deadly claws.  He fell with a gurgle and didn’t move again.

The second guard was quick enough to draw his gun, a scream tearing itself from his lips as the bullet left the barrel.  The bullet struck her directly between the eyes.  El shook her head to clear the ringing, and plunged her claws into his heart.

El felt her forehead where the bullet had struck her.  The scales that had formed to protect here were iron gray and iron hard, and they began to fade even as her fingers brushed them.  She focused, and they returned, spreading across her body.  Within seconds, her skin had been completely replaced with the steely scales.  I’m getting better; it only took a few seconds this time.  When El had first gotten her powers, the scales had only appeared when she was about to be hit, but she had practiced, and could transform all the time now.

The short guard’s radio crackled to life. “What was that, Sanders?”

El mimicked his deep voice as she replied.  “Accidental discharge, everything’s fine.”

“Be more careful, or you’ll be stuck on sewage duty next week.”

“Yes sir.”

The man on the other end would have to be stupid to have actually fallen for her imitation, so she hurried through the double doors into the building.

Inside was a gigantic marble statue depicting two superhumans fighting.  It towered three stories high, surrounded by the escalators that brought viewers to their seats.  El leaped onto the statue and began to climb her way to the top, her claws biting deep into the stone.  Crouching at the top, she could hear guards rushing through the doors and their shouts of alarm as they discovered the bodies she had left.

She leaped from the statue and landed on the cold floor of the third story.  The blueprints she had memorized earlier said that the VIP boxes would be to her right, so she set off, keeping to the curve of the corridor.  One guard passed her, but she killed him before he could make a sound.

Before long, she came to a large arched doorway with the letters VIP stamped above it.  A sign beneath those letters read: “Albert Wayne, Mayor of New Orleans”.

El stepped quickly through the archway and came face to face with two more guards.  These weren’t the pudgy guards she had seen at the entrance—these men were killers, all hard muscle and precise motions.  As soon as she came around the corner they reacted, firing point blank.

Even at the short distance, the bullets bounced harmlessly off of her scales.  El allowed a moment for the shock to register on the guard’s faces, then opened her jaws and engulfed them in a torrent of bright flame.  Their screams ended quickly, and El stepped over their charred bodies and shoved her way into the VIP suite.

The suite was a wide room with a view over the arena, in which a superhuman in black dodged blows from a massive fighter whose blows left craters in the ground.  A row of leather chairs sat empty facing the fight, with a bottle of whiskey spilled across one of them.  No Wayne.  They must have left in a hurry.

A small door of the left side of the room was left swinging open.  If the mayor and his retinue had left when she had killed the guards out front, they would be long gone.  Should she just try to make her escape?  El had planned to find the mayor in his box.  What had she been thinking?  Of course he wouldn’t just sit and wait for her to kill him.  He would have a contingency plan, somewhere to flee.

Footsteps sounded from the hall outside, and El was forced to act.  She ran through the open door after the mayor.  There was always the possibility that he hadn’t left until she had attacked the guards outside his suite, and no matter how small that chance was, she was going to act upon it.

The door opened into a small curving corridor that ran behind the other VIP boxes.  At each one, El was tempted to stop and kill the people who were cheering for the slaughter of her people, but she kept moving.  Her real target was the man who orchestrated the bloodbath, not those who watched it.

She turned through the first open doorway in the corridor, through which she could see a giant marble fist.  It was the same room through which she had entered the building.  She rushed to the railing and looked down in time to see the mayor, flanked by two guards, rushing towards the double doors on the ground floor.  They were followed by a huge man—nearly seven feet tall—who sported a web of scars across his heavy broad shoulders and bare back.

El let out a roar and leapt out over the statue, ready to climb down after her prey.

“The Dragon!” one of the guards cried as he saw her jump.  It was the alias that she had been given, like the ones they gave the fighters.  She grinned savagely when she heard it.  Unlike the captured superhumans, who saw their names as symbols of their slavery, she reveled in hers.  It was the name they gave to something feared.  She was the hunter.  She would land amongst her prey and kill them one by one.

However, as she landed on the marble, it fell away beneath her.  It shone with a ruddy light and grew so hot that she could feel it through her scales.  It grew bright red, and melted into searing magma.  She fell with it, and landed hard in a pool of lava.

The scarred man stood above her, the magma swirling around his feet, his eyes alight and a cruel smile cut across his face.  A superhuman! Working for Wayne?

Mayor Wayne stood just outside of the lava with his two guards.  “Kill this creature, Ignus,” he said, turning away, “but don’t tire yourself out.  Remember, you have a fight in the arena later.”

So one of Wayne’s gladiators also did his dirty work?  Ignus stepped forward, and the magma flowed up his body and coalesced in his hand, hardening into a wickedly sharp sword nearly five feet in length.  More hardened into greaves and a chestplate as he approached El.

She rose slowly, her side aching from the fall, and unsheathed her claws, all the while looking for a way out.  Her clothes had burned away, leaving only her lean, scaled body.  She knew immediately that she was at a disadvantage.  The scales protected her from the intense heat of the lava, but the molten rock clutched at her legs and prevented her from moving with speed.  This wasn’t a fight she could win.

“That man enslaved our kind,” she said, maneuvering towards the door.  “He watches us die every day.  Why do you serve him?”

“The food is better, for one.”  He stomped his foot and a wave of magma cut off her path to the exit.

The heat was reaching unbearable temperatures; even El’s thick scales couldn’t protect her from all of it.  She could feel herself growing faint as Ignus closed on her, cutting off all paths to freedom.  She breathed fire at him, but he walked unflinchingly through the flame.

El began to panic.  There was only one option that remained to her, but she had never managed it after the night she had discovered her powers.  But as the heat grew, she realized it may be her only option.  She closed her eyes.”

“You don’t want to watch yourself die?”  Ignus laughed.  “The cowards are all like that at the end.”

She tightened her focus, willed herself to change.

“It won’t save you.”

She couldn’t do it.  The heat was only amplified by the sun streaming in through the massive window.  It was stifling, burning away her focus.

“It won’t save any of them.”

Flames of anger rose in her hotter than any flame, hotter even than the magma surrounding her, and leathery wings burst from her back, unfurling behind her.  She leapt upwards, taking flight and smashing through the window.

Ignus roared, and a tidal wave of lava shot after her before splashing into the street.  It barely missed her as she shot into the sky, searching for Wayne.  She spotted him and his guards walking towards another entrance to the Superdome.  He was returning to watch the fights!  Was this man really so confident in Ignus that he would return immediately and so calmly to his entertainment.  He and his guards moved with no signs of worry.

She landed among them, a storm of flame and claws, killing the guards in seconds and flinging the mayor into the wall of the dome, cracking the concrete.  He tried to climb to his feet but couldn’t, collapsing into a heap.

“This is why your kind needs controlling,” he said.

El didn’t dignify that with a response, instead opening her mouth and bathing him in flame.  When all that remained was a charred skeleton and a wide swath of scorched concrete, she took off.  She could hear Ingus’s roars over even the roars of the crowd, and that was the sound of victory.