Although he loved a good thunderstorm, this one was started to unnerve Mike a bit.  It had been going on for most of the day and according to the news and weather forecast it was part of a massive storm front that had already wreaked havoc across swathes of western Europe.  The official advice was for people to stay indoors, unless absolutely necessary, as the storm presented a threat to life.

The storm had started rolling in around mid-morning, and the power went off not long after that; they’d guessed that maybe a substation had been struck by lightning.  Neither of them had any clue whether that was something that could happen, but it sounded possible.

Until a couple of minutes ago the only unusual thing about it seemed to be its duration.  Experts and assorted meteorologists on the telly had been getting worked up about it, but that was nothing new.  They were always blowing things out of proportion in effort to turn everything with even a bit of mileage into the next big story, and of course there was no shortage of experts to come and talk about whatever the latest hot topic was.

Mike and Stacy were standing at the window of the spare room watching the storm and had been for nearly an hour now.  The back of the house had an unobstructed view all the way to the river a couple of miles away.  What had appeared to be a powerful, but relatively normal storm changed, almost like a switch had been flipped. The lightning strikes started coming down on the wide stretch of water with an intensity that neither of them had ever seen, with two or three bolts at a time striking the river, and the sound of thunder was constant, with one blast merging into another.

“That’s not right Stace; thunder isn’t supposed to do that is it?”

“I don’t think so,” she replied, sounding a little uncertain of her answer.

He was about to speak again when his train of thought was broken by the first lightning strike they’d seen hit land.  The crack of thunder that followed it barely a second later was ear-splitting and the pair jumped back from the window as if it had hit the ground in their back garden.  Stacy caught her heel on the corner of a rug and staggered back a couple of steps, managing to keep her balance, but Mike wasn’t so lucky.  He backed straight into a pile of boxes full of random clutter and landed in an untidy heap.

“That really bloody hurt.  I think I’ve broken my arse.”  He was only joking, but he had come down hard on his backside, so he was lucky he hadn’t done himself a mischief.

Stacy offered her hand and he pulled himself up, just as there was another blinding flash of lightning and crack of thunder, but they were ready for this one.  They returned to the window and their eyes were immediately drawn to a fire near the river, where the first strike on land had hit.  They hadn’t heard an explosion, but they might have missed it considering the racket the storm was making.

“It must’ve struck a car or something,” Stacy speculated.

Lightning struck a few streets away, causing a car alarm to go off.  Then across the road, hitting a satellite dish and sending up a shower of sparks, all this accompanied by the constant, manic drumroll of thunder.

Stacy backed away from the window and put her hand on Mike’s shoulder.

“Let’s go downstairs, it’s not safe standing here like this Mike.”

“Yeah, alright.  We probably shouldn’t be this close to the window.”

By the time they got down to the living room, the lightning was coming down in front of the house too.  Stacy was sitting in an armchair as far away from the window as possible, but Mike, reluctant to miss the spectacle of the storm had half opened the curtains and was standing a couple of feet from the window.  He had no idea if he was in any less danger than he had been upstairs, with his face almost pressed to the glass, but he felt safer and that was enough for him.

There was a flash of light that he momentarily mistook for more lightning, until it started getting brighter.  He chanced a closer look and was shocked to see a car driving down the road.  It was driving much too fast for the weather and had its high beams blazing ahead of it.  He took a step back but kept his eyes on the window.

“Jesus Christ Stace; there’s a car out there,” he exclaimed, barely able to believe his eyes.

Stacy sprung out of the armchair and joined him at the window, needing to see the car for herself.

“What kind of soft arse would be out in this?” She said, almost as a statement of fact, rather than a question.

They watched as the car continued down the road, skidding one way and then the other, as the tyres kept losing traction on the rain slicked tarmac.  A few more seconds passed before disaster struck.

Another jagged fork of lightning came down and although it didn’t hit the car, it wasn’t more than a few feet in front of vehicle.  The unseen driver swerved, causing the car to go into a spin on the wet road.  One of the back wheels hit the kerb, sending sparks flying and causing the car to ricochet back into the middle of the road.

It looked for a moment as if whoever was behind the wheel would get the car under control, until the slide pulled it to the other side of the road; only this time it mounted the kerb, and at the speed it was travelling, there was no stopping.  It crashed through the garden wall of the house three doors down from Mike and Stacy’s and rather than slowing, seemed to speed up as it crossed the small front garden.

The car smashed through the large bay window like a missile, then disappeared into the house and even though all this happened barely fifty feet from them, they hardly heard any of it over the constant sensory bombardment of the storm.

The pair just stared at the house across the road that the car had just fired itself at.  The rain was still pelting down, so it was impossible to make out anything in any detail.  It was possible to discern a glow coming from the hole in the house.  Something had caught fire in there.

“I think the house is on fire Stace.”

“I don’t know what to do, my phone isn’t working.  They probably wouldn’t send a fire engine out in this anyway, would they?” She asked.

“Probably not, but we’ve got to do something.”

“No we bloody haven’t.  Leave it to somebody else; I’m not going out in that and neither are you,” she said with finality.

He was about to continue arguing when somebody came staggering out of the house, over the mound of rubble and into the storm.

“It’s the feller that has that dog that’s always running about, out of control,” Mike stated.

The man seemed to be dazed and was staggering about like a drunk.  He’d barely made it across his garden before he was struck by an almost blindingly bright bolt of lightning.

For the briefest moment it was like daylight and they watched in horror as the voltage from the strike lifted the man off the ground and hurled him back the way he’d just come, smashing him into the wall of his house, like he’d just been fired out of a catapult.  Almost certainly dead, he bounced off the wall and tumbled to the ground like a discarded ragdoll, where he landed out of sight.

They continued to stare, in shock at what they’d just seen, and it wasn’t until more lightning grounded itself in the streetlight right outside their house that they both managed to shake themselves out of the stupor they’d been in.

“We should get away from the windows, before any of that lightning strikes the house,” Stacy said, more than a hint of panic in her voice.

“Yeah.  The cupboard under the stairs? If we throw the crap out of it there should be enough room.”  Mike realised he didn’t sound any more calm and collected than Stacy did.

“There’s already a torch in there, and some batteries.  I think there’s some cans of pop left over from Christmas too,” she told him.

They both moved together, glad to have something to do to occupy themselves for a bit.  It was the work of just a few minutes to clear enough space in the cupboard for them both to fit with a modicum of comfort.  At the last minute Stacy dashed back into the living room, and Mike was about to follow, to see what she was doing, when cushions started flying through the door.

“Put them in there love,” she shouted.  “We might be in there a while, and I’d at least like to be a bit comfortable.”

 

EPILOGUE

 

The storm had gone on right through the night and into the next day.  It had got louder and louder, and at one point there had been the sound of an explosion that they assumed was the crashed car across the road.  The storm got so bad that the whole house had shook, and it had gone on like that for almost an hour.  They’d been convinced with every lightning strike, that the next would be the one that struck their house, and given how powerful the storm was at that point they could only guess at what would happen then.

At one point, about four in the morning, going by the time on their phones, they’d thought they’d heard people shouting, but discounted it as their ears playing tricks on them.  Finally, at some point after nine in the morning the storm had started to die down.

There were still some pretty loud rumbles, but nothing like the constant barrage that had bombarded them through the night.  After so long, the sound of relative silence felt strange, and they stayed in the cupboard under the stairs for another half hour, afraid of what they would find when they came out.

“We’ve got to go out some time Stace.  It almost stopped now, it’s probably safe.  Besides, I need a wee so bad it’s going to come spurting out of my ears in a minute.”

It wasn’t that funny, but they both laughed anyway.  After the tension of the night it was a way to relieve some of the stress.

“Seriously,” he told her, standing up and opening the door, “I’m about to piss my pants, I’ll only be a minute.”

Mike was on his way back to the cupboard when Stacy called him into the living room.  The room looked like somebody had set a hand grenade off in it.  The windows were smashed, pictures had been blown off the wall, furniture was overturned.

“The kitchen window’s broken as well.  It’s going to cost a sodding fortune to sort all this out,” he said, as much to himself as Stacy.

“Mike, come here; look,” she told him, gesturing at the broken windows.

He looked up from the ruin of their living room and the sight outside took his breath away.  Walking over to the window, he took in the devastation.

When the crashed car had exploded, the fire must’ve spread fast without the intervention of the fire brigade.  It had probably been aided by the lightning that had sounded like it was almost coming down like rain at one point.  Almost every home on the opposite side of the road had been gutted by fire, with the houses closest to the explosion being nothing more than smoking piles of rubble.  Only the couple of houses at either end of the row of terraced houses had survived.

They’d been lucky the rain had been coming down so heavy, or the fire might’ve jumped across the road, and the consequences of that were too terrible to consider.

“I’m going out to have a look,” Stacy told him, so he followed her.

Some of the houses on their side of the road had caught fire, but it looked like most of it was just roof damage, no doubt caused by lightning strikes.  There were a few other people, looking around disbelievingly, like themselves.  The sound of sirens floated on the breeze, lots of them.

“Do you think this is everywhere?” He asked.

“Maybe.”

“Shit,” he exclaimed.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, as the sirens came closer.

Advertisements

Hero Time

ONE

They’d finally been able to do it.  The Tower had been destroyed, Heroes Vale was in ruins and every person that The Last Heroes had pledged to defend was dead; killed by the pettiness and spite of lesser men.  Although those under their protection were gone, and the order was in tatters, the scum from The Town had made one mistake; they’d left one of the heroes alive, and Savage would make them pay for their sloppiness.

Savage knew he’d only survived because of the Heroic Vengeance protocol.  It had long been known that the people of the Town were capable of anything, so the protocol had been created to ensure that there would always be one hero, no matter what happened.

A hardened shelter had been constructed far beneath The Tower and whenever the Conclave was in session and the Heroes at their most vulnerable, one of them would go to the shelter, and this time it had been Savage.

He settled his shoulder holster and rested his hand for a moment on the grip of his massive black pistol, Justice.  They were going to pay, not just for this but for every foul misdeed that had ever been committed in the name of The Boss.  The Town, and their callous, indifferent leader had been a blight on this world for far too long, and he intended to something about it, or die trying.  Savage was almost overcome with rage at the destruction laid out before him.

Whatever had destroyed Heroes Vale, it had been big, and it had been a spectacle, so Savage knew that at least some of the forces responsible were nearby, they wouldn’t be able to help themselves; if he knew anything about them, they’d probably filmed the whole thing.  The Town had a reputation among those settlements that remained not only for being spiteful and petty, but also being vicious, vengeful, self-deluded, and very thin skinned when it came to being humbled.  The Last Heroes had, it seemed, foiled the plans of The Boss one too many times and he had decided to deal with the problem in the most overblown way possible and had almost certainly had an advance team record the events for him to gloat over.

Savage needed to move fast.  He wanted to catch up to the team before they got back to The Town and he intended to kill them all.  It was the only way to stop them.  They wouldn’t learn, they were incapable of it and deadly violence was the only thing they understood.  It wasn’t exactly the most heroic line of thinking, but there was no longer any conclave to mitigate his more aggressive tendencies.

It didn’t take him long to find their tracks, they’d made no effort to conceal them.  It was over confidence, or ineptitude, perhaps even a little of both.  This suspicion was cemented a moment later when he heard some sporadic shouts of excitement, random gunfire and a single explosion off in the distance.  If they kept that up, he wouldn’t need tracks to follow.

 

TWO

The pair laughed raucously as the round from the bazooka hit the cliff face, triggering a landslide of rocks and assorted detritus to come sliding down into the wooded valley, startling the local wildlife into flight.

“I don’t know about you Harvey, but I feel pretty bloody awesome.”

“Damn right! We were there when those hero knobs were finally snuffed out.  Those guys were dangerous, and we were there, right in harms way; we’re a right pair of tough guys.”

Dennis simply nodded, with a big ear to ear grin plastered across his face and threw the bazooka to one of the men that the pair thought of as nothing more than expendable cronies.

“Let’s go fellow tough guy,” Harvey added, doing finger guns at his friend.

The pair turned and began walking to where they’d parked the transport, simply expecting the rest to follow.  They’d had to park a good distance away, so their arrival wasn’t clocked, and none of them had enjoyed the walk in; there was no direct road from The Town to here, so it had been a tough slog.  Dennis breathed a sigh of relief when they crested a small ridge and spotted the rugged ATV hidden in the gulley.

“We are tough guys,” he said, after a near five-minute break in the conversation, “but I’m the toughest.”

“Frig off Dennis.  Everyone knows I’m tougher.”

“In your dreams mate.  They probably can’t even remember your name, because they’re too distracted by my awesomeness,” Dennis retorted.

“Distracted by your face more like,” Harvey said,with a grin.  “You look like a …”  That was as far as he got before the panicked shouts from those behind the pair began.

Harvey and Dennis both turned to see what was going on.  Three of their ten soldiers were on the ground and it was clear that they wouldn’t be getting up again any time soon.  A fourth dropped as a man leapt from the cover of the trees and did a power slide into the midst of the remaining soldiers.  Taking advantage of the panic Savage deftly unscrewed the silencer, cast it aside and fired two more shots.  The first ricocheted off the helmet of a soldier and caught the man next to him in the leg, and the second killed the wounded soldier with a perfectly placed shot to the head.

“We outnumber him you idiots,” Dennis shouted at the five soldiers running around like headless chickens, “shoot the bugger.”

The remaining soldiers pulled themselves together, at least up to a point when they realised they still had the numbers to gang up.  Poorly aimed gunfire sheeted towards Savage as the soldiers emptied their rifles in an effort to bring the hero down.  Support fire from Harvey and Dennis killed another soldier, causing a snort of laughter from both men, despite the seriousness of the situation.

Savage leapt to his feet, sprung forward and Judo chopped the nearest man in the neck, causing him to drop like a sack of spuds.  Before the man had hit the ground Savage was moving again, combat rolling towards the nearest men and unleashing another salvo of deadly gunfire.

Harvey and Dennis were far enough from the action to see that the writing was on the wall.  There were only two of the soldiers still standing, one of them was running away and the other was so blinded with terror that he was attempting to reload his empty rifle with a half empty water canteen while begging for his life.

The pair didn’t wait to see what happened to their remaining men, they just turned and legged while there was still something to distract the combat monster that would end them as completely as their team had been ended.

 

THREE

Savage surveyed the carnage he’d wrought and nodded grimly.  He felt nothing but hate for the soldiers he’d just killed.  He just wished there’d been more of them.  The army from The Town had shoddy discipline and were poorly trained, with the only thing going for them being their numbers and lack of moral compass; he could’ve taken three times as many and barely broken a sweat.

He released the magazine from his pistol, letting it drop to the floor and slammed in a fresh one.  Justice was a powerful weapon, but that power compromised its capacity and all the shooting must’ve nearly emptied it.

“Clumsy, Savage,” he growled.  What if he’d run dry at the wrong time? The red mist had descended, and he’d lost his focus and that was when mistakes happened.

He quickly searched the bodies for anything of use and set off in the direction of the fleeing transport.

“It’s a start.”

Vigilus Excitement

I’ve been keeping an eye on the Warhammer Community site today, much like a lot of people have I suspect, and along with the stuff that’s been on Twitter it’s left me excited for the immediate future as far as releases are concerned.  I can’t afford any of it this side of Christmas but that doesn’t stop me getting excited about it all; anyway, I’ll get there eventually.

I’ve been a fan of the Ultramarines for nearly thirty years now, so it was awesome to see the Primaris Marneus Calgar, complete with embiggened honour guard.  My bro having a deeply rooted dislike of the Ultramarines, for not entirely unjustified reasons is less than chuffed.  After all GW have hardly had the most even-handed approach to them over the years.  Despite this, seeing the picture of him this morning still made my day.

I also like Genestealer Cults and was starting to wonder when their Codex was coming, and whereas I still don’t know exactly when it’s coming, I know it’s coming soon.  The best bit for me though were the pictures of the Genestealers on dirt bikes and the guy standing over the holographic map.  A lot of the current crop of Codexes haven’t had much in the way of model releases, so it was cool to see that the Genestealers are going to be bucking the trend in that respect.

The last thing that really caught my eye was the Noise Marine that’s being releases right on top of Christmas, and as is entirely appropriate, it’s eye wateringly gaudy and in a nice little nod to the model it’s based on, it has a bright green flocked base, which is nice to see.

There were of course other bits and bobs, but that’s the stuff that caught my eye, and I’m going to be sinking quite a lot of any spare cash I have in the post-Christmas period into all of the stuff I mentioned above.

Given the impending release of all this stuff, and the GW stuff I already wanted to get, next Year is going to be pretty expensive for me.

Strength Of Will

It was shaping up to be a really bad day for Frank Choos.  He was miles from the nearest Town, he’d been robbed, and his horse was gone; having been shot twice and left for dead was going to slow him down too.

‘I’ll make it back if it’s the last damn thing I do.  I Ain’t leaving my gizzards for the critters,’ he told himself.

With that he labouriously hauled himself to his feet, staggered forward a few steps and went crashing back to the ground as a spasm of pain from the most serious of his two wounds, the one in his side caught him by surprise and robbed him of his strength.  He wasn’t going anywhere until he did something about those bullet holes.

Gingerly lifting his shirt, he inspected the wound in his side.  The blood looked like common old blood.  He’d been worried that his liver had been nicked, if it had he’d have been done for.  It wasn’t bleeding much either, so maybe he wasn’t as badly off as he thought he was.  Folding his handkerchief into a rough square, he placed it over the wound and secured it by cinching his now empty gunbelt tightly around his midriff, grimacing in discomfort as he did.

“Didn’t even get a shot off,” he complained, “and now the bastards have got my shooting iron.”

The most serious wound dealt with, he inspected his blood-soaked shoulder.  It was a mess alright, and it’d bled something fierce, but he’d already been falling from his horse after the first bullet had hit him, so it had ricocheted off his collarbone, instead of killing him.  He hadn’t even known that was possible, but he was glad it was.  It hurt like hell, but it wasn’t going to kill him.

“Right, time to try again.”

He lurched to his feet again and bracing himself for the pain he knew was coming, managed to stay upright this time.  Taking a few uncertain steps, he determined that he probably wasn’t going to fall over again; at least not immediately.

After a couple of minutes and a couple of close shaves, he developed a gait that seemed to be a good compromise between speed and searing pain.  It was the kind of walk that might be seen on the deck of a ship in rough seas, but it was working for him, and that was all that mattered for now.

“How in tarnation am I going to make it back, it must be nearly three miles?”

“One foot in front of the other, that’s how, you stubborn old cuss,” he reprimanded.

Choos kept on in the direction he reckoned the town of Burnett to be in.  He was weak and getting weaker and was finding it increasingly difficult to remain lucid.  At one point he noticed that the sun had set.  Strange, he’d thought it to be mid-afternoon.

He’d already fallen a few times, and it was getting harder to stand every time he went down.  Worried that the next time might be the one he didn’t get up from he watched the ground for anything that might cause him to trip.  No amount of caution could overcome his failing strength though, and it was a wave of dizziness put him flat on his face.

Rolling over, he tried to stand, but struggled to even sit up.  Sixty years and he was going to die because of some two-bit bushwhackers.

“At least it’s a nice clear night.  I guess I’ll be seeing you soon Mary.”

Mary and he had been set to get to get married, but she’d been taken from him by a bout of pneumonia when he’d still been a young man nearly forty years ago.  She’d been the love of his life and he was no quitter, but he still missed her and had been counting down the days; he reckoned it was finally time.

He stared at the sky, waiting to die.  His mind started to drift, and that was when he heard the music.  The sound of a piano drifting through the night.  At first he couldn’t wrap his head around it and then it came to him, he must be close to Burnett, the hotel was a classy place and had its own piano.

“I don’t care,” he muttered angrily, “I’m ready.

He could almost hear Mary scolding him.

‘You get your backside out of the dirt Frank Choos, I didn’t fall in love with no quitter.’

“I’m sorry Mary, I’m just so tired,” he said, apologising to a memory.

He couldn’t go, not like this.  Mary wouldn’t want some self-pitying old fool, who’d quit because he was too chicken to fight for the scrap of life he had left.

Flopping onto his belly he got moving again.  First in a kind of half crawl, half drag, before managing to get to his feet and stagger forward like a drunk.

“One foot in front of the other,” Choos told himself, “one foot in front of the other.”

The Saga of Berit Christendottir

The last creature went down with a vicious slash to the neck, and not a moment too soon.  Berit was exhausted and she wondered, not for the first time today if she was getting to old for the life of a sell-sword.  Sorely in need of a breather, she slumped against the rough wall of the cave and wiped the ichor off her broad bladed short sword, on a rag tucked into her belt.

She couldn’t keep this up.  The day had been one long running battle, and now she was the only one left.  Egil and Erik had gone to the Allfather, the brother’s selling their lives dearly in the cavern down below.  Berit had tried to fight her way to the pair, but there were too many of the goblin things and after the pair had been overwhelmed retreat had been her only recourse.

A hissing sound came from the direction of the cavern.  That was all the rest she was getting; it was time to move.

Berit moved through the cave at a steady jog.  In part to maintain what little stamina she had left, but also because visibility was poor, and she had no intention of being finished off by a broken ankle.  Egil had been carrying the lantern, and all she had to light her way was the glow-stone set into the bracer that protected her off-hand; that and the vague luminescence of the moss that seemed to grow all over these tunnels.

The tunnel sloped upwards, she hoped that was a good sign.  This was not the way they’d entered the cave system, and for all she knew, she could be heading into certain death.  Stopping for a moment, Berit held her breath and listened.  The things were still behind her, that disconcerting hiss dogging her every step, but that wasn’t what she was listening for.

She was about to give up, but then she heard, and felt the slight whisper of a breeze.  Her heart leapt, and she started to move again, hope refreshed.

It was mere seconds before she heard the hissing of the things in the tunnel ahead and Berit knew she’d tarried too long.  Somehow, they’d managed to find a way around her and they now they were in front of her, as well as behind.

“Berit Christendottir is not dying today, you Hel spawned sons of whores,” she cursed at them, before raising her blade and picking up speed as she moved towards the enemy ahead of her.

She threw herself around a corner, ready for the fight she knew was coming and crashed into the leading edge of the enemy advance party.  She’d badly misjudged their position, the unpredictable acoustics of the caves making the things sound further away than they were.

The glow-stone on her bracer flared up and knocked the creatures back with a mighty concussive blast; saving her life for the second time today.  Before the goblinoid abominations could recover, she was on them.  Momentum was her only ally.  The things were small, weak and poorly equipped, but they vastly outnumbered her and if she gave them even half a chance, they would overwhelm her, just as they had Egil and Erik, no matter how skilfully she fought.

Berit stabbed one through the neck, just as it was staggering to its feet, the broad blade almost decapitating it.  She backhanded another with her off-hand as it desperately threw itself at her, catching it in the chest with the full, devastating impact of her bracer; she finished off the twitching, gasping goblin thing with a kick, caving in its skull with the impact.

On Berit went, slashing, stabbing, kicking, punching.  She opened one of them up from groin to collarbone, spilling its reeking guts onto her feet before pivoting and taking off the arm of another with a vicious chop.

It was like scything wheat.  They were collapsing before her onslaught, with almost half of them dead or dying in less than a minute and she was beginning to feel invincible.  It was as if the power of the Allfather was flowing through her.  She should have been exhausted but she felt invigorated. She shouldered into a small knot of the goblin things as they were trying to form a flimsy shield wall.  Scattering them, she killed anything within arms-reach; this wasn’t a fight anymore, it was a slaughter, and her foes turned and fled the charnel-house that the tunnel had become, disappearing into the cracks and crevices that were all over these caves.

Berit moved forward, not even stopping to sheath her sword.  She had felt this unnatural vigour many times before and recognised the first signs of it fading from her limbs.  In mere minutes it would be a struggle to keep moving, so great would be the feeling of exhaustion.  She needed to get out fast.

She could feel the breeze in her skin now and could see the first hint of daylight.  Using the last of her ebbing strength, Berit staggered forward and into the light at the end of the tunnel.

Best Served Cold

ONE

 

Surging back to consciousness, he attempted to draw a breath, but couldn’t manage more than a thin choking wheeze; there was something cinched around his neck.  He started to panic, wriggling, kicking his feet, his hands, his hands were tied his back.

Thrashing about like a madman, he didn’t hear the creaking sound.  The creaking turned to cracking, and then a loud snap.  He hit the ground hard enough to have the wind knocked out of him, if he’d had any in him to knock out.  As it was, he just lay, groaning and trying to compose his thoughts.

It was a noose around his neck; he’d been hung, that much was obvious.  Who had done it though? More importantly, why wasn’t he dead? He was a hard man to kill, in fact he had a reputation for it, but no man could survive a hanging, so how was he still with the living.

He was hooded with a sack of some sort, and that just wouldn’t do, if he wanted to get free and go on living; so, after about five minutes, a lot of biting at the musty tasting fabric, and a not inconsiderable amount of luck, he managed to pull off the improvised hood.

Next, he needed his hands free.  The noose was still restricting his breathing, but he was able to get enough air into his lungs to remain calm.  He looked about, squinting and blinking at the bright sunlight, and could see nothing of use.

How was he going to get free?  He began to despair.  Surely the impossibility of his survival couldn’t end with him being baked alive by the midday sun, because he couldn’t free himself.  Managing, with some difficulty to haul himself into a sitting position, he awkwardly shuffled himself around on his backside, taking in his surroundings, to find something to cut the rope around his wrists.

He’d just started wondering how far he’d get if he levered himself to his feet by leaning on the tree, before silently cursing himself as an idiot; the tree, he might be able to use the roughness of the tree bark to abrade his bindings.  It would hurt, no doubt about that, but there were no other options that he could see.

 

TWO

 

It had worked, eventually.  His forearms and wrists were a bloody mess and as he had predicted, it had hurt, a lot, but he was free.  He’d wrenched the noose from around his neck as soon as he’d been able.  His throat was raw from the constriction of the rope, and even though it pained him mightily, he was glad of the pain, because it told him he was still alive.

He was sitting now, under the meagre shade of his would-be gibbet, and he started to call to mind the events that had led him here; that and the faces of the men that had attempted to lynch him.

Townsfolk from one of the dead-end settlements in the area had formed themselves a posse and had been out for blood.  He’d never actually found out what it was he’d been blamed for, they were more concerned with meting out what passed for justice in these parts.  They didn’t concern themselves with explaining anything to him while they were beating him senseless and tying a rope around his neck; he was at least fairly sure he wasn’t guilty of whatever they were blaming him for though.  He’d only came up from Mexico a couple of weeks ago and he was sure he hadn’t done anything worth a hanging.

It was likely that the only thing he was guilty of, was being either a Mexican, or a lonesome drifter.  A lot of people were none to choosy about were they found their justice, and an outsider was always a soft target; of course, it hadn’t been much different back home.  He’d had a lot of bad luck and been blamed for a lot of things.

What to do now? He wasn’t too far from the where they’d run him down, but that still didn’t help, because not knowing the area, he had no idea how far away the nearest town was.  After sitting and thinking for a while, he resolved to follow the hoof prints of the posse, and hope they were going back to town.  It wasn’t a great plan, but it was the only one he had that stood a decent chance of getting him back to civilisation.

If he was fortunate enough to make it to town, he was going to need a gun, because he certainly didn’t intend to report to the Sherriff; for all he knew the lawman was the one who had rounded the posse up.  He intended to get his own brand of justice, and it was the kind people didn’t recover from.

He started walking.

 

THREE

 

He had guns.  This was a state of affairs that made him feel much better; he’d felt vulnerable without them.  Although he was a dangerous man, a feller could only be so dangerous without some iron in his hand.

It had been a tough walk in the relentless afternoon sun, particularly without a hat.  He didn’t know what had happened to his own, but he’d looked around the immediate area of his ‘execution’ and it was nowhere to be seen.

He’d been on the move for a couple of hours and was just starting to feel the effects of the unrelenting heat and sunlight, when he saw the first sign of life since his unfortunate run in with the posse.

It was a covered wagon that, judging by the writing stencilled on the side of it, belonged to some sort of snake-oil salesman.  The type of guy who travelled from town to town, selling his miraculous cure-alls to gullible townsfolk; staying on the move through necessity, rather than choice.  The concoctions they peddled were usually harmless enough, but certainly didn’t provide any of the remedies that the smooth-talking salesman evangelised about.

The wagon had got one of its wheels stuck in a rut on the badly pitted track and the salesman, along with another man, who appeared to be protection had been trying, unsuccessfully to get it moving again.

He’d announced his presence with a shout, not wanting to be taken for a threat and get a bullet for his trouble.  Deciding, in the moment that it wasn’t such a good idea to tell the whole truth, he’d made up a tale in which he was bush-wacked by horse thieves who’d taken everything he’d had and left him for dead.  Not a million miles from the truth, but revised enough to avoid any mistrust, or so he’d hoped.

It had gone well initially.  Having helped the men right their wagon, he’d been offered a lift, which he’d gratefully accepted.  As was often the case when he met someone new, he’d got the suspicion that the men were up to something.  With self-preservation foremost in his mind, he’d resolved in that moment to do for the men, before they did for him.

The muscle being the biggest threat, he’d decided to deal with this man first.  Halfway through a sentence and without warning he’d pivoted in his seat and punched the unsuspecting man hard in the throat.  Although the man hadn’t fallen from the wagon, he’d at least been put temporarily out of commission.

Dealing with the salesman had been child’s play.  The man hadn’t even had time to process what was going on before he’d been grabbed in a headlock and suffered a broken neck.  Before stopping the wagon, he’d made to finish off the hired gun, but took a meaty fist to the face as he’d turned his head.

The man had still been gasping for breath but seemed to be made of some pretty tough stuff. Unwilling to go down without a fight, he’d attacked like an injured bear.  Realising that he wasn’t the physical match of the hired gun in a close-up brawl, he’d lunged in with a sharp headbutt and tackled the man right out of the wagon.  Stunned by the fall, the hired gun had been defenceless just long enough to lose the upper hand.

He’d straddled the man and started punching and hadn’t stopped until long after the man had stopped moving.  His face had been destroyed; a mess of blood and broken bones, and the Mexican was covered in the hired gun’s blood.

He’d been unable to catch up with the wagon, but everything he’d needed had been on the dead man.  Two six-shooters, plenty of bullets, a nice, big knife, and most important of all, a hat.

 

FOUR

 

The snake-oil salesman and his protection weren’t the first men he’d ever killed, and he knew they wouldn’t be the last, but he only killed if left with no other option.  They were up to something and it had been them, or him, and he hadn’t come this far to fall foul of a couple of travelling miscreants like those two.  Besides, they were heading into town, so they could very well have been in league with the posse.

He came upon the town not long before dusk, and deciding it was a bad idea to just go strolling in there during the hours of daylight, he settled down for a while, off the track into town and out of sight.

Not knowing were the group that had hung him were likely to be, he decided he was going to have to take a blanket approach to this.  Sneaking into Town, he located the Sherriff’s office.  Even if the Sherriff and any deputies present weren’t involved with the posse, they were likely to provide the biggest threat, and as such, they needed to be dealt with, whether he wanted to, or not.

There would be innocent victims tonight, but that couldn’t be helped; he took comfort in the knowledge that even those not directly responsible shared a measure of the guilt, through their inaction.  Not ideal, but it was necessary.

Cautiously peering through the window, he found that the only occupants of the office were two sleeping men.  Even the two cells were empty.  This was going to be easier than he’d expected, he thought, with a smile.

Quietly opening the door, he moved soundlessly to the first man and coldly slit his throat, restraining him as he woke to the horror of a looming, unstoppable death.  As the man stopped struggling, the Mexican eased him to the floor and did the same to his clueless companion.  Without any need to restrain the second man, he just watched as the lifeblood of the Sherriff’s Deputy ebbed away and the man collapsed onto the floor, clutching at his throat with a look of horror on his face.

The Mexican felt nothing.  Maybe they hadn’t been there, but he didn’t really care; he had no choice.  His chances of success increased with every armed man he took out of the picture.

There didn’t seem to be a brothel, or a separate hotel, so the chances were good that he’d find anyone else that he had an axe to grind with, or indeed posed a threat to him, in the Saloon.  He loaded up on more bullets and took a rifle from a gun rack; he was likely to need all the firepower he could get his hands on.

It was one of those old-style saloon’s, the type with the swing doors, a man could make an entrance with doors like that.  He checked his pistols; everything was fine.  One was holstered in a gun belt hung over his shoulder, like a bandolier, and one at his waist.  It was an unusual way to carry, he knew, but firepower was key, and this way he could carry more of it.

He pushed open the doors and slowly strode in, letting them swing shut behind him of their own accord.

There were about a dozen people inside; more than he’d expected, given the lateness of the hour and although they hadn’t paid any attention to his entrance, they would soon enough.  He’d have his revenge on these failed hangmen.

He didn’t speak; didn’t give them a chance to explain themselves or beg for mercy; he had none to give.  Besides, what excuse could there be for unprovoked killing, even though they had failed.  Instead, he pulled his pistols, and let them do the talking.

Two men sat at the table nearest to him were the first to die, followed by the barman; he knew from experience that they could be trouble, then he just started taking pot-shots.  Half a dozen of them were dead before they even knew what was happening, and most of the rest were drunk enough that those who managed to return fire weren’t much of a threat.

A woman was screaming, and she just wouldn’t shut up.  A high-pitched scream that set his teeth on edge.  He was a gentleman and not normally the type of man to kill unarmed women, but she was distracting him, and he couldn’t have that.  He shook his head at the woman in disapproval, then shut her up with a bullet to the head.

He wasn’t quick enough though.  While he was distracted, two men came hurtling into the saloon, and they came in shooting.  Most of their shots went wide, likely only intended to wrong foot him and send him scurrying for cover; which is exactly what would have happened if a couple of the bullets hadn’t hit him.  One high in the chest, and another in his left shoulder.

This wasn’t how his story was supposed to end.  He’d got some of the posse that was responsible for trying to hang him, but there were probably others, including, no doubt, the cowards that had just burst in unannounced and started shooting without warning.

He was going to die.  He hit the floor, raging at the injustice of it.  He lay, bleeding away his last few moments into the dirty sawdust of the saloon, the pain already fading to a disconcerting numbness.  He tried to raise one of his pistols, but it was no good, his mind was willing, but his body was not.

The room started fading around the edges, getting darker; then blackness, and nothing.

 

FIVE

 

The Mexican’s eyes slowly opened.  He wasn’t dead.  He knew he should’ve been dead this time.  Slowly moving his head, he saw the two men that had shot him.  They were slowly walking around the room, taking in the carnage that had been wrought.  It looked like he hadn’t been dead more than a minute.  He gave no more thought to the strangeness of it, there would be time for that later, and clambered to his feet.

The two men turned, expecting to see a survivor, or perhaps someone else entering the saloon, as there undoubtedly would be very soon.  Instead they saw a grinning, blood-soaked apparition of death.

“Who, who are you?”  One of the men managed to ask, through his fear.

The Mexican thought about this for a moment, before his smile grew wider.

“El Diablo,” he told the man, then shot them both dead.

He reloaded his pistols, turned, walked out of the saloon, and gunfire began again.

The End

They sat on the field, watching the massive vessel strain skywards from the launch site, far away, across the river.  It looked kind of like an over-sized version of one of the old space shuttles, and in fact it was doing the same job, at least in part.  People were being blasted into space on the things, they just weren’t coming back.

Roger and his brother Dave had been watched a lot of the ship launches from this spot.  At first in the hope of being one of the lucky few to win a seat on one of the large space-craft; but as the chance of that dwindled away to nothing, they came just for something to do to pass any spare time they had.  They didn’t have as much of that anymore either, spare, or otherwise, with every moment measured against a ticking, literal doomsday clock.

“I was thinking.  There was a time we could’ve done this whenever we’d wanted and not just whenever we could find the time.  We used to have all the time we wanted.  We would’ve bought a cheap bottle of pop and sat here all day, setting the world to rights and talking a load of rubbish,” Roger mused.

“What? Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

“Never mind, it doesn’t matter.”  Roger took no offense at this, Dave meant nothing by it.  He was easily distracted and always had been.  So much so in fact that it was sometimes possible to ask him something and for him not even to be aware of anybody talking to him.

“That was the last one Roj, they said so on the news.”

“There’s still the ones in London and Manchester, Dave.”

“Won’t be finished in time.  They’re just saying they will be on the news to stop people from giving up.  So everything keeps ticking along until the last possible second.”

“You’re probably right,” Roger conceded.

“I’m not going back to work tomorrow.  I can’t think of anywhere I’d want to be for my last couple of weeks, less than that place.”  Dave stated this in a simple, matter of fact way, that brooked no argument.

“It’s okay Dave.  You’d be working for nothing anyway; we’re not going to be around long enough for you to get paid for the hours you’ve already put in.”

Dave gave an emotionless little chuckle at this statement of cold fact.  Then just sat staring across the river, to the now empty launch site.

The asteroid had been discovered almost five years earlier, and at the time hadn’t been taken too seriously.  It was one of those filler stories that would crop up from time to time.  The type that would say how big it was, how much of a chance it had of hitting us and how much damage it would do, backed up by a sentence or two from the first expert they could find.

It turned out to be bigger than the one that took out the dinosaurs, was almost certainly going to hit us and as far as damage went, it was a world ender.  When these facts emerged, things went off the rails for a few days.  Riots, violent crime, apathy; all the sorts of things you’d expect to see in the large and impressive end of the world films.

After a few days everything just kind of drifted back to the regular routine; not quite normal, but at least the appearance of it.  It was almost as people didn’t really know what to do about it, so they took solace in the comfort of familiarity.

There was talk of a global effort to divert the asteroid and there were indeed some promising ideas along that line, even a grand gesture or two, but the spirit of cooperation didn’t last long.  Even in the face of annihilation the governments of the world couldn’t help themselves and ended up reverting to type.

So it was that everyone went their own way, and commissioned whatever project they imagined would best serve their own corner of the planet.  Most of the plans focused on trying to blow the asteroid to smithereens, building large bunkers, or gigantic spaceships.  America decided to go with a combination of all three, and although they’d failed to blow it up, in quite spectacular fashion, they had sent a lot of people into space, and dug a lot of big holes in the sides of mountains.

Most of the plans to blow it up had already failed, with only the EU having a last-minute plan in their back pocket; nobody, Even the member states of the EU itself had much faith in it though.  This massive global failure was why the two brothers were sitting in a field, staring down the end of the world.

“Even those knobs on the spaceships are probably doomed.  They’ll probably outlive us for a while, and I know they’ve got all sorts of mega ideas about how they’re going to survive when they get to Mars, but realistically they’re as buggered as the rest of us,” Dave stated.

“Yeah.”

“It’s not fair.  Things were just starting to turn around.  Decent job, quids to spare, and all that jazz, then the world decides that it’s going to end.”  Dave said, as if the asteroid was coming to personally ruin his day.

“You’re not wrong.  It’s going to end for everyone though, not just us.”

“No need to be a dick about it,” Dave chided, “you know what I mean.”

Roger knew he’d struck a nerve.  Dave was right, he had known what his brother had meant, and had decided to be awkward and intentionally misunderstand his meaning.  This in mind, he decided it was probably for the best to change the subject, and looking skyward, there was only one subject that sprung to mind.

“I know it’s going to kill us all in a couple of weeks, but that doesn’t stop it from being impressive to look at,” he said of the world killer that was looming large in the sky, even during the hours of daylight.

“Yeah, it is impressive,” Dave agreed, before pausing for a moment, as if readying himself to say something important.  “What really pisses me off though, other than the whole dying thing, is the lack of pop.  Everything’s running out and I could kill someone for a bottle if Irn-Bru.”

“There’s still those couple of cans of Caffeine free Diet Coke in the fridge that I managed to grab from the shop,” Roger said, trying to lighten the mood a bit.

“I said I wanted pop, not a can of carbonated piss.  If you’re trying to cheer me up, you’re doing a rubbish job.”

As much as he was trying to maintain his grumpiness, he did feel a bit better.  In fact, their brief, and only semi-serious spat had taken his mind off the larger situation for a moment, and he was certainly grateful for that.

“Let’s go home Roj.  I’ll let you cook my tea; it’ll be just like old times,” he said, with a smile.

Roger simply nodded, standing, with a bit more difficulty than he had when they’d been younger, and took one last long look around the tree bracketed field.

“Right.  Let’s go,” he said.