Ouroboros

Sir Philip of Motocadia turned as the steel-toed boot slammed into his stomach, but still felt the brunt of the impact as it shattered at least one rib. He grunted as he landed flat in the dry dust, thrown several feet by the blow. The two other Vandals laughed while the one who’d kicked the knight lifted his foot again. Ignoring the pain, Phil jerked out of the way just before the boot smashed down where his head had been. Getting up on one knee, Phil drew his dagger, raised it, and fired a pair of .22 rounds into the air.

The bandits froze. Despite the size of the tiny, chrome-plated weapon, the report was loud enough to echo in the narrow street. Gasping for breath, Phil couldn’t help but smile when he saw the look in his attacker’s eyes. His dagger – a pea-stole in the ancient tongue – was hardly a knightly weapon, but it was infinitely more dangerous than any these criminals had ever seen.

Phil saw the bandit leader (the one who’d just tried to crush his skull) slowly reach for the cudgel on his belt. He stopped when Phil lowered the dagger and pulled back the hammer. Even so long after the age of the gun had come to an end, that flat, deadly click still held an instinctual power over the human mind.

“Thou hast assaulted a knight-kindred, Vandal,” Phil said, wincing slightly at the pain around his lungs as he spoke. He prayed the broken rib hadn’t punctured them – it was 50 miles to the surgeons in Genoa, and he wasn’t sure he could make it. “Yield,” he continued, “and I will show mercy unto thee and thine.”

The lead bandit – a brute who outweighed Phil by at least a hundred pounds and towered over his narrow frame – stared at gun shaking in his hand for a long moment, then started laughing. His two compatriots joined him. Phil felt his blood run cold. The dagger was meant for close-quarters fighting with a single opponent and was only accurate to a few yards. In the wide streets of Reno, it was useful only as a tool of intimidation. As his attackers’ cackle grew louder, Phil dearly wished he hadn’t fired twice – now he only had four shots to stop three attackers.

Alas, Phil thought, shifting his aim upwards; Waste naught, want naught.

A small, clean-edged hole appeared in the center of the giant’s forehead before the other bandits heard the gunshot. Wasting no time, Phil tucked, rolled, and rose, facing the stunned Vandals and screaming in pain and animal rage as he emptied the three remaining chambers into the one on his left. The stringy, balding man had drawn a knife when Phil wasn’t looking, but it slipped from his fingers as he jerked back, two bullets in his shoulder and one in his chest. Panting and holding an empty gun, Phil watched as both of his victims collapsed at the same instant.

The last Vandal – an oddly square-faced youth – was on his knees, covering his head. He was screaming too. After a moment, Phil thumbed the hammer back to shut him up. It worked – the young man’s howl of terror froze in his throat, and he looked up at the knight with eyes of a blue so pale they were almost white.

“I…” he stammered, raising hands that were squared off as well, “I yield. I yield.”

Phil grinned, adrenaline and wrath like gasoline in his veins. “The time for mercy is past, boy.”

The hope on the young man’s face vanished in an instant. His eyes darted back and forth – then settled on Phil’s horse. It was parked to the side of the lane a block away, where Phil had left it when he saw the gathering of hooligans and decided to intervene. It clicked and hissed in the hot Nevada sun, shining as the thief eyed the sword and lance sticking out of its saddlebags.

The boy’s eyes flicked back to the knight for half a second, calculating his odds. Phil wondered if the bandit even realized his gun was empty. “Don’t,” was all he said.

The boy ignored him, leaping up and tearing down the street. Growling, Phil stood, breaking his dagger above the grip and pulling a handful of tiny bullets from his purse. The boy reached his horse (more of a mule, really, with all it’s borrowed parts) just as the first round slid into the chamber. He scrambled at the iron clasp, looking up in panic as he struggled. Phil was less than fifty feet away and closing slow but steady. Desperation gave the boy strength, and he ripped the bag open, tearing away the clasp. Pulling the sword loose, the bandit leveled the ancient weapon – what the auld ones called an esemjay – at Phil. The knight was twenty feet away when he thumbed the last bullet into the chamber, spun the cylinder, and snapped it shut. Only then did he look up at the boy.

The young bandit’s square face was split by a smile like a crack in a wall. “Yield,” he said, giddy with the ancient power resting in his youthful hands, “Or I’ll do you like you done…”

Phil raised his dagger. His smile was so narrow it barely disturbed his weather-beaten cheeks. “Motocadia does not yield.”

The boy stared, then braced the gun in the hollow of his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Time stood still. The ravens on the old power lines fell silent. The weapon clicked uselessly. Phil grinned. Only a fool would leave a loaded sword unguarded.

The boy’s face still bore an expression of surprise as he fell with two small pieces of lead in his brain. Phil strolled over and knelt down beside him, checked his pulse, and pulled the weapon from his rigid fingers. Thus always to traitors, he thought, marching back to his bike. He grumbled when he saw the damage done to his saddlebags, and knew it would take a week for the castle menders to get around to fixing it. Still – it could’ve ended worse.

Phil prodded gently at his ribs as the other, more honest denizens of the street began to emerge from their hidey-holes, peering down at the errant knight from the second-story windows. He scowled – he always hated this part. Turning back to his bike to leave, he noticed two sisters of the Pazai scurrying towards him, wrapped in black muslin despite the heat. They knelt at the side of the youngest bandit, setting their healer’s tools beside them. One reached under his chin, feeling for a pulse.

“Worry not thyself,” Phil said, “He’s dead as sin.”

One of the sisters turned towards him, her eyes dark and striking as they narrowed to angry slits. “He’d not be, if you’d shown the mercy you promised.”

Phil scoffed. “Ay. And then I’d be dead as all these.” He gestured to the bodies strewn across the alley for emphasis. He paused as he did – one of them was stirring. As he watched the bald, skinny bandit leaned up on one elbow, coughed, and fell back again.

“Saints and stars,” the other sister gasped, rising, “Ansel’s still alive.”

Phil scowled, watching the nuns bolt down the lane to the aid of the criminal. By the time they reached him, the knight had made up his mind – Ansel had definitely tried to grab his knife when he sat up. With all the patience of a hunter on the trail, he marched towards the three figures at the far end of the lane.

The dark-eyed Pazair was leaning over the Vandal, lifting the lid of his left eye. From the way it rolled back in his socket, Phil guessed he only had a few minutes left. The moment the sister turned away to grab something from her kit, Phil drew his dagger, aimed, and fired.

The fading reverberations of the gunshot were the only sound for a long time after. The sisters didn’t look at Phil. Their eyes were locked in horror on the corpse between them, awaiting its final rites.

***

The bike tore down the road, roaring like the Nemean lion. Every now and again, it struck a fracture in the ancient highway, but its low center of mass and its rider’s skill kept it steady. Phil was ever a good horseman, and not even three broken ribs could change that.

Each jolt sent a fresh wash of pain over the knight, however, and he wasn’t so durable as his mount. Lowering his head, Phil twisted the accelerator further, and the horse broke into a gallop. He knew he was burning through precious gasoline at an accelerated rate, but he didn’t care. Rare as his horse’s lifeblood was, his blood was rarer still, and he still suspected his broken ribs might pierce something vital if he didn’t get back to Genoa quickly.

The Nevadan dessert flew past him, a blur of great rust dunes blown in from the rotting megacities drowning in the coastal swamps. Outcroppings of native rock, paler and rougher, rose here and there, but would soon be overtaken by the creep of the sands. Only the continuous passage of his order’s horses kept the asphalt strip clear, and for that, Phil was thankful. Soon – perhaps within his lifetime – the dust would cover everything: town and tower, fortress and farm…

His headlight exploded in a spray of broken glass. Phil jerked the handlebars left without thinking, his tires slipping and skidding on the dusty pavement as the iron horse slid sideways, then accelerated off the road. A wide, tall dune loomed up, perpendicular to the road. Whoever was shooting at him, he should be sheltered from their fire behind…

THUNK. A second round struck just above his knee, slicing through the armor of his horse and severing the fuel line beneath. The beast sputtered, coughed, and expired as the last bit of blood in its fiery heart burned away. Phil stared in disbelief at the folded edges of the puncture wound. He knew of swordsmen who were that accurate with a lance, but so far as he knew, they existed only within the Motocadia.

A third bullet screamed past Phil’s helmet as the bike’s momentum carried him behind the dune. He saw a bit of sand swirl up from its edge, disturbed by the flight of the deadly projectile. Half a second more, and he’d have been dead. Slipping from his saddle, he drew his own lance from its holster. Whoever this rogue knight was, Phil didn’t plan to give him a fourth shot.

Rushing to the far side of the dune, he peered out, keeping his helmet on and the tinted visor down against the glare. He kicked himself mentally – he’d been riding into the late afternoon sun. That was the mistake of a squire, not a seasoned knight. He almost deserved to be shot.

For a moment, he couldn’t see anything – then a four-wheeled vehicle flew over a dune some hundred yards away, rising three feet off the sand before crashing back down and throwing rust into the dry air. Phil’s eyes narrowed – he hadn’t seen a working ottomobeel for nearly ten years, and this one looked nothing like the old wrecks strewn across the streets of Reno. It looked lighter, for one – a bare frame of metal attached to its spokes by massive springs. Four seats were bolted to the frame, and each was filled by a knight in black. They clearly weren’t of the order – none of them wore his sturdy road leathers, and he couldn’t see the Motocadian crest on their clothes. Still, he could make out the distinctive shape of a lance in the hands of one, barrel pointed up. None but knights bore such weapons.

Grinning, Phil ripped off his helmet, set his weapon against his shoulder, and closed one eye. The rogue lancer appeared in his scope, magnified to crystal clarity. They looked young – almost as young as the thief he’d executed in Reno. Phil aligned the crosshairs and fired.

His target tumbled from their seat, spilling out of the car to the sand below. The driver, seeing their compatriot fall, swerved left as Phil reloaded. By the time his lance was ready to strike again, his attackers were safely on the far side of the dune. Though the sound of their engine was faint, Phil could hear the car-thing turning to flank him.

As quickly as he could move with the pain in his side, Phil returned to his horse, loosing his sword from the ruined saddle bag as he slipped the lance’s strap over one shoulder. He didn’t know how many of his mysterious assailants had guns, but he refused to give them any more of the order’s sacred weapons.

He slammed the sword’s magazine into place just as they cleared the dune’s edge, throwing up great clouds of acrid dust. Phil didn’t think – he moved. Ducking behind his crippled bike, he sent a volley at the front corner of their otto, between the axle and the wheel well. Three rounds flew, and three rounds slammed into the weak point. None in the wire-cage seemed to notice, however, and the two surviving passengers quickly fired back. A rain of continuous fire spattered the sand around Phil, forcing him further down behind his bike as the air between him and his targets filled with metal dust.

The bullets stopped. Phil stood behind the wall of sand, sending another burst towards the engine block. Three bullets struck the place where its fuel tank should’ve been in a cluster so tight they formed a perfect triangle, but nothing happened – nothing except the shooters reloading and fired back. Phil ducked again. A bullet whizzed past his unprotected head. A few others struck the side of his horse, lodging in the engine block. And one of them…

One bullet struck the gas tank, and this time, the strategy worked. The fuel inside ignited, expanded too quickly for the metal to compensate, and exploded. One moment, Phil was kneeling behind his fatally wounded bike, the next he was flying backwards, breath driven from his lungs as he collided with the hard side of the metallic dune. Something cracked as he struck home, and the pain in his side multiplied a thousand-fold. Before he could fight it, unconsciousness overtook him, and the blinding Nevada day turned to the still dark quiet of night.

***

When Phil’s mind returned to him, the moon was high in the perfect-clear sky – a sliver of white floating amidst a million points of starlight. Someone once told him that in the age now past, there was so much smoke and so many electric lights that the stars themselves were hidden by the haze. Try as he might,  Phil couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it.

Phil sat up. Or rather, he tried to. His body screamed in protest as the shards of his ribs stabbed into the soft tissues surrounding them, but even if he could ignore the pain, he was bound by wide cloth straps to something that felt cool and hard against his back. Glancing down, he recognized it as the hood of his attackers’ vehicle.

A rush of cold terror cleared the fog from his mind. His attackers. His bike. His sword…

Turning his head as far as he could, Phil saw the three surviving assailants gathered behind the otto. They were arguing about something, and Phil had to guess it was his fate. One of them – a tall blond woman with a glass-cutter jaw – turned and pointed at where he was bound, saying something he couldn’t quite hear. Phil looked away, shutting his eyes and hoping she hadn’t seen him move.

Of all the ill-luck he’d had in his life, this was by far the worst. Still, he’d been in rough spots before, and his weapons and wit had ever seen him through. He wasn’t sure if his dagger was still in its holster, but if he could just move his hand enough to reach it…

“Let him loose,” someone said – another woman, Phil noted with surprise. “He’s awake,” she added as she moved towards him.

Phil groaned and opened his eyes as his captors entered his field of view. They were all women, he realized, clad head to toe in black body armor: the blond giant and two smaller warriors, all with hard-lined faces that spoke of harsh training and harder living. These were no ragged raiders, Phil knew – they were true knights, members of an order he knew not.

“Pray do,” Phil said, trying to sound relieved, “I fear mine ribs are broken, and the straps do…”

“Shut up,” one of the smaller women said – the one who gave the order to release him. She turned to the other one. “If he moves an inch, end him.”

“Yes superiess,” she said, setting herself – and her longsword – in a firing stance. The leader – the superiess, as she’d been called – turned back to the giant and nodded. She nodded in return, then fiddled with something just out of Phil’s view. The straps released one by one a moment later, and Phil drew a sharp breath as the one around his chest loosened. Apparently, the women had been doing him a favor – the compression of the straps had been holding his ribs in place. Phil tried not to move, despite the pain. But if he could reach his dagger before any of them fired…

The giant grabbed him, hauling him to his feet. Phil barely resisted the urge to cry out, clenching his jaw and standing square against his attackers. The effect was somewhat lessened by the fact that he was held up only by the blond woman’s phenomenal strength, but still, he tried. “So,” he said, desperately hoping his lung wouldn’t collapse and rob him of the last word, “May I have the pleasure of knowing those whom I address?”

The superiess stared back at him with eyes as black as the night sky above. A faint recognition tugged at Phil’s mind, but he couldn’t place it. Between pain and unconsciousness and worry, his mind couldn’t resolve the picture it was trying to produce.

“You know who I am, knight,” the superiess hissed. She turned to the giant. “Release him.”

Phil crumpled as she let go, legs folding as he tried to catch himself with his hands. He barely managed it, but the shock sent another spike of pain through his body. “Troth, I know not,” he coughed, idly noting the flecks of blood on the sand beneath him.

There was a moment’s silence before the superiess stepped forward, kneeling beside him. “If you make it back to Motocadia – I have a message for your masters.” A rough hand tangled in his hair, yanking his head back. Phil grunted, staring into her cold and furious face. At this distance, he could see the stars reflected in her eyes. “Tell him that the knights of Genoa now answer to the sisterhood. Tell him that when a knight does murder in our streets – there will be consequences.”

The superiess let go of his hair, and Phil fell back to his hands and knees, coughing. She sat back a long moment in silence, examining his injuries. “And if you do not make it back…”

She stood, taking a few steps back. “May the light of eternity guide you to renewal, and shine on you in the life to come – here, or in the dark beyond. May it wake peace in your heart where only was war. And may we beat our swords to plowshares in the age to come.”

“Now and Evermore,” the sisters answered as the night deepened around them.

Together, they turned from the broken knight, climbed into their vehicle, and started the engine. Phil turned, squinting into the pale headlights as they backed away from him, turned, and drove off over the sands towards Reno. Reaching into his jacket, he felt his dagger sitting safely in its holster – but he didn’t draw it. Instead, he forced himself to his feet, turned the other way, and marched past the still-smoking ruin of his horse. Genoa was still some ten miles distant, but he would make it. He would make it.


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