CHAPTER 12: HOOK-HANDED COYBOY
A new recruit to Mabus’ army, fresh from some howling battlefield and now standing shivering and quaking in the presence of the king of New Gomorrah, being given the old “You stand in the belly of the beast…” speech would naturally have a great many questions.
What is this place?
Why am I here?
What should I do now?
Once the reality of his situation had sunk in, our new recruit would find himself beset by slightly more mundane questions;
Where can I find food?
Where shall I live?
Are there others like me in this city I can join for my own safety?
Can I survive here?
In time, all these questions would be answered, some more suddenly and brutally than others.
But perhaps the one question that would never be answered for most of the men and women conscripted into Mabus’ crusade was this:
What the hell is up with all the scorpions?
Why are there scorpion banners hanging from archways and nailed to walls? Why is there a scorpion on the back of every Gomorran talon? Why the Red, Blue, Black and Green Scorpions?
The answer to this, Cole knew, was no great secret. It was simply not widely known.
The reason was that when Mabus’ father, Gedi, had needed to choose a totem to represent his house, he had chosen the scorpion. The House of Gedi had been one of the smaller houses in Babilu, but still wielded a considerable amount of wealth and influence. By choosing the scorpion as his symbol Gedi was displaying to his enemies an animal that was small, but could still be lethal to much larger creatures should they be foolish enough to anger it.
To be the Golden Scorpion, Mabus had once explained to Cole, was to be the physical manifestation of the will of the House of Gedi. A shining, invincible, seemingly godlike avatar.
To be a Black Scorpion, on the other hand, meant something different entirely.
The Black Scorpions had, before their dissolution at least, acted as Mabus’ secret police. It had been their unenviable task to keep tabs on the innumerable guilds, secret societies, mobs, gangs and fraternities that had sprung up like weeds in the fertile soil of Mabus’ army. If any particular organisation seemed to be becoming a little too powerful, more often than not the leaders would be paid a visit in the night by a close friend who they had trusted implicitly, and never wake up.
But the Black Scorpions were gone now.
And it was time for something else to replace them.
“Wait here.” said Cole
Isabella looked around nervously, brushing the handle of a dagger with her thumb over and over.
The hallway, dank, dark and stinking, looked deserted. But then, in Gomorrah, it was the people you couldn’t see who were the ones to keep an eye out for. The fact that there didn’t seem to be anyone here did nothing to reassure her. Every step they had taken since leaving Mabus’ throne room to this ten storey tenement building just north of the Combat Tower, Isabella had been unable to shake the feeling that they were being followed. She glanced nervously to where Cole was dragging his finger lazily over a grimy, brown-stained wall.
“What are we doing here?” she asked, and it felt like the hundredth time.
“Ssshhh.” he whispered “Got ya.”
“What?” she turned to look at him, only to see that he had been talking to the wall, not to her.
With a low, dreary moan, the wall was sliding to one side, revealing a dark passageway.
“Let’s go.” said Cole.
They disappeared into the opening, and seconds later the wall slid shut again.
“What is this place?” Isabella whispered, her keen eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness of the room.
“Hang on. I gotta find the light switch.” said Cole, talking over his shoulder as he felt along the wall “Every tenth building in Gomorrah has one of these rooms. They’re safe houses, for any Black Scorpion who’s cover his blown and needs to lie low. He can hide out here, live off rations for weeks if he has to. There’s a weapons locker under the bed. A radio to call into the Blue Room for rescue, or just to listen in to see what’s going on outside. More importantly, only the engineers who built it, and the Scorpion assigned to it knows where his individual safe room is. And only one man in the entire city knows where all of them are.”
“If Mabus knew about this place, do you think we’d be hiding out here? Nah, I ordered these to be built, never told Mabus.”
“You knew you might need to hide from him?”
“No, actually. I just never told him. Mostly because I thought he wouldn’t care. He told me to build him a spy network, and I did it. He never really asked how. But we’ll be as safe here as anywhere. We can stay here while we look for Joriel. Then we are getting out of here, and we are not even stopping to shake the dust off our shoes. There you are…”
His hand touched the light switch and the room was thrown into a sickly green haze.
Cole turned and froze.
“Oh you’re smart Joe. Got it all planned out. But let me ask you this: How fast are you?”
Isabella’s eyes stared at him, terrified, over the arm that was wrapped across her face. The silver muzzle of a Colt single action Army was pressed to her neck.
And the eyes that stared at Cole over her shoulder were as pitiless as they were desperate.
Cole almost burst out laughing. Of all the safe houses in the city, he had chosen the one containing New Gomorrah’s most wanted citizen; Ezekiel Holtz, the man who had raised the riot with Thomas, and shot Mabus himself. For a mad second, Cole considered how capturing Holtz might just be enough to put himself back in Mabus’ good graces. But he dismissed the idea almost as soon as it came to him. They were getting out. That was the end of it. At least, they were if could convince Holtz to let Isabella go.
“Hi Holtz.” said Cole as nonchalantly as he could.
“Asked you a question.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“How fast are you, Joe?” Holtz hissed.
“How. Fast?” he pressed the metal into her neck. Isabella winced.
“Not that fast, Holtz” Cole reassured him “Not that fast. You don’t got nothing to worry about. Just don’t hurt her. Alright? We’re not here for you.”
“No. We’re not. That I swear to you.” Cole continued “Truth is, we’re trying to get out of this city. We’re leaving Mabus’ army…”
“What the Hell kinda brain-dead idiot do you take me for boy?!” Holtz roared.
Cole gasped. Holtz was furious, true white hot rage. One wrong word and he’d kill Isabella, damn the consequences. Holtz continued with his rant.
“You chase me down eight damn city blocks, nearly cut my damn head off and now you’re saying we’re on the same side!?”
“Whoa, whoa, Holtz! Holtz calm down! I don’t know what you’re talking about…”
“YOU WANNA DIE COLE?!” Holtz screamed.
He released Isabella, trained the gun on Cole and fired.
How fast was Cole? Not fast enough to stop him shooting Isabella with a gun to her neck, sure enough. But fast enough to clear the distance between them, knock the gun out of his hand and send Holtz smashing into the wall with a single blow? Oh yeah, that he was fast enough to do.
“You okay, Bella?” Cole asked.
“No.” she said.
She stood in front of Holtz, where he squatted on the floor, trying to staunch his sand-bleeding nose.
She kicked him square in the groin.
Holtz yelled and swore like a trooper.
“Now I’m fine.” she said brightly.
“Oh sweet mercy…” Holtz wheezed.
“Bella, get him a wipe from the bathroom, huh?” said Cole “After all, we did break into his house.”
Isabella grudgingly entered the tiny sanitary cubicle and returned with a square stack of rough, grey toilet paper.
Cole handed it to Holtz, who took it and began to staunch the sand-flow with it.
“What’s he doing here anyway?” Isabella asked “I thought you were the only person who knew about these places?”
“I’m the only one who knows where all of them are.” Cole corrected her “If memory serves, this was your safehouse, wasn’t it Holtz?”
“Yup.” Holtz simply replied.
“Yeah. I chose this one because it’s one of the only safehouses I’ve ever set foot in personally.” Cole mused.
“Yeah, I remember.” Holtz growled, lifting up his right arm to show where the hand had been sheared off, replaced by a steel hook and clasp.
“Why would you choose to hide here?”
“Because I knew it would be the first place you searched after what happened at The Chamber.”
“I know you did. And since you searched it once I figured you wouldn have better things to do than to keep searching it. So. You’ve decided to jump ship?” Holtz growled “Couldn’t have done that a few years ago and let me keep the hand, I suppose?”
Cole looked down at the floor. He didn’t really know what to say to that.
“You used to be a Black Scorpion?” Isabella asked.
“Hell child, we probably trained half of them, me and Joe.” said Holtz, taking a small, black cigar from his pocket and lighting it “Before we had our little disagreement, of course.”
“And what was that?” Isabella asked.
“Simple.” said Holtz “Sic semper tyrannis, darlin’.”
“Holtz was planning to kill Mabus.” said Cole.
“Could’ve done it too, if you had just butted out.”
“I should have killed you. Risked a lot by letting you live.”
“Oh, I’m bleedin’ gratefulness.” Holtz hissed.
“Is that how you lost your hand?” Isabella asked.
“Lost? Hell, I didn’t leave it on no train, golden boy there cut the damn thing off me. Almost died.”
“I helped you bandage the stump.” Cole noted.
“Oh my God, will you stop?” said Holtz “What do you want from me, a medal and a handshake?”
“Well, it would have to be just a medal, wouldn’t it?” Isabella asked sweetly.
Holtz burst out laughing “Oh, you’re Tom’ sister. No doubt.”
He sighed “It’s not the hand. I don’t hate you for that, Joe. It’s the fact that you knew as well as I do that Mabus is crazier than a Death Valley snowman and eviller than sin and you still marched in lockstep like a good little toy soldier. Years ago, when you found out I was planning to take him out you could have helped me, or at least stood aside and let it happen. You didn’t. And then you had another chance. During the riots? We could have had him if you’d brought the Scorpions over to our side. You didn’t. So now come to me and say “I’ve seen the light, I want out” I say “Too Little, Too Late.” This war you’re signing up to fight is over. We lost.”
“I’m not fighting a war.” said Cole “I’m not interested in overthrowing Mabus. I want out.”
“Then get out. What’s stopping you?”
“We can’t leave yet. We have to find Joriel first.”
“The angel. The one Mabus and Groethuis had locked up?”
“What, the big kitty?”
“You know where he is?”
“Not since I shot the dude. Although…”
Isabella and Cole looked at him.
“What?” said Cole.
“Just put two little pieces of information together in my head, and damned if they don’t fit. Lord’s boys been talking a lot about “The Angel”. Could be your friend. Never twigged it though, ‘cos I don’t think of him as “The Angel”. I think of him as “The big kitty I shot offa my helicopter.”
“Understandable.” Cole said.
“Who’s the Lord?” Isabella asked.
“You remember, The Lord, don’t you Cole? Roland Nyquist?” said Holtz.
“How could I forget?”
“He still crazy?”
“Oh mercy me, yes. “
“You said “his boys”.” said Cole “Lord’s got a crew now? He was always struck me as a solitary slice of fruitcake.”
Holtz looked at him askance.
“Y’all don’t know? No, course you don’t. Ever since Mabus pulled the plug on the Black Scorpions you been wandering around blinder than a noonday bat. You’ve noticed maybe, that our troops seem a little less devoted to their almighty master than usual? That someone else has wormed her way into their affections?”
“Marie.” she said “You’re talking about Marie. The soldiers are starting to worship her.”
“What’s that got to do with The Lord?” Cole asked.
“Because, in terms of this new cult, or religion or whatever that’s sprung up around Marie, Nyquist is the freakin’ Pope. He’s running the whole scene from under the city. Down in the sewers. And it’s spreading. He’s sending out missionaries, they’ve got chapters hidden in half the battlegroups.”
Cole looked at him dumbfounded.
“Are you seriously trying to tell me that there is a new religion growing in this city and Mabus doesn’t know anything about it?”
“Mabus ain’t all powerful, Cole” Holtz sighed “I been trying to tell you that for God knows how long. The Lord keeps underground, in the sewer like I said. Why would Mabus look there? Nothing but a load of crap.”
“And you think Joriel is mixed up with these people?” Isabella asked.
“Dunno.” Holtz shrugged “All I know is they talk about “The Angel” almost as much as they talk about “The Lord.” And they talk about him a whole lot. Trust me.”
“How do you know so much about them?”
“We have an understanding.” said Holtz “I tell them what they want to know about Mabus, and occasionally do some odd jobs for them, and they let me use their tunnels to get around the city.”
“Yeah.” said Holtz with a filthy smile, forming his hand into the shape of a gun “You know. Garbage disposal. House cleaning. Shootin’ people. People like this Black Scorpion, for instance.”
“The one who chased you here?” Cole asked. The idea of a new scorpion on the loose made him deeply uneasy.
“Yeah. He’s been cutting a red streak through the city for days now. Nyquist’s people reckon he’s killed more than fifty.”
“Why?” Isabella asked.
“Fear.” Holtz shrugged “Me and Tom spooked Mabus with our little insurrection. Mabus wants to spook us back. Remind us that he’s still in charge. That’s what the Black Scorpion does. He puts the fear of Mabus back in people. He’s his right hand”
“So who is this guy who’s taken my job?” Cole asked grimly.
“Well…” Holtz drawled “Until just now, I was damned sure he was you.”
Cole was silent as tried to piece it all together. While he had been at the front, Mabus had been dissolving the black scorpions behind his back and replacing them with this new player: The Black Scorpion. Singular. What confused Cole was how (provided Holtz was telling the truth) Mabus had managed to find someone to replace him. This was not arrogance on Cole’s part. It was simply an objective fact that he had been chosen as Mabus’ Golden Scorpion because he was the greatest warrior in all of space and time. Mabus did not settle for second best. So who the Hell was this Black Scorpion and what made Mabus think he could do Cole’s job better than he could?
A dark and unwelcome thought dripped in the back of his mind.
“Holtz.” said Cole quietly “Did you get a good look at this guy?”
“Nope.” said Holtz simply.
“But you thought he was me? You must have seen enough to make you think that?”
“He was wearing black scorpion armour and was running over rooftops trying to hack my head off, who else am I gonna think he was?”
“I don’t wear black armour.”
“I thought maybe you were diversifyin’ your wardrobe, hell I don’t know! I was running like a fox in a coop, I didn’t see the dude. He was moving too fast anyway.”
“Real fast. Like he was vanishing somewhere and appearin’ somewhere else.”
Isabella looked up. Cole met her gaze and nodded slightly.
“What were you doing out anyway, Holtz? Don’t you know there’s a price on your head?”
“I am aware.” said Holtz coldly, as if he had hoped Cole would be gentleman enough not to mention it “But I had to make the journey for an old friend. You know, right?”
“Know what?” Cole asked.
“About Thomas? Mabus let him out. Or at least that’s what I heard…”
Holtz stopped talking suddenly. Understandable, as Isabella had wrapped both hands around his leathery neck and was doing her level best to choke him to death.
“Tell me you’re lying.” she hissed.
Holtz did not tell her that. He didn’t tell her anything more informative than a strangled choke.
“Bella, let him go.”
“TELL ME YOU’RE LYING!” she screamed.
Cole pulled her off him and held her close.
“It’s alright.” he said softly. She was trembling, almost in shock.
“Oh dear…” Holtz wheezed sarcastically “Is she okay?”
Cole shot him a warning glare.
“Are you serious? Mabus let Thomas out?”
“What I heard. Don’t strangle the messenger.”
“Why? Why would he release the guy who almost killed him?”
“Now you see, that’s what bugs me. I was the one who shot the dude. Thomas just stood there. And yet ask anyone in town and you’d think it was the two of us who did it. It’s all “Remember how Thomas and Holtz almost killed Mabus?” Do they think I just held the gun and he pulled the trigger? Why does he get co-credit?”
“Why let him out?”
“I give up, why?”
“Think. This isn’t rocket science. Thomas is released from his cell and around the same time this new Black Scorpion appears. That’s a pretty big coincidence.”
Holtz’s jaw dropped. He had clearly not considered that.
“But…no. No way. No way Thomas would suit up for Mabus.”
“After months in the dungeons Mabus could have found ways to make Thomas run around rooftops in a tutu.” said Cole “Everyone’s got a breaking point.”
Isabella was not listening to any of this. As always, the knowledge that her brother was once again free to hunt her down had filled her with a fear so strong it was almost paralysing.
It never ended. He always came back, like some fairy tale demon.
She remembered what Marie had told her as they had made their escape from the Medical Tower.
He’s going to come for you again. And I won’t be there to protect you.
And then it hit her.
“The Black Scorpion is a Temporal Adept” she said suddenly, as if to herself.
Cole looked up at that.
“Yeah.” he nodded “What Holtz was saying about this guy moving so fast. I think you might be right. “
“No. I know I am.” said Isabella “The Black Scorpion is a Temporal, because Thomas is a Temporal.”
Cole stared at her.
“Marie told me. Before she left. She said she was certain that Thomas was like her.”
“Listen Bella. I’ve fought Thomas a bunch of times, and I never saw him do anything like what they can do.”
“That’s because Thomas was never trained to use his powers. When I first met Marie, all she could do was slow time down around her. It’s the most basic Temporal Adept power. She told me that almost anyone can do it. They just can’t control it. Haven’t you ever felt that time was going faster or slower than normal?”
Cole nodded “Everyone does. You’re saying that’s a Temporal power?”
Isabella nodded “Temporals just do it better. Thomas could slow time around himself to move faster but he wouldn’t be able to use any of his other powers without another Temporal to show him how.”
“So I guess now we know what he was doing all those months he was locked up.” Holtz said grimly “Mabus was giving him an education.”
Isabella had lapsed into silence again, mentally listing the different abilities she had seen Temporals use.
Speed. Freezing time. Teleportation. Time travel. Lethal accelerated ageing. Thomas armed with a knife and a smile was terrifying enough. The thought of him being able to appear out of thin air in any place and at any time was enough to ensure she would probably never sleep a wink again.
“Bella? Bella, listen to me. It’s going to be alright.” Cole said, shaking her shoulder gently “If he’s not a Temporal, then I’m going to kick his ass like I always do. And if he is a Temporal, I’m just going to kick his ass in slow motion. Now that’s a promise. And I keep my promises. He’s not going to hurt you. Not now, not ever. I won’t let him.”
Isabella forced herself to feign a smile.
“Me neither.” Holtz added.
Isabella swung a scornful glare at him.
“Please.” she said “You almost killed me something like seven times during the riots.”
“Yeah…well.” Holtz looked down at his hook a little embarrassed “We’re on the same side now.”
Cole saw no reason to object to that. Whatever their recent history, having Holtz’s skills, contacts and brains to draw on could be no bad thing.
“You okay?” he asked Isabella.
She nodded numbly. Her throat was dry and her voice hoarse from screaming at Holtz before.
“I could really use a drink of water.” she said.
Cole nodded and walked over to the tiny kitchen cubicle. He took a tiny plastic cup from the overhead cabinet and filled it with the thin, greyish trickle of water that he was able to coax from the safehouse’s single tap.
“I think we should get some rest here and then…” he turned to face them.
The Black Scorpion stood two inches from his face.
Before Isabella had a chance to scream. Before Holtz had a chance to draw. Before Cole had a chance to throw a punch, the Black Scorpion had lashed out and knocked Cole clear through the window. Cole felt the fleeting sensation of broken glass and splintered wood flying passed his head and then saw the pavement ten stories below swing round to shatter him.
It was a good hundred foot from the window to the pavement and not one inch of it passed without Cole trying to think of some way to survive the fall.
Unfortunately, none presented itself. He was falling, with no way to slow his descent, and nothing to grab on to. It wasn’t until the last three foot when his entire worldview had shrunk to a single paving stone that he realised that he was about to die.
And then the world melted away and he found himself staggering drunkenly on his two feet, trying to recover his balance.
Cole, to his credit, very quickly realised what had happened. The Black Scorpion had snatched him out of mid-air at the last second and deposited him safely on the pavement. Why do that when he had gone through the trouble of pushing him out of the window in the first place?
Simple, Cole thought to himself. He needs me dead in a public place. And a simple fall won’t be enough. He needs to beat me. He needs to make an example of me. And it has to be more than brutal. It has to be the stuff of horror stories.
The Black Scorpion stood a distance away, like sculpted death.
“That you in there, Tom?” Cole asked.
The figure tilted it’s head quizzically.
“That you in there, Tom?” it said to Cole, in his own voice.
Recording my voice and playing it back to me, Cole though. Trying to psyche me out. Rookie stuff.
“Cole!” Isabella’s voice rang out clear as a bell from high above “Are you okay?”
He glanced up to see her and Holtz staring in horror out of the massive hole he had knocked in the wall.
“Stay there!” Cole shouted “I’ll take care of this!”
“I’ll take care of this!” the Black Scorpion parroted.
“Shut up!” Cole roared.
“Cole!” the Black Scorpion shrieked, now with Isabella’s voice “Are you okay?”
That did it. Cole squeezed a clasp in his gauntlets and two eight inch long blades shot out of the wrists of his armour.
The Black Scorpion made a similar gesture and two metre-long, wicked looking black foils slid into the light. They looked sharp enough to cut smoke.
Cole said nothing, mostly because he didn’t want to give his opponent any words to throw back at him. Rookie stuff maybe, but effective nonetheless.
Cole felt a brief pang of professional envy and wondered why such a feature had never been built into his own armour.
The Black Scorpion stood perfectly still, it’s face a blank obsidian mask. That pose. That perfect stillness. The almost palpable sense of lethal confidence. They all left Cole in no doubt as to who was standing before him.
“Okay Thomas.” said Cole “Last dance.”
Again, the Black Scorpion merely tilted it’s head in a motion of doglike curiosity.
His blade passed through nothing but air. Okay, thought Cole.
He’s that fast. That’s not good.
The Black Scorpion has shifted behind Cole, brought back his left wrist blade and released the strike before Cole has had time to blink.
Cole steps to the right and sees the blade pass his left side out of the corner of his eye. One inch closer and he’d be bleeding sand right now.
Cole grabs the Black Scorpion’s arm. Now the fight is suddenly a very different proposition. No matter how fast he moves, Cole has a grip, and knows where he needs to hit.
Cole lets his knees go dead and falls to the group, dragging the Black Scorpion with him, swings his legs up and lets him have both boots square on the crown of his head.
Cole knows from experience that after a blow like that, no bell will ever ring as loud as the ones in the Black Scorpion’s head right now.
He stabs with the left and the right, one after the other. Both hit air.
Damn, he’d hoped to land at least a few more blows before he recovered.
The Black Scorpion appears to his left and kicks him in the head seven times. He squeezes those seven kicks into less than one third of a second. Cole falls to the ground like a bag of cement.
“He’s going to kill him!” Isabella yelled as she watched the Black Scorpion rain blows on Cole’s prostrate form that were so fast they blurred and streaked through the air like watercolours.
Holtz couldn’t really argue with the statement.
Part of him wondered if he should care. After all, one analysis of what was happening down there was that the man who had cut off his hand was being beaten to death by his close friend and ally with whose help he had almost brought down Mabus’ reign. But if it really was Thomas down there, then that meant he had gone over to the enemy. And Ezekiel Holtz had rather stringent views on betrayal.
He dropped to his knees and reached under his bed, pulling out a stainless steel briefcase, furry with dust. Holtz clicked open the clasps and opened the case.
“What are you doing?” Isabella asked, but even as she asked the question she remembered what Cole had told her about every safehouse having a weapons cache.
“Shooting a Scorpion.” Holtz muttered in answer to her question, as he lifted the disassembled parts of a sniper rifle and began to screw them together “Ain’t entirely sure which one yet.”
The Black Scorpion lifts it’s foot and delivers a sickening kick to Cole’s stomach that sends him sprawling across the pavement. Cole tries to get to his feet but the Black Scorpion casually kicks him to the ground.
Cole is a mass of bruises and pain.
Can’t fight him. He’s too fast. He’s just too damn fast.
Unable to take his own advice, Cole clumsily swings for him again.
The Black Scorpion dodges the blow like it bores him, and casually crushes Cole’s wrist under his boot as he lies on the ground. Cole screams and the Black Scorpion raises his left wrist blade, ready to drive it through Cole’s chest.
A shot rings out.
The Black Scorpion spins around and looks up, a still-smoking nick just visible in the edge of his helmet where the bullet passed by.
Standing in the crumbling hole in the wall of his safehouse, a sniper rifle clenched in his hook and hand, Holtz curses and takes aim again.
He never gets a chance.
In less than a second the Black Scorpion has crossed the distance between them and teleported in front of Holtz. A slash from his wrist blade sends the rifle flying in pieces. A blow sends Holtz flying into the back wall, dislodging a snow of plaster onto his hair and shoulders.
Holtz feels himself lifted into the air by the Scorpion’s armoured hand clamped around his neck. Holtz lashes out with his hook, but it glances bluntly off the midnight black armour.
“Hey! Over here, you cheap knock off!”
The Black Scorpion turns to see a young girl with black hair and blazing green eyes holding a brace of throwing knives in each hand.
Isabella lets fly with the knives. Each throw is a work of art and if the Scorpion was anyone else each knife would be quivering in his chest right now.
Instead he slows time down and calmly releases Holtz. He watches Holtz slowly drift to the ground as the knives languidly swim through the air before his face and gently bury themselves into the opposite wall. He turns to Isabella, temporarily forgetting about Holtz. Which is a mistake, as Isabella is now unarmed, whereas Holtz still has his guns.
Holtz draws so fast that even in the Black Scorpion’s slow time envelope he looks like a blur.
“Happy trails, friend.” Holtz hisses, and keeps firing until he hears the click.
White sand, stark against the black of his armour, bleeds from the Black Scorpion’s chest onto the filthy grey carpet. The Scorpion staggers, and then vanishes into thin air.
“Did…did we win?” Isabella asks cautiously.
“Yeah.” said Holtz “For the next three seconds. Then he goes into the future, takes a year to heal, comes back right here and now and kills us.”
Cole fought every impulse in his body and tried to drag himself to his feet. He sensed someone standing over him, and braced for the next blow.
“A wise man” said a voice “Is never too proud to accept help when he needs it.”
Cole looked up, and saw almost certainly the last person he expected to see standing over him and offering his hand to help him to his feet.
Thomas stood there with his usual mako-worthy grin.
A black shape coalesced around twenty feet away from the two men.
If you looked closely, you could see marks on the Black Scorpion’s chest to show where the bullet holes had been repaired. Other than that, there was no indication that only seconds ago he had taken two full rounds to the chest.
“Then who the Hell is that?” Cole asked Thomas.
“A very good question.” Thomas answered, helping Cole to his feet “Let’s peel him for answers.”
Two knives appeared in his hands with magical suddenness, as was their habit.
“Oh, so suddenly you’re on my side?” Cole snorted.
“My dear Cole.” Thomas said coldly “I have been trying to bring down Mabus almost since the day I arrived here. You served him loyally for years. You were his most trusted servant. Now you’ve apparently decided to fight against him. So if anything, you are suddenly on my side.”
Cole had to admit he had a point.
“Shall we?” he asked.
“Age before beauty.” said Thomas.
“Says the man who was there for the invention of the plough.”
The Black Scorpion sprang.
The Thief’s Son and the Golden Scorpion leapt.
This, Thomas thought to himself as he raised his knife high, was going to be almost too fun for words.
True, he had not had the best of luck when it came to fighting Temporals.
Marie, Mabus, Mariana. He had gone up against them all and lost.
But today? Today, he was feeling lucky.
When Thomas and the Black Scorpion collided in midair the blades were whirring in his hands. With a loud snap the Black Scorpion’s blades retracted into his arms. Smart move, Thomas thought, they’re no good in quarters this close.
He felt an armoured fist colliding with his solar plexus but rolled off it like water. The shock of missing unbalanced the Scorpion just enough for Cole to sweep his legs out from under him and lay him on his back.
The Black Scorpion looked up to see two blades, one held in a hand, the other in a golden gauntlet, falling from the sky towards his chest.
The Black Scorpions’ legs shot out in either direction like a springing trap, sending Thomas and Cole sprawling.
I’ve been trained in every major school of martial arts and a few of the really obscure ones, Cole thought.
And it’s not enough.
Physically I’m in my absolute prime, trained to the outermost limit a human body can endure.
And it’s not enough.
I’ve undergone countless surgeries and genetic treatments that almost killed me multiple times so that I could truly be unbeatable in combat.
And it’s still not enough.
This enemy will always be faster than I can ever be. No matter how swiftly I can strike he will be gone before my blow reaches him.
But that’s not why I’m the Golden Scorpion, thought Cole. Mabus didn’t just pick me to fight, he picked me to lead. To strategies. I can outplan him. I have to. The easiest opponent to outthink is the one who thinks he’s already won.
The Black Scorpion sprang to his feet.
Cole ran towards him, low to the ground like a snake, grabbing a handful of red sand as he went. He sprang into the air, flinging the sand at the his enemy’s mask, the large red grains sticking to the Black Scorpion’s helmet, blinding him.
He needs to focus to shift time. He needs to concentrate. Don’t let him.
With a second at most to act, Cole hit the Black Scorpion as hard as he could with the nearest thing he had to hand. Which was Thomas.
He bent down and grabbed Thomas’s ankle, spinning him like a shot put and flung him at the Scorpion. If Thomas was offended by such presumptuous treatment he did not show it. He wrapped himself around the Scorpion and planted both his knives to the hilt into his chest.
Thomas almost passed out from pleasure as he heard a scream of agony echoing in the Black Scorpion’s helmet.
“I’m never letting go.” he hissed to the Scorpion “Do you hear me? They’re going to have to pry me off your cold dead body, I swear it.”
He’s going to shift away, Cole thought desperately.
Don’t let him string the thoughts together.
He punched the Scorpion in the face. And again. And again. Nothing fancy, just simple, sledgehammer blows. If I can get him to pass out then this is over.
A black armoured hand shot out and caught him by the wrist.
A storm of blows fell on his chest and Cole was thrown back.
The Black Scorpion, two waterfalls of white sand pouring from his torso, shimmered into nothing, and for a single, ridiculous moment Thomas was suspended in mid-air. Then he collapsed to the ground with a clatter of limbs.
“You okay?” said Cole to the man who up until very recently had been his mortal enemy.
“Bit my tongue. Thanks for asking. And he is where?”
“He is gone. We gotta kill him while he’s here.”
“Oh, how embarething. I wath trying to kill him when he wath thomewhere elth.”
“Your tongue swelling?”
“A little. Yeth.”
Both men turned as they heard a door being savagely kicked open and watched Ezekiel Holtz, a rifle slung over each shoulder, striding out into the street, kicking up little storms of red sand with his brown leather boots.
“Where is that motherless son?” Holtz barked, as if angry at them for the BlackScorpion’s sudden absence.
Cole’s heart stopped as he saw Isabella, looking as pale and fragile as an orchid, emerge from behind the shadow of Holtz’s oversized brown duster.
Beside him, he could almost hear every muscle and sinew in Thomas’ body snapping to attention.
Cole had a very dim memory of a childhood friend bringing his yellow canary into Cole’s living room so that the two boys could watch the tiny dollop of sunshine with wings clatter noisily from the lampshade to the top of the bookshelf to the mantelpiece and back again, round and round. That pure and total joy had been savagely cut short when Cole had momentarily looked away just in time to see his mother’s old tomcat, grey as a tombstone and larger than a terrier, calmly pad through the living room door and freeze, temporarily stunned by a sudden massive hit of bloodlust.
The feeling that young Joe Cole had felt in that moment, that sudden terrible sense of impending carnage in a moment of perfect stillness, came back to his adult self now a thousand times stronger.
The fact was, despite his veneer of charming thuggery, Thomas was mad. And he had shown time and time again that the only insane compulsion he had that even came close to rivalling his need to track down and kill Marie Daschonde, was his desire to do the same to his own sister.
What made things immeasurably worse was that as well as being mad, he was almost impossibly lethal. Wiry strength, speed and physical agility that could well have belonged to an untrained Temporal, and long nimble fingers that more often than not were found delicately clenched around the slender handles of throwing knives. Knives with tiny points like bat’s teeth that could sniff out veins and arteries like mosquitoes.
Isabella and Thomas’ eyes met.
The canary and the cat stood stony still.
“Well now…” Thomas began and stopped.
His eyes widened as he felt something vibrating gently in his throat, as if he had swallowed a hummingbird.
He reached out a hand. Sure enough. A tiny black blade rested quivering in his throat, white sand spilling from the wound. He gazed at Isabella, he hand still raised from throwing it, her eyes burning emerald with hatred, her mouth slack with fear.
“Good throw.” he managed to croak before his legs gave out from under him and he fell to the ground still clutching his throat.
“Tom!” Holtz roared and rushed to his friend’s side.
“Whoah, whoah, stay back!” Cole said as he caught Isabella and stopped her from running to Thomas, though who he was trying to protect by this point was very much up in the air. He cursed his carelessness. By focusing so much attention on Thomas, he hadn’t even considered that his sister might be the first to draw a blade. After all, her natural familial talent with blades had been improved by practice to the point where she might even be better than her brother now, certainly at knife throwing if not knife fighting.
“Tom? Stay calm okay. We just need to sow it up and stop the sand leaking out, you’ll be fine then. I promise.”
Thomas’ eyes were bugging in his head. Sand? Why was he bleeding sand? He had seen sand pouring from the Black Scorpion’s armour when he’d stabbed him, but he’d assumed that to be some kind of extra protection. Had he been bleeding? Thomas felt himself slipping into unconsciousness.
Holtz had pulled the knife from his throat and thrown it angrily to the ground. He covered the wound with the palm of his hand and staunched the flow of sand. He knew from experience that he needed to hold the edges of flesh together to allow them to knit, and then the wound would be healed. “He’s gonna be okay.” Holtz rasped over his shoulder.
“Of course he is.” said Isabella “He never dies. He never dies!” she screamed angrily.
“Bella, there is a time and a place to kill your brother, and this is not it!” Cole snapped, his patience finally fraying.
“Why the Hell not?!” she shouted.
The Black Scorpion was standing three feet away from them. He seemed to Bella to look even bigger than he had the last time.
“Because we could really use his help right about now…” Cole noted.
They stood regarding each other.
Cole took a second to consider how deserted the street was.
There were no passersby, which was not necessarily suspicious, as vast tracts of the city were almost empty due to the war. But this place should have been crawling with Red Scorpions by now.
The fact that it wasn’t only confirmed once and for all that the Black Scorpion was acting on Mabus’ orders and with his blessing.
From where he lay on the ground, Thomas drew a knife, and even as Holtz held his throat together, flung the blade sideways at the Black Scorpion who dodged it in an ebony blur.
Cole had to hand it to Thomas. No quitter, that one.
“Well Joe.” said Holtz “Think the deck was just against us this time.”
“Yeah.” said Cole quietly.
“See you on the other side I guess.”
Holtz, thought Cole. We are on the other side. Nowhere to go from here.
He felt Isabella put her hand in his.
“Stay behind me.” he whispered to her “Get ready to run.”
She said nothing, and squeezed his hand.
He turned to face the enemy who had come to take his place.
“What you looking at?” he said, with a bravado that he did not feel.
“Bodies.” said the Black Scorpion, and drove his blade through Cole‘s chest.