It had been ten years since he’d passed through Hemplin’s Ridge in the northern Casser County. He would have never come back either, had he not received a rather desperate-sounding summons from the Silver-star Sherriff himself.
Recalling the contents of the letter, he could not help but grunt in amusement. The irony of its proposition was almost too laughable to take seriously.
PRIORITY SUMMONS FOR GUNSLINGER, VANE THE STEEL BLAZE.
WE REQUIRE YOUR IMMEDIATE INTERVENTION ON BEHALF OF THE RESIDENTS OF HEMPLIN’S RIDGE. ENTIRE TOWN UNDER THREAT FROM THE NOTORIOUS GRIT SPLINTERS AND THE RED SPADES GANG.
REWARD OF 10,000RG UPON THE SUCCESSFUL ROUT OF THIS RUTHLESS TYRANT.
REQUEST AND TERMS AUTHORIZED BY RYVER BAINES, SHERIFF OF HEMPLIN’S RIDGE, CASSER COUNTY.
So they wanted to take care of trouble, by inviting an even bigger trouble to deal with it. Obviously the incident that left Hemplin’s Ridge full of bullet holes ten years ago was a matter the Sheriff was willing to overlook. Most law enforcers were not so obliging, even if they’d never personally dealt with Vane, and knew him only by name. He was the Steel Blaze: the world’s most infamous gunslinger; also hailed the Righteous Menace. The general populace, however, remembered only the ‘Menace’ part. Men awed over his near-otherworldly marksmanship, but they were just as inclined to shoot him on sight as they were to seek his help against marauding evils.
This time, it looked as though the job could earn him back a little admiration, in addition to the much-needed currency.
He wasn’t about to bet on it, though.
Just then, a searing whistle cut through the darkness of the night. Vane pushed off the wall of the storage building and side-stepped. A spit-second later, a metal shaft screamed past his ear and imbedded itself into the brickwork. He looked at it with tempered interest, unbothered the shooter had evidently been aiming for his head. It was an older model ballista rocket, gutted of its exploding potential and re-fitted with a tarnished message tube.
Vane twisted it open and unfurled the scrap of paper inside.
So, the Righteous Menace has shown up, after all.
Midnight. Mirwells Park. Be there, or bodies will start droppin’.
Idly he set the note on fire using the last of his cigarette, before tossing both to the pavement and grinding them to ash with the ball of his boot. ‘Well, at least this saves me having to chase you all down.’
He glanced toward the main street clock tower. The grinding pointers were almost on the twelve. Slipping his hands into the pockets of his duster, he strode off toward the nominated site.
The streets of Hemplin’s Ridge were lightless and deserted. Only the tilted, grinning moon offered any light, and gleamed to the accompaniment of a restless, moaning wind. The air was charged with tension, as though the entire town waited with baited breath for the showdown to unfold.
Vane stepped off the sidewalk and entered Mirwells Park. The wind jostled the trees, sending leaves into scratchy whispers. He began counting the sets of eyes watching him from the shadows. Six, seven, eight … he feigned unawareness of them, and simply walked on until he came to a spacious clearing.
Standing at the base of a rusted sculpture was a man dressed in a red suit and black top-hat skewed with knives. The man glanced down at his pocket watch. ‘Well, well, right on time.’
In the distance, the clock tower began to toll.
Vane silently appraised him with practiced efficiency; everything from his stance, to the hand he most favoured. ‘Grit Splinters, I presume,’ he said.
The man gave a mockingly sweeping bow. ‘The one and only,’ he replied. ‘And you’re the infamous Steel Blaze. I must say, I’m rather disappointed. You’re not much to look at. Too thin … and far too pretty.’
Growls of laughter and guttural jeers echoed from beyond the clearing. Hulking forms of human and cyborg thugs stepped out of the shadows, creating a wide, entrapping circle.
Vane stood perfectly still, moving only his eyes. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen … and five back behind the tree line. He let out a terse, disappointed sigh. ‘Not really a fair fight now is it.’
Grit spat out wad of black spittle and laughed. ‘Don’t tell me you expected just one of us to show up, did you?’
‘Actually, I thought there’d be a lot more of you,’ Vane mused, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Oh well, I guess not all jobs can be interesting.’
Grit stared at him for a moment, stupefied. Then, his face contorted with rage and his hands reached for the knives in his top-hat. ‘You dare insult the mighty Red Spades, you arrogant pig?! Righteous Menace or not, there’s more than enough of us to take you down!’
All at once, the Red Spades drew their weapons to open fire. Vane the Steel Blaze was already on one knee, his customized revolvers, Calista and Sabrina, in each hand. He launched into action, his gun cylinders whirling and barrels smoking. His fingers twitched in rapid sequence, and the sound of bullets bursting from their chambers rang loud and sharp in his ears. His heart thundered with adrenaline, and his limbs whipped around like bolts of lightning from God’s fingertips.
By the time he stood over a disarmed and bug-eyed Grit, the other Red Spades writhed and wailed on the ground, every last one of their hands and fingers shot clean off.
Vane pointed Calista at Grit’s face and cocked the hammer.
‘P-p-please have mercy!’ Grit sputtered. ‘This whole thing was a set-up! W-we were hired by Sheriff Baines to take you down!’
Vane brushed his finger over the trigger, but then whirled Calista around and slipped her back into her holster. He then turned on his heel, and strode from the clearing without looking back.
‘Figures,’ he muttered. I should have known better. A summons from the devil would have been more legitimate.