“Another,” I demanded, slamming down a couple more rifle rounds as payment and hoping my false bravado helped me blend in. The bartender filled my grubby glass with more of the local brew known as Trudge – a sickly sweet, fermented drink that was far thicker than the ale from the more civilised places on my travels. I downed it, the same way the other patrons seemed to do. Fitting in was the only way to survive Mort City and the monsters that lived there. Undead monsters I could deal with – the living kind not so easily.
Mort City wasn’t hard to find – you just had to head west of Costello’s territory, then keep going until there were no more trade routes and not even the Byron Accords could protect you. It wasn’t a good place – where the outcasts of outcasts ended up.
“A hive of scum and villainy,” my mentor would say with a forlorn smile – an inside joke that only he understood. He said a lot of things like that, but we accepted it. He was an Old One, born before the dead walked and lived in the unbroken world. I think he forgot me and the other Rangers were born after the end – first-gens. Hell, some of the newest recruits were second-generation – born as the world knitted itself together and when being a Ranger was a career and not a moral responsibility.
He wasn’t wrong though – they were scum. There was no service too unforgivable for Mort City if you knew where to look. Yet they were allowed to exist – people believed they weren’t harming anyone if they were the only ones crazy enough to live among the Wild Lands. Lord Costello wouldn’t intervene despite his resources. The UNK beyond The Wall had no interest in bringing them justice. The Bath-Wales Alliance hadn’t long reached peace with the BSR, so they weren’t looking to start another war. So that left it to me and the other Rangers. We couldn’t man our own war against them, we were peacekeepers and had to keep it that way for everyone else. That didn’t mean we couldn’t do jobs that brought us in contact with Mort City – if it was for the safety of the many, then we acted. That was exactly the reason I accepted the bounty hunting job – to remove scum.
“I’m looking for fun,” I slurred, faking inebriation. It wouldn’t hurt if I looked easier to swindle.
“Yeah?” the bartender grumbled, wiping a glass with a filthy rag.
“Yeah. Looking to blow off some steam. Got rounds to gamble and don’t think anyone here can win them,” I boasted confidently, thumping my chest. It seemed over the top, but it attracted the attention of a group at the back of the bar – one matching the description of my bounty.
“What you got to lose?” the large muscular man called.
“A few clips of bullet farm ammo,” I replied, referring to the widely traded self-produced rounds.
“Keep your trash, it ain’t worth my time,” the man tutted and returned to his card game.
“High roller, eh?” I questioned, leaning casually against the bar. “How about a case of military-grade rounds?”
“That’s more like it,” the man said, slamming his cards down and standing up. I became aware that he was a good foot taller than me and the parts of his face that weren’t covered by a beard was a weathered web of scars.
“What’s your game?” I nodded to the cards.
“I gamble on skill, not luck,” he snorted before walking away. “Follow.”
We crested over a small hill on the outskirts of Mort City, overlooking a field full of the undead. Upon seeing us, they tried to move but were chained and bolted in place – their withered bodies unable to moan or snarl.
“Pistols. Headshots are three points, chests are two. Limbs are one. Thirteen shots each. What you betting?” he explained gruffly, handing me a pistol.
“My case of military rounds, if you got something to match it,” I said calmly, hoping against hope that I hadn’t misjudged the situation.
“Oh, I got something,” he smirked and one of his men disappeared into a nearby trailer.
He returned with a girl, no older than twelve. She wasn’t marked or bruised, not that I could see, but the look in her eyes spoke a thousand shattered sorrows. My jaw clenched. Things just got a lot more complicated.
“She’s a pretty thing, if a little used,” he laughed brutally. “So, we got a deal?”
“Yeah … we do,” I said through gritted teeth. Calm down – you’re on a job. Take him alive and leave.
“House always goes first,” he said with a wink before proceeding to let off thirteen perfect headshots, spraying blackened gore with every shot. Shit.
I dropped my drunken act and lined up my first shot. There’s a lot more on the line now – I had to make every shot. I fired my first shot and it missed. I actually missed. I’d … I’d already lost.
“Holy shit,” he laughed with genuine surprise, joined by his cohort. “I win on your first shot? I don’t even need to reload!”
The man doubled over laughing. The girl must have sensed that I was trying to help because she began to weep. Just be calm and–
I turned towards my bounty and didn’t miss the headshot that time.
“What the fu-” another began before his throat was ripped out by my next shot. The third managed to get a shot off, hitting my side, but was dropped when I fired again. Pain radiated out from my wound – it didn’t stop me from executing the last man.
I breathed heavily, hearing shouts from nearby.
“It’s ok, hunny,” I said to the girl. “I’m with the Rangers.”
“You’re bleeding,” she said, looking at my side.
“My blood before yours, their blood before ours,” I said, reciting the Rangers mantra. “Now let’s get you home.”