A ferocious sound reverberated throughout The City. Shaking, screams and chaos followed. 

Earth’s final stand. The last remaining hovel of humanity digging in. The City was under attack.

The first explosion ripped into one of the water recycling plants. Moments later another explosion tore through the food storage warehouse. It was the kind of sound that those who have heard it can’t describe and those who haven’t can’t imagine. The initial explosion was followed by shaking and debris crashing to the ground. Metal splitting and wilting. Bricks and mortar spraying into the night sky. Fire spitting from windows as glass dusts away.

Those who got to their windows quickly might have seen the lone figure running from target to target at superhuman speeds. No breaking stride. No hesitation. Just speeding from the warehouse to a makeshift sewage treatment plant. And from there on to the rickety old solar energy plant. Had the figure not been masked they may also have seen the look of sheer delight and maniacal anger etched on the scarred face.

Once the four main targets on The City’s east side had been hit the shadowy figure changed tactics. With fires spreading throughout the industrial area and smoke wafting throughout The City the figure turned to the populated areas.

Without needing to draw any extra breath the attacker ran at Olympic sprinter speeds to the Old Quarter. It’s shabby houses and cobblestone streets didn’t stand a chance. Armed only with two metal bars weighing about 50 pounds each the figure began swinging. Each bar crashing into loose brick walls or low slung thatched roofs. Each blow inflicting serious damage. More damage than a lone figure swinging a metal bar should rightly inflict.

The scary part was the not even breathing heavy. Extreme exertion made to look minimal. Seemingly effortless.

The first of several citizens to attempt a confrontation with the attacker was disposed of one with one sickening thud. Trent Wilson fancied himself one of The City’s tougher young men. And since there weren’t any other cities left on Earth he took pride in calling himself the toughest man in the world. Frankly, his friends were sick of hearing about it. Trent hadn’t been woken up by the first explosion. His nights were spent patrolling the streets of The City looking for fun, trouble or both. Maybe some food or loot along the way. The City didn’t have full time law enforcement. The had people like Trent.

The precarious nature of what was left of the human race meant most people were kept in line. Most of the time.

You didn’t want to be the one that helped bring about the end of an entire species. But Trent and other’s like him would keep an eye on things after dark. Just in case. They kept things in order and took a little for themselves when they could. Within a few minutes of the second explosion Trent was making his way towards the chaos.

Just after rounding a corner that brought him in site of the water plant for the first time Trent spotted the attacker. Or he thought he did anyway. The blur of movement from what looked like a human body didn’t really register properly.

That looks like a human but it’s moving like…..Jesus what is it? Trent thought as the figure approached. Trent body began to tense up the way it always did before a fight. He’d been doing this since a very young age. He knew what to expect. His breathing intensified. Hairs stood up all over his body. A heightened sense of things took over his awareness. Muscles tensed and flexed. His feet made their way naturally into a nice balanced stance. Hands clenching without a second thought.

Here we go.

The attacker didn’t tense. Didn’t adopt a new stance. Didn’t change his breathing. Didn’t break stride. With an almost dance like move the figure simply shimmied a little to the left and ran past Trent. In that same motion Trent’s life ended. A single swing of one of the bars in passing and it was all over. A 50 pound metal bar to the head? Nighty night.

Trent Wilson wasn’t the toughest man on the planet anymore. He was dead before his body hit the ground.

The figure kept moving. Like a running back weaving through lineman this shadow cut and dodged through the winding streets. Under the mask the grin intensified. That had been a satisfying kill. Taking down that hulk of a man in a blur? This is the most fun the attacker had experienced in a VERY long time.

Upon reaching the end of where toughly where the fire would spread the attacker made a slick move that would have been impressive to those who saw it if they hadn’t been so scared. And disbelieving.

In one seemingly effortless motion the lone figure tossed one of the metal bars at least 50 feet in the air. While it was cartwheeling through the smoke filled night sky a small grenade like bomb appeared out of nowhere. Perhaps it was a stick of dynamite? No one could tell for sure as it was lit and thrown into a small cluster of some of the oldest homes in The City. The bar was caught perfectly without breaking stride and the attacker sped away in the few seconds it took for the houses to be obliterated.

More fire and smoke started taking over The City.

~~~~~~~~~

As the attacker was making an initial approach to The City one of it’s most interesting citizens was about to engage in a clandestine meeting.

Maria Gabrielle Marquez was raised by two of The City’s brightest lights. Her father helped keep The City fed with his work at the food plant. His knowledge of plant growth having been handed down from his father before him. Gabs mother was an engineer at the Water Plant. Her family had never wanted for anything. They were a huge part of what was keeping The City alive so they ate well. 

But because they were so pragmatic Maria’s parents had raised her a little differently. They’d raised her to be a fighter. A warrior.

Figuring that knowing how to handle herself would be a key to staying alive in this new world order the Marquez’ forced their daughter to be a scrapper. They taught her various fighting styles and techniques. They taught her to use weapons. To take advantage of her surrounding. And then they let her loose in The City at all hours. By the age of 11 Maria was being left in the Old Quarter at night with gold pieces in her pockets. Not conspicuously in her pockets either.

The City didn’t have a currency. People traded for what they needed. Those who found silver or gold used the precious metals to get ahead. The Marquez family often received gifts for their service to the people. Those gifts would go out with Gabs and they always came home at the end of the night.

The psychological impact? A side effect worth dealing with in the eyes of Miguel and Martina. Better to be able to survive and somewhat scarred than dead. 

By the time she hit her sweet 16 Maria had found a nice balance. She studied so she could help her parents at both of the plants. She worked hard to be a great fighter so she could protect herself and her family if possible. And she mostly buried her pain. Her toughness was legendary but it wasn’t just physical. 

Some might have called what her parents did barbaric. In another place and time someone might have taken her away from her parents. But this was The City. This was all that was left. And to the Marquez’s it was absolutely necessary. To survive Gabrielle had to be tough. She defended herself with aplomb. She hit hard and she hit fast. She blocked and dodged any blow an assailant might try to land. She used her surroundings to her advantage if she had to and her ability to out think and outwit her adversaries was becoming the talk of the town.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear conversation over dinner tables throughout The City about her latest triumph. That made it harder for Maris to find a fight. To find an advisory. Trent Wilson was always up for a fight but that had gotten old. Maria craved something to really test her metal.

She didn’t know it yet but she was going to get that chance very soon.

Part of the decision to raise Maria in this way had been made the day she was born. Although her parents may not have been willing to admit it. Because Maria Gabrielle Marquez had been born with several deformities. One leg was longer than the other so she had to wear special footwear her mother engineered. It made her fighting skills even more impressive. Her hair grew in patches and large portions of her scalp were always exposed. Several almost tumour like growths grew as she matured. One was on her back. Another covered most of the left side of her face.

Maria was obsessed with these features. She’d stare into the remaining shard of a mirror she had discovered as a young adult. It’s a shame she never noticed her striking olive eyes and magnetic smile. But how could she? All she ever saw was people staring at her deformities. All she ever heard were comments about how awful she looked. The citizens of The City knew she could beat them to a pulp and yet they still whispered as she passed. Whispering about her deformed face. Her slight limp. Her gross scalp.

When she fought Maria allowed her rage to flow. Otherwise she kept it bottled up inside. Yet more pain swirling inside her young mind.

If anyone in The City could stop this attack maybe it was Maria Gabrielle Marquez. She had a chance to stop it because of her upbringing, her skills, but mostly her rage. But even Maria would have struggled with the speed at which this foe moved. She might not have been able to cope with the joy the attacker took in inflicting pain. There was a change she’d have lost. Been beaten. It was definitely the type of battle for which she had longed. A real challenge. To be the underdog in a fight for the first time since she was a child.

But when the attack was about to start she was otherwise engaged. For the third straight night Maria had ventured out with her best and only friend Stefan for a meeting in the Old Quarter.

Stefan. The one person who Maria trusted. The one person in whom she felt she could confide. They had known each other for as long as either could remember. Stefan had been born into one of the oldest families in The City. His grandparents had damn near been the first people to show up when word started to spread about this place. They had moved from the Old Quarter just before Stefan was born. Three generations in one small house? They needed more space. So they traded their home and every piece of gold they had for a piece of land close to where Maria had recently been born.

On that land Stefan’s family built a large home. One story above ground. One below. It was fortified. A stronghold. A place big enough for the family to live and secure enough for them to be safe.

Stefan and Maria had been neighbors even since. The had played together in the alley behind Stefan’s house under the watchful eye of his grandparents as children. Stefan had never once judged Maria’s body. He had never once questioned her upbringing. He had never once betrayed her trust in any way. Stefan was small, weak and emotional. He cried a lot. He was scared most of the time. But he was smart. He’d figured that Maria was his chance for survival. He felt safe with her and she felt less alone with him. 

It was Stefan who had been working to set up this meeting on Maria’s behalf. He had done that without asking any questions. Without trying to talk her out of anything. If she needed to meet with this man and if she had questions she needed to ask then he would make that happen. He supported her in every way. A true friend.

The meeting was to take place in an abandoned water capturing plant. The first attempt at such a facility that dated back to the very first days of The City. Now it was mostly used as a hang out for those types looking not to be found. Sometimes a newcomer to The City might find a spot to take refuge within the plants walls in order to stay warm and dry. It’s ability to capture and hold water had long since been converted to a cover a more basic need. Shelter.

Approaching from the West gave Maria and Stefan the best view to see anyone coming or going from the plant’s crumbling outer wall. Stretching about two of The City’s blocks on this side the plant was roughly square in shape. The one story building was deceptively big due to the fact the floor had been hollowed out down to around 30 feet below The City’s street level. Digging down had been a common practice in those early days of The City.

In this case the downward movement was in part to help in storing water but also to access a few small wells of water that had existed in the area of the plant when The City was first developed.

Stairs on either end of the building led down to various levels. On those levels you might find a simple platform that had been used for some storage or perhaps something more complex like the bigger storage areas dug into the walls and reinforced with wood planks. There were several large tanks at the bottom of the plant. At a few points there were walkways across the expanse that looked like they may collapse at any moment.

The further down into the building you went the more displeasing the element that might reside there. Despite that fact it was eerily quiet. Maria and Stefan, for the third straight night, made their way all the way to the bottom. To the old storage tanks that had been cobbled together from whatever building supplies could be found not long after the Water Wars.

It was dark. The smell was truly awful. Occasionally the sound of moaning, there was no way to know if it was pleasure or pain, could be heard.

Again in a truly frightening setting, for almost anyone other than Maria Marquez, they waited. They could feel eyes watching them from the darkness. From time to time they could hear something moving somewhere in the expanse. Stefan felt as though someone was breathing down his neck. He hated it. He wanted to run away crying. But he didn’t no matter how scared he got because Maria was by his side.

Just as she often had in the past Maria Gabrielle Marquez was out late at night with a pocket full of gold and silver pieces. But this wasn’t an attempt to provoke a fight for training purposes. This meeting was much more serious. Now only one question remained. Would the man they had been meant to meet the past two nights actually show up this time?

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