Authors: Stuart Jaffe
Tags: #Magic, #xena, #blues, #apocalypse, #tattoos, #katana
THE WAY OF THE SWORD AND GUN
Malja wanted to kill the boy. Again. Not literally, of course. She loved Tommy. But over the last year, the boy she had saved from slavery, the boy she had fought for and protected, that she had sacrificed everything for, had turned into a moody, unpredictable monster.
Even as they rode through the forest toward the town of Affengar, she could feel his ever-shifting attitude in the air. He kept ahead of her and rarely looked back. Though he never spoke, hadn't from the day they met, she heard his anger clearly.
Fawbry, the third member of their trio, pulled up beside her. He held the reins in his one good hand. The other — a mere stump where his hand had been sheered off — rested in his lap. "Relax," he said. "Tommy's how old? Maybe fourteen? This is normal behavior."
Malja shuddered — maybe normal would have sufficed back when they first met, back when Tommy had only the lightning arc tattoo on his arm signifying the one spell he could cast — electrical energy. But that was a long time ago. That was before they met the behemoth, Barris Mont, before he unlocked more of Tommy's abilities. Now, a sleeve of tattoos covered Tommy's right arm and more grew each week.
Tommy snapped his fingers and pointed ahead. When Malja's roan mare crested a small rise, she saw Affengar below. The trees broke away, forming a mini-valley for the town, and as the sun leaned toward the horizon, it cast a beautiful glow on the buildings.
Compared to most towns, Affengar thrived. The two-story buildings showed little sign of the Devastation. Many towns had rebuilt amongst the ruins, creating a patchwork of scavenged metal and modern carpentry, but here the buildings smelled of sawn wood and hard work. Bits of the pre-Devastation past, the days when magic ran the world, poked their way in — ancient claw-shaped lampposts lined the street and two grounders, stripped of parts, had been parked off to the side.
Malja straightened in the saddle, letting the sunset give her a more majestic, authoritative image. Her horse reacted to the change in posture and straightened too. As with all the towns they had liberated, she would need the townspeople behind her, and they needed to see her strength in order to believe. She glanced down at the eyes watching her from the streets. Though the grit of violence clung to her long-coat and form-fitting assault suit, promising a woman of battle, she wanted to project at least a tinge of hope. It seemed that every town they had visited required her to muscle out the warlords and self-declared rulers. Perhaps this one would be different.
Tommy reined in his bay mare, pulling back just behind Malja. He should have been a masterful rider by now, but he had spent the better parts of his early years tied up in a cargo ship, forced to use his magic to power the engines. That's where his anger should go — at those who hurt him. She had done nothing but raise and protect him.
"We may have finally lucked out," Fawbry said from the rear. His black horse whinnied in agreement, and Fawbry laughed.
Sometimes, especially when she had to kill a lot, Malja loved the sound of Fawbry's laugh. "Just keep your eyes clear," she said. They had gone through so many towns that the entire experience blended into mush.
"Don't worry. I'm using my eyes well," Fawbry said, leering at two plump girls standing in a doorway. They giggled at his attention. "This town seems like a nice place."
"Tommy. Sleeves," Malja said.
She didn't have to look back to feel his anger. He thrust his sleeves down to cover his tattoos anyway. Too many people feared magicians — not only because they had caused the Devastation so long ago, but because so many lost their minds by using magic. Malja couldn't afford to have the townspeople turn against them because of Tommy.
They rode through a bustling market filled with colorful stalls and energetic haggling. Fresh breads and sizzling meats perfumed the air. But Malja noticed how the townspeople glimpsed her from the side as if they were putting on a play and wanted to see if their audience believed.
, she thought,
this is going to be like all the others.
As if in response, people stopped sneaking looks. The vibrant noise died. The bustling activity ceased. Cold, staring eyes followed Malja and her companions as they pushed forward through the street.
"Tommy. There." She nodded ahead to a wide stage made of stones and concrete.
Tommy took his bay toward the left side of the stage. With a gesture of her head, Malja sent Fawbry to the right side. Once they were in position, Malja rode right up the middle, dismounted with a flourish, and planted herself center stage.
"I am Malja," she said, letting her voice boom over the heads of the gathered crowd. She paused to allow the murmur to settle. In the last year, she had been through this process so many times she could sleep through the whole thing and still know what happened. "I am here to bring you freedom. I am here to bring you law. The country of Corlin has been at war with itself since the Devastation, a playground for opportunists to bully good folk like you into submission. No more."
She paused. Usually either a joyful hope infected the crowd or an elder fired off a question designed to challenge her. This time, however, she met only silence.
"I have traveled from town to town, across Corlin, and in each town, I have defeated those that wish to control you. And when I leave, I leave behind the three laws with which you can take control of your future."
By now, the audience should have brought out their dictator or erupted into celebration. Instead, they shuffled their feet and stared at her as if she spoke some foreign tongue. She even saw one man slink away from the crowd.
Tommy and Fawbry shared an uncertain glance. She kept her face forward, cleared her throat, and spoke in strong, unwavering tones. "There's no need to fear me. Follow my laws, and we can all be free from control.
"Law one — Do nothing to another that you would not want done to you.
"Law two — When in doubt, leave the other alone.
"Law three — Before using magic, do for yourself.
"Follow these laws, and there is no need for anybody to police you. We can rule ourselves with the simple sense the brother gods, Korstra and Kryssta, gave us all."
A man's voice from the crowd called out. "Go away. We're fine here without you."
"That may be. You appear well-off and happy. I don't want to impede that. I simply want to make sure all of you are free."
She stared at the blank faces staring back. An uneasy sensation coated the space between them. This was all wrong.
A high-toned howl cut into the silence, echoing across the market, followed by a lower, nastier growl. Fear sliced through the crowd as if the earth might tremble and split open. The heinous cry came again.
A rush of activity ignited. The crowd dispersed. Sellers closed their stands. Mothers ushered their children away. Men looked into the distance, swallowing against their nervousness. In seconds, the market was deserted.
Fawbry stepped down from the stage. "Perhaps I should check on the young ladies and make sure—"
"Get back," Malja said.
Wrapping his multi-colored robe around him, Fawbry scooted back to the stage. Tommy never wavered. Malja expected no less.
At the far end of the road, two men on horseback approached.
The first wore only a satchel and a loin cloth, displaying his lanky body, sun-browned skin, and bald head with an arrogance reserved for those of the mystical arts. Malja saw at least five tattoos on his right leg. He also had a black stripe tattooed on his head — this last one, mere decoration.
The other man, dressed in a drab coat, stared at the one small tattoo on his arm. Lost in a trance, he rocked with his horse's movements but showed no other recognition of the world around him — amateur. As they came down the dim street, each lamppost ignited with a crackling lightning ball. Malja wondered if the lesser magician enjoyed being a glorified generator.
The first magician halted, rested his arm on the saddle's pommel, and from across the empty roadway, he said, "I am Eldred. Are you who I think you are?
Malja closed her eyes and tried to clear her head. "I am."
Gesturing to the town, Eldred said, "All this belongs to me. I protect this town, ensure its prosperity. And in return, they give me food, women, and once a month, they sacrifice one of their own, so that I may provide through the magic of blood."
Malja shrugged. "So you're running a protection racket."
Eldred raised an eyebrow. "These people are happy and civilized, well fed, comfortable. They have all they need. This is how it was before the Devastation. This is how it was meant to be. We magicians provide the crops, the power supply, the healing, the justice. We make civilization civilized. Why shouldn't we be paid for such services?"
"Blood sacrifices are not civilized."
Eldred chuckled. "I suspect you have an ocean of blood on your hands. Far more than I could ever match. And what have you provided in return?"
Malja pulled Viper from its special sheath. The unique weapon, curved like a giant sickle with both the inner- and outer-crescents sharpened, rested in her hand with the familiarity of her own body. Viper was part of her.
"This doesn't need to be a fight," she said. "You can walk away or even stay as one of the townspeople. All will be forgiven. In this world, people lose their way. You have. But I offer you a chance to begin again. Please, take it."
"I see," Eldred said and snapped his fingers. A burly man, struggling to control three leashed konapols, stepped out from an alleyway nearby. "This is my answer."
Half-intelligent creatures with a pack structure, konapols had thin gray fur covering powerful, toned muscles, front legs that crushed anything in their way, and old, wrinkled faces that were at odds with the vicious teeth they hid. Their hind legs, though small, could deliver a kick strong enough to knock a person unconscious. The domesticated konapols were small and used to patrol gates. These, however, were wild.
They snapped at the burly man holding their leashes. They snarled and strained against their bonds. Malja had seen the domestic versions before, but these huge creatures promised a far more difficult fight.
"Release them," Eldred said, and the burly man did as ordered.
Two of the konapols broke into a full press attack, covering great distances with each stride. Malja leaped from the stage and dashed towards the beasts. When they were in striking distance, the konapol on the left jumped into the air while the other stayed low — teeth bared, claws out, making deep guttural barks.
Malja saw her play like it had been mapped out long before. She stepped forward and swung Viper in an arc. The blade sliced through the airborne konapol's neck as if there were no bones connecting it to the body. Before the carcass could smack into the ground, Malja used the momentum of her swing to spin around and lodge Viper into the chest of the other attacker. With a surprised howl, the konapol swatted the blade out of his chest, causing more damage to the wound.
Malja kicked his front claw, breaking a bone with an audible click. He reared back, rage spitting from his mouth in a torrent of noise and saliva. Malja swished Viper across the unprotected gut, and the konapol dropped into a dead ball.
The konapol that had stayed behind paced back and forth, its eyes narrowed, its mouth dripping with saliva. Beyond the creature, Malja saw that Eldred had brought his one leg over the saddle and fixated on his tattoos.
Malja raised Viper, blood racing down its sharp edges. Her fierce eyes, her strong stance, and her unwavering focus crossed the distance to the konapol like a gunshot. The animal hesitated for a fraction of a second. Enough to let Malja know she had the advantage.
With a roar of hot, stale breath, the creature lunged forward, galloping towards her with its teeth bared. It barreled down the dirt road, spit streaming back from its wrinkled jowls. Animal rage had taken over what little thought it could muster.
Letting loose her battle cry, Malja sprinted ahead. Her legs pumped hard as she positioned Viper below her intended strike point. The world disappeared. She saw only the konapol, only the dust and dirt sputtering around it, only the muscular body she sought to cut down.