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Authors: Stuart Jaffe

Tags: #Magic, #xena, #blues, #apocalypse, #tattoos, #katana

The Way of the Sword and Gun (10 page)

BOOK: The Way of the Sword and Gun
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"How far out are they?" Malja asked.

Master Kee looked lost for a moment, then embarrassed. "I forgot to ask," he said.

Owl wanted to step in front of the Master, to somehow protect his image, but he could see Malja and Fawbry and Tommy. Their faces spoke enough — they had seen the change in Master Kee as well. A thought sprang into Owl's mind, a memory of this wonderful Master teaching a class on tactics. Owl smiled. Only one thing to do when all sides are blocked and the retreat is cut off —

"Go forward," he said, pulling all eyes onto him. With a stronger tone, he continued, "The thirteenth book. We've got to find it. It's all we have left."

Malja gave a single nod. "It's got to be somewhere you're capable of finding; otherwise, your Chief Master wouldn't have left it to you. Wouldn't ever have told you about it."

"Which means it has to be close. He knows I rarely ever left the compound, so if he wanted me to find it, he would put it somewhere here in the Order."

"Good," Malja said. "Tommy, Fawbry — you two help him figure this out. I'm going to secure the defenses of this place as best as can be done. You all go find that book."

As she left the room, Owl felt a surge of energy fill his chest. This was something he could do. Chief Master had entrusted him with this book — he had to find it.

Master Kee appeared rejuvenated by the assignment as well. Sometimes just having a task could fill one with hope. "Let's start in the kitchen," he said, setting a brisk pace out of the room. "That's the closest of Owl's three most frequented places."

Fawbry grinned. "Likes food a bit much?"

"Training uses a lot of energy," Master Kee said before Owl could rise to the bait. "All of our people are healthy eaters."

Over the next half hour, the group tore apart the enormous kitchen. Designed to feed the entire Order three-times daily, plus all the large groups walking in for food, the kitchen was actually four fully-equipped kitchens united by a central island made of marble. Knives and bowls, metal pots and metal trays, mixers and choppers — all lined up, ready for use. Half the room, however, had been wrecked during the previous attack. Rock, wood, glass, and rubble covered the floor. Though they exhausted every possible nook, they found nothing resembling a book beyond a handful of cookbooks.

A thought gnawed at the back of Owl's mind — they'd never find the book in time. Too much has happened. When the first attack had come, the Order was unprepared. There most likely had been a panic. Anything could have happened to a book during the mayhem that followed.

Owl shook off the thoughts. Those that persisted in plaguing his mind, he shoved down where he could ignore them. He had to hold out a bit of hope. Otherwise — he didn't want to consider that.

"I don't think it's here," Fawbry said.

Master Kee tapped his chin. "Let's try the dormitory."

Each step closer to the dormitory encouraged Owl. It made more sense than the kitchen, and he knew just where amongst his possessions to look. He had blundered a lot since being promoted to a Guardian, but now he could make up for that. Redemption took the simple form of a book.

The dormitory room consisted of a long, open area filled with beds. A waist-high bookshelf stood to the right of each bed. Small trunks were at the foot of each bed. All very precise and controlled. This had been Owl's home for most of his life.

"I'll check my own things," Owl said.

He walked to his bed, a quarter of the way in, and opened his trunk. While Master Kee, Fawbry, and Tommy rifled through the rest of the dormitory, Owl carefully checked his folded clothes. No book hid between them. He reviewed every title on his bookshelf, looked under his bed, and ran his hands over the sheets. He neither saw nor felt any sign of a hidden book.

Finally, he reached under the bed and pulled loose one of the floorboards. He hid personal items here, things that he didn't want others knowing about. Most of the items had to do with girls. A stolen garment. A braid of hair or a napkin with a distinct lip imprint. Though Owl had been careful to never get caught, it wouldn't surprise him to discover that Chief Master had known all along. And it would be a perfect place to hide the book.

He reached in, his blood tingling as his fingers danced over the dusty items. But there was no book.

Owl slammed the floorboard in place and slapped his bed. "Nothing," he said. The others kept working through the dormitory, turning over beds, opening trunks. An urge to stop them hit Owl — they shouldn't be going through all this personal property without permission. Except the people who had slept in these beds were all dead.

"Lots of books," Fawbry said, "but nothing that's about a code or anything."

Master Kee frowned. "You and Tommy go to the sparring room. It's a place Owl has spent a lot of time. Just across the compound — you won't mistake it."

"If we find something, where will you be?" Fawbry asked.

"Right here. We'll keep searching."

Owl caught a look between the two men before Fawbry ushered Tommy out of the dormitory. Master Kee waited a few moments in silence. When he walked closer, Owl didn't bother hiding his frustrations. Master Kee knew him too well for that.

"We're not going to find the book here," Owl said.

"No," Master Kee said as he sat on the edge of Owl's bed. "Chief Master would never leave something as important as this book just lying around for anybody to pick up."

"It's not in the sparring room, is it?"

"I doubt it."

Owl's face reddened and he let at a garbled growl. He kicked his bookshelf hard, knocking it onto the neighboring bed. "Then why are we wasting our time?"

In a voice so calm and quiet, it forced Owl's attention, Master Kee said, "Because you are showing so much uncontrolled emotion that I fear for you."

Owl looked at the toppled bookshelf. "Of course I'm emotional. Everyone we cared about is dead, and we can't find the only thing that'll help us."

"I think it's more than that. You've been trained, and trained well, to handle stressful, combative situations. The loss of our friends is horrid, and we will mourn them when the time is right. But Kryssta and the Way show us that we must control ourselves, even at the worst of times, or else we are controlled by irrationality."

"You don't understand."

"I'm a Master. I understand a lot more than you realize."

"Then tell me — why was I made a Guardian? I've done nothing but mess up."

"You earned your position just like all Guardians."

"You lie," Owl said, surprised at his own vehemence. "Other Guardians had to formally test for the promotion. They appeared before all the Masters in closed ceremony. Or they were challenged in a tournament. When did a student ever get the rank of Guardian just like that?"

"I admit your case was a bit unusual, but—"

"Tell me the truth. Was I promoted just because Brother X had left and Chief Master needed an official Guardian?"

Despite Owl's abrasiveness, Master Kee remained calm. "It was Chief Master's decision. We discussed who would make a good candidate, but he made the final decision — you. Not a different student. You were the one he chose."

"And he's dead because of it."

"He's dead because he was betrayed by Brother X. We all were." Master Kee peered deeply at Owl. "Something has happened to you, something more than Chief Master's death, more than the loss of the Order, more than Brother X's betrayal or his march upon us. Whatever it is, it's clearly hurting you. And if you don't let me help you with it, if you let it overcome your ability to think clearly, then I think we'll lose any chance of surviving."

Trust and warmth poured out of Master Kee, yet it made Owl cringe. He wanted to believe Master Kee, on some level he knew the Master was right, but he couldn't reveal the full extent of what happened on the Great Field, how he feigned death, cowering against the lifeless body of Chief Master. Master Kee would despise him for such acts. No amount of explanation would bring forgiveness. If anything, Master Kee would demand Owl use his Honor Bullet.

Owl bowed his head, and when he straightened, he made sure to be as stoic as possible. "I am a Guardian of the Order of Kryssta, trained in the Way of the Sword and Gun. I have full control of my body and my mind. You have nothing to fear."

Master Kee stood with a sad gaze. He looked as if he might say more on the subject but instead just shook his head. He stepped away from the bed. "Come. We have to get to safety."

"But the book."

"It's not in here. We must collect Fawbry and Tommy, and I will show you a safe place where we can use our brains for a while. See if we can figure out where Chief Master would have hidden such an important book."

Owl didn't move at first. He ached inside. He almost blurted out the truth of his cowardice, almost crashed to the floor crying and begging for mercy. But his training kept him still. Though he tried to think through the problem more, his emotions made it difficult. He kept seeing Master Kee's sad eyes.

But nobody had given up yet. Owl held on to that. He had managed to get Malja on his side. Surely, that had to be worth something. Malja had to be able to help.

 

 

 

Malja

 

 

Malja walked along the wood planks that formed the narrow ledge against the compound wall. Though barely adequate room to mount a defense, it would suffice. The wood showed signs of decay — running or fighting on this would be dangerous, at best, but it would be more so for the invaders who would be unfamiliar with where to step.

The few magicians still alive took to her orders well. Perhaps it was the glare in her eyes betraying her disdain. Perhaps they just understood that their lives depended on doing as she commanded. Either way, they worked surprisingly hard at blocking the gaps in the wall and gathering anything useful for weapons.

She had the Guards collect guns from their fallen friends. Those were loaded and set at intervals along the ledge. With only two shots per weapon, they wouldn't last long. But they would do some damage.

As she watched from above, the magicians stopped mid-stride. Malja could feel the reverberations straight up through the wall. The magicians looked at each other as if one of them might be able to dismiss what they felt. But Malja knew those vibrations too well. They came from hundreds of feet tramping the earth. Brother X and his army had arrived.

She hurried along the ledge until she reached the east wall. Even without her dented spyglass, she could see the dust on the horizon. With it, she saw the crimson clad betrayer astride a black horse and hundreds of soldiers behind him.

Malja looked at her meager force. Not even twenty Guards and a half-dozen magicians. When the vibrations took on the enormous sound of a hundred armored bodies, she expected them to fall apart. Especially if they continued to stand still and wait for the army to arrive.

"Get back to work. We can still have things ready before they get here," she said, snapping them into action.

Though they moved with purpose, the magicians became clumsy from nerves. Had they been new recruits to a fledgling army, Malja would have berated them, using sheer force to make them fear her more than any threat outside the walls. But these magicians were not soldiers. They were barely useful magicians. One of them was so raw, he could only produce electrical magic.

The Guards worked steady and strong, but Malja was not fooled. She could tell they were green when it came to real battle. Queen Salia's earlier attack probably summed up their first full experience in raw combat. No sparring gear. No Master to intervene. No rules. Some of them looked eager to fight again. She noted those faces. Others had a sickened expression. She noted them as well.

Beyond the few extra handguns, the pile of weapons amassed consisted of rocks, rusty nails in moldy wood, a few arrows, a pipe, and little else. Two magicians sat on the ledge, focused on their tattoos, prepping their spells. Malja didn't have time to inventory all the spells at her disposal, and even if she had, she would have balked at the idea.

"Doesn't matter, anyway," she muttered to herself. If she had more time, she could have set up barriers and obstacles to funnel her enemy's progress through a narrow point. From there, a handful of magicians with rocks and spells might stand a chance. But the pounding of Brother X's army grew louder, underscoring the lack of any sufficient defensive measures.

By the time Brother X's army arrived and broke off into three groups, Malja thought her force had enough power to feign a good defense. They could put on a show, but she had no illusion that they would be able to fight. Looking over all they had, she thought they could put up enough of a defense to stall. Sometimes that's all it took. Stall defeat long enough, opportunities opened up.

Trotting back and forth in front of his soldiers, Brother X thrust his sword skyward and his army cheered. Malja knew this kind of display well. Her own force paled at the sight. The army stretched far back, so numerous they had replaced the grass of the Great Field with their unending bodies.

Malja waited until the noise died down. Then she said, "You've marched a long, tiresome way for nothing. There is no victory for you here."

BOOK: The Way of the Sword and Gun
7.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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