Read The Way of the Sword and Gun Online

Authors: Stuart Jaffe

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

The Way of the Sword and Gun (8 page)

BOOK: The Way of the Sword and Gun
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"I haven't seen you shoot yet."

"I suppose not," he chuckled. The deep sound warmed Malja more than the campfire.

"You should go back to sleep. Your shift starts soon enough."

Owl didn't leave. He stretched his legs out. "I've always wanted to meet you. Stories about you travel far, and I've held this strong belief that you and I could be good friends. We have a lot in common."

"Stories are just stories."

He stayed quiet for a while but he wouldn't leave. She held back from scolding him. It would do no good. And, in truth, she didn't mind his presence — as long as he kept silent.

It was Malja, though, that broke the quiet. "Besides being good fighters, what could we possibly have in common?"

"We're both orphans, for one. Like you, I never knew my parents. They abandoned me. I lived on the streets of Salia City for a while — scrounging food and joining up with other kids stuck in the same situation. Until Brother X found me. The Order took me in, and I never regretted it. As I got older, it became clear that I didn't have any magical ability, so they taught me to be a Guardian of the Order. I learned the Way, trained hard, and here I am. Our lives, while different in the details, are very similar."

Malja's skin prickled as her heart chilled. "We aren't the same at all," she said. "I wasn't abandoned. I was stolen. I wasn't brought up in some lovely temple. I was raised by two ruthless magicians who wanted to use me for their schemes. And when they thought I couldn't help them, they threw me away. I was ten and left in the woods to die. It was only the kindness of one man that saved me. And those bastard magicians killed him, too. There's nothing similar about us."

Owl stood, readjusting his coat. "At least you know where you came from. Right? Isn't that what Fawbry was saying? You want to use the Library to get back to your home. Me — I walk down a street and wonder if the people I pass are related to me. Maybe an uncle, an aunt, a grandmother. Could that couple be my parents?"

"You want pity? Is that it?" Malja stood chest to chest, though she had to look up to meet his eyes. "You won't get it. Everybody in this world has had a hard, crappy life. Tommy's had enough pain for two lives."

"I just wanted—"

"You wanted to buddy up to me, to be part of our team. But you're not. If you're telling the truth, you're a messenger. Got it. If you were more than that, you'd be back there fighting against this queen, instead of running for my help."

She could see Owl's shock — not at her venom but at her final words. He stared at her a moment, his eyes glistening, before storming off. He returned to his spot by the campfire and pounded the ground with his fist.

Damn. Why should she feel bad that she upset him? She didn't trust him — although no ambush had materialized, lending his story some credence. Which meant she lashed at him not because she didn't want to hear, but because she wanted to shut down the conversation.

She sat. Though she had held them back, the words had almost burst out of her — words she barely wanted to think about — that she truly wanted to leave this world.

Of course, Tommy and Fawbry knew, or at least suspected — but they didn't understand how often she thought of that woman reaching out for her. Not a day passed without Malja wondering what would have happened had she just stepped through the portal. Because one truth she told Owl never changed here — the world was crap. Nobody lived well. Everyone suffered. With magic, without magic — it didn't change anything. And all her efforts to make a better place, for Tommy, for herself, were soaked in blood.

"Did you hear that?" Owl said.

Malja jumped at the sound of his voice, hating that he had sneaked up on her again. She opened her mouth to berate him when she noticed the look in his eye and processed what he had said.

She listened to the night air.

Rustling leaves but no wind. A crackling of wood but just hot coals on the fire. A sharp breath. Something was out there. More than one thing.

Malja leaned toward Owl. "Wake up the boys and get your weapons."

As Owl dashed off, Malja released Viper. She looked out into the darkness trying to locate her enemy. She listened. She looked. She sniffed the air.

She heard a rock tumble to the right. She spun, caught sight of a fast-moving shape, but then it was gone. Fawbry and Tommy were awake and alert now, and she saw them also looking in the same direction.

"What is it?" Fawbry asked.

Malja didn't answer. She didn't know. Owl pulled out his handgun and held it steady with both hands. For the first time in her life, she was happy to see a gun.

Usually, a gun meant a false sense of security, a misfire or a wild shot that often did more harm than good. Owl's was different. She had seen it too well when he held it against her head. This gun would fire true. Anything leaping out of the woods at them wouldn't get much of chance.

Another noise behind them. As they whirled around, hissing emerged from the left. To the right, she caught the sound of a stick being stepped on. They were surrounded.

Yet, still, Malja had not seen a single foe.

"Over there," Fawbry shouted, but when Malja stepped toward the spot, she found nothing.

"Here," Owl said. Again, nothing. Owl looked at Tommy. "This is an illusion. Magic."

"You think Tommy's playing with us?" Malja asked, turning her frustration on Owl. "How dare you."

"Tommy's isn't doing this. But he can flush out the culprit."

Malja shook her head. "We don't need magic to solve this."

"I recognize some of his tattoos — at least, the general idea of them — and the one on his wrist should do well for us."

"I said No."

Tommy looked at his tattooed arm for a few seconds, and just as Malja reached for him, sunlight poured out of him in all directions. The woods lit up with shadows and light, and standing just to the side of Owl, they all saw a young magician. Malja didn't stop, though. She grabbed Tommy and shook him until the light faded.

"Get him," Malja commanded Owl. As he ran after the fleeing magician, Malja held Tommy's shoulders tight enough to leave bruises. "Stop it. Please. You don't have to use magic. You can be more than that."

Tommy raised his chin, and Malja saw a fire in his eyes she had hoped never to witness.

 

 

 

Owl

 

 

Owl tore into the woods. Sprinting through the dark, he ignored the limbs whipping against his body. Twice he stumbled but his training provided him the excellent balance needed to keep from slamming into the ground.

At first, he only saw the moving branches that said something had just run through. His heart pulsing hard, his breathing strong and steady, he raced after the magician. As he shifted to the right to avoid a row of thorny saplings, he caught a glimpse of his enemy.

With the moonlight restricted by the trees, Owl prayed he hadn't picked up the trail of some scared animal. He pushed on. Sweat stung his eyes and his stomach tightened.

"C'mon," he said. "Faster." He tried to coax more strength from his legs. He had to catch this man. The pain of his heart beating into his chest was nothing compared to the pain he knew he would feel if he failed again.

He jumped over a fallen tree and skidded to a halt. The magician stood there like a shadow fully formed. A stream glistening with moonlight trickled behind him.

Owl raised his gun. Though breathing heavily, he said, "Don't make me shoot you. I'm a Guardian of the Order. I will not miss."

The magician spun and tried to escape. Owl fired. As the echoes of his gunshot receded, the only shadows that remained came from the trees.

Owl didn't move for three minutes. He stared at the empty spot that should have contained a dead body. He used all his remaining energy to keep back the shameful tears that welled from deep within.

 

* * * *

 

When he returned to the campsite, Owl found Malja, Tommy, and Fawbry locked in a heated argument.

"You don't know," Malja said to Tommy while Fawbry hovered around them. "I've lived longer than you. I've seen what magic does to people."

Tommy raised his shirt, displaying the jagged scars he suffered while a slave. Owl had never seen such an abused child before. He sickened at the sight.

Malja shook her head. "I'm not saying you don't know anything. I'm saying . . . do you remember Audrex? The sister of that Nolan woman? She was deranged. Magic had done that to her. And she only had one spell she could do. How many do you have? Do you even know? I don't even want to think about what having that bit of Barris Mont inside you can do. I'm not telling you never to do magic again. All I'm asking of you is to take it slower." Malja pointed at Owl. "He said the Order and the Library and all that might help you with your magic. Wait until then. Okay?"

Tommy stood there and listened, but Owl could tell the boy wanted to be anywhere else. Owl was pretty sure Malja could tell, too. It only served to anger her more.

Fawbry jumped in with a muttered joke that Owl missed but it was enough to crack the tension for a second. They all stepped apart, the joke already fading into their confrontation, but it was enough to diffuse the moment. What could Fawbry 
havesaid? The fact that Owl would never know further proved to him just how removed he was from this group. Malja finally faced him. Her expectant look weighed heavy.

"He got away," he said. She grimaced and Owl tried not to lower his head. "I had him. I did. I even shot at him. But he just vanished."

"A scout?" Fawbry asked.

Malja nodded. "Fast moving, shadowy, and can dodge a bullet? That's a good spy and a good scout."

Fawbry moved to his pack. "We've got to get moving. The Queen'll know now that we're here."

Malja shot a nasty look at Owl. "You should've had him."

Though he was the tallest in the group, Owl felt smaller with every word. "Whatever spell he was using, he knew it well. He cast it very quickly," he said. Even his own words felt weak.

Malja squinted into the darkness. Owl watched her calculating, and though he wanted to speak, he feared interrupting her. At length, she faced him. "How much longer until we reach what's left of the Order?"

"A day or two."

"Which is it? One or two?"

"One, if we go fast. Otherwise, you'll have to camp another night and you'll arrive before midday. There won't be anything there, though."

"It's a place to start. Load up," Malja said. Tommy went to Fawbry to help with the work. "We'll go slow through the night so the horses last. The moment we hit dawn, we'll push hard the rest of the way."

Owl lugged his saddle over to his horse. "I'm sorry," he said to Malja. "I tried."

Hewing her saddle onto her horse, she said, "I don't understand how somebody so skilled with a sword and a gun could fail to get one scout." She pulled the girth hard and her horse complained.

 

* * * *

 

Later, they rode through the forest in silence. Malja led the way. Owl and Fawbry clumped together a few feet behind. Further back, Tommy rode in a constant state of annoyance.

The long, isolated ride left Owl with too much time to think. Just picturing Brother X and Queen Salia irritated his stomach. Trying to equate that vile monster slaying Chief Master with the idolized student who had saved him from the streets spun Owl's brain in ways that he could not fathom. He tried to focus on his meditation training, but the calming emptiness would not come. He had never been good at it to begin with, and the stone of tension in his chest did not help. The constant inner-turmoil left him wanting to go off alone and never come back. Forget the world. Forget the other worlds. Just drift away.

Fawbry pulled alongside and said, "Don't let Malja get to you."

Owl took a moment to excise from his thoughts. When Fawbry's words sunk in, however, it served to remind him of his most recent failing. "She's right," he said. "I should've had that scout. I've endangered all of us."

Fawbry lifted his stump so Owl could get a long look. "She's endangered all of us many times." Fawbry stared at the empty space where his hand had once been, and his eyes glazed over in thought. A moment passed before he shook off his own troubles and said, "The thing to understand is that I've endangered us, too. Tommy's managed it recently. It's the way of things. We live in dangerous times."

"Not me, though. That is, not since I was a kid. Once I joined with the Order, they took care of me. I didn't have to fight for food or shelter. The only dangers I faced came from annoying the Masters and training. Life behind their walls was safe."

"When I was a kid," Fawbry said, gesturing with his good hand as his excitement grew, "I remember hearing stories about the Order and its Guardians. I always wanted to join you guys. Learn the Way."

"You should have. I think we would've gotten along well," Owl said with honest regret. He never had made too many friends, but Fawbry seemed so accepting that he could picture the fun they would have had together. And Fawbry wouldn't have betrayed him.

"I'm not Order material," Fawbry said. "I never would have made it through the first week."

BOOK: The Way of the Sword and Gun
4.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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