The Way of the Sword and Gun
Book 2 of The Malja Chronicles
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The Way of the Sword and Gun, the second book in the Malja Chronicles by Stuart Jaffe
Malja and her companions face a self-made ruler obsessed with taming the destructive magical energies pulsing from a place known as the Library.
But magic this powerful can do more than destroy. It can unlock a path toward the desires Malja buries in her heart. Desires that may tear her from those she cares for the most.
ExcerptTHE WAY OF THE SWORD AND GUN
Book 2 of The Malja Chronicles
by Stuart Jaffe
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.
Sorry, Fawbry, 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? The Malja?”
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.
The konapol lowered its head, its powerful stride thundering against the ground. Malja pushed harder, trying to close the distance fast. And in a flash, they passed each other. Malja flicked Viper upward to the strike point, giving the blade a slight twist for maximum power, and slashed open the konapol’s flank.
It slid on the dirt street, confused and trying to find its enemy again. Its momentum did not take well to the sudden turn, and the konapol’s inner-gore slopped out of the opening Malja had cut. With a curious gaze at its side, the konapol halted. It seemed to consider the horror of what it saw as it fell with a wet thump.
Malja knew well the stillness that followed — a quiet comes over the battlefield for a precious moment while those left standing decide if things really are finished or if the lust for blood still boiled. From the middle of the road, she surveyed her work. Three dead konapols.
She lifted her head and shined a cocky grin at Eldred. But her grin faltered. She had made a crucial mistake.
The konapols had been more than a diversion. They provided Eldred with blood. This was all just a stalling tactic to afford Eldred enough time to cast a spell. She had to move fast.
Malja snapped her attention to the konapol corpses. The gore pooling around the dead beasts trembled. Blood pulled into a tight ball and sprouted green tendrils. A plant. It shot out runners like snakes, each one reaching out for Malja.
She slashed the first with ease. Cutting through vines would not be any trouble. But looking further back, she saw the plant’s main body growing thicker, tougher. The new runners it sent out were equally thick and tough. And there were more of them.
Malja rushed toward Eldred. Kill the magician, kill the magic. She moved fast, but a quarter of the way in, one tendril wrapped around her leg and pulled her off her feet.
She slashed through it, but by the time she stood, another two had replaced it. Fury flooded her as she hacked tendril after tendril. Using Viper like a scythe, she wiped a circle around her free from the plant, but it only lasted seconds. Konapols had a lot of blood, giving Eldred a lot of material to work with.
Before she could reposition for another swipe, three thick runners spun around and took her back to the ground. She held tight to Viper but couldn’t move. The plant rolled her so she faced away from Eldred. She saw Fawbry sneak off to the side. He’ll pay for such cowardice. She also saw Tommy bare his tattooed arm as he walked straight towards her.
Don’t do this, she thought. I can handle this.
But as another tendril covered her mouth, she knew she needed somebody’s help. Since Fawbry ran off, that left only Tommy.
Tommy raised his arm and glanced at the tattoos for only a few seconds. The ground shook. Two holes opened and swallowed two konapols. Tommy kept walking forward.
Just like that. Malja froze. She had no idea the boy could conjure such power so quickly.
Tommy turned his attention on the third dead konapol, the one that spawned the plant. But before he could raise his arm, the plant fought back. A new set of runners sprang out and twined around Tommy’s arm. With his free hand, he tried to pull them off. They were too strong and too numerous.
Eldred patted the head of his fellow magician. “You see that? That is why we magicians will always rule. We aren’t feral fools who try to violently slash our way through every problem. We can use our magic and our intelligence, and we can solve problems with finesse.”
The other magician beamed. Eldred then raised his voice to address the townspeople who watched from the alleyways and windows. “I will not hold Affengar responsible for this foolish assault. I know of Malja and her attempts to rule Corlin. But she is learning now that she is not your savior. She is not the law. She’s just a nuisance. Your real savior, your real law, is the great Queen Salia of the North. From her palace in Salia City, she reaches out like my plants and takes firm hold of those around her. In return for your loyalty, she provides peace and a world in which you have the chance to prosper.”
Malja had wrenched her head around to catch Eldred gloating. Since the plant had not tried to smother her to death, she guessed Eldred planned something else for her — probably public humiliation designed to bolster his stance with the townspeople. Either that or a more “legal” execution.
He dismounted, and with his hands raised, Eldred spoke on, savoring his moment. Malja squinted. A shadow behind the magician moved, a shape she recognized — Fawbry.
“Never forget your loyalty to Queen Salia and she will never forget to protect you,” Eldred went on.
Fawbry raised his hand high above his head. He held something — a rock. He slammed it down on Eldred’s head. The magician’s face locked into a sly grin as his body weaved from side to side.
Eldred’s partner tackled Fawbry. The two rolled on the ground, clumsy in their inexperienced grappling. They traded punches to the ribs but appeared more winded from the efforts than the blows.
Though he wasn’t knocked unconscious, Eldred lost the focus necessary to maintain his magic. The vines constraining Malja and Tommy loosened.
Tommy wrenched his arm free, glanced at his tattoos, and cast his spell. The plant lost its color in seconds. It changed from green to brown to a pale, sickly white. When he finished, the tendrils that surrounded Malja crumbled to the ground, leaving behind a chalky residue and a bitter odor.
With Viper in hand, Malja raced the final distance toward her enemy. Eldred watched her approach with a quizzical look as if he couldn’t identify what she was. That look remained even as she removed his head from his body.
Fawbry pushed Eldred’s partner back and when the man saw Eldred’s head, he pointed at it, cried out once, and dashed for his horse. Malja, Tommy, and Fawbry stood in the street and watched this novice struggle to get his foot in the stirrup. His horse did not co-operate. After a lot of gasping, some cursing, and another weak cry, he managed to get into the saddle and gallop off.
“Admit it,” Fawbry said, his unkempt hair dirtier now from rolling in the road. “You thought I had run away.”
Malja slapped Fawbry on the shoulder. “Doesn’t matter what I thought. You did well, and I thank you. Now, let’s go before we have to deal with the town.”
Too late. The townspeople hurried out of their hiding spots, all smiles and giddy laughter, and rushed over to thank Malja and her crew. With false modesty, Fawbry allowed two buxom ladies to walk him off while listening to him recount what had just occurred. Others surrounded Tommy, unbothered by his silence, and offered him drinks and hugs and even a few kisses.
Malja waved off those who approached her and scowled at any who tried to congratulate her. She knew none of it was genuine. They simply wanted to ingratiate themselves with who they thought now ruled them. Only after a few days alone might they understand they were now free to choose their own path.
Fawbry let out a high laugh and his girls tittered. Malja grinned. He would definitely get one of the girls before the night ended. She would have gladly scouted out a suitable man for her own amusement, such opportunities didn’t come often to a traveling warrior, but this night, she had to deal with the boy. She brushed by a few open arms and grabbed Tommy by the elbow.
“Go celebrate,” she said to those who followed her. “I’ve got to confer with my friend here. Then we’ll join the party.”
Deeper in the growing crowd, somebody opened a barrel of wine. That was enough to pull the stragglers away from Malja. No amount of celebrity could outshine free alcohol.
Once they were far enough from eavesdroppers, Malja whirled Tommy around. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said.
Tommy glared at her.