Authors: Stuart Jaffe
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Epic, #Sword & Sorcery, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Magic, #Monsters, #sword, #apocalypse, #Fantasy
THE WAY OF THE BLADE
Book 4 of The Malja Chronicles
Somebody had taken her boys. Malja raced through the forest, her legs pumping hard, the trees and ferns a blur of green and gray. Her braided, black hair slapped the middle of her back as she pushed on. No telling how much time she had left. As her legs tired, her black assault suit warmed her muscles and gave her the boost she needed to keep moving. If they hurt Fawbry or Tommy, she’d kill every last one of them.
She hurdled across a creek and startled a gathering of red-brown etchlings. As they scurried up the sides of the surrounding trees, a cool wind blew across Malja’s face — she neared the edge of the forest. She pushed even harder.
When she broke from the woods, the stark white of sunlight reflecting on clouds blinded her. She halted, breathing hard yet steady, and shielded her eyes until they adjusted. She had yet to get comfortable with clouds drifting at her feet and much preferred staying in the more familiar forest. She walked the last twenty feet. When she reached the edge of the land, a metal lip marking where the bowl began, she leaned over and gazed down at the long drop to the world below.
She had yet to comprehend how magic worked in this world, but without a doubt, it had magic. Some metal objects could float, and they could contain massive amounts of weight — entire islands in the sky. Like the one floating even higher above her. A mansion set in a metal bowl, lolling in the air like an ornate raft on the ocean. Two ropes as thick as tree trunks had been strung between the building and the floating island Malja stood upon. This would be her way up.
pattern broke out once again. It had been sounding off all morning. When it had woken her and she saw both Tommy and Fawbry missing, she knew it meant trouble.
“Hurry, now,” a male voice said.
Malja slipped back into the forest and spied three young men rushing toward the thick ropes. They were strong and lean men, their muscles earned through laboring the land. They wore drab-colored robes that flowed with the wind and wide-brimmed hats held in place by tight chinstraps. Malja had the impression that these were fine clothes to hardworking people.
“Crug, that’s the last Summoning Horn,” one man said.
“We’ve got plenty of time,” another said.
“Pali’s Witch, we do. Shual will make fools of us if we’re late to the Assembly Hall again.”
Without pausing, the three young men stepped onto the ropes and hurried along them as if walking on a wide ship’s deck. They had no balancing issues, no fear — even the gusting winds gave them no troubles.
As Malja watched them become small dots, she caught sight of two distant objects flying toward the Assembly Hall. People sat in each one like children sliding down a snowy hill in the concave side of a shield. These people wore robes and hats as well, but their robes were thin, light, and colorful. As they passed by, Malja noticed their hats had a swirling design along the brim. In seconds, they also had become small dots heading towards the building.
Malja leaned back against a tree. Two weeks. They had traveled through a portal and ended in an apple orchard on this world only two weeks ago. They should have been more cautious. But after a lifetime in a post-apocalyptic hell where survival skills and great caution were mandatory to live, the peaceful orchard had surprised them, lowering their guard.
They learned fast, though. Like any world, this one had its troubles. The apple farmer nearly shot Fawbry’s head off when they approached the farmhouse. So they took to the woods, and Malja tried to get them to focus on the mission at hand — finding and stopping Harskill.
Two weeks. That was how long it had taken Fawbry and Tommy to get into trouble again. And based on the fact that the Summoning Horn had blown all day, that every soul was being called, Malja guessed the boys had screwed things up drastically.
She peeked out the edge of the forest, checking to see if she had to worry about any other late arrivals, and then stepped toward the ropes. They were enormous. Plenty thick to walk across.
I can do this.
The end of the rope buried deep into the ground. As Malja stepped on this end, she wondered if the whole thing might slip out, send her plummeting to her death. She had about five feet before the rope left the safety of land, and with each step closer to the edge, her heart plummeted faster than her body ever could.
A cold wind gusted across her way. Viper had served her well over the years, but now the oversized, sickle-shaped weapon with both its inner- and outer- crescents sharpened upset her balance. She held her arms out and flailed as the wind knocked her to the ground.
She gazed up the long rope, the young men no longer visible, and shook her head. She could crawl — too slow, though. Better than nothing.
My last resort.
Though she never had been a believer in the brother gods, Korstra and Kryssta, she thought their gift had come to her the next moment. A heavy set man in a metal dish floated up to the edge of the land. The machine made no sound and barely disturbed the grass. He then pushed a lever that caused a loud clanking noise, and the dish dropped to the ground. He didn’t notice her, his concentration entirely on getting out of the dish and hurrying into the woods while clasping his groin and muttering, “Crug, crug, crug.”
Malja sidled up next to the flying dish. Peering inside, she saw a seat of soft fabric, wide enough for two people, and three metal levers — one on each side of the seat and one in the middle. She checked over her shoulder to make sure the dish’s owner still kept busy relieving himself, then she climbed into the dish.
She grabbed the middle lever, the one that caused all the noise, and yanked it back. The dish lifted right off the ground and drifted into the open air. Malja pushed all thoughts of the long drop below out of her head. She grabbed the levers on either side and moved them one at a time. The one on the right turned the dish. The one on the left made her to dip or rise. Simple enough.
As she pointed the dish towards the Assembly Hall, she heard the heavy man behind her. “Hey! Come back here!”
Though the wind gusts shoved her off course several times, she found it easy to maneuver the dish back in the right direction. The controls, though basic, worked intuitively and responded well. The sweet smell of fresh air filled her as she slid through a cloud. When she broke through the other side, the Assembly Hall floated before her, high enough that snow sprinkled the tops of the tiered roof. The final latecomers approached what appeared to be the entrance to the building.
She kept her distance. If she could make out the other dishes only as little dots, she guessed they would see her as the same. Once the others entered, she turned the vehicle towards the back.
Dusk hit, and the Assembly Hall created a massive blue shadow across the clouds. Malja slipped into this darker area and peered at the five-story building, searching for a good place to dock. The nautical term turned her stomach. Floating on the air felt nothing like churning at sea, but that did little to comfort her nausea.
On the fourth floor, she spied a balcony. It would have to do. She pulled back on the left lever, raising the dish, and then guided it in with the right. When she bumped the balcony, she jumped out, exhaling hard.
Sweat dribbled down her nose. She bent over and flexed her cramped fingers against the railing. She kicked her heel into the stone floor, its firmness soothing her jitters. And as she straightened her body, the dish drift away into the clouds.
Guess I should’ve tied that down.
Muffled voices rose from inside. Malja crouched next to the balcony door and pressed her ear against the seam. Many people chattered away, all of the voices blending into a dull mush of sound.
The door handle turned without a problem (who needed to lock a fourth-floor balcony on a building floating high as a mountain?), and Malja entered the Assembly Hall. She had hoped to enter a private room. Instead, she stepped onto another balcony — this one running the length of all four walls. The Assembly Hall had been made hollow on the inside. Every level was simply a balcony from which to observe what happened way down on the main floor.
Malja kept low, staying in the shadows when able. A few people mulled about the fourth-level balcony but none occupied her side. In a dark corner, she found a spot where she could remain hidden yet still see what happened below.
Being so high in the massive room caused her stomach to lurch. She had only witnessed an intact building of this size once before. When she had stood in the castle of Jarik and Calib — the brother magicians that had stolen her, raised her, and tossed her away.
Down below, stone walls and stone floors met with a smooth stage built of something odd — not wood, though it had planks. Malja squinted, but she still could not determine what material had been used. To light the room, hundreds of candles burned on floating metal squares. Two enormous statues of men reaching toward each other formed a proscenium over the stage. These men, standing three stories high with proud faces and chiseled arms, had been made of the same material as the stage. Similar to the thick ropes that anchored the Assembly Hall.
People crowded the floor and the lower-level balconies — talking, laughing, a few shouting. Three children weaved amongst the adults until they reached the edge of the stage. They giggled with mischievous glee. Malja caught the glint of something metal, a spark, and then watched as a small ball of fire soared into the air and exploded with a bright pop. The children burst into hysterical laughter and dashed away as a few adults shouted at them.
The tiny, metal square trailed smoke as it rose above Malja and settled on the ceiling amongst numerous other tiny, metal squares. Malja grinned.
“Pali, Pali,” a young woman boomed from the stage in a steady, firm rhythm. After a few seconds, the people quieted down, and all eyes turned to the woman on the stage. “In the name of Pali and the men who sought her, Carsite and Scarite, we are called together. Before we begin, we pray for wisdom.” All heads bowed, and a reverent silence took over.
Malja counted three visible exits below — the large main double-doors and one on either side of the stage. She suspected there were more in the back. On the right side of the stage were four wooden chairs in a neat row — each one carved with intricate designs. In the first chair sat an elderly man with no shirt. Next to him sat an elderly woman draped in a green and gold robe. A thin veil of green fringe hung from the brim of her wide hat. Nobody sat in the next chair, and on the end, a young lady fidgeted with her fancy robes — her robe, hat, and veil all clean white.
A few minutes later, the woman leading the silent prayer raised her head. She glanced at the empty chair and then at the elderly man. With a nod from the elderly man, the young woman cleared her throat and said, “Please bring in the accused.”
Two burly men wearing mud-covered overalls entered the stage from a side alcove. Between them stood Fawbry and Tommy. Tommy’s hands were bound in front of him. Since Fawbry only had one hand, his captors had tied it behind his back, the other end of the rope around his neck. Both were gagged. Fawbry’s flamboyantly-colorful coat and wild hair accentuated the fear pulsing on his face as his eyes scanned the crowd. Tommy stood proud and brave like a stoic warrior. The tattoos on his chest and arms, though not as numerous as before, still caused a shiver in Malja.
Each tattoo represented a different spell in Tommy’s repertoire. Apparently he had lost a lot of his ability during their last big fight against Harskill and the Bluesmen, but Malja held back her hopes. The risk of magic, losing one’s sanity, still lurked around him like a pale-gray aura. Even if he could no longer conjure all that he once could, he could do plenty. He must be holding back so as not to hurt any of these people.
“And now,” the young woman said, “I call our judge to the floor, Shual Raxholden.”
The elderly man took the stage — wrinkled, bent over, bald on top except for a long horseshoe of white hair, and wearing his robes around his waist. As he walked toward center stage, the woman placed her left hand on her stomach, lowered her head, and backed away. The two guards in muddy overalls also placed their left hands on their stomachs. The old man nodded to each and then faced the gathered townsfolk.