The runes engraved in the shining steel barrel of Alicia's weapon lit up green at the touch of her fingers, and Alicia giggled delightedly. They wouldn't do that for anybody else; she had passed the contraption to Ion, to Lovisa, and to Eluani, and when they traced, the runes only glowed faintly white before flickering out almost as soon as they had begun. Alicia felt that the weapon trusted her and only her, and so she was drawn to it.
Alicia was familiar with weapons. She was a skilled archer, she enjoyed fencing for sport, and she practiced magic just like all of the Earth Sylphs had. But this contraption was entirely foreign to her: a metal device that half resembled a bow and half resembled a gun and fired the projectile of neither. A trigger switch positioned under the hub produced a click and a twang of the rear bowstring, which issued forth a starburst shaped, six-pointed metal blade that expanded as it soared through the air. The first time Alicia had managed it, she had been so startled that she yelped and flung the weapon right along with its projectile, which landed by three of its points in the earth fourteen feet away. That had told her that she needed to spend more time with this weapon than with the bows and staves that were more familiar to her.
That being said, Alicia didn't understand why she had been given this weapon at all. It was out of place among her other weapons: a massive mechanical wooden bow, two staves carved with runes that also lit up when she touched them, and a long steel bo-staff painted with primitive-looking images. Still, the weapon was made for her, and so she was determined to unlock its secrets. She and her comrades were out in the fields attending to their morning training for the fourth day since the end of the festivities. She stroked the weapon gingerly, tracing the runes to illuminate them. The weapon, she had been told by Cordelia, was called a shuriken blaster, “shurikens” being the six-pointed starlike blades. The shurikens were pretty little blades—in fact, they were the only blades that Alicia felt could be rightfully called “pretty”--but they did not captivate her in the way those runes did. “You're trying to tell me something, aren't you?” Alicia said to the weapon as she continued to illuminate the runes as if searching for the answers within the glow. “I just don't understand what it is yet.”
A whirring sound in the air above her called her to attention, and she quickly ducked her head. The javelin pierced the sky and landed in the dusty soil several feet away, its tip splitting off into three prongs and taking hold of the ground like a metal claw. “Alicia!” Rodin called to her sharply. “What are you doing? You can't just stand around!”
“I was just looking over my weapon,” Alicia said, “that's all.”
“You shouldn't be looking at it,” Rodin said as he passed her by to pick up the javelin, “you should be using it!” In spite of her anxiety about the strange weapon, this was all the pep talk that Alicia needed. She set off on her swift feet in search of a training manikin. Rodin trailed behind her, insistent upon keeping the princess out of more trouble than was necessary. She was a decent fighter, and she was a borderline wizard with a bow, but her attention span was her Achilles heel. But Rodin enjoyed shadowing Alicia, who fascinated him nearly as much as Morgana. He would have given anything to train with the both of them, but Morgana's training was done out of sight and behind closed doors.
Movement in the tall rushes ahead of them revealed the presence of a possible manikin. It moved from side to side in a mechanical fashion, daring them to cross it. Rodin palmed his javelin and went ahead of Alicia, then the two of them stood as still and quiet as statues. The thing in the rushes stopped moving, and the silence around them was only broken by the sound of the wind and of their comrades going about their own training in the distance. The click of the javelin as Rodin locked the tip in place was almost startling. Still, they waited. Alicia thought she saw the thing move again—only the smallest flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye.
As Rodin raised the javelin, its core pulsated in tune with the blue stone around his neck and those on the silver rings he wore on his right hand. Now he could see it; the hazy form of a manikin, crouched down to its heels in a right-hand corner, its bow fitted with an arrow but held at a passive stance. It was visible to him for only a moment, but a moment was all that he needed. The javelin flew, making no sound except for the airy whir that couldn't be heard fast enough. It struck the manikin just below its right eye, and the defeated manikin disappeared. “Bulls-eye!” said Rodin, smiling cockily.
“Let me get the next one,” Alicia said. “I'm not as good as you are.” When she followed him to retrieve the javelin, she nearly got her wish. Three manikins emerged from the front and sides and lunged for them. Alicia yelped, leaped backwards, and made a desperate attempt with the shuriken blaster as Rodin abandoned his javelin and conjured a sword to his hand. Its blade glistened in the sunlight like threads of silver filigree. A shuriken pinked a manikin's shoulder, and as it staggered, Rodin lunged for it, eliminating it with a slash across the chest. Another shuriken coasted over a manikin's head. Alicia's feet danced wildly as she fought to stand her ground. Another shuriken sailed past the manikin's face, and another only scraped the side of its cheek. With an angry screech, the manikin lunged for her, and she nearly tripped over her feet as she leaped backwards and away from its threateningly-gleaming sword. As it thrust forward, it was eliminated by Rodin, who came up behind it and stabbed it in the back. The manikin collapsed, and the final one immediately turned on him.
Alicia dropped the shuriken blaster and unstrapped the mechanical bow from her back. One shot, and the manikin collapsed, disintegrating like a broken fog as it hit the ground. Rodin's cheek had been scraped and a gash was cut in his forehead. Alicia rummaged through her pouch for a box of wet cloths and a silver ring twisted into the shape of a fairy, the wings formed by two bright emeralds. She gently wiped at the gash, and the cloth produced a heady herbal fragrance and felt delightfully cool against the sting. She slipped the ring on and softly ran her fingertip over the gash. As the emeralds glowed warmly in tune with the stone around her neck, the wound began to fade from red to pink.
“Thanks for having my back,” Rodin said. “That was an excellent move with the bow.”
“Of course,” said Alicia, “and thank you.” The wound was fading to reddish brown, and Alicia got to work on the scratch on his cheek.
“If you're so good with the bow,” Rodin said, “then what do you need the blaster for? It seems like more trouble than it's worth.”
“I have to learn it!” Alicia said urgently. “It's counting on me!” She gingerly stroked the weapon's runes and smiled fondly when they glowed in response. “There's a message for me in that green glow, and it's waiting for me to find out what it is.” She patted the weapon's barrel in a motherly fashion.
“You're a strange one, Alicia,” Rodin said with a chuckle. “But I can't say that I've ever met anybody more interesting.” He regarded her with a warm smile, which she returned. The distant shouts of approaching manikins called them back into action.
The only light in the cellar was the light that emanated from the runes carved in the amulets on the table. It was a beautiful light, a contented light, nothing like the oppressive rays of the sun that beat down on the faces of those unlucky enough—or foolish enough—to stay out in the fields. As Morgana ran her fingers over the runes, they whispered secret words of power that filled her with glee. She allowed herself a throaty laugh as she guided an amulet through the air without touching it, setting it into an open slot on her ebony staff. The amulet twisted and shifted its shape until it rested comfortably in the slot. A flicker of white light that illuminated the cellar issued forth from the staff's core, indicating that the magic of the amulet had been well received. Morgana laughed and gave the staff a twirl, mixing together the magical energies from the amulet and the staff's core. Her heart fluttered, and she felt a tingling sensation that began in her fingertips and distributed itself throughout the rest of her body until it filled her entire being with euphoria. Her fairy aura brightened as her own magic intermingled with this new energy. Under her breath, she found herself involuntarily muttering the incantations whispered to her by the runes. She opened her clenched fist, and a stream of flames burst forth from her palm. Screeching with delight, Morgana waved her hand wildly, hurling flames at the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the furniture, and willing them to increase in size and intensity as she did so. In her other hand, her staff felt hot, and it shook wildly as if in anticipation of the spell that it was holding inside. She waved it, and the spell was released—the room was cloaked in a thick, noxious haze. Morgana drew back and quickly slipped one of her amethyst rings over her finger. Its single stone gazed at her like a shimmering purple eyeball, blinking in the glare of the flames. She felt the caress of invisible hands and the wrap of invisible arms, sheltering her from the poison. The air around her grew thick. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched her aura as it briefly danced like the flame of a candle until it settled.
She was safe. She stuck her nose into the dissipating haze and breathed it in. Its scent was overwhelmingly sweet, like the syrup from the sugarplum trees back in Arganell. She swallowed, exhaled, and laughed merrily. She was Morgana the Wizard, Morgana the Mighty, Morgana the All-Powerful, wielder of poison and friend of the flames. The air itself could bend to her will. She could obliterate an entire landscape with the snap of her fingers. A wave of her staff would bring the immediate demise of any fool who dared to cross her. She had tapped into the kind of magic that was so cleverly hidden away from the eyes of men and even the eyes of other fey, the kind of magic that could and would easily turn a careless user into a miserable pile of ash. What good were companions with power like this? The fools who traipsed around in the burning sun with their new toys were of no use to her. She found her camaraderie in the magic, and her ever-increasing power was its glorious token of their friendship.
The racket from outside shook the cellar walls, and Morgana growled. They would disrupt her training after they perished trying. She twirled her staff again and willed the flames that had fallen dormant inside the core to awaken. She donned her hood, dashed up the stairs, and moved aside the massive cellar doors without touching them. With a cry of fury, she hurled a flame through the air and watched it combust on the grass. Only then did she realize that nobody was out there to receive the warning. The air was disconcertingly still.
What was I thinking? Morgana scolded herself as she called off the flames with a wave of her staff. Of course it isn't them, they're all the way out in the fields! In the pit of her stomach, she felt a chill. Something had shaken the cellar walls, and it hadn't been the mechanical stampede of the knights' automaton horses, nor was it the fallout of a mis-aimed spell. Without bothering with her own horse, waiting like a statue in the stables, she took off towards the fields.
Lovisa, Eluani, and Sanjaia did not doubt their gems' warning of a disturbance near the palace. Yet, the air was peaceful, disturbed by nothing but the sounds of distant combat against manikins. The automaton horses, commanded by the rapidly pulsing glow of the gems, increased in speed with every gallop, and their riders had to steel their bodies to keep from being bumped around. Lovisa's heart pounded as hard as the metal hooves of her horse. After only four days of training, they were already threatened by something unknown, and she was sure that whatever it was, they would not be ready for it. “Train as you fight,” Cordelia had told them on the first day, “and fight as you train. There will be times when you will have to do both at once.” Lovisa had not been entirely sure what she had meant, but it was comforting to recall the advice either way.
“Can you see it yet?” Lovisa asked Eluani urgently, raising her voice over the sound of metal hooves.
“I can't!” Eluani replied. “There's too much going on for me to get a clear image! All I can see is that Morgana is out there and she's in danger, and if she had opted to train with us instead of going off on her own...”
There was a loud popping sound followed by a brilliant red and orange flare. The horses were immediately drawn to it, and Lovisa was able to forgive them for being machines; the horses that she knew would have reared and retreated. Even as the earth began to shake, the horses continued on. Sanjaia's trident issued an upbeat note as it was removed from its hold, and the next thing either of them knew, his horse was halted in its tracks as he leaped off of its back. He landed, staggering, on his feet and charged forward.
“Are you insane?” Eluani cried. “What do you think you're doing? Get back on your horse!”
“If we have to fight,” Sanjaia called up to her, “then those mechanical beasts will be nothing but a hinderance!” There was another tremor, and he jammed his trident into the ground to steady himself, vaulting around it and going on his way once it ceased.
“There is fire, Sanjaia!” Eluani cautioned him. “Did you not see that explosion?” But there was no stopping him as he made his way, skipping over rocks and leaping over hills and bouncing off of the trunks of trees. He slashed the air rapidly, as if cutting down invisible enemies, and his trident sang a war song. “He's an idiot,” Eluani said, “but we can't let him go alone.” She dismounted her own horse, and Lovisa reluctantly did the same. They took off after him, following the call of the singing trident, until another tremor nearly knocked the three of them off of their feet. Sanjaia cried out and jammed the trident into the earth again. Lovisa and Eluani wrapped their arms around eachother tightly, and Eluani could feel that the girl was trembling. Looking ahead, she could see the faint but apparent form of a massive creature, pounding the ground flat with its anvil-thick feet. The insignificant forms of Morgana and Sanjaia were nothing but ants to this colossus. Without a second thought, Eluani broke free of Lovisa's embrace and made a bee-line for Sanjaia, who was making his way towards the creature that for now was only movement in the distance. “Sanjaia, come back!” she hollered. “Come back here right now!!!” She was taken aback by the fear in her voice—it had been so long since she had allowed it to be expressed. Sanjaia was as surprised as she was to hear her carry on like that. “What is it?” he asked. “What did you see?”
“You can't fight this alone!” Eluani said with all the urgency that she could manage. “It's...it's a behemoth, a colossus!” The rumbling of the ground beneath their feet as it came closer was foreboding and ominous. There was another popping sound as another flare lit up the field, and Eluani knew now that it was a distress flare. She grabbed both of her partners by the hand and took off, and the two were forced to keep up as best as they could. Lovisa felt her stomach tighten as if squeezed; their first battle, after only four days of training, and it would be against some massive beast that shook the earth! She fought every urge to break out of Eluani's grasp and turn back.
The moment that she set eyes on the creature, Morgana knew that both flames and poison haze were going to be useless. It was a behemoth constructed of compounds of stone and steel, and unlike the golems that she was familiar with, this one kept its core well out of the way. Still, she knew it had to have a core, and the only way to bring the monster down was to catch hold of it. The prospect excited her; yes, she would bring it down from the inside out before it even knew what hit it! Unfortunately, the spell that was needed to do that evaded her. She had used the training manikins until she was bored by their inability to measure up against her power, but there was no manikin that matched this creature in either physical characteristics or ability. She could only hold it off as best as she could, and the thing was certainly not very willing to be held off. It was an implacable machine, only merely inconvenienced by the chains of spells that had managed to bring down manikin after manikin. Still, if she could hold it off long enough to locate the core...
A fireball the size of a watermelon burst forth from her hand and exploded into a magnificent blaze when it hit the ground. To Morgana's surprise and subsequent horror, the golem was completely unfazed; it continued its hulking march without paying any notice to the explosion, and its path was taking it straight to the Palace of the Jewel. Morgana closed her fingers tightly around her gem and closed her eyes, consulting it and soon receiving the answer that she needed. Dropping her staff and placing both hands on the ground, she created a wave that began at the top of her head and traveled down to her fingertips. It was released from her body in the form of a violent tremor. The creature stumbled, and for a few seconds it was driven to a halt. But Morgana found that the spell had completely drained her. The world spun around her, and she threw her arms around herself to steady. Her heart pounded, her head throbbed, and she fought back vomit that burned the back of her throat. She was unable to come to her senses before the monster came to its own. It continued pounding along on its way to the palace.
Ignoring any further discomfort, Morgana released another earth-shattering shockwave. Again, the golem faltered and struggled to regain its footing. Steadying herself and fighting against the nausea, Morgana released another one that knocked her on her back. The heavy sounds of rock and metal knocking together indicated that the colossus had been brought down, but Morgana could only see the sparkles appearing before her eyes. She moaned and convulsed helplessly on the ground, and without really thinking she sent out another flare. Don't you go under! Morgana willed herself. Stay with me, you clod! You aren't done! But her eyelids grew heavier by the second, and even if she managed to remain conscious, there would be no more spells for a while.
Her eyes could no longer remain open. The golem stirred back to life and continued on its way, and she could do nothing, reduced to the level of a squashed ant. It infuriated her—all of this power had been drained out of her so easily! I'm going after it, she told herself. I'm getting off of my miserable ass and I'm going after that thing! It was her last thought before she fell into the darkness.
Morgana awoke to a wonderful fragrance and the sensation of something cool pressed against her cheek. Her body no longer ached, and the warmth of her aura had returned to her. She sat up and found that she had been taken to her quarters in the Palace of the Jewel. She was wrapped in soft white blankets, and her head had been elevated by thick down pillows. Her cheek was pressed against a wet cloth that smelled of a mixture of lilac and mimosa.
“Morgana!” In an instant Lovisa was by her side and taking her by the hand. “Oh, look at you! You look so much better!”
“I suppose that I have you to thank for that,” Morgana said, sinking back into the pillows that she wasn't ready to leave just yet.
Lovisa nodded. “The first thing I saw,” she recounted, “was that gigantic beast—Eluani called it a golem—coming right towards me. I froze up! I was so sure that I would be crushed under one of those feet! But then I saw someone lying motionless in the grass, and I didn't know it was you at first, but I had to do something. 'There's somebody!' I said to Eluani and Sanjaia. 'There's somebody lying on the ground!' Then I was off like a flash, though I felt awful for leaving them, and when I saw that it was you I screamed! Oh, I was terrified! I thought that you'd been killed! I carried you off into the woods and I set us both down in a thicket of bushes. I couldn't see or hear any other enemies around, but still, I wanted us out of sight just in case! As I held you, I could feel that there was life still in you—the energy was suppressed, but it was there, and oh, I was overjoyed! I kissed your cheeks, I kissed your forehead...I had been so sure that you were done for, and I hated to think of losing you! I pressed my fingers to your collar and I could feel your heart beating. You weren't gone, your energy had just been drained. So I opened up my vial of healing serum and forced it down your throat. It only took a few drops before I felt that your energy was returning. I stayed with you until your breathing became steady, then I set you up against a wild cherry tree and climbed. I had to see what was going on with Eluani and Sanjaia.
“The monster had gone insane! It danced and convulsed erratically as if it didn't know what to do with its body anymore. I thought it was going to put a hand or a foot down and squash them both! Sanjaia was squawking out some discordant mess on his violin that had no tune, no rhythm, and no sense of order or arrangement. I thought that the sound might have driven the monster insane...or else something else had driven them both insane. I was terrified, and I felt completely useless! There was nothing my bow could do against a creature made of steel, and I was sure that my magic wouldn't amount to anything. Eluani and Sanjaia were in danger, and there was nothing I could do! I felt awful, and I still do, for being so useless! But you were in danger too, and all I could do was stay by your side and make sure that you were going to be all right. Your aura had come back then, though it was glowing very faintly. I even cast a spell to boost your energy. When I did, your heart beat fast for a few seconds and your aura started to flicker, and I was scared that I had done something to hurt you. I grabbed the vial quickly, in case I would need it. But then it stabilized, and I heard you sort of mumble in your sleep.” She chuckled halfheartedly. “I'm sure that you had something to complain about, even then!”
Morgana gave the girl's hand a squeeze. “You certainly aren't useless,” she assured her. “I may be alive right now all because of you. I'm sure those two could take care of themselves just fine.” She released Lovisa's hand and softly patted it. “Now tell me what happened to the golem. Don't tell me it's still clunking around somewhere!”
“The golem is gone!” Lovisa said. “By the time the others had showed up, Eluani had been able to bring it down! A golem, she told me afterward, could always be brought down...”
“...if you get hold of its core,” Morgana finished. “I know. I've dealt with them.”
“Eluani could see where its core was,” Lovisa continued, “but she would need to hold the golem off before she was able to force herself in. So Sanjaia played that crazy song on a frequency that forced the vibrations to sort of break through to the golem's core, and they caused a disturbance. The core is like the golem's brain, and with those horrible mixed-up vibrations inside of it, it had essentially gone insane. It couldn't remember what it was meant to do, or where it was, or even what it was anymore. But at the same time, it was fighting to get rid of those vibrations that were creating such an awful disruption...and yet it couldn't, because more and more kept coming in and it couldn't do anything to stop them! That's why it was dancing around like that—it was in despair, and it really didn't know what it was supposed to do with itself! When Eluani found the core and looked inside of it, she saw that the magical vibrations from Sanjaia's violin were interfering with the magic that was inside the core, and the result was a jumbled mess of magic that wasn't good for anything at all. Eluani shut the core down, then, and Sanjaia stopped playing. The golem was driven to a halt, like a wind-up toy that had run out of its wind.”
“That's all it took?” Morgana was almost insulted. It sounded so easy, and yet her own magic had nearly killed her before she could figure it out! She growled and sunk into the blankets. How could Eluani and that foolish bard have figured that golem out before she could? That future sight, she thought with scorn.
“Morgana, it wasn't easy!” Lovisa assured her, taken aback by her sudden change in demeanor. “What if the core had not reacted to Sanjaia's violin, or else had been able to cancel it out? What if the golem had stepped on them...or fallen on them...or else Eluani had not been able to detect the core in time?” Her heart began to pound, and she had to remind herself that none of that had happened and the two of them were safe. “Their lives were in danger the entire time, and really, in the end it was all down to luck...”
“I understand,” Morgana said. “I'm sorry. Where are the two of them now?”
“The last time I saw Eluani, she was resting in her room,” Lovisa said. “The fight took so much out of her! She had fallen to her knees just like the golem when it was over, and I ran to fetch our horses—another good thing about machine horses is that they'll never run off on you! I buckled you onto the back of my horse, and I helped Eluani onto her own. Sanjaia went with Eluani, but I don't know where he is now. I hope he's all right. He trembled the whole way back to the palace!”
“Well, he's a party minstrel,” Morgana said. “I doubt he's ever even seen a golem in his life, much less had to take on one of that size and strength.” She moved the blankets away and carefully rose to her feet. She wobbled a little, and Lovisa held a hand on her shoulder to steady her, but she shook it off. “I'm all right,” she assured her. “You've done enough for me. Go and find that bard, will you?” She regarded Lovisa with a genuine smile, and Lovisa was astonished by the beauty of the elfin face that looked so much like that of a painted doll when it wasn't scowling or stony or pinched up in disagreement. She smiled back. “I'll go and look for him,” she said with a nod. “But if there's anything else you need, Morgana...”
“I don't think there will be,” Morgana assured her. “But if there is, I know exactly who to call upon.”
“Come in, Morgana,” Eluani answered to the light rapping on her door.
I'll never get used to that, thought Morgana as she entered. Eluani was sitting on the edge of her bed, staring into a tourmaline-inlaid mirror as if it was alive with images that only she could see. “You are doing well,” she said to Morgana without looking at her.
“Can the same be said for you?” Morgana asked.
“It can,” Eluani said with a nod. “I only needed a rest. You were much worse off than I was.”
“It wasn't the golem that did it,” Morgana said. “It was...”
“...your spell,” Eluani finished. “You were careless and hasty with a spell that had already taken a toll on your body, and it overwhelmed you.” The criticism stung her, but Morgana couldn't say that she was wrong. “I hope that was a lesson to you,” Eluani went on. “You've been gifted with amazing power that must be kept in check and used responsibly.”
“So long as you use that future sight responsibly,” Morgana said with a wry smile. “So, what happened to the golem?”
“It's still out there,” Eluani said. “Ion and Troy are guarding it, and the others have gone into the capital to report it. Hopefully, its core will be extracted and I will get the chance to examine it.”
“Did Sanjaia go with them?” Morgana asked.
“Hmm.” Eluani thoughtfully pressed her finger to her chin. “I'm not sure. I haven't seen or heard anything of Sanjaia since the fight.”
“Can't your future sight tell you where he is?” Morgana asked.
“You told me to use it responsibly,” Eluani said, a playful twinkle in her eye betraying her stoic demeanor. “I'm not sure how responsible it would be to use it for that, when we can easily go and look for him ourselves without the aid of any sort of power.”
“Very well, then,” Morgana said. “I hope the poor fool isn't too shaken up.” She wasn't ready to admit that she was impressed by the way he had held his own in the fight—his first fight—nor was she ready to admit that she wasn't planning to train alone again.