There was no hope of escape or release for the burning soldiers. They could only writhe, and scream, and cry out for a quick death that was not awarded. The sight of it nauseated Ion and filled his body with cold terror, but he couldn't bring himself to look away. He stood as if frozen, as if something outside of his own will commanded him to watch as the soldiers perished in the flames. So he watched, as their skin withered like winter leaves and their flesh melted away from the bones...
There was no one around but Magus, who was also petrified. He was curled up on the ground, his face buried in his hands and his knees drawn to his chest, as if he himself had perished silently along with his victims. But when Ion finally managed to tear himself away from the horrifying sight, he knelt down beside the boy and felt for a pulse. He was alive. “Get up,” Ion ordered, nudging him with his fist.
Magus uncovered his face and looked into Ion's blue-steel eyes. His face was blotchy red and stained with tears, but Ion could not muster sympathy. “Did you see what occurred out there?” he asked urgently, tightly gripping the boy's shoulder. “Tell me what happened right this instant, and don't you dare lie to me!”
“It was...me,” Magus told him in a cracking voice that gave way to more tears. He covered his face again and his whole body trembled and heaved. Ion took a step back. He knew it couldn't have been a lie—this boy, by some inexplicable force, had truly managed to set an entire squad of soldiers aflame, and so he could be capable of anything at all. Ion had to take a few moments to think over what was to be done next. Finally, he approached the boy cautiously and, when he did not react, he grabbed him under both armpits and lifted him to his feet. He found himself staring down into a terrified pair of eyes.
“How did you do it?” he asked.
“I...I had to do it, sir!” Magus insisted through his blubbering. “They...they were...going for the city...the princess...”
“That isn't what I asked,” Ion said sternly. “I asked how you did it.”
“I....can do things like that...” Magus admitted. “I...it's my magic...it's...” The sound of approaching horses startled him into silence, and his body tensed. “Behind me,” ordered Ion, removing his sword from his sheath. Both were relieved to see that it was only Ion's seven comrades, with Lovisa at their head. Without really thinking, Magus ran to her, and she flung herself from her horse and took him into her arms. “Oh, Magus!” He felt as though he melted into the warmth of her arms. “Are you all right?” she asked, her eyes full of concern. He simply nodded, and she held him close.
“Lovisa, be careful!” Ion said urgently. “All of us must be careful! He has proven to be dangerous—I've observed what he is capable of!” He looked down at his feet and winced as the image of the soldiers' gruesome end appeared in his mind. It was a memory that he knew would never leave him. “An entire army, engulfed in flames that had no discernible origin! Each and every one of them perished in a fire that seemed to have come from the sky. I watched them perish! I heard their cries as the flames consumed them—the most haunting sound I have ever heard in all of my days! It was a horrible way to perish, to be sure, and the boy himself confessed that it was all his doings!"
“I...I had to do it!” Magus said abruptly. “If I hadn't, then so many others would have perished! They were Aldine's soldiers! They were heading for the city! I had to do something!” He raised his voice. “I had to protect the city! I had to protect the princess!” He gripped Lovisa's arms, his eyes overflowing with tears again. “Please understand me, Lovisa! I had to do it!”
“You killed your own soldiers?” was Morgana's hasty response, but she was ignored. The others were stunned to silence. Lovisa held Magus as he looked into her eyes and silently pleaded for her, of all people, to understand. But she just didn't have the words to say. His and Ion's stories seemed like the retelling of a shared nightmare, rather than something that had actually taken place. Finally, Ion spoke: “Come with me. I'll lead you to the fallen.”
“I'll stay with Magus,” Lovisa said, but Ion shook his head. “He is coming with us, and so are you,” he told her, and though Lovisa's stomach churned at the thought of charred corpses, she chose not to argue. She set Magus on her horse and climbed up behind him. Magus turned to look at her, his eyes pleading. “You do understand me, don't you?” he asked.
“I'd like to, dear,” Lovisa assured him, “but right now I'm just not sure what I can understand.” When his face fell, she rubbed his head and said, “But don't worry. Either way, I won't let anything happen to you.” He relaxed, settling himself comfortably against her as she urged the horse on.
What had once been an army of soldiers and their horses was now a mass of blackened corpses, their faces frozen in the agony they had died in. Piles of ash that had once been flesh were morbidly decorated with what remained of the regalia of Aldine. Sanjaia gagged and turned away, clamping his hand over his mouth and breathing heavily to fight off the nausea. Rodin closed his eyes. Lovisa wanted to follow suit, but she couldn't; it was as if an external force willed her eyes to stay open and fixed upon the gruesome scene. The sheltered young lady from an Eridell herbalists' commune had never seen anything near as awful as this, and as much as she wanted to tell herself it wasn't real, she knew better.
“How did you do it?” Morgana asked Magus, simultaneously fascinated and horrified by a human child with the power to cause such destruction.
“I...I have magic inside of me,” Magus said, trying hard to avert his eyes from the carnage. “I could always do things like this...”
“You're a human,” Morgana said almost accusingly. “Where did you get that kind of magic?”
“I don't know!” Magus insisted. “I don't think I got it from anywhere! I've had it for my whole life!”
“You were named for it,” Rodin observed. “Or...were you? Is Magus your given name?”
“It's the only name I ever had,” Magus said.
“Your mother named you that?” Rodin asked.
Magus shook his head. “They gave it to me at the convent. I don't know what my mother named me. I never knew her.”
“You grew up in a convent?” Eluani asked. “What sort of convent was it?”
“I didn't grow up there,” Magus said hastily. He was getting annoyed with the questions. He just wanted Lovisa to take him in her arms again, and take him back to the palace with the good food and the warm bed. He just wanted to forget this entire afternoon and at least pretend to be a normal boy that someone actually cared for. But he knew he'd lost the chance to do that, and he had a dreadful feeling that he would never see the palace again. He cursed himself for running away. “I just lived at the place when I was really little,” Magus went on, “and then they sent me away. I grew up on the streets, all right?”
“Look,” Troy said, “we don't really need to hear the kid's entire life story right now. We've got a much more pressing issue to deal with.” He looked over the army of charred corpses as if he needed to commit them to memory, or else assure himself that they were in fact real. Then he reached for his communicator, and this time Magus refused to run away.
Princess Cordelia of Rasta was not Magus' idea of a princess. Of course, he had never seen a princess outside of books and pictures, as he had not been alive during the princess days of Aldine's Queen Alora. What Magus knew of princesses, he knew from storybooks and fanciful tales that he had been told in his childhood. They had not taught him to expect a princess in chainmail, with a sword at her side and a strong, stocky black horse built like a tree. The princesses he knew of wore trailing gowns and rode elegant white steeds.
Magus stayed close to Lovisa, holding on to her hand tightly as he watched the princess and her party examine the remains of the fallen Aldinian soldiers. She was at least as beautiful as the princesses he knew of, and right now her lovely face bore an expression of horror and disgust. It unsettled Magus to see her dainty hand, wrapped up in an armored glove, prod at and turn over the bones of the dead. This was not an affair for a princess; a princess ought to be locked away in her chamber, safe from such sights. Oh, please, Magus pleaded internally, don't let her find out I'm responsible! Not yet, not now! But it was not to be; that knight in red was already carrying on, telling her everything in his dramatic, theatrical way. “One moment they were making their way across the field, and in the next moment they were ablaze! Their death was brutal...they screamed and writhed in agony. I watched their skin wither and melt away from their bones...I know that those cries and those sights shall forever haunt my dreams.” He winced at the memory and put his hand to his breast. “I have met with many horrors in my days, and I have long learned to steel myself in the face of them. But this was something that I was wholly unprepared for. There seemed no explanation, no real reason for these soldiers to die as brutally as they had. But then there was the boy...”
Now both the knight and the princess fixed their eyes upon Magus, who stared back defiantly in spite of himself. He wanted to hide, but he wouldn't. His hand tightened around Lovisa's and his body became hard as stone as the princess approached him. “Hello there,” she said, with a voice much friendlier than Magus could have expected. “So, you're the knights' young house guest from across the border, am I right?”
Magus did not respond. “I'm awfully sorry that we had to meet on such terms,” the princess went on. “I had a much warmer welcome planned for you at the city entrance. Have the knights been treating you very well, dear?”
Still, Magus refused to respond. He resorted to a tactic he had learned on the streets of Aldine, in which he pretended to be a statue and therefore could not speak, move, or even display any outward emotion. It was something he employed when he was questioned or interrogated. Lovisa picked up on it immediately and realized that she would have to do the talking. “I'd like to think that we are,” she told the princess. “We cleaned him up, we gave him some food, he's had a nice rest...”
“And this was all by the Jewel's instruction?” asked the princess.
“Well, yes,” Lovisa answered. “But do you know what? I think I would have done it regardless. Cordelia, young boys do not belong out in fields, with dirty faces and holey clothes, no matter what the situation is! And whatever the situation is, you know Magus has no willing part in it! I mean, he's a street waif! Somebody put him up to it!”
If Magus had not been trying so hard to be a statue, he would have hugged her. She was going to defend him, even after everything that had happened. She was going to stand up for him, no matter how much trouble he caused. She understood. She loves me, he thought, surprised that he was able to identify such feelings. If anyone had ever loved him before, he didn't remember it. Love, no matter what type, was always something that existed outside of his reach. And yet he knew, without a doubt in his mind, that Lovisa loved him. He smiled in spite of himself, and the princess caught on immediately and returned it. “I understand,” she said, laying a hand on Magus' shoulder. “So, your name is Magus?”
“Yes,” Magus answered monotonously.
“And you're from Aldine,” Cordelia said. “Where in Aldine are you from?”
“The capital,” Magus replied.
“Who took care of you there?” Cordelia asked.
“Nobody,” Magus answered.
For a few moments Cordelia was silent, her thoughtful eyes looking over Magus' head. Finally, she said, “It would probably be best for us to discuss this at the Palace of the Jewel. It was...”
“Yes!” Magus cried out, and Lovisa couldn't stop herself from laughing. But he didn't mind it. He rather liked her laughter.
“Yes,” the princess went on, nodding as if in agreement with him. “It was quite foolish to leave the palace unguarded for so long anyhow. We'll go back there and discuss this over a meal.” She turned to her party of armored soldiers, who talked over what to do about the fallen soldiers. “Patrol the area,” she said firmly.
“Of course, m'lady,” one of the men answered, placing a hand to his breast in a gesture of loyalty.
Tears came to Magus' eyes, and he allowed them to fall. Lovisa brushed his wind-tousled hair back from his face and pulled him into a hug, which he returned.
The roast chicken, peas, and cheese that were served at dinner were met with largely the same reception as the earlier milk and sweetbreads. Magus was allowed to take as much as he liked, his less-than-perfect table manners were excused, and the princess allowed him a few moments before he answered her questions. He was much more receptive to questions now, and Cordelia and the knights had learned much more about him than they thought he'd be willing to provide: his name was Magus, and it had been given to him by the head of the mages' convent he had been sent to somewhere between the ages of one and three. His mother had died long before he was old enough to remember her, and no one knew anything about his father. He lived in an orphanage until they had managed to send him off to the convent, which was a convent where practitioners of all varieties of the magic arts were sent to practice their craft. “They sent me there because of my powers,” Magus had explained. “The orphanage was afraid of me because of my magic. They thought I was too dangerous to keep around.”
Up until Magus was six, the master magi at the convent worked hard at teaching him the control and management of his magic. Life at the convent was strict and regimented, and even moreso for Magus; his days consisted of bland meals, long days of hard work and education, and nights asleep in his own room far away from the mages' dormitories. He was the only child there, and the mages were unconcerned with him. His instructors tended to his lessons—praising modestly, punishing harshly—and left him alone once they concluded for the day. He had not a single friend in the world, and not a single person truly cared if he was happy or if he was well. “I don't think they wanted me there any more than the orphanage did,” Magus said. “They all treated me like I was a time bomb about to go off at any moment. They could contain me, but that was all that they could do, or wanted to do. I spent those years thinking that I was a monster, and that's why nobody ever played with me, or talked to me outside of lessons, or wanted my company at all. It was why the mages hurried away whenever they saw me, and why I wasn't allowed to stay in the dormitories and make friends with them. I would look at myself in the mirror and wonder why a monster like me looked like any other kid. Those days were just awful.”
By the time Magus was nearly seven years old, he had learned that he had something inside of him that was beautiful and dangerous in equal parts. His instructors had established that he was born with a gift and that no one else in the world had power such as his, not even the most powerful of the master magi at the convent. It was a wonderful gift that he could make use of only when the time was right, and they made sure that he knew when the time was right. But when it was not, it was to be safely locked away inside him, where it could not cause any harm to others. “I thought that if I showed them I could do this,” Magus said, “then they wouldn't be so hard on me anymore. They might praise me more, they might talk to me more...they might even like me. I wanted to impress them. All I wanted was someone to like me.”
Magus maintained control of his powers, retaining an impressive amount of caution and discipline for a child his age. He used his powers only in the ways he had been instructed to, and in doing so, he earned the praise that he so craved. In his daily activities, he was well-behaved and out of the way, absorbing himself in the books that he had taught himself to read. It reached the mages studying at the convent that the young boy the masters presided over had an incredible ability to handle the powerful elemental magic he had inexplicably acquired, and they became fascinated with him. The master magi themselves were impressed with Magus' ability to handle such power, and an overheard conversation let on that they were very proud of him. When he was called down to the head magus' chamber after a long day of being left entirely alone, Magus anticipated the reward of love and approval that he had worked so hard for; he would be hugged and kissed like the children in the books he read, and the magi that had been his instructors would become his family. But to his horror, the head magician told him that they were sending him away. “He told me that they had no more to teach me,” Magus said, “and that I showed them that I had learned well. He said that I'd grown in leaps and bounds, and there was nothing more I needed to know. Then he said...” Magus looked at the table then, and Lovisa lightly nudged him. “What did he say?” she gently prompted.
“He said that he had spoken with the children's home two villages down,” Magus went on, “and that there was room for me there. I was sent there the next morning.”
Magus' send-off had been an uneventful one. His instructors, whom he had gotten to know for the past three years, went about their daily business as if he was only an afterthought that they had pushed to the back of their minds. The convent mages tended to their studies and paid him no mind. He sat waiting in the lobby, carrying a bag of his clothes and books, overcome by the rage and tears that come with betrayal. Nobody liked him or wanted him, and he hated them all. He hated everybody. The caretaker of the children's home seemed kind enough, squeezing his cheeks and calling him “sweetheart,” but he hated her because he didn't want to go with her. He glowered at her with all of the ferocious rage that a small boy could manage, and as she took him by the hand and led him away, he shot the head magus this same hateful look. The head magus simply waved at him and turned to leave, putting the boy out of mind forever.
It was evident that the home had been informed of Magus' powers; the other children regarded him with odd glances, as if they did not recognize him as entirely human, and he was kept in isolation just as he had been at the convent. “You are a very special young man,” his caretaker had informed him with kindness that seemed false, “and you have special abilities—things you can do that other children can't. They can be very dangerous, and we must make sure that the other children don't get hurt. You wouldn't want to hurt anybody, would you, Magus?”
All Magus took away from this patronizing lecture was that he was going to be alone again, and he was fine with that. He had given up on his dreams of having friends or being loved. The caretakers that came by to bring him food and pat his head did so out of obligation, not love. The other children wanted nothing to do with him, and he wanted nothing to do with them. He hated them even more when they were allowed to go away with some kind soul looking for a child to complete their family. Every so often, a smiling child would leave the home, holding the hands of some happy couple or kindly person leading them on their way to a new life. Every so often, a child destined for a new home bid their happy farewells to the friends they had made, who cheered them on and wished them good luck. Nobody came for Magus, and nobody ever said goodbye to him. He was an afterthought in the back of the world's mind, and for that, he hated the world.
“I had my books, I had my magic, and they were all I had,” Magus explained. “So I wondered why I even had to stay there. That so-called 'home' had nothing for me. Being there made me feel lonely and overlooked...and trapped, very trapped. I saw the friendships and associations the others had and I knew that I would never have anything like that. It hurt me. Everything about the place hurt me and made me angry, and I made up my mind that I didn't have to be trapped there. I ran away.”
Magus left behind the toys and small possessions that the caretakers had given him, which had belonged to other children that decided they didn't want them anymore. “I didn't want them either,” Magus said, “but it broke my heart when I found out that I couldn't take all of my books. They were just too heavy on my back, even after I'd thrown aside my clothes to make room for them. I cared much more about my books than my clothes.” In the end, he had only been able to keep three very favorite books, along with two sets of clothes in addition to those on his back. While the other children played in the yard, he sat in the corner with a book in his hands, as he did every day. He stayed close by the fence, and when he was certain that nobody was watching, he slipped out of the fence and took off down the street until his legs wouldn't carry him anymore. He never went back.
“Didn't anybody come looking for you?” Alicia asked.
“If they did, I never knew it,” Magus told her, “but I don't think they did. They didn't really care about me.”
“So, you've been out on the streets ever since then?” Lovisa asked, appalled. “Since you were seven or eight?” All at once, she had been struck hard with sympathetic pain for the poor young man who never had a friend in the world. She wanted to take him in her arms again, to kiss his hair and tell him that he was going to be all right. She wanted to tuck him in under the blankets and tell him that she was going to take care of him from now on. He would be liked, and even loved. To her question, Magus nodded. “My magic kept me alive,” he said, “and my books kept me company. They were all I had and all I needed. I never had a home, and after a while I didn't even want one.”
The entire time that Magus had been telling his story, Cordelia had retained a polite, attentive silence. Now, she held her hand out to him and said, “Come here, Magus.” Magus wouldn't budge without some coaxing from Lovisa, but then he cautiously extended his shaking hand to take hers. “Magus, you will have a home now,” Cordelia told him. “From now on, you will have everything: good meals, good clothes, a place to live, all of the books you want, and somebody who will truly care for you. I will do whatever it takes to ensure that you have a home...a real home, Magus. And if nobody else will take you in, then I will do it myself.”
“Couldn't he stay here?” asked Lovisa. “I can take care of him! You'd like to stay here, wouldn't you, Magus?”
“May I?” Magus blurted out before Cordelia could answer. “Oh, may I, please? I promise I won't...” But his heart fell when the look in her eyes told him it was not to be. “It isn't safe for you here, Magus,” she said gravely. “This place is threatened; there is always a possibility of an enemy strike. I'll take you into the city, where I can find a much safer place for you to live. Oh dear, don't look so dismal! I will personally ensure that you are well cared for, and never overlooked. And Lovisa can still visit with you. You won't be losing her!”
Magus relaxed, though he was still dubious. He turned to Lovisa, and she softly laid her hand on top of his head. “I will visit you every day,” she told him. “That's a promise! And now, Cordelia, do you think that you could send for some ice cream?”
“I think that could be arranged,” Cordelia said with a light chuckle. “But there's one thing that you haven't told me, Magus, and I think that it's crucial for me to know.”
“What's that?” Magus asked, his nerves returning.
Cordelia folded her hands and propped her chin upon them, in a way that reminded Magus of his stern instructors back at the convent. “How and why did you cross the border?”