It was well into the night, and there was still no word from the boy. The last report that he had made came early that morning, right after he had stepped through to Rasta. But the still, steady glow in the stone of the beacon ring at Sonja's finger told her that he was alive and unharmed. That meant that he had been captured, or else he had simply neglected to follow orders—and if that was the case, he would be lucky to go to sleep without a whipping, much less with a full stomach. I'm going to have to go out looking for him, aren't I? Sonja thought in exasperation. For his sake, he had better be in prison! She knew that the boy would find some way or other to cause trouble. In spite of his incredible power, Sonja questioned the king's judgement in employing him.
With a crash of thunder from her clapped hands, Sonja roused her two comrades. They shot out of their beds like rockets and blinked stupidly for a few moments, still asleep in their minds even though they had been woken. “The boy hasn't reported back to us,” Sonja told them before they had a real chance to come to their senses. “That means we go after him.”
Morgana was the only one who stayed awake into the dark of night. After these long, exhausting, much-too-bright days, the subtle glow from the stars brought energy back to her, intermingling with and enhancing the glow of her aura. She wandered uncloaked and free through the starlit fields, flitting this way and that, sure that at any moment she could lift herself up off the ground. She had turned her thoughts to the comforting darkness, the quiet whispers of the night breezes...and the little magic boy, who was away in the city, relishing in the first good sleep of his life. Her pride was the only thing that stopped her from begging him to teach her the secrets behind his abilities. She would rather have swallowed a live fish than go begging a fourteen-year-old human to mentor her. Still, the power to engulf an entire army in inescapable flames was a compelling one. He was the only human that she had any sort of fascination with, even bordering on respect.
As the darkness of the night grew, so did Morgana's aura. She grew lighter and airier as it twisted, morphed, and shaped itself into the form of glowing wings upon her back. Yes! With a bell-like she took a flying leap, and her wings pulled her up and away from the ground. The dark of the night, the light of the stars, and the summer winds converged, and she melted into them.
The late night was the only time Morgana had for these private flights, with darkness and starlight as her only and much-preferred company. The landscape became a blur as she increased in speed, her wings beating against the air with joyous vigor. She sang, her voice as high and clear as a flute, and she was glad there was no one else else was around to spoil the happiness that she found in solitude—at least, until she spotted the dark figure making its way in and out of the low-lying shrubs, thinking it was using the shadows to conceal its presence. Oh, stars above, Morgana thought in dismay, already angry with anyone who dared to intrude upon her euphoria. Like a bat swooping down upon its prey, she cornered the figure, which was entirely concealed beneath a black hooded cloak. Immediately, it struck out, stinging Morgana's ear as she quickly turned her head. She grabbed both of its arms and forcefully twisted them behind its back. “Start talking,” she said dangerously. “No one with a brain would be padding around here this late at night, and I've got no patience for those without.”
“I'm simply searching for something,” a dainty voice answered from under the hood, “something that I lost in these parts.”
“Try the daylight, then,” Morgana said. “What sense does it make to go looking for anything in pitch darkness? And now you're going to come with me; this place is restricted and you've got no business here. Run, and I'll chase you until your legs give out. If you're thinking about fighting me, be aware that I have power that your little mind could not even comprehend. Surely, your best option here is to come quietly.”
“And just who are you to treat me this way?” the woman answered shrilly. “I am minding my own business, I assume you were minding yours, and then you come out of nowhere and start yanking me around like a bag of garbage! Who do you think you are?!”
“Take off that hood,” was Morgana's no-nonsense response.
“I asked who you think you are, miss!” the woman snapped, and she received her answer in the form of a white-hot fireball, held right under her chin. “Take off the hood,” Morgana demanded. Trapped, the woman tossed her head back so that the black hood fell away.
“That wasn't hard,” Morgana said, calling off the fireball, “was it?”
“I'd still like to know who you are,” the woman snapped, “and why you think it's at all appropriate to treat me this way!”
“I am Rasta's Knight of the Amethyst,” Morgana replied, “and now you are coming with me.”
Eluani was apt to awaken in the middle of the night, and whenever she did it, she could never settle herself back to sleep right away. Her dreams were vivid—both the blessing and curse of a seer—and very often had some message to tell her that she would have to spend a decent amount of time decoding the symbols to unlock. Tonight, she was troubled by a dream of Magus, curled up on an old, thin bed in a dull room, which Eluani supposed had been his room at the mages' convent. He sat with his knees drawn up to his chest, his arms wrapped around himself, shaking all over as if afflicted by some internal tremor. He did not react when she approached him, and when she lightly brushed his shoulder with her fingers, he looked at her as if he did not know her.
“Magus?” she inquired. “Are you all right?”
He did not answer her. His body shook wildly, and Eluani reached out both hands to steady him. She drew back quickly when she discovered that his skin was as hot as a burning stove, and then she screamed as his body was completely engulfed in flames. She woke up in a cold sweat, trembling all over. It's only a dream, Eluani, she wanted to tell herself, but she couldn't—she knew that her dreams were rarely only dreams. She paced around the palace's grand lobby, trying to make sense of it all. Those Aldinian soldiers on their way to the city had been met with a similar fate by Magus' hand, so surely it had something to do with that. But what did it have to do with it? Why had he appeared at the convent (she was sure now that it had been the convent), and why had she been the one to receive this vision at all? Had it been her own dream, or had she been given a window into his? Had she received a view into his terror and remorse?
The palace doors opened, and Eluani abandoned her thoughts and steeled herself for a confrontation. But it was only Morgana, dragging along some hapless woman who scowled like a child caught stealing from the cookie jar. It was clear that she had crossed Morgana in some way, and when Eluani approached them both and gave the woman a look-over, she knew the reason behind it. “Why do you stare at me like that?” the woman asked shrilly, drawing back as much as she could with Morgana holding on to her so tightly. “It's uncomfortable! Stop that right now, or...”
“So you think you're going to take back the boy,” Eluani said, and for a second the woman looked as though she had unexpectedly been struck. “Well, that just isn't going to happen. Whatever you promised him, he has been given three times that. There's no need for him to return to you. He...”
“And what do you know about him?” The woman abandoned the facade of a scared and confused wanderer, and now spoke like a predator that had cornered its prey. Eluani would not divulge any details. “Everything,” was her simple reply.
“Then you know that you've no right to keep him here,” the woman said. “You've no right to give him anything. He belongs to the kingdom of Aldine. He...”
“Not anymore,” Morgana interrupted. “The boy threw aside his loyalty to Aldine just as easily as you humans chuck your garbage into the woods.”
“Explain!” the woman demanded.
“We don't have to,” Eluani told her. “Either way, he won't be going with you. And you will be...”
Eluani shrieked as she felt her body heat up as if she had been suddenly tossed into an oven. She fell to her knees, twitching and writhing and beating at herself as if trying to extinguish some invisible flame. In a second, Morgana had the woman in a hold and herself enveloped in a protective veil. She held on with all of the force that her willowy body could manage as her captive struggled against her. If only she could work up a good binding spell...but before she could even attempt, her captive had broken free With a snap of the fingers, Morgana was blinded by a flash. Awakened by the commotion, the other knights arrived to find Eluani on her knees, breathing heavily against the pain from the heat as it subsided, and Morgana fighting against the whiteness in her vision. “She's escaped!” Eluani gasped. “She got out! Go after her!” The knights did not ask who “she” was. They took off, and Eluani noted that Alicia held the troublesome shuriken blaster as her only weapon. Lovisa helped Eluani to her feet and examined her for injury. “I'm all right,” Eluani assured her. “It was only a spell. Get on out there with the others.” Lovisa obeyed, and Morgana trailed behind her as her vision returned. Her aura blazed with the intensity of a miniature sun.
Eluani sat down, wrapped her arms around herself, and closed her eyes. She willed herself to think only of Morgana's captive, scowling sourly like a child caught in the act. All at once, the image changed; she was taller, stronger, and her face bore an expression of grim determination. Rings gleamed on the fingers of one hand, and in the other she held a wooden staff in the shape of a serpent. Her robes were the purple and gold of Aldine, with the coat of arms of a golden dragon embroidered at her breast. Her name was Sonja Farrel, and she was the chief of the arcane division of Aldine's army. Magus had been under her command...
Not anymore! Eluani thought jovially. The boy's ties to her had been incinerated right along with those poor soldiers. Smiling, Eluani folded her arms and waited for Sonja's inevitable return.
I did it! I did it! In any other circumstance, Alicia would have broken into song and dance. She watched as her comrades overtook the fallen mage, who was still trembling from the shock of the blast that had downed her. Alicia kissed the barrel of her weapon whose message she had finally managed to decipher: activate the runes and the blades will detonate. “I knew that I would figure you out!” she whispered to the weapon before kissing it again like a new friend that she was glad to meet.
The mage was cornered like a deer by a pack of wolves. Sure, she had some impressive magic, but there were seven of them and they were closed in on her. Their mages were no slouches either—Morgana and Rodin pushed their way to the front, their eyes and the cold glow of their magic veils daring her to try anything more. Ion had her by both arms and held her so tightly that a struggle would do so much more harm than good. Alicia pointed the blaster, her finger poised upon the runes that were already beginning to glow green.
“I give up,” the woman said stoically. “I surrender.”
“Good choice,” said Troy, taking a rope from his utility belt and tying up her hands. Upon removing the rings from her fingers, he noticed that one of them bore a stone that gave off a series of quick blue flashes before he slipped it off. He passed it to Morgana, who turned it over in her hand before holding it above the woman's head as if to taunt her. “Tell me what this is,” she demanded.
“A ring,” was the mage's stony response.
“I know it's a ring, fool! Tell me what it is used for.” Morgana slowed her voice as if she spoke to a toddler.
“It's a beacon ring,” the mage replied, “for the communication of distress signals.”
“Crush it,” Morgana ordered Troy as she handed it back to him.
“Yes, go ahead and crush it, big man,” taunted the mage. “It's too late for that to make any difference. By now I've sent out more than enough signals for my comrades to pick up on—they can be rather dull, but they know a signal when they see one.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Morgana said dryly. “Troy, help me with this. The rest of you, scout the area and leave not a single blade of grass overlooked.” She hooked her arm through the mage's arm, and Troy clasped her bound hands with one hand and her shoulder with the other. “I'm locking her up in the cellar,” Morgana told him. “It's the closest damn thing to a dungeon that we have around here. I'll deal with her, and you keep watch at the door and send a report to the princess. I know humans like to sleep at these hours, but there's got to be somebody standing by.”
“What about Eluani?” Troy asked. “What's she going to do?”
“I forgot all about her,” Morgana admitted with a roll of her eyes. “Tell her to keep watch at the doors; tell her what's going on, of course, but be quick about it.”
Troy's automaton horse stood against the bole of a willow tree, gleaming imposingly in the moonlight. He set their captive down upon its metal seat and climbed up behind her, folding his arms around her in a bind. She grunted slightly, but made no attempt to resist. “Go on in front,” Troy urged Morgana, but she shook her head. “I don't ride on these contraptions unless it's necessary,” she told him, “and it isn't necessary now. I'll lead ahead. If she gets the urge to jump, I'll be right there to catch her.”
“I couldn't jump even if the urge did strike,” the woman saucily replied, “not with Mr. Big Man clamped down on me like this.”
“I'm just letting you know that I've got both eyes on you,” Morgana told her. She went on ahead and motioned for Troy to urge his horse after her. “And now, tell me your name,” she ordered. “If you're planning on using a fake one, we do have a psychic waiting back home.”
“Sonja Farrel,” the woman responded. “By my honor, the honor of a master magician of Aldine, it is my true name. And by that same honor, you won't get anything else out of me.”
“That's fine,” Morgana said. “I think you'll discover soon enough that I can get anything I want out of anybody.”
For a while, all three were silent. The peaceful songs of the summer insects and frogs seemed almost deceptive. Then, Sonja asked sharply, “What business do you have with the boy?”
“What business do you have?” Morgana retorted.
“He was assigned to me by the knight master, by the order of His Majesty King Harkinian,” Sonja explained. “He is mine to keep after, mine to lose, and mine to find. If you've got him locked up somewhere, then by the command of King Harkinian, you will release him or I will take him by force.”
“So, he's the precious lost thing that you were skulking around in the night for,” Morgana said. “You know, it is disgusting that you speak of him as if he is a common object or a pack animal. He is a being with a life, his own mind, and a soul. He is not a thing to be passed around, lost, found, and taken.”
“He is an unfortunate and unwanted youngster with no place in the world,” Sonja insisted. “He belongs to no one. He has no purpose, no direction, not even a bed to sleep in at night. He exists at the level of a common rodent. And yet the king had his own reasons for seeking him out. If King Harkinian dictates that he is to belong to me from now on, then he is to belong to me from now on, as the king holds the ultimate jurisdiction over what is to be done about his common citizens, including the unwanted rats that scurry in and out of the back streets...”
She could hardly get this last word out before Morgana whirled on her, dealing two stinging blows to both of her cheeks. She fell into Troy, who shifted as he tried to maintain his grip on her. “You bitch, if you talk about that boy like that again you'll be dead where you stand!” Morgana hollered. Her anger shocked her; she had never before been compelled to jump to the defense of a human. It was the way of the fairies to settle their own business and let the humans settle theirs. But the way this woman talked about a poor soul as if he was no better than vermin filled her with red-hot fury. She was all set to strike again, had Troy not called out, “Morgana, enough!”
“She's got no right to speak of him that way!” asserted Morgana.
“Punish her in the cellar,” Troy told her, “not out here in the open And you,” he added, struggling against the woman's attempt to break free and retaliate, “you're not going anywhere. You asked for that, so you just take it.”
“The way you treat your prisoners in Rasta is disgusting!” Sonja snapped.
“And I suppose that over in Aldine, you wrap them up in fluffy blankets and give them ice cream?” Troy replied sarcastically.
Morgana was still seething, and her aura pulsed like an increasing flame. But she kept quiet, taking comfort in the knowledge that Magus had abandoned his loyalty to Aldine, and so would never return to the vile woman who thought of him as street filth. She made up her mind that from then on, he would be under her personal protection; anyone who came around looking for him would have to answer to her. The rest of the way was silent and uninterrupted. When they reached the palace gates, Morgana turned to Troy and said, “Go tell Eluani what's going on, then keep watch here at the gates. Anything that looks like it might be out of place very likely is. You can hand our honored guest over to me. I'll keep her entertained, all right.”
“Roger that,” answered Troy, and when Morgana raised a brow at him, he said, “That means I got it.” He hauled the captive to his shoulder and slid down off of the horse's back. Morgana worked up a binding spell, which Sonja immediately objected to. “There's no reason for this! I have absolutely no interest in taking off, not if it means being jerked around by Big Guy all over again!”
“Well, now you can't,” Morgana said coldly, “so it doesn't matter whether or not it interests you. Besides, it saves me the trouble of rummaging around for a pair of shackles.”
Troy saluted Morgana—a distinctly human gesture that was completely lost on her—before entering the palace. Really, she wasn't so bad. Her strong will made her a competent soldier and natural born leader just as much as it made her a disagreeable curmudgeon.
It was three hours past midnight, and the fields had fallen as silent as fields ought to be at such an hour. Admist the commotion of the previous hour, Rowley and Shattick had kept out of sight as they made their way to the capital city. Now that the sign marking the city entrance had finally come into view, they realized that they would have to turn back; something was wrong. Their beacon rings had gone completely dead, which could only that Sonja had somehow lost hers, or else...no, they wouldn't think about that. She had lost it, that was all, and as Sonja was not the type to lose things out of carelessness, they could only assume that it had been taken from her.
What an inconvenience! It had taken them all of two hours to make their way to the city, and now who knew how long it would take to find Sonja? By the time they finally did enter the city, they would be much too tired to do anything about it. Rowley imagined a warm room in a welcoming inn; he heard that Rasta's “hotels,” as they were called, were above and beyond the little brick inns of Aldine. But he knew that Sonja would likely insist that they set up camp out here in the fields. Another night of stale bread for you, Rowley, he thought disdainfully, and pondered the difference between hotel food and inn food.
For the second time, they passed by the site of a wildfire; it was far too dark to see any ash, though Shattick had discovered some when he ran his finger over the earth. Where grass and weeds had once grown was now a dull, lifeless circle, and the nearby shrubs and reeds had been singed. The area reeked of recent smoke and something else that neither of them could identify but that they both hoped they'd never have to smell again. They passed by quickly, holding their noses, feeling no need to linger longer than was necessary—they had already investigated enough on their first trek past here to conclude that this place held no significance to them.
The vast fields branched off into wild country that could easily go on forever before there was any sign of Sonja or the boy. The six towers belonging to Rasta's Palace of the Jewel appeared in the distance, gleaming pearly white against the darkness. Stricken by a sudden epiphany, Shattick halted in his tracks, and Rowley grunted as he knocked into him. “What are you doing?” Rowley whispered fiercely. “Keep moving!”
“There it is,” Shattick said, pointing to the glittering spires. “The Jewel's in there! That's right where they keep it! If we head that way, we'll be there in about forty-five maybe even thirty or twenty if we're super quick about it.”
“Not without the commander,” said Rowley. “You know we can't make a grand move like that without her approval.” He spoke as if he was scolding a schoolboy, and Shattick shot him a disapproving glare. “We could spend all night and then some prowling around for her,” he said, “or we could realize that we're only a hop, skip, and jump away from what got us into this in the first place! Besides, won't she be so thrilled when she discovers that we've got such a gift for her?”
“Their soldiers are guarding it,” Rowley reminded him, “and if they were anything for us to mess with, then we wouldn't have needed to send the boy over at all!”
“And just look how far the boy has gotten!” said Shattick already heading in the direction of the palace. “Forget the boy; they probably killed him and dumped him off somewhere. Perhaps they tied him down and set him ablaze, and that's where all the ash and the smoke came from. Either way, we don't have him, and we don't have Sonja, but the Jewel is right there, and here we are, fully equipped! It's just too perfect to pass up, Rowley! Who knows if the opportunity will ever strike again? We can take on a few soldiers! We've taken on larger armies than that! Now come on, don't just stand there looking stupid!”
In this mood, Shattick was irrepressible. Rowley knew that he would be left behind if he did not follow, and he was not too keen on a solitary battle with soldiers that had managed to obliterate an Aldinian golem. With a sigh, Rowley followed and bowed to the inevitable, hoping that his commander's wrath would be the worst thing he would have to face when this was over.