“First of all,” Morgana began, holding a red-hot ball of energy at the ready, “I need your full name, title, role, and commanding officer.”
To Morgana's right, Eluani stood stock-still, channeling all of her concentration into the verification of the woman's answers. “Lieutenant Sonja J. Farrell,” the woman answered monotonously, “Master Archmage of the Aldinian military. My commanding officer for this particular mission was King Harkinian himself, though this was an unusual case. Normally, I defer to Captain Roy Shuster.”
Morgana looked to Eluani, who nodded in the affirmative. “And what exactly is the nature of this particular mission of yours?” Morgana asked, holding the ball of energy threateningly high.
“To reclaim the boy, Magus,” answered Sonja, “and I won't say anything more about it.”
“I think you will,” said Morgana. “Why was the boy in your care? What were you using him for?”
“I'll say no more!” Sonja insisted, and she steeled herself against the sting on her right cheek. She gritted her teeth against the feeling of a hundred needles stabbing her face, leaving behind a burning sensation that lingered. Eluani took a few steps forward, looking her over with the expectant eyes that reduced her to the level of a worm being toyed with by a child. Morgana readied another ball of energy, this one a brighter red than the last. “I'll ask again,” she said dangerously, “what were you using that boy for?”
For Aldine, I will endure! Sonja willed herself as she was hit by the second blast. For my army, for my people, for my king, I will endure! Another blast seared her forehead, and she bit down on her tongue. It angers them, she thought with relish. My resistance angers them, and they can do nothing about it but smack me around like brutes! But Sonja had forgotten about the psychic, who whispered in Morgana's ear, and the satisfaction on the fairy's face told her exactly what had been said. Oh hell! Sonja involuntarily recoiled, and was infuriated by the smirk on Morgana's face when she caught her at it. “You've forgotten that you can't hide anything from me,” she taunted. “Anything you hide, I will find out sooner rather than later. Knowing that, don't you think it would benefit you to just answer the questions and avoid the consequences? Unless, of course, you are enjoying this.”
“You'll never get any information out of me!” Sonja told her. “I don't give a damn how else you get it, so long as that holds true! For my king, I shall remain silent!”
“You're quite the loyal one,” Morgana said, “or else you're incredibly indoctrinated. Which one is it, do you think?” She regarded Sonja as if expecting a genuine answer. She received nothing but determined silence, and she sighed and shook her head. “So I suppose this spell isn't cutting it,” she went on. “Perhaps you're just a little too used to it. Perhaps I need to turn up the heat.” With a flick of her fingers, the energy balls were swapped out for two deep orange fireballs, dancing wildly as if taunting their would-be victim. But Eluani caught her by the shoulder and pulled her aside. “It isn't going to work,” she whispered. “She's far more willing to endure the pain than she is to give anything up. Keep this up, and you're more likely to kill her before she talks. Let me take over from here. If I can make her feel secure enough, then I can sift through her mind with ease.”
“Everyone has a breaking point, Eluani,” Morgana told her. “The more we wear her down, the closer she gets to cracking. The mind can be turned off, but physical endurance can only go so far.”
“We could be here all night and then some before we're able to break her,” Eluani said, “and that's if we don't kill her first. I think you underestimate how stubborn humans can really be, Morgana.” She turned back to the prisoner then, regarding her with a smile that was so kind and serene that it came off as dissonant and unsettling. “All right, Miss Farrell,” she said, as if speaking to a frightened child, “if you don't wish to talk, then we won't keep trying to force you. After all, force only works against those who are willing to be forced. It's very late and we're all quite exhausted, and I know you are as well. You may sleep now, if you wish.”
“You're not fooling anyone,” Sonja told her. “I'll worry about sleep when all psychics and psychos get out of my sight. Until then, I will be keeping at least one of these eyes wide open and fixed upon you. But thank you for your permission. I can honestly say that you are the most generous pair of torturers I've ever had.”
“Well, Morgana and I won't be going anywhere, I'm afraid,” Eluani told her. “Knowing that, you may do what you wish.” She pulled an old chair over to the mage's side and settled down, and Sonja defiantly turned her head away from her. “Morgana,” Eluani said with a voice like honey, “will you go and fetch a cover and a pillow for our guest? And then you can catch some sleep yourself, if you wish. I'll be up for a while.”
“I sleep in the day,” Morgana reminded her. “And why should I trouble myself with the comfort of the enemy? She can wake up with a whip in her neck, for all I care.”
“Morgana,” Eluani said patiently, “go and get her a blanket and a pillow.” With a groan, Morgana went off to do as she was told. At least I don't have to waste time making a bed for her, she consoled herself. I'll draw the line at that!
This sudden cordiality from her captor only heightened Sonja's anxieties. “What in the world are you thinking, mind-reader?” she asked maliciously, and received nothing but the most infuriating grin for an answer. “You cannot expect me to believe you haven't got something up your sleeve!” She shot Eluani a glare that she was sure could kill in the right circumstances. “I'd rather curl up in dog shit than accept any accommodations from you.”
“I'm afraid that we don't have any of that on hand,” Eluani replied, “so what I can provide will have to do.”
“Burn in hell,” Sonja spat out, turning her head away again and forcing her heavy eyes to remain open. She turned her thoughts to her subordinates, who were surely on their way to reclaim her. Or at least, they had better be, she thought bitterly, or else they had better be dead!
The only indicator that the day had come was the tiny sliver of light filtering through a slot in the cellar doors. The fairy and the psychic were gone, and in spite of the pillow Sonja had been so generously provided, she had a terrible ache in her neck and shoulders. She could not remember when she had fallen asleep, but between then and now, anything that had been on her mind had been given up to the psychic. “Bloody hell!” she hollered, and unleashed a stream of further obscenities that would have shocked the city drunks. Her racket attracted the attention of Ion, who flung open the cellar doors and swiftly dealt her a heavy blow to the face. “Silence, vermin!” he hollered, and she shut her eyes against the dizziness that followed. “Good morning to you too,” she said dryly once she regained her senses.
“Look at you, carrying on like a filthy bar brawler without a lick of sense! What a fine way for someone of your caliber to behave!”
“You people aren't much better!” she said against her better judgement, and he struck her again. Red-hot fury rose within her as she fought to regain her wind. “You got what you wanted!” she shouted at him. “Your psychic friend found what she was looking for and sucked it all up like a sponge to kitchen water! What did she have to say about me? Go on, tell me everything! It's not as if I don't already know!” But Ion simply glared at her and left her alone in her misery, ignoring the obscenities and attacks upon his character that she cast at him as he departed. “These people are disgusting!” she said aloud as he slammed the cellar door. “A thing of beauty like the Jewel is wasted on such brutes!” She groaned and swore under her breath, her face burning with anger and humiliation. The moment she set foot on Rasta's soil, she had ceased to be Commander Sonja Farrell and had become a worthless toy for everyone to play rough with. She had been reduced to nothingness and cut off from her magic—her only real strength—to be tied down and knocked around like an angry child's ragdoll. Damn, damn, damn!
Unfortunately for Sonja, she didn't have much time to mull over the injustice of her situation; the pounding of feet and the hooves of those machine horses sounded heavily over her head. Somebody was shouting orders—she determined it to be the red-haired brute. A cacophony like that could only mean one thing: an enemy. Sonja's tight lips stretched into a smile. Her rescuers had made it, and once they got her out of here, the Knights of the Jewel would wish they had never come to know her at all.
The din passed by the cellar door almost as soon as it had hit. Taking several more hits to her injured pride, Sonja inhaled sharply and cried out, “He-e-e-yyyy!” She had been beaten, bruised, tied down, and was now reduced to crying out like a damsel in distress. You'll go back to yourself again when this is over, Sonja, she reassured herself as she raised her voice. Her calls turned to shouts, which progressed to hollers, which finally escalated into shrieks. She thrashed against her restraints, making as much noise as she possibly could in her pathetic condition. She had screamed herself completely hoarse before she realized that nobody was coming for her and never would. The sounds of hoofbeats, clashing blades, and gunfire had grown distant, indicating that the enemy—her rescuers—had been driven away from the palace. Well, she thought resignedly, letting her head drop, I'm screwed. I am well and truly screwed.
She closed her eyes to the distant sounds of the battle.
Lovisa! I'm going to see Lovisa!
As Magus buttoned up the clean red boy's shirt he had chosen from his new wardrobe, he shuffled and danced around his new room like a little child anticipating some wonderful event. Those feet that felt so heavy for so many years now couldn't keep still, and Magus had to look down at them to make sure that they hadn't left the ground. He had spent the night in a bed just as soft and warm as the one he had in Lovisa's room, and he had just enjoyed the kind of breakfast he had only ever seen through others' windows or read about in books: three fluffy, sweet pancakes with blueberries baked inside and a hill of thick whipped cream. Of course he had asked for more when he was finished, but Archmage Leana, his new caretaker, smiled at him good-naturedly and shook her head. “Just wait until lunchtime, Magus,” she told him, “and we'll have sugar-plums! Would you like that?”
“What are sugar-plums?” Magus asked her.
“They're sweet little fruits that taste just like candies,” she told him. “You're going to love them!”
“What am I to do while you're away at the palace?” he asked Leana as he helped the servants clear the breakfast dishes. They and Leana had been so kind to him that he felt it was his duty to earn his keep. “You'll come to the palace with me,” Leana told him. “You're already the talk of the Magic Circle, you know! And the king himself has taken quite an interest in your abilities.”
His abilities. Magus felt his stomach lurch. The image of soldiers crying out in agony as their skin melted away from their bones came back to him, as did the terrible dream that he had managed to forget. He began to shake. Don't think about it, Magus, he ordered himself. He turned back to Leana and asked, “Would it be all right if I were to visit Lovisa instead?” He added sheepishly, “I wouldn't want to be in your way.”
“You wouldn't be in my way, Magus,” she told him, tousling his hair. “But yes, you can see Lovisa.”
Much more than he anticipated sugar-plums, Magus anticipated a visit to his sweet, gentle new friend who had treated him with kindness he had never been shown before. He finished dressing and half-ran, half-skipped out to the carriage where Leana was waiting for him. She smiled prettily when she asked, “All set to go?” He nodded and boarded, just barely catching himself from flinging into the seat. As the carriage departed, he rested his head against the window and once again took in the sights of city that was to be his home from now on. Home. The word just didn't sound right to him, not yet. He tried not to think about it, instead focusing his attention on the city, which was leagues ahead of Aldine's capital city in terms of development. Aldine had never thought—or perhaps did not possess the technological ability—to separate its large cities into multiple levels to minimize crowding. They had human janitors clean the streets only when they could be bothered to clean them at all, and they could never work fast enough to keep the streets from getting dirty again almost as soon as they'd begun. Magus was captivated by the mechanical street cleaners that worked so diligently at their tasks. He admired the buildings that were tall enough to touch the sky with their metallic spires, and he was warmed by the positive energy that all of the people seemed to possess, even in a time of war. Perhaps he might have fared better on the streets if the streets back home were more like the streets here. That's a load of bull, he scolded himself, forcing such a thought away. The streets are the streets, no matter where they are, and the streets are cruel. He would rather die than ever return to that life.
“You know,” Leana said, interrupting Magus' thoughts, “the king would like to see you, perhaps tomorrow if not today. I know that must sound a little scary to you, but our king is one of the kindest that you could ever meet. You must understand that at a time like this, we need all of the manpower we can possibly get, and the king is very interested in a young man who can take out an entire army all on his own.”
“I don't want to do it!” Magus said quickly, without looking at her. “I don't want to kill! I don't want to destroy! I never want to set fire to another thing again!” Tears came to his eyes, and he quickly shifted his thoughts to his friend Lovisa. She was a magic user, and he couldn't imagine that she would ever use her magic to kill. He wanted to be Lovisa's kind of magic user—a healer, not a destroyer. He knew that he had the power to heal and restore; he had discovered it in his many long years of practice. It sickened him that the magic that had once been his only friend had become a tool to be used for destruction and carnage. “I...I want to heal!” he said, his tearful face giving way to an expression of fierce determination. “I'll use my magic to care for others! I want to heal entire armies, not destroy them! Let someone else be the destroyer. I'll be the healer!” He turned to Leana and asked hopefully, “Could I do that? Could I be a healer?”
“Oh, Magus...” Leana put her arm around him and patted his shoulder gently. “Of course you can be a healer! But Lovisa is still quite new to magic, and I'm not skilled enough in the healing arts to teach you myself. I'll talk to a few of my colleagues and see what they have to say about it.” She smiled softly, and patted him again. “There is always a need for healers.”
Magus returned her smile. Still, he couldn't wrap his head around the idea of fighting in an army, even as a healer. But the thought of using his magic to care for others gave him a glorious feeling that he couldn't remember ever having felt before now. Contentedly, he sank against the carriage's seat and anticipated the sight of his friend, regarding him fondly with her blue eyes just sparkling in the summer sun...
The dirt road that led out to the Palace of the Jewel was too rough for the carriage to manage. They abandoned it by the signboard, and Magus heard Leana turn a key in a padlock. He reached for Leana's hand as they walked. The air was still, the reeds and grasses lightly rustled by the breeze that gave the two a welcome relief from the summer heat. Something is wrong, thought Magus suddenly, and no matter how he told himself not to be silly, he couldn't shake the thought. He turned to Leana, but the archmage's face was neutral. He let go of her hand and quickened his pace.
“Magus!” Leana called after him. “Where are you going?”
“There's something wrong, Leana!” he said without looking back at her.
“Something wrong with what?” she inquired, and Magus had to stop for a moment to think about his answer. This feeling was mysterious, and for the most part it was unfounded, but it affected him all the same. “There's something wrong with the palace,” he said finally, “with the knights...with Lovisa!” Then he darted ahead. His lanky legs proved difficult for Leana to keep up with, but she followed him as best as she could. When the princess brought the boy to her, and told her of his troubled history and the immense but mysterious power that he harbored, she had expected him to be more than a little strange. Now, he was darting off in the direction of the Palace of the Jewel as if he had always known the way, in hot pursuit of some unknown threat that had made its way into his mind. Is he psychic as well as magical? Leana wondered. Nothing about Magus could surprise her anymore.
In the distance, Leana heard the all-too-familiar sounds of magical combat: sudden bursts of flames, the crackle of energy spells, the abrupt strike of a bolt issued forth from a mage's hand, and explosion after explosion at the points of impact. Mages were clashing in the area, and even if it had been silent (as so many spells were), she could sense the magic as if it was calling out to her. “Magus!” she cried out. “Magus, stop! It isn't safe! Magus, come back!” But the boy was too driven by his impulse. The only way to stop him was to catch him, and he was far too quick for that.
These sounds were just as familiar to Magus as they were to Leana. He recognized them from his long days of training—at the convent, under his commanding officers, on his own during his street days—and it was all destruction. There was no clerical magic that would create such a racket. I don't want to fight, Magus thought to himself, but if the palace—the knights—are under attack, then I will! I'll fight for them! The sound of a sudden heavy crash shook the ground beneath him, so that he nearly tripped over his feet. The rumbling that ensued brought rockslides to mind, but of course it wasn't a rockslide. Magus' heart skipped a few beats. He closed his eyes and let himself be overtaken by the wind around him. The gusts picked up, growing faster, stronger, and he became one with them. They picked him up off of his speedy legs, and he was flying. He forced himself ahead, opening his eyes. The world was laid out beneath him now, and in spite of the circumstances, it was quite a pleasant feeling. He had used the power of flight to evade capture many times, and he was so quick about it that no one ever noticed his escape. So why didn't I just fly away when the knights caught me? As soon as the question entered his mind, he knew the answer.
When Magus finally caught up with the knights, he let out a cry. Only four—Ion, Troy, Alicia, and Morgana—were still fighting. Eluani and Lovisa had been thrown to the ground like forgotten ragdolls, and there was no sign of Sanjaia or Rodin. Fury rose inside of Magus as he took in the sight of his friend, pathetically sprawled out on the grass and struggling to lift her head. Everytime she tried, it was forced back to the ground with a pained grimace, and he thought he heard a groan escape her lips.
When Magus caught sight of their enemies, the boiling anger inside of him spilled over. He knew the two of them all too well; Sonja's two subordinates, who took sadistic pleasure in boxing his ears and singing his skin with their flames. They wielded the two artistically-carved staves that they so often brought down over his head whenever they felt like it—such a horrible waste of such beautiful staves that the students at the mages' convent would've killed to have! Magus released his anger in the form of a thunderclap, and then another. The ring of sky around him darkened to reflect what was inside. Another clap, and the brutes turned their heads to look at him. With one shout and two quick flashes of light, they crumpled to the ground.
Upon landing, Magus ran to Lovisa's side and took her head in his hands. I can heal her, he told himself, I know I can. But the method of it evaded him. He had spent so long being used to attack and destroy, with restoration channeled into rings and stones that he no longer had.
“Magus...” In spite of her pain, there was a smile in Lovisa's eyes. He patted her gently. “I'll take care of you,” he told her. “You took care of me.” Now she smiled for real. His magic was impulsive, fueled by whatever was inside of him. So why didn't his painful desire to heal his friend amount to anything at all? But oh, perhaps it did, for the girl was finding it much easier to keep her head lifted.
Magus hadn't heard Leana come up behind him, but now she knelt over Lovisa and said, “Let me take care of her, Magus.” When Magus' face fell, she said, “It's all right, you've done very well.” But Magus would not leave his friend's side. He held both of her hands as the archmage's staff lit up with a warm yellow glow that matched Lovisa's hair. He looked to Eluani and saw that Morgana was tending to her. I haven't done well, he thought. I couldn't heal her. I couldn't heal either one of them. He blinked rapidly to stop the tears that had come to his eyes. Lovisa stirred as her energy returned, until finally, she sat up. “I can take it from here,” she said to them both. “Thank you. And thank you, Magus.”
“I've done nothing for you,” Magus said despairingly.
“What are you talking about?” asked Troy, who had come over to join them. “You took down both of those bastards in one shot!”
“Two shots,” Magus corrected him.
“Either way,” said Troy, “you've got no business saying you've done nothing for us.” He clapped Magus on the shoulder. Immediately, Magus felt a rush of pride, and he looked down at his feet to hide his face. Of course he had done something, but he did not feel he had the right to be proud when he should have done so much more.