The Story Of Magus Chapter 24
Fredrick entered the dimness of the tent and gave it a brief glance over. As he had expected, Cyrus was out, as well as that annoying goody-two-shoes and hero-worshipping sidekick of his, Glenn. Good, the man thought to himself with a smug smile. No witnesses would go tattling to the Knight Captain. Still, it was better not to tempt the fates and linger. All he had to do was find one little shred of incriminating evidence and then high tail it out of there before anyone could suspect. Looking for anything that could be put to good use, his wandering eyes fell on the table. "Hello," he whispered. "What do we have here?" His fingers carefully reached out and touched the worn leather before snatching it up, greedily. Fredrick flipped a few pages, his eyes lighting up with malicious glee. "Perfect," he snickered. "Oh, Cyrus. You really shouldn't leave something like this just lying around. You never know who might just happen to drop by! I'll make sure you pay dearly for what you've done to me...You and that little slut who calls herself a queen!"
It took some work, but he was able to squeeze the book under his chest-plate without looking too conspicuous. It was uncomfortable and the corners dug into his flesh, but it was a small price to pay, he reasoned. Smirking to himself, he peered through the tent flap. The coast looked clear. Slipping out, the Knight was gone. As soon as he left, a shadow disconnected from the rest. Magus breathed an inaudible sigh of relief. That had been close. Purple eyes sparked in the darkness as he replayed what he had just witnessed in his mind. That man, whoever he had been, appeared to be a threat to Cyrus. If the intimate things revealed in the diary were brought into the public, it would shatter the image of the Hero forever. That alone wouldn't have prompted Magus to go after the Knight. After all, it was Cyrus' fault for not being more careful with his things. However, the details contained within the book regarding the past of a certain Zealian prince...
Magus grimaced and pulled a small dagger from his boot top. Kneeling down, he cut a slit in the back of the tent that was just big enough for him to squeeze through. No, it simply wouldn't do to have his relationship with the Hero become common knowledge. Somehow, he seriously doubted that Ozzie would take it lightly. Following the Knight wasn't hard in the slightest. There was a stench of armor polish to him that was hard to ignore and was easy to distinguish from the other smells of the camp. Before long, the wizard had caught up to Pendil and was trailing him in the darkness outside of the ring of firelight. The levitation spell kept him from being heard by the sentries that were posted at regular intervals. The Knight seemed just as eager to avoid as much attention as possible, which made things considerably less difficult. Magus didn't relish the idea of trying to shadow the man if he decided to go deeper into the camp. Luckily, that didn't seem to be his intent. From the direction he was taking, it appeared that he was headed for Guardia Castle. Magus allowed himself a silent snicker behind his hand. The stupid fool! As soon as he was out of earshot of the camp, his fate was sealed.
Meanwhile, Fredrick was having a tough time containing his excitement. In a few short moments, he'd be away from the camp and after that...His thoughts were swimming with dreams of gold and power. Once, not so long ago, he had valued honor above all else. He had believed in the grand ideals of the Knighthood of the Square Table. But that was before I grew up, the man said to himself, at last leaving the safety of the firelight and stepping out into the night. That was before I found out that there is no such thing as honor. There is only self-preservation on the battlefield. A small part of his brain wondered how that statement could rationalize what he was now doing for revenge. Snarling in his throat, he forced down the thought. This was self-preservation! How could he be expected to follow a flawed being like the Hero? How could he trust a person who consorted with Mystic captains and had lustful designs on the Queen? And that toady of his, that boy called Glenn...What misplaced loyalty.
"This is for the betterment of the kingdom," Fredrick stated firmly. "The Hero is a freeloader who was given a lucky break. The Queen is nothing more than a common tramp. The only one who hasn't been blinded by that stupid medal on Cyrus' chest is the Chancellor. Rumor has it he opposes everything either of them do or say. He's probably the only sane one. Cyrus' dubious fame is nothing more than a smoke screen to hide his corruption from the masses. But now that I have his diary, the truth will finally be revealed!"
Pushing aside branches, he stumbled through the undergrowth. The brambles tore at his armor leaving faint lines that would undo all his hours of careful cleaning. This only served to enflame his already heated temper. "Damn that Cyrus!" Pendil growled. "I should be the Hero, not him. I worked so hard this whole time, and for what? What do I have to show for it?" The man paused and looked down at himself. "You don't see any medals on my armor! Even when battles looked grim, I stuck it out. I didn't run like the others. But of course, in waltzes the so-called Hero. So he defeated the Frog King. Big deal! His father was disgraced. I was there! I saw it! According to the Knight's Code, this should have forbidden Cyrus from ever entering the Knighthood. It's not fair! Because of one stupid quest, he steals the limelight for himself. He's not worthy enough for his position. He's not even a real Knight! He's just some nobody soldier who got lucky once or twice!"
Tired of trying to force his way through the shrubbery, Pendil drew his sword and began to hack at the plants viciously. "Who does Cyrus think he is, anyway? That nobility of his makes me sick! He's such a goody-two-shoes. It's all a sham. He's only the Hero because he's the Queen's favorite, and between the two of them, they managed to influence the King." Plants died savagely under his blade, the methodic slashing motions helping to release his pent up anger. "And anyway, what sort of man sleeps with a married woman?"
"Perhaps the same type of man who robs private material from another warrior for personal gain."
Stopping dead in his tracks, Pendil scanned the area for the speaker. The moonlight filtered through the trees above him, making the ground mist seem like ghosts around his ankles and every shadow a demonic dancer. "Ah, a familiar voice. I haven't forgotten you, Mystic. I swore to one day be revenged on you."
Magus stepped into view, letting his hood fall back so that his long blue hair shimmered in the pale white light. "Yes, I imagine you're still feeling a bit bitter about our last encounter. I didn't recognize you at first. But after listening to your whining, the memories all came flooding back." He watched as Fredrick's face went from angry to coldly amused, a smirk forming on his thin lips.
"Well, I must admit that to an animal like you, anything outside the sound of dying screams would sound like whining to your ears. I was young and inexperienced when last we met. Now, however, you'll find me a bit of a challenge to defeat."
Magus laughed. "Oh, I highly doubt that. I could beat you with one hand tied behind my back."
Pendil still smirked, unfazed. "That's right, Mystic. Keep believing that. If I had the time, I would love to watch your expression as you lay dying on the ground from my sword in your chest. I made a vow never to be taken advantage of that way again. My swordsmanship is much improved."
Magus snorted and ran a hand through his hair, tossing a few strands of the blue silk out of his face. "I believe you have something in your possession that doesn't belong to you," the magician stated casually, straightening his gloves. Then he looked directly at the Knight. "I suggest that you return it to its rightful owner as soon as possible."
"Mystic scum," Pendil sneered. "Why should I do anything one of your kind says?"
"Maybe because I could crush you like the parasite that you are without so much as batting an eye. Your life means nothing to me. The same goes for any thief who calls himself a warrior."
"My, how touching," the other man taunted. "A Mystic with a sense of fair play. Do you even know whom you're trying to defend? This book belongs to the Hero, the ultimate slayer of your kind. He is the one who has vowed to defeat your precious Magus and turn the tide of battle."
"Yes, yes," Janus yawned. "I'm fully aware of enemy propaganda. However, since you don't seem to be willing to return it to Sir Cyrus, the fact remains that I want the book you have in your possession. Now do I get it, or do I have to peel your armor off a layer at a time till you surrender?"
"Madness!" Pendil roared. "You don't know what you're saying! I'm offering you a chance to get rid of the greatest threat to your army! Don't you understand what I'm telling you?"
"Yes, I do. But the Hero happens to be a friend of mine. And I won't stand by and let a person like you ruin his life out of a sense of vengeance."
Pendil's eyes grew wide with shock. "Wait, I do believe you're serious! Sweet Gods! I knew there was something fishy about the Hero, but who would have guessed that he consorted with the likes of you?"
"Regardless of who I am, I'm telling you to return the book. I'm losing my patience with you." The warlock tossed his cape over his shoulder, freeing his arms, and let the dark power in him rise. His cape and hair fluttered around him on an unfelt breeze as he stared down the Knight with his burning gaze. Pendil swallowed nervously, but he rose to the challenge.
"Fat chance of that, Mystic! With the secrets contained within this book, I shall at last be able to destroy the Hero and restore glory to the Knights of the Square Table. Cyrus' name was a stain on the spotless armor of the Guardian army. Once the blemish is removed, those of us who are really fit to lead can do so once again!" Pendil reached into his breastplate and pulled out the book, the edges tearing part of the leather binding. He held it aloft in his grasp like a trophy. "There's no way I would give something this valuable to you. It's my ticket to success. When the Chancellor reads it, he's sure to reward me. The Hero will become nothing more than a legend!" Raising his sword, he held it in front of him. "If you want this book, you'll have to take it from me!"
Magus shrugged. "Have it your way, then." Moving faster than a normal eye could follow, he sprung into the air and back flipped to land behind the knight, snatching the book out of the hand that held it.
"Hey!" Pendil shouted, looking at his hand in shock as he felt the leather slip from between his metal encased fingers. By the time he began to turn to confront the magician, Magus was back in his original spot, chuckling coldly. The Knight's face flushed in anger as he realized that he had just been made a fool of. "Why you...! No fair pulling the disappearing act!"
"Pathetic fool!" Magus grinned, tucking the book safely into his cloak. "How ironic that the thief should be stolen from. And now, I shall return this piece of property to its rightful owner along with the tale of your traitorous actions." Pendil gripped his sword tightly, pulling his visor down over his face.
"No! I won't let you get away with this, Mystic!" The man's voice sounded hollow in the metal confines. "I was going to let you live, seeing as how we had a common enemy in the Hero, but now I can see that you are just another obstacle standing in the path between me and what I want!" With a cry, he lunged. Magus calmly sidestepped and watched Pendil charge past, trying unsuccessfully to stop his momentum. His metal-shod boots dug into the moist earth, leaving furrows as he fought for traction. At last he was able to stop a good couple of feet from the wizard. "Damn you! Hold still!"
Magus laughed outright, crossing his arms. "And where would the challenge be in that?"
"Argh! Blast you!" Pendil came forward carefully this time, swinging at Magus' neck. Each swing looked like it would hit its mark, but every time, Magus took a step back at the last moment. He forced Pendil to see his attacks miss every single time. "Why can't you just DIE?!"
"Oh, what's the matter, Sir Knight? You're not even trying!" Magus snickered, dancing out of harms way. Grabbing the front of his shirt, he pulled the neckline open to reveal his chest. His amulet glinted in the moonlight, giving off a faintly blue radiance. "C'mon! Aim here!" Fredrick hesitated, suspecting some kind of trick. "Well? What are you waiting for? You told me the only way you could win would be to use a stationary target, so here you go. Take your best shot, if you think you can manage one this time." The Knight growled.
"Grrr! You think you're so smart, don't you? Well, this ends it, Mystic! I will make you pay for humiliating me so long ago!"
"My dear sir, I could hardly humiliate you any better than what you already do by yourself."
"Enough words," the other man said, raising his sword in a stabbing position with both hands. "Time to die!" In his rage, Fredrick overextended his next thrust, allowing Magus the time he needed to risk casting a spell. A translucent wall of grayish energy matter formed between the two combatants. It was too late for Fredrick to pull out of the swing. The blade bounced harmlessly off the magic shield, but the force of the swing was enough to make Magus' hair fly from the gust of wind that accompanied it. Fredrick began to tremble.
"D-demon!" he cursed, staggering back, his arms going numb from the electricity that had sizzled through him when he had come in close proximity to the shield itself. Now it was Magus' turn to pursue him. He gave a mocking bow.
"Congratulations, Sir Knight! You didn't land a single cut on me. I must say, your breathtaking lack of skill has left me quite at loss for words." One step, followed by another. And another. Fredrick scrambled away, his feet slipping on dew-damp leaves concealed by the swirling mist as he tried to escape the menacing figure coming toward him. There was an angelic quality to Magus' expression, a look of divine judgment mixed with unsettling amounts of amusement and pity that made Pendil's skin craw with dread. "You have lost, my friend. It's time to pay the Reaper." The Knight's fingers spasmed on the hilt of his sword as he realized now that he stood no chance of defeating the mage before him. His back hit a tree and it was enough to jerk him into action. He moved around the trunk, leaving his weapon where it had fallen, running away as if the very hounds of Hell were after him. Indeed, they probably were as he heard a chill, taunting laughter echoing in the shadows.
The Mystic was everywhere. Pendil could feel the glowing purple eyes on him, silently stalking him, waiting for him to make one wrong move. All he had to do was make it back into the patrolled areas of the camp and he'd be safe. The Mystic wouldn't dare come so close when a whole army could possibly be used to destroy him. Secure in that knowledge, he kept running. His lungs burned and his legs felt like lead as his ornate armor weighed him down. So close...He could smell the cooking fires, just see the light of them shining through the trees. And that's when it happened. His foot dropped into an unseen hole and he fell. His visor was filled with the scent of wet leaves and dirt as he crashed headlong into the ground. The breath was knocked from his body from the impact. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew this fall would cost him dearly as he choked for breath. Rolling onto his back, he pulled off the suffocating helmet and looked up into the night sky that showed through the trees. The full moon was so large, like some monstrous God's blind eye staring down cruelly at a world it would never see. And then, the moon was eclipsed by a shadow launching itself out of the trees. The cape unfurled and for a split second, a flash of blue could be seen glittering against the shadow's throat.
"Merciful Gods, forgive me for my sins. I repent! Deliver me from evil!" the man cried out hysterically. The shadow descended on him, cutting off his half-voiced scream as a hand clamped over his mouth and slammed his head down hard against the ground.
"One thing you might want to know," Magus began in friendly tones as he leaned his weight on the other man's face, "is that I'm a very efficient gravedigger." Pendil's eyes closed, a moaning sob of despair sounding from behind Magus' hand. "Good-bye, Sir Knight. May your stay in Hell be an unpleasant one." Using his other hand, he slipped it under the back of Pendil's head before twisting it to the side and up. There was a sickening snap as the man's neck broke and the body went limp. Magus got to his feet, and studied his handiwork with satisfaction. "And thus, justice is served." At last he turned away, wiping his hands together. Behind him, he could feel the thump of the diary against his back as he moved and the hard length of Pendil's sword, which he had procured as the Knight had fled. "Not a bad bit of retrieval, if I do say so myself."
* * * * *
Slash drummed his fingers on his arm. Five minutes to go. He smiled to himself. Whatever Magus was doing out there had better be good or else the swordsman would have no choice but to report this little breach of duty to Ozzie. Okay, so it wasn't much, but doing small things to annoy the brat made life worth living. The troops stirred restlessly behind him. They were obviously itching for action. The Henchs and Groupies that formed his team were playing cards and dice games to pass the time. Somehow, this struck Slash as very out of place for this sort of situation.
"Hey, you bozos!" he shouted at his men. "Put those stupid games away before I..." He trailed off, looking intently at the set up of one of the games. It appeared to be a form of poker. Off to the side was the pot which consisted of a stack of gold coins, assorted jewelry, and a piece of artwork that nearly made his eyes pop out of his head. "Is that..."
One of the Henchs looked uncomfortable, remembering what had happened to the last Mystic who had displeased Slash. "What is it, b-boss?" he stammered. The swordsman raised a hand and pointed at the small painting.
"Is that a real life, honest to darkness Naggette bromide?!"
The Hench swallowed. "Y-yes, sir."
Slash promptly sat down in the circle of players. "Hot damn! Why didn't you say that you were playing for bromides? Deal me in!" The Hench began to sweat visibly, a nervous laugh coming from his lips.
"But sir, what about Magus?"
Slash waved his hand dismissively. "To hell with Magus! He can take care of himself. Now deal the cards already!" Rubbing his hands together gleefully as the cards were laid in front of him, he chortled at the picture lying in the pot. "Just you wait, baby! Daddy's gonna win you for his collection!"
* * * * *
The body of the Knight wasn't too hard to dispose of. Part of him wanted to leave it out as a warning to others, perhaps nailed to a tree, but Magus balked at the idea. Killing the man was one thing. His conscience wasn't ready to let him make sport of it any more than he already had. Instead, he used his magic to hollow out a shallow grave and rolled the corpse into it with the toe of his boot. It clanked as it fell in, the frozen, glassy eyes staring upward in their final expression of terror. Something, perhaps a flash of guilt, prevented him from covering the man's face with dirt while the eyes were open. Bending down, he stretched out his hand and smoothed the lids over the sightless orbs and breathed a sigh of relief. Sometimes little things like that creeped him out.
"Fredrick? Are you out there?" called out a voice. Firelight reflected off polished armor as a man stomped his way out of the camp. Magus looked up from kicking the last bit of dirt over the body with the side of his boot. Damn. He hadn't been expecting someone to come looking for the bastard. No problem, though. One more Knight could easily be eliminated. "Blast it, Pendil! If you're out here, answer me. Don't make me go tell the Knight Captain about this!"
Gathering his power, Magus let loose with a fire spell. It penetrated the darkness, illuminating the woods. Claudane saw the blast coming and raised his shield at the last possible moment. The force of the spell knocked him clear off his feet. The breath was forced from his lungs but somehow he managed to drag himself behind a tree to get some sort of cover between himself and whatever Mystic was hurling magic at him. A quick inspection of his armor showed that while some of the thinner places were melted and part of his cape was burned off, he was relatively undamaged. His shield lay where it had been torn from his hand, a twisted lump of glowing metal. It had taken the brunt of the blast nicely, but it had also paid the price for saving his life.
"Still alive, Sir Knight?" the Mystic shouted to him.
Buying time to think of how best to handle this situation, Dane decided to answer him. "Yeah, no thanks to you. That's some spell you've got there. I'm impressed."
"Thank you." The Mystic sounded genuinely pleased. "Though if it had been cast correctly, you would have incinerated on the spot."
"Too bad. You barely touched me."
"Care to let me take another shot at it?" Magus' voice was laced with dark humor. He knew it was wrong to toy with the Knight, but he couldn't resist. There was a humorless laugh that rang out from behind the tree.
"Sorry, but I think I'll have to pass on the target practice this time. Why don't you come here and let me introduce you to my sword?"
"Maybe some other time." This was getting him nowhere. Magus tugged his gloves down and debated whether he should cast another spell or just leave while he had the chance.
"So, you were the one who got to Pendil?" the Knight called out.
"Oh, was that who he was?"
"You didn't know?"
Magus gave a dark laugh. "I'm not in the habit of asking the names of all the people I've killed. I'm sure you weren't on a first name basis with your opponents either."
Though Dane gritted his teeth in revulsion at the casual way it was said, he couldn't argue with that logic. Swallowing his anger, he began to creep from behind the tree, taking extra special care to test his footing so as not to crunch the dry leaves and twigs and give away his movements. "Still, it's a shabby way to go. Alone, in the dark..."
"It was no more than what he deserved! The man was a common thief. I merely dispensed justice where it was needed. I'm sorry if you don't approve of my methods, but to be perfectly honest, your opinion is of no concern to me." Magus reigned in his flash of temper and tilted his head. His keen hearing picked up the faint shuffling of iron-shod boots stepping gently so as not to make much sound. So, the Knight was trying for an ambush, eh? Lifting his feet off the ground with his magic, he floated wobbly for a few moments before he adjusted himself to the sudden feeling of weightlessness that accompanied levitation. Keep him talking, he thought. Let the fool give away his position. "Was that Knight a friend of yours?"
A snort of disgust came from ahead and to the left, or so it seemed. "Hardly. We were what one of your kind might call 'blood enemies'. Let's just say that there was no love lost between us. That doesn't mean that I wished him dead, though." The man's voice was bouncing off the trees in odd ways so it was hard to be sure exactly where he was. He was close though. The scent of metal and oiled leather was strong in the air. Magus adjusted his course accordingly and waited in the shadows, sword drawn. Dane was being extremely cautious as he moved but he was no match for the Mystic. When the moonlight caught the wicked edge of the blade in a white flash as it swung towards his neck, only his quick reflexes saved him from a swift decapitation.
Ducking, his own sword whipped out and he was satisfied to hear the grunt of pain as it connected with some part of his enemy's anatomy. Magus stumbled quickly away before a second blow could be managed. Dane followed the blur in the darkness and the slight gust of wind that came from a cape moving through the air. Magus cursed to himself, keeping the Knight in his sight at all times, now not caring it he made noise or not in his attempt to put some distance between them. He hadn't counted on the fact that his shields would drop when other spells were in effect. The gash running from his right hip across part of his chest was deep. Pushing the diary out of the way, he reached behind it with his free hand and withdrew a healing potion. Pulling the cork out with his teeth, he spat the stopper to the side and poured a generous amount over the wound. Slowly the throbbing pain lessened and the blood slowed to a trickle. He'd need better healing for the wound later, but this would do for now.
"Well, well," Magus said with false politeness. "You're one of the few people who have actually managed to strike me." He let the sarcasm in his voice be known. "I'd love to stay and chat with you, but I have pressing business elsewhere at the moment. I hope you can manage to find other sport for the evening without me."
Dane, ever wary of a trick, none the less played along with the verbal sparring. "Drat, and I was so hoping for your head to mount on a plaque. I guess I'll just have to content myself with dreams of meeting you again some day."
Magus laughed. "Why, Sir Knight! I didn't know that you cared! Next time, bring flowers and I might stay longer." Dane's face contorted with a mixture of anger and amusement as the Mystic laughed again and vanished without a trace. As soon as he was gone, the Knight reached to his belt and detached the alarm horn all sentries were required to carry for this very reason. Placing it to his lips, he blew three hard notes in succession to alert the camp that there were Mystics about. Then he began the somber walk back to camp to deliver the bad news.
* * * * *
One of the Henchs looked up from his cards and turned his head this way and that, listening. Slash narrowed his eyes and punched the offending grunt in the arm. "Hey! Keep your eyes on your own cards or I'll slap you upside the head so hard that they'll be permanently crossed!"
"I'm sorry, boss!" the lackey whined. "But I thought I heard something weird. Like a dying cow, maybe."
"Why would there be a cow in the middle of the woods, stupid?" another of the Henchs spoke up, tossing down a few of his cards and drawing some more off the top of the deck. "You probably just heard an owl and confused it with what you had for dinner today." The first Hench gave the second one a shove.
"Hey, dufus! I know what I heard!"
The second one pushed back, harder. "Oh, yeah? Well, maybe you should get your ears checked! I think I can see light on the other side!"
"You'll be seeing stars in a second!" The first Hench shouted back.
"Why, I oughta-!"
"What? You ought to what, buddy? Bring it on!" Cards went flying in all directions as the two Henchs lunged at each other and began rolling in the leaves. Soon, a small group of spectators were standing by, eagerly chanting "Fight! Fight! Fight!" while they watched. Slash tossed down a card and drew one from the deck.
"What ya got?" he asked his fellow players.
"Nothing here. I'm out."
"A pair of sixes."
Slash frowned, looking at his cards. "Hmm. You win this hand. Take it." Picking up the deck, he began shuffling the cards as the grinning winner raked in the gold. "What are the stakes for this round?"
"Ten gold all around, plus a bromide, and a four card limit?"
The swordsman looked at his one and only bromide and sighed deeply. "It's a steep gamble...but I'm game. Okay, cut the deck." As the game began, the fight between the two Henchs began to get more violent as fists turned into daggers. Without warning, the combatants rolled right into the middle of the game. Gold, bromides, and cards went everywhere. Slash threw down his hand and grabbed the two brawlers by the backs of their necks. "That's it!" he seethed before clunking their foreheads solidly together, knocking them both out. Ordering some of the spectators to drag the bodies out of the way, he scooped the loot back into some semblance of order and reshuffled the deck. "Now then," he said as if there had never been any interruption. "Who's turn was it to go first?"
* * * * *
The camp was in an uproar of activity by the time Claudane made it back. Knights were running back and forth as they quickly strapped on their armor, added last minute sharpening to their swords, roused their companions from slumber, and many other before-battle tasks. Moving quickly through the throng, he made his way to the Knight Captain's tent. The front flap was open and it appeared that some sort of war council was in progress. The golden Knight was speaking quietly with the Hero while they maneuvered various wooden carvings around a map that was spread out on a table. A few of the sub-commanders of the different phalanx in the area were present as well, helping each other finish their preparations. Glenn stood off to the side looking worried and faintly green. He noticed Dane and cleared his throat loudly to get everyone's attention.
The Knight Captain quickly finished speaking to Cyrus and motioned Claudane forward. The queen's brother did as he was bid, stopping at a respectful distance and saluting smartly. The salute was returned with grave formality as the older man took a seat at the table. The other men in the tent hushed and waited. "What news dost thou bring, Sir Claudane?"
"Sir, it was I who sounded the alarm."
"Indeed? Then let us hear your story, pray tell." Dane summarized the encounter as accurately as he could in as brief a time as possible. The gathered men listened silently throughout, only breaking the stillness to make sounds of shock, outrage, and sadness when they learned about Pendil's death. When Leene's brother finished speaking, Glenn poured him a goblet of wine and maneuvered it into his hand. Gratefully, the young man gulped it down in two large mouthfuls. Wordlessly, Glenn refilled his glass. This time, Dane drank slower. "So, Pendil is dead," the Knight Captain murmured at last. His old face looked twice as aged under the weight of this terrible news and he briefly passed a hand over his eyes. "I fought alongst side his father in the Mystic Ascension War. He wouldst often speak of his infant son and how he wouldst grow to be a fine warrior. Since my friend's passing, and that of his much loved wife, I have sheltered Fredrick as if he were mine own son. This news grieves me deeply." Straightening his bowed shoulders, though, the old Knight regained his composure. "However, now is not the time for tears. Thou sayest thou suspects more Mystics lurking nearby?"
"Yes. The Mystic I encountered seemed in a hurry to leave so I think he may have been a scout. I attempted to stop him, but he was a mage and I didn't think my sword alone could have prevented him from leaving before I got any answers. He made it perfectly clear that I was only a game to him. Had it suited him, I believe he would have killed me as easily as he did Sir Pendil."
"But how do we know Sir Fredrick is really dead?" one of the sub-commanders scoffed. "Are we to trust the word of a lying Mystic? Besides, we all know of the bad blood between you and Pendil. How can we know that you aren't fabricating your story in an attempt to get him into trouble?" Leveling a stern stare on Dane, the man went on. "Furthermore, what were you doing in that area of the camp? Wasn't your watch assigned elsewhere this evening?"
"Really, is such an interrogation necessary, Sir?" Cyrus spoke up sharply. "I trust Sir Claudane with my life and I've known him since back when I was a mere soldier. You can believe his words. Also, Sir," he stressed the word sarcastically, "I find your lack of faith in my friend to be deplorable." The sub-commander paled, two bright red blotches forming on his cheek bones in fury.
"You out step your rank, Sir Hero!" the man snapped.
"On the contrary, Sir. I think you are acting beneath yours."
"Enough, both of you," the Knight Captain intervened before some heavy words could be further exchanged. "Instead of bickering like children, we shouldst be devising a plan for if and when the Mystics attack." The sub-commander saluted stiffly and stormed out of the tent in a huff, leaving everyone else in an uncomfortable silence. Finally, it was the old Knight Captain who spoke. "As I was discussing with the Hero prior your arrival Sir Claudane, we believe the attack will not come from this section of the woods." He pointed to the southern mouth of the forest, just a short distance from the encamped army which took up a good deal of the area.
Cyrus picked up on the explanation and tapped the line of trees running along the southeast side of the Guardian camp. "So far we've been hit on two of the three sides open to the Mystics in these night raids, our backs being to Guardia Castle itself and our right flank protected by the Cathedral garrison. My guess is that Ozzie expects us to strengthen our forces nearest Zenan Bridge because that's the only way he hasn't struck yet. However, I believe that such a move would be playing right into the Mystic's hands. I propose that we send the bulk of our forces to protect the eastern and southeastern quadrants and leave a small force to guard the Bridge. I don't think Ozzie would be as predictable as to strike an area where he knows we'd be expecting him."
"On the other hand," Glenn spoke up for the first time, "Dost thou not think that the Lord of Slime might have foreseen thy second guess of his plans and thus established a formidable fighting force at just such a juncture as the Zenan Bridge?" But Cyrus shook his head.
"No, I don't credit Ozzie with that much brains. He can be crafty, but I seriously doubt that he'd try anything like that, least of all with a night raid."
"But thou art not sure."
Cyrus sighed. "No, Glenn. We aren't sure of anything at this point. I'm basing my logic off what I know of Ozzie and the patterns I have seen in these raids. I can almost guarantee you, though, that the attack will come somewhere in those areas."
"Then it's settled," the Knight Captain stated. To his remaining sub-commanders he said, "Take what men thou wish with thee to these two locations and wait there till my runner brings word for thou to return. Maintain sharp vigil and let no man sleep whilst on duty."
"Sir!" The sub-commanders saluted and exited the tent to do as they were ordered.
Turning to the three remaining men, the old Knight gave them all a weary smile. "Thou hast done well tonight, my friends. Thou art to be commended. I know that thou art tried so I give thee leave to go to thine tents and rest."
"And miss the fight? No way! Sir, I humbly request that you allow me to accompany the troops to the southeastern quadrant," Dane replied with a grin before he drained his glass a second time and set the goblet onto the table. The old man stared at him in disbelief.
"That cinches it," Cyrus sighed. "Where he goes, I go. I promised her Majesty that I would keep her kid brother out of trouble." Together, the three men looked at Glenn.
"W-well," he faltered, "I wouldst feel too worried about thee to sleep. So, I suppose I will join thee." Cyrus gave him a hearty slap on the back and laughed.
"That's the spirit, Glenn! Besides, I wouldn't want you to think I was greedy, hogging all the Mystics for myself."
"Lads, thou art truly fine warriors," the Knight Captain said proudly. " Very well. Thou may travel with the other Knights. But take heed! Returneth to me alive and well. I consider thee to be like mine own sons, as I once did Sir Pendil. Take care and fight with honor." Touched, the three young men saluted and clicked their heels together smartly before exiting the tent.
"I needs must gather my things from my tent," Glenn commented. "I shant be a moment." Running on ahead, he was soon lost in the swirl of men getting ready to depart. Dane shook his head.
"Youthful enthusiasm," the man laughed. Cyrus chuckled as well, but it sounded half forced. Looking at his friend with concern, he noted the somewhat downcast expression on his face. "Okay, what's eating you?"
The Hero blinked. "Huh?"
"You've got that look."
"The one that says, 'help me, my favorite horse died' or something."
Cyrus smiled. "I'm okay. I was just thinking."
"About what? Leene?"
Cyrus chewed his bottom lip as he tried to figure out the best way to ask his question. Finally he settled on the direct approach. "Did you, by any chance, catch a look at that Mystic you fought? Or hear a name?"
Dane thought back with a look of concentration on his face. "No, I don't think so. It was really dark and I wasn't thinking much about getting to know him. I was more interested in staying alive. Why?"
"Oh, no reason," Cyrus said in offhand tones, though his heart was heavy in his chest. "I was just wondering if it was anyone I had encountered before."
* * * * *
His teleportation was silent, as always, but it never failed to alert some inner alarms in the other Mystics when he did so. Maybe it was his dark presence, he thought to himself idly, approaching the circle of card players where Slash sat. The swordsman tossed two cards off to the side and drew two from the deck. Laughing, he slammed his hand down. "Read 'em and weep, baby! Royal Flush!" Several of the other players broke down in tears as they looked at his cards and threw more money into the kitty. Without looking behind him, he addressed Magus. "And just where have you been?" he demanded, raking in yet another hefty pot and his third bromide for the evening. As his fellow gamblers groaned, the blue swordsman puckered up and placed a large, wet-sounding kiss on the clevage of the Naggette in the picture. Magus shrugged.
"I ran into some trouble."
"You delt with it quietly, I assume." Slash rolled the picture up and stuffed it with his others through his belt.
"The first one, yes. The second one, though..."
Slash turned and faced the young wizard, eyes narrowing dangerously. The troops nearest him hastilly took several steps backward. "What about the second one?"
Magus shrugged again. "I got a little careless. He got away."
"WHAT?!" The swordsman got right up into the magician's face and started shouting at him. Janus turned his head away, partially from the sound but mostly from Slash's bad breath. "Are you trying to tell me that, even as we speak, the whole blasted Human army is probably getting ready for our raid?"
"So I screwed up. Big deal," Janus returned hotly. "Call it a night and let's go home. The army isn't going anywhere. Just because tonight was a bust doesn't mean you can't attack tomorrow night."
"No," Slash answered, suddenly calm. "We are not returning to the Fort until our mission here is finished." Janus stared at him.
"You can't be serious!"
"Oh, I am." Raising his voice, he shouted to the assembled Mystics. "Gather up your things. We march on the Guardian army!" There were scattered cheers and applause from the men, but most of them seemed inclined to agree with the Magus about returning home. Janus grabbed Slash's arm.
"Cancel the order," the blue-haired youth said softly.
"Cancel it! NOW!" The grip tightened painfully. Slash gasped but managed to yank his arm free.
"I don't recall Ozzie putting you in charge of my men. Are you questioning my orders?"
Magus snarled. "You're making a grievous military decision, and you know it! Why are you doing this? I know you're not so stupid that you're completely oblivious to what the outcome of this battle will be. It's suicide attacking the army now! They know we're coming!"
"And who's fault is that, huh? Maybe if you had been more attentive, our lives wouldn't be on the line right now. As it is, we're way behind schedule. Your actions have put the lives of everyone here in jeopardy and I'll be damned if I'm taking the fall for that with Ozzie!"
"Fine, I'll explain to him that it was all my fault! Now will you listen to reason and cancel that order?"
But Slash was relentless. "It's high time that you realized that you aren't the center of attention around this place! Maybe Ozzie dotes on you, but even he is getting sick of your arrogance. I'm tried of living in the shadow of the do-nothing, high and mighty Magus." He gave a bitter laugh. "All your lofty ideals regarding violence and combat...What good are they when you betray your own people like this? Sentimental, Human-loving freak!" Slash put his hands against Janus' chest and pushed, hard. The danger of getting blasted never occurred to him. This confrontation had been building up for some time. Janus stumbled back, dark fire igniting in his eyes as his lips drew back into a feral hiss of rage. "You're weak, and you always have been-!"
Slash's head snapped to the side and his concentration broke. His levitation spell dissipated as he flew through the air and came to a halt in a bush. The Mystic troops were dead silent as they watched Janus slowly lower his fist. Slash stirred where he had fallen, sitting up and spitting blood into the leaves as he untangled himself from the branches. Undying hatred burned in both their eyes as the two men watched each other across the distance. A Hench or two offered to help Slash up but he violently slapped their hands away. When he was on his feet, the swordsman wiped blood from his nose and upper lip on his sleeve and waited. At last, Magus spoke. "Very well. We shall do things your way. Let's get this over with." Turning away, he began walking towards the encamped army without a single backward glance to see if anyone was following him. Slash resisted the urge to sigh in relief. He hadn't really expected to be punched, but on the other hand, he was damn lucky that had been all that was done to him. Still, what was a split lip and a bloody nose in comparison to having won a battle, however small, with the Magus?
"All right, people," Slash announced, wincing as the movement made his upper lip sting. "You heard the Magus. Move out!"
* * * * *
The walk to their assigned position was a long one. Not because it was actually far away, but because of the time left up to the individual to think about the upcoming skirmish. Everything just seemed to take longer, mostly due to the dragging feet of every man present. Marching to what might be one's own death should never be hurried. Their group seemed to have no desire to talk as they pushed steadily toward their destination through the tents, then into the smithery, then to the outer sections where the watch fires were set for the sentries. Though Pendil's death had not been officially announced yet, the troops seemed to feel the anxiety of their commanding officers and knew something had gone very wrong this night. Why else would the alarm have been sounded? Why else would they be out here in the dead of night, most dragged from their beds, to stand watch for an attack that may or may not come? Cyrus' presence was comforting to them, however, especially to Glenn who trudged along beside his two friends nervously. Battle frightened him, though he was ashamed to admit it. Ever since he was little, he hadn't thought of himself as good a warrior as his best friends. He never really got over the fear of losing it in the heat of battle because he had to hurt someone. More importantly, though, he never got over his fear of maybe losing the people he cared most about. His friends were the light in this dark hell of his, and without them to help carry him through the days with their warm hearts and ready laughs, he wasn't sure he could hold out.
When they reached the southeastern section of the camp, part of the group split off and continued onward east. Cyrus leaned over and muttered something to Dane who shook his head and looked meaningfully at Glenn. Cyrus followed his gaze and then nodded. "What?" the green-haired Knight inquired.
"Nothing much. Cyrus just thought that you looked pretty worn out and suggested we try to talk you into going back," Dane explained. Seeing Glenn starting to look indignant, he raised his hand to stop the flow of angry words that would have been forth coming. "I already know what you are going to say. I told Cyrus that trying to talk you out of it would only make you more determined to stay."
"I appreciate thy concern for me, but I am quite capable of fighting beside thee. I am not fatigued in the slightest. Please do not ask me to return to camp." Glenn's voice held only the slightest bit of pleading to it as he looked back and forth between his friends. Cyrus smiled fondly and ruffled his best friend's hair.
"Okay. We won't send you back. You have a right to be here, the same as we do. I just get a little concerned for you sometimes. I just wanted to make sure you were feeling up to this."
"Sir Hero, could I speak to you a moment, please?" their commander called. "I'd like to go over some enemy tactics while we wait."
"I'll be right there," the sandy-haired young man answered. Lowering his voice, he rolled his eyes and said, "Duty calls. Hey, you guys might want to get into some sort of battle formation ahead of time, just in case, you know?"
"Got it," Dane nodded. "And don't worry. I'll look after our pacifist friend here."
"Say what?!" Glenn's eyes grew wide with shock at the statement. "I most certainly am NOT!" Cyrus only laughed as he walked off, leaving Glenn grumbling about back-stabbing traitors. The two men joined up with a group of other Knights and soldiers who apparently had the same idea. Already they had formed rows, each person staggered so as to create a wall of warriors over a longer distance. With uneasy tension, the men stood looking off into the dark.
"Here they come!" someone shouted from down the line. Glenn tensed his hand around the hilt of his sword, digging his feet into the soil for a good purchase. Dane laid a warning hand on his friend's forearm and shook his head. Don't get too worked up, the gesture said. Over-eagerness will get you killed. Glenn nodded and forced himself to take deep breaths and to relax his deathgrip on his weapon. This would be just another battle, he reminded himself. There was nothing to worry about. And yet, a pall seemed to be hanging over the camp tonight. Maybe it was the smoke from the campfires that made every shadow seem darker and every patch of light unbearably bright. Whatever the reason, the young man had no time to ponder it because the first wave of Mystics were charging straight at him. He hadn't realized that they had been coming for quite some time while he was lost in his thoughts.
"Take care, Glenn!" Dane shouted over his shoulder before he ran to engage one or more of the oncoming Mystics. Glenn wanted to return the sentiment, but he didn't have the chance as he found himself face to face with a tall, cold-eyed man wearing a purple cloak. Hints of long blue hair teased around the angular face like wisps of ice against the man's too-pale skin. Raising his sword before him and keeping one firm hand on his shield, the green-haired Knight saluted the enemy.
"Death to the Magus' troops!"
The Mystic gave him a depreciating look and pulled his sword from its scabbard. He didn't say anything in response to that, which was disconcerting. Behind him, Glenn heard an anguished yell which he recognized as one of his friend's. It was stupid, and he knew it, but he couldn't resist turning back to see who it was. Claudane was holding his left eye, blood welling between his gloved fingers. The Mystic whom the man was fighting looked incredibly pleased with himself as he inspected his bloodied blade. Glenn found that Mystic odd to behold indeed, for he looked nothing like the others.
"You should pray that Slash tires of his game soon, for your friend's sake." Glenn nearly jumped out of his skin when that smooth, chilling voice came from right next to him. How the Mystic had gotten so close without him knowing it was a mystery in and of itself. Glenn growled.
"Why dost thou care?" he demanded harshly. The blue-haired Mystic shrugged, walking a few spaces to resume their distance, casually dispatching of any Humans who got in his way.
"I never said that I did."
"Well, this is more like it," Slash laughed above the ring of swords and dying screams. Slasher flickered before Dane's good eye, the metal throwing little reflections of firelight onto the young man's face. "It's been far too long since I had a good battle like this to quicken my pulse."
"Claudane!" Glenn cried, taking a step forward to aid his comrade. A wall of ice rose up between the two combatants and the green-haired youth. Dagger-like protrusions of ice threatened to impale anyone unlucky enough to get too close. Spinning around, he gripped his sword in his hands tightly, eternally glad that his gloves kept his sweat-slick skin from slipping on the hilt. Magus lowered his hand, the glove smoking a little in response to his magic as he lifted Pendil's blade over his head.
"Your friend will just have to manage on his own, I'm afraid," Magus said softly. It seemed that he had taken an instant dislike to this boy. There was something so weak in his expression, in his eyes. The concern for his friend was so sweet that it made the Mystic want to vomit. "I am the one who you will be facing." Springing off his feet into the air, Magus cleaved downward with the sword. Glenn barely got his shield up in enough time to block the assault. As it was, the force behind the swing sent a shock up through his arm in a painful fashion. But he held his ground, leaning into the attack, determined not to lose footing to the Mystic magician. Magus grunted in approval. "Perhaps you'll be a worthy opponent after all."
"I wish I couldst say the same for thee," Glenn hissed, pushing Magus back a step and forcing him to block a swipe at his face. The mage grimaced as he was a second too late in getting his shield back up and the blade nicked the bridge of his nose, knocked off his hood, and cut off a lock of hair. Blood dripped in a slow red line from the cut and Magus wiped it off in irritation, ignoring the sting. Glenn saw the look of scorn change into one of anger on his opponent's face and shivered.
Magus looked the young man straight in the eyes as he said, "That will cost you, little toad." Gathering his will, Magus sent it shooting down into his sword, igniting it in black fire. Glenn's eyes grew wide and he backed up.
"S...sorcery!" he gasped, eyes bulging from his head. "Are you the...the...?
Magus smiled and gave an extravagant little bow. "But of course. Consider yourself lucky. It's not every day that you get to be killed by a celebrity." Swinging his sword, it connected with Glenn's, breaking it and sending both the blade and the hilt in different directions. The green-haired Knight raised his shield in defense and it was split right down the middle. Shaking off the useless pieces of metal, Glenn fumbled for his dagger but only succeeded in dropping it. He fell to his knees to reach for it and barely rolled out of the way as Pendil's stolen blade bit deeply into the dirt where moments ago his head had been. Backpedaling as fast as he could on hands and knees, he avoided cuts and swipes with the enchanted blade. Magus pursued him. "So easy," the magician laughed. "It's like taking candy from a baby." Glenn tried to get to his feet and ended up slipping on some loose gravel, landing on his back. "I have you now!" Magus gloated, his blade racing down. Agony made Glenn cry out in pain and shock as the enchanted sword tore through his armor. The weapon cut him from right shoulder to left hip. Had he not been wearing armor, the move would have most likely cut him open like a gutted fish. One arm wrapped around himself in a vain attempt to squelch the deluge of blood that was now seeping between the torn metal. Struggling up on his good arm, Glenn tried to drag himself on his side, away from the vile magician and his flashing black blade.
Meanwhile, Claudane was holding his own against Slash. But the Human was weakening and it appeared as if Slash had the stamina to continue fighting long after the night was through. Hurling a war cry from his lungs, Dane drove the blue Mystic back only to receive a volley of blows which he blocked. A jab here, a cut there and blood flowed from half a dozen wounds between damaged armor and ragged cloth on them both. "Give it up, Human!" Slash gloated, thrusting at Dane's stomach. The Knight sidestepped and brought the pommel of his sword down on the Mystic's shoulder. There was a crunch and Slash stumbled, transferring Slasher from one hand to the other. Staggering back, he waved his sword to keep the Knight at bay so he had time to assess his injury. His wounded arm was screaming in pain and parts of his fingers and palm tingled on and off with numbness. He tried to move his arm but it was no use; the pain was just too great.
"I think you are the one who should surrender," Dane retorted coldly, the sticky blood from his lost eye making his face seem like some ghastly mask. The empty socket burned, weeping crimson tears. The pain and the knowledge of what had been done to him was making him nauseous and lightheaded. But still, he had to try and fulfill his duty as a Knight of the Square Table. "If you give up peacefully, your death might be postponed for a short while longer." Slash uttered a scathing explicit and wiped blood from a cut on his brow out of his left eye with the torn sleeve of his good arm.
"I'm not beaten yet! I haven't survived this long just to be finished off by some stupid Human!"
"You're in no condition to continue fighting," Dane continued, realizing the irony of his own words. "As a warrior, you should realize that your cause is a hopeless one. You can spare yourself a lot of agony if you just give up." But Slash shook his bald head, the firelight and battle rage glinting in his hard, bright eyes.
"Shut up! Who do you think you're talking to? I'm not some rookie Mystic on his first blood run! I'm Slash, the greatest swordsman in the world." Despite his wounds, the blue man drew himself up to his full height. Every inch the proud warrior, he sneered at Claudane. "I've killed more men in my time then you could possibly imagine. I built my fame on the corpses of my enemies."
"Yes, you were great in your time," Claudane admitted, emphasizing the past tense. "But your age is finished, Mystic. You may be in the prime of your life now, but sooner or later you will fall. One day age and infirmity or your own sword in your gut will be the end of you." He watched Slash pause a moment to consider this. "It's your choice which battlefield you eventually want to die on. Which will it be?"
"If the choice be mine..." Slash began, trailing off. He looked at the blade in his hand and felt it's weight for the first time in years. For a moment, he was a boy again, holding a wooden practice sword and wondering how he would ever build up enough muscles to wield the sword his father held so dear. Then the moment passed and he was back to his senses. His father was dead, slain in the revolution brought on by Ozzie when he took over the Mystic throne. And his father's sword now belonged to him. Slasher sang through the air as he whipped it up into a battle position. "I choose to die as I was meant to die; I will be a warrior to the end!" Dane raised his sword in answer.
"Vainglorious fool," he scorned the blue man. "To the death then."
"To the death," was the echoed agreement. "And whatever hell comes after!" The two men hacked at each other with renewed ferocity. Their blades glinted like arcs of lights as they fought through the smoke and across blood-slick mud and grass, trampling the bodies of their fallen comrades without a second glance. The clang of their blades rang out into the air until their ears became deaf to all other sounds. Their world narrowed to each other and the simple, but powerful desire to leave the fight as the victor. At last, a fatal error occurred. Dane felt it prickling the back of his neck like the blade of an executioner's axe about to fall. He saw the sudden surge of glee in Slash's eyes and knew something was amiss. That was when his back hit the wall of ice. He had been maneuvered up against it from his blind side. The sharp icicles protruded from the wall like spears and tangled in his cape. The more he struggled, the worse it got. Slash moved in for the kill. There was nowhere to move with the spikes of ice hindering him at every turn. Dane had a moment of thought to send a silent plea begging forgiveness to his sister before Slash drove his blade into the Knight's chest.
Slasher bit deeply into the ice behind Dane, pinning him there. On the other side of the wall, a flailing Glenn saw his friend's demise. "No! Claudane!!" he shouted, voice choking off in pain and grief. Magus abandoned stalking his prey for a moment to see what had happened. A body was making the ice wall dark with blood. In the firelight, it look like a grotesque stained glass window as the red liquid ran in patterns between the icicles. Removing his sword from Dane's chest, Slash let the body slide to it's knees. For a moment, the cape held it suspended by the icicles until, with a tearing sound, the cape ripped and the body landed face first in the dirt. Coming around the wall, Slash let the tip of his sword trail behind him on the ground. He winced with every step he took, trying his best to cradle his wounded arm to his chest. Glenn moaned in despair and gave up trying to get away. He knew his death was immanent now. "Thou art truly monsters," he whispered brokenly. "Thou hast slain a good man." And a good friend, he added silently. Fare thee well, Claudane. May the Gods grant thee peace.
Slash looked at Magus and jerked his head in the direction of the young Knight. "Magus, what are you waiting for? Stop playing with your toy soldier and make the kill already."
The Mystic magician shrugged. The life of these Knights meant little to him at this point. All he wanted to do was return the diary to Cyrus and go back to the Fort. Gripping Pendil's sword in both hands, Magus raised it over his head for a downward thrust. Glenn looked up into the face of certain death. Then all of a sudden...
The wall of ice shattered into a million pieces, razor sharp shards flying in all directions. Slash had enough sense to hit the ground lest he be cut to ribbons. Most of it bounced harmlessly off Magus' shield spell and Glenn's armor, though one piece did slice the Knight's cheek as it flew by. Magus drew his breath in sharply and lowered his sword from it's killing position. Slash slowly got to his feet and came to the mage's side.
Two pairs of eyes locked together, anger and pain blazing in their depths. Time stood still for Magus as the Black Wind whistled over his body, stirring his cape and hair around him. Cyrus' expression was cold and grim. At his feet lay Dane's body. He took in Slash with disdainful disinterest. He saw Glenn's crumpled form. He saw Janus, sword in hand, infused with Shadow energy. Correction, Janus thought with heart-sinking clarity. He sees the Magus. Sweet Darkness...He knows. Cyrus knows who I am!
"Cyrus!" Glenn sobbed in relief. "Thank the Gods! Thou...hast..." His words trailed off as his eyes rolled up into his head and he fell back in a faint. Cyrus was at his side in an instant, a frown of worry putting creases between his eyes. He examined the wound and found it to be serious but not life threatening. Before he could treat it, however, there was business to be taken care of. Janus flinched at the blazing look he received from his friend. It was hard to believe that not so long ago, warmth and friendship had been written there. Now there was nothing at all friendly in his face, nothing of the boy Magus had known as a child. Before him was the Hero, in all his terrible and righteous glory. The mage swallowed nervously.
"Cyrus...I..." Magus half raised a hand out to his friend, lavender eyes begging for understanding. Cyrus closed his eyes and shuddered. Slash looked back and forth between the two men, his mind racing.
"Magus, you...know this Human?" His tone was casual, but Janus didn't miss the portent of the question.
"Leave us," he commanded, not once removing his eyes from Cyrus'. Slash hesitated, trying to think of some reason to stay so he could find out what was going on. Chances were, this was pay dirt that Ozzie would like to know about. Apparently, he was taking too much time because Janus swung his sword, using it to cast a Dark Bomb. The last remnants of the Shadow energy in the blade dissolved into the spell and sent Slash flying a good twenty feet, slamming him into a group of Humans and fellow Mystics who were battling it out. They all fell over in a heap. Magus paid them no mind, focused as he was on the Hero.
"You're him," the Knight whispered hoarsely, his voice choked. "You're the Magus." Angry eyes flashed open, glaring at the blue-haired magician as if challenging him to deny the truth. "You always have been...Right under my nose this whole time...My greatest enemy and I didn't see it...!"
"It's true," Janus said at last, a dull ache forming in his chest. "I wish it were otherwise..."
"You concealed this from me...all this time?" Cyrus got to his feet and took a step forward, raising one clenched fist threateningly. "Gods help me! The whole bloody time?!" Magus could do nothing more then nod. Words were useless at this point. Cyrus retreated his step and shuddered again. He looked so dreadfully pale and ill in the light of the fires. "Why?" he demanded harshly through clenched teeth. Janus regarded the body of the man who had called himself Claudane and the form of the boy he had nearly killed dispassionately as he mulled over all the things he wanted to say.
I wanted to pretend things hadn't changed. I didn't want to lose your friendship. I was trying to save you from further pain. The heat from the fires washed into his eyes on the breeze and made them tear. I wanted to salvage what remains of my soul. But he said none of these things. Instead, he blinked back the tears and drew himself up to his full height with a sneer plastered over his face. "You are my enemy," he spat in venomous tones. "It was in my best interest to conceal my identity and protect myself." Shame seared his heart at the sound of his own words, but the rising tide of his dark power soothed the burns like an unholy salve. His expression was one of cool arrogance, all the nobility of a warrior and the majesty of a prince warped into a tight mask of control. He watched as Cyrus forced down the bitter pain in his eyes and replaced it with loathing.
"I see, though I was a fool to have expected anything more from the likes of one of them!" The word flew from his mouth and struck the magician like a physical blow to the gut. But he hardly flinched at all. He was above caring about such petty barbs.
"As you say," he agreed in a dead tone. "You should have known better."
Cyrus looked straight into the wizard's eyes. "I will destroy you," he stated in a chilling whisper. Magus only smiled.
"I had no doubt in my mind that you would try. However, you will not find the path an easy one. I am not yet ready to die." Out of the corner of his eye, Magus could see Slash dragging himself to his feet, dispatching Humans left and right, cutting his way through them in an attempt to reach the mage. At first, it seemed as if he was merely upset over the Dark Bomb, but his agitation seemed to be stemming from a different source entirely.
When he saw he had Magus' attention, the blue swordsman cupped his good hand around his mouth and shouted something at him. Janus shook his head that he didn't understand. Slash sighed dramatically and rolled his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he tried again. "I SAID, GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE! What the hell's wrong with you?! Ozzie wants us to withdraw!" When Magus didn't immediately jump to obey the command, Slash purpled. "Did you hear me over there?! Don't tell me you plan to start ignoring Ozzie now, too!"
"Go to him." Cyrus jerked his head in the Mystic captain's direction. "Your master is calling you back to the kennel."
"You're no better than I am, so don't go acting all high and mighty, Sir Hero!" Cyrus had the decency to look wounded and slightly ashamed of himself. Janus only laughed cruelly. "You think I didn't know? You think I wouldn't have found out that my closest friend was actually my greatest enemy?" From the way Cyrus curled his lip at himself and his folly, it was apparent that he had. "Poor Hero...King Guardia's trusted servant of justice!" Magus laughed again, watching his former friend's face go red with fury. "I knew who you were when we made the pact and I have never acted out against you." Cyrus opened his mouth to make a sharp retort but before a single word exited his lips, Slash sped up and interposed himself between the two..
"Look, I really don't care if you die, but Lord Ozzie does. So, you'd better come with me right now or else-"
"Remove yourself from my sight." Janus looked down pointedly at the fellow Mystic. Slash growled in his throat. He was sweating visibly now, but whether it was from the heat or from the anger that stained his cheeks, the mage couldn't tell.
"Fine! Just stay here for all I care! I just want you to know that I hope your last thoughts before you die are about how you should have listened to me!" Stalking away in a huff after the retreating Groupies, he muttered, "Damn you, Magus! Why you gotta be so difficult to work with?" The magician watched him leave, eyes narrowing in irritation. Slash was so stupid at times, more so than usual.
"Glenn? C'mon Glenn, answer me!" Janus turned back and saw the Hero kneeling beside his friend, gently touching the pale face of the boy and stroking back blood-matted green locks from the ashen forehead. Glenn was barely breathing, his chest rising only the faintest bit under the armor. The boy's eyelid's fluttered and finally opened.
"Thank the Gods! I thought I was going to lose you."
"I'm sorry to have caused thee trouble..." Glenn's voice was little more than a whisper. He looked as if he was having trouble forcing the words past numb lips. His eyelids began to droop again and he whimpered, trying to remain conscious. "Claudane...He's...dead. I saw him die...I'm so sorry, Cyrus! I couldst not save him..." But Cyrus calmed him until he relaxed.
"Shh, you've done nothing wrong. Rest now, my friend. You're going to be fine. I'm here now. I won't let anything hurt you," the Hero murmured. Glenn's lips moved in thanks but no sound came out as he slipped back into welcome darkness. Cyrus watched him for a few moments. "I promise you, my friend, no more suffering. No more lives lost because of me." He raised his eyes to meet Magus' cold lavender ones and his voice hardened. "No more lies. No more betrayal."
"No more hiding who we really are," the Mystic added. "No more facades." Cyrus nodded once, stiffly. He hovered protectively over his wounded friend and despite himself, Magus felt a twinge of utter resentment and hatred for Glenn. The stupid, stupid boy! Where had Cyrus been when Janus had needed him? Had he braved the flames of a burning house to rescue his friend? No, he hadn't, Magus answered himself grimly. And yet this insolent pest of a Knight, this child warrior who wasn't even fit to be a squire, had barely been scratched and Cyrus acted as if he were watching his friend die before his very eyes. Bitterness welled up in his throat and he choked on it, the bile of rage saturating every surface in his mouth.
"Good-bye Janus," the Hero said softly, mournfully. For an instant, he bowed his head as if possessed by some terrible grief. But then he shook it off and was once again the figure of justice and valor. "As for you, Magus," he spit out the name as if it left a foul residue in his mouth, "We shall meet again." He carefully gathered Glenn's slight form up into his arms. He balanced his friend's weight over one shoulder while still managing to retain his grip on his sword. Without further words, he got to his feet and turned to go. Seeing his one and only true friend departing, realizing that this was the ending of their relationship, the knowledge that maybe he could have prevented this somehow...It was too much. All the pain and the fear, the sorrow and the guilt rushed to the surface in a tidal wave of raw emotion. Every injustice that had been dealt to him in this awful place, every scar that throbbed anew from his time with the Mystics and fighting against the Humans added to this negativity that formed itself around his person like a cloak. The Black Wind was crying, but it's sound was no longer abrasive. It was triumphant, a clarion call welcoming its liege lord home into the embrace of destruction.
"I hate you! Damn you for everything!" Magus hissed, taking menacing steps after the Knight. When Cyrus didn't turn, shadow energy crackled around Magus' hands in response to its master's will. "I'm going to enjoy killing you, just as I did your father!" The Knight stumbled, but refused to turn back. Magus pursued him relentlessly, hurling threats after him. "And you know what? I don't think I'm going to stop there. Maybe I'll come back and finish off this whelp you're so fond of." The diary concealed in his cape bounced against the back of his leg, reminding him of its presence. An evil smile curved his lips upward. "Or maybe, I'll take down that little slut who calls herself quee-" There was a rush of air near his right cheekbone and a sensation of cold followed by a deluge of hot liquid. It took a moment to register what had happened. Purple eyes widened in disbelief at the sword tip angled at the hollow of his throat. Drops of red slid down the keen edge. There was no feeling of pain as the magician gently touched his face, fingers coming back stained bright crimson. More of it slid down his wounded cheek to drip from his pointed chin. As Cyrus insultingly cleaned his blade on Magus' shoulder, the Mystic realized that in his rage he hadn't even been aware that the Knight had turned back to face him or that he had inadvertently dropped his guard. It could have just as easily been his throat that had been cut, he thought suddenly, not his face.
Cyrus began retreating again, this time not taking his eyes off Magus. "From this point forth, you and I are deadly enemies," he stated. Then he gestured with his sword. "Now go." One hand still against his bleeding cheek, Magus backed up and left. He ran past the remains of his fellow troops who were still departing as well. He ran until his lungs burned. Finally, he slowed to a halt. Doubling over from a stitch in his side, Magus groped under his shirt for his medallion. It felt like a lump of lead in his hand, the once brilliant surface now dull in his eyes. For some reason, seeking comfort from Schala at this moment didn't seem fitting. He didn't want to be anywhere near her right now, especially with these awful thoughts of blood and revenge filling his brain. Letting go, the medallion thumped back against the inside of his shirt.
"This is the end of an era," he whispered to himself, breath still ragged from running. A couple Henchs staggered past, obviously hurt. He paid them no heed. "This is the end of everything. Humans will lose to my people and the world will belong to magic once again." Standing up straight again, he gave one last look behind him at the Human encampment and the lingering sounds of battle as those foolish enough to remain were sliced to ribbons. "Take comfort, and sleep well one last time, old friend." Then he added, "Farewell, Hero."