The Story Of Magus Chapter 25
Coming To Terms
It looked like it was going to be a cloudy day. Standing atop the battlements of the Fort, Janus drew his cape tighter around himself as he attempted to watch the sunrise through the clouds and the mist. The horizon turned a smoky yellow color which then faded into light gray. What a fine morning this was turning out to be. As if his thoughts weren't gloomy enough to begin with, now the sky had to mirror his inner turmoil.
"How could I have been so stupid?" he asked himself, shaking his head in disgust. "I shouldn't have let it go on this long. I should have said something sooner. This mess is all my fault. If I had been up front with Cyrus, if I hadn't tried to conceal who I really was, none of this would have happened. Why is it that everything I touch turns to ruin?" His eyes moved unseeing over the tops of the trees below him, lost in waves of self pity.
You did what you had to do, that rational voice in his brain said. Survival is all that matters here. Had he known before, Cyrus would have killed you. He wouldn't have remembered that you were once his friend. He would see the man whose army brought the kingdom to its knees.
"That's right. And there is no shame in wanting to live, is there? After all I have gone through, and all the things I have done for him in the name of friendship, he owes this to me." Turning his back to the tepid light, the warlock firmed his resolve. "This time, there is no holding back." He paused, taking a shaky breath. "And yet, I can't help but wish things didn't have to be this way." Putting a hand around his amulet, he stroked his thumb over the ridges and tried to think of happier times.
"Magus! Where are you, you good for nothing brat?!"
The young man sighed. So much for silent contemplation. Ozzie puffed his way up the stairwell, shouting expletives all the way. Magus guessed that he had to walk because the ceiling was too low to float. First his stomach poked through the narrow doorway, followed by the rest of him. The Mystic had to squeeze through because it was a tight pinch. He cursed again as his arm scraped against the door frame.
"Whoever made this door is going to be whipped!" he snarled.
"Whoever made the door is most likely already dead," Magus replied.
"That's no excuse!" Ozzie resumed his hover and poked a flabby green finger into the youth's chest. "Is it true what Slash told me?"
"And how is dear old Slash? I heard his arm was messed up pretty badly."
"Don't change the subject! Is it true?"
Magus pushed hair behind one of his ears. "I guess that depends on what Slash said, doesn't it? And since I don't have the faintest idea what your pet swordsman reported, I can neither confirm nor deny any accusations he's made about me."
Ozzie grabbed onto his shirt with a menacing glare. The thin fabric seemed in danger of tearing. "I want to know whether you've been consorting with the enemy and betraying your own people!"
"I really don't see how it's any of your business what I do. If you think you own me, you're sadly mistaken." He placed his hand over Ozzie's and eased it away from his shirt front, squeezing the plump flesh until he heard the startled grunt of pain. "And the next time you think to grab me like that, I'm going to break every bone in your hand."
"Ow, ow! Okay, let me go!" Jerking himself free, the Mystic examined his hand. Dark, finger-shaped blotches were appearing on his skin. He raised his eyes and glared. "I guess this proves that Slash was right. You're a violent miscreant who delights in causing pain. Just what the hell were you trying to pull, making friends with the Hero?"
The wizard forced his lips upward into a contemptuous smirk. "Ah, so Slash really was your spy. How typical of you, Ozzie. You're so paranoid."
"Don't get smart with me! You're balancing on the edge of high treason. In our society, that is punishable by death."
"As if you or any one else could possibly harm me," the warlock sneered. His voice was cold and amused. "Don't forget, I am the greatest mage to have ever lived."
"Getting arrogant, eh? Do you really believe that you're so much better than the rest of us, with your high ideals and lofty morals? Well, I have news for you. You are exactly like us." The Mystic leader gave a dark laugh. "You were a nobody when I found you. I made you what you are! You're the Magus only because I asked Flea to teach you magic, and Slash to teach you how to fight. You talk about how we have no respect for life, and no code of ethics, yet you're the worst offender of us all." He laughed again. "And did any of your arrogance help you out there, last night? Was your 'friend' okay with the knowledge of who you really are?" He twisted the knife deeper. "No. I imagine even your 'friend' wants nothing more to do with you. Is he the one who cut your face?"
Magus gently touched the puffy area where Cyrus' sword had cut his cheek. He had given it a halfhearted healing the other night, but a strong red welt remained. He should have cared for it better so it didn't get infected, but he could worry about that later. He saw the other Mystic watching him, and lowered his hand. "That is a tired argument, and you know it. I don't owe you, or the Humans, anything. Whatever I am, I am because I choose to be, with no help from any of you."
"Then you'd better take responsibility for what happened out there last night!"
"I wasn't the one who ordered our men to march. If you're upset over the loss of lives, take it up with Slash, your military genius."
"This isn't about Slash. This is about you having orders to kill the Hero and not obeying them."
"If you're so eager to have him dead, you can damn well do it yourself," Magus stated, turning away. "You use me as your figurehead, anyway, not as a real soldier." He shook his head at Ozzie's gasp. "Oh, yes. I've known that for a long time. And frankly, I don't care. You started this war. You can finish it by yourself."
"Maybe I should! You're completely useless! Ten years of my life, wasted on a stinking traitor!" The Mystic leader was really working himself up now. "I can't believe I was such an idiot. I trusted you!"
"It was your misfortune to do so. It makes your situation that much more pitiable, since I don't really care about your hurt feelings. Your whining does little to change events that transpired in the past. What's done is done."
"I treated you like a son!"
"Hardly. I've always been a disposable commodity to you, and don't lie to my face by saying that isn't the case. You used me, plain and simple. But you know what? Sometimes pawns turn out to have a mind of their own." Turning, Magus brushed past Ozzie and headed for the stairwell.
The fat green Mystic trailed after him. "And that's it? That's all you have to say for yourself?"
The magician's thin patience finally broke. "If you're asking me what I plan to do about the Hero, then take this as your answer." Spinning about, he grabbed hold of Ozzie's neck and slammed him up against the battlements, leaning the Mystic over until he was looking upside down at a very long drop. "If he challenges me, I will fight him. But don't mistake me. I am not doing this for you. I have unfinished business with the Hero."
Ozzie's hands grappled with the one that was crushing his windpipe, but it did no good. Magus was just too strong. The blood was already rushing to his head from the position, and the lack of oxygen was making him see stars. Dimly, he heard Magus continue talking.
"I guarantee you one thing. When all this is over with, I am pulling myself out of the war. I'm done taking orders from a ball of blubber like you." Digging his fingers into the rolls of flab surrounding Ozzie's neck, Magus used them to haul the Mystic forward and toss him onto the stones.
Ozzie collapsed into a coughing, choking heap as he rubbed his tender neck. "Bastard," he wheezed. "You...bastard!"
"That's what they tell me," Magus replied in an emotionless voice. In a swirl of his purple cape he departed, leaving his superior gasping for air like a fish out of water.
* * * * * *
The smell of blood hung heavy in the air the closer one got to the west wing of the castle. There were no loud noises, only stillness in glassy, staring eyes and the soft moans and whimpers from those fighting for their lives against the darkness. It was to this place that Cyrus had taken Glenn.
The green-headed youth looked so small and pale lying against the pillows. He had been given his own special corner in the makeshift intensive care unit. Tired-looking physicians monitored his condition every few minutes. Cyrus stayed by his side, dozing in a chair next to the bed. He wanted to be there in case the worst should happen. He also didn't want to face Leene. No one had told her of her brother's death. It looked like he was the one who would have to do it. Cyrus was not looking forward to that one bit.
"Sir Hero, you should get some proper rest in one of the guest rooms upstairs," a nurse told him as she changed the bandages covering Glenn's wounds.
Cyrus shook his head to clear the fuzziness from it and sat up straighter in his chair. "I don't want to leave him," he mumbled, rubbing at his eyes. "He's just a kid, you know? I promised I wouldn't leave him. He needs me here."
"What he doesn't need is for you to collapse. Trust me. Your friend will be cared for with all the resources we have available. We won't let anything happen to him." The woman finished up and rearranged the covers over Glenn's pale body.
"I told him the same thing, you know?" The nurse gave him a strange look and he offered a sad smile. "I talked him into joining the army. I told him that he had talent with a blade. With training, he'd become a great warrior. And you know what he said? He told me that he'd really lose it if he had to hurt someone." The Hero gave a mirthless chuckle. "I called him a baby for it, a marshmallow. I was such a child!" His gauntlet creaked as he clenched his left hand into a fist on his lap. "I was so blinded by stupid thoughts of heroics that it didn't even enter my mind that people might actually die. I might as well have been swinging a wooden sword for all the seriousness I gave the thought."
The nurse laid a soft hand against the side of his face, and it was then that he realized he was crying. "I have seen hundreds of patients come through here," she said. "None of them had a friend more devoted than you."
Reaching up, Cyrus took hold of her hand and drew it away from his face, but he didn't let go. "It's just, Glenn wouldn't be in this state right now if I hadn't been so gung-ho about the war. He's really a gentle person, and I threw him into the middle of this nightmare and forced him to do all these horrible, bloody things. I promised him that I wouldn't let anything happen to him, just like I promised the Queen that I would take care of her brother." He squeezed his eyes shut again. "In the end, I couldn't do anything. I was useless when it mattered the most."
"You're only one man, Sir Hero." The nurse sighed and pulled her hand back. She reached out and smoothed a few green strands out of Glenn's eyes. The boy whimpered once, brow tensing, then relaxed. "It always seems to be the fate of those who deserve life the most to lose it the fastest. All we can do is appreciate those we care about in the time we have with them, because who knows when they might slip from our grasp?" Looking back at Cyrus, she pulled a clean cloth from a pocket and handed it to him. "Don't be too harsh on yourself. You did what you could for your friends. No one can ask more from a person."
The Hero wiped the tears from his face and handed the cloth back with a bit of embarrassment. "I'm sorry I carried on that way."
"Young man, everyone has a breaking point. The human mind can only deal with so much before it either shuts down completely or finds emotional release. I've lost track of how many men I've held while they cried their eyes out. Sometimes it was for a sibling or parent, sometimes for a fiancé who was murdered in a raid, and sometimes it was just because they couldn't deal with reality anymore and needed the comfort. If it helps, just think of me like a caring aunt."
Cyrus managed to smile. "I'm still not too thrilled about losing my composure like that, but...thanks."
The woman shrugged. "It's part of my job. I can't sit by and watch someone suffer. But now, I have to ask that you excuse me, Sir Hero. I have other patients that need attending."
"Besides, I heard the Queen is asking for you."
Cyrus sighed and pulled himself out of the chair with great reluctance. "Then I must not keep her waiting."
His foot falls were dragging as he left the infirmary and headed up the stairs towards the throne room. He passed by small groups of officers. Some of them offered condolences. Others quieted and watched him pass with solemn eyes. He barely acknowledged their presence. He was too caught up in his personal thoughts.
Glenn is injured by a wolf in sheep's clothing, a person I once called a friend. Claudane is dead and I have to break the news to the woman I love. The kingdom is looking to me to stop the Mystic scourge before it's too late. Everyone is depending on me to take care of everything. Cyrus bumped into someone. He muttered an apology and kept walking, not even bothering to see who it was. Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in all this responsibility. I mean, it's what I always wanted, right? To be the Hero who would save the day and deliver the world from the grip of evil. But it's so hard just to keep my own head above the water. How can I even hope of saving anyone else? Am I doing the right thing out there? If I am, then why are so many people who are close to me getting hurt?
Rounding a corner, he was pounced upon by the Chancellor and his assistant. "Sir Knight! Isn't it just the most terrible thing ever? Poor Claudane! We'll all miss him terribly."
Daryl put a hand over his heart and gave a sniff. "The kingdom has lost one of it's finest warriors. The poor Queen, losing her dear brother to the jaws of death! How she must be suffering!"
"She doesn't know yet," Cyrus answered, trying to step past the two men. They kept moving to intercept him. "Excuse me, but I have to inform her."
"Yes, of course," the old Chancellor agreed. "But first we'd like to discuss the little matter of his funeral expenses. Will the Queen be wanting his body burned?"
His assistant blocked yet another attempt at escape. "Or perhaps entombed in the royal crypt?"
"What sort of ceremony will be held?"
"Does she want flowers?"
"Flowers cost extra."
"I don't believe this!" Cyrus pushed past the two men. "A good man dies, and the only thing you two care about is how much his funeral will cost!"
"It's not that we don't care," the old man said quickly. He was forced to do a light jog to keep up with the younger man's strides. "But certain allowances have to be made for expenses. If we don't handle them, who will?"
Daryl nodded, jogging on the other side of the Hero. "That's right! You can't think we actually take pleasure in this sort of work?"
"I haven't spoken to the Queen yet. I don't know what she plans to do. Why don't you ask her yourselves?"
The Chancellor and his assistant looked aghast. "We can't do that!" they said in unison, skidding to a halt.
Cyrus stopped and turned back to them. "Why not?"
"Well, because it's not our place! You're so much closer to her. Could you ask her Majesty for us?"
"It's not my place either," Cyrus pointed out.
The Chancellor gave a hopeful smile. "But you'll ask her for us, won't you?"
The Hero sighed in irritation. "If I can find an appropriate time for it, I'll think about it."
"Thank you very much, Sir Knight!"
Cyrus gave the Chancellor a stiff bow before hurrying on his way. That insufferable man made his head hurt. How could he think of money at a time like this? It was another of those times when he simply had to grit his teeth and deal with it. Though one more second with those two, he might have forgotten his place and let the two of them really have it.
The throne room was near deserted. Only a few guards stood at attention. They saluted Cyrus as he passed and he gave one in return. King Ruttelard Guardia sat in his throne, staring into space with a frown. He held his crown in his lap, absently tracing the sharp points and fingering the jewels that encrusted its surface. Cyrus cautiously approached, uncertain of his monarch's state of mind at the moment. He reached an acceptable distance and bowed.
"Sire." The king didn't move. Cyrus straightened and said a little more loudly, "Sire?"
"Do you think...I'm a good king, Sir Hero?"
Cyrus was taken by surprise with the question. "Um..."
The monarch smiled a bit. "You can answer honestly. I won't have you beheaded if your reply isn't exactly flattering."
"I think you are a very good king, my liege."
The ruler gave a short laugh. "You're too kind, Cyrus. I would have spit on the floor and called for a stronger leader."
"Sire, I meant what I said."
"No ruler ever wants war during their lifetime," the older man went on, looking down at his crown. "My father did his best to avoid it. I was a small boy during the Mystic uprising, but I remember how proud and noble he looked, commanding the troops with an iron fist. I, alas, simply do not have what it takes." King Guardia quieted for a moment and then sighed. "If there were a person more worthy of ruling, I would abdicate to them without question. I'm sure it would save the kingdom from experiencing more suffering." He held the crown out to the Knight with an unreadable expression. "Would not you like the throne, Sir Hero?"
Cyrus frowned deeply. "My lord, are you serious?"
The King chuckled without mirth and settled the symbol of power back on his head. "Perhaps not. Though, I wish at times I could be rid of this beastly burden that has been cast upon me. Thank heaven for your presence, Sir Hero. I fear that our much loved land would be fairing twice as poorly without you." Gesturing a hand towards the royal living quarters, he said, "Leene has been asking for you every hour on the hour since you've returned. You had best be on your way." Disturbed and troubled by the King's depression, Cyrus could only bow in silence and proceed up the stairs.
The walk wasn't a long one, but for a man in armor with a heavy heart, the exertion was twice as taxing. The stone stairwell echoed his footfalls yet absorbed the soft panting of his breath. Each step brought him closer to his destination, and it felt as if he were walking to his own execution. No one had asked if he wanted to be the one to do this. Everyone merely assumed he would be the right one for the job. That's the price of power, I suppose, Cyrus thought, exiting into the hall that would take him to Leene's quarters.
The lone guard posted outside looked haggard, as if he'd gone for days without sleep. He fumbled his salute and then looked frustrated at his lack of coordination. "Sir Hero! Everything is in order, sir! Have you come to see her Majesty?"
"Yes. Could you please inform her of my arrival?"
"Sir!" The guard saluted again, better this time, and entered the room behind him. He partially closed it, but Cyrus could hear the man speaking. "The Hero requests an audience with your Majesty."
Leene's sweet voice was softer, as if she were further back in the room. "You may let him in."
The door was opened fully and the guard stepped aside. "The Queen will see you now." Cyrus nodded and walked into the room.
The Queen's chambers had a distinctly feminine feel to them. There were flowers in vases on tables and stands, paintings of landscapes and tapestries of mythical beasts, and thin, dainty rugs. Leene was an avid reader, something uncommon for a woman, so she had a small bookcase crammed with poetry, histories of the various noble families, romance novels, and expensive picture books. There was more light in this room than in most other parts of the castle. This could be attributed to the many windows and wall-mounted lanterns. There were plenty of comfortable wooden chairs furnished with cushions and a small card table which was still being used for breakfast. Two ladies in waiting were seated there, stirring their tea and pretending that they weren't eavesdropping.
Removing his helmet, Cyrus placed it under one arm and bent low at the waist. "Majesty."
Leene rose to her feet from her chair. It was more ornate than the rest, almost like a throne without all the trappings. She smoothed her gown and clasped her hands in front of her, a very grave expression on her face. "Sir Hero," she began, "We are friends. Let us dispense with the formalities and speak directly of the business at hand."
"As you wish." Cyrus held back a wince at the clipped tone the woman was using. Her voice radiated her worry.
The Queen looked to her maids. "Please excuse us. I wish to speak to this individual in private. I will send for you when my business is concluded." The ladies in waiting looked at each other, trying to conceal mischievous smiles.
"As you wish, my lady," they chorused, exiting the room with stifled giggles.
Cyrus shook his head and set his helmet down on the table. "We have to be more discreet than this, Leene. The gossip will get us into trouble some day."
"I don't care," she replied, lifting her chin. "I have to know the truth. What happened out there last night? No one will tell me anything. They dance around me like a maypole, trying to spare my feelings. I'm about an inch away from the breaking point." Her lower lip trembled. "I know something bad happened. I just...I just wish someone would tell me what it is." Putting one hand over her mouth, she turned away. Her slender shoulders shook. Cyrus hesitated, then moved up behind her, putting his arms around her waist. She turned into his embrace, burying her face against his armored chest.
His hands kept wanting to clench, but he resisted the urge. He didn't want to be here.
Sometimes it amazes me how cowardly people can be when it comes to bad things. Given the chance, I would have pawned the unhappy deed off to someone else, I think. But of course, no one else wants to do it, so I'm the only one left to take action. One hand patted Leene's back. The other stroked her butter-gold hair. This isn't right. It should be her husband telling her the news, not me. Dane was his brother-in-law. Doesn't that mean anything? I guess it's easier to hear it from me, but...
He stood there, holding her. His mind raced as he tried to think of what to say to make the blow easier to bear. His mind was a blank slate. He could barely believe the truth of things himself, and he had witnessed it first hand. Gathering Leene closer to his body, Cyrus said, "I'm sorry. Dane was killed while fighting the Mystics." He hadn't meant to be so blunt about it, but it seemed to be the only way it could be said. Leene froze. She stopped shaking, and even breathing. The room was dead quiet, save for his own heartbeat pounding in his ears.
"I don't believe you."
Her head snapped up, nearly hitting the man in the jaw. "I said I don't believe you!" She struggled out of his arms and backed away, eyes wide. "No, this isn't happening. Dane's fine. He has to be! Why are you making up cruel stories?!" Her face was like an unrecognizable mask of anger as she stood trembling. She wrung her hands, twisting her fingers with near violence. Cyrus reached for her but she dodged his grasp, running to the door. "I'll send for him. You'll see! I won't believe your lies." She tore at the handle and the heavy oak swung open. "Guard! Guard!"
The man was down the hall, most likely gossiping with the maids. He clanked as he ran and skidded to a halt. He saluted. "Your Majesty?"
"Summon my brother to me at once!"
The guard blinked and looked past her to Cyrus, who shook his head. He looked with helplessness back at the queen. "Y-Your Magesty...I--"
"That will be all, good guardsman," Cyrus interjected, saving the poor man further discomfort. "You may return to your post. And shut the door, please." He ignored Leene's blazing look for the time being.
"Sir!" The guard looked relieved as he closed the door.
"How dare you counter my orders! Who do you think you are? You have no right--"
"I have every right! You're not being rational!"
Leene seemed to crumple, her eyes filling with tears. "Don't yell at me!" She wrapped her arms around herself, leaning her left shoulder against the door and sliding down to the stone floor. Her pastel blue skirts spread out around her like an inside-out flower. "Dane....Oh, Dane..."
Her first sob was like a rip being torn into the Hero's heart. He felt at loss for what to say. "He didn't suffer," Cyrus offered. "I know that it's poor consolation--"
"Very poor, Sir Hero!" The woman dragged the back of her right hand across her eyes. He took a step towards her, but she cringed. "Stay where you are! Don't come any closer to me!"
"It's all your fault! Where were you while my brother was being murdered?"
Resentment welled up inside Cyrus. "I was trying to defend your kingdom, milady! I can't be everywhere at once. As it is, Glenn would have been dead too if I hadn't arrived when I did."
"Glenn," Leene repeated with bitterness. "You promised me that you would look after Dane! Weren't you his friend too? Or was he not as good as that bootlicking child who adores you so?"
In three long strides, Cyrus grabbed Leene by the arm and yanked her to her feet. She gave a startled squeak, and tried to shrink away. Cyrus rarely got angry around her, but when he did, he was frightening. His eyes darkened and almost seemed to flash as they stabbed into her own. "Stop. It. Now." She sniffled and he released her with a bit of a shove. "I'm sorry Claudane is dead, but there was nothing I could do." He gave a short, hard laugh. "Don't you think I wish I had gotten there sooner? If I had, maybe Dane would still be alive. Maybe Glenn wouldn't have gotten hurt. And if I hadn't..." His voice caught. "If I had only known... God, I was so stupid! I should have seen. All the evidence was there, and I was completely blind to it!"
"What are you talking about?" Leene had no idea what Cyrus was saying, but his expression was tortured. More than that, it held an incredible amount of guilt.
"Look," he said at last. "You have every right in the world to hate me. You're were right. It's my fault. All of this, everything... I should have been able to stop it. But please, don't say such things about Glenn. He's innocent of any blame."
The silence stretched between them, seconds falling away, never to be recovered. Leene's tears fell from her cheeks and landed on her dress, clinging like diamonds of grief to the material. Cyrus would have liked to do some crying himself, but he couldn't break down in front of her now. He had to be strong.
"At least the culprit who committed the murder is dead," Leene muttered, looking around her for something to dry her eyes with. Cyrus picked up an unused cloth napkin and fingered it briefly before handing it to her. She knew a stall when she saw one. "That Mystic is dead, is he not?"
Cyrus squared his shoulders. Lying to her would be the hardest thing he would ever have to do. "No. I let... I mean, he got away. I wasn't able to stop him." The words felt like marbles in his mouth, slippery and unusual, rolling over his tongue while threatening to gag him. "I'm sorry."
"What?! How could you?"
The soldier stiffened. "It was either that, or let Glenn bleed to death on the ground."
"You had that Mystic in your sights and you let him get away!"
"There will be another time. The villain won't get away with this, I promise you."
"You promised to take care of my brother, too. You betrayed the faith I placed in you. You could have avenged his death then and there, but you didn't. How can I believe you when you say you won't fail me again?"
"I thought saving one life was more important than losing two! Was I wrong?" When she didn't answer, he raised his voice a bit more. "Was I, Leene?!"
She turned her face away from him and looked to a point somewhere on the right. "I think you should leave now. I have nothing further to say to you."
Cyrus was deeply hurt by the dismissal, but she was still the queen. "As you wish." He retrieved his helmet from the table and tucked it under his arm, reverting back to formality to cover how upset her words had made him. "Please accept my condolences, your Majesty." He bowed and headed for the door. His hand was on the handle when she spoke again, her voice little more than a whisper.
"Take care of yourself, Cyrus. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you as well."
He didn't turn, but he gave a nod to show that he'd heard. "Be sound of health, my queen." With that, he left.
* * * * * * * *
For two weeks the armies hadn't made a move. They had exchanged a few friendly skirmishes that hadn't resulted in any fatalities. The last battle had taken its toll on both sides. The Humans took the time to rest up and pay homage to their dead. They also utilized the breather as a space to rebuild fortifications that had been broken by enemy assaults. The Mystics could have stopped them, but it was always more thrilling to destroy something after a person had devoted time and effort in a futile attempt to fix it.
Then one day a message was sent to the Fort. It was from one of the many spies Ozzie had infiltrating the Human army. With Slash out of commission, and Magus not to be trusted, the fat leader had become more and more dependent on their information to keep him informed on the current status of the war, and more importantly, what the Hero was up to. The courier had been escorted by Hench guards into the library, where their leader was cataloguing spoils the troops had picked up off the battlefield.
"The war could have been won ages ago, if not for Magus," Ozzie grouched, pushing his glasses higher on his nose as he fingered the rough edges of the letter. He dismissed the courier back to his duties as he broke the wax seal. He unfolded the paper, smoothing out a few wrinkles made by rough handling. His eyes widened. Lowering the letter, he stared into space for a moment as a chill stole over his flabby body. "By the darkness, this can't be happening," he whispered. Reading the letter again and again still didn't change what was scrawled with apparent haste on the parchment. Just one word, but it struck terror into his heart.
Ozzie curled his hand into a fist. Flames sprung up between his fingers and incinerated the paper. The guards looked apprehensive, since they had rarely seen their leader display true, passionate anger. Everyone had been griped at by him at one time or another, but to see Ozzie seriously enraged was enough to make them quake in their boots. "You stupid, arrogant boy!" he cried. "Magus, you have damned us all!"
* * * * * * * *
It didn't take long for the news to spread. Soon, the word on everyone's lips was Masamune. There was great speculation that this might turn the tide of war for the Humans, and the rumors were seriously disheartening for the Mystics. Ozzie could see the empire he was building start to crumble before his very eyes. No one wanted to face the might of such a sword, and his officers were requesting orders to retreat before their soldiers deserted.
Ozzie threw another plaintive missive across the room in a wadded-up ball. "Things are going to hell!"
Slash shifted in his seat, careful not to disrupt the splints and bandages around his wounded arm. The benches of the dining hall were decidedly uncomfortable, and the tables were low enough to interfere with his injury. In the end, he had to sit on top of the table itself, resting his booted feet on the bench. Ozzie sat next to him, the table edge pushing into his body in a grotesque way, so they could talk face to face.
The swordsman gently ran a hand over the wrappings of his arm and shoulder, testing for tenderness. "I told you that it was a mistake to leave our fate in the hands of that brat."
"You can save the 'I told you so's for later! Right now, we're looking at a possible mutiny. No one considered that a Human would ever be able to obtain the Masamune. It's a Mystic artifact. As far as they were concerned, they assumed its every existence was nothing more than a myth. But now that the Hero has it in his hand..." Ozzie drew in a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. His bulk pressed even more into the table, and Slash had to wonder whether it was hurting his leader or not.
"So, what's the plan?"
"I don't know. I never considered this possibility."
"But you agree that something must be done?"
Ozzie's eyes flashed. "I'm not a fool, Slash! I've spent too much time on this campaign to give up on it now."
"I just wanted to know whether you were considering defeat." The blue man gestured at himself. "I'd hate to think I ended up like this for nothing."
Ozzie shook his head. "No, there has to be a way around this." He chewed on the edge of one of his claw-like fingernails, lapsing into silence to think. Apparently not getting anywhere, he slammed that hand on the table in frustration. "All right. Let's go over what we know." Slash bobbed his head in quiet agreement. "We know that the Hero has the Masamune. This has been confirmed by several reports."
"And we know that it's not a ruse, because the Masamune is very distinctive," Slash added.
"Right. And we know that no Mystic in their right mind would go up against such a sword, even if they stood a chance of winning, which they don't."
"The Hero's reputation precedes him."
"Quite." The green Mystic fumed in his seat. "If only Magus had done what he was supposed to do and finished him off. You would think he would have enough sense to turn a friendship with the Hero to his own advantage. He could have gotten close to him and then bumped him off."
"Can you make me a sandwich?"
Ozzie blinked. "Huh?"
"A sandwich. You know what that is, right? Two slices of bread, some cheese and meat--"
"I know what a sandwich is!" Ozzie roared. "What do I look like, your serving girl? Do it yourself!"
Slash's lower lip trembled in an unconvincing pout. "But I can't cut with one hand!"
"How can you think of food at a time like this?!"
"I think better on a full stomach!"
"You're the sorriest excuse for an underling I have ever seen!" But he still hefted his bulk up to make the sandwich anyway. "You know," he said as he got a knife, "I think we've been missing the important issue here."
"What issue? And I want it on the light bread, not the dark."
Ozzie prayed for patience. "Think about it. The Hero is a figurehead for the Human armies, much like we use Magus as ours. By killing him, we'd send the Human armies into disarray."
"Uh huh. Can I have some more cheese on that?"
"So, what a better setup than to have the two figureheads battle it out?"
Slash grimaced. "I don't know. Magus is unreliable, as time has shown. I don't think he'll go for it."
"Do you have a better idea? The troops will unify again once the threat of the Masamune is out of the picture. Hell, so long as the sword is destroyed, it won't matter if the Hero lives or dies. The Humans will lose an important symbol of hope, and their precious sword-swinger will lose face. No one will follow a defrocked Hero." Ozzie set the finished sandwich on the table. "Besides, Magus already said that he wants to finish things with the Hero. It shouldn't be too hard to manipulate him into a favorable position by using that as leverage. Even if he won't do it for us, I'm sure he'll see the danger he is in if he lets the Hero run free with that much power at his disposal. The man is out for blood, it seems. He won't rest until we're all wiped out, and he's aiming his sights on the highest of us all for an appetizer."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Slash replied around a mouthful. Then he peered hard at his food and made a face. "Ew! Is this bread moldy?"
Ozzie glared and put his hands on approximately where his hips were supposed to be. "Beggars can't be choosers!"
"But I can't eat moldy food! What if I get sick?"
"Waste not, want not," was the solemn reply. "We're in the middle of a war, man! Think of it as rations."
"Wait, never mind. It was just fuzz from your sleeve." Slash took another bite. When he spoke, crumbs scattered from his large lips. "Are you going to do the honors?"
"Probably. Magus listens to me well enough. He's a strange one. I'll just have to think up a very convincing speech."
Slash glanced at the fading bruises Magus had left on Ozzie's skin and smirked. "Good luck."
Ozzie snorted and picked up another letter from the table. "Thanks. Knowing Magus, he won't make this easy for me." Using one nail, he broke the wax seal and unfolded it. Giving it a cursory glance, he rubbed his chins. "Hmm, most interesting."
Ozzie adjusted his glasses and read from the paper:
"From: Sir Cyrus, Hero of the Kingdom of Guardia
To: Sir Magus, Leader of the Mystic Hoards
For the many crimes against the Kingdom of Guardia, and her people, you have been deemed a threat to Humanity. I issue you a direct challenge. Come to the highest plateau of Mt. Denadoro three days hence. We shall settle things there, once and for all."
Slash paused in mid-bite. "Wow, that guy is serious."
Ozzie set down the paper. "It looks that way." He sighed again. "Humans were never so blunt back in my day. You never heard of anyone sending a challenge to an enemy. We'd meet face to face on the battlefield, and both sides would stop and watch the dramatic final battle. It wasn't just a fight, it was like a performance. You didn't dare screw up, not just because you could get killed, but because you'd look like a total fool before you died."
"Talk about putting on the pressure to win."
"This younger generation has no inkling of doing anything with style," the Mystic leader bemoaned, stuffing the letter into a pocket. "Well, that cinches it. Now I have to find Magus, and force him to see things our way. The last thing I want is for that blasted knight to come charging up to our very gates and start waving his sword around."
"Just put the kid in a headlock and show him who's boss."
"Very funny. Finish that sandwich and go back to your room and rest."
"Yes, Mommy." The swordsman chuckled at Ozzie's thundercloud expression. Then he blinked and peered again at his food. "Wait, maybe that was mold..."
* * * * * * * *
Solitude was always hard to find in the Fort. With so many Mystics in one place, there was precious little space for any one person to call their own. Oh, there were a few places, granted, like his rooms or the battlements. But as of late, the noise near those two areas had increased dramatically. It was Masamune this, and the Hero that; hour after hour, from dawn to dusk no one could seem to speak of anything else. Magus was sick of hearing it all.
The one place that seemed fairly quiet at the moment was the garden in the inner courtyard. Some flowers had sprouted in a patch of mud near one of the broken-down walls. Star-shaped red ones peeked out from between the vine-like stem of a large white. It was a rare spot of color amidst the browns of dead foliage and the sickly green of wilting crabgrass. The magician had dragged one of the heavy stone benches closer to the flowers so that he could look at them without constantly squatting to their level.
The two plants were twined together, but it was easy to tell that it was anything but harmonious. The white flower was hardier than the fragile reds. Most likely a weed, Magus thought. Already the red flowers were beginning to turn dark around the edges as they had the nutrients stolen from out of the soil in which they had sprouted.
"Did you even hear a single thing I've just been telling you?!"
Magus gave a stiff nod, the only acknowledgment of Ozzie's presence that he had given since the fat Mystic had tracked him down. "I heard." He bent low over the weed, cupping his hands around the hardy white blossom.
"You really don't care about anyone but yourself, do you?"
Ozzie's green complexion purpled. "Stop repeating me like an idiot and answer the damn question!"
Magus leaned his face close to the white petals and inhaled. Lovely, but no scent. "How can an object be pleasing in one respect, but void in all others?"
"Take this plant, for example. It's a weed, choking the life out this other plant. They both have flowers." He pointed. "The red ones are small and weak. They bend under the weight of the weed, see? Day after day, the weed grows tighter, like a noose, slowly draining the soil of nutrients until at last, it will whither. The end is inevitable, but still it struggles, clinging to life." Plucking a single, fragile bloom, he cradled it in the palm of his hand, holding it out to Ozzie. When the Mystic took it, he followed the habit of most people and sniffed it.
"Not bad," he said, taking a second whiff. "Subtle, but a smell is there nonetheless." He dropped the little blossom to the ground. "It's a shame they'll wilt fast off the stem."
Magus turned back to the flowers. "The weed is stronger and the blossom more fair to behold. However, beauty and strength are its only virtues. It has nothing else to offer. One bloom only, devoid of smell. It's a beautiful killer. It will endure, living off the nutrients meant for the other plant, until there is nothing left. The red flowers will turn to dun, and fall from the stem. The leaves will shrivel. The white flower will be alone, for a time, and then it too will die."
Ozzie was silent for a moment or two, digesting this odd conversation before he could take it no longer. "Okay, I'm lost. What does any of this have to do with the earlier topic?"
The blue-haired wizard smiled slightly. "Was that so hard to follow?"
"Why the sudden obsession with these stupid flowers? I'm guessing that you were trying to make a point somewhere in that poetic, muddled mess, but I am totally missing the meaning."
"It means, Ozzie, that you needn't have wasted your time trying to cajole me into fighting the Hero. I told you before, I have a score to settle with him."
The green Mystic blinked. To think he had been gearing up for a long, involved argument in which he would have made several very important points regarding loyalty, duty, and how effective torture can be to get uncooperative magicians to do what you want. Magus never failed to be unpredictable.
He took a seat on the other end of the bench and glanced up at the sky. "You know, I just don't understand you, my boy. You have these unwritten rules you follow. You condemn your own people for certain actions that you do yourself, yet you act beyond reproach. Sometimes you seem swamped with guilt and remorse and then you turn around and become this cold-blooded monster I barely know."
"Hnn. I suppose it never occurred to you that you might not know me at all?" The young man dusted off his hands and reached for where he had set his gloves down on the ground by his right foot. "I was told once, long ago, to brave the darkness. That person was very important to me. I swore then that I would do whatever it takes to survive, even if it meant that I had to fight former friends and destroy whole kingdoms to do it. Maybe now you understand why this is something that I feel I have to do." He pulled on the leather, sliding each finger into its proper place. When he was done, he stood up. There was a new resolve in his bearing, and suddenly he seemed far older and wiser than his years. "It is the fate of the strong. We survive...or we die alone."
Ozzie thought about this, and cocked his head. "And who was this special person? It must have been someone important to have touched the heart of one so cold." When Magus didn't answer, the Mystic sighed. "Whatever the reason you have for fighting the Hero, this is good new for me. That thorn in my side has been aching for far too long. It'll be good to finally have it removed. So, let me give you a little present to commemorate this day." Ozzie held out one fat green hand, palm up. "Here." The hand was empty of objects.
Magus looked at him and frowned. "Here what? You aren't holding anything."
"Ahh, that's how it may appear to the untrained eye. But if you give a wave here and a pinch of magic there...voila!" A ball of golden light appeared in Ozzie's hand, stretching outward horizontally until it was about five feet long and a couple inches thick around. He gestured with the other hand. "Go ahead, take it." Cautious of some sort of trick, the mage curled his fingers around the glowing object. As soon as his fingers were secure, a brilliant flash illuminated the area.
"What the-!" The Mystic wizard threw up an arm to help block the glare of the light, but even with that shielding, he found himself unable to see for several moments afterward. "What the hell was that?!" Something hard and heavy was resting in his palm but he lacked the sight to examine it right then. He heard Ozzie chortle.
"Ta-da! How's that for some fancy spell slinging, huh?"
Magus blinked his searing eyes until he could see again. The temporary blindness eventually gave way to brightly colored spots. "Next time, tell me when you're going to pull a stunt like that!"
"Awww, what sort of thanks is that?! And after I went through all the trouble to do this for you. You're such an ungrateful child! Hmph! Back in my day, we didn't complain when we got free stuff. We were damn happy to have it."
The light had transformed itself into a weapon. Magus examined it with a keen eye. "A scythe, huh? Interesting choice. Any particular reason why you're giving me this?"
"For your upcoming battle, of course. You're my best general. I can't have you disgracing yourself out there, fighting with a stolen Human weapon. You have to uphold the honor of the Mystics!"
Magus felt his lips quirk in derision. "General? Since when? Last I heard, I was a traitor to all Mystic kind."
"I may have spoken a bit harshly," Ozzie said with haste. "After all, I'm sure you had your reasons, however obscure they may seem to the rest of us."
The young magician laughed outright. "I shouldn't accept this. I wouldn't want to be accused of taking bribes."
"Bribe has such an ugly ring to it." Ozzie winced. "I prefer to think of it as encouraging you to make the correct decision, one that will ultimately benefit the both of us."
"I see." He gave the scythe a few experimental swings. "It is a fine weapon."
"I wouldn't outfit you with anything less than the best against this opponent."
"These things always seem to fall to me, don't they? I used to like to think that I was born for some greater purpose than to be your butcher, but it seems I was wrong, wasn't I?" Handing back the weapon, he paced a bit. "I'm going to be honest, Ozzie. I don't want to fight Cyrus, but if I don't, nothing will ever be resolved between us. He'll just keep coming for me until I have nowhere else to run. His honor will only be satisfied by my blood on his blade."
"What's this talk of running away? Surely you must realize the importance of this event? He issued you a direct challenge, just by attaining the Masamune. He wouldn't have gotten it for the mere prestige of handling it. He wants your head on a pike. I read you the letter. If you don't go, you'll look like a coward!"
"More likely, the Humans will think it's beneath me to accept a challenge based on bravado alone. However, I should have liked to name the spot for our battle. He is too noble minded for me to suspect him of foul play, but I know he is not above choosing a place advantageous to himself. Perhaps I should refuse for now, and let him come to me. He might not be so bold, were he to face me here, on my own turf."
"Ha! Are you ignorant to the ways of the Masamune, or merely an idiot?"
Magus looked at the Mystic leader sharply. "What do you mean?" A vague childhood memory stirred in the back of his mind. Something Sir Cedrick had said about... "It's a sword that can change the course of history forever. The wielder holds the power of the universe in his hands."
Ozzie nodded, pleased. "Ah, so you do know about the legend."
"Is the legend true? I'm not sure I fully understand it."
"Nah! I'm afraid the sword isn't as spectacular as all that. If it were, we'd have conquered the Humans ages ago. No, what it really does is negate magical energy. So you see, fighting the Hero here wouldn't give you any great advantage. All it will do is feed the sword more power, thus making you weaker."
"So, how does one defend against it?"
"Good question. I hope you figure it out."
"You mean, you don't even know?" Magus threw his hands in the air. "That's just great. You expect me to go off and fight without even knowing what I'm up against."
"I didn't say that. I don't know how to defend against it, but I do know everything it does. I've made it a hobby of mine, you see, to study the sword. I never knew if I'd ever need the knowledge. The stupid thing makes this awful buzzing sound that only we Mystics seem to hear, which is why none of us can use it effectively. Our race is magic based, and since it sucks up magic like a sponge, only the strongest of us can hope to handle the drain. Weaker Mystics have tried to use it and died terrible deaths up on the windy peaks of Denadoro, the Whispering Mountain. Some say, the sword can talk, and the wind there carries its words. I just think it's a rumor. But the blade is enchanted, and can pierce through magic barriers as if they weren't even there."
"Do you have any good news for me?"
"Indeed I do. The sword is extremely old. It's been lying around in the mountain for...well, longer than even I can remember, and that's a pretty long time. I imagine it's all rusty by now. You shouldn't have too much trouble with it. Your magic is powerful. I think you'll still have some to spare if it decides to play the drain game."
"If you knew where the sword was, why didn't you hide it someplace where Humans couldn't get to it?"
"It's not like I can just walk up to it and grab it, you know! The thing has a mind of it's own. It decides what people can get near it and who can touch it. I remember this one time, when Drek went to visit his relatives in that area, I asked him to check out the cave, since I had never seen it myself. When he came back, I asked him about it, and he seemed completely shaken by the question. I asked what was wrong, and he kept saying something about twins and monsters as big as a house. I couldn't make it out. I concluded that the sword also has the ability to make people go temporarily insane if they don't know how to handle it properly."
"Did you ever go?"
"Yes. I visited the cave a year or so later. I didn't see any of the things Drek was talking about, and I was happy to find that the sword doesn't absorb energy while dormant, but I couldn't shake the eerie feeling that I was being watched. Needless to say, I never went back there. I'm not one to believe in ghost stories and the like, but you don't have to dabble in the necromantic arts to sense that the sword is possessed by a living spirit."
"Hmm. Do you think Slash would know anything about the Masamune?"
"Nah. I've asked him to go check it out on a few occasions but he always insists that magic and swords don't mix. I just think he's a big baby and doesn't want to hike all the way up there. Flea would know, since it's in her area of expertise."
"Yeah, and I'd be better off talking to a stone wall in that case," Magus said wryly.
Ozzie gave a rueful smile. "I guess I can't argue with you there."
"What else do you know about the sword?"
"Legend says it's made out of some super-hard ore that fell from the stars. It's a mineral found in these red rocks that used to be all over the place. Nowadays, it's rare to find any of them just lying around." Ozzie scratched his hairless green pate with one hand and rubbed his chin with the other, thinking for a moment. "I can't remember the name of the stuff off hand. It was something fancy. Sleeprock? No, that wasn't it. Umm..."
"Dreamstone," Magus said softly.
"Yeah! That's the stuff. Though, if you already know these things, why do you bother asking?" Ozzie gave Magus a halfhearted glare. "Anyway, that's about all I know about the Masamune. However, I doubt that the Hero knows even half that much, so we have that to our advantage."
The magician ran the index finger of his right hand gently over the keen, curved edge of the blade that Ozzie held. It made a slight cut in the leather. "I don't know how much use that information will be to me, but thank you for sharing it. If anything, this has been an interesting history lesson."
"Anyway, I'll leave you alone. I'm sure there are lots of things you want to get done before the battle. If you want any last minute training, I can go a couple rounds with you." Ozzie puffed himself up. "I may not look like it now, but I used to be quite the warrior, you know."
"I don't think that will be necessary. I can take care of myself."
"Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me." In a rare move, Ozzie patted Magus' shoulder in a fatherly way. "We're all depending on you." So saying, he blinked out.
For a long time, Magus just stood there, a mixture of conflicting emotions. Ozzie's words rung in his ears. Depending on me...They want me to kill him. He wants to kill me. A bitter smirk crossed his face. Whoever named me must have had incredible foresight.