The Story Of Magus
A Prince Is Born, Part 1
The door of the audience room flew open with a resounding noise. Many of the assembled Enlightened started in shock; some even dropped a biscuit or two from their plates as they stared, wide-eyed and expectant, at the man who had just arrived. Gaspar, the Guru of Time, stood before them. He looked as if he had jogged from the royal apartments, as he was quite out of breath.
Using his sleeve, the old man mopped at his sweat-beaded brow and leaned against the door-jam to catch his breath. Every eye in the room was trained on him, but he appeared oblivious to the attention.
At last, when the tension grew too much to bear, a woman near the door timidly asked, "Is everything well with the Queen? Was her childbirth successful?"
This seemed to open the flood gates. Dozens of voices filled the air, all demanding answers to their various questions. Gaspar tried to speak, but all the came out was a hoarse cough.
"Here, now! Give the man some room!" Belthasar, Guru of Reason, prodded people out of his way with his cane. Behind him trailed his ever-present Nu companion, and Melchior, the Guru of Life.
"This way, Gaspar." Melchior motioned for his friend to have a seat on one of the plush armchairs that furnished the room. "Have a spot of tea, and catch your wind-"
"Nevermind all that! Tell us the news!" someone from the crowd interjected. Other people mumbled in assent.
"He'll say what he came to say in good time!" Belthesar shouted back. "You've waited this long, so you can afford to wait a few moments more." The old man jabbed his cane in Gaspar's direction, then over at the chair. "As for you, sit down before you fall down."
Gaspar nodded and wheezed his way over to the offered chair. Belthasar poured him a cupful of steaming tea, which the other Guru accepted gratefully. After a few sips, he seemed a lot more rejuvenated.
"Thank you," he said, and settled the cup back on the saucer resting on an end table. "My throat was so dry from running, I could barely swallow, let alone speak."
"Oh, for crying out loud!" a woman huffed. "The suspense is killing me! Get on with it, already! What of the Queen?
Gaspar coughed again to clear his throat. "As you all know," he began, "Queen Zeal's pregnancy has been a difficult one. There was some speculation that she might have been unable to bear the infant to term, lest it endanger her life. Queen Zeal was adamantly against terminating the pregnancy, and against our better judgment," and here he shot a look at Melchior and Belthasar, "we allowed her to continue.
"For many months, we watched. We prayed. The royal physicians kept us informed of her Majesty's condition, and even though the strain was wearing on her, our valiant Queen did all in her power to protect the new life stirring so faintly within her womb."
The assembly nodded to Gaspar's words, if somewhat impatiently. It was no secret that the Gurus had been against the pregnancy, nor that the Queen had more at stake to lose than just the life of her unborn child. She was but a second wife, after all, and not a very beloved one at that. The death of the first Queen of Zeal still weighed heavily in the heart and mind of the King, as well as those of the Enlightened. It had taken all of her feminine wiles to lure her unwilling husband to her bed; chances were slim of there being a second opportunity for her if this baby didn't live to draw its first breath.
Gaspar picked up his tea again, staring into the shallow amber depths. "Life is such a fragile thing. It can come and go in an instant, much like the blowing of the wind."
Several people shuddered and made signs of protection over their hearts. Superstitious beliefs ran high amongst most of the Enlightened, and no supernatural occurrence was more feared than the Black Wind. Few had the ability to sense it, and those that did hated their "gift" with a passion. When the Black Wind howled, destruction and death weren't far behind.
Melchior and Belthasar exchanged worried looks. Gaspar was known for his light-hearted attitude. Now, their friend looked world weary, defeated.
"Her Majesty bore twin sons," he said abruptly.
The assembled Enlightened breathed a collective sigh of relief at this news, giving the appropriate polite applause. As they broke into excited chattering, only his friends noticed the trembling of Gaspar's hands around his teacup.
Melchior knelt stiffly beside the Guru of Time and placed a hand on his friend's arm. Gaspar looked at him, and his eyes were haunted.
"There's more…isn't there."
Gaspar nodded and closed his eyes. "Not long after the Queen went into labor, complications began to arise. I could make little sense of what exactly was going on, but the physicians agreed that a natural birth would be ill advised. The children would have to be delivered another way." His eyes pressed even more tightly shut, as if he were trying to block an image from his mind. "They had to cut her open, Melchior. They gave her medicine to dull the pain, but…"
Melchior looked ill as he glanced up at Belthasar. The Guru of Reason was staring ahead, his expression stony.
Gaspar drew a tremulous breath before continuing. "There were two babies. Twin boys, they told me. But something had gone wrong. The physicians weren't sure what had happened, only that one child was alive…and the other was stillborn. They said, the stronger child must have somehow been siphoning the life from his brother while in the womb."
Melchior removed the tea from Gaspar's hands as the trembling grew worse. "How tragic for the Queen," he whispered. "To gain one child, but lose another at the same time."
"That is the duality of life," Belthasar said gruffly. "In order to achieve anything, a sacrifice must be made." Looking down at his pet Nu, he stroked the blue creature's head. "Reason tells me that this is true, but the heart often rejects reason in times like these." He glanced to the gaily chattering Enlightened and growled deep in his throat. "Stop celebrating, you fools! Everything isn't as rosy as you believe it to be."
"Leave them be. A birth, any birth, is still a cause for happiness." Gaspar wiped a hand over his face, and he attempted a half-hearted smile. "The throne finally has a male heir."
"A sadly outdated notion," Melchior sniffed, and used the armrest of Gaspar's chair to raise himself to his feet. "Schala is as bright as her mother was. When the time came, she would have been more than able to ascend the throne."
"Our laws are rooted in tradition," Belthasar pointed out.
"Bah! King Melath changed the law to justify deposing his half brother and sister, and you know it," Melchior shot back.
But Belthasar shook his head. "It was never proven that Melath was really a bastard child of the old king. And besides, his brother wasn't right in head, nor was his tyrannical sister." When Melchior looked ready to protest further, the Guru of Reason held up his hands. "Peace, my friend. This is not the time, nor the place, to argue semantics. If you wish to make policy, do it before the Grand Council."
"Perhaps I shall, at that."
Gaspar's lukewarm smile became brighter at his friends' bickering. Perhaps all was not as bad as it seemed. Life marched on, regardless, even when one life was lost. Time stood still for no man; that was the very core of his teachings as one of the three Gurus.
Looking out the window, the old man prayed in his heart that the royal couple could work out their differences now, and bring love back to the palace.
And please, he thought to himself as he watched the setting sun glint off the panes of glass, let them choose a name befitting their most precious son.
She kept staring at the blanket.
King Melath rolled his eyes at his wife's behavior as the physicians cleaned her up from the impromptu surgery.
"We expect that her Majesty will make a full recovery in due time," they had told him, and that news had cheered his otherwise sour mood. If Ardaria was on the mend, then there was no reason for him to stay any longer than he had to.
He looked for his daughter.
Schala was curled up in an armchair by the window, being a good girl and keeping out of everyone's way. Melath felt his expression soften as he looked at her. He had told her that the birthing process was a messy one, and something that a girl her age should probably not witness, but she had insisted on staying. Her eyes were wide and scared, and he regretted having allowed her to see them carving the babies out of her stepmother.
"Schala," he said gently, and she looked at him. "Everything is alright. Your…mother…will be fine." It was still so hard to call Ardaria by that name, but his daughter had taken a strange liking to his second wife and refused to call her anything else.
Looking at the disheveled second Queen of Zeal, he wondered what Schala saw in such a pale, unattractive woman. She was nothing like his dear, departed Valeya. Still, Schala needed a mother's influence, and Ardaria provided that well enough. He would suffer her presence if it meant making his daughter happy. As for this other child…
The healthy new prince lay quite still in his crib. He was an ugly, red, wrinkled thing with large eyes and a tuft of turquoise hair jutting from the top of his head. He was unnatural in his silence, having uttered little to no sounds since he was extracted, bloody and naked, from Ardaria's womb, along with his unfortunate brother.
She was still staring at the blanket.
Melath gave an irritated sigh. "Someone take that thing out of here," he ordered, pointing to the shroud-like cloth that encased the stillborn infant, the second prince. "Burn it, bury it, I care not. Just remove it from my sight at once!"
As one of the physicians hurried to comply, he placed his body between the blanket and his wife to break her train of vision. She moved her unfocused, drugged eyes up to his face as if it were a supreme effort to do so.
"I failed you," she said, her voice low and slurring.
"Nonsense. We still have one healthy boy, and that's all that matters in the eyes of the Grand Council. We have an heir to carry on my bloodline." He rubbed his hands together briskly. "That being the case, you will no longer have to endure my nightly visits to your quarters. I'm sure you'll appreciate that."
Ardaria lowered her head, and her hair fell into her face. Melath had the momentary urge to stroke it away from her ashen cheeks before he stopped himself.
"Was that all I was to you? A receptacle to incubate your seed?" she whispered. Tear drops splattered on the bloody, sweat-stained bedclothes clenched in her slender hands. "Melath…I'm your wife-"
"I can hardly forget, Ardaria. You mention it often enough." Melath regretted snapping at her so. After all, she had just been through a traumatic ordeal, and he didn't really hate her as much as he seemed to. But he couldn't bring himself to love her, either. His heart had died with Valeya.
The physicians went about their work, cleaning their instruments even as the maids entered to change the soiled linens. They kept their eyes downcast, pretending to ignore the marital spat, even as they filed the conversation away for gossiping about later.
Ignoring the muffled sobs coming from under Ardaria's curtain of blue hair, Melath bent over her demure form and planted a wooden kiss on the top of her head.
Stepping back, he cleared his throat. "I'm afraid that I must leave you now, my dear. I have pressing business on the Earthbound continent. The doctors assure me that you are on the road to recovery, so you have little to fear on that score." He gave her a formal bow. "Rest easy, and I shall check in on you again when I return."
And he really would check on her this time, he told himself, unlike all the other times he had promised to do so and then…hadn't. But if this Earthbound revolt kept him a few days longer than expected, he certainly couldn't be blamed for that, now could he?
As he turned to go, he felt a tug at his clothing. A hand as white as snow clutched at his sleeve. He followed it down Ardaria's arm to her face. Her eyes were red and puffy from her tears, and her lower lip trembled.
"Don't leave me," she begged. She was only able to find voice enough for the first word, and she mouthed the rest. "Please, Melath…"
He firmly shook his arm free, but there was true sorrow in his voice when he spoke. "Ardaria… I'm sorry." And he was. For everything.
Schala followed him to the door of the bedroom, throwing confused glances back at her sobbing stepmother. "Are you going away again?"
Melath knelt down so he could be more at eye level with his eight year-old daughter. "Only on a short trip this time. I'll be back soon."
"Mama already misses you."
Melath winced, but forced a smile. "You'll be brave for me, though, won't you?" When she nodded, he pulled her to him in a tight embrace. "That's my girl."
Father and daughter hugged each other for quite some time before they reluctantly let go.
Melath fondly stroked her hair, and Schala leaned into his touch like a kitten. "Be good for everyone, won't you?"
"Papa, I'm always a good girl," she rebuked him with a pout of her lip. Then all seriousness, she said, "But I'll be extra good while Mama is getting better."
"That's right. You have a new baby brother to look after now, too."
Schala cocked her head to one side as her father rose to his feet. "What're we going to call him?"
"I'm sure Ardaria-" He broke off at Schala's disapproving look and tried again. "I'm sure your…mother…will come up with something appropriate."
Melath looked over at the bassinet where his newborn son lay. He wondered what he should be feeling at this moment. Pride, maybe? A sense of satisfaction? All he felt was emptiness, and even a little bit of self-loathing. Deep down, he knew that if both boys had died instead of just the one, some part of him would have rejoiced. If he couldn't find it in his heart to love his son's mother, he very much doubted that he could ever bring himself to love his son.
No child should ever be denied their father's love, he thought, and memories of his own childhood flashed before his eyes.
How Melath had hated his sire for declaring him a bastard son, simply because he could no longer stand the woman he had married. And now, years later, Melath was shunning his own flesh and blood as the baby's grandfather had done.
The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. The King of Zeal tore his eyes away from the crib. Better he should have died with his twin than to live with my disdain.
"Be well, my daughter," Melath said, his voice thick. He could feel Schala's eyes on him, as well as Ardaria's, as he left the room. He never once looked back.
The Blackbird was truly a piece of work.
Captain Dalton always felt a smug sense of satisfaction when looking at the giant metal "bird" that he had weaseled away from that stingy old fart, Belthasar.
"Pah! Someone like you could never understand the mechanics behind something like the Blackbird!" Belthasar had scoffed. "If I wanted it destroyed, I'd crash the damn thing myself before I let you have it."
Oh, how he had made that fool eat his words! One proclamation from the King, and it had been goodbye Belthasar, hello Blackbird.
That'll teach that old codger to come between me and what I want! Dalton thought, and he threw back his head and laughed for the sheer pleasure of it.
The warrior-wizard turned to face one of his many lackeys. The man was as nondescript as they came, and easily forgettable. Dalton yawned.
"What is it? Can't you see that I'm gloating over here?"
"Yes, sir. I mean, no sir. I mean…" The lackey trailed off, confused. Dalton had that effect on people.
"Who did you say you were again?"
"Er… I'm part of the security force the King ordered to protect the Blackbird. My name is-"
"Of no importance to me. You're just a dumb grunt, anyway," Dalton finished for him.
The lackey frowned. "If you say so, sir."
"So, what do you want?"
The lackey presented Dalton with a clipboard. "I was told to give you this." As his superior looked over the papers, he explained, "The inspection of the Blackbird was completed this afternoon. The mechanics couldn't find the source of the clanging you mentioned, but they did note that some of the equipment seems a little unstable. Certain panels are giving inaccurate readouts. They suggested holding off on using the Blackbird until Guru Belthasar can come down here, himself, and do a tune-up."
Dalton tossed the clipboard to the lackey in disgust. "I'm trying to avoid involving that geezer. That's the whole point behind why I had you morons taking a look at things!"
"I-I'm sorry!" Cowed, the lackey bowed his head. "I'm just the messenger-"
"Whatever! Get out of my sight."
Dalton turned back to look at the Blackbird, ignoring the lackey as he stumbled off with a dazed expression on his face.
The blue-black metal was stained with the rosy light of the setting sun. The wings stretched majestically over identical catwalks leading to cargo holds on the sides. It was a marvel of science and magic such as Zeal Kingdom had never seen before.
And it was all his.
He knew that Belthasar would never let him keep it if he had his way. He would try to use this tune-up as a way to expose Dalton as an incompetent buffoon. Part of him wondered if the Guru would even sink so low as to sabotage the Blackbird, just to make it seem as if Dalton were too stupid to find the real problem.
It's such an impressive piece of machinery, the warrior-wizard thought, and I'll be damned if I'll let Belthasar take it away from me!
"Captain Dalton!" It was that same lackey again.
"I thought I told you to go away?" he snarled, rounding on the unfortunate man with balled fists.
"King Melath has arrived," the lackey blurted out, seeming much more afraid of their liege than of Dalton's threatening stance. "He's demanding to speak with you."
Without another word, the tall, blonde Captain brushed past the trembling lackey and hurried to the docking bay. The King had a short fuse these days; it wouldn't do to keep him waiting.
Rushing didn't seem to do any good, however, as Melath was already in a foul mood when Dalton arrived.
Before the Captain could open his mouth to apologize for the delay, King Melath was already waving him into silence. "I wish to be taken to Terra Continent at once."
"Your wish is my command, your Majesty." Dalton rubbed his hands together, a nervous smile on his face. "If you'll just board the Blackbird, we shall depart on your command." He made a sweeping bow for effect.
King Melath grunted acknowledgement and strode up the boarding ramp with an imperious air. His servants trailed along behind him, looking down their noses at Dalton as they passed. He remained in a suitably obsequious position until they were all out of sight. Then, he straightened and popped a kink out of his back.
One day, he vowed, he wouldn't have to take that sort of abuse. Everyone would be bowing and scraping over him, not the other way around.
He suddenly realized that the Blackbird's crew was assembled and awaiting orders.
"Don't just stand there, you pin-heads!" he shouted. "You heard the King. Get your lazy asses in gear!"
Everyone scattered. When he was mad, Dalton was known to take out his anger on those around him, usually with his fist.
The warrior-wizard hurried up the gangplank after his liege and found him settling into the royal cabin. Unlike the very militaristic atmosphere of the rest of the ship, this room was furnished in opulent red and gold, with a thick carpet and padded furniture.
Though technically it wasn't allowed, Dalton had snuck in here on several occasions and seated himself in the throne-like chairs. He would close his eyes and pretend that he wasn't just some drone to the king, but someone of importance. Seeing Melath relaxing in this special room, acting as if he owned the place, made Dalton's teeth clench in anger.
He is the king, he reminded himself.
The King looked up as Dalton entered. "Was there something you needed, Captain?" he asked as he accepted a cup of tea from one of his servants.
"Sire," the man began, "Uh, I had the mechanics run a diagnostic on the Blackbird today. There have been some…unusual noises coming from the engine, you see."
Melath looked bored. "And? Did they find anything of interest?"
"Um, just a few minor glitches," Dalton said carefully, and fluffed his long, blonde hair. "Something about the navigation controls being a little temperamental. They were unable to find the source of the clanging, but I'm sure it's nothing--"
"So what is your point, Captain?" Melath interrupted. He sipped his tea, seemed annoyed by the flavor, and then set the cup on the end table with enough force to slosh the contents over the rim. He looked quite cross. "Milk and lemon do not mix!"
The noble who had poured the tea hastened to get the king a fresh cup. "I'm so sorry!"
Dalton felt a dizzy sort of satisfaction at seeing someone else falling over themselves to escape the king's temper. To his credit, the noble just hissed and bit his lip when he accidentally spilled hot tea over his hand. The liquid must have been scalding, but he didn't drop the cup as he placed it beside Melath's chair.
The king tested it with a wary expression, and finally nodded. "Better." Turning his attention back to Dalton, he said, "This trivial discussion is delaying my departure, Captain. Tell me once and for all: is the Blackbird capable of flight? If it's not, I shall take the Skygates down to the Continent." His tone left no hint of doubt about how well Dalton would fare if he gave the wrong answer.
The warrior-wizard felt sweat gathering on the back of his neck. "I-I think everything is in order," he stammered.
"Are you certain?" Melath studied Dalton with a condescending smile. "Perhaps this job is too stressful for you. Shall I have Guru Belthasar relieve you of your command for this flight?"
Dalton flinched, panic filling his eyes. "That won't be necessary."
"Excellent." When Dalton hadn't immediately fled the room, Melath's eyebrows rose. "You're dismissed, Captain."
And that was that.
Dalton bowed again, backing out of the room. The door was firmly shut in his face by one of those contemptible aristocrats. No doubt they were already laughing about him. His hands were so tightly clenched by his sides that his fingers ached from the strain.
He took his time walking to the control room of the Blackbird. Crew members who came near him gave him a wide berth; one look at the smoldering hatred written on his face was enough to send them fleeing.
Taking a seat in the hard, metal Captain's chair, Dalton again yearned for the plush opulence of the King's quarters. "Get this tub in the air."
The crew members glanced at each other, then at the readouts on their screens as the Blackbird hummed to life.
"Navigations are down," someone said.
"Output at seventy-eight percent," another voiced chimed.
"Shut up, all of you!" Dalton slammed a fist down on the armrest of his seat. "Don't you get it? These are the King's orders. I don't care what it takes; just make this stupid thing fly!"
I'd crash the damn thing myself, before I let you have it, Belthasar had said.
As the Blackbird lurched into motion, disengaging from the dock, Dalton slumped in his seat. Clouds soon gave way to fierce winds and snow as they soared high above the frozen landscape of Terra Continent.
I think I can kind of empathize with you, you old fart, Dalton thought to himself. I'd rather crash than lose this, the only symbol of my power.
It began as a restless sort of feeling, which was why Schala didn't recognize it for what it was, at first. She found that she just couldn't keep still. No chair could hold her for more than a minute or two before her legs would start to tingle with the urge to move. So she paced about her step-mother's quarters, wringing her hands, unsure of exactly why she couldn't settle down.
The physicians had long since made the Queen as comfortable as they could and left. The maids had already stripped the bed of the blood-stained sheets and replaced them with new ones, so the staff had mostly cleared out as well. It was just her, Ardaria, two maids, and her as yet unnamed baby brother.
The young princess found herself standing beside the crib. She looked down at his tiny face, noting the smoky gray of his eyes. Schala didn't know much about babies, but she did know that the doctors had said his eyes would change to a different color as he got older.
They're going to turn purple, she decided, as if willing it to be would actually make it happen.
"Miss, come away from there," called one of the remaining maids. When Schala didn't budge, she said, "The prince is being quiet. We don't want him to start crying and disturb her Majesty."
"He hasn't made a sound since he got here," Schala snapped back. "You're the one who's noisy. Besides, the doctors said they gave Mama medicine to make her sleepy." She looked at the queen. Ardaria was oblivious to the world at the moment, her ordeal and the medication putting her into a dreamless slumber.
"Even so, you should probably run along now, miss," the maid urged. "The sun is going down and dinner will be served in a bit. Why not go wash up?"
Schala twisted her hands around the cradle's bars, using them as an anchor to hold herself in one place. "Leave me alone."
The maid looked shocked by the princess's response. It was quite unlike Schala to behave rudely to anyone.
Schala couldn't bring herself to care about her bad behavior at the moment. This restlessness was beginning to bother her, and there was something wrong with her eyes. Darkness was seating at the edges of her vision, swallowing it up in an inky blackness. And then there was the noise; that incessant, whispering chatter that made no sense but throbbed in her skull like a bad headache.
Schala put a hand to her forehead and swayed on her feet. Distantly, she heard one of the maids call her name and felt the woman's arm wrap around her shoulders. For some reason, the princess found that she couldn't speak. She opened her mouth, but her words were swallowed up by the myriad of voices whispering in her head.
Just as the maid started to panic from Schala's unresponsive behavior, the baby, who up until now had barely uttered a whimper, began to scream.
Schala felt as if she were watching everything from under water. Reality became distorted in her perception, filled with ripples like invisible sea serpents slithering through the air. She felt the maid at her side shaking her, yelling in her ear, but her limbs refused to obey her. Her voice was swallowed up by the Black Wind, leaving her lips to flap uselessly.
Her baby brother was wailing.
Does he hear it, too? Schala wondered. Does he hear the voices, like me?
Still clutching the crib's bars in her small hands, she held them in a white-knuckled grip. Her fingers began to ache, but it was okay. It meant that she hadn't fallen into the "bad place," the darkness and the whispering. She knew that in there, she wouldn't be able to feel anything anymore, and the voices would always be with her in her head.
The maid finally pried Schala's hands off of the crib and had to heft her bodily over to one of the chairs. The princess drew her knees to her chest under her long, baggy dress and cupped her hands over her ears.
"Make it stop!" she shouted, or tried to. All that came out of her mouth was a string of frightened squeals.
Things were spiraling out of control. While one of the maids tried to calm Schala, the other one went to the baby's crib in an effort to stem his bawling. The instant she reached for him, a blast of black energy ballooned outward from the cradle, tossing her through the air. She impacted against the far wall with a sickening thud. Her body slid down into a sitting position, leaving a bloody trail in its wake as her eyes stared unseeing into infinity.
The maid at Schala's side screamed.
The ruckus finally attracted the attention of royal guards who had been patrolling the hallway. Four armored men burst into the room. They surveyed the scene, taking in the dead maid, the wailing children, their drugged and comatose queen.
Schala couldn't hear anything beyond the whispering in her head as she watched one of the guardsmen begin to issue orders to his comrades. He pointed at her and the maid and made a curt motion. In seconds, the maid had hoisted Schala up and was running with her from the room.
The blizzard had turned out to be worse than expected. High winds buffeted the Blackbird like a cat with a piece of string. The ship bucked and dipped dangerously in the sky.
"How're we holding up?" Dalton asked. Then he muttered a curse as a sudden drop in altitude made his stomach rise to his chest.
"Not good, sir," one of the helmsmen replied. "With the navigations systems malfunctioning, we're flying blind in this storm."
Dalton looked out the large windows of the control room. All he could see was a wall of white. "Well, don't hit the floating mountain. It's big enough, so you should be able to see it long before you crash into it."
"I hope so, sir."
Dalton wouldn't admit it to anyone, but he was starting to have misgivings about having tried to brave the storm for the sake of his pride. Maybe I should have tried harder to change King Melath's mind about flying right now, at least until the mechanics could find the source of that banging sound.
Even now, he could hear it: a grinding, clanging noise echoing deep within the bowels of the Blackbird. It sounded like metal rubbing together, and loose parts shaking free.
Without warning, the internal lights of the Blackbird changed to an angry red and a siren started to blare.
"Just great," Dalton muttered, and rose from his seat. "What's the matter now?"
For a moment, there was silence save for the blaring warning signal and the clacking of many hands typing at their control panels.
"Systems not responding!" one of the helmsmen shouted. "They've frozen up."
Dalton balled up a fist and shook it in the man's direction. "Then fix it, you idiot!"
"I can't, sir. We'd have to reboot the systems, and we can't do that while flying!"
"Then land this tub before we all-"
A loud explosion rocked the Blackbird, throwing Dalton back into his seat. Pushing disheveled strands of his long hair out of his reddened face, the warrior-wizard pounded the armrest. "Someone get things in order here, and I mean now!"
"Fires have broken out all over the ship!" someone yelled back. "One of the fuel lines exploded near the back."
"Stabilizers are malfunctioning! We're losing altitude!"
"We're gonna crash!"
Dalton heard the words of his panicked crew, but he barely registered them.
The Blackbird's nose dipped, and everyone had to grab on to something to avoid sliding forward. Snow splattered against the glass of the cockpit window, blocking the rising ground from their view.
Dalton's feet slipped against the metal floor, even as he used the armrests of his seat to keep himself in place. Gravity was pulling him down towards the front of the plane, but if he were going to die, it wouldn't be smashed against the glass like the worthless crew members. No, they'd find his body- if they did find his body- sitting in the captain's chair. Then, no one could say that he hadn't been at his post.
Despite his imminent doom, Dalton found himself strangely calm. His fate was now in the hands of something much larger than himself.
Still, he thought, I can't believe it's all going to end like this. My glorious career was just beginning! I'm too young and beautiful to die!
As the frozen landscape of Terra Continent grew closer and closer, he closed his eyes and braced for the impact that would most likely snap his neck.
"Where are the Gurus?!"
Melchior laid down his cards—a winning hand, much to the chagrin of his friends—and looked to see what all the commotion was about. When he saw it was a panicked guardsman, he waved a hand above his head.
"Over here, man," he called. "What seems to be the trouble?"
The guard sped over and managed to get off a passable salute. It was clear that he'd been running. "It's the royal children," he wheezed, trying to find air enough for the words. "Something happened. I'm not sure what. All I know is that by the time we got to the Queen's chambers, Princess Schala and her brother, the new prince, were screaming. There had been an accident involving one of the servant girls which cost her her life. And now there's some sort of strange magic around the prince's crib that none of us can get through. We need your help!"
The three Gurus looked at each other with grave expressions.
"Will you come?" the guard begged.
Gaspar nodded. "Of course we will." As he helped Belthasar to his feet, he asked, "What about the Queen?"
"She's been moved to a safer location in the King's quarters down the hall."
"I'm sure Melath will just love that," Melchior muttered under his breath.
Gaspar gave him a sharp look, then turned back to the guard. "And Princess Schala?"
"She was hysterical when we had her removed from the room. One of the Queen's maids is with her, but I'm not sure where she was taken."
Gaspar nodded. "Thank you. Let us hope she was taken somewhere out of harm's way."
The guard led them to the royal quarters, even though they had been there many times and knew the way by heart.
When they reached the doorway to the Queen's apartments, Melchior regarded the bassinet in horror. A barrier of negative energy was growing around it, the magical lines supporting it growing stronger by the second. If left unchecked, it would keep getting bigger and more powerful until it exploded.
Without wasting a second, Gaspar shoved his hands out towards the crib, focusing his magical powers against that of the infant. A flash of light caused the assembled men to see stars as the two powers collided, but it did nothing to lessen the growing sphere of darkness.
"You'd best get away from here," the Guru of Life murmured. "And move the Queen to the other side of the palace as quickly as possible." When the guard hesitated, he gave the man an angry shove. "Go!"
"I can't believe the prince is making that thing," Gaspar gasped beside him as the guard turned and ran to execute his duties. "A baby simply doesn't have the magical ability to create a spell as complex as a shadow barrier!"
"Believe what you will," Belthasar began, "but right now, our attention should be focused on stopping the prince before he blows up the royal wing of the palace, and us along with it."
Melchior nodded. "I agree. So, what should we do?" He watched as Belthasar started to roll up his sleeves.
"We'll just have to fight magic with magic."
"We tried that already!" Gaspar said impatiently. "Don't you have any other ideas?"
"No, you tried it," the Guru of Reason replied, unflustered. "And you were repelled because your magic alone isn't enough to stop him. I have a theory: if we combine our magical energy, maybe it will be enough to dissipate, or at least counter, the prince's barrier."
"And if it doesn't work?" Gaspar demanded. "Do you have a backup plan?"
His friend shook his head. "By then, it won't matter. Our powers will be completely drained, and we'll be too exhausted to care. We could never outrun the explosion, anyway."
There wasn't anything anyone could say to the finality of that, so they took their positions without further words and began to draw upon their powers.
Stretching their hands out from their bodies, lines of glowing energy began to form between them. Gaspar's energies were a warm green. Belthasar's, a calm, soft blue. Melchior's magical energies were the crimson color of Dreamstone. The Guru's powers stretched out towards each other, forming a triangle of multicolored light around the blue-black boil that was the prince's creation.
They braced themselves, spreading their feet apart to hold their positions as the shadow barrier began to press against their own. Each man had to fight to remain steady as the prince's power hit theirs with the force of a charging beast. The negative energy battered at them, beginning to break through.
"It's too powerful!" Gaspar staggered and shook his head to clear it, striving for the concentration to hold onto their spell. "We can't win!"
"Give it your all!" Belthasar shouted back. His face was a ghastly grayish white from the strain. "We can do it!"
Gaspar sent one last surge of energy into the spell before he fell to his knees, spent. Their barrier fizzled and died as it lost one third of the power supporting it. The resulting backlash of magic caused Melchior and Belthasar to cry out in pain as their very psyches absorbed the remaining energy in the form of a sudden, excruciating headache.
The shadow barrier was now almost as big as the room. Already, it had crushed chairs, tables, and the Queen's empty bed.
"There's nothing left that we can do," Melchior panted, placing his hands on his knees in order to catch his breath. He glared helplessly at the screaming baby. "He sure does have a set of lungs, that one."
"Too bad no one put a pillow over his face when they had the chance," Belthasar wheezed. He had one hand clawing at the front of his shirt, the other resting on his faithful Nu for support. "Blasted child… Someone ought to have-" His eyes rolled up into his head, and he began to slump to the floor.
"Belthasar!" Melchior rushed to his side, catching his longtime friend and easing him to the floor.
The old man's breathing was shallow. His face was pinched in pain, lips turning faintly purple.
Melchior cursed. "Gaspar, help me get him out of here. He needs help, fast!"
"It's too late," the Guru of Time muttered. The shadow barrier was almost on top of them. A few more seconds, and they would be flattened into paste against the wall.
The two conscious Gurus looked to the door in shock. There stood Schala. Her face was tear-streaked and frightened, but there was a determined gleam in her lavender eyes.
"No, Princess!" Melchior shouted. "Get away from here! This whole place is about to be destroyed."
"Do as he says, Schala!" Gaspar added. "It's much too dangerous for you to be here." He gulped and scrambled away from the edge of the barrier as it almost touched his outstretched foot. There wasn't much room left to hide in.
"No! I've got to save my baby brother!" For a moment, Schala looked much older than her eight years. "I'm going to stop this." She raised her arms out in front of her, ready to push her way through the shadow barrier.
Melchior waited for the inevitable. He could already see it; Schala's frail little body would be tossed backwards like the unfortunate maid, every bone breaking like so many dried twigs as she hit the wall with lethal force.
But an odd thing happened. Schala grimaced as her fingers brushed the barrier, but she didn't let that stop her. Obviously in pain, she pressed onwards, fully touching the barrier than walking into it. Though each step wrung a whimper from her throat, she forced one foot in front of the other until she was standing at the side of her brother's crib. She had to stand on her tiptoes, but she managed to reach inside and pull the screaming infant into her arms.
"It's okay now," she sobbed into the soft swaddling that surrounded the prince. "Please don't cry anymore. You're safe. I'm with you, Janus."
"I've got to try and get her our of there." Melchior tried to hand off Belthasar to Gaspar, but the Time Guru shook his head in awe.
"No, wait! I think it's working!"
The barrier's growth had ceased, mere inches from them. Even as they watched, it started shrinking in size until it evaporated altogether. Sitting in the demolished room, the two men looked at each other, speechless.
The baby's crying wound down into pitiful sniffles as Schala cooed at him and gently bounced him in her arms. She looked wan and pale, but there was something serene about her as she bravely put on a smile for her brother.
"It's over." Melchior breathed a sigh of relief.
The Guru of Life sighed in relief and then smiled down at Belthasar. His friend's voice was faint, and his breathing still shaky, but at least he had regained consciousness. "Not yet, old man. Though I thought for sure you'd left us, back there."
Using what little magical power he could muster, he placed his hands over Belthasar's chest and focused his thoughts. Though called the Guru of Life, he was not fully trained in the art of healing magic. He did what he could to ease any pain his friend was feeling, and to help him relax, but Belthasar would still need to see a physician immediately.
Belthasar began to breathe a bit easier. "You can't get rid of me that easily," he joked, before starting to cough.
Melchior helped him get to his feet, holding one of Belthasar's arms around his neck, the other around his waist to support him. "Come on. We need to get you out of here." Melchior looked to Gaspar. "Bring the princess, and let's go." Without waiting for them to follow, he led Belthasar out the door.
Gaspar, who had been staring at Schala wordlessly for the past few moments, shook himself from his thoughts. "Oh, right." He walked up to her and knelt down beside her. "Are you all right?"
She looked at him from over the baby's shoulder and nodded. "I think so. It really hurt, but I made it through."
"You're a brave little girl. Not even we, the Gurus, could do what you did."
She shuffled her feet, and moved her gaze to the floor. "I ran away from the maids. Something was telling me I had to come here. I didn't mean to disobey. Will I get punished?"
Gaspar gaped at her words, then burst out laughing. "Child, you saved not only us, but the palace and your baby brother as well." When she continued to look at the floor, he shook his head. "No, my dear, you won't be punished. On the contrary, I have to thank you on all our behalf."
She smiled at him then. "You're nice. You're my favorite teacher."
Gaspar laughed again. "Thank you. But don't tell that to Melchior and Belthasar, okay? Their feelings will be hurt if you do."
"Okay. I won't. It'll be our secret. Yours, mine, and Janus's."
Gaspar froze, his good humor drying up. "What did you say?"
Schala's smile faded at his seriousness. "Um…can't it be our secret?"
"No, not that. I meant, what did you call him?"
"Where did you hear that word?"
The princess's lavender eyes darkened. "The Black Wind said it. I could never understand it before. It sounded like made-up words. But when I picked him up, I could tell what it was saying. It kept saying 'Janus.' I thought that it was saying his name. Was I wrong?"
Gaspar swallowed to wet his dry mouth. "We'd, um… We'd better not dally too long here or else Melchior might get worried about us. Let's catch up with him, shall we?"
Schala nodded and hugged the baby, Janus, closer to her. Together, they left the room and the destruction it contained behind them.
An emergency meeting of the Grand Council had been called following the news of the newborn prince's unexpected and unwelcome use of shadow magic. The six members--five men and one woman--were all elected based on their social standing, political backing, and magic prowess.
In theory, they were advisors to the monarchy, but in reality, they were almost as instrumental in ruling the kingdom as the royalty were. They were the voice of the everyman, keeping the balance of power from tilting too much in the monarchy's favor; a wise ruler knew the value of working with the Grand Council rather than against them. No one wanted to be labeled a tyrant and dethroned.
The council members sat around a crescent-shaped table. They looked down their noses at Melchior and Gaspar with identical expressions of fear and anger.
"Almost destroying the royal wing of the palace and the Queen along with it… Insufferable! That child is far too dangerous to be allowed to live!"
Melchior glared at the speaker, an officious man by the name of Hydgal. "So what do you suggest we do? Drown him?"
"He's not a monster," Gaspar chimed in. "He's the royal heir to the throne of Zeal. You can't just toss him aside like so much trash. Without him, the royal bloodline is in danger of being snuffed out."
"A minor setback. Should King Melath fail to sire another male child, there is still Schala. The Grand Council will select a suitable husband from amongst the Enlightened and the monarchy will be secure."
Melchior shook his head in disgust. "And I'm sure you wouldn't mind being the one to warm the royal bed once the time came, would you, Hydgal? I imagine that being the royal consort and using her Highness as a puppet ruler would delight you to no end, wouldn't it?"
"You overstep yourself, Guru! Remember to whom you speak. The Grand Council has the power to decide your fate as well!"
Gaspar stepped in before things spiraled out of control. "Let's get back to the issue at hand. We're talking about the fate of one of the royal children."
With effort, the two men regained their composure. Melchior and Hydgal had hated each other for as long as anyone could remember, and their feud had degenerated into blows and shows of magic in the past. The last thing anyone needed was for a fight to break out in the middle of the council room.
"He's just an infant," the Guru of Life insisted stubbornly.
Hydgal waved a dismissive hand. "One who could unleash another devastating energy bomb at any second! We were lucky that you were able to stop it…this time. But what about in the future? Guru Belthasar has already sustained a heart-attack because of this escapade. Who's to say that you won't be the next to fall? Or you, Guru Gaspar? If your powers could barely contain the prince, then the general populace cannot rely on the famed Gurus to save them if the need should arise again."
Melchior and Gaspar fumed in silence. They had agreed to keep Schala's name out of things. Not only would it bode ill that the eldest child of the royal family had thrown herself into harm's way, but the fact that it had been a mere slip of a girl who had averted the near catastrophe, and not a Guru, could end all of their careers.
Hydgal looked pleased with himself. "Your silence indicates that you're considering the wisdom of my words. I'm glad."
But Melchior shook his head. "As the Guru of Life, what you're saying goes against everything I uphold. I respect the Council's decision in most things, but not in this. What you're suggesting is dangerously close to treason. I serve the will of their Majesties. I highly doubt that Queen Zeal will let you wrest her precious son away from her just because of what he might do in the future."
"The monarchy will bow to the will of the Grand Council if the need be dire enough, which I believe it is."
"And you would stake your life on that? Because should you turn out to be wrong, you will be exiled to the floating mountain, there to suffer your last days alone in the freezing cold."
"Spare me the false concern, Guru Melchior. Will you or will you not do as the Grand Council has ordered?"
"I will take no part in it. Life is a sacred commodity, perhaps one that we have forgotten in our bids for power to revere."
Hydgal sneered. "That's a typical response coming from the likes of you. You always were too soft when it came to important matters like these." He jerked his chin at Gaspar. "Don't tell me you're as stubborn as your friend?"
Gaspar twisted his mustache and winked. "I'm afraid that's the case. So sorry." Looking at the rest of the Council, he asked, "Do the rest of you share Hydgal's bloodthirsty opinions?"
Lady Izle fidgeted with one of the elaborate cuff bracelets she wore. "It's not that we wish more blood to be spilt," she said. "But you must realize the danger we're all in so long as the babe draws breath. He poses a threat to every living being on the continent. In the absence of the King, and because her Majesty is indisposed, we are shouldering the burden of making this choice. It's for the good of Zeal Kingdom."
"You can't just go around passing judgment in such a manner," Melchior replied coldly. "Capital punishment is reserved only for those who have committed atrocities or acts too horrible to describe. I have seen no evidence of such a crime."
Hydgal snorted. "You don't think that nearly blowing us all out of the sky is an act worthy of severe punishment?"
"With all due respect, Lord Hydgal, what I think is that you and your respective council members should pull your heads out of your rectums and try to see the situation clearly."
As could be expected, the room erupted with outraged shouting. Gaspar closed his eyes and fervently wished for his pipe. Sometimes, Melchior had no tact.
"We're talking about a newborn, here," the Guru of Life continued, fighting the surge of rising voices to be heard. "He's not some hardened criminal, or raving madman bent on destroying the kingdom. He's an untrained infant who lashed out unknowingly. He has strong magical abilities that surpass anything I have seen displayed by many of my greatest students. It's not his fault that he doesn't know how to control them yet."
Hydgal waved a bony hand. "Untrained and unpredictable. Shall we all just wait and twiddle our thumbs until the prince decides to throw another tantrum? Left unfettered, we might as well spare him the trouble and toss ourselves off the edge of the floating continent."
"What if his powers weren't unfettered?" Gaspar suggested suddenly.
Lady Izle fixed him with her gray eyes. "You have an alternative solution?"
Hydgal leaned his cheek into one hand, a bored look resting on his thin, sharp features. "This should be interesting."
Gaspar ignored him and continued speaking to Izle. "What if we could place a limiter on the child's powers? If he can't access his magic, he won't be a danger any more. Once he's old enough to be trained, we could release the limiter, and--"
"No! That is out of the question!"
Everyone stared at Hydgal. He'd slammed a fist down on the tabletop to emphasize his words.
"One near miss is enough to convince me that the child can never be trusted with these powers. If his abilities are to be sealed, then let it be done in such a way that he can never again access them."
Melchior clenched his fists. "That's barbaric! If he's trained, the child will be able to control his powers and won't be a danger to anyone. What you're suggesting is heinous!"
"If I had my way, the whelp wouldn't live to see tomorrow's sunrise! But if mercy is what you're asking from me, then so be it. The child lives, but without the use of his powers."
Izle tried to lay a restraining hand on Hydgal's arm, but he jerked away with such vehemence that he bumped into the councilman seated on the other side of him.
Melchior shook his head. "Without his power, the young prince will never be considered a true Enlightened. He'll be a pariah. It's too cruel, even for you, Hydgal."
The two men glared at each other, refusing to budge an inch.
"If death is too hard for you to stomach, then let him be outcast. The choice is yours, Guru. Do as your conscience dictates." The last part was said dripping with scorn. "Whichever you choose, you have until sunrise tomorrow to carry out the sentence. Such is the will of the Grand Council!"