A Matter of Trust

by

Robert Moriyama




"Where is Majius? You have hidden him from me again, but I will find him. The only decision left to you is whether you will be alive when I do."

The green glow emanating from the big-crystal display in the boardroom of Majius Magical Services made everyone and everything in the room look like a sculpture made of lime jello. Al Majius watched the images captured at the Conlegium Magistris only hours earlier and shuddered. "I knew Morgenstern had been quiet for too long," Al said, his voice unsteady.

Githros, Al's demon business partner and former familiar, and Janine, Al's wife, said nothing. They were as horrified by the scenes unfolding on the big-screen crystal ball as Al was; each had almost died at the hands of the monster whose voice and presence filled the room.

"Ah, Magister Morgenstern," Alister Blackstone said. "How kind of you to honor us with your presence."

"Where is Majius?" The creature that had once been a powerful wizard named Aaron Morgenstern floated within a sphere of crackling green light that brightened as his voice increased in volume. He raised one hand and made a fist; an age-blackened lectern collapsed in on itself and clattered to the floor in pieces no larger than a pencil stub.

Al saw Blackstone sketch a symbol in the air with the tip of his wand, and the glare from Morgenstern's aura seemed to soften before it reached his face. "Really, Magister Morgenstern, you should try to control your temper. That lectern was more than three hundred years old -- it was Magister Sciavone's favorite --"

"Aaron Morgenstern died thirty years ago. I am the Morningstar! And you will tell me where you have hidden Majius!" The green glow grew even brighter and tendrils of magical energy arced from its surface to carve smoking trails in the stone walls and ceiling of the lecture hall.

Blackstone continued to smile, but Al could see that his wand was in constant motion now, weaving defenses to prevent Morgenstern's outpouring of raw magic from reaching him.

"A very bright star you are, sir," Blackstone said. "But I'm afraid that it is against the policies of the College to provide such information to anyone who might wish to harm one of our alumni."

Morgenstern -- the Morningstar -- growled, his rage washing away any pretense of sanity. He made a slashing gesture with one hand, and Magister Blackstone flew back and struck the wall with a sickening crack that surely meant broken bones -- or worse.

With his defenses broken, the Master of Combat Magic was exposed to the full force of the Morningstar's aura. His robes began to blacken and wisps of smoke spiraled upward, casting bizarrely twisted shadows against the wall.

Morgenstern turned to face the recording crystal. "Where are you, Majius? How many of your mentors must I crush before you will face me?"

The green glare vanished and the face of Magister Sciavone, the Master who had helped Al to obtain official standing as a wizard, appeared in its place.

"Magister Blackstone is alive," Sciavone said. "His injuries were grave, but not beyond the abilities of our healers. Still, it will be some time before he will be able to aid us in dealing with Morgenstern."

Al choked back a bitter laugh. "Aid us? Morgenstern swatted him like a fly! The most renowned combat magician in the world, and he was completely outmatched."

Sciavone shook his head. "One cannot expect a fencing master to defeat a rogue elephant. And that is what Morgenstern seems to be -- a being of enormous strength, but without discipline, without thought."

"So we'll all die, but we'll have the comfort of knowing that our technique is better," Al said. "Excuse me if I don't find that particularly encouraging."

"Perhaps this might improve your view of things," Sciavone said. "When he made his final statement, he gave us an exceptionally clear view of his face ..."

Morgenstern's face appeared in the crystal again, frozen this time, with the glare of his aura dimmed.

"He has scars, Al," Githros said. "When you smashed those glass mana-sink globes into his face, you marked him. No wonder he's even more pissed off than ever."

"Doesn't seem to have weakened him, unfortunately," Janine said. "Wounding his vanity is a good thing, though -- it might make him doubt himself just a little, and we know how much doubt can affect magic."

"Indeed," Sciavone said, reappearing in the crystal. "It must be maddening for him -- redundant, I suppose, since he was already quite mad -- to see marks that his magic cannot erase, to feel the mana draining away, even if it is only a trickle compared to the ocean of his resources."

"I had bits of mana sink stuck in my hands, too," Al said. "It felt -- strange, wrong. The simplest spell took more effort and concentration than it should have. I had to use wands to do things that I could do with a gesture or a thought before ..."

"But you had Janine to help you," Sciavone said. "Someone to pluck almost every last sliver of magic-draining material from your flesh, until nothing of consequence remained. And so your strength returned. Morgenstern has no one. His adherents -- the forty-nine fools who bequeathed their souls and magical potential to him -- are dead. And no man or creature today feels anything for him now but fear or jealousy."

Al shook his head. "My strength may be back, and his may be diminished, but he's still an elephant, and I'm still a fencer. And not even as skillful a fencer as Magister Blackstone."

Sciavone sighed. "Albert, you still fail to understand my point. One does not fence with an elephant, but that does not mean that one may not defeat it."

"Maybe you can tame it," Janine said.

Al and Githros turned to look at her; even Magister Sciavone seemed to turn his attention toward her, although it was hard to tell when the sending crystal remained stationary.

"Remember the fable about the lion with a thorn in its paw?" Janine asked. She paused, uncertain of herself. Having the attention of her husband, a seven-foot tall demon, and a centuries-old Master Magician completely focused on her was intimidating even for a three-time Homecoming Queen.

"Go on, Janine," Al said. "Someone who thinks outside the magic box might be just what we need now."

Janine took a deep breath and leaned forward so her long dark hair half-concealed her face. "What if -- what if we offered to help him? To pull the thorn out of his paw, or in this case, the mana sink splinters out of his face?"

"And while he's getting a facial, we ambush him?" Githros asked.

Janine threw her head back and groaned. "No! We don't ambush people! We're supposed to be the good guys!"

Githros snorted. "'Good guys?' I'm a demon, remember? And anyway, I'm not sure Morgenstern is exactly 'people' anymore."

"Even if we did ambush him, what good would it do?" Janine asked. "He could probably take on all the Masters at once and win. And anyway, we don't need to beat him -- we just need to get him to stop blowing things up and --"

"And killing people," Al interjected. "We really need him to stop killing people before he gets around to us."

Janine narrowed her eyes and fixed Al with a look he had rarely seen since he had finally achieved some success in the magic business.

"Er -- of course I mean people in general, not just us," Al said. "He has to stop killing people --"

"Also demons," Githros said. "I've heard that he's pretty much vaporized a few mid-level types that annoyed him."

"I could swear that you said you wanted to hear my idea," Janine said. "Of course, dealing with you two, I could just swear."

"Please continue, Janine," Sciavone said. "I, for one, am eager to hear any plan that may defuse the threat that Morgenstern poses to us all."

"If we help him, he may stop viewing us as annoying insects to be swatted at any time," Janine said. "At the very least, removing the mana sink traces from his face should improve his mood."

Al sighed. "You have a point, beloved wife and partner," he said. "I'm just not sure how much we can count on his gratitude to keep his temper in check."

"I will arrange for a message to be dispatched, and for non-Talented physicians to stand by to perform the cleansing procedure," Sciavone said. "Obviously, no wizard or magical entity can be exposed to the mana sink fragments --"

"It has to be me," Janine said.

"What?"

"It has to be me," she said again. "Morgenstern knows me. If I offer to do it, he'll know that the offer is serious, that we are willing to risk --"

Al stood and took her shoulders in his hands. "I'm not willing to risk it, Janine. He knows you, all right -- he tried to charbroil you with his aura while you popped away at him with blasting wands."

Janine grabbed a piece of paper and a pen from the cabinet against the boardroom wall and drew four straight lines, intersecting at a common midpoint. She handed the paper to Al, and waited.

"What does this mean?" Al demanded.

"What does it look like?"

"An asterisk?" he said.

Janine shook her head and smiled. "Not just any asterisk," she said. "It's my ass to risk. You don't get to decide for me, Al."

####

Aaron Morgenstern sat on a throne piled high with silk cushions, surrounded by treasures from a dozen realms that had been offered to him as tribute -- or more precisely, as the price of his departure. He had spent weeks searching first this world, then many others, for signs of Al Majius or his companions, the woman, the werewolf, and the demon, without success. After his attack on Majius's home, they had seemingly vanished, their presence masked by spells woven by the most devious of the Conlegium Magistris's wizards.

His travels had taken him to realms he would never have dared to visit before his death and rebirth. Now -- now the smallest demonstration of his might brought terror to those who had thought themselves powerful. But here he sat, alone, while the strange tingling and paralysis that had begun when Majius dared to physically assault him made him want to scream, to blast the gold and jewels and magical artifacts back from whence they came, to bring the very moon crashing down on Majius's head.

No one could help him. The best healers had drawn away from him, claiming that their spells and poultices and charms could not counter whatever Majius had done to him. Even when their lives depended on meeting his demands, they had failed -- and so they had died, pleading for mercy until their flesh burned away before the power of his rage.

He looked into a mirror set into a frame carved from a single, massive gem, the light of his aura splintering into countless motes as they passed through the gem's facets and painting multi-colored stars on the stone walls of his sanctum. His face, perfect at the moment of his resurrection, was perfect no more. It was pockmarked where bits of whatever had been ground into his flesh still remained, resistant to magic that could extract gold from rock ten miles beneath the surface of the earth; it seemed that the skin around each scar was human, vulnerable to heat and cold and disease and time, unlike the rest of the incorruptible vessel he had made for himself.

"I will find you, Majius," Morgenstern rumbled. "You will undo what you have done. And then you will die."

####

Magister Sciavone and the most powerful of the College Masters had written a message across the skies in mile-high letters of fire, directing the Morningstar to use a crystal they had placed in a remote location to contact them:

Morningstar: A cure awaits you. Use the crystal at the peak of Mount Avalon to contact us.

"Oh, sure, tell the world that the would-be god has a problem that needs to be cured," Al said, peering through a gap in his office curtains. "That will definitely improve his mood."

"It's short, and to the point," Janine said. "It promises help, instead of challenging him to a duel or some testosterone-driven lunacy like that."

"Once again, I'm a demon," Githros remarked. "No testosterone."

"And speaking of lunacy, I still think you must be crazy to let him get anywhere within a realm or three of you," Al said. "We can load you up with defensive charms, but they'll all fail within a few minutes of the Big M's entrance."

"Magister Sciavone said that they will explain what was in those glass spheres you hit him with -- and why only a non-magical process can rid him of the traces. Speaking of which, they'll want you to do the banishing spell to send whatever bits I extract from Morgenstern's face back to what's-his-name's home realm --"

"Prufrock," Al said. "His name was Albert or Alfred Prufrock, and he was a pain in the ass, even aside from his literally sucking the life out of some of the Magisters. But those mana sinks from his realm turned out to be worse." He winced. "I am not putting that glass armor on again. It took forever to get those splinters out of my butt."

Janine snickered. "If you think it was fun for me, tweezing glass out of your extreme lower back -- you're right. Aside from the view, I mean. You whimpered like a lost puppy, oh great Magister-to-be."

"I get no respect around here," Al complained.

Magister Sciavone appeared suddenly, the fump of displaced air scattering loose paper from Al's desk.

"Forgive me for popping in," he said. "Morgenstern has agreed to meet with Janine on top of Mount Avalon, but will not tolerate any attempts by others to approach the site. He will be placing wards and blocking spells to prevent apportation --"

"Could we drop an asteroid on him or something?" Al asked. "We wouldn't have to apport it in -- just get it lined up and give it a push."

Sciavone laughed. "I'm afraid not, Albert. For one thing, I suspect that a physical attack would only serve to enrage him further. For another, we don't want to give him any ideas!"

"Anything we can do, he can do worse?"

"Indeed."

"Also, we're the good guys -- aside from Githros, I mean," Janine said.

Sciavone's smile faded. For a moment, every line and crease that centuries of life had etched on his face became visible. "I hope you are right, Janine," he said. "I hope that we can find a way to deal with Morgenstern without losing that distinction."

"When do I have to go?" Janine asked. The playfulness of only a few minutes past had been replaced by a look of grim resignation. "And how am I going to get there? You guys can't 'port me in, and it's not exactly a car-friendly location."

"Have you ever ridden a gryphon?"

Janine shook her head. "Isn't that -- dangerous?"

"Asks the woman who is going to play Androcles to Morgenstern's lion," Al said. But then he continued, "Wild gryphons are pretty nasty, but the College has a stable of domesticated -- sort of -- beasts, mostly for ceremonial purposes."

"'Sort of' domesticated?"

"As long as they've been fed, they won't eat their riders," Githros said. "But I'd eat some rare steak before I got near one, if I were you -- better to smell like a predator than like prey."

####

Morgenstern stood on a more-or-less flat area near the peak of Mount Avalon. Strong, cold winds skidded off the fringes of his aura and spiraled upward in steaming wisps as their moisture was heated and then cooled again. He did not feel the wind, of course, nor the damp, pebble-strewn ground beneath his bare feet.

He did feel the maddening tingling in his face, and he found himself hoping that the Majius woman could do what they had promised and remove the cause of his affliction. If not -- if not, then he would be justified in killing her, to take something from Majius as Majius had taken perfection of form from him.

He paced around the perimeter of the small plateau, kindling pillars of green flame as he walked. Once he had completed his circuit of the meeting place, he muttered a few words of a long-forgotten language, and shimmering curtains of verdant light formed between the pillars and then extended inward to form a dome of protective energy.

"No magic can penetrate these wards," he said, satisfied. Then he staggered slightly, suddenly exhausted. Everything was so much more difficult now than before Majius's assault. Casting any major spell left him drained, at least momentarily; he had not dared to remain at the College after smashing through Blackstone's defenses, not with dozens of Masters only seconds away.

"A god. I am a god," he muttered. "A god laid low by treachery, by a weapon that attacks the very essence of magic. When my strength returns ..."

A shriek like the cry of a eagle mingled with the roar of a lion roused him from his reverie. He looked up, and saw the Majius woman riding one of the College's infernal pets.

####

Aeolus, the best gryphon in the College's stables, should not have been able to fly. Three hundred kilograms of big-cat muscle and bone upholstered in tawny fur could not possibly achieve flight, even with wings suitable for an eagle of twice that mass. Of course, scientists had once insisted that bumblebees couldn't fly, even though they obviously did. For the bees, subtleties of wing movement and flexion provided more lift than wingspan and muscle efficiency might suggest. For the gryphon, it was magic, pure and simple -- or perhaps the ferocity of the creature's huge, orange-gold eyes and gaping hooked beak simply intimidated the laws of aerodynamics into acquiescence.

Feathers and fur rippling in the frigid air, the gryphon banked sharply as it passed over the area enclosed by Morgenstern's spells. The Master of Beasts had placed a geas on the creature, obliging it to carry Janine where she needed to go, and to protect her if it could. Unfortunately, he had not given much thought to ensuring that the ride was comfortable or safe.

Janine tightened her grip on the harness between the creature's hard-muscled shoulders and tried to wrap her legs around its body. She had never even liked riding horses; flying over snow-covered granite at high speeds, sometimes upside down, was worse than facing Morgenstern. At least she hoped it was worse...

The gryphon tried to fly through the green-glowing hemisphere of defensive energy, and received a nasty shock for its trouble. For a moment, it tumbled out of control, its rider clinging desperately to the harness and saddle; but then it recovered sufficiently to make a rough, but safe, landing a dozen paces away from the limits of Morgenstern's wards.

####

Still trembling from what had seemed certain to be a fatal fall, Janine made her way carefully to the edge of the area enclosed by Morgenstern's magical barrier. She extended her hand toward the swirling green light, but couldn't bring herself to touch it. The gryphon might have been repelled only because it was a creature of magic -- but if Morgenstern's wards were meant to exclude physical threats of any kind, she could find herself blown off the mountain.

"You are Majius's woman, yes? I recognize you," Morgenstern said.

Janine nodded, fighting back the urge to run for her life.

"The barrier will not harm you -- unless you have concealed magical weapons or charms on your person," Morgenstern continued.

Janine blanched, although her face was already pale from her near-death-by-falling experience. Slowly, she removed an assortment of bracelets, rings, and amulets that Al and the College Masters had imbued with protective spells, placing them in a neat pile on the stony ground. Opening her jacket, she withdrew a half-dozen blasting wands fashioned from Gwaarloom thornwood, each studded with amplifying gems, and placed them beside the other objects.

She hesitated before releasing her grip on the last wand. I know none of these things would do any good, she thought, but without them, I'm completely defenseless... But in the end, she forced her fingers to relax, and the wand clattered onto the pile.

"I -- I think that's everything," she said. "If I've forgotten anything, your wards won't kill me, will they? Because if they do, we'll both have wasted a trip."

Morgenstern blinked, once, twice, then laughed. "We would not want that, would we? Very well -- I will allow you safe passage through the wards. But do not try any foolish heroics, or your life will end here and now."

Al would make some wiseass remark about now, Janine thought. He couldn't let a speech like that go unmocked. I, on the other hand...

She waited until Morgenstern traced an arc in the air and the green light between two of the pillars of flame faded out, then stepped across the perimeter.

As soon as she was inside the dome of sorcerous energy, Morgenstern made a slashing motion with his hand, and the barrier closed behind her.

Janine gasped, her heart spasming in her chest. A gesture not much different than that one had nearly killed Magister Blackstone.

"Is there something wrong, Majius's woman?"

Janine frowned. "Janine. My name is Janine Taylor Majius. And no, nothing's wrong." I nearly died just getting here, and you'll kill me for saying the wrong thing, but otherwise, everything's peachy.

"Then do what the Magisters of the Conlegium have promised," Morgenstern commanded.

Janine nodded, relieved that irritation at Morgenstern's colossal arrogance was pushing some of her fear into the background. She opened a small leather bag -- not quite an old-fashioned doctor's bag, but close -- and withdrew a jar of ointment and a package of sterile gauze, tweezers, a magnifying glass -- and a roll of duct tape.

"Do you mock me? What is this -- this assortment of trash?"

Without looking up, Janine said, "This assortment of trash is pretty much exactly what I used to get the bits of mana-sucking debris out of my husband's hands. You know by now that magic won't do it -- I'll have to pick out every splinter and grain I can find with these tweezers, then use the ointment and tape to try to clean out the rest."

"But -- duct tape?"

"Stickiest stuff we had lying around the house," Janine said. "To clean Al's hands, I spent hours with the magnifying glass and tweezers, then slathered on ointment, waited a while and wiped it off. After a few cycles like that, I used the duct tape to trap and peel off any remaining traces."

"And this will not damage my face further?"

Janine rolled her eyes. "I won't lie to you -- this isn't exactly a dermatologist-approved spa treatment. But once we have the last of the mana-sink debris out of your face, you should be able to restore your appearance using magic."

Morgenstern frowned, but it was, for once, a look of uncertainty instead of the usual (self-) righteous wrath. "If it will free me of this -- annoyance, it must be done," he said.

And if it doesn't work, you will probably kill me, and go on another property-damage-and-mayhem spree. But if it does work...

"Just so I understand -- if I am able to fix your problem, you'll stop trying to hunt down my family?"

"I have promised this," Morgenstern said. "And gods have no need to lie to mortals."

Janine nodded, suppressing the urge to laugh at Morgenstern's claim to divinity. There was something a little fishy about the way he had confirmed his promise, but it was cold on the mountaintop -- the magical barrier did nothing to block the wind -- and she had no desire to waste time debating contract language. Too bad Billy isn't here, she thought. He could tell me what was wrong with the Big M's wording.

"You'll have to turn down your aura," she said. "I can't help you if I can't touch you."

Morgenstern nodded. He closed his eyes, and slowly, the green radiance that had cloaked him since his resurrection dimmed. Streams of emerald light coalesced and flowed inward, entering his body at locations that Janine recognized as a mixture of chakras and acupuncture points.

Janine found herself blushing. Under the glare of his aura, Morgenstern was naked. And his body was, well, perfect, like a flawless marble statue by Michelangelo brought to life.

"My face is up here, Janine Taylor Majius," Morgenstern said.

"Oh, god, I'm sorry," Janine blurted. "I -- I guess I never realized that you were --"

"So perfect?"

"Naked! I could never see anything through that thousand-watt glow you have going all the time, so --"

"You are forgiven," Morgenstern said. "It is only to be expected that you would be captivated by my divine attributes."

Thank you for saying that, Janine thought. It pisses me off enough to allow me to ignore your -- attributes.

Aloud, she said, "I don't suppose you can conjure us a couple of chairs? This will take a while."

####

Janine pulled the strip of duct tape from Morgenstern's face, trying not to giggle when the self-proclaimed god yelped. He had been even more of a wimp than Al, squirming when she probed for a sliver of what turned out to be wood from Prufrock's realm, whimpering and whining and asking "Are we finished yet?" every few minutes. She examined the adhesive side carefully through the magnifying glass, finding only a couple of bits of what might or might not be mana sink material, and deposited the tape in a water-filled mason jar.

"I think that's it," she said. "We'll give your face one more wipe-down with ointment to get the duct tape gunk off, and then you should be able to try a healing spell."

A few minutes later, Janine dropped the last piece of ointment-soiled gauze into the jar and clamped the lid shut.

Morgenstern sat motionless, his eyes closed. "I feel -- better," he said. "Stronger. And the infernal tingling is gone, after so many weeks."

Janine sighed. "Well, then, I guess I'll be going. Sitting on a cold mountaintop may not bother you, but I really have to pee." She packed the remaining supplies and the mason jar full of mana-sink contaminated gauze and tape back into the leather bag, stood, and stretched until her spine crackled.

"You have my gratitude," Morgenstern said.

Janine looked up, suddenly on edge again. She had heard Morgenstern rant, and rage, and whine -- but she had never heard him sound as if he regretted something. Being a god -- or thinking that you are a god -- means never having regrets.

"Why do I suddenly feel less safe than I did a moment ago?" she asked. "You promised that you would call off your vendetta against Al and the rest of us if we helped you. Well, you just said that you feel better, so we have helped you. And you said earlier that gods have no need to lie."

"I did not need to lie to the Masters of the Conlegium," Morgenstern said. "But it was the most expedient thing to do. And in any case, those who doubt my godhood should not expect me to behave like a diety."

"You son of a bitch," Janine rasped. If I'm going to die, then to hell with being polite.

Morgenstern actually smiled. "I have no mother. I have no father. I was reborn thanks only to my own strength of will --"

"And forty-nine suckers who traded their souls for a few years of high living," Janine said. "And my husband, who had the lousy luck to be the first one to do a Summoning near your boneyard of fools after the last of them died."

"Irrelevant," Morgenstern said mildly. "Any debt I may owe to your husband was paid, and more than paid, by the power he has gained by studying my family's Grimoires. But his debt to me, for daring to oppose my will, for injuring me through foul trickery, can only be settled one way."

While Morgenstern's attention was focused on his favorite thing -- himself, Janine managed to remove the lid from the mason jar of mana-sink-contaminated materials. She plunged her hand into the now-oily water and withdrew a fistful of greasy, ichor-stained gauze just as Morgenstern paused for dramatic effect.

"I'm guessing you're not talking about a thumb-wrestling contest," she said, keeping her hand concealed inside the leather bag.

"Sadly, no," Morgenstern said. "For offending his unacknowledged god, Albert Majius must die. But first, I will end your life, for I know that this will pain him more than -- what is that in your hand?"

Janine withdrew her hand from concealment and held up its cold, slimy burden. The icy air stung her wet skin as soon as it emerged from the shelter of the leather bag, but she managed to keep her gaze steady.

Morgenstern drew back, perhaps feeling the draining effect of even the tiny traces of mana sink material trapped in the ointment-soaked bandage, perhaps frightened by the very thought of suffering its effects again.

"Since you're reneging on the bargain, perhaps I should return this to you," Janine said.

"You dare -- you dare to threaten me?"

Janine smiled, but took the opportunity to start backing toward the perimeter of Morgenstern's green-glowing defensive barrier. "Hey, you started it. I'm just playing the game with the cards I have in my hand."

"My wards will destroy you if you try to escape," Morgenstern said. His voice had regained its odd amplified quality as his aura had grown brighter since Janine had declared him free of mana-sink material.

Janine said nothing, but continued to back away from Morgenstern. It was at least possible that if Morgenstern tried to launch any destructive spells or even to use his aura against her, the traces of mana sink material would suck the energy from his attack, as a larger object had once absorbed a fire-wind spell. And it was at least possible that -- she glanced to one side, and saw that she had almost reached the wall of swirling green light, closed her eyes, and threw herself backwards.

For a moment, it felt like Githros or one of the lion-men from Gwaarloom had raked her back and sides with their claws, then poured scalding-hot salt water into the wounds. But then the green light that filled her vision sputtered and died, and she fell to the ground outside Morgenstern's zone of protection.

"Impossible!" Morgenstern cried, his enhanced voice rebounding from the rocks like thunder only a few meters from a lightning strike.

Janine managed to get to her feet, bruised, singed, but alive. "This stuff eats mana, remember?" she said, gasping as her abused back muscles spasmed. "Offensive spells, defensive spells, the energy you and the older Magisters depend on to live, it's all the same. Come near me, and I'll throw the contents of this jar at you. There's probably thousands of tiny bits of mana-eating material floating in the water now -- imagine if you swallowed or inhaled some of it..."

Apparently Morgenstern got the point, because he did not attempt to attack her. Instead, he restored the damaged section of his protective 'dome', then retreated to the center of the shielded area.

Janine replaced the length of bandage in the jar, wincing as she noticed how much of the contaminated water had spilled when she fell through Morgenstern's wall of defensive magic. That could be a problem for her gryphon mount, or for any other magic-using mode of transportation... but she couldn't abandon the bag, or throw it down the mountainside. The stuff had to be sent back to Prufrock's realm, or it could eventually drain the mana from a huge area.

She found a relatively dry package of gauze and used it to soak and wipe up as much of the water as she could from the inside of the bag, then deposited the damp cloth into the jar and resealed it. Then she retrieved the collection of spell-charged items and found places for them in her pockets.

Her hands and face were numb from the bitter cold by the time she finished packing up. If she didn't manage to get off the mountain soon, Morgenstern wouldn't have to do a thing to her -- he could watch her die from hypothermia.

Speaking of Morgenstern... She peered closely at the dome of green light, just barely able to discern a man-shaped blur moving back and forth inside. She laughed. "He's afraid to come out until I leave!"

Well, she would be more than happy to oblige him, provided that the gryphon would stand for having mana-draining cargo. Unfortunately, the gryphon cringed when she approached, the geas placed on it to force it to serve her clearly losing out to the creature's instinctive avoidance of the mana sink material. It was strange to see such a large, powerful and lethal beast doing its best to fit its lion and eagle parts into a smaller and smaller space at the edge of the plateau.

At last, the gryphon screeched and dropped over the side, dropping hundreds of feet before it spread its wings and spiraled up and away.

"Crap. Creamed chipped crap on toast. I'm stranded." She hunched her shoulders and wrapped her arms around her body, trying to trap as much heat as possible. "Next time I volunteer for something like this, I'm insisting that the meeting place be someplace warm. A white-sand beach would be nice --"

She shuddered and flexed her fingers and toes, hoping to keep the blood flowing. The Masters probably wouldn't risk sending a wizard to rescue her when the gryphon made its way home without her for fear of provoking Morgenstern. Not that Morgenstern needed provocation to act like a colossal ass--

"Somebody call for a ride?"

She rushed to the cliff edge, almost overbalancing as she looked down to find the owner of the voice. "What the hell --"

The strangest thing she had ever seen was rising slowly up the mountainside -- and she had seen a lot of strange things, being married to a wizard whose spells often went awry. A man, dressed in glass armor that seemed to refract light in odd directions, sat awkwardly on what appeared to be a large Persian carpet. What made it especially strange was that the carpet also had a protective layer of glass -- or rather two layers, with water sandwiched between them.

"Al, is that you in that outfit? I thought you said you wouldn't wear one of those suits again."

"That was before you spilled all that mana-eating gunk in your bag," Al said.

At least she was pretty sure it was Al -- the water-filled glass armor made it impossible to see the person inside with any degree of clarity, and muffled the voice as well. Then the armored figure raised one hand to scratch his nose, bringing glass-armored hand in contact with glass-armored head, and the loud clank removed any doubt.

"You were watching? I thought Morgenstern would be able to detect that sort of thing."

"A direct farseeing spell, maybe," Al said. "But we tapped into Aeolus's senses. Anyway, we figured you'd need help when he took off without you."

"How fast can that thing go? It's probably not a good idea for you to be this close to Morgenstern."

Al's head tilted forward and Janine imagined that he was frowning, although the helmet made it impossible to be sure.

"It didn't go well?"

"It went fine," Janine said. "He's back to full strength, or close to it. And the rat bastard is still going to kill us."

"Damn it. So you came up here, nearly freezing your assets off, made him feel better --"

"And he said 'thanks, sorry I have to kill you now'," Janine said.

"Or much fancier words to that effect," Al said. "It's never the nice guys that get godlike powers ..."

"Can we just go?" Janine asked plaintively. "I've been chilled to the bone since I got off Aeolus's back -- that's one thing I'll say for him, he's warm -- and I really need to pee."

"Heh. You should try wearing this thing. Water between layers of glass blocks the wind okay, but once it gets cold... And they neglected to put in a trap door, so they put me in a diaper -- not something you really want to see."

"Shut up, Al, and take us both someplace warm, with plumbing."

She stepped onto the glass-armored carpet as it drew level with the plateau, then sat down hard as her foot slipped on the mirror-smooth surface.

"Ow, damn it. I did not need that."

Al looked down and said, "Is it just the way things look through this damn helmet, or are you sitting in a puddle? Because if you cracked the glass shielding the carpet from the mana sink debris, we could be in trouble."

Janine reddened. "That's not water. And if you even think about laughing --" She found a seatbelt that had been fastened somehow to the glass, and buckled herself in.

Al said nothing, pretending to be concentrating on steering the ungainly -- and breakable -- vehicle through the air.

But Janine was pretty sure that his shoulders were shaking, and even more sure that it wasn't from shivering. When they got home, he was going to find it even colder than it was up here... at least until Morgenstern found them again.

THE END



2006 by Robert Moriyama

Bio: Robert Moriyama has been the Aphelion Short Story Editor for two full years now, and is to blame for many of the delayed or just plain missing issues of the past year. Some of the time he should have spent on his editorial duties has been frittered away on stories (like this one) in the seemingly-endless Al Majius series. However, he still gets to pick which stories get to go online, so he expects lots of favorable comments on this story. (Just kidding ... maybe ...)

E-mail: Robert Moriyama

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.