Wind swept wide arching paths through the sand and rock of the desert, obliterating all traces of life that had passed through. This was of no consequence to one such traveler, who wasn’t the kind to leave footprints anyway. She paused in front of a half-buried obelisk, eyes glinting from beneath her hood.
“Finally . . . after all these years . . .” The figure knelt down, sinking her clawed hands into the sand and scooping away more of the grains to reveal the writing on the structure. According to the glyphs, the box was buried here and she had but to unearth it to claim her prize. Eagerly she began to dig. Within moments, the black lid revealed itself and she clutched at it, slowly pulling it up from its indentation in the rock bed.
So intent was she on her task, Mirage didn’t sense the presence of another being observing her. At least, not until it spoke.
“Why hello there, kitten. Found your lost toy in the sand box?”
She hissed and whirled around, clutching the box to her chest. “Chaos?! What are you – I mean, ah . . .” The startled elemental cleared her throat and attempted to smooth down her fur. “What brings your Lordship here to this forsaken patch of desert?” she asked, more smoothly.
“Certainly not the call of nature,” Chaos responded, smirking. He jumped up on a nearby rock, lounging across it as though it solely existed for his comfort. “I’m curious as to what you’re doing that’s oh so important?”
Mirage pursed her lips, hesitating for a moment. It wasn’t as though Chaos picked sides. He liked to stir up trouble, to turn things upside down. Which is what she was doing, so hopefully he would be content to watch it unfold rather than get involved. “The chest I’ve found . . . it contains dragon teeth. The very same that the Phoenican Prince Cadmus used to build his precious Thebes. Each tooth he planted in the ground turned into an armed warrior, one who was indestructible and completely obedient to Cadmus’ command. The remaining teeth that weren’t sown on the ground were stolen from him, spirited away and cursed by darker gods than that old blowhard Ares.”
“Ah. Using a Greek weapon of magic . . . won’t that be interesting. Surely Aladdin’s magical blue friend will figure out some way to stop it?”
“There’s no information he can ferret out, not in any book or scroll or wall-carving. The fools can search if they like, but they will find nothing. I’ve made sure of that.”
“Oh, Mirage, you mean after all this time you’ve learned to cover your tracks? I’m ever so proud – where’s a can of celebratory tuna when you need one?” Chaos taunted. Mirage’s smile faltered, but she kept her rage in check.
“In any case, the warriors will be under the command of my favorite general. I think the boy deserves . . . now, how did he put it? For magic to be handed to him on a silver platter?” Mirage sighed fondly.
“Question. How can he be your favorite general if he doesn’t even know he’s fighting for you?” Chaos asked, flicking his tail.
“Do pawns even know they’re on a chessboard?” Mirage laughed. “Mozenrath’s been my favorite for a while now. He’s ingenious, creative, self-motivated, doesn’t play well with others . . . he’s got all the right material for a conqueror. It’s just too bad that he threw away any chance he’d ever have of destroying Agrabah by himself with that silly promise . . . . But with these warriors, he’ll have every advantage and no restrictions.”
“Well, those certainly would uphold your end of the bargain. Clever loophole you found, kitten. It’s just too bad you’re just going to have to find a new favorite to share your toys with.”
Mirage opened and shut her mouth. “I don’t understand what you mean . . .”
“Don’t you wonder why I came all the way out here to see what you were after? To see why your nose wasn’t still glued to that mirror in Morbia, watching to prevent your ‘general’ from falling?”
“He’s not dead,” Mirage hissed, forgetting her deference. “I set up wards to alert me if anything threatened his mortality or health.”
“No, he’s not dead,” Chaos grinned. “Nevertheless, he did fall, in a manner of speaking.”
“If he’s been captured, then I’ll get him out. After all, I got him out of that wretched Genie’s deathtrap, made sure he found his buried gauntlet, and I even restored his power overnight when that book-bound wizard used him--”
“My goodness, he’s quite bothersome from the sound of it,” Chaos remarked, licking his paw. “Do I detect a hint that you actually care for the boy?”
Mirage stiffened, tail puffing slightly at the insinuation. “I do not care for any mortal, no matter how talented. He is merely useful to me. Hideously unlucky from time to time, but useful, do you understand?”
Chaos narrowed his eyes. “Careful, kitten. I’m not liking your tone. And anyway, see how useful he is when he’s head-over-heels in love.” He snickered at Mirage’s expression.
“What, you mean the princess? He only wants her because Aladdin has her. What does it matter to me if he lusts after the little tart? He can have her once the city falls.”
“Mirage, darling, there’s a difference between lust and love. Even you know that, though I’m sure you’re a little rusty in both fields.” Her shriek of outrage was music to his ears. “Just sayin’.”
“It’s impossible for him to fall in love with just anyone!” she hissed.
“Oh ho ho, is it really? Are you sure that token you took from him is still locked up nice and tight?” Chaos drew himself up, stretching his wings out nonchalantly. “Because not a few minutes ago, a certain ‘just anyone’ threw a handful of ashwinder eggs into his face. And it worked.”
Mirage grit her teeth. “A love-spell. Annoying, but temporary. I can take care of it.”
“Ah, except you can’t. A deal’s a deal.”
Her eyes widened. “A deal . . .? You can’t be serious!” Hastily she transported herself back to Morbia and stood before a gilt mirror. As she hissed a spell, the surface shimmered and showed her Mozenrath’s current state. His back had been flayed raw and he shook with fever. A girl was by his side, attempting to soothe him as he gripped her hand, murmuring fitfully.
Mirage stared at the girl’s face, snarling as she recognized it. She had made a mistake to allow her to live, let alone to remain in Agrabah. Had the little witch caused these injuries to Mozenrath? If so, how ironic, considering all the boy had done for her.
No matter. She’d never know, and he’d never remember. Mirage waited until the girl got up and left, looking panicked. Obviously calling for a healer; Mozenrath’s state had seemed to worsen. She knew the slices across his back would fester and kill him, even with the best physicians’ care.
Living in a cold, sunless land had never been good for his health; he was always so frail. That was the tragically annoying thing about the few mortals she valued; they were so . . . well, mortal. In any case, Mirage valued his mind over his physique. She had entertained the thought of binding his essence to his skull and keeping it around for company in Morbia when the gauntlet eventually killed him.
But she didn’t want him dead right now. Not when there was still so much to do; he had an army to lead for her. Mirage put a hand on the glass, sending her magic to heal his body. Skin closed and infection oozed out, the magic burning it away. He cried out in pain, writhing, but soon the skin on his back was whole and his fever was abating. He sank back into the bed, lapsing into a deep sleep.
The skeletal arm remained of course; Mirage liked the look of it and the gauntlet would have eaten it away again. Speaking of which, where was the wretched thing? Mirage sighed irritably, locating it locked up tight in the Sultan’s treasure room. How predictable.
“You give that back to him and he’ll probably be dead by morning,” Chaos said, hanging upside down in midair next to her head. Mirage nearly jumped out of her skin, screeching in alarm. “Sorry,” he said, sounding anything but. “Anyhow I’m truly starting to suspect that gauntlet just eats him because it’s bored.”
“But he’s defenseless! He needs a weapon to escape captivity.”
“I’d say he enjoys being a captive too much to escape. Just look at him laying there.”
“He’s unconscious,” Mirage said flatly.
“I know. It’s the most relaxed I’ve ever seen him. Maybe you should let him sit this one out?”
She dismissed that with a wave of her hand. “This is the fight he’s been waiting for. The destruction of Agrabah is within his reach; I can’t imagine a simple love spell getting in the way of his ambition. What does the girl think she’s doing, trying to snare him with a spell? She doesn’t remember him – she can’t!” Mirage turned a suspicious look on Chaos. “You didn’t happen to have anything to do with such a chance meeting, did you?”
“Excuse you? I’m Chaos, not Cupid. The whole star-crossed lovers meeting again and making a connection is so overdone. However, the villain getting the girl . . . that’s different. I like it.”
“Well I don’t,” the elemental snarled. “I know what he’ll choose. So far he’s been tortured at the hands of Agrabah’s people; it’s only a matter of time before he comes to his senses. And when he does, I’ll be there to remind him of who he’s meant to be.”
“Eh. Just so long as he doesn’t figure out who he was.” Chaos shrugged. “Then your little wager with Phasir is lost, isn’t it?”
Mirage yowled in anger and slammed her clawed fist at a statue, knocking it over. It was a far better idea than striking out at Chaos. “You leave that decrepit old fossil out of this!”
Unconcerned, Chaos shrugged. “As you wish. But now that you’ve dug up those dragon’s teeth, you know they’ve got a short shelf life. The curse that bound them in that box is more powerful than even you can fight, as all the others have learned. Best make your move soon, before they’re reclaimed. Who’ll be your general for now?”
“Ugh. You’re right, I’ll need a few expendables until he’s shaken off this foolishness. It will be a sweet victory to see him crush Agrabah to dust, in front of the girl he swore he loved,” she chuckled.
Chaos only sighed, almost fondly. “You always were most pathetic when delusional.”
Mirage gasped at the direct insult and turned to snap at him, only to find empty air where the winged entity had been lounging.
* * *
“I can’t understand it,” Aladdin muttered, looking over the wizard’s previously mauled form. “If neither Genie nor Sadira healed him, then who or what did?”
“Forget about asking why!” The parrot flew over to land on the headboard, glaring down at the sleeping wizard. “When it comes to magic, looking a gift horse in the mouth never ends well for anyone! Maybe it was his Gauntlet. Maybe the flying gumbo dish has dormant healing powers – the point is, who cares?”
“I care,” Sadira interjected fiercely. “It could have been a gift given at a higher cost. What if it was the Gauntlet? Then maybe the flesh from another limb is going to disappear overnight!”
“Ewwww!” Iago complained, hiding his face under a wing. “That’s not an image I needed this close to dinner!”
“Sadira has a point,” Jasmine conceded, ignoring the bird. “We don’t know the true motive behind this act. I’d like to believe it’s benevolent, but just leaving it to chance could be a mistake. Genie, can you find out what happened?”
“On it!” The djinn was already scoping the room with a strange beeping device in his hand, dressed like a bespectacled man with a white pompadour and a long face. “The PKE readings are getting stronger . . .” he muttered.
Sadira looked distraught and Aladdin frowned, wondering if the same spell that had affected Mozenrath was doing a number on her too. “Hey . . . he’ll be okay. In the meantime, you should get some sleep.”
“I promised nothing else would happen to him. I shouldn’t have left to get help.”
Aladdin gently took her by the shoulders. “None of this was your fault. You couldn’t have known everything that was going to happen. You’re not a seer, okay? The best you can do for him right now is to be rested and to not worry yourself sick over ‘what ifs’.” He was worried that Sadira seemed to be getting so attached to Mozenrath. He really was the worst type of person for someone like her to fall in love with. Mozenrath was cruel, heartless. He’d see her affection and use it for his own gain, and Sadira’s low self esteem would enable him to.
Right now the wizard was enamored, but what would happen when the spell wore off? Maybe it had already. In the morning, Mozenrath may very well be back to his old self. Sadira sighed and nodded. “You’re right, Aladdin. It’s no use worrying; what’s done is done. But I’m not leaving this room. He all but begged me to stay.”
“If you want to sleep here that’s fine, but Genie’s staying with you, just in case of another surprise.”
And speaking of surprises, a long grayish-purple shape flew in through the window. Xerxes knocked Iago off his perch as he passed, heedless of the bird’s indignant squawk, and squealed when he saw Mozenrath, diving down to wrap around him. “Mozenrath well! Sleeping!” he cried joyously, squeezing the man’s shoulders with his coiled body in a strange sort of embrace.
“Well not for long with that racket!” Iago retorted, ruffling dust out of his feathers.
“Master in deep sleep. No wake. Healing sleep,” Xerxes informed them, sniffing at Mozenrath. “Good magic,” he said, approvingly. Sadira visibly relaxed.
“It wasn’t the Gauntlet?”
“Gauntlet no heal,” scoffed the familiar. “Gauntlet just take. Punish. Eat Master’s life. But Master weaker and weaker, and need Gauntlet more and more. Gauntlet is very bad magic. But other magic heal Mozenrath; good magic. Heal him when flying cage finally land.”
“Flying cage?” Sadira asked, confused. Aladdin and Genie both winced.
Xerxes gave them a cool stare and looked back at the witch. “Genie put Mozenrath into cage without Gauntlet, make him fly very far away from Agrabah for days. No food, no water, too much sun. Flying cage land eventually because Genie not allowed to kill.”
Aladdin could hardly bear the look Sadira was giving him. It was a look of bewildered disappointment, her eyes silently begging for an explanation. Genie, likewise, had turned back into his normal shape. He was rubbing the back of his neck, looking small and embarrassed. But before Aladdin could speak, Xerxes coughed and spoke up again.
“This happen after Master try to steal hero’s body and destroy soul with spell. Hero not too happy. Master desperate, made bad decision.”
He looked at the eel, surprised Xerxes had admitted that much. But still, it didn’t justify how cruelly Mozenrath had suffered for the punishment he had allowed Genie to dole out. “I didn’t think about what could happen. I didn’t want to kill him or hurt him, I just wanted him to go away,” he told Sadira, ashamed. “To be contained for a while, and unable to do harm.”
“And I often forget how fragile mortals are,” Genie murmured. “Especially when it comes to wiz kid over there. Yeesh, no wonder he hates us.”
The witch sighed, softening a little. “So it’s not just him. There’s been mistakes all around, I take it?”
Iago puffed up. “Yeah, maybe, but Mozenrath’s done way worse than any of us! Sure Al and Genie went a little nuts with the big bird cage, but at least that wasn’t intentional!”
“I’m sure it wasn’t,” Sadira sighed. “But this isn’t a contest about who’s better than anyone else. If you bring up something, he’ll bring up something, and around and around it will go, probably until it escalates out of control. As far as I’m concerned, he’s already been punished for everything, thanks to Razoul. And if that’s not enough, think about what we’re doing right now – all of us. We’re using his feelings for me – his emotional vulnerability – to make an ally of him. Yes it’s only a spell, but that doesn’t make it any less real to him. I’m pretty sure we’re all on even ground right now.”
Everyone was silent, except for Iago’s hems and haws. But eventually, the parrot fell silent and just frowned, mulling it over. Out of all of them, he knew having one’s past brought up and rubbed in one’s face was no picnic either.
“Okay Sadira, you’re right. Nobody here is going to rag on him for the past. Not when we can help him.”
She raised an eyebrow at Aladdin’s choice of words. Sadira loved her friends, but sometimes the things they did and said just floored her. “We aren’t trying to help him, Aladdin. We’re doing this because we want him on our side, and we’re using a rather unfair magic spell to our advantage. Trying to rationalize all that as ‘helping’ him, or anybody, goes way beyond arrogance.”
The words came out a little sharper than she meant and Sadira didn’t miss the suspicious look that crossed over her friends’ faces. “Sadira,” Jasmine asked carefully. “You’re not becoming attached . . .?”
Sadira couldn’t help a smile, even though she was a little upset that they were all remembering her earlier foolishness and obsession with Aladdin. “I’m aware I’m naïve and trusting sometimes, but I’m not stupid. If it wasn’t for that spell, Mozenrath would have turned me into a pile of scorched sand. Trust me, that’s not something I’ll forget. But if we’re going to do this, please believe me when I say that the ‘holier than thou, just trying to help’ attitude really needs to go. Spell or not, Mozenrath isn’t gonna be too shy to tell us where we can stick our ‘good intentions.’ It’s what I’d do, and I get the feeling I’m a heck of a lot nicer than he is.”
Xerxes snickered from the bed. “Witch not foolish. Mozenrath hate ‘do gooders’.”
“Wait, how is the eel okay with all of this?” Iago questioned. “Shouldn’t you be threatening to tell Mozenrath about all our ‘dastardly do gooder’ plans?”
The eel shrugged piteously. “Master no listen. Spell too strong. Hopelessly smitten.”
The solemn gravity with which the familiar said those last two words was too much. The tension in the room dissolved as Iago fell off his perch, fairly crying with laughter. “Hopelessly smitten! Mozenrath!”
Bothered for reasons she didn’t care to explain, Sadira hissed for quiet. It wasn’t really a laughing matter. Aladdin and Jasmine at least seemed to pick up on her discomfort. “We’ll see you in the morning, Sadira,” Jasmine said kindly. She looped her arm through Aladdin’s and they walked out into the corridor. Abu rolled the still hysterical Iago through the doorway, muttering in irritation. Genie grinned at her. “If you need me, just shout!” He turned himself into a wisp of smoke and soon she could hear faint snoring coming from the lamp, which had appeared on a cushion.
Sadira made herself up a bed on the nearby cot and wondering, not for the first time, what she’d gotten herself into.
Dagur leaned back against Skullcrusher. He had not let go of Tuffnut, who was obligated to follow, pressed against the Berserker’s side almost protectively.
He made no effort to pull away, simply muttering and shifting - not entirely certain if he should be making an effort. It wasn’t like it bothered him; Dagur’s body was warm, and Tuffnut hated being cold.
“Go to sleep,” Dagur murmured gently, as though he were a child.
Tuffnut might have taken offense to that, had it come from anyone else. Instead, he felt oddly safe.
After setting his helmet and all reservations aside, Tuff rested his head against Dagur’s shoulder, falling asleep within several breaths.
- Margin for Error, Chapter 2