Plight of the Magi
Minister Havriel's party was always a masquerade. Noble ladies and merchant daughters with more gold than sense danced provocatively, undulating to the drumbeat and leaving the men in the ballroom slack-jawed and dimwitted.
Alas, erotic dancing and the seduction of men was not why Taryn attended. Truth be told, she'd rather be in a nice dark tavern with a cool flagon of ale - - perhaps sitting on the knee of a strong man smart enough to hold a good conversation but not smart enough to realize that he wasn't the one in charge.
There were many attractive men at this party, but it was the glittering Leywyn Stones, beautifully carved into the ceiling, that drew Taryn's eye. The Stones glowed in ocean blues and lavender purples, which dimmed and brightened in time with the music. She spared a moment of pity for the poor souls, cursed with being Magi, locked in one of Havriel's factories and being slowly bled dry. The Magi were discovered young then inserted into a factory so their valuable blood could be removed and stored to later infuse Leywyn Stones with power.
Taryn adjusted her corset and smiled at the crowd. Two men with long drooping mustaches approached. They looked to have just the right amount of inflated confidence and deflated sense that would work to her benefit.
"Hello, my lady," said red moustache.
Taryn smiled. "Hello, my lords. This party is magnificent. It's the first time father has let me attend."
The second man, with a pure black mustache, nudged his friend and shared a knowing smile.
Red mustache took Taryn's hand and kissed it. Taryn suppressed a shudder as she felt his warm, wet, mustache tickle her hand. "My name is Edgarn, and this is my friend, Ravlier."
Ravlier grabbed Taryn's hand and delivered his own sloppy mustache greeting.
"My pleasure to meet both of you. My name is Harlinia." Taryn spent a moment promising each man what they wanted with her eyes. "I wonder which one of these people is Minister Havriel."
Ravlier patted Taryn on the arm with his free hand. "We know him well. If you'd honor us with a dance, we'll introduce you."
Taryn eyed Ravlier and tried to determine if he was lying. She decided that even an obvious fool like Ravlier wouldn't lie about knowing Havriel when he'd be so easily found out.
"You flatter me, gentlemen. I'd love to dance with you, but I'm a poor dancer and would probably embarrass you. I'm from a small House on the outskirts of Faenlund and we don't get to attend affairs such as this very often."
"Nonsense." Edgarn started the trio walking towards the dance floor. "A woman, so obviously graceful as yourself, will be a natural dancer. If anyone should be ashamed of their dancing prowess, it is Ravlier."
Ravlier scowled. "Edgarn lacks manners. If you dance with me, you'll soon learn that I'm a most elegant dancer."
"Well then, I look forward to dancing with both of you." Taryn lowered her voice. "Is it true that Minister Havriel created a new Leywyn Stone?"
"You shouldn't know of this yet," Edgarn said with mock disapproval. "However, since you do, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to tell you the new stone is being stored in his bedroom under heavy guard."
Taryn tried to keep the glee from showing on her face. Her sources were right. "That's incredible," Taryn exclaimed. "What do you suppose it does?"
Before Edgarn could answer, the music ended.
"Ah, finally. So, which of us would you like to dance with first?" Ravlier asked.
"Me, of course." Edgarn pulled Taryn to the dance floor.
Taryn considered striking Edgarn under the armpit and seeing how well he could dance without a functioning left side. However, he had information she needed.
"Your fingers are quite strong." Taryn hoped Edgarn was susceptible to flattery.
Edgarn grinned. "Indeed they are. I'm quite an accomplished archer, and such skill is only earned by those with strong and deft hands."
Taryn smiled and began to dance. If Edgarn didn't have more information about the Leywyn Stone, she was going to be very upset. Taryn opened her mouth to ask about the Stone, but Edgarn spun her in a circle, causing her mouth to click shut. When she completed the circle and was once again facing Edgarn, he was smiling proudly, like a child who managed to eat alone without spilling on themselves for the first time.
"You're quite a good dancer," Edgarn exclaimed. "I thought that you said you didn't know how."
"I'm only as good as the man leading me." Taryn berated herself for slipping up. She was a great dancer, but Harlinia, the rural country lady, was not.
Edgarn laughed and the music sped up. Taryn had to concentrate on dancing well enough that she didn't make a fool of herself, yet not so good that she would arouse suspicion in Edgarn.
When the music finally ended, Edgarn was breathing heavily and dripping with sweat. Taryn covertly wiped her hands on Edgarn's sleeve and hoped he'd mistake it for a caress.
"That was great." Edgarn said. "Would you like to join me for a drink? I worked up quite a thirst."
The thought of spending more time with Edgarn was repellant, yet he still hadn't given her the information she needed. "Yes, of course." Taryn replied.
Edgarn reached towards her arm, but another man pulled her hand away and brushed it with his soft lips. Taryn turned to this new man and was surprised at the striking contrast he made with Edgarn and Ravlier. Where those two seemed arrogant and brutish, this man was confident and elegant.
"Pardon me, Minister." Edgarn bowed. "May I introduce Lady Harlinia from Faenlund."
Havriel smiled at Taryn. "Greetings, Lady Harlinia. I apologize for interrupting your evening. However, your dancing has enchanted me. It's rare that I see a woman so graceful and beautiful. May I steal you away from your friends for a while?"
For once in her life, Taryn was at a loss for words. Even with a mask, this was clearly the most handsome man she'd ever seen. It didn't seem right that a man could be this beautiful. "Of course, Minister."
Havriel offered his arm. His hands were covered in rings encrusted with Leywyn Stones, and she wondered what powers he had stored upon his fingers.
The pair walked through the ballroom and Taryn felt the envious eyes of every woman, and a few men, drilling daggers into her back. Not only had she managed to be introduced to Havriel, but she was also going to be alone with him. Procuring this new Stone would be easier than she thought.
A waiter ran towards them and offered them each a glass of chilled wine. Havriel raised his in a toast, then took a sip, so Taryn smiled and did the same. She didn't care much for wine, but this was delicious.
"How are you enjoying the party?" Havriel asked as they walked to his private balcony above the ballroom.
"It's amazing. You have a beautiful home," Taryn said.
They arrived at the door to Havriel's balcony. A guard placed a Leywyn Stone into a small opening in the wall. The stone flared orange then the door unlocked and silently swung open. Taryn and Havriel walked in and a large Leywyn Stone in the ceiling flickered on, illuminating the balcony in a soft blue light.
"Please have a seat." Havriel gestured towards a large cushioned chair.
Taryn sat and Havriel took a seat beside her. She took another sip of wine and realized that she'd already drunk the whole glass.
Havriel saw that her glass was empty. "You like the vintage? You should be feeling the effects any moment now. The sedative I added is quite fast acting."
Taryn's eyes widened in shock. She started to feel sluggish and her vision blurred. "How did you know?" Taryn flexed her thigh to release the dagger strapped there.
"You're more well-known than you realize. I heard about the beautiful thief that steals the hearts and gold of noblemen quite some time ago. I knew it was only a matter of time before you worked up the courage to try to steal from me." Havriel stood and pushed a Leywyn Stone into a slot in the wall. "Tonight seemed especially likely, since you could hide behind a mask and try to steal the new Leywyn Stone that I supposedly created. Of course, that was a lie to lure you here."
"Why?" Taryn slurred. The door opened and two guards entered the room. She tried to reach for her dagger, but her arms weren't working.
"Because I want you to steal the new Leywyn Stone created by Minister Velan."
Taryn awoke lying in an exceptionally soft bed. She tried to stand but couldn't move her arms or legs and felt the cold touch of metal encircling her neck. Even her mouth wouldn't respond to her commands and the only sounds she could make were panicked grunts.
"How do you like my gift?" Havriel asked from across the room. "It's something I developed to deal with exceptionally dangerous criminals. A person with that collar around their neck cannot move, or even speak, without my permission. They feel my desires and must act to fulfill them."
A Leywyn Stone in one of Havriel's rings glowed yellow and the Stone in Taryn's collar brightened. The ability to move her mouth and speak returned to her.
"Get this thing off me!" Taryn yelled.
Havriel shook his head. "You are not in a position to make demands. That collar was crafted with tempered Rhydanium and cannot be broken or removed without the power contained in my Leywyn Stone. You must learn your place, my sticky-fingered beauty."
The idea that she couldn't move a muscle without this man's approval made an empty pit of fear well up inside her. "Please, remove the collar. I'll do anything you ask."
Havriel ran his finger along the collar then up her cheek and to her lips. "Hush now. It'll be all right."
"You'll take off the collar, then?"
"Of course," Havriel replied and gently kissed her forehead.
Taryn felt relief flood through her and she shamed herself by letting out a heartfelt sob.
"But not until you steal Valen's Stone for me," Havriel said.
Taryn sighed. "Where can I find the Stone you want me to steal?"
Taryn scratched at her collar. Pleasant thoughts of knives, blood and Havriel's slit throat flitted through her mind as she crouched in an alley. There didn't appear to be anyone else nearby, so she tentatively stood up and looked at her surroundings.
The building she stood beside had a smooth, polished exterior that gleamed white in the inky darkness. Taryn knew that even if there was some way to climb it, her dark clothes against the white building would make her stick out more than a high born in a gutterbar. She eyed the building critically and determined that it was about thirty feet high. It wasn't the tallest building in the city, but it wasn't a shanty either.
Taryn took a slow deep breath, then activated the violet Leywyn Stone on her bracelet. Incredible strength flowed through her. She tensed her magically bolstered leg muscles and jumped. She flew off the ground and through the air, luxuriating in the cool wind brushing her face as she rose over the edge of the roof and landed on top of the building.
Taryn turned off her violet Stone. She couldn't see anyone else around and heard no cries of alarm. She found the trap door Havriel said would be on the roof, but it wouldn't budge when she tried to open it.
She activated both her violet Leywyn Stone and her black Stone then stomped on the door. The trapdoor silently shattered and she fell through the opening and landed on top of the guard standing underneath it, knocking him out cold.
Taryn turned off her violet Leywyn Stone, not wanting to use up the last bit of its power, but kept her black Stone on. It surrounded her in an aura of silence and didn't use much power. She should be able to keep it on throughout the whole job as long as it didn't take too long.
Havriel had said that Velan kept his most valuable Leywyn Stones in a glass case in his bedroom. Velan was an old man and rumour had it he retired early each evening and went to sleep. Taryn hoped that he was a sound sleeper.
Taryn didn't see any guards, so she hurried down the dimly light corridor. When she got to the end of the corridor, it split off in two different directions. Taryn wasn't sure which way to go, so she randomly picked a direction and peeked around the corner. She saw two burly men with cudgels strapped to their waists, standing outside a door.
Taryn drew two daggers and threw them. They struck a barrier a foot away from the guards that flared red, then disappeared. Taryn cursed silently within her aura then pulled her remaining daggers from her boots.
The two guards drew their cudgels and charged towards Taryn.
The first guard swung at Taryn's head, but she ducked and rammed her dagger into his eye. Taryn slashed at the other guard's throat, but he managed to knock her dagger aside with his cudgel, making Taryn's hand go numb and drop her weapon. The pain caused Taryn to lose her concentration and her black Leywyn Stone turned off. The sudden return of sound startled the guard, so Taryn kicked him in the knee. She smiled as his knee snapped and his leg gave out beneath him. Taryn rammed her knee into his head on his way down.
Taryn retrieved her daggers then checked on the guards. The one she stabbed was dead and the other looked like he wouldn't be bothering her for a while. She looked up and down the corridor to see if anyone else was coming then walked to the door leading to the room they were guarding and tried the handle. Surprisingly, it swung right open and she crept in. The room was lit by a blue Leywyn Stone and the walls were covered in bookshelves filled with old leather-bound books.
The bed was empty. A large glass case sitting against the wall contained several small Leywyn Stones. There didn't appear to be any way to open it, so Taryn slammed the hilt of her dagger into the glass. It shattered easily, but one of the Stones began to glow red. The loudest hunting horn she'd ever heard resounded through the room, and undoubtedly through the whole building.
There wouldn't be much time until more guards came, so Taryn collected all the Leywyn Stones in the remains of the case and jammed them into her backpack. She ran from the room and saw four guards approaching.
One of them pointed at her so she took off running the other way, and hoped she'd be able to find another exit or a window to leap out of. The corridor abruptly ended in a staircase leading down. She ran down the stairs, leaping two or three at a time, but they seemed to go on forever, and Taryn despaired they'd never end. When she did finally get to the bottom, there was a wooden door blocking her exit. Taryn leaped off the last stair and kicked the door, which shot open and slammed into the wall on the other side. It made a loud bang and Taryn regretted not re-activating her black Stone. She activated it now and carefully made her way through the room.
It was a huge chamber filled with men and women shackled to large stone pillars. There were tubes sticking out of their arms and legs, which were connected to jars encrusted with green glowing Leywyn Stones. The dead-eyed look on the faces of the emaciated Magi tore at her heart. They were like cattle destined for a slaughter that would last a lifetime.
She ran through the room looking for an exit, but she stumbled over some tubing and bumped into one of the Magi chained to a pillar.
The Magi managed to get a shackled hand around her wrist and Taryn screamed soundlessly within her aura of silence. She tried to break free of the Magi's grip, but found he was too strong. She drew her dagger and looked at the Magi, ready to stab him if the threat of death didn't make him release her.
Instead of seeing a listless creature, more alive than dead, she saw a scarred older man in his middle years. He was moving his mouth, obviously trying to speak, and seemed extremely frustrated that he couldn't make any sound. Taryn considered stabbing him, but found that she couldn't kill a helpless man chained to a pillar.
She held her finger to her lips then dropped her aura of silence. "Please, let me go," Taryn whispered. "I'm being chased by Valen's guards."
The Magi smiled. "Anyone who pisses off that whoreson Valen deserves my help, not hindrance. Unfortunately, I get the feeling that you're going to be the only person I see down here who isn't interested in draining away my blood for a long while. Break me out of these shackles."
"Why should I help you, Magi?" Taryn asked.
"My name is Holseph. I'm a man and not something to be harvested for the pleasure of others."
Taryn's face turned red as she was overcome with shame. It was easy to enjoy the wonders of Leywyn Stones when the horrible way in which they were made was something abstract and far removed. When faced with the intrinsic evil of your own society, it was much more difficult to ignore your share of the blame.
"I'll free you if can, but I still think we're going to get caught by the guards. I haven't found a way out of here, and we can't take on Valen's personal army alone." Taryn examined Holseph's shackles.
Holseph grinned. "Girl, I'm not some empty-eyed husk of a man that's lived his whole life in this damned dungeon. I was born of the mountains, and I ride the thunder. Now take these godforsaken chains off me and I'll take that collar of your neck."
Taryn's hand flew to her neck. "You can do that?"
"I am Magi."
Taryn heard voices behind her shouting in alarm and activated her violet Leywyn Stone. Strength flooded through her and she grinned at the sheer joy of it. Part of her longed to run to the guards and attack, yet she knew that her Stone would run out of power long before she could win that fight. Taryn grabbed hold of the shackles on Holseph's arms and yanked, they shattered and motes of green light floated around her.
"My legs! Hurry!" Holseph yelled.
Taryn was sure that she'd feel the point of a sword enter her back at any moment, but it was too late to stop now. She knelt down and pulled on the shackles holding Holseph's feet in place and they shattered, once again showering her in green motes of light.
Holseph climbed down from the outcropping on the pillar where he had stood and slowly stretched.
Taryn felt her hair stand on edge then the whole chamber lit up in three flashes of light in quick succession. She heard screams, then three thunder blasts nearly deafened her. She looked up at Holseph and saw him smiling contentedly.
Holseph touched Taryn's collar. She felt it grow warm then it opened and fell to the ground.
"There now, freedom is yours again, girl. The exit's that way." Holseph pointed in the direction Taryn had been running before he grabbed her. "Just don't forget, those fancy Stones you guys use are powered by the lives of real people. We live and breathe and feel and die, just like you."
Holseph looked towards the remaining guards and said, "Better hurry, girl. I have a lot of killing to do, and I don't want you to get hurt by accident."
Taryn grabbed her collar and stood. She wanted to tell Holseph she was sorry, that she didn't know how bad it was for the Magi, but she knew that was a lie. She'd always known about the horrors the Magi lived through. She'd just never cared. Instead of ruining this encounter with lies, Taryn squeezed Holseph's arm in farewell then ran for the exit.
As she ran away, she heard screams of pain and claps of thunder and couldn't help but wonder how much it would cost to buy a Stone that could do that.
Havriel woke to the sound of someone whistling in his room. He tried to sit up, but found that he couldn't move or speak. A beautiful woman lounged in his chair.
"Hello, sweetie." Taryn stood.
A ring on Taryn's finger glowed yellow and Havriel found that he could open his mouth and speak. "What have you done?"
Taryn smiled. "I did as you asked. I broke into Valen's factory and stole the Leywyn Stone he keeps in his personal stash. He had a bunch in there, so I took all of them.
"How did you get out of your collar?" Havriel asked.
"It turns out that Magi can do a lot more than just bleed. They're actually quite useful, if you get to know them," Taryn replied. "I also found out that there's a group of people who think that harvesting Magi to make Leywyn Stones is wrong. They were more than happy to buy those Stones I stole and use them to help free Magi from other factories."
"You idiot," Havriel growled. "If the Magi were all freed they'd enslave us all. Is that what you want? To be the slave of some Magi?"
"I've met many men who would use me for their own gain or pleasure," Taryn said quietly. "But, I've only met one Magi, and he saved me from you."
"You meet one good Magi and decide they're all to be trusted? You're a fool, and --"
The Stone in Taryn's ring once again glowed yellow and Havriel's mouth clamped shut. "Maybe I am a fool, I don't know. What I do know is that I'm a vengeful bitch and you're going to find that out first hand."
Havriel's eyes widened.
"Those same people I sold the Leywyn Stones to offered me a lot of money for this ring if I was able to get the collar around your neck. Enjoy your time as a slave, Minister." Taryn laughed and hopped out of Havriel's window.
She climbed down the wall then walked down the dark street. It was past midnight, but Taryn always enjoyed walking the streets at night after a big score. She felt especially good knowing that she was doing something right for a change. Yeah, she was basically selling Havriel into slavery, but he was a bad man, so that made it all right. The huge chest of gold she'd get in exchange helped clear her conscience, too. Taryn was pretty sure she'd have enough gold to convince Holseph to sell her a Stone that let her ride the thunder, and maybe he'd share a tankard of ale with her too. He wasn't bad looking after all.