Sery barely reacted as the knife sliced another shallow gash on her forearm. Both her arms were marked with countless silvery scars, evidence of her abuse and exploitation.
She could not suppress a shudder when she felt the cold, sinking sensation of her magic being drained through the open cut. Dreible, who fancied himself Lord Dreible now that he had access to her burgeoning power, was casting a curse on a nobleman who had slighted him the previous day.
So was her life, and so it had been for years. Snatched from her home village as a child, she had grown up locked inside a mage’s tower, chained up and cut whenever he needed to supplement his own meagre power. Her knowledge of what she was came from countless self-important lectures from Dreible himself.
“You are a Source, my pet,” he said in mock affection. “All that magical potential and no ability to cast spells. You were born to be used.”
And Dreible was right. Over the years, the mage never bothered to conceal knowledge from her. Sery had learned many spells through observation, but no matter how many times she chanted arcane runes or made magic-focusing gestures, the magic inside her failed to activate. The only thing she could do with the fizzy energy inside her was push it into another.
She tried to do the opposite now, resisting the invasive fingers leeching her magic away. She had liked Lord Earlheart, who had a kindly smile and had insulted Dreible over his treatment of her. Slavery had been illegal in the Twelve Kingdoms for over a hundred years, so in public Dreible posed her as his servant, replacing her manacles with a silence spell and an innocuous-looking necklace that could deliver excruciating and paralyzing jolts of electricity if she tried to run.
He slapped her. “Stop that. I’ll just cut you again if you don’t give me the power.” The more blood that flowed, the easier it was for Dreible to drain her. Sery hated herself for her helplessness even as she continued resisting. She knew that eventually, the mage would get what he needed, using her as a tool to work harm, but she could not give up when someone else’s life was on the line. For the thousandth time, she wished she had never been born.
“Roger Dreible!” A commanding male voice could be heard from outside. Both Dreible and Sery were surprised; no one ever came to the secluded mage tower. Leaving off his spell-casting, Dreible went to the balcony to see who called. Sery crept up behind him, careful to avoid drawing the mage’s attention.
Outside, Sery could see a man mounted on a magnificent silver horse. He wore simple leather armour and carried sword and shield. Upon seeing Dreible, the man announced, “Roger Dreible, you have been charged with servant abuse and wilful neglect of duty for a minor in your care. You and your servant,” he consulted a paper he held, “Sery, are commanded to trial in the city of Nottagan tomorrow morning at the ninth bell. I have been authorized by the kingdom of Oslethia to escort you to said trial, and enforce this edict if necessary.”
“On what grounds are these charges being laid?” Dreible demanded. He tried to sound outraged, but Sery could detect the fear in his voice. Any investigation into his activities would reveal far worse than servant abuse, and the penalty for participating in slavery was a lifetime of hard labour.
The man consulted his paper. “One Lord Earlheart has reported seeing the mistreatment, and several others have corroborated his account.”
“Th-This is ridiculous!” Dreible spluttered. “I have done nothing wrong, and I, I don’t have time for this nonsense!”
The man put his paper away and hefted his shield. “Are you coming to Nottagan willingly, or do I have to resort to force?” There was no threat in the words, only calm confidence.
“As if some no-account swordsman could make me obey!” Dreible spat. Sery was alarmed when the mage began casting a fireball. Was he really going to kill the man, just like that? Timing her movements carefully, Sery lunged at Dreible just as the fire was about to be launched, spoiling his aim and causing the magic to dissipate harmlessly in the air.
“You stupid cow!” Dreible backhanded her across the face, hard enough to leave her stunned. Sery fell to the ground, dazed, the chains of her manacles clinking against the ground. Desperately, she tried to move, but her limbs would not obey her commands. She could only watch helplessly as Dreible cast another fireball and launched it straight at the rider, who was now cantering towards the tower.
Surprise and relief mingled when Sery saw the rider lift his shield and deflect the attack. Starting to regain control of her body, she pushed herself onto her hands and knees, then tackled Dreible again as he cast another fireball.
“Stop it, you wretch!” Dreible yanked her up by the hair and shook her.
The mage’s expression turned darkly satisfied. “Time to earn your keep.” Drawing his belt dagger, Dreible slashed a deeper slice on Sery’s arm. She shuddered as the fizzy feeling of her magic left her, leaving her feeling cold and empty. She slowly collapsed to the ground, limbs weak and trembling.
Laughing, Dreible used stolen power to rain down fireball after fireball. Sery was relieved when the rider deflected each attack without coming to harm. Despite the heat and noise, his horse stayed on course and delivered its rider to the base of the tower. The rider dismounted and sent his horse back a safe distance.
“Take this, then!” Dreible switched spells and sent a glob of acid hurtling down. Not only did the man block the attack, the acid failed to eat its way through the metal of the shield. “What? How is this possible!?” Dreible was starting to panic. The man pulled a coiled whip off his belt and snapped it into the air. The leather wrapped securely around a railing of the balcony. While the man held on to the handle, the whip began to coil itself up, pulling him into the air. Was this man a mage, then? Sery had never seen this kind of magic before.
Dreible rushed to cut the whip where it was anchored on the railing, but his dagger bounced off the leather with a clink of metal against stone. Cursing, he stood back and blasted the entire railing off the balcony. The man was able to land easily on his feet despite falling a distance higher than his own height. He snapped his whip around a different railing.
Dreible blasted the entire set of rails off the balcony. The heavy stone fell, and the man protected himself with his shield. Unlike the fire and the acid attacks, the weight of the stone staggered him on impact.
“I’ve got you now!” Dreible laughed, drunk on power. “Take that! And that! And that!” Great chunks of stone detached themselves from the mage’s tower and fell. The man dodged and deflected as well as he could. A direct impact would crush him flat, no matter how strong his shield was.
Sery’s growing hope that the man could defeat Dreible was extinguished. He was strong and brave and fast, but unless he could reach Dreible in close quarters, he was at a disadvantage. She did not want to be responsible for his death; without her, Dreible would have long ago run out of magic and the man would be safe.
Anger mixed with despair and transformed into a desperate resolve. What was her life worth? There was no point in staying alive in order to facilitate the deaths of good people. Gathering the remaining strength in her limbs, she grabbed Dreible’s belt dagger. He cursed and moved to intercept her, but missed because he failed to anticipate where she aimed it. Sery plunged the dagger into her arm, severing the artery next to her bicep.
As blood gushed out, Dreible gained such a huge rush of power that he lost control of his spells. The entire tower became riddled with cracks, and collapsed in a cloud of rock dust and debris.
Veltyen backed up as the huge stone structure before him collapsed. He did not understand what had happened. His information told him that the mage Roger Dreible was weak, not even close to being able to call on the level of magic he had displayed. For some reason, the level of ambient magic in the air felt unusually high. As the dust settled, he picked his way over to where two dazed bodies lay on the ground. Having been standing on an open balcony during the collapse, both had escaped being crushed by falling stone.
Covered by dust, colours were muted, which made the bright red blood rapidly pooling on the ground stand out even more. It gushed from the girl’s arm in rhythmic bursts that matched the beat of her heart, telling him that she had severed an artery. How had she sustained such an injury? The mystery would have to wait until the situation was not as urgent. Veltyen quickly secured the mage with magic-neutralizing handcuffs, then rushed to the girl’s side.
“Hey, hey, are you okay?” he asked urgently. Needing cloth for a bandage, he resorted to ripping strips off of the hem of the girl’s shift. He tightly bandaged the area around the wound, not worrying about dust or germs; if he did not stop the bleeding, the girl would be dead in minutes. Immediately, the wound bled through the cloth. He pressed down on the cut as hard as he dared.
The girl’s eyes fluttered open, revealing irises of crystal blue. She smiled weakly. “Hi,” she breathed.
“What’s your name?” Veltyen asked, more to keep her awake than anything else.
“Sery,” came the barely audible reply.
“Sery? I’m Veltyen. You’re going to be okay.” The girl nodded weakly, but then her eyes slid shut.
“Sery? Sery! Wake up!” The girl made an effort to open her eyes, but only managed to flutter her eyelids. “Dammit.” The blood was now dripping past the bandage, the speed of the blood gushing out preventing the wound from clotting.
He had to stop the bleeding immediately. “Sery? I have to cauterize the wound.” She made no reply, hovering on the edge of unconsciousness. Grimly, Veltyen buzzed his magic through his belt dagger until it was hot to the touch, then pressed the metal against the wound.
The girl called Sery did not scream, but the small, pained sound she made would haunt Veltyen’s memories forever. The smell of seared flesh drifted up, but finally, no more blood left her body.
Gently, Veltyen began to lift her up, but noticed the clink of metal around her feet. Cursing, Veltyen heated his dagger even more, until it glowed white. At this temperature, the metal should have melted away, but, his magic forced it to keep its shape as he sliced through the chain where it connected to each cuff around her ankles. Veltyen tucked the chain away as yet more evidence of Dreible’s wrongdoing.
Veltyen whistled for his stallion, Magewhisper. The magically-enhanced horse picked his way carefully over uneven ground to stand by his partner’s side. In addition to a riding saddle, Magewhisper pulled a levitating platform behind him, which glided smoothly over the rock-strewn ground.
Veltyen unceremoniously hauled a dazed and moaning Dreible onto the platform. With a muttered word, he activated the magic device, and translucent walls and roof boxed the mage in.
Carrying the girl, Veltyen walked beside Magewhisper until they reached level ground. He mounted, seating Sery in front of him. He tucked in her wounded left arm to minimize jostling.
“I need the smoothest gait you can manage,” he told his horse. “To Nottagan, and quickly.” Magewhisper shifted into a ground-eating gallop, his movements as smooth and easy despite the pace.
Veltyen did not use reins, using a combination of leg cues and vocal commands when he needed to direct his equine partner. Since Magewhisper knew where he was going, Veltyen simply focused on keeping his precious burden on the horse. Dreible was pulled along behind in his magical jail, almost completely forgotten.
Time passed in indistinct snatches and fleeting impressions as Sery drifted in and out of consciousness. The wind against her face as they galloped. Whispered reassurances in her ear. The new but comforting scent of the man who cradled her in his arms. She roused a little when the sound of hoofbeats changed from muted thumps against dirt to a loud clatter against cobblestone.
The man – he had told her his name, but she could not seem to remember – picked her up and dismounted without the use of his arms. “I need a healer!” he called out. Sery was too tired to lift her head to see where he was going, but they were soon indoors, in a place that smelled of medicinal herbs.
“Put her over there,” came a calm male voice. Sery was laid down on a soft, clean bed.
“She severed the artery in her left arm,” her rescuer explained urgently. “I… cauterized it with a heated blade.”
Gentle fingers probed along her left arm, causing small flares of pain. “I’ll do what I can,” said the calm voice. Cool energy flowed into Sery’s arm, soothing pain and easing weakness. Relief allowed exhaustion to take over, and Sery fell into a deep sleep.
Veltyen stood anxiously by as the healer bent over Sery. He watched her face, relaxing slightly as the signs of pain smoothed out of her expression. Her breathing took on the deep and even rhythms of sleep.
Taine, his friend and a skilled healer, raised his head. “She’ll be fine. I helped her body speed up replacing the blood she lost, and healed the wound.” With a pitcher of water and a clean cloth, Taine wiped away the crusted blood on Sery’s arm, revealing the healed wound, a large, raised scar the result of Veltyen’s rough cauterization. Veltyen winced.
“You saved her life,” said the healer. “She still has full use of her arm, and the scar can be treated. I would wait until her body has built up more reserves.” Taine frowned, anger showing through his calm demeanour. “She is rather malnourished, and below the scrapes and cuts, she has bruises in every stage of healing. Where did you find her?”
“Routine pick-up,” answered Veltyen. “The standard petty mage in the countryside who decided he didn’t have to obey the laws of the kingdom. He somehow found the power to bring down an entire building, though.”
Taine’s eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed as he gazed intently at the sleeping girl. “She’s a Source,” he said in amazement.
“A Source?” The term sounded vaguely familiar to Veltyen, but he could not remember what it meant.
“One in ten people have some magic ability. One in a million mages is born a Source. Unlike the rest of us, who absorb ambient mana particles and store them in our enna for use, her enna produces mana particles that spill out into her surroundings.”
That would explain why Veltyen had felt so much magic in the air at the mage’s tower, and how Dreible had been able to cast so many spells. Veltyen could not imagine the kind of power a mage would have with the ability to produce their own magic energy. “Are all the Archmages Sources, then?”
Taine shook his head. “None of them. Sources can’t cast magic at all; their only ability is to transfer it to another person’s enna. In history, they were often enslaved, even forced into breeding programs, though the chances of a Source being born are extremely low, even if both parents are Sources.”
Veltyen studied the girl now that her life was no longer in danger. She looked about sixteen, her body not quite finished transforming into that of a woman. She gave off the impression of moonlight, with long silver hair and skin pale as alabaster. “Her hair…” he trailed off.
Taine nodded. “It’s the result of magic bleaching.” Both Taine and Veltyen had silver streaks in their hair as the result of their use of magic, but their actual hair colour predominated, Taine’s a dark brown and Veltyen’s a deep auburn.
“The level of magic required to have naturally silver hair…” Not even the Archmages had that kind of power.
“It might be common to all Sources; they’re rare enough that little is known about them. Her production of mana particles is linked to her health, so we won’t be able to gauge her full strength until she recovers.”
Veltyen could only imagine what this Sery had gone through, born with an ability that made her a target for every unscrupulous mage in existence, and yet no ability to defend herself. Well, she was safe now, and he would ensure she remained that way. “How long is she going to sleep?” he asked.
“A few hours. She’ll wake up hungry.”
“I’ll be back,” said Veltyen, heading out the door. His voice hardened. “I have to go take out the trash.”