In a matter of seconds, Wren shrank from the young man holding a blade to her throat, to a sniveling mess hugging his legs on the cold dirt. The edge of her staff half, the blade still released, stuck out from the tight ball Wren pulled himself into. His sobs rose from within, matching the trembles of his body. Siobhan had seen a man cry, many times—often at her hand—but something about Wren struck her differently. She sighed and knelt before him. Carefully, she removed the half of the staff from his sobbing bubble before he could accidentally cut himself.
The staff part thudded when she dropped it beside her. She didn’t bother putting the blade back, her attention was on the sobbing mess of Wren. Her eyes scanned him, from the rips in his thin sleeves, the loose threads of his pants threatening to turn to holes, and the greasy shag of his hair. He was a far cry from the nobility he was born into. No noble would allow his clothes to show even the simplest signs of wear, nor would they dare let enough grease and grime cake their hair that the strands molded into one. He was unlike any noble she met and, it pained her to admit, it fascinated her.
“Wren,” she said, keeping her voice soft. Though life as a nomad had hardened her, she knew when to return to her once kind ways. Her fingers touched the soft skin of his wrist. Time hadn’t yet taken the pampered flesh of a noble. A few more weeks on the streets and the scars would start forming, callouses would devour his fingers, and he would lose what few remains of privilege he had. That thought saddened her. She’d already seen it happen once, a proud person of wealth turned to a greedy scavenger of life. “Wren.”
He pulled his head from his tight sphere of flesh. Redness fought for supremacy in the white. Tears soaked his thick lashes. She resisted the urge to touch the mark on his chin splitting the faint tan with a streak of raised white.
“Do you know what happens to a mage when they’re taken to the spire?”
He nodded, though it was so weak it barely was a nod. “They’re branded with their bracelets that take away all free will.”
“Aye. They become the perfect solder. No disobedience, no emotion—they do as their masters the Vanguard Generals command. Family and other loved ones become less than nothing to them. If your fiancé has already had that bracelet bound to her flesh, I’m sorry, but she’s gone.”
“If I could get to her, get the bracelet off her wrist, I—”
Siobhan shook her head. “Nay. That isn’t how it works.” She sighed and removed her hand from his wrist. Her boots twisted in the dirt as she sat with one knee pulled close. Each word passed through her mind multiple times before she spoke again. With Wren’s fragile state, she knew she had to choose them carefully. “When the bracelet is forced onto them, it doesn’t just take their soul, it takes their ability to live without it. Removing that bracelet will kill the host.”
“It’s just a bracelet,” Wren whimpered, “how is that possible?”
“I don’t know the specifics of the how.” She brushed a braid off her shoulder and glanced to Elias. The Aquantian stood silent like a statue, his hands tucked into the sleeves of his robe. Bushy eyebrows sagged over his narrow teal eyes. The tips to his lips wilted when his eyes turned to Wren then back to her. No help would come from him on this one. He didn’t know how the bracelet did what it did any better than she did. They knew what created it and that was all.
Siobhan stood up, grabbing the staff piece beside her. She clicked the blade back into its hidden hole before tucking the staff part through her belt loop. Wren was pitiful as he looked up at her. There was a part of her, the dark angry part she’d been living, who wanted to yell at him for being weak. Emotions would get him killed. Lots of things would get him killed.
“Have you heard of crystillium?” Siobhan asked.
Wren shook his head. He pulled out of his ball, leaning his head against the wall. In the dull light of the tunnel, he looked as though he hadn’t slept in days. At least not a decent sleep, those were hard to come by when living on the streets.
“Crystillium is a danger to mages, anyone with magic. In its purist form, it’s a flower that looks as hard as crystal and just as transparent. When touched, they say the petals are smoother than the finest silk. It’s like reaching toward the heavens and plucking a cloud from the sky. Beauty and death combined in a single bloom of potent perfection.”
Wren frowned. “What does that have to do with a bracelet?”
“I’m getting there. Patience, moron.” She watched him carefully, his lips twitched in a small smile. “Anyone with magic flowing through their blood needs only brush a finger against a crystillium flower and it will send hives covering their body, blisters that fester and bleed for days. And that is the best reaction. When smashed and formed into a liquid, the crystillium becomes far more dangerous. A touch of that liquid and the magic wielder drops.”
“It kills them?” Wren’s voice was a squeak, a brush of air in a tornado.
“Sometimes, aye. Most of the time they become stone. Not in the literal sense, but they can’t move a muscle. They can see, hear, breathe as normal, but the rest of them is useless.” Wren’s frown deepened as he pointed toward her. Siobhan nodded. “Aye. That’s what happened to me last night.”
“But you said you’re not a mage.”
“And I’m not. There is more magic in this world than only mages. You lowlanders have shunned it and thus pretend it doesn’t exist, but we do. I won’t tell you what I am. That is my secret to keep until the Goddess decrees I must share. Respect that.” She pulled her braids way from her neck, it suddenly felt hot, suffocating, in that tunnel. Already the Emerald Tea was wearing off so she extended a hand toward Elias. Her loyal companion dropped the vial in her hand, but still said nothing. She took another sip and waited until the fire passed through her. With such a small amount of crystillium in her, it would be gone by nightfall. Until then, she would nurse the fowl Emerald Tea and mask the effects. “Simply being in the vicinity of open crystillium can impede the use of magic. If a mage were to walk through a field of crystillium flowers, even without touching a single one, they would have no use of their magic. The bracelet is created with both crystillium and emeralds. For as negative reaction as crystillium has, emerald has the exact opposite. It heightens the magic. Somehow, the Vanguard Generals found a way to combine the two and in doing so they created the bracelets.”
Wren sighed and pushed himself to a stand. He wiped his eyes and cracked his neck. Siobhan watched with some amusement as the weeping young man emptied and the moron she knew returned. One hand flexed against his side as he turned to look at the exit.