Fools. All of them. Most souls don’t know about the horrible underbelly
of their great city. They go about their day believing all is well and peaceful
within the Kingdom of Stelferr. If only they knew of the war brewing within its
borders, threatening to kill every last one of them. They wouldn’t live so
merrily if they did. Especially those living in Stelferr’s main city—Raegem—the
birthplace of this silent battle. For that’s all it is—come the winter, sides
will be taken and lives lost. There is a small fraction, however, who are not
so easily misled. Those who understand the harsh truth and cold reality of the
world. People just need to be brave enough to pick the right side.
I believe I have. I know my survival lies with those hidden in shadow. Masters of blade and stealth. A Thief. That’s what they call us—the nobility—but we are so much more than mere thieves. We are the elite of our kind. The common people have come to calling us the Blackblades; only we go by no such title.
We are nameless. Holding not one but countless identities. Too many to hold onto one in particular. We are branded.
The tip of my knife drills into the table. Its ebony blade glinting in the gloomy light as it spins, sending wood shavings scattering across its surface. The tavern isn’t anything special, being one of the more run down ones; considered a rat’s nest by the nobles and royalty that pass through the city. The rich and privileged wouldn’t step a hundred leagues near this place. Unfortunately for them, Raegem isn’t that big.
The taverns name—The Headless Horseman—tells any traveller what kind of individuals it attracts. Mercenaries, drunkards, thieves, bandits brave enough to breach the city walls; and the odd beggar. Occasionally a low ranking nobleman will find himself inside its walls, completely unaware of the target painted on his back. They either like the danger and thrill it gives them; or some are truly brainless.
Seated at a table alone I surely am a target. The only reason I haven’t been harassed yet; is for my guild amulet—hanging clearly from my neck. Usually it won’t be so easy to see but it is the easiest way to ward even the boldest of men off. I’m here on a job and don’t need to be distracted. Some are still so blind they don’t notice even the second warning staring them in the face—my weapon in clear view for all to see; again. It’s the most well-known part of my guild. It’s where our name came from. The Blackblades.
Unlucky for the fool stumbling my way, he doesn’t see the amulet nor the blade in my grasp. I know he is coming for me. His intentions couldn’t be clearer and if he continues on his current path; he’ll find it won’t be my soul joining the dead tonight.
Usually I have a fellow Blackblade at my side. Not tonight. This night is different. I have a task to complete. If I fail—I don’t even want to think about where I’ll end up. Unfortunately for this drunken Lord, I am alone with no one to hold me back if circumstances turn ugly. I do hope it does. I need some unexpected excitement.
A hand reaches out; fingers grazing my arm. I tense, not liking the contact but also not wanting to cause a scene, particularly since my mark hasn’t shown himself yet. I look into the face of the noble, disgusted with his smug expression; like he’s just won a prize.
“Leave. Now.” My words are short and sharp. My voice icy. I’m not in the mood for a distraction. If it were any other night, I may have accepted his company—for a short time—while I stole everything he had.
“Now, now my dear,” his voice on the other hand, is like silk. “You won’t be able to have a good time if I did.” I have never known a man to sound so calm and collected whilst being so drunk. Unless it is just an act.
“Not interested.” I stab the table with my knife; taking a chunk out of it and hope he gets the message. He’s not old at all and not as ugly as I would like. It would be much easier to do away with him if he was.
His eyes flick to the dark blade but instead of fear I see eagerness and exhilaration. Not the reaction I am expecting. “You’re one of them.” His gaze comes to rest on the amulet hanging just below my neck; confirming his words.
“You’re observant.” This time I point my weapon at the noble. Clearly telling him I’m not in the mood. Whether he chooses to take my warning into consideration, is out of my control.
He seems more impressed than frightened. Not what I was going for and not unusual; seeing as how fine the guild weapons are forged. The weapons’ hilt is burnished silver with intricate engravings of twin dragon heads. The handle is made of matching silver with a serpent’s body carved up each side. The final piece of work is the silver clad, steel end of the handle. In it a prized ruby; said to be the Eye of the Dragon. Its name—Suthien—carefully picked to accompany this; meaning the Dragons Head. A suitable title for such a weapon.
“That is an impressive weapon.” The noble holds out his hand. “May I?”
My eyes flick to his hand before moving quickly to survey the room. I can’t lose focus. What will it take to be rid of this young Lord?
My palm tingles; Suthien feeling extremely warm in my grasp. An idea sparks in the back of my mind and the next few moments fall perfectly in place. We are beginning to draw attention—far too much for my liking and this man needs to be taught an extremely important lesson. He must not be very familiar with the way this city works to have made such a mistake as he did.
“Of course.” I cannot help but smile. The nobles face drops. My smile in not one of happiness or delight but cold and lethal.
Before he can safely withdraw his hand, my own snakes out to catch his wrist. My fingers dig into a soft forearm; bound to leave a bruise. The blade of Suthien presses into his palm and within seconds he is branded. Three quick slashes. Two horizontal and parallel with each other; and the third vertical—directly through the center of the first two. He has been marked by the guild. The cuts—deep enough to leave a scar—if seen by anyone, they will know he is property of the Blackblades. His future in trade is all but ruined now. His own fault for sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.
The young man’s eyes grow wide, almost bulging from his head. “No, I’ve heard of this. No! What have you done?! You’ve ruined me!”
He obviously hadn’t expected things to take such a turn for the worst. Truly unlucky for him, not so for the guild. Unknown to the noble—we now own him. He will soon come to learn of his fate and loathe it; as they all do.
Releasing him, the young lord retreats; barely able to say a word. I watch him go and notice more than a few eyes drawn my way. For those that didn’t know who is was, they certainly do now. I can only hope my target hasn’t made an entrance while I was distracted.
“Roeni.” A voice sounds behind me.
I turn. Only to lay eyes on a fellow Blackblade; and to think I was alone in this dank place. “Airen. A surprise.”
“Are you sure the Boss will be happy with that one?” Airen joins me at the table, eyeing my weapon with a smirk.
“I’m not sure it matters. The fool didn’t give me a choice and the Boss will get over it. What does he expect when he gives us so many rules to follow?” Airen hands me a rag and I use it to clean Suthiens blade; returning it to its clean and near-polished state.
I pocket Suthien. No one would dare approach me now, not with Airen by my side. Two Blackblades in one place usually spells trouble for anyone looking for it.
A decent fellow and skilled Thief. Airen is someone you’d want covering you’re back on a job. He’s only trouble when he turns up on his free time. Usually to get something out of you.
He grunts at my words, clearly not wanting or caring for the explanation. “I thought I should tell you. That little scene you caused, sent your target flying with the wind.”
I glance sharply at him. How could he sit here and make conversation with me while withholding such information. It just goes to show how much of a troublemaker he is. He’d rather see a Thief fail than succeed. All for his own amusement—no matter how close the friendship.
I give him no time to open his mouth again before I am out the door and onto a deserted street. I catch a glimpse of another lord’s rich clothing and can only guess who it is. Giving chase, I sprint as silently as I can needing to catch up before I lose him but not wanting to alert him to my presence.
Led into a crowded street; I can see him staring back at me from across a sea of faces. Raegem may be the finest and richest city but there will always be poverty—no matter how good life here will get. I was a sure example before the guild found me.
As I walk I pass a few beggers and as much as it pains me—I ignore them, even with their grimy fingers clawing at my cloths. Without warning, a hand reaches out and pulls me backward with unexpected strength. Trying to keep my footing I glance at the hand and my gaze comes to rest on a face covered in grime and dirt.
The homeless woman pulls on my sleeve; almost dragging me to the cobblestone. Before I can react words fly from her mouth. “Take me with you. I want to be one of you.”
I frown. Not sure what she means and in my silence she tugs again. “Please!”
When I finally catch on to her meaning I feign ignorance. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about.”
I know it is a lame excuse but I do not have time for this. Before she can speak again, may hand strikes out and the dark blade of Suthien presses against her throat. “If you want to continue with your miserable life, I suggest you let go and forget you ever saw me.”
The woman’s eyes widen but I cannot see the fear in them I am expecting. Her eyes are unusually clear. I watch the blade move hungrily along her neck as she swallows; waiting with eagerness to spill her precious blood.
I know what I need to do and immediately scold myself for not carrying through with it. She doesn’t know who I am but she knows what I am. She seems so harmless, unable to do much damage—if any at all. She’s also wasting my time. My eyes flick to her hand and she immediately gets the message. Scurrying backward—golden eyes wide as ever—she moves rapidly down an alley; disappearing from sight.
I quickly pocket Suthien before a city guard can see it; the last thing I need is to be caught and locked up for the night. I’ve got too much at stake to make any mistakes; and the King doesn’t take lightly to commoners holding weapons of value and power; including the Blackblades. Trying to pick up the trail I barely catch a glimpse of my target as he takes an abrupt left. He throws a glance over his shoulder and he rounds the corner, checking for any signs of his ghost. I can try and pursue him through the crowd or take a short cut. I chose the latter.
Quickly cutting through a near-by alley, I hope to gain some ground on my escaping noble. The passage is small and dark; even for late morning and I narrow my eyes, trying to adjust to the sudden change. Hurrying through, I dodge debris and waste. The stench is so overwhelming I wonder how anyone can manage to live here. I struggle to keep myself from choking on the reeking air. Making a left and a right; I come to a much larger street. The Raegem markets. Double the people. Twice the effort to stay on the nobles trail and undetected.
I slow to a fast walk; there are too many citizens who would take notice of a young woman chasing a known slave trader. It would look suspicious. I make my way around a tight cluster of stalls; occasionally needing to gently push people—getting them to move out of my way. Some make complaints while others deliberately trying to block my path. Those I have no time for.
Through a break in the crowd I catch a glimpse of his greying head. He is walking south—toward the docks. I don’t have much time left. For the moment I am careful to keep my distance. I don’t need him to detect me. For all he knows, he lost me back in the food market. Scanning the crowd, I search for any signs of city guards—the street is clear for the moment. Perfect.
Staying on his trail, I occasionally stop to assess pieces of clothing or jewellery when he turns around. I’m not dressed for a disguise. His gaze travels my way and for a brief moment I panic. He’ll recognise me within seconds if he spots me. Even with my back turned to him. I reach for a large piece of blue cloth; pulling it around my shoulders and head like a shawl, covering the dark leather of my clothes.
I give it a few heartbeats before daring a glance behind me. He’s on the move again. I pulling the fabric off, catching the eye of a young girl with nothing but the torn clothes on her back. Smiling I hand her the blue silk, hoping she may trade it for new clothing. Someone begins to protest—rather loudly and I look up to see the stall owner shaking his fists in the air at me. It takes the briefest flash of my guild amulet to shut him up. I’m surprised he didn’t go running for home.
I weave my way through the market after my trader—both of us in a hurry. Him to reach a safe house and me trying to keep up. I slowly begin to gain ground when he ducks into a small courtyard. I frown. Confusing racing through me. Where is he going?
I hurry to courtyard and press myself against the cobblestone brick wall. Peering around its corner I see him climb the stairs and the end of the yard and disappear through its open door. It will be easier to do this away from prying eyes.
I flick out my weapon again, clutching it with tight finger and cautiously stepping into the yard. Sneaking up to the building I take a peek inside through a dusty window. I can only make out one shadow moving around inside. I am confident it’s him. I did just watch him enter, after all. Waiting for the figure to move into an adjoining room, I try the handle to the main door. It’s unlocked.
The fact that it is should concern me. My mind is on completing this mission, however—as quickly as possible. I may already be a fully-fledged Thief; but I’m still new to the guild and need to continue to improve. I’ve made it in. Now I need keep my place. I can’t be seen to be slacking off. Some still consider me an apprentice and I’m lucky to be where I am now. I almost didn’t make it and would have been thrown out—to live on the streets among the beggars. It’s a harsh way of living but it’s also the reason the guild has survived this long. Why keep the would-be’s around when they can’t hold their own on a mission? They would only become a liability. Thanks to a fellow Blackblade I managed to scrape through.
Barely opening the door I slip into the room, quietly letting the heavy wood close behind me. It clicks into place and I take a quick look around. It’s not much. Anyone can tell this place has never been used for anything but a storage house. Not entirely uncommon. Especially this close to the docks. Cobwebs crisscross the ceiling—giving it an old, neglected feel. Dust has settled on the empty shelves and bare crates, filling the room thick with motes.
The stillness and silence of the building unsettles me. The deathly quiet doesn’t fit with the loud bustling of the world outside these walls. A warning tingle rolls down my spine. It’s been happening more often lately—like a sixth sense or something. It’s saved me from a lot of trouble in the past. There’s no reason I should ignore it now. As silently as I can I try the handle and frown again. It’s locked. How?
I freeze when a creak in the floor sounds behind me. I don’t need to see who it is; I can feel his power emitting through the air. The strong vibrations and slight humming betray his skill in magic. I know I’ve made a fatal mistake. I slowly turn and as I do, I see nothing but thin air. Fear rises like bile in my throat but I manage to force it down. I cannot afford to panic. He must be a master illusionist. The fact that he isn’t visible and yet I can still feel his presence tells me this.
“Aren’t you a pretty one,” a voice sounds from a doorway to my right.
I adjust the grip on Suthien, ignoring his words and instead speaking those of the Guilds. “Victus Mercator, known slave trader. You’ve been marked for Death. Your life in this Realm is over. It’s you move on from this world and onto the next.”
Victus stands in silence, letting my words sink in before he breaks into a fit of laughs. “You think you can kill me? Take my wealth and get away with it? You all like to think your kind removes things unwanted and evil from this world. I know the truth. You kill, loot and preach it is all for the good of the Realm—and everyone believes you. Ah, how you have them wrapped around your little fingers. You and your Guild are nothing but common thieves. Preying on those you think yourselves stronger than. Well, I’ve got news for you. I’m not so easily fooled or taken advantage of!”
The jagged blade of a dagger is pressed against my throat and my body goes rigid. I gasp in surprise. How could I have been so blind? To not notice someone coming up from behind. Not to matter. I have gotten myself out of a situation a little more deadly than this before. The real challenge will be taking out the sorcerer. Hopefully it won’t take too long to resolve.
I flick out Suthien and in one smooth motion stab the thug behind me. I know it meets flesh when I hear him yelp in pain. I twist the weapon, letting its blade tear through his muscle. He’ll be lucky to walk after this—if I let him live.
A second set of hands move to restrain me. Great, now I have two guards to deal with. Good thing for me, they seem to be oblivious to the weapon in my hand—even the guard I have wounded.
“Feisty, isn’t she boys.” Victus smirks with joy as the guards grunt in unison; agreeing with the noble.
I’m about to show them I really do mean business when a sly voice sounds at my ear. I feel his warm breath on my neck and force myself not to shudder but remain still. “What’re you goin’ do with ‘er, Boss? I’d like to teach ‘er some manners.”
“I’m sure you would Grútus,” the trader chortles. “But this one is different. I have something special in mind for her.”
“Aw, ‘tis too bad.” The guard— Grútus—whispers in my ear, his fingers digging into my shoulders.
“Get your hands off me or I’ll cut them off!” I am not surprised by the amount of venom in my voice and it only seems to amuse the mean even more. Clearly they do not take my threat seriously.
“And jus’ how’re you goin’ do that?” Grútus sneers, his grip on me tightening and the blade pressing dangerously close to an artery. If I move now, he’ll cut me open.
“First, I’ll get free. Then I’ll kill your buddy behind you. Next I’ll kill you after I cut off your hand, of course.” My voice is barely above a whisper. I don’t dare speak any louder; for fear of the blade cutting me open and spilling my life’s blood. My eyes stay fixed on Victus; staring into his so he knows what I say means true. “That will leave your master—”
“You are forgetting someone, sweetheart.” Victus shakes his head at me.
“—almost undefended. I’ll be able to finish by job after dealing with your Illusionist over there.” I flick my eyes to the left side of the room. Enjoying the moment way too much, especially when Victus gawks at me; clearly not expecting me to know of his secret weapon.
“She’s a magic wielder. Kill Her!” The trader looks furious and begins to shake with anger—his face turns beat-red. “Kill her now!”
“You talk too much, Victus.” I reach for a small dagger strapped to the inside of my right arm and swing it around behind me, hopefully in the general direction of the second guard. It hits its mark with deadly accuracy. This is my chance to turn the odds in my favour.
Pulling Suthien from its hold on the first man, I roll away; putting distance between me and the dagger he still has a firm grip on. I am lucky he didn’t cut me open. It is also a good idea to keep moving with that illusionist still in the game. My shifting in position helps me narrow down where he actually is. I can tell by the change in the vibrations of power he is giving off that I have moved toward him. Not an excellent place to put myself.
All I need to do is eliminate Victus as quickly as I can. He’s my main target, everyone else can wait—then it’s their turn. Seems easy enough in theory. Much harder to put into action. Unfortunately for me the sorcerer is fast. Before I can react he is there—in front of me. All dark robes and ink-covered skin. It is then realisation settles. He isn’t just any sorcerer. He’s a necromancer. My chances of escaping this alive have just plummeted to below zero.
Immediately—and hoping to catch him off guard—I lose another dagger. Only to see him vanish before the weapon hits. I watch with dismay as it lands at the other side of the room; clear of any crimson liquid. Disgusted with myself I search again, trying to relocate him. I need to think faster and strike true if I want to leave this building alive. It’s my first solo job. I must prove worthy of the Guild. I won’t get another chance if I fail. I will more than likely end up a corpse if I don’t succeed anyway, so best I find a way out of this mess—and fast.
That may not be a possibility, however. Sure I took out one guard and partially stopped another. That is something I trained extremely well at—but a necromancer; that’s a completely different task altogether.
Focusing on the sorcerer I forget about my mission for the moment. I won’t be completing it while this creature lives. Obviously me being a magic user like himself wouldn’t have been a shock to him, he would have been able to reach out with his power to test me and just how strong I am. Unfortunately I have a block on my magic. It has been supressed; for reasons unknown to me and everyone in the Guild. I can only tap into it when I am under extreme duress. Just like now.
Reaching for whatever magic I can get a hold of, I begin to chant. The only way to beat a sorcerer at his own game is with magic of your own. Fight fire with fire. I direct my spell in his general area, hoping to get as close to him as possible. A miss. Nevertheless, it narrows down where he is.
To a magic user a search spell acts just like a bats echolocation. Allowing us to see ripple effects in the air and see those ripples bouncing back from the target trying to be found. I need to act fast, I can already feel the door to my magic closing—shutting me out. I retry the spell; this time getting a better result.
“Vera forma revelare!” Again I aim for the necromancer, in his actual direction this time. I need to be careful I don’t put too much energy into this spell, I’ll need everything I have for the next one I plan to cast.
Unfortunately, the sorcerer blocks it. Sending my own magic hurtling back toward me at a speed I can’t hope to dodge. It hits me in the head with the same force as an arrow; almost blinding me. I fly backward, crashing into a large stack of shelves. I didn’t think him to be able to cast so quickly.
I should expect no less from him. He is a master in his field of magic, after all – and I, a lowly thief.
I recover as quick as I can, dragging myself to my feet before he can cast a second spell. With more speed than the first time, I recast my own spell—chanting quicker and louder. I do this in rapid succession—not wanting him to have a chance to deflect my magic again. With the Guild Goddess of the hunt and luck, Termiis, on my side now, the spell hits home and the sorcerer’s illusion drops; allowing him to become visible to me.
The necromancer counters and I have mere heartbeats to block his onslaught. He bombards me with his power, trying to break through and crush me mentally. With surprising strength I hold the block. A movement in the corner of my eye draws my attention for the briefest of moments. Its Grútus and Victus. They are escaping.
I cannot let that happen. They are not permitted to live another day.
With renewed vigour I focus quickly back on the necromancer and open my mouth to say one word. A word that will bring the sorcerer’s life to a tragic and sudden end. A word that could just as easily kill me as it will him. I have little choice. Victus will escape if I do not and I will be forced to live a life on the streets if that happens. Somehow the prospect of that seems worse than death.
“Mótrtem.” The word is whispered, barely audible but its meaning having such a wonderfully terrible effect on the sorcerer. In the moment the word is said, the necromancers’ heart gives out; ceasing to beat. To perform the simplest function. His eyes bulge, hand rising to clutch his chest and I expect this to be his end.
His dark eyes meet mine and an ugly smile spreads across his face.
“No!” I exclaim. “No no no! This cannot happen!”
I bring my hands up; staring at them. Why does this have to happen now?
At the same time an invisible power hits, forcing my knees to buckle and the world to start spinning around me. Ethernal is coming for me. The Dragon God of Death.
With agonizing slowness, I reach into a pouch at my waist and pull out a small vial; with it a thin dagger. Dipping the blade into the vials content I waste no time. I send the weapon flying at my escaping target. It nicks him in the side of his neck, barely missing his artery as he vanishes through the door. It is all the poison needs to enter his blood stream. He won’t know it, but he’ll be dead within hours.
I watch him disappear with death coursing through his veins before my own takes me. Had I thought it through more I could have reached an alternate conclusion. Unfortunately, I could only see one way to end this mission.
My eyes raise to meet the necromancers once more and he is moving towards me; probably going to Victus with news of my death. I am glad that my aim was true and the merchant Lord will not be alive to see it.
I topple to the floor, darkness taking me, embracing me with open arms and my vision fades before I hit the wood.
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