The Word Thief

 

— I —
Sulchen perched eagle-like in the recesses of the old bell tower. High enough to be out of sight yet close enough to eavesdrop on the comings and goings below. Murmurs of the market drifted in the still night air, carrying the last pleas of desperate hawkers peddling junk at some unwary buyer. Despite its bustle, the district was not known for the commerce of goods, instead it was an intersection for those who wished to buy and sell information.

Her legs ached, she rocked backwards and forwards, staying as motionless as possible without succumbing to cramp.

She grumbled as she searched the crowded market, “this night is not going to plan, Melderios. Did you get the information from a drunken sailor?”

Weaving through the slowly emptying market came a middle-aged man, his chest covered in a mighty swathe of beard that reached down past a portly belly. As he strode purposefully towards a vendor, glimpses of finer noble garb peeked out between gaps in the peasant robes he had donned.In one hand he held a fine oak staff, his other resting upon a leather satchel at his side.

Sulchen risked leaning out further to gain a better view. “By all accounts you appear to be a sorcerer.”

She mulled over the complications he posed as he reached the fruit seller’s cart. With a quick glance behind to ensure he wasn’t being followed the sorcerer proceeded to hand over a fat purse to the merchant woman.

“By the looks of that pouch you could buy the fruit, the cart and the woman,” Sulchen observed.

In return the merchant handed him a bound package which he tucked into his satchel. Without a word he spun about and headed out of the market.

Sulchen crept back into the bell tower as her mark continued striding towards the Bayside district.

She bent down to retrieve a concealed backpack, rummaging about in it before pulling out a vellum parchment. She spread the dog-eared document out and studied the intricate patterns it contained.

Opening her witch-sight, she coaxed threads of magic from the Weave. Taking the strands of magic, Sulchen meticulously wove them around the runes on the parchment until all points were connected. Satisfied that her skilled weaving would lesson the inevitable magical backlash, Sulchen was pleased to see the runes glow with a soft candle light.

“Aviluam Themats.” She invoked, drawing the magic into herself.

She put the parchment in the backpack. “This is why we are the best my dear; we cheat.”

The enchantment enveloped her, casting her body from sight, leaving a shadowy apparition in its place. The burn was short and sharp, “curse my human blood,” she spat as her body rebelled against the fae magic racing through her.

With a lunge she snatched a sleeping pigeon, purging the toxic energy into the unfortunate bird. It thrashed, gurgled and with a hiss disintegrated into a dripping black ichor.

“The Twelve forgive me for that. Forgive me for the rest of this night.” She offered a quick prayer before leaping out of the tower and onto the building’s roof.

Thieves’ Way they called it, although not many of the Thieves Guild had the skill to run it like she did. Across cobbles, slates and wooden roofs she darted, leaping over alleyways and scrabbling up walls.

Ahead she spotted the sorcerer continuing his journey, now on the main road that would eventually lead to Northlum Bridge and out of The Warrens.

Sprinting on she arrived at the junction well before the sorcerer. Scrabbling up beside a smoking chimney stack she surveyed the area.

She spied the guild thieves waiting in ambush for her mark. “Well at least some of your information is correct, Melderios.”
Pretending to be drunk, one sat at the roadside. He punctuated his wait by singing bawdy tavern songs as he watched the approaching target.

Three more lay covered in sackcloth upon the roof tops. Lines were tethered around chimneys, coiled ready to rappel down when the ambush was sprung. “Four rats to take down an old man,” Sulchen noted. “If the guild desire his purse, it’s worth taking for ourselves.”

Relying on her enchantment for concealment, she crept up to the first tethered rope. Blade in hand she cut the cord until only a thread held it from snapping.

The singer below flashed up a mirror to warn the others the mark was close.

“Halgaa’s bile, no time to cut all three.”

Moving on all fours she scuttled over to the second rope, keeping to the shadows to augment her disguise. Working as fast as she dared she sliced the cords.

“Time for two, perhaps.”

The last stroke cut deep. Without warning the rope snapped in twain. In a flash she pounced on it, holding it secure.
She cursed, “haste will get you dead, silly girl!”

The mark was close enough to absorb the ambushers’ attention, allowing her mistake to go unpunished. The guildsmen were easing forward as the sorcerer rushed past the beggar without even registering the man.

The thieves moved, launching off the roof to land beside the startled mark. They would have him disarmed and done with before he could offer even a yelp.

Well that would have been their plan.

Sulchen released the rope. The shrieking cries of the falling men was cut short by sickening thuds as they met the cobbled road at breakneck speed.

The beggar stood up, mouth gulping like a landed fish, his eyes bulging as he tried to comprehend the gore that covered him and the sorcerer.

The sorcerer, for his part was white with terror, his scream cut short by a stream of vomit.

Sulchen reached the edge of the roof, secured her grappling hook and leapt off.

Unlike the unfortunate guild thieves she alighted upon her feet and sprang towards the beggar.

To his credit he managed to get a hand to his blade as she fell upon him. Her first dirk stabbed through his sword hand, pinning it to his leg. She tumbled past and slashed his heels, sending him crashing to the cobbles in a screaming heap.

“If I was taller I would have just cut your throat,” she hissed at the thrashing man as she leapt past him, pulling free her blade.

Guild down, time to claim the mark.

The sorcerer leant on his staff as he sought the strength to escape the gore-splattered street.

“You can run faster without that satchel,” Sulchen offered with a waggle of her bloody dagger.

The blow caught her across the shoulder sending her crunching against the alley wall with a bone jarring thud.

She lurched to the side in time to dodge a second strike from the last guildsman. Hitting the ground hard she felt the last of her enchantment dissipate. “The Seven’s bowels, what timing,” she chafed as she rolled aside, catching a glancing boot from her attacker.

The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth, “learn to count, four guildsmen, four!” She fumed as she slashed up at her assailant, slicing leather but missing flesh.

“You murdering little maggot.” The guildsman snarled. “I’ll cut your face off and use it to wipe my arse.”

While he blustered she acrobatically tumbled past the sorcerer, using him to shield her as she scrambled to her feet.

“Got some skill then.” The guildsman advanced, his club raised, his mouth wide in a toothy, friendless smirk that dripped with malice. “You’re nuffin but a scrawny kid. I’m a bloody executioner.”

“You have the cut of an enforcer.” Sulchen shifted her weight, readying to strike. “If that’s the case was this a bunch of recruits on their first job?”

“Got keen eyes for a street-rat. Yer right —” The thug’s words were interrupted by a crunching whack as the sorcerer delivered a blow to his head. With a grunt he crumpled into a heap before them.

Wheeling on the sorcerer, Sulchen raised her daggers.

The sorcerer gave a disdainful sniff and threw the bag on the ground, “take the satchel. It is not worth my hide.”

“Run and do not look back,” Sulchen growled.

“Go back to your parents child, you are out of your league.” The sorcerer spun and bolted down the roadway as fast as he was able.

Scooping up the satchel Sulchen clambered up her rope. Pain shot from her shoulder making each yard climbed feel as if her arm would break. Panting, sweating and cursing the Seven Lords of Darkness she crested the roof top and flopped onto her back to recover.

Further down the street the sorcerer shouted for The Watch. The locals, disturbed by the ruckus, offered advice on where he could stick his Watch.

Sitting up she gathered her rope and started across Thieves’ Way. “Ah Thelamen, you are a wretch of a city.”

—- II —-

 

Wind rattled the shutters drawing Sulchen from a dream filled slumber.

She yawned and stretched, immediately regretting the movement. Shooting pain wracked her shoulder where a purple bruise had begun shifting to a nasty green-yellow colouration.

“Is that an improvement?” she shifted in her wicker chair until she was semi-comfortable.

Wincing, she applied a cold cloth against the wound. “Pox on the Guild. Pox on not counting,” she remonstrated.

Across from her rested a slender black tome, open to the mid-section where a rune had been illustrated.

Sulchen gave it a poke, grumbling. “Why did the guild target a sorcerer with a bunch of lackeys not fit to pick an old man’s pocket? Why did he buy an apprentice’s book filled with the most basic of enchantments?”

She flicked a few pages, “Invocation to illuminate the hearth with a smokeless fire. I mastered that at six. Half-sidhe or not, any child of ten able to draw the weave could invoke this enchantment.”

Studying the rune she determined it was exactly as it appeared – the most basic of apprentice spells.

She snorted. “Well, if I want to have a warm fire, I now have the pattern.”

The shutters rattled with enough vigour to disturb her musings as another seasonal storm battered the city.

She pushed the book aside and moved to the window. Between the gaps in the shutters she could see the old lamps at the crossroads swing like a drunken sailor’s jig. The flickering light caught an aberrant gleam of metal.

Disquiet seeped into her; pushing aside her soreness, replacing it with a dry mouth and heavy beating heart. Snatching her blades she crossed back to the window, scanning the rain-lashed street for signs of movement.

No one. Not even the resident stray mutts were out in a night like this.

Shaking her head she returned to the book, “getting jumpy in your old age, Sulchen?”

“Never too jumpy, that’s how we get to old age,” she reminded herself.

She picked up the book, turning it over in her hands to examine it for any clues to a hidden value.

“So, why did Melderios have me retrieve this? He is no more an apprentice than I am a noble woman.”

The sound of breaking glass on the floor below followed by muffled howls had her heart racing once more.

“Unwelcome guest playing in my traps!” She tucked the book back in the satchel, fumbling with the bindings in her haste to secure it. Once fastened, she swung it over her shoulder, grunting in pain as it knocked against her injury.

Another series of crashes was followed by angry shouting and several screams. “So much for safe-holds. Pox on this night,” she seethed as she darted to the window.

“What is the chance?” Ducking under the sill, she reached up, cutting the cords binding the shutters to let the wind crash them open.

The chair and desk disintegrated into kindling as multiple quarrels exploded into them. She rolled aside to avoid wooden shrapnel flung throughout the room.

With ruined wood falling like rain upon her she was up and out the window, leaping to the ledge below, before scampering down to the roof. She slid down the rain-soaked thatching and into the alleyway that the night carts used.

No ambushers so far. She scanned ahead as she ran. “Thank the Twelve for slow-reloading crossbows.”

Gloom-shrouded figures lurched into view from the main street. She pressed herself against the wall and crawled away.

“Get to Dockside, lose them in the Warrens.” She darted up, sprinting along the puddle-soaked road.

The wall beside her sent out a shower of splinters as another quarrel narrowly missed her head.

“Either they are drunk or they don’t want me dead,” she panted as she ran.

Ahead more assailants loomed out of the shadows, clubs in hand. She threw herself aside, plunging down a lane-way.
Her would-be ambushers gave chase. Their fresh legs closed the distance with chilling speed.

“Not going…” she wheeled on them, flinging a dagger at the closest one, “…out run.” The blade struck with a satisfying thud, sending the man sprawling to the ground clutching his bleeding belly.

The other vaulted his fallen companion and swung an arching strike that Sulchen acrobatically dodged. Undiscouraged the brute repeated his assault; swinging back and forth in a scything attack that forced her to retreat.

“Gotcha!” he chortled in delight.

Sulchen attempted to dive aside as a heavy net crashed down around her. Hooks woven into the cords snagged her, digging into flesh and clothing, the weight knocking her to the ground.

“Night, night princess.” The brute leaned over her, his billy-club coming down with a crack. Pain wracked her body, a second blow sending her into unconsciousness.

— III —

The brute’s voice intruded on her dreams, his pitch higher with nerves, and his tongue catching on each word as fear nibbled at his ability to speak. “See boss. She is all alive and such. I know how to knock them good and not mess them too much.”

A cold, unfamiliar voice replied. “I am glad you are so skilful. It would be unfortunate if she had died.”

Sulchen opened her eyes a crack, letting her vision adjust to the bright light. The sound of the breathing, shifting people mingled with another familiar sound she could not quite identify.
Shuffling of feet, a door opened and closed.

“The ocean.” Her numb brain untangled the noise. “We are below the docks, in Deadman’s Inn. Where the Thieves Guild takes it’s troubles to disappear.”

“And you are a big guild trouble, all bundled up in a rather small package.” A middle-aged man stepped into focus and knelt before her.

The fact that he was unremarkable in looks and physique disturbed her. He was well groomed, with a trimmed beard and short cropped brown hair, but he would barely have warranted a second glance in a crowd.

She croaked, “I do my best Guildmaster Aldiman.” Her lip bled from the effort of speech. She coughed blood free from her mouth before collapsing back to rest her head.

“I see that no introduction is required. It is a pity that one so young has run out of options in life.” Aldiman produced a silken cloth from his sleeve and gently dabbed at her cut, clearing away some of the excess blood.

“No need to waste fineries on my sorry face.” She drew back.
“Nothing more than a rag. If you like it, you can keep it.” He tucked the bloody cloth into her vest.

It took all her willpower not to flinch from his touch.

“I’ll be sure to make good use of it,” she managed, “when I get out of here.”

“I am sure you will.” He patted her cheek. “But first you must assist me in a small task. I require the location of your benefactor.”

“Benefactor?” Sulchen wheezed. “I have no one, just me and some rats as company.”

“Melderios would be most disheartened to hear that you disowned him so swiftly. Are you sure you owe him such undying loyalty?”

“What do you mean?” She abandoned any efforts of subterfuge.

With a dismissive wave, Aldiman gestured towards a low table where the spellbook lay. “Well, it was rather odd, don’t you think, that he would order you to collect this tome? A book without much merit other than the finding spell we hid within its dull pages. You would think he would vet his information carefully before sacrificing his dearest Sulchen.”

Sulchen snorted. “Melderios neither gives me orders, nor gains from having me dead.”

“Normally I would delight in proving you wrong but alas time is short and you have information I require.”

Aldiman sat down on a bench before her. “Now I dislike inflicting pain on one so young.” He leaned forward, hands spread helplessly. “However, Theos, the thug of a creature with whom you are now acquainted,” he sat back up, his face lined with mock sadness, “he relishes inflicting pain on just about anything. He finds it … stimulating. I do not like to encourage such fetishes but as I said time is short and I need to know where Melderios is before he decides to take flight.”

Sulchen tried to swallow, her throat dry and sore from fear and blood. “Valdin Lane, the Drake and Crown Inn.”

“So quick to sell out your master.” He shook his head. “Well, Theos will be disappointed.”

He stood and gave her a faint smile. “Goodbye Sulchen. I wish we could have met in more pleasant circumstances. As you know the guild does not allow freelancers encroaching on our business. The penalty for such transgressions is death.”

“I wouldn’t expect less,” she caught his eye, “and when the tables are turned, I will return the favour.”

“I admire your bravery.” He bent low, his nose touching hers as he stared into her eyes. “But there is a slender line between brave and buffoon. I had planned to give you a quick death, but now I think you can sit in The Well and learn the difference.”
He straightened up and without a further glance strode out the door, closing it with a soft click.

—- IV—-

 

Alantern spluttered high overhead, giving her enough light to see her impending death. The Well was an arm-span wide. She could touch each wall whilst standing in the middle. Water lapped against her ankles, low tide spilling in through a grill in the floor. She felt for the high tide mark and found it just above her head height.

A trapdoor leading into The Well slammed shut, raining dust down upon her.

“Doesn’t need to be much deeper. At least I’ll freeze to death before drowning.”

The cold had numbed her aching limbs and cleared her head, “Small miracles.” She rubbed her arms, keeping them moving.

“Not much longer. A few hours to get to the Drake, a few minutes to search and find no sign of Melderios. Then, back they will come. Full of anger to take out on my hide.”

She stomped her feet to keep her legs from seizing.

“Best not be here when they get back, girl.”

Fumbling with cold fingers, she unbuttoned her vest and stripped off to her undergarments, revealing an intricate tattoo across her arm; a raven pecking at a gold coin, its feet tangled in silver chain.

She traced the lines of the chain, finding the point of the spell she had hidden within the illustration.

Sulchen gathered a thread of magic. Stabbing the magic into her flesh she knotted the first binding. The pain was fierce even through the bitter cold. Still, her concentration, vital to the precise endeavour, held.

Sweat broke across her brow as she continued weaving, each strand puncturing her skin, beading the magic with droplets of blood. The final threads pulled through her arm, sending waves of nausea and relief as the pain ended. The enchantment twisted, hissed and sprang to life, enveloping her in a cloud of darkness.

She felt the burn coursing within her body.

“No doves to purge.” She snatched the blood-soaked rag and stuffed it in her mouth, the metallic taste far too familiar after today’s events.

Her head rocked back, blood ran in rivulets from her nose and eyes. Then the spell took hold, she felt her body dissolving, merging with the cloud, leaving behind the cold, pain and sickness.

She slipped down into the water as a swirling shadow, down though the bars and out into the ocean. Within the sea, she found her body drifting apart, it took all her willpower to remain conscious as she gathered herself and pushed on into the surging waters.

She eventually found a sewer entrance and flowed out of the rip-tide and into the befouled underbelly of the city.

Once above firm ground she ended the spell, re-forming into flesh and blood. Naked and cold she acutely felt the effects of the earlier beating. Retching and gagging, she pulled the bloody rag out of her mouth and vomited. Her body convulsed as it sought to purge the last residue of the magical taint.

She knelt, helpless until the sickness subsided enough for her to move onwards.

The journey through the sewers blurred into endless passageways, mounds of rotting filth and countless dead ends that forced her to back track. She fought desperately to stave off exhaustion as the minutes turned to hours.

The sound of the city drifting down an unremarkable tunnel tugged at her foggy memories. In a zombie-like state, she pivoted and with a hand on the wall, lurched along the passageway. The path opened up into a circular room with a rusted ladder set in its middle.

Around the lower rung a loop of thread had been bound. She stared at the cord, trying to remember why it was important.

“I put that there,” she managed. She forced herself to think through her fatigue. “Which means I’ve found it.”

With a groan of aching muscles she slumped against the wall, resting her forehead on the cool stones. Eyes closed, she fumbled her hands across the cobbles, prying at the stonework. With a sharp click a section of the wall slid away. Without a second glance she fell inside, pulling the secret door closed behind her.

A single beam of light filtered down from above, illuminating a room no bigger than a larder. Sulchen swept aside dust-covered webs as she tore open a cupboard. Clouds of detritus billowed around her as she snatched out a silvery vial. Breaking the waxed seal she downed the contents in a single swig.

Grimacing against the bitter tang, she braced against the wall as the brew took effect. Pain, fatigue and numbness faded, as a surge of energy welled from within, spreading warmth out to all parts of her body.

A dizzying euphoria washed over her, she giggled in delight. “By the Seven, I would live on this stuff if tomorrow it wasn’t going to knock me harder than a kick from a horse.”

Opening a sea chest below the cabinet, she pulled out a set of clothes and a pair of sheathed daggers. Once dressed and rearmed she rummaged in the chest and pulled out a leather baldric containing a single throwing knife.

“Drugged, dressed and armed. Time to pay back the favours,” she chuckled, breaking out into a merry sailor’s dance.

The last item she procured from the storage cabinet was a slender tome, the remnants of a dragon illustration adorning its surface. She thumbed through the pages, scanning each of the symbols until she found the correct one.

“This much magic is killing me.”

With as much accuracy as her drug-muddled mind would allow she wove out the spell. The threads were complex, often looping back on themselves or tucking under until they formed a cloverleaf of interconnected knots.

The final strands tucked in place, she recited the words as the magic surged into life.

Shadowy flames billowed from the ground around her and coalesced into a Stygian Hound. The beast’s eyes gleamed milky pale, its teeth glistened like steel.

“Master, your bidding?” it rumbled with a deep baritone voice, shaking dust from the surrounds as it spoke.

She held out the bloody rag, “track the man who owns this and report back to me.”

The beast gave a suspicious sniff and licked its chops with a loping tongue. “As you wish.”

“The blood is mine,” she added. “Ignore that scent.”

The hound gave a wide, toothy grin, spun on its heels and disappeared out through the wall.

Sulchen collapsed on a chair, the fatigue of the day bearing down upon her. “Veldium seeds, no wonder necromancers love the stuff,” she murmured as sleep snatched her away.

—-V—-

 

“Master, I have done as you asked.”
The hound’s voice startled her awake. She sprang up with a yelp, reaching for her blade before realising where she was.
The room was dark, save for the glowing eyes of the beast, floating in the ethereal blackness at face height.

“Show me. Then your task is complete,” she managed, desperately attempting to quell her racing heart.

The hound gave a nod and stepped out through the wall.
After a brief fumbling search, she located the triggering latch and slid the door open, stepping out into the stench of the sewer.

Once the concealed wall closed she leapt onto the ladder and clambered up, keen to be out of the grime. The ladder ended in a stone trapdoor that had been barred from this side. The bolts took beating with the pommel of her blade before they shifted.

Grunting, she pushed against the stone with as much force as she could muster. The trapdoor held for a moment, then with a wet slurping sound it lifted, carrying a year or two of gunge with it as it reluctantly swung open.

Cold night air stung her face as she wormed out into an alleyway. The cobbles glimmered with fresh rain, the smell a welcome change to the refuse below.

She closed the trapdoor, covering it with a water barrel. With a glance down the alley, she jumped on top of the barrel, up to the ledge of the adjacent building and pulled herself onto the Thieves’ Way.

The beast appeared beside her. “Follow,” it rumbled as it leapt off, racing across the roof.

“Time for some murder,” she pounced onto the next building, landing cat-like, on all fours. Up and off she followed the spectral hound as fast as her battered legs would carry her.

The journey led them across the Warrens and onwards into the merchant quarter. As the first hints of dawn crept across the land they reached the river. The hound stopped and raised a paw towards a villa nestled amongst stately oaks.

“The one you seek lives within.”

“My thanks,” she rasped, her breath ragged from running. “Go now,” she dismissed the beast, shuddering as its eyes faded into nothingness.

Sulchen sneaked closer to inspect the house for any obvious dangers. The villa backed onto the river, a high wall separating the grounds from the riverbank. Light spilled from a balcony overlooking the riparian foliage.

The frontage opened onto a pleasant cobblestone road that meandered between gardens and open parks on its way into the centre of the city. Uniformed guardsmen stood at the villa’s gate, the silver buckles on their dust coats gleaming in the moonlight.

“No guildsmen at least,” she noted. “Too obvious a draw for the nosy neighbours to have vagabonds milling about in plain sight.”

Unlike the poorer houses of The Warrens there was a gap of a few yards between the villa and the next house. “Not a big distance, Sulchen. Done it hundreds of times,” she measured the leap in her mind. “Long way to fall. Don’t mess it up my dear. Focus, jump and grab. Plentiful gables, plenty of rose thorns, plenty of roof.”

She rocked back on her heels and then sprinting towards the gap, launched into the air. At the last step the tile underfoot splintered, lurching her forwards into a dive. With a bruising thud she crashed into the tangled roses growing up the wall.

She slipped, grabbed a gnarled vine with one hand and held on tight.

“As graceful as an ox,” she grumbled as she hauled herself up the plants and onto the roof.

She rolled onto her back and caught her breath. “I’m going to wish I had a lot more Veldium come morning.”

Regaining her feet, she scuttled across the tiles until she was above the balcony.

She could hear voices from the room within; Aldiman and at least one other. “Theos,” she growled. “Why do thieves never sleep? Little time to secure the kill, little time to escape.”
“Now or never,” she paused, considering never, before with a shake of her head dropping down onto the balcony.

An open door before her led into the guildmaster’s chamber. Fine curtains fluttered at the door’s edge, flapping in the wind.

Beyond the opening Theos stood, his mouth agape in surprise. Beside the thug Aldiman stood, his face calm, one eyebrow raised. “It would appear that I need to find a shark or two for The Well.”

Sulchen flung her knife at Aldiman’s face. In a blur belying his bulk Theos launched across, the knife thudding into his arm.

Aldiman snatched a broadsword from the wall. “Kill her Theos, make it slow or fast, just get this filth out of my house.”

Theos rounded on Sulchen, his face filled with murderous intent. With disdain he pulled the knife free, licking the bloody blade before casting it aside. “You will need a bigger blade than that toy,” he sneered as he closed on the crouching girl.

“Perhaps, if I had not dipped it in Olphian leaf,” Sulchen stepped back, drawing her daggers.

Theos’s snarl turned from puzzlement to a grimace as pain wracked his body. The poison surging through his blood, he lurched forward and collapsed at her feet.

With furious swings Aldiman set upon her. “You will suffer for that!”

Sulchen caught the first blow with her dagger, the impact wrenching the weapon out of her hand. She tumbled across the room, with Aldiman raining blows at her as she ducked and darted. Grabbing a vase from a desk, she hurtled it at his head; the ornament shattering on the wall, showering him in water, flowers and shards of ceramic.

“You are going to run out of vases and room little girl,” he shook the foliage off and moved to intercept her.

“If you would be so kind as to pass me my knife, we could finish this now.” Sulchen flung a book at his head, “if I had your wealth I could have dipped all my blades.”

As Aldiman advanced, Sulchen changed tact. Feigning as if to dart around, she instead cut in, launching her own dagger attack. Her blade slashed down into his wrist, the impact of the blow disarming his sword.

Sulchen attempted to wrench her blade free, but Aldiman swung around with his other hand, striking her in the stomach.

The force flung her backwards, crashing into the doorway with enough force to stun her. Shaking her head clear, she attempted to stand but her legs refused to obey. Looking down she watched blood spurt in a steady stream from the quarrels embedded in her gut.

“Effective little toy when one is close enough,” Aldiman gloated, revealing a wrist device, its three tubes sending filigrees of smoke skywards.

“One shot but then again, one shot is all I need.”

He bound his bleeding wrist, scooped up his sword and strode over to her.

“Are you comfortable bleeding out or shall I throw you in the river to drown?”

“If it means getting your putrescent breath out of my face,” Sulchen mocked, coughing up blood, “then the river will do. I am in need of a bath.”

Aldiman’s face twisted in rage. Dropping his sword he dragged her up to eye level. “One should always remember to keep a civil tongue around your betters. Now, any last words before I throw you out of my house?”

Sulchen gurgled, choked and coughed her mouth clear, “one or two,” she rasped.

Aldiman dragged her outside, “a little fresh air help?”

“Thanks,” Sulchen’s head spun with blood loss. “I have a confession,” she managed.

“Let me guess. You lied about Melderios’s location. Never mind, we will catch him. After all how could he resist a desperate note from his favourite student?”

“That was not my confession. If you expected anything less from me then you are a fool.”

“Out with it, my hands grow tired and I grow weary of this game!”

“I stole a word from the book.”

“A word? What foolishness is this? How do you steal a word?” Aldiman gave her a vigorous shake.

“It doesn’t matter. I will give it back.” Sulchen managed a faint smile.

“I think it’s time you just died.” Aldiman moved her to the edge.

“Relkiun!” shouted Sulchen, releasing the word to illuminate the hearth with a smokeless fire. Pouring all her energy into the spell she dragged a tangled mass of magic from The Weave, tearing its fabric. She bound the crudest stitches in a horrific, rending invocation. The surge of backlash from the wild magic slammed into her like a tidal wave. Even the dulling effects of the Veldium couldn’t mask the burn wracking her body.

She could hear someone screaming and realised it was her own voice. With the last fragments of her will she purged the toxic power into Aldiman, searing him with the corruption. He staggered back as the magic hit him, dropping Sulchen to the ground.

“What…” Aldiman fell to his knees, shudders wracking his body, “…what, have you done?”

“Returned the word, with some payback.” Sulchen dragged herself up using the balcony railing for support.

“I am going to gut —” Aldiman screamed as his hands bubbled, blistered and shattered into chunks of gore. Eyes wide he strove to speak, instead a stream of blood and steaming ichor spilled forth. His skin split, bones splintered and with a final thrash he disintegrated into a hissing pool of filth.

“I’ll see myself out.” Sulchen heaved herself up and over the railing, tumbling into the darkness.

The barge caught her fall. Sulchen grunted with the impact, thankful the cargo was a load of wheat chaff, rather than one of the many garbage barges that ply the river way.

“No idea where this boat goes but anywhere will do,” she closed her eyes. “Twelve watch over me,” she whispered as unconsciousness carried her away into its black embrace.

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