Narova the Skagit: Chapter Two
Black Hand Ledger Note — August 5th of the 10th Year After Old Empire
Successfully completed a Lullaby on the Baroness Matilda Lankshire III of Hino. Two thousand gold pieces added to the treasury. The Baroness died at Vexen Green’s hand. Dagger to the spine. Rynoa provided assistance.
Narova’s training moves forward. The girl shows great comfort and skill in the forest. She is also able to tear the throats out of wolves and deer with her bare hand, despite her small stature. Skagit trick, I suppose. I cannot tell if her savage temperament was caused by her imprisonment in Sujava’s basement or is simply her natural state.
She will make a fine Sleeper one day if I can cool her bloodlust a little. Already, she has begun asking for a Lullaby of her own.
Chapter Two: Crooked Hearts
It was a seven-day ride through the wilderness to get back to the Black Hand’s Holdfast. Autumn had arrived—the forest floor was littered with red and yellow leaves, as if all the trees had gotten drunk and puked up their stores. On the way down, Ulnar and I had filled the journey with brandy and—on the last two nights—a rough and earnest kind of sex that only paid killers can manage. Since I was alone on my return, I passed the time by imagining the different kinds of torture Blithe could have impressed upon my young and devious soul.
A lot of Final Hexes aren’t actually magic. At least, not directly. Spells are the rarest commodity in Terranum—only one in a thousand men was lucky enough to learn one. So it was a trend among murderers and thieves to buy a spell-sealed copper tooth filled with some manner of disease or another. Pox from a whore or plague from a rat—like that. The tooth would come with a magic word to dissolve the copper, allowing the dying man or woman to fill their mouth with blight and spit one final attempt at revenge into their murderer’s face.
Stupid habit, in my opinion. If someone learned the keyword for your tooth, it made you extremely easy to kill.
Wizards, though. True wizards did not fuck around with copper teeth. Blithe’s hex could lead to any manner of problems for me: Turn my piss to acid, grow a worm in my brain that convinced me I was a walnut. I heard of one particularly evil witch whose Final Hex made a Baroness grow fangs between her legs, except they’d only emerge to snack on the cock of her One True Love.
Good thing love and I didn’t collide too often.
Whatever the hex was, it had not taken effect as far as I could tell. The missing piece of my ear ached. My back and throat were sore. Other than that I felt fine. That is part of the torturous elements of a Final Hex: wondering when it will take hold of you. Every morning becomes a black shadow from which your eternal pain might finally emerge.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well on my way back home.
The Black Hand’s Holdfast was not fancy on the outside. The actual fortress was dilapidated and covered in three generations of moss. At the burned-out base of the old tower there was an oak hatch that led to an old storehouse. I unlocked the Gonarvian latch with my key—the best sneak thief in the world could spend a month tying to pick that bitch with no success—and hopped down into a ruined basement. A few rats and spiders and things scrambled into the shadows. I ignored them, making my way towards the back and ducking beneath a shattered wooden shelf.
Behind the shelf, there was a squat tunnel that could have been dug by a weasel. Twenty paces into the black it opened up to a narrow but well-built hallway of granite tile. I padded down the long hallway—making sure I didn’t disturb the precious silence—and eventually reached a large, domed room where five different passageways converged. High above, a single blue window laid against the surface of the earth provided an eerie light that was fueled by a half dozen wall sconces burning low around the room.
The Glove, some of my comrades called it. I thought it was a stupid name. We’re a Sleeper Guild, not motley fools who require clever names for the place we drink and sleep and eat and fuck while we are waiting for the next Lullaby we’ll be paid to sing.
Glow Worm was passed out at a polished ebony table in the middle of the room, all I could see were his two wiry shoulders and the top of his white hair, pulled up into a greasy bun. A ceramic jug of wine was broken on the floor beside him.
From that scene alone, you’d figure him for a pretty shitty sentry. And he was. But he had two enormous wolf hounds—Castor and Horus—who were both wide awake and eyeing me from either side of the domed room. They were blood-bonded to a Touched Sleeper named Rynoa, whose spell allowed her to control animals.
“Glow Worm,” I said, taking a step forward. The hounds tilted their heads at me in unison, I could almost feel Rynoa behind their eyes. “How are things?”
He raised his head slowly. Looked at me. Glow Worm’s eyes were bleary and wet. His face a mess of wrinkles and coin-shaped scars that a Taramund Shaman had inflicted on him two decades before I was even born.
“The Skagit returns,” he said. “But the Wayward Hunter does not.”
“Ulnar got shot in the face,” I said. “He’s dead.”
Glow Worm licked his lips, but his expression didn’t change.
“And the Wizard?”
Glow Worm nodded. “Vexen will be wanting to see you.” He pointed to an eastern passage that had been carved out below an old copper pipe that leaked water and bred red-bellied spiders with enough venom to kill a child. I trapped two or three a month and used them for my poisoned darts. “He’s in the garden.”
“Of course he is.”
Glow Worm just shrugged, then settled himself back into the face-down position I’d found him in. I headed down the passageway.
The rotting Holdfast had been built overtop one of the old Gonarvien refineries. Peasants and farmers still believed that the ancient Gonarviens had dug all the magic out of the ground and loosed it upon the world. Morons. There is no magic in the ground—just iron and copper and jade, that is what the Gonarviens were after.
The magic is all locked up in the crooked hearts of humans, waiting to be wrenched free with by a few ancient words.
The garden was a large chamber that had an underground river flowing through it. The Gonarvien’s had carved tubes up to the surface that aligned with the phases of the moon, so the nocturnal plants we used for our poison reagents could all grow there. It is almost as if the Ancients wanted a band of Sleepers to make a home from their refinery after they slipped into the quiet realm of extinction.
I found Vexen Green sitting cross-legged among some Dream Lilies, smoking a wooden opium pipe as long as my arm. Vexen was almost always smoking opium in the garden. Sometimes I’d catch him trimming and watering plants, instead of just sitting. Always thought that was strange. The brewing of poisons was for Untouched killers like me, who had no magic but wanted an easier way to kill people. There was no reason for Vexen to labor in the midnight dirt. Who knows, maybe he just liked growing things.
You would not think an opium-fogged gardener could make much impact on the world. I certainly didn’t. But Vexen’s past did not line up logically to his present. His life was not painted with complimentary colors.
For hundreds of years, Terranum was ruled by the Old Empire—an ancient dominion in the west, connected to Terranum by a single causeway called the Ghost Bridge. Back in some dusty history, the Old Empire had crossed the bridge with legions of cavalry and tax collectors. Then they’d proceeded to fuck over Terranum’s feudal lords one by one. Some lords opted for a conquering of their wallets from the tax collectors, others for a massacre of their knights by a professional and methodical cavalry. The end result was the same. The lords Terranum spent a dozen generations as vassals to a distant and strange empire they’d never seen and felt no true allegiance for. The Ghost Bridge was a one-way street.
But a dozen generations is a long time. Eventually, the Old Empire lived up to its name and started to deteriorate. There were rumors of corruption in the capital. Unrest. Most of their armies scuttled back to their heartland and left the bureaucrats and the tax collectors to keep sucking on our tits for as long as possible. That worked fine until a young Sleeper with a wicked and seemingly bottomless spell got ambitious or angry or both. Vexen Green assassinated the vast majority of Old Empire operatives in Terranum within he space of a few months. It’s not really clear why. Nobody paid him. Nobody could have afforded a job like that. One day he just started murdering them, and he didn’t stop.
When they sent more operatives, Vexen killed them, too. Eventually they sent armies. But by then the Terranum lords had woken up from their centuries of slumber, remembered the glorious freedom of their ancestors, and raised armies of their own. There were battles. Stories of valor and bravery. And then there was no more Old Empire in Terranum.
Evidently, Vexen Green did not want the power he’d carved for himself. He could have become our king. Instead he holed himself up in this remote Holdfast—smoking opium, gardening plants and running a band of Sleeper’s who continued killing people for money. We did not discriminate with our work—everyone’s coin was welcome in our minor domain. Vexen’s killers kept the flames of chaos burning high with our work. Terranum has been leaderless and broken since the Old Empire left. A bloody patchwork of lords and barons and landed knights clinging to shallow puddles of power. It does not show signs of changing anytime soon.
Maybe that was all Vexen wanted. Maybe pure chaos is what victory looks like for him.
I’ve heard drunken, wistful stories of the Old Empire days, and the luxury that filled them. Hanging gardens and villas with conjured waterfalls people used to wash their shit through pipes. All destroyed during the madness of the rebellion, of course. All of it reduced to splinters and rubble. Me? I like the chaos. It’s more interesting. And I do just fine crapping outdoors.
“Narova,” Vexen said at I approached, looking up at me with his gray, haunting eyes. “How did it go?”
I told him.
“How did you and Ulnar arrange the meeting?” Vexen asked when I was done.
“Boris Blithe was in the market for a virgin female to join a blood orgy with him and his three friends, Gogen and Cedric and some dead man who’s name I never learned. They were trying to transfer some of Blithe’s magic with the ritual, I think.” I shrugged. “I volunteered for the job. Easy way to get Blithe out in the open.”
“You posed as a virgin?” Vexen raised an eyebrow.
“It’s not like we planned to let Blithe live long enough to check,” I said, raising my voice a little and then quickly lowering it again. Vexen Green was not a man to lose your temper in front of. “They figured it out, though. I’m not sure how. Something Ulnar or I said must have given us away. Ulnar died first. And then I killed them all.”
I hesitated. “Gogen might have lived, but I doubt it.” Boris Blithe’s spell had pulverized an entire wall—I did not think Gogen would have gotten clear of that havoc.
“This mistake will run deep.” Vexen kept his voice calm. “Ulnar’s death is bad enough, he was a gifted Sleeper, even without a spell. But that scene makes the Black Hand look like sloppy amateurs. Where do you think the next duke or baron or mage will take his business when he needs a life extinguished? To the morons who can’t kill a mid-level wizard without destroying a tavern and piling on four extra bodies?”
I didn’t say anything.
Vexen put his pipe down on the mossy floor of the cave. Stood up. He was taller than most men with lean, agile limbs. Other members of the guild told stories about him—said that he was the most graceful and vicious swordsman in Terranum. But the most terrifying aspect of Vexen Green was his spell: The Black Hand, our guild’s namesake and a paralysis binding that couldn’t be resisted.
“Meeting them in that tavern was your mistake,” Vexen said. “Why not arrange the meeting but not show up? Let the fools wait and drink and slow their wits. Then waylay them in the shadows of some alley.”
“Because,” I whispered, “in an alley, nobody would have seen it happen.”
“Vanity, then. And against your training. Against our ways.”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “But fifteen years ago, you garroted the Viscount of the Old Empire in his own throne room, in front of the entire court. Everyone in Terranum knows who you are—nobody knows me.”
Vexen blinked. “Do you truly believe a quest for infamy justifies all this?”
He was right. “No,” I said. “It was a mistake. My mistake.”
“One that you’ll carry for the rest of your life. And that you’ll make amends for immediately,” Vexen said. “Falen has a scrap job for you—some gambler in Avarum or Lornus or something.”
“Some gambler?” I said without thinking. “I’ve killed two knights, a berserker, and now a fucking wizard.”
“Do not argue with me, just go kill the man. You’ll do this one alone.”
For simple jobs, the Black Hand did not send two Sleepers. At the end of the day, we are working for gold, and The Black Hand can make a lot more coin if we are spread out and stealing as many lives as possible from the night. It also meant Rynoa wouldn’t spare any of her ravens to run reconnaissance for me. I’d need to find Davad Thorn on my own. Pain in the ass. I turned to leave the cave. When I was standing in the mouth of the shadowy hallway, Vexen called out to me.
“Narova. Ulnar really died first? You slew the others by yourself?”
“You’re a gifted killer, Narova. But that is not the only thing you can be. It is not the only thing that we are.”
“No?” I asked, turning all the way around. “I do not like to glorify a trade. What else are we besides hired blades for hired work?”
“We are the end of the story. And with every end, comes an unpredictable beginning. There is beauty in the uncertainty of that creation. How many lives have had their last lines written by a Black Hand beneath my command? How many new stories have we begun?”
I wasn’t a huge fan of Vexen’s opium-fueled philosophical ramblings, but underlings have to control their sass.
“How many lives have been ended by you, Vexen?”
“Two-hundred and nine,” he said. “And you?”
“You have some catching up to do, Narova.” Vexen picked up his opium pipe. Took a long drag. “Kill the debtor. Then come see me again.”