Prowess / Pissant
rating: +12+x

730.11. Fools Leave Only Orphans performed at least 130 times in Skardoss and Timur by sponsored troupes. 43 performances were ended prematurely by local guardsmen. Gossipmongers report unrest among conscript populaces.

731. A shamed hunter reports [HAL/0 REQUEST: KTE-9099-Caliburn-Typhon] was brought into central Cherinmark by current wielder (foreign straggler). Report corroborated by rats aplenty, contract passed to retrieval office.

731.1. Bounties submitted to assassins' guilds capable of moving within Cherinmark:

  • The Mourning Glories - Accepted
  • Flightless Crow Couriers - Accepted
  • Those Penniless Strangers - Accepted
  • Auk om Jaeren - Declined
  • But Upon the Innocent - Accepted

731.2. Additional bounties circulated within local transient communities.

731.3. Based on available intelligence, supplemented by the wisdom of advisors most keen, the royal tealbox put forth a retrieval plan that succeeded in 82.5% of simulations.

732. HUMINT from moles within the Allaingian court suggests tensions are growing over reinstatement of a disgraced advisor. Details vague amidst purges.

—Excerpt from daily reporting to King Tomen il Tellech XXIV

There are fifteen rules to succeeding as a Nighthand: be calm, be confident, be careful, be clueless when necessary and clever as needed, be cruel, be

Here are seven laws all Adders obey: forget the faces of your victims, forget the names of their families, remember your employees but do not question their intentions, forget

Three dicta came first from nature: claw the eyes, bite the throat, pick at

Kill only for coin and only under contract. This was imprinted by your many-feathered teacher, who occupies the Corvid Table's third seat and learned by shadowing the Grandmaster herself through elven nights. Skills derived thus can end royal lineages when ambition, righteousness, or simple vengeance flare bright enough, all then imparted unto you with the removed efficiency that teacher applies to every task. Almost as if he didn't recognize the same once-in-a-generation talent that others did—envy, fear, useless reactions from those who should have learned coldness—but better to be a job than a job. Not that he had a chance against you in combat after completing the Six Talon Trials, heh.

Dwelling on the old man's tiny, feeble ambitions proves just as futile as ever. Sweep that cloak across your frame instead (tall but sinuous, not like the dumb bruisers who mocked you). Thumb the Featherblade's hilt next (retrieved during that contract all claimed was impossible). Adjust the beaked mask again (how else to hide the heterochromia that flags royal bastards). The Grandmaster tried to send a whole clique of lesser crows, but they would have only slowed your passage to the Cairn, only would have stood out as other cutthroats posture in packs around the one lantern that dead city. A boring city too, heh. White stone, simple shadows, no crowds or officers or the harem guard's hunt for straying heritage. Completing a job here will be simplicity itself.

No other killers aspire to your six-story perch. They must sense the menace there, hindbrains prickling at bloodlust that other apprentices once complained about, then came to respect. Strangers, Glories, Adders, their hidden steps and formations are plain as day from that vantage; encyclopedic knowledge identifying each beyond doubt. Sneaking into the order's library long before apprentices were permitted proves yet again to have been the correct decision, not like those buffoons who distracted themselves with companions or courtship. Didn't they realize childhood was merely chance after chance to advantage your future ambitions?

Motion below. One of the Strangers has lumbered halfway across the street, feet barely entering that lantern's glow. Clattering armor (rusted antique, unimpressive). Chattering exoskeleton (needs gearshift lubricant). Hardly surprising from an organization with no techniques to its name, no elixirs in its trove, no legends in its annals, and no respect for its contracts. Heh… No geniuses in their ranks either, it seems, as two lackeys with white-wood rifles follow their leader out instead of taking a better vantage.

WORM he yells, amplified too loud and distorted worse. Those in your profession should be calm, cool, collected under all circumstances; except when your anger proves justified of course. The fools who laughed. The betrayals from confidants. The woman who didn't appreciate your deeds or understand your potential. NO ESCAPING NOW. BRING THE SWORD AND DIE QUIET.

You leap from the roof after a few moments of silence broken only by laughter from one pennyblade or another. Heh. Humorous incompetence indeed, but so was letting that amusement slip free. Your boots (purchased from a wizard after swindling some undeserving merchant) are good for ten steps across open air at a time, and you tap down on the next building over. Calm footsteps span its roof next as COWARDS ARE POISONED. COWARDS ARE STRANGLED. COME SPARE YOURSELF MISERY echoes throughout the cityscape, throughout all of Cherinmark.

Over another alley, then to the next building. Around taller structures as a gunshot rings out somewhere below. Just as you thought. Crouched at that new vantage—perching as the crow does—you watch a headless body hurl so hard between buildings that it skips across the road outside, wet splatters culminating in impact against a wall. Intriguing. The brief hadn't mentioned such strength, but then again, spies who slink to roosts are often bereft insight. Two more gunshots sound within as you reposition again, deftly avoiding attention from the camouflage-clad Adders whose half-dozen look out of place darting through civilization. Another two shots—carbine, maybe taken from one of the Strangers. Heh. Let the fools kill themselves if it so happened that way. Scavengers have the right of things, as said crow law (the epitome of wisdom except when countervailed by your own wit).

Something crunches louder than bodies inside the alley, sending several of those scattering from its mouth. One limp and bleeding. Another scrambling for stability. The third lands hard but stable, traveling cloak splattered with somebody else's blood. Short stature, short hair, stance evincing some crude training, though nothing near what you received when, having been exiled on fabricated charges, you studied the legendary Storm and Shadow School of Swordsmanship. The blade whose grip is hidden under her cloak though… spirit steel makes it nearly invisible and definitely priceless, but not the prize your contract demands. Nobody else seems to notice, heh.

RUNNY SHIT. SICKLY PUP. STAND AND FIGHT. The hulking Stranger emerges from the alley next, splinters of wood still sticking from armored crevices. He must have burst through the door despite warnings about entry. Mealworm—that was her name, hard to remember when targets all die easily—raises her guard against his sickle.

Something glints several blocks away. From your perch, it's easy to spot one of the few present Glories aiming down a foreign-made rifle for an even easier shot. At least, easy for you. That suppressed flash is matched by one closer to Mealworm as the high-caliber bullet is diverted mid-flourish. Improbable. Daggers glint in the twilight wrought by stone suspended far overhead, a circle of eight Strangers and Adders tightening in silent agreement to fight for the bounty later. She flourishes again, spins, and gunfire erupts from underneath her cloak despite the sword held clearly in both hands, short carbine issuing fast enough to plug four bodies before blade checks exoskeletal sickle.

Where did this ability stem from? How could such an unimpressive specimen fend off so many killers at once? Others inevitably took shortcuts to power, relying on underhandedness, connections, or simple fortune (truly despicable on all counts). It reeks. It reeks. Tables should never be turned by hands other than your own.

The black Featherblade rustles when clearing its scabbard. You step off the roof's edge as Mealworm thrusts her longsword through heavy armor, drawing a mechanical screech from device or occupant. One long step down on open air. Two, three, four as you descend. Heh, the killing stroke will be so easy, coming from a blindspot to instantly sever spine, and every other assassin will retreat after recognizing that Calum Shadowstep saved their sorry hides.

A haze gathers behind Mealworm's head between steps six and seven, coalescing into a shape perceptible only by the third eye, the Dragonsight, you were granted after foiling cultists and freeing the last great wyrm (which, of course, soon proved useful in determining that an imposter had replaced the Grandmaster, who then needed defeating in single combat). But the haze. The shape. Only on the eighth step does it become a head, and after the ninth you realize it's this woman's face cleaved from itself, staring at you with three extra eyes shining bright.

A bayonet slices out through the back of her cloak on the tenth step (inborn talent pulling everything into slow motion in moments of crisis (if, indeed, you could possibly face crisis at the peak of your power (absurd, heh))). A barrel follows, stock cradled in ghostly hands and trained on center mass. That single gunshot fills your world even as sword is pulled from Stranger.

'Back to your feet, pissant!'

Teacher's firm voice snaps everything back into focus. Be sure to thank the elflords for that woven armor next time. Vision clears across several wheezes, just in time to see that close-bound ghost fire her carbine at the Glory posted blocks away even as Mealworm's corporeal hands divert another bullet with that blade. Three shots with the carbine in different directions clearly hit their targets even at implausible distance.

"I'm not happy about this either," she says without looking at you—not with normal eyes at least, though the shade split from her waist fully glares. An average voice. A boring voice. "Hate it, in fact. But the world refuses to give me what I want."

Hardly the worst situation you've ever faced. The Featherblade is trapped under one of her boots as she stabs down into the armored Stranger, summoning one final bark of static when translucent metal shears whatever flesh was preserved underneath. You still have tricks left though. The tooth. The sigil. The elixir. The oath. The binding and its corollary debts. You accumulated as a youth to trample as an adult. Bending ten fingers to the requisite shapes beneath your cloak, it's simple to–

"You can go now," she says, kicking the Featherblade aside like so much litter.


"You can go. None of you are the people I actually want to kill." Now she turns, exposing eyes the color of dying grass (weak, unmemorable). A slight frown crests as she hands the sword to her ghostly half, taking the carbine in turn and starting to work a jam from its chamber. Clink. Clink. Clink. She doesn't look away, but it doesn't feel like she's seeing you either. If she did, she would know. She would know!

Complete the sigil under your cloak while taking time to stand. This form is simple, though most students require years to learn anyway, and its magicks whisk you a few feet behind your target. Wrist blades extend after an even simpler gesture. Only you turn tables, only you flip them outright—only you get clobbered with a wooden butt so hard that it sends you skidding aside, forehead bleeding as cracked mask falls away. Handsome features (of course they're handsome (not handsome handsome, but attractive in a manner relatable and approachable and much more)) somehow don't draw extra attention.

"You can go," she repeats while fiddling with the bolt. "Tell your clients the Foundation is back if it'll help you save face. Wouldn't be the first report they got this way."

Clink. Clink. Clunk. You bite your hollow molar as she glances down, releasing an alchemical concoction that expresses itself in a burst of dragonbreath. Lighting, ice, fire, and acid explode between your lips, instantly filling the street with death-tinged steam. Wench. You spit leftover goop aside before casting about for the Featherblade.

'Confirm your kills, pissant!'

Another gunshot catches you in the side, cracking ribs even with the protection of your cloak, your vest, and a patch of wyrmscales that has saved your life before despite coincidental placement. Mealworm strides from the clearing fog, looking all the more imposing with peeling skin and singed eyebrows, looking all the calmer despite them—her ghost expresses their fury instead, baring teeth as three eyes drilled into its forehead flare bright enough to be a string of stars stolen from the heavens.

"What is happening?" you snarl while clutching your side. "What enchantments are these? How are you doing this to me!? Answer!"

Among all other injuries and insults, simple questions seem to pain your target most. Several shakes of her head end with a glance at the translucent blade clutched by her second set of hands. "We disturbed this place already, and Cherinmark won't tolerate much more. Go home however you got here. Bring your friends' bodies with you."

Could hands actually shake this much without coming apart? This insolent ghost, this sad little warrior, they were nothing (less than nothing in fact, transient motes compared to the legends whispered about your name (how uttering it might summon you (how summoning you invites death (how, heh, you're actually just an urban legend)))). What rivals had she thwarted? What plots had she founded or foiled? What exceptions had she earned to the rules that bind all others? Every vein in your body throbs as you twist the ruby-encrusted ring from one finger and–

The ghost cleaves through your arm moments before the carbine's butt crashes between your eyes. Stumbling back, fighting pain, you raise the half-removed ring to your teeth and–

Wood strikes again, this time driving into jawbone hard enough to dislodge it. Collapse to the street. Run your hand against a gap in ancient paving stones. Remove the ring, break the seal, invoke the beast slumbering within and–

'Control your malice, pissant!'

The other hand departs this time, and the ghost is no gentler a butcher than you've ever been. The butt strikes ribcage. A boot follows it. Mealworm crouches down and clutches your head in both hands, staring into your eyes from so close that it's impossible to avoid that dull coloration. Dead grass. Dead leaves. A killing field that craves wetting anew before its stems grow brittle. "How do I send you back?" she steadily enunciates.

Draw the knife! Unleash the wrist blade! Somehow, someway get the elixir from your bandolier into your mouth (this is why those orks had brewed it for you). Invoke princes who owe favors and name the organization you've nearly surmounted. Do something, anything, besides allowing eyes to drift down toward the feather emblem hanging from your neck. She yanks it off and blows the whistle hidden within before dropping it on your body again. Within seconds, a swarm of crows coalesces around you, and your body is gone by the time they vanish.

"The Foundation," she had said. It was this foundation who disrespected you, who maimed you, and everybody who matters will know to seek it before long.

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