Corvid D'Antagon had always been a good shot. His mother used to say he'd been born with the throwing arm of a hunter and the eyes of a hawk, and there was an odd sort of sadness in her eyes when she said it. He was graceful, too, small and thin and wiry and graceful, and looking back he couldn't believe he hadn't put it together before.
He was practicing when he heard the screams, slinging rocks over the edge of the Drop and trying to hit one of the Elevator Shafts going up to High Town. He was getting good; four out of five times the rock would connect with the shaft with a satisfying clack. He had just wound up to throw another one when the first scream sounded, close by. A terrible, familiar, close scream. The mimickers picked it up instantly, screaming at each other with a terrible sort of glee. The rock fell from numb fingers as he ran. He'd heard screams before, this was on the lower end of Middle Town after all, but none which hit so close to home. Literally and figuratively.
Halfway there he recollected himself. He wouldn't be able to help Mother if whatever was attacking her killed him before he had a chance to help. He slowed down, going two streets over to the ornate door which sometimes opened onto Corvid's closet, if he said the password and asked really nicely.
Today it opened without any fuss, as if it knew what was going on.
Carefully he eased open his bedroom door and forgot how to breathe. Three of them. Three big men with clubs and knives, and in the middle of the room a woman in a familiar yellow dress lying with her face turned away from him and blood beginning to pool underneath her head. One of the men carelessly dropped his knife on the dining-room table, opening the cabinets and beginning to rifle through them, stacking cans neatly on the counter.
"Ferrick, you go through the woman's bedroom, see if she has any jewelry or tech. Trotter, get rid of that, will you? It's disturbing" said the man, gesturing vaguely at what used to be Corvid's mother and not bothering to turn around. The two other men made consenting noises and left, one of them with the body. A red haze filled Corvid's vision, and he felt split in two.
One part of him was screaming in rage and grief, and the other was calm and cool and collected, and calculating his chances of killing them. If he had a weapon… His eyes flicked to the dagger on the table, and then to the leader man's broad back. That was a much easier target than a pillar.
He opened the door a little wider and slipped into the room, soundlessly, thanking the Fates he'd never been clumsy. The dagger clinked slightly as he picked it up, and the man whirled around.
"Hey-" he began, but the dagger buried itself in his chest before he had a chance to finish. The horror on his face as the light faded was almost enough to make Corvid feel guilty. But not quite. He bent down and pulled the knife from the man's chest, wiping off the blood on the man's shirt. The angry screaming bit had gone quiet, and Corvid had the feeling that he had probably shocked it. Himself. Whatever.
Heavy footsteps told him that the man in the other room had probably heard, and Corvid quickly scrambled onto the counter and hoisted himself into the rafters, knife in hand.
"Lorry, what's—" said the man called Ferrick, before he looked down and actually saw the leader man. He made a strange, choked noise, and spun around, searching for the killer. Corvid gritted his teeth, and threw the knife, but missed by an inch, striking the cabinet just behind the man's head. He let out a yelp and looked up, his eyes finding Corvid's. There was a tense pause, and then the corners of Ferrick's mouth curled up into a deadly smile.
"That was your only knife, wasn't it, little boy? Fancy yourself a killer, do you?" said the man, softly. "You killed my best friend just now, you know."
"You killed my mother." Corvid barely recognized the voice as his own. It was low, and cold, and screamed danger. Come to think of it, it reflected his insides perfectly. The man laughed.
"Oh, poor little baby, lost his mama. Don't worry, I'm sure you'll see her again soon."
With the last word he made a grab for Corvid, who skittered backwards. The screaming bit of his brain was beginning to take over again, and it was scared now. He gripped onto the beam like a spider, trying to keep out of reach, but then his back hit the wall and a pure wave of unadulterated terror took over his brain. Ferrick came closer, a sick, bitter sort of grin plastered on his face, and Corvid closed his eyes, trembling. He heard the footsteps coming closer, and then a phwit as something cut through the air and a soft, wet thunk. Ferrick made a choking noise, and Corvid opened his eyes to see an arrow shaft protruding from the man's throat, as he joined his compatriot on the floor. Standing in the doorway was a man in a long green cloak, his hood pulled up and hiding some of his face, while his nose and mouth were covered in a simple black kerchief.
"Nice throw, kid," said the man, his voice slightly muffled. "I saw what they did to your mam. Feel better now they're dead?"
Corvid opened his mouth but no sound came out of it. He cleared his throat and tried again.
"My mother is dead, and you think I feel better because I murdered someone?"
He was still using the cold, remote voice he'd used on Ferrick. The man appeared to think about it.
"Well, I suppose I wouldn't know, I've never had a mother," he said, conversationally. "Anyway, my name is... actually, let me rephrase that. You can call me Agent Khan."
Corvid was silent, so the man continued.
"We've been watching you for awhile, you know. Unfortunately, it seems that the person supposed to be watching you today decided to kick back and take a nap. Believe me, they will be punished...severely."
"Why have you been watching me? Who are you?"
"You've heard of the Assassin's Guild?"
"That's us. One of our spies saw you chucking rocks a few months ago, noticed your aim, and thought you'd make a good agent."
Corvid took that surprisingly well. He had a vague suspicion that it probably wasn't normal to feel so distant directly after witnessing-and doing-the things he'd been through in the last ten minutes or so. Perhaps he was in shock. He had only one question.
"Low Town talk for an assassin or spy. Do you mind coming down? I'd like to be able to see your face."
Corvid hesitated, then swung down, deliberately not looking at the bloody...objects...that had attacked him so recently. He landed in a crouch, and slowly rose to his feet, folding his arms.
"So this, uh, Eye, decided that because I'm good at chucking rocks that I'd make a good assassin?"
Khan laughed at that.
"No. That's just what brought you to his attention. He tracked you for a bit before he made his decision. I believe his listing of your attributes included adaptable, hardy, and emotionally stable, with excellent sight, agility, stealth and aim. We need recruits, Corvid. There really aren't that many of us."
Corvid remained silent.
"With that arm of yours, you'd make a good knife thrower," the agent continued. He paused, waiting for a reply. When it seemed none was forthcoming he said, more seriously;
"I want you to come with me, okay? We have a place for you to stay at Guild headquarters. There's nothing left for you here."
Corvid felt like someone had punched him in the gut, knocking him out of his cool, dispassionate haze. He let out a choked cry and fell to his knees, grief seizing his stomach and making his nose burn and his eyes stream with tears. Air dragged itself roughly in and out of his lungs, interspersed with low sobs. Agent Khan stood silently, head bowed, waiting.
After a few minutes Corvid's tears dried up. He took in a deep breath, and stood.
"Shall we be going, then?" he said, calmly.
That was his first kill, and his last mourning. The lesson had been learned. Caring would only get him hurt.
One year later, when Corvid was fourteen, he made his second kill. It was his first mission, and he was accompanied by a senior assassin to ensure he wasn't caught and/or slaughtered. Nice of them. The man was a low-ranking courtier, although some of the Low Town agents called him a "politician," whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. Corvid nailed him in the shoulder from a curtained terrace while he was walking down an abandoned street. It was an odd, sick feeling, watching the man convulsing in his own blood, but Corvid pushed it down, clenching his teeth slightly. The man was a target. A moving flesh target. Nothing more, nothing less. The senior agent finished him off with a bullet to the head, and Corvid watched the man's still form for a few more seconds before getting up and hopping over the edge of the terrace, catching a pole and landing on his feet.
Corvid turned to look at the older man.
"Nice kill. A lot of boys your age would have lost their nerve."
"Wasn't my kill. I missed."
"He would have died anyway. I just saved us a lot of mess and screaming. No, this one's on you," said the older assassin.
He could feel the man's eyes on him, assessing his reaction. Corvid smiled humorlessly. "Thank you."
The first time he killed someone he knew was when he was sixteen, three years after his recruitment, when he was still rather short and gangly. One of the older, bigger recruits, a boy named Thomas L'Towski, decided Corvid, who was commonly acknowledged as one day becoming one of the best by the senior assassins, needed to be brought down a few notches. He cornered him after training one day, and started to beat him up. Corvid's heart had sunk as soon as he saw him coming. Thomas' body language screamed his intentions and Corvid knew that he had no chance in hell of getting out of this. Really, he had three choices here, and none of them sounded good. One, he could run and tell one of the trainers, and be branded as a coward and a snitch, two, he could defend himself and most likely get beat worse, and on the off chance that Corvid won get pounded by Thomas' lackeys, or three, he could take the beating, try not to let the older boy hit anything important, and have it over with. Corvid let his muscles relax, slumped against the wall in a position that would cover anything vital, and closed his eyes, mentally running through hand fighting techniques. After a while Thomas started talking, spewing insults, and Corvid sighed internally, wincing as Thomas scored a particularly good hit on his ribcage.
"Street rat, bet your mama doesn't know who your daddy is, probably died thinking you were the worst thing that ever happened to her-"
Corvid's fist hit Thomas' jaw, and the boy was knocked backwards from the force of it, letting out a surprised yelp. He had crossed the line. Corvid got up, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth and his entire upper torso covered in bruises, and hit him in the collarbone, hard. There was a snapping sound as the bone broke, and Thomas let out a stifled grunt of pain.
"You little-" he started. He pulled a knife from his belt and Corvid's eyes flicked from the blade to Thomas' face and back. He tilted his head slightly.
"I really wouldn't if I were you."
Corvid's voice was cold, distant, matter-of-fact, completely at odds with the barely suppressed fury in his eyes. Thomas hesitated for a split second, before letting out a bark of laughter. He wasn't going to be scared by some little five foot two third-year recruit. He slashed the knife across the side of Corvid's face, and Corvid clapped a hand to his face, sucking in a breath. His hand came away slick with red.
"A little memento," said Thomas, with a leer. Then he looked at Corvid's face, and for a few seconds he wondered if he'd made a mistake. There was an expression in his eyes that Thomas had only seen once or twice before, when one of the top assassins was on a personal vendetta. And then the knife was somehow out of his hand, and he felt the point pierce his heart. After that was only darkness.
Corvid watched the boy collapse, the knife buried to its hilt in his chest, and panicked slightly. This was not good. He knew this boy, hated him, but knew him. This boy had friends, friends who were going to murder him. And the trainers severely frowned upon the killing of other recruits. He'd probably get some sort of whipping, possibly a trip to the torture chamber.
He supposed he could run now, leave the others in the dark about it all, but they'd just dust it with aurora and see whose color signature was left. And if he cleaned it up, took the knife, covered his tracks, they'd think it was an intentional assassination, interrogate all the trainees, and someone would remember that Thomas and Corvid hung back after training.
Corvid turned, his face a blank mask. It was Khan, and Corvid felt his heart sink a little more. Khan was almost, sort of his friend, and the closest thing he had to a mentor. The other recruits laughed at him, said he followed the man like a lost puppy, but they didn't understand. Khan was all Corvid had.
"I was...provoked," said Corvid, and he heard himself saying those words and flinched inwardly. He sounded heartless, like a killer. Khan's quick eyes scanned Corvid's face, half-covered in blood, and the bruises starting to form on his upper body, and then traveled to Thomas' lifeless form, with hardly any injuries at all-save for a bruised jaw, a possibly broken collarbone, and an extremely important fatal stab wound-and mentally summed the situation up.
"Has this been going on for long?" the man asked, shrewdly. Strangely, there was something like pride flickering in his eyes as he watched the dead boy's body.
"Long enough. Ever since the trainers started saying stuff about how brilliant I was and how I was surely going to rise to be in the inner circle someday. No point in telling anybody, and fighting back against a senior recruit, especially one with friends," he spat the word like a curse, and a flicker of a smile crossed Fox's face. "Is utterly pointless."
"What line did he cross?"
Corvid's face got harder, if that was possibly.
"He talked about my mother. Called her a slut who regretted my existence in her last moments, and insinuated I was an illegitimate bastard."
"No." His voice said very strongly that he wasn't going to elaborate on that. "That was when I punched him. Broke his collarbone. He pulled out a knife, started cutting me up, and at that point I was mad enough that pushed me over the edge. So I killed him."
Khan couldn't help the flicker of satisfaction that crossed his face, and Corvid narrowed his eyes.
There was a short silence.
"So, can I get myself patched up before you pull out the whip, or what? This is bleeding pretty good." Corvid gestured at his face, doing his best not to show any pain.
"You may. I'll tell the Guildmaster about the situation, perhaps get him to make an exception.
Corvid nodded once, looking down at Thomas. There was another pause.
"I've lost count, you know," he said, abruptly. Khan raised an eyebrow questioningly. "Of the people I've killed; I know it's quite a bit more than one hundred and fifty, though."
"Does that bother you?" Fox asked. Corvid looked at him, his eyes dark.
"Not as much as it should," he said, softly.
The first time someone called him Stormcrow was when he was eighteen, and on his way back from a mission with multiple high-risk targets, the sort only the best were permitted to take. He was walking down the stone halls of the underground headquarters and passed a group of second year recruits. One of them pointed at him and started talking excitedly. Corvid paused, amused.
"That's Corvid D'Antagon. He's only eighteen but everyone says he's already one of the best." The speaker's back was turned, but his audience was looking at Corvid with something close to alarm. "They say he brings destruction in his wake like a stormcrow."
"Stormcrow? Really?" said Corvid, tilting his head to one side. It was a strange thought, associating him with one of the enormous crows that heralded the storm. Rather appropriate, though. The speaker whirled and nearly fainted.
"I didn't mean to offend you or anything," the poor recruit stuttered.
"Stormcrow, I've never heard that one before. It's quite flattering. I like it. I've been looking fore a code name." His voice was soft and level, disarming. One of the few girls recruited blushed all over when he smiled at her, which was new. He processed that information quickly, storing it in the part of his brain that helped with disguises.
The speaker smiled.
"Um, sir? Is it true what they say about your scar?"
Corvid's smile faltered slightly.
"Doubt it, but go ahead."
"They say you were only a couple years older than us, and a gang of fifteen people tried to beat you up, but you killed one of them, knocked out the rest of them, and got away unscathed except for that scar."
"I wish I could be brave just like you," the girl recruit piped up. Corvid' s eyes darkened at that.
"No, you don't, you really, really don't," he said, still more softly. He gripped the hilt of his knife so tightly his knuckles turned white, and looked at the speaker. "They're wrong about my scar, you know." His voice had gone cold again. "There was only one boy, a big boy, Thomas L'Towski. An older recruit. He beat me up and I let him, because it was better than the alternative. I'm sure at least one of you has been in a situation like that before." He paused and let his eyes rest on the form of a boy standing a little apart from the others, arms crossed. There were several distinct bruises on his arms, and more probably hidden by his shirt. "But he crossed a line, pulled a knife on me, got my face. So I killed him."
"You must have felt awful," said one of the recruits. Corvid turned to look at him, assessing him. Poor boy was still soft. Probably one of the ones who convinced himself he was doing the right thing,
"No, I didn't. That was the worst bit, actually. The only reason I even gave a damn was because I was afraid of getting caught. You," he pointed at the girl, "You said you wanted to be brave like me. I'm not brave. I'm heartless. Bravery is sticking with something despite your fear. I just don't give a damn whether I live or die."
His voice was dark and utterly serious, and all the recruits remained silent.
"You know that saying, beware of the quiet ones? That goes for the loners, too. Because one person can only take so much before...they...snap."
He smiled lethally, nodding at the loner boy.
And with that he swung himself up onto the ledge over the doors and was gone.
He was twenty-one, tall and scarred and serious. Khan had become Guildmaster about a year before, and Corvid D'Antagon was his right hand man. He was indisputably the best with knives in the guild, and he never let a mark escape. He was darkness itself, some whispered. The Devil.
But the name that fit him most, one of the most feared names in the kingdom, was that of the Stormcrow.
He brought destruction in his wake.
And his claws were sharp. Very sharp indeed.