The Turn comes for us all. Even for the Lord of Owls..
|~ Janis Sova|
To start with the phrase, “Janis Sova is...” is to set a trap in your mouth, your teeth as the snare and your tongue as the prey.
What he is, let alone who he is, is one of the more lingering mysteries of the modern day. If it could be answered merely by muscle or magic, then Sova would no doubt be just another hired sword that fell upon the lonely path known as the Dark Trades. This is the term given to assassins, bounty hunters and agents of espionage, whose professions are at once legitimate and illegitimate. Dark Traders are creatures of shadow and subterfuge, sleeping in the day but never truly able to rest. They would prefer Terminus revolve from night to night, the sky providing a moon to each.
Sova is one such Trader, a jack of none and master of all three. Though to understand what makes him unique among his brethren, we must consider a riddle, one that brings these kings of criminality lower than a beggar on the street.
There is a saying on Terminus that is common only among Dark Traders. Known as “The Turn.” It is a brief but ubiquitous phrase that describes the nature of life on the illicit side of the law. While there are many ways to compose the Turn, it usually goes something like this:
“Lie at night, die in light.”
If you are a Dark Trade professional, then the Turn is a distillation of your life: poetic, full, and brief. For it is said that a Dark Trader must deceive himself before anyone else will believe him. They must believe they have no weakness, behave as if their wounds will always heal, and they’ve never considered a day when those lies will die by the light of a greater truth. For a few Traders, the Turn is a friendly teller of doom and therefore wise or even necessary to bear in mind. Yet for most it is the devil’s devil, an underwriter of a debt they can never repay.
For the majority of Traders, life is not even so glorious as this. There are many falsehoods surrounding their craft, chief among them that wealth and power are simply there for the taking. Contrary to this popular mythos, Traders often have short, mad lives, marked by poverty, injury and early death. Most unfortunate souls who break into the dark trades do so out of desperation or delusion. Gang leaders prey on the impoverished, pressing into service those with overwhelming debts or incurable illness. The middle class is also at risk, squeezed by blackmail or betrayal, perhaps deployed as a hired hand for a single chance to expunge their record before the sun rises on their sins. The military class is perhaps the most successful pool for novice Traders, though all too often their experience betrays them and the Turn finds them a proper gallows to watch the night fade away.
What separates the highest order of Dark Traders from the swinging feet of their counterparts is not that they deny the sun exists, but rather how well they navigate the inevitable dawn. Despite his shadowy reputation, Sova seems to walk into the very light his contemporaries dread, and thus far the Turn has left him alone.
Still, there is precious little about the man that is verifiably true, starting with the claim by some that he is not male at all. Even so, the most reputable accounts suggest that he is, and as such this will not be challenged here or now. His age, stature and species are similarly up for debate, although he is generally supposed to be Human, though perhaps not of Thronefast.
While there is no shortage of speculation around Sova, one attribute that remains consistent in nearly all accounts are his eyes: round, deep-set and the color of amber that has been dipped in smoke. An owl’s eyes. The reader should not be surprised that even this noteworthy but innocuous feature is associated with a legend all its own.
Early in his career, Sova took a mission that was deemed impossible by the ranking members of his class. He let it be known that he had taken the contract and even leaked the date he would be making his strike against the mark: the lord of a large and prosperous fiefdom. These brash impulses seemed out of character for Sova, yet most surprising was that he did just as he said, and was unceremoniously captured that very day. First relieved and then furious, the Lord Mark of the castle searched for a proper way to humiliate the man sent to kill him. One member of his inner circle suggested that Sova be treated like the bird of prey he often claimed to be. The lord was a cruel man and delighted at the thought.
Sova was stripped of his garments and hung in a bird cage just smaller than a man, hovering over the immense stone table in the lord’s banquet hall. From there the lord would jeer and taunt him, throwing utensils and bones from afar, all the while forbidding his prisoner be given food and permitting him only a thimble of water at a time.
Day after day, Sova never moved except to swing his cage in a slow, taunting glide. He did not wince at the words, he did not blink at the bones. Instead, he stared at the lord from the moment he entered the great hall ‘til the moment he left. It was an unsettling ritual; his amber eyes wide as two ghostly suns, their gaze tracking the lord throughout his own keep. Whether jeered, threatened or ignored, Sova would peer down at his captor until he was out of sight, then turn into himself, like an owl going to sleep on its perch.
Soon, the lord felt Sova’s sight on his back in other rooms as well. He saw those deep gold eyes in the faces of his children as they woke him from sleep, heard the flutter of feathers as the curtains were drawn.
Eventually he took his meals outside the great hall, to avoid the gaze of the man in the cage, even as he waited for him to die. His pride, or perhaps fear, was too great to slay Sova outright.
One night he announced a feast to honor his capture of Sova, and the banquet hall was opened once again, in a flurry of activity. Gaunt and unwashed, Sova still hung like a human chandelier over the opulent table as it was laden so full with meats, cheeses and fruits that the stone table itself was impossible to see.
Standing as tall as he might, the lord boasted of his personal feats in the fight against his assassin, and beckoned his audience to jeer at the bird in the cage. Yet by this time Sova looked nothing like a killer, and while some enjoyed the lord’s sport, many were not inclined to take part.
Feeling a creeping chill settling over the room, the lord host invited his guests to commence feasting, before excusing himself for a moment. When he returned, the lord found the feast hall in disarray and unbridled outrage amongst his guests. Accusations of trickery and humiliation were shouted at him, to his confusion. The lord begged to learn the source of their scorn.
Surely, the guests angrily railed, he must know that the food tasted like the scat and offal of birds, as he had clearly planned it to ensure their shame and discomfort. While they raged at this ruse, they also expressed that if real food was now to be served amends could possibly yet be made. Yet there was no trick, the lord retorted, in increasingly strident tones, and quite certainly no other food to be had. To show his sincerity, he tasted several items from the table and announced them to be agreeable to him. When it was clear no one believed him and as some began to leave in disgust, the lord began attempting to force food into the mouths of his remaining guests, laughing, crying and running around like a man crazed.
From that night on his madness spread like wildfire, as his followers began to desert their posts. One morning, the few remaining men at arms under his employ rushed to shouts coming from the stable. There the lord had drawn his bow and was taking aim at a horse calmly resting in its stall. These giant owls must be killed, he exclaimed, or they would take over his keep.
A mere day later the lord attacked his wife, claiming their sons were actually sired by a man with beak and wings. Within the week she fled with their children, and the remaining serfs left their lands as well.
Last to leave was his childhood friend and captain of the guard, who pleaded with him to seek help. But he would hear no entreaties, and began setting fire to the outlying animal pens, as they could be filled with owls, of course.
Night fell and the fires raged. The lord looked mournfully upon his own keep, and saw that it looked no more like his home than Sova’s cage. He moved toward the grand entrance, flame in hand, but as he approached the door, he found his prisoner blocking the way. The final vestiges of sanity peeled away as he saw Sova free once more.
The lord began to set his own clothes alight. “I can’t even see your eyes anymore,” he cackled, the flames sizzling up his thick cloak. “And So-vah… you can’t see mine! Aha ha, aha ha ha!”
Emaciated, Janis Sova dragged the still burning body to a safe distance from the oaken doors of the keep, then quietly left to meet the signator of his mission. He informed them that the castle, and all its lands, were ready to be taken without so much as a drop of blood spilled. These were the terms of the contract no other Dark Trader would take, and this is how he earned the name “Lord of Owls.”
That mission from his youth demonstrates an understated aspect of Sova’s legacy. Rarely does bloodshed occur by his own hand, though his abilities in combat are as heralded as his mystique. Further complicating the man is his propensity to come to the aid of either side in a conflict, or to harm both equally. Yet he is no great agent of balance, and his actions seem to be metered to a melody all his own.
There is another tale that might shed light on Sova’s silhouette, a more recent chapter from his book on subverting the subverted. It began with a contract on a daughter of the Tyrusa noble family of Thronefast. On the surface the terms seemed self evident: the girl was to be kidnapped and subsequently held for ransom. This was pretense of the darkest sort. The Trader who took the contract would learn that the true purpose of the mission was to abduct the girl and slay her, leaving the crime indisputably at the feet of the fledgling Human government of Paragos, a colony to the east of Kingsreach.
Dark Traders of elite stature are sought through a number of ways, and the signator of this mission was in the habit of using a creature known as an Echo, a sort of limited spectre that can drift between the material and immaterial worlds. Whether or not he was contacted by an Echo, Sova did not take the contract. Instead, it was claimed by the Daywalker.
This mountain of an assassin wears pure white wrappings over all of his body, and is said to move so swiftly that neither dust nor blood can stick to those garments. His eyes, hands and feet are all that are left uncovered, and he uses no weapon or tool in his craft. Yet his name comes not from the color of his clothing, but the time at which he strikes: broad daylight, on every occasion.
The young Tyrusa Lady relaxed with her family beneath an opulent tent on their private isle in the Bethrale Sea. Their party was guarded by no less than a dozen men at arms, with additional scouts spread throughout the shore and forest. When Siros was highest in the sky, they sounded an alarm: a large beast was approaching their camp. In truth, it was the Daywalker. His pace deliberately slow, his frame as solid as stone, inviting the Tyrusa family guards to intersect with him far from the main party. The sand muffled his steps, but each foot sunk clumsily into sand and surf, marking a trail behind him. It seemed his heralded speed would be neutralized in this pristine and carefully chosen environment. The dry grains of sand exploded around the soldiers’ boots as they hurtled themselves toward him, with a few left back to herd the family off to the safety of the rowboats further down the shore. A wizard stood behind the men as they charged, her sweaty hands starting to crackle with energy in the same fractured beat of her heart. At this juncture, the Daywalker set his steps upon the sand, as if it were solid as stone. Then he began to run.
It is said there is a moment when the Turn arrives. A flash, when the lies of the night die in the face of the light. Perhaps it comes in a whisper, the glint of sudden steel, or the first trickle of blood. In this moment on that tiny isle, the Turn was quiet for some and loud for others. The Daywalker leaped over the men at arms, leaving their swords and pikes as impotent as their shouts. He only picked up speed as he landed, then drove his foot so hard into the wizard’s chest she flew backwards into the water, dead. His speed was that of a dragon diving down in attack, while his body remained calm as a dove. He finally slowed as he approached the last of the guard, snapping arms and necks with the routine movements of a chef preparing crabs for feast.
Yet something slowed his spirit, for as he leaped once more through the air and came crashing down onto the painted wooden dinghy, the Daywalker saw no sign of the girl, the target. Her parents and siblings were struggling in the water, but they were not his concern. He left the boat a mass of shattered timber and bones, then dismissively marched toward the waves and walked directly into the sea.
Sova was not seen at the attack. He was not mentioned by any of the survivors, nor by the noble Lord Tyrusa, who was himself grievously injured in the fray. When the battle passed, five men at arms lay dead on the sand, their wounds creating pools of red crystal until the tide swept it all away. The wizard was pulled lifeless from the sea. The Lord and his Lady survived, and the Daywalker was gone. Yet what of their daughter, the one for whom this calamity has been launched?
She was gone. Not in the arms of the Daywalker, not under the protection of a guard. That afternoon, she was found sleeping in her bed in Thronefast, resting off a fever that had come suddenly upon her. She had told no one, and none could say, least of all the girl herself, if she had ever left the bed that morning.
Yet when she awoke from a dream filled sleep, the girl noticed a mottled, grey feather in the palm of her hand. Nothing more.