Hello, future tyrants! My name is Paul Kirsch. I’m a Narrative Designer on Tyranny, and I have the pleasure of introducing our first of several short stories: Under New Management.
This story showcases a small detachment of the Scarlet Chorus – one of several armies that serve the Overlord’s conquering ambition. My goal was to give readers a first glance at the brutality and community that go hand-in-hand with the Scarlet Chorus. To the untrained eye, they might look like hardened, bloodthirsty killers. Viewed through a filtered lens, you find something very different – a complex, self-correcting ecosystem with a rich and diverse culture.
If the distinction isn’t obvious while the Scarlet Chorus is raiding your village and burning your house to the ground, you aren’t looking closely enough.
Now that I’ve whetted your appetite for uncompromising brutality, enjoy Under New Management!
–Paul Kirsch, Narrative Designer
Under New Management
“Someone ought to kill that bastard.”
The declaration came as a whisper, but it went off like a gong in the circle of killers. Crow Trap glanced up at the others around the fire. Their makeshift weapons of tarnished bronze and chipped wood all lay close at hand, and each wore the tattered red of the Scarlet Chorus. Seven in total, they represented the full contingent of their gang, minus the absent leader who had stepped into the overgrowth to empty his bowels on a stump, as he so proudly declared was his intent.
The gang made camp on the slope of a mountain pass – one of many that separated the Northern Empire from the Tiers. The exhausting march into the wilderness permitted them to light a fire without any concern of attracting enemy patrols. Their boots were gray with the ashes of a village they had set to the torch, and their nerves were aflame with the many joys of the raid. A good day’s work.
As the sun set, their thoughts had turned away from brutality and skewed inward. This should have been the gang’s time for spinning tales of battles won, but apparently they had other plans.
Someone ought to kill that bastard.
It didn’t matter to Crow Trap which of them had said it. The words hung in the air as if written in their campfire’s rising smoke, demanding to be addressed.
The Trap Gang had spent the last fortnight moving south at a tireless pace, clearing a path for the Disfavored army that marched in their dust. It should have been an uncomplicated stretch of raids and plundering, but their coordination was all wrong. Miscommunication and bad timing got in the way of simple operations, and every failure chiseled at their resolve. For the first time in recent memory, Trap Gang was weak.
Custom held that the boss was to blame. If the strongest couldn’t keep them together, then he needed to be replaced. Man Trap had taken them far as a gang. Maybe it was far enough.
The other six recruits turned to Crow to gauge her reaction. She was a Scarlet Fury, one of the elite soldiers of the howling mob. An old, deep scar stretched from ear to ear, and her bony features were marked with the crisscrossing evidence of duels both old and recent. She hunkered down on the balls of her feet, turning a bronze knife in her hands.
She flicked the blade in the direction of her compatriots like a finger pointed in challenge. The gang intuited her meaning at once:
Convince me, maggots.
Rat Trap, a recruit whose uniform hung like dirty rags over his broad shoulders, cleared his throat.
“Man Trap takes a greater share of everything,” he said. “Spoils, vittles, war wives. One of us could divide it up better. Without him, we could go to bed with full bellies for a change.” The suggestion came out more as a question, and everyone heard it as such.
Crow shook her head, keeping the blade pointed at him. If anyone doubted the plan, the gang would never back it.
Rat Trap looked to each of the other nonplussed gang members in turn – a panicked beast seeking quarter, finding none.
“If you was boss,” he started, directing his words at Crow, “you’d portion the spoils as was fair.”
Some murmurs of accord grew in volume, but Crow cut that off at once. She shook her head and snapped her fingers at Rat Trap.
Not good enough.
The big man flinched. Without a word, he offered Crow a shaking hand, biting his lower lip.
In a quick, blurring motion that no eye could follow, Crow slashed the recruit’s palm and flicked the blade to send a splash of blood sizzling into the fire. Rat Trap withdrew and clutched his palm with a hiss, but nodded to Crow.
“My thanks for your mercy,” he said.
Fear turned to love as Crow Trap nodded to accept his contrition.
The wound was a useful punishment. It could mean his death the next battle to come, unless he fought twice as hard to think past it and keep his hand steady. Either possibility served the Scarlet Chorus in some way.
Crow turned her attention to the other gang members, swinging her blade in the slow motions of a pendulum.
Anyone else? Time is short, and the boss returns. Convince me.
Sitting across the fire from Crow, Fox Trap spun a length of red silk between her fingers – a garrote that was hungry to be used. She grabbed Crow’s attention with a stare of deep intensity between hairs that hung over her brow.
“We’re marching ahead of the Disfavored to soften the Southern pigs for surrender,” she said. “Peasant work. We should be occupying every village in our path and conscripting from the locals.” She glanced at the assembled gang, taking in the nods and grunts of agreement. “Once we’re back to capacity, Trap Gang can put a real dent in this war. We won’t need Graven Ashe and his ironclads to finish the job.”
Crow Trap weighed the matter. The gang was sixteen members strong at the start of the campaign. Disease, brawls and a modicum of resistance had whittled them down to a skeleton crew. Inviting new blood to join their ranks was always a high priority. If they took more time to recruit from the villages and outlying farms, the gang could be forty strong by the time they reached the Bastard City and the real war to come.
She shook her head to dismiss temptation, and jabbed at the earth three times with her dagger.
March now, conscript later! The Archon needs a victory.
Heavy sighs preceded a cloud of embers lifting from the campfire. All agreed that Crow Trap was right, though the gang had no reason to enjoy it. Their patron Archon, the Voices of Nerat, would be none too pleased if one of his gangs needed to resupply and recoup their losses before they had a chance to prove themselves in a decisive battle.
Fox Trap extended her palm without a word. Crow Trap took the customary offering of blood – Fox barely registering the pain – and turned back to the gang.
Before the next gang member could speak up, a snapped twig announced a new presence just beyond their circle. Man Trap lumbered into the perimeter, pushing aside saplings and hoisting his belt around his expansive gut.
“Why so silent, my ninny-shitters?” he shouted, as garrulous as ever. “We’ve every reason to celebrate after today’s red work. Cat, favor us a song. Snake, tell us about the time you…”
Cutting off his own speech, Man Trap halted just outside the perimeter. He sniffed, turning his gaze to each of his red-clad killers in turn.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. “I smell at least one bloody palm among you stinking mongrels.” He turned to Crow Trap with an implied question. Her knife was still out, and his attention drew to it like a compass to true north.
The silence lengthened. Crow Trap swept her gaze around the circle one last time, equally prepared to execute a plan or let the matter drop.
A stooped-over recruit with a body like a siege tower lifted his head to regard Crow. His hands up to his elbows were still red from an earlier kill that day. His brow sloped over tiny eyes that twinkled with determination.
Crow leaned forward to listen. Bear Trap hadn’t spoken to anyone since the start of the campaign. He was a man of few words, which she could respect as a woman of none.
“We kill him,” he said. “We kill him because it’s fun. If he can’t defend himself, then he’s no boss of mine.”
“What’s that?” Man Trap reached over his shoulder for the hammer slung across his back.
Crow had heard enough. With a flick of her wrist, the blade left her hand – streaking over the heads of the gang like a shooting star. When it came to a sudden stop, it was buried up to the hilt in Man’s arm, pinning it to his shoulder.
“The fuck, Crow?!” Man Trap said in a cloud of spittle. He reeled from the blow, but didn’t dare try to extricate his arm. She would kill him faster than he could think to try. “After I saved you from the Bleak Rotters – them who gave you that scar? I thought we was mates.”
She shrugged. Turning to the gang, Crow Trap drew a line across her throat.
None of them needed any help interpreting her meaning. They took up arms and swarmed Man Trap like ants to an injured spider, swiping and clawing and picking away at him – filling the night with screams and wild, untrammeled howling. The deed took far longer than it should have, but Trap Gang needed the release, the deep pleasure of a satisfying kill.
Crow Trap held her spot and watched the carnage play out, knowing that tonight could have gone no other way. A slow trickle of blood seeped downhill until it touched the edge of the campfire. She glanced at Bear Trap, who was likewise unmoving, and caught his attention.
You’re boss now, she signed, letting her fingers do the work in the absence of her blade.
He nodded, hiding any reluctance if he felt it. “If I must. You make the calls, though. I can give them courage, but I don’t got a mind for thinking ahead.”
She stood and kicked dirt over the fire, letting the shadows pool into camp. Welcoming them.
If I must.
They marched at first light – Bear Trap with his new hammer, and Crow following close behind. They went to war one man short, but everyone who saw them fight in the Bastard City said that Trap Gang was stronger by tenfold, though none of them could guess why.