Greetings from the Narrative Design team! This is Paul Kirsch, and I’m here to present the next part of our short story series that showcases the world of Tyranny.
I previously introduced the Scarlet Chorus – one of the armies serving Kyros the Overlord – in my story Under New Management. This time around we have a very different military force in the spotlight: the elite Disfavored. I wanted readers to understand both of these armies from the perspective of soldiers (or conscripts) at the front lines. Though Tyranny has no lack of fascinating personalities at the highest levels of leadership, some of the most interesting stories are found in the rank and file.
I also wanted to offer a sense of what it means to serve within the Overlord’s organized hierarchy. Even though Terratus is a world where evil won, that doesn’t make it a world devoid of hope or ambition. As long as hope and ambition aligns with the will of an all-powerful tyrant, everyone should get along splendidly. Right?
With that firmly in mind, enjoy Commission!
-Paul Kirsch, Narrative Designer
Aurora moved to plunge her sword into her opponent’s guts. He dodged to the side and bashed her across the face with his shield. She took the blow with a deserving sting and barely managed to catch herself by one hand on the way down to the sawdust-strewn floor of the sparring field. She accepted the fighter’s offered hand with gratitude.
“I almost had you,” Aurora said, wiping blood from the side of her mouth.
“Aye, almost,” said Teodor of the Stone Shields. The big man was twice her size and out of breath. Aurora could at least content herself on having exhausted the behemoth.
“Any serious damage?” Aurora asked. She took off her helmet and winced as she touched her cheek.
Teodor appraised her and shrugged. “A nasty bruise, but it’s already at the end of its cycle.”
She guessed as much. A familiar warmth spread throughout her body as the Archon of War’s covenant healed her wounds. Aurora had taken numerous injuries throughout this span of hard training leading up to the offensive, and would have appeared a horror of cuts and bruises if not for the protection of Graven Ashe to mend her in short order.
Teodor rolled his shoulder with a smile. “You’re getting better. Gave me a few dents I won’t soon forget. I’d say you’re more prepared for the long march than any of us.”
Aurora was about to compliment his form when a loud voice bellowed outside of the training circle:
“Stand at attention!”
Aurora straightened her posture and struck a respectable salute. She knew only one person in the legion who could trumpet over the din of battle: Iron Marshal Erenyos. When she made her presence heard, no one stood at ease.
The Disfavored lieutenant marched into the training arena wearing the armor of her station – the imposing plates and skull-shaped mask of an Iron Guard. She turned to survey the dozen assembled members of Aurora’s cohort.
“Close order!” she called.
The soldiers responded with single-minded coordination – arranging themselves in a two-layered phalanx, locking into their assigned spots and raising their shields with practiced ease. This was the default form they were to execute in the event of an ambush. The Iron Marshal was testing their reflexes. Aurora steadied her breathing and held herself in a battle-ready stance.
The Second Cohort lived in anticipation of marching on their enemies in the South. Graven Ashe and his twisted counterpart, the Voices of Nerat, had already dispatched a Scarlet Chorus mob to prepare the way for an organized invasion. Was this to be their hour of glory?
The Iron Marshal walked down the line and nodded, stopping once to knock the wind out of a soldier whose breastplate was improperly secured. At the end of her survey, she spun on her heel and called:
“Stone Shield Aurora!”
It took Aurora a moment to register her name. She gasped and stepped forward. “Present!”
The Iron Marshal advanced on her, taking a scroll from the case looped at her hip. The vellum was bound by a seal of purple wax, but Aurora had seen enough of these pass her by that she didn’t need to guess at its contents.
“Congratulations are in order, soldier!” the Iron Marshal barked. “The Archon of War has deemed you worthy to command the Second Cohort. Prepare to march at first light.”
Aurora released her stored breath and allowed a smile to burst onto her face like a sunbeam. Her countrymen who shared the line broke into immediate applause – for her, for the war, for the Archon, it didn’t matter. The Iron Marshal held her silence for as long as she could tolerate the display, and then cut it off with a piercing whistle that got everyone scrambling back to attention.
“Commander,” she said to Aurora, “report to the smithy. They’ll send you off with iron befitting your new rank.” She held out the scroll and nodded to the assembled Stone Shields. “When we leave Fort Resolution, this sorry lot will answer to you. Remember the North. Remember that we bring the glory of Kyros, not meaningless slaughter. And most importantly, don’t let the legion down.”
“Yes, ma’am!” said Aurora. “Hail Kyros and the Great General!”
The Iron Marshal gestured to the highest tower of the citadel keep. “After you’re outfitted, report to Evocatus Varimas. He’ll formally discharge you from service to the Stone Shields and debrief you on the mission. Dismissed, Commander.”
Aurora accepted the scroll with pride. She nodded and struck a sharp salute. Teodor smiled at her and resumed his training with a new partner. Aurora waved her commission at him and marched from the arena holding her chin up.
Commander, she thought. I could get used to that.
Zdenya, Maser of the Forge, squinted at Aurora and motioned for her to turn around.
“Does it feel tight?” she asked.
They stood in the midst of artisans laboring over forges, conjured flames, and molds of white-hot iron. Aurora had donned her new armor – a breastplate that seemed ornate compared to the austere trappings of the Stone Shields.
“Feels good enough to sleep in,” she said.
Zdenya wrinkled her nose. “I won’t understand Disfavored traditions if I live to be as old as Tunon. Consider yourself lucky. That might be the last piece we produce for a while.” She glanced to a diminishing pile of iron ore and frowned.
“What makes you say that?” asked Aurora.
The Forge Master sighed. “Fatebinder Calio is breathing down my neck to increase productivity for the war effort, but I don’t know what miracle she expects to get out of me. We’re low on supplies since the collapse at the Tanavon Mines. Consequently, keep an eye out for a source of iron in the South.”
Aurora nodded as she made the mental connection. Apparently the rumors spreading throughout the legion had not reached the forges. She heard that the miners at Tanavon had cast off their chains and killed their taskmasters. The Archon of Justice dispatched the Fifth and Seventh cohorts – seasoned veterans, all – to revive the operation and curb the growing iron shortage, but no one received word of their success. That was privileged information. Sensitive information. One did not talk idly about the defiance of Kyros’ Law.
“We couldn’t adjust your iron in any case, what with the accelerated timeframe,” said Zdenya. “Perhaps later, if you find it uncomfortable. The legion will have a contingent of Forge-Bound traveling in tow. I’ll join the war effort after you’ve established a permanent outpost in the Tiers. With any luck, I’ll see you there.”
Aurora shook her hand with gratitude. “We won’t need luck while the Great General leads the charge.”
Before they could say their farewells, an ear-splitting boom shook the walls of the forge. Aurora and Zdenya whirled about to see one of the smiths immolated head to toe in his own conjured fire. The man was beating at his face and chest, screaming with wild abandon as flames roared under his uniform, consuming him with impossible speed. The others kept their distance and shielded their eyes. Aroused by the noise, soldiers swarmed the area, but held back from intervening.
“Someone put him out!” Aurora sprinted across the workspace, shoving aside the gawking artisans as she grabbed a bucket of water.
A hand snagged Aurora roughly from behind. It was Zdenya, fixated over Aurora’s shoulder and wearing a stolid expression.
“Don’t,” said Zdenya. “The forge doesn’t show mercy for human error. Ours is an exacting, indifferent art, and this fate is no more or less than what any of us can expect.”
Aurora forced herself to look at the burning man. He was curled up on the ground, most of his body already reduced to smoking ashes. Candle flames peeked from the spaces once occupied by eyes.
“So fast,” whispered Aurora. “If someone had reached him in time…”
Zdenya tightened her grip on Aurora’s shoulder. “Do you seek a glorious death in battle? This is ours. A talented man gave himself to the forge, and the rest will learn from his example. Don’t diminish his sacrifice with regret.”
Aurora lowered her gaze as much out of respect as to quell the dizzying sensation that rolled through her.
“The iron you wear has a price dearer than gold,” said Zdenya. “Remember that when you march to war, Commander.”
Aurora made her way across the grounds of Fort Resolution and toward the highest tower in a daze. Soldiers and attendants busied about assisting in the cleanup effort at the forges, but she worked hard to push the tragedy from her mind.
She explained her purpose to the castle guard and mounted the spiral staircase, but only when she reached the entrance to Evocatus Varimas’ quarters at the top did she realize she had crushed the scroll bearing her new title in a sweaty fist. She flattened out the creases against the wall and knocked on the wooden door.
“Enter,” someone called.
She pushed through to a spacious, carpeted lounge. Varimas stood at the window. He was bald and thin, wearing a purple robe that covered his skeletal frame. Aurora could see the stitching on the back where the sigil used before Kyros dubbed the legion “Disfavored” had long since been removed. He was facing away from her, looking out on another sparring field of Stone Shields drilling in formation.
“If you’ve come to escape whatever din they’re raising outside,” said Varimas, “you’re in the right place.” He turned around and smiled. His entire face was a ragged mess of scar tissue that had long since healed into a smoothed-over approximation of his features.
“Evocatus.” Aurora bowed. This time she had to work to summon up her confidence. Before it had come so easily. “I received a new assignment, and with my compliments I beg that you release me from duty so I can lead the Second Cohort to war.” She held out her scroll.
He unrolled the vellum and read her orders. “Such a hurry to form up against the Southern barbarians and deliver Kyros Peace,” he murmured. “Ashe must be under a great deal of pressure to send our freshest and brightest out into the field.”
“The Great General does nothing without good reason, sir,” said Aurora.
“Your certainty is well placed, but… ah, never mind.” Varimas frowned and made his way to a desk where he signed the commission with a flick of his quill. “Come tomorrow, the fort will empty and I’ll be on my own, dispatching birds to the Archon and hoping they remember their way back. I envy you the freedom to die on your feet in battle, as every Northerner should. When I was doused with boiling oil at the hands of agitators, Ashe’s protection denied me the cold embrace of the Void. If you receive such a terrible wound, make sure it counts.”
“Evocatus,” Aurora started, “I…”
He waved her off. “Don’t let my apprehensions deter you. I have lived too long and optimism is the privilege of the young. But I can still wish you a pleasant conquest.”
His turnabout didn’t comfort Aurora in the least, but she nodded all the same.
“Now,” said Varimas as he pored over the document, “the Second Cohort leaves in advance of the legion’s thrust. No doubt Ashe believes that a subtler approach can spare a few Northern lives, and I’m inclined to agree. Just remember that…” Varimas cut himself off and furrowed his brow, taking note of a pulsing illumination outside. “What are those fools of the Nineteenth Cohort up to now?”
When he reached the window, he raised a shaking hand up to his mouth and sucked in a gasp.
Aurora joined him, at once convinced that another fire had broken out. The soldiers in the arena below had set their weapons aside to look up, beyond the walls of Fort Resolution and toward a distant sky. Anxious, indistinct murmurs built in volume.
A ray of dark green light descended from the thickening clouds and struck the remote mountains with waves of arcane energy. Aurora tightened her grip on the window as if to steady her balance, though she didn’t understand exactly what she was witnessing. Something about it felt terribly wrong, like a perversion of order and sanity.
“The Fifth and Seventh!” someone cried below. “Ashe’s mercy… they failed!”
At first Aurora didn’t intuit the meaning or implication. Panicked discussion grew in volume, making both apparent to her in waves of mounting dread.
Varimas clutched his brow and let out a moan. “Of course,” he said. “As the crow flies, that way leads straight to the Tanavon Mines. Kyros must have lost patience with the uprising.”
Aurora focused on his words, suddenly the most stalwart and dependable objects in her life. She pictured the jagged hills distorting as the assault opened up massive sinkholes, allowing the land to rush in and fill them anew. Two cohorts of Disfavored soldiers – good Northerners – lost in the arcane equivalent of leveling an anthill.
“An Edict to quell the dissent,” Varimas said. He set his mouth in a tight line and squeezed his eyes shut. “It’s an appropriate response, but…” he trailed off, risking nothing of what he may have felt on the matter.
Aurora stood next to him and watched the Overlord’s magic unmake the horizon. She imagined the men and women underground, their bodies crushed under pressure. She saw controlled flames licking at every forge with hungry anticipation. Even the soldiers below resembled nothing more than the armored dead. Never had her thoughts rallied so gruesomely against what she once considered her better reason.
“Not even the Great General can protect us from this, can he?” she asked.
Varimas looked at her. Had he eyebrows, they might have raised. “Everything that happens in the name of Kyros’ Peace is yours to endure. Graven Ashe cannot heal that wound. It is our duty to stand as the righteous sword of the Empire, our devotion unquestioned… Commander.”
He slid the parchment back to Aurora. She only picked it up after a long hesitation, and its promise no longer filled her with warmth.