Hello, tyrants! I’m only too pleased to introduce The Archon’s Voice – the third of our short stories highlighting the world of Tyranny (Previously released: Under New Management and Commission). This story introduces the Voices of Nerat, the enigmatic leader of the Scarlet Chorus and one of our game’s powerful Archons. I had a difficult time figuring out what angle to take with the Voices. He’s a slippery figure who can’t be easily defined, and any number of stories could be written about him.
Mad as it may seem, I drew from personal experience. I once had an interview for a writing job (in the back room of a Coffee Bean) where my prospective boss declared: “Here’s how this is going to work: I’m going to tell you about how I do my business, and you’re going to sit there and listen. Your body language will tell me everything I need to know about you.”
A one-on-one meeting with the Voices of Nerat would unfold in a similar fashion. The only difference is that you might not make it out of that interview alive.
Now that you’re properly calibrated for uncomfortable meetings, enjoy The Archon’s Voice!
~Paul Kirsch, Narrative Designer
The Archon’s Voice
Servio rose to his feet when he spotted figures cresting the hill. As the creaking of wagon wheels grew in volume, he silently hoped that these were the killers he sought.
A regiment of soldiers drew up to him. At least they were an approximation of soldiers. They varied in age from ten to fifty, and had armed themselves with a fierce medley of weapons – tent stakes, boat hooks, clubs bristling with sewing needles, and many twisted harpoons. A tall woman in a featureless, bronze mask separated from the gang to approach him. Servio recognized her garb as the raiment of an elite fighter – not the leader of this ragged group by far, but a gang boss or taskmaster of stature.
“Old man,” she called, clipped and professional, “you the one who sent us the missive?”
“Prantum Servio,” he announced, clearing his throat. “Originally of the Bastard Tier. I have a proposal for your master, if he’ll hear me.”
“He will. You needn’t worry about that.” She glanced over her shoulder at the assembled recruits, then returned her attention to him. “I’ve been instructed to convey a message: prepare for total commitment. Is that understood?”
Her words left him at a loss. Then, across the gulf of uncomfortable silence, he intuited her meaning.
“I already know what the Archon is capable of,” he said. “Whispers of the Scarlet Chorus reach us daily. News of your methods, your growing numbers, and your… unconventional leader.” His words quavered with unease.
She regarded him a second more before speaking up, this time with a smile in her voice.
“Just don’t let the Archon hear you call him ‘unconventional.’ He doesn’t take criticism well.” Some of the tension dispersed as she uncrossed her arms and rested her hands on her hips. “You have courage for a graybeard. If circumstances were different, I’d have you conscripted to the front lines. A pity. Wait with me, then. He approaches.”
She beckoned him to stand closer, and they watched the procession together. In spite of himself, Prantum Servio shared her company without fear. She reminded him of the daughter who left home in anger so many years ago, though he would never tell her that.
The army stretched beyond the horizon – tens of thousands strong, flowing through the treacherous hills that separated the Northern Empire from the Tiers. The forces of Kyros were making their way south. It was only a matter of time before they arrived in the Tiers proper.
“What do they call you?” he asked.
“Half Nose,” she said.
“They… they give you that name?” he asked. “Is that how it works?”
She nodded. “That’s the easiest part of recruitment, but you’re not here because you want to learn about us, are you?”
They both knew he wasn’t. Quite the opposite – he never wanted to learn what his countrymen would be subjected to as the army swept them up in its relentless tide.
Bare-chested haulers put their shoulders to the task of dragging wagons laden with supplies. They were slaves caked in dirt, blood and sweat. Nothing of their former humanity was evident in their empty gazes. He memorized that look, repeated across endless faces. He needed to bear witness to this. Then Half Nose and the other recruits turned as if responding to a call, and Servio snapped back to attention.
Moving with funerary slowness, a pair of slaves bore the weight of a covered palanquin draped with red silk. A warm breeze stirred the covering. The slaves held onto their burden and stopped just short of Servio. A young boy lowered to all fours beneath the opening and waited.
A piercing, reedy voice catapulted from behind the silk canopy.
“Is this one worth our time?” it called.
Half Nose raised a fist in salute. “I believe so, Archon.”
“He understands what is required?”
Servio winced. The Archon’s words sliced the air to ribbons, at times sounding like multiple voices speaking at once.
Servio gathered his courage and called out. “I’m not such a fool as to come without knowing the price of your audience.”
The pause that followed was uncomfortable in length, until a dry chuckle sounded from across the gap.
“Fool enough to speak out of turn, though. We can respect that.” The Archon laughed once again – a jubilant, barking sound.
Servio was no academic like the scholars of the Vellum Citadel, and knew little enough about the happenings outside of his own borders, but he understood that a conscript army answered to bravado. That much he had mastered in his younger days, though he was long since out of practice.
The curtain parted at last. The figure that lowered onto the slave’s offered back was stranger by far than any of his cohorts. Green flames licked at the fringes of his crimson sleeves and fanned out from his tattered shirt in the shape of a glorious, burning collar. The head – if one could call it such – was a brass helmet, ornately molded into a man’s disapproving likeness, his brow adorned with spikes. It floated over the man-shaped inferno and regarded Servio with passing interest.
Servio held his ground and hoped that his fear wasn’t showing. Even if he smothered all of his trepidation down to the bottom of his thoughts, he suspected that the Archon of Secrets would find it anyway.
“Raise our tent!” the Archon announced, twirling his golden scepter in the air. “We make camp tonight. Someone prepare a goblet for our visitor. His mouth is strikingly dry.”
Servio realized that it was so.
Hours passed before the last of the supplies made it from the rearguard. Servio politely declined the second offered cup. The work ahead of him was sobering enough that he found it difficult to enjoy the fine Northern vintage.
The Archon of Secrets paraded about his ragged army, kicking slaves and shouting orders. His words vaguely originated from under his helmet, but at times it was difficult to tell. Half a dozen masked soldiers followed in his wake – Crimson Spears and Scarlet Furies, as Servio learned from Half Nose. Those fighters were a cut above the rest of the filthy recruits, who spat and squatted and competed for space around the many campfires.
Only when the Archon reached down and pulled a supplicant’s head from his shoulders with a quick, wrenching motion did Servio agree to more wine.
“You might find this little comfort,” said Half Nose, “but I’ve served under worse than the likes of him.”
“I believe you,” said Servio.
The Scarlet Chorus had come to deliver Kyros’ Peace under a banner of war. Until the last of the South bent the knee and accepted the Overlord’s rule, the entire realm was forfeit to the brutality of occupation. Pain was coming, and atrocities like those arrayed before him would soon become commonplace.
“He is the Voices of Nerat,” said Half Nose, nodding toward the distant Archon. “He’ll refer to himself in the plural, but I wouldn’t recommend you do the same. ‘Lord’ or ‘Archon’ will do. Understand?”
Servio didn’t, but he nodded.
“He has it within him to be exceedingly polite,” Half Nose continued, “but he’d crush you like a spider if it fit his grand design, and wouldn’t think twice about it.”
“Spinning tales are you, Nose?” The Archon turned about and shouted in their direction. He was well out of earshot, but Servio didn’t think that mattered. “We’ll be with you in a moment, sir.”
“Whatever you take from these last moments, make sure they count.” Half Nose whispered to Servio. “I’ll see if we can give you proper rites. That much I promise.”
“You’ve shown me kindness,” said Servio.
“No, I haven’t.” She hesitated. “Kindness would have been loosing an arrow into your throat before we ever met.”
They stood by as laborers erected the Archon’s tent, but there didn’t seem to be anything else to say. Half Nose offered a quick bow to Servio and vanished back into the thickening mob of soldiers. Another attending recruit nudged him inside the tent and closed the flap behind him.
The tent contained a wooden throne and a small rug on the ground. Servio sighed and assumed the appropriate stance, dropping to his knees.
“Kyros,” Servio whispered, “you may define law for the rest of us, but you aren’t ignorant of mercy. I supplicate before your servant with fear in my heart. Give me some small reason to hope.”
Shoving the last of his pride somewhere deep, he bowed his head to meet the carpet. No sooner had he done so than the tent flap whipped open and a familiar voice shrieked at the top of its discordant lungs:
“What are you doing on our rug?!” bellowed the Voices of Nerat. He beckoned Servio to stand. “We had our attendants bring you a chair. Must you reject our courtesy so soon?”
Servio stood on shaky legs and allowed himself to be lowered onto the throne while the Voices sat down on the rug, curled in comfort and ease.
“You have a speech prepared,” said the Voices. He was staring at the brass gauntlet that comprised his hand, studying nails that weren’t there. “It won’t be necessary. Your posture, the sweat on your cheeks – they’ve told us everything about you and why you’re here.”
Suddenly the Archon shifted forward, regarding Servio with the full brunt of his attention. “You have information,” said the Voices, “and you’ll offer it up in exchange for your town’s safety.”
Servio nodded. He opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. He had practiced his words a hundred times over, only to have the Archon dismantle his intentions in a few scant breaths.
“We just want to be left alone,” Servio whispered. “Whatever peace you bring, we will accept it, but don’t drag my people into this war.”
The Archon tilted his head in a mockery of interest, toying with him. Everything from his exaggerated movements to his grating tone hacked away chunks of Servio’s optimism.
“It would be easier if you had asked for payment in rings or precious gems,” said the Voices. “We can’t spare your town any more than the Archon of War can crack a smile.”
Something about this caused the Voices of Nerat to break apart in laughter. The flames under his tattered clothes built to a blaze that licked the ground underneath him.
“Kyros’ Peace is coming,” said the Voices, “and like a flood, it will drown anyone without the good sense to stand tall. Were it up to us, your nameless, insignificant family would be hauling wagons, donning red and shrieking themselves to sleep this very evening.” He paused to regard Servio. “But that needn’t be so. We are legion, and we delight in nothing more than a change of heart. You are the first Tiersman we’ve met who didn’t soil himself at our mere presence. In our eyes, this makes you a remarkable specimen.”
Servio had arrived expecting this, but now that his fate lay before him, he was speechless. The Voices, who never lacked a thing to say, spoke up ahead of him.
“A rare opportunity lies before you. Join us in our howling madness. Convince us of your worth by stripping away all pretense of self, and become one of our Voices.”
Half Nose sat by the dying embers of the fire long after the others had dozed off. She kept the tent in the corner of her eye and listened for any movement or activity. Hours had passed since she left the old man.
She lifted her mask to scratch her face, which she was too frightened to show anyone these days. Better that the cold, stoic bronze represent her. Any hint of what she felt – any echo of a question regarding her nerve – could only get her killed.
The journey south had cost the Scarlet Chorus many lives, which would be replenished from the locals soon enough. Half Nose aimed to endure rather than be replaced. She glanced to the men and women of her gang, who didn’t dare step closer to share her fire, and hoped they felt the same. A new recruit bundled herself in rags and trembled under a dying tree. Half Nose reminded herself to kick that one into shape and toughen her up. Elsewhere, she heard a prolonged shriek as men gathered to slaughter a pig – at least what she assumed was a pig. She wondered who had given them permission, and shook her head. The work was never done.
She flinched when the tent flap shuffled open and the Voices of Nerat marched out, making a beeline for the Crimson Spears who guarded the corners of his private camp. Where was Servio?
Half Nose leaned forward and pretended to poke at the fire, but all of her attention was centered on the Archon. It was impossible to miss his voice carrying over the quiet evening.
“We march at first light,” he announced. “You will pair up the gangs and send them down either side of the valley. The west-facing will hit the Apex defenders first, and the east-facing will follow.” The Voices of Nerat paused, turning from the exchange to focus across the Scarlet Chorus camp, straight at Half Nose.
“You!” the Voices shouted. “There’s a withered corpse slumped in our throne. Dispose of him for us.”
Half Nose released her stored breath. “Yes, Archon!”
She crested the hill up to his tent. The Voices studied her the whole way, his helmet bobbing gently on his collar of green flame. He refocused on his Crimson Spears as she passed.
“Give the man rites,” he said. “A promise was made to us, and we would see it kept. He served the realm to the best of his abilities. A wasted gesture, but we suspect a better attempt to placate us than any of his countrymen will manage.”
The Crimson Spears nodded and offered their “Yes, Archons,” but Half Nose hesitated at the entrance of the tent.
A promise was made to us.
She glanced back at the Voices of Nerat and wondered at the vague, almost undetectable Southern accent that colored his discordant speech.
She found him looking back at her, and for the first time, she wasn’t entirely afraid.