The Songbird

tyranny_shortstory_songbird

During the year I’ve spent writing Sirin’s dialogue, I’ve gotten very attached to (and protective of) her. This is a weird thing to say because every time I sit down to flesh out her story, invariably something horrible happens to her. I can’t help it, I want to see how she’ll react to the terrible things I throw at her. But, to me, that’s precisely what made her such a strong person. Her life has consisted of nothing but tragedy after tragedy and she has refused to let it stop her. I have come to admire her for that. She may only be fifteen years old, but she has lived more in those few years than many people do their entire lives and she shows no signs of giving up.

When I was asked to write a story, there was no question who I was going to write about and what story I was going to tell. I wanted to show exactly how powerful Sirin is. Even when she was a little girl, her power was unparalleled, and the event in The Songbird is a true demonstration of that power and is one of Sirin’s defining moments. Although you can ask her about it in-game, what she tells you is only her recollection of the events – The Songbird reveals how the whole mess actually went down.

~Robert Land, Narrative Designer

The Songbird

The songbird refused to behave. No matter how she tried to get it to come over to her, it simply would not obey. She whistled. She hummed. She even sang it a little song – under her breath, of course, she didn’t want her mother to hear her. Nothing she did made it land on her arm the way she wanted it to. It refused every request. Frustrated, her walking turned briefly to stomping as she followed her mother down the dirt trail.

“Sirin, baby, what are you doing?” her mother asked without turning around. She didn’t even slow down. Sirin’s frustration grew and she stomped a little harder.

“Sirin!” her mother chided, looking over her shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Sirin sighed. “It’s just that there’s this songbird over there and he sings the most beautiful songs and I want him to come say hi to me and I know he wants to be my friend but he won’t and…”

“That’s nice, sweetie,” her mother interrupted. She still wasn’t paying attention. Sirin grimaced, trying to decide if she should make her mother listen to what she was saying. She sighed again and continued walking, following her mother toward the village. It wouldn’t be worth the trouble she’d get in if her mother found out, not after she was specifically warned against using her power on other people without permission. She rolled her eyes and stomped a few more time for emphasis, eyeing her mother carefully.

She still didn’t know why everyone was so upset about that. It’s not like Nerek got hurt. All she did was make him her friend – they were having fun! And he was being nice to all the other kids, too. If anything, their parents should have been happy she was helping out, not yelling at her and saying she better watch out if she tried using her power on unsuspecting people again. But that made it easier! If the person was tired or distracted, it was so much easier to work her way into their head. She looked at her mother again and then back at the songbird. No, it definitely wouldn’t be worth it.

“You’re going to be my friend,” she sang softly to the bird. “I know you want to be. Come here. Come to me.” She held out her hand. The bird just stared at her and chirped.

II

“Why won’t you tell me what we’re doing?” Slackjaw said petulantly to Blood Lump. He looked around at the rest of the crew Blood Lump brought with him for the job. “And why such a big group? It’s one little girl and some farmers – we could handle these people by ourselves in our sleep!” He looked at Blood Lump, who stood with his back to Slackjaw. He was rooting through a pack he held in front of him. “Blood Lump!” Slackjaw raised his voice. “Killing livestock? Digging up plants? Is this really why we started following the Voices of Nerat? I was promised blood! Excitement! Adventure! Not backwoods sabotage! So I’ll ask again – what are we doing here?”

“Shut up!” Blood Lump hissed, turning around, closing the distance between them in two steps. “If anyone finds us before we’re done, this entire trip is a waste and you know what the Voices will do if we come back empty-handed. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like having my skin attached to my body. So. Shut. Your. MOUTH!” Blood Lump pushed Slackjaw’s shoulder. “Now, you know everything you need to know and I am tired of you constantly asking me. The answer is never going to change: We are here to get the girl. But we aren’t doing anything until Marin gives us the signal. So you are going to stand here and keep your mouth shut until it’s time for us to move. Do you understand?” Slackjaw nodded slowly, his face flushing. Blood Lump shook his head, turning again to his pack. Is this enough? he thought, looking at the contents. If it’s not, I guess it won’t matter, will it?

“Blood Lump?” Slackjaw asked and Blood Lump gritted his teeth, resisting the urge to spin around and punch him. For two years he’d been subjected to the man’s incessant questions, screw ups, and all-around stupidity. Why he didn’t just kill Slackjaw and find another lackey is something he wondered so many times, but it always came around to the same thing – an idiot you know how to control is much better than an incompetent you can’t. Not that he didn’t contemplate it, fantasizing all the different ways he’d remove this thorn from his foot. I suppose that won’t matter much after today, either, will it? Blood Lump plastered a smile on his face and turned to Slackjaw. “Yes?” he asked. ‘This had better be worth my time,’ was implied in his tone.

“What is so special about this girl? Why does the Voices want her so bad?” Blood Lump sighed, putting the heels of his hands over his eyes. “For the hundredth time, I don’t know. Maybe nothing. That’s why we’re here. The only way to find out is to see what happens, so keep your mouth shut and watch. We’ve been working at this for a very long time and we’re about to see the payoff. It’s possible that we’re going to be very rich very soon.” At least I am, he finished internally.

A quiet shuffling noise from the underbrush spurred everyone into a combat pose. Blood Lump almost laughed, but was glad they took it seriously. When he accepted the job, the Voices of Nerat told him what he was about to witness could be one of the most dangerous things he ever got himself involved in, but also the most wondrous. Who could say no to that? “Calm down, fools,” he said to his men as Marin entered the clearing.

“They’re almost here,” Marin whispered, hooking a finger over his shoulder, pointing back down the road. “People are already gathering. This might be easier than we thought.” Marin smiled and the look of it chilled Blood Lump. Not that he was squeamish at all, but Blood Lump liked to think there were some things that might still make him pause. What they were about to do could end with Marin’s daughter’s death, and he seemed happy by it. Perhaps Marin was better suited for this work than either of them realized. When it was over, he’d suggest a meeting between him and the Voices of Nerat. The Scarlet Chorus could use more members.

He shrugged and shook his head. No sense in dwelling on that now, they had to get in position. “Get ready to watch the show,” he said to Slackjaw as Marin pushed back through the bushes, walking toward the woman and child entering the village.

III

A crowd had gathered in the street, but Sirin hardly paid attention to them. She was too busy watching the bird. It had landed on a fence across the street from the group and she was trying to come up with a new song to lure it over. Her mother slowed which made her happy, it would give her more time to finish the song and make the bird be her friend. She didn’t think anything of the crowd; people came to greet them every time they got back from one of her trips to be the Songbird. Everyone always wanted to know what town they traveled to and what miracle she had performed this time. She let her mother tell the stories. She still didn’t understand how a simple song could make bones heal or the corn grow, but if they wanted to give her parents rings for her song, she would sing. If being the Songbird helped make them money, the she would be the Songbird. It made her mother happy and Sirin loved taking trips with her.

“Sirin, stay here,” her mother commanded and the tone of her voice pulled Sirin from her concentration. She looked at the crowd and immediately knew something was different. Nothing really seemed out of the ordinary, but… yes… this was different. Why were they holding stones? Why did they look upset? Her mother turned and knelt in front of her. “No matter what happens, baby, stay behind me. Okay?” Sirin opened her mouth to protest, but her mother put her hands on her shoulders and gripped them tightly. “Promise me.” Her voice allowed no room for refusal. Sirin nodded quickly. “I promise.”

Her mother stood and turned as her father stepped from the crowd and approached them. Things didn’t just feel different anymore. Something was definitely wrong. Her father looked upset and anxious. “Marin,” her mother said, stepping forward to intercept him, “what is going on?” She had lowered her voice so Sirin could barely make out what she said. She was trying to keep the others from overhearing their conversation.

“Kellisandra, you know full well what’s going on. You had to know this day would come. You had to know Sirin couldn’t be our Songbird forever. We have to do something before anyone gets hurt. Well… Anyone else.” Her father smiled at that and her mother flinched from his words. His voice was… She didn’t have the word for it. When they traveled to bigger towns that had marketplaces, Sirin loved to listen to all the salesmen calling out to people, trying to get them to buy their goods. They’d talk about how fresh the produce was, describe how sweet the fruit was, detail how perfect the bread tasted. Everyone had something to say, had a special way they’d try to get you to listen to them. That’s what her father was doing now. He sounded like he was trying to get his mother to buy something. “Sirin is so much more than we ever imagined. There is so much power in her and it’s only a matter of time before that power causes an accident. So, the Overlord demands a demonstration of that power, Kellisandra. We need proof of what she can truly do and then maybe she’ll have a better life because of it.” He raised his hand slightly and brought it down in a quick side-to-side action.

“What are you talking about, Marin? What are you doing?” Her mother’s voice was confused, wavering with fear. There was motion across the road and Sirin saw a group of men step from the overgrowth, watching them intently.

“I told you to go along with it, Kellisandra,” her father said and backed up a couple of steps. “This could have gone differently.” He lifted his head and turned halfway to the crowd of farmers standing behind him. “I was right! She said it was Sirin who did it all! She just begged me not to say anything to you! Sirin’s songs withered your crops! Her songs killed your livestock! Kellisandra admits that Sirin is the cause of the problems we’ve seen recently in town!” He turned the rest of the way to face the gathered crowd, holding up his hands to quell their disgruntled mumbling. “Before you say anything else, there is a way we can deal with this. There are men that can take Sirin away! They can help her control her power! They’re here, ready to help us!” He made another motion at the men who had come out of the woods. They hadn’t come any closer. They were staring at Sirin. When her father pointed at them, most of them reached into their packs and pulled something out – all but one. He was looking at his friends, a confused look on his face.

“Kellisandra refuses to see that this needs to be done! She refuses to admit that no matter how much it hurts, we need to say goodbye to the Songbird!” He turned back to them and looked directly at her mother. The look on his face made Sirin go cold. “And I need to say goodbye to my wife,” he said just to them, as angry shouts erupted from the crowd.

IV

Blood Lump saw Marin’s signal and motioned to his men to step forward. A whisper of fear snaked down his back as they emerged from cover. Do you really want to be part of this experiment? What if your ‘protection’ doesn’t protect you? He laughed quietly at the thought. Then I guess I’ll be one extra bit of proof, won’t I? There just won’t be anyone around to see it… He watched as Marin told his final lie, wondering if even he had any idea what was about to happen. Would Marin survive to collect the rest of the rings he was promised? Not that he cared, but Blood Lump was curious if he’d ever see Marin again. He saw the second signal and turned to his men.

“Get ready,” he murmured. “It’s almost time.” Slackjaw looked around, an amusingly dumbfounded look on his face. Blood Lump shook his head, almost ruefully. I’ll think I’m actually going to miss him. Well, isn’t that a surprise!

“W-what are you talking about, Blood Lump?” Slackjaw asked, confusion almost making him stutter. “What’s going on?” He looked around, simultaneously jumping and ducking when someone in the crowd shouted, “Get rid of her!”

“I don’t understand.” Tears started welling up in his eyes and his breathing was coming a little quicker. Don’t worry, Slackjaw, you’ll understand soon enough. Blood Lump pulled the worked wax from his pouch. Goodbye. Slackjaw stared at him, dumfounded as he put the wax in his ears, then turned and watched the rest of the men do the same. “What is this? What are you do…” His words continued, but Blood Lump could no longer hear them. He could see Slackjaw’s lips moving, was certain his voice was raising, but he stopped paying attention to his second-in-command. Former second-in-command he reminded himself. There were more pressing things to watch at the moment. Once the show started, Slackjaw would have a very interested audience in Blood Lump.

V

Sirin crept closer to her mother, peering around her at the angry crowd. Her breath quickened slightly, her fear fighting to take control. Singing always calmed her so she started humming, hoping the sound would dissipate some of the terror she felt building. What were these people saying? Why did they want to get rid of her? What did her father mean about the crops and livestock? She had never killed anyone! Well, except… she shook her head. But that was different. That was an accident and she had never done anything like it since! It wasn’t working, so she raised her voice a little, making the song more insistent.

“No!” her mother hissed at her, reaching back and gripping her shoulder again, tighter this time – almost painful. Sirin cried out in pain as a rock flew by them. She couldn’t tell where it came from but someone in the crowd shouted “The little monster killed our crops!” as she watched it sail by. It missed them, but it hit the fencepost behind them with a resounding crack, causing the songbird to take flight. Her mother jumped, a frightened “Oh!” bursting from her lips. Her father smiled at them and turned to go, putting something in his ears as he did. The crowd, their ire focused completely on Sirin and her mother, didn’t even see him go. Or, if they did, they didn’t care. They had someone to blame for their misfortune and that was all that mattered. The terror Sirin had felt before bloomed, spreading through her and out to her hands and feet. She felt weak, sick. She pushed her face into her mother’s back, wrapping her arms around her waist.

“Let her go, Kellisandra!” someone shouted and the crowd, bolstered by its anger and numbers, moved toward them a few steps.

“No!” her mother shouted back. “I will not let your fear and their lies take my daughter from me! You all know the good she has done for us! How can you turn your backs on us now? This is insane! She’s one of us! She is our Songbird!” Sirin could hear the fear in her mother’s voice and, knowing that even her mother felt helpless, she began to hyperventilate. As she did, her terror came out in little moans, punctuated by each ragged breath. “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn…” Rhythmic and melodic.

“She’s using her powers on us! Stop her!” a scream erupted from the crowd and another rock flew by them, missing them again.

“Oh, for the love of…” she heard a voice say, sounding like whoever was speaking thought they were being much quieter than they really were. She turned to look at the speaker and saw a stone sailing through the air. She knew what was about to happen. As she watched the stone, her terror overwhelmed her and she inhaled deeply, filling her tiny lungs. When the stone struck her mother’s temple, a scream of fear colored by rage ripped from her mouth and into the ears of everyone present.

VI

When the girl screamed, Slackjaw’s eyes widened in abject terror. His mouth moved, rapidly opening and closing, but Blood Lump couldn’t tell if he was actually saying anything or just going through the motions. His breathing quickened and he began rocking from foot to foot, putting his hands to his ears and screaming himself. At least, it looks like he’s screaming, Blood Lump thought absently. Slackjaw raked at his cheeks over and over, tearing gashes across them, blood pooling in the trails and quickly running down his face. He balled his hands into fists and started pounding on the sides of his head, shaking it, making it look like he was actually punching his head back and forth. And she’s not even trying, Blood Lump thought.

Slackjaw stopped, head in his hands, staring at the ground, holding his hands over his ears. With a start he suddenly lifted his head, his gaze landing on Blood Lump’s other men. Blood Lump looked at them and saw they were backing up, staring across the road. In his desire to watch Sirin’s effect on Slackjaw, Blood Lump completely forgot anyone else was there. He turned to see what was happening to the villagers when a dark shape shot past him. It was Slackjaw, who charged one of the other men and bowled him over, grabbing the front of his tunic, throwing him to the ground. Before Blood Lump could process what was happening, Slackjaw’s mouth was on the man’s throat. He pulled back, a chunk of flesh between his teeth and a look of such rage on his face that it stopped Blood Lump before he could even move. Slackjaw jumped to his feet, spitting out the piece of the now-dying man’s throat and began kicking him in the side, over and over. While he kicked he began screaming something, looking around wildly at the other men. Scream. Kick. Scream. Kick. Faster and faster. More insistent. More violent. As he kicked, Blood Lump started hearing the words Slackjaw was screaming. “No!” Kick. “You!” Kick. “Won’t!” Kick. “Hurt!” Kick. “Us!” The kicks sped up as his screaming became more frantic until he was just repeating it over and over emphasizing every word with a blow to the body at his feet. “No! No! You won’t hurt us! NO! NO! STOP STOP STOP STOP!”

Slackjaw stopped and stared at Blood Lump, an insane glee in his eyes and Blood Lump knew he was going to charge again. He knew it and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He was going to charge and Blood Lump was going to die and he could hear the words Slackjaw was screaming and how could he hear the words Slackjaw was screaming? And at that moment, Blood Lump realized the full extent of Sirin’s power. He had assumed there was something there, of course. The Voices of Nerat would never have sent a group into the middle of nowhere if there wasn’t something to see, but he didn’t really believe they’d find true power. But here it was. And Blood Lump believed.

When the realization hit him, a new wave of terror rushed over him. It was as though someone reached into his ears and removed the stoppers. He was frozen, staring at Slackjaw – death waiting to tear his throat and finish him off with a few good kicks. But before Slackjaw could attack, a scream caught his attention. As luck would have it, somewhere across the road someone’s death granted Blood Lump his life. Slackjaw rushed off to join the carnage now laid out before Blood Lump’s eyes. He watched, numb and terrified, unable to process what he was seeing. Shapes and motions, blurred together, everything coated in a horrible red and he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see until he realized he was crying. Horrible, wracking sobs tore from his lungs and his breath wouldn’t come. He felt the terror crawling through him, taking over, and if he didn’t do something, he would be lost to it as well. He put his hands over his ears and screamed, running as fast and as far away as he could, hoping his feet could carry him from the slaughterhouse.

VII

Sirin woke up, dazed. Her left cheek was cold and wet and her left eye wouldn’t open. She went to sit up and realized she couldn’t move. There was a weight pressing down across her back. She grunted, opening her right eye, blinking it to try and focus on the still shape in front of her. Crying and the occasional moan cut through the air around her as the world slowly resolved itself before her and she let out a quiet yelp. She was staring into the dead eyes of her mother, who was lying over her, pressing her into the mud. The songbird had returned and was standing on her mother’s cheek, staring at her. “Hello, there,” she said, her voice thick and raw, her throat protesting in pain from the screaming and crying. The bird hopped back, its foot landing on the gash in her mother’s temple, the one made by the stone that had pushed her over the edge. She swallowed and reached out, her hand grasping for purchase anywhere, trying to extricate herself from under her mother. She found a hunk of grass and gripped it tightly, pulling with all her might, slowly working her body free, her mother’s body rolling onto its stomach, her face sinking into the mud. Sirin stood, unsteadily, and looked around at the carnage her voice had unleashed on the village. She stared at the bodies, the death, the horror, the destruction and knew that this was all her fault. She heard a light clicking noise and then a quick chirp and she turned to see the songbird back on the fence post where it had been standing when everything started. She stared at it, wondering still if there were any way she could make it be her friend and if she even dare try. It chirped, a harsh, piercing sound – admonishing her, blaming her – and then flew away, its shape quickly lost over the trees. She sat on the ground next to her mother and leaned into her, tears freely flowing down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry, Mommy,” she said, her lips pressed against her mother’s cold body, her arms finding their way around her mother’s waist. “I’m sorry.” She laid there, repeating the words over and over until they stopped being words and turned into light sobs. She had no idea how long she laid there, listening as the world grew quiet and cold around her, but after a while, she heard a sound behind her. A quiet, furtive sound – stealthy and wrong. She stood to see what it was.

VIII

Blood Lump slowly emerged from the copse of trees he’d sequestered himself. He sat there for hours, his hands pressed tightly against his ears, humming roughly, his eyes closed. Eventually, the terror faded and he could no longer hear the screams inside his head. He stood with his ear up, listening for any indication that it was still not safe to enter the village, but none came. Sighing, he walked back toward the site of the massacre, warily looking around. When he finally arrived at the edge of town, he just stood, looking at all the dead – the villagers, his men, everyone. How quickly everyone had been overcome. Such raw emotion – utter terror. Once that terrible feeling started to spread, once her power worked its way through their defenses, they didn’t even need to hear her – they just had to know it was happening. Quiet sobs reached his ears and he looked for their source, seeing Sirin leaning over the body of her mother, hugging her. A new surge of fear wrapped itself around him as he stared at her, looking at the girl who just destroyed her entire village – and his gang – in a matter of moments. You’ve still got a job to do, gang or no gang, he thought and slowly approached her, desperately trying not to attract attention. As he crept forward – nearing her, almost upon her – his foot caught the edge of a stone, turning it over and almost sending him sprawling. He stared down at it, recognizing it as the one he threw at Kellisandra, the one that actually hit her, the one that set the whole massacre in motion. Sirin stopped sobbing, her body stiffening at the sound of his foot across the rock. Blood Lump leaned over and picked it up, brandishing it like a weapon. Though, what are you doing to do with that? She can make you do anything she wants just by asking you to do it.

Sirin turned, her eyes locking with his and he knew she knew – she knew he was the one. She knew he had started it all. She also knew that there would be one more victim to her songs before the day was over. She inhaled, the hatred in her eyes burning into him as he screamed at himself Do it! Do something! Do ANYTHING! HURRY! and he was acting without thinking. He raised the rock – Hurry! Don’t let her sing! DON’T LET HER SING! and brought it down on her head, knocking her unconscious before she could make a sound. He let out his breath in an explosive gasp and bent over, trying not to vomit. That little experiment almost had a 100% fatality rate. He stayed bent over, trying to catch his breath. When he finally felt he could move again without fainting, he crouched next to Sirin and looked at her. All that power in such a little body, how was that even possible. If he hadn’t see what her voice could do, he wouldn’t believe it. Now he wouldn’t ever be able to forget it. He picked her up and slung her over his shoulder, her head bouncing against his back. Let’s get this present to the Voices of Nerat and hope he knows what do to with it. He laughed. Well, that’s his problem now. There was a sharp chirping and he jumped. A songbird landed on the fence post in the center of the massacre. It stared at him, cocking its head to the side. He laughed, a sound devoid of any mirth. I wonder if I’m ever going to feel safe again. The bird took wing, flying over to him, landing on Sirin’s back. It chirped again and began preening itself.

“Come along, little Songbird,” Blood Lump said to Sirin as he started down the road. “We’re going to teach you how to behave.”

THE END