Under New ManagementEdit
“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. Anyone else?
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.
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.