Author’s Note: The following is the first chapter from my complete manuscript. It is a dual perspective standalone fantasy. The story begins with the male protagonist because this was a narrative/structure choice. The main character is Mora Aresh while the main protagonist is Ragmar Mor. Both have equal narrative weight and their weight shifts from arc to arc. I hope you enjoy the first chapter of A Tyrant Comes.

Chapter One:

The New Era

 

The sound of silence was like the stillness of water. But silence was never good on a distant and unexplored part of Orenos. It didn’t matter if you were in Corianna’s Scar, or the Oreni wilds filled with foreign and domestic beasts. When the nightlarks didn’t chirp, the lizard dogs didn’t bark, and even the Oreni Raiders didn’t signal to massacre a Legion patrol for old grudges, true or not. Silence is never good, Ragmar thought as he and Mora’s strike team retreated from the excavation site.

It was Mora’s idea to find out why Marric’s messenger hadn’t check in on their hourly rotation. There was no time to worry though. Ragmar took point in front of Mora while his younger sister Shera, moon-eyed and blessed by Odran, sniffed at the air. Shera gagged and spat up saliva. Saldren, the First Outrider of Mar and Ragmar’s long time teacher, unholstered his Linerean six-chambered flintlock pistol.

“Where’s the beach patrol, I thought they were suppose…” Mora said, resting her hand on her borrowed Corker’s saber. She quickly stuffed that damn tablet back into her satchel. The whole trip had been a waste because of it. Still, why she didn’t have her own weapons? It eluded Ragmar. Pride probably. The former Archoness was becoming more like her father Dunmas each passing year. Mora stepped forward, but Shera raised her claws out.

“Blood…there’s so much of it.” Shera wiped her mouth to get the aether vapors out. She started sniffing at the thin trails rising from the edge of the ash stained beach.

No bodies but plenty of tracks. Saldren and Ragmar advanced, while Shera guarded her former mistress. “Where the hell is Marric? He’s supposed to be watching those cliffs,” Mora said, scanning the thin crevices above. Perfect for an ambush. They hadn’t found any signs of life in the past three weeks they’d been here.

“The more we talk, the more we give up our location,” Ragmar whispered. Mora’s long bun prickled up as he breathed against her neck. She gave him that look he’d seen a hundred times in her former palace. Now? Well, she didn’t have the authority to demand his attention.

Rifles sparked at the entrance of a small cliff to their right. “Get to the boats. Fucking scummers, how did they?” Marric whistled, seething in his Chainer twang.

Saldren glanced at Ragmar, gave him the signal, and Ragmar loaded a mercury vial into his pistol loading chamber. Enough of that in your system, you’d be screaming in pain the rest of your days. Wasn’t for the likes of men though. They advanced through the tiny crack and wormed out to the main beach. Blood, ancestors above and below, it was like a Morkasian painter smoked cham-cham and smeared it across a white canvas. Broken horns, half burned bodies, and blood flowed on the sand. Shera gagged given her sensitivity and Ragmar held in his lunch. “Saldren, it’s…” Ragmar trailed off.

Saldren didn’t say a word. He sprinted howling forward, vanishing into a mob of half transformed Fiends. “Get to the landing boats. I’ll purge them.” Saldren bit his long fangs into his cut lips. Mora reached out to command the beach patrol but stopped. It wasn’t her show anymore. Shera wrapped her talons around Mora’s wrists, and dragged her toward the boat.

“We can’t risk it, Archoness. This is…”

Ragmar squinted his right eye, reinforcing it to see the battlefield better. Ash burned from his branded flesh, the fires within kicking up a low simmer. “Ragman, two on the left,” Marric called from his vantage point above.

Scarlet Eyes. Saldren carved through the infected Kadran ranks. Second generation kids who’d never see the Scar again. Ragmar froze. The last time he’d seen a Scarlet Eyed bastard was twenty-years ago. An infected woman spotted him. Horns broken, and her yellow eyes swirled with the Ivory’s tainted blessing. “Ragman…” she said. Seras, no. Ragmar opened a vial on his belt, pulled the black blood from it, and levitated it over his flintlock’s chamber. He traced it across the mercury inside and let blood and metal mix together. Seras, young and removed from old Mar, carried her Skirmisher’s great sword with reckless abandon.

“Three left. Ragmar, hurry up,” Marric said, retreating back to the landing boat.

She screamed, blade failing and a red haze gleaming from her eyes. Ragmar closed his eyes. Her twisted aether flowed through her thin veins. He aimed for her heart, gripped his jagged edge saber, and let go. The mercury bullet whizzed, burned through her heart, and Seras skidded into the sand. Not enough to kill her. She quickly turned and Ragmar gutted her. He stabbed his blade into her repeatedly, her cries growing weak and less distorted. She reached her talons up to the sky, blood and sand coating her white hair. Ragmar hesitated, like so many times before. No hope for her.

“May you find peace in a better life.” He recited the Blackblood prayer. He cut Seras’ heart into pieces and shot her three times. Mercury stained her corpse. Her blood and ashes seeped into his own ashen skin. Saldren grabbed him as he stumbled in a daze.

The few survivors left were already five feet out. Saldren tossed him into the boat. Mora watched as her expedition died. She just stared, her ten years of research gone and little-horns as well. She wrapped her arms around herself. There was no pride in her like when she ruled the Scar. Marric rowed in silence, Shera clasped her hands together, whispering the Blackblood prayer for their ravaged kin.

“You can’t fall apart out there. I’ve seen you do it too many times, little-horn,” Saldren said, scowling.

“I know.” Ragmar sat in the boat’s back. He’d failed them again.

The survivors rowed toward the Lastan borrowed steel ship. How would they explain Mora’s pet project ended in a complete massacre? What would Erendar think of the Scarlet Eyes’ return?

Life in Orenos was never easy.

The silence made it worse.

#

Blood and earth is our perfect union, his ancestors preached for millennia. Five days until they’d arrive back home after two weeks at sea. Mora already sent a letter on ahead to Aratha. How the roles had reversed since Mora gave up her life’s work. It still astounded Ragmar how easily Mora had given up her reign. Thirty years of expansion, reformation, and actually making peace with some of the old insurgents? It was the total opposite of her mother’s original intentions. Seras’ bloody eyes reflected in the tiny black fire brazier.

The ship groaned, heavy waves of the unexplored sea rattled against the reinforced Lastan ship. Roderick, what was the merchant prince of Lastan doing now? Ragmar snorted. Rod was probably browbeating a second-generation Lastan associate for fucking up the import profits for the home branch. Shera lifted her ceremonial visor up. White eyes blessed by Odran, just like his. She coughed, pursing her lips. “Well, are you going to finish, Marmar?” She grinned, her white incisors shining in his darkened quarters.

Ughh, fifty-years-old and still calling him that? Shera was such a child at times. He didn’t understand how she moved through Mora’s regime and then Aratha’s. She was more like their mother than their father. He finished the prayer, slicing a bit of his blood into the brazier. Shera sang the last hymn, offering her blood to the brazier as well. The fire hissed and Shera blew it out. “You’re singing isn’t bad. I’m sure if we were still in the Republic you could have worked as a thespian.” Her high-pitched Pits tinge flared up. Always did when she wanted to make a point.

“Right, I remember the gulls taking a rather large shot at you.” He put on his briefs and then trousers. She dressed herself, a black silk dress from the Citadel. She sighed, pulling her visor off. Shera picked up the blood jar, sealed it shut, and changed the Vorkir runes along its smooth surface. It hissed, and she placed it back in a hollowed-out compartment.

“You saw it?” She glanced back.

“Scarlet Eyes. Only saw that when I took Ona to her initiation. That was…”

“Twenty years ago. If Paytor gets wind of this—which you know he will—he’ll call a blood hunt on this whole ship. He’ll check every single person, rank and prestige be damned. You remember what happened with that Consumed sect?” she said.

He nodded. It was best Shera never knew what transpired in Oaks Hall decades ago. Was that a precursor to what they just witnessed? Ragmar couldn’t shake the growing pain in his stomach. He covered his mouth, their blood on his face, Ayla watching him and obeying his will. Don’t kill me, Outrider! He bawked like a chicken, playing the memory off.  The terror of the past gave way as Shera burst into laughter.

She covered her face, unable to contain her tears. “Did you really just? Pfft, oh, Odran, brother. You really are pathetic sometimes.” She dried a tear from her dyed lashes.

He played along, quickly putting the past aside. “What can I say? Uncle Bart and I love clucking.”

Shera tiptoed over to his side, painted their ancestral rune in liquid aether upon his wide brow, and kissed it. “Heir of the Black? Who even believes that gutter nonsense.” She rolled her eyes, playing with her small dagger along her thigh. “Mother needs to know. No—” She glanced around, expecting their mother to pop out from the Dusk. “—she already knows.”

Ragmar held her tight suddenly, drawing her close. He whispered the little prayer, she calmed like always. “Those who thirst for fire, I know.” She pulled away. Shera, she was still nine in his eyes despite being a grown woman. She headed out the cabin door and went to prod Aryn or the others for a long pipe.

The blood mark burned against his brand. Marric wanted to see him soon.

#

Marric handed Ragmar his long pipe, the red grass vaping into the night. Red grass calmed the nerves. Sharpshooters with telescopic sights smoked it in the Corker companies. The Kadran immediately took to it in Orenos. Aratha and her cohorts mixed it with some Waster herb that gave men and women that extra kick in the chambers. Knowing Aratha, she’d sell it to Roderick at extortionist prices. Rod would approve of her underhanded sale.

“You hear the stories. The Linerean Quarter massacre? Your uncle was the fifth company’s captain, right?” Marric said, leaning against the ship’s rail.

Bartholomew Witte? Odran, that’s an old name.” Ragmar fiddled with the pipe. Ragmar took a long hit, let it clog his lungs, and passed it back to Marric. “He doesn’t talk about it. He’s some ghost type wandering the world, looking for Vorkir history.” It’d been decades since Ragmar had seen his homeworld. The cosmos, namely the stars, were the only reminder of the bustling hawkers and deep blue waves of Linere.

“I still haven’t heard from Dizzie. It’s not just her, Rags,” Marric said, laughing and then slapping his shoulder. Ragmar stiffened, knowing what was coming next.

“Dizzie’s gone two months without checking in. I’m sure she’ll be there when we…” Ragmar pulled Marric’s hand off his shoulder.

“Scarlet Eyes. I’ve known you since the Chains. You remember what happened in that place? The Dusk…”

Ragmar grabbed him and leaned against his face. Some blade scars and a small bite mark on his bronzed neck. Green eyes with serpentine slits. “What, you wanna kiss me? Sorry, I prefer my meat hard and curved.” Marric grinned his con artist smile, holding his hands up.

“It’s not that. You know we can’t ever—remember what she said.”

“Four people, Rags. If Ayla gets word of this, she’ll start babbling to Erendar. She’s taken to the Pale Sun more of late. Way to bury the blood on her hands, I imagine.”

He pushed Marric back. The waves hummed against the ship. “Leave Ayla out of this. She’s a damn good Outrider and doesn’t need to be involved in ou—my shit.” He didn’t believe a word he said.

“Everything’s connected,” Marric said.

“You’ve been listening to too many Sun sermons. Old Horn’s going to rot your brain with that nonsense.”

“After everything we’ve experienced in this hellhole? You of all people don’t get to say that.” Marric raised his voice, teeth bared.

“Alright, I get it. If you think Dizzie’s in trouble, use the sewers. And for Odran’s sake, don’t get caught. I don’t have Aratha’s blessing exactly.”

“You’ve spurned her offers more than others. Don’t think she’ll let you get away with this time.”

“Mora was never as demanding.” Ragmar leaned against the railing, letting the salt calm his nerves.

“Mora’s not Archon. Aratha is. Welcome to the new era.”

They spent the evening drinking, smoking, and worrying about nothing in particular.

#

Mora—no—Aratha’s Citadel loomed over the cragged mountain it’d been carved into. It was the jewel of the Black Maw territories and a valuable chokepoint between the Oreni and Ansharan tribes to the south, the One-Eye Umbari heretics to the northeast, and the Lastan controlled plains to the west. Mora had been smart to build it along the center of the Narrows.

They wore their best regalia. Mora led, Ashera stood at her right, Saldren was to her left. Aryn—her mother’s old Wrath and now Mora’s chosen Outrider—was behind her. Ragmar walked with Aryn. He was used to giving her reports and quick chats with her on Erendar’s contracts in his younger days. Now they were guarding—well, parading really—the former ruler of the Black Maw Legion. Marric slipped into the sewers before they began. He’d reek of Makrat shit and whatever the Unshackled foot soldiers of Aratha’s regime drank and ate in the Citadel. Wasn’t Mora or his problem anymore.

The Citadel was quieter. Most of the rising Unshackled were in the other levels of the Citadel. Each Archon had their quirks, and no one, even someone as brutish and strong as Caras, was dumb enough to question an Archoness’s personal arrangements. He would have had the Makrat sniffers wandering with their handlers at least on a regular rotation. “Archoness, Outriders, Strife!” Their local greeter bowed too low for his liking. Shera leered at her as well.

Pearl-chained veil. Blue eyes, too many diamonds along her perked ears, her hair braided in Linerean upper class style, and a refined chin that matched her half-sister, Dizzie Desantos, lifted to meet their gaze. Ash flecked around her. Was someone using aether nearby? Ragmar shrugged, figuring it was some novice unable to control their brand properly. Menidia stood, beckoning them to the Citadel’s elevator. They entered.  The gate shut around the Pale Sun etched into the refined steel lift. Chains rattled. Shadows passed over them early in the Oreni morning.

Bloodstained, sometimes fresh pressed for Mora’s inspection, Aratha and Shera, Caras and Marric, he recalled all the contracts he’d done for the Legion on the way up. The elevator was his only friend sometimes. He’d spent entire hours of his life riding it up and down over the last four decades. “It’s a shame what happened with the Lastan project. But those Unshackled understood the risks. We’ll try to recover their corpses,” Menidia said. That wasn’t going to happen. Warmeat was warmeat. Didn’t matter if it was during a campaign or peacetime. He curled his fists into balls and Shera gripped his hands. Menidia noticed out of the corner of her eye, pressed a finger to her lips, and continued to regale Mora and Aryn of Aratha’s latest alchemic developments. Boring.

The elevator stopped, the metal railings lowered, and Menidia led them into the throne room. Ashes flecked along the outer crevices of the circular windows. Shera sniffed the air and she shrugged. Saldren went ahead with Mora, who listened with that trained patience of hers. Aryn gripped her hand along her blackstone burial blade. She was a Navigator. It was no wonder Nashandra recruited her from Mar over a century ago. “What is it?” Aryn said.

He shook his head, and checked his shimmering projector. No word from Marric. What was taking him? “Nothing, let’s not keep the Archoness waiting.” He walked to the throne room’s center to face Aratha Aresh, Vessel of the Legion.

They weren’t announced. This wasn’t a formal gathering though. Menidia slithered toward her Archoness. Caras—Odran, she was fucking half a head taller than last year—wore a Marian styled full plate. She was covered head to toe in reinforced steel, probably commissioned from New Mar out west. Her curved halberd had cut the heads of many dissidents, rivals, and traitors. He figured she licked the blood off each kill. Caras lifted her visor. Her long, gnarled horns contrasted with her tied auburn bun.  She paid her respects of course but leered at Ragmar like always. “Outrider.” Her lips cracked into a crude smile. Still had a chipped incisor, all that power and she couldn’t afford basic dental work.

“Wrath.”

The Pale Twins, Odran, they made his skin crawl, emerged from opposite sides of the silver spiraled pillars. They looked to everyone but Shera and Ragmar in particular. No light in their eyes. Fateless and ancestors, they moved in sync and resembled the murals of Illyrian nobles. No idea who sired them, no one knew. Bah, just another secret of the new regime.

“Archoness,” Mora said, and the rest bowed. Aratha Aresh, Vessel of the Legion, Sword of the Black Maw, and once Mora’s right hand, strode down her five-ringed throne. White and black with a dash of red along her long sleeves. Her crown was less a crown and more an obsidian mask. Rings, Odran, she had the old Pale Sun style rings adorned on her entire body.

“Rise,” she said.

“Cousin—”

Archoness. Formality, dearest Mora.” Aratha had an odd warmth in her voice.

“I take full responsibility for the Lastan disaster. I underestimated the land.”

“You did. But no one has gone there before. Failure gives us pause, it brings strife to embolden our chains. Didn’t you tell me that once?” She removed her black crown.

Shera sneezed, wiping blood from her nose. She probably didn’t prepare the strain right. Damnnit, Ashera. You have to follow the Temple’s protocols. The Twins stared, tilted their heads to the side, and smiled. “Why are they smiling?” Shera whispered.

“The Old Law. Well, I can reimburse you for the ship costs and compensation for the Unshackled.” Mora nodded, already running those numbers for her sister Bema probably.

“Mora, you’re my kin. I’m not going to ask you for compensation.” Aratha’s voice reverberated. Even under her Kadran lace silks, her brand was more developed than Mora’s or Ragmar’s. Her fires burned darker than theirs too. Caras observed the Lastan party. Her dulled face said it all. Menidia smiled to Ragmar and the others.

Something’s not right. Where were all the servants? Where was that Oreni man—the one who?  Ashes flittered outside the windows and along the balconies. Orenos’ orange sun dipped over the Narrows outside. Aryn glanced around, her brand flickering. Ashera coughed up black blood.

“On the contrary, you did exactly what I needed. The first batch weren’t expected to survive but it means it can be controlled.” Aratha turned around, her eyes swirling with a deep scarlet. Menidia raised her hand down. Small daggers whizzed through the air, serrated. One hit Shera clean in the shoulder, another grazed Saldren. Caras beamed, her brand flaring up. “We fear the Ivory but Ragmar? You’ve shown me there’s nothing to fear,” Aratha said, clasping her hands together. The scarlet faded. “Thank you for your repeated service. Caras, capture the others. I want Ashera and Ragmar. Mora unharmed as well.” The once restrained scholar strained a wide grin.

The Twins dispersed. Caras raised her halberd up, Menidia divided herself into ten copies, and the Duskblades materialized from their concealment. Shera looked to Ragmar, Mora exploded into a swath of pale fire, Saldren cut down one assassin foolish enough to take him on, and Aryn reached for the blackstone. “We can’t fight them. We need to…” Aryn said, slamming the blade into the floor.

“Caras.” Aratha waited. Caras charged toward them. Saldren buckled under Caras’ monstrous strength.

Aryn prepared a crack in the Dusk. Hopefully somewhere outside the territory. Mora stared at her cousin, hesitating to strike. Shera coughed up blood, the assassin’s strike laced with something. Saldren pushed Caras back and exhaled fire from his throat. It burned her plate and sent her back some feet. The Pale Twins twisted their ashes and sliced through the Outrider’s dying embers with thin strings. “Go, now,” Ragmar said, fending off a Blade.

Aryn grabbed Shera. “Ragmar!” Shera yelled, reaching for him. The Dusk’s crack howled, pulling aether between the Oreni space. Mora rushed toward Aratha, screaming in the Kadran high tongue. Aratha smiled, closing the gap in an instant. He wedged between them, tossed Mora into the rift, and Aryn hesitated. “Ragmar, Sa…”

“Go!” Master and pupil barked.

The crack closed. Saldren slashed his talons along his great sword. Ragmar unholstered his six-chambered pistol and used Shera’s sacred blood as its catalyst. “I’ll take her, you got…” Saldren whispered.

Ragmar shifted around his mentor. His eyes moved and calculated their adversaries’ aether discipline trajectories. The world slowed as Ragmar’s muscles hardened. Everything went still. He raised his flintlock, shot six rounds, and emptied the mercury ball onto the marble. For the Duskblades, Caras, and the Twins, time sped up for them. Three Blades skidded into the marble, The Twins scratched at their burning wounds, and Caras barreled forward. Fire scorched Ragmar’s backside and a piercing pain shot through his shoulder. He stumbled back, Saldren falling under Caras’ reinforced blows. Menidia’s copies circled, The Twins drew close, Caras swung her halberd over her shoulder.

Aratha held her talons to her face, licked Ragmar’s blood off, and sighed. “The Vorkir truly have the best blood. Ragmar, all I need is you. You’re so clever hiding it. You, Shera, and your mother.” There was no madness in her eyes. None of them. The Ivory resided in their eyes, but nothing seemed different.

“Fools, you’ve damned yourselves. You’ll waste to nothing,” Saldren said, spitting, and crossed his blade mid-guard.

“Aratha, what did you do!?” He couldn’t believe it.

“You denied me. You denied us all. You should have become Archon when Nashandra died. You spit upon Dagan’s name. I—” She tried to convince herself, holding her hand against her chest. “—I am Corianna Mor’s true heir.” She smiled, her face twisting into a grimace. Her blade sliced into his other shoulder. She cradled his face, her eyes shimmering scarlet. “Goodbye, Roeland.” She welled up, some trace of their past in there.

Saldren kicked her in the gut. She spun across the floor, Caras caught her. Saldren ignited his ashes, a black fire exploded, and sent the Archoness and her acolytes flying back. “Aratha!” Caras withstood the heat.

Ragmar fell over the Citadel’s balcony. Saldren tumbled after him. As he fell some distance, he laughed. Forty years he’d wandered, struggled, and avoided the Old Law. Corianna’s law proved true even now. Death comes for the wicked and the just.

The world reverberated. A familiar bloodstained castle loomed in the distance. A woman sang a wailing dirge from there. Odran’s moon suddenly grew massive and she beckoned him to her sanctuary.

He fell into the Dusk.