Chapter 1 : The Storm Before the Calm
He could hear the roar without. That sound of a world tearing at itself to get within. The sound of a world within trembling under the strain of that intent. And yet, even with the din that sang in the world beyond like a choir of chaos upon a violas of violence, he could hear the sound of his slippered feet as they padded across the cold stone beneath his feet.
On nights such as these, he paced. Not on the long span of crimson that rolled through his private chamber like a dragon’s tongue set out as a trail of blood to lead the unwise to their doom. Not upon dais that normally separated him from those beneath. He paced on the fringe areas where peasant feet once assembled to voice their concerns.
He could hear the heavy breathing before he saw the face emerge. A strange tinge of fear set within his stomach like a poisoned meal. He knew it was just a messenger. Messengers ran. Messengers made their money by being swift.
Assassins made their money by being silent.
The figure burst into the room and knelt quickly, his breath coming in great heaves even as he offered one hand forward with a piece of paper rolled up, wrapped in a silver ribbon, pressed with the insignia of a dove, wings spread wide, beak forward as if in flight.
He knew it held ominous tidings.
He walked to the messenger and took the parchment without a word. The messenger departed in kind.
As if the weather beyond was watching, it rang out with a clap of thunder as though the gods above were working their forge with hammers made of long dead planets. Hidden in the miasma were the layers of howls and hungry screeches.
He unrolled the letter, hands shaking. Eyes scanning the words. Then again. Then again.
Ryman has fallen.
There were no other words needed. What else need be said?
He moved to his chamber entrance like a man be marched to the gallows. At the door, his personal guard stood, still as stone. A dozen men, six to each side. The only entrance in ever since he’d barricaded the smaller doorway to the south. It made access to the kitchens a chore, but what good was food if a man wasn’t alive to eat?
He turned for a moment, and then stepped back to where his guards were posted. “You,” he said to the man nearest to his left, “go bring another dozen. If a fly so much as buzzes through this hallway, I want it turned into mist before it even reaches this door.”
“Sir!” the man replied, his head down, clenched fists pressed together like the world’s most aggressive prayer was about to be spoken.
He moved back to his dais. Every step filled with fear. The world outside sang the song of his ending times. Some terrible echo of the storm that he had let brew within his own heart.
“Maybe we deserve this,” he whispered to himself. “After everything…”
He couldn’t tell if he was crying for himself or for all that he’d done. Perhaps it was for all the things he’d never done. All the things he’d done wrong, or just hadn’t done quite right.
He slipped away into the world of dreams as tears fell from his face down to fine fabrics and ringed fingers.
He couldn’t have been asleep long, jolted awake by…something.
The world was silent. Not the silence of before. A new type of silence. That type that’s so dense and so still it feel heavy. It presses and wraps and saturates. The kind of silence like a thick, wet blanket has been wrapped around the world so that even the sharp sounds feel soft around the edges.
“…h….” he began to say. Fear snaked in and around his mind so strongly that it wrapped his very throat. Immobilized his words like a child trespassing into his parent’s bed chamber, fearful that sound would be left as evidence.
“Yes…” a whisper came.
Startled, he moved so swiftly he twisted and fell from where he’d only recently been sleeping. Elbow striking the stone and sending waves of pain through his arm.
“Gua…” he began, but the words fell short. They came out as quietly as liquid spilling from the wound in his chest. With all the fury of blood slowly pooling into his punctured lung.
In the dancing candlelight, a face moved into focus even as his own vision began to blur. One black eye and one blue – both warped by the darkness and flickering light, yet just bold enough to be unmistakable.
“Yes,” the voice said again. “You do…”