Alternative Alternative History

The Sounds Of New York City, Circa 1920 : The Two-Way : NPR

An intro story intended as a direct reference to Robert Chambers’ The Repairer of Reputations. I do recommend the original, provided you can overlook one or two references to attitudes that are justifiably no longer acceptable. Beyond that, though, in the niche of literature that Lovecraft and Derleth came to dominate decades later, The Repairer of Reputations stands out as a particularly subtle example among weird fiction’s supremely un-subtle enclave, with its portrait of a shining, futuristic 1920s New York (from the perspective of its 1895 publication date!), seen through the eyes of Hildred Castaigne, a megalomaniacal but only understatedly unreliable narrator. It also has suicide booths.

The original leaves the open question of how much Hildred’s insanity has affected his perception. There are clear, “onscreen” arguments over whether Hildred’s combination safe is, in fact, a breadbox, or whether the crown he keeps inside it is simply a piece of trash, but those allude to the arguments no one has: How much of the ordered, tranquil, pomp-and-circumstance New York of the future can be real if we are seeing it only through his distorted gaze. It’s an elegant ambiguity, one I ignore entirely in the below. My story is not elegant, and where Chambers’ work was meant to stand alone, mine is intended to introduce an aesthetically similar but larger and (by modern standards) much more conventional interweaving of characters. My version of Chambers’ setting is meant to be unambiguously real (because I like it), but I hope it will pique your interest anyway. The tags/categories are relevant, of course.

Toward the beginning of the year 1920 the government of the United States (and, newly, of Britannia) had practically completed the program adopted during the last months of President Winthrop’s administration.  The country had every appearance of tranquility.  The Great War, despite its ravagings upon Europe, had left no such scars upon the republic, having cemented its mutually agreed-upon annexation of the British Isles and Canada and emboldened its navy, granting it control over a profitable majority of both the Atlantic and Pacific.  The last vestiges of the white separatist movement in Texas had been quelled and its leaders apprehended with the aid of the Venus of the Sinaloa, and with the exception of the Army’s ongoing, troubled campaigns in the Shandong jungle, the country was in a superb state of defense.

Moreover the nation was prosperous.  Chicago, for a moment paralyzed after a second great fire, had risen from its ruins, argent and stately and even more beautiful than the white city which had been built for its people in 1893.  Everywhere good architecture was replacing bad, and even in New York a sudden craving for decency had swept away a great portion of the dingiest existing edifices.  Streets had been widened, properly paved, and lighted; trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures demolished, and underground roads built to replace them.  The new government buildings and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks, which proved a godsend to the population.

The colossal Congress of Religions had convened only a year ago, but already itseemed clear to most that a new understanding prevailed between men and their cultures and creeds, that bigotry and intolerance were to be laid in their graves, that kindness and charity had finally triumphed over that ugly, sectarian will to conflict.  Many thought the millennium had arrived, at least in the new world, which, after all, was a world unto itself.

Many thought as much, yes, but Beau Pierre wasn’t so sure.  He looked down, bleary, from the window of his tenement–one of the few of its hideous kind remaining in the city–upon the newly reconstructed Pell Street, its wide, neat sidewalks, flowering cherry trees, alabaster storefronts opening to the carefully managed calm of a seaside park two blocks down.  People were supposed to like these things, to draw from them the same outward order and organization within their own souls, but Beau found them curiously soulless.  Something was wrong with him, he admitted.

After the war, he had enrolled at Columbia.  Prospects had been bleak at the time for a return to Paris, and he had been eager to resume his studies.  But it didn’t take.  It wasn’t that the faculty weren’t supportive or that they were hostile to expatriates or really any subversion of his expectations for the place.  Beau had changed.  It might have been the war–the Romantics had oft described the change that might occur in man upon his immersion in hardship and violence–but something told Beau that the particulars of the Western Front weren’t what the Romantics had in mind.  Besides, the war failed acutely to provide an explanation for the other changes he’d noticed in his life.

Beau turned to look at the door at the opposite end of his dusty studio and focused, flexing a muscle in his mind which had gradually made itself apparent over the past three years.  Clouds of possibility converged about the door, forming lines and threads stretching into dimensions he could intuit but not consciously fathom, along which the door began to shift.  The vast majority of them–ninety five percent, Beau estimated–were closely grouped, and the majority of what remained did not stray far.  It was a near certainty, then, that the door would open between seven and eight minutes from now.  He checked his pocket watch.  Ten minutes late.  Perhaps it was a power play?

Since his departure from the university, Beau had drifted through a few different arrangements of employment, less for the needs of his lifestyle–he lived cheaply and had been able to extricate an appreciable nest egg from his family’s holdings in France before his crossing–than for an idle fascination with Americana and its trappings.  A store clerk, a carriage driver–a profession swiftly yielding to the automobile traffic coming to dominate transportation about the city–a librarian, a shop assistant to a record seller–it was through this last, oddly, that he finally encountered the grasping fingers of New York’s peculiar underworld.  Out of curiosity, he had accepted an invitation to a secret society dedicated to the King in Yellow, who seemed to Beau to be a sort of cross between myth and metaphor, though he still had little idea what any of the society’s gibberish actually meant.  It was through that bizarre enterprise, however, that he had been recruited by Felix Wilde.

He’d never seen the man–only received messages from the other members of the society.  The employment they offered–periodic requests to deliver cryptic messages and nonsensical objects to individuals across the spectrum of social standing–paid poorly, which was notably orders of magnitude better than it ought to have paid.  It was terribly interesting, Beau felt, made all the more so by the enigma of Mr. Wilde himself.  The man, purportedly a microcephalic gremlin, was the chief accountant at Hawberk Armoury and Defense, the largest arms dealer in the country, but it seemed he had his malformed digits in some great share of New York’s illegal operations as well.  Some small portion–liquor smuggling, forgery–seemed profitable.  Most, like Beau’s errands, did not, but it was clear that Mr. Wilde held a sort of ineffable sway over the city’s miscreants.  Beau dearly wanted to understand why, but salient evidence had thus far eluded him, which was why the development of three weeks ago was so exciting.

Between Wilde’s sporadic requests and his own counter-research, Beau had taken to spending his afternoons at Belmont Park, testing his newfound predictive talents upon more measurable stakes.  Almost to his surprise, they proved quite reliable, and he found himself able to collect margins on small bets placed within ten minutes of a race’s start.  When he attempted to replicate his success with a more substantial sum, his predictions did not fail him, but unfortunately, his lack of guile did.  The track administrators had apparently noticed their novice patron’s perfect betting record and, upon the unfurling of circumstances that might otherwise have garnered the attention of their other clientele, decided to intervene.  Beau’s winnings were confiscated, and he was tossed unceremoniously to the street.

It was a costly error, to be sure: Though he was not currently relying on the extra pocket money, he had entertained hopes that it might provide some assurance of his financial independence in years to come.  A ban from every track in the state of New York complicated things.  Ultimately, though, Beau found it worthwhile, for the very next morning, an envelope arrived at his door, marked in the usual way with the initials “F.W.”  It was a task, of a sort, but unlike previous instances of terse, unadorned instruction, this note took the form of a ledger entry:

Incident recorded for one B. Pierre, student, migrant, amateur gambler.  Incident occurred April 3rd.  Reputation damaged on the racetrack.  Known to track proprietors as a race fixer.  Reputation to be repaired April 23rd aboard the Prince’s Emblazoned.  Retainer to be paid by client’s assistance to Mr. Hawberk on said date.  Entry papers and details to be provided to client by H. Castaigne at 8:30 AM, April 23rd, prior to departure.

-Mr. Felix Wilde

Accountant, Hawberk Armoury & Defense Co.

The mystery had coagulated deliciously.  Martin Hawberk was a pillar of society, and the Prince’s Emblazoned, his ocean liner, was the decade’s crowning achievement in modern nautical engineering–such was the agreement among every sailor Beau could find relaxing outside the cafes which bordered the harbor.  That idle engagement with Mr. Wilde’s nonsense had propelled him into such stations was a thrill in itself.  That it might finally shed light on Wilde’s intentions–or “repair” Beau’s damaged public character–was a veritable culmination of his atrophied ambitions.

He cut these ruminations short, rising in anticipation of a knock at the door, which arrived precisely on schedule.  Adjusting his sleeves, he breathed deep and opened it to a dandily-dressed young man who sauntered in with barely a glance of acknowledgment.

“Mr. Castaigne, I presume?” Beau asked.  The man delayed his response, surveying Beau’s ascetic lodgings with an almost exaggerated curl of his lip before laying his cane against the windowsill and producing a folio, which he set upon the table.

“Indeed,” he replied, begrudgingly making eye contact.  He did not sit, instead choosing to lean dramatically upon the backrest of Beau’s chair.  “You understand what is at stake here, yes?”  Beau clasped his hands and shook his head humbly, for now content to play along with Castaigne’s overstated theatrics.

“I am afraid Mr. Wilde provided me with precious little context.  What service is it I am to be providing?”

“You are to be controlling damage,” Castaigne said, almost with a snarl.  “Hawberk has decided that he shall jeopardize our finances with his frivolity, and Mr. Wilde finds this unacceptable.  We are to understand your capabilities make you an effective card player?”

“I’ve not made a habit of card playing.”  Castaigne scowled and looked out the window, perhaps to hide his sudden turn of rage.

“My blood boils at the thought that you were chosen, with wits this dim!” he spat, turning back.  “Your role is to ensure that either Hawberk or yourself wins this useless game, so that our work is not imperiled.  Do not fail, or the King in Yellow will surely enlighten you as to the meaning of fear.”

Beau considered the manic threat for a moment but ultimately found himself unable to resist:

“What have I to fear from the King in Yellow?”

Castaigne regarded him for a moment, taut-lipped, knuckles clenching around the top of the chair.  Then, in a low voice, he intoned:

“Mr. Wilde the other day relayed to me the most curious rumor of a certain Benoit Foyer, a French entrepreneur most perturbed by the theft of his family’s fortune by his estranged half-brother, mere hours after their father’s death on the Front.  I understand he is attempting to ascertain the miscreant’s whereabouts.  What do you make of it?”

Despite his efforts, Beau felt his brow raise incrementally.  Mr. Wilde’s attention was more careful than he’d realized.

“I would venture,” he replied slowly, “that Mr. Foyer may overstate his claim.  There exists no record of his parentage prior to his adoption into the Foyer family, making his accusation baseless.”

“Mr. Wilde is quite gifted at finding records, Mr. Pierre.  Hawberk’s former competitors can attest to it.  But let us agree that, in this case, he is surely mistaken in his assumption that such a record might be provided to Mr. Foyer.  And let us agree that his faith in you is not misplaced.”

With that, Castaigne deliberately relinquished his grip upon the chair and fetched his cane.

“Everything else you need should be in it,” he said, gesturing carelessly to the folio on the table.  He paused.  “Except you had best find yourself a tailor.  Even Mr. Hawberk would not suffer your presence on his ship looking like that.”

He strode out, leaving the door open behind him–and Beau to wonder whether his curiosity had been worth it after all.

The Crossroads, Chapter 7: A Visitor

It was growing late, Brill noted, sleepily watching the technicolor projections the setting sun, filtering from their window through the incongruous mass of bottles, phials, potions, pots, and tinctures arrayed before it on their sill-made-shelf, had cast upon the study wall.  They continued grinding away with their pestle.  The market had been…demanding today.  Many orders.  Little time to fulfill them.  It would be another late night.

Business was booming, it seemed, and though they regretted the impingement upon their reading time, Brill knew to be grateful for the surplus.  They had seen the alternative.  They peered down at the parchment on their desk, absentmindedly emptying the mortar into a mixing dish.

“Gar slime…” they muttered, creaking to their feet, rummaging through the pots and bottles on the shelf.  Locating the requisite container–a bulbous, ceramic tub, sealed with a large cork for the…aroma of its contents–Brill lifted it gingerly, pausing mid-turn as a knock on their door echoed through the shop.  “We’re closed!” they called back.

“Aint’ a customer!” came the response.  Gene.  Brill lifted an eyebrow, set the tub of slime on their desk, and proceeded to the door.

“What do you need?” they asked, opening the door to a restless Gene, hands on his hips, mid-pace.

“Need a favor,” the old man muttered.  He was uncomfortable.  The way he got before doing something impulsive, Brill noted.

“I’m always at your service, Gene,” they replied softly.  “Though I am running short on time this evening, so–”

“Sorry,” Gene muttered.  “Y’know those two kids been skulking ‘round the past few weeks?”  Brill nodded.  “Right.  Younger one–the sister–jumped town with Dog Boy today to run some errand for Marko.”

“Bleeding Wolf is back?”

“Was.  Maybe back soon, but that ain’t the point.  Point is the girl left her sick brother in the alley by my shop, and he’s been layin’ there all day coughin’ his guts out.  Was wonderin’ if you could do something for him.”

“That will depend on the reason for his cough,” Brill said.  “I will need to examine him–can you bring him here?”  Gene glanced over his shoulder.

“Weren’t sure if it was okay to move him.  He don’t seem particularly conscious neither.”  Brill sighed.  The alternative it was, then.  He grabbed a small oil lamp off a shelf near the door and lit it with the candle from his desk.

“Take me to him,” they said, their tone urgent partly for concern and partly–they hated to admit–for annoyance at having to leave the shop at such a late hour.  Gene nodded, taking whatever implication he needed, and turned to lead, only to freeze at the rapid approach of a stranger on the dusky street.

The figure was tall, draped head-to-toe in a thin black cloak, though Brill wondered–at the swaying of the garment in the breeze, at the complete lack of visible ambulation beneath it–whether toes were something this creature even had.  It stopped before the two of them, looming, silent, its face obscured by the twilight and the cloak’s drooping cowl.  Then it spoke:

Where might I find the one called Marko?

The words were jarring, brassy, spoken not in tones but in harmonies, and they reverberated, as if through a long, metal hallway.  Gene turned slowly to Brill, then back to the creature.  He nudged his head in the direction of Marko’s.

“Big house.  End of town.”

The creature declined its head in acknowledgment and proceeded down the street as quickly and eerily as it had arrived.  Gene looked back to Brill.

“Think we need to handle that first,” he said.  Brill agreed.

“Go make sure it’s under control at Marko’s,” they replied.  “I’ll get the Mayor.”

With that they parted ways, Gene to his workshop to fetch his polearm, no doubt; Brill to Mayor Bergen’s residence at the town square.  The boy would have to wait.  Unfortunate though it was, a False God’s arrival in town put more lives in danger than his own.

Coming Back: Remaining Alive in Dimly-Lit Rooms

Eternal Return: Black Survival on Steam
A non-fiction interlude, reviewing Eternal Return: Black Survival    

***

“The title…it doesn’t make a lot of sense…”

“What do you mean?  It’s Nietzsche.  The kids’ll love it!”

***

Taking a brief break here from Crossroads (brief=while writing this), since game design and culture are on my mind.  To blow off steam lately, some friends and I have been playing Eternal Return: Black Survival, which, design-wise, is a fascinating and bizarre evolution, and it’s filled my head with many thoughts.  They are not terribly organized so do please pardon the rambling, and for those of you who don’t care for video games, don’t worry: This is about much at least a little more than the mouthfeel of my digital pastimes.

***

The “what” comes first: Eternal Return is a Battle Royale (e.g. Fortnite) formatted as an isometric MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, e.g. DotA, League of Legends).  The latter term refers to a team-based game where players fight each other in an arena populated by tactically relevant (and usually at least slightly hostile) environmental features, growing and specializing their characters as the action escalates.  The game ends, generally, when one team achieves some goal with respect to the environment, unrelated, really, to the fighting with the other players (except insofar as they can’t stop you while they’re dead).

A Battle Royale is less complicated: A large number of players/teams get dropped onto a large map, and the last one standing wins.  To escalate the action (and to make safety a meaningful and fun tradeoff), weapons, armor, and other useful things are scattered around the map to give the strategically-minded survivors an edge in the showdowns that become inevitable as the map shrinks.

Amusingly (from an industry perspective), the two now-mega-genres have similar origin stories.  Some sloppy history: By most accounts, the first MOBA (in the sense they exist today) was a StarCraft mod called Aeon of Strife.  This inspired the Warcraft mod Defense of the Ancients (DotA), which became DotA: Allstars, which schismed out of Blizzard’s umbrella of control into League of Legends and DotA 2.  Similarly, Battle Royale started with the ARMA 2 mod DayZ, which passed design talent along to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), which prompted Epic Games to whipturn development on Fortnite in order to compete with it.

Generally, the creative direction of the games industry can be modeled as a linear combination of the interests of its best game designers and those of guys in suits who like the word “monetize”, and it is very easy to see the explosion of genres like these as dominated by the latter.  I’ll admit: It’s damned hard not to notice that within five months of the Auto Chess mod for DotA 2, both Valve and Riot had released their own proprietary versions, with Blizzard’s arriving only six months after that.  But the spectacle of the fat cat feeding frenzy distracts from the fact that these mod-to-blockbuster stories captured the artists’ attention too, with pseudo-legendary designers like Tim Schafer describing DayZ as the future of narrative in games (nosic).

***

For those of you whose eyes glazed over at all of that, this is where things return to the normal subject matter of this blog.  The lingo may get a little blurry, but the key to Schafer’s argument is this: Battle Royale games don’t have a story in any conventional sense.  There is little setting, no cutscenes or writing, no characters but you and the other players, no narrative but the one you make for yourself.

Frankly, I feel vindicated.  Back when I was in school, I dropped this same argument in one of my writing classes.  The MFA student opposite me, unimpressed, inquired: “Isn’t that just everything in life, though?”  It was very Robert Frost of her, but last I checked, no one is arguing that free verse isn’t poetry anymore.  The boundaries where art begins and ends are not important.  They were never important.  What’s important is that art can be crafted from agency.  It can be framed and sculpted, and like just about everything else within our powers, it can be improved upon.

The baseline for multiplayer games is essentially what you see with mainstream sports.  You have a simple task with a simple goal, and the game is doing it better than the other guys until one of you wins.  Maneuver the sportsball through the hoopgoal.  Go fast.  Hit hard and shoot accurately.  That these imperatives apply equally well to football/soccer, Street Fighter, Mario Kart, and Halo shouldn’t be controversial, but make no mistake: There’s a narrative there.  It’s just a very short narrative, leaving comparatively few opportunities for interesting variation.  I’m not knocking the excitement of the neck-and-neck rival showdown, won at the last second by a half-court buzzer beater, but I will point out that when they make movies about sports, it is always about the context, an athlete or team’s struggle and growth over months or years–their rise to greatness–and not the one awesome match they fought out in the preseason when stakes were low.

This then begs the question: How do we take that framework of engagement and structure it in such a way that a single game tells a story worth hearing?  The MOBA and the Battle Royale are two answers to that question.

The standard narrative of a MOBA match is this: The beginning, instead of a team v. team slugfest, opens with smaller scale matchups (generally 1v1 or 2v2) in “lanes”, with each side competing to most efficiently extract resources from the “minions” the enemy base sends down each lane.  You can fight your opponent directly here, and you might even succeed if you outmaneuver them severely, but you’re weak.  The minions aren’t strong, but they are a significant defensive advantage should your opponent catch you in the middle of them.  And, of course, attacking your opponent beneath the defensive structures at the end of their lane is certain death, so barring extreme outcomes, it is advantageous for both of you to sit there and farm, competing to grow faster, prodding and skirmishing to prevent each other from feeling too comfortable.

Soon you grow stronger.  Within the first third of the game, you’ll have unlocked all of your abilities and have improved your stats.  With some smart planning, you can now work around or through your opponents environmental defenses and score a player kill (for much higher rewards) or simply leave your lane to coordinate with your teammates (and overwhelm another lane), all with the goal of securing more resources, growing stronger, and conquering objectives to aid in the final assault on your opponents’ inner stronghold.

Nuts-and-bolts-wise, this is basically a whole bunch of subgames glued together, though organically and analogous enough to common concepts (e.g. war) to not feel like an abomination.  The variation in skillsets the game demands is wild, with different tactical mindsets needed for “laning”, “jungling”, “sieging”, “teamfighting”, and skirmishing around objectives.  There is, of course, some overlap with the basics of controlling your character, but even that is subject to do’s and don’ts that don’t travel well between concepts.

Seems like a cost, but the holistic result is profound.  In 20-40 minutes, you’ve now gone through the better part of the Hero’s Journey, from humble beginnings (level 1 laning) to confluence with your companions (meeting up as the laning phase ends), proving yourself as a Dragon Slayer (literally an objective in League of Legends), and ultimate, hard-fought victory over the enemy.  The goal was to establish a complex narrative in a multiplayer game, and, uh, mission accomplished.

Ish.  There are cons, many of them logistical.  For example, these are team games, and the precisely-combined nature of their subgames means they don’t have IRL sports’ luxury of freeform adjustment to deviant behavior.  So if Timmy gets disgruntled and walks off the virtual field by way of an unplugged router, that ruins the game for everyone.  There are no substitutes, there’s no rearranging the teams to account for the new imbalance (both for technical reasons and for the fact that doing so would invalidate all of the narrative built up to that point).  All the players can really do is remain halfheartedly engaged as the game grinds on for another fifteen minutes to its predictable, cheapened conclusion.

This is, of course, inextricably entangled with the other big MOBA downside: These games are long.  In the abstract, 25-45 minutes might not seem like a long time, but it’s time when you cannot be interrupted, when a moment of inattention could have deleterious consequences for the following half-hour.  If that doesn’t sound at least mildly stressful, you probably ought to check in with your significant other more often than you do.  All this to say, the MOBA is a significant development for narrative in (multiplayer) games, but it’s not the only one in town.  Meanwhile, the Battle Royale tackles things differently, avoiding these issues and falling upon different ones.

The narrative of a Battle Royale, specifically, is less about growth and more about movement.  It’s less a journey of empowerment, a campaign to win the war, and more a daring trek through the desert or a harrowing escape from prison.  Growth is, of course, there, but it’s incidental, an excuse for the movement, a reason to scatter everyone across a giant map instead of just dumping them all into the usual FPS deathtrap and having them shoot it out.  The resulting, absolutely enormous sandbox serves to frame the goal nicely: This isn’t a daunting foe that’ll require skill and coordination to bring low–it’s a huge and hostile gauntlet, and you want to get to the end by any means necessary.  Of note, the former is a team goal, the latter, a solitary one.  Obvious point: Most Battle Royales allow you to play solo at no disadvantage, and even when you do play with a team, you will often lose your friends on the way to the end, leaving you to soldier on alone.

None of this is to diminish the narrative value of the journey–it’s just a different type of journey, one where you have the choice to fight or flee, making it to the end through bloodthirst, boofing every chad who shows his face in headshot range, or instead playing the clever scavenger, forgoing combat with the guy who is just gonna get killed by the next player he meets anyway, biding your time, picking the circumstances of your final showdown.

This addresses the MOBA’s weaknesses pretty well.  Players are numerous and eliminated rapidly, allaying any risk that someone might unilaterally kick the experience off its rails.  And it’s fairly short, with the map shrinking down to its highly constrained showdown point in twenty minutes (or less, depending on the specific game).

Predictably, this introduces its own problems.  The first is that you aren’t going to win a lot.  Games of Fortnite have 100 players.  Apex Legends does 60.  Assuming you are all evenly matched (you aren’t), this means you are likely to win fewer than one in 60 games, which maybe doesn’t sound so bad, but I will emphasize that the real parameters of that calculation definitely skew the output toward “fewer”.  This wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if placing anything but first meant something, but it’s not clear that it does.  It is, in fact, trivially easy to not be the first one dead in a Battle Royale, because not being the first one dead only means you avoided the first clash over loot (and, of course, that you didn’t get any).  It’s not even particularly difficult to hide out and keep a low profile to the end, but doing so slams you right into the second big problem: 1v1 games are hard.

This is simultaneously big-dumb-obvious in theory and still shocking in practice, but virtually any mano-a-mano contest worth contesting is going to feature a high skill ceiling, and while multiplayer games tend to obfuscate it behind the chaos of a hundred shooting scavengers, team coordination, and (for asymmetrical games) matchup differentials, the final moments of a Battle Royale lead fairly reliably to a contest of skill between a small number of players on mostly even ground.  Then you factor in the likelihood that you are the most skillful player in the 100, and, uh, it seems like you’re pretty boned.  Again, victory isn’t everything, but when your narrative is worth so little when it doesn’t end in victory, it starts to look less worthwhile to keep pulling the lever on the slot machine.

Cutting off the salt stream, where does that leave us?  Our leading narrative structures have encountered four key pitfalls:

  1. Vulnerability to unilateral disruption
  2. Burdensome commitment of time and energy
  3. Minimal likelihood of victory (or, more importantly, having a worthwhile narrative at the end)
  4. Exposure to the vicissitudes of symmetrical balance

Is it possible, then, to design a structure that addresses all four?

***

As with all questions of aesthetics, any answer is going to be a matter of interpretation, but I would argue Eternal Return is at least a respectable attempt.  Refresher/dissection of my previous description: It’s a Battle Royale with the interface/control scheme of a MOBA (isometric, QWER abilities that you rank up, equipment slots you fill up to improve your stats).  By this logic, its resolution of #1-#3 is actually pretty boring.  By simply being a Battle Royale, it becomes resilient to #1 and #2, and taking the edge off #3 is simpler than I’ve made it sound: Just reduce the number of players (Eternal Return has 18)!  Duh.  Where the MOBA elements really shine (and where this analysis gets its crunch) is in how they address #4.

It’s worth mentioning here that while certain game structures confer a sort of immunity to certain pitfalls (e.g. Battle Royale and unilateral disruption), MOBAs have no such immunity to #4.  It would certainly be possible to design a perfectly symmetrical MOBA with on-rails development to guarantee “perfect balance”–it would just be stupid, and no one would play it.  The salient observation here is not that MOBA designs inherently overcome the risk of directly exposing players to their own lack of skill but rather that they have tools to mitigate that risk to a greater or lesser degree.

The one to focus on is growth (matchmaking improvements with fewer players/teams as well as Eternal Return’s asymmetry–that each of its characters plays differently, with varying capabilities at different stages of the game–are relevant too, but they are less novel here).  

Most MOBAs structure character growth along two axes: “Experience”, a slow trickle of small stat improvements and ability access/augmentations awarded for productive activity (ie, killing stuff, in most MOBAs) and “resources”, often as a currency used to purchase items which provide larger, spikier stat boosts in a much more variable stream (the two are invariably correlated, but while the experience dispensed to all characters tends toward a tight bell curve, it is common to see a subset of players get “fed”, acquiring a great deal more currency than other players in the same match at the same time).  Eternal Return adopts this system, eschewing the Battle Royale standard of awarding random embiggening to those who stumble upon loot boxes.  This serves to both smooth and complicate the growth curve, reducing the power differential between the character who opened one more box and the one who showed up just behind him.  More importantly, it makes growth a focus, something to pay attention to, as doing it well or poorly can influence or even overwhelm in-the-moment mechanical contests down the road.

Another way to argue for the same design element is that it emphasizes multiple skillsets, deprioritizing absolute dominance in any one of them.  As with the earlier metaphor of military campaigns, you can excel either as a general, planning your map movement to most efficiently secure resources and control strategic positions and opportune times; or as a tactician, winning even unfavorable battles through superior execution and a dearth of mistakes.  Conventional Battle Royales heavily favor the latter; Eternal Return puts both on much more even footing.

***

The result is a game with lots of cool narrative moments, not dissimilar to either genre it draws from, but notable for the way it fuses them and, more importantly, the way it minimizes the costs of each.

Back to hedge-world, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be everyone’s cup of tea.  If you dig neither MOBAs nor Battle Royales, you may be underwhelmed here, not even for dislikeability but for a lack of things you care for.  You might be put off by the anime aesthetics or the half-hearted translations, or you might just hate isometric, click-to-move control schemes.

But even beyond the obvious target demographic of [not the above], I’ll throw a cautious recommendation to that narrow, eclectic group who has no idea what the fuck I’m talking about but remains curious about this notion of narrative in agency.  Check it out.  It’s the future, man.  The future is now, of course, but it’s gonna keep coming back, if this budget localization is to be believed.

The Crossroads, Chapter 6: The Hunter of Beasts

Orphelia was scared.  It had never happened before.  Not being scared, of course–Orphelia was unfortunately well-acquainted with fear.  No, it was Mr. Ruffles.  Since the Bad Stuff, he’d kept her safe.  She followed his instructions, kept herself and Devlin fed.  She stole food and medicine, but only when Mr. Ruffles said, only how he said, and no one noticed.  No one ever noticed.  Then he told her to follow the man in the brown tunic, follow him into the house they said was “Marko’s”.  She didn’t know why.  She didn’t need to know why.  Mr. Ruffles had kept her safe, and no one ever noticed.

But the merchant noticed.  The strange man who rode into town on his wagon-boat, who spoke with funny words, who had followed her to Marko’s house–no one else saw her.  He saw her.  Plainly.  Like she was really there.  Then everyone saw her, and she really was there, and Marko yelled, and the man in brown left, and the merchant named Lan al’Ver asked her to come with him, and she did, because Mr. Ruffles wasn’t keeping her safe anymore, and she wasn’t sure what else to do.

He led her first to the market, where he argued with the stall traders over the price of onions which he ultimately did not buy and which, it seemed, none of those traders were even selling.  Then, bidding her to carry the bolts of linen which he did buy, he led her to his wagon-boat, tied to a post at the edge of town, and served her tea that was not hot–but was far warmer than it ought to have been without a fire in sight–in a clean, white, porcelain cup.  They remained there for the better part of an hour as he drank his own tea and inquired unhurriedly into how she was enjoying the springtime.  At first she barely responded.  What was she to say?  She was not enjoying much at all at the moment.  Truly, she wanted simply to walk away, but she was paralyzed by the notion that this man saw her, could–and likely would–follow her if she left.  Even so, as his questions became more obtuse, less grounded from reality, she found herself playing along.  He would ask:

“Upon which road lies your greatest treasure?”  To which she would reply:

“Why Mr. al’Ver, ‘tis the road of love, wherein toward me my Prince rides, ever gallant, ever fearless of the tribulations which bar his way.”  He would consider this approvingly for a moment before inquiring again, along a completely separate line:

“Then name me a luxury, Miss Orphelia, which you cannot live without!”

“So forward, Mr. al’Ver!  Alas, I should say I would be rather poorly without my warmest socks.”

And so on.  She was, it occurred to her, even having fun with the strange interaction, though it nagged her that the man somehow knew her name.  She had never given it.  She never had the chance to inquire into the mystery, though, as their game was interrupted by the breathless arrival of the man in brown and another: the man she’d seen before, scarred and shirtless, pulling al’Ver’s wagon-boat into town.

“Al’Ver,” the boat-puller growled.  “We have to leave now.  Target’s much higher profile than Marko let on.”  Lan met his gaze over the top of his teacup, then slowly lowered both cup and saucer.

“Worry not, Mr. Wolf,” he replied, though Orphelia found his smirk at least slightly worrying in itself.  “I am quite prepared to depart–I merely await my conveyance to the riverbank.”  Mr. Wolf, scowling, held his stare for several seconds before exhaling angrily.

“Fuck you.”

Some fifteen minutes later, they were pushing off onto the river, Lan poling skillfully against the current, the others arranging themselves as comfortably as possible amongst the boat’s minimal seating and piles of supplies and goods.  Orphelia leaned over the side, trying to remember the last time Father had let her board a trade raft, listening idly to the conversation behind her.

“Who’s the girl?”

“She was eavesdropping at Marko’s.  Al’Ver insisted she come along.”

“How much she hear?”

“Everything, near as I can tell.”  There was a pause.  Then:

“Girl!” Mr. Wolf called.  “What’s your name?”  Orphelia turned, shaking herself to attention.

“I’m Orphelia, Mr. Wolf, sir,” she said with a curtsy.

“Bleeding Wolf,” he clarified.  “Are you a mage, Orphelia?”  She gulped.

“Um, no.  No, sir.”  The man in brown snorted.

“Lying,” he muttered.

“What!  No!” Orphelia, shouted, stamping her foot.  “I’m not lying!  You’re just rude!”  Bleeding Wolf glanced over to his companion with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, isn’t this cursed as shit?” he remarked.  “What are you playing at, al’Ver?”

Lan ignored the question completely, continuing to whistle a tuneless nothing, eyes on the river ahead.

“What are you talking about, Mr. Wolf?”  Bleeding Wolf exchanged another look with the man in brown.

“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” he said at last.  “You’re sweatin’ mana all over the boat–the kind that comes out of real sons of bitches.”

“Like you?”

“What?”

“Well, you’re a wolf, so I just thought…”

“Dammit, girl!” he snarled.  “Way I see it, we have no way of telling whether you’re a brigand or a victim, but as victims go, you aren’t making out to be that sympathetic.”  Orphelia frowned.  She clasped her hands and looked down at her feet.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Wolf,” she mumbled.  It was partially true–she still thought the joke had been funny, though.  Still, the raft remained silent for some minutes as the weight of Bleeding Wolf’s angry stare slowly eroded, dissipating in juxtaposition to Lan’s off-key whistling.

“Something happen to you, then?” he asked, breaking the silence.

“Hmm?”

“You run into a mage who did something to you?  Make some sort of deal?”  His eyes fell for a moment, Orphelia noticed, on Mr. Ruffles.  “Did you find something you…regret finding?”  Orphelia gulped and shook her head.  She didn’t like that question.  Her non-answer wasn’t a lie, not really, but she knew that volunteering anything more would lead Mr. Wolf to topics she didn’t want to think about.  She doubted Mr. Ruffles would approve of the scrutiny either.

Luckily, Bleeding Wolf did not press further, though the man in brown continued to scowl.  Instead, he turned the conversation back toward their quarry, the cause for concern which had accelerated their day’s travel to a rush.

As far as Orphelia could tell, they were looking for a dead body, but it sounded like a really important dead body.  “Bilgames”, the name Marko had given, was apparently used near the Bloodwood to refer to the hero known further and wider as the Hunter of Beasts.  He’d been an invincible warrior, slew some horrible, scary monster, liked the color green or something–Orphelia stopped paying attention after a point.  What she couldn’t tell–and what Bleeding Wolf was not offering–was what she had to do with any of this.  She didn’t want to work for Marko.  She didn’t care about dead folk heroes or robbing their graves.  She just wanted…she just wanted her and Devlin to be safe.  Yes, that was it.  Safe.

But this misadventure didn’t sound safe at all!  The Hunter was super famous, if Bleeding Wolf was to be believed.  There were other scavengers and mercenaries headed this way for sure, and the three men didn’t exactly resemble a fighting force.  Moreover, it didn’t even sound like they would find anything.  Why wouldn’t Marko’s tipster have just picked the corpse clean already?  She came out of her daze to vocalize the question, interrupting Bleeding Wolf’s lengthy description of a flower the Hunter had supposedly carried.

“Bravo, Miss Orphelia!” Lan shouted from the back of the raft.  The man in brown continued to scowl, but she saw a hint of a smile crack at the corner of Bleeding Wolf’s mouth.

“It’s a good question,” he admitted.  “Ty, it’s your line of work.  You wanna tell her?”  The man in brown sighed.

“The scav trade is all about how much trouble you can handle,” he said reservedly.  “Anything you pick up’s just as liable to get you killed as pay for your next lunch.  So if you’re gonna grab it, you need to be ready for the trouble that comes with.  Some scavs aren’t, so they’ll take valuable info, like where the body–or ruins or whatever–is and sell that instead.”

Lan tucked his pole into the crook of his elbow to clap politely.

“So the tipster was a scaredy-cat?” Orphelia asked.  Ty looked annoyed, but Bleeding Wolf responded first:

“Exactly.  My two silver, though, is that our tipster took something anyway.  The Hunter of Beasts has to be the biggest find he’s ever gonna get.  Maybe he didn’t take enough to slow him down, but he took something.”

“So what are we gonna take?” Orphelia pressed.  Bleeding Wolf shrugged.

“Whatever we find.  Whatever the last guy missed–or didn’t have the know-how to identify.  I’m honestly more worried about who we’re gonna have to fight off to walk away with it all.”  He turned to Ty.  “Who other than Marko has their claws in the trade here these days?”

“Salad of Hazan, mostly,” Ty offered.  “Too far south of Lesser Cairn for any of the Stones dealers to have heard by now.  I’d guess–if the mage is as well-known as you say–we’re competing with one or two groups ready to fight and any number of prospectors waiting to nab whatever’s left.

“Not bad.  You any good in a fight, Ty?”  Orphelia suppressed a giggle at the man’s exaggerated frown.

“As I recall, you were the muscle in thesis arrangement,” he shot back, indignant.  Bleeding Wolf shook his head, as if the answer didn’t matter one way or the other, but the conversation lulled there.  For the next several hours, the group said little else, leaving Orphelia to ponder the mystery of her inclusion undisturbed and, unfortunately, unaided.  Mr. Ruffles wasn’t being helpful either, though that was only to be expected with all the people about.  Soon enough, though, Lan drew the raft up against the riverbank and jolted her awake again.

She looked up, taking in the landscape as the Captain tied his knots and pulled the vehicle’s transformative lever.  The sun was starting to get low in the sky, staining the air with the deep yellow of late afternoon, but despite the number of hours left in the day, from where they floated, it seemed just minutes from being out of sight, lost behind the treeline that loomed over them, spanning their entire field of view to the north and west.

The Bloodwood.  Orphelia had never seen it, though she’d heard plenty.  She had always found the name interesting–dark and scary and romantic.  Father had told her the story of how it got the name, how a bunch of Riverlanders had died there in a war–or was it that the war was about the woods, and they died somewhere else?  She didn’t really remember the details, but she also didn’t care for war stories.  She preferred to imagine there was a more ominous, mysterious reason for the name.  Judging by the way Father and the other merchants he knew had avoided the place, it seemed her fantasy may not actually have been far from the truth.

“I would surmise our quarry three miles and a quarter to the northeast,” Lan announced, the wheels of his vessel locked into place.  “What say you, Mr. Ehsam?”  Ty paused, preparing to jump to the bank.

“Our tip wasn’t that specific,” he replied, confused.

“Specific!” Lan scoffed.  “Ha!  Would you trust that scoundrel Marko to guide you anywhere specific?  Better to place your trust in a consummate professional.”  Ty blinked, likely swallowing a response.

“Let’s…let’s check it out, then.”

Bleeding Wolf, for his part, gave no reaction to the exchange and began hauling the boat up onto the bank.  Ty disembarked to lighten the load, and Orphelia followed, though Lan remained aboard, just as much, it seemed, to annoy Bleeding Wolf as to secure and cover the cargo.

They covered the boat in a patchwork sheet Lan produced from a compartment in the deck and hid it among the brush at the base of a tree before continuing northeast on foot.  Orphelia followed closely, alarmed by the sudden change in light, the tallness of the trees, the ubiquitous, seemingly amplified din of insects and birds, all around but somehow almost entirely out of sight.  She didn’t admit to any of these discomforts, of course, but she did hold Mr. Ruffles close to her chest.

Of the others, only Bleeding wolf seemed to have adjusted his demeanor, his normal calm watchfulness heighted to the posture of a stalking cat.  It was almost a caricature, Orphelia thought.  He would occasionally pause, scratch at the ground, sniff the air, all of which she found hard to believe were actually useful.  She might even have laughed at it if not for the uncanniness his appearance had taken on.  The hairs on his arms and neck were bristling, his pupils had dilated, his…teeth had grown?  She realised in spite of her amusement that the man had become just as unnerving as the forest.

Ty and Lan, meanwhile, seemed mostly themselves.  Ty had been jittery and paranoid from the moment Orphelia had first seen him, and the Bloodwood certainly did seem like an appropriate place for paranoia.  Lan, by contrast, was ineffably aloof, bringing up the rear of their party with a casual stroll and little in the way of backward glances, about which Orphelia was conflicted: It certainly seemed less safe than the others’ frenetic vigilance, but it somehow put her at ease anyway.

“Company on the breeze,” Bleeding Wolf announced, quietly but clearly amidst one of his many stops.  He sniffed.  Sweat and iron.  Could be miles out, could be closer.  Get a weapon ready if you have one.  On…another note…”  He took another deep breath.  “We’re close too.  This way.”

He set off into the brush, and the others followed, struggling to match his quickened gait.  Within minutes they came upon a clearing where, for an oblong patch no more than twenty feet in diameter, the trees gave way to a short bed of grass and wildflowers and a section of worn dirt around a stump.  Just past the stump was a cold pile of ash from a campfire long since extinguished, and next to the ash lay the pale–and only slightly withered–body of an enormous, bearded man.

As she noticed it, it felt as if the world twisted: She saw Father, lying there, bloody hands around the knife in his stomach, a wild grin on his face, but it wasn’t Father.  Father wasn’t here.  It was Devlin, coughing, holding that stupid ring Father had given him, every bit as pale and clammy and withered as the corpse that should have been there, that would be there if she could just focus, could just remember what was real and what was a lie.  She tried and tried and held her breath and pressed her hands against her temples and slowly, piece by piece, put reality back together.

But as she did, her thoughts lingered on Devlin.  She didn’t notice when Bleeding Wolf snapped to attention, fixated on the far side of the clearing; or the way that Ty, in response, seemed to fade from view even as he remained still; or Lan’s gaze, suddenly sorrowful, locked not on the corpse but on the small, dark bird perched in the trees above it, watching him sidelong with a single eye.  She didn’t notice any of it because she was hoping–wishing, willing into reality as hard as she could–that her brother was alright, that he too wouldn’t turn out like the corpse before her.

Trickery

Still a lot of things being worked on, but the pace has been slow these last two weeks. Hoping to get much more done on the Crossroads story by next weekend. In the meantime, here is something Leland wrote for a collection of “world-building” stories we’re working on. It’s a subtly different depiction of the Fox, as if in a tale to be told to Diarchian children. The Fox was the original patron deity of Spar, and one of its founding myths concerned the Old God’s interactions with two orphans: a right-handed boy and a left-handed girl, who became the mythological models for the Diarchs (the Left-Hand King and the Right-Hand Queen).

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, older than your grandmother, and maybe even older than me there was a brother and a sister who loved each other and had only each other in the big wide world. A pair of orphans, whose mother and father were godless and dead, leaving them with just a small family home.

The sister, who was right handed, was a very clever girl who could build amazing traps for hunting. The brother, who was left handed and clever too, knew everything about the forest, what was edible, what was poison, what would happily eat him instead. Brother and Sister lived together, each depending on the other for days and weeks and months and years.

One day a fox with a long pointy nose, a great fluffy tail, and crooked smile from ear to ear came by the cheery little home of the orphaned boy and girl. This fox with a crooked grin was an Old god and he had a sense of humor. The fox god had many humans he took care of and in return they gave him little gifts. He had a funny idea: What if he came to this little house and acted like he needed a human’s help?  He was a little tired and a little hungry. He thought to himself: After I climb inside and take a quick nap, l shall eat whoever lives here!

The fox shrank down, chuckling to himself the entire time and knocked on the door. The sister who was right-handed opened the door and looked at this tiny fox sitting on their doorstep. The fox said, “Oh little girl! Can you help me? I am all alone in these woods and I would very much like to come in from the rain just to warm up!”

The Right-handed Sister looked at the fox and said, “I suppose there’s nothing wrong with heating up from the rain,” and took the fox inside. The fox went towards the fire, snuggled up into a tight little ball and fell fast asleep. He was, after all, very fond of napping.

The Brother came through the door with a small basket of mushrooms and paused as he saw the fox. “Sister,” he said “There’s a god sleeping on our rug! What’s more–he’s not a very nice one.”

The Sister thought to herself and said, “I have a plan! Could you pick some mushrooms that would make an elephant fall asleep?” The brother nodded his head quietly and left.

The Right-handed Sister started to make a delicious rabbit stew. She knew that foxes loved rabbit more than anything else in this entire world. She put in potatoes and carrots and celery and salt. Pepper and paprika and even Garlic pods. By the time she was done the stew’s smell hung in the room and felt like a meal all on its own.

The fox woke up and snuffled the air. “What smells so delicious?” he asked the girl. 

“Why it’s my favorite soup!” the girl said to the fox. “And it’s almost ready, it just needs something before it’s done.” 

The fox said, “I’m so hungry I think it’s time I eat you!”

The girl said, “Well you could…but if you get me a radish this soup will be twice as good.”

The fox paused. “Twice as good?” he thought.  Now as we know foxes are a little greedy, and he did know where radishes were.  He thought, “I’ll get this radish, and eat her and the soup soon after!” 

Off the fox went as the brother came back, with mushrooms in his hand. The sister took the mushrooms and put them in the soup and said, “Brother, can you get a rope?” The brother nodded and left, and the fox came back, a big juicy radish held in his watering mouth.

“Perfect!” the girl said “It is almost ready, it just needs something else.” 

The fox said, “Something else? It smells amazing! I’ll eat it and you right now!”

The girl said, “Well you could…but if you get me some seaweed it will be twice as good.” 

“…Seaweed?” said the fox whose tummy was rumbling.He’d never had seaweed before. “Fine!” he said and ran out the door. 

At that very moment, the brother came back with fresh rope.  “Hide behind the pot!” said the sister to her brother. And the fox came back, wet, salty and miserable. 

He said, “Here’s your seaweed!” 

And the little girl said, “Perfect almost done! The very last thing…” 

“No way!” Said the fox. “No more radishes, no more seaweed! I want to eat!” 

And the little girl said, “I was just going to ask you to try it and see if there’s enough salt.” 

“Oh,” said the fox, “I suppose that makes sense.” The fox tried the soup. He said, “This is good!” and he started slurping and smacking and licking his snout. He ate the whole pot and started to feel woozy… and fell fast asleep from the mushrooms in the soup! 

The Brother jumped out from behind the pot,tied up the sleeping fox and threw him out the door. That wasn’t the last time they saw the fox mind you, but they weren’t the meal for one day more!

Three Gifts Given of Dissatisfaction

A brief interlude from Crossroads (because I caught myself working on material out of order). Note the references below to the Sevenfold Gyre and to the One-Eyed Crow (and, obviously, the previous Three Gifts story).

***

From these three came two and two

And circles stretched from sea to sky

To the Gyre did Seven headlong run

Then all the world

That’s why, that’s why

-Words From a Severed Head

***

The Fox’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you hearth

A place of return from which you roamed

A fire within to banish night

To soothe your aches, to make you home

I rested then for I had thought

My labors had achieved their end

Of steeling you to cold and rot

Your fire I would not need to tend

But now we meet here in the Dark

In fearful quiet ‘neath the earth

Your inner fire early guttered

Broken body lost its worth

The light of day betrayed your years

Promised you many, gave you few

For you I’ll burn, entombed below

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Lark’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you sticks

Upon your ground I taught my tricks

I brought you craft which you might ply

I bid you: Join me in the sky

Why now have you misplaced your wings?

Forgot that art which made you free

To toil among the beasts and bring

Those who bleed right back to me

I fixed their marks of red and black

As wisdom you refused to learn

I wonder if it’s fear you lack

To drive you on, to make you burn

‘Tis fear that brings you here tonight

Poxed and stricken, marked by blue

Fear of wrongs you would not right

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Turtle’s Second Gift

Forever ago I gave you time

A river running ‘round this bend

Would frame your life with reason, rhyme

Would crown your story with an end

When at last you came to cross

Your souls would from your bodies leap

Your ghosts I’d carry to the shore of loss

Your flesh would drift on to the Deep

I will admit I’ve grown fatigued

As I look upon your evil eye

Your request–it has me so intrigued

You’d go upstream instead of die

Three Gifts were given under Night

And from those three came two and two

You’ve sought your torment, earned three more

This last shall be my gift to you

The Crossroads, Chapter 5: Ty’s Quandary

Ty Ehsam had been certain from the get-go that his visit to the Crossroads would be a costly detour.  Marko’s reputation preceded him, and Ty’s question had never been whether he would efficiently ascertain the location of the Keystone.  Rather, he had merely wondered which particular pound of flesh the broker would extract in exchange.  But the visit had still exceeded his expectations in a not so good way.

The job, Marko’s price, stank to the high mountain.  Tip of some folk here–Bilgames or some such–biting it up at the edge of the Bloodwood.  It sounded like bait.  Marko knew it sounded like bait, but if Ty Ehsam got his head collected by some booby trap up north, that was hardly Marko’s problem, was it?  Damn it.

And the boatman made it all so much worse.  Who was Lan al’Ver?  What was his interest in Ty?  And what did Marko know about him that he wasn’t sharing?  Near as Ty could tell, the man was no mage–mana didn’t cling to him the way it clung to the other two travelers on their journey north–but everything else about his behavior outright keened of magical fuckery.  And the girl.  The girl was certainly a mage, drenched in the Deepest magic Ty had ever seen, obviously up to no good, and even after making it clear they had nothing to do with each other, al’Ver stepped in for her.  Ty was not easily persuaded toward murder, but his priors on Deep mages assured him the girl was very probably a cannibal, and even now, hours later, sipping wine in the relative safety of the inn, he could scarcely believe that al’Ver had vouched responsibility for the girl, volunteered her for the job.  And Marko listened!

Ty hated it.  Whatever was going on with this damn job–this damn town, even–everyone knew more than him, and it was going to get him killed, and he didn’t have any choice but to go along with it all because no matter what kind of gruesome death was waiting for him in the Bloodwood, failing to deliver on his promise to the Blaze would be worse.  He’d backed himself into a corner, and he hated it.

He gulped the rest of his wine, setting down his cup just in time for another patron to pull up a seat at his table.  He glanced over, guarded and irritable, to see the shapeshifter who had traveled up the river with him and al’Ver.

“Greetings.  Marko mentioned you were looking for muscle.”  Ty stared him down for a moment, though he seemed not at all put off by the suspicion.

“Yeah,” Ty replied.  “He mention anything else?”  The shapeshifter shrugged.

“Scavenging near the Bloodwood’s all he said.  You have more details?”

“Yeah.  Some mage died,” Ty said.  “Got an approximate location and a warning we should expect other scavs.”  The shapeshifter frowned.

“That…sounds like bait,” he said after a moment.  Ty couldn’t help but snort.  It was a dark sort of funny, sure, but it was a relief too.  Finally, someone else who saw the insanity in all of it.

“It sure does,” he admitted.  “Marko’s got something I want, though.  This is what he wants in return.”

“You have yourself in a bind then.”  The shapeshifter smiled as he spoke and finally sat down.  He offered his hand.  “Bleeding Wolf.”

“Ty Ehsam,” Ty replied, tepidly shaking it.

“Well, Ty, it it’s a trap, there’s a good chance bringing me along could save your life.  I’m pretty familiar with the area.”  Ty nodded.  He’d figured: Every shapeshifter he’d ever heard of had ties to the Bloodwood.

“I’d still want to know why you’re so eager to run into a trap.”  Bleeding Wolf shrugged.

“I understand Marko’s paying for time even if we don’t find anything.”

“Enough for a risk like that?”  This prompted a laugh.  The shapeshifter’s canines were uncomfortably prominent.

“You got me,” he conceded.  “There’s actually a point of curiosity in this for me.  To which end, I’m asking an additional fee.”

“‘Fraid I don’t have much to offer you.”

“You can tell me what it is you want from Marko, and I’m yours.”

Ty grimaced.  He didn’t want anyone else stuck in his miserable business, but…fine.  This one wanted in, and he could really use the help.  And, he had to admit, it was some comfort that he at least knew something the shapeshifter didn’t.

“Okay,” he replied.  “When the job is done, I’ll tell you.  You might wish I hadn’t, though.”  Bleeding Wolf shook his head, cracking his neck at the end of the gesture.

“I wouldn’t worry,” he said.  “Wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve learned that I shouldn’t’ve.  So I’m in.  Tell me more about our dead mage.  Any idea who it was?”  Ty swirled the dregs of his wine.

“No.  Marko gave me the name ‘Bilgames’, but I’ve never heard of ‘em.”  He looked up to see Bleeding Wolf staring, aghast.

“Are you sure that was the name?” the shapeshifter asked.

Ty nodded, alarm creeping once again out of the pit in his stomach.  Bleeding Wolf stood up and nearly ran to the door.

“Get up!” he called back to Ty, still sitting bewildered at his table.  “We need to find al’Ver and get out of here, or every scav and False God in the Riverlands will have beaten us there by morning!”

Tarot

I have mentioned it before in the most fleeting sense, but one of the long-standing goals of the Rale project has been to produce a Tarot-inspired (though structurally not really) deck of cards depicting images from the world as exemplars of the ways that humans fight death.

Many of the images themselves have been ready for some time, but they have been waiting on frames. They need frames, of course, because the frame is what indicates the card’s suit. Like so:

Cruelty and Control are here presented in the “Viscera” suit. Blame is in the “Gifts” suit, and God is in “Stories”. Not pictured here are “Embraces” and “Avoidance”, as they are still in progress, but these came together so beautifully that I had to share.

Way down the road, a deck is in the works, but if you like any of these, they are now for sale on the store!

Images include work by Quinn Milton and Rae Johnson. The “Tarot” suit frames in particular are by Rae.

The Crossroads, Chapter 4: Marko

The saga continues. Those who have been following Rale for some time will recognize the pieces of the original Crossroads story here.

The Crossroads had always been between.  Of the townsfolk who still remembered, there were yet many versions of the town’s history.  Brill the Apothecary’s was closest to the truth: It began as a tiny trading post, a makeshift connection between the waterways of the Riverlands and the mountains and woods to the north, situated at a crossroads which existed in every sense but the literal.  That enterprise which would become the town was built at the northern mouth of the Lifeline, where the Riverlands’ greatest highway became just another minor stream from the Gravestone range and where, incidentally, the eastern prairies and western hills were separated only by a thin stripe of dry, firm ground, more hospitable, certainly, than whatever hid between the trees of the Bloodwood to the north.  As the rickety post became a place, merchants and enterprisers would enter by each of these routes of convenience, transient but somehow still fixture, carrying lumber and pelts and cloth and ore.

Sometimes they would pass through; sometimes they would return the way they came, but those who settled, those who came to call the place home did well for themselves in those days.  They made fortunes in trade, and anything they could want in return somehow found its way there from afar.  And of course, those plagued by wanderlust had no shortage of opportunity to escape.  All they had to do was jump in with the next caravan that came to town, and they would most assuredly see the world.

The War was not kind to the place, but even that was mitigated by its betweenness.  The town was far enough south that it saw its share of the roaches’ horrors but still northerly enough that its people, broadly speaking, survived.  Its young men and women proudly aided the forces of Harmony at the Battle of the Ouroboros, weathered the devastation of the “bloodsick”–the Dragon’s parting gift to those who deposed him–then returned to a peaceful existence at their Crossroads.  For a short, in-between time, things were as they had always been.  But soon, new wares began to make their way through the village, and with those wares came news.

It seemed Lord Ka of the Roaches had kept a secret from the world.  It was a stone, rough, heavy to hold, unimpressive to the eye.

But the power.

To the mystics, the magically inclined–no matter their inexperience–it was a sun.  At the fall of Bloodhull, soldiers of Harmony who had never once in their lives channeled mana held this stone–the Hellstone, as it came to be known–and felt that power, that gruesome possibility thrumming in their hands.  They said that Harmony destroyed the Hellstone, that its power might never be unleashed upon the world again.  Some did not believe that story, but they missed the point.  The Hellstone’s legacy was not its power–rather it was a realization: Such objects could exist, objects that would make gods even of petty fools like Lord Ka.  

The art of putting magic into inert things was not new–hedge mages had been quietly crafting oddities for centuries.  None had possessed such power as the Hellstone, but after its discovery, that hardly mattered.  A plain man with ten or twenty weak but useful magical artifacts could play at the same superhumanity.  A new order was materializing then about a delicate but ruthless balance between mankind’s lust for power and a fear among the powerful that they may at any moment be devoured by those seeking their possessions.  In this order, the Crossroads, which had always been between, became an in-between for a different sort of trade.

At first, the artifacts were simply commodities.  Merchants who previously sold spice or textiles would arrive at the village, carts laden with curios and magical knickknacks they had bought at a pittance from looters and refugees.  Most of them were useless: stones that would chirp birdsong when thrown to the ground, a silver fish sculpture that bled an endless stream of effervescent crimson from its eyes; but the ones that weren’t found purpose with alacrity.  One villager–Sam, the cooper’s son–was murdered in broad daylight by one of the merchants’ customers, who had used a pair of gloves that rendered his hands and their activities unnoticeable.  And when the guards simply failed to apprehend the assailant, the proper merchants saw the signs.  Most left the trade.  Many left the region entirely.  Either way, the village saw fewer of them from then on.

Of course, lust for power and the knowledge that enabled it would never fade away simply for lack of sellers.  Even then there were those hovering at the fringes of civilization with fearsome arsenals and stores of wealth, willing to make very rich the one who brought them a means of surpassing their rivals.  But they were murderers.  For all their wealth and power, everyone knew they were cutthroats, and no trinkets, no magical elevation could change that.  It was no secret they would just as soon save their money and kill for what they wanted if it was an option.  What was missing, then, was a class of trader capable of persuading them toward the latter.

It was Marko who solved this problem for the Crossroads.  He had always been a scoundrel, well-connected in spite of his sclerosed reputation, surviving on his ability to find buyers for the occasional item the merchant overclass knew it should not have.  His arrival there had been timely.  In another era, Mayor Bergen might have had him jailed for one of his violent altercations at the tavern, his lewd demeanor, any of his all-too-public vices; but with the town’s mercantile lifeblood crowded out by the “scav trade”, Marko’s ability to sell the artifacts–as a middleman for the merchants who were no longer willing to face their buyers themselves–saved the livelihood of everyone there.

So it was that the Crossroads remained between: between Holme to the east and the Reach to the south; between the Bloodwood and the Riverlands and the plains and the hills; between the desperate scavs and the respectable merchants and the mercenaries who protected them and the townsfolk who made that place function and the “False Gods”, those buyers of the scav trade who propelled the entire system on with gold in one hand and abject brutality in the other.  And somehow, Marko was between it all, his greasy promises and fine-tuned survival instincts connecting those trustless, unconnectable lines which made the town a town.  Of that in-between place, Marko was its most between part.

But Captain Lan al’Ver was not about to be outdone by a scoundrel like Marko.

His errands were complete, his modest shipments had all been sold, his generous, dangerous, precisely calibrated allotment of free time had begun, and he could think of no better way to spend it than inserting himself, needed but unwanted, amidst the business of the most between man in the most between place in the Riverlands.  It was only appropriate recompense for such uppity behavior, the Captain concluded, making his way to the door of the sprawling, patchwork building Marko had made his base of operations.  He did not knock, of course–now was not a time for courtesy.  It was a time for welcome surprises.  He pulled the door open and strode into the wide, familiar interior of Marko’s “office”.

The traveler, Naples, had been correct: The build had originally been constructed as a theater by a retired merchant some centuries ago, though it only functioned as one for a short time.  The owner, it turned out, was a rather thorny artist who in short order managed to alienate every thespian in the region, and he soon sold his investment to a consortium of stall traders who utilized the structure far longer–and far more prosaically–as a warehouse.  It was only in the last two decades, under Marko’s management, that it had returned to a theatrical operation, though Marko had shaken up the formula somewhat.

Predictably, in Marko’s new “theater”, he was the spectacle.  His desk sat prominently upon the raised area which once had been a stage, leaving his customers and contractors to address him from the spacious area below, long barren of any sort of seating, though cluttered at the periphery by empty crates and other miscellaneous junk.  But Marko had included a twist in the arrangement of his spectacle: The stage was lit sparingly, a single torch at its edge affording just enough light to discern Marko himself behind the desk and little else of his disposition.  His audience’s floor, meanwhile, was furnished with braziers, torchstands, and even two scrapwood chandeliers, all spilling their revealing shine onto every corner of the space.  It was only appropriate, Lan admitted, for a man who exclusively traded with the untrustworthy.

Today’s visit would deviate little from that setup, Lan gathered, confirming the specificity of his surroundings as he swept into the space, purposefully ignorant to the consternation his entrance had elicited from Marko and his guest, the self-described Khettite monk who had earlier paid for passage aboard Lan’s own vessel.

“Ey!” Marko barked, hefting a crossbow over the top of his desk, unaimed but angled threateningly in Lan’s direction.  “This conversation’s private.  Come back when you’ve made an appointment.”

“Cease your jest, knave!” Lan shouted back.  “Lan al’Ver waits not for petty schedules!  I am needed here–’tis plain.”  The monk’s jaw clenched, eyes darting about the cavernous space, no doubt planning his egress.  Marko, for his part, just groaned.

“Ah, feck.  It’s you.”  Then, to the monk: “Relax, mate.  He’s just saving you the effort.”  The monk blinked, nonplussed.

Lan dragged over a crate and seated himself on the edge, polishing the handle of his umbrella as Marko explained:

“Intel you want’s got a price, an’ the price is a job.  Got a juicy scav tip I need you to follow up on.  You bring back somethin’ good, I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

“I’m not sure my circumstances allow me the time to run errands,” the monk replied.

“Well I’m not sure I have the spare clout to be just tellin’ you where to find my clients,” Marko spat.

“So you did sell it, then?”

“You got what you’re gonna get, kiddo.  Now do I get a yes or a no?”  The monk frowned, crossing his arms.

“Fine,” he caved.  Then, gesturing at Lan: “So where does he come in?”  Marko sat back, the shadows falling back over his face.

“Two details,” he replied, the acoustics of the room giving the words an otherworldly echo.  “First, I’m gathering from my source that this tip ain’t exactly exclusively info.  Second, it’s about a day’s journey upriver by boat.  Much longer on foot.  Y’see where this is going?”  The monk looked again at Lan.

“I’m going to need a boat.”

“Bingo,” Marko said.  “Some muscle, too, case you find competition, I’d say.  Trust you’re game, al’Ver?”

“My appetite for danger is insatiable, dear Marko.”

“Great,” Marko continued.  “Ask around town if you want an extra set of hands.  I’ll pay normal scav rates for each o’ya, along with your intel.”

“We’ll get going, then,” the monk said, reservedly.  “Though I do ask that you let me know before you bring another into our talks next time.”  Marko raised an eyebrow before glancing over at Lan.  He hawked a wad of spit onto the corner of his stage.

“Best get used to the Riverlands, kiddo.  I didn’t call nobody–Captain al’Ver shows up where he’s needed, and that’s all any of us get to know about that.”

Lan beamed, smugly aloof to the monk’s evident dissatisfaction.  But amidst his implicit gloating, he raised a finger, calling attention to a point of order which had now vexed him for some minutes.

“I do of course with to query,” he began.  “Is it your intent that the girl should accompany us as well?”  Both the monk and Marko answered only with a confused stare.

“What girl?” the monk asked.  Lan shrugged and raised his hand in the vague direction of the girl, dirty, ragged, clutching a threadbare stuffed animal, perched on a crate near the edge of Marko’s stage who now stared back at Lan, her face white with fear.  Marko turned, following the gesture.  His eyes went wide.  He reached for his crossbow.