Woodsy Studio: 2016 in Review

By all accounts, The Year of Our Lord 2016 was a trainwreck. David Bowie died. Carrie Fisher died. Actually, so many people who were important to us or likely important to you died that it’s nearly impossible to name them all. The Oscars should just be a long tribute to the lost, punctuated by an occasional award handed out to La La Land (because you’re absolutely kidding yourself if you think Hollywood isn’t going to heap the statues on a musical love letter to Hollywood). But the deaths were just part of it. The UK cut off its own nose to spite its face and left the European Union. The United States elected to the presidency a sentient sack of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner who aspires to fascism, but with ill-fitting suits. The environment… we don’t even want to think about that one.

In light of all of this, it is strange to think of 2016 as a good year by any measure of the term “good”. But for Woodsy Studio, 2016 was full of growth. When the year started, we only had one game out on Steam–Quantum Conscience. All of our released titles were made in Ren’py and RPG Maker. Here’s everything we’ve accomplished and released in 2016, in relative order:

  1. After completing his experimental game 26 Gy, Malcolm Pierce joined Woodsy Studio as a full time partner.
  2. Serafina’s Crown became our second game released on Steam, with achievements and trading card support.
  3. We fully moved from Ren’py to Gamemaker Studio in order to accommodate 2d side-scrolling sequences. 
  4. Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail, our first game in Gamemaker, released first on itch.io and shortly afterwards on Steam.
  5. A prologue novella, delving into some of the lore of the world, Echoes of the Fey: The Prophet’s Arm, was published on our blog and various e-book sites.
  6. We made another move, this time from Gamemaker Studio to Unreal Engine 4. This allowed us to create 3d environments and better manage large resources like sound files. This required building our own visual novel engine in UE4.
  7. Our first UE4 game, a free introduction to the characters and world of Echoes of the Fey, Episode 0: The Immolation was posted to Steam Greenlight.
  8. Full builds of The Fox’s Trail were created for Android and Fire tablets and are now in the testing phase.
  9. We began work on the script for Echoes of the Fey: The Final Drop (working title), the second full installment in the series.
  10. Echoes of the Fey: Episode 0 went script and feature complete (on the second to last day of 2016) and is now in the polish phase. Both the Android version of The Fox’s Trail and the PC version of Episode 0 should release in January 2017.

All of that was just one year of game development for Woodsy Studio, and we’re especially proud of everything we accomplished in a year that most people would rather forget ever happened. Right now, all of our games are on sale via the Steam Winter Sale. So if you haven’t checked them out, there’s no better time.

But what comes next? We believe the world is going to need inclusive, intriguing, and fun art more than ever as we approach 2017–which, as much as we’d like to hope, probably won’t be much better than its predecessor–so we’re not going to let up. As you can see above, we have ports and a free episode lined up for the early part of the year. There may be more–more systems, more small games–that we can’t talk about just yet, but rest assured there will be content.

For the first time in the ~3 year history, we’ll be starting the year with both of our principals (Jenny and Malcolm) working full time on Woodsy Studio games and, specifically, Echoes of the Fey. This is a scary proposition for both of us, but we think it’s a long time coming. The Fox’s Trail is out, and we’ll be putting it on as many platforms as will allow it. Episode 0 is essentially done and will soon be ready as a free taste of the series. Which means we’ll be pouring our time into The Final Drop.

With both of us committed to the game, Echoes of the Fey: The Final Drop will no doubt be the largest, most involved Woodsy Studio visual novel yet. We hope to push the bounds of what a VN can be and offer an awesome mix of story and gameplay beyond anything we’ve attempted. And looking back at what we’ve accomplished in 2016, we’re confident we can deliver something new and exciting!

So look forward to Episode 0 in the coming month, The Fox’s Trail on new platforms shortly afterward, and (later in the year) a completely new Echoes of the Fey story in The Final Drop.

Mission Statement

wslogo2smallToday, we planned on posting a recap of our weekend at the STL Scatterjam, where we worked with two awesome artists from the Saint Louis area to create a fun little  3d flying/score attack game, Schrodinger’s Phoenix. It was a lighthearted post that featured more jokes than actual insight into our development process, in large part because I’m better at writing jokes than 3d flight tutorials.

After the events of yesterday, we decided that it wasn’t the right time to post something so lighthearted. It felt tacky, uncalled for, and tone deaf. And it would not reflect our current feelings. So instead, this:

In the past, we have shied away from being explicitly political with our blog, our site, and our forward-facing promotion in general. That’s not to say we have tried to hide anything. Play our games or read Jenny’s novels as Jayden Woods or check out my personal site and you’ll get an idea of where we stand pretty fast. But we didn’t think there was any reason to make a post like this. It seemed indulgent, perhaps, or attention-seeking in a way that we weren’t entirely comfortable surfacing. We believe that has changed.

The election of Donald Trump is an attack on marginalized people in the United States. Forget traditional left-right politics. Forget the shortcomings of his opponent. Forget the problems with the two-party systems. This particular candidate was especially vile and his victory despite such open toxicity is terrifying. He spent months saying horrible things about minority races and minority religions. He was accused of sexual assault by a dozen women and was caught on tape essentially admitting to that assault as a matter of course. He chose as his Vice President one of the most regressive politicians on LGBT issues, Mike Pence, whose policies led to a massive Indiana HIV outbreak and who has paid lip service to supporting conversion therapy. Despite all of that, and being essentially unqualified, Trump won the election and will be our next president.

After last night, it would be easy for marginalized people to believe that the country hates them. And that’s why we think it’s important to say that Woodsy Studio stands with the people who look at Donald Trump and fear for their future. No matter what happens, we intend to keep creating games featuring people of color, queer, and disabled characters. We intend to write stories that subvert cultural expectations about minority religions, sexuality, gender politics, monogamous relationships, and power structures both elitist and populist. These have always been our goals, and they will continue to be our goals. And when we stumble, we will strive to do better.

We believe art and entertainment–and you probably believe games are at least one of those two things–shape how people see the world and see each other. And we believe that creating games with compassion and inclusivity can only make the world a better place.

That doesn’t mean our games and stories won’t be fun. Of course they will be fun (we hope). This isn’t a change of direction for us, just a statement of the direction we already had. You may have noticed this in our games, you may have not noticed it. We aren’t making strictly political games, but we do recognize that everything is political to some extent, and those politics must be confronted and improved whenever possible. We believe that it is important to be very clear on that statement right now, however, because today the world seems to be pointing in a very different direction. The tide may seem strong, but we will push against it in with what little power we have.

We’re not the only ones. We’re fortunate that so many folks in the indie games community are also working towards the same goals, because we know we can’t do this by ourselves. We are two people and a few pets, working out of the bluest part of a red state. And we also know that making inclusive games is no panacea. People from so many walks of life are going to suffer because of this election, and we will always look to do more. Visual novels don’t restore health care to those who will lose it. Games don’t prevent deportation or detainment. We know we’re not saving the world. But this is what we do. This is what we make. And this is how we intend to proceed.

-Woodsy Studio
Jenny Gibbons
Malcolm Pierce

 

Why We’re Making Our Next Visual Novel in Unreal Engine 4

We’ve been quiet over at Woodsy Studio for the last month or so, but with good reason: we’ve been busy! Shortly after releasing Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail on Steam, we decided to switch our development platform from Gamemaker Studio to Unreal Engine 4. This is no simple task. For Gamemaker, we had a very helpful base to build off of with ThinkBoxly’s EdgeVN system. With UE4, we don’t have such luck. There is a module for sale, but it seems unequipped to handle large multi-scene VNs, so we are building from the ground up using the UE4 blueprint visual scripting. On top of that, we’re converting to 3d backgrounds, which means re-making a lot of our general world assets to 3d models.

Most people are totally confused when we tell them we’ve decided to switch to UE4, and that’s without the troubles mentioned above. UE is best known for big-budget 3d games. It isn’t known for indie development or user friendliness. Unreal is total overkill for a visual novel, especially when the most GPU-intensive thing we’ve pushed out in previous games is a high resolution character sprite. So, why are we going to all this trouble to switch to an engine that is (on its face) worse for indie 2d development than our previous platforms?

To start, I need to go over the problems we had with Gamemaker. I don’t want to make this post a big list of complaints about GM–which I think is fantastic for certain kinds of projects–but addressing a couple of these is unavoidable. First off, audio files.  The way GM handles audio files was frustrating from start to finish. Importing them was clunky. We couldn’t make batch changes to groups of sounds. And a couple times, references to entire groups of sounds just disappeared.

These would be annoyances for any game, but because of the nature of our (partially) voiced visual novels, we had over 2,500 sound files in our game. Any task related to the sound was a huge ordeal for us and, in the end I think the sheer number of sounds ended up creating our other problem with GM: porting.

Our first (still work in progress) screenshot from Episode Zero

Our first (still work in progress) screenshot from Episode Zero

Before we switched to GM, Woodsy Studio was releasing its games on Windows, Linux, Mac, and Android phones. However, so far we’ve been unable to bring The Fox’s Trail to any platform other than Windows. The problem is different on each platform, but without going into too much detail, our suspicion is that our sounds (or more specifically, the size of our sound files–2.8 gigabytes before compression) have something to do with it.

Finally, drawing backgrounds has been one of our biggest hurdles. Every room requires a background and these are Jenny’s least favorite thing to draw. They are also large, contiguous sprites that are difficult to break up into 1024 x 1024 pieces to keep our texture page size down (which is needed for performance reasons, especially on mobile). Moving to 3d environments is theoretically possible in GM, but would require rebuilding a huge amount of what we’ve already  And it’s not what the engine is designed for.

I really do want to stress that Gamemaker Studio is a very good option for all sorts of games, we just decided it wasn’t right for us. Because going forward, these problems were only going to get worse. For episode 2, we’ll have the same–if not more–quantity of voice acting clips. We’ll want more backgrounds. And we might want to go to native a native 1080p resolution, at least for the PC version–further exacerbating file size and background creation issues.

All this added up to need to change. But again, the question comes up: why UE4? Why not Unity, which seems to be the favorite choice of indie devs everywhere? A couple reasons. No matter what engine we switched to, we were going to have to re-learn everything. Ren’py uses python and GM uses gml, its own language, so there was no real chance of transferring our knowledge perfectly over to either of our options.

A UE4 material we made for our visualization of a fey rift.

A UE4 material we made for our visualization of a fey rift.

Also, out of the (metaphorical) box, UE4 is fantastic at making your game look good. I don’t entirely know how the guts of either engine work, but it seems very easy to use the UE4 cameras and lights (as they are implemented without plugins) to make our art pop compared to what I’ve seen of Unity. And the material system lets (relatively) inexperienced programmers do some amazing things with shaders in a visual scripting interface.

Finally, I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian and everyone using Unity because the common knowledge is that Unity is more user friendly just makes me want to go down the road less traveled. And we’ve discovered that this common knowledge might be wrong.

It has been just over a month and a half since starting the conversion and we already have a full dialog system set up (developed by us from the ground up), with working choice menus and overworld exploration like in The Fox’s Trail. We’ve built out our first environment and imported the first handful of scenes for Episode Zero. Converting to 3d environments has allowed me–a person who couldn’t draw if my life depended on it–to take over a portion of the art process, building 3d models based on our original drawings. This required learning Blender along with Unreal Engine 4, but for a long time the art burden has fallen entirely on one member of the team and I’m more than happy to finally help out.

An Episode 1 asset re-made in 3d (again, work in progress).

An Episode 1 asset re-made in 3d (again, work in progress).

At first, I likened trying to make a visual novel in UE4 to using a rifle to kill a fly. Yes, it can get the job done but it will be harder and a ton of overkill. Now, I’d use a different tortured metaphor: it’s like putting together Ikea furniture with powertools. It’s still overkill, but the power tools have a lot more uses than just putting together Ikea Furniture.

So, when is Episode Zero coming out? Right now, we’re tentatively saying “TBD: Winter”. And yes, we mean this upcoming winter. I don’t think we can commit to anything more than that, but since we have so much of the framework already done and Episode Zero is a smaller project, we hope that you’ll be able to enjoy the first visual novel developed in UE4* fairly soon.

*I don’t know if we’re really going to be the first UE4 VN. I couldn’t find any. Correct me if I’m wrong!

 

Demo-ing After The Fact: A PixelPop Retrospective

Watching strangers play your game is terrifying. It’s especially terrifying when your game is already released. The flaws you see can be corrected, but they can’t be contained. They are already out in the world, installed on the hard drive of everyone who has bought and played the game. Even if they are minor issues–even if you are incredibly proud of the game you put out there–the smallest of imperfections can drive you crazy because there’s nothing you can do to fix them for all the people who have already experienced them.

Despite that, we attended this year’s PixelPop Festival with a demo of Echoes of the Fey Episode 1: The Fox’s Trail.

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PixelPop Festival, now in its third year, is St. Louis’s annual gaming convention. It features competitive events, talks from developers and others in the industry, and of course demos of upcoming and recently released games. It ran from October 8-9 this year at a new location, the St. Louis Science Center.

There are a few reasons we brought Episode 1 to PixelPop. First off, right now we’re in a transitory period. If we’d committed to GameMaker Studio after finishing Episode 1, I’m sure we’d have a (very rough, very early) build of our next release, Episode 0: Immolation to show off right now. But we decided to make the rather huge leap to Unreal Engine 4, which necessitated rewriting our VN system from the ground up and learning how to make 3d environments. So you might say we’re a little behind schedule. Second, we wanted to test controller support before submitting a build for approval on console. Handing folks a controller at a convention to see how they use it seemed like the best way to get an idea of how accessible our build would be.

Fortunately, the results were great. We’ve brought our visual novels to various events, but none were more welcoming than PixelPop. Demo-ing a visual novel is never easy. VNs don’t have small, digestible chunks or “vertical slices” that can be carved out and used as a standalone example of the overall gameplay. We basically have two options: start players at the very beginning of the game and hope the first few scenes are compelling, or pick out a spot in the game we know is exciting and start players there.

For our very first demo at Anime St. Louis earlier this year, we took the later route. We skipped ahead in the story to when the player can control Sofya’s transformation into a cat, which allows them to spy on various characters and have a little freedom in the overworld portion of the investigation. We wanted people to see the beginning of the side stories, and see the very first hints at the mystery central to the game. Unfortunately, we found that people were just confused. Dropping people in the middle of the story left them with too many questions, and the core gameplay of a visual novel just doesn’t work if you don’t understand what’s going on.

Going forward, we decided to start our demo at the beginning. Our game starts with a nice CGI, an introduction to the world, and then a short scene with a cat, all of which are at least conducive to drawing people in. This meant that the demo would not feature the full extent of the exploration/investigation, but we recognize that the story is the draw and that needs to make sense.

On the first day of PixelPop, we committed to our usual strategy of encouraging players to use headphones. The first few scenes are heavily voiced, and we’ve got some rad music we want people to hear. Convention demo areas are usually pretty loud, so we figured the best way to make sure all of it is heard is force headphones.

However, we quickly discovered yet another problem with demo-ing a visual novel. Even a small portion of the game–the first investigation sequence of the first day–can become a 30+ minute experience if a player gets into the game and goes everywhere they can. And there are pretty much two reactions we had to our demo. Either people immediately didn’t like the game (too much reading which, hey,I get it) and left after a minute, or they stuck around for a while and played through several scenes. We loved seeing people get deep into the demo, but with only one demo station, it limited the number of people we could engage. We put the game on a larger monitor to the side so passers-by could watch, but that wasn’t quite enough to entice anyone to stand and observe the demo. So we decided to bring a set of speakers for the second day.

Despite the loud demo floor, we found that the speakers encouraged people to stand and watch the demo, which for a visual novel is almost as good as getting them to play it. Granted, we had the opening music in our heads all day, but I think it was worth it.

All in all, we had a great experience showing off Echoes of the Fey to the crowd at PixelPop. We’d encourage any local developers (and any developers who can make it to STL with relative ease) next year to join us!

 

Echoes of the Fey – The Prophet’s Arm (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a multi-part short story detailing one of Sofya Rykov’s cases prior to The Fox’s Trail. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 is here.

Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail is out now and available at woodsy-studio.itch.io!

“This is one of the worst ideas you’ve ever had,” Heremon muttered as he knelt down below a window near the service entrance to the Melinkov keep. “I can’t believe that you convinced me to go along with it.”

“Come on,” Sofya replied. She was crouched beside him, her hand on the windowsill. “I saw the looks you were giving that woman. You are more excited about this than I am.”

“She was quite rude, but that doesn’t justify theft.”

“The AFC stole the Arm from the ir-Dyeun. The Empire stole it from the AFC. And then the Melinkovs stole it form the Empire. We’re well beyond justified at this point.”

Heremon frowned. “I don’t think that’s how it works.” Ever since Sofya had suggested breaking into Melinkremlin to take the arm, Heremon had voiced his concerns. But she knew the truth. Heremon was beside her for a reason. He wanted to take the Arm from the Melinkovs as much as she did.

The plan to retrieve the Prophet’s Arm was relatively simple. Because the Melinkremlin keep was built after the Fey reactors, the entire structure was dependent on Fey-powered electric lights. There were no fireplaces, no torches, and surprisingly few windows. At night, the only thing that could illuminate the corridors were the neon lights that lined the walls.

Very few would-be burglars would be able to take advantage of this particular design feature. Disabling Fey power to the building would require destroying or disabling multiple transformers across Volgrad, some of which were as heavily guarded as the keep itself. Sofya, however, had an advantage.

“Any luck?” Heremon asked.

“There’s a pipe in the wall a few feet from here,” Sofya replied. She pulled her hand down from the windowsill and began to creep towards where she felt the Fey energy pulsing through the wall. All magic—even magic pulled from a rift to power gaudy lights in a human castle—left a signature that Sofya could sense if she concentrated. And sensing it wasn’t the only thing she could do.

“And you’re sure this is going to work?” Heremon asked. “Do you know what happens to most humans when they break a Fey energy pipe?”

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Echoes of the Fey: The Prophet’s Arm (Part 1)

Leading up to the release of “Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail”, I will be posting a multi-part short story “The Prophet’s Arm”, which takes place shortly before the game and introduces the world and some of the characters of the series.


This story is now available as a free, downloadable novella


 

Sofya Rykov was supposed to be dead, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. She had bright, piercing eyes—one blue, one green—that peered out from beneath a swoop of dark hair. Her skin was pale but full of life, blushing at the first sign of anger or the second drink of the night. She had narrow shoulders that helped her conceal her well-toned arms under a worn, cropped leather jacket. Her teeth gleamed white, brighter than the smiles of most inhabitants of the border town of Vodotsk, betraying her noble birth.

In fact, the only sign of the injuries that should have killed Sofya was a single scar. It was a thin crease that ran from the her forehead down to a point just above her nostrils, cutting across her left eye and betraying that her striking heterochromia might not be natural but the result of an awful trauma.

Of all Sofya’s scars, it was the only one she couldn’t figure out how to hide.

“Have you considered makeup?” Heremon ir-Caldy asked as Sofya stared at herself in the mirror. “I believe that applying some sort of cosmetic concealer would be the simplest solution.”

“No,” Sofya said. “Because that wouldn’t solve anything.”

“It would make the scar invisible.”

“I would still be able to see it.”

Heremon grunted. “So you’re going to stay in here until you can get the incantation to work?”

“You’re usually curious about my magic. Don’t you want to know why it can hide my burns, but can’t touch this one stubborn little mark?”

“I’m not curious about a question when I already know the answer,” Heremon said. “The spell won’t work because you won’t let yourself forget.”

Heremon ir-Caldy had a tall, thin frame and smooth, chestnut-colored skin. His golden hair was bound into thin, intricate ropes, which he subsequently tied into a neat ponytail. He had a narrow face with a dimpled chin. Unlike many of his people who remained in Vodotsk after the war, he made no attempt to conceal his long, pointed ears. He wore his Leshin heritage proudly.

Like all of his people, Heremon was ageless. His skin did not wrinkle or sag, he remained perpetually youthful. He could have been thirty years old or three hundred. Sofya often wondered how old he was, but even she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. He knew all of her secrets, but she still couldn’t bring herself to ask for just one.

“You know it would be safer if you didn’t use any concealing magic at all,” Heremon said. “If it ever wears off in public, it will raise questions. No human your age has even managed to perform the simplest of glamours. It’s not worth the risk.”

“Sometimes I forget you’re not human,” Sofya replied. “But often you find a way to remind me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sofya laughed. “Vanity, Heremon.”

“Leshin can be vain.”

“It’s not the same,” Sofya said. “You care about presentation—about showing how much effort you put into your appearance. But humans want our appearance to be effortless. We want to look naturally beautiful.”

Heremon furrowed his brow. “Everything is naturally beautiful,” he said.

“Yes, that is exactly what every girl wants to hear,” Sofya replied. “You’re as equally pretty as everyone else.”

Before Heremon could respond, the soft chime of a bell drifted up from the first floor. “We have a customer,” Heremon said, allowing just a hint of excitement to enter his voice. “I hope you’re feeling presentable.”

Sofya looked at herself once more. “It will have to do.”

SofyaA sharp, pungent odor stung Sofya’s nose as soon as she descended to the first floor. She recognized the scent immediately. Leshin perfumes were especially strong and, to humans, possessed a noxious edge that resembled heating fuel.

Even though the Leshin occupation of Vodotsk was over, Sofya wasn’t surprised to have a Leshin visitor. Hundreds of them remained in the city. When the war ended, the Leshin of Vodotsk were allowed to remain under certain conditions: they had to renounce the ir-Dyeun and register with the County government. Most chose to leave, if only to avoid living side-by-side with the people they had spent a decade fighting. But a few remained, refusing to give up their home.

“Welcome to Rykov Private Investigations,” Sofya said as she descended the staircase into the lobby of her modest office. “How can I be of service?”

The Leshin man standing in the doorway looked up at her. He was impeccably dressed in a light green tunic and perfectly tailored leather pants—a demonstration of the vanity that Heremon had just described. He had bright red hair and a dazzling white smile, but that was not the first feature that drew Sofya’s eye. Arching up from his back were two shimmering wings. They were thin, almost translucent, as if made purely of light. They shined through small slits cut in his jacket and fluttered in the breeze from the door. Winged Leshin were rarely seen near the border, as they hailed from far west beyond the Great Forest that divided the continent. He had come a long way to Vodotsk, which made it especially strange that he would find his way to Sofya’s door.

“Private investigations?” the Leshin man said. “What does that mean?”

“We’re like mercenaries,” Sofya replied. “But we try to avoid fighting. We find information. Cheating spouses, mostly, but we’re more than open to any sort of work you might want.”

“Good. That… That sounds like what I want. They told me to come here, so I was hoping you would be able to help me.”

Sofya looked back towards the stairs. “Did you hear that, Heremon? We’re getting referrals.”

“Yes, but who is giving them?” Heremon asked. He stood halfway up the stairs, eyeing the Leshin visitor with suspicion.

The redheaded man considered this question. “It was the man who polices the city. The Imperial Inspector. I believe his name was–”

“Luka?” Sofya interrupted. “He told you to visit me?”

“That is correct.”

“Now that’s a surprise,” Sofya said. “Here I was, thinking that he hated me…”

Heremon sighed. “You have not heard what this man wants,” he said. “Perhaps Luka sent him here to torment you.”

“No!” the redheaded Leshin exclaimed. “Nothing of the sort!”

Sofya shrugged. Rent was due in a few days for the office, which meant that she didn’t much care how work was sent her way. “So, that brings me to my original question: What can I do for you?”

“My name is Braden ir-Alba, and I am… Hmmm… I am the curator of the Alban Museum of History.”

“You’re a long way from home,” Heremon muttered. “Especially for a historian.”

“Yes, yes, I understand. Are you from Alba as well?”

Heremon shook his head. “Caldy. Still west of the forest, but I’ve never been as far as Alba. So if you’re here…”

“It is very important,” Braden said. “But no one here is willing to help me. I suppose I understand why, but that does not make it all the more frustrating. You may be my last hope, unless you plan to refer me off to another intelligence agency?”

“Don’t worry,” Sofya replied. “We’d love to have your business.”

“We don’t even know what he wants,” Heremon said. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Braden, tell us why you’re here.”

Braden fidgeted with his hands as he sat down in the chair across from Sofya’s desk. “It is about a historical artifact,” he said. “An item of great importance to our people that has been lost. It was here in Vodotsk during the occupation and has gone missing since.”

“What is it?”

“An arm.”

Sofya raised an eyebrow as she looked at the nervous Leshin man. “An arm?”

“Yes. Well, a prosthetic arm. It belonged to Cathal ir-Dyeun, the messenger and recorder of Dyeun’s Will. During the war, the ir-Dyeun believed it had magical properties and thus brought it to Vodotsk during the occupation. They wanted it close to the front lines. But after the war ended, and the Alliance of Free Cities imprisoned the ir-Dyeun radicals and Vodotsk was returned to the humans, the Arm disappeared.”

“Disappeared how?” Sofya asked.

“When the peace was agreed to, I sent a messenger to Vodotsk asking the AFC to ensure that the Arm was brought to Alba for our museum. It seemed like the proper place for it, as Alba was the birthplace of the prophet. But in the chaos of the transition, it was stolen.”

Heremon grunted. “Stolen by whom? Humans or free ir-Dyeun radicals?”

“I don’t know,” Braden said. “That is what I want you to find out. I admit that both possibilities are quite likely, and I have no active leads. But the museum has authorized me to provide up to eighty gold pieces for information leading to the recovery of the Arm.”

“For the recovery of a magic artifact?” Sofya asked. “I suppose that sounds fair. Plus any expenses that we incur.”

“Yes, yes, if you agree to help I suppose I could also use discretionary funds from the museum for minor expenses. But you must find the arm.”

Heremon approached Braden, arching an eyebrow as he examined the other Leshin man. “What do you intend to do once you have it?”

“I’m going to place it in our museum, of course. What else would I do with it?”

“Well, for one thing, I’m sure that there are ir-Dyeun out there who would pay a lot more than eighty gold pieces for an item that genuinely belonged to the prophet Cathal.”

Braden’s eyes went wide. “You would threaten to give the Prophet’s Arm to the ir-Dyeun just to get more money out of me?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Heremon replied. “The arrangement you propose is fair and even if we were mad enough to collaborate with ir-Dyeun, contacting them would be difficult for us. But it would not be difficult for someone with connections west of the Great Forest. My fear, in fact, is that you would pass the Arm along to ir-Dyeun radicals to turn a tidy profit.”

“I am a historian!” Braden exclaimed. “I have no interest in selling the Arm to anyone.”

Sofya reached out and put her hand on Braden’s shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she said. “My business partner is just very cautious about the kinds of cases we take. I’m still interested in helping you, we just–”

“Wait a minute,” Heremon said. “Sofya, can I talk to you alone?”

“Don’t be rude.”

“This is important.”

Sofya returned her attention to Braden. “I’m so sorry. This will be just a moment.” Before Braden could even respond, she hurried back upstairs with Heremon right behind her.

Heremon closed the door leading to the staircase and whispered, “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that this is easy gold,” Sofya replied. “I can sense the presence of Fey-enchanted objects. It’s one of the few powers I have that consistently works. This is the perfect job for us. The Arm is probably sitting in some junk shop somewhere and the owner doesn’t know what he has. I just need to go around to the right places, ask the right questions and–”

“This isn’t just any enchanted object, it’s a sacred ir-Dyeun artifact. It’s the arm of their first prophet. Do you know what kind of trouble we’ll get in if the Empire gets wind of what we’re doing? Or even the county guard?”

Sofya shrugged. “Why would they care? We’re not going to give the arm back to the ir-Dyeun.”

“You’re giving them too much credit. We’re giving it back to the Leshin people. Most humans—and especially the humans who could get us in trouble—don’t know the difference between a museum and an ir-Dyeun temple.”

“Then they’re dumb. The ir-Dyeun were overthrown. The Alliance of Free Cities controls the Leshin lands now. They’ve cooperated with humans in ending the war and the occupation here in Vodotsk. People know the difference between the two.”

Heremon shook his head. “No they don’t. Trust me on this. We’re all just primitive, untrustworthy Elves to most of your people. I don’t know whether Braden ir-Alba can be trusted to put the Arm in a museum or if he’s going to turn around and sell it back to the ir-Dyeun. But either way, it doesn’t matter. Taking this case is going to draw attention to you. And aren’t you here in Vodotsk to avoid that?”

“C’mon, take some risks,” Sofya said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“The Empire decides that the Arm is a weapon and puts us in prison for attempting to return it to the ir-Dyeun. Or the county decides the same thing and kills us outright.”

“It’s just a fake limb,” Sofya replied. “How could they call it a weapon?”

“Listen, the ir-Dyeun didn’t keep it in Vodotsk during the occupation because it was a safe place for a historical artifact. I don’t know what they think it did for them, but they must have though it gave them an advantage.”

This just made Sofya even more intrigued. “Did it?” she asked. “If the Arm has anything to do with the Leshin’s connection to the Fey, we might be able to use it to help us understand my own situation.”

“It’s baseless superstition,” Heremon replied. “The only thing that a false arm would be enchanted with is a spell to give it movement. Simple telekinesis that almost any Leshin mage could apply. Perhaps, since the Prophet was a particularly powerful mage, it was especially well articulated. Maybe he could move all the fingers independently, like a real hand. But that’s it.”

“All the more reason to give it to Leshin moderates, so they can reveal the lies of the ir-Dyeun.”

“You’re just going to find a reason to look for the Arm no matter what I say, aren’t you?” Heremon asked.

Sofya smiled.

Rykov“We talked it over and we’ll take the job,” Sofya said.

Braden ir-Alba’s face lit up. “Thank you. You have no idea how much this means to me, to the museum, perhaps even to all my people. The teachings of Calath ir-Dyeun led us down a dark path, but the Prophet himself cannot be blamed for how we came to twist those teachings. And we cannot deny that they are part of our history. I am glad there is at least one human who understands this.”

“No, we understand the value of gold,” Heremon said. “Let me be clear that I do not particularly care about the legacy of Calath ir-Dyeun.”

“Then we will agree to disagree,” Braden replied. “And I will instead be thankful for your pragmatism in the face of a hostile world.”

“You’ll want to get used to that hostile world,” Heremon told the historian, “if you want to remain on this side of the forest for more than a few hours.”

Braden hesitated, as if he was considering whether he should escalate the conversation. It was clear that Heremon had touched a nerve in the Leshin historian. Fortunately, Braden stood down. “I will try to take that advice to heart,” he said.

Sofya gave Braden a quick smile, relieved that he chose not to pick a fight. It was hard enough to convince Heremon that the case was worth taking as it was.

“What does the Arm look like?” Sofya asked.

“It was made of steel, with mechanical joints on the fingers that the Prophet could control with magic,” Braden said. “The stories say that he was as adept with it as his natural hand, but you know the ir-Dyeun tales are hardly reliable.”

“That’s the best you can do?” Heremon said. “Let me guess: you’ve never even seen it, have you?”

Braden was suddenly quiet. If the Arm had been on the front line throughout the entire war, it was entirely possible that a Leshin from far west of the forest had never laid eyes upon it.

“What about leads?” Sofya asked. “Anyone in town who might know something about the Arm?”

“We hired a human courier to bring various artifacts from the temple to the edge of the border shortly after the end of the occupation,” Braden said. “The arm was supposed to be among them. Our agents at the forest border took possession of everything the courier brought and did not notice anything missing. Of course we did not check the contents of every box until delivery in Alba, and the arm had been hidden inside an urn to hide it from potential ir-Dyeun sympathizers who might have inspected the cargo once it was back in Leshin hands.”

Heremon grunted. “You’re telling us that the Arm could have disappeared during transport in the forest as easily as it could have disappeared here in Vodotsk?’

“My agents received the cargo and brought it to Alba without a single inspection along the way. And I trust my agents,” Braden replied. “They are all historians like me, and not an ir-Dyeun among them. Our organization has been secular for years and sees no value but historical significance for an item like the Arm.”

“Nevertheless, please check to see if any agents with access to the Arm have outstanding debts or have made recent extravagant purchases,” Heremon said. “Just to be sure. You may trust them, but trust can be misplaced. You can never be perfectly sure about anyone.”

Braden reached into his tunic and pulled out a small, clasped notebook. He scribbled hastily with a stylus. His wings shuddered with the violence of his writing. “Debts or purchases. Fine. I’ll look into it. You’re right. If there’s any chance the Arm disappeared on our end then I don’t want to waste my money or your time.”

“Thanks,” Sofya said, trying to remain cheerful despite Heremon’s attempts to sabotage the job. “We’re just making sure every possibility is covered. As for the courier, we should be the ones to talk to him. Your instincts were right—much better for a human to lead this investigation in Vodotsk than a Leshin.”

“I will give you the name of the courier and the address where we wrote to him.” Braden flipped through the pages on his notebook and scribbled a few words. He tore out the page and handed it to Sofya with a visibly trembling hand. “And as for any possible trouble on my end, I will immediately investigate.”

“How can we contact you?” Heremon grumbled.

Braden quickly wrote a second address on another sheet of paper. “I am staying in Edun. It’s a little village on the other side of the forest border and–”

“I know where Edun is,” Heremon said, snapping the paper from his hands. “We will be in contact when we find something. And deposit the promised payment in the Central Vodotsk Bank under our client account. Half for the retainer, nonrefundable. Half on delivery of the Arm.”

“Yes, yes… Will do. Please let me know what you find. I will go to the bank right now and arrange the transfer of funds.”

Without saying anything more, Braden slipped out of the office. Sofya was surprised by how easily he agreed to provide half of the payment up front, especially when Heremon raised doubts about the Arm being on the human side of the forest at all.

“Please stop trying to scare off easy gold,” Sofya said.

Heremon shook his head. “If there is one thing I refuse to tolerate, it is the ignorance of those who did not fight in the war.”

“You’d think that you were the one who nearly died in the Immolation,” Sofya replied. “You don’t have to be angry on behalf of us humans, Heremon. Plenty of us take up that cause already.”

“I know. If anything, I was trying to help him. If he speaks so openly and ignorantly while in Vodotsk, he’s going to get himself killed by a survivor who is not as… forgiving as you.”

Sofya glared at Heremon. “I’m not forgiving,” she replied. “I just know who to blame. If Braden was an ir-Dyen trying to reclaim the Arm for his temple, this meeting would have gone very differently.”

“I’m sure, between the both of us,” Heremon said. “Though it is amazing that you are comfortable taking this job at all.”

“We have to keep moving forward. And, besides, we need the money.”

Heremon ir-CaldyAs Sofya and Heremon walked towards the Vodotsk Fey Reactor district, Sofya took a moment to appreciate the reconstruction that was happening around them. Just five months ago, when the Alliance of Free Cities officially withdrew from Vodotsk, the streets were in ruins. Over a decade of Leshin control had destroyed most of the technological infrastructure. The reactor had been mostly disassembled, the pipes that carried its energy across the city were a decaying patchwork, and most of the streetlamps had been scrapped.

The Leshin had even allowed the city water and sewage system to fall into disrepair, though that was mostly an unintended consequence of their rule. Without Fey-powered lamps, fixing most parts of the underground tunnels was impossible. The Leshin could have done it using their own natural magic to create light, but they preferred the use of wells and outhouses so they were slow to respond to plumbing failures.

This wasn’t the only side effect of the Leshin prohibition on technology. Holes were carved out of buildings to allow more natural light, exposing them to the harsh storms of the border region. Trash piled up outside homes and Leshin-bred animals were introduced to the city and encouraged to scavenge the streets. In theory this would reduce waste, but Vodotsk was not built like a Leshin town and quickly found itself dirtier for the influx of western wildlife.

Despite years of neglect, Vodotsk was already on its way back to shades of its former self. After the hand-off, there was no ruling house controlling the region. A county government was established by nearby houses and a handful of refugees who had lived in the city during the occupation. They acted quickly to begin the reconstruction and stave off Imperial agents who wanted to subsume the region under the direct control of House Lapidus. Many other occupied counties had given in to the Empire immediately; Vodotsk and its surrounding lands were ready for a fight.

In the end, both Vodotsk County and the Empire contributed to the rebuilding effort. They waged their war for control over the region not with guns and swords, but with hammers, nails, and fey-powered cranes. The reactor was back up and running within a month. Water and sewage had been restored to over half the city. Buildings were repaired and the streets re-paved.

Not everything was perfect—Leshin gnil-beasts could still be seen scurrying about in the alleyways—but the progress was remarkable. Even from the Reactor District, Sofya could see the new capitol building under construction. It would be the tallest structure in the region—eleven stories tall, with a view that would reach the border of the Great Forest. The only question is who would eventually occupy it—the Vodotsk council or a governor appointed by the Emperor.

“They’re re-opening the heated baths near our offices,” Sofya said as she scanned the street signs for their destination, the offices of Utkin Continental Transportation. “You should really give them a try.”

Heremon scoffed. “You know, Leshin also can warm water with Fey energy. We just don’t need to pipe it in from a contained rift miles away. We do it ourselves.”

“I bet it’s not the same,” Sofya replied. “The baths have some kind of metal embedded in them which makes the heat completely uniform. It never gets too cold or too hot, and requires no effort on your part. You can just relax.”

“You know I am very liberal,” Heremon said. “But even I feel a bit of discomfort about warming myself with Fey energy sucked out of a rift.”

“Really? Interesting…” Sofya was silent for a moment, then worked up the confidence to follow up with a question. “I know this is a sensitive subject, but where do you draw the line? What’s a proper use of Fey energy and what isn’t?”

“A sensitive subject?” Heremon chuckled. “That is, perhaps, the greatest understatement of our time. A sensitive subject leads to an argument, not a thirty-year war.”

“Fair enough, but I wanted your line. And given everything you know about me, it’s only fair that I have some war-starting material on you.”

Heremon considered this request. Sofya could tell that he was very reluctant to answer. “I was raised religious,” he finally said. “My father wasn’t an ir-Dyeun, but he believed their teachings and tried to pass them along to me. I don’t necessarily think that Fey energy is sacred, but I believe that it is not given to us unconditionally. I don’t hold it against you that you enjoy a heated bath, but I would not use it for a luxury resource.”

“But you just said that Leshin have heated baths as well.”

“It’s different when you draw the energy from yourself and when you draw it from a rift you opened.”

“How?”

“It just–” Heremon stopped. He realized he had raised his voice and quickly calmed himself. “It just is, for me. And I don’t even think I can articulate why. I can just say it was how I was taught and what I believe. Is that enough?”

Sofya nodded. It was the best answer she was going to get and it was better than any answer she’d heard from a Leshin. “We should have taken a carriage,” she said, changing the subject.

“Just be patient. We’re almost there.”

“How do you know?”

“The address is right across the street.”

Utkin Continental Transportation was a small, one-story building in the Vodotsk Fey Reactor District. It didn’t look like much. The dirt-paved lot behind the building was occupied by three ramshackle carriages and an assortment of horses that grazed on withering grass nearby.

“I don’t know if I would trust these people to move my personal belongings, let alone a priceless historical artifact,” Sofya said, wrinkling her nose as they approached.

“The museum likely didn’t have much choice,” Heremon replied. “Months after the end of the war and most businesses in Vodotsk still refuse to serve Leshin. Imagine how it was in the first few weeks. If they already had a business established, they probably lived here and worked under the occupation. ”

“Wonder why these folks took the job…”

“I’m guessing it is the same reason that we are here.”

Sofya approached one of the carriages. The front wheel closest to the road was split from the axle and was barely holding up the body of the vehicle. Closing her eyes, Sofya tried to sense whether a magical artifact had ever been placed in the carriage.

This was one of Sofya’s easiest spells. Along with the glamours hiding her scars and low-level ice sorcery, this sensory magic was the only kind of magic she could reliably control. Everything else was volatile—it came and went in fits and starts.

“Something was here,” Sofya muttered. “It was quite a while ago. I can barely feel anything. I can’t even be sure it was the Arm but–”

“Hey!” a voice shouted, pulling Sofya out of her concentration. “What are you doing? Get away from there!”

Sofya’s eyes flew open and she turned to see a squat, bearded man approaching them. Her mind raced as she struggled to come up with a cover story that would allow her to continue inspecting the carriages.

“Greetings, sir, are you the owner of these vehicles?”

“Yes. What does it matter to you? Who are you?”

“Well,” Sofya said. “I’m a traveling machinist and I happened to notice that your carriages are in an awful state of disrepair. If you’d like, I could offer–”

The bearded man scoffed. “You’re no machinist,” he exclaimed. “Look at your hands! Ten fingers. No callouses. Who are you trying to fool? Explain why you’re here.”

“It was a good try,” Heremon said. “But it seems we may just want to be straightforward with this man.”

Sofya looked back to the bearded fellow. His scowl was even more intense than before. She immediately regretted the ruse. “Okay, I’ll come clean. I’m a private investigator hired by the Alban Museum of History. I’m looking for a particular item of theirs that may have been in the possession of one of your couriers four months ago.”

“Why were you poking at my carriages then? I wouldn’t be a very good courier if this item of theirs was still sitting in one of ’em for so long.”

While it would make the investigation much easier, Sofya couldn’t explain her magical sensitivity. Magic came naturally to the Leshin, but for humans took decades of learning and practice. Even then, most ancient human magicians had only a fraction of the various abilities Sofya had demonstrated since her power began to manifest. There was no telling what humans—or Leshin—would do to her if her magical skill was discovered, so she had to stay quiet.

“Well, I still think I could probably fix this wheel in exchange for some information,” Sofya replied. “Though you should be more than happy to help, since otherwise it might look like the item we’re looking for disappeared on your watch.”

The bearded man considered this for a second. Sofya had both threatened him and offered him a deal and he clearly wasn’t sure which to respond to. He settled with simply introducing himself. “It seems we started ourselves off on the wrong foot,” he said. “I’m Nikolai Utkin, owner and manager of Utkin Continental Transportation. How can I help you?”

“How long have you been in Vodotsk?” Sofya asked.

“Me or the company? It’s my father’s business. I took over some, say, sixteen years ago. But he started it at least twenty years before that so–”

“You were here during the occupation?”

Nikolai hesitated. His eyes darted to Sofya’s jacket—it had once been an Imperial army issued long coat, now tailored to a more fashionable cut. “Well, I was never called to war on account of my bad shoulder. Childhood injury. Couldn’t swing a sword or keep a gun stable if I had to. So I stayed here and ran the business. When the Elves—I’m sorry, the Leshin—when they invaded I didn’t have time to pack up and run.”

“Can’t imagine there was much business for a human courier when the city was occupied,” Heremon said. “If I recall, there were blockades on both sides.”

“Well, I… You know, I did what I had to do to survive.”

Sofya crossed her arms. “Did you run courier service for the Leshin? We’re not going to judge you. I was kicked out of the army for collaboration myself. Wasn’t true. Not really, but I’m hardly in a place to throw blame around.”

“What did you do?”

Heremon put his hand on Sofya’s shoulder, as if cautioning her to be careful with her words. The reasons for her discharge from the army and the emergence of her magical powers were closely intertwined. While one was public record, the other was a dangerous secret.

“I was stationed at Onigrad during the Immolation,” Sofya said. Nikolai’s eyes went wide. “We knew that the attack on the Fey reactor was done by a bunch of radicals. When it became obvious the reactor would overload, I freed our Leshin prisoners so they could escape. They had nothing to do with it, they didn’t deserve to die. But you can imagine how that looked to army brass in the immediate aftermath.”

Nikolai shook his head. “They weren’t there. They want to second guess you.”

“During the Leshin withdrawal, you were contracted by the Alban History Museum to transport certain items from the ir-Dyeun temple established here in Vodotsk. Do you remember that?”

“The withdrawal was a crazy time,” Nikolai replied. “Thousands of Leshin needed help moving out of the city. We refused to deal with the ir-Dyeun and only took on contracts from civilians. Even then, our carriages were going between the city and the forest almost non-stop.”

Heremon pulled out the piece of paper Sofya received from their client and gave it to Nikolai. “The man you dealt with was named Braden ir-Alba. Here’s his handwriting, if that helps.”

“His… handwriting?”

“He won’t remember it, Heremon,” Sofya said. “We don’t recall that sort of thing.”

“Oh.” Heremon reclaimed the piece of paper. “I still don’t understand how you trust written communication if you can’t recognize the distinctions of handwriting. Anyone could impersonate anyone else over letters.”

“We know when it doesn’t look right, but we don’t remember people by their–” Sofya groaned. It wasn’t worth it. “Never mind. I’ll go over it later.”

Nikolai stood in silent contemplation for a moment. He looked back at his office. “I think I remember the contract. Not much of one. But, like I said, I wanted to make sure I was only taking on jobs for Leshin who recanted the ir-Dyeun. A secular museum seemed safe enough.”

“The item we’re looking for is an artificial arm,” Heremon explained. “The Prophet’s Arm.”

“An… arm?”

Sofya gave Nikolai the description she received from Braden. The Prophet’s Arm wasn’t just a standard human replacement. It was engineered and articulated to allow Cathal ir-Dyeun the same range of motion as his real hand. Whether or not he had been able to control it was matter of Leshin folk tales. The prophet had died hundreds of years ago. There were none, even among the ageless Leshin, who had lived alongside him and could remember the truth behind the legacy.

“I never saw anything like that,” Nikolai said. “I would remember that. A steel arm? That would stick with me, especially if it was some kind of ir-Dyeun magical charm.”

“I highly doubt it truly has the power the ir-Dyeun attribute to it,” Heremon said. “If it belonged to the Prophet, and he used it as the tales say, then it would have some lingering Fey energy. But it is, at best, a historical curiosity.”

“Still, I don’t remember anything like it. And I probably inventoried the shipment myself.”

“Speaking to our client, it sounds like the arm may have been hidden in another item,” Sofya replied. “An urn. The museum was afraid of raiding parties and searches once it passed into the Great Forest. They knew that the ir-Dyeun would want to take it and stuffed it inside something else.”

Nikolai glared at Sofya. “Then how am I supposed to remember anything about it? Listen, if our customers don’t let us properly inventory their shipments, how can we be held responsible when something goes missing?”

“The museum isn’t trying to hold you liable,” Heremon said. “They just want to find the Arm. Could you, by any chance, bring us the paperwork related to this job? It would have been approximately four months ago.”

“Of course. I will be right back.”

As soon as Nikolai disappeared into the office, Sofya returned her attention to the carriage. “We should have opened with that,” she said. “I really doubt he’s going to be able to remember anything. And the records? Likely just as useless. I’m going to have to do this all by myself.”

Sofya placed her hand on the broken wheel. She closed her eyes and focused on the glimmer of magic energy she had perceived before being interrupted. It was faint, barely enough to feel. At first, she couldn’t be sure if it was the Arm. Nikolai had been running a courier service for the occupying Leshin for years. Undoubtedly, he transported magical items on several occasions. But none of them would be old or strong enough to leave an echo like this.

“The Arm was here,” Sofya said. “Or something like it. Something ancient and unusual. Are you sure it doesn’t still have some magical function?”

“After all these years, it would have to be enchanted on a level unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Heremon replied. “The Fey energy remains, becomes more ingrained in our world. But its utility decays over time. Most magic weapons need to be re-focused every few years. The Arm was enchanted centuries ago.”

Sofya opened her eyes. “What if someone was re-focusing the Arm? Keeping it ready to be used?”

“Used for what?”

“I guess that’s a question we’ll have to ask when we find it,” Sofya replied. “It wasn’t in this carriage long. It was removed after just a few hours. Not long enough to get to the forest.”

Heremon sighed. “So the Arm was lost before it reached the Leshin border?”

“Are you disappointed? Now we can earn our full payment.”

Across the lot, Nikolai emerged from his office. He hurried over to Sofya and Heremon, a bundle of papers in his hands. “Here you go,” he said. “All the paperwork for the Alban museum job. The inventory we were able to do, the courier’s report, and all our receipts.”

Heremon took the papers and turned immediately to the courier’s report. “This says that the courier was stopped at an outpost just outside the city,” he said. “What can you tell me about that outpost?”

“When the occupation ended, most Leshin left the city,” Nikolai said. “Under the terms of the surrender, each Leshin was only permitted to take two pounds of gold currency. I don’t know why; that’s way over my head. But, of course, some Elves–” Heremon prickled but didn’t interrupt. “–tried to get around the rules. Emperor Lapidus set up checkpoints on most of the roads to the Forest to check for gold smuggling.”

“How extensive are the searches?” Heremon asked. “Do they go through everything?”

“Depends on the person performing the inspection,” Nikolai replied. “Sometimes they wouldn’t even search the cargo. They trusted that a human wouldn’t help the Leshin plunder gold on the way out.”

Sofya took the courier’s report from Heremon. “This is, what, about a half hour west of the city?” Sofya said. “This is it. This is where the Arm was lost.”

“How do you know that?” Nikolai asked. “Are you saying this was my fault?”

Ignoring him, Sofya continued to page through the documents. “We need to head to this outpost. If it’s still active, we can talk to the people there. If not…” She didn’t finish her thought—not in front of Nikolai—but Heremon knew what she was proposing. The Arm had a very strong Fey signature and would have left its mark on the outpost if it had been stored there for more than a few minutes.

“It’s not your fault,” Heremon said. “Someone with the Empire found the Arm during the inspection. Maybe they knew what it was, which means we’ll never get it back. But you weren’t put in prison for smuggling it out of Vodotsk, so I suspect it was taken for another reason.”

“Another reason?” Nikolai asked. “What is this thing? What does it do? Is it dangerous?”

“We don’t know,” Sofya said. “But don’t worry. Before we hand it over to the Leshin, we’re going to find out.”

Part two now available here

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Announcing the World of Echoes of the Fey

Hey everyone, I suppose an introduction is in order. This is Malcolm Pierce, aka Redbird Menace. I helped out with Duma/debate dialog in Woodsy Studio’s last game, Serafina’s Crown, and I’m here to write about my involvement in the upcoming Echoes of the Fey, an ambitious multi-part visual novel series. This isn’t a new partnership by any means–I did court/debate dialog on Serafina’s Crown and she did music/art on The Closer: Game of the Year Edition–but this is the first time we’re going to fully invest on the same project.

Echoes of the Fey takes place in the realm of Oraz, a land split between Humans in the east and Leshin (the politically correct term for Elves in Oraz) in the west, with a great forest separating them. Leshin do not age and can use powerful sorcery called Fey Magic. Humans aren’t so lucky, though they eventually learned to build large machines—Fey Reactors—to harvest the magical energy used by the Leshin.

leshinThe activation of the Fey Reactors sparked a Leshin invasion of the East. Stronger, faster, and capable of magic, the Leshin thought the war would be over quickly. It wasn’t. Humans fought them tooth-and-nail with superior numbers and dragged the conflict out over thirty years. Eventually, Leshin sentiment turned against the war. The people overthrew their religious government and came to terms with the Humans. They restored the original borders and began a new, unstable era of peace. That’s where our story begins.

I know this sounds like a typical Lord of the Rings derivative, something I’ve been hesitant to write for long time. But it’s not. Echoes of the Fey is high fantasy with a twist: it’s not really high fantasy. It is a detective series, inspired as much by Raymond Chandler as J.R.R. Tolkien. The main character is not a king or a prince, and her goal is not a throne or the salvation of her people. She is a private investigator, and all she wants is enough gold to pay her rent and keep her in whiskey for the foreseeable future.

Sofya

Sofya Rykov

Sofya Rykov is a veteran of the Great War and a victim of its final weeks. The daughter of a wealthy noblewoman, she had secured a cushy position guarding a Fey Reactor deep in Human territory. In the last days of the war, the Leshin launched a desperate attack on the reactor and detonated it, killing thousands. Well within the blast radius, Sofya should have died that day. But she barely survived, and in the wake of the disaster found herself with unstable magic powers that no Human before her has ever possessed.

Frightened of what Humans or Leshin might do to her if they discovered her powers, Sofya withdrew from society and now ekes out a living as a mercenary, investigator, and (occasionally) con-woman. She is assisted by her friend and doctor, a Leshin by the name of Heremon ir-Caldy.

Overworld character sprites.

Overworld character sprites.

Each chapter of Echoes of the Fey will start with a client, a mystery, and an angle that will force Sofya to explore her own magical abilities as well as the evolving relationship between humans and Leshin.

While the realm is nominally at peace, the truth is that new wars are brewing. During the conflict, Humans united under the banner of the powerful House Lapidus, which now asserts a claim to an empire that spans from the Leshin border to the eastern coasts of Oraz. Imperial troops spread across the land attempt to maintain Lapidus rule against other ambitious families and county governments. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the new Leshin leaders—The Alliance of Free Cities—struggle to unite a people previously only united by their religion. New extremist factions have emerged in the wake of the old clerics disbanding.

Echoes of the Fey is centered on the Human border city of Vodotsk, a scarred city that had been occupied by Leshin forces for decades prior to the peace accord. Humans and Leshin, just months separated from a brutal war, struggle to co-exist peacefully. The ruling houses of the region are defunct and control of the city shifts between an interim county government and newly-arrived Imperial officers and sympathizers who seek to add the lands to the Lapidus tracts.

fox

The first full episode, The Fox’s Trail, involves a missing Leshin veteran and the youngest son of a wealthy Human house, Eduard Galkin. The Fox’s Trail will be a choice-driven visual novel with multiple endings and character side quests scattered throughout Vodotsk. In preparation, I (hopefully) will be releasing a free short story/novella The Prophet’s Arm, detailing an early case involving a key side character in The Fox’s Trail.

Hopefully all of this is coming in May 2016, but we know how things get delayed so I’m not ready to put a full release date out there for either the VN or the novella. We work fast and a good amount of the game is already finished but, you know, shit happens. As development continues, I’ll drop by the Woodsy Studio blog for story updates and character profiles. So stay tuned!

Why Art and Business Must Intersect

The last few months have been exciting for me as a creative individual and a burgeoning game developer, because I am learning to think of my studio and my artwork as a real business.

Before you groan at the word business (sometimes it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, too), allow me to explain why this shift in my perception has been so beneficial to both my emotional state and my artistic creations. I am going to use the term “business” in a very general sense, in that it represents any endeavor that can support its creator financially. I’ll also use the term “artist” generally to represent the creative individuals in the field of entertainment and gaming, be they visual artists, writers, designers, or even programmers.

1) Being a business lets you take your work seriously

If you’re a creative type like myself, then I’m sure you’ve encountered plenty of people in your life who sneer down at the time you spend making art. They tell you it’s fine to practice art or writing in your free time (i.e., such pastimes are just personal hobbies)–but if you want to survive in the real world, then you need to get a real job. I understand the practicality of this mantra. I’ve had to conform to it many times, myself. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your art and work separate if that balance works well for you, or if it’s simply necessary for you to get by. Surviving in the physical world means that all of us must feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, as well as do our part to keep society as a whole functioning peacefully. To accomplish this, most of us have to perform a lot of tasks we’d rather not, and that’s okay. Such is life.

But while completing practical tasks is a significant part of living in the real world, I’m here to argue that creating art is equally important. Just as we must all support our physical bodies, so must we nourish our minds. Art allows us to do this, whether we create it ourselves, or we take time to absorb/reflect upon someone else’s work.

When you think of your artistic work as nothing more than a hobby, you’re accepting the belief system that your work is not significant beyond personal gratification. Inevitably, you let your artwork itself become trapped by that definition. If you consider it of little real importance, then you will likely not give your craft the attention and dedication it deserves.

The first step towards becoming business-minded is realizing that your artwork is valuable in the real world. Then you can state that you’re an artist with pride, rather than giggling nervously and saying, “Oh, I fiddle around with making games in my free time.” You can start to take your own work more seriously, and thus expect others to do the same.

2) Being a business forces you to work in constraints

You might look at that heading and wonder, “Is that supposed to be a good thing?” The answer is yes, working within constraints is a good thing. If you don’t understand why, I’ll do my best to explain.

A common misconception is that greater artistic freedom results in greater artwork. I’m not saying that freedom is bad; obviously, artistic freedom is incredibly important in that it allows an individual to express herself in her work. Those aren’t the sort of constraints I’m talking about. When I talk about constraints, I mean practical restrictions within your production process. For instance: a time limit, a budget, a certain number of available resources, etc. Instinctively, most of us would choose to work with fewer constraints rather than more.  However, what many people fail to realize is that working within constraints can lead to better artwork.

But why? I could probably write an entire essay on the many ways restrictions lead to better artwork. But I think that the answer boils down to this: when you work within constraints, you are forced to trim the fat from the globby mess of your artistic vision and find the true core of your creation. When you comprehend the true heart of what you’re producing, then you can focus all your energy on making it sing. And in the end, you will probably communicate your vision more clearly when you trim out all the fat that results from unlimited time and resources.

Game Jams are a great example of how working within constraints can result in great artwork. In a Game Jam, developers must try to complete a game in 48 hours, and on top of that, their game must adhere to a specific theme. You don’t get much more restrictive than that. And yet developers who have spent months trying to complete a project without success often find themselves cranking out a fantastic new game in 48 hours. I believe this is largely because they’re forced to focus on the heart of their vision and yank it out into the open.

3) Being a business brings you closer to your audience

If you’re stuck in perceiving your artistic creations as “hobbies,” you will rarely pause to ask yourself, “What can this project offer to my audience? If I’m sending a message, how do I ensure that I send it in a form my audience will understand? Which parts of my project will my audience appreciate the most, and which parts might they least enjoy?”

When you begin to function as a business, you recognize that your work has true financial worth. And at the same time, you acknowledge the importance of your audience, because in order to succeed, you must provide work that your audience values. This means being open to feedback, even if it comes in the form of scathing criticism. You must listen to your audience, taking note of what they love and what they abhor.

This doesn’t mean that you have to bend everything you create to appease the raging masses. Besides, it’s impossible to please everyone. What it means is that just like you expect your audience to value your work, you acknowledge the value of their opinions, and you use it to constantly improve your own work.

So then… is it all about making $$$?

I’m not here to say that every artist should be scrambling to make a fortune, nor even that they should prioritize making money over genuine creative expression. But I believe that art and money exist in the same world, and because we all need money to go about our daily lives, we need to find ways to harmonize artistic creation with financial sustenance. As an artist, the first step is acknowledging that your work is valuable. It is significant. And if sustaining a comfortable, physical life means slapping a dollar value on your artistic creations, then so be it.