Making Games at the End of the World

Malcolm Pierce is one half of Woodsy Studio; cross-posted from redbirdmenace.com

The Bus Station

At three ‘o clock in the morning, the St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center is a hostile environment, but it isn’t the passengers at fault. This is a bus station, after all. Some of the people there are sprawled out across a few seats. Others are a day or two behind on a much-needed shower. But there is nothing glamorous about bus travel, especially trips stretching across multiple days and several layovers. Anyone forced to put up with those circumstances deserves a certain level of leeway.

The St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center is oppressive because it is a strange little building nestled away behind the home of the St. Louis Blues. Most directions to the SLGTC force drivers to arrive at the wrong part of the facility. The heat (more on the heat in a moment) is turned on. Everyone is sweating, even people who just arrived. And there are no water fountains.

A television above the waiting area blares an infomercial for a product called Astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a chemical compound found (in extremely tiny amounts) in salmon and greater, but not terribly meaningful amounts, in krill and shrimp, giving the flesh of these sea creatures a pink-ish hue. It is also produced synthetically and injected into fish-based pet food, to give the cheaper meal a more healthy color. It is not approved for human consumption, but it can legally be fed to other salmon (which is messed up) to improve the pink tint of the inner meat.

The infomercial playing in the waiting room of the St. Louis Gateway Transportation Center claims that Astaxanthin will reverse aging. It will remove and prevent wrinkles. It will restore eye function. All for the perfectly reasonable price of sixty dollars a bottle .

At three thirty, the infomercial mercifully ends, only to be replaced with (presumably) the late-night edition of the local news. I hear the stories you expect from the local news in 2017. A suspect has died in an officer-involved shooting during a drug bust. Hundreds of headstones in a Jewish cemetery were defaced. Donald Trump tweeted again. The high temperature today, on February 22, will be in the mid 70s in St. Louis.

I wonder what the hell I’m doing in this bus stop, waiting to go to a conference about making video games.

The bus outside honks twice and I line up inside the stuffy terminal to board. The first thing I hear when I’m inside is a passenger telling someone he just met how he lost his finger on the job and was then fired for it.

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Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail Out NOW On Steam

The day is here, friends! You can now get Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail on everyone’s favorite PC gaming platform, the launcher we all know and love, Steam.

We’ve got achievements! We’ve got trading cards! At some point in the near future, we’ll have a demo and soundtrack DLC! Go check it out!

Echoes of the Fey – The Prophet’s Arm (Part 4) Final

This is part 4 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.

The second Sofya stepped into the pub, every eye in the room was on her. There were a dozen Leshin seated throughout the surprisingly spacious tavern and every one was curious why a Human would dare to join them.

Normally, Sofya felt rather comfortable around Leshin. Spending so much time with Heremon over the last few months helped with that. But she’d rarely visited their side of the border, and mostly interacted with them as minority in post-occupation Vodotsk. This was different. Now, she was the only Human in the room.

“Do you see any soldiers around?” Sofya asked quietly.

“No one dressed as such,” Heremon replied.

“Good. I don’t see Braden here and I need a drink.” Sofya headed for the bar but Heremon grabbed her arm.

“We need to be careful. There could be an ambush.”

“They tied up their horses out front. Not a very good ambush, if you ask me.”

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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 2)

This is part 2 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

Sofya was not surprised to find that the Imperial checkpoint was abandoned. Emperor Lapidus had set various temporary encampments on the roads leading into the Great Forest to prevent the Leshin from removing gold and other valuable minerals from human lands during the transition, but now there was no reason to maintain them. In fact, Imperial troops in the borderlands had been reduced to the minimum, because the locals resented their presence. Very few of the western houses were pledged to Emperor Lapidus and he personally controlled no lands beyond the Great Plains. Even though the Empire had liberated them from the Leshin, the people, especially outside of the cities, saw Lapidus and his allies as new invaders rather than defenders of the Human realm.

As the hired carriage pulled up to the abandoned site, Sofya surveyed the area. They were not far from the forest, but most of the nearby trees had been cut down to construct a small guard cabin along the road. Even from a distance, Sofya could tell that the cabin, hastily constructed to give the guards a warm place to sleep, was already falling apart. The road itself branched off into a dirt-paved lot where, months ago, carriages departing human territory would be searched for contraband.

“This really the place?” the driver asked. “Doesn’t seem like there’s much out here.”

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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

New team, new visual novel!

A lot of things have been changing for me and my little studio over the last few months. Firstly, I got a new full time job in the games industry, and I have been very excited to work with a great group of devs, artists, and game testers. I’m learning a lot every day and that makes me happy indeed.

But I’m not done making my own visual novels, and although I technically have less time to work on them now, that will be balanced by the fact that my team is growing. Along with Malcolm Pierce, my co-writer for Serafina’s Crown, artist Wendy Gram will join the team for my next visual novel! The visual novel will also be created with Game Maker (thanks largely to the Edge VN Engine by ThinkBoxly) which will allow me to add more game-play elements into the story than in the past.

I can’t tell you much about the new visual novel story just yet, except that it will be a fantasy noir of sorts, with an all new world and all new characters. Here’s a peek at two of the main characters:

Artwork by Wendy Gram and Jenny Gibbons

Artwork by Wendy Gram and Jenny Gibbons

And here’s one of my compositions for the game thus far:

And for the last bit of news, from now on my games will be published through a collaboration with Thesis Games. I look forward to sharing more with you as game development progresses!

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Writing Branching Narratives (AKA Time Travel vs. Parallel Universes)

Over the last couple of years, I have discovered that writing stories with branching plot paths might be one of my favorite creative processes in the world… and also the most frustrating.

I experience the story as I write it.

I truly believe that every writer has a different style and process that works best for her, and while techniques exist to help any writer execute her vision, the truth is that there is no one or even best method for strong writing in general. Personally, I have always fought against the motto that a lot of writers intone when asked how to write: “Writing is editing,” they often say. “Writing your first draft helps you get your thoughts onto paper, but the true writing happens during your second, third, or even fourth draft.”

For me and my own writing style, that motto is bull shit. Yes, I believe that editing is important. Yes, I’m willing to admit that maybe I need to do more of it sometimes. But for me, something magical happens when I write that “first draft.” I don’t approach it lightly. I spend a lot of time thinking, planning, and feeling what I want to portray before I start writing. And once I do start writing, I feel as if my words come to life as I write them. I feel as if my characters are really in the room, saying what I tell them to say, moving as I tell them to move. I feel a bond between myself and the world I’m creating that is fundamental to my ongoing muse. I discover the story even as I’m writing it. The characters tell me more about themselves as I write them; they lead me towards the twists and turns of the plot, even if my outline disagrees with them.

Often, as I write that first draft, I will stop and rewrite some of my freshest paragraphs, tweaking small sections until the scene flows to match what’s in my head. Sometimes, I’ll need to change something earlier in the story to support something new that I’ve discovered while writing the new scene; if so, I make that change immediately.

Generally, this is my process. Although I go back and edit some later, those changes tend to be surface-level, polishing the pace and consistency of the story. My “first draft” is my most important, my most treasured, and often the closest to my final form of the story. This is not to say that I never go back and rewrite scenes or even delete scenes if necessary—that agonizing process writers love to describe as killing your babies. For me, the reason that it’s so difficult to go back and change something from my first draft is because it feels wrong. When I tried to describe this feeling to my sister once, I told her, “To me, that scene already happened. To go back and change it would be like enforcing time travel. It’s just… wrong.

This is just how writing works for me. When the story feels right, it feels right—it feels real—and I don’t just casually change it for the sake of wrapping my book or script into a perfect, tidy package. I’m not saying that’s a writing style to which every writer should aspire. It’s just what works for me, for better or worse, and that’s that.

Okay… so if you’re against time travel, how do you feel about parallel universes?

If re-writing means time traveling through your story, then writing a branching narrative means forming parallel universes.

This, I can do. When I first start creating parallel universes, it doesn’t feel wrong. It feels plain fun. “What if Blaire lets something slip in this scene, and Amalek discovers his secret? Well, let’s find out!” As I write an alternate branch, sometimes I have so much fun that I worry I’m being indulgent. But I can allow myself to do it anyway, because I want my audience to experience an outcome catered to their own decisions for the story, and this allows both me and the player to have fun in the process.

Writing branching plot paths also allows me to discover new aspects of my characters that would have remained hidden, otherwise. For example: while writing “Serafina’s Crown,” I actively fought against making Arken a romance-able character, despite the fact he’s probably my favorite character in the series. Next, I made the mistake of allowing the player to flirt with him, as Odell, on multiple occasions. And while writing one of those flirtatious branches, I felt both myself and Arken finally cave. “Arken wouldn’t ignore a cute girl flirting with him repeatedly,” I had to admit. “He just wouldn’t.” So at last, I started writing a romance path between Odell and Arken. In the process, Arken’s emotional baggage started rising to the surface, and resulted in some great scenes. Now, out of all the other romance possibilities for Odell, Arken is probably my favorite and most meaningful option.

So parallel universes are a blast! But, um, which one’s “reality,” again? Does reality even exist anymore?

Writing branching plot paths can be exhilarating, enlightening, and altogether very rewarding for both me and my audience. Until, like a bug flying into a spiderweb, I get trapped in it.

Wait... huh?

Wait… huh?

And this is when writing branching plot paths quickly transforms from being my favorite process in the world to the most frustrating and confusing ordeal. That “reality” I so enjoyed exploring and discovering when I started writing the story starts to slip from my grasp. While writing one branch, I’m distracted by thinking about what’s simultaneously happening in another branch. “Oh, Blaire and Amalek totally trust each other right now. Except… they were at each other’s throats just a minute ago! Wait, no, that was a different plot path.” I struggle to hold all the different paths in my mind until it starts to feel like a maze. Events start to lose significance to me as I write them, because they don’t feel like reality anymore, just one of many possibilities. And then the writing process which I initially found so exhilarating becomes purely exhausting.

Writing a branching narrative is difficult, plain and simple.

The moral of my story, I suppose, is that writing a story with significant plot branches is no walk in the park. It may seem like a blast at first, and you may feel as if the universe has opened up and given you permission to do whatever you please without consequence. But if you want your full narrative to remain a significant experience from start to finish, branches and all, then maintaining your plethora of plot paths becomes a trying task, indeed.

As I continue to write large interactive narratives (Serafina’s Crown will be my third), I search for ways to ease the symptoms of emotional melancholy and logical dizziness. Sometimes, I try to focus on one plot path at a time, so that I can give it my full attention before working on another. But this doesn’t always work, because for the sake of outlining and tracking production, I need to see all the threads of my spiderweb and how they connect to each other before I continue.

Difficult… but worth it.

It’s difficult. It’s exhausting. It’s emotionally draining and technically confusing. But if you push through the difficulty, writing an interactive narrative can be one of the most rewarding creative endeavors you’ll ever experience.