Fearies Awakening #3: Fey Day

4613598684793039751

Chapter one continues!

***

Lucas was striding fast down the cobblestone street, late afternoon sunlight glinting off the shop windows ahead and blinding him momentarily. He put a hand up and kept walking, but didn’t notice that he was walking directly into a large potted plant and stumbled sideways, but caught himself. A couple walking past gave him a confused look and kept on. Lucas sighed and shook shook himself into the present moment, trying to get some focus. His head had been swimming all day because he’d had no sleep the night before.

The street around him was thronged with people, all very well-dressed for tonight’s festivities. Children’s laughter echoed down the alleyways and the smells of desert wafted through the air. Lucas noticed his reflection in a mirror up against the side of a shop and strided over, then leaned in to examine himself.

Quickly he brushed his hands across his silk shirt and vest, and across his trousers. He felt overdressed even for such a formal event. He reached over to his left shoulder, where a metal clip attached to his collar held in place a golden silk scarf, hanging down over his left shoulder and down his back, already catching a breeze and sailing out behind him.

He checked his face in the reflection, ran his fingers quickly through his hair, fine soft hair so light brown that it appeared blonde in the sun, and he rubbed one of his eyes, which were a light grey blue. He had a fair face, and looked younger than nineteen, he was mid-height, and had always been slim. Nothing about him was particularly commanding, though many had commented on the almost girlish fairness of his appearance.

He took a breath and resumed his stride, careful to avoid running into anything. He wasn’t normally so clumsy but the throngs of people turning out for the festival were more difficult to cope with than he had expected. He headed down the cobblestone streets toward the town square, people in all manner of dress thronging the pathways, most dressed formally but some in costumes, dressed as fairies, with wings attached to their backs in all colors and shapes.

There was music in the air as street performers had already begun to play their songs, and the music all began to mingle together in a hazy chorus. There were tents being set up all through the city, and food and drink everywhere. He passed a table where a man was selling glass ornaments, little mythical creatures: minotaurs, squat little elves and goblins, and of course an abundance of fairies.

Fey Day was an annual tradition, though this year it was a much bigger celebration than usual, due to the involvement of the Church, and the visiting of Church officials. They would no doubt see the tradition as sacrilegious, and many of the faithful who had previously indulged in the tradition had already begun decrying it as heresy toward the Father, but in general the people of the city continued the tradition in earnest. New Alexandria had, after all, been settled in land that previously belonged to the Plainsmen, and they were superstitious folk who had actually believed in the existence of fairies. To any ordinary person, though, they were just another quaint local belief, and it happened that dressing as fairies and making merriment was a good use once a year. Lucas always marveled at people’s propensity to make holiday’s out of anything.

Lucas came upon a stage in a large square, where two men were having a duel with wooden swords, both wearing leather armor and holding leather shields. A crowd of onlookers gaped and cheered, and Lucas found who he was looking for at the edge of the crowd.

Lucas tapped Rex on the shoulder, “I thought we were supposed to be meeting in the Central Square?”

Rex turned, an expression of wonder and excitement on his smiling face, and was caught off guard. “Lucas!” he exclaimed, “Good! I was hoping you’d find me.”
“I was hoping you’d be where you told me to meet you,” said Lucas with annoyance.

“Sorry,” said Rex, a little out of breath with excitement, and wiped sweat from his glistening forehead, where he unstuck one of his dark brown curls, “I didn’t know there was going to be a gladiator contest!”

“It’s a sparring contest on a riser in the middle of the street,” said Lucas patiently while shaking his head, “And you have way too much interest in bloodsport.”

“There’s no blood,” protested Rex. “It’s friendly fighting.”

There was a sudden gasp as one fighter dropped his sword and was slammed over the back of the head by the shield of the other, and crumbled to the ground.

Rex turned back and excitedly hopped up to see over the heads of the crowd, “What, what? What’d I miss?”

Lucas sighed. “Can you tell me where Eric is?” he asked.

Without looking away from the action, he motioned off in the direction of the lane leading to the lake, “He’s off playing fairy cards or something.”

Lucas shook his head again and headed away from the crowd, while another gasp erupted. He didn’t bother to see what had happened. He didn’t care for fighting. He walked on down the lane that led to Frost Lake, which cut through the center of the valley in which New Alexandria lay, and circled this edge of town. By the lake were performers: musicians playing guitars and horns, girls dancing while tambourines jangled, beer being passed about everywhere, and as he approached the end of the cobbled lane and walked onto the grass of the hillside, he saw the several tables set up where people were all sitting across from one another, cards in their hands.

Lucas spotted Eric at the edge of one of the tables and walked up quietly behind him. Eric was brooding over a hand of cards, the young man sitting across from him doing the same, and neither spoke. Lucas sat down on the bench next to Eric, who briefly glanced at him without a word and went back to studying his hand, his bright blue eyes trained on the cards before him. Several had already been laid out on the table between the two young men in a pattern Lucas never really bothered to learn.

Eric finally spoke, “Right,” he said, “Two of Swords, then,” and he laid a card on the table before him.

His opponent smirked and immediately laid down his card, “Judgement,” he said.

Eric kicked the ground. He moved several cards from the center of the table into a pile sitting by his deck. He drew a card, smiled, and said “Aha! Wheel of Fortune.”

The young man across from Eric grumbled and laid his cards out on the table. Eric looked them over and pointed a finger at one, “I’ll take that one.” The young man begrudgingly handed it to Eric, who then lay it on his side of the table. “What will you do?” he asked.

The young man drew a card from his deck and laid it down defeatedly, “Three of Cups,” he said with a groan.

Eric grinned and laid down a card, “The Fool. I win.”

The young man looked momentarily annoyed, then grinned and reached out to shake Eric’s hand, “Excellent game.”

Eric nodded and the two shuffled their cards and set them back down on the table. The young man across from Eric got up and walked away, and Eric turned to Lucas, “So I see you found us.”

“You were supposed to be at the Central Square,” said Lucas, but not in the same tone of annoyance he’d given Rex, “I thought we were going to see the Virgins.”

“We are,” said Eric, “But they’re late. The Church procession got in later than expected, though they’ve been pushed back until tonight.”

“Probably for the best,” said Lucas, “Maybe there will be less people there.”

“You really don’t like crowds, do you?” asked Eric with a friendly smile.

“Not if I can avoid them,” replied Lucas.

“You should go see the gladiators,” suggested Eric, “Rex has been standing there for an hour drooling over them.”

“I noticed,” said Lucas.

“You know,” said Eric with a mischievous grin, “Hephaestion’s competing.”

Lucas heart jumped, and he twitched slightly, which Eric seemed to notice. “That’s… nice.” said Lucas.

“Come on,” said Eric, “I know you’ll want to see it. We both know you fancy him,” and he said these last two words in a singsong childish voice.

Lucas rolled his eyes, though he did feel his face getting hot, “You’re ridiculous, you know that?” he said, “And could you please not make jokes like that so loudly?”

Eric crossed leaned leaned and put his face in his hand, “It’s not a joke, Lucas. Everyone can tell.”

“Everyone?” asked Lucas in a scared voice, then added, “There’s nothing to tell, you’re being silly. And I really wish you wouldn’t spread rumours like that.”

“There aren’t any rumours,” said, Eric, “I’ve not said anything. I just see you following him around with your tongue hanging out and your tail wagging.”
“Enough,” said Lucas in a sharp, commanding tone.

Eric looked hurt, “Sorry,” he said, “I was only kidding.”

Lucas felt a stab of guilt, “I’m sorry,” he said ruefully.

Eric stood up and twisted his mouth up in thought, “You know, you can be a lot like your father when you get angry.”

Lucas rolled his eyes, “Is that supposed to make me feel any better?”
Eric sighed and shook his head, then brushed back a lock of his bright red hair. “Come on, let’s go find Rex.”

The two made their way back to the raised stage in the square, Rex had moved closer to the front of the crowd, and Lucas and Eric pushed their way up to him. Some men were scampering off of the stage as they finished clearing things up for the next bout.

“Hey!” said Rex, turning to greet them, “You’re just in time, Hephaestion’s going on next!”

Just as he said it, Lucas saw two young men in leather armor and leather helms approach either side of the arena and walk up the steps. Both had wooden swords and leather shields. One was slightly taller than the other. Rex pointed to this one. “There’s Hephaestion,” he said. “Other one’s Charles Rugby.”

A bell was rung. Rugby charged. Hephaestion stepped forward but remained still, shield ready, and when Rugby reached him he sidestepped the first swipe of Rugby’s wooden sword and knocked him to the side with a bash of his own leather shield. He went to swipe but Rugby recovered quickly and parried with his sword, then pushed Hephaestion backward. Hepheastion sprang sideways and prepared for another charge from Rugby, who once again went on the offensive, running headlong and swinging, Hephaestion parried with his shield and then dropped suddenly and swept a leg under Rugby, who toppled instantly, with a gasp from the crowd.

Rugby fell on his back, and in the time Hephaestion had stood and sprung forward to strike, Rugby had been ready for him and kicked kicked out at Hephaestion, narrowly missing the sword strike but hitting Hephaestion sqaure in the chest. Hephaestion staggered backward, and Rugby sprung up, ran forward and swiped, the sword connected with Hephaestion’s armor and he was knocked backward, remaining to stay on his feet. With a growl, Rugby swiped again, this time Hephaestion was ready and parried with his sword, then with a deft swipe he hit Rugby’s gloved hand, causing Rugby to cry out and drop his sword.

Hephaestion sprang backward and waited for Rugby to move, Rugby screamed something that couldn’t quite be heard over the crowd, but which could be easily inferred to have been obscene, and he had clearly flown into a rage, he dropped his shield and charged Hephaestion. The bell rang again, but Rugby didn’t stop charging. Hephaestion swiped but Rugby caught the wooden sword in his hands and yanked it from Hephaestion’s grip, who stumbled forward, and Rugby punched Hephaestion in the side of the head. The bell rang again, the crowd screamed.

Lucas felt his heart hammering. Rugby had broken the rules. When a combatant drops sword and shield, they automatically lose. Hepheastion placed a gloved hand against the side of his head and then quickly he bashed the side of Rugby’s head with his shield, knocking Rugby to the ground. The bell rang a third time and men rushed the stage. Lucas turned to see what Rex would say, but Rex had already joined the men on stage.

People were tending to both combatants, and a man came on stage to announce that Rugby had committed several fouls, including dropping his weapons and attacking with the intent to harm. Rugby was still on the ground, cursing, and Hephaestion’s helm was removed by Rex, who inspected him.

Lucas caught a glimpse of Hephaestion’s face and his heart jumped. Hephaestion was smiling, he didn’t seem very perturbed that he’d been attacked. His face was smooth and glistening with sweat, but he remained angelic. His lips were wide and his jaw was strong, his skin was a dark olive tan, and his hair was a beautiful mess of deep chestnut curls, and Lucas could see his deep brown eyes glinting in the light, even from this distance.

Hepheastion broke through the small crowd around him to walk over to Rugby and offer him a hand. Rugby had removed his helmet and was scowling at Hephaestion, but took his hand and stood, brushed himself off, and then barked something, presumably hateful. Hephaestion smiled and shook his head, then headed back over to Rex.

The man who had announced Rugby’s foul grabbed Hepheastion’s hand and held his arm above his head, shouting “The winner of this bout is Hepheastion Margrave!” There was an exultant cheer from most of the crowd, and angry grumbling from others. “Next bout in fifteen minutes!” shouted the announcer, and the crowd began to thin as people left to find refreshments and other entertainment. Eric was still standing at Lucas’ side with his arms crossed, and went with Lucas to follow Rex and Hephaestion off the stage and to a corner of the square, where by a doorway Rex and Hephaestion were chatting.

Hephaestion had removed the top porton of his armor, holding it under his arm, and he was shirtless, his strong chest and powerful stomach exposed, nearly hairless, and Lucas felt his face heat up again. Eric playfully nudged an elbow into Lucas’ rib, and Lucas slapped at him.

When Hephaestion saw Lucas and Eric his face lit up again, and he strode over to them. He immediately threw one arm around Lucas, pulling him in, Lucas feeling the warmth of Hephaestion’s naked chest. He suddenly felt a little dizzy.

“Luke!” Hephaestion happily shouted, to be heard over the din of chatter around them, “Did you see the bout?”

“I did,” said Lucas, almost stammering, “Rugby freaked out at you.”

“I know!” said Hephaestion in wonderment, never losing the exultant smile, “But he was the one who started kicking me! I thought if he was going to play dirty I might as well too. Didn’t expect him to drop his weapon and try to pound me though!”

“Well,” said Eric with his arms folded, “It was very sportsmanlike of you to offer him a hand up.”

“Charles is a good guy,” said Hephaestion patiently, “He’s just… easily pissed off. I think he takes everything a little too personally.”

“You were great,” said Lucas in a hushed tone.
Hephaestion grinned, “Thanks Luke! Hey, I’m gonna go shower, meet you here in a few minutes, yeah?”

Hephaestion turned and headed into the doorway nearby and disappeared. Rex ran over, “Can you believe it?” he shouted, “Rugby’s gonna get chewed out by his instructor! I mean, come on, be a man about it!”

“You are far too excited about this,” said Eric.

Rex remained far too excited for the next twenty minutes, as the three stood outside and waited for Hephaestion, who finally emerged, wearing casual clothing, a light cotton shirt and leather pants. He looked even better when he was clean. Lucas shuffled awkwardly when he approached.

Hephaestion threw an arm over Rex’s shoulder, “Time to see the Virgins?” Hephaestion asked happily.

“They won’t be appearing publicly until later tonight,” explained Eric, “There was a delay in their arrival.”

“Too bad,” said Hephaestion, still sounding chirpy, “Let’s get some food then.”

The next hour passed easily enough. Lucas remained mostly silent as he walked along with the three others, Rex still making wild exclamation about Rugby’s behavior, Eric making several sarcastic remarks at Rex’s expense, and Hephaestion eternal earnest optimism bleeding through every syllable to come from his smiling mouth. Lucas found himself staring at Hephaestion while he talked, while he ate… he was so easy to look at. He felt a weakness in his stomach when Hephaestion would catch his eye and try to bring Lucas into the conversation.

Lucas had med Hephaestion a year before at school, and had instantly become friends with him. Then again, Hephaestion became instant friends with most people, he was probably the most friendly person Lucas had ever met. He’d known Eric for the longest, since they were children, and Rex for nearly as long, but of his friends, Hephaestion was his clear favorite and the one to whom he was closest. He wondered about what Eric had said… was it that obvious? Did Hephaestion know?

If he did, he either didn’t mind or didn’t bother to say anything. Hephaestion could be somewhat oblivious, just about every girl at the academy swooned over him and he always seemed entirely surprise when someone report this news to him. In the year Lucas had known Hephaestion, he’d seen him interact with a few girls but he didn’t seem to have much experience in a relationship. Lucas was silently grateful. He didn’t know how he would react to that, but he had heard Hephaestion occasionally rhapsodize about girls he found particularly beautiful. There was an innocence to Hephaestion, an earnestness. He seemed to like everyone, he was always beaming, and he never seemed somber. Contrasted with Lucas’ reserved personality, it was a wonder the two had become friends, but when Lucas was alone with him, he felt much happier and more optimistic. Hephaestion had slept over at Lucas’ house several times. They had several spare bedrooms, after all.

After finding some food (Hephaestion and the others had pork, Lucas had a salad, which he picked at and didn’t eat very much of), dusk began to fall, and the crowds began to head toward Central Square to see the Virgins. Lucas sighed, he supposed there would be a large crowd to contend with after all. He felt conflicted about celebrations like Fey Day: he enjoyed festivity and creativity, but he hated being around so many people.

Lamps were lit along the streets and on the outsides of shops, where many restaurants opened up for dinner. The street musicians kept playing their songs, and women and men wearing wings continued to dance about the sidewalks. High above, the old castle remained silent. Lucas glanced up at it. His father would be coming down from the castle soon, the business of the Church’s arrival had been attended to and all the real political action would begin tomorrow, for now it was enough to secure the Church officials a place to reside (an entire inn in town had been reserved specifically for them, and a separate house for the Virgins). Lucas hoped he didn’t have to hear too much about the proceedings. Politics bored him greatly.

Advertisements

Fearies Awakening #2: The Goblin

803252153068314770

I’ve had a breakthrough. I’ve spent some time recently collating much of the extraneous and conceptual material I’ve written for my book into one place, the word count has reached about 120,000 and counting if I remember correctly. I’ve spent years and years trying to plan out this book, but something has been stopping me from starting work on it. I think it’s that it’s been SO planned, and I’ve thrown so many plans out, that I didn’t know where to begin, or what it would look like. I know a lot about the characters and the story, but it doesn’t have that central thing that ties it all together. I’ve been trying and trying to figure out what the central crux is, the fulcrum on which the rest of the story will turn.

I still don’t know what it is, but I think now that maybe the only way to find it is to set off on the journey with my characters. The story needs a breath of life. I’ve had such a rigid concept of what it needs to be and what it needs to say that I’ve forgotten to let my imagination wander and try new things. Becuase of that, my writing has become stagnant and unmoving. I haven’t known how to begin. I have a books worth of extra material, outlines, notes, and conceptual scenes, but the book itself has barely even begun.

It’s diffiuclt to write a fantasy story without feeling like you’re pilfering from every other fantasy story. There are so many, and they share so many things, that it’s intimidating to even know where to begin. I had a fleeting idea some time ago that I might try something with different fantasy races, I really like having a lot of races. I’ve thought about so many mythical fantasy creatures have been given makeovers: Anne Rice made vampires sexy and compassionate, J. R. R. Tolkien turned elves from tiny mischief makers into tall, lithe and beautiful magicians. Dwarves, well… I’ve never really gotten dwarves. I remembered playing Magic the Gathering when I was a kid, and the many goblin cards, and I saw David Bowie playing the goblin king, and his is still the only goblin I’ve ever seen who was beautiful or fashionable. I thought it might be fun to try something with that idea.

I made a note to start the story with a goblin, and tried to go to bed, but I needed to get up and write the story. At a certain point I thought well I might as well just get up and do it while it’s in my head. A sudden jolt of excitement hit me. I actually thought to myself, “Am I really doing this? Am I really starting the book, finally, after all this time?”

I did.

It’s a breath of fresh air into this world that has become stagnant, despite how deep I’ve sunken into it. I don’t know where the story will go or what shape it will become, but I’m going to let the story lead me to where that place is. I’m not going to force anything anymore, I’m going to let the world and the characters tell me their story, rather than me trying to tell them what their story is.

The prologue exists already, it’s been published on my blog, I’ll probably post it here on Patreon at some point. Read that if you like, to get an idea.

Here it is. The beginning of the first chapter of my book. I don’t know the book’s name yet. I don’t know this character’s name yet. But I’m happy and excited to learn.

***

The goblin dropped his pack on the ground and slumped wearily against a tree, pulling a handkerchief from within his cape and wiping his hooded forehead. He reached into the pack at his feet, rummaged for a moment, and withdrew a silver canteen. With his long, nimble fingers, he hurriedly unscrewed the lid, and popped the canteen eagerly between his lips, cold water rushing over his tongue and cooling his hot head. He took a breath as he wiped some of the spilt water from his chin.

The weather was still warm for mid Autumn, but cool enough for the cape and the hood. He surveyed his surroundings in the forest: a clearing with a small pond, encircled by trees whose leaves shone in the mid-afternoon sun, in the usual shades of gold and red, with a few obstinate clumps of green leaves still clinging to life. The trail he’d taken went right by the pond, and behind him it led up to the hilltop from where, he expected, a lovely view of the city would be commanded.

The wood was lively with creatures. Blue birds chirped high above and didn’t give much care to what happened beneath, too involved in listening to one another’s choruses. A fox stalked timidly up to the other side of the pond and lowered it’s peach colored head to lap up some water hastily, keeping it’s eyes suspiciously trained on the visitor to the wood. A few squirrels had followed him into the clearing, two watched curiously from a tree branch while another more brash squirrel stood on it’s hind legs in the middle of the trail, staring straight ahead.

The goblin grinned and laughed a little. He was used to this. Wild animals were always intensely curious about goblins, and despite how easy it might be to pass as human amongst a human society, the animals could smell it on him. With his long fingers he reached up and let down his hood, shaking his tawny, lengthy mess of Amber hair from his shoulders, and reached up to pick a leaf from his bangs. He held it in front of him and the squirrel who stood on the ground cocked his head to the side, the goblin smiled and blew hard on the leaf, sending it dancing into the air, and causing the squirrel to turn and run behind a tree.

Leaving his pack on the ground, the goblin made his way over to the pond with only a few strides of his long legs. The fox on the other side of the pond glanced up but didn’t move, the goblin made sure to move as lithely and unthreatening as possible, and was actually surprised when the fox bent down to lap up some more water. The goblin bent from his considerable height down to his knees, reached two hands into the pond, and splashed some water on his face. He could see in his periphery this frightened the fox away.

In the rippling water he could see a reflection of his rather long face, water dripping along the sharp angles of his cheekbones and down his pointed chin. His nose had a gentle upward curve at the tip, but was far rounder than most goblins. Long ears protruded from within his lengthy mess of amber hair, and he made a mental note that he’d need to do some work on them to make himself look passably human before he made it to the city.  His long bangs had been splashed and clung wet to his forehead. His eyes were the caramel color that even in a blurry reflection could still be striking. He cocked a grin at his reflection, then pulled out his handkerchief again to wipe his wife. The poor thing had faded from stark white to a dull yellow from weeks of use on the road. He suspected the rest of his clothes had suffered similarly.

He stood and stretched, feeling his joints give several loud creaks. He placed a long finger on his chin and used the slightly pointed nail to scratch his chin in thought. He briefly considered stopping here to lunch, but no, the city was near enough that he could have a proper dinner, and if the gods willed, a bath. He did not like the muddy baths he’d been forced to take in the great river that ran along his path here. Almost better to stay filthy than to bother attempting to wash and then putting on clothes that were quickly beginning to turn sour from overuse.

He smirked again at his own sheepishness. He’d never really liked traveling.

He turned and marched back over to his pack, where one of the squirrels had taken the liberty of inspecting the open side pouch, and who now had his upper body very well buried in it. The goblin barked a little laugh, giving the squirrel a start as it’s head darted back out, and he reached down to throw the pack over his shoulder. Surprisingly, the squirrel climbed over the pack and onto the goblin’s shoulder, and began to inspect the large folds of one of his pointed ears, sticking it’s little wet nose in and giving it a sniff.

The goblin set off again up the path, and quickly came to the hilltop, where just as he suspected, he found a magnificent view.

The hill dropped somewhat steeply down from here, and the trees thinned out, and ahead of him, set in the middle of a lush valley lined with golden trees and streams that glinted faraway in the light of the sun, was the city. A magnificent old castle stood at the far end of the city, round spires rising toward the sky, grey stone battlements, roofs with dark blue tiles that glinted against the light. The goblin admired it’s classic design, this was the kind of architecture not often seen anymore in human cities. In the distance behind the city were dense forests that climbed up onto mountains, and the sky above was a crystalline blue, wispy clouds fluttering across and the bright noon sun in the center of the sky.

Surrounding the castle were rows of houses with thatched roofs and tile, he could see cobblestone streets, and even from this distance the goblin could see with his keen eyes people bustling everywhere. He cocked his head thoughtfully for a moment, and the squirrel on his shoulder shook its tail. He wondered if perhaps the gatherings had already begun, but he had been quite sure he was a day early. Perhaps it was just a very busy city. Human cities usually had that effect on outsiders: they always seemed to be scurrying about like ants, always in a hurry, never stopping to look around. But that’s just how humans were, and he’d learned to accept it. It was charming, once one became acclimated. Goblin cities — to whatever degree there actually were goblin cities — never seemed to be quite so busy, but then goblins didn’t live very communally.

The goblin shrugged, and a gust of cold wind caught the side of his face and the nape of his neck, causing him to shiver, and he remembered to pull up his hood. He felt the squirrel’s nose poke against the fabric by his ear. He set off downhill, relieved that the journey was finally becoming easier, and also that it was nearly over. His heart pounded in his chest a little with excitement, it had been some time since he’d seen so many people gathered at once. He hoped the trip would prove worthwhile.

Fearies Awakening #1: Green Fire, Black Sky

city

Patreon will not allow me to back date a post, so there’s a sequence break over on my Patreon page. This is the prologue, which takes place before The Goblin (the first installment of chapter one). Over here on the blog, you can read more about what started the writing of the book in the next post.

***

            A bellowing screech blasted into the night, slicing the cold air, the sound rattling the tiles on the rooftops.

            Crackling fire. The beating of enormous leathery wings. A green silhouette against the drop of the night sky, a bright white moon shining blue light down on flames of green that ate away at the wood, the iron, the cobbled streets. Fire in every corner.

            Screams, frantic and bewildered. Confusion and the blurry fog of tears in the eyes of men and women, clutching their children, their animals, their clothing, anything they could hold while running.

            A little girl, ragged breath sucked frantically into her chest, her beating heart pounding in her head, her vision a haze of madness, stumbled gracelessly into the street, tripping over her dress, and as she reached down to pluck a dangling ribbon from beneath her slipper, the sound came again.

            A sound like steel twisting against itself, ripping the air to shreds, and a gust of heat blasted over the rooftops, rattling the trees and knocking over the carts. Food strewn about the street was flung up into the air from the force of it, in all corners there were flames, green flames eating the doorways, the signs, the merchant carts. Flowers crackled with green fire in the street.

            The little girl tumbled forward from the blast. She landed flat on her stomach and her nose smacked hard against the cobbled street. She was vaguely aware that there was pain in her head somewhere, and her vision was now tinged with red. She fell helplessly onto her back and looked up into the sky.

            Green embers over green flames, against a black sky, somewhere beyond the veil of smoke there were stars still shining thoughtlessly through.

            She hoisted herself up onto her elbows and drew a breath that she could not quite hear, because all sound was now a hazy din, a high-pitched ringing somewhere inside her head. She looked up ahead, she could hear screaming in all directions, yet she saw only the empty street, its contents turned in on itself, lanterns and silk streamers and placards piled on fruit and toys. The ghastly accoutrements of festivity tossed lazily into a swarm of nightmarish fever.

            There was a figure against the sky, green as the flames. It was not quite solid, and yet it was corporeal. Glowing lights where a face might be, the shape of wings unfurled, and the body a mass of green flame. Beneath the two lights, the flaming shape of jagged teeth as a jaw opened, and the bellowing screech came again, accompanied by a river of flame in all shades of green, ribbons of emerald searing across the wind.

            She held up a hand instinctively to shield herself.

            Flames ripped across the rooftops and into every quarter of the city. In the distance a castle was burning, green fire rising from the windows. Emerald smoke hovered in a humid vapor above the city. A trail of green fire burned down the central path of the city, and struck out at an odd angle, where it led into a square of burning trees.

            Surrounded by flames, a man in dark armor held a child close against his breast, blood spilling across the metal plate and over his fingers, blood drenching the child’s back and his cotton shirt.

            The king wept into his son’s neck, cradling the unconscious boy.

            A woman’s voice shouted over the roaring inferno, “It must be done! He has brought the demon with him, it will not cede until he is dead!”

            “Woman!” croaked the man, “You speak of your son!”

            “My son has been consumed by a devil!” she wailed. The flames cast a flickering shadow onto the stones, that of a slender woman in a thin gown, tangled hair, thin fingers clutching the handle of a long knife.

            The king lay the boy down on the stones. His eyes were still wide, though he saw nothing. His chest rose so gently it may not have moved at all.

            The king’s eyes narrowed as he drew the sword from his side. He advanced upon her and there was a shriek, and the sound of flesh being pierced. The flickering shadows showed a woman run through with a sword, and a thin arm curving around to stab a knife into the man’s back. A guttural moan as they both fell.

            The little boy’s eyes were bright blue, and his gaze held nothing at all, his thoughts somewhere far away from the heat and the fear. Blood pooled around his body, his arm flung to the side and his fingers twitching as if to grasp something that was not there.

            There was a clicking of boots, the slow steps of one solitary figure, a mass of black cloak and long dark hair against the bright green of the fire. A man knelt down by the boy, his unkempt hair dangling over his eyes.

            “Little prince,” he whispered, “Life has more for you yet than this.”

            The man’s gloved hands scooped the boy up in one fluid motion, and his cloak whipped behind him as he walked directly into the green flame, and through it.

            Green sparks fell over the dying bodies of the husband and wife who lay gasping on the stones. Green sparks whirled up into the night sky.

            There was silence, but for crackling fire and a thunderous, croaking growl.

Why I Like Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Final Fantasy series. And when I say black sheep, I mean that the majority of people, both casual fans and hardcore followers of the series alike, really hate it. And I mean they REALLY hate it.

Final Fantasy XIII is a departure in so many ways from the history of the series. There are times when the fact that it’s a Final Fantasy game is indiscernible. It was directed by a series newcomer, Motomu Toriyama, instead of series favorites Hironobu Sakaguchi and character designer Testuya Nomura. Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, who created nearly all of the music for the first eleven Final Fantasy installments, was no longer working with Final Fantasy at the time, and the music was handled by Uematsu collaborator Masashi Hamauzu, who had previously helped with some of the music on Final Fantasy X (his work is usually characterized by stacatto piano and violins, atop lush string arrangements, as opposed to Uematsu whose work feels a bit more like pop rock music in orchestral form). The story took on similar themes as previous installments: a group of ordinary characters fighting extraordinarily powerful forces they shouldn’t by any right be able to handle, characters who harness magic and summon powerful creatures, and as always, the ever present religious allegory and the final battle against god (no really, the final battle in most, if not all Final Fantasy games, is against either the god of that universe, a symbolic god, a literal god, or a character who has become a god or seeks to do so).

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Battle concept from the E3 2007 trailer

Final Fantasy XIII had a lot going for it before release: fans were excited about the new protagonist, Lightning, who was shown off in an E3 concept trailer that showed an early version of the battle system in which battle was entirely active, though still featured menus and magic commands like previous games. Initially, the story was going to be focused on Vanille, but after the positive response to Lightning, the developers switched focus to her. I think that was a good choice because Lightning is a fantastic character. I do often find myself a little aggravated when she is referred to as “the female Cloud Strife.” Despite the opening scenario bearing a lot of similarity to Cloud and Barret’s battle agaisnt the Guard Scorpion, and the fact that she’s an ex-soldier with a moody personality, I don’t actually see much resemblance between the two. Cloud was, in general, a pretty positive character, who actually had a lot of compassion for people’s problems, despite constantly shrugging his shoulders and flipping his hair. Lightning is steely-faced and determined, not at all emotionless but refusing to give in to her fear. Cloud stopped every few minutes to fall to his knees and spazz out with his hands shaking to hold his head still, whereas Lightning almost never loses her drive to push forward.

At any rate, fans liked Lightning and the developers went with it.

The story was written by director Motomu Toriyama, and suppoedly he’s notorious for creating plots that make very little sense. The story of Final Fantasy XIII is so convoluted and bogged down in it’s own terminology that even a dedicated fan who’s played the game several times finds they didn’t really have any clue what was happening on the first play through. Characters communicate with one another, but they seem to always be side-stepping what they’re actually talking about, and no one really gives any clear idea of what’s happening, aside from constantly repeating a few choice phrases (those phrases being, “We’re Pulse l’Cie, enemies of Cocoon,” “If we don’t fulfill our Focus, we’ll become C’ieth,” “Pulse is hell on earth,” “We’re puppets of the fal’Cie,” and “Serah wanted us to save Cocoon”).

Backstory is provided in sporadic chunks that don’t seem to form any clear narrative, and the premise of the final boss fight makes little sense at all. Basically, the villain WANTS the main characters to kill him, because if he dies, Cocoon will be destroyed and he will win. So their response is… to try and kill him. The party shouts about how they refuse to do what he asks, all while doing what he asks. Even weirder is that he fights BACK. His goal is to be killed, yet he attempts to defend himself. It’s a very strange thing. Lightning gives a speech about how they refuse to be bound by their fate, how they refuse to be puppets and do what they’re told, but then she does exactly what they’re told and kills the fal’Cie, with seemingly no idea of how to handle the consequences of what to do when Cocoon falls out of the sky.

The ending also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Throughout the story it’s explained that l’Cie who fulfill their focus become crystal for eternity, unless they’re awakened from crystal stasis by a fal’Cie who gives them a new focus. At the end of the game they fulfill their focus, which was to become Ragnorok and knock Cocoon out of the sky (despite the fact that they did save it), and they turn to crystal because… they did what they were told? Even weirder, it’s never explained how someone can be saved from crystal stasis unless called upon by a fal’Cie, but in the end the entire party turns to crystal and then, with the exception of the characters who held up Cocoon, they’re released fromc crystal with their brands gone, and receive no explanation. This will be half-heartedly explained in the sequels, but Final Fantasy XIII is a self-contained story, and doesn’t mention how this could be possible.

Then there’s Fabula Nova Crystalis.

You see, Final Fantasy XII takes place in a sub-series within the Final Fantasy series called Fabula Nova Crystalis. This is kind of like the Ivalice Alliance from earlier in the series, except that Final Fantasy Tactics wasn’t created with the intention of making a sub-series. Basically, Fabula Nova Crystalis games share the same lore about the creation of their universe, but… not much else. They contain similar themes, they contain fal’Cie, but apart from that they don’t seem to have much to do with one another. The gods serve different functions in different games within the subseries. For instance, the goddess Etro has a different function in Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Type-0, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII (we’ll come back to that in a moment). They don’t all actually happen in the same universe, they happen in different VERSIONS of the same universe. So Final Fantasy XIII and it’s direct sequels are a sub-series (The Lightning Saga) within another sub-series (Fabula Nova Crystalis), within a larger series (Final Fantasy).

Even as a dedicated fan of the series, I’ll admit it’s all very contrived and pretentious.

Then of course, we have Tetsuya Nomura.

Nomura is the character designer for Final Fantasy. He works alongside Yoshitaka Amano who does almost all of the concept illustrations (you might recognize his style from the Final Fantasy logo illustrations, the art of Vampire Hunter D, or his collaboration with Neil Gaiman on a Sandman spinoff). Amano’s style is very unique, his characters tend to have angular pale faces with dark-colored lips and flowing garments that look like watercolor even when they’re pencil sketches. Nomura’s style is a bit more reminiscent of anime. His style has actually become something of an RPG trope.

Crisis Core

It’s become pretty common that if there’s an RPG, the main character will have some or all of the following characteristics: a tall, thin but slightly muscular male, with spikey or otherwise outrageous hair, usually blonde. His facial features will be somewhat androgynous, and regardless of his age he’ll look like he’s seventeen. He’ll probably be wearing a constant scowl and gazing longingly into the horizon, or moping in the rain. He’ll be carrying some kind of enormous weapon like a sword that looks like it’s a chunk of metal ripped from the side of a skyscraper, or something eqaully obstuse like a techno-sword or transforming gun. He’ll be wearing outlandish clothes, usually covered in belts that don’t serve much purpose, accesorized so much that you wonder how he can walk around without jangling like a set of house keys, he’ll probably have a pauldron on his left shoulder and the left side of his outfit will be far more decorated than the right side. He’ll also be wearing either combat boots or large sneakers, and if he’s done in the style of animated character, he’ll probably have giant hands and feet and a thin, lanky body.

Oh and also sometimes angel wings. Don’t ask me why.

If you recognize this archetype, you have Tetsuya Nomura to thank. I don’t mean to imply that he created Bishounen or the style of Doujinshi characters, but his influence on the video game world is pretty undeniable. Nomura was involved in the development of Final Fantasy XIII but only as far as character design, after that he stepped away and didn’t want to have anything else to do with it. In fact, he was so opposed to the game, that he started working on his own game, which he titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, because it was created in direct opposition to Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy Versus XIII was a bad name, but it stuck, and for years, fans had only scraps of information and a few brief concept trailers relating to the game. No one really knew what it was like, who these characters were, what kind of game it would be. Information was so slim that after nearly a decade, fans began to wonder if it hadn’t been cancelled altogether. Then it was announced that Final Fantasy Versus XIII would be rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, and fans collectively lost their shit with excitement, especially those who felt put upon by the radical departure of Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t just different in it’s scenario design, it played unlike any in the series so far. One of the big complaints fans had for Final Fantasy X was it’s linearity, the fact that players mostly walked a (very pretty) straight line from end of the game to the other, and that any time the world opened up, it was really only the illusion of space. When an ariship was provided for exploration, it only allowed players to warp to previous locations in the game, since there hadn’t been an overworld since Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy XII attempted to remedy this problem by opening the game up so much that traversing the world map meant slogging through several screens of wide open land. Both of these approaches worked in some ways and failed in others. In Final Fantasy X, the focus remained on the story, while traveling the straight path allowed some time for random battles and character customization. The wide open areas of Final Fantasy XII meant a larger opportunity to grind for experience, money and items, but a longer wait for the next story segment.

Final Fantasy XIII decided to adapt the Final Fantasy X strategy and keep things linear. Very linear.

Very, VERY linear.

No really, the number one complaint about this game is that it’s virtually on rails. And the people who made that complaint are absolutely correct. It really is. The areas are breathtakingly beautiful, but most of the time the paths you travel are tight hallways or catwalks, overlooking a gorgeous landscape that you can’t explore. Many of the paths serve only as set pieces to highlight the beautiful surroundings, which you cannot experience up close. Rather than random battles, enemies prowl around in real time, but approaching them moves the game to a battle screen. This method has been used in plenty of RPG’s before and it works, but it’s ultimately up to the player to decide whether they prefer slogging through endless random battles or choosing which battles to partake in. I admit that if the developers had chosen to use random battles, the linear pathways would probably have been unbearable for me, and the huge surroundings would be barren and lifeless.

Battle

Battles themselves turn the RPG formula on it’s head. You still have the option of choosing commands from a menu, but it’s really only the illusion of choice. Most of the time you’ll be using an “auto-battle” function. Now, I know it seems ridiculous to even include an “auto-battle” option, but there is a reason for it. Final Fantasy XIII’s battles are not actually about choosing which individual abilities to use on which character, they’re actually about choosing which CHARACTERS are performing which KINDS of actions. Characters are given six roles: Commando, Ravager, Medic, Saboteur, Synergist, and Sentinel. What these ultimately equate to are: Tank, Offensive Mage, Healer, Debuff Mage, Protective Mage, and Damage Magnet. Different characters have different combinations of access to these roles, so constantly changing your style to fit the situation is a necessity. You then focus all your effort on one enemy at a time, attacking them and building up a Chain Gauge, which when filled entirely, will send the enemy into an incredibly weak “staggered” status, which allows your characters to do double, triple or more damage, launch foes into the air, hit them with debuffs they were previously resistant to, or in the case of some behemoth superbosses, knock them on their side so you can pound away at them or heal yourself.

Different roles have different staggering capabilities. Commandos basically don’t affect that chain gauge at all, and during my first play through of the game I somehow managed to completely miss this, often throwing three tanks at a single enemy and wondering why they just weren’t doing enough damage. Ravagers are the best at building chain gauges, but if you attack with only ravagers, the gauge will rapidly drop down to zero, so you need a Commando or a debuffing Saboteur to stabilize it so that it drops much slower. The entire battle system is built around monitoring your opponents chain gauge, buffing yourself and debuffing them, and keeping yourself healed while you wait for them to hit their stagger point and then go in for the kill.

Healing items basically don’t exist. You are given two healing items the entire game, a simple Potion, and an incredibly rare full-healing Elixir (there are something like five obtainable Elixirs in the entire game). The Potion is obsolete even by the third chapter or so, it only heals a set number of HP, and there are never any upgraded Potions available at any point during the game. It’s like they’re only there to taunt you. You absolutely HAVE to have a Medic in your party, healing you almost constantly, or you will go down quickly. This makes party customization (when it becomes available extremely late in the game) very difficult, because there are only two apt Medics in the entire game, Hope and Vanille, and they happen to be the characters with the lowest HP, particularly Hope, you will have to spend a good amount of your time either healing or bringing back to life with Phoenix Downs (luckily those are still pretty useful, if expensive).

Even though each character has a unique set of three roles available to them (ability to unlock other roles becomes accessible later, but the amount of experience required makes it nearly impossible, and even still, not all characters can excel in every role), there are essentially three presets: tank, mage, and all-rounder, and you are given two of each. In order to succeed, you basically need to have one of each kind in your party if you want to win. For example, the two all-rounders are Lightning and Sazh, the two mages/healers are Hope and Vanille, and the two tanks are Fang and Snow. This means that it’s almost impossible to have a successful party setup WITHOUT Hope or Vanille, and attempting to use both Sazh and Fang at the same time means you have to subtract Lightning, or if you want multiple tanks in your party your other character can’t be an all-rounder, they need to be a healer. This isn’t about Paradigm roles, it’s the way the characters are designed.

I personally like characters to have limited designs (for example: Vivi is the only black mage in Final Fantasy IX, and cannot be turned into a tank no matter how hard you try, whereas Zidane is a physical attacker and can’t learn magic whatsoever), it’s definitely preferable to the blank slates of Final Fantasy VII, where each character is an interchangeable carbon copy of one another and the ability to overpower characters with Materia makes the characters themselves inherently pointless with no noticeable stat differences. However, the battles are set up in such a way that you simply CANNOT survive without having an adept healer, so Lightning isn’t good enough, and if you unlock the Paradigm roles for them, neither are Sazh, Fang or Snow. Only Vanille and Hope can be counted on to reliably heal the party, so this means you HAVE to use one of the two of them at all times. I don’t mind these characters, in fact Vanille is one of my favorites, but you can see how this becomes limiting quickly. This preset character type also means that the only way to viably use Sazh in your party is to replace Lightning, in which case you have an all-rounder that can’t heal, or replace your tank, in which case you have to repurpose your all-rounder in a tank.

Odin

Characters level up through “CP,” or Crystogen Points, which you use to increase their stats and abilities in the Crystarium, which is more less a very limited version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. The Crystarium actually caps at a certain point in each of the game’s thirteen chapters, and you don’t actually unlock the entirety of the Crystarium until after the game is completed. Grinding for crystogen points can be incredibly monotonous, particularly if you don’t have the Growth Egg accessory which doubles CP and is very difficult to acquire when it becomes first available. Though each character is eventually granted access to every role in the Crystarium, each Crystarium is different for each character, and no matter how much you grind, certain characters will never be able to excel at certain roles or obtain certain abilities. For instance, the healing ability Curaja is available to only two characters in the game, the dedicated healers Hope and Vanille. So, no matter how hard you try to make Sazh a capable healer, he will never have access to that spell, basically making your efforts to turn him into your parties dedicated healer useless unless your incredibly overpowered. Lightning and Hope both have unique versions of the Sentinel role which allow them to sidestep enemy attacks rather than take them with the damage mitigated, but you don’t really get the chance to use Lightning in this role until after the game’s completed and you’ve already got plenty of other capable Sentinels, and Hope manages to be a damage magnet with the lowest HP in the game even when he isn’t a Sentinel, so making him one would require incredibly careful repurposing of your other party members.

Because of how limited the characters are, it’s incredibly difficult to choose a weapon. The weapon in system in Final Fantasy XIII is probably my favorite aspect of customization, despite how flawed it is. No weapon in the game is truly bad, they’re all just suited to different purposes, and each one has a catch. If the weapon has incredibly high strength growth, it’s probably at the expense of magic growth, and if it excels in both, it will probably come with the Stagger Lock property which prevents that specific character from being able to stagger enemies. Some weapons have great secondary bonus effects like improved healing or extension of buffs/debuffs/stagger time, but this usually comes at a cost of hugely cutting the weapons stats, to the point that you can’t rely on that weapon to increase your stats at all and you have to use accessories, of which you have a limited amount of slots.

Because you can’t really tell what the stat growth for each weapon is like upon receiving them, you’re basically forced to use a guide to tell which weapon will have the stats you need for the role you’re intending to use that character in, and if you make a wrong choice you can waste a LOT of resources leveling up a weapon that doesn’t suit your purposes, with no way to get back all that money you spent on it. And money is an incredibly limited resource in Final Fantasy XIII. LITERALLY the only way to get money is to sell items that you find in the field, usually weapons you aren’t using. This is frustrating if you’re attempting to get the Treasure Hunter achievement/trophy, which requires you to possess every single item in the game, and it’s upgraded form, at one time or another. Either you sell the equipment now and buy it back later to upgrade it for the achievement, or you give up on the achievement altogether. Ultimately it’s an achievement not truly worth breaking your back over, you don’t get any other in-game reward apart from the achievement itself, but for die-hards who want to unlock everything, it’s very frustrating.

So, put all of this together and you can see where the criticism comes from. Final Fantasy XIII is a game with a contrived plot, which takes place over several linear chapters where you travel on rails from point A to point B, fighting battles in which you’re forced to keep everyone in their boxes without much chance for customization, given incredibly little money or resources to upgrade your equipment or buy new items, a character growth system which provides only the illusion of customization (every character will cap out with the exact same stats every time you play the game) and level caps for each chapter, and a system in which truly excelling at battles isn’t permitted until after the game has been completed.

So… why do I like it so much?

archylte_steppe_-_central_expanse

It’s hard to tell. I once had a friend who accused me of being in an abusive relationship with Lightning, that I had convinced myself the game was fun and stayed with it even though it was doing absolutely nothing for me. And I’ve actually wondered that a few times too. I see the games flaws, I’m not ignorant of them. I’ve sunk SO many hours into this game, replaying from the beginning many times, that I recognize these problems probably more than casual gamers who gave up on Final Fantasy XIII (and I have met a lot of people who said they gave up and never finished the game).

But there’s something very charming about it. The story is mostly nonsense, but it’s fun nonsense, and there are some worthwhile concepts being explored, even in Final Fantasy XIII’s obtuse way. The characters are fun, Lightning herself is an awesome heroin, Fang and Vanille provide the first example of an LGBT relationship in the Final Fantasy series, even if it’s entirely subtext. Snow annoys the hell out of me, but at least I get to see Lightning punch him and Hope call him out on being such a chummy douchebag. Sazh is one of the most well-rounded characters in Final Fantasy, humorous and emotional at once, with perhaps the most believable motivations in the game. The flashbacks are odious, and the game drags at several points, but there’s something about Final Fantasy XIII that makes me want to put in some headphones and listen to podcasts or an audiobook while I while away forty hours trying new things that I didn’t before. I’ve replayed the game many times, and I’ve been impressed by the versatility of the characters if you know what you’re doing and put it to good use. It’s possible to make Lightning a better tank than Fang, to have Sazh excel in either damage dealing or magic (he happens to have the best weapon/ability combination for building chain gauges in the game), to use Snow… at all.

No really, I would estimate that I’ve probably put a combined… three hundred to four hundred hours of my life into this game, and I only recently on this very last playthrough ever used Snow at all, for anything. Previously I had only used him as my human shield while Death-spamming the Ochu that gives you the Growth Egg. Fun fact about that, by the way: it usually takes me hours to get Death to work on it, this past attempt it worked on my FIRST try. Sorry, I just needed to share that.

Final Fantasy XIII, for all it’s limiting narrow linearity, actually has a fair amount of versatility. If you go into it wanting it to be Final Fantasy X, you’re going to be disappointing. But if you accept it for what it is: a deeply flawed but still fun game, with stunning visuals, a mostly excellent score (even if it is repetitive), and an immersive world, even a silly immersive world, then you can have fun with it. After my first time conquering the game, I thought maybe I’d be done with it, but found that I had much more fun in the post-game than I did during the story. The world DOES eventually open up, even if it opens up to the Archylte Steppe, a huge (gorgeous) sandbox filled with wolves and Adamantoise, and several hours worth of monster hunts.

Final Fantasy XIII will never be the open-ended, super customization adventure that most RPG’s attempt to be. But it wasn’t actually trying to be. It was trying to create a method of playing so streamlined that it felt like an interactive movie, where battles happen in the illusion of real time, the characters traversing narrow catwalks are actually experiencing this real journey on foot, and the story takes precedence over everything. It is riddled with flaws, and I wish that there could be a re-release of the game that just fixed a few choice issues: lack of customization in the Crystarium, lack of money, and better access to weapon customization materials. It isn’t the linearity that bothers me as a player, it’s the lack of ability to make each playthrough different from the last. It’s possible, but the differences are subtle.

I genuinely don’t know why I learned to love this game, but I did. I see it’s flaws, and I enjoy it anyway. It is not as immediately fun to pick up as past Final Fantasies, but for some reason, when I want to binge on an RPG and mindlessly level up a character for hours while I’m listening to audiobooks, I tend to choose Final Fantasy XII.

This post was initially meant as an overview of why I like the entire Final Fantasy XIII sub-series, but it accidentally turned into a review of the game, which is fine because I attempted to review it once and made a huge mess. So, maybe sometime I’ll come back for “Why I Kind of Like Final Fantasy XIII-2” or “Why I Mostly Like Lightning Returns.”