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The Bookworm

Art commission by @javi_draws

This is an Assassin’s Creed Short Story set in the time of Valhalla

 

The Bookworm – part 1

 

Absolute Silence. Hanna peered through the thin gap at the door outside at the thick billowing fog that had settled in the dark hours before dawn. It was eerie how it seemed to suffocate all sound. She had been lying awake, but the long absence of even the creak of a tree limb alerted her to what else she could not hear, her warden’s horse. The same she had been responsible for putting to stable the prior night. She’d have no skin left after the lashing she was sure to receive.

Moving from near slumber to alert in an instant she quietly slipped out the door, confirming immediately her fears. The horse was no where to be seen, and the unusual fog and predawn false light seemed to have swallowed the entire village past the low stone fence at the edge of the yard. Even the bare limbs of the great tree she woke to every morning were but suggestions of a shape in the mist. She pulled her worn blanket over her arms and made her way into the yard.

She was afraid to call after the horse only to wake her warden or his mean-spirited son, Brandon. She scowled at the thought of his mocking sneer. Her cheek and eye still hurt from where he had struck her with a rock, but she got even. Her scowl twisted into a smile as she recalled his expression when he was told he would also be whipped for the rock fight he insisted she had started. So, what if she had? He was not the only of the children in the village who was mean, just the meanest. They teased her for being tall. For not having a family, and for where she was from. Most days quiet indifference stung worse than words, but Brandon clearly resented her.

She walked gingerly through the thorny grass in her bare feet until she had checked everywhere close to the small home. Winnifred had left, which was uncharacteristic for her after dark. Or Freyja, as Hanna would call her in solitude; as they both had two names.

Hanna made her way up the worn path toward the middle of the village, where the weathered stone chapel towered over the surrounding village and small garrison nearby. This was where she would usually walk the horse each morning. With a sigh of relief, she found Winnifred eating flowers near the great wooden chapel doors. She patted the horse lovingly as her gaze wandered to the darkened glass windows above. To her surprise there was a faint flicker of light from inside. She looked both ways, in one direction a lone watchman struggled to stay awake under his torch, and the other way not a soul in sight. Then she noticed one of the great wooden chapel doors was slightly ajar. Whispering a kind word to the horse, Hanna stepped closer to peek inside.

The light came from a few candles at a large table at the far end of the main chamber, where several parchments lay rolled next to a heavy bound book. A book she breathed, staring with wide eyes. The horse continued to graze on the bright petals nearby. Hanna looked twice and slipped into the chapel. Someone had been here just minutes before she was sure, but she could not contain her curiosity. Before she had come into the care of her warden, she had just started to learn letters and remained fascinated by reading. Sometimes she would lay awake dreaming of stories of ancient libraries told to her by the Skald who visited the settlement she grew up in, among her earliest memories which now felt like a life ago. A life when she lived with the Northmen.

She had been told she was of Saxon birth but taken young as a servant to invading Vikings. Sometimes she thought she could remember the longships, but her warden would chide her that she was far too young at the time to possibly recall that. He made no illusion of his disdain for her time there in servitude, which she now only recalled with fond memory. It was hard work, but life with the Northmen felt freer than the oppression she felt today. Since the soldiers saved her, as she was often reminded. Saved, as the settlement she grew up in was burnt and the Northmen scattered or killed. Saved, and given a new name they preferred the sound of.

Her feet had carried her carefully through the main chamber, expecting at any moment to discover somebody there. She reached the large table with no one else in sight. She studied the shadows intently; the candles could not have burnt as such for long. Then her eyes fixed on the prize at the center of the light, the lone massive book. Its reinforced cover was intricate leather work and precious stone inlays. Surely this was too valuable to just be carelessly left out. The edge of the pages shone like gold. Midway through the pages there was a disturbed edge, as if it had been handled roughly. She opened it to the spot. The brilliant colors leapt off the page into her eyes like a vivid dream. Illustrations of men dressed like kings and row after row of careful tight script filled the page. She noticed a bit of the prior page was torn. No, not torn, an entire page was missing but for a corner. Who would damage such a priceless wonder?

She turned her attention to the rolls of parchment. One was held flat by the candle and a decorative knife. This looked like something a man she had seen at the garrison carrying. Neat rows of words paired with numbers. A list of things for the soldiers, she guessed. A sudden waver in the light caught her attention. A draft came from the door, now open wide. She heard hurried footsteps outside, but they were not coming for her. Winnifred made a nervous sound. Next, she heard the village bell.

They were being attacked.

The garrison was alive with commotion as soldiers rushed to down the hill towards the banks of the river where she could hear the first indistinct sounds of men shouting, weapons striking shields and the dull rumble of many boots. She could smell smoke. Then from nearby a familiar voice, Brandon. He had spotted Winnifred and was trying to guide the horse, who was objecting. Winnifred did not like him and when he got frustrated the horse listened even less.

“Hanna!” Brandon yelled out as he struggled with the horse before repeating his cry. He had come searching for her and the horse.

Hanna reverently closed the wondrous book and pinched the candles out as she prepared to quickly leave. Outside she found Brandon red in the face and dressed in a riding coat. In his fist he had doubled the end of a rope and was rising his hand to strike the defiant horse. Hanna caught his fist, gaze locked steady with his. In the eyes of the slightly older boy a flicker of fear, quickly replaced by anger.

“We have to go,” he shouted at her. “Now!”

Hanna took the tack and bridle from Brandon and helped put it on Winnifred, soothing the horse until Brandon was able to mount. She caught herself looking back into the chapel at the now dark table and book. Her feet felt heavy, something was amiss and even with the approaching din of battle she felt compelled to sort out why. Who had been there minutes before her looking at the book?

“Come on!” Brandon bellowed at her. Then, a burning arrow struck near where they stood. The glow of burning roofs from down the hill now illuminated the fog with a harrowing light.

“Freyja, go!” Hanna commanded, a crack in her voice. Hanna refused to get on with him. To Brandon’s protest the horse obediently started towards their home without her. Hanna trusted she would get them there, where his father was surely waiting so they could flee. She watched as they disappeared.

Footsteps approached where the watchman one stood, and Hanna slipped back inside the chapel and quickly hid in an adjoining chamber not far from the table. Two Vikings, one of broad shoulders with a bloodied great axe and the other taller, older with numerous scars and one blind eye. The latter carried a torch as they pushed open the chapel doors and began rummaging for anything of value. It did not take long for the elder of the two to come to a standstill at the table. She could hear them discussing something they were looking for; the book she now held where she hid. She recognized the dialect. They were not of the same ätt as her childhood family, but one she remembered to be a neighbor with a storied history of raiding.

A third raider approached the chapel. “Is it here?” the woman called to the two men as she entered. Her torchlight quickly met near where the others were searching, just narrowly out of Hanna’s line of sight. Her idea of sneaking out the door when they moved to search the rear of the great chamber was seeming a little less bright by the minute. The Vikings split up, turning through coffers and shelves, torch light casting long shadows everywhere. Slowly they made their way to the rear of the chamber as Hanna had hoped.

Hanna tip toed from her hiding spot and made a quiet dash to the door, only to come face to face with the keen point of an axe. The woman raider was taller than her, rows of blond braids framing her war painted face. “Ooh,” the woman spoke in a sing-song tone as Hanna froze. “Light reading?” She joked, lowering her axe. The other men stood near silently as if by command, watching. Outside the sounds of fighting was growing quiet. Hanna smelled rain.

“Someone was here,” Hanna replied in the tongue of her youth. All three raiders expressions shifted in response. “There are pages torn out,” she continued as she handed the book to the woman.

They opened the book; the eldest let out a whistle of appreciation. Observing the same missing pages she closed the book and began checking the situation outside. “Girl, what is your name?” the Viking woman demanded. “Do you read?”

“Hanna,” she replied, clearing her throat. “I mean, Hadda” she corrected bashfully. “And no. I want to learn to read.” She added.

The woman turned to face her directly. “How do you feel about sailing?”

 

continued in part 2

Halo, Anthem and why we don’t need another Destiny clone.

alternate title “A List Of Things I Hope Halo Infinite Is Not”

The Holiday season is looming, and the Halo Infinite launch party Xbox may once have intended to coincide with the release of the Xbox Series X is finally happening a year and many semiconductor and pandemic related delays later. It’s time to thaw Master Chief after an extended break following the 2015 release of Halo 5, in what 343 has once called a spiritual reboot for the flagship title of the Xbox brand. No pressure.

First, a story about why Halo is a bit personal to me. Years back when we were first living together, my wife picked up a copy of Halo: Reach for her Xbox 360 “to see if it was any good”. Neither of us had played a Halo before it, and I was into mostly fantasy RPG games. A weekend later, we had a second Xbox and another copy of Halo: Reach so we could play together. Soon we’d rearrange the living room to accommodate side by side TVs and forever changed what family night in looked like at our house.

Fast forward to present and on any given game night we may be on different games, single player games, watching a show or playing games with different sets of friends but we still play in parallel. There are a few games we still play together, or exclusively together, and Halo is one of them. As this next title nears release and I see features like cooperative play de-prioritized to make an already late release window, I can’t help but think of other titles we have been excited to try that did not turn out as well. Anthem comes to mind.

BioWare’s ill-fated epic multiplayer space opera fell far short of its potential. Anthem otherwise had all of the right ingredients – excellent flight and combat mechanics, innovative design, breathtaking views and top shelf graphics, a great team of writers and a likeable cast of characters. What went wrong? I can name one mistake, broadly, that no publisher is too big to repeat. Please stop trying to make another Destiny-style live service looter shooter.

Destiny itself is riddled with annoyances its player-base tolerates as they turn in each week to participate in what is otherwise an anomaly in the space-time fabric of gaming. Its success is despite of itself. Random loot rolls for the same limited set of weapons and armor is not the part of the game we need to copy. Another game that made this mistake and later course corrected was Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; the maddening, meaningless deluge of loot to be immediately deconstructed was addressed in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (thank you a thousand times).

It isn’t to say that there is no appeal at all in repeating the same content to try and get the ideal roll for your favorite set of gear, it is just that this cycle by itself can quickly become frustrating and lead to fast burnout. Adding in low drop rates or actual technical issues can turn the experience very negative fast for some players who feel like they put in the work but did not get the reward or expected progression credit. Sooner than the designer would hope, the game will get turned off. This is not hyperbole, but rather a recurring observation from my own home.

I liked Anthem. The storytelling and world-building reached straight into the depths of my imagination and did not let go. I trusted the talent behind two of my other favorite games of all time to be able to deliver something fresh and innovative. I even wrote a bit of fan fiction ahead of the release about one mysterious type of enemy character – ones that appeared to be a model of rogue hardware not unlike the heroes own. I feel like BioWare delivered on this much – the flight combat was as good as we hoped. They were just asked to fit it into a persistent world model it did not seem to be built to support. Fort Tarsis did not need to be Destiny’s Last City for us to love it. I could write for another hour what else they could have done differently but I am sure the team who worked on it knows better than anyone else what they wanted to accomplish.

Halo for me wasn’t ever what Destiny turned out to be, nor was it Call of Duty or Battlefield. Or Fortnite or Apex or Titanfall. Where I started with Reach, Halo was always about the fire team. Being an individual in a group working together to accomplish something heroic. I know for a lot of players Halo was first about playing as Spartan 117.

Master Chief. Blasting alien bad guys with a likable woman AI sidekick and delivering great one-liners in that iconic lead guy voice, this time in a giant open world environment. A face on the front of soda cans and bags of chips and boxes of cereal, a brand almost as recognizable as Star Wars. I have reservations and doubts about the character of Master Chief, who for some people is their Luke Skywalker in this story, but other people may wish to see more of themselves represented on screen. I get this is their “spiritual reboot”, but I hope 343 builds on the amazing cast they had assembled for the previous stories and continues to push the idea of Halo as a larger world than just John and Cortana.

I digress. To be fair, I don’t know exactly what an average week will look like in the life of a Halo Infinite player. The Destiny comparisons above might be totally inaccurate. If the Master Chief Collection or Halo 5 were a good indicator, it was a mix of incentives from both replaying story missions and playing various cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes. On paper, this is pretty much any successful game with live seasons today, but I don’t think any publisher is too big to get this wrong.

The genre today is flush with worlds that built on the success of early titles that include Halo, and a publisher may be motivated to make “the next Apex” or successor to the other title I’ve referenced already. No Brand Too Large to fall over itself to copy a new formula, like Battlefield launching the equivalent of straight to VHS (yes I’m old) title, skipping story mode completely in favor of a large format team battle that looks nothing like the ones it pioneered because that apparently worked OK for another recent title. Banking on microtransactions when they have been broadly frowned on as bordering on predatory. Halo is not and never was any of those things. This doesn’t have to be billed as “a return to form” if they just.. not try to be something else.

Halo Infinite may have launched without co-op story mode for valid reasons, one envelope pushed at the expense of another. I just hope the teams working on it were allowed to deliver the Halo they dreamed of working on.

My wife and I will see you on Zeta, in one game mode or another.

Half Of My Heart Is In Havana – Far Cry 6

far cry 6 Dani in the capital city of Yara, car, high rise apartments and poster of  Antón Castillo
image credit Ubisoft Far Cry 6 fan kit

Set in the fictional Caribbean island of Yara, Ubisoft’s Far Cry 6 is a showcase of adrenaline and breathtaking locale. The series known for its over the top action and darker themes borrows at times from real life events, and like the Camila Cabello song you might hear on a radio in the game referenced in the title of this review, is very much based on a real place.

The richly detailed environments push the limits of even the highest end gaming hardware today, setting a high bar few other games released this year could approach. It flexes first its credentials as an action title, and then sets out to establish a story the player cares about. Or stories, plural, as it plays more like a good show on Netflix. Here in the finer details is where everything could have gone wrong, but turned out to be the best risk they had taken yet.

Dani Rojas, cover image with rifle and red smoke

The return of voiced protagonist to Far Cry is Dani Rojas, a reluctant heroine who at the onset of the game dreams of a better life away from her homeland in Miami. Unlike the previous protagonists in Far Cry games, Dani gets a full part on camera during dialog and in cut scenes. The difference is just the first way the team set this apart from the series before it, and it is not a small detail. The way the character interacts or even comments out loud on the world around her takes this further, even down to the way she occasionally hums or sings along to the radio while in the car. It is through her eyes and experiences the world of Yara comes to life.

Opposite Dani is the villain Antón Castillo, the Yara’s El Presidente played by Giancarlo Esposito. For a series known best for its iconic bad guys, they did not hold back creating a part that seemed made for the actor. The character of Antón steals the scene – commands it – whenever he speaks. It is very effective storytelling.

Antón Castillo , close up of expression as he listens

The narrative and writing teams on Far Cry 6 put their best work into the depth of cast and individual stories told in each of the regions explored in the game. The people Dani meet are the heart of the game, from families impacted by Castillo’s regime to farmers and musicians and artists or resistance fighters ranging from street gangs to veteran guerillas of generations prior wars. The struggles like those of the Montero family or Radio Libertad are the ones that really grabbed hold of me and did not let go. Far Cry does a good job of being both a game for fun and not losing sight of the bigger picture, giving each location the time and attention to detail to do it justice. I never felt in a hurry to leave an area, and fell in love with the characters I met. The stories felt personal. This was no accident.

Ubisoft described some of the work that went into creating the world of Yara, and the real places they visited and people they interviewed, including family of guerillas who lived through similar events that would serve as a backdrop for Dani’s journey. Every writer, artist, musician and actor who worked on it spoke seriously on the inspirations they found that went into the game. Their stories were important to them and the evidence is in the results. The Montero family seemed less like quest NPCs and more like people you might actually know and care about.

By the time the credits rolled I felt like I had been a participant in something extraordinary, and found myself thinking long after on what I had played.

If you had played the previous Far Cry games and are curious, Far Cry 6 does not “end” after the main story and has plenty to do after. I completed the main story in about fifty hours with time spent on most of the side stories, which I felt was a good length for the game. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for comparison was around 110 hours, counting only some of the side content.

I am looking forward to the DLC content for Far Cry 6 which includes stories from three other Far Cry games focusing on the villains Vaas, Pagan Min and The Father.

sun rise in Yara, scenic view from atop a hill. far cry 6
Far Cry 6 screen shot taken on Xbox

“Sable” – Brilliance in simplicity

Sable Game screenshot rider on bike, dust trail and city in the distance

I don’t have a clear memory of how I was recommended to pick up Sable. Whichever games writer it was, I should thank. Developed by Shedworks, Sable quietly upended my gaming nights, challenging the notion that one had to suffer to grow or to fully appreciate the challenge of a video game. It is a masterpiece in simplicity, driven by a curious spirit and subtly. Sable is an exploration dream game that I am happy exists today.

Sable tells the coming of age story of a young girl who must leave home on a journey called The Gliding. Gifted the power of the “Perpetual”, she can hover to glide from one high point to another. Her only other boon is her hover bike, which she shares an almost spiritual connection with. In The Gliding she will discover new places, help others and when she is done, choose her mask.

The symbolism here simultaneously overt and loaded with subtext to ponder. Through the tasks she completes and places she visits, she earns and collects a number of decorative masks that tell a story of how she earned them or an idea they represent.

Featuring virtually no sense of conflict of any kind, danger of dying or punishing loss of progress, Sable sets itself apart in simple expressions of wonder. A detailed room in a ruin, or view cresting a hill and the mere suggestion there may be something to see or find further on. The exploration and climbing puzzles do get progressively more challenging and always assumed some degree of thought to solve, but never felt like tests of patience or frustrating.

sable climbing a difficult slope

The characters are well written and likable, anchoring the lighthearted tale. The beautiful style of art has to be seen in motion to fully appreciate, and makes powerful use of lighting and changing colors to bring the cell animated world to life. The original music score by Japanese Breakfast may be one of my favorite details, redefining what it might mean to actually unwind while enjoying a game. The music is soothing, playful and perfectly matches the setting. One could almost imagine the world built backward to accommodate the sound.

Sable is one of the very few games I played until I had every achievement unlocked. It was worth every moment. I still find myself thinking about the story, the characters and which mask I ended up choosing in the end.

The game is suitable for all ages, kids young and old as they say. At time of writing, it is available on Xbox Gamepass.

sable riding hover bike with light trail in a high contrast forest at night

My review of “Lost in Random”

image credit EA – official store pages for the game

“Lost in Random” is delightful, different in the right ways and drop dead gorgeous. Told in six acts, this puzzle exploration adventure follows Even on a journey to save her sister Odd from the nefarious Queen of the Kingdom of Random. The art style is a triumph of twisted dreamscapes telling a distinct story of each of the areas in the Kingdom. While one may be tempted to compare the trip down the rabbit hole to one or more other popular stories with unusual styles of art, Lost in Random seems quite comfortable being itself instead. Setting itself further apart is the combat gameplay and your adorable companion, Dicey.

Battles in Lost in Random put the player much closer to action than most 3rd person floating camera style games, which is where the zany art and fantastic animations really shine. Collect and draw “at random” one of many ability cards, which Even executes with a bodily toss of her dice friend. Some grant her a sword or bow, heal or shield her or unleash havoc in a number of other creative ways. Even’s voice actress plays a big part in setting the tone for fight sequences as the spoken lines not only pair with direct actions, but also continue the specific scene within the story. Combat never felt like an interruption in the story, and some of the best dialog between Even and the numerous adversaries she faces takes place in the thick of an encounter. The end result is a huge compliment to the voice talent that worked on the game and feels almost like a stage performance in several parts.

I reserved my last compliments for the character and story writers – I felt very engaged in what was easily a storybook come to life from the start. They hit all of the right notes – a lot of laughs, a few tears and many characters that were memorable because they were different.

Lost in Random is not exceptionally difficult but did get tough in a few encounters. I played it in approximately one sitting per act – about a weeks worth of evenings. It would be possible to complete much quicker if you rush through.

Lost in Random, night in Two Town.
Even and Dicey admire a mysterious mural

My Review of “This Is How You Lose the Time War”

This set unrealistic expectations for the quality of snide letters I would exchange with my nemesis.

Seriously, what a wild ride. Boldly unconventional, El-Mohtar and Gladstone have created a vibrant science fiction tumble through space and time I couldn’t begin to compare to another work. It is a joy to find a book that hooks me from the very start, and rarer still to find one that doesn’t let go. I will recommend this to all my friends who love to read.

The Ruins of Listening Post Five – Part 3

A short story set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe. This is Part 3. Read Part 1 here.

Clouds of pale pink mist punctuated the darkness where Phoibe had finally rolled to a stop under stories of wreckage. The space was no higher than a crawl. Davi had lost his light stick while bouncing on his way down, which was somewhere in rubble above. They had come to rest on a thick mat of the bioluminescent growth, this writhing carpet swollen with mature flowering spores that burst when disturbed. While the fungi were a pale green color approaching white at a distance, the dust released as a deep hue of violet before igniting into luminous pink in a suffocating foul odor. Phoibe could hear Davi no more than a meter from where she lay, coughing quietly, but could see nothing but the glowing cloud. It felt like a trick on her eyes to see the spot illuminated so clearly by the fungi, his gasp of breath in arms reach, and no sign of Davi.

She began to reach out a hand biting back a sudden flash of sharp pain in her arm. Even in the half light she could see her arm looked terrible, streaks of black already visible from a break. Trembling with severe pain, she clutched her arm close and low to her chest, using her good hand to scoot closer to where she thought she could feel Davi was in the patch of floating spores. Touching his back, she was relieved when he responded. He was completely invisible to her but for a faint cool grey dust that seemed to adhere to moisture on his face and elsewhere. He was regarding his own hands with wonder.

Phoibe pouted with a soft cry, seeing some of the wet on his face seemed to come from a swollen cut on his brow, but smiled through tears at his perpetually cheerful expression. He somehow always looked happy even when he was showing concern, as he had noticed how she was holding her arm.

“You’re hurt!” he protested her attention, but they were quickly interrupted.

Footsteps. Something massive was walking nearby, and it had the gait of one tall or upright. The footfalls were so heavy they could feel each step distinctly by the way the ground yielded. It was a slow, deliberate step. Something searching.

Through a gap between layers of concrete ahead of them they could see a larger chamber completely taken by the unusual growth, an eerie spectacle of contrast between neon glow and the black pools of settled water. There was a waver in the air itself of suspended dust and spores that moved like fog. They could only make out an interruption in the light, a passing shadow of the beast, but it was colossal.

Before they could act or think, the pile of concrete slabs above them was roughly disturbed, being cast aside like they weighed no more than sticks. With nary a split second to flee they hurried out from the spot of thick growth before they were crushed, the silhouette of the towering beast above them. As Phoibe dashed into the first patch of cover she could reach, an even thicker mat of growth that had raised like tall stalks of bulbous grass, she caught just the profile of the beast’s feet and legs – chitinous plate and gruesome carapace – it stood like a man, but tall as a house.  

A short distance away she spotted Davi, grey dust drifting away from him as the effects of the spores wore off, revealing him. The oldest of the alien fungi nearby quivered like it was alive, a darker shape moving within it that made a sticky wet sound. At the base, fist-sized larva wiggled oblivious to her presence. She recoiled from the noxious mass, keeping a close eye in the direction she had last seen the beast.

The room they had fallen in looked like it was at the lowest level of the collapsed main facility they had entered at; below the spot their football had rolled to when they got into this mess. Up a steep scramble of debris she could see the freight elevator, still stuck where they left it by a beam lodged beneath it. From the shattered space above it she could see a hint of moonlight.

Close by, Davi drew her attention to a series of blight coated burrow-like tunnels, made by something about their size. The pungent stench like acid they had smelled when they first entered the facility was strongest there, glistening like mucus on the oozing membrane walls. As if to answer her next question about what made the tunnels, they heard echoing through the tangle the chattering whine of the first creature that had been stalking them since they entered. Or from what they could hear, several creatures.

The sound of claws skittering became numerous, the behemoth in the chamber with them stepping faster to another pile of rubble, over turning it as it continued to search. Phoibe looked to Davi, and then the tunnels. The beast had not seen where they went, yet. The tunnels were far too small for it to follow and were how the other creatures would have been navigating the ruins. Davi opened his hand to show Phoibe he had picked a second violet flowering bud from the fungal mass. He handed it to her, eyes steady in the direction the monster was digging. The crash of concrete and steel was thunderous.

Inching towards the slimy pathway, listening for any sudden movement, they heard another sound. Noor, Galen and Peyton were calling out for them from somewhere through the largest impassible section of the debris pile the tunnels seem to intersect through. The scurrying sounds of the predators moved together in the direction of the other children. Phoibe and Davi exchanged a look of horror.

They entered the first tunnel that seemed to climb upwards, although just in a wide curve to another section of the same unstable section of wall. It connected to several other burrows, ahead in which they could hear a clamor of claws and teeth headed the other direction. As Davi emerged from one side with Phoibe close behind, they could see Galen and friends had found their way to a dead-end ledge a little higher, near the direction of the ventilation shaft they had fallen from. It was a sheer drop from them down to a heap of broken concrete below. The whine of the hunting predators grew into a frenzied pitch. Davi and Phoibe could hear the other children begin to panic as the sounds raced towards them.

“You have to run!” Phoibe called up to them frantically. “They can see you!”. The behemoth made an alerted snarl, then began to roar as he turned toward Phoibe and Davi just a few dozen meters away. It was an unearthly sound not like a beast that drew air, but as if it emanated from within. It sounded like pure agony and twisted hate. It stomped into the moonlight, revealing in full terror the might of the colossus and its massive, bone axe rent like a singular cruel thought. It was the visage of a heavily armored man, or the mockery of one, twisted horns and rows of black spines.

Quickly, Phoibe burst the violet blossom covering her and Davi in the spores just before the spot where they stood was fully launched into the air by the earth-rattling charge and swing of the beast’s axe. Tons of concrete, steel and fungi rained down across the chamber, causing the main pile of debris to shift suddenly until the entire installation was shaking violently in a landslide. Noor, Galen and Peyton’s screams mixed with a deafening roar of rocks and beast alike as the behemoth surveyed the clear spot for the children. High above, the beam barring the freight elevator had dislodged. The elevator made a jolting movement and loud buzz, a dusty yellow indicator light near the switch clicking on and off a warning. It was still stuck between floors on the heavy chain and pulley lift.

Davi and Phoibe, still shrouded by the pink vapor, emerged from a now severed length of burrow several stories higher from where they had vanished. “Galen!” Phoibe called out, knowing the beast would also hear. “The elevator!” The creatures pursuing them were drawing near, fast.

Galen looked up the shattered interior of the installation’s frame where the lift was stuck, and then to direction Phoibe’s voice had come from.

“They can’t see us, either” Phoibe remarked to herself after seeing Galen’s expression. The beast too had turned to look without immediately spotting them. The spores were already beginning to turn to dust and fall away.

Davi moved further into the open, getting a clear view of the lift and switch housing. The spores drifted from him in a cloud of dust as he was illuminated by the moonlight. The beast’s gaze snapped to him as it began navigating the uneven concrete platforms up to where he stood. Davi held his position, although not without a bit of a tremble in the knees.

“Galen!” Davi called out, relieved when Galen could see him. “Pass me the ball!”

With only a moment’s hesitation, Noor and Galen realized what Davi could see. Noor lobbed an overhead pass to Davi, who caught it and quickly turned and threw it at the switch box. A hit, but it did not depress the switch. It bounded far below with a hollow bounce as everyone’s hearts fell.

Phoibe spared not a second, sliding down the slick filth of the burrow to the bottom. “No way this works..” she whispered to herself before rolling to a stand, cradling her broken arm. “Hey!” she shouted at the beast.

Everyone stopped. For a split second even the sound of settling rubble was quiet. The beast turned for just a brief glance back at her as Davi bolted from where he stood. Phoibe ran at the ball with a skilled heel strike pass back to Davi, who spun to kick it back up. It sailed past the beast, striking the switch with force before rebounding further away. The elevator buzzed loudly and began to descend.

The beast roared in anger, breaking into a full charge at Phoibe. Phoibe let out a scream and gave chase, running across the opening to a newly exposed gap in the collapsed layers she had spotted. Davi made a running jump and caught the edge of the lift, now low enough for him to reach.

The creatures burst from the system of tunnels behind Galen, Peyton and Noor who were still pinned against a sharp drop. They were forced to jump with a terrified cry. They hit the slope in a tumble, howls of pain as they crashed uncontrolled into the wreckage. The enraged beast having lost sight of Phoibe now turned to them. Above the creatures had already adjusted route, losing almost no ground in their pursuit.

Phoibe emerged from another partially blocked hallway near them, motioning urgently for them to follow. They then arrived at the same conduit and stairs they entered by, the inhuman creatures now only meters away. The friends raced to Davi, who quickly hit the switch twice to reverse the direction of the lift. Galen made the leap first, then Peyton and Noor. Together they helped Phoibe up, gasping at the pain in her arm and shoulder.

The lead creature made the jump, knife-length claws tearing into the edge of the lift. It was not much larger than any of them, protruding spine and faceless with rows of hideous sharp teeth. It was a color like jaundiced flesh, coated in the same mucus as the tunnels. Its shrill whine drew screams from all of the children as it climbed up, swinging wildly at anything in reach. It tore into Noor’s leggings and boot. Peyton and Galen pummeled it with kicks, pushing it back. It struck Peyton in the leg, knocking them down as blood spilled from an open wound. Noor grabbed Peyton pulling them away as Davi landed a kick hard enough to knock the beast almost completely off the lift. Phoibe could see the other two nearest predators were quickly taking alternate routes to the top floor to intercept them.

Galen and Phoibe continued kicking with their boot heels until the beast lost its grip on the edge, plummeting below.

 


The children emerged from the facility into moonlight, Galen and Noor supporting a badly injured Peyton as Davi helped Phoibe. They were running as fast as they could, but no where near fast enough to outrun the second and third of the creatures. The roar of the behemoth could be heard deep from inside. Across the grassy lot was a sudden burst of bright halogen lights. It was Noor’s mother, riding her hoverbike-like sparrow.

She dismounted the sparrow and unshouldered a long rifle in one smooth motion, the practiced aim of a seasoned sharpshooter. Two shots rang in the night, felling the pursuing monsters only steps from the facility. She kept her rifle steady on the exit as the children crossed the lot to where she waited. Others from the village soon arrived, embracing and tending to the children.

Noor stood by her mother, who did not look away from the direction the beasts had emerged. One by one, the words waiting on Noor’s lips fell away, watching instead her mother’s expression. Even as the others mounted up and started to ride back to the village, Noor and her mother remained there until it was quiet. Once they were alone, Noor’s mother finally turned to her.

Her expression was more of relief than disappointment, but Noor felt both just from a glance. She turned back to her sparrow, freeing a small, rolled rug from the side which she then laid out. As it unrolled, Noor could see inside a long stake fixed to a sealed radio housing and an expensive-looking antenna. She recognized the rug as one from their home that had been undisturbed at the bottom of a stack but had never seen the unusual piece of equipment. On the housing she recognized a symbol she had seen on gear used by soldiers of the Last City. From another saddlebag her mother withdrew a canister of reflective paint.

Noor watched quietly as her mother painted a large symbol on a clear spot of concrete barricade, two concentric half circles over a shape like a doorway. She then planted the device firmly in the ground nearby. With a click, she activated it. It started a steady blink and chimed out a distinct radio tone.

Her mother turned to face her, neither saying anything until after moment. “What of your sister’s football?” her mother asked finally.

Noor’s expression sank. The lengthy story of what they had been through inside danced across her features until she looked down, defeated. Meeting her mother’s eyes again she spoke up. “It’s still lost in there. I’m sorry.”

Her mother lifted Noor’s chin and pulled her into an embrace. She looked to the stars, and then the horizon. Noor looked too; her mother seemed to be scanning the night sky for something she expected to see.

“You’ll get it back”

Thank you for reading!

The Ruins of Listening Post Five – Part 2

A short story set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe. This is Part 2. Read Part 1 here.

The last rays of the setting sun refracted a muted orange through time-worn windows far above. The group of children huddled low beneath rows of broken shelves, petrified in silence as they listened for whoever, or whatever, had made the guttural chatter and footsteps they were sure they heard just beyond the room where they hid. The path back the way they had entered now barred by the failed freight elevator, Galen and his friends studied the exits from the room they found themselves in for another way out.

Just meters away in a clearing resting atop a mountain of rubble from the floors that had collapsed above was the football they had climbed down to retrieve. It would be a quick dash into the open to get it, but there was no indication any of the passages out of this room would be intact given what they had seen on their way down. They looked to each other, communicating as best as they could without making a sound as they listened carefully for the creature stalking them.

Noor’s gaze had been fixed on the depth of the shadowed corners in the chamber the ball had fallen into until she was certain that each dark shape and twist of metal beam had not moved. She exchanged a look with Peyton, who had been doing the same, then Phoibe who was watching the ledges above them. Davi clung close to Noor, shielded by the teen’s shadow. Galen stared intently in the direction they had last heard the sounds.

It was silent except for the continued drip of water somewhere just below them. It could have been from an old pipe or seeping ground water, but what caught Galen’s ear was how the drops seemed to echo. One by one the group dared to peek out of cover, spotting the largely undamaged utility corridor that seemed to be where the sound of water was coming from. Galen made a motion with his hand for everyone to be ready.

He tiptoed out of cover, craning his neck as he turned to study the rest of the chamber for any sign of the source of the sounds they had heard. Noor followed, stepping through the dying shaft of sunlight to where the football lay serenely. The others cautiously came out from their hiding spot. Noor let out a breath she felt like she had been holding for minutes, only to immediately retract it. A sound, quivering and wretched, a whine-like wheeze and the clicking of claws. It came from the wreck above, no more than a room away past a conduit they had climbed over to get down where they were just minutes before.

Noor picked up the ball, quickly looking to Galen and then to the utility corridor. They seemed to agree, and the group made a quiet dash for it. Someone, Galen didn’t see who, kicked a piece of crumbled concrete as they ran which echoed in the room behind them. Their predator made a sudden sound in response, followed by quick steps of its taloned feet. Suppressing their screams, they quickened their pace into the dark tunnel. Ahead the sound of water was becoming clearer.

Peyton retrieved a light stick from their sling pouch as they ran. Davi stopped, a gasp of surprise as he eyed the bright single-use torch. Peyton winked, retrieving another as they passed him the first. Phoibe huffed, impressed but not totally surprised by her friend who often showed up with a lot of things they were not allowed to have.

Together they listened as they reached a split in the tunnel. From far behind they had heard just a faint sound of the creature and then nothing but the echo of water. It was unclear if it had followed them. Unfortunately, bright as the lights were it only intensified the further reaches of dark beyond several meters and rendered even nearby shadows long and black. The reflection of the light in the water danced on every lit surface like ripples.

Of the two hallways one seemed to slope lower, the full width of the floor soon covered by water. It was also wider with traces of a painted interior finish unlike the utility hallway, perhaps opening into a larger room out of sight. It was difficult to tell from the slope how deep the water would get, but it was not a welcoming sight. The second path went up narrow stairs to a mostly closed steel door. It was unremarkable except for a faded set of painted signs that looked like others they had seen in a section of the collapsed installation behind them. One of the signs included a marking for what would have been an aid station. Surely nothing of value would still be left, Galen thought, but it was not unheard of to stumble across something from the pre-collapse age in a wreckage like this. Davi’s gaze wandered to the same door, while Peyton was already checking around the corner of the other hall. Noor read the situation and took a breath to warn them, but Davi and Galen were already walking to the stairs.

“Are you crazy? Don’t split up” Noor hissed in a whisper, flinching at the echo of her own voice. There was no sound behind them but water, which seemed to drown any other noise in the corridor. Galen responded with a shrug and pleading hand motion, drawing a scowl from the older girl. Together with Davi they pushed open the steel door, which moved only a few inches before hitting an obstruction.

 A pale green glow emanated from the room, some manner of bioluminescent growth that had set in the ancient cabling exchange and a larger room beyond. It cast a soft, shadowless light. Jammed behind the door lay a split red canister that had burst into a plant-like metallic growth known to the vagabonds as spinmetal. It grew much like sage, reaching for an unseen sky from a single thick stem into numerous branching blossoms. It was very valuable with traders and prized by any who did business with the Vanguard of the Last City, provided one had the tools to cut it.

Peyton and Noor studied the hallway behind them warily. The water they had passed was still, undisturbed. Cautiously they stepped through the exchange further into the adjoining chamber. It seemed to be a central room of some sort, one wall which looked to be columns of ancient digital readouts opposite tiered rows of terminals, some still with rolling chairs undisturbed where they were left an age ago. In one sat an intact skeleton, slumped sadly as if still reading the tiny vacant display in front of it. They looked with fear and wonder at the departed, then slowly around the rest of the control room.

Dotting the edges of the room and base of support columns were thick patches of a strange fungal growth. Clouds of free-floating dust spores emanated a soft light, in places bright enough to read by. In one corner where the growth was thickest, ghostly white moths fluttered without sound around the brightest light. The reverent silence between the children was mutual, standing here felt like they had walked into a tomb.

Davi seemed to detect something unnoticed by the others, stepping carefully up the stairs that joined the rows of terminals to near a blocked hallway leading from the room. “Do you smell that?” he whispered.

Phoibe climbed up to the spot where Davi was searching, sniffing. “Smells like wildflowers,” she murmured. “Air from outside?” she guessed. Her eyes came to rest on the obscured panel she was standing on, one like others still in the ceiling above them. She looked up, spotting a wide opening into the overhead ventilation shaft. The vaulted ceilings were quite high, but Davi was already looking for a way to climb up.

Phoibe gently retrieved an overturned rolling chair, pausing to stare at the skeleton at the next terminal as if she may somehow disturb it. It was heavier than it looked, taking both her and Galen to carry it up the steps to the top of the room near a column close to the ventilation. Davi, smallest of the friends was the first up, scaling the column high enough to disturb a ceiling panel until it fell, freeing a useful handhold. Noor and Peyton continued to watch the dark entrance they had come in through for any sign of movement.

Moving from the first panel recess to the next, he reached the open ventilation with an enthusiastic cheer. The friends could hear he was encouraged by whatever he could see from up there. Phoibe was next, with Galen and Peyton holding the chair sturdy. She paused reaching the top handhold on the column, looking back down before attempting the reach to the panel recess.

“Don’t look down,” Galen reassured her, seeing she was second guessing herself.

With a lunge she reached and grabbed the support between panels, her legs swinging from behind her. Galen held his breath. She pulled herself up until she could hook a foot into the ventilation opening, and with a shift of her weight was able to catch Davi’s hand and pull herself in. The group breathed a sigh of relief.

“Can you see anything?” Noor called up, still nervously watching the entrance below.

Phoibe and Davi situated themselves in the vent to look ahead, which to the children waiting sounded like there was not a lot of room to maneuver once you climbed in. All they could make out of the two was their sharp shadows in Davi’s stick light. The thin metal of the vent shaft buckled loudly in protest. “Let me see,” Phoibe called back, voice carried from what sounded like somewhere above the next room.

Galen looked to Peyton, who was shuffling anxiously. “Ok, you next”.

Peyton made a timid glance up. The chair shifted on its wheels precariously as they slipped reaching for the highest handhold. Phoibe and Davi could be heard indistinctly from further down the shaft calling back that they could see something, followed by a rattle of the unstable vent. Peyton looked down to Galen.

“Just put your foot there and push up,” Galen guided. “Twist left,” he continued “yes, and grab there and pull yourself up.”

Peyton beamed with relief as they pulled themselves up, clearly uncomfortable with heights. The ventilation shaft groaned again, followed by a jolting sound. Everyone froze. Down the passage Phoibe’s voice carried back what sounded like a warning, followed by a series of loud crashes. With no further warning the length of vent holding Peyton came free from the mounted brackets, dumping them back onto Galen in a heap and hard knock of heads. Both cried out.

From beyond the next room the crashing sounds continued. Galen, Peyton and Noor could hear the joined screams of Phoibe and Davi falling further away amongst a cacophony of debris.

Continued in part 3

The Ruins of Listening Post Five

short fanfic set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe

A short story set loosely in the Destiny 2 universe. This is Part 1.

Thick motes of dust hung suspended in air deep in the remains of the installation, shafts of late day light dimmed by decaying glass. A sleepy groan of old steel echoed through the vaulted chamber as the group of friends peered down into the ruins. Discovering the stairs and most of the underground floors had collapsed some stories lower, Galen peered over the catwalk handrail. He eyed their lost football in the rubble far below with a soft whistle.

“Nice going, Galen” Phoibe teased. She was just days older than him, and a close friend since as early as either could remember.

Galen made a dismissive sound as they moved cautiously around the edge of the chasm, peering into dark side rooms and utility passages for any other way down. Even many stories down the ball seemed too near to just leave. They just needed to get it and get out, Galen repeated to himself. It would be bad enough they were caught defying the rule for entry into the fenced-off property but returning without a ball that belonged to an older sibling would mean having to explain how they had lost it; or lying to cover it up.

No, the youngest of the group, Davi, would tell the truth. Galen, Phoibe, Davi and their friend Peyton had been showing off trick kick shots when the ball unluckily sailed through a gap in a broken window. Phoibe and Galen exchanged a long glance as they circled back to the top of the stairwell where they had begun. He wondered if she was thinking the same thing, thinking of the lecture they would get when they got home. They both looked to Noor, the oldest of the group, anticipating she would tell them to leave. The ball belonged to Noor’s older sister that her mother sternly suggested she should share. At times a killjoy, Noor had to be the responsible one because her mother was strict. While doubt did weigh on her face, her eyes instead came to rest on something in the far corner of the still intact portion of floor they stood on. A power junction, resting open, near a freight elevator.

As they each turned to look, they then examined the precariously narrow section of floor they would have to cross to get to it. “There is no way that still works,” sandy haired Peyton spoke up. Of the five friends none had been more excited to sneak into the facility as they had daydreamt so many times of doing.

Tucked into a nook in a stretch of valley known for an abundance of wild hare, the ancient structure was hidden from view unless you knew where to look. Miles from any wreckage worth scavenging or any structure to speak of, those that built it an age prior did not want it easily found and left it sealed and heavily barricaded. So it had laid for an age, returning slowly to dust.  On any other day the danger was no worse than a possible cut from old fence wire, anything worth finding was long gone. Amongst the children it was a poorly kept secret as the grass choked remains of the above ground lot adjacent to the structure was renowned as a spot to meet, play ball or when necessary; hide.

A shudder and sigh from the flooring beneath them drew a collective sharp breath. They listened to the echo, and Galen wondered if the underground tunnels fabled to run under here were still intact. This was just one of Peyton’s many random facts they had heard from somewhere about the facility. Most of the time Galen thought they were made up, but what they were looking at now definitely seemed to fit the tall tales.

“Just go!” Phoibe said impatiently as they all inched back. Galen gingerly stepped along the wall and uneven floor that remained until he reached the lever. No one dared move as Galen looked back to see them watching him. With a grunt he pushed the heavy arm into the closed position with a crisp mechanical click. The sudden hum of electricity startled everyone. Somewhere above ventilation fans squealed into motion, along with one or two flickering lights.

“That’s impossible,” Peyton exclaimed.

Dust swirled as the long undisturbed air began to move, and with it came a terrible stench. “Why does it smell like that?” Davi exclaimed, each of the children raising their shirts or scarves to cover their mouth and nose. It smelled like scorched metal, or acid. It was a sharp odor that made Galen flinch when it hit his eyes.

Noor approached the guardrail and control box for the freight elevator, the others following in suit as they loaded onto the lift platform. As she pressed the button the floor jolted, the motor and chain loudly kicking into motion just above them. Combined with the progressively louder roar of the ventilation fans and pulley chains, the lift wheels felt deafeningly loud as they descended. After several floors the lift abruptly stopped with an even louder alarm buzz, followed by a loud click as the flickering lights switched to dim red. The sudden silence was unnerving.

They each looked around quickly for a way up or down from the lift, spotting nearly at once a portion of the floor they had passed on the way down that connected to a section of the stairwell that seemed to be less collapsed than above. The floor lower was difficult to see from their vantage but enough of it remained it seemed like a promising search for a way down to the ball.

Without a word further Davi climbed first to the ledge above and ran over to the stairwell. “Stairs!,” he beamed triumphantly. One by one the others followed, clamoring up the shaft to the ledge of the floor leading to the stairs. At a glance, Galen saw that Noor’s attention had been drawn by the dark corners in the spaces below and ahead of them.

The structure groaned, a long tremor from someplace deep under them followed by many loud creaks of stressed metal. It was an unsettling amount of noise without a clear source, and each of the children froze for a moment while it subsided.

With shared dread they moved down the stairs as quietly as they could, finding this particular flight went just one floor further down. The machine room it opened into fell at a steep angle pointing into the earth, rows of ancient tape-fed computer hardware and communication equipment resting nearly on their sides. A sturdy conduit pipe looked like their safest way across to the next opening, and with luck, a way down.

Across the pipe they climbed down over two large shipping containers, each producing loud footfalls on the hollow steel before reaching a well-lit portion of collapsed floor near the center of the chasm. Nearby they could hear water dripping from somewhere. Further from the safety of the walls, the tangle of stacked rubble ahead was devoid of any hand rails and had few places to safely step without risking a long fall. For a moment no one moved as they looked twice for an alternate path. Phoibe dared a look closer to one edge and began motioning happily to point out a way down when they were interrupted again by a new sound.

The series of creaks seemed much closer than the others, one after the other from the same place, like something moving. No one breathed. Following it a lower sound, like a rasp, then clicks. Claws.

This story continues in Part 2

A Bit of Fan Art

I recently acquired a Wacom Intuos M tablet and am starting the long process of relearning to draw in digital medium. I have a lot of fan art to catch up on, I may even go back and add an illustration or two for some of my short stories. Here are my first pieces done in Clip Studio Paint.

“Varinsdottr”

Eivor of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

“Lidochka”

Destiny 2 Hunter and Ghost

“Zihra-17”

Destiny 2 Warlock and Ghost – from the short story “Machine Sisters”

“Celeste-3”

Destiny2 Titan & Ghost

“One Who Sees”

Eris Morn – Destiny 2
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