New Blog: Woodsy Studio

Dearest readers,

As my last few posts have indicated, my creative focus has strongly shifted towards interactive stories over the course of the last few years. I continue to write like a madwoman, but I also pour art, music, and programming into my visual novel creations in the hopes of producing an even grander entertaining experience.

Therefore I’ve started a new blog over at Woodsy Studio, which will focus more on my storytelling in the realm of visual novels. My first post, Why Art and Business Must Intersect, addresses some of the intellectual ways I’ve grown as an artist and businesswoman of late. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll take a look and subscribe to me there!

Check out my new blog!

Published in: on November 3, 2014 at 11:55 am  Comments (1)  
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Quantum Conscience Released for Desktop Computers

A couple of weeks ago the initial release of my interactive novel, “Quantum Conscience,” released on the QC website. Today it also releases on Desura!

In this  sci-fi visual novel, test your resolve by controlling the power to read people’s minds. Within a galaxy of terraformed planets, a secret war rages between two intergalactic agencies. One of them—ARCHON—is developing the technology to invade people’s minds. Its agents have already tyrannized a planet called Teballai, and hope to use their mind-reading technology to spread their power across the galaxy. A second organization—FOE (Freedom Organization of Elites)—wants to destroy ARCHON’s technology in the name of freedom. When a young FOE soldier (you choose the gender) named Blaire obtains the ability to read minds from an ARCHON experiment, she finds her loyalty torn between both sides. Whether Blaire helps the enemy or defeats them depends upon your use of her power.

Try out the first chapter for free by downloading the demo. Or go ahead and get the full version!

Desura Digital Distribution

Interwoven Disciplines: Storytelling, Game Design, and Usability

Today I offer a reflective post, for I have been hard at work on my next interactive novel, “Quantum Conscience,” and as I near its completion I find myself pondering the complexities  of creating interactive media. Those of you more familiar with my novels may wonder why I have yet to announce another book release, but I assure you that I am working harder than ever to create a new narrative experience. It just may not take the form that you’d expect.

One reason I love working on video games is that they force me to pull from every single skill, experience, and discipline in my possession, then line them together in order to make my vision a reality. I have always loved writing, but I’m also passionate about illustration, design, and musical composition. So in my case, the challenge of utilizing every tool in my creative belt is one that I happily embrace.

The best example of this is a tiny little feature that I decided to add to my interactive novel, “Quantum Conscience,” by combining my training in several different fields.

First, some back-story. You need to understand that not everyone in the gaming community would consider visual novels to be “games” in the typical sense. You won’t necessarily find puzzles, platforming obstacles, swordplay, or power/skill loops when you “play” a VN (although some VNs do incorporate such things). At its core, a visual novel is a story, and it requires a hell of a lot of writing and narrative structure. But the story is–in a sense–alive. You can interact with the story by making choices for the characters. Here’s an example from my first release, “Serafina’s Saga”:

In "Serafina's Saga," you can make choices for Serafina that often affect the story

In “Serafina’s Saga,” you can make choices for Serafina that often affect the story

When I started working on my second visual novel, “Quantum Conscience,” I wanted to create an experience that was more interesting and unique. Because the game involves a main character who can read people’s minds, Malcolm Pierce and I brainstormed until we came up with an unusual game-play mechanic. Instead of clicking on a menu box to make a decision, we wanted your subconscious choice of whether to read another character’s mind to directly impact the narrative.

A screenshot from "Quantum Conscience," a visual novel in which your decision to read the minds of other characters impacts the plot

A screenshot from “Quantum Conscience,” a visual novel in which your decision to read the minds of other characters impacts the plot. Background by Michelle Hagewood

Right away we definitely had a unique and profound way of letting you interact with the story, and I had a lot on my plate as far as narrative structure and programming requirements. But several months into the project, I was also honing my knowledge of game design and user experience principles, and I realized that my new game fell short in these categories. I loved my gameplay mechanic, but might you not realize how drastically you had changed the story just by looking at someone’s thoughts? Where’s the fun in an exciting plot twist caused by the player if you don’t even know you had caused it?

When I found out that another VN recently came out with a game-play mechanic that was similar to mine (in “XBlaze – Code: Embryo,”  the plot changes based on what news articles you read), my initial reaction was despair. I worried my game would no longer seem so unique. But spiritual twins like these can happen in any creative field, so rather than wallow in disappointment, I tried to learn from what these other artists had already achieved. How did they maintain such a subtle game-play mechanic while giving the player a sense of accomplishment? And the answer was surprisingly simple.

QC Screenshot 2

A screenshot from “Quantum Conscience.” In this example, the player’s previous decision to read Korah’s mind has impacted the plot, which is then indicated by a “!” symbol to the left of the text. Background design by Michelle Hagewood

So by combining what I knew about usability and game design to my existing narrative structure, as well as learning from other existing works, I created a simple solution. Whenever your decision to read a character’s mind has impacted the plot, you’re alerted by a “!” symbol that appears next to the text (and there are different forms of the symbol based on different effects).

I suppose the moral of my story is a simple one: the more perspectives you can add to a creative endeavor, the better it will become (most of the time, at least). Ideally, you can achieve this by working with a skilled and collaborative team. But if you’re a one-woman team, then learn the hell out of every discipline you can get your hands on. You might be surprised by the ways they connect.

Sire of Flames

I’ve been bad about posting regularly, I know. I have two words for you: job hunting. But I am still creating stories as always and ever, whether they pay the bills or not. So here’s a little tidbit from an un-published story of mine to whet your imagination. Enjoy!

*

Sire of Flames

*

Several weeks after my one night stand, I felt my body changing. At first I feared the obvious: pregnancy. I got so stressed and worried about the possibility, I couldn’t focus on my school work. My period didn’t come when scheduled. Finally, I ran to the drug store and bought a pregnancy test.

But I wasn’t pregnant.

Staring at the little pink line on the urine strip, I knew I didn’t need to retest. Except for missing my period, none of my mystery symptoms resembled pregnancy at all. College pregnancy was an easy way to justify—and cling to—my burrowing fears. But they went deeper than I could explain.

Ever since my torrid evening with the young man named Desmond, I perceived everyone around me … differently. My fellow students, my professors, my friends, my own father. In one sense I knew more about them than I ever had before, and all I had to do was stand a few feet away, or hear them talk, or brush against them in the hallway. In another, the excess of information flooding my brain confused me beyond the point of usefulness. When I listened to my dad on the phone, I could hardly hear his voice. Instead I heard wind whispering through the trees, or felt a nonexistent breeze against my skin.

I became a very good listener—at least as long as I only had one person to focus on. Everyone who spoke transfixed me. I could easily forget the ones that stared in fright at my scarred face, or whispered about it behind my back. Some people could distract me just by moving. Just as my father gave me a sensation like wind, other people also reminded me of nature, of elements. One professor made me feel cool and gritty, and when he talked I smelled earth. A girl made my head spin and I felt every drop of water in my body, soft and flowing. One boy walked with pumped fists and brisk steps—he reminded me of fire, warm against my skin, bright orange on the edges of my vision.

Desmond made me feel that way. He was my first sexual partner, that’s true, but the feelings I experienced surpassed the typical sensations of losing one’s virginity. I woke up the next morning like a phoenix reborn from her ashes. And sometimes, when I was all alone, I felt the fire again.

I remembered how I felt that night, underneath him, watching the sweat bead over his pale face, his eyes sparkle. But something changed in retrospection. In reality, Desmond had possessed long blond hair and bright blue eyes. When the memories returned to me of their own will, dark cedar brown suffused his irises and hair. His chin had a boxy shape, and his shoulders were a little broader. I remembered—whether in the false or rational memory, I don’t know—that when we came together, flames leapt in his dark eyes, the world turned red, and my body burned like an ember.

What the hell did he do to me? And why did he choose me?

The sensation of fire was nothing new to me. I’m what people like to call a pyromaniac—that is, I used to be, and I am again now, but I wasn’t when I met Desmond. When I was ten years old, I played with fire in the shed where Dad wouldn’t see me. He disapproved of the hobby. I had a friend with me, a girl my age named Faith, and I wanted to show off. But one trick went awry: you know, the one where you release some extra gas from the lighter before shooting a spark? My jacket caught fire. I stared in awe at the disaster crawling up my arm until the full punch of pain set in. By the time I threw the jacket onto the ground, it was too strong to put out. I kept staring at the fire, mesmerized. Faith had a little sense, and shouted, “We have to put it out! Your dad will be so mad!” And she was right. The shed was made of wood, and it slowly caught fire, too.

But I didn’t help her put out the fire. Not enough, anyway. I kept watching it, the way it flashed and undulated, like it could swim through air. I watched it spread up the walls on either side of me. I flapped my blanket along with Faith, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. The fire was too strong.

The fire trapped us in. Faith had asthma, so the smoke got to her first. By the time the flames licked the side of my face, I considered myself dead. My dad came in time to pull me out, but Faith wasn’t so lucky. I swore after that I would never play with fire again.

Nine years later I met Desmond, and he was the first person attracted to all of me–even the wrinkled flesh on one half of my face. The scar itself intrigued him, and he didn’t shy away from asking me how I got it. But after our one night together, before I could rationalize how, I sensed I had already broken my oath and played with fire once more. Desmond made me feel the way I felt that day in the shed, watching the flames multiply, letting them. And I loved it.

Published in: on June 3, 2014 at 10:19 am  Comments (2)  
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On Games and Creative Exploration

Dearest readers,

If you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you know that lately, my creativity has veered heavily towards the world of video games. A few months ago I released my first visual novel, “Serafina’s Saga” (go here to download it for free, either for desktop computers or Android devices) and I have been whole-heartedly touched and pleased by the warm reception it has received. I also completed the 20-minute animation prequel–a project that required so much work and dedication, sometimes I still find it hard to believe that I finished it (you can view it on Youtube here).

For a long time I have been insecure about my drawing/illustration abilities–writing still tends to be my focus–and I know my artistic skills still have much room to grow. But using them to bring my stories to life has been very exciting so far, and the success of my first visual novel has encouraged me to keep trying. I learned from some mistakes I made in “Serafina’s Saga,” and I’m working even harder to create a unique narrative experience with my next visual novel, “Quantum Conscience.” It’s nearing completion (though I still have a lot left to do), so I hope to release it circa July 2014.

Blaire fights to free the galaxy from a tyrannical group of scientists called ARCHON. But when ARCHON grants Blaire the ability to read people's minds, Blaire must choose between loyalty to old friends or seductive power.

In this visual novel, Blaire fights to free the galaxy from a tyrannical group of scientists called ARCHON. But when ARCHON grants Blaire the ability to read people’s minds, Blaire must choose between seductive power or loyalty to old friends.

This entire journey has given me a lot to think about regarding my career and overall creative goals. Having worked in a wide range of mediums at this point, I find that I love working in video games for a huge host of reasons. I love the way games fully engage the reader/player, providing a unique experience and giving him/her some control of the narrative. I love writing more than one ending to my stories and trying to bring those stories to life with art and music. And I could go on.

An atmospheric platformer about one spirit's journey to understand herself, which means accepting both her good and evil tendencies.

An atmospheric platformer about one spirit’s journey to understand herself, which means accepting both her good and evil tendencies.

I’ve worked on a few other games recently through Game Jams and alongside local indie developers. I illustrated the human characters in the game “Artful Intelligence” for iPhone devices (you can download it from here). I’m also working on an atmospheric platformer called “Metempsychosis” (and you can try the GameJam prototype here). I really hope to keep making games, both on my own and (hopefully) working professionally in the industry.

So my creative journey continues, and I hope you enjoy whatever I come up with next!

 

Published in: on April 29, 2014 at 10:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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Manipuli

I’ve been engrossed in writing “Quantum Conscience” lately, which is definitely a good thing, but also means it’s harder for me to switch gears and write a vignette! So today I offer an excerpt from an unpublished novel co-written by me and Malcolm Pierce called “Manipuli.” The only reason I haven’t released this novel yet is that I’m trying to hold out for a traditional publisher. These days, though, that sounds like saying I’m waiting for my fairy godmother to fly down and wave her magic wand. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the excerpt!

*

In a small cottage upon the foothills of Fairdalia, a baby’s cry pierced the heavy darkness. Howling winds rattled the brittle trees and tossed snow through the air like tiny shards of ice. Animals huddled in their nests or groped through the shadows for shelter. Even the critters with sharp, nocturnal vision failed to find their way home on this night, for not a single star shone in the sky. Pitch black clouds swallowed the light of the hidden moon. A sense of dread and panic seized the heart of every rabbit, wolf, griffin, unicorn, and other manner of beast to be found in the woods of Fairdalia, for this was the darkest night they had ever experienced.

But every living creature paused, ears twitching, when the baby’s cry rang across the land. Their dread did not release them; in fact, many of the animals suffered an increased sense of anxiety. Nonetheless, they all knew they heard something special, something that would change the world of Fairdalia for the rest of their meager lives.

Within the cottage, the baby’s father—a ragged peasant named Balthazar—struggled to keep a candle lit amidst the battering winds. Like prying fingers, the breeze forced itself through every crack and crevice of the log cabin. His wife, Agatha, held the newborn baby in her trembling arms and wiped the blood from its face with a cloth. Even Agatha, relieved by her successful childbirth and proud of the bundle of life in her arms, felt disturbed by the piercing cries coming from its mouth.

“Sphinx’s curses!” growled Balthazar, dropping the flint as he watched the candle sputter and shrink. “I can’t see a damn thing!”

Another gust of wind blew out the flame completely, plunging the husband and wife into darkness. Agatha clutched the squirming baby to her chest, but somehow this brought her no comfort.

“All is well, husband,” she said wearily. “The baby is born. We can rest until morning.”

“All is not well!” he cried. “I want to see my child!”

Suddenly, beams of silver light shot through the farmer’s window. A white glow filled the interior of the cabin. Awestruck, Balthazar moved to the shutters and opened them. In the heavens above, the moon filled the sky, so huge and heavy, it looked as if it would collide with their planet. Mixed feelings of fear and wonder stirred in the poor peasant’s heart. The brightness of the moon almost blinded him, but he could not look away.

The baby stopped crying, and silence fell over the kingdom of Fairdalia.

“Look, husband!” gasped Agatha.

He followed her gaze to their newborn child, now glowing in the brilliant luminescence. He could now see that he had sired a son. But that did not draw his attention so much as a strange mark on the infant’s chest. At first, he thought it a stain from its mother’s blood. But the longer he stared, the more detail he discerned on the baby’s skin. Like a tattoo, black marks intertwined around the area of his heart, then dispersed and faded like so many veins into his body.

Balthazar’s eyes grew wide with terror. “That mark,” he breathed. “I have seen that mark before. It is the mark of evil!

He turned to his wardrobe and fumbled through its contents. Agatha knew what he was getting long before she saw the flash of moonlight against the blade.

“No!” yelled Agatha. “NO!”

The baby, sensing his mother’s dismay, wailed alongside her. Clouds swept over the moon, drawing darkness back over the world like a curtain. Balthazar dove for the baby, but could no longer see it. He tripped and fell upon the floor, cursing.

Weakened by childbirth, but driven by the need to save her child’s life, Agatha got up and fled.

She could see no better than her husband, but desperation guided her through the shadows, across the familiar floorboards of the cottage, and out into the biting snow. Cold clung to her feet and climbed up her legs, draining her weary muscles. She stumbled through the blackness.

Then a star twinkled above her, providing a surge of light over the field. Agatha followed the silver glow. It faded as she passed through, but then another star sparkled from the blackness. One by one, the stars winked above her, illuminating her path through the frosty fields and forests. It seemed as if some powerful force guided her, granting small pools of light wherever she needed it, but casting all else in darkness. The sound of Balthazar yelling from the cottage grew more and more distant until it faded completely.

Agatha hoped she was safe, for she did not have the strength to run any further. She wrapped the baby in her cloak and huddled into a small cove protected from the wind, relatively free of snow or ice. Here she clutched her son to her breast and prayed to All Sortilege, the source of all magical power. One look at her son made Agatha cease to care whether a good or evil force had marked him. She believed that any power could be directed in either direction. But she did suspect that magic of some sort had marked her newborn son.

“All Sortilege,” she whispered, “please protect us and lead us to safety. Pour your blessings on my dear son… Lucien.”

The name, meaning light, came effortlessly to Agatha as a result of the night’s events. The baby ceased squirming and relaxed against his mother. Agatha wondered if she imagined the sensation of warmth that suddenly seemed to wrap around them both. They fell deeply asleep as if nothing on earth could harm them—and perhaps nothing could.

*

Published in: on April 1, 2014 at 10:11 am  Comments (4)  
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The Lost Scout

Today’s vignette offers a little of what’s to come in the novelization of “Serafina’s Saga.” I confess it’s a little awkward adapting my own script and drawings into novel format; usually, if I adapt any of my own work, I do so in the opposite order! But it’s kind of fun, also. So here’s a little scene from the animation, fleshed out for the novel. I hope you enjoy it.

*

Nikolaos expected to collapse into the grass at any given moment.

Yesterday, he had intended to scout only a brief distance—perhaps fifteen miles from camp. He planned to have plenty of time to return to base and sleep snugly in a tent with a belly full of warm stew. Camp rations were low, but at least at night he could usually expect a big slosh of watery soup full of scraps from the daily gathering. After adding a dash of chili powder, Nikolaos could almost imagine the stew delighting his senses with exotic spices. Then he would have sat next to a campfire and shared his scouting adventures with his fellow soldiers. He liked to narrate his wanderings in such a way that captured peoples’ interest and inspired them, rather than just reporting his work as a scout. Doing so made his own job seem more glamorous, and he rather enjoyed the attention. Finally he would return to his tent, throw off his grubby clothes, stretch his limbs over his blanket, and sleep like a baby.

That’s how he would have liked last night to play out. Instead, he had lost his way—a grave sin for a scout like himself.

Scouts should never get lost. They should be capable of distinguishing slight changes in the landscape, tracing every slope and plant into memory, so they could describe it in detail to their superiors or even draw out a map. Nikolaos should be able to guide his comrades into new terrain with confidence and reliability. More than that, he should be able to look beyond the superficial appearance of the landscape enough to assess its potential as a source of security, supplies, or strategic placement.

Not Nikolaos. Not yesterday.

He blamed his hunger. The large servings of stew every night usually satisfied him enough to grant a good night’s sleep. But the night before this fateful outing, he’d felt the first ache of hunger before tasting sweet slumber. Breakfast did nothing to satiate him, like a weak puff of air against a ravenous flame. His hunger had consumed him by midday, making his limbs drag and his thoughts tangle. The fact that the damn savanna looked the same in every direction didn’t help matters—just endless yellow grass and occasional trees stretching into a circle of sky. He had tried to return to camp, only to wander further into strange territory. When the sun started falling, he focused on finding shelter instead.

Now, after another day of wandering, he still had no idea where he was, and his hunger had become a monster possessing his faculties. He could concentrate on nothing but food, yet he couldn’t think clearly about how to obtain it. He only knew that when he saw a blur of green foliage in the distance, promising water and wildlife, he moved fervently towards it. What other hope did he have of finding food?

He ignored all the warnings he had ever heard about the jungles of Darzia. The darkness beneath the canopy harbored incredible danger, he knew, including a wide variety of animals and plants in every shape and size imaginable. Meanwhile, every single one of those strange plants and animals possessed its own unique way of killing enemies. Poisonous plants mimicked safe ones. Small creatures with frail bodies compensated with quick cleverness and sharp memory. An animal wearing the guise of prey could easily lead him into a maze of foliage from which he’d never escape. And as for the larger beasts, such as bears of griffins… well, they could just kill him with one blow.

But starvation worried him now more than any conceivable creature. So he continued moving towards the jungle, one heavy step at a time, heaving slow breaths of air through his leathery mouth. Everything exhausted him—even breathing, even holding his eyes open. The sword hanging from his hip felt like it tried to pull him into the soil below. His blue cloak, draped over one shoulder in the old Elborn fashion, yanked at his torso as it flapped in the wind. His ear-length black hair slapped his face and open eyes. He wanted to fling off his burdens and maybe chop off his lashing locks. But even doing all that would require too much effort.

So he stared vacantly ahead, watching the dark entrance of the jungle yawn wider. Even through the fog of his weary mind, he wondered briefly what he intended to do once he got inside. Hunt for an animal? In his current state, he’d never catch one. Search for water? That was a start. Surely the water of the jungle wasn’t poisonous, was it? He would have to take his chances. Maybe then, at least, he would feel good enough to hunt. If not, he would have to try eating a plant. He had no idea which ones were safe, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t matter. Even people who spent years studying botany struggled to analyze the plant-life of Darzian’s jungles, which were full of tricks and surprises. Once again, he would just have to try his luck.

He looked briefly towards the heavens and thought of his god, the mysterious Lokke, lord of mischief. Normally, Nikolaos didn’t bother praying, even though he worshiped Lokke devoutly. He didn’t think Lokke appreciated typical prayers the way other gods did. Even so, he whispered hoarsely, “Please Lokke, lend me some luck, would you?”

He dropped his head again, for it felt too heavy to tilt skyward. He watched his boots crunching through the dry yellow grass.

He noticed something shift on the top edge of his vision, towards the mouth of the jungle. He looked up reluctantly. Then he froze in his tracks.

A girl. No… a young woman. Or someone caught directly between the two stages. But not awkwardly, he thought. On the contrary, she seemed to embody the brilliance of youth and adulthood. She moved with incredible speed, even as she came to a sudden halt at the edge of the forest. An aura of wildness surrounded her as solidly as the jungle itself; she had bright red hair that tangled around her face and shoulders like a lion’s mane. She wore a small brown tunic, tattered and dirty, leaving most her arms and legs bare. But she seemed neither scantily clad or fully-dressed: merely a girl in her natural state. Her body was small altogether, but even from a distance he could see the firm flow of her muscles, and the steadiness of her grip as she twirled a spear at her side.

Then she stopped and saw him, too.

He felt stricken with a lightning bolt. Her big green eyes affixed him as surely as if she had thrown her spear into his stomach. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. Just stare straight back at her and wonder what she would do next.

She turned around and darted back into the jungle.

“Hey, wait!” he cried hoarsely. But it was already too late, and he knew without a doubt he had no chance of catching her.

*

More “Serafina’s Saga”

Published in: on March 11, 2014 at 10:40 am  Comments (2)  
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Looking for a Friend

Here’s a little vignette written for Quantum Conscience, my sci-fi visual novel releasing this summer. This scene happens years before the visual novel begins.

*

Korah yearned for sleep, but the silence of her lonely metal home seemed to ring in her ears, forcing her to listen to her turbulent thoughts.

For as long as she could remember, she had anticipated the day she would obtain her own Household. Any helot who served faithfully until the age of sixteen, proving her ability to fulfill the tasks of her Cypher, would acquire her own Household. She would stay alone in this small metal house until the age of twenty-one, at which point she would marry the man Terra chose for her. Until then she had five Terra-blessed years of solitude—years she had dreamed about every night at the factory dormitories, where she would listen to other kids squabble in the beds around her, or hear bugs and rats skittering restlessly in the walls. Once she had her own Household, she had promised herself, she would kill all the bugs and rats. She would keep everything clean—perhaps she would even decorate—and at night she would sleep deeply enough to remember her dreams.

Now that she had her own Household, she did in fact keep everything clean. She set out traps for small rodents and squashed every bug she came across. The peaceful quiet within her little dwelling surpassed all she had imagined, until it became something terrible. She had not expected loneliness to become a new monster.

She could always hear the wind shoving against the thin metal walls of her structure, hissing through the cracks as if attempting to speak. Sometimes Korah thought she discerned words in the wind’s voice, but not enough to make sense, like a sputtering old woman missing most of her teeth. Other times she heard the sounds of gorgans walking down the road outside: their large metal paws scraping against stone, their eye-scanners humming as they searched for helots breaking curfew.

Tonight, she shifted from side to side in her tiny wooden cot and wondered how long she’d been trying to sleep. Minutes? Hours? When she closed her eyes, the monotonous events of her day replayed in her mind: arriving to work at the factory, measuring fabric, then cutting, folding, and marking it for sewing… over and over again, just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, ever since she was seven. All of it melted together into an intangible mass, an ugly span of eternity that stretched all directions. It felt like enough to drive her mad. She would have given anything to be surrounded by the noisy children and nasty rodents of the factory dormitories, if only to distract her from the agony of inner reflection.

When a loud knock shook her front door–once, twice, then a third time–she shot up in bed and briefly stopped breathing. She felt a moment’s relief from her own dark thoughts. But she feared that whatever person might bother to knock on her door in the middle of the night would be far more dangerous than mere cogitation. If it was a helot breaking curfew, then she should not offer refuge, or she would be punished as severely as the perpetrator. If the visitor was Militar, such as a Cypher-G or O, then he must be here to punish or restrain her somehow. He might even want to take her to a synch-station and pilfer her memories, a process that often involved random selection. Every possibility seemed horribly grim.

“Open up! I SAID OPEN UP! I am a Cypher-P, and if you do not obey me I’ll have you flogged in the street!”

Without wasting another breath, Korah scrambled out of bed and pulled on her robes. A Cypher-P: a Politician! That was even worse than a Militar. Cypher-Ps had authority second to none but the Q himself, the dictator of all Teballai. Why would a Cypher-P bother himself with her Household? Had she passed him on the street and met his gaze on accident, or done something else to offend him? She would have remembered. She couldn’t imagine what the reason must be, but the possibilities made her heart pound with terror.

“So help me Sol, I’ll break down the door and I’ll—”

She swung open the door before he could finish his sentence.

She was not supposed to look into a Cypher-P’s eyes. But tonight, given the circumstances, she couldn’t help herself. The tone of his voice suggested he would unleash his anger upon her, one way or another. So she gawked helplessly at the young man in her doorway, as if upon her fate, and what she there saw surprised her.

He was close to her age, maybe sixteen or seventeen, his body tall and slender. If not for his station and apparent distress, he would have not have seemed intimidating at all. He wore fine clothes: an embroidered shirt with puffy sleeves, a short cloak festooned with gold loops, slim trousers and embroidered boots. As a tailor, Korah could not help but admire such beautiful clothing. Nearly every single day she worked on drab tunics and robes. Only on very rare occasions would she assist with the creation of a truly fine garment, usually for someone important enough to work in the Q’s Tower, like a Cypher-P or honored D.

A gorgan stood on the street behind him, a silent guardian, its jagged metal body reflecting the city watch-lights like tiny daggers of light. But its red eyes stared into the shadows of the street; the fearsome robot did not seem concerned with Korah in the slightest. If Korah didn’t already know that gorgans felt no emotion, she might have thought it bored.

“I’m looking for a Cypher-P named Blaire,” snapped the young man. Korah turned back to him, trying to avoid his gaze this time, but not quite succeeding. His brown hair was disheveled, his face red and puffy. His voice sounded dry and tight. His whole body trembled, even as his fists clenched into bulging knots. “Did you hear me, drudge? I’m looking for Blaire P. Shorter than me, blonde hair, blue eyes, smirks like a bastard.”

“I… I am sorry, Master P, I have not seen this person. Even if I had, I would not remember, because I’m not to look at a Cypher-P’s face.”

“Don’t you dare lie to me, you miserable drudge! I’ve knocked on every helot’s door for miles. How could none of you have seen Blaire at all? How could someone so memorable vanish without a trace?

The last word was almost a scream, his voice cracking in the middle. The gorgan turned its large metal head towards him slightly, but could not find a threat, and thus looked ahead again. But Korah saw the threat–one a gorgan could not. This Cypher-P was about to burst into tears. His lips quivered, his eyes crinkled up, and he held his breath as if to repress the explosion. She feared the outburst would only be more violent as a result.

She must have been mad, for she suddenly opened her door wider and said, “Would you like to come in?” She didn’t know what she was thinking. She must not have been thinking at all. How else could she explain the fact she felt sympathy for a Cypher-P?

“I… I…” He tried to protest. But he failed. He was falling apart at the seams, Korah thought. He was a Cypher-P. He had wielded incredible authority his entire life. He spent time every day with the dictator of the entire planet. He could make helots bend to his every whim and desire. He could search their memories, demand their labor, or even kill them without consequence. But tonight, none of that seemed to matter. He was just a young man searching for his friend.

So he stepped into her house, then he burst into tears.

That was the night Korah first met Veramus.

Grand Traitor Makeover

My free novella, Grand Traitor, has received another makeover! If you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time!

A foreigner surprises everyone in Castle Krondolee when she claims to possess the key to a room that has remained closed for centuries, its contents unknown. Arken Jeridar, descended from the god of greed, schemes to win the key for himself and the queen's love all at once. But success may come at a far greater cost than he ever expected.

A foreigner surprises everyone in Castle Krondolee when she claims to possess the key to a room that has remained closed for centuries, its contents unknown. Arken Jeridar, descended from the god of greed, schemes to win the key for himself and the queen’s love all at once. But success may come at a far greater cost than he ever expected.

 

As some of you may know, I have recently taken something of a break from writing novels to explore other forms of storytelling media. I created an animation and then became involved with game design, releasing my first visual novel October last year online and in the Google App store: “Serafina’s Saga.” Because of the positive responses the game has received, and also my own emotional attachment to the story, I have decided to go back and adapt the game script into a novel. This will give me a chance to dive deeper into the characters, spend more time with them, and release a version of the story that non-gamers can enjoy, as well.

Grand Traitor is the prequel to all forms of “Serafina’s Saga,” and the story also occurs in the same world as the “Broken Balance” Series (Ashes of DearenSands of Hanubi). Depending on how the Serafina’s Saga novel goes, I might write a third book to create a “Serafina’s Saga” trilogy, which will begin to connect the characters of “Serafina’s Saga” with those in Sands of Hanubi. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

So I just wanted to let you all know that I am still writing novels, albeit not as quickly as the previous few years, and give you a taste of what’s ahead. One way or another, I will return to the Sands of Hanubi story eventually; I’m certainly not done telling it. If you haven’t read Grand Traitor yet, go check it out for free. Here’s a teaser:

***

Excerpt from Grand Traitor Chapter 3

***

She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t.

Nadia stood in the hallway, trembling so fiercely she feared for the health of her baby. Elborn mothers rarely miscarried or suffered complications during childbirth. It was one of the many reasons people suspected they carried the blood of Demetral. But Nadia still worried that the fears and burdens she suffered might have some negative impact on her little Serafina. She could not remember the last time she felt so physically unstable. Her hands sweated uncontrollably. Her body felt weak from lack of food. And yet her one bite of breakfast continued to churn in her stomach.

Two rows of Darzian soldiers shared the hallway with the queen, prepared to give their lives to protect her. She wore a crown on her head, ensuring her that everyone on this vast and powerful continent must obey her command. And yet she felt as vulnerable as a small child alone in the wild. Any moment, Arken Jeridar would come strolling down this hallway. She had chosen this part of the castle for that very purpose, so she might intercept him. But the thought of seeing him again—of staring into those fierce golden eyes, full of anger and maybe even hatred—terrified her beyond belief.

“I, uh… I’m not feeling well,” she said aloud, even though the soldiers were trained not to speak to her. Some of them exchanged puzzled glances, as if wondering whether to respond. “I’m going back to my room!” she declared. Then she started to turn around.

But it was already too late. For at that very moment, Arken appeared at the end of the hallway.

He froze at the same time that she did. He stared at her across the stones of the hall, through the bright beams of sunlight from the windows, and she wondered how she looked to him. There she stood, fat and pregnant, her ridiculously large dress spreading out from her swollen midriff, a look of shock on her face. Crowned, bejeweled, and surrounded by soldiers, she still managed to feel pathetic and sickly.

Meanwhile, Arken looked as radiant as ever. He had traded his silk robes for leather riding boots, simple trousers, and a loose-fitting shirt that showed the softly-sculpted lines of his chest. He had pulled his yellow hair behind him, tied with a silk ribbon, though a few soft strands still fell to accentuate the squareness of his jaws and the sharp length of his nose.

He recovered before she did. He resumed walking, and his steps did not waver as he swept his long legs down the hallway. He stopped just a few feet away from her and feigned a graceful bow. Somehow, this theatrical submission felt equal to the most flagrant insult he might have thrown upon her.

At long last, she closed her gaping mouth and tried to recover her breath. But despite how many times she had rehearsed this moment while waiting for him to appear, she could not find the words to say.

He looked up at her, revealing a tiny smirk on his mouth, and found his voice before she did. “Most beautiful and gracious queen. Forgive me for interrupting you on my way through this hallway.”

He might as well have slapped her across the face. And perhaps that was for the best, for at last, she felt her senses returning to her. “Arken,” she said. “I came here to speak with you.”

He straightened from his ridiculous bow, but continued to wear that smile on his face—a smile that, despite its charm, she knew to be fake. Whatever warmth it provided, the coldness in his eyes overwhelmed it tenfold. “Oh really? Why would the great Queen Nadia ever trouble herself with the likes of a man like me?”

He poised the question as a mockery. But she sensed a sincere curiosity behind his words, as well. “Arken, I…” She glanced around at the soldiers. “Leave us.”

The soldiers hesitated. They could not disobey. But they could not abandon her, either. They did not know what to do.

“Wait for me… over there,” she snapped, pointing to the end of the hallway.

With a great shuffle of armor and weaponry, the soldiers obeyed her. Arken watched them go with an amused expression.

“Arken, when you left here so suddenly, on that day… you never gave me a chance to explain myself.”

“What must you explain? You chose to marry another man. Quite… ‘suddenly.’” The fake smirk, the feigned amusement, vanished completely. His lips curled with a snarl. “Whatever you would say to me, I don’t wish to hear it.”

“But you must. I…” Her palms were sweating again. She rubbed them against the fabric of her dress, to no avail. “I did what I thought what was best for the kingdom. I wanted to marry you. But to do that would have been selfish, especially when I realized the repercussions. If I had abandoned the throne without warning, the castle would have fallen into chaos. Relationships between the Houses were so heated, I feared a civil war.”

“I see. Marrying me would have been selfish?” He snorted, a sound that reverberated from one end of the hall to the other. “Gods forbid you do something selfish! I don’t suppose choosing the crown over love is selfish at all? Nor the assumption that you must sit on the throne or the kingdom will fall to ruin? Naturally, you did what you had to—for the kingdom.”

“You know that it’s true, Arken! Our actions could have had dire consequences.”

“But that’s not the full truth, now is it?” His eyes narrowed on her, and she felt as if they pierced her to the core. “If you really worried so much about the consequences, you would have spoken to the Royal Duma about marrying me long before your scheduled wedding with Lord Gerald.” He stepped closer to her, his gaze crushing her as surely as a boot upon her throat. “If we had proceeded more carefully, we might have gained everyone’s approval. So if you cared so much about that, why didn’t you try? Why did you not announce our intentions sooner?”

Nadia opened her mouth, but no words came out. She realized that for better or worse, Arken sensed the truth. He knew that she had loved him. But despite her love for him, she had never believed he could rule as Grand Prince without causing trouble. She worried that he would always want more power—that his inheritance as a Jeridar would get the best of him. And that even if married to the monarch, his power would fail to satisfy the greed in his bloodstream.

“You misjudged me,” he hissed, his breath blowing the red curls from her face. “You thought I cared only about the crown. You were wrong. But not nearly so wrong as I was about you.”

He pulled back, just a little, but she still felt as if he had smashed her to powder against the floor of the hallway. She felt tiny and small, unable to argue, helpless against his accusations.

“May I pass now, my queen?” His voice dripped with derision. “Or must you explain yourself further?”

“I…” She took another deep, shuddering breath. She stared into the floor, finding that her courage increased the longer she avoided his gaze. “I think that you should not go on this ride with Vivian,” she said at last. “I think that if you obtain the key—more specifically, if your family obtains the key—then the consequences will be dire.”

“That’s not really my concern, is it?” She glimpsed a shrug of his broad shoulders. “Such concerns are for the people with crowns. So why should I worry?”

“Arken. I am begging you…”

“Beg all you’d like, Nadia.” This time, a true hint of joy rang upon his voice, and it chilled her to the bone. “But the more you beg, the more you will assure me of my purpose. For I wish you to understand what it feels like to want only one thing in this world—to want it with every fiber of your being—only to have it denied you.”

And then, without waiting for permission, he swept past her.

For a moment, the soldiers grabbed their weapons. Even from afar, they sensed the queen’s distress. But she shook her head, and they let Arken pass.

She had found the strength to deny him, once. But perhaps that strength had broken, just as surely as his devotion.

***

Read the full story

Published in: on February 12, 2014 at 11:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Diamond Hearth

I’ve been having trouble posting a vignette every week as intended, so today I offer something a little more fulfilling. This is a short story I wrote several years ago inspired by my childhood growing up on a farm. I hope you enjoy it.

*

Dark. Cold. Leaking through the cracked window. She shivers and smiles. She reaches for the lamp next to her, warm, yellow, bright. But not enough to drown out the night. Winds surge. Leaves whoosh. Wood creaks. She could be a pirate on a ship sitting out a storm. Storm’s coming no doubt.

“Wish I could enjoy this as much as you.” Mom closes the window. She sounds stern, but her cheeks are rosy. Eyes twinkling. “But I’ve a farm to look after.”

“Cows’ll be fine,” replies Ferry.

“It’s not the cows I’m worried about.” Mom walks around the room pulling out plugs. “Get the TV?”

Ferry’s sad to leave the window, the portal to the storm. But Mom asked, and Mom knows best. Her fingers follow the wire into the shadows. Pop goes the plug. “Then what scares you?”

Mom looks at her, sighs. Ferry knows what she must be thinking: she’s too young. That’s what she said when Dad left a year ago. You’re too young. But she’s not too young. She was eleven then, now she’s twelve. She didn’t understand why Dad left, but neither did Mom, and Mom’s thirty. She stares Mom in the eyes.

Mom breaks. “The goats. I didn’t tell you this last year but … one of our goats froze to death.”

“It ain’t that cold,” says Ferry. She looks around for more plugs to pull. The thought of a frozen goat scares her, but she can keep working, see?

“You’re right, it’s not. Not yet. Got a book?”

Ferry nods. On a shelf of dusty books, her book’s clean. Spine broken. Well loved. It’s a mystery book. Ferry got it almost a year ago, after Dad disappeared. She knew his disappearance was a mystery, and thought she might be able to figure it out. Read it once, couldn’t figure out anything new at all. So she picked it up to read again. Maybe she’ll find more clues.

They sit at the table. Mom puts the lamp back in the middle and sits with her own book. Ferry watches her. Beautiful. Pale sweaty skin, even though it’s cold outside. Mom works so hard. A bandana over her rich black hair, spilling a little onto her face and sticking. Twinkly black eyes, happy one minute, sad the next. They’re not moving. She’s not reading.

“Mom,” says Ferry. “What’s your book about?”

“Mm.” Mom looks at the cover, as if to remember. “It’s a … silly romance.”

Ferry nods. “You miss Dad.”

The twinkle goes out of Mom’s eyes. Eyebrows furrow. “Not everything’s about your Dad. He’s gone. Best forget about him.”

Mom doesn’t want to believe what other people said about Dad: that he was a thief and a criminal. They told Mom she was better off without him, and made her watch the news showing his “Wanted” picture, connecting him to a jewelry store robbery. Mom said to turn it off, and she wouldn’t talk about it. Ferry wanted to know what Mom knew, but Mom wouldn’t say anything. It’s hard to solve a mystery without any clues. Once Ferry even tried to go through Mom’s papers, but there was so much junk, she couldn’t find anything useful.

It seemed true, though–that Mom was better off without Dad. After he disappeared, Mom seemed to have a lot more spending money. She wasn’t a big shopper, but she didn’t hesitate to buy some things she did before, like nice wines and breads.

Mom’s still looking at Ferry. Mom sighs. “Honey, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say. I can’t stay on this farm forever.”

“… What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’ve been looking into other places. I found a very nice house, closer to town. I think you’d love it.”

Ferry can’t believe what she’s hearing. “But … what about the animals?”

Mom shakes her head. “Just … think about it. I wouldn’t do it until next fall, anyway–”

“We don’t have the money for that!” Ferry remembers hearing Mom and Dad argue about money all the time. She knows what she’s saying.

Mom looks away from her. “I have the money, sweetie.” Her voice is quiet, quieter than the wind outside. “I have plenty.”

The outdoors roar–the wind and the trees and everything living. Mom straightens up, nervous. This is their first winter without Dad’s help. Dad helped run the farm, but Ferry remembers that he complained a lot, too. He cursed the animals and called them dumb. Sometimes Mom got tired of his complaints. Ferry remembers, and she thinks Mom does too, even though she pretends not to. She pretends Dad always liked it here.

The first echo of raindrops, metallic, bounce off the barn’s tin roof. Pouring, flooding closer. Ferry huddles in on herself, represses a smile. Waits for the wave to break. Whoosh comes the rain, over the field and onto the tiled roof of the house.

They read. They pretend, anyway. Mom’s probably thinking about Dad, worrying about what might go wrong. Or maybe she’s thinking about a house near the city. Ferry’s listening to the rain, and how it sends a different echo from each part of the farm.

Mom sees her smiling. Frowns. “If it floods, then the chicken coop …” Her eyes widen, filling with fear. “I should check on them. I should stack more sandbags.”

“I’ll do it!” Ferry slips off her chair.

“Don’t be silly!”

Dog starts barking, probably Masters. Ferry hates that the dogs have to stay outside, even when it rains. They need burros, or llamas. Otherwise dogs are the farm’s only protection, and that’s not much when it comes to coyotes. Sometimes the dogs ignore the coyotes altogether.

Mom listens, considers. “I guess you could check on Masters.” By now, more dogs have joined Masters. They sing a storm chorus.

“Can I bring him inside?”

“Only if something’s wrong.”

Rain jacket, rain boots, and a very big grin. She’s ready to go.

The ground pulls at her feet. Mud grabs her heels like hands. So much rain. She can’t see much, but Masters keeps barking, so she follows the sound. Out here, she could disappear like Dad did. There are a hundred ways to disappear. Probably more. She could run off right now and Mom would never find her. But she won’t.

Masters stands on the other side of the field, up against the fence. The other dogs stand further back, sometimes adding a supportive bark. Masters always barks first. He’s a waterside terrier, big, tough.

“Masters!” calls Ferry. Usually he comes to her when she calls. More barks, same place. He’s not coming. “Masters!”

“Bark bark bark bark bark!”

Only thing to do is keep going. She wants back inside already. Wants her mystery novel. A stove. Some hot chocolate. “Masters!”

He stops barking. Roar roar roar goes the rain, drowning everything else away. At least she’s close now, she can see him, not far from the lamppost. His fur looks like the mud, brown and slimy. He stands so still, rigid. Rain drops down her back. She shivers. “Masters?”

Masters barks once more, and then Ferry sees it. The sea monster he tried to warn her about, loping closer, out of the dark woods and into the lamplight.

She screams and runs back to the house.

The corner’s safe. Nothing can crawl out of the wood to surprise her. Warm, bright, tiny corner.

“FERRY!” Mom rushes inside, the wind howling after her. The mist of the rain travels all the way across the room and tickles Ferry’s skin.

“Don’t let him in!” cries Ferry.

The door slams shut. Warmth and light recollects. Relative silence and peace.

“Let who in?” Mom’s voice trembles. “What happened to you?”

“A m-m- …” No, she’s too old to believe in monsters. Right?

Cold wet raincoat against her skin, but that’s okay, Mom’s only trying to hug her. Ferry reaches under the coat to hug her Mom’s sweater, dark but warm.

“Sweetie, what’s gotten into you?”

Clack clack clack. A bony human fist, pounding against the door of the house. Mom’s nails dig into Ferry’s skin, but that’s okay, Mom’s like a shield, fastening tighter.

“That must be him …” says Ferry. She stares Mom in the eyes. She told her so.

Mom takes a deep breath, pulls away. Eyes dart around, land on a cabinet next to the bookshelf. A key in her hand–Ferry doesn’t know where it came from–twisting to open the cabinet. Inside is a rifle. Mom pulls it down, loads it.

Ferry gets behind Mom. Mom holds the rifle pointed down towards the floor, against her leg. She slowly approaches the door. “Who’s there?”

“Don’t mean no harm.” The voice groans through the wood, barely audible over the storm.

“Then what do you want?”

“Shelter. Just shelter.”

Mom looks at Ferry. Ferry shakes her head: don’t trust this man yet. Mom cracks the door open, keeping the rifle just out of the monster’s sight.

Ferry can’t see him yet. Just hear him. “Hey ma’am. Name’s Zack.” (more…)

Published in: on February 4, 2014 at 7:58 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
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