Beyond the Gate: Story Excerpt

The anthology I’ve been coordinating these past few months launches today! Here’s a sneak peek at my story in the anthology, wherein a struggling shaw (e.g. airship) captain takes on a shady contract with a rather dubious sort of man.


 Upon a Misty Morning

by E.W. Pierce

The sky docks were alive with traffic: porters disembarking ramps, pulling hand carts stacked with crates and iron-banded barrels; richly-attired merchants waiting to talk to their captain of choice; clusters of girls in colorful dresses giggling whenever one of the broad-shouldered sailors of the skies passed by. An enterprising young man was doing brisk commerce out of a food trolley at the boardwalk’s head, and occasionally the strains of music could be heard. Even amid all the bustle and commotion, there was a tangible atmosphere of celebration and cheer.

Separated from the frenzy by a half-dozen empty berths, the shaw Misty Morning hunkered in shadows deep enough to hide her worn decks and mask her peeling paint. A green ribbon was tied at the bottom of the gangplank, indicating the shaw was accepting commissions. The ribbon hung limp, scarcely bothering to stir in the faint breeze.

Standing on the shaw’s prow, one scuffed boot up on the rail, faded leather duster billowing around her legs, Captain Mel Locke watched the comings and goings of commerce to all but her shaw with growing irritation.

Word of her expired license must’ve reached Waldron’s Gate. All the choice contracts moving Manifestation goods would go elsewhere. She might get a deal moving low-value bulk if she was patient, but it was an uneven proposition. Only the most desperate merchant would try an unlicensed ship and risk seizure and penalty.

As it was, she wasn’t feeling all that patient. Hand to brow, she scanned the crowd for the blue uniform of a dock official. Underfoot, the shaw’s deck thrummed with readiness in the event a speedy departure was necessary.

Slow, cautious footsteps approached from behind. She knew without looking that it was Taul Kemmel, first mate and ship’s tally-master. None other risked approaching her on commerce days. “Taul.”

“Sir.” Taul had been a Parliament Guard in the long ago and retained some habits from those days. At least he’d dropped that saluting nonsense.

“Not much in the way of commerce, is there?”

“Winter comin’, is all.”

“Must be.”

He cleared his throat.

Mel sighed. “How much this time?”

A long inhalation.

That bad? Doubt took root in the space between his breaths. Would today be the day they realized she didn’t know what she was doing? That she put on a brave face and pretended at confidence for their benefit?

“Five hundred.”

“Five…” Where was she going to come up with that kind of coin? They’d been down to necessities – parts and food – for some time. She didn’t need to be tally-master to know that five hundred was drastically more than they had.

Further up the dock, the cogs of commerce spun on, oblivious. Anger blossomed, burning away the more complicated feelings. She spun on Taul. “What’s Kile done to my ship this time?” Chief Wrench on the Misty Morning, Kile Filmore was forever complaining about something corroding or rusting. It was his responsibility to keep the shaw flying, but Mel thought he often asked for things they didn’t really need.

Taul was substantially taller than Mel but somehow her anger always seemed to put them on an even level. “Maintenance, is all. Drive shaft’s corroded, rudders need balancing, the rear uplifters have maybe forty miles left on them.”

Parts could be had at Rust Bucket, the airship graveyard. The graveyard didn’t exist on any map, allowing Waldron’s Gate citizens to persist under the false notion that what is Built lasts forever. Perhaps that was true for creations that spent their life close to the ground, but the sky was another type of reality. Hostile winds, a chill deeper than the harshest winter, water in its many, deadly forms—all conspired against a shaw’s natural lifespan. Even the wealthiest captains, the type who’d scrap a perfectly good ship and order a new one Built, had probably put into Rust Bucket for emergency repairs.

Not that she even had the coin to buy second-hand scrap. “Guess it’s time to venture landside and rustle up some commerce.”

“Is that wise, sir?”

Mel gave him a reassuring grin. “I’m sure they’ve forgotten all about that little misunderstanding.”

Taul frowned. His blue eyes shifted, tracking something on the docks.

A thin man in a long coat hustled along the boardwalk, hood turned up despite the heat of the morning. A luxurious suitcase swung wildly at his side.

“Curious,” Taul said.

“Not customs.” The man glanced over his shoulder every dozen steps or so. Definitely not customs. Nobody seemed to be following the man.

They met him at the top of the gangplank. Hunched over, gasping for breath, he looked to be perhaps fifty, one of those carefully constructed types who precisely positioned each hair. At least he had been. Mud splattered the legs of his tailored suit and the wind had blown his coiffed silver hair so that it stuck up at odd angles. He wore a thick layer of gray scruff on his chin. If he’d been on the run, it’d been for some time. He looked like trouble.

On the other hand, he smelled like money. “You seem to have lost your hat.” Likely his wits, too—maybe the tall hats kept them from escaping.

The man squinted up through tiny spectacles. He summoned up four measured words interspersed by wheezes. “Are… you… Captain… Locke?”

“Who wants to know?”

“Jarvis…” There was a telling pause. “Hillman.”

“Help you Mister Hillman?”

Jarvis straightened, cautiously glancing over the rail. The normal commotion of commerce continued, his passing gone unnoticed. “I need to arrange shipment.”

“That so?”

“It is really quite urgent, Captain Locke.” Another furtive glance.

“As it happens, the Misty Morning is the fastest shaw in the sky.” On account of her usually empty holds, but she didn’t need to bother him with such details.

“Indeed? Erm—might we conclude our commerce someplace a little more private?”

Mel smiled indulgently. She introduced Taul and led them to her personal quarters. Dust motes swirled in the square of sunlight coming through the back windows. Blankets spilled onto the floor from the narrow cot. Her footlocker was open, the arm of a shirt draped over the side. Unfurled charts piled atop the small desk, partially buried by scraps of paper. Lists, of all kinds – repairs needed, favors owed, dwindling supplies, the crew’s debt and credit accounts. She even had lists of lists.

She smoothed the blankets more or less straight and kicked the chest closed. The chair screeched harshly as she settled into it. “Make yourself comfortable.”

Jarvis glanced between the bed and the locker, settling on the latter, his case balanced on his knees.

Taul closed the door and remained standing.

“Before we begin, Mister…”

“Erm, Hillman.”

“Right. I should warn you that we’ve got a full charter already. You look like a nice man, but I can’t just bump another patron to make room for your product without compensating the first. Do you take my meaning?”

“Quite, captain. Only I do not imagine that will be necessary. You see, I only wish to transport myself. At once and with all haste.”

Taul looked like someone who’d stepped into a pile of disgusting and was considering how best to remove the filth without touching it himself. He waved his hands behind Jarvis’ back, shaking his head and trying to get her attention. She ignored him.

“Why not take a commercial shaw? We don’t have much in the way of amenities.” There could only be one reason—commercial shaws required papers. If Jarvis was a wanted man, and she suspected that he was, then she risked having her ship impounded by taking his commission.

Jarvis rubbed his chest, a pained look on his face. “Commercial ships don’t go to White Peaks.”

Mel whistled softly. “That’d be a pretty sight.” As a general rule, shaws didn’t go to White Peaks. Treacherous winds dashed the foolhardy against the mountains long before they could reach the tiny valley town nestled amid the peaks.

“I can pay.” He reached into his cloak, depositing a sack onto the desk with a satisfying, heavy clink of coin. Behind it came three more, as full as the first. “Handsomely.”

Mel tried to calculate how much coin it was but her mind boggled and quit. Jarvis spared her the wondering.

“Two thousand, Captain Locke. Count it if you wish.” His smile was the grin of a man who’d revealed a winning hand in a flourish and knew that he had you.

She resisted the urge to reach across the table and slam his face onto the desk. There was a reason she didn’t play cards. “No.”

“No?” The color drained from Jarvis’ face, along with that stupid smile. Even Taul looked surprised.

“Two thousand isn’t enough to replace my ship when I crash it bringing you into White Peaks. I’m good, no question. But that’s not nearly enough for the risk.” Each word felt like someone plunged an icy dagger into her heart. Two thousand represented a lot of things—repairs, a renewed license, food.

And then Jarvis said something completely unexpected. “I can pay more.”

Mel was a seasoned professional when it came to the time-tested ways of negotiation, and her dislike of playing cards aside, she prided herself on having an unreadable face. But now that mask splintered, disbelief showing through. “More?” It came out as a strangled gasp.

“Two thousand now. Ten when we arrive. Enough to buy you a new ship, I should think. A far superior one.”

Mel let the criticism of the Misty Morning slide, something she never did. “Twelve thousand?”

Jarvis spread his hands on the desk. “Is that enough?”

Taul was leaning heavily against the door, his face ashen. With seemingly great effort, he lifted his eyes to meet Mel’s. Taul shook his head.

Duly noted, but it was her ship. “You have yourself a deal.”

“I have two conditions, Captain. One: we depart immediately.”

“Done.”

“And two: no questions.” His fingers tightened around the suitcase until the knuckles were white.


What to find out what happens next? The book is out now at the following eBook sites!

Amazon | Apple | Nook (Barnes & Noble) | Page Foundry

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My Interview @ Blunderbuss World

I had an absolute blast getting interviewed at Blunderbuss World today! Topics include: the Beyond the Gate anthology, my contribution to the anthology, how and where I write, and stuff about my other stories. Check it out!

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With Fingers Gray and Cold (Dark Fantasy short) – FREE on Amazon

fingers_cold_grayAmazon has finally seen fit to price match my Dark Fantasy short story With Fingers Gray and Cold down to $0.00. I intend on leaving it free in perpetuity, but don’t let that discourage you from downloading it now and giving it a read. Especially if you like: con artists, frozen climates, superstitions, and creepy backwater villagers.

Sounds awesome, right? I think so, but that’s probably no surprise. See for yourself. :)

Get it for FREE!

Still working on getting my other shorts free on Amazon. You’ll know when it happens.

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Beyond the Gate

You may have noticed that I’ve allowed some dust to accumulate around these here parts the last couple of months. Cobwebs in the corners. Mice in the pantry. The lawn overgrown and choked with weeds.

I’m not saying I’ve been neglectful, but just now, when I came here to post this, I had to think hard about my password.

So yea, my absense is recognized by the proprietor. There is a reason, a good one, having nothing to do with Procrastination, that dastardly villian and chief nemesis.

I’ve been coordinating an anthology. Short stories of a Fantasy persuasion, from 23 authors (including myself). I brained up this cockamainy idea and then fell on the sword volunteered to lead the charge. That was some 2 or 3 months ago. Not quite sure how long, time’s grown a bit soft.

I’m an optimistic sort, often foolishly. Turns out I drastically (you might say criminally) underestimated how much time it would take to coordinate this. Time is ever the resource in shortest supply in My Life. I had no idea just how many tiny details need cataloging in such an endeavor. You might say it’s like Whack-a-Mole and I wouldn’t disagree.

I say all of this not to complain but to explain the quiet, and to apologize for it in a roundabout way. I fully intend on resuming the Skyrim Chronicles at the earliest opportunity. For now, I can only push the boulder forward on my novel and play taskmaster on the anthology. It is all Time will allow.

If you are curious about the anthology, might be you can pop in and take a look. The stories deal in all sorts of wizz-bang coolery, including airship smugglers, time traveling, ancient mysteries, and a malignant Fog that harbors the fiends of nightmare. It’s all sorts of awesome and it will be completely FREE when it launches. At the end of October.

Hopefully.

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Meet my Character: Tomi

Jamie_MaltmanI was invited to participate in my first Blog Hop! This one is focused on characters, so you’ll get a sneak-peek on what I’m currently working on. I was tagged by the awesome Jamie Maltman – you can read about Elysia, one of the main characters in his Arts Reborn series, on his web site.

Jamie Maltman writes historically-inspired Fantasy. He recently released book II of his Arts Reborn series, Blood of the Water, which follows the return of opposing forces of artistic creation and elemental destruction to a world where echoes of ancient Greece and Rome mix with the fantastical, with book III expected late 2014.

His work will also be featured in Beyond the Gate, an upcoming anthology of short stories set in the world of The Dream Engine, by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant.

Jamie is also the new co-host on the To Be Read Podcast.

When Jamie isn’t reading or writing, he’s probably enjoying time at his home in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada with his wife and two young sons, playing some kind of board or computer game, or watching basketball or Doctor Who.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Google+ | goodreads

 

Getting to Know Tomi

Time to introduce you to Tomi, one of the main characters in my upcoming novel.

1) What is the name of your character? Is he fictional or a historic person?

Tomi Kato is a fictional character. He is in his late fifties.

2) When and where is the story set?

The story takes place in a far-future Earth ruled by immortals – a genetically modified race of super-humans whose Empire subjugates the ‘lesser’ races across the globe. Theirs was a conquest of wanton destruction, and though much of the horror is lost to time, the land still bares the scars.

Within that broad spectrum is Rosedein, a far-Eastern country. Separated into nine regions ruled by a unifying Clan, Rosedein has a proud military tradition. In days of old, they fought each other with gunfire and sword in large mech suits. The nine Clans unified when the Imperials came, and rebelled twice in defeat. As a result, modern-day Rosedein is an irradiated wasteland. Animals died off long ago, unable to sustain themselves on what few weeds sprouted from the dried and cracked Earth. Old cities are overgrown nightmares where sub-human mutants are rumored to lurk. Even the skies were turned against the Rosedein, as the sun scarcely peeks through the gray shroud, and when the rains come, they scorch and burn.

The scant Rosedein populace clings to life now at the Empire’s whim, subsisting on Imperial supplements and whatever meager crop their pitiful gardens can grow. There is a thriving market among the Imperials for relics and oddities of the old age; most Rosedein scavenge the wastelands, risking radiation and mutants to bring back something of value to barter with.

3) What should we know about him?

Tomi has returned home after spending twenty years abroad, serving a sentence mandated on all the men of the subjugated peoples. Called ‘The Proving’, the men are forced to fight in gladiatorial combat against one another. Those that survive these twenty years are sent home as full Imperial Citizens, with all the rights that implies. Very few return home.

Tomi is a broken man, desensitized by years of killing. He comes home to lands he barely remembers, to a family he does not know.

4)What is the personal goal of the character?

When he returns home, Tomi mostly wants to be left alone. He has memories of fishing on the sea with his father, and he means to take a rowing boat out on the water and spend his days rocking, in solace. He realizes that he must reconnect with his family, somehow, but is at a loss for how to even begin.

5) What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?

When an Immortal is murdered, the Imperials begin a campaign of terror to root-out the guilty. The Rosedein being to whisper about a new rebellion. As a Citizen, with the power to move about at will and go where others can’t, Tomi is asked to help, jeopardizing both the hard-won rest he’s earned, and the family he is trying to find his way back to.

6) What is the title of the novel, and where can find out more?

The novel is yet un-named, but the project’s codename is Post-Apocalyptic Samurai novel. :) Check-out the board I started on Pinterest for some of the visual inspiration for the novel.

7) When was the book published/when is it due out?

The book is due out in November of 2014. It is the first in a planned series.

 

The Character Hop Continues Next Week

Stacy Claflin is the next author in the hop. I’ve been fortunate to work with Stacy on Beyond the Gate, an anthology of stories inspired by The Dream Engine by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant. We both have stories in the anthology, due out in October 2014.

Here’s Stacy, in her own words:

Stacy_ClaflinI have always been an avid reader and a writer. When I was a teenager, I would always be in the middle of at least five books. Not only could I keep up with each story line, but I also never needed a bookmark! I could grab any of the books that I was reading and remember what page I left off on! I don’t have that talent anymore. I’m lucky to remember what I went into the kitchen for when I get there!

I’ve been writing and telling stories for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my story telling would get me into trouble when I would try to convince others that my stories were real. I think I scarred my younger cousin for life with my Cavity Monster story!

These days I write paranormal romantic suspense and later this month I’m releasing a suspense that beta readers call a psychological thriller. I’m also dabbling in contemporary romance, so nothing is off limits for my writing, although I can’t seem to stay away from suspense. Everything has that element.

I’m the mom of two amazing and adorable boys. I educate my boys from home. Oh, and I run a home daycare too. Some ask how I can get any writing done at all. That’s simple, I get up around 4:00 in the morning every weekday so that I can get my writing in! I’m also a thyroid cancer survivor, I have been cancer free since 2008!

Website | Amazon | Twitter | Facebook | Pinterest | G+

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My Character Type

After years of playing computer RPGs, I’ve come to realize there is a character ‘type’ that I am always drawn toward playing: burly men of a helpful disposition, wielding the kind of swords that require two hands and rippling biceps. The sort of steel that wouldn’t look out of place in Conan’s hands.

Not this Conan!

Not this Conan!

Other char gen options – your spells and arrows and the like – hardly come into consideration. Put it this way – if you see my character with a bow, it’s only to hobble a faster-moving enemy so that I can move close enough to finish them properly.

With a giant piece of steel, if that wasn’t already obvious.

I don’t know where this predilection comes from. Melee-based characters are more straight forward to play versus spell-slingers with their myriad of wards and potions and incantations, but complexity isn’t the enemy. Spells and arrows just aren’t as satisfying as a sword wielded well. There is just something simple and satisfying about facing danger head-on and hacking away at it until it is substantially less dangerous.

Part of the answer, I sense, comes from childhood. I grew-up watching the Conan movies, and I will forever love Arnold for that reason. In the Dragonlance novels, I was always drawn the most to Camaron. And there is no denying that lightsabers are Bad Ass, no matter how cool Han and his blaster are (and his opinions on the usefulness of Jedi weaponry aside).

Get to the choppa!

Get to the choppa!

Even when playing tabletop D&D, my first inclination is always to roll-up a fighter, mechanically the least interesting of all the options. There is just something exciting, and yes, even romantic, about standing on the front-line and facing the unknown. Or in lingering behind to brace a bulging door, buying time for companions whilst orcs pound away, trying to get inside.

My characters are also nice guys, mostly, collecting quests like a starving man choosing from a buffet – which is to say, indiscriminately. Fetch quests, escort missions, investigations and mysteries – its something of a wonder how the world got on before I arrived on the scene. Often I’ll even eschew payment, the satisfaction of seeing a wrong righted the only coinage necessary. Like I said – nice guys.

This isn’t to imply my characters are strictly honorable do-gooders. In Skyrim, my “heroic” Dragonborn was something of a kleptomaniac, breaking into homes at night or finding the dark corners of stores to load his pack with stuff. My iteration of Geralt in the Witcher 2 likewise helped himself to whatever he desired, and though he professed love for the fiery redhead Triss Merigold, he single-handedly kept the brothels in business.

Some RPGs grade your ‘goodness’ with a sliding scale. In Star Wars KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic, my favorite RPG of all time) and the Mass Effects, my character was all light, no shades of dark or even hints of gray. Although sometimes Commander Shephard couldn’t resist giving the council the bird by ending transmissions prematurely. Because screw those guys anyway.

Friends sometimes extol the virtues of going ‘dark’ (once you go dark you don’t go back?). The assassin, the serial killer, the power-hungry megalomaniac: these are character types favored by those who would visit chaos upon virtual realms, who would sow anarchy among the indigenous NPC populace. And, I must admit, there is a certain allure to this kind of hair-letting-down. Life is full enough of rules and restrictions, isn’t it? Why not live as the other half, if only in a digital world?

I have tried to be bad. None of the characters of the Skyrim Chronicles thus far could be confused with virtuousness. In fact, I’ve skewed darker with those characters as something of a reaction to my first, bleach-white, Dragonborn character. But even they aren’t truly evil, black-on-black entities. They might do dark deeds of necessity, but they have Reasons, you see. Motivations. Maybe this is a perception thing – almost anything can be rationalized within a character’s head, seeing the world through their eyes.

I can’t even play a damn video game without looking into the character’s head to see what makes them tick.

I’m not immune to the Evil Instinct, that pull to do dark work. Sometimes it’s nigh on impossible to resist. When given the choice to nuke Megaton or disarm the bomb early in Fallout 3, I played the savior, but I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting I wasn’t at least tempted. Even now, years later, I wish I had done it, if only to quickly reload to a slightly earlier, less radioactive time. Can you imagine roasting marshmallows over that fire?

When the tug to do dark deeds grows hard to resist, I’ll usually bargain with myself, offering deferred gratification. Not this playthrough – this character wouldn’t do that. Next playthrough I’ll get my Evil on, with a new, sufficiently motivated character.

But who am I kidding? I’ve reached that stage of my life where Time is the precious commodity and everything serves at its pleasure. I barely had enough time for this play-through, much less to retrace my steps with Black Boots on. There are many and more delicacies to savor, and so I must always be moving onto different fare, like a bee flitting about a garden.

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Destiny Beta Impressions

As a game, Destiny is a crazy blend of influences that reads something like a scattered mad scientist’s ingredient list, ranging from Halo and Borderlands, to Star Wars and MMOs like World of Warcraft. I pre-ordered based on my experience with Bungie’s past offerings, but I wasn’t all that enthused about playing ‘Borderlands: Call of Halo’. How could such grotesquerie appeal to anyone, no matter Bungie’s pedigree?

It turns out my fears were largely unfounded. Follows are my impressions more or less in sequential order.

Character Creation

warlockFiring up the Beta, I decided to go with the Warlock class as it felt like the freshest of the three options. At a glance, the Titan seemed to fill the Master Chief role, and the Hunter was out of consideration because I am terrible with sniper rifles. Just awful. Almost comically, except not funny.

The cosmetic end of character creation is very simple yet robust. I went with a light-blue tinged Awoken man with dark hair and blue markings on his face. There aren’t a ton of choices, but there’s enough customization to suit my tastes, and the system is snappy. Best of all – no accidental Skyrim-esque abominations.

I’ve Been Tyrion To Find You

The drone that finds and revives my desiccated corpse amidst the twisted, rusted-out hulks of steel is reminiscent of Guilty Spark. Only less annoying, and voiced by Peter Dinklage. I subsequently start to think of him as my own personal Guilty Tyrion. He’s a wonderful companion, a more physically-able version of Cortona, but he sounds incredibly bored. Or maybe that’s just Dinklage’s robot voice.

In any case, Guilty Tyrion mentions he’s been looking for me for some time and now he’s finally found me. Turns out I’ve been dead quite a while. I didn’t quite understand what made my dried husk so special. Was I an intergalactic space marine in a prior life? Seems doubtful, and no clues are given. I’m fine with there being some mystery around this Choosing, but the handling falls a bit flat. On the whole, it’s a kinda flimsy raison d’être. But there are General Grevious-styled villains afoot, so no time to ponder such vagaries. Onward.

First Things

Once the parking brake is removed and I have control of my avatar, I took a moment to slowly spin around, taking in the scenery. There was a cliff, just steps away, so I took a running leap. Is Destiny a game of invisible rails? As it happily turns out, not so much. Guilty Tyrion revitalized me back atop the cliff, as though my plummeting death was a bit of madness I’d only imagined.

First impression of the graphics: meh. It’s fine, really, there’s nothing overly wrong with the graphics, but they don’t blow up the edges of my skirt either. In all fairness, my initial reaction could have something to do with the landscape itself, a veritable wasteland of rust and dead scrub land. There’s only so much one can do to make brown look appealing. Later areas are more colorful and vibrant, and the use of light and shadow particularly is a thing of beauty.

My first weapon is an assault rifle. Wielding it feels like something between Halo and Call of Duty. In other words, it’s perfectly satisfactory.

Combat

Running, jumping, shooting, tossing nades at the boots of my foes – it’s all second nature after so many years of Halo. There’s always a brief period of disorientation and acclimation upon picking up a new shooter. The trigger’s function is obvious, but what about the face buttons? How do I sprint, and is duck on the menu? But here my fingers know exactly what steps to perform. It’s a nice, comforting feeling.

The radar acts like a threat detector, turning red at the points of the compass where enemies are afoot. Gone are the individual blips we knew and loved from Halo. I actually prefer the new system, as you don’t know how many enemies are out there, just that they are there. Unclear if it only lights up when it detects movement, or if it can just sense enemies at all times. I believe it’s the latter, but again, unclear.

Destiny Battleground

Picking up ammo, too, is different. Finding bullets in Halo usually amounted to gun-swapping with corpses, tossing aside empty weapons like candy wrappers. It was an economy built around waste, but Master Chief didn’t have time to look for recycle bins for his empties. In Destiny, your main gun conveniently utilizes the same ammunition as your enemies. Is it realistic? No, but it is environmentally sound!

As a complete aside, this begs the logical question – does humanity and its various foes actually wield the same weaponry? I picture a third-party manufacturer, sitting safely above the fray, supplying the combatants with the means of destruction and growing fat off the spoils. After all, humanity as we see it is on its last legs, clinging to existence on the detris of yesteryear, with no apparent capability to produce much of anything ourselves anymore. Presumably all of our manufacturing facilities have gone the way of Old Russia – broken and left to rust.

Or, being unable to make our own stuff, are we really just using weaponry salvaged from the cold corpses of aliens long ago? And, therefore, taking ammo from their bodies is a neat bit of circle-of-life symmetry?

Or does your Ghost – Guilty Tyrion, in my case – somehow harmonize the alien ammunition with the needs of the Guardian’s guns?

I recognize these are silly questions of no real merit, but world-building of such depth as is on display here naturally leads my mind to wondering about apparent gaps in the stitching. Not to point them out and laugh, but to assume there must be a reason, even if I must invent my own because none is given.

At any rate, my hungry rifle feeds on the leavings of my enemies and this is good.

Combat doesn’t quite reach the heights of Halo, and the fault lies with the enemy AI. Foes are content to stand in open areas returning fire, or to duck into and out of cover in completely predictable patterns. Once, I came within a dozen steps of an enemy and he just stood there, staring off, thinking deep thoughts. Probably wondering if he remembered to turn the oven off or lock the door, or maybe pondering the ammo cunundrum. I’m not overly concerned as there’s plenty of time for Bungie to tighten the AI prior to launch. But the weak AI does make the early firefights fairly ho-hum. In fairness, later battles do get tougher because the enemies are a higher level, but I don’t recall seeing much in the way of tactics at any point, unless you consider a larger health bar a strategy.

Something must be said for the Warlock’s melee attack, a burst of blue-white energy from my fingertips. It’s a Force Push on steroids. Starkiller’s got nothing on this. Sometimes multiple enemies get caught in the blast. I never tire of watching foes topple lifelessly end-over-end.

You Got Some RPG in my FPS

Destiny (with_characters)At first, it’s a little odd seeing the enemy’s level and their health meter floating over their head because, as established, gameplay feels much like Halo. Much like Borderlands, the mechanic is a nice way to indicate foes from which you’d be better served fleeing, or at least handling with care. After a while, I mostly stopped noticing the yellow digits. I wonder if there is an in-game explanation for the numbers, like Guilty Tyrion is overlaying it on my HUD or something.

Another obvious place Borderland’s DNA is visible is the presence of loot crates. I pulled a shotgun from the first crate I encountered, which I promptly slapped onto my back and forgot about. There’s nothing wrong about it, per se, but when the melee attack is so amazeballs, and the assault rifle is an equal-opportunity killer, I lacked a problem for which the shottie was the ideal tool.

Also, as a warning – there is no pausing the action. Which makes sense once you come to think of it as a persistent multiplayer shooter. But I was a bit surprised when I tried to pause in a fight and they kept shooting me. These enemies have no concept of fair play, or what a time-out means. You have been warned.

The Tower is the one place that feels the most MMO-like. The camera pulls back into 3rd-Person, and now I can see my carefully crafted dude as he runs and jumps about. It’s hard to get a gauge for how many players a single instance of the Tower can maintain, but it feels like a few dozen at least. No area is ever empty. People randomly dart about, jump around like their pants are on fire, or stand statuesque for long periods of time. Yes, this feels like an MMO.

Talking to the NPCs is a bit unwieldy. It puts you into a menu-like screen with the NPC’s picture, things you can buy from them, and (sometimes) quests you can undertake. It’s a bit awkward on the whole, and there are things like Reputation listed on this screen. “What is that” and “how do I get some” are questions not answered. Whatever. Another time, then.

While visiting the Tower between missions to claim some rewards, I discover that I’ve unlocked some new equipment along the way, somehow without my knowing. I had four different chest pieces, several gauntlets, a pair of helmets, and three sets of boots. Also a new gun. Most likely I missed the on-screen prompts that I found cool loot, but I’m beginning to suspect my avatar is some type of kleptomaniac, picking up stuff and stuffing them into his trousers.

Character progression is tracked by player level, which spurs the purchase of unlockables unique to one’s class. There’s no choice in what you unlock early on. My first unlockables are a neat Vortex Grenade that pulls enemies into a pulsing purple singularity, and a Glide ability that allows me to soar high above and rain death on the enemies scurrying below like insects.

Boss Battles. Or, Here – Look Behind the Curtain

Boss fights are signaled rather abruptly with a warning ‘There are no respawns in this area’. Which is a bit like playing poker and telling everyone you have a full house. Why rob players of the opportunity to come to this knowledge first-hand? Telegraphing of this nature drains away the drama of running face-first into a hulking bruiser ready to gnash bones. Given such forewarning, I can’t help but slow down and play carefully for no reason other than I’d been warned to play that way.

Such a feature might be a mainstay of MMO gameplay, but it feels completely out of place in a shooter. And despite the RPG and MMO trappings, Destiny is first and foremost an FPS. It’s inclusion here is odd, is what I’m saying.

The first boss is battle of attrition. He sends waves of lesser foes against me but mostly is content to hang back. The boss’s shields are not insubstantial, and the assault rifle is slow to removing it. Master Chief handled situations like this by charging forward and laying fiends low with his shotgun, and so I do likewise, thinking perhaps I’ve discovered how to use the weapon. Only this boss has played Halo, too. He slams the ground, dropping my health to a tiny sliver. I hide, recover my strength, and try again, thinking he must’ve gotten lucky the first time. Nope. Close combat is off the table. Bummer.

The shotgun is returned to my back to collect and catalog dust.

The World

Discovering my own personal starship was an early highlight, even if it’s nerfed. No hyperdrive, not yet anyway, but Guilty Tyrion assures me we’ll find one. Exciting! But, even more crushingly, there’s no option to take the ship off autopilot. I really, really want to fly this thing. Going into the Beta, I knew this wasn’t a thing one could do even in the final retail version, but I can’t restrain myself from wishing I could take the controls and dart around the skies. Hopefully Destiny 2 will deliver player-controlled aircraft, and maybe even space combat.

Levels feel HUGE. I know there is a point somewhere where, if not invisible walls, then gaping chasms await to curtail further movement, but the distant hills call to me. I spend manyDestiny Screen hours blatantly going in the opposite direction from the objective marker, kicking over figurative rocks and seeing what crawls out from underneath. At some point, perhaps while checking behind a waterfall for hidden caves, I realize that I’m playing an FPS like an RPG. I take that as a win for Destiny.

Danger lurks off the beaten path. On more than one occasion, delving into dark abandoned railway stations or into dark caverns hidden by brush, I encounter enemies I am not prepared to face. Perhaps the level indicator, now red and listed as ??, should have been a clue, but I rush in. The uber enemies laugh in the face of my rifle’s inconsequential hail-fire, and shrug aside the brunt of my melee as a giant flicks aside the fly. They squash me in one shot.

Morale of the story – avoid enemies whose level shows as ??. Also, dark places.

You get bits of story lore as you play, mostly delivered by Guilty Tyrion, but sometimes from NPCs at Guardian Central (aka, The Tower). The Universe feels rich and fully fleshed out. I’m getting strong Mass Effect vibes, but Star Wars is coming through too. Mixed with the post-apocalyptic setting, the concoction makes for a heady, addictive brew. I’m already more interested in this Universe than I ever was in the Halo one. High praise, and I’m even a Halo nut.

Subsequent levels revisit the same area each time. At first blush, this seems like lazy level design, but then you realize (again) just how huge the levels are, and you no longer care. Doors that were locked previously now lay open, and the horizons seem pushed back.

Random events work as advertised, but that feels like selling it short. These are like ad hoc waves from Halo’s FireFight mode dropped in the middle of a campaign level. As I climbed a huge hill toward a dilapidated radar tower, a massive starship punched into the atmosphere, discharging drop-pods like seedlings. I rushed to clear the three landing spots, joining forces with another Guardian. We made short work of the enemies and then went our separate ways. It was a fun diversion, a chance to work together against a common foe, but we both had pressing matters to attend to.

The use of light and shadow is incredible, and at times, creepy. The underground segments really highlight its effectiveness, and it is in those claustrophobic depths that the game’s horror element finally reveals it’s dark face. In one stand-out moment, you enter an abandoned facility overgrown with strange-looking fungi. Guilty Tyrion is jabbering about the Fallen. And I think, ‘Please – I’ve stood against the horrors of the Flood. They’re gonna be fallin’ alright’.

Despite the bravado, I creep forward, rifle haphazardly sweeping the area. The motion detector is dead quiet, but I know something lurks in the black ahead, behind my meager circle of light.

There is a screech, and then they come, boiling down the walls and crawling out of openings. Guilty Tyrion is shouting something, but I can’t make sense of the words. My assault rifle answers the Fallen’s charge, but they are many. The shadows boil with movement. It feels like there must be hundreds of them, all clambering for my hot blood. Reloading, I back into a corner. I’m trapped. I melee a trio of Fallen aside, but more fill the gap, and then I am dead.

Upon retry, I utilize the vortex grenade to soften them up and then switch to the shottie to finish them once close. And now I come to understand the shotgun’s true purpose. I rename it Foe-Hammer, the Fallen-Smasher.

Final Thoughts

I only reached level 5 before exhausting my supply of free time, leaving much of the content unexplored. I never participated in a Fireteam. I didn’t partake in the PvP madness. I didn’t even get on at the same time as a friend to tackle challenges together. It doesn’t matter, I’ve seen enough, and I like what I’m seeing.

There are some uneven bits. Some, like the enemy AI, will likely be addressed prior to launch. But something like warning players of a no-respawn zone (and therefore signaling a boss fight) seems like a feature and I anticipate that will remain in the final copy, sadly.

Destiny is a thrilling adventure, at once familiar and refreshingly new. And, like the best sci-fi, it is an invitation to explore, to marvel, to dream.

September 9th can’t come soon enough.

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5 Games I’m Hyped About (And They’re Releasing This Year!)

The dust from another E3 has long settled. Based on what I saw and heard from the conference, here are the 5 games I’ll be picking up later this year!

Dragon Age Inquisition

I love the Dragon Age lore. A new game set in an open world? Yes please!

Halo Master Chief Collection

I am strangely excited to repurchase a bunch of games I’ve already owned and have since jettisoned.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Looks like Assassin’s Creed: Middle-Earth, with Batman: Arkham City influences, and I am more than fine with that.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity

The AC franchise is starting to feel a little over-played (yearly releases will do that), but the inclusion of 4-player campaign suddenly has me excited again. Now if only I could find 3 other friends that will actually buy it…

Destiny

The makers of Halo are creating a new sci-fi shooter with open world RPG, MMO-lite elements. Looks like Halo crossed with Borderlands, and seasoned with a bit of Star Wars. They had me at a new Bungie sci-fi shooter.

Bonus – 4 on the watch list for 2015:

The Division

The graphic fidelity and the promise of some great RPG-enhanced shooter gameplay looks incredible. Not much for the Tom Clancy series of games, but this is one I will be picking up.

Halo 5: Guardians

Huge Halo fan (even tried some of the books… don’t), so this is a no-brainer. Halo 4 had a great story and a powerful ending. Looking forward to the continuation.

Witcher 3

The Witcher series is known for its mature take on RPGs (elf ghettos and sub-human racism and, yes, sex). The new game knocks down the invisible walls, expanding into a fully open world. The video of Geralt crossing rough seas in a small sailboat initially sold me, and nothing I’ve seen since has dissuaded that initial opinion.

Rainbow Six Siege

This one wasn’t on my radar until E3. I haven’t played a Tom Clancy title since early in the 360’s life cycle. This new iteration looks impressive though – tense multiplayer gameplay centering on recovering (or keeping) a hostage, with barricades, neat toys, and fully destructible environments. Sold.

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Tweet-Sized Reviews of 15 Movies

Here’s some brief thoughts on the last bunch of movies I’ve seen in the past month or so. We don’t normally watch this many movies in so short a span of time, but Family Video gave us 50% all rentals for 2 weeks. Needless to say, we took advantage.

The Internship ~ Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
The Internship

Vaughn is slick and Wilson sentimental, but they can’t quite recreate the Wedding Crashers magic. Trailer steals the best laughs. Still, not as bad as you heard.

 

 

Bad Grandpa ~ 4 out of 5

Bad Grandpa

Funniest movie I’ve seen all year. Hilariously disturbing, but the laughs are earned. Reminiscent of Borat, might be better.

 

 

 
The Winter Soldier ~ 4.5 out of 5

The Winter Soldier

Superior to the First Avenger. Laughs & action. Cold War vibe. Captain America & Black Widow are a fun pairing. Fury is boss. Hail Hydra!

 

 

 

Star Trek Into Darkness (re-watch) ~ First viewing: 5 out of 5; Rewatch: 4 out of 5
Star Trek Into Darkness

Loved this after seeing it in the theater, but upon re-watch, it didn’t grab me quite as strongly. Actually prefer the 2009 reboot now.

I realized after the fact that this wasn’t really a review, so here’s my review upon rewatching (warning – Spoilers):

Sleek, with less lens-flare porn than last time. Cast is fun. Khan steals the show. Emotions, but Kirk’s death head-fake is a weak climax.

 

Delivery Man ~ 3.5 out of 5
Delivery Man

Not really a comedy, though there are a few laughs. Effective drama with a comedic star, unlike Admission. Disclosure: Vince Vaughn fan.

 

 

Homefront ~ 1.5 out of 5
Homefront

Jason Stratham beats people. You’ve seen this before. Save your money – here’s the best scene.

 

 

Admission ~ 1.5 out of 5

Admission

Paul Rudd + Tina Fey = a movie with no laughs. Not great as a drama either. Huge disappointment.

 

 

 

Mud ~ 4.5 out of 5
Mud

Gripping, intense movie centering on the relationship between 2 boys and a drifter with unknown motives. McConaughey is amazing.

 

 

Runner Runner ~ 2 out of 5
Runner Runner

Some good scenes but ultimately I predicted how it would go down 10 minutes in. Forced happy ending.

 

 

Rush ~ 4.5 out of 5
Rush

Intense action and great characterization creates a spectacle hard to look-away from. Watch out though – that epilogue is a gut-punch.

 

 

About Time ~ 4 out of 5
About Time

Fun movie with heart. The time travel mechanic introduces some great, non-formulaic twists. Not a standard McAdams rom-com.

 

 

Draft Day ~ 2.5 out of 5
Draft Day

Closely follows a wheeling & dealing NFL GM on draft day. Fun and tense, but an unrealistic ending and tacked-on romance forces a punt.

 

 

Days of Future Past ~ 5 out of 5
Days of Future Past

Fun, packed with action & laughs. Cast is magic. These Sentinels are not from the 90s cartoon! Quicksilver is boss! Best trick – undoing X3.

 

 

The Edge of Tomorrow ~ 4 out of 5
Edge of Tomorrow

Groundhogs Day + Matrix. Spectacular action. The comedy took me completely by surprise. Really fun movie. Don’t skip if you hated Oblivion.

 

 

3 Days to Kill ~ 1 out of 5
3 Days to Kill

Flimsy story logic, a father-daughter relationship that we don’t care about, and a contrived ending. There are better ways to kill time.

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Skyrim Chronicles: Blade and Shadow – Part 4

About the Skyrim Permadeath Chronicles

 

Previously

 

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A chill wind drove-off the rain as evening encroached, nuzzling past Rohinda’s cloak, questing into the warm interior, sinking its icy teeth into her neck. It pummeled her, staggering her, forcing her backward. But there could be no going back, not now, not ever. There was only the path forward.

Gritting her teeth, a low growl at the back of her throat, she bent into the wind, forcing her way north and west along the path, one step then another, over and again.

She threw a quick look over her shoulder, once, to see if he was still following. But the long road behind was stark and empty. Stiv had returned to his farm, perhaps. He hadn’t followed, racing to catch her, as she’d secretly hoped.

Silly girl. What would she’d have done if he had breathlessly joined her? How could she explain why she was hiding in Skyrim? Or to whom she was now employed, even if only temporarily? She could almost imagine how that conversation might go – I’m a part-time assassin, although I’ve only taken one contract so far. He was a helpless beggar, sick with disease, and not long for this world in any case. Doing him a favor, in truth. I’m quite nice, really. Pathetic.

There was no room in her life for love or even friendship. Her sole companion these many years was the road, as eternal and unchanging as the tides. It had been there for her as a little girl lost of home, and it would continue on, unerringly, long after she’d gone back to dirt. There was comfort in that kind of stability.

The sky darkened. There was perhaps an hour of daylight left. She’d thought herself so wise, buying a cloak to keep the rain from her shoulders, and a tent to pass the nights. After all, she was accustomed to the demands of the road and knew what to expect. But she’d not given thought to the cold, and now, as her teeth chattered hard enough she feared they might splinter, the cold was all she could think about.

Slippers and finger-less gloves were superior implements for the business of killing, but they were next to useless for keeping warm. Rohinda eyed the trees, thinking perhaps it was time to stop and build a fire, driving off the cold before it was too late. But then she realized she had nothing to cut the wood with. Stiv had carried an axe. She chuckled at the irony.

Rohinda was on the verge of setting a tree on fire and warming herself beside the conflagration when she spied a cluster of buildings. She squinted against the driving wind. A mill, and two or three low structures. Smoke curdled from chimneys. Where there was smoke, there was fire, and fire meant warmth.

She plunged through snow drifts with renewed urgency. She couldn’t distinguish one toe from the other any more – her feet just felt like two lumps of ice.

A couple of men worked the great saw, cutting logs into smaller bits of lumber. They ignored her, intent on completing their business before dusk fell.

Rohinda tried the first door she came to. Locked. Cursing, she moved to the next building. The door wouldn’t budge. Well, she could fix that. Dropping to her knees, she picked the lock, not caring if anyone saw her.

Thawing cold bones A fire crackled invitingly inside. Rohinda stood beside its warmth for a long time. Sensation came back slowly, tingling and painful. When she felt warm enough, she searched the house for something warmer to wear, furs or a better cloak. There was nothing of the sort, so she took the bit of gold she found instead. She was no thief, but for some reason she felt irritated at the homeowner for not having any warm clothing on hand. It was an irrational response and childish, but dammit if it didn’t make her feel better.

She returned outside and used the remaining moments of daylight to look for her next contract. There were only three people living and working at the mill – a woman and two men – and the contract was none of them.

The orange glow of a fire brightened the sky to the west. Another town? There was nothing on her map to suggest a settlement so close to the mill, but Rohinda didn’t know how accurate the map could be, and besides, something was obviously nearby. She hurried toward the light, mindful of how quickly the chill night was leeching heat from her body again.

Sneaking up on preyA solitary man sat with his back to a roaring fire, facing into the darkness. Like he didn’t even need the fire and used it only for light. And why not? He was bundled under so many furry layers that Rohinda thought he must be part beast himself.

A tent of piled furs sat nearby, the interior dark. It’d be warm inside that tent. Warm enough to forget about the cold until dawn.

She crept up behind the man, her knife out. She’d not survive the cold night equipped as she was, that was painfully clear. It was kill or be killed.

Her road did not end here.

The man gave a shout of surprise as she gripped his shoulder for purchase. Her dagger cut the cry short. She pushed him face-down so that he might not stain the white furs with blood. She was mostly successful, and as she began to pull the furs from his still-warm body, Rohinda realized she was becoming rather adept at this business of killing. It was a sobering realization, one that bore further reflection in the warmth of day, but for now, she was too busy relishing her new furs to care.

New warm clothes

The fire  crackled merrily, warming her face and hands. She ate a small supper but it felt rather celebratory. She’d come close to death upon the road this day. Much too close. The furs would keep her from freezing so quickly next time, but they alone wouldn’t be enough. Fire was life in these frozen lands. She needed a way to make her own campfires. In the morning, she’d venture back to the mill and take an ax.

After supper, she reluctantly dragged herself from the fire. Best deal with the body before it drew wolves.

Hoarfrost coated the man’s eyes and lips, and the ugly gash in his throat had iced over. She tossed him into the river and then searched his pack. A folded, partially torn letter lay at the bottom. A letter of introduction of some kind, meant for Jarl Ulfric. She read the man’s name and did a double-take. By happy circumstance, she’d just completed the second of her three contracts.

Only one more to go, but this last was located in Dawnstar, in Skyrim’s far north. It would be colder there and more inhospitable.

But that was a concern for tomorrow. Today she was warm and went to sleep with a full belly.

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