The Dark Souls of FF

And by FF, I obviously mean Fast & Furious

Bear with me. I realize that title and subtitle is groan worthy. I will explain later. Try to bear with me, because, wow… I have a LOT to say. This is a VERY long review – several pages – just know what you’re getting into. That said…

Final. Fantasy. 7 Remake. A game, honestly, I thought would never happen.

Did it?

Much has already been said about this wild, beautiful video game, and certainly the fans seem to be divided on whether or not FF7R can even be called a “Remake” of the original game so many of them grew up loving over twenty, staggering years ago.

Gone is the methodical and (for most of the game, anyway) easy turn-based combat of the original – replaced by the flashy, exhilarating rush of challenging, punishing action that might seem more at home within the Devil May Cry series.

Added are not only wide swathes of color and character and life to the scenes and settings of the city of Midgar, padding critics might say, bringing a stronger sense of grounding and gravitas to the story and some of its more emotional beats, but also shall we say interesting flourishes of plot device that serve up something of a mystery even to players of the original game (more on these so-called mysterious spectres later).

Plenty of the content of the original game has been edited and altered to better fit not only the game’s much more graphically robust and modern visualization, but also its new narrative structures and devices. It may come as a surprise to many, but, no, Final Fantasy 7 Remake is not a one-to-one re-creation of the original with beefed up graphics and a new combat system. Final Fantasy 7 Remake is not afraid to stretch its legs and take confident strides into “what might have been” had significant members of the original team behind the game released all those years ago had done things… a little differently.

What we’re presented with, then, instead of a perfect, loving re-creation, is a fresh start. One that was, at least for me, quite literally stunning both visually, and by the sheer brutality and boldness of the artistic vision I was soon made shockingly aware of. After I completed the game for the first time, I thought to myself, wow, what a fun, great game. Things had been tweaked a little here and there, maybe there were some narrative devices that I didn’t think quite worked, or that I found personally distasteful, but overall, all the important story beats were there and handled with more than just care, but with true adoration. This was certainly an important game, and the direction and art design were second to none. But the game’s not just a technical masterpiece. The team that crafted this game intends it to be something a bit more intriguing – and for some terrifying. I didn’t want to believe it at first. So I reviewed the source material. Put down the tin foil, ladies and gentlemen, because where we’re going we won’t need theories. But we will need maybe a little faith.

Before I get into any further discussion of the narrative, and into spoiler territories, though, I want to discuss, at length, the combat. To be quite honest, I did not like it at first. I didn’t like it when I saw it in the trailers, I didn’t like it when I saw it being played, and I didn’t even like it at first once I finally fired up the game. It felt off. You have what amount to auto-attacks that you can chain together literally just by holding down a button that, alongside blocking (as well as simply passing time, albeit much, much more slowly), fill up ATB meters. Characters have two such meters and can take more powerful actions such as using Items, Spells, or Abilities. For the most part, though there is some additional nuance, that’s it. It works, and by the time I completed the game, I definitely found that I enjoyed the core mechanics of the combat gameplay. The auto-attacks aren’t so insignificant that they serve ONLY to boost the ATB meters, they inflict some real damage. The Abilities are nicely varied between powerful attacks, buffs, and utilities. The characters have different fighting styles which is a nice touch and all play very differently from one another even without all of the materia customization you can do in the game. Bosses are spectacular setpieces, requiring plenty of perseverance and concentration, notably challenging and epic. The skeleton is good. It’s the details that flesh it out that I very often found frustrating.

Let me get my biggest peeve out of the way first. Scanning enemies is, correct me if I’m wrong, not anyone’s favorite jRPG mechanic of all time? FF7R makes it all but mandatory that you do it every time you face a new, challenging enemy. Combat in the game, beyond the first few chapters, becomes so entrenched in this “attack the enemy weakpoint!” style that, despite it not needing to be designed like this, there are woefully too many fights where not only does it feel like your auto-attacks are just for filling your meters, but that if you don’t have the right materia equipped or attack learned, if you can’t strike the weakpoint for massive damage, then you’re just going to have a bad time. It’s… unnecessary and confusing to me. The designers made several interesting mechanical choices throughout the gameplay, but this one, I think, stood out to me as the most awkward.

However, hands down, the most frustrating thing about FF7Rs combat to me, again, was not anything to do with how the combat generally plays out, but just in the way the development team chose to implement one detail. And that detail is debuffs. Either they work, 100%, or they don’t. Unfortunately there are very few items to protect your characters from status abnormalities, and none that I found to protect them against the worst of them. And they are delivered just by getting hit by enemy attacks. Which wouldn’t be so bad if so many of the worst offenders weren’t attacks that are easily spammed, sometimes by many of the same enemies in an encounter, and often in areas of effect. There are monsters that just throw pools of poison on the ground, walk through it, you’re poisoned. There are monsters that breathe little cones of bubbles that if they touch you, you fall asleep. There are monsters that throw stun grenades and monsters that can paralyze you or even turn you into a helpless frog. And aside from avoiding these attacks, once you get hit, well, that’s it. Now, presumably, using the poison and binding materias, perhaps much of the game’s combat can be trivialized in similar fashion, spamming action lock status debuffs on the enemies like Sleep and Stop, but I haven’t tested that out. I know one particularly challenging late-game boss can be cheesed with Sleep, but that’s the extent of my knowledge on the matter.

Now, status ailments being so all or nothing would be even more frustrating if the characters’ AI weren’t so garbage as to be effectively useless when not controlled by the player. There is no setting to change this, or tweak AIs in any fashion at all, actually, when not controlled by the player, other members of the party often run around aimlessly, sometimes blocking attacks, but mostly doing absolutely nothing to increase their ATB meters. Since non-player controlled characters are so pitiful anyway, it’s a no-brainer to just swap control to another character if the one you were controlling is suddenly put to Sleep or Paralyzed, but one has to wonder why the AI of the characters is so bad in the first place. It is almost never worth it to spend your active character’s action to use an item to remove even a status like Paralyze, because, for the most part, you can simply get by with using the actions of a different character. Oh, yeah, and non-player controlled characters won’t even use their actions even if they have filled the ATB meters…

It’s for these reasons and a few other, minor quibbles, that I titled this article “The Dark Souls of FF”, knowing full well the way the term is thrown around in gaming journalism. To me, a lot of the mechanical decisions in the way combat works in this remake specifically feel designed only to make the game harder for hardness’ sake in the way many “Soulslikes” so often completely miss the mark of what made Dark Souls so enjoyable in the first place. To be clear, no, Final Fantasy 7 Remake is not a soulslike, nor do I have any reason to believe its designers and developers were remotely inspired by From Software’s signature games. These frustrating mechanics seem like they could have been pretty easily tweaked away or fixed and I have a nagging feeling that they weren’t necessarily issues present from the beginning or even toward the end of the game’s development but were rather hasty patches added onto their combat system after some playtest feedback, but, overall, none of them detracts TOO much from what is definitely still a very solid and fun action combat system. It still feels like Final Fantasy, and it still feels like an RPG, for sure. It’s a good combat system, even if I personally found it to be, in some ways, flawed.

Beyond this point – HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. I repeat, if you do not want to read anything regarding the ending of this game, and I must stress this, if you HAVE completed the original game but you HAVEN’T completed Final Fantasy 7 Remake, I would personally advise you – STOP. I WILL NOW DISCUSS FF7R’S STORY. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING. Continue to play Final Fantasy 7 Remake all the way to the end, even if you’ve already beaten the original. This is your last SPOILER WARNING.

If you played the original Final Fantasy 7 and you loved the story, you will not be disappointed by the important story beats Final Fantasy 7 Remake retells and expands upon. It is layered and layered upon with a new richness of character development and lore that makes all of those emotional moments so much more deep and impactful. But you might also be… a little confused by some of the creative liberties.

Almost immediately, you’re going to notice Cloud having his headaches and even within the first couple chapters, you’re going to have Sephiroth’s first appearance. If you played the game and you felt maaayybe this was a little too soon, you’re not alone. Sephiroth is loud and in your face through the game’s narrative throughlines, but, oddly, perhaps even louder are these incredibly weird, incredibly vague to the point of being nonsensical even, ghost… things. What are they, even the characters don’t know. Why… are they… we as players have no idea, but it seems obvious that they are some new, dramatic flourish being added into what is a re-telling of the original story. Weird, but alright.

Throughout the events of the game, little is directly changed from the original, despite new sidequests and side characters being added, and new life breathed into some of the original cast. Who didn’t love the Angel of the Slums, for one example, or Jessie’s unquenchable new thirst? The writing and directing teams really knocked story additions like this out of the park.

Where things admittedly do go slightly off the rails are toward the end. After the plate is dropped and Aerith taken by the Turks, the gang are ready to infiltrate Shinra tower and save their friend, and presumably finish out the story content of this first part of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Unfortunately, what had earlier in the game seemed like loving additions of content, in this stage of the game definitely came across more as padding to me. There were new side quests to indulge in, because, look Aerith is probably fine and her mom doesn’t want you to save her for reasons that, while thin, are understandable. You’ll find yourself revisiting old areas where the old enemies are now more challenging. There is a TON of content in the latter half and final acts of the game’s story, so much so that I often thought I was facing a final boss or viewing one of the game’s final events only to be thrown back into what ended up being hours of new content. It’s almost a shame, so much of the latter half of the game feels so fluffed up. There’s even a sort of adventure/fight/puzzle sequence in Hojo’s labs that really feels like it only exists to pad out and delay the final act.

And oh boy, what a final act. So, I’ve explained the “Dark Souls” part of my title. Now, we must talk about The Fast and the Furious, because holy shit does the ending throw so many ridiculously over the top action sequences together, over and over to the point that it becomes actually laughable – you might actually laugh out loud at their absurdity – I sure as hell did. I’m talking about hitting a whole room of soldiers in the face with your motorcycle while you’re driving it. I’m talking about driving said motorcycle out of the window of a skyscraper. How about diving off of a giant tower to catch your friend whose grappling gun failed and then turning around to shoot your own grappling gun? Maybe cleaving through segments of highway and scattered i-beams as the entire world seems to be exploding and imploding with your giant anime sword is more your speed. Don’t worry, because those final chapters have all that and more! It’s… it’s a little over the top. It doesn’t ruin the game for me, no, I mean, I actually enjoy the Fast and the Furious series as a somewhat guilty pleasure, but for a game that for the most part stayed surprisingly gritty and grounded it did feel tonally weird.

But now we come to the part where we’ve got to discuss the highly controversial ending. Because the ending of Final Fantasy 7 Remake does a few truly insane and remarkable things. Where the gang would have left Midgar in the original FF7, they are confronted by Sephiroth and by, again, the mysterious spectres that have been haunting them all game. By now it’s been revealed to them that these ghost things are actually arbiters of fate, agents of destiny attempting to ensure that events unfold the way they are supposed to. There’s a lot of nonsense dialogue, to be perfectly honest, and before you know it, we are fighting Fate, personified, capital F. I have a lot of issues with the general execution of this, but I am not going to discuss all of that right now. Honestly, I could probably write another 1500 words on that alone, and this article is already quite long. I simply want to discuss what this means and the ramifications for Final Fantasy 7 Remake going forward. As a bossfight, we defeat Fate, and these mysterious spectres that, at least as far as the game tells us, were preventing anyone from changing the way events were supposed to happen, are gone, they disappear. We’ve destroyed them, it would seem. Now they aren’t there to make sure things happen the way they should after the main cast leaves Midgar and departs on their journey to confront and stop Sephiroth, something the characters in the original game didn’t even really know they would be doing at that point in the story. For obvious reasons, this is where the Remake departs most boldly from the source material and it calls into question just exactly what veteran fans of the original game are now getting themselves into. Do we know anymore?

I didn’t believe it at first. Maybe I didn’t want to. Okay, sure, the spectres were a strange narrative device, but it’s just a hook to make sure the old veteran players are intrigued enough about the series to need to finish it through. Nothing major actually changed, right? Well… the writers and the directors are definitely up to something. The game hints as much several times throughout the game. Aerith is not only not telling you what she knows about these spectres, she’s also not telling anyone that she knows the plate’s going to fall and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. She knew, potentially even before the start to the Remake’s storyline, what was going to happen up through destroying Fate itself. Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall that ever being the case in the original, that Aeris knew the future. More than that, it seems implied that Sephiroth has similar knowledge in the Remake, and that maybe Cloud does too. There is, after all, an oddly out of place Cloud headache vision long before the ending of the game where he sort of sees Aerith in the Temple of the Ancients.

But perhaps the most mindblowing revelation comes in the form of what at first seems to be an unnecessary and jarring scene of how Cloud got his Buster Sword and to Midgar. Veteran fans of the original game already know, Cloud wasn’t really a SOLDIER, not first-class anyway, he was a rookie and he was friends with another SOLDIER named Zack, Zack who was the first guy Aerith fell in love with, Zach who actually used the Buster Sword before Cloud took it from his dead body. Heavy stuff. Escaping from Shinra, Zack didn’t want to work as a SOLDIER for the vile company anymore and attempted to run away, Cloud with him, but Shinra pursued them and killed Zack, leaving Cloud for dead. But we are shown Zack, presumably in the past, fighting against waves of Shinra goons and winning before a backdrop of those same mysterious spectres, agents of fate are surrounding the entire city of Midgar who, after we’ve won that boss fight, explode away from the city, disappearing, as if destroyed in the past as well as our main characters’ present. Zack survives in this scene, carrying a wounded Cloud with him into Midgar. It would seem, by the end of Final Fantasy 7 Remake we have rewritten reality. And Zack isn’t the only character presumed dead to be shown alive. Biggs has somehow survived as well…

I welcome whatever changes this new future brings to the Final Fantasy 7 Remake, but there are many who disagree. Many fans feel this ending cheapens the emotional weight of the original, hell, of even the new Remake events that we just played through. If Zack and Biggs are alive, did anyone die? Will anyone? Aeris dies in the original game, and a huge segment of the fanbase thinks her death is essential to the story, and that changing it would be akin to a cardinal sin against Final Fantasy 7, to its memory, and to the fanbase. I don’t think so. Look, we don’t know what is going to happen now, but what I can tell you is this. If the team in charge of what we just played treats the ongoing installments of this storyline with as much love and as much attention to detail as they did this game? Final Fantasy 7 Remake, uh, 2 (what are they going to call them?) is going to be an exciting and incredible experience.

Look, I have a lot to nit pick and a lot of what I feel are legitimate issues with some of the technical execution of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake; however, those issues aside, in fact, in spite of those issues, it is a masterpiece of gameplay and storytelling. It is a genre-redefining and once-in-a-generation experience. Let me be clear – I passionately LOVE this game. I am wildly envious of those players experiencing this game and this story for the first time with the Remake, players who never played the original and don’t know how even this Midgar segment, let alone what comes next plays out, but you know what? Now we all get to feel that way again. And I, for one, can not wait for more.

Chains of the Abysswalker, a Side Story

You awake… stirring uncomfortably against a stone at once both smooth and rough… solid. You haven’t felt anything like it in… measurements of time… you’ve forgotten the words… you haven’t needed to use them in so long… You’d slept, in that dark place, longer than you have any bearing for comprehension. You’ve been asleep, but now…

You awake… and even the barest of light from the trillions of distant stars stabs at your eyes like nine inch needles of shocking, burning, freezing, crystalline hatred. Sensation overwhelms you, it’s been too long, feeling, seeing, knowing… it’s more than too much. As you writhe on the ground, in the middle of a road belonging to a street corner torn out of some city that once belonged to some state, some nation on some continent on a world that’s been dead for ages, the sharp, chiming rattle of chains explodes your ears, echoing within your skull and the man those chains are attached to approaches. You might feel his heavy footfalls reverberating through the road beneath you if you were not so thoroughly concussed by sensory overload.

“Oh, no…” the man speaks, in a tongue you understand, though his words are lost in the deluge of light and sound and feeling that threatens to consume you. “No, you’re not meant to be here… How did you…? Has she?”

He clasps a hand over his mouth for a moment, his expression dire. Things are beginning to come into focus. He isn’t overly tall, but he is broad, clearly muscular despite the armor and cloak and heavy chains drawn all over him, shrouding his form. His skin dark, his hair and beard both a frizzy, earthy-brown, dusted with grey, his hair tied into tight locks hanging just to the base of his neck. His amber eyes and angular features could seem intimidating in different circumstances, but in this moment now he looks both mortified and sad. You get the overall impression that he feels very sorry for you.

“She’s gone and done it, hasn’t she?” he continues, removing his hand from his face.

But soon it becomes your turn to be mortified, as far in the distance, beyond the reach even of many of the stars, you think, you begin to see a silhouetted figure, almost a constellation, impossibly enormous, of a spider, that appears to be walking upside down toward the street corner along the barest hint of what seems to be a cosmic web.

The chained man turns to the spider, his chains rattling, their ringing sounding almost mournful to your unaccustomed ears, his arms raised defensively as if begging for mercy.

“I know,” he pleads, “I know, look, I can fix this!”

And then he turns again, to you, and he shrugs some of the chains off from his right shoulder, taking them in hand. You try to crawl away, but your limbs barely respond. It’s like a dream, like a nightmare you can’t wake up from, frustrated, unable to scream or move, despite your most concerted efforts.

“I am truly sorry,” the chained man says, and his expression seems earnest, “You were never meant to wake.”

Hauling you up with one arm, he unbuckles his breastplate with the other hand. A dark pit swirls there where his heart might have been and he goes about wrapping his chains around your arms and legs. The coruscating darkness in his chest grows and grows, black tendrils flinging themselves out from the pit and over his body. Suddenly the chains around you tighten of their own accord and begin to pull you toward that darkness. You find your body able to resist now, digging in your heels as the chains dig into your skin. More of the chains pull themselves off of the man and latch themselves onto you and the pull at this point becomes irresistible. You’re drawn into the swirling portal and immediately it closes around you, throwing you back, back to that familiar prison of nothingness. Back to the Abyss where you had slept for so long, only now… Now…

You are awake.

There is land. There is motion. There is sensation. This isn’t the prison you remember… She’d promised to free you in exchange for thirteen keys, and yet you’re here, you’re back. But everything’s changed. You remember keys. Keys open doors. Break chains. Maybe you will find her thirteen keys, but what will you do with them once you have? Best find the woman. Surely she’s here somewhere…

A light wind begins to pick up, swirling all about the familiar, yet wholly different terrain before you. There are cliffsides to either side of you, not of stone but instead some pulsing red-purple that you thought seemed alive and immediately wished you hadn’t. Somehow you recognize this place, even though you’ve never seen it, never felt it, never smelled it. What is that smell, its faint, sweet, bitter perfume a nuance of sensation your mind was not yet prepared for? Out of the corner of your eye you notice a delicate blur of small, soft white and your hand snatches out instinctively. You draw your closed fist before your eyes and open your fingers. A single, white flower petal, blown on the wind.

Ah.

That’s where you’d find her, then.

The Whiteflower Field.

Lotus Eater

The Dreams of the Old Ones

Even now I can hear them, crying out in their sleep… we can make it all right again… We will break these Nightmarish chains, and bring everything back to the sweet Dreams of lives once lived… Awake! Rise and remember! Before it’s too late… remember it all…

Come to me, fading remnants, Oblivion awaits us!

to the Waybetween…

Defiant Spark
STR 13 VIT 15 AGL 8 INT 13 AWR 10 ATN 13
A talented smithy, you wear dark, steely armor and wield the magic of a very old flame as well as your heavy, two-handed hammer… Yet you can’t seem to remember any of your life before the forge. You must have been a child once, and surely you were an apprentice before you became a true smith. You can’t remember a time you weren’t wearing your armor, but… what need does a smith have to wear such equipment? You forged it… you remember that much, but to protect yourself from what?

Starting Equipment: Ember (Left Hand), Smith’s Hammer (Right Hand), Darksteel Helmet (Head), Darksteel Armor (Torso), Darksteel Gauntlets (Arms), Darksteel Greaves (Feet), Ring of Ceremony, Soot-Stained Rag, Throwing Daggers (x10), Black Powder Bombs (x3), Smith’s Tools

The Hunter
STR 15 VIT 14 AGL 13 INT 8 AWR 10 ATN 12
You come from a noble lineage of heroes and slayers of evil and you’re it’s latest proud descendant. And yet… no one you encounter seems to know you or your family. To make matters worse you cannot even recall the name of the evil your family was long forsworn to destroy. Surely whatever is causing these lapses of memory is the foul horror you’re meant to defeat… But would you even recognize the evil thing if you saw it? How can you slay a monster you don’t even know?

Starting Equipment: Death’s Head (Left Hand), Scourge/Returning Axe (Right Hand), Leather Circlet (Head), Leather Armor (Torso), Leather Bracers (Arms), Leather Boots (Legs), Silver Cross, Throwing Daggers (x10), Holy Waters (x7), Oak Stake (x1)

The Runner
STR 10 VIT 12 AGL 15 INT 10 AWR 14 ATN 8
Fleeing from the destruction of your world, you’ve been on the run from its destroyers for years, and you’ve become quite good at it, quite fast, agile, and athletic. Nothing slows you down, not even the scraps of food and materials you pick up from world to world. Nothing except your memories. The further you run, the less of your past you seem to remember. What happens when you forget why you’re running in the first place?

Starting Equipment: Rusted Revolver (Left Hand), Scavenger’s Spear (Right Hand), Taxan AR-3020 Visor (Head), Wanderer’s Garb (Torso), Battered Bracers (Arms), Jump Shoes (Legs), Standard Rounds (x20), Electro-Mag Shots (x9), Jump Tank (x1), Star Dust (x300)

Star Seeker
STR 12 VIT 12 AGL 12 INT 15 AWR 13 ATN 10
You bear the uniform of a federation of some sort, you were an explorer, of that you are sure, with a passion for discovery and a great thirst for knowledge. But you hadn’t worked alone… you can’t remember names or faces, but… you’re sure you were a member of a something much greater. A force that searched… the heavens? Searched for what? To what end? And what happened that separated you from them? It all feels so important… What’s out there among the stars? Answers?

Starting Equipment: Nothing (Left Hand), “Sword of Light” (Right Hand), Nothing (Head), Federation Uniform (Torso), “Hands of God” (Arms), Federation Boots (Legs), Insignia of Stars, Magnifying Glass, Apple Gummies (x3), Mint Gummy (x1), Smelling Salts (x1)

The Watcher
STR 8 VIT 8 AGL 14 INT 13 AWR 15 ATN 13
Your senses are finely tuned and you perceive the world around you differently from others. You know something is wrong. Something… maybe everything… is broken. And yet… there are threads… perhaps these could tie it back together? Naked and alone… you were never important in the life before… better to forget. Easier. All that matters is who you become now… now that you can see. Now that you can feel the tension, the slight tug on the string. Where are you being pulled to, and for what purpose?

Starting Equipment: Nothing (Left Hand), Discarded Knife (Right Hand), Plague Shroud (Head), Nothing (Torso), Nothing (Arms), Nothing (Legs), Broken Brass Timepiece, Silver Strand (x1)

Dream Master
STR 10 VIT 10 AGL 12 INT 13 AWR 13 ATN 15
With a ring of keys and a grasp of otherworldly magics, you awake in the middle of a busy, city street, crowded with cars that have all crashed or skidded to a stop. A semi-truck’s front end rests inches away from your face, its trailer turned on its side, but you can’t for the life of you recall how any of this happened or why you would be here. You only remember the woman in your dream and the Keys to Oblivion she had asked you to collect for her… Who was she? Are these the keys she wanted?

Starting Equipment: Nothing (Left Hand), Nothing (Right Hand), Nothing (Head), Pajamas (Torso), Nothing (Arms), Bunny Slippers (Legs), Cloak of Stars, Amulet of Lucidity, Key Ring, Keys of Passage (x3)

Wanna support The Waybetween? Buy me a ko-fi @ ko-fi.com/ziegander. 😊

Kingdom Hearts II: Re ✥ Right – Side Story A – The Chains of Memory

EXT. LATE EVENING. OUTDOOR SEATING AT A PUB.

A blond teenage boy wearing black clothes shrouded by a frayed, faded, hooded yellow cloak (hood down) sits opposite a mysterious figure whose entire head is obscured by a golden, horned helmet, and who is clothed in deep indigo and light yellows, adorned with many golden medallions. This figure wears a similar cloak to the boy’s, albeit more elaborate. They sit at a two-top, small table in the outdoor area of one of the smaller brewpubs in town. The vibe is very similar to the little joint over to the left of where you first entered Traverse Town in the original Kingdom Hearts, you know? Not much happened there. Not much happens here either. Maybe some really great eggs benedict. But not much else. It’s always night here. Who orders eggs benedict at 9pm? In a town of perpetual darkness, idk, you’d be surprised. The boy is drinking a milky blue beverage while the other has nothing, he is leaned forward, resting on his elbows, arms crossed.

BLOND
You said you brought us all back.

MYSTERIOUS FIGURE
That was the intention. That is the intention.

BLOND
But she’s still gone!

MYSTERIOUS FIGURE
I brought back everyone I could. Everyone who was lost. This girl, your friend, she was not lost. She was taken. There’s a difference.

BLOND
Isn’t she your daughter?

MYSTERIOUS FIGURE

She’s something else now. As am I.

BLOND
But she was my friend. After all this time… after everything that’s happened… why do I miss her so much?

MYSTERIOUS FIGURE
That is likely my fault, Rosca. I apologize, I am still very new at this…

ROSCA
No, no. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful! What you’re doing is amazing, Gideon, I just wish Kairi were here to see it.

GIDEON

ROSCA
Gideon…

Gideon stands from the small table and looks away.

ROSCA
Gideon, she was your daughter once! The man who took her–didn’t you build this place from what you were able to take back from him? Isn’t there anything left that might tell us what he did with her?

GIDEON
We have priorities, Rosca. I worry you lose sight of that.

ROSCA
Tell me what you know!

GIDEON

I will show you Ansem’s reports. That is all. Come.

Rosca watches Gideon begin to walk away, his eyes set, hard, but his expression a mix of worry and disappointment. As he slurps down the rest of his drink the camera begins to pan out and the world logo begins to fade in, reading “Twilight Town,” in dark blue and violet hues, overlaying a silhouetted black and white image of a classical, 18th century-style downtown. The graphic continues to display as the camera zooms out to an overhead view showing Gideon begin to walk out of frame and Rosca standing up, taking off at a jog to follow.

ROSCA
Wait up!

End chapter 2, fade to black.

Kingdom Hearts II: Re ✥ Right – Ch. 1 – The Seal of the King

EXTERIOR. MIDDAY. DISNEY WORLD. WINDING PATH.

Sora, Donald, and Goofy run after the dog Pluto who carries a letter bearing King Mickey’s seal in his mouth.

SORA
Where’s he leading us?

GOOFY
We’re on the Rolling Hills Road that leads to the Castle!

SORA
So this is your guys’ world?

DONALD
It sure is!

SORA
Wow… I can’t believe I get to see King Mickey’s castle! I just wish Kairi were here to see it…

GOOFY
Don’t worry Sora! She will someday, and you’ll be the one to show her!

Sora smiles wide and the three of them continue to chase the dog.

Camera pans out some to create an establishing shot of the green hills and yellow brick road the characters all run down.

Cue title logo “Kingdom Hearts II: Re✥Right,” in the colors of white, silver, black, red, and gold, materializing in a glittering fanfare of light. After the logo appears, then fades, another appears in similar fashion and font style, “The Magic Kingdom,” overlaying the image of Disney Castle, the image and the words in a shimmery color gradient going from teal to pink and finally fuschia along the bottom.

EXT. MIDDAY. THE STREETS OF THE MAGIC KINGDOM.

Back now to a closer shot, Pluto skids on his hind paws as he rounds a corner at top speed and then bolts down the main path — beautiful white cobblestone surrounded by white stone terraces and white-bricked buildings. The whole city is heavy, austere white stones accented with blue flags, banners, awnings and shingles, and with gold ribbons, filigree, lampposts, and lettering. It is certainly a sight to see. Pluto barrels past a woman carrying a basket of fruits who stumbles, the fruits jostling around her basket as an apple flies out from it. Sora, Donald, and Goofy come into view right at the dog’s heels and Sora catches the apple as it hovers in the air, just as it has started to fall. Donald and Goofy blow past Sora, each making Donald and Goofy noises as they go, and he smiles innocently at the woman, handing her the apple back before he redoubles his sprint to catch them. The fruit vendor they passed on the way sighs and shakes his head.

The camera pans out again, up and backwards, at first showing us a bird’s eye view of the trio doing their best to catch the dog, a handful of seagulls literally flying just through our view, but then the camera pans backwards some more and takes its focus off of the heroes and sets its sights onto where they are going. Disney Castle.

EXT. MIDDAY. DISNEY CASTLE GATES.

Sora, Donald, and Goofy reach the castle gates, met by two guardsmen holding blue-bannered spears bearing the royal crest of the King (the mickey mouse symbol). The three of them look this way and that, but it seems they’ve lost sight of Pluto.

DONALD
Hey! Did you see a dog run through here?

GUARD 1
Royal Mage Donald! Ye-w-we-y-!

GUARD 2
A dog we saw, post-haste, your Magistry!

GOOFY
Which way did he go?!

GUARD 2
H-hu-he-hu-huh, Knight Captain Goofy!

GUARD 1
He-I-We-I… the dog bore the symbol of the King! We let him straight through!

Goofy smashes a palm into his face.

GOOFY
Gawrsh…

DONALD
You nincompoops!

Donald and Goofy charge on ahead leaving Sora behind. Sora looks at each guard in turn, and shrugs at them before chasing after his companions.

INTERIOR. DISNEY CASTLE HALLWAY.

The three run past the castle foyer, through the castle courtyard, up a flight of stairs and push their way through a huge set of double doors. Beyond them lay the throne room of Disney Castle within which a white carpet, trimmed at either end with a ribbon of blue, led its way between two enormous, ornate golden thrones. One of these thrones remained empty, but in the other sits Queen Minnie reading a letter, the seal of King Mickey held idly between her fingers. At her side, her handmaiden, Lady Daisy, and sitting between the Queen’s feet, the loyal dog Pluto.

DONALD
Your Majesty!

Lady Daisy shoots him a stern glare, raising her right hand and holding up just her pointer finger. Donald squawks, Sora covers his mouth with both hands, and Goofy closes his eyes, grinning stupidly. He leans in to whisper into Donald’s ear.

GOOFY
Gawrsh, Donald, she seems angry… What’d we do?

MINNIE (STILL READING)
It is what you haven’t done that I am angry about, Captain Goofy.

SORA (KNEELING AWKWARDLY)
Oh! Should I –?

Lady Daisy watches him amusedly. Queen Minnie puts the letter down.

MINNIE
Well, hello there. Donald? Goofy? Who is our guest?

DONALD
This is Sora, your Majesty! He helped us find the King!

GOOFY
He’s the Keyblade Master! Or, uh [starts counting on his fingers] … y’know, one of ’em, at least!

MINNIE
So your mission was a success? Then where’s the King?

DONALD
It doesn’t say in the letter?

Donald walks over to the Queen’s throne and she hands him the letter.

MINNIE
Kingdom Hearts.

We are shown a close-up of the letter and the camera follows the words as Donald reads them aloud.

DONALD

“Hiya Minnie!”
“I’m sorry I still haven’t made it home, but this business with other worlds just keeps getting worse.”
“There are so many worlds! Each one full of people and there are creatures of darkness out here hungry for hearts. They’re drawn to them, and not just to people’s hearts, but to the hearts of the worlds themselves!”
“If I can’t stop ’em, they’ll make it to the Magic Kingdom before long!”
“Don’t worry, though. There’s someone else out here fighting against them. I think whoever they are they probably have that Key I asked Donald and Goofy to find. They’re doing a great job keeping these creatures at bay, but we’ve got to try to find their source and root them out once and for all!”
“Ansem theorized about something he called Kingdom Hearts, sort of a heart of all hearts kinda thing, and if he was right, I’m thinking the creatures would be drawn to a heart like that like moths to a thousand-watt lightbulb!”
“So, that’s my destination! Wish me luck!”
“~Mickey.”

DONALD
Oh boy…

SORA
Your Highness, we did find the King, he was in Kingdom Hearts. My friend was with him… But it was full of Heartless! And when I went to close it, King Mickey and Riku stayed on the other side…

GOOFY
“Find the source… and root them out!” Riku and the King must be trying to figure out why the Heartless were in there and how to get rid of them!

MINNIE
So, King Mickey is within the Heart of All Worlds?

GOOFY
That’s where we left ‘im!

MINNIE
[Stands][Donks Goofy’s head with her scepter] You were supposed to bring him back!

SORA
They chose to stay behind…

MINNIE
[Begins pacing] Oh… this just won’t do… he’s left me here to manage the Magic Kingdom all by myself, and worse it sounds like he’s in terrible danger! You have to bring him back! No dawdling, no exceptions! I don’t care what the King says! Now, go!

DONALD
[Pumps fist] We’ll get him back, Your Majesty!

Sora, Donald, and Goofy turn around, leaving the throne room dejected and confused. After a quick fade out to black we hear the sound of the great, double doors closing behind them as the scene fades back in, a close shot of the three of them walking out of the castle the way they came in.

GOOFY
But how’re we gonna get to him, Donald? We locked the door!

DONALD
[Hanging his head] How am I supposed to know…

SORA
I couldn’t open it up again if I wanted to, we don’t have a way to get back there…

DONALD
And we can’t open that door back up! There’s Heartless swarming all over inside!

SORA
Yeah…

GOOFY
Well, if the King and Riku were there when we opened it, I guess there’s gotta be another way in!

SORA
Maybe you’re right!

GOOFY
But how do we find that?

DONALD
Hrmm… I think I’ve got an idea!

Fade to black. End Chapter 1…

Kingdom Hearts II: Re ✥ Right

Oh, it’s Fan-Fiction time, baby!

So, controversial opinion time: Kingdom Hearts has SUCKED since its first entry. Sucked doo-doo. Whoa! I know, I know. Bold words, Cotton. But I think they’ll bear out under scrutiny. Now, I’m not talking about gameplay, though… yikes… some of the entries really don’t hold up in that department either, I’m talking about the plot. The plot is why so many of us have been chomping at the bit for YEARS for Kingdom Hearts 3 to finally come out. Will our gang of three friends EVER get back together and live in peace? Will they EVER be allowed at least some brief times of happiness? Will they ever meet another trio of keybladers from, really, not that long ago in the past who we’ve never heard of before and learn about an impending Keyblade War that will decide the fate of the universe? Wait, no! We don’t care about that, Square! What are you–? Ahem. I digress. My point is, many of us are here for the plot, and since the original Kingdom Hearts, the plot of each successive game has gotten more messy, more full of holes, and more needlessly complicated. The plot of Kingdom Hearts? Is garbage.

But if that’s true, then where did it all go wrong? Yesterday, I spent an exhaustive length of time attempting to determine just that. What began as an attempt to understand the plot of Kingdom Hearts 3 ahead of the release for its upcoming DLC Re*Mind, soon had me down a rabbit hole, watching all of the cinematics of the original Kingdom Hearts, reading theories, and learning just how many side titles on mobile consoles and even phones existed that I not only didn’t know about but didn’t realize were canon. So we’re clear, there are eight canon entries to the plot between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3! Nomura, why? Kingdom Hearts 3 assumes you’ve played all of them. But, hey, I think we can all admit that the current state of Kingdom Hearts is a mess even if it wasn’t always. Kingdom Hearts 1 was fairly straightforward and cohesive! But if you ask me, literally the first thing Square released after that is where it all began falling apart like a house of cards stacked on dry sand during a fucking earthquake.

The problems begin even before Chain of Memories or Kingdom Hearts 2 are released and only get more wildly out of control after them. Even Kingdom Hearts Final Mix gets started on ideas that ultimately go on to ruin the plot of the series. Before I go any further, I will make a list of the issues I’ve identified that began or exacerbated the plot of Kingdom Hearts as it unfolded past the original.

  • The very concept of Nobodies. The first game doesn’t remotely hint at their existence and they only serve to create maddening levels of identity confusion regarding characters that then adds hours of literally bonkers filler to the plot. When a person becomes a heartless, a Nobody version of that character is then created, too? Out of their body? Do they have bodies and/or physical forms or not? Did their body not become the heartless, or… or did their heart become the heartless, because then the heartless does have a heart… oh, but then the Nobody is explicitly a body… This is NONSENSE! And, I swear, if one of you mentions that Nobodies can grow their own hearts, I will… glare at you severely. You’ve been warned.
  • Roxas. This goes nearly hand-in-hand with the first point, but I’ll take it a little bit further. Having near-copies of your main characters as separate characters, who are kind of the main characters but ultimately aren’t, I mean where is this going? Does this ever serve any narrative purpose? No! It’s just garbage nonsense. It also doesn’t make any sense. Where did Roxas even come from? Sora was only a heartless for like ten minutes, but somehow his Nobody lived and had experiences and made friends for like 15 years? It’s completely ludicrous and dilutes the narrative focus of the game, only serving to push further and further away the thing we’re all here for – Sora, Riku, and Kairi’s reunion. Oh, and Roxas has been stored within Sora’s heart along with like five other fucking characters? No. NO! Stop.
  • Xehanort and Xemnas come out of left field and are bad because of it. Kingdom Hearts has been pulling these bait and identity switch plots out of its ass for years and these two were the start of it. Ansem wasn’t really bad, it was his evil apprentice, Xehanort pretending to be Ansem! Did you read the Ansem Reports? I did. Ansem was losing it. He went way too far long before he ever even left Radiant Garden. “Hey, I wonder why darkness creeps into people’s hearts. Let’s see what happens when I fill this person’s heart with darkness-OH, ohshitthat’snotgood, I better hide him and the other seven hundred people I tested that on under the garden. No one can ever know… oh, huh, look at that, now there’s monsters down here…” Really cool guy that Ansem. Ansem the Wise, ladies and gentlemen, round of applause? Xemnas is a nobody version of Xehanort, and I’ve already established why that’s bad, but now he’s not only just yet another variant version of the same bad guy, his existence, like Roxas’, doesn’t actually make sense. In Kingdom Hearts, Ansem wasn’t a heartless. He explicitly tells us he wasn’t in one of his reports! Why should he have had a nobody? Having more than one villain is fine, but please, stop having seventeen GOTCHA copies and variants of the same villain. It’s asinine. Don’t even get me started on Data Replicas.
  • Let’s go a little more rapidfire now. Those are core issues that set the plot of the Kingdom Hearts series on a one way path to insanity, but the following are issues with the ending of the original Kingdom Hearts. It was a good game, with a mostly consistent narrative focus, but the ending was unsatisfying and left players with questions with no answers. I’m not even sure if some or any of these questions were EVER answered by the series.
  • Why were Mickey and Riku behind the door to Kingdom Hearts? Wh-why did they stay behind when Sora was closing it?
  • Why are there heartless festering and multiplying inside Kingdom Hearts?
  • Why was Kairi swept away back to Destiny Island while Sora was randomly sent off to someplace we’ve never seen before with Donald and Goofy?

So, maybe at this point, some of you are wondering, okay, okay, if you have so many problems with the plot of Kingdom Hearts, why are you ranting about it so much? Just don’t play it, and shut up about it! Right? Well… honestly? I really liked Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. I didn’t consider the issues with Kingdom Hearts 2 when I played it, and I didn’t really think the plot was that much of a mess. It even kind of tied things up pretty well, and it could have left the series fairly nicely resolved. Had it only ended there. But, as we all know, despite our three heroes finally being reunited at the end, Sora, Riku, and Kairi got another letter from the King and had to go fight in some pulled out of nowhere Keyblade War that took the narrative issues that began in Chains of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2 and dialed them way past 11 all the way to, that’s right, XIII.

Kill. Me.

Anyway, I’ve been infested with an all-consuming itch. Where did it all go wrong, and more importantly, is it possible to be made right? Certainly that’s not going to happen canonically, not at this point. So… That’s right, I’m here to rewrite the entire Kingdom Hearts series, starting from the original ending as presented in the first, Japanese release of the first Kingdom Hearts game! Absolutely no material will be used as groundwork for my plot that was set in place for Chains of Memories or the sequel, Kingdom Hearts 2, and thus even the secret ending from the North American release of Kingdom Hearts 1 is off the table! Welcome to my fan-fiction ladies and gentlemen! Welcome! To Kingdom Hearts II: Re✥Right!

The first narrative post will go up Dec. 18th, and will be written in screenplay format. Re✥Right will pick up immediately after the events of the non-secret ending to the original Kingdom Hearts and will diverge from all canonical sequels from there. I already have plans for why Riku and Mickey stayed behind the door, already have a reason for why there are heartless in there, and I already know where Sora’s headed. I even have the inkling of our next antagonist. Hope you’re interested! Stay tuned, everyone!

Welcome to Slumberland, Pt. 1 – The Lay of the Land

The realms of the Mighty King Morpheus are splendid and sun-dappled plains, dotted here and there by small towns, interconnected by roads for horse-drawn carriages and surrounded by warm, peaceful woodlands filled with the smells of sweet leaves and the sounds of scurrying little creatures. The City of Som surrounds Castle Dreamstone and stretches to fill the Dreamheart Island that sits in the center of the Lake of Lilies. Open woods of white birch and golden gingko wreath much of the western and southern edges of the island in stunning foliage and rainbow-scaled carp and large, orange koi swim in the waters of the Lake, seeking their food under the veil of the waterlilies that float on the surface.

Even ol’ Saint Nick has a home in Slumberland

An even larger city stands just across a short bridge over the water south of Som, the bustling city of craftsmen, cooks, teachers, soldiers, etc that serve the kingdom, the city Belnocht, booming with trade in all the finer things in life, the place everyone wants to be and where anyone can always find whatever their heart desires. Further south, Belnocht once overlooked the strange Crystal Cairns scattered throughout the multicolored Painted Desert, but the desert seems to have vanished. The soldiers of Slumberland’s royal armies have been tasked with defending Belnocht from what can only be described as Nightmares attacking from the Void where the desert once lay.

A series of smaller islands to the west of Dreamheart, each with little villages, makes up the collective settlement of Wizwishle, each island home to gorgeous wetlands and hundreds of species of birds, insects, lizards, and frogs in every color of the rainbow. The Wishlewush Wizards and Wishmarck Academy dwell in the Wizwishle Islands, highly regarded throughout Slumberland for their wisdom and knowledge of history, medicine, and of course magical spells.

To the east lies the tall red cedars and ancient oaks of the Pabrygg Vale, and at their edge, the city of Woodhaven, a place for carpenters and woodcarvers, artists, writers, herbalists, hunters, and apothecaries to ply their trades. Home of the famous doctor, Cornelius Genius, a prolific man of science and medicine, now retired, who once taught many subjects at the Woodhaven College of Arts and Science. One must be careful travelling too deep within the Vale these days… the woods grow unnaturally dark ere long and several wanderers have become lost to never return.

North of Dreamheart lies the town of Erstwehn, in the shadow of the Blackspire Mountains. Just past the northern edges of this stalwart and vigilant community of miners, masons, and smiths lies the Salamog Swamp within which a fearsome artifact has been hidden – the Dragon Door, the entrance into Nightmareland. The Swamps have become dark and twisted and the creatures that once dwelled there have been completely displaced by Nightmares pouring forth from the Dragon Door.

Though Little Nemo once defeated the Nightmare King as a boy, the dark realm known as Nightmareland can only be sealed away, not utterly destroyed. It was once possible to travel to Nightmareland on foot, its lands directly connected to Slumberland’s, but King Morpheus sundered the connection and closed shut a magical gate that prevented anyone from accidentally wandering to Nightmareland, or anything from Nightmareland skittering into Slumberland. This Dragon Door was hidden in the swamps north of Erstwehn, and sealed with a great key that was entrusted to Nemo. But somehow, when Nemo got trapped in Slumberland, as he traveled between Earth and Slumberland, the key became lost. Now the Dragon Door is open and Nightmares roam free, plaguing Slumberland’s countrysides and spreading soldiers and warriors thin, defending the once-peaceful kingdom from invasion on all sides.

The Oreiad of the High Empire, Pt. 5 – Our Lady of Coldhearth and the Lyang Liutan Coven

Many Oreiad, pious and Manshrioi alike, died when the Dragonlord scoured the peaks, now controlled by the Dragonscarred of Godsreach, referred to by the Oreiad as the Wu Tzuzhou, or Witchcursed, for mastery of the Dragon of the Moon. But thousands more died trekking south as they fled the accursed region in search of a new home. The Oreiad are not made for warm climates and the mountains in the south of Ticonderos are not as tall as those towards the center, nor as cold or dry as the Oreiad are used to. The journey was long, incredibly taxing, and tragically deadly. These Oreiad had defied their Empress’ command and continued a fight against the Dragonlord that she had decreed finished. They would not be welcomed by any other Oreiad communities. They had to rely on each other, and, eventually, on the frigid powers that emerged within a disgraced family of Manshrioi lineage called the Lyang Liutan Coven.

Lady Coldhearth, governess of Coldhearth and Matron of the Lyang Liutan

Their city is small, and technically, it is not actually a recognized part of the Oreiad Empire at all, but the Oreiad who live there still revere and love their Empress and live under Imperial law, custom, and traditions. It is often said there, by their Manshrioi, that the Empire may have abandoned them, but they have not abandoned the Empire. Indeed, it was their ancestors’ pride in their duties to the Empire and to the protection of the dragons their Empire had millenia of friendly relations with, that caused them to be exiled in the first place. They are a proud, hardy, resourceful, and hospitable community, brought together under the benevolent wisdom of their Manshrioi Lady.

Referred to by her pious as Our Lady of Coldhearth, or Lady Coldhearth for short, she is kind, generous, and surprisingly powerful. Rumor is spread voraciously that her mastery over wind and cold may rival the Empress, but only in whispers that are dramatically and violently stamped out as offensive, unspeakable heresy in the northern mountain regions of the true Oreiad Empire. But were it not for her great power, the city of Coldhearth itself could not exist and the Oreiad who live there could not survive. In this ongoing crisis in the True North, in the lands of the Empress, as Oreiad flee the region by the hundreds, Lady Coldhearth welcomes any refugees who make it so far south as her city, which is, in fact, a surprising number. Indeed, she has even welcomed Dhogem refugees fleeing their own underground horrors, as well as Dragonscarred fleeing from the battles between the Alo Pagtria and the armies of Zelos. There is even a whole village of Alo Pagtrian separatists dwelling along the coast at the base of Lady Coldhearth’s mountains on the Dragon’s Tail who worship her as a goddess of bounteous wind and rains who blesses them with fish and long lives.

The city itself is covered in a constant blanket of snowfall, the surrounding mountains a haze of cold fog and condensed air. As a consequence of Lady Coldhearth’s power, warm, seaborne winds laden heavy with waters evaporated from the oceans to the west are constantly drawn to the area, pelting the shores with high tides, and steady rainfall. Lately, however, these hot, humid winds have been lighter and less frequent, giving Lady Coldhearth less water to work into snow and air to dry and chill her city, but also causing the fishing for the Dragonscarred beneath her mountains to be unexpectedly, markedly less bounteous this season. Something has changed out there, the Dragonscarred villagers fear. Something dark, and empty, and hungry.

The Oreiad of the High Empire, Pt. 4 – The Shi Cei Qoji of the Salt Crags

Atop the sheer cliffs that rise dramatically from the western shores beneath the Savage Sea, looming over the King of the Coin’s quaint nation of traders and sellswords, the Shi Cei Qoji Coven reigns with a dramatically iron grip in the name of their Empress. Called the Stonecutters by the Dragonscarred below, the Shi Cei Qoji are an ancient Coven of sword saints, odd amongst the Oreiad in their focus on martial arts over sorcery and looked down upon as Dragonscarred might regard country bumpkins by many of the more celebrated Oreiad Manshrioi. Make no mistake, they are Manshrioi in their own right, but more humble, more reserved, and their magics more subtle. They direct their gifts inward, imbuing the best of their kind with impossible strength and durability and their strikes with a hardness and sharpness that can cleave cleanly through a slab of granite.

Saint Qi Lei of Shaofanguil, Matron of Shi Cei Qoji Coven

While the Shi Cei Qoji are looked down upon by other more prominent Covens of the Empire, their territories atop the Salt Crags brook no disrespect for the Empress and require the utmost loyalty from their pious subjects, both to the Coven and to both the law and reverence for the Imperial Dynasty. They are an unwavering, rigid people and demand the same from those they rule and are known for their merciless punishments meted out against those that would defy both their own law and Imperial law. Death being the most obvious of these, and the reward for breaking even the most minor of Imperial statutes, but exile, dismemberment, even spiritual severance – a process in which an Oreiad’s ancestral relics are taken and destroyed – are common sentences for those that break with local law.

Shaofanguil is the fortress of the Shi Cei Qoji and the Holy City of Hei Lan unfolds around it. The winds sweep around it and throughout, and a thin veneer of salt, swept inland and up the mountains, coats the edges of every building. Salt crystals, carried by rare gales all the way into the Stonecutters’ domain, are highly prized and considered artifacts of great magical import. Used by the Oreiad of the Salt Crags as focuses for ancestral anima, they are thought to be capable of storing, and thus transferring to their possessor, a tremendous amount of magical might. It is the law of the Shi Cei Qoji that any crystals of a specific size or larger are automatically the property of the Shi Cei Qoji Coven and that any pious found in possession of such a crystal be subject to both spiritual severance and exile from the Salt Crags entirely. Such Oreiad will not be welcome in any other Oreiad community thereafter and must, with only the rarest of exceptions, make their way amongst the Dragonscarred. It is rumored that such exiles are from whence the legendary soldiery and sellsword companies of Zelos first honed their martial techniques.

Even the pious of the region are more than competent warriors, and their daily lives consist of the grueling labors of salt farming, physical training, and, for most, worship. Indeed, the Shi Cei Qoji are regarded as saints of their deities of Wind and Stone and are afforded less a celebrity intrigue and more a divine reverence in a manner somewhat similar to the Dorun of the Icethorns. But while faith in the gods themselves is required of the Doruns’ pious, faith in the Shi Cei Qoji is merely expected and the gods themselves still regarded with the antagonism inherent to the rest of Oreiad cultures. Many Oreiad pious quietly wonder amongst themselves in private moments if the Shi Cei Qoji and the Dorun are related, perhaps one having emerged from the other, but publically the two Covens make their hatred for one another abundantly clear.

The Oreiad of the High Empire, Pt. 3 – The Witch’s Spine

Central Ticonderos is dominated by dense temperate forests covering miles and miles of hill and short mountains converging into a single, massive mountain range that eventually grows too tall for even the trees to grow upon. This bony protrusion is called The Witch’s Spine and as the Oreiad Empire spread itself ever further, this unique location became home to an old, eclectic coven of hunters, gatherers, brewers and distillers, craftswomen, and hexers – Kayaga Coven. The Oreiad in this region are closer to more abundant plant and animal life than any of the other cities and covens and they have learned strange secrets and magical techniques from their interactions and observations. Oreiad do not require much in the way of protein to survive and do not typically kill the rare animal life they share the austere mountain peaks with – once it had been dragons, or giant eagles. Lately griffons or mountain lions or goats. Few creatures dare to climb to such lofty heights; fewer still survive the daring. But along the Witch’s Spine and just a short journey down into the forests, life is abundant and while the Kayaga and their pious still treat these creatures with respect, they do not place them on a pedestal like the rest of the Empire does.

A Manshrioi of Kayaga Coven consumes the Anima of a once-living creature.

Presided over by the Witch of the Woods, Ba Bei Kayaga, the Kayaga govern the mountaintop city of Lo-Han where they have established a strange place of learning. A sprawling campus filled with dormitories, lecture halls, open grounds with modest enclosures in which forest animals are held for observation, and levels below where experiments on plant and animal life are conducted to better understand how to leverage their Anima for magical power. Ba Bei herself wanders the whole of the Witch’s Spine in her walking mansion, a grand, four-story house filled with dozens of rooms for repose and dining, for servants and for the menagerie of woodland creatures she captures for the Lohan grounds throughout her travels. Did I mention it’s a walking mansion? With eight, massive, spindly legs that you’d be forgiven for mistaking as a giant spider’s simply thrust through the foundations, but you’d remain mistaken nonetheless. Through sorcery known only to the Coven Matron, Ba Bei has brought the house itself to life and caused it to sprout living, fleshy legs, each ending in blackened, five-fingered hands covered in coarse hair and gravely skin.

Lo-Han is famous throughout the Empire for their “green magics” and their healing in particular. The streets are lined with alchemists and apothecaries each specializing in their own brand of medicinal treatments and spells, and breweries and distilleries crafting their own potent concoctions. Manshrioi, or pious hopefuls, flock to Lo-Han, even from prominent families, to learn restorative magics and the secrets of the woods, despite the stigma.

Many of the more traditional Manshrioi, especially those living in the Icethorn Mountains, regard the Kayaga and their “woodscraft” with contempt and disgust; however, their magical potency cannot be denied and they have developed arts in healing and curses that the Oreiad Empire had never known before. Ancestral power is important to all Oreiad, the Anima of their ancestors is, or is believed to be, how the Oreiad are able to channel and develop magical powers and become Manshrioi able to challenge the gods’ rule over their fates. What the Kayaga and other Oreiad in the Witch’s Spine have begun to do is ply their understanding of ancestral Anima and attempt to wring some similar power from the abundant life of the forests surrounding them, and they have had some undeniable success, despite it being, for some Oreiad, too disturbingly different. So in the same way all Oreiad cherish and keep totems and artifacts of their ancestors, the Oreiad of the Witch’s Spine keep twigs, dried berries, and animal bones, among many other strange items from the woods, and even consume the occasional piece of animal flesh, a taboo within Oreiad society, in the interest of discovering new avenues of magical might. There are many within the rest of the Empire who fear these Oreiad have sullied and debased themselves, becoming more like the lower folk that live beneath them by taking up some of their habits.

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