Sideromandron #1 – More Human than Human

Live NOW on Kickstarter!

We’re nearing the one week mark, today we started Day 5 with $911 out of our $3500 goal! I’m doing everything I can to promote my baby comic book, my first ever indie comic book made in collaboration with artist Ariel S. Viola, Sideromandron is a fresh blend of modern superhero action and science fiction influenced heavily by ancient Greek philosophy and myths!

Please do share the link around and if you like what you’re reading and seeing, consider becoming a backer!

We’ve got 27 days left ahead of us and we’ve made good progress so far, but we’ve still got quite a ways to go! I hope you’ll support us on this first step of what I hope Ariel and I can continue along with as a very long journey! If we can fund Sideromandron #1, there’s five more issues I want to bring to light and even that only scratches the surface of the world and the entire, crumbling universe that Sideromandron is set in filled to bursting with characters and stories I’ve got to show and to tell you! Thanks for reading and thanks for supporting Sideromandron!

Sideromandron Kickstarter Pre-Launch!

Silver Strand Studios presents…
Ariel’s amazing full-spread cover art!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dozenwondersmagazine/sideromandron-1-high-concept-sci-fi-mytholgical-action

Our Pre-launch Page is live and the campaign itself kicks off March 30th! Come see what me and artist Ariel S. Viola have in store for you!

And if you like what you see, please share that link around! I’m trying to build up the backlinks, because Google doesn’t know we exist yet!

Out of Towners

A story I wrote and hid in the myriad folders of my hard drive years ago, this much shorter story served as the inspiration both for my short story, “The Children,” being published in Lost Boys Press’ first anthology Chimera, but also for the lunar colony shard world Lunafreya in the Waybetween. Please enjoy.

Out of Towners
Coming March 25th! Pre-order the e-book now!

Welcome to Cratertown, aptly named cite of a crashed space rock and settlement of nearly two-hundred basically good, more-or-less clean folk. An aged and sand-blasted wooden sign announces your arrival to the small watering hole in the dust belt. On the eastern side of Kansas, Cratertown, aside from the meteor, is just as boring and run-of-the-mill as any tiny western town goes. Law is maintained by the makeshift militia known as the Sheriff’s department, cowboy hats and tanned hide are in fashion, and, though most people can drive, everybody rides horses. For fun, townspeople might watch television, or play games like horseshoes or corn hole. Some may practice shooting guns, others may search for bits of gold. Every night however, the Ol’ Stumbleweed, soon to be renamed the Whispering Well, is full – young men and women squaredancing and riding the mechanical bull, hard old men nursing one last drink by themselves in a dark corner of the room. Tourism keeps the bar running and running well, and even if all the alien watchers bother the locals they keep the money coming.

Tonight is no different. The music is clear and loud, but not obnoxiously like so many eastern dives. The drinks are flowing as are the bills, out of bottles, out of wallets. From the newest tourist attraction, just out the back, the Whispering Well – so called for the mysterious gurgling and wheezing sounds it’s begun to make about half a year back – ambles one of the many tourists to the bar, a vaguely frightened expression on his empty face.

“I heard them!” the wide-eyed, John Deere capped man shouts over the music.
The nearby regulars roll their eyes, stand from their stools, and move away; the nearby out-of-towners turn to the man with mixed expressions of shock, curiosity, and disgust.

“Oh, you did, did you?” the bartender, Elliot, replies patronizingly.

“I heard… they spoke to me!” the man thrusts his arms across the counter grabbing Elliot by the shirt collar, “They spoke to me!!”

In a deft, powerful motion, Elliot swivels his arm over the counter, ramming his palm into the man’s nose, breaking it and pushing him away. With his other hand he reaches under the counter for the panic button.

“Bartam, we’ve got another one!” it takes Bartam, the bouncer, seconds to cross through the crowd and put the drunkard in a full nelson. Elliot turns to his barhand, “Jeffery, escort this man to our fine Sheriff. I’ve already sent out the wire; he’ll meet you in the road as usual.”

________________________

Shining in the dark, reflecting light from the singular light post of Cratertown, is the Sheriff’s badge bobbing around as the man wearin’ it strides down the dirt road to Ol’ Stumbleweed. Sheriff Memnon Colt has had a busy few weeks, due fully to heavily drunk tourists visiting the exciting, new Whispering Well attraction. Frowns and stress have added new lines to his forty-something-year-old face, replete with perpetual salt-and-pepper stubble. With a flick of his flashlight he notices Jeffery and the troublemaker just a few yards away.

“Surprise me,” Memnon requests of the young barhand.

Jeffery shakes his head, “Sorry, Sheriff.”

The Sheriff sighs, pulling the cowboy hat from his head of grey-yellow hair, “Well, bring him here.”

The bleeding, shivering man changes hands, then he and Memnon make their way back to the jailhouse in relative silence. The jailhouse is Cratertown’s most well-constructed building – reinforced concrete, wooden paneling, barred, insulated windows. Tossing the half-crazed tourist into a cell and locking the door behind him, Memnon sits at his desk resting his head in his hands, massaging his temples.

“From beyond the jealous stars to take back what’s theirs! Who are you to judge their ageless wisdom?!”

“You pipe down now!!” the Deputy Sheriff jabs his club through the bars before turning to the Sheriff, “That’s the second one this week, Mem. Hell, it’s only Wednesday!”

“Don’t I know it… don’t I know it,” Memnon stands tiredly to his feet, “Winston, keep an eye on things. I’m going to the bar to check everything out. I’ll be back before long.”

“Oh. Okay, sure. Careful, Sheriff,” Winston nearly stutters.

________________________

A tiny red glow approaches the saloon doors of Ol’ Stumbleweed, noticed by Elliot before it pushes its way through. A moment later the drunken rabble acknowledges it, even though the smoke it makes gets lost in the haze of the other smokers in the room. Memnon flicks his cigarette to the ground and snuffs it out with his boot.

“Everybody, clear out! Bar’s closed!” he barks with authority.

A big out-of-towner, reeking of beer, stands, puffing his chest out, “I say you make us leave, cowboy. Starting with me!”

Memnon draws the beautifully restored antique from his hip and points it menacingly, “I don’t normally draw my sidearm in front of so many people. I don’t like inciting panic. But ‘round here, you wanna listen to the Sheriff.”

“It’s alright everyone, we’ll be open tomorrow. Head home now,” Elliot watches carefully as his bar quickly empties, “That’s quite a damned entrance, Sheriff. What’s the trouble?”

“The well, Elly. Reckon it’s time I see it for myself.”

“Finally got around to it, did ya?” Elliot smirks, “Follow me.”

A cheap neon sign above the bar’s backdoor designates the path to the Well. Perhaps anticlimactically, the open door reveals a patchy yard lined with tufts of ragweed and musk thistle, and filled with dying grass. The simple well sits off-center and belches into the night.

“That’s normal, Sheriff,” Elliot says when Memnon hesitates, “Well… I’ll leave you to it.”

Nodding, Memnon waits for the bartender to leave him alone before he supports his tired frame against the edge of the well with his hands, and stares into the darkness ahead. He rubs his eyes, closes them, and groans deeply. After a few quiet seconds the well groans back, an otherworldly, unnerving sound; the Sheriff’s eyes snap open.

“What’d you say?” he looks back expecting Elliot, but seeing no one.

Turning his attention back to the Well, the Sheriff hears a hollow sighing coming from deep below –underground gas shuffling itself and the surrounding waters into a more comfortable position. Memnon sets his cowboy hat back upon his head and stretches before he turns back to the bar. This is stupid, he thinks to himself, pushing the door aside, and locking it behind him. The bar was silent as a sleeping rooster and, strangely, cold. I guess Elliot’s gone home, Memnon’s thoughts continue as his hand moves to his revolver. He hastily exits the bar anxious to finish his paperwork and then follow Elliot’s lead.

________________________

As he approaches, Memnon notices the lights inside the jailhouse flickering, revealing to him that Winston has yet to get them fixed. There isn’t any shouting or fuss coming from inside, reassuring the Sheriff as he turns the knob of the door. He tilts his head, furrowing his brow when he notices that the door is locked.

“Winston?” Memnon calls as he produces his keys.

The lights flicker off as Memnon pulls open the door, and he hears a soft thud against the ground. Suddenly the lights flash back on revealing a grotesque blood bath. The thud on the ground was Winston’s head, not quite separated from his body. The cell doors are all open, slathered with messy handprints. An expert quick-draw, Memnon snaps his revolver from its holster, but there is no courage in his face.

“Winston…” a hollow whisper escapes his lips.

He steps over the corpse and into the room, turning back to look his fallen friend over. A single tendon and some skin holds his head to his shoulders. Worse yet, grievous lacerations cover his body, having shredded clothes and flesh alike. Bewildered, Memnon turns about, his thoughts cloudy.

“Who’s there?” Memnon asks shakily, having heard a faint voice.

Scanning the room Memnon finds no one else there, but on the floor in the center of the room is an elaborate symbol drawn in blood: a series of concentric circles filled with esoteric words and shapes. Overlapping that are faces, labeled with unpronounceable names, forming the five points of a pentagon, and inside the pentagon is an upside down star, in the center, a four-inch hole in the floor. The lights flicker again, and in the dark Memnon notices a glow coming from the black opening. He approaches, gun pointed and ready, to examine the hole. He begins to hear gurgling and whispering, the same sounds he heard from the Well, as he leans in.

“I-I hear you! I said ‘who’s there,’ dammit!” Memnon shouts.

A cacophony of voices answer him, shrieking over one another.

“W̛̘̮e̘̖͚͇̠̠̪ ̗͚͜c̸̗̜o҉͚̖͕m҉͈̱͕̣e͚̯͎͔͔̳̮̕.̧̯̤”

“F́r҉̷͡ơ͝m҉ ̨b́e͏͏y҉̕ǫ͘n̡d̶́͜ ̴͏͘t̶̨̛h̛e̛ ͘je̛a͜l̨o̷̸u̷͘s͢ ҉̀ś͜͢t͘a͜rs̵͞.̸”

“Tͭ͡o͐͗͢.̷ͪ̄̊̍”

Ṫ͈̻̩̄̚ͅͅA̪̯̯̼̮͂́͂͡͠K̅͋͊҉̴͓̦̱̺̹Ẽ̯̗̮ͫͩͮ̍͛̿ ̘̗͛̐̕B̖̰͕̗̗͎̜ͪͬ̿ͩ͠ͅẬ̶̬͗̐͋ͫ̈́̒ͮ̾͢C̵̶̼̭͚̱͇ͫͤ̕ͅK̙̱̐̒ͪ̎ͮ̆ͨͦͣ!̡̙͇͇͖̞̓ͨ̿̈̂ͨͣ́͡!̷̻̹͈̲̥̰̿͆!́̋ͧ͏̵̘̳̕

“Wh҉at i̧s͢ ǫu̕r͘s͡.̷”

As the lights flicker once more a thick, black tendril erupts from the hole and with lightning speed strangles the fine Sheriff. As he coughs and struggles his face is pummeled into the floor, breaking bone and splintering wood. With supernatural strength, the tentacle crunches Memnon’s bones and pulls him into the hole made only a few inches wider by his violent passing.

Kingdom Hearts II: Re ✥ Right – Ch. 2 – Rites of Passage

Donald’s idea is to retrace King Mickey’s collaboration with Ansem, starting with Ansem’s only known location – The Radiant Garden. At first he takes Sora and Goofy along as he consults with Chip and Dale, but neither of them knows where Radiant Garden actually is. Frustrated, Donald asks them “Isn’t there some kind of a record of the King’s location data in the gummi ship travel logs?” There is, in fact, but the King seems to have encrypted it to prevent anyone from accessing it. Chip and Dale suggest they take the data to Cid in Traverse Town. So they do.

However, Sora, Donald, and Goofy learn that Leon, Yuffie, and Cid have gone vanished without a trace. After speaking with the locals and consulting with Yen Sid, they finally find Leon and Yuffie fighting off a group of heartless on the outskirts of town outside of a run-down, boarded up shack. Indeed, the FF characters warn Sora that despite his efforts before, the heartless continue to menace them–them specifically. Unlike before, the heartless now seem to be attracted to the FF characters.

Sora gives Cid the data and leaves it with him to work at translating while they go down into the sewer system to examine Traverse Town’s “key hole,” and find it to be corroded by darkness, its seal apparently weakened by the Heartless’ continuous efforts to break through. The lock is “holding,” but some Heartless have been able to slip through the “cracks,” so to speak. Such as [INSERT BOSS FIGHT]. After the battle, the group return to Cid’s shack.

Cid has fully decoded the information allowing him to display King Mickey’s full travel log throughout (and prior to) the events of Kingdom Hearts. It’s… shorter than one might expect. From what the data displays, it would appear that the King flew his gummi ship directly into a star and never came out the other side!

“Of coourrse!” Donald exclaims.

“W-whaddya mean?” Goofy asks.

“To get to Radiant Garden…” Donald muses aloud, “the King took the Star Road!”

“OHHHH!” Goofy marvels, realization dawning on him.

“Guys!” Sora shouts at them, “What’s the Star Road?”

“Yeah, I’m chompin’ at the bit over here,” Cid says, “What the heck are you guys talkin’ about?”

“A dangerous path,” Donald tells them, “Against the law as a matter of fact! I didn’t even know it was possible!”

“Sora, when we were travelin’ around before, we were sealing off the paths between worlds so the heartless couldn’t get anywhere–” Goofy began.

“But,” Donald interrupted, “there are other paths through the stars themselves! Paths of pure starlight that the heartless couldn’t have traveled if they wanted to. But King Mickey and Queen Minnie do have an affinity for the Light…”

“Pure starlight, huh?” Cid scratched his chin. “That sounds like quite the tall order! How the heck am I supposed to travel through starlight?”

“You?” Donald squawked.

“Well, yeah! You said the King went to Radiant Garden, didn’t you?”

“Yes…” Goofy let the word hang in the air.

“That’s where I’m from!” Cid exclaimed, “That’s where Leon and Yuffie and all o’them are from!”

“And Cloud and Aerith?” Sora asked. Cid nods.

“Well, we’ve got to get there too!” Goofy said, “You wanna come with?”

“Home sweet home…” Cid reminisces, “We’d have to figure out how to travel through stars first though…”

“Let me make a call,” Donald pulls out a cell phone and calls Chip and Dale. He tells them he knows where the King went, he just doesn’t know how to follow. Asks if they could modify their gummi engine and shielding to travel the Star Road. They bristle at the illegality and how they could be fired, bla, bla, but Donald tells them it’s an order from the Queen.

“Bu–” Goofy began to protest only for Donald to turn him a sly wink. “Oh, ho ho, I get it!”

Eventually Chip and Dale acquiesce saying they think they might be able to manage it.

“Do you reckon them heartless would follow us outta here?” Cid asks.

“Maybe,” Donald muses, “But they couldn’t follow us through the Star Road, they’d be destroyed by the Light.”

“But Donald, they were inside of Kingdom Hearts,” Goofy reminds them, “And that was supposed to be pure Light too!”

A beat passes.

“What are the heartless after you guys for, anyway?” Sora finally asks Cid.

“Beats me, kid,” Cid clasps his hands behind his head, “I wish I knew.”

“Maybe they’ll leave Traverse Town alone if you come with us!” Goofy suggests.

“Yeah,” Cid perks up, smiling. “Silver linings!”

“And maybe they’ll attack the Magic Kingdom instead!” Donald donks Goofy with his staff. Goofy deflates.

“If they do, we’ll take ’em down just like always!” Sora says defiantly.

“That’s the spirit, kid,” Cid grins, “Well, what are we waiting for then? Let’s hop to it!”

Donald makes dejected Donald noises, adding, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”

End scene.

Fits and Starts: A Reflection

It was a year.

Filled with the terror and apprehension you wouldn’t normally find anywhere aside from mid-nineties slasher films, 2020 took a lot from us all as many of us sat at home, consuming news and sound bytes at an obscene rate.

But true to form, as in real life, you might knock me down a few times, get a few good hits in, but keep it up and I will start swinging back. And I did. I got tired of cowering, I got my sole-proprietorship incorporated, and I funded my first Kickstarter on the first try. Emboldened by the feeling of success, I plowed ahead with a handful of new plans and projects, I commissioned artists to help me bring my material to light, to help me feed the hype machine and keep up my momentum.

I fizzled.

Perhaps I was naive.

Tragedies struck some very good people I claim to care for and still I soldiered on, promoting my brand, advertising dreams that may never see the light of day.

I am currently working on a novel, on the ever-expanding universe of The Waybetween, and trying my best to generate buzz for the comic book I’d really like to see make it to funding once I get the cover art back for it, but it feels futile and selfish and short-sighted. I’m not sure what to do, or what I should do. I feel like, somehow, I’ve let a lot of people down, or that I’ve come across as without heart, without value, and without, well, whatever it is, a je ne sais quoi, that catches the eye and holds its attention. I feel failed, stopped dead in the face of the immovable object that is an uncaring universe that refuses to budge an inch, and worse doesn’t even seem to notice I’m pushing it.

More than one project I started turned into a failure, certain things I wanted to show the world got lost in the dark, and I hope some of the people I was working with are okay. It seems now I may never know. Some things have been delayed but are still coming. But more than one project I was working on became a success, and it’s important to remember your successes.

Sometimes you get pushed against the wall and you fight back, you feel like a rabid wolverine, filled with fury and passion and a raging, fervent need to live, to survive. Sometimes you’re breaking your very human, very fragile, bleeding nails scratching at a black wall, not even leaving a mark.

It’s not easy, making something from nothing.

It’s lonely.

And after the ever-ostracizing void of a year we all just went through, the estrangement for some must truly feel like a dark that you might never escape from. But if you’re still up for searching, I’ll still be out here, somewhere in The Waybetween, weaving The Spider’s web to Void knows what end, shining a light and hoping we’ve not all hopelessly lost one another.

Let’s see each other in the New Year, shall we?

Robb, Prince of Lemnos?

So, Sideromandron is a comic book with plenty of influence from Greek mythology, with a fictitious, former Greek isle, now independent island-state as a major facet of the setting, and the main character, and prince of said formerly Greek state, is a white dude named Robb? Really?

Let’s talk about that.

Robb. Yeah, not a particularly Greek or Mediterranean name is it? Green-eyed, with straight, brown hair, and pale-skinned, Robb doesn’t seem to fit in all that much with the scenery. His father has dark, curly hair and an olivine skin tone (though still on the lighter side), but his mother is not in the picture. At first, you’d be forgiven for not noticing, there’s a lot going on as Sideromandron #1 unfolds, but as the initial story arc (More Human Than Human) comes to a close, you may start to wonder: where is Robb’s mother?

Because that mystery, where his mother is, who is mother is, perhaps even more importantly, informs why Robb has such a non-traditionally Greek name and appearance. Spoiler alert: she’s not Greek.

So… is that it, then? Robb, Prince of Lemnos is just partially not Greek? Well, no. That wouldn’t be very exciting now would it? More Human Than Human is just the first (planned to be four, but might end up being more like six) issues of a larger story, and the mystery of Robb’s mother plays directly into the second story arc that delves into the consequences of another character’s actions. Robb finds himself thrown into global political turmoil as he tries to juggle his personal life, stately obligations, and his new role in a confusing, cosmic battle for the fate of the entire universe. No pressure, Robb.

So, our lead character, Robb the Half-Greek Prince of Lemnos, has another legacy teasing at the edges of the narrative of Sideromandron, and I’ll give you just a few hints. Water. Cold. Ice. Lost knowledge and advanced technology. Men and women frozen in time. Let me tell you, things are already absolutely crazy on Earth when Sideromandron opens, even more crazy than the 21 or so pages of the first issue show you, but they are about to get even wilder and more fantastical than you could even guess!

The World of Sideromandron

A mockup of island nation “Lemnos.”

Like Marvel or DC Comics, the world of Sideromandron is much like our own, it’s a fictional, current-day Earth with a couple science-fantasy twists. Drawing from as many cultures and mythologies as I have any passing familiarity with, it is my goal with my personal fictional Earth to present heroes and villains from a broadly international field. The lead character of Sideromandron, after all, is the Prince of the small, fictional island nation of Lemnos. In-world, Lemnos was formerly one of the Greek isles, but has since gained their proud independence and remains a stabilizing, advanced, and protective influence in the region. Prince Robb, Scion of Prometheus, is quite the international celebrity and established “superhero.”

And through Robb we are also introduced to Niamh, a fascinating character who draws upon not only Atlantean mythos, but touches on Gaelic and British myths, bringing in a rich depth of ice and water, fae and magic. Another important (but secret!) character is from Germany and he’s working in yet another country.

The Americans get involved of course, as well, with the mysterious agent Janus and whatever intelligence network he represents. There are characters that have not showed up yet in the written or plotted Sideromandron scripts, American heroes that Robb has varying degrees of history with such as the powerful Weatherman, the vengeful Ariadne, and the broken Gargoyle.

A running theme throughout Sideromandron and the world it takes place in and the heroes that defend it, including Robb and Niamh, is loss and sadness. I feel superhero stories do not touch enough on actual, human loss in comic books, or at least, doesn’t treat it with as much respect and intention as the superheroics themselves. The characters in Sideromandron are people first and superpowered heroes second. I want their emotions to feel fully realized and human. They can’t be noble and grim and stoic and triumphant all the time. These characters are, at times, numbed by depression, crippled with anxiety, and bleeding with vulnerability. Driven by sometimes a need to recover someone or something, or sometimes a need to make up for what they’ve done, to fix some terrible mistake they’ve cursed themselves with the consequences of. Secrets and inner struggles so heavy they can’t get up some mornings. Body aches and bone pain that cause them to stumble and fail even when the world they protect needs them the most. These are hero stories that I need to write. And maybe that some of you need to read.

Even in deep space, the narrative revolves around loss. Coyote has lost the woman he loved. His children have lost their mother. What they all choose to do in her absence defines not only who they are, but also the very nature of reality and the fate of existence itself.

The Machine is broken.

The Wheel begins to wobble and even the ethereal strands of The Spider’s web tremble.

Sideromandron?

What’s a Sideromandron?

Silver Strand Studios is putting in lots of hard work and lots of hours as 2020 comes to a close. I’ve got a lot on my plate, not the least of which is just doing my damnedest to pull this rudder up and keep my little baby business in the air. But it’s not all dirt underneath fingernails and elbow grease.

Sideromandron is the name of Silver Strand Studio’s first ever comic book series. I’m working to get issue #1 out as fast as humanly possible. I’m gonna need a LOT of help to do it, so please share this ALL OVER THE PLACE. We need to hype this to the moon and back, because producing a comic book is SUPER EXPENSIVE. We’re gonna take it to Kickstarter, like we did with Dozen Wonders: Fantasy Worldbuilding, but I’m going to need, at minimum, four times as much funding. But I think we can get there.

From the Greek sídero, meaning iron, and salamándra, meaning salamander, Sideromandron sort of means Iron Salamander. It’s meant to convey a robotic yet fire elemental tone, as the salamander often represents fire. It draws from Greek mythology, but is not meant to represent authentic Greek culture. I’m not from Greece, I’ve never been to Greece, or even Italy, but I’ll be in contact with people that are. Sideromandron is a book, at heart, about superheroes and space mechs fighting androids and alien gods and all that, but there’s so much going on beneath the surface. It opens up a vast universe that itself is still so very small when compared with the overarching, entropic expanse that is The Waybetween. The very first pages of Sideromandron #1 make it very clear, this isn’t just another superhero book. It peels back the layers of existence and you can see right away, I’m dealing with some heady concepts. It’s a ride. I hope you’ll come along with me!

I’ll leave you with this opening poem, of sorts. It’s these words that open the comic book.

It was nothing. She was. A great and vast and terrible nothing, and her name was never spoken. A void of immeasurable distance and depth. She was free of pain or want. She knew neither the passage of time nor the necessity of being. She was not.

It was a lie. He was a lie. She could not be nothing, could not be naught. She could be defined by what she wasn’t and therefore, paradoxically, became. This trick, this first among falsehoods, true as cosmic mathematics, he spoke it, he embodied it. His name is Coyote, but even that is a lie.

Their union bore two offspring: Creation and Destruction. By virtue of this magic, making something from nothing, She ceased to be nothing and therefore ceased to be at all. It could be said, she died during childbirth.

This is the truth of the universe. That nothing is always something, that destruction is brother to creation, and that illusion is the forebearer to all reality.

Previews #1 – Character Building

I’ve not publicly shared any of my unpublished works. There’s a lot of legal grey area that bothers me, but it’s occurred to me recently that if I’m going to be trying to sell anyone on my ability to tell stories, full, coherent, interesting stories, then… I probably ought to give them more to go on than my Worldbuilding efforts, strong as I think those are.

So in the interest of storytelling and the ever-grinding Hype Machine, I give you three examples from stories of mine – small samples of narrative Character Building, if you will.

From my ongoing novel (maybe 25% complete):

Up the stairs, Len found herself in utter darkness, stepping into water up to her ankles with a steady sprinkling of rain dripping from the ceiling. Perhaps a pipe for plumbing had broken overhead? They’d had such artifice in Gerabaldir and Som seemed even more advanced than Len’s hometown. She placed a hand along the wall and continued to slosh carefully through water, unable to see where she was going, she hoped to find an opening. After a moment her foot pushed into something soft, covered in cloth. She recoiled, splashing the water everywhere, as the body moaned quietly and slumped over. Len’s eyes began to adjust even as her mind raced, her brows furrowed, and her mouth lay agape. Someone… alive?! She wondered in silent horror. She inched forward, toward the huddled thing, covered in tattered rags, arms and legs hugged tight against its body. It looked shriveled, dead, motionless. Oh, Len chuckled darkly to herself, it’s me. And yet it had reacted when Len touched it. Hadn’t it?

“Hello?” Len breathed, the utterance scarcely even a whisper, and in turn she received no response. “I’m sorry I kicked you,” she said, the tiniest bit louder. As Len inched closer, the thing on the ground remained motionless. She couldn’t even hear or see it breathing. It certainly didn’t look alive.

“Sorry…” the thing rattled, its voice rough and dry as if choked by years of smoke and decay.

Startled, Len made an embarrassingly loud and ungraceful sound of panic before she clamped her hands over her mouth.

“You’re…” the thing started again, it seemed pained, as if speaking were difficult, “sorry…”

“Are you hurt?” Len regained her composure, kneeling down next to it, placing her hand on the crumpled thing’s shoulder.

A rueful laugh seemed to escape the thing’s throat, but Len wasn’t quite sure. “Hurt…” it managed to utter.

“I’m getting out of here,” Len told it, “Maybe, I… well, do you think you could…”

It struggled a moment, pulling its arms and legs from around itself to push up off from the wet ground it had been stuck to. For the first time, the thing looked Len in the eyes, its skin was a greenish grey, desiccated despite being soaked in water, almost scaly, almost burned. Its face was harrowed and gaunt, marred by dozens of wrinkles, obscured by a long locks of matted black hair, its eyes two dark pits swallowed by age.

“Help…?” it choked out the word, and then collapsed in a pile, back to the soggy stones, pullings its arms and legs back tight against itself, “S… sorry…”

* * *

From an unpublished short story I’m tinkering with:

Yamato House became the premier Song Nese style restaurant, not just in Arstova, but anywhere on the continent. Its combination of market savvy, cultural agility, and innovative adaptation transformed Chef Yarma’s dishes into something uniquely traditional yet modern and must-have. But with an elevation in status, quickly spreading word of mouth, and a growing customer base, Yamato’s stores of secret ingredients were dwindling fast. It had only been six months since they’d hired a man to travel far and wide gathering all sorts of things for them, and they were still paying that debt. Now they had only a single bottle of their rice vinegar left, made with Popor Sugars, they were down to half a jar of their secret dashi, made from Dancing Bonita roe, and were fresh out of both oysters and Blood Boar meat. Within the week they’d need more Snow Pearl pepper and Songnese Ginger, and there were plenty of other things Hiyahashi might as well gather if he were going to visit Song Ni Ya anyway such as Yamato Daikon, the wasabi from the Fragrant Springs, and the Hacklo Leaves that made his wife’s favorite tea.

“But Hiyahashi, you can’t go,” Liu Mei begged, “Who will cook? Who will command the kitchen?”


The chef could only close his eyes and smile, “My beautiful wife,” Hiyahashi began, “We both know… the chefs are all afraid of you,” Liu Mei looked angrily wounded even as her husband took her face into his hands and continued, “and you are the better cook by far.”


Liu Mei smiled in spite of herself before lowering her eyes to the floor and frowning. There were so many dangerous places her husband would have to go to, so many dangerous creatures to avoid… or to hunt… She hadn’t been young for several years now, and Hiyahashi not for a dozen more. She was afraid for him.


“I must venture south, precious one,” Chef Yarma breathed as he pressed his forehead into hers.


“You must come back to me you stupid idiot,” she grabbed his wrists and squeezed as she closed her eyes against the tears that began to prick them. “And don’t you dare go after the Blood Boar! We can switch to pig shoulders!”


Hiyahashi stepped back, taking his wife’s hands gently, “My wife, you know the gyoza are Lord Arstof’s favorite…”


“No, Hiyahashi!” tears streamed down Liu Mei’s defiant face, “I forbid you!”


Chef Yarma sighed, closing his eyes hard while he thought on it, bobbing his head up and down. “Alright, precious one,” he relented, raising his head to look his wife in the eyes, “I promise.”


“We can buy some of them from the market,” Liu Mei sighed, wiping her tears.
“Yes, get anything you can from town,” Hiyahashi squeezed her hands once and then let them go, “I will prepare for the journey.”

* * *

And, finally, from something interesting and secret:

“Ta da! The Stupdendous Spider Queen saves another soul!”

She stands tall and her black hair descends from her porcelain brow in waves, falling half-wild to her hips. Wearing a red domino mask accenting her sapphire eyes and matching her short, red skirt she strikes a vogue pose and sports a cocky look. Her cloak is swept over her shoulders, falling behind her, clasped over a low-necked blue blouse with an opal brooch. She is quite beautiful.

“Sphammem?!” Xaphnos mumbles, his voice muffled by webs.

“Oh!” The Spider Queen jumps and quickly sets herself to removing her unwitting captive from her web. Soon she finds a familiar face, “Xaphnos Wundervayn!” She does not bother to contain her shock, “What are you doing here?!”

“Shannon, you’re alive,” Xaphnos embraces her like an old friend, though stilted, as if out of practice, “I missed you for so long.”

She screws up her face and returns the hug only half-heartedly, “I missed you too. I called you. I haven’t heard from you, I haven’t even gotten a letter, Xaphnos, in years. What happened to you? And what’s that in your hand?”

“Oh, I…” he releases her and takes a step back, “It’s uh,” looking at, he realizes it’s not a head at all, maybe it never was, it’s just a rock, “it’s nothing,” he says at last, tossing it into the muck beneath them. “I was cut off from the Mindscape,” he continues, “When I went after Cobweb that night, he trapped me within a single enfeebled mind, a young man named Tom Callahan.”

“I told you to to wait until morning when you could tell the Senior officers!”

“Yes, I remember. Cobweb got the upper hand on me and flung me into Tom’s head. I was stuck there for several years, but eventually Tom and I worked out a way for me to roam Tom’s world while he slept. I couldn’t get back here, so I just… I did my best. I made many friends there. Saved lives. Shannon, I was so stupid to go after Cobweb that night!”

“Yeah,” she said, tears teasing her eyes, “So… how’d you get back?”

“Tom died.”

“Oh,” Shannon’s eyes fall to the ground, as do two tears she’d meant to hold back, “It’s gotten really bad here, Xaph.”

Xaphnos takes Shannon’s hand and looks at it for a long time as if contemplating what exactly to do with it. After a moment he simply caresses it between his fingers and thumb, “I know… I ran into your sister, in fact. The Dreamqueen, is it now? She’s taken Amaranth. Burned it to the ground.”

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.