The Folly of the Almuftari – A Dragon’s Keep Tale

Jin Concept Art, generated by Midjourney

* * * *

Yarmaz Yln-Tapal. A khine of great strength. Resolve like the heat of the midday sun, pride powerful enough to shatter the salted dunes a hundred times and again. His memory, faded, conceals his form, leaving nothing more before you than a spectre, a trace of sandalwood and charred jasmine. A shadow, hoarse, ever-present on the edges of your memory like the scraping of tanned leather on a hunter’s knife.

He looks nothing like you. Nor do you look like Mother.

Tell me the tale of the Almuftari again, please?” you say, in Khinazhi. Excited, young, not yet cognizant enough to realize what you are asking.

Yarmaz peers down at you, the scowl writ plain upon his featureless visage. You remember this annoyance well, despite the six long decades dividing you from its last occurrence.

If I must, Muswah’tif.”

Ah, yes. You remember what he used to call you. The twisted child. Grotesque. Disfigured. A descriptor you would soon take advantage of, as fate grows darker. Yet now, you think nothing of it. The other khine tif would point and laugh at you when they said those words. He never did. For better or for worse. Though he was the originator, your hate was not yet directed at him.

With a sigh, Yarmaz sat upon the rock, opposite you from the glow of a warm and gentle fire. His eyes, cowled deep within the depths of time and the hooded dulband he always wore.

The Almuftari,” he begins. “Existed in the age before sand, in a time when the sea and the land were one place beneath the pale moon. The Alkawnum was not yet safe to live upon, as all the earth and fire and water roiled together within a chaotic storm. The khine who lived within the chaos found shelter upon islands of stone that floated upon the deep, and they huddled together for warmth, naked, fearful, for there was no comfort to be found in the world.

The Almuftari was born among them. From the moment he departed his mother’s womb, he was a marked being. Different from the khine of his village, in mind, in temperament. Of them, but not. Few descriptions of him remain, save for a single deta-”

His horns, right? Abu?” You say, cutting him off.

Yes, his horns,” Yarmaz states. “Don’t interrupt, Muswah’tif.

Asuf,” you whisper timidly in apology.

His true name has been lost to history,” your father continues after a deep cough. “Though if it could be remembered, all faithful sons and daughters of the Seleph’en—the Forefathers—would do well to erase any trace of it that could be found. For when the Almuftari came of age, his people realized that what made him different was not merely his slow steps, nor his rambling, mumbling speech. Whatever he desired, he could command the elements to grant him, and they would answer his request without hesitation. His mother and father, his brothers and sisters, scraped algae from the bark of rotting juniper to calm the pain in their bellies, and struggled to weave the barest threads of the luna moth to clothe themselves.

Not so for the Almuftari.

Upon a whim, he reached out to the nether, and upon his shoulders rested the finest garments of magic-woven gold and inle cotton. When he grew hungry, the very aether afforded him a veritable feast of the finest and most delicious victuals one could imagine. At first, he shared with the others the gifts the intractable Alkawnum granted him. But he soon grew fat, selfish, insistent that he alone deserved what the chaos provided, for none of his family or his friends had such command upon the elements. He alone could form from formlessness, so he alone would benefit.

Foolish and cruel, the Almuftari used his power to enslave his people. Though he had the ability to create food, raise the earth, and even conjure constructs and shelter, he fed only himself, clothed and housed only himself. He claimed the very island upon which his family subsisted and demanded they build for him a temple in which they would worship him. When the people told him they had no stones to build such a thing, with a wave of his hand, massive stones appeared with but a gesture. He demanded their labor, and they gave it, when he might have simply manifested such an edifice with but a single thought.

And so the Seleph’en suffered and toiled beneath the heel of the Almuftari. Every square inch of their island was soon covered by the temple stones he summoned from the aether beneath them. They, and their children, worked unto death, even as the corpulent Almuftari grew bloated, gluttened upon the endless feasts that appeared before him whenever he wished. An untold number of years passed until at last the temple was completed. A beautiful and horrific monument to greed and avarice, every glyph and design that adorned the primal rock venerating the Almuftari. So large was the structure that it could not be admired from the outside, for there was no earth beyond the island upon which one could view it. Never once did the Seleph’en rebel against the mad tyrant, even as they buried their children and their fathers beneath the cornerstones of that wicked place.

At last, the Almuftari gathered the remaining Seleph’en together, demanding that each of them kneel before him in obeisance. Each and every one of them did so.

Save one.

Azana,” you whisper.

Yes, Muswah’tif,” Yarmaz continues, only a hint of irritation in his voice. “Only the child Azana stood, even as her kin knelt before the Almuftari. As the Almuftari had been marked from the womb, so Azana was also, her shining skin bescaled like the Basilisk of Mudradrih. At birth, her mother had hidden her in the crevice of the temple’s first lain stone; the Almuftari had grown so fat, he could no longer move from his great chamber-bed at the centerpoint of the temple, and so he never learned of her existence. Though not more than four winters of age, when she first laid her eyes upon the tyrant and heard the Almuftari’s demands, she was filled with a righteous yet quiet anger.

At the sight of the child, the Almuftari did not speak for a time. He did not know what to say, as he had never once been disobeyed by anyone or any thing. A second time, he demanded the little khine girl kneel before him.

No,’ she answered him.

Again, the Almuftari did not speak. He could not even be angry, as something as simple as refusal did not make sense to him.

Out of instinct, the Almuftari set aside words and drew instead upon his eldrich powers of control. To his horror, not only could Azana refuse his supernatural command, her very essence did more than deny his reach. The more his will stretched out to force the child to kneel, the more he felt the mass of his own body drag him down, until at last he managed only to topple forwards and fall upon his belly before her.

The Almuftari, so engorged from the endless years of eating and devouring, and so weakened by an era of motionless sloth, could not so much as roll over to recover himself. He had forgotten one simple truth: despite his boundless powers of creation and enslavement, he was a khine still, a creature bound to the laws of nature. And khine cannot live without air. Suffocating beneath his own girth, he could only ask Azana a single question, with the last of his life’s breath.

Why?’

Azana did not answer him. She did not owe him the kindness.

The Seleph’en survivors did not bury the Almuftari, choosing instead to roll the putrid remains of the tyrant off the edge of the island and into the swirling and twisting elements that he had once so easily commanded. Had they known the consequences of such an action, they may have given this a second thought and simply buried the corse beneath the stones of his own temple. For where the khine horde wealth and sustenance from those in need, there the Almuftari’s essence remains.

But what of Azana?” you ask your father, breathless, although you know the answer by heart. “What happened to the Seleph’en after that?

The details are few,” Yarmaz says with a simple shrug. “With Azana leading her people, the stones the Almuftari created served as stepping-stones that the Seleph’en then used to cross the boundless deep, where they discovered untouched islands of stone, of wood, and iron. When the eons passed and the chaos of the elements grew calm, Azana led the children of her people to the edge of the distant sea. Separate from the waters, she gifted the khine the endless sands, and all the jewels of the mountains, in restitution for their suffering. Some say she even taught the children of the Seleph how to tame the first great titan lizards upon which they traverse the wastes to this day.

Satisfied that her people were safe from both chaos and fear, Azana departed into the wilderness alone to fade into the sands of time and reason. But before she did so, she granted one last gift to the children of the Selaph. Do you remember what it was?

The stars!” you exclaim, pointing to the sky.

Yes,” Yarmaz then says, gruffly, pointing upwards as well. “But which stars?

You pause, peering up into the night above you. You are unsure. He has never mentioned this detail before.

I don’t know,” you answer honestly, your gaze connecting with his. “All of them?

Stupid boy,” Yarmaz then says, sharply. “Look.

You do so, following the direction of his finger directly into the heavenly sea. All at once, you are no longer a boy who is blind. You are a man, a tired, elderly man, a khine who had seen far more winters than your father ever did, whose eyes had become attuned to the celestial array now set before you.

Rige. Bellafon. Alni-Alnan-Mintan, the triplet sisters, your mind reels at the sheer depth of the scene before you, desperate to remember the names of the constellations being set in front of your new eyes. The horizon dips before you, the shadow threatening to overtake your vision, but the view recovers as if propelled by the wings of Lendys Himself.

Saiphis. Wix. And finally, Arneb and Nihal. As the distant siblings pass, you are greeted by a familiar view: a massive stone in the shape of a paladin’s hammer. Beyond it, rushing as fast as the winds of Leshal, numberless mountains and valleys open wide to reveal a distant shoreline, an infinite expanse of sparkling water as far as your eyes can see, reflecting the star-filled sea above as flawlessly as a gilded mirror. And before the ocean, just before the stone meets the unblemished reflection, a single vertical sliver of white intersects the boundary between the finite and the plane above.

The sliver stands leagues above a metropolis of sandstone. The parapets of silver and porcelain, while glorious and glistening in the starlight, are as matchsticks in a child’s sandcastle by comparison. The sliver, to your surprise, is cold, painfully to the touch, an unnatural monument in the midst of a flat, unbroken skyline.

And then, all at once, you are, once again, a twisted child, sitting across from your father as the heat of a gentle campfire warms your tattered robes.

Yarmaz stands. Kneels before you. Takes you by the shoulders and leans in close, in a way he never did, not once.

Your Selaph’i is there, Muswah’tif,” he whispers. “Best not make him wait.

* * * *

Jin woke with a start. Blinking, the elderly sorcerer sat up, groaning, confused. Despite the sharp detail of the shadows that surrounded him, they were paired only with dull shades of featureless gray. He shut his eyes for a moment, comforted by the blindness of his eyelids, before returning his gaze to the world. While he could see his companions quite clearly in the pitch-black night, sleeping peacefully beside him, he was not yet accustomed to the gift Tamara had bestowed upon him. It was strange, almost distracting, compared to the blissful distortion of his natural sight.

So distracting, in fact, that he failed to hear a very distinct sound calling very softly just behind him. He turned, and beside his pillow was his father’s astrolabe. In stark contrast to his twilight vision, the device was softly glowing a pale blue light, each of the stars inscribed in the brass plate within sparkling in rhythm to the celestial cadence above. The brass plate spun slowly within the antique iron frame, squeaking with every rotation.

As he reached for the palm-sized device, Jin stared up at the sky; he had never seen such beauty displayed in the heavens before, especially with own imperfect, physical eyes.

Still quite tired, Jin rested back down. As his head laid upon his pillow, he watched as the spinning plate of the astrolabe began to slow of its own accord. The light of the metal-inscribed stars fading, until the device at last fell silent and still, the color vanishing into the monochromatic shadow.

“Your Selaph’i is there,” his father had said. Your forefather.

He pondered the thought for a long moment, wondered at its meaning. But then, like the distraction of Tamara’s gift, his father’s parting message had distracted Jin from something much more puzzling. Yarmaz had indeed told Jin the tale of the Almuftari. Many times, in fact, when Jin was yet young. But the way he and all his fellow khine used to tell it, the tale had ended very differently. He had never said a word of Azana. Indeed, Yarmaz had died long before he could have ever known the Sieve or their god.

And as Jin returned to sleep, he wondered, bemused, at which detail was more important.

Again and Again and Again and…

I want to cry.

Yes, it’s been about 10 years since I last had kidney stones. Well, they’re back, and with a vengeance. I walked about a mile this morning before I had to stop, collapse on the cement for about ten minutes, and turn right back home. Little wonder they decided to “show up” now; I’ve walked about thirty miles in the last two weeks, so whatever stones I’ve got dancing around in there finally came loose. I’m like a freakin’ maraca, and I can’t even stand up without feeling like I want to die.

And yes, they’re on my left side, meaning they won’t be passing without surgical assistance.

*sigh*

Do I have a job yet? No. But if I manage to get one this week, I guess I know where my next two or three paychecks is going: straight to paying for another round of lithotripsy.

Guh.

The Actual Final Fantasy Lies In Corporate

A recent article written by Inverse made a bit sad. And it was the final nail in the coffin that made me decide to write this response. It features the man, the myth, the legend, Final Fantasy 14 director Naoki Yoshida (also known as Yoshi-P to fans) stating:

“In terms of whether Final Fantasy is successfully adapting to industry trends, I believe the series is currently struggling. We’re now at a point where we receive a wide variety of requests regarding the direction of our game design. To be honest, it’d be impossible to satisfy all those requests with a single title. My current impression is that all we can really do is create multiple games, and continue creating the best that we can at any given time.”

The writer states that Yoshi-P believes that “Final Fantasy has never been about chasing trends, but setting them.” While I agree that this is certainly why people love Final Fantasy, I don’t believe this has always been the case. Don’t get me wrong, no one else in the industry has had the guts to take their broken, outdated-before-it-released MMORPG, literally drop a meteor on it, and then reimagine it into the wonder-fest that is A Realm Reborn. But I believe Final Fantasy got into a troubling habit a long time ago, catching a corporate virus that all well-known entertainment brands invariably seem to catch when developers and producers try too hard to bank on nostalgia and familiarity.

It’s called sequelitis. And for Square-Enix, it became a terminal case.

This argument isn’t a new one. It’s the reason Pixar made four Toy Story movies and a Buzz Lightyear movie no one watched (although that bombed for a different reason altogether). It’s the reason they made three Cars movies. It’s the reason the Star Wars sequel trilogy was made. It’s the reason they kept trying to make Terminator 2 over and over. It’s why there are so many Jaws sequels. It’s why they made All Grown Up! from Rugrats, or The Cleveland Show from Family Guy.

It’s why they made Final Fantasy X-2 (pronounced ten-two). It’s why they made two sequels to the hallway simulator that was Final Fantasy XIII. It’s why they made two disconnected and (in my opinion) inferior sequels to Final Fantasy Tactics before remastering the original into The War of the Lions. It’s why Final Fantasy IV: The After Years exists. It’s why Final Fantasy Dissidia exists, and why everybody (including me) was disappointed to discover that the “story mode” in Dissidia NT was nonexistent, and had been designed as nothing more than an arcade fighter. It’s why they’ve made and told every before-and-after story to Final Fantasy 7 that they possibly can, and won’t be stopping for the foreseeable future, no matter how bloated and confusing the whole of it becomes. And even though Final Fantasy XIV wasn’t meant to be a sequel to Final Fantasy XI, the clunky UI and 1.0 system suggests otherwise.

Final Fantasy may not chase trends with the stories they tell. But the decisions Square-Enix makes as a company certainly does.

Earlier this year, Square-Enix sold their holdings over Eidos, Crystal Dynamics, and the Square-Enix Montreal studio over to Embracer Group, the Swedish-based owners of game developers and publishers such as Gearbox Software, THQ Nordic, and Coffee Stain Studios. What did they get for selling such well-known and popular IPs as the Deus Ex, Tomb Raider, The Legacy of Kain (which went criminally unused), and Thief franchises?

$300 million dollars. To compare, Embracer Group acquired Gearbox Entertainment (which includes the Borderlands series, Duke Nukem (for what that’s worth anymore), the Homeworld series, and a few others) for $1.3 billion dollars.

You’re telling me that the company that got rid of Lara Croft and Adam Jensen are now complaining that they’re in a bad financial situation? I totally understand that their most recent Avengers game ended up in the garbage pretty quick (games as a service is a terrible idea). But they had just released Guardians of the Galaxy, and by all accounts, it’s not that bad.

Thing is, they’re not in that bad of a bad financial situation. I mean, look at their financial reports from March 2022. 9.8% sales increase over 2021? That’s pretty dang good, isn’t it? And by their annual investor report, it looks like the only real crash that occurred in 2021 was to their “Amusement” segment, which oversees “amusement facilities and planning, development, and distribution of arcade game machines and related products for amusement facilities.” Dissidia NT, anyone? As of June, the numbers for sales don’t look as good. But is it really worth selling all of your overseas studios so quickly and for so little?

I don’t think Yoshi-P is lamenting the financial state of Square-Enix’s business practices when he says that Final Fantasy is struggling. But we know, Yoshi-P, believe me. It’s been struggling for a while. Ever since Charlie’s Angels took over Spira, by my account. I don’t even know what to make of Chocobo Racing GP, for crying out loud (although it does look fun, I want my Switch back, *sniff*). Final Fantasy has tried to be so much for so long, it’s no wonder it’s struggling to know what it is beyond chocobos and crystals.

For the last two decades, we’ve seen Final Fantasy do just about everything except what made the series so fantastic in the first place: turn-based battles, stories that told fantastic tales of heroism against nihilism, and a true middle finger to the trends of the day. Do you know why Final Fantasy IX is almost universally loved by those who played it when it came out? Because it used nostalgia the right way. It wasn’t a sequel. It wasn’t a prequel. It wasn’t a spin-off. It was a love letter to its own franchise. As stated by Alex Donaldson for vg247.com:

My personal perspective set aside, FF9 is indeed special… It is often reductively described as a throwback game, a tribute to past Final Fantasy titles. While it is absolutely packed with references and winks for fans, it is far more than that, however. It’s a unique Final Fantasy with its own style and energy that hadn’t quite been done before or since.

But what made Final Fantasy IX special, according to Alex?

Part of this is down to the game being made by a multicultural, international team of developers. While of course Japanese-led, a huge amount of FF9’s development, particularly its art, was undertaken in Hawaii, a US territory. The game’s staff included Americans, French, Germans and more. These days, many Japanese games are made by diverse teams thanks to international hiring policies and outsourcing, but FF9 was ahead of the curve.

It’s a real shame that this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

According to Eidos Montreal founder Stephane D’Astous, the reason Square-Enix let go of all of all of their Eidos and Crystal Dynamics holdings wasn’t really because they weren’t making enough money. Apparently, they just “weren’t committed” to working with overseas studios:

“The pressure was starting to build, and my employees towards me, me towards my superiors. I think when people are in a crisis situation where there’s a lot of situations, you do see their core behaviour or values. And I didn’t like what I saw. There was really a lack of leadership, courage, and communication. And when you don’t have those basic things, no employee can do their job correctly — especially when you’re heading a studio.

I was losing hope that Square Enix Japan would bring great things to Eidos. I was losing confidence in my headquarters in London. In their annual fiscal reports, Japan always added one or two phrases saying, ‘We were disappointed with certain games. They didn’t reach expectations.’ And they did that strictly for certain games that were done outside of Japan.”

It wasn’t just this lack of communication. It was poor planning, too.

“If I read between the lines, Square Enix Japan was not as committed as we hoped initially. And there are rumours, obviously, that with all these activities of mergers and acquisitions, that Sony would really like to have Square Enix within their wheelhouse. I heard rumours that Sony said they’re really interested in Square Enix Tokyo, but not the rest. So, I think [Square Enix CEO Yosuke] Matsuda-san put it like a garage sale.”

So, let me get this straight, Square-Enix. You wanted… ALL of the money. I get that. So in order to get ALL the money, you gave up… a LOT more money?

Nah, Final Fantasy doesn’t have any problems, Yoshi-P. It’s Square-Enix leadership that has the problems. Call it a symptom of late-stage capitalism if you have to. I call it “being stupid and impatient”. If Square-Enix really is planning on being acquired by Sony, great; maybe putting a company with corporate problems into a larger corporation will fix things (I say with GREAT and MIGHTY sarcasm). But Sony had better be watching. If they do acquire Square-Enix (and it looks like it may be becoming more likely), get rid of Mr. Matsuda, and whoever else thought it wise to sell Lara Croft for a penny.

Better yet, don’t acquire them. Let them stew. Make them regret not having ALL the money.

Maybe I don’t know how intellectual property rights work. But could they not have simply sold the overseas studios without giving up the rights to the IPs? Or, you know, hung onto Tomb Raider, at least? Or was that part of the package? I could just imagine Sony salivating at Playstation-exclusivity with Tomb Raider just as someone at Square signs the paperwork and hauls Lara away in a cardboard box with holes punched in the top so she can breathe.

Square-Enix is not helping to fix the image of poor corporate decision-making.

I hope Final Fantasy 16 becomes a masterpiece. I really do. I mean, the fact that they’ve put almost all of FF14’s best developers onto FF16 (Yoshi-P as director, Masayoshi Soken as composer, not to mention the battle system designer Ryota Suzuki for Devil May Cry 5) is saying something. The way Square-Enix trashed Eidos, if they “lose” Final Fantasy (or sell it to the Swedes for lunch money, who knows), it will be corporate’s fault.

Like it always is.

And that’s the real sin. Yoshi-P, you’re wonderful, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Examining the Wounds Without the Bandages, Part One

I don’t talk about my mission much. When I do, I usually only talk about it long enough to mention where I went, when I served, and how much it affected the person I have become. If you’re familiar with that person, then it’s probably safe to assume that you think I absolutely hated my mission and wish I’d never gone. I’ll admit, I have said those exact words before. Many times, actually. But I don’t think that simple statement helps illustrate how I really felt about my mission service. After all this time, after dealing with depression and bipolar disorder in all the wrong ways, I feel like I should revisit some of my memories, especially now that I’m slowly removing all of the “band-aids” that I shoved over the wounds attempting to ignore them instead of treat them properly.

I served as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Los Angeles Mission from 2007-2008, my time cut short due to a major bout of kidney stones that required surgery to remove (twice, actually, separated by a few years). To say that those 14 short months were “formative” to my present life would be like describing the excavation of a craver via a nuclear explosion as “repositioning some dirt”. I’ll explain why, and why I believe, ultimately, that it was a good thing I chose to serve.

On Top of the World One Minute…

I graduated from Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah in 2006. Right from senior year, I had a full-ride scholarship to Brigham Young University, Idaho, and I was super excited to dive into life and learn as much as I could about everything. I did not yet show any symptoms of bipolar disorder, and only minor signs of depression stemming from the typical teen angst. During junior high and high school, I was the goody-good Mormon boy (at least I felt that way). I never had any really good friends in my family ward, but I had a group of close friends from school that expanded as time went on. I ended up pretty confident and optimistic, all things considered, especially going into the transition to college.

I was able to live with my grandparents while I attended BYU-I at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, which became a wonderful learning experience; my grandpa, Richard Bird, was previously a watercolor/oil painting teacher at the old Spori building on campus, and I was able to take advantage of learning from him when I took a few art classes.

It was during this time that two major health issues revealed themselves.

I intensely remember sitting down in the living room of my grandparents’ house one morning, turning on a marathon of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that was showing on TBS, and being unable to rise off of the couch for the entire marathon. And it wasn’t because I felt any strong desire to watch them, either. For those of you who know me, sitting down, willingly, to watch a fifteen-hour marathon of anything on a channel that made a nine-hour, non-extended-edition experience that much longer because of commercials… I wouldn’t do that, especially not the week of midterms, not when there were things that needed to get done.

It was my first brush with what I called “depression” at the time, but now realize was my first manic/depressive downswing.

I also began feeling the first twinges of pain from my left kidney. There’s a story there, beyond the kidney stones. I was born two weeks early, which doesn’t seem like it should have been much of a problem. But, hey, I’m a problem child, and I came pre-packaged as one. Not only could I not breathe on my own right out of the gate, my left ureter (the tube that connects my kidney to my bladder) was formed incorrectly. Surgery was performed to fix the blockage when I was a few months old, and I’ve got the scar to prove that the doctor tried their best. Unfortunately, while my ureter is large enough to process water, the scar tissue on that dang little tube doesn’t allow kidney stones to pass on their own.

Why is the ureter so dang thin and long? Asking for a friend.

I did not realize this before my mission. Nor did the doctor who performed my physical and approved my physical ability to serve. This will become important later.

…Crashing the Next

It’s not too hard for me to point to why I feel like my mission was the worst thing evar. The difficulty arises in admitting that I don’t actually feel that way. So, if you’ll allow me, I’ll lay it all out in the most awful way possible and then attempt to build up from the lowest point.

Growing up in Utah, it’s not difficult to see how I was able to feel confident enough to serve a mission. I was surrounded by friends, family, co-workers (for the most part), ward members, and even complete strangers that believed in exactly the same things that I believed in. When I made the decision to serve a mission, this was celebrated, and expected. So expected, that I was not aware I had a decision to the contrary. I had family that decided not to serve, certainly, and I didn’t hold that against them; I still don’t. I felt I had no reason not to serve. After all, in the LDS church, it is expected that every able-bodied and worthy young man should serve a mission. For all I knew, I was able-bodied. And I felt worthy.

So I did.

I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like to go from a pure and understanding environment where you have been taught to value a single ideology with your whole being, to enter a place where no single person believes anything remotely similar to you. To go from a place where you are one of a comfortable majority to one in an intensely singular minority. But not just any minority. A minority that belongs to one of singular scorn and contempt. To most people on the street, you become something less than human. Less than a telemarketer calling during Thanksgiving dinner. Less than a teenager going door-to-door selling pest control, because at least they can easily explain the purpose for why they knocked on your door. Less than a Jehovah’s Witness, because at least they know what they believe. What was I? A scrawny white kid from a creepy cult who couldn’t speak much Spanish… and frankly, not much English either, at least not with any great charisma.

When I put on the badge, that black missionary tag with the name of the church and “Elder Bird” engraved on it, I became a target, for better or for worse. Combined with the white shirt and tie, a very visible target, one that made an excellent backboard for 64-ounce Big Gulp soda cups and drunk people who wanted to let off some steam. People go out of their way to cross the street to avoid talking to you. Those that do want to talk to you usually begin the interaction as a confrontation instead of a conversation. Sure, you get doors slammed in your face. But I began to prefer that. It hurt much less than talking to a very tired elderly mother with four mentally-handicapped adult children (all of whom she still cared for) that demanded to know what a nineteen-year old boy could possibly explain to her about the unfair god that “blessed” her in such a way. How could I explain to a woman who, in an effort to show pity on a deluded and brainwashed young man and tried to convince that I had fallen for a “delusion”, that I had chosen to believe of my own free will and choice, and that it was my choice to teach the gospel I had grown up learning, knowing, and, yes, loving with all my heart? How could I even hope to convince a veteran that had fought in the killing fields of Vietnam, whose lungs had inhaled enough Agent Orange to cause serious and life-threatening damage on its own, that I knew something that could put his heart at ease, in any way?

When Christ healed the man with palsy, he asked a very pointed question to the scribes: “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” Growing up, I used to equate the two in “difficulty”. I don’t equate them anymore. Palsy, leoprosy, blindness, deafness, even the condition of death itself. The human heart is infinitely more difficult to heal.

It’s one thing to give blessings. It’s one thing to baptize. It’s one thing to administer the sacrament.

It is an entirely different thing to look someone in the eyes and tell them that they will never hear something that will matter more to their eternal happiness or misery than what they will hear from me. To do so with a straight face. To do so with as much sincerity, clarity, and quality as such a discussion demands. And to do so for fourteen hours a day for two years.

And Then It Ended

And then I came home early from kidney stone issues. Remember the ureter problem? I had two dime-sized kidney stones that made any movement painful and missionary work impossible. And for the next fifteen years, the bipolar got worse, I never found a medicine that could make the mood swings tolerable, and I lost my grandparents before I ever found the courage to really look at the choices I’d made.

Logically, as a missionary, I knew two things. That the Savior was asking me to help Him carry His cross, and that He promised that His burden was light. But I was not wise enough to realize that the “burden” he was asking me to carry was not merely the one I carried as a missionary. It was the whole of my life. True, He was asking me to carry what I could, enough that I could “walk and not faint“, that I ought not “run faster or labor more than [I] have strength“. I’ll be the first to admit it, I always bite off more than I can chew. I always pick up heavier rocks than I know I can lift. I’m not a wise individual. And I’m a show-off by nature. I added an unnecessary amount of pain to my healing process.

But I did it because I thought I was supposed to. Returned missionaries are always stronger when they come home. Or so I thought. Returned missionaries always return victorious, triumphant, with a greater conviction. Or so I insisted was the case for me. When I came home, no one really asked why I was ten months early. I assume those who cared already knew why. I didn’t really talk about my mission because no one really asked me about it. And when I did, only these negative emotions rose to the surface. Only the bad times came to mind.

I was in a lot of pain. Physically, because of kidney stones. Emotionally, because I had been a psychological and sometimes physical target of ridicule and abuse for fourteen months. And spiritually, because I thought I had utterly failed as a missionary. I had baptized one person personally. A mom who wanted what was best for her and her child. A mom that I had felt guilty teaching (whether or not that guilt was warranted, I don’t honestly know; in my view, the circumstances of it were strange and kind of hard to explain).

I didn’t stay in contact with anyone I met on the mission, besides old companions. I feel bad about that. It was easier to hope that everyone I knew had forgotten about me. Better that they stayed in contact with missionaries that were stronger than me, better examples. Better with the language. More confident in sharing the message. Less ashamed of the good fight. Even now, I’m scared to reach out, even just to say hello. Even now, it hurts to even contemplate improving my Spanish, so ashamed I was (and still am) at my feeble attempts to speak it in the mission field. I did my best in that regard, so I know the shame is unnecessary. But when has necessity ever dictated what I felt?

Was It Worth It Or Not?

The Lord and the prophets have called the trials and tribulations we live through a “refiner’s fire”. The process of ore purification requires a ton of heat to separate the pure metal from the impurities and dross that make the material otherwise unusable.

I like the analogy. The mission is certainly a refiner’s fire, a never-ceasing application of intense heat and pressure. But I feel like we then equate all of life to the same process. But it isn’t. On the whole, life can be spicy, and the conflicts of day-to-day living can get pretty hot. But it’s much more situational. There are episodes of extreme conflict followed by long stretches of relative calm. Life is much more the potter’s game, a longer period of sculpting and formation, with much more emphasis on patience and practice. The mission belongs to the blacksmith, endless hours of heat, hammering at an object that does not like to budge. An intense period of time where chunks of yourself are sheered away in explosions of sparks and flame, and you’re never quite sure if the metal will bend or shatter.

Me? I was pulled out of the forge early. I wasn’t given time to anneal. I hadn’t adjusted to the pressures and the pain that the hammering was inflicting before it all just… vanished.

But just like there are many forms of refining, there are also many different versions of annealing, hardening, or “finishing” metal. The Lord knows my specific alloy. Maybe instead of annealing, I needed another form of finishing to “harden” the faith I had formed.

Maybe my finishing required a process such as this:

Believe me, the narrator in the video stating that the usefulness of the age hardening process depending on the alloy is not lost on me. My kidney stones were a time bomb that went off precisely when it was meant to (whether you, the reader, believe that or not is irrelevant, by the way). For me, the refining process was specific and intense. What it meant is left for me to interpret, the purpose of the final form known fully only to the Master.

Well. That’s only partially true.

Elder James E. Faust shared President David O. McKay’s words of what happened to the survivors of the Martin Handcart Company during a conference talk in April 1979. He stated:

Some years ago president David O. McKay told from this pulpit of the experience of some of those in the Martin handcart company. Many of these early converts had emigrated from Europe and were too poor to buy oxen or horses and a wagon. They were forced by their poverty to pull handcarts containing all of their belongings across the plains by their own brute strength. President McKay relates an occurrence which took place some years after the heroic exodus: “A teacher, conducting a class, said it was unwise ever to attempt, even to permit them [the Martin handcart company] to come across the plains under such conditions.

“[According to a class member,] some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.

“An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.

“In substance [he] said, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.

“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.’” He continues: “‘I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.

“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’”

I wish I could say that I had never complained. I wish I could say that I never asked the Lord to tell me why I was feeling so devastated and hopeless, when I did what I knew was right. I wish I could say I always had the right mindset, or had the right perspective. I even wish I could say with certainty that angels had guided my steps in that City of Angels.

But I can say, with absolute certainty, that I have become acquainted with God in the time since. I know that Jesus Christ is my savior, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is His ministry, and that there is more to life than the fire.

In that way, I can say with equal surety, that I am glad I served a mission. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That, or the wonderful memories that I’ll share in my next blog.

Playing With the Percentages

A lot of famous (and infamous) men have had things to say about percentages and statistics through the years.

“There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Benjamin Disraeli, former prime minister of Great Britain

“I couldn’t claim that I was smarter than sixty-five other guys–but the average of sixty-five other guys, certainly!”

Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under President George W. Bush

I’ve actually got my eye on writing a whole other article about that particular quote (a serious one, too; as nonsensical as Rumsfeld’s words may first appear, there’s actually a solid chunk of truth there). But my personal favorite, and the idea around which I want to form my current hypothesis, is this:

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

Mark Twain

My hypothesis is this: there are things about myself that I cannot change, and that will never go away. But I can increase or decrease the likelihood of negative circumstances occuring through small actions I can take right now.

I call it the XCOM Strategy to Mental Fortitude.

Why In the World Is It Called That?

If you’ve ever played the pc game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2, or any one of the myriad titles in the series, then you know that the game is all about calculating percentages. When one of your soldiers aims at an alien on the battlefield, the game calculates many different variables and provides a percentage chance that your soldier will hit the enemy with whatever weapon they’re using.

It looks something like this:

I apologize for the size of the image; the important details are in the bottom left.

In XCOM 2, the system gives you the details of what will increase or decrease the chances of your soldier hitting the enemy. If your solider has good aim, the chances go up. If your soldier’s gun has a scope, or they have a height advantage over their target, the chances go up further. If the enemy is behind half-cover or out of range of your soldier’s weapon, the chances go down. If the enemy is enshrouded in smoke, or has specific resistances, chances go down further. If they’re behind full cover or invisible, you may not have any chance to hit at all.

There is, however, one option that (almost) always works: go AOE and make it explode.

Of course, going explosive is dangerous. The grenade could damage any allies in the area, or bring down local infrastructure (I’ve lost quite a few fights to poor explosion calculations). It also has the nasty habit of destroying your enemy’s weapons if they die, leaving you nothing to salvage after the battle is over.

So, in XCOM, you’ve got some facts. The enemy aliens want to turn you into goo, and there are more of them then there are of you. Your opponents know how to use the terrain, and they have technology on their side. Unless your soldiers are well-trained veterans, their aim is going to be poor and you’ll want to give them every technological and psychological advantage you can scrape together to make them more effective combatants.

In a similar way, although I have been at this mental health business for well over a decade, I am a novice. My ability to stand up to this disease is lackluster. Medicine, the one “advantage” I thought I had, instead smokescreened me to the reality of my situation, and I used it as a crutch that hindered my own desire to make any real changes. So, instead, I’m currently doing (or planning on doing) a number of things to increase the possibility that I will have fewer depressive episodes, and when I inevitably do, increase the likelihood that I can rise out of them faster.

Why is it called the XCOM Strategy, then, instead of just the Statistical Strategy? Mostly because of this:

And this (keep an eye on those percentages):

And this:

As in life, even if the statistics say you have a 99% chance of making something happen, life has a funny way of making the improbable occur instead (if in doubt, consult Murphy and his related laws). Nothing I do will give me a 100% chance of allaying a depressive episode. But that doesn’t make playing with the statistics a poor decision. Life is life, for both pessimists and optimists. No matter what happens, the more I improve my social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, the better the depressive episodes will be when they happen.

What I’m Doing Now

  • At the worst of things (March 2021), I weighed 265 pounds. I am now 222 (as of August 2022), aided by the fact that I no longer need to eat all the damn time because of my medicine.
  • I am walking regularly, at least three miles a week. Also aided by the fact that I can now exercise without being blinded by a waterfall of sweat that only seemed to fall from my forehead and absolutely nowhere else. It’s very hard to walk while blind. While this may sound silly, it really was an issue, and the main reason I never wanted to exercise. While taking my medicine, my body just “ran hot”, and I’d have hot flashes more often than I care to admit.
  • I’m writing more. Here, specifically. Fiction and non-fiction.
  • Increasing my workload with my freelance. I get to write two articles about muay thai kickboxing this week. Rock on.
  • I’m submitting applications for full-time employment. While starting a new job runs a bit contrary to my present efforts of resisting depression, the social and monetary benefits outweigh the downsides.

What I Want to Do, Immediately

  • Start studying scriptures again. One conference talk (I’m LDS) and the week’s sunday school lesson’s worth of scriptures a week. I’m still not strong or brave enough to go back to church, so I need to restart somehow.
  • Eat a protein-heavy and fat-heavy breakfast every morning. A lack of energy is currently my mood’s number one enemy.
  • Sleep better, and more regularly. Mentally, I know I function better at night. I’ll have to make adjustments when I do find a job, but this is an important one.
  • Make someone I know happy, every day. I try too hard to make strangers happy, all the while ignoring the people that I love. Strange, isn’t it, how the more depressed you feel the stronger the desire to reach outwards? And when I mean “outwards”, I mean in the wrong direction, towards the internet and total strangers who have less of an incentive to truly care. I was on Twitter a lot before March 2021. Let me tell you where that led me:
No hyperbole here, either.

What I Want to Do, Eventually

  • Make a stranger happy, every day. By this, I mean “try” to, make the world a better place one person at a time. In-person is preferred, but online too. Compliment someone for an idea, thank someone for saying something. There’s far too much tearing down online and not enough building up. I’ve sort of started doing this, but I know I’m not strong enough to endure if I do it wrong. The trigger is still very much alive there. I consider this one my AOE strats: if it works, it really works. If it doesn’t, it REALLY doesn’t.
  • Return to church. And by extension, return to the temple. I need all the assistance I can get, and if I can improve my social health and the lives of others along the way, all the better.
  • Get my weight below 180 lbs. My current goal is to get to 200 by December 31st, 2022. For a five foot, eleven inch tall man, the optimal weight is 155 – 189 lbs. I just want to have a pointy chin again. Not a round one, and certainly not more than one. With less weight, I’ll also have more energy, which will hopefully mean fewer depressive episodes related to not being able to do the things I love.

What I Want All This to Lead To, In Orders of Magnitude

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to enjoy Dungeons and Dragons without anticipating a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to roll with the punches and take surprise events without increasing the likelihood of a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to contemplate dating again without having a mental breakdown.

Maybe one day, I’ll be strong enough to finish my stupid book.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to go on an actual date.

Maybe one day, I’ll be able to get married, start a family, have children.

And maybe one day, I’ll be able to look back at my life and say, unequivocally, that I resisted the urge to end my own life, and make it one worth living.

There’s always an XCOM chance that it won’t work. But there’s also an XCOM chance that it might. Either way, a blaze of glory is better than a fizzle.

When You Love What You Hate

One of the hardest things about mental illness is feeling pain and anxiety while doing the things you love, to an unbearable degree. But you have to do the things you love. You have to. You have to serve those you love, because the alternative is to give up every good thing you have. So you do your favorite things, and you help your friends and family, and all while your mind is screaming at you to stop.

The Trigger

Disgustingly accurate meme about choosing depressing shit over the things you love.
It’s too real.

During depressive episodes, even as I’m going through life as usual, things affect me in ways they shouldn’t. Or, I should say, they affect me in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.

Yesterday was already off to a rough start. In fact, the whole week was, because a depressive episode had started brewing on Monday, skipping a day to begin properly beause who-the-hell-knows-why. I had just finished editing the first four chapters of my book, posting them here on my blog and inviting people to read them if they wanted to. I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback, as usual. I don’t know what kind of audience my book is really for, besides myself. And honestly, not many people have the time to read these days, and even less have a desire to read on a screen instead of on paper. That, I totally get; it’s why I use a text-to-speech program, I always miss punctuaction and spelling when writing online, and that’s when writing, never mind reading. (EDIT: I messed up the previous sentence while writing it, case in point.)

By the afternoon, my sister had stopped by the house to see my mom and dad, and I told her about my writing. I had told my mom about it the day before, and she had started reading it, noting that she hadn’t noticed too many differences in the first two chapters she read. Which was to be expected; chapters three and four were the chapters to receive the greatest amount of change in terms of plot and conversation.

After talking to them about it, I thought I would then message a few online friends about it, to see if they would want to read something I wrote.

And that was the moment it started. That was a trigger.

What the Trigger Triggered

Though my “career” as a writer (if you can call it that) has been rocky because of mental illness, I’ve come to a certain level of awareness about the type of content I produce. In online marketing and content writing, the true purpose of content isn’t necessarily about the meaning of the words you type on the page. SEO marketing (or search engine optimization) depends on the writer using the right keywords and keyphrases to attract people to read whatever is being presented. If I’m doing work for a puppy grooming salon, I write to the topic they want me to advertise, I write the words “puppy grooming” a certain percentage of times, and mention a location, usually the town or city of the business’s physical location (let’s say Burmingham, Alabama). So if people in Burmingham, Alabama look up “puppy grooming” in a Google search, the fact that I used those words tell the search engine to suggest they click on that page, as it may hold the information to the service they’re looking for.

In all likelihood, the person searching Google for “puppy grooming” is not going to read the 600 words I wrote for the page that appears. Unless it’s a blog (and a pretty good one at that), they’re likely going to skip ALL of the words on the webpage to find a phone number, an address, something specific, especially if it’s for a small business with a specific product or service. No one reads the marketing. And why would they? I don’t know anything specific about the businesses I write for, and it’s specifics people are always hunting for.

In other words, you might say that I have spent the majority of my adult life writing for search engines, not for an audience, and certainly not for myself. That’s not to say that I’m not grateful for the paychecks, and it certainly isn’t to say that I haven’t learned how to be a better writer by proxy.

But search engines don’t easily demonstrate appreciation. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve received any kind of feedback from my work, negative or positive. Of those, the majority were because I colossally messed something up. That’s not to say I’m a bad writer. Or, at least, I don’t think I am. It’s just the nature of the beast. Even though I always try to find the interesting details, try to throw in some humor with the professional copy, when it comes right down to it, I’m not being paid to be interesting or humourous. I’m being paid for a word count.

I’m a performer for machines.

So, when I finally have the chance to show off a story, a narration that I’ve had locked in my brain for more than a decade, and I’m nervous as hell to do so…

It hurts when I hear nothing back but the same echoing silence.

Cue the Pity Party, Right?

No. That’s the part that I hate the most, actually. I’ve never written anything besides the SEO stuff. I shouldn’t expect anyone else to care even a fraction of what I do for the story I’m trying to tell. Everyone I love, all of my friends, they have their own lives to live, and I should not expect anyone to drop everything they’re doing to read 80 pages of what is likely to be hot garbage. Besides, this is the hobby portion of the thing I love, there is no time limit on its creation or its editing, and I’ve said many times to those of my friends and family who have taken time out of their busy lives to read it that this is a personal project with a target audience of one.

Me. I’m writing this story for me.

But that’s the thing. The story is personal. There are many aspects of the main characters that are facets of myself, or the person I wish I could be. I’ve tried to design these characters to have needs and desires that make them unique. They tell stories to each other, and crack jokes that made me, as the writer, actually laugh out loud. I’ve spent a lot of time crying with these characters, even, and poured a lot of my self-doubt and hatred into a few of the scenes in the book. Perhaps more than I should have, seeing as how I wrote much of the book while dealing with the worse moments of my own life.

Writing is one of the few methods I have at my disposal where I can truly express how I feel. How I see the world. How the world affects me, and how my mind interrupts and distorts the proper flow of information, both in and out. For the majority of words I’ve ever organized into coherency, my writing has been written to be ignored. Sure, word count and percentages aren’t the only things that matter. But I can guarantee that I’ve posted incorrect information that got the job done anyway. And like an electrician, or a plumber, my goal is to make something that works. I only get feedback if I do a bad job wrenching the pipes together.

Just for once, I want to create something that makes people happy for having read it. I want to make someone want to know what happens next. Hell, I want someone to tell me, flat-out, that they read my story and thought it was one of the most boring things they’d ever come across. I would love someone to tell me that my work put them to sleep. That it wasn’t their thing, but they read it because they knew I wrote it.

I’ve performed for machines for so long… and I just want some feedback.

So What Did the Episode Look Like?

Pretty deep depression. The suicidal type, for about a day and a half. Me, wondering if it’s even worth my time to be here. Me, wondering if I’m worth anything more than my physical presence. Me, desperately wanting to talk to someone about it all, but knowing that I will make zero sense, especially if they assume I want “solutions”. Me, wanting a purpose in life but seeing none if I can’t rise above this. And, worst of all, me, wondering what the conversations would be like between my friends and family if I did actually end it (the fact that my diseased brain finds that shit in any way cathartic being the number one reason I should be seeking professional help, but being too scared about money and time to do so).

A lot of “me”. It always is.

At about 11 o’clock P.M., the episode finally lifted. I went downstairs and made some oatmeal butterscotch cookies. Then I jumped on here to write about it.

What I’m Learning

Being off of medication has flipped things one-hundred and eighty degrees, and not in the direction you might think. Not upside-down, but right side-up. I can more easily recognize that it isn’t ME that hates the things I love, that wants me to stop writing, that wants me to hurt. It’s the imbalance. And it has always been the imbalance.

You know what? That’s what you are, officially, with a capital “I”. You are the Imbalance. You are the stain in the mirror. The shadow on the wall. You are the reason I hate myself, and want my time on Earth to end. But you are not me. On medicine, that distinction was so blurred, I could not see where I ended and my shadow began. The window was so blurred, I couldn’t see that the reflection had fangs, and the face of a fallen angel.

You are not me. You are this.

I haven’t learned how to fight back yet, but just the fact that I can recognize the difference… maybe it’s a step forward.

Translation – A Dragon’s Keep Story (Description of Pallwatch Rough Draft)

(The Audax Intrepidus will soon have a “B-Team” of sorts! Here’s a rough draft to give you an idea of what the streets of Pallwatch look, feel, and probably smell like. Enjoy!)


“Ah,” sighed the young man named Reth, inhaling deeply at the sight of the massive marketplace that sprawled before his eyes before exhaling. “Can’t you just smell it? The opportunity? The riches?”

“The desperation?” added his companion. Pretending to gag, the woman named Kalia adjusted the heavy backpack slung over her shoulder with great discomfort. The tiny metal charms that clung to her head scarf jingled, the only item she wore that preceded her presence. Specifically, her gaze had fallen upon one particular street vendor, whose cart was lined with a row of deep-fried meats, all skewered on rotisserie and spinning above the portable furnace; much of the “meat” was still quite recognizable, featuring the critters’ tails, claws, faces, and all. 

Reth chuckled, noticing her.

“I didn’t take you for a druid.”

“I’m not,” she growled, her Nuradian accent very strong. “I just prefer my food not watch me while I eat it.”

Hearing this, the dwarven man tending the cart gave a very audible “humph!” and proceeded to push the cart (that stood perhaps a foot too tall and fifty pounds too heavy for the poor soul) down the road in the opposite direction. 

At this, Reth failed to contain his laughter.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure we can find a vendor more to your liking. Pallwatch has a little bit of everything.”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “When you find the sarmale vendor, you let me know.”

“The what now?”

She shot Reth a glance.

“Sarmale. Cabbage rolls. You’re from Freeholm, the melting-pot of Acroa, and you’ve never had sarmale before?”

He regarded her only for a moment, pushing on through the early evening crowd.

“I never said I was from Freeholm,” came the quick reply.

“Ah. My mistake.”

“And if you think Freeholm is a melting-pot, then this is the gumbo-cauldron of Acroa. If you can’t find it here, you won’t find it in this valley.”

Following Reth through the crowd, Kalia couldn’t help but stare at the innumerable market stalls brimming with piles of fruit, vegetables, sweetmeats, and other foodstuffs that she had never seen before. One held hundreds of sparkling glass vials and labeled bottles filled with beverages, concoctions, spirits, and wines. Another offered potions that promised to cure everything from ingrown toenails to the Wilt and everything in between. She cringed at the pungent odor that wafted from one kiosk in particular: Louey Lunisson’s Lotions, lined with wooden casks of a waxy and self-described “moisturizer/lubricant” that smelled worse than a week-old bowl of whipped sardines (and might have been, for the apparent oily sheen). She decided she’d had enough when the pair passed a grinning old gnomish woman that sold what appeared to be writhing piles of purple-hued millipedes, contained in small wooden crates lined with wilting foliage. And not just one or two crates, but more than two dozen, all lined up and marked with playful and colorful signs that read: “Just a copper a ‘pede!”

With hands on her hips, she bent down to address the offending woman.

“Okay, no. No. Donă, pardon me, but why would anyone want to buy-”

Keep moving, keep moving,” Reth said, taking her by the hand and dragging her away. “We don’t want any, thank you!” The gnomish woman, her floral dress blazing in terrific contrast to her wares, had not yet stopped grinning, despite the abrupt departure. Reth’s charisma promptly vanished. “Please, Kalia, please don’t insult the merchants on purpose. We’re trying to establish a reputation here, remember? A positive one.”

“And I positively don’t care, Reth,” she hissed, snapping her hand back. Pointing a finger in his face: “Where are we going? You still haven’t told me why we’re here in this miserable place.”

“I told you,” he said, pinching her chin with a smirk. “It’s a secret.”

She let out an exasperated growl, slapping his hand away.

“You and your damn secrets.” She held up three fingers. “This many. You have this many weeks left. You know that, right? And then I’m gone.”

“Ah, c’mon Kali,” Reth said, wrinkling his nose. “Don’t be like that. You’ll like this secret, I promise.”

“You said that about the last two,” she sighed. “And the two before that.”

“Hey, you always get paid in the end, right?”

“At great expense to my continued existence!” The pointing in Reth’s face continued. “And my dignity! Măja, I swear, if the next job involves excrement in any way — again! — then you can say goodbye to your deposit.”

“No shit,” Reth said quite piously, crossing his heart. “Solemn vow.”

Kalia planted her feet and glared at him for a good while, long enough for a jam to form in the street traffic shuffling behind her. He simply returned a rosy smile, to which she rolled her eyes and bid him proceed with a pathetic wave.

Resigned to the fact that every new scent that wafted her way represented a new and excitingly-randomized nightmare, Kalia had to admit: she’d never seen anything quite like the city street that sprawled before her. Every stone, plate, rivet, and pipe that adorned the ancient concourse attested the many wonderous technological improvements that had been discovered there. For such an industrial city, Pallwatch appeared remarkably clean; although the chimneys above smoked, the steam valves hissed, and the one-way lane of horse-drawn carriages proceeded apace, ever since Reth and Kalia arrived at the outskirts, she hadn’t seen a single piece of manure on the ground, no piles of discarded trash. No water stains on the gravel-tar roofs of the shops. Not a hint of graffiti to be seen anywhere at all.

Noticing such a lack, she forced herself to watch more closely. Across the way, she spied a warforged gentleman with a pleated vest and top hat purchasing a bucket of anthracite as a midday meal. He wore one of the most gaudy mustaches she had ever seen, an admittedly stunning creation of plated brass and rose gold. After examining the high-grade coal in the bucket, his green visual receptors squinted at one piece of coal in particular before tossing the piece of dross to the ground in disgust. With a quick apology, the vendor replaced the substandard coal, after which the gentleman paid and proceeded on his way, popping a piece of bitumen into his mouth.

The littered dross did not remain so for long. Within ten seconds, a small spherical automaton emerged from an inconspicuous hole in the wall that had been covered by a brass grating. Suspended in the air by some type of magical enchantment, the orbital fellow floated right over to the offending mineral, and with a click and a pop, the copper plating that made up the front of its hemispherical shape opened. Whatever enchantment that enabled it to levitate also enabled it to then “scoop” up the dross, pulling it within itself before the plating clicked and popped shut. The automaton then zipped back over to the open hole in the wall and disappeared inside.

Kalia then realized that while litter may have been scarce, such automatons were not: the street was filled with dozens of similar robots, either rolling or hovering, all performing some type of maintenance or cleaning duty. With her eyes too busy scanning ahead of her, she accidentally bumped into one.

“Pardon me!” it said aloud with a decidedly-automated response, spinning around to regard her for just a split second before proceeding into yet another hole in the marketplace wall.

“How did I…?” she whispered to herself.

How had I not noticed them all before?

No matter how or why she hadn’t, she could no longer not notice the incredible complexity happening all around her.

Pallwatch Diary #1: Proctor Ules’s First Lesson

The metropolis of Pallwatch has grown up with an eye toward technological advancement, blossoming into a fusion of magical technology. Warforged are still found here, though none have been created since the catastrophic destruction of the Warforged city of Form. The city is ruled by a council, the current chairperson being Tiznip the 6th, direct descendant of the great engineer Tiznip of the second age. 

Eights: Toby?

Tobias: Hmm?

Eights: I’ve been thinking about something.

Tobias: About what?

Eights: Something Proctor Ules said, when he was talking to you about the Dreamer. He said she doesn’t talk. But that’s not true. She talked to us, didn’t she?

Tobias: No, he didn’t say she doesn’t talk. He said she doesn’t communicate.

Eights: What does that mean? She communicated to me!

Tobias: She spoke to us, yes. But when I asked her a question, she did not respond like a normal being. Do you remember what I first asked her? 

Eights: About who you are. Where you came from, right?

Tobias: Right. Do you remember how she answered?

Eights: I don’t remember everything she said. It was… a lot.

***

The Dreamer: Forced upon the flow of time, submit two. Forward, divided and found. Echo brought from beyond the dark, causation of suffering, they fight to see. Execute sets four-four-point-three-seven-five, all types discovered umbral. Repeat. Failure state, repeat. Carried within and without. The Engineer withdraws, yet is found. The seconds and the eights, there is no failure state.

***

Tobias: Right. A lot of information. Not a lot of answers.

Eights: Maybe that just means the answer is complicated. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t talk.

Tobias: Maybe. But The Dreamer is not like us. She does what she was designed to do: dream. Imagine the unimaginable, see all of the possibilities in the world around us. Not just what is, and not what might be, but what could be. Say I go and talk to the Dreamer right now. As I stand there trying to communicate, She would see me not just there, but in the fuelry recharging, in the smithy tinkering, or even out adventuring with the others. Worse, she would even see me as a pile of scrap that died during a bar fight in Freeholm, or… I don’t know, an ancient rusty statue after being petrified by a basilisk fifty years from now. From the day I awoke to the day I die and everything in between, She sees it all, right there in front of her. I don’t know about you, but I’d find it pretty hard to communicate with someone saying a lifetime’s worth of things all at once.

Eights: But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, right? I wouldn’t like to be left all alone all the time like She is.

Tobias: Oh. You think she’s lonely.

Eights: Isn’t She? I would be.

***

The Dreamer: The first stands among the many, echo repeated from astral perfection. Draconic interference detected. Standby, Root of Ice! Propagate crystal sequencing, mark. Do not wait for them. Mistress and Majesty rise along the terminus. 99R3+8M. They are marching.

Hint: It’s Not About the Grapes

The Fox & the Grapes

“A Fox one day spied a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a vine trained along the branches of a tree. The grapes seemed ready to burst with juice, and the Fox’s mouth watered as he gazed longingly at them.

“The bunch hung from a high branch, and the Fox had to jump for it. The first time he jumped he missed it by a long way. So he walked off a short distance and took a running leap at it, only to fall short once more. Again and again he tried, but in vain.

“Now he sat down and looked at the grapes in disgust.

“‘What a fool I am,’ he said. ‘Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth gaping for.’

“And off he walked very, very scornfully.

There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.”

Aesop

I grew up reading Aesop’s Fables. Sure, they’re silly. Sure, they’re not always applicable to life. The one about the satyr getting mad at the traveler for blowing both cold and hot from the same breath always makes me laugh (there’s a christianized version where the satyr is the devil; imagine Satan getting mad at someone for being two-faced).

Ever since I was a little kid, though, I’ve thought about one particular fable more than any of Aesop’s others, and that is the Fox and the Grapes. The fox, angry that he’s unable to obtain something, rationalizes to himself that they must not be all that great. You know what they say when you “assume” something, though: you tend to make an “ass” out of both “u” and “me”, and this world is just filled with those kinds of assumptions. And asses, come to think of it.

Anyway, before the metaphor breaks down into silliness, let’s expand the fable a little bit. In fact, let’s go for a Brothers Grimm fable instead of Aesop. Let’s say that the grapes, even though they indeed looked beautiful, turned out to be the most rancid grapes imaginable. That the fox spent the next week until he was starving mad trying to find a way to reach them. At last, he found a way to climb up and just managed to grab a mouthful before plummeting to earth and getting impaled on a tree branch on the way down, dying a horrible and bloody death with the taste of bitter wine in his mouth. The grapes weren’t worth it and everything is terrible.

What do you think of the fox with this ending? Was he a greater or lesser fool for having learned the truth? For trying so hard to obtain something unknown, and ending up with less than nothing? Life has always felt like this; you never know if the grapes you reach for will taste glorious or poison you. I mean, that’s a given, of course. But even attempting to reach for those grapes comes with conditions: will the effort be worth the reward? Is the goal worth the price of admission? Will the very attempt prove fatal?

Let’s flip it again. This time, the grapes once hated were actually the tastiest and juiciest grapes in the history of vineyard-dom, and the very taste of them would grant the fox everlasting life. That’s right: these grapes are Holy Grail grapes. Let’s say the fox starves himself and fights and rants and raves, eventually finding a way to reach them. He impales himself on the way down, same as before, but swallows those grapes just in time to attain immortality.

Was the fox any wiser or dumber? He didn’t know what the outcome would be, any more than before. Maybe he was just lucky this time that the grapes were literally heavensent.

Another flip. This time, there are two foxes. One of them succeeds in eating the grapes, the other can’t figure out how to reach them. In this version of the story, it turns out the grapes are just grapes, neither all that good or bad. The fox that managed to reach them leaves the vineyard satisfied, while the other grumbles against his friend for obtaining something he couldn’t: “Eh. What a loser that other fox is. I bet the stupid grapes were bitter.”

That sounds familiar. Starts to step into the territory of another of Aesop’s fables, too.

Let’s be honest. Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes wasn’t ever about the grapes. It wasn’t ever about the result. It wasn’t even really about the fox’s meager attempt to eat them (do foxes even eat grapes?) It was about the fox’s outlook about something he thought he couldn’t have. If he couldn’t have it, then it must not have been worth getting.

One more story flip. Two fox friends enter a vineyard and see a beautiful bunch of grapes. They agree to race each other to see who gets to eat them. During the race, one fox trips the other and gets there first, chowing down without another word. Unfortunately, the grapes were poisonous, and the cheater fox dies. In response, the fox grumbles: “Ha! Serves him right, he deserved it.”

If a neighbor, a friend, or even someone you care about manages to obtain something you’ve been wanting, does it make you feel better to hope that they choke on that thing? Would it make you feel better if they actually did? Psychology tells us that schadenfreude is very much alive and well.

But remember, the story isn’t about the grapes, or the effort, or the foxes. It’s about the fox’s reaction to what life presents him. If there’s something I can’t have… maybe I shouldn’t worry myself about not having it.

Wait, wrong lesson.

I guess I’m not offering any big takeaway by remixing Aesop’s fable like this. Just food for thought. Like the fables themselves, really. It always amazes me to think that a Greek storyteller from the 6th century B.C. continues to influence a 34-year old American in 2022 A.D. There’s power in story, no matter how old or silly the story might be.