Reviving the Kanawha Nuka Cola Bottling Plant: A Fallout 76 Short Story

Forgot to post this when I made it!

I liked my Nuka-Cola Bottle Plant short story so much, I decided to try my hand at voice acting and narrated it on top of some gameplay from Fallout 76. I love listening to old radio shows, and the “holotape message” format is one of my favorite storytelling tools in video games. Also, I hope my “slight” southern drawl isn’t too terribly cringy to listen to.

If there’s anything that Bethesda knows how to do, it’s environmental storytelling, and I absolutely adore that aspect of playing Fallout. I wrote the short story before the Wastelander update came out in 2020, and I was thrilled to discover that the events of the update led you here, to the Nuka-Cola bottling plant. It’s in that rusty and delipidated factory that the player helps the overseer of Vault 76 create a vaccine for the Scorched plague, a monumental accomplishment that the Responders and all of the previous inhabitants of Appalachia failed to accomplish before it wiped them out.

But how come a pair of vault dwellers can just waltz right into the Nuka-Cola plant and start up the machines up without weeks and weeks of heavy maintenance? Well, maybe the Responders got to the factory first, just a few years ago!

Of course, in my story, all of the ingredients in the tanks are used up, so there’s no way it can be canon. Oh well. At least it was fun to create!


Alyssum: Voices of the Shattered Sun – Revised Portion of Chapter One

I thought it might be fun to revise the first section of chapter one and get it out there to share. As with all things, I’m simply waiting for April 18th and my next doctor’s appointment. If I can get specific assistance with my ADHD, I’m going to be able to write so dang much I won’t be able to keep up with it. The fact that I’m already editing and writing without a specific medication speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the antidepressant/antipsychotic I’m currently taking. Vraylar has been amazing, if not for the jumpy legs and muscle spasms. A small price to pay for productivity!

Also, the creepy voices only Aeo can hear are incredibly fun to write. I can’t wait to tell the story of why they exist in the first place.

“Oy! Stupid boy. Wake up.”

A gruff tone, then a terrible force thrust itself into the boy’s stomach. His breath escaped, and he clenched inwards with a groan.

[Go away. Leave us alone. I don’t like pain. It’s unpleasant.]

“Oh no you don’t. Get out of bed. Now.” A collection of pinpricks slapped his shoulder, and his eyes snapped open. A broom. That meant Harthoon, his master, was standing over him, and Aeo knew better than to ignore him. “You’ve got chores to do, Snapper. Get to it. Don’t make me smack you with something heavier.”

The gears in Aeo’s mind slowly gained traction. He sat up in the dark, quick enough to convince his Antielli master that he wasn’t disobeying him.

“Uh… ay sir.”

He drifted out of utter drowsiness, side-to-side like a sailor out to sea. He couldn’t help it. Appropriate; despite the rudeness of the early wake-up call, it was like the boy’s mind swam in deep waters.

The voices had made him dream again.

In his distant thoughts, he was no longer in a village on Mount Falas. Instead, he stood upon a vast and barren valley of sand and rock, beneath a fierce noonday sun. He had seen the sunlight upon his skin. And its warmth had filled him, soothing and powerful. He didn’t know where the images came from. They certainly weren’t memories. Not his own, anyway. Life in the mountain village of Olvaren held no such promise of warmth. Olvaren was a place the sun shined brightly for perhaps a single month out of the year before disappearing behind months of deep fog and overcast skies. Sometimes he could convince himself that the valley of sand actually were his memories. Distant ones, ones that promised he’d ever been someone else. Someone other than a slave. But he knew they weren’t, and that he wasn’t. He could not recall anything beyond the sunlight.

Aeo rubbed his eyes. The closet was dark. He knew the sun had yet to rise, but there was little hope of further slumber. He stood from his small cot, but just as abruptly ran into something. The large muscular form of his master had not departed. Harthoon still towered over him, holding out a crooked broom with an impatient and disgusted scowl.

“Oh,” the boy whispered, taking the broom.

“Lazy Adian,” Harthoon replied. He took the boy by the scruff of his shirt and hauled him out of his sleeping spot in the closet. “Come on, go. Rooms, and then floors. Don’t you dare let me catch you nodding off.”

“Ay sir.”

The Gray Pale Inn smelled like cheap ale and sawdust that morning. Same as every morning, really. Along with something… else. Something awful. Oh, right: the fetid scent of an overfull stable. Even with the back door sealed shut, the stable’s reek poisoned the air just beyond the dining area. It was a horrible stench. Aeo didn’t know anything about horses, but he had little doubt that some of the old mares had contracted some kind of illness to smell so foul. Not that Harthoon cared; the patron had paid in advance for his whole team of five horses to be wedged into a meager space designed for three.

[The patron is an idiot. And your master as well. They’ll deserve each other when the poor beasts die. Such fragile creatures.]

Don’t say that about Harthoon, Aeo thought in response to one of the familiar Shattered voices in his head. What if he hears you?

[You’re a bigger fool if you think that oaf would ever listen to us. We would sooner address the dogs and the pigs.]

Aeo thought a question in his mind in response: Do you mean animals can hear you if they want?

The Shattered did not reply.

That’s what they called themselves, the Shattered. Or, at least, it was the word they most often repeated. They were talkative at times, sure. But they were rather picky about the words they whispered. Aeo never told Harthoon about them. Never tried to, never wanted to. His master, or anyone else. He had learned long ago not to speak to them out loud; they responded to his thoughts as he thought them. The Shattered never really faded from his mind. There were many of them. Some came and went, unfamiliar and fleeting. A few of them never departed, but none of these ever told him why.

Aeo would be cleaning the stable when the patron departed, and he would gratefully do it because then he could talk to the Shattered. Cleaning the stable was the only time he was ever free of the inn itself. Free to think, and free to dream. If he were careful, the clever boy could spend two hours doing an hour-long task, and he would have time to converse with the voices in his mind without interruption.

When Aeo was alone, he could pretend to reason with them. Ask them important questions. Like who he was, where he was born. Why they made him dream about the sun and sand every night. At the very least, he could try.

[You’re just as much a fool as your master. Wallow in the shit where you belong, slave.]

Aeo didn’t like that particular voice, though it haunted him often.

Every morning in the inn began by cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed during the night from the inn’s few luxury rooms. “Luxury” was a stretch; at least the sheets were regularly laundered. Though early traffic was rare, Harthoon insisted that the luxury rooms be available at all times, even at three in the morning. By the time Aeo prepared these rooms for new patrons, the vaguest crests of daylight would begin to rise from the horizon, and weary breakfast goers would begin to trudge through the inn’s front door in search of sustenance. Aeo would be expected to appear in the same instance, prepared to take orders while Harthoon attended the kitchen and bar. The merchants always said that Olvaren sat right in the middle of an important trade route. Aeo didn’t quite know what that meant, besides the fact that the inn filled itself with a regular crowd of its own accord. Day after night, stranger after stranger would walk through the door, becoming regulars. Tired travelers, irritable hunters, entire families, guildsman looking to get drunk… most of them trying to cross the mountain and leave Olvaren behind as quickly as possible.

“Hurry up, boy,” Harthoon would say, every hour on the hour. The old man always knew when Aeo had finished a chore, and was always there to goad him onto the next one. He made it common practice to catch the boy’s ear whenever he got within range. Sometimes a broomstick handle increased that range, or an ale flagon. Once, he had even thrown a clothing iron at the boy; it left quite the bruise.

Aeo hated it. He didn’t know why Harthoon liked to hurt him.

[Yes you do. But at least you know how to take a hit. Not many do.]

Harthoon was a wretched giant of a man. Six-and-a-half feet tall, and his owner of six years. A true son of the Republic of Antiell. Aeo couldn’t remember a father besides him, but he didn’t think the man deserved the title. In his opinion, Harthoon hardly deserved the bulging muscles and height that granted him his authority, much less the fame and high praises sung by his fellow guild hunters. Before owning the Grey Pale Inn, Harthoon had been a master hunter in Olvaren, and before that, he had served as a mercenary for the Antiellan army. The swords, pelts, and trophies that hung above the Grey Pale’s mantle had all been collected by him personally, including several sunborne banners from the Second Adian War.

Though Harthoon had left the hunt behind, the hunt hadn’t left him; he had simply changed his prey, and now Aeo was his daily target. Aeo would sooner have risked sneaking up on a starving bear than dare to catch Harthoon’s ire.

“No slacking, Snapper,” Harthoon would often say to him in passing, even when it was obvious Aeo was working. “That is, if you want to keep eating.”

And Aeo did, of course. Though Aeo was a full nine years old that winter, he was much shorter than the other Antielli children his age, and considerably more gaunt.

Aeo was always to blame for something. If the patrons were unhappy with their “luxury” accommodations, the boy would get an earful; he was the one who cleaned them. If a patron in the dining hall slipped or fell because of spilled beer or melted snow, the boy would be slapped; it was his fault the floors weren’t spotless and dry, no matter how much water the clouds above let fall. Everything bad was his responsibility. Even if it occurred while he served drinks, took orders, or washed linen. Or swept. Or dusted the furniture. Or cleaned the dishes, wiped down the tables and chairs, stored and sorted supplies, or performed any one of two dozen other daily duties.

And Goddess help him if he ever spilled food on the floor or tripped and spilled drinks.

“What an Adian vyshti,” Harthoon would jeer, often to the delight of the patrons.

What was a vyshti? Aeo didn’t know. Some old military slang Harthoon never cared to explain. Adopted from Adia, the nation of Aeo’s birth. His actual home. Supposedly. A place he would never remember, somewhere Harthoon would never let him forget. They would call Aeo “Red-Eye,” due to the crimson color of his irises. The dirtiest thing they could say about him, as well as the most obvious. Such an insult would often elicit laughter from the hunters in particular, and he had no idea why. He’d grown to hate the ruby color when looking at himself in mirrors. So much so that he started averting his gaze. It was worse than just the eyes, though. He hated his red hair as well, his bushy carrot-colored hair that made him stand out like a fiery carnival clown.

Antielli boys and girls enjoyed brown or blonde hair themselves, and he envied their green and blue and pale brown eyes. So plain and neat and normal. Why couldn’t he be like them?

[You’re a spectacle, boy. Take it personally. Take offense. Be weirder for it, I dare you.]

He ignored that advice.

After noon passed on, the boy would then sweep the inn’s kitchen and dining area, paying close attention beneath the tables and chairs. Then he would wipe down all those tables and chairs with filthy rags and dirty water. Scrub as he might, the inlaid stains and dirt never really went away. For all the years the Grey Pale’s furniture had served guests and patrons, the boy was certain he could have stopped cleaning them; they’d all been stained with enough alcohol to make them impervious to any further staining. By the time he’d finished these tasks, the lunch rush would begin, and Harthoon expected the boy to seat and serve every patron that entered the doors. Once the lunch rush died down, the boy’s next responsibility during the afternoon involved hauling cartons of fresh milk, cheese, fruit, and bread into the storeroom from its daily delivery. He had stolen a small bit of bread once, deciding to blame the rats. Unfortunately, Aeo was a terrible liar. Harthoon struck him with a frying pan, and he ended up with quite the bruise on his shoulder.

Perhaps the only thing the boy wasn’t allowed to do in the Grey Pale was any cooking. Once, Harthoon had allowed it. The resulting omelet had caught fire immediately, and the boy was promptly throttled for letting the smoke choke the upstairs guests.

At least once a week, when Harthoon would smack Aeo’s head or shout a harsh word at the boy, some new visitor to the inn would invariably pity Aeo’s position at the Gray Pale. Whenever this happened, if Harthoon were within earshot, he would make it a point to address the criticism: the boy was a dirty Adian scab that had no place in Olvaren. Not with polite society, not with other Antielli children, and certainly not as a free citizen. Not even free to wander outside the inn, as a matter of fact. There were other Adian slaves in Olvaren, owned by other retired hunters. But Aeo had never met them. He wasn’t allowed outside without a leash and Harthoon’s direct supervision. It’s why he enjoyed cleaning the stables so much, for the freedom of silence and solitude they offered. It was as close to the outside as he would ever get.

Harthoon may have been a brute. But he was decidedly more than just a mound of bitter muscle. He was also astoundingly two-faced. His vindictive nature to Aeo’s mere presence was matched only by the friendliness and charm he let exude in front of guests. Even Aeo could admit how convincing his heel-turn looked. As the social center of Olvaren, gossip and news came to the Grey Pale in droves, and Harthoon set himself as its apex, spreading the day’s rumors and slander like butter on bread when working the counter. The promiscuous escapades of some hunter and his mistress? The strange religion of some backwater merchant? The poor financial decisions of some poor sod he hardly knew? Few topics were off limits to him and those who let him bark. Always with the name-calling, too. He never called people by their real names, especially not Aeo. “Snapper,” he always called Aeo. “Useless Boy.” “Good-for-Nothing.” “Red-Eyed Bastard” was reserved for rare occasions. He had once deigned to explain to the boy what the word “bastard” meant. Considering he’d never met his parents, Aeo wasn’t positive that title applied to him.

[Bastard child of a bastard lineage. The incestuous union of two branches, long-burned.]

Aeo didn’t understand the voices most of the time. And since no one else seemed to hear the Shattered, he had no intention of telling anyone about them. No sense making himself seem more odd than he already was.

About one in the afternoon every single day, the woman of the house would usually show herself. Ariste was her name. Harthoon always called her ‘Good-for-Nothing,’ too. Thanks to him, the whole village knew about her. Her drinking problems, and her “sexual infidelities.” The ones Aeo almost certainly knew didn’t exist. How the respectable innkeeper put up with this poor excuse of a wife, no one in the village (except Aeo) knew.

Just as Harthoon kept Aeo on the hook for his supposed lax nature, he tormented the woman for her imperfections. Ariste provided little assistance in the day-to-day operations of the inn, rarely caring to place a mask of sobriety upon her visage if she could help it. Just like Aeo, Harthoon would slap her in public every once in a while. For forgetting to purchase firewood, for ignoring the dirty windowsills. Or even for just not being around enough. Despite the large gold ring on his finger, Harthoon didn’t treat Ariste well.

Yet Ariste never retaliated. She never yelled, or cried out when he hit her. She would simply slither down from upstairs, refill her wooden flagon with beer, and disappear back into the attic as quickly as she could. And though Aeo was swamped with work and worry… he didn’t blame her.

[Few are they that find it. The memory of belonging. Shards of glass, shattered as we.]

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Ariste would stumble upon the boy attempting to sleep in his cramped storage room. She would kneel on the ground before him, waking the boy with a start, and proceed to sob uncontrollably in the boy’s lap. Embracing him as she cried, her presence so soaked in alcohol, it would make Aeo drunk just by the smell of it. Three or four times that winter, it happened. The boy never knew how to react to this behavior. Never knew what to say. He knew Ariste hated Harthoon just as much as he did. She just never showed it in public. By the next morning, Ariste would resume her apathetic attitude towards the boy, as if she’d forgotten the moment ever occurred.

Besides those odd moments of mourning, Aeo didn’t speak to her. Though, to be fair, it was she that never spoke to him. If Harthoon was meant to be Aeo’s father, Ariste was just as much his mother.

[He’ll be like us one day. She’ll be like us one day. You’ll be like us, too.]

The pinnacle of Aeo’s long list of duties would begin as the sun fell behind the Falas Mountain every evening. The floors covered themselves nightly in slop and dirt as the crowds packed inside, and the long night of song and dance would give him a mighty nightly migraine. A flimsy mop served as a constant companion, and despite the raucous noise, the boy would often doze off with it in hand as an excuse in case he ever got caught. Sometimes Aeo would get dinner. More often, Harthoon would “forget” to cook him anything, busy as he was cooking for an entire village of patrons. Both during and after the dinner rush, so long as the orders continued to flow unabated, the boy was more of an afterthought. At times, Aeo would discover a raw potato or leek sitting upon his bed in the closet, and he would waste no time devouring the vegetable without a second thought.

Then, at ten o’clock, despite the maddening noises of accordions, fiddles, and screaming, Aeo would stumble clumsily into his closet to fall asleep. Without effort, he would drift into the Shattered dreams, his only escape from his life in the Grey Pale. Then the cycle would repeat, at three o’clock every morning, and he’d start it all over again. For so the pattern had been set in stone for the last year or so. Harthoon never let it vary.

Maybe my eyes are red because I don’t get enough sleep, Aeo thought to himself once. Maybe that’s why they think I’m lazy.

[The eyes of our bloody crusade beg to differ greatly.]

Harthoon never slept. Not when Aeo did, anyway. He ignored Aeo at night just to throw him out of bed every morning. What madness drove the man to such a level of productivity, the boy couldn’t fathom. Maybe he just ran on cruelty and coin. Maybe slapping the boy gave him strength. Maybe the rudeness towards his wife let him subsist, sleepless.

The idea of freedom had occurred to the boy at some moments. The idea of running away, running for Adia. But he couldn’t simply run to the nearest nation. All he knew was that the Antiell-Adia border was out there somewhere, far to the west. And if he ever managed to cross it, he could be free. Maybe if he did run away, if he escaped the Grey Pale at eleven or twelve o’clock at night, he could get as far as the highway or perhaps the next town before being noticed. But he had heard traders talk about the desolate nation of Adia as if it were weeks away, and the boy was certain he couldn’t hide for weeks and weeks without being discovered. There was no telling how many hunters from Olvaren would go hunting for him on Harthoon’s behalf. He could not imagine the punishment that would await him then.

The only way to escape slavery was up. Up the mountain, up through the canyons and forests and desolate wastes on the other side. There was another country behind the mountain, one of sand and wind. The Land of the Eternal Sun: the nation of Adia. His home. Maybe that’s why the Shattered showed him visions of the long desert, night after night. If he could find a way to climb over the barren side of the mountain without freezing to death, he could be free of Harthoon and the Grey Pale and Olvaren. He would never have to work in the filthy tavern again.

But he never dared to try. Not even once. The fear of being caught kept him caught. The cold frightened him too thoroughly. No Antielli trader would dare carry an Adian slave back to their hated enemy, so that wasn’t an option. He would never make money, certainly not enough to convince a random traveling scholar or mercenary to smuggle him away. Assuming Harthoon didn’t catch wind of any plan before it hatched, of course. He’d be beaten within an inch of his life if he tried.

No, there was no way. Maybe when he grew up, he could buy his freedom like other slaves. Or maybe he’d just live the rest of his life and die within the confines of the Grey Pale.

[You wouldn’t be first or last to fall in service to mediocrity.]

Alyssum: Voices of the Shattered Sun – Aeo’s First Class

This was one of the scenes I imagined first when coming up with the plot for my fantasy novel. Magic (or magick) in the world of Alyssum is pretty straightforward, as far as the etymology is concerned. You’ve got all your classics: thaumaturgy, abjuration, conjuration, and the like. But then you have individuals who are “shattered,” either psychologically or in arcane ways, that defy conventions in neuroatypical manners. Hearing voices is pretty commonplace for them, and the voices of such “Others” are rarely friendly, often blamed for the many misfortunes that have befallen the world since the Shattering (a worldwide cataclysm that left an arcane wound in the surface of the world hundreds of miles long, dozens of miles wide, and filled with darkness and terror from which no one has ever ventured and escaped).

For Aeo, his magick is bipolar, and even slightly schizophrenic. When the anger and obsession of mania comes along, triggered by negative memories, the normally-directionless voices in his head become decidedly murderous. And when sadness and depression appears, the voices become hopeless and despondent and want the world to go away. This changes the way he can influence his magick, often in contradictory ways that are probably not going to help him a whole lot during his adventure. For instance, he’ll soon find himself stuck alone in a terrible blizzard, and his sadness will warp his fire magic into useless ice, threatening his ability to survive.

Of course, he’ll (slowly) reason that making an igloo is a great way to not die during such circumstances. 😀

As an abused ex-slave, Aeo’s got a lot of baggage to unpack. Fortunately, he’ll learn to cope, and his friends will help him do just that. He’ll discover that there’s a reason he can hear the shattered voices, and it has a lot to do with where he came from and who he’s meant to become. That his differences are how the Goddess Tiathys intends for the young boy to save the world.

I want my novel’s Everspring Academy to be more than Hogwarts, and I want the survival aspect of the hero’s journey to be different than The Hunger Games or The Hobbit. Yeah, racial prejudice sucks, but I want to use it in a constructive way in a story, and demonstrate that even obviously-neuroatypical people can solve problems and be heroes. I’m excited to begin the challenge proper once my own mental health solidifies (and yes, even though my draft is ~175 pages now, I realize it’s totally just a start).

Nineteen energetic students and a single timid one entered the spacious open-air amphitheater, each quickly and quietly finding a seat before the center stage. Aeo’s physical senses met the combined sight and scent of a thousand rainbow-colored flowers growing in the meadow beyond. The bright sandstone walls of the semi-circle amphitheater appeared more temple than classroom, adorned as they were with gleaming weapons, thick armors and shields, and shiny arcane artifacts. The afternoon daylight streamed through the shade of green and blue hanging curtains as a delicate breeze made a series of wind chimes dance and sing some feet near the entrance.

Aeo paused, soaking in the view. This was his classroom? Aeo had heard of the concept of “school” before, certainly, though one did not exist in Falas Village. But he had no idea learning could be experienced in a such a luxurious place. It was a paradise, one he did not feel worthy to exist in. And this was the most basic magick course offered at the Academy. An Introduction to Energy, taught by one Elder Naal.

Leon had insisted he start simple, and Aeo had no desire to disappoint him. But besides the splendid classroom, the introductory course felt… off. Perhaps it was the fact that Aeo stood a foot taller than every other student around him, which was saying something for the scrawny four-foot-tall Adian boy. The oldest students gathering before him couldn’t have been older than six years of age, while a few of them were still babbling toddlers.

It was bad enough that the bright-white apprentice robes Leon forced him to wear were so awfully hot, itchy, and ill-fitting for the humid atmosphere of the Everspring. Now he had to endure a rigid schedule where everything was new and foreign and terrifying… and, apparently, appropriate for tiny, tiny children.

He scowled at his predicament, and at himself.

First day here, and you’re already years behind.

One by one, each student took a seat on comfortable pillows in the koilon before the half-circular stage. Aeo didn’t hesitate to sit as far back as he could, choosing a lone pillow in the corner of the amphitheater farthest from both the entrance and the stage. Harthoon (his former master) would probably have had a heart attack had he known the street value of the flamboyantly-embroidered pillow placed upon the amphitheater’s stone steps. But all of the other children had no qualms about leaping and landing upon the plush pillows with delight, so Aeo allowed himself to sit.

Aeo remained silent, watching the others congregate. He could easily differentiate between the Antielli boys and girls (with their short rounded ears, thick brown or ruddy-colored hair, and mostly hazel eyes) and the Ashanti boys and girls (with their signature long and pointed ears, wispy and delicately-hued hair, and their stunningly pale and reflective eyes). No other student had Aeo’s bright red irises and curly crimson hair. There were no Adians in this classroom besides him. And the children had very much noticed. Aeo could feel their obvious whispers floating around between cupped hands. A few blank stares met his own, and he felt his cheeks turn as red as his hair.

Aeo and the other children did not have to wait long for the teacher to appear. From the entrance came a mighty bellowing voice:

“Oy dear children! Welcome!”

Into the amphitheater strode a jolly and rotund fellow dressed in the flowing tan-and-green robes of an Academy instructor. Elder Naal, no doubt, an Antielli man himself. Adorned with a mighty white beard that descended from his lips like a bushy cloud, his hawkish eyes and balding crown of graying hair reminded Aeo of the cranky, ale-sodden scribes that had visited the tavern in Falas from time to time. Fortunately, there was little about this instructor’s demeanor that could compare to those ill-tempered Antielli monks.

“Take a seat, take a seat, get comfortable,” he declared, though everyone had already done so. “Today’s lesson is certainly one you’ve all been waiting for! No more note-taking, no more practice drills… that will come again later, of course. Today, it is time for the real thing!”

“Master Naal?” asked an eager young girl sitting up front. “Does that mean you’ll show us actual magick?”

“Better, my dear,” Master Edin’Rao Naal said, clapping his hands together as he stood before them. “Today, you will be showing me some magick instead!”

Eyes widened in joy and excited whispers rose. Aeo felt a pit form in his stomach.

“Now, now, everyone, contain yourselves,” Master Naal said, lowering hands to hush the children. “I know that some of you are already very skilled at simple focus magicks, while some of you still have yet to demonstrate the knack. This is okay! Today, no matter your level of skill or natural talent, you will all improve together!” He paused, perhaps a bit dramatically. “Now. The tools I’m about to show you can be dangerous. Lethal, in some cases. But powerful in the right hands, and perfect for practicing magick with the right supervision!”

Master Naal turned and moved to the table at the rear of the stage. From within a beautifully-adorned wooden box, he produced a pair of bright-red leather armbands. They were oddly beautiful, sturdy pieces of aged leather adorned with metal rivets, decorative steel ornaments, and silver buckles. In the very center of the wrist was an inlaid gemstone that shone with a delicate green light, not entirely unlike the crystalline lamps that lined the Academy’s hallways.

“These, children,” he said, lifting an armband in each hand. “Are enmap bracers. Does anyone know what enmap means?”

One Ashanti boy with incredibly pointy ears (even for an Ashanti) immediately lifted his hand.

“It means energy manip— uh, man— man-ee-pull-ay-shun.”

Master Naal gave the boy a deep bow.

“Very good, Jhote, very good pronunciation! Yes, enmap stands for ‘energy manipulation,’ the weaving of energy into magick. It is the crystallized aether of the bracer that does the heavy lifting, so to speak, allowing you to practice your forms without getting tired. For little ones such as yourselves, you’ll find that when you put these on, you’ll have no problem casting your very own magicks with very little effort! Would one of you like to come up and help me demonstrate what they can…? Oh, Jhote! Yes, come right up, my boy.”

The same Ashanti boy rose without even raising his hand, standing before Master Naal filled with excitement.

“Have you ever used an enmap bracer before?”

“Ay sir,” he said, his accent thick. “I practice with my brother in his class.”

“Very good! Then you’re probably a natural! Go ahead and hold out your arm for me, my boy.”

Dressed in smiliar robes as Aeo, Jhote rolled up his thick sleeve and held out his arm with a big grin on his face. With a flick of his hand, Master Naal released the bracer into the air, and it flew onto the boys arm in a flash. The three leather straps of the bracer all tightened simultaneously, though perhaps a bit too tightly for the boy’s immediate liking. It was too big, wrapping from the boy’s wrist to beyond his elbow and forcing the boy’s arm to straighten.

“Ha! Apologies, Jhote! You’ll get used to the tightness. It’s a necessity until you get used to the intensity of the magick. Your other arm, my boy, if you please.”

Jhote held out his other arm, and Master Naal performed the same trick as before; with a snap, the other enmap bracer wrapped onto the boy’s forearm, tightening and buckling on its own. The Ashanti boy looked at the oversized bracers on his arms in wonder.

“Comfortable?” Master Naal asked. “Good! Perfect! Now, as to their function. As Jhote said, ‘enmap’ is short for ‘energy manipulation.’ That’s what these bracers allow the user to do: manipulate the aether within the crystals and control the weave in simple focus magick. What is focus magick, everyone?”

Aeo had no idea. Several hands went up, and Master Naal pointed.

“Master?” called an Antielli girl in the middle of the classroom, her hair tied up in a tight bun. “It’s magick you have to concentrate on.”

“Yes, that’s right, Holda,” Naal said. “Yes! Concentration, and what else? What’s the second important part of focus magick?” He waved his finger as if pointing at the answer. “Remember, it’s there in the title itself.”

“Focus!” chimed several staggered voices.

“Yes, marvelous, that’s right! Magick requires concentration and focus, a vision of the effect you desire to create.” Master Naal pointed to the details of the bracers upon Jhote’s arms. “You see the wellspring crystals? Enmap bracers are an aetherically-charged focus that provides the power for the spells you wish to cast. There are few focus magicks that can’t be improved by practicing with enmap bracers. Unfortunately, they are rather… well, they’re rare. And expensive. So expensive, in fact, that this is the only pair the Academy allows the evocation college to use. So, if you please, take great care when using them!”

“Can I try them now, Master?” Jhote asked, already waving his hands about in a practiced stance. “I’m ready!”

“Of course, my boy! Today, I want you all to come up here, one at a time. Tell me what magick specialization is your favorite, and we’ll see if we can’t make the bracers produce what you imagine. Sound good?”

Cheer arose from the students. Master Naal then flicked his hand once more, and the bracer upon Jhote’s right arm suddenly unlatched and flew into the instructor’s hand.

“I’ll be wearing the other one, you see,” he explained, securing it manually to his own arm. “To keep everyone safe. No telling how much trouble you children could get into with both bracers! Regardless, I expect quite the show from just the one!”

The nervous whispers turned into enthusiastic chattering. Aeo did not add to it. He simply hid his hands in his lap and looked down at the floor.

Jhote began the presentation. Abjuration was his favorite field of magick, just like Leon’s. So Elder Naal urged the boy to imagine a bright light, as bright as the sun, and to imagine it appearing before him. The white-haired boy held out his hand, biting his tongue in concentration. The effect emerged in less than a second: a sphere of bright sapphire light slowly emerged within the palm of his hand, not entirely unlike the luspheres that floated above the refectory in the Great Hall. It hovered there for a moment before “sliding” out of his fingers, falling and fading away before the magick could hit the ground.

Jhote stared at Master Naal so thrilled, he was breathless.

“Fantastically done, Jhote! Very good! Can you feel the ease with which the energy flows through the bracer? Isn’t it brilliant? Who’s next?”

The next student was an Antielli girl with curly blonde hair in the front row. She went up while Master Naal removed all three buckles of the bracer from Jhote’s arm with a quick gesture. As the boy sat down, Master Naal magicked the bracer onto the girl’s forearm, and she wasted no time discussing what she had in mind. Her animis was liquid thaumaturgy, so Master Naal produced a small vial of water from the table on the stage. The girl must have practiced this skill many times before, as the water within the vial immediately leaped into the air and formed a small sphere, defying gravity above the palm of her hand. It then snaked around the bracer like a watery serpent, weaving itself in between her fingers before zipping right back into the vial with nary a drop wasted.

The pride beaming from her face was unmistakable.

“Brilliant, Bevelli! What fun! Aren’t these bracers amazing? Their power makes it feel as though all your practice has finally paid off. Next!”

One by one, each student in the class rose and took to the stage. Some created arcs of electricity between their fingers. Some illuminated the already brilliantly-lit classroom in blinding colorful flashes of light. One Ashanti boy (whose mother worked as one of the Academy’s chirurgeons) demonstrated healing magick, restoring the natural color to a small bruise on his own knee. Another transmuted a small glass marble into a cube shape, then into a pyramid, and then into a multi-pointed star. The student sitting right next to Aeo, a white-haired Ashanti girl whose hair draped lower than her waist, then took the stage and created a spectacular fireworks display, showering the entire front row in dazzling but harmless indigo sparks. She described it as an “emergency flare” magick that her parents had taught her in case she ever got lost.

With every demonstration, the other students cheered all the more. Even as Aeo became more and more sullen.

“Excellent, everyone! Excellent work,” Master Naal said at last. “You all have mastered your animi with such ease! With enough practice and focus, performing magick can one day become as simple as these bracers make it now!”

The whispers escalated, the students whispering to each other as they marveled at their experiences. And for the briefest moment, as Master Naal removed the bracer from the Ashanti girl’s arm, Aeo convinced himself that he’d been forgotten by everyone in the room. Master Naal even seemed to confirm it as he turned in place to return the bracers to their ornate container.

“And, at last, we come to our final student,” Master Naal announced without turning around. “Our brand new arrival from Antiell. Have you all introduced yourselves to Aeo yet?”

Every eye in the classroom then turned to look at Aeo. He turned as beetroot red as everything else about him. The boy without a last name. The Adian. The whispers became intense. Some of the other boys laughed. Three of them in particular, a trio of nearly-identical brown-haired Antielli boys, pointed at him and snickered. If Aeo had known the spell for turning invisible, he would have cast such an enchantment immediately. Unfortunately, bracers or not, the only magic he knew how to cast had murdered his slave-owning master; not that anyone knew that but himself. He refused to look at the stage or at anyone else, so he tried to stare at the sandstone wall beside him instead.

“Well, Aeo?” asked Master Naal. With reluctance, Aeo forced himself to look past everyone. Master Naal had returned to face the class, now wearing a peculiar pair of thin black gloves in combination with a single enmap bracer. “Would you care to come practice what you’ve learned?”

Aeo didn’t respond right away, sinking further into his seat. The laughter at his expense increased. What a shame… a ten-year-old redhead, scared of a bunch of six-year-olds. Of course, he couldn’t simply ignore everyone. Aeo felt his body lift from his seated position, and he found himself stepping to the front of the sandstone amphitheater. His knees wobbled as he climbed the stage steps and his bottom lip was already trembling. There was no way he could remember the stance or the incantations Leon had taught him. No way at all.

“Very good, my boy,” Master Naal said cheerfully (or obliviously), clapping a great hand on Aeo’s shoulder. Aeo nearly crumpled from the gesture, and giggling rose from the Antielli girls in the front row at the sight of it. “Now, as Master Sirelu advised me, you have quite the animis for fire thaumaturgy, is that right?”

Aeo nodded in the slightest way possible, his gaze transfixed on the ground.

“Here, Aeo. Your arm, please.”

Master Naal held the bracer to the Adian boy. For the first time, Aeo got a good look at the piece of arcane armor; it really was quite a work of art. The buckles and decorations gleamed in the sunlight, the sienna ayvasilk weaving around the edges spun into perfect embroidered patterns. Crafted of beautiful red-hued leather, the bracer appeared as aged and refined as polished oak, not to mention the silent beauty of the viridian gemstone set into the bracer’s wrist. Aeo rolled up his sleeve, and before he could even watch, he felt the bracer slide up his arm and latch on like a coiled serpent. Master Naal hadn’t been wrong about the lack of comfort, and he felt the blood flow in his arm constrict.

“There we are, excellent. Now, Aeo, stand about three arm lengths away from me and lift your arm. Cup your hand out, just as Master Sirelu taught you.”

So Leon had told Master Naal about his practice. All the more the fool for thinking Aeo even wanted to show off. Aeo closed his eyes for a moment and obeyed the instructor, his hand cupped upwards. Same as before… nothing felt inherently different. His thoughts trailed to the thought exercise Leon had taught him: he imagined all the heat from his toes rising to his legs, then up his waist and stomach, through his chest and down his arm towards his waiting hand.

All was concentration for about fifteen seconds. But nothing happened. Not a single spark, and no heat. Everything fell terribly quiet.

“Need assistance, my boy?” asked Master Naal.

The same three boys that had laughed before began whispering to each other. Aeo couldn’t help but look at them, and they shared three very unfriendly smiles. Whatever heat that should have been descending down Aeo’s arm was instead ascending to his head, turning his cheeks even further crimson.

Aeo’s head shook, tearing his attention back to his hand.

I can do this. I can!

But he couldn’t. He strained again to produce even a candle’s worth of flame on his fingertips, as he had done but days before by himself. He might as well have been holding his hand out to Master Naal for a piece of candy. A hard peal of laughter shot from the corner of the amphitheater. The three boys. They weren’t stopping. At this point, they knew they were distracting him. This made them laugh all the more, and the class had begun to follow along.

To his credit, this was not lost on Master Naal.

“Come now, everyone,” he said, not pointing to anyone in particular. “Let’s not be rude. Give Aeo a moment, the bracers can take a moment to get used to.”

Nothing was working. It couldn’t. Perhaps it best he bow out as graciously as possible. He should have taken the bracer off and returned to his pillow. He should have. But he didn’t.

His attention was no longer on his hand. It was directly at the three boys.

You need to make them stop, thought an Other in his mind. Make them stop.

Somewhere inside the inner workings of his physical brain, a nerve was struck. It was the boys’ eyes, their jeering laughter, their gestures that struck a deeply-rooted instinct. It was an instinct Aeo had never fully explored, not willingly, out of fear of constant punishment. The phrase ‘Adian bastard’ floated through his head plain as day, plain as if one of the boys had said the words aloud.

Then, a horrifying contemplation. Words that did not belong to him, but to the many unseen Others just beyond his natural comprehension. Words that he had never heard spoken with his ears, but many times spoken in his mind, though never nearly as loud. They spoke over each other, hissing, all desiring the same awful things:

Remove their twisted grins. Their maniacal eyes. They deserve to die. Incinerate their bodies as you did the wolves. As you did your master. Offer them as sacrifice to the star, to the heart of the sun. Refuse their existence a single day more!

Oh, how he could hear them, and nothing more! Aeo’s awareness of the opulent classroom faded, and his physical vision blurred. His focus was a wish, one granted by the enmap bracer hugging his arm. Or so he thought. So lost he was to internal voices, he didn’t immediately realize that the mocking faces of the three boys had begun to transform into looks of horror.

Then… everything happened at once. Too much at once. Someone yelled from across the room. Something bright enveloped his left arm. He felt no pain, no discomfort.

Aeo’s concentration on the three boys broke. He looked to his arm. His entire hand as well as the enmap bracer had erupted into magnificent effulgent flame, radiant, burning with ferocious ruby-red flames too bright to see. His eyes began to track the whipping tongues of fire upwards, and he calmly noticed that they had begun to consume the green curtains above the stage.


Then, someone else yelled from across the room. His gaze lazily drew off of the stage towards the entrance of the amphitheater. It was Master Naal; somehow, he was no longer on stage.

“Aeo, stop, my boy! Please! Control yourself!”

Stop. Control. What a pair of words.

Aeo’s gaze returned to the ruby-red flames now engulfing the white sleeve of his Academy robes. This was right. So right. For the first time in his life, he couldn’t imagine anything he wanted more than to pour this power into the world. Little he knew was more satisfying than the primal animis that roared from his hand and the bracer.

With this power, you can do anything. You can stop the staring and the whispers. You can make people stop laughing. Stop them from screaming. You can make them disappear. Where is the other bracer? You need more power. How much more powerful could you become with the other?

Someone was still yelling at him. Then several voices. A strange sensation took control of his left hand, of the bracer. An unseen force trying to take it away from him.

No! Stop! That will make the fire go away!

He resisted it. Nothing would make this end. He would let it consume him first. He would burn down the entire Academy! He would end his life before letting the fire die! He would—


All sound ceased. With a familiar and delightful popping sound, a violet sphere of magickal light engulfed Aeo’s hand and most of his arm like a playful bubble. In a single second, the entire ruby-red conflagration died. All of Aeo’s weight had been held up by the molten string of aether, and it all so suddenly vanished, he could do nothing but collapse to the floor.

As quickly as the bubble appeared, Aeo’s hearing returned. The sounds echoing in the sandstone amphitheater had not simply died. The roar of the flames had only deafened to it all. In fact, once the roar of the fiery magick ceased, the room became filled with the cries of frightened children, as well as the shouts of other masters attempting to calm them. To his slight confusion, some of the voices seemed to belong to the three Antielli boys, all of them crying and shouting from fear. He hadn’t harmed them, despite wanting to.

Thank the Goddess, his own internal voice thought.

Aeo strained to focus. His energy, consumed in the flames, barely gave him the power to turn his head towards the direction of the voices. Someone was coming, deep footfalls upon the stone approaching him. To his surprise, it wasn’t Master Naal that appeared.

No, it was Leon. Where had he come from? Wasn’t his office on the other side of the Academy?

“Aeo!” he cried, crouching and smothering the flames that had not yet died on the hems of Aeo’s charred robes. With a flick of his wrist, the violet bubble about Aeo’s arm vanished, and the enmap bracer unbuckled. It then shot off of Aeo’s arm like a rocket, clattering some distance away. Aeo felt Leon embrace him and pat his face, but he had no energy to ask what had happened. “Aeo, can you hear me? Speak to me, Aeo, say something! Come now, blink if you can hear me!”

Aeo attempted to blink. It was more of an eyelash flutter. Animis sickness, all over again, all of his energy thoroughly drained. If he’d been able to see it, the once-shining green gem set into the bracer had long since stopped shining.

“Master Naal, call the Sanareum please! How could you let this happen? How long was his outburst?”

“About fifteen minutes!” shouted Master Naal’s voice from across the room, who seemed to be directing his fellow thaumaturgists in extinguishing the flames that licked the ceiling. But he didn’t sound angry, or even displeased. He sounded excited, even as he worked to extinguish the flames that had caught the first eight rows of pillows on fire. “I’ve never seen its like before! I could hardly approach him to ward his hands, even with a bracer on! I daresay, Master Sirelu, we have a master flame thamaturgist on our hands! I’d stake my life on it!”

“Not now, Edin, please!” Leon shouted angrily. “Call the Sanareum, now!”

“Ay lae’dra!”

Fifteen whole minutes? No. No, it couldn’t have lasted that long. It was over so quickly, and so suddenly. There’s no way.

Leon placed his hand on the boy’s forehead, confident that the last of the embers clinging to Aeo’s robes had cooled.

“Goddess, Aeo… this is my fault, isn’t it? Had I known your first lesson at the Academy would be about that damnable bracer, I would have had you skip class. Just… just rest now, all right? We’ll, eh… take things a bit slower from now on.”

Had Aeo not expended every drop of physical and magickal effort attempting to immolate his fellow students, he would have audibly agreed.

“And in the meantime,” he growled, staring at the entrance to the classroom. “Elder Naal and I are going to share a few words.”

Pip-Boy 3000 Mk. IV Quantum Re-Paint

After wasting so much time simply wanting to assemble a complete costume like this, I am finally putting together my Fallout Vault Dweller cosplay to attend Fan-X in Salt Lake City this year. It has taken so much out of me just waiting for my mental health to improve, never mind all of the painting and creation practice with other props. I’m thrilled with the results so far that I just had to share all my progress pictures. Now with commentary!

This is my finished, Quantumized Pip-Boy 3000 Mark Four!

It all started with the prop itself that I had purchased with the Collector’s Edition of Fallout 4. I’ve had this Pip-Boy since Fallout 4 came out, and I had always intended to repaint it and include it into some form of cosplay. The dream is finally becoming a reality.

Paired with it is my ancient iPod Touch (4th generation, I believe). I started by scratching the crap out of the shiny new plastic; the original prop greatly lacked for wear and tear.

And then I started with my fantastic blue color. It is Vallejo Game Color Turquoise paint (which you can find here). I used the same color as the base for my plasma rifle Quantum recolor.

And then came the disassembly to color the whole thing properly. I actually disassembled it a few times because I made the mistake of assuming I could simply not paint some of the ugly brown. This ended up not being true; the prop’s assembly wasn’t good enough to conceal any of the khaki color.

And then came the delightful purple. I don’t know if this color quite matches with the deeper Quantum violet, but I wanted my Pip-Boy to be a bit brighter and more inviting… at least until I settled on the right grime. For this, I used Vallejo Violeta Azul (which you can find here).

And here’s the finished base color (you can still see exposed tan color in some spots). At this point, I grinded off the striped yellow “caution” bars from the buckle with my dremel tool; to be honest, they were kind of tacky and didn’t match what I had in mind for the finished look.

I then tried my hand at painting racing stripes… or, at least, some candy-yellow lines to add a bit of soda-jerk flavor to the device. Admittedly, it only kinda worked. But after all the weathering and details, you can hardly tell how poor the application is. 😀

And then I added stickers! I had purchased some Nuka-Cola Quantum stickers for my thermos some years ago that I had accidentally ordered as opaque instead of transparent. Not liking how they looked on my thermos, I removed them… but I kept them because I knew I could do something with them in the future. How right I was! It definitely has that kitchy 1950’s soda parlor appeal now.

The stickers aren’t perfect, but they definitely sell the “Quantum-ness” of the recolor. And in the end, that’s all I care!

And then it was time to make it DIRTY. I used a three-pack of Distress Oxide paints (the brand of which you can find here; they don’t sell the specific trio I used on Amazon, but they do at Joann’s Fabrics) to rust the crap out of the Pip-Boy.

Note to self: wait until the paint is completely dry before applying the matte sealer! I was finding that my Pip-Boy was still wet for at least two days afterwards because I didn’t wait long enough for the rust paint to dry. Oops. At least the finished product looks dirtier because of it.

I have since improved upon the paint job of my plasma rifle by adding highlights. I can’t wait until this all comes together. Tomorrow, I am starting the assembly of my leather armor. I’m planning on using actual aluminum and painted pig leather, riveting it all together, and finishing it up with the same distressed paints. I hope to update soon with progress on the armor!

My Name Is Lenn – New Chapter Three Addition

The tricky thing to these flashbacks is to show Lenn as making both a semi-rational decision and a cruel one in leaving Aria behind. I want to show that there is serious danger outside the village, obviously, but that the potential danger of humans is above even the known danger of the village elder. I don’t know how much of that I can demonstrate in a single book. I’ll keep playing with it.

You’re an idiot, you know that?”

What?” Lenn rested his head against the sheet metal wall, his chin and thought process tilted in confusion. “What do you mean? All I’m saying is that if I go alone, if something terrible happens on the way… then it won’t be both of us that dies. That’s not stupid.”

Aria rolled her eyes.

Sure. It wouldn’t be. If you were a gatherer and knew exactly where to find the caravaners on your own. But you’re not. And you don’t.”

That’s not what she meant. And he knew that wasn’t what she meant.

Well, neither do you,” Lenn snapped back. “My leg isn’t completely useless, Ari. If I go at my own pace, by myself, I can stay hidden better than both of us together.”

She frowned at him.

“Besides,” he continued. “How hard can it be to find a place called ‘The Pipes?’ Great big half-buried concrete, next to the river? I’ll get down there in a few days and be right back up. Once I find one of the caravan teams, I’ll probably just ride back with them. I won’t even have to worry about going uphill on the return trip.”

That’s if you find them at all, Lenn.” Exasperated, she folded her arms. “Please, asha, be reasonable. You can hardly walk on your own, much less carry a backpack with enough supplies to reach the city. Once you’re there, what then? What if the Pipes aren’t that easy to find? The gatherers haven’t seen a caravan in years. What makes you think you can find them before Wakèya decides to move everyone?”

He’s not going to move everyone for a while. You know that. If they move now, the children are as good as dead. The mothers too.” Lenn picked at the rust flakes on the wall. “The gatherers said it’s right down the mountain, half a day past the denvi tunnel, first thing you see when you reach town. Right by the river. I’ll know it when I see it.”

Oh. You will, huh? And what if they aren’t even there?”

“Well, it’s not like they’ve been washed away.” Lenn chuckled. “No water, remember?”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Look. I’ll make us a home in one of the pipes and be right back up to find you. I’ll even mark places for us to hide on the way, like the Gatherers do.”

And if hiding doesn’t work? You’ll outrun the rats and crows all the way down the mountain and back?”

That’s right. If I don’t, I’ll get eaten and you won’t. That’s how this works.”


She drifted off. A small part of her wanted to call him an idiot again, as she always did. But that small part of her was merely the child she once was. Taken for granted once. But no longer; he was only doing as he promised. What all good dení men promise to do for the ones they love. And she knew it.

What if the village is gone when you get back?” Aria practically whispered.

It won’t be,” Lenn said, wrenchingly certain. “I promise you. Olem, the moment it starts raining, the old man’ll give up moving anyway.”

You say that like…” Aria let the sentence drift off. She rested her head upon her chin, closing her eyes. “It’s been a whole season, Lenn. The barrels are practically empty. Even the mothers are scared. I don’t think Wakèya is going to wait much longer. Hearing him speak this morning… something’s changed. I just know it.”

Uh-huh,” Lenn grunted, wrinkling his nose. “The old man, changing. I’ll believe it when he changes his mind about me.”

Aria just shook her head.

It’s not just him,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “It’s everyone else, too.”

Lenn frowned at her.

What do you mean, everyone else? Did… something happen?”

Aria swallowed dry, hiding her face with her long tawny locks.

It’s just… something I felt today. The way the other mothers were looking at me. Some of the children.”

Lenn moved closer to her, to speak quieter. Though a dozen yards from the walls of Seí, even Grandmother’s old home no longer felt safe. It hadn’t for years.

Did they say anything to you?”

Aria’s head shook, and a moment passed before she parted her hair to match Lenn’s stare.

Not to me,” she said simply. “But… they were staring. Whispering. Not about the usual.”

Lenn and Aria were anything but the usual. While neither of them could afford to be particularly unusual on the best of days, and were well adept at avoiding it, such attention was now specifically unwelcome.

Lenn took Aria’s hands in his.

I thought you said you were going to avoid them,” he said.

I was, I didn’t say a word to anyone,” she said back, breathless. She pressed her hands over her abdomen. “But I… I don’t think I can help it anymore.”

Lenn’s eyes shut tight. He tried to think of something. But he’d spent the last month thinking so hard, he couldn’t bring himself even to pretend to have answers anymore.

I’ll get the food from now on,” Lenn said, his eyes pacing the tiny table between them.

We both know you can’t do that.”

I sneak into the larder. They can’t take my hands if they don’t see me; they owe us that food. And I’ll teach the lessons from now on. At least until we leave.”

If I’m not in class, the school is done.” Her voice sounded as if reciting a memorized verse. “If I stop working, I’ll disappear, and the school will too. I’ll never see the children again. I’ll… never see you again.”

What? What are you saying? Who told you this?”

Wakèya did. This morning, he said—” She paused. Aria’s stare was blank, almost resigned. “He said if anyone was caught being idle, or ignoring their duties, anyone… they would be reassigned. To digging the wells.” Again, she paused, though this time considerably longer. “He was looking directly at me when he said it.”

But… he can’t do that,” Lenn whispered, barely containing his disbelief. “The mothers

Even the mothers.” She paused. “Even mothers.”

Though Aria’s expression did not change, she was trembling. A tear fell from her eyes as she blinked.

Vysht’kai!” Lenn swore out loud. Though he held Aria’s hands, he tore one away to slam a fist against the wall. It echoed through the dark night around them. “Lukhan take all of them! They can’t do this. They can’t do this to us!”

They’re already doing it, asha,” Ari whispered. “You can’t stop them. They know. Wakèya knows, Lenn. We didn’t listen. In a few days, he’ll know for sure

No, Ari,” Lenn said firmly, kissing her hands. “No. No, they don’t know. They think they do, but they don’t.”

Aria had stopped watching him. He lifted her chin until their eyes locked once more.

“I’m the one they want, asha. You know that. They’re making your life hell because of me, they hate you only because of me. This is just one more reason. That’s all.”

What if that’s enough reason this time?” she asked, everything but her voice unstable as the wind. “Something is different, asha. You didn’t hear him. You didn’t hear him speak to me.”

Aria began to cry, bitterly whispering.

“Why is he doing this to us, Lenn? Why is he trying to take you from me? Why?”

It doesn’t matter,” Lenn said, his own voice now shaking. Aria moved closer, crumbling apart, and Lenn embraced her. “It’s never mattered. Let him have the school. Let him have it all. We’re leaving. We’re leaving, okay?” In her hair, Lenn smelled sundried apples. Sundried apples to his juniper. “Tomorrow night. Gather up the things we need, and… and don’t tell anyone. Not even the children. Okay?”

Together,” she whispered back. Perhaps more question than statement. It was all Lenn could do to nod, again and again, the muddled beating of his heart matching hers.

Together,” he said.

And in that moment, he almost changed his mind.

My Name Is Lenn – New Chapter Two Content

To be completely honest, this is my first foray into anything that resembles romance in my fiction. It’s kind of exciting to get to that point, that my characters are believable enough in my head that they can love each other. That might sound strange to other writers more familiar with romance, but I’ve literally had to craft these two to resemble something compatible to my mind. All in all, I didn’t want the “hopeless princess in a tower” for Aria, and I didn’t want the “hopeless self-pitying boyfriend” for Lenn.

I hope I do them justice in the final product.

Midsummer Eve, by Edward Robert Hughes (1908)

What do you know about them, anyway?”

Aria was looking directly at him. Great. Like always, he hadn’t been listening when she started.

Lenn looked about the kitchen before angling his well-worn crutches towards the old cobble stove. It wasn’t the first time he’d been distracted by his “trick” leg and an empty stomach, and it wouldn’t be the last. Unable to kneel, he bent as far forwards as his whittled wooden supports would allow. The cast-iron lid was thick, cumbersome. But he hoisted it, held it up as he struck a piece of red phosphorous, the tip of an old denvi matchstick, against the rough stone. It erupted into flame, and he tossed it into the tinder pile waiting within.

Who? What are we talking about?”

The wophetun,” Aria said.

Lenn shrugged, watching the tiny flame grow within the rocky vessel. Satisfied, he cautiously let the lid fall.

I know they don’t like being called that,” he said.


Because that’s Wakèya’s word for them, remember?”

Fine,” Aria said, her eyes rolling a bit; it always annoyed her how much the rest of the village preferred their own language. As if to spite them, she switched the conversation to English: “The caravaners, then.”

I don’t know much,” he said, switching to English himself. “Only know what Grandmother told me about them.”

Leaning one crutch against the stove and himself on the other, he opened the rickety cupboard door. Three clay vessels, each crafted by a skilled hand. He lifted them all, uncorked them, shook them. All empty, save for a single small spill of vegetable oil remaining within the smallest.

“I talked to one of them, once, when I was little. He liked my crutches. Grandmother let me trade with him, gave me some paper and pencil lead for some of Grandmother’s cherry jam. Seemed like a decent dení.”

But would they help us?” Aria asked. Lenn caught a glimpse of her, and she appeared uneasy. “Would they take us in, if we asked?”

Yeah, I’m sure they would. They protect whole families on the trail, so I’m sure they would be able to take care of just the two of us.”

Beside the stove was a small satchel, a wrapped piece of linen Aria had brought home for them both after the morning lesson. With a wince, he stood on his own two feet for a moment, careful not to let a single flake of the cornmeal within the bundle fall to the dirt floor. It wasn’t a lot of food. But it was enough to combine with the last of oil. Before the stove became too hot, he mashed the mix together with his bare hands, playing with the misshapen lump like a child with a mud pie.

We would need to offer something to them in return, though.”


Aria stood and lighted across the kitchen, her light-blue dress floating gracefully about her as she did so. Compared to Lenn, she was a feather in the wind, a beautiful petal from an apple tree. Her earthenware complexion spoke volumes on how much time she spent walking back and forth between their little hovel-of-a-home and the village, though not strictly out of the pleasure of it.

Many years ago, the elders had forced her Grandmother to build her home away from the cramped and defensible confines of the village walls. When Grandmother died of heart failure, Aria’s brother Xande had claim to her home (their mother and father having long since passed on themselves). And when Xande died, Aria claimed the home in turn. She “inherited” Lenn too, in a similar way. They weren’t family, not really. He was just a stray. She had every right to kick him out and move on with her life. She should have done as the mothers always suggested, though never to her face: “She should get rid of that ugly, crooked thing before he buries her.” Many years before, they had hated each other’s guts. But they had been bratty little children, then. Now, at the age of sixteen, she loved him. And at the age of seventeen, he loved her. In his condition, Lenn was glad to have a roof—any roof—over his head. That he shared that roof with the one he called “asha” meant more to him than oxygen.

Not that he could admit that to anyone else in the village. To the gatherers. To Elder Wakèya. According to their rules, he was not hers to claim. But they lived far enough away that maybe, just maybe, their rules wouldn’t apply; after all, Lenn was just an “ugly, crooked thing,” barely dení at all. Maybe they could just ignore everyone else.

What are you thinking?” Lenn asked, noticing her pensive expression.

She knelt down and opened a small wooden box beside her Grandmother’s old things, beside the old threadbare quilt and dried pieces of old card-stock paper, handwritten notes on gardening and all things green. It took her only a moment to rummage through the pile of moldering memories.

Maybe they would accept this?” she asked.

Lenn looked, and nearly choked on his own spit. In her hands she held out Grandmother’s prized possession. The one thing Grandmother never showed to any other dení in their village, long as she lived: a massive emerald gemstone, large enough to fit neatly in Aria’s outstretched hands. It had belonged to Grandmother’s parents, many decades before: a symbol of their vows. Shining deep within its many polished facets was the most beautiful viridian hue. A flawless denvi masterpiece.

Lenn would have smacked it out of her grasp if he knew for certain it wouldn’t somehow shatter.

Asha, are you mad?” Lenn began to laugh, immediately leaning to take the gem away. “I said offer them ‘something,’ not the most valuable thing we have!”

Aya! You keep those filthy hands to yourself, you animal!” She smacked his arm and jumped back, far enough that Lenn couldn’t chase her without his crutches. She shined the flawless gemstone with the hem of her dress as though he had actually dared to tarnish its reflection with his filthy fingers. “It was just a suggestion!”

Uh-huh! A bad one!” Lenn said, grinning at her reaction. “I was thinking of working for them for a while. Cooking, cleaning, fixing things. They used to accept labor in return like that. They probably still do.”

Better working for them than Wakèya,” Aria said with a sigh, returning the gem to its box. “What about teaching? Maka knows it’s the only thing you’re good for.”

Hey now.” Lenn motioned to the small lump that had begun to spit on the cobble stove. “I can do more than that. What’s it look like I’m doing?”

You look like you’re making a mess,” she said, walking right up to him.

Before he even had a chance to mock her in return, she leaned in close. She tugged at his shirt to pull him down and she kissed him. He paused, balancing on his good leg and simply allowed himself to enjoy her lips. She did the same. Gentle, longing. Privately, almost, even though no other dení in their right mind would dare wander beyond the village walls after sundown.

They dared the moment to last longer. Dared it to set them both free. But even in the shadows of their own home, they couldn’t belong to each other. As they separated, Aria’s eyes fell to the floor, even as he yearned for her gaze to match his.

Se’k ondia,” she whispered to him in Denaye.

I love you. The third time she had ever said it aloud. And the second time she had meant it.

Se’k ondia, asha,” he whispered back in Denaye.

I love you, my living heart. The third time he had ever said it out loud. But perhaps the thousandth time he had meant it.

I’m scared,” she said, wrapping her arms around his waist. Her eyes fell on the small cornmeal cake upon the cobble stove. “I don’t know why, but… this feels like the end.”

It isn’t,” Lenn said. He embraced her back, careful not to dirty her dress with his corn-and-oil hands. Her hair always smelled like sundried apples; just another thing he’d always loved about her. “It isn’t at all. When we find the caravaners, we’ll pay them to help us find a place of our own. A peaceful place. We won’t have to worry about gatherers, mothers, elders. Nobody. Nobody but us.”

You’ll find us a beautiful place to live, right?” Asha rested her head on his chest. “With tall trees? Wildflowers. Clean, rushing water.” She raised up to look into his eyes. “And smiling happy children.”

The happiest,” Lenn said with a chuckle. “I promise.”

You better keep that promise, nanol’kani.”

Crooked little boy: a mixture of words that only she could get away with calling him.


Lenn’s arms immediately uncurled, and he gently caressed his beautiful asha’s face with a single greasy and stale-smelling hand. She cried out in horror, shoving him away. Though he caught himself from collapsing by hanging onto the crooked cupboard, he thought he might have ruined the moment. That is, until she grabbed him by his arms to keep them from rising and gave him a second swift kiss upon his lips.

You’re lucky I love you so much, saika!” she said.

What she used to call him: idiot.

Ke’s phodi,” Lenn said back with a smirk.

He knew it only too well.

Mental Chains – Vrays + Kevlar = Vraylar

Ok, that’s not really what Vraylar is, but that helps me remember the name of my new blasted medication. Welcome to “Reason #12480 for Why Troy Hasn’t Written a Longform Blog In Weeks,” the game that me, myself, and I just love to play with everyone!


Anyway, things have been… less than stable these past four or five months. When I started working at my most recent job, I did so with the confidence that I had overcome my mental handicaps and could officially hold employment like never before. To be fair, I was right. But to be honest, I was only slightly right, because while I only lasted about three months, it was two months longer than I had successfully withstood the daily brutal punishments of my own emotional weaknesses in the last year or so.

And yes, come to find out, that’s exactly what they were, and they weren’t something I had easy control over. The condition itself isn’t yet a medical diagnosis that is recognized in the DSM-5 (the book that all psychologists follow to diagnose mental disorders). It’s called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, or RSD. Basically, whenever anyone attempts to correct me or provide constructive feedback, my brain auto-corrects that to mean that the person correcting me hates me and my work and everything I stand for. I know it isn’t true, but the dysphoria is just that: I am fully aware of how insane I am when I take people at their most illogical extreme, but I can’t help but do so anyway.

Fortunately, I’m now working with a doctor that has also recognized the issue.

RSD isn’t an individual and diagnosable condition, but the condition that is nearest to it on the mental spectrum certainly is: ADHD. Yeah. Turns out I have a form of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, except it’s minus the “hyperactivity” and with emphasis on the “attention.” Not the deficit, mind you; that part of ADHD is (in my opinion) the most misunderstood part of the disorder. Most ADHD people (if not all) tend to have the opposite problem: they hyper-focus on the things they are passionate about and completely ignore everything they consider too boring or mundane.

In my mind, I don’t suffer from an attention-deficit disorder. I suffer from an attention-redirection disorder.

Simply put: I have an extreme inability to filter emotional stimuli, be it good or bad. I have difficulty accepting criticism from others, whether I like it or not. It isn’t that I don’t understand that most people just want to help me improve. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the intense adrenal reaction when people actually try to insult or hurt me (which has saved me a few times). It isn’t even that I’m utterly helpless against people giving me compliments, of all things!

It’s the fact that I know I can’t help it.

I don’t watch movies or TV shows. Why? Because even the dumbest C-tier plot will fixate in my brain and force it to ruminate on plot, character, and theme for two to three days afterwards. Even if the movie is incredible, I won’t stop singing its praises because I can’t help it.

I have trouble listening to new music. Why? Because I hyperfixate on lyrics and beat, especially if it’s brand-new music that is chaotic in nature. Unless the song is very repetitive in tone (like a lot of electronica these days, or classical music), it’s like wearing an auditory blinder and I won’t be able to focus on anything else.

I am easily insulted and appear to have a thin skin, even when I don’t mean to. Why? Because my brain automatically assumes the worst in people, even if I don’t appear to. I perceive that I have been “burned” by people so often, my brain automatically assumes that’s what you’re doing whenever you criticize something about me. It’s the dysphoria that freakin’ sucks the most because I know it isn’t true. But knowing it isn’t real doesn’t help curb my body’s violent emotional outbursts. That’s where all the sadness and pain and anger is coming from: I have very little control over my internal emotions, and I spent an obscene amount of time and effort trying to bury them so I don’t hurt everyone around me.

And I can’t even begin to tell you how awful it is to know what I’m capable of.

There’s a character in Fallout: New Vegas in the Old World Blues DLC named Muggy. Here he is:

Ain’t he a doll? I always knew I liked this character, but I never really knew why until these last few months. Muggy and I have something in common, you see. We are both keenly aware of our own faults and how crazy we sound when trying to communicate how we think. He is the punchline to a joke that one of the doctors working at Big Mountain, Nevada started telling back before the war (almost 210 years prior to the events in the game). Doctor 0 created Muggy just to get back at his hated rival, RobCo Industries… and Muggy does not appreciate that.

His one line: “Of course I’m obsessed! They made me this way! You think I don’t know how crazy I sound?! Of course I do! They programmed me to know that, too!”

That’s what it comes down to, really: I almost wish I didn’t know what was going on with my attention-redirection and poor filtering. I almost wish I was as delusional as my brain makes me act. I almost wish I could completely rationalize my behavior away so that I don’t believe it isn’t completely my fault, that I’ve effectively ruined my own life for the last fifteen years simply because I didn’t know I had ADHD.

Come to find out that doctors aren’t interested in diagnosing adults with ADHD unless you clearly had a history of it as a child. At the same time, they are aware that some kids get really good at hiding their problems, especially before ADHD became “the norm” for clinical diagnoses.

Yeah, no kidding? You mean to tell me we put millions of children around the world on Ritalin (and especially on young boys) for acting like children, and in the meanwhile we ignore when adults are clearly suffering from inattention and emotional irregularity? And then we like to just diagnose it as “depression,” send ’em off with a couple Zoloft, and call it a day? Or worse, call it “bipolar disorder” when the Zoloft doesn’t work? That’s our acceptable modern medical practice?

I’ve spent about a decade under a single bipolar type-II diagnosis… just to find out that it’s probably not what’s actually happening. I am now working with a different doctor under much fewer assumptions about my mental issues. And so far, my prescription of Vraylar is helping me curb the worst of the depression and manic reactions to the stimuli of life.

Now, if my insurance would just start helping me pay for the damn medication… It’s $900 for a thiry-day supply, there is no generic. And get this: I was informed by my insurance that because I am still diagnosed as only bipolar type-II, they won’t cover it because I haven’t failed enough of their recommended medications.

Excuse me? Seriously?

In order to pay for Vraylar, a medication that is approved for treatment of bipolar type-I in the United States… although I have failed two other antipsychotic medications trying to treat bipolar type-II (one of which was present when I tried to kill myself in 2021), they want me to fail just one more medication to consider changing my diagnosis.

What in the actual hell.

Um, how about no? I’m not trying Clozaril or Abilify just to reject it! And I’m certainly not putting myself in that kind of harm’s way just to prove a point!

It gets better, though. The brand name for Lurasidone is Latuda (you might have seen their advertisements on television), and it just became generic last year. It was $1500 for a thirty-day supply. My insurance was more than happy to pay out the nose for a non-generic medication, but they won’t consider that its effect on me provides a great deal of evidence that contradicts my previous diagnosis. I have since fallen out with the psychiatrists and psychologist at my previous office, and I’m positively terrified of asking them for further information. My doctor has all of my medical records, however, so I don’t believe I need to worry about them anymore (the fact that I can’t help but worry notwithstanding). I’ve sent in an appeal to get the insurance to take a closer look at my ADHD diagnosis, and I hope the cost situation gets resolved soon.


Here’s hoping I can actually find some relief. I am so sick and tired of half-measures. Of telling my doctor: “Well, I’m not sure if it’s working or not, I just feel terrible in this other, completely and previously unrelated way. Can we try something else?” I just want something that will improve my damn life. You know, overall, in a net positive direction.

Otherwise, what is medicine even for?

Theories of a Gamer: Breaking Down “To the Edge”

***In this blog, I’ll be discussing the story behind the lyrics to a major boss theme in Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers. Spoilers for the entire game through Endwalker are going to be flying, so read at your own risk. I’m the kind of guy that likes to read the last page of a book before I start, so believe me when I say: it really is worth playing through the entire experience blind from start to finish if you can help it.***

One of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had with a video game happened with Final Fantasy 14, and one of the most powerful moments I experienced within that game occured at the end of Patch 5.3, Reflections In Crystal. Released in August of 2020 (when things were most positively dark in my own life, coincidentally), the ending to this patch wraps up the entirety of Shadowbringer’s storyline as well as much of the entire major conflict that has embroiled our main cast of characters up to this point. While the details of the story get rather complicated (as most Final Fantasy stories are apt to be), I’ve found that the source of my emotional connection to this ending lies in the major themes involved since this point, themes that are echoed within the utterly fantastic musical score of composer Masayoshi Soken for the scene that wraps up Patch 5.3. To that end, I want to break down the story behind the lyrics of “To The Edge,” the song of the final boss fight in Patch 5.3, and examine both why I personally love it so much… and why literally every single person I am aware of who played this game loves this moment.

And I mean… everyone. Pick one and watch. They’re all wonderful. Super long, but wonderful.

It’s not every day that a video game patch comes out that is so universally beloved. Not a full game, not a game expansion, a game patch. The fact that this story’s conclusion is so widely accepted and loved by its audience is incredible to me.

In fact, I submit that unless you are skipping every single cutscene to get to the “endgame” content of Final Fantasy 14 (which is absolutely antithetical to why any person plays Final Fantasy in the first place, never mind Final Fantasy 14 in particular), if you play through this and understand what’s going on, you will love this scene, no matter who you are. A big claim, I know! But every streamer that I’ve ever watched play through this moment gets emotional during the scene that occurs immediately after the big boss fight with Elidibus. I’ll be the first to admit it: I cried when watching it the first time, and I get teary-eyed every time I rewatch it. And for good reason: everything from the writing to the music to the voice acting to the gameplay is 100% spot-on. It’s just good video game storytelling, and it’s storytelling that everyone seems to love in the moment, no matter their background or personal beliefs.

But why is it so good?

There is a great deal of tragedy in the lives of every single main character in Final Fantasy 14. This is also true for side characters, come to think of it, the depths of the MMORPG setting enabling a lot more “side character” progression than would be possible in literature or movies. I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t a single “Mary Sue-type” character in the whole of Final Fantasy 14; no character obtains power, adoration, or ability without a supreme amount of “pushback” from reality (i.e. loss, sorrow, struggle, and effort), with the only possible exceptions being Zenos (the “big bad” since Stormblood) and the Warrior of Light (which is you, the main character). And even then, the purpose is thematic: just because you’re blindingly powerful doesn’t mean you escape consequence. For Zenos, it’s straight-up acknowledged that he’s a sociopath, bereft of anything resembling empathy, and that lack has haunted him since childhood. For the Warrior of Light, their “Mary Sue/Marty Stu” nature comes from the fact that they’re meant to fully belong to the player; the player is all but invited to “fill in the blanks” of their character’s history, to a large degree. They’re only a “Mary Sue” to the extent that Harry Potter is a Mary Sue, or Luke Skywalker, or Frodo, or Neo, or all the other “blank slate” characters with a mysterious past who are only “blank slates” to enable them to stand as proxies for the audience. It’s all very BYOB (or “bring your own backstory”). Some of my favorite FFXIV fandom artists actually write their Warriors of Light as truly fractured and tragic beings themselves, characters who have only found their fate-defying power through overcoming incredible personal trials and quiet sadness. It’s thoroughly (and excellently) universal to be “the good guy despite the odds.”

(These comic are written and drawn by the incomparable @DaPandaBanda, by the way. Please give them a follow, their work is fantastic!)

While every expansion in Final Fantasy 14 illustrates the sorrows and frustrations of our very imperfect but well-intentioned ragtag group of world-saving adventurers, Shadowbringers in particular emphasizes how even characters of great personal strength and ability can fail and suffer disappointment. Alisaie and Alphinaud, the lovable elven twins that were once brash and impulsive in their desire to strike down evil, realize that strength and determination alone cannot erase sorrow (and, at times, can actually exacerbate it). Y’shtola, the scion who prides herself on her intellect, self-sufficiency, and destructive power, comes to the realization that self-sacrifice won’t be enough to solve the world’s problems. Likewise, Urianger comes to understand that he needs to trust those around him to do the right thing, later affirming in Endwalker that deception for the sake of others rarely ends well. Thancred, once the eponymous lady’s man of the team and all-around ruffian, quite literally becomes an at-first-unwilling father figure, one who learns that sacrifice is actually a better deal for you when you sacrifice out of love instead of obligation, and a thousand-fold times more fulfilling than doing so out of regret or fear. And then there’s Minfilia, or at least the reincarnation of her (long story), who learns, among other things, that freedom to care for and love other people becomes almost meaningless if the people you love can’t (or don’t know how) to love you back. Ryne is such a wonderful character on her own. Don’t worry, Thancred learns how to dad by the end. (All hail Dadcred, long may he pun.)

And don’t even get me started on G’raha. I would die for that wonderful boy.

For their part, the Warrior of Light learns that they too are utterly insufficient to play their part alone. Cast adrift into a world separate from the one he’s known, Kaelan (the name of my WoL) learns that this world stands literally upon the brink of annihilation, and that without his assistance, this world (known as the First for reasons that will be explained) will be consumed and destroyed by a flood of Light. Not lowercase “light,” like someone destroying the world by turning on too many flashlights, or by being so kind to puppies and orphans that the fabric of reality can’t accept it and deletes itself. But by uppercase “Light,” the elemental manifestation of everything that should be “good” and “holy” and “symbolically sacred” but most decidedly isn’t. You know how too much of a good thing is bad for you? Like how drinking eight ounces of water in a day is excellent for one’s health, but drinking more than two-hundred ounces of water in a day can literally kill you? For the surviving denizens of the First, the world is literally drowning in a tidal wave of monsterous and twisted angelic abominations. And not only do these deific abominations want to kill you, they force you to become one of them if they succeed, the terrifying transfomation into which being way more unsettling than you might think.

Check it out if you don’t feel like sleeping tonight, because holy crap (pun intended):

(Come to find out that the developers actually “toned down” the horrific visuals of this particular transformation because they felt like the finished product was enough to get the point across. No kidding. Don’t wanna kill the “T for Teen” rating, but man, the body horror of this scene pushes it.)

There’s more to saving the First from its horrific and “glorious” end than killing a bunch of twisted angels, unfortunately, and there’s a reason why uppercase “Light” is the magical element in question. In Final Fantasy 14, there are (or were, originally) fourteen worlds, thirteen “reflections” that are all copies of “the Source,” or the world in which the majority of the game takes place. The Warrior of Light (who adopts the title of “Warrior of Darkness” in the First, for obvious reasons) has been brought to the First to end its impending cataclysm for one very serious reason: when one of the reflections of the Source suffers from a world-ending catastrophe, the Source suffers a similarly catastophic event in turn. Thanks to time-travel shenanigans, the Warrior of Light has a chance to stop what will become known as the “Eighth Umbral Calamity” before it happens.

You know how our group is known as the “Scions of the Seventh Dawn”? Well, there have been seven such apocalyptic events in the Source’s past (being known as “umbral calamities”), and each time they have been themed as being caused by one of the eight elements. The First Umbral Calamity was a climate-devastating set of storms and hurricanes. The Second Umbral Calamity was a worldwide lightning storm that darkened the skies for decades. The Third Umbral Calamity was a worldwide drought that transformed once-green forests to deserts and wasteland, sparking continental-sized wildfires, etc. And so on for water, earth, ice, and darkness. The Seventh Umbral Calamity in particular should still be fresh in the player’s mind, as the descent of Dalamud and Bahamut’s explosive introduction was exactly what happened during the introductory cinematic of the game. Each calamity was caused by the literal death of one of the thirteen reflections that lie outside of the immediate setting of Final Fantasy 14. These events were not accidents, either. Each calamity was caused by a shadowy cabal of immortal body-hoppers known as Ascians. Taking on many faces and titles through the centuries, the Ascians have been responsible for the death of millions of people in the Source throughout the entirety of recorded history, as well as being responsible for much of the world’s overall misfortune and suffering.

I used to think the name for their collective group was an odd choice by the developers. It’s a word that never seemed to easily roll off the tongues of the voice actors when speaking it, especially during the game’s early events (during A Realm Reborn). Pronounced “ass-ee-ans,” more a French word than English. But, like so many complaints I had about the story at the start of FFXIV, there’s a reason for its oddness. I mean, it’s right there, in its French-like meaning and pronunciation. The Ascians are literally “ancients,” the world’s first inhabitants, and their mission is to bring their once-beautiful paradise back into existence through the destruction of this objectively imperfect world.

I mean, yeah, there’s your theme: murder and sacrifice the “real” world in exchange for utopia. What villain in history hasn’t used that as their excuse? For the Ascians, though, their “utopia” actually was once the reality of the world, and not simply an “un-place” like the word utopia suggests. For them, this utopia is not a concept, but a memory. And a very painful one.

The lyrics of “To The Edge” start like this:

All our splendor bathed black in silence
Our surrender, a somber reverie
Slowly drifting down into twilight
Left to sifting through fading memories

The “world” of Final Fantasy 14 didn’t always used to be thirteen individual “reflections” and the Source. It used to be a single beautiful unsundered world, a boundless paradise called Etheirys (pronounced ‘eh-ther-iss’). It was a bountiful sphere, a place where physical want and poverty did not exist, where magic abounded in every soul, where even children had the ability to create anything their minds could envision simply by imagining it. No one suffered. No one starved. No one wanted for anything. No illness could not be cured, and no imperfection could not be corrected.

Sadly, their very strength of vision, their “creation magic,” would prove to be their singular weakness. Seemingly out of nowhere, their creation magic became corrupted, and their simple sorrows, doubts, and thoughts of despair began to manifest into the creation of monsters, their every waking nightmares made very real. The subconscious fears of every man, woman, and child on Etheirys could become reality at any time, and no one could control the expression of their own unique demise. So in order to save the world and themselves, the ancient inhabitants of Etheirys utilized their creation magic to stop this inexorable march of death, and sacrificed half of their number to create a godlike being that would reorder the rules of “creation,” that would shield the world from complete destruction.

They would call this “god” Zodiark.

Those ancient people had never dealt with such supreme sorrow before. Such loss. It’s hard to imagine what that loss might look like, what the societal ramifications of losing more than half of your population all at once might be, especially after losing so many to the physical manifestation of their worst terrors. The closest pop culture reference I can think of would be Avengers: Endgame, but to be honest, I don’t think Marvel got it quite right. They didn’t have time to develop the concept on screen. The scene with Steve Rogers in a post-Thanos PTSD support group is neat, but… I don’t know, it would be so much worse.

Historically, this level of social devastation has actually occurred before. Between 1347 and 1351, half of all people living in the city of London just… died. In all of Europe, between 30% to 60% of all people simply dropped dead, most doing so in less than three days’ time after contracting the bubonic plague. They called it the “Black Death” for a reason, and the consequences of that pandemic are still being felt almost 700 years later, both economically and systemically.

(I didn’t realize this, but the Black Death spread so far as to also affect China and Northern Asia as well: in regions such as Shanxi and Guangdong, every six to seven out of ten people died between 1356 and 1360. Such an incredible loss of life, however, does not appear to have happened in India at the same time. This, and the fact that the majority of recorded deaths in China occured after the devastation in Europe makes the chances of the plague originating from the Silk Road unlikely.)

Is it any wonder that dancing skeletons became the thematic motif of the age?

Imagine you live to see half to two-thirds of your family die in the space of a week. Imagine what that might do to your worldview. What meaning would the world appear to have, when your life can be snuffed out so easily by an invisible reaper? It wasn’t just poor people dying, either. It was the rich as well, the high and mighty, the royal, the ordained, the “powerful.” No one was immune to this spectre of death. And yet it was only 150 years later that the Renaissance would revitalize Europe, when guilds and the trading class would form, when the ability to climb social ladders through physical and intellectual effort would begin to develop. That’s a stunning realization to me, a testament to the strength and wisdom of my ancestors (a.k.a. those that survived the Black Death, because I obviously wouldn’t be here if they didn’t). It’s telling, though, that the Renaissance did not occur in the 14th century. How could it, when so many people were so completely destitute and filled with despair? I don’t know the history well enough myself, but it stands to reason that it would take the inhabitants of Europe at least a couple of generations to forget such a magnitude of death, to be able to “move on.”

I mean, from such terror, death is a mercy, but only for generations yet unborn who will not know it.

For the surviving inhabitants of Etheirys, though, such mercy did not exist. For these former members of paradise, death wasn’t a concept that they regularly had to face, even unwillingly. As we learn in Endwalker, while it wasn’t “uncommon” for the people of Etheirys to die, they did so more out of obligation. In their higher state of being, if you did not die, the next generation would not have a chance to be born. The Lifestream, the source of all life in Etheirys, was a massive but ultimately limited wellspring (at least conceptually). When you died, your memories and your life force returned to the planet, allowing new life to continue on unimpeded. Sure, you could just choose not to die, to keep learning and living for as long as you wanted. But it was considered selfish in their culture to live longer than your duty demanded, and to fear death was foolish since they knew for a fact that life, memory, and even the concept of “self” never really technically ended.

But then came the Final Days.

Without a compass wand’ring lost in lies of faith
(Faith slowly wasting away)
Only alive in fighting Death’s amber embrace
(Our hearts beat loud, unafraid)
On Hands and knees we pray to gods we’ve never seen
(Come shadow, come follow me)
The final hour upon us, no more time to breathe

Imagine a state of being where the concept of death suddenly turns from optional to completely mandatory and everywhere at any time. That the mere thought of death is suddenly killing people without warning. What would that do to you, psychologically? To all of a sudden lose so much, so quickly and so awfully? Imagine being a father or a mother during such days. You’ve lost friends, family, and children to monsters born of their own nightmares. And then, in order for you to live, you would have to lock away half of those that survived, perhaps some your own children, to be bound within an undying “shield,” within Zodiark. You would have to live the remainder of your eternal life knowing that you will never see them again, never hear their voices or see them grow, and that you can never save them. Or perhaps you would sacrifice yourself so that your remaining children could survive. It would be noble of you, but they would have to realize the same of you, that they could never save you from your eternal imprisonment, and that they would always have to carry their memory of you in that state, forever.

Needless to say, those ancient survivors couldn’t accept it. The guilt of survival. The loss of paradise. The realization that they would never live again within their perfect world, in easy and carefree lives, free of pain and regret and haunting memories of death.

What would you do in that circumstance?

What would you do if you thought you had the power to reverse it?

Know our places, for worth is wordless
Evanescent, this writing on the wall
Brother, stay this descent to madness
Come and save us, catch us before we fall!

The boss you fight at the end of Patch 5.3 is a man named Elidibus.

To be completely honest, Elidibus as a character has been so completely mysterious that his story up until Patch 5.3 has been rather… cliché, so to speak. Until this moment, he has been your typical JRPG mustache-twirling 4D-chess-playing mastermind that no one understands, not even his fellow Ascians. But in this moment, you become very aware of his modus operandi, as well as his overall purpose. His is the last of his people, and now thanks to the Warrior of Light and their fellow Scions, the last of the Ascians. His duty was to remain separate from Zodiark, to hold the resolve of his people within him, and to be their final representative. Their last and ultimate speaker.

Why did the Ascians feel they needed such a representative, even so far in the future? Because something happened after the creation of Zodiark, something that needed executive-level correcting. Something unthinkable. Something beyond unacceptable.

Someone rebelled.

Venat (pronounced “ven-ah”) was once a ruler among the ancient people of Etheirys, a member of the Convocation of Fourteen. A “traveler” of sorts; a wandering representative. According to her station, her title was known as “Azem.” Whereas her fellows ministered to her people, it was her station to travel the world, visit different cultures, and discover everything life had to offer. This included learning ideas and concepts that her people did not easily entertain. Even during her tenure as Azem, she was considered by her fellows to be… odd. But most that held the title of Azem were considered eccentric; it came with the territory. When it came time for her to give up her station and grant it to her successor, it was tradition for retiring members of the Convocation to “die,” to return to the Lifestream and offer up their experience and knowledge of the world to the world and future generations.

She chose not to. It didn’t feel right for her to do so. She loved life too much to give it up. She loved the people she served too much to step away. She believed deeply in the goodness of her people and their ability to accept guidance and wisdom, and she wanted to continue to be a source of that wisdom, even if that meant breaking tradition and continuing on.

When the Final Days came, that belief was sorely tested.

Venat disagreed with the creation of Zodiark. As the player discovers during the events of Endwalker, Venat had good reason to do so: she knew something about the cataclysm that her fellows did not. She desperately tried to convince them that the sacrifice of so many was not the correct path forwards. But they didn’t listen to her. And so, out of pride and fear, Zodiark was formed. And, predictably, although the immediate chaos and death subsided once the god’s protective presence shielded Etheirys, the people began to realize that they could not accept this outcome. They could not accept that they had lost so much, so quickly and so awfully. Out of desperation, they prayed to their new god to sacrifice yet more to restore to them the paradise that they had lost. But they would not sacrifice those that still lived… no, they would do much worse. Instead, they vowed to nuture and sacrifice new life until every soul they offered to summon Zodiark would be replaced. In their sorrow, they were fully willing to drain the Lifestream dry and sacrifice their children yet unborn to reobtain the lives that had been taken from them.

And Venat would not accept that.

Like broken angels, wingless, cast from heaven’s gates
(Our slumbering demons awake)
We only fly when falling, falling far from grace
(Hell take us, heaven can wait)
And like a message in a bottle cast to sea
(Disgrace, untold and unseen)
Quick to their ends, our candles burn, until we’re free

With assistance from the few that followed her, Venat sacrificed her own life to introduce a new god into being. A goddess. Weaker than Zodiark, admittedly. But a goddess that could hold Zodiark in check, sundering Him and the world itself into fourteen equal parts, including all of the surviving souls that called the once-unified Etheirys home. Thus was Hydaelyn born, the mother of the newly-divided Source and all of its thirteen reflections. To stop her people from sacrificing themselves into oblivion, she divided their souls and their ability for magic, so much so that these new beings could no longer create “something” from “nothing” through will alone.

No longer would man have wings to bear them to Paradise. But while they could not fly, they would instead learn to walk.

In this imperfect state, they would learn to rely on the goodness of others. They would be able to cultivate courage. Their children would learn wisdom through necessity, and power through cooperation. Then, in time, they would even be able to conquer the very concept of despair itself, something that her people in their hubris and ability could never manage. For the true enemy of life was the very despair that ravaged the ancients, the true secret of the Final Days that Venat alone once knew.

They would learn to hold to hope and faith, when all other lights would fade. To learn on their own that Life is a riddle, to bear both rapture and sorrow.

That they must feel. That they must hear. That they must think.

That they must live. That they must die.

But above all else… that they must know.

Yes, time circles endlessly, the hands of fate trained ahead
(Pointing to the edge)
All things change – drawn to the flame, to rise from the ashes
To begin, we first must see the end!

And that lyric is, ironically, the one advantage that the Ascians did not have that Hydaelyn did. And they couldn’t have known they didn’t have it, either: they did not see the end for the beginning. They never learned why the Final Days occurred in the first place. Sure, time-travel shenanigans, memory-erasing, and all that. But do you really think that Emet-Selch would have been humble enough to accept Venat’s solution to sunder their world, even if he could have remembered why? Would Hermes, after all the trouble he caused? Hythlodeus would have, but he was not a member of the Convocation. The people of Etheirys were so blinded by what they lost that they could not have looked to the future, even if they wanted to. Elidibus himself had fallen prey to this fault, and although he does not intend to, he reveals this fault before the fight atop the Crystal Tower: he has been fighting to restore his people for so many eons that he can no longer remember the person he made the promise to fight for. Once the battle is over, even though he cries at the memory of his friends, he does not remember their faces or their names. The only thing he remembers is clinging so tightly to duty and responsibility, that they once chided him for overworking himself, urging him to spend more time outside in the sunshine. Unlike Emet-Selch, who has such a bright recollection of his past that he created a perfect replica of the capital city of Amaurot by memory (which is a wonderful amalgamation of the words for “love” and “decay”), Elidibus has forgetten why he continues to fight. To him, the petty details are no longer important; only the big picture matters. He, like Emet-Selch, had lost himself to dutiful despair. For, without it, he has no reason to exist.

Which, sadly, was the whole terrible reason the Final Days occured at all.

Rock of ages, we cast the first stone
In our cages, we know not what we do
Indecision, here at the crossroads
Recognition, tomorrow’s come too soon

Follow blindly, like lambs to slaughter
At the mercy of those who ply the sword
As our song wends, dead underwater
We’re forgotten, for now and evermore

I have this in poster form on my bedroom wall. It’s a beautiful reminder for me not to get lost in the past; I can’t change what happened, only what will happen.

The grand irony of this pivotal moment? The person he made the promise to is standing right in front of him. The Warrior of Light themselves. And the only reason the Warrior of Light can’t tell him this… is because it hasn’t happened for them yet. As Hythlodeus would put it, the Warrior of Light is Elidibus’s new-old friend, and he doesn’t know it. Sundered into pieces, perhaps, a mere 9/14th of his former self (I did say Final Fantasy was complicated; fractions, amirite?) But the same person nevertheless.

Time travel is messy, for sure. But almost always tragic.

(As of the writing of this article, this moment still hasn’t happened yet in the game, and is only a guess on my part as I trace the lines of theme in my head. I can’t wait for the end of the Pandemonium raids where I’m sure it will happen. Consider this an official guess.)

On top of that, the Warrior of Light is (and once was) the holder of the title of Azem. The successor that Venat herself once chose, in the days before Etheirys fell apart. And although their sundered condition makes it impossible for them to remember that past life, they once volunteered to become sundered when Venat became Hydaelyn because they trusted her enough to do so. They didn’t become like the Ascians, filled with unending memory and sorrow and terrible power. They chose weakness and ignorance. Pain and imperfection. They chose to endure as a powerless reflection within a wicked, sinful, and despair-ridden existence… so that one day, they would rise up and become the hero that would save their world from destruction and despair.

In monochrome melodies, our tears are painted in red
(Bleeding to the edge)
Deep inside, we’re nothing more than scions and sinners
In the rain, do light and darkness fade!

What I want to say is probably going to sound incredibly arrogant. Ignorant, probably. Stereotypical of a blindly-obedient religious nutjob, most certainly. Believe me, I used to be a missionary: I’m fully aware of how crazy I sound when I talk about my religion. But I want to say this anyway because it’s absolutely the truth of how I feel:

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, understanding the story of Final Fantasy 14 the way I do and seeing how happy and emotional the ending of Shadowbringers and Endwalker makes its players creates an unbelievably deep sense of contentment inside me that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. I connect with Venat more deeply than almost any fictional character I’ve ever come across if only because I feel exactly as she does: I am holding onto a secret that will not only forstall the actual final days, it will unlock the secret to eternally defeating despair. But no matter who I try to tell about it, no one will believe me. And thus I live and watch the world crumble, not fully understanding the truth I hold, but knowing enough about its power and beauty to get really sad whenever I get rejected for mentioning it. Regardless, the contentment I mentioned remains because I know how universal these themes are, and how they make people feel. And that they continue to connect with people, even if those people don’t fully understand why.

Am I alone in feeling this way? I ask because I’m sincerely curious. I feel like it’s the tale of Cassandra, neatly contained within a single religion, and then stories like this pop up. It never fails to surprise me and make me wonder. If you don’t know, many of the themes of Final Fantasy 14 echo concepts about the world that I truly believe, and that Latter-Day Saints believe. There’s a reason for the very biblical undertones contained in “To The Edge,” and I struggle to believe that the greater percentage of FFXIV fans are aware enough to appreciate them.

I believe we are the literal children of a Heavenly Father who sent us to live in a very broken and imperfect world for a purpose that is difficult to comprehend, let alone believe. I believe it is a mercy that we do not have a recollection of who we once were, who our loved ones once were in relation to ourselves, and especially who we are in relation to who we could one day emulate… because if we had that recollection, I believe we would be killing ourselves to get back to that place (and I mean that more literally than figuratively).

The paradise we came from resembles our world only in the barest and least impressive sense possible: Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” pales in comparison, though I believe St. Thomas Aquinas got closer. John the Revelator could barely attempt its description in Revelation 4 by describing its purpose and magnificence with intense symbolism of who lives/once lived in that place. The Garden of Eden alone might begin to describe a likeness of that paradise, and the imperfect actions of our first parents alone caused that place to become unsuitable for us, the world in which we live.

We are children of a Creator. I don’t take this belief lightly. The very essence of “creation” is not only part of who we are, it is meant to be intrinsic within us, and the concept of that desire for creation being warped and twisted like it is in Final Fantasy 14 is way more meaningful to me than the developers could ever have anticipated. While I don’t exactly appreciate the swelling emotional music when the message is so good, this video is an excellent example of this and other themes echoing in our modern culture.

We chose to come to this completely imperfect and flawed existence because we were promised that if we did so in faith, we would be able to overcome those two most final of endings: physical death (and everything contained within its concept) and spiritual death (which is Hell, and everything within its concept). And yes, though certainly a hard thing to say, I believe we did chose to come to this terrible place, every single one of us. But we did so with hope. That we could only overcome by trusting that the greatest of our Father’s children, even the Son of Man Himself, would do exactly as His Father directed. He is the “Rock of Ages” mentioned in the song, the ideal of perfection and strength that Elidibus attempts to compare himself to in the song (or conversely, that the ancients attempt to compare Elidibus to), and rightly fails, because it’s more appropriate in our modern minds for the tragic hero to fail and fall.

Fortunately for us, our actual Warrior of Light did not fail. Christ succeeded in His mission, and with flying colors, to the salvation of all. So many ancient traditions, and even those modern-day pop culture tropes of The Chosen One, continue to resonate this message. Every culture has its “chosen one” (or chosen ones), and whether they come bearing a sword, a message, or both, the effect is the same, as Joseph Campbell demonstrates.

A resurrection. A fulfillment of that which was lost. And a return home.

It’s right there, in the song, repeated:

Riding home – riding home
Finding hope – don’t lose hope

And it resonates because it is real. It’s as real as it is wrong to warp the concept of uppercase “Light” with death, and conquest, and nihilism. It’s as real as it is wrong for someone in real life to twist and manipulate the goodness within us to evil ends, and force “that which is best in us” to destroy our sense of right and wrong. It is as real as the desire to be the heroes we believe we can be, no matter how far short we may fall from that ideal. Because the Ideal is real, we have the hope that we can eventually overcome everything that will bring us despair in this life. Everything. I sincerely believe that.

And by the reactions of those that followed the story of Final Fantasy 14 to its conclusion, I believe that enjoyers of FFXIV’s story would be willing to believe in such hope as well.

Like Final Fantasy (and like any religious system of belief, really), the concepts contained within are both complicated and very easy to dismiss as flippant nonsense. Again, believe me, I know; I have been rejected to my face as loudly as I will reject everything that would otherwise be considered “canon” after Final Fantasy X-2 (Final Fantasy X -Will- did not happen, Tidus and Yuna are still together to this day, and you can’t convince me otherwise, the evidence and the themes of the prior two games is clear). But in all seriousness, I also know how silly it is for me to compare Final Fantasy 14 to something as sincere and sacred as the Gospel. Believe me, I know: when people in church start comparing the priesthood to the Force and start quoting Yoda, I die a little bit on the inside. But if we become unwilling to talk about the stories we love, that fill our minds and hearts with hope and healing, then we’ve done a disservice to them, and deny the power of the themes from which these stories originate.

Allow me to conclude this long and incredibly unnecessary article with one final observation: the Warrior of Light in the Endwalker cinematics could have been any class. Any class at all, including the new ones. As you know, there are many to choose from that haven’t had their day in the beautiful CGI-rendered spotlight (the fact that we’ve never seen a machinist in 4K breaks my rusty little clockwork heart).

Our Warrior of Light ended his journey as a paladin, a spiritual defender of his beloved goddess and the one true tanky savior of Eorzea.

I don’t think I have to say anything else.

Shipbreaker – 2023 LTUE Poetry Sumission

The inspiration: Hardpoint: Shipbreaker, from Blackbird Interactive and Focus Entertainment

You inspect the steel-lined corridors

of a wrecked inter-system hulk.

Each plate and rivet, silent and cold.

A shredded engine

lies dormant under sizzling wires.

Your multi-layered yellow hardsuit,

pitted with dents and carbon burns,

is your only protection – tissue

in comparison

to the reinforced hull beneath you.

Transmitted echoes of distress still

ping your comm, repeating, frantic.

Nothing looks wrong from the outside, but

two dozen punctures

shredded the inside without finesse.

“Scrap the remains in twenty-four hours.

Eighteen for a bonus, copy?”

Says the orbital yard boss, his voice

the only sound heard

above your oxygen rebreather.

Untracked micrometeorites.

What a way for a spacer to go.

Disconnect power systems, then on

to biological hazards.

Nothing you haven’t performed before.

Just divert your gaze.

Don’t focus too hard on their eyes.

Each job makes you yearn for authentic

gravity. A home of your own.

You refuse to let their fate be yours.

This poor wrecked corvette

was never meant to be a coffin.

A hundred thousand credits per hour

transfers to the waiting vessel.

“Funny,” says the yard boss, through static.

“All this scrap’ll be

spacebound again by this time next month.”

He’s got a point. Breakers waste nothing.

One man’s wreck is another man’s

hyper-luxurious star-liner.

What is creation

but the bright terminus of ruin?

You will carve out your own future

with a fusion cutter and a dream.

Theories of a Gamer – Endless Remembrances

I’ve been playing a lot of Civilization-type games recently. I’ve played Civilization since Civilization 2, and there’s just something about being able to take over the entirety of the known world that appeals to me. But just because I’ve been playing the 4X genre since 1996, it doesn’t mean that I’ve gotten “better” at them. No, I’m the player that likes to play on the easiest “Settler” difficulty, raking in the free approval and strategic resource points that these kinds of games generate for the newbies. Did I say “newbie?” I meant weenie. Yes, it’s always Monday here at Super Weenie Hut Junior’s, and I love watching my civilization slowly take over the equivalent of the whole world/New World/galaxy/galactic supercluster/randomized map, all while crushing my enemies and hearing the lamentations of their poorly-developed infrastructure!

If I were a Twitch streamer, I would be the most boring Twitch streamer ever.

(For those wondering how far back in PC gaming I go, check out Conquests of the New World on GOG. I have an intense love for old Interplay games; no wonder I got so hooked on Fallout back in the day!)

In particular, I’ve been playing a game called Endless Space 2. In traditional 4X style (meaning it upholds the four pillars of these types of pseudo-board-games: Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate), Endless Space 2 isn’t your usual Colonize The Stars Simulator. Unlike Stellaris or Sins of a Solar Empire, you’re not the first empire to invent the FTL drive. The galaxy has already been conquered. Good news, though: that empire fell a long time ago, and you’re the newest face in the newest Space Race. While a few of the races you can play with have only recently emerged as a space-faring civilization bent on establishing themselves as galactic rulers, many of the races are actually “old hats” at playing overlord and have only recently resurfaced to conquer all over again. Turns out even some sub-sections of humanity have been star-hopping for centuries.

For those that might not want to take the time to play the first Endless Space (which isn’t bad, just less polished than the current title), the story is revealed in the semi-randomized mission quests you undertake as a species during gameplay. In my opinion, it’s a great low-stakes way to get the player invested into the existing storyline of the series without cramming it all down the player’s throat up front (each race has their own introduction cinematic, though, which is beautiful). While some of these missions can get super-difficult, they play into the strengths (and sometimes the weaknessess) of the race you’re currently playing. Play as the warmongering Craven race that literally cannot declare ‘peace?’ Complete your mission objectives and you’ll get better at curb-stomping. Play as the scientific Sophons? Your missions will help you research faster, or help you overcome your general weakness in warfare. Play as the Vaulters, the humans who developed underneath the once-endless Endless? Your missions will help you find rare planets to exploit, including the Endless’s old homeworld you were once exiled from.

Oh, hi Auriga. Fancy meeting you here.

Half of the Endless were “concrete,” lovers of their biological and physical forms. The other half were “virtual,” and essentially chose to become artificial intelligences. They had a civil war, as all sufficiently-advanced races tend to do. And this is what they left behind.

In the universe of Endless Space, it is not gold or the all-powerful “credit” that controls the galaxy. For you, and for the Endless (the once-biological-machine-hybrid race that once acted as the galaxy’s ancient precursor), the only currency that matters is Dust. These nanoscopic micro-machines were created by the Endless to do absolutely everything. And it can be found absolutely everywhere, from growing on semi-biological trees to taking root in the deepest of planetary cores. Dust gives this 4X-strategy game a good reason for being able to “buy-out” ships and buildings: once you have enough of it, it isn’t inconceivable for a mountain of nanomachines to instantly take the form of whatever you want to design. It’s either that, or your “culture” (which is indeed a resource of its own) becomes sufficiently-advanced that your public works projects just appear from the aether like magic.

One of the most fascinating concepts to me about Endless Space 2 are the “lesser races” that you can discover in the galaxy. They may be a splinter group of one of the larger main factions (the adorably-crimson Mavros, a mercenary group of Sophons that embrace conflict instead of science), a species that hasn’t quite fully evolved yet but have a peculiar adaptation to Dust (such as the Deuyivans, a race of insectoids that grew to like Dust a lot), a species created by the Endless for their own mysterious ends (like the Sowers, who continue to terraform planets for their long-dead masters), or even a race that used to be Endless, however indirectly, until something eons ago went wrong (like the Amoeba, long story).

Whenever you incorporate these races into your civilization, they offer specific benefits based on their culture and how fast their population grows amongst your own. That’s right: once you adopt a lesser race into your civilization, they will actually become part of your civilization, with bonuses all their own. This can usually mean a quick population increase for your developing capital, or boosts for systems that are struggling with your population alone (the Epistis, for example, are rocky creatures that grow more food on sterile worlds, which can make all the difference when your people are starving on systems with arctic or barren worlds.) If you’re the xenophobic-type, you do have the option to restrict voting rights to your own people, which can help when choosing a political faction to side with. This is more than a simple thematic choice. After all, you wouldn’t want to start off with a dictatorial war play in mind just to run into a bunch of freedom-and-peace-loving Amoeba and mess that up. Or on the flip-side, if you have a plan to craft alliances with as many players and lesser races as possible, things might get complicated if you run into the Mavros or the Eyder peoples who more easily benefit the conflict-minded. Depending on who you meet, you may have to switch things up a bit. Play your cards right, though, and the lesser races you encounter early on can help you mold your tactics as the game progresses.

The highly-disciplined Yussho increase your available manpower for fleets as well as increase fleet weapon damage and limit troop casualties during ground battles. Of course, this doesn’t help much if you intend on an economic victory. On the other hand, the best defense is a good offense!

I love the idea of lesser races. Not only can they directly benefit your preferred style of play, they can completely mess it up if you don’t run into the ones you hope for. Yet somehow, for how specialized some of the major races feel during gameplay, you’ll never want to say no to a little more manpower when you’re the first to come across these unique civilizations. Sometimes during random missions and side quests, you’ll be gifted populations from a lesser race, and it’s always a good idea to shuttle them to systems where they’ll do the most good. I also love that while a few of the races are wonderful early-game, some of these lesser races become even more helpful late-game, especially if you plan ahead and focus on their development. If you assimilate the Sowers, for example, there is a chance to acquire massive amounts of food on sterile planets (they are considered “soil healers”), and even massively reduce the cost of terraforming planets (they are the Endless’s planetary architects). The higher their population in your civilization, the greater the chance you have to gain these bonuses.

Look at those little Sowers go! Is it odd that almost all terraforming machines in science-fiction are on tripods? Or are, at the very least, very tall towers? Is that just a very science-fictiony-thing? Or are tripod towers naturally good for the environment?

Although you can customize your own main civilization before each game starts, you cannot create your own lesser race to play with (outside of modding, I suppose, which I haven’t looked into with Endless Space 2). But I’ve actually been thinking about a fun possibility. What if there existed a lesser race that practically forced a player to perform a 180-degree turn strategically if they assimilated them at the wrong time? Okay, maybe not 180 degrees, but bear with me.

Imagine a race of crystalline golems. To match the style of Endless Space, I’ll call them: “The Lucidian Remembrance.” Granted sapience through centuries of Dust exposure, these dense and slow-moving behemoths retain within themselves the memories of all the living things that have previously interacted with their unique infusions. Bereft of sensory organs or physical forms beyond their crystalline framework, they rely upon the Dust to relay information to them and affect the world around them. Though the Dust grants them memories and wisdom, it does not provide a clear picture of organic life. Quite the opposite. When interacting with other life-forms, their first impressions of a species’s overall worldview tends to stick in their stoic recollections, and they have difficulty comprehending how quickly squishy minds change. This does not dampen their desire to prove “helpful,” however, as they are rather fond of learning from biological life.

Whenever they are assimilated into a primary culture, while providing a small boost to scientific research, they boost whatever political faction the player holds as their “majority” faction. The longer the majority stays in power, and the larger the Lucidians grow in population, the stronger the majority’s hold becomes. If the player wishes to change majorities mid-game (as a wise player sometimes does), the best way to change the Lucidians’ support is to pair them in smaller populations with your main population during the change. This way, while the Lucidians may take a while to change their opinions, it isn’t too hard to make a serious change when gameplay demands it.

The Lucidians’ true strength, however, comes from unchanging opinions. The longer they remain in a single “majority,” the stronger their bonus to the majority opinion becomes. If your society supports the Industrialists, for example, the longer they support them without changing, the more the Lucidians boosts your overall manufacturing and fleet construction. If your society supports the Militarists, the better the Lucidians become at maintaining morale during wartime and providing defensive bonuses during ground combat. If you society supports the Intellectuals, the Lucidians become masters at scientific research, providing ever greater bonuses as your civilization increases its Dust reserves. For Environmentalists, the Lucidians provide increased approval bonuses for planets undergoing terraformation. For the Religious faction, the Lucidians boost conversion rates on newly-conquered systems. And for Pacifists, big boosts to luxury resource generation the more alliances you gain.

Once a player comes across this lesser species, it would force them to consolidate a game plan and stick with it for as long as possible. Me, being the plebian that I am, would invariably focus solely on scientific research and simply out-science my rivals. In the hands of a better player who loves a lot of micro-play, I could see this being right up their alley.

Will you choose the more “peaceful” Lucidian?
…or the more brutal?

Anyway, while I fully admit to having no experience in designing video games (especially games like Endless Space 2 that require the finest of fine-tuning to preserve a fair balance between races), I do love coming up with fun ideas on how to improve a 4X-style game. I love the subtle worldbuilding inherent to 4X games, as well as all the little bonuses that slowly snowball into gigantic strategies that can change the course of an entire game. Lesser races in Endless Space 2 fit that bill perfectly. In the very least, it’s the ideas like these that keep my mind busy while desperately trying to improve my own lot in life.

Never know when a good distraction might transform into something better.