Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Warcraft Short Story – Grim Assignment

Posted by arnaud on October 23rd, 2010
Legal Disclaimer : I wrote this short story for the 2010 Blizzard Writing Contest. Under the terms I agreed upon while submitting, the intellectual rights of this story are the property of Blizzard Entertainment. You are not allowed to publish this story, unless they agreed on it beforehand.
My own Disclaimer : This is the first short work I did; it may not be perfect (or even good); please don’t judge the writer too harshly! And yes, it’s quite dark, so beware!

Grim Assignment

The fortress’s walls were looming over So’Jin’s head, the huge stone blocks menacing to fall at any instant without warning. Grim Batol had never been built for his kind; his people preferred open skies and earth beneath their feet, not the cold stone and mortar found here. Why did dwarves, so short beings, like to live in such gigantic stone tombs, So’Jin would never understand. Even the spirits had fled this gods forsaken place, so why had the Hammer decided to occupy this place? Granted, wondrous deeds had happened there, in service to the old gods, but he still wished that his masters had selected a more open place.

One didn’t choose his assignments within the Twilight Hammer; So’Jin had a job to perform and a report to give to his superior, even if his job was an unimportant one, not like the preparations taking place in Deepholm.

He was walking on this large corridor, feeling oppressed by those stone walls. The command section wasn’t too far now; he just had to get there, give his report, and get back to his laboratory. That report would be quick, as they were roughly on schedule; nothing to write his tribe about.

He nodded to the guards flanking the door leading to the command quarters. He knew those two faces well, as he came here to make his report three times a week.

“Hexer So’Jin, “ said one of the guards, whose name he had forgotten. “Nice to see you tonight.”

“Ya, man, “ replied So’Jin. “Is commander here?”

“He’ll be there in a few minutes, “ said the guard. “You can wait for him in the antechamber.”

“Sure, man. “ said So’Jin. “Da ya have the last True Believer issue here?”

“I think it came this morning, yes, “ replied the guard. “Don’t you have issues delivered at the labs?”

“Na, man. They don’t bring papers to us. They say we not need news to do work at lab.” Not having the newspaper delivered to his team was a little like saying that they didn’t belong to the Twilight Hammer, as did the others acolytes, but did they not work as hard as anyone else to ensure their gods supremacy? So, in order to satisfy his curiosity about the Hammer’s advances, he had to use every opportunity to read the Believer wherever he went.

“If they say so, it must be true, “ replied the guard. “I think that the last issue is still on the table in the antechamber. Help yourself with some news there, Hexer.”

“Thanks, man, “ replied So’Jin. It chafed him to have to thank a guard in order to have the same level of information as every other member of the Hammer.

So’Jin entered the antechamber and found the issue there, on the table. The newspaper was in bad shape, as if every man in the citadel had read it before him. So’Jin went to a nearby chair, though he would have preferred to stand : his commander didn’t like having people standing while waiting. Angering the commander with small mistakes could send the man in a foul mood ; though they were on friendly terms, So’Jin preferred to bear a little discomfort and stay on Veneer’s good side.

This True Believer issue didn’t look that interesting, with the usual propaganda about how the Hammer’s victory was at hand. They had said the same thing a few years back with the desert operation, even after a group of adventurers had penetrated the temple, and killed the God emerging from his awakening. An Old god slayed! They were supposed to bring Them back to power, not expose them to the first group of adventurers passing in the area. Then, there had been the events from the north, with another of their gods brutally slain by yet another group. Another god lost. At the pace they were dying, it would be a miracle if even one stood to defend Azeroth once the Titans decided that this world was not worth the trouble and came to destroy it. They needed the old gods. They needed them desperately, yet all the Hammer’s actions had ended in bitter failure.

Why had they decided to take this fortress, which would be the first target, once the Dragon was released back into this world? They should have gone to the ground, with the masters, instead of coming here, and attempt to add defenses to defend this spirit-forsaken place. Armies would come here, and nothing would be able to stop them. His little project, even if successful, would only play a small part in the citadel’s defense anyway.

He glossed over the obituaries and promotion announcements, looking for more interesting reads. He found it in the form of a little snippet, an almost inconspicuous phrase wedged between two long articles : “Our sea-ally will come to see us shortly”. Was it so near? The wording suggested that the Dragon would be released in the next few days. The commander would be too busy to discuss his project now.

As if bidden to enter by the spirits, the commander arrived to the antechamber. He was a tall blood-elf, with long golden hair, and green eyes that shone like a troll’s blood potion.

“Hexer, “ said the commander, barely slowing his walk as he went to his quarters, motioning him to follow, “you’re here for the report, I assume?”

Yes, master, “ replied So’Jin, following the man into his quarters. It was best to be concise with Commander Veneer, as the man could easily misinterpret So’Jin’s approximate use of common language.

“I’ll summon our Abyssal Council contact now, so you can answer directly their questions, “ said Veneer. So’Jin’s heart froze in his chest: if a member of the council was here, he could be living his last hour.

“No need bothering Abyssal Council with So’Jin, commander, “ stuttered So’Jin. “I report to you, You report to council.”

“Ordinarily, I would not present you to the Duke, “ said the Commander, “ but they specifically demanded a report from the team’s leader, and that’s you, So’Jin.”

“If commander insists, “ said So’Jin, “I will report to Abyssal Council.”

“I never doubted you would, “ replied Veneer. “I’ll begin the ritual.”

So’Jin resigned himself, and watched the commander position the invocation stones on the floor. The stones pulsed with a ghastly light, as if spirits were trapped inside them. Could the makers of the stones have hexed spirits and trapped them inside those stones? So’Jin shivered, apprehension rising inside his mind.

Once satisfied that the stones were at the right emplacement, the commander went to his desk to fetch his medallion, and donned it. So’Jin had half-expected that Veneer would forget the medallion, as used as he was of dealing only with Templars.

The commander knelt before the stones, and extended his hands before him – his bare hands.

Hmmm, “ said So’Jin, trying to catch the commander’s attention before he really started the ritual. The man turned his head towards So’Jin, and cast him one of his darker looks. “Master, I think that it would be better to use the signet for the invocation.” Without the right signet of beckoning, there was no guarantee that the right Duke would be summoned, and a Duke summoned without reason would be quite upset.

Understanding his mistake, the commander stood up and went to the nearby cabinet, to fetch the red signet. He bowed his head to So’Jin, acknowledging his gratitude. So’Jin smiled back at his friend.

The commander resumed his ritual, the signet now present on his extended hands. He recited the ritual too softly for So’Jin to make out the words – not that he wanted to learn the invocation ritual. The stones glow became more intense, and took a reddish tint. The Duke of Cynders was on his way, now, and there would be no stopping him. So’Jin was now on the verge of panic : other dukes would be bad enough, but the envoy of Ragnaros himself was without pity, and So’Jin felt that he would only get out of this room in the form of ashes blown out by the wind.

A few seconds later, a large flash of red light announced the arrival of the Duke. So’Jin opened his eyes and looked at the thing standing before them : The Duke, a Flamewaker, had a form reminiscent of the Naga, though the two races were probably not related. An expression of malevolence was apparent on the demon’s lips, as if he was anticipating some succulent meal that was about to be served : troll hexer. So’Jin gulped as the Duke’s stare seemed to undress him; that Duke knew how to impress his servants.

So’Jin imitated Veneer who was prostrating himself before Ragnaros’s envoy : he threw himself on the ground, face against the cold stone. A pity to die here without stars to look down on him. What would happen to his spirit in this place?

“I almost had to wait for your summons, “ boomed the Duke’s voice in the room, reverberating against the stone walls. “I don’t have time to waste with your sort, worms.”

“Apologies, “ said Veneer in a meek tone that So’Jin never had heard before. “I only received my instructions a few minutes ago. The ritual was not prepared as it should have.”

“We’ll discuss your punishment later, “ said the Duke, not lowering his voice. If he continued to speak that loud, So’Jin’s ears would not survive the interview, whether the Duke approved of him or not.”Now, I want an update on our fortress’s defense.”

“Th..thank you, Duke, “ said Veneer, face still on the ground. “You’re most gracious, Duke. I shall report immediately.”

“Out with it, elf!” howled the Duke.

“Yes, Duke, “ said Veneer. “Our defenses. We have devised two types of defenses for the fortress. We anticipate the red dragonflight to make an attempt through air, so we developed counter-airstrikes measures, to dispatch the red dragons as fast as possible. “

“You don’t rely on the black dragonflight, then. Good.” said the Duke.

“I prefer to not depend on anyone for the fortress’s defenses, Duke.”

“And the other type of defenses?”

“That’s where So’Jin here intervenes, “ said Veneer. ”If our enemies manage to lands troops in the fortress, we devised traps to lead the attackers through the city to their doom. That doom is a creature that So’Jin’s building.” The commander turned his fact to him, inviting him to speak.

“So’Jin responsible for building strong creature, “ the hexer managed to say before the Duke interrupted him.

A single creature? “ cried the Duke. “Those attackers and their armies banished my Lord back to his plane, and you pit a single creature against them? “ That voice was beginning to damage So’Jin’s ears. He had to explain fast, or the next phrase from the Duke might break his eardrums.

“We have whole companies of men to defend the place, Duke, “ interceded Veneer.

“And creature is secret weapon, “ said So’Jin.

“Secret weapon? “ asked the Duke in a lower voice. Merciful lower voice.

“Yes Duke, “ continued So’Jin. “We learned from our mistakes. Those adventurers are crafty. They kill gods. We need new weapon to render them unable to strike.”

“Others have tried before, “ said the Duke, his voice rising again. “why is your creature any different, dog?”

“We render attacker unconscious, Duke, with spirits.”

“Spirits? You trolls are all the same! “ said the Duke with contempt. “You think your spirits are so powerful. Hakkar himself has been defeated by those people.”

“I mean alcohol, Duke. Strong alcohol. Spirits.”

“Alcohol? That’s a new idea. How do you intent it to work?” asked the Duke.

“Monster exhales alcohol clouds. Alcohol fills monster’s den. When adventurers come to kill monster, they find alcohol. Adventurers’ view blurred. Some adventurers puke, some sleep, then monster kills adventurers, and eats them.”

“I can already see those troops dropped off by dragons, going merrily to kill our monster, only to find themselves drunk and unable to fight, their stomachs belching, throwing up their lunch on the ground, while they are being shredded to pieces by this monster, ” said the Duke, chuckling.

“Thank you, Duke, “ said Veneer, taking over.

“So, the plan works, “ said the Duke. “The world will see this fortress as our headquarters. They will pour men here like oil on fire, only loosing them to your creature. They’ll never even bother to look elsewhere for our real operations.” So that was the plan? To make this fortress a target to keep everyone’s eyes away from the real danger? It might work, but only if the creature managed to live, and nothing like that was sure.

So’Jin trust a look at his commander : was he supposed to give a full report, or this was enough for the Duke? A full report might still kill them. Veneer shook his head in response : he didn’t want the Duke to have a full report. Good, that meant that So’Jin would get to live a little longer.

“I have other matters to attend to, “ said the Duke. “Call me back on the morning to give me a full battle-readiness report. You can expect the first attacks within a few days.”

“Yes, Duke, “ said the commander. “It shall be done as you said.”

The Duke disappeared in a cloud of smoke without another word. Veneer and So’Jin looked up at the same time, and both came back on their feet.

“I think you saved my life twice today, “ said the elf. “I don’t think the Duke was much pleased with me until you explained your idea.”

“But, Veneer, creature not ready, “ exclaimed So’Jin. “Creature not producing enough alcohol yet to make baby tipsy.”

“You heard the Duke, “ said Veneer. “I don’t care that your creature doesn’t work today, just make sure it works in three days, or we’re all doomed.”

“Maybe three months not enough, three days, not possible.” said So’Jin.

It will have to be, “ said Veneer, putting a hand on So’Jin’s shoulder. “Otherwise, we’ll be the Duke’s pain toys.” He sighed. “We’re all counting on you, Hexer So’Jin.”

“Then you all fools,” he replied. The creature would never be ready on time, of that he was sure. He just hoped he would be able to get out of this cold fortress to die outside, in an open sky. That was all he wanted right now.

*

So’Jin didn’t want to succumb to panic, but he was close to the breaking point. Not only had the interview with the Duke drained him physically, but the task that had been set upon him was all but impossible ; a few minutes ago, he had been on schedule, and now, he was three months late! The last he had heard from his assistants, the creature was even beginning to reject the potions it was being fed with. If ever that thing managed to drink even one more flask, it would be a sheer miracle. So’Jin needed dozens of miracles to happen in the next following days, if he wanted to perform what had been asked of him.

As he approached his lab, he could smell the acrid smoke coming out from the stone windows that were his working place. A few members of the Hammer had already complained about that smoke, saying that it prevented their work, that it corroded every metal left unattended, that it smelt like death itself, but Veneer had rejected all those grievances.

He climbed the few steps leading to the doorway. Why had the accursed dwarves built housing where stairs were needed to enter at ground level? They had no proper taste. The only stairs worth climbing were those on the flank of a great pyramid, leading to the altar. He almost stumbled while stepping on the last stone, as this place hadn’t been built for someone of his build. He swore a light hex before regaining his balance, to counter this bad omens. If he ever got on hand on one of these dwarves, he would throw the thing into the cauldron and try one of the head-boiling techniques he had learned a few years ago : Gurubashi-style!

As he passed the door, his lead assistant turned his head and looked at him, fear plain on the goblin’s face. Had anything else gone wrong while he had been away?

“What is problem, man?” said So’Jin.

“The creature’s been restless, So’Jin, “ said Galzrik. “We barely managed to contain it this time.”

“We have to do better, “ said So’Jin. “Master wants creature operational in three days.”

“Three days? We’ll all be dead in three days anyway, “ said Galzrik. “When the creature escapes, we will be it’s first meal.”

“So’Jin don’t intend to finish in creature’s belly, “ he replied. “We find way to subdue creature. Master commands it.”

“He can command the earth to crack open for all I care, “ replied the assistant. “Without means to have the creature swallow, we won’t be able to find the right mix of the potions. Three days or not.”

“Maybe I can invoke spirits to help, “ said So’Jin. “Spirits strong, even against big creature.”

“You can try all the mumbo-jumbo you want So’Jin, but I’m telling you that if my machines can’t hold the creature, I don’t think your spirits ever will, “ said Galzrik.

“You underestimate spirits, “ replied So’Jin. “You saying that all you need is quiet creature?”

“Pretty much, “ replied Galzrik. “All I need is a few tries with the creature tied up, and willing to swallow. “

“I do ritual with spirits, Galzrik, “ said So’Jin. “Prepare potions. I’ll contain creature.”

“I thought you hadn’t found spirits in this place, “ said Galzrik.

“We carry creature outside for testing, “ replied So’Jin.

“Did Yogg touch you? “ cried the goblin. “Do you want the creature running loose inside the fortress? We can’t move it, or it will devour us!”

“Easy, Man. Prepare sleeping mix for creature, “ said So’Jin. “Then move it while it sleeps.”

“Do you have something like dragons to carry the creature out? It’s almost as large as a gronn. I don’t see us carrying it outside. Not in a hundred years!”

“Me think about transport, “ replied So’Jin. “You think about drug and alcohol potions, and protection things.” Now, all he had to worry about was putting a monster to sleep, carry it over the fortress walls, and ask the spirits outside to hold it while they forcibly poured potion after potion inside the thing’s gullet. Almost child’s play.

*

Tearing down the laboratory’s walls had been more difficult that So’Jin had anticipated. Those halflings had built their fortress well, cutting the stones to the exact required size. It had taken all of Galzrik’s ability with explosives to carve a hole in that wall without having the ceiling caving in on them. The goblin had done a superb job, and shone with pride : he had thoroughly enjoyed the occasion to use his special demolition abilities.

Now that there was a hole big enough to allow passage for the creature, the only thing to do was carry it outside. So’Jin had secured a company of twilight mages for the task. Those men were not capable of lifting the creature, but they would be able to help a lot.

As soon as the dust began to settle, So’Jin signaled to the company’s lead man to begin their work. The man nodded in acknowledgment before turning to his men. He had explained before what was required of them, so he only gave the order. The mages made the same fluid movement, pointing towards the hole in the wall, and the now exposed laboratory. The temperature seemed to decrease at once, as if thousands of spirits had decided to pick on So’Jin’s soul. A thin layer of ice began to form on the ground, spreading towards the laboratory. “I should have asked them to carve that hole, instead of having Galzrik rig the whole place. It would have been much quicker, “ thought So’Jin. The layer of ice was growing to form a large ice ramp leading from the laboratory down to the courtyard. So’Jin had never liked the cold, his clan coming from the southern parts of the world ; he shivered, rubbing his arms to keep them warm.

Moving the creature would be much faster now : they only had to push it onto the ice, and then, the thing would gently slide down to the courtyard. They should be done within the hour. So’Jin signaled the mages to stop. He approached the ramp, still shivering from the cold. He put his hand on the ice and tested the ramp’s solidity : it would not do if the thing gave way under the creature’s enormous weight. Everything seemed in order, so he looked up at Galzrik.

“You can start moving creature to ice path, Galzrik, “ he said. “Gentle push, and no more explosives. And distribute alcohol protection potions now.”

“Explosives are so much more fun, “ replied the goblin. “You’re sure about those potions? I can get you one of my masks to protect you from the creature’s alcoholic production.”

“You know So’Jin don’t trust technology, “ replied So’Jin. “I take potion.”

“Suit yourself, “ replied Galzrik. He looked back at the creature, and sighed. “We’ll have to push that thing with sticks. Can’t your mages do a little more work?”

“If you ask nicely, “ replied So’Jin. Galzrik frowned, and began to waving his hands, motioning the other assistants to get out of the laboratory.

Pushing the creature on the ramp had been hard work. After an hour, the thing was ready to be pushed down to the courtyard. The mages had to come back three time to maintain the ramp in a solid state, the ice starting to melt after only a few minutes each time. Now, after repeated melting and solidification, the ramp wasn’t covered in frost anymore, but did appear as if made of crystal, glistening in the torch light.

As everything appeared to be in order, So’Jin ordered the creature pushed down. The creature started to move at once, but the sliding hulk began to gather speed as it began his descent. The thing moved now with unnatural speed, and would soon crash into the courtyard cobblestones, and the apparently frozen ensemble of mages arrayed there.

So’Jin waved his arms at them, and cried at them : “Move, fools!”

Some of them heard him and began to back away, but most were too slow to avoid the now hurtling bolid that smashed squarely into most of the mages company. A few unlucky ones were squashed under the creature’s weight, some were thrown away against stones. When the motion ceased, none of them were still standing.

And they still had to carry the thing outside the fortress’s walls.

*

They had lost too much time already : how much more time would the thing remain asleep? They needed to move faster, to pass beyond the gate. So’Jin hummed the surrounding air, trying to smell spirits around him. He still didn’t perceive any, but he could feel them waiting for him beyond the gate. Soon, his powers would return to him, and he would be able to complete his assignment, with a little luck. Well, So’Jin didn’t believe in luck. He believed in the spirits helping the powerful ones and devouring the weak, and in the old gods; he certainly needed their help now.

No one spoke as they passed the gate: everyone being too afraid to utter a sound. Did they believe that not speaking would keep the creature asleep? So’Jin needed to cure them of this foolish belief, so he broke the silence.

“Hurry lads, “ he said. “I want creature well beyond gate before sundown.” That phrase provoked a few stunned looks from his men : they didn’t believe that this was possible, dusk being almost upon them, but no-one dared to speak up. His request must have spurred them all the same, because the pace began to increase. He should have told them to do that half an hour ago!

So’Jin signaled the team to stop pushing a few minutes after sunset. The men took a step back as soon as they received the order, leaving So’Jin room to approach. They all looked alert and wary : the creature had given multiple signs that it was about to break out from its slumber. They had been truly blessed by the old gods to have made it to this place in one piece.

So’Jin approached the creature, and once more turned his eyes to the stars. He felt better here, hearing the spirits whisper in his ear. Lesser men could go mad when hearing those whispers, but to So’Jin, the spirits were part of his world; not to hear them felt wrong, hearing them again was like regaining his sight after having passed months inside a dark cave. He felt a little blinded now, but happy.

His men had prepared the place for the ritual, and he had inspected it before ordering the creature moved, so he didn’t bother looking at every detail right now. He took position near the creature’s oversized bald head, and unstopped his protection potion, gulping it in one shot. He looked one more time at his creation : once fully laid out, the creature was near ten yards, with finger as thick as one of So’Jin’s arms, and fists as big as boulders. He felt a little small compared to the thing’s size. Shivering, he extended his arms, so they nearly touched the cold skin, and began the ritual.

“Spirits, “ he moaned in Zandali, “ hear my call. Come help your servant. Make me strong. Hold my enemy down, so I can eat his heart and take his strength.” The spirits soon responded to his call, appearing to his sight, almost forming a cloud over the creature’s body. All would be well now.

The spirits were singing to him now, filling his mind with awe, menacing to break his concentration. This was the trick of dealing with spirits : they attempted to disrupt the hexer’s control, so they could turn on him. Only the strongest, the ones with the best wills could resist their call and not be cursed for all eternity, their own spirit devoured by the ones he had attempted to control. So’Jin’s lips curled at the thought of all those youngsters from his tribe that had attempted this feat, and had utterly failed before his eyes. Their souls now were roaming between worlds. This would not happen to him. He was better than this.

He had called the spirits by hundreds, perhaps even thousands, to his help. They were now forming a layer so thick on the creature’s chest that So’Jin felt now confident the thing could never escape his grasp, never even move more than inches.

Still controlling the spirits, So’Jin called his assistants.

“Come boys. Come test each potion, “ he howled through the deafening songs of the spirits still filling his mind. “Pour each potion into creature’s gullet and watch.”

The three assistants started to move towards the creature. The creature was on its back, starting to move again. So’Jin smiled : all the creature’s efforts were useless now, now that he had his spirits backing him. Strynger and Surn, his human twin assistants climbed over the creature’s chest, not seeing the spirits under their feet and hands. They must have known what did lay here, but being unable to see it, they climbed without fear. Strynger sat on top of the creature’s chest, near the head, his feet dangling from each side of the thick neck. It must have felt like sitting on a high tree branch from up here.

The assistants had established a type of chain, with Surn perched on the creature’s shoulder while Galzrik, stayed on the ground. That way, each potion could be fetched from the wooden table they had taken out of the laboratory, and poured into the creature’s gaping mouth in a matter of seconds. One of the spirits was maintaining the mouth open, forming a sort of gag that would prevent the thing from snapping off his assistant’s hands.

Galzrik came besides So’Jin to take his instructions, but had to repeat his questions because So’Jin couldn’t hear him over the spirits’ constant roar.

“We’re ready, So’Jin, “ cried the goblin. “Do you want to start with the weak stuff or the most potent ones?”

“Use strong potions, man. So’Jin wants experiment done fast.”

“The best stuff first, then, “ said Galzrik, grinning. “Like pouring liquid explosives into that thing’s mouth. I wouldn’t want to be inside it’s stomach right now, things might start to heat up very fast.” He went back to the table and selected two vials. He gave them to the assistant lodged on the thing’s shoulder, which passed them to the one that was sitting over the gaping mouth.

Strynger poured the two vials, in one motion. The creature’s eyes popped open, and its body started to convulse, as ocher smoke began to come out of its mouth. Tears welled up around the thing’s eyes : it must have been in great pain to provoke such a physical response. The creature heaved, trying to move, but the spirits holding it would not allow it.

Galzrik scratched his head, apparently perplexed. Had he hoped to get the right mix at the first attempt? He went back to the table to fix another mix. This one, he prepared right on the spot, not taking the vials he had brought. When he was satisfied, he took his two flasks to the rest of the team, and had this batch tested, this time without any outside indication that anything had happened. The goblin kicked the creature’s arm out of frustration, jumping on the ground. After having calmed himself, he came back to So’Jin to discuss this failed attempt.

“I don’t understand, So’Jin, “ said the goblin, this time using the right volume. “This should have worked!”

“Which ingredients in potion, man? “ asked So’Jin. Put one wrong ingredient, and the result could be non existent or explosive.

“Well, let me think, “ replied Galzrik. “Mainly plaguebloom, silversage, and a pinch of mana thistle, of course.”

“You sure it is mana thistle, and not Sweetthistle? “ asked So’Jin. “Looked like sweetthistle, man.” Galzrik scratched his head, and went to the table to check. He soon came back, blushing like a maiden. The red tint didn’t go well with his greenish skin.

“I’m sorry, master, “ said the goblin. “There was a mix-up in the labels. I should have known better. I’ll change the ingredient right now.” He bowed his head to So’Jin before rushing back to the potions table, where he brewed another mix. He completed this new batch, and gave it to the other assistants, who were openly snickering at him now.

This time, the potions provoked a slight greenish smoke outburst from the creature. By the look of the assistant perched above the place, that smoke was full with alcohol.

Galzrik jumped in the air, clapping his hands. If he thought that this weak mixture was enough to declare victory, the goblin was dead wrong.

His jumping done, the goblin took out his notebook from his pocket and wrote his observations on this mix’s effects. While the goblin wrote, So’Jin found he had more difficulty concentrating on his ritual; he must have been too much out of practice : he must concentrate more on his task. As he focused his mind back to the ritual, the constant singing of the spirits receded to a more bearable level.

The next attempts would be crucial to their plan : if they managed to make the creature exhale alcohol in greater quantities, they would have the weapon the Hammer had requested of them to help protect this fortress. The gods would be pleased with them.

Galzrik came to him with the latest batch.

“So’Jin, I think this could be the one, “ he said. “The last batch produced the right effect, so I added a little ghost mushroom to try to increase the effect.”

“No sweetthistle this time? “ asked So’Jin. The goblin straightened at those words.

“This is the right mix, master, “ he replied. “I feel it. It’s going to kick that creature to a whole new level of badness!”

“Go, then, “ replied So’Jin, not wanting to tease the goblin much more. “Be careful.”

Thank you, master, “ replied the goblin. He ajusted his mask on his nose before going back to the colleagues. In So’Jin’s head, the spirits roar had continued to rise and rise. In a few more minutes, he would be unable to hear anything else but them and their call. “Heed my call, spirits, “ he whispered. “keep that creature still, and I shall make a huge sacrifice in your honor.” They had to continue to listen to him, or he would be in big trouble.

This time, Galzrik was more careful as he passed his two vials on to the assistants. He told them something, but So’Jin couldn’t hear him over the spirits song. The assistants were as careful as the goblin in manipulating the vials, taking exquisite precautions to position themselves. When the man on the top was ready at last, he nodded to So’Jin to maintain the creature’s mouth open. So’Jin concentrated his mind to get a better grip on the spirits before nodding back.

Strynger poured simultaneously the two vials into the creature’s mouth, the two light blue streams combining to a green hue, right before entering the opened mouth. The operation seemed to last for minutes, as the man poured, almost drop by drop.

The creature’s body once more tried to arch, his muscles tensing, but the spirits kept him immobile. Its eyes were wide open, searching for the man responsible for its torment. One of those black eyes found So’Jin. The creature might only have basic intelligence, but it knew him; it knew who was in charge here. The thing’s eye squinted a little, focusing on So’Jin, and cast him a look of utter hatred. It was good to see the creature having this sort of response : it would make it a more dangerous fighter, if it could summon enough anger and hatred. “Hate me all you want, creature, “ said So’Jin in Zandali. “Soon, you will be serving the old gods, and protecting us all. You will have all the blood you’ll ever want then.”

The creature continued to convulse, sending ripples through his body, and the thick layer of spirits covering him. It could try all it wanted, the spirits would never let go, thought So’Jin with a smile. The creature’s body, then began changing color, from its pinkish hue to a now more bronze-like tint. Good, the reaction was taking place. Soon, the creature would find within itself something, a new reserve yet to be used, and would attempt to channel that reserve. Once it did that, So’Jin would have won; he would have saved the fortress, and served his gods better than anyone else here. He felt pride swell in his chest. Had not the spirits continuously been attacking his defenses, he would have howled with joy. There would be more than enough time tonight for celebration. The commander would be overflowing with gratitude, and the Duke would be pleased. His name would appear in the Believer, for every acolyte to read. Maybe even, he would be promoted to lead a community, perhaps in a place with open sky over him. All he had worked for, everything, that was his for the taking. A tear formed in the corner of his eye; a tear of pure joy.

The transformation was happening right before his eyes, just as he had predicted. The creature’s skin was now a deep bronze color, and would be thicker and more difficult to pierce than the most endured steel armor. The creature needed some space to evolve now, for it would gain some size – as if it wasn’t big enough already. So’Jin waved his assistants to climb down and back away, so that he could release the spirits grip, and let the creature evolve.

As soon as his assistants backed off, So’Jin relaxed the spirits, allowing the creature to move. The head turned first, and came to face him. There was still that look of hatred in those eyes, but there was something else as well – anticipation. What was the thing up to? It made no sense for a creature chained by invisible spirits, undertaking an unimaginable change within himself to be happy about anything.

A smile appeared on the creature’s lips, showing uneven teeth as large as fists. The creature tensed and close its eyes, creases appearing around its eyes and forehead. The thing then opened its eyes, and gave So’Jin a triumphant look as it opened its mouth and released a cloud of brown vapor. The vapor smelt strongly of alcohol.

He had done it! So’Jin had single-handedly saved the fortress and earned the gods approval. Why had the creature thought it would affect him? He was no fool, he had taken every precaution, so the creature couldn’t harm him. There would be no stopping him now, he would deliver this magnificent creature to the old gods. This was the crowning achievement of his carrier.

“I name you Y-Gath, slayer of thousands, “ cried So’Jin. “Bow to the old gods; bask in their benevolent will, and save us all, ” he ordered the creature, but his creation didn’t move a muscle.

The song of the spirits increased once more, threatening to wrestle control away from him. He focused on his ritual, and the sound diminished once more. He must have been more tired than he thought, for him to have that little control over the spirits.

His control didn’t last long.

His ears heard it before he could see it : the victorious roar of a thousand spirits that looked at him at the same instant. He tried to concentrate himself to regain control of this horde that would come straight at him to devour his soul in a short instant. For a while, he managed it, but he lost his grip again.

He tried to concentrate once more. He tried, and tried, but could not. Why could he not concentrate enough? What was wrong?

The first spirits were beginning to come for him, slowly. They feared that he would regain control and punish them, so they came slowly, taking their time.

So’Jin’s eyes bulged with horror, as the creatures now formed a solid wall coming at him, an implacable enemy that he could not control anymore. He felt a little light-headed right then. What could he do? Fleeing was no option : those spirits would chase him through water and earth. Not even the fortress would stop them now, for they cried for revenge, their shouts louder and louder than before.

His assistants! His team, he had to protect them, so they could carry the creature away, and snatch victory out of an ignominious death that was awaiting him. He waved at them, tried to call to them, tell them to get away, but no-one moved. They did not see the spirits that were now a few meters away from him – they didn’t understand.

So’Jin gave a last try at controlling the incoming horde, but he felt dizzy now, barely able to stand. What was happening to him? Had the spirits begun eating his soul while he hadn’t been looking? The wall was now a foot away from him, and curving itself so that he was being surrounded by this shining wall of avenging spirits.

Why couldn’t he even think clearly, why?

He looked up at the creature’s head that was still staring at him. The creature looked amused now – almost happy. Could that thing understand what was happening?

It was when the creature opened his mouth once more, releasing another cloud of vapor than So’Jin understood the nature of his weakness. Somehow, he had never seen it coming, but the creature had.

Despite the potion protecting him, the creature had made him drunk!

No wonder he couldn’t control the spirits anymore, that his head felt like it was stuffed with wool.

But this was impossible! The protection potions had been prepared only a few hours ago by Galzrik himself – his best assistant. What had gone wrong? That potion wasn’t so difficult to make; it shouldn’t produce any side effects, and the components were simple plants that wouldn’t spoil : the blackmouth oil was fresh, and the swifthistle well green. No chance of producing a bad potion with these plants, and Galzrik was a master at mixing potions.

It’s then that the association came to his mind : Galzrik on one hand, and swiftthistle on the other hand. What had the goblin said about the vials labels being switched? It meant that his potion must have contained mana thistle instead of swiftthistle, rendering it completely useless.

Hope fled So’Jin’s mind right then. He looked up at the creature that was smiling to him. He hoped that the creature would be merciful at least : that it would once more open his maw and release another cloud of alcohol, so that So’Jin would drop in a drunken stupor and not feel the spirits devouring his soul. Something passed between him and the creature, a look of understanding that told So’Jin that the creature knew of his predicament.

The creature was not a merciful one. It kept his mouth shut for now on, leaving So’Jin to his fate.

The spirits were now all on him, their touch cold against his skin. He shivered, thinking about those times he had witnessed a foolish apprentice being devoured like this. What they left of his soul would haunt this place, not finding any rest, trying to harass the living to gain a measure of respite.

He howled his pain, as he felt the spirits shredding away his soul, feeding themselves on his memories and feelings.

He looked one more time towards his assistants, just as the creature turned its head towards them. The creature’s plan was clear now : it would punish his assistants right after the spirits had finished eating his soul, and there was nothing he could do about it. Had he some tears left, he would have wept for his men that thought they had won, yet would be killed and dismembered by his wonderful killing creation, his Y-Gath. Which fate would be preferable, between his and his assistants, he didn’t know.

All he knew was that he had failed – utterly – and that this fortress would now be defenseless against attackers. At least, he got his wish : he was dying under the open sky.

Results of the short story contest

Posted by arnaud on October 23rd, 2010

As some of you may know, I did try my hand at writing a short story this summer. I took the opportunity to enter the Blizzard Writing Contest, and submitted my work there.

This was an interesting writing experience (see there for my comments at the time).

Results were supposed to be announced on october 8th, but due to the amount of reading to be done, the results were pushed back to the 18th.

Well, results are out now, and my short story didn’t make the cut, as my name didn’t appear in the list of 14 names that were put on the results announcement (you can find those names there).

I’d like to extend some congratulations to the winners (as I never thought to win anything, I can be gracious at least). I look forward to reading their work once it’s posted.

What’s a little sad is that there is no way to know if my story was close to the top, or at the bottom of the slush pile and no one even read it completely. There will be no formal rejection notices, as there were 2400 stories submitted, and Blizzard’s people do not have the time to send individual responses.

That’s a little sad, I would have liked to see my first form rejection letter for real, and not only “not see my name on the list”. Some authors did collect those form rejection letters as badges of honor : at least they had submitted something, and someone had taken the time to read what they had written. I suppose that my automated submission confirmation will have to do instead.

Anyway, now that I’m in the clear about the results, I can post this story officially, and maybe get some feedback I didn’t get to have. We writers do crave for this sort of things.

Update on the second novel

Posted by arnaud on October 10th, 2010

It’s been some time since I’ve posted anything here, so I’ll try to round up an update here.

Reading-wise, I’m currently deep in two books :

  • The Way of Kings by B. Sanderson (Reading at home, since this one is too heavy to carry around). Expect a full review on this wonderful book this week.
  • The Name of the Wind by P. Rothfuss (Reading during commutes). Another very good book. I’m about halfway through this one, so I should be done in under two weeks.

I’m waiting to hear from my short story (jury was supposed to be done on october 8th, results to be sent before october 22nd. I’m not expecting anything on this front, but it would be very cool indeed if it obtained any of the 8 prizes.

I also am planning to go to the Utopiales con in Nantes between november 10th and november 14th. I’m shamelessly using Brandon Sanderson’s appearance here to schedule my first con. The organizing committee seems a little slow, since they haven’t gotten out the schedule yet. I’m waiting on this schedule to know if I should be there during the whole con or only the first days.

Now, to the novel’s advancement.

Just to remind you of the situation, this is a mystery set in a fantasy setting that I originally planned to outline, to get the feel of this type of writing. After much trouble, I decided at the end of august to give in and discovery write this one.

So, where am I after a little over a month of writing this one?

First, it’s difficult for me to write while I’m on vacation. I need a specific mood to get into writing, and I usually get that mood at night after 10pm, whenI’m done with my daily routine. It turns out that while I’m on vacation, my daily routine changes, and the mood doesn’t come that easily. Add to this that my writing setup is quite unconfortable when I’m on vacation, and that I have someone sitting next to me making noise and talking to me, and you have poor writing results there. I probably wrote about one fifth of that I should have written during those three weeks, and the quality of writing wasn’t that good.

Second, I’m discovery-writing a mystery. As I didn’t have a good idea inside my head about the characters voices, I’m still discovering those as I write. The main character for instance that I had originally designed to be the trickster turns out to be a very quiet character. I’m beginning to feel his motivations. This means slow writing, and writing pieces that I will probably have to throw away, since they’re only useful to the writing process and not the story. Will I be able to throw those away? (As I often said : that’s a lot of work to throw out) I hope so, but nothing is certain when it comes to me and editing.

I had some happy surprises, including a side character that is becoming my third main character. I feel like I have a lot to write about that one. Another nice surprise was an unexpected scene full of tension. It might need some rewriting, but I’m quite impressed that this scene got out of my fingers when I never planned for it.  It feels like one of the scenes in the first book that I never anticipated and that turned out to be one of the focal moments of the novel.

So, yes, the second novel goes slowly, and in the 16 000 words written, I didn’t get very far yet in the plot. I have plenty of things to write left, that’s reassuring.

Short story out

Posted by arnaud on August 15th, 2010

The die is cast now : I submitted my short story yesterday afternoon.

I’ll take this opportunity to sum-up my thoughts about writing short stories here.

First, it was something I had never considered doing : I write in long form (my last book is more than 430 pages long), and I thought that I would be constraining myself too much if I had to write this type of story. In the last book, I had barely begun to say anything at the time I hit the 10 000 words mark, so how was I to be able to write anything at all in 7 500 words (25 pages) or less? Well, it appears that short stories are different : I don’t need all the character development I’m putting in a novel, and there are like only 3 to 4 scenes to write, so I can keep the word count to a minimum – well, almost.

Second, short stories are a work of editing, and I hate editing. Editing is difficult for me, and I usually think that I’m not very good at it (part of me says that I write good enough first drafts that they don’t need much editing anyway, but I shouldn’t listen to those lies my ego tries to tell me to get out of doing something I don’t like). I’ll try here to show you what happened this time:

 

  • Once I’d written the whole thing, I found out that of course, I was over the limit (though by not that much), so I had to edit heavily.
  • At this point, I needed external input, so I gave the story to alpha readers, and they hated it. Turns out that I forgot some things altogether, and that those missing parts made it that the story didn’t work at all for the readers.
  • So, I got back to the word processor for story edit. I cut, and cut, and cut to remove entire paragraphs. At that point, I was happy, because cutting anything out is usually so difficult for me (changing a few words here and there is all very well, but cutting out work? It’s like axing my own children).
  • Then, I added the new scenes required by the story fixup I had to do : bam, I end up at roughly the same word count I originally had. All this work, this gut-wrenching cutting of my words, and nothing to show for it! Well, it was not for nothing, since the story has improved, but still.
  • Then, I went to line edit : there, you look at each phrase, and try to tighten it, replacing some words, removing some others. The end result (about 2% cut) might be less spectacular than story edit (about 8% cut before adding the new material), but let’s face it, the heavy cutting was done during story edit.
  • Then, it’s back to alpha readers, dreading their verdict. Guess what? They like it this time!

 

All in all, the story hasn’t changed that much : still the same characters and ideas, but somewhat, it’s more palatable after the editing process. The good point here is that I was able to edit without too much fuss, and correct the story. Maybe it’s because I’m evolving as a writer and now I can kill my darlings, maybe this short story wasn’t one of my darlings, so I didn’t have any trouble gutting it, I don’t know. Come to think of it, I might have to write more short stories to get better at editing. More of that later.

Third, the research for this story. I think it’s because I had to work within a franchise, but I found that research for this story took out much more time than for my novels. I had to research cultures, places, events, names. Even speech patterns. As I said another time, research is my weakness, so this took up much of my time. In the end, I had to stop it, and go to writing, only allowing myself to search limited topics once I hit a wall and wasn’t sure if what I was going to write was true to the franchise or not.

Fourth, the characters. This is where I find the experience to be somewhat lacking. I love the fact that I know my characters in a novel, and that it’s their inner workings that give fuel to my stories. In short fiction, I’ll never be able to know the characters as much as I did in the novel. As a result, the characters in this short story didn’t surprise me (they never took the story where they wanted it to go). It’s one of my greatest pleasures when a character does that, and not having it here felt like I was missing something.

 

Now, was it worth it?

I really think so. A short story allows to experience the whole writing experience in a much more compressed amount of time than a novel (about a month here). As a result, I feel like I’ve learned maybe as much in this month as I learned in 3 or 4 months of novel writing. I’ll grant that I’m still at a stage where the learning curve is steep, so each different project will bring me new skills fast.

And of course, if I win a prize (one can still hope), I’ll get to add a writing credit to my novel cover letters (even if it might be considered as a lame one : “Third place in the 2010 Blizzard Writing Contest”, or something like that).

Will I do it again?

Well, I need the experience, and it was fun wrapping a project in under a month. It allowed me to actually write, instead of working on the next novel’s outline (which is stuck at the time. Looks like I have a strong case of Outliner’s block). The thing that bugs me is the characters thing. I need this “the characters hijacked the story”-feeling, but how to reproduce it in short fiction?

Here’s a thought : what if I wrote short stories based on my first novel’s universe? I love this setting, and felt like I never told enough about it in the novel. It could be fun to derive short fiction from my own work (for those who didn’t know it, the hugo winner “Ender’s game” started as a short story, and was turned into a book because the author needed an introduction for the next novel he wanted to write).

So, maybe I’ll write a short story again shortly. If I don’t it will be because I caved in, and abandoned the “outline the next book”-concept, and went straight to writing it (much more likely to happen).

 

 

Short Story : Draft 3

Posted by arnaud on August 8th, 2010

The nice thing about short stories is that I can edit one in a single session; given how much I love editing, this is good to be able to limit this process to a single sitting.

The draft 2 (story edit) was dealing with holes in the plot, and there were quite a few. In this story, I snipped away and added some elements, without trying to have the correct language or continuity : all that mattered was to remove the extraneous stuff, and add what was required to make the story work.

This draft 3 (line edit) was to produce a manuscript with better language, and leaner writing.

Draft 2 saw the most editing out, with the removal of about 500 words (this is huge to me). I didn’t feel bad about those as I usually do : I had to cut those out to make a better story. Then, I had to write some to correct my story, and added 450 words. I felt a little saddened that after cutting out this much (and this is very difficult for me to cut out writing), I only decreased the count slightly – about just enough to bring the whole of the manuscript under the 7.5k limit imposed by the contest rules.

Draft 3 is a little different in this that I didn’t cut out paragraphs, but words on each line. This time, I added very few, and this resulted in 100 words cut out, for a final 7350 words.

I submitted the story again to my alpha reader, hoping to have a better response than last time : she hated the story, and I got very little comments besides “I don’t like this story.” Maybe this is a sign that I shouldn’t have her read the rough drafts anymore, I don’t know. This time, I think the story is much better, but the core of the story is still the same. Knowing my alpha reader, the result might be the same, even if I corrected the gaps she mentionned.

I’ll see for her comments, but I’m not keeping my hopes up : not everybody can like every story…