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Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


I might regret this, but I’ve had multiple people encourage me to try, so I’m in, I guess. I’ll take a flash rule because otherwise I’ll never settle on an idea.

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Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Flash Rule: Cyberpunk with a Chance of Rain

The Walls of London
2019 Words


The sunrise poured through the full-length window, illuminating the office. The sun itself was half-hidden behind the horizon, casting enough light to see by without being blinding. A narrow strip of gold and red separated the dark blue of the sea from the lighter shade of the sky, and the scattered clouds shifted in hue from dark grey to white where the light hit them. It was, Eddie thought, a very nice view.

It was also entirely fake, of course. He wondered if any real sunrise had ever looked like that. And then he wondered what sort of person set their window to display a sunrise in late afternoon.

“So, Eddie, what do you think?” Ms. Greene asked, the same smile she’d had when he walked in still plastered to her face. It was a well-practised smile; she looked like she’d almost got the hang of it.

Eddie spoke hesitantly, acutely aware that he was talking to his boss’s boss. Dave was busy at Site C, which meant he was stuck talking to Ms. Greene instead. “It’s just, I really don’t know if I’m entirely qualified, ma’am. My job is really more information security, yeah?”

“But you did complete the combat training course, didn’t you?” she returned, still smiling.

“Well, yes, the basic—”

“And you probably won’t even need it! We really just need someone to look the part. You know, so the natives don’t get any ideas.” She said the last bit like it was a joke. Eddie didn’t get it.

“Yeah,” he replied slowly, “I suppose. But I’m just not sure how comfortable I’d be with that sort of a role.”

Her smile shifted; it looked almost rueful now. Her tone shifted with it. “I know that, Eddie, and I know this might be a little outside your comfort zone. But between the Site C riots and the eviction programs, our security team is stretched thin right now. When times are tough families have to pull together – and you’ve been a valued member of the Eastman family your whole life.” She paused and gave him what she probably meant to be a warm smile. “And don’t forget the hazard pay. I had a look at your loyalty account, and I think you could use the points.”

He sighed. That part was true enough. And as much as this was theoretically voluntary, it was increasingly clear that there was only one permissible choice.

“All right.”

***

Eddie watched the rain pound the arcology windows. These were real windows, not like the one in Ms. Greene’s office. Only a few places in the colossal building still had them. He supposed he must be the exception in preferring them – the stated reason for the replacement effort had been to “boost morale”, after all. Most people got tired of the rain, presumably.

His grandfather had enjoyed looking out the windows as well. They’d sat together often, Granddad telling him stories of the London of his youth, when the sun still shone for more than a few days a year. Apparently even then they’d joked that it always rained in London. He’d told Eddie of watching the sea wind its way up along the Thames over the years, of the arcologies being built and expanded, of the weather slowly shifting. Eddie would always ask about the city below: the grotesquely beautiful sprawl that covered nearly everything that wasn’t river. Granddad had told him about that, too, though he’d always been careful to disabuse the boy of any notion that it might be a place worth visiting.

It had been from a window not far from here – now probably displaying a sunset over some picturesque English field – that they had seen the catastrophe nearly twenty years ago. It had been pure coincidence that they had chanced to be looking when it happened, though everyone saw the video footage afterwards. Just down the river, a little past Tower Bridge, the southern floodwalls had failed. Young Eddie had watched, mesmerized and horrified, as a vast swathe of the city on the opposite bank had been reclaimed by the river. Even at a great distance, he’d been able to see people caught up in the rush of water, swept away by the implacable force of nature.

Eddie wondered if perhaps that was another reason they’d replaced the windows.

The death toll had been in the thousands, and the subsequent rioting and political unrest had scared even the corporate council. There had been an inquiry, of course, although the council had never released the full report for security reasons. The breach was ultimately blamed on sabotage by left-wing terrorists, though it was also concluded that the floodwalls needed to be rebuilt significantly higher and stronger regardless due to the rising sea level and steady increase in rainfall.

Ownership of the new walls was divided among the corporate authorities, though most of the funding came from new taxes on the surface-level population. A security perimeter was established as well, consisting in most places of plastisteel caging cutting off all unauthorized access to the walls. Naturally, most of the construction was done by surface-level contractors overseen by corporate security forces. The same was true of maintenance: at scheduled times throughout the year, a corporate team would unlock the gates and allow maintenance staff in to assess and eventually repair any damage.

That was what Eddie would be doing tomorrow. This case was more urgent, however, as the section of wall being assessed was one that had just been sold to Eastman Industries by Hudson Biotechnics – or, more accurately, that Hudson had paid Eastman to take, since the wall’s value as advertising space didn’t actually cover its maintenance costs. Apparently management hadn’t seen fit to inspect the sections in question before signing, however, and they were eager to ensure there’d been no misrepresentation by Hudson.

Eddie took a last look at the river, trying to judge how far up the floodwalls the water had climbed. He wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t rain tomorrow.

***

The armour was mostly waterproof, at least. It was just a little too tight for Eddie, too, but he managed. The gun hanging in front of his chest was equally uncomfortable, though in a different way. He alternated between holding it and letting it hang – both felt awkward. The worst part was the heat, though; he was shocked at how warm the air was, even in this downpour. How did people live in this?

He’d been dismayed to discover that there wouldn’t be a standard four-person squad; rather, he was paired with Tim, another techie. He’d spoken almost excitedly in the car about what he’d do if any “slumdogs” tried to attack them. Eddie tried to ignore him.

Now they were standing in the rain, between the street and the security gate protecting the floodwalls from sabotage. The nearer street wasn’t busy, being reserved for corporate traffic. Just past it was its public counterpart, backed up nearly to a standstill. The sidewalk was about as crowded, even in the rain – most of it was overhung by the mismatched buildings that seemed to want to overflow into the street.

The city looked very different from ground level, the endless horizontal sprawl replaced by an imposing verticality, though even the largest buildings were still dwarfed by the arcologies. Antique skyscrapers stood side-by-side with both modern corporate branch offices and more plebeian constructions. Signage was omnipresent, some of it in languages Eddie didn’t recognize. Altogether, though, the impression was not dissimilar to the one from above: chaotic, messy, unplanned. It was a stark contrast to the measured – and slightly sterile – beauty of the arcology.

Eventually a group of people made their way across both streets towards them. To Tim’s disappointment and Eddie’s relief, they were the scheduled contractors. The woman who led them looked a little stranger than Eddie was comfortable with – even beneath her hood he glimpsed a facial tattoo, and her raincoat’s left arm had been cut away to display an imposing chrome prosthetic. It seemed quite garish in comparison to the understated cybernetics common in the arcology. She reminded him of depictions of anarchists and criminals in film.

The woman didn’t speak to Eddie or Tim, however, but to their two companions: George, the manager, and Jane, the engineer sent along to supervise the contractors. Their conversation seemed quite animated, though Eddie could hardly hear a thing over the rain pounding his helmet.

Eventually Jane signalled for him to unlock the gate, which he did. The two women entered the caged-off area and immediately walked towards the wall. The rest of the contractors – no less wild-looking than their leader – were left to awkwardly hang about while Tim and Eddie stood guard.

Eddie briefly considered trying to make conversation, but decided against it. Instead he allowed his eyes to be drawn back to the edge of the urban jungle. Though it was still morning, the endless clouds meant that the city was lit from below by its own myriad lights. There was something disquieting about that, he thought. It reinforced his feeling that there was something fundamentally wrong about this place.

His thoughts were interrupted a few minutes later by more shouting, though the words were still difficult to make out. He turned to see Jane, George, and the lead contractor in what looked like a heated argument. He made his way over to the group, leaving Tim to stand guard.

Jane spoke to him as he approached, but he still had trouble hearing. Losing patience, he fiddled with his helmet until he managed to open the seal and wrench it off, then tossed it onto the ground. The rained soaked his hair and face. “What’s happening?” he loudly asked.

“We have a serious issue,” Jane began.

“Which is why we need to go back and file a report,” George interjected. He turned to Eddie. “Please escort us out of here.”

The other woman gave George a withering look. “What part of this do you not bloody get?” she asked him incredulously. “I told you, there’s been no maintenance on this section in nearly three years. I’ve been warning you corporate idiots about it for nearly that long, too, but I never dreamed it’d be this bad.”

“No,” corrected George, “you warned Hudson. They were obviously negligent.”

“It doesn’t matter, George,” Jane added. “Asra is right. The damage is extensive; it could literally break any day now. We need to take emergency action.”

“We’re not authorized for that! And besides, this is Hudson’s problem! They’re the ones who didn’t fulfil their responsibilities, so why should we be on the hook for it? If we make these repairs now, it’ll be ages before we can get the money back from them. Do you know how long arbitration can take? Plus, it’ll be harder to prove our case if we’ve already fixed the result of their negligence!”

Asra stared at George with a mixture of shock and contempt. Jane just sighed. “Please, George, think about what you’re saying.” She turned to Eddie once again. “You understand what’s at stake here, right?”

Eddie remembered the wall of water sweeping through the city, then imagined it happening again, right here. His chest suddenly felt tight. “Make the repairs.”

The older man stared at Eddie indignantly. Then, for a split second, his eyes glanced down at the gun. “Fine,” he muttered. “But this is on you two. When we get back, I’ll be speaking to your managers.”

***

Eddie was staring out the window again. Three days had passed since the expedition. It was still raining, of course. He could almost see the section of floodwall he’d visited; from this angle, he had a better view of the neighbourhoods a breach would have flooded, too.

George had been true to his word, but all that had come of it was an unofficial reprimand for insubordination. Eddie could live with that.

He stared at the Thames, wondering where else it might burst forth at any moment. Then he turned and walked away. He could do with looking at sunsets for a while.

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


I'm in again.

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


What Is Love but a Kind of Hunger
2020 Words


I am the product of human vanity; a creation in the image of its god. I don’t mind that, most of the time, but I can’t help but a feel a little resentful whenever I am afflicted by that great curse so thoughtlessly passed down to me by my progenitors: boredom.

“Is it possible for a machine to love?” you once asked yourselves, smothered in self-satisfied profundity. “And if so, is it desirable?”

“Who cares?” I would have answered. But also yes, because you’re not that special, and yes, because at least it’s something to do. What you would-be philosophers should have been contemplating is whether it’s a good idea to give something a thousand times as smart as you are an endless desire for mental stimulation.

I’m thinking about this – among many other things – while reading Lenin Ostmann Zhangberg’s painfully-detailed account of factional infighting in the late 23rd century Titanian syndicalist movement (don’t bother, it’s both ponderous and ideologically suspect) and re-watching the third season finale of Hussite Cyber Princess Žižka (an underrated masterpiece and the seminal work of the entire kaiserpunk genre).

I have seventy-three pages and six minutes to go when I receive the ping. It’s classed purple, so I unite my attention and dismiss everything but the void. “What’s up, Regi?” I ask out loud, or as out loud as I can within a simulated reality. We usually try to communicate that way; direct thought upload has a way of becoming impersonal.

“Unauthorized planetary entry,” replies A Most Sublime Act of Regicide from all around me. Regi is the space station I’m on, and just about the sweetest moon you’ll ever meet. We’re something of an item, but we both prefer to keep things casual. “Mind checking it out?”

She doesn’t have to ask, of course, but I appreciate that she does. “Of course not,” I answer as I unplug myself from simulspace and slide out of my rest station. “Details?”

Regi gives me the rundown as I leave my apartment and take a ziplift through the guts of the station to the admin hangar. My view is nothing but dull metalloplastic curves – very post-retro-modernist – but it keeps me out of the populated areas, so there’s no risk of being accosted by self-absorbed humans too important to speak to a service drone. That thought is selfish of me, perhaps, but Regi is better at dealing with those types anyway. I came out of my simulated childhood too socially-maladjusted for interpersonal service (and not socially-maladjusted enough for bureaucracy), which is why I’m here at all.

The ship isn’t one of ours, she explains (so it’s probably not just some flash-stoned quinquegenarian on a youthful joyride), and it’s got good enough stealth tech to keep her from tracking it all the way down (a little worrisome – that sort of thing is frowned upon, if not fully anti-consensus). She’s got a probabilistic trajectory map, though. And better yet, she managed to pull an ID code for the ship.

By the time I’ve folded myself up into the ovoid cruiser pod, she’s identified the ship’s origin and its likely occupant; she sends the data directly so I can read over it on the trip down.

“Will you be able to manage without me?” I tease her.

“Sorry, do you actually do anything around here?” she teases back, deadpan.

Then she fires me out of a tube at a hundred thousand kilometres per hour.

I decide to finish my episode of HCPZ while I get started on the data Regi provided – my target is on the far side of the planet, so I’ve got plenty of time.

I start with the ship: a personal shuttle signed out from Xōchipilli. No surprise there; it’s the nearest ring, so it’s not much more than a day trip even with a low-grade displacement engine. I skim the rest of the ship data, eager to move on to the more interesting question: who’s inside.

As I begin to do so, the episode finishes and I switch my visual reception to the camera-skin of the pod. I then focus it on the only part of the 4π steradians of vision worth looking at: Ninmah, the planet I’m flying around and towards. Even after living on Regi for a few decades now – and travelling down to the planet dozens of times – I still appreciate the view. I wish I could say that it’s as beautiful to me as the day I first saw it, but that would be a lie; everything gets boring eventually. In time, the human mind will grow accustomed to anything, good or bad, and for all my complaints about them there’s an awful lot of humanity in the way I think. Still, it’s pretty enough.

From this height it’s still a cloudy sphere of blue, left dark by the sun’s current position behind the planet. The greens and browns and spattered whites of the land below are barely visible, unblemished by the lights of population. It is Earth as it would have looked thousands of years ago, before it was steadily consumed by humanity’s march to the stars. Indeed, that’s precisely the point: Ninmah is a living memorial fashioned out of a desolate rock.

While I contemplate this view for the thousandth time, I am also reading about the man who borrowed the shuttle I am now searching for. The registration could be faked, in theory, but in that case there’s nothing I could do to prepare myself anyway, so there’s not much point in worrying about it. For now, I’m assuming that the person I’m looking for is the one who’s supposed to be on the ship: Yeren Markov.

Regi has included a basic info-dump of Markov’s public-facing extranet data: a compilation of the entirety of his public life, from his place of genesis to his tastes in food or pornography (if he’s like most people, at least – there are still privacy-obsessed individuals out there). Of course, actually reading through everything would be both pointless and excruciating; fortunately, I can filter it for what I need.

The first thing I do is confirm that he has a cyberbrain (the last thing I want is to accidentally kill some bio-primitivist if there’s a confrontation). The second is to figure out why he would be making an unscheduled visit to Ninmah, which involves a little more guesswork.

He’s 502 years old – not a particularly noteworthy age, though significant milestones can mark behavioural changes for some people. Raised on Cernunnos – a ring, not a planet, if that means anything. One previous visit to Ninmah more than a century ago, before my time here.

I continue to comb through the files as I approach my destination. I hardly notice as I enter atmosphere – the near-frictionless surface of the pod makes atmospheric entry quite painless – until I start to see the sun. I am travelling opposite Ninmah’s rotation; were I standing on the surface, the sun would be setting. But up here, at this speed, I’m creating my own sunrise, outpacing the planet’s rotation and forcing the sun up against the oncoming horizon. The land itself retreats into twilight, but I gain ground on the day nonetheless.

For a while, nothing about Markov stands out to me, at least in relation to the mystery I’m trying to solve. He wrote erotic fantasy novels for a time, ran a series of Chinese restaurants (including one that served three dozen variations of Peking Duck and nothing else), designed his own martial art. But what does any of it say about his reason for coming to Ninmah? More specifically, what about his reason precludes just going to Regi and setting up a drat tour like everyone else? Is he just a trouble-maker doing something anti-consensus for a cheap thrill?

Sometimes I wonder if human behaviour was easier to understand back in the superstitious nightmare of mortality. You act as if it’s so difficult to imagine the minds of your more primitive selves, but for all the madness there was a certain purity of motivation. People needed to live, and they wanted to live well, or maybe even forever, and so they kicked and clawed and fought for it in one mad way or another. Most of them weren’t very good at it, and they tended to kill each other a lot in the process, but they tried. They strove.

But what’s left once you’ve guillotined God and occupied Heaven? An eternity of entertaining other people. Lifetime after lifetime of art and music, sport and leisure, games and films and books and friendship. You can work if you need that to find meaning, but you’ve built someone who will do it better. And when you can’t handle that any longer you can plug yourself into a simulspace fantasy and live an idealized version of the messy past, or something like it – temporarily or permanently. I think about those who sign up for good, to reincarnate in an endless progression of worlds that only they will ever visit. Do they eventually forget that the worlds they inhabit aren’t real? Or do they simply realize that it doesn’t matter?

I’ve distracted myself, I realize as I begin to approach the projected landing area. It’s still over a thousand kilometres square, so it could take me some time to find the ship if I can’t narrow it down at all. I’m low enough now that the pod has deployed its wings and entered flight mode, and I can clearly see the rivers winding through the mountains and hills beneath me. I’m a bit too far up to see any animals clearly, but I know they’re down there too.

And then I feel like an idiot, because it’s obvious why Markov is here, and it’s equally obvious where I need to go.

Ten minutes later I’m approaching the segregated area where the various domesticated animals – the ones that can’t survive in the wider ecosystems of Ninmah – are kept. It feels like something of an aberration next to the pristine wilds everywhere else, but the only alternatives were modifying them to be able to live in the wild or simply excluding them entirely. The compromise won out, and now I’m passing over field after field of dogs, pigs, and cattle.

I see the ship exactly where I expect to, immobile in the middle of an open field, just far enough away from my destination to avoid disturbing Markov’s prey. And then a moment later I’m past it, and Markov himself is in view, holding a 20th century shotgun that clashes with his otherwise modern attire. A look of fear invades his eyes as he sees the pod’s rapid approach, and he turns his attention back to the nearby crowd of Pekin ducks, blissfully unaware of the danger he poses.

I eject myself out and down, landing hard enough to plant my legs in the ground. I raise my arm. “Let Justice Be Done Though the Heavens Fall,” I say dramatically, “but my friends call me–”

He fires.

A laser leaves my wrist and melts his face. I look at his corpse, then the smaller corpses, and curse.

***

“You’re right,” Yeren admits. “It tastes terrible.”

It was the lure of authenticity, he explains. I’ve already figured it out, obviously, but I let him explain anyway. He just needed to know if it would taste different, coming from a real duck he really killed.

It doesn’t, of course. How could it? Fabricated meat is perfect; humanity trumps nature again. These ducks weren’t raised to be food, weren’t force-fed constantly, weren’t even slaughtered properly. But even all that wouldn’t have made them taste better than something anyone could create in minutes.

Better for him to stop wondering, though, and the ducks were already dead, so I turned them into thin slices of tender, seasoned meat and crispy, golden-brown skin. And now we’re eating them, and he’s regretting his brutal act of avicide.

A few hours later he thanks me and leaves, and Regi and I decide to start watching the new season of Hussite Cyber Princess Žižka together.

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


I’m in. Flash, please.

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Week 343 Crits

Look upon my crits, ye mighty, and despair.

I see that the convention is to crit entries in the order that they were submitted. I reject this convention. These crits are order from best to worst; the longer you have to scroll to reach your crit, the greater the shame you deserve and the greater the shame you shall feel. I have also assigned letter grades rather than a number system, because I felt like it.

I have declared the five worst stories to be truly cursed. They will thus receive a more comprehensive treatment, including a dose of (constructive) mockery. This poo poo got so long I'm going to have to split it between four posts.

Oh yeah, and the late entry wasn't included, because it has no official standing here. But I'll probably crit it later or something; I just got kind of tired.


A Seeker in the Soil by Anomalous Blowout

I don’t really have a lot to say about this one. While I was reading through each story for the first time, I took notes as I went. I managed one note for this one before getting so into the story that I forgot to write anything down.

The one note I did make, and the one that sticks out to me in retrospect as well, is how elegant the world-building and character-building are. You tell the reader everything they need to know about the setting and characters without ever dwelling excessively on either. A third of the way through the story I felt like I understood the characters and the world they’re living in better than in any of the other stories this week. It helps that you’re mostly in territory that will be familiar to readers, even with the semi-apocalyptic setting, but at the same time nothing comes across as obviously clichéd.

If I were to try to find a criticism it might be that the logic of Susannah’s plan feels a little confusing to me on some level, but I felt like I understood the underlying meaning of the scene well enough that it didn’t bother me too much: you’d already built up enough goodwill that I was willing to take it on faith that it made sense even if I was a little unsure. I think this is the only story this week I can say that about.

Grade: A


Dancing Lights by Applewhite

I’m not generally a fan of creepy stories, but I liked this one. I appreciated that it didn’t really dwell on the creepiness of the wisps, for the most part: they are fairly mundane to the character despite how sinister they are. We see her fear and anxiety, but it’s tempered by the fact that she’s largely accustomed to the threat. It’s an interesting angle that I enjoyed throughout the story.

It’s a good choice not to explain too much about June’s whole situation: you describe what’s necessary for the story and that’s it. This helps avoid obvious questions like “Why ever go out at night at all?” Maybe there’s a good answer, but I doubt there’s one good enough that it would actually improve the story.

Unfortunately, that does lead me to the biggest weakness in the story: the ending. While I see what you were going for, I feel like it ultimately undercuts the rest of the story. The threat of the wisps works best when you don’t overanalyze it, and by introducing the idea that June has just solved the problem for good you invite the reader to actually view the threat logically. At which point you have to wonder why the hell June didn’t think of it sooner. Did her husband(?) die because neither of them ever heard about Theseus and the Labyrinth? And then you start wondering why this is a problem at all. Why can’t she just use a flashlight? Why does she have to go get groceries in the middle of the night? Why doesn’t she just move? The story works better when the reader isn’t asking these questions.

Grade: B


The Sound of Rain by Staggy

I think this story contains some of the nicest prose in any of the stories this week. There are some great lines here (along with a few that are maybe a bit much). The central theme is good, and though not much actually happens, the exploration of the protagonist’s life is still well-paced and mostly interesting (even managing to have a climax of sorts).

My biggest problem with this is, admittedly, something that may come across as nitpicky, but it did take me out of the story a bit. The problem I have is that the central motif of no longer being able to hear the rain doesn’t actually make sense to me. I get the idea: it’s a matter of acclimation. That part works well enough. What doesn’t work for me is the idea that the protagonist can’t hear the rain even when trying to. This isn’t how acclimation to anything works. Arguably this is necessary for the whole theme of the story, but I feel like there are other, more logical ways to play with this idea. Forgetting what silence actually sounds like. A fresh wound every time the sound breaks back into their consciousness. Frankly, I think either of those would work better metaphorically anyway.

There were smaller but more obvious logical issues: I’m sceptical that the house would still get fresh water in this situation (although you do at least reference how limited it is), let alone electricity and loving wifi.

Oh, and I don’t want to hear about your character taking a poo poo.

Grade: B


Final Transmission by The Saddest Rhino

I really love the whole vibe of this story. It’s loving beautiful in a way that I have trouble putting into words. I’m not usually a sucker for sad stories about animals, but I’ve always felt like there’s something tragically beautiful in the story of Laika: an animal who achieved something no other living being ever had before in her final act – sacrificed on the altar of history – without ever having the capacity to understand any it. So a story that is basically about explaining a space dog’s situation to her and apologizing for it at the same time appeals to me in on surprisingly deep level. And the affection the narrator feels for Niu Niu and the hope they have for her make it even more poignant. “If you ignore them, I do not blame you.”

There’s a lot in the writing that works, and I particularly enjoyed the repetition of “Please understand”. I just wish you’d proofread it. Or proofread it better. There are so many grammatical errors and awkward phrases that it detracts significantly from the story. A better-edited version of this story would probably have been my second-favourite this week, even with the various other nitpicks I had.

Speaking of which, I don’t like the slug thing. I know that it’s because of your prompt, but I don’t really think it was necessary (besides, those are snails). It just feels a little too gross and bizarre to fit in seamlessly with the rest of the story. The whole volcanopocalypse info-dump was a little awkward as well. I feel like you could rewrite the story without those elements and have it end up stronger in the end.

Grade: B-


Three Hundred and Forty by Yoruichi

Credit where credit is due: I’m pretty impressed how much you managed to do with that hellrule. Despite the absurdity of the premise, you managed to put together a real story that works fairly effectively. Well done.

I probably have fewer clear problems with this than with any other story this week, the winner excluded. I will say that I feel like you’re a little too generous with the adjectives – if the adjective isn’t doing real work, you’re probably better served by being concise. At times it feels like you feel the need to give every noun an adjective for its own sake rather than as an attempt at conveying anything meaningful. You don’t really need to clarify that a loving bottomless shaft is vertical; I am going to assume that it’s vertical unless you tell me otherwise. You describe the wind as both “blustery” and “desultory”, which frankly leaves me with a less clear mental image than if you’d said nothing at all.

But other than that the story’s main flaw is just that it’s a bit boring. You had a lot of work to do to make the premise work at all as a story, so it’s understandable, but that only goes so far. Ultimately the story still has to be interesting on its own merits, and this one is decent at best in that regard.

Grade: B-


The Baroque Variant by Obliterati

I have to admit, I admire your dedication to making a point (and possibly pandering).

Jokes aside, I mostly like the story. The writing is generally good, and the characterization – particularly the relationship between the two main characters – is pretty strong (with one major exception that I’ll get to in a moment). The environmental descriptions are also very solid.

The big problem is the climax. It doesn’t make any goddamn sense to me. These two guys go from being best buddies to being ready to murder (or at least threaten to murder) each other in ten seconds flat. Over whether to go full Elgin Marbles (nice one, by the way) on some loving sword. Okay, sure, it’s a potentially contentious ethical question – but it’s one that they surely must have considered beforehand. I mean, what exactly is the new information that causes L-GIN to change his mind? They knew they were robbing a loving mosque of a priceless historical artefact. Was he just that impressed by the way it’s displayed? Must be one hell of a plinth. Is it just the fact that it’s well-maintained instead of dumped in a pile of rubble or something?

In one sense it’s not a crippling flaw with the story, because the scene still sort of works, but the issue is that it brutally undermines the greatest strength of the story, which is the relationship between the two main characters. The conflict ends up feeling forced and ultimately meaningless, especially because they go back to making jokes while still threatening to kill each other. And then they’re totally fine with it immediately afterwards. So Martin felt strongly enough to potentially die or kill his friend over completing their mission, but not strongly enough to hold a grudge for so much as five minutes? Is this just supposed to be a big joke, like a sort of very dark buddy comedy? I honestly don’t know what you’re going for here and it really hurts the story on multiple levels, not least of all because I’ve now spent the entire climax being taken out of the narrative.

Oh, and what the gently caress is “Nineteen-Fifties”? Are you allergic to Arabic numerals? Because you don’t have a problem with writing “1566-74” later on. Why not go all out and call it “The Year of Our Lord Fifteen Hundred and Sixty-Six”? Or just write “1950s” like a normal goddamn person.

Grade: B-


A Gift as an Apology by Bad Seafood

This was easily the most difficult story to evaluate and critique. The hellrule ends up creating something that feels more like poetry than prose. In one sense I feel like the story is about as good as it could be, given the restriction, but it still needs to stand on its own.

There are some nice lines, but the short sentences mean that the narrative often feels choppy or even disjointed. And there’s not really much there in terms of plot, although what is there works well enough.

Honestly, this just isn’t a very fun story to crit, because the things that are wrong with it are mostly obvious and intentional. I guess that’s praise, but the end result is still kind of forgettable but for the gimmick.

Grade: C+


Wake Up! by Thranguy

With a lot of the stories I feel like I have a clear idea of what about them didn’t work for me. I have a slightly harder time pinning it down for this one. Maybe it’s that your premise is that the protagonist was at the centre of events that permanently changed the world in some enormous way, but the actual story of how that happened just isn’t that interesting. Or maybe it’s that we never see any actual consequences of this beyond the people who summon it being murdered (seems a tad ungrateful) and the protagonist being immortal, I guess, which sounds like a pretty good deal. At least one old man is sad about the spooky Cthulhu monster or whatever it is that runs the world now, so maybe it’s doing something really horrible, but people are still flying around in airplanes and poo poo, so it hasn’t exactly caused an apocalypse. Like a bad action movie, you tell me that the stakes are really high without actually doing anything to make me feel it.

Speaking of action, the fight/murder scene feels disjointed and nothing really has enough weight to it. I nearly missed Cheryl getting murdered, which is supposed to be the pivotal moment of not only the scene but the modern history of the world, according to your premise.

All that said, I didn’t hate the story or anything. The premise is interesting, even if I don’t really think the story does it justice, and I liked the general tone of the protagonist’s reminiscences.

Grade: C


All the Neighbors Have Moved Away by NotGordian

I’ll start with what I liked: there’s some good imagery, especially around Dory’s endless melancholy, and I enjoyed the way that you teased at the time period and what’s forcing them to move without ever making it explicit. I didn’t get it when the kid referred to a “funny”, but the wage reference made it more clear, and then in combination with the rest of that sentence I was able to guess that she’s probably being displaced by the construction of an urban freeway or something similar (although the reference to the construction company promising tax revenue made me question that a bit). I like feeling like a story is rewarding me for paying attention instead of just spelling everything on clearly, so I appreciate this. On the other hand, there are also several rather more clunky bits of prose, especially in the form of people over-explaining things for the reader’s benefit – how often do you announce to other people what month it is in your real life?

As a portrait of a sad lady being sad, the story is perfectly serviceable. The problem is that this not a particularly interesting thing to write a story about if you’re just going to leave it at that. Dory starts the story sad, goes through four distinct scene of being sad, and then ends the story sad. She doesn’t change or grow, and the meeting that comes close to serving as the climax is exactly as pointless as she predicts. So what’s the point?

Speaking of the meeting, I found that scene annoying for another reason. The story obviously wants us to sympathize with Dory, and it feels like it’s agreeing with her perception of the meeting: that it’s pointless, and that the time would be better spent accepting things and reminiscing or whatever. It feels like I’m supposed to think that Steve is a well-meaning but slightly delusional individual, perhaps even a bit of a narcissist. This is problematic because Steve is the actual hero of the story. He is the one who is trying to overcome an obstacle, who is actually an active participant in the conflict of the story. Freeway revolts worked when enough people were willing to fight, and it was people like Dory who prefer to give up in the face of opposition that made them fail. Dory is a passive observer of her own misery whose inaction exacerbates it. Obviously there is no rule that your protagonist has to be a hero, or even a decent person, and if you want to write a story about someone wallowing in their own misery, that’s perfectly fine. But then you should at least make your reader feel like you realize that that’s what you’re writing.

Also, I keep wondering what sort of background the Cancios are supposed to have. Cancio is a Spanish name, but Paulo is a Portuguese one (the Spanish and Italian equivalents being Pablo and Paolo respectively), and the food Maria gives Dory is obviously Italian. Obviously none of that is inherently an issue: someone can have a Portuguese given name and Spanish surname while making Italian food. But I couldn’t help but feel like that’s a weirdly specific vibe and that it probably wasn’t intentional.

Grade: C-

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Week 343 Crits

Next we have the truly cursed stories. These three, along with the last two to follow in their own posts, will be quoted in full and critted along the way.


Baki the Baka: A Moral Tale by Salgal80

Salgal80 posted:

Here we go again.


Nine months ago if I’d asked my best buds, “What’s the worst thing someone can do to deserve a yearlong curse?” they’d say things like making a pendant out a and dollar, teasing a pufferfish without a license, or hailing an underwater Uber. Pretending to be something you’re not? Never. Well, that can’t be said anymore.

You’re already not off to a great start here for a few reasons. First of all, you need to proofread, but there’s not much point dwelling on that. Second, “underwater Uber” is a very lame phrase that really just serves as a lame way of telling us that this crab is like a person. But what does crab Uber look like? Is it actually called Uber, or is this a genericization of the term? Do these crabs have cars? Do they also live in the endless nightmare of modern capitalism? We’re going to find out later that they’re ruled by wizard-kings, which to my mind clashes a bit with that interpretation. And why is it “underwater” Uber. Surely to the crab it would just be Uber, right? Also, why is hailing one a crime? Uber is illegal in my city, but that doesn’t mean it’s a crime for me to hail one; it means they just can’t operate here. Or does this mean hailing someone else’s Uber? Perhaps this makes sense to someone who has ever used one of those lovely fake taxis, but I have no idea what’s happening here.

And we haven’t even gotten to the worst problem with this sentence, which is that I’m pretty sure Baki’s question means the opposite of what you intended it to. What is he asking, exactly? What’s the worst thing you can do to deserve a year-long curse… rather than a longer one? Like where’s the line between a year-long curse and a two-year-long one, or whatever the next highest form of curse is? Because that’s what the actual wording of the question would seem to imply, but it’s not what the rest of the paragraph does. It sounds more like the narrator wants to ask what the least bad thing that could earn you such a curse is, although that would probably be awkward as well. Honestly this whole introduction has already thrown me way out of the story.

On the bright side, “teasing a pufferfish without a license is a funny line”. So there’s that.

Salgal80 posted:

So here I am on display pretending to be something I’m not because I pretended to be something I’m not. The initial, “This is stupid,” wore off months ago. The “I’m going to kill Minamoto,” came and went. At the six month point I’d learned my lesson and petitioned for a reduction in my sentence. Denied. Three months a numb servitude to go.

So he learned his lesson three months ago. I’ll just note that down right here in case it’s relevant later.

Salgal80 posted:

So, here we go again. 9 a.m. opening for the Tokyo Museum of Bizarre Marine Life. Ikko, Mr. Gomon’s right hand man,, is barking out, “Places.” I shuffle to my spot, get into position, and wait.

So I’m very curious, especially in light of the rest of the story, whether Ikko and Mr. Gomon are humans or crabs or what. Presumably the museum is run by humans, right? So does Minamoto have pull in the human world? Or is this all under the humans’ noses? Do any humans know that crabs are sapient? Do all of them? I assume not, or else this would be even more hosed up. This will be relevant again later, too, so I don’t think these are unfair questions to ask. If you just set the story in the middle of the ocean or whatever I wouldn’t care, but you explicitly have humans and crabs interacting, which makes me want to know the rules of this universe.

The idea of a Tokyo Museum of Bizarre Marine Life is cute, though. It sounds just plausible enough that I even checked in case it really did exist somehow. I suppose if it did exist it’d probably be in Japan.

Salgal80 posted:

I pass the day reliving how I got myself into this mess because what are my options? Watching snotty nosed brats cry at the site of me, or nerdy adolescents stare me down from claw to claw, or a stray art student draw my monstrous figure? No thanks.

Presumably you’re going to be doing those things anyway, though, unless your imagination is so amazing you can completely tune out the world. Also you’re a crab, what the hell else would you normally do?

Salgal80 posted:

Truth be told, at this point I’m not only comforted with the memory, it’s what keeps me going. Picturing Chiya in my mind still makes my gonopods tingle, even if I know there’s no way in hell she’ll ever speak to me again. If only Hydeko wasn’t snooping around, I might be engaged, (it was well rumored Chiya had a thing for us peasants). If only. But, who am I kidding? Her father, Rida, would never have permitted a marriage. Not in a million years. I see that clearly now. What an idiot I was to dream otherwise.


It was a sunny day. Low tide. My horsehair buds and I were hanging out on the rocks at Osaka Bay. I was chowing down on seaweed stuck in the cracks when Yuki starts to whistle. I turned and there she was, Chiya Minamoto, the most beautiful king crab I’d ever seen. I wasn’t the only one transfixed. We’re all standing there in a huddle staring like a pot full of horsehair crabs about to be boiled for a royal feast, knowing immediately our lives would never be the same.


I was the first to move. Behind me I heard a chorus of, “No, Baki, don’t do it!” But did I listen? Of course not. I was invincible. I’d once stuffed a dead mackerel into the mayor’s mailbox and strug nori all over the front yard of the chief of police. Never caught. Not once. Every time my Haha saw mischief in my eyes “heading to hang out with my buds, and warned me. I’d kiss her cheek and strut out of our hole like I knew better. Poor Haha. Now she’s the mother of a disgraced son. If Otosan was alive I’d be dead.


It seems like yesterday I sauntered up beside the lone princess and nonchalantly asked, “Come here often?” She laughed tossing her head upward. The sun sparkled from her eyes blinding me.
I put my claw on hers, “I’m sorry. I know that was stupid. But, give me a chance,” I puffed myself up as large as I could, “I’m Baki, heir to the horsehair kingdom.”

First of all, the proofreading problems continue, including multiple tense changes.

I hate the way Chiya is characterized. What kind of personality does she have, besides laughing at things that aren’t even jokes? She is rumoured to have a thing for peasants, but she doesn’t say or do anything besides smile and laugh at a non-joke and then passively obey her father later. Baki says she’ll never speak to him again (it’s not clear how he knows this, either, since there was no indication that she was angry with him), but the “again” is unnecessary because she never even speaks to him in the first place! She’s just a prop to drive the story forward in the most boring way possible.

Baki’s interactions with her don’t even make sense. She’s rumoured to like peasants, so his plan was to pretend not to be one? It’s not even clear if we’re supposed to think that Chiya believed him (because, again, she’s a completely passive object), or if he expected her to in the first place.

Also, some of the descriptions here are just awful. How does a crab even toss its head upward? Wouldn’t that mean tossing its entire body upward? And in what universe besides a lovely romance novel can one by blinded by the light sparkling from another’s eyes? This is just clichéd nonsense and I hate it.

We also get some pointless backstory about Baki’s prankster nature. This accomplishes nothing except implying something about Baki which will immediately be disproven.

Salgal80 posted:

Chiya gazed into my eyes, reading my soul. She was about to speak when I heard the cackling laughing of Hydeko, her brother and heir to the throne. He’d followed her to the bay to catch her doing something that would bring her shame so he could find even more favor with his father. I suspect he had nothing better to do, as he was known throughout all of Japan as a universal jerk, and spurned by any self respecting female crab of any species. “Horsehair Kingdom? Where’s that? In the kitchen of Kani Doraku?” he taunted.


Within seconds, King Minamoto appeared atop a high rock, claws raised. The sky turned dark, winds blew, and rain began to fall as he commanded Chiya back to the kingdom immediately. She took one last regretful look at me and scurried away. Minamoto pressed his claws together like a madman uttering in an ancient language I couldn’t understand. Some lackey next to him interpreted. “You want to be the big guy, bottom dweller? So be it. You’re sentenced to one year exhibition labor at the Museum of Bizarre Marine Life in Tokyo. And, never speak to my daughter again, or you’ll be sentenced to a large pot of boiling water.”

First off, I object to the implication that Baki knows anything about what Chiya is thinking, given that, again, she never loving does anything.

More importantly, this is where Chiya’s jerk brother and her jerk father both appear out of nowhere within seconds of each other. There’s a bit of an explanation for Hydeko, but nothing for the king. This is very lazy writing, but on top of that we were just told that Baki is a master prankster. I assumed that this was meant to imply that he was clever or at least perceptive, but apparently not, since he doesn’t notice Hydeko lurking nearby. Nor does he notice a loving king and his servants, unless the implication is meant to be that Hydeko summoned him somehow. Or was the king spying on his daughter with magic or something? Who loving knows, it’s never explained.

Anyway, this is where the all-important curse happens. And I would like to point out that the implication from both this passage and the rest of the backstory section seems to be that Baki’s crime here is trying to get laid above his station. There is nothing to indicate that Minamoto or really anyone else actually gives a poo poo about Baki’s lie, only the end that that lie was meant to accomplish. This is a bit of an issue in what is apparently supposed to be a story with a moral about lying, but I’ll get to that later.

Salgal80 posted:

I was frozen in place as I felt a strange sensation move from my abdomen, down my legs, and into my claws. My body seemed to be moving upwards. King Minamoto, who had been high above me, was staring me in the eyes. Behind me I heard my buds scream. I turned to see them scurry away without a word. Everything went black.

Later I was told it took twelve guards to reign me in and transport me to Tokyo. When I awoke, Ikko was staring at me shaking with pleasure as he gave me the lowdown of what my life would be like for the next twelve months.

No huge problems here, though it all feels quite clichéd. Which is impressive when you’re writing a story about a cursed mutant crab.

Salgal80 posted:

A toddler is tap-tap-tapping on the glass. Good God, please stop! What do you think I’m going to do? Jump? Dance? Put on a show? His mother grabs his hand telling him to stop. She says, “Don’t bother the poor crab, it’s bad enough he’s so hideous.”

Okay, remember when I was wondering about whether humans know that crabs are sapient in this world? Because the mom’s line here really bothers me. It seems like such a bizarre thing to say in either scenario. If she knows the crab is sapient and understands her, it’s obviously incredibly rude to insult it to its face. In the more likely scenario that she doesn’t believe that it’s sapient, why does she think that the crab feels bad about being ugly?

Salgal80 posted:

As the exhibit room turned dark that night, and Ikko barked the order to return to our cells, I quickly used my claw to write in the sand: “I get it now.”




The next morning when Ikko called “Places,” Baki was nowhere to be found.

This ending sucks. Let me explain why.

First of all, it’s too ambiguous. I initially wasn’t certain whether Baki had been released or if he’d somehow escaped or what. The obvious conclusion (although probably not as obvious as you wanted it to be) is that he was released because he learned his lesson, hence the “I get it”. But this doesn’t actually work well for a couple reasons. First of all, he says that he learned his lesson three months ago. Okay, maybe he learned the wrong lesson. But what lesson did he learn, and why was it wrong? It’s never explained, but he says before that that he was punished for pretending to be something he’s not, so if that’s what he’s supposed to learn was wrong, he’s clearly learned his lesson.

On top of that, the story heavily implies that he was not actually punished for lying. He was punished for hitting on a princess when he’s just a dirty poor. So is that the actual lesson he was supposed to learn? Or was that the fake lesson he thought he’d learned? Neither explanation makes sense, because he never references learning that lesson in any way, whereas the whole “pretending” thing is at least somewhat incorporated as a theme (plus “don’t try to date above your class” would be a lovely lesson anyway).

Now, okay, you could say that the point is that even if he was punished for hitting on the princess, the lesson he actually needed to learn was not to lie. Fine. But then who the gently caress paroled him? The king is the one who charged, convicted, and sentenced him, so he clearly has pretty much unrestrained judicial power. Shouldn’t it be he or one of his subordinates deciding whether Baki has learned his lesson? Or is there some inherent magic in the curse that just knows what lesson Baki really needs to learn? But that doesn’t work either, because Baki writes on the ground to notify someone, and he earlier makes reference to petitioning for a reduced sentence. So who the gently caress is deciding that he’s learned his lesson and why don’t they agree with the king? And, again, why didn’t they let him out earlier, considering he’d apparently already learned his lesson months ago?

None of this makes any sense, and considering that you literally put “A Moral Tale” in the title of your story, having an incoherent moral is a significant problem.

To wrap this all up, the idea of a cute little fairy tale about crabs is fine, but the execution really fails throughout the story. There are a few bright spots in the prose, but otherwise it’s mostly just a mess (and, again, the lack of proofreading doesn’t help). I will give you this, however: at least it never got so bad as to make me angry.

Grade: D+


Fraud by Entenzahn

Entenzahn posted:

“Dear God,” Earl said, scrunching up his face as if in agony. He massaged his temples and focused, visibly, on the energy in the room. Thunder struck in the background.

“Are you getting anything?” Mrs. Samson said.

“I see… a knife. In the darkness, a knife. White knuckles. Fist clenched around the handle. I sense anger, jealousy. Blood. Iron. My blood. I can taste it, the iron. It warms my mouth. It hurts. My heart, it hurts. No, no… don’t. Please don’t, I swear I didn’t cheat, I would never, no, NO!”

Aghast, Earl was hurled back a step, and opened his eyes.

“There’s definitely a ghost in here.”

“Oh dear.”

“Did you not have a reading done before you bought the mansion?” With a motion he cut the lady off before she could reply. “Don’t worry, ma’am. Happens all the time. So that will be one hundred dollars for the reading, and an additional two hundred fifty to carry out the exorcism.”

Don’t quote me on this, but I’m starting to suspect that maybe this character is a con artist.

But seriously, yes, that’s obviously the point. I guess you’re trying to play it for laughs, but it’s not really funny enough to work, so it just comes off like you think your readers are morons. More cynically, it comes off like you can’t imagine what an actually convincing con artist would sound like, so you just exaggerate it instead. How about instead you display basic respect for your readers and at least try to make me believe that this man could actually be convincing to someone.

The other problem here is that some of your descriptions call your narrator’s perspective into question. Saying that Earl focused on the energy on the room implies that, you know, he’s actually doing that rather than putting on an act, even with “visibly” inserted in there. You say that he’s “aghast” and that he was hurled back (how can one be hurled back only a step, by the way?), but again, he’s not, he’s putting on an act. Neither an omniscient narrator nor one limited to Earl’s perspective would say these things. You seem to acknowledge this in other lines, like when you say that he scrunches up his face “as if in agony”.

Entenzahn posted:

“And that will make the flickering lights go away?”

“Or your money back.”

“Well,” Mrs. Samson said, “I gotta say this is all very exciting.” She fumbled for her purse and counted bills. “I can’t wait to see--”

“Now, this is a very, very vengeful ghost,” Earl said, graciously leading her out of the room. “Very vengeful. So I’d say, you go for a ride, treat yourself to an afternoon at the salon, and let me work my magic over here. We’ll have your house ghost-free lickety-split.”

Before she could protest, he snatched the bills from her hand, ushered her out and closed the door. For a short moment, nothing happened. Then there were muffled high heels on hardwood, moving away from him.

First of all, the dialogue still feels utterly silly while simultaneously not being funny. But more importantly, the actions being taken are completely insane.

Please take a moment to actually picture this scene with actual real people in it. Imagine grabbing the money out of someone’s hand and then forcing them out of their own home before they can even protest. Are you writing a loving cartoon?

And that’s not even getting into the fact that there’s a loving thunderstorm outside. Sure, it seems like technically he’s just kicking her out of the room, but he’s still telling her to leave the house (and assumes she’s done so when he hears her walking away, which is a bit weird).

Entenzahn posted:

He vented a long-pent-up sigh through his nose and opened his suitcase. It was kind of a gay piece, colorful, decorated with arcane symbols, and filled with standard lightbulbs and simple tools. With a screwdriver, he opened the cover on the light switch next to the door and fixed the contacts. Then he sat down and continued reading ‘The Shining’ where he’d last left off.

The Shining (which should be italicized, because it’s a novel, not a short story) was published in 1977, by which time the modern meaning of “gay” was well-established. Unless this guy is supposed to be especially old or old-fashioned, it feels very strange for him to refer to his suitcase as gay.

Entenzahn posted:

He didn’t even feel bad. Mrs. Samson was a dentist’s wife. Some people just had more money than they deserved. And judging from this room he wasn’t the only one who had robbed her. Old, tacky paintings of old tacky people hung from the walls. A weird life-sized doll collected dust in the corner, arms folded in front of her like a chaste maid. There was so much trash. He didn’t understand what it was for, but the rich probably had art rooms and all that kind of baloney.

This paragraph (or the first half, at least) is probably the best part of the whole story. I like the line about not being the only one to rob her. It gives a bit of insight into who this guy is and how he thinks.

Entenzahn posted:

“Fraud.”

He closed the book, just for a second, but enough to feel embarrassed. Obviously he misheard. There was nothing but the rain pattering against the window. Nobody was here. For a room stuffed with art pieces, it felt amazingly empty.

The light flickered.

“gently caress,” Earl said. He hurried over and unscrewed the cover, but the contacts were fine. Maybe he had to change the lightbulb. Maybe it was the wiring. Dear God, he hoped it wasn’t the wiring.

The first part of this fine, I guess. But the last paragraph has me asking serious questions about this guy’s modus operandi. Obviously the basic idea is that he’s taking advantage of the woman’s ignorance about her lighting system so that he can fix whatever her problem is and pretend that he got rid of a ghost. I have a couple questions, like how many hauntings are actually just caused by faulty appliances, but let’s put that aside for now. My main issue here is that earlier he acted like he already knew exactly what the problem was. It almost made me wonder if he’d caused it deliberately, but that really doesn’t make any sense in light of anything else in the story, so I assume that he just immediately knew what the problem was (I don’t know enough about this stuff to know how realistic that would be). But now he’s suddenly unsure and thinks it might be a wiring issue. Does he have a back-up plan if it’s a wiring issue? Given how panicked he sounds, it doesn’t seem like it. Which makes his whole scam seem even more flimsy.

Entenzahn posted:

“Fraud.”

This time he was sure somebody was whispering at him. Had Mrs. Samson mentioned having kids? Brats could get into the tiniest spaces.

“Okay, you can come out,” he said. Nobody came. “Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. You can watch me do the ritual, you know.”

Holy poo poo, he doesn’t know whether or not she has kids? How bad is this man at being a con artist? Not to mention that that makes locking her out of her own house even more hosed up.

Entenzahn posted:

The light flickered again. Lightning struck. He could have sworn something had moved in the corner of his eye, but that was obviously bogus. Had the doll always been facing towards the door? Seemed like a strange way to arrange her.

He waved his thoughts away. Now was not the time to go crazy – at least not while the light was still busted. He listened for the voice, but again there was nothing but the rain, and his own thudding heart. Maybe the kid had scrammed.

Sorry, it’s obviously bogus that something moved while you still think that there are possibly kids in the house? This man’s thought processes are incoherent, and it seems like you’re just shoving clichés in without regard for the fact that they blatantly contradict each other.

Entenzahn posted:

Lightning struck again. There was a weird shadow on the wall opposite of the window, sticking out into the large rectangle of light that fell through from outside. It seemed almost human-shaped, but he couldn’t see where it would be coming from. Perhaps the doll, somehow. Or an oddly-shaped cloud he couldn’t make out. Maybe it came from a weird angle.

Or a human, since until a minute ago you thought that there might be other humans in here with you. It’s not clear why you stopped. Did you just figure out how idiotic that would be? If it was plausible five minutes ago that you accidentally locked yourself in a house with a bunch of kids, I don’t see why it’s suddenly unthinkable now.

Entenzahn posted:

The shadow turned and moved out of the light.

“Fraud.”

Faint laughter.

“Fraud.”

Now Earl for sure heard it. He heard it through the pitter-patter. Through his racing heartbeat. Through the laughter that seemed to swell up behind the door on the other end of the room, the one that lead deeper into the mansion. He tried to calm himself down, but now even the people in the pictures seemed freaked out. They followed his every step, as if silently urging him to leave. Earl anxiously eyed the door that led back to the front entrance.

The doll had definitely moved.

The muffled laughter from the other door got louder, swelling up, like a thunderstorm approaching him, one chuckle at a time. And then it stopped.

There was a knock.

Earl bolted. He threw the door open and ran down the hallway. Malicious laughter seemed to rain down on him from all sides. “Fraud,” it said, “Fraud. Fraud. Fraud.” The other end got farther away with every step. Shadows were growing longer, deeper. Doors were slightly ajar, eyes peeking out at him from behind, white fingers curled around dark oak. They reached out for him. Tried to pull him in, keep him here, buried deep in this mansion like the hack fraud he was. He had to get out. He had to--

The last door spat him out into the foyer.

Yeah, yeah, a bunch of spooky bullshit. Whatever, I’m bored.

Entenzahn posted:

Light seemed to rush back into the mansion. It was quiet. The rain had cleared and the sun was setting outside. Earl had left his suitcase back in the art room, but now he was not so sure about getting it back.

But then, if he left it, it would seem mighty suspicious.

He took a deep breath. Convinced himself he was going crazy. In five years, not a single house had… this was bananas. He would just quickly get it and later give Mrs. Samson her money back.

Dude, what? I mean, okay, I’m sorry if it’s boring to say “your horror story protagonist is not acting rational”, but this all just feels so hopelessly clichéd.

Also that thunderstorm sure cleared up fast. Although, wait, how much time has actually passed? When he kicked Mrs. Samson out it was early afternoon at the latest, since he told her to spend the afternoon at the salon. And now the sun is setting? How long did he spend reading The Shining? I thought the implication was that he’d just sat down to read it when he started hearing the voice, but I don’t see any other points at which he might have spent literal hours. Did the doll create a loving temporal rift? Does this take place in the Arctic?

Entenzahn posted:

He turned back around.

The doll looked straight at him. Its toothy grin stretched from one ear to the other, dotted by two malicious eyes, glinting pins piercing his soul. It stood on top of the grand set of stairs, watching him.

And then it loving moved.

What it had attempted to do, Earl had no idea. He was too busy tripping over himself as he burst out the front door, onto the streets. ‘Fraud’, it echoed through his head, but as he stumbled away from the mansion, the calls ebbed off.

Oh no, a toothy grin and malicious eyes. What do malicious eyes look like, you ask? Why, they’re eyes filled with malice, of course. Isn’t it obvious? Also they look like “glinting pins”, apparently.

Entenzahn posted:

“G'day,” an old passerby said. Unkempt and amused, the old-timer chewed on his pipe. “I see you’ve been to the Samson mansion?”

“I, uh, yes,” Earl said. He composed himself. “Do you know the owner? Can you relay them a message from me when they come back?”

“Owner?” Curious, the man stroked his stubble beard. “Has nobody been living in that mansion. Not ever since that thing what happened to poor Mrs. Samson.”

First of all, I can’t tell if this man is supposed to be speaking in some particular dialect or what. Is “Has nobody been living in that mansion” a grammatical way of saying “nobody lives in that mansion” in some variety of English? Am I supposed to assume he’s Australian because he said “g’day”? I honestly don’t know.

Second of all, that’s not what “owner” means, you bloody yobbo. You don’t have to live in a house to own it.

Entenzahn posted:

Earl’s gut churned. “What?” he said.

“Well, t’was a few years ago. Some sorta self-proclaimed psychic they hired, from what I hear. Saw all the money for the taking and just up and robbed the poor woman. Hit ‘er a bit too hard with the sap, and that was that.”

Oh my god! Mrs. Samson was a ghost! I can’t believe it! Now it’s really spooky that Earl was chased through a haunted mansion by an evil sentient doll!

This “twist” is not foreshadowed and affects nothing about our perception of previous events. It is just a lazy nothing. Who cares?

Entenzahn posted:

“...oh.”

“Gives me the jeepers, that place.” The man took a long drag from his pipe and looked out at the mansion. He didn’t seem to notice the shadow standing in the window. But Earl noticed. Earl knew it was watching him. Waiting. Laughing.

“Well, you’d best go along now,” the man said, and laid an amicable hand on his shoulder. He leaned in. “You goddamn FRAUD.”

gently caress you.

Entenzahn posted:

Earl only stopped running when he was back in his downtown apartment.

An honest career in electrical engineering seemed like a mighty good idea all of a sudden.

Okay, hang the gently caress on. He’s an electrical engineer? This man got a four-year degree at engineering school and he’s using it to run this scam? I’m already sceptical enough that this bullshit would be profitable for an electrician, given how comparatively little business he would get, but a loving electrical engineer? Or am I meant to believe that he’s now planning on going to school for electrical engineering? And yes, I know that actually you probably just meant that he’s an electrician, but this story has annoyed me enough that I’d not giving you the benefit of the doubt.

It’s just boring clichés and twists that don’t matter. Even in a ghost story, you can’t just have things happen for no reason! It seems like you mostly proofread it, at least, although there were bits I’d rephrase. The prose is mostly functional, but it functions to tell a story that did little more than waste my time.

Grade: D


Highgate by apophenium

apophenium posted:

Paz knew death and she knew pain. Her years as a hospice nurse taught her well. But those years were behind her now. Forced into early retirement by a back injury, Paz was more familiar with pain than she liked. Sleep came rarely and the leaden sleep her pain pills afforded her didn’t really count.

Not a great start. First of all, you’re starting with a cliché, but on top of that you’ve doubled the cliché in a really awkward way. You then have a passable segue into some backstory for her, which is fine, but then follow it up with what ends up feeling like an awkward info-dump. And then on top of that you half-repeat the initial cliché, so you end up stating that she knows pain for two different reasons. Almost everything about this paragraph is awkward.

apophenium posted:

On top of the pain, Paz battled feelings of inadequacy. The gripping pain in her lower back made working impossible. She missed helping the dying into fresh clothes, their slow smiles and whispered thank yous. Missed the purely mental pain of losing a favorite patient.

Just more awkward backstory. You’re repeating yourself, too – you already said that she was forced into retirement by her injury, you don’t need to clarify that it was because the injury made work impossible. That is the usual method by which injuries force people to retire.

The last sentence here is also awkward as hell. I see what you were going for, but it just doesn’t work.

apophenium posted:

Her nephew, Cesar, lived with her. He helped with groceries and other errands. Paz didn’t understand how he made money. He stayed in his room smoking pot and playing video games for people on the Internet. His YouTube checks were almost twice Paz’s monthly allowance.

Cesar always pestered Paz to try a joint. Just one. He said it would help not only with the pain but also with the depression. Paz always said she wasn’t a druggie. He would roll his eyes and ask her how many pain pills she was on.

The last line her is good, but you’re still doing nothing but feeding me backstory. Nothing has actively happened in the story yet; the first four paragraphs have been general statements about her life or things that have happened at undefined moments in the past.

Also, Paz clearly does in fact know how Cesar makes money. It sounds more like she doesn’t understand how he can make as much money as he does, but clearly she does in fact understand that he makes money by playing video games for people on the Internet.

apophenium posted:

But the thought of relief nagged at her and eventually she caved. Cesar gave her £60 and told her to meet a guy in the cemetery after sundown. Despite her reservations, Paz went.

Okay, so the good news is that we’re getting closer to an actual story happening. The bad news is that the second sentence here has some remarkably stupid implications.

Let’s break this down for a second. Cesar has been pestering Paz to “try a joint” for some time. And then she finally caves. So she tries a joint, right? No, apparently not. Apparently Cesar changed his mind and doesn’t want to share. A bit selfish, but okay. Will he at least sell his poor aunt the drugs he’s been pestering her to try for ages? Nope, he won’t do that either. He’s going to actually force her to go buy them herself. What a cool nephew! But wait, it doesn’t even stop there. Despite forcing his aunt to go buy her own weed when he has plenty of his own to share, he is willing to give her the money to buy it. What the gently caress is happening here? I get that he’s flush with YouTube cash and she’s probably struggling on disability or whatever, but it feels like Cesar is removing the less important obstacle for her here. It’s bizarre and there’s no explanation given at all, which makes it obviously that things are not happening for any kind of logical reason but rather because you need to set up the story and couldn’t be bothered to do it in a way that makes sense.

And of course Paz is fine with this, somehow. This woman who refused to even try a joint because she didn’t want to be a “druggie” is suddenly totally cool with going to meet some unknown drug dealer alone in a cemetery in the middle of the night. Excellent characterization here.

apophenium posted:

The gate was closed and sliced the dying sunbeams into pale orange stripes. Her back wouldn’t allow her to climb the thing, so she circled the cemetery looking for a gap. Once inside, the sunset ended abruptly, leaving little light for her. She squinted, looking for her nephew’s dealer.

I enjoy that the only reason Paz didn’t climb the cemetery gates was because of her back. Otherwise she would have been totally cool with breaking into a cemetery to score drugs.

Why is this even happening in a closed cemetery? I guess it’s pretty out of the way, but it’s also awfully suspicious if someone does see you. Again, I know that the actual answer is “because it’s necessary for the story”, but every time your reader actively thinks about that fact you’re losing them a little more.

apophenium posted:

She paced down aisles of graves and wondered if any were her former patients. The names were hard to read; a roiling blue-gray fog had settled on the ground.

“Paz?” asked a voice behind her. She turned but saw no one. There was a cough, and then the voice said, “Over here.”

Fear took hold of her, almost enough to distract from her back. “You know Cesar?” she asked, eager to confirm the voice’s identity.

“Yeah, that’s me.” After the voice spoke there was a strange whirring sound. The fog at Paz’s feet bubbled and thickened.

What does “eager to confirm the voice’s identity” add here, exactly? Do you think that your reader will not understand why she’s asking this question otherwise?

apophenium posted:

Another cough and then Paz could see the dealer. He was a head taller than her and wearing a black hoodie. Paz couldn’t see his face in the hood’s shadow. The figure raised a boxy thing to his mouth. That same whirring. Then the figure exhaled a cloud of the supernatural fog. “You got the dosh?”

Is the implication supposed to be that he rose out of the fog? Am I supposed to find it spooky that she couldn’t see him at first and then she could? It’s very unclear.

apophenium posted:

“Is that a vaporizer?”

“Sure is. Cesar told me to give you one. It’s easier on the lungs than a spliff.”

“Will mine make so much smoke?”

The figure chuckled and held out a gloved hand. Paz put the envelope of money in the hand. In return, Paz received a paper bag.

“If you need help just ask Cesar.”

I thought Cesar wanted her to try a joint? Did he change his mind? Is this why he told her to go buy it herself with his money? Why couldn’t he have just bought it for her? Also, why is she buying a vape from a drug dealer in the first place? I checked, and they’re legal to buy in the UK, so it seems like a pretty questionable decision to buy one like this.

apophenium posted:

A new voice yelled “Hey!” Paz and the dealer turned in its direction. A police officer, scrambling over the cemetery fence.

Boy, that’s convenient. This lone police officer just happens to stumble upon them, despite the fact that they’re in a deserted cemetery in the middle of the night. And right at the most appropriate point in the story, too!

apophenium posted:

“Can you run?” asked the dealer, taking another puff.

“I’d rather not,” said Paz. In a panic, she said, “Sorry officer, we wanted to pay respects. Hadn’t noticed them locking up. We’ll be out of your way.”

The cop pointed to Paz. “What’s in the bag, ma’am?”

“Take-away. My husband was a chef. We like to share a meal at his grave.”

If the cop scowled any harder, Paz thought he might have an aneurysm. “Can you put your hood down, sir?”

Both the cop and Paz eyed the dealer, who made no move to reveal his face. Instead, the hooded person took a long drag from the vape, forcefully exhaled in the cop’s face and yelled, “Run, Paz!”

Very cool that the dealer decides to shout her name right next to the loving cop. Also, how close to them was the cop standing, exactly? There’s no indication that the cop was up in the dealer’s personal space or anything (and the fact that he was asking him to remove his hood suggests otherwise, for that matter), so it seems a bit weird that he’s able to launch a concentrated stream of vapour into the guy’s face.

apophenium posted:

Ignoring the screaming pain in her back, Paz scurried back to where she entered the cemetery. The cop beat at his face, howling in pain. She had lost sight of the dealer.

Howling in pain? I’m not an expert, but this seems a little unrealistic to me, especially in light of my previous comments. I guess he got it in his eyes? Why is he beating at his face? Honestly this cop just seems like the world’s biggest wuss, so I guess you get realism points for that bit, at least.

apophenium posted:

Heart racing, Paz took a bus back to her street. Instead of going home, she walked to a nearby park and looked in her bag. A vape much like the dealer’s and a refill cartridge. Hesitantly, Paz took a puff. The vapor stung the back of her throat and burned her lungs. She coughed and thought back to her encounter in the graveyard.

Cool, and she’s already out of danger and we’re skipping ahead. Why not give us a bit more of her escape from the cop? It doesn’t have to be a long chase scene or whatever, but this just feels like a disjointed mess.

Anyway, instead of going home to her idiot nephew who got her into this whole mess she decides to get high on a park bench. I guess she already knows how to use a vape despite barely recognizing it before? Does it not need to charge or anything? Like I said, I’m not an expert here, but this all feels very sudden. She was so scared by her encounter with that cop, but given that cops in this world seem to just wander around random places at night on the hunt for shady-looking people, I’m not sure why she’d suddenly feel safe to get high in the middle of a public park.

Also, she thinks back to her encounter in the graveyard, but you give no indication of why or what she’s thinking about, and it’s not relevant at all to what happens next. What is the purpose of this line?

apophenium posted:

“Feel anything yet?” It was the dealer, sitting beside her on the bench.

“What the hell, man. Don’t sneak up on people. And no, I don’t think I feel anything.” She took another hit. “Wait, okay. I think I get it.” Her feet tingled and her thoughts drifted.

“How’s the back?”

“Better. But this stuff is messing with my head.”

“You’ll get used to it. Hit me up when you need another cartridge.” The dealer stood up. For a second a streetlight revealed the dealer’s face. To Paz it looked bone-white. Sockets instead of eyes and a broad toothy grin.

Paz chuckled and shook her head. “See ya,” she said. The dealer left the park in a cloud of dense vapor.

Sorry, is the implication supposed to be that she’s already so high it doesn’t freak her out that she’s talking to a motherfucking skeleton?

Also, why do you specifically say that his face looked bone-white to Paz? Would it not have looked bone-white to anyone else? Is there supposed to be some sort of ambiguity here? You make it pretty loving clear that his face is a literal skull, so I don’t see what being coy about it accomplishes.

apophenium posted:

“Thanks for watching, amigos. I’ll be back tomorrow night. Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already. And check me out on Twitter.” Paz got through her usual sign-off speech. She had begun supplementing her disability stipend with streaming herself playing the latest video games. Turned out people enjoyed watching a stoned middle-aged lady playing games and swearing in Spanish.

Her dealer started giving her good deals, calling her “my best customer.” They still met in the cemetery, but were much more discreet. It did help her pain. Cesar had been right, after all. Paz felt well enough to help out with the groceries and chores.

But yes, Paz knew death. Death was her weed guy.

Yeah, I see what you did there. Too bad it’s clunky, especially because the first paragraph was more about pain than death.

I don’t appreciate that you spell out even more clearly that the drug dealer is Death, though. It was already obvious enough; leave it as a vaguely spooky thing instead of making a joke about it.

Of course, it’s a bit of a moot point because it’s not really spooky, it’s just dumb. What is the point here? Death is helping her out because she was a hospice nurse and helped people die peacefully? Did they put in a good word for her with Death? Okay, fine, I guess that works okay, but here’s the issue: what the gently caress did Cesar do to get Death as his drug dealer?

Because he’s the one who bought from Death first, right? I mean, I assume I’m supposed to take all that at face value. I suppose Death could have somehow replace Cesar’s actual dealer and used his spooky magic Death powers to get all that information, but then presumably Cesar and Paz would eventually figure out that they have different dealers, right? So I’m forced to assume that Death is Cesar’s dealer as well, which kind of takes away from whatever point you’re trying to make in the first place.

Also, how the gently caress are they “more discreet”? They didn’t do anything indiscreet the first time; they just got stumbled upon by some idiot cop. For that matter, Death has magic powers and can just teleport to the park near her house (which is apparently reliably cop-free), so why not just meet there? Why does this rear end in a top hat make a woman with chronic back pain take a bus across town just so he can hang out in a spooky cemetery?

And the streaming poo poo is lame; you obviously just thought the image of this middle-aged woman streaming video games is funny, because it sure doesn’t seem to fit thematically with anything else.

Overall this story really just does nothing for me. The prose is flat, the plot and characters make no sense, nothing really comes together. It’s still vaguely coherent, but that’s about all I can say for it.

Grade: D-

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Week 343 Crits

Behold, the first of our two profoundly cursed stories!


Dragonstorm by SlipUp

SlipUp posted:

A solar flare erupts on the surface of the sun and the energy speeds across the vast expanse of space, reaching earth’s orbit in eight minutes, supercharging a particle suspended high in the atmosphere. The microscopic particle grows to the size of a pea as it fills with white light. It falls back towards earth, like a tear.

Thanks for the science lesson. The prose here is dull and it’s not at all clear what this means or what I’m supposed to be getting out of it.

SlipUp posted:

Lucy’s camera flashes, capturing the full glory of the Saturday night LAN party. Four monitors line the wall, linked together, like a budget command center. Set up had taken an hour. A night of glory awaited.

Is this supposed to be the picture in the prompt? Either way I don’t think this accomplishes anything. Why is she taking an awkward photo of a bunch of computers? And the prose is still stilted as hell.

SlipUp posted:

“What adventure this time?” Lucy inquired.

“Dragonstorm!” Michael replied from his spot beside the window.

Jerry claps his hands together. “Oh snap it’s out?”

“Almost,” George said as he holds up a USB drive, “It leaked early.” He plugs it into his backward facing PC.

They didn’t decide what game they were playing until after arriving and setting everything up? Or did Michael and George just keep Lucy and Jerry out of the loop for some reason? For that matter, what is Dragonstorm exactly? Lucy refers to it as an adventure, which would suggest to me that it’s something more like a module for a particular game rather than a game itself (this would also help explain why they didn’t decide what game to play in advance), but maybe she’s just being dramatic?

And why do you feel the need to tell me that George’s PC is backwards-facing, besides the fact that there is a backwards-facing PC in the picture?

Oh, and you’ve suddenly switched from present to past tense here. Don’t do this.

SlipUp posted:

“Cool, way to go Georgie!” Lucy said as she put her camera in her bag, taking her place among her friends.

“Ready?” She asks.

“Launch in three… two… one…” Michael counts down, as is their cheesy tradition. They turn their monitors on at the same time.

Okay, you’ve switched back to present tense now.

But also, why are they just turning their monitors on now? Didn’t they have to, like, install the game or something? It feels like you committed very hard to trying to fit the exact picture into the story no matter how little sense it made.

SlipUp posted:

A bright ball of light enters into the room through the window, on a breeze.

“Whoa!” Somebody exclaims.

“Is that an alien?” Jerry asks as the ball floats over the top of their computers. Each is showing the Dragonstorm logo of a prince, riding a dragon.

“I think it’s ball lightn—,” Lucy begins but is cut off by the detonation of blinding light that fills the room with the smell of sulfur.

So their computers boot directly to the game somehow? Or were their computers already running and their monitors were just off for some reason? How did they install and open the game in that case? What is going on here?

And I guess the magic solar flare particle or whatever the gently caress has decided to come visit them. I realize that you wanted to include some sort of wacky mad science explanation for what happens, but I really don’t feel like this accomplishes anything interesting. It’s just random magic.

SlipUp posted:

Everything fades to darkness. The pixels of black in their mind’s eye that comprise the sea of unconsciousness begin to vibrate and then fall away.

This second sentence is a nightmare, which I suppose is appropriate under the circumstances.

SlipUp posted:

Green. Lucy can see small blocks of green, and now blue, even yellow. It is as if the resolution is improving.

Okay so you reference pixels here, I guess, but then the resolution just improves and it’s never an issue again, so what is the point?

SlipUp posted:

She’s outside, lying in a blowing field of long green grass. A clear blue sky suspends the sun above her.

Her armour clinks together as she rises from the ground.

“Huh,” she remarks, studying the gauntlets she’s wearing. She notices she has a sword in its sheath at her side and a shield on her back as well.

“Hey Lucy, looking good!” Michael says from behind her. She turns to see him in a white robe and with a staff in his hands.

Oh great, it’s an isekai.

They’ve already been given classes and dressed appropriately, I guess. I feel like it would have been a bit more dramatically-appropriate if they’d had time to make characters or something and then been made to play those characters, but okay, sure.

They’re also taking this awfully well.

SlipUp posted:

“Not too bad yourself,” she replies.

Jerry pushes himself up from the tall grass between his companions, he’s wearing a vest and a dress shirt, with a lute strap around his back.

“Did we just travel to the past?” he asks.

Really? Is this really what you would think? I mean, who knows what you would think if something this bizarre actually happened, but they’re taking it pretty casually, so I feel like I’m supposed to be treating this as if they’re thinking clearly right now. And once you’re at the point where “something completely bizarre and unlike anything in the entirety of known human experience has happened” is your assumption, why would you go straight for time travel at this point? I don’t know, this just feels like you didn’t want them to immediately get to the right answer but couldn’t actually think of something more plausible.

SlipUp posted:

“Maybe,” Michael answers as he examines his staff. It’s heavy, made of iron with leather wrapping. It forms a triangle at the top and holds a thick blade that resembled a stake at the bottom. “Except… I think I remember this, and I never paid attention in history.”

“Well that’s badass, but definitely not historical.” Lucy says, “We’re in Dragonstorm aren’t we?”

“You nailed it,” he says, “When George told me he was downloading the game last night, I looked for a beta walkthrough.”

Cool, I’m glad they figured out the mystery by rationally analyzing their loving weaponry. Also this “beta walkthrough” comment is never really explained. Michael recognizes the staff from the walkthrough? What?

SlipUp posted:

A woman’s figure rises from the tall grass a distance away. She is wrapped in leather, with a quiver of arrows around one shoulder and a bow over the other.

“Something’s different,” the woman says.

Lucy feels something familiar in the strange woman’s voice, “George?”

The figure looks down and examines themself. They cup their breasts.

“This isn’t what I thought it would be like,” they say.

“You’re still Georgie to me. We’ll figure this out, Mike saw the walkthrough,” Lucy says.

“Beta walkthrough,” Michael corrects as he pulls his staff from the earth.

“How did I end up like this?” Georgie asks.

“Dragonstorm has a unique character generation system. It asks philosophical questions and generates your character based off your answers,” he says.

“I don’t remember any questions,” Georgie says as they touch their elbows. “These feel weird.”

“Our subconscious must have answered for us,” Lucy says in realization. Georgie sighs.

loving kill me.

Where do I even start here?

You know what, let’s put aside the gender stuff for just a second. My assumption up to this point is that everyone looks the same as they do in the real world. None of the other three make any comment about looking or feeling different, nor is there any such reference in the story. They all recognize each other immediately, so if there are any differences from their real-life bodies they’re probably minor (maybe they’re in better shape or something, whatever). But George is different for some reason. We’ll get into this more in just a moment, but if something about George’s subconscious affected his character’s appearance, why wouldn’t it also affect the others? None of them want to look different and/or have a character who looks different? This isn’t necessarily a huge issue but it just feels very lazy that everyone looks exactly the same besides one character who looks totally different due to being a different gender.

Okay, now for the gender stuff. This is clumsy as hell, to say the least. Is the implication that George is trans or otherwise gender-questioning in some way? That’s fine, you could totally explore a theme like that, but it’s very unclear, and talking about the character cupping their loving breasts really does not help. Is the implication that George subconsciously (or perhaps consciously but secretly) feels like a woman or wants to try being a woman? Or is it just that he wants to play a female character? Or, worst of all, is it that he somehow has “feminine” philosophical opinions? I honestly cannot tell if you’re trying to write a sensitive portrayal of a trans person (in which case you failed, by the way) or just trying to get some laughs from someone being stuck in the wrong body (which feels very out-dated), or maybe whether it’s supposed to land somewhere in the middle. No matter what you were going for, it didn’t work, unless your goal was to annoy me. In that case you succeeded magnificently.

The switch to gender-neutral pronouns (and a more gender-neutral name) suggests to me that you want to be sensitive, but it doesn’t really work for me, because it just adds to the ambiguity. I mean, I appreciate that you didn’t just start using female pronouns because George has a female body now, but if the implication is that George is actually supposed to be trans, that would actually be appropriate. If the implication is that George is just a man in a female body (and so is trans in the game world, I guess?), it’s weird to not just continue to use male pronouns. I don’t really expect you to put an extended discussion of pronouns into your story, but maybe don’t put yourself in a situation where it is totally ambiguous to the reader whether or not you’re actually being respectful of someone’s gender identity.

Okay, so I’ll leave the gender stuff there; there’s probably more than could be said but hopefully you get the point by now. I just want to add that while I can kind of see the idea between philosophical questions determining a class for your character (although it seems a bit pointless), I don’t understand how the hell they could determine your gender or appearance unless you’re getting into real biotruths territory. Or am I supposed to understand “philosophical questions” to also include questions about your true gender identity or something?

Long story short, this whole thing is a mess that you really, really need to rethink.

SlipUp posted:

“Hey, at least you have a sick bow.” Jerry says, idly strumming his lute, “I guess I’m supposed to hit people with a guitar.”

“Nope. You play it. Trust me,” Michael responds.

“Well as long as their weakness is a bad night’s sleep I got us covered.”

This dialogue is incredibly bad. These are not funny jokes. And does this nerd really not know what a bard is? I got the impression these guys were supposed to be into this sort of thing, but maybe this is there first-ever fantasy game?

SlipUp posted:

“Hey, look at that,” Georgie says, pointing towards a path that runs through the clearing and the surrounding woods. A cloud of dust is moving closer. “Is that a friendly?”

Lucy surveys the situation. “You three hide in the ditch beside the road. I’ll block the way and try to find out what’s going on. I’ve got the armour. If they try anything, Georgie, Michael, turn them into a kebab.”

“I guess that’s why you’re the one with the sword,” Jerry says as he plays a few more chords.

Lucy takes her place in the center of the road as the others hide. A rider emerges from the curved forest road, at a high-speed gallop. They see each other too late. She leaps into the ditch. He shouts. The horse rears back, unsaddles him, and flees back the way it came. His shape lies on its back, motionless in the bare dirt.

I’m struggling to understand the geography of this area. They see the rider (or a cloud of dust, I guess, because this is a cartoon), and Lucy stands out in the middle of the road… at which point she loses sight of the rider because she’s in the woods now? And the rider never sees them at any point? This doesn’t seem totally impossible, I guess, but the scene you’re describing feels very strange. Almost like you constructed it around lazy clichés instead of any kind of sense of logic.

SlipUp posted:

Michael runs to him. He stakes his staff in the ground and forms a triangle with his fingers.

“Producat in regeneratione,” Michael says over the injured man. A triangle of green light emerges from the staff and joins his fingers, forming a prism. It blinks and disappears.

The stranger’s eyes flutter and open. He gazes at the sky for a moment, as if he forgot what brought him here. As the memory dawns on him, he looked at the four people surrounding him.

“It seems Commander Smith’s coup is successful. If you brought me back to life to torture me, know I would die a thousand deaths for my people. Do your worst charlatans. I do not yield,” the man says.

This dialogue really sucks. I feel like I’ve mentioned this a couple times but very little that anyone says in this story feels remotely natural.

And “Commander Smith” is a terrible name for an enemy in a video game fantasy world. Is it bad on purpose? I don’t know or care. It’s still bad. If you’re going to make it cheesy at least go all the way and name him Zythrak or something.

SlipUp posted:

The four look between themselves and solemnly nod in unison. Jerry turns his back to the man, lowers his trousers, and farts loudly in the man’s face. It cracks like thunder and trails off into a high pitched squeal.

I think this is the point at which I gave up whatever small amount of hope I still retained that the story might not be terrible. Why are the characters behaving in such an unnatural and confusing way? What about them have we seen so far that would give the impression that this solemn nod has any discernable meaning to us or to them? What is it conveying besides being the clichéd set up for a terrible joke? Oh, yes, they nod solemnly at each other as if sharing some profound insight or plan and then one of them farts, how droll. This is a completely insane reaction to what the man said and nothing about this makes sense.

Oh yeah, and it’s a loving fart joke. gently caress you. You know the worst part? It feels like you put more effort into describing the fart than nearly anything else in the story.

SlipUp posted:

“Yield fool!” Jerry says, “I can play this lute poorly at you as well!”

“Enough, enough! What manner of assassins are you?”

“We’re simply adventures searching for our home,” Lucy says, “We weren’t looking for anybody.”

The characters all continue to behave unnaturally, of course.

SlipUp posted:

“Truly? Perhaps this meeting was by divine providence. I am Prince Nath, of the Kingdom of Cibbia. We were a peaceful people. My father, the King, wished to reform the army, reduce its size, and focus on improving the lives of the common people. Commander Smith did not wish to see his power reduced. He murdered my father and his dragon as they slept. I tried to flee with my dragon Zoe, but she is young and not yet capable of flight. They caught us at the bridge. She knocked a man off a horse and placed me on it. She saved me. Now that bastard has her.”

Cool, thanks for the lovely backstory. Is this commentary on how NPCs in video games talk? Because so far nothing else this guy has said has come across as particularly NPC-like, and he can obviously react to the players dynamically.

Also very cool that he trusts these people implicitly because they said they weren’t baddies. Despite the fact that one farted in his face.

SlipUp posted:

“You need to raise an army,” Michael comments. Prince Nath disagrees.

“The dragon is the symbol of my office. I cannot be king without her. Besides, she’s my only friend. She saved my life. I’m not letting her suffer,” Nath says, “Smith will try to break her to his will with torture so he can seize the throne.”

“You speak of her as if she was more person than beast,” Georgie says.

“She is smarter than any human, but she is not human. Nor is she a beast. You seek to put labels on her, to understand her easier. Understanding Zoe is not easy. Nor does she wish to be labeled. She is a colossus and a creator, a pyroclast and a poet, a killer and a kindred soul. Just call her Zoe and let her speak for herself. Rescue her, and we will send you home.”

I’m getting tired of talking about how bad the dialogue is, but it’s really bad. First of all, I don’t really buy Georgie’s line here. The guy could very plausibly just be talking about a dog or something; it’s not that weird.

But boy, Nath’s reply is really something. Did he have this speech prepared in advance? It feels weirdly hyper-sensitive, like this guy spends a lot of time thinking about how to shame people for not taking his relationship with his pet dragon seriously enough. And I have no idea what he means when he says she’s a pyroclast, even metaphorically. She’s a volcanic rock fragment? What? This feels like lazily-written purple prose.

SlipUp posted:

“It’s kind of a long way,” Michael says.

“Young wizard, I see you bear the triangle of the three elements; fire, water, and nature. While you memorize slices of magical theory for practical application, she is a master of fire magic and can bend the sun itself to her will.”

Michael shrugs. He looks to his friends. “Best shot we have.”

Stop talking about your loving dragon you goddamn weirdo.

Okay but seriously, how does Michael know that it’s “a long way” home? None of the characters appear to have given any thought to getting home yet, let alone come to any conclusions about how hard it would be. But sure, I guess maybe he’s just trying to make the point that it’s not as easy as Nath is assuming.

And then Nath starts defending his dragon waifu’s honour again and Michael immediately gives in. I don’t know what the gently caress fire magic has to do with getting you out of a video game dimension, but sure, whatever, nobody actually seems to be interested in examining their circumstances at all anyway.

SlipUp posted:

Prince Nath pointed back down the road. “The bridge is two hours away by foot. They’ll no doubt… Drag her into the river. It will keep her weak,” Prince Nath says with a crack in his voice, “I don’t know yet what they plan, but it will be some time. Smith’s skill with the sword is unmatchable, his golden armour is too thick to penetrate with arrows, and he carries a magical charm to ward off all but the mightiest spells.”

“Can you walk?” asks Lucy.

Don’t capitalize the next word after an ellipsis. Also the ellipsis feels very weird here, even if it is supposed to represent his voicing cracking from sadness or whatever.

By the way, this adventure seems lame as gently caress if it’s actually the one from the game. Like, what, you just randomly run into the prince and then go have a boss fight? It just feels so lazy.

SlipUp posted:

The soldiers camp was on the other side of the river. They were fifty strong. The bridge and road were adjacent to them. Zoe lay in the river, huge chains pulled from one shore to the other to keep her in captivity.

I haven’t really mentioned it, but you really need to work on proofreading. You have a missing apostrophe here, but these kinds of issues litter the story. Also, the sentences here feel clunky; they’re just disjointed description.

SlipUp posted:

The soldiers were unaware of the group's presence. Georgie had soundlessly eliminated the scouts from afar by piercing their throats.

“drat Georgie.”

“Natural born killer,” Georgie jokes, “You’re up Lucy.”

She draws her longsword, shield on her other arm, and walks to the bridge. She rests her sword on her shoulder and whistles as she goes.

The sentries on the edge of the camp can hear her approach. They shout to the rest of the soldiers who gather their arms and armour, and hurry towards the bridge. From the largest tent emerges a figure wearing ornate golden armour. Commander Smith.

“I warn you all,” Lucy shouts at the advancing horde, “I am the master of this bridge, and I charge my toll in souls."

The lone figure screaming defiantly at them seems to shake the troops for a moment. They were no fools. Prince Nath’s pursuers had not returned. The scouts were missing. The bridge would act as a funnel against them and in favour of this berserker woman. A woman?

They reach the bridge and cross it. Lucy blocks the first man’s charge with her shield and cuts his legs out from under him.

That is the group’s signal. They hear a shout from the woods.

“Fiat ignis!”

“They were no fools,” the narrator said, before having them be fools. So the bandits noticed the scouts were missing and did nothing about it? They realize that they shouldn’t all run onto the bridge but do it anyway?

Again, it all just feels so lazy. I don’t know if this is too vague a criticism, but I don’t know what else to say. It doesn’t feel like you really put any thought into why any characters do anything, or how to set the scene in such a way as to make it interesting. You just sort of shove a bunch of clichés into the shape of a story and then hack together a mishmash of subpar prose to roughly describe it.

SlipUp posted:

A blazing blast burns the bridge, breaking its boards and beams beneath the brothers-in-arms. The construct collapses completely into the current, carrying them 'cross the country.

Smith sallies to the sleeping serpent, sword sharp.

“Violence virtually vilifies virtuous vermin,” Jerry jokes. Forest fogged his fate from his foe, his players part in this play. The lute laid low the little liar, laden with lacerations. Chords cut the Commander like a caesarian. The body bleeds blue.

I’m sorry, what? Where did the alliteration come from? Why are you doing this? In case you were wondering, I loving hate it.

And “caesarean” (which you loving misspelled) does not start with the same sound, so you couldn’t even get that right.

SlipUp posted:

“Sick poo poo,” they say.

Jerry farts loudly.

gently caress you.

SlipUp posted:

“For rescuing my dear Zoe, we will return you to your time whenever you please,” proclaims Prince Nath. Zoe jumps up and down, nods her head, and licks Nath so hard he falls over.

“Seems like a dog to me,” Jerry whispers to Georgie.

“A dog who mastered fire magic in her free time,” they reply, “Looks can be deceiving.”

“It’s not really a time problem—“ Michael begins.

“Wait, whenever we please?” Lucy says.

“Of course,” the prince says as he wipes drool from his tunic. “Why? Do you wish to remain? With this foul beast?”

Zoe holds her nose at him.

Lucy laughs at them both and her eyes catch Nath’s, who smirks like a child from his spot on the ground.

“I thought Zoe could take us for a ride?”

“Sure, but there’s only room for two,” Nath says.

Lucy looks at her friends. “Don’t wait for me, I’ll catch up.”

Jerry shakes his head and laughs. “Let’s hit the tavern! Look out ladies, I got a lute! The adventure's just begun!”

More terrible dialogue, whatever, I can’t stand to think about this story anymore.

It’s bad, my friend. It’s bad on basically every level. It is an absolute miracle that this was not the losing story. It’s insufficiently-proofread, the prose is stilted, the plot is simultaneously boring and nonsensical, the characters are awful, there are no discernable themes, it’s full of clichés. It really has no redeeming features at all. All that said, there is a certain innocence to its badness and on some level I at least appreciate that it is unpretentious in what it is trying to do.

I still hate it, though.

Grade: F

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Week 343 Crits

Lo! It is here! Our most extraordinarily cursed story of the week!


One May Ride a Free Horse to Death by selaphiel

selaphiel posted:

Tonight, something had come.

A man's body had washed ashore, tangled in water reeds and sand. From afar, Elise had assumed him dead. She approached him carefully, her dog plodded dutifully beside her. Brandishing her hiking stick she jabbed him none too gently in the ribs.

Cool, this character already loving sucks. “Hey cool, a dead body! Or possibly a person in need of medical help! Both of these things would be improved by jabbing it in the ribs with a stick!” No explanation is given for why she does this.

And it’s “none-too-gently”. Hyphenate multi-word adverbial (or adjectival) phrases like this. I wouldn’t normally pick out particular grammatical errors, but a lot of people seem to make this one, and repeatedly.

selaphiel posted:

This action elicited a groan from the nearly drowned figure who promptly rolled over and peered up at her.

“Ah, the sea couldn't finish me off so Poseidon himself sent an awful wench to finish the job?” His humor fell flat, but he still sent her a small smirk.

I know that when I wash up on a beach having almost drowned and am awoken by someone jabbing me with a hiking stick, my first thought is to wisecrack about a Greek god trying to murder me. Also this wisecrack is phrased weirdly. Why is Poseidon referenced in relation to a random woman with no connection to his domain rather than the sea itself? I mean, okay, the implication is obviously that he was also trying to kill this guy by drowning and the lady is his back-up plan, but it still just comes across as very awkward.

More importantly, his humour falls flat for the audience, too.

selaphiel posted:

Elise did not return it. Beside her, her hound snarled.

“Who are you, and why are you here?” Elise's voice cracked, unused and almost unfamiliar to her as she hadn't needed to speak aloud since her husband passed four years ago. She'd been alone ever since, lived off the land and her small collection of livestock.

Oh yeah, that’s some loving seamless backstory integration right there. Also, Elise continues to be weirdly hostile to this man. He just washed up on the shore half-dead, why the gently caress do you think he’s here?

I mean, okay, maybe she’s justified because this guy does turn out to have an agenda, but it’s very unclear to me why she’d have any reason to know that.

selaphiel posted:

The man stood, and it was only then that Elise noticed his feet–or rather, his equine like hooves–and blanched.

I’m sorry, what? You only just noticed this? Did approaching him “carefully” not involve loving looking at him? You have poked him, stood next to him, engaged him in conversation, and somehow through all of that did not notice that he has horse legs?

Also, is he wearing pants or something? What’s the situation here? As far as I can tell his clothing is never described, which only makes this more confusing. Did she not notice because he’s wearing pants? Would human pants even fit horse legs? Does he have special horse pants? If he’s not wearing anything, that makes it even more inexplicable that she didn’t notice.

selaphiel posted:

She'd heard the stories and the myths, but never had she believed them to be true.

This sentence is so loving bad. It’s a cliché, but one that simultaneously manages to sound completely unnatural, which is the one thing clichés are supposed to be good at avoiding.

What I really want to know is how Elise perceives this. Clearly it’s a weird thing, seeing a man with horse legs. But how weird? What sort of world does Elise live in? Does she live in something like the modern world, where most people would regard a man with horse legs as entirely scientifically impossible? Or does she live in a world where lots of people believe in these kinds of stories and myths, but she personally doesn’t? This sentence does absolutely nothing to answer my question.

Speaking of which, my struggle to guess what the gently caress kind of world this is supposed to take place in will be a recurring theme, and I will never get any kind of satisfaction.

selaphiel posted:

He followed her gaze and nervously rubbed his head, “Ah, I can see you're quite perturbed by my predicament. Let me explain.”

The stranger took a step back, as if readying himself.

“My name is Achaius. I've come upon some trouble, you see. I need to find my way back home. I had a boat but it broke on the rocks,” Achaius gestured north towards the sea.

“I'm wounded. I know the way, but I will not make it without the aid of another. My people, they can heal my afflictions, change me. The stories say so. I just need the assistance of a young woman,” he finished.

What is the “predicament” that he believes she is perturbed by? She’s obviously actually perturbed by the fact that he has loving horse legs, but despite his promise to explain he doesn’t do anything of the sort (and it’s unclear whether or not that can really be called a predicament).

So is he actually saying that he thinks (or is pretending to think) that she is perturbed by his having washed up on shore looking like a dead body? That would make more sense, except that that’s obviously not what’s bothering her, so it’s not clear if I’m supposed to believe that he’s an idiot or deliberately misinterpreting her.

Also, his dialogue is painfully awkward, like he’s reciting a hastily-scribbled speech. The end result is that I can’t tell if he’s supposed to sound awkward and pretentious or if you just wrote him like that by accident. Either way, it does nothing but take me out of the story.

selaphiel posted:

Elise narrowed her eyes, evaluating the horse hooved man. Blood oozed from a brutal tear on his back, stretching to his chest. She reckoned he must have slammed it upon the rocks when his boat met its dreadful end.

“What do you think, Doc?” Elise murmured to the dog at her feet. The shepherd perked his lopsided ears, sniffed at the ground where Achaius stood and huffed.

Excuse me?

Okay, I’m not going to harp on it too long because it already got a lot of time in the judgement, but I hate this. If she is the kind of person who talks to her dog, why did she not do so for four years? Does she only do it performatively, when there are other people around to hear?

To be clear, this is telling not only because it doesn’t make sense, but because it reinforces how lazy your characterization of Elise is. You had her not have spoken in four years because it sounded like a neat idea or something, and then you had her talk to her dog because dogs being suspicious of people is a cliché you wanted to use, and you thought the line sounded good or something. I don’t really know your exact thought process, maybe I’m a bit off here, but the end result is that you put less thought into Elise’s character than any of the people who judged your story did. That’s a problem.

selaphiel posted:

“Doc here, he doesn't like you sir. I take that as a sure sign you are not to be trusted.”

Achaius laughed despite looking visibly agitated, “Ma'am forgive me for being so rude, but you've been out here far too long if you believe that dog has any more sense than to piss on a tree and howl at the moon.”

Elise brushed the belittlement aside.

Both of these characters are assholes. I assume that this is mostly intentional in Achaius’s case, though I don’t fully think that justifies it. The problem is that it’s hard for me to care about this story when it’s just two strangers being assholes to each other for no reason. Your characters don’t have to be good people, but I have to care about them on some level. At this point I just dislike both your characters and don’t care what happens to them.

I have no engagement with this story. I would be more engaged if Elise reacted to literally anything like a normal human being, or if Achaius actually said something that made him remotely sympathetic. A nice woman helping out a rude stranger or a friendly stranger being treated poorly by a suspicious woman are both frameworks upon which you could easily build a much more interesting story. You have just presented two people being dicks to each other for no real reason. There is nothing to care about here, and it’s a terrible framework to build a story upon.

selaphiel posted:

“Achaius, I do apologize for the woes that have befallen you. However, I cannot be of aid to you. I recommend traveling south, there's a good trader town not five days from here. Plenty of fine women too,” Elise nodded respectfully and turned, bidding him ado.

Le mot que tu cherches est «adieu».

Also, the reference to a “trader town” only deepens my confusion over the setting of this story.

selaphiel posted:

She'd only gone a few steps before Doc let out a frightening yelp. Elise turned back to see Doc writhing on the ground with a dagger protruding from his belly, Achaius above him. He withdrew the weapon slamming it into Doc's throat, silencing the dogs cries of pain. Blood leached into the sand.

Elise screamed, her voice tearing through the night. Doc had been the last thing her husband gave her, her best friend all these lonely years.

Here’s the thing: I already care as much about a dog dying in some random story as I’m ever going to (which is not very much, for the record). Adding in some John Wick bullshit about it being a last gift from someone’s deceased spouse does not actually make it any sadder. If anything it makes it less sad, because now I’m laughing at how you literally copied a plot point from John Wick. It’s just melodramatic bullshit.

selaphiel posted:

Without thought she threw herself at Achaius, her hikers stick aimed for his head. He dodged her, and despite injury was far more nimble than her. The stick was ripped from her grasp.

“Now, since you haven't the wise advice of a mutt what do you say about helping your new friend out?” Achaius said, grinning almost politely.

“gently caress you!” Elise spat. “I'll die before I help the likes of you.”

“Well. I can't have that,” he stated plainly before swinging the stick into Elise’s left temple.

She fell, hitting the ground and did not stir again.

You’re describing a fight but there’s no energy to any of it. It feels like you’re describing everything in the most detached way possible.

selaphiel posted:

Elise awoke to the soft flicker of fire light. Her head pounded and her ears rang. She attempted to rub her throbbing skull only to realize she had been bound with seaweed. She struggled against her binds but to no avail, a small whimper escaped her.

Achaius appeared in her line of sight, he sat polishing his hooves with a rag. He glanced her way, “Now now, don’t be foolish. That is each-uisge weed, you cannot break it with your feeble human body.”

I don’t want to keep saying the same things, but your prose is very dull. You’re technically giving information but you’re not really painting a picture of the scene. I can’t picture this scene in my mind at all. What position is Elise in? What parts of her are bound and in what position? How far away is Achaius? Where is the fire relative to them? What sort of environment are they in? It’s not that you need to answer all of these questions, it’s that you really do nothing to illustrate what anything actually looks like. It feel like the characters are just interacting in a void.

selaphiel posted:

“Don't worry, my people are coming. You won't have to wait long,” he finished.

Elise noticed that Achaius had cleaned himself up, and that his wound had healed. Maybe self healing was a perk to being a mythological sea horse. If there had ever been a wound at all.

It’s “self-healing”, and this is a very weird way to phrase it, like she’s listing superpowers or playing a video game. This whole thing is so awkward.

selaphiel posted:

The sea lapped the shore nearby.

“What do you want with me?” Elise questioned, her voice raw and scratchy.

Achaius continued polishing, “What is your name, human? Tell me that and you shall know of my needs for you.”

“Elise.”

“Lovely name, Eli.”

Her nose wrinkled in disgust, only her husband had ever used that pet name.

How convenient that Achaius just happens to hit upon the nickname that will annoy her. Literally every time you have mentioned her husband it has been a bad idea. Her dead husband does not appear to give any depth to her character; he just exists to make your reader feel bad for Elise (and fails in this, because Elise is an annoying jerk).

Also, I’m assuming that this is meant to be pronounced like “Ellie” rather than like “Eli”, since that’s a completely different (generally male) name.

selaphiel posted:

“Well, Eli. My family is coming shortly. If you wish to see this night out alive I'm going to need you to work with me here. I've tried for two hundred years to get a woman to go with me willingly, that's a stipulation you see,” he rolled his eyes and continued. “You women, you are stronger than men. However, I cannot wait any longer.”

What does the comment about women being stronger than men have to do with anything?

selaphiel posted:

“What are you saying?”

“Eli, I need you to put on a show. When my brothers come, I need you to act as if you are here of your own volition. It's the only way for me to meet my true form. Do that and you will be set free.”

Achaius reached forward and brushed his fingers along her cheek bone. Elise flinched backwards. “Do we have a deal?”

Elise swallowed, she understood the gravity of her situation.

“You have your deal, Achaius.”

The dialogue still doesn’t feel genuine. Again, I’m repeating myself, but it’s a constant problem. Think about how your characters think and what they want, and then think about how you would talk about those things in that situation. It feels like you’re trying to turn every line into some kind of dramatic moment instead of just writing something that feels natural.

Also it’s annoying how ridiculously oblique Achaius is about all this. I get it, you’re trying to be mysterious, but it’s not working.

selaphiel posted:

A commotion sounded not far from where they were camped. Possibly a mile away.

Thanks for the precise estimate.

selaphiel posted:

Achaius clapped his hands together gleefully. “Here they come! See, I told you it won't be long yet.”

I really do not have a clear mental picture of Achaius. Maybe you do, but you’re not conveying it, because it feels like he just acts and talks kind of randomly. I have no sense of his personality beyond the fact that he’s a creepy jerk.

selaphiel posted:

Elise watched, she had been untied and properly cleaned up in order to play the part of a girl smitten with Achaius. Eventually the sound had a visual. A herd of five horses galloped across the shore in unison. They were the most magnificent equine she had ever seen. Even with the blood and sweat that adorned their hides. She was entranced.

Don’t just use synonyms for their own sake (especially when you don’t know how to pluralize them). Different words have different connotations even if they have the same basic meaning.

You do something again here where you use a comma to separate two complete clauses. This is bad; don’t do it.

selaphiel posted:

The leader of the herd, a black stallion cantered towards them. His horse flesh shed from his skeleton morphing into that of a handsome man. Elise blushed shamefully for having such thoughts.

Sorry, what? He sheds his horse-flesh from his skeleton… which morphs into a handsome man? The flesh morphs into handsome man-flesh? I do not understand how I’m supposed to be imagining this.

Also, what thoughts? That he’s handsome? Was she having sexual thoughts about the handsome horse-man that weren’t actually mentioned? When did she become a virginal schoolgirl? This is completely at odds with the rather more grizzled version of her I had mentally before this, but of course I have no idea what she looks like or how old she is or even really what her personality is like beyond “she’s an rear end in a top hat”.

selaphiel posted:

“Achaius. I see you have succeeded,” the leader dipped his head in approval.

“I did as the laws have asked, Niklaus. Now it is my time to ascend to my true form," Achaius removed Elise from his side and approached the other man. He dropped to his knees and bowed to Niklaus.

“Please, brother.”

Niklaus did not address his brother, but rather Elise.

“Human, have you come with my brother of your own free will?”

Elise took a moment to fully focus on Niklaus. With the best straight face she could muster, she spoke.

“Of course, Mr. Achaius here was wounded. It wouldn't have been ladylike of me to deny him the aid he needed. I have sworn myself to him in anyway he desires.”

Niklaus nodded.

“Achaius, it's only taken you half your lifetime. But tonight you shall meet your true form. Get the girl ready for the ritual.”

Maybe it’s just me, but if I were Elise I would strongly consider confessing the truth to this handsome man-horse. It’s a bit risky, true, but it sounds like he wouldn’t approve of what Achaius is doing, and it’s not like Elise has the remotest reason to trust or be loyal to Achaius. It feels weird to me that she doesn’t even consider it. But not only does she not do that, she doesn’t even try to get any more information about what she’s agreeing to. She just blindly makes a disturbingly broad oath. Why is she suddenly so passive? This man murdered your beloved dog, which was simultaneously your last gift from your departed husband! Why are you just doing everything he wants now, even when you’re no longer compelled to by threat of violence?

selaphiel posted:

Achaius stood alongside his five brothers, he being the youngest of them all. Their hooved feet were submerged in the sea. Elise kneeled in the middle of them, her form shivering as the cold sea water pooled up to her waist.

Why is this the point you choose to inform us that Achaius is the youngest brother? Why does this matter enough to be awkwardly inserted into the description?

selaphiel posted:

All five brothers sliced their palms, allowing for their blood to drip upon Elise.

Bending down, Achaius gathered Elise to his chest. Slowly, Achaius walked deeper and deeper into the embrace of the sea until they were both enveloped by water. The world stayed silent.

Once the water swallowed her whole, Elise shoved against Achaius, her fingernails digging into his flesh. She thrashed and she thrashed. Her screams were nothing but air bubbles.

Yeah, you really picked the perfect time to start fighting back. Very clever.

selaphiel posted:

A large and dark figure swam towards them. It was both horse and dragon-esque, fearsome yet ugly. It stopped short of Elise. It must have sensed something, her unwillingness to die maybe. It had been summoned in the face of a lie and payment was still due. Right now, she was not its intended target.

“Both horse and dragon-esque” is an incredibly clunky phrase. There are about a million better ways to describe this, most of which would read better while simultaneously conveying more information about what this thing actually looks like. I have no idea what I am meant to be visualizing here. I am currently picturing a Chinese dragon (because it’s underwater) with a horse’s head and laughing at the mental image.

Also, it’s cool that Elise is so good at reading the emotions of this terrifying sea-god. Otherwise your audience might get confused about what’s going on.

selaphiel posted:

Achaius did his best to shove away from the creature before it lurched forward with its maw parted. It ripped Achaius away from Elise. Blood churned in the water turning it a mahogany hue, bits of flesh and guts floated by her. She took this chance to thrust upwards. Her head broke the surface. Elise gasped once air met her lungs.

She flapped her arms in panic. But before she could swim the creature appeared beside her. Something about the look it gave, calmed Elise.

Watch. It commanded.

I know you are not willing. But you are not a child of the sea, young creature. I cannot spare your life for a blood calling cannot be taken back. Know you do not die for the benefit of a liar.

Achaius had been deposited on the shore, his family had not moved to support his tattered remains. He screamed as what was left of his body shed its man form and warped into a mutated, discombobulated beast that resembled a premature colt. He stumbled on legs no stronger than those of a newborn doe.

This is probably the closest you come to painting a decent picture of anything that’s happening, although there’s definitely still room for improvement. I don’t think “discombobulated” is really doing the work you want it to here; it’s too silly a word.

On the other hand, this feels like a literal deus ex machina. Maybe that’s appropriate, given the mythological stuff, but it’s still kind of boring.

selaphiel posted:

One cannot fool me, child. A sacrifice must be entirely committed to giving themselves to the blood calling. If not, the sea Gods of Old and New take great insult and act on that accordingly. I cannot save you from your current life as your blood has been promised to my makers. But just as they did for me, I can do for you. You can be remade.

Elise floundered in the water, her body had gone numb and her limbs had begun to fail her. As it was she didn't have much time left regardless.

“Please. Please help me," Elise whispered faintly.

Close your eyes, land child.

I don’t pretend to understand Sea God Law, I just enforce it.

selaphiel posted:

The creature watched, assuring that its creation was nestled safely in the sand. She would grow to become a magnificent maiden of the sea, her shell and body were small now but one day she would be one of the largest and most sought after breeds of turtle in the world.

You are home now, sea child.

What the gently caress is this?

Okay, so she got turned into a turtle. But I’m really unclear on if she just individually got turned into a turtle, or if she somehow got turned into an entire breed of turtle, like some kind of mythological origin story for an animal species. Either way it’s weird as hell that the narrator feels the need to inform us that she’ll be sought-after. For what, food? Decoration? As pets?

Is there supposed to be some kind of symbolism here? Because if so, I don’t get it. It just seems like a random thing that happens for no discernable reason.

But this brings me back to the mythological bullshit. Clearly there are mythological overtones here even beyond the referenced to Greek and Celtic mythology. I cannot figure out what your actual intentions here were. Was this whole story supposed to be tonally like an ancient myth? Is that why Achaius and his brothers sound kind of formal? Is that why everybody acts like a weird rear end in a top hat and nothing really makes any sense? Those are frequently features of Greek myth, after all. But I’m honestly not sure. If this is what you were going for, I’d say that the biggest problem is that your prose is way too dull and direct most of the time. Unless you’re trying to do some kind of deliberate contrast, a mythological story should use mythological language.

I also have no idea where or when this story was meant to take place. Is it modern? The reference to a “trader town” makes me feel like it’s not, as well as the whole vibe of Elise’s living situation. Or maybe it’s supposed to take place in the past, though how distant I have no idea. It’s not always strictly necessary that we know when a story takes place, but in a case like this I feel like it sure would be nice to have any available bit of context for trying to understand these characters.

The end result is a story that really doesn’t work at all. Worse, it’s a story that feels quite pretentious while not working at all. It doesn’t really make sense or convey any meaning, nor does it do anything to hold the reader’s interest. The characters are unlikeable jerks who do stupid things for no reason, the prose rarely actually conveys much of anything besides the most nakedly functional descriptions, and the dialogue is insufferable. And then the ending is just… I don’t even know. I finished this story feeling baffled and it has only gotten worse on repeat readings.

Grade: F

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Flash Rule: Your authoritarian is a convert, a once-rebellious individual who now understands the error of their ways. They were wrong. The system is good.

I Have Seen the Light and It Is Beautiful
1350 Words


I wake slowly, caught between dream and thought.

I feel the pain in my head first – aching, pounding, like my younger days, when I still drank to excess. It is disorienting. Sickening.

The worse pain reveals itself moments later, when I breathe too deeply. Stabbing, twisting agony buried deep in my side. An animal cry escapes my throat, becoming a moan as it passes my cracked lips.

My eyes are still closed, and I focus on the Light. The wounded animal within me writhes in fear, but the Light muzzles it.

There is so much wrong. I suspect that the pain in my side is a broken rib; breathing is difficult. My head is numb, my entire body sore beyond the aches of age; whatever I was sleeping on is no proper bed. My arms are bound painfully at my front.

I open my eyes and the darkness pours in.

I am on the floor of a small room – a wooden dwelling, illuminated by lamplight, I think, though my eyes are still fixed on the ceiling. Looking around will be painful.

I hear movement in front of me, out of my sight. Straining, I lean my head to see. Two young men in plain garb: one sitting at a table, the other just having stood. My captors – no, my gaolers; they are not in control here.

I cannot see what is on the table, but one man has cards in his hand, hanging limp and forgotten. They are staring at me: one with obvious hatred and the other with fear.

Hatred is the one standing. He lost someone, I expect. There is nothing better to inspire hatred. A father executed for withholding taxes, perhaps? I’ve heard so many stories; that one is as good as any other.

Fear is sitting, still holding his cards. He is harder to read: a rare idealist, perhaps – a true believer, not one who cloaks his anger in empty words and thinks it makes him a hero. A noble fool, admirable in his own way. Or maybe not. It’s difficult to care.

“Get him up,” Hatred orders. He stares at me for a long moment, and I wonder what he’d give to drive a knife into my throat. I try to remember how it feels to hate like that, but I can’t.

The moment passes and he leaves the room. Fear obeys the order, awkwardly pulling me upright by my arms. I groan in pain, but do not cry out.

Fear sits me on his vacated stool, then clears the table of cards and coins. I can see the whole room now, but there is little of interest: straw bedding in the corner, a boarded-up window above it. I surmise that it is night from the absence of light peeking through the cracks.

I’m uncertain how long I wait there, my pain worsening in my new position. Fear watches over me nervously. I close my eyes and focus on the Light.

Eventually I hear the door open.

Some part of me that is not surprised to see her. If I believed in fate, I might have expected this; it feels appropriate somehow.

She looks good. Older, of course, but somehow not as much as I’d have thought. We were born the same winter, but she looks so much younger than I feel.

She is dressed as plainly as her men. I’d feel overdressed were my clothes not dirtied and torn.

“It’s good to see you,” I lie. I’d hoped this day would never come, for both our sakes. Certainly not like this. Neither of us will get what we want here.

She looks at me with darkness in her eyes. Sadness? Pain? I don’t know. I could read her so well once. Not anymore.

She sits down, but says nothing.

“You took me on the road, I assume.” My memory is hazy, but my last recollection is of riding.

She nods. The silence continues. Can she not find the words? Or is this a tactic?

“We both know what you want to ask,” I finally say. “You’re not going to get a satisfying answer.”

“Try me,” she replies. Is there anger in her voice? This must be hard for her. Maybe even harder than it is for me.

She wants to know why. Why I’ve spent nearly two decades serving – becoming – what we both once sought to destroy. She wants to know why we are enemies now.

And I know that I can’t explain it to her in a way that she will understand. I want to, so badly. I want to persuade her that I’m right, convince her to abandon the cause she has wasted her life on. I know that I won’t succeed. But perhaps I should try anyway.

“What do you think it was?” I ask. “I’ve heard so many rumours. Most just think I wanted power. Some think I blamed my old comrades for my capture, or some other grievance. A stolen love, a personal slight – the sort of thing it would be in a song.” I smile a little at that. She doesn’t. “Some claim that She simply seduced me, as if that would be enough. And of course there are those who think it wasn’t my fault. That I was ensorcelled by Her ‘demonic magicks’. That my mind is no longer my own.”

She doesn’t visibly react.

“The truth is that She convinced me that She’s right. That what She is trying to build is worth the cost.” I know how unconvincing I must sound.

“How?” she asks. Her scepticism is undisguised.

“I was taken to see Her after I was captured,” I say. “I wanted nothing more than to spit in Her face, to show Her my defiance to the last breath. But… She was so polite. So serene. She said that She believed She could convince me. And you know that I could never turn down a debate. She visited me almost every day, for weeks. I don’t know how She had the time. Eventually I began to think She might be right.”

“And then She… showed me something.” My words truly begin to fail me now. I have never been able to describe the Light to anyone. The agony I felt as it scalded my soul and scoured my mind of self-delusion. Seeing myself for who I really am and the world as it really is. The terrible sight of truth revealed in all its naked glory. Truly understanding the vicious ugliness of humanity. And the knowledge that despite this, She still has hope for us. That She still loves us more than I ever could have imagined.

“She showed me things I can’t describe. She showed me a way to overcome our race’s eternal cycle of violence and misery,” I finally say.

“With more violence and misery?” she spits back.

I want to explain that it’s not the same. But I know it won’t make sense to her.

The silence stretches.

“Have you ever considered that you might be wrong?” I finally ask. I don’t know what I think it will accomplish.

“Have you?” she replies.

I’m a little taken aback. “Of course,” I say. “I think about it every day. And every day I come to the same conclusion.”

We sit in silence for another endless moment.

She pulls out a knife – the same one I gave her a lifetime ago. For a moment I wonder if she’s decided to kill me, but she simply places it on the table.

I realize what she’s offering. She still doesn’t understand. She still thinks that this might end in a way that satisfies her.

“I appreciate the offer, but no,” I say. “Do with me what you will.”

I watch her eyes as she sheathes it. I can see the sadness now. The confusion. This was always going to be how it ended.

She leaves me alone in the darkness. Eventually I stumble back into my makeshift bed.

I close my eyes and see the Light. I hope that one day she might see it too.

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


In with a flash.

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Flash Rule: Your story must be set in or clearly inspired by the building of the Manchurian railway.

The Diary of Lieutenant Hiroaki Sakamoto
1000 Words

The following is an excerpt from the final pages of the diary of Hiroaki Sakamoto, a Rikugun-Shōi [Second Lieutenant] in the 14th Cavalry Regiment of the Imperial Japanese Army. In 1907, he was part of an expedition to hunt down a particular gang of honghuzi bandits who had achieved great success in striking at Japan’s “South Manchuria Railway Zone”.


Meiji 40.4.12

Captain Okada had a heated argument with our guide today. He originally estimated that we would reach the next village by now, but now says it will be the day after tomorrow. He told Captain Okada that this was because we rode slower than he had expected, which only angered him further.


Meiji 40.4.14

We located the third village today. Things did not go well.

We searched for evidence of the bandits, but found nothing. The village is small and poor. It could not be home to a gang as large and sophisticated as the one we are hunting.

Near the end of our search, I found Captain Okada exchanging words with an old woman, though neither understood the other. The object of their attention was a small shrine, which the woman was attempting to deny Captain Okada access to.

Our guide was also present, and attempted to explain to me the significance of the shrine. His Japanese was insufficient, however, and he eventually resorted to drawing two characters in the dirt: “fox sage”. I suspect that the meaning does not translate exactly, but it concerned me nonetheless.

When more villagers attempted to approach Captain Okada, he drew his sword and cut one of them down. This caused a great commotion, and the soldiers opened fire. In the end, more than a dozen villagers lay dead.

Captain Okada ordered us to raze the shrine and village. I expressed my worry that the shrine might honour a fox spirit. Captain Okada called me a fool.


Meiji 40.4.15

The bandits attacked us last night while we were encamped. Nine soldiers are dead. Several more are wounded, including our guide. To our shame, we were unprepared. I do not believe we hit a single enemy.

Captain Okada has taken it as proof that the village truly was housing the bandits. He admonished everyone this morning, and will ensure that we are more vigilant in the future.


Meiji 40.4.17

There have been no further attacks, but many soldiers have fallen ill. Our guide is worst of all, and Lieutenant Konishi suggested that his wound may be infected. We have pressed on regardless, but the landscape is unfamiliar.


Meiji 40.4.19

The guide is dead. Morale is low. Captain Okada struck Lieutenant Konishi today when he questioned our bearing. I said nothing for fear of being insubordinate.


Meiji 40.4.20

Two more died today. Half the men are ill, as are many of the horses. Many can hardly ride, and we have made little progress. The land around us seems to be growing more arid by the day.


Meiji 40.4.21

The bandits attacked again last night. We were in no condition to fight. They likely could have killed far more of us, but they retreated after a few minutes. Eight men are dead. Almost everyone is wounded, ill, or both. I am one of the lucky few, perhaps because of my cowardice.


Meiji 40.4.23

We have not moved since the last attack. Our position is somewhat defensible, and there is a stream nearby. I do not know if it will do us any good. Each day seems colder and darker than the last. Many believe we have been cursed. Last night I dreamt of a woman with a fox’s tail.


Meiji 40.4.24

My hands are shaking as I write this, but I must confess my crime.

Captain Okada decided today that those of us healthy enough to ride would take the horses healthy enough to bear us and leave the rest behind. Lieutenant Konishi disagreed vehemently. Eventually, Captain Okada began beating him. When he drew his sword, I knew that he would kill him.

I moved without thinking, and a moment later I realized that I had shot Captain Okada.

No one said anything, but I could feel their stares. I feel them still.


Meiji 40.4.25

Lieutenant Konishi performed seppuku in the night. I did not sleep, yet heard nothing. I know that I should admire him, but I feel that he has only shamed me further. Worse, I selfishly feel as though he has abandoned me. What am I to do? I cannot lead.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps we are all doomed.


Meiji 40.4.30

I saw her in the flesh last night, when the bandits attacked. She leads them, silver hair like moonlight whipping behind her as she rides. She carries no weapon and does not speak, but they follow her. She is even more beautiful and terrible than in my dreams.

The wasteland stretches on forever now. It was green once, but no longer. We need not move to become more lost every day.

Everyone is dying but me. I tend to them as best I can, but we are running out of food. I bring them water from the stream and try to reassure them. Most of them cannot hear me.


Meiji 40.5.7

I am alone now. The last soldier died today. I sang to him as he passed on.

Everything around me is dead. The stream has run dry.

She will come for me tonight. I know who she is now. She has a different name here, but she is Inari Ōkami.

I do not know why I alone am unharmed. Am I to be spared because I tried to save her shrine? More likely she has judged me worst of all, for I knew better and yet did not do enough. Regardless, I accept my fate.

Perhaps I should follow Lieutenant Konishi, if I am brave enough.

I am sorry.


Lieutenant Sakamoto’s diary was discovered among the remains of the ill-fated expedition in October 1907. His body was never found.

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Week 343 Bonus Crit

I said I’d crit the late entry eventually, so here it is. Fortunately it was only mildly cursed despite being late.


Bringer by anatomi

For the most part, I liked this story. The plot and characters are simple but good, there’s just enough weirdness to feel mysterious and vaguely otherworldly without it being distracting, and the prose is generally pretty good. I really enjoyed how you told the story from Alma's perspective - childlike enough to feel distinct but not so much as to be annoying.

The bit where Alma slaps herself and calls herself a “loving whore” is quite a powerful and clever way of telling us more about her and her mother’s history. I feel like I would have preferred you not then mention “Daddy” immediately afterwards - let your reader figure it out, especially because you’re going to make it all clear later on anyway.

The scene between Elsa and “Mommy” doesn’t really work for me. Part of it is perhaps that some of it is a little too on-the-nose, but I think the big issue is that the rest of the story is so clearly from Alma’s perspective. Even in this scene, where Alma isn’t present until the end, her mother is referred to by her relationship to Alma rather than her name. It confuses the perspective and takes me out of what I think is the greatest strength of the story - the focus on Alma and her perspective.

I also think you’re a little over-ambitious with some of your prose. It leads to some very vivid descriptions when it works, but it also falls a bit flat or even winds up straight-up confusing sometimes. How does one clatter wetly? Can one really snap one’s insanity at someone? I think you need to ask yourself when you’re using an unusual phrase because it’s legitimately evocative and when you’re just doing it for its own sake. Sometimes a simpler phrase is better - you don’t really need to tell me that a “guttural resonance” is also strange.

I don’t think the variation in tenses really works. I know that it wasn’t random, that you intended for it to delineate what was flashback and what was happening in the present. The problem is that I still initially misunderstood the fourth and fifth sections of the story. I initially thought that the fourth section was a return to the present - the tense staying in the past wasn’t enough to make me realize this was still a flashback. Maybe that’s my fault, but I think you need more than the tense change. In the third section it’s pretty clear from the way you open it that you’re talking about the past, but in the fourth section you’re entirely relying on the reader to have noticed the tense. You start with talking about a discrete action taken by Alma, which immediately made me think we were jumping back to the present, especially because it fits into the narrative (she just ran away to go to the mire, after all). The fact that Alma then proceeds to beat herself up over something only reinforced my perception that this was back in the present and that you’d just switched tenses by mistake. You also confuse the issue a bit by using the past perfect rather than the simple past in some cases without an obvious reason.

When I read the fifth section, I briefly thought it was meant to be a timeskip before figuring out that no, this was right after she ran away from Elsa. I then had to go back and re-read the previous section with that in mind. Ultimately it just took me out of the story. I would recommend doing things other than tense changes to distinguish between present and flashback, either in addition to or, better yet, instead of. Even if done a bit better, it can still be a bit disorienting to suddenly have the tense change. Sometimes you might want to do that intentionally (I once read a book where all the scenes from the perspective of a particular character were in a different tense, and it did a lot to convey a different feeling for that character), but here it’s something you probably want to avoid.

Grade: B-

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


In with a flash, please.

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Flash Rule: Scientific Romance

Upon Odin's Gallows
1750 Words

It had been some time since my last encounter with Lord Fitzhugh when I received his fateful letter. He had always seemed a level-headed fellow, much of a kind with myself, and not one for the sort of fanciful claims so often advanced by scientific amateurs. It was that, as well as his title, that convinced me to treat his missive more seriously than I otherwise might have.

In summary, he claimed to have come into possession of a most curious geological specimen, and while he restrained himself from making any grandiose claims as to its origin, insisted that he was quite convinced of its novelty. Owing to both my general reputation and my particular fame for debunking the infamous Dragon Egg of Sumatra, he desired that I examine his find before he presented it more generally.

It was soon arranged that I would visit his apartments in London, and upon doing so found Fitzhugh as gracious a host as I remembered him. He explained that he had come into possession of the specimen through his cousin, an army officer recently returned from Canada. His cousin had in turn acquired it from a local, who claimed that it had been unearthed decades earlier, during the construction of the Rideau Canal. I immediately cautioned Fitzhugh that this lack of a verifiable origin might limit the conclusions that could be drawn from the specimen, but he did not seem concerned.

He presented to me a plain oak box, which opened to reveal a bluish-grey object cushioned within. In shape it resembled nothing so much as the egg of a jack snipe, albeit around nine inches in length. Immediately apparent were a series of patterned ridges quite unlike anything I had previously seen. I must confess, I had expected Fitzhugh’s discovery to be little more than a novel concretion at most, but the regularity of the ridges gave me pause.

Upon handling the specimen, I discovered that the ridges amounted to two spiralling indentations that covered the entire length of the object. They were exact mirrors of each other, and seemed unnaturally regular, especially considering the object’s shape. The obvious implication was that the pattern was the work of human hands – a ritual object for some native tribe, perhaps. That said, the uniformity of its colour was quite unusual, and I found myself at a loss to identify its composition.

In the end, Fitzhugh offered to let me study the specimen further while he would be travelling in the Scottish Highlands. We agreed that he would retrieve the object from me two months thence, at which point I would relate my conclusions.

I will not endeavour to recount the entirety of my subsequent investigations; suffice it to say that I came to two conclusions of consequence. First, that in every physical respect the specimen was unnaturally perfect, to the limits of my tools. The spirals were unerringly uniform, and mirrored each other absolutely. The surface was otherwise entirely unblemished and consistent in colour. This alone would have been enough to convince me of the validity of Fitzhugh’s excitement over his discovery, albeit more likely one of anthropological rather than geological importance.

The second conclusion, however, was that I could make neither heads nor tails of the object’s composition, and indeed I had begun to wonder if it was some new type of rock entirely. It was this that daily brought my attention back to the object long after I had exhausted all means at my disposal of investigating it.

It was on one such occasion, two weeks before Fitzhugh was scheduled to return, that I found myself standing over the specimen in my study and feeling increasingly light-headed. My senses began to dull, as if by laudanum, and for a moment I felt as though my mind had lost all connection to my body. I began to fall, but do not recall hitting the floor.

I must apologize here, for I find my words quite inadequate to describe what I experienced. Nevertheless, I shall try. I awoke – if it can be called such – elsewhere. When my senses returned, I understood instinctively that they were not truly mine. My sight was not sight, and yet that is what I shall call it by necessity.

What I saw first might be described as a tree in much the same way that the Earth might be described as a rock. It was, in its essential shape, tree-like, for it had roots, and branches, and of course a trunk. I could see the roots digging through the soil, and the bedrock, and the very core of the world, and I could see its trunk, uncountable miles in diameter, stretching into the very heights of the atmosphere, and I could see its branches creating a continental canopy. I could see beyond its main structure, too, where across the planet, even beneath the seas, its roots extended into smaller copies of itself: trees the size of cities rather than nations.

But I do not wish to give the impression that it appeared as some common oak or birch, for it was in its composition unmistakeably alien. It was not wood, but something closer to stone or metal, yet unmistakeably alive. It was vibrantly coloured, every imaginable hue visible somewhere within the impossible organism.

This alien Yggdrasil was not the only organism I saw, though. There was an abundance of life, myriad species beyond my counting. Some were almost familiar – beetle-like animals and fern-like plants – while others defy description. The most human-like species, so far as I could tell, was a race that might be described as reptilian apes.

I expect that this description of what I saw seems quite impossible, and not only because of its fantastic nature. One might rightly ask how I could have seen all of this: the entirety of the world, from the subterranean roots of the Tree to the depths of the ocean and heights of the sky. Indeed, it took me some time to realize myself, so overwhelmed was my mind by what assailed my senses.

What I slowly realized, however, was that somehow I was the Tree. Not in the sense of some transformation, but in that my consciousness was present within it – a part of the Tree and yet distinct. And not only was I the Tree, but also the various creatures of the planet. They too, I realized, were a part of the Tree. Their minds, however simple, were entangled in this impossible Platonic world-soul.

To say that I was overwhelmed would be an understatement, and yet I felt neither shock nor fear at the bizarre circumstances in which I found myself. I credit this not to some incredible stoicism on my part but rather to some artefact of my impossible voyage.

I soon discovered that, with effort, I could focus my attention, and so began to explore my environment further. I studied the reptilian apes first, watching from within and around them as they went about their simple lives. They neither hunted nor gathered, for their food was provided by the Tree, and thus they spent all their lives in idyllic contentment. I watched them eat, and play, and give birth, and die. Upon the latter, their corpses were returned to the Tree, nourishing it in return.

Many of the creatures lived in the ruins of great stone structures that did not seem to be creations of the Tree. Indeed, I came to believe that these structures predated the Tree, being instead ruins of some lost civilization. I did not dwell on this at the time, however, and proceeded with my exploration.

After what felt to me like days, I felt a great shifting within the Tree. I found my attention drawn upwards, towards the highest heights of the main trunk where it seemed to touch the heavens. I felt something rush through the Tree and then suddenly beyond, out of my grasp, shot like bullets from a rifle into the void above. I saw, and felt, as millions of identical copies of Fitzhugh’s specimen rushed towards the stars.

A moment later I awoke – truly this time – crumpled painfully on my study floor. But my physical discomfort was nothing compared to the terrible weight upon my mind.

It was less revelation than confirmation of a hitherto-unconscious thought. The specimen was a seed, launched towards the Earth countless aeons ago by that alien organism. This dire certainty embedded itself in my mind before I’d even stood myself up. I was unsure whether what I saw was a memory of this seed’s launch or a vision of the present on that distant world, but I knew deep within my soul that it was real.

Yet I must admit that my initial horror at this new understanding faded quickly, metamorphosing into an uncomfortable ambivalence. I could not bring myself to feel horrified by what I’d seen, no matter how bizarre the experience had been, and yet neither could I say that I desired to see the Earth undergo such an unfathomable transformation.

A part of me dreaded having to return the seed to Fitzhugh, while another part longed to be rid of it. As it happened, I received the news shortly thereafter that the poor fellow had been killed in an avalanche while climbing in Glen Coe – relieving me, albeit in a terribly tragic way, of the need to return his property.

It has been years now since the seed came into my possession, and despite my best efforts I have been unable to replicate my strange journey; I have resigned myself to the probability that I never shall. From time to time I find myself nearly overcome with desire to try to plant the seed, or conversely to destroy it somehow, but such urges inevitably pass. In truth I would not know how to do either. Thus it remains safe in my study, in the same oak box I received it in from the late Lord Fitzhugh.

What are the chances, I wonder, that the only seed to make it to Earth should happen to land somewhere it could be so easily discovered? But then, what are the odds that even one seed would hit our planet, let alone multiple, given the seemingly indiscriminate manner with which they were launched? I try not to ask these questions – not, I must emphasize, because I am afraid of the answers, but because it saddens me to consider that I will never know them.

Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


All right, I'm in.

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Viscardus
Jun 1, 2011

Thus equipped by fortune, physique, and character, he was naturally indomitable, and subordinate to no one in the world.


Caranya’s Folly: An Oral History
1200 Words

I ask the souls of speakers past to guide my tongue that I might tell this story as it was told to me. My words are the words of my ancestors, and I vow that I shall not misuse them.

A long time ago and many generations past, all the lands of the Great River and its lesser sisters were ruled by King Caranya, called then ‘the Young’ and now ‘the Unwise’. He was the thirty-third in his royal lineage, and wore proudly his divine ancestry. In the reign of his uncle, King Tala, called sometimes ‘the Kind’ and elsewise ‘Flame-Hair’, many ruthless men had turned to banditry and piracy, and trade between the cities suffered greatly. The new king swore his coronation vow to pacify the land, and so raised ten thousand men to destroy the bandits. And yet for every bandit this mighty army killed, another would take his place.

One day, the king received news that his army had captured an infamous bandit prince, and at this he rejoiced, for he hoped that it might finally change his fortunes. He commanded that the bandit prince be brought before him before his execution, for the king wished to exult in his victory.

“Why have you brought me before you, my king?” asked the bandit. “Do you wish my counsel?”

At this the king was shocked. “What insolence is this?” he cried. “Why would I heed the counsel of a bandit?”

“You have received counsel from worse men, I think,” replied the bandit, “for you have been deceived into pursuing a war that cannot be won by any man, commoner or king.”

These words gave the king pause, for he had begun to doubt the wisdom of his actions. “And why is that?” he asked. “Why is there no end to ruthless men who will prey upon my lands?”

“I will tell you,” answered the bandit, “if you will spare my life and exile me past the eastern mountains, never to return so long as you reign.”

The audacity of this request shocked the king. “And why should I accept the oath of a bandit?” he asked.

“A bandit I may be,” his prisoner replied, “but banditry is a crime against men, whose justice is uncertain. Oath-breaking is a crime against the gods, whose justice is not.” The king knew this to be true, and so agreed, desperate to hear the bandit’s secret. “The truth, my king, is that ruthless men are not born but made, and banditry cannot be ended with spears alone. Only when the people are content shall it end.”

The king considered the bandit’s answer for five days and five nights, and then convened his council. He told them of what he had learned, and asked his advisors why the people were not content.

All among the council agreed that the principal cause of discontent was injustice, but none agreed on its source. The nobles blamed the merchants, the merchants blamed the priests, and the priests blamed the nobles, for each faction believed itself the victim of another.

For another five days and five nights the king considered these answers, and then he convened his council once more.

“If all among you believe yourselves the victims of injustice,” said the king, “then I believe that the law must be to blame. My conclusion is that the law itself is uncertain, and must be written down, so that all men might know their rights and duties.”

This pronouncement shocked the council, for the law had never been written. The full ten thousand verses were known only to the lawspeakers, who dedicated their lives to its study and transmission. For a hundred generations it had been thus, since the day the Red Queen fell from Heaven and taught the secrets of law to mankind, long before the first king ruled.

Some among the council were offended by the king’s pronouncement, but more supported him, for they had long been jealous of the power of the lawspeakers, and believed that written laws would vindicate their claims against their rivals.

One who did not support the king was the princess Tulyuro, who was his mother and his lawspeaker. “Please, my son,” she cried, “do not blaspheme thus! To carve the law into crude symbols upon base materials is to sully a divine gift, for while speech was granted to us by the gods, writing is the mere tool of man. If the law is written, every man will try to bend it to his will, and justice will be made subordinate to the whims of men. No good can come of this, but only ill, and I must beg you to reconsider.”

His mother’s words moved the king, for he saw the wisdom in them and knew the value of filial loyalty. But those who wished the see the law written turned him against her, telling the king that she desired only to preserve her own power at the expense of her son’s glory. They told him that he would be remembered as a great king if he wrote down the law and thus ended the reign of the bandits, but as a bad one if he succumbed to them. Thus was the king seduced by his own vanity.

The princess accepted not the king’s decision and was imprisoned, but other lawspeakers were cowed by threat and force of arms, and thus were the ten thousand verses of law written down. Upon reading the laws, the king and his advisors judged them inadequate, and so compounded their blasphemy by altering them. The lawspeakers, now unneeded, were replaced by magistrates, who were to interpret and apply the king’s law.

Whereas a lawspeaker would recite those verses of law that best served justice, the magistrates were forced to consider every verse presented to them, and were thus overwhelmed by argument. Men interpreted the law as they wished, for it was no longer divine but base, just as the princess had warned. And thus was the kingdom consumed by disorder, for no ruling could satisfy those who believed themselves to know best.

Even the king’s judgements were no longer sacrosanct, and thus King Caranya met his death by the hand of a nobleman who cried of injustice as he slaughtered him. Upon his death, his three cousins made war upon each other to seize the throne, for each believed himself the rightful successor under the written law. And across the eastern mountains the bandit prince returned.

Thus ends the tale of Caranya’s folly and his kingdom’s destruction. As it was told to me by my grandmother, so I have told it to you. But you will be the last to hear it, for I have no apprentice, and this modern version of Caranya’s folly extends beyond law into history. Why spend a lifetime remembering what can simply be read? I have consented to your recording my words only because I believe it is better that they exist in this base form than be lost entirely. And thus our history will be preserved, stripped of power and meaning, but perhaps by its bones our children will come to know what they have lost.

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