Allies at the Gates

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The northeastern gate, known as Malacac, was the farthest from the enemy advance, and so it was where most of the eastern city’s population was fleeing. Even two blocks out, Salek and Fror were fighting through packed streets full of terrified people rushing out of the dying metropolis.

Salek quickly realized that his bow would be of absolutely no use in such a crushing mob: the only combat here would be hand-to-hand, mere inches from the enemy. But there were buildings all around, squat little shops and taller two- and three-story apartments with wooden ladders and adobe stairs reaching up onto the roofs, where he could get a better vantage point.

“I’ll take the high ground,” shouted Salek as they neared the gate, leaping up onto a ladder, “and do some scouting!”

“Ha!” Fror responded with a wicked grin. “Whereas I’ll stay down here, and do the fighting!”

Halfway up the ladder, Salek paused to shoot an indignant glance over at the dwarf. His companion was already turning to face the oncoming troops, though, so Salek continued his climb.

Reaching the top, Salek could see that they had arrived just in time: the first invaders were only a few blocks away. Behind the building on which Salek stood was a large open square about fifty yards wide with buildings and alleys on either side, and the gate and the bridge beyond it. People were streaming in through every side-street and alleyway, even through rooms and windows in their rush to get out of the city.

The enemies, on the other hand, were all coming from the southwest. Two prongs were racing along parallel boulevards toward the gate. From his position atop the flat roof the building, Salek had a good angle down both routes.

Fror, on the other hand, found himself increasingly frustrated as the mass humans flooding past him made it all but impossible to see the oncoming enemies. Even as Salek began firing arrows down into the crowd, Fror had yet to lay eyes on a single target.

But then, as the crowd began to thin, he found himself confronted by an enemy soldier. It was an infantryman, a simple swordsman whose gaze was directed up toward Salek on the roof of the nearby building. Read More →

The End of the Beginning

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In honor of the Superbowl and the obligatory movie trailers that come with it each year, I’m taking a moment to discuss something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: origin stories. I’m getting really sick of origin stories in superhero movies. I know this is an increasingly common opinion these days, ever since Bryan Singer ushered in the Age of the Superhero with his live-action X-Men movie in 2000, but I’m actually talking about something slightly different.

I’m getting sick of supervillain origin stories.

Superhero movies are getting better and better every year, using their financial power to draw in more and more talent, and ultimately tell deeper and deeper stories. And it’s been happening for a long time now: you can draw a straight line from Adam West to Michael Keaton to Christian Bale to (hopefully) Ben Affleck, and you’ll get a progressively more mature and richly-developed Batman. Sure, you’ll get your George Clooneys along the way, but that’s the cost of doing business. For the most part, superhero stories are becoming increasingly more artful and significant with each new generation.

And lately, there has been a lot of innovation and creative exploration within the genre. This is perhaps most apparent in the DC/Marvel style dichotomy: Christopher Nolan made huge waves with his Dark Knight trilogy, and for a while it seemed like “realistic” superheroes were the only way to go. Even today, a lot of fans use words like “dark” and “gritty” and “realistic” as if they are prerequisites for making a good superhero film. But then Marvel came along and said, “Dark gritty realism? How about a star-spangled supersoldier frozen in a glacier, a Norse god with a magic hammer, and an aircraft carrier that can fly?” And now they’re doubling down with the superhero answer to Honey I Shrunk the Kids and a talking raccoon in space. Joss Whedon even ditched the “realistic” Captain America outfit from the first movie, losing the adjustable red straps and brown leather boots, in favor of what can only be described as a straight-up superhero costume for The Avengers.

Superhero movies vary wildly in tone, style, aesthetic and setting. But one thing has been true ever since Michael Keaton rubbed another man’s rhubarb: a superhero movie is, by definition, the rise and fall of a new villain.

Origin stories or not, superhero movies always follow the same formula: the hero begins hearing whispers of a new enemy, often encounters them in their “non-hero” capacity, has a troubling first encounter with the new villain where they fully recognize the potential threat, then becomes the primary target of the villain’s wrath, growing weaker as the new villain grows stronger, but then ultimately finds the strength to defeat them. Every single Batman movie, X-Men movie, Superman movie, Spider-Man movie, and Marvel movie follows this pattern. Some have more than one villain, some focus more on one aspect of the arc than another, but it’s always the same story: good guy encounters new bad guy, good guy fights bad guy, good guy defeats bad guy.

Every. Single. Time.

It’s a good formula, and it works. I’m not knocking it: the Captain America 2 trailer has been out for an hour and I’ve already watched it a dozen times. But you don’t have to look too long in other mediums to find interesting alternatives, alternatives which the film industry could really benefit from exploring. Read More →

Priorities

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Passing under the southeast gate, known as Haddac, the travelers had to fight their way past rivers of humanity to cross the bridge and enter the city. Q’art Hadash, so peaceful and vibrant a city just that morning, was now a battlefield.

And like any battlefield, it was chaos. Civilians ran in every direction, some looting and others fending off looters, some helping their loved ones and some simply running without thought or destination. There was no making sense of it because the violence and terror was utterly senseless, and the enemy was at times only block away.

For a few moments, the adventurers were almost swept up in the panic, so palpable was the fear that filled the air. But then they caught sight of the brown embossed leather and lunar symbol of a Hadashim uniform, and their instincts kicked back in.

Following the guard as he weaved through the crowd, the adventurers soon found themselves entering a large courtyard that had been hastily transformed into a forward military base. Vegetables and pots lay trampled on the ground, browning with dust as the stalls and tables on which they had once stood were covered with weapons, armor and supplies. A few old ladies had pivoted their business seamlessly, changing from grocers to quartermasters without missing a beat, and across the square rows of bodies lay healing and dying. And everywhere, Hadashim were rushing about, trying to organize the defense of the city.

The adventurers paused at the entrance to the square, not knowing where to go and hesitating to get in the way of the important work of war. Before long, though, they caught sight of a familiar face. Read More →

Routing the Beachhead

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It took some time for the adventurers to decide what to do next. Some wanted to chase after the Initiator: he had continued sailing south toward the Hajr-Ya, the Enclosing Islands, and by the steadiness of his course he obviously had a destination in mind. It seemed entirely possible to catch up with him, or failing that at least to learn where this massive invasion had come from. It was unfathomable how a force of such size had been assembled at all, let alone launched in secret from places unknown. Gathering intelligence on what power could have achieved it seemed like a task worth undertaking.

But in the end, the adventurers decided that no matter where the enemy had come from, they knew where he was now. Q’art Hadash was burning, and they needed to help where they could.

Hanno, unfortunately, was not interested in joining them. “I’m no hero,” he said. “I’m a sailor. A sailor without a fleet, or a home.” He offered to take them wherever they wanted to go, but then he would be on his way.

Which left them with an interesting question: where should they go? They wanted to get back to the city as quickly as possible, but given that the main thrust of the enemy assault was aimed at the entrance to the Great Cothon, it was necessary to land elsewhere and make their way back along the coast rather than risking a direct return.

And so Hanno found them a small inlet to the east of the city, shielded by trees, where they could land and regroup. At the insistence of Salek, they took the clothes of the Initiator’s crewmen as disguises, though Droc refused to participate in the charade. Not that it would have mattered: the red tunics and brown pants were far too small for his lumbering frame.

After disembarking and bidding Hanno farewell, the adventurers began making their way toward the city.  It was an arduous march, their delay made all the more frustrating by the knowledge of the city’s desperate need.

Before long, though, they came to the edge of a grove and were confronted by an unwelcome sight: blocking their path was an enemy landing party. One large ship was flanked by two smaller troop transports pulled up onto the sand, and nine soldiers were already unloading supplies onto the beach. From offshore they had seen this same process being repeated in dozens of places to the east and west of Q’art Hadash, but now it presented the travelers with a major obstacle to their goal. Read More →

The City in Flames

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It didn’t take long for them to get the guard out of the room: a few sharp barks from Celestra’s wolf and he woke up with a jolt, then chased the beast out into the hallway.  What he hadn’t seen was that the dog had stolen the cell keys from a hook by the door and slipped them to Celestra before ever waking him up.

The man in the corner cell had become a bit more cooperative once the path to freedom was clear.  He introduced himself as Hanno, a sailor in Q’art Hadash’s military fleet.  He had been arrested for desertion, though he insisted that his ship had been destroyed by a mysterious ship with red sails, leaving him the sole survivor among his crew.  In exchange for his freedom, he offered to take them to the Cursor Noctis.  The party agreed.

After slipping out of the station, the adventurers made their way toward the Eastern Docks, passing up north of the military harbor, then east across the bridge into the other half of the city.

At first the journey was an easy one, their biggest worry being hiding in shops and alleys as Hadashim patrols marched past.  But as they approached the docks, they began to see more and more frightened people running the other way.  And then, just a few blocks out, they caught sight of smoke billowing up into the sky.

Pushing through the now-crowded mass of panicked people, the travelers finally got their first sight of the Eastern Docks.  It was pandemonium, sheer chaos and mayhem: throughout the Eastern Docks, and visible across the harbor on the western side as well, men and women in strange uniforms were throwing bolts of fire seemingly at random.  They torched stalls and ships and buildings, killing people indiscriminately along the way.  Their only goal seemed to be creating confusion and chaos.

Kicking into action, the adventurers hunched down and made their way through the crowd toward the attackers. Read More →