The Problem of Progression

The Problem of Progression

Publication; that is the elusive goal that I, and many other writers on this site, are after. We envision it as finish line, a medal we can wear that says ‘Author’. If you’re published you’ve made it, you’ve moved from dreamer to doer, amateur to professional. Lay people out in the world will take you seriously, you’re not just that guy at the party ‘working on his novel,’ you’re legitimate.

I know thinking that way is a trap, but it’s one that I often fall into. There are so few tangible bench marks in writing that publication becomes alluring. A clear sign that you are doing something right; that you’ve progressed. Often in my day to day writing I can’t tell if I’m getting better, if I’m challenging myself enough, if I’m too afraid to share my work, if I’m really ‘moving forward’ or what that even means.

We like the idea of progression, that one step leads to another. It’s one of the reason RPGs are so fun, you level up, you have real rewards for your experience. The stories we hear about success follow that same linear structure and when we look back on our own success we often organize our history into a clear path of progression.

But that path is never clear. It’s marked by failure, experimentation, stalling and hurdling leaps. You don’t move forward as often as you move in an angle, you’re footing never certain until it is, the demarcation lines of success only visible when you turn around, what’s head is nothing but fog.

I’m at a point in my writing that I know that I’m not a beginner and I know I’m not an expert. I would love to be intermediate, but I have suspicion that I’m several style books behind that (seriously, I’m in dire need of regular line editing). I’ve been writing consistently for close to ten years, mostly creative work, mostly creative work that no one’s read.

When I started writing, the path forward was easy to see and the goals tangible: write a short story, write a novella, write a novel, edit a novel. Writing advice was easier to find or at least more relevant. There’s a lot advice out there about ‘finding time to write’, hell I’ve got some if anyone wants to hear it, but I’ve found the time and done a fair bit of writing and now I’m not sure the way forward. The more I learn about writing, the less I seem to know.

When everything is murky like this it’s best to get out of your own head. Talk to someone who knows you. I have a friend who is a creative too. He’s read my work and we bounced ideas around together. He was able to explain how arriving at the murky part of my goal meant that I had gone farther than before. I’ve progressed to a point where I have no real experience to base it on and need to do some experimentation. I need to prod different avenues, I need to fail a little and find out what works and what doesn’t. The unknown can be exciting; an opportunity.

If you don’t have a friend, you have yourself. Tell yourself your story, look back, see the points where you’ve done well and how they’ve led you to this moment. Remember the missteps, the rejections, the work you’ve abandoned. They are part of the path, they’re not so much dead ends as circular steps, spinning you around and leading you forward. When facing the fog, pick a direction, any direction, work out the steps to it and start moving. You’ll find that you stumble and slide and maybe it’s not worth going there, but at the very least it will eliminate a heading.

Writing is art and art isn’t neat. It can be hard to define. It can be nebulous and therefore it’s success can feel that way too. Embrace it. It’s okay to get lost for a little bit, if you keep trying different ways to move forward, you’ll eventually improve. Don’t focus on one goal other than to be better, to grow, to learn more. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to try. I’ll let you know when I find my way out of the fog.

How to Write a Fight Scene

How to Write a Fight Scene

Fights, like sex, can be some of the hardest scenes to write. They’re always in danger of getting bog down in detail, or they’re the subject of comically obtuse metaphors, or are just plain confusing and the reader has no idea what’s happening. I’m still trying to master fight scenes myself, but here are some techniques I used to make them fast pace and exciting.

The Blow by Blow

This is the most common type of fight scene. It’s best used for duels or fights that take a while and don’t require too many participants. In the ‘Blow by Blow’ the writer is acting like the announcer of a boxing match, giving an account of every swing and block.

Blow by Blow scenes are the easiest scenes to do, but they can very quickly devolve into tedium. Visual media has print beat when it comes to these types of fights. What’s more exciting: watching the final battle in a Marvel movie or hearing your friend describe it? Writing can be very immersive and give us things we can’t experience in film. The taste of sweat, the thoughts of the duelist, the feeling in their shoulders.

Also try not to linger when doing a blow by blow scene. If a character does something fast like a jab, don’t drag out the description. If something happens quickly keep the description quick. Remember that you are dealing with more than just the five senses, you have movement too, you want your writing to convey the speed, and flexibility of the action.

The Abstraction

Writing isn’t a visual media so every fight scene, even the most technical blow by blow, is an abstraction. But what I mean by abstraction is focusing less on creating a fight scene at all, but rather focusing on the feeling, the motion, the way someone fights. Abstractions are best used for big battles, were everything is confusing, and you can use little details to build a sense of dread, or when a hero is fighting a bunch of henchman and dispatching them quickly or even if you want to introduce a threat.

Abstraction can be hard to describe so here’s an example of what I’m talking about from my novel Ghets:

Reez was like a wildfire, cutting and burning and consuming, with each swing she grew hotter, with each cut she grew madder. She blazed through her enemies, on them quicker than they could react, could think, she was an explosion in the middle of their ranks.

The whole thing is more a metaphor than fight. I don’t tell how Reez was defeating anyone, just trying to convey a beserker like style. I tend to prefer writing abstractions for my fight scenes. The feeling of what’s going on is more important than the than physical moves of the actors involved. But abstractions do have their short comings. They’re always in danger of becoming too abstract, the metaphor running away from any sense what’s actually happening. They’re also not great at conflict.

When I say conflict, I mean the push and pull of the fight. In the scene above I focused on Reez, the people she was fighting weren’t important. But most fight scenes, be they duels or battles, are a contest between two parties. What makes them interesting and dynamic are the ways that those parties try get ahead or around their opponent. Present a problem for each fighter to overcome or try to out think.

Don’t show the fight

There’s one final strategy for fight scenes and that’s not to even bother with them. In the greatest action movie of all time, Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a scene where Max runs off to take out the ‘Bullet Farmer’. We don’t know what he does to defeat the Bullet Farmer. We just see him run off, and then come back after an explosion. He’s covered in blood and carrying a bunch of stolen weapons.

The scene is wonderfully bad ass, but we never see what Max actually did. Instead we only have the aftermath and the other characters’ reactions to Max. This makes Max seem tough. He did something so cool we can’t even imagine it. It’s the same principle as the old horror movie conceit that the monster is scarier when you don’t see it. Describing the devastation or aftermath of a fight can make your character seem more competent or powerful than going in detail on the fight itself. It’s also easier for the reader to follow.

On a similar note, try treating some of your fight scenes like comics. Rather than doing a true blow by blow think of the best parts, the most thrilling. Only describe those, like the panels of a comic book. Don’t worry about the connective tissue linking the panels too much, just describe the scene like it’s all in slow motion. One or two cool moments is all anyone remembers about a good fight anyway.

Now that you’ve got some techniques, give them a shot, experiment! Let me know what works for you! Go fight!

Dear Beta-Reader

Dear Beta-Reader

I’ve been writing a lot about my novel Ghets recently and that’s because I’ve finished draft II! I’ve been working on this book for two years now and it’s finally ready to be shared. I put out the call for beta-readers and sent the novel to friends, family and acquaintances. The novel is far from complete at this point. I need to collect all the critiques and edits from my beta-readers and use them to sharpen the book into draft III. After draft III I’ll either be lucky enough to have an agent and publisher or I’ll need to hire an editor for draft IV and then finally publish the thing myself.

I know it’s a lot. So, let’s not get ahead ourselves. For this post I’m sharing the letter I sent out to beta-readers to thank them and let them know what I’m looking for. You might find it helpful, if you’re thinking about using beta-readers for your own project. Also I’ll never say no to people reading Ghets so if you’ve checked out the chapters I’ve posted and want to be a beta-reader too, let me know!


Dear Beta-Reader,

First, I want to thank you so, so, so, much for taking the time to read my novel. I know it’s long and it’s asking a lot of you. But just by reading this book and giving your critiques, edits and insights you are helping to shape this story. Books, like all creative works, are collaborative, the storyteller reacting to listener, feeding off their energy and emotion. It’s like a dialogue. And like all dialogues it helps to know what we’re discussing.

In truth I will take any edits you have to offer, but please don’t overextend yourself trying to correct every spelling, wrong word or grammar mistake. There are a lot of them and I will hunt them down with the help of an editor during the next draft.

What I’m looking for right now are ‘big picture’ reactions. What about the story worked for you? What about the story didn’t? Where was the writing confusing, where you couldn’t tell what was going on? Where there any characters that felt unnecessary? And most of all where there repetitive chapters or sections, or chapters that you felt didn’t add anything? This book is on the long side and I would love to be able to trim it down.

I will take any critiques you have to offer. If you couldn’t finish the book because of the time commitment, that’s fine! Just tell me what you thought of what you could read. Same is true if you dropped this book because the grammar was so bad, or because the general writing was awful, or because the story isn’t your thing. You don’t need to finish it to give me your thoughts. And please, be honest! I won’t be upset. In college I had my writing torn apart by my ex-girlfriend and her new ‘poet’ boyfriend during creative writing club. If I can survive that and still want to write, I can survive anything.

Once again thank you so much!

Why an Orc?

Why an Orc?

As I wrote last post there are problem with Orcs. But despite those problems I still wanted to include orcs in my fantasy world and even make my protagonist one. Orcs are fun! Their dumb and violent tendencies can make them mischievous, even endearing if presented in a certain light. And as the ‘evil minion’ race of hundreds of fantasy novels orcs feel like the underdogs. Maybe they’re just misunderstood? Maybe what is so often seen as barbaric in orcs is just a different point of view?

Like any longstanding antagonist orcs have gone through several revisions and become heroes. Stan Nicholls novel Orcs: First Blood, tells a story of human orc warfare from the orcs’ point of view, taking a traditional band of orc warriors and making them the protagonists. Terry Pratchett’s orcs are near extinct and suffering from a case of bad propaganda. And then there’s the Warcraft games.

Warcraft started out with a traditional Tolkien set up. There was an evil army of orcs vs. an alliance of humans, dwarves and elves. The first two Warcraft games had the orcs invading from a dark portal led by evil wizards and hell bent on conquering and killing everything in sight. But with the third Warcraft game Blizzard (the game studio behind the Warcraft series) decided to do something different.

Blizzard deconstructed its orcs and the very idea of orcs as the ‘barbarian other’. They took inspiration from what happened to historical ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ peoples after they were conquered. The orcs of Warcraft III start off enslaved or kept on hemmed in reservations. Their story becomes a fight for freedom and once they achieve that freedom they desire to go back to their traditional ways. The orcs are still violent, a warrior culture, but one that is more complex and less aggressive than the conquers they used to be. They even finally defeat the demon overlords that led them astray in the first place.

The orcs of Warcraft moved from mindless evil to at worse worthy antagonists, all while keeping the things people loved about them. They’re still big and green and mean. They still have pointy armor and say funny made up words like ‘zug-zug’, but they’re given their own needs and desires. They now do stuff outside of fighting.

When coming up with my own orcs I took inspiration from Warcraft, as well as Wahammer, Tolkien and all the others. The orcs of Ghets like to fight, drink and eat meat. They have green skin (as well as purple, orange, and pretty much any color). They’re a proud warrior society, that fights in ‘hordes’. And they’re the underdogs, despised by both Aphetrria the land of Order, and Neradoom the land of Chaos. But in Ghets, the orc’s ruling body, the ‘Okkore’ is the closest thing there is to a medieval UN.

The orcs of Ghets were created by the god Kor to act as border guards, to prevent Aphetrria and Neradoom from killing each other. They take their mandate seriously, and even went so far as to conquer both lands to put an end to the millennia long war. It didn’t work, and by the time the novel begins the Orcs are trying to learn from their past mistakes.

I don’t spend too much time with the Okkore in Ghets, I’ve got more planned there for another novel. Reez is the orc that readers get to know the best, since she’s the lead. Reez is all the stuff I love about orcs with none of the baggage. She’s a carefree adventurer that’s always cursing in funny made up words: guck, gunking guckers. She loves to fight and get into trouble, but she’s not mean or even mercenary in her thinking or actions. She’s clever without being condescending and most of all she doesn’t take herself seriously.

Reez would find the abject barbarism of orcs like those in the Shadow of Mordor series to be comically over the top. Like the people she comes from, Reez is down to earth, an orc that’s good at fighting, but is into other things than just conquest and plunder. She’s got her bones in the old greenskin trope, but she’s grown out of them into her own character. I really like spending time with her and I hope you will too!

 

Ghets Chapter 4

Ghets Chapter 4

This week on Fiction Friday, it’s Ghets Chapter 4! We meet Markus and his Fellowship as they quest to save the Princess Reez just helped kidnap.

You can find the first three chapters of Ghets here


Chapter

It was night as Markus and his Fellowship approached Ghetshaven. To the East over the banks of the Divide a Black Sun hung in the air. Markus had never seen something so wrong. It was the blackest of black, darker than the very night and yet it’s edges radiated a pale light. It was a twisted mockery of the moon. The product of a dark and foul place, one where the moon and sun dare not tread. Neradoom, the land of demons.

Markus was close now, closer than he had been in months. Soon he would see her again, his love, Princess Arilune.

Markus winced at the thought of the Princess. He remembered lying next to her on nights like this. Her deep green eyes, the bright freckles that dotted her face like a mask, her wild red hair. He remembered the feeling of Arilune’s slender shoulders against his chest. He would stare at her in shock that this dainty girl, the girl he loved, was the avatar of Victorious Anudica, Goddess of War.

Arilune could be fierce in her way, but she was no warrior. She was a princess, regal, capable at diplomacy and the intrigues of court life. But for combat, she relayed on Markus to be her knight and champion. He had defended Arilune ever since they first met, having sworn that he would always be there for her.

He wasn’t.

Markus was at Lunderbik when the demons attacked. Smoke choked the air. Alarm bells and shouts rang out. Bucket brigades collided with guards as chaos engulfed the manor. Lost and searching for Arilune, Markus had stumbled upon the fleeing demons.

They had the princess. She was bound and rolled up in a rug, being carted off like livestock. Markus charged the Dairkkul intent on freeing his Princess, but was stopped by a fiend, one of the demon’s slaves and monstrosities.

The creature had claws like daggers and raked Markus’s chest. The pain was immense, but rage carried Markus through and he fought the creature to standstill eventually taking its head. Bleeding and panting Markus ran in the direction the dairkkul had fled, but they were already gone.

Weeks later when the elves of Sphetrra, Anudica’s holy city, called for a Fellowship to save the avatar, Markus was the first to volunteer. The elves were rightfully suspicious of him. How could they trust the so called ‘knight’ who allowed Arilune to be kidnapped in the first place? But Markus’s persistence slowly won them over. They included Markus and his mentor, the grand sir Roland, in the Fellowship. The pair were joined by five other elite warriors picked from all over Aphetrria.

But the journey had proven difficult, even for a company of heroes’ such as Markus’s Fellowship. Before reaching Neradoom they had already suffered death and betrayal. Three warriors had fallen, including Aawut the Fellowship’s ranger and guide. Now Markus was left with only three official members and one apprentice and they hadn’t even made it halfway.

Markus touched Impaladius the sword that was lost and now found.

“Was it worth it?” He asked his companions as they neared Ghetshaven.

“It was.” Meiral said. Meiral was an elven mage and Priestess to Dhiamitrst the fertility goddess. She was gentle, and Markus often found her words to be of great comfort, a comfort he needed now more than ever.

“We’ve lost so much” Markus said. “Meraldo first, now Aawut and Aeikhu…” Markus twisted his grip around Impaladius’s hilt. “I still can’t believe Aeiku was a traitor!”

Meiral came closer, her voice soothing. “Aeikhu was Unclaimed, they have been fighting this war longer than anyone, Markus. There was no way for you to know.” Meiral’s Lori’ve accent made her words fluffy turning ‘they’ to ‘zey’. Markus let out a calm breath. It was hard to be anything but hopeful in Meral’s presence.

“It’ll be alright.” Roland said coming up to meet his former squire. “We’re nearly there.”

Markus stared at the round, soft face of his mentor. Roland had been one of the greatest tourney knights Markus had known. But Roland had seen less war than even Markus and he was old and growing frail. Markus couldn’t help but feel protective of him, of all the Fellowship. He glanced back at Yin and Nord staggering behind them.

Nord the dwarf was limping, still recovering from Aiekhu’s attack. Yin was helping him walk. Yin was taking Aawut’s death the hardest. She wouldn’t even look at Markus, instead hiding her good eye under her straight black hair.

At first Markus had found it difficult to believe that Yin was a ranger in training. She was only part elf and had already lost an eye despite being younger than Markus himself. She seemed undisciplined and bragged of once being a pickpocket. But she had proven her worth as guide in the tombs of Ruinsway. And she seemed determined, shadowing Aawut, trying to copy his every move.

Markus looked at Roland and wondered how he would have taken his mentor’s death, if the knight had fallen while Markus was still a squire. He shook his head, he would be half the warrior he was today.

Sadness and frustration gripped Markus. His Fellowship was wounded, lost and nearly beaten. He hated to admit it, but they needed help. A guide to replace Aawut, a mage to help Meiral, warriors to keep the Fellowship safe. He had been debating it with Roland for weeks now, but after Aeikhu’s betrayal there was no choice. They needed Ghets.

The Problem with Orcs

The Problem with Orcs

When coming up with my novel Ghets I wanted to create an everything and the kitchen sink high fantasy world. A world crammed with all the weird concepts I had come up with over the years, as well as my own spin on fantasy tropes like stolen Princesses, and tall, elegant elves. Some tropes I wanted to explore and others I wanted to subvert. For orcs, like my lead Reez, I wanted to do both.

Orcs are a fantasy mainstay, and like most fantasy mainstays they first came to prominence in Tolkien. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth orcs are squat, humanoid brutes obsessed with fighting and eating the flesh of their enemies (and sometimes that of their allies). Since this inception they have grown and spread with the fantasy genre becoming the stock minions of hundreds of dark lords. And have achieved a pop culture relevance equal to that of stormtroops and big head gray aliens as the baddies you except to see fall by the dozens in video games and movies.

Orcs have largely remained the same since the Lord of the Rings. They’re often violent cannibals, swinging crude axes and clubs, dressed in pointy armor or covered in furs and bone necklaces. Like all villains they speak to us on a subconscious level. Their origins found in mythological creatures like trolls, ghouls and goblins. They are the manifestation of the ‘other’. The wicked, warrior tribe that lives over the hill or across the sea. They are backwards but conquer and kill everything they come across.

Orcs are something of melting pot of every fear of barbarians that western Europe has had since the fall of the Roman empire. They swing axes and have fur lined helms like Vikings. They fight in ‘hordes’ like the Mongolians. They wear war paint like Celts or Native Americans. Most problematic of all, they are often called ‘savages’. And have traits and inhuman practices that mirror accusations European conquers levied against locals in the Americas, and Africa, like low intelligence but brutish strength, and the eating of human flesh.

Orcs are also, often, exclusively male. This usually happens because they don’t get much character development, merely being the big bad invading armies in vaguely medieval worlds where the majority of warriors aren’t women either (I know that’s dumb, in Ghets women fight alongside men and nobody cares). But some universes do take the whole ‘orcs are all dudes’ thing to a ridiculous extreme.

In Tolkien Orcs are pulled from the earth using vile magic so theoretically the orcs are all gender neutral? Though they do call each other ‘boys’ and use male pronouns. The same thing occurs in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universes. In 40K Orcs are like a type of fungus and grow and spread by sprouting? (look I wish I was kidding). Usually this lack of women goes hand and hand with another problem with orcs. Nobody writing their fiction considers: what do orcs do when they aren’t fighting?

The most egregious example of this is the Shadow of Mordor series. Shadow of Mordor is a video game series loosely based on the works of Tolkien. In it you play as Ranger who is leading a resistance in Mordor against Sauron. The games are all about you hanging out with the orcs, either stalking, battling, or subjecting them. Orc society in the game is cartoonish, all they do is hunt, drink, kill each other, and enslave things.

In Shadow of War, the second game in the series, you come across different orc locations like villages, mines and fortress, but there’s no difference in what’s going on in each location. They’re all just backdrops to stab more orcs. The orcs have rival tribes, but you don’t know what they’re fighting over, there’s no real resources or territory and no one explains why one orc would be part of one tribe or another since they aren’t born into them. In fact, no one explains where they keep on getting more orcs, since you murder hundreds of them, like hundreds of hundreds them. If the game was Lord of the Rings cannon, then there wouldn’t be a need for the Fellowship. By the end of Shadow of War Mordor would be vacant.

And yet, even with none of these questions answered I liked the orcs of Shadow of Mordor series. I liked all the orcs I mentioned. Tolkien’s and Games Workshop’s too. Orcs are fun, often because of how thinly drawn they are. They’re all the things we like about Vikings and barbarians, the fighting, drinking and looting, without any real-world consequences. They’re so dumb, greedy and violent that they become comical. Bad guys that are destined to lose, in facet deserve what’s coming to them and often don’t seem to mind the outcome.

But there can be more to orcs, ways to take what we like about them and make them richer, more complex characters. Some franchises and writers have already done that, and I will discuss how and how I’ve designed my own orcs in next week’s post: ‘Why an orc?

Ghets Chapter 3

Ghets Chapter 3

This week on ‘Fiction Fridays’ it’s chapter 3 of Ghets. We visit Ghetshaven and Reez learns of the consequence of her last job. Hope you enjoy!

You can find Chapters 1 and 2 here


Chapter

Reez stared at the wilting leaves of her Mawba plant. Odvid had gotten the plant for her because it was notoriously hard to kill. You could feed it water or booze, plant it in soil or in a bowl of steam and it would still prosper. If the Mawba’s leaves weren’t a pretty red-brown with maroon flowers, and if it didn’t take forever to grow and spread, it might have been considered a weed. It even grew in the Under-Kingdoms way beneath the earth, that was how little care it needed. And yet, Reez was still managing to kill hers.

As an orc that should have been a point of pride, she could kill anything. But Reez just huffed and fed the plant some more wine, hoping that would perk it up. Wine usually had that effect on Reez…usually. She had been in a funk the last couple of weeks and even going out for drinks with her team wasn’t doing it for her.

Reez was sure it was her little apartment in Ghetshaven. She was getting bored and claustrophobic. It had absolutely nothing to do with lingering guilt about stealing some redheaded human girl in the middle of the night. No, what Reez needed was to get out of town on some job. After guiding caravans through The Bitter Pass or hunting for treasure in Ruinsway she’d be back to her old self. Satisfied with the plan, Reez split the remainder of her wine with her plant and headed out for Oath Hall.

It was raining out on the Neradoomin side of town, so Reez kept to the streets on the Aphetrrian side where it was nice and sunny. Reez was fortunate enough to grab an apartment on Godless Isle. Godless was the old part of Ghetshaven and sat right in the middle of The River of the Great Divide (or just the Divide, as the locals called it.). Godless Isle was one of the few borders between Aphetrria and Neradoom where you could simply walk across from one land to the other.

Godless also had easy access to Gate Square and Oath Hall, as well as any guild or merchant offices Reez might need to visit. But it wasn’t cheap. Reez’s team went in for bigger places on either side of the Divide, placing them in Aphetrria or Neradoom proper.

Reez scoured the pre-written contracts and job posting at Oath Hall. There was a survey team looking to build a temple in the Ourobori jungle and needed a guide. Perfect. The Okkore was opening a Gate to Morjara today, and according to the schedule there’d be a Gate open in Ghoneshi on the other side of the jungle on the fifteenth. It would be a quick four-day job, three nights in the jungle, and then to Ghoneshi, to take the Gate home. Reez grabbed it.

Reez stopped by the post to send a quick a note to Odvid letting him know she’d be out of town and see if he could work some magic to fix her plant. He was a mage as well as a healer after all. And then Reez headed to Gate Square. She’d pick up some supplies in the bazaar that was held between the gates before heading to Morjara.

The Orc Fortress of Korragorra loomed before Reez. The Orcs had their own sprawling city on Godless Ilse. Ghetshaven lived in the shadow of it, leeching off the trade and travelers that used the Gates. The Gates technically belonged to the Okkore, the closest thing the orcs had to a kingdom. Only Orc shamans could operate and maintain Kor’s Thirteen Gates and each Gate was a portal to an Orc barracks in either Aphetrria or Neradoom.

There was a time when the Okkore didn’t like sharing the gates. They understood the gates’ full military potential and used them to send armies all over the world. Armies they kept resupplied and reinforced thanks to the gates all leading back to their chief fortress of Korragorra. The thirteen gates helped the orcs conquer both Aphetrria and Neradoom and for a hundred years the Okkore had ruled the world putting an end to the Deinomachy and enforcing Kor’s peace.

But the Orc Empire didn’t last, the gods wanted the Deinomachy too bad and the orcs were almost wiped out. The Okkore that now ruled Korragorra was a very different beast than the one that had conquered the world. It was leaner, more cautious and more cunning.

The new Okkore opened Gate square to the merchants of Ghetshaven. It employed Ghets, sending them on trading missions to guilds, kings, pit lords and chieftains. It re-ranged the arch totems, the gate exits, building barracks with totems near major ports and crossroads. It paid to lease arch totems in the capital cities of every kingdom on either side of the Divide.

The new Okkore did everything it could to promote travel and trade between Aphetrria and Neradoom. If Kor’s peace couldn’t be won through the sword, the orcs were going to see if they could buy it. So far it had been working. There hadn’t been a major war between Aphetrria and Neradoom since the Elven retaliation thirty years ago.

Reez passed the Okkore’s contraband checkpoints and entered Gate Square. Gate Square was a giant courtyard that held the Gates and a daily bazaar. Merchants set up stalls along the lanes leading to and from the thirteen gates, trying to pick up trade from the thousands of travelers that passed through the gates each day. The square was unlike anywhere else in the world and always made Reez get philosophical, reminding her of ‘the churn of creation’. The early days of existence when there was only Apherria and Neradogtha. In the churn chaos chased order, order chased chaos, the forces came together, and broke apart again. It was balanced, yet volatile, Apherria and Neradogatha expressed as a single primal force, that was the churn, and that was Gate Square.

Lanes of merchant caravans streamed from one gate, narrowly avoiding getting tangled with the reins and wagons of caravans coming from the opposite direction. A mass of messy pilgrims bumbled through the bazaar like gawking tourists. The pilgrims’ Ghets did everything they could to shepherd them along, while merchants shoved trinkets, charms and idols in their faces and shouted of deals and wonders.

The smoky scent of barbeque blended with the spices of curry, the honey of glazed nuts and the steaming stench of dung produced by a thousand different types of draft animals. Barkers shouted in Xunese, Loir’ve, and Kul, before repeating everything in Common, trying to entice travelers to the inns and gambling dens in Ghetshaven proper. Agents of various guilds and merchant companies ran across the bazaar directing their caravans to the correct Gate or warehouse. Most caravans would have to spend a couple of nights in Ghetshaven while they waited for their destination to come up. Kor only had thirteen gates and they needed to be changed to a new location every morning.

The Okkore was a heavy presence in the square. Okkore sergeants prowled the Gate lanes, pushing aggressive vendors to the side to make room and halting traffic to let orc warriors march between gates. The orc sergeants cleared up messes and directed complaining merchants to Oath Hall in Ghetshaven where their dispute would be overseen by Aphetrrian law masters and Neradoomin judges.

Confusion erupted everywhere in the square, there was a mess of different peoples, each speaking different languages, with different biology and wildly different customs. And yet that confusion was quickly sorted and shifted, if not completely dispelled thanks to the tight routines and layout of the square and the discipline of experienced guards and guides. This wonderful, beautiful place of managed chaos was all thanks to the symbiotic relationship between the Ghets and the Okkore.

Reez felt some pride in that, since she was both an orc and a Ghets. She bought some dry goods from a salt merchant representing the Roohr League and a new water sack from a Dairkkul Skin-Smith, before chatting with her friend Monoko who dealt in mounts and then heading over to an apothecary stall to haggle over bug ointment. Finally, fully stocked for the excursion, Reez bought a roasted frog on a stick for a quick lunch and headed to Gate Four to start her job.

Reez, and everyone in her lane, was stopped by an Orc sergeant to let an Okkore unit of pikemen march out of the gate. It was always strange to watch people exiting the gates. They looked like they were just walking into the bazaar from another entrance rather than traveling leagues in an instance.

Each gate was a portal that sat in a giant doorway carved into the walls of Gate Square The substance that made up the portals were hard to describe. It was a spiral. The ether of Neradoom and Aphetrria coming together in one swirling blend, the churn again, light chasing darkness, darkness chasing light. You didn’t really feel anything when you touched the portals. You just stepped through them like a regular door and were transported to whatever spot had the active arch totem.

Most of the gate exits weren’t as big as the gate entrances in Korragorra. There were a lot of rules to the gates, the orcs had a whole class of shamans dedicated to them, and Reez didn’t know all the particulars, but she did know that each gate exit had to be an archway, at least a mini version of the doorway in Korragorra. The gates were fascinating and a gucking miracle, but like any miracle people got used to them and started to take them for granted, like the indignant merchant that pushed himself ahead of everyone in Reez’s lane.

“You’re doing this again?” The merchant shouted at the orc sergeant, “I’ve been halted five times today already, once for two hours to let your people through. You own these gates! Get organized! Do your nonsense in the morning before you open the square! It’s not hard.”

The orc sergeant reminded silent and kept her face cool. Unlike the civilized orc, most peoples found it rude to be punched in the face when they said something stupid.

Luckily, Reez was there.

“Hey friend,” She said tapping the merchant on the shoulder.

“What is it?” He said spinning around. “Oh for the love of Apherria another one,” He said looking Reez up and down. “Are you this one’s superior? Because—”

“Because what?” Reez said leaning in. “Just because it’s the middle of the day in Ghetshaven doesn’t mean it’s noon in Morjara. What? Every orc should abandon their post in the middle of the night just because it impedes you by a couple of hours? The gates are a literal gift from the gods! Stop whining and get back in the gucking line.”

The merchant looked like he was going to say more, but Reez smiled at him, big and hungry like and that was enough for him to scurry back to his waiting pack animals.

Reez winked at the orc sergeant after the merchant retreated. She was young, probably only about sixteen. “Had to do gate duty during my training too, don’t let these gunkers get you down.”

The sergeant didn’t reply. Reez stood there in awkward silence while the last Orc pike man passed. Before letting everyone go the orc sergeant spat at Reez’s feet and muttered “Traitor”.

Reez immediately felt an emotion too hot to be called shame and too heartbreaking to be called rage. Her smile deflated, and she sunk into the crowd of merchants and travelers that flooded into Gate Four. Sometimes Reez let herself forget everything that had happened between her and the Okkore. It was generous of her, the Okkore had taken more from her than it had given. But just because Reez was willing to be generous didn’t mean the Okkore reciprocated. At best they tolerated her, seeking to forget that she was ever a part of them at all. To the Okkore Reez was no different than the pushy merchant, just another traveler using the gates.

But that was okay, Reez liked being a ghets more than she ever liked being Okkore warrior. She stepped through the gate and got to work.

Reez’s job in the jungle was mostly okay, but Reez only got into one measly fight and the gig was over way too quick. Reez found herself in Ghoneshi with a whole day to spare. Usually, under those circumstances she’d do some sightseeing, but Ghoneshi was a Darikkul city and it was all a buzz over the latest news. And what news it was, Reez stayed in her inn soaking it all in, growing increasingly pale.

According to the local gossip, Lord Maelator had pulled ahead from his rivals and was on the verge of taking the Black Spire. Maelator had always been a contender, but his sudden success had come when he converted his staunchest enemies into allies. He accomplished this by doing something that no Dairkkul outside of a Dark Lord had achieved before. He kidnapped the avatar of an elven god. The girl was proof that Maelator wasn’t just seeking the Black Spire for himself, but for mother Neradogtha. For surely, he would use the power of the Dark Lord to marshal all the fiends to him and restart the Deinomachy.

Reez almost fainted when she heard about the avatar. She ordered ‘literally all the wine they gucking had’ and asked her Dairkkul drinking companions to go over the news again.

“Maelator stole an elven avatar?” Reez said, “But I, um, heard the girl was a human.”

“She is! She is!” The Dairkkul said excitedly, sloshing his drinking dish “An Aphetrrian human with red hair and green eyes, just like the god.

“But how can a human be—”

“I don’t know” The Dairkkul said slurping up his liquor “It’s Aphetrria they have so many constricting rules. I don’t know how people survive under that tyranny. But apparently, they have humans there too, and this one is the avatar of a god, the elves have said so themselves! They’re calling for their heroes to form a fellowship to win her back. Maybe we’ll get a proper war again!”

Reez snatched the wine jug out of the innkeeper’s hands and immediately started guzzling. There was no way this was happening. Crow had signed contracts, made promises! Reez felt her forehead. The orcs were going to call her a lot worse than ‘traitor’ if they found out she was the Ghets that orchestrated this.

“Do you know which god this avatar is supposed to be? Reez asked.”

The Dairkkul smiled. “The bad one. The worst one. Wicked Anudica, the Goddess of war.”

………..