The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

Archive for the tag “Mortal Kombat”

A Challenge and A Triumph

Hello dear readers, I’m not entirely certain if this video will load, but until YouTube decides to resolve their frustrating copyright-claim system, with regard to fair usage policy, I figured I’d try and post this video here, for you all to view. It should give you a bit of an idea of what has been occupying my time as of late. Enjoy!

And, as an aside, let me just say that the true challenge and triumph here was editing a video as a blind person. Not an easy task, trust me.

Blind Man Gaming – Balance and Variation (audio transcript)

Below, you will find a full text transcript of all the spoken dialog in my latest episode of Blind Man Gaming.

Me (deeper voice): Coming to you live from an oil rig somewhere in international waters, it’s that one blind guy who plays Mortal Kombat almost as good as those other blind guys: Michael Espinoza!

Me (normal voice): Hey everybody, it’s Michael, with Blind Man Gaming once again. So as many of you may have heard, there is now a balance patch out for MKXL. Um, and I want to have a look at how that balance patch impacts my gameplay. Now, there were some rumors that Mileena would no longer be able to combo off Ball Roll. Uh, turns out that totally wasn’t true, so… that’s not an issue we’re even going to worry about. But uh yeah, I still want to see how things, you know, shake out. So let’s try, uh, Mileena versus Takeda. I have a hard time fighting him, so this should be… amusing I guess. But yeah, let’s see how the balance patch will affect my game play.

Takeda: I can read your thoughts.

Mileena: I am not of Earthrealm, you cannot.

Takeda (smug): I knew you were going to say that.

Me: Let’s do this! [later, after multiple stab attack] I tried to do a combo off Ball Roll and it didn’t work, but I think that was honestly just a coincidence. [after successful combo] Okay, yeah! Yeah, you can still combo off Ball Roll. [round one ends] Okay, still comboing off Ball Roll; that’s refreshing. [takes a few hits from Takeda] Oh crap.

Mileena (flirtatious, before pouncing on Takeda): I saw you staring…

Me: I don’t know Mileena, I don’t think you saw him staring. I don’t think he’s that into you. [after the final blow] Well, that was easy. [performs Fatality] Okay, you know what actually, the part that disturbed me about that was not uh, was not what she did. It was the fucking noise he made before she did it. Like, I don’t know if that, y’all caught that, but he makes this weird fucking noise like right before he dies. She is about to kill him and he just makes this weird “huuunh” noise, and it’s like, I don’t know if that was supposed to be sexual. I don’t know, I don’t know. Anyway, I’m going to try actually a variant Mileena and see how that pans out. I’ve never really done much with variants. And yeah, let’s do a um… I meant to go left and click random, but I didn’t. So let’s do a Mileena versus Mileena fight. To be honest, those are really rough for me, um, because I can’t hear which one is me and which one is the opponent in these uh, mirror matches. But let’s see how this pans out.

Mileena: Sister.

Other Mileena: I am Mileena.

Mileena: Not while I live.

Me (after leaping attack): Oh that, that was cool! Oh crap, I don’t have Low Sai anymore. That’s like my one thing. It’s like the one thing that keeps me alive. No! Oh I suck so hard at this! Oh God, stop Tele-Kicking me! [gets in a hit] Yeah! [gets hit] Jesus. [does extended leaping neck-bite] Oh shit, you can extend that. Okay. Cool cool. Okay I can live with that, that’s at least something. [gets hit, near the round’s end] No, bad Mileena. [amused] That’d be an interesting idea for a sitcom; like, multiple Mileenas. You know, and like, Shao Kahn tries to raise a whole bunch of Mileenas. Clones. And it’s like uh “Two and a Half Men,” but it’s like “Two and a Half… Screwed Up Clones of Kitana.”

Mileena (as she beats on her other self): Sorry, darling.

Me (still rambling): I’d watch that. That seems like it would be a good show. [Mileena and Mileena try to zone each other] Oh! A conflict of zoning!

Mileena (ecstatic; before leaping neck-bite): So much blood!

Me: Oh, I like that move. That’s a good one. [uses X-Ray attack] There we go. [back to rambling] But yeah, a multiple Mileena sitcom, where Shao Kahn has to put up with all their antics. [prepares Fatality] Wouldn’t that be awesome? I’d watch the shit out of that. [does Fatality]

Me (in deep voice): Now Mileena, don’t devour your sister’s entr- (normal voice) Never mind, you know what, never mind. That, that ship sailed. Fuck. Bad parenting! Bad parenting. [pause] Well, that was fun. Okay, so the balance patch has not completely screwed me up, though I still suck kind of at fighting, you know, myself. Um, now just for irony’s sake, let’s have some fun, let’s try a new character. I think I’m going to try uh… [clicks Kenshi] Yeah, Kenshi. Because, you know, blind swordsman. And I am also blind, that’s a thing. Uh, who should I have him fight? Oh let’s do… [clicks Cassie] Yeah, that’ll work. The blind playing the blind, let’s see how that works out for everybody. Mostly me, though. I barely know any of Kenshi’s moves, I feel like this is going to be kind of embarrassing. But just in case it’s not!

Kenshi: Cassie.

Cassie: Ready, Kenshi sir.

Kenshi: We’ll find out, won’t we.

Me: Ooh, confident. [gets hit] Don’t… Rude. Don’t you know not to hit a blind man while he’s trying to cut you in half? [manages a combo] Oh, that’s kind of cool. [gets hit repeatedly] Bad Cassie. [totally whiffs an attempted attack] Oh fuck. [gets it right] That’s what it is. [gets hit repeatedly] You stop that right now! [after round one] Okay, so I’m pretty clumsy with Kenshi, but not too bad. It’s passable. [immediately gets attacked] Ow! [does combo] Alright! [takes damage] Ouch! [almost manages combo] Yeah! Damn it! Don’t do that. I think there’s a move that reflects projectiles. I want to be able to do that. [loses round 2] Damn it!!! Ah man, I’m screwing around too much. I’m just not even. I’m trying to get that one move, and I keep screwing around instead of actually hurting her. That is my bad. [knocks Cassie away] Alright, there we go. Yeah! [gets hit hard] Ouch. Stop hurting the poor innocent blind man. Damn it. Wow, this is a slow fight. [is killed by Brutality; is angry] GOD DAMN IT! Okay, so I suck as Kenshi. Okay, note to self: I suck as Kenshi. You know what, no, I’m going to try that again. I will not accept this failure. You guys get to witness a rematch, because now you got to see me lose horribly, and that was embarrassing.

Kenshi: A word of advice?

Cassie: Okay, but you never listen.

Kenshi: I meant… never mind.

Me (attacking in earnest: Oh it’s on now, Cassie. There we go.

Cassie (coyly after striking a painful blow): You got a thing for punishment?

Me: Well yes Cassie, but that has nothing to do with what’s going on here. [uses X-ray attack] There we go! Yeah! That’s what happens when you mess with blind people. Any and all blind people have the ability to do that, just so you know. All blind people can do that, ask Helen Keller.

Kenshi (victorious after round 1): Two minds, one blade.

Me: Yeah, that was a real miracle worker. [knocks Cassie away] There we go. [does it again, after a decent amount of damage has been dealt] There we go! [gets knocked down] No!

Kenshi: Fear my blade.

Me (gets a Brutality, is excited): Oh!!! And the retaliation! Yeah! Okay, so I kind of only moderately suck as Kenshi. Note to self: get better with Kenshi. Alright, well thank y’all for watching, um, Like, share, subscribe, comment, send me happy thoughts, uh tell me I’m awesome. Alright, well thank you guys very much and I will see y’all next time on Blind Man Gaming.

—–

And as always, if you enjoyed this post, I encourage you to check out my novel, Bla
des of Cairndale
.

Testing My Might Against the Gate of Disability

A lot of you may be wondering why, of all things, I love Mortal Kombat so much. An equally large number of you probably wish there was a Chrome extension that blocked every post by me containing the terms Mortal Kombat, Carly Rae Jepsen, or heavy metal. No luck for y’all, but I’m happy to address the former question.

Why, you might ask, would an aspiring writer and a fan of complex, compelling plotlines in books, films, and games, be drawn to the maelstrom of gore that is Mortal Kombat? That question has many answers. First is that I must admit, my eyesight is getting worse. Not abruptly so, but I realize it the more I game, and the less I’m able to do so. RPGs and other games with complex menus, maps, and the like, become less and less feasible for me as years go by. I return to games I adored in my childhood, and find myself failing at things that my younger self would have never missed. I can’t describe how unexpectedly painful it is for me to miss a basic jump sequence in Spyro the Dragon, when I used to move over every world in that game with total precision. I know it’s just a game, but the loss of ability it portends is something I struggle with.

Enter, Mortal Kombat. It is not a simple game, and it is far from an easy game, but it is a sonically rich game. The sounds of feet scuffing ground, of deflected punches, and of blades on flesh, all in stereo, all trackable by my keen sense of hearing. In MK, I have found a place where my lack of sight does not too horribly disadvantage me. I’d likely do better against my sighted friends if I could see, but the fact that I can still handle a fight and come away with dignity in tact is heartening in a way I can’t describe. It makes me feel like gaming isn’t closed off to me. This isn’t Skyrim, where my extensive knowledge of lore and gameplay mechanics all amounts to aimless wandering because I can’t see a quest marker. Nor is it Tomb Raider, where my love of the plot simply cannot keep Lara from plummeting to her bloody demise. This is a game where, if I concentrate with all my might, I can keep up with my sighted peers. I may not always come out on top, but I never come away disgraced.

People talk about GamerGate, the frustratingly named-stop adding “gate” to every controversy and then coming up with an explanation later-conspiracy whereby male gamers actively strive to lock women out of the world of gaming. I do not doubt this malevolent conspiracy, nor am I targeted by it, being a male gamer myself. But there is a gate that effects me all the same. Not one maliciously erected, nor one held in place by the entirety of a single gender, but one inadvertently constructed by an industry that is, by design, for the sighted. Because visuals are an undeniable component to video gaming, I cannot expect this gate to be broken or surmounted en masse. Audio games exist, but they are ill-funded, and even more hit or miss than indie video games. I may not suffer from a gatekeeping conspiracy, but there is a wall between me and a subculture I love; a wall that grows higher as years go by. So, when I find a game like Mortal Kombat, that lets me struggle against that gate, that allows me to jam my foot in the door and refuse to be shut out, I cannot help but be overwhelmed and enraptured by the chance it offers me to throw all my might against the barrier that would otherwise cut me off from a world that I’ve embraced since childhood.

As for the lore of the Mortal Kombat world, it is true that you won’t find novels of expanded content, or prolific in-game text crawls that lay out a Tolkien-esque story of mind altering magnitude. However, that is not the type of game Mortal Kombat is, and such a lore system would feel tacked on, at best. That said, the series is possessed of a surprisingly rich narrative, brought to life by a diverse cast of characters with unique traits far beyond their move sets. And the openness of the lore is in fact one of the game’s greatest strengths. How will the fates of the various realms be decided? Will balance ever be attainable so long as they remain autonomous? On a more individual level: will Kung Jin’s sexuality be accepted by his teammates and his native culture? And what of the relationship between Takeda and Jacqui? There are numerous branches of interpersonal relationships and grand cosmic struggles to unravel, and I cannot fully express how joyous an occasion it is to find such a game, and to know I can actively participate in its community, and in the gameplay itself.

If you enjoyed this post, you might consider subscribing to my YouTube channel, where you will find videos of my experiences with video games and other such exciting things. You can also purchase my eBook Blades of Cairndale, for your reading pleasure.

Blind Man Gaming – Incubation and Indigestion (MKX, Audio Transcript)

As many of you know, I’ve taken up the process of making Let’s Play videos, in support of accessibility in gaming. In that spirit, here is a full audio-to-text transcript of my latest video, located here, for anyone who needs or wants to read the printed text in lieu of the audio dialog.

* * *

Me: Hello everybody. Welcome to another episode of Blind Man Gaming.

[The menu makes a sharp clicking sound as the winning faction screen pops up.]

Announcer: Brotherhood of Shadow wins.

Me (mildly surprised): Oooh, I guess we won a uh, uh, what do they call those? A faction war?

[Various clicks as I pass through screens and into the main menu.]

Me (rambling): That’s cool. I totally didn’t contribute to that at all. Um… but I will take credit for it. (focused again) Anyway, uh… so yeah, havin’ a good day so far. Hope everyone else is, too. Except I burned the roof of my mouth on a hotdog.

[I click on Mileena. She growls and her sai make a sharp blade sound.]

Announcer: Mileena.

Me: So now I’m kind of pissed off and I wanna take it out on somebody.

[The selector clicks rapidly as it scrolls to a random fighter.]

Me: And that somebody is…

Announcer: D’Vorah.

Me: D’Vorah! Oh how perfect, because of, you know, the whole Mileena, D’Vorah thing. Spoilers. Anyway, uh yeah, so I burned my mouth on a hotdog, and I’m all grumpy now, so I’m going to hurt D’Vorah, because it will make me feel better.

[As the fight begins, D’Vorah speaks up. Her voice sounds oddly distorted, as if speaking through a fan.]

D’Vorah: You know not when to quit.

Mileena: I will never give up my fight! [brandishes sai]

D’Vorah: Your lack of judgment led you here.

Announcer: Round one… Fight.

Me (calm): Oh it’s on, D’Vorah. Nobody criticizes my lack of judgment.

[Mileena’s sai sound with painful, fleshy stabs as she rapidly strikes the insectoid D’Vorah. The two fighters trade blows with audible striking sounds as attacks connect or are blocked.]

Me (pleased after landing an aerial combo): Ooh, that was cool! [after the round ends] Well, that was a relatively easy fight.

Mileena (lustful or very hungry): Delicious!

Announcer: Round two… Fight!

Me: I would agree to disagree with that, Mileena. I don’t think anything about this was delicious.

[D’Vorah makes more pronounced, high-pitched grunts of exertion as she dominates the fight.]

Me (as Mileena is beaten savagely): Oh! D’Vorah’s pissed now.

[D’Vorah’s projectile attacks sound slimy and foul, like retching phlegm. She blocks most of Mileena’s attacks, thus muffling the sound of Mileena’s strikes. Mileena screams.]

Me: Ouch.

[Mileena lands a basic combo and laughs quietly. D’Vorah retaliates with a barrage of attacks that have squishy or stinging insectoid sound effects.]

Me: Jeez. [after the round ends] God damn it! Okay, that came back out of nowhere. That was like…

D’Vorah (smug): I will end you.

Announcer (impatient or unamused): Final round, fight.

Me: That… talk about a comeback.

[The two trade blows, screaming and grunting with effort and pain. A shimmering sound is heard as Mileena is thrown away by D’Vorah burning two levels of her meter to disrupt a combo.]

Me: How rude, D’Vorah. [lands a few hits against her] There we go. [gets hit] Jeez.

[D’Vorah lands multiple hits.]

D’Vorah (assertive): You will incubate my young.

Me (shocked, horrified): Jesus Christ, did she just say, “You will incubate my young?”

Announcer: Finish her.

[Mileena deals an ordinary attack as a killing blow.]

Me: Okay, that distracted me. I couldn’t even do a Fatality, because that was-

Announcer: Mileena wins. [a new screen appears] Assassin battle.

Me (excited): Oh shit! An assassin battle! Let’s hope I do better in that. But seriously, did D’Vorah just say, “You will incubate my young”? What the fuck?! [more horrified] Seriously, what the fuck?! That’s so unpleasant!

[The next fight begins, facing off against Ferra/Torr. Ferra speaks up, in a perpetually mocking, childish voice.]

Ferra: Big teeth! Nasty!

[Torr roars.]

Mileena (low, menacing): I will sharpen them on your bones.

Me (annoyed at Ferra): Oh God, I hate this-

Ferra: She wants play, Torr.

Announcer: Round one… Fight!

Me: I hate this creature, so much.

[Torr grunts and Ferra snarls as the combatants engage each other. Torr’s movements are deep, slow, and rumbling. Ferra lands an attack and shrieks victoriously.]

Me: Damn it! I keep screwing up that… [trails off] I think my hands are just naturally slower for some reason. [the mic audio cuts in and out a bit] Because I’m having serious issues pulling off combos. Like, combos I’m normally pretty comfortable with.

Mileena (victorious): I will drink your fetid blood.

Announcer: Round two… Fight!

[The combatants trade a flurry of attacks; Mileena’s are sharp and stabby, Ferra/Torr’s are heavy and rumbling. Mileena lands the final blow.]

Announcer: Finish him!

Me: Okay, now let’s get a Fatality.

[A short, five note minor-key ascension plays on strings to signal the beginning of the Fatality. Mileena attacks Torr, who grunts as Mileena let’s out a victory snarl.]

Me (happy): There we go!

[Torr screams horribly, which fades to a pitiful groan as Mileena tears into him. Fleshy ripping, gnashing, and slurping sounds fill the air as she feeds on Torr.]

Me: I feel bad for the uh-

Announcer: Mileena wins. Fatality.

Me: -the larger portion of Ferra/Torr. I guess that’s Torr? Because he’s just kind of following Ferra’s…

Announcer: Assassin defeated!

Me (distracted): Alright, assassin defeated. (refocuses) Anyway, he’s just kind of following Ferra’s commands, you know? It’s not like he actually wanted to start, you know, some shit. He was just doing what he was told. That’s kind of messed up. And yet he’s the only one who gets, you know, Fatalitied. Why don’t we eat Torr? Errrr, Ferra. She was the one who started it. She was the one who insulted Mileena’s teeth. And then, you know…

[I select Mileena from the character screen.]

Announcer: Mileena.

Me (continues): Got Torr to fight on her behalf, so I mean…

[The random selector clicks about quickly before settling.]

Announcer: Sonya Blade!

Me: Oh, this is a good fight! Okay, cool. I still have a bit of rage about burning my mouth on a hotdog, so let’s uh, let’s do another fight. [pauses to gather thoughts] But yeah, that’s just, it’s not fair that Ferra/Torr, you know, Torr is the only one who really gets hurt significantly.

[The fight begins.]

Mileena (disdainful): Earthrealm witch!

Sonya (bored, dry): I wish. I’d make you vanish.

Mileena: Exactly what I will do to you.

Announcer: Round one… Fight.

[The combatants close. Sonya blocks at first, but and is able to counter Mileena’s onslaught.]

Me: Ouch.

[Mileena attacks more aggressively, making heavy use of her sai.]

Me: Huh. That was brutal.

[The two trade hand-to-hand blows. Mileena misses a combo.]

Me (slightly annoyed): Oh.

[The round ends in Mileena’s favor.]

Me: Well, this is at least going better than that D’Vorah fight. That was embarrassing, that second round.

Announcer: Round two… Fight.

[Mileena lands several successive hits.]

Me: Alright!

[The two battle fiercely, but Mileena dominates the round.]

Announcer: Finish her!

Me (angry that I struck a killing blow prematurely): Oh God damn it! I totally-

Announcer: Mileena wins.

Me: -screwed that up. I could’ve totally gotten in uh, gotten in a Fatality there. Let’s try one more fight. I think that’ll take off my uh, my fury. My burnt mouth fury.

[I select Mileena again.]

Announcer: Mileena.

Me: Let’s see, who does the machine want us to fight next?

[The random selector clicks rapidly, slows, and settles.]

Announcer: Alien.

Me (dismayed): Oh God, oh man, I hate fighting Alien. [mic audio flickers in and out] My best friend always plays as Alien, kicks my ass, and it’s demoralizing as shit, and maybe I can beat the computer. Let’s find out.

[There is silence before the fight begins. Alien growls low in its throat.]

Mileena: Face the might of Outworld.

Announcer: Round one… Fight.

[Alien screeches and shrieks as it battles Mileena. She lands several stabs.]

Mileena (confident and condescending): Run along now!

[The pair close again, and Alien deals a multi-hit attack.]

Me: Ow. That’s the move my friend loves to do on me, like constantly. He’s so good at constantly getting that particular move in.

[Alien screeches as it loses the round after a barrage of attacks.]

Mileena: You’re so much fun.

[Alien growls.]

Me: Mileena and Alien should get into a “who can bite things better” contest.

Announcer: Round two… Fight.

Me: I feel like that’d be an interesting fight. They both seem like they’d be really good at, you know, chewing on things.

[Mileena aggressively assails Alien with her sai.]

Me: Can’t you see them both just, you know, noming on things? Like to see who can chew stuff up more effectively? I feel like Alien would cheat and use his little second mouth.

Announcer: Finish him!

Me (arrogant): Oh what up, I win!! Okay, let’s see… [I fumble with buttons] Do do do do do…

[The Fatality sound plays as Mileena attacks.]

Me: Here we go, I remembered it.

[Alien lets out a dying screech and Mileena grunts with effort as she rips away its head. She crunches down on it like someone taking loud, echoing bites from an especially crispy apple.]

Me: Oooh, Mileena, I feel like that’s a really bad idea. Aliens have, you know, acid blood. Don’t do what you’re… Uh never mind, it’s too late.

Announcer: Mileena wins. Fatality!

Me: Yeah, she wins for now, but I mean the real winner in this fight is indigestion, ’cause… acid blood. You know that’s gonna hurt. Anyway, I’ll catch y’all later. Thanks for tuning in to Blind Man Gaming. Uh, Like, comment, subscribe, share, um, think happy thoughts, all that good stuff, and I will catch y’all later.

Steel in Shadow, Part 1: Life Made Flesh

Teeth. Teeth each as sharp as a dagger’s edge, and of the same keen shape of such a weapon. They were feral, violent in design, and utterly inhuman. They were her own teeth. She traced them with her tongue, its tip flitting like a serpent’s. She explored her mouth as though it were the first time she’d felt it. And why not? It was, after all.

The teeth were hard, more solid than a human’s. ‘Why do I know that?’ she wondered. It did not matter the origin of the knowledge, she knew it to be true all the same. Her tongue was thinner, too, than that of the humans with whom she inexplicably held herself in contrast. Again, into her thoughts, came the word ‘serpent,’ implanted in her mind by some benefactor of partial information. How was it that she could liken any aspect of herself to a thing whose visage she had never seen? ‘Seen!’ Her mind came alive at the word. In addition to a mouth full of dagger-like teeth, she also had eyes.

They sprang open and, less than a second later, squeezed themselves closed, accompanied by a throbbing ache of blue light that thrummed about her eye sockets. Slower this time, she cracked her lids open and peered into the world beyond their shielding darkness. Before her, not but a few steps away, hovered a sphere of pulsating blue energy; the source of her eyes’ previous displeasure. In that strange, massive orb, a figure hung with a sleeping stillness, punctuated only by the rise and fall of her chest. The suspended figure was naked in its globe of hovering light. Its ankles were crossed and its arms folded over its chest. The waking woman-and how, she wondered, did she know that was the right word for herself-gazed down at her own body. The same ivory flesh, the same length of limbs, the same curvature of breasts. At the very least, if she was a ‘woman,’ then this sleeping form looked to be a woman as well.

The face of the sleeping woman was unmoving. Her almond-shaped eyes were closed; not squeezed shut, but a gentler posture that imparted the notion of a peaceful, dreamless slumber. Her pale skin contrasted with ebony hair that flowed like a rolling wave down past her shoulders. Her ears were not rounded like a human’s, but pointed, and the subtle parting of her lips revealed gleaming hints of the same sharp teeth that the waking woman felt in her own mouth. Conscious now of her ears, she reached a hand up and ran her long, slim fingers over the sensory organs on either side of her head. They too terminated in points, just as the sleeper’s did. Was this resting figure her kinswoman?

A flicker of light in her peripheral vision caused the woman to turn away from her sleeping twin. What she beheld made her eyes go wide with wonder, confusion, and a deeper, more primal chill in the pit of her belly; fear. The room around her was cavernous, its walls set wide apart and its ceilings built high and crossed with beams for support. Pathways shot across the open space between floor and ceiling, to allow access to the many levels of its contents. It was the contents of the chamber that sent fingers of ice down her spine. She stood on a plinth of sorts, a circular, flat-topped platform, whose edges sloped away to a wider, round base. Each level of this great chamber contained row after row of identical platforms, above each hovered an orb of throbbing energy, and in each orb, an identical figure rested. ‘Are they resting?’ she wondered. ‘Are they trapped?’ But more to the point, why had she been freed? Why did she now stand on her platform, while her sisters remained suspended in these prisons? ‘Sisters…’ The word felt funny in her mind. It was unfamiliar, suggestive of a kinship she could not at present comprehend; and yet, it was perfect.

The bodies of her sisters were identical to her, each being of lithe build and average height. It was only in their faces, framed by the same ebony hair, that they differed. Their eyes were all closed in that strange state of suspended animation, and their ears shared the same pointed shape. No, it was in the specifics of their mouths that she and her sisters were not utterly as one. Each bore a mouth full of deadly sharp teeth, but while some, like herself, concealed those teeth behind full lips and the pale skin of their faces, others were not so aesthetically fortuitous. Some were possessed of lips, but no cheeks, and so offered windows by which onlookers could see the fangs beyond. Others had neither cheeks nor lips. Their faces were set in permanent grins of ferocity, even while their bodies hovered in the tranquility of slumber. ‘Horrific,’ ‘grotesque,’ and ‘malformed,’ were words that flitted through her mind, but not in her own voice, whatever that may be. These thoughts felt like the imagined words of strangers, offered in the hushed tones of the repulsed. Only one thought in her own voice came to the forefront of her mind, ‘Beautiful. They are my sisters, and we are all beautiful.’ And then, one by one, her sisters began to die.

It started at the highest row of orbs, their tops mere inches from the crossbeams of the ceiling. One sphere, in a far corner, surged with light, flaring with an intensity that eclipsed its neighbors. The glow increased to a blinding glare, and then was gone, the orb dissipated, and the naked form once held within now crumpled onto its platform. Somehow, without drawing closer to inspect the unmoving body, the woman knew her sister was dead, her glow extinguished just as the orb that had cocooned her. She felt a pang behind her ribs, an emptiness as if something had been plucked from her chest cavity with cold hands.

A second flare of light caught her attention, and another of her sisters tumbled in an unceremonious heap onto her platform. The aching in the woman’s chest grew greater, but she did not tear her eyes away from the morbid spectacle. This time, she caught a movement, a tell-tale whisper of shadow into shadow. Someone else was awake, moving amongst her siblings, and killing them. A third flash, this time on a lower level. She focused not on the light, nor the body, but the space beyond it; a narrow catwalk that granted the intruder access to the chamber’s upper levels.

‘There!’ A second shape moved on this level, even as orbs continued to flare and her sisters continued to die on the floors above. There were many intruders, and she was no longer safe here, if indeed she ever had been. By the hand of some unknown providence, she had been awakened, and she was free while her sisters slept, trapped and defenseless in their own minds. She could not guess whether this freedom was granted so she might escape, or whether she was expected to fight for her siblings, on behalf of her liberator. Either way, she had to move.

Her legs managed to be both stiff and wobbly, unresponsive and unused to movement as they were. She clenched her teeth and forced the muscles into motion with a tremendous outpouring of willpower. The first step sent her stumbling to her platform’s edge, where she teetered for what seemed like a maddening eternity. Her stomach felt as if it had fallen away, and her arms flailed for purchase on objects that simply weren’t there. She fell forward, rushing to meet cold stone with her unprotected flesh. It was in the microsecond before the pain of impact that her mind erupted like a gentle flame given an abrupt dousing of oil. The heels of her hands met the solid ground, and the impact’s dull, numbing shock throbbed its way up her arms, but her momentum did not slow. She rolled into the fall, transitioning from heel to palm, and then springing forward as her fingers bent back with the pressure of her weight. She tucked her legs in tight and rolled over the platform across from her own, under the sphere of her first sister, the one she’d seen upon waking.

She rose out of the tight summersault onto the balls of her feet, and was forced to throw up her hands to shield herself from the solid barrier before her. It was the chamber’s nearest wall, and she now stood in its shadow, her bare flesh pressed against the cold, smooth surface. She fought to keep her heavy breathing muffled, and to martial her thoughts into some semblance of order. It did not matter how she’d gone from a bumbling first step to a feat of acrobatics that, even without knowing anything of the outside world, she knew to be impressive.

Footsteps on the catwalks above stilled any further self-congratulation. Had they heard her, were they yet aware of her awakening? Waiting around to find the answers to those questions did not seem like much of an appealing prospect, and so, with footsteps as light as she could manage, the woman prowled along the wall, sheltered in the embrace of its darkness. It was only luck that found her in the deeper gloom of a corner when a figure stalked into view. The intruder was tall, his broad frame swathed in a dark robe. The light of the remaining orbs glinted off his shaven head, whose surface was marred by ornate lines inked into the flesh. Cold, dark eyes regarded the still-pulsing spheres, and he stroked his long goatee with a slim, spidery finger. Without warning, he turned in her direction, as though he sensed her unseen presence.

His eyes were as dark and soulless as they’d seemed in profile. There was a spark behind them, but they burned as a demonic inferno, not with the gentle blaze of natural life. He bore several scars, claw-like slashes that scored the tight-stretched skin of his cheeks and forehead. Silver insignia were pinned to his robe’s collar. They appeared to be skulls, whose eye sockets were each transfixed by blades. About his neck, on a silver rope chain, hung a medallion in the likeness of a great eye, bordered by a serpent, who gripped its tail in its teeth to form a complete circle.

‘Liana, move!’

She did not know the name that sprang to her mind, but the command was clear nonetheless. Driven by that same unprecedented athleticism, she sprang straight upward and locked her hands around a support beam for the catwalk above. She swung her long, muscular legs up to snake around the same beam and pulled herself tight against the support structure. Her every thought willed the strange man to not look up, to keep his eyes on… ‘My sisters.’ Her heart pounded at the realization of what she was doing; hiding to stay alive, while they died, defenseless at the hands of unjust executioners. Each of them was a life yet to be lived, now rendered naught but a senseless pile of wasted flesh.

Poised to spring down on the bald-headed intruder, she was stopped only by his voice. The words were not directed at her, but their tone made great torrents of ice pour through her veins. She shook on her perch, senses numb with fright.

“By my authority as Executioner General, appointed thus by the First Echelon of the Order of the Consummate Verity, and for your crimes unto the sanctity of the existence of mortal flesh, I sentence you to death.”

His words, though spoken at a muted volume, reverberated in her mind like the age-worn bell in some forgotten temple. The Executioner General raised his pallid, spindly fingers toward the nearest orb. His scarred brow creased with concentration, the orb’s light grew, and then died away. The figure within collapsed like a child’s doll cast aside. He scowled at the body and stepped past it to the next orb, while his comrades carried out similar duties on the floors above. There could be no doubt left in her mind, if they found her, they would kill her.

‘You have to leave, Liana. Now! If you don’t, their deaths will be in vane. You cannot save them. Let them live through you.’

Again that name, again that voice that spurred her on. Was the voice her own? It seemed at once to be hers and that of another, a distant other, guiding her through her first clumsy steps in this rude and confounding reality into which she’d awakened. Either way, Liana-for she now accepted that to be her name-heeded the command, and hastened to obey. Her legs unwound from the beam, and she swung down to the floor, landing in a low crouch. The Executioner General had his back turned to her, a fact which surprised her by how much it steadied her heartbeat and set her breathing at ease. Just looking at that face, and those ruthless eyes of cold fire, was enough to set her on edge.

He’d come from a door a short distance ahead. To Liana, those several steps felt like a trek of miles, each movement threatening to alert the Executioner General to her presence. The door hung ajar, taunting her with its promise of safety. She made the last, agonizingly slow steps and slid between the door and its frame, still pressed close to the wall. This was it, she had left her chamber, the place where, for all intents and purposes, she had been born into consciousness. As with a baby from its mother’s womb, there was no going back now.

Beyond the chamber’s door, a corridor stretched to the foot of a short stairway. Wary of her would-be killers working their vile deeds in the room behind her, Liana padded along the floor, whose stone tiles felt chilly under her bare soles. She moved as fast as she dared, while trying to keep silent the sound of skin meeting stone with each stride. One step after another, she crept along, each footfall possibly the last she’d make before the Executioner General rounded on her and put an end to her fledgling existence. So great was her concentration on the silence of movement that Liana reached the base of the short flight of steps before she’d expected to. A door stood closed at their summit, and beyond it, her keen ears detected the sounds of whispering wind and gently chirping creatures. ‘Freedom.’ And, along with it, another sound. A steady, rhythmic crunch. ‘Footsteps.’ The door swung open on quiet hinges and a figure regarded Liana from where it stood, framed by silvery moonlight. His robes rustled in the gentle breeze, and the light glinted off his death’s head lapel pin. His head was shaven, his eyes alight with a familiar contempt directed at the thing he saw before him, the thing he saw as naught more than an abomination. His thin lips parted to form a word, perhaps a curse or a shouted alarm.

‘Liana, kill.’

She moved without thought, a blur of motion beyond the capacity of an average human. She extended one leg and planted a foot several steps up the stairway. Using that as leverage, Liana tensed her leg muscles and flung her full weight up the stairs and at the man before her. His hands rose into a defensive posture, but it was nowhere near enough to ward her off. Liana slammed him back through the door and landed astride his torso on the dirt track under the star-flecked sky. More primitive impulse than premeditated act, Liana wrenched her victim’s head back at a furious angle, stretching the flesh of his throat. ‘The soft, warm flesh; so easy to rend.’ A red haze glided over her mind, it tinted her vision, and obscured her every thought, save for the voice that chanted, ‘Kill.’ ‘Yes,’ at last she realized, it was her own voice, the compulsion was her own.

Razor teeth met malleable skin, and the resistance was minor, easily overcome. The muscles of Liana’s jaw forced her mouth of fangs shut like a vice around the man’s neck. Flesh was punctured, muscles stretched and popped, and veins spurted their crimson cargo into her waiting mouth. Liana did not just bite, she ate. Mouthfuls of flesh and muscle slid down her throat, lubricated by torrents of blood that stained her face like coppery war-paint. Liana could not stop, nor could she compel her body to recognize the horror dawning upon her mind. Could it be that this was not horrible, that this was what she was meant for? Liana had time for no such questions until her belly was filled, and the would-be aggressor lay lifeless, his neck and much of his face stripped clean of their meat. Liana could not stop to think on what she’d done, could not possibly hope to understand what force drove her to such a gruesome feast, yet kept her from feeling it to be as grotesque as her cursory thoughts perceived. She wasted no time on such musings, and instead sprang to her feet and fled, naked and blood-drenched, into the dark of night, while below, the Executioner General concluded his own gruesome deeds.

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