Tag: steampunk (Page 1 of 2)

Virtual Reality Storytelling and the Future

One of my favorite books is the steampunk adventure Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld set during an alternate-history First World War. The world is lush and well thought out and the characters are incredibly real. Not to mention he is a word-smith extraordinaire.

So, imagine my excitement when I found a virtual reality lab building his world.

This is part of the Creators Project and is being carried out by a group of USC students and professors. They are experimenting with creating landscapes for stories to emerge from. The idea being, if you create a story space and let people interact inside it, unique stories will emerge. This is a similar concept to fan studies, but on a new level.

Keep you eye on this project. I will continue to bring you updates.

A Wolf of Steam and Fire: Part 12

This is part of an ongoing steampunk fantasy story. See the introduction to get at the story from the beginning.

Next on the agenda was to kill the guards. But then what? I had no idea where I was. With my serpentine gone, I couldn’t signal for help.

Again my instincts pushed against my training. A good soldier would sneak out and search for her serpentine. If that didn’t work, hide in the jungle. I could find the path we’d come on. There must’ve been Ilsan patrols in the area.

I would most likely get lost and die in the jungle.

Besides, all I really wanted to do was kill Rat.

Voices rose outside. A guard change? Shit, someone’s coming inside.

I scrambled back to the post and pretended to be bound and asleep. A second later, someone entered my tent. Breathe normally, I whispered to myself.

I heard the intruder set his rifle down and approach me.

I sprang into action, swinging my rope-blade. He dodged effortlessly, but hitting him wasn’t my goal. I used the distraction to grab his weapon. In a flash, I trained it on him.

Andrew. The traitor.

My fingers curled to a fist as the rage returned. Flashes of the other prisoner’s fate. I hated Andrew as much, maybe more than the Rat. He was Ilsan. He should know better.

His expression was blank, though. “You’re good, but if you were better, you’d notice the gun isn’t loaded.”

He was right. It was too light. “I should have known you wouldn’t make that mistake again.”

“I didn’t make that mistake the first time. I wanted you to get my rifle at the sacrifice.”


“To kill the sorcerer. You missed.”

“I hit my target.”

“Then, you’re a fool. The prisoner was already dead. The sorcerer was the threat.”

“I couldn’t let him suffer. Not with all that majick.”

“Small-minded idiot. Now the sorcerer will do the same to you.”

I forced myself not to react. “Why are you here?”

“To rescue you.” He chuckled. “I guess you don’t need help.”

“That’s right.”

“Where will you go, then?”

I paused.

He continued.  “So you do need me.”

“I don’t need a traitor or a majickian.”

His eyes flashed. “I don’t use majick! And I’m not a traitor.”

Even with the little I’d observed of Andrew, I knew he prided himself on self-control. There was so much emotion behind that outburst. Could it be real?

He didn’t pause. “I’m undercover. A Grey Wolf. That’s why I gave you the chance to kill the sorcerer. Do you want another?”

“How do I know this isn’t a trick?”

“Because there are no Ilsan traitors. Loyalty is in our blood. And because I’m going to tell you how to get out of here.”

I narrowed my eyes.

He casually reached into his pocket as he knelt. “The sorcerer’s name is Quetzan. He was a local until we drafted him into the Ilsan Mechinicians Corps. Grew up in Valin City. Smart boy. Terrible temper. Not sure how he ended up here, but I know what he’s doing.”

Andrew removed his hand from his jacket and  dropped half a dozen small marbles onto the dirt floor.

My rifle point lowered. Not marbles. “Cartabugs?”

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A Wolf of Steam and Fire: Part 11

This is part of an ongoing steampunk fantasy story. See the introduction to get at the story from the beginning.

Majick – two ways to use majick. Beasts used Wild Majick by instinct, like the dreamstealer. Humans could control majick by the Treatus: spells bound to letters of an ancient language. I didn’t know much about majick, only that it was irrational and dangerous.

Mouse’s fingers danced through the air. Green trails of light followed from their tips, weaving into long tendrils of liquid-light that slithered around the prisoner, the dreamstealer carcass and the pillar.

Treatus Majick.

Then, Mouse began to sing. I couldn’t hear the music, but I felt it – tasted it – and knew what was happening. 

Darker sorcery. Something else, beyond the Treatus. Something I didn’t understand.

A chill crawled through the muggy air. Mouse sunk the blade into the dreamstealer’s skin. The same oily, black blood oozed and covered the knife. He turned to the prisoner, his expression lighting up like a glowing automaton. Deranged. Mad.

Music rose on its own now, though I couldn’t say where came from

I realized what was happening a second too late. Mouse plunged the dagger into the soldier’s chest.

My scream was lost in Mouse’s bloody howl and the shout from the prisoner and the shriek from the majickal music.

Quick as a shot, I stole Andrew’s rifle and cracked the gun’s butt against is jaw.

On the platform, the prisoner fell.

I took aim.

The shot broke through the music. Right on target.

The soldier fell away, a clean hole between his eyes. A quick death. An Ilsan death.

Next, I took aim on Mouse, but froze in the same breath I was going to fire. He looked at me – inside of me. He worked his fingers into a Treatus Rune in the air. I couldn’t fire. My hands wouldn’t let me.

Rage flashed in my vision. Hatred.

I lunged forward, bent on tearing Mouse apart if I couldn’t shoot him, but Andrew tackled me.

Mouse cackled. He turned back to the soldier and tore the knife away. He finished the spell by smearing the dreamstealer’s blood and the prisoner’s blood on the blank pillar. Cracks spread across the stone, spider-webbing from the bloody smear. The cracks twisted into pictographs and symbols. The top of the pillar flexed. Bits of stone flecked off as if it was shedding skin. Finally, in one last split, the pillar settled. Now, like the others, two faces stared in opposite directions: one panther, one human.

Not just human – the sacrificed soldier.

I buried my face in the dirt. Not only had this Mouse – this Rat – killed a fellow soldier, he had defiled an Ilsan citizen with majick. The soldier could never rest now. Never find peace.

Andrew was silent as he led me to a small tent in the center of the camp. Two guards were posted outside, but he took the precaution of binding me to a post in the center of the tent before leaving. I lay down and closed my eyes. I was alone in a prisoner tent, trying not to shake, begging to forget what I had seen. Praying I could kill Rat before he did that to me.

Eventually, night fell and the guards outside stopped their chatter. Probably asleep. Now was my moment. I slipped the towel the nurse had given me from my pocket and retrieved the razor blade. With it, I cut myself free, then weaved threads from the rope with the frays of the towel. Lastly, I tied the razor to the end.

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A Wolf of Steam and Fire: Part 10

This is part of an ongoing steampunk fantasy story. See the introduction to get at the story from the beginning.

We skirted the base of the smaller pyramid and came to the other side, now directly in front of the large temple. To the left spread a field dotted with hundreds of skinny stone pillars, each about the height of a man. Two faces adorned the top of each pillar: one human and one animal. Writing and pictographs clung to every inch of the stone, running in spirals. Behind the stone pillars were more stone figures, several dozen. These were also about the size of a man, but were sculpted to look like ogres, or something equally terrifying from some Spectre Tale.

To my right, another field, this one as smaller with a platform. We stopped about twenty yards from the center. Stone pillars circled  the platform on the ground, and three half-finished ogre sculptures sat just behind them.

Mouse was on top of the platform with one unfinished stone pillar. Skinny and pale, his long black hair had been tied back into a sort of ponytail. In one hand, he held a long blade. His other hand was free to stroke the one stone pillar on the stage with him. There were several workers around, but he didn’t look at any of them. Mouse just stared at the ogre sculptures as if they were an audience begging for an encore. His slimy smile sent nausea into my stomach.

Two workers dragged the carcass of the animal I’d killed up onto the platform. Next a couple of the rebels led a man onto the platform before Mouse. The prisoner was about my age, or maybe twenty and wore a black and crimson uniform with a tortoise shell helmet. Ilsan Infantry, Telim Division by my guess. He looked like he’d been a prisoner a long time. The rebels forced the soldier to kneel in front of Mouse. 

The soldier resisted. Ilsan pride swelled in my chest. We were better than these savages. At least the prisoner hadn’t forgotten that.

The rebels tied him like a swine and left him with alone with Mouse. Mouse closed his eyes, stock still, drumming his fingers on the stone pillar at his side. Then the drumming changed. He moved his fingers back and forth in patterns as if drawing on the stone. His breathing became deeper. The prisoner seemed to settle.

Mouse opened his eyes in a flash. They had gone yellow, entirely yellow. He grinned and his cheek bones seemed sharper. His demeanor tighter. No longer a pale boy. Not even a human. Mouse had become something else. Rabid hunger swam in his gaze when he looked down at the bound prisoner.

He removed his hand from the pillar and slowly touched the soldier’s shoulder.

Mouse’s lips twitched like a feral animal. The soldier closed his eyes, fighting no more.

What happened next, I’ve tried to forget.

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A Wolf of Steam and Fire: Part 9

This is part of an ongoing steampunk fantasy story. See the introduction to get at the story from the beginning.

I fumbled with the towel and dropped it on the table, right on top of a razor blade. When I scooped the towel up again, I grabbed a blade, carefully wiped my tears and crammed them both into my pocket.

When we finished, Andrew led me away. I figured we would we’d go to prisoner barracks or straight to interrogation. I was ready for those things.

I wasn’t ready for the Stone Forest.

We walked through the empty camp, past the perimeter and into the jungle along a makeshift path. For a moment, we were alone and I considered attacking him, but the path spilled suddenly into a much larger clearing.

Ruins: towering and alive.

These savages were carving an ancient city out of the jungle. The path we were standing on turned into the main road through the site. Two pyramids, one twice the size of the other, dominated the scene. The largest one was at the end of the road. The smaller was halfway down on the left. Dozens of other structures rose, half-reclaimed from the forest: small homes, theatre platforms, even some sort of arena. Hundreds of men were hard at work prying buildings, stone paths, covered sinkholes and the smaller pyramid into view. Elaborate carvings covered almost every stone surface. Pictures of forgotten priests on vision quests, warriors returning from battle, and people appeasing feathered serpent gods were everywhere.

Intricate writing snaked between the scenes. I recognized the lettering from school: the ancient Teth language that had been used to create the Treatus Runes, now outlawed anywhere Ilsa had influence.

I asked Andrew, “Is this from the First Teth Empire?”

“Older,” he answered. “This ruin is from before the Emperor united the tribes in the Second City. This is all from the age of the First Lords.”

“Of course,” I scoffed. “A traitor gone native would believe boogey-man fairy tales.”

Still, my skin twitched. The stones were worn and colorless, but I couldn’t help picturing them vibrantly painted. Whispers of those who walked these paths four-thousand years ago followed me. We trudged down the road toward the larger pyramid. Painted down the sides of the pyramids were scenes of sacrifice, bloodletting and death.  High now, the sun blazed through the cleared canopy and jungle sounds were distant.

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A Wolf of Steam and Fire: Part 8

This is part of an ongoing steampunk fantasy story. See the introduction to get at the story from the beginning.

Tiny gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes. Like the piston of a steam machine, an artery pulsed in his forehead. “I’m going to secure the perimeter.”

“Better hurry,” I pushed. “A squad of Ilsan cadets could take this place.”

Tiny shot another look to Mouse, but Mouse just waved him away. The big man grunted and left. Tiny, Peacock, and the Traitor. Savages and rebels. I could handle them. Mouse, however, wasn’t like the rest. Not even a man.

What was his function? Why was he here?

Mouse turned to the Traitor. “Andrew, take care of her.” He jabbed his finger toward me, then ordered the rest of the men to get the “dreamstealer to the platform.”

Dreamstealer. Part of me shuddered and part of me thrilled. Apparently the monster I had killed was called a dreamstealer because it lures its prey by using majick to create waking dreams like the one I had had about the rebels chasing me. The thing had gotten inside my head.

That’s the part that made me shudder.

That I had beaten it gave me the thrill.

The Traitor approached me.

Andrew, I thought. A strong Ilsan name.

He took my shoulder roughly, sending a surge of pain. I jerked away, but he gripped tighter. He was strong and quick. Clever, too. I could sense that in his eyes.

Andrew led me to a half-covered hovel that passed for their aid station. Inside were just a few cots occupied by ill natives. There was no sanitation basin or clockwork dioramas. Only a pile of dirt- looking bandages and jars of local medicines. A dark-skinned woman sat me on a cot and pulled a small table between us. On the table sat three bowls of fowl-smelling goop, water, bandages and several sizes of razor blades and needles for removing shrapnel and such.

My shoulder wound was turning yellow. I’d learned about gangrene and the danger of infection. These savages didn’t even have proper medicine, just ground up tree shit, but I guessed it was better than nothing. I refused to cringe when they applied the balm.

I had seen combat half a dozen times since I joined the army, but I’d never been wounded. Never captured. I’d probably been declared dead by now.

My throat tightened at that thought. They’d be sending a letter home to Angela Davies’ family. Not that she really existed. With the connections that come with the name Cabbot, it had been easy to invent a person.

As the savage medicine began to numb my wound, I allowed myself a precious moment. If the army had known who I was – if they knew I was from a disgraced House – would they bother to send a letter? Who would it go to?  No one left in the Cabbot House would care.

My eyes stung, tears creeping forward. Damn savage medicine, I choked. Stench is terrible.

The nurse gave me a towel for my tears.

I seized the opportunity.

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A Wolf of Steam and Fire: Part 7

This is part of an ongoing steampunk fantasy story. See the introduction to get at the story from the beginning.

We marched two days deeper inland. Any hope I had of finding my position disappeared as the jungle swallowed me whole. Hot, sticky, thick, and loud. The forest swelled and teemed with living things. Everything moved: the trees, the ground, the brush. Everything breathed. And everything pressed in, pushing tighter like a python slowly strangling me.

I was used to close proximity. I’d grown up in Ilsa City when not in Glass Waters where my Family Manor was. The City was the most densely populated area in the world. But that was a different kind of bustle. It made sense – logical and organized. The towering cloudtoucher buildings were comforting, not menacing like these trees. Noisy trams rattled consistently instead of unnerving, unseen beasts yowling chaotically. Most of all, I knew where things separated in the city. A person was a person, separate from his automaton servant. Here, though, trees bled into vines that bled into other trees. The canopy blocked out the sky, and the rain fell hard, washing away the world. Everything melded together.

Finally, on the third day, we arrived at our destination.

Down in the ravine was the rebel “camp” that consisted of a half-dozen thatch huts and three likely stolen infantry tents. Most of the supplies were scattered collections of stolen weapons, tools, jugs of water, and bundles of extra clothing. A tarp strung across a pile of what had to be the perishables like food and paper, maybe even explosives, that had to stay dry. The outpost could have held eighty or ninety men. There were only about a dozen.

I curled my nose, trying to show as much disgust as I could. “What a hell hole,” I said more loudly than I needed to. “You’re either desperate or stupid or both. No layout. No clear command. No defense. At a glance, I could tell the camp supports about sixty, but you savages probably cram two hundred in.”

The large man who had shot me was standing right next to me.

“How do you stand the smell, Tiny?” I added for good measure.

He jabbed me in the gut.

Worth it.

“Where are the rest? Catching dogs for mates?” I added.

Tiny was about to hit me again when Mouse stepped between us. “I’d rather you not beat her senseless. It’s her senses we need, after all.”

“Listen to him, Tiny,” I said. “A woman should respect her man.”

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A Wolf of Steam and Fire: Part 6

This is part of an ongoing steampunk fantasy story. See the introduction to get at the story from the beginning.

This shot, I knew, was real. A blossom of my blood stained my shirt. I didn’t feel the pain immediately. The force of the blow knocked me down.

The rest secured the clearing. After they bound the creature I’d killed, they treated my wound and declared me a “prisoner of the United Anwari Freedom Expedition.”

There were eight men altogether, and all but two were native born by the color of their skin and hair. Of the non-natives, one was tall and thin with bright clothes. Anywhere else, this kind of “camouflage” would get him shot. Here, it just made him look like a peacock. He spoke in a heavy Bastian accent. The Bastians were Ilsa’s rivals and sometimes enemies, but they were at least civilized. So, why was he here?

The other foreigner I dubbed the Traitor because he spoke with the slight speech from Valin City, a province of Ilsa. He was medium build with brown hair and eyes. Soft spoken. Shy by the looks of him.

None of the squad had real uniforms or standard weapons or military training. They weren’t part of an army; they were a collection of rabble peasants and savages. It was soon obvious, however, that a lack of training didn’t mean weakness. As we pushed deeper into the jungle, they drove hard. I was exhausted, they barely broke a sweat. They carried scraps of metal and Ilsan tech as souvenirs of battles won. They cursed and joked but maintained stealthy movement. They weren’t soldiers, but they were fighters.

Except one.

The smallest was a boy, maybe sixteen. He had no trophies or weapons like the others. When he tried to curse or joke, the bigger men ignored him. He moved through the jungle like a mouse, nimble and ever watchful. Not a feat the larger men could master as effortlessly as he. It was clear, though, whatever his size, that he was important. He commanded the men, and they followed his orders. Mouse supervised the carrying of the animal I’d killed earlier.

Not only supervised. He seemed obsessed with it.

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A Wolf of Steam and Fire: Part 5

This is part of an ongoing steampunk fantasy story. See the introduction to get at the story from the beginning.

He gave up on the knife but didn’t retreat. He lowered to all fours and snarled menacingly as he began to circle me. I returned the favor, growling a bit myself as I kept my distance. I didn’t have any other weapons. I was smarter, but he was stronger. A long, cold moment passed between us, hunter and prey.

No, I would not be this thing’s prey.

All my self-preservation instincts kicked in. I ignored the sense to flee and lunged at him. His eyes widened. He drew back for a second before his instincts told him to fight. It was too late. In his hesitation, I tackled the beast and ripped my knife free. I jabbed the blade into new patch of scaly flesh. He thrust forward and pinned me to the ground. His claws tore into my skin, but my knife ripped into him two, three more times.

He flinched.

Four. Five. Six.

Blood gushed, sour and salty. He yelped and crawled off.

I attacked him twice more, slitting his throat and piercing his skull.

The ruckus of the jungle seemed far away. The monster died. The knife was heavy in my hand, covered in his covered in his thick, sour blood. I was covered in his blood. My breath heaved. My heart pounded.

My hands shook. I had won.

A tiny itch wormed its way deep inside of me: a feeling of power. My heart raged now, but not out of fear.

I was excited. Free.

I had been in the army three years and a member of a noble family before that. My life was always restrained. Like I was forced to carry a steel blanket to suffocate me. Like I was an alien in my own skin. I had never felt alive.

Not like I did at that moment, watching the monster convulse. Hunter and prey.

He cried and floundered once more, then stopped.

I would never be prey again.

The moment didn’t last. On the other side of the sinkhole, away from where the fake rebels would have been, several real men stepped into the clearing. They froze, obviously as shocked to see me as I was to see them. In a scramble, the biggest raised a pistol. A shot echoed through the jungle.

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A Wolf of Steam and Fire: Part 4

This is part of an ongoing steampunk fantasy story. See the introduction to get at the story from the beginning.

In my hands, the serpentine clicked and jostled. Noticing its bottom half was gone, the daemon sprouted five short legs. It wrapped around my forearm and powered down. A small sense of pride grew in my chest. My personal companion.

Just as I was collecting what was left of my equipment, a soft high-pitched whistle broke into the soundscape. Not a bird or the wind; more of a hiss. Like steam and metal and –

I dove to my left.

A scraper missile barely missed me. Another blast, this one in the trees, rained smoldering bits of wood like shrapnel. The rebels had me zeroed.

I tore into the forest.

They followed, shouting from the jungle, getting closer. Several bullets whizzed past my ear.

Again, my training flared to life. I needed to find some place to hide. Seek cover and wait for them to pass, then make my way west until I found an Ilsan patrol.

But this time, instincts fought my training. I wanted to turn and fight, though I didn’t have a weapon.

I barreled into another clearing, this one much smaller. Straight ahead of me was a sinkhole filled with fetid, brown water. A bullet struck me. Pain pierced my shoulder, sharp and unforgiving. Fire burned down my arm. I gritted my teeth and clenched my shoulder. But I fought to stay on my feet.

Without warning, the pain from the gunshot wound vanished. The ruckus from the closing rebels disappeared.

My teeth set on edge. The sour, corrosive smell that accompanied wild, dark majick filled the air. I realized what must have been happening a split second before the monster leapt from the water. He was easily three times my weight but short and stocky. Only a few feet high but more than seven feet long, like a fat snake that had grown four powerful legs. Solid muscles moved under his too-tight, paper-white skin. Two piercing, yellow eyes fixed on me.

We stared at each other for a breath.

In a fluid, lithe movement, he attacked.

I instinctively round house kicked, smacking him in the jaw. He swiped my legs out from under me, but I shifted so I fell forward and landed on his back.

He howled and flailed.

I grabbed on tight. He craned his neck around and snapped at me. He barked and swiped again, now rising onto his hind legs. I locked my left arm around its body. He dragged me to my feet with him. I pulled a short blade from the sheath at my side. When he bit me again, I stabbed him in the throat. Off center, but a good hit into meaty flesh. Black, oily blood covered my knife and hand. The creature shrieked and bucked. I fell off, the blood loosening my grip.

I caught my feet this time. The knife was still in his throat.

He backed a few paces and squirmed to get the knife free. I took the moment to breathe and think. My shoulder was fine. There were obviously no rebels. This whole thing must have been some trick of majick. I knew that dumb beasts in this cursed jungle could use majick by instinct, the way some animals evolved camouflage, but I never guessed it could be something this powerful.

Damn majick.

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