Tuesday, March 3, 2015

TMoH Special Magic Edition: Crux of Fate

Considering the constraints Magic: the Gathering operates under when telling a story - the largest being the need to express a linear plot through a non-linear set of cards - I'd say that the game's team has done a very credible job of creating an epic fantasy.

Take the latest block for example.  Tarkir is a world where dragons have long since been driven extinct.  In their place five warring clans scrabble for dominance in a land slowly being driven to ruin by the constant fighting.

Tormented by voices in his head, the dragon-loving Planeswalker Sarkhan Vol returns home to Tarkir.  Long suspected by others to be insane, he now learns that the voices are not a sign of madness, but murmurings from the past.  Centuries ago, two enormously powerful dragon Planeswalkers - Nicol Bolas and Ugin - battled for dominance.  It is Ugin's defeat and death that ultimately drives the dragons of Tarkir to extinction, and it is Ugin's ghost-whispers that Sarkhan hears today.  Sarkhan is now presented with an opportunity: to travel back in time and save Ugin - and the dragons of Tarkir - from their fates.

The key moment of this story is presented in a single card, titled Crux of Fate:

It's an epic moment, one that the Magic creative team presented in an online short story, The Reforged Chain.  This story tells not only of the battle between Nicol Bolas and Ugin, but also explores the immediate aftermath as Sarkhan races to save the dying Ugin.

The story isn't bad.  However it fails to evoke the grandeur and scale of the moment captured in Crux of Fate (perhaps due to space constraints), presenting the action in more matter-of-fact terms.  And after I was done reading, I couldn't help but wonder: could I do better... ?

Interesting question!  I'll give myself thirty minutes to find an answer.

Crux of Fate

Sarkhan opened his eyes to madness.

The sky was blighted, a roiling bruised pattern of gray and purple.  Lightning crackled through the clouds in whites and reds and blacks.  Thunder shook the world, and between the crashes of sound he could hear the wailing cries of thousands.

At first he thought that the voices that had been trapped inside of his head had somehow escaped.  He had been told that the complex enchantment that he wove using the dormant power trapped in Ugin's pristine bones would allow him to splinter the barrier of time, to reclaim the moment when the great Elder Dragon had fallen at the hands of Nicol Bolas and doomed the dragons of Tarkir for all time.  But what if it had all been a trick?  What if the spell had merely allowed his voices to escape, insanity given form?

Suddenly bone-weary, Sarkhan struggled to stand, clutching his worn staff with both hands.  His strength was nearly gone, his power spent.  Had his madness finally claimed victory over him?  Very well; he would resist to the end.  "To the end, do you hear me?" he shrieked, and could not hear his own challenge.  The wind tore the sound from his words even as another roar of thunder shook the earth, spilling him onto his knees.

He closed his eyes.  Gritting his teeth, Sarkhan forced himself back up.  I will not die on my back, he swore.  I will not!  He opened his eyes, ready to shout out his final defiance - and then his eyes widened.  He sank back down on his knees, trembling as holy wonder and terror consumed his soul.

In the distance, dwarfing the crumbling peaks of rock and stone over which they fought, two gods in dragon form battled.  One a tarnished gold, his body plated with stolen runed armor, his eyes a bilious green, his veined wings spread like that of a giant bat: Nicol Bolas.  The other an unearthly pale blue, his lithe body shimmering with ghostfire magic, his feathered wings flaring: Ugin.  The two Elder Dragons struggled in the midst of a chaotic whirl of blinding energies, reduced to striking with sharp tooth and brutal claw.  And surrounding them both, birthed from the tempestuous energies they had unleashed, the dragons of Tarkir came into being, screamed their defiance, and fell as chaotic powers shattered their bodies.

Okay: writing fantasy is hard.

I cheated a bit with this one.  I had an outline of the scene sketched out in my head before I started, and even with that advantage, I barely managed to make it halfway to my goal.  What's missing?
  • The sight of his beloved dragons re-energize Sarkhan; in the grip of a near-religious frenzy, he takes on dragon form and flies towards the Elder Dragons, uncaring of his own safety.
  • He starts getting torn apart in the maelstrom, but doesn't care.  It's like being called to rapture.
  • And then Ugin falls, the maelstrom dissipates, Sarkhan suddenly remembers himself.  As Nicol Bolas departs, Sarkhan lands by Ugin's side, suddenly remembering his purpose.
  • But how can he - a mere insect in comparison to the vastness of Ugin's presence - heal the Elder Dragon?  Moment of uncertainty, fear, etc.
  • He goes for it anyway.  Of course.
It seems so basic in outline form, so simple and direct.  But the difficulty - for me, at least - is that epic fantasy requires, well, a sense of epic-ness.  And it takes added time and work to imbue a story with that feeling.  It's something that doesn't come naturally for me.

Still!  This was a fun little exercise.  Maybe I'll try it again someday.

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