I wanted to make an update about my personal project Shards of Mania, but realized there's so much info I need to dump that it would take all night to write about it, so instead here's a rough draft of chapter 1. Feel free to listen to the theme song below as you read:
About & Content Warning
Shards of Mania is an ongoing multimedia dark fantasy project inspired by retro 80s and 90s media. After an apocalyptic event, survivors of the city of Elysia work together to restore the fading power of the last shards of Mania and awaken Princess Alteya from her deep slumber.
Potential CW: violence, some gore, some nudity, alcohol use, adult themes, mild sexual themes, religious themes
Note that despite the presence of nudity and sexual themes 18+ content will not be produced.
All depicted characters are 18 years or older.
Shards of Mania
Chapter 1 - Shattered Dreams
When I was young, I used to regularly attend a festival in the exalted city of Elysia. This quadrennial happening attracted people from far and wide to put their strength to the test. It was founded on the legend of the first king of the land who as a boy drew a sword from the stone that had been there since before the world began - placed there by an ancient power to test mankind. It is known as 'The Sword of Truth' and its blade is made from the pure energy that fuels the stones wielded by magicians: Mania. It burns without smoke, glowing, and cuts through steel without ever breaking or becoming dull. Legend has it the sword can only be drawn from its stony sheath when someone truly worthy takes hold of it, and once drawn will guide its wielder to his true destiny.
Of course, one must ask how the sword could possibly still remain in Elysia if it had supposedly already been taken up by this legendary king? Conflicting stories of the Hero point out that when he had fulfilled his destiny, he returned the sword to the stone. However, some say that he kept it with him all his days and died with it still in his hand - that the sword in Elysia is a counterfeit to attract tourists. Skeptics insist further still, that the entire story and its many iterations are fabricated: children's tales conflated from factual accounts of the early and illiterate settlers. No one knows the true story and probably never will. Yet the Sword remains - false or genuine. People want to believe in its existence and seek to test themselves against that faith: that they too might become heroes, just like the man who drew the sword from the stone.
Wouldn't it be nice to think that such a thing might actually exist? That there is a power greater than ourselves that guides us towards our destiny? That there is a place for us in the world beyond what we can imagine? I think this may well be true; for it seems to me that my life has always followed the path laid out by the Sword's guidance. Though, not in the way I would have ever expected. This is my story of the Sword and the Truth it has revealed to me.
I was only a child when my dreams were shattered.
The purpose of the Tournament of Champions - the festival was called - is to select the strongest man in Elysia. My father had told me about it many times. His tales of the brave men who came to compete every four years captivated me. He even went so far as to regale me with his own stories of fighting. Though, after a near fatal injury, he had long since retired from competition and was content to watch from the stands now. He needed to save his remaining strength for his farm at home in our little village named Bacon - and his family.
It was only us: him, my grandmother, and me. I lamented over his never having won a trophy, but he would respond with a smile, "You are my greatest achievement."
Naturally, how long can a young child tolerate only hearing stories when she wants to experience one herself?
My father had promised me we would go to the tournament together. Here we finally stood! The visions he wove echoed in my mind as I watched the competitors fight in the arena below under the blessing of the King and Queen, holding their baby, the Princess Alteya. I'd been waiting for years to see the tournament and my heart overflowed with excitement. The glory of combat, the thrill of battle, the cries from the audience. I wanted to feel the rush of blood pumping through my veins. To taste the sweat of exertion on my lips. When I looked into my father's face, his eyes glittered in a way I had never seen before. I dreamed of the day when I too would stand among the fighters and see my father in the stands cheering. Cheering for me.
Of course, all things must come to an end. The winner was announced and rewarded his gilded trophy. As we left the bleachers, I pointed at the wasters a street vendor was selling. My father spoke to me. "Helena, you are too weak to fight," my father said. "You have your mother's softness." He shook his head at the wooden swords. The glitter in his eyes had faded. In fact, they were darkening.
"What do you mean?" I asked, confused. "I am strong! I do so much work at home! I carry the water, feed the chickens and pigs, help Grandma in the fields!" I had been doing all these things for as long as I could remember. I worked every day to exhaustion. There was nothing soft about me, I thought.
"You're right. You are strong at home," my father said, looking away. "But you're not strong enough to win fights like these. You'll get hurt. You could die." He gestured to the priestesses tending to the wounded warriors in the infirmary. One of them had lost his arm and although it could be reattached with the healing abilities of the Church, it would never function the same way again. The warrior smiled meekly as he realized this was his retirement.
My father didn't want to lose his daughter. He had already lost his wife. If anything happened to me, he would be alone again. I was his everything. I did not understand this then. All I wanted was to prove myself to him. To show him that I was worthy. I couldn't imagine what was wrong with me that I wasn't strong enough. I was a naïve kid.
That is when I saw the Sword.
It was lodged deep into the stone. Festival goers young and old, thin and burly had lined up to test their mettle against the great blade. They stood in front of the stone, backs straight and eyes focused on the prize. Some wore armor and carried shields while others were bare-chested and unarmed. Some were young and old. There were even children. Everyone wanted to try to lift the sword from its resting place. I watched them intently, drawn to the spectacle. I felt a tugging in my chest and I swore that I heard a little voice whisper, "Come with me."
Then I said, "Dad, let me try! If I... If I can't lift it, I won't ever ask to fight again."
In hindsight, I guess my father was placating me. He sighed. "Fine. Go on then."
I got in line. A boy about my age had joined behind me. He scoffed at me. "You're just a little girl. What makes you think you can pull the sword?"
I stared back at him, but did not give him the satisfaction of an answer. Instead, I raised my chin and took a deep breath. One by one the people ahead tried and failed. One by one they turned around and walked away, shaking hands with one another while saying, "Maybe next time!" with a smile. I waited patiently, hoping my turn would come soon. Then, I was next. The sun was setting behind the arena and the Palace of Elysia far behind. The sword seemed to glow brightly as I approached the stone. I felt my hairs stand on end. This was my destiny, I was sure of it!
I reached out my hand and placed it on the hilt. I closed my eyes and imagined myself lifting the sword effortlessly. I could see myself swinging fiery patterns across the arena. I could hear the crowd cheering my name. I could smell the blood of my enemies on my blade. I could taste victory. I could see my father's smile and feel his pride. The air swirled around me and the sword began to rise. It was heavy, but I held firm. And then...
The stone held the sword fast. I opened my eyes and looked at the boy standing beside me. He smirked at me.
"Are you going to pull it out or not?" He asked.
I tried to pull again and again, but the sword was immovable. I tried to pull harder. I strained and grunted. Tears filled my eyes as I tried not to cry. I wanted to scream. I had failed. I had let myself down. My father would be disappointed.
"Well, what do you know? She can't lift it either," he laughed. The cruel boy would laugh at me forever. I was humiliated.
"She's trying her best. Don't mock her. No one else has been able to draw it either, you stupid kid." Growled a man in a horned helmet standing by. He bopped the boy on the head - just enough to startle him. The little boy mumbled a backhanded apology as he rubbed the welt forming. "Maybe you'll have better luck next time." I could hear his smile behind his helmet.
I nodded my thanks and awkwardly shook his enormous hand. I did not realize I was so small. Then, I returned to my father. He hugged me tightly.
"Helena..." My father said.
"I- I'll try again next time!" I said through my tears. "Then you'll see I can do it!" But deep inside I knew. I was just denying it at the time.
He gave a short laugh and wiped the tears from my cheeks and kissed me on the forehead. "Yes, I will. You're strong, just in a different way than you think."
For that moment, I believed him. It had been a great trip. I had seen the city, the festival, and the sword. But I had also learned that I wasn't as strong as I thought. That I was still only a child and needed my father. We began to leave when suddenly the crowd, bustling and jovial just moments before, had fallen completely silent. Murmurs soon erupted into shouts.
"The boy has drawn the sword!"
"Who is he?!"
"What is going on?"
"Is it true?!"
Everyone turned to look including dad and me. My heart plummeted at the sight. The boy, who had mocked me to my face just moments before, had done it. In his hands was the blade called the Sword of Truth. The look of confused shock on his face soon turned to a glowing smile. He raised the sword high above his head. The crowd roared their approval and clapped wildly.
My father, on the other hand, didn't seem pleased. His eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. "It's rigged." He tried to reassure me. "Just a stunt to get people excited."
"But... but..." I stammered in utter confusion. "Why couldn't I do it? Why did he? He was so mean to me!"
My father turned away from me and spoke to the crowd. "Let us remember that there are many ways to be strong. And no matter how you choose to fight for your cause, it is the strength of your heart and mind that matters most."
"That's peasant talk!" The boy's father drunk on mead from the festival - and a peasant himself- jeered back. He lifted his son onto his shoulders. "Look at my strong boy! Look at the boy who pulled the sword! He's gonna be a warrior-- no, a KING someday! And I'm gonna be right by his side! Haha!"
The crowd was celebrating. I could hear them shouting about the boy's miraculous feat. They were calling him the one destined to be the strongest warrior in Elysia. My father's face was red with anger and his fists clenched tight. Then his expression softened. He lowered his voice so only I could hear him. "Come on, Helena. Let's go." He said, gently taking my hand. "Let's get away from this tourist trap."
We walked quietly back to our cart, drawn by a single cow. My father didn't speak until we were well away from the city. Then he sighed and looked at me sadly.
"I should have known better. I filled your head with foolish stories of heroes and kings. I told you all those things because I wanted you to be strong. I wanted you to believe in yourself. But the truth is, sometimes you just aren't meant to do something."
"But, Dad! I can train! I can do it!"
"You can't do everything you want." He said softly. "Sometimes you need to accept defeat gracefully and move on. Sometimes you need to let someone else take the lead."
"I don't understand."
"Sometimes you need to give up on dreams. You need to learn to let things go."
I felt my heart breaking. I didn't understand why my own father was saying these things to me. "Dad, I can't-"
"You can't what, Helena? You can't lose? You can't quit? You can't walk away from your impossible dream?"
"No! No, I can't give up!"
"Face reality, Helena. Your refusal to do so will destroy everything you love... And possibly even you."
I stared at him in disbelief. "Why are you saying that?"
"Because it's true, Helena. It's the truth. You're- I'm weak. We're just farmers. Nothing more. We don't have any magic or special abilities. We're not warriors. We're not kings. We're not chosen for great things. We're nothing but ordinary people. We need to come to terms with that."
"That's not true!" I shouted angrily.
"Yes it is, Helena." He said. "I'm saying this for your own good. Your life isn't going to be easy. There are some things that you simply can't do. Some dreams you'll never achieve. And if you refuse to accept that, then you're just setting yourself up for disappointment and failure."
My father had never spoken to me like that before that night. He had always been so kind and gentle. But now he seemed different. Angry and disappointed. Like he had seen through me somehow. I was angry too. I wanted to scream at him and tell him that he was wrong, but deep inside I knew that he was right. That I'm ordinary.
Just an ordinary girl.
In hindsight, it sounds like a sad story, doesn't it?
But in reality things are much more different! From that year on, instead of attending the festival as guests, my father and I came as vendors selling produce - fresh fruits and vegetables from our homestead - to the crowds of visitors. Including my grandmother's honey and jams. Grandma's cooking was always the most popular! Our profits were small, but we managed to make enough to get by. I forgot all about my dream of being a hero. And the best part is: my father was proud of me! I learned how to work hard and earn my keep. I learned that being strong wasn't all about brawn and bravery. It was about perseverance and sacrifice.
And that's exactly what I did. I sacrificed my dream of becoming a hero and worked hard to support my family. I learned to live in the moment. I learned that there's no point in trying to chase after something that's out of reach. Instead, I focused on what I could do.
The city folk had placed the Sword back into the stone. Every four years I waited for those shouts and cheers I had heard long ago: That someone had drawn the sword again. However, it never happened.
"It must have been a fluke." My father would say after each festival without fail. "I told you it was a tourist trap. There's no such thing as the Sword of Truth. The one that boy pulled didn't even glow like in the stories." He would point out. And I believed him.
That is, until I saw that Sword myself.
I realized that I had made a huge mistake.
I ran through the forest, carrying a wounded person on my back. They had been hurt badly. I couldn't leave them behind. I had to help them! It was a woman around my age. Her face was bloody and parts of her body were burned. She had lost consciousness. Although, she was not the mistake I had made.
I had foolishly gone into the fog and straight into danger. I thought the Great Catastrophe was just a bad dream, but I was in denial. I didn't want it to be real. I wanted to wake up. But I couldn't. I was transported into a nightmare and the world I once knew was gone. All I saw was darkness. There were no sounds. No voices. No birds. No rustling of trees or chirping of insects. Just silence. Complete and utter silence. And that terrible fog.
I had run blindly through the mist for what felt like hours. When I finally stopped running, my legs ached terribly and my lungs were burning.
"Did we lose it?" I panted to my companion though I did not know if she was conscious.
A strange creature - what looked to be a dog - emerged from the mist. It growled menacingly at us, though not from a head full of fangs. Where one would expect a canine's head was no head at all, but a flat, gleaming surface. A mirror.
"What is that?" I gasped.
The dog continued to stare at us - at least I think it was staring. Then from the mirror a voice echoed: "Stop running." A man's voice said.
"What do you want? Who are you?" I demanded.
Two more dogs emerged from the fog, identical to the first. "Who am I? Who am I? Don't you recognize my voice?" The laugh echoed from all three of them.
"No! Not really!" I retorted trying to sound aloof and not terrified as I was.
"You really don't know?" The voice said.
"No. I don't." I replied.
He laughed again. The mirrors moved closer. One of the dogs snarled at me. I stood still and stared back. As the mirror came closer, I saw my own reflection. Then, as if a trick of the light, the image changed to a man's face. He had long white hair and sharp features. His eyes were dark and piercing. "Then let me introduce myself. I am Gael, Prince of Gossamer." His tone was theatrical and rather inappropriate.
The mirror dogs were now standing next to each other, looking at me with their mirrored faces. "Gael...of Gossamer?" I asked.
"Do you recognize me now?"
"N... no?" I stuttered.
His smile vanished and was replaced by a cold look. He rubbed his forehead and sighed. "Of course an uneducated country bumpkin wouldn't recognize the prince of a kingdom. What was I thinking? Nevermind. You see that girl? She has stolen something from me. I want it back. So just follow my dogs and bring her back to Gossamer."
"Now, wait a minute! I may be a country bumpkin but I'm not uneducated-" Just as I said that, the woman on my shoulders stirred.
She opened her eyes and looked at me. "Why are you carrying me?" She mumbled.
"You're badly injured. Say, do you know this man Gael, Prince of Gossamer?" I asked.
"Gael?" She looked at me with confusion and then looked to his face in the mirror. Her eyes widened in fear. "I... I don't want to go back. I can't go back!" She cried.
"He says you have stolen something from him," I explained.
"I haven't!" She protested hoarsely, sputtering the words. "I haven't done anything wrong! Please... please don't make me go back." Then she fell unconscious once more.
"With all do respect, sir. Uh, your highness. I can't let a suspicious man take away a wounded lady who has more manners than a nobleman!" I declared.
"It seems you don't understand the situation you're in. You're in hot water! There is no one left to help you. You and that girl need me." The mirror dogs began barking angrily from unseen maws. "Listen, girl. If you won't bring her willingly, then I'll just have to force you." His face vanished from the mirrors as he commanded, "Take her."
"No! I won't let you!" I yelled, reaching under my cape.
"Hah! What a silly little bumpkin. Do you even know how to use a sword?"
"It's not a sword." I said as I shouldered my father's shotgun.
The mirror dogs barked and lunged at me. I took aim at the closest one and pulled the trigger. A blast of buckshot shattered the glass and hit the dog square in the chest. It yelped and collapsed. Prince Gael shouted. "You shot my dog!?" He roared.
"I've been shooting coyotes out of my father's farm since I was a kid!" I shouted back.
"Well, well. A gun-toting bumpkin. Archaic technology. Then I guess I'll have to show you what happens when you toy with modern magic." He laughed.
The mirror dog lying dead on the blackened ground suddenly shattered into a million shards of shining stones. I had never seen red Mania crystals before, only blue ones like in Elysia. The dogs were obviously creatures of magic and could absorb the remaining power their fallen brother. The two remaining mirrors glowed brightly for a moment, then dimmed. I didn't know what I was up against. I couldn't run faster than the beasts, especially while carrying the burned woman, so I had to fight.
The mirror dogs attacked me in unison. I stood firm and aimed my shotgun. I thought hitting their mirrors again would destroy them, but I was wrong. The sound of my shots echoed through the fog. I fired another round but this time, my shot passed not through the mirror, but into it. Time slowed when I realized the buckshot exited through the second mirror and towards my chest. My body froze and I knew... I was going to die. I had made so many mistakes in my life, and now I was going to pay for them.
The pellets plunged into my sternum. I felt the pain as they tore into me. My lungs filled with blood and my vision blurred. The world around me turned gray and distant. I could hear nothing except the pounding of my heart. I wanted to scream in pain, but I fell to the ground, sputtering. The woman I tried to save fell with me. I felt as if we were falling down a bottomless hole. I was going to die a coward, a failure. I didn't want to die. Then everything went dark.
I heard that little voice again.
"Come with me."
Suddenly, I felt that I had plunged into water. Where I gasped for air before, now there was none. I struggled to move my arms and legs, but I couldn't. Something heavy pressed on top of me and kept me from rising above the surface. I was going to die and my eyes started to close forever.
I opened my eyes and saw a small white light in front of me. I reached out to touch it. I could feel myself being drawn towards it. When I touched it, the light grew and suddenly a woman, glittering white, appeared before me. She wore a long flowing dress and a crown of stars. Her eyes were golden and sparkling, as if lit from within.
She smiled at me and spoke, her voice ringing like bells. "You have suffered greatly. You must rest."
"Is this a dream? Am I dead?" I asked.
"But... I can't rest! I need to live!" I said.
"Your wounds are too great. I cannot heal you. Rest, and I will ease the pain of your passing."
"Please..." I begged. "Please, I have done so many things wrong. I've hurt people. I've lied. I've abandoned those who needed me most. I don't deserve to live. But... I want to apologize to everyone in Elysia. I want to see my family again. I want to see my father, my grandma. I just want to see them again. Please, please let me go home." I pleaded.
The celestial lady gave me a look of sadness. "Your wounds are fatal. I cannot heal you. There is no cure for death. You must accept your fate."
"No! No! I won't die yet!" I screamed. "I'm not ready!"
The glittering lady tilted her head, "You want to live? Then you must fight."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"If you want to live, then you must die," she said. "You must become something greater than yourself. You must give up all that you are, and become something else. Only then can you be reborn."
"How?" I asked.
"By making a choice. I cannot tell you how to make your choice. That is yours alone. All I can say is that you must choose, and you must be willing to sacrifice everything for it."
"Everything?" I asked.
"Yes. Your life, your freedom, your very soul. If you are truly ready to fight, then you must give up everything."
I looked at the shimmering woman in front of me. I was terrified, but I knew that I had to do it. I had to fight.
"Will you join us?" She asked. "Will you become more than what you are?"
"Yes!" I cried.
The glittering woman then held a hand above my heart, my wounds. A single ray of light burst forth from her palm and pierced my chest. It was like a bolt of lightning striking my heart. I gasped in agony, but I did not cry out. I couldn't. I had never felt such pain in my entire life. I felt as if my heart was being ripped from my chest. Perhaps it was. The woman took hold of the light and pulled. From my very body, she drew a shining white sword. The blade was impossibly sharp and burned with an intense heat. I watched in horror as the bright light poured from my body, leaving only a blackened husk behind. The woman held the glowing sword as bright as a star high in the air and my body... vanished.
Prince Gael feat. the Mirror Dogs [old art]:
Eva [The wounded woman] [old art]: