Over two years ago, I started a little experimental project called Azrael’s Stop. Although I had been interested in transmedia for a while, I had just graduated from university at the time and I wanted to try my hand at making a transmedia thing of my own, and wanted to tell a story set in my “Flowforged” fantasy setting.
Azrael’s Stop was always an experiment. It has been a lesson for me in a lot things: design, scope, collaboration. Also in the details: how to format an ebook, for instance. Over the course of its two years of development the goals and scope of the project have changed significantly and that was partly due to my own uncertainty about what exactly I wanted the project to be. With every version, lessons were learned, making each experimental iteration a success, even if the project didn't work as intended.
But I wasn’t content with letting it just be an experiment. I wanted to finish it, to fix it, to legitimize it. So I reexamined again, paired down the scope, evolved once more.
In the beginning, the focus of Azrael’s Stop was “Storytelling Through Twitter” -- one post a day, 140 character maximum, tell a compelling story over time. But to make it more “transmedia,” and to push the experimental aspect further, I started punctuating that every month with something else: a longer short story, or a song. But it was too disjointed. Only being on Twitter made it hard to follow. And I was running out of ideas for that monthly bonus.
I gave Azrael’s Stop it’s own website, a homebase for all the content. I made an Interactive Fiction game one month, a photo essay type thing another, an audio play. It was on Facebook now too, and Tumblr, and its own blog -- now I wasn’t as restrained by 140 characters and I could do a little more, though I wanted to keep with the spirit of short posts creating a gestalt story over time.. But I still couldn’t keep up with the bonus monthly content, and most of it was falling flat. I’d realized that it was too much to ask of my audience, to keep changing the kind of content they had to consume. And though I was perhaps being hard on myself, I knew it wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. I went on hiatus for a second time a year ago. And this time I vowed to do it right.
The next major change was paring it down. From daily-fiction-and-monthly-all-sorts-of-stuff, I narrowed the focus to fiction and music. Every day, a tiny piece of fiction; every month, a short story and a piece of music.
I also finished writing the whole thing, so I had an end in sight, didn’t have to worry about keeping up with content, could ensure that it was also just a really good story.
And in pairing the story with music throughout, it really brought forward the strength of the micro-fiction pieces I was working with: theme; feeling; atmosphere. Azrael’s Stop is very thematic storytelling. There’s no big fight or dragon or saving the world. There are characters trying to figure out how to live in this world. Trying to understand life and death. Friendship. Love. And each character represents certain themes and ideas.
The music really brings this out: throughout the soundtrack, the main theme weaves in and out, grounding us in the tavern the story takes place in, grounding us to these characters and the repetition of their lives. Death is a constant presence, interwoven with the politics of the elves or the nightmares of dreams. Love and friendship make strong statements, fall apart, return with bittersweetness and a quieter strength. Taken as a whole, I truly think the soundtrack is a masterpiece of themes, each piece creating a much stronger whole. It’s been amazing working with Devin to bring the world to life through his score.
The story relaunched last week. The whole text will be posted online over the next six months, but we’ve also compiled it all into an ebook, so you can read the whole thing in one go. Also on the store is the soundtrack, ready to go along with the story, supporting its themes and the atmosphere we’ve created.
But before you go, I want to show you what I mean: below is an excerpt, an interlude entitled “Dreamscape.” And I’ve included Devin’s orchestral piece that goes with it.
That night, Ceph closed
the bar early, kicked the patrons out, poured himself a drink. The
crow watched him, head cocked, as he made his way to his bed.
The sheets needed cleaning; they were browning from sweat. He hadn't been sleeping well.
The crow could feel it. Could hear the uncanny sounds of a low, soft voice, speaking indistinguishable words that are at once calming and terrifying. The sounds were far away, indistinct, as if they didn't quite belong.
The Dreaming came as Ceph dozed off. The crow saw it. Saw the creature appear, straddling Ceph as he tossed and turned, a hideous hag, a woman with a drawn and gaunt face, rotted teeth, wild hair, wilder eyes.
A nocnista. A bringer of nightmare. She held Ceph down with clawed hands, feeding off his fear.
The Dreamscape wasn't a kind place to him.
A large doorway in the darkness. A sign declaring it Larilla's School of Reclamation.
Teenage students sit in rows of old desks. A teacher, a youthful man of about thirty, stands at the front of the class by a slate board and a desk. Windows look out onto the streets of Theore City.
“Can anyone tell me about the Twelve Day War?” the teacher asks.
No one in the class responds.
“Anyone? Anything at all?”
“'Twas the bloody elves did it, weren't it?” one boy shouts out.
“Can you be more specific, Morrit?”
“The bad 'uns, Master Carver.”
The teacher snorts. “The elves of Enlanuin, the kingdom to the north. But not all of them—a general called Tholandar Ilterquess acted without orders. Does anyone know why?”
In the back row where Master Carver is looking, Ceph slouches in his seat, staring at the floor. He is pale, unhealthy.
But he ignores the teacher.
A dorm room. Ceph sits on one of two beds, staring out a window. A few items of clothing and a book are strewn about one half of the room—the other half lies empty.
An empty bottle that reeks of alcohol lies on the floor.
The door opens. “Ceph?” says a woman. She's older, with steely hair wrapped in a tight bun. A film of hair sits conspicuously on her upper lip.
Ceph doesn't respond.
“Master Farns, I am addressing you.”
Ceph looks at her. “Matron,” he says.
“We've accepted a new pupil. He is moving into this room with you.” She steps aside to let a boy enter the room.
He's about Ceph's age, maybe fourteen. Short, thin, and shy, he holds one arm with the other in front of his body. He's looking at the floor, then glances up at Ceph—and his eyes are caught there.
“Ceph, this is Rye. Make him comfortable. And clean up this mess!” The woman bends to pick up the empty bottle, sniffs it, and scowls. “I'm keeping an eye on you, Ceph.”
She turns and leaves.
Silence reigns over the room for a moment, then Rye says a timid, “Hi.”
Ceph turns to look out the window again.
Ceph and Rye sit in the back row of the classroom, stifling giggles. It's a couple years later. Rye looks more confident, Ceph much healthier.
“The Quiet War,” Master Carver says, standing at the front of the class. “Anyone? Come on, people, this is current, this is important. Angor? No? Rye, is something funny about Angor?”
“No, Master Carver,” Rye says, trying to calm down.
Ceph covers his mouth with his hand, and glances at Rye. Rye and Master Carver are looking at each other—then, Master Carver sighs.
“Can anyone tell me about the Quiet War?” He sits in the chair at the front desk—and the chair collapses.
The whole class bursts into laughter as Master Carver falls to the floor, Ceph and Rye loudest of them all.
In the midst of his laughter, Rye begins to cough. He doesn't stop. Ceph calms down after a moment, looking at Rye, as Master Carver stands and nurses his rear.
“Rye, you okay?”
Rye gasps for breath as he is seized by a fit of coughs. Blood spatters on the desk.
Rye lies in his bed, his skin almost as white as the bed sheets, sweat beading on his forehead. He looks gaunt, frail. He shivers constantly. Ceph sits in a chair beside Rye's bed.
A cough racks Rye's body, and Ceph clutches his thin hand.
“I got a message from the priests of Nioth,” Ceph says. “They don't know what's wrong...”
Rye tries to say something, but another fit of coughing hits him. He looks up at Ceph, and whispers something.
Ceph leans closer. “What?”
Ceph shakes his head. “She tried getting a potion, but you know it didn't help last—”
Rye puts his hand over Ceph's mouth. “A ring,” he whispers. “She has a ring from when I came here. I was always told—” He stops, catches his breath. “—it was magic. Protective.” He can't go on, and his hand drops to the bed, exhausted from the effort of holding it up.
Ceph nods. “I'll get it. I'll find Matron.” He stands to go, then looks at Rye. “Just—don't go anywhere.”
Rye manages a smile, and Ceph leaves.
Then, the half-elven woman Lona is in the room. Tattoos over her face and arms in twisting, vine-like patterns, in the style of the dark elves of the Thron Sea. She watches, but doesn't move.
The crow is there. They watch each other.
Lona drops a ring on the ground.
The crow picks it up. Places the ring in Rye's hand, which closes reflexively around it. Rye coughs once, then forces his eyes open to look at the bird.
They are clear. There is an understanding there. He nods, and closes his eyes again; his body settles back into the sheets, and he becomes completely still.
There is no more rattle in his throat, no more ragged breathing. No breath at all.
The door opens, and Ceph runs in. “Rye, I found it—”
He sinks to his knees beside the bed, and grabs Rye's hand.
Everything fades to blackness.
Ceph woke with a start, staring into the eyes of the hooded crow, standing at the foot of his bed. “Damn bird,” he muttered.