William paused, staring down the vacant hallway, still numb from the shock of what he’d just done. The lady’s face in the wall behind him faded back into the stone, only to reform a few feet down the passage ahead of him.
“Let’s go,” she said, darting her eyes to the right to indicate the exit’s direction.
Swallowing purposefully he stepped out into the hall, closing the heavy door behind him, then shuffled after her, creeping along as quietly as possible. The passage was low and dark, only illuminated by the occasional torch, all of which flickered from a draft rolling down from the upper levels of the prison. As he followed the curving path his body-less companion kept pace alongside him, gliding through the cobblestones as effortlessly as a hand through water. Each feature of the rough stone would pass through her face as she moved past it, creating the sensation of textured shadows constantly flitting across her brow. The curve they were following prevented William from seeing very far ahead, and so it was that he abruptly happened upon a staircase, unable to duck back out of view before a guard descending down the steps had spotted him.
“Get him!” the lady’s face hissed, but William froze, his hands instinctively raising in surrender as the equally startled guard raised his rifle level with William’s chest. The lady moaned in frustration, her face sinking back out of view, only to reappear on the stretch of wall behind the guard. Her face was now joined by two arms stretching outwards, feeling for the oblivious guard. Before William could cry out in surprise her hands had wrapped around the man, pulling him backwards to the wall with a dull crack, then dropping his limp body to tumble down the steps to William’s feet. William sprang down and checked for the man’s pulse. He was unconscious.
Her face popped back down next to him, a disappointed scowl carved across her brow. “You were surrendering,” she accused.
“I—I know,” he said, his face still flushed and his heart pounding. “Look, all this reality-bending stuff is still new to me. I’m not going to be much good at it in the spur of the moment.”
“Obviously,” she scoffed. “I wouldn’t expect otherwise. But I do expect you to at least try!”
“Fine, fine,” he said, rising from his crouch and starting up the steps. “Do you have any advice for when facing another guard? I mean, it just seems like changing realities on an actual person is a whole lot more imposing than on a dumb door.”
“Yes, sentient beings have more capacity to resist the change,” she admitted. “If they have the presence of mind to fight back, that is. But in those moments it is just a matter of the stronger will winning out.”
“And how do you—” he paused in the middle of the question as his feet skid to a halt. He was nearing the top of the stairs, and at the summit he could now see an open doorway, light and voices spilling out into the hallway that ran past it. Edging over to the other side of the stairs he was able to glimpse across a wider angle of the room, spotting a group of six men sitting around a table laden with their tankards, all engaged in a relaxed reverie. Behind them was another door, likely belonging to some sort of closet, judging by its small size. The men appeared to be well engaged in their mirth, but they were in full view of the doorway and couldn’t fail to notice anyone who might walk by.
William quickly ducked back to the hidden side of the wall. “There’s six of them,” he whispered to the lady. “No way to sneak past.”
She nodded. “So what are you going to do?”
“I—I was hoping you might have an idea,” he said sheepishly.
She looked at him darkly, appearing very disinterested in solving the problem for him. Suddenly, her expression brightened, and she launched into a barrage of sarcastic offers. “Why don’t you just dissolve their eyeballs? Or shrink the room down to fit into your pocket? Or extend your legs out so you can step over the entire doorway? Or—”
“Alright, alright” he interrupted, taking the hint that he needed to find a solution on his own. He wouldn’t dare attempt any of what she had suggested, though he was half tempted to ask if all that was really possible.
What could he do? The only thing that he felt comfortable with was opening locked doors after doing the one in his cell. He could find a door and make it open into the closet he had seen behind the men. But how would that help? Maybe there was some other useful way to use that room though? He asked the lady if she knew what was behind the door.
“Could be anything. Literally. You haven’t seen it, and so it remains open to interpretation. Course you could always change a room even after seeing it, but it’s always easier to influence the world when you aren’t fighting your senses.”
He nodded, his mind forming the beginnings of a plan. “It might be a closet stacked with barrels, then,” he mused aloud, “Barrels filled with ales like what they’re drinking now.”
“A perfectly reasonable determination,” she encouraged.
“And those barrels might not be stacked securely, prone to falling over.”
“More than likely, I would say, given they’re such a careless, drunken lot. I can almost hear them crashing to the ground now…can you?”
Could he? Slowly inching up the last steps towards the door he stretched his imagination out towards the closet, projecting the sound of creaking wood and sloshing ale muffled behind the men’s voices. He felt a strange, crescendoing premonition in him, the hairs on his arm raising in knowing anticipation…
WHAM! The thunderous crash from the closet made him leap in surprise, but then, catching his wits, he dashed silently past the doorway. As he passed its open frame he had a glimpse of all the men rushing towards the closet, amber liquid pooling out on the ground at its base. He continued silently sprinting away in case any of them were to emerge, but no one did. There were another three empty rooms connecting off from the hallway, and he slowly approached, peered into, and then passed each one. Just ahead of him he could see the back exit to the complex and he sped up his pace, anxious to emerge.
He strode down a short flight of steps to the great, wooden door and clapped his hand on the iron ring as, in unison, a large, rough hand clapped down on his shoulder. He was forcefully spun around and there met a large, burly face. He realized that in his hurry he had failed to notice the small guard’s booth off to the side of the door. The man was quite larger than he was, and the grip on William’s shoulder spoke of considerably greater strength than he himself possessed.
Not wanting to be in range of the guard’s fists William instinctively flung himself forward to the man’s chest, grappling him in a tight embrace. The man stumbled back awkwardly, but found his footing and then pivoted, swinging William into the hard wall with a bone-shaking smack. William maintained his grip, but felt dazed and would not last another blow like that. His clasped hands were getting clammy and his knees were wobbling with the desire to run. All rational thought processes seemed to have been muted by his panic. As the man twisted his waist, pulling back for another swing into the stone, the hard, wooden handle of his pistol knocked against William’s forearm. Without thinking, William relaxed his grip on the man and kicked out against the offending wall, propelling himself backward. As he did so he flung out his hand to catch the man’s pistol, which of its own accord was moving as if by invisible strings, sliding out of its holster, up the fellow’s body, and through the air towards William’s grasp. William’s finger was already in the motion of pulling the trigger as the handle slid smoothly into his palm. A single shot rang out, catching the guard full in the chest and crumpling him down to the ground.
The expression of triumph remained on William’s face for less than a second before the horror of what he’d just done sunk in. He glanced in utter bewilderment down at the gun in his hand, its muzzle still guiltily puffing smoke, then over to the mound of clothes and flesh in front him. He turned to the lady’s face in the wall, her expression was one of surprise but not of disapproval.
“Help him!” he whimpered to her, the fear in his voice surpassing that which he had felt when in the thick of battle.
She squinted at him, then said decisively “No. We’re wasting time as it is.”
“Wasting time?! His life is at stake!”
“If that’s so important to you, then take care of it, but be quick about it. There is nothing I can do for him which you cannot do yourself.”
There was a finality in her tone that made it clear she had nothing more to say on the matter. Pushing down the fresh rage that was bubbling up he closed his eyes and tried to calm his beating heart, willing his mind to work out a solution. What could he do? Make it so that he had missed? But he knew he hadn’t and he still struggled to know how he could convince himself otherwise. Where had he hit him? The chest? That wasn’t good. However he hadn’t actually seen the wound, nor indeed any blood pooling on the ground yet. Keeping his eyes closed he pressed his hand to the floor, telling himself that the ground was still dry around the body. Indeed it still was. Well then, it must have just been a surface blow. Perhaps it got caught on something? Yes, that was it. But what? It didn’t matter, anything would do.
Opening his eyes he reached around the man, and rolled him onto his back. William reached through the folds of the uniform on the man’s chest feeling for a shallow strike mark that he insisted must be there. It was as if his fingers knew instinctively where to go, they smoothed out a bend in the cloth to reveal one of the brass buttons, warped and welded by a ball of lead, the fabric around it scorched off. He pinched the ball, still hot from the firing, and pulled it and the button away, revealing a slight depression and welt in the man’s chest, but certainly nothing fatal. Of a sudden, the man’s chest began heaving with new breath and his eyes snapped open, locking on William’s with a wild and astounded expression. He remained silent, frozen in mute terror, as if he had just been reclaimed from the dead.
William slid the pistol back into the man’s holster. It was already discharged, after all, and somehow he knew this man would not emerge from his shocked paralysis until long after he was gone. Standing up he felt a warm rush, a calmness that belied the tense moments that had immediately preceded. He gripped the iron ring of the door, pulled it open, and stepped out to finally and properly meet his liberator.
On Monday I wrote about the reasons why readers love to go on an adventure in stories and how it prompts them to seek similar adventure in their own lives. I’ve tried my best to reflect that here with the Imposed Will title. William is a decent person, one that means no harm on the world, but is undoubtedly living beneath his potential, his greatest flaw is lacking trust in his own abilities. Slowly but surely he is overcoming that failing, though, and he is on the cusp of a great adventure that will further define who he is. I imagine the average reader will be able to readily identify shades of themselves in William, and the hope would be that they are prompted to consider what untapped potential they could unleash as well.
This completes the Imposed Will series, as well as the larger Adventure Collection I’ve been adding to over the last five weeks. Please come back Monday when I will start on a new collection, one that takes a much more bite-sized approach to adventure!