As Master Foraou rushed through the air he pulled the sword back and plunged it clear through the heart of Talo. The boy slumped backwards without a cry.
The youth on either side of him shrieked though, and dove from their seats, scrambling across the aisle to get clear. Master Foraou’s eyes flicked left and right, deciding which side to go after first.
Over to the left and slightly up, Tharol gripped the hem of his tunic in terror. He was frozen in disbelief, unable to accept that what he saw was real. A part of him insisted that this had to be some sort of act, a theatric thought up by the elders that Talo had been in on. This simply couldn’t be true.
There came another shout and Master Solen broke ranks from the other elders as well. Like Master Foraou she took a leap into the stands, though she was angled towards the benches on the left…directly towards Tharol!
Tharol remained frozen in fear as Master Solen arced through the air, landed on the benches before him, and bellowed a single word at him: “RUN!”
Then Master Solen spun on the spot and leaped towards Master Foraou, drawing her sword and crashing it against his with a mighty cry.
She was…defending the acolytes.
All turned to chaos. The spell of immobility had been broken by Master Solen’s shout and all the students, including Tharol, sprung to their feet and dashed towards the back of the amphitheater. At the same time more than a dozen more teachers leaped into the seating, some cutting down students, others cutting down the teachers doing the attacking.
Tharol tripped on one of the steps and fell to his hands. He tried to stand up, but another student knocked him back down while running by. He spun around and found that he was the only student left in the main seating area, the others were escaping out the back. Two of the elders, Masters Dovi and Omil, caught sight of Tharol’s downed form and broke off from the rest. They charged him with swords drawn, their eyes filled with murderous intent.
Tharol winced in fear, but then a strange feeling surety took hold. Was this his elusive “center?” That inner tranquility that the elders had always implored him to seek? He closed his eyes and focused, trying to reach out to that core. Somehow he seemed to find it instantly, as if it was waiting for him. It even spoke to his mind with a voice.
Tharol pounded his feet into the ground, and to his surprise the ground pushed back with far more energy than he put into it, sending him careening into a backwards somersault, and up to a standing position.
His eyes snapped open as Master Dovi bore down, sword swinging near.
“Take a cut. Claim it with your blood.“
Tharol’s arms moved with greater poise than he had ever held before. He raised his right arm just enough to nick his flesh on the blade’s edge, but not so much as to seriously injure himself. His blood seeped onto the blade, which then melted into molten steel. It dropped through the air and reformed in his own hand. It was his. Tharol swung his arm out, watching how the surprise in Master Dovi’s eyes glossed over into a blank stare. Then both halves of the elder fell to the ground.
Tharol looked down in shock, unable to understand any of the things that had just happened. But he could not dwell on them, for Master Omil was already charging in from behind, sword held close to the chest and pointed forward in a straight thrust.
Tharol’s instinct was to sidestep, but somehow he knew Omil was expecting that. He knew that Omil would respond by jabbing sideways with a dagger hidden under his elbow. So instead Tharol stood his ground, lifting his own blade and swung it downwards with incredible force. Once more Tharol found that he could move with a grace he had never known before, and watched in awe as his blade perfectly sliced Omil’s right down the middle, sending the two halves clattering harmlessly to either side.
Tharol didn’t stop his thrust there, though, he continued swinging his sword down until the tip pierced wedged itself into the stone. He gripped the hilt with both hands and used it as an anchor as he powerfully kicked upwards and out. His foot placed perfectly in the center of Omil’s chest and sent the elder sprawling head over heels down the rocky steps.
The master made three full revolutions before crumpling to a stop. He did not try to rise, his body was too broken. Instead he looked up to Tharol, eyes shining with tears of regret.
“Forgive me,” he said sorrowfully. “I was too weak.” Then he closed his eyes, trembled his entire body, and grew fainter and fainter until he had disappeared entirely from Tharol’s view.
Utterly bewildered, Tharol looked back to the center stage, where the majority of the elders still stood in their original line. They had remained motionless, not trying to attack the students, nor defend them. Each of them had their hands clasped together at the chest, each was trembling, and one-by-one they were all slowly vanishing, just as Master Omil had.
One of them was different though.
Tharol found that Master Palthio was staring at him directly, a look of intense concentration on his face.
“I’ve done what little I can for you,” the voice said within Tharol. “To continue would cause more harm than good.“
The voice was growing fainter, the sureness of mind and body was dissipating from Tharol. He felt panic and despair creeping back instead.
“Wait!” he shouted audibly. “Tell me why!”
“Always seeking answers,” the voice was barely a whisper, but a faint smile played over Palthio’s face. “When you find them you will know. Now…go!” Then Master Palthio vanished, like all the other elders standing in the line, but as he did so a tremendous shockwave emanated from him. It knocked every one of the fighting elders, friendly or foe, to the ground, but lifted Tharol upwards and rushed him towards the exit. Tharol needed no further encouragement, he turned himself about and flew the rest of the way to the top of the amphitheater and over the back wall.
Tharol clattered onto the paved-stone-pathway on the other side, half-expecting to meet the rest of the youth waiting there for him. But of course they hadn’t waited around to see if anyone was coming to murder them, they had all fled for weapons, or for safety, or for both.
Where would they have gone? Tharol felt in his heart is was of utmost importance that he find them. They needed each other right now. Needed each other in a way they never had before.
And then he realized that he knew exactly where they were.
“Someone’s coming!” Bovik hissed, and all the youth took a defensive stance. Some of them had had the sense to grab their swords before heading to the refuge, the others merely brandished sticks or rocks.
The stone wall before them all contorted in a strange way, both unfolding and refolding its parts at random. A single hand reached out of the fold. It twisted and the folds undulated enough to let the rest of the arm through. A few more twists and turns and Tharol spilled into the centrifuge at the heart of the stone hedge.
“So you lived,” Marvi said coolly he stumbled back to his feet and dusted himself off.
There was something about her tone that struck Tharol as odd, but nevermind, there wasn’t any time for that.
“Yes,” he said quickly. “How many of us are here? Bovik, Inol, Reis…who’s that back behind that column? Golu?”
“I don’t see why you should have such an interest in identifying every student who escaped, Tharol.”
It was Reis who spoke this time, slowly sauntering out from the center dais.
Tharol’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean? Of course I want to know who’s still alive! What’s going on with you all?” His eyes flit from one youth to the next, but everyone was avoiding his gaze. He had the sneaking suspicion that they had all just been speaking about him behind his back. “What is this?”
Bovik broke the tension with an exasperated sigh. “Come on, Reis. He’s no traitor. He’s one of us.”
“Then how did he escape?” Reis shot back. “Last I saw he had two of the elders coming right for him! And notice that he’s even carrying one of their swords, how do you explain that?”
“Wait, so that’s what this is about?” Tharol rounded on Reis. “You’ve been telling them all that I’m some sort of spy? A traitor?”
“To say nothing of how he wouldn’t strike hands with the rest of us,” Reis ignored Tharol and turned back to the other youth. “And how he wanted to start a secret investigation on you all.”
“I wanted to what?!”
Bovik looked searchingly at Tharol. “Tharol is it true? Did you really try to convince Reis that one of us was a traitor, and you needed to read our thoughts? To keep us safe in the new Order?”
“That’s a lie!” Tharol shouted, unable to believe what he was hearing. Even as he spoke his mind was racing. He had been aggravated at Reis’s pompous antics before, disagreed with him on many points, but this…this was different. Reis wouldn’t have a reason to tell brazen lies unless there was something he was hiding himself.
“Reis,” he said firmly, striding up to the youth with determination. “I need to talk with you. In private.”
“Why?!” Reid cried, and pulled back with unfeigned fear. That caught Tharol off guard. He didn’t know why, but Reis was genuinely afraid of him. “There’s nothing I have to talk about with you, Tharol. How many times have I tried to speak with you already, and you wouldn’t have anything to do with it? It’s too late now!”
Tharol paused and breathed bracingly through his teeth. He didn’t know why Reis had been lying about him, but right now he needed information, and for that he needed Reis to trust him. He couldn’t lose his tempter. “I’m sorry, Reis. I spoke with anger. But I really do want to talk now, as friends.”
“It’s too late.”
“No, it’s not too late,” Tharol said softly. He slowed his advance and stretched his palms out in a peaceful gesture, trying to calm Reis down. “Now’s the right time, Reis. Like I said before, I was just waiting for the right time for making a pledge, and the right time is now. I see that. I want to make a pledge to you now.”
“You should have before! We should have been united before it came to this!”
“You might be right.” Tharol reached down and set his sword in the grass. “But I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know what was about to happen. I was just as surprised today as you were.”
“I knew!” Reis licked his lips. “I knew something was coming. I didn’t know what, but I knew we had to be prepared…and you wouldn’t listen!
“I’m sorry, Reis. I really am. I didn’t know. But I want to work together now. I want all of us to be together. I’m unarmed, see? If you didn’t believe me you could have killed me already.”
Reis regarded Tharol for a long pause and swallowed deeply. “You–you want to make a pledge?”
“Yes…but first a private word.”
Reis glanced side-to-side, as if checking to see if there was some trap waiting for him. He thought a moment longer then nodded slowly. “Not far…just around that column over there…and you leave your weapon here.”
“But Reis–” Marvi stepped forward anxiously.
“It’s alright, Marvi,” Reis held up his hand. “Let me handle this.”
On Monday I spoke of how this story was originally going to go a very different direction, one where the Trials that the youth had to face would simply be a series of contests and games to determine their standing in the new Order.
In those trials, Tharol and Reis would emerge as the most capable of all the students, and one of them would be destined to become the leader in the new order. Though Reis would be clearly inferior in terms of moral character, he would have the greater prowess in the Trials, as well as the heart of the other students, and even of the elders. He would be christened as the future leader, at which point Tharol would discover that Reis was secretly a disciple of an outside cult, one that sought to bring forth the Invasion with the hope of obtaining power by it. Obviously that is not the route I am going here. Reis still has the hearts of the other youth, but now he is more of a fool, driven by fear than being a cunning snake in the grass.
Perhaps the more significant change, though, is that with this new route I have lost the presence of Master Palthio, who was originally going to have ongoing philosophical discussions with Tharol, and was even aware of Reis’s treachery all along.
As I said on Monday, my need now is to drop all of those plans and craft a new plot that fits my new direction. But I find it very hard to let go of certain elements in my earlier plot. Some things, such as the conversations with Master Palthio, really can’t be reworked into my new track, and I still want to have those moments. I was excited to write them out, and I just can’t bear the idea of not doing them anymore.
But that doesn’t mean I want to stop with the current course I have either. I still don’t know exactly where it is going, but I really want to see it through.
And I run into this splintered story dilemma all the time. Any time I really get going with a project the tale begins with a single, solid trunk, which I then can’t help but branch off into many mutually exclusive possibilities. And now I want to develop each one, but what can I do with a story that has one beginning but a dozen different endings?
This sort of story-splintering isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, either. Consider how many times our culture has taken classic tales and branched one new idea from it after another. I’d like to examine more closely this idea of fractured story-crafting, and what an author is to do when they have two minds for how to move forward. Come back on Monday where I’ll discuss that in greater detail, as well as determine how to resolve the issue here with The Favored Son.