“Alright, you setup watch here,” Tharol whispered to Inol. “If you see anyone–“
“Why should I keep watch?”
“Who put you in charge? Why should I be the one to keep watch?”
Tharol blinked quickly, trying to hold back his frustration. “Does it–does it matter?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bovik sighed. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Fine,” Tharol agreed. “If you see anyone, you come and get us. Don’t try to take an elder on your own. Doesn’t matter who it is.”
“Sure,” Bovik shrugged. “I’m not stupid.”
“I know, Bovik. And–thanks,” Tharol clapped the youth on the shoulder, then he and Inol stole to the end of the hall where the armory door was waiting. They had been tasked with retrieving the abbey’s Shraying Staffs, so that their little army would have a fighting chance against the elders.
There were other groups of youth running through the abbey as well. One was scouting out the locations of the elders, another was trying to secure the Ovayan Stone so that they could communicate with the outside world, and a third was roaming the dormitories for anything of value that had left behind in their initial retreat. Tharol didn’t think much of this tactic, splitting their numbers out when they were already too few as it was.
But then, Reis was insistent that this was the way forward, and Tharol had made a pledge to support him. Right now what really mattered was to keep the youth united. Tharol would swallow his criticisms for the greater good of them all.
“Alright, what are you waiting for?” Inol hissed as Tharol remained motionless before the door to the armory.
“I don’t–I don’t understand this. It’s changed,” Tharol whispered back.
“You said you knew how to get in!”
“I did! Or at least I thought so. I saw how Master Makile did it once. But at that time there was a keyrod and there isn’t one now. Just this panel!”
He tapped the metal plate that was over the center of the iron door. Inol frowned, pressed his fingers against the panel, and slid it sideways, uncovering the keyrod laying underneath.
“Oh,” Tharol said, feeling stupid. He took the keyrod in hand and spoke to it. “I approach at the dawn of day, and speak my words to he who listens.”
A mechanism turned in the depths of the door, and two large spikes emerged, hovering menacingly in the air.
“What are you–” Inol began, but Tharol raised a hand to silence him.
“I take the hands, cold and small. I show no fear for their ruggedness.” Slowly he stroked the spikes, letting his fingers trace right over their jagged tips.
Another sound of gears spinning in the door, and now an entire section opened like the maw of some great beast, complete with teeth above and beneath.
“I take my pillow in trust. I consign myself to the mercy of those I serve.” Slowly Tharol inserted his head between the metal teeth, eyes closed. There was a sound as if of breathing from the mouth, a rising growl from the center of the door. “Yet I am cunning as a snake,” Tharol’s eyes snapped back open, “and I ever preserve my life!” Tharol whisked his head back out from the machine-mouth just as the metal teeth snapped shut. There was a pause, then a clatter of turning gears on the other side of the door, and at last the whole thing swung inwards.
“What was that?!” Inol hissed in shock.
Tharol shrugged. “It’s the password.”
“And you memorized all that from one time watching Master Makile?”
“I think you’ll find that having seen it once now for yourself will be more than enough to make you remember.”
Together the two youth rushed into the hold. There was a solitary window set high in the wall as their only source of light. Groping in the dimness they found shelves on either side of them. They were dusty, and mostly barren, but on occasion their hands felt something long and cold lain out on them.
“Is it these?” Tharol asked.
“It must be. I don’t think they keep anything else in here. Just grab whatever you can feel.”
“Well they’re powerful, so that’s to be expected. How many do you have now?”
“I think five.”
“We need a lot more.”
“What’s that? The end of the aisle. Are there any other rows?”
There were not.
“Well that’s it, then,” Inol admitted. “We’ll just have to make-do with what we have.”
They felt their way back out of the room, then crept down the hallway, looking for Bovik.
“He was supposed to be here!” Tharol said in dismay as they came to the hall-end and found their comrade missing.
“Yes, well–watch it! Your staff is coming apart!”
Tharol looked up, and for the first time properly took in the Shraying Staffs he was carrying over his shoulder. They were tall, onyx staffs, about the same size and weight of a beam of wood. None of the youth had ever actually seen one before, they just knew that they were the pride of the Northern Armies.
As Tharol examined the staff-ends hanging over his shoulder he saw what Inol was referring to. It appeared that some hinge had opened, and a few rods were starting to spill out of the beam. He was about to reach up to close it back up when he realized the rods were waggling back and forth, like overly large fingers feeling for something.
“It’s a spider!” Inol said. “A giant spider!”
“No, it’s–” Tharol looked to his companion and saw that the same overly-large fingers were reaching out of his staffs as well. And when Inol had spoken, the fingers had thrust themselves out towards his face, they were about to touch him now.
“No!” Tharol shouted, all sense of stealth thrown to the wind. He dropped his staffs and thrust his hand out, trying to block the machine-hands before they could touch Inol’s mouth!
As soon as he made contact with them, the most unusual sensation came over him. It felt as though there was a pin that had always locked his finger in place, one that he had never noticed before, and now it suddenly loosed and the digit was free for the first time in his life. And as he looked to his hand he saw it was so, for his finger was revolving on a hinge, folding up into his hand. And then all his hand seemed to be built of small, finger-like sections, all on pins that had been unlocked, all rotating and folding, all giving way to machine sections that were unfolding out of the staff to take their place.
“Oh no!” Inol cried. He dropped his own staffs to the ground, but not before another of them had reached its fingers out and begun bonding with his shoulder. Both youth watched in horror as the two staffs continued extending themselves until they covered each boy’s entire arm. Fortunately they stopped after they had consumed from hand to shoulder, and did not attempt to creep any farther along their bodies. Their arms were longer than usual now, with many waving, undulating tendrils, and large claws in place of hands.
“It’s a–it’s a part of us,” Tharol breathed.
“I’d always heard of them as bonding weapons, but I never understood that it meant like this!”
“I can–I can still feel my arm…in a way. Can you?”
“Yes, just sort of–folded up inside but still there. And I can feel the staff as well, like it’s a part of me.”
Both boys nearly jumped for fright, then turned and saw Bovik stealing down the adjacent hallway towards them.
“Where were you?” Tharol asked.
“Do you have any idea how loud the two of you are being?” Bovik scolded.
“Sorry…we were…being shocked. But where were you?”
“I saw one of the elders. I was following her.”
“You were supposed to come get us if you saw one. She could have destroyed you!”
“No…I don’t think she was in a state to do that. It was like she was in a trance. Come on, I have to show you.”
Bovik turned right back around and continued back the way he had come, looking over his shoulder every few steps and beckoning the other two forward.
Inol and Tharol hurriedly picked the other Shraying Staffs off of the floor and hurried after Bovik. As they went Tharol continued to examine his malformed arm. He found that he could push on the different sections and fold them into the arm’s recesses. He could even unfold certain sections of them and bring back out portions of his ordinary, flesh-arm.
“Alright, just look over the banister.”
Bovik had led them to a hall which opened one one of its sides to the floor below. Tharol and Inol squinted curiously at each other, then slowly advanced to peer into the lower level.
“We’ve walked into the Cryptics,” Tharol breathed in awe.
There below them was one of the elders. They could recognize it as such because of the robes it was wearing, not because they recognized the face. For that face was completely blanked out, an empty slate with only the vaguest suggestions of eyes or nose or mouth. It stood with naked arms slightly raised on either side, and its limbs twitched now and again as if it was trying to move.
As they watched another figure approached the first. This one they could readily make out as Master Iliya, whose classes had covered herb care and medicinal treatments. Her eyes were closed, her hands held in the same partially raised pose as the other body’s. As Bovik had said, she seemed to move as if in a trance, drawing nearer and nearer to the faceless body. As she did so, the body’s form became less vague and more defined. Indeed it was changing to take on Master Iliya’s features.
The closer she drew to it, the more her own face reflected in its own. Both of their movements became more like that of a regular human being. Master Iliya’s airy trance-like steps became more intentional and the idle twitches smoothed out of the doppleganger.
“Circuit completed.” Master Iliya’s body moved like it was the one speaking, but it was the mouth of the copy that spoke the words. “There are fifteen with us.”
“Eight of us and fifteen with us.” A chorus of disembodied voices echoed around the room.
“Hey,” Inol hissed to Tharol. “There were fifteen of us youth who came into the building.”
Tharol paused for a moment. Inol, Bovik, and he made three. Reis and two others had gone to retrieve the Ovayan Stone, four more were scouring the dormitories, and another five were patrolling the halls. Fifteen.
So did that mean only eight of the elders were remaining alive after the battle in the amphitheater?
Master Iliya suddenly began to shudder. She took a step forward, body trembling like a leaf. The other body began to shake as well, its features blurring and distorting, combining with Master Iliya as she stepped forward into it. A moment later and she had been entirely ingested. The body continued to contort, though, and then Master Y’mish emerged from it.
He moved as if speaking, and the body behind him (which was now reflecting his form) spoke the words “Beginning my circuit.” And then he strode off and out of sight.
The boys watched until he was gone around the hallway.
“He was headed towards the gardens,” Inol observed. “We can get to it from this level if we go through the library.”
“I’d rather not,” Tharol whispered, but Bovik and Inol had already started off, and with a sigh he followed.
The three crept through the gilded doors of the library, stole between the aisles of books, and pushed open the windows at the back. Before them was the upper half of a stone statue, with the garden paths sprawled out beneath.
“There he goes,” Bovik pointed towards Master Y’Mish’s entranced form. “Down towards the orchard.”
“No way out but the same way in,” Inol observe. “Come on,” he stepped one foot out of the open window and reached for the arm of the statue.
“Wait, why?” Tharol asked.
“We’re going to take him, Tharol. Here and now, while he’s cornered and can’t alert the others. The three of us are going to kill him.”
On Monday I wrote how certain areas can be returned to multiple times in a story, becoming a sort of familiar home to the audience. These places are often used to reset the readers emotions, or else to highlight (by contrast) how different the protagonists have become.
In The Favored Son, I have made the decision to make a familiar haunt out of the center of the stone hedge, laying on the outskirts of the abbey grounds. The abbey itself I have described as little as possible, leaving it shrouded as a place of mysteries. It’s an interesting choice, because to the students the abbey would be their common living area, the place they have spent every day in for the past many years. They must be more familiar with it than any other place.
I took this approach, though, because it fits the narrative better. This setup highlights the fact that the students have been kicked out of their own nest. They have become strangers in their own home. And so I focus on them discovering things that they never knew about this place.
At this moment they are trying to reclaim their home for themselves, but as one discovery leads to another, they’re going to have to face the fact that the place they thought their home was never actually existed. They’re going to look at these once-familiar halls and admit they never truly knew them. And once that pill is swallowed, there will be nothing left but to to uproot themselves, retreat back to the fringes, and set out to find a new home of their own. A place of belonging can only lay ahead of them, not behind.
But before we get to that, let’s consider what I did with today’s entry to make the abbey seem like such a foreign place, and the centrifuge more cozy by contrast. I made this by turning the abbey into a place of new and uncomfortable discoveries. From the strange multi-password ritual to enter the armory, to the Shraying Sticks being living machines, to its halls being haunted by the shells of their teachers, I tried to cram as many unpleasant surprise revelations into this post as possible.
And as already stated, this served the purpose of making it feel like the students are strangers in their own home, but it was also to accomplish another effect as well: that of entertaining the reader. My hope was that these strange discoveries are just plain interesting to my audience, and will make them want to continue with the story.
I think this idea of inventing new things in your story, and using them to entertain the reader, is very common. Most authors do it without necessarily thinking about it. But it is worth pausing to take a focused look at this tool of story-crafting.
To be sure, a story needs things like strong characters, interesting arcs, an engaging pace, and cathartic resolutions. But aside from all that, it also just needs to be fascinating in the individual moment.
Come back on Monday where we will explore the practice of inventing in a story, and how it is utilized in the best of tales. Then we’ll see how I have been employing that technique in The Favored Son.