Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably. “But–he’s not doing anything to us.”
Inol’s eyes narrowed. “Why are we here, Tharol?”
“We’re getting the weapons.”
“To do what? What are we here for ultimately?”
“Attack the elders?”
Inol nodded. “So why are you dragging your feet right now? Maybe Reis was right about you.”
Tharol cast around in his mind. It was true that he didn’t want to be a part of this, didn’t want to have this war with the elders. Everything he had just seen further convinced him that these people were not in their right minds, and so he didn’t want to be their executioner. He pitied them.
But…Tharol knew saying things like that weren’t going to go over very well. Everyone else was convinced that this war was the right way forward, and they were closed off to any criticism of it. So Tharol shook his head and went a different route. “Our first priority is to get these weapons to the others, so that they have a fighting chance when the main assault happens; not to go off on a whim, get ourselves killed, and leave our comrades helpless.”
“He has a point,” Bovik nodded.
“No he doesn’t,” Inol spat. “There’s three of us and one of Master Y’Mish. These are the best odds we’ll see all night!”
Bovik sighed. “That’s a good point, too.”
Tharol looked to Bovik. “What will it be then?”
“I vote we find the others, Inol wants to fight this elder. What do you choose?”
“That’s not for me to decide!”
“What else is there?” Tharol shrugged. “We have no leader, and no explicit commands to guide us, so we all get a voice. What side do you take?”
Bovik squirmed uncomfortably, darting his eyes back-and-forth from Tharol to Inol.
“Well…I guess we try and take him, then. We take Master Y’Mish down, and then we find our comrades without further delay.”
“So be it,” Tharol sighed, then swung his leg out to the stone statue.
As silently as possible, the three youth stole to down the legs of the statue and off its base. Inol and Tharol left the other Shraying Staffs in a nearby bush, and then they rushed towards the orchard path. Master Y’Mish had not returned from there yet, so they lined up on either side of the walkway, Inol on the left-hand side, Bovik and Tharol on the right.
“Alright, we have him trapped now,” Inol observed. “We wait here until he comes out. When he does, we move quickly and decisively. We don’t try to talk to him, we don’t try to restrain him. We kill him.”
Tharol and Bovik nodded.
“Are you two going to use your Shraying Staffs?” Bovik asked eagerly. “How do they work?”
Tharol looked down to his arm and regarded the flexing metal shafts that covered his flesh. His arm ended in a large, menacing claw, and for a moment he envisioned five fingers instead. Even before the metal shafts began to realign themselves he knew that they would. All he had to do was think the form, and the Shraying Staff began spinning and contorting to create it. He could even flex each individual finger at will, as if it had been a real hand.
“Oh skies!” Bovik breathed in awe. “Let me have one.”
“I don’t have them anymore. We left them back there, remember?”
“Hsssh!” Inol spat out, and once the other boys quieted they could make out the sound of footsteps approaching down the orchard path.
Bovik silently drew out his standard sword and all three youth waited anxiously in the shadows. The steps grew nearer and nearer, without the slightest variance in rhythm. It was like the cadence of a machine.
Inol and Tharol had their eyes locked on one another from each side of the path. Suddenly their view of the other was broken as Master Y’Mish stepped between, and each sprang forward instantly.
Without even looking to either side, Master Y’Mish thrust his hands outward, expertly dodging their weapons and striking each youth squarely in the chest. He hit them with an impossibly powerful force, and both of the boys spun head over heels backwards.
Bovik managed to leap over Tharol as he went rolling by, kept his footing, and swung his sword forward with a cry. Master Y’Mish whisked his own sword out and the two of them crossed blades.
“Don’t worry about defeating him, Bovik,” Tharol cried as his roll finally came to a halt. “Just hold your ground.” He scrambled up to his feet and looked down to his arm, changing his sectioned fingers into a long, piercing blade. But then he paused, gripped by the memory of when he had fought Master Dovi and the voice told him to claim the elder’s weapon with his own blood.
Tharol looked up in shock. Master Y’Mish had just deflected another of Bovik’s thrusts, then used his free hand to punch the boy in the throat, sending him sprawling backwards with his hands around his neck. Behind them Inol was charging forward again, his Shraying Staff-arm also formed in the shape of a long blade.
“Inol, no!” Tharol cried. “Don’t cut him!”
It was too late, though. Master Y’Mish turned to face Inol, saw the raised blade, and casually lowered his weapon. With a shout Inol plunged his weaponized arm clean through Master Y’Mish’s heart. The elder slumped to the ground without a cry.
“Well that wasn’t so hard,” Inol crowed, while Tharol went to check on Bovik, who was still gagging and holding his throat.
“I’m fine,” Bovik croaked. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.”
“You shouldn’t have cut him,” Tharol shot at Inol.
“It’s something I learned earlier. When someone gets their blood on a blade, they’re able to claim it for their own.”
“What? I’ve never heard that. How?”
“I don’t really know–but I’ve seen it done.”
Inol shrugged. “So what? He’s dead. Can’t claim anything now.”
“Are you so sure?” Tharol pointed to the ground, where the body of Master Y’Mish was rapidly changing. It seemed to be melting into a long, silver strand, and it reached through the air like a cord, wending its way out of the gardens and back towards the rest of the elders. Perhaps it was his imagination, but Tharol believed he heard a chorus of steps from far away, all marching towards them in perfect unison.
“We should get out of here,” Bovik said.
The other two readily agreed. They retrieved the other Shraying Staffs and ran as quickly as they could through the halls of the abbey. All the youth had agreed that they would regroup at the Wester Hall after accomplishing their various tasks. As Bovik, Inol, and Tharol approached the tall doors of that great room they finally slowed to a walk, panting for breath and holding their sides.
Inol reached up and knocked on one of the doors. “White rose,” he whispered through the crack, and someone inside undid the latch.
“What took you so long?” Reis demanded as the three boys walked into the hall.
“Ran into the elders,” Inol explained. “They’re in the passageway between the gardens and the dining hall. They’re in a sort of–trance.” Inol looked sideways at Tharol and then leaned close to Reis. “Hey, come over here, though. There’s something we need to talk about in private.”
Tharol rolled his eyes and tried to not dwell on the two of them as they peeled off to the side and had a hushed conversation together. He was sure Inol was reporting about Tharol’s hesitation to attack Master Y’Mish, and whether that was evidence of treason.
“Let them have their conspiracies,” Tharol thought bitterly, then looked around to see how many youth had already made it back from their missions. All of them were present, apparently Bovik, Inol, and he had taken longer than they realized with all their side diversions.
Each of the youth were pacing restlessly, some of them muttering together in twos or threes. Each of them seemed on edge, jumping at any sound that was louder than a whisper. No doubt they were all expecting the elders to come crashing in on them at any moment. Scared to stay in one place for too long, terrified to go out for the battle.
Why were they doing this? Tharol wondered. They all craved a strong leader like Reis, needed it in a time of crisis like this, but he was leading them far beyond what they were ready for.
Before Tharol could think any more on the matter, Reis had concluded his private conversation with Inol, and now he was coming to address the rest of the crowd.
“Well done everyone,” he praised, “that’s every mission fulfilled flawlessly. It would seem the elders have retreated to a single position, one that is ill-guarded. This is very fortunate, and we can stage our attack to our own advantage. On the other hand, it does mean an all-out fight, where I would have rather preferred to single them out one-at-a-time. Still…” Reis paused and surveyed the gathered youth, unsure and wavering. He nodded approvingly. “I like our chances. If this is our moment, let it be now. I feel no greater privilege than to–“
A soft clatter echoed from the halls. On a normal night, it was the sort of sound one wouldn’t even give a second thought. But to the youth now it sounded like the approach of death itself. Each of them locked their eyes on the double-door, half expecting it to be blasted in at any moment.
The explosion never happened, however they became aware of a subtle, pulsating rhythm coming from far away. It sounded very low and dark, like the rushing of wind at the bottom of a deep well. One-by-one the youth looked back to Reis.
“We go now. Tharol and Inol, hand out those weapons. We’ll advance on the garden-dining hall passageway in two groups–“
“I’m not so sure that they’re still there,” Tharol interrupted. “I thought I heard them moving as we left”
“Stick as one group then, but fan out. If we see them at a distance, and they haven’t detected us yet, we’ll pause to set up the razor cord trap. At each juncture, the people furthest to the right and furthest to the left check each path before we proceed.”
Everyone scrambled to take a weapon, or get in position, activated more by fear than duty. In only a matter of second they all stood at ready before the door.
“Alright,” Reis breathed deeply. “Go.”
Bovik and Golu opened the doors, and everyone moved out as one. They spread out to fill the full width of the hallway. Well, not quite everyone. Tharol noticed the space immediately behind him being filled out of the corner of his eye, and he turned to find Inol there.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
“You and I work together. As a unit.”
“But I thought–“
“Hush!” Reis called back over his shoulder.
Tharol bit back the rest of his comment and kept moving forward. He didn’t care for the feeling of Inol lurking immediately behind him, though. Didn’t care for it at all.
Together the group of youth reached the first intersection. Marvi and Jolu peered down the two sides, then looked back to Reis and shook their heads. There was no one there.
Reis cocked his head upwards, listening for which way the deep strumming sound was coming from. He pointed dead ahead. Again they moved forward as one, taking one hallway after another, winding their way closer and closer to the source of the sound.
Now they came to a hall with ceiling-high archways opening to their right every few feet, overlooking the gardens. As they approached each opening the youth snapped their heads to the right, anxious to detect any threat that might be lurking out there.
Tharol could feel it in the air–was sure everyone else could feel it as well–they were close. The elders were very near. Any second now and there would be–
“OHHH!” Golu suddenly cried, which startled half of the other youth into shouting as well. Golu’s hand was extended towards the nearest archway. At first Tharol saw nothing, but following Golu’s hand he picked up the figure of a ghoulish creature hunched by the bushes, eyes staring out at them unblinkingly.
“It’s just a statue!” Reis hissed, and Tharol realized it was true. A stone gargoyle, skewed by the sideways moonlight and their own imaginations until it was nearly unrecognizable.
But the shout of the youth had already broken the spell. The deep, distant thrumming picked up in speed and volume, moving rapidly towards them. Seeming to echo through the walls and shake the stones at their feet.
“Oh no, they’re coming!” Jolu wailed. “We have to retreat!”
“No, stand firm!” Reis commanded. “Everyone ready your–“
“No!” Jolu panicked. “No we have to–have to–” the fear overtook him and he lifted his trembling hands to his eyes.
“Get him out of here!” Reis snapped. “He’s losing his nerve!”
“No,” Tharol said in dread. “It’s not that.”
Jolu’s whole body now trembled with his hands, his flesh rippled as an invisible wave passed through. His eyes rolled back into his head and the backs of them shone with a ghostly light. Then, suddenly, his hands stilled and his body went limp. How he remained standing was impossible to tell, it seemed as if he was being suspended only by an invisible puppeteer’s string.
“He’s being invaded.”
Jolu’s arms snapped upwards and he lurched forward towards the rest of the youth. A strange cry came from his mouth, like a miniature echo of the strumming sound they had been following.
And his wasn’t the only cry. It was being echoed behind them as well, though it was higher in intensity, like a shriek! Tharol already knew what he would see when he looked that way. The faceless entity had arrived, from it all of the elders were emerging, and they were also lurching to the attack!
On Monday I spoke about how stories are not only plot, character, and theme, they are also windows into new and exciting experiences. One of the reasons we pick up a novel or watch a movie is just to be given an image or idea that we’ve never experienced before.
With last week’s entry, and this one as well, my intention was to stuff one new idea after another into every scene. But the idea was not actually to amuse my readers, but rather to overwhelm them. I want them to feel uncomfortable, to not be able to grasp the rules of this new world, and to be uncertain of what might happen next. In this way I mean for them to have the same experience of our characters, who are all experiencing the rug being pulled out from under them.
I would say my greatest danger is overdoing it, and making it impossible for the readers to feel grounded in the story at all. In a world where literally anything can happen, it stops being surprising when yet another oddity follows after another.
This is an idea I’d like to explore with my next post. There have been some extremely weird stories over the years, full of all manner of crazy ideas, yet audience’s have been able to connect to and find personal meaning in them even so. Come back on Monday where we’ll look at a few examples, and consider how a story can walk the line of being unpredictable, yet relatable.