Tharol forced himself to turn from the elders, and focused instead on Jolu. Jolu was only recently lost after all, perhaps there was a way to bring him back. Tharol bounded over to the youth, and as he did so he noticed Inol following him from a step behind, Shraying-Staff elongating into a pointed spear.
“No!” Tharol cried. “Give me a chance to talk to him!”
“Those aren’t our orders!” Inol shot back. “We kill any Invaded!”
There wasn’t any time to argue, so instead Tharol slowed his step, grabbed Inol’s shoulder, and spun him hard. Inol’s own momentum made him lose balance and he went flying to the ground, cursing as he slammed into the stone floor.
Tharol pounded on ahead and leaped through the air to meet Jolu. He turned his Shraying-Staff arm into an extraordinarily large arm and hand, using its considerable strength to grab the boy’s wrist and restrain it. Tharol used his other hand to grip Jolu’s other wrist and tried to force the youth to look him in the eyes.
“Jolu, look at me!” he shouted, but Jolu’s eyes were rolled backwards. “See me, Jolu! See, it’s Tharol!”
Jolu’s arms flailed with a force that caught Tharol entirely by surprise, and the boy wrenched himself free of Tharol’s grasp. Jolu clapped his hands together, attempting to crush Tharol’s head in between. Tharol only barely managed to raise his Shraying Staff arm horizontally, blocking each hand.
“Jolu, please! You’re in there aren’t you? Come back!”
Jolu’s eyes flickered. For a moment his irises started to tease back towards their proper position. “No,” he strained out with an unnatural voice, as if he spoke through a heavy shroud. “I won’t. The fear.”
In that moment of hesitation Inol attacked. All Tharol saw of it was the Shraying Staff come thrusting in from above his shoulder, filling his vision. Jolu’s hands went limp and he fell backwards.
“You’re a traitor!” Inol shouted.
“Just because I have a different idea–” Tharol began, but Inol wasn’t in the mood for words. His Shraying Staff was still pierced through Jolu, but he had a standard sword in his other hand, which he was already thrusting at Tharol’s chest. Tharol tried to block it, but he was too late, and only deflected the blade so that it pierced his shoulder instead of his heart.
“What are you doing?” Tharol roared.
Tharol was confused by that, but then he felt a pair of eyes on him. He looked to the side and saw Reis watching the two of them intently.
Inol pulled back his blade and Tharol’s arm fell limply to his side. He felt the blood running down his shoulder, the throbbing pain emanating from his wound. He tried to raise his other arm, the one fused with the Shraying Staff, but Inol stepped on it, pinning it to the floor. Inol swung his own blade forward, a horizontal swing to pass right through the center of Tharol.
But then, just before contact, Inol exclaimed in shock. His Shraying Staff arm appeared to be melting into molten steel. One glob after another fell sideways through the air, flowing across the hall and over to the elders attacking the youth. When Master Y’Mish had let Inol cut him, he had claimed the weapon with his blood. But apparently he had not claimed it for himself. Having become fused with all of the elders he had been able to claim it for the mass. It fell into the hand of Master Zhaol, then flickered and appeared in the hand of Master Finei. Quickly it cycled through possession of them all, and evidently they could transmit it between them all. The youth’s advantage in weaponry had been negated.
Rather than watch the horrors that followed, Tharol turned to the matter closer at hand. He reformed his Shraying Staff arm, drawing it quickly inwards and pulling it out from beneath Inol’s foot. The youth lost his balance and stumbled forward, right into the blade that Tharol immediately formed his Shraying Staff into. Inol was pierced straight through the heart.
“You were a fool,” Tharol scoffed, then pulled his blade loose, letting Inol’s body drop to the earth.
He turned to the battle between the youth and the elders. It was a massacre. The elders moved in a strange and erratic fashion, splitting into their individual forms, and retreating into a central mass, flickering their Shraying Staff sword in and out of existence in time to block, parry, and thrust. Already four of the youth lay dead, and now their precious weapons were being claimed by the elders. Three more youth were on the ground bleeding out. The remaining six were all huddling back om a corner, forming their Shraying Staffs into a shield wall, not even trying to fight anymore. All of the elders were moving in on that group, closing from the kill.
Which meant…none of them were advancing for Tharol. He was alone, and he could get out of that place if he wanted. For a moment he considered doing it. What was the point of pursuing a lost cause? Even if he got the youth out of their corner the elders would keep on chasing them down.
Maybe he could save one though.
Gritting his teeth Tharol lifted his arm and charged forward. His damaged arm protested every movement, sent sharp flashes of pain through his side with every step. He fought that down, though, and launched himself high into the air.
A force carried him up. A force far greater than he had kicked off of the stone pathway with. He lifted fourteen feet into the air, then rolled himself into a spin. He extended his Shraying Staff out as a long pole. It whipped through the air, unhindered until it collided with Master Etla, the forefront elder. With a sickening crack Master Etla was thrown back into her compatriots, tumbling them all to the ground.
“Come on!” Tharol roared to the youth who were peeking out at him from behind their shield wall. “To the centrifuge!”
“Wait, no, we can kill them if we’re quick enough!” Reis emerged from the barricade first and gestured to the fallen elders. His voice lacked its usual authority though. It sounded more like a weak idea than an order.
“Back to the centrifuge,” Tharol repeated firmly. “I won’t protect anyone who stays to die.”
In a moment Reis’s face steeled. There was no more uncertainty in his demeanor now. For in spite of any common sense, he could not swallow a challenge to his leadership. He stepped towards the fallen elders, waving his Shraying Staff sword overhead. “I AM YOUR LEADER!” He roared back at the youth. “YOU HAVE ALL MADE A PLEDGE TO ME! I ORDER YOU TO–“
But no one listened. Without a moment’s hesitation all the others lowered their shields and dashed down the hall for refuge.
“I DENY YOU!” Reis shrieked, and held his hand aloft. The bonds of the pledge took hold. The youth could not resist an explicit rejection from their leader. So long as he was their leader, he could deny them their free will. All they could do now was either submit to his order, or remain frozen in place.
There was a rustling from behind. Master Etla would not be returning to her feet again, but all the other elders were. Seemingly unfazed by being so forcefully thrown to the ground, they marched forward in a tight battle formation. They advanced to the youth that was nearest to them. Which, of course, was Reis.
“Fight with me!” The tinge of panic returned to Reis’s voice now. He hurriedly glanced over his shoulder at the approaching elders, then back to the other youth still frozen in defiance.
The first of the elders reached Reis. The boy swung his weapon wide and she easily deflected it, then pinned it to the ground.
“Obey me!” Reis panted.
Three swords pierced him at once. He fell to the earth and Tharol and the others felt their bonds loosen. They were free to run now, and run they must, for Reis’s parting gift had been to take away any head-start they might have had.
Everyone moved at once! The youth rushed towards the end of the hall, the elders sprang after them, and Tharol leaped in between. He spun his Shraying Staff in a wide circle, forcing the elders to deal with him first, covering for the others’ retreat.
The two nearest elders caught Tharol’s weapon between their own, and twisted their blades in unison so that he was sent sprawling through the air. His back slammed into a wall, and the two elders advanced on him as the others continued the chase. They were Masters Oni and Strawl.
Tharol’s wounded arm should have been in agony from the blow. But he didn’t feel any pain. Didn’t feel anything at all. Indeed he felt like his mind was detached from his body, directing it from a place of calm removal. He flung himself forward, swung his blade out. He did not try to strike either of the two elders, rather he intentionally crossed his sword with theirs, until they were all locked together. He sent a ripple down his Shraying Staff and the individual sections began tumbling outward, interlocking with those belonging to the two elders. Each of them tried to pull their weapon free, but they were tangled together! Tharol focused once more, and retracted all the sections of his Shraying Staff, leaving the still-fused weapons of the other two.
It only took Oni and Strawl a moment to follow his example, retract their weapons, and free themselves, but by then Tharol had already dashed away, chasing after the rest of his comrades. He thundered down one hallway after another, pushing himself faster and faster. He paused only for a moment as he came across the body of one of his friends. It was Golu. It was immediately apparent that there wasn’t anything he could for him, though, the youth was already long dead, so Tharol continued on his way.
Tharol clenched his teeth and sprang back into the air. He needed to move faster. He needed to catch up to the others. He flung his Shraying Staff out as a hyper-elongated arm with a vise-like claw at the end. He seized upon a distant column, flexed his arm, and flung himself powerfully through the air.
A wall came rushing up to meet him, and he barely managed to throw his mechanical arm forward in time to catch the wall’s upper ridge and flip himself over the obstacle. As quickly as possible he righted himself, then thrust out to vault off a stone gargoyle.
And so he continued, grasping and flinging, weaving his way through the air at breakneck speed. Any mistake and he would slam into a wall or a roof. Any slip and he would break all his limbs or worse. Any misjudgment and he wouldn’t be there to save his friends.
Tharol flipped onto an adjacent hallway and came upon two elders locked in battle with another of the youth: Chaol.
Tharol gave a cry and let himself plummet towards the ground. His Shraying Staff arm splayed out like a massive net, wrapping the two elders at once. They were Masters Zhaol and Finei, and they were ready for him this time. As soon as his net touched them they resisted the bind. In unison they lurched Tharol off of his feet and slammed him into the ground. He tried to regain his footing, but their own Shraying Staffs shot forth like vines, pinning him to the wall.
“Run!” he gasped to Chaol. Then he thrust his Shraying Staff forward as a long spear towards the two elders. Again, they were ready for it. Master Zhaol released Tharol’s body and enmeshed Tharol’s Shraying Staff with his own, just the same as how Tharol had done to Oni and Strawl. Tharol couldn’t help but suspect that Zhaol knew about that maneuver by having shared with Oni and Strawl’s minds when it has happened.
Master Finei still held Tharol’s body firm with her Shraying Staff, but also drew a sword from her side with her other hand and ran Chaol through, killing the youth. Then she turned to Tharol and advanced for the kill.
Tharol regarded the cold steel of the sword…standard like the one Inol had carried.
With a cry Tharol thrust out his wounded arm. Pain washed over him, but he closed his eyes and focused with all his might. There came the sound of bubbling, molten steel, and then he felt Inol’s sword forming in the hand of his his wounded arm, claimed by his blood when Inol had stabbed him in the shoulder.
Tharol opened his eyes in time to see Master Finei slump backwards, dead. Master Zhaol blinked in surprise, and for a moment Tharol thought he looked like his old, regular self.
“Master Zhaol, let me go!” he pleaded. He tried to retract his Shraying Staff, but Master Zhaol was too quick, locking onto the sections of Tharol’s Shraying Staff with his own and pulling them back out.
“No,” Master Zhaol stated flatly, staring blankly off into the distance. “You have defied us. You are all to die.”
Tharol could hear the sound of other elders approaching them, Oni and Strawl pursuing from behind, no doubt.
“Please, Master. Remember what you stood for. What you believed in. Why are you letting the Invasion take you?”
Zhaol turned his eyes onto the youth, and again Tharol felt that he was seeing the remnants of the teacher he had known.
“There is no point in resisting,” Zhaol said sadly. “You haven’t seen it Tharol. Even now, through us, you haven’t really seen it. There is only joining or perishing.”
Oni and Strawl, rounded the corner, saw Master Zhaol and Tharol, and began to approach them.
“Then perish with us!” Tharol cried. “We might save one if we tried. If we die, just for that, it’s already worth it. You know it is.”
“But–but–” Zhaol’s eyes fluttered, snapping rapidly between a blank stare and a wide-eyed mania. “But I’m afraid.”
“So am I. I’ll be afraid with you.”
A look of relief washed over Zhaol, his whole body quavered, and then he became very calm. He looked sad, but sure.
“Five of us,” Oni and Strawl recited in unison. They stepped away from each other, now advancing on Zhaol in a pincer formation. Zhaol turned to face them.
“Thank you, Tharol,” he said over his shoulder. “I can handle this now. You run!”
“We should stay together,” Tharol said. “If we were work together we can save one.”
“You’ve already saved one. Now go save another.”
On Monday I wrote about stories that are detached from any normalcy that we experience in the natural world, yet which we still accept as real so long as it remains consistent to its own rules.
Admittedly, this is one area that I think my current story is lacking. I did not begin it with a clear understanding of its mechanics or systems. I just sort of made it up as I went, and the result is that certain elements are inconsistent throughout.
Take for example the elders after they have been taken over by the invasion. In their initial attack (in the amphitheater) they seemed basically human. Later they were zombie-like characters in a trance, who fused together to form one, featureless void. And in the first version of this latest section I had them basically back to human.
Fortunately I realized that the second interpretation, the entranced and hyper-connected communion, was the most interesting, and should be the one I used consistently.
Thus I went back over this nighttime battle and rewrote the elders to exhibit more of that fusing-together/coming-apart behavior. Even so, I do feel like the first chapters of this story could be updated to be in better synergy with where I went in these later ones. If I were to ever expand this story, I would be sure to make that change. And in this way, by making my story more consistently strange, I would actually make it more true to itself, and thereby easier to believe in.
Next Thursday I will be posting the next section of The Favored Son, and it will be the last entry for it. After that it will be time to move on to another tale and another series. But before we get to that, I’d like to recap what my intentions were for this story and evaluate how I have done at executing them. Come back on Monday to hear about that.