Tharol nodded solemnly, then turned and streaked down the hall. He heard the clatter of swords behind him, but he didn’t turn to see whether Master Zhaol would be able to hold the other two back or not. All that mattered now was getting to any of the other students who were still alive.
He raced out of the main abbey doors and across the grounds. There were no more stone columns to launch himself off of, but he pounded his feet into the hard earth and was lifted into the air by a force that far exceeded the amount he had thrust down. He sailed through the night, rose up higher and higher, then he peaked, and as he came down he expanded his Shraying Staff as a net of fine tendrils to slow his descent into something that wouldn’t shatter his legs!
He repeated this process, bounding in great leaps over the tall, silver-green grass, until he came to the entrance of the stone hedge maze. In the dark shadows he could just make out a scuffle taking place at the central archway.
Instead of leaping upwards, this time he propelled himself forward, streaking ahead like a loosed arrow. The dark figures raced up to him and he formed his Shraying Staff into a single-edged sword. He drew it back and swung it forward, trusting his reflexes to guide him, still not sure of his target. One of the bodies turned towards him and started to raise its arm in defense. For a brief moment Tharol saw its outline quaver, like the elders when they were shifting into and out of one another. Without hesitation he angled his already-swinging sword and let it cleave through that body.
The elder fell to the ground, dead.
Tharol’s feet hit the earth and he skidded to a halt in the midst of everyone else. Now he could make everyone out in the soft moonlight. His allies were huddled back-to-back, trying to hold off the remaining elders around them. They were Marvi, Bovik, Meelta, and Yaihs, the only other survivors of the night.
“Hold firm!” Tharol instructed. “I’ll try to throw back their first attack, and then the rest of you–“
“They’re doing it again!” Yaihs shrieked, and he pointed to one of the elders, who also started to quaver around her outline. She lost her features for a moment, and became an obscure mass. Then two figures separated and stepped apart from that mass: the same woman as before and Strawl. No one else emerged, though. Apparently Zhaol had taken Oni down with himself.
“Five of us and four with us,” the five elders counted in unison.
“Yeah, fall back,” Tharol panted, then lurched forward at the elders, swinging his sword wide. They easily sidestepped his blade, and the two elders nearest the stone hedge used the opportunity to reposition themselves in front of the entrance and cut off the youth’s retreat.
“It’s over!” Yaihs cried. His hands clutched the side of his head, panic set in, and then he began to quaver violently.
“He’s being taken!” Bovik yelled.
Tharol looked around frantically. What was he to do? He had pushed himself to places he didn’t even know he was capable of tonight, but even so the situation had slipped more and more out of his control. Now it was lurching out of his grasp entirely!
He roared in desperation and flung himself through the air at the elders blocking the youth’s retreat. The elders there were waiting for him, and no sooner did he touch ground than two swords pierced him, one in the leg and the other in his already-wounded shoulder.
“Just go!” he panted to the others, then thrust his Shraying Staff out as vines, momentarily restraining the elders there. He would hold them down for as long as he could, and after that he could only hope that the youth would find a way to save themselves.
Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta youth dashed past him. Three of the elders followed close behind. Yaihs–who was nearly fully taken over–and the two ensnared elders stayed with Tharol. Tharol regarded those two for a moment. It was Master Strawl in front of him, and Master Umir behind. Each was just about free from Tharol bonds.
Tharol looked down to the ground and panted heavily. There was no catching his breath, though, for his exhaustion went far beyond a shortage of air. His own life was flowing out of his wounds, leaving him closer and closer to darkness with every passing moment. Part of him wanted to just succumb to his wounds…but that would not help his friends.
With a shout Tharol drew back his vines, reforged his Shraying Staff into a sword, and thrust it at Strawl. Strawl blocked the blow, so Tharol immediately flung his sword backwards, extending it as a pole with the hope of catch Umir. A dull thud told him he had succeeded, but Tharol hadn’t hit him so hard as to take him out of action.
Back and forth Tharol flailed. His head snapped from one foe to another, watching for their own strokes and madly thrusting his weapon to parry them. His Shraying Staff changed form a dozen times. Now it was a shield to catch a thrust he couldn’t see properly, now it was a pole to punch through a small gap between Strawl’s arms, now it was a hooked blade to try and snag Umir’s weapon.
Tharol stopped thinking through the transitions anymore. He simply felt the flow of battle, turning and reacting by pure reflex. He moved as if in a dance. And when Yaihs was completely taken over and joined the fray, Tharol merely let his rhythms flow in that new quarry’s direction as well. He called on his limbs for strength and speed, and they responded.
That surprised Tharol. He should be bleeding out right now. He should be growing weaker and fainter, not stronger and surer. So confident did his body feel, that Tharol even drew out his standard blade with his other hand, and wielded it as if there was no hole through his shoulder.
Tharol was too preoccupied with the battle to examine himself closely, too distracted to see how the sections of his Shraying Staff were unfolding from their place on the weapon, and reassembling themselves over his wounds, forming as artificial muscle, tissue, and bone, all just as responsive to his commands as his natural flesh.
What he eventually did notice, though, was that the weapon in his hand was growing smaller and smaller. Eventually so much of the Shraying Staff had dissipated through his body that his weaponized arm had reverted back to its regular flesh and blood, holding nothing more than a small dagger in its palm.
Tharol frowned in confusion, but that moment’s hesitation was more than he could afford. Yais pinned Tharol’s natural sword against a rock. In exactly the same moment Strawl and Umir thrust their blades forward, each driving straight for Tharol’s heart.
But once again Tharol felt his way through. Instinct, more than memory, told him that Strawl and Umir had already cut him with those blades, stained their weapons with his blood, and thus surrendered control of them to him.
He opened his palms, and felt Strawl’s and Umir’s weapons forming in his hands. They were left defenseless. The flung themselves backward, out of reach. Tharol considered which of them to lunge after first, but before he could all three of his foes quavered and dissipated, no doubt merging back with the other elders pursuing Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta.
And so now Tharol must chase as well! He turned to the stone hedge entrance and rushed onward. Down the first pathway, on to the next, and to the next and the next. He beat on through the maze, faster than he had ever moved through it before.
As always, the walls began spinning in reaction to his every move. And at speeds like these, there was very little time to react to their erratic pivots. So once again, Tharol relied on instinct, dodging the extruded walls without a single thought, leaping over the stone risers by reflex, ducking under the popping-out ceilings on whim.
He thrust out one of his newly acquired Shraying Staff limbs as a claw, gripped the top of the stone hedge, and flung himself high into the air. The stone tapestry whirled up with him, continuing to surround and spring obstacles on every hand. He converted his other Shraying Staff into a claw as well, and used both to grip the tumbling stone and dodge and weave his way through.
Then he reached the height of his ascent and angled back downwards. The stone continued to warp around him, and now he formed his Shraying Staff arms into thin tendrils, scraping the edges of the stone as he slid down their chute. Every now and again a sudden barrier sprung at his feet, and he used those tendrils to seize on the rock and jerk himself to the left or right as needed.
Every now and then a stray block caught him. Every now and then he took each blow and tumbled into the dirt. But he simply rolled back onto his feet and continued on as if nothing had happened. It didn’t matter how hard it hurt, he had to keep moving forward.
A shout in the distance rang out, and he heaved himself forward, willing his body to find every small crevice and crack to slip through at only a moment’s notice. One wall spun out of his way, and beyond it he saw Meelta, collapsing with a sword through her heart. Bovik and Marvi were just beyond, and the elders were pressing in from every direction.
With a shout Tharol flung himself forward again, threw his Shraying Staff arms out as a protective web. They formed two half-circles that encompassed him and his companions, closing them all together in a thick-wired ball. The elders hacked at his netted barrier, but Tharol wasn’t sticking around to fight with them. With another cry he flung himself forward again, carrying all three of them forward through the maze.
Blades and walls and broken tendrils filled the air around them. It seemed a blow hit them from every direction at once, and it was only by sheer grit that they forced their way onward.
“We have to be near to the centrifuge now!” Bovik cried.
“It doesn’t matter,” Marvi wailed. “We won’t be able to figure out how to get in with them right on us.”
It was true. There wasn’t time to wait and puzzle out the right way in. They would be caught just outside of their sanctuary and have to take a last stand against the elders and Yaihs.
For right then each of the elders raised their hands forward, sent out a beam of light, and the walls directly ahead exploded into pieces, exposing the centrifuge beyond.
“They can do that?!” Bovik said in shock as the three bounded into the central clearing.
Tharol drew back his protective cage, and formed his arms back into blades. “They’re proving to us that there’s no sense in running anymore, and they’re right. We stand and fight here. Maybe we all die, or maybe one of us gets out alive. Either way we–“
A strange clicking noise from behind distracted Tharol in the middle of his sentence. Slowly he turned, and saw there the artificial creature that had been forming over the past weeks, the one he had spoken about to Reis before all this nightmare had begun.
It was moving now, and its head was complete. It stood nearly as tall as Tharol did on long, spindly legs. It had a horizontal body, angular features, and a head that was long, flat, and alert. It was pointing that head towards the elders.
“Um,” Tharol started to say, but then the artificial creature burst forward like a shot. It crossed ten yards with each bound, closing the distance to the elders in no time at all. The elders threw their Shraying Staffs up as shields, but the creature cleaved through them instantaneously. Its next strokes slew each foe instantaneously.
Just like that…the massacre was over. The artificial creature looked back at the youth, then turned and bounded deeper into the maze, lost to the sprawling pathways beyond. A deep sigh seemed to emanate from those dark chambers, the unclenching of a prolonged strain.
Tharol, Bovik, and Marvi stood there in silence for a long, long while. At first they stared blankly at the blasted hole in the centrifuge wall and at the corpses of their former masters and fellow student, Yaihs. Then they let their eyes silently roam over the broken columns and moss-covered boulders that were scattered all around. Everything was quiet and very, very still. There wasn’t even the sound of crickets or wind.
It was Bovik who finally spoke.
“What do we do now?”
With the spell of silence broken the other two youth came back to the present moment.
“There’s nothing,” Marvi shook her head. “Everyone’s gone.”
“We’re not,” Tharol countered. “We’re still here.”
“We’re three people! We were supposed to be an Order, we were supposed to carry the torch on. But–but–“
“But that flame’s gone out,” Bovik finished and Marvi nodded.
“That’s true,” Tharol nodded. “It’s gone now, and it isn’t coming back. Not for a long, long time at least…and maybe not ever.”
They all stood another moment in silence.
“So let’s go do something else,” Tharol said with conviction.
“What?” Bovik asked.
“Something. I don’t know. But let’s go out there. First we’ll just worry about surviving, and later, when we know more, we’ll build something new.”
“Of course you would say that,” Marvi frowned in contempt. “Leave this all behind and start something new, because you never did like the Order!”
“That’s not true. I loved the Order. It confounded me, but I loved it. Now, though, I think it was an imperfect structure built on a perfect idea. And for right now I want to get to know that underlying idea better. I can’t do anything more until I understand that. There’s so much we don’t know.”
Marvi pursed her lips and thought for a while before responding. “What about the traitor?”
“The traitor that Reis was telling us about. He believed it was you.”
Tharol shook his head. “I’m sorry to say this, but Reis was a fool.”
“It’s true. And the fact is, I think he was the traitor that his let medallion was warning of. Not knowingly so, but his fear-mongering and personal insecurities opened the door wide for tonight’s disaster. There’s no reason why twelve of us should have been killed tonight!”
“Marvi, it’s true–” Bovik started, but she held up her hand to stop him.
“Can you just–let me be? I don’t want to talk about this right now.”
Tharol and Bovik made eye contact and nodded. She clearly needed some time and space to mourn.
“Well…so what do we do now?” Bovik returned to his initial question.
Tharol turned from the hole in the wall, and looked over the top of the stone hedge maze to the sprawling valley outside of the abbey walls.
“I need to get away from tonight. I think we all do. My next step is out there…. Beyond that, I’ll figure it out as I go.”
“I’ll come with you,” Bovik agreed.
Marvi didn’t say anything, but nodded.
“Do you think the Invasion is happening out there, too?” Bovik asked.
“I expect so. But–at least we’re still together. Maybe we can find some more survivors, too.”
And then the three of them walked out into the night.
Well, there we are, all finished with The Favored Son. It’s been quite the journey, and quite the sprint to the finish! To be perfectly honest, I was starting to hate this story in the middle, because I had no idea where I was going with it. But here at the end I feel I finally settled into an understanding, things came together nicely, and I am quite pleased to add it to my collection.
Speaking of my collection, The Favored Son represents a special milestone for my short stories, and I’m going to do a little something to commemorate that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain what I mean, and until then have a wonderful weekend!