“Very good,” Reis said. “We’re each the other’s master, so equal partners. Are Beesk and Inol’s stones still up in their towers?”
“Yes. But like I said, I’m in an alliance with them already.”
“So what’s your plan? Topple everyone else first and then the three of you fight to see who wins?”
“Something like that.”
“You don’t really expect them to be that honest, do you? They’re expecting you to be loyal, so that just incentives them to get the jump on you early.”
“Good thing I’ll have you to protect me then.”
Reis rolled his eyes. “Whatever, we’re wasting time. You want to leave them for later, fine. They’re not the real threat anyway.”
Reis nodded. “Come on.”
The two boys turned towards the heart of the maze and made their way forward. They ran while stooped down low, so as to not be seen by the others. At every junction they paused and scouted all of the paths for any ongoing battles.
“Shouldn’t we have come across some of them by now?” Tharol hissed after they passed their third turn without hearing so much as a distant footfall.
“This is a unique contest,” Reis muttered. “Everyone’s scheming. We had a few scuffles at the very start–I knocked out Bovik–but otherwise I think everyone is scrapping for the best alliance they can manage.”
“Strange that we haven’t even seen Beesk and Inol coming back for me yet.”
“Yes, very strange,” Reis didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “Alright, Golu’s tower is just down from here: past the next two junctions, take a right, and it’s right in front of us. I think we sprint the rest of the way. You still have my crystal tucked away somewhere safe?”
They stopped crouching and ran at full speed. Down one narrow passage, past the first junction, down the next narrow passage, abreast the second junction…
Tharol only saw a blur rushing at him from the side, then was reeling heels over head, side throbbing from a powerful blow. He came to a rest, belly down in the dirt.
“Up! Up! Up!” Reis shouted, grabbing Tharol’s shoulders and giving a tug. He had to let go all of a sudden, though, ducking away from another vicious swing!
Tharol numbly rolled to the side, then laboriously pushed himself back to his feet. Avro, Janeao, and Inol were rushing at them from each direction, staffs whirling dangerously. Beesk was nowhere to be seen, he must have already been knocked down.
The three assailants put all of their focus on Reis, systematically pushing him back towards the nearest wall. As with the last contest, the youth made a valiant effort to block, parry, and dodge each jab, but of course there was only so much he could do.
“Tharol…” he muttered through grit teeth. “Any time you feel like helping…”
Tharol shook himself out of his daze and lunged forward. Janeao saw the motion and turned to cross staffs.
Janeao was the largest and the strongest of all the boys. Even if he didn’t have the finesse of a swordsman, he was still able to brute-strength his way through most encounters. Not only that, but he could see that Tharol was compromised, crouching slightly to protect his tender side. So Janeao launched into a quick flurry of attacks, forcing Tharol to retreat, further and further, until he was also backed into a wall.
Janeao stepped into Tharol’s space, crowding out any room to manuever. He lifted his staff high and swung down with all his might. Without room to dodge or parry Tharol could only block, and he didn’t have enough power to fully stop the blow, only to absorb some of its strength before it still came crashing down on his shoulder. Janeao immediately drew his staff back out and thrust with all his strength from the side. Again Tharol blocked half of the blow, but still took a powerful knock in his ribs. He couldn’t take much more of this. He would have to do something bold.
Janeao lifted his staff higher than ever, twisting the rough wood between his palms, readying for a finishing blow. But before he could swing down Tharol dropped his own staff, let it clatter to his feet, and shot his bare hand forward, administering a single, controlled punch to the throat.
Janeao coughed and clutched his hands to his neck, dropping his staff as well. Tharol grabbed the length out of the air and administered a quick blow to the side of the Janeao’s helmet. Janeao obligingly dropped to the ground, out for the rest of the competition.
Tharol moved forward to help Reis, but apparently just being relieved of Janeao’s attacks had been enough for Reis to handle the others. He was drawing his staff back from a blow to Avro’s belly, who doubled up and fell to the ground beside Inol.
“Oh wow,” Tharol breathed.
“You took Janeao down on your own?” Reis grinned. “Nice job!”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“No, really. I thought you’d be out for sure!”
“Let’s just take care of Golu,” Tharol strode past, not even dignifying Reis’s backhanded compliment with a response. “He should be the only one left now.”
“And then what do you think will happen?”
Tharol paused, then slowly turned back to face Reis.
“Then you and I fight.”
“Or I could just take you out now and then Golu…. Saves me from having to worry that you’ll hit me in the back of the head somewhere along the way.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“Well maybe you should, Tharol. No wonder you always lose these competitions!”
“Golu’s the best fencer of us all. Even better than you, slightly.”
Reis winced, but didn’t disagree.
“So your best chance is for the two of us to take him together,” Tharol continued. “And then settle things between us. And while it’s a long shot that’s my best chance, too. We’re united by a common interest, to say nothing of the fact that we’ve got each other’s crystal. I order you to not attack me until Golu is down.”
“And I order you to rescind that order,” Reis rolled his eyes, strolling down the path and towards Golu’s tower. “Come on. I’ll show you my plan, it’s better.”
Together the two of them reached the edge of the narrow passage and crouched at the mouth of the miniature valley beyond. Golu’s tower was nestled in the center of the clearing.
“Alright, there he is standing guard,” Reis observed. “I guess he figured he’d just wait out all the rest of the fighting and deal with any survivors at the end.”
“Not a bad idea.”
“No it’s not. He’s fresh and rested while we’ve been exerting ourselves for the last quarter hour. That–combined with the fact that I’m still worried you’ll get wise and hitting me in the back of the head during our battle–has got me thinking we’re better off splitting up.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at that shelf running up the side there. The lip of it is near enough to his tower that you should be able to jump the gap while I keep him preoccupied down below.”
Tharol felt his heart sink.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Looks a bit far to me.”
“Well I might be the better swordsman, but you’ve always been the acrobat. So it needs to be you.”
“No. I don’t like this plan.”
“It’s perfect. A pincer movement. It’ll make Golu distracted between two threats, giving me a fighting chance against him. If I knock him out then we win, if you make it to the crystal we win.”
“Unless I miss the jump and fall.”
“Yeah, well…don’t do that. And think of it this way. If you manage to get the crystal before I knock him out then he’s under your command. The two of you together will easily overpower me and you’ll win. This is the best chance you have to win the whole thing.”
Tharol hadn’t considered that. It was a very good point…. Too good of a point.
“What are you playing at?” he asked suspiciously.
“There’s some trick you’re not telling me.”
“Come on, Tharol, you can trust me.”
“No. There’s something that you’ve done. What is it?!”
Reis couldn’t hide a slight smile.
“What? The crystal swap?” Tharol reached to his side and drew out the stone that Reis had surrendered to him. He turned it over and over in his hands, and as he did felt something rough pass under his fingers. He moved his hand away and looked closely.
Apparently Master Palthio had inscribed each of the crystals with the name of the boy who owned it. And the one Tharol held said “Bovik.”
So that was it.
Reis had knocked Bovik out at the start of the match and given that boy’s crystal to Tharol instead. Reis’s own crystal must still be perfectly safe back at his own tower. Tharol kicked himself inwardly, wondering why he hadn’t followed his instincts! He shouldn’t have ever made any bargain with Reis! Should have fought him as soon as he saw him. But now…
“Well now you see, Tharol,” Reis sighed. “You’ve already lost and you don’t have any choice in the matter. I order you to go and jump for that crystal. Capture it and bring it to me…or at the very least provide a good enough distraction that I can lay Golu flat on his back.”
Tharol grit his teeth…but there was nothing he could do anymore. He had been defeated and he would have to jump.
Together the two boys turned to face down the valley again. Golu had spotted them now and was spinning his staff menacingly. Reis counted down from three and then each boy rushed forward, split apart, and began their pincer movement.
Tharol’s side burned from the blows he had received in the previous scuffle. He knew it would be a hard jump, even on a good day, let alone now that he was weary and hurt. There wasn’t any way that he could make this.
But then Reis would win. Not in the sense of the competition, Tharol was already been beaten there, but in the sense of totally humiliating Tharol. Tharol wasn’t sure why, but he was certain Reis had sent him up here as a taunt, to force him to do something that he would fail at. Tharol wasn’t about to let him have that satisfaction.
He picked up his pace, raced up the ledge, each step propelling him higher and higher, closer and closer to the edge. He saw the lip directly ahead now, saw Reis and Golu fighting twenty feet below, Golu glancing from the corner of his eye to see what Tharol was doing.
Just as Tharol’s foot reached the lip he heard Master Palthio’s voice in his head.
“And you will attempt that jump…and you will fail.”
Tharol sprang out into the void. Immediately he knew he wasn’t going to make it. In fact he only made it halfway before he was already dropping too low to clear the tower’s edge. He crashed into the side of the tower instead, flailed his arms wildly, then dropped all the way to the earth. A sickening crack rang out and he knew that his foot had broken. Overcome by pain he dropped to his back and groaned long and loud through clasped teeth.
For a moment all was pain and embarrassment. Yet somehow, even amidst the flood of pain and shame, he was cognizant enough to hear the thud of Golu being dropped to the ground. Reis had got in a concussive blow thanks to Tharol’s distraction.
“Auuuuuugh!” Tharol opened his mouth and shouted out, slamming his fists into the ground. Hot tears splashed across his cheeks. His agony actually had much less to do with the pain and much more to do with the humiliation. He had been played. Hard. And he had had no way to prevent it, even when he had been watching for it. He hated to lose to Reis again. Hated to be so foolishly dragged into his own demise. It didn’t seem to matter how careful or clever he tried to be, Reis was always two steps ahead, just as Master Palthio had said.
Speaking of Master Palthio, the master now approached, having rushed all the way from his tower to see if his students were alright. He drew near to Tharol and raised both hands over him, closed his eyes in concentration, and magically repaired the broken foot. Tharol’s fists unclenched and he gave a sigh of relief. The dull ache still persisted, but at least the spikes of pain shooting up his leg had subsided.
“I didn’t make the jump, Master,” Tharol said bitterly.
“No…. I made sure you wouldn’t.”
On Monday I spoke of different forms of communication in a story and emphasized how even scenes of action can convey character development and plot. With today’s chapter I tried to showcase this by dragging Tharol through a gauntlet of one setback after another. Where the previous competition felt relatively lighthearted and fun, this one has blows that land with more earnestness.
For example, last time Tharol knocked out Beesk entirely by accident when he happened to spin around at exactly the right moment. Though that was technically a violent act, it was played off in a way that was meant to feel comical, even slapstick. Today, though, Janeao rains one blow on Tharol after another with genuine, vicious intent. This isn’t a game anymore. Janeao is trying to hurt him.
And last time Reis laid out a trap that Tharol happily stepped into, losing the match for himself and his team. This time Reis actually takes control over Tharol, maneuvers him against his will, and leads him into breaking his own leg. It feels a lot more personal.
It is apparent that there is a lot of ill will seething underneath the surface. The boys are playing out their very real frustrations against each other and drawing very real lines in the sand. As we will see in the next scene, the hostility that broke out in this competition remains in full force off of the field, too.
Before we get to that, though, I want to examine the reason why I am isolating Tharol here before the end. As it turns out, this is a very common pattern in stories: the hero who loses all of their support, requiring them to walk the final chapter on their own. On Monday I’ll take a look at a few of the many, many examples of this and consider why it is so effective as a plot device. Come back to read about it then.