Raise the Black Sun: Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

My companions and I could tell that we had finally come to the heart of the matter and we leaned in close as our host continued to unveil the secrets of his order.

“It was years before our ancestors discovered the value of the sacrifices,” the man said. “As with everything else, the births and deaths of our people were already regulated by the turning of the wheel. That much was known.

“But about this time they began to branch their experiments into geology, and it did not take them long to unearth the Slab Altar. Of course, back then that was not its name. To them it appeared to be nothing more than a sheet of unnaturally black rock, upon which nothing ever grew. This was curious enough, though, and the more they explored its qualities, the more they found to pique their curiosity.

“For example, the tool has not been made that can so much as scratch its surface. Not even the great powers of time and erosion seem to have any effect upon it, it remains forever unchanged. For another, animals avoid it at every cost. Even ants will laboriously crawl around its perimeter rather than set foot upon it. And an ant, or any other creature, that is dropped upon its surface will instantly die and shrivel into literal nothingness. For a third, the Mind of the Wheel manifests most powerfully when standing near to or upon the surface. And finally, it is actually not a ‘slab.’ It was partially unearthed, and what we see of it now is the head of a very long and shaft of rock, thrust down through the earth at an angle, extending an estimated three thousand feet before it break out the cliff wall and come into the presence of the Void. Of course we have never dug that full distance, but it so unique of a stone that we are convinced it runs the full depth.

“As I have mentioned before, you have already felt the Mind before, when you all perceived in unison that your companions had perished under a purpose, but not necessarily for something. Go and stand upon the Slab Altar and your feelings will become all the more unified. Stay there long enough and your very actions will cease to be your own. You will start to move in trances, tracing intricate footpaths around its edges, making strange hand signs in the air.”

“We know something of this,” Bayhu spoke up, then proceeded to explain the Job Mind which steered every Treksman through their deliveries.

“Is that so?!” our host’s eyes went wide. “Thank you for telling me this. I was unaware of such things. I am convinced in some way this ‘Job Mind’ is itself a manifestation of the Wheel. If we were not already at The End, I would request my order to analyze the matter further.”

“At the end of what?” I asked.

The End,” he said solemnly. “The End of all sacrifices. And tell me, were you aware that the first of all sacrifices began after a caravan, such as yours, delivered scrying sticks to the Coventry, just as you have done now? Many generations ago.”

“Scrying sticks?” Nanth wrinkled his brow. “No one has called them that for years, it’sjust an old superstition! They are but dried bracken, a simple fuel for burning.”

“But of course,” the man smiled. “For the populations have long since moved away from their old homes here at the Outer Reach. Oh yes, did you not know? Once this entire field was dotted with villages. Here, at the only place that scrying sticks can truly function. As the settlements left this place, the sticks would have lost their animation, being too far removed from the Wheel’s Mind. You have assumed myth of the truths that you moved from.”

“You mean…they really can show you the future out here?” Nanth asked in awe.

“What? No! Is that what your legends say? Ha, you’ve adulterated the truth as well as forgotten it! No, nothing so dramatic as that. Scrying sticks do not tell you anything…but they suggest very much. The forms that they take are an enigma, a puzzle that still has to be worked out before anything of meaning can be divined. They merely point you in the right direction.”

“And they…pointed towards sacrifices on the Slab Altar?” Ro’Kano guessed.

“They pointed towards cycles and patterns, some figures that our ancestors had already seen replicated in their experiments of the Void, some which were new to them, and answered to phenomena that would not be identified until centuries later. But the greatest truth shown by the scrying sticks was that all of these patterns directly followed upon one another. For each figure they wrote was inscribed within the others, and all in an interlaced pattern. It all combined in one great, round shape, from which our ancestors invented the name of “the Wheel.” It was clear the meaning of those figures and the picture: each cog is related. Our lives, our deaths…all of it…all are cogs bringing about one final revolution. Our coming and going, our working and sleeping, our children being born, our dying, it was all for something. The scrying sticks indicated a point at the head of the Wheel where every cycle strikes at the same moment. A point where everything comes into perfect alignment. Or rather…it showed it almost.”

Our host paused, for he had been speaking very quickly and had to regain his breath. As soon as possible he continued.

“There was a gap in the picture made by the sticks, a great chasm down the center, a tall shaft where nothing sat. And its shape was not random, our ancestors recognized the very top of it: it answered perfectly to the ratios of that mysterious slab of black rock that penetrated down into the Void. All the other cycles worked around it, but that shaft had to be filled for all their revolutions to be made complete.”

“Filled?” I asked, already sensing dread for the answer.

“The ancestors had already learned before…by a grave misfortune…that though the slab could not be cut by any tool, there was one essence that could permeate into it.”

“Human blood,” we all said in unison and he nodded.

“The shaft must be filled. The world depends on it. Our world is one of systems, those systems must emanate from the Void, for they are strongest around it. The purpose of those systems is to reach the great culmination where all come into perfect harmony. But that harmony cannot actually resonate unless the one gap in the system is filled. If the harmony does not occur, then the systems will break. They cannot restart unless they complete. And if the systems break, then surely everything that is a part of them will be destroyed…and that includes all of humanity. And so you see…the gap must be filled. And it must be filled by willing souls. The one place where the Mind of the Wheel does not compel us, we must compel ourselves. It is poetic, is it not, that in the one shaft where the system provides freedom, we must chain ourselves so to the work?”

It was a long while before any of us spoke, but at last I ventured the thought that I believe was in all of our minds then.

“But…what if not? Forgive me, but I see a great deal of conjecture, not conclusion. It could be that your ancestors saw the patterns that they wanted to see, interpreted the things that they were already looking for.”

Our host smiled, but it was pained. “As outsiders, you are not under our stricter laws, and it is well for you. For were you a citizen, you would now be executed for heresy. I am sure you did not consider it, but you sow the seeds that would break the cycle and doom us all, the greatest offense that any man can do. No, no, you needn’t apologize, as I said, you are new to our ways, and so leniency is to be expected. And…of course what you say is a natural thought to have. Of course it is. I do not blame you for it. Just as there is a gap in the cycles, there is a gap in the knowledge. It is not written out in black and white. Some of these things are technically only supposed. There are unknowns.

“But, my dear boy, this is not faith, this is science. We have the numbers, we follow the patterns and they work. We make our sacrifices without fail. Every hundred there is a tremor from the heart of the Void. Every ten thousand there is a tremor and a flash of light. Every hundred thousand is tremor, flash, and the inkling of something coming into view. Every million…and the Black Sun starts to emerge, only for a moment, but you can feel its gravity crackling. Any uncertainty of our course is answered by the effectiveness of it. And if you do not believe me now, ask yourself again tomorrow, and then the next, for already you are starting to think as we are. You will find yourself more and more convinced, just as all the rest of us, that this is the only way forward. You will feel the spirit of this place and know that this is the only right thing to do. You will share the mind of us all.”

And, of a truth, when I had suggested that the conclusions drawn by these people might be amiss, I had already felt a twinge in myself for doing so. For when he had first explained those conclusions, there was a part in me that resonated to his chorus. It was that same part that had felt a doomed fate ever since we first set out on this journey. It was a sense that this work must be done. Yes it was dire, yes it was dark, yes it was sure to culminate in something terrible…yet even so it must be. The machine could not be stopped. I could recognize that plain as day. It had to go on.

Even if for evil.

Our visit soon drew to a close. Our host concluded by explaining to us what we had already supposed: over all these generations the people of this covnetry had nearly filled the tally of the Slab Altar, nearly performed the requisite number of sacrifices to make every other set of numbers and cycles work out properly, and had done so on schedule, so as to coincide the final sacrifice with the great point of culmination.

Our dried bracken (or scrying sticks) had been sent for to make confirmation of this fact. And then, when everything was verified, the great completion of the cycles would occur three days from now, and the Black Sun would be raised from its depths to usher in the new era.

And with that he bid us farewell and sent us to retire for the day. Of course, one might wonder how our minds could rest after all these thoughts and revelations that had been awoken in them? The end of the world was upon us, what had we to do with sleep?

Yet somehow sleep we did. Fatigue injected into our veins and brought us into the same cadence of sleep which was our regular enjoyment every night that we remained at the Coventry. No doubt, this was also one of the regulated systems that our host had told us about.

The next day we had no discussion of leaving from that place. If the locals were right, then three day’s journey would hardly remove us from the cosmic events about to transpire. And if they were wrong–but, well, we had little suspicion that they were.

So there was nothing for it but to remain and bear witness to all that followed. We ambled across the streets for a time, having no clear intention for where we would go or what we would see. We parted company without a word, trailing down our own private alleys and corridors.

Except for that where I went, Ro’Kano never left my side. No matter which path I took, he followed, and whenever I asked what way he would like us to go he simply responded “oh, I don’t mind. Whichever way you’re headed.”

Well, of course I presently found myself headed to the back courtyard, where the Slab Altar rested, ready to receive its daily fill of life. And as Ro’Kano and I approached the place, we made note of each of my companions also hidden about in various nooks and alcoves.

The altar truly was a geological marvel. Pure black all across, without the slightest variation in color or shade over the whole surface. Indeed, if not for the light reflecting upon it, I would have thought it was as empty as the Void that lurked just beyond the wall.

That reflecting light presented an interesting phenomenon of its own. For at most times the Altar reflected almost no light at all, it had only two faint glimmers slowly crawling its perimeter edge on opposite sides. It took them about three minutes to each travel the half of the circle to where the other glimmer had originated, and then they expanded suddenly, swooping across the entire surface in a single, blinding glare. Then the light retracted back into those two faint points, and they began crawling around the perimeter once more.

But enough of that. No doubt you would rather hear what I have to say of the sacrifices themselves.

Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

 

I spoke on Monday about how I was letting this story run pretty loose with where it wanted to go and for how long it wanted to be there. Surely that couldn’t be any more evident than in this conversation continued from the last section, where the Treksmen learn the history of the Coventry, and did so for over three thousand words!

It is funny to remember the stories I wrote as a teenager, where I could not make a moment last for even a paragraph. Events that were meant to be grand and sweeping would expire within a single page, simply because I couldn’t think of anything more to say. I certainly don’t have that problem now!

I know that this last conversation has run on for quite a long while, but it was a very important discussion, a hinge point that answers so many of the questions from before, and also raises all the new questions to be addressed by the rest of the story. I honestly felt that I could not force it through any more quickly, for to do so would have been to break the tension of the entire work.

That is an interesting idea right there: the tension of the entire work. We often speak of the “style” of a story, or its themes, or its voice, or its perspective…but I believe that all of these words are trying to get at the same thing, which none of them capture it in its entirety. On Monday I spoke about a story having “wants,” and that too hints at this “tension of the work.”

Another way to express it might be that a story has a character. Not the main character, or any other individual within the tale, but that the story itself has a personality. And the best stories have a strong one, and they remain consistent to it until the end.

Perhaps this is all a bit much, so let’s pause for now, and we’ll return next Monday to hash it out more fully. Come back after the weekend for that, and then on Thursday we’ll continue the plot of Raise the Black Sun.

A Mind of its Own

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Do you write a story to express yourself, or does a story express itself through your writing? Many the creative soul has spoken of being moved to make things in a particular way, following the inspiration of external sources, inventing something that they did not fully understand when they began the work. Sometimes they still didn’t understand it after it was done. This creates a sense of creations that exist apart from their creator.

Michelangelo famously declared that he did not create anything in his sculptures, he only removed the excess stone until the already-existing figure was exposed for everyone to see. Thus, in a sense, even before Michelangelo did his work, the sculpture was already in there, still totally real, even if momentarily hidden.

Many authors also speak of their stories having “wants” like that of an actual person. You might start the scene where the the hero overcomes his flaws and comes to the rescue, but when you try to put together the words they just feel forced and ill-fitting. You come to realize that redemption doesn’t fit the character as written, it isn’t the arc that he wants to follow. He wants to take you somewhere else.

 

At Odds With Your Character)

This might present a problem, though, because where your character does want to go might not be very useful for the work as a whole. Perhaps it gives them a truer expression, but as a side-effect leaves your story without any cathartic resolution.

So what do you do? Force them back into the bottle? Make them go through that redemptive arc, even though it feels hollow? Try to add seeds of remorse for them in earlier scenes, knowing full well that they might feel awkwardly tacked on? I don’t know about you, but I believe I’ve read and watched many stories that did exactly this. Characters are developed in interesting ways, with very real personalities and interesting needs. And then, suddenly, all of that gets cast aside as the “story” robs them of their development, so that it can tack on a totally cliché ending.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen stories that indulge in their characters long past my point of caring. If a character is very strong, then it might be well worth following them wherever they might go, but honestly, most story characters are only serviceable to a point. I have dropped off of many television series when they seemed to forget their initial premise and instead became the “main character variety hour.”

 

A Question of Time)

One of the most common causes I have seen for mangling the desires of a story or the desires of a character is when the work is being shoehorned into a scope that does not fit it. For example, truly interesting characters take time to fully develop. When they are part of a film that is mandated to run for two hours and no more, then all too often character development gets cut short and leaves too many things unsaid.

On the other hand, an ensemble of one-dimensional characters is excellent for developing a tight, focused narrative that delivers on a single idea, and then bows out before it can overstay its welcome. But when this platform is dragged out in a long-running television series, the original focus has to become blurred into many pointless subplots, uninteresting character dives, and drama for pure drama’s sake.

 

A Sharp Focus)

So how do I approach this matter in my own stories? Well it depends on the format.

For example, I am working on a novel that I want to be a particular length (80,000 to 120,000 words), deliver a single moral at its end, feature only a select few themes on the side, and close out without any loose threads whatsoever.

Given how tight and focused I want this work to be, I didn’t write a single word of my first draft until I had my characters and settings hammered out thoroughly. Early drafts saw a cast of dozens, which I realized meant either I would bloat my story out much further than intended, or else I would have to cut off some threads prematurely. Instead I scrapped that setup and brought it down to a total of four characters.

Some of those characters were too shallow in their original design, and I realized they wouldn’t remain interesting for the duration of the tale. Others were too complex, which meant they might become more interesting than the final, central message, which was intended to be greater than any single individual. Thus I redistributed character qualities, taking complexity from the ones that were too sharply defined, and giving them to the ones that were softer.

And only after I had all of my characters fully established, and in harmony with the scope or the overall tale, did I start to actually write my first draft. Undoubtedly some possible diversions were lost in managing them so closely, but that’s alright. I didn’t want diversions. I want this story to be what I want it to be, and I will do my more freeform experimentation elsewhere.

 

Meandering)

Specifically, I will do it here. One of the main points of this blog has always been to invent characters and situations that are as imaginative and complicated as I please, and then turn them loose to see what comes of it. Sometimes the well runs dry very quickly, and I don’t try to artificially extend things. Sometimes it keeps going on, week after week, because the story refuses to be wrapped up quickly. That’s fine, too.

As it turns out, my most recent story falls firmly into that last camp. When I first conceived of Raise the Black Sun, I figured it would run for about 4,000 words, maybe 6,000. It has now passed 10,000, and still going strong. The reason for this is because I come into each of these short stories with only a loose outline, and then let the work roam freely between each checkpoint.

And yes, sometimes they roam outside of their boundaries, in which case I change the plot to accommodate where they want to go instead. It is incredibly indulgent, and that’s entirely the point. Being able to cut loose like this once in a while has led me to some very promising discoveries, and I will always want this outlet in some form or another.

Admittedly, this does run the risk of alienating readers with its indulgence, and while I hope people aren’t bored with how long some of these stories have run, I do acknowledge that that is entirely a possibility. Let’s just say that there’s a reason why I make this stuff available to you free of charge and without any advertisements!

(Actually, if you subscribe to my blog, please let me know if there are advertisements at the bottom of the emails that come whenever I make a new post. There shouldn’t be, but I haven’t been able to verify whether that is the case.)

Anyway, if you are not sick yet of my ambling through Raise the Black Sun, feel free to come see what new forays await us on Thursday! And if you are sick of Raise the Black Sun, don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll have it wrapped up in another post or two.

Three at the most.

Possibly four?

Raise the Black Sun: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

As strange as it had been to discover the end of the world, I do believe the greater surprise was that we had met our first citizen of Graymore Coventry, and that the man seemed absolutely normal! The guard’s communication with us had been intelligent and understanding, not unlike a good-natured tavern-mate that one might meet back in our own home of Omayo.

Of course, when all one has heard of a place is its greatest peculiarities, one assumes that everything about it must also be so strange. I suppose my imagination was that we would find the Coventry populated by a coven of witches, muttering unintelligibly and eating repulsive things.

I know, of course, that the legends of Graymore have since depicted those people in exactly that way, and I wish to put those falsehoods to rest. They were not a backwards or perverse people, and they were not half-demons. Those descriptions would not be entirely amiss for the other outposts that I mentioned we stopped at along the way to Graymore. There the forsaken souls were losing their grip on civilization, and even their own humanity. But here in Graymore they had managed to hold onto it somehow. My theory is that it was because they driven by such a great sense of purpose. Those villagers at the smaller outposts had had no such purpose, and therefore no reason to retain themselves.

Now the people of Graymore did, of course, have their own culture and customs. They did, of course, have little nuances and peculiarities that were unique to them. Being isolated from the rest of the world it was inevitable that they would have rutted into their own particular way of doing things.

As one might imagine, the first realization of this was in how they dressed. The people of the Coventry eschewed color in almost all of its varieties. Once or twice I saw a shade of tan or light brown, and black was reserved for only the most holy of offices. Otherwise, every citizen I saw was in shades of white or gray.  Those clothes were all very conservative and modest, wrapped snugly, yet comfortably from the neck to the wrists and to the ankles. I spied neither a man’s bare chest, nor a woman’s knee in all my time there.

Such a manner of clothing would seem to be restricting, yet they had such a deliberate and graceful way of carrying themselves, that their garments seemed hardly an inconvenience at all. Indeed, I must say that the people of the Coventry had perfected the art of moving through a space, in such a way as I had never seen before, nor have ever again seen since. Where we Treksmen would stump about without a second thought to how we walked, the Coventry members would glide forward with a perfect, unbroken momentum.

That might seem a small thing, but just try to lift a foot, carry it forward, plant it, and move the next without a single variation in speed or direction. As they transcended over the earth in this manner their arms would billow around them, and I think it was to transfer all of the body’s natural jitteriness out into the air, leaving the rest of their form in a state of totally controlled poise.

Such an emphasis on dress and movement made clear to us Treksmen that these were a people who were very disciplined and solemn. It was clear that they were willing to take the governance of self as their chief concern in life. They took the energy that the rest of the world so regularly dedicates to the pursuit of wealth and enjoyment, and instead funneled it into the task of self-refinement.

They were not punitive or strict, but they were calm and grave. They were more than willing to smile at us and find amusement in our foreign ways, but I never heard anything remotely like an outburst of laughter or rowdiness. They were willing to lay a firm hand and speak with intensity, but I never saw anything remotely like violence or insult.

As I said, they were perhaps a peculiar people, but not evil, and certainly not barbaric. Rather they were the most civilized people I knew, and well honed to the work that they had selected for themselves.

We hoped to understand the basis of that work shortly, but first we had to deal with the our wares. Usually upon making a delivery there is a great deal of fuss finding an official to sign for the wagons and take them off our hands. But here we were immediately met by an escort, who rushed us straight to the city center where a Councilman stood ready to receive our papers and give us his own. Two signatures later and the last of the labor that had so strained us was borne away. Just like that, the Job’s mind retracted from our minds, making us our own persons once more.

We were free men. We could have gone home right then if we had liked.

“You will stay to learn why we have summoned you, and what sacred tragedy you are about to witness here in our halls,” the Councilman said. It was not a question, but neither was it an order. It was an intuition of our own desires.

“If we may,” I said.

He nodded deeply. “It is why you are here. Not by your own choice, nor my by mine. Who are we to intervene in what must be?”

Arrangements were made and we were brought to rooms to bathe, change our clothing, and rest until summoned for. Though nothing of offense was said, we were sure that our weathered and dirty state was an affront to everything that these people stood for. Thus we felt greatly relieved to wash and put on clean clothes. When we had ground down as many of our callouses we could we rested on half-reclined sofas until there came a gentle knock at the door and we were to be brought to an evening refreshment.

We were given seating in a large chamber with a massive table and exquisite eating utensils. It seemed that it must have been reserved for royalty, and we were ashamed to be the ones to grace that place. We never asked who the man that sat to eat with us was, and he never offered that information himself. The food given to us was as plain and unvarnished to look at as the clothing on the people, but for all the simplicity of presentation it was actually quite delicious and nourishing.

All through the meal our host spoke to us pleasantly and curiously, asking us all about our journey and expressing the sincerest of condolences for our losses along the way. Indeed, even though he knew nothing of us, he shed a few tears when he heard how tragically we had lost so many of our companions.

“It is always difficult to hear of the lives that are lost to the wheel,” he said soberly. “We have learned here at the Coventry to not let the cost weigh on us where we can help it, but that does not mean we do not mourn the sacrifices that forever surround us. We are able to both understand that their loss was necessary, and still be sad that such was so.”

“There are…many sacrifices here, are there not?” Bayhu asked.

The man smiled at Bayhu’s coyness. “Yes. I would say too many to count…but then, that is the one cost that we do count. And…it is many.”

“And there has never been one of the Coventry that has questioned this burden?” It was a very bold question, but our host’s demeanor was so genial that we felt we might be bold.

“No,” he said softly. “I’m sure part of that has to do with the fact that all who are here have been taught their purpose since they were sucklings. Where you might hesitate to give a sacrifice that you never intended, we do not even know what it is like to live without that expectation held out for us. But even more with this, there is something in the air of this place–perhaps you have sensed it already?–and it steels us to this work.”

“Do you consider our companions to have died in the service of your cause?” Moal ventured.

“Yes, absolutely. The delivery that they helped bring to us is of greatest importance in our work here. Though to be clear, they are not Altar Sacrifices, and their numbers do not count to our ledger, but anyone that dies in the service of the Black Sun, even unknowing that they do die in its service, is revered by our order. Give us their names and we shall never forget them.”

“But you did not know them.”

“It does not matter. We take this matter very seriously. If you wish to see as much, take a walk through the Halls of Weeping after we retire from this place. There we have great walls of glass, carved over with the names of all that have died in our service, Altar Sacrifices and otherwise. And before each section there ever kneels one of our acolytes reciting and memorizing their names. Thus it is that every name spent in this cause can be recalled at any moment by one member of our order or another.”

A silence prevailed, one where we were both touched that our friends could be so remembered, but also embittered that it was necessary for them to be so.

Our host seemed to know our minds even without us speaking. “Tell me, do you view your lost companions as having fallen to misfortune? To chance? Or do you have a sense that they died under a purpose?”

“Under a purpose,” I said. “But not necessarily for something.” and all the rest of the Treksmen immediately voiced their agreement.

“Yes. Even you, who are strangers to our ways, could feel it out on the road. And you expressed it very well. Their deaths, as I have said, were not Altar Sacrifices, and therefore did not tip any scales, and did not directly summon anything. But they had been marked, all of them, claimed by the Cause of the Black Sun, and so their deaths are registered in its index.”

There was a very heavy pause. All of us Treksmen thinking the same question at once, yet not daring to break that threshold. The man squinted, then smiled as he once more understood.

“And what is the Black Sun?” he echoed our thoughts. “Well, I am sorry to disappoint you…but I do not know. None of us do, not in any way that is truly meaningful. I shall tell you what little we do know of it, but I warn you now that you will only learn the periphery things, the edges of understanding, for I cannot lay before you the thing itself.”

He gestured with his hand towards a parlor, suggesting that we might be more comfortable there for the following discussion. We followed him there, and then he proceeded to give us the people’s history.

“I am sure that when you arrived you bore witness to the great void that stretches for eternity beyond our Southern wall. It has always been there, ever since our first ancestors came to this place. Without understanding what the significance of this place was, still they knew it was significant. Though they were not a studious people up to that point, yet they felt driven to seek the mysteries of this place. And so they made camp, began taking measurements, recorded everything that they found, and they did so most meticulously.

“The record we have of them is unclear whether they knew right away that they would devote the rest of their lives to this work, or if that realization came upon them only after several years of the labor. In either case, eventually they laid the foundations for this Coventry, and committed them and their descendants to the study of this ancient chasm.

“I shall not bore you with the details, but from all of their studies they found many truths. The first of which is that there are cycles and patterns to everything here. A clockwork system permeates absolutely everything. Even you are all under the influence of its regime, though you are not even consciously aware of it.”

We raised our eyebrows.

“Count your steps from when you awaken in the morning to when you lay down at night. I will tell you now, each of you will have gone eight-thousand and four-hundred. It does not matter how much you intended to accomplish that day, your feet will go that many and not a step farther or shorter.”

“And what if we tried to make ourselves go one extra step?” Ro’Kano asked.

“It has been tested. You will forget before the day expires, and fail to count out your steps at all. And any reminders you try to make for yourself will fail. But again, don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself tomorrow. Count your steps. Better yet, each of you count the steps of the other. You will all come out the same. Just as how if you pour your water or stir your tea here, the liquid will circle exactly four-and-a-half times before coming to a complete stop. Every single time. Just as how a member of our community dies of natural causes every thirty-second day. Every single time. Just as how every rainstorm falls three weeks after a goat is sacrificed. Every. Single. Time.”

He nodded to emphasize the sincerity of his claims.

“And perhaps you see in that last statement the beginning of the answers to your deepest question: what have the sacrifices of the Coventry to do with this Void? You see, this place runs like a clock, it turns us all. But we are free beings, and so when we act, then the rest of the gears must rotate in response to us. We are not the masters of this place, but we are influencers of it. And the greatest work that we must do is to perform our sacrifices and raise the dread horizon.”

Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

 

On Monday I spoke of a sort of diamond-pattern in designing narratives. As I explained, many stories begin a new chapter with an initiating idea, which then expands as the implications of that idea are explored, which implications are then resolved in a climax, resulting in the chapter contracting to a close. And then, the process repeats: opening, widening, zenith, narrowing, closed.

Today we saw the beginning and widening of a new chapter in my story. This section is instigated by the Treksmen’s arrival into the Coventry, and begins to widen as our narrator recounts the customs and nuances of the people here. They grow even wider during their conversation with their dinner host, and we are gradually approaching the zenith point. In the next section the host’s conversation will reach its climax, where he uncovers the deepest secrets of the Coventry, after which he will bid the men a pleasant sleep, narrowing the story with the close of that day. After that will begin a new sequence.

Now to be honest, this whole story has been going on for quite a bit longer than I had anticipated, and I still feel that I am several posts from its end. This isn’t the first time that this has happened to me, where a story simply wanders further than I had originally intended. I’ve spoken before about how a story seems to “want” things of its author, and resists being pushed into corners that do not suit it. I’d like to take a moment to examine this behavior more closely, and specifically in relation to the pacing and length of a work. We’ll go into this on Monday, have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you then!

Update on My Novel: Month 13

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MAY STATS

Days Writing: 10
New Words: 2751
New Chapters: 1

Total Word-count: 45,743
Total Chapters: 13

Well, May wasn’t a great month for working on the blog, but I don’t really feel too bad about it. To explain why, I think there is something I need to make clear. Writing my novel is not a relaxing exercise for me. It is work. I don’t mind that it is work, it is work that I very much want to do, even work that I need to do, but it is still work. It is the same with these blogs. I enjoy doing them, but they still require real work.

Writing my novel and blogs only happens because I have made peace with the fact that I am going to work my full-time job, and then I am going to work some more. I will work my full-time job for pay, and work my writing projects for passion.

Sometimes, though, the “work” work takes up more of my time than usual, at which point I don’t have much left in the tank for writing. That was the case with May, where on top of my regular hours I have been applying to and interviewing with other companies, looking for a new job. This can be quite an involved process. In my particular profession, each company that takes your application under consideration requires you to undergo a programming assessment, which usually take around 2 hours to complete, in addition to all the standard interviewing steps. Pretty soon looking for a new job becomes its own part-time job.

I could have crammed novel-work on top of the rest, but I think I would have grown to resent it. I frankly needed more of a break at the end of each day. And thus I’m actually pretty pleased with getting 10 days and a whole chapter completed during the month.

There is one thing that I think I could do better in how I approach my novel-work though. I find that if I don’t want to write for my full goal of 30 minutes, then I give up writing at all for that day. I don’t like that. From now on I am going to track two numbers: full writing days, and partial writing days. If I feel I cannot write a full 30 minutes one day, I’ll still try to talk myself into doing 15, and count that for a partial writing day.

So what are my goals for June? Well, the good news is that I did end up getting that new job. As in, just this morning I signed the agreement! So hopefully things will be a bit more back to normal. I’m going to shoot for 21 days, hopefully each as full-writing days, but at the very least as a mixture of partial and full.

Before I go, here’s a snippet from the work I did manage to get done during May. Enjoy!

Thus begins a very slow process of watching and waiting. The puddle fills out the bottom of the main channel quickly enough, and then starts to lift itself from flatness into fuller definition. The family is transfixed by the swelling, slow as it is, and silently stare on as the void is filled.

 

After it reaches a certain height, the water in the main line starts to tease at the mouth of each irrigation trench. It begins to reach down them, like fingers that are curious, but oh-so-cautious. The water does not flow merrily down these channels yet, rather all of its moisture is spent only in permeating the dry earth there, preparing the way for later, bolder incursions. It creates the illusion that a damp mud is spreading through the soil, extending itself down each trench by pure osmosis.

 

Only after the soil has had its considerable thirst quenched in this manner do small, thread-like trickles of water glide over the freshly sealed mud.

 

Later on…


Now that each trench has filled the entirety of its length, all that remains is for them to rise to their fullest height. The family stand and turn their heads side-to-side, watching the progress ebb and flow through each lane. Now this one pulls ahead of its neighbors, then slows down as its trench widens suddenly. Now this one takes the lead as the eddies from the mainline bring an extra wave rippling down its length, then lapses as the same eddy moves on, sucking some of the water back out.

 

It is hypnotizing to see the mass at work, as if with a mind of its own. Sometimes it seems a single unit, other times a chorus of individual voices. No one questions whether observing this process is a worthy use of the family’s time or not. Like the birth of a child, or the death of an elder, it seems an important thing to witness. It is the story of how the veins of their field were brought to life.

 

But then, the exact culmination of the process is impossible to tell in a sequence such as this. For the irrigation system comes near to being filled to the brim…even nearer…nearer still…and then, all at once, the family realizes that each irrigation line has already reached its full depth, and they aren’t sure when exactly the system crossed the line from “very, nearly, almost complete” to “complete,” but it has!

The Narrowing Wide

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Life Stuff)

Life seems to occur in chapters. We many times come to a major juncture where we realize that life for the past several years has fit within a single theme, but now a new trajectory is about to take place. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but almost always never in the way that we had anticipated. For though we try to exhaustively outline every chapter of life ahead-of-time, we always seem to go wayward in the actual writing of the work.

I had one of these moments just recently, with the birth of my second child. Something about changing from a family of three to a family of four opened a whole new reality in our home. This one change is substantial enough, but it also proved to be the catalyst for other changes that were past due. We are going to start looking for a new home, we have purchased a car with more seats in the back, and we are changing jobs to be able to afford all of these changes.

Thus a singular event grew wider and wider, causing a ripple of side effects, each of which came with their own set of ripples as well. Of course eventually these life changes tend to stabilize. Eventually you finish ramping up, or downsizing, coming together, or moving apart, and then the complexity of life starts to contract. The chapter of life starts to wane.

But the thing about life is that once things start to feel normal, there is sure to be a fresh disruption to expand things out again. If nothing else, we just get bored and start talking about “needing a change.” If life does not compel a new chapter upon us, we instigate one ourselves.

 

The Ebb and Flow)

In case you didn’t know, a central theme of this blog is how the nuances of life invariably find their way into the structure of our stories, and this matter is no exception. We not only have learned to imitate life in how we divide our stories into thematically consistent chapters, we even structure those chapters with the same pattern of expanding and then contracting.

Think of the quest of Frodo and Sam in the Fellowship of the Ring. Things start off pretty simple in the Shire, but all at once everything expands dramatically with the arrival of the ring and the charge to carry it to Bree. This leads to the further expansion of the little hobbits’ world as they discover new locales, witness amazing feats of magic, fall into danger, meet all sorts of colorful characters, and even recruit some of them to their party. Finally they arrive at their destination, and the world of wonder starts to contract as they enter a small and cozy village.

But then…a new “chapter” of the story begins. For things don’t go according to plan and a new leg is added to their journey, carrying them back into the wider world. That chapter leads them to Rivendell, but of course things don’t come to their final rest there, either. The pattern continues, through the Mines of Moria and to Lothlorien, past the breaking of the fellowship, and still continued into the other books of the series.

If you look for the pattern, you will soon recognize that each chapter of the trilogy introduces a change, either of status or intention, widens off of that idea, and then draws to a close around it. Yes the larger plot of destroying the ring ever continues, but along the way the characters resolve the chapter of Isengard, the chapter of saving Rohan, the chapter of traversing Mordor, etc.

 

Mini-Stories)

In fact, each of these chapters is nothing more than a miniature story in its own right, each with its own beginning, middle, and end. A more explicit example of chapters-as-their-own-stories can be found in the idea of the television series, where each episode is usually comprised of its own complete arc, though usually with an ongoing narrative that continues over an entire season, and even the entire run of the show.

Sometimes it can be hard for a show to walk the line between the two. It might lean too heavily towards developing the overarching narrative, resulting in the occasional “bridge” episode that lacks its own, complete arc. Or the show might lean too heavily on making each episode a complete experience, and as a result avoid meaningful character development, for fear of alienating new viewers who aren’t up to speed on the latest micro-drama.

One show that was very compartmentalized in every episode was the Mission: Impossible series. Bruce Geller, who was the original producer for the show, even insisted that the writers not include any character development in their episodes, having the agents come and go freely without explanation. Each episode is so autonomous that you can pick up just about any one and not miss a beat.

A better balance was found when the series was later expanded into theatrical films. The Mission: Impossible movies pay homage to their roots by featuring a series of set pieces, each one of which feels like its own episode of the show, but each of which also leads into the next step of the overarching plot.

In fact, every major secret agent or spy film seems to follow this pattern. James Bond and Jason Bourne also travel to a new destination, with a specific objective to be accomplished there. Things go wide as they gather intel, are acquainted with the relevant characters, and prepare for their operation. A climax of action occurs, the objective is either accomplished or failed, and the target moves to another location, repeating the same process over and over until the greater narrative comes to its close.

 

Multiple Benefits)

Composing your story of several diamond-shaped micro-stories is beneficial to you as an author, and also to your reader.

For you, it takes the gargantuan task of writing a large narrative, and breaks it into much more manageable miniature tales along the way. It is an easy template to follow of Introduction, Expansion, Climax, and Resolution.

And for the reader, it helps the story from becoming stagnant and disinteresting. There are many high points to look forward to along the way, and the final climax feels all the more epic for the many rises and falls that were experienced just to get there.

In my current short story, Raise the Black Sun, I just brought to a close one diamond-shaped-sequence, that of the caravan traveling their final leg to Graymore Coventry. It opened right after I closed the sequence with the witch, and was initiated by the problem of the Treksmen falling into despair. It expanded in its sense of intrigue as we watched their numbers dwindle towards doom, found a new wrinkle as the few survivors bonded around their shared hardship instead, and then started to narrow back down as they approached their destination. Finally there came a sense of resolution in their solving the mystery of the end of the horizon, and now they go to the entrance of Graymore Coventry, literally closing the door on the previous chapter, and opening it into the next. Come back on Thursday to see how that chapter move forward!

Raise the Black Sun: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

I do not know why I did not abandon my post then. I cannot say that I held some glimmer of hope that was absent in the others. I suppose that men simply take despair down different roads. I saw no relief in abandoning this world, I suppose I assumed that our misery was of a more eternal nature, and thus could not be escaped so cheaply.

The next day six more left their post.

Things started to become very difficult now. At this point we had only been one week from the end of our circuit, but that had been assuming we could carry the wagons in one trip. Now our hands were so few that we would have to carry half of our wares a day’s journey, leave them, travel a day back to the second half, and then spend a third day dragging them up to the first half. One week had just become three.

Not only that, but we would have to leave some of our number to guard each part of the caravan when it was split up. At one point there would be a group waiting guard over the front-half of the wagon, a group waiting guard over the back-half, and a third group walking the space in between. And given the straits we found ourselves in, there was no telling but whether one of those groups would entirely abandon their post and the other two would not know it.

And that, of course, is exactly what happened. It occurred one time when I was in the party guarding the back-half. Taft, Kintil, Po’Lago, and Birrits were supposed to come back and help us carry our load up to the front-half. We were only supposed to wait for them two days. After four we finally concluded that they wouldn’t ever be coming.

It takes a minimum of three men to push a single wagon, and there were only five of us present now. Thus we could only push one wagon on our own, and we had three of them to move. We didn’t dare split our group once more, so all five of us set out with one wagon, entrusting the other two carriages to the fates. That was simply how things had to work out now.

Halfway through our journey we passed the bodies of Taft, Kintil, Po’Lago, and Birrits, sprawled out unceremoniously five paces off of the main road, each in their own direction. Shortly after that we met two of the members of the front-party coming back to see if we still lived. Obviously everyone else of their group had also surrendered to the bleakness.

At first we just stared at each other. They at us and we at they. Without words we all understood. Seven survivors meant two wagons at a time. Six wagons in all. A day’s journey, a day’s back, a day’s journey, a day’s back, a day’s journey…all to make one day forward overall. Now we had more than a month remaining in our journey. It wasn’t as if the Job knew or cared about the change in capacity, we still had to fulfill our orders or perish for our betrayal.

And right then, every one of us was wondering if it wasn’t better to perish now. Surely with five weeks we were doomed to fail already, so why prolong the inevitable? Why not die with as little suffering as we could and see if things were any better in the afterlife? Perhaps we had been the fools to not quit earlier when our companions did.

And then Ro’Kano looked me right in the eye and let himself break. His eyes filled with months of unshed tears. We were of the age that to show our fears and brokenness was a great shame, but finally he couldn’t care about that anymore, and so spilled all his shame right down his cheeks and onto his boots.

And seeing that, I could not help but weep myself. And then all the other joined as well. All seven of us heaved out our agonies, exhaled our pain, baptized each other in our rivers of sadness.

It was the only thing that could have saved us. We could not have lived a moment longer with our hearts so locked.

Without another word we all took our place alongside the wagon and began to push it forward. We remained sad as ever, but we were not sad alone anymore.

We moved our wagons forward day-by-day. Every so often one of us would break down and weep once more, then all of us would weep, then we would dry our eyes and continue forward. We took the wagons two-at-a-time and proceeded together. We did not dare dividing our numbers anymore, we needed each other. We just had to take two wagons alone and leave all the others unprotected on the side of the road. It wasn’t as if these roads were very populated anyway. Surface roads never are as a general rule, and all the more so in regions such as these.

Though it took an age, we made our next two deliveries without incident. They were to mean villages, filled with gaunt souls that had been flung out from ordinary society and left to unify over their peculiarities. In fact, they were so destitute that they lived upon the surface level, with all their homes naked under the sun, right where we could see. But they did not crawl out of those holes to see what wares we brought to them, they just peeked out from half-closed doors and half-drawn curtains while their nervous magistrate concluded the business as quickly as possible and sent us back on our way.

“We’re coming to the end of the world,” Nanth said after we left the second of these outposts. It was the perfect summation for what we all were feeling. These were barren wastelands on the surface level, and forsaken societies down below. Both space and humanity seemed to be growing thinner and thinner, signaling the end of all the world.

We did not know how literal the truth of this was. What we did know was that we were down to our last delivery: Graymore Coventry. This meant we had only two wagons remaining, and once again were able to push forward without doubling back for the rest of our load.

Knowing this, we kept our eyes ever fixed on the horizon, scraping its line for any sign of our final destination. In this region all the landscape was perfectly flat and gray, so any promontory would be immediately noticed. There was hardly even any loose gravel upon the rock. It was so pristine and flat that it seemed almost to be made of metal. We could see for miles, and thus we expected to see our destination at every moment.

It was Bayhu who did at first. He pointed out the place where he saw a single, solitary bump along the line where sky met ground. None of the rest of us could make anything out, but as we continued pressing forward we were able to verify his claim one-by-one.

Then a must peculiar sensation occurred. For not ten minutes later the bump had grown twelvefold in size and we were able to start making out individual towers and spires. And though it had grown so much within our view, still it seemed perched upon the very farthest extent of the horizon. It gave us the dizzying impression that it was yet a very great way off, yet at the same time rushing up to meet us.

“Why it must be massive,” Zolar breathed. “To already appear this large, yet still be so many miles away.”

And still the illusion continued. Five minutes later and we were counting individual windows along the tower walls, and guard posts along the bulwarks.

“But I can hear voices,” Moal scratched his head, “the voices of a city close by. It truly must be right before us…then why can we not see anything past it?”

Though we saw the road winding up to the Coventry’s gates, we took a diversion, and proceeded around the edge of the city walls. We simply had to see what defined the horizon beyond this last element of the skyline.

“Going round for a look?” an amused voice called down to us, and peering up we met the face of a guard looking over the edge of the ramparts. It was a very strange experience, looking up at a city. Evidently the entire Coventry was also built upon the surface level, just as the lowly villages preceding it had been. This was very odd, given that the size and quality of it suggested that it was not a lack of resources that had kept them from burrowing down to safer ground.

But I digress. As mentioned before, the man had said “Going round for a look?”

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s just–we don’t know–”

“Not to worry,” he said. “We don’t have many visitors here at the Coventry, but whenever we do they are just as puzzled as you. You aren’t the first to go around to settle your senses.”

“But what is it that’s going on?”

“Better for you to see. You won’t believe me if I just tell you.”

“Alright then.”

“You see over there where the walls recede? Just past the old, crumbling tower?… Yes, just around that corner you should find a little footpath to follow. Just keep to that and be sure you stop when it stops! You don’t want to be falling in.”

“Falling into what?”

“Alright, off you go, then. I’ll still be here when you return.”

He was clearly done speaking with us, so there wasn’t anything for it but to follow his instructions and continue on ahead. We pushed our wagons along the city’s edge, just far enough from the walls to keep our wheels clear of any skirting rubble. Upon rounding the corner in the wall, we found the footpath, exactly as the man had described, no doubt formed by the feet of all the passerby who had sought to satiate the same curiosity that we now held.

It was another three-quarters of an hour before we finally cleared the last of the city walls. It became apparent that the Coventry was generally triangular in shape, the outer point of it facing in the direction we had approached, and the base facing in the way of our mystery. This meant that the sloping wall beside us obstructed most of what lay behind. What degrees we could see of the horizon still seemed a paradox, though. We could only make out the landscape that ran level with the back wall of the Coventry, and then nothing beyond. We stopped trying to make sense of it, we just kept pressing on, convinced that answers would only be found at the edge of the walls.

And so it was. Just as we passed the last section of the city, so too the footpath came to its sudden stop, and so too all the ground ceased before us. It was like when one comes over the summit of a hill, and only upon cresting the very top being is able to perceive the backside of the slope running beyond. Only the difference was that there was no backside, and no sloping beyond. We had reached the summit, the edge, the very horizon…and only pure blackness stretched before us.

“What is it?” I furrowed by brow as I craned my neck over the lip and tried to focus my eyes on the blackness, tried to tell what it was all made of. And as I looked downwards, and puzzled as to what I saw, I sharply realized that what I saw was empty infinity. There was no great, black object, no other side to a chasm, no floor far down below…there was nothing.

I flung myself backwards with a cry and fell to the earth. My heart raced, and I gasped for breath. There, as I lay on my back, I saw how the fringe of the Coventry descended right over the edge of the horizon, and into that abyss. It truly was the very edge of humanity.

We had come to the end of the universe.

Well…I suppose at this time I should pause and admit what has surely already occurred to you. It was not the end of the universe that we had discovered, merely the furthest limit of our arm in the Kolv Mass. But, of course, this was long before we had discovered True Groundscape or even the Outer Networks. At that time, to us as we were then, this was the edge of all eternity. And who knows…perhaps it truly was. For who can tell if anything unseen ever existed before it was found. Perhaps we make things in the looking for them.

In any case, after we had all gathered our wits, we shook our heads in mutual awe and made our way back to the main entrance to the Coventry. As we neared it we heard the salutation of our friend, the guard.

“Quite a shock, isn’t it?” he smiled.

“Yes,” Moal nodded. “I did not know that man had discovered the world’s end. Have you lowered anything down the side?”

The man scratched his thin, for surely he knew far more than we had capacity to receive, and had to consider how to explain things in a way that we could understand.

“There have been…many experiments,” he said, “and we have gleaned many secrets of the void since far-flung antiquity. I dare say you are already acquainted with the sacrifices that are performed here at our Coventry?”

“Of course.”

“Yes, for some reason that aspect of our work is storied abroad, but never the nature of the Void. And we know that all the world looks askance at our sacrifices, because they simply cannot be understood without the knowledge of the Void. The science of the two is one and the same, and neither can be properly contemplated alone. But come in through the gate now and you will find answers…. Or at the very least more questions.”

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

 

On Monday I promised that our Treksmen would discover another of the unexplained wrinkles in their world: that of the Void at the end of their world. A lot more questions are raised by this discovery, but the final line given by the guard is a hint to the reader that they are not about to find all the answers. Our Treksmen are going to be educated, but they are not going to obtain understanding. In this story, the more that is learned, the more unknowns are uncovered.

This a central theme to my tale. It is a story of finite beings dealing with the infinite. The people of Graymore Coventry have studied the cosmos, and by their research have discovered genuine patterns of cause and effect. But they are dealing with matters that are beyond them, and through their experiments are inadvertently bringing forth all manner of unforeseen consequences. They are pulling at the string, and all that is connected to the other end must come forward as a result, not all of which is desired.

Before we come to that end of the string, though, I want to examine a pacing pattern that I’ve enjoyed using in Raise the Black Sun. It is a diamond pattern, one of expanding and contracting scope, going broad and then going narrow. Come back on Monday where we’ll look at this technique in greater detail, and also explore some famous examples of it.

Unfinished Business

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A Confusing Drama)

My very first blog on this site talked about how authors should consider leaving some elements unsaid. That by merely hinting at things, and then letting the reader fill in the gaps, they encourage a more active investment from their audience. The trick, of course, is to not overdo it, and make things so obfuscated that no one has any idea what you’re even talking about.

With the most recent entry of Raise the Black Sun I found myself wondering which side of that line I had fallen on. Specifically I am referring to a scene where the protagonist is fighting with a witch. He and his companions had fallen victim to illusions that she presented them, but when he broke free of these delusions she grabbed him from behind and started to choke him.

Then, in a moment of epiphany, he realizes the way the witch’s magic works is that she suggests a reality to you, and then, once you start to believe in it, it start to become real. With that knowledge he realizes that if he can convince himself that he is holding a dagger in his hand, then her magical aura would make it so. And because he knows that her magical aura will make it so, it is easy to convince himself that there is a dagger in his hand. His cyclical logic manifests in the weapon, and he uses it to defeat the witch.

 

Knowing More Than I Said)

I thought it was a neat little sequence…but I didn’t actually write it out that way. This is a story of desperation and fear, and it is told by a somber, haunted soul. It just didn’t feel right to have him giddily narrate his epiphany to the reader, so I cut that part out. Instead the dagger just appears in his hand, with only some slight suggestions as to how it even got there. I rather suspect that some–or all–of my audience was left thinking some form of the following:

“Wait, what just happened? Did he have the dagger on his belt all along? But why did it disappear after she died? Did she make it then? Why would she do that?”

I thought about this lack of information a good deal before pressing Publish on the piece, but ultimately decided that a little bit of confusion in the reader would actually be entirely appropriate for a story like this.

It is a story about a young man caught up in something much larger than himself, and a major theme of the entire work is his inability to understand the wheel that turns him. I thought it would be fitting, then, for the reader to have a moment of not being sure how the world was working either.

 

Be Cautious)

I enjoyed this little exercise in selective obfuscation, and I think this sort of process has a lot of potential for certain story types. But I would definitely urge extreme caution in choosing to utilize this particular trick. While it may work in some situations, I believe in most cases it would only be frustrating to the audience.

As such, I decided that if I was going to go ahead with this exercise, I was going to adhere to a couple rules that would ensure I was playing fair with the reader. It was important to me, for example, that there be an actual answer as to what happened. I didn’t want to be cheap and write something that was completely unfounded. It’s easy to confuse people if you just write things without any personal logic for them, and I didn’t want to be guilty of cheating the story in that way.

Thus I developed a complete, logical explanation for what had happened, and from that selected which parts to actually share. My hope is that each reader will either be able to tease out what actually transpired, or at the very least be able to see enough breadcrumbs to convince them that the answers are there, even if they cannot work them out.

 

More Unexplored Ideas)

There was something else I wanted to accomplish in the witch’s scene, something that I have been trying to accomplish throughout all of this particular story. I have sought to introduce numerous ideas to the reader which are then intentionally abandoned before they can be fully developed on.

All of my readers should be able to understand that the witch uses illusion and trickery to project something that is false, but that if she can get someone to believe in the illusion, gradually it actually becomes real. It’s an interesting idea, and one that seems like it could be iterated on quite a good deal further. I like to hope that readers would like to see a few more examples of this in play, that they would like to know more about why the witches even do this, and how they come about their power, and all manner of other questions that will never be answered in this story.

I had similar hopes with the Scrayer, whom I introduced in the second part of this story. I hope the image of a giant of a man, draped in black and wielding a weapon that literally dissolves men into powder makes a sharp impression on the reader. I hope it lodges into the mind and makes them wonder about what else is hiding just behind the curtain of this world.

I hope the story of a doomed caravan driven a thousand miles by men that have surrendered possession of their own hearts stirs somber wonderings within.

In short, I am trying to write a story where so very little is said, but so very much is implied. A world that seems to be made of a thousand folds, of which we are shown only a small slice, rife with unfinished turns and incomplete ends.

This is my approach. It is possible that audiences will not like it, that they will feel too much was left unsaid, and will be left with a sense of frustration. It is possible…and to write this story I had to decide that I was okay with that possibility. I am okay that this tale might be frustrating. Because regardless of all else, I think it makes for a better story. One which I genuinely feel has a lot to offer, with even more than is contained within its words. It may not be for everyone, but I think it is a stronger experience for those that it is for.

On Thursday we will see yet another partial disclosure of this story when our Treksmen arrive at their destination. As with everything else, what they see will be but the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it will be enough to suggest an ancient and storied lore, one that can be sensed and breathed, even if not heard and seen.

Raise the Black Sun: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

It occurred on a day when I was deep in thought about those three Treksmen who had been in line behind Yanni. Bil-Lyew, Zafrast, and Obasi. Why had they had been able to witness Yanni’s death and quit this dread journey before it was too late while I had not? Why had I stood immediately before Yanni and not immediately after? I had been the very last Treksman to get through the Pledge and be chained to this doomed venture.

“This was always to be your fate,” I whispered to yourself. “Perhaps all of us walking here were chosen. But you, Graye, you were chosen especially.”

Why, though? I was of absolutely no consequence. Did I have a special part to play? That seemed unlikely. There was nothing that I was likely to do which my companions were any less likely to do themselves. Perhaps I was guilty of some special sin that I had forgotten and had to be punished for?

Of course, I had sinned, I do not deny as much, but more than Bil-Lyew? More than Zafrast? Certainly I couldn’t have sinned more than Obasi had!

“It doesn’t matter,” I sighed to myself. “Who are you to question the turning of the wheel? Your fate awaits you at Graymore and that’s all there is to it.”

“No, your fate is with me,” a silky voice called out. I looked up and looked about, unable to see any who it was that had spoken.

“Who’s there?” I asked.

“See me,” the voice came back, soft but earnest, and definitely female.

My mind imagined a person to which such a voice might belong, and all at once I saw the very likeness before me, standing just off the side of the road. She was incredibly pale, with a tall and thin face, perhaps the most beautiful and enchanting I had ever seen. Her hair was deepest black, and I could not tell how long it was, for its color perfectly blended in with her clothing, which swathed around her tightly, all the way to the top of her neck.

“What are you?” I asked the phantom. I felt an intense desire to understand her, for everything about her was a complete enigma to me. The more I stared upon her, the more unsure of anything else I seemed to be. All the world slipped out of my periphery and there was only her, but even she was still somewhat out of my focus.

“I am the fate that has been chosen for you.”

“To love you?”

“Or to fall to me. Whichever you would choose.”

Both sounded rapturous to me.

“But what of Graymore Coventry?” I asked. “It has already claimed me. I cannot turn away from it or I will die like Yanni.”

“Die to me. I may yet rennervate you. Thus you will give full due to your pledge, and yet achieve a second fate.”

“Die to you?”

“Yes, give yourself over.” Her eyes flashed brightly and she seemed to draw nearer, though she didn’t walk a single step towards me. She did raise her hands, though, and as she did the wide sleeves fell back and laid bare her ivory arms. Carved marble they seemed to me, and one of them was raised to caress, the other to strike. All my heart thumped with desire to drop to my knees, lean against her bosom, and feel which one she would lay upon me.

The more I spoke with more, the more I focused on her, the more she seemed to take definition, the more real she seemed to be. I felt like she could be entirely real if I wanted. I just had to believe wholly in her and she would be.

One of my last fingertips left the handle of the wagon, and my heart thumped painfully.

What?

I looked down to my side. Now only the two small fingers on my right hand remained touching the wood. I had been letting go without even realizing it. Of course a Treksman can let go of his handle as the need permits, but the Job knew our hearts, knew that I was  not just letting go as a matter of course. I was letting go to abandon my station, and it was about to claim my life for that betrayal.

See me!” the woman exhaled sharply. My eyes snapped to her and I saw the utmost ferocity in her eyes. But what was that ferocity? Was it anger for my hesitation, or desperation that I give my love to her? The uncertainty of her seared my heart with greatest desire.

Thump!

My eyes shot back to my hand, where now only the smallest finger remaining to task.

You must–

“What are you?” I interrupted her.

“All that you desire, all that you fear.” I mouthed the words with her even as she said them.

“The two are one and the same” the voice continued, but now I became aware that it was my voice speaking. My voice and someone else’s. But not the woman’s. Another woman’s. Another woman that was yet unseen.

I was just as confused at this realization as you might imagine, but strange as those words are to write and strange as they were to feel, somehow I knew they were true. I realized that there had been some sort of trance, one that had linked me with another person that I could not see, and by our unison this phantom woman that I did perceive was given voice and thought.

I felt a sensation like waking up, the gray of my periphery began to be washed again in color, and I saw anew my caravan and my companions. All the seven who had been conscious with me had all come to a halt. Four of them were staring off in their own trances and muttering their own nonsenses. The other three lay dead.

There wasn’t a single mark upon them, each had fallen just outside the reach of their wagon handles, no doubt having forsaken them in just the same manner that I had been about to.

Out of the corner of my eye I could still see the strange woman, but she was far less defined than before. Indeed with every passing moment where I did not believe in her, she seemed to be become more and more unmade.

“What do you mean?” Boril’s voice rang out, and my eyes snapped to him, three wagons ahead of me. He, too, was staring off into nothingness, and his tone was shrill and vehement, like he was trying to hide his fear. “If my own hand is not my own, then what would it be?!” He mouthed an answer to that, I did not hear what, but his eyes went wide at the message that it conveyed.

“No!” Boril said disbelievingly, and looked down at his hand, which appeared absolutely ordinary to me. But his face contorted in horror and he flexed his fingers in an erratic, painful-looking way. “Get it off! Get it off!” he shrieked, fumbling with his other hand for the cutlass at his side. And as he did so I saw that his hand was beginning to shift. It was starting to turn black, with the hairs on its back standing on end and elongating, and the fingers starting to move with the scuttling rhythm of spider-legs.

“Boril! No!” I shouted, rushing forward and catching the arm that held the cutlass, just as he raised it to to chop off his own limb…or whatever he had been bewitched into thinking it had become.

Bewitched! I thought. That’s it.

Boril struggled against my grip and I heaved backwards, pulling him to the ground with me, continuing to wrestle his arm and shouting at him that his hand was perfectly fine. It took a great deal of shouting for him to hear me over whatever voice echoed in his head, but at last he seemed to see that what I told him was so. For the more I told him that his arm was fine, the more he seemed to doubt whatever he had seen previously, and the more his hand truly came back to its ordinary form. Once he stilled himself I let go, and sprang to my feet, eyes glancing about madly for our foe.

“Where are you witch!” I demanded. “I do not believe in your spells anymore!”

Two arms, thin and bony, wrapped themselves around my neck from behind. There was a surprising strength to them, and they pulled me firmly against the shoulders of a lithe and wiry woman.

“To live without belief is to live without air,” she hissed as her forearms contracted against my throat and began to choke the life out of me.

“Boril–” I gasped, reaching my fingers out to him. But to my dismay he was once again staring at some unseen phantom, once more caught up in his delusions.

The witch tightened her grip further, and the blood was cut off from my head. I was getting dizzy, and starting to lose my focus.

“Fool,” she simpered sweetly. “You do not have to believe me to still be under my power. You might have had anything you wanted in your final moments, your ignorance gave you every possibility. But now you know, and so you die, powerless. You ought to have believed.”

Darkness was crowding around my eyes, and I was about to concede to my fate…but then, I realized that this was most certainly not my fate. My fate was to go to Graymore Coventry and there lose my soul.

The witch was wrong. I believed all too strongly.

With the last of my strength I flung my fist backwards. With my fingers having grown numb it was not difficult to convince myself that they held steel. And having convinced myself of that, it became true.

I heard a terrible shriek. It seemed distant and faint, and then rushed forward at tremendous speed until it echoed right beside me. At the same time the pressure on my neck laxed and I gulped down cold air.

Behind me the witch writhed in her death agonies. Only a few moments more and her last grip on life broke, and with it all traces of her bewitchments dispersed. Even the knife I had conjured by her own magicks to stab her.

“Get up, Boril,” I wheezed out. He was still kneeling on the ground, snapping his neck about in every direction, faced painted with utter confusion.

Of the eight of us who had been keeping watch, three had died before I came to my senses, and another one during my fight with the witch. Only four of us remained, and we of course had to wake all the others. This path was too treacherous, and though it was an agony to remain awake, we could not dare proceed with partial strength. We must all press forward together, dejected as we were.

We were thirty then.

It seemed a wise choice at the time, but it brought us to the worst adversary we had faced yet: our own broken hearts. For though I had felt dejected during all the time I had kept watch with the seven others, we had been few enough that I scarcely caught sight of their faces. Now, though, at every turn of the road, at every lifting of a wagon wheel out of a rut, at every stop to setup camp…at each of these moments I was required to stare into their gaunt and hopeless visages. And then what despair I had started to feel in myself was only pressed deeper.

For when one is full of sorrow alone, one might yet take comfort in the thought that there is still light and good elsewhere in the world. But when all one sees is the same bleakness in others, it becomes easy to believe that this is how it is everywhere, and forever will be.

If I could have believed that my memories of laughing children and playful men and charming women were true, that they were not but dreams, then I would have been encouraged in the burden I had to bear. Then I might have told myself that the innocent parts of the world were still able to live and laugh and love because I bore the trial for them. I would have thought to myself that there was a certain taxing of darkness that had to weigh on the world, and if enough martyrs took it on them then the rest of the world would still be free to feel the joy, and I would feel a quiet pride in facilitating that.

Instead, these encouraging theories were squashed out by the darkness that crammed in from my fellows. Our bleakness seemed too infinite to believe that it did not reach into every corner of the universe. Each one of us silently took our heartache and heaped it upon each other, multiplying our woes again and again, until it became exponential, and each new day was a hundredfold more painful to bear than the last.

I would rather be consigned to my doom alone than to have been put in this company of the damned.

Bahnu was the first to give in to the despair totally. One day he simply let go of his handle, took four steps off of the road, and then died for abandoning his contract. He didn’t say a word through the whole process. He just left.

The next day Ra-Toew and Sinfarro walked away. Not together, each at different hours and in different directions.

The next day was three more. The next it was four.

We were twenty then.

Regular practice is for the caravan to return with all of their empty wagons at the end of their journey. But we now lacked enough hands to push them all, and so the unpacked vehicles were left behind, a pile of empty vessels, laid out haphazardly beneath the cold sun.

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

 

On Monday I discussed the way that a story reflects the thoughts and feelings of its writer. The more that I’ve written stories on this blog, the more I’ve realized how difficult it is to write a lie.

You can project anything in a statement on social media, you can say the words when looking another person in the face, you can pretend something in any of the usual forms of communication. But, as I say, it is a very difficult thing to tell a story that you don’t believe in.

For even if you force yourself to write dialogue and themes that state the lie, you still betray yourself by how hollow your work will feel. Those that are perceptive will read it and say “your heart clearly wasn’t in this.”

I don’t believe that this is exclusive to writing stories, either. I believe it applies to all of creativity. The thing we make cannot come alive unless it is true to us. Just try to play a rousing ballad on the guitar while inside your heart yearns for a a tragic melody on violin. The right notes might be played, but they just won’t resonate.

Publishing this piece was fairly unsettling for me then, because it is quite true to my own recent experiences. The themes of despair and hopelessness are ones drawn from a very personal space.

For this and other reasons, I have wondered if I ought to have made this blog private. But whether I should have or not, the fact is that now I have already become comfortable with sharing myself in this way. I feel that those who care enough to read my work have earned the right to know me sincerely.

I am well aware that I don’t talk about myself personally on here very much. While other blogs detail their homes, their families, their day-to-day experiences, I share myself in a different way. You may not always know what is going on in my life, but you do see what is playing out in my heart. This blog is really just a personal journal, only one that logs its daily entries through story.

Shades of Me, Shades of You

man walking
Photo by Jeffrey Czum on Pexels.com

Revealed Through Story)

I once told a friend about my outlet of writing stories. He smiled and knowingly said “the thing about writing is that you couldn’t hide yourself, the work reveals you.” I’ve found that there is a lot of truth to that statement. There are times when I have tried to write about things that didn’t matter to me, and it was torture. Every word had to be dragged out slowly, and it made for some of my worst work ever. Things can only ever flow when I find the themes that match with my heart.

In short, you either write about your authentic self, or you quickly burn out and do not write at all.

Every now and then I pause, look back at what I have recently written, nod my head, and say “yeah…that really is what I’ve been feeling for these past couple months, isn’t it?” Sometimes a theme only lasts for a single story or two, representing a very minor infatuation of my life. Other times the themes will permeate through entire months of work, signifying a much more significant obsession.

Recently I took a look back at the work of this current series, and the consistent thread through them all caught me off guard. Each is very tense, dark, and ominous. The Soldier’s Last Sleep is about a Private in the army trying to hold onto his life through one crushing wave of the enemy after another. The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath introduces a king trying to punish his subjects in a way that redefines the very meaning of cruelty. Washed Down the River follows two detectives solving the case of a man so miserable that he tries to fake his own suicide, but then inadvertently succeeds in it. Slow and Easy, Then Sudden features a protagonist who begins warm and kind, but by the end reveals himself to be a cold-blooded killer. And to top it all off, my latest story, Raise the Black Sun, has been about a doomed voyage that will ultimately culminate in the end of a world.

I honestly had no conscious intention of weaving such a somber tapestry when I set out on this series, it is just the way that my natural expressions pushed me. As I considered all of these facts I couldn’t help but nod my head in understanding, because frankly it reflects my mental state all too well. The fact is that I have been in a dark and depressed state lately, and I think it was inevitable that that this was going to bleed through into my writing.

 

A Written Dialogue)

Of course this depression is hardly too surprising. It is at least somewhat due to the sense of isolation brought on by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the self-isolation that we all have been working through. Obviously I am not the only one that has been feeling pretty down, in fact there are many who I am sure are feeling much lower than I.

I do wonder if any of my readers have found that this more heavy material has reflected their own feelings at all? Perhaps this way that I have been expressing myself can be a vehicle for a mutual commiserating of our shared situation.

Or…maybe it is irresponsibly fanning the flames and creating a deepened sense of despair in others?

At this point we’re not just observing story-telling as a mode of self-expression, but also as a mode of conversation. I am telling you about myself, and you are having a personal reaction to that. Is it a healthy reaction, or an unhealthy one?

Well that’s a tricky line to walk, even under more traditional forms of dialogue. There’s no doubt that a lot of good can come about by being able to share our feelings with like-minded others. Support groups are based around the idea that you finally have found a safe place to express the shame and darkness within you to others who really “get it.” Being able to talk through traumatic experiences together can help heal them together. Ever since we were small children, one of the best ways to get past a bad day is to tell someone how sincerely miserable you are feeling.

But there are other types of conversation, too. Where support groups provide an opportunity to share a burden and feel lifted, self-pity groups tend to only stack more weight on top of each other. They do not spread the original weight out for all to help bear, they clone the weight, and now everyone has to carry the whole of it in on their own.

 

Responsible Communication)

I believe the difference between these two types of communication has to do with the intent of the speaker and the hearer. In a healthy dialogue the speaker states “I felt sad,” and the takeaway is an understanding of the person. In an unhealthy dialogue the speaker states “I felt sad,” and the takeaway is the emotion only.

It is less important that we understand what was felt, than that we understand the person who felt it.

And that has what has brought me to making this post today. My hope is that by calling out explicitly what is going on I will spark a certain level of self-awareness in us both. I do not wish that when you read my latest stories that you will take my sadness onto yourself. Rather I wish that if you have been feeling lonely you will read my stories and know that I felt lonely, too. I know how that is. I understand that part of you.

And I’m sorry.

Raise the Black Sun: Part Two

closed up photography of flame
Photo by Tom Swinnen on Pexels.com

 

Part One

We numbered 37 in all. 36 Treksmen, plus our new foreman, a man we had never met  called Boosh Fyyan. To this day I cannot tell you the first thing about him. Not what he looked like, not what he sounded like, I’m not sure why I even remember his name. I cannot recall any of his details, of course, because I was unconscious through the first part of our expedition. Unconscious was the only reasonable way to keep our wits on a journey as black as this, and so every one of us Treksmen gave ourselves up to the automation of our work.

As is always the case when you pledge your heart by a solemn oath, you become somewhat machine like by the process. Given the nature of your surrender, you do not have to consciously think about the work that you do now, you can simply relax the mind and your body will do the functions on its own, driven by the Job’s mind until the last labor is fulfilled.

Normally we have a good deal of fun with this autonomy, letting the body go on its own, while we exert all our mental energy to coming up with jokes and songs. Sometimes we play tricks on one another, leaving a tack upright on a handhold and seeing if the other Treksman was alert enough to stop the automation from making him grab it.

But there were no jokes and no fun for this journey. This time we let our conscious minds shut off entirely. Better to ignore the bad omens and the grim nature of our labor, and sink into a blissful stupor instead.

Indeed, I was unconscious for weeks at a time, only being roused when a word or a sound would trigger something in my mind, such as when a mother in a village we visited called to her son with the same name as my own. It made me sad to think that once I had been so carefree as that little boy, and now I walked with a curse about my neck.

It was, as I say, a bitter thought, and I immediately rolled my eyes back and gave my mind again to its hibernation. I closed out the world so tightly that I could not be roused again, not even by my companion’s cries, until a full two of them had already been killed by the Scrayer.

“TO ME! TO ME!” A voice was shouting, pulling my groggy eyes back into focus. It took me a moment to make sense of what lay before me, so unexpected the scene of destruction was. Three of our wagons were on fire and another one had been hewn to pieces. The two companions that usually marched nearest to me lay dead not eight feet ahead of where I stood. They were collapsed to the ground in such a peaceful and carefree manner that I am sure they had been slain while still unconscious. Another Treksman to my left was just coming out of his stupor, having been awakened by the fact that his clothes were catching flame from the burning wagons. He screamed in shock and tried to beat the embers down.

But I ignored him, for all my attention was wrapped up in the solitary figure that walked fifteen feet ahead of me, the obvious cause of all the chaos. It was the largest man I’ve ever seen. He stood nearly a full eight feet tall, bursting with muscle, and, completely covered in a black, voluminous cloak. As I have said, he was a Scrayer, and the tell-tale weapon of that order was entwined up along his arm.

Of course, for a Scrayer to utilize his Scrayth requires that he possess immense strength, and this man most certainly did. For no sooner did my eyes settle upon him than he seized the burning Treksman with his weaponized hand and thrust that man into the air, flinging him with such force that the Treksman instantly dissipated into a fine, black powder.

The Scrayer looked at me now and I was struck by the realization that there were no more Treksmen between he and I! I flung myself backwards, turned upon the ground, and clawed around the corner of my wagon for any cover I might find. At every moment I expected to feel his great fingers gripping me and piercing into my side…but the death-grip did not come.

For right at that moment Boosh Fyyan (I now recall that the man wore a bright red turban) came charging forward, a light-sickle burning brightly in his hand. “TO ME!” he shouted once more, still trying to rouse us Treksmen from our stupor, then thrust his weapon at the towering foe.

The Scrayer slapped the weapon to the side with his unarmed hand, then grabbed Boosh around the throat with his other, and made to thrust him also out into dust. But Boosh clawed desperately at the foe’s arm, and so was not thrown out as firmly as the Scrayer had intended. For a moment Boosh stood suspended in the air, his features grainy and his body stretched out into long strands that flared out at the ends. He was suspended in that limbo for only a moment, but then his eyes flashed and he came rushing back into a fully corporeal form He descended back down, arm thrusting, light-sickle plunging, piercing into the chest of the Scrayer. He was like an angel descending from above to slay the dragon.

“Nnnarrgh!” the giant bellowed, and in a rage he grabbed Boosh again (I now recall that Boosh had deep, amber eyes), and flung him so savagely that the man was turned to powder before the brute had even let him go. The Scrayer turned, as if he would make towards me once more, but then his face contorted in pain and a few tendrils of blue smoke began to emanate from the wound where Boosh had skewered him with the light-sickle.

The Scrayer clenched his teeth and tried to grit his way forward, but immediately he halted again as the tendrils of blue smoke pouring from his heart started to solidify and take form. It was a vague shape in three parts. Two were long and thin, and the third in the middle was bulky and short…like a head and shoulders between two arms. The whole thing was flailing and writhing, twisting itself further and further out of the Scrayer’s chest, inch-by-inch. The part that seemed like a head began to tremble rapidly, and two lines stretched apart in it, like the opening of a mouth strained against a shroud. A haunting shriek sounded out, and rang within our hearts.

“No!” The Scrayer bellowed, grabbing at the blue form and trying to tear it into pieces. But it was still only half-physical, and whatever puffs he managed to pull free simply flowed back into the main body immediately after.

In awe I slowly stepped forward. It was a very foolish thing to do, I suppose, but I could not help but bear witness to such a horror as this. My foot kicked a pebble and the Scrayer’s terrified eyes rounded back on me.

“Please! Help me!” he cried. His fingers clawing at his chest, as if desiring to rip his very heart out. “Please! Yes, I meant you harm, but only for your own good.”

Now the blue, arm-like streams thrust into the Scrayer’s dark beard, and the ends bended backwards, like two hands clenching into fists. With that grip the blue form forcibly pulled itself still farther out of its host’s chest.

“Arrrgh!” the Scrayer screamed. His legs kicked wildly and he fell onto his back.

“I’ll finish him!” Vallon, my fellow Treksman, said at my elbow as he drew a sword from his side.

“I–I am already dead” the Scrayer gasped out, barely able to speak at all. The blue form had raised itself up towards the sky, clawing at empty air as its lower body now emerged. “P-p-please. Break your oaths….” the Scrayer winced. “Break them!” His eyes fluttered and lost focus, but by sheer force of will he brought himself back from the brink and stared at us with fervent intent. “I know–I know. You’ll die. But–” His whole body shook. “But–” The blue form’s feet were a foot above the Scrayer’s chest now, connected to that body only by a single thread. The Scrayer clutched at life one last time, his final words came out as naught but a sigh. “But there are worse things.”

Then the thread snapped and the great giant instantly relaxed into his death. The blue form turned round, lifted its arms heavenward, and flew off into the clouds.

It was gone.

Things were worse now. We were down to thirty-four Treksmen, and no foreman among us. Because all of us had been unconscious, not a one of us knew where we even were or what our next destination was. We had no choice but to let the automation do the work, moving our bodies further down the trail, minus the carts that had been destroyed.

We did not sink back into our unconscious stupor this time. Our bodies were automated, but our eyes and our ears we kept alert at all times, watching for any other assailant that might come our way.

We spoke only a little of the ordeal that had just passed. It was, of course, a very remarkable thing that a Scrayer would have anything to do with us at all. Such a unit properly belongs among a royal guard, not harassing lowly caravans. This only lent all the more weight to his ominous plea: that we forsake our contract, suffer the same death as Yalli as our penalty, and leave our wares undelivered. Clearly he had felt it a matter of great importance to have debased himself to the murder of us all. He must have known that we would never sacrifice ourselves for a cause we did not understand.

Which, of course, we did not and would not. The sense of anxiousness in us grew more profound, but it was not nearly enough for us to surrender our own lives. Not only because we did not understand what good would come from such a sacrifice, but also because we felt that we were destined to do what we had been hired to do. If it was a sin that lay before us, we must perform it even so. If we were unknowingly bringing about the very end of the world (which, as it turned out, we were), yet it had to be done.

We were commissioned to darkness, and it did not matter whether we approved of it or not.

Six days later and our feet guided us into our next destination. After entering the city we asked around and learned that we had come to Bowria. A quick consultation with the foreman’s maps and we understood that we were much more than halfway through our journey already. There only remained three stops, and last of all the delivery to Graymore Coventry. We would be there in about four week’s time.

This news pierced our hearts like an icy dagger. We were so close to our wretched end, that each step further felt like a personal betrayal of all that was holy. We were taken by a deeper melancholy still, totally unready to face the fruit of darkness so soon. All of us wished to escape back to the blissful ignorance of the automation, but that would leave us helpless to whatever bandits or disasters may yet be waiting along our way.

Thus we decided to take it in turns. A fourth of us would keep watch while the rest remained comatose. A week of wakefulness and three of sleep for us all. We drew lots and it was my unhappy chance to be in the first watch.

What a foolish arrangement this seemed to be now, walking with only seven other alert companions, watching the mass of our companions shuffling forward listlessly like the immortal dead. We were alone to our fears, and it seemed to us that mischief was bound to spring out from every rock and shadow. We did not speak to one another, for our hearts were filled with dread, and it would spill out in a torrent if we opened our lips.

So we pressed on silently, teeth clenched, nerves firing, a silent panic in every footstep. Our heads hung down, our eyes stared into the earth, and at times we would fain bury ourselves in it and have the misery over with. It would have seemed a blessing if some highway robbers would come and give us the relief of a cut throat.

But though we might have prayed for such a relief with one half of our heart, the other stubbornly refused to let go of its need for life. We would go on, because even a cursed life is still the greatest of blessings.

Thus there were only eight of us who were awake. Only eight when our party came across the witch.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

 

On Monday I discussed a couple ways that a story can balance complexity and scale to avoid introducing plot-holes. I suggested that a story needed to have a world big enough to support its ideas, so that different systems didn’t run into one another and cause inadvertent contradictions.

At the end of my last entry in this story I introduced the idea that these Treksmen were bound by an oath, such that they could not quit their delivery without dying as a result. That mechanic further led to the idea of them being able to function as automatons, performing their labors on a literal auto-pilot. It also became involved with the Scrayer coming and trying to kill them, as he knew their job could only be halted by their dying, either one way or the other. Now that’s as involved as I want this mechanic of oath-binding to be. The more I combine it with other systems, the more chance I have to make a connection that is incompatible.

Most of the new ideas that I introduce are meant to stand alone, entering for only one scene, and then never resurfacing with other connections. An example of this is our Scrayer, whose weapon, creed, and other details will never be seen in the story again. I only had to make his behavior compatible with the behavior of the Treksmen in this one instance, and now will not try to connect him to anything else.

The other technique I described was that of developing a story’s world and systems first. Even before I came up with the arc of our protagonist, one of my very first ideas was that of a massive, armed assailant ravaging a caravan, flinging men into the air where they dissipated into dust. By using this world-building-first approach, I already had suggested to me a plot involving a caravan, and a protagonist who is a member of it. I wrote such things, and now the story flows naturally through the scenes I first envisioned. One can of course overdo this world-building-first approach, and end up with a series of disjointed scenes that don’t really gel together. Hopefully I’m finding the correct balance with this experiment.

Before we continue with the story, though, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the stylistic theme of my past few stories, and how a body of work mirrors the mental state of the author. Come back on Monday to hear about that, and then on Thursday we’ll continue the adventures of our Treksman.