The Toymaker: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

But what a life!

Much to the drummer’s surprise, he did manage to prolong it minute-by-minute. It seemed that he had broken a spell by having successfully hurled that lump of coal into the furnace; now he found that he could do it again and again. Sometimes he still missed, and then he had to jab with the pole while the foreman screamed at him from behind, but those failures were quickly becoming more and more infrequent.

And despite his fear that the mountain of coal would never be exhausted, it did in fact grow smaller and smaller until it was no more. It took a very long time, but it happened. And then the second mountain diminished until it, too, was no more. The team was sent back to their barracks to rest. The drummer hung his head down sadly. He had barely survived that one work session, and was sure he would not be able to make it through another.

And yet he did. It was still a back-breaking, nerve-wrenching ordeal, but he did come out alive after the second workload many hours later. And he made it past the third. And the fourth.

And the more he survived, the more his nerves began to be numbed. It wasn’t a calm tranquility that he had found, far from it! It was that as each of his nerves fired in rapid succession, eventually they scorched out so that he couldn’t register them anymore.

And though there were no mirrors for him to see himself, somehow he knew that his face must be becoming more gaunt and hollow, just like that of all the other workers. He was wearing the same lifeless mask that had so troubled him when first he came into this place.

He tried to repeat to himself the reason for it all: to raise money to buy the dancer’s freedom. All of this would be worth it when he was free and she was free, and then they would get back to things just as they had been before. To raise money. To buy the dancer’s freedom.

After what seemed like an eternity he did get paid. Two small discs, as promised. All of the other toys took their pay to a murky corner of factory housing for pleasures the drummer did not understand. None of that for him, though, he simply stowed both discs under the cot in his room. After a second eternity he was able to add another two discs. After a third another two.

And then, after an eternity of eternities, he had lined the entire underside of his bed. Surely he must have enough money to buy the dancer’s freedom now? But how to go about this whole process of “buying?” Thus far he had avoided speaking to the vacant souls around him, but it couldn’t be avoided now.

“You wanna do what?” the ventriloquist dummy asked with one eye closed and a cocked head.

“I want to free another toy. A dancer.”

“Sure…only you say you don’t know where she is, or who to pay, and what exactly to pay them to do…just that you want ‘them’ to help you somehow. Did I get all that right?”

“I…well I thought so, but…really I don’t know anything about anything, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”

“Can you tell me what I should be doing to fix this?”

“Sure, easy. Forget about her.”

“Oh I don’t think I know how to do that. I think about her all the time.”

“Listen, kid. All my life I used to say you should only worry about yourself, anything more is just an anchor on your soul. Then I came to this place, and you know what, worrying about yourself is too much, even. So now I say let go of everything. You and I might die tomorrow and that’s just it. Might as well die without worries.”

“I’d rather die thinking about her.”

The dummy sighed and kneaded his brow. “You know what, I’m not going to worry about it. Your money, you do with it as you please. If I find you a contact, someone who can help you out with your problem, then you’ll let me be?”

“Oh yes, I promise!” the drummer nodded enthusiastically. “You really mean it? You promise you’ll help me?”

“I don’t do worries, and I don’t do promises. But I’ll try and find someone. Give me two days.”

And that was the last the drummer ever saw of the dummy. And the last he saw of his money. When he came back from his next work shift both were long gone.

“Have you seen a ventriloquist dummy around here?” he asked the knight who stood guard at the factory exit.

“Sure, he came through here just a bit ago. Lucky bloke had enough to buy his passage.”

“His passage?”

“You know, his freedom. The freedom they tell all of us we can buy if we save up enough for it. Course it isn’t but one-in-a-thousand that actually can.”

“Our freedom for what?”

“You know. To leave.”

“What? I can’t leave?”

“Are you serious?! You really don’t know? Of course you can’t leave. You’re a slave! All of us are.”

“You too?”

“Me more than any other! Because I’m the slave that keeps the rest of you trapped. If it weren’t for me standing guard here you’d all be escaped already.”

“Why do you stand there then?”

“You mean why not take a bribe, let some of you out, and then run for it myself? Oh I’ve thought about it. Any guard who tells you otherwise is a liar, and some of them have even tried it…” The knight lowered his voice and leaned in very close. “But then I saw what happened to them after they were caught–and believe me, all of them were caught. So maybe one day when my plastic’s all rubbed off and I can’t feel anything I’ll cash in and take that final ride, have my fun and then pay my last dues. But that day isn’t today.”

The knight nodded in a carefree manner, but after a moment looked down despondently. “Oh, who am I kidding?” he asked. “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a ‘final ride’ anyway. When you’ve been here as long as I have, there’s nothing waiting for you out there anymore. That’s the real reason I don’t ever run.”

“If you were out there, you could help me find the dancer and get her free again. I think you’d be a lot better at that than I’ll be by my myself.”

The knight perked up at that. “A quest, eh? It’s been a long time since I looked for one those. And with another military man, even! I say, that would be a dream!”

“You needn’t run away for it, though. I can save up enough money for both of us to get out.”

The knight scoffed. “Well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“And when I do, you’ll come with me? You promise?”

The knight’s helmed head shifted about awkwardly. He didn’t want to raise any false hopes, least of all in himself…yet he was unable to deny the thrill of its call.

“Listen, sir,” he said firmly. “I feel obligated to tell you that I don’t believe you will succeed. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. But who knows, maybe you have a force of will like I have never seen in this place. And if you do, and if you manage to save up enough discs…well then yes, I do promise. I would gladly pledge my sword to one that had such self control as that! I would not rest until we had won your woman’s freedom.”

“Oh good. I’d much rather have your help than anyone else. There is one thing, I’m afraid if I save up that many discs people will just keep taking it from me. Do you have a place I could leave them.”

“You would trust me with them?”

“Yes. You promised.”

And that was that. Every week, when the drummer got his pay, he brought it straight to the knight, who in turn led him to a quiet aisle lined with lock boxes. The knight had a key to one of them, and disc-by-disc the drummer built a small mound of wealth within. It was, of course, a very long and slow process, but the drummer remained as committed as ever. To him it didn’t matter how long anything took, so long as it was the thing he had to do.

A few months later, after the drummer had saved up about a quarter of the total funds needed, the mound seemed to start growing of its own accord. Each time the drummer came to make his deposit, he could swear that the pile was larger than when he had last seen it. At first it only grew by an extra disc or two, but each week the rate of growth increased. Not only with the same small sized discs that the drummer was paid with, either. Now and again there were medium sized ones, and even one or two larges!

“Where do you think these are coming from?” the drummer asked the knight one day.

“Not a clue,” the knight said quickly. “I guess you’re just lucky.”

Eventually the mysterious additions outnumbered those made by the drummer, so that there was enough to buy both his and the knight’s freedom, and in half the time he had anticipated.

And then, one quiet day, the two of them were standing before “the accountant” holding sacks bulging with their fortune.

“And you attest that you came by all of these funds honestly? The ordinary accrual of your assigned work wages?” the accountant asked.

“Yes, all of it,” the knight said. “Of course you can look up our pay rates and how long we’ve been here to verify that the sum checks out.”

“Oh, I already have,” the accountant said silkily. “And yes, it is…conceivable.”

“I don’t even know how to come by funds that aren’t ‘honestly,'” the drummer offered.

“That is true,” the knight vouched. “He doesn’t.”

“Hmm, well I suppose I have no reason to deny your purchase. Though I am authorized to double your rates if you wanted to open new contracts…”

“Not a chance,” the knight said. The drummer took his cue and shook his head emphatically.

“Suit yourselves,” the accountant pulled two pieces of paper over to him, scribbled at their bottom, then pounded them with a large, rubber stamp. “Show these to the guards at the gates and they will let you through. I assume you know the way?”

“Of course I do,” the knight said.

And so they returned back to the knight’s old post, where his fellow guards stood in wait. There was a strange look between them as they saw their old comrade pass through the open doors. A sort of wishful longing, a stirring of things long since repressed.

The knight also paused a moment in the doorway, and looked back at his home of many years: a wide, empty chasm stretching eternally like a void. He had no love for it…but it was a part of him, and he would feel its absence.

Not the drummer, though. He gleefully strode out into the sun, squinting up at the blinding orb. It hurt him to see it, but it was a hurt that felt good. Yes he was still in this dreary town, and yes he still missed the dancer terribly. But he was getting closer to her now. Closer to being back on the right way. He reached down to his sides and pulled up his long-forgotten batons. They were blackened by soot and chipped all around, but they would still serve him. He pounded out a marching rhythm, and at once the knight snapped out of his reverie and hastened to follow the beat.

 

After some unfortunate missteps our hero is back on track again. I mentioned in my last post that I expected audiences to be made uncomfortable by the drummer’s naivete. He has continually made mistakes that were painfully obvious to the rest of us, and he continued to do so today as he confided in the ventriloquist dummy.

But I wanted to pair those moments with a more positive take on ignorance. I expect readers will find charming his youthful wonder at the pile of discs “magically” increasing of their own accord, and also how he does not understand the meaning of dishonestly obtaining money. The fact that he is so unassuming and so innocent makes him endearing.

This whole sequence within the factory was a side detour in our hero’s journey. Detours such as this are quite common in stories, though some of them are handled better than others. With my next post I would like to examine what the function of such straying is, and how it can be utilized without having the story entirely lose its way. Come back next Monday for that, and then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with the drummer and the knight.

The Toymaker: Part Two

red and multicolored figure
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Part One

A terrible fear was starting to rise inside of the drummer. What if he couldn’t catch up? What if he couldn’t find her? Did such questions even matter? He had to, he must. For her to be lost was just…just unthinkable.

He hadn’t liked that droopy bear. Not from the moment they had met him. They should have just hurried by him without so much as a “good day.” What had the drummer been thinking speaking to such a toy? He wouldn’t be making any mistakes like that again. From now on it was just him and the dancer, no one else.

“Good evening there, chap,” a sly voice called from the side. It was a jack-in-the-box, popped out to welcome newcomers. “First time at our fun, little wayside?”

No thank you,” the drummer said sternly, but even as he said it he felt bad for being rude to a toy that might not deserve it. “I’m sorry,” he turned to face the affronted jack. “I’m just in a hurry.”

“Well what are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”

“Did you see a bear run past this way? With a dancer on his shoulder? It wouldn’t have been more than a moment a go.”

“Oh yes, that bear!” the jack-in-the-box nodded enthusiastically, even before the drummer had concluded speaking. “Yes of course I saw him. Friend of yours? He came here, signed in, and went between those two buildings right there. Probably on his way to the motel on the other side.”

The drummer turned to look down the alleyway that the jack-in-the-box was pointing towards. It was a narrow crevice between two of the leaning buildings, completely covered in dark shadows.

“Through there?” the drummer asked fearfully.

“Yes, through it towards the motel.”

“Are you quite sure?”

The jack-in-the-box folded his arms indignantly. “You ask me where to find them, I say that’s the where they went. So don’t go if you don’t believe me, what do I care?”

Something felt wrong to the drummer, but the jack-in-the-box seemed so certain. The drummer couldn’t really afford to pass up such a good lead, especially when he couldn’t even explain to himself why it was he felt so hesitant. So he took a deep breath and charged forward.

“Wait, you have to sign the registry!” the jack-in-the-box called after him, but the drummer didn’t stop. Soon he had passed into the shadow between the buildings.

What few windows lined this alleyway had been smashed in, with bits of broken glass littered about and crunching under the drummer’s feet. The rooms beyond had been stripped of all their furniture, and the wallpapers were heavily stained by dirt and grease. The only light was the occasional prism of orange streaming through the broken windows on the right, beyond which the sun was slowly setting.

As the drummer pushed on through the darkness he became aware of some voices just ahead of him. They were low and muttering, speaking in quick, hurried breaths.

“H-hello?” he called out, and all at once the voices fell silent. “Oh don’t go away,” he pleaded. “I need some help, please.”

“Oh…he needs some help,” one of the voices said silkily. “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning, stranger?”

Out of the shadows a tall, wooden doll emerged. Its original unvarnished surface had been covered all over by a wide array of rainbow colors. Behind it followed two weeble wobble brothers.

“Helping people is our favorite thing to do,” the wooden doll grinned. “The jack-in-the-box sent you?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“He always sends toys here for us to help them.”

“Oh, well actually he sent me here to find someone I’m looking for.”

“Yes, that’s often what we help people with. To find someone. The person you’re looking for is right this way. Follow me.”

“But…you don’t even know who I’m looking for!” That strange discomfort was returning to the drummer and he started to take a few steps back. He thought that maybe he shouldn’t have come this way at all. He wasn’t sure why he felt so wrong, but maybe it didn’t matter if he didn’t know the reasons why. Somehow he knew he just ought to listen to that feeling.

“But I do know,” the doll said. “And I hate to tell you this, but she looked like she had been hurt.”

“She–what?!”

“Yes, she didn’t look good at all. She needed a lot of help. I think she was calling for you.”

“The dancer was?”

“Yes,” the doll nodded solemnly. “It was her.”

The hesitations left the drummer immediately, replaced with a fresh panic.

“Where is she? Take me to her!”

“Of course, though I think we’re going to need some money to reach her. Might need to bribe a guard or two, you understand me?”

“You need…money?”

“Yes. Have you got any?”

“I–no. I don’t even know what that is.”

“Oh…so it’s like that. Well no worry. Maybe someone left you some money. Let’s go and see.”

The doll put his arm around the drummer and steered him towards the end of the alley and down another path.

“Well I’m not sure who would have done that,” the drummer was saying, still a bit confused.

“One never knows,” one of the weeble wobbles said from the drummer’s elbow.

“But it wouldn’t hurt to check, of course,” the other said from the opposite side.

“No…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. But maybe we should go and find her first. We’ve got to get her back, whether with money or not!”

“Of course, of course,” the doll soothed. “Trust me, I know just what to do.”

They had made a few turns down crooked streets and were now approaching a large, iron factory. It was grimy and smelled of soot and didn’t seem like a particularly nice place to be at all. At the front of it was a heavy door, and beside it a receptionist seated behind a glass window.

“Hello there, Orr,” the doll said to the receptionist, who was a piggy bank.

“Duth,” the pig droned lazily.

“I’ve brought you a new worker, he’ll do excellently on your team.”

Orr grunted and leaned forward, squinting appraisingly at the drummer. “Well he’s new, probably has at least six months of hard labor in him, so that’s good. But they didn’t make his arms very big, won’t be able to lift so much.”

“Oh but he is a determined, spirited sort.”

“Yes, I’m sure…”

The drummer didn’t understand just what they were talking about, nor how this was helping him to obtain money, nor indeed how the money was related to finding the dancer. He was just about to say all this when the two concluded their discussion.

“…and three large discs as a standard finder’s fee,” Orr said, sliding three plastic chips over to Duth.

“Is that…money?” the drummer asked.

“Yes.”

“Oh, so we can go get to the dancer now?”

“Well…no,” Duth said awkwardly. “We’ll need a bit more. But I’ve got you a job now, see. You’ll be earning money at a rate of…” he glanced over to Orr.

“New workers are compensated at 2 small discs per week. Food and lodging is provided.”

“There you go!” Duth said energetically. “That’s a capital rate for you.”

“But I don’t understand what it’s for.”

“Money gets you anything you want,” one of the weeble wobbles said.

“If you want to convince your girl to come back, money will win her for sure,” the other said.

“Oh, she didn’t leave me. She was taken by another toy, a teddy bear.”

“Yes, yes, the story of us all, brother,” Duth smirked. “But either way, you make enough money and you’ll be able to buy her back from the bear.”

“Actually I had been thinking more of just grabbing her and running.”

“Oho!” Orr laughed. “More a rough-and-tumble sort of guy, huh? Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’re a little small for a job like that.”

The drummer paused and looked down at his hands. The pig had a point, the bear had been much larger than he was.

“Yesss,” Orr continued, “you know it’s true. But once again, with some money, you can hire some other toys to help you out with that. I know some who will even make sure the bear never comes back after you, if you catch my drift.”

“I see,” the drummer said slowly. “Well thank you for explaining. I think I’m finally beginning to understand. I’ll do some work, I’ll make some money, I’ll be able to pay to get her back…”

“Exactly,” the doll praised. “And it’s the only way, believe me.”

“Then…I guess I’d better do it. Where is the work?”

“Capital attitude,” Orr snorted approvingly. “Come right this way.”

The doll and the two weeble wobbles slunk into the night while Orr let the drummer in through the door, and led the way through a maze of corridors into the heart of the place. The drummer had never seen a place like this before, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he cared much for it. It was dark, with only the occasional, weak candle to give any light. Worse than that, all the toys that they passed along the way seemed to be in a very dire strait.

It wasn’t just that they were so dirty, chipped, and torn. It wasn’t just that most of their paint had scratched off and they had been scored with deep gouges. It wasn’t just that they were missing eyes and buttons, and some of them entire limbs! More than all that it was just the haunted, vacant expression they all bore. Toys with no soul in them, more machines than living things.

The drummer vaguely wondered why so many gaunt, expressionless workers might have come to this sort of place, but then he pushed the thought from his mind. It didn’t matter. All that mattered now was the work, and the money, and buying the dancer’s freedom. He realized that he still was quite confused about a few matters. How was he to know when he had enough money? Where was he supposed to go to pay other toys to help him get her back? And still he didn’t even know where she was!

He felt a little bit of anger towards all the people that had helped him thus far: the jack-in-the-box, the doll, the pig. Each of them had made clear that they really wanted to help him, but none of them had really seemed to listen to him very much.

Again, never mind that now. Work now. Money now. Ask more questions at the next opportunity.

And so it was that the drummer found himself shuffling with a small army of workers down a massive corridor towards an even more massive furnace. At first all the drummer could see of it was the huge cloud of smoke, yawing ahead of them like the end of the earth. The closer they got to it the more it choked them. Soon the drummer was coughing black onto his white, painted gloves. Still they pressed forward, and now the drummer could make out the flame at the furnace’s base. It was too shrouded in smoke to see any tongues, but there was a definite glow of deep, vibrating orange. Its heat was immense, and the drummer felt a crackling along his fresh paint.

“Team three back to barracks! Team four, your quota is two mountains before relief!” A foreman in his toy car snapped down to them. He was gesturing to two immense piles of coal, each more than ten times the height of the drummer! One-by-one the workers walked up to the first pile, selected a single lump of coal, and marched with it towards the flame. When they got close enough that their faces began to singe they hurled it forward with all of their might, eliciting a shower of sparks which proved that they had made their mark.

If ever they missed their mark then they were handed “the pole” and had to shield their eyes to try and see their stray piece of coal and jab it into the flame. All the while the foreman would shout at them, counting down how long they had before he would throw them in instead!

The drummer had a lot of questions about this process, but it didn’t seem to be the sort of place that would care for questions. So he set to work, following the pattern of all the others. All of his first lumps of coal failed to find the furnace, and he quickly was given a nickname by the foreman: Useless.

That harsh toy shouted at him and shoved him, telling him it would be easier on them all if he would just dive into the flame and rid them of his nuisance. All the while the drummer frantically thrust out with the pole, silently pleading for the shower of sparks that would mean he had managed to right his error. When at last the blessed torrent came he ran with from the spot, only to be clutched by dread anticipation as he came back to the pile of coal, and knew he was about to miss yet another throw.

There was no relief, he found himself in perpetual fear. The terror in front of the flame, the anticipation of failure, the despair of the missed throw, the terror, the anticipation, the despair. Each time round they seemed to come faster, seemed to nip more savagely at one another’s heels. The terror. The anticipation. The despair. He was going to be thrown in, that was all there was to it. He couldn’t keep up at this pace. Terror. Anticipation. Despair. But for as quickly as the cycle repeated, the mountain never grew any smaller! The task would never be done, they would never leave here. He couldn’t keep doing this! He had to collapse, had to give up, had to be thrown into the furnace and get it all over with. Terror! Anticipation! Despair!

The little drummer cried in agony as he thrust his blistering gloves forward. The small lump of coal sailed high into the air and a shower of sparks burst forth.

“Well,” the foreman said in surprise. “You get to live a minute more. Move along, useless!”

And so it was. The drummer shuffled along with the line and made his way back to grab another piece of coal. Heart thumping he threw that one clean into the fire as well. Another minute to live.

Part Three

 

Things certainly went from bad to worse for our little hero! It would seem that we’ve gone from a happy fairy tale into an Orwellian nightmare. Along the way we met a few new characters, including a jack-in-the-box, the posing doll, the piggy bank, and the foreman.

I explained on Monday that my purpose was to write each of these characters so that the audience could instantly judge the quality of their character. To accomplish this I made use of a few tricks.

The first was that in the first section of this story I carefully selected the setting where these characters live. This wayside village is clearly a seedy hovel of reprobate amusement, and one assumes that the sort who live here will be just as despicable.

Secondly I chose toys that could symbolize their diabolical natures. The jack-in-the-box is not what he seems at first, the doll is a contortionist, the piggy bank is greedy, the foreman drives things hard.

Then I used descriptive terms and actions to immediately communicate that these characters are wretched. The jack-in-the-box speaks slyly, the doll mutters, the piggy bank drones lazily, the foreman snaps.

Finally, each of these characters are simply much too quick to try and “help” the drummer. Right from the outset this over-eagerness sets our suspicion sky-high. What is frustrating, though, is that the doll does not see what we so clearly do. There is a lot of tension in this piece because of the separation between what he understands and what the audience does.

I would like to examine this idea of characters making choices that the audience already knows are bad. Come back on Monday for that, on then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with our poor, little drummer. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

The Toymaker: Part One

brown and black nesting doll on brown wooden table
Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels.com

No toy could remember the moment of its creation, because at the moment of creation it had no awareness at all. It just meandered about, mindlessly performing its set task and entirely oblivious to all. Individuality only came in degrees, a tiny bit at a time.

Day-by-day a toy would gain a vague awareness that there was a constant Rump-a-dum-dum around it. Then it would gain a vague awareness that it was being vaguely aware!

Day-by-day the toy would start to piece together that those Rump-a-dum-dum noises seemed to be synchronized with the little batons that it saw beating against a drum. Then it would piece together that those were its batons, and that it was moving them with its hands, to play its drum.

Day-by-day the toy would begin to wonder why it was playing that drum. And then it would stop. And then the world would sound so empty and strange without the sound that it would start playing again. But it would play it a little differently now. Rump-a-dum-dum-dum! Rump-a-rump-dum!

Now, at last, it would be an individual being, and while wandering about it would start to recognize that there were other beings that were not itself. Some of them would smile knowingly and wink at it and ask if it had “come to itself yet,” which the toy wouldn’t understand the meaning of.

Some of the other toys, though, would be entirely disconnected from their surroundings, like a ballerina that was glassy-eyed and monotonously twirling on top of her box without a single step of variation. And the drummer would see how that little ballerina-on-a-music-box was day-by-day starting to come to herself and look back at him with a bemused wonder. Then the drummer would understand what it meant to “come to oneself” and realized, almost with horror, that once it had been so oblivious itself!

And so the drummer would go back to those that had smiled and winked and would tell them that yes, it had come to itself, and now it was very much confused. Then they would tell him it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, it happened to them all. Then they would tell him that he probably ought to follow this road over here, and presently it would bring him to a great and important city. Once there he could start to learn about the real world.

And a toy, such as this drummer, would thank them, but want to know why he hadn’t always been aware, and why he was now, and where did he come from to begin with?

“No one really knows,” the smiling Bishop might say.

“Even when we know how to know, we still don’t know where we came from,” the winking Knight added.

“We see you new toys waking up, but we don’t actually see any of you get made, now do we?” the questioning Rook offers. “Just one moment there’s an empty pond over there, then you turn your back, and when you look again there’s this rubber duck swimming through it completely oblivious. And it’s always behind your back like that. No matter how you try to see it, new toys always come in secret.”

“Oh how curious,” the little drummer says. “But how do you–”

“To the city,” the stern King repeats. “That is the place for you.”

“They’ll give me the answers there?”

“They might give you an answer or two…but mostly more questions, and really you’d better get used to that in this world. So the sooner you get there and the sooner you get used to it the better, so you’d better get going now!”

And with that a drummer would figure he had better start down that road!

It wasn’t a very straight road, indeed it incessantly curved back-and-forth in a whimsical sort of way. A road meant for play, rather than for function.

And this proved quite the challenge for the drummer. For all his short life he had always marched in straight lines. Indeed with such straight legs and no knees, what else could be expected of him? Thus as he approached the first turn he walked straight into it, then straight through it, then straight off of it and straight into the dirt going the completely wrong direction.

He came to an immediate stop and stared about, trying to understand what was going on. He decided that he ought to try again, and so took another step, still in the wrong direction!

Once more the drummer halted, and he was really getting quite anxious now! He did not know how to move back to the path except for by trying to walk again, but each of his tries seemed to be carrying him only farther away. He couldn’t help but worry whether by trying so hard to return to the road he wouldn’t just wander away from it forever.

And so he waited for a good deal, but nothing useful came from that either, and so he decided he really ought to try just one more time. He thought really hard about going the right way, looked down to his foot, and watched as it continued straight forward in sheer defiance!

And so the drummer paused again and wondered a bit about how exactly one was supposed to go the right way, which meant that he was still pausing and wondering when another toy happened to come her way down the same road.

It was the dancer he had seen from before, the one that had been unaware of her own existence. She went down the road spinning and spinning, which meant of course that she had no trouble with the turns whatsoever.

“Oh,” she exclaimed when she saw the drummer standing off the road a few inches from her. “Are we supposed to leave the road here?”

“I–no, I don’t think so. I just can’t seem to turn properly.” The drummer was very ashamed.

“Oh, are you going to stay here forever then?”

“I just might have to.”

“Wait, I have an idea…” and she spun over next to him, looped her arm around his, and twirled him right back onto the road.

“How did you do that?!” he asked in amazement.

“It’s just what I do. Now can you continue on your way?”

“Well…I can because the road is straight right here. But I see another turn waiting up ahead, and once I get to it I’ll be right back in the same sort of trouble again I suspect.”

“No worries there. I’ll just stick beside you and help you around that turn as well.”

“And the next?”

“And the next and the next and the next.”

Well that was certainly a relief! So the drummer and the dancer continued down the road together. They would still fumble from time to time, such as when the drummer wouldn’t come to a complete stop before walking off a curve in the road, or when the dancer would spin too far and end up pointing back the way they came; but now at least they fumbled together, and somehow that made it better. And both of them would straighten the other out and then they would continue onward together.

“This is quite a long time we’ve been on this road, isn’t it?” the dancer asked after a long time being on the road.

“Yes…but maybe it’s that way with every road. Really I’m not sure myself, I’ve never been much of an expert on them.”

“Sir, I’ve been wondering, what is that you’re holding in your hands?”

“These are my batons, and I use them to play my drum. See, like this.” Rump-a-rump-rump-rump! Rump-a-dum-a-dum-dum!

“Oh!” the dancer cried out, and her spinning changed to matched his beat. And as he saw her change her spinning he changed the way he was drumming. So now her dancing moved his drumming, and his drumming moved her dancing. It was a little disorienting at first, but then they settled into a joint cadence.

Just then they came upon the next turn, and a wonderful thing occurred. The drummer found that so long as he beat his instrument in time to the dancer’s spinning he could now make the turn on his own. And the dancer found that as she matched her spinning to his drumming, she could straighten back out anytime that she turned too far. And so they pulled and pushed with their little music and dance, and beat their way much more easily down the path.

Such good time they were making now, that soon they were catching up on another toy, one that had been sent on his journey long before either of them.

It was a puffy teddy bear, who didn’t have quite enough stuffing to stand up straight. As such he trundled along in a constant stoop, picking out his path carefully and methodically. As the two friends came alongside of him the drummer slowed his beat so that they could match pace with the bear.

“Hello there!” the dancer called out joyfully.

The bear turned his head to see them, which in turn rotated almost half his entire body. “Oh, hello,” he said slowly. “I didn’t see you there.”

“Are you off to the city as well?” the drummer asked.

“Well, you know, I was. But I’ve been travelling down this road for such a very long time and I still haven’t seen it. I’m beginning to wonder if the city doesn’t exist.”

The drummer and the dancer both found that a very confusing idea.

“But how could we have been told to go to a place that doesn’t exist?” the drummer asked.

“I don’t know,” the bear sighed. “It was just a thought that occurred to me while I was walking along my way. Or perhaps it did exist once, but it doesn’t anymore. Or maybe it isn’t really worth going to anyway. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can think of so many reasons why it isn’t a good idea to stay on this road anymore.”

“Hmm” the dancer pondered.

“And if I can think of so many possible reasons for why I shouldn’t keep going to the city, then surely one or two of them must actually be true. Wouldn’t you think?”

“Hmm” the drummer thought. “But if you don’t go to the city…then where will you go?”

“I thought I would try at this town along the way.”

The drummer and the dancer looked in the direction that the bear pointed, and for the first time noticed that they were nearing a group of buildings on the wayside. First came a building of brick, quite tall and filled with windows on every level. From those windows came quite the tumult of noise, for the tenets of the place were enjoying all manner of raucous songs and games. There was the clinking of bottles, rough laughter, instruments playing out of sync, various shouts for attention, and even the occasional thunderous crash.

Those crashes in particular shook the entire building, for it had not been built very well. Each of its row had a stray hole here and there, and too many of those holes were on the same side, and when the building settled it had decided to lean in that one direction.

Pressed right up against the brick apartments was another building of rough granite. It was as if the second building had been hastily thrown up for the express purpose of catching the first. As such it had not been made very well, either, and had inherited its progenitor’s leaning tendencies. So it rested right up against a third building of wood.

And so it continued, one building tipping onto the next, over and over, until at last they ended in a cluster of little, clay huts. There was a fresh sign out in front of the huts and it read New Vacancies: Cheap!

“Well!” the dancer said in shock. “I don’t know that I care to stay at a place such as this!”

“Why not?” the bear frowned. “I think it sounds like fun.”

“I think I like our fun better,” the drummer said to the dancer and she firmly nodded.

And that made the bear feel a bit upset. Because he hadn’t had any companion to give him fun of any sort during his long slog down the road. Indeed his walk had been so dreary and so lonely that he was quite content to take up residence here and never worry about the fabled city at the end of the road ever again.

But now he felt that this drummer and this dancer were snubbing him, and would probably laugh at his expense after they had parted ways. That made him really quiet mad, so he reached out, grabbed the dancer roughly, and rushed off with her shouting “Oh don’t be such a snob! Give it a try, I’ll bet you like it!”

“Oh dear!” the dancer cried, then looked earnestly to the drummer over the teddy bear’s shoulder. “Help me! Please help me!”

A horrible terror gripped the drummer: a sense of loss that he had never felt before. He fought down the despair, though, and beat out a chasing rhythm on his drum. His legs sprang into action, carrying him quickly towards the bear. He had almost caught up with him when the bear made a sudden turn towards the brick building.

“Oh dear,” the drummer said, trying to pound out a cadence that would turn him. It was tough to do, more than he had anticipated. He had come to rely on the dancer’s touch to do these things, and his swivels were much more erratic now. Still, after a few over-corrections he got mostly in the direction of the bear and began again his charge.

The bear had seen this, though, and made for great many more twists and turns, even more than had been on the road to the city. The drummer valiantly kept up the chase, but he slowly fell farther and farther behind.

“Please don’t worry,” he called out to the dancer as she was about to disappear from view behind the first building. “I will find you. I will keep coming, and I will find you. I promise!”

Part Two
Part Three

 

On Monday I wrote about how responsibilities often define the characters of a story. Each hero is responsible for something, and it is that duty that drives them to action. In the case of our drummer, he developed a bond with the dancer, and he feels responsible for her well-being. The origin of this obligation was established in a very organic way as the two of them helped each other down the path. Turn-by-turn they strengthened the notion that they depended on one another, and not only for following a road. As the story continues, his every action will be driven by that sense of duty to her.

Another aspect of this story I would like to draw attention to is in my use of the teddy bear. Though we do not become acquainted with him for very long before he commits his crime, his actions are foreshadowed by his introduction. When we first meet him I took care to describe him as a weighed down, gloomy sort of person. I was trying to get the reader to have a sense of unease about him as quickly as possible. This method of signalling a character’s personality, even before they have done or said anything of significance, is something I would like to examine in greater detail with my next post. We will see how it applied to this story and literature as a whole, after which we will pick back up with the plight of our drummer and dancer.

The Last Duty

photo of shed surrounded by tall trees
Photo by Nishant Aneja on Pexels.com

“I am surprised that anyone would come to look for me in my little abode, I’m a man of little consequence.” The old hermit bumbled through his cupboards, looking for a second cup to pour some tea into. It was not an easy task, for he was not in the habit of keeping company in his humble home.

“That’s not true,” the wanderer smiled lightly. He pulled the heavy gloves off of his hands, and then fumbled with the strap around his chest, loosening it so that he could sit more comfortably. “Every man has his circle of influence.”

The hermit paused to look up at the water leaking down from above. The dried longleaf that thatched his roof had been sliding apart for years, leaving whole patches open to the starry sky.

“Well my circle leaks,” he said. “What does that tell you about my influence?”

“That you don’t mind the rain,” the wanderer’s grin widened.

“Oh so smart,” the hermit muttered under his breath. “Got an answer for everything.” Finally he produced two chipped, wooden mugs and a pot. He placed them on the small table, in the center of the one-room hut. He poured the tea and offered the drink to the wanderer who took it with thanks. It was very weak tea, essentially hot water with only the faintest traces of anything else. Indeed the strongest flavor was what seeped into it from the wood of the cup. The wanderer did not seem to mind.

“At least you have a home,” the wanderer said after a few moment’s silence. “I did once…perhaps one day I will again. But for now I remain a wanderer.”

“But there must be something that you wander for?”

“Yes,” the warrior nodded. “I do have a purpose.”

“Well I don’t have that. I would happily trade you home for purpose if my old bones were up to it.”

“Once you must have had one.”

“That’s private,” the hermit said sourly.

“No,” the wanderer said, still smiling in spite of his host’s prickliness. “No man’s purpose is a secret, because all men’s purpose is the same.”

“To their children,” the hermit had a tear in his eye.

“The very same.”

“Do you have children then, wanderer?”

“Of a sort…once. Do you?”

“I did. Once. Why do you say ‘of a sort.'”

“Well I had a people, and they were my children.”

“Ah.”

“I provided for their needs, I gave them instruction, I protected them from evil. And though it pained me to do so, I have journeyed away from them when necessary…. To do for them what is necessary. Was I not a father, then?”

“I suppose. Though why are you not still?”

“I lead them no longer. Another does. But why are you not still a father? Surely the duty of a father extends past all things, even beyond the grave?”

“The grave, yes. But no, not all things–” the hermit looked down into his cup, anxious to escape the question. “You mentioned duty. And of a truth, you named many. But you never did mention how you…disciplined them.”

“Ah yes, the last duty, the one every father hopes to avoid. We all wish that by doing the others so well, we will have no need for that last. Is it not so?”

The hermit nodded gravely.

“Well, there was punishment from time to time in our little community. I gave to them their laws, after all, so I had to enforce them. Never was I cruel, though. Our punishments were chosen together. Five lashes for stealing bread, a night in the stocks for disorderly behavior, we all agreed that these were fair.”

The wanderer took a sip, then continued.

“It seemed enough. It encouraged them to choose their better natures. All were committed to the prosperity of one another, and it was only the occasional stray moment that needed to be curtailed…” the way the wanderer’s voice trailed off was telling.

“And yet?”

“And yet something changed. Something. A monster, a demon, a–a something took their hearts and corrupted them. For the first time we had men who would cheat one another for their own advancement. Women who would falsely accuse one another to take their place. And still it got worse.”

The wanderer’s hands were shaking now. He set down the cup for fear of dropping it.

“I wouldn’t have believed it possible,” he continued, “but they even began to hurt one another for the pure pleasure of it. They had nothing to gain by it at all, they just wanted to see the other bleed.”

The wanderer paused again, and for a minute the hermit did not press him. But at last he couldn’t hold his peace.

“You said it was…something that turned them?”

“It was a man. The scourge of all these lands now. Surely even you have heard of him…”

“Azdenik,” the hermit did not speak the name so much as mouth it. “I know of the man.”

“And yet not a man. There is a dark magic in him, I have never seen one so able to seduce the innocent. Even I was enchanted with him when first he arrived in our village. And such promises he offers. You know of them?”

“Not promises,” the hermit shook his head darkly. “Exchanges. Little pieces of the soul you must give him…but he does not tell you that.”

“No, he does not. When at first he offered his little trinkets to us, his little charms and totems, we thought he was making a joke. How could his little idols make our fields double in yield, our clothes shine with greater luster, or our luck run more sweetly? How could such a clever, charismatic man expect us to believe such fantasies?”

“And yet?”

“And yet my people took them. They winked at his stories in public, but in the dead of night they came to his door and crept back to their homes with his wares. I knew it was happening. Everyone did. Even then it gave me great unease. But I could not explain why, and so I felt I had no right to intervene.”

“And your people began prospering?”

“Yes. I told myself it was just a coincidence. That this man came and then my peoples’ crops began yielding more and more each week, who could believe the two were connected? But the crops were only increasing in the homes of the most naive and gullible, the very same ones I knew would have taken Azdenik’s offer. Eventually more and more of my people started seeing increases in their farms, and so I knew that even the more practical were beginning to be swayed. If he had stayed much longer, everyone would have had one of his totems.”

“But he didn’t stay?”

“No, that was his greatest trick of all. You see if everyone had gotten one of the totems there would have been on a level playing field. By leaving early he put a rift in our town. Now those that prospered had an unfair advantage. They started spending more lavishly, and all the shopkeepers raised prices so that they could share in the wealth, too. Of course that left all the farmers who didn’t have a totem out in the cold. Suddenly they were paupers, and not because of a lack of industry. Those people started to grow bitter. Bitter feelings became bitter thoughts. Bitter thoughts turned into bitter words. Bitter words incited bitter actions.”

“What did you do?”

“We had our laws still, and I enforced them. But they were no longer of any effect. Discipline only works when it awakens a man’s innate desire to do good, and it doesn’t accomplish anything to put a scornful man in the stocks.”

The hermit nodded, as though he understood something of this. “And then it’s easy to come down harder and harder on them. If they won’t awaken to remorse, perhaps they will to fear…”

“Aye. And then you aren’t their loving, guiding father anymore. You’re their vengeful taskmaster and they hate you for it.”

“Yes, you are not their father anymore,” the hermit nodded sadly. “The duties of the father can extend through the grave. But through hell?”

“Surely there must be something a father can do for a child even then,” the wanderer fought down his despair. “Do you not think so?”

“I don’t know what.”

“There must be. I know that there must be!”

“If you say so.”

A few moments of dark silence passed between the two, then the wanderer continued with his sorry tale.

“I only saw how complete my failure was when Azdenik returned. I could see in his eyes that he knew what had happened in his absence. He had counted on it. We were but a husk of the charming village when first he visited. He offered the survivors to join his band, to drink more fully from the power of his totems and follow him in conquest.

“I begged my people not to go. Reasoned with them, pleaded with them. Threatened them! But Azdenik was their father now, not me. They left me, every single one of them left me. Gone to break the innocence of other lands, gone to kill and plunder, gone and made me a wanderer without a home.”

“Terrible,” the hermit shook his head. “just terrible. Although…you said you had a purpose in your wandering?”

“Yes, to do my last duty to my children.”

The wanderer’s voice grew dark and very cold. He reached out and took another long, slow sip from his tea. “My children lost their innocence,” he whispered, “and I quest to reclaim it.”

“You–still think to save them?”

“All are innocent at birth. And all are innocent in the grave.”

“Oh,” the hermit groaned, and shook his head at the heaviness of that pronouncement. “Why have you come here, grim man?”

“I raised one army after another, eight times!” the wanderer stood upright and clenched his fists.  “Each one I spent against Azdenik and his people–my people–and each time I alone crawled away from the bloody defeat. Now I know of a certainty that there is no breaking Azdenik so long as he holds those cursed totems!”

“Why have you come?” the hermit wept, holding his shaking head in his hands. “Why have you come?”

“To do what you would not, weak man!” the wanderer spat.

“Leave me!”

The wanderer turned rabid. He grabbed the hermit by the front of his frock, and pulled him up to his feet.

“Tell me what I need to know!” he snarled through clenched teeth. “Azdenik must have a weakness!”

“I don’t know, I don’t know…”

“No lies!” He threw the hermit against the wall, and the old man crumpled into a sobbing heap on the floor. The wanderer leaped on him, turned him over, and struck him across the face. “Tell me!

“I c-can’t. I don’t know. It’s not right…”

“It is the only right that is left!”

“Why do you trouble me? Why should I know these things?”

“No man knows another like a father knows his child!”

I have no child!” the hermit wailed. “Azdenik isn’t my son! My son was Geoffrey Braithwaite!”

“Yes. Good, good,” the wanderer’s eyes glinted and he panted like a predator closing in on his prey. “And you know how to kill Geoffrey Braithwaite.”

“No.”

Yes you do!” He struck him again, then leaned in hungrily. “You do not wish to, but you do know what his weakness is. He must have one, and you know it. You can tell me how to kill him, and you know that when I do the monster he became will die as well. Don’t do it for me, old man, do it for your son. Do your last duty to him…. Let me give Geoffrey rest.”

Streams of tears ran down the hermit’s face. His mouth stood agape in silent wailing. “I never knew it would go so far,” he sobbed. “I should have smothered him when I could.”

“I will. I’ll do it for you. Tell me how. You know!”

Several moments.

“Alright…I’ll tell you.”

 

As I said on Monday, my entire intention with this story was to show a character that does what he has to, even though he feels condemned by that action. It’s not like this was ever going to end in a positive place!

At the start of this story the hermit seems innocent enough. He is polite, has basically good desires, and a few of his comments suggest that he has a strong sense of duty. This seems well and fine, but as we press towards the end we realize that there came in his life a moment of conflict between his good desires and his duty. He wished for the well-being of his wayward son (a good desire), and because of it denied an obligation to destroy him (his sense of duty). This crossing of the lines is even hinted at with a subtle line of dialogue: “it is the only right that is left.”

In the end he is persuaded, or perhaps we should say forced, to finally choose duty over child. Now let me make abundantly clear, this is not a resolution that I intend for the audience to be wholly on board with. My expectation is that the audience will be taken aback, and then call into question the logic with which the story concludes.

As I suggested on Monday, a story like this is intended to divide readers. Some of them might finally conclude that the hermit should never have relented, and some will say that he should. Some may say that he already failed long ago just by letting his son go astray. Some may say that that couldn’t have been helped.

Whatever conclusion a reader settles on, they will understand their own selves better for having made that determination. That is the entire point of a story like this: to dissatisfy the audience into a self-affirming decision.

This story does not end with an answer, only with a question. Namely, to what extent is a man responsible for what he has created? This has long been a query of literature, extending back as far as Frankenstein’s monster and even Oedipus. Come back next week when we’ll look more closely at this idea of a character’s responsibility. I’ll see you there on Monday.

Shade: Part Three

white and black moon with black skies and body of water photography during night time
Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two

An hour later, down in the nearby valley, Reish stood immobile in the middle of his barracks. An hour ago he had felt the tremor, a signal born down to him by the third shade which he and Gallan both shared. Gallan was coming.

Reish didn’t try to fight it, he didn’t try to hide his location from Gallan at all. Let him come. Let all the reckonings happen here and now. And so he just stood there, silently waiting until there was a knock at the door.

“Let him in,” he ordered tersely.

The door opened and six guards entered with Gallan in their midst. They had taken the precaution of putting him in shackles, which Gallan now reached out to with his shade and systematically disassembled. The bonds dropped unceremoniously to the floor.

“Hey!” one of the guards roared at him.

“Leave it,” Reish sighed. “If he meant you any harm he would have killed you as soon as he’d seen you. Go now.”

“But, sir–” the guards were clearly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving Gallan alone with their leader.

“And if he meant me any harm I would have killed him before he even arrived,” Reish added. “Leave us.”

The guards didn’t need telling a third time. Reish waited until the door had closed before stepping near to Gallan.

“Well, Gallan. I can sense that you haven’t come here to assassinate me…”

“Even if I tried it wouldn’t work.”

“No. It wouldn’t. So why are you here?”

“To offer you an end to our feud.”

“Hmm, well I hardly believe that you mean to join forces? No, of course not. But I also can’t believe that you’ve come to just lay down and die at my feet.”

Gallan smiled. “I will do exactly that…if you satisfy my demands.”

“Ah, yes, a deal. I should have realized. No doubt you’re worried about that little clan of yours. Alright then, you nobly sacrifice yourself and yes, I will let them go free.”

“Don’t lie to me, creature!” Gallan spat. He spoke directly to the placid beast-side of Reish’s face. “I have long known that you have one purpose, and one purpose only. Total conquest.”

For the first time the beast-side of the face flexed on its own, giving a cold scowl. “Very well, I will give them some time then. I will let them hold onto their hope for a season. And then, last of all, their end will be quick and painless. Is that what you want?”

Gallan shook his head in disgust. “You think I’m so crude as to deal in false hopes for them?”

“No?” the beast taunted. “I thought that was all you did.”

Gallan didn’t dignify that with a response. It was interesting to hear the beast say those words, though, for that same thought had been echoing in his head for some time. Now he knew where it came from, and strangely enough that made him feel more confident in himself.

“But if you haven’t come for them, what did you come for?” the beast demanded.

“I’ve come to trade myself for Reish.”

Reish was startled by that. “That’s not possible!”

“No, it isn’t,” the beast agreed. “You know his sins, I am owed his soul. He’s much too entrenched to ever be let go.”

“He might be… but personally I doubt it. You’ve had him for seven years and still you don’t have full control of his body. Clearly there’s something there that is resisting you.”

“Gallan, don’t do this!” Reish pleaded.

“I still don’t understand,” the beast interjected. “Trade yourself for Reish? So what…I get your body and soul and vacate his? I don’t see how that serves me any better.”

“You don’t get my soul, just my body. It’ll be one of your puppets.”

“Not interested.”

And you get the third shade. Entirely.”

That gave both Reish and the beast pause.

“So…” the beast said slowly, weighing the options in his mind. “I get your body and the third shade. The full benefit of a shared shade, encased in a body that is entirely under my control…Meanwhile your soul goes on to the afterlife, and Reish leaves me, soul and body. That is your offer?”

“And Reish has no remaining ties to the third shade, no powers with which to challenge you.”

“While on the other hand, I could continue to string out our war, take over the third shade bit-by-bit, as well as Reish’s body and soul, and then kill you once the third shade will allow it…”

“Take over the third shade almost. Reish’s body and soul almost. Let’s not play games. Both of us know that you will never have the whole of them this way. You will always be fractured. If you could take them all the way you would have done it already. Like I said, there’s something still in Reish that you haven’t been able to take from him. And so long as you don’t have all of him, you won’t have all of the third shade.”

“But if I do things your way, then you die tonight. And then, you must realize, I kill Reish. And then I kill all your little followers.”

“That…is a distinct possibility.”

“Ah,” the beast crowed. “So that’s why you’re willing to do this. After everything you’ve been through you still have a glimmer of hope. Hope that somehow Reish and the others will find a way out of all this.”

“If ever they could, it would only be this way. With all ties having been cut. I don’t know that they will succeed. Frankly, I don’t know how they would. But yes, as you say, I do still hope.”

That was it, all the cards were laid out. If Gallan held back his true motives it would only make the beast skeptical about the deal.

The beast would know that Gallan’s logic was correct. A complete severance was the only way for the people Gallan cared about to ever go free. Yes, that would also unchain the beast, but that couldn’t be helped. The creature would at last be free to exercise its full potential, a being of power such as the world had never seen before. And so any victory for Gallan’s people was only theoretical. In practice their escape would be a virtual impossibility and Gallan’s hopes rested on the smallest possible of margins. The beast would consent.

“Gallan, no!” Reish shrieked. It was a great strain for him to speak, but he continued shaking his head, wresting for that control. “You can’t do this. I don’t want you to save me. It’s too late. I don’t want–”

“Don’t you remember, Reish,” the beast-side sneered. “You don’t ‘get what you want,’ now do you?”

“Gallan, please,” Reish pleaded.

“Well, beast,” Gallan narrowed his eyes. “Is it a deal or not?”

The beast met his gaze. “Do it.”

Gallan closed his eyes and reached out with his shade. He could discern the essence of the whole room around them. Not by its walls and furnishings, but by its atmosphere and spirit. It was dark, oppressive, and bleak. Three souls, two bodies, one demon. He could sense them all. The demon and the third soul were reaching out for him and he received them.

Gallan was flung to the ground with a cry. His body went rigid and then convulsed. The transference did not happen all at once, the darkness hit him in one wave after another. A cold hopelessness crept over him. Inch-by-inch it pried at his soul, seeking to take him over. It gave him visions of all the horrible things it had done, of the people it had broken, of the sins it had made them do. It told him he was a fool, that it would do all these same things to those he now died for.

Gallan’s fists clenched and unclenched rapidly, the nails piercing into his skin. A shuddering cry rose through his chest, but before it could expel another followed right after it. And another and another, as if he needed to vomit, but nothing could get out because the convulsions ran too near one another. Hot tears flowed silently down his temples and into his hair.

Still the darkness pulled at his soul, trying to pry it free of his body. Inch-by-inch. Gallan wanted to give up that ghost, but he couldn’t willfully. It wasn’t its natural time, after all, and so it could only be wrested out involuntarily.

The darkness beat at his heart, and he realized he had to let it in. Though it broke him to do so, he opened himself to it. It felt like a strong ropes running down his throat, splintering off into separate cords of black, that pushed at force through his veins to pervade every cell of his body. Before it had been a cloud around him, but now it was in him. It was him. He felt himself shamed and unworthy. His purity was gone, his nobility was broken. We was overcome by a wave of deep fear, and that led him into pure hatred. All he wanted to do was break and destroy the world so that he could rest in its ashes.

Then came the almighty slash. Now that the darkness was inside him it seemed to grab his soul like a claw and wrenched violently until it began to pry loose from his body. The soul tore and left behind great patches of spirit that shriveled into nothingness. The claw ripped again, and the soul was almost torn free.

Everything was fading around Gallan, the world seemed to be growing cold and distant. It was as if the world was falling away beneath him. He was vaguely aware of a tearing sensation, but it seemed far off, like the shadow of a struggle. Strangle enough there was a peaceful disconnect. In fact he was free now, and drifting to somewhere new.

“Gallan, Gallan,” Reish sobbed. “Why did you do this? Why? It’s already too late for me.”

Reish was huddled on the ground, his form quivering in ceaseless sobs. Gallan had been right, a part of Reish had managed to hold on all through the years. Though the beast took so much of him, a hope had always remained. But it had not been a hope in himself, he had lost that long ago. It was his hope in Gallan. No matter how far Reish sunk, no matter how many people were destroyed, he rested in the confidence that at least Gallan would be out there. It had always comforted him to know that there still stood a champion for the people, a last beacon of good.

But now that beacon was gone. And gone in exchange for him, the most unworthy of them all.

And yet, Reish could not deny that bit-by-bit, inch-by-inch, a freshness was returning to him. For the first time in years he had control of his own body again. That weighing oppression was slipping away, leaving him with a clarity and an innocence that he had long forgotten. It felt so strange to be his own self again. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it, yet here it was all the same. It felt like being born anew.

Reish wiped his eyes and looked up from the ground. Gallan was nowhere to be seen. Where he had fallen there now lay a full-beast. It was stark and gaunt, a hideous contortion of spindly limbs projected at strange angles. Its skin was pale and hairless, stretched uncomfortably over long bones. Its maw was flat, but very wide, and between its motionless lips one could see the vise of pointed teeth.

The creature’s chest rose and fell and its eyes turned beneath its lids. It would awake soon, and it would arise with one purpose: to hunt him. Though Reish was still reeling from the cacophony of emotions, he knew he had to flee. Trying to slay the beast as it slept would be to no avail. There was a ghostly aura all about it, the sign of the third shade. Though the creature was unconscious the shade would not be, and it would protect its master well.

So Reish stumbled to his feet, turned from the place, and walked out into the night. He would go and find Gallan’s people, try to reach them before the beast did. He would warn them. Most likely they would just execute him on the spot, they certainly had the right to. Well, then at the very least he could allow them that final service.

Or perhaps they would see more meaning in Gallan’s actions than he did, and they would let him live for Gallan’s sake. If they did that, then he would offer them what pitiful aid he could for as long as he lived. His soul had been repurchased, and his duty was clear. Though he was no Gallan, he would try to stand in that man’s ranks, no matter how hopeless the situation had become.

 

This is the end of Shade, though clearly not the end of the story for Reish, the beast, and Gallan’s people. But then, we didn’t see the beginnings of their story either, so it felt fitting to leave things in media res as well. Even if this short story has not been the entire story, it still shows a complete arc on its own. There has been a hero, a conflict, and a reclamation.

At the outset for Shade I made clear my intentions for the story: it was to create an unspoken expectation in the reader and then defy it. I attempted to do this by introducing Gallan right from the outset as a heroic character, one that the audience assumes will carry the torch through the entire tale. Reish, meanwhile, I introduced as the reluctant villain, suggesting to the audience that he might sacrifice himself for the greater good and thus reclaim his soul.

That reclamation does happen, but I flip things so that it is Gallan who is sacrificed and Reish who is left to carry the torch. Thus is there both the fulfillment and the subversion of unspoken expectations.

On Monday I mentioned that the previous section of Shade had been heavy on exposition, and that I wanted this one to invoke more feelings from the reader. This section did end up still having a considerable amount of expository dialogue, but at the end we do delve deep into the actual experience of the characters. My intention was that both their hope and their despair would come through and shadow the emotions of the reader.

Of course trying to make the reader feel both hope and despair at the same moment is an interesting paradox. Combining contrasting flavors is something I have spoken about in a previous post, and how an author can use it to arrest a reader’s attention. There is another side to this sort of juxtaposition that is worth examining, though: how a writer can both subvert and satisfy a reader’s expectations at the same time. That, ultimately, was my wish with Shade, to end it on a note of both triumph and defeat. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain this approach in greater detail, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

Shade: Part Two

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Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

Part One

“I didn’t know you ran with the Kerrie Cabal these days,” Gallan said coolly.

Reish shook his head. “By now you should know that there are no divisions among those that are marked.”

Gallan did know that. All these warring factions were merely a front. Behind their petty squabbles all the Strained had the same single entity pulling their strings. That entity let them go about their little wars to give the illusion of hope. It would comfort people, make them think that no one was too powerful, that they still had a chance to make something of themselves.

“I thought you would be elsewhere, Reish.”

“And I thought you would.” Speaking was hard for Reish, he only had half of a mouth to operate with, the other side was permanently held in a hateful scowl. “Go!” he hissed between gritted teeth. It was clear that the beast-side was trying to end their conversation, and he had to strain to keep speaking.

“I wish I could, but I still have promises to keep.”

“No. I relinquished you of that obligation long ago.”

“But I have not.”

Reish scowled and turned to the side, facing Gallan’s men. He raised two fingers and they were compressed even tighter against the earth, muffled groans of pain warbling through their compressed throats. Gallan wanted to help them. But Reish’s power could not be denied.

“Are you so insistent on seeing me killed, Gallan?”

“It wouldn’t be like that. I’d find another way.”

“Just like how it won’t be that way for these men?” Reish’s right arm snapped into the air and the men were instantly pounded into the dust, compressed so thin that they became a dark powder that blew away in the wind.

Gallan dropped his head and exhaled heavily. “They understood the risks. As do I.”

“Gallan, so many people want you to live,” Reish reached down and withdrew the metal blade from the burly man’s chest. “Is it so important that you die?”

“If that’s what you want…then yes.”

Gallan hadn’t expected that to strike a chord, but a sudden pang crossed the Reish-side of the face, his eye grew moist and he blinked a tear.

“I don’t get what I want, Gallan. It’s not up to me anymore, don’t you see that? I would like to–” The beast-side of the face hardened, and its stony flatness crept over, muzzling Reish.

“Come home?” Gallan suggested.

The Reish-beast pulled its hand back and drove the metal blade forward. Gallan closed his eyes, preparing for impact.

Instead, though, he felt the hooks catching right beneath his shins.

“No!” he cried out as he was wrenched off his feet and sent flying backwards through the air. Years ago Husk had insisted that Gallan leave a vial of blood back at their base. It was bound to his second-shade, and could be manipulated to recall him if there was ever a moment of insurmountable danger.

As Gallan was pulled through the air by unseen strands he saw Husk swinging down towards Reish, guns blazing. He was followed by an entire squad of elite units. It was a suicide mission, and all to give Gallan time to escape.

“Husk, how could you?” Gallan sobbed, but it was too late. “You promised.”

*

It was a somber day back at camp, and everyone was weighed down with an overwhelming sense of despair. Not only had Gallan and his team failed to retrieve the vaccines, and not only had they lost a dozen of their best men, but news got around that Reish himself had returned, and seemingly for the express purpose of bringing their little enterprise to an end.

No one criticized Gallan, no one claimed him that he had chosen wrong. But then, no one had said that he made the right call either. They didn’t say anything to him at all, not even to ask what they were supposed to do. They could see in his eyes that right now he felt just as lost as the rest of them.

He hated that they could see that weakness. Their entire community was only able to function because of their confidence in him, their hope that he would always find a way. Well what if this time he couldn’t? What if he didn’t find any answers for their fears?

Dask was probably correct that they would still follow out of loyalty…at least for a while. Eventually the doubts would increase, though, and one-by-one they would start vanishing into the night.

No, he would have to give them something more. What exactly, he didn’t know. It seemed like he had already given his all, but that simply wasn’t enough. He would have to find a way to give them more than himself.

Gallan sighed in his boardroom and shook his head. Was that a paradox? He had solved many problems that others had thought were too difficult. But this one wasn’t just difficult. It was truly impossible.

Because, at it’s root, it was based upon another impossible problem.

Fact #1: Reish and he were tethered together. They each shared the same extra shade, three souls divided between two bodies.

Fact #2: Reish had also given his body to the beast. He was a strange amalgamation of three souls in one body. It tore his heart in terrible ways, but it also gave him power unfathomable.

Fact #3: The community depended on Gallan’s powers to survive in an otherwise untenable world. But that power was corrupted, because it came from the same shade that Reish had access to. Reish had taken their gift and polluted it with the beast. Now every time Gallan called upon those powers he indirectly strengthened the beast as well.

And so the blessing of Gallan’s power was actually his curse. Everything he did for his people only propped up the opposition against them. Gallan knew that his people had hoped that the bigger world would just forget about them, that Gallan would lead them far away while everyone else burned themselves to the ground. He had never made them that promise himself, but he had never explained the folly of it to them either.

Because the beast would never let them be, not so long as Gallan remained tied to the same shade as Reish. While it was already far stronger than Gallan, it too was handicapped by this strange union, and it could only be fully unleashed when all of its ties had been severed. Thus it had always only been a matter of time before the beast came to collect, to finally capture the remnants of Reish’s soul, Gallan’s soul, and the third that they shared.

Gallan had always hoped to find some hidden solution before that time of reckoning came, a secret way out of this problem. But in his heart he had always known that these hopes were in vain. He did not have the power to kill the beast, and so the beast would have to kill him instead. It must know that he would never surrender his own soul to it, so it would have to appease itself with Reish and the third’s. And then Gallan wouldn’t be around to defend his people anymore. All of his promises to them would be broken.

Just like his promise to Reish.

Well, no, he technically hadn’t broken that yet, he simply had not fulfilled it. He had never been able to see any way of doing so, and so once again he had sat back, vainly hoping for a solution to an impossible problem.

It had been years ago, when they were both still youthful and full of hope. The darkness of the world had only just begun to cloud their innocence. Reish had been taken by a caravan of slave-traders and seen horrible things that scarred him. When at last he fought his way to freedom he had burned with a desire to fight these wrongs. He came to Gallan and insisted that the clans responsible for this abominable trade be brought to justice.

At first Gallan had agreed with him, and they had gone on several missions together. But bit-by-bit Gallan realized that Reish’s true motives had less to do with justice, and more to do with vengeance. It wasn’t about protecting the innocent, it was only about punishing the guilty. Reish was fueled by a rage, and it frightened Gallan.

Eventually Gallan told Reish that they two of them would have to part. Gallan would continue fighting for the oppressed, but on his own terms.

The two friends had parted amicably, even sorrowfully. Reish had admitted that there was a darkness in his heart and that he was afraid that he might indeed lose himself to it. But still he had to see this through.

Reish had asked Gallan for a promise.

“Yes, anything,” Gallan had said.

“Watch over me, will you? And if I fall too far, bring me back. Promise me that you’ll do whatever is necessary to reclaim the memory of what I once was.”

It was a very open-ended oath, but Gallan had agreed. Evidently Reish today only saw one way that it could still be fulfilled: for Gallan to put him eternally to rest. To kill him for the sake of the man he once was. It was the only way that Gallan could see, too, though he tried to deny it.

At one point it might have been possible to nurture Reish back to wholeness, but there was no way to coax the beast out of him now. It had rightful claim of Reish, for he had bound himself to it by many other terrible oaths. Those promises had to be maintained too, and the beast was due its soul. It would take Reish, it would kill Gallan, it would take the third soul that bound them together.

That third soul was deeply tainted already, and it had become a conduit by which Gallan felt the corrupting fear from the beast constantly. No wonder he was beginning to despair.

“Do you know what you’re going to do?”

Gallan hadn’t even noticed Dask entering the room. He wasn’t startled, though, he was too weighed down for that.

“Yes,” Gallan said softly. “But I do not know what the outcome of it will be. I do not know that at all.”

Dask nodded. “You’re going to try and kill him?”

Gallan laughed, but without mirth. “No. Perhaps that is what I should have done, but the opportunity for that is long since past. Every day my power is waning, and his grows. I couldn’t harm him now if I tried.”

If at all possible, Dask’s face became even more grim. “So…what is there to do then?”

“I am going to go and talk with him.”

Talk with him?!” Dask said incredulously. “What good is that going to do?”

“I will make him an offer. I could be wrong…but I think he might accept it.”

“What is it?”

“That is my own matter. Just know that regardless of the outcome, I won’t be here to protect you anymore. So I’m putting you in charge, Dask, and you must do all that you can to bring these people to safety.”

“What?! We won’t stand a chance without you.”

Gallan leveled eyes with Dask and looked a dread earnestness into him.

“No, you won’t. So you had better run, Dask. Take everyone and leave. Get as far from this place as quickly as you can.”

Dask was saying words but Gallan didn’t hear them. Probably some form of protest from the look on his face. It didn’t matter. There was no more discussion to be had. Gallan pushed past him and out into the night. Somewhere in his musings he had decided what he had to do.

There yet remained one fact that seemed an anomaly to him, one sliver that remained in the dark. Today he had spoken with Reish, not the beast. Somehow a part of his friend was still locked up inside of there. That suggested something to him.

But what advantage could be made from exploiting that? He wasn’t sure, quite possibly none. Never mind that.

Gallan pushed through a door and exited the barracks. The pitch blackness of night hid the storm that he felt, an invisible wind and rain that swept him in a flurry of fitful gusts.

He didn’t mind it at all. It felt powerful and invigorating and it fueled his resolutions. When all outcomes were uncertain, all that remained was trying to set right the one thing he could. He would do that, and then the world would have to decide for itself what it wanted to be.

Staring up at the sky, Gallan let the water sting his eyes. Then he gave a mighty leap high into the air and disappeared into the black.

Part Two

 

In my last post I spoke at some length about the presence of violence in a story, and how it is often used to represent an underlying conflict. In this section I tried to focus directly on that conflict, and my hope is that it runs deep enough to warrant the violence that preceded it. This story is about a bleak and hopeless situation, and it only stands to reason that this darkness would result in war and death.

Of course in an epic with a happy ending, eventually that conflict would be resolved, and naturally the violence would end as well. And at that point, when there is no more conflict or war, the story ends. Because, as I said last week, all the things an author wants to say in their story, is said within the conflict. Teaching morals in a monotony of peace just isn’t effective.

I do realize, of course, that in this post I utilized a great deal of exposition. Gallan’s knot needed was quite complex and tangled, and I chose to communicate it without dialogue or action. This obviously contradicts the famous literary injunction to show, not tell. Essentially all that I did in this post was “telling.”

On Monday I’d like to examine the reasons for this decision and discuss if, and when, it makes sense to use exposition in a story. After that I will return on Thursday with the final entry in Shade. I’ll see you next week!

Shade: Part One

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“…and at least six Strained spaced around the perimeter. That is all.”

Gallan rubbed his forehead. That was quite the defense force…but it was also the right amount that they just might be able to pull it off. That must mean…

“It’s a trap!” Dask spoke up.

“Yes it is,” Gallan sighed. “I’ll bet the Western District doesn’t even need that shipment of vaccines…but they know that we do.”

“How would they know that?” Darret asked.

“It was their virus, they knew what vaccines we needed before we did,” Dask pointed out.

“Yes” Gallan mused. “That’s why they’ve been doing these shipments every week. They’ve been waiting for us to catch on and then try for it.”

“Why do you sound happy about that?” Dask asked.

“Because it means they don’t know when we’re going to hit it. They know that we are, but they don’t know whether it’s coming tomorrow, next week, or a month from now. That gives us something.”

“Seems a very small something to me,” Husk brooded. “Seems to me that we shouldn’t be sticking our necks out at all. The survivors we rescued from the city aren’t providing us any value. We’ve already done them a great service by comforting them…”

“So that’s enough and we let them die?!” Gallan snapped.

“We can’t save everyone, Gallan.”

Gallan shook his head, but his adviser had a point. “I know I make too many promises,” he admitted. “But it’s the only bargaining chip we have. People believe in us to be able to do the things that no one else can, and because of that belief they pitch in and help make the impossible happen. Once we start saying that can’t keep a promise then their belief is gone and all our power crumbles.”

“You make a good argument,” Dask said. “But I think you don’t give the people enough credit. They’re hardy. They’ll keep with us even if we aren’t perfect.”

“Maybe so,” Gallan nodded. “Maybe so. And maybe I really should stop making so many promises. But this one I have made, and so this one we need to see through.” He paused to let the statement sink in. “That is my decision.”

He looked around the room and everyone was nodding.

“Well alright then,” Husk said. “But it’s going to take some doing. The fact that we know that they know does give us a strategic opportunity. We could coordinate another hit somewhere else the day before. Go grab some minor resource or something. They won’t be expecting a second strike so quickly after that. And we’ll have our scouts looking specifically for the trap. Watching for those that are watching.”

“I think we stage it at this narrow pass here,” Dask tapped the map.

“Yes,” Darret nodded. “It’s pretty certain where any hidden forces would be concealed: between these three ridges. So we run through those beforehand and clean them out. But we’ve got to be quiet and quick about it, can’t let them signal that there’s trouble…”

Gallan watched approvingly as each member of his team contributed their various insights, combining their strengths to enact his will. Because they trusted him. Because they were sure that he would be right….

How he hoped that he was.

*

Eight days later Gallan stood perched on top of a boulder, staring down to the narrow pass below. A heavily armed caravan rumbled through, moving forward at a steady, military crawl. Gallan was flanked by an elite strike steam awaiting his word to begin their assault. Husk was at his side as well.

“It’s far more trucks than the ledger would suggest,” Gallan muttered. “They’ve surely got something brewing in there.”

“But we know that they do. And we have our own surprise for them as well,” Husk clapped Gallan on the shoulder.

“Yes…. Alright, I’ll punch right at the center, stir them up while you lay down suppressive fire. I don’t want to commit to anything more specific until we’ve been able to spring their trap and know what we’re dealing with. You move in the assault teams according to your own judgment.”

Husk nodded.

“Ring formation,” Gallan said to the strike team. “Give me about fifteen seconds to clear the landing zone. We’ll land on truck four, and make our way directly towards truck seven. Leave me a good opening along the way.”

The armored warriors nodded.

“Alright…alright…let’s go.”

Gallan sucked in a long, lingering breath and exhaled deeply, stoking the fire inside of him. He felt that same, old fear that came before every operation, and he turned it into his fuel. He lunged forward, taking strong, confident strides across the rocks, moving to get centered with truck four down below.

He wasn’t particularly quiet about it, and he heard the shouts from down below as the caravan caught sight of him. His split-shade allowed him to watch them raising their weapons at him, even as he focused his eyes on the uneven terrain that he bounded over. He saw both views, and by them expertly bobbed and weaved around zipping bullets and stray patches of gravel.

Gallan kicked off of a slanted boulder and flipped sideways, hurtling out into open space. For a long second he remained suspended in the air, then plummeted down to the forces below. A couple lucky bullets caught him as he fell, and his split-shade burned brightly around the wounds, healing them almost instantly.

He landed feet-first on top of the truck with tremendous force. The fall would have been fatal if not for his split-shade taking the brunt of that blow.

Split-shade was not the correct term for Gallan. His condition was so rare that there was no appropriate name for it. Perhaps it should be “shared-shade.” The other soul that possessed his body with him had always been there, even before he had ever recognized its presence. It had first come to his attention during moments of duress when he had had to achieve things that seemed impossible. Moments like now.

As soon as Gallan touched the ground three squads of soldiers rushed at him, two to his left and one to his right. Gallan thrust out his left hand, imposing the will of his other shade upon the men there. That was the benefit of a split or shared shade, the “loose” soul could reach out of the body and impose its will upon the shades of those around it.

The two squads of men were pulled downwards by a great force, slamming into the ground with their limbs pinned fast. Gallan spun his head around to the other side where a nearby soldier was fumbling with the gun at his side. Gallan thrust his hand out and touched the man’s arm. His shade flowed through the man’s body, unclasping the gun from its holster, sliding it along the surface of the man’s body, and into Gallan’s palm. Gallan withdrew his hand and started firing rapidly, much too quickly to properly aim the weapon. Even so each bullet found its mark, their paths bending through the air, directed by his will. Within a few seconds every squad member on that side lay motionless.

A sudden pang dropped Gallan to his knees, his brow dripped sweat and his teeth grit together. Back on his left side the two squads were trying to throw off his invisible restraints. Imposing his will on others took great reserves of energy, especially when they fought back. He tried to maintain some level of control over them as he dropped the sidearm and reached for his assault rifle. Hopefully it would have enough bullets in its clip to take care of them all.

Before he could, though, twelve blue blurs slammed into the ground all around him. It was his personal strike team come to give their support. A clatter of gunfire rang out and the enemy squads were no longer a concern.

“That couldn’t have been fifteen seconds already,” Gallan panted.

“You looked like about ready for us to drop in,” the team leader grinned.

The the team rushed into the ring formation Gallan had requested. They stood in a circle around him, facing outwards, with an opening left at one end which he faced.

Gallan gave the order and they all moved forward as a single unit. Each man covered his own zone, firing off controlled bursts at the enemy units popping up to challenge their advance. They were the best trained units in all of Gallan’s little army, and they acted with lethal precision. Wave after wave of enemies took it in turns to try and break their group. Every now and again a stray bullet would catch one of them, but so long as it wasn’t instantly lethal all Gallan had to do was reach out and touch them and they would be healed. This was why he stood in their center.

As they advanced towards truck seven gunfire rained down from above. Husk and his men taking care of threats whatever threats were hidden from the small strike team. All was going smoothly until–

“Strained!” one of Gallan’s team members shouted from the left.

“Spin!” Gallan hissed, and the team shuffled around so that their opening pointed towards the approaching foe.

A “Strained” was not a person who possessed two shades, but rather one whose shade had been nearly severed from their body, almost to the point of death, which allowed it to now “strain” beyond its mortal confines. They weren’t as powerful as Gallan, and there were some definite drawbacks to their power, but they were certainly still a force to be reckoned with.

Gallan sized up the Strained charging at them now. She was bounding over the tops of the trucks like a wild animal, eyes locked directly on him.

“Strained!” another of Gallan’s team members shouted from behind and to the left.

“Strained!” another one called from a bit to the right.

“Try and keep the back one preoccupied,” Gallan told his team. “I’ll be quick with these other two.”

He gave a mighty kick and propelled himself high into the air. He met the first Strained, the woman, in the middle of one of her bounds. He grappled her arms and pivoted through the air, swinging her around, over his head, and throwing her away from his men.

With a snarl she thrust out her arms and reached out with her shade, compressing the air around her to the point that she could clutch at it with her hands. She gripped tightly on that invisible wall, and then flung herself back at Gallan. As she rocketed into him she swung her hand wide, revealing a razor-thin blade tucked along the outside of her arm. It was so thin that Gallan didn’t even feel it as it cleaved clean through his arm, cutting it in two just above the elbow.

Instinctively Gallan reached down with his other hand, grabbed the falling limb, and held it back against his stump. He instantly fused the two back into one with an outburst of shade-energy and his arm was made whole. Well that had hurt.

The woman was spinning on her heel, bringing the blade back around for a second pass, this time angling it for his neck. Gallan was prepared this time and punched out with his fist, compressing the air around it. Her blade hit his invisible shield and burst into a thousand shards. As the metal pieces fell towards the ground Gallan made silent note of them, imprinting in his mind the memory of their structure.

A second split-shade landed next to Gallan and the woman. It was a burly man, with a long beard tied in a braid down to his waist. Well that was good, it had come for him instead of his team. What was less good was that now he brought down a fist the size of a car tire and smashed it over Gallan’s back. Gallan took the blow and fell to his belly. At least he had the presence of mind to angle himself so that he fell onto the shards of the metal blade. Some of them cut into him and he winced in pain, but that subsided as he absorbed them into his body.

“So much for their hero,” the burly man snarled. As he spoke he reached down and pulled Gallan to his feet, then wrapped his arms around him in a crushing embrace. Gallan’s bones held together, but only because of his second-shade’s extra fortification. They would not last much longer, so he grit his teeth, focused his will, and reassembled the metal blade, positioning it so that it projected directly out of his chest.

“Ugh!” was all the burly man managed to say as he was pierced straight through his heart, then he rolled backwards and fell to the earth.

“One down, one to go,” Gallan thought, but before he could round on the woman he felt the tremor. It was like his heart had stopped, held for a moment, and then thudded extra hard.

Even though his back was to truck seven he could already see through his shade that its door was open and its inside was vacated.

He was here.

“Hello Reish,” he said softly as he turned about. The woman was shrinking off to the side, leaving the way clear for the tall, strange creature that approached. It stood on narrow legs, with the knees bent back the wrong way. Its torso was a hulking mass, and its arms were long and thin. The head was a regular man’s on the left side, but flat and featureless on the right. The creature raised its hand and Gallan’s entire strike team was instantly snapped to the ground by invisible bonds. It was the same as Gallan had done to the squads of soldiers, but the binding was far more absolute, none of Gallan’s men could even quiver in fear.

“You shouldn’t have come here old friend,” the left half of the face spoke.

Part Two
Part Three

***

On Monday I shared how an author can create expectations in the reader, even without them realizing it. I decided to illustrate this point by writing a short piece that takes place in the middle of a larger story. This story is full of references to peoples and powers, none of which are properly understood by the reader.

We do not know anything about Gallan and his team, why they are here, and what their ultimate objectives are. We do not know the history between Gallan and Reish. We do not know why there are these “split-shades” and “shared-shades” or even what the full mechanics of these people are.

And yet, for all that lack of foundation, I believe that most readers will not feel lost. This short piece has all the trappings of a generic hero’s journey: right from the beginning we are introduced to a sympathetic central character who seems to be fighting a losing battle. That character is intimately acquainted with another individual, one who is far more powerful and has destructive intentions towards central character. With this the reader is able to get their bearings, identify the hero, the villain, and the conflict between them. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know anything else about the world, they have already put together the “narrative” and they have done it entirely subconsciously.

This, then, allows me a clear opportunity to subvert expectations, which is what I am going to focus on in the second and third sections of this story. It isn’t going to be a twist ending where it turns out that Gallan and his people are really the bad guys, but I do believe it will go to a place that is unexpected, even if foreshadowed.

Before that, though, I want to pause and consider the use of violence in this story, as it hits pretty hard when compared to most of my other tales. I’d like to talk about how an author balances capturing a mood with maintaining their personal tastes, and about the difference between being authentic and being excessive. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then come next Thursday for the second section of Shade.