The Favored Son: Alternate- Part One

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“…and this night the watch over the gate will be assigned to…” Master Palthio paused and squinted at his gathered disciples, “me.” At his last word all the youth gave a collective groan of disappointment.

Watching over the gate at night was the single most important responsibility in their small order. The most important responsibility that any boy from the inner fields could ever aspire to. Watching over the seventeenth gate was, of course, the shared responsibility of them all, but to be the solitary watchman over the most dangerous hours was something special.

To hold that watch meant that you had been elected by the Order, and the Order was elected by the District, and the District was elected by the City Core.

But tonight, as with every other night, it was old Master Palthio who was elected, not one of his acolytes.

“Do not be so dismayed,” Master Palthio shook his head at their reaction. “Yes, the night watch is considered a great honor…but you are acolytes, you are expected to have to learn and grow. Your time will come.”

“It’s just means you don’t trust us,” impetuous Bovik could not withhold his frustration.

Master Palthio cocked an eyebrow. “That is one way you could view it, I suppose: as a shameful punishment. Or you could believe what I have just said, that growth is part of every journey. Does a child carry his father’s sword until he is strong enough to bear it? No. But that is not because he is being punished, it is simply because he must strengthen over the years.”

“So…you would entrust it to any of us now?” Bovik asked. “But you’re just waiting for us to grow a little more first?”

“Well…except for you, Bovik. You I just don’t trust.”

All the boys laughed, even Bovik after he realized it was only a joke.

Of course, the significance of the night watch was mostly symbolic. All of them defended the keep together, no matter who was standing watch. That was the entire duty of their order, after all. The night guardsman was simply to raise the alarm.

And it wasn’t as if there was only the one night guardsman in all their district, either. There was only one for their gate and for their order, but every mile along the perimeter wall was another gate, another order, and another watchman. Seven in all for their district. Neither was theirs the only district. There were fifteen fringe-districts in all, which were collectively responsible for guarding the many different passageways to the City Core. Though the boys liked to pretend that the night guardsman was the solitary protector of the entire realm, it simply wasn’t true.

And it didn’t seem that the realm needed much protecting either. Yes, there had been the ancient wars, but then King Eidoron had driven the barbarian hordes back to their caves many generations ago. So soundly had the victory been, that even after the barbarians spread back out over the Waving Plains, they did not dare muster another attack against the City. They instead contented themselves with warring amongst themselves, fighting for scraps of land instead of kingdoms. So it had been for three hundred years. So it would surely be forever.

And so the boys shrugged off their disappointment when they left Master Palthio that evening. They would have their turn in the evening watch someday, and when that day came they would crow for finally being trusted as real men…but also when that day came they would know that the responsibility didn’t really matter.

*

“Swords ready?” Reis asked, marching back-and-forth in front of the other boys like a general on inspection.

“Uh, yeah,” Inol shrugged, looking to his side to be sure that his scabbard wasn’t empty.

“Oh?” Reis sneered, not at all appreciative of the indifference in Inol’s tone. “So if I ordered you to pull it out for inspection I would find it sharpened and rust free? Polished so that my face shines in it, as per Standard Regulation?”

“If you ordered me?” Inol furrowed his brow. “Just who do you think you are?”

Reis stammered in confounded rage. “I’m Marshall!” He exclaimed. “Today is the Fourth Drop? I am Marshall!”

“Sure, it’s your turn to play Marshall,” Inol rolled his eyes. “But you don’t see the rest of us becoming so serious when it’s our turn for it.”

“Tharol does,” Golu corrected from the side.

“Well yeah, Tharol does take everything seriously, too,” Inol agreed. “But he doesn’t become a self-adore about it all.”

“Fifteen hauls!” Reis spat.

“You’re joking!”

“Fif-teen hauls,” Reis emphasized every syllable while pointing to a round boulder against the far wall. He looked Inol firmly in the eye, daring him to defy Standard Regulation once more. “Tell me I don’t have the right,” he whispered.

Inol shot him a dark look, but then walked over to the stone and pulled the leather straps that wrapped around it onto his shoulders. The other boys sighed and fell into more relaxed poses, idly waiting for Inol to finish running fifteen laps around the wall, the heavy boulder slung to his back. After he took his place back in line they fastened their swords back on and were ready for their patrol.

The patrols, like all of the rituals they performed at the keep, were mostly symbolic. Yes, it was obviously an important duty to sweep the surrounding area and identify any nearby threats. How could they hope to protect the City Core if they didn’t have a basic awareness of what they might be have to protect it against?

But the outcome of every patrol was always the same: nothing. Again, it had been generations since the barbarian hordes had mounted an attack, and so it had also been generations since there was evidence of an upcoming attack. So now each patrol simply served the purpose of reaffirming that the current status was still the status quo.

Thus the boys were known to be quite lax about it, idly strolling up and down the fields and lazily poking through the cave networks, looking for some entertaining diversion more than for signs of a threat.

Except when they went with Reis. Whenever it was his turn as Marshall he divided the boys into proper squads and ordered them to march in formation. He expected them to round each corner with swords drawn, to sweep every corner of an enclosed space, to dive for cover at any unexpected sound.

And it just so happened that there was one of those unexpected sounds on this day, right as the boys came to the cove of trees that graced the Western Slopes. It was only a rustle of leaves and a cracking of a twig, but it suggested that something was moving on the other side of the tree-line.

“Front line down!” Reis shouted and dove for the dirt. Inol and Golu slowly followed.

“Bolts up!” Reis ordered next and Bovik and Janeao lazily lifted their crossbows to their shoulders from behind.

“Who goes there?!” Reis demanded, though the other boys figured it was probably just a fox.

Much to the other boys’ surprise, though, it wasn’t. There was an actual person there, and that person spoke to them!

“I come in peace! I come in peace!” the raspy voice called out from behind the largest of the trees. Two hands emerged from either side of the trunk, hands open to show that they wielded no weapon. “If I had meant you any harm I would have already had you shot.”

“Had us–shot?” Reis asked slowly.

The left hand pointed to the boys’ right. They turned that way and saw a large, fifteen-foot boulder resting in the soft grass. Seated at the top of it was a soldier in dark armor, silently aiming his spread-fire crossbow at all the youth!

“Cover him!” Reis shrieked to Bovik and Janeao at the exact same moment that the two of them dropped their crossbows on the ground and raised their hands in surrender.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please,” the voice behind the tree placated. “As I said, I have come in peace…so long as you are willing to not be so hasty!”

“Why are you hiding yourself back there?” Reis shot back. “It’s hard to believe a man’s words when you cannot see his eyes!”

“I am not a man,” the voice said, and for the first time the boys noticed that the hands and arms had a more feminine quality to them. The voice had simply been too raspy to tell its gender. “And I am deprived a peaceful face. However…”

The hands dropped to the woman’s sides and slowly she stepped out from behind the tree. The boys frowned in confusion, unable to make sense of what it was that they saw. She slowly strode towards them, and only gradually did they come to realize that her face was stone! It appeared like a gray sculpture, etched many years ago, rubbed smooth by years of erosion, with deep cracks running from crown to neck.

That neck was where the stone finally transformed back to ordinary flesh, and as she spoke the throat bulged, vocal cords standing out, red and swollen from the strain of trying to resonate words through such stiff housing. Her face was permanently held in an expression of having just seen something alarming, with her eyes wide open, lips curled back, and teeth bared in a snarl.

“What?!” Golu exclaimed before Reis could hush him.

“Yes,” the woman sighed heavily, and it sounded like wind rushing through a canyon. “I am a person trapped betwixt.”

“Have you…always been like this?”

“I don’t know that I can recall.”

“How can you not–“

At the exact same moment Reis held up his hand and the woman spoke, both of them to cut Golu off.

“I don’t believe this is pertinent,” she scolded.

“Well what are you here for?” Reis asked. And he spoke he rose to his feet, sword still held in a defensive position. “You are very near to guarded realms, you know.”

“Very near to guarded realms,” she repeated with a shake of the head. “This is the attitude behind every conquest. Make your walls, define your boundaries, but then protect the outside of them until you feel you own those fringes as well. And so on and so on…. I care little for your petty border disputes.”

“Then what are you here for?” Reis repeated irritably.

“I have business within your walls. My companion and I have come to meet with a man who resides in your district.”

“Who?”

“You would not know him. He is an outsider.”

“There are no outsiders within the walls.”

“Oh really?” and though her mouth could not curl into a smile, there was an unmistakable amusement to her tone. “And here I thought I heard the accent of a Waylan in your voice.”

“The Waylans are officially recognized as a satellite contingent of the City Core!” Reis said defensively. “I’m as much a part of the communal as any of these others, it doesn’t matter where I was raised!”

“I truly meant no insult,” she placated, seeing she had struck a nerve. “My point is that you know full well that there are thousands of citizens living outside the walls, which enter and exit from the city every year. So do not pretend it is impossible for a pretender to have slipped in among the masses.”

“But we have a system. Precautions and–“

“And many other imperfect systems which can be broken or corrupted. I can see that you are too close-minded to hold a rational conversation with. Never mind. I will have to reserve my petition for someone that is more enlightened.”

And with that she turned to walk away. Without a word her bodyguard dropped down from his perch and started to recede into the trees with her.

“Should we…go after her?” Bovik asked Reis.

Reis frowned, then slowly sheathed his sword. “I shouldn’t have interrupted her. She had not yet requested anything illegal. If she had, yes, we ought to have taken her in.”

“Well even then ought we?” Janeao queried. “It seems that that was exactly what she wanted.”

“Hmm…” Reis nodded. “Who’s on patrol next?”

“We are,” Bovik pointed to himself and Inol. “Along with Tharol, Beesk, and Avro.”

“Good, good. You two did not say anything to upset her like Golu and I did. You should watch for her then and find out more of what she intends. We’ll wait to report the matter to Master Palthio until we get to the bottom of this.”

“Shouldn’t he be informed about it now? Wouldn’t that be Standard Regulation?” Inol sneered.

“No…” Reis shook his head. “What is the injunction of the daily patrol? ‘To assess and handle,’ and we still have some assessing left to do.”

“But–“

“Remember what Master Palthio said this morning? It’s time for us to grow up. It’s time we show him that we’re worthy of the night watch by taking the responsibility that’s been give us. This is what he’s waiting for. For us to prove that we’re men. We’ll take care of this one on our own.”

On Monday I spoke of stories where the characters are tampering with forces that are beyond themselves, bringing down all manner of unintended consequences on their heads.

There is only the beginning of this in today’s post. Reis is overly-eager to be in charge, to play the part of the ruler before he is ready for that responsibility. That arrogance manifests again at the end, where he chooses to take the matter of the strange woman under his own jurisdiction, rather than properly report it to his elder.

But as we’ll see later on, this is just the beginning of characters overstepping their bounds and dealing with matters that they do not understand. There is yet a much larger Pandora’s Box to be opened.

Before we get to that, though, I want to address an interesting experience I had while writing this piece. I tend to let my imagination run freely while writing these pieces, taking ideas that happen in the moment, and seeing where they take me. One of those was having the strange woman’s face be made of stone. That was something that I had no intention of until the very moment of typing it in. And part of the reason why it came about was because I was feeling uninspired in the material I was writing before that moment. I was becoming bored, and then that interesting novelty popped into my mind to entertain me.

With my next post I would like to consider the role of boredom in creative works, both as a catharsis for invention, but also as an early indicator for when your story is straying into a rut. Come back on Monday as I explore this topic in detail, and then we’ll have the following section of The Favored Son: Alternate next Thursday.

The Favored Son: Part Eight

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

Tharol forced himself to turn from the elders, and focused instead on Jolu. Jolu was only recently lost after all, perhaps there was a way to bring him back. Tharol bounded over to the youth, and as he did so he noticed Inol following him from a step behind, Shraying-Staff elongating into a pointed spear.

“No!” Tharol cried. “Give me a chance to talk to him!”

“Those aren’t our orders!” Inol shot back. “We kill any Invaded!”

There wasn’t any time to argue, so instead Tharol slowed his step, grabbed Inol’s shoulder, and spun him hard. Inol’s own momentum made him lose balance and he went flying to the ground, cursing as he slammed into the stone floor.

Tharol pounded on ahead and leaped through the air to meet Jolu. He turned his Shraying-Staff arm into an extraordinarily large arm and hand, using its considerable strength to grab the boy’s wrist and restrain it. Tharol used his other hand to grip Jolu’s other wrist and tried to force the youth to look him in the eyes.

“Jolu, look at me!” he shouted, but Jolu’s eyes were rolled backwards. “See me, Jolu! See, it’s Tharol!”

Jolu’s arms flailed with a force that caught Tharol entirely by surprise, and the boy wrenched himself free of Tharol’s grasp. Jolu clapped his hands together, attempting to crush Tharol’s head in between. Tharol only barely managed to raise his Shraying Staff arm horizontally, blocking each hand.

“Jolu, please! You’re in there aren’t you? Come back!”

Jolu’s eyes flickered. For a moment his irises started to tease back towards their proper position. “No,” he strained out with an unnatural voice, as if he spoke through a heavy shroud. “I won’t. The fear.”

In that moment of hesitation Inol attacked. All Tharol saw of it was the Shraying Staff come thrusting in from above his shoulder, filling his vision. Jolu’s hands went limp and he fell backwards.

“You’re a traitor!” Inol shouted.

“Just because I have a different idea–” Tharol began, but Inol wasn’t in the mood for words. His Shraying Staff was still pierced through Jolu, but he had a standard sword in his other hand, which he was already thrusting at Tharol’s chest. Tharol tried to block it, but he was too late, and only deflected the blade so that it pierced his shoulder instead of his heart.

“What are you doing?” Tharol roared.

“Following orders.”

Tharol was confused by that, but then he felt a pair of eyes on him. He looked to the side and saw Reis watching the two of them intently.

Inol pulled back his blade and Tharol’s arm fell limply to his side. He felt the blood running down his shoulder, the throbbing pain emanating from his wound. He tried to raise his other arm, the one fused with the Shraying Staff, but Inol stepped on it, pinning it to the floor. Inol swung his own blade forward, a horizontal swing to pass right through the center of Tharol.

But then, just before contact, Inol exclaimed in shock. His Shraying Staff arm appeared to be melting into molten steel. One glob after another fell sideways through the air, flowing across the hall and over to the elders attacking the youth. When Master Y’Mish had let Inol cut him, he had claimed the weapon with his blood. But apparently he had not claimed it for himself. Having become fused with all of the elders he had been able to claim it for the mass. It fell into the hand of Master Zhaol, then flickered and appeared in the hand of Master Finei. Quickly it cycled through possession of them all, and evidently they could transmit it between them all. The youth’s advantage in weaponry had been negated.

Rather than watch the horrors that followed, Tharol turned to the matter closer at hand. He reformed his Shraying Staff arm, drawing it quickly inwards and pulling it out from beneath Inol’s foot. The youth lost his balance and stumbled forward, right into the blade that Tharol immediately formedhis Shraying Staff into. Inol was pierced straight through the heart.

“You were a fool,” Tharol scoffed, then pulled his blade loose, letting Inol’s body drop to the earth.

He turned to the battle between the youth and the elders. It was a massacre. The elders moved in a strange and erratic fashion, splitting into their individual forms, and retreating into a central mass, flickering their Shraying Staff sword in and out of existence in time to block, parry, and thrust. Already four of the youth lay dead, and now their precious weapons were being claimed by the elders. Three more youth were on the ground bleeding out. The remaining six were all huddling back om a corner, forming their Shraying Staffs into a shield wall, not even trying to fight anymore. All of the elders were moving in on that group, closing from the kill.

Which meant…none of them were advancing for Tharol. He was alone, and he could get out of that place if he wanted. For a moment he considered doing it. What was the point of pursuing a lost cause? Even if he got the youth out of their corner the elders would keep on chasing them down.

Maybe he could save one though.

Gritting his teeth Tharol lifted his arm and charged forward. His damaged arm protested every movement, sent sharp flashes of pain through his side with every step. He fought that down, though, and launched himself high into the air.

A force carried him up. A force far greater than he had kicked off of the stone pathway with. He lifted fourteen feet into the air, then rolled himself into a spin. He extended his Shraying Staff out as a long pole. It whipped through the air, unhindered until it collided with Master Etla, the forefront elder. With a sickening crack Master Etla was thrown back into her compatriots, tumbling them all to the ground.

“Come on!” Tharol roared to the youth who were peeking out at him from behind their shield wall. “To the centrifuge!”

“Wait, no, we can kill them if we’re quick enough!” Reis emerged from the barricade first and gestured to the fallen elders. His voice lacked its usual authority though. It sounded more like a weak idea than an order.

“Back to the centrifuge,” Tharol repeated firmly. “I won’t protect anyone who stays to die.”

In a moment Reis’s face steeled. There was no more uncertainty in his demeanor now. For in spite of any common sense, he could not swallow a challenge to his leadership. He stepped towards the fallen elders, waving his Shraying Staff sword overhead. “I AM YOUR LEADER!” He roared back at the youth. “YOU HAVE ALL MADE A PLEDGE TO ME! I ORDER YOU TO–“

But no one listened. Without a moment’s hesitation all the others lowered their shields and dashed down the hall for refuge.

“I DENY YOU!” Reis shrieked, and held his hand aloft. The bonds of the pledge took hold. The youth could not resist an explicit rejection from their leader. So long as he was their leader, he could deny them their free will. All they could do now was either submit to his order, or remain frozen in place.

There was a rustling from behind. Master Etla would not be returning to her feet again, but all the other elders were. Seemingly unfazed by being so forcefully thrown to the ground, they marched forward in a tight battle formation. They advanced to the youth that was nearest to them. Which, of course, was Reis.

“Fight with me!” The tinge of panic returned to Reis’s voice now. He hurriedly glanced over his shoulder at the approaching elders, then back to the other youth still frozen in defiance.

The first of the elders reached Reis. The boy swung his weapon wide and she easily deflected it, then pinned it to the ground.

“Obey me!” Reis panted.

Three swords pierced him at once. He fell to the earth and Tharol and the others felt their bonds loosen. They were free to run now, and run they must, for Reis’s parting gift had been to take away any head-start they might have had.

Everyone moved at once! The youth rushed towards the end of the hall, the elders sprang after them, and Tharol leaped in between. He spun his Shraying Staff in a wide circle, forcing the elders to deal with him first, covering for the others’ retreat.

The two nearest elders caught Tharol’s weapon between their own, and twisted their blades in unison so that he was sent sprawling through the air. His back slammed into a wall, and the two elders advanced on him as the others continued the chase. They were Masters Oni and Strawl.

Tharol’s wounded arm should have been in agony from the blow. But he didn’t feel any pain. Didn’t feel anything at all. Indeed he felt like his mind was detached from his body, directing it from a place of calm removal. He flung himself forward, swung his blade out. He did not try to strike either of the two elders, rather he intentionally crossed his sword with theirs, until they were all locked together. He sent a ripple down his Shraying Staff and the individual sections began tumbling outward, interlocking with those belonging to the two elders. Each of them tried to pull their weapon free, but they were tangled together! Tharol focused once more, and retracted all the sections of his Shraying Staff, leaving the still-fused weapons of the other two.

It only took Oni and Strawl a moment to follow his example, retract their weapons, and free themselves, but by then Tharol had already dashed away, chasing after the rest of his comrades. He thundered down one hallway after another, pushing himself faster and faster. He paused only for a moment as he came across the body of one of his friends. It was Golu. It was immediately apparent that there wasn’t anything he could for him, though, the youth was already long dead, so Tharol continued on his way.

Tharol clenched his teeth and sprang back into the air. He needed to move faster. He needed to catch up to the others. He flung his Shraying Staff out as a hyper-elongated arm with a vise-like claw at the end. He seized upon a distant column, flexed his arm, and flung himself powerfully through the air.

A wall came rushing up to meet him, and he barely managed to throw his mechanical arm forward in time to catch the wall’s upper ridge and flip himself over the obstacle. As quickly as possible he righted himself, then thrust out to vault off a stone gargoyle.

And so he continued, grasping and flinging, weaving his way through the air at breakneck speed. Any mistake and he would slam into a wall or a roof. Any slip and he would break all his limbs or worse. Any misjudgment and he wouldn’t be there to save his friends.

Tharol flipped onto an adjacent hallway and came upon two elders locked in battle with another of the youth: Chaol.

Tharol gave a cry and let himself plummet towards the ground. His Shraying Staff arm splayed out like a massive net, wrapping the two elders at once. They were Masters Zhaol and Finei, and they were ready for him this time. As soon as his net touched them they resisted the bind. In unison they lurched Tharol off of his feet and slammed him into the ground. He tried to regain his footing, but their own Shraying Staffs shot forth like vines, pinning him to the wall.

“Run!” he gasped to Chaol. Then he thrust his Shraying Staff forward as a long spear towards the two elders. Again, they were ready for it. Master Zhaol released Tharol’s body and enmeshed Tharol’s Shraying Staff with his own, just the same as how Tharol had done to Oni and Strawl. Tharol couldn’t help but suspect that Zhaol knew about that maneuver by having shared with Oni and Strawl’s minds when it has happened.

Master Finei still held Tharol’s body firm with her Shraying Staff, but also drew a sword from her side with her other hand and ran Chaol through, killing the youth. Then she turned to Tharol and advanced for the kill.

Tharol regarded the cold steel of the sword…standard like the one Inol had carried.

With a cry Tharol thrust out his wounded arm. Pain washed over him, but he closed his eyes and focused with all his might. There came the sound of bubbling, molten steel, and then he felt Inol’s sword forming in the hand of his his wounded arm, claimed by his blood when Inol had stabbed him in the shoulder.

Tharol opened his eyes in time to see Master Finei slump backwards, dead. Master Zhaol blinked in surprise, and for a moment Tharol thought he looked like his old, regular self.

“Master Zhaol, let me go!” he pleaded. He tried to retract his Shraying Staff, but Master Zhaol was too quick, locking onto the sections of Tharol’s Shraying Staff with his own and pulling them back out.

“No,” Master Zhaol stated flatly, staring blankly off into the distance. “You have defied us. You are all to die.”

Tharol could hear the sound of other elders approaching them, Oni and Strawl pursuing from behind, no doubt.

“Please, Master. Remember what you stood for. What you believed in. Why are you letting the Invasion take you?”

Zhaol turned his eyes onto the youth, and again Tharol felt that he was seeing the remnants of the teacher he had known.

“There is no point in resisting,” Zhaol said sadly. “You haven’t seen it Tharol. Even now, through us, you haven’t really seen it. There is only joining or perishing.”

Oni and Strawl, rounded the corner, saw Master Zhaol and Tharol, and began to approach them.

“Then perish with us!” Tharol cried. “We might save one if we tried. If we die, just for that, it’s already worth it. You know it is.”

“But–but–” Zhaol’s eyes fluttered, snapping rapidly between a blank stare and a wide-eyed mania. “But I’m afraid.”

“So am I. I’ll be afraid with you.”

A look of relief washed over Zhaol, his whole body quavered, and then he became very calm. He looked sad, but sure.

“Five of us,” Oni and Strawl recited in unison. They stepped away from each other, now advancing on Zhaol in a pincer formation. Zhaol turned to face them.

“Thank you, Tharol,” he said over his shoulder. “I can handle this now. You run!”

“We should stay together,” Tharol said. “If we were work together we can save one.”

“You’ve already saved one. Now go save another.”

Part Nine

On Monday I wrote about stories that are detached from any normalcy that we experience in the natural world, yet which we still accept as real so long as it remains consistent to its own rules.

Admittedly, this is one area that I think my current story is lacking. I did not begin it with a clear understanding of its mechanics or systems. I just sort of made it up as I went, and the result is that certain elements are inconsistent throughout.

Take for example the elders after they have been taken over by the invasion. In their initial attack (in the amphitheater) they seemed basically human. Later they were zombie-like characters in a trance, who fused together to form one, featureless void. And in the first version of this latest section I had them basically back to human.

Fortunately I realized that the second interpretation, the entranced and hyper-connected communion, was the most interesting, and should be the one I used consistently.

Thus I went back over this nighttime battle and rewrote the elders to exhibit more of that fusing-together/coming-apart behavior. Even so, I do feel like the first chapters of this story could be updated to be in better synergy with where I went in these later ones. If I were to ever expand this story, I would be sure to make that change. And in this way, by making my story more consistently strange, I would actually make it more true to itself, and thereby easier to believe in.

Next Thursday I will be posting the next section of The Favored Son, and it will be the last entry for it. After that it will be time to move on to another tale and another series. But before we get to that, I’d like to recap what my intentions were for this story, and evaluate how I have done at executing them. Come back on Monday to hear about that.

The Favored Son: Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

“Alright, you setup watch here,” Tharol whispered to Inol. “If you see anyone–“

“Why should I keep watch?”

“What?”

“Who put you in charge? Why should I be the one to keep watch?”

Tharol blinked quickly, trying to hold back his frustration. “Does it–does it matter?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bovik sighed. “I’ll keep watch.”

“Fine,” Tharol agreed. “If you see anyone, you come and get us. Don’t try to take an elder on your own. Doesn’t matter who it is.”

“Sure,” Bovik shrugged. “I’m not stupid.”

“I know, Bovik. And–thanks,” Tharol clapped the youth on the shoulder, then he and Inol stole to the end of the hall where the armory door was waiting. They had been tasked with retrieving the abbey’s Shraying Staffs, so that their little army would have a fighting chance against the elders.

There were other groups of youth running through the abbey as well. One was scouting out the locations of the elders, another was trying to secure the Ovayan Stone so that they could communicate with the outside world, and a third was roaming the dormitories for anything of value that had left behind in their initial retreat. Tharol didn’t think much of this tactic, splitting their numbers out when they were already too few as it was.

But then, Reis was insistent that this was the way forward, and Tharol had made a pledge to support him. Right now what really mattered was to keep the youth united. Tharol would swallow his criticisms for the greater good of them all.

“Alright, what are you waiting for?” Inol hissed as Tharol remained motionless before the door to the armory.

“I don’t–I don’t understand this. It’s changed,” Tharol whispered back.

“You said you knew how to get in!”

“I did! Or at least I thought so. I saw how Master Makile did it once. But at that time there was a keyrod and there isn’t one now. Just this panel!”

He tapped the metal plate that was over the center of the iron door. Inol frowned, pressed his fingers against the panel, and slid it sideways, uncovering the keyrod laying underneath.

“Oh,” Tharol said, feeling stupid. He took the keyrod in hand and spoke to it. “I approach at the dawn of day, and speak my words to he who listens.”

A mechanism turned in the depths of the door, and two large spikes emerged, hovering menacingly in the air.

“What are you–” Inol began, but Tharol raised a hand to silence him.

“I take the hands, cold and small. I show no fear for their ruggedness.” Slowly he stroked the spikes, letting his fingers trace right over their jagged tips.

Another sound of gears spinning in the door, and now an entire section opened like the maw of some great beast, complete with teeth above and beneath.

“I take my pillow in trust. I consign myself to the mercy of those I serve.” Slowly Tharol inserted his head between the metal teeth, eyes closed. There was a sound as if of breathing from the mouth, a rising growl from the center of the door. “Yet I am cunning as a snake,” Tharol’s eyes snapped back open, “and I ever preserve my life!” Tharol whisked his head back out from the machine-mouth just as the metal teeth snapped shut. There was a pause, then a clatter of turning gears on the other side of the door, and at last the whole thing swung inwards.

“What was that?!” Inol hissed in shock.

Tharol shrugged. “It’s the password.”

“And you memorized all that from one time watching Master Makile?”

“I think you’ll find that having seen it once now for yourself will be more than enough to make you remember.”

Together the two youth rushed into the hold. There was a solitary window set high in the wall as their only source of light. Groping in the dimness they found shelves on either side of them. They were dusty, and mostly barren, but on occasion their hands felt something long and cold lain out on them.

“Is it these?” Tharol asked.

“It must be. I don’t think they keep anything else in here. Just grab whatever you can feel.”

“They’re heavy!”

“Well they’re powerful, so that’s to be expected. How many do you have now?”

“I think five.”

“We need a lot more.”

“What’s that? The end of the aisle. Are there any other rows?”

There were not.

“Well that’s it, then,” Inol admitted. “We’ll just have to make-do with what we have.”

They felt their way back out of the room, then crept down the hallway, looking for Bovik.

“He was supposed to be here!” Tharol said in dismay as they came to the hall-end and found their comrade missing.

“Yes, well–watch it! Your staff is coming apart!”

“What?”

Tharol looked up, and for the first time properly took in the Shraying Staffs he was carrying over his shoulder. They were tall, onyx staffs, about the same size and weight of a beam of wood. None of the youth had ever actually seen one before, they just knew that they were the pride of the Northern Armies.

As Tharol examined the staff-ends hanging over his shoulder he saw what Inol was referring to. It appeared that some hinge had opened, and a few rods were starting to spill out of the beam. He was about to reach up to close it back up when he realized the rods were waggling back and forth, like overly large fingers feeling for something.

“It’s a spider!” Inol said. “A giant spider!”

“No, it’s–” Tharol looked to his companion and saw that the same overly-large fingers were reaching out of his staffs as well. And when Inol had spoken, the fingers had thrust themselves out towards his face, they were about to touch him now.

“No!” Tharol shouted, all sense of stealth thrown to the wind. He dropped his staffs and thrust his hand out, trying to block the machine-hands before they could touch Inol’s mouth!

As soon as he made contact with them, the most unusual sensation came over him. It felt as though there was a pin that had always locked his finger in place, one that he had never noticed before, and now it suddenly loosed and the digit was free for the first time in his life. And as he looked to his hand he saw it was so, for his finger was revolving on a hinge, folding up into his hand. And then all his hand seemed to be built of small, finger-like sections, all on pins that had been unlocked, all rotating and folding, all giving way to machine sections that were unfolding out of the staff to take their place.

“Oh no!” Inol cried. He dropped his own staffs to the ground, but not before another of them had reached its fingers out and begun bonding with his shoulder. Both youth watched in horror as the two staffs continued extending themselves until they covered each boy’s entire arm. Fortunately they stopped after they had consumed from hand to shoulder, and did not attempt to creep any farther along their bodies. Their arms were longer than usual now, with many waving, undulating tendrils, and large claws in place of hands.

“It’s a–it’s a part of us,” Tharol breathed.

“I’d always heard of them as bonding weapons, but I never understood that it meant like this!”

“I can–I can still feel my arm…in a way. Can you?”

“Yes, just sort of–folded up inside but still there. And I can feel the staff as well, like it’s a part of me.”

“Psst!”

Both boys nearly jumped for fright, then turned and saw Bovik stealing down the adjacent hallway towards them.

“Where were you?” Tharol asked.

“Do you have any idea how loud the two of you are being?” Bovik scolded.

“Sorry…we were…being shocked. But where were you?”

“I saw one of the elders. I was following her.”

“You were supposed to come get us if you saw one. She could have destroyed you!”

“No…I don’t think she was in a state to do that. It was like she was in a trance. Come on, I have to show you.”

Bovik turned right back around and continued back the way he had come, looking over his shoulder every few steps and beckoning the other two forward.

Inol and Tharol hurriedly picked the other Shraying Staffs off of the floor and hurried after Bovik. As they went Tharol continued to examine his malformed arm. He found that he could push on the different sections and fold them into the arm’s recesses. He could even unfold certain sections of them and bring back out portions of his ordinary, flesh-arm.

“Alright, just look over the banister.”

Bovik had led them to a hall which opened one one of its sides to the floor below. Tharol and Inol squinted curiously at each other, then slowly advanced to peer into the lower level.

“We’ve walked into the Cryptics,” Tharol breathed in awe.

There below them was one of the elders. They could recognize it as such because of the robes it was wearing, not because they recognized the face. For that face was completely blanked out, an empty slate with only the vaguest suggestions of eyes or nose or mouth. It stood with naked arms slightly raised on either side, and its limbs twitched now and again as if it was trying to move.

As they watched another figure approached the first. This one they could readily make out as Master Iliya, whose classes had covered herb care and medicinal treatments. Her eyes were closed, her hands held in the same partially raised pose as the other body’s. As Bovik had said, she seemed to move as if in a trance, drawing nearer and nearer to the faceless body. As she did so, the body’s form became less vague and more defined. Indeed it was changing to take on Master Iliya’s features.

The closer she drew to it, the more her own face reflected in its own. Both of their movements became more like that of a regular human being. Master Iliya’s airy trance-like steps became more intentional and the idle twitches smoothed out of the doppleganger.

“Circuit completed.” Master Iliya’s body moved like it was the one speaking, but it was the mouth of the copy that spoke the words. “There are fifteen with us.”

“Eight of us and fifteen with us.” A chorus of disembodied voices echoed around the room.

“Hey,” Inol hissed to Tharol. “There were fifteen of us youth who came into the building.”

Tharol paused for a moment. Inol, Bovik, and he made three. Reis and two others had gone to retrieve the Ovayan Stone, four more were scouring the dormitories, and another five were patrolling the halls. Fifteen.

So did that mean only eight of the elders were remaining alive after the battle in the amphitheater?

Master Iliya suddenly began to shudder. She took a step forward, body trembling like a leaf. The other body began to shake as well, its features blurring and distorting, combining with Master Iliya as she stepped forward into it. A moment later and she had been entirely ingested. The body continued to contort, though, and then Master Y’mish emerged from it.

He moved as if speaking, and the body behind him (which was now reflecting his form) spoke the words “Beginning my circuit.” And then he strode off and out of sight.

The boys watched until he was gone around the hallway.

“He was headed towards the gardens,” Inol observed. “We can get to it from this level if we go through the library.”

“I’d rather not,” Tharol whispered, but Bovik and Inol had already started off, and with a sigh he followed.

The three crept through the gilded doors of the library, stole between the aisles of books, and pushed open the windows at the back. Before them was the upper half of a stone statue, with the garden paths sprawled out beneath.

“There he goes,” Bovik pointed towards Master Y’Mish’s entranced form. “Down towards the orchard.”

“No way out but the same way in,” Inol observe. “Come on,” he stepped one foot out of the open window and reached for the arm of the statue.

“Wait, why?” Tharol asked.

“We’re going to take him, Tharol. Here and now, while he’s cornered and can’t alert the others. The three of us are going to kill him.”  

Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I wrote how certain areas can be returned to multiple times in a story, becoming a sort of familiar home to the audience. These places are often used to reset the readers emotions, or else to highlight (by contrast) how different the protagonists have become.

In The Favored Son, I have made the decision to make a familiar haunt out of the center of the stone hedge, laying on the outskirts of the abbey grounds. The abbey itself I have described as little as possible, leaving it shrouded as a place of mysteries. It’s an interesting choice, because to the students the abbey would be their common living area, the place they have spent every day in for the past many years. They must be more familiar with it than any other place.

I took this approach, though, because it fits the narrative better. This setup highlights the fact that the students have been kicked out of their own nest. They have become strangers in their own home. And so I focus on them discovering things that they never knew about this place.

At this moment they are trying to reclaim their home for themselves, but as one discovery leads to another, they’re going to have to face the fact that the place they thought their home was never actually existed. They’re going to look at these once-familiar halls and admit they never truly knew them. And once that pill is swallowed, there will be nothing left but to to uproot themselves, retreat back to the fringes, and set out to find a new home of their own. A place of belonging can only lay ahead of them, not behind.

But before we get to that, let’s consider what I did with today’s entry to make the abbey seem like such a foreign place, and the centrifuge more cozy by contrast. I made this by turning the abbey into a place of new and uncomfortable discoveries. From the strange multi-password ritual to enter the armory, to the Shraying Sticks being living machines, to its halls being haunted by the shells of their teachers, I tried to cram as many unpleasant surprise revelations into this post as possible.

And as already stated, this served the purpose of making it feel like the students are strangers in their own home, but it was also to accomplish another effect as well: that of entertaining the reader. My hope was that these strange discoveries are just plain interesting to my audience, and will make them want to continue with the story.

I think this idea of inventing new things in your story, and using them to entertain the reader, is very common. Most authors do it without necessarily thinking about it. But it is worth pausing to take a focused look at this tool of story-crafting.

To be sure, a story needs things like strong characters, interesting arcs, an engaging pace, and cathartic resolutions. But aside from all that, it also just needs to be fascinating in the individual moment.

Come back on Monday where we will explore the practice of inventing in a story, and how it is utilized in the best of tales. Then we’ll see how I have been employing that technique in The Favored Son.

The Favored Son: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Reis and Tharol walked to the end of the central dais and to the other side of a wide column, which nearly shut them out of view of the other youth.

“Alright, what is it?” Reis demanded as soon as they were around the pillar.

“I don’t want to embarrass you, Reis,” Tharol explained, “that’s why I had us come here, you understand? I just wanted to ask you why you told the others those–those stories about me. That I was the one who wanted to investigate them, that that was my own idea and not yours?”

“It as good as was your idea. You made it clear that you don’t trust all the rest of them either.”

“Reis…that’s not true. I’m worried for them, but I think that they’re good. And it wasn’t my idea, not even a little. It was yours.”

“So that’s what you’re here for? To accuse me? Try and get some dirt to make the others doubt me?”

“Reis, please stop this!” Tharol sighed in exasperation. “No one is here to hurt you. I just need us to be on the same footing. Why are you so convinced that I’d be a traitor anyway? Why are you telling them things about me that aren’t true?”

“Well I–I still don’t know that you’re not a traitor–“

Reis!

“Well I don’t, I just know that someone is. It could be you.”

“What makes you so sure that one of us is? I only saw elders attacking us back there.”

“Raystahn…it told me!”

“It what?”

“It did!” Reis was speaking very quickly and excitedly now, unable to hide his eagerness to share his secrets with Tharol. It’s what I was showing to the rest of them here at the centrifuge after you left that day. There was that first set of symbols you heard about, the ones that change whenever you move, but there were also symbols that changed much more slowly. They would stay the same for days at a time, and then shift ever so slightly.”

“And you interpreted them?”

“Not all the way. I had my suspicions, but I wasn’t sure of them until I saw what happened today in the amphitheater.”

“What were the symbols.”

“Just shapes, circles and triangles. But the triangles were breaking the circles, pressing their points into them and splitting them in two! From when I first saw it I could tell whatever that meant it wasn’t good.”

“And after what happened today…you believe the triangles are the elders and we’re the circles? I suppose that could be…though it’s not sure. And I don’t see where the theory of a traitor comes from that either.”

“Because there’s always been another symbol among the circles. One that is also circle, but which has a triangle inscribed within it.”

Something about that struck Tharol very deep.

“I suppose you think that doesn’t mean anything either,” Reis shook his head. “But I can’t explain it to you. It does have a significance, I can just feel it.”

“No, I believe you,” Tharol said, his mind trying to make sense of his intuitions. “But–but it isn’t just elders against acolytes and a traitor in our midst–that’s close, but that’s not quite it.”

“What then?”

“It’s an invasion.”

If possible, Reis’s eyes went wider than before.

“You think–? You think this is what the Invasion looks like?”

“I–I think so…”

Reis looked skeptical. “But what the Cryptics described made the Invasion sound far more…extreme.”

“I think this is how it starts. And from here it gets even worse.”

“Well…then we would still have a traitor. Even worse, actually. Someone among us who’s actively being taken over by the Invasion.”

“And you assume that it’s me.”

“Well–yes? I didn’t think so at first, but then…you were the only one who wouldn’t make a pledge. And you ignored me when I told you about my suspicions.”

I didn’t agree with you, so you assumed I was evil. Tharos thought to himself in exasperation.

“But…you see the importance of what I’ve been saying now, don’t you?” Reis continued. “Now you understand why we need the pledge, now you see why we need to investigate and root out any Invaded. Don’t you?”

Reis was offering to let Tharol back into the circle, but Tharol couldn’t help but sense the implied threat if he didn’t.

“Well of course I see that things have to be different now,” Tharol said. “We’re on our own…we’re facing extinction. We need to be bound to each other, yes, of that I’m certain.”

“So you’re willing to make a pledge to me now?”

“A pledge to everyone. I want all of us to make a pledge to each other. Me to you, and you to me, both of us to Bovik and him to both of us, and so on and so on.”

“What? Well that wouldn’t mean anything,” Reis scrunched up his nose.

“That would mean everything. We’d all be bound in every direction. We’d all be equal, as we should be.”

“No, that’s not it. You just don’t want to follow my lead still. Why not?”

Tharol bit the inside of his cheek. Reis could be a pompous fool, but when it came to a shift of power, he didn’t miss a trick. He was right of course, the last thing Tharol wanted was to be directly bound to Reis. Reis was too proud, too distrusting, and Tharol would rather follow anyone else instead.

“It’s–it’s like you said before, Reis. We all have different strengths, and we’re meant to unite them together. This is how we do it, by sharing the responsibility together equally across us all.”

Reis snorted. “Please. The others need a leader and you know it. And that’s my particular strength: leading. That’s how we band together. Everyone else sees it. Everyone else has already made their pledge. Whether you like it or not, Tharol, the new order has already been formed, and the only question is if you’re with it or not.”

Reis was right, the other youth had already committed themselves. And if Tharol couldn’t convince Reis, there wouldn’t be any convincing them either. They would just defer to whatever they were told, and view any argument against Reis as an attack against them all.

We have to stay together, Tharol thought to himself. Even if it’s an imperfect banner, what matters is that we all stand united under it.

“Alright then, Reis. I’ll make a pledge.”

A few moments later and the two of them came out from behind the stone column, over to the dais where the rest of the youth were collected. Reis was practically beaming with his triumph.

“Well you were quite a while,” Marvi pouted. “I was starting to get worried.”

“It’s fine,” Reis waved his hand dismissively. “I told you that I’d handle things.”

“So what’s the situation with him,” Inol tipped his head towards Tharol.

“We’ve talked things over, and it seems there was a misunderstanding between us. Tharol sees the importance of what we’re doing here now, and he’s made his pledge to our new Order.”

“Are we really our own order now?” Bovik breathed in awe.

“Well certainly we’re not part of the old one anymore,” Golu said bitterly.

“I still don’t understand what happened,” Inol spoke up. “I just can’t believe that every order is supposed to end with its elders trying to kill all of their followers.”

“I don’t think it is,” Tharol shook his head. “They were supposed to just pass on. Did you see how most of them meditated into nothingness? That’s what they were meant to do, resign their lives so that there was space for us to take over.”

“But not all of them did.”

“Yes, well, clearly not every elder was as ready for such a sacrifice. I think Master Orish anticipated that when he made his speech. Maybe that’s how it is every time. Maybe there’s always those who would rather keep their place, even if doing so meant killing the next generation.”

“But why would those be the only choices?” Bovik demanded. “Why can’t they just live alongside us until they die naturally?”

“I…don’t know. Somehow it doesn’t work that way.”

“And would that mean that the elders who defended us were in the wrong, too?” Marvi added. “Do you mean that they should have just blinked away into nothing instead of helping us?”

“I don’t know…maybe.”

“Yes, he doesn’t know,” Reis cut in, frustrated that Tharol had become the center of questions. “And making idle guesses isn’t going to help us right now. What we need now is to act swiftly and strongly. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d say I saw five times as many elders trying to kill us as trying to defend us. It’s only natural to assume that anyone who was going to be a help is already dead. If we see an elder from this point on, they’re our enemy.”

Reis paused a moment to let that notion sink in.

“So…if we see an elder…you want us to kill them?” Bovik asked slowly.

“It’s kill or be killed, simple as that.”

“We could run,” Tharol countered.

“Not a chance!” Reis spat. “This is our Order now. Our chance to earn our future. You heard what Master Orish said, it’s ours, but only if we’re able to take it.”

“But we don’t know how to move and fight like they do,” Tharol shook his head. “They’ve had so many more years and learned so much more.”

“Yeah, they’re old! And weak! Sure, they got the jump on us earlier when we weren’t expecting anything, and things didn’t look so good then. But now, when we know what we’re facing, we’ll cut them to pieces! Or is that not how you escaped?”

“I…did kill two of them. But it wasn’t me. Master Palthio was helping. He was…honestly I don’t know how to say it other than he invaded me! But he was doing it to help, just for a very brief moment. I wouldn’t have had a chance on my own.”

“Well…I guess martial skills never were your forte,” Reis scoffed. “Plus you’re forgetting the most important matter of them all. This is the Invasion. I’ve seen it in Raystahn. So it wouldn’t matter if we were outmatched a hundred-to-one, the simple fact is we have a duty to do. We make our stand here and now. Stand to protect the world from being Invaded because we’re the only ones that have the training to do it.”

Tharol opened his mouth, intending to point out that fighting the Invasion just created strife, which the Cryptics taught could only further Invasion. But before he could say a word Marvi shouted “Hear! Hear!” and then all the other youth rushed in to join her.

Well that’s that, Tharol thought ruefully. The leader has spoken.

*

Tharol kept himself aloof from the rest of the conversation that evening, while Reis and a few of the others planned how they would retrieve weapons and launch a counterattack against the elders. Tharol felt muddled inside, more than ever before, and he preferred to have some time alone.

So he took up watch at the eastern edge of the centrifuge. There were two youth assigned to watch at every forty-five degrees of the clearing. One youth roamed outside the centrifuge, patrolling the halls of the hedge maze in that area, while the other stood within, demanding a password when the patrolling youth came back inside.

Then the two would swap places and continue their joint patrol/watch. Passing back-and-forth through the centrifuge was exhausting work. Every time you exited, the only way to return was through some totally new mechanic. It became a great mental taxation then, puzzling out one solution after another.

Perhaps the inconsistency of approach was the reason why none of the elders had attempted to invade the centrifuge yet. It couldn’t have taken them long to scour every other corner of the Abbey, and it wasn’t as if the youth’s fascination with the area was much of a secret. But how could the elders plan a proper assault where every member of the attacking party would have to come into the centrifuge by a different method, and thus break into it at different times? The youth would be able to cut them down one-at-a-time.

That was just as well as far as Tharol was concerned. The fact was that he had no desire to kill the elders at all. He had seen how Master Omil’s face had changed from hate to remorse right before he had vanished at the end. He felt that he had seen the real Master Omil in that final moment. Not a monster trying to eat him, but a man who was regretful and broken. Tharol got the sense that Master Omil had not been in his right mind when he attacked. There had been a shadow over his face, and it was that image which convinced Tharol most of all that this was the work of the Invasion.

And perhaps some of the elders had done something wrong. Perhaps they had not been vigilant enough. Perhaps the Invasion had taken them over because they were too naïve or stupid or careless. Perhaps it had taken advantage of their fears, had been invited in by their hesitancy to move on. But now were they to be executed simply for having been human?

“Brilliant,” Reis clapped Inol on the shoulder over at the central dais, praising him for some scheme the youth had just concocted. “They won’t be able to draw near without being cut to ribbons!”

Evidently so.

Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I spoke about stories that exist in more than one iteration. I even shared how I was considering releasing more than one version of The Favored Son, just so that I could explore all the possible different variations on it that I was thinking of.

And I may yet do that, but for the time being I will write this version to be the fullest, most complete vision that I can, and perhaps after I’ve done that I’ll no longer feel the need for a new interpretation. I’ll see when I get there, and until then I am free to write this first version exactly the way that I want.

That freedom has helped me a great deal to let go of the old ideas, and build on the new. And with that freedom I have worked a recurring pattern into the story that was not in my original design. And that recurring element is the youth in the centrifuge. The story began with them there, contemplating the changing of the Order. Then, after the attack they have returned to it to take stock of the situation and plan their next step. Next they are headed off to battle, and I will have them return to the centrifuge a final time at the end to review the aftermath of that effort.

Thus I will have used the centrifuge as a place for the youth to recollect themselves after every major plot development. It is a place to pause, reflect, and solidify themes and intentions. Of course, mine is not the only story to feature a recurring location like this, a safe zone where characters and readers can collectively gather their thoughts. This is actually a very common trope. Come back on Monday where we will examine the value of a recurring refuge in a story, and how it has been utilized in other tales.

The Favored Son: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

As Master Foraou rushed through the air he pulled the sword back and plunged it clear through the heart of Talo. The boy slumped backwards without a cry.

The youth on either side of him shrieked though, and dove from their seats, scrambling across the aisle to get clear. Master Foraou’s eyes flicked left and right, deciding which side to go after first.

Over to the left and slightly up, Tharol gripped the hem of his tunic in terror. He was frozen in disbelief, unable to accept that what he saw was real. A part of him insisted that this had to be some sort of act, a theatric thought up by the elders that Talo had been in on. This simply couldn’t be true.

There came another shout and Master Solen broke ranks from the other elders as well. Like Master Foraou she took a leap into the stands, though she was angled towards the benches on the left…directly towards Tharol!

Tharol remained frozen in fear as Master Solen arced through the air, landed on the benches before him, and bellowed a single word at him: “RUN!”

Then Master Solen spun on the spot and leaped towards Master Foraou, drawing her sword and crashing it against his with a mighty cry.

She was…defending the acolytes.

All turned to chaos. The spell of immobility had been broken by Master Solen’s shout and all the students, including Tharol, sprung to their feet and dashed towards the back of the amphitheater. At the same time more than a dozen more teachers leaped into the seating, some cutting down students, others cutting down the teachers doing the attacking.

Tharol tripped on one of the steps and fell to his hands. He tried to stand up, but another student knocked him back down while running by. He spun around and found that he was the only student left in the main seating area, the others were escaping out the back. Two of the elders, Masters Dovi and Omil, caught sight of Tharol’s downed form and broke off from the rest. They charged him with swords drawn, their eyes filled with murderous intent.

Tharol winced in fear, but then a strange feeling surety took hold. Was this his elusive “center?” That inner tranquility that the elders had always implored him to seek? He closed his eyes and focused, trying to reach out to that core. Somehow he seemed to find it instantly, as if it was waiting for him. It even spoke to his mind with a voice.

Get up.”

Tharol pounded his feet into the ground, and to his surprise the ground pushed back with far more energy than he put into it, sending him careening into a backwards somersault, and up to a standing position.

His eyes snapped open as Master Dovi bore down, sword swinging near.

Take a cut. Claim it with your blood.

Tharol’s arms moved with greater poise than he had ever held before. He raised his right arm just enough to nick his flesh on the blade’s edge, but not so much as to seriously injure himself. His blood seeped onto the blade, which then melted into molten steel. It dropped through the air and reformed in his own hand. It was his. Tharol swung his arm out, watching how the surprise in Master Dovi’s eyes glossed over into a blank stare. Then both halves of the elder fell to the ground.

Tharol looked down in shock, unable to understand any of the things that had just happened. But he could not dwell on them, for Master Omil was already charging in from behind, sword held close to the chest and pointed forward in a straight thrust.

Tharol’s instinct was to sidestep, but somehow he knew Omil was expecting that. He knew that Omil would respond by jabbing sideways with a dagger hidden under his elbow. So instead Tharol stood his ground, lifting his own blade and swung it downwards with incredible force. Once more Tharol found that he could move with a grace he had never known before, and watched in awe as his blade perfectly sliced Omil’s right down the middle, sending the two halves clattering harmlessly to either side.

Tharol didn’t stop his thrust there, though, he continued swinging his sword down until the tip pierced wedged itself into the stone. He gripped the hilt with both hands and used it as an anchor as he powerfully kicked upwards and out. His foot placed perfectly in the center of Omil’s chest and sent the elder sprawling head over heels down the rocky steps.

The master made three full revolutions before crumpling to a stop. He did not try to rise, his body was too broken. Instead he looked up to Tharol, eyes shining with tears of regret.

“Forgive me,” he said sorrowfully. “I was too weak.” Then he closed his eyes, trembled his entire body, and grew fainter and fainter until he had disappeared entirely from Tharol’s view.

Utterly bewildered, Tharol looked back to the center stage, where the majority of the elders still stood in their original line. They had remained motionless, not trying to attack the students, nor defend them. Each of them had their hands clasped together at the chest, each was trembling, and one-by-one they were all slowly vanishing, just as Master Omil had.

One of them was different though.

Tharol found that Master Palthio was staring at him directly, a look of intense concentration on his face.

I’ve done what little I can for you,” the voice said within Tharol. “To continue would cause more harm than good.

The voice was growing fainter, the sureness of mind and body was dissipating from Tharol. He felt panic and despair creeping back instead.

“Wait!” he shouted audibly. “Tell me why!”

Always seeking answers,” the voice was barely a whisper, but a faint smile played over Palthio’s face. “When you find them you will know. Now…go!” Then Master Palthio vanished, like all the other elders standing in the line, but as he did so a tremendous shockwave emanated from him. It knocked every one of the fighting elders, friendly or foe, to the ground, but lifted Tharol upwards and rushed him towards the exit. Tharol needed no further encouragement, he turned himself about and flew the rest of the way to the top of the amphitheater and over the back wall.

Tharol clattered onto the paved-stone-pathway on the other side, half-expecting to meet the rest of the youth waiting there for him. But of course they hadn’t waited around to see if anyone was coming to murder them, they had all fled for weapons, or for safety, or for both.

Where would they have gone? Tharol felt in his heart is was of utmost importance that he find them. They needed each other right now. Needed each other in a way they never had before.

And then he realized that he knew exactly where they were.

*

“Someone’s coming!” Bovik hissed, and all the youth took a defensive stance. Some of them had had the sense to grab their swords before heading to the refuge, the others merely brandished sticks or rocks.

The stone wall before them all contorted in a strange way, both unfolding and refolding its parts at random. A single hand reached out of the fold. It twisted and the folds undulated enough to let the rest of the arm through. A few more twists and turns and Tharol spilled into the centrifuge at the heart of the stone hedge.

“So you lived,” Marvi said coolly he stumbled back to his feet and dusted himself off.

There was something about her tone that struck Tharol as odd, but nevermind, there wasn’t any time for that.

“Yes,” he said quickly. “How many of us are here? Bovik, Inol, Reis…who’s that back behind that column? Golu?”

“I don’t see why you should have such an interest in identifying every student who escaped, Tharol.”

It was Reis who spoke this time, slowly sauntering out from the center dais.

Tharol’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean? Of course I want to know who’s still alive! What’s going on with you all?” His eyes flit from one youth to the next, but everyone was avoiding his gaze. He had the sneaking suspicion that they had all just been speaking about him behind his back. “What is this?”

Bovik broke the tension with an exasperated sigh. “Come on, Reis. He’s no traitor. He’s one of us.”

“Then how did he escape?” Reis shot back. “Last I saw he had two of the elders coming right for him! And notice that he’s even carrying one of their swords, how do you explain that?”

“Wait, so that’s what this is about?” Tharol rounded on Reis. “You’ve been telling them all that I’m some sort of spy? A traitor?”

“To say nothing of how he wouldn’t strike hands with the rest of us,” Reis ignored Tharol and turned back to the other youth. “And how he wanted to start a secret investigation on you all.”

“I wanted to what?!”

Bovik looked searchingly at Tharol. “Tharol is it true? Did you really try to convince Reis that one of us was a traitor, and you needed to read our thoughts? To keep us safe in the new Order?”

“That’s a lie!” Tharol shouted, unable to believe what he was hearing. Even as he spoke his mind was racing. He had been aggravated at Reis’s pompous antics before, disagreed with him on many points, but this…this was different. Reis wouldn’t have a reason to tell brazen lies unless there was something he was hiding himself.

“Reis,” he said firmly, striding up to the youth with determination. “I need to talk with you. In private.”

“Why?!” Reid cried, and pulled back with unfeigned fear. That caught Tharol off guard. He didn’t know why, but Reis was genuinely afraid of him. “There’s nothing I have to talk about with you, Tharol. How many times have I tried to speak with you already, and you wouldn’t have anything to do with it? It’s too late now!”

Tharol paused and breathed bracingly through his teeth. He didn’t know why Reis had been lying about him, but right now he needed information, and for that he needed Reis to trust him. He couldn’t lose his tempter. “I’m sorry, Reis. I spoke with anger. But I really do want to talk now, as friends.”

“It’s too late.”

“No, it’s not too late,” Tharol said softly. He slowed his advance and stretched his palms out in a peaceful gesture, trying to calm Reis down. “Now’s the right time, Reis. Like I said before, I was just waiting for the right time for making a pledge, and the right time is now. I see that. I want to make a pledge to you now.”

“You should have before! We should have been united before it came to this!”

“You might be right.” Tharol reached down and set his sword in the grass. “But I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know what was about to happen. I was just as surprised today as you were.”

“I knew!” Reis licked his lips. “I knew something was coming. I didn’t know what, but I knew we had to be prepared…and you wouldn’t listen!

“I’m sorry, Reis. I really am. I didn’t know. But I want to work together now. I want all of us to be together. I’m unarmed, see? If you didn’t believe me you could have killed me already.”

Reis regarded Tharol for a long pause and swallowed deeply. “You–you want to make a pledge?”

“Yes…but first a private word.”

Reis glanced side-to-side, as if checking to see if there was some trap waiting for him. He thought a moment longer then nodded slowly. “Not far…just around that column over there…and you leave your weapon here.”

“Of course.”

“But Reis–” Marvi stepped forward anxiously.

“It’s alright, Marvi,” Reis held up his hand. “Let me handle this.”

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I spoke of how this story was originally going to go a very different direction, one where the Trials that the youth had to face would simply be a series of contests and games to determine their standing in the new Order.

In those trials, Tharol and Reis would emerge as the most capable of all the students, and one of them would be destined to become the leader in the new order. Though Reis would be clearly inferior in terms of moral character, he would have the greater prowess in the Trials, as well as the heart of the other students, and even of the elders. He would be christened as the future leader, at which point Tharol would discover that Reis was secretly a disciple of an outside cult, one that sought to bring forth the Invasion with the hope of obtaining power by it. Obviously that is not the route I am going here. Reis still has the hearts of the other youth, but now he is more of a fool, driven by fear than being a cunning snake in the grass.

Perhaps the more significant change, though, is that with this new route I have lost the presence of Master Palthio, who was originally going to have ongoing philosophical discussions with Tharol, and was even aware of Reis’s treachery all along.

As I said on Monday, my need now is to drop all of those plans and craft a new plot that fits my new direction. But I find it very hard to let go of certain elements in my earlier plot. Some things, such as the conversations with Master Palthio, really can’t be reworked into my new track, and I still want to have those moments. I was excited to write them out, and I just can’t bear the idea of not doing them anymore.

But that doesn’t mean I want to stop with the current course I have either. I still don’t know exactly where it is going, but I really want to see it through.

And I run into this splintered story dilemma all the time. Any time I really get going with a project the tale begins with a single, solid trunk, which I then can’t help but branch off into many mutually exclusive possibilities. And now I want to develop each one, but what can I do with a story that has one beginning but a dozen different endings?

This sort of story-splintering isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, either. Consider how many times our culture has taken classic tales and branched one new idea from it after another. I’d like to examine more closely this idea of fractured story-crafting, and what an author is to do when they have two minds for how to move forward. Come back on Monday where I’ll discuss that in greater detail, as well as determine how to resolve the issue here with The Favored Son.

The Favored Son: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

The Second Recitation of Master Eidoron

Thus from that Void sprang Life and Invasion. Or using the terms of the Ancient Prophet: Creation and Destruction. And in them began the cycle of possibility and impossibility.

For Creation, or Life, cannot occur, unless there was first an absence of Creation. A space that was first dead or unformed must exist, so that there is room for the new Creation, or Life, to occupy.

And as the seeds of all Life thus find their roots in a place of death, so all Life has the tendency towards decay and death. That which we make comes of naught, and so must return to naught. And in its dead ashes we find again the space for new Life. Were it not so, all would be created, until there was space for Creation no more, and it would have defeated itself. Instead, inherent in Life is the force of destruction, the tendency to undo itself, the strife to unmake what has been made.

 

The Third Recitation of Master Eidoron

Thus any effort to prevent the Invasion is folly. Indeed the Invasion is encouraged by strife, thus any effort to prevent it is also strife, and to resist it is only to hasten its coming.

In the Realm of Theory only is it possible to prevent Invasion. And in that realm the Invasion could only be quelled by a life that was totally devoid of strife, which as we have seen, would be a force of Creation that was unrestrained until there was no longer any space for Creation, and all became motionless and dead. And in this paradox we see that the Invasion must be.

Of course this notion may naturally suggest despair to the mind. If the Invasion must be, then what is the value of effort? Why even attempt to maintain one’s independence from it?

   

The Fourth Recitation of Master Eidoron

The answer to this conundrum comes in retaining a clear distinction between the inevitability of the whole and the freedom of the individual. Yes, mankind as a whole will give rise to the Invasion time and time again. But just because that fate for mankind, as a whole, is predetermined, the fate of the single individual is not.

Thus entire societies may be lost within the Invasion-mind, yet a single individual within that society might escape. All about us may fall away, but it is not fated that we must fall away, too. This truth is made evident in the miraculous deliverances of Abji’Tolan, the Merchant of Azuyl, Popaiyoh and Seeve, and countless other stories in the Cryptics. All these examples show a great truth in common: We can concede the loss of the masses, yet still retain faith in the salvation of the individual.

  

The Fifth Recitation of Master Eidoron

In fact, not only can individuals prevail, they must. For if all were silenced within the Invasion, then all disparity would cease. All would be dead. All would be lost within one totality.

And if this were so, it would unmake the Invasion. For, by necessity, the Invasion requires there to be an entity outside of itself to oppose itself, otherwise there would be nothing to which it could perform its function of invasion. Thus all would be invaded until there was space for Invasion no more, and it would have defeated itself.

And so we have the greatest paradox of all. Life and Invasion, Creation and Destruction, each destroys the other, yet also depends on the other to exist. Each must try to prevail over the other, yet must also give ground to the other. And so conflict must continue forever.

  

Tharol sighed and lifted his eyes from the passage to look out the nearby archway. He was stirred by passages like these…but he could not claim to truly understand them. They seemed so full of contradictions, so impossible to resolve in the mind. No doubt Master Palthio would tell him to not try to resolve them in his mind, to simply let them be, but if he didn’t strive to understand them, then surely he would never understand them?

Strive. Even as he thought the word, it echoed to him from the passages of Master Eidoron. Was his “striving” to understand these passages only hastening the coming of the Invasion?

“Why do you read those if they distress you so?”

Tharol spun around, startled by the voice interrupting on his thoughts. Reis stood a mere arm’s length away, hands clasped behind his back, scrutinizing Tharol as he read.

“What?”

“I said why do you read those when they clearly upset you?”

“They don’t upset me.”

“Yes they do. I can see it on your face.”

“They–confound me, I don’t understand them–but I’m not upset about them.”

“Well even so, why read them then?”

“What would you have me do? We have to understand these, don’t we?”

Reis shrugged. “I don’t know. Master Abu’Tak says that he’s never been able to make any sense of them, and that hasn’t stopped him from being a part of the Order. I get the sense that each of the elders have their own personal doctrines that they are best attuned to, and their own blind spots that they can’t make sense of.”

“Interesting…Master Palthio said something similar to me just the other day.”

“We all have our own strengths Reis. That’s why we’re an Order and not a group of hermits, so that we can unite our different strengths.”

“Yes…I like that….But what then? Am I to just ignore the things I don’t understand? Not even try to better myself?”

“I would say put your strength when your strengths lie,” Reis said, now pacing back and forth like he was giving a lecture. “Why not put your energy where you get the best return on your investment? No one would deny that you do have other great talents.”

“Oh? And where exactly would you say that my strengths lie?”

“You’re a pursuer, Tharol. Once a thought arrests you, you chase it without relenting.”

“I suppose. So?”

“And we are in a dangerous time. As I was saying the other day, our Order is so close to changing hands, so close to being our own to run. And while that is exciting to all the other acolytes, I don’t mind telling you it makes me very nervous. It is a dangerous time, a time of uncertainty. If I were the Invasion-mind, this is the moment where I would attack.”

Tharol shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t trust the student body?”

“No. I know that I called them my friends there in the stone hedge. I had to win their trust, had to put on a face of confidence and try to unite them…but I have deep suspicions among them, don’t you?”

“I don’t–I don’t know. I think they all…mean well.”

Reis’s lips widened in a tight smile. “So you do see it. They ‘mean well?’ Yes, of course they do…but they’re fools, aren’t they?”

Tharol looked down.

“You don’t deny it. And you know as well as I do that fools who mean well can easily be made pawns for someone else. No, our peers aren’t malicious…but they are dangerous.”

“What is your point in all this? What does this have to do with my talents?”

“As I said, you’re a pursuer. And I trust your judgment. In our new Order I want you to be Master of Inspection.”

“What does that even mean?”

“You would be responsible for investigating the others, for identifying those who were suspicious and you would watch their comings and goings. There is no one I would trust more to find our traitors, to weed out our spies. No one I would trust more to protect the flock.” His broad grin made it clear that he felt he was offering Tharol a great honor. He extended a hand of friendship to Tharol.

Tharol’s eyes furrowed in intense thought. On the surface there was a great deal of truth in Reis’s words. Yes, their peers did seem susceptible to outside influence. They were vain and naïve. He always had felt bad that he saw that, worried what it said about him–that he was too judgmental?–yet he was sure it true even so. And yes, he could see how this was a dangerous time, one that required an extra dose of vigilance.

But spying on his peers? Perhaps Tharol struggled to understand the Cryptics, but even he could tell that this would be wrong. This would be acting under a motivation of fear, and by that fear he would be sowing doubt. This would be secrets and paranoia and division. This would be creating…strife. For a moment a smile crossed his face as part of Master Eidoron’s message finally made sense. This effort to control the Invasion could only hasten it.

He looked up to tell Reis as much, but as he looked into his friend’s face he realized the other half of what made him uneasy about the offer. Yes, their peers were susceptible. They were prone to follow a silk tongue, to sell themselves unwittingly to a devil. And as it was, the one who had them the wrapped around his finger most was…Reis.

Tharol closed his partially-opened mouth, and he did not take the offered hand of friendship. A deep scowl crawled across Reis’s face, and Tharol wondered how much the youth guessed of his private thoughts. Reis did not say anything, just stared back, summing Tharol up.

The tension of the moment was broken by the crashing of a cymbal. It was the summoning gong being rung from the inner sanctum of the abbey. They were being called by the elders.

“I–suppose we’d better go” Tharol said stiffly.

“I suppose we should.”

The two youth were nearly halfway to the amphitheater before Tharol realized he knew what they were being summoned for. Though he didn’t know why, somehow he could feel in his heart that they were about to begin the Trials.

The Trials were the culminating ritual for every generation of their Order, the crucible which would somehow see the old guard passing on and the new blood taking up the cause. Exactly how the old guard passed into the shadows had never been detailed to them, though. The way the elders spoke about it suggested that they did not simply take a back seat to the ruling of the new generation. Everything they said on the matter seemed to reinforce the idea that they would be permanently gone. But was that in exile?… Or in death?

The elders had never been forthcoming about how things were when they took over the Order, either. Indeed they never said a word about who their own mentors were. To the rising generation there was no other Order but the one maintained by their elders. The only clues they had of prior generations were the scriptures and recitations which their elders had chosen to preserve.

A stray thought crossed Tharol’s mind: was it possible that Master Palthio had personally known Master Eidoron? He did not know whether Master Eidoron wrote his recitations a single generation ago, or ten.

Tharol shook his head. He had far more pressing matters before him. Not only did he not know how the Trials brought in the end of an era, he didn’t even know what the Trials themselves were composed of! It was never spoken of in any greater context than its name. What was about to transpire between him and his other acolytes?

Tharol’s ruminations were interrupted as he and Reis stepped between the stone pillars and into the amphitheater proper. It was a wide, level circle open to the heavens above. The dirt was packed until it was hard as stone, with one side giving way to ascending seats. All the student body was in those seats, while the elders stood in a line at the center of the circle.

Reis and Tharol hurriedly took their seats, far apart from each other. All their fellow-acolytes looked forward in nervous anticipation, excitedly waiting to see what sort of tests they were about to be put to. They did not have long to wait, for Reis and Tharol were the last to arrive, and once they were seated Master Orish stepped forward to address the congregation.

“Pupils! Thank you for gathering here today. We welcome you to the End of Times. The Refining Scorch. The Trials! Today, we have brought you forward, that you may determine the future together. What that new horizon will be is yours to craft, and yours alone.”

There was no smile on his face. No light in his eyes. Though his words were impressive, Tharol could got the sense that this was not a moment of triumph. After a pause Master Orish continued.

“That future is not given to you, though. It must be claimed. And if it is not claimed…then it will not be. Some of you have assumed that your future is a free gift, that the Trials are merely a way to test yourselves against each other, to determine what role you will have in the new Order. But you are wrong. The Trial is to determine if you are even worthy to have your own Order. I give you a moment’s warning: defend yourselves.”

He turned his back and returned to the line of elders, each of whom stood motionless, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped together and trembling. Tharol glanced sideways to his fellow acolytes, and saw on them all the same look of confusion and apprehension.

A bloodcurdling cry snapped the tension. It came from Master Foraou, who leaped past the line of elders, whipping a sword out of the folds of his tunic. He kicked off the banister at the edge of the field and flew through the air towards the mass of acolytes!

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

On Monday I spoke of stories that lead the reader to a particular frame of mind, and then, knowing what they are thinking, either affirm or subvert those expectations. In this section I attempted to setup a train of thought for the reader, and do both an affirmation and a subversion on it.

First I had the moment where Tharol because suspicious of Reis. In previous sections I have written Reis to be proud and insincere, and so I am leading the audience to suspect him of becoming the villain in this story. Thus they are already on the lookout for nefarious behavior from him, and his request of Tharol to spy on his friends is the affirmation of it.

Which affirmation is meant to create a moment of calm in the mind of the reader. They now know that they are in sync with the protagonist, that Tharol is pulling on the correct thread, that he isn’t missing anything that we think he should be picking up on. Thus there is danger, but Tharol is already alerted to it, and should therefore be able to handle it. And having thus created this sense of surety in the reader’s mind, I then subvert it with the horror of the elders unexpectedly attacking their own pupils.

You may find it interesting to know that I did not plan for this moment of surprise until the very moment I was writing it. It surprised me as much as I hope it surprised you! Originally the Trials were going to be something very different, and I had been trying to write the introduction to them without any success. The words just weren’t flowing, and I paused to ask myself what should be happening in this scene instead.

But we’re out of room here, and I want to look into this in greater detail. So come back Monday as we consider how an author can pause to consider what a scene needs, and go along with the answer, no matter how surprising it may be.

The Favored Son: Part Two

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Part One

“What do you mean?” Inol raised an eyebrow.

Reis clasped his hands and paced back and forth, as if giving a lecture. “There is a new era coming. We all know this. The mentors train up the next generation, then must pass on and leave things to the next. The Order becomes the sole possession of the new, and they are not to be anchored by the follies of the past generation. They reinstate what laws they find worthy and they abandon the ones that are now antiquated. I think we all know…that time is coming soon. The elders have made it very clear that the Trials are nearly upon us, and it would be wise for us to consider how we will make the transition after they have passed.”

“The elders are not gone yet,” Tharol frowned. “It doesn’t feel right to talk of sweeping away their laws even while we’re under them.”

“Of course I’m not suggesting an insurrection,” Reis rolled his eyes. “We will be nothing but loyal servants so long as they are our elders. But my concern is that we might fracture ourselves after they are gone. Suppose we haven’t already worked out our philosophies beforehand, here and now, when it’s all just theory. Today it would be nothing more than competing ideals, but after we come into power it might be civil war!”

Tharol’s eyes narrowed. “Why? Did you have something controversial to propose?”

Reis matched the narrowing of the eyes. “I would think that you of all people should see the need for reform. Aren’t you always coming on the wrong side of Master Palthio?”

Tharol shrugged. “I don’t see what that has to do with this.”

“I know that there are reforms that you’ve considered. Things that you would like to change about how we do things in the Order. Like have a more proactive defense against the Invasion.”

“Curious. Even I don’t know what I want.”

“But we all heard you in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day…”

“I was asking questions. Perhaps there are flaws in our current system, I don’t know, but I also don’t know for sure what I would replace it with.”

Reis shook his head, realizing that he was quickly descending into yet another debate with Tharol, and that was not what he wanted here and now. This was supposed to be about him.

“Never mind all that,” he said. “The point is that now is the time for us to start raising our own banner. Of course we’re going to obey our elders,” he shot Tharol a dirty look, “but we can do that and start drawing lines for the future.”

“Like…lines of allegiance?” Bovik asked.

“Yes. Why not?”

“I don’t know,” Bovik looked sheepishly to the rest of his peers. “Aren’t we all on the same side already?”

“Of course we are,” Reis said shortly. “That’s the point. We’re already aligned to each other, and that gives us a solid foundation to formally unite under a common cause. Well why not make our pledge to that here and now? Why not give a solemn oath to continuing our cause and protecting our people?”

“Oh, well that’s alright then,” Bovik said with relief. “I thought you had meant electing a leader or something like that.”

“Bovik, I’m not sure that you’re bright enough to be here,” Reis let his irritation show. “Of course we would have a leader. Not a person, though, our leader would be our cause! However it may also be wise to elect one to safeguard that cause. Someone we could trust as a steward of its principles.”

“Well of course that would be you, Reis,” Marvi said sweetly. “And I’d be more than happy to give you my oath of loyalty right here and now!”

“Well how about it then?” Reis said to the others, leaping on top of a small, broken column. “Every order has its Senior Master, doesn’t it? The last thing I want to see is the elders pass on and we’re left with a mad scrabble for power. But if you’ll pledge your loyalty to me today, I’ll pledge my loyalty to governing rightly. Together we can make the future be what it should be.”

Marvi crowed her approval, and barely had she started than Inol echoed it, too. Bovik shouted his agreement quite loudly, no doubt to make up for any hesitancy he had shown earlier. One after another all of the youth shouted their assent.

Except for Tharol.

Reis pretended to not notice the one outlier, and leaped down to the ground, extending his hand, palm upwards.

“Let’s just make it official then, and after that I’ll be able to take you into my trust and show you another of Raystahn’s secrets.”

One-by-one the youth gathered in a circle, extending their hands to rest them, palm-downwards, on Reis’s. This time, Reis could not ignore the singular absence.

“Are you against us, then?” he shot viciously at Tharol.

Tharol shook his head. “It’s not like that Reis. It’s too early to be drawing lines for or against. We can have this conversation when the time is actually upon us, but this is premature.”

Reis opened his mouth, intending to shout something about how Tharol wasn’t welcome in this place anymore, but before he could the youth had already turned his back and started walking away.

“Hmm, never mind him,” Reis tried to shake off the slight to what was supposed to have been his unanimous coronation. “If the rest of you are ready…”

They all bowed their heads and recited in unison. “We place our strength upon you.” And then pressed slightly on his hand.

“I feel the weight of responsibility,” he replied, holding his own arm firm.

*

Tharol had barely stepped across the stone entryway of the monastery than Master Palthio approached him from an adjoining hallway.

“Ah, young Tharol, what a pleasant surprise,” the old man smiled. Tharol didn’t believe it for a moment. There was never any coincidence when it came to a meeting from Master Palthio, of this he was convinced.

“There is something you wanted to discuss with me?” he asked.

Master Palthio chuckled softly. “Ever the one for business, young Tharol. Walk with me.”

The two of them strode to the end of the entrance hall, then Master Palthio steered them towards the garden path.

“You truly are the most vigilant and attentive student I have ever seen, Tharol,” Master Palthio began.

Then why are you wasting time on opening pleasantries? Tharol thought to himself. He verbally said nothing. He found it was the best way to get people to move on to the actual purpose of their conversation.

“But I see you don’t care to discuss that,” Master Palthio nodded. “Tell me, Tharol, do you always feel a great impatience with the rest of us? That we take so long to come around to things of substance?”

It wasn’t the first time that Tharol wondered if Master Palthio was reading his thoughts, even though such was strictly forbidden.

“I just feel…” he paused, struggling to find the words. “I feel there isn’t enough time as it is already.”

“Mmm. You are weighed by a great deal, then. And afraid of what will be lost by our laxness?”

“Well…yes. I mean, I know that we ought to embrace the moment to its fullest, ought to be able to find the significance in all things.”

“You are just reciting canon now. You don’t believe these in your heart, do you?”

“Perhaps not. I think luxury and casual enjoyment are fine things…but we’re members of the Order, we’re the guard set to watch, aren’t we?”

“To watch what?”

“Why for the Invasion, of course?!”

“Mmm,” Master Palthio nodded, then continued in silence.

Tharol kept waiting for Master Palthio to resume speaking…but he did not. The old man just kept walking along as if he had no other intention than to enjoy this walk in silence with his pupil.

“Master, didn’t you–” Tharol finally ventured. “Surely, you had something else to talk to me about, Master?”

Master Palthio smiled softly. “You really don’t believe it possible that I just wanted to spend some time in your air, Tharol?”

“Well, I thought for sure you would be here to do something important.”

“And sharing your company could not have been what was important?” Master Palthio shook his head sadly. “When I speak of your vigilance and attentiveness, must that only be a segue to things of importance, and not the matter of importance itself? You are waiting for significance to come to this moment…and don’t consider that the moment itself was already significant.”

Tharol felt both touched and ashamed. He concerned himself with the study of his feet, not knowing what else he could possibly say to such a pronouncement.

“That is all the business I had Tharol. But if there is anything else that you wished to discuss with me, the rest of our walk is all yours.”

Tharol looked back up to his Master. An open invitation to discuss anything at all? One idea chased another through his mind. The strange creature growing in the maze, Reis trying to draw lines of loyalty among the students, Tharol’s struggle to find ‘the center inside him’ that his teachers spoke of, the impending Trials that the elders always spoke so gravely of. But above them all, there was one concern that arrested his mind more than all the others.

“Well…there is something, Master.”

Master Palthio smiled broadly. “I hardly assumed there wouldn’t be.”

“It’s a matter that I discussed briefly in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day. Perhaps you heard of our conversation?”

“Even if I did, I would rather we speak freshly from your perspective, not from some other, biased, second-hand account.”

“Oh yes…well…the conversation happened to be around the Imminence of Invasion, of how futile it is to try and prevent it, because the nature of man is to relent to it sooner or later. He was teaching how any semblance of control must be surrendered, and simply vigilance maintained instead.”

“You don’t sound particularly favorable towards that notion?”

“Well the thought occurred to me, that if the Invasion is not withstood, if it is a sure thing to come in its cycles, then what is there to prevent it from breaking out among those that are supposed to be vigilant?”

“You mean what if it began within our own Order.”

“I just think that if I were the Corrupt Mind, our monastery is the very first place I would focus all my efforts. Especially if I knew that our Order will do nothing to prevent it.”

“Do we not train minds?”

“Yes…but–“

“But you see that as only a defense, and you would rather we take a more aggressive stance?”

“I know that is contrary to everything the Order stands for. But wars cannot be won by only defending, can they? At some time or another one must attack!”

“Hmm, you make an excellent point. I suppose the Order must be wrong.”

“What?!”

“I thought you’d be relieved. Don’t you feel a great burden lifted?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because–I don’t mean to destroy the Order. Obviously I wasn’t arguing for that!”

“What if the Order should be destroyed? What if it’s entirely wrong?”

“I can’t accept that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s–it’s the only foundation we have.”

“Mmm,” Master Palthio said again. “Quite a conundrum. Our Order is your foundation, but you find yourself at issue with some of its foundations.”

Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably.

“No, don’t feel that you must hide such misgivings. There is no shame in this. If each of the Masters was being honest with you, you would learn that we all have our difficulties with one of the Order’s precepts or another.”

“You have? Well…what do you do about that?”

“Oh dear, you have struck upon the question, now haven’t you? Let me see if I can provide a coherent answer. Give me a moment…”

They continued on in silence. An awkwardly long silence, one where Tharol began to wonder if Master Palthio had entirely forgotten their conversation. Just as Tharol was about to speak up Master Palthio answered.

"When I continue along my way
And I come across a rock that I can push
Then I push it
And continue along my way.

When I continue along my way
And come to a rock that I cannot push
Then I go around it
And continue along my way."

Whatever reaction Master Palthio expected, he evidently had not anticipated the utterly confounded look that Tharol now gave him. The old man’s face split into a wide grin and he laughed out loud.

“I’m sorry, I suppose that sounds like a riddle to you. But honestly I can’t think of a more complex answer that I can give to help you.”

“Complex?! I’m looking for something simple!”

“No, you’re not. You’re trying to tie yourself in a knot, connecting two competing beliefs together in one. You wanted me to give such a profoundly intricate solution that you could do just that. But I didn’t give you that. I gave you something too simple for you to abide. And I am sorry, but that it is still my answer. It is the only one I have to offer.”

“I–” Tharol shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I can’t.”

“No, I see that. To be fair, there are few who can. And tell me, do you feel that this conversation has been fruitless?”

“I’m even more muddled than when we began!”

“I am not surprised. Forgive me for being so blunt, but you do not understand because you are not ready to. You have a notion in your head of what form the answers to your questions must take, and so long as you hold to those preconceptions, nothing that I can say to you will mean a thing. You will never find the words to make sense of a paradox.”

“Well what am I supposed to do then?” Tharol could not keep the frustration out of his voice.

“Stop being the paradox.”

And with that Master Palthio turned and walked away.

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

On Monday I spoke about how some stories began with an extended introduction, before they get to their main arcs. I suggested that my previous section in The Favored Son was just such an introduction, where we became acquainted with the world and characters, but really don’t have a catalyst to drive them forward.

Today we started to tease at those main arcs, as we explored Tharol’s struggle to understand his Order’s dogma, which suggests an arc that will resolve his dilemma. And, ultimately, the story will, but not in the way that he anticipates.

But we’re not fully into the meat of the story even now. We still have our great inciting incident yet to come, which will occur when we reach the Trials that turn pupils into masters.

Before we get to that, though, I want to take a look at my characterization of Master Palthio. The elder is written to be kindly, even-keeled, and assured. Whether or not the audience is not able to make sense of what he is saying, my hope is that they will feel like they should agree with him. Because he seems good-natured, we naturally assume that he is right. Just as we tend to take the advice of real-life people when we perceive them as having our own interests at heart.

There is a particular trick that I used to give Master Palthio the voice of truth, though. He calls out Tharol’s status as being exactly what we, the audience, have likely determined ourselves: the boy likable but conflicted. By having Palthio speak aloud the same notion as is in the reader’s mind, we trust him as having sound judgment.

With my next post I’d like to further examine this technique of setting up the reader to think something, echoing that thought in your story, and how this builds a connection between reader and writer. Come back on Monday to see how that turns out.

The Favored Son: Part One

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“There’s no elders around to see,” Bovik rotated his head on a swivel. “Show us, Reis.”

“You think it’s a matter of being caught by the elders?” Reis frowned disapprovingly. “You don’t think anything of the principle of the matter?”

Bovik sighed. “Explain to him that it’s not like that,” he said to Marvi.

“Reis…no one wants you to do anything you shouldn’t,” Marvi purred softly. “We just–we just thought there was something that you could show us. Something without breaking any rules or anything like that.”

“There might be,” Reis mused, but then he turned and continued leading the group deeper through the stone-hedge. As he went the columns twisted and contorted, re-arranging their layout, opening a path before the gang of youth as they walked, then closing it behind them. Thus they could progress deeper into the maze, but could not be followed, and any of their number who hesitated, or failed to keep up, would also be shut out as unworthy.

Reis took a glance over his shoulder then began to charge forward aggressively. He made one quick turn after another, his gang of followers struggling to keep pace. After a particularly tight hairpin turn he raced up a steep incline and leaped out into the air, a leap of faith, trusting that the stone columns would bend to catch his feet from one step to the next. They did so, spiraling up from the ground to meet his feet with each bound, fifteen feet up in the air.

Marvi, who was directly behind him, followed in perfect sync. Reis could feel her presence without even looking. He unexpectedly paused on his current pedestal, one second longer than his prior steps, then leaped forward again. It was just enough of a change to his cadence to throw her off. She had anticipated his movement, already committed herself to the air, and now the stone pedestal would not leave his control and reform itself where she wanted it in time for her to land on it. She fell all the way to the mossy ground below.

Reis let himself descend back to the surface level and took another glance back at the few of his compatriots still in pursuit. He turned all the way around and locked eyes with Bovik and Talo, the two front-runners. Reis began spinning left and right erratically, side-stepping as he did. The stone walls on either side began fluctuating in response to his movements, rapidly thrusting out barricades and then receding them.

The two boys grit their teeth and tried to follow the dance. They watched Reis’s movements, anticipated the changing walls, and dashed forward or held back as appropriate. Or at least they did until an unexpected riser came sliding across the ground and took Bovik’s feet out from under him.

“Oof! That one was from you!” he snapped at Talo.

“Sorry,” Talo shrugged. It couldn’t be helped that the two boys’ movements were adding an extra complexity to the churning Reis had already started. “We’ve got to go one-at-a-time.”

And so he left his comrade and pressed on ahead, disappearing behind a particularly tricky spiral-turn. Bovik leaped to his feet and followed after, trying to stay far enough back to not be caught in Talo’s wake, but not so far back as to lose Reis entirely.

Fifteen seconds later he found Talo laying on his back, massaging his side.

“He hit me!” Talo told him indignantly. “And not with a wall, mind you! I had just finished dodging a sweeper and he actually, literally reached out and punched me!”

“He wanted to see if you were distracted,” Bovik shrugged, reaching down to pull his friend back up to his feet, “and I guess you were.”

“Well it was still a cheap move.”

“Ahh, don’t worry about it. This isn’t the real test anyway. Keep up with him isn’t what this is all about, now is it?”

Talo thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up as understanding set in. “Oh! Of course. We’re supposed to know where he’s headed and just meet him there.”

“The centrifuge!” they concluded together.

Farther ahead, Reis continued charging forward at a blistering pace. He could not see any of his compatriots over his shoulder any more, but he wanted to be absolutely sure that there weren’t any hangers-on before he made his way to the center of the maze.

Of course it wasn’t just about reaching the physical center of the maze. This was a living, morphing place after all. To truly find the center, you had to approach it in the right way. And that right way was different every time you tried to find it, and different depending on which direction you came at it from.

So at last Reis slowed his run, stopped churning the stone walls around him, and instead starting paying attention to the maze itself. How was it unfolding itself to him this day? What was the pattern–the rule–that naturally dictated its openings and closings?

He came to a full stop, breathed deeply, and took in all his surroundings. Then he took a single step forward and watched how the stone shuddered as a result. A step to the right. A step to the left. A quarter turn. Then ten paces forward in a straight line.

“Alright,” he said to himself as he walked. “Openings naturally on the right side, obstacles naturally on the left.” He continued walking down his current aisle until it came to a 90-degree turn then continued along the next chamber. “Openings still naturally on the right. So I’m circling round. Go a layer deeper.”

He stepped into one of those openings in the right-hand wall and came into a neighboring path. He continued his walk down it now.

“Openings on the left…obstacles on the right,” he frowned. It had flipped. The maze was trying to suggest that its center was in the opposite direction of where it had been just a moment ago. He stepped through a hole to the left…back to where he had been before…and again the openings were on the right, not the left. “So what? Back and forth between the two? A test of persistence?”

That didn’t feel right. Every time he stepped right the maze wanted him to go left, every time he stepped left the maze wanted him to go right. There was a puzzle here, and he was supposed to somehow use this mechanic to progress in only one direction. But that was impossible, wasn’t it?

Reis’s body was wandering as much as his mind now. He carelessly strode down the pathways, stepped through the openings, back and forth, just trying to let something  click. If he stepped through an opening to the left, then back to the right, did the path he came back into appear different from before? No. If he went through one opening, went around a right-hand turn, and then stepped through the opening back to the previous path had things changed…hmm, no, that didn’t seem to help anything.

Perhaps it had something to do with how one went through the opening? He tried stepping through very slowly, no change. Headfirst, no change. Backwards…wait! He had gone backwards through an opening to the right and the rule had flipped. Now the openings in the next pathway were still on the right-hand side!

“It’s not right or left!” he crowed. “It’s that the openings appear behind you as you step through.”

Grinning, Reis continued his retreat. He didn’t dare turn his head to see where he was going, for fear of breaking the effect. He just trusted the maze to guide him. Path by path he moved deeper and deeper, until at last he passed the carved stone pillars which he knew so well. He turned around and saw the centrifuge before him: a massive stone column fragmented into many pieces, each spinning at its own rate and in different directions.

And Tharol was standing before it.

“You’re here already?” Reis cocked an eyebrow.

“Didn’t waste time trying to keep up with you.”

“You understood right away?”

“Of course…you’re obsessed with this place.”

Reis grinned and paced leisurely around the central column. “And why not? It is an obsessive place.”

“Have you seen this?” Tharol, all business, gestured to a small, spindly something perched on the ground. It was as if a thousand tiny, black sticks had been fused to one another until they were roughly in the form of a four-legged, lanky creature.

“It’s still growing?”

“Well it’s never showed any signs of slowing, has it? Definitely some sort of creature.”

“But still no head on it.”

“The elders still don’t know what to make of it.”

Reis shrugged. “This is a place of mysteries. Be all the more unusual if there weren’t unusual things growing here.”

“Well I don’t like it.”

“Why?”

“Doesn’t it strike you as–I don’t know–like something from the old legends? Creatures springing out of the rocks sounds straight out of the Cryptics!”

“And nothing good ever game out of the Cryptics,” Reis repeated the well-known saying. “I don’t know. It’s not a creature springing out of rock, it’s the statue of a creature. It’s not as though this thing shows any sign of life.”

“Well I don’t like it.”

“So I’ve heard.”

There was the sound of crumbling rock behind them and they spun around to see Inol dashing through a tear in the wall. Then came the sound of rapid footsteps to the right, and they turned to see Bovik and Talo come bounding over the top of the wall there. Marvi entered next from the left, fixing Reis with a scowl, evidently none too pleased for having been dropped during the chase.

“Sorry,” he said. “I did make sure we were over the moss at least.”

One-by-one more of the youth arrived, until there were thirteen of them in all. Reis waited quietly as they came, seated on a crumbled pillar, until there was a period of five minutes without any new arrivals. Then he stood up and clicked his tongue.

“I guess everyone that is going to be here is here.”

“You’re going to show us the amulet now?” Bovik asked eagerly.

Reis frowned at him, not pleased at all with being interrupted.

“I will show you what I will show you. And what I show you will be what I already chose to show you…not because you asked to see it.”

Bovik looked down to his feet and took a step back.

“Now then…” Reis glanced around, as if to dare anyone to interrupt him again. “Master Palthio’s instructions were that I keep Raystahn private, but I interpret that as private between myself and close friends. I feel that I may share it as I see fit, so long as I do so with prudence and care. Each of you,” he nodded to the gathered congregation, “I consider worthy of seeing.”

Without any further explanation he reached into the folds of his tunic and drew out a golden amulet. All the youth leaned in closer. Even Tharol, who usually maintained a more aloof air about such artifacts, squinted at it curiously. It was golden disc, with many layers and sections and foil strands twisting from one edge to another.

“There’s some sort of markings between the arms,” Marvi observed. “But they look more like patterns than writing.”

“Patterns can convey knowledge as well,” Reis stated. “And they aren’t static, watch this.” He took a step towards Marvi, and as he did so the etchings rearranged themselves slightly. “They change based on their context.”

“A compass!” Talo exclaimed.

“A compass only tells you which way you’re headed,” Reis tutted. “But these, I believe, tell one where they are.”

“A map, then.”

“Something like that. Only I still need to figure out how to read the symbols properly.”

“Have you asked Master Palthio what he knows about it?” Bovik queried.

“No, of course not. An amulet is a very personal thing, not some everyday tool with a manual. You’re supposed to figure this out for yourself. In fact, from now on I’d better not lead you on with what I’ve already puzzled out. You may observe, but keep your thoughts and discoveries to yourself.”

Everyone was silent for a few minutes, craning their necks from side-to-side, taking in all the complexities and hidden compartments on the device.

Reis grinned at their fascination. “There is something else I could show you about it. I won’t say anything about what I think it means, but you would still find it fascinating.”

All the youth locked eyes with him eagerly. All except for Tharol.

“But…like I said. This is very personal. Really I’m the only one who should know all this stuff about Raystahn. If I’m going to share more with you…I need you to be a part of me,” his eyes flicked meaningfully from one youth to the next. “I’m going to need…an oath.”

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

 

On Monday I wrote about how we cast characters in certain ways, making them likable or unlikable to the reader, so that the reader will accept or reject them accordingly. But of course, the reader is not only accepting or rejecting the character, they are also accepting or rejecting all the character’s ideas and everything that they stand for. The character is the Trojan Horse, hiding the writer’s agenda within.

With today’s post I introduced characters only, and did not yet reveal their ideologies or beliefs. In this way I have the reader already drawing opinions on them, even before they really know them.

My belief, and my intention, is that readers will find Reis a pompous and insincere character, one who they dislike, and are prepared to reject the agenda of. Almost all the other youth I intend to be seen as simpering and weak-willed. Tharol is intended to come across as likable, but cautious, someone that the readers wish to be closer to. And as we will see in the story, all these feelings that the readers hold towards the characters will be perfectly aligned with the messages that the overall story communicates.

As I suggested on Monday, there is an undeniable element of manipulative design in all this. The onus is on me to remain honest and sincere in the messages that I put forth this way, which is part of the reason that I am writing these paragraphs down here in the first place. My intent is not truly to manipulate, if it were, I would not be pointing out how the manipulation is being done. My intent is to help us all be more discerning readers and more sensitive writers.

For now, though, I’d like to move on to examining another piece of this story. This opening segment, with the youth traversing the maze, is ultimately not a critical element of the story. It is to give a little flavor of the world, but as soon as it ends we’ll get going on the main thrust of the story.

This is not an uncommon approach to story-telling, where a sort of prologue piece gets the audience warmed up before the main tale goes forward in earnest. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on a few examples of this, and why we use it in our stories. Then, on Thursday, we’ll really get going on The Favored Son.

The Changed Dog

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“Billy’s really sick, isn’t he?” Tommy’s eyes were wide and shining with unshed tears.

“Yes, you know he’s sick,” James said. “We’ve been talking about that for more than a week now, haven’t we?”

“But I mean really sick. Like…he might not get better,” Tommy barely whispered the last words.

James squirmed uncomfortably, the common dilemma of a father who doesn’t want to be forthcoming.

“Everything will be fine,” he finally promised. “Whatever happens…everything will be just fine.”

Tommy looked far from convinced, but there was something in his father’s tone that let him know the matter was concluded. And so they completed their night-time ritual and he was left to fall asleep. His mind was racing, though, and it was nearly an hour before his dreams finally took him.

Strange dreams they were, too, where he was running through a field, searching for his missing dog. He kept on thinking he saw it’s steel-gray flank before him, but upon nearing it always found something else. “Billy!” he called. “Billy!” But no one answered.

Downstairs in the house, James gave their Siberian Husky a long, hard stare. The dog was laying flat on its belly, jaw resting on the carpet, but eyes open and lazily regarding their master. There was a deep wistfulness in those eyes, and it seemed to understand where James’s thoughts were. It was the father who broke the gaze first. He turned his back to the pet and went to the phone on the wall.

As he hung up at the end of his call Susan stepped into the room.

“Did you tell Tommy? Before he went to bed?”

“No.”

“He’s going to be crushed.”

“He doesn’t need to know.”

*

The next morning Tommy came down the stairs and found the dog kennel empty.

“Billy?… Billy!” he called. “Billy!” He rushed from room to room, calling the dog’s name, but found nothing.

“Billy!”

He ran out the front door, frantically looking up and down the street. Had the dog wandered off, sick and confused? Had his parents taken it without telling him?

“BILLY!” he shouted, his bare feet pattering down the sidewalk. He called the dog’s name, but he knew in his heart that there wouldn’t be any answer. Slowly he came to a stop, and felt the tears forming in his eyes.

“Thomas?”

The boy spun around and saw his mother coming out from working in the backyard.

“Mom! Where’s Billy?!”

“Get over here, you’re still in your pajamas! Your father took Billy to the vet this morning.”

“To put him down?” hot tears splashed down Tommy’s cheeks.

“No. I don’t–your father said it’ll be alright. He said you wait and see when he comes home.”

“How? Billy’s too old for the vet to do anything for him.”

“You’ll just have to wait and see, but come indoors.”

That evening James came home…alone. As soon as he opened the door to the house he found himself face-to-face with his son, accusation etched over the boy’s eyes.

“You’ve killed him!” Tommy declared.

“What? Who?”

“You took Billy to be put down!” Tommy teetered on the edge of losing all composure.

“No,” James said firmly. “They’re seeing to him now. I thought he’d be ready to bring back this afternoon but he’s not. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

Tommy squinted suspiciously at his father, but there wasn’t anything concrete to justify his doubts, so he merely trudged away, shaking his head.

Susan looked up from peeling carrots after the boy had left.

“Don’t you think he’s old enough to know the truth?” she asked. “Putting it off for today is only going to make things worse when we do have to tell him.”

“Actually, it’s all been arranged. I’ve been in contact with a kennel in Springdale. ‘Billy’ will be vaccinated and ready for his new home tonight.”

Susan did not match his smug smile.

“I don’t know, dear,” she said slowly. “I honestly feel like that’s just going to be worse.”

“Well you never had any pets growing up, you don’t know what it’s like. Trust me, will you?”

The next morning was the weekend, so both James and Susan were waiting for Tommy as he came down the stairs and saw Billy back in his kennel.

“What?!” he said in awe.

The dog stood tall and alert, his fur coat full and shiny like it hadn’t been in months.

“I told you to count on your old man!” James crowed.

“But–how?” Tommy asked. “He was just old, I thought. What can a vet do for just being old? I was afraid he–“

“Well that’s just the problem!” James interjected. “Dogs can smell fear, can’t they? Old Billy could feel how afraid you were, and that was just a whole other stress for him to deal with. Had him worried sick. I think spending some time away from all our fretting was the best medicine he could get! But what are you waiting for, boy? Come say hello to your old buddy!”

The dog craned its head up to look at its master, regarding him with curious eyes. It heard a movement ahead and saw the small boy drawing near with hand outstretched. Instantly a growl resonated in its throat.

“Billy?” Tommy asked and the dog barked loudly.

Tommy frowned and side-stepped to the shelf of doggie treats and toys.

“Look boy, a biscuit!” he held the treat aloft, then lobbed it over. It feel between the dog’s paws, and it glanced down, then locked eyes with Tommy again.

Tommy picked a clicker off the shelf and clicked it two times.

Nothing.

He clicked it two times once more.

Nothing.

“What’s happened, dad? He doesn’t remember me or anything!”

“Well…” James’s eyes roved as he sought to explain. “Can you blame him? He’s been through so much lately, hasn’t he? Not to mentioned being out of practice for the past few weeks. So yeah, maybe he’s a bit muddled and confused, but he’s still our boy, isn’t he?”

“I suppose.”

“Just give him some time. He’s got to get used to being well again, but everything will be right as rain soon, you’ll see.”

James happened to catch the look of concern in his wife’s face.

“You’ll see,” he repeated.

But over the rest of the morning there was no denying that Billy simply did not like Tommy. Did not like him one bit. The boy couldn’t come near without the dog starting to growl and bare his teeth.

Later that day Susan had the dog lay on its side and she petted it soothingly, while Tommy offered the dog a treat. The dog only snarled until Tommy placed the treat on the ground and backed away, then it lapped the biscuit up. But as soon as the snack was down the dog went back to fixing the boy once more with an imperious glare.

“But he was my friend!” Tommy wailed. “How come he isn’t my friend anymore? I want my Billy back, not this bully!”

“Let’s try and find something the three of us can do together,” Susan suggested. “Something distracting. Billy always loved going for his walks, didn’t he?”

“Do you think he still would? He seems to hate everything that he used to love before.”

But Billy did enjoy the walk. He even let Tommy walk alongside him without any growls, as he was too distracted by all the new scents and sounds to be mean.

“Can I have the leash, Mom?”

“Better not.”

“Can I take him for his walk by myself tomorrow?”

“No, you’re too little.”

“But you always let me before. You said Billy could keep me safe.”

“Well…I think Billy still has to do some more getting used to you.”

James was present later that afternoon when Tommy tried to offer a treat to the dog again. Billy barked and Tommy dropped the treat in fright.

“No, Thomas,” James scolded as Billy lapped the treat up. “You’re teaching him that he can bully you and still get rewarded for it. We have to be tougher with him. If he doesn’t behave, he doesn’t get a treat. Grab another of those treats and let’s try this again.”

James crouched down by Billy, his arm across the dog’s back.

“Now bring that treat forward, and don’t act scared. He’ll never respect you if you act scared around him.”

“But he used to respect me.”

“Never mind what he used to do. This is how he is now. Bring the treat.”

Tommy started to extend the biscuit, and as expected Billy’s lips drew back over his lips and he started to growl. In a flash James had struck it across the nose, eliciting a small yelp.

“Don’t hit him!” Tommy cried.

“I know how to raise a dog. Now offer him the treat again.”

Another growl, another slap, another yelp.

“Again.”

This time James clamped his hand around Billy’s snout, forcing the dog to swallow his growl. The dog strained to leave, but James held him firmly in place, held him until the dog stopped straining.

“Good. Now pet him.”

“But he’ll–“

“He’ll do nothing. I have him under control. Pet him around his collar and leave the treat at his feet.”

Tommy did so, then took a step back so that his father could release the dog.

“Not too far,” James instructed. “He still has to understand he only gets his treat when he lets you be near.”

Then he released the dog. Billy whimpered at James, eyes downcast and ashamed.

“You brought it on yourself,” James said sternly. “Now take your treat.”

Billy sniffed idly at the biscuit, and gave it a little lick.

“You see, Thomas? That’s how it’s going to be. We’ll have him in his place in no time.”

“But I don’t want him ‘in his place.’ This is mean. He never had to be put ‘in his place’ before, he was just a good dog already.”

“You don’t approve? Then I guess I’d better take him back to the kennel now,” and having said so, James made to grab the leash off the rack.

“What?!” Tommy exclaimed. “You’re going to get rid of him?”

“Why not? You don’t want him anymore.”

“I didn’t mean that! Please daddy, no! I’ll make him respect me, I promise.”

“Doesn’t it sound too mean, though?”

“No, it’s fine! I’ll do it. I promise!”

“Hmm…well I guess I’ll wait on it for now then. Why don’t you go play?”

Tommy scampered off, and James turned around to meet his wife’s frown.

“What? That was actual progress!”

*

The next morning Tommy came downstairs early, before either of his parents had awoken. Billy was still asleep as well, and hadn’t fully roused before Tommy already had the leash hooked up to his collar.

“Come on, ” Tommy said officiously, “we’re going for our walk.”

Billy gave a little snarl, but was still too groggy to do anything more.

“None of that! You’re going to respect me now, boy.”

A dangling treat and a tug on the leash and Billy reluctantly rose to his feet and plodded with the boy down the stairs. Once the two of them were outside the cool morning air woke the dog up fully, and it started walking along at a brisk pace.

“Attaboy!” Tommy said brightly. “I don’t know how you’ve forgotten so much, but you and I are best friends. And you’re gonna remember it.”

They came to a street corner and Billy made to turn.

“No Billy, you know we’re not allowed down there. Daddy and Mommy don’t want us anywhere near the rail yard.” He tugged the leash to guide Billy back, but the dog whipped back with a snap of its teeth.

“Billy, no!” Tommy said firmly. “I don’t want to be tough on you…but I will be until you agree to be friends with me again.”

A deep growl started to reverberate in Billy’s throat. Tommy thought about letting go of the leash, but he knew he just had to be tough. Knew he just had to push on until he finally got through to his beloved friend. He lifted his hand and slapped the dog across the nose.

And that was that.

*

James and Susan came down from their bedroom less than hour later.

“Tommy? Are you down here? Tommy?”

They saw the empty kennel, saw the leash missing on the rack. They each fixed the other with the same look of horror, bolted out the front door, and streaked down different roads.

“Tommy!” they called. “Tommy!” But no one answered.

“TOMMY!” they shouted, their bare feet thundering down the sidewalk. They called their son’s name, but they knew in their hearts that there wouldn’t be any answer.

On Monday I spoke about stories that repeat the same messages, or even the exact same lines, in order to reinforce or evolve a central idea. The very end of this story, of course, ended with the two parents searching for the boy that they would not find, and I used the exact same phrasing as when I wrote about Tommy looking for the dog that he also would never find.

And my hope is that this symmetry will hammer home the main theme of my story: searching for that which is lost, searching for that which cannot be found. Even after “Billy” has been restored back to Tommy, Tommy is still searching for his old friend. There is a dog before him that answers to the same name as before, but it is just a facade, the relationship is still missing. Sadly, Tommy is too young and naive to understand that the old relationship cannot be regained, for the beloved dog he is looking for is already dead.

But it isn’t just the true Billy that has been lost, Tommy has been lost as well. And Tommy was lost even before he took the dog out that fateful morning. By the loss of his pet, and by being the victim of deceit, his innocence has been taken from him. His parents, particularly his father, had already arranged his demise. By trying to protect him, they doomed him.

Which, of course, was written with a specific message to convey. This story is a statement that not being allowed to mourn the wound only creates a greater wounding. Hiding pain only makes it become worse, just as telling lies only increases the sin. The immoral comfort of today only ensures retribution for tomorrow.

I tried to prepare readers for that take-away, by first making it clear that the father’s approach to the whole situation–buying a new dog to replace the second–was wrong. By knowing his behavior was wrong, they could start asking themselves why. But how did I tell the audience that the father’s behavior was wrong? By making him do unpleasant things, such as be condescending to his wife and pompous to his son. In this way I signaled to the readers what their feelings towards him and his philosophies should be, even before the outcome of them was seen.

Is that manipulative? Maybe…but I think that question requires a deeper analysis than we have time for here. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on this common pattern in story-telling and whether it is fair for a writer to employ it or not. I’ll see you then.

Boat of Three: Part Five

person holding water
Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“How could it be three days?” Captain Molley shook his head in disbelief. “I would have died.”

“I gave you water, I gave you what food I could…you couldn’t take much. You lived, though I thought for sure you wouldn’t. But…it has been three days.”

“Ohh,” Captain Molley’s head fell into his hands. “Three days without a proper heading…there’s no telling where we are now. Miles off course, no doubt, but no notion of  which way, and how to correct it.”

“I’ve tried to keep us straight as I can.”

“But we were rowing at a slant. And neither you nor I can recall if it was at a slant to the east or a slant to the west.”

“Well, I haven’t been able to row very quickly on my own. Probably best to think of it as only a single day’s rowing.”

“But not a single day’s being pushed by the current. Three days of that alone is too much.”

Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Too much for what?”

“Julian…I barely trusted my own navigational skills to find this phantom cove, and I certainly don’t trust any other man’s navigation in the least.”

“But…what are you saying?”

“Forget about the cove. We’re never going to find it.”p

“But–but–it’s all that we have!”

“It was always a very slim chance. Our best chance, I suppose, but very slim even so. Now its just too narrow of a mark, too uncertain of a starting point, there’s just no way to see us from here to there anymore.”

“But there isn’t anything else for us.”

“We will turn east. What we still have is the ability to find is the trade route. We will recognize it by where the current runs against us the strongest. We will surrender ourselves to its mercy…and see if it sends us any vessel for our rescue.”

“Captain you know that there isn’t any other ship coming. You know it.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Sometimes–well–don’t take offence, Captain, but sometimes while going up and down the rigging one hears the conversations going on below. I’ve never been one for eavesdropping, but sometimes it just happens and it can’t be helped, I’m sure you can understand that.”

Captain Molley waved his hand dismissively, showing he didn’t care. “And what was it you heard?”

“When those pirates first came bearing down on us you told First Mate Blythe ‘they’ve got the weather gage, the better guns, and there’s not any other ship due to pass this way for another two months!’ So there aren’t any other merchants vessels scheduled to come and you know it!”

Captain Molley sighed. “Nothing scheduled, that is correct. But there is the occasional unregistered vessel that passes through these waters. You know this.”

“What? More pirates?! Savages?! This is who you want to be rescued by?”

“I would take my chances with any vessel at this point.”

“Surrender ourselves to their mercy?”

“What would you have me do, Julian?” Captain Molley held out his palms in exasperation. “There are no good options remaining.”

“Keep things in our own control. Push on as best we can towards the pirate’s cove.”

“No. We’re not sure where exactly it is, we’re not sure where we ourselves are anymore. You can’t chart a course between two unknowns! But finding back the trade route, that much we can manage.”

“What if it wasn’t two unknowns? What if we still had a general idea of where we were now?”

“I don’t see what you mean.”

“You say three days of drifting is too long. Well what amount of drifting would you still be willing to navigate from? What if it had only been a single day?”

“But it was three days.”

“But if it had only been one?”

“What is the point of that question? Why does it matter how much I would have been willing to risk, I am not willing to risk things as they are right now.”

Julian gnawed the inside his cheek awkwardly. Captain did not read anything in it, but Bartholomew, who had been following the entire conversation from nearly-shut eyes did. He suppressed a smile and silently turned matters over in his mind.

“Listen Julian,” Captain Molley said in a calm, yet firm manner, “you are not convinced, so be it. But I am the only one in this boat that can navigate, and I’m telling you that I frankly refuse to take these odds. There’s no use in trying to persuade me. I won’t do it, and so there is nothing left but to return to the trade route.”

Bartholomew coughed on cue.

“What? He’s awake!” Julian cried.

“I–” Bartholomew’s voice was extremely strained and cracked. “I can–lead us…I can lead us in.”

Julian rushed the water flask to Bartholomew’s lips. The pirate seized on it with a strength that belied his weakened appearance. He gulped down four overflowing mouthfuls before Captain Molley wrenched it away.

“Easy there. We still have to ration what little we have!” He secured the stopper with a firm twist.

“What were you saying just now?” Julian pressed Bartholomew eagerly.

“I know a way to still get to the cove,” Bartholomew’s voice broke and he remained laying flat on his back, but he spoke on with persistence. “There are–signs in the water. Things to watch for when you know them. If we try our best, if we get within fifteen miles of it…I’ll see the signs and I’ll be able to lead us in. We don’t have to be too accurate…just within fifteen miles would be enough.”

“What signs?” Captain Molley demanded. “A color in the water? A scent in the air? A spawning ground of whales? How do you tell it?”

Bartholomew simply shook his head.

“You won’t tell us?”

“If I tell…you will kill me.”

“What? Don’t be daft, man.”

He will kill me,” Bartholomew managed to lift a single finger towards Julian.

“No. He lashed out in a moment of passion, but he didn’t kill you when he could have, when you and I were both unconscious.”

Bartholomew just shook his head.

“Out with it man! None of us can survive if we don’t do this together.”

“We–can’t all survive. One of us has to die…and it isn’t going to be me.”

“He’s delirious,” Captain Molley shook his head. “Never made any mention of signs in the water before. Get some rest, man. Julian give us the bag of food, he and I need our strength.”

Julian picked up the bag, but only held it halfway to the Captain. “But…we still don’t know if Bartholomew will make it…in which case it would be a waste.”

Captain Molley lurched forward and seized the bag out of Julian’s hands. “Well of course he won’t make it if we starve him! We’re not counting any one of us out just yet.” He clucked his tongue and started to reach into the bag. “Now he and I will take an extra portion or two, to get back our energy after not eating these past three days.”

Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek again.

“Not for me,” Bartholomew sighed. “We can’t survive if we all eat. It’s too far to the cove.”

“What? You’re so concerned about us killing you, but willing to starve to death instead?” Captain Molley sneered. “Eat your food, our lot will be the same.”

“He has a point, Captain,” Julian piped up.

Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed. “So let him die to preserve food for the two of us? And he’s the one man who claims he can still bring you in to your precious cove? Surely even you can see that that doesn’t work.”

Julian opened his mouth to answer, but then closed it. An eternity seemed to pass between Captain and sailor, as both silently came to the same conclusions.

“Julian…what are you thinking?” Captain Molley asked very slowly.

Julian simply stared.

“So it’s like that, is it? I don’t suppose you’ve even considered that Bartholomew could be lying?”

“I can’t accept that.”

“So it has to be you or I then? And somehow I don’t believe you’re volunteering yourself as a sacrifice. No. You’re much more the sort to hide in the rigging and let other men do the dying for you, aren’t you?”

Julian scowled deeply.

The anger was riled in Captain now, and he abandoned any restraint. “You’re too much a coward to throw in your lot and let fate decide, aren’t you? You can’t just let things be, and that makes you such a nervous, shiftless weasel.”

“I’m not a coward!”

“No? And here about to murder a wounded man?” Captain Molley shook his head derisively. “But go on then, take me if you think you can manage it. I would remind you that I’m still armed!”

So saying, Captain Molley pushed back his coat and reached to his side. There he felt the sheath that was bound there…but nothing else.

Julian drew the knife out from the back of his trousers.

“So…” Captain Molley breathed.

The boat nearly overturned, nearly threw all three sailors into their watery grave right then and there. But somehow it stayed aright through the moment of violent struggle. The two men clawed each other’s life as best they could, tore each other like animals. And all the while Bartholomew lay in the bottom of the boat, eyes fixed on the sky above, a grim smile across his lips. A life-rending cry and the deed was done. Captain Molley’s limp corpse was tumbled over the edge and into the water.

Julian leaned panting against the side of the boat for support, the bloodied knife pierced into the wood at his side. He trembled in exhaustion and horror, his eyes blinked furiously, trying to shed tears but too dehydrated to actually form any.

And then two hands clamped around his neck from behind.

Bartholomew’s wiry fingers grasped with hidden strength, his arms crushed with feverish power. Julian thrashed about, but the pirate was very skilled in the art of killing another man. He managed to pin Julian down with one arm, then reached out with the other to take the knife.

Two moments later and Julian’s dead body tumbled out of the boat as well. The sailor rejoined his Captain in the sea. The ocean swallowed them both, and all their sins were forgotten.

Alone in the boat, Bartholomew ravaged the sack of food. He ate as much as he could, drank as much as he could. Then he grabbed two oars and started rowing away from that place. Rowing, rowing feverishly as the waves rolled on.

On Monday I spoke of stories where characters are at odds with themselves. Julian was my example in this story of a man who undoes himself. He accomplishes this in several ways. Initially he wanted to kill off Bartholomew to better survive, then later Captain Molley. Thus his ever-shifting nature deprived him of any ally. He was so desperate to keep himself alive, that he failed to account for the need of retaining any friends to save him.

But even more than this, he kept undermining his own hopes for rescue. Things were already very strained for reaching the pirate’s cove, but then he was the one that knocked out their guide. He was the one that aggravated Captain Molley into collapse. He was the one that stole food so that they didn’t have enough for them all. He was the one that covered his sins with lies, which lies broke Captain Molley’s hope in their plan. At the end he found himself fighting with Captain Molley and Bartholomew, but they were fights that he had only brought on himself.

Or had he? To an extent he made his own choices…but also he was deeply manipulated by Bartholomew along the way. The pirate sowed discord in the man at every point possible, taunting him into attacking himself, putting into his head the notion that one of their crew needed to die, and leaving poor Julian to carry out Bartholomew’s own dirty work for him. Julian may have been a sinner, but Bartholomew was the devil driving him.

Which ties into my earlier blog post about characters who are harboring secrets. It was stated a few times that Bartholomew was closely watching his companions, and it was implied that he had manipulative intent towards them. But what exactly he was trying to do and how he meant to do it remained a mystery up until the very end. Clearly he wasn’t so weak as he pretended, only acting so until one of the other two men had evened the odds for him.

But even after that much is cleared up, Bartholomew still retains many secrets, and he keeps them clear until the end. Just how much of what he did and said was true? How much of it was just a fabrication to build up tension? And the story’s biggest secret of them all: was the pirate’s cove he spoke of even real or not? Was that just a story to get the other men to see him as essential for their survival? At the very end, as he takes the oars and starts rowing, I came very close to saying whether he kept north towards the promised cove, or if he turned east towards the trade route. I repressed that urge, though., for this is a story about deceit, and so it was only right to end on a note of uncertainty.

Though…to be fair…if you understand the character and the themes, you should be able to tell which of those two endings would be the right one.

Even earlier I wrote a blog post about tension between allies, characters who are momentarily aligned in purpose, but not friendly to one another in the least. Clearly this story had that in spades. And specifically it had it in the flavor of natural enemies who we knew were going to come to blows sooner or later, and the only question was when that conflict would actually break out.

Choosing where to have that payoff was an interesting process. Really at just about any time I could have said “okay, that’s this person’s tipping point. Things fall out now.” In fact Captain Molley already came to that point when Julian had taken his feud with Bartholomew too far. And Julian came to that point previously when he hit Bartholomew in the head with the oar. But I intervened in both of those moments and delayed the ultimate fallout, because I wanted something more when that moment came.

I didn’t want the tension to break out because Julian had done something wrong. And I didn’t want it to break out because Captain Molley lost his temper. I didn’t even want it to break out because Bartholomew was pulling the other men’s strings. I wanted it to be because of all three of those conditions at the very same time. In earlier scenes there was one or two of these factors, but I was using those moments to foreshadow the end when all three would come to bear at once. In the end we reach the point that every man indulges in their worse nature at one and the same time, and then there aren’t any restraints left to save them. Only then, at that climax of tension, was the story finally ready for its end.

Last of all, I started this whole story with the idea of tales that begin with a key premise and end with a key culmination. In Boat of Three we began with this idea of a naval captain, a nervous sailor, and a scheming pirate caught together in a boat. It was a simple idea, one that can literally be summed up in a single sentence, but which already suggested all manner of drama.

The story ended with a single idea, too. Right from the get-go I had in mind this scene of Julian being cajoled into killing Captain Molley, leaving the door wide open for him to be murdered in turn. I had a clear image of a snake-in-the-grass mastermind that lay motionless and smiling in the bottom of the boat as lives were destroyed around him. And so the pivotal ending derives directly from the pivotal beginning.

And as I mentioned, each of these men’s personal contribution to the ending was rehearsed in individual scenes beforehand. I showed something about each of them, and then I showed it again later. This is a key pattern of storytelling: saying something and then restating it. On Monday I’d like to look more closely at this notion of reinforced messages, and then we’ll be off with a new tale on Thursday.