The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Fifteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

Tharol heard the scream ringing from the barracks and stood up with a start. After a moment he realized what it was and he looked down somberly.

“Well maybe you couldn’t do anything about all these plots, but I did,” he told Master Palthio defiantly. “That’s the sound of Reis’s schemes being snuffed out. I did it myself because no one else was going to lift a finger to stop him!”

Master Palthio smiled sadly. “I applaud your initiative, Tharol, but you haven’t stopped anything. Reis was but the tip of an iceberg.”

*

Inol frantically backed away from Reis’s twitching form, spun around, and leaned for support against the rampart railing.

“ATTACK! ATTACK!” he shouted in the direction of the barracks. “THERE’S AN ARMY OUTSIDE THE GATES!”

Beesk came racing up the staircase and onto the ramparts.

“What do you think you’re doing? Do you want everyone to–” he stopped speaking as he came into view of the army approaching below. They were near enough now to see them in detail. They were a strangely cobbled force, a mixture of elite soldiers in armor, peasants bearing wooden clubs, and a third class that was…made of stone! Some had only a rocky or head, while others were entirely composed of rock except for a single patch of flesh. They hobbled forward awkwardly on their heavy joints, shaking the ramparts with the collective force of their boulder feet.

“Seventeenth Gate!” the woman at the forefront of the army called. “Why are your doors not open?”

“It’s her,” Beesk mumbled to Inol, stepping back from the ramparts’ edge in fear. “It’s the statue lady…. This was all a trap!”

“I know!”

“Seventeenth Gate!” the statue lady called again. “Is anyone there? Answer me or face the consequences!”

Reis turned on his side and retched violently. The chills washed over his body in waves and he fell back to the rampart trembling uncontrollably. Even though he didn’t have the strength to even raise himself his eyes were steeling with anger and resolve. He knew what had happened to him and he knew who had done it. He wasn’t sure how, but Tharol had known more than he had let on, and he had poisoned Reis with a lethal dose. But Reis hadn’t been killed. Not yet. And now Tharol would have to deal with the consequences of that fact!

*

“What do you mean you did your part to resist what’s coming?” Tharol demanded of Master Palthio. “You say you couldn’t put a stop to Beesk, or Inol, or Reis, or any of the things they represent, so what were you doing? What was the point?!”

“What I was doing was teaching,” Master Palthio said simply. “I’ve been training the lot of you, hoping to instill some sense of duty and principle in you all. Preparing your minds and bodies for the coming fight. Teaching you how to operate as individuals and as a group. Yes I knew we had corruptors in our bunch, but the rest of you I tried to keep apart from all that.”

Teaching?!

“Yes, and Tharol you were the brightest of them all, and the most capable. I saw that if there was going to be any hope for these boys it would be through you. And that’s why I have been pushing you so hard of late.”

“Felt more like you were trying to get rid of me!”

“Well, in a sense, yes, but for your own good. I was trying to take away the order as your crutch. Trying to wean you off of this sick, decaying body. There’s no future for you here. Your destiny needs to be apart from the city, the order, and Gate Seventeen.”

“A destiny for what? To hear you go on there isn’t anything left for us to save!”

“Just each other.”

Tharol blinked.

“Avro, Janeao, Bovik, Golu, and others like them,” Master Palthio continued. “Maybe those like Beesk and Inol after their schemes have fallen to pieces and they’re humbled. But don’t waste any time trying to save our order or nation. Just take care of the individuals who still have their spark of duty. Do it by your own means. Take your own counsel. Don’t rely on any part of our dead system, not even on me.”

Tharol paused to take it in. He had just had his whole world disrupted and he felt like he needed to sit down and think it over for a long while. But, of course, there was no time for that.

“I really do need to go,” he said softly, stepping towards the door.

“Yes, you do,” Master Palthio waved his hand and the door was unfastened. “And I have my final work to do as well.”

*

All the other boys had rushed out into the courtyard now and were halfway up the stairs to the ramparts.

“What’s going on?” Avro demanded.

“We’re doomed!” Inol came down to meet them, face ashen. Beesk followed behind, trembling like a leaf. “Reis betrayed us. They’re going to kill us!”

The pronouncement was immediately followed by the sound of death shouts off in the distance. Inol and Beesk cowered even lower behind the wall, but Avro poked his head up high enough to see where the noises were coming from. He looked to Gate Eighteen to the right and Gate Sixteen to the left. There the great doors had been opened from within and the army was filing through uncontested. And no sooner had the army been admitted into the keep than they had apparently begun murdering the gatekeepers there!

“Never mind,” the statue lady scoffed in disgust down on the plains. It was clear to her that their accomplice wouldn’t be opening the gate for them. “Break this door down!”

Her stone soldiers had only been waiting for the order! Like dogs freed from the leash they gave a shout and charged forward at full speed, built up their momentum, then flung their bodies against the gate like a hundred different battering rams! The entire keep shook from the impact, the wood of the doors splintered, and the iron lattice bent inwards. Meanwhile the peasant soldiers picked up their ladders, sprinted to place them against the walls, and began their ascent. Several of the armored soldiers lifted crossbows and fired them along the ramparts in case any guards were concealed in the dark.

The boys inside flung themselves to the ground, faces looking to one another in horror. For a moment they were paralyzed into inaction, but then Golu broke the silence with a sudden thought.

“The breaching charges!” he said, then rose to his feet and began crawling back up the stairs to the ramparts, careful to keep his head beneath the bolts sailing overhead. Avro and Janeao followed behind, while the other boys dashed to the weapon rack and grabbed their swords and bows and arrows. The three boys up top crawled across the ramparts, lighting the fuses that ran along the top of the wall as they went.

What they were lighting was a series of explosives that had been mixed into the rock all along the top of the wall. No sooner did the first of the peasants reach the top of the wall than the explosives went off, spraying fire and rocky shrapnel, slaying the first of the offenders and blasting their ladders backwards off the wall!

Of course Golu, Avro, and Janeao had not been able to reach all the sections of the wall, and so in other places the peasant soldiers mounted the ramparts unscathed. But these were met by the arrows of the other boys down below. Bovik, Beesk, and Inol fired with practiced skill, cutting the infiltrators down easily, due to their lack of proper armor.

“We’ve got to fall back!” Inol roared as the stone warriors flung themselves once again the at the gate, buckling it to the point that wide gaps were starting to appear. One more dash and they would have the whole thing down.

“They’ll just chase us down,” Bovik shook his head sadly.

“No, they’ve got bigger matters to attend to,” Inol offered hopefully. “They probably don’t even care about us.”

“Up above!” Beesk pointed to a wave of armored soldiers that had just mounted the ladders. The boys fired a fresh volley, but only half of the arrows were able to find weak parts in the armor, such as around the joints, while the rest clattered harmlessly off the plate. The surviving men charged undeterred towards Golu, Avro, and Janeao, while yet another wave of armored soldiers mounted the ladders behind them.

“We’ve got to go!” Inol repeated, then turned and ran, not waiting to see if the others followed him.

“We can’t just leave the other boys!” Bovik protested. But also Beesk turned and ran, proving that he most certainly could!

“Let’s go get them, Bovik.”

Bovik turned back and saw Tharol quickly approaching.

“But–” Bovik’s misgivings towards Tharol were clear on his face.

“I just want to help you,” Tharol said earnestly, pulling sword and shield from the weapon rack then coming back to his ally. “Let’s go get them.”

Bovik exhaled deeply, gave a nod, and the two boys began sprinting for the staircase. Along the way they passed by the gate, just as it shook from a third battering by the stone warriors. The hinges ripped out of the stone and the entire door fell inwards! The boys instinctively lifted their arms to protect themselves from the crashing rubble…but it never hit them.

Master Palthio stepped forward, hands outstretched to the broken door, magically keeping it pinned to its proper place. His eyes shone brightly and he sent out a great shockwave. It coursed through the wide gaps that had been broken in the door, breaking into the stone soldiers on the other side, and bursting them into pebbles! The remaining stone warriors pulled back in surprise.

“Well…” the statue lady mused from behind, “that’s interesting. While the last of the retreating stone soldiers passed by her she strode forward confidently, closing on the door with her own arms stretched out wide. “I don’t know who you are,” she panted as she felt the full force of Palthio’s powers bearing down. “But these walls are mine.” She matched the words my placing her outstretched hands on the stone barrier that framed the door, closed her eyes, and imbued her powers into the lifeless rock.

Meanwhile, Tharol and Bovik mounted the staircase up above and bowled into the front-most ranks of the armored soldiers, flinging them right over the ramparts and off the wall! Then the two boys spun on the spot and met the next line of enemies with swords flashing. They lunged at the foes with an aggressiveness that belied their inferior numbers.

There were too many of the soldiers to keep them permanently at bay, but the two boys made a controlled retreat backwards until Golu, Avro, and Janeao were able to join the fray. Then the retreat slowed and came to a standstill. Though they were still fewer than their foes, and not nearly so well armored, the boys had far greater synergy as a team. Each armored soldier was trained only as an individual, occasionally stumbling over each other as they all sought their own best line forward. The boys, however, naturally fell into a shared rhythm.

To begin with Janeao took the front, using his greater size to shield the other boys and swinging his sword like a windmill, clearing enough room for the others to operate within. Golu was to Janeao’s side and slightly behind, watching for the openings that Janeao’s blustering opened up and then used his superior techniques to administer one finishing blow after another. He was the surgical precision behind Janeao’s thundering hammer. Avro and Bovik meanwhile filled in all the gaps. As efficient as Janeao and Golu were, they couldn’t cover everything at once. So Avro and Bovik drove their swords like spears through the openings, sometimes to counter a missed attack, sometimes to increase their own side’s aggression.

Tharol helped Avro and Bovik in that work as well, but his primary contribution was at the back, directing their troupe in its lethal dance.

“Bovik, on the right!” he shouted. “Six more behind this set, boys, pace yourselves. Perhaps Mora-Long? Was that a cut on you, Janeao?”

“I’m fine!”

“Avro, two steps to the right, I need to move that body!” He pulled the corpse back and flung it over the edge, clearing up the ground for Golu’s footing.

“Watch that sword, Avro, don’t tangle it in Janeao’s swings. Golu, watch the ground, he’s getting back up!”

Every now and then Tharol swept his eyes around the area, making sure that he was ever aware of their surroundings. They had managed to hold their ground thus far, and on occasion had even advanced a foot or two forward. But they were still twelve feet back from the top of the stairs, which was the nearest exit out of this place.

There was a sound of clattering behind them and Tharol turned to see an extra-long ladder being placed against the Northern Tower. The peasants had bound two of their shorter ladders together in order to reach the lowest window of that tower, and were now ascending to enter it. They were going to come into the tower on its second floor, race down its staircase, onto the ramparts from behind, and hit the boys from the rear!

“Alright, we’ve got trouble!” Tharol announced.

Part Sixteen

This was an exciting, fun piece to write! But even amidst all the action I’ve tried to imbue a sense of character development. Consider the moment here at the end where the boys fight the attacking horde together. Throughout the story there have been scenes of them dueling against one another, jockeying for rank, and carving divisions between them. This moment here is the first time that we’ve really seen them work together, the payoff for all that Master Palthio has been trying to instill in them.

Compare how I portray them here to their performance in the first of their competitions, the one where Janeao was trying to hold up the wooden tower as the opposing side broke it down. That was at the very beginning of the story, and the boys were trying to operate as a team, but were largely ineffective. Their focus was on trying to beat the other team, not protect their own. They were flushed in conquest and competition, all at the expense of collaboration and contribution.

It’s been a long and difficult journey for them to this all-important night, full of drama and shifting loyalties, but through it all they have broken down the old relationships that weren’t working, and learned how to genuinely rely on one another instead.

The story is almost done, just one more post to wrap it up. Before we get to that, though, I am going to finish reviewing all the lessons that I have learned in my next post on Monday. Come back then to read about that, and then again on Thursday to see the final words in The Favored Son: Alternate!

Talking, Talking, Talking

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The Worst Kind of Movie)

I remember a common occurrence when I was little and my Dad would bring home a VHS tape from the video rental store.

“Can I watch it, Dad?” I would ask. Sometimes it was a cartoon, or a comedy, or a musical, or an action flick. All of these I liked.

Dreaded, however, were the times that he would answer: “You can…but you should know this is a ‘talking’ movie.”

‘Talking’ movies were dramas. Boring films where the characters simply went from one conversation to another, all the way through to the end! I was okay to power through a scene or two of this pointless talking in a movie, but then there had better be something exciting or silly coming up next. More often than not, I’d sit out on these utter wastes of cinema!

Of course as I got older my perspective on this changed. The main contributor to this was just being able to understand the conversations people were having in dramas. At first I was too young to appreciate the ideas that were being put forward and the character development that was happening. As I matured I developed the ability to comprehend the importance of these scenes, and to my surprise I found that some conversations could be even more gripping than a gunfight!

Flip the Script)

In fact, now I’ve reached the point where I have little tolerance for action that isn’t “saying something.” Vehicles exploding for no other reason than to be flashy just feels empty. Nameless grunts filing into a room just so that the hero can hit them in the face is shallow. Far more meaningful to me is when the chaos serves a purpose. I want there to be character development and intrigue in every scene, even in one of action.

One of my favorite examples of this in the Bourne Supremacy, specifically towards the end of the film when Jason Bourne ends up in a car chase against a rival assassin. Of course this is a film franchise rife with car chases, but this one stands above all the rest because Jason Bourne and this rival assassin have a history. The hitman was sent at the start of the film to take Jason out, but accidentally killed his girlfriend instead. Thus the feud between them is extremely personal.

The inherent drama is further emphasized by the setup of the chase itself. Our assassin is in a powerful, dark Mercedes Benz G-Klasse, while Bourne is in a small Volga taxi. There are several police vehicles involved as well, slowly chipping away at Bourne’s vehicle until it looks like it’s about to drop its entire engine block. This gives the chase a strong sense of character.

And finally there is the vicious passion on display all throughout the scene. It’s honestly less of a car chase than a car fight, where Bourne and the assassin slam their vehicles into each other relentlessly. They enter a narrow tunnel where the other cars are shredded as collateral damage to their mortal duel. Finally Jason manages to get his car wedged underneath the other and rams it full speed into a barrier, bringing the conflict to a sudden halt.

Drama, character, and passion. With all three of these elements combined this isn’t just an action scene, it’s a scene of incredibly deep catharsis. The filmmakers aren’t just shattering rims and breaking off bumpers for the sake of looking cool, they are employing them as powerful symbols of hate and brutal intent.

Power Differences)

Another example of an action scene that is laced with plot and character is the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke is trying to save his friends from the clutches of the Empire but it is all a trap, one which leads him straight to an isolated room where Darth Vader awaits.

Without hesitation Luke walks up to his foe and activates his lightsaber. Darth Vader ignites his own in response. Luke makes the first swing and Darth Vader bats it away. Luke lunges again and Darth Vader pushes back with enough force that Luke falls to the ground. Rather than finish him, Darth Vader lets Luke return to his feet and try again. Luke begins the attack the third time.

The behavior of each fighter here is very intentional. The choreography in this moment was carefully chosen to say something. It perfectly communicates Luke’s overconfidence and headstrong nature. He dives into the fray time and again, even though he is clearly outmatched. Darth Vader is calculated and patient, allowing to let Luke trip over his own feet again and again. His intention is not to kill the boy, but to break him.

This becomes even more clear as things continue. Darth Vader slowly applies more and more pressure, dragging the fight out for a very over time, making sure that Luke feels the full weight of his own insignificance. Darth Vader exhausts Luke in battle, batters him with force-propelled debris, and even chops off his hand. The torture is as psychological as it is physical.

Then, last of all, Vader drops the most resounding blow of them all. He lets Luke know that the man who has been cutting him apart this whole while is his own father. And to that Luke cries in utter defeat.

It’s a very exciting battle just from the perspective of action and movement, but neither of those are the reason it has become such a timeless scene. It is timeless because all of that action is saying something, and it is saying it so very well.

Variety in Communication)

It’s often necessary to change one type of scene for another. This variety helps the audience to remain constantly engaged. But the conversation shouldn’t ever stop between these transitions, it should just start being spoken in a new language.

In the last section of The Favored Son I opened things with a conversation scene and then transitioned to an action scene. But the combat encounters in that action scene were not merely there to entertain the reader with their flashiness. They were meant to highlight the different characters’ relationships to each other. The combat is meant to make literal the psychological warfare the boys have been passively waging. Just as Reis is laying a trap for Tharol on the battlefield he has also been laying one in their little character drama.

This Thursday I will be continuing the action scene, and please pay attention to how I start communicating the underlying feelings of the other boys through the alliances they make and the battles they pick. I’ll see you there.

Why Do You Write That Way?

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It Once Was Much Worse)

At the end of my last story piece I mentioned that I had run into a little bit of trouble when transitioning from one scene to the next. It felt awkward even as I was writing it, and it sounded wrong when I reviewed it after the fact.

But let me be more precise about how it “felt awkward” as I wrote it. I think the best way to describe it would be that I felt detached from the experience. Where I usually feel like I am actively exploring the world with my characters, here I felt like I was simply typing out random words as a disinterested outsider.

And scenes that are written by a disinterested outsider are usually the least engaging ones to read as well. When an author is not connected to their own creation, then it is very hard for the audience to be.

I wanted to learn from this experience, so I decided to save the awkward segment for review. Here is how the scene originally played out.

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then he scrabbled about in the dirt, picking up each coin, then turning and running further down the alley and into a door at its end.

Tharol shook his head and started to make his way back how he had come. He only made it as far as the adjacent alley, though, when he found his way blocked by a bearded and cowled man, peering at Tharol curiously and stroking his chin thoughtfully. Tharol shoved the money bag back into his side pocket, afraid that he had just met a more capable thief!

"Well that was an interesting thing to do," the man said.

"What?"

"Giving that boy half your money after working him over like that."

Tharol shrugged. "I suppose he needs it more than I do."

"A strange sentiment to be sure. Most people feel they always need more of that stuff."

"Well I didn't need those coins," Tharol said darkly. "If you must know, they were a bribe, and I didn't want to be tainted by them."

There are still a few typos and awkward phrases that I decided to leave for to keep this snippet authentic. But for a moment set those aside, and consider only the cadence and structure of the piece. Doesn’t it just feel off?

Getting Specific)

But why does it feel off? It’s all well and fine to know that a scene is bothering us, but if we can’t verbalize why, then we can’t correct it in an intentional way. All we can do is rewrite the piece over and over, hoping by pure dumb luck to find a version that works, with no guarantee that we ever will.

So I took the time and asked myself “why is this wrong?” And I found myself immediately gravitating to the first paragraph of the above section. It is made of of a flurry of rapid and excited statements in quick succession. Scrabbling in dirt, picking up coins, turning and running. Then I noticed this same pattern continued as I transitioned into the next scene. Finding his way blocked, bearded and cowled, shoving the money bag out of view. This sort of quick, dramatic phrasing doesn’t signal that we’re about to have a conversation with this new stranger, it seems to suggest that another fight will break out!

Of course it’s no wonder why I was writing it this way, I had just come out of a fight scene, where this sort of rapid pace was exactly what I needed. But now I needed to transition into something more measured, and doing so required me to pause and intentionally reset my own, personal rhythms.

Once I had done that, I ended up with the following.

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes locked on Tharol in distrust. Then, all at once, he scrabbled about in the dirt, picked up each coin, and ran down the alley, disappearing into its murky shadows. 

Tharol watched the dark corner that the boy had disappeared into for a few moments more, shaking his head back and forth. Then he took a deep breath, turned, and started to make his way back to the market. He hadn't gone more than five steps, though, when he heard a voice tsk-tsking behind him.

Startled, he spun around and saw a tall, lanky man nestled into the corner where the two alleys ran together. There was no other entrance by which he could have entered without Tharol seeing, so...

"You've been there the whole time?" Tharol demanded incredulously. 

I still start off the same way, because I am still wrapping up a fast-paced scene, and I need to not shut it out too abruptly. So there remains the quick phrases about the boy locking eyes, scrabbling in the dirt, picking up coins, and running down an alley. But now I have a turning point with the final phrase of that sentence: “disappearing into its murky shadows.”

The transition here is subtle but important. This last detail is appended to a list of actions. But it is not an action itself, it is a description. Thus in the extent of a single sentence I am seamlessly shifting the reader from thinking about actions to thinking about the little details.

I complete the transition by then describing Tharol standing still, bringing a sense of closure to the previous scene, and a reset before beginning the next. Now when he encounters the thin stranger it was far more natural to write out their exchanges at a slower, more gradual cadence.

In Summary)

So there you go. What I wrote the first time wasn’t working for me, but there was a reason why I was writing it that way. Once I understood the reason, I was able to pause and shift my frame of mind. Then I could write the necessary transition more naturally.

The important lesson here is to be mindful and intentional while writing. It’s easy and fun to just enter a state of flow where the words run out of your fingers as quickly as you think them in your mind. But every now and again it’s important to pause, think, and write what you write intentionally. I’ll try to remember this approach as I continue with the next section of The Favored Son. Come back on Thursday and I’ll let you know how that approach went.

The Speed of Punch

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Too Fast For It’s Own Good)

I have a big pet peeve in action movies. It’s something that has been going on for a long while, still finds its way into top-tier blockbuster titles today, and every time it shows up makes the whole scene feel cheap and insincere.

So what is this cardinal sin? Ramping the playback speed up to 1.25x speed.

This is done to make it appear that the actors or vehicles are moving faster than they were when the scene was filmed. Rather than throwing their punches or swerving their cars in real-time, they spring about in a choppy, erratic manner that feels detached from reality.

As soon as an action scene starts to do this, it doesn’t matter what else happens, the moment has been ruined for me. Right then I feel just as disconnected from the action as if it had been animated.

So the only good use of playback is at 1x speed?

No, I wouldn’t say that. To an extent, some modifying of the playback speed is to be expected, but ideally (and usually) it is so subtle that it can’t be recognized. Also a sped up moment mixed with silly music can make for a great comedy bit, the irregular movement accentuating the humor. And of course slow-motion can be used to great effect as well, highlighting the importance and intricacy of a single moment.

But what is important is that the effect should lean into the fact that the playback speed is being changed. It should not make an obvious change and then ask the audience to pretend that what they are seeing is normal. A fast-paced comedy bit or a slow-paced dramatic bit are being honest about their change of speed and they are saying something to the audience through that.

The Opposite Problem)

Overly-fast action, however, is usually not the problem we face in written stories. More often the failure here is a scene of action that transpires too slowly. Again, there is a time and a place for slowed down moments of gravitas, but by and large a scene should be read in the same amount of time that it would take to play out in real life.

What makes this such a challenging feat is twofold. First is that one of the main appeals of a novel is how they allow us insight into the characters that isn’t otherwise possible. If all I do is tell you what people are doing in a sterile, play-by-play fashion, then my story will lose all of its flavor.

But when it comes to a scene of action, dwelling on the private thoughts and feelings of a character just makes the action slow to a slog. Action is not the time for making the audience feel introspective, it is for making them feel excited!

And so sacrifice narrative intimacy?

Not at all. One just has to learn how to write their action both succinctly and evocatively. Do not merely say that one man struck another, do it in a way that conveys mood and intent, but also do it quickly!

The other challenge to writing a scene of action is the matter of conveying a complex event in a clear manner. If you are already familiar with jiu jitsu I could just tell you:

James grabbed the free arm and pulled it into a tight kimura!

Now if you know what a “kimura” is then you’re right there with me. But if not, then you’re checked out.

What do I do, then? Try to describe all the technical details of the hold? Should I recite the angles of each limb involved so you can draw them out on graph paper? Obviously no.

Writing complicated details in succinct terms is one of the greatest tests of how well an author is able to leverage the imagination of the reader. You cannot write it in explicit detail, but you could write just enough that the audience can add the extra detail themselves. I might have instead written that sentence as something like:

James grabbed the free arm and gave it a sharp twist!

It is a more ambiguous bit of phrasing, and different readers might picture different postures from it, but all of them will have the general gist of what’s going on.

An Example)

Let’s bring this all together with an excellent example from Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town. It begins with one of those slowed down moments of gravitas I was talking about, pulling in close to examine a black walking stick that is going to be of utmost importance in the scuffle that is about to ensue.

It was thick and made of ebony, but heavy even for that wood, with a balanced weight that hinted at loaded ferrule and knob. Except for a space the breadth of a man’s hand in its middle, the stick was roughened, cut, and notched with the marks of hard use—marks that much careful polishing had failed to remove or conceal. The unscarred handsbreadth was of a softer black than the rest—as soft a black as the knob—as if it had known much contact with a human palm.

A moment later and the action is being described in terms that are as evocative as they are succinct, and the shining star of it all is that black walking stick with which we’ve been made so intimately acquainted. Here are three excerpts from the battle.

Steve rocked back against a building front from a blow on his head, arms were round him, the burning edge of a knife blade ran down his left arm. He chopped his black stick up into a body, freeing himself from encircling grip....

He put his left side against the wall, and the black stick became a whirling black arm of the night. The knob darted down at a man’s head. The man threw an arm to fend the blow. Spinning back on its axis, the stick reversed—the ferruled end darted up under warding arm, hit jawbone with a click...

Lower half of stick against forearm once again, Steve whirled in time to take the impact of a blackjack-swinging arm upon it. The stick spun sidewise with thud of knob on temple—spun back with loaded ferrule that missed opposite temple only because the first blow had brought its target down on knees.

Literally poetry in motion.

At the end of it all, I would say that my action in the last section of The Favored Son was somewhat lacking. Certainly it was nowhere near the snappy-yet-detailed prose of Hammett.

I’m probably still not ready to write at his level, but I would like to take another shot at it with my next section. Come back on Thursday where I will include another brief scene of action, honestly just so I can try out some of the techniques I learned in preparing this post!

Get to the Point

black and white dartboard
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A Reason For the Chaos)

One of my favorite films is Gravity, in which a cloud of debris is orbiting the earth, each piece of shrapnel racing through space faster than a bullet. This cloud of destruction happens across a low-orbiting space shuttle, where it kills every astronaut but one, who must now try to find a new vehicle back to earth.

The film is known for its intense moments of action, in which utter chaos explodes across the screen for extended periods of time. Each one of these sequences directly pushes the plot forward, as the aftermath defines what resources are still available for the character to use.

But then, between each moment of intense action, there are quieter moments where we get to know our leading lady a better. After the initial wave of destruction she slowly floats towards the International Space Station, while musing about a daughter that she lost and how this thrust her into a constant state of depression.

The second-third of the film culminates in another quiet moment, one where she finally comes to terms with that tragedy in her life. These moments of quiet introspection do not move forward the one of her getting back to earth, but they do provide us a reason to care that she does.

In a previous blog post I made a comment that the means and the ends of a story are often flipped between the audience and the character. Usually the character puts up with the moments of intense action so that they can get to the “good stuff,” the quiet reprieve that makes it all worth it. But often the audience puts up with the quiet reprieve so that they can get to their “good stuff,” the rousing action!

 

Interesting in Its Own Right)

Of course just because a scene is calmer does not have to mean that it is boring. Obviously the ideal is for the quiet, introspective moments to be just as fascinating in their own right. One film that I felt did an excellent job of this was First Man. This movie is peppered throughout with sudden scenes of tragic destruction, which certainly do their part to add a sense of grim despair to the film.

Yet as sudden and impactful as those moment were, I was more moved by the quiet scenes of Neil Armstrong silently grieving the loss of his young daughter. The simple scenes of a family under duress were not distractions from the greater plot, they were themselves the main event.

Nowhere is this more evident than in how the film draws itself to a close. After a prolonged space sequence, a breathtaking view of the moon, and a euphoric world reaction to the returning heroes…the camera then pulls close to Neil and his wife looking somberly at one another through a pane of glass while he remains in quarantine. Their eyes reflect a longing to be closer, but also a sadness at still not knowing how to talk to each other. So they just join fingertips and look.

Because of the excellent performances I found myself genuinely caring about their family drama, indeed even more than that of the trip to the moon. And I considered more how his space-ventures were hurting his family than how his family was hurting his space-ventures.

 

Pulling Double Duty)

But where Gravity and First Man clearly separate plot-pushing action from character-building reprieve, other stories try to accomplish both at the same time. In my opinion, being able to pull off such multitasking is impressive, but a story that doesn’t feature it is not therefore inherently inferior. In music some expressions are particularly delightful on the ear, yet not every composition needs to feature them.

An example of a story that expertly accomplishes two things at once, though, is Ad Astra. It opens with our main character expressing his total commitment to the mission aboard a space-scraping tower, not allowing anything to get in the way of his focus, including trivial things like family, connection, and self-care. Then an accident occurs, the tower explodes, and his character is sent spinning like a ragdoll through the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

It is an exciting sequence, and it certainly starts the story off with a bang! But it is doing more than just entertaining, it is also a subtle piece of character development. Ad Astra is a man who is falling apart from the inside. He thinks he has things totally in control, but in reality he is at great risk of self-imploding. Though he manages to survive the fall from the tower–barely–he may not survive the fall from himself.

Another example of the film pulling double duty occurs when our hero has a very unexpected battle with a brutal primate. The creature is defined by its great primal rage, something that Ad Astra has long tried to suppress in himself, but is starting to burst out of him everywhere.

The film continues the pattern of subtext and allegory. Each scene of action is also one of introspection, each scene of introspection is energized by inner turmoil.

 

On Thursday I posted the first piece of a story that featured slow scenes that lazily indulge heavily in character and environment. First we met our main character, Howie Stuggs, in a diner, having an inconsequential conversation with his waitress about apple pie. Then we learned about his general opinions of big city folk versus small town folk. Only after that did I start to move the plot forward as Howie began to scope out the location for his next job. But even this moved forward at a very slow and deliberate pace, and was peppered throughout with character quirks that mean nothing to the plot that will follow.

The purpose of these details was not to push the plot forward, though, it was to provide insight to the man Howie Stuggs. Why did I feel that this was a valid use of time for this story? Because at the end of the day, this story really isn’t about the events that transpire, it is about the person that does them. If it was about the events, then I should “trim the fat” and be succinct. But since this is a character piece, I do not consider any of these moments to be a waste.

With my next post I will continue Howie’s little story, and in it the plot will continue to move forward at a snail’s pace. The man behind the tale, however, will be brought into even deeper relief, and hopefully just getting to know him will be a satisfying reward for the reader’s time. There are still a few more character wrinkles yet to show, and then finally the purpose of them will come out in the third and final section.

Shade: Part One

close up photo of black rock formation with litter amount of river in the middle of valley
Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

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

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

“It’s a trap!” Dask spoke up.

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

“How would they know that?” Darret asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t save everyone, Gallan.”

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

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

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

He looked around the room and everyone was nodding.

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

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

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

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

How he hoped that he was.

*

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

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

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

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

Husk nodded.

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

The armored warriors nodded.

“Alright…alright…let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was here.

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

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

Part Two
Part Three

***

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

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

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

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

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

Once Among the Clouds: Part One

clouds

High above the trees, but low within the atmosphere, a trio of small clouds stood as sentinels. They were the front watch, investigating the perimeter around a communal mass of clouds about three furlongs away.

The first two, Strat and Cirri, did not seem to take their duties very seriously. They lazily swayed about in the breeze, then with each gust weaved tumbling dances through the air. The third, Nimbo, tried to maintain his station, fighting against the wind to stay in place.

Of course fighting the wind only resulted in getting strained out, and before long Nimbo’s thin form had been caught up by three separate thermals and he was split into Sub-Nimbos 1, 2, and 3. They groaned in frustration, but then decided to let the wind whisk each of them away in various directions as that would improve his overall reconnaissance of the surrounding area.

Strat and Cirri didn’t seem to miss the dispersal of their companion in the least. Instead they played games, shifting through various forms and laughing at one another’s ingenuity. They would billow together as one, then split apart in a sweethearts’ dance.

Then, all at once, they stopped. Even in their childish playing they couldn’t miss that sudden change in the air.

“What is it?” Cirri wondered aloud, peering closely at the small golden flakes they had wandered into.

“I don’t know,” Strat said, dangling his hand into its midst. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Oh, look at that!” He held out his billowing arm which was starting to expand at a tremendous rate.

“Oh!” Cirri put her own hands into the golden stream and experienced the same effect. “Why I know what it is! It’s a cloud of dust particles!”

And so it was. Unbeknownst to them, all these bits had been kicked up into the air the day prior by a strong updraft blowing over the dry soil below. And this condensation nuclei was a treasure trove for growing new clouds. In fact, as the two of them looked across its expanse they saw infantile cloud formations already starting to coalesce.

“We’d better find Nimbo,” Strat crowed, turning to catch the nearest breeze. “He’ll be so jealous that we found this while he was busy being all serious.”

Cirri’s hand caught his, stopping him. He gave a small jolt as he sensed her mind.

“Not tell him?” he asked.

“Why should this go to the community?” she asked. “We found it. You and I.”

“But…if we took it for ourselves the community would know we had changed. We’d be so much bigger”

“Who needs the community? Don’t you see? We have our own right here. The community of Strat and Cirri.”

Strat’s eyes moistened with understanding. Then he squinted suspiciously at the still-forming cloudlings.

“Just us,” he said. “A community of two giants. Those others can’t be allowed to grow.”

Cirri nodded. “I’ll terminate them. You go intercept Nimbo.”

“Alright…. I’ll handle him just fine.” He unclasped from with Cirri and went on his way.

Strat caught the nearest stream leading back to the place where Nimbo had left them. He began floating around in circles, calling out Nimbo’s name. When that didn’t work he tried splitting himself into different Sub-parts and explored multiple reaches of the atmosphere at once, then he would coalesce back to question his separate parts if they had found any of Nimbo yet.

“Nimbo, where are you?” he shouted in frustration.

“What are you making such a ruckus for?” a thin voice responded from directly ahead. Nimbo’s face was materializing, invisible strands merging together to slowly rebuild his form.

“Oh Nimbo, there you are. Cirri and I needed to talk to you.”

“Well talk then.” Nimbo’s face was nearly complete, but that was about all.

“Well, I think I’d better wait until you’re all here. Wouldn’t want to leave the later parts of you confused.”

“I’ll handle my other parts. Go ahead.”

“Oh, okay…well…” Strat knew he had to pause for time. “We found a dust cloud, Nimbo!”

“You did?” Nimbo’s form began coming in more rapidly. “Where? I can’t believe I would have missed that.”

“I suppose none of your parts headed that particular way.”

“Well that’s obvious. But where is it?’

“Not far, sort-of-East from here a little ways.”

“Oh,” Nimbo said disapprovingly. “Well that explains it then…the exact opposite direction of where we were supposed to be scouting.”

“Yes, well you can be all condescending if you want, or you can share in the glory back at the community when we bring them word of it,” Strat snapped.

“I’m not here for the glory, Strat. But I will, of course, serve the community. Now where exactly is the dust?”

“It’ll be here soon.”

“What?”

Nimbo was almost entirely formed, just a few stray threads dangling from his structure. Strat lunged forward and wrapped his arms through Nimbo, attempting to assimilate his body before he had a chance to respond.

Nimbo proved far too adept for that, though. He hardly showed his surprise, instead giving an instinctive roar and pressing back. He pushed hard to reverse the direction of assimilation, and for a moment the two were caught at an impasse. A very dangerous place to be in. If each was equal in will, they might just blend into a new entity altogether and there was no telling what that new individual might do.

Strat changed tactics and fanned himself out to catch the breeze. He rushed back, trying to disengage from the fight. Nimbo anticipated the maneuver, and immediately dispersed parts of himself into ultra-thin tendrils. They were so slight that they rushed out quickly, passing clear through Strat’s body, and then began solidifying on the other side into thick cords. Strat densed himself up and slammed against the cords, eliciting a cry form Nimbo as they burst into pieces.

“Go on then,” Nimbo snarled. “Run and hide. The community will find you and then they’ll stretch you both into vapor for your greed!” He turned to flee…and found himself standing before the giant face of Cirri. She was more than fifty feet tall.

“Oh no,” he muttered, then she opened her mouth and swallowed him whole.

“You you were going to handle him just fine, were you?” Cirri raised an eyebrow.

“I had it under control,” Strat folded his arms in a surly way.

“Not from what I–watch out!” she shrieked suddenly, her eyes riveted onto something behind Strat’s back.

Strat spun around and saw the tendrils from Nimbo that he had burst apart. They were spread thin and were dissipating in the wind. He lunged for them but he was too late.

“There can’t have been too much of him still in there,” Strat said, but his voice was panicky.

Cirri wasn’t convinced. “Obviously enough to know that he should run! And they were making for the community.”

“Well so what? Look at you, you’re practically as large as the whole community already. We’ll go and hit them before they can rally.”

“Yes, we’ll have to. Otherwise they might find the dust.”

“You didn’t take it all?!”

“There wasn’t time. You and I will go attack, and I’ll send a small part of me to start siphoning up more in the meanwhile.”

“Wait! First a pact.” Strat extended an arm out.

“…Don’t you trust me Strat?”

“Of course I do. Don’t you trust me?”

Cirri hesitated. “Of course,” she put her arm out and enveloped Strat’s with it. The two of them closed their eyes and stood as if in a trance. Their consciousness flowed between and Strat was enveloped within Cirri. They were now one entity: Stratocirrus.

Stratocirrus paused and divided itself into two Sub-parts.

“We’ll still hit them from both sides.” Sub-Stratocirrus 1 said.

Sub-Stratocirrus 2 nodded and the two turned towards the distant cloud community, spreading themselves thin to catch the nearest breeze in that direction. They found one and raced off, descending quickly on its massive form. When they passed near to the dust cloud Sub-Stratocirrus 2 dispersed a part of itself to go and stand guard. Then the two Subs took opposite thermals and moved like a pincer to hit the community from either side.

The community was already aware of their coming. The thinner wisps of Nimbo had reached the enclave much more quickly, and already the army stood ready on the perimeter.

Sub-Stratocirrus 1 charged headlong towards them, solidifying its arms for crushing blows. Sub-Stratocirrus 2 imitated the same behavior, but suddenly strained to a halt as it felt a strange tickle at its chest.

“It’s a trap!” Sub-Stratocirrus 2 bellowed, thrusting itself backwards and swinging wildly at the empty air in front. Or rather the almost empty air. It had been laced with hidden wisps from the community army, wisps that were now solidifying into the first line of defense. Cloud warriors came into full relief, clutching after Sub-Stratocirrus with long, extended arms.

Sub-Stratocirrus 1 had not noticed the liers-in-wait in time, and they had come into form both in front and behind it, several even embedded in its midst. Each of those soldiers seized a different clump of Sub-Stratocirrus 1’s mass, pulling it free, and purging the consciousness from it. The discarded heaps fell to the side, lifeless puffs of cloud.

Sub-Stratocirrus 1 roared in pain, swinging its arms wildly, enveloping what soldiers it could. They were well-trained, though, and though several were lost in its rage, still others dodged the arms and then systematically dismantled them. It had to grow new ones, and as it did so it diminished in overall size.

The leader of those soldiers charged forward and thrust himself straight at Sub-Stratocirrus 1’s head. His hands pierced through its temples and the two of them roared as they struggled to overpower the other’s consciousness.

“No!” Sub-Stratocirrus 2 shouted. “He’ll find where it is!”

“There’s too many!” Sub-Stratocirrus 1 wailed. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Something quivered in both Subs at the same time, and each looked appalled.

“NO!” they called in unison, and clapped their hands to their cores, but something inside seemed to be struggling, to be overpowering them both.

“You traitor!” Sub-Stratocirrus 1 said, and its voice sounded a little more Cirri’s.

“It’s the only way,” Sub-Stratocirrus 2 said, and its voice sounded a little more like Strat’s.

Sub-Stratocirrus 1 struggled a moment longer, looked briefly at the community army still hacking away at it, and then tried to lunge across the sky at Sub-Stratocirrus 2. It was entirely futile, though, it did not even stretch halfway before it ceased all movement. The strained out pieces of its corpse were Cirri.

Back at the other side, Sub-Stratocirrus 2 was restored back to the identity of Strat. A pact could be undone, but only by one of the former identities assuming full ownership. All other entities would necessarily die.

“One of us had to,” Strat shrugged, then dealt another crushing blow to the soldiers that still beset him.

Having evaded their trap he was now at a great advantage. He alternated between forms rapidly, not giving his opponents a chance to assemble any sustained strategy. First he stood as a a solid giant, cleaving through their ranks and bursting them into wisps. Then he funneled half his essence into a single arm high over their heads and split it off to form two Subs, each attacking the soldiers from opposite sides. Then both Subs dispersed into a near-vapor and pierced clear through the soldiers chests, slowly weakening them from within. Then he transitioned back to his single gigantic shape to pound them once more.

All the while he kept expecting the rest of the soldiers to come join the fight, the ones that had defeated Sub-Stratocirrus 1. But they didn’t. They had congregated together, still on the opposite side of the community, and he kept wondering what they were planning.

He did not have long to wait. Finally all the soldiers began to congeal and rise in a single entity. In desperation they had given up their individual will to fuse into a giant soldier. And as the face of the being came into form Strat could recognize the traces of Nimbo firmly etched into it.

“What have you done Strat?” Nimbo boomed. “You killed Cirri! You tried to kill me! And you would come murder the entire flock as well?!”

For a moment Strat felt a pang of guilt, almost a wish to undo what could not be undone. But there was no time for regrets now, his path was chosen. And so he stiffened himself further, turning dark and gray, a stray thundercap booming from his depths.

“You’re still barely half my size, Nimbo. Will you take in all the community just to defeat me.”

“No. This will be enough.”

The community parted down the middle, leaving a path for Nimbo to glide over to his quarry. Once he had cleared the community, it quickly dispersed out into the wind, fleeing from that place.

“How noble of you,” Strat scoffed, “sacrifice yourself to save them? It won’t matter, you know.” Then he lunged at Nimbo.

Strategies were much more complex where giants were involved. One had so many different forms to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Nimbo caught Strat’s arms in his own, then exploded his chest out in a hundred Sub-Nimbos. They rushed directly into Strat’s core and cleaved clear through to his other side. Strat winced, but rather than resist the dividing he quickly turned each half into a Sub-Strat. Before he could do anything more Nimbo’s sub-parts assembled back into a collective body behind Strat. That body densed itself, growing tighter and tighter, darker and darker.

Strat’s sub-parts remerged and he turned to grab his foe, but suddenly Nimbo’s body gave out a savage bolt of electricity! It tore through the air, extending out until it struck Strat squarely in the chest. For a moment each of the giants were dazed. They saw one another as if through a haze, and struggled to control their charges.

Strat blinked furiously, slowly feeling his control regaining. He swung out at Nimbo again, but just before collision Nimbo sent out another bolt of lightning.

“Aagggghhh!” Strat slurred stupidly. He tried to look at Nimbo but couldn’t focus. Nimbo himself was reeling senselessly, in an even greater stupor than Strat. Nimbo wrestled for control of his senses, but where his charge was already so volatile the extra strain proved his undoing.

Another lightning bolt lurched out, this one unintended and undirected. It pounded down to the earth, and left Strat unscathed. Nimbo’s body went limp and spread out. Slowly it began to fall as rain. He tried to move, but he was too weak. Perhaps he could recover in time, but it would be far too late. Strat’s head already loomed in front of his glazed eyes, shaking in disapproval.

“I wonder Nimbo, had Cirri and I tried to include you in our plan…would you have joined us?”

“I don’t care for power without principle.”

“But power without purpose?” Strat plunged his hands down and started overwhelming Nimbo’s frail consciousness, taking the body into himself. “You do realize that once I unlock your mind I’ll know exactly where the others went? I will destroy them, and all because you couldn’t hold onto their secrets for longer.”

“I wonder what you might find in my secrets,” Nimbo smiled.

It unnerved Strat, but he didn’t ask for explanation. He would have understanding soon enough. Already Nimbo’s thoughts and memories were starting to flood into his own mind.

The memories came in backwards. First there was Nimbo’s struggle to maintain control of himself, the fight with Strat, the taunting of one another after giant-Nimbo had first coalesced. Then the memories started to split, separating into the multiple consciousnesses of the soldiers that had combined into Nimbo. Strat flitted through each of them hurriedly, looking for anything significant.

He froze in horror as he came to the memories of the leader that had attempted to absorb Sub-Stratocirrus 1’s mind when Strat had betrayed it. He saw played back the way its face had changed into Cirri, etched with fear and betrayal. The shock momentarily subsided as her brow steeled with hateful intent.

“Kill him,” she had whispered to the leader. “I’ll tell you where the cloud of dust is. Go get it for yourselves and kill him.”

And then she had told them, just before lunging out at Strat. That was where the community had gone off to while Nimbo fought with Strat. They hadn’t been fleeing, they had been preparing for his destruction.

Part Two

*

Well, that’s the first half of Once Among the Clouds. A pretty different sort of premise, wouldn’t you say? I am personally not aware of any other dramatic epics that star clouds as their main characters. I find myself liking this world quite a good deal, though, which is not always the case with an experiment so far out in left field.

We have not yet seen the consuming monstrosity I promised on Monday, but we have the seeds that will eventually bring it about. Before that, though, I’d like to pause and look in greater detail at the many different sources of inspiration possible, and where the idea for this particular short story came from. On Monday I’ll share that, and then next Thursday we’ll see the end of Once Among the Clouds. Until then have a wonderful weekend!

A Proper Motivation

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Our Driving Force)

Motivation is the parent of action. All that we do in life we do because of our desire. Even the most basic of things, such as movement, would never occur unless we first hoped to obtain something by it.

Stories are much the same. Unless the characters want something, they never will do anything. If ever you’ve hit a lull in the action of your story, it’s probably because none of the characters have anything that they want at that particular moment. Often this is because they just achieved some milestone, and so for a brief moment they are content right where they are. It sounds like a nice place for them, but it is terrible for you as the author.

Unless, of course, you are at the natural termination of desire that signals the end of a story. “And they lived happily ever after” essentially means “and they have everything that they want, so they just kind of stay this way forever after and don’t do anything else of interest, so we’ll just stop talking about them now.”

This “storybook-ending” is one area where stories diverge from real life. In real life there usually isn’t such a total complacency where we forever cease to want any more. No matter how accomplished we have become, no matter how grateful we are for what we have obtained, there yet remains the compulsion to go further. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, as it is this endless chase that drives us to ever improve and grow nearer to our most ideal self.

The reason why the storybook has an ending, then, is because the character has actually obtained that “most ideal self” which eludes us in the real world. Now that they are the full measure of the person they are supposed to be, there is no more need for motivation.

 

Ends Justified by the Means)

This would seem to suggest that it isn’t always so important what the exact motivation is, just that there is a motivation, and that it drives the character towards their ideal form. The only prerequisite, of course, is that the motivation is something that is “good,” something that is based on truthful precepts. Assuming that, the actual details of the motivation are superfluous.

Is the hero trying to bring peace to the land? Restore the balance of justice? Champion the cause of freedom? Then that’s all we really need to know. And so Piglet seeks to find a birthday present for his friend Eeyore, Prince Charming quests to rescue Sleeping Beauty, Shane resolves to stop the cruel cattle baron, and Thanos endeavors to bring balance to the universe.

Well, wait…hang on now. We seem to have stumbled upon a villain with that last one, haven’t we? Here we have a character whose motivation seems worthy enough, and that same motivation is indeed driving him to action, but it’s just that those actions happen to involve things like mass genocide. This is an example of a story in which the villain actually means to accomplish something moral, but to do so is willing to use methods that are immoral.

This represents one of the two main archetypes of villains in stories. The other, of course, is when the villain is just the embodiment of pure evil. Those villains do evil simply for the sake of being bad, whereas this one does evil with good intentions. Each of these two archetypes have their own place, each better suited to certain types of stories, but for the sake of this blog post let’s focus on the one whose evil actions bely their good intentions.

The imbalance inherent in these characters is by no means a work of fiction. Indeed they represent a moral dilemma that lies at the very root of our modern philosophies, namely the question of whether the ends can always justify the means. Consider the argument made by Socrates, as reported in Book V of Plato’s Republic. This discourse has long been a contentious topic for how it promotes an “ideal state,” one that is established only by first trampling down the most basic of human freedoms. It claims that the slaughter of infants, the dictating of when and with whom procreation can occur, and the separation of children from their parents could all be used to erect a more perfect world.

The natural response to such claims is repulsion. And it is important to note that it is natural to respond that way. It means that it goes against our very intuition to excuse any evil, even in the name of the greater good. Our inner nature recognizes that there is a paradox in this, much akin to trying to reach higher numbers by subtraction, or in traveling to a destination by ever moving away from it. At our cores we seem to understand that evil consequences will undermine all good intentions.

But while I say that all these principles are basic and intuitive, yet there are examples throughout all history of those that still thought they could achieve a better state of man through actions of mass evil. Names that come readily to mind: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao,  characters that chill us as some of the most destructive individuals the world has ever known. Is it any wonder, then, that this fear bleeds through to our creative works of fiction, and the villains we put into them?

 

Destructive and Constructive Cycles)

So what then is the difference between the hero and the villain? It is simply this: the hero is motivated by good, that motivation leads to good actions, and the consequences of those actions are in harmony with the initial motivations. The consequences bolster the original intent, and the whole course is one of mutual assurance and progression. Consider the tortoise who is determined to stay the course, no matter how far behind his competitor he appears to be. His resolve informs his actions, his actions ensure his success, and his success confirms the validity of his resolve.

The villain, meanwhile, can also be motivated by good desires, but then selects actions that are evil, the consequences of which will actively undermine the initial motivations. They are set up for failure, even before the hero shows up on the scene. It is their own hand that stands strongest against them. Consider the Foolish Emperor who wishes to be loved and revered by his people, but whose pursuit of that ideal results in him parading naked through the streets. Even before the young boy calls out the truth of the matter, by his own hand he has already been disrobed before all of his subjects.

Personally I think that many stories have been written without the author consciously intending to make philosophical statements on human nature. And yet so many of them do, and have done so over the millennia, and are so consistent in their implied moral.

When the same conclusions so consistently arise in the subconscious, it is only natural to assume that these stories are indicative of a truth that resides in us all. We find in stories the answers to many of the most basic questions of mankind. In this particular instance we see that they answer the query “how should I live my life?”

As an answer stories acknowledge that a man must have desires, ones that necessarily lead to action. But then stories caution that man must realize that his actions have consequences, either for good or evil, and it is therefore wise for a man to deliberately choose the actions whose consequences are in harmony with the initial desires. Then a man does not undo his own self, he discovers his own self. That is how a man should live.

 

On Thursday I shared a story where two characters were driven against one another by strong motivation. We did not know where their motivations originated from, but we could tell that they were powerful and very destructive. By that alone we could tell that they were villainous, and subject to eternal frustration.

In my next story I’d like to look at motivation again, this time coupled with its consequences. In it we will meet a character that is deeply motivated, but one that is driven by that motivation to actions that are brash, and probably not the most self-improving. By the end of the story, though, we’ll see how he is able to shift his desires and results into greater harmony with one another. Come back on Thursday to see the first portion of that tale.

Network Down: Part One

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Kevyn strode down the sidewalk bearing that satisfied contentment that always came during his midday ritual. Each day around noon he made sure to get away from the office for a bagel and some fresh air. His carefree reverie was interrupted by the triple-honk of a nearing taxi, the cabby calling out to see if he wanted a ride.

“Dani, I don’t want any transportation,” he sighed.

Confirmed. The digital assistant sounded in his ear as she updated his public profile. Now all of the HUDs on the passing taxis would see a red X over his head.

“I thought I set a reminder for that, Dani,” he stressed. “Whenever I leave for lunch I want to just walk.”

Whenever you leave your workplace between the hours of 11 am and 1 pm?

“Figure it out,” he said. It was a phrase that Dani would understand to mean she should use her own algorithms to assume his intent.

Confirmed.

Kevyn reached the alley that led down to his favorite bakery. It had been intentionally positioned apart from the main thoroughfare as the owner valued a personal relationship with all his clientele. No one came here unless they meant to, and everyone who did soon became a regular. It wasn’t business so much as family.

Twenty minutes later Kevyn emerged having enjoyed the combination of good food with even better conversation. He felt invigorated to tackle all of the afternoon’s reports, and maybe even still have time to–

ALERT! ALERT!” A loud voice suddenly cut through the air, simultaneously emanating from every ad-board in the entire city. Everywhere Kevyn looked he was met with the same warning bulletin.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just been compromised by a network attack. This attack has crippled all communication with automated units. Regular police forces remain in active duty, but citizens are strongly urged to vacate the streets and lock down their premises. Keep watching for confirmation of system restoration.”

An artificial voice began reading the message out loud but Kevyn didn’t need any further warning. He instinctively spun around to seek shelter in the bakery he had just left, but the metal shutters were already clanging shut. No doubt they were automated to do so in such events, and could not open back again, no matter how he begged for admittance. There was nothing for it but to run and grab any taxi that still dared to be on the streets.

As Kevyn sprinted down the alley he watched the small slice of the street he could see ahead. Though the window was small it still communicated the immediate panic that was sweeping all across it. Cars whizzed by at dangerous speeds, horns honking, tires squealing, bodies crunching against one another. Those on foot dashed down the sidewalk, taking wide swaths to avoid passing too near to any of their fellow pedestrians. They stared into one another’s eyes as they passed, trying to tell if this other might be a closet homicidal maniac about to spring loose.

That was the true horror of these episodes. The Police Department’s monitoring and enforcement network was state-of-the-art, and the dismantling of it had only ever been accomplished whenever a very powerful entity had wanted to enact a very dire evil, such as with the terrorist bombing of ’31. But beyond the grand act of terror there was the more common criminality as well. The human officers were simply too limited to hold back the tide of depravity that burst free whenever the dam came down.

There had been years of pent up felonies waiting to be committed. People had been silently seething: hating their bosses, jealous of ex-lovers, feeling a need to silence certain public voices… They had been burning with want, but been too afraid of the guaranteed repercussions that came in a world of constant monitoring and enforcement to do anything about it. Well, now in this brief window of opportunity every degenerate had just been given free license to do as they saw fit, and they were going to take it.

“Dani, flag down a taxi for me,” Kevyn shouted as he neared the end of the alley. “And alert me to any individuals approaching within a hundred yards of me.”

Confirmed. Removing transportation filter from your status.

Even before Kevyn reached the sidewalk he could tell he was in trouble, and as he came to the road, clutching a stitch in his side, his worst fears were confirmed. This was usually one of the busiest, most packed thoroughfares in all the city, and now it was entirely deserted. A few retreating taillights shone eight blocks down, a few doors were still slamming in the nearby apartment buildings, but there was no one near enough to offer him shelter from the storm.

Still, at least deserted was better than being approached by thugs.

“Dani, I…” Kevyn paused as his eyes lit on a wreck. Three cars had plowed into one another during the mad scramble and now all of them were deserted, their drivers having evidently continued their exodus on foot.

“Dani, see if we can buy any of these cars,” he ordered, sprinting over to them and trying to assess if they could still function. The Lexus that had been T-Boned looked pretty bent out of shape, and the Goat was so boxed in he wouldn’t be able to get it out. But maybe the Buick in the back?

The owner of the Lexus is willing to entertain an offer, Dani replied after completing her queries.

“What? No. What about–” Kevyn started at the sound of a loud bang just a few alleys away. “How much are they asking?”

91,670, standard price for a new Lexus Aria.

Kevyn cursed, but made his way around to the driver’s door. “Buy it!” he hissed, tugging at the door’s handle repeatedly.

A pause. And then Purchase completed.

The handle now opened for him and Kevyn dove into the car’s interior. Just as he pulled the door shut another bang sounded behind him and he spun around in the seat just in time to see a band of looters spill out of that nearby alley onto the street. One of them was behind the wheel of massive, black truck which pulled to the side of the road as the rest hopped out from the back and began moving down the street. They all held 3D-printed firearms and blasted away at any lockbox in sight, pillaging the contents inside.

Kevyn swore again and slammed the seat into its most reclined position, laying flat and hoping they hadn’t seen him. They would see the wreck and assume the owners had left it, wouldn’t they?

Sir, I am notifying you that individuals have entered the 100 yard radius you specified, and they are moving in your direction.

“I know,” Kevyn whispered. “Just keep me updated on their distance.”

Of course… 80 yards… 60 yards… 40…

Suddenly Kevyn had a horrifying epiphany. They wouldn’t leave the cars, they would loot them. How had he been so stupid? Panicky he flung the seat back to its upright position and punched the button for the ignition.

The car roared to life, mingled with shouts of surprise from the looters. Kevyn slammed the pedal to the floor and felt a rush of relief as the car lurched away from the rest of the twisted metal it had been enmeshed with. He was curving sharply to the right, though, and as he spun the wheel to correct it he found that the steering didn’t respond. The passenger side was too dented in for the vehicle to drive straight.

A building loomed up ahead and Kevyn was too slow reaching for the brakes. His vision turned white as the body-cushion sprung up around his form, suspending him in space and giving the accident that followed a strangely muffled crunching sound.

“Get off! Get off!” Kevyn shouted, punching the deflating cushion away as he scrambled for the car door. A thought occurred to him and he pulled open the glove box before exiting the car. A gun! A beautiful, glossy black handgun. He grabbed it and leapt out of the seat, pressing his back against the side of the car. The vehicle was a barrier between him and the looters, something he was grateful for as there came the sharp pinging of bullets hitting the car’s other side.

“Stay back!” he roared, shaking the gun where they could clearly see. He squeezed the trigger to fire back a warning shot but nothing happened.

Sir, you do not own this firearm…

“Buy it!”

And even if you did, you would require a weapon permit before its use would be authorized. All permits have been suspended while the Police Department’s security network is down.

Kevyn’s bluff didn’t seem to have impressed the looters very much either, and they were piling into the back of their truck as it rolled down the street, making its way towards him.

Kevyn ducked low and scrambled away towards the nearest alley, his heart thumping painfully in his chest. He reached the gap and gave a silent thanks that it was too narrow for their truck to follow him. It was just a slight gap between two apartment buildings on either side, a place filled mostly with refuse and broken appliances.

“Dani, are any of these apartments vacant?” he asked as he sprinted down the length of the alley towards the adjacent street.

There are numerous apartments available in each of these buildings, ranging in price from…

“Never mind.” He realized that these buildings would also be locked down with metal shutters, and he wouldn’t be able to enter them even if he was a patron.

A loud clap rang out as the stucco wall next to him burst from the impact of a bullet. Kevyn wheezed in shock and flung himself away towards the other side of the alley. The fact that the shot had been so close to his head was evidence of how terrible the looters’ aim was. They needed him alive, after all, if they wanted him to transfer his money into their accounts.

And there would be no negotiating with them if they did manage to catch up with him. In a world where every transfer was registered in a digital ledger it was also possible for each transaction to be reverted. The only guarantee a robber had that you wouldn’t later retrieve the money you gave them was if they left you dead. Their promise was always that the death would be much worse if you refused to transfer the money.

Kevyn continued his run, now bobbing and weaving as much as he could in the narrow alley, trying to throw off the looters’ aim.  The occasional shot clattered around his legs and feet, but thankfully none of them had found purchase yet. He was nearly to the adjacent street now, but no closer to safety.

“Where are we Dani?”

The corner of 13th Street and Mull.

“Where’s the nearest police precinct?”

1.1 miles.

1.1 miles. Normally that wouldn’t sound very far. Now it might as well be in another galaxy.

Kevyn’s eyes flashed as he spotted a mobile trash container at the end of his alley. It was the large, industrial kind, about chest height and wider than the entire alley. It was designed for mobility, with automated wheels on its bottom, so that it could be dropped off to private events and retrieved afterwards if needed.

“Dani, rent that trash box, then tell it to rotate around!”

The cost for immediate use comes with a significant fee…

“Buy it!”

There was a moment’s delay and then the container began to spin, forming a wall between the two apartment buildings just as Kevyn dove through the shrinking gap. There came a grinding sound as the edge of the container scraped along the building walls. It was too large to rotate fully, so instead it just wedged itself in as tightly as it would go.

Kevyn spun around and looked over the top of the trash container at his pursuants. They were still sprinting towards him, streaking to the barrier he had made, crouching low, and then leaping to clear it.

“Dani, open the trash’s lid,” he ordered coolly. The top sprang suddenly upwards and backwards, blocking his vision of the alley just as the looter’s eyes widened in surprise. Kevyn allowed himself a smile at the sound of the bodies slamming into the raised lid, followed by the cacophony of them tumbling back down into the container’s interior.

“Close the lid.” It slammed shut and he heard the muffled shouts of the angry looter’s banging their fists against their metal prison. “You can transfer control of the box back now. At whatever loss is fine. And tell the new owners they ought to–”

Before Kevyn could finish his snarky one-liner he jumped at a sudden squealing noise. Three blocks south of him the looter’s large truck spun around an empty intersection, then turned, and came barrelling towards him once more.

Kevyn grimaced and then began sprinting the opposite direction as quickly as he could. He wasn’t in the clear yet.

Part Two

***

I mentioned on Monday how I wanted to write a story that would feature a small novelty, and then explore all of the implications that would branch out from that seed. When I started working on this story all I knew was that I wanted a world where currency had become entirely digital. I wanted to explore how ownership might be a more fluid notion when the changing of hands could be done without any hands at all, handled instead by the interfacing of different AIs.

The first implication of this was that obviously this story would need to be set in the future. A world like our world, but later. And with that came the setting, the style, and genre of the piece.

Next I drilled deeper into this idea of transactions being conducted entirely remotely. We already see the beginning of this through online shopping, but I wanted to take it a step further. What if every item was tagged with its owner, who could be remotely queried for a purchase? Every item could be tentatively for sale, so long as your offer was compelling enough.

With that in mind I wanted the story to have a reason for someone to be buying a great number of things, one right after the other. That brought up the image of someone running, trying to escape, and purchasing tools to aid him in that flight. Obviously that would mean our main character was in trouble, being pursued by some ne’er-do-wells.

And now that I was thinking about robbers, I started to wonder how that would even work in a future where every transaction could be tracked and reversed. The chillingly fatal implication of how this crime could still be effective presented itself, and I began piecing together the last parts the story.

Of course there is a little bit left to tell of it, and in the second half we are going to learn even more about the digital currency in this strange world. Before getting there, though, I want to examine a theme that has been present in all of my stories for this current series, one that has given each of them a particularly somber tone. Loss. It’s a weighty topic, and yet one that we each need to process in one way or another. I’d like to make the case that stories are a uniquely fitting way to do just that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain why. Until then have a wonderful weekend!

Glimmer: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Reylim didn’t need telling twice. She put her dagger back in its sheath, turned on the spot, and sprinted back towards the mountain. She was already panting, though not so much from exertion as from the tension of the moment. She knew she rushing into the moment of decision, and she was trying to push down the fresh waves of doubt and fear that were trying to break across her.

Instead she focused on the path ahead, watching as Glimmer’s light revealed the ever-increasing incline of the mountain. The grade was getting steep enough that she had to rein in her pace and lean further forwards. Then, suddenly, there came into relief a massive cliff face only a hundred paces ahead of her. She squinted through the darkness and saw that this mountain was truly nothing like what she had seen on her homeworld. It seemed to be comprised of a series of sheer walls, each stacked on top of the other with narrow ledges to mark where one ended and the next began. The whole thing ascended at an incredible rate, piercing high into the sky.

“I don’t know that I can scale this, Glimmer,” Reylim said, a slight panic to her voice.

And yet you must.

She glanced behind her and saw that Bolil and his band were already gaining on her. She may have had a headstart on them, but they were bounding forward with superhuman speed and would surely catch her before long. She steeled her brow and looked back to the cliff face, scanning its surface for every crevice and hold. She plotted out an approach in her mind, then turned up her pace, building up momentum as the dark stone expanded to fill her vision.

Reylim exhaled sharply and then leapt up towards the first ledge. She sailed higher than anticipated, catching the rock lip on her stomach. She was winded, but didn’t dare to pause, instead rolling all the rest of the way onto its surface. After that she scrambled up a particularly pockmarked portion of the next rock face, hand- and footholds coming easily so that she reached the next ledge and mounted it in a flash. She bounded to the back of this ledge and ducked inside a wide fissure in the rock face that stood there. She placed her hands and feet on each side of the fissure, then began scaling up it like a spider.

This crevice ran upwards nearly the full length of its rock face, which then capped off and sloped inwards to form the next ledge. As she climbed, Reylim glanced downwards and watched as Bolil and the other void-possessed shadows spilled onto the ledge directly beneath her. Bolil continued to lead them as they streamed into the fissure and followed her up its shaft.

Reylim glanced upwards. She was nearing the point where the fissure tapered down into a crack, one that was much too narrow to admit her. She would have to get out onto the face of the rock, which was sure to be a difficult maneuver. Looking downwards she saw Bolil hurtling upwards, pummeling his hands and feet at the rock and propelling himself upwards in a series of bursts. He would be crashing into her in mere moments.

“Um…” Reylim said anxiously, but suddenly an idea flashed in her mind. Without time to evaluate it she simply trusted her instincts and pulled her hands and feet from the wall. She slipped into a fall and Bolil seemed to rush up to her at twice the speed now. She saw his eyes grow wide as she collided with him, the two of them momentarily frozen in space as their opposite momentums cancelled one another out.

Reylim’s eyes were narrow and focused, and she used the split second to reach into the folds of Bolil’s clothing, grip the handle of the sword she knew he kept there, and pulled it free. Then she drove her feet back into either side of the fissure, careening wildly and spinning her arms to try and preserve balance. Meanwhile Bolil was knocked loose into a freefall, and he tumbled downwards, smashing into his compatriots and dislodging them as he went.

Reylim didn’t pause to watch the cascading fall, though she heard the sickening thuds down below as she continued her scale up the crevice. She held Bolil’s sword between her teeth, carrying it with her all the way to the top. Here she drew the blade out and thrust it upwards into the narrowing crack above, twisting it so that it locked in place. She wrapped both hands tightly around the hilt, giving a tug to be sure it would hold her weight.

“Glimmer, I think I’ll need some help,” she panted.

Of course, what can I do?

“Just invigorate me. The same as you did when I was fighting Bolil in the village.”

Glimmer sunk into her chest, and she felt her heartbeats grow deeper and stronger, pure energy flowing through her veins. Her arms and legs stopped shaking so much from fatigue and she took a deep, calming breath.

Reylim let go of the rock with her feet, swung her whole body backwards, and then kicked powerfully forwards. As she did so she also hauled in with her arms and flexed her entire core. The result was that she swung swiftly like a pendulum: out of the crevice, then up through air, and finally landing on the sloped rock above. She slapped her open palms down on the ground, gripping it to be sure she wouldn’t slide forward and down.

She was face-down looking at a sheer drop to the narrow ledges below. She could just make out all of the void-possessed bodies broken and scattered across the rock there. As she watched a darkness seemed to leak out from those bodies like black water. It pooled, spread, and quickly consumed them entirely. Shuddering Reylim began crawling backwards, moving up the slope until it eased out enough for her to get onto her feet and turn around.

You did well, Reylim, I am proud. I’m afraid we must keep moving, though, there is little time remaining.

Reylim looked to Glimmer as it emerged from the billowing folds of her robes. She noticed it was even further diminished, more dull than she had ever seen it before. She frowned in concern as she obediently continued her ascent, now scrambling over a series of boulders.

“You are hurt,” she observed. “I’ve never seen you so faded.”

Yes, Glimmer’s message came heavily. It is not just the strain, though. Our presence is bringing the shadows of the future into clearer and clearer focus. Their reality is straining against the shroud, overrunning our own. As you have seen.

“And that’s bad?” Reylim reached the top of the last boulder and now began climbing hand-over-hand up a narrow crack in the next rock face.

Here it is. The reality that is spilling out in this place happens to be one that is very dark. In the future the void will come to hold great sway here, and masses of men will overrun the land, almost all of them deeply shadowed. It drains me.

“This seems to be a particularly conflicted place,” Reylim observed, remembering the story Glimmer had told her of the villagers down below.

Yes, well, it is the Nexus.

“Glimmer,” Reylim said thoughtfully, “what will happen to this world? Do you know which side will win out in the end? Whether the void will just take it back over in time, or if it will eventually find its peace?”

Child, that is what we are deciding right now. If you and I fulfill our purpose then, in time, this world will find its way. You can be certain of that.

Reylim’s eyes grew misty. She could feel a fear lifting that she hadn’t recognized before. In this moment everything was calm enough that she could feel a flush of success rising within her. “Well we’re not seeing anyone else coming to attack us. Perhaps we’ve won already?”

I wish that was the case. But they know what we’re here for, and they’ll be pooling their strength just ahead of us.

Reylim rolled up onto the next ledge. She was breathing very hard now, and she felt her every movement coming slower and with less finesse. She looked upwards to see how far she had left to go, and to her surprise found that she could already see the summit of the mountain. For as sharply as it was rising it did not actually extend as far as she had feared. There remained one more craggy cliff face, and then a gentle slope that curved back beyond where Reylim could see. She was here. Taking a deep, steadying breath, Reylim began moving up the handholds of that cliff face, keeping her face turned up to that final destination. As she watched a wreath of darkness began to extend around that final ledge, spilling over its lip, seeming to reach out for her.

An incredible mass of dark entities was waiting on that surface above.

Reylim felt the panic she had been trying to ignore returning. She realized that she had subconsciously chosen to believe that the sentinel and Glimmer had been mistaken, that somehow she would be able to succeed without it costing her life. Seeing the mass awaiting to destroy her, though, she couldn’t ignore their prophecies any longer. She hadn’t grown as selfless as this moment called for and she wasn’t going to be able to see this through.

Reylim’s fingers began trembling, her legs began to shake. She was going to fall all the way back down to the ledge below. She was going to bounce off of that and down the next cliff face, all the way to the foot of the mountain. She had come all this way and was going to fail even before seeing the Nexus.

Her heart burned and she saw Glimmer’s glow emanating from her chest.

I know you don’t want this, Reylim. You can’t want this. But I promise you that it will be alright. I promise you. It will be alright.

Reylim bowed her head and fresh torrents of tears washed her cheeks. Her whole body shook with sobbing.

It is very hard.

Reylim raised one arm and gripped the next handhold.

I am so sorry.

She lifted a knee and stepped up.

I don’t want to die either.

She was too heartbroken to process that. She simply kept climbing. The ledge was growing very near now. A thought flitted by that she should have a strategy, a plan for what she was about to face up there. But the tears were still silently flowing and this moment seemed to stretch as eternity, filling all her capacity.

The clifftop was only five feet away. Why was it so quiet up there? Four. It seemed so surreal to be at this moment. Three. It wasn’t how she had envisioned the culmination of her life. Two… One… Reylim crested the ledge, far more smoothly now that she was being strengthened by Glimmer.

The mass hit her instantly, a swarming wall of black figures, their pitch darkness overflowing such that the details of the individuals beneath couldn’t be made out at all. Glimmer flashed a blinding brightness, and Reylim felt herself lifted in the air as the figures were propelled out in every direction. She rolled, landing on her feet in their midst. She ignored the dagger at her waist, instead sprinting forward. Ahead she could see a stone outcropping with two vertical pillars on either side. It had to be the Nexus.

Glimmer lowered down to her side, somehow both bright but strained at the same moment. As the dark shadows stumbled back to their feet they met its fury as it streaked back and forth, bursting crippling light across them at every turn. From their folds the phantoms drew out swords and daggers, all bristling with dark energy. They swiped at Glimmer, and Reylim had only just wondered whether they could actually do any harm to it when one of the blades connected. A visible gash seared across the orb of light, luminance trickling from it like blood.

“No!” Reylim screamed, turning away from the Nexus and diving into the horde crowding around Glimmer. As she sailed into them she flung out her foot, kicking one back to the ground. In a flash she drew her dagger and swung it in a wide arc, clipping through several of them at once. They hardly noticed, instead reaching out their dark arms for her now.

“Go, Glimmer, go!” She cried. “You need to get to the Nexus, not me!”

We both do. Glimmer’s usual calm communication now seemed so weak and faint, yet still strained with incredible urgency. Glimmer started floating away, heading in the direction of the Nexus.

One of the dark figures leapt for Reylim, she side-stepped it, but plunged her dagger into its center. She rolled with the torque, flipped round to the other side, then drew the blade out and turned to run after Glimmer.

She had barely gone three paces before another of the enemies barreled into her from the side. The dagger clattered to the stone, and the two of them tumbled to the ground. She turned the momentum into a roll, moving away from the thing’s grasp and bounding back to her feet. Another foe leapt at her but she ducked. It reached out as it overshot her and gripped her wrist, pulling her down to the ground again. She slammed into the stone, but ignored the pain, instead swinging her foot up to kick the creature’s grip loose. At the same moment a kick from another shadow-form caught her side, lifting her briefly into the air and then dropping her back to the ground.

She couldn’t react before two more forms landed on her back. Another gripped her wrist. Others continued spilling onto her, drowning her in their darkness. Between them she could barely make out Glimmer, having sensed her plight and now streaking back to her.

“No, Glimmer, no!” she pleaded. “It’s okay, I’m ready. You just go on!”

But Glimmer wasn’t listening. It barreled into the masses, billowing explosions of light at every turn. Before it had seemed to be pacing itself, expending its energy in a controlled measure. Now Reylim got the distinct sense that Glimmer was furious, a ball of burning rage. After each scorch of light it reduced down to barely a candle’s worth of illumination, but somehow still summoned enough essence for another burst.

The dark forms pressing Reylim down writhed wildly, trying to fling themselves from the light. At each flash the area around Glimmer loss all contrast, melting into the same fervent, white heat. Any portion of a shadowy figure that was caught in that brightness did not return after the illumination faded back down, resulting in severed limbs and bodies tumbling bloodlessly to the ground.

Though the dark forms leapt away as Glimmer flashed, they leapt back as it summoned power for its next blast, driving at it with their dark blades.  Glimmer wound through their weapons with great dexterity, bobbing and spinning in a deadly dance. Yet their numbers, though dwindling, could not be denied and every now and again they clipped and chipped away another piece from the orb.

Reylim struggled against the few remaining enemies that had stayed to restrain her. She twisted with mad energy, contorting her body like a living pendulum into their dumb forms, knocking them loose one-at-a-time until at last she stood free.

“Glimmer!” she called bounding over to its continuing battle. It was not far to go, yet she could already tell it was too late. Glimmer’s movement was slow, sluggish, with only the occasional jerks of movement to throw its assailants off. One large shadow lifted a great axe, lifting it high into the air and swinging down with extraordinary force. The blade caught Glimmer full at the core, cleaving it cleanly in two.

Reylim dropped to her knees, skidding the final inches to Glimmer with hands outstretched to catch its falling halves in her hands.

“Oh Glimmer,” she cried softly, feeling its last embers melt into her palms, bleeding its heart into her own. The light was fading and all was turning black. The encroaching emptiness made the dark phantoms lose their definition, and they stopped moving after being absorbed into the pitchness. Everything became dark, just as it had been when she first arrived at the planet. Simple nothingness.

Part Five

*

On Monday I spoke of the importance of few characters instead of many when it comes to making a story resonate with a reader. While a major point of Glimmer is that the world of Nocterra needs to be illuminated, more important is that Reylim needs to become the hero. Most of us cannot relate to the sensation of a world crisis, but her hesitation and fear can be recognized within us all. The idea of having a chance to do something powerfully good, but only at great personal cost, is something we both desire and dread in the same moment.

Though the struggle between those two emotions at first blush appears small enough to exist within a single individual, the reality is that these are two great infinites locked in eternal warfare through the medium of our souls. Mankind is the agent of the eternities and the quest for a single heart extends to time immemorial both in past and in future.

What does all this mean for the pragmatic writer though? Treat your individual characters with respect. Don’t just give them a personality and an arc, give them a soul. Make that soul worth something, make the reader care for what happens to it. Do this and you can make a fictional character an immortal person.

It was my intention to wrap up Glimmer with today’s post, but the tale needed to be drawn out a bit longer. Therefore I’m afraid you’ll need to wait one more week for the end of this story. Before that, though, I’ll take some time on Monday to examine the common themes that I’ve incorporated into all three of my short stories during this current series.

These themes are actually ones I didn’t consciously intend for them to share at the outset, but they occurred naturally. As I’ve reflected on them I’ve come to realize that they represent a particular style that I seem to fall into by default. Every writer has these default themes, and there’s a lot to be learned from discovering your own. Come back on Monday to see what I’ve been able to glean of it, and until then have a wonderful weekend!