The worm gave an ear-splitting screech as it blasted through the space that divided it from the truck. Its huge mandibles snapped shut faster than could be seen, cleaving the truck in two like it was made of butter. Then the rest of its body followed, scraping across the truck’s frame, breaking it into a hundred different pieces.
Finally, the worm came to rest on the flat field and scuttled about on those innumerable little legs, jerking across the surface in a strange, erratic manner. Antenna whipping through the air, feeling for more vibrations.
Two hundred feet away, Nathan lay face-down in the salt, silently sobbing, still bleeding from his shoulder, wishing his heart would stop beating so loudly! His hands twitched over the opening of his backpack. He didn’t dare make any movement, but he had to be ready to grab the weapon if the worm started to make its way over here.
He was almost able to see the worm out of the corner of his right eye, but not quite, and he didn’t dare to rotate his head to look at it properly. Instead he felt out with his other senses, feeling the rumbling of the ground and hearing the sliding of scales across the salt.
Every now and then the worm rotated in his general direction, but never seemed to advance on him purposefully. Right now his saving grace was that his beating heart was not the only thing making vibrations on the salt fields. The severed truck still had its engine humming, and one or two of the former occupants of the vehicle were wheezing amidst the debris.
The worm did not put those wounded souls out of their misery, though. One of the strange phenomena of Sand Striker Worms was that they always knew which broken and battered bodies were mortally wounded and which would recover, and they only ever bothered to silence the latter.
After another minute Nathan finally heard the sound of the worm slithering back into its hole, and then felt the vibrations under his chest as it moved through its underground tunnel. It had left.
Now he only had to decide what to do about that sniper on the city wall. He had been lying so motionless that any spectator might very well think the bullet had killed him. Unfortunately he couldn’t continue laying here motionless until nightfall, because his shoulder was bleeding badly, and he was sure he would faint from loss of blood within the next fifteen minutes if he didn’t do something to address it. He only had one option.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Nathan rolled over to his side, and drew a length of bandage from his pocket. He used his knife to cut arm the sleeve off of his shirt, then placed one end of the bandage under his head, pinning it down as he wrapped the rest of it around his bleeding wound. He didn’t give any thought to how good of a patch-up job this was. He only needed to staunch the blood flow enough to last a few more hours.
At this point there still hadn’t been any other gunshot. They must have seen him moving, but taking another shot would almost certainly mean summoning back the worm. Nathan glanced towards the wreckage of the truck. There was no more movement or sound beyond the still-clanking engine. Whoever had survived the worm’s collision had expired already.
Far beyond the truck lay the wall of New Denver. Nathan could just barely make out the silhouettes of the city guards standing there, watching him. Despising him. Probably debating whether it was worth that risk to take another shot at him or not. Well, he might as well play his last card, then.
Nathan raised himself back to a seated position and reached into his backpack, pulling out the last item that remained inside: the actual prototype weapon. It was a fat, rectangular prism, made of matte, black metal, with two buttons and a LED light at the center.
With trembling fingers Nathan pulled an old paperclip from his pocket. He twisted it between his fingers and inserted its end into a hole on the end of the device. One of the lights at the center turned red. Nathan wrapped his hand around the device and pressed in one of its buttons with his thumb, causing the red light to start blinking. Nathan did not release his thumb. If he did, the bomb would go off.
Nathan looked back to the New Denver wall and raised the device high into the air. Could they see it? Would they even be able appreciate how dangerous such a small package could be to them, even at this range?
“Maybe it doesn’t make sense to you,” Nathan said as he pushed himself to his feet, “but why would I show it to you unless it mattered? Unless it was more powerful than it appears?” He turned his back to the city and began stumping forward, leaving a trail of red blood droplets across the clean, white salt. “So, for your own sakes, don’t risk it. Don’t shoot. Just accept that I can’t be stopped anymore…and pray that my plan will work.”
“Why do you get to decide everyone else’s fate?” Manuel Carrillo had said to him a year ago.
“Because I have fought and bled and killed too much for anyone to take this choice from me!” Nathan responded in the present day. “I’ve earned the right to decide. I’ve paid the price. So now I get to do what I determine necessary and no one will stop me!”
That was what he should have said to Manny back then. Manny wouldn’t have liked that answer any better, but at least then he would have had the truth before he died.
Sixty seconds later Maxine had her rifle out and propped on the top of the perimeter wall. She turned the knob on the side of the scope, bringing Nathan’s retreating form into focus.
Down below Samuel Iverson turned the key in the pickup truck’s ignition. There came the rattle of the engine trying to start, but nothing more.
“Jackie!” he called out the window furiously.
“It’ll work, it’ll work,” the greasy mechanic said, fumbling under the hood. “Sometimes it just needs a little extra teasing.”
“We don’t have time for–“
“Try it now!”
Samuel turned the ignition and this time the engine sputtered to life. Two of the New Denver guards hopped into the back and Samuel drove out the gate of the city, and up to the city’s western wall. He idled there at the edge of the salt flats, waiting to see if Maxine would be able to make her shot.
“Alright,” Maxine squinted through the scope, “everybody be quiet now…”
The view she saw was anything but clear. At this range and with this heat there was a wide haze that smeared Nathan’s figure across the glass, making it appear as if his feet connected with the ground thirty feet to the left of his head.
Maxine held her breath, settling the crosshairs at the center of Nathan’s streaked figure, then slowly pulled the trigger.
Nathan jumped in surprise as the bullet whizzed through the air and impacted on the ground, just ahead of him and a bit to the left. Against all of his instincts, Nathan froze on the spot, hands extended for balance as he felt the earth through his feet, checking for the rumbling of a worm coming to investigate the gunshot. It took every ounce of self-control to hold steady when he was sure a second bullet was soon to follow, but the unseen adversary was more dangerous than the known one.
Back at the New Denver perimeter Maxine grunted in frustration.
“Anyone happen to see where that bullet went?”
No one spoke, but a few shrugged or shook their heads.
“I know the haze makes it hard, but anyone with binoculars, try to help me pick it out.”
She loaded locked the next bullet into the chamber, settled her cheek against the gun, and fired once more.
“There it is,” Maxine watched the haze-smeared plume of powder unfurling in her sights. “Correct for the haze…fifteen feet to the right and slightly down.”
Nathan kept his feet stationary, but furiously fumbled in his backpack, opening one of the secret compartments at its bottom.
“You idiots!” he whisper-hissed.
If they summoned the beast here, he would have no choice but to use his weapon immediately, and at this range he could not guarantee that the city would survive the fallout of doing so! Nathan’s shaking hands found what they were looking for and withdrew a circular, metallic device from the backpack. This was not the actual weapon, though, it was only a sonic beacon.
“We’ll try it,” he said as he placed it on the ground, “but if this doesn’t work, then you brought whatever else follows on your own heads!”
He flipped a switch, starting the device charging, then he turned and started to run.
The third bullet ricocheted right between his feet. The shooter was finally finding her mark!
“That one was low,” Maxine huffed as she locked the next bullet in the chamber. “Just barely, though.”
“He’s running again,” one of the nearby guards announced.
“Hmph, it’s too late for that now.”
Nathan juked to the left at just the right time and the next bullet pierced through the air where he had been a fraction of a second before.
“Ha!” Maxine scoffed. “He’s been timing me. Alright…” she let a few seconds slide by before readying her next shot. “Now when do you think I’m going to shoot?”
Down below, Samuel Iverson had had enough.
“Four shots…she’s not going to get him,” he decided. “Hold on tight!” And with that he slammed the gas pedal down and the vehicle roared out onto the salt.
Up above Maxine cried out in frustration. “I’LL GET HIM! I’LL GET HIM!” But the guards in the back of the truck just shrugged at her.
Out on the arid plains Nathan glanced over his shoulder at the sound of the engine roaring to life and saw the truck entering the field.
Full acceleration…third of a mile out…it’ll be here in thirty seconds… he thought to himself as he continued juking and spinning at random. In his hand he held the remote to activate the sonic beacon, but he needed to time it correctly.
“Come on, come on,” Maxine muttered, twitching the scope left and right with Nathan as he continued to move erratically forward. “Wait for it, wait for it…” She settled into a cadence where she was sure the scope was never pointing more than a foot or two from Nathan’s center of mass. Then she watched, waiting for the next juke. Once he did another one of those, his motion would be consistent for a second or two, and that would be all the time she needed.
Fourteen… Nathan counted in his head. Fifteen… He punched the button on the remote the sonic beacon he had left behind gave a tremendous soundwave that reverberated into the ground. Then Nathan half-spun to the left, but pulled out of it early, and sprinted striaght forward.
The bullet thudded dully into his shoulder and he slammed into the ground, sending up a cloud of salt. His arm was throbbing terribly…but…so was the ground.
“He’s down sir,” a guard in the back of the truck shouted up to the cab.
“He might not be dead!” Samuel called back.
“Maxine can finish him,” the other guard replied, pointing back to city. As he did so his face fell. From here he could barely make out the sight of the people standing on the Western wall, but they were just clear enough that he could tell they were all waving their arms, crossing and un-crossing them…like they were giving a warning. Only then did he notice that there was a rumbling under his feet aside from the humming of the truck’s engine.
“WORM!” he shrieked as the truck passed over the sonic beacon.
The entire ground exploded upwards fifty feet away. At first all one could see was the cloud of salt, but then, bursting out of its midst, a huge and terrible worm streaked through the air! Its exoskeleton was broad, segmented, and shiny, wrapping a long body that ended in a head that was fifteen feet wide, with huge, serrated mandibles. Long antenna extended from the top of the head and reached out through the air, feeling every tremor…even every heartbeat.
Nathan squared his shoulders against the rock and kicked out with his feet, sending his assailant flying back.
“Who are you?!” he demanded, groping on the ground for a rock to use as a weapon.
Everett didn’t respond. He just fought to regain his footing, then charged back into the fray.
“Listen,” Nathan panted as he dodged one fist, then got Everett’s other arm locked up at the elbow, “I could kill you now if I wanted, and I will if you don’t stop fighting!”
“I doubt that!” Everett grunted, using his free hand to pummel Nathan’s broken one.
“ARRRRGH!” Nathan collapsed to his knees and Everett wriggled free.
Everett delivered a heavy uppercut and Nathan was sent sprawling to the ground. Everett whipped out his pistol. It was empty of bullets, but he flipped it around to wield it like a club. He gave a powerful, overhead swing that Nathan barely got his arm up in time to block! Everett raised the gun back overhead, but Nathan suddenly pelted the rock hidden in his hand at Everett’s face. Everett fell backwards, and in a moment Nathan was upon him, knife clicked open, and blade pressed against his throat.
“Listen to me, you idiot!” he snarled. “This is my last night on earth and I had wanted it to be a peaceful one. For one night, just one night, I wanted to not have to run, and fight, and kill…. But I absolutely will again if I have to.”
Everett gurgled meaninglessly.
“Give me an answer!” Nathan pulled Everett’s head up and slammed it back against the rock. “What’s it going to be?!”
“What does it matter?” Everett finally gasped out. “You’re planning to get us all killed anyway!”
Nathan gave a shout, drew back his hand, and buried his fist in Everett’s stomach. Just before contact, though, he flicked the blade closed so that Everett was doubled up in pain, but not mortally wounded. With a grunt of exasperation Nathan stood up, picked his and Everett’s handguns off the ground, and slung his backpack over his shoulder.
“That isn’t going to happen. Not after I’ve fought and bled this much. My plan will work.
Everett tried to respond, but it just came out as painful wheezing.
“And even if there were–unintended side effects, and everyone in New Denver had to be sacrificed to clear the way forward for the rest of the nation…it would still be a worthy cause. Now I’m going to go on my way, and make no mistake, the next time we cross paths I will kill you.”
Nathan slid a fresh magazine into his pistol, then turned and stomped over to the end of the bowl, disappearing over its lip.
Everett lay there on the ground, panting and wheezing and crying, urging the throbbing in his gut to quiet down enough to move. He ground his teeth together and clenched his fists, distracting himself from the pain enough to roll back onto his knees. Slowly, laboriously, he pushed his way up to a stooping stand.
Perhaps Everett had underestimated Nathan, but the man was a fool if he thought that Everett would give up the chase. Everett turned so that he faced the end of the bowl that Nathan had disappeared behind and took a halting step forward. As he did so his body seemed to knit itself back together and he was able to take his next step with greater confidence. Another and another, and now he moved into a heavy stride, reached the lip of the bowl and deftly swung over it.
Everett never felt the bullet that rang out from directly behind. He just collapsed dead on the ground. From underneath the bowl’s overhang Nathan emerged with the gun, ready to shoot again…but he saw that it wouldn’t be necessary to finish the job.
“Now was that necessary?” he sighed, then continued on his way.
“This is New Denver Operations. I repeat, this is New Denver Operations. Everett are you there?“
It was early the next morning as the radio operator tried to raise the ranger. He looked up to Samuel Iverson and shrugged. “No response.”
The door to the room flew open and Thompson rushed in, sweat shining on his face.
“Sir,” he gasped. “He’s there! He’s out on the salt flats right now!”
“What?!” Samuel roared as he dashed out of the room and made for the western-facing wall. Samuel mounted the five stone steps onto the parapet, coming upon a crowd of Elders and guards who were all looking through their binoculars at something in the distance.
“Someone hand me their binoculars!” Samuel ordered, snapping one from the three that were offered. “Where?” He pointed them in the direction indicated.
There was Nathan, about a third of a mile past the edge of the city, having just emerged from the canyon and now walking across the ocean of salt that stretched nearly as far as the eye could see.
“He’s not running,” a guard up front observed.
“Doesn’t want to pull the worm to him,” another concluded. “But he must know that we can see him.”
“Sir, what do we do?” Thompson asked.
“Put a battery into the truck.”
“Sir, you mean to send some of us out there?!”
“I’ll drive it myself if no one else will! And where is Maxine?”
“Here, sir,” a tall, chubby guard with a round face and blond ponytail rushed up the steps.
“It’s a third of a mile,” Samuel said, handing her the binoculars and pointing in the direction of Nathan. “Can you do it?”
“Third of a mile?” she peered through the lenses. “It would be a new record for me…” she spun the knob on top, adjusting the focus. “Someone grab my rifle. Let’s do it!”
“They’re going to cut us off from behind!” Tharol announced. “But if we move now I think we can get through the tower before they do it.” It was the the boys’ only option. Not would this keep them from being sandwiched between two walls of enemies, there was also a second staircase down to the courtyard on the other side of the tower. The only problems were…
“But that’s away from Master Palthio!” Avro said.
” And they’ll cut us down as soon as our backs are turned!” Bovik added.
“I don’t think Master Palthio is coming with us,” Tharol addressed Avro’s concern. The man was reinforcing the gates to give the boys more time…but even he wouldn’t be holding back the tide for long. The enemies would break through before long, and then they would be right upon him and he would have nowhere to run. Palthio had known that when he went there.
More serious was the second concern. Even now a set of crossbowmen was mounting the ladders behind the armored soldiers. They weren’t firing on Tharol and the other boys because they were too enmeshed with the soldiers. But soon the assaulting forces would be called back, clearing the way for the arrows to cut the boys down.
“Go!” Janeao shouted, panting from the physical demands of being the bulwark of their little army. “You all get out of here. I’ll hold them back.”
“We didn’t come save you lot just to leave you behind!” Tharol returned hotly.
“Well I didn’t come up here to be saved, Tharol! I came here to take care of what needs to be taken care of.”
“But you can’t–“
“I can hold this, Tharol. Trust me for once.”
And with that Janeao gave a great cry then surged forward. He dropped his sword and wrapped his arms around the nearest soldiers, tackling them down to the ground. Further behind the crossbowmen raised their eyes in surprise, then scrambled to load their weapons.
“Everyone go!” Tharol shouted. He gave one parting glance at Janeao down on the ground, punching and throwing with all his might, then turned around and darted after the others towards the tower!
There was a shout from behind as the soldiers tried to push past Janeao, around the boys crossbow bolts ricocheted wildly, ahead of them soldiers climbed the ladder, sneaking into the tower window above. Danger lurked on every side.
Down below, the stone soldiers had started creeping cautiously back towards the gate. The shockwaves from Master Palthio had ceased streaming through the holes, now suppressed by the magical aura of the statue lady. Her right hand still rested on the massive, stone bricks of the wall, and she was muttering something under her breath as the rock began to glow and quiver.
One of the stone soldiers came up to her side and pressed his hand against the wall-block nearest to him. It quivered even more rapidly, then all at once it turned in its recess. The soldier continued stepping forward and the separate stones of his arm began similarly rotating and folding, rearranging themselves to fill the cavity left by the rotated wall-block. He kept on pushing forward, and the sections of the wall and the sections of his body continued rotating, sliding, folding, reassembling. Eventually his entirety had passed into the churning knot of rocks, like the pieces of a puzzle tumbling together.
And now the churning continued on the other side of the wall, on the inside of the keep. The blocks there shifted and turned and rearranged until a stone arm started to emerge from their folds, then a head and a chest.
Master Palthio’s eyes shot sideways to the intruder. Sweat beaded his brow, but he pulled one hand away from the crumbled gate and sent a fresh shockwave to the side, blasting that stone warrior into dust. Then he turned his head to the other side. Two other stone soldiers were already emerging out of the wall over there!
An arrow sliced through the air and lodged itself in Avro’s shoulder. The force of it spun him around and he fell to the ground. Tharol was bringing up the rear and reached down and pulled the boy back to his feet without so much as a break in his stride.
“Unnngh!” Avro moaned as Tharol hadn’t had the time to be sensitive to the wounded shoulder. Together the two of them kept racing forward after the other boys.
Golu was in the lead and had just reached the door to the tower. He burst through it, raising his sword to be ready for whatever lay on the other side. It was a single, round room, with a spiral staircase in the center ascending to the next floor. Already the enemy peasants were filing down that staircase, coming to cut off the boys’ exit.
Golu sprang forward with a cry and swung his sword with practiced precision. Each of his blows was efficient and lethal. While he held the horde at bay the other boys scrambled around the staircase and out the other door.
“Come on, Golu!” Tharol shouted after all the others had exited.
Golu sprang after Tharol and through the opening. Tharol slammed the door closed and Golu thrust his sword into the gap between door and frame, wedging it as tightly between the two as he could. It would take the soldier’s a moment to break through that bond. In a line the boys rushed down the staircase at the other end of the tower and into the courtyard. Tharol could hardly believe that they had made it this far!
Then there came a shout from above and Tharol saw the crossbowmen standing in a line on top of the ramparts. They had realized the boys’ game, and had simply moved to a position where they would have an excellent view of the entire courtyard. Tharol and the other boys might dodge and weave as best they could, but there was no way they could avoid all of the bolts that were about to rain down on them!
The leader of the crossbowmen stood at the center of their firing line. He raised his arm and shouted “Aim!” All of the snipers raised their weapons to their cheeks. “Fire!”
“NO!” came a shout from down below. A wave of light streaked across the courtyard, intercepting the volley of arrows and bursting them into dust.
Master Palthio drew his hands away from the gate, finally letting its splinters crumble to the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. Though he had tried to cut down the stone soldiers pressing through the wall, he hadn’t been able to keep up in his weakened state. Slowly their numbers had grown until they were now crowding around him a dozen strong, spears lowered for the killing blow.
There was only one thing left to do.
Even as the weapons pierced through his body Master Palthio lifted his hands wide and sent a final shockwave right into the epicenter of the wall. The stones nearest to him disintegrated into dust, ripples of force rocked to the left and right as if the wall had been made of water, and then the entire line began cascading inwards like a line of dominos! Master Palthio had obliterated the central support, and now gravity would do the rest.
The eyes of the crossbowmen and armored soldiers went wide as the ramparts fell out from beneath them. They fell all the way to the fields below, joining the cascading rock and metal and wood that poured into the front lines of the army still waiting to enter the keep.
“MOVE!” Tharol shouted, lunging forward and physically pushing the other boys in front of him. Master Palthio may have just cleared the line, but there was still rank upon rank of soldiers who now had no barrier to slow their advance!
And at the front of that army there still stood the statue lady. Having been at the epicenter of Master Palthio’s blast, all the cobblestone had been reduced to harmless dust around her. Now she strode angrily over the shambles of the gate. She glanced down to the ground where Master Palthio gave out his last breath, surrounded by the pebbles that had moments before been his killers.
“Who were you?” she whispered curiously.
“What was that, Madam?” her bodyguard, who was also her Lieutenant, stepped to her side.
“Never mind.” She brought herself back to the matters at hand and pointed her arm out to Tharol and the others’ retreating forms. “Shoot them!”
“Crossbows!” the Lieutenant called and four nearby archers hurried forward and raised weapons alongside of him.
The boys were nearly to the end of the courtyard, nearly through the arch and onto the main street that led towards the district marketplace.
“Fire!” the Lieutenant called, and four bolts whistled through the air.
Up ahead the boys moved single file to the the narrow arch. And at their back was Tharol. The whole way he had deliberately remained in the rear, urging the other boys on ahead of him.
Without warning all four of the bolts struck Tharol, each between the shoulder blades. Their combined force lifted him into the air and threw him to the ground. He gave a cry of surprise, then slammed into the dirt. The other boys turned in shock, eyes shifting from their fallen comrade to the crossbowmen hurriedly reloading their weapons in the distance.
“Don’t worry about it, just go,” Tharol grunted as he pushed back up to his feet and continued dashing forward. The boys stared at him in bewilderment, but he gave them a shove and they continued their escape. All of them made it out the arch before the crossbowmen could fire again, and once they were clear Tharol tore off his outer tunic and shrugged off the shield he had strapped to his back. He had thought it a prudent addition for the unknown dangers of the night, and had put it on when he had left Master Palthio’s quarters.
Back at the gate the statue lady scoffed at her inability to have anything go according to plan this night.
“Arcuse, set aside a medical unit and get all the wounded there as quickly as possible,” she directed her Lieutenant. “Have everyone else ready to march at a moment’s notice.”
“Yes, Lady Sawk. And apparently they’ve found the boy.”
“The spy that was here. Reis.”
“Ah. Reis Antine. Where is he?”
She was led to a section of the courtyard where several soldiers were tending to the poisoned lad. He had crawled his way off of the ramparts before they had fallen to pieces, but had not made it much further before the soldiers found him.
Lady Sawk kneeled at his side and turned his face to look at her.
“You failed,” she pronounced.
“My Lady,” Reis wheezed faintly. “I’m sorry. I was tricked. They poisoned me.”
“They weren’t supposed to know that you needed poisoning. You were elected because of your ability to remain subtle.”
“I tried. I did my best. I don’t know how–“
“I do. You tried to be clever. That’s always been your weakness, Reis. You can’t ever just finish the job, you have to make it a masterpiece. And with complexity comes mistakes.”
“All you had to do was kill them in their sleep. Nothing more. You toyed with them, didn’t you.”
Reis’s silence was answer enough.
“And now your blunder has cost us time. And in that time Lord Amathur will have heard about the forces we brought today. He will know that he’s been tricked and what it is we are really here for. And that means he’ll be shut up in his castle and we’re only going to have him out of there through a great deal of trouble and blood.”
The woman paused and cocked her head as she regarded a thought.
“Well, that’s not entirely your fault, is it? I assume you did not know the master of this keep was an Old Guardian, did you?”
“No,” Reis shook his head slowly.
“No, none of us did. Very curious. Well he would have given us trouble regardless then. I wonder how he came to hide at such a lowly station…. What was his name?”
“Never heard of him.”
Reis was thoroughly exhausted from the strain of crawling down from the wall, the chaos of the battle, and the fear of Lady Sawk’s disapproval. He face was pale and shining with sweat and he was having a harder and harder time getting each word out of his throat. Even so, he balled his fists and forced himself to push through the next sentences.
“There was a boy with Palthio, too. The one commanding the others. He might know more about the master.”
“I will hunt him down. I will bring him to you. Please, my Lady, I know that I let you down, but I will atone for it. Let me find him!”
“What, did you think I was going to kill you?”
“Oh dear,” she shook her head and tutted. “Just what sort of tales are they telling about me?”
With that she concluded Reis’s audience, raised back to her feet, and turned to her bodyguard.
“Alright, Arcuse. Have him taken with the rest of the wounded and give the order to move forward.”
She found herself momentarily alone and she took the opportunity to stare into the dark in quiet repose. She touched a hand to her hard, cold face, and tipped her head upwards to the sky. Cloudless, star-scattered, and bathed in a full moon. A perfect night for conquest. A perfect night for turning fate. A perfect night to raise the New Order!
And there, at long last, is the end to The Favored Son. I really do need to reconsider calling this short stories if they keep running this long, though. At 34,500 words, The Favored Son: Alternate is half the length of a full-blown novel!
Not for the first time I’ve wondered whether I should just go ahead and do a full-length novel here on the blog. It wouldn’t be publish-ready with my tight time constraints, it would be a first draft only. I’ll keep that idea stewing in the background and decide later. For now I’m just happy to have this one completed. It was a satisfying piece to write, I enjoyed being able to better capture the original vision behind the tale and I discovered many new and pleasant ideas along the way.
Come back on Monday as we leave these shores and venture towards uncharted water. The vessel we launch on will be slightly familiar, though. One theme of this story has been the concept of children at play, whose little pretend-wars finally become literal. And as a segue into my next short story I want to examine this notion of children at play. This is, after all, where each of us first began our journey into the world of crafting stories. Come back on Monday as we dive into that, and from there to fresher grounds.
Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably. “But–he’s not doing anything to us.”
Inol’s eyes narrowed. “Why are we here, Tharol?”
“We’re getting the weapons.”
“To do what? What are we here for ultimately?”
“Attack the elders?”
Inol nodded. “So why are you dragging your feet right now? Maybe Reis was right about you.”
Tharol cast around in his mind. It was true that he didn’t want to be a part of this, didn’t want to have this war with the elders. Everything he had just seen further convinced him that these people were not in their right minds, and so he didn’t want to be their executioner. He pitied them.
But…Tharol knew saying things like that weren’t going to go over very well. Everyone else was convinced that this war was the right way forward, and they were closed off to any criticism of it. So Tharol shook his head and went a different route. “Our first priority is to get these weapons to the others, so that they have a fighting chance when the main assault happens; not to go off on a whim, get ourselves killed, and leave our comrades helpless.”
“He has a point,” Bovik nodded.
“No he doesn’t,” Inol spat. “There’s three of us and one of Master Y’Mish. These are the best odds we’ll see all night!”
Bovik sighed. “That’s a good point, too.”
Tharol looked to Bovik. “What will it be then?”
“I vote we find the others, Inol wants to fight this elder. What do you choose?”
“That’s not for me to decide!”
“What else is there?” Tharol shrugged. “We have no leader, and no explicit commands to guide us, so we all get a voice. What side do you take?”
Bovik squirmed uncomfortably, darting his eyes back-and-forth from Tharol to Inol.
“Well…I guess we try and take him, then. We take Master Y’Mish down, and then we find our comrades without further delay.”
“So be it,” Tharol sighed, then swung his leg out to the stone statue.
As silently as possible, the three youth stole to down the legs of the statue and off its base. Inol and Tharol left the other Shraying Staffs in a nearby bush, and then they rushed towards the orchard path. Master Y’Mish had not returned from there yet, so they lined up on either side of the walkway, Inol on the left-hand side, Bovik and Tharol on the right.
“Alright, we have him trapped now,” Inol observed. “We wait here until he comes out. When he does, we move quickly and decisively. We don’t try to talk to him, we don’t try to restrain him. We kill him.”
Tharol and Bovik nodded.
“Are you two going to use your Shraying Staffs?” Bovik asked eagerly. “How do they work?”
Tharol looked down to his arm and regarded the flexing metal shafts that covered his flesh. His arm ended in a large, menacing claw, and for a moment he envisioned five fingers instead. Even before the metal shafts began to realign themselves he knew that they would. All he had to do was think the form, and the Shraying Staff began spinning and contorting to create it. He could even flex each individual finger at will, as if it had been a real hand.
“Oh skies!” Bovik breathed in awe. “Let me have one.”
“I don’t have them anymore. We left them back there, remember?”
“Hsssh!” Inol spat out, and once the other boys quieted they could make out the sound of footsteps approaching down the orchard path.
Bovik silently drew out his standard sword and all three youth waited anxiously in the shadows. The steps grew nearer and nearer, without the slightest variance in rhythm. It was like the cadence of a machine.
Inol and Tharol had their eyes locked on one another from each side of the path. Suddenly their view of the other was broken as Master Y’Mish stepped between, and each sprang forward instantly.
Without even looking to either side, Master Y’Mish thrust his hands outward, expertly dodging their weapons and striking each youth squarely in the chest. He hit them with an impossibly powerful force, and both of the boys spun head over heels backwards.
Bovik managed to leap over Tharol as he went rolling by, kept his footing, and swung his sword forward with a cry. Master Y’Mish whisked his own sword out and the two of them crossed blades.
“Don’t worry about defeating him, Bovik,” Tharol cried as his roll finally came to a halt. “Just hold your ground.” He scrambled up to his feet and looked down to his arm, changing his sectioned fingers into a long, piercing blade. But then he paused, gripped by the memory of when he had fought Master Dovi and the voice told him to claim the elder’s weapon with his own blood.
Tharol looked up in shock. Master Y’Mish had just deflected another of Bovik’s thrusts, then used his free hand to punch the boy in the throat, sending him sprawling backwards with his hands around his neck. Behind them Inol was charging forward again, his Shraying Staff-arm also formed in the shape of a long blade.
“Inol, no!” Tharol cried. “Don’t cut him!”
It was too late, though. Master Y’Mish turned to face Inol, saw the raised blade, and casually lowered his weapon. With a shout Inol plunged his weaponized arm clean through Master Y’Mish’s heart. The elder slumped to the ground without a cry.
“Well that wasn’t so hard,” Inol crowed, while Tharol went to check on Bovik, who was still gagging and holding his throat.
“I’m fine,” Bovik croaked. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.”
“You shouldn’t have cut him,” Tharol shot at Inol.
“It’s something I learned earlier. When someone gets their blood on a blade, they’re able to claim it for their own.”
“Are you so sure?” Tharol pointed to the ground, where the body of Master Y’Mish was rapidly changing. It seemed to be melting into a long, silver strand, and it reached through the air like a cord, wending its way out of the gardens and back towards the rest of the elders. Perhaps it was his imagination, but Tharol believed he heard a chorus of steps from far away, all marching towards them in perfect unison.
“We should get out of here,” Bovik said.
The other two readily agreed. They retrieved the other Shraying Staffs and ran as quickly as they could through the halls of the abbey. All the youth had agreed that they would regroup at the Wester Hall after accomplishing their various tasks. As Bovik, Inol, and Tharol approached the tall doors of that great room they finally slowed to a walk, panting for breath and holding their sides.
Inol reached up and knocked on one of the doors. “White rose,” he whispered through the crack, and someone inside undid the latch.
“What took you so long?” Reis demanded as the three boys walked into the hall.
“Ran into the elders,” Inol explained. “They’re in the passageway between the gardens and the dining hall. They’re in a sort of–trance.” Inol looked sideways at Tharol and then leaned close to Reis. “Hey, come over here, though. There’s something we need to talk about in private.”
Tharol rolled his eyes and tried to not dwell on the two of them as they peeled off to the side and had a hushed conversation together. He was sure Inol was reporting about Tharol’s hesitation to attack Master Y’Mish, and whether that was evidence of treason.
“Let them have their conspiracies,” Tharol thought bitterly, then looked around to see how many youth had already made it back from their missions. All of them were present, apparently Bovik, Inol, and he had taken longer than they realized with all their side diversions.
Each of the youth were pacing restlessly, some of them muttering together in twos or threes. Each of them seemed on edge, jumping at any sound that was louder than a whisper. No doubt they were all expecting the elders to come crashing in on them at any moment. Scared to stay in one place for too long, terrified to go out for the battle.
Why were they doing this? Tharol wondered. They all craved a strong leader like Reis, needed it in a time of crisis like this, but he was leading them far beyond what they were ready for.
Before Tharol could think any more on the matter, Reis had concluded his private conversation with Inol, and now he was coming to address the rest of the crowd.
“Well done everyone,” he praised, “that’s every mission fulfilled flawlessly. It would seem the elders have retreated to a single position, one that is ill-guarded. This is very fortunate, and we can stage our attack to our own advantage. On the other hand, it does mean an all-out fight, where I would have rather preferred to single them out one-at-a-time. Still…” Reis paused and surveyed the gathered youth, unsure and wavering. He nodded approvingly. “I like our chances. If this is our moment, let it be now. I feel no greater privilege than to–“
A soft clatter echoed from the halls. On a normal night, it was the sort of sound one wouldn’t even give a second thought. But to the youth now it sounded like the approach of death itself. Each of them locked their eyes on the double-door, half expecting it to be blasted in at any moment.
The explosion never happened, however they became aware of a subtle, pulsating rhythm coming from far away. It sounded very low and dark, like the rushing of wind at the bottom of a deep well. One-by-one the youth looked back to Reis.
“We go now. Tharol and Inol, hand out those weapons. We’ll advance on the garden-dining hall passageway in two groups–“
“I’m not so sure that they’re still there,” Tharol interrupted. “I thought I heard them moving as we left”
“Stick as one group then, but fan out. If we see them at a distance, and they haven’t detected us yet, we’ll pause to set up the razor cord trap. At each juncture, the people furthest to the right and furthest to the left check each path before we proceed.”
Everyone scrambled to take a weapon, or get in position, activated more by fear than duty. In only a matter of second they all stood at ready before the door.
“Alright,” Reis breathed deeply. “Go.”
Bovik and Golu opened the doors, and everyone moved out as one. They spread out to fill the full width of the hallway. Well, not quite everyone. Tharol noticed the space immediately behind him being filled out of the corner of his eye, and he turned to find Inol there.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
“You and I work together. As a unit.”
“But I thought–“
“Hush!” Reis called back over his shoulder.
Tharol bit back the rest of his comment and kept moving forward. He didn’t care for the feeling of Inol lurking immediately behind him, though. Didn’t care for it at all.
Together the group of youth reached the first intersection. Marvi and Jolu peered down the two sides, then looked back to Reis and shook their heads. There was no one there.
Reis cocked his head upwards, listening for which way the deep strumming sound was coming from. He pointed dead ahead. Again they moved forward as one, taking one hallway after another, winding their way closer and closer to the source of the sound.
Now they came to a hall with ceiling-high archways opening to their right every few feet, overlooking the gardens. As they approached each opening the youth snapped their heads to the right, anxious to detect any threat that might be lurking out there.
Tharol could feel it in the air–was sure everyone else could feel it as well–they were close. The elders were very near. Any second now and there would be–
“OHHH!” Golu suddenly cried, which startled half of the other youth into shouting as well. Golu’s hand was extended towards the nearest archway. At first Tharol saw nothing, but following Golu’s hand he picked up the figure of a ghoulish creature hunched by the bushes, eyes staring out at them unblinkingly.
“It’s just a statue!” Reis hissed, and Tharol realized it was true. A stone gargoyle, skewed by the sideways moonlight and their own imaginations until it was nearly unrecognizable.
But the shout of the youth had already broken the spell. The deep, distant thrumming picked up in speed and volume, moving rapidly towards them. Seeming to echo through the walls and shake the stones at their feet.
“Oh no, they’re coming!” Jolu wailed. “We have to retreat!”
“No, stand firm!” Reis commanded. “Everyone ready your–“
“No!” Jolu panicked. “No we have to–have to–” the fear overtook him and he lifted his trembling hands to his eyes.
“Get him out of here!” Reis snapped. “He’s losing his nerve!”
“No,” Tharol said in dread. “It’s not that.”
Jolu’s whole body now trembled with his hands, his flesh rippled as an invisible wave passed through. His eyes rolled back into his head and the backs of them shone with a ghostly light. Then, suddenly, his hands stilled and his body went limp. How he remained standing was impossible to tell, it seemed as if he was being suspended only by an invisible puppeteer’s string.
“He’s being invaded.”
Jolu’s arms snapped upwards and he lurched forward towards the rest of the youth. A strange cry came from his mouth, like a miniature echo of the strumming sound they had been following.
And his wasn’t the only cry. It was being echoed behind them as well, though it was higher in intensity, like a shriek! Tharol already knew what he would see when he looked that way. The faceless entity had arrived, from it all of the elders were emerging, and they were also lurching to the attack!
On Monday I spoke about how stories are not only plot, character, and theme, they are also windows into new and exciting experiences. One of the reasons we pick up a novel or watch a movie is just to be given an image or idea that we’ve never experienced before.
With last week’s entry, and this one as well, my intention was to stuff one new idea after another into every scene. But the idea was not actually to amuse my readers, but rather to overwhelm them. I want them to feel uncomfortable, to not be able to grasp the rules of this new world, and to be uncertain of what might happen next. In this way I mean for them to have the same experience of our characters, who are all experiencing the rug being pulled out from under them.
I would say my greatest danger is overdoing it, and making it impossible for the readers to feel grounded in the story at all. In a world where literally anything can happen, it stops being surprising when yet another oddity follows after another.
This is an idea I’d like to explore with my next post. There have been some extremely weird stories over the years, full of all manner of crazy ideas, yet audience’s have been able to connect to and find personal meaning in them even so. Come back on Monday where we’ll look at a few examples, and consider how a story can walk the line of being unpredictable, yet relatable.
Thus from that Void sprang Life and Invasion. Or using the terms of the Ancient Prophet: Creation and Destruction. And in them began the cycle of possibility and impossibility.
For Creation, or Life, cannot occur, unless there was first an absence of Creation. A space that was first dead or unformed must exist, so that there is room for the new Creation, or Life, to occupy.
And as the seeds of all Life thus find their roots in a place of death, so all Life has the tendency towards decay and death. That which we make comes of naught, and so must return to naught. And in its dead ashes we find again the space for new Life. Were it not so, all would be created, until there was space for Creation no more, and it would have defeated itself. Instead, inherent in Life is the force of destruction, the tendency to undo itself, the strife to unmake what has been made.
The Third Recitation of Master Eidoron
Thus any effort to prevent the Invasion is folly. Indeed the Invasion is encouraged by strife, thus any effort to prevent it is also strife, and to resist it is only to hasten its coming.
In the Realm of Theory only is it possible to prevent Invasion. And in that realm the Invasion could only be quelled by a life that was totally devoid of strife, which as we have seen, would be a force of Creation that was unrestrained until there was no longer any space for Creation, and all became motionless and dead. And in this paradox we see that the Invasion must be.
Of course this notion may naturally suggest despair to the mind. If the Invasion must be, then what is the value of effort? Why even attempt to maintain one’s independence from it?
The Fourth Recitation of Master Eidoron
The answer to this conundrum comes in retaining a clear distinction between the inevitability of the whole and the freedom of the individual. Yes, mankind as a whole will give rise to the Invasion time and time again. But just because that fate for mankind, as a whole, is predetermined, the fate of the single individual is not.
Thus entire societies may be lost within the Invasion-mind, yet a single individual within that society might escape. All about us may fall away, but it is not fated that we must fall away, too. This truth is made evident in the miraculous deliverances of Abji’Tolan, the Merchant of Azuyl, Popaiyoh and Seeve, and countless other stories in the Cryptics. All these examples show a great truth in common: We can concede the loss of the masses, yet still retain faith in the salvation of the individual.
The Fifth Recitation of Master Eidoron
In fact, not only can individuals prevail, they must. For if all were silenced within the Invasion, then all disparity would cease. All would be dead. All would be lost within one totality.
And if this were so, it would unmake the Invasion. For, by necessity, the Invasion requires there to be an entity outside of itself to oppose itself, otherwise there would be nothing to which it could perform its function of invasion. Thus all would be invaded until there was space for Invasion no more, and it would have defeated itself.
And so we have the greatest paradox of all. Life and Invasion, Creation and Destruction, each destroys the other, yet also depends on the other to exist. Each must try to prevail over the other, yet must also give ground to the other. And so conflict must continue forever.
Tharol sighed and lifted his eyes from the passage to look out the nearby archway. He was stirred by passages like these…but he could not claim to truly understand them. They seemed so full of contradictions, so impossible to resolve in the mind. No doubt Master Palthio would tell him to not try to resolve them in his mind, to simply let them be, but if he didn’t strive to understand them, then surely he would never understand them?
Strive. Even as he thought the word, it echoed to him from the passages of Master Eidoron. Was his “striving” to understand these passages only hastening the coming of the Invasion?
“Why do you read those if they distress you so?”
Tharol spun around, startled by the voice interrupting on his thoughts. Reis stood a mere arm’s length away, hands clasped behind his back, scrutinizing Tharol as he read.
“I said why do you read those when they clearly upset you?”
“They don’t upset me.”
“Yes they do. I can see it on your face.”
“They–confound me, I don’t understand them–but I’m not upset about them.”
“Well even so, why read them then?”
“What would you have me do? We have to understand these, don’t we?”
Reis shrugged. “I don’t know. Master Abu’Tak says that he’s never been able to make any sense of them, and that hasn’t stopped him from being a part of the Order. I get the sense that each of the elders have their own personal doctrines that they are best attuned to, and their own blind spots that they can’t make sense of.”
“Interesting…Master Palthio said something similar to me just the other day.”
“We all have our own strengths Reis. That’s why we’re an Order and not a group of hermits, so that we can unite our different strengths.”
“Yes…I like that….But what then? Am I to just ignore the things I don’t understand? Not even try to better myself?”
“I would say put your strength when your strengths lie,” Reis said, now pacing back and forth like he was giving a lecture. “Why not put your energy where you get the best return on your investment? No one would deny that you do have other great talents.”
“Oh? And where exactly would you say that my strengths lie?”
“You’re a pursuer, Tharol. Once a thought arrests you, you chase it without relenting.”
“I suppose. So?”
“And we are in a dangerous time. As I was saying the other day, our Order is so close to changing hands, so close to being our own to run. And while that is exciting to all the other acolytes, I don’t mind telling you it makes me very nervous. It is a dangerous time, a time of uncertainty. If I were the Invasion-mind, this is the moment where I would attack.”
Tharol shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t trust the student body?”
“No. I know that I called them my friends there in the stone hedge. I had to win their trust, had to put on a face of confidence and try to unite them…but I have deep suspicions among them, don’t you?”
“I don’t–I don’t know. I think they all…mean well.”
Reis’s lips widened in a tight smile. “So you do see it. They ‘mean well?’ Yes, of course they do…but they’re fools, aren’t they?”
Tharol looked down.
“You don’t deny it. And you know as well as I do that fools who mean well can easily be made pawns for someone else. No, our peers aren’t malicious…but they are dangerous.”
“What is your point in all this? What does this have to do with my talents?”
“As I said, you’re a pursuer. And I trust your judgment. In our new Order I want you to be Master of Inspection.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You would be responsible for investigating the others, for identifying those who were suspicious and you would watch their comings and goings. There is no one I would trust more to find our traitors, to weed out our spies. No one I would trust more to protect the flock.” His broad grin made it clear that he felt he was offering Tharol a great honor. He extended a hand of friendship to Tharol.
Tharol’s eyes furrowed in intense thought. On the surface there was a great deal of truth in Reis’s words. Yes, their peers did seem susceptible to outside influence. They were vain and naïve. He always had felt bad that he saw that, worried what it said about him–that he was too judgmental?–yet he was sure it true even so. And yes, he could see how this was a dangerous time, one that required an extra dose of vigilance.
But spying on his peers? Perhaps Tharol struggled to understand the Cryptics, but even he could tell that this would be wrong. This would be acting under a motivation of fear, and by that fear he would be sowing doubt. This would be secrets and paranoia and division. This would be creating…strife. For a moment a smile crossed his face as part of Master Eidoron’s message finally made sense. This effort to control the Invasion could only hasten it.
He looked up to tell Reis as much, but as he looked into his friend’s face he realized the other half of what made him uneasy about the offer. Yes, their peers were susceptible. They were prone to follow a silk tongue, to sell themselves unwittingly to a devil. And as it was, the one who had them the wrapped around his finger most was…Reis.
Tharol closed his partially-opened mouth, and he did not take the offered hand of friendship. A deep scowl crawled across Reis’s face, and Tharol wondered how much the youth guessed of his private thoughts. Reis did not say anything, just stared back, summing Tharol up.
The tension of the moment was broken by the crashing of a cymbal. It was the summoning gong being rung from the inner sanctum of the abbey. They were being called by the elders.
“I–suppose we’d better go” Tharol said stiffly.
“I suppose we should.”
The two youth were nearly halfway to the amphitheater before Tharol realized he knew what they were being summoned for. Though he didn’t know why, somehow he could feel in his heart that they were about to begin the Trials.
The Trials were the culminating ritual for every generation of their Order, the crucible which would somehow see the old guard passing on and the new blood taking up the cause. Exactly how the old guard passed into the shadows had never been detailed to them, though. The way the elders spoke about it suggested that they did not simply take a back seat to the ruling of the new generation. Everything they said on the matter seemed to reinforce the idea that they would be permanently gone. But was that in exile?… Or in death?
The elders had never been forthcoming about how things were when they took over the Order, either. Indeed they never said a word about who their own mentors were. To the rising generation there was no other Order but the one maintained by their elders. The only clues they had of prior generations were the scriptures and recitations which their elders had chosen to preserve.
A stray thought crossed Tharol’s mind: was it possible that Master Palthio had personally known Master Eidoron? He did not know whether Master Eidoron wrote his recitations a single generation ago, or ten.
Tharol shook his head. He had far more pressing matters before him. Not only did he not know how the Trials brought in the end of an era, he didn’t even know what the Trials themselves were composed of! It was never spoken of in any greater context than its name. What was about to transpire between him and his other acolytes?
Tharol’s ruminations were interrupted as he and Reis stepped between the stone pillars and into the amphitheater proper. It was a wide, level circle open to the heavens above. The dirt was packed until it was hard as stone, with one side giving way to ascending seats. All the student body was in those seats, while the elders stood in a line at the center of the circle.
Reis and Tharol hurriedly took their seats, far apart from each other. All their fellow-acolytes looked forward in nervous anticipation, excitedly waiting to see what sort of tests they were about to be put to. They did not have long to wait, for Reis and Tharol were the last to arrive, and once they were seated Master Orish stepped forward to address the congregation.
“Pupils! Thank you for gathering here today. We welcome you to the End of Times. The Refining Scorch. The Trials! Today, we have brought you forward, that you may determine the future together. What that new horizon will be is yours to craft, and yours alone.”
There was no smile on his face. No light in his eyes. Though his words were impressive, Tharol could got the sense that this was not a moment of triumph. After a pause Master Orish continued.
“That future is not given to you, though. It must be claimed. And if it is not claimed…then it will not be. Some of you have assumed that your future is a free gift, that the Trials are merely a way to test yourselves against each other, to determine what role you will have in the new Order. But you are wrong. The Trial is to determine if you are even worthy to have your own Order. I give you a moment’s warning: defend yourselves.”
He turned his back and returned to the line of elders, each of whom stood motionless, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped together and trembling. Tharol glanced sideways to his fellow acolytes, and saw on them all the same look of confusion and apprehension.
A bloodcurdling cry snapped the tension. It came from Master Foraou, who leaped past the line of elders, whipping a sword out of the folds of his tunic. He kicked off the banister at the edge of the field and flew through the air towards the mass of acolytes!
On Monday I spoke of stories that lead the reader to a particular frame of mind, and then, knowing what they are thinking, either affirm or subvert those expectations. In this section I attempted to setup a train of thought for the reader, and do both an affirmation and a subversion on it.
First I had the moment where Tharol because suspicious of Reis. In previous sections I have written Reis to be proud and insincere, and so I am leading the audience to suspect him of becoming the villain in this story. Thus they are already on the lookout for nefarious behavior from him, and his request of Tharol to spy on his friends is the affirmation of it.
Which affirmation is meant to create a moment of calm in the mind of the reader. They now know that they are in sync with the protagonist, that Tharol is pulling on the correct thread, that he isn’t missing anything that we think he should be picking up on. Thus there is danger, but Tharol is already alerted to it, and should therefore be able to handle it. And having thus created this sense of surety in the reader’s mind, I then subvert it with the horror of the elders unexpectedly attacking their own pupils.
You may find it interesting to know that I did not plan for this moment of surprise until the very moment I was writing it. It surprised me as much as I hope it surprised you! Originally the Trials were going to be something very different, and I had been trying to write the introduction to them without any success. The words just weren’t flowing, and I paused to ask myself what should be happening in this scene instead.
But we’re out of room here, and I want to look into this in greater detail. So come back Monday as we consider how an author can pause to consider what a scene needs, and go along with the answer, no matter how surprising it may be.
We numbered 37 in all. 36 Treksmen, plus our new foreman, a man we had never met called Boosh Fyyan. To this day I cannot tell you the first thing about him. Not what he looked like, not what he sounded like, I’m not sure why I even remember his name. I cannot recall any of his details, of course, because I was unconscious through the first part of our expedition. Unconscious was the only reasonable way to keep our wits on a journey as black as this, and so every one of us Treksmen gave ourselves up to the automation of our work.
As is always the case when you pledge your heart by a solemn oath, you become somewhat machine like by the process. Given the nature of your surrender, you do not have to consciously think about the work that you do now, you can simply relax the mind and your body will do the functions on its own, driven by the Job’s mind until the last labor is fulfilled.
Normally we have a good deal of fun with this autonomy, letting the body go on its own, while we exert all our mental energy to coming up with jokes and songs. Sometimes we play tricks on one another, leaving a tack upright on a handhold and seeing if the other Treksman was alert enough to stop the automation from making him grab it.
But there were no jokes and no fun for this journey. This time we let our conscious minds shut off entirely. Better to ignore the bad omens and the grim nature of our labor, and sink into a blissful stupor instead.
Indeed, I was unconscious for weeks at a time, only being roused when a word or a sound would trigger something in my mind, such as when a mother in a village we visited called to her son with the same name as my own. It made me sad to think that once I had been so carefree as that little boy, and now I walked with a curse about my neck.
It was, as I say, a bitter thought, and I immediately rolled my eyes back and gave my mind again to its hibernation. I closed out the world so tightly that I could not be roused again, not even by my companion’s cries, until a full two of them had already been killed by the Scrayer.
“TO ME! TO ME!” A voice was shouting, pulling my groggy eyes back into focus. It took me a moment to make sense of what lay before me, so unexpected the scene of destruction was. Three of our wagons were on fire and another one had been hewn to pieces. The two companions that usually marched nearest to me lay dead not eight feet ahead of where I stood. They were collapsed to the ground in such a peaceful and carefree manner that I am sure they had been slain while still unconscious. Another Treksman to my left was just coming out of his stupor, having been awakened by the fact that his clothes were catching flame from the burning wagons. He screamed in shock and tried to beat the embers down.
But I ignored him, for all my attention was wrapped up in the solitary figure that walked fifteen feet ahead of me, the obvious cause of all the chaos. It was the largest man I’ve ever seen. He stood nearly a full eight feet tall, bursting with muscle, and, completely covered in a black, voluminous cloak. As I have said, he was a Scrayer, and the tell-tale weapon of that order was entwined up along his arm.
Of course, for a Scrayer to utilize his Scrayth requires that he possess immense strength, and this man most certainly did. For no sooner did my eyes settle upon him than he seized the burning Treksman with his weaponized hand and thrust that man into the air, flinging him with such force that the Treksman instantly dissipated into a fine, black powder.
The Scrayer looked at me now and I was struck by the realization that there were no more Treksmen between he and I! I flung myself backwards, turned upon the ground, and clawed around the corner of my wagon for any cover I might find. At every moment I expected to feel his great fingers gripping me and piercing into my side…but the death-grip did not come.
For right at that moment Boosh Fyyan (I now recall that the man wore a bright red turban) came charging forward, a light-sickle burning brightly in his hand. “TO ME!” he shouted once more, still trying to rouse us Treksmen from our stupor, then thrust his weapon at the towering foe.
The Scrayer slapped the weapon to the side with his unarmed hand, then grabbed Boosh around the throat with his other, and made to thrust him also out into dust. But Boosh clawed desperately at the foe’s arm, and so was not thrown out as firmly as the Scrayer had intended. For a moment Boosh stood suspended in the air, his features grainy and his body stretched out into long strands that flared out at the ends. He was suspended in that limbo for only a moment, but then his eyes flashed and he came rushing back into a fully corporeal form He descended back down, arm thrusting, light-sickle plunging, piercing into the chest of the Scrayer. He was like an angel descending from above to slay the dragon.
“Nnnarrgh!” the giant bellowed, and in a rage he grabbed Boosh again (I now recall that Boosh had deep, amber eyes), and flung him so savagely that the man was turned to powder before the brute had even let him go. The Scrayer turned, as if he would make towards me once more, but then his face contorted in pain and a few tendrils of blue smoke began to emanate from the wound where Boosh had skewered him with the light-sickle.
The Scrayer clenched his teeth and tried to grit his way forward, but immediately he halted again as the tendrils of blue smoke pouring from his heart started to solidify and take form. It was a vague shape in three parts. Two were long and thin, and the third in the middle was bulky and short…like a head and shoulders between two arms. The whole thing was flailing and writhing, twisting itself further and further out of the Scrayer’s chest, inch-by-inch. The part that seemed like a head began to tremble rapidly, and two lines stretched apart in it, like the opening of a mouth strained against a shroud. A haunting shriek sounded out, and rang within our hearts.
“No!” The Scrayer bellowed, grabbing at the blue form and trying to tear it into pieces. But it was still only half-physical, and whatever puffs he managed to pull free simply flowed back into the main body immediately after.
In awe I slowly stepped forward. It was a very foolish thing to do, I suppose, but I could not help but bear witness to such a horror as this. My foot kicked a pebble and the Scrayer’s terrified eyes rounded back on me.
“Please! Help me!” he cried. His fingers clawing at his chest, as if desiring to rip his very heart out. “Please! Yes, I meant you harm, but only for your own good.”
Now the blue, arm-like streams thrust into the Scrayer’s dark beard, and the ends bended backwards, like two hands clenching into fists. With that grip the blue form forcibly pulled itself still farther out of its host’s chest.
“Arrrgh!” the Scrayer screamed. His legs kicked wildly and he fell onto his back.
“I’ll finish him!” Vallon, my fellow Treksman, said at my elbow as he drew a sword from his side.
“I–I am already dead” the Scrayer gasped out, barely able to speak at all. The blue form had raised itself up towards the sky, clawing at empty air as its lower body now emerged. “P-p-please. Break your oaths….” the Scrayer winced. “Break them!” His eyes fluttered and lost focus, but by sheer force of will he brought himself back from the brink and stared at us with fervent intent. “I know–I know. You’ll die. But–” His whole body shook. “But–” The blue form’s feet were a foot above the Scrayer’s chest now, connected to that body only by a single thread. The Scrayer clutched at life one last time, his final words came out as naught but a sigh. “But there are worse things.”
Then the thread snapped and the great giant instantly relaxed into his death. The blue form turned round, lifted its arms heavenward, and flew off into the clouds.
It was gone.
Things were worse now. We were down to thirty-four Treksmen, and no foreman among us. Because all of us had been unconscious, not a one of us knew where we even were or what our next destination was. We had no choice but to let the automation do the work, moving our bodies further down the trail, minus the carts that had been destroyed.
We did not sink back into our unconscious stupor this time. Our bodies were automated, but our eyes and our ears we kept alert at all times, watching for any other assailant that might come our way.
We spoke only a little of the ordeal that had just passed. It was, of course, a very remarkable thing that a Scrayer would have anything to do with us at all. Such a unit properly belongs among a royal guard, not harassing lowly caravans. This only lent all the more weight to his ominous plea: that we forsake our contract, suffer the same death as Yalli as our penalty, and leave our wares undelivered. Clearly he had felt it a matter of great importance to have debased himself to the murder of us all. He must have known that we would never sacrifice ourselves for a cause we did not understand.
Which, of course, we did not and would not. The sense of anxiousness in us grew more profound, but it was not nearly enough for us to surrender our own lives. Not only because we did not understand what good would come from such a sacrifice, but also because we felt that we were destined to do what we had been hired to do. If it was a sin that lay before us, we must perform it even so. If we were unknowingly bringing about the very end of the world (which, as it turned out, we were), yet it had to be done.
We were commissioned to darkness, and it did not matter whether we approved of it or not.
Six days later and our feet guided us into our next destination. After entering the city we asked around and learned that we had come to Bowria. A quick consultation with the foreman’s maps and we understood that we were much more than halfway through our journey already. There only remained three stops, and last of all the delivery to Graymore Coventry. We would be there in about four week’s time.
This news pierced our hearts like an icy dagger. We were so close to our wretched end, that each step further felt like a personal betrayal of all that was holy. We were taken by a deeper melancholy still, totally unready to face the fruit of darkness so soon. All of us wished to escape back to the blissful ignorance of the automation, but that would leave us helpless to whatever bandits or disasters may yet be waiting along our way.
Thus we decided to take it in turns. A fourth of us would keep watch while the rest remained comatose. A week of wakefulness and three of sleep for us all. We drew lots and it was my unhappy chance to be in the first watch.
What a foolish arrangement this seemed to be now, walking with only seven other alert companions, watching the mass of our companions shuffling forward listlessly like the immortal dead. We were alone to our fears, and it seemed to us that mischief was bound to spring out from every rock and shadow. We did not speak to one another, for our hearts were filled with dread, and it would spill out in a torrent if we opened our lips.
So we pressed on silently, teeth clenched, nerves firing, a silent panic in every footstep. Our heads hung down, our eyes stared into the earth, and at times we would fain bury ourselves in it and have the misery over with. It would have seemed a blessing if some highway robbers would come and give us the relief of a cut throat.
But though we might have prayed for such a relief with one half of our heart, the other stubbornly refused to let go of its need for life. We would go on, because even a cursed life is still the greatest of blessings.
Thus there were only eight of us who were awake. Only eight when our party came across the witch.
On Monday I discussed a couple ways that a story can balance complexity and scale to avoid introducing plot-holes. I suggested that a story needed to have a world big enough to support its ideas, so that different systems didn’t run into one another and cause inadvertent contradictions.
At the end of my last entry in this story I introduced the idea that these Treksmen were bound by an oath, such that they could not quit their delivery without dying as a result. That mechanic further led to the idea of them being able to function as automatons, performing their labors on a literal auto-pilot. It also became involved with the Scrayer coming and trying to kill them, as he knew their job could only be halted by their dying, either one way or the other. Now that’s as involved as I want this mechanic of oath-binding to be. The more I combine it with other systems, the more chance I have to make a connection that is incompatible.
Most of the new ideas that I introduce are meant to stand alone, entering for only one scene, and then never resurfacing with other connections. An example of this is our Scrayer, whose weapon, creed, and other details will never be seen in the story again. I only had to make his behavior compatible with the behavior of the Treksmen in this one instance, and now will not try to connect him to anything else.
The other technique I described was that of developing a story’s world and systems first. Even before I came up with the arc of our protagonist, one of my very first ideas was that of a massive, armed assailant ravaging a caravan, flinging men into the air where they dissipated into dust. By using this world-building-first approach, I already had suggested to me a plot involving a caravan, and a protagonist who is a member of it. I wrote such things, and now the story flows naturally through the scenes I first envisioned. One can of course overdo this world-building-first approach, and end up with a series of disjointed scenes that don’t really gel together. Hopefully I’m finding the correct balance with this experiment.
Before we continue with the story, though, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the stylistic theme of my past few stories, and how a body of work mirrors the mental state of the author. Come back on Monday to hear about that, and then on Thursday we’ll continue the adventures of our Treksman.
“…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.”
“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.
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.
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.
Curtis listened well, only ever asking the occasional clarifying question and otherwise taking the information in. At times he raised his eyebrows, not so much in skepticism, only surprise. He had, of course, already noticed things floating strangely through the tubes during the past few days, Gavin hadn’t done anything to try and hide them on his desk. If he had, Curtis would have noticed and confronted him about it all the sooner.
“So it’s not just some art thing,” Curtis concluded after Gavin closed his notebook. “It’s a…machine of some kind.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t really thought of that.”
“But we still don’t know what it’s for.”
“No…does it matter though?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I think if it did something useful that would be really cool…but really I just like playing with it and finding new things about it.”
“Hmm…yeah, that’s why you were able to keep playing with it after I got bored. Maybe if I started helping out now I’d just make you frustrated by trying to make it do something?”
“I dunno…maybe,” Gavin felt bad saying it, but it was the truth.
“No, it’s cool,” Curtis started to move away.
“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly again. “I have an idea. If we can find a way to grow discs, then we could recreate everything. Make two sets of it all.”
“Each have our own copy,” Curtis grinned.
“Exactly. Play with it exactly how we want and neither one of us feels frustrated.”
“Do you really think we can grow a disc?”
“I mean I haven’t tried, but I’ve already been able to get it to do all these other things. It seems like there oughta be a way.”
“What are some of your ideas?” Curtis sat back down in the seat, lifting one of the islands to take a closer look.
“Well I know I can make a whole rod with clay, so what if I had an already-completed rod in there, and then I made a clay disc at the end of it. So I feed the tube, it makes the black stuff, the black stuff moves down the rod, and start changing the clay into a disc.”
“Yeah, yeah, good idea. But that clay will have to hold its shape for days.”
“Oh shoot, I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Here hand me that disc. Look we’ll just lay the clay out flat on top of it. It’ll support its shape. And maybe each day we have to touch it up a little bit…”
The two boys kept chatting away, feeding off of one another’s energy late into the night.
Neither of the two boys knew at the time how endless the project would be. It was probably for the best, or else even Gavin might have balked at the commitment. The fact was it would be years of experimentation and discovery, each of them with their own set, each of them doing their own tests and sharing notes whenever they found anything exciting.
It was usually Gavin who would make a new breakthrough, like when he discovered how a series of islands could be combined as nodes around a larger shell, allowing for more massive structures to be built.He further discovered that these larger shells could be used as nodes for something larger, and so on and so on, recursively increasing the scope to any dimension required. If they had had the space for it, they could have built a tube the size of the an airport terminal, the material never buckled under its own weight.
Curtis, meanwhile, was the one who found all of the practical applications. It never buckled did it? With that in mind he went the other way and began crafting smaller and smaller levels of detail, forging links that he wove into clothing. It was extremely crude, but his initial tests made clear that robust body armor was a definite possibility for the material.
Gavin never said that he disapproved of those experiments, but he always seemed bemused by the idea of taking a technology so purely alien and applying it to mundane everyday things. His approach was always to explore what he felt the pieces “wanted” to be.
Curtis understood that the operation of the pieces was lenient. It allowed for variation in the pieces it crafted, and that meant it was intended to bend to another’s will. It was a tool to make whatever the wielder wanted it to make.
In either case, both brothers found enough to fascinate them for more than a decade. At first they tried to find places in their room to hide the experiments from their parents, and then in their later teens they pooled money from their summer jobs to rent a storage unit. They moved all the material into that and worked with it in there.
High school came and went, college did too. They were bright, and already trained in an engineering mindset. As they gained education they became aware of how significant some of their discoveries truly were. They realized this was an entire science unto itself. Even so, they still maintained the secret of it all. Boyhood promises to one another were hard to break. It had always been their project, not for anyone else.
Curtis was the first to question these old commitments. He suggested that they were holding themselves back by not bringing other minds to explore with them. At the very least he said they could create commercial applications which would fund larger experiments for them. They wouldn’t have to patent the inventions, no one would be able to reproduce what they made without the material anyway, so there was no need to disclose how it was done. It could still be their secret.
There was a flaw in that plan and Curtis knew it. Gavin knew it, too, and he didn’t hesitate to point it out. Their experiments had concluded that any piece of this material could be used to reverse engineer all others. To give away one element was to give everything away.
Other people wouldn’t figure out its secrets, Curtis said.
Not most, Gavin agreed, but some would.
Curtis pointed out that it wasn’t even their discovery anyway. Someone else put these things in that cardboard box in the first place.
Probably that person hadn’t even known what they were, Gavin said. “Someone must have been throwing them out.”
But that was not the case, as the two would soon find out.
The two of them were seated at their separate desks inside of the storage unit. A power generator hummed in the corner, powering a number of lights and two fans to keep each of them cool in the tin oven. Curtis now had his own house, but it felt fairer to keep the materials in the storage unit like this. It was their No Man’s Land.
Each of them was bent over their stack of materials, absorbed in their never-ending work. Then, all at once, the silence was shattered by a reverberating clang! Something had just slammed into the roof of their storage unit. The two snapped their heads up and looked to each other in surprise as a second crash sounded from one of the walls.
“Kids?” Gavin suggested. “Throwing rocks?”
“Maybe,” Curtis said, but he appeared entirely unconvinced. He stood up and grabbed a heavy wrench from his workstation. “C’mon.”
Together they lifted the sliding door and walked around to the side of the unit. There was twelve feet between it and the next unit, but that space was entirely empty. No kids, no burglars…nobody.
What there was, however, was a smooth white disc that was sticking to the wall. It was about the width of a hand and with little wings on opposite sides to each other. Gavin stared in disbelief, knowing what it was before he even touched it and felt the way it rippled his skin.
“It’s the same material,” he frowned.
“I didn’t show our stuff to anybody,” Curtis said, as if he was anticipating an accusation.
“Sure…” Gavin said slowly. He turned to look in the direction the winged disc must have come from. “But how–” his eyes went wide and grabbing his brother he pulled them both to the ground just as two more discs came hurtling through the air and slammed into their storage unit. At the same time they heard another thud from the opposite side, and another two hitting the roof.
“Get away!” Curtis shouted, crawling as quickly as he could along the ground.
Gavin started after him, but then paused to look at the open door to their storage shed. All their work, all their secrets were on open display. He turned and made his way back, the discs continuing to whiz overhead like bullets, three-to-five impacting every second. Gavin reached the entrance and cautiously raised up until he could grip the bottom of the door and pull it down along its track. He had the door about halfway down when another of the discs slammed into it, bending the steel shutters so that they refused to budge any further.
“Leave it!” Curtis roared, grabbing Gavin from behind and hauling him away.
“But it’s all of our work!”
“If they tracked us down here do you really think a little door-and-padlock is going to keep them out of the shed?”
Curtis jerked his thumb off to the side and Gavin turned to see what he was pointing at. The storage facility was on top of a natural rise in the land, with a single road providing the only access to it. A quarter-mile down that road, and making their way up to the facility, were two black pickup trucks.
From the bed of the truck in front came those white, winged discs. They were being flung up into the air, hung in empty space for a moment, then hurtled off in random arcs. Each disc curved through the air for a little while, and then suddenly zeroed in on Gavin and Curtis’s storage shed, each striking it from a different angle.
“You think they’re here for our stuff?” Gavin asked.
“You think they’d be here for anything else?”
“We’ve got to stop them,” Gavin’s voice was panicky.
“If they’re coming here like this…I think they mean business,” Curtis’s voice was calm.
“Then…we gotta run!”
“They seem to have accounted for that.”
Gavin looked back to the trucks, they had separated and were now approaching the brothers in a pincer. Being off the road, the trucks now kicked up huge clouds of dust in their wake, churning up the sage under their heavy tires.
Gavin stared incredulously at his brother, unbelieving of how he could be so resigned. But he was right.
“You let me do the talking,” Curtis quietly ordered.
Well, I said that I would finish the story today, but I’m going to need just a little bit more to cap it off. The good news is, I found out how I want to end this story! I mentioned on Monday that I would try to incorporate a couple themes here at the end. The first was going to be a theme of never-ending discoveries. The story is progressing to a cliffhanger, one where the brothers will move into a new stage of development and invention. I have that whole sequence all worked out, and I feel that it satisfies this story’s desire to forever explore the unknown.
Another theme I had toyed around with was how one needs to be responsible with their creativity and employ that power for good. Ultimately I don’t think that’s an idea I’m going to be able to deliver on with this piece. It’s a good theme, and I even sowed the seeds for it when describing the brothers different approaches to their inventions. If this were a full-sized novel, there would definitely be a pay-off on that idea later on, but I just don’t have enough time in this short-story format to give that theme its due.
This brings up a question of what scope fits a story. It is a very important consideration for an author. We often say in writing that one is limited only by their creativity, but that isn’t entirely true. There are other constraints, such as the number of words before a story becomes unwieldy. On Monday I’d like to talk some more about those limitations, and about the balance of depth and breadth that an author should consider in their work. After that I reallywill post the end of Instructions Not Included. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!