The Time Travel Situation: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

All was chaos once more as pirate and children chased each other all about the Time Capsule. Blackbeard was a more persistent predator than the raptors, though, far less prone to being distracted. Despite the children’s efforts best efforts he soon had Patrick by the scruff of his neck.

“Alright then!” he roared. “All of ye will be calming down now, ‘less you want any harm to come to yer crewmate here!”

Mavis, Chase, Nell, and Ellie glanced at each other, then slowly lowered the boxes and chairs they had been about to throw.

“Very good!” the pirate approved. “Now it would seem I am requiring a new vessel. This” he gestured to the time machine “will be that vessel. The lot of you will teach me to command such a craft and I…will let you live.”

“Don’t do it!” Patrick shouted. “We can’t let him get power over all of history!”

“Well perhaps not all of ye will live!” Blackbeard hissed into Patrick’s face.

“Don’t hurt him!” Nell shouted. “We’ll help you.”

“What?” Mavis looked incredulously to Nell’s worry-etched face.

“Very good,” Blackbeard approved. “Now if ye would be so kind, lass, direct me to the helm of this vessel.”

“It’s over here,” Nell stepped to the central panel and flipped a few switches, causing the Time Capsule to shudder as it hurtled along its way to the future.

“Curious…” Blackbeard took a step nearer, still holding Patrick firm. “No wheel?”

“No. Switches and dials.”

“Teach me.”

“Let the boy go first.”

“If I be letting the boy go, then you will have no reason to obey.”

“Trade then,” Nell held her arm out to Blackbeard. He paused for a moment, as if trying to detect a trap, then gripped her wrist. As soon as he had her secured he let Patrick go. “I’ll tell you everything,” she said, “and you can keep our ship. But in return we’re going to need your help. We have an important mission to fulfill and we’re down to its last stage now. You see us through to the end, drop us off at our home berth, and then our ship and the knowledge to run it will be yours.”

Blackbeard laughed, then spat in his hand and held it out to her. Nell nodded and spat in his hand, too.

“Er…” Blackbeard stared at his hand in confusion, but waved the matter away with a careless shrug. “It’s a deal then!”

“Perfect,” Nell turned back brightly to the other children, only to find them staring at her with mouths agape. “What?” she asked innocently.

“Could I have a word, Nell?” Mavis hissed as he grabbed her elbow and escorted her out of Blackbeard’s earshot. “What do you think you’re doing?! We can’t give the Time Capsule to Blackbeard!”

“Well he’s going to help us finish our mission first. We’ll come back home with history having been righted and that’s the extent of our job, Mavis.”

“History won’t be righted! Blackbeard was supposed to die in that storm.”

“We don’t actually know that. It’s only a legend that he died there. And anyway, he’s still been taken out of that timeline one way or another, hasn’t he?”

“Oh really? You’re using the same defense as Patrick with his raptors now? At least he wasn’t giving them a time machine to go mess up whatever moment in history they want! There’s no telling what that old cutthroat will get to if he has the Time Capsule!”

“Alright!” Nell conceded. “It’s an imperfect solution. We’ll just have to figure out the rest as we go. What matters is that I took care of what I had to in the moment.”

Mavis narrowed his eyes. “You mean saving Patrick.”

“Yes, saving Patrick, Mavis. What’s the matter with that? He’s a member of our crew, isn’t he?!” And with that she jerked her arm free and returned to the rest of the crew.

“We’re about to come out of timewarp,” she observed, “and I’ve got a feeling this will be the most dangerous task we’ve faced yet.”

“The time coordinates say its the mid 1800s,” Chase announced. “Coming into the United States…looks like central Missouri.”

“1800s!” Blackbeard clapped a hand to his head. “What manner of ships might one find in such a time as that?”

“Oh, some really cool ones,” Patrick grinned. “They’re about to invent invent the first ironclad warships.”

Ironclad?!” the pirate exclaimed. “I’ll be unstoppable!”

Mavis shot a furious glare at Nell.

“Never mind that, Blackbeard,” Nell tutted. “We had a deal and you need to have your mind on the mission at hand.”

As if on cue the Time Capsule began to wind down for final approach. It was now slow enough for its occupants to make out the landscape before them. The ocean of water had been replaced for one of dust. A single, flat, empty plain extended for as far as the eye could see in every direction.

Well…almost empty. Snaking through the void was a single, black snake, which as the Time Capsule descended lower and lower revealed itself to be a railway line. And upon that line a single steam train chugged from east to west.

“A train?” Chase said in surprise. “Why would the time bandits be interested in a train out in the middle of nowhere?”

“Probably there’s something important on the train,” Ellie observed.

“Yeah…hang on…” Patrick stepped over to the panel, started fiddling with the Time Capsule’s optics, and the screen overhead zoomed in to a close-up view of the passenger car. There, framed against the fifth-window-from-the-back they saw a tall, thin man. He did not yet have his famous beard or stovepipe hat, but he was already recognizable to the children.

“Abraham Lincoln?!” Mavis exclaimed.

“I guess this time they’re not trying to save monsters or tyrants,” Nell concluded. “They’re trying to assassinate someone prematurely, take him out before he can steer the course of history.”

“But how?”

“What manner of witchcraft be this?” Blackbeard approached the panel and view screen in awe. He reached a hand out to the dials but Mavis slapped it away.

“I’m working,” Mavis said, then spun the dial so that the outside optics moved forward along the train tracks. “Obviously a train is an isolated, easy target to destroy. The question is whether they’re trying to do that from within the train, or from outside of it…oh…”

A distant bridge had just come into view on the display panel. It was a strip of nearly a mile, stretched precariously over a gorge that was over a thousand feet deep. And down on the supporting beams had been strapped many massive clusters of dynamite!

“Alright,” Mavis sighed. “Looks like we know their play.”

“Well what about on the train itself?” Nell asked. “Any additional threats there?”

Mavis spun the dials and the viewing screen shifted back to the engine. It slid along the outside of the long vehicle and the children watched for any anomalies.

“There!” Chase pointed. “Two of those armored guards lurking on top of the cars.”

“Nuts…” Mavis exhaled through clenched teeth. “You guys understand, we can’t just stop the bridge from exploding, we have to handle it discreetly. We might save Abraham Lincoln, but if the people on that train see something that they weren’t supposed to, the ripples through time might still be enormous! This is going to be a much harder task.”

“Is the remote activator working now?” Ellie asked. “So we can reset the timeline if things get too screwy?”

“Yes,” Mavis checked the glowing harness. “But we can’t get sloppy because we’re depending on it. We can only reroll the dice once, then the remote activator will break forever. I’ll be the one wearing it and I won’t activate it unless we absolutely have to.”

“So what be the orders for me and my little reptile friends?” Blackbeard grinned toothily. He was stroking the heads of the two raptors he had brought aboard, which having finally regained consciousness now seemed to regard the pirate as the leader of their pack.

“Somehow I don’t see you as being the sort to handle things discreetly,” Mavis’s eyes went wide. “So you’re going to be as far from the train as possible, handling the dynamite on the bridge. Ellie, Patrick, you go with him. Chase, Nell, and I will take care of things on the train. Everyone ready?”

They all nodded and Mavis punched the thruster, whisking the Time Capsule through the air and over to the bridge. Mavis very briefly tethered to that timeline, just long enough for Patrick, Ellie, Blackbeard, and the raptors to jump out onto the tracks. Then he untethered the Time Capsule and raced to the back of the train for a soft landing.

“Looks like that’s the storage car right in front of us,” Chase observed as the machine tethered once more to that moment of time. “We can probably find some more time-appropriate clothes in there.” Chase was correct, and very quickly they were all dressed accordingly. Then they split up, Nell and Mavis going up top to take out the armored guards, while Chase moved into the passenger car to make sure that no one was noticing the soft thuds coming from above the ceiling.

*

“You say there is a great bomb inside of this little stick?” Blackbeard peeled one of the pieces of dynamite off the bridge with glee. “What will the British Navy think when they see me hurling this at their decks?!”

“Blackbeard, remember, you can’t go back to your olden days!” Ellie reminded him as she pulled another stick of dynamite off the bridge and handed it to Patrick, who was carefully removing their fuses. “You can’t do anything to change history. That might erase all of us so that we don’t exist!”

“Nay,” Blackbeard shook his head. “If I understand you correctly, then I only must only go no further back than the day you found me in the storm.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I were to go to my history then it would undo the makings of me,” Blackbeard explained. “But so long as I only tamper with my present and my future, then I shall come to no harm.”

“But…we might!” Patrick said in exasperation. “You’re forgetting that your future is our past!”

“Nay,” Blackbeard said again as he removed the last stick of dynamite from the bundle they had been working on. “What is forgotten is that I now have the only fused explosive, and ye are at my mercy!”

“What are you doing?” Ellie exclaimed in shock. “We had a deal!”

“And now we have a new one,” Blackbeard sneered. “Ye will forget this ‘quest’ ye are on, ye will return me to the ship, and I will maroon you all in this savage time, taking your vessel for meself! Raptors!” he snapped to his newfound pets. “Surround them!” The lizards obediently flanked the children on either side.

“You won’t get away with this,” Patrick said, and before another word could be uttered by any of them the sound of a shot rang out! The children and pirate ducked as a bullet pinged off the side of the bridge only three feet away!

“We’re being shot at!” Blackbeard roared, pocketing the dynamite and reaching for his flintlock pistol.

“But by whom?” Ellie wondered aloud as she and Patrick used the distraction to move under the girders of the bridge and away from Blackbeard and his raptors.

“Think about it, Ellie,” Patrick replied. “Wasn’t there something strange about that dynamite?”

“No…it just looked like the regular stuff to me.”

“Exactly! But everything we’ve seen so far from the time bandits stood out like a sore thumb. A high-tech cannon in the age of dinosaurs, jet thrusters on a pirate ship…but this dynamite has been totally period correct.”

“So you don’t think it was the time bandits who put it there?”

“I don’t.”

“But then, who?”

Part Five

On Monday I shared about chaotic stories, ones that make use of a huge cast of characters, or noisome settings, or quickly-shifting themes and objectives. I spoke about how these tales can still remain coherent by remaining true to some central idea, and in the case of The Time Travel Situation the central idea is trying to stop all of these changes to history.

It’s not a particularly strong through-line, though. It’s not as if the time bandits have a central villain to serve as the story’s primary antagonist. Each jump to another place in time essentially resets all of the tension, with little carrying from one stage to the next. The through-line is only providing a reason for these time-hops to occur, and that is enough for my needs.

The other thing I mentioned about chaotic stories is that some tales embrace the chaos, simply wanting to take you for an entertaining ride without concerning themselves with telling a meaningful narrative. The Time Travel Situation falls far more firmly under that category. It’s central purpose is to present children playing pretend, no more and no less. I might briefly incorporate relationship drama between Mavis and Nell and Patrick, but that’s only an entertaining aside, not an indicator of deeper character development to come. Nor does Blackbeard’s betrayal have any more nuance than it initially appears to. It is a straightforward piece of cheating, used as a convenience to get the the children out of their promise to him.

This is something that happens in stories all the time, by the way. The hero will be held back from utterly destroying the villain because of some promise or sense of duty. Of course they could renege on those promises or duties, but then they would be immoral. This conundrum is then resolved by the villain doing something deceitful, something that either removes the hero from the obligation of their promise, or allows them to destroy the villain in an act of self defense.

It’s a bit contrived, to be sure, and can certainly be overused, but let’s take a look at a few examples of this in other stories with my next post. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then see the next chapter of The Time Travel Situation on Thursday.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Eleven

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

“Master,” Tharol panted, “I–I didn’t see you there–“

“No, you were more intent on getting to your perch to spy on young Beesk, weren’t you?”

Tharol fidgeted uncomfortably.

“As you have been every day for the past week…when you’re not too busy spending time with Reis.”

“I–“

“Very different sets of company, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well–we’re all members of the same order, aren’t we?”

Master Palthio smiled and shook his head. “No. And you know that.”

Tharol’s could feel the initial rush of adrenalin dissipating. He wasn’t feeling so startled anymore, and as it passed he found anger underneath.

“Is there something you want to say to me, Master?” even he was surprised to hear how much sarcasm dripped from that last word. There was no way Master Palthio had missed the slight…but he chose not to regard it.

“Very well. I won’t be coy with you anymore, Tharol. I know you, of all my students, crave directness. As I said, you seem to be spending your time in two very different circles. I can only assume this is for your own personal purposes that you wish to keep secret, and don’t worry, I won’t be prying.”

“Okay…”

“But I will offer you a word of caution. If you’re acting as the pawn for both sides, you’re likely to be played against yourself.”

Tharol’s eyes narrowed as he processed that.

“And believe me,” Master Palthio continued with a sigh, “I know a great deal about being another person’s pawn. I’ve tried to play by the rules of others, doing things I didn’t agree with, been manipulated against my will. And all because I hoped to sneak in something good along the way…. Things don’t work that way, Tharol.”

“Manipulated against your will?” The heat was coming back into Tharol’s voice. “Like me in the last competition! You set me up to fall off the ledge and break my leg!”

Master Palthio looked sadly at Tharol. “I was sorry to teach that lesson.”

“What did you do? Make the gap too large for me to clear on purpose?”

“Just the opposite. I specifically crafted that gap to be exactly one yard less than your record in our bounding exercises.”

Tharol blinked in surprise at that. “But…what did you mean when you said you ensured I would fail that jump then? How did you make sure of that?”

“Oh…I told you that you would. And you believed me.”

Tharol was stunned.

Master Palthio sighed and turned to go, but he stopped at the hatch for a parting word. “Stop playing by other peoples’ rules, Tharol. Be your own piece in the game. Better yet…don’t even play the game any longer.”

Tharol leaned back against the wall and tried to make sense of Master Palthio was saying. There was a lot to it…but he couldn’t parse it out. He shook his head and brought himself back to the matters at hand: the correspondence he had just stolen. He moved over to the hanging lantern and by its light read the contents of his pilfered note.

Change of plans. I have it on excellent authority that the third boy you recruited is a traitor to our cause! Check if he has sabotaged your plans, and if so remove him.

Tharol read through it twice, just to be sure he hadn’t misunderstood. The third boy? That had to mean him. A traitor? Sabotaging plans? What was this?! He crumpled the paper into a ball, knuckles white with anger. Remove him?! As in…kill?! And where did she get into her head that he had sabotaged anything? Yes, of course he was attempting to subvert their plans, but he had no idea how she would have caught wind of that. And he certainly hadn’t actually sabotaged anything. What even was there to sabotage? The wine in the cellar?

A sudden fear passed through Tharol’s mind. What if the wine had been tampered with and now he was being set up to take the fall? He couldn’t see why or how…but now that the thought had passed through his mind he had to check on things. He shoved the crumpled letter into his robes and strode out of the tower. The dinner bell was ringing but he ignored it entirely. He’d be a few minutes late again today.

Golu and Avro passed him as he made his way to the cellar, but they didn’t say a word to him, nor he to them. All the other boys were already gone to the main hall and that was just as well. He’d come up with an excuse for his delayed arrival later.

Tharol reached his destination and stepped down through the hatch. He went with the lantern to the back of the room and began moving the jugs until he had unburied the two poisoned vessels. He grabbed the first one and spun it under the light until he found its wax seal.

The seal was broken.

Tharol lifted the stopper and took a deep waft of its contents. Perfectly good wine, not so much as a hint of bitter Tinstin. The poisoned wine had been replaced, just as the letter from the statue woman suggested.

“What is this?” Tharol asked aloud. Someone was trying to set him up. It was the only conclusion that made sense. He couldn’t accept it was a coincidence that the bottle had been tampered with and then this note arrived. The same person was behind both. They had changed the wine and then told the woman to write the note. Actually, Tharol thought it highly unlikely that the statue woman had written the letter. Anyone who knew Beesk and Inol’s system could have easily planted the note in her place.

So did that mean it was one of them? Was Beesk or Inol trying to muscle him out, just as Reis had suggested they might do?

“Look at this, Inol,” Tharol imagined Beesk saying. “Got this note and the wine’s been replaced! Tharol’s a no-good traitor and you’ve got to help me get rid of him!”

But no sooner did Tharol picture that scene then he rejected it.

“I don’t know,” pretend-Inol responded. “The wax seal’s been broken and Tharol knew all about that. He was here when we put it on….If he was the one who replaced the wine wouldn’t he have had the sense to put it back?”

If it had been Inol or Beesk trying to frame Tharol they would have known to put the wax seal back. So that could only mean…

“Reis,” Tharol whispered.

Reis was the only other person that Tharol had told about the poisoned wine. Reis had even asked exactly where it was located in the cellar. The only thing Tharol hadn’t mentioned to Reis was the wax seal, it hadn’t seemed like an important piece of information. And the seal was so small that Reis wouldn’t noticed it when making the swap.

Tharol realized there was one other piece of information that he hadn’t mentioned to Reis either. Tharol grabbed the bottle that had been resting beside the first and turned it around to examine its wax seal.

Unbroken.

Rather than open it he pressed his nose against the stopper and inhaled. Through the cork and clay he could just barely make out the scent of wine inside…and also the faintest traces of the poison. This one had been left untouched.

He hadn’t thought it necessary to mention to Reis the issue of the first batch of poisoned wine being too potent and how they had diluted it across two bottles. So Reis had only known to replace the bottle directly in the corner and not the one next to it.

Tharol paused for a moment, thinking things through. There were many problems to sort out, but first and foremost was what to do with these bottles and the letter. He quickly determined that it was best to keep Beesk and Inol in the dark about it all. He was pretty sure they weren’t so corrupt that they would actually try to kill him, but he wouldn’t put it past them to hit him over the head and leave him trussed up in the cellar tomorrow night.

To that end he opened the lantern and stuffed the letter inside, letting it reduce to harmless ash. Then he tipped the lantern sideways and drippled wax on the altered bottle until the broken seal was mended. He found a loose rock on the ground and carefully tapped at the bottom of the bottle with increasing force until a shard broke off and the wine started dribbling out. He quickly placed it back in its corner, returned the unaltered bottle beside it, then covered them up with all the other bottles that had been concealing them from view.

There.

Now he would proceed with Beesk and Inol like nothing had happened. When they found the broken bottle he would be just as dumbfounded as them. He would simply suppose that they must have hit it too hard against the wall when they placed it in the corner, but fortunately they had a backup with the other bottle. Things would proceed just as planned.

Now that that was taken care of Tharol moved on to the next problem. Would Reis realize that his plan hadn’t worked out?

Probably. He would have known that Tharol was going up in the tower to spy on Beesk and Inol, and now Reis was sitting at the dinner table, silently wondering why Tharol was arriving late. And Reis would be paying special attention to Beesk and Inol at that same table, trying to gauge whether they were behaving like they had just been rattled by a note with some shocking news. And they wouldn’t be. They would be laughing and joking like there wasn’t a care in the world. And then Reis would start to piece it all together.

Tharol took a deep, bracing breath. Well he certainly was in it now.

Three minutes later Tharol finally came to dinner, prepared with an excuse of having discovered a hole in his tunic that needed patching. He entered the room, offered his apology to Master Palthio, and took his seat at the table. Through all this he steadfastly avoided making eye contact with Reis. Tharol couldn’t trust himself to keep his face unemotional if he did. He felt his skin hot and sensitive, as if he could sense Reis sneaking suspicious glares down the table at him.

In reality he was sure Reis was making no glares whatsoever. That would have been too revealing. He was sure that Reis was perfectly playing the part of an unconcerned pupil without a care in the world. He was sure Reis was eating his food with a steady hand and a tranquil expression, even as the wheels would be churning in his mind.

Tharol’s eyes instinctively flicked upwards against his will, finally making eye contact with Reis. And to his great amazement, Reis turned and met his stare with perfectly neutral eyes.

“Hey, Tharol, could you pass the salt?” the boy drawled.

It was so nonchalant that Tharol started to wonder whether his suspicions were entirely misplaced! Was it possible that he had drawn the wrong conclusions? That someone else had swapped the poison? That Tharol had diluted it more than he thought? Maybe he was just being paranoid again.

But no. Even though a part of him really wished that this was the case, in his heart Tharol knew it wasn’t true. It wasn’t his reasoning that convinced him either, it was his instincts. Reis had seemed the last true friend he had left at the order, and it hurt him to call the boy a traitor, but he was sure of it. It simply fit.

To what end…Tharol still did not know. He couldn’t fathom what Reis’s game was and he wouldn’t be able to until the next night. But the fact that it was Reis who was pulling the strings made him certain that this situation was even more serious than he had ever imagined. There was no chance that Reis would be extending himself like this for anything trivial. This wasn’t about money like with Beesk and Inol. Indeed, there now settled on Tharol’s heart a realization that they were all in very grave danger.

Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen
Part Sixteen

On Monday I spoke of stories that have scenes the reader can immediately relate to. Whether by simulating a typical life experience or by connecting to the private fantasies in us all, these stories are able to spark an immediate connection in their reader.

Today I decided to try something a bit different from this, though. I specifically incorporated a scene that was would not be relatable to most audience members. Certainly all of us have experienced betrayal at some point or another, but I would imagine most of us have never had our lives being threatened by a traitor!

Of course this is a common scenario in stories: describing an experience that the user has never encountered before. This is a large reason of why we seek out stories, to explore situations that are exciting or interesting, but impossible or undesirable in real life.

And so here we find a little bit of a conundrum. Our stories will have scenes that are impossible for the reader to directly relate to, but we still want them to feel connected to the experience. This means the writer needs to use to have a healthy enough imagination to present an experience that the reader will feel is authentic. Perhaps we haven’t had our lives threatened by an act of betrayal, but we can try to imagine “what that sort of situation would probably feel like.”

As I tried to imagine what such an experience would be like the overwhelming emotion that came to the surface was numbing shock. There would be anger and hurt eventually, but I really think if I were in Tharol’s shoes those emotions would be too large to register initially, resulting in a sort of hollow emptiness instead. Hopefully my interpretation will ring true to the reader as well.

While we’re on the subject of betrayal, though, I want to point out how this has long been a staple of literature. I’d like to look at a few examples of this in famous stories and consider why we have a fascination with such a somber theme. Come back on Monday as I’ll do exactly this, and then join me on Thursday as we experience Tharol’s betrayal further in the next chapter of The Favored Son.

Once Among the Clouds: Part One

clouds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not tell him?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’ll be here soon.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t take it all?!”

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

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

“…Don’t you trust me Strat?”

“Of course I do. Don’t you trust me?”

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

Stratocirrus paused and divided itself into two Sub-parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. This will be enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two

*

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

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

Would I Lie to You?

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On Thursday we had the second segment of Phisherman, in which our narrator let us into his home, more of his thought processes, and described various body sensations. But all of these are only surface periphery, and he has still stubbornly avoided sharing anything truly vulnerable. We don’t know what it is that makes him tick or what his real motivations are, and he adamantly refuses to tell us what he’s even feeling.

A narrator that has an adversarial relationship with the reader is not a new invention, but it still remains an interesting mechanic due to how it goes against the basic idea of what a story is. A story is supposed to be a way to share knowledge, to communicate, to bring to an understanding. Therefore an unreliable narrator seems that it would only make a story defeat itself in much the same way that telling lies defeats the natural purpose of communication.

Indeed almost every story begins with the assumption that the narrator is truthful and somewhat omniscient. Usually they know everything that is needed to communicate their tale accurately, and they will be used as the standard of truth that all else is measured against. Therefore when a narrator is not trustworthy it is something that has to be discovered. Bit by bit things just aren’t adding up, and finally there’s a breaking apart where our creeping suspicions become confirmed.

And it is in that moment of discovery that the self-defeating nature of an unreliable narrator is undone. When pulled off properly the communication that follows can actually become more true, due to its initial concealing nature. But don’t take my word for it, there have been some excellent stories which have proved this very point.

 

Fight Club)

Take, for example, the story in Fight Club. I’ve have not yet read the novel, but the film’s snappy, cynical dialogue was actually a direct influence on crafting Phisherman’s tone. Interestingly, this film starts by surprising us with just how brutally honest it is willing to be. We understand exactly how Edward Norton’s character feels about the media, society, and all the world’s various problems. He sees a lot to complain about, including of himself, and he doesn’t hold back in cutting down everything he despises.

But while that honesty is invigorating, the audience still gets the notion that something is being hidden from them. People occasionally treat Edward Norton’s character in a way that doesn’t make sense, and there are strange black-out periods that are entirely unaccounted for. It isn’t necessarily that we think our narrator is lying to us, just that he isn’t as in control of the situation as he should be. In the end it turns out to be both. He is lying to us, but he isn’t even aware of doing so.

In the final act the story reveals its secret, and we find out that our leading man is a far more complex individual than we had been led to believe. Certainly more than he, himself, had ever believed. Thus this tale is particularly interesting in that it features a narrator that is being duped right along with the audience. That “aha moment” where everything comes to light is even more of a shock to him than it is to us.

The takeaway here would be that the narrator does not have to always know when they are being unreliable. They might just be expressing the truth according to their limited understanding of it.

 

The Beginner’s Guide)

Another example of an unreliable narrator is that of the indie game called The Beginner’s Guide. This is a game that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, right from its initial moments. It opens with the game’s real-life creator giving you his real-life name and his real-life email address. It is incredibly, disarmingly honest, and leaves the player feeling a little embarrassed at just how far they being are invited into the creator’s personal space. But all of this is just a façade, and when it comes down things are only going to become more intimate.

The basic construct of the game is that the creator, Davey Wreden, wants to show you some small minigames that his friend “Coda” has made. These games are all quite short and about a very limited objective. They’re also very different, and feel less interested in providing compelling gameplay as being virtual art pieces that communicate an experience. For example a maze that is impossible to beat may not be very fun to play, but it recreates the sensation of being trapped that Coda was experiencing in his life at that time.

Then, at the end, Davey confesses that Coda actually hates him for sharing his games with the public like this. These weren’t meant to be put on display for everyone, they were very personal to Coda. Davey even admits that he has been altering the games, giving them glimmers of hope that he felt had been missing.

So clearly there was a deception here, and the player feels dirty for having been made an accomplice to violating Coda’s personal life. This might seem like it’s the “aha moment” of catching the unreliable narrator in the act, but there’s an even greater revelation still to uncover.

This one comes when you understand that Coda and Davey are not actually two different people, but rather two sides of the same individual. There’s plenty to suggest this fact within the game itself, but it is further confirmed by reading the blog posts that Davey Wreden has published about himself. He gets very personal and honest in those blogs, and they talk about his two conflicting interests: to be purely creative and also to feed his never-ending hunger for validation.

From his blog posts and this game we understand that “Coda” is the name that Davey has given to his muse, the part of him that provides him pure inspiration. But then there’s this other part of him, the public part, that tries to make those games more marketable and entertaining so that he can be praised for them. The more he does that, the more his private life is thrust into the limelight, and the more he starts to feel that honest creativity dying within him.

The Beginner’s Guide is very unique in that it makes the player believe it is being entirely honest, then convinces the player they have been deceived, and then let’s them discover it was actually being more honest than ever.

 

Truth Through Deception)

So obviously these are two very different examples of an unreliable narrator, however there is one aspect that they share, that of actually unveiling more as a result of their covering up.

If in Fight Club we had understood all the wrinkles of the main character from the outset, then we would not have experienced the same sense of confusion and foreboding that he was experiencing. He would have been wandering around scared and confused and we would have been waiting for him to catch up to our level. Being left in a place of uncertainty only better connected the audience to the lack of completeness he had been feeling the whole film long.

And as for The Beginner’s Guide, it could have been introduced as simply “here are two different sides of me,” but that would have lessened the sense of betrayal that we experienced at the end. By dividing the psyche into two individuals we better have this idea of a relationship, one which requires respect from one to another to survive. In this way this story is able to make its point that we know it would be unquestionably wrong to exploit another person, but why do we think it any better to exploit oneself?

This element makes for one of my favorite styles of unreliable narrator. Even though the narrator may not be telling you the truth about the details, they are informing you of other truths about themselves. This, however, is not the technique that I am utilizing for Phisherman. In fact I’ve decided to do the exact opposite to see how that affects the outcome.

Jake is being entirely honest about all of the details, and there is not going to be any sort of twist where he has a split personality or an imaginary friend. The deceit is one that he, himself, doesn’t recognize as a deceit because it is really a self-deceit. Jake has been able to omit his feelings from the story thus far because he is very practiced at numbing them, even to the point that he would doubt their existence. In the final section of the story we will have a moment where the pure terror that always lives beneath his surface finally rages to the forefront for all to see. My hope is that that moment of stark clarity will then color every scene that came before.

Come back Thursday to see how that works out. I’ll be waiting for you there!

The Heart of Something Wild: Part Three

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Khalil’s blood was pounding, his heart was racing, his hands were clenched in fists. Then, in almighty rush the sights and the sounds of the tribe flooded back into focus. Some people were shrieking in fear, gesturing to Urafiki’s strange and twisted figure at Khalil’s feet. Others were sobbing in heartbreak, reaching for Paki’s fallen form. Others, only a few, were shouting in anger, crowding behind Abasi. And between them all Khalil stood alone.

“He cheated!” Abasi spat. “He revoked his right to a companion! And a creature cannot fight in the blood duel!”

“Abasi, you are a fool!” one of the elders chided. “He has just saved your life.”

“That wouldn’t have been necessary if he had not brought that monster into camp!”

“Abasi you have nothing to gain,” one of the women spoke up, “the challenge is over and Paki is dead.”

“But he was not slain by a member of the challenge. It is not honorable!”

Most of the people looked over to the head priest, he was the final word on the law of their tribe. The man was shaking his head gravely, clearly uneasy with his burden.

“It does not…seem honorable,” he finally muttered, then looked earnestly to Khalil.

Khalil understood. The priest knew that this was a gray area, and was hoping that Khalil would resolve the matter for them.

“No,” Khalil agreed. “It was not.”

The tide let loose again.

“Then Abasi is our new chief,” one of the warriors standing off to the side spoke up.

“He was not a challenger,” Paki’s mother chimed in. “Only a companion. Paki was challenger and Paki is chief.”

“He’s dead,” another woman said flatly.

“Then his son inherits the throne.”

There was quite a rumble of dissent at that.

“Perhaps Paki was not honorably defeated, but he didn’t win the challenge either!”

“He had been going to.”

“Evidently not!”

“How are you all forgetting that Khalil saved us from that creature!”

As each side began to shout over one another Khalil noticed various members of the tribe glancing over to him expectantly. They wanted him to speak up, to make a claim, to settle the matter for them. But he knew that wouldn’t work, the rifts were too deep. He would just become another of the contending voices pulling the tribe further apart. Besides, he had already tried to give the tribe a peaceful resolution and nature had intervened, so who was he to say what was right anymore?

So much had gone wrong this night. Khalil should not still be alive. Paki should not have been killed. Urafiki should not have had to die simply for defending its friend. Paki should not have ever betrayed him. So many wrongs: against their tribe, against nature, against friendship.

But above the agony of Khalil’s losses was the matter of his continued presence and how it was driving that rift between the brothers and sisters that he loved. He had tried before to decide for the tribe what was in their best interest, now all he could think to do was to let them to decide on their own. And to do that, he still needed to remove himself from them.

“Hear me!” Khalil finally said and the tumult quickly hushed. “Our law has been broken. I don’t just mean violated…it is broken into pieces. Each of you tries to claim one of those pieces but it will not all fit back together anymore.”

He paused and could see in the people’s faces that they agreed with his summary.

“Therefore all that remains is to build anew,” he continued. “You must find a new law this day and become a new tribe… And as such, I am no longer your chief,” he reached up to his chest and undid the clasp there, dropping his ceremonial mantle to the floor. Gasps of shock rippled through the crowd.

“I am responsible for everything falling apart. I am sorry.”

Another slight pause.

“I hereby exile myself that you may find your own way to continued peace and unity. May you be guided by wisdom.”

Tears glistened in Khalil’s eyes as he turned away from his people. He could hear their rumbling whispers, but he could not make out the words. He did not try to. Slowly, purposefully, he hobbled away from the fire, past the huts and the crops, beyond the fringe of their clearing, and into the wild that lay beyond.

He was vaguely aware that the arguing in the center of the camp had picked up again, and he found himself praying that they would be able to find their way. Stumbling over the thick foliage in the dark he felt his way still deeper and deeper. On occasion he looked over his shoulder to see if he could still glimpse the bonfire or hear the tribe’s heated debates.

He continued until there was no more sign of his people and he was enclosed entirely in the blackness of the night. Groping in the dark he found a large boulder and lowered himself into a seated position on it.

The darkness of the jungle pressed close against him and now the tears began to flow. Some were for Paki, his lost friend. Some were for the hate he had felt, his desire to kill that very friend for his betrayal. Some were for Urafiki, whose only crime was loyalty and carrying out that which Khalil intended. Some were for his tribe, fractured by the drama of the night. And finally some tears were reserved for himself, alone and broken, a man at odds with his own nature.

He wondered how long he would be able to survive out here on his own. Should he try to find shelter and food? He had great difficulty hunting with his low stamina, but he could try gathering resources. Even so, it would only be a matter of time before he became sick or found by some larger predator, and then he could only help the end would come quickly….

He shook his head, trying to change those thoughts. Instead he found himself wondering what he was supposed to have done differently. Should he have let Paki stand with him and died together as friends? Should he have left Urafiki to die alone on top of the mountain? Even with the tragedy of that night he still felt he had only made the choices that seemed right. At least at the time.

As he sat in the darkness his eyes became sensitive to little pinpricks of light and he found himself captivated by them. First were the patches of starry night sky visible above the canopy of the trees. He stared upwards at the partial signs they made to him, the incomplete guidance they tried to impart. He looked downwards and saw the drifting glow of the fireflies, the random meanderings of life. As he watched their swirling forms he noticed that some of the fireflies were growing larger than the others. Confused, he closed his eyes and shook his head, then looked back at them.

He realized he had mistaken the depth of the points of light and that some of them were actually torches drifting in his general direction. He stood up, his heart racing. Had Abasi argued his way into chiefdom and sent warriors out to dispose of him?

But no. The lights were far too many for that. They only had a score of warriors in their tribe and he could now make out at least fifty torches, all spread out evenly in a fan to find him.

Slowly realization set in. The tribe was following him into exile. Rather than try to salvage the pieces of a broken law they were willfully abandoning their home to follow him into the unknown. Somehow he had earned their trust and now they wanted his help to begin a new legacy. He called out to them.

***

This completes my story The Heart of Something Wild. If you have missed the previous sections of the story you can find the entire work here. Furthermore, it is possible to access all of my previous short stories in their entirety on this page. That page can also be found by selecting Collections from the top menu.

On Monday I spoke about underdog stories, ones where the hero wins not by being the biggest and strongest, but by persevering in what they believe to be right. A common method for this is in their winning the hearts of the masses, who then combine their strength together to overthrow the opposition. This is often the martyr whose sacrifice creates a cause greater than themselves. Ultimately I knew that this was an element I wanted to use in bringing The Heart of Something Wild to its resolution.

Obviously, though, our main character does not actually die the martyr’s death in this tale. Perhaps he intended to, but was frustrated in those designs. That was a creative decision, one where I meant to suggest that he was trying his best, but some higher power intervened to reward him for his selflessness and give him something better. That higher power is left open to interpretation, it could be nature, the spirits of his ancestors, karma, God, or something else.

I would say this example is different from the many unfortunate examples of stories that pretend they are going to feature a heroic sacrifice, and then chicken out at the last moment. This is one of my greatest narrative pet peeves, and I feel strongly enough about it that I’ll be dedicating my entire post on Monday to it. Then, on Thursday I’ll be presenting a new short story. I’ll see you then.

The Heart of Something Wild: Part Two

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“Is it finally asleep?”

Khalil spun around in surprise and found Paki peering into the hut, his eyes locked on Urafiki.

“Yes,” Khalil grinned. “It is soothed, well fed, and resting. It will not eat you today.”

“I am grateful” Paki laughed back as he stepped fully into the home. “Am I disturbing you now?”

“No, Paki, in fact I’ve wanted to speak with you.”

“About the challenge?”

“Yes.”

Paki shook his head. “I do not see why you are so hesitant about it. Who else would you have stand with you? I am the finest warrior in all of the camp, everyone says so.”

“I would say so, too,” Khalil sighed. “But I would also say that one man against two makes for difficult odds. By that I mean no slight to you.”

Paki waved dismissively. “Did you not hear how I fought two Oroko at once in their last raid?” He folded his arms impressively and assumed the boastful stance he always used when recounting battlefield glories. “I used my disadvantage to my advantage. You see, I let one of them–”

“Stab you in the arm so that you could reel him in with your other hand,” Khalil finished. “And then you could dispatch of the other in one-on-one combat. Yes, I know the story, Paki…. Everyone in the camp knows the story, just as everyone in the camp knows how you fight. Abasi has even sparred with you!”

“And I have sparred with him!” Paki added forcefully, frowning at the stings to his pride. “You really believe that I could not defend you?”

“You would protect me too well! Even if it cost you your own life.”

Paki nodded slowly, his frown turning into contemplation. “I see now. And you are right, there is a great risk in this.” He nodded his head in deep thought, then spoke with conviction. “But…this is also what is right. You being our chief is right. Protecting my friend is right. This is the honorable fight for me, and it is the natural order of things that that which is honorable comes with great risk. All the more glory that follows it as well.” This last part he added with a broad smile. “I do wish to earn my calling as head warrior after all.”

Khalil grimaced and shook his head. “Is it right for me to be chief, though? Suppose you could defeat Abasi and whomever he chooses for his companion, what would happen then? Abasi has raised great support these past months, and his death would not be taken well. It could mean civil war for our tribe.”

“And what of us who support you? If you were to fall we would rebel against this coup.” Paki made a spitting noise, but did not actually desecrate the floor of his friend’s hut.

“If you did then you would be rebelling against me, as well!” Khalil snapped and fully spat on the ground. “I am going to ask–I am going to order–all those loyal to me to accept what I have already accepted. We must choose the better compromise here, and the better is that I die quickly and the tribe loses neither its best warrior nor its unity.”

“And serve Abasi? The man is a fool!” Tears were forming in Paki’s eyes. It was impossible to tell if they were of sorrow or anger.

“He will need all of the help you can provide,” Khalil admitted, “I need you to be there for him.”

Paki did not respond, he only hung his head downwards with his eyes closed, tears seeping from them.

“Paki I am now a chief, and though my legacy may be short, let me at least have this one choice to do what is right for the tribe. And for you.” He stepped forward and raised his hand to place it on Paki’s shoulder. But Paki heaved backwards and out of reach, staring up at Khalil with a deep wound. He held the gaze for a moment and sniffed angrily, then stormed out of the hut without another word.

Khalil’s hand was still suspended in the air, but slowly he closed the fingers into a fist and turned back. He was surprised to see Urafiki awake, watching him from the basket. Urafiki was making a low growl in its throat, and its eyes were narrowed. Those eyes were not on Khalil, though, but on Paki’s retreating back.

*

The moon had already begun waning when Paki and Khalil returned to the camp, and now it seemed to shrink more quickly than usual with every passing day. Khalil had tried to catch Abasi’s eye a few times to see what lurked within, but the warrior was steadfastly avoiding him at all times. Khalil supposed that was gracious of Abasi, better to be ignored by him than to be publicly taunted.

More unpleasant was the fact that Paki was now avoiding him, too. When they had their feasts Paki would come for food and then carry it back to his hut. When they held their councils Paki would stare ceaselessly at the ground and never speak a word. The thought had occurred to Khalil that as chief he could demand Paki and Abasi to acknowledge his presence, but what would be the point of that? To satiate his pride? He would be gone before long anyway.

As promised, Khalil held a private meeting with the elders and warriors he knew to be most sympathetic to his cause. He thanked them for their support and then ordered them to respect the rituals and traditions of the tribe. If he was to fall, then preserving the community was what mattered most. Some of them tried to argue, but he merely held up his hand and revealed his intention to face the challenge unaided. The significance of that was clear. He would die, and if Khalil was no longer around for them to rally behind, then it would be hard to justify any rebellion.

Those supporters now avoided making eye contact with Khalil as well. Pleasantries would have sounded too hollow, so numb silence prevailed instead. When Khalil felt the loneliness become overwhelming him he would go back to his hut and be with Urafiki. Though their time together had been short, they had already developed a close bond. Khalil made a collar-restraint so that the creature would not be able to bite him when applying the poultice to its wounds. When it came time for the next application of the salve, though, he found himself hesitating to put the restraint on his friend.

Urafiki’s biting him was not unjustified from the creature’s perspective. How could it understand that he meant it goodwill with the stinging cure? If anything Urafiki was being quite forgiving, and it felt wrong to therefore suppress it. And so Khalil tossed the wood and string contraption to the side and administered the poultice to Urafiki’s hurt while bracing for the bite. It didn’t come. Urafiki raised itself up and hissed, but never latched onto Khalil’s arm as before. All following treatments followed this same pattern and soon Urafiki’s condition was markedly improved.

After a week the creature began to move around the floor of the hut, crawling on four legs like a dog. With the finger-like claws on its hands it could climb up onto Khalil’s table and cot, and at times would also raise up on its back legs. It could stretch up to three times its regular height, and in doing so revealed a long, spindly body beneath the bat-like wings that stretched between its joints.

Khalil had found the creature to be playful, its favorite activity being play-fighting with him. Generally this was initiated as he was ambling about the hut and Urafiki would bowl into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground. In a flash Urafiki would move up to his chest and neck and hiss menacingly, pausing to let him grip it and throw it to the side. Then it would circle about and make another lunge.

Khalil was grateful that the creature did not try to venture out of his hut, any camp members who had caught a glimpse of Urafiki in his home had all hurried away, disturbed by its strange and somewhat sinister appearance. As such Khalil knew that the creature would have to return to the wild, and so it was that on the afternoon preceding the new moon he lifted Urafiki into his arms and hobbled out of the camp’s clearing, looking for a quiet clump of trees to meditate under.

“You won’t be able to stay here anymore,” he said while stroking Urafiki. “You have your strength back and now you must leave. I hope things go better for you than before?”

Khalil found a quiet corner of the jungle, and knelt down to meditate and pray. As he did, Urafiki paced around him like a sentinel. Khalil quieted his mind and connected with his core. As he did so, he was unsurprised to find a well of fear and sorrow bursting out over him. He had done well in repressing it these past days, but this consignment to death went too strongly against all his basic instincts. Khalil did not try to fight the torrent of tears and shaking, letting them roll over him in one successive wave after another. With each one he collapsed more and more until he was laying prone on the ground, fatigued by the surging emotions. The did not engulf him, though, rather they expressed themselves and then moved on. As their ripples slowly diminished he at last felt the quiet peace of their absence. There simply was not any capacity to grieve left in him.

THUMP! THUMP!

The beating of the drum back at camp signaled that the sun had just begun to dip between the horizon. All challenges to the chief were to be made before it had set completely, and it was Khalil’s duty to be there to receive them. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he rose to his feet and staggered back towards camp.

Urafiki instinctively followed but Khalil shook his hand at it with a loud “Shah!” and it halted. It did not retreat though, only paused and transfixed with eyes of confusion.

“Live a long and happy life, my friend,” Khalil bowed, then continued his walk to the center of camp.

Here the beginnings of a bonfire were crackling and the tribe members were trickling one-by-one into the circle of its glow. Khalil nodded to the priest beating on the drum, and stood at attention on the circular rug at the head of the gathering. Already he could see a ripple moving through the crowd and Abasi emerged from their depths to approach him. Khalil closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then looked to the man and nodded.

“Great chief,” Abasi saluted him, bowing low and then rising. “Though your rule has been brief it has been gracious. I want it to be known that I have no disrespect for your character.”

Khalil nodded blandly. Abasi meant no offense but he was come to kill him? What was he supposed to say to that?

“Even so,” Abasi continued, “may all the tribe bear witness that I come to deliver a challenge to Khalil, son of Kibali…”

A pause.

“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”

There was another stir in the crowd as a second figure emerged from their midst. Paki was covered in full war paints and carrying two war clubs on his shoulder. On one end of them was the heavy cudgel, the other end was whittled down to a vicious point. Paki strode up to Khalil, meeting his gaze for the first time in days with harshly intent eyes. He held out one of the clubs to Abasi and gave only the shallowest of nods to Khalil.

“I challenge your right as ruler of this tribe,” he murmured in a low whisper.

Khalil was taken aback, but kept the surprise from his face. “Is this an honorable fight, too, Paki?” he asked coolly.

“We’re past that now.”

“Paki, son of Jomo,” the priest with the drum chimed in. “You have challenged our chief, and so there must be a blood duel. You cannot withdraw until one of you lies dead. You understand?”

“I do.”

“And you have chosen Abasi as your companion in this challenge?”

Paki nodded.

“Khalil, son of Kibali, you have been challenged. Who will fight as your companion?”

Khalil shook his head. “None stand with me.”

The priest sighed. “So be it.” He waved to the other priests and they spaced themselves out, pressing the crowd back to form an open circle with the bonfire at its center. Paki and Abasi backed away to one side of the circle and Khalil turned to another of the priest’s who had retrieved a war club for him.

“When I strike the drum the challenge will begin,” the first priest announced.

Khalil looked to Paki first, and then Abasi. Abasi must have known that the tribe would more willingly fall into line behind Paki, and he would still receive a promotion for his loyalty, probably be made head warrior. It made sense. And yet…. though it was a clever and rational betrayal on Paki’s part…it was still a betrayal.

THUMP!

Abasi and Paki advanced at him from either direction, Abasi hanging back slightly to allow Paki the honor of the kill. Khalil stood motionless, letting them advance. As Paki’s figure loomed nearer though he found himself gripping the handle of the club he had been given.

Paki stepped into a charge and raised his war club high. Khalil’s heart skipped a beat. Not out of fear, but of anger. He moved so suddenly he caught himself by surprise, swinging up in answer to Paki’s challenge. Paki was caught off guard by the motion and barely managed to transition his own attack into a block. He did not fully deflect Khalil’s blow, instead diverting it to his shoulder, where it connected with a cracking thud.

Paki roared in anger, easily ducked under Khalil’s next swing, and then swept Khalil’s legs out from under him. The world turned on its side and Khalil fell onto his back, hard. He was winded and dazed, and unable to hold onto his club as Abasi kicked it out of his grasp. Above him Paki was turning his own club over, pointing the sharp end down towards Khalil’s heart. Paki looked upwards, giving a war cry as he plunged the weapon downwards.

It never connected. To Khalil’s surprise a white blur streaked through the air and wrapped itself around Paki’s head. The warrior shrieked in surprise and lurched backwards, trying to grapple the blanket that had secured itself to his face. Suddenly he stopped his struggling, instead raising himself higher and higher, clear up onto his tiptoes, his hands limp at his side. It seemed as though he were in a trance, then suddenly the spell was broken and he collapsed down to the ground, dead. The white “something” spun off from Paki’s face and revealed itself to be Urafiki.

Khalil staggered back up to his feet as Urafiki slowly raised up onto its back legs, its arms dangling a few inches off the ground. It was hissing menacingly, with ears flattened back against the skull and mandibles were drawn back to reveal its gaping mouth. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot, staring intently as Abasi.

Abasi was clearly unnerved, backing away as Urafiki sidled side-to-side before lunging forward at him.

“No!” Khalil cried, lurching to the side just in time to intercept the creature. He wrapped his arms around the beast, but it was manic, scrabbling up and over his shoulder. Khalil fumbled at his waist, pulling out a knife and stabbing the creature in the side. Urafiki cried in pain and dug a claw into Khalil’s arm.

“Just stop!” Khalil ordered, but the creature was filled with the bloodlust and continued to writhe after Abasi. Khalil drew out the knife and plunged it again, rewarded with another gouge from the creature’s claw, this time in the side of his neck.

Urafiki gave a confused cry, but lurched once more for Abasi.

“I’m sorry,” Khalil gasped, finally burying the knife in Urafiki’s heart. The creature seized up in his arms, going rigid and then slowly limp. Khalil looked into its eyes, wild and wondering, then fading into emptiness.

***

 

As I mentioned in an earlier post about communication, it is essential for the audience to feel connected to the character so that they may share in the emotions they are feeling. I would imagine, and intend, that most readers will feel sorrier for Urafiki’s loss than Paki’s. In the bigger scheme of things that might seem unbalanced, given that Khalil and Paki have shared an entire life together, but the audience did not personally experience that history. Instead our window has spent more time on Khalil and Urafiki’s relationship and it has been a more positive one as well. Therefore I am able to steer the reader to giving that loss the far greater weight.

On Monday I also wrote about the concept of characters and plotlines subverting the reader’s expectations with a surprising reveal. I suggested in that post that usually a character’s actions are telegraphed well in advance so that their shifts and turns are expected. Paki’s betrayal would fall under that category, as I first show him being greatly distressed and then removed from Khalil.

Urafiki’s sudden involvement may not have come as too much of a surprise either, most readers probably assumed that the creature was going to get involved in the ending somehow. My hope, though, was that Khalil then slaying Urafiki would come as a shock. Urafiki was his friend and Abasi was his enemy, so it seems counterintuitive for him to do that. However I have tried to establish a trait that Khalil honors duty above friendship, and so hopefully it will still feel honest.

I also hope that Khalil’s surviving the challenge feels earned. Obviously I set him up as the underdog, and therefore needed him to come out of the ordeal by more unconventional means. That’s a common theme to stories, the hero who somehow manages to best the insurmountable challenge. I’d like to spend some time exploring that idea this next Monday.

Then, on Thursday, we’ll have the third and final piece of The Heart of Something Wild I’ve been working on this story right up to the final minute, and still felt that the closing segment needs to feel less rushed. Come back in a week to read that conclusion.