In the 1997 film Men in Black, undercover officer James Edwards is recruited into the highly secretive MIB organization, which was instituted to protect humanity from all manner of extraterrestrial threats. In order to carry out their assignments the agents of the MIB make use of extremely high-tech gadgets, such as memory-erasing devices and super-powered weapons.
Of course James, like the audience, is curious about what all of these things do, but is repeatedly told to “not touch things!” Perhaps the most prominent of these curiosities is a red button in the car of James’s mentor, Agent K.
“Oh, the red button there, kid! Don’t ever, ever touch the red button!”
Well, of course that button’s going to get pushed at some point! In an interesting piece of reverse psychology, as soon as stories tell us that something must not happen, we know that sooner or later they will. After all, there isn’t any reason for them to show us the wall unless they’re going to crash through it at some point. And so, near the conclusion of the film we get the following line:
“You remember the little, red button? Push the little, red button!”
James does so, and the entire car transforms, with two jet engines springing out of the back, sending it rocketing down a tunnel! Right before it plows into the back of cars stopped in traffic it flips upside down and drives along the roof! And with that, our curiosity has been satisfied.
Men in Black isn’t the first film to show a barrier in the first act and then break it in the third. A very similar sequence plays out in the 1984 film Ghostbusters. In this movie, a trio of parapsychology professors start a business to eradicate paranormal menaces in New York City. The most genius member of their crew, Egon Spengler, develops some nuclear-powered gear to help them wrangle the inter-dimensional beings that they encounter. The first time they use the equipment, though, they each shoot their proton-powered energy beams at the same target, which is nearly a fatal mistake!
“There’s something very important I forgot to tell you,” Egon tells them. “Don’t cross the streams! It would be bad! Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously, and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light!”
Well there you have it, clearly they’re never, ever going to cross the streams. Well, actually no, of course they are! Specifically they do so at the climax of the film, when they face a monstrous parademon who draws his energy from a dimensional gate. Nothing that the Ghostbuster team tries has any effect on the monster or the gate, until finally Egon comes to the inevitable conclusion.
“I’ve a radical idea. The door swings both ways, we could reverse the particle flow through the gate. We’ll cross the streams.” As a further encouragement to the other members of the team he adds, “there’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.”
And so they cross the streams, and the combined power of their proton packs gives them the energy output they need to destroy the dimensional gate and banishing the parademon back to its original realm! Fortunately the heroes do survive to tell the tale.
In Men in Black, the little, red button was simply a volatile gadget that needed to only be used in the right situation. In Ghostbuster the forbidden action was a bit more serious, as it was something that could have potentially catastrophic consequences. That Egon would suggest that they embrace those potential consequences underlines just how desperate their situation has become at the end.
But sometimes broken rules aren’t just used to show how severe the danger has become, sometimes they are used to show character development.
There are several rules established early on in the 1991 film Beauty and the Beast. In the movie’s introduction we learn that the Beast was once a young prince, who was transformed into a monstrous brute for failing to show kindness to an enchantress. And he will remain a beast until he is able to show sincere love for another person, and be sincerely loved by that person in return. But the Beast becomes despondent, locking himself away in his castle, concluding that no one could ever love a beast.
Then, one day, an old man wanders into his home, followed by the daughter of that man come to rescue him. The Beast allows that the old man may leave, but only if the daughter remain a prisoner of the castle. She consents.
The Beast tells her that she may never leave the castle, but she may go anywhere within it…except for the West Wing. But, of course, she soon breaks the second of those rules, trespassing into the West Wing where she finds clues of the man the Beast once was, and the heartache he carries inside.
The Beast is infuriated, and she then breaks the other rule by running away. She is beset by wolves, though, and the Beast saves her, though he is severely wounded in the process. She brings him back to the castle and nurses him back to health, during which time they grow to sincerely care for one another.
Then all of the rules that the Beast imposed are broken again, but this time he is the one unmaking them. He encourages her leave, tells her that she is no longer a prisoner of the castle. She does so, but then returns at the end, just in time to break the last and greatest wall, the one put in place by the story’s introduction. She confesses that against all odds, she has grown to love the Beast, and with that the curse is broken.
We often put up barriers in our stories, establishing rules of what cannot happen. But of course we only do so to then break through them by the end! The reasons for doing so are twofold. The first is to illustrate how drastically things have changed in the world. What was once an unthinkable action with huge consequences is now a better alternative to the dire situation we find at the story’s climax! The second reason is to show character changes. The choice that once would have gone against everything a character stood for comes to be in perfect harmony with where they are now. They have changed, and the reversal of their rule is an excellent way to illustrate it.
Which brings me to my current story, Covalent. In the last chapter Cace briefly considered restoring Rolar to health by fusing into him the last remnants of the beast they defeated. Of course he immediately rejected that idea because it would be entirely unconscionable!
But, of course, why would I show you that decision unless it was going to be reversed? And indeed, as the story goes along things will become so desperate that the unthinkable becomes necessary!
Cace lay very still, waiting until he was sure that Rolar and Aylme were both asleep. Of course none of the children slept very deeply in their small hole beneath the tree. It was stuffy and humid, their sweat would stick to them, the moisture would choke them, there was no such thing as real comfort. They hoped only to get enough rest to less feel fatigued when they woke than when they had retired.
So this was as good a time as any to try and press into the Ether, perhaps Aylme would stir enough to notice what he was doing, perhaps she wouldn’t. It couldn’t be helped.
Before Cace pressed all the way into that other world, though, he decided he had better do some experiments. If he did make it through to the other side, was it still within his power to make it back again? These explorations would go over much better if he didn’t have to rely on one of the others to wake him up each time.
Cace closed his eyes, calmed his thoughts, and focused on his breathing. He listened to the air flowing in and out, noticed the taste of water in it, felt his chest rise higher and sink lower.
One-by-one he let go of his other thoughts, he let them sift to the bottom of his mind and rest. Then he told his mind to drop its connections to his feet and hands, to his legs and arms. An itch on his foot made itself known, but he let that pass without further acknowledging it and it went away. He became detached from those limbs’ sensations, lost his awareness of their weight, became nothing but a head and a body.
Now he let go of his belly and his head. He stopped noticing the grumbling in his stomach, the twitches in his face, the sweat pooling at his back. He was only the breathing, only the steady in-and-out of air.
Finally Cace turned his attention deeper than the breathing. He had learned that there was another rhythm within him, one that rose and fell like his inhales and exhales, but was not actually attached tied to his breathing. It was that rhythm that was his key to the Ether.
But it was a very faint signal, one that he had never been able to hone in on until just recently. Only after the Elders at the House of Olaish had taught him how to quiet everything else, and even then it had remained a rare thing for him to find. Sometimes he laid for hours in his chamber, without so much as a pulse to show for his searching.
That was not the case this time, though. This time Cace found the rhythm almost instantly, as if it was searching for him as much as he for it. Cace was not surprised, even amidst the day’s distractions he had had the sense that the tether to the Ether had not been fully severed when Aylme awoke him. He had walked and talked and moved here in the real world, but a part of him had remained a citizen of the other and it connected him to that place.
This other rhythm was much more rapid than his regular breathing, even more rapid than his racing heartbeat. It was like a strong current, rushing through pipes, throbbing under excessive load. It crackled and stung as he leaned in to touch it.
Even so he pressed into that rippling energy, he attuned himself to its rhythm, he rushed and halted his heart to match its beating. He rose when it rose, he fell when it fell. And in the rises he started to see more. Saw that flat gray tinged with blues and yellow, saw the forms starting to take shape. He was entering far more quickly than he had earlier that afternoon, he was almost back to feeling his different members in that new world.
And then he tried to stop it. Before he pressed all the way into the Ether he wanted to try drawing himself back out. He let go of the connection to its rhythm, tried to move his heart at a different cadence. What cadence though? He couldn’t remember what its usual beating was like… Didn’t matter. Any cadence, just so long as it broke out of the Ether’s.
But it hurt him to try and exit that rhythm. Every time he tried to raise himself out the strong current pushed back, kept him locked within. Still he kept pressing, harder and longer against the walls that confined him. Cace strained his breathing, strained his heart, strained his mind. It hurt, but he let it hurt. It tore, but he let it tear. He kept pressing on in one, unending push…
And sat bolt upright back in the hole under the tree. All the air was expelled from his lungs and his heart wasn’t beating at all. He blinked and gave a push and the heartbeat thudded back painfully. He opened his mouth and his vacuumed lungs sucked in the air with a great, moaning gasp.
It was very loud and Rolar snorted in his sleep beside him. Over on the other side Aylme started to sit upwards and Cace threw himself back to the floor. He tried to hold his trembling body still as he heard her looking left and right, trying to make sense of what was going on while still only half-awake.
“Something there?” she mumbled, then sighed and lay back down.
Back on the other side of Rolar, Cace clutched his hands to his chest and shook violently. He tried to quiet his desperate breathing, but he felt it would kill him if he didn’t get some air flowing in and out of his lungs. Maybe Aylme was still stirred enough to hear his gasping, but he couldn’t hold it back any longer. He opened his mouth and started hyperventilating. In and out, in and out, desperate and greedy. He cupped his hands around his mouth, trying to hold the air into him for longer.
And as the air flowed back into him he felt his body tingling painfully back to life. His lungs ached, his fingers and toes prickled from loss of blood, and his whole body shivered uncontrollably. Not only this, but he became aware of the taste of blood in his mouth. He didn’t know how or where, but he had torn himself.
It was horrible, and Cace wondered if he was dying. Would these pangs escalate until he could bear them no more? Would he keep shaking until he couldn’t hold himself together and things started to tear? Any moment he expected to discover some deep wound that he was bleeding out the last of his life through.
But no. His breath remained ragged and his body continued to shake for a full fifteen minutes, but finally the panic started to subside. Slowly Cace regained the ability to breathe normally. The shivers quieted down, with only a random tremble now and again. And though he spat out two full mouthfuls of blood, he never discovered any mortal wound.
His whole body was drenched in sweat, but now at last he could lean back and relax his shoulders, could collapse against the ground, could actually rest.
Earlier that afternoon he had felt he had no choice but to go back to the Ether. Now, though, he realized that Aylme was right…it was too dangerous. If he kept going back, he wouldn’t survive!
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“Very good,” Reis said. “We’re each the other’s master, so equal partners. Are Beesk and Inol’s stones still up in their towers?”
“Yes. But like I said, I’m in an alliance with them already.”
“So what’s your plan? Topple everyone else first and then the three of you fight to see who wins?”
“Something like that.”
“You don’t really expect them to be that honest, do you? They’re expecting you to be loyal, so that just incentives them to get the jump on you early.”
“Good thing I’ll have you to protect me then.”
Reis rolled his eyes. “Whatever, we’re wasting time. You want to leave them for later, fine. They’re not the real threat anyway.”
Reis nodded. “Come on.”
The two boys turned towards the heart of the maze and made their way forward. They ran while stooped down low, so as to not be seen by the others. At every junction they paused and scouted all of the paths for any ongoing battles.
“Shouldn’t we have come across some of them by now?” Tharol hissed after they passed their third turn without hearing so much as a distant footfall.
“This is a unique contest,” Reis muttered. “Everyone’s scheming. We had a few scuffles at the very start–I knocked out Bovik–but otherwise I think everyone is scrapping for the best alliance they can manage.”
“Strange that we haven’t even seen Beesk and Inol coming back for me yet.”
“Yes, very strange,” Reis didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “Alright, Golu’s tower is just down from here: past the next two junctions, take a right, and it’s right in front of us. I think we sprint the rest of the way. You still have my crystal tucked away somewhere safe?”
They stopped crouching and ran at full speed. Down one narrow passage, past the first junction, down the next narrow passage, abreast the second junction…
Tharol only saw a blur rushing at him from the side, then was reeling heels over head, side throbbing from a powerful blow. He came to a rest, belly down in the dirt.
“Up! Up! Up!” Reis shouted, grabbing Tharol’s shoulders and giving a tug. He had to let go all of a sudden, though, ducking away from another vicious swing!
Tharol numbly rolled to the side, then laboriously pushed himself back to his feet. Avro, Janeao, and Inol were rushing at them from each direction, staffs whirling dangerously. Beesk was nowhere to be seen, he must have already been knocked down.
The three assailants put all of their focus on Reis, systematically pushing him back towards the nearest wall. As with the last contest, the youth made a valiant effort to block, parry, and dodge each jab, but of course there was only so much he could do.
“Tharol…” he muttered through grit teeth. “Any time you feel like helping…”
Tharol shook himself out of his daze and lunged forward. Janeao saw the motion and turned to cross staffs.
Janeao was the largest and the strongest of all the boys. Even if he didn’t have the finesse of a swordsman, he was still able to brute-strength his way through most encounters. Not only that, but he could see that Tharol was compromised, crouching slightly to protect his tender side. So Janeao launched into a quick flurry of attacks, forcing Tharol to retreat, further and further, until he was also backed into a wall.
Janeao stepped into Tharol’s space, crowding out any room to manuever. He lifted his staff high and swung down with all his might. Without room to dodge or parry Tharol could only block, and he didn’t have enough power to fully stop the blow, only to absorb some of its strength before it still came crashing down on his shoulder. Janeao immediately drew his staff back out and thrust with all his strength from the side. Again Tharol blocked half of the blow, but still took a powerful knock in his ribs. He couldn’t take much more of this. He would have to do something bold.
Janeao lifted his staff higher than ever, twisting the rough wood between his palms, readying for a finishing blow. But before he could swing down Tharol dropped his own staff, let it clatter to his feet, and shot his bare hand forward, administering a single, controlled punch to the throat.
Janeao coughed and clutched his hands to his neck, dropping his staff as well. Tharol grabbed the length out of the air and administered a quick blow to the side of the Janeao’s helmet. Janeao obligingly dropped to the ground, out for the rest of the competition.
Tharol moved forward to help Reis, but apparently just being relieved of Janeao’s attacks had been enough for Reis to handle the others. He was drawing his staff back from a blow to Avro’s belly, who doubled up and fell to the ground beside Inol.
“Oh wow,” Tharol breathed.
“You took Janeao down on your own?” Reis grinned. “Nice job!”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“No, really. I thought you’d be out for sure!”
“Let’s just take care of Golu,” Tharol strode past, not even dignifying Reis’s backhanded compliment with a response. “He should be the only one left now.”
“And then what do you think will happen?”
Tharol paused, then slowly turned back to face Reis.
“Then you and I fight.”
“Or I could just take you out now and then Golu…. Saves me from having to worry that you’ll hit me in the back of the head somewhere along the way.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“Well maybe you should, Tharol. No wonder you always lose these competitions!”
“Golu’s the best fencer of us all. Even better than you, slightly.”
Reis winced, but didn’t disagree.
“So your best chance is for the two of us to take him together,” Tharol continued. “And then settle things between us. And while it’s a long shot that’s my best chance, too. We’re united by a common interest, to say nothing of the fact that we’ve got each other’s crystal. I order you to not attack me until Golu is down.”
“And I order you to rescind that order,” Reis rolled his eyes, strolling down the path and towards Golu’s tower. “Come on. I’ll show you my plan, it’s better.”
Together the two of them reached the edge of the narrow passage and crouched at the mouth of the miniature valley beyond. Golu’s tower was nestled in the center of the clearing.
“Alright, there he is standing guard,” Reis observed. “I guess he figured he’d just wait out all the rest of the fighting and deal with any survivors at the end.”
“Not a bad idea.”
“No it’s not. He’s fresh and rested while we’ve been exerting ourselves for the last quarter hour. That–combined with the fact that I’m still worried you’ll get wise and hitting me in the back of the head during our battle–has got me thinking we’re better off splitting up.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at that shelf running up the side there. The lip of it is near enough to his tower that you should be able to jump the gap while I keep him preoccupied down below.”
Tharol felt his heart sink.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Looks a bit far to me.”
“Well I might be the better swordsman, but you’ve always been the acrobat. So it needs to be you.”
“No. I don’t like this plan.”
“It’s perfect. A pincer movement. It’ll make Golu distracted between two threats, giving me a fighting chance against him. If I knock him out then we win, if you make it to the crystal we win.”
“Unless I miss the jump and fall.”
“Yeah, well…don’t do that. And think of it this way. If you manage to get the crystal before I knock him out then he’s under your command. The two of you together will easily overpower me and you’ll win. This is the best chance you have to win the whole thing.”
Tharol hadn’t considered that. It was a very good point…. Too good of a point.
“What are you playing at?” he asked suspiciously.
“There’s some trick you’re not telling me.”
“Come on, Tharol, you can trust me.”
“No. There’s something that you’ve done. What is it?!”
Reis couldn’t hide a slight smile.
“What? The crystal swap?” Tharol reached to his side and drew out the stone that Reis had surrendered to him. He turned it over and over in his hands, and as he did felt something rough pass under his fingers. He moved his hand away and looked closely.
Apparently Master Palthio had inscribed each of the crystals with the name of the boy who owned it. And the one Tharol held said “Bovik.”
So that was it.
Reis had knocked Bovik out at the start of the match and given that boy’s crystal to Tharol instead. Reis’s own crystal must still be perfectly safe back at his own tower. Tharol kicked himself inwardly, wondering why he hadn’t followed his instincts! He shouldn’t have ever made any bargain with Reis! Should have fought him as soon as he saw him. But now…
“Well now you see, Tharol,” Reis sighed. “You’ve already lost and you don’t have any choice in the matter. I order you to go and jump for that crystal. Capture it and bring it to me…or at the very least provide a good enough distraction that I can lay Golu flat on his back.”
Tharol grit his teeth…but there was nothing he could do anymore. He had been defeated and he would have to jump.
Together the two boys turned to face down the valley again. Golu had spotted them now and was spinning his staff menacingly. Reis counted down from three and then each boy rushed forward, split apart, and began their pincer movement.
Tharol’s side burned from the blows he had received in the previous scuffle. He knew it would be a hard jump, even on a good day, let alone now that he was weary and hurt. There wasn’t any way that he could make this.
But then Reis would win. Not in the sense of the competition, Tharol was already been beaten there, but in the sense of totally humiliating Tharol. Tharol wasn’t sure why, but he was certain Reis had sent him up here as a taunt, to force him to do something that he would fail at. Tharol wasn’t about to let him have that satisfaction.
He picked up his pace, raced up the ledge, each step propelling him higher and higher, closer and closer to the edge. He saw the lip directly ahead now, saw Reis and Golu fighting twenty feet below, Golu glancing from the corner of his eye to see what Tharol was doing.
Just as Tharol’s foot reached the lip he heard Master Palthio’s voice in his head.
“And you will attempt that jump…and you will fail.”
Tharol sprang out into the void. Immediately he knew he wasn’t going to make it. In fact he only made it halfway before he was already dropping too low to clear the tower’s edge. He crashed into the side of the tower instead, flailed his arms wildly, then dropped all the way to the earth. A sickening crack rang out and he knew that his foot had broken. Overcome by pain he dropped to his back and groaned long and loud through clasped teeth.
For a moment all was pain and embarrassment. Yet somehow, even amidst the flood of pain and shame, he was cognizant enough to hear the thud of Golu being dropped to the ground. Reis had got in a concussive blow thanks to Tharol’s distraction.
“Auuuuuugh!” Tharol opened his mouth and shouted out, slamming his fists into the ground. Hot tears splashed across his cheeks. His agony actually had much less to do with the pain and much more to do with the humiliation. He had been played. Hard. And he had had no way to prevent it, even when he had been watching for it. He hated to lose to Reis again. Hated to be so foolishly dragged into his own demise. It didn’t seem to matter how careful or clever he tried to be, Reis was always two steps ahead, just as Master Palthio had said.
Speaking of Master Palthio, the master now approached, having rushed all the way from his tower to see if his students were alright. He drew near to Tharol and raised both hands over him, closed his eyes in concentration, and magically repaired the broken foot. Tharol’s fists unclenched and he gave a sigh of relief. The dull ache still persisted, but at least the spikes of pain shooting up his leg had subsided.
“I didn’t make the jump, Master,” Tharol said bitterly.
On Monday I spoke of different forms of communication in a story and emphasized how even scenes of action can convey character development and plot. With today’s chapter I tried to showcase this by dragging Tharol through a gauntlet of one setback after another. Where the previous competition felt relatively lighthearted and fun, this one has blows that land with more earnestness.
For example, last time Tharol knocked out Beesk entirely by accident when he happened to spin around at exactly the right moment. Though that was technically a violent act, it was played off in a way that was meant to feel comical, even slapstick. Today, though, Janeao rains one blow on Tharol after another with genuine, vicious intent. This isn’t a game anymore. Janeao is trying to hurt him.
And last time Reis laid out a trap that Tharol happily stepped into, losing the match for himself and his team. This time Reis actually takes control over Tharol, maneuvers him against his will, and leads him into breaking his own leg. It feels a lot more personal.
It is apparent that there is a lot of ill will seething underneath the surface. The boys are playing out their very real frustrations against each other and drawing very real lines in the sand. As we will see in the next scene, the hostility that broke out in this competition remains in full force off of the field, too.
Before we get to that, though, I want to examine the reason why I am isolating Tharol here before the end. As it turns out, this is a very common pattern in stories: the hero who loses all of their support, requiring them to walk the final chapter on their own. On Monday I’ll take a look at a few of the many, many examples of this and consider why it is so effective as a plot device. Come back to read about it then.
“So it’s you,” a quiet voice sighed from a corner.
It was dark inside, with the only light spilling to the floor from a broken window on the right. The voice had come from just beyond that light, tucked into the gray of a corner. The drummer slowly made his way in that direction, until the form of a small toy took shape in the shadows. He came to a stop in the dusty light.
“Dancer?” he asked, squinting to see her better.
“Oh, but it is you. It must be.”
“No,” she returned more forcefully. “Whatever you came looking for, it isn’t here. It isn’t anywhere anymore.”
The figure’s head turned until it was pointed firmly away. “Toys break. It’s what they do.”
“Oh,” he said blankly, not really understanding.
“You should go on now.”
“Not without you! I came to–”
“To what?!” the head spun back to face him. Now the drummer’s eyes were adjusted enough to be really sure that it was the dancer…but her face was stained and cracked, and hot tears were flinging from her eyes. “You came thinking we could just go back to how things were before? That nothing that happened in between would matter? It doesn’t work like that!”
“What did happen?” he crouched down by her.
She raised her hand, as if to say something, but after nothing came out she made a noise of exasperation and let the limb drop.
“If you don’t understand I can’t explain it,” she finally shot out. “I didn’t realize you were still so stupid about–everything.”
The drummer looked down sadly at that. It had struck something in him. “Yes, I am still stupid,” he said flatly. “Everyone confuses me. They’ve tricked me over and over, and I should have realized it, but they were all so much smarter than I am. I still don’t understand most of what everyone’s saying.”
A look of pity flashed across her face. “I’m–sorry. They did that to me, too.”
“Did it make you mad? I felt very mad about it after a while.”
“A lot,” she croaked, tears now flowing like little streams.
He reached out and took her little fingers in his hand. She started to pull her hand away, but stopped with just the fingertips still touching.
“And then I did bad things because I was so mad,” she said between clenched teeth. “And that made me like them.”
“I’m sorry, dancer–”
“Don’t call me that!” she balled her other hand in a fist and pounded it on the ground. “I’m not a dancer anymore.”
“But why not?”
“Look!” she said angrily, thrusting her palms down towards her legs. The drummer looked, but saw nothing. And then he understood…they were gone.
“Oh no!” he cried.
“Now you get it, do you? I’m broken, drummer. You can keep on beating your batons, but there’s no more gallivanting down the road to a magical City for me. It’s over.”
The drummer wiped away his tears. “No, it’s alright. There’s something wonderful, I can fix and make things now! I can–”
“No!” she snapped, jabbing her finger at his face. “You have no right!”
“I’m trying to help!”
“And I’m telling you that you don’t get to! You. Left. ME!” She shot him a face full of fury, then threw herself to the opposite side and collapsed in shuddering sobs.
“I–” the drummer winced, not sure how to explain that she misunderstood.
“I–” it wasn’t his fault that everyone else had been so mean and delayed him.
He buried his face in his hands and the tears finally flowed out of him as freely as they were for the dancer. “It’s like you said, I’m still stupid. I get so mad because I was supposed to save you, but everyone tricked me and I was too stupid to see through it! I was supposed to, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t enough.”
And then no one said anything for quite a long while. They both just cradled their heads and mourned their wounds. Then, after a long while, they cradled one another and mourned the other’s hurt as well. And they were there for such a long time that the knight and the guards might have come to check on them, but they could hear that the two toys needed their time together.
“I–am glad to see you again,” the dancer said cautiously after they had both been quiet for a while. “I just wish it had been before things were too late.”
“Are they really too late?”
“I cannot walk. And I cannot have you trying to fix that. It would–I don’t know–it would be like saying being broken didn’t matter.”
“I see…” the drummer furrowed his brows thoughtfully, then raised them as a new suggestion occurred to him. “I could…carry you instead.”
“You’d get tired. I’d be a burden” the dancer said, but more importantly she did not say ‘no.’
“That’s my decision. And I think it’s okay for me to be burdened…seeing as I wasn’t there to stop you getting broken.”
The dancer bit her lip.
“Well…maybe you can carry me for a bit…if you want…”
The drummer rose to his knees and very gently slid one hand under the stumps that were all that remained of her legs. Then he put his other arm around her back, and she curled her own arm around his neck. At last he stood up, and together the two of them exited the building.
“Well,” the knight nodded to the drummer, “are we off to the road?”
“Yes,” the drummer said. “Off to the city at last.”
And so the five of them turned from the burned out village, and turned from the seedy town, and felt their way back onto the winding road. At long last they had found the way back towards the Great City. It would, of course, be a very, very long time before they found it, but that was alright.
Well, at long last we have come to the end of The Toymaker. On Monday I disclosed a great deal of how I first conceived of this story, and of how it evolved a great deal between that first conception and this final result. In the end, though, I feel that the story stayed true to its original intent, which was to be an examination of responsibility.
I believe that each one of us knows to be responsible for our mistakes, but we struggle to take ownership for the pains we never meant to cause. If there was no malicious intent, if it was just a mistake, if it was unavoidable due to circumstance, we tend to feel there is no need to say “I’m sorry.”
Perhaps we feel that those who are hurting want us to lie and say that it was all our fault. But really they just need us to hold their pain for a moment, to say that we appreciate the depth of their disappointment. They want a friend who is willing to sit in the hurt with them.
I feel very glad about what The Toymaker ended up becoming. I am still very interested in my original ideas for it, and perhaps I’ll still get around to telling that part of the story someday. Maybe some of its themes will bleed into my very next piece. I guess I’m really a lucky guy, I ended up getting two stories for the price of one!
For now it is time to start moving this latest series towards its close. Over the course of Shade, The Last Duty, and The Toymaker, I’ve been allowing myself to explore the same themes over and over, but each from a different perspective. I’d like to talk a little more about how writing is a way to explore every side of a debate, and how I’ve been doing just that for the last couple months. Come back on Monday to read about this, after which we will have one last story to conclude it all.
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.”
“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.