The 2006 film The Prestige is about 19th-century magical performers, Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, who will go to any lengths for their art. At the beginning of the story they are partners, but after a tragic accident they become rivals, trying to ruin one other by any means.
Their competition drives each of them to improve their craft. They each want to be seen as the better magician, and their shows become more and more impressive as a result. Each of them seeks to craft a trick that will completely baffle the other and receive the acclaim of the world, and eventually both of them accomplish just that.
Angier has woven a particularly vicious barb into his trick, though, as through it he fakes his own death and frames Borden for murder. Yet even after Borden is convicted and executed, he somehow shows up at Angier’s warehouse to confront him in the film’s final scene.
Or rather, half of Borden shows up at the warehouse. For as we now have revealed to us, Borden was a composite, a man that was played by two twin brothers. Since before the beginning of the film the two have kept this secret from everyone, even Borden’s own wife. Angier says his assistant had suspected it was two men all along, but Angier had rejected that as too simple, too easy.
“No,” Borden replies. “Simple, maybe, but not easy.”
His words are spoken over a flashback of the two brothers at an earlier point of the story, just after one of them lost two fingers in an accident. The one who did not lose his fingers takes a drink from a gin bottle, splays his hand out on a table, and the other twin chops off the good fingers so that they match his own wounded hand.
It’s a very shocking scene, but it works. If anyone had any doubts as to how committed these men were to their craft, they have none now. We then see how driven Angier was as well, risking his life every single time he did his own masterpiece trick, possibly having died and been resurrected as a clone each time.
It is a satisfyingly cathartic finale to the whole film, but it is also weighed by a depressing realization. For now that we understand the full depth of their commitment, we realize that there was never any chance of them quitting from this mutually destructive cycle before it was too late. Things were always going to end in tragedy.
There is another example of being willing to pay a high price in The Truman Show. Truman Burbank is your average sort of guy who lives an idyllic life in American suburbia. He is absolutely comfortable in every imaginable way, with a nice home, a pretty wife, and a cozy job.
There is just one detail about his life that he is ignorant of, though, which is that the whole thing is a complete sham!
Since before he was born, Truman was selected to star in a long-running sitcom, which has followed his life through its every moment. But he has never been told any of this. He believes that all of this is real. He has no idea that his life is being used for the world to vicariously enjoy a world free from trouble or tragedy.
Well…almost free from tragedy. There is that one matter of his father dying in a boating accident, which was staged so that Truman would be deathly afraid of the open water that surrounds his island suburb. In fact any time Truman comes close to traveling outside the confines of the city-sized studio all manner of deterrents suddenly pop up in his way.
Slowly Truman starts seeing a connection in all of these strange events though. He’s not sure what it all means, but he can’t shake the sense that he is trapped. He keeps escalating his attempts to break free of whatever it is that’s restraining him, and though each effort ends in failure, he continues to persist at it.
But the audience needs to see more than just persistence from Truman. For his freedom to feel earned we have to see him being willing to pay any cost for it. And so the film’s finale sees him setting sail, right into the heart of his deepest fears! The producer of the show orders a storm to drive him back. Wind whips faster and faster, waves raise higher and higher, and lightning bolts strike the boat. Truman falls off the vessel, but manages to swim back to it. Rather than being deterred, though, Truman is emboldened.
“Is that the best you can do?!” he screams to the sky. “You’re gonna hafta kill me!”
The producer kicks the winds up even further, capsizing the boat and drowning Truman. Then he cuts off the storm, and everyone watches in horror as the boat rolls upright, with Truman’s lifeless body draped across it. For a moment it seems to be the end, but then Truman’s body flinches and he coughs.
He has survived. He may not have actually paid the ultimate price for his freedom, but clearly he was willing to if necessary. Now, at last, the audience is ready to accept his triumph. Truman goes back to sailing his boat, it pierces through the wall of the studio, and he finally finds the door to the outside world.
Make it Count)
It can be hard to find ways to make your audience feel the weight of your character’s loss, but it is imperative that they do. Nothing that your hero accomplishes will feel deserved if they don’t have to pay some ultimate price to secure that victory.
In my own story Nathan is trying to escape from the New Denver elders with his backpack. But he knows that to do so he is going to have to let them hurt him. In other words, they are the audience that he has to sell his story to, and only by seeing him pay a great price will they ever be satisfied. In my next post we will see what that cost is, and my hope is that by paying it his following victory will feel justified to the reader. Come back on Wednesday to see how it turns out.
In the Disney animated film Aladdin, our protagonist is a lowly street thief who dreams of a better life. From the very beginning he speaks longingly of having enough wealth to live comfortably and not be pushed around by the palace guards.
When he is offered a job to retrieve a lamp for untold riches he jumps at the chance, but the operation doesn’t go as planned. By the end of the job Aladdin finds himself alone, buried in an underground cavern, with no way out. All he has to show for his efforts is that one, little lamp he was supposed to deliver to his employer.
But then, of course, he realizes that this is no ordinary lamp. It is actually the home of an all-powerful genie, who will grant Aladdin three wishes. Aladdin quickly uses the first of these to make himself into a prince, and then makes a dramatic entrance to the city, riding atop an elephant with a magically-generated entourage of a thousand servants!
At long last Aladdin seems to have come into life he always dreamed of. He has wealth, he has security, he has respect, and he is able to catch the attention of the woman he loves. Yet ye soon finds out that he has traded one set of troubles for others that is far more dangerous. The palace guards may not be a thorn in his side any longer, but now he’s in the sights of the royal vizier Jafar.
Jafar proves to be a much more capable foe, and soon he has stolen the magical lamp, taken over the kingdom by force, and blasted Aladdin into exile. For Aladdin, it would seem that getting everything he wanted didn’t actually actually get him everything he wanted!
Everything You Ever Wanted)
Compare that to the similar experience of Billy in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Billy has spent his whole life dreaming of joining the ranks of the most powerful supervillains in the world. At the start of the show his alter ego, Dr. Horrible, has finally caught the attention of Bad Horse, who is the leader of the prestigious Evil League of Evil. Billy might be allowed into the league himself, but only if he can prove his worth with a particularly dastardly deed.
At the same time Billy gains the notice of someone else he has been vying for the attention of: Penny, the pretty girl he sees every week at the laundromat. Penny is a completely selfless and giving soul, and the more Billy spends time with her the more her sunny disposition clashes with his lust for world domination.
This dilemma is all resolved, though, when Billy’s nemesis, Captain Hammer, start developing a romantic relationship with Penny. Billy is now doubly motivated to kill Captain Hammer; on the one hand so that he can enter the Evil League of Evil, and on the other so that he can pry Captain Hammer and Penny apart. He hatches a plan to assassinate Captain Hammer, which goes remarkably according to plan…until he gets cold feet at the moment of pulling the trigger.
His hesitation gives Captain Hammer a chance to retaliate, which indirectly results in an explosion going off. The blast cripples Captain Hammer, but also kills Penny, who was hiding nearby. The press interprets the event as an intentional and evil deed, and Dr. Horrible is immediately ushered into the ranks of the Evil League of Evil. In the show’s final musical number he sings that he has finally gained everything he ever wanted, but as his thoughts turn to Penny his expression becomes one of numb brokenness.
Need vs Want)
There are plenty of stories where the heroes knows exactly what they want, pursue it, and at the climax of the tale finally achieve it. But many other stories have learned to add a layer of nuance by making what the heroes want be different from what they actually need.
Aladdin wanted wealth, but he needed self-acceptance. Billy wanted the position in the Evil League of Evil, but he needed love. If the hero learns to give up what they want for what they need, then the story has a happy ending, such as with Aladdin. But if they don’t, then the story becomes a tragedy, such as with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
Of course there are other cases, too. Sometimes what the hero wants isn’t strictly opposed to what he needs, but he still don’t get it anyway. In these cases the story isn’t about how the main character learns to sort out his priorities or achieve success, it is about how he deals with failure.
This is the situation of Kunta Kinte in Roots. Kunta is a youth in Africa during the mid-18th century, but he is kidnapped and brought to America as a slave. He then proceeds to make one escape attempt after another, never losing his fire for freedom, even after the front of his foot is chopped off as punishment for trying to run away.
But as the years go by Kunta falls in love with another slave, marries her, and has a child. Now he is divided between his continuing desire for freedom, and his desire to be with his new family. For a time he wavers between the two, but ultimately chooses to remain with his wife and child.
The story isn’t trying to say that Kunta “wants” freedom but “needs” family, more like he needs both but can only have one. He must make a choice between them, and that’s just the way it is. No matter what his choice there is a significant loss, and he must make his peace with that.
Another story, Of Mice and Men, is also about characters who don’t get the things that they want or need. The story opens with George Milton and Lennie Small, traveling companions who forever dream of settling down on their own piece of land.
Unfortunately, they are in the thick of the Great Depression, a time that ate hopes and dreams for breakfast. For a little while it looks like they might actually realize their plans, but then tragedy arises, and Lennie dies at the hands of George, taking with him any hope for a brighter future.
How to Respond)
Failures are interesting in a story, because the way that a characters responds to them reveals the deepest layers of their personality. It is most often in their deepest disappointment that you learn who they really are.
In my own story I just had my protagonist meet a terrible setback. He has spent seven years bringing a prototype weapon to the westernmost province of the United States. All this time he has imagined being welcomed as a savior, but what he finds just the opposite. The people are afraid that his plan will backfire and they want nothing to do with it. Now he has to decide how he will react to this setback. Will he surrender his plan and find a new purpose…will he wander aimlessly away…or will he harden his heart and press on regardless? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to his character you already know that he’ll choose the latter. He is going to persist, even in the face of broken expectations, willingly shifting from an ally of the city to its foe.
The 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion was a bit of a surprise to its audiences. Its main star, Cary Grant, was known for always playing a heroic or romantic lead, but the advertisements for the picture suggested that this might be his very first turn as a villain!
And though the film begins with Cary Grant’s character, Johnnie Aysgarth, being presented as a humorous, playful bachelor, there is also a sense of insincerity and foolishness about him. For example consider the very first scene, where he is called out for being in a first class train compartment with a third class ticket. He tries to laugh his way out of the situation, but eventually has to bum some extra change off of the lady he is sharing the compartment with. That may not seem like much of a concern at first, but awkward flubs with money become a defining characteristic of the man. After he wins the heart and hand of Lina McLaidlaw, she discovers that he has absolutely no money to his name, and is hoping to siphon money out of her rich parents instead!
But more surprising than Cary Grant playing such a shifty character is how natural a fit he is in the role! At this point Cary Grant had established a career defined by charisma, suaveness, and humor. In this film, though, he is outright immature and selfish, and he plays it very well, spending half the time with a stupid grin while everyone else is trying to have a serious conversation with him.
Worse than a freeloader, though, Lina starts to believe that her husband might actually be dangerous. As the burden of his debts continue to grow, he starts exhibiting some darker behaviors, which get her wondering if he wouldn’t kill her for the insurance money! Most concerning is a scene where he speaks with Lina’s friend, a murder mystery novelist, about whether there are any untraceable poisons.
The whole thing escalates to the climatic scene where the husband and wife are driving along a cliffside road. Lina’s door falls open and Johnnie reaches over. Lina recoils in horror, believing that he is trying to push her out. He sees this and breaks down in anger, asking if she is so repulsed by him that she would lunge away, even when all he is trying to do is pull her back to safety?
At last the truth comes out, about how he has been so ashamed of himself, so miserable that he has dragged not only himself, but also his wife, into financial ruin that he has been considering suicide. Yes, he has been a flawed and dishonest man, but he is not the remorseless killer that the advertisements would have had us believe. The couple drive for home together, resolved to face their challenges together.
Interestingly, Cary Grant would revisit the suspicious lead two decades later in 1963 with Charade. This was one of his very last films, and up to this point he still had never played a villain. Would this be his one take at being the bad guy?
This film opens with Regina “Reggie” Lampert discovering that her estranged husband, Charles, was murdered while on a train from Paris. This opens up a series of revelations to her, culminating with her learning that Charles was actually a spy, and that he had in his possession a considerable amount of wealth which several governments and his former colleagues have been trying to reclaim.
Coincidentally, Reggie makes a new acquaintance right before she hears of her husband’s death. Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant, seems totally disconnected from the drama surrounding Reggie’s dead husband, but he soon becomes embroiled in her efforts to deter Charles’ former colleagues, who now suspect her of knowing where the missing money is.
Reggie is growing more and more emotionally attached to Joshua, her only friend in a quickly-shifting world. But then a great emotional blow comes when one of Charles’ former colleagues tells Reggie that Peter isn’t the man he is pretending to be. Joshua is trying to get the money from her, just the same as the rest of them.
Reggie confronts Peter and he admits that he lied about his identity. He now tells her his “true” identity: Alexander Dyle, whose brother had died on a former mission with Charles. But later in the movie that identity will be revealed to be a lie as well. Reggie had been falling in love with Peter/Alexander/whoever he is, but now she wonders if he won’t betray her as soon as it serves his interest to do so.
Everything culminates in a shootout between Cary Grant’s character and another man who may or may not be the actual murderer of Charles Lampert, the man who was presumed to have died in that former mission. Reggie is caught in between the two men, unsure of whom she should trust. Finally she follows her heart, joins sides with Cary Grant’s character, and this proves to be the correct choice. Together the two of them manage to overcome the would-be assassin, who was the last surviving agent who had intended Reggie any harm.
And then, in the film’s final scene, it is revealed that Cary Grant was a US government agent all along, who had been working undercover to solve this whole case. So once again Cary Grant’s halo remains intact, even if it came dangerously close to falling off!
The Pleasure of Being Unsure)
Of course, it is very unusual for the audience to not know whether a lead character is the hero or villain of the story. Virtually every story establishes these roles right from the beginning, making it clear who exactly you should be rooting for and who you should hate. Some stories might reveal a surprise betrayal later on, but typically those come from supporting characters, not the main protagonist.
Both Suspicion and Charade are unique in making the audience spend the entire film with a lead character that they still don’t know the loyalties of. Both of these films must walk the razor-thin line of giving their female leads more and more reasons to distrust Grant’s character, but not so much as to actually abandon him altogether. The tension can only continue if they stay both near to and fearful of him at the same time. It is truly remarkable how each of them manage to pull this off so well.
In my own story I introduced a main character that audiences will immediately assume is the hero. He is at the end of a great quest, has come to rid the land of a great monster, and will free the community that is living under its terror. He is like Saint George come to kill the dragon, clearly a heroic character.
But as the story goes along, the more suspect Nathan becomes. Bit-by-bit we have learned that he lies, that he steals, and most recently that he even kills! The three core qualities of a story villain.
My hope is that the audience will be conflicted and intrigued, wanting to finally get to the bottom of who this guy actually is. But unlike Cary Grant’s characters, the answer won’t be so black and white.
Days Writing: 11 New Words: 1,635 New Chapters: 0.5
Total Word-count: 87,132 Total Chapters: 23.5
September wasn’t the best month for my novel. 11 days of writing is a bit low, and 1,635 words written is especially low. For perspective, each month I generate about 12,000 words for my story blog.
And honestly, the disparity between my blog and my novel has stood out to me for a while now. I usually prioritize work on my blog in the morning, leaving the evening for my novel. I had thought that would give me more uninterrupted time to write With the Beast, but the reality is that putting off the novel to the end of the day makes it easy for it to get squeezed out by other needs and distractions.
I’ve told myself to “just dig deeper” numerous times already, but when my output continues to be the same regardless, sooner or later I have to be frank with myself and say that while I could accomplish more in a day, it may not be realistic to expect that I will.
All of which is to say, if I simply don’t have the capacity or the discipline to do both blog and novel…then I’m going to choose the novel. Before I make that decision, though, I want to give myself one more chance to manage both.
During the month of October I am going to flip things around. I will not write any new blog material first thing in the morning, I will work on my novel instead. Specifically I will write or edit 500 words each day before I move on to any other work. Hopefully I will find the time and energy before day’s end to also write my blog, but if I don’t then I don’t.
I’d hate to let go of my blog, and honestly I expect the fear of losing it to be a powerful motivation for “digging deeper” like I’ve been talking about. In either case, on November 1st I’ll come back and let you know how things went and what my decision moving forward will be.
For now, here is a segment from my new material this month.
“This matter of harvesting the cane…you think it’s an impossible problem?”
“Yes…well…no. Honestly I wish that I did. The truth is I have a sense that there is a way to accomplish this, but I just won’t be able to find it. Whatever I choose to do, it will be the wrong thing, and it will spoil the entire field.”
“Do you mean that you’re destined to fail?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he runs his hands wearily through his hair. “I suppose yes, that is what it feels like.”
“Then do it.”
William blinks rapidly. “I beg your pardon?”
“If all the world has conspired to make you fail, then why are you running away from it? Just get it over with!”
William is flabbergasted, and shakes his head, unable to process what he is hearing.
“Are you–are you making fun of me?”
“Absolutely not! Listen, I’m not going to try to argue with you whether fate has marked you for failure or not. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t, I don’t know. But if I ever felt that I had to take a fall, then I’d rather go ahead and get it over with as quickly as possible. Then I could get back up and move on to the next thing.”
“Accept defeat? Just like that?”
“If there’s no alternative, why not? Accepting defeat is only disgraceful when one still has other avenues left to pursue, but if there really are no alternatives left, then there is no shame in embracing it.”
My parents grew up during the height of film musicals and so our video library was full of classics like The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and West Side Story. Of all these films, West Side Story was my favorite. It was cool. It had action. It had good guys and bad guys.
The only thing that upset me was how sad the ending was! Tony and Maria want to get out of the ghetto, and they get so close to accomplishing that dream, but then at the end a simple miscommunication dashes all their hopes to pieces.
Every time we watched it I would somehow hope that the ending would change. This time would be the time that Riff and Bernardo decide to keep it a fair fight instead of pulling out their knives. This time the Jets wouldn’t torment Anita until she lies to Tony that Maria is dead. This time Tony would hold on to faith just a little bit longer, rather than running into the night, calling for Chino to gun him down.
But of course, none of those alternate-endings ever played out. The same tragic tale of self-destruction was the same each time. It had to, because that was the whole point of the story. West Side Story without its sad moments would be absent its whole message about the cycle of violence. If the Jets and the Sharks ever make friends with one another, then that’s the end of the movie right there. West Side Story is expertly crafted to make us want peace, but to bring those feelings alive in us it can never have any peace of its own.
The Need for Conflict)
Much has already been written about the need for conflict in a story. Opposition is considered the lifeblood of every narrative, whether based in a villain, or a situation, or even within the protagonist’s personal flaws.
This is represented in a very interesting way with the Star Wars series. Here there is an all-connecting power, the Force, which comes in two distinct flavors: light and dark. It is therefore not strictly a good power, it fuels both the heroes and the villains. In fact, whenever one side grows more powerful than the other the Force seems to surge to the other side, keeping things in balance.
This is a most fascinating construct. It seems to imply that the Force is almost a sentient being, one that wants there to be epic stories, legendary heroes, and diabolical villains. In short, the Force wants what every audience wants as well.
The concept of the force is derived from real-world ancient eastern philosophy, such as the notion of yin-yang, which insists that opposition, good and evil, must live together, and only through their interplay is life able to exist. Even western philosophies have similar ideas, such as in Christianity the pairing of a divine spirit with a carnal body to create a life that is constantly at odds with itself, yet which is able flourish and grow through the conflict.
Many stories have explored the idea of conflict being necessary for happiness. In the Twilight Zone episode A Nice Place to Visit, Henry “Rocky” Valentine finds himself shot to death after a robbery, and wakes up in an afterlife where his every wish is immediately granted. He is amazed that he somehow made his way to heaven, and for a while enjoys getting every break he couldn’t have in life. Money, luck, romance…it all comes effortlessly and on-demand.
After a while Rocky gets sick of life having no edge, though. He wants some risk, some danger. His host says they ought to be able to accommodate that. Things can be arranged so that Rocky will lose a few times at the roulette wheel, or he could be chased by some policemen that he will forever evade. Rocky says that’s no good, he’ll know it’s all a sham. He wants real danger and real stakes. He wants conflict.
Rocky becomes so bored that at the end of the episode he asks to be let out of heaven and to go to the other place instead. At this point his host laughs, and announces that Rocky has been in “the other place” all this while. Rocky’s hell is to live without any opposition.
Make the Conflict Real)
Unfortunately some writers have taken the lesson that “every story needs conflict” too far and made everything into a conflict. The mentor is gruff and doesn’t want to train the new talent, the kids at the school are jerks until the new kid proves his worth to them, the super-secret organization isn’t going to admit the applicant until she gains their trust. Of course, that’s all well and fine so long as your story’s central conflict is actually about reawakening the disillusioned mentor or befriending the kids at school or gaining admission to the secret society.
So it works for Daniel LaRusso to be bullied at his new High School, because The Karate Kid is all about him gaining the power to stand against those miscreants. And it works for there to be tension between Paddy and Tommy in Warrior, because their story is all about how a father makes amends to his son while coaching him. And it works in The Pursuit of Happyness for Chris Gardner to face stiff competition when trying to land a job as a stockbroker, as that story is about the man’s struggle to lift himself out of poverty.
But if these things aren’t what your story is actually about, then don’t shoehorn in meaningless scruples that distract from your main conflict. The 1997 film Men in Black is about James Edwards being welcomed into an intelligence organization that deals with extraterrestrial threats. Thankfully the writers of this film understood that the central conflict is not about James getting into the top-secret organization, but the enemy he must track down after he has done so. So rather than put James through a meaningless uphill battle to even land the job, they have the organization reach out to recruit him all on its own. It lets us skip past any unnecessary drama and get right to the meat of the story.
Applying the Concept)
In my own story I just introduced a new conflict when Nathan Prewitt started to see that the leaders of New Denver weren’t enthused about destroying the nearby giant worm. But they aren’t be contrary for no reason. As the story goes on, their opposition is going to become even more pronounced, and it will be the last and final opposition that Nathan must overcome in his quest to kill the beast.
In short, every story needs conflict, but the conflict needs to actually be meaningful to the heart of the story. Identify what it is your protagonist is really fighting against, and spend your time on that battle, rather than on meaningless periphery battles.
In mathematics we learn that one vector defines a single-dimensional space. It is a line or a direction, a single, unchanging thrust into space.
Two vectors, however, can define a two-dimensional space. A field, a landscape, or an infinite blanket of ideas.
Three vectors and you get a three-dimensional volume. Length and width are joined by depth, form and figure emerge, a complex structure that has to be considered from different perspectives to understand the whole.
This principle holds true when developing a story as well. The genesis of most stories occurs when the writer’s mind finds an interesting connection of different vectors. Ideas that had seemed unrelated show a surprise connection, and as the mind explores that space it concocts a story to aid in the process. And like turning the knobs on a faucet we are free to crank one of the core ideas up and dial the other back, to leave one out entirely and then gradually introduce it to full force, each combination has its own potential. Notice how many story pitches are delivered in exactly this way: describing the intersection between different ideas.
“A romantic comedy, but one of the characters is blind and the other is deaf.”
“A classic Western, but it takes place in space!”
“The story is 1980s America, but if the Cold War had escalated to actual combat.”
Through these combinations we find a field of discovery, a curious volume to explore, an entire story of material…maybe even multiple stories of material! Entire worlds are discovered and our story is the spaceship by which we tour them.
In The Favored Son: Alternate there was a very specific aspect of children, conflict, and play that I wanted to consider. I thought of all the times that I have seen children playing a game that shifts from innocent fun, to lively competition, to hurt feelings, to an all-out fight. Children at play and children at conflict are sometimes not very far apart!
I explored that concept in this story by continually returning to the competitions that the boys undergo as part of their training. At the outset these appear to be light-hearted affairs, just a group of children pretending at war and hoping to win. But the further the story goes the more these scenes shift into actual conflict. By the end they aren’t playing at all, they are at literal war and not all of them survive it.
Next came The Time Travel Situation, in which the element of play was cranked to the max and never became mean-spirited. There was conflict in the story, but it was only pretend-conflict, a fight where all of the children were united on one side against fictitious enemies on the other. Thus the conflict was never serious, it was all for fun.
It is, of course, an interesting question why we find pretended conflict to be so entertaining, and there are all sorts of theories that have been posited on the matter. For now let’s just accept the fact that we do. Our stories, even our happy stories, are almost always centered around this idea of opposition and conflict. But if we do intend to keep the conflict “fun,” we have to disassociate it from reality. Thus the badguys are totally fictitious beings, like comic book supervillains, or they are extreme caricatures, like moustache-twirling weapon dealers. Conflict is only fun when it is pretend, so I made my story all about a literal game of pretend.
The Punctured Football lays somewhere in between those two others. The conflict in it is not just pretend as in The Time Travel Situation, the characters are sincerely at odds with one another. But it is not nearly so grim as in The Favored Son: Alternate either. The two characters show plenty of hurt feelings, but there’s never any danger to either one. Also the play is more pronounced than it was in The Favored Son: Alternate, but not nearly so exuberant as in The Time Travel Situation. In short this story was all about finding a middle ground that was more realistic than either extreme. The other two stories each had a strong fantasy in their own way, while this one was more firmly grounded.
I am going to write one more piece in this series, and with this one I want to incorporate both forms of conflict: the more realistic and the more fantastic. I am going to therefore have two conflicts that occur, one that is between the children and a fantasy enemy, and one between the children themselves. The first being more pretend, the other being more grounded. As for the sense of play, I am going to incorporate that by having one of the characters explore the rules of a newly discovered world.
And by this I will be following a most popular template for stories. As it turns out, there have already been many tales that explore this same intersection of children, conflict, and play. It is the template that C. S. Lewis popularized with his Chronicles of Narnia series. Consider the first entry, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the children have a conflict with a magical queen, but also a more grounded feud between quarreling siblings. And though there is great danger in that tale, one cannot help but feel a sense of playfulness in how the children are able to explore such a fantastic realm.
It is also the template of Peter Pan, where siblings again intermingle their squabbles with the life-or-death conflict with Captain Hook. And all the while there is that same playful exploration of mermaids and the Piccanniny tribe and finding the ability to fly.
It is Harry Potter having a spat with Ron Weasley, while also being hunted by the murderous Lord Voldemort, while also uncovering the magical world of witches and wizards.
Tharol tried vainly to communicate to the other boys.
“Stop,” he mumbled, still half-dazed. “It’s a trap– it’s all a trap…. You have to stop Reis–I don’t know what he’s doing…but you have to stop him–“
Either they couldn’t understand his fragmented speech or they just didn’t care. They didn’t respond to him the whole way to Master Palthio’s quarters, and Tharol was nearly back to his full senses when they knocked on the Master’s door.
The door opened and Master Palthio’s voice came out weakly from the darkness. “Yes?”
“Sorry, Master,” Bovik said. “We know you need your rest, but we found out who poisoned you. We thought you’d want to know.”
“Oh…of course. Come in.”
They shuffled into the room as Master Palthio lit his lamps.
“What is this?” Master Palthio said in surprise as they placed Tharol in the middle of the room, wrists still firmly tied together.
“It was Tharol,” Bovik declared. “Tharol poisoned your dinner.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well for one thing he cooked dinner,” Golu spoke up. “He demanded to do it. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it gave him the perfect opportunity to poison your plate.”
Tharol kicked himself inwardly. Once again he was his own worst enemy, making himself look suspicious to the boys that should have been his friends. Why did he keep doing that?
“But that’s not all,” Avro added. “Yesterday Tharol came to dinner late, said he had to patch a hole in his tunic or something. But Golu and I passed him rushing toward the cellar right before.”
Of course, Tharol thought, right after I saw the note about the wine being sabotaged. Avro wasn’t finished laying out evidence though.
“And last week when we did the combat practice Tharol was last to come to dinner again. Bovik, Reis, and I had just left the barracks and I looked back and saw him still inside, standing on a chest and looking at something over the door.”
This one took Tharol a moment to recollect. Then he realized Avro was talking about when he had investigated how Reis beat Golu in their duel. “I was just looking at the shield over the doorway,” he explained.
“That’s right,” Bovik said. “And guess where we found the wine?”
Ah, Tharol thought, so that was where Reis had planted it. He assumed Avro must have said something to Bovik and Reis on that day about seeing Tharol mess around with the shield, so Reis had known that hiding the bottle there would get Avro to connect it with him.
“And last time we brought in wine was when Tharol went to market,” Janeao chimed in.
“Hmm,” Master Palthio nodded thoughtfully. “Well that’s certainly quite the array of evidence. In fact it seems to me that you’ve all been keeping an unusually close eye on Tharol these past few weeks…”
“Yeah, Reis told us he thought something was up,” Janeao answered. “Told us we should keep tabs on him whenever we could. And clearly he was right.”
“Clearly,” Master Palthio repeated. “And where is young Reis now?”
“He took over the evening watch so the rest of us could bring Tharol to you,” Bovik explained.
“Yes, very sensible. Well alright, you all run along. I’ll take things from here.”
“What? Leave you alone with him?” Avro said in bewilderment.
“But he’s dangerous!”
“And I am a Master of the Order. Don’t fret yourselves, I really am feeling much better now. Our district needs you out there. Go now.”
There was a finality to his tone that quelled the unspoken protests in the boys’ eyes. Reluctantly they all shuffled out of the room and Master Palthio closed the door behind them.
“Master I know this doesn’t look good, but you’ve got to believe me!” Tharol blurted out. He still didn’t know whether Palthio was to be trusted, but frankly he didn’t have any other choice but to take his chances. “Reis is a traitor and he’s planning something very dangerous!”
Tharol braced himself for one of two reactions. Would Master Palthio be completely shocked, aghast that Tharol could make such a claim against his best student? Or would he round on Tharol in a rage, furious with him for having figured out his and Reis’s scheme?
The one reaction Tharol did not expect from Master Palthio, though, was annoyed indifference.
“Yes, yes, of course he is,” Palthio waved his hand dismissively, turning to his desk and rummaging through its drawers. “He has been since the first day he joined our order.”
Tharol’s mouth dropped. Was Master Palthio making fun of him?
“I’m serious!” he said hotly.
“So am I,” Master Palthio looked sharply up and Tharol could see that he meant it. “And I was serious when I told you to stop playing other peoples’ games, too. But you’ve gone and got yourself really mixed up in it now.”
He drew a long dagger from the drawers and came towards Tharol.
“Forgive me, but my extremities don’t have all their feeling back. I wouldn’t be able to untie that knot.” So saying he gripped Tharol’s wrists and quickly sawed through the rope. It fell to the ground and Tharol was free.
“You know?!” Tharol could still hardly believe it. “You’ve always known? Well come on then, we’ve got to go stop him.” He bounded for the door, but Master Palthio raised his hand behind Tharol and the door locked itself fast.
“Tharol…there is no stopping him,” Master Palthio said sadly. “Don’t you think that I would have already done something about it if there was?”
Tharol turned around, confusion etched all across his face. “You’ve got to let me out, Master. I have a plan. Reis isn’t going to get his way tonight.”
“Reis is the least of your problems, Tharol. Please take a seat,” Master Palthio gestured to the seat behind his desk. Tharol didn’t budge. “Tharol, I am going to let you out of here…but not until you hear what I have to tell you. Take. A. Seat.”
It was the last thing Tharol felt like doing, but there wasn’t any other choice. He marched over to the chair and perched on the corner of it, foot tapping impatiently.
“Thank you,” Master Palthio said, lowering himself into a seated position on his bed. “I’ll try to be brief.”
The sun had seemed to set extra quickly that evening, what with all the commotion that had occurred.
“Maybe we should stay up with you,” Avro offered Reis when it was time for the Night Watch to begin. “None of us are going to get much sleep anyway.”
“No, no,” Reis said. “We’ve had a ruffle, but we’ll carry on as we had intended, business as usual. Best way forward is to stick to our duties.”
Reluctantly the other boys retired to their barracks, leaving Reis alone on the wall. With hands on the ramparts he eagerly watched the sun fading behind the rolling hills, waiting for his moment of triumph. Already the first stars were appearing up above, and soon the moon would take over the realm. How fitting a symbol, Reis thought, for the power changes that were about to take place.
“Tharol, this district has been dying for a long while now,” Master Palthio began his explanation. “There was still the shadow of honor when Lord Oraliah–that’s Lord Amathur’s father–reigned over the district. There was still a great deal of corruption all around him, but he was mighty enough to keep it at bay. Then, once he died, he left a vacuum that was immediately filled by all those opportunistic, unprincipled vultures! The only reason we didn’t have a civil war was because his own son was the worst of the lot, willing to make every concession to keep the dukes and senators happy. I won’t go into all of the politics of it, but I believe even you have seen the effects of it. Order and decorum are a joke, scheming and underhanded deals are the norm, and no one has any sense of duty. All they care about is their own agenda.”
Tharol stopped tapping his foot so impatiently. He nodded sadly, but then added, “Well not all of us have lost our sense of duty.”
Master Palthio smiled. “No, you are correct. Forgive my cynicism. That, of course, is the other sickness that has pervaded our streets. A sense of hopelessness, a belief that we are beyond repair. That cynicism has been my own vice, and I have not fought against it as well as I ought to have. It has compromised me as much as if I had been another of the selfish opportunists. That cynicism has paved the way for even more dangerous enemies to the city.”
Reis heard a noise behind him and turned to see Inol mounting the stairs, large cup in hand.
“What’s this?” he asked in pretend surprise.
“Master Palthio’s orders,” Inol smiled. “The Night Watchman is to have a chalice of wine to keep him company through the night!”
Reis met the smile and took the cup. “Well that’s very thoughtful! Thank you, Inol.”
Inol nodded and stepped backwards, but his face fell slightly as Reis placed the cup down on the wall.
“You’re not going to take a drink from it?” he asked.
“No, not yet. I’ll save it.”
“Well…at the very least I had thought we should toast your commission.”
“Thank you, Inol, that’s very thoughtful. Wait here a moment and I will.”
“Reis is cynical, isn’t he?” Tharol asked.
“Yes. Extremely so. He hates the opportunists, the Beesks and Inols of this city. He wants to burn them to the ground and build a stronger, stricter order on top of it all. And he is not the only one that does. There has been a growing tide both within our walls and without that want to destroy this city for its weakness. And these revolutionaries know that they can manipulate the opportunistic fools into opening the doors for them. Offer them something that they value and they’ll let you get close enough to drive a dagger through their hearts.”
“But…you knew all about this and haven’t done anything?!”
Master Palthio sighed and looked downward heavily. “Tharol…I have tried. In quiet ways, I admit, but I really have tried. Maybe I could have done more, I don’t know, but I have tried. You have no idea how outnumbered we honest folk are. Every gate has been compromised. Every district. The very city core! Speaking up for principle has become a dangerous vocation. Sounding alarms that no one wants to hear gets you stifled. I know what Reis was came to our order for. I know what Beesk and Inol are doing behind our backs. But if I removed any of them there would just be more cynics and opportunists to take their place. If I kept weeding out the likes of Beesk and Inol Lord Amathur would have had me removed for cutting into his side ventures. If I kept weeding out the likes of Reis I would be assassinated! You can try to fight the inevitable but it will happen anyway. There is no stopping the coming tide.”
Inol shifted uncomfortably next to Reis. The statue lady was supposed to show up any moment now and the boy still hadn’t taken his drink. Inol would have to think of something fast or Reis would see her approaching!
“Well…I should really be getting to bed,” he said. “Why don’t we do that toast now and then I’ll get my rest.”
“Very soon, Inol. Very soon.” The last of the daylight had faded, leaving the sky a murky, navy blue. Reis kept his eyes fixated on the horizon, trying to still make out the line of hills in the dark. Suddenly he became aware of a thousand pinpricks of fire lining the most distant ridge. “Oh,” he breathed excitedly. “Come over here, Inol, I think the time for that toast has come!”
Reis’s back and arms were tensed in excitement. He didn’t turn a single degree as Inol stepped beside him and followed his gaze out to the rolling hills beyond. At first Inol couldn’t make out anything in the moonlight. The only movement was the tall grass waving in the wind upon the distant hills. But then, with a shock, Inol remembered that grass didn’t even grow on those rocky crests. And there was no wind. What he actually saw was a mass of people, an entire army silently marching towards the city wall. With a gasp he looked left and right, and he saw that the line continued as far as he could see in each direction. Thousands upon thousands quickly approaching, billowing out to meet each of the district’s gates!
And in all that empty air there was not a single sound of warning. No alerting bugle. No clash of swords. All the other gates must be seeing the approaching horde just as he did…but none of them were doing anything to stop it!
“Drink with me, Inol,” Reis smiled broadly. He lifted the goblet and looked over its rim in a salute to the coming masses. “My triumph has arrived!” Then he raised the cup to lips and took a long and deep draught. He was so flushed with success he didn’t even notice the unusual warmth of the liquid, the bitterness that was mingled with its rich flavor. “What’s the matter, Inol?” he said with a laugh at his comrade’s wide stare. “Aren’t you feeling well?”
Then, without warning, Reis’s whole body trembled violently. His eyes expanded in shock and he flung the goblet to the ground, clutching to the nearest brazier for support. He convulsed again, and fell the rest of the way to the ground, fingers scrabbling madly against the wood. He opened his mouth in agony and let out a single, long scream!
On Monday I compared my current version of The Favored Son to my first attempt at writing the story and I considered the elements that were stronger in each. From my freshman effort I specifically called out the greater creativity and heightened drama, and I stated that I would attempt to incorporate some of those elements here at the climax of my second version.
We got the first example of that in this highly dramatic scene of the army approaching and Reis being poisoned. The tension of that moment was built up more than any other scene in the story. It felt more on the level of that dramatic moment in the first story when the teachers suddenly assaulted their own students.
Here at the climax of this story it feels particularly fitting to cut loose in a loud moment of catharsis. Reis has been smugly pulling the strings on all the other boys for the entirety of the story. Now we finally get to see his mastery of the situation burst into pieces, and it works well for it to be a highly dramatic moment. With the next chapter of the story we will also see more magic coming to bear.
It’s certainly been a long time getting to this finale. There’s still two more chapters left to go, making this the longest tale I’ve published by a significant margin. We are finally coming to the end, though, and that means it’s time to take a step back and review all the lessons we’ve been learning along the way. Come back on Monday as we look back at it all, and then come on Thursday to see how the story continues.
Reis and Tharol walked to the end of the central dais and to the other side of a wide column, which nearly shut them out of view of the other youth.
“Alright, what is it?” Reis demanded as soon as they were around the pillar.
“I don’t want to embarrass you, Reis,” Tharol explained, “that’s why I had us come here, you understand? I just wanted to ask you why you told the others those–those stories about me. That I was the one who wanted to investigate them, that that was my own idea and not yours?”
“It as good as was your idea. You made it clear that you don’t trust all the rest of them either.”
“Reis…that’s not true. I’m worried for them, but I think that they’re good. And it wasn’t my idea, not even a little. It was yours.”
“So that’s what you’re here for? To accuse me? Try and get some dirt to make the others doubt me?”
“Reis, please stop this!” Tharol sighed in exasperation. “No one is here to hurt you. I just need us to be on the same footing. Why are you so convinced that I’d be a traitor anyway? Why are you telling them things about me that aren’t true?”
“Well I–I still don’t know that you’re not a traitor–“
“Well I don’t, I just know that someone is. It could be you.”
“What makes you so sure that one of us is? I only saw elders attacking us back there.”
“Raystahn…it told me!”
“It did!” Reis was speaking very quickly and excitedly now, unable to hide his eagerness to share his secrets with Tharol. It’s what I was showing to the rest of them here at the centrifuge after you left that day. There was that first set of symbols you heard about, the ones that change whenever you move, but there were also symbols that changed much more slowly. They would stay the same for days at a time, and then shift ever so slightly.”
“And you interpreted them?”
“Not all the way. I had my suspicions, but I wasn’t sure of them until I saw what happened today in the amphitheater.”
“What were the symbols.”
“Just shapes, circles and triangles. But the triangles were breaking the circles, pressing their points into them and splitting them in two! From when I first saw it I could tell whatever that meant it wasn’t good.”
“And after what happened today…you believe the triangles are the elders and we’re the circles? I suppose that could be…though it’s not sure. And I don’t see where the theory of a traitor comes from that either.”
“Because there’s always been another symbol among the circles. One that is also circle, but which has a triangle inscribed within it.”
Something about that struck Tharol very deep.
“I suppose you think that doesn’t mean anything either,” Reis shook his head. “But I can’t explain it to you. It does have a significance, I can just feel it.”
“No, I believe you,” Tharol said, his mind trying to make sense of his intuitions. “But–but it isn’t just elders against acolytes and a traitor in our midst–that’s close, but that’s not quite it.”
“It’s an invasion.”
If possible, Reis’s eyes went wider than before.
“You think–? You think this is what the Invasion looks like?”
“I–I think so…”
Reis looked skeptical. “But what the Cryptics described made the Invasion sound far more…extreme.”
“I think this is how it starts. And from here it gets even worse.”
“Well…then we would still have a traitor. Even worse, actually. Someone among us who’s actively being taken over by the Invasion.”
“And you assume that it’s me.”
“Well–yes? I didn’t think so at first, but then…you were the only one who wouldn’t make a pledge. And you ignored me when I told you about my suspicions.”
I didn’t agree with you, so you assumed I was evil. Tharos thought to himself in exasperation.
“But…you see the importance of what I’ve been saying now, don’t you?” Reis continued. “Now you understand why we need the pledge, now you see why we need to investigate and root out any Invaded. Don’t you?”
Reis was offering to let Tharol back into the circle, but Tharol couldn’t help but sense the implied threat if he didn’t.
“Well of course I see that things have to be different now,” Tharol said. “We’re on our own…we’re facing extinction. We need to be bound to each other, yes, of that I’m certain.”
“So you’re willing to make a pledge to me now?”
“A pledge to everyone. I want all of us to make a pledge to each other. Me to you, and you to me, both of us to Bovik and him to both of us, and so on and so on.”
“What? Well that wouldn’t mean anything,” Reis scrunched up his nose.
“That would mean everything. We’d all be bound in every direction. We’d all be equal, as we should be.”
“No, that’s not it. You just don’t want to follow my lead still. Why not?”
Tharol bit the inside of his cheek. Reis could be a pompous fool, but when it came to a shift of power, he didn’t miss a trick. He was right of course, the last thing Tharol wanted was to be directly bound to Reis. Reis was too proud, too distrusting, and Tharol would rather follow anyone else instead.
“It’s–it’s like you said before, Reis. We all have different strengths, and we’re meant to unite them together. This is how we do it, by sharing the responsibility together equally across us all.”
Reis snorted. “Please. The others need a leader and you know it. And that’s my particular strength: leading. That’s how we band together. Everyone else sees it. Everyone else has already made their pledge. Whether you like it or not, Tharol, the new order has already been formed, and the only question is if you’re with it or not.”
Reis was right, the other youth had already committed themselves. And if Tharol couldn’t convince Reis, there wouldn’t be any convincing them either. They would just defer to whatever they were told, and view any argument against Reis as an attack against them all.
We have to stay together, Tharol thought to himself. Even if it’s an imperfect banner, what matters is that we all stand united under it.
“Alright then, Reis. I’ll make a pledge.”
A few moments later and the two of them came out from behind the stone column, over to the dais where the rest of the youth were collected. Reis was practically beaming with his triumph.
“Well you were quite a while,” Marvi pouted. “I was starting to get worried.”
“It’s fine,” Reis waved his hand dismissively. “I told you that I’d handle things.”
“So what’s the situation with him,” Inol tipped his head towards Tharol.
“We’ve talked things over, and it seems there was a misunderstanding between us. Tharol sees the importance of what we’re doing here now, and he’s made his pledge to our new Order.”
“Are we really our own order now?” Bovik breathed in awe.
“Well certainly we’re not part of the old one anymore,” Golu said bitterly.
“I still don’t understand what happened,” Inol spoke up. “I just can’t believe that every order is supposed to end with its elders trying to kill all of their followers.”
“I don’t think it is,” Tharol shook his head. “They were supposed to just pass on. Did you see how most of them meditated into nothingness? That’s what they were meant to do, resign their lives so that there was space for us to take over.”
“But not all of them did.”
“Yes, well, clearly not every elder was as ready for such a sacrifice. I think Master Orish anticipated that when he made his speech. Maybe that’s how it is every time. Maybe there’s always those who would rather keep their place, even if doing so meant killing the next generation.”
“But why would those be the only choices?” Bovik demanded. “Why can’t they just live alongside us until they die naturally?”
“I…don’t know. Somehow it doesn’t work that way.”
“And would that mean that the elders who defended us were in the wrong, too?” Marvi added. “Do you mean that they should have just blinked away into nothing instead of helping us?”
“I don’t know…maybe.”
“Yes, he doesn’t know,” Reis cut in, frustrated that Tharol had become the center of questions. “And making idle guesses isn’t going to help us right now. What we need now is to act swiftly and strongly. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d say I saw five times as many elders trying to kill us as trying to defend us. It’s only natural to assume that anyone who was going to be a help is already dead. If we see an elder from this point on, they’re our enemy.”
Reis paused a moment to let that notion sink in.
“So…if we see an elder…you want us to kill them?” Bovik asked slowly.
“It’s kill or be killed, simple as that.”
“We could run,” Tharol countered.
“Not a chance!” Reis spat. “This is our Order now. Our chance to earn our future. You heard what Master Orish said, it’s ours, but only if we’re able to take it.”
“But we don’t know how to move and fight like they do,” Tharol shook his head. “They’ve had so many more years and learned so much more.”
“Yeah, they’re old! And weak! Sure, they got the jump on us earlier when we weren’t expecting anything, and things didn’t look so good then. But now, when we know what we’re facing, we’ll cut them to pieces! Or is that not how you escaped?”
“I…did kill two of them. But it wasn’t me. Master Palthio was helping. He was…honestly I don’t know how to say it other than he invaded me! But he was doing it to help, just for a very brief moment. I wouldn’t have had a chance on my own.”
“Well…I guess martial skills never were your forte,” Reis scoffed. “Plus you’re forgetting the most important matter of them all. This is the Invasion. I’ve seen it in Raystahn. So it wouldn’t matter if we were outmatched a hundred-to-one, the simple fact is we have a duty to do. We make our stand here and now. Stand to protect the world from being Invaded because we’re the only ones that have the training to do it.”
Tharol opened his mouth, intending to point out that fighting the Invasion just created strife, which the Cryptics taught could only further Invasion. But before he could say a word Marvi shouted “Hear! Hear!” and then all the other youth rushed in to join her.
Well that’s that, Tharol thought ruefully. The leader has spoken.
Tharol kept himself aloof from the rest of the conversation that evening, while Reis and a few of the others planned how they would retrieve weapons and launch a counterattack against the elders. Tharol felt muddled inside, more than ever before, and he preferred to have some time alone.
So he took up watch at the eastern edge of the centrifuge. There were two youth assigned to watch at every forty-five degrees of the clearing. One youth roamed outside the centrifuge, patrolling the halls of the hedge maze in that area, while the other stood within, demanding a password when the patrolling youth came back inside.
Then the two would swap places and continue their joint patrol/watch. Passing back-and-forth through the centrifuge was exhausting work. Every time you exited, the only way to return was through some totally new mechanic. It became a great mental taxation then, puzzling out one solution after another.
Perhaps the inconsistency of approach was the reason why none of the elders had attempted to invade the centrifuge yet. It couldn’t have taken them long to scour every other corner of the Abbey, and it wasn’t as if the youth’s fascination with the area was much of a secret. But how could the elders plan a proper assault where every member of the attacking party would have to come into the centrifuge by a different method, and thus break into it at different times? The youth would be able to cut them down one-at-a-time.
That was just as well as far as Tharol was concerned. The fact was that he had no desire to kill the elders at all. He had seen how Master Omil’s face had changed from hate to remorse right before he had vanished at the end. He felt that he had seen the real Master Omil in that final moment. Not a monster trying to eat him, but a man who was regretful and broken. Tharol got the sense that Master Omil had not been in his right mind when he attacked. There had been a shadow over his face, and it was that image which convinced Tharol most of all that this was the work of the Invasion.
And perhaps some of the elders had done something wrong. Perhaps they had not been vigilant enough. Perhaps the Invasion had taken them over because they were too naïve or stupid or careless. Perhaps it had taken advantage of their fears, had been invited in by their hesitancy to move on. But now were they to be executed simply for having been human?
“Brilliant,” Reis clapped Inol on the shoulder over at the central dais, praising him for some scheme the youth had just concocted. “They won’t be able to draw near without being cut to ribbons!”
On Monday I spoke about stories that exist in more than one iteration. I even shared how I was considering releasing more than one version of The Favored Son, just so that I could explore all the possible different variations on it that I was thinking of.
And I may yet do that, but for the time being I will write this version to be the fullest, most complete vision that I can, and perhaps after I’ve done that I’ll no longer feel the need for a new interpretation. I’ll see when I get there, and until then I am free to write this first version exactly the way that I want.
That freedom has helped me a great deal to let go of the old ideas, and build on the new. And with that freedom I have worked a recurring pattern into the story that was not in my original design. And that recurring element is the youth in the centrifuge. The story began with them there, contemplating the changing of the Order. Then, after the attack they have returned to it to take stock of the situation and plan their next step. Next they are headed off to battle, and I will have them return to the centrifuge a final time at the end to review the aftermath of that effort.
Thus I will have used the centrifuge as a place for the youth to recollect themselves after every major plot development. It is a place to pause, reflect, and solidify themes and intentions. Of course, mine is not the only story to feature a recurring location like this, a safe zone where characters and readers can collectively gather their thoughts. This is actually a very common trope. Come back on Monday where we will examine the value of a recurring refuge in a story, and how it has been utilized in other tales.
Thus from that Void sprang Life and Invasion. Or using the terms of the Ancient Prophet: Creation and Destruction. And in them began the cycle of possibility and impossibility.
For Creation, or Life, cannot occur, unless there was first an absence of Creation. A space that was first dead or unformed must exist, so that there is room for the new Creation, or Life, to occupy.
And as the seeds of all Life thus find their roots in a place of death, so all Life has the tendency towards decay and death. That which we make comes of naught, and so must return to naught. And in its dead ashes we find again the space for new Life. Were it not so, all would be created, until there was space for Creation no more, and it would have defeated itself. Instead, inherent in Life is the force of destruction, the tendency to undo itself, the strife to unmake what has been made.
The Third Recitation of Master Eidoron
Thus any effort to prevent the Invasion is folly. Indeed the Invasion is encouraged by strife, thus any effort to prevent it is also strife, and to resist it is only to hasten its coming.
In the Realm of Theory only is it possible to prevent Invasion. And in that realm the Invasion could only be quelled by a life that was totally devoid of strife, which as we have seen, would be a force of Creation that was unrestrained until there was no longer any space for Creation, and all became motionless and dead. And in this paradox we see that the Invasion must be.
Of course this notion may naturally suggest despair to the mind. If the Invasion must be, then what is the value of effort? Why even attempt to maintain one’s independence from it?
The Fourth Recitation of Master Eidoron
The answer to this conundrum comes in retaining a clear distinction between the inevitability of the whole and the freedom of the individual. Yes, mankind as a whole will give rise to the Invasion time and time again. But just because that fate for mankind, as a whole, is predetermined, the fate of the single individual is not.
Thus entire societies may be lost within the Invasion-mind, yet a single individual within that society might escape. All about us may fall away, but it is not fated that we must fall away, too. This truth is made evident in the miraculous deliverances of Abji’Tolan, the Merchant of Azuyl, Popaiyoh and Seeve, and countless other stories in the Cryptics. All these examples show a great truth in common: We can concede the loss of the masses, yet still retain faith in the salvation of the individual.
The Fifth Recitation of Master Eidoron
In fact, not only can individuals prevail, they must. For if all were silenced within the Invasion, then all disparity would cease. All would be dead. All would be lost within one totality.
And if this were so, it would unmake the Invasion. For, by necessity, the Invasion requires there to be an entity outside of itself to oppose itself, otherwise there would be nothing to which it could perform its function of invasion. Thus all would be invaded until there was space for Invasion no more, and it would have defeated itself.
And so we have the greatest paradox of all. Life and Invasion, Creation and Destruction, each destroys the other, yet also depends on the other to exist. Each must try to prevail over the other, yet must also give ground to the other. And so conflict must continue forever.
Tharol sighed and lifted his eyes from the passage to look out the nearby archway. He was stirred by passages like these…but he could not claim to truly understand them. They seemed so full of contradictions, so impossible to resolve in the mind. No doubt Master Palthio would tell him to not try to resolve them in his mind, to simply let them be, but if he didn’t strive to understand them, then surely he would never understand them?
Strive. Even as he thought the word, it echoed to him from the passages of Master Eidoron. Was his “striving” to understand these passages only hastening the coming of the Invasion?
“Why do you read those if they distress you so?”
Tharol spun around, startled by the voice interrupting on his thoughts. Reis stood a mere arm’s length away, hands clasped behind his back, scrutinizing Tharol as he read.
“I said why do you read those when they clearly upset you?”
“They don’t upset me.”
“Yes they do. I can see it on your face.”
“They–confound me, I don’t understand them–but I’m not upset about them.”
“Well even so, why read them then?”
“What would you have me do? We have to understand these, don’t we?”
Reis shrugged. “I don’t know. Master Abu’Tak says that he’s never been able to make any sense of them, and that hasn’t stopped him from being a part of the Order. I get the sense that each of the elders have their own personal doctrines that they are best attuned to, and their own blind spots that they can’t make sense of.”
“Interesting…Master Palthio said something similar to me just the other day.”
“We all have our own strengths Reis. That’s why we’re an Order and not a group of hermits, so that we can unite our different strengths.”
“Yes…I like that….But what then? Am I to just ignore the things I don’t understand? Not even try to better myself?”
“I would say put your strength when your strengths lie,” Reis said, now pacing back and forth like he was giving a lecture. “Why not put your energy where you get the best return on your investment? No one would deny that you do have other great talents.”
“Oh? And where exactly would you say that my strengths lie?”
“You’re a pursuer, Tharol. Once a thought arrests you, you chase it without relenting.”
“I suppose. So?”
“And we are in a dangerous time. As I was saying the other day, our Order is so close to changing hands, so close to being our own to run. And while that is exciting to all the other acolytes, I don’t mind telling you it makes me very nervous. It is a dangerous time, a time of uncertainty. If I were the Invasion-mind, this is the moment where I would attack.”
Tharol shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t trust the student body?”
“No. I know that I called them my friends there in the stone hedge. I had to win their trust, had to put on a face of confidence and try to unite them…but I have deep suspicions among them, don’t you?”
“I don’t–I don’t know. I think they all…mean well.”
Reis’s lips widened in a tight smile. “So you do see it. They ‘mean well?’ Yes, of course they do…but they’re fools, aren’t they?”
Tharol looked down.
“You don’t deny it. And you know as well as I do that fools who mean well can easily be made pawns for someone else. No, our peers aren’t malicious…but they are dangerous.”
“What is your point in all this? What does this have to do with my talents?”
“As I said, you’re a pursuer. And I trust your judgment. In our new Order I want you to be Master of Inspection.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You would be responsible for investigating the others, for identifying those who were suspicious and you would watch their comings and goings. There is no one I would trust more to find our traitors, to weed out our spies. No one I would trust more to protect the flock.” His broad grin made it clear that he felt he was offering Tharol a great honor. He extended a hand of friendship to Tharol.
Tharol’s eyes furrowed in intense thought. On the surface there was a great deal of truth in Reis’s words. Yes, their peers did seem susceptible to outside influence. They were vain and naïve. He always had felt bad that he saw that, worried what it said about him–that he was too judgmental?–yet he was sure it true even so. And yes, he could see how this was a dangerous time, one that required an extra dose of vigilance.
But spying on his peers? Perhaps Tharol struggled to understand the Cryptics, but even he could tell that this would be wrong. This would be acting under a motivation of fear, and by that fear he would be sowing doubt. This would be secrets and paranoia and division. This would be creating…strife. For a moment a smile crossed his face as part of Master Eidoron’s message finally made sense. This effort to control the Invasion could only hasten it.
He looked up to tell Reis as much, but as he looked into his friend’s face he realized the other half of what made him uneasy about the offer. Yes, their peers were susceptible. They were prone to follow a silk tongue, to sell themselves unwittingly to a devil. And as it was, the one who had them the wrapped around his finger most was…Reis.
Tharol closed his partially-opened mouth, and he did not take the offered hand of friendship. A deep scowl crawled across Reis’s face, and Tharol wondered how much the youth guessed of his private thoughts. Reis did not say anything, just stared back, summing Tharol up.
The tension of the moment was broken by the crashing of a cymbal. It was the summoning gong being rung from the inner sanctum of the abbey. They were being called by the elders.
“I–suppose we’d better go” Tharol said stiffly.
“I suppose we should.”
The two youth were nearly halfway to the amphitheater before Tharol realized he knew what they were being summoned for. Though he didn’t know why, somehow he could feel in his heart that they were about to begin the Trials.
The Trials were the culminating ritual for every generation of their Order, the crucible which would somehow see the old guard passing on and the new blood taking up the cause. Exactly how the old guard passed into the shadows had never been detailed to them, though. The way the elders spoke about it suggested that they did not simply take a back seat to the ruling of the new generation. Everything they said on the matter seemed to reinforce the idea that they would be permanently gone. But was that in exile?… Or in death?
The elders had never been forthcoming about how things were when they took over the Order, either. Indeed they never said a word about who their own mentors were. To the rising generation there was no other Order but the one maintained by their elders. The only clues they had of prior generations were the scriptures and recitations which their elders had chosen to preserve.
A stray thought crossed Tharol’s mind: was it possible that Master Palthio had personally known Master Eidoron? He did not know whether Master Eidoron wrote his recitations a single generation ago, or ten.
Tharol shook his head. He had far more pressing matters before him. Not only did he not know how the Trials brought in the end of an era, he didn’t even know what the Trials themselves were composed of! It was never spoken of in any greater context than its name. What was about to transpire between him and his other acolytes?
Tharol’s ruminations were interrupted as he and Reis stepped between the stone pillars and into the amphitheater proper. It was a wide, level circle open to the heavens above. The dirt was packed until it was hard as stone, with one side giving way to ascending seats. All the student body was in those seats, while the elders stood in a line at the center of the circle.
Reis and Tharol hurriedly took their seats, far apart from each other. All their fellow-acolytes looked forward in nervous anticipation, excitedly waiting to see what sort of tests they were about to be put to. They did not have long to wait, for Reis and Tharol were the last to arrive, and once they were seated Master Orish stepped forward to address the congregation.
“Pupils! Thank you for gathering here today. We welcome you to the End of Times. The Refining Scorch. The Trials! Today, we have brought you forward, that you may determine the future together. What that new horizon will be is yours to craft, and yours alone.”
There was no smile on his face. No light in his eyes. Though his words were impressive, Tharol could got the sense that this was not a moment of triumph. After a pause Master Orish continued.
“That future is not given to you, though. It must be claimed. And if it is not claimed…then it will not be. Some of you have assumed that your future is a free gift, that the Trials are merely a way to test yourselves against each other, to determine what role you will have in the new Order. But you are wrong. The Trial is to determine if you are even worthy to have your own Order. I give you a moment’s warning: defend yourselves.”
He turned his back and returned to the line of elders, each of whom stood motionless, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped together and trembling. Tharol glanced sideways to his fellow acolytes, and saw on them all the same look of confusion and apprehension.
A bloodcurdling cry snapped the tension. It came from Master Foraou, who leaped past the line of elders, whipping a sword out of the folds of his tunic. He kicked off the banister at the edge of the field and flew through the air towards the mass of acolytes!
On Monday I spoke of stories that lead the reader to a particular frame of mind, and then, knowing what they are thinking, either affirm or subvert those expectations. In this section I attempted to setup a train of thought for the reader, and do both an affirmation and a subversion on it.
First I had the moment where Tharol because suspicious of Reis. In previous sections I have written Reis to be proud and insincere, and so I am leading the audience to suspect him of becoming the villain in this story. Thus they are already on the lookout for nefarious behavior from him, and his request of Tharol to spy on his friends is the affirmation of it.
Which affirmation is meant to create a moment of calm in the mind of the reader. They now know that they are in sync with the protagonist, that Tharol is pulling on the correct thread, that he isn’t missing anything that we think he should be picking up on. Thus there is danger, but Tharol is already alerted to it, and should therefore be able to handle it. And having thus created this sense of surety in the reader’s mind, I then subvert it with the horror of the elders unexpectedly attacking their own pupils.
You may find it interesting to know that I did not plan for this moment of surprise until the very moment I was writing it. It surprised me as much as I hope it surprised you! Originally the Trials were going to be something very different, and I had been trying to write the introduction to them without any success. The words just weren’t flowing, and I paused to ask myself what should be happening in this scene instead.
But we’re out of room here, and I want to look into this in greater detail. So come back Monday as we consider how an author can pause to consider what a scene needs, and go along with the answer, no matter how surprising it may be.