And not only could Cace perceive the monster’s presence in the Ether, he was able to understand its parallel purpose in both worlds. He saw that it was a multiplicative. Its first purpose was to reproduce itself in other beings. To that end it had a special ability: to take other living matter and transform it into a copy of itself. It wasn’t simply that the larva consumed the host it was planted in, it was that it became a kernel within, rewriting the living thing to grow and harden and reshape until it was the same as that beast.
And this was why the beast retained a special connection to each of its larva, they were each a continuation of the original. They might appear as separate entities, but they were clones of one another, separate branches that had grown from the same trunk.
All of which was fascinating, but Aylme was running out of time and Cace still didn’t know how to help! So he pivoted on the spot, surveying the rest of the world, looking for some other element in the Ether that could help.
He traced the connections from the beast, saw that it had threads to all the other components in the Ether. This was because of its second purpose: to be a regulator. It multiplied itself in order to scour the entire system and restrain or purge anything that was amiss. Any foreign entity or corrupted module were eradicated instantly. Because, as Cace now realized, all of these modules were parts of a whole, they were separate functions to one higher purpose. They were a machine, a great and massive machine, and that machine had to be preserved from corruption.
Cace turned his attention to the heart of the machine, looking for some way to sever its connection to the beast or to change its functions. But the heart of the machine was cold and inactive. Its periphery systems still ran, but the core did not. It required fuel to function, and at some point it must have run out of that.
Cace saw the furnace of the machine…a great sprawling mass, which twisted in every direction around the other parts of the machine, trying to feel out some entity to burn. It was careful not to touch any of the other parts of the machine, though, because it had no way to differentiate between machine module and foreign element. It would just consume anything that it came in contact with.
And suddenly Cace realized he knew what the sprawling engine’s counterpart was in the overworld. It was the black powder at the foot of the almnut tree.
Without waiting another moment Cace turned on the spot and dashed from the field! He heard Aylme’s cries as the boulder above her fractured. She was trying to prop it up with her hands, but it was starting to crumble into rubble. One more hit and the monster would be through!
Cace’s foot caught on a root and tripped him, but he turned his fall into a roll, returned to his feet, and kept going. He leapt over the next root and ducked under a low-hanging branch. He had come to the base of the almnut tree and saw the powder sprawled out before him like a black ocean.
Back in the clearing, the creature lifted itself and thrust its body down once more. Aylme screamed as it impacted on the loose rock. The stone shattered into pieces and fell between her arms. She closed her eyes, ready for the impact of the creature’s hard underbelly…but it didn’t come! Instead the creature sharply recoiled, legs falling over one another as it writhed in agony.
Aylme slowly opened her eyes. Incredulous, she pushed away the loose rock and sat up, watching as the beast trampled its way into the center of the clearing, convulsing horribly. It opened its clam-like mouth and it was filled with that same black powder that had tried to suffocate Rolar. It was as if that powder was flowing into the creature from an unseen fountain!
Back at the almnut tree, the last of the white larva sunk into the black soil, twisting as it went. The powder had hungrily eaten the thing up, then gone through it—as if it were a portal—to where the great beast now twitched in the clearing. The powder crawled out of the monster’s mouth and across its surface, flowing over every detail, consuming as it went! Two of the creature’s legs disintegrated and it collapsed onto the ground. A few more moments and there wasn’t any creature left, only a large pile of black powder where it had stood!
Then came the sound of ruptures all around the clearing, buried beneath the surface. It was the thousands of the creature’s larva being invaded all at the same moment. The whole earth rumbled and plumes of black powder erupted like small volcanoes.
Aylme felt the pocket of ground next to her start to tremble and she quickly rolled away before the fountain of powder could get on her! She scrambled over to Rolar’s unconscious form, eyes frantically darting in every direction, making sure that none of the powder plumes were going to fall on him.
And then, just like that, it all stopped. The earth gave a loud groan, like a pained sigh, and there was no more shaking, no more rupturing, and no more creature or larva. Everything turned still.
“Aylme?” Cace called, dashing across the clearing towards the other two. He was pale, sweaty, and disoriented.
“Cace, Rolar’s seriously hurt!” Aylme sobbed, looking the older boy over. She turned his head so that she could see his face. His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing. “We’ve got to get him back home. Though I’m not–I’m not sure how we can fix this.”
There was dread in her voice. Rolar’s arm was bent at an odd angle, clearly broken, but even worse damage had been down in the next blow, which had hit him squarely on the back and head. No doubt he had a concussion, and perhaps a fractured spine. Maybe even damage to his internal organs.
Had they saved his life, just to watch him slowly succumb to his wounds?
Rolar shook his head. He didn’t understand what Cace meant. It didn’t really matter anyway. What mattered was that the beast was here now, and that it might prove to be an excellent source of food for them. Or otherwise they would be food for it! So Rolar turned his wrists, raising the bladed end of his staff to the ready.
“No, wait!” Cace exclaimed, but it was too late. Rolar charged forward with a shout. The creature, though blind, snapped itself around to face the youth. Rolar’s eyes flit from the left to the right, waiting to see which of its four arms the creature would attack with. As soon as it did he would swing the blade to sever it.
But the creature did no such thing. It bunched up those legs and sprang forward like a loosed spring, head first at the boy. Rolar’s eyes went wide, he swung his staff against the head, but it rang out as if he had struck stone, and the wood burst into a thousand splinters!
“Oof!” Rolar exclaimed as he the wide head buffeted him and sent him sprawling backwards, landing in a heap on the earth. He’d had the wind knocked out of him, but he still tried to roll out of the away.
No good. The beast landed above him and instantly seized at him with two of its long, wiry limbs. Rolar fought back, kicking and pressing with his arms, trying to keep himself out of the creature’s hold. But it was much stronger than him, and along with the grasping of its arms it began lifting its clamshell body and slamming the bottom of it into the ground, trying to crush him like a piece of steel between hammer and anvil!
Rolar twisted out of the way once, pushed off to the side to dodge the second blow, did a half-roll to get around the third…but the fourth blow fell on his wrist and there came the unsettling sound of something snapping. Rolar cried out, and the next strike hit him squarely in the back and he collapsed onto the soil. The monster raised itself high on its arms, about to slam itself down for the killing blow!
“Hey!” Cace shouted from behind. He had extracted the white stick that had been in the center of their trap and was holding it aloft with both hands. The monster didn’t regard Cace’s shout one bit, but then Cace started to apply pressure to the stick, threatening to snap it in two. And that the monster did acknowledge! It gave a horrible shriek and spun around on the spot, forgetting about Rolar entirely.
“That’s right,” Cace nodded. “This is a part of you, and you don’t want me to break it, do you?” He tapped the stick in his palm and the creature’s legs twitched beneath its head, wanting to lash out at Cace, but not daring to. But they weren’t twitches of pain, Cace realized, they were of worry.
A sudden intuition washed over Cace, another revelation from the Ether. He had been slightly mistaken…it wasn’t that the stick was a part of the creature’s body…it was something else. Cace looked down at the stick and saw how it wriggled gently, how it had little stubs along its underside in two even rows. This wasn’t one of the creature’s organs…it was one of its larva!
There was the sound of a dried leaf crinkling underfoot and both Cace and the beast looked to the side in surprise. Evidently Aylme had heard their commotion, and was stealing around the side of the clearing, trying to get to where Rolar’s broken body lay.
The creature’s clamshells opened and it gave a vicious shriek, then thrust two of its arms out, pinning Aylme down to the ground just as it had done with Rolar. Aylme fell with a cry, but kept her head about her enough to struggle against the arms and shimmy under a nearby overhanging boulder. The monster stepped forward and tried to slam its hard underbelly on her as well, but only came in contact with rock. It was undeterred, though. It had her cornered, and it continued to beat down, taxing the boulder until it would break.
“Hey!” Cace called again, giving the larva another twist. The monster hissed, but it didn’t turn back. It might despise Cace for having hold of its young, but evidently it had given up on it. The creature had been willing to use the larva for bait in the first place after all.
Cace stepped back and forth anxiously. Rolar and Aylme were about to be killed. Then he would be, too, as soon as the beast had finished with them. Cace wanted to help, but he knew he wasn’t strong, or fast, or knowing the right things to do. He didn’t even have any weapons or tools to help him.
“I hate this world!” he cried. “I hate not being able to do anything in it!”
Then, without even thinking about it, he held back his heartbeat and thudded it out in unison with the rhythm of the Ether. He didn’t even have to strain himself to find its cadence. Ever since last night’s excursion it had been constantly thundering in him, he had only been containing it beneath the surface.
But now he let it out. Now he let down his restraints and the trance washed over him in an instant. This time he didn’t lose consciousness in the real world, though. He remained standing with a leg in each. On the one hand he still saw and heard the beast crashing down on the rock over Aylme, but on the other he perceived how that same creature was only one of the many systems that existed in the Ether.
In fact, now Cace could perceive that even Aylme was a system in that place, and so was Rolar. As before, he couldn’t actually “see” them in the Ether, but he could sense them, was aware of their forms and interconnections. And as he looked over both worlds at the same moment he understood a great truth: there wasn’t anything in either world that didn’t also belong in the other. They were two separate systems, with different rules, but infinite interconnections in between!
The Storm is a very short story, and yet it still maintains three distinct acts. Thus far we have made it through the first, in which Oscar learns of Harry’s dilemma and sets out to find him. Now we come into the second, where he meets Harry and they begin their hard journey back to port. This act should feel very full and weighty, and should also maintain a steady escalation in the threat of the storm. Keeping these in mind, let’s forge ahead!
The waves did not merely rock Oscar’s boat now. They were long and deep, shallow mountains and valleys that his vessel now had to scale and descend in turn. And the longer he stayed out here, those mountains and valleys would only become greater and more treacherous.
Holding the wheel steady in one hand he grabbed the mic and began calling out through the storm.
“This is the Last Horizon. Repeat, this is the Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”
Oscar reached to the throttle and pressed it up to full. Never mind the fuel spent, he’d have the surf to help carry him back to the shore. For now all that mattered was that he finish his duty as quickly as possible. Find Harry, or have done his due diligence and surrendered him to the sea, and then get straight back home.
With the extra clip of speed his trawler distanced itself past the point of the Broken Horn, to the point that he now turn back slightly north, cutting across the front of the cape. As he went by he roved the shoals and the cliffs with his eyes, searching for any sign of a freshly broken boat.
But again, nothing. Everywhere he looked, his vessel was the only white speck between that black abyss of rock vaunting up into the sky and that black abyss of water spinning below.
“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing, do you hear me?”
A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into its line. Being even a little bit broadside to the waves was becoming treacherous, and he didn’t like how much his boat tilted against each new crest. The gale subsided for a moment and he roared his frustration into the mic.
“HARRY! DO YOU EVEN HEAR ME?!”
All at once the crackle of static gave way to a small voice, timid and broken.
“Yes, yes, this is Harry here! I see you Oscar, I see you! Starboard side.”
Oscar turned his head from the cape and looked to his right. There, in even deeper waters, he could barely make out the outline of a white boat through the outer mists of the storm.
“What’s your status, Harry?”
“Engine trouble. It’s barely turning at all. I can’t make it around the cape, Oscar, so I’ve just been tryin’ to hold her steady for as long as I could. I don’t mind telling you I was real scared, Oscar.”
“Yeah, well I still am! Stay put, Harry.”
Oscar opened up the throttle and spun the wheel. For a moment his vessel rocked up and down without actually making any advancement, but then it built up enough momentum and lurched forward, pressing deeper into the storm.
The first layers of rain broke upon the windshield, large, heavy drops splotching across the glass. This heavy rain had a formed misty barrier around the edge of the storm, a wall to conceal its inner workings. But after a moment of clouding his vision the heavy rain subsided, and now that Oscar had pressed through those curtains, far darker forms were unveiled beyond!
It was a world of muddled black. Pitch skies hung low overhead, whipped by strong winds into long wisps, thin and fragile, but so numerous as to entirely crowd out the sun. Under that grim ceiling was a landscape of fomented waves, rolling in an endless agony. Oscar crested the outer ripples and saw leagues of the deep yawning wide. There was a great depression in the middle of that floor, pulling it down into a massive bowl some eight miles across. The water was the green-black of thick ink, the darkness of untold fathoms beneath. Seeing all at once the huge expanse of it and the under-weight of it was enough to make one agoraphobic and claustrophobic all at the same time! And across that rolling landscape several shocks of lightning bristled every second, each bolt immense but straight, efficiently shooting the immense energy above down into the darkness below. It was also the loudest storm Oscar had ever known. All about was the cacophonic din of sharp thunder mingled with crashing water mingled with screeching wind.
And there, caught within it all, was Harry’s vessel, twitching and swaying erratically, almost entirely at the mercy of the storm, but on occasion coming to life just enough to jerk back to a nearly perpendicular line to the rolling waves. The boat must be taking on water already, growing more sluggish every minute, growing ever more difficult for Oscar’s vessel to haul out of the foment.
Oscar’s heart fell, but he only allowed himself a moment’s dread before he grit his teeth and grabbed the mic. “You gotta hold it more windward, Harry! I can’t come up alongside just to have you swing into my hull!”
“Okay…” came the timid reply. “I’ll try, Oscar.”
Oscar spat and shook his head. It was a hard thing he was asking, even if it had been of a good shipman, but it was absolutely necessary. “Yeah, you gotta hold her straight. And I’m gonna come up on your starboard side and throw you a line as I pass. You be ready to catch it, and then run like anything to get it through your bow cleat.”
“Okay, Oscar. Okay. I’ll try.”
Apparently that was as good as Harry was going to give.
Almost all of today’s text was either completely new or heavily modified. If you would like to compare it to the original version you can do that here.
By far the greatest change has been how I have developed a sense of Oscar breaking through the outer layer and into the storm proper. I’ve been trying to stretch out the escalation of danger, with each act of the story presenting greater threats than the one before. In my original draft there was very little text between Oscar seeing Harry’s boat floundering in the storm, and then already being alongside of him, throwing out a line. With this second draft I’m really taking the time to describe how the stakes are being raised. This has the added benefit of making the reader feel the passage of time while Oscar closes the gap to the troubled vessel.
But given that I am writing so much new material, I wonder whether it will feel unpolished when laid alongside the earlier parts of the story. I also worry whether I have escalated the storm too quickly already, for I need things to get even more dire later on. So I’ll be very curious when I read the second draft as a whole to see whether these new parts already fit with the rest, or if I will need to polish them a fair bit more. I guess I’ll just have to see.
Cace could not hide his hurt the next day. Even after a particularly deep sleep his face was gaunt and pale, with deep lines etched beneath his eyes. When he came out of the sleeping quarters Aylme took one look at him and her face fell.
“I want to help, Aylme.”
“By hurting yourself?”
“No…not by that. I thought I’d be able to do it safely. I was trying to flow in and out on my own…but it didn’t work. It…was even worse than before.”
Aylme shook her head sadly. “I know you mean well, Cace, but so did the Elders at the House of Olaish, and see what they brought upon us? I had thought that you of all people would see the folly in this. We’re simply not meant to walk between two worlds, Cace.”
That last sentence Cace could not agree with. Even more than before he felt that a part of him was still locked away in the Ether. He didn’t know how, but he was most definitely in two places right this very moment. But never mind that. No matter how much he burned with a desire to explore the secrets of the Ether, no matter how sincerely he believed he could use it as a tool to help the three of them survive, he had to face the facts that he didn’t have what it took to do that.
“Well I’m not going back Aylme,” he told her. “I still think it could have saved us…but it’s beyond me.” He hung his head and hurried away before she could respond. He went to clear his head by helping Rolar set some traps.
“Ah, Cace,” Rolar said without even looking up from his work. He could recognize the boy by his lighter footfalls.
“How do these ones work?” As Cace approached the older youth he saw that what he was working on was an apparatus of wood and vine.
“Very delicately…” Rolar replied, a bead of sweat rolling down his nose as he strained at the apparatus, prying two wooden meshes apart from one another. “This vine is surprisingly elastic, as good as a synthetic really!”
“So you just pry the wooden halves apart, but if they get disturbed they’ll snap back together…crushing anything inside?”
“That’s right. You pick things up quickly, Cace!…Grab that bracer for me,” Rolar nodded his head towards a fat, white stick laying on the ground.
Cace reached down and picked it up. There was a strange breaking of tension, as if it had been attached to some invisible membrane. But as if the breaking of that membrane wasn’t actually occurring under Cace’s fingers, rather it was centered elsewhere…somewhere far away. And now there was another strange and distant sensation, like the memory of an imbalance and dizziness. “Ohhh,” Cace touched his head and moaned.
“You alright?” Rolar glanced up, but then back down to the two halves he was holding apart with trembling hands.
“Yeah, I just…I just feel like something shifted.”
“I’m not sure what you mean, but I am having a hard time keeping these apart!”
“Right, right…sorry.” Cace tried to dismiss the strange uneasiness and wedged the stick sideways in the wooden mesh. “Okay, let go.”
“No,” Rolar panted. “Set it and pull your hand out.”
Cace could see the wisdom in that and hastily withdrew his fingers. Rolar nodded, then rolled his own hands over the edges of the trap. Both boys covered their ears in case the stick didn’t hold and the trap snapped shut…but after a few moments of squeaking it held.
“Excellent!” Rolar exclaimed. “That’s the trick with traps. You’ve got to make them sensitive enough to go off when the animal gets in, but not so sensitive to go off when nothing’s there. I’ve heard some ragouls in the night, and they’re about the size of two hands, so I figured–“
But Cace wasn’t listening. As soon as he had covered his ears and shut out the outside noise he felt that weird dizziness even more clearly. And he was starting to realize what it was.
When he had lifted that stick something had shifted in the Ether. Something there was tethered to that stick…and it in turn was tethered to something else that was here. And ever since that disturbance there was a rumbling sensation in the Ether that was growing stronger and stronger, louder and louder, nearer and nearer…an explosion that had not yet burst to the surface.
“It’s a trap!” Cace blurted out, jumping to his feet in a panic.
“What?” Rolar wrinkled his brow in confusion. “Well of course it’s a trap, what did you think we were making?”
“No, we’re being trapped. Come with me!”
“What are you going on about?!”
But Cace couldn’t wait any longer. He seized Rolar’s arm and hauled with a strength that belied his smaller frame.
“Cace, what are you doing?” Rolar asked as the younger boy lurched for the edge of the clearing, still tugging at Rolar’s arm every step of the way.
But then Rolar didn’t have to wonder anymore, for now he could feel it even in the regular world. The entire ground beneath seemed to wake up! It shook violently for a moment, and then the ground in the center of the clearing rose and burst apart, giving birth to a massive, brown creature from below. It looked like a sideways clam, with two plate-like halves that snapped the air wildly, seeking the boys that had been there just a moment before! At its back, where the two clam-halves hinged together, four sinewy legs sprawled out to the ground. When fully raised it stood nearly twelve feet tall.
“Get behind me!” Rolar gasped, pushing Cace to the rear and drawing his staff from his back.
The creature stopped snapping at the air, evidently understanding that its prey had escaped too quickly. So now it turned very still, slowly turning its head left and right, a warbling growl emanating from somewhere inside that massive mouth.
“What’s it doing?” Rolar whispered over his shoulder.
“It’s looking for us,” Cace responded. “That stick thing was its bait, and when we moved it it knew to come out.”
“How? The stick was just laying on the ground…there wasn’t any connection between them.”
“There was…but not here. They’re connected in the Ether.”
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!
“Rolar!” Aylme shrieked as she reached down and shook the boy. Some of the dark powder slid off his tunic and he gave a small moan, but his eyes remain closed. “Cace!” Aylme called to the side. “Cace, come help me!” Then she took hold of Rolar’s arm and pulled it around her shoulder. “What is it with you boys today?” she asked wearily. “Must I spend all my time saving you?”
“Aylme?” Cace groped through the twilight, trying to make his way to her voice. “Aylme, where are you?”
“Over here!” she waved an arm. “Rolar’s unconscious, you have to help me carry him.”
“Oh!” Cace said as he scampered over the roots and saw the older boy’s head lolling to the side. “What’s happened to him?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps he was bitten by something and poisoned. Help me get him away from here and back to the camp.”
Cace ducked underneath Rolar’s other arm and together the two of them were able to start moving the lad. It was difficult over the uneven roots, and it didn’t help that Rolar would suddenly give a cry and fling his head one way or another, nearly tipping them all over as he did.
“Rolar, can you hear us?” Aylme asked fearfully. “Rolar, speak to us!”
Rolar’s eyelids opened a slit, though not enough to actually see. Still he turned his face towards Aylme and gurgled out “It’s innnn my throaaat!” before his head slumped forward once more.
“In his throat?” Cace asked in surprise. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. Here, let’s lay him down on his back.”
They did so, not quite so gently as intended, and Aylme pulled back his lips to reveal that the same black powder that had been over his tunic was coating his teeth. Looking down she saw that his hands were black with the powder as well.
“He’s been eating it!” Aylme said in shock. “Fetch me the waterskin. Quickly!”
Cace hurried back to the camp and soon was back with their waterskin. Aylme removed the stopper and carefully pried the mouth of the bottle between Rolar’s teeth. She squeezed a palmful of water into his mouth, then turned him on his side as he gagged, choked, and finally coughed out a large pile of the soggy powder. “Blech!” he exclaimed, finally returning to full consciousness. He rolled onto his back and looked up at the other two with fearful eyes.
“Help me!” he gasped. “Help me! Get it off!”
“You’re alright,” Aylme reassured him, palm pressed against this temple. “We’ve got you now, you’re alright.”
“No! My hands! It’s still on my hands!”
Aylme and Cace looked down at his ash-blackened hands. The fingers were bent unnaturally, scrabbling wildly in the dirt, like living creatures burrowing for safety.
“I can’t control them!” Rolar insisted. “Get…that…stuff off of them!”
Aylme reached to rub the dark powder off, but paused just short, realizing she didn’t want to transfer any of the stuff onto her own skin. Cace grabbed the waterskin out of her lap, though, and doused each hand. The ash washed away quickly and Rolar’s hands finally relaxed.
“Oh thank you!” the boy gasped.
“What was that?” Cace asked.
“I don’t know, I don’t know. But it was terrible!”
“I was digging at the roots of the tree, trying to see if there’s something blocking the moisture from getting to it. And then there was that black stuff–that powder–just beneath the soil. I tried to dig through it, tried to get down to the roots, but my hands started to shake and go numb! I couldn’t feel them and then they started moving on their own, like spiders! I wanted to move but they kept lunging deeper and deeper into the soil, pulling the rest of me down to it. I tried to call for help but they grabbed the soil and shoved it onto my mouth! I clamped shut, but they smothered my face until I gasped and then pushed they pushed the soil straight in! That was the last thing I knew…and then I was here with you.”
Cace and Aylme shivered.
“We’re going to die in this place!” Aylme sobbed. “We shouldn’t have ever come!”
Cace didn’t say anything, but silent tears ran down his cheeks as he hung his head.
Rolar almost wept with them, but he snapped himself out of it. He had to shove his ordeal down, had to make himself strong for the others.
“Hey, hey, hey, it’s alright,” he said soothingly. He sat upright and put his hands around the other two. “Look, I’m okay. Something bad happened, but we made it didn’t we? Just like we have every time already, just like we always will.”
“You would have died if I hadn’t found you!” Aylme wailed.
“But you did find me! You did. One of us couldn’t make it alone, but together we’re invincible. You save me today, I save you the next. We’ll never fail so long as we’re there to save each other.”
Cace blinked back his tears. “How do you know?”
“Believe me, Cace,” Rolar smiled back. “I just know. We didn’t make it this far just to fail now. But we’ve got to keep our faith in each other. We have to keep our trust alive.” He held out his hands to the other children in a pledge.
Aylme sniffed deeply and wiped away her tears with the side of her hand, then took one of Rolar’s hands in her own. “Well I’m scared…but I do promise I won’t let you two get lost. I promise I’ll take care of you.”
“That’s the spirit,” Rolar nodded. “And I promise I’ll take care of you two, too.”
“And I’ll take care of you two, too” Cace affirmed, grabbing the others’ free hands with his own.
“Doubly protected,” Rolar said.
“Doubly protected,” the other two repeated.
And with that Cace decided…he would go back to the Ether that very night.
“It’s alright, Cace,” Aylme rested her soft palm against his temple. “It’s alright now.”
“But I–but–” realization finally sunk in. “You brought me back!” he said angrily.
“Yes, I had to bring you back. Tilt your lamp down.”
“But I was there! I finally got through! You shouldn’t have done that!” his cheeks were hot and flushed and he struck his legs with his fists.
“Tilt your lamp down,” Aylme handed Cace the vessel. “Look, I already have my own at half-ember.”
Cace scowled. He didn’t want to turn his lamp down, he wanted to stay angry. Even so…he would do anything for Aylme. With a sigh he took the lamp in his hands. As always it felt strangely anchored, as if Cace could let go and it would suspend itself in the air on some invisible hook. Cace turned his hands, pivoting the lamp, letting the golden ember run out of the spout. The golden drops did not fall to the ground, though, for no sooner did they touch the air than they evaporated into steam.
As Cace continued pouring out the contents he felt the fire inside of him diminish. He was still just as opposed to Aylme’s interference, but his passion ebbed out, making him capable of calmer reason.
“There,” he said, righting his lamp and turning it so that Aylme could see only half the ember remained. “Tilted down.”
“Thank you,” Aylme nodded deeply. “Now I’m sorry I had to wake you, Cace, but your breathing was becoming so ragged, and your fists kept clenching, and you were in a feverish sweat. I was afraid what might happen if you remained any longer.”
Cace looked down at his tunic. Indeed it was covered in cold sweat, and even now his body was quaking as if he had been running for miles. But now that he was back in the conscious world his strength was quickly returning.
“I understand why you did what you did,” he sighed, “but I had made it through, Aylme! I was there!”
“That must have been exciting for you,” she smiled, then started to rise.
“You don’t want to hear what it was like?”
“The Ether is…your realm of fascination, Cace. I have too much on my mind of here and now.”
“But it matters, even to the here and now,” Cace insisted. “I think I could use it to help us!”
“I don’t know. I just…know that it could.” Cace wasn’t sure how to explain. Whenever he had his visions of the Ether he sensed that there was a connection between the images he saw and the things of the real world. He couldn’t explain that connection, but he felt that they were simply different perspectives of the same thing. And now that he had finally actually been there, conscious and able to push at things and affect them, now he had a hope that he could ripple changes into this world, too!
“I’m not so sure that you should try and visit the Ether any more,” Aylme said. “It seems dangerous for you.”
“I’m fine. Look, I’m already feeling much better.”
Aylme smiled sadly. She appreciated his desire to help, even if she thought it was misplaced. He was several years younger than she and Rolar, and he must feel guilty that he wasn’t able to contribute as much as they could. “We can discuss it more later. For now just gather your strength.” She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on his brow, then turned and climbed out of the hole that served as the entry to their dugout.
It was the most humble of abodes imaginable: a hole dug into the earth at the base of a tree. It was quite small, only reaching out so far as the trees’ roots allowed, which provided a natural barrier to hold the earthen walls in place. The only airflow came from that small entryway, and after a while one started to feel stifled. Cace did not remain in that dark hovel, but clambered out and sat with with his back against the large tree.
Not that the breathing was much better up here. Their camp was on the banks of a slow river, and its humidity weighed the air down, making it hover low to the ground and difficult to swallow.
There was also very little sunlight that could pierce through the dense canopy of treetops overhead. Indeed most of the illumination came from the bioluminescent moss that grew along the riverbed, a dim light obscured by the lazy roll of water. It was just enough light to cast the place in a perpetual dusk. Already the three refugees had lost all sense of time, and they could not say whether they had been in this place for a week or for months.
Cace slowly breathed in the scent of a million living things and watched Aylme as she carefully stepped around the banks of the river, making her way to the great almnut tree. No doubt Rolar was there again, prying at the roots, trying to free whatever binding kept the tree from producing fruit.
“Rolar?” Aylme called out softly as she approached the tree, eyes darting left and right. “Rolar, are you there?”
The tree was as wide as a castle tower, and as she came to its base she held it for support, stumbling her way around its massive roots. “Rolar,” she called, slightly louder. “Rolar where are you?”
Just then she happened to glance downwards and leaped back in shock. For she had, in fact, been about to to step on Rolar! The youth was laid out right before her, draped awkwardly across the roots, covered in a strange black powder, and totally unconscious!
All was chaos once more as pirate and children chased each other all about the Time Capsule. Blackbeard was a more persistent predator than the raptors, though, far less prone to being distracted. Despite the children’s efforts best efforts he soon had Patrick by the scruff of his neck.
“Alright then!” he roared. “All of ye will be calming down now, ‘less you want any harm to come to yer crewmate here!”
Mavis, Chase, Nell, and Ellie glanced at each other, then slowly lowered the boxes and chairs they had been about to throw.
“Very good!” the pirate approved. “Now it would seem I am requiring a new vessel. This” he gestured to the time machine “will be that vessel. The lot of you will teach me to command such a craft and I…will let you live.”
“Don’t do it!” Patrick shouted. “We can’t let him get power over all of history!”
“Well perhaps not all of ye will live!” Blackbeard hissed into Patrick’s face.
“Don’t hurt him!” Nell shouted. “We’ll help you.”
“What?” Mavis looked incredulously to Nell’s worry-etched face.
“Very good,” Blackbeard approved. “Now if ye would be so kind, lass, direct me to the helm of this vessel.”
“It’s over here,” Nell stepped to the central panel and flipped a few switches, causing the Time Capsule to shudder as it hurtled along its way to the future.
“Curious…” Blackbeard took a step nearer, still holding Patrick firm. “No wheel?”
“No. Switches and dials.”
“Let the boy go first.”
“If I be letting the boy go, then you will have no reason to obey.”
“Trade then,” Nell held her arm out to Blackbeard. He paused for a moment, as if trying to detect a trap, then gripped her wrist. As soon as he had her secured he let Patrick go. “I’ll tell you everything,” she said, “and you can keep our ship. But in return we’re going to need your help. We have an important mission to fulfill and we’re down to its last stage now. You see us through to the end, drop us off at our home berth, and then our ship and the knowledge to run it will be yours.”
Blackbeard laughed, then spat in his hand and held it out to her. Nell nodded and spat in his hand, too.
“Er…” Blackbeard stared at his hand in confusion, but waved the matter away with a careless shrug. “It’s a deal then!”
“Perfect,” Nell turned back brightly to the other children, only to find them staring at her with mouths agape. “What?” she asked innocently.
“Could I have a word, Nell?” Mavis hissed as he grabbed her elbow and escorted her out of Blackbeard’s earshot. “What do you think you’re doing?! We can’t give the Time Capsule to Blackbeard!”
“Well he’s going to help us finish our mission first. We’ll come back home with history having been righted and that’s the extent of our job, Mavis.”
“History won’t be righted! Blackbeard was supposed to die in that storm.”
“We don’t actually know that. It’s only a legend that he died there. And anyway, he’s still been taken out of that timeline one way or another, hasn’t he?”
“Oh really? You’re using the same defense as Patrick with his raptors now?At least he wasn’t giving them a time machine to go mess up whatever moment in history they want! There’s no telling what that old cutthroat will get to if he has the Time Capsule!”
“Alright!” Nell conceded. “It’s an imperfect solution. We’ll just have to figure out the rest as we go. What matters is that I took care of what I had to in the moment.”
Mavis narrowed his eyes. “You mean saving Patrick.”
“Yes, saving Patrick, Mavis. What’s the matter with that? He’s a member of our crew, isn’t he?!” And with that she jerked her arm free and returned to the rest of the crew.
“We’re about to come out of timewarp,” she observed, “and I’ve got a feeling this will be the most dangerous task we’ve faced yet.”
“The time coordinates say its the mid 1800s,” Chase announced. “Coming into the United States…looks like central Missouri.”
“1800s!” Blackbeard clapped a hand to his head. “What manner of ships might one find in such a time as that?”
“Oh, some really cool ones,” Patrick grinned. “They’re about to invent invent the first ironclad warships.”
“Ironclad?!” the pirate exclaimed. “I’ll be unstoppable!”
Mavis shot a furious glare at Nell.
“Never mind that, Blackbeard,” Nell tutted. “We had a deal and you need to have your mind on the mission at hand.”
As if on cue the Time Capsule began to wind down for final approach. It was now slow enough for its occupants to make out the landscape before them. The ocean of water had been replaced for one of dust. A single, flat, empty plain extended for as far as the eye could see in every direction.
Well…almost empty. Snaking through the void was a single, black snake, which as the Time Capsule descended lower and lower revealed itself to be a railway line. And upon that line a single steam train chugged from east to west.
“A train?” Chase said in surprise. “Why would the time bandits be interested in a train out in the middle of nowhere?”
“Probably there’s something important on the train,” Ellie observed.
“Yeah…hang on…” Patrick stepped over to the panel, started fiddling with the Time Capsule’s optics, and the screen overhead zoomed in to a close-up view of the passenger car. There, framed against the fifth-window-from-the-back they saw a tall, thin man. He did not yet have his famous beard or stovepipe hat, but he was already recognizable to the children.
“Abraham Lincoln?!” Mavis exclaimed.
“I guess this time they’re not trying to save monsters or tyrants,” Nell concluded. “They’re trying to assassinate someone prematurely, take him out before he can steer the course of history.”
“What manner of witchcraft be this?” Blackbeard approached the panel and view screen in awe. He reached a hand out to the dials but Mavis slapped it away.
“I’m working,” Mavis said, then spun the dial so that the outside optics moved forward along the train tracks. “Obviously a train is an isolated, easy target to destroy. The question is whether they’re trying to do that from within the train, or from outside of it…oh…”
A distant bridge had just come into view on the display panel. It was a strip of nearly a mile, stretched precariously over a gorge that was over a thousand feet deep. And down on the supporting beams had been strapped many massive clusters of dynamite!
“Alright,” Mavis sighed. “Looks like we know their play.”
“Well what about on the train itself?” Nell asked. “Any additional threats there?”
Mavis spun the dials and the viewing screen shifted back to the engine. It slid along the outside of the long vehicle and the children watched for any anomalies.
“There!” Chase pointed. “Two of those armored guards lurking on top of the cars.”
“Nuts…” Mavis exhaled through clenched teeth. “You guys understand, we can’t just stop the bridge from exploding, we have to handle it discreetly. We might save Abraham Lincoln, but if the people on that train see something that they weren’t supposed to, the ripples through time might still be enormous! This is going to be a much harder task.”
“Is the remote activator working now?” Ellie asked. “So we can reset the timeline if things get too screwy?”
“Yes,” Mavis checked the glowing harness. “But we can’t get sloppy because we’re depending on it. We can only reroll the dice once, then the remote activator will break forever. I’ll be the one wearing it and I won’t activate it unless we absolutely have to.”
“So what be the orders for me and my little reptile friends?” Blackbeard grinned toothily. He was stroking the heads of the two raptors he had brought aboard, which having finally regained consciousness now seemed to regard the pirate as the leader of their pack.
“Somehow I don’t see you as being the sort to handle things discreetly,” Mavis’s eyes went wide. “So you’re going to be as far from the train as possible, handling the dynamite on the bridge. Ellie, Patrick, you go with him. Chase, Nell, and I will take care of things on the train. Everyone ready?”
They all nodded and Mavis punched the thruster, whisking the Time Capsule through the air and over to the bridge. Mavis very briefly tethered to that timeline, just long enough for Patrick, Ellie, Blackbeard, and the raptors to jump out onto the tracks. Then he untethered the Time Capsule and raced to the back of the train for a soft landing.
“Looks like that’s the storage car right in front of us,” Chase observed as the machine tethered once more to that moment of time. “We can probably find some more time-appropriate clothes in there.” Chase was correct, and very quickly they were all dressed accordingly. Then they split up, Nell and Mavis going up top to take out the armored guards, while Chase moved into the passenger car to make sure that no one was noticing the soft thuds coming from above the ceiling.
“You say there is a great bomb inside of this little stick?” Blackbeard peeled one of the pieces of dynamite off the bridge with glee. “What will the British Navy think when they see me hurling this at their decks?!”
“Blackbeard, remember, you can’t go back to your olden days!” Ellie reminded him as she pulled another stick of dynamite off the bridge and handed it to Patrick, who was carefully removing their fuses. “You can’t do anything to change history. That might erase all of us so that we don’t exist!”
“Nay,” Blackbeard shook his head. “If I understand you correctly, then I only must only go no further back than the day you found me in the storm.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I were to go to my history then it would undo the makings of me,” Blackbeard explained. “But so long as I only tamper with my present and my future, then I shall come to no harm.”
“But…we might!” Patrick said in exasperation. “You’re forgetting that your future is our past!”
“Nay,” Blackbeard said again as he removed the last stick of dynamite from the bundle they had been working on. “What is forgotten is that I now have the only fused explosive, and ye are at my mercy!”
“What are you doing?” Ellie exclaimed in shock. “We had a deal!”
“And now we have a new one,” Blackbeard sneered. “Ye will forget this ‘quest’ ye are on, ye will return me to the ship, and I will maroon you all in this savage time, taking your vessel for meself! Raptors!” he snapped to his newfound pets. “Surround them!” The lizards obediently flanked the children on either side.
“You won’t get away with this,” Patrick said, and before another word could be uttered by any of them the sound of a shot rang out! The children and pirate ducked as a bullet pinged off the side of the bridge only three feet away!
“We’re being shot at!” Blackbeard roared, pocketing the dynamite and reaching for his flintlock pistol.
“But by whom?” Ellie wondered aloud as she and Patrick used the distraction to move under the girders of the bridge and away from Blackbeard and his raptors.
“Think about it, Ellie,” Patrick replied. “Wasn’t there something strange about that dynamite?”
“No…it just looked like the regular stuff to me.”
“Exactly! But everything we’ve seen so far from the time bandits stood out like a sore thumb. A high-tech cannon in the age of dinosaurs, jet thrusters on a pirate ship…but this dynamite has been totally period correct.”
“So you don’t think it was the time bandits who put it there?”
On Monday I shared about chaotic stories, ones that make use of a huge cast of characters, or noisome settings, or quickly-shifting themes and objectives. I spoke about how these tales can still remain coherent by remaining true to some central idea, and in the case of The Time Travel Situation the central idea is trying to stop all of these changes to history.
It’s not a particularly strong through-line, though. It’s not as if the time bandits have a central villain to serve as the story’s primary antagonist. Each jump to another place in time essentially resets all of the tension, with little carrying from one stage to the next. The through-line is only providing a reason for these time-hops to occur, and that is enough for my needs.
The other thing I mentioned about chaotic stories is that some tales embrace the chaos, simply wanting to take you for an entertaining ride without concerning themselves with telling a meaningful narrative. The Time Travel Situation falls far more firmly under that category. It’s central purpose is to present children playing pretend, no more and no less. I might briefly incorporate relationship drama between Mavis and Nell and Patrick, but that’s only an entertaining aside, not an indicator of deeper character development to come. Nor does Blackbeard’s betrayal have any more nuance than it initially appears to. It is a straightforward piece of cheating, used as a convenience to get the the children out of their promise to him.
This is something that happens in stories all the time, by the way. The hero will be held back from utterly destroying the villain because of some promise or sense of duty. Of course they could renege on those promises or duties, but then they would be immoral. This conundrum is then resolved by the villain doing something deceitful, something that either removes the hero from the obligation of their promise, or allows them to destroy the villain in an act of self defense.
It’s a bit contrived, to be sure, and can certainly be overused, but let’s take a look at a few examples of this in other stories with my next post. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then see the next chapter of The Time Travel Situation on Thursday.
“You distract the dinosaur!” Mavis shouted to Patrick as they tore through the undergrowth. “I’ll circle back and fix the Time Capsule!”
Mavis peeled to the side and ducked behind a rocky outcropping, waiting for the T-Rex and Patrick to pass him by before racing back to the Time Capsule.
“It looked like it bit through the Stabilizer Array,” he muttered to himself as he came upon the scene. “Probably blew all the gaskets! I can replace those from the Fabricator, but I’ll have to come up with something custom to replace the Levelling Detection….I just don’t know if I have enough time!”
Ellie stumbled through the bushes and right into the path of the enemy patrol.
“Oh no!” she shouted, then turned and bolted back the way she came.
“After her!” the leader of the patrol shouted and they all rushed over the same bush she had disappeared behind. No sooner did they do so than they fell down a massive ravine to their deaths!
“Nicely done,” Chase’s head popped out from one of the bushes on the edge of the cliff.
“Thanks,” Ellie smiled as she popped out from a bush on the other side.
“What are you two happy about?” Nell huffed next to Chase. “We’ve only taken care of half your mess. I’m sure they already radioed to their base that we’re here, so now they’ll be on high alert at their base. They’re just waiting for us to invade!”
“Well then maybe we use that to our advantage,” Chase looked thoughtfully to a nearby mountain top.
“What?” Nell scrunched her nose.
He sighed and pointed out the cliff directly above the enemy base and the massive boulder that was lingering at the edge of that very cliff.
“If they’re looking for us down below, they won’t be watching up above. They won’t see us dropping that big, old rock right on top of them!”
“That seems…too convenient…” Nell shook her head.
“I like it!” Ellie said, and she traipsed off with Chase to start climbing the mountain. Outvoted on the matter of plot contrivance Nell followed with a sigh.
Mavis moved his hands like a concert pianist. He grabbed and placed and bolted and snapped and fused and sheathed and twisted with the speed of an expert in a panic. Every now and then he glanced up to the sky, watching the fiery streak that illuminated the cloudless sky. Every minute the meteor seemed a little bigger, a little lower towards Earth. He could almost feel the heat coming off of it!
If Chase, Ellie, and Nell took care of their part of the mission then that meteor would wipe out everything still tied to this timeline in a matter of minutes. Mavis’s hands started moving even faster!
“Come on, Patrick, get back here! I need your help!”
Up above Chase and Ellie and Nell clung to the side of the cliff, climbing as quickly as they could to the summit.
“That meteor is getting closer!” Ellie said, a slight tinge of panic in her voice.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it up there in time,” Nell concurred.
As if matters weren’t bad enough, Chase’s next step dislodged a loose stone, which frightened a flock of pterodactyls roosting down below. With ear-splitting screeches the massive creatures swooped up towards the children, threatening to dash them off the mountainside.
“Hang on!” Chase called. “I’ve got an idea!”
“Ohhhh no,” Ellie shook her head. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!”
“Hyah!” Chase shouted, flinging himself off the rock wall and onto the back of the nearest pterodactyl! The creature squawked in surprise and flapped wildly, trying to knock its hijacker off.
“Oh no you don’t!” Chase snarled, wrapping his arms around the creature’s neck and hauling upwards, slowly steering it towards the top of the cliff and away from the other attacking pterodactyls. “Ha! Look at that!” he called to the girls down below. “Two birds with one stone.”
“Two pterodactyls, don’t you mean?” Ellie grinned, then swallowed her fears and leaped onto the next flying reptile to pass by!
“Hey, wait for me!” Nell followed suit.
Mavis leaped into the air and grabbed hold of a support beam in the roof of the Time Capsule. He swung his other arm to swap a fresh power cell in place of the damaged one while his legs pumped wildly, keeping himself aloft.
“Patrick, where are you?!” he roared yet again.
As if on cue Patrick’s head came bobbing into view just above the tree-line. Mavis stared in amazement as the same T-Rex from before came charging into the clearing, Patrick perched triumphantly on its head, steering it from a harness made of vines and–
“Nope, nope, nope!” Nell shook her head, hopped down from her swing, and folded her arms.
“What?” Patrick asked innocently, still holding his heroic pose on top of the slide.
“There is no way you captured and tamed a T-Rex in the last fifteen minutes.”
“Oh you’re one to talk! You’re riding a pterodactyl up a mountain!”
“That wasn’t my choice. These two–” she gestured to Ellie and Chase, “have absolutely no sense of reality.”
“C’mon Nell, we’re traveling through time,” Mavis sighed. “This doesn’t have anything to do with reality.”
Nell threw her hands up in exasperation, but clambered back into her swing and started pumping into the air. “Well I say ‘Are you two ready to jump off?!'”
“You don’t have to say that you say it,” Ellie reminded. “Just say it! And yeah! Get ready, it’s going to be a rough landing!”
The three flyers launched off their steeds and skidded onto the top of the cliff.
“Alright!” Chase crowed. “Let’s shove the boulder over!”
The three of them sprinted to the behemoth and pressed against it with all their might. Looking up they could see the meteor looming as large as the sun in the sky. It was near enough to make out the mile-high flames scorching its surface. Near enough to feel the weight of it bearing down on them.
“PUUUUSH!” Nell strained.
“Patrick, watch where you’re stomping!” Mavis ordered. “I barely have the Time Capsule put back together!”
“I’m trying…but…this guy isn’t following orders,” Patrick called down from his perch. “I said, go right!” Patrick gave the reins a sharp tug, eliciting a deep snarl from the beast. “Easy boy, easy!” Patrick tried to soothe, but the T-Rex wasn’t having it any more. With a particularly mighty roar it shook itself vigorously until Patrick was dislodged and fell to the creature’s feet.
“I thought we had an understanding!” Patrick said indignantly, but the T-Rex just bared his teeth and snarled.
“Uh-oh!” Mavis squeaked.
“We’re too late!” Ellie pointed to the enemy base down below. A hatch had opened in its ceiling and a massive cannon emerged, pointed directly for the approaching meteor. The coils at the back of the cannon hummed and glowed as a fire started to glow at the bottom of its barrel.
“Just focus!” Chase ordered. “Rock it back…and PUSH!” All three of them shoved in unison. The rock resisted their force for a moment, but finally gave way! With a great crumbling sound it went careening down the side of the cliff, bounced off the rocky wall once, twice, then spun through the air on a direct collision course for the base below. Already the gun had charged, though, and it fired its molten blast into the air…and into the falling boulder! The rock had intercepted the blast just in time, and now the rock burst into a million pieces of shrapnel!
Some of those shards pounded back down into the enemy base, tearing it to shreds, and some of them flew out sideways, pelting over the treetops and punching through the T-Rex that was menacing Patrick and Mavis. It fell to the ground, mere inches from crushing the Time Capsule again.
“You guys better get here!” Mavis shouted as he started punching numbers into the command panel.
“We’re coming! We’re coming!” Ellie shouted back, looking over her shoulder as the meteor broke through the atmosphere and scorched the clouds. Their three pterodactyl-steeds came wheeling back to them from that direction, frantic to outstrip the specter of doom! Ellie, Chase, and Nell leaped onto the lizards’ backs, steered them straight for the nearby clearing, and tumbled off at the entrance to the Time Capsule.
“This isn’t going to work!” Nell looked incredulously at the extensive damage still strewn throughout the Time Capsule.
“She’ll hold together,” Mavis snapped back as the last of the children entered the machine.
“We’d have a better chance surviving the meteor than a time jump in this heap of junk!”
“Never tell me the odds!” Mavis punched the button.
“Hey!” Nell cried as she the Time Capsule lurched to life, knocking her to her feet. “I wasn’t ready, you scoundrel!”
“Scoundrel?” Mavis smiled slyly as he helped lift her back to her feet. “I like the sound of that…”
Nell scoffed and turned away. “You’re a moron.”
“I know,” he sighed.
“Quiet, you guys,” Patrick said in awe. “Look!”
The rest of them followed his gaze through the nearest porthole. All of them watched as the meteor impacted on the ground, kicking up a tremendous wave of dirt and fire, and flinging dinosaurs violently through the air! The ripple of destruction broke right on top of them, but they weren’t smashed to bits. All the rock, and dirt, and dinosaur washed over them without making a single dent, for the Time Capsule had already untethered from the time of that place and was picking up pace to leave it behind as a distant memory.
Patrick hung his head sadly.
“I can’t believe we just let that happen,” he sighed. “We were there, man. We saw them: dinosaurs! They were going to be spared and we just let them die.”
“You know it was the right thing to do,” Ellie patted his shoulder reassuringly. “It’s our mission to keep time on its predefined course, not to–ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! PATRICK, WHAT THE HECK IS THAT?!”
She leaped back quickly from the boy, startled by whatever she had just seen. As soon as she was out of the way the other children could see what had set her off. The head of a baby raptor had just popped out from Patrick’s shirt pocket, and now the lizard was trying to wriggle all the way out as the boy vainly tried to shield it from view.
“N-n-nothing to see here,” Patrick stammered, poking at the baby again, only to get a nasty bite on his finger in return. “Ouch!”
“Patrick!” Mavis said accusingly. “What did Ellie just get done saying? We can’t change time!”
“I haven’t!” Patrick insisted. “Look, this baby was there when the meteor hit, right? So what do you think happened to it? It died! It was taken out of the picture. Well now it’s still out of the picture, I’ve just taken it out another way, that’s all.”
“You can’t just bring a foreign element into your home like that!” Nell exclaimed. “You have no idea what it’s bringing along with it!”
“Oh come on. It’s just this one, little guy. I didn’t bring anything else with us.”
As if on cue a slow, trilling sound came from the storage bay. Next the sound of claws tapping on the tile floor as three adult raptors sauntered into view.
“Oh…” Patrick said. “Unless it’s pack saw me take it and followed us here…”
“PATRICK!!” all the other children said in exasperation.
But there was no more time for discussion. Just then the raptors caught sight of the baby and leaped furiously after it! All the other children dove to intercept them before they tore Patrick to shreds! What followed was pure chaos. Chairs were thrown, panels were smashed, and wires were stripped out of the walls! Jaws snapped at ankles and make-shift lassos tossed in every direction. Everyone was both pursuer and pursued at the same time, no one stayed still for even a second.
And during it all the Time Capsule churned faithfully on. Millennia after millennia passed, century after century, decade after decade. Now the blur of rising and setting suns slowed and the moon rose over a stormy night, its light reflected on the world’s largest mirror: the Pacific Ocean! A massive thunder cloud in the east rushed onto the scene like smoke in a jar until it filled the entire horizon.
Time slowed down still further. The waves settled into a tumultuous rolling and the storm became a single, solid gale. Details that were imperceptible before became clear, such as daggers of lightning that stabbed in the heart of the storm and rain that streaked sideways over the sea.
And in this world of sea and storm there loomed a single witness: an old ship. Its sails were straining away from the storm, but still the water spilled over its deck and threated to sink the entire thing at any moment. And it was upon this doomed vessel that the Time Capsule came to rest, silently perching itself at the very back where none of the sailors would notice it amidst the chaos.
On Monday I spoke about the use of real-world references in a fictional story. I shared a few examples of how they can be utilized in a way that fits the flow of the tale and doesn’t break the fourth wall. One of the situations I illustrated was when referencing a piece of media that the audience is already familiar with, and how that can be used as a shorthand for understanding between reader and character.
In today’s post I wanted to briefly touch on Mavis’s crush for Nell, and I realized I could have him quoting Han Solo’s lines to Leia. The audience would hopefully recognize the words, realize he is viewing the two of them in the same context, and thus trying to hit on her. It all comes to a head where the “I love you,” “I know” line is flipped to her insulting him and his accepting the defeat. Clearly this joke wouldn’t have worked if I had not used a reference that the audience was already familiar with.
Another thing that I tried in this story was to intersperse multiple scenes into one. In the first case I was doing this by having the real world impinge on the fantasy one, such as when we see the kids on the swings and slide. That is not all, though, I also had that moment where the exploding rock reached from one scene with Chase, Nell, and Ellie over to the scene with Patrick and Mavis.
I want to take a little more time to consider separate scenes that overlap with one another, how they have been used in other stories, and how they can be used to add complexity to a story. Come back on Monday as we discuss that, and then again on Thursday for the next chapter in The Time Travel Situation.
“Alright, you setup watch here,” Tharol whispered to Inol. “If you see anyone–“
“Why should I keep watch?”
“Who put you in charge? Why should I be the one to keep watch?”
Tharol blinked quickly, trying to hold back his frustration. “Does it–does it matter?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bovik sighed. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Fine,” Tharol agreed. “If you see anyone, you come and get us. Don’t try to take an elder on your own. Doesn’t matter who it is.”
“Sure,” Bovik shrugged. “I’m not stupid.”
“I know, Bovik. And–thanks,” Tharol clapped the youth on the shoulder, then he and Inol stole to the end of the hall where the armory door was waiting. They had been tasked with retrieving the abbey’s Shraying Staffs, so that their little army would have a fighting chance against the elders.
There were other groups of youth running through the abbey as well. One was scouting out the locations of the elders, another was trying to secure the Ovayan Stone so that they could communicate with the outside world, and a third was roaming the dormitories for anything of value that had left behind in their initial retreat. Tharol didn’t think much of this tactic, splitting their numbers out when they were already too few as it was.
But then, Reis was insistent that this was the way forward, and Tharol had made a pledge to support him. Right now what really mattered was to keep the youth united. Tharol would swallow his criticisms for the greater good of them all.
“Alright, what are you waiting for?” Inol hissed as Tharol remained motionless before the door to the armory.
“I did! Or at least I thought so. I saw how Master Makile did it once. But at that time there was a keyrod and there isn’t one now. Just this panel!”
He tapped the metal plate that was over the center of the iron door. Inol frowned, pressed his fingers against the panel, and slid it sideways, uncovering the keyrod laying underneath.
“Oh,” Tharol said, feeling stupid. He took the keyrod in hand and spoke to it. “I approach at the dawn of day, and speak my words to he who listens.”
A mechanism turned in the depths of the door, and two large spikes emerged, hovering menacingly in the air.
“What are you–” Inol began, but Tharol raised a hand to silence him.
“I take the hands, cold and small. I show no fear for their ruggedness.” Slowly he stroked the spikes, letting his fingers trace right over their jagged tips.
Another sound of gears spinning in the door, and now an entire section opened like the maw of some great beast, complete with teeth above and beneath.
“I take my pillow in trust. I consign myself to the mercy of those I serve.” Slowly Tharol inserted his head between the metal teeth, eyes closed. There was a sound as if of breathing from the mouth, a rising growl from the center of the door. “Yet I am cunning as a snake,” Tharol’s eyes snapped back open, “and I ever preserve my life!” Tharol whisked his head back out from the machine-mouth just as the metal teeth snapped shut. There was a pause, then a clatter of turning gears on the other side of the door, and at last the whole thing swung inwards.
“What was that?!” Inol hissed in shock.
Tharol shrugged. “It’s the password.”
“And you memorized all that from one time watching Master Makile?”
“I think you’ll find that having seen it once now for yourself will be more than enough to make you remember.”
Together the two youth rushed into the hold. There was a solitary window set high in the wall as their only source of light. Groping in the dimness they found shelves on either side of them. They were dusty, and mostly barren, but on occasion their hands felt something long and cold lain out on them.
“Is it these?” Tharol asked.
“It must be. I don’t think they keep anything else in here. Just grab whatever you can feel.”
“Well they’re powerful, so that’s to be expected. How many do you have now?”
“I think five.”
“We need a lot more.”
“What’s that? The end of the aisle. Are there any other rows?”
There were not.
“Well that’s it, then,” Inol admitted. “We’ll just have to make-do with what we have.”
They felt their way back out of the room, then crept down the hallway, looking for Bovik.
“He was supposed to be here!” Tharol said in dismay as they came to the hall-end and found their comrade missing.
“Yes, well–watch it! Your staff is coming apart!”
Tharol looked up, and for the first time properly took in the Shraying Staffs he was carrying over his shoulder. They were tall, onyx staffs, about the same size and weight of a beam of wood. None of the youth had ever actually seen one before, they just knew that they were the pride of the Northern Armies.
As Tharol examined the staff-ends hanging over his shoulder he saw what Inol was referring to. It appeared that some hinge had opened, and a few rods were starting to spill out of the beam. He was about to reach up to close it back up when he realized the rods were waggling back and forth, like overly large fingers feeling for something.
“It’s a spider!” Inol said. “A giant spider!”
“No, it’s–” Tharol looked to his companion and saw that the same overly-large fingers were reaching out of his staffs as well. And when Inol had spoken, the fingers had thrust themselves out towards his face, they were about to touch him now.
“No!” Tharol shouted, all sense of stealth thrown to the wind. He dropped his staffs and thrust his hand out, trying to block the machine-hands before they could touch Inol’s mouth!
As soon as he made contact with them, the most unusual sensation came over him. It felt as though there was a pin that had always locked his finger in place, one that he had never noticed before, and now it suddenly loosed and the digit was free for the first time in his life. And as he looked to his hand he saw it was so, for his finger was revolving on a hinge, folding up into his hand. And then all his hand seemed to be built of small, finger-like sections, all on pins that had been unlocked, all rotating and folding, all giving way to machine sections that were unfolding out of the staff to take their place.
“Oh no!” Inol cried. He dropped his own staffs to the ground, but not before another of them had reached its fingers out and begun bonding with his shoulder. Both youth watched in horror as the two staffs continued extending themselves until they covered each boy’s entire arm. Fortunately they stopped after they had consumed from hand to shoulder, and did not attempt to creep any farther along their bodies. Their arms were longer than usual now, with many waving, undulating tendrils, and large claws in place of hands.
“It’s a–it’s a part of us,” Tharol breathed.
“I’d always heard of them as bonding weapons, but I never understood that it meant like this!”
“I can–I can still feel my arm…in a way. Can you?”
“Yes, just sort of–folded up inside but still there. And I can feel the staff as well, like it’s a part of me.”
Both boys nearly jumped for fright, then turned and saw Bovik stealing down the adjacent hallway towards them.
“Where were you?” Tharol asked.
“Do you have any idea how loud the two of you are being?” Bovik scolded.
“Sorry…we were…being shocked. But where were you?”
“I saw one of the elders. I was following her.”
“You were supposed to come get us if you saw one. She could have destroyed you!”
“No…I don’t think she was in a state to do that. It was like she was in a trance. Come on, I have to show you.”
Bovik turned right back around and continued back the way he had come, looking over his shoulder every few steps and beckoning the other two forward.
Inol and Tharol hurriedly picked the other Shraying Staffs off of the floor and hurried after Bovik. As they went Tharol continued to examine his malformed arm. He found that he could push on the different sections and fold them into the arm’s recesses. He could even unfold certain sections of them and bring back out portions of his ordinary, flesh-arm.
“Alright, just look over the banister.”
Bovik had led them to a hall which opened one one of its sides to the floor below. Tharol and Inol squinted curiously at each other, then slowly advanced to peer into the lower level.
“We’ve walked into the Cryptics,” Tharol breathed in awe.
There below them was one of the elders. They could recognize it as such because of the robes it was wearing, not because they recognized the face. For that face was completely blanked out, an empty slate with only the vaguest suggestions of eyes or nose or mouth. It stood with naked arms slightly raised on either side, and its limbs twitched now and again as if it was trying to move.
As they watched another figure approached the first. This one they could readily make out as Master Iliya, whose classes had covered herb care and medicinal treatments. Her eyes were closed, her hands held in the same partially raised pose as the other body’s. As Bovik had said, she seemed to move as if in a trance, drawing nearer and nearer to the faceless body. As she did so, the body’s form became less vague and more defined. Indeed it was changing to take on Master Iliya’s features.
The closer she drew to it, the more her own face reflected in its own. Both of their movements became more like that of a regular human being. Master Iliya’s airy trance-like steps became more intentional and the idle twitches smoothed out of the doppleganger.
“Circuit completed.” Master Iliya’s body moved like it was the one speaking, but it was the mouth of the copy that spoke the words. “There are fifteen with us.”
“Eight of us and fifteen with us.” A chorus of disembodied voices echoed around the room.
“Hey,” Inol hissed to Tharol. “There were fifteen of us youth who came into the building.”
Tharol paused for a moment. Inol, Bovik, and he made three. Reis and two others had gone to retrieve the Ovayan Stone, four more were scouring the dormitories, and another five were patrolling the halls. Fifteen.
So did that mean only eight of the elders were remaining alive after the battle in the amphitheater?
Master Iliya suddenly began to shudder. She took a step forward, body trembling like a leaf. The other body began to shake as well, its features blurring and distorting, combining with Master Iliya as she stepped forward into it. A moment later and she had been entirely ingested. The body continued to contort, though, and then Master Y’mish emerged from it.
He moved as if speaking, and the body behind him (which was now reflecting his form) spoke the words “Beginning my circuit.” And then he strode off and out of sight.
The boys watched until he was gone around the hallway.
“He was headed towards the gardens,” Inol observed. “We can get to it from this level if we go through the library.”
“I’d rather not,” Tharol whispered, but Bovik and Inol had already started off, and with a sigh he followed.
The three crept through the gilded doors of the library, stole between the aisles of books, and pushed open the windows at the back. Before them was the upper half of a stone statue, with the garden paths sprawled out beneath.
“There he goes,” Bovik pointed towards Master Y’Mish’s entranced form. “Down towards the orchard.”
“No way out but the same way in,” Inol observe. “Come on,” he stepped one foot out of the open window and reached for the arm of the statue.
“Wait, why?” Tharol asked.
“We’re going to take him, Tharol. Here and now, while he’s cornered and can’t alert the others. The three of us are going to kill him.”
On Monday I wrote how certain areas can be returned to multiple times in a story, becoming a sort of familiar home to the audience. These places are often used to reset the readers emotions, or else to highlight (by contrast) how different the protagonists have become.
In The Favored Son, I have made the decision to make a familiar haunt out of the center of the stone hedge, laying on the outskirts of the abbey grounds. The abbey itself I have described as little as possible, leaving it shrouded as a place of mysteries. It’s an interesting choice, because to the students the abbey would be their common living area, the place they have spent every day in for the past many years. They must be more familiar with it than any other place.
I took this approach, though, because it fits the narrative better. This setup highlights the fact that the students have been kicked out of their own nest. They have become strangers in their own home. And so I focus on them discovering things that they never knew about this place.
At this moment they are trying to reclaim their home for themselves, but as one discovery leads to another, they’re going to have to face the fact that the place they thought their home was never actually existed. They’re going to look at these once-familiar halls and admit they never truly knew them. And once that pill is swallowed, there will be nothing left but to to uproot themselves, retreat back to the fringes, and set out to find a new home of their own. A place of belonging can only lay ahead of them, not behind.
But before we get to that, let’s consider what I did with today’s entry to make the abbey seem like such a foreign place, and the centrifuge more cozy by contrast. I made this by turning the abbey into a place of new and uncomfortable discoveries. From the strange multi-password ritual to enter the armory, to the Shraying Sticks being living machines, to its halls being haunted by the shells of their teachers, I tried to cram as many unpleasant surprise revelations into this post as possible.
And as already stated, this served the purpose of making it feel like the students are strangers in their own home, but it was also to accomplish another effect as well: that of entertaining the reader. My hope was that these strange discoveries are just plain interesting to my audience, and will make them want to continue with the story.
I think this idea of inventing new things in your story, and using them to entertain the reader, is very common. Most authors do it without necessarily thinking about it. But it is worth pausing to take a focused look at this tool of story-crafting.
To be sure, a story needs things like strong characters, interesting arcs, an engaging pace, and cathartic resolutions. But aside from all that, it also just needs to be fascinating in the individual moment.
Come back on Monday where we will explore the practice of inventing in a story, and how it is utilized in the best of tales. Then we’ll see how I have been employing that technique in The Favored Son.