Last week I considered the resistance that a main character must press through to achieve their greater story. Most protagonists are written so that they dearly want to follow that epic path, but they usually refuse to take the journey until they have no other choice.
Think of Luke Skywalker who dreams of leaving his farm to fly across the galaxy. He begs his Uncle Owen to let him follow that calling, but Uncle Owen just keeps telling him “next year.” Interestingly, when Obi-Wan Kenobi urges Luke to do the very things he has been yearning for, Luke draws back, repeating the same arguments that Uncle Owen has used to keep Luke grounded. Luke isn’t able to break free until the Empire kills his aunt and uncle and leaves his home a waste. Every other path in Luke’s life has been literally burned to the ground, so at last he moves forward with his greater story.
And this is true of many epics. The hero wants to step into their proper role, but for some reason holds back until their hand is forced.
Does a story have to be this way? No. There are plenty where it isn’t the case at all. Consider Forrest Gump, who blithely charges ahead with whatever occurs to him that he wants to do. Think of Pollyanna, who is never deterred by any problem, and always encourages those around her to just see the good in the world. There is also Ulysses, who though he is waylaid at every league of his journey never falters from start to finish in his quest to get back home.
But today I want to take a closer look at the archetype of the reluctant hero, and why it is such a widely use form.
My Own Delay)
Why do stories frequently make use of a reluctant hero? Because that’s exactly what most of us are in our own lives. We all have dreams of the greater story we’d like to live, but very few of us are actually chasing it. We watch it longingly from a distance, but feel too weighed down by work and duty to really get our hands into it.
That was certainly the case with me. I longed to be a writer for a long while, but it remained a wistful daydream for years,. I just couldn’t see any way to fit it into my busy schedule. Though let’s be honest, the excuse that we just don’t have enough time is usually a cover-up for something deeper. And in my case that was also true. I had been rejected in my creative endeavors before, I had been told that my work wasn’t very good or wasn’t very important. I didn’t like feeling that, so I made myself too busy to have time for writing anymore. The desire was still there, but I wasn’t able to break out of my reluctance by myself. In fact it took a literal act of God to finally get me back into my writing!
I previously mentioned the example of Luke Skywalker being reluctant to leave the farm with Obi-Wan Kenobi. And honestly, he isn’t given a very good reason for why he’s being so hesitant. In fact there are many stories which tack a reluctance onto their hero without any good explanation. Stories like this feel like me saying “oh, I don’t have time,” and I just don’t buy it. If an author decides to write a reluctant hero, they ought to give a clear reason for why that hero is being so hesitant.
A Reason to Not)
A better example is that of Peter Parker. In the original Spider-man comic strip, Peter is a bright and intelligent High Schooler, whose aunt and uncle and teachers dote on him. But he is scrawny, nerdy, and unpopular with all of his peers. He is the subject of bullying and mockery, which disillusions his view of the world.
When Peter Parker finds himself imbued with heroic powers he immediately thinks of how he can use them for profit. He enters into the ring and fights a mountain of a man, easily coming off the victor. This lands him a TV deal, and at long last it seems like his life is falling into place.
One day a thief is at the television studio and he makes off with some loot, running right past Peter Parker in his costume. An officer that is giving chase calls for Peter Parker to intervene, but Peter staunchly refuses. As he says “I’m thru being pushed around–by anyone! From now on I just look out for number one–that means–me!”
In other words, the bullies got to Peter. He hates the world and he doesn’t care about the people in it. The optimistic world view of his loving aunt and uncle has been overridden by cynicism and callousness. And now that he doesn’t need other people he’s perfectly content to watch out for himself and that’s it. He might be dressed up like a hero, but he has a solid reason in his heart to not actually play the role.
This is a much stronger depiction of the reluctant hero. It is relatable, it is believable, and it is tragic. At this point I am just as convinced as Peter Parker that he is never going to enter a more heroic story…unless fate intervenes.
Which, of course, it does. That same petty thief later corners Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben and guns him down. Because Peter had chosen not to be the hero, the man he loved and admired most was killed. Peter’s very good reasons for not sticking his neck out for anyone come crashing down, and in an instant and starts to care about what goes on in this crazy world around him. He steps into his role in the greater story.
In my own story I gave Cace a very simple reason for not continuing into the Ether: it seems like it is going to kill him! He is afraid for his life, and so the only thing that could possibly convince him to go back would be if his life was forfeit anyway. And as you will see on Wednesday, that’s exactly where the story is going. Cace is going to have to choose between death by the Ether or death by a monster. And given that, he will finally be motivated to dive back into the Ether, as it is the death-option that still has even a ray of hope. It also just so happens to be the one that his greater story lays within!
Mira shrugged. “What can you be? You have no ultimate fate, no place of belonging…what is there to define you?”
“I suppose…having no fate is itself a fate. No place could itself be considered a place.”
She nodded. “I suppose so. But the population there must be very small indeed.”
“It must be only one.”
“Yes. Otherwise it would not be ‘no fate’ or ‘no place.’ Tell me, do you know how you were born?”
“How I was–? What? No. I know nothing of the matter.”
“Perhaps you weren’t!” she breathed
“What are you saying?! I must have been born!”
“Yes, of course,” she shook her head. “Please, you should pay no mind to half the things that I say. As I told you, I am a dreamer, and my fancies come over me so that sometimes they seem real enough to speak of them. I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright. They are…interesting to me. They sound of nonsense, yet ring of truth…Oh look at me, I’m sounding just like you now.”
She smiled. “We all start sounding alike once we get talking to one another. Haven’t you noticed? It is unavoidable here.”
“But who was the first to sound this way, then?”
She grinned broadly at the question. “Now that I have never wondered about. Was it one of our ancestors that spoke so? Or is it dictated by the Mind of the Wheel?” Her eyebrow raised. “Perhaps it was me who dictated it all along, reaching through the past for generations to set my people in harmony for when I came!”
I smiled. “It’s a lovely thought, but I don’t think so. Just listen to yourself speaking right now, it’s an entirely different voice! You fall back into that weightless, refined way of talking that everyone else has from time-to-time, but then you have these moments of eyes flashing and expressions of wonder! And I think that that is the genuine you. It the moments where you scrape your identity back from the pull of the masses.”
She laughed. “You truly do know yourself so well, and me even better than I know myself! You are so grounded, which is strange for one who has no fate. And I float so freely, when my fate is the most grounded of them all. But perhaps that is how these things work. You stand apart from the spinning of our world upon its axis, and thus can see so clearly what is only a blur to us pinned upon it. I know what you are now. You are a phantom, a ghost that momentarily lays at a tangent to our world. Would you…would you hold my hand?”
She held out her palm and I gladly took it.
“Oh, it’s so cold!” she exclaimed.
“Sorry,” I said and tried to pull my hand back, but she seized upon it all the more earnestly.
“No, it’s alright. Just let me hold it, and I’ll have you warmed up in no time!”
“But your hands are so small,” I smiled.
“So? Don’t you be underestimating me now!” She eagerly rubbed her thumbs over the back of my hand, and indeed I felt a refreshing heat starting to spread throughout my fingers. “There, you see? You thought unfairly of me. Though I suppose it’s only natural when you have been marked separately from the rest of us. That must make you assume that there is nothing we transient folk can offer you?”
“Hmm…I suppose that I have always had a sense of not being able to rely upon another.”
“And you are right. None of us will be able to follow you on your journey for very long. We can only walk a short distance with you, and you must do very much alone. But that doesn’t mean we cannot help you in the moment. You do not have to deny what simple things we can and do offer. Never forget that, Graye.”
“Thank you.” We were silent for a moment. “My hands are very rough, as well, aren’t they?”
“Yes, very,” she laughed. “You are accustomed to hard labor? Of course you are. Tell me, what is your work like?”
“Nothing of note. It is a menial labor, and with no purpose such as your people have here. I carry things that people need from one place to another, that is all. We travel far, we see many things, we lift and pull and sweat all day.”
“But you chose this work? That is correct, isn’t it, that people choose their work out in the greater world?”
“Some of them do. Some of them have it chosen for them. Some, like me, made their own choice, but from very few options. It was either this or work the fields.”
“Ah, so a very isolated choice, but still a choice! And why did you not work the fields?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t right for me.”
“Working a field feels too much like belonging,” she suggested and I nodded. “You weren’t born to make deliveries either, but you were born to wander, and the vocation you chose brought you nearer to that.”
“And you were born to belong?”
“Yes. I belong here more than any other.”
“You keep saying things like that, but then why are you so different from anyone else that I’ve met here? You hardly seem a part of them at all.”
“I belong here, but not to them. These people–they are surveyors, they are measurers, they are outsiders come to delve into the Void. But I? I belong to the Void!”
I gasped, though I knew not why. I could not even fathom what such a statement like that even meant.
“Yes,” she continued. “They are the strangers and I am the native. They are stewards, but mine is the crown.”
“What does–? How does–? In what way–?” I wondered to myself how she could claim to belong to the Void, an entity so empty and blank, yet she was so full of life that it seemed to burst from every tip of her hair.
“But that is the evidence that I am of the Void,” her eyes flashed as she read my mind. “It is like a magnet, all negative on one side, but all positive on the other. The very fact that the Void is so empty and hollow within requires it me to be so vivacious and exuberant without. I am all life, Graye! I am all passion!”
Her voice was raising almost to a shout and her fingers were frantically clutching at and releasing my own hand. A deep flush was rising from the base of her neck and into her cheeks, and her eyes opened wide and refused to blink.
“I feel so much!” she exclaimed. “I am overcome by wonder and amazement everywhere! I find all this world so fascinating, but I find you even more. You and I, Graye, we are each one of a kind, but in such opposite ways. I am the Void, and thus the foundation beneath this entire world. I am the single, null dimension upon which all has been established, and through which all new reality is about to burst. But you, you are a drifter and a shadow, phasing past this world, having little to do with these people, and nothing to do with me. You have paused here very briefly, to make contact, but now I shall retract into infinite nothingness, while you expand to fill infinite everything. And then, when we are perfectly nothing and perfectly everything, then at last we might be together.”
Her voice was so shrill, her face so manic, that I felt a genuine fear of her. A strange thing for one so small and slight as she. No sooner did the unease enter my mind, though, then she blinked rapidly, and slowly the trance pulled away from her eyes, and once more I felt that I looked into the eyes of Mira. She looked away, then back to me sadly.
“I’m sorry, Graye. Please forgive me. These things are in me…I don’t understand them…”
I gave half a smile. “These are strange times we live in. Only promise me one thing. Whatever other voices that clamor within you, promise me that there will always remain something of Mira. Something of Mira forever?”
She grimaced. “Oh you poor boy.” She said it kindly, and with sincere sorrow. “Don’t you know that it is the sweetest things that are the most transitory? The quickest to bloom are the first to fade away forever. The brighter I burn, the sooner I expire.”
“No,” I blinked back tears. “Don’t say that!”
“Don’t weep for what must be temporary,” she sighed, touching her hand to my face. “This is why you are remiss to accept kindness from us fleeting souls, isn’t it? It is a hard thing for the unending to accept ends. The sweetness of my moment will fill me to the end, but never can fill you.”
“Never,” I wept.
She wrapped her arms around my head and pulled it down to rest in the crook of her neck. “But a moment is infinite in its own way, Graye. In its time it never expires.”
“That…doesn’t make sense.”
“If you stretch yourself to infinity then all moments become literally nothing, occupying no space whatsoever. But if you shrink yourself down into a moment, slow down time until you possess nothing more than a single tick, then that moment is everything, it is the entire infinite. There is no difference between living in a moment and living forever. They are two paths to the same.”
“Then…when I am infinite moments…will I be able to enter your single infinite moment?”
She drew back and looked me in my tear-stained eyes. “I hope so, Graye. How I hope so. But come now. I have something to show you.”
Of course I required no persuading. She turned and began to walk off towards the hole in the wall that led back to the city and I followed. But no sooner did we set out than we realized how we had whiled away the hours during our conversation. It seemed impossible for a whole day to have passed, but somehow it had. The sun was already lowering to the horizon, and night would soon be upon us.
And we, unwittingly, had spent much of our conversations idly pacing around in a circle, no doubt moved by the wheel to expire our quota of steps before the day came to its close. And so it was, while we were yet twenty paces from the wall, our feet grew so heavy that it seemed impossible to take another step. There simply was no other option but to set down right where we were, and make our night upon the cool stones.
And so I lay down there, and Mira lay down six steps ahead of me. We turned to look at one another, longing and sorrow in our eyes. I extended my hand out to touch her and she held out hers for me. But we were out of reach.
On Monday I spoke about characters that become immortal in our minds. Some figures make such a strong impression that they become the very embodiment of an idea, and thus are forever brought to the foreground whenever that idea comes up. For example, who can hear of terms like tragic love and shattered youthfulness without thinking of characters like Romeo and Juliet?
Trying to accomplish such an impact in my own story is no small feat. Indeed, I would say that my chances of success are always very slim. Even in the hands of the most skilled writers, the majority of their characters will slip into the forgotten. Still, I endeavored to do what I could, by writing out scenes for Mira and Graye that were extremely expressive and full of wonder. If there were any concepts for these characters to stake their claim on, I wanted it to be that of awe for the infinite, and for the tragedy of would-be-lovers whose lines run parallel, and thus are forever destined to be close, yet never intersect.
Of course there is still more that I intend to do in this story to try and make these characters immortal. I am still leading up to my climatic scene of destruction, which will sever these two from each other in a particularly somber way.
Obviously that somber ending will hardly come as a surprise, the story has been moving towards such a conclusion for quite a long while now. I imagine that even if I had not started the tale by detailing what was would transpire at the end, that I could still pause here, ask the audience what they thought would happen, and every person would have more or less an accurate idea of what would follow.
Readers understand that where there is tension there must be release, where there desire there must be opportunity, and where there is betrayal there must be a reckoning. They are able to see the shape of the story as it shifts from one scene into the next, and by that induce how the story will now shift into the next.
Or at least they can if the story is well-formed. For there are stories that do not follow this convention, and they tend to feel feels random and inconsistent. But let’s take some time to examine this notion in greater detail. In my next post we will consider some famous examples of stories with clearly defined trajectories, and the reasons why they feel so satisfying to us when we read them.
The next day, when we awoke, we briefly discussed how if the theories of these people were correct, then this was to be the last normal day of our lives. One full, ordinary day, and then, on the next, everything would change.
And as I have suggested before, it wasn’t as though we us doubted the theories of these people. Even before they had disclosed their plot, we had already felt the gist of it. Felt it when we were still back at Peyrock plantation and read our charter. Felt it every step of our journey. Felt it when we saw the void and stepped within these strange walls.
If the locals here had tried to keep the purpose for summoning us a secret, still we would have requested to stay in the Coventry for a few days. And if they had denied that, we would have taken camp just without the walls. For we would have felt the electricity in the air, would have sensed the cloud of doom, would have felt our lives rushing to meet their apex. It would have been like when a great beast stalks you, and you do not perceive it by your eyes or ears, yet you can feel that it is there.
So what were we to do with one final day in the world as we knew it? Each of us felt it was only right to spend the moment apart from one other. Let each man go and find his own private shrine, his own method of solace, his own way to connect to life and bid it farewell. We had never truly parted ways the day prior, after diverging we had then converged right back together at the Slab Altar. This time each path would truly be our own.
When I left I did not know what I was looking for. I wandered the streets aimlessly, trying to find something that would call to me, something that would feel right in my soul. I say I wandered aimlessly, but there was one intentionality: I tried to follow the most barren streets that I could. Each road was more desolate than the prior, and so I meant to slip further and further into my solitude.
Presently I wasn’t walking across roads at all, for I was beyond any structure that required them. My way opened into an open field, dotted here and there by clumps of fine, gray grass. I was coming quite near to the walls, at a section that I had not seen previously. To my surprise, the walls on either side of me sloped steeply down into nothing, leaving a wide and intentional opening in the place’s fortifications. Perhaps these walls were not for protection? But for what, then?
Mulling that over I passed through the portal and continue with the field as it gently sloped up to a small crest, upon which stood a solitary tree. I had seen a few of these trees as we journeyed here. They were very sparse, interrupting the otherwise unbroken landscape perhaps once every square mile. Each of them appeared to be dead, entirely blackened in their branches and featuring absolutely no leaves whatsoever. Their limbs stood out naked and at irregular angles, giving the illusion of a creature frozen in pain.
Slowly I crept up to it. It seemed so delicate that I felt if I made too much noise it might just wither into dust and blow away. Presently I stepped into its shadow, and as I did so I discovered a most strange phenomenon. Most prominent in that shadow was the outline of the tree and its branches, just as one would expect, but then there was also a sort of soft haze–a partial shadow–in between the sections cast by the branches, and this half-shadow answered to no form of the tree that I could see. Nor was it stationary, rather it sort of shimmered and overlapped, growing thicker at some places and thinner at others, like smoke that billows into itself and apart again.
With a frown I stared up at the spaces between the branches of the tree, and presently came to see that there was a haze between them as well. Was it a heat haze? Perhaps the branches of this tree focused the sun’s radiation in some way?
I extended my hand, reached into the haze, and felt something so slight that I almost missed it entirely. It felt as if I was pressing my fingers through a curtain that only half-existed. I pinched my fingers together and it was like holding the finest paper imaginable, one so frail that it remained in my grasp for only a moment, then disintegrated into nothingness.
“It is leaves,” I said. “Leaves that are thinner than anything I know…. So the tree is alive.”
I smiled and scanned over it with my eyes. I gazed over tortured limbs, knobbly joints, bark as black as onyx, and a woman’s face right beneath my outstretched arm: youthful, beautiful, and staring back at me in utter amusement.
“Oh!” I cried in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, but was unable to suppress her laugh. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, I really thought you would have noticed me before!”
“You–you’ve been standing there this whole time?” I asked in disbelief, clutching at my heart.
“The whole time,” she nodded. “To tell you the truth, you were so enraptured in this tree, and so oblivious to me, that I was half wondering if I hadn’t turned invisible, or become a ghost!”
“You thought you had become a ghost?”
“Well…of course not really. But you must know how it is, when you get so lost in your fancies that they almost seem to be real?”
“But why didn’t you say something?”
“I wanted to see what would happen,” she shrugged playfully. “I half expected you were going to turn and walk away without seeing me at all. Then I would have known for sure that I was a ghost!”
My heart was still racing, but the more she spoke, the more I couldn’t help but be soothed by her soft and fervent voice. Her eyes had a tremendous earnestness to them, and I could tell she was never far from seeing hidden wonders in the world, beauty in things that others would consider mundane. Thus I couldn’t help but release my frustration, and instead felt an intense desire to know this young woman better.
“Who are you?” I finally asked.
“Mira. And who are you?”
“My name is Graye. I’m one of–”
“You’re one of those boys from so far away. You came in the caravan that delivered the scrying sticks to us. Of course, I know.”
“And you’re–you’re a member of the Coventry.”
“Naturally. Specifically I am of the seventh house, given the charge of caretaking for all the other houses.”
“Oh, I don’t know anything about that.”
“The Coventry is composed of seven great houses, and each one has a different responsibility. The first house is the Priests of Oolant, who actually perform all of our ceremonies. The second house is the Scribes, who keep careful ledgers of every action and cycle-fulfillment. The third is the Researchers. The fourth is the Rememberers. The fifth is the Populaters. The sixth is the Growers. And we, of the seventh, are the Caretakers.”
“I see,” and inwardly I thought that surely each house was numbered according to its importance, hence why the first house was reserved for the priests. What a pity it must be for her to be of the seventh.
“No, that isn’t true at all!” Mira piped up. “I know the greater world can be petty and rank one group of people over another, but really things are not like that here. We Caretakers are considered just as essential in our role as the priests.”
“What?” I said defensively. “I didn’t say otherwise!”
Her eyes narrowed. I tried to hold the gaze, but finally my eyes turned down to my feet. “Do you know everything of my mind?” I asked bashfully.
“Only what you wear on the surface….
“Like clothing,” I said at the exact same moment as her. I smiled at that, but of course she was very familiar with such things, being a native of this place.
“Is anyone ever able to know another’s mind any deeper?” I asked.
“Yes, individuals can grow quite intimate with one another’s mind.”
“And…have you ever?”
“That is considered a rude question,” she said, but smirked playfully as she did so.
I looked away bashfully, and then felt all the more bashful for knowing that she could still sense my mind. She didn’t appear offended in the least.
“So…do you enjoy being a caretaker?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“I do. I find it very satisfying. Obviously there are pleasantries to some of the other houses that we do not enjoy. But if one enjoys the work of caring for the old and sick, for keeping things clean and orderly, for fixing and building anew, then one can be happy. And I do. I find it very satisfying.”
“What pleasantries are afforded to the other houses?”
“Well, the Researchers get to explore and discover, of course. And everyone respects the Scribes for being the the voice of information. The Growers have the satisfaction of filling the cupboards of every home….And so on. Each of us genuinely feels that we are contributing to a greater whole.”
As I considered the attitude I had seen in the city I found that I believed her, they truly all seemed perfectly content in their own sphere. I felt a private shame for having ever assumed that her house was lesser. But of course it was not a private thought, and before I could hide it Mira smiled coyly.
It was a very awkward, very vulnerable place to be. I had the sense that Mira was more attuned to understanding the mind than any of the others I had met in this land, and that meant feeling perpetually exposed in ways that I was naturally uncomfortable with. Yet in spite of all that, I didn’t want to go. I was enjoying her presence, and I hoped that she did not regret being in mine.
“It’s alright. I like talking to you,” she offered sweetly.
She shrugged. “I just do. Why do you like being with me?”
“You’re very sincere…and beautiful.”
“Well, you seem to know yourself quite well, don’t you? Most people are not so aware of themselves, and why they want what they do.”
“I suppose I’m too much in wonder of other things to properly understand myself. They tell me I’m a daydreamer.”
“What were you doing here under the tree before I came?”
“Yes, but what of?”
“The completing of the cycle, and all that happens next?”
“No, I care very little about that.”
“You what?! But what could matter more?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. Yet I just don’t care. It has everything to do with the world, but nothing to do with me.”
I furrowed my brow and she glanced away.
“I know that’s a strange thing to say, but it just doesn’t. I far prefer, for example, talking with you than thinking about that. That has to do with me.”
“Then what were you thinking about of tomorrow, if not of the cycle?”
“Oh, just of my day, my comings and goings, the little things that I must do.”
For the first time she sounded just like everyone else, talking about things that were only surface-deep, and clearly concealing something else.
“Please,” she said softly. “Could we speak about us?”
I nodded slowly, and let my unsaid questions dissipate.
“Tell me, then, what does it mean to be a Graye?”
“Well,” I said, “I am from a small hamlet called Omayo. I was born in the third year of the worst famine that region has ever known. I was the seventh child, but I never knew of my brothers and sisters. All of them died before I was aware of anything.”
“Was there an eighth?”
“No. I was alone.”
“So…you were one of seven, and alone.”
“And when you entered our village you were one of seven of forty, and yet just as alone.”
“There were forty Treksmen assigned to this campaign, were there not?”
“Yes, but one of them died before we left, and three more refused to accompany us.”
“Perhaps they were not with you on the road, but I assure you that they have each wandered this quest in their own ways. We are all called, and even if we try to run from the calling, we inadvertently fulfill it. The one who died before the journey even began, that was what he was called to do.”
“You know him?”
“I sense him through you.”
“So I and my companions who survived? We did so because that was our fate?”
“At that point, yes. But your fates do diverge. I knew it from when I first watched you arrive. As I said, you entered with seven, but already you were marked alone.”
“Marked for what?”
“The same for which you were marked among your seven siblings: to be the only one to survive.”
“My companions…are going to die?”
“A great many of us are about to die. Almost all. Surely you have felt that? Everyone here can feel that. It is so sure that it may as well have already occurred.”
“But not me,” I breathed.
“You know it. I can tell. You have always known that you were marked to be a survivor. Though you did not know what lay before you on the road, you always knew that your fate was beyond it. To what, you do not know. There is a saying here, that one is not known until they are all known. Meaning you have told me where you came from, and normally I would say that is insufficient until you can also tell me where you are going. But in your case, matters are different, aren’t they? For you are endless.”
“And, if endless…” I began slowly.
“Then there is nowhere to which I can belong.” We said it in unison.
On Monday I spoke about introducing a character at the end of a tale, and how they can still feel significant to the story by making them an extension of arcs that are already in play. That was the approach I took with Mira, allowing her to be the voice of the themes that have permeated the story ever since it began. The hope is that even though her name is new, she will feel like someone we have already known for a long while.
But this was not the only trick I tried to utilize to make her stick in the reader’s mind. I made a special effort to write her in a flirtatious, fun, and dreamy manner. Romance has not been an element of the story thus far, and hopefully this unique conversation will make the moment all the more impactful on the reader.
This, of course, is my account of the Priests of Oolant and the sacrifices they made to summon the dread eclipse. The final night. The burning horizon. The Black Sun.
Many names. Each trying to express the same idea, yet each only able to give definition to the smallest part of it. I shall attempt to discuss around the matter with my own words, though I too will fail to properly account for what transpired that day. I know as much, and I happily accept that failing, for there is no shame in not being able to explain that which is inexplicable.
I have, of course, read the many partial and second-hand accounts of that day, which to my utter disdain have tried to gloss over the void truth with fanciful allegories and symbolism. These things are an affront and a blaspheme to the true gravity of that moment. You cannot make an image of so unholy a scene, you cannot make a fantasy of that which is most terribly real, and you cannot write a drama around pure, unfeeling destruction.
Rather than try to explain things, we should be content to leave them unknowable. Thus I am not here to satiate your curiosity. If you desire fables look elsewhere. I have come only to help you resolve your mind to the fact that you will never know. How could you? I myself know, yet do not know what that knowing is. It is like a worm lodged in my brain, which churns through the folds of that tissue unceasingly. I cannot see the worm, I cannot hear the worm, I cannot feel the worm…for my brain has uselessly placed all its sensors without itself. All that I am able to perceive the worm by is how it weighs and pressures upon every other cranial activity. It squeezes against the synapses and makes them fire differently, makes them all tainted by the shadow of the Black Sun.
I was there.
I wish for this to be made very clear. This is not another second-hand account. I was present my own self that day. How did I escape then, you wonder? I do not know. Perhaps I did not. So frail has my connection to this world felt ever since, so ignored by my fellow man have I been, that it would not surprise me at all if I am nothing but a specter anymore, a ghost whose record must go unheard by the world. But perhaps if I write it now with all my soul, if I strain myself with all my strength against the shroud, then I will leave an echo that some may bear witness to on the other side. I have heard of such things before. But enough now, I have digressed from my matter.
As I said, I was there.
I was not one of the Priests of Oolant, I frankly had no business with them whatsoever. I was not even raised in the Damocile Region. I called my home Omayo, a small hamlet two levels and fourteen strata beneath groundscape. Though of course not true groundscape. We thought it was, but back in those days we did not know that that which we called the entire world was but only a single arm of the greater Kolv Mass.
In any case, the hamlet of Omayo rested on the fringe of the Peyrock plantation. Like most of the boys that grew up in my small village, when I came of age I sought employment from that plantation. Some of us went to work in the fields, some of us to transport the goods in far-traveling caravans, the greatest of which were many miles long.
It was the caravan work that fell to me, and I made many sojourns with our dried bracken, all through the Eastern quadrant of the groundscape (or what we then thought was groundscape). When we received a special order we would carry it directly down to the specific level-and-strata, otherwise we left our goods with the surface depot, to then be disseminated by great lifts to the masses below.
It was not often that our circuit included the Damocile Region, and absolutely never to the Coventry of Graymore. Of course I was aware of the place and the work performed within its blackened halls, for its fame was common knowledge to us all. But never had I seen the Slab Altar, nor the masses of their artificially inflated population, nor contemplated how one could so freely choose such a fate as the Consigning.
But all this was to change, and I confess I felt a thrill of boyish curiosity when I read the destination listed for our next circuit. It was Torrin who saw it first as we caravan-boys crowded around the notice board.
“Graymore Coventry?!” he exclaimed. “Foreman, is that a joke?”
Our foreman, Ayeseus Blott, had remained waiting behind while we looked over the posting, no doubt anticipating our reaction when we came to that particular listing.
“No jokes in the employ,” he frowned seriously. “You know better than to ask a question like that.”
“But…why are we going there?” I ventured.
“Because we have been summoned. What other reason is there.”
Though we peppered him with questions for a while, there was nothing else that we could glean from him. For he was hardly of any higher station than us, and thus not privy to anything whatsoever. All that mattered was that an order had been made, a purchase given, and that now we must make our delivery.
And so we prepared for our journey, and the closer we came to it the more our initial excitement mingled with a growing sense of dread. By the time we reached the week of our expedition, we were equal parts enthusiastic and horrified for the sights we might see when we came to the Coventry.
To be clear, we were not so foolish as to fear that we, ourselves, might be made sacrifices by those strange priests, for we knew that the Slab Altar was considered one of the most holy relics in all of Gaverenth, and that only those who had been kept pure by a strict life-regimen were worthy to be offered thereon. But there is, of course, a natural dread to know that one might witness the taking of another’s life. Of course it would theoretically be possible to not walk into the square when such events were happening, but when you are a young man of ravenous curiosity, you know that you must see.
Thus we were preparing for our excursion against our own better natures. Pushed by marvel past our reason. If this were all, already I would say that we set out on our journey with a black sign over us. But in truth, even before we set forth on our circuit, we encountered not one, but three more dark omens.
First was the matter of our foreman, Ayeseus Blott, who grew deathly ill three days before we were supposed to leave the Plantation. Now everyone knows that it is terrible bad luck to set out under a sudden change in leadership. So much so, that though we were anxious to see the Coventry, we had to approach the management and request the trip be cancelled. They told us that they could not satisfy this request. They apologized that such was the case, stated that under normal circumstances they would have, but proclaimed that this journey was too essential to cancel. They could not say why, it was a great secret apparently, but they did assure us that it was not simply a matter of business, not something so simple as supply and demand, nothing as crude as a matter of money. No. There were deep matters at play, ones so great that the worse luck would be in us not seeing this campaign through. And so, though it meant we would ride out under a cursed sign, still we must go.
Of course this all only served to deepen our two-mindedness. Apprehension and fascination ratcheted higher than we knew was even possible. Our previous dread anticipation had now been touched by a sense of destiny. We were being driven, compelled even, towards some great fate. The call had been made, and whether to good or evil we had to answer.
Of the two, evil seemed the most likely, what with the unholy nature of our destination. And though it might seem strange to set out to what seems to be an evil fate, if it is your fate, then it cannot be resisted. We were like young Avalow, moving step-by-step towards the fire, eyes staring unflinchingly forward to his own destruction, unable to turn, because it was the one purpose for which he had been made. So, too, we must go and see for what we had been made.
The second sign of ill things came on the day of the Pledge. In all the seventy-one voyages I had made previously, I had not given a second thought to the solemn words that bound me to my mission. They had been meaningless mutterings every time, for I never had had any reason to not obey them. Indeed the process had always been so routine, that after the first six times I hardly even noticed the heartdrag of it anymore.
But this time I did notice it. Not only noticed it, but was shaken by it. So much so that I thought I might collapse right there, halfway through the second stanza. And this time, for the first time, I understood why the ritual of the Pledge affects our hearts so, why it makes our life-organ slow its beats, and thump them out heavily, even painfully. For the heart knows that it is being taken from you and submitted to another, and by its nature this is a death to it. And that is what the heartdrag truly is, the slow death-agonies of the heart.
Thus you must not pause in the ritual. You must hurry through the words and rush out your final “Amen,” which finally releases the heart back to its regular, though somewhat sadder, cadence. If you do not get through the whole Pledge quickly enough, then the heart will grow silent for too long…as we all bore witness to that day.
For no sooner did I finish my pledge, and my heart burst back into rapid life, then young Yalli came behind me for his turn. And as I was catching my breath I noticed that he was already quite pale, and that his words were very shaky. Right from the first sentence he was speaking too slowly, which meant his momentum would never be able to carry him on to the end. I wanted to shout out to him to stop, to turn back…but it was too late. He had just cleared the first stanza, and so that escape was forever closed off to him.
I could see the panic set in his face, see how he came to the same realization that I just had. His lips fluttered wildly and turned blue, but already the words were drying up. Three staccato whispers and then no more sounds came out of his mouth.
“Yalli!” I cried. “Breathe in!”
But it was not a lack of air, it was a lack of strength to expel it. He jerked horribly, trying to force out a single syllable, then we all heard a muffled bursting and he collapsed to the floor, never to rise again.
There were only three Treksmen left to make their oath after Yalli, but of course not a one of them would dare utter a word after what they had just seen. Though they knew it meant banishment from our order, there was simply no way that they could make the Pledge without hesitating in the words. And as we had all seen, to hesitate before your fate was to die by its wrath.
It was inevitable that the story of what had happened spread through the entire body of Treksmen, such that no others would agree to complete our partial company, no matter how great a bonus they were promised for it. And so we came by the second and third dark omens of our quest: the premature death of a Treksman, and the necessity to set out with an incomplete crew.
It was a black morning when at last we set out on our way.
On Monday I talked about how to bring a fitting end to a story. At this point we are still a ways off from the end of our tale, but we can discuss how I am setting up for it in the beginning. As I suggested in my previous post, I am tipping my hand right from the outset in this tale. Though the terms “Black Sun” and “Priests of Oolant” mean nothing to the reader, they should immediately understand that this story is going to end with the raising of some terrible, cataclysmic event, wherein a great many people are going to die.
This might seem to be contrary to my stated intent with this latest series: to focus on stories where the ending has some sort of “turning” element, one that goes beyond all that has been alluded to before, and gives new definition to all of the story’s themes and arcs. But I believe that I will be able to write the ending of this story in a way that is still surprising and satisfying, no matter how much of it I have already revealed.
To do this I am relying on two things. The first having a journey that redefines what the ending means. At the outset the reader is promised a cataclysmic event, but what that really means remains a mystery. I hope that by exploring the context of this world, the eventual destruction at the end will be cast in a light that the reader had not anticipated from the beginning.
The other strategy I am depending on is being able to still surprise the reader with how this destruction takes place. Saying that the region is subjected to a terrible catastrophe is pretty vague, and leaves a great deal open to the imagination. My hope is that when I finally get to laying out all the details that the reality of the moment will pack a few surprises for even the most imaginative of readers.
Before we get to that end, though, I want to take a moment to consider world building in stories, and how we create the systems within them. If rules are constantly changing, then they mean nothing; and if they are set in stone, but disinteresting, then–well–they’re disinteresting.
How can an author bridge the gap of providing constant new inventions in their world, but also avoid introducing elements that make loopholes in what came before? We’ll take a look at some ideas on Monday, and how I have composed the world-systems in this current story. Come back next week to check it out.
The surf did not break across the shore all at the same moment, but rather rippled down its length in a long, drawn-out rush. This was due to how the sandy beach was laid out at an angle to the flow of the tide. And so the waves sounded on the North-Western tip first, then worked their way South and East, where at last they rolled off in a curling white froth. Many the fish was caught in that circling current, and some of the weaker ones were unable to break free of it. They would die in its churning, then be deposited on the cold, wet sand when the tide drew back again.
It was a freshwater coast, and the white sand was dotted here and there with various bits of brown scrub and green needle-grass. About twenty yards back from the waterline the sand gave way to a more muddy carpet, and small gray crabs dug little burrows in that clay. The entire stretch of beach was backed by the black, porous bluffs that rose high above the scene. Sheer walls that were perpetually driven back by a continual process of erosion.
As that rock wall receded it left large, boulder deposits on the ground, sentinels that then crumbled to bits in slow motion. While they still stood their porous surfaces were turned into a thousand miniature lakes, each hole filled by the spray from the sea and then crowned by a ring of lichen. They all bore a head of hair as well, long, slick, green blades of grass that grew wild and unkempt, the same as could be found atop the bluffs.
The sky was perpetually gray, an endless stream of clouds ever passing over with no break to indicate where one ended and the next began. Winds frequently buffeted the small island, and rain flowed most days of the year. Not in torrents, usually, but in a constant drizzly weeping.
During the drier months the occasional gull would chance the voyage out to the island from some distant origin. It was a long and tempestuous route for them, but those that managed it would gorge unrestrained on the crabs, relieved from the usual squabbling of their brethren.
Further inland the grassy knolls were sprinkled here and there with small houses. The people that lived here were decent, quiet folk, as one had to be to make a home in a place so humble and gray. They were absent any ambition, and only worked the land for their own subsistence, never trying to raise a profit from its depths. All they wished was to enjoy the quiet tranquility, and the perpetual washing from the weeping rains.
Aside from their homes they had built only two other edifices for public communion. One was a church, whitewashed and prominent, with imported oak for the doors and the pews. It was at least five times too large for the small population of the island, but it had seemed disrespectful to make a place of worship that was too small. Each Saturday they all fastidiously cleaned it, and so it was the tidiest of any structure in town. As they felt it should be.
The other edifice was a pub. It was a long, low building, illuminated by orange lanterns without but left dark and smoky within. No one came here in a hurry, and every towns-person had their own seat for the long evening hours they whiled away within. One-by-one they came after the day’s work was done, and one-by-one they left at their preferred time for “turning in.” Unless, of course, there happened to be any visitors in the place, in which case they might stay as late as 2 or 3 in the morning.
These visitors were usually some fishermen who had stopped to make repairs on their vessel, and every now and again they some city-minded pilgrim would arrive after becoming hopelessly lost in the sea, seeking directions back home. More rarely, perhaps once every few years, an uncharacteristically powerful storm would arise, and then all of the nearby ships would be driven towards their refuge, skirting in like so many giant gooses caught in a gale.
It was the morning following one such of these storms, still much too early for the island to have fully awoken. Down on the soaking shore a dark form washed up, a mass of tangled clothes, sopping hair, and pale skin. The man coughed and his fingers clawed at the sand, but his eyes remained stubbornly clenched. The next wave came and engulfed him, and he sputtered a torrent of water from his mouth after it had receded. Instinctively he crawled on his belly a few feet further ashore.
He was a young man, surely no more than thirty. Yet the gaunt expression in his face aged him prematurely. His eyes were naturally sunk in deep, and seemingly all the more so with how his long, pointed nose extended out between them. Around the edges of his eyes was a scrawl of wrinkles, ones that extended uncharacteristically out and downwards, tracing onto the tops of his cheeks.
The man huddled his bony knees up to his chest, trying in vain to find some warmth as an easterly wind blew across in fitful gusts. Each of these breaths stirred him closer and closer to consciousness, until at last his eyelids slowly rolled back. His vacant eyes peered out unseeing, the focus slowly settled in, and at last the pupils lazily rotated to survey the scene about him.
He perceived the sand, the water, the wind, but all was strange and unfamiliar to him. His mind started working, trying to trace back where he was and why. What was the last that had happened to him?
He suddenly recollected all and tried to sit bolt upright. He barely made it halfway before he collapsed back on his side. He palmed his forehead, trying to ease the throbbing in his skull. After a minute had passed he tried to raise himself again, this time more slowly and cautiously. He winced as he dug his palm into the sand, propping himself up on that arm, and peering out into the wild sea. He scanned his eyes left and right, searching and searching again for some shape on the horizon.
He saw nothing, and with that blessed omission his mouth cracked open in a smile and a small laugh of relief escaped his aching chest. The wheezing chuckle passed, and it was immediately followed by one deeper and fuller. He clapped his hands in front of his nose and pressed his thumbs against his forehead, heavy sobs now mingling with the laughter, and eventually taking them over. His whole body shook as the moment of relief allowed himself to truly appreciate the trauma of his flight.
Could it truly be over? he wondered. After so long, so hard a chase? No matter. Time would heal all wounds, erase the memory of what had been. All that was relevant now was that the sea was empty, there was no more ship to be seen anywhere. It must have sunk, and taken with it all the men aboard. All but him. Such a terrible cost, indeed, but necessary. May a few dozen innocents die that the one great evil may be purged, and call yourself blessed that somehow you escaped the froth.
As his head bowed under the weight of his emotions he failed to notice the dark figure of another body washing ashore, some thirty yards from where he lay. That man was as motionless as the dead, though, and did not stir at all as the water continued to smother him with every wave.
At last the first man finished his heaving sobs and began to see about getting up on his feet. It was no small task, and he found that he would have to rub some life back into his legs before they would function properly for him. It was while he was in the process of this that he happened to look about him, and at last he saw the other man lying down-shore.
“Oh no,” he whimpered, his slight frame crumpling at the sight. The other man was dressed in fine, black clothes, or rather clothes that had been fine before the sea had so bedraggled them. Over them was a rich, red vest, with some stitching that suggested a station of some sort. His hair was blond and close-cropped, his mustache was carefully trimmed.
The first man stared long and hard at his quarry, and finally trembled less as he steeled himself for action. Probably the aggravator was already dead. It was better for the body to wash ashore in this way, now he would be able to know for sure. And if, by some curse, the hole in the other’s chest still beat, then better to end it now and be done with it. And so the first man began to crawl forward, his legs still acclimating to regular use.
That monster had to be dead. He had to be. It was miracle enough that one of them had survived, for both to have done so would be…would be a sign at that the gods had fated them to this infernal dance eternally. The thought made the man pause in his crawl, then he swallowed hard and continued.
Even if he felt no heartbeat in that body he might as well be sure of the deed. He’d open the man and stretch him out across the whole beach, pocketing only the heart, just to be sure it could never return to its master. Or perhaps he would dry the body out and grind it into a dust. He’d feed it to those crabs over yonder. He’d–
Of a sudden the second man lifted up on raised arms and gave a long, startled gasp, like a sleeping beast pierced in the dead of night. Immediately his head snapped to one side and his eyes locked on the nearing other. Those brows furrowed so deeply that they ran together as one, and he began to take long, sharp inhales, filling his lungs with biting, cold air and willing its energy to flow from thence to his limbs.
The first man recoiled in horror. Though he had been conscious longer, he knew he was not so well recovered as to overpower his adversary. And so he stumbled backwards. His feet had at long last discovering their strength in his terror, and so he rose and staggered away backwards.
That second man continued to hold himself on wobbling arms that ever grew more steady. His breath pumped in and out of his lungs, whistling around his clenched teeth, his face etched with a deep and hurtful desire. He seemed to breathe hate in with the air, using both to strengthen him. The second man could not continue to look at such a terrible sight. He turned, and sobbed bitterly as he ran away, wondering what the use of it was. Would it never stop? Would he never wake from the nightmare?
No. Evidently it was their fate to chase and flee forever. He would neither overcome nor escape his enemy, yet also he would never be overcome nor destroyed himself. Somehow he always managed to just barely escape his death, while countless other innocents perished in the wake of their clashing instead. It was his curse. Wouldn’t it be better to just stop and endure the agony and then sleep? Wouldn’t it be easier and quicker that way? More humane to the world? Maybe it would, but his courage failed him.
And so he ran, tears splashing around his feet as he went. Some for him. Some for the poor souls who chanced to live on this island, and would soon be swept away in the tide of violence.
My post on Monday was all about the mood of the story. My suggestion at the time was that it didn’t have as much to do with what you wrote as how you wrote it. For me the most difficult part of this piece was the very beginning, where I tried to first establish that mood, but once I found it the rest actually followed quite naturally.
One misstep I had at the beginning was that I originally began by talking about the villagers on the island. Right after I mentioned how the tide broke across the shore at an angle I wrote about how the locals had learned to listen to how long that breaking took, and from that extrapolate how many knots the wind was blowing at. I then said they would use that trick to impress the visitors at their cozy pub, whom they would then regale with stories.
It was a fine little detail, but it suddenly made the mood far too warm and pleasant. It made everything that followed lack that somber tone I was looking for. And so I cut it, and by the time I did get around to discussing the townspeople they were living under the tone already established by a muted gray beach, rather than the other way around.
Often that’s how it goes for me when establishing a mood. I have to ask myself “does this feel right?” And if it doesn’t I try other things until I find the one that does. Then progress continues as normal.
There was another element of this story that I would like to look at in greater detail, that of the motivation. I was intentionally very sparse on specifics for why these two men are so irreconcilably opposed to one another, we just know that they are. But isn’t the classic question for an actor “what is my motivation?” Don’t characters always need reasons to do what they do? Well, to put it simply it’s not that simple. But let’s take a closer at all of that come Monday, and until then have a wonderful weekend!