The mountain lay to the west, and therefore the morning sun was just starting to shine on it from the opposite horizon, casting a blanket of pink color over its natural green and blue and gray and brown. Jason was sure it was just his imagination, but it seemed almost as if there was a discoloration in the spreading sunlight. It seemed to be disrupted by a golden arc, right at the point that he imagined the pocket of heat was emanating from. And as the sun’s pink light continued to crawl down the face of the mountain, he imagined that the arc continued to follow with it, widening to a point, then narrowing to make an almost-perfect circle over the mountain’s rugged terrain.
Jason blinked twice to clear the image from his mind, but the golden arc was still there. Was it actually his imagination, then? Jason walked up to the glass wall until his nose only an inch from the glass. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see all of his coworkers doing the same.
“What do you think it is?” Jeremy the intern asked.
“It’s–” Jason started to answer, but he was cut off by the power suddenly cutting off. The humming of the fluorescent lights, the white-noise of the mounted speakers, the muttering of voices from the television silenced so immediately that it startled them all.
“What in the world?!” Megan from Customer Service exclaimed. All of the employees gave worried looks to each other, but then turned their eyes back to the mountain.
The glow was increasing every moment, building in brightness, size, and intensity. Several times it seemed to reach as bright as it could possibly go, but then it pressed onward. The employees had to hold their hands over their faces to block most of it out, staring transfixed through a narrow slit between their finger. None of them said another word. None of them tried to leave. What would they even be running from? Where would they even go?
The locus of heat had changed from its golden hue to bright yellow to pure white. It was brighter than fire, brighter than the sun, brighter than the heart of lightning. The rock beneath the face of the mountain had started to melt, started to ooze out of any opening it could find.
Then, all at once, the outer face of the mountain burst apart in a single, shattering explosion!
Though Jason and the others were miles away from the mountain, the shockwave struck their building instantaneously, bursting every window into glassy powder and slamming the employees backwards through the air. From the hole in the mountain a sudden beam of white light burst out horizontally. It was as focused as a laser, but more than thirty feet in width. It stretched from the heart of the mountain and across miles of the sky, scorching the overhead clouds and evaporating them into steam!
Jason tried to raise himself out of the middle of shattered cubicles where he had been blasted. His legs were still shaking too hard to support his weight, though, so he had to settle for sitting in the middle of ceiling tiles, smashed monitors, floating sheaves of paper, and spilled printer ink.
All of the other workers were moaning softly in pain, nursing wounds that ranged from rough bruising to broken bones. One of them wasn’t even visible anymore, having been blasted clear out the other side of the building. Jason tried to stand once more, and this time, legs still quivering, he rose to his feet.
Before him was a complete scene of destruction.
They had been lucky that their building was still standing. In the valley before him were many that had not. In fact any construct within a two-mile radius of the mountain had been entirely obliterated, reduced to a black scorch all along the foothills. All throughout the city fires were raging, streets were upended, and cars were littered like little toys flung off of a blanket. The bodies were too small to see, but Jason knew they must be sprawled about in the tens of thousands. There came a new sound of crumbling, and the office building next to Jason’s gave in to its structural damage, folding downward in a cloud of smoke and debris. There was a moment of shouts from everyone that had been inside, but all was quickly muffled into nothingness.
Jason knew he ought to check himself for injury, ought to tend to the others, ought to run for safety before his building fell, too. But he, like anyone else in that valley who could, still had his eyes locked firmly on the mountain.
Surprisingly the whole thing hadn’t been blasted to rubble. Only the section that the beam burst through had been expelled, and now that the beam was dying down there was revealed a giant, black hole right in the heart of the rock. It was like a lake-sized bullet-hole.
And out of that hole things were emerging.
Tall things. Giant things. Things that were generally humanoid in shape, but seemed to be hewn from the rock that they emerged from. Staggering Titans of unknown ages, marching down the slopes of the mountain on legs that moved shakily after millennia of not being used. But with each step they moved more confidently, finding their old strength restored in the light of the sun.
Jason watched them descend, and as they did his lips narrowed to a line. His hands curled into fists. His hair ruffled even though there was no breeze. And then he started to rise. Up and up, until he was floating halfway between the floor and the ceiling, feet supported by nothing.
“They’re going to cut us off from behind!” Tharol announced. “But if we move now I think we can get through the tower before they do it.” It was the the boys’ only option. Not would this keep them from being sandwiched between two walls of enemies, there was also a second staircase down to the courtyard on the other side of the tower. The only problems were…
“But that’s away from Master Palthio!” Avro said.
” And they’ll cut us down as soon as our backs are turned!” Bovik added.
“I don’t think Master Palthio is coming with us,” Tharol addressed Avro’s concern. The man was reinforcing the gates to give the boys more time…but even he wouldn’t be holding back the tide for long. The enemies would break through before long, and then they would be right upon him and he would have nowhere to run. Palthio had known that when he went there.
More serious was the second concern. Even now a set of crossbowmen was mounting the ladders behind the armored soldiers. They weren’t firing on Tharol and the other boys because they were too enmeshed with the soldiers. But soon the assaulting forces would be called back, clearing the way for the arrows to cut the boys down.
“Go!” Janeao shouted, panting from the physical demands of being the bulwark of their little army. “You all get out of here. I’ll hold them back.”
“We didn’t come save you lot just to leave you behind!” Tharol returned hotly.
“Well I didn’t come up here to be saved, Tharol! I came here to take care of what needs to be taken care of.”
“But you can’t–“
“I can hold this, Tharol. Trust me for once.”
And with that Janeao gave a great cry then surged forward. He dropped his sword and wrapped his arms around the nearest soldiers, tackling them down to the ground. Further behind the crossbowmen raised their eyes in surprise, then scrambled to load their weapons.
“Everyone go!” Tharol shouted. He gave one parting glance at Janeao down on the ground, punching and throwing with all his might, then turned around and darted after the others towards the tower!
There was a shout from behind as the soldiers tried to push past Janeao, around the boys crossbow bolts ricocheted wildly, ahead of them soldiers climbed the ladder, sneaking into the tower window above. Danger lurked on every side.
Down below, the stone soldiers had started creeping cautiously back towards the gate. The shockwaves from Master Palthio had ceased streaming through the holes, now suppressed by the magical aura of the statue lady. Her right hand still rested on the massive, stone bricks of the wall, and she was muttering something under her breath as the rock began to glow and quiver.
One of the stone soldiers came up to her side and pressed his hand against the wall-block nearest to him. It quivered even more rapidly, then all at once it turned in its recess. The soldier continued stepping forward and the separate stones of his arm began similarly rotating and folding, rearranging themselves to fill the cavity left by the rotated wall-block. He kept on pushing forward, and the sections of the wall and the sections of his body continued rotating, sliding, folding, reassembling. Eventually his entirety had passed into the churning knot of rocks, like the pieces of a puzzle tumbling together.
And now the churning continued on the other side of the wall, on the inside of the keep. The blocks there shifted and turned and rearranged until a stone arm started to emerge from their folds, then a head and a chest.
Master Palthio’s eyes shot sideways to the intruder. Sweat beaded his brow, but he pulled one hand away from the crumbled gate and sent a fresh shockwave to the side, blasting that stone warrior into dust. Then he turned his head to the other side. Two other stone soldiers were already emerging out of the wall over there!
An arrow sliced through the air and lodged itself in Avro’s shoulder. The force of it spun him around and he fell to the ground. Tharol was bringing up the rear and reached down and pulled the boy back to his feet without so much as a break in his stride.
“Unnngh!” Avro moaned as Tharol hadn’t had the time to be sensitive to the wounded shoulder. Together the two of them kept racing forward after the other boys.
Golu was in the lead and had just reached the door to the tower. He burst through it, raising his sword to be ready for whatever lay on the other side. It was a single, round room, with a spiral staircase in the center ascending to the next floor. Already the enemy peasants were filing down that staircase, coming to cut off the boys’ exit.
Golu sprang forward with a cry and swung his sword with practiced precision. Each of his blows was efficient and lethal. While he held the horde at bay the other boys scrambled around the staircase and out the other door.
“Come on, Golu!” Tharol shouted after all the others had exited.
Golu sprang after Tharol and through the opening. Tharol slammed the door closed and Golu thrust his sword into the gap between door and frame, wedging it as tightly between the two as he could. It would take the soldier’s a moment to break through that bond. In a line the boys rushed down the staircase at the other end of the tower and into the courtyard. Tharol could hardly believe that they had made it this far!
Then there came a shout from above and Tharol saw the crossbowmen standing in a line on top of the ramparts. They had realized the boys’ game, and had simply moved to a position where they would have an excellent view of the entire courtyard. Tharol and the other boys might dodge and weave as best they could, but there was no way they could avoid all of the bolts that were about to rain down on them!
The leader of the crossbowmen stood at the center of their firing line. He raised his arm and shouted “Aim!” All of the snipers raised their weapons to their cheeks. “Fire!”
“NO!” came a shout from down below. A wave of light streaked across the courtyard, intercepting the volley of arrows and bursting them into dust.
Master Palthio drew his hands away from the gate, finally letting its splinters crumble to the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. Though he had tried to cut down the stone soldiers pressing through the wall, he hadn’t been able to keep up in his weakened state. Slowly their numbers had grown until they were now crowding around him a dozen strong, spears lowered for the killing blow.
There was only one thing left to do.
Even as the weapons pierced through his body Master Palthio lifted his hands wide and sent a final shockwave right into the epicenter of the wall. The stones nearest to him disintegrated into dust, ripples of force rocked to the left and right as if the wall had been made of water, and then the entire line began cascading inwards like a line of dominos! Master Palthio had obliterated the central support, and now gravity would do the rest.
The eyes of the crossbowmen and armored soldiers went wide as the ramparts fell out from beneath them. They fell all the way to the fields below, joining the cascading rock and metal and wood that poured into the front lines of the army still waiting to enter the keep.
“MOVE!” Tharol shouted, lunging forward and physically pushing the other boys in front of him. Master Palthio may have just cleared the line, but there was still rank upon rank of soldiers who now had no barrier to slow their advance!
And at the front of that army there still stood the statue lady. Having been at the epicenter of Master Palthio’s blast, all the cobblestone had been reduced to harmless dust around her. Now she strode angrily over the shambles of the gate. She glanced down to the ground where Master Palthio gave out his last breath, surrounded by the pebbles that had moments before been his killers.
“Who were you?” she whispered curiously.
“What was that, Madam?” her bodyguard, who was also her Lieutenant, stepped to her side.
“Never mind.” She brought herself back to the matters at hand and pointed her arm out to Tharol and the others’ retreating forms. “Shoot them!”
“Crossbows!” the Lieutenant called and four nearby archers hurried forward and raised weapons alongside of him.
The boys were nearly to the end of the courtyard, nearly through the arch and onto the main street that led towards the district marketplace.
“Fire!” the Lieutenant called, and four bolts whistled through the air.
Up ahead the boys moved single file to the the narrow arch. And at their back was Tharol. The whole way he had deliberately remained in the rear, urging the other boys on ahead of him.
Without warning all four of the bolts struck Tharol, each between the shoulder blades. Their combined force lifted him into the air and threw him to the ground. He gave a cry of surprise, then slammed into the dirt. The other boys turned in shock, eyes shifting from their fallen comrade to the crossbowmen hurriedly reloading their weapons in the distance.
“Don’t worry about it, just go,” Tharol grunted as he pushed back up to his feet and continued dashing forward. The boys stared at him in bewilderment, but he gave them a shove and they continued their escape. All of them made it out the arch before the crossbowmen could fire again, and once they were clear Tharol tore off his outer tunic and shrugged off the shield he had strapped to his back. He had thought it a prudent addition for the unknown dangers of the night, and had put it on when he had left Master Palthio’s quarters.
Back at the gate the statue lady scoffed at her inability to have anything go according to plan this night.
“Arcuse, set aside a medical unit and get all the wounded there as quickly as possible,” she directed her Lieutenant. “Have everyone else ready to march at a moment’s notice.”
“Yes, Lady Sawk. And apparently they’ve found the boy.”
“The spy that was here. Reis.”
“Ah. Reis Antine. Where is he?”
She was led to a section of the courtyard where several soldiers were tending to the poisoned lad. He had crawled his way off of the ramparts before they had fallen to pieces, but had not made it much further before the soldiers found him.
Lady Sawk kneeled at his side and turned his face to look at her.
“You failed,” she pronounced.
“My Lady,” Reis wheezed faintly. “I’m sorry. I was tricked. They poisoned me.”
“They weren’t supposed to know that you needed poisoning. You were elected because of your ability to remain subtle.”
“I tried. I did my best. I don’t know how–“
“I do. You tried to be clever. That’s always been your weakness, Reis. You can’t ever just finish the job, you have to make it a masterpiece. And with complexity comes mistakes.”
“All you had to do was kill them in their sleep. Nothing more. You toyed with them, didn’t you.”
Reis’s silence was answer enough.
“And now your blunder has cost us time. And in that time Lord Amathur will have heard about the forces we brought today. He will know that he’s been tricked and what it is we are really here for. And that means he’ll be shut up in his castle and we’re only going to have him out of there through a great deal of trouble and blood.”
The woman paused and cocked her head as she regarded a thought.
“Well, that’s not entirely your fault, is it? I assume you did not know the master of this keep was an Old Guardian, did you?”
“No,” Reis shook his head slowly.
“No, none of us did. Very curious. Well he would have given us trouble regardless then. I wonder how he came to hide at such a lowly station…. What was his name?”
“Never heard of him.”
Reis was thoroughly exhausted from the strain of crawling down from the wall, the chaos of the battle, and the fear of Lady Sawk’s disapproval. He face was pale and shining with sweat and he was having a harder and harder time getting each word out of his throat. Even so, he balled his fists and forced himself to push through the next sentences.
“There was a boy with Palthio, too. The one commanding the others. He might know more about the master.”
“I will hunt him down. I will bring him to you. Please, my Lady, I know that I let you down, but I will atone for it. Let me find him!”
“What, did you think I was going to kill you?”
“Oh dear,” she shook her head and tutted. “Just what sort of tales are they telling about me?”
With that she concluded Reis’s audience, raised back to her feet, and turned to her bodyguard.
“Alright, Arcuse. Have him taken with the rest of the wounded and give the order to move forward.”
She found herself momentarily alone and she took the opportunity to stare into the dark in quiet repose. She touched a hand to her hard, cold face, and tipped her head upwards to the sky. Cloudless, star-scattered, and bathed in a full moon. A perfect night for conquest. A perfect night for turning fate. A perfect night to raise the New Order!
And there, at long last, is the end to The Favored Son. I really do need to reconsider calling this short stories if they keep running this long, though. At 34,500 words, The Favored Son: Alternate is half the length of a full-blown novel!
Not for the first time I’ve wondered whether I should just go ahead and do a full-length novel here on the blog. It wouldn’t be publish-ready with my tight time constraints, it would be a first draft only. I’ll keep that idea stewing in the background and decide later. For now I’m just happy to have this one completed. It was a satisfying piece to write, I enjoyed being able to better capture the original vision behind the tale and I discovered many new and pleasant ideas along the way.
Come back on Monday as we leave these shores and venture towards uncharted water. The vessel we launch on will be slightly familiar, though. One theme of this story has been the concept of children at play, whose little pretend-wars finally become literal. And as a segue into my next short story I want to examine this notion of children at play. This is, after all, where each of us first began our journey into the world of crafting stories. Come back on Monday as we dive into that, and from there to fresher grounds.