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!
I ended the last chapter of Covalent with the main character coming to an important decision. Previously Cace had been scolded by Aylme for his visits to the Ether. She felt these excursions were too dangerous and asked him to stop taking them. He never actually agreed to stop, but it was clear that he respected her and wouldn’t betray her wishes lightly.
This thread was interrupted, though, when the two children discovered Rolar, passed out at nearly dead from a strange intoxication. It was a traumatic experience, and all of the children were shaken until Rolar soothed them with the promise that so long as they kept watching out for each other, they would never fail. Rolar pledged to fight for Aylme and Cace, and Aylme for Cace and Rolar.
With that Cace came to the decision I mentioned earlier. He decided that he would fight for the other two as well, and that meant going back to the Ether and solving its secrets. To do his part to save the others he would just have to defy Aylme’s instructions.
Having this scene of Rolar’s endangerment was important, because I didn’t want Cace to just shrug off Aylme’s request. I made his determination be the result of an intense need so that the audience could agree with what he was doing.
That’s the way things work in the 1953 film Shane as well. The overall plot of this movie is very simple: a retired gunslinger comes to a new town, trying to find a peaceful life. He starts to care for the people there, and when those people are threatened he sets aside his peaceful ways to gun down the villain, then rides away.
Shane doesn’t want to fight, but in the end he does fight. Of course the movie could have forced him into the fight in the first five minutes, but then there wouldn’t have been any story. The story is in how powerful forces pull at him, he resists for a time, but ultimately must give in.
First the man he is staying with, Joe Starrett, tells him how a cattle baron, Ryker, is trying to force all the homesteaders off their legal land. He hears the stories…but does nothing about it. Then he is insulted in town by Ryker’s men, they pour a drink on him and try to egg him into a fight…but he does nothing about it. He and Joe Starrett later get into a brawl with that cattle baron’s men, but still he keeps his guns sheathed. Another rancher, Torrey, is taunted into a fight and gunned down in the street by another gunslinger Ryker has hired…but still Shane does nothing about it.
But then, finally, a trap is set for Joe Starrett, and it becomes clear that sooner or later Ryker must die or Joe will…and Shane knows that it will be Joe. This, at last, is a cross he is not willing to bear. This, at last, make Shane decide to become the gunslinger once more. Like Cace, his decision is brought about at the moment of highest intensity so that the audience will approve his decision.
But where this would be the inciting incident of most westerns, it is the concluding one in Shane. After Shane finally makes his decision there is only one scene left and the movie is over. It is less a story of what the man does than of what finally gets him to do it.
In the Middle)
The Big Country does things differently from Shane, but also differently from other westerns. In this 1958 Western, sailor James McKay arrives in Texas to marry the daughter of the powerful ranch owner and cattle baron Major Henry Terrill.
No sooner does McKay arrive than he is hazed by a group of local ruffians, led by Buck Hannassey. This offense is the inciting incident of the movie. The Terrills hear of it and immediately set off to even the score with the rival Hannassey family. McKay, though, is strictly opposed to the whole thing. He’s frankly too honorable of a man to care about a few drunks being rowdy. He doesn’t condone their behavior, but he came to no serious harm, and he knows that retaliation will only lead to escalated violence.
And so McKay’s unwillingness to be incited against the Hannasseys creates a rift between him and the Terrills instead. Bit by bit he becomes disillusioned with them, including with the daughter he had been intending to marry. He starts a campaign to protect both of the feuding families, including the Hannasseys, which offends the Terrills deeply and McKay calls off the wedding and leaves the ranch. McKay then watches as an outsider while the two families continue their downward spiral, until they meet in a ravine and finally kill each other.
The hazing that occurred at the beginning of the film incited the families to violence, but McKay’s arc is one of standing firm against that pull, rejecting every reason to contribute to the senseless killing. Throughout the picture he does fight when necessary to defend himself and others, but then he moves on, never getting caught up in the vengeance spiral of the others.
McKay came to a determination, just as Shane did, and just as Cace did. And the similar theme in all of them is that they are in opposition to what other people want, or even what they personally want. This is what gives the inciting moment its impact, it is a forceful declaration against outward influence or inward hesitation. It is breaking free to do what must be done, not what is wanted to be done. This opposition inherently causes drama, which is the lifeblood of every story, the very reason why the story is told.
And I will be leaning into that drama with Covalent. Of course Cace’s determination to travel into the Ether is going to be a point of escalating contention between him and Aylme, and even within himself. But whether he and she or Rolar wants him to or not, it is what he must do, he has been incited into it.
That weekend Petey spent all of his spare time doing the extra chores. In addition to the ones his Dad had come up with he also cleaned the dirt of the window sills and tightened all of the faucet knobs for his mother. Noah even let Petey clean his room for $2, though they had to keep that transaction a secret from their mom. Bit by bit his wallet got fatter until at last he had $13.
“That should do it,” he said as he wiped the sweat from his brow late that evening.
The next day Noah agreed to walk Petey to the sporting goods store so that he could get the new football.
“So you think this is the best thing, huh?” Noah asked.
“I guess? Like you said, it’s bad that Brad’s football got popped, so I think it makes sense to just do something to make it better.”
“Yeah, but are you doing it to make him happy or just to make him like you again?”
“He’s not ever going to like me if he isn’t happy.”
“He won’t? Cuz that sounds like a pretty terrible friendship then.”
“I’m just saying what it sounds like,” Noah shrugged. “You go ahead and do what you think is best.”
Petey did go ahead and he did buy the football as planned…but he couldn’t get Noah’s words out of his head. It had hit on something he had already been feeling, but hadn’t been able to put words to. There just was something wrong in the idea of giving a football to Brad so that he would treat him decently.
“I don’t want to just give Brad stuff to make him be my friend,” he muttered to himself on the swing at recess. “I want him to already be my friend first.”
“Nothing Susan. Hey, have you seen Brad?”
“I think he’s trying to get the ducks to come through the fence.”
Susan was right. There was a patch in the fence around the field where the chainlink had been snagged by a lawnmower once and twisted, resulting in a small hole. And it just so happened that this hole was right beside the canal and sometimes ducks would go swimming past it. Everyone remembered that time immemorial when Diego had coaxed one of those ducks through the hole and it had gone squawking and flapping across the entire field, chasing down whoever showed the most fear! It was many students’ greatest wish to recreate that legendary moment, even though this had been expressly forbidden by the Principal, but no one had ever managed it.
Brad was crouched down at the hole right now, poking pieces of bread through it and then backing away so as to not startle his prey. As Petey approached he saw that there were two ducks enjoying a little meal of Brad’s crumbs just outside of the fence, but they were stubbornly ignoring the trail he had also laid out through to the other side. As soon as Petey got within sight the ducks quacked in offense and scuttled down back into the canal.
“Hey Brad,” Petey said.
“Oh great, you scared them off.”
“They weren’t coming through anyway.”
“Gee…thanks. What are you even doing here, Petey?”
“I want to know what it’s going to take so we can be friends again.”
“Well, you broke my football. So I guess you get me a new one of those,” Brad sneered sarcastically and Petey’s heart dropped a level. He definitely couldn’t give him the new football now.
“Friendship shouldn’t be about just giving each other things,” Petey stated flatly. “That’s just selfish.”
“No, it should be about wrecking each other’s stuff and then pretending that doesn’t matter.”
Petey was taken aback. Once again everything made so much sense in his head right up until the moment he actually tried to say the words out loud. Brad just wasn’t responding the way that he was supposed to!
“No, it matters. That’s why I’m really sorry that that happened. I really am.”
Brad squinted his eyes in an accusing stare and spoke in a heavy whisper. “Did you know, Petey, that that’s the first time you’ve actually said you’re sorry?”
“In all this time you haven’t said sorry even once until now.”
“I–no, that’s not true. I said sorry already!”
Brad shook his head. “You just told me over and over that it wasn’t your fault.”
Petey couldn’t believe what he was hearing…but at the same time he also couldn’t remember a specific moment where he had definitely said that he was sorry. Was it possible?
“I–” Petey began, but no other words came to finish the thought.
“Listen Petey, I don’t hate you,” Brad sighed. “But I just don’t think I want to be friends anymore. Forget about the football.”
“So did you give it to him?” Noah said over his shoulder as he heard the door to his bedroom click shut.
“No…” Petey said slowly. “Instead we just fought some more.”
“I’m sorry, man. Are you sure this friendship is working?”
“You think it would be better to just stop being friends with my best friend?” Petey’s voice was hurt. “Just run away like that.”
Noah sighed and put down the controller to the Super Nintendo. “No, probably not. You two have been buddies since forever. So no, I don’t think you should just throw that away. Being best friends is hard work sometimes. It takes real effort.”
“Yeah…but Brad’s all done. He told me he doesn’t want to be friends anymore.”
“Ahh,” Noah rubbed the back of his head. “That’s rough, little bro. I’m sorry.”
Those last two words made Petey wince.
“And he also pointed out that I never told him I was sorry when I broke his football. I just kept talking about how it wasn’t my fault.”
“Well I’m sure you were scared right then.”
“What kind of friend am I if I don’t even apologize?”
“You still haven’t?”
“No, I did.”
“When he told you that you hadn’t?”
“No, before that.”
“So I guess you are the kind of friend who apologizes, then. Maybe a little late, but if I’m hearing you right then you did actually apologize all on your own.”
“Well…yeah. But I still don’t blame him for being upset. Maybe he’s been too much of a jerk about it…but I don’t think I did everything right either.”
A long pause followed, after which Petey gave himself a little shake.
“Well,” he said, “I just wanted to talk I guess.”
“Yeah, thank you for talking to me about it.”
That night Petey wasn’t able to fall asleep. His mind turned matters over and over as he lay on his pillow until his pillow started to feel too hot and he sat up. A few moments later his dad walked past his open door and happened to notice Petey sitting up.
“Hey bud, everything alright?”
Petey shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Petey’s dad moved into the room and sat at the corner of the bed.
“What’s going on?”
“Brad and I had a fight. I don’t really want to talk about the whole thing again, though. I’ve been talking about it a lot already.”
“And thinking about it a lot.”
“Yeah. And I guess that now I don’t know what to do about it anymore.”
“Yeah. I keep thinking about things I could do…but I’ve already tried to do things the right way a bunch of times and it never works out how I thought it would.”
“Sure, sure. Do you mind if I offer a piece of corny, fatherly advice?”
“Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to do things the right way. Just do what’s right. Then, after that, it doesn’t matter what happens.”
“Does that make sense?”
“Yeah…I think so. Thanks, Dad.”
“No problem. Try and get some sleep.”
The next day Petey knew exactly what he was going to do. He didn’t try to talk to Brad at school, though, he wanted to have a conversation when there wouldn’t be any distractions. Instead he took his backpack with him to the park after school, sat on the swings, and waited for Brad to show up. Sure enough, he soon saw Brad walking across the field like he did on most days. Petey rushed down the hill and onto the field, backpack swinging from his shoulder.
“Brad!” he called out as he came near.
Brad shook his head in a longsuffering way. “Petey, no,” he said. “Please stop talking to me. I’m not interested.”
“I will, alright. I’ll stop talking to you if that’s what you want. I just want to say one last thing and that’ll be it.”
Brad sighed. “Okay…well what is it?”
“I know you don’t want to be friends anymore and I’m not going to try to make you change your mind, but I do think that that’s a mistake. It’s okay to be upset, but I think it’s wrong to stop being friends just like that.”
Brad shrugged. “Still not interested.”
“Okay,” Petey said bracingly. “That’s alright. And even though you don’t want to be friends, I want you to know that I really am sorry about what happened. It really was an accident, but that doesn’t change that you lost your football. And I don’t think it’s fair for you to not have your football anymore…” Petey reached into his bag “so here’s your replacement. I bought it with my own money and everything. Now things are back to how they were.”
Petey handed the ball to Brad who stared back at him in stunned silence.
“Okay,” Petey exhaled deeply. “That was it, I’m done now.” And with that he slung his backpack over his shoulder, turned around, and walked away.
He made it nearly thirty feet before Brad called out.
“Hey you, get back here!”
Petey turned around and saw that Brad was grinning sheepishly.
“What?” Petey asked.
“Hey look, Pete,” Brad walked forward until the two boys were near again. “Look I know I’ve been being a jerk about all this. I didn’t feel good about it…but I did it anyway. I’m sorry.”
“So–uh–I’d like to be friends again if you’ll allow it. And…here, keep your ball,” he held the football out again but Petey didn’t take it.
“That’s for you,” Petey insisted.
“Oh come on, I can’t take it,” Brad protested. “You bought it with your own money you said.”
“Yeah, to give it to you.”
“But then…if I take it…that means I’m being your friend just because you gave it to me. And I really don’t mean that, Petey. I really do want to be your friend without this.”
Petey gave that one a lot of thought. The fact was he didn’t want their friendship to be repaired just because he had bought something for Brad either. But he also didn’t want to end up getting a new football out of all this, that felt wrong, too.
“Well I don’t want it,” he said flatly.
Brad looked down at the football and furrowed his brow in deep thought. Suddenly he looked back up with a big smile. “Hey wait…I’ve got an idea!”
“Ready?” Brad asked ten minutes later. He had run back to his home and retrieved two screwdrivers which the two boys were now wielding side-by-side.
“Ready!” Petey affirmed.
The two boys swung their screwdrivers down as hard as they could, puncturing the new football at each end! It did not deflate with a sad whistle like the last one had, though, it ruptured all at once with a huge BOOM! Each of the boys fell backwards laughing.
“Holy cow, that scared me!” Petey giggled.
“My heart’s racing!” Brad added.
They lay there laughing another minute longer, getting out all of their frustration and sadness together. When at last they quieted down they sat back up and looked at the flat pancake that had once been a football. Brad picked it up, flung it into the nearest trash can, and pocketed his screwdriver.
“C’mon buddy,” he said, extending a hand. “Let’s go play.”
Petey took the hand and let Brad pull him to his feet. “Sounds good,” he said, and the two friends walked off, arm-in-arm.
I also tried to maintain an even balance between the appearance of each character. Petey is the star and appears in each scene. Noah and Brad are the main supporting characte4rs, and they each get a pretty equal number of scenes. Secondary supporting scenes are Petey’s dad and mom, who also get a pretty equal number of scenes in the story. This setup allowed me to bounce back and forth between the main thread with Brad and the other main thread with Noah, but also to break up those threads with small asides to his parents so that it wouldn’t feel like Petey was just ping-ponging back and forth the whole time.
One of the benefits of this approach was how it provides credence to Brad’s character development, which primarily occurs offstage. In the case of Petey, we see him grappling with his problem firsthand. We hear all the conversations he has about it and the process that leads him to his final solution. But Brad has been going through his own process as well, and we don’t actually see that firsthand. I imply it at a couple times, such as when they met at the school. Before then Brad had only been insulting and hostile, but here he had softened up enough to admit that he didn’t hate Petey. Then there is that moment at the end where he says:
Look I know I've been being a jerk about all this. I didn't feel good about it...but I did it anyway. I'm sorry.
So yes, Brad has developed as a character, and we’re able to believe in it because of the gaps between each of the boys’ encounters. Those gaps suggest that enough time has passed for him to have changed his mind. If those same changes had been shown in back-to-back scenes it would have felt too abrupt and unbelievable.
So now I have written three stories in my latest batch, and there is a common theme in them that I want to shine a light on. That theme is three simple words: Children, conflict, and play. I have explored the intersection of those three ideas in various ways, and will explore one more interpretation of them before I conclude this series. Come back on Monday as I explain this further.
“Do you think Curtis and Jordan would play if we asked them?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to ask them.”
“Because they’re not careful and it’s my only football.”
“I don’t think they’re not careful.”
“You weren’t playing at the park after the parade.”
“No. What happened?”
“Well, so they had those airplanes, y’know? Those ones that you hook on a rubber band and it goes flying through the air.”
“Like the ones you can get from the arcade at Seventeen Alleys.”
“I know what you’re talking about.”
“So Curtis and Jordan each got those from the fair games and they were launching them right over there by that building. What do you call that building?”
“I don’t know. But they do all the city stuff in there, don’t they?”
“Yeah, like the mayor and everybody.”
“So they were shooting their planes alongside of that building and talking about how they thought they were shooting them high and long enough to go all the way over the building.”
“But Curtis’s dad, he heard them and he told them ‘don’t you do it.’ He told them they’d never get their planes over it and once they got lost on the roof he wouldn’t climb up there to get them back down again.”
“And, well, they didn’t try it right then. Because right then the hot dogs and hamburgers were ready and everybody started to eat. But then after that they went and tried it and guess what?”
“Curtis’s dad was right! They got stuck right on top of the roof and they never got them down!”
“Oh wow. Are they still up there?”
“What? No. Curtis and Jordan went back for them the next day when Curtis’s dad wouldn’t know anything about it. But the point is that they’re not careful and I don’t want my football up on the roof.”
Petey caught the ball once again and paused for a moment before chucking it back to Brad.
“Yeah okay,” Petey said, “it’s just we can’t really play a game with only the two of us.”
“Well we’re playing right now, aren’t we?”
“It’s not a game. It’s just catch.”
“Well…let’s make it a game.”
A game of two cannot have offense, defense, and passing, though. Thus the two boys decided beforehand whether the next play was a run or a pass. If it was a run then one of them would hike the ball back and then try to tackle the other. If it was a pass, then the hiker would tear down the field to get open for a catch. The boy playing quarterback would imagine defenders breaking through the front line and would have to throw it before they got to him.
“Go left! Go left!” Petey called. “I can’t throw so far to the right.”
“You just turn your body!”
Petey lobbed the ball high into the air, it hung high against the sky, then came down to the earth with a squelching splash!
“Oh, you’ve thrown it into the marsh!”
The marsh was the name for the low part of the field where all the water drained to and was a perpetual pond of filth.
“Whoops! I didn’t mean to.”
“Well don’t ruin my ball, okay. Don’t throw it into the marsh anymore.”
“I won’t, Brad. Anyway try to catch it next time.”
The incompletion had been their fourth down and now the other side got their turn to charge it up the field. They were held at the forty, but the boys didn’t make much more headway with their next set of downs.
“It’s fourth down again,” Petey wiped some sweat off his face. “It’s too far to make it.”
“If you hadn’t tackled me so quickly on that last run…”
“What? I’m supposed to tackle you when I’m playing defense.”
“Well you’re in charge of the play this time. What do you want to do?”
“Yeah, I’ll try for the field goal. If I get the ball into the tree there–“
“You’re not kicking my ball into a tree!”
“I mean if I kick it…” Petey rotated slowly, looking for a suitable target, “over the soccer goal. That’s a field goal!”
Brad couldn’t find anything wrong with that, so they lined up for the play. A few random numbers shouted, a hike, a step back, a kick! The ball sailed quickly and decisively. It was in-line with the edge of the goal post, but angled too high. It quickly reached its zenith, plummeted back to the earth like a diving hawk…and impacted onto the corner of the goal post!
The goal post corner was two metal poles cut at an angle and welded together, making for a sharp point. The corner punctured straight through the ball and held it fast like a head on a spike. The two boys watched in horror as the ball noisily deflated, shriveling from bottom to top up until it rolled off to the side and down to the ground. Limp. Empty. Not a ball anymore.
“You broke it!” Brad shrieked, fists clenched into little balls.
“I didn’t mean to!” Petey wringed his hands anxiously.
“Why would you kick it there? It’s the only ball I had!”
“I didn’t know! It was an accident. You know I didn’t do that on purpose!”
“I told you so much that I didn’t want to ruin it! I told you to be careful so much!”
“Let’s go to me home and talk to my mom. Maybe she can fix it. Maybe she could buy another.”
Brad stomped over to the lumpy, brown sack that had once been a ball and cradled it in his arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Petey!” he shot back. “You’re a terrible friend…and a jerk!” And with that he stormed away.
“Back already?” Petey’s mother asked as the screen door bounced shut behind him. “I thought you’d be at the park until dinner.”
“I’m back,” he said simply. “Brad is done playing for today.”
“Oh…” she raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Nothing!” he replied in anticipation of the question she hadn’t asked. She raised the other eyebrow but he wasn’t in the mood. “Nothing,” he repeated softly. “I’ve got to go do homework, okay?”
“Whatever you need.”
“I need to do my homework.”
She just stared at him as he bit his lip and looked elsewhere.
“So, okay, bye,” he concluded, then turned and walked up the stairs to the bedrooms.
But before getting to his own room Petey passed by the room of his big brother, Noah. Noah was inside, laying on his bed on his stomach, playing the Super Nintendo.
“Noah?” Petey cautiously advanced into the doorway.
“Hey, bud,” Noah didn’t turn. “Plug in the second controller.”
“No, I have to do homework…Mom’s making me.”
Petey stood another moment in the doorway, silently chewing his lip. “Hey Noah?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“So Brad is really mad at me right now.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“Well we were playing with his football together and I kicked it and it fell onto a sort of spike in the park and it popped.”
“Yeah, it was really bad. I don’t think there’s any way to fix it.”
“That’s no good.”
“And so now Brad is being really mad at me about it.”
“Well how do you feel? Guilty about it or no?”
“Yeah, I guess guilty. But I don’t get why, because I really didn’t do it on purpose!”
“No, I’m sure you didn’t. But you know, it’s not a bad thing that you feel bad about it. It was a bad thing that happened, you’re not supposed to feel good when that happens.”
“But I don’t feel bad like I would have if Brad had been the one to kick it. Then I would have felt sad for him. But just because it was me I feel like I did something really wrong.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean I’ve felt like that and I don’t know why. You really feel dirty even though it was all an accident, huh?”
“And Brad’s pretty mad about it?”
“He hates me now.”
“So it’s kind of like how you feel. Both of you are blaming you for it even though that’s not fair.”
“So what do I do?”
Noah shrugged. “I don’t know, man, that’s a hard one. To tell you the truth I was hoping it would make you feel better just by talking about it.”
“Well…it does a little. Thanks, I guess.”
Petey turned to go but suddenly Noah whipped his head around to look over his shoulder.
“I guess if there’s something you feel like oughta do to make things right then do it, just don’t do it because of blame. Either from you or Brad.”
Petey nodded and closed the door.
“Hey Brad, how’s it going?” Petey said cautiously as he approached the edge of the curb.
“Don’t talk to me,” Brad said flatly.
“Hey it’s okay if you need some space, but you have to know that it’s not my fault what happened to your football.”
“It’s not your fault?” Brad raised an eyebrow. “You kicked it into the corner and it punctured. Who else made that happen if not you?”
“I–well–I guess, yeah, it was my fault. But that doesn’t mean that you or I should blame me for it.”
Brad turned to full-on stare at Petey with incredulity. “Are you even hearing yourself right now?”
Petey did, and he had to admit that he sounded pretty ridiculous. He squirmed uncomfortably and wondered why everything had seemed so clear and simple in Noah’s room, but out here it just all got turned around. He wasn’t even sure himself what he meant anymore.
Either way Petey was spared trying to explain himself any further by the arrival of the school bus. The two boys stepped on board. By force of habit Petey followed Brad to their usual row and almost tried to sit next to him, but a single withering glare from his friend sent him to the row right behind.
“If you’re curious, though,” Brad turned in his seat for one last jab, “my dad yelled at me for ten minutes’ straight yesterday because I’d already ruined my birthday gift. Says I’d better not expect anything for Christmas. So thanks for that!”
Then he spun around, leaving Petey to stare out the window, hurt and confused.
“Hey Dad, any extra chores I could do this weekend?” Petey asked that evening.
“Um, yeah, always. How come? You saving up your allowance for something?”
“Yeah, it was Brad’s birthday last week and I want to get him a late birthday gift.”
“Oh you don’t have to use your allowance for something like tha–hang on, didn’t we get him something for on his birthday already? A couple of CDs, wasn’t it?”
“No, it was CD-ROMs, not CDs. They go in a computer and play games.”
“Okay, well we got him covered either way.”
“Yeah, so I know this is extra and that’s why I thought it should come from my allowance.”
An unusually concerned expression came over Petey’s dad and he put his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Say–uh–is there something you wanted to tell me about the Morris’s?” he asked.
“Are they having trouble making ends meet? Something like that?”
“What? No. I mean–not that I know of anyway.”
“Well this seems like some weird behavior from you, Petey.”
“No, I just–Brad and I were playing with his birthday football the other day and we broke it. I don’t think he’s going to be able to get a replacement for it so I wanted to get it for him. Just to be nice!”
Petey’s dad nodded as he thought it over. “Well alright, whatever you want to do son. I need someone to rake the leaves, clean out the gutters, and tidy up the shed. If I think of anything else I’ll let you know.”
On Monday I shared my history with writing stories, and how I have oscillated between a problem of writing too few words and writing too many. In my very first stories my issue was that I would just say what happened without dressing it up at all. They read like a list of events more than a narrative. Here is an excerpt from the very first story I wrote:
We all agreed and headed off toward some islands in the distance. The next morning we landed on the first one. There wasn’t anything we could profit from, except for some branches that we made into harpoons with our swords. There were three other islands to visit, the next one was like the first. By then we were quite thirsty, but didn’t have any fresh water, so we went on. The next one appeared to be perfect, but as we neared the island three alligators swam towards us, we tried to sail away but they cut us off. Then one swam forward towards us I hacked at his head with my sword, I only managed to get a few cuts when he raised a six-foot tail, and dropped it in the middle of the boat.
This is a play-by-play of events. Even in its moment of action, the fight with the alligator, everything is “this happened, then this happened, then that happened.” It took me some time to understand the importance of giving moments space to breathe, to evoke them rather than tell them, to let the reader experience them directly.
This can be taken too far, though. It would not do for a story to dwell on every moment. One has to filter from all of the things that could be shared in a story to just the things that should be. In writing this current piece I had to fight the temptation to throw in some side-plots to pad out the central narrative. That would be necessary to round things out if this were a larger coming-of-age novel, but it isn’t. It is a short piece about how a young boy deals with one problem and every scene that I’m including needs to be related to that single narrative.
There is still an element of rounding things out, though. I don’t want back-to-back scenes between the same two characters because that would feel weird. Characters need to have an interaction and then move on to somewhere else before they come back together. That might seem like an arbitrary requirement, but if you pay attention it is a commonly followed guideline in most stories. Come back on Monday as we take a closer look at this rule and the reason it exists. I’ll see you there.
All at once the Time Capsule’s engines groaned to a halt and the time travelers became tethered to this current moment of history. Now the spray of ocean water came peppering through the holes in the Time Capsule and the wind howled through every crack. The children and the raptors froze where they were, startled by the sudden change in their surroundings.
“Where are we?” Chase glanced to the main panel. “Hmm…Pacific Ocean…1700s…looks like we’re on an old sailing ship!”
“Not just any old sailing ship,” Ellie pointed her finger to the mast where a jolly roger blew fitfully in the breeze. “A pirate ship!”
Before the children could say anything more the raptors had snapped out of their initial shock, and returned to the matter of terrorizing the children.
“Ahhh!” Chase flung himself backwards just in time to avoid having his face bit off. As he fell he threw his hand out to catch himself, accidentally pressing the cabin decompression button along the way.
The doors of the Time Capsule slammed open and all of the children, raptors, and broken pieces of the machine were expelled instantaneously. They burst across the upper deck like little cannonballs, spraying splinters and splashing puddles of water onto the crew of pirates assembled below.
“Lookee there!” the Captain of the cutthroats shouted. “Sirens! No doubt the same ones what conjured up this blasted storm! They be here to sink us to the very depths! Bring me their hearts if ye want ter live!”
All five time travelers gasped at the face of the man. It was the most grizzled, scarred, and burned visage they had ever seen. Over his head he wore a crimson three-cornered hat, and extending from his face was a beard so scraggly and sprawling that it appeared like an explosion on his chin. It was also as dark as night.
“This is Blackbeard’s crew!” Ellie whispered in shock.
“Yes, and they’re coming to murder us!” Chase panicked, for at their Captain’s behest the entire crew was now surging for the upper deck, belaying pins and cutlasses waving in every hand!
But they never made it to the children. For no sooner did the raptors see the rushing tide than they concluded these larger humans were much more of a threat than the small children. The lizards rose to their feet and dashed into the fray, clashing into the pirates on the stairs, slashing at them with murderous intent!
“Let’s go!” Mavis ordered, bounding for the nearest rigging and climbing away from the commotion. The others quickly followed, discussing their situation as they went.
“Why would the time crooks have come here?” Patrick wondered aloud.
Mavis pointed to the massive storm drawing ever nearer. “Legends state that Captain Blackbeard terrorized the seas until he and his crew were drowned in a terrible typhoon. This must be the moment where the greatest menace to ever sail the ocean died!”
“Unless he didn’t,” Ellie caught on. “Unless someone went back to save him, just like they were about to with the dinosaurs.”
“And who knows what sort of devastation that old cutthroat might get up to if he doesn’t die here,” Nell agreed. “Our whole society might be changed because of it.”
“Alright,” Mavis concluded. “We’ve got a moment while the raptors have the pirates distracted, but it won’t last for long. All of you look for the time crooks and stop whatever they’re up to. I’ll try and get the Time Capsule back to a workable state again. Everyone clear!”
“Clear!” came the chorus of responses. All of the children flung themselves from the rigging, grabbed the nearby ropes, swung to different parts of the deck, and dashed off in search of the time invaders.
“I’ll sweeping the cargo hold,” Nell said into her walkie talkie, ducking under some crates to avoid the gaze of nearby pirates.
“I’ve got the sleeping quarters,” Ellie finished her rope swing by kicking a raptor clean over the railing.
“I’ll check the exterior,” Patrick swung hand-over-hand along the outside of the ship, moving as effortlessly as if he were crossing monkey bars on a playset.
“I’ll look in the Captain’s quarters,” Chase offered, and so saying he pushed open the great door and sidled into the dimly lit room. There was a great desk in the back, a heavily marked map upon it, and a chest down by its side.
“Blackbeard’s treasure!” Chase gasped, then reached a trembling hand to open its lid. All manner of gold and jewels twinkled up at him, an incredible wealth untold. “Patrick was dumb to bring a living raptor with him,” he said. “But who would miss a few gold coins destined to be lost at the bottom of the ocean?”
“I would,” a dark voice breathed out from behind. Chase spun around in the dark and found himself face-to-face with the silhouette of Blackbeard himself! Before Chase could dodge out of the way, the burly man flung out a massive arm and seized him around the neck, lifting him high into the air.
“Guys, help!” Chase choked into the walkie talkie. His legs kicked wildly and his eyes roved his surroundings for anything help him out of the situation.
“Ye know that they say: there be no honor among thieves!” Blackbeard snarled. “Now ye’ll feel the full measure of an honorless death!”
A slight movement caught Chase’s attention and his eyes shifted to a nearby porthole just in time to see the baby raptor slink into the room. “Hey ugly,” he grinned down to Blackbeard, “you ever been bit in the butt by history?”
With a crash the baby raptor’s mother burst through the porthole, took one look at the giant of a man standing near to her baby, and snapped her teeth into his great posterior.
“Yeeeooowch!” Blackbeard dropped Chase and twisted round, trying to clobber the raptor.
“Alright!” Chase crowed into his walkie talkie. “Never mind on that rescue!”
“Would you be quiet!” Nell snapped back. “I think I just heard something!” She put the walkie-talkie down and pressed her ear to the wall at the back of the ship. There, on the other side of the hull, she could just barely make out a faint, machine-like whirring. “I found them!” she hissed. “They’re hanging onto the outside of the ship!”
Ellie swung around the outside corner of the ship and did a double-take. “I can confirm,” she said. “I’ve got eyes on them and…uh…you guys better grab onto something!”
“Wait, why?” Chase asked as he lifted a handful of gold coins and rubies from Blackbeard’s treasure chest and deposited them in his pocket.
Before Ellie could give an answer the futuristic thrusters that had been attached to the back of the ship activated. Two jets of fire streaked out above the ocean as twin beams of light, propelling the entire ship forward at turbo speed!
With a shout Blackbeard and the raptor flew through the room and smashed into the wall at the back of the sleeping quarters. The raptor was knocked out cold.
“Uh oh,” Patrick gulped.
“Now it’s yer turn!” Blackbeard approached Patrick with a toothy grin.
“What’s going on?” Mavis’s voice came over the communicators. Up above, he scrambled out of the Time Capsule and rushed to look over the rear of the ship.
“They’re using thrusters to push the ship away from the storm!” Ellie replied, flipping through the air and landing on one of the metal platforms that the time bandits had erected to hold those thrusters in place. There were two more of those armored guards standing upon it and the nearest of them rushed forward to attack Ellie. “We got to get these out of commission,” she concluded before ducking under the guard’s first punch!
“I’m here!” Patrick sprang out a rear-facing window and fell onto the platform beneath the other thruster. He turned up his arm just in time to block a punch from the other armored guard, then swung his own fist into the menace’s side with a loud clang. “Owwwww!” he moaned.
On the other side of the hull Chase threw the chest of gold and jewels at Blackbeard. The heavy trove slammed into the pirate’s face, then slid to the ground without so much as fazing him.
“Yer a fool!” Blackbeard snarled, then gripped the back of Chase’s shirt and flung him clean through the wall. Chase slammed into the guard attacking Patrick, knocking the enemy over the edge and down to the water below.
“That’s one down!” Patrick crowed.
“But a new one still to go!” Chase pointed to Blackbeard forcing his way through the hole he had thrown the boy through.
Ellie ducked and weaved around her own assailant, trying to avoid the foe’s crushing blows.
“You don’t have a chance!” the guard snarled. “No armor? No augmented strength? No weapon? How do you expect to defeat me?”
“I don’t!” Ellie shot back, standing to her feet and raising her fists.
The guard gave a wild cry and charged forward at full speed. Right before impact Ellie gave a quick sidestep, causing the guard to pummel full speed into the thruster stream that Ellie had been standing in front of a moment before.
“I expect you to defeat yourself,” Ellie concluded as the guard’s armor and skin melted off and its bones turned to dust…
“No!” Ellie interrupted Nell’s narration. “I beat the guard, so I get to describe it! Shee just gets caught in the thruster stream and carried out to sea. No blood or melting or anything.”
“Hey you guys, we’re still moving away from the storm!” Mavis pointed out as he tried to screw a panel back into place.
“Yeah, we know!” Chase strained as he ducked one of Blackbeard’s giant fists. “This situation is a mess! We still have that remote activator thingy charged? Let’s reset and try again.”
“No we don’t,” Mavis sighed, looking up at the broken module. “I better get that back online, but now we’ve only got one shot at this. We have to get it right!”
“Don’t worry!” Nell called into her walkie talkie, sprinting as quickly as she could through the hull of the ship. “I’m bringing backup!”
Nell clipped the walkie talkie to her pocket and sprinted even faster. She flew into the Captain’s quarters, off the desk, and through the hole that had been broken through its back wall. She vaulted over Blackbeard’s head, then came to a skidding halt on the edge of the thruster platform.
“Arrgh! Another one!” the buccaneer snarled, stepping into line with Nell. Then, all of a sudden, the two other adult raptors slammed into his back! They had been chasing Nell all through the hold of the ship and he had stepped into their way. A moment later and the pirate and lizards were flailing in their fight, the children left entirely forgotten.
“Good work, Nell!” Patrick approved. “Any luck on your side, Ellie?”
“Almost…got it…” Ellie had spent the last minute straining at the bolts on the thruster on her side. She had managed to remove its outer panel and was trying to pry the largest cable out of its socket. “There!” she exclaimed as the cable came loose and the power to the thruster cut off instantaneously. Everyone shouted as the entire ship now careened to one side, driven through a tight curve by the other thruster that was still online.
“Hold on!” Ellie panted. “Hold on!” She watched as the ship raced through an arc of 45 degrees, 90 degrees, 135 degrees… “NOW!” she shrieked as it turned a full 180, then thrust the cable back into its socket, bringing the second thruster back to life. Now the ship was facing back towards the storm and blistering forward to meet it!
“Time to go!” Ellie called to Patrick, Chase, and Nell…but none of them would be leaving anytime soon. Of course all of their commotion had drawn the attention of the pirate crew, who were now billowing out of the holes in the back of the ship and vaulting over the railing, filling up every open space of the platforms that the children stood upon. Ellie flicked her eyes left and right, but the only escape was into the swirling ocean water.
“Arr, Captain was right!” one of the pirates snarled. “They be sirens, come to sink us in the depths!”
“Well now we have them on the end of a plank,” another laughed. “Let’s make ’em walk it!”
“Mavis, are you hearing this?” Ellie asked fearfully.
“Yeah, yeah…let me think…” Mavis closed the last of the panels he had been repairing and rapidly flipped some switches. “Things are even shakier than before,” he wiped his brow, “but I think the Time Capsule might hold out for another jump.”
“You’re going to leave us?!” Nell screeched as the pirates slowly advanced, cutlasses out, forcing the children to back up to the edge of the platforms.
“Trust me,” Mavis returned, scrutinizing the three-dimensional time-space hologram in the center of the Time Capsule. “And…activate!” He flicked three switches, turned a dial, and pulled a slider all the way to its activated position. The Time Capsule hummed to life, detaching itself from that moment and floating weightlessly forward through time and space.
“He is leaving us!” Patrick pointed frantically at the outline of the Time Capsule as it flickered out of their reality.
“Shut yer mouth!” Captain Blackbeard snarled, each of his fists was closed around the tail of an unconscious raptor. ” And jump to yer doom!”
Up in the Time Capsule, Mavis had each hand on a separate dial, turning them in tandem to maneuver himself through space with careful precision. Now that he was detached from any moment of time the machine’s matter would not interact with the pirate ship. He was able to steer his vessel clean through the wooden walls, coming out the back of the ship, just underneath the platforms his friends were about to fall from.
“Okay,” he wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. “I’ve got to time this just right.”
“I said off!” Blackbeard shouted up above, then swung the limp raptors at the children. Ellie, Chase, Patrick, and Nell took another step backwards, lost their balance, and plunged off the edge!
“Whoops!” Mavis said as the children fell clean through his vessel and down to the water below! He spun another dial and time slowed around him, paused, and finally reversed, scooting the children back up into the air. He spun the dial the other way round, returning time back to its forward motion. At the exact same moment he punched a button, retethering himself to that instance of spacetime, causing the Time Capsule to become physical once more. Chase, Evie, Patrick, and Nell fell through the Time Capsule’s open hatches and landed with a thump in their seats.
“Gotcha!” Mavis crowed.
“How many tries did it take?” Nell demanded.
“Just one, of course.”
“Come back here!” Blackbeard shouted from above, then leaped off the platforms, raptors still dangling from his hands.
“Get us out of here!” Chase shouted.
Mavis punched the controls again, sending the Time Capsule hurtling into the future. As the flow of time accelerated outside, the children watched the pirate ship streak past them at superspeed, jets propelling it straight into the storm! They had done it. They had restored time to its proper outcome. A little messy perhaps, but fate had been restored. Now there was only–
“What manner of witchcraft be this?!” a gruff voice interrupted from the corner of the Time Capsule. For Blackbeard had fallen into the vessel before Mavis had finished making the jump forward in time. He was hurtling towards the future with the children!
On Monday I spoke about stories wrapped around stories and ones that have intersecting realities. The Time Travel situation features the story of real-world children bookending the inner fantasies that they live out on the playground. It also has multiple, different settings bleeding into each other, such as when the raptors came onto the pirate ship and now Blackbeard into the future.
This free-flowing approach to settings and reality was exactly the reason why I wanted to write this story. Usually when writing a fantasy it still has to be grounded in some way, but the backdrop of children playing pretend made just about anything possible for me.
That isn’t to say that chaos can’t be taken too far, though, of course it can. Even with this story I’m anxious that I will throw in too many components, until things fail to even register anymore. When a story is weighed down by too many ideas then eventually the reader becomes saturated and all the other ideas have to roll off, even more useless than if they hadn’t been there at all.
And this is not all. A story must also be able to give its chaos greater meaning. If it has many intriguing ideas, but no compelling narrative behind them, then it will still remain dissatisfying. With my next post I want to consider some other examples of successfully chaotic stories, ones that are bursting with thousands of ideas, yet also grounded enough for those ideas to bear weight. Come back on Monday as we consider these examples, and then again on Thursday as I try to implement their lessons into the next entry of The Time Travel Situation.
It wasn’t until later that evening that it truly hit Tharol what he had done. He had assisted in treason. He had improved on the plan that Beesk and Inol had put together. Had shown them the mistakes in it and prevented them from an obvious error. He had pushed them one step closer to sneaking a dangerous outsider into the Great City.
Of course his ultimate objective was to prevent their betrayal and by helping them he had prevented anyone from accidentally taking a fatal dose of poison! His intentions were pure. But it still felt wrong. He just didn’t like being a part of this world. It made him feel tainted by association.
Well, so what if it did taint him? Maybe that was just the sacrifice he bore to do what was right. If someone had to dirty their hands, why not he?
Reis certainly didn’t have any qualms with what Tharol had done.
“So were you guys able to get the poison?”
“Yeah,” Tharol said somberly. “Already in the wine, in fact.”
“Excellent! Where is it?”
“Tucked away in the corner of the cellar.”
“Fine, that’s perfectly fine! So they’ve got everything set up how they want. They must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves!”
“Reis, I helped them. They were likely to make a mistake and get themselves caught but I’ve been making their hairbrained idea an actual possibility! And I’m not at all comfortable with the fact that there’s poison just sitting around in the keep!”
“Why? I already told you, I won’t drink any that night. Just a little sleight of hand and they’ll be none the wiser.”
“That’s taking an unnecessary risk. Also an unnecessary risk for if one of the other boys sneaks into the cellar and chooses the wrong bottle!”
“But you said it was tucked away. I assume the back line and bottom row?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“North or south side?”
“North,” Tharol furrowed his brow, not seeing why this really mattered.
“Yeah, no one’s going to come across it there.”
“Let’s just pour it out in the trough now and put some fresh wine in there. Beesk and Inol probably won’t even notice.”
“No, I want to hold onto it as evidence. I want to be able to show everyone exactly what they were trying to do. And you just let me take care of myself that night. Okay? You’ve told me what to watch out for and now it’s my responsibility to take care of it, not yours.”
Tharol sighed. “Fine.”
With that the two of them left for their afternoon training with Master Palthio. As they arrived at the central courtyard they found it equipped with blocks of wood set in a large circle and wooden staffs littered across the ground.
“How can you be surprised by that?” Janeao asked. “It’s at least once every week!”
“I always hope it’ll be the last day of the week. Master Palthio is less demanding when he knows we’re tired. Anyway, what’s the point of my practicing? I’m the worst and I always will be.”
“Well that’s exactly why you should practice,” Tharol pointed out.
Their conversation was cut short as Master Palthio clapped his hands for the boys to begin their exercises. Each of them picked up a staff and chose a pair of wooden blocks to stand on top of, quavering back and forth until they settled into their sense of balance.
“Now,” Master Palthio began, “let us start with Mora-Long.”
Each of the boys turned to a neighbor and assumed the stance for Mora-Long, which was a slow, powerful form, one of Master Palthio’s favorites for warming them up.
The clatter of colliding staffs rang through the courtyard. There was always one or two boys that lost their balance here at the beginning. They grunted in frustration, got back on their blocks, and Master Palthio told them to begin again. After a few false starts they finally came into rhythm.
Tharol was facing against Janeao and he was having a hard time of it. The measured, powerful stances of Mora-Long were perfectly suited to Janeao’s greater strength. Whenever Tharol blocked one of Janeao’s blows there was so much extra energy that he would have to give a little hop to dispel it, hoping that his feet would be able to feel their way back onto the blocks as he came back down. Better to keep up the attack, then, and make Janeao block instead. Thus Tharol increased his aggression, but Janeao merely scowled and moved to keep pace.
“Easy, easy,” Master Palthio said as the din of Tharol and Janeao’s crossing staffs doubled the cadence of every other duel. “This is a warm-up, boys, not a competition.”
Janeao slowed, then grinned and let out a powerful, wild swing. Tharol didn’t even try to catch it, he ducked downward, barely in time. Then he popped back up, flicked his wrist forward, and brought his own staff right beside Janeao’s face. He did not strike him, but he hoped the message to calm down would come across.
“Swap sides,” Master Palthio instructed as he continued pacing around the boys’ circle.
Tharol turned to his other side and faced Inol.
“Feto stance,” Master Palthio ordered.
Feto was a tricky form, particularly when one was limited on balance. You spent half the time on a single foot, moving your staff through long, looping arcs. Paradoxically, though, it was also the best form when on poor footing…if you were a master at it. Then your constantly shifting balance spilled into the momentum of each swing, causing you to bound and cavort like a mad top, whirling out crushing blows with every leap.
Tharol paused for a moment before crossing staffs. As an overall fighter Inol was on the same level as Tharol. They each had their preferred forms, though, and Feto was definitely one of Inol’s. So Tharol decided to wait and see how Inol would approach.
Inol smiled as he understood Tharol’s hesitation, then swung his staff down to his side and leaped high into the sky. Tharol’s eyes went wide, bracing himself for the blow that would follow. He would have to catch it on the end of his stick and let its force spin him through a complete circle.
Inol reached his apex and came rushing downward, staff spinning wildly. Tharol tried to predict where the blow was coming from, thrust his own staff out to meet it, and began to spin his body to catch the excess momentum.
But at the very last second Inol pulled his staff back, drove its end deep into the dirt behind, and used it as a prop to help steady himself as he landed back on the wooden blocks. Tharol, meanwhile, thrown off by the complete absence of a blow, lost his balance and tumbled to the ground.
Tharol rose back to his feet and gave Inol an approving nod. It had been an excellent feint.
Tharol dusted off his tunic and returned back to his fighting stance, but Inol wasn’t ready to spar again. He was staring off to the side where Reis and Golu were dueling. In fact all of the boys were slowly pausing their own scuffles to see the match between the order’s two grandmasters.
Each of the boys were leaping and spinning at a breakneck pace, staffs colliding like thunder, then whirling a full 360 degrees to crash on the other side. They moved in staccato, each attempting to break cadence and catch the other off guard. It was impossible to state which of them was attacking and which was defending, rather it seemed each was doing both at the same time.
“How did they get that good?” Tharol wondered aloud. “They’ve only had the same training as the rest of us.”
“I don’t think either of them would have managed it alone,” Inol responded. “They each needed the other to push them.”
Perhaps the best evidence of what Inol said was in how well the two understood the other’s style. By now they were spinning so quickly that they spent half the time with their backs to each other, not even seeing the blows careening at them, but still able to land every block, knowing by sheer familiarity where the other boy was sure to strike.
“I think of late Reis has been edging ahead of Golu,” Beesk said from the other side of Inol.
“You’re crazy,” Inol countered. “Golu’s form is clearly better.”
“Yes, but Reis has stopped trying to beat him on form. He’s going to win because he’s more willing to sacrifice.”
No sooner had Beesk said the words than they proved perfectly true. For Golu had just made a round, swinging attack aimed at Reis’s side. Reis swung his own staff as if to meet it, but at the last moment turned his wrist so that the two weapons missed each other by a mere fraction of an inch.
Everyone watched in shock as Golu’s staff, unhindered, closed the gap to Reis’s body. Reis didn’t seem to regard it at all, though. He kept moving with the momentum of his last swing, twisting his body until he faced away from Golu. Golu’s staff made contact and broke across Reis’s unguarded back! All of the boys flinched and Reis gave a loud grunt of pain, but he did not lose his focus. He was now three-quarters of the way through his turn, staff whistling through its murderous arc. Golu’s own weapon was in splinters, and even if it wasn’t he would never be able to get it around to block Reis’s staff in time. Golu tried to dodge, but was still caught full on the shoulder and sent flying through the air to the ground.
Reis had won.
“How did you know he would do that?” Tharol looked past Inol to Beesk.
“He did something very similar during the last competition. You probably missed it while you were holding your broken foot. It was how he won. He’s been taking all the standard forms and modifying them with intentional mistakes to lure his opponent in.”
“And since when did you become such an expert on fighting?” Inol raised an eyebrow at Beesk.
“Just because I can’t move properly through a fight doesn’t mean I can’t read one!”
“What’s everyone standing around for,” Master Palthio rounded on the students, only just now noticing that they had become as engrossed in Reis and Golu’s battle as he had been. “Get back to practice!”
The boys scrambled back into position and proceeded with their fights. Tharol’s mind was only half on his duel with Inol, though. He kept replaying that last maneuver Reis had used in his head, unable to believe what he had seen.
He had always known that Reis was willing to take a risk to win, he had witnessed that in the competition where Reis used himself as bait while his teammates overwhelmed Janeao at the tower, but this was something else. It was a wonder he hadn’t had his ribs broken taking that blow full on from Golu! But crazy as it had seemed, it had worked.
Tharol got a good parry in and Inol was sent revolving off his block. He smiled in satisfaction, then used the moment’s respite to look over at Golu and Reis. Reis was lifting his staff high overhead to deliver a powerful blow, arms coiling like springs, shirt bunching up behind him.
And it was bunching up in a very distinctive square shape. A distinctive, unusually well-defined square.
Tharol frowned and a thought occurred to him, one that he couldn’t shake. He dwelled on it all through the rest of practice and also while they changed back to fresh clothes before dinner.
One-by-one the boys left in their new tunics. Reis was the last to leave their dormitories, but he ran to catch up with Avro and Bovik on their way to the main hall. Behind them Tharol emerged from the shadows and dodged back into the now-vacant dormitories.
He made his way directly to Reis’s cot and rapidly searched it. He lifted the pillow, prodded across the mattress, looked between the boards…every nook and cranny he could find. Nothing.
He turned to leave, disappointed. But just as he made his way towards the exit he saw it! Hanging over the barracks door was one of the antiques of their order: an old breastplate that had belonged to an ancient warrior. It was an old-fashioned piece, a small square with wiry ropes attached at each corner for fastening in the back.
Or, if you had no one to help you put it on, fasten the ropes in the front with the breastplate covering the back.
Tharol lifted himself up to look at the breastplate more closely. It was a relic of actual battles, and as such was extremely battered. Among all the centuries-old dings and cracks there was one dent across them all that must have been made more recently. It was just the right width for Golu’s staff.
Now to be perfectly frank, the idea of a mole who gradually learns that his handler is a traitor isn’t entirely original. It has most famously been played out in films like Internal Affairs and The Departed. But while the theme is not entirely new, I do strive to make the implementation of it be original. Just as how West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet but is also an extremely fresh take on that idea. And if I do say so myself, I believe this story also stands apart.
But being original is difficult and prone to running into corners. In fact I had written this final act once before, then scrapped the whole thing because it wasn’t coming together the way I wanted.
I’ve enjoyed pulling back the curtain on my process in the past, and I’ve decided to do it again here. Come back on Monday where I’ll share a little more about what originally went down in this part of the story and why I decided to change it. In the meantime have a wonderful weekend!
“Very good,” Reis said. “We’re each the other’s master, so equal partners. Are Beesk and Inol’s stones still up in their towers?”
“Yes. But like I said, I’m in an alliance with them already.”
“So what’s your plan? Topple everyone else first and then the three of you fight to see who wins?”
“Something like that.”
“You don’t really expect them to be that honest, do you? They’re expecting you to be loyal, so that just incentives them to get the jump on you early.”
“Good thing I’ll have you to protect me then.”
Reis rolled his eyes. “Whatever, we’re wasting time. You want to leave them for later, fine. They’re not the real threat anyway.”
Reis nodded. “Come on.”
The two boys turned towards the heart of the maze and made their way forward. They ran while stooped down low, so as to not be seen by the others. At every junction they paused and scouted all of the paths for any ongoing battles.
“Shouldn’t we have come across some of them by now?” Tharol hissed after they passed their third turn without hearing so much as a distant footfall.
“This is a unique contest,” Reis muttered. “Everyone’s scheming. We had a few scuffles at the very start–I knocked out Bovik–but otherwise I think everyone is scrapping for the best alliance they can manage.”
“Strange that we haven’t even seen Beesk and Inol coming back for me yet.”
“Yes, very strange,” Reis didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “Alright, Golu’s tower is just down from here: past the next two junctions, take a right, and it’s right in front of us. I think we sprint the rest of the way. You still have my crystal tucked away somewhere safe?”
They stopped crouching and ran at full speed. Down one narrow passage, past the first junction, down the next narrow passage, abreast the second junction…
Tharol only saw a blur rushing at him from the side, then was reeling heels over head, side throbbing from a powerful blow. He came to a rest, belly down in the dirt.
“Up! Up! Up!” Reis shouted, grabbing Tharol’s shoulders and giving a tug. He had to let go all of a sudden, though, ducking away from another vicious swing!
Tharol numbly rolled to the side, then laboriously pushed himself back to his feet. Avro, Janeao, and Inol were rushing at them from each direction, staffs whirling dangerously. Beesk was nowhere to be seen, he must have already been knocked down.
The three assailants put all of their focus on Reis, systematically pushing him back towards the nearest wall. As with the last contest, the youth made a valiant effort to block, parry, and dodge each jab, but of course there was only so much he could do.
“Tharol…” he muttered through grit teeth. “Any time you feel like helping…”
Tharol shook himself out of his daze and lunged forward. Janeao saw the motion and turned to cross staffs.
Janeao was the largest and the strongest of all the boys. Even if he didn’t have the finesse of a swordsman, he was still able to brute-strength his way through most encounters. Not only that, but he could see that Tharol was compromised, crouching slightly to protect his tender side. So Janeao launched into a quick flurry of attacks, forcing Tharol to retreat, further and further, until he was also backed into a wall.
Janeao stepped into Tharol’s space, crowding out any room to manuever. He lifted his staff high and swung down with all his might. Without room to dodge or parry Tharol could only block, and he didn’t have enough power to fully stop the blow, only to absorb some of its strength before it still came crashing down on his shoulder. Janeao immediately drew his staff back out and thrust with all his strength from the side. Again Tharol blocked half of the blow, but still took a powerful knock in his ribs. He couldn’t take much more of this. He would have to do something bold.
Janeao lifted his staff higher than ever, twisting the rough wood between his palms, readying for a finishing blow. But before he could swing down Tharol dropped his own staff, let it clatter to his feet, and shot his bare hand forward, administering a single, controlled punch to the throat.
Janeao coughed and clutched his hands to his neck, dropping his staff as well. Tharol grabbed the length out of the air and administered a quick blow to the side of the Janeao’s helmet. Janeao obligingly dropped to the ground, out for the rest of the competition.
Tharol moved forward to help Reis, but apparently just being relieved of Janeao’s attacks had been enough for Reis to handle the others. He was drawing his staff back from a blow to Avro’s belly, who doubled up and fell to the ground beside Inol.
“Oh wow,” Tharol breathed.
“You took Janeao down on your own?” Reis grinned. “Nice job!”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“No, really. I thought you’d be out for sure!”
“Let’s just take care of Golu,” Tharol strode past, not even dignifying Reis’s backhanded compliment with a response. “He should be the only one left now.”
“And then what do you think will happen?”
Tharol paused, then slowly turned back to face Reis.
“Then you and I fight.”
“Or I could just take you out now and then Golu…. Saves me from having to worry that you’ll hit me in the back of the head somewhere along the way.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“Well maybe you should, Tharol. No wonder you always lose these competitions!”
“Golu’s the best fencer of us all. Even better than you, slightly.”
Reis winced, but didn’t disagree.
“So your best chance is for the two of us to take him together,” Tharol continued. “And then settle things between us. And while it’s a long shot that’s my best chance, too. We’re united by a common interest, to say nothing of the fact that we’ve got each other’s crystal. I order you to not attack me until Golu is down.”
“And I order you to rescind that order,” Reis rolled his eyes, strolling down the path and towards Golu’s tower. “Come on. I’ll show you my plan, it’s better.”
Together the two of them reached the edge of the narrow passage and crouched at the mouth of the miniature valley beyond. Golu’s tower was nestled in the center of the clearing.
“Alright, there he is standing guard,” Reis observed. “I guess he figured he’d just wait out all the rest of the fighting and deal with any survivors at the end.”
“Not a bad idea.”
“No it’s not. He’s fresh and rested while we’ve been exerting ourselves for the last quarter hour. That–combined with the fact that I’m still worried you’ll get wise and hitting me in the back of the head during our battle–has got me thinking we’re better off splitting up.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at that shelf running up the side there. The lip of it is near enough to his tower that you should be able to jump the gap while I keep him preoccupied down below.”
Tharol felt his heart sink.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Looks a bit far to me.”
“Well I might be the better swordsman, but you’ve always been the acrobat. So it needs to be you.”
“No. I don’t like this plan.”
“It’s perfect. A pincer movement. It’ll make Golu distracted between two threats, giving me a fighting chance against him. If I knock him out then we win, if you make it to the crystal we win.”
“Unless I miss the jump and fall.”
“Yeah, well…don’t do that. And think of it this way. If you manage to get the crystal before I knock him out then he’s under your command. The two of you together will easily overpower me and you’ll win. This is the best chance you have to win the whole thing.”
Tharol hadn’t considered that. It was a very good point…. Too good of a point.
“What are you playing at?” he asked suspiciously.
“There’s some trick you’re not telling me.”
“Come on, Tharol, you can trust me.”
“No. There’s something that you’ve done. What is it?!”
Reis couldn’t hide a slight smile.
“What? The crystal swap?” Tharol reached to his side and drew out the stone that Reis had surrendered to him. He turned it over and over in his hands, and as he did felt something rough pass under his fingers. He moved his hand away and looked closely.
Apparently Master Palthio had inscribed each of the crystals with the name of the boy who owned it. And the one Tharol held said “Bovik.”
So that was it.
Reis had knocked Bovik out at the start of the match and given that boy’s crystal to Tharol instead. Reis’s own crystal must still be perfectly safe back at his own tower. Tharol kicked himself inwardly, wondering why he hadn’t followed his instincts! He shouldn’t have ever made any bargain with Reis! Should have fought him as soon as he saw him. But now…
“Well now you see, Tharol,” Reis sighed. “You’ve already lost and you don’t have any choice in the matter. I order you to go and jump for that crystal. Capture it and bring it to me…or at the very least provide a good enough distraction that I can lay Golu flat on his back.”
Tharol grit his teeth…but there was nothing he could do anymore. He had been defeated and he would have to jump.
Together the two boys turned to face down the valley again. Golu had spotted them now and was spinning his staff menacingly. Reis counted down from three and then each boy rushed forward, split apart, and began their pincer movement.
Tharol’s side burned from the blows he had received in the previous scuffle. He knew it would be a hard jump, even on a good day, let alone now that he was weary and hurt. There wasn’t any way that he could make this.
But then Reis would win. Not in the sense of the competition, Tharol was already been beaten there, but in the sense of totally humiliating Tharol. Tharol wasn’t sure why, but he was certain Reis had sent him up here as a taunt, to force him to do something that he would fail at. Tharol wasn’t about to let him have that satisfaction.
He picked up his pace, raced up the ledge, each step propelling him higher and higher, closer and closer to the edge. He saw the lip directly ahead now, saw Reis and Golu fighting twenty feet below, Golu glancing from the corner of his eye to see what Tharol was doing.
Just as Tharol’s foot reached the lip he heard Master Palthio’s voice in his head.
“And you will attempt that jump…and you will fail.”
Tharol sprang out into the void. Immediately he knew he wasn’t going to make it. In fact he only made it halfway before he was already dropping too low to clear the tower’s edge. He crashed into the side of the tower instead, flailed his arms wildly, then dropped all the way to the earth. A sickening crack rang out and he knew that his foot had broken. Overcome by pain he dropped to his back and groaned long and loud through clasped teeth.
For a moment all was pain and embarrassment. Yet somehow, even amidst the flood of pain and shame, he was cognizant enough to hear the thud of Golu being dropped to the ground. Reis had got in a concussive blow thanks to Tharol’s distraction.
“Auuuuuugh!” Tharol opened his mouth and shouted out, slamming his fists into the ground. Hot tears splashed across his cheeks. His agony actually had much less to do with the pain and much more to do with the humiliation. He had been played. Hard. And he had had no way to prevent it, even when he had been watching for it. He hated to lose to Reis again. Hated to be so foolishly dragged into his own demise. It didn’t seem to matter how careful or clever he tried to be, Reis was always two steps ahead, just as Master Palthio had said.
Speaking of Master Palthio, the master now approached, having rushed all the way from his tower to see if his students were alright. He drew near to Tharol and raised both hands over him, closed his eyes in concentration, and magically repaired the broken foot. Tharol’s fists unclenched and he gave a sigh of relief. The dull ache still persisted, but at least the spikes of pain shooting up his leg had subsided.
“I didn’t make the jump, Master,” Tharol said bitterly.
On Monday I spoke of different forms of communication in a story and emphasized how even scenes of action can convey character development and plot. With today’s chapter I tried to showcase this by dragging Tharol through a gauntlet of one setback after another. Where the previous competition felt relatively lighthearted and fun, this one has blows that land with more earnestness.
For example, last time Tharol knocked out Beesk entirely by accident when he happened to spin around at exactly the right moment. Though that was technically a violent act, it was played off in a way that was meant to feel comical, even slapstick. Today, though, Janeao rains one blow on Tharol after another with genuine, vicious intent. This isn’t a game anymore. Janeao is trying to hurt him.
And last time Reis laid out a trap that Tharol happily stepped into, losing the match for himself and his team. This time Reis actually takes control over Tharol, maneuvers him against his will, and leads him into breaking his own leg. It feels a lot more personal.
It is apparent that there is a lot of ill will seething underneath the surface. The boys are playing out their very real frustrations against each other and drawing very real lines in the sand. As we will see in the next scene, the hostility that broke out in this competition remains in full force off of the field, too.
Before we get to that, though, I want to examine the reason why I am isolating Tharol here before the end. As it turns out, this is a very common pattern in stories: the hero who loses all of their support, requiring them to walk the final chapter on their own. On Monday I’ll take a look at a few of the many, many examples of this and consider why it is so effective as a plot device. Come back to read about it then.
I remember a common occurrence when I was little and my Dad would bring home a VHS tape from the video rental store.
“Can I watch it, Dad?” I would ask. Sometimes it was a cartoon, or a comedy, or a musical, or an action flick. All of these I liked.
Dreaded, however, were the times that he would answer: “You can…but you should know this is a ‘talking’ movie.”
‘Talking’ movies were dramas. Boring films where the characters simply went from one conversation to another, all the way through to the end! I was okay to power through a scene or two of this pointless talking in a movie, but then there had better be something exciting or silly coming up next. More often than not, I’d sit out on these utter wastes of cinema!
Of course as I got older my perspective on this changed. The main contributor to this was just being able to understand the conversations people were having in dramas. At first I was too young to appreciate the ideas that were being put forward and the character development that was happening. As I matured I developed the ability to comprehend the importance of these scenes, and to my surprise I found that some conversations could be even more gripping than a gunfight!
Flip the Script)
In fact, now I’ve reached the point where I have little tolerance for action that isn’t “saying something.” Vehicles exploding for no other reason than to be flashy just feels empty. Nameless grunts filing into a room just so that the hero can hit them in the face is shallow. Far more meaningful to me is when the chaos serves a purpose. I want there to be character development and intrigue in every scene, even in one of action.
One of my favorite examples of this in the Bourne Supremacy, specifically towards the end of the film when Jason Bourne ends up in a car chase against a rival assassin. Of course this is a film franchise rife with car chases, but this one stands above all the rest because Jason Bourne and this rival assassin have a history. The hitman was sent at the start of the film to take Jason out, but accidentally killed his girlfriend instead. Thus the feud between them is extremely personal.
The inherent drama is further emphasized by the setup of the chase itself. Our assassin is in a powerful, dark Mercedes Benz G-Klasse, while Bourne is in a small Volga taxi. There are several police vehicles involved as well, slowly chipping away at Bourne’s vehicle until it looks like it’s about to drop its entire engine block. This gives the chase a strong sense of character.
And finally there is the vicious passion on display all throughout the scene. It’s honestly less of a car chase than a car fight, where Bourne and the assassin slam their vehicles into each other relentlessly. They enter a narrow tunnel where the other cars are shredded as collateral damage to their mortal duel. Finally Jason manages to get his car wedged underneath the other and rams it full speed into a barrier, bringing the conflict to a sudden halt.
Drama, character, and passion. With all three of these elements combined this isn’t just an action scene, it’s a scene of incredibly deep catharsis. The filmmakers aren’t just shattering rims and breaking off bumpers for the sake of looking cool, they are employing them as powerful symbols of hate and brutal intent.
Another example of an action scene that is laced with plot and character is the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke is trying to save his friends from the clutches of the Empire but it is all a trap, one which leads him straight to an isolated room where Darth Vader awaits.
Without hesitation Luke walks up to his foe and activates his lightsaber. Darth Vader ignites his own in response. Luke makes the first swing and Darth Vader bats it away. Luke lunges again and Darth Vader pushes back with enough force that Luke falls to the ground. Rather than finish him, Darth Vader lets Luke return to his feet and try again. Luke begins the attack the third time.
The behavior of each fighter here is very intentional. The choreography in this moment was carefully chosen to say something. It perfectly communicates Luke’s overconfidence and headstrong nature. He dives into the fray time and again, even though he is clearly outmatched. Darth Vader is calculated and patient, allowing to let Luke trip over his own feet again and again. His intention is not to kill the boy, but to break him.
This becomes even more clear as things continue. Darth Vader slowly applies more and more pressure, dragging the fight out for a very over time, making sure that Luke feels the full weight of his own insignificance. Darth Vader exhausts Luke in battle, batters him with force-propelled debris, and even chops off his hand. The torture is as psychological as it is physical.
Then, last of all, Vader drops the most resounding blow of them all. He lets Luke know that the man who has been cutting him apart this whole while is his own father. And to that Luke cries in utter defeat.
It’s a very exciting battle just from the perspective of action and movement, but neither of those are the reason it has become such a timeless scene. It is timeless because all of that action is saying something, and it is saying it so very well.
Variety in Communication)
It’s often necessary to change one type of scene for another. This variety helps the audience to remain constantly engaged. But the conversation shouldn’t ever stop between these transitions, it should just start being spoken in a new language.
In the last section of The Favored Son I opened things with a conversation scene and then transitioned to an action scene. But the combat encounters in that action scene were not merely there to entertain the reader with their flashiness. They were meant to highlight the different characters’ relationships to each other. The combat is meant to make literal the psychological warfare the boys have been passively waging. Just as Reis is laying a trap for Tharol on the battlefield he has also been laying one in their little character drama.
This Thursday I will be continuing the action scene, and please pay attention to how I start communicating the underlying feelings of the other boys through the alliances they make and the battles they pick. I’ll see you there.
“So you let Beesk go and speak to her on his own?” Reis raised an eyebrow.
“Yes…well…I figured that way we’d see Beesk’s true colors,” Tharol explained. “Based on whether he gave an honest report or not.”
“Well of course he didn’t.”
“No, you’re right. He didn’t. When he came back to us he said the woman had made a passionate speech about being an outcast from a far-off nation, who needed to meet with our district lord to see if he could aid her in a campaign of reclamation. She asked whether Beesk could set up an audience for her with Lord Amathur, but Beesk told her he couldn’t. He suggested that Master Palthio might be able to do so, though, and if she wanted she could call at the gate and speak with him. She sighed like she didn’t think much of that, which he thought was strange, and then just went on her way.”
Reis laughed derisively. “Beesk expects us to believe she wanted to speak privately with him just to give a sob story?”
“I don’t think he cares if we believe him or not. Just so long as we can’t prove what really happened. Unless…”
“Unless he confides in me. That’s the other reason I let him go off. To try and win his trust. That and to give him one last chance to be honest.”
“Why would he be, Tharol? We already know that he’s letting other merchants in behind our backs.”
“I don’t think these are merchants. They didn’t carry themselves like merchants.”
“Who do you think they are?”
“That woman…she’s someone important. And she’s someone dangerous. I’d say they’re spies at the very least, quite possibly worse.”
Reis nodded. “You know, I think I got the same sense from her myself.”
“Everyone did! I’m sure of it. Making a deal with foreign merchants is one thing, but I needed to know if Beesk was willing to be an out-and-out traitor. I mean–to be frank–I already know that the other boys here are lazy about procedure, but I needed to know if Beesk is actually dangerous.”
“Laziness is dangerous,” Reis sighed. “I had thought you would understand that. The other boys don’t think there’s any real threat out there, so they ignore all the signs of it. And that lazy, foolish, willful blindness can easily be manipulated into them doing something very dangerous.”
“Yes, I could see that.”
“You said Bovik spoke up for Standard Procedure though?”
“He did. I was–surprised. But I think he can be trusted as well.”
“Excellent. If we’re going to catch Beesk red-handed, we’re going to need as many eyes as we can trust.”
“You still want to handle this ourselves? Not go to Master Palthio?”
“Do you trust him now?”
“Exactly. And given that we are his pupils, I don’t know that we’ll ever be certain about him. I’m never sure when he’s being sincere about his opinions, and when he’s just trying to make a point.”
“He’s an enigma,” Tharol agreed.
“So we keep it to ourselves for now. You see if you can find out Beesk’s plans and both of us keep looking for signs of where the other boys’ loyalties are. Inol doesn’t give a single thought for protocol, so at the very least he’s a fool, quite probably in cahoots with Beesk. But Avro, Golu, and Janeao I still want us to get closer to. Maybe some of them have an honest streak like Bovik.”
Tharol nodded, the two boys looked to each side to ensure they weren’t being seen, then silently parted ways.
“…this time each of you will be on your own team,” Master Palthio was explaining the rules for the next competition to the gathered youth. “You may temporarily align yourselves as you see fit, but there will only be one victor in the end.”
The boys all looked to each other in surprise. This was a first!
“If you look out on the field you will notice that there is a tower for each of you, and on each tower a crystal. You must defend your crystal. Once another boy takes it you are now their vassal, and you must follow their instructions. A youth that is incapacitated to a count of four is still out of the match entirely and their crystal is forfeit. Are there any other questions?”
“Then let me prepare the field…” Master Palthio raised his hands and turned to the battle arena. The ground began to ripple, as if it was made of water. Certain areas pitched higher than others, deep valleys formed in between. Faster and faster it churned, then at the height of tumult it began to slow and solidify. Master Palthio lowered his hands and the field stabilized in its complicated topology. It looked like an entire mountain range in miniature, with peaks of exaggerated steepness, almost like maze walls.
“Each tower has a banner, and on it is written one of your names. Retrieve your weapons, get to your towers, and wait for the gong.”
Tharol started to follow the boys to the weapon rack, but Master Palthio stepped up to him and tutted.
“Yes?” Tharol asked.
“Do you see where Golu’s tower is?”
Tharol scanned the field until he saw the boy’s name on one of the tower-banners. It was in the middle of a large valley, its only access points were at the base, and perhaps from a narrow shelf that raised parallel to the tower’s top some eight feet away.
“Golu is the best swordsman in the order,” Master Palthio said, “and a very defensive fighter. He won’t stray from his tower’s base and no one will be able to break past him on their own. The only way anyone will capture him will be by jumping from that neighboring shelf.”
“Yes,” Tharol nodded, still unsure why Master Palthio was bothering to tell him all this.
“And you will attempt that jump, Tharol….And you will fail.”
Tharol snapped his head from looking at the tower to Master Palthio so quickly that it hurt his neck. But the mentor was already walking away without another word.
“Why would he say that?” Tharol muttered to himself, but there wasn’t time to ruminate on the matter. He was already lagging behind the other boys and needed to hurry to the weapon rack for his gear. He secured his shield, staff, and helmet, then turned towards the maze. Before he could enter, though, he found himself face-to-face with Beesk and Inol.
“So…” Beesk said slowly. “Master Palthio said we could have alliances.”
“And let’s face it,” Inol sighed, “Golu or Reis will win in an all-against-all fight. Our only chance is to overwhelm them with superior numbers.”
Tharol nodded, though he couldn’t help but remember how pathetic Beesk’s performance was in the last competition. The boy would probably be more of a hindrance than a help…but he did want to remain on Beesk’s good side.
“Three of us is good,” Tharol agreed. “But we should get another. How about Janeao?”
“You want us to get him?” Inol asked pointedly.
“Sure, why not?”
“He hates you. Ever since you made your team lose last contest.”
“Oh? I guess it’s hard to tell with him. He’s just naturally sort of surly already, you know?”
“Yes, well, he talks pretty poorly about you behind your back, so I don’t think he’d be interested.”
“Alright, how about Avro then?”
“Sure,” Inol shrugged and Beesk nodded. “What if he doesn’t want to join though?”
“Then we take his crystal and he joins us anyway.”
Master Palthio rang the gong from his tower.
“Um, we should get in there!” Beesk swiveled around to see if his tower was still safe.
The other two didn’t need any further encouragement. Together they ran into the maze and hurried to their towers. All of them were clustered near enough that they could stand at the base of their own and still see and call out to each other.
“But what do we do about protecting our crystals?” Inol shouted to the other two. “If we go out attacking, someone else might slip in and take them.”
“One of us has to stand guard,” Tharol determined.
“I could do that,” Beesk offered, a little too quickly.
“It should be Tharol,” Inol countered. “He’s the most honest. I trust him not to steal mine until Reis and Golu are down.”
“Fine,” Beesk relented.
“Yeah, alright,” Tharol shrugged. He was starting to see how complex of a situation Master Palthio had made for them.
The other two boys paused for a moment, each giving a long look at Tharol. For a split-second Tharol wondered if they were debating rushing him together. He started to tighten his grip on his staff, but then both of them turned at the same instant and ran off for Avro’s tower.
Tharol relaxed his grip and tried to calm himself. He was being too cynical. They couldn’t accomplish anything together if they kept second-guessing each other like this. He needed to trust them to deal with Avro, and they needed to trust him to keep their crystals safe.
Of course…he really could go and take each of their crystals right now…
Tharol shook himself. What was he doing thinking like that? They were already helping him out, there wasn’t anything to be gained by forcing their loyalty. Well…except for the fact that eventually they would have to face off against each other anyway. So this would just get him ahead.
Tharol shook himself again. Apparently he couldn’t be trusted to his own thoughts! So he kept himself busy, marching back and forth between the three towers, watching the action unfold across the rest of the field as he went.
It was tricky to make sense of what was happening out there, though. The raised terrain cut off his view at multiple points. He could see Inol and Beesk approach Avro, and after a few moments discussion the three of them went off together to…somewhere. But while they were gone Janeao stealthily approached Avro’s tower and ran up it to capture the boy’s crystal!
Tharol started hopping up and down, shouting to get his comrades’ attention. “HEY! COME BACK HERE! HE’S TAKING THE STONE!”
But they were too far away to hear.
“What are you doing?”
Tharol spun around, startled by the appearance of Reis behind him. The youth must have approached from behind a fin of raised earth.
“Here for a fight?” Tharol asked, hands flying to his staff.
“If I was here for a fight I’d already be fighting you…and you would lose.”
“What then?… An alliance?”
Tharol bit his lip. He remembered what Master Palthio had said about Reis being a trickster. Where was the trick in this?
“Well–” Tharol began slowly, “I was already in an alliance with Beesk and Inol.”
“Alright, we can go back to the fighting option,” Reis shrugged, beginning to draw out his staff.
“No, wait!” Tharol really didn’t stand a chance in a one-on-one fight with Reis and Reis knew it. There wasn’t any option but to hear what Reis had to say. And maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a trick either. If he had wanted, Reis could have easily knocked Tharol out from behind, but he hadn’t.
“You can trust me, Tharol.”
“Alright…I’m willing to listen.”
“Good. Go get your stone.”
“Look, I’ve brought mine,” Reis drew his hand from behind his back and revealed a crystal. “At the same moment we’ll swap them. So you’ll have control over me and I over you. That way we’re square and can’t cheat each other.”
Tharol blinked in surprise. It was ingenious! He dashed up his tower and grabbed the crystal off of its pedestal. As he came back down he felt another wave of suspicion, though. What if Reis didn’t let go of his own crystal and just took Tharol’s?
“Let’s each set ours on the ground,” Tharol said quickly. “And walk in a wide circle to each other’s.”
“Sure,” Reis said without a care. He dropped the stone opposite Tharol’s and the two wheeled around until they had traded places. Each of them picked up the other’s stone.
Tharol still didn’t feel at ease about the whole thing…but what was done was done.
On Monday I spoke of stories that are examples of subtlety and nuance. Stories where characters say one thing but imply others. Stories that still manage to communicate the complexities of human expression, even when stripped of all the visual elements.
Today I wanted to communicate a sneakiness in how Reis approached Tharol. I wanted the audience to know that something is probably up, even though each of Reis’s arguments makes sense.
Now obviously I part of accomplishing this was by voicing those exact concerns through Tharol. Tharol expects Reis to trick him after the last competition and he believes that he is overlooking something, even though he can’t be sure of what.
But even before Tharol shared those concerns, I already did something to put the audience at unease. Something simple, but which I think makes a real impact on how the entire scene is perceived.
I had Reis sneak up on Tharol.
I believe that that one decision puts a deep air of suspicion on everything that follows. If I wanted the scene to play out as innocuous I would have had Reis approach from the front and be seen far before his arrival. But instead I had him emerge from behind, and that sneakiness casts a shadow over everything else he says.
Another interesting element from this piece was the transition from Reis and Tharol talking in the first scene to the action-centric drama of the second scene. And while the feel of these two scenes might be very different, each remains a part of a single, ongoing conversation. In the first scene our characters are exchanging information and influencing each another with their words only, while in the second they are doing the same, but now with actions combined with words.
And the fact is, at their core, virtually every story boils down to this simple idea of “characters exchanging information and influencing one another.” Discourse is at the heart of every tale, though it occurs in many varied forms. Let’s take a closer look at this with my next post on Monday. See you there!