The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Nine

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

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.

“Combat training,” Beesk groaned, softly enough that Master Palthio wouldn’t hear.

“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.

“Begin!”

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.

Part Ten

On Monday I shared about my desire to avoid clichés in my writing and to put in the necessary effort for originality.

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!

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

“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.”

“Golu.”

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?”

“Of course.”

“Alright. Go!”

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…

Wham!

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.

“Huh?”

“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.

“No…. I made sure you wouldn’t.”

Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

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.

Talking, Talking, Talking

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The Worst Kind of Movie)

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. All of these combine to make this less a scene of action as a scene of catharsis. The filmmakers aren’t just shattering rims and breaking off bumpers for the sake of looking cool, they are utilizing those elements as a very effective portrayal of hate and brutal intent.

Power Differences)

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.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“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 what?”

“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?”

“I…don’t know.”

“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?”

There weren’t.

“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?”

“That’s right.”

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.”

“What?!”

“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.

Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

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!

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

“Alright, and that just leaves the fabric, firewood and mangos. Which do you want to get?” Tharol glanced up from the list of needed supplies.

“Fabric,” Bovik said first.

“Mangos,” Beesk smiled. “Of course.”

“That’s fine,” Tharol shrugged. “I don’t mind carrying the wood.”

“Alright, well I’ll meet you back here in half an hour,” Beesk grinned and started to walk away.

“Wait! Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Beesk narrowed his eyes, unsure of what Tharol meant.

“The money?” Tharol reached into his side-pocket and drew out the cloth bag that Master Palthio had also entrusted to them.

“Oh…right…no, don’t worry about it Tharol. I’m alright.”

“But…you have to pay…”

“Yes, I know. I have my own means.”

“From where? We don’t have an allowance or anything.”

“You know, you’re right. And I’ve never liked that, have you?” He looked sympathetically to Tharol, then to Bovik.

“I guess I never really thought about that,” Bovik shrugged.

“The other guard posts pay their acolytes, you know.”

“They do?”

“Yes. And tell you what,” Beesk clapped each of the others on the shoulder like a considerate, big brother, “you let me take care of the mangos and you go pay for the wood. Then you can keep the rest of the money for yourselves. If anyone deserves it, it’s you two.”

Tharol and Bovik were stunned into silence, which gave Beesk just enough opportunity to slip away through the crowds.

“Well what was that all about?” Tharol asked incredulously.

“I don’t know,” Bovik shook his head. “And since when does Beesk talk like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like–it was like he was talking down to us!”

That was unusual for Beesk. He was both one of the youngest in the order, and also one of its biggest fools. Generally he was a hapless follower, not a condescending master.

“Oh well,” Bovik shook his head. “I guess we can worry about it later. I’ll take my money, Tharol.”

“Of course,” Tharol brought himself back to the matter at hand. “Just enough for the fabric, you understand?”

“I know!” Bovik shot back indignantly. He took the money and walked off in a huff.

Tharol stared after him, feeling guilty for having said that, wondering if he should call out an apology. And it was that moment of distraction which made it all too easy for a young pickpocket to reach up, snatch the dangling money purse out of Tharol’s hands, and dash for the nearest alley!

“Hey!” Tharol cried, and immediately snapped himself out of his reverie to give chase!

He pitched himself forward, so far forward that he nearly fell on his face! His legs made up for it by accelerating to their maximum speed as quickly as possible. Tharol kept his eyes locked on the thief’s curly, brown hair bobbing through the crowd up ahead, never losing his focus on it as he wove around the mass of bodies with practiced skill, inch-by-inch gaining on his quarry.

The youth turned into a nearby alley and Tharol thundered right behind. His stamping feet echoed loudly off the nearby walls, alerting the thief to how near the pursuit was.

The thief gave a single look over his shoulder as he reached the end of the alley, then made a sharp right turn onto the next.

He looked back to see if he had time to hide after making that turn Tharol thought to himself. He’s hoping I’ll go barreling down the next alley and pass him by.

And so Tharol wasn’t surprised when he took the same sharp right turn found no curly, brown head running ahead of him. Tharol slowed to a stop, and instead regarded the sacks stacked against the nearby wall. They appeared to be filled with grain, and stood over four feet tall, more than enough to cover a crouching youth.

He took a careful step careful towards them, but kept his legs on tight springs, ready to give chase once more if the thief suddenly darted out. He took another step. He reached the nearest pile of sacks, and rocked back and forth on his toes, as if preparing to spring up and look over the top of them to the other side.

But in the air he changed it up, tucked his knees to his chest, and kicked out against the wall of grain. He connected with a heavy impact and the whole wall started to collapse backwards! There came a shout of surprise from the other side and the brown, curly-haired thief emerged.

It was a boy about two years younger than Tharol, with a roving, slightly manic look in his eyes. He fixed his unblinking eyes on Tharol, stolen moneybag clutched tightly in fist.

“Give it over,” Tharol demanded. “And I’ll let things go this time.”

The boy lunged at him, swinging the bag of money like a small mace. Tharol flinched backwards, dodging out of the way, then gave a push to the boy’s wrist as it passed him by. The combined momentum spun the boy round and Tharol gave the back a firm kick so that the boy was went sprawling into the toppled sacks of grain.

“I said–” Tharol began authoritatively, but in an instant the boy was on his feet, facing back the right direction, and charging into the fray once more! This time he swung out with his other hand, and Tharol saw a flash of metal in the boy’s grip. A knife!

“Oh, come on–” Tharol sighed.

The boy swung the blade wildly back and forth with no technique at all. Tharol waited patiently, watched for the next time that the boy lashed outwards, leaving his front entirely unguarded. Then Tharol casually stepped into that space and gave a slight punch to the throat. The boy recoiled in shock, hands clasped to his neck.

“Now see here,” Tharol took a step forward, but the boy jabbed out yet again with the knife. Tharol easily grabbed the limb between his hands and gave it a sharp twist. The boy gave a sharp cry of pain and dropped the weapon, though Tharol had been careful not to dislocate the shoulder.

The boy was sprawled out in submission now, and Tharol easily grabbed the money bag and yanked it free. Finally he released the thief, who started to scuttle away, muttering dark oaths under his breath.

“Not so fast,” Tharol said, reaching into the money bag and quickly counting out the coins that had been meant for purchasing the mangos. “Take these.” He threw the gold out onto the ground.

The boy hesitated, as if expecting a trap.

“Go on, take it! And maybe think to ask for help next time, instead of stealing!”

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes still locked on Tharol in distrust. But all at once he scrabbled in the dirt, picked up each coin, then ran down the alley, disappearing into its murky shadows.

Tharol watched the dark corner that the boy had disappeared into for a few moments more, shaking his head back and forth. He took a deep breath, turned, and started to make his way back to the market. He hadn’t gone more than five steps, though, when he heard a voice tsk-tsking behind him.

Startled, he spun around and saw a tall, lanky man nestled into the corner where the two alleys ran together. There was no other entrance by which he could have entered without Tharol seeing, so…

“You’ve been there the whole time?” Tharol demanded incredulously.

The man shrugged. “Found a nice corner for my afternoon nap…’til you two come along and noisy the place up.”

Tharol slid his money bag back into his side pocket, uncomfortable with the notion that a stranger had just seen him throwing a handful of gold around.

“That was a mighty strange thing you just did there,” the man squinted, “giving that boy half of your money after working him over!”

“I don’t care if it was strange,” Tharol huffed, not in the mood for idle conversation. “Anyway, it’s none of your business and I’ll be off now.” And so saying he turned to go sulk down the alley.

“Especially strange for a guardsman I would say.”

“Well why did you say that now?” Tharol spun right back around.

“Oh, hello again. I thought you were heading off.”

“I am. Just tell me what you meant by that,” Tharol demanded.

“I don’t think I meant anything by that. Don’t be so touchy.”

“Because it sounded like there was a derision in it, and if there was one you might as well say it plainly to my face.”

“No derision at all! Believe me, I can understand the desire as much as anyone else to get ahead. Your sort have a lot on your plate ‘protecting’ all the rest of us. So I suppose you’ve earned the right to–shall we say–flex your advantage now and again. No one says you’ve done wrong.”

Tharol legitimately had no clue what the man was saying, but was still pretty sure there was a lot of insinuation in it all.

“Do you mean–do you mean to say that guardsmen are being dishonest? Taking advantage of their station somehow?”

“Ehhhh…now this is getting curious. If you don’t mind my asking, are you new to your order?”

“Two years in.”

“Ah. And you haven’t noticed–well, never mind, forget I said anything.”

“No! That’s it, isn’t it? You’re saying you know guardsmen that are somehow using their office for gain, aren’t you? What is it, then?”

“You really don’t know? You’re really that innocent and naïve? You’ve really been two years in your order and haven’t already seen?… Haven’t taken any of the opportunities yourself?” With that last question the man raised a single eyebrow in a highly skeptical manner.

“No! Of course not! How dare you! Why–not that it’s any concern of yours–but the reason I gave those coins to that boy was because they were meant as a bribe and I wanted nothing to do with that!”

“So you say you haven’t seen anything suspicious at your order…but here you were carrying bribe money?”

The man had a point. Indeed, this was a large part of why Tharol was feeling so agitated. The man was hitting directly on the discomfort he had already been feeling from Beesk’s behavior.

Five minutes later and Tharol was hidden in the upper alcoves of the marketplace, watching Beesk joking around with the merchants. They talked like old friends as Beesk helped himself to their wares without ever a coin exchanged between them. He not only filled his satchel with the assigned mangos, but also selected a fine quill, a brass button, and a fried pastry, securing these prizes in his cloak’s inner pocket.

“They know each other,” Tharol observed. “This isn’t him exercising some advantage over them it’s…an arrangement.”

“That’s right,” the slender stranger nodded next to Tharol. “And you really didn’t know?”

“I had no idea. But what is the arrangement?”

“Think, boy. What’s the only thing a guardsman has to offer?”

Tharol frowned in confusion. Guardsmen had no valuable possessions, no influence or power. All they dealt with was watching the gates and keeping them…closed.

“These are outsiders?!” Tharol said so loudly that the thin man frantically moved his finger to his lips. “Sorry,” Tharol hushed his voice. “The other guardsmen are letting outsider merchants in?”

“The market is so weak outside of the City, barely any more than crude bartering. There simply has not been any sovereignty that has prevailed long enough to bring stability to the economy.”

“So bribe a guardsman? Tell him that he can have free wares if he’ll let you pass into the city?”

“A mutually beneficial arrangement, wouldn’t you say?”

“But what about the risk of invasion? It’s rumored that there are still enemies to the city out there!”

The thin man laughed. “Oh it is not merely rumors. Trust me. There are many enemies. Why that is the one banner that the outside hordes can still rally behind. And you can be sure there have are a number of spies that have slipped in among the merchants.”

Tharol stared down at Beesk in shock. How could the youth be so selfish? So willing to advance himself at the expense of the entire populace? Well, Beesk would be held accountable for it, that much was sure! Just wait until the other boys–

Tharol’s eyes went wide with a revelation. “But…none of us guardsmen watch the gate alone. We always watch in groups of three or four.”

“Yeah…so?”

So were they all in on it? Was there not a single honest guardsman at their post? At any post?

“And what of the Masters over the towers? Surely they should have started detecting what was going on by now?”

“Um…yeah,” the thin man said as if this was obvious. “You think it’s only the acolytes that do this?”

Then…perhaps even Master Palthio?

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

On Monday I spoke of timing in a story, particularly during a scene of action. I recommended using short, direct sentences, which can be read in the same amount of time as the moment they describe would take to transpire in real life. In addition I mentioned that the brevity of these scenes does not mean that they should lose their expressive, evocative tone.

With today’s section I experimented on these methods during the fight between Tharol and the thief. It is only a short scene, but for a quick, alleyway brawl that was exactly what it should be, just a few, decisive blows that take about as long to read as it would take to watch.

And as for descriptive prose, I made sure to use adjectives that conveyed the technique and attitude of each boy during their scuffle. Consider the following lines:

Tharol waited patiently, watched for the next time that the boy lashed outwards, leaving his front entirely unguarded. Then Tharol casually stepped into that space and gave a slight punch to the throat.

Tharol is described with phrases like “waited patiently,” “casually stepped,” and “gave a slight punch to the throat.” It is clear to the reader that he is calm, collected, and precise. The boy, meanwhile, “lashed outwards” and left “his front entirely unguarded.” He is untrained, blustering, and prone to error. I don’t have to delve into technical jargon or complicated mental diagrams to get the reader to picture this fight accurately and expressively.

All in all I was quite pleased with the turnout, but then I ran into some trouble immediately after. For this scene quickly transitions to Tharol’s conversation with the thin stranger, and I found it difficult to make that change smoothly.

As I reflected on the reason why, it was because I was still in a mode of writing the sentences in a short, abrupt manner, which was now at odds with the more leisurely cadence of a conversation. Like Tharol, I was still a bit flushed from the rush of combat, and needed to calm myself down.

There was an important lesson for me in this, all about how to not just throw away a bad piece of writing, but to examine it and understand why I wrote it the way you did. That way I can be more purposeful in my next attempt, rather than randomly scribbling things out in the hope that one of these iterations will happen to feel right.

I’ll take some time to examine this in greater detail with my next post, and also share the specifics on how smoothed out the transition of the two scenes in this chapter. Come back on Monday to read about that.

The Favored Son: Part Nine

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

Tharol nodded solemnly, then turned and streaked down the hall. He heard the clatter of swords behind him, but he didn’t turn to see whether Master Zhaol would be able to hold the other two back or not. All that mattered now was getting to any of the other students who were still alive.

He raced out of the main abbey doors and across the grounds. There were no more stone columns to launch himself off of, but he pounded his feet into the hard earth and was lifted into the air by a force that far exceeded the amount he had thrust down. He sailed through the night, rose up higher and higher, then he peaked, and as he came down he expanded his Shraying Staff as a net of fine tendrils to slow his descent into something that wouldn’t shatter his legs!

He repeated this process, bounding in great leaps over the tall, silver-green grass, until he came to the entrance of the stone hedge maze. In the dark shadows he could just make out a scuffle taking place at the central archway.

Instead of leaping upwards, this time he propelled himself forward, streaking ahead like a loosed arrow. The dark figures raced up to him and he formed his Shraying Staff into a single-edged sword. He drew it back and swung it forward, trusting his reflexes to guide him, still not sure of his target. One of the bodies turned towards him and started to raise its arm in defense. For a brief moment Tharol saw its outline quaver, like the elders when they were shifting into and out of one another. Without hesitation he angled his already-swinging sword and let it cleave through that body.

The elder fell to the ground, dead.

Tharol’s feet hit the earth and he skidded to a halt in the midst of everyone else. Now he could make everyone out in the soft moonlight. His allies were huddled back-to-back, trying to hold off the remaining elders around them. They were Marvi, Bovik, Meelta, and Yaihs, the only other survivors of the night.

“Hold firm!” Tharol instructed. “I’ll try to throw back their first attack, and then the rest of you–“

“They’re doing it again!” Yaihs shrieked, and he pointed to one of the elders, who also started to quaver around her outline. She lost her features for a moment, and became an obscure mass. Then two figures separated and stepped apart from that mass: the same woman as before and Strawl. No one else emerged, though. Apparently Zhaol had taken Oni down with himself.

“Five of us and four with us,” the five elders counted in unison.

“Yeah, fall back,” Tharol panted, then lurched forward at the elders, swinging his sword wide. They easily sidestepped his blade, and the two elders nearest the stone hedge used the opportunity to reposition themselves in front of the entrance and cut off the youth’s retreat.

“It’s over!” Yaihs cried. His hands clutched the side of his head, panic set in, and then he began to quaver violently.

“He’s being taken!” Bovik yelled.

Tharol looked around frantically. What was he to do? He had pushed himself to places he didn’t even know he was capable of tonight, but even so the situation had slipped more and more out of his control. Now it was lurching out of his grasp entirely!

He roared in desperation and flung himself through the air at the elders blocking the youth’s retreat. The elders there were waiting for him, and no sooner did he touch ground than two swords pierced him, one in the leg and the other in his already-wounded shoulder.

“Just go!” he panted to the others, then thrust his Shraying Staff out as vines, momentarily restraining the elders there. He would hold them down for as long as he could, and after that he could only hope that the youth would find a way to save themselves.

Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta youth dashed past him. Three of the elders followed close behind. Yaihs–who was nearly fully taken over–and the two ensnared elders stayed with Tharol. Tharol regarded those two for a moment. It was Master Strawl in front of him, and Master Umir behind. Each was just about free from Tharol bonds.

Tharol looked down to the ground and panted heavily. There was no catching his breath, though, for his exhaustion went far beyond a shortage of air. His own life was flowing out of his wounds, leaving him closer and closer to darkness with every passing moment. Part of him wanted to just succumb to his wounds…but that would not help his friends.

With a shout Tharol drew back his vines, reforged his Shraying Staff into a sword, and thrust it at Strawl. Strawl blocked the blow, so Tharol immediately flung his sword backwards, extending it as a pole with the hope of catch Umir. A dull thud told him he had succeeded, but Tharol hadn’t hit him so hard as to take him out of action.

Back and forth Tharol flailed. His head snapped from one foe to another, watching for their own strokes and madly thrusting his weapon to parry them. His Shraying Staff changed form a dozen times. Now it was a shield to catch a thrust he couldn’t see properly, now it was a pole to punch through a small gap between Strawl’s arms, now it was a hooked blade to try and snag Umir’s weapon.

Tharol stopped thinking through the transitions anymore. He simply felt the flow of battle, turning and reacting by pure reflex. He moved as if in a dance. And when Yaihs was completely taken over and joined the fray, Tharol merely let his rhythms flow in that new quarry’s direction as well. He called on his limbs for strength and speed, and they responded.

That surprised Tharol. He should be bleeding out right now. He should be growing weaker and fainter, not stronger and surer. So confident did his body feel, that Tharol even drew out his standard blade with his other hand, and wielded it as if there was no hole through his shoulder.

Tharol was too preoccupied with the battle to examine himself closely, too distracted to see how the sections of his Shraying Staff were unfolding from their place on the weapon, and reassembling themselves over his wounds, forming as artificial muscle, tissue, and bone, all just as responsive to his commands as his natural flesh.

What he eventually did notice, though, was that the weapon in his hand was growing smaller and smaller. Eventually so much of the Shraying Staff had dissipated through his body that his weaponized arm had reverted back to its regular flesh and blood, holding nothing more than a small dagger in its palm.

Tharol frowned in confusion, but that moment’s hesitation was more than he could afford. Yais pinned Tharol’s natural sword against a rock. In exactly the same moment Strawl and Umir thrust their blades forward, each driving straight for Tharol’s heart.

But once again Tharol felt his way through. Instinct, more than memory, told him that Strawl and Umir had already cut him with those blades, stained their weapons with his blood, and thus surrendered control of them to him.

He opened his palms, and felt Strawl’s and Umir’s weapons forming in his hands. They were left defenseless. The flung themselves backward, out of reach. Tharol considered which of them to lunge after first, but before he could all three of his foes quavered and dissipated, no doubt merging back with the other elders pursuing Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta.

And so now Tharol must chase as well! He turned to the stone hedge entrance and rushed onward. Down the first pathway, on to the next, and to the next and the next. He beat on through the maze, faster than he had ever moved through it before.

As always, the walls began spinning in reaction to his every move. And at speeds like these, there was very little time to react to their erratic pivots. So once again, Tharol relied on instinct, dodging the extruded walls without a single thought, leaping over the stone risers by reflex, ducking under the popping-out ceilings on whim.

He thrust out one of his newly acquired Shraying Staff limbs as a claw, gripped the top of the stone hedge, and flung himself high into the air. The stone tapestry whirled up with him, continuing to surround and spring obstacles on every hand. He converted his other Shraying Staff into a claw as well, and used both to grip the tumbling stone and dodge and weave his way through.

Then he reached the height of his ascent and angled back downwards. The stone continued to warp around him, and now he formed his Shraying Staff arms into thin tendrils, scraping the edges of the stone as he slid down their chute. Every now and again a sudden barrier sprung at his feet, and he used those tendrils to seize on the rock and jerk himself to the left or right as needed.

Every now and then a stray block caught him. Every now and then he took each blow and tumbled into the dirt. But he simply rolled back onto his feet and continued on as if nothing had happened. It didn’t matter how hard it hurt, he had to keep moving forward.

A shout in the distance rang out, and he heaved himself forward, willing his body to find every small crevice and crack to slip through at only a moment’s notice. One wall spun out of his way, and beyond it he saw Meelta, collapsing with a sword through her heart. Bovik and Marvi were just beyond, and the elders were pressing in from every direction.

With a shout Tharol flung himself forward again, threw his Shraying Staff arms out as a protective web. They formed two half-circles that encompassed him and his companions, closing them all together in a thick-wired ball. The elders hacked at his netted barrier, but Tharol wasn’t sticking around to fight with them. With another cry he flung himself forward again, carrying all three of them forward through the maze.

Blades and walls and broken tendrils filled the air around them. It seemed a blow hit them from every direction at once, and it was only by sheer grit that they forced their way onward.

“We have to be near to the centrifuge now!” Bovik cried.

“It doesn’t matter,” Marvi wailed. “We won’t be able to figure out how to get in with them right on us.”

It was true. There wasn’t time to wait and puzzle out the right way in. They would be caught just outside of their sanctuary and have to take a last stand against the elders and Yaihs.

Or…not.

For right then each of the elders raised their hands forward, sent out a beam of light, and the walls directly ahead exploded into pieces, exposing the centrifuge beyond.

“They can do that?!” Bovik said in shock as the three bounded into the central clearing.

Tharol drew back his protective cage, and formed his arms back into blades. “They’re proving to us that there’s no sense in running anymore, and they’re right. We stand and fight here. Maybe we all die, or maybe one of us gets out alive. Either way we–“

A strange clicking noise from behind distracted Tharol in the middle of his sentence. Slowly he turned, and saw there the artificial creature that had been forming over the past weeks, the one he had spoken about to Reis before all this nightmare had begun.

It was moving now, and its head was complete. It stood nearly as tall as Tharol did on long, spindly legs. It had a horizontal body, angular features, and a head that was long, flat, and alert. It was pointing that head towards the elders.

“Um,” Tharol started to say, but then the artificial creature burst forward like a shot. It crossed ten yards with each bound, closing the distance to the elders in no time at all. The elders threw their Shraying Staffs up as shields, but the creature cleaved through them instantaneously. Its next strokes slew each foe instantaneously.

Just like that…the massacre was over. The artificial creature looked back at the youth, then turned and bounded deeper into the maze, lost to the sprawling pathways beyond. A deep sigh seemed to emanate from those dark chambers, the unclenching of a prolonged strain.

Tharol, Bovik, and Marvi stood there in silence for a long, long while. At first they stared blankly at the blasted hole in the centrifuge wall and at the corpses of their former masters and fellow student, Yaihs. Then they let their eyes silently roam over the broken columns and moss-covered boulders that were scattered all around. Everything was quiet and very, very still. There wasn’t even the sound of crickets or wind.

It was Bovik who finally spoke.

“What do we do now?”

With the spell of silence broken the other two youth came back to the present moment.

“There’s nothing,” Marvi shook her head. “Everyone’s gone.”

“We’re not,” Tharol countered. “We’re still here.”

“We’re three people! We were supposed to be an Order, we were supposed to carry the torch on. But–but–“

“But that flame’s gone out,” Bovik finished and Marvi nodded.

“That’s true,” Tharol nodded. “It’s gone now, and it isn’t coming back. Not for a long, long time at least…and maybe not ever.”

They all stood another moment in silence.

“So let’s go do something else,” Tharol said with conviction.

“What?” Bovik asked.

“Something. I don’t know. But let’s go out there. First we’ll just worry about surviving, and later, when we know more, we’ll build something new.”

“Of course you would say that,” Marvi frowned in contempt. “Leave this all behind and start something new, because you never did like the Order!”

“That’s not true. I loved the Order. It confounded me, but I loved it. Now, though, I think it was an imperfect structure built on a perfect idea. And for right now I want to get to know that underlying idea better. I can’t do anything more until I understand that. There’s so much we don’t know.”

Marvi pursed her lips and thought for a while before responding. “What about the traitor?”

“The what?”

“The traitor that Reis was telling us about. He believed it was you.”

Tharol shook his head. “I’m sorry to say this, but Reis was a fool.”

Marvi whimpered.

“It’s true. And the fact is, I think he was the traitor that his let medallion was warning of. Not knowingly so, but his fear-mongering and personal insecurities opened the door wide for tonight’s disaster. There’s no reason why twelve of us should have been killed tonight!”

“Marvi, it’s true–” Bovik started, but she held up her hand to stop him.

“Can you just–let me be? I don’t want to talk about this right now.”

Tharol and Bovik made eye contact and nodded. She clearly needed some time and space to mourn.

“Well…so what do we do now?” Bovik returned to his initial question.

Tharol turned from the hole in the wall, and looked over the top of the stone hedge maze to the sprawling valley outside of the abbey walls.

“I need to get away from tonight. I think we all do. My next step is out there…. Beyond that, I’ll figure it out as I go.”

“I’ll come with you,” Bovik agreed.

Marvi didn’t say anything, but nodded.

“Do you think the Invasion is happening out there, too?” Bovik asked.

“I expect so. But–at least we’re still together. Maybe we can find some more survivors, too.”

And then the three of them walked out into the night.

Well, there we are, all finished with The Favored Son. It’s been quite the journey, and quite the sprint to the finish! To be perfectly honest, I was starting to hate this story in the middle, because I had no idea where I was going with it. But here at the end I feel I finally settled into an understanding, things came together nicely, and I am quite pleased to add it to my collection.

Speaking of my collection, The Favored Son represents a special milestone for my short stories, and I’m going to do a little something to commemorate that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain what I mean, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

The Favored Son: Part Four

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

As Master Foraou rushed through the air he pulled the sword back and plunged it clear through the heart of Talo. The boy slumped backwards without a cry.

The youth on either side of him shrieked though, and dove from their seats, scrambling across the aisle to get clear. Master Foraou’s eyes flicked left and right, deciding which side to go after first.

Over to the left and slightly up, Tharol gripped the hem of his tunic in terror. He was frozen in disbelief, unable to accept that what he saw was real. A part of him insisted that this had to be some sort of act, a theatric thought up by the elders that Talo had been in on. This simply couldn’t be true.

There came another shout and Master Solen broke ranks from the other elders as well. Like Master Foraou she took a leap into the stands, though she was angled towards the benches on the left…directly towards Tharol!

Tharol remained frozen in fear as Master Solen arced through the air, landed on the benches before him, and bellowed a single word at him: “RUN!”

Then Master Solen spun on the spot and leaped towards Master Foraou, drawing her sword and crashing it against his with a mighty cry.

She was…defending the acolytes.

All turned to chaos. The spell of immobility had been broken by Master Solen’s shout and all the students, including Tharol, sprung to their feet and dashed towards the back of the amphitheater. At the same time more than a dozen more teachers leaped into the seating, some cutting down students, others cutting down the teachers doing the attacking.

Tharol tripped on one of the steps and fell to his hands. He tried to stand up, but another student knocked him back down while running by. He spun around and found that he was the only student left in the main seating area, the others were escaping out the back. Two of the elders, Masters Dovi and Omil, caught sight of Tharol’s downed form and broke off from the rest. They charged him with swords drawn, their eyes filled with murderous intent.

Tharol winced in fear, but then a strange feeling surety took hold. Was this his elusive “center?” That inner tranquility that the elders had always implored him to seek? He closed his eyes and focused, trying to reach out to that core. Somehow he seemed to find it instantly, as if it was waiting for him. It even spoke to his mind with a voice.

Get up.”

Tharol pounded his feet into the ground, and to his surprise the ground pushed back with far more energy than he put into it, sending him careening into a backwards somersault, and up to a standing position.

His eyes snapped open as Master Dovi bore down, sword swinging near.

Take a cut. Claim it with your blood.

Tharol’s arms moved with greater poise than he had ever held before. He raised his right arm just enough to nick his flesh on the blade’s edge, but not so much as to seriously injure himself. His blood seeped onto the blade, which then melted into molten steel. It dropped through the air and reformed in his own hand. It was his. Tharol swung his arm out, watching how the surprise in Master Dovi’s eyes glossed over into a blank stare. Then both halves of the elder fell to the ground.

Tharol looked down in shock, unable to understand any of the things that had just happened. But he could not dwell on them, for Master Omil was already charging in from behind, sword held close to the chest and pointed forward in a straight thrust.

Tharol’s instinct was to sidestep, but somehow he knew Omil was expecting that. He knew that Omil would respond by jabbing sideways with a dagger hidden under his elbow. So instead Tharol stood his ground, lifting his own blade and swung it downwards with incredible force. Once more Tharol found that he could move with a grace he had never known before, and watched in awe as his blade perfectly sliced Omil’s right down the middle, sending the two halves clattering harmlessly to either side.

Tharol didn’t stop his thrust there, though, he continued swinging his sword down until the tip pierced wedged itself into the stone. He gripped the hilt with both hands and used it as an anchor as he powerfully kicked upwards and out. His foot placed perfectly in the center of Omil’s chest and sent the elder sprawling head over heels down the rocky steps.

The master made three full revolutions before crumpling to a stop. He did not try to rise, his body was too broken. Instead he looked up to Tharol, eyes shining with tears of regret.

“Forgive me,” he said sorrowfully. “I was too weak.” Then he closed his eyes, trembled his entire body, and grew fainter and fainter until he had disappeared entirely from Tharol’s view.

Utterly bewildered, Tharol looked back to the center stage, where the majority of the elders still stood in their original line. They had remained motionless, not trying to attack the students, nor defend them. Each of them had their hands clasped together at the chest, each was trembling, and one-by-one they were all slowly vanishing, just as Master Omil had.

One of them was different though.

Tharol found that Master Palthio was staring at him directly, a look of intense concentration on his face.

I’ve done what little I can for you,” the voice said within Tharol. “To continue would cause more harm than good.

The voice was growing fainter, the sureness of mind and body was dissipating from Tharol. He felt panic and despair creeping back instead.

“Wait!” he shouted audibly. “Tell me why!”

Always seeking answers,” the voice was barely a whisper, but a faint smile played over Palthio’s face. “When you find them you will know. Now…go!” Then Master Palthio vanished, like all the other elders standing in the line, but as he did so a tremendous shockwave emanated from him. It knocked every one of the fighting elders, friendly or foe, to the ground, but lifted Tharol upwards and rushed him towards the exit. Tharol needed no further encouragement, he turned himself about and flew the rest of the way to the top of the amphitheater and over the back wall.

Tharol clattered onto the paved-stone-pathway on the other side, half-expecting to meet the rest of the youth waiting there for him. But of course they hadn’t waited around to see if anyone was coming to murder them, they had all fled for weapons, or for safety, or for both.

Where would they have gone? Tharol felt in his heart is was of utmost importance that he find them. They needed each other right now. Needed each other in a way they never had before.

And then he realized that he knew exactly where they were.

*

“Someone’s coming!” Bovik hissed, and all the youth took a defensive stance. Some of them had had the sense to grab their swords before heading to the refuge, the others merely brandished sticks or rocks.

The stone wall before them all contorted in a strange way, both unfolding and refolding its parts at random. A single hand reached out of the fold. It twisted and the folds undulated enough to let the rest of the arm through. A few more twists and turns and Tharol spilled into the centrifuge at the heart of the stone hedge.

“So you lived,” Marvi said coolly he stumbled back to his feet and dusted himself off.

There was something about her tone that struck Tharol as odd, but nevermind, there wasn’t any time for that.

“Yes,” he said quickly. “How many of us are here? Bovik, Inol, Reis…who’s that back behind that column? Golu?”

“I don’t see why you should have such an interest in identifying every student who escaped, Tharol.”

It was Reis who spoke this time, slowly sauntering out from the center dais.

Tharol’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean? Of course I want to know who’s still alive! What’s going on with you all?” His eyes flit from one youth to the next, but everyone was avoiding his gaze. He had the sneaking suspicion that they had all just been speaking about him behind his back. “What is this?”

Bovik broke the tension with an exasperated sigh. “Come on, Reis. He’s no traitor. He’s one of us.”

“Then how did he escape?” Reis shot back. “Last I saw he had two of the elders coming right for him! And notice that he’s even carrying one of their swords, how do you explain that?”

“Wait, so that’s what this is about?” Tharol rounded on Reis. “You’ve been telling them all that I’m some sort of spy? A traitor?”

“To say nothing of how he wouldn’t strike hands with the rest of us,” Reis ignored Tharol and turned back to the other youth. “And how he wanted to start a secret investigation on you all.”

“I wanted to what?!”

Bovik looked searchingly at Tharol. “Tharol is it true? Did you really try to convince Reis that one of us was a traitor, and you needed to read our thoughts? To keep us safe in the new Order?”

“That’s a lie!” Tharol shouted, unable to believe what he was hearing. Even as he spoke his mind was racing. He had been aggravated at Reis’s pompous antics before, disagreed with him on many points, but this…this was different. Reis wouldn’t have a reason to tell brazen lies unless there was something he was hiding himself.

“Reis,” he said firmly, striding up to the youth with determination. “I need to talk with you. In private.”

“Why?!” Reid cried, and pulled back with unfeigned fear. That caught Tharol off guard. He didn’t know why, but Reis was genuinely afraid of him. “There’s nothing I have to talk about with you, Tharol. How many times have I tried to speak with you already, and you wouldn’t have anything to do with it? It’s too late now!”

Tharol paused and breathed bracingly through his teeth. He didn’t know why Reis had been lying about him, but right now he needed information, and for that he needed Reis to trust him. He couldn’t lose his tempter. “I’m sorry, Reis. I spoke with anger. But I really do want to talk now, as friends.”

“It’s too late.”

“No, it’s not too late,” Tharol said softly. He slowed his advance and stretched his palms out in a peaceful gesture, trying to calm Reis down. “Now’s the right time, Reis. Like I said before, I was just waiting for the right time for making a pledge, and the right time is now. I see that. I want to make a pledge to you now.”

“You should have before! We should have been united before it came to this!”

“You might be right.” Tharol reached down and set his sword in the grass. “But I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know what was about to happen. I was just as surprised today as you were.”

“I knew!” Reis licked his lips. “I knew something was coming. I didn’t know what, but I knew we had to be prepared…and you wouldn’t listen!

“I’m sorry, Reis. I really am. I didn’t know. But I want to work together now. I want all of us to be together. I’m unarmed, see? If you didn’t believe me you could have killed me already.”

Reis regarded Tharol for a long pause and swallowed deeply. “You–you want to make a pledge?”

“Yes…but first a private word.”

Reis glanced side-to-side, as if checking to see if there was some trap waiting for him. He thought a moment longer then nodded slowly. “Not far…just around that column over there…and you leave your weapon here.”

“Of course.”

“But Reis–” Marvi stepped forward anxiously.

“It’s alright, Marvi,” Reis held up his hand. “Let me handle this.”

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I spoke of how this story was originally going to go a very different direction, one where the Trials that the youth had to face would simply be a series of contests and games to determine their standing in the new Order.

In those trials, Tharol and Reis would emerge as the most capable of all the students, and one of them would be destined to become the leader in the new order. Though Reis would be clearly inferior in terms of moral character, he would have the greater prowess in the Trials, as well as the heart of the other students, and even of the elders. He would be christened as the future leader, at which point Tharol would discover that Reis was secretly a disciple of an outside cult, one that sought to bring forth the Invasion with the hope of obtaining power by it. Obviously that is not the route I am going here. Reis still has the hearts of the other youth, but now he is more of a fool, driven by fear than being a cunning snake in the grass.

Perhaps the more significant change, though, is that with this new route I have lost the presence of Master Palthio, who was originally going to have ongoing philosophical discussions with Tharol, and was even aware of Reis’s treachery all along.

As I said on Monday, my need now is to drop all of those plans and craft a new plot that fits my new direction. But I find it very hard to let go of certain elements in my earlier plot. Some things, such as the conversations with Master Palthio, really can’t be reworked into my new track, and I still want to have those moments. I was excited to write them out, and I just can’t bear the idea of not doing them anymore.

But that doesn’t mean I want to stop with the current course I have either. I still don’t know exactly where it is going, but I really want to see it through.

And I run into this splintered story dilemma all the time. Any time I really get going with a project the tale begins with a single, solid trunk, which I then can’t help but branch off into many mutually exclusive possibilities. And now I want to develop each one, but what can I do with a story that has one beginning but a dozen different endings?

This sort of story-splintering isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, either. Consider how many times our culture has taken classic tales and branched one new idea from it after another. I’d like to examine more closely this idea of fractured story-crafting, and what an author is to do when they have two minds for how to move forward. Come back on Monday where I’ll discuss that in greater detail, as well as determine how to resolve the issue here with The Favored Son.

Raise the Black Sun: Part Two

closed up photography of flame
Photo by Tom Swinnen on Pexels.com

 

Part One

We numbered 37 in all. 36 Treksmen, plus our new foreman, a man we had never met  called Boosh Fyyan. To this day I cannot tell you the first thing about him. Not what he looked like, not what he sounded like, I’m not sure why I even remember his name. I cannot recall any of his details, of course, because I was unconscious through the first part of our expedition. Unconscious was the only reasonable way to keep our wits on a journey as black as this, and so every one of us Treksmen gave ourselves up to the automation of our work.

As is always the case when you pledge your heart by a solemn oath, you become somewhat machine like by the process. Given the nature of your surrender, you do not have to consciously think about the work that you do now, you can simply relax the mind and your body will do the functions on its own, driven by the Job’s mind until the last labor is fulfilled.

Normally we have a good deal of fun with this autonomy, letting the body go on its own, while we exert all our mental energy to coming up with jokes and songs. Sometimes we play tricks on one another, leaving a tack upright on a handhold and seeing if the other Treksman was alert enough to stop the automation from making him grab it.

But there were no jokes and no fun for this journey. This time we let our conscious minds shut off entirely. Better to ignore the bad omens and the grim nature of our labor, and sink into a blissful stupor instead.

Indeed, I was unconscious for weeks at a time, only being roused when a word or a sound would trigger something in my mind, such as when a mother in a village we visited called to her son with the same name as my own. It made me sad to think that once I had been so carefree as that little boy, and now I walked with a curse about my neck.

It was, as I say, a bitter thought, and I immediately rolled my eyes back and gave my mind again to its hibernation. I closed out the world so tightly that I could not be roused again, not even by my companion’s cries, until a full two of them had already been killed by the Scrayer.

“TO ME! TO ME!” A voice was shouting, pulling my groggy eyes back into focus. It took me a moment to make sense of what lay before me, so unexpected the scene of destruction was. Three of our wagons were on fire and another one had been hewn to pieces. The two companions that usually marched nearest to me lay dead not eight feet ahead of where I stood. They were collapsed to the ground in such a peaceful and carefree manner that I am sure they had been slain while still unconscious. Another Treksman to my left was just coming out of his stupor, having been awakened by the fact that his clothes were catching flame from the burning wagons. He screamed in shock and tried to beat the embers down.

But I ignored him, for all my attention was wrapped up in the solitary figure that walked fifteen feet ahead of me, the obvious cause of all the chaos. It was the largest man I’ve ever seen. He stood nearly a full eight feet tall, bursting with muscle, and, completely covered in a black, voluminous cloak. As I have said, he was a Scrayer, and the tell-tale weapon of that order was entwined up along his arm.

Of course, for a Scrayer to utilize his Scrayth requires that he possess immense strength, and this man most certainly did. For no sooner did my eyes settle upon him than he seized the burning Treksman with his weaponized hand and thrust that man into the air, flinging him with such force that the Treksman instantly dissipated into a fine, black powder.

The Scrayer looked at me now and I was struck by the realization that there were no more Treksmen between he and I! I flung myself backwards, turned upon the ground, and clawed around the corner of my wagon for any cover I might find. At every moment I expected to feel his great fingers gripping me and piercing into my side…but the death-grip did not come.

For right at that moment Boosh Fyyan (I now recall that the man wore a bright red turban) came charging forward, a light-sickle burning brightly in his hand. “TO ME!” he shouted once more, still trying to rouse us Treksmen from our stupor, then thrust his weapon at the towering foe.

The Scrayer slapped the weapon to the side with his unarmed hand, then grabbed Boosh around the throat with his other, and made to thrust him also out into dust. But Boosh clawed desperately at the foe’s arm, and so was not thrown out as firmly as the Scrayer had intended. For a moment Boosh stood suspended in the air, his features grainy and his body stretched out into long strands that flared out at the ends. He was suspended in that limbo for only a moment, but then his eyes flashed and he came rushing back into a fully corporeal form He descended back down, arm thrusting, light-sickle plunging, piercing into the chest of the Scrayer. He was like an angel descending from above to slay the dragon.

“Nnnarrgh!” the giant bellowed, and in a rage he grabbed Boosh again (I now recall that Boosh had deep, amber eyes), and flung him so savagely that the man was turned to powder before the brute had even let him go. The Scrayer turned, as if he would make towards me once more, but then his face contorted in pain and a few tendrils of blue smoke began to emanate from the wound where Boosh had skewered him with the light-sickle.

The Scrayer clenched his teeth and tried to grit his way forward, but immediately he halted again as the tendrils of blue smoke pouring from his heart started to solidify and take form. It was a vague shape in three parts. Two were long and thin, and the third in the middle was bulky and short…like a head and shoulders between two arms. The whole thing was flailing and writhing, twisting itself further and further out of the Scrayer’s chest, inch-by-inch. The part that seemed like a head began to tremble rapidly, and two lines stretched apart in it, like the opening of a mouth strained against a shroud. A haunting shriek sounded out, and rang within our hearts.

“No!” The Scrayer bellowed, grabbing at the blue form and trying to tear it into pieces. But it was still only half-physical, and whatever puffs he managed to pull free simply flowed back into the main body immediately after.

In awe I slowly stepped forward. It was a very foolish thing to do, I suppose, but I could not help but bear witness to such a horror as this. My foot kicked a pebble and the Scrayer’s terrified eyes rounded back on me.

“Please! Help me!” he cried. His fingers clawing at his chest, as if desiring to rip his very heart out. “Please! Yes, I meant you harm, but only for your own good.”

Now the blue, arm-like streams thrust into the Scrayer’s dark beard, and the ends bended backwards, like two hands clenching into fists. With that grip the blue form forcibly pulled itself still farther out of its host’s chest.

“Arrrgh!” the Scrayer screamed. His legs kicked wildly and he fell onto his back.

“I’ll finish him!” Vallon, my fellow Treksman, said at my elbow as he drew a sword from his side.

“I–I am already dead” the Scrayer gasped out, barely able to speak at all. The blue form had raised itself up towards the sky, clawing at empty air as its lower body now emerged. “P-p-please. Break your oaths….” the Scrayer winced. “Break them!” His eyes fluttered and lost focus, but by sheer force of will he brought himself back from the brink and stared at us with fervent intent. “I know–I know. You’ll die. But–” His whole body shook. “But–” The blue form’s feet were a foot above the Scrayer’s chest now, connected to that body only by a single thread. The Scrayer clutched at life one last time, his final words came out as naught but a sigh. “But there are worse things.”

Then the thread snapped and the great giant instantly relaxed into his death. The blue form turned round, lifted its arms heavenward, and flew off into the clouds.

It was gone.

Things were worse now. We were down to thirty-four Treksmen, and no foreman among us. Because all of us had been unconscious, not a one of us knew where we even were or what our next destination was. We had no choice but to let the automation do the work, moving our bodies further down the trail, minus the carts that had been destroyed.

We did not sink back into our unconscious stupor this time. Our bodies were automated, but our eyes and our ears we kept alert at all times, watching for any other assailant that might come our way.

We spoke only a little of the ordeal that had just passed. It was, of course, a very remarkable thing that a Scrayer would have anything to do with us at all. Such a unit properly belongs among a royal guard, not harassing lowly caravans. This only lent all the more weight to his ominous plea: that we forsake our contract, suffer the same death as Yalli as our penalty, and leave our wares undelivered. Clearly he had felt it a matter of great importance to have debased himself to the murder of us all. He must have known that we would never sacrifice ourselves for a cause we did not understand.

Which, of course, we did not and would not. The sense of anxiousness in us grew more profound, but it was not nearly enough for us to surrender our own lives. Not only because we did not understand what good would come from such a sacrifice, but also because we felt that we were destined to do what we had been hired to do. If it was a sin that lay before us, we must perform it even so. If we were unknowingly bringing about the very end of the world (which, as it turned out, we were), yet it had to be done.

We were commissioned to darkness, and it did not matter whether we approved of it or not.

Six days later and our feet guided us into our next destination. After entering the city we asked around and learned that we had come to Bowria. A quick consultation with the foreman’s maps and we understood that we were much more than halfway through our journey already. There only remained three stops, and last of all the delivery to Graymore Coventry. We would be there in about four week’s time.

This news pierced our hearts like an icy dagger. We were so close to our wretched end, that each step further felt like a personal betrayal of all that was holy. We were taken by a deeper melancholy still, totally unready to face the fruit of darkness so soon. All of us wished to escape back to the blissful ignorance of the automation, but that would leave us helpless to whatever bandits or disasters may yet be waiting along our way.

Thus we decided to take it in turns. A fourth of us would keep watch while the rest remained comatose. A week of wakefulness and three of sleep for us all. We drew lots and it was my unhappy chance to be in the first watch.

What a foolish arrangement this seemed to be now, walking with only seven other alert companions, watching the mass of our companions shuffling forward listlessly like the immortal dead. We were alone to our fears, and it seemed to us that mischief was bound to spring out from every rock and shadow. We did not speak to one another, for our hearts were filled with dread, and it would spill out in a torrent if we opened our lips.

So we pressed on silently, teeth clenched, nerves firing, a silent panic in every footstep. Our heads hung down, our eyes stared into the earth, and at times we would fain bury ourselves in it and have the misery over with. It would have seemed a blessing if some highway robbers would come and give us the relief of a cut throat.

But though we might have prayed for such a relief with one half of our heart, the other stubbornly refused to let go of its need for life. We would go on, because even a cursed life is still the greatest of blessings.

Thus there were only eight of us who were awake. Only eight when our party came across the witch.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

 

On Monday I discussed a couple ways that a story can balance complexity and scale to avoid introducing plot-holes. I suggested that a story needed to have a world big enough to support its ideas, so that different systems didn’t run into one another and cause inadvertent contradictions.

At the end of my last entry in this story I introduced the idea that these Treksmen were bound by an oath, such that they could not quit their delivery without dying as a result. That mechanic further led to the idea of them being able to function as automatons, performing their labors on a literal auto-pilot. It also became involved with the Scrayer coming and trying to kill them, as he knew their job could only be halted by their dying, either one way or the other. Now that’s as involved as I want this mechanic of oath-binding to be. The more I combine it with other systems, the more chance I have to make a connection that is incompatible.

Most of the new ideas that I introduce are meant to stand alone, entering for only one scene, and then never resurfacing with other connections. An example of this is our Scrayer, whose weapon, creed, and other details will never be seen in the story again. I only had to make his behavior compatible with the behavior of the Treksmen in this one instance, and now will not try to connect him to anything else.

The other technique I described was that of developing a story’s world and systems first. Even before I came up with the arc of our protagonist, one of my very first ideas was that of a massive, armed assailant ravaging a caravan, flinging men into the air where they dissipated into dust. By using this world-building-first approach, I already had suggested to me a plot involving a caravan, and a protagonist who is a member of it. I wrote such things, and now the story flows naturally through the scenes I first envisioned. One can of course overdo this world-building-first approach, and end up with a series of disjointed scenes that don’t really gel together. Hopefully I’m finding the correct balance with this experiment.

Before we continue with the story, though, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the stylistic theme of my past few stories, and how a body of work mirrors the mental state of the author. Come back on Monday to hear about that, and then on Thursday we’ll continue the adventures of our Treksman.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Four

flock of birds flying above the mountain during sunset
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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

The first three shots resounded in empty air. Private Bradley grit his teeth, cleared his mind, and went back to his basic training.

“Hold the gun firmly, but don’t clench it,” he muttered to himself. “Breathe slowly….Now exhale…” he fired and an enemy soldier’s helmet went flying through the air, exposing a startled face underneath.

Private Bradley had always been one of the better shots in their squad, he had just momentarily forgotten it while living and breathing the machine gun’s exhaust for the last few days. Now he set to work, picking his shots, following through, moving on to the next. It wasn’t a question of hitting the enemy, it was a question of how many he could drop, and whether it would be enough.

There was a sudden rise in the voices of the chargers fifty yards to the right. Of course the chargers were always shouting, seemingly in one unending cry, but there always came a sudden swell such as this when they reached the trench and leaped down to the murder. So the line has suffered its first compromise Bradley thought, then picked off another man.

The pitch in the enemies’ voices raised an octave again forty yards to the left and at another point twenty yards beyond that. Two more breaches in the line.

Private Bradley’s breath exhaled a bit more ragged than usual and his next shot went wide, two feet from its mark. He grit his teeth, furious that he had let the pressure get to him. He made up for it by firing his next round through two men running in file.

An entire chorus of waves broke up and down the trench-line, too many new breaches to count. There would be no routing the charge this time. Each squad had run out of machine gun ammunition, just as Private Bradley’s had. Without those pounding guns there had never been a chance of turning the wave. In the next fifteen seconds it would crash upon Private Bradley and his squad, too.

“NOW, BRADLEY, NOW!” Sergeant roared, pulling the rifle out of Bradley’s hands and putting the handles of the machine gun there instead.

Private Bradley grit his teeth and let loose ball and flame. The trench’s last fully automatic rang through the air like an awakened lion, bursting through men at more than twenty-five death-knells per second!

There was no easy stroke, stroke to how Bradley spun the weapon now. The enemy was so close and so dense that jerking it as quickly as he could from side to side was the only option left. For the briefest of moments the charging men’s eyes widened in shock and horror. And then those eyes went glassy and expressed nothing again forever. The men that stood next in line to catch a bullet came to a full halt, glancing side to side for an escape that wasn’t there. If they turned and ran now, they would only succeed in being shot in the back instead of the front. As they paused to consider that fact the decision was made for them.

Meanwhile Bradley’s compatriots made short work of what forces his gun happened to miss. Bradley thinned the line, and the riflemen finished it. Each following line was more dense than the one before, but each looked more timid and unsure as well.

And then, all at once, a clear hill opened to view before them.

Bradley blinked quickly, disbelieving what he saw. They had done it? They had cleared their section?

Yes, they had. Sergeant’s timing had been impeccable. Glancing downwards Bradley saw seven bullets remained on the belt. Just barely, but they had stopped the breach in their sector.

If only that had been enough.

Though no more enemy forces stood on the hill, the trench still crawled with them. In fact the squad directly to the left of Bradley’s had just finished being entirely overrun by the invaders, who were now lashing out in each direction for fresh kills!

Bradley spun to face the assailants, reaching for the firearm at his side. They leaped at him and he leaped back, firing into the heart of their pack.

“Move over here!” Private Holt shouted from his elbow.

“Pull in close,” Sergeant ordered. “We’re still on the defense!”

It was good advice. The natural inclination was to try to push the enemy, but that sort of over-extending had been exactly the downfall of many of their allies. Better to play it cool and wait to see which side had the numbers. Right now things were too muddled to tell.

Bradley’s squad pulled tight to one another, and stood back-to-back, some of them facing down the right side of the trench, some of them facing down the left. They all shouted and fired furiously into the ranks of the enemy. Half of the time the other side charged at them haltingly, and half of the time they tried to take a stance and fire back.

Such half-measures would not suffice. Bradley and his men were tight-packed and focused. They fired in controlled bursts, calling out their shots, and working as a team to drop one soldier, and then another.

“Stand firm,” Sergeant directed them. “Stand firm and they won’t charge you, no matter how many more of them there are. None of them want to be the first to meet a firm knot!”

But that knot was being untied. Rather than charge, the enemy had finally decided on taking quick shots at the bundle of men. It was dark and shadowy in the trenches, and hard for them to pick out man from mud. Even so, every now and again a lucky shot hit its mark.

A sting burrowed into Bradley’s left thigh. Another grazed over the skin of his right arm. A dull groan sounded against his back, the last complaint that Private Dunny would ever make.

Other shots sang past Bradley’s ears. He instinctively recoiled, and as he did so forgot to keep pulling the trigger. The fire from Bradley’s squad became uncertain, erratic, stifled in the storm raining around them. Then, like predators waiting for their prey to show a weakness, the other side swooped in for the kill.

Bradley caught the first man by the lapel of his jacket, and drilled with his knife until he found oil. He threw that one to the side, and barely raised his arm in time to catch the downward stab of another. His forearm seared in pain, but fortunately Private O’Malley surged forward to take that foe down for him.

No one was there to cover O’Malley, though, and a hot barrel blasted at point-blank range, blasting O’Malley backwards. The man fell right into Bradley, and the two of them fell together. Bradley’s back hit the floor of the trench and O’Malley fell across his legs. Bradley started to thrash to get back up…but then paused.

What if he didn’t? Here in the dark, who could tell a dead man from a man only pretending to be dead? There was a chance that he might be entirely overlooked. Perhaps it was a slim chance, but it was there all the same.

But no. That would leave the backs of his still-standing squadmates unprotected. That would go against his oath, that the enemy would have to cut him down by force. That would invalidate him for Sergeant’s promise of self-purchase. He had to fight his way through the night.

A dark blur passed over Bradley, an enemy making another charge. Bradley turned his gun upwards and fired, cutting the man down entirely unawares. Then, from some long-forgotten coffer, Bradley found the strength to fling back onto his feet in a single, swift motion. He held gun out in one hand and knife in the other. He fired, he cut, pushed, he grit.

The trench was narrow, and the enemy came single file to avoid crowding one another as they danced around the littered corpses. So it was an even match-up, one against one, over and over, and the only question was how long a man could stand down the tide.

A foe grabbed Bradley’s wrist while also swinging wide with a shovel. Bradley leaned back so that it cut fat air and lodged itself in the trench wall. Bradley grabbed the handle with his free hand, just above the blade, and pulled firm. The soldier, still attached to the other end, lurched forward, and lost both of his grips, the one on the shovel and the other on Bradley’s wrist. He fell to the ground at Bradley’s feet. Bradley swung the shovel around and with it dug the man into his grave.

One could not remain a man in such work as this. One had to give himself over to the machine. This was no trench of men, it was a chute on a dis-assembly line. Bradley was the mechanical arm that took the subjects apart one at a time.

Another man lunged forward with a knife. Rather than try to dodge, Bradley gripped the man’s wrist and pulled, ever so slightly shifting the angle of the thrust so that it slid in the crook between his arm and torso. He clinched down and twisted. Something snapped, metal or otherwise.

Bradley-the-machine’s limbs were creaking and sore. No matter. A machine did not complain about such things. A machine just kept at its work as bolts fell off and screw threads stripped and motors spun out of socket. Perhaps he would shatter apart, but he wouldn’t even know it. He would just keep going.

The next soldier made like he was going to lunge at Bradley, but at the last moment pulled back and fired from the hip. It was clever. It caught him off guard. Bradley felt a hole open in his shoulder and he fell onto his back.

What was less clever was that the man paused to see if Bradley was dead, giving him the opportunity to fumble his gun over from the wounded arm to his other. A crack of thunder and the assailant was down.

It was his ability to separate his mind from his body that made Bradley so adept at this work of separating limb from limb. First one had to stifle the life in himself, then he could do it in others. And so a man was always his own first casualty. It was the only way to live.

Two more soldiers advanced down the trench. Bradley was still prone and his vitality was quickly seeping through the wound in his shoulder. This was it. The fight in him was gone.

The first soldier reached him and held out his hand.

Only now did Bradley recognize the uniform of his allies. Bradley tried to offer his good hand, but it still held his gun. He dropped the weapon and let the friend pull him to his feet.

“Good to finally see a friendly face,” the soldier said. “The trench is all secured back this way, how about down past you.”

“I’m not sure,” Bradley said. He started to twist to look that way, but winced at the searing pain that came from his shoulder.

“You’re hurt,” the soldier observed. “Don’t worry, I’ll move down the line and see for myself. You stay here and Private Bailey will see to your wound.”

The man was clearly some sort of officer, though of course it was far too muddy and dark to make out any insignia.

The second man came up and Bradley showed him where he was hit, then leaned back while the man bound him up.

“You’re lucky, the shot passed clean through, I don’t have to dig it out of you.”

“A life of my shoulder always aching and never working right? Hardly seems lucky.”

“At least it’s still a life. That’s more than most of our men can say tonight.”

It suddenly occurred to Bradley to check and see if any of his squad had survived with him. One glance along the trench floor, though, and it was clear that they had not. One-by-one he could pick out each of their bodies interwoven with those of the enemy. They looked so strangely peaceful laying side-by-side with the very men that they had fought to the death against.

Maybe it wasn’t so strange, though. They had killed each other, hadn’t they? And what feud could possibly be left unresolved after such a measure as that? What more could be gained by disputing the matter any further? Here, in mutual death, they were finally all square with one another.

Of course Bradley gave his men a closer check once Private Bailey finished dressing his wounds. The two of them crouched down and felt each man’s lack of a pulse. They truly were all dead. Dunny, Holt, Yates, O’Malley…

“You too, Sergeant?” Bradley sighed. “After that speech you roused us all with? You too?”

By this point it was clear that the battle was over. The scattered din of gunfire up and down the trench had slowed and finally come to a stop. The line had been held, though with extensive casualties. More than fifty percent. Their forces were so diminished that they couldn’t hope to repel another attack. Reinforcements would have to come replace them now.

But then, of course, the enemy needed reinforcements of their own, too. All of their fresh troops were dead, and they would have to send up a new regiment before the onslaught could continue.

Sergeant had been right. Surviving this last charge had been enough. Private Bradley had earned the right to stay alive. Massaging his shoulder he turned to the East. There, searing a line of red across the green hilltop, the dawn was approaching.

Part Five

 

On Monday I discussed how a story is composed of several arcs, which each take their turn in the light, thus creating a natural rise and fall in the plot. I also mentioned how each arc escalates in their own way, combining to make a climatic finish.

In today’s post we saw the culmination of the increasing tension in this story. With each preceding charge, the enemy came closer and closer to breaking the ranks of Bradley and his men. That constant teasing was meant to build up anticipation in the reader, anticipation which was finally satisfied in the rousing action of today’s entry.

When a story has pent up enough conflict and turmoil, then it is a simple matter to let it loose in a stream of cathartic release. But another essential element of pacing in a story is the sigh of relief after the action subsides. Though the hard-run race may be won in a moment of intense effort, the experience is not over until one is able to fully regain their breath.

This next Monday I will examine this idea of giving a story time to release its tension after the climax of its action. Then, next Thursday, we will see this in play with the next entry of The Soldier’s Last Sleep.

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part One

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Private Bradley was tired even before he got to the trenches. He had spent the two days previous running up and down the medical tents, assisting wherever possible. He had no medical training whatsoever, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t deliver messages, fetch fresh bandages, remove bedpans, push beds into new wings, restrain comrades during impromptu surgeries, and carry bodies to the grave-site.

The entire camp was overrun by the tides of wounded being brought back from the front. Either you sat in the trenches getting shelled, or you took care of those that had been shelled, while waiting for your turn to go take their place. Having two days to see the effects of where they would soon be deployed was a great cruelty to Private Bradley and his squad.

Eventually the orders came, as they knew they must, and Private Bradley left the medical tent, wondering in what manner he might return to it. He grabbed his gear, stepped into the back of a truck, and jostled shoulder-to-shoulder with his squad over muddy potholes as the sound of artillery bursting grew louder and louder up ahead. Then the truck stopped and they were told that they would have to walk the rest of the way, as the road now became too steep for vehicles.

So they crawled up the muddy incline, slipping on their bellies, and sloshing back to their knees, over and over, until by the time they reached the top of the hill they were already in full earth-camouflage. The squad were led to the fifteen-foot stretch of the trench for which they would be responsible, about a quarter mile East, and firmly in the middle of the hilltop.

“Here, you hold this,” their Sergeant said, pulling Bradley’s hands onto a machine gun that was propped on top of the earth-wall and pointed in the general direction of the enemy lines.

“I haven’t handled anything like this since basic training, sir,” Bradley said.

“Luckily for us, the enemy is not aware of that fact. So if it’s alright with you, we’ll continue as ordered, Bradley?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Just be sure to keep it clean, loaded, and pointing down that line. You’ll know what to do when it comes to it.”

“Are we going to be seeing a lot of action, sir?” Private Dunny asked.

“You saw the men brought back from the line just as well as I did,” the Sergeant returned. “It isn’t going to be any picnic, men, that’s for sure. I’m told we shouldn’t expect any heavy artillery or armor, the mud is too thick for either side to field much more than infantry. But there will be plenty of that, and apparently they rush our line a few times every day. Our orders are simple, do not let them through.”

It was a simple affair, but also a grueling one. The light artillery kept up a constant barrage, but it was less of a threat than a nuisance. It was too small to actually reach their line, and so it burst peacefully over the middle of the plateau. Its main effect was to produce enough noise that no one could get any sleep. When it finally stopped, that was the worst of all, because then you knew the enemy infantry was marching forward.

Thus the silence hit like a deafening roar, and instantly every man seized his gun and waited with bated breath, watching the plateau for dirty mounds that moved. On occasion a tumbleweed would blow past and a nervous infantryman would open fire, which would set off a half dozen of his neighbors until the Sergeants shouted at them to get a grip.

Sometimes there was no approach, the enemy had just stopped shelling to mess with their heads. Or maybe something had gone wrong with the artillery and they had to replace a part before carrying on.

Most times, though, the enemy came. Like a swarm of overgrown ants, rushing over one another, pounding for the edge of the hill. Then all the guns came alive, and bodies started dropping here and there.

Private Bradley pulled the trigger and his machine gun vibrated hard against his hands. It was difficult to aim, and he tore up more clumps of grass and soil than he did of flesh and bone.

Still, every now and then he managed to drop one of the charging horde. Then another, and another. Yet on the enemy would press. Three hundred yards, two hundred, one hundred. They started to drop more quickly, and now came the great test. Would enough of them fall to break the charge?

They were near enough now that you could hear their own commanders screaming the men forward with foreign threats. Those commanders knew that they did not have to chase their men all the way to the line, only near enough that turning and running was as sure a doom as pushing forward to the trench. Where was that point of no return? Thirty yards? Fifteen?

Private Bradley’s Sergeant knew this game, too, and he hopped up and down, shouting at his men to hold to their terrible contest.

Seventy-five yards and you could start to see holes in the enemy’s line.

Sixty-five and their barbaric shouts were starting to tremble.

Fifty-five and a few of them were starting to pull back, but the main mass had not yet noticed.

Forty-five and they flinched in unison, covering their vitals with their arms, turning, and sprinting away as fast as possible.

Private Bradley’s squad had earned the right to live another few hours. They gripped the top of the trench for support, their knees shaking beneath them as cold sweat broke across their brows. They watched to be sure that the enemy really was gone, then collapsed to the ground one at a time.

For as prickly as their Sergeant could be, he allowed them these moment to unclench. He himself clambered out of the rut, crouched down, and kept watch for another wave. He had to crouch, because his own legs were shaking just as much as the rest of them.

The relief was not allowed for long, though. As soon as Sergeant was sure that the enemy was not returning he ordered his men out of the ditch. “Move those bodies! Can’t have them blocking our sight-lines for the next time they charge.”

And so they lumbered about in the mud, one man grabbing shoulders and another grabbing feet, and hauling them one-by-one to a ditch at the end of the hill. It was long, slow work, and all the longer and slower when they were more effective in their shooting. They did not clear out all of the bodies of course, there was no time for that, but any that had fallen within the nearest hundred yards.

One nightmare concluded, only to repeat again before a quarter-day had passed. And as it turned out, the first assault had been one of the less successful ones employed by the enemy. Most times a crest or two of their wave would break into the trenches, where a vicious struggle would leave many of the men dead on both sides. How many charges could there be, Private Bradley wondered, before it was his squad’s turn to be overrun by the invaders? And what if it was not their squad that let the enemy in, but the one right beside them?

Bradley wished he hadn’t been assigned the machine gun. With its greater firepower, he felt that so much of the burden fell upon his own shoulders. Though at the same time, Bradley would rather depend on himself than upon any other. Sergeant never offered to let another man take a turn, and Bradley did not ask him too. He just silently added the crippling pressure of it to his bag of traumas.

Eventually night came.

“They wouldn’t charge in the night, would they?” Private Dunny asked.

But they would. About an hour after midnight the next wave came, and this was a new terror in its own right. One could hear the enemy thundering towards them through the mud, yet not see them to shoot properly. Only one shot in a hundred was any good now. So flares were fired into the air, and the black emptiness was suddenly illuminated as bright as day. It was a scene so strange and fantastic, that it seemed lifted straight from the pages of some ancient fairy tale.

The pink-purple tail of the flare arcing against the ink-black sky, the burning zenith like a star of glory overhead, and beneath it all thousands of shifting, black bodies, tumbling over one another, driving to spill their blood in the trench.

And then blackness again and shooting where the bodies had been, and then another flare was shot up and the dark tide was closer. Again and closer. Again and closer. And then they were so near that Bradley could see them even without the flare. Bathed in the cold moonlight they appeared less like black demons, and more like pale ghosts, and only a dozen paces from where he and his squad stood now!

Bradley forgot how chafed his hands were and gripped the machine gun all the more tightly, wildly swinging it left and right in a wide arc, cutting the men through at the chest as he had been taught in basic training. He was getting quite good at it now.

Click!

His belt ran empty and he cursed at Private Hastings to put another in while he drew out his pistol and fired at the nearest phantom of them all. Two of the enemy spilled into their ranks, but closer to Bradley’s comrades, who dealt with them as Hastings snapped shut the top of the machine gun.

“Ready!”

Bradley grabbed the gun and began harvesting souls once more. His heart heaved within him and intoxicating blood pounded through his veins. He slipped into a death-trance, waving the gun in an unfaltering rhythm as a constant shout echoed through his dry throat.

The next thing he knew his men were crowded around him, prying his hands off the weapon.

“Save the ammo!” Sergeant was shouting. “They’re already gone!”

Hastings was given command of the machine gun and Bradley was told to get some rest.

But there would be no rest. How could he lay down with the promise of another charge in only a few hours more, and with the bursting of shells resuming in the air, and with the memories of ghostly warriors running down every time he closed his eyes? No, Bradley sat in a stupor, but he did not sleep. Though his bones were creaking and his knees were shaking he could not relax the racks in his mind.

When his brain had cooled enough to think, he at least comforted himself with the knowledge that at least things could not get any worse. He was quite wrong, though, for he had not accounted for the fog that rolled in the very next day.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

I explained in my last post that I wanted to write a story about being totally and deeply exhausted. The idea for this story began a little while ago, with a moment of imagination. I was coming to bed at the end of a very busy day, and I felt absolutely dog-tired. Not long before, my wife and I had been watching episodes of M*A*S*H, and in that show there are a few times where the doctors stumble into their barracks after more than 24 hours of surgery. They collapse on their beds, sometimes dead to the world before they can even take off their boots.

Well I felt tired now, too, and I fancied myself as a soldier, returning back to camp after spending more than 48 hours holding the line under the most grueling of situations. Such an extreme tiredness I thought that must be, such a complete level of fatigue. Just by imagining myself in those shoes I felt all the more tired, and it did not take me long to fall asleep.

Now I know that that is silly, but such is the nature of imagination. It takes one’s situation, no matter how mundane, and then magnifies it to the most epic proportions it can conceive of.

The fact is, all of us want to believe we are the hero in a most wonderful story. And so our first crush is not just some puppy love, it is the greatest love story ever told, right up there with the likes of Romeo and Juliet! Being turned down for a job is not merely an unfortunate setback, it is an outrageous discrimination, so severe that it is criminal!

Some may call it romanticizing life…and some may call it having an overwrought ego, but there it is all the same.

My own little going-to-bed fantasy returned the next time I went to bed exhausted. I imagined myself in the boots of a soldier returning from the trenches, but instead of exploring my sense of self-indulgence, I found myself curious now to know who this man actually was. What had happened on the trench that he had just come from? What was his experience as he slept? Did he get his fill of sleep or was he interrupted? What exactly did he awaken to?

This story is my way of answering those questions, and thus far I am certainly taking my time with the very first one. On Thursday I will be continuing with his adventures in the trenches, and probably won’t even let him get to his cot until a week after that! To really sell the fatigue that he is experiencing, I wanted to take my time in the grueling work of war.

To accomplish this, I simply came up with a handful of different experiences that he would have in the trenches, but then weighed each of those moments down with a gravity of words. I’d like to take a closer look at this concept: how we give space to the moments in our stories, and do so without becoming wordy and redundant. Come back on Monday as we consider this feat, and until then have a wonderful weekend.