The Favored Son: Part Four

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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

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
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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.

Glimmer: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

Reylim ran across the barren land once more. She had been invigorated by Glimmer’s words of encouragement, and then a second time by its restorative abilities.

There, that should be much better. Currently Glimmer was situated on top of her lower leg, coursing its light into the gash there and accelerating the closing of the wound.

“It feels much better,” Reylim agreed. “What about you now? You’ve lost so much of your light in helping me.”

It will restore itself. With time.

Reylim nodded. She would have to avoid any more encounters with the void then, something she was more than happy to do. Knowing that it was her own fear and anxiety that summoned the dark forms to consume her was far from reassuring. If anything it only made her fearful and anxious of her fears and anxieties. And certainly she still wasn’t convinced that she had the fortitude to wrest a victory from the infinite sway of the void, but she had at least resolved to follow the path as it lay before her.

And that path was evolving. Where before the landscape had been massive stretches of flat and barren rock, the topology had now become far more tumultuous. Now the land rose and fell in small hills and valleys, with new vegetation in the form of thin-limbed, sprawling bushes. That wasn’t all, either. Once every so often she came across a thin tower of jagged rock that had been thrust high into the air, like a giant’s dagger pierced through the earth and into the sky. Of course that sky still remained a mystery to her. Glimmer’s light was restoring as promised, but she still couldn’t see more than a few hundred yards in any direction.

The first of these strange rocky towers caught Reylim by surprise, there had been nothing like this on her homeworld. She had circled it a few times, trying to understand how and why it had come to be, but at Glimmer’s gentle prodding she had continued onward.

As Glimmer explained, they were nearing the slopes of a great mountain, at the peak of which they were destined to find the Nexus that they sought. This information was further supported by moments of sudden inclines in the land, the skirts of that mountain. Some of these rises were steep enough that Reylim was forced to scrabble up them on all fours.

Just after clearing one of these risings and coming to a momentarily flat portion of the land she found another item of great intrigue before her. What she had at first taken for another strange outcropping of rocks gradually revealed itself to be basic stone huts. As she moved towards them she was able to make out the entrances in their sides, the large firepit in the center of the community, and even paths beaten down by the foot traffic leading to and from them.

“Glimmer…” she said incredulously, “I thought all the living beings here were frozen, unable to accomplish anything.”

That is correct. These are shadows of what will be here one day if these people are ignited. This is not the first one we have passed.

“It isn’t?”

No, you simply were not able to observe them before. You are still acclimating to our lands. Do you see the machine off to the right as well?

Reylim glanced to the side and saw nothing. She was about to say so when out of the blank rockscape she suddenly distinguished a large, strange structure. It was made of some extremely flexible metal, so much so that it was able to contort its shape at will, bringing different parts of itself to join together. Wherever its points touched a small residue of molten steel was left behind, and by one union after another the machine was slowly fabricating some mechanism. Reylim did not fully understand what it was she saw, but she could tell it was very advanced, even beyond anything on her own world. She was also sure that this scene was also from an entirely different time period than the stone huts before her.

And do you see the people?

Reylim turned back to those huts, and as she did so passed she saw that what she had at first taken for lumpy texture on the walls of the hovels were actually people frozen in time. They were humanoid, like her, but with a perfectly bland and gray color, with their lower halves only partially formed and fused into the ground beneath. It made it seem as though they were erupting directly out of the rock itself.

“Can they move? Talk?”

If you keep watching them they might.

Reylim moved up close, peering into their faces. She was particularly taken by the three that were nearest to her, two men and a woman. At first their faces were blank and featureless, utterly indistinguishable, but the longer she watched the more she saw personality etch its way across them.

“This one looks so regretful,” she said thoughtfully. “And this other is longing. Who are they? What would they become if they were awake?”

They would be among the earliest of the civilizations to live in this world. Born and raised together in this little village. These three specifically are the closest of friends through their youths. The two men are Avaro and Tuni, and as they mature both come to love the woman, Elitra. Both of them try to win her heart in their own way.

“Whom does she choose?”

Avaro. Tuni is a more wild and unpredictable man, and Elitra tells him she has to make a choice that she feels safe with. Tuni takes that very hard, and in his impetuous jealousy he contrives to send Avaro away to war.

“There is a war?”

Yes. There is a horde roaming the land and all the neighboring villages are raising a militia to resist it. Their own village is mandated to contribute a dozen men to the fight. The selection is supposed to be random, as the chance for survival is quite low, but Tuni manages to engineer things so that Avaro will be one of the ones selected. Immediately after his friend leaves Tuni is overcome with regret and soon confesses everything to Elitra. She promises to never forgive him, and then, in her grief, she poisons herself.

“Oh!”

She does not die, but she becomes incapable of motion or communication. She remains an invalid for the rest of her life. Then, doubly burdened with guilt, Tuni resolves to care for her. He takes her into his own home and for the rest of their lives he tirelessly nurtures her. He feeds her, he cuts her hair, he even carries her to all the places she had loved the best.

“What of Avaro?”

He finds his true calling as a great warrior. He defends their lands against unimaginable odds and saves their entire people from annihilation on numerous occasions. One time he returns to the village and Tuni confesses his crimes to him. Avaro is upset, of course, though he does forgive him for the wrongs done to him. As he explains, in the war he has found his true purpose, to protect and watch over all the people he loves.

“Butyou said Elitra never recovers?”

Her mind is a haze, drifting between strange dreams and then back to reality. When she is present in the moment she observes all that Tuni does. Though she lacks the capacity to tell him, she does in time forgive him. She feels he has paid the price for whatever wrongs he has done, and she acknowledges that it was her own choice to take the poison.

There was a moment of silence while Reylim took in the tale. She was not accustomed to looking into a person’s face and know their entire life story. As she did, though, she found herself believing that their various destinies suited them.

“I think these people deserve to have their lives, Glimmer. I really would like for them to have the chance to live them.”

I know it has been hard for you to have so much asked, and for people you have not even been able to see. Do know that this world is full with souls just as these. And every single one of them will be following you.

“Following me? I thought you were the spark to ignite them all.”

And I am a Glimmer, but you are a person. Therefore they will always relate to your experience more than mine.

“They will know my story?”

Parts of it will be made known to them. Mostly they will know of it in their hearts without understanding why. They will feel it stir them when they hear the hero’s call and know how to answer it though none has taught them. It will be your song, re-sung in each of them when they discover what they born to be.

Reylim’s eyes were misty and she was looking for adequate words to respond.

“YOU FILTH!”

The screech pierced the air and made Reylim jump in fright. She had become entirely unaccustomed to hearing any other voices, let alone one laced with such hate. She spun around and saw another of the planet’s natives. This one was more defined than the rest. He was a grizzled and thick man, coarse stubble lining his face and ragged clothes hanging from his skin. He was struggling against the last remaining parts of stone that fused him to the ground, and as she watched he managed to wrench one of his feet free from its roots. He alternated between tugging at his other leg and jabbing his finger at her, spit spraying from his mouth as he shouted.

“So you’ve come at last, have you?! You would bring to pass ages of suffering? Of death? Of hurt and abuse?!”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she blustered, her heart still racing from his sudden hostility.

“Didn’t you hear what it–” he jabbed towards Glimmer– “said about that man Avaro? Sent away to a war. To war! Do you see any war on this land today?”

“There is nothing here today.”

“So let there be nothing!” The man had managed to free his other leg, and was attempting to walk towards Reylim. She easily kept him at a distance as his every movement was stiff and slow. “The Glimmer goes on about heroes and legends and ‘becoming who you were born to be.'” He spat dark bile onto the earth. “But how do such things come to be? Forged by cruelty and plague and killing the innocents!”

“What is he talking about?” Reylim turned to Glimmer.

Thous she could not hear it, she felt a heavy sigh from Glimmer. My great purposes are twofold, Reylim. To secure living peace, and to raise heroes among mankind. This man, Bolil will be his name, is speaking to the fact that there can never be any heroes without opposition for them to rise against. There must be conflict for people to ever fight the tide and become their greatest selves.

“And you…you create the conflict?”

“Yes!” Bolil hissed.

No! Glimmer’s message came forcefully. Only the void creates conflict. As we ignite this world it pulls against the light and summons up the worst of mankind. You have seen for yourself how it operates: crippling through doubt and fear. It sows these through war and depravity.

“It does not do these things now.” Bolil protested. “It lets us sleep in perfect peace. You have felt the lull of that sweet emptiness girl, haven’t you?”

“You know the void?” Reylim asked.

The void possesses him. You can see it in the pits of his eyes. Bolil, you do not rest for you do not exist. Not yet. The void promises a dead peace, I provide a living one. Reylim herself has witnessed it on her own world.

“That’s why we are sent out to other worlds?” Reylim suddenly had an epiphany. “There is no opposition on our own by which to become the heroes you want us to be?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Bolil interrupted. His movement had become more natural, and he was now advancing at a strong pace, dark clouds circling around void points within his eyes. “Glimmer, void, perhaps there is peace at either end, but unimaginable suffering in between. Let Glimmer keep the worlds that are fully illuminated and let the void keep those that are dark.”

Reylim had continued backing away until she pressed up against one of the stone huts. She took a single step forward, allowing herself a little space in each direction should Bolil attack. Her hand was on her hip, ready to draw her dagger if needed.

“Peace through nonexistence?” she asked incredulously. “Isn’t even a life of suffering greater than no life at all? Don’t you deserve your chance to be? Don’t all these people?”

“Little girl,” Bolil smiled darkly, “Glimmer told you my name but not what I am.”

He’s a murderer.

In a flash Bolil had drawn a sword out that he had somehow hidden in the folds of his rags. Just as quickly he swept it down at Reylim with an alarming swiftness. She barely managed to get her own weapon out and caught his blade with the notch of her dagger’s hilt. He was a great deal larger than her, and with a lot more force to bring to bear, so she allowed herself to roll backwards, kicking out with her foot to roll him over her and into the wall behind.

Reylim rolled over to her front and then pushed up to her feet, falling back into a defender’s stance. She was shocked to find Bolil already rushing her again, evidently unfazed by the knock he had just received.

She flicked her knife into an overhand grip and swiped out in a wide arc in front of her. It cut across him in a broad swath, but instead of exposing flesh the wound merely revealed torrents of the black void. Bolil’s hand curled around her throat like a vise, his eyes flashing darkness.

“You can fight this little girl, but that will only extend the struggle and the pain.” Bolil’s voice was strange, distorted and almost mechanical. “Do you understand now? The sooner we embrace the emptiness the less suffering there will need to be.”

She gurgled as he lifted her off of the ground, but then noticed a calming warmth wash over her.

You cannot have her, void.

Reylim felt herself burgeoning with power as Glimmer settled over her heart, leaking pure light into her form. She kicked out at Bolil’s chest, thrusting with such force that his grip was easily broken. She flipped backwards through the air, landing cat-like on her hands and feet.

Rather than charge again Bolil let out a long, strange cry. As he did so, dark void spilled out, pooling on the ground around him and lashing out in tentacles, reaching for the bodies of other villagers. As each was touched they started coming to life, wincing and covering their eyes against the light that emanated from Glimmer.

There are countless armies of these shadows ready to be infused with the void. A battle is useless.

“To the Nexus, then?”

Yes. And as quickly as possible. They know exactly why we’re here and where we’re going, every moment will only give them greater opportunity to overrun us!

Part Four
Part Five

***

On Monday I spoke of the characters that are not mere individuals, but manifestations of some deeper unseen entity. In Glimmer my intention was to create such a character in the form of the void. With today’s entry we met an individual that was not the void itself, but was a servant to it, and was infused with its power.

The allegory here is obvious, there are individuals that we call evil, but then there is the question of evil itself. There is a long philosophical debate whether that evil only exist in the hearts of men or if it exists without them. If all men were to let go of their worst parts would evil’s influence cease, or does evil sustain itself whether or not there are those to practice it? Put another way, is the devil a real being, or do we invent him within ourselves? In the world of Glimmer the void is real, but imperceptible until it interacts with more corporeal forms. Everything that is to be understood about the void is by examining the periphery around it rather than the thing itself.

Using a few representations, such as Bolil, to give the reader a hook into something larger and more abstract is a common technique in storytelling. We are incapable of comprehending an entire war, for example, but by following a select few soldiers we get a general sense of the whole. This way of reducing scope to something more personal and intimate can even raise the stakes on the bigger picture, by how it makes us care for the individuals that we can relate to. I’d like to explore that notion in greater detail with my next post on Monday. Then, on the following Thursday, we will have the next segment of Glimmer ready. I’ll see you then.

The Heart of Something Wild: Part Two

photo of forest with fog
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

“Is it finally asleep?”

Khalil spun around in surprise and found Paki peering into the hut, his eyes locked on Urafiki.

“Yes,” Khalil grinned. “It is soothed, well fed, and resting. It will not eat you today.”

“I am grateful” Paki laughed back as he stepped fully into the home. “Am I disturbing you now?”

“No, Paki, in fact I’ve wanted to speak with you.”

“About the challenge?”

“Yes.”

Paki shook his head. “I do not see why you are so hesitant about it. Who else would you have stand with you? I am the finest warrior in all of the camp, everyone says so.”

“I would say so, too,” Khalil sighed. “But I would also say that one man against two makes for difficult odds. By that I mean no slight to you.”

Paki waved dismissively. “Did you not hear how I fought two Oroko at once in their last raid?” He folded his arms impressively and assumed the boastful stance he always used when recounting battlefield glories. “I used my disadvantage to my advantage. You see, I let one of them–”

“Stab you in the arm so that you could reel him in with your other hand,” Khalil finished. “And then you could dispatch of the other in one-on-one combat. Yes, I know the story, Paki…. Everyone in the camp knows the story, just as everyone in the camp knows how you fight. Abasi has even sparred with you!”

“And I have sparred with him!” Paki added forcefully, frowning at the stings to his pride. “You really believe that I could not defend you?”

“You would protect me too well! Even if it cost you your own life.”

Paki nodded slowly, his frown turning into contemplation. “I see now. And you are right, there is a great risk in this.” He nodded his head in deep thought, then spoke with conviction. “But…this is also what is right. You being our chief is right. Protecting my friend is right. This is the honorable fight for me, and it is the natural order of things that that which is honorable comes with great risk. All the more glory that follows it as well.” This last part he added with a broad smile. “I do wish to earn my calling as head warrior after all.”

Khalil grimaced and shook his head. “Is it right for me to be chief, though? Suppose you could defeat Abasi and whomever he chooses for his companion, what would happen then? Abasi has raised great support these past months, and his death would not be taken well. It could mean civil war for our tribe.”

“And what of us who support you? If you were to fall we would rebel against this coup.” Paki made a spitting noise, but did not actually desecrate the floor of his friend’s hut.

“If you did then you would be rebelling against me, as well!” Khalil snapped and fully spat on the ground. “I am going to ask–I am going to order–all those loyal to me to accept what I have already accepted. We must choose the better compromise here, and the better is that I die quickly and the tribe loses neither its best warrior nor its unity.”

“And serve Abasi? The man is a fool!” Tears were forming in Paki’s eyes. It was impossible to tell if they were of sorrow or anger.

“He will need all of the help you can provide,” Khalil admitted, “I need you to be there for him.”

Paki did not respond, he only hung his head downwards with his eyes closed, tears seeping from them.

“Paki I am now a chief, and though my legacy may be short, let me at least have this one choice to do what is right for the tribe. And for you.” He stepped forward and raised his hand to place it on Paki’s shoulder. But Paki heaved backwards and out of reach, staring up at Khalil with a deep wound. He held the gaze for a moment and sniffed angrily, then stormed out of the hut without another word.

Khalil’s hand was still suspended in the air, but slowly he closed the fingers into a fist and turned back. He was surprised to see Urafiki awake, watching him from the basket. Urafiki was making a low growl in its throat, and its eyes were narrowed. Those eyes were not on Khalil, though, but on Paki’s retreating back.

*

The moon had already begun waning when Paki and Khalil returned to the camp, and now it seemed to shrink more quickly than usual with every passing day. Khalil had tried to catch Abasi’s eye a few times to see what lurked within, but the warrior was steadfastly avoiding him at all times. Khalil supposed that was gracious of Abasi, better to be ignored by him than to be publicly taunted.

More unpleasant was the fact that Paki was now avoiding him, too. When they had their feasts Paki would come for food and then carry it back to his hut. When they held their councils Paki would stare ceaselessly at the ground and never speak a word. The thought had occurred to Khalil that as chief he could demand Paki and Abasi to acknowledge his presence, but what would be the point of that? To satiate his pride? He would be gone before long anyway.

As promised, Khalil held a private meeting with the elders and warriors he knew to be most sympathetic to his cause. He thanked them for their support and then ordered them to respect the rituals and traditions of the tribe. If he was to fall, then preserving the community was what mattered most. Some of them tried to argue, but he merely held up his hand and revealed his intention to face the challenge unaided. The significance of that was clear. He would die, and if Khalil was no longer around for them to rally behind, then it would be hard to justify any rebellion.

Those supporters now avoided making eye contact with Khalil as well. Pleasantries would have sounded too hollow, so numb silence prevailed instead. When Khalil felt the loneliness become overwhelming him he would go back to his hut and be with Urafiki. Though their time together had been short, they had already developed a close bond. Khalil made a collar-restraint so that the creature would not be able to bite him when applying the poultice to its wounds. When it came time for the next application of the salve, though, he found himself hesitating to put the restraint on his friend.

Urafiki’s biting him was not unjustified from the creature’s perspective. How could it understand that he meant it goodwill with the stinging cure? If anything Urafiki was being quite forgiving, and it felt wrong to therefore suppress it. And so Khalil tossed the wood and string contraption to the side and administered the poultice to Urafiki’s hurt while bracing for the bite. It didn’t come. Urafiki raised itself up and hissed, but never latched onto Khalil’s arm as before. All following treatments followed this same pattern and soon Urafiki’s condition was markedly improved.

After a week the creature began to move around the floor of the hut, crawling on four legs like a dog. With the finger-like claws on its hands it could climb up onto Khalil’s table and cot, and at times would also raise up on its back legs. It could stretch up to three times its regular height, and in doing so revealed a long, spindly body beneath the bat-like wings that stretched between its joints.

Khalil had found the creature to be playful, its favorite activity being play-fighting with him. Generally this was initiated as he was ambling about the hut and Urafiki would bowl into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground. In a flash Urafiki would move up to his chest and neck and hiss menacingly, pausing to let him grip it and throw it to the side. Then it would circle about and make another lunge.

Khalil was grateful that the creature did not try to venture out of his hut, any camp members who had caught a glimpse of Urafiki in his home had all hurried away, disturbed by its strange and somewhat sinister appearance. As such Khalil knew that the creature would have to return to the wild, and so it was that on the afternoon preceding the new moon he lifted Urafiki into his arms and hobbled out of the camp’s clearing, looking for a quiet clump of trees to meditate under.

“You won’t be able to stay here anymore,” he said while stroking Urafiki. “You have your strength back and now you must leave. I hope things go better for you than before?”

Khalil found a quiet corner of the jungle, and knelt down to meditate and pray. As he did, Urafiki paced around him like a sentinel. Khalil quieted his mind and connected with his core. As he did so, he was unsurprised to find a well of fear and sorrow bursting out over him. He had done well in repressing it these past days, but this consignment to death went too strongly against all his basic instincts. Khalil did not try to fight the torrent of tears and shaking, letting them roll over him in one successive wave after another. With each one he collapsed more and more until he was laying prone on the ground, fatigued by the surging emotions. The did not engulf him, though, rather they expressed themselves and then moved on. As their ripples slowly diminished he at last felt the quiet peace of their absence. There simply was not any capacity to grieve left in him.

THUMP! THUMP!

The beating of the drum back at camp signaled that the sun had just begun to dip between the horizon. All challenges to the chief were to be made before it had set completely, and it was Khalil’s duty to be there to receive them. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he rose to his feet and staggered back towards camp.

Urafiki instinctively followed but Khalil shook his hand at it with a loud “Shah!” and it halted. It did not retreat though, only paused and transfixed with eyes of confusion.

“Live a long and happy life, my friend,” Khalil bowed, then continued his walk to the center of camp.

Here the beginnings of a bonfire were crackling and the tribe members were trickling one-by-one into the circle of its glow. Khalil nodded to the priest beating on the drum, and stood at attention on the circular rug at the head of the gathering. Already he could see a ripple moving through the crowd and Abasi emerged from their depths to approach him. Khalil closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then looked to the man and nodded.

“Great chief,” Abasi saluted him, bowing low and then rising. “Though your rule has been brief it has been gracious. I want it to be known that I have no disrespect for your character.”

Khalil nodded blandly. Abasi meant no offense but he was come to kill him? What was he supposed to say to that?

“Even so,” Abasi continued, “may all the tribe bear witness that I come to deliver a challenge to Khalil, son of Kibali…”

A pause.

“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”

There was another stir in the crowd as a second figure emerged from their midst. Paki was covered in full war paints and carrying two war clubs on his shoulder. On one end of them was the heavy cudgel, the other end was whittled down to a vicious point. Paki strode up to Khalil, meeting his gaze for the first time in days with harshly intent eyes. He held out one of the clubs to Abasi and gave only the shallowest of nods to Khalil.

“I challenge your right as ruler of this tribe,” he murmured in a low whisper.

Khalil was taken aback, but kept the surprise from his face. “Is this an honorable fight, too, Paki?” he asked coolly.

“We’re past that now.”

“Paki, son of Jomo,” the priest with the drum chimed in. “You have challenged our chief, and so there must be a blood duel. You cannot withdraw until one of you lies dead. You understand?”

“I do.”

“And you have chosen Abasi as your companion in this challenge?”

Paki nodded.

“Khalil, son of Kibali, you have been challenged. Who will fight as your companion?”

Khalil shook his head. “None stand with me.”

The priest sighed. “So be it.” He waved to the other priests and they spaced themselves out, pressing the crowd back to form an open circle with the bonfire at its center. Paki and Abasi backed away to one side of the circle and Khalil turned to another of the priest’s who had retrieved a war club for him.

“When I strike the drum the challenge will begin,” the first priest announced.

Khalil looked to Paki first, and then Abasi. Abasi must have known that the tribe would more willingly fall into line behind Paki, and he would still receive a promotion for his loyalty, probably be made head warrior. It made sense. And yet…. though it was a clever and rational betrayal on Paki’s part…it was still a betrayal.

THUMP!

Abasi and Paki advanced at him from either direction, Abasi hanging back slightly to allow Paki the honor of the kill. Khalil stood motionless, letting them advance. As Paki’s figure loomed nearer though he found himself gripping the handle of the club he had been given.

Paki stepped into a charge and raised his war club high. Khalil’s heart skipped a beat. Not out of fear, but of anger. He moved so suddenly he caught himself by surprise, swinging up in answer to Paki’s challenge. Paki was caught off guard by the motion and barely managed to transition his own attack into a block. He did not fully deflect Khalil’s blow, instead diverting it to his shoulder, where it connected with a cracking thud.

Paki roared in anger, easily ducked under Khalil’s next swing, and then swept Khalil’s legs out from under him. The world turned on its side and Khalil fell onto his back, hard. He was winded and dazed, and unable to hold onto his club as Abasi kicked it out of his grasp. Above him Paki was turning his own club over, pointing the sharp end down towards Khalil’s heart. Paki looked upwards, giving a war cry as he plunged the weapon downwards.

It never connected. To Khalil’s surprise a white blur streaked through the air and wrapped itself around Paki’s head. The warrior shrieked in surprise and lurched backwards, trying to grapple the blanket that had secured itself to his face. Suddenly he stopped his struggling, instead raising himself higher and higher, clear up onto his tiptoes, his hands limp at his side. It seemed as though he were in a trance, then suddenly the spell was broken and he collapsed down to the ground, dead. The white “something” spun off from Paki’s face and revealed itself to be Urafiki.

Khalil staggered back up to his feet as Urafiki slowly raised up onto its back legs, its arms dangling a few inches off the ground. It was hissing menacingly, with ears flattened back against the skull and mandibles were drawn back to reveal its gaping mouth. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot, staring intently as Abasi.

Abasi was clearly unnerved, backing away as Urafiki sidled side-to-side before lunging forward at him.

“No!” Khalil cried, lurching to the side just in time to intercept the creature. He wrapped his arms around the beast, but it was manic, scrabbling up and over his shoulder. Khalil fumbled at his waist, pulling out a knife and stabbing the creature in the side. Urafiki cried in pain and dug a claw into Khalil’s arm.

“Just stop!” Khalil ordered, but the creature was filled with the bloodlust and continued to writhe after Abasi. Khalil drew out the knife and plunged it again, rewarded with another gouge from the creature’s claw, this time in the side of his neck.

Urafiki gave a confused cry, but lurched once more for Abasi.

“I’m sorry,” Khalil gasped, finally burying the knife in Urafiki’s heart. The creature seized up in his arms, going rigid and then slowly limp. Khalil looked into its eyes, wild and wondering, then fading into emptiness.

***

 

As I mentioned in an earlier post about communication, it is essential for the audience to feel connected to the character so that they may share in the emotions they are feeling. I would imagine, and intend, that most readers will feel sorrier for Urafiki’s loss than Paki’s. In the bigger scheme of things that might seem unbalanced, given that Khalil and Paki have shared an entire life together, but the audience did not personally experience that history. Instead our window has spent more time on Khalil and Urafiki’s relationship and it has been a more positive one as well. Therefore I am able to steer the reader to giving that loss the far greater weight.

On Monday I also wrote about the concept of characters and plotlines subverting the reader’s expectations with a surprising reveal. I suggested in that post that usually a character’s actions are telegraphed well in advance so that their shifts and turns are expected. Paki’s betrayal would fall under that category, as I first show him being greatly distressed and then removed from Khalil.

Urafiki’s sudden involvement may not have come as too much of a surprise either, most readers probably assumed that the creature was going to get involved in the ending somehow. My hope, though, was that Khalil then slaying Urafiki would come as a shock. Urafiki was his friend and Abasi was his enemy, so it seems counterintuitive for him to do that. However I have tried to establish a trait that Khalil honors duty above friendship, and so hopefully it will still feel honest.

I also hope that Khalil’s surviving the challenge feels earned. Obviously I set him up as the underdog, and therefore needed him to come out of the ordeal by more unconventional means. That’s a common theme to stories, the hero who somehow manages to best the insurmountable challenge. I’d like to spend some time exploring that idea this next Monday.

Then, on Thursday, we’ll have the third and final piece of The Heart of Something Wild I’ve been working on this story right up to the final minute, and still felt that the closing segment needs to feel less rushed. Come back in a week to read that conclusion.