The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Six

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

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

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.

Power Suit Racing: Part Four

architecture buildings city fog
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

“Hello there, Taki,” Rhuni said. She spoke brightly, sweetly. Certainly far more than she had at their last conversation.

“Hello,” Taki said numbed.

She smiled and looked downwards. “I suppose… I must be the last person you wanted to see.”

“That’s not–well, I wasn’t expecting to see you, I suppose.”

“Hmm, no. I can’t imagine you would after how horribly I treated you. I wanted to apologize about that, by the way, first and foremost.”

He nodded. “And after that?”

“Oh Taki, don’t be so formal with me! It’s terrible. Can’t we talk to each other how we used to?”

“I don’t know that Warden Molo would appreciate that.”

She winced. “You’re bitter. That’s alright. You have every right to be. Like I said, I treated your horribly.” She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “I was wrong Taki, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I was stupid and–and… oh Taki, I’m so sorry!” The tears suddenly burst out and she flung herself forward onto him, sobbing into his shoulder.

Taki patted at her hair awkwardly.  It seemed the sort of thing to do, but it felt so strange to him now. Once it would have seemed so natural.

“Please don’t be so cold to me,” Rhuni continued. “All I’ve known these past weeks has been coldness. I knew Molo didn’t really love me, but he’s been so mean, so sneering and condescending. You don’t know how it’s been.”

“No, I don’t suppose that I do… What did you come here for Rhuni? Really?”

She looked up to him, eyes shining beneath tears. “Take me away from here, Taki. Can’t we go back to the dreams we had? Just you and I?”

Taki bit his lip, conflicted. He felt sympathy, he had to. But that didn’t mean he wanted the same things he once had.

“How would that even work, Rhuni? Molo is a powerful man, he knows everything that goes on in the city.”

“Of course,” she nodded. “We would have to keep a secret, wait a while until we could leave this planet. Just as we always dreamed we would!”

“So…wait and hope on those dreams? Just like before. Except waiting and hoping apart now, instead of together.”

“It wouldn’t be so long. I’ve heard about your success here in the races…in fact, that’s why I came today.” Rhuni pulled away from him and opened her shoulder-bag, rummaging for a moment and then pulling out a reference card like she was revealing a great treasure. “I’ve spoken with one of the sponsors in those leagues. He’s willing to represent you. From what I understand he’s one of the best, and he’s willing to see you get more than a fair cut of the winnings.”

“In return for you convincing me to run his colors…”

“Well…yes. See now we’re working together for our future,” she smiled brightly. “Just as it should be.”

Taki sighed. “I have dozens of these cards already Rhuni. Anyway, I thought you always hated these races.”

“I hate how they endanger you! And yes, I still do. But you’ve decided to do them, and from what I hear you’re quite good at it. Ready to move on to where real money gets made.”

“And to where things are all the more dangerous.”

“Well if you’re afraid of it then don’t do it,” she pouted. She blinked quickly and shook her head, then pushed that prior softness back into her face. “I’m sorry, Taki. No, of course I’d prefer you didn’t do this at all. I just thought you were already planning to, and thought I could help then. But–really, don’t do it–unless you want to.”

She bit her lip and Taki found he didn’t find that so cute anymore. She did it whenever she was afraid that she wouldn’t get her way. Had she always been like this?

“Actually I wasn’t planning to run in the higher leagues, Rhuni,” Taki finally said, folding his arms and leaning back. “They’ve been trying to bring me over for a while now but something just hasn’t sat right with me about it. I couldn’t place what it was until now. The problem is it would mean playing their game. The game of people like Molo, Zantar, Sovereign Prow… Those higher races are just propaganda for them. They finance the leagues, they set their runners against one another, they build lavish stadiums to show off, their sick money just flows through the whole sport like its lifeblood.”

He shook his head in disgust and then continued. “And all of it built on the backs of people like us. You know what the mortality rates are like for the engineers making those arenas. But what can they do? They say it’s illegal for us to grow our own food, but then they inflate its price until we’re too desperate to not take their contracts. No Rhuni, these illegal alley tracks are the only place a runner can compete with a clean conscience.”

“It’s wrong, but it’ll be happening whether you run there or not. Let them play their game, we’ll be the ones laughing when we leave this world with their money.”

“I can’t do it Rhuni.”

Rhuni nodded slowly, but her pursed mouth gave away her incredulity. When she spoke it was with barely-suppressed rage. “So then…you’re going to throw away all of our dreams, just for the principle of the matter?!”

“Far better than when you threw our dreams away for a lack of them.”

It was the first intentionally hurtful thing he had ever said to her. It was also the most honest. Rhuni’s lip trembled somewhere between anger and pain, and without a word she forced her way past him and out the door.

As the door closed behind her, he found himself alone at last. Taki put his hands over his eyes and exhaled slowly. Had he really just done that? It surprised him…but he didn’t regret it. A few more silent moments passed, and then he heard the muffled voice of the Master of Ceremonies, calling for the racers in the next race to approach the starting line. Well, it was time to move forwards again.

Taki exited Boro’s shack and glanced to either side. The mechanic wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but Tala was still waiting for him.

“Whew,” she whistled impressively, “that girl looked real mad when she stormed out of here!”

“I’m not in the mood to discuss it, Tala,” Taki sighed as he began stumping towards the raceway. She hurried to keep pace with him.

“Well good, because I didn’t really want to talk about her either. But just tell me this, how do you feel?”

“What? I’m fine. Actually… now that I think about it I guess I feel pretty good!”

“Atta boy!” she slugged his armored shoulder, then winced and shook her hand. “So what’s next?”

“I’m not sure Tala. I do know that I won’t be moving on to the higher leagues, though. It just wouldn’t feel right to run for the men I’ve spent my whole life hating. And it doesn’t make sense to keep running around in these lower circuits either, pretty soon no one will compete against me anymore…I guess it’s time for something new.”

They had reached the starting point of the race. Taki took his stance and started looking over the track in front of him. Before he could really take it in though he felt a hand tapping his shoulder. He turned and Tala was still there. She was supposed to be back with the other spectators, but instead she was gesturing at his faceplate.

“What?” Taki said, pressing the button to retract the glass shield. “Is it coming loose.”

Instead of answering Tala gripped the metal plates on his shoulders and pulled him near. “I told you earlier, I don’t like boys who are angry and running away. I like a boy who’s chasing for something.” And with that she kissed him hard.

Taki was momentarily aware of the other racers glancing over awkwardly, and as if from a mile away he heard the Master of Ceremonies shouting out “Go!” Then, just as forcefully as she had pulled him near, Tala gave him a shove and pushed him off the precipice and into open space.

He fell backwards, staring up at her shrinking form. He grinned, flicked his faceplate back closed, and turned around to greet the ground. He reached the bottom with a full reservoir of stored energy. He looked off to a low boundary wall, angled his arm, and thrust himself towards it with all he had. The ground buckled at his departure, and in one smooth arc he closed the distant to the barrier and sailed clean over it.

The crowd behind him gasped in shock. Some of them even cried.

He had not only fallen out-of-bounds and forfeited the race. It so happened that that particular boundary was also the edge of their entire city, indeed of their entire world. Everyone knew it, yet somehow he had willfully, even enthusiastically, bounded over its matrix and dropped into “the chasm.” Now he would plummet for over fifteen thousand feet. He would hit terminal velocity and his suit would easily dispel the force on impact, but having once cast himself off of their space-scraper he would be forever lost to a strange and unseen realm: the ground-level.

Indeed, no one from their megastructures knew what lay down, down, down where he was going. Its murky depths hadn’t been explored for at least seven generations. Some said it had long since been entirely reclaimed by the wild, others said it was home to a brutish civilization straight out of the stone age. Still others said it was the only free place left on the planet, and that the beginnings of a rebellion took refuge there.

“Oh my,” Boro breathed out in awe from his perch among the other spectators. A strange glint of excitement twinkled in his eye, contrasting the horror that gripped everyone else. “Did you see that Tala?”

He turned, but the girl was not by him anymore.

“Tala?” he called, then noticed that the door to his workshop was open. He cocked his head in confusion, but before he could go over to investigate a silver streak came charging out of it.

Clothed head-to-foot in Taki’s spare suit, Tala was bounding towards the raceway.

“What are you doing?” Boro roared, but she dashed past him and swan-dove over the race’s launching point. Like a bullet she streaked down to the ground, her face etched with deepest resolve. She landed on the ground in the same crater Taki had left, and she similarly bounded from it, arcing high and wide over the same edge that he had vanished from.

The crowd exclaimed in shock again, the last sound she would ever hear from them. Their echoes fading behind, she turned her head downwards and dove again. Deeper, deeper, deeper. Chasing after him into the unknown.

 

Last week I spoke about the technical details of moving a story through time and space. I mentioned that the author has the power to flicker between different locations at will and quicken and slow the timescale freely. These are powerful abilities, and I tried to be cautious with them in this last post so as to not jerk the reader around in an uncomfortable way.

I knew, of course, that the ending of the story was quite dramatic, expanding the world in an instant into something many times the magnitude of what had been seen previously. I knew there were sharp shifts in the flow of time, such as when I froze it to dwell on the singular moment of Taki’s escape, immediately followed by a blistering account of how Tala followed after him.

My intention with that particular sequence was to blitz through Tala’s decision so quickly that it simply became a continuation of what came before, half of an orchestra beginning the crescendo with the rest joining in to finish it. It was a tricky transition, and maybe you could think of a way to better way to write it.

In any case, that brings us to the conclusion of Power Suit Racing. There has been a strong central theme to this story, one that was even reflected in my previous piece Washed Ashore. It is the idea of the chase, one of the most common plot structures in all of storytelling, and one that is forever adaptable to new interpretations. Come back on Monday where we will explore this concept more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!