The Love of Magic

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Obsessed With the Unreal)

Why are stories so full of magic and surrealism? Why do fantasy and sci-fi novels dominate the industry?

Even stories based in the real world push towards the fringes of fantasy. The underdog succeeds more completely than we ever will, the boy and the girl are unbelievably compatible with each other, and the bully is an unbelievable caricature of pure evil. Shakespeare often wrote of real-life events and characters, but it is a sort of historical fiction, where the stories are still steeped in the fantastic. Characters are pushed and pulled by unseen humors, motives are based on the call of destiny, and outcomes are ruled by fate.

Even our most true-to-life stories and documentaries are chosen from subjects that are so extreme that they sound like an alien world to the rest of us. Tiger King was such a popular documentary series on Netflix because it dealt with such flamboyant and dangerous events that most of us will never experience anything like it in our ordinary lives.

So once again, why is this? Why do we almost exclusively select stories that are so heavily steeped in fantasy?

I reject the answer that it is because stories are just an escapism, a vehicle for getting away from our ordinary, mundane lives. Yes, these fantastic stories can be great entertainment, but there is more to it than that. A story steeped in fantasy doesn’t just feel entertaining, it somehow feels more right. There is something truer and more real about a story because of its unrealism.

The Truer Fantasy)

In my latest short story, Secrets in the Mountain, I introduced a character who lives an absolutely realistic, mundane life. He drives to the office in his ordinary car, works in his ordinary cubicle, and attends an ordinary meeting.

The monotony of his life is so stifling and mind-numbing that it begs for something fantastic to explode onto the scene! Which is exactly what happens. In my last post I had him look to the mountain as it grew inexplicably brighter and brighter, finally bursting outwards while a beam of light shot from its depths and destroyed the entire city before him!

And while these events could not literally be true, the emotions they conveyed felt correct and fitting for the narrative. They resounded with real inner feelings, if not our real outer experiences.

And this, I believe is the secret to why we love fantasy: because of how well it captures the stirrings of what is inside of us. Fantasy resonates because we are not only a physical body, but also an emotional soul. And that soul is not at all constrained by what “really” happened in the physical world, nor is it satisfied by only a portrayal of those outer events. For events are not fully understood just by being seen, they also need to be felt.

Like that time I was a young boy and wanted to pet my neighbor’s big dog. I was afraid to when the thing was awake, but one moment I found it asleep and thought it was a perfect opportunity to touch its back. Very slowly and cautiously I scooted nearer, then extended a trembling hand to its fur. No sooner did I touch it than the dog suddenly startled awake and snapped its head back to lock eyes with me! I jumped six feet into the air!

Well, I mean, I didn’t. Obviously that was an exaggeration. I just needed to let you understand how it felt when that dog suddenly bolted awake and electricity started to surge through me!

Well, I mean, it didn’t. Obviously that was an exaggeration, too. But it leaves something wanting if I say that the dog snapped around to look at me and I just felt “very, very startled.” I naturally revert into more fantastic expressions, not to lie about the experience, but to be more true to how it actually felt.

Making the Metaphor Solid)

Another reason for delving into the fantastic is to embody the things that have no body, but are still very real. Sometimes we feel pushed and pulled by forces in our lives, but these forces have no names or faces, so in our stories we invent ones for them.

Consider the sensation of a woman who doesn’t feel like a traditional housewife, but feels pressured by society to conform to a preconceived model. They might say that they feel like the world is trying to smother them and replace them with a perfect robot instead.

And so that’s exactly what the story of The Stepford Wives does. It takes that “feels like” statement and turns it into a literal manifestation, allowing the audience to grapple with these intangible ideas in a way that feels visceral and real.

This same approach is visible in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which is steeped in an incredibly fantastical world. Superheroes and fairy tale creatures are realities in this story, and it is easy to think that the dramatic events have no bearing on reality. But actually there is a very powerful connection between this fiction and our everyday lives.

The main antagonist of the film is Prince Nuada, an elf whose father made a truce with mortal men eons ago, agreeing that humanity would keep itself to the cities and the magical creatures would keep to the forests. Of course that is a pledge that has long-since been forgotten. Humanity has continued to sprawl in an uncontrolled fashion, taking over both ancient culture and natural beauty, leading Prince Nuada to declare war on our species.

And obviously this is a commentary on Western society’s expansionism, which takes over real-life cultures and causes real-life extinctions in nature. And while the film is exciting and imaginative, it also brings the audience to appreciate the real-life fact that when one slice of humanity flourishes, it usually comes at a cost to other cultures and nature.

Our Need For Magic)

Putting magic into stories isn’t just for “fun” or “escape.” It is essential to capturing the deeper emotions of our heart, as well as the large, external forces that move us. Reality, it would seem, is much more than meets the eye, and story is the medium by which we make all of its invisible layers apparent.

Covalent: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Cace lay very still, waiting until he was sure that Rolar and Aylme were both asleep. Of course none of the children slept very deeply in their small hole beneath the tree. It was stuffy and humid, their sweat would stick to them, the moisture would choke them, there was no such thing as real comfort. They hoped only to get enough rest to less feel fatigued when they woke than when they had retired.

So this was as good a time as any to try and press into the Ether, perhaps Aylme would stir enough to notice what he was doing, perhaps she wouldn’t. It couldn’t be helped.

Before Cace pressed all the way into that other world, though, he decided he had better do some experiments. If he did make it through to the other side, was it still within his power to make it back again? These explorations would go over much better if he didn’t have to rely on one of the others to wake him up each time.

Cace closed his eyes, calmed his thoughts, and focused on his breathing. He listened to the air flowing in and out, noticed the taste of water in it, felt his chest rise higher and sink lower.

One-by-one he let go of his other thoughts, he let them sift to the bottom of his mind and rest. Then he told his mind to drop its connections to his feet and hands, to his legs and arms. An itch on his foot made itself known, but he let that pass without further acknowledging it and it went away. He became detached from those limbs’ sensations, lost his awareness of their weight, became nothing but a head and a body.

Now he let go of his belly and his head. He stopped noticing the grumbling in his stomach, the twitches in his face, the sweat pooling at his back. He was only the breathing, only the steady in-and-out of air.

Finally Cace turned his attention deeper than the breathing. He had learned that there was another rhythm within him, one that rose and fell like his inhales and exhales, but was not actually attached tied to his breathing. It was that rhythm that was his key to the Ether.

But it was a very faint signal, one that he had never been able to hone in on until just recently. Only after the Elders at the House of Olaish had taught him how to quiet everything else, and even then it had remained a rare thing for him to find. Sometimes he laid for hours in his chamber, without so much as a pulse to show for his searching.

That was not the case this time, though. This time Cace found the rhythm almost instantly, as if it was searching for him as much as he for it. Cace was not surprised, even amidst the day’s distractions he had had the sense that the tether to the Ether had not been fully severed when Aylme awoke him. He had walked and talked and moved here in the real world, but a part of him had remained a citizen of the other and it connected him to that place.

This other rhythm was much more rapid than his regular breathing, even more rapid than his racing heartbeat. It was like a strong current, rushing through pipes, throbbing under excessive load. It crackled and stung as he leaned in to touch it.

Even so he pressed into that rippling energy, he attuned himself to its rhythm, he rushed and halted his heart to match its beating. He rose when it rose, he fell when it fell. And in the rises he started to see more. Saw that flat gray tinged with blues and yellow, saw the forms starting to take shape. He was entering far more quickly than he had earlier that afternoon, he was almost back to feeling his different members in that new world.

And then he tried to stop it. Before he pressed all the way into the Ether he wanted to try drawing himself back out. He let go of the connection to its rhythm, tried to move his heart at a different cadence. What cadence though? He couldn’t remember what its usual beating was like… Didn’t matter. Any cadence, just so long as it broke out of the Ether’s.

But it hurt him to try and exit that rhythm. Every time he tried to raise himself out the strong current pushed back, kept him locked within. Still he kept pressing, harder and longer against the walls that confined him. Cace strained his breathing, strained his heart, strained his mind. It hurt, but he let it hurt. It tore, but he let it tear. He kept pressing on in one, unending push…

And sat bolt upright back in the hole under the tree. All the air was expelled from his lungs and his heart wasn’t beating at all. He blinked and gave a push and the heartbeat thudded back painfully. He opened his mouth and his vacuumed lungs sucked in the air with a great, moaning gasp.

It was very loud and Rolar snorted in his sleep beside him. Over on the other side Aylme started to sit upwards and Cace threw himself back to the floor. He tried to hold his trembling body still as he heard her looking left and right, trying to make sense of what was going on while still only half-awake.

“Something there?” she mumbled, then sighed and lay back down.

Back on the other side of Rolar, Cace clutched his hands to his chest and shook violently. He tried to quiet his desperate breathing, but he felt it would kill him if he didn’t get some air flowing in and out of his lungs. Maybe Aylme was still stirred enough to hear his gasping, but he couldn’t hold it back any longer. He opened his mouth and started hyperventilating. In and out, in and out, desperate and greedy. He cupped his hands around his mouth, trying to hold the air into him for longer.

And as the air flowed back into him he felt his body tingling painfully back to life. His lungs ached, his fingers and toes prickled from loss of blood, and his whole body shivered uncontrollably. Not only this, but he became aware of the taste of blood in his mouth. He didn’t know how or where, but he had torn himself.

It was horrible, and Cace wondered if he was dying. Would these pangs escalate until he could bear them no more? Would he keep shaking until he couldn’t hold himself together and things started to tear? Any moment he expected to discover some deep wound that he was bleeding out the last of his life through.

But no. His breath remained ragged and his body continued to shake for a full fifteen minutes, but finally the panic started to subside. Slowly Cace regained the ability to breathe normally. The shivers quieted down, with only a random tremble now and again. And though he spat out two full mouthfuls of blood, he never discovered any mortal wound.

His whole body was drenched in sweat, but now at last he could lean back and relax his shoulders, could collapse against the ground, could actually rest.

Earlier that afternoon he had felt he had no choice but to go back to the Ether. Now, though, he realized that Aylme was right…it was too dangerous. If he kept going back, he wouldn’t survive!

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Sixteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen

“They’re going to cut us off from behind!” Tharol announced. “But if we move now I think we can get through the tower before they do it.” It was the the boys’ only option. Not would this keep them from being sandwiched between two walls of enemies, there was also a second staircase down to the courtyard on the other side of the tower. The only problems were…

“But that’s away from Master Palthio!” Avro said.

” And they’ll cut us down as soon as our backs are turned!” Bovik added.

“I don’t think Master Palthio is coming with us,” Tharol addressed Avro’s concern. The man was reinforcing the gates to give the boys more time…but even he wouldn’t be holding back the tide for long. The enemies would break through before long, and then they would be right upon him and he would have nowhere to run. Palthio had known that when he went there.

More serious was the second concern. Even now a set of crossbowmen was mounting the ladders behind the armored soldiers. They weren’t firing on Tharol and the other boys because they were too enmeshed with the soldiers. But soon the assaulting forces would be called back, clearing the way for the arrows to cut the boys down.

“Go!” Janeao shouted, panting from the physical demands of being the bulwark of their little army. “You all get out of here. I’ll hold them back.”

“We didn’t come save you lot just to leave you behind!” Tharol returned hotly.

“Well I didn’t come up here to be saved, Tharol! I came here to take care of what needs to be taken care of.”

“But you can’t–“

“I can hold this, Tharol. Trust me for once.”

And with that Janeao gave a great cry then surged forward. He dropped his sword and wrapped his arms around the nearest soldiers, tackling them down to the ground. Further behind the crossbowmen raised their eyes in surprise, then scrambled to load their weapons.

“Everyone go!” Tharol shouted. He gave one parting glance at Janeao down on the ground, punching and throwing with all his might, then turned around and darted after the others towards the tower!

There was a shout from behind as the soldiers tried to push past Janeao, around the boys crossbow bolts ricocheted wildly, ahead of them soldiers climbed the ladder, sneaking into the tower window above. Danger lurked on every side.

*

Down below, the stone soldiers had started creeping cautiously back towards the gate. The shockwaves from Master Palthio had ceased streaming through the holes, now suppressed by the magical aura of the statue lady. Her right hand still rested on the massive, stone bricks of the wall, and she was muttering something under her breath as the rock began to glow and quiver.

One of the stone soldiers came up to her side and pressed his hand against the wall-block nearest to him. It quivered even more rapidly, then all at once it turned in its recess. The soldier continued stepping forward and the separate stones of his arm began similarly rotating and folding, rearranging themselves to fill the cavity left by the rotated wall-block. He kept on pushing forward, and the sections of the wall and the sections of his body continued rotating, sliding, folding, reassembling. Eventually his entirety had passed into the churning knot of rocks, like the pieces of a puzzle tumbling together.

And now the churning continued on the other side of the wall, on the inside of the keep. The blocks there shifted and turned and rearranged until a stone arm started to emerge from their folds, then a head and a chest.

Master Palthio’s eyes shot sideways to the intruder. Sweat beaded his brow, but he pulled one hand away from the crumbled gate and sent a fresh shockwave to the side, blasting that stone warrior into dust. Then he turned his head to the other side. Two other stone soldiers were already emerging out of the wall over there!

*

An arrow sliced through the air and lodged itself in Avro’s shoulder. The force of it spun him around and he fell to the ground. Tharol was bringing up the rear and reached down and pulled the boy back to his feet without so much as a break in his stride.

“Unnngh!” Avro moaned as Tharol hadn’t had the time to be sensitive to the wounded shoulder. Together the two of them kept racing forward after the other boys.

Golu was in the lead and had just reached the door to the tower. He burst through it, raising his sword to be ready for whatever lay on the other side. It was a single, round room, with a spiral staircase in the center ascending to the next floor. Already the enemy peasants were filing down that staircase, coming to cut off the boys’ exit.

Golu sprang forward with a cry and swung his sword with practiced precision. Each of his blows was efficient and lethal. While he held the horde at bay the other boys scrambled around the staircase and out the other door.

“Come on, Golu!” Tharol shouted after all the others had exited.

Golu sprang after Tharol and through the opening. Tharol slammed the door closed and Golu thrust his sword into the gap between door and frame, wedging it as tightly between the two as he could. It would take the soldier’s a moment to break through that bond. In a line the boys rushed down the staircase at the other end of the tower and into the courtyard. Tharol could hardly believe that they had made it this far!

Then there came a shout from above and Tharol saw the crossbowmen standing in a line on top of the ramparts. They had realized the boys’ game, and had simply moved to a position where they would have an excellent view of the entire courtyard. Tharol and the other boys might dodge and weave as best they could, but there was no way they could avoid all of the bolts that were about to rain down on them!

The leader of the crossbowmen stood at the center of their firing line. He raised his arm and shouted “Aim!” All of the snipers raised their weapons to their cheeks. “Fire!”

“NO!” came a shout from down below. A wave of light streaked across the courtyard, intercepting the volley of arrows and bursting them into dust.

Master Palthio drew his hands away from the gate, finally letting its splinters crumble to the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. Though he had tried to cut down the stone soldiers pressing through the wall, he hadn’t been able to keep up in his weakened state. Slowly their numbers had grown until they were now crowding around him a dozen strong, spears lowered for the killing blow.

There was only one thing left to do.

Even as the weapons pierced through his body Master Palthio lifted his hands wide and sent a final shockwave right into the epicenter of the wall. The stones nearest to him disintegrated into dust, ripples of force rocked to the left and right as if the wall had been made of water, and then the entire line began cascading inwards like a line of dominos! Master Palthio had obliterated the central support, and now gravity would do the rest.

The eyes of the crossbowmen and armored soldiers went wide as the ramparts fell out from beneath them. They fell all the way to the fields below, joining the cascading rock and metal and wood that poured into the front lines of the army still waiting to enter the keep.

“MOVE!” Tharol shouted, lunging forward and physically pushing the other boys in front of him. Master Palthio may have just cleared the line, but there was still rank upon rank of soldiers who now had no barrier to slow their advance!

And at the front of that army there still stood the statue lady. Having been at the epicenter of Master Palthio’s blast, all the cobblestone had been reduced to harmless dust around her. Now she strode angrily over the shambles of the gate. She glanced down to the ground where Master Palthio gave out his last breath, surrounded by the pebbles that had moments before been his killers.

“Who were you?” she whispered curiously.

“What was that, Madam?” her bodyguard, who was also her Lieutenant, stepped to her side.

“Never mind.” She brought herself back to the matters at hand and pointed her arm out to Tharol and the others’ retreating forms. “Shoot them!”

“Crossbows!” the Lieutenant called and four nearby archers hurried forward and raised weapons alongside of him.

The boys were nearly to the end of the courtyard, nearly through the arch and onto the main street that led towards the district marketplace.

“Fire!” the Lieutenant called, and four bolts whistled through the air.

Up ahead the boys moved single file to the the narrow arch. And at their back was Tharol. The whole way he had deliberately remained in the rear, urging the other boys on ahead of him.

Without warning all four of the bolts struck Tharol, each between the shoulder blades. Their combined force lifted him into the air and threw him to the ground. He gave a cry of surprise, then slammed into the dirt. The other boys turned in shock, eyes shifting from their fallen comrade to the crossbowmen hurriedly reloading their weapons in the distance.

“Don’t worry about it, just go,” Tharol grunted as he pushed back up to his feet and continued dashing forward. The boys stared at him in bewilderment, but he gave them a shove and they continued their escape. All of them made it out the arch before the crossbowmen could fire again, and once they were clear Tharol tore off his outer tunic and shrugged off the shield he had strapped to his back. He had thought it a prudent addition for the unknown dangers of the night, and had put it on when he had left Master Palthio’s quarters.

Back at the gate the statue lady scoffed at her inability to have anything go according to plan this night.

“Arcuse, set aside a medical unit and get all the wounded there as quickly as possible,” she directed her Lieutenant. “Have everyone else ready to march at a moment’s notice.”

“Yes, Lady Sawk. And apparently they’ve found the boy.”

“The boy?”

“The spy that was here. Reis.”

“Ah. Reis Antine. Where is he?”

She was led to a section of the courtyard where several soldiers were tending to the poisoned lad. He had crawled his way off of the ramparts before they had fallen to pieces, but had not made it much further before the soldiers found him.

Lady Sawk kneeled at his side and turned his face to look at her.

“You failed,” she pronounced.

“My Lady,” Reis wheezed faintly. “I’m sorry. I was tricked. They poisoned me.”

“They weren’t supposed to know that you needed poisoning. You were elected because of your ability to remain subtle.”

“I tried. I did my best. I don’t know how–“

“I do. You tried to be clever. That’s always been your weakness, Reis. You can’t ever just finish the job, you have to make it a masterpiece. And with complexity comes mistakes.”

“I’m–I’m sorry.”

“All you had to do was kill them in their sleep. Nothing more. You toyed with them, didn’t you.”

Reis’s silence was answer enough.

“And now your blunder has cost us time. And in that time Lord Amathur will have heard about the forces we brought today. He will know that he’s been tricked and what it is we are really here for. And that means he’ll be shut up in his castle and we’re only going to have him out of there through a great deal of trouble and blood.”

The woman paused and cocked her head as she regarded a thought.

“Well, that’s not entirely your fault, is it? I assume you did not know the master of this keep was an Old Guardian, did you?”

“No,” Reis shook his head slowly.

“No, none of us did. Very curious. Well he would have given us trouble regardless then. I wonder how he came to hide at such a lowly station…. What was his name?”

“Palthio.”

“Never heard of him.”

Reis was thoroughly exhausted from the strain of crawling down from the wall, the chaos of the battle, and the fear of Lady Sawk’s disapproval. He face was pale and shining with sweat and he was having a harder and harder time getting each word out of his throat. Even so, he balled his fists and forced himself to push through the next sentences.

“There was a boy with Palthio, too. The one commanding the others. He might know more about the master.”

“So?”

“I will hunt him down. I will bring him to you. Please, my Lady, I know that I let you down, but I will atone for it. Let me find him!”

“What, did you think I was going to kill you?”

No answer.

“Oh dear,” she shook her head and tutted. “Just what sort of tales are they telling about me?”

With that she concluded Reis’s audience, raised back to her feet, and turned to her bodyguard.

“Alright, Arcuse. Have him taken with the rest of the wounded and give the order to move forward.”

She found herself momentarily alone and she took the opportunity to stare into the dark in quiet repose. She touched a hand to her hard, cold face, and tipped her head upwards to the sky. Cloudless, star-scattered, and bathed in a full moon. A perfect night for conquest. A perfect night for turning fate. A perfect night to raise the New Order!

And there, at long last, is the end to The Favored Son. I really do need to reconsider calling this short stories if they keep running this long, though. At 34,500 words, The Favored Son: Alternate is half the length of a full-blown novel!

Not for the first time I’ve wondered whether I should just go ahead and do a full-length novel here on the blog. It wouldn’t be publish-ready with my tight time constraints, it would be a first draft only. I’ll keep that idea stewing in the background and decide later. For now I’m just happy to have this one completed. It was a satisfying piece to write, I enjoyed being able to better capture the original vision behind the tale and I discovered many new and pleasant ideas along the way.

Come back on Monday as we leave these shores and venture towards uncharted water. The vessel we launch on will be slightly familiar, though. One theme of this story has been the concept of children at play, whose little pretend-wars finally become literal. And as a segue into my next short story I want to examine this notion of children at play. This is, after all, where each of us first began our journey into the world of crafting stories. Come back on Monday as we dive into that, and from there to fresher grounds.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Fifteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

Tharol heard the scream ringing from the barracks and stood up with a start. After a moment he realized what it was and he looked down somberly.

“Well maybe you couldn’t do anything about all these plots, but I did,” he told Master Palthio defiantly. “That’s the sound of Reis’s schemes being snuffed out. I did it myself because no one else was going to lift a finger to stop him!”

Master Palthio smiled sadly. “I applaud your initiative, Tharol, but you haven’t stopped anything. Reis was but the tip of an iceberg.”

*

Inol frantically backed away from Reis’s twitching form, spun around, and leaned for support against the rampart railing.

“ATTACK! ATTACK!” he shouted in the direction of the barracks. “THERE’S AN ARMY OUTSIDE THE GATES!”

Beesk came racing up the staircase and onto the ramparts.

“What do you think you’re doing? Do you want everyone to–” he stopped speaking as he came into view of the army approaching below. They were near enough now to see them in detail. They were a strangely cobbled force, a mixture of elite soldiers in armor, peasants bearing wooden clubs, and a third class that was…made of stone! Some had only a rocky or head, while others were entirely composed of rock except for a single patch of flesh. They hobbled forward awkwardly on their heavy joints, shaking the ramparts with the collective force of their boulder feet.

“Seventeenth Gate!” the woman at the forefront of the army called. “Why are your doors not open?”

“It’s her,” Beesk mumbled to Inol, stepping back from the ramparts’ edge in fear. “It’s the statue lady…. This was all a trap!”

“I know!”

“Seventeenth Gate!” the statue lady called again. “Is anyone there? Answer me or face the consequences!”

Reis turned on his side and retched violently. The chills washed over his body in waves and he fell back to the rampart trembling uncontrollably. Even though he didn’t have the strength to even raise himself his eyes were steeling with anger and resolve. He knew what had happened to him and he knew who had done it. He wasn’t sure how, but Tharol had known more than he had let on, and he had poisoned Reis with a lethal dose. But Reis hadn’t been killed. Not yet. And now Tharol would have to deal with the consequences of that fact!

*

“What do you mean you did your part to resist what’s coming?” Tharol demanded of Master Palthio. “You say you couldn’t put a stop to Beesk, or Inol, or Reis, or any of the things they represent, so what were you doing? What was the point?!”

“What I was doing was teaching,” Master Palthio said simply. “I’ve been training the lot of you, hoping to instill some sense of duty and principle in you all. Preparing your minds and bodies for the coming fight. Teaching you how to operate as individuals and as a group. Yes I knew we had corruptors in our bunch, but the rest of you I tried to keep apart from all that.”

Teaching?!

“Yes, and Tharol you were the brightest of them all, and the most capable. I saw that if there was going to be any hope for these boys it would be through you. And that’s why I have been pushing you so hard of late.”

“Felt more like you were trying to get rid of me!”

“Well, in a sense, yes, but for your own good. I was trying to take away the order as your crutch. Trying to wean you off of this sick, decaying body. There’s no future for you here. Your destiny needs to be apart from the city, the order, and Gate Seventeen.”

“A destiny for what? To hear you go on there isn’t anything left for us to save!”

“Just each other.”

Tharol blinked.

“Avro, Janeao, Bovik, Golu, and others like them,” Master Palthio continued. “Maybe those like Beesk and Inol after their schemes have fallen to pieces and they’re humbled. But don’t waste any time trying to save our order or nation. Just take care of the individuals who still have their spark of duty. Do it by your own means. Take your own counsel. Don’t rely on any part of our dead system, not even on me.”

Tharol paused to take it in. He had just had his whole world disrupted and he felt like he needed to sit down and think it over for a long while. But, of course, there was no time for that.

“I really do need to go,” he said softly, stepping towards the door.

“Yes, you do,” Master Palthio waved his hand and the door was unfastened. “And I have my final work to do as well.”

*

All the other boys had rushed out into the courtyard now and were halfway up the stairs to the ramparts.

“What’s going on?” Avro demanded.

“We’re doomed!” Inol came down to meet them, face ashen. Beesk followed behind, trembling like a leaf. “Reis betrayed us. They’re going to kill us!”

The pronouncement was immediately followed by the sound of death shouts off in the distance. Inol and Beesk cowered even lower behind the wall, but Avro poked his head up high enough to see where the noises were coming from. He looked to Gate Eighteen to the right and Gate Sixteen to the left. There the great doors had been opened from within and the army was filing through uncontested. And no sooner had the army been admitted into the keep than they had apparently begun murdering the gatekeepers there!

“Never mind,” the statue lady scoffed in disgust down on the plains. It was clear to her that their accomplice wouldn’t be opening the gate for them. “Break this door down!”

Her stone soldiers had only been waiting for the order! Like dogs freed from the leash they gave a shout and charged forward at full speed, built up their momentum, then flung their bodies against the gate like a hundred different battering rams! The entire keep shook from the impact, the wood of the doors splintered, and the iron lattice bent inwards. Meanwhile the peasant soldiers picked up their ladders, sprinted to place them against the walls, and began their ascent. Several of the armored soldiers lifted crossbows and fired them along the ramparts in case any guards were concealed in the dark.

The boys inside flung themselves to the ground, faces looking to one another in horror. For a moment they were paralyzed into inaction, but then Golu broke the silence with a sudden thought.

“The breaching charges!” he said, then rose to his feet and began crawling back up the stairs to the ramparts, careful to keep his head beneath the bolts sailing overhead. Avro and Janeao followed behind, while the other boys dashed to the weapon rack and grabbed their swords and bows and arrows. The three boys up top crawled across the ramparts, lighting the fuses that ran along the top of the wall as they went.

What they were lighting was a series of explosives that had been mixed into the rock all along the top of the wall. No sooner did the first of the peasants reach the top of the wall than the explosives went off, spraying fire and rocky shrapnel, slaying the first of the offenders and blasting their ladders backwards off the wall!

Of course Golu, Avro, and Janeao had not been able to reach all the sections of the wall, and so in other places the peasant soldiers mounted the ramparts unscathed. But these were met by the arrows of the other boys down below. Bovik, Beesk, and Inol fired with practiced skill, cutting the infiltrators down easily, due to their lack of proper armor.

“We’ve got to fall back!” Inol roared as the stone warriors flung themselves once again the at the gate, buckling it to the point that wide gaps were starting to appear. One more dash and they would have the whole thing down.

“They’ll just chase us down,” Bovik shook his head sadly.

“No, they’ve got bigger matters to attend to,” Inol offered hopefully. “They probably don’t even care about us.”

“Up above!” Beesk pointed to a wave of armored soldiers that had just mounted the ladders. The boys fired a fresh volley, but only half of the arrows were able to find weak parts in the armor, such as around the joints, while the rest clattered harmlessly off the plate. The surviving men charged undeterred towards Golu, Avro, and Janeao, while yet another wave of armored soldiers mounted the ladders behind them.

“We’ve got to go!” Inol repeated, then turned and ran, not waiting to see if the others followed him.

“We can’t just leave the other boys!” Bovik protested. But also Beesk turned and ran, proving that he most certainly could!

“Let’s go get them, Bovik.”

Bovik turned back and saw Tharol quickly approaching.

“But–” Bovik’s misgivings towards Tharol were clear on his face.

“I just want to help you,” Tharol said earnestly, pulling sword and shield from the weapon rack then coming back to his ally. “Let’s go get them.”

Bovik exhaled deeply, gave a nod, and the two boys began sprinting for the staircase. Along the way they passed by the gate, just as it shook from a third battering by the stone warriors. The hinges ripped out of the stone and the entire door fell inwards! The boys instinctively lifted their arms to protect themselves from the crashing rubble…but it never hit them.

Master Palthio stepped forward, hands outstretched to the broken door, magically keeping it pinned to its proper place. His eyes shone brightly and he sent out a great shockwave. It coursed through the wide gaps that had been broken in the door, breaking into the stone soldiers on the other side, and bursting them into pebbles! The remaining stone warriors pulled back in surprise.

“Well…” the statue lady mused from behind, “that’s interesting. While the last of the retreating stone soldiers passed by her she strode forward confidently, closing on the door with her own arms stretched out wide. “I don’t know who you are,” she panted as she felt the full force of Palthio’s powers bearing down. “But these walls are mine.” She matched the words my placing her outstretched hands on the stone barrier that framed the door, closed her eyes, and imbued her powers into the lifeless rock.

Meanwhile, Tharol and Bovik mounted the staircase up above and bowled into the front-most ranks of the armored soldiers, flinging them right over the ramparts and off the wall! Then the two boys spun on the spot and met the next line of enemies with swords flashing. They lunged at the foes with an aggressiveness that belied their inferior numbers.

There were too many of the soldiers to keep them permanently at bay, but the two boys made a controlled retreat backwards until Golu, Avro, and Janeao were able to join the fray. Then the retreat slowed and came to a standstill. Though they were still fewer than their foes, and not nearly so well armored, the boys had far greater synergy as a team. Each armored soldier was trained only as an individual, occasionally stumbling over each other as they all sought their own best line forward. The boys, however, naturally fell into a shared rhythm.

To begin with Janeao took the front, using his greater size to shield the other boys and swinging his sword like a windmill, clearing enough room for the others to operate within. Golu was to Janeao’s side and slightly behind, watching for the openings that Janeao’s blustering opened up and then used his superior techniques to administer one finishing blow after another. He was the surgical precision behind Janeao’s thundering hammer. Avro and Bovik meanwhile filled in all the gaps. As efficient as Janeao and Golu were, they couldn’t cover everything at once. So Avro and Bovik drove their swords like spears through the openings, sometimes to counter a missed attack, sometimes to increase their own side’s aggression.

Tharol helped Avro and Bovik in that work as well, but his primary contribution was at the back, directing their troupe in its lethal dance.

“Bovik, on the right!” he shouted. “Six more behind this set, boys, pace yourselves. Perhaps Mora-Long? Was that a cut on you, Janeao?”

“I’m fine!”

“Avro, two steps to the right, I need to move that body!” He pulled the corpse back and flung it over the edge, clearing up the ground for Golu’s footing.

“Watch that sword, Avro, don’t tangle it in Janeao’s swings. Golu, watch the ground, he’s getting back up!”

Every now and then Tharol swept his eyes around the area, making sure that he was ever aware of their surroundings. They had managed to hold their ground thus far, and on occasion had even advanced a foot or two forward. But they were still twelve feet back from the top of the stairs, which was the nearest exit out of this place.

There was a sound of clattering behind them and Tharol turned to see an extra-long ladder being placed against the Northern Tower. The peasants had bound two of their shorter ladders together in order to reach the lowest window of that tower, and were now ascending to enter it. They were going to come into the tower on its second floor, race down its staircase, onto the ramparts from behind, and hit the boys from the rear!

“Alright, we’ve got trouble!” Tharol announced.

Part Sixteen

This was an exciting, fun piece to write! But even amidst all the action I’ve tried to imbue a sense of character development. Consider the moment here at the end where the boys fight the attacking horde together. Throughout the story there have been scenes of them dueling against one another, jockeying for rank, and carving divisions between them. This moment here is the first time that we’ve really seen them work together, the payoff for all that Master Palthio has been trying to instill in them.

Compare how I portray them here to their performance in the first of their competitions, the one where Janeao was trying to hold up the wooden tower as the opposing side broke it down. That was at the very beginning of the story, and the boys were trying to operate as a team, but were largely ineffective. Their focus was on trying to beat the other team, not protect their own. They were flushed in conquest and competition, all at the expense of collaboration and contribution.

It’s been a long and difficult journey for them to this all-important night, full of drama and shifting loyalties, but through it all they have broken down the old relationships that weren’t working, and learned how to genuinely rely on one another instead.

The story is almost done, just one more post to wrap it up. Before we get to that, though, I am going to finish reviewing all the lessons that I have learned in my next post on Monday. Come back then to read about that, and then again on Thursday to see the final words in The Favored Son: Alternate!

The Favored Son: Part One

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“There’s no elders around to see,” Bovik rotated his head on a swivel. “Show us, Reis.”

“You think it’s a matter of being caught by the elders?” Reis frowned disapprovingly. “You don’t think anything of the principle of the matter?”

Bovik sighed. “Explain to him that it’s not like that,” he said to Marvi.

“Reis…no one wants you to do anything you shouldn’t,” Marvi purred softly. “We just–we just thought there was something that you could show us. Something without breaking any rules or anything like that.”

“There might be,” Reis mused, but then he turned and continued leading the group deeper through the stone-hedge. As he went the columns twisted and contorted, re-arranging their layout, opening a path before the gang of youth as they walked, then closing it behind them. Thus they could progress deeper into the maze, but could not be followed, and any of their number who hesitated, or failed to keep up, would also be shut out as unworthy.

Reis took a glance over his shoulder then began to charge forward aggressively. He made one quick turn after another, his gang of followers struggling to keep pace. After a particularly tight hairpin turn he raced up a steep incline and leaped out into the air, a leap of faith, trusting that the stone columns would bend to catch his feet from one step to the next. They did so, spiraling up from the ground to meet his feet with each bound, fifteen feet up in the air.

Marvi, who was directly behind him, followed in perfect sync. Reis could feel her presence without even looking. He unexpectedly paused on his current pedestal, one second longer than his prior steps, then leaped forward again. It was just enough of a change to his cadence to throw her off. She had anticipated his movement, already committed herself to the air, and now the stone pedestal would not leave his control and reform itself where she wanted it in time for her to land on it. She fell all the way to the mossy ground below.

Reis let himself descend back to the surface level and took another glance back at the few of his compatriots still in pursuit. He turned all the way around and locked eyes with Bovik and Talo, the two front-runners. Reis began spinning left and right erratically, side-stepping as he did. The stone walls on either side began fluctuating in response to his movements, rapidly thrusting out barricades and then receding them.

The two boys grit their teeth and tried to follow the dance. They watched Reis’s movements, anticipated the changing walls, and dashed forward or held back as appropriate. Or at least they did until an unexpected riser came sliding across the ground and took Bovik’s feet out from under him.

“Oof! That one was from you!” he snapped at Talo.

“Sorry,” Talo shrugged. It couldn’t be helped that the two boys’ movements were adding an extra complexity to the churning Reis had already started. “We’ve got to go one-at-a-time.”

And so he left his comrade and pressed on ahead, disappearing behind a particularly tricky spiral-turn. Bovik leaped to his feet and followed after, trying to stay far enough back to not be caught in Talo’s wake, but not so far back as to lose Reis entirely.

Fifteen seconds later he found Talo laying on his back, massaging his side.

“He hit me!” Talo told him indignantly. “And not with a wall, mind you! I had just finished dodging a sweeper and he actually, literally reached out and punched me!”

“He wanted to see if you were distracted,” Bovik shrugged, reaching down to pull his friend back up to his feet, “and I guess you were.”

“Well it was still a cheap move.”

“Ahh, don’t worry about it. This isn’t the real test anyway. Keep up with him isn’t what this is all about, now is it?”

Talo thought for a moment, then his eyes lit up as understanding set in. “Oh! Of course. We’re supposed to know where he’s headed and just meet him there.”

“The centrifuge!” they concluded together.

Farther ahead, Reis continued charging forward at a blistering pace. He could not see any of his compatriots over his shoulder any more, but he wanted to be absolutely sure that there weren’t any hangers-on before he made his way to the center of the maze.

Of course it wasn’t just about reaching the physical center of the maze. This was a living, morphing place after all. To truly find the center, you had to approach it in the right way. And that right way was different every time you tried to find it, and different depending on which direction you came at it from.

So at last Reis slowed his run, stopped churning the stone walls around him, and instead starting paying attention to the maze itself. How was it unfolding itself to him this day? What was the pattern–the rule–that naturally dictated its openings and closings?

He came to a full stop, breathed deeply, and took in all his surroundings. Then he took a single step forward and watched how the stone shuddered as a result. A step to the right. A step to the left. A quarter turn. Then ten paces forward in a straight line.

“Alright,” he said to himself as he walked. “Openings naturally on the right side, obstacles naturally on the left.” He continued walking down his current aisle until it came to a 90-degree turn then continued along the next chamber. “Openings still naturally on the right. So I’m circling round. Go a layer deeper.”

He stepped into one of those openings in the right-hand wall and came into a neighboring path. He continued his walk down it now.

“Openings on the left…obstacles on the right,” he frowned. It had flipped. The maze was trying to suggest that its center was in the opposite direction of where it had been just a moment ago. He stepped through a hole to the left…back to where he had been before…and again the openings were on the right, not the left. “So what? Back and forth between the two? A test of persistence?”

That didn’t feel right. Every time he stepped right the maze wanted him to go left, every time he stepped left the maze wanted him to go right. There was a puzzle here, and he was supposed to somehow use this mechanic to progress in only one direction. But that was impossible, wasn’t it?

Reis’s body was wandering as much as his mind now. He carelessly strode down the pathways, stepped through the openings, back and forth, just trying to let something  click. If he stepped through an opening to the left, then back to the right, did the path he came back into appear different from before? No. If he went through one opening, went around a right-hand turn, and then stepped through the opening back to the previous path had things changed…hmm, no, that didn’t seem to help anything.

Perhaps it had something to do with how one went through the opening? He tried stepping through very slowly, no change. Headfirst, no change. Backwards…wait! He had gone backwards through an opening to the right and the rule had flipped. Now the openings in the next pathway were still on the right-hand side!

“It’s not right or left!” he crowed. “It’s that the openings appear behind you as you step through.”

Grinning, Reis continued his retreat. He didn’t dare turn his head to see where he was going, for fear of breaking the effect. He just trusted the maze to guide him. Path by path he moved deeper and deeper, until at last he passed the carved stone pillars which he knew so well. He turned around and saw the centrifuge before him: a massive stone column fragmented into many pieces, each spinning at its own rate and in different directions.

And Tharol was standing before it.

“You’re here already?” Reis cocked an eyebrow.

“Didn’t waste time trying to keep up with you.”

“You understood right away?”

“Of course…you’re obsessed with this place.”

Reis grinned and paced leisurely around the central column. “And why not? It is an obsessive place.”

“Have you seen this?” Tharol, all business, gestured to a small, spindly something perched on the ground. It was as if a thousand tiny, black sticks had been fused to one another until they were roughly in the form of a four-legged, lanky creature.

“It’s still growing?”

“Well it’s never showed any signs of slowing, has it? Definitely some sort of creature.”

“But still no head on it.”

“The elders still don’t know what to make of it.”

Reis shrugged. “This is a place of mysteries. Be all the more unusual if there weren’t unusual things growing here.”

“Well I don’t like it.”

“Why?”

“Doesn’t it strike you as–I don’t know–like something from the old legends? Creatures springing out of the rocks sounds straight out of the Cryptics!”

“And nothing good ever game out of the Cryptics,” Reis repeated the well-known saying. “I don’t know. It’s not a creature springing out of rock, it’s the statue of a creature. It’s not as though this thing shows any sign of life.”

“Well I don’t like it.”

“So I’ve heard.”

There was the sound of crumbling rock behind them and they spun around to see Inol dashing through a tear in the wall. Then came the sound of rapid footsteps to the right, and they turned to see Bovik and Talo come bounding over the top of the wall there. Marvi entered next from the left, fixing Reis with a scowl, evidently none too pleased for having been dropped during the chase.

“Sorry,” he said. “I did make sure we were over the moss at least.”

One-by-one more of the youth arrived, until there were thirteen of them in all. Reis waited quietly as they came, seated on a crumbled pillar, until there was a period of five minutes without any new arrivals. Then he stood up and clicked his tongue.

“I guess everyone that is going to be here is here.”

“You’re going to show us the amulet now?” Bovik asked eagerly.

Reis frowned at him, not pleased at all with being interrupted.

“I will show you what I will show you. And what I show you will be what I already chose to show you…not because you asked to see it.”

Bovik looked down to his feet and took a step back.

“Now then…” Reis glanced around, as if to dare anyone to interrupt him again. “Master Palthio’s instructions were that I keep Raystahn private, but I interpret that as private between myself and close friends. I feel that I may share it as I see fit, so long as I do so with prudence and care. Each of you,” he nodded to the gathered congregation, “I consider worthy of seeing.”

Without any further explanation he reached into the folds of his tunic and drew out a golden amulet. All the youth leaned in closer. Even Tharol, who usually maintained a more aloof air about such artifacts, squinted at it curiously. It was golden disc, with many layers and sections and foil strands twisting from one edge to another.

“There’s some sort of markings between the arms,” Marvi observed. “But they look more like patterns than writing.”

“Patterns can convey knowledge as well,” Reis stated. “And they aren’t static, watch this.” He took a step towards Marvi, and as he did so the etchings rearranged themselves slightly. “They change based on their context.”

“A compass!” Talo exclaimed.

“A compass only tells you which way you’re headed,” Reis tutted. “But these, I believe, tell one where they are.”

“A map, then.”

“Something like that. Only I still need to figure out how to read the symbols properly.”

“Have you asked Master Palthio what he knows about it?” Bovik queried.

“No, of course not. An amulet is a very personal thing, not some everyday tool with a manual. You’re supposed to figure this out for yourself. In fact, from now on I’d better not lead you on with what I’ve already puzzled out. You may observe, but keep your thoughts and discoveries to yourself.”

Everyone was silent for a few minutes, craning their necks from side-to-side, taking in all the complexities and hidden compartments on the device.

Reis grinned at their fascination. “There is something else I could show you about it. I won’t say anything about what I think it means, but you would still find it fascinating.”

All the youth locked eyes with him eagerly. All except for Tharol.

“But…like I said. This is very personal. Really I’m the only one who should know all this stuff about Raystahn. If I’m going to share more with you…I need you to be a part of me,” his eyes flicked meaningfully from one youth to the next. “I’m going to need…an oath.”

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

 

On Monday I wrote about how we cast characters in certain ways, making them likable or unlikable to the reader, so that the reader will accept or reject them accordingly. But of course, the reader is not only accepting or rejecting the character, they are also accepting or rejecting all the character’s ideas and everything that they stand for. The character is the Trojan Horse, hiding the writer’s agenda within.

With today’s post I introduced characters only, and did not yet reveal their ideologies or beliefs. In this way I have the reader already drawing opinions on them, even before they really know them.

My belief, and my intention, is that readers will find Reis a pompous and insincere character, one who they dislike, and are prepared to reject the agenda of. Almost all the other youth I intend to be seen as simpering and weak-willed. Tharol is intended to come across as likable, but cautious, someone that the readers wish to be closer to. And as we will see in the story, all these feelings that the readers hold towards the characters will be perfectly aligned with the messages that the overall story communicates.

As I suggested on Monday, there is an undeniable element of manipulative design in all this. The onus is on me to remain honest and sincere in the messages that I put forth this way, which is part of the reason that I am writing these paragraphs down here in the first place. My intent is not truly to manipulate, if it were, I would not be pointing out how the manipulation is being done. My intent is to help us all be more discerning readers and more sensitive writers.

For now, though, I’d like to move on to examining another piece of this story. This opening segment, with the youth traversing the maze, is ultimately not a critical element of the story. It is to give a little flavor of the world, but as soon as it ends we’ll get going on the main thrust of the story.

This is not an uncommon approach to story-telling, where a sort of prologue piece gets the audience warmed up before the main tale goes forward in earnest. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on a few examples of this, and why we use it in our stories. Then, on Thursday, we’ll really get going on 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 Magic Trick

The Paradox)

Every great trick begins with a promise. Even before the magician takes the stage, there is an implied understanding that the audience is going to be shown something that is fascinating, but that they cannot explain. If both criteria are not met, however, the spell is literally broken.

Suppose the magician produced an elephant on stage, but it was obvious how it came to be there. It might be interesting to see, but it is hardly astounding. Or on the other hand, consider those terrible magic shows where the magician spends far too long repeating the same interlinking rings trick over and over and over. Even if you don’t know how such a trick is pulled off, it is impossible to be amazed by something so repetitive and mundane.

Indeed, a magician either makes or breaks their entire trick just in the presentation of it, and the best magicians know that they must therefore walk the fine line of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. Yes, that is a paradox, and the more paradoxical the magician can make it the better! In short, they want to make the audience slap their forehead with “but of course!” while simultaneously scratch their heads with “but how?”

This, of course, is also a trick utilized by the best mystery writers. At the end of every whodunit, the hope is that the audience will be left feeling that the solution is the only one that makes sense, but also wondering how they failed to see it then.

So how does a story pull this off? Well, the exact same way that the magician does. It distracts you along the way.

Sleight of Hand)

Magicians famously fool their audiences by showing them something in one hand, while the other stuffs a rabbit into the hat. Mysteries, of course, also utilize red herrings so that the reader is too busy drawing the wrong conclusions to notice the setup for the correct one.

But here’s the thing, the correct conclusion does need to be setup for. When a story unveils a grand conclusion that has not been previously alluded to, it is like a magician who puts his hat on the table, rolls up his sleeves, and then walks offstage to retrieve a white rabbit. We aren’t impressed in sleight of hand that takes place off-stage.

And yet that is exactly what far too many stories do, producing solutions that were never setup for. In fact it is so common a sin that this sort of off-stage gymnastics has been given a name: deus ex machina. Oh whoops, did I forget to tell you that the Detective happens to have a best-friend-elephant-tamer on speed dial?

But things can be taken too far the other way as well. If the conclusion is obvious, then there is nothing satisfying in its reveal. Magicians lull us into a false sense of security by presenting a world that works exactly the way that we expect it to. A card is just a card, a box is just a box, and everything behaves exactly as normal…until suddenly the world changes and the laws of nature are broken.

Good mysteries also present us with a world that makes perfect sense, and then suddenly pull the rug out from under. The reason why “Luke, I am your father” lands with such impact is because that up to this moment audiences felt that they already had a complete understanding of the world. We had a story about Luke’s father already, and it made perfect sense. His father had been killed by the enemy and needed to be avenged.

But then, suddenly, the tale shifted with the reveal that the villain actually is Luke’s father. Most importantly, this reveal somehow seemed truer than the previous arc. That is the key to every great twist in a story. It takes what already appeared true, but then makes it truer.

Truer?)

A story rings truer when it has greater catharsis. Luke’s need to avenge his father was certainly cathartic, but Luke’s need to save his good-turned-evil father was even more so.

In my story The Storm, we are told that a sailor lost his son when a friend took the youth sailing and the youth forgot to tie his lifeline in a storm. Later the twist comes. Actually the boy did tie his lifeline, and the friend later untied it by mistake, thinking the knot went out to the rest of the boat’s rigging. The loss of a son was already quite an emotional toll, but to have lost him at the blunder of a friend all the more so. As soon as I wrote the change into that tale I knew it was the true version of my story.

But of course Star Wars is not a mystery story, it is a fantasy. And The Storm was not what you would call a “twist” story, it was a drama. It turns out that creating an initial premise, but then upending it with a later revelation, is an essential part to all kinds of tales.

Strider being revealed as the absent King of Gondor is character development in Lord of the Rings, Ilsa revealing that her thought-to-be-dead husband is actually alive adds intrigue to Casablanca. Madame Defarge revealing that she was the girl who’s family was tortured by the Evrémondes bolsters the theme of cyclical violence in A Tale of Two Cities.

Last Thursday I posted a story where the conclusion was foreshadowed by the beginning: a King needed to plot an unforgettable revenge on one of his districts. This  foreshadowing was followed by detailing each individual piece that would reside in that revenge. In spite of all that setup, I feel that the tale’s final revelation was still shocking, and that it revealed a deeper catharsis that rang more true and satisfying than any other moment in the story.

Every type of story can benefit by giving the reader one thing to believe, foreshadowing a later revelation, and through it uncovering a higher, more true story. Every story can use a bit of magic. Every author can benefit from practicing their sleight of hand, and figuring out the proper balance of obfuscation and anticipation.

I have been too nervous to write any murder mysteries on this blog so far. Those require a firm understanding of the end from the very beginning, and a very tricky balance of foreshadowing the unforeseeable. I write these stories under tight time constraints, and therefore don’t invest in careful, airtight outlines at the outset. Even so, I do love a good mystery, and I think the time has come for me to pay my respects to that genre. Come back on Thursday as we get started on my magic trick!

Imposed Will: Part Three

Previous Chapter


William paused, staring down the vacant hallway, still numb from the shock of what he’d just done. The lady’s face in the wall behind him faded back into the stone, only to reform a few feet down the passage ahead of him.

“Let’s go,” she said, darting her eyes to the right to indicate the exit’s direction.

Swallowing purposefully he stepped out into the hall, closing the heavy door behind him, then shuffled after her, creeping along as quietly as possible. The passage was low and dark, only illuminated by the occasional torch, all of which flickered from a draft rolling down from the upper levels of the prison. As he followed the curving path his body-less companion kept pace alongside him, gliding through the cobblestones as effortlessly as a hand through water. Each feature of the rough stone would pass through her face as she moved past it, creating the sensation of textured shadows constantly flitting across her brow. The curve they were following prevented William from seeing very far ahead, and so it was that he abruptly happened upon a staircase, unable to duck back out of view before a guard descending down the steps had spotted him.

“Get him!” the lady’s face hissed, but William froze, his hands instinctively raising in surrender as the equally startled guard raised his rifle level with William’s chest. The lady moaned in frustration, her face sinking back out of view, only to reappear on the stretch of wall behind the guard. Her face was now joined by two arms stretching outwards, feeling for the oblivious guard. Before William could cry out in surprise her hands had wrapped around the man, pulling him backwards to the wall with a dull crack, then dropping his limp body to tumble down the steps to William’s feet. William sprang down and checked for the man’s pulse. He was unconscious.

Her face popped back down next to him, a disappointed scowl carved across her brow. “You were surrendering,” she accused.

“I—I know,” he said, his face still flushed and his heart pounding. “Look, all this reality-bending stuff is still new to me. I’m not going to be much good at it in the spur of the moment.”

“Obviously,” she scoffed. “I wouldn’t expect otherwise. But I do expect you to at least try!”

“Fine, fine,” he said, rising from his crouch and starting up the steps. “Do you have any advice for when facing another guard? I mean, it just seems like changing realities on an actual person is a whole lot more imposing than on a dumb door.”

“Yes, sentient beings have more capacity to resist the change,” she admitted. “If they have the presence of mind to fight back, that is. But in those moments it is just a matter of the stronger will winning out.”

“And how do you—” he paused in the middle of the question as his feet skid to a halt. He was nearing the top of the stairs, and at the summit he could now see an open doorway, light and voices spilling out into the hallway that ran past it. Edging over to the other side of the stairs he was able to glimpse across a wider angle of the room, spotting a group of six men sitting around a table laden with their tankards, all engaged in a relaxed reverie. Behind them was another door, likely belonging to some sort of closet, judging by its small size. The men appeared to be well engaged in their mirth, but they were in full view of the doorway and couldn’t fail to notice anyone who might walk by.

William quickly ducked back to the hidden side of the wall. “There’s six of them,” he whispered to the lady. “No way to sneak past.”

She nodded. “So what are you going to do?”

“I—I was hoping you might have an idea,” he said sheepishly.

She looked at him darkly, appearing very disinterested in solving the problem for him. Suddenly, her expression brightened, and she launched into a barrage of sarcastic offers. “Why don’t you just dissolve their eyeballs? Or shrink the room down to fit into your pocket? Or extend your legs out so you can step over the entire doorway? Or—”

“Alright, alright” he interrupted, taking the hint that he needed to find a solution on his own. He wouldn’t dare attempt any of what she had suggested, though he was half tempted to ask if all that was really possible.

What could he do? The only thing that he felt comfortable with was opening locked doors after doing the one in his cell. He could find a door and make it open into the closet he had seen behind the men. But how would that help? Maybe there was some other useful way to use that room though? He asked the lady if she knew what was behind the door.

“Could be anything. Literally. You haven’t seen it, and so it remains open to interpretation. Course you could always change a room even after seeing it, but it’s always easier to influence the world when you aren’t fighting your senses.”

He nodded, his mind forming the beginnings of a plan. “It might be a closet stacked with barrels, then,” he mused aloud, “Barrels filled with ales like what they’re drinking now.”

“A perfectly reasonable determination,” she encouraged.

“And those barrels might not be stacked securely, prone to falling over.”

“More than likely, I would say, given they’re such a careless, drunken lot. I can almost hear them crashing to the ground now…can you?”

Could he? Slowly inching up the last steps towards the door he stretched his imagination out towards the closet, projecting the sound of creaking wood and sloshing ale muffled behind the men’s voices. He felt a strange, crescendoing premonition in him, the hairs on his arm raising in knowing anticipation…

WHAM! The thunderous crash from the closet made him leap in surprise, but then, catching his wits, he dashed silently past the doorway. As he passed its open frame he had a glimpse of all the men rushing towards the closet, amber liquid pooling out on the ground at its base. He continued silently sprinting away in case any of them were to emerge, but no one did. There were another three empty rooms connecting off from the hallway, and he slowly approached, peered into, and then passed each one. Just ahead of him he could see the back exit to the complex and he sped up his pace, anxious to emerge.

He strode down a short flight of steps to the great, wooden door and clapped his hand on the iron ring as, in unison, a large, rough hand clapped down on his shoulder. He was forcefully spun around and there met a large, burly face. He realized that in his hurry he had failed to notice the small guard’s booth off to the side of the door. The man was quite larger than he was, and the grip on William’s shoulder spoke of considerably greater strength than he himself possessed.

Not wanting to be in range of the guard’s fists William instinctively flung himself forward to the man’s chest, grappling him in a tight embrace. The man stumbled back awkwardly, but found his footing and then pivoted, swinging William into the hard wall with a bone-shaking smack. William maintained his grip, but felt dazed and would not last another blow like that. His clasped hands were getting clammy and his knees were wobbling with the desire to run. All rational thought processes seemed to have been muted by his panic. As the man twisted his waist, pulling back for another swing into the stone, the hard, wooden handle of his pistol knocked against William’s forearm. Without thinking, William relaxed his grip on the man and kicked out against the offending wall, propelling himself backward. As he did so he flung out his hand to catch the man’s pistol, which of its own accord was moving as if by invisible strings, sliding out of its holster, up the fellow’s body, and through the air towards William’s grasp. William’s finger was already in the motion of pulling the trigger as the handle slid smoothly into his palm. A single shot rang out, catching the guard full in the chest and crumpling him down to the ground.

The expression of triumph remained on William’s face for less than a second before the horror of what he’d just done sunk in. He glanced in utter bewilderment down at the gun in his hand, its muzzle still guiltily puffing smoke, then over to the mound of clothes and flesh in front him. He turned to the lady’s face in the wall, her expression was one of surprise but not of disapproval.

“Help him!” he whimpered to her, the fear in his voice surpassing that which he had felt when in the thick of battle.

She squinted at him, then said decisively “No. We’re wasting time as it is.”

“Wasting time?! His life is at stake!”

“If that’s so important to you, then take care of it, but be quick about it. There is nothing I can do for him which you cannot do yourself.”

There was a finality in her tone that made it clear she had nothing more to say on the matter. Pushing down the fresh rage that was bubbling up he closed his eyes and tried to calm his beating heart, willing his mind to work out a solution. What could he do? Make it so that he had missed? But he knew he hadn’t and he still struggled to know how he could convince himself otherwise. Where had he hit him? The chest? That wasn’t good. However he hadn’t actually seen the wound, nor indeed any blood pooling on the ground yet. Keeping his eyes closed he pressed his hand to the floor, telling himself that the ground was still dry around the body. Indeed it still was. Well then, it must have just been a surface blow. Perhaps it got caught on something? Yes, that was it. But what? It didn’t matter, anything would do.

Opening his eyes he reached around the man, and rolled him onto his back. William reached through the folds of the uniform on the man’s chest feeling for a shallow strike mark that he insisted must be there. It was as if his fingers knew instinctively where to go, they smoothed out a bend in the cloth to reveal one of the brass buttons, warped and welded by a ball of lead, the fabric around it scorched off. He pinched the ball, still hot from the firing, and pulled it and the button away, revealing a slight depression and welt in the man’s chest, but certainly nothing fatal. Of a sudden, the man’s chest began heaving with new breath and his eyes snapped open, locking on William’s with a wild and astounded expression. He remained silent, frozen in mute terror, as if he had just been reclaimed from the dead.

William slid the pistol back into the man’s holster. It was already discharged, after all, and somehow he knew this man would not emerge from his shocked paralysis until long after he was gone. Standing up he felt a warm rush, a calmness that belied the tense moments that had immediately preceded. He gripped the iron ring of the door, pulled it open, and stepped out to finally and properly meet his liberator.

***

On Monday I wrote about the reasons why readers love to go on an adventure in stories and how it prompts them to seek similar adventure in their own lives. I’ve tried my best to reflect that here with the Imposed Will title. William is a decent person, one that means no harm on the world, but is undoubtedly living beneath his potential, his greatest flaw is lacking trust in his own abilities. Slowly but surely he is overcoming that failing, though, and he is on the cusp of a great adventure that will further define who he is. I imagine the average reader will be able to readily identify shades of themselves in William, and the hope would be that they are prompted to consider what untapped potential they could unleash as well.

This completes the Imposed Will series, as well as the larger Adventure Collection I’ve been adding to over the last five weeks. Please come back Monday when I will start on a new collection, one that takes a much more bite-sized approach to adventure!

Imposed Will: Part Two

Previous Chapter


She smiled and nodded approvingly. “Good, welcome to all the world has to offer. And more.”

He nodded too, as if to convince himself of his own consent. “Well…for the time being I think I’d be satisfied if you just break me out of jail.”

“No, I am going to instruct you until you are able to break yourself out of jail,” she corrected.

“Right…and do so in a way that—what was it—alters reality?” the words sounded ridiculous in his mouth and he felt a fresh wave of doubt flood over him. Of course, he reminded himself, he was still talking to a face in the wall, ridiculous was the order of the night. Whether she sensed his hesitations she did not say, she just continued on.

“We might as well get started, but I should warn you, what I have to teach is terribly simple and that is what makes it so dreadfully difficult. It can be summed up in a single sentence… When you convince yourself of a new reality, the world will realign itself to accommodate it.”

He waited for more but there was none. “Could you…could you just repeat that?”

“When you convince yourself of a new reality, the world will realign itself to accommodate it.”

“Oh…” he said blandly, not feeling any clearer about it. He understood the words of course, but they were simply unacceptable.

“When you convince yourself of a new reality, the world—”

“Yes, yes, yes. I understand,” he interrupted. “But…I just…well…why? And how?”

“No. We’re dealing with very fundamental concepts here, ones which you likely carry ingrained opposition to. We can’t challenge those objections unless you are able to fully voice them. ‘Why’ and ‘how’ aren’t enough, you need to identify what your barrier is precisely and explain it to me.”

That was no trouble. He indeed felt no shortage of disagreement with the idea she was proposing. “Why would the world realign itself, then? The world doesn’t work that way. And how exactly would I change my own reality? I do not possess that ability.”

“That’s not how the world works? How does it work then?”

He felt a little flustered, being asked to explain the most basic of things. “Well…I mean, clearly…” he was surprised at how hard it was to vocalize something so simple. “The world… it just is what it is, it doesn’t change. I believe the word is immutable?”

She nodded.

“So you can’t realign it. The way it works is that the world defines our reality and the rest of us live according to it. Not the other way around.”

A bright smile washed over her face, apparently not at all upset by his conclusions. “So you do admit that there is the ability for one reality to define others, then? Just you see it as one-way, the world defining our own?”

“I suppose so.”

“Well you’re already halfway there then! You just have to let go of that notion about the world being immutable. You change its course all the time, and don’t even think about it as you do.”

Without warning, one of the pebbles encased in the mortar next to her head started to vibrate. She glanced to it and the stone broke free and was sent propelling directly at his face. Fast as it was, he managed to instinctively swat it away.

“You see!” She said gleefully. “I imposed my will on the world, the world accepted it and sent a rock at your head. You imposed your opposing will and the world accepted it and let the rock fall to the ground.”

His mouth was agape from the shock of the strange assault and he stammered for a moment. Finally he spoke. “That’s hardly the same. Swinging my arm isn’t hurtling a rock with my mind!”

“Hmm, don’t think of it as my mind. It’s more that I’m projecting my will.”

“I don’t see that that makes a difference.”

“Oh but it does! Because people project their will all the time. Some do it by physically moving their limbs, as you did, but you know of others that don’t. Kings on their thrones, inventors with their machinations. They do not physically perform their will, they merely dictate it and the work is done.”

“Well I’m no king or inventor,” he said brusquely, still a bit offended by the rock.

“I know, William,” she said sympathetically. “That’s why this is going to be the hardest part for you. You’ve been so used to having others’ wills imposed on you and never the other way around. You have not been an actor, only a receiver. Not only does the world dictate your actions, you even presuppose what that dictation will be and rush to fulfill it early. You feel it mandates that you never amount to anything, so you self-fulfill that prophecy.”

He looked down bitterly. “Go softly,” he whispered.

“I mean no harm. But you must be satisfied that I understand, or else you won’t trust that I know the course you must follow.”

A pause. “I’m satisfied.”

“Well now is the time to let go of that way of thinking. As I said, when you convince yourself of a new reality, the world will realign itself to accommodate it, doesn’t matter if you’re a king or commoner. You’d like the door to the cell here to be unlocked, wouldn’t you? Yes, I expected so. Well convince yourself that it is and you will have the power over it.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So, to be sure I understand, I just persuade myself the door is unlocked, I make that my will and all that, and then I can just open it and leave?”

“Essentially…” she said, but there was a hesitation in her voice, suggesting she felt he was still missing something.

He stood up, strode over to the door, tugged on the iron ring and heard the deep thud of the bolt catching in the lock, refusing to budge an inch. He turned back to her and shrugged his shoulders with a disappointed-though-not-surprised expression on his face. “It didn’t work.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them confidently. “Try it now.”

He gripped the handle again and pulled, the door swung easily and gently, far more so than its weight and rusty hinges should have allowed. Before he could react, the handle tugged out of his grip as the door slammed back closed with a bang, followed by the click of the bolt sliding back into its lock.

“SHHHH!” he gesticulated wildly to the face. “The guard will hear!”

For a moment her left eye sunk back into the wall, the rest of her face remaining motionless. The organ returned and she said “No worries, he is on his patrol elsewhere, we’re quite safe.”

He shuddered at the sight and slowly walked back to the wall she occupied. “So what did I do wrong, then? Why can’t I open it but you can?”

“How do you know you didn’t open it?”

He was annoyed at the question, it was stupid. “I know I didn’t open it because it didn’t open! What do you mean how did I know? It was self-evident!”

“You exerted a force and somehow had an understanding of what the result of it was. How? Your senses I would assume?”

“Of course,” he said shortly. “I saw that the door didn’t move. I felt the lock catch. Is that what you’re looking for?”

She proceeded as though not noticing the derision in his voice. “Whenever you are trying to exert your will on the world, it will try to resist it. Like friction. You cannot let its resistance convince you, though, then it wins. You pulled that handle like you were asking a question: ‘world, is this door open?’ and the world responded ‘no’ and you accepted it. You have to pull that handle like you’re making a statement: ‘world, this door is open’ and then reject any sense or experience that suggests otherwise.”

“Reject my senses?”

“Of course. You’ve given control of them over to the world long ago and are going to have to work to wrest them back. Don’t let them tell you what your reality is, you tell them what the reality they should be sensing is instead.”

“That’s insanity!” He exclaimed. “Raving about things that don’t exist and ignoring things that do.”

“It might be insanity. For myself personally I do not think so because I tell myself my face is peering through this wall and I see you, another individual, reacting to it accordingly. Of course you might just be a figment of my imagination, or I suppose from your perspective I might just be a figment of yours, in which case you’re already insane, darling.” She smiled broadly.

“Maybe I am,” he agreed, unable to resist a small smile himself. “It’s definitely the most logical explanation for all this, really.” Despite the skeptical words, he couldn’t help but feel that she was right. There was no denying that she had projected her face into this room, released his shackles, healed his head, and unlocked then relocked the door. Either he was already crazy, or else she was doing just as she said. Somehow he found the first option more difficult to accept than the second.

“Go and try the door again,” she encouraged. “But this time you’re the one defining what will happen.”

He nodded. He strode back to the door and gripped its handle, the iron cold and smooth on his palm, so hard and real. He closed his eyes and urged his hand to forget that feel of physical reality, to stop sensing the touch of it. His fingers seemed numb and a strange floating sensation came over him. Almost in a thoughtless haze he pulled the door, imagining in his mind’s eye how it was swinging out to him, how his arm was experiencing the sensation of it opening. His eyes fluttered open and he was looking into the outer hallway, the open door still gripped in his hand.

***

In my post on Monday I discussed the technique of a story starting narrow with a more lifelike character, then expanding with them into a fantastic world. In the first part of this story we were introduced William, who is a thoroughly ordinary human, not only in abilities but also in his social status. He then met this strange lady with her face imprinted in the wall, and in this section began his induction to her unique world. Note that by the end of this section it isn’t just the world that has expanded, William has himself, and accomplished something extraordinary.

Another important thing to note is how his personality is evolving as well. He was introduced as brash and beaten down by the world, and he has evolved to show vulnerability and is taking his first steps to secure power back over his own life. Obviously its condensed in this short-story format, but I intend to continue evolving his character through the next and final part. This sort of story that entwines character arcs with journeying into the great unknown are some of the most popular ever written. These are the adventure stories that date back thousands of years and top the sales charts today. On Monday I’m going to look more closely at them with my next post, and then wrap up Imposed Will with its third part on Thursday. Have a good weekend!