And not only could Cace perceive the monster’s presence in the Ether, he was able to understand its parallel purpose in both worlds. He saw that it was a multiplicative. Its first purpose was to reproduce itself in other beings. To that end it had a special ability: to take other living matter and transform it into a copy of itself. It wasn’t simply that the larva consumed the host it was planted in, it was that it became a kernel within, rewriting the living thing to grow and harden and reshape until it was the same as that beast.
And this was why the beast retained a special connection to each of its larva, they were each a continuation of the original. They might appear as separate entities, but they were clones of one another, separate branches that had grown from the same trunk.
All of which was fascinating, but Aylme was running out of time and Cace still didn’t know how to help! So he pivoted on the spot, surveying the rest of the world, looking for some other element in the Ether that could help.
He traced the connections from the beast, saw that it had threads to all the other components in the Ether. This was because of its second purpose: to be a regulator. It multiplied itself in order to scour the entire system and restrain or purge anything that was amiss. Any foreign entity or corrupted module were eradicated instantly. Because, as Cace now realized, all of these modules were parts of a whole, they were separate functions to one higher purpose. They were a machine, a great and massive machine, and that machine had to be preserved from corruption.
Cace turned his attention to the heart of the machine, looking for some way to sever its connection to the beast or to change its functions. But the heart of the machine was cold and inactive. Its periphery systems still ran, but the core did not. It required fuel to function, and at some point it must have run out of that.
Cace saw the furnace of the machine…a great sprawling mass, which twisted in every direction around the other parts of the machine, trying to feel out some entity to burn. It was careful not to touch any of the other parts of the machine, though, because it had no way to differentiate between machine module and foreign element. It would just consume anything that it came in contact with.
And suddenly Cace realized he knew what the sprawling engine’s counterpart was in the overworld. It was the black powder at the foot of the almnut tree.
Without waiting another moment Cace turned on the spot and dashed from the field! He heard Aylme’s cries as the boulder above her fractured. She was trying to prop it up with her hands, but it was starting to crumble into rubble. One more hit and the monster would be through!
Cace’s foot caught on a root and tripped him, but he turned his fall into a roll, returned to his feet, and kept going. He leapt over the next root and ducked under a low-hanging branch. He had come to the base of the almnut tree and saw the powder sprawled out before him like a black ocean.
Back in the clearing, the creature lifted itself and thrust its body down once more. Aylme screamed as it impacted on the loose rock. The stone shattered into pieces and fell between her arms. She closed her eyes, ready for the impact of the creature’s hard underbelly…but it didn’t come! Instead the creature sharply recoiled, legs falling over one another as it writhed in agony.
Aylme slowly opened her eyes. Incredulous, she pushed away the loose rock and sat up, watching as the beast trampled its way into the center of the clearing, convulsing horribly. It opened its clam-like mouth and it was filled with that same black powder that had tried to suffocate Rolar. It was as if that powder was flowing into the creature from an unseen fountain!
Back at the almnut tree, the last of the white larva sunk into the black soil, twisting as it went. The powder had hungrily eaten the thing up, then gone through it—as if it were a portal—to where the great beast now twitched in the clearing. The powder crawled out of the monster’s mouth and across its surface, flowing over every detail, consuming as it went! Two of the creature’s legs disintegrated and it collapsed onto the ground. A few more moments and there wasn’t any creature left, only a large pile of black powder where it had stood!
Then came the sound of ruptures all around the clearing, buried beneath the surface. It was the thousands of the creature’s larva being invaded all at the same moment. The whole earth rumbled and plumes of black powder erupted like small volcanoes.
Aylme felt the pocket of ground next to her start to tremble and she quickly rolled away before the fountain of powder could get on her! She scrambled over to Rolar’s unconscious form, eyes frantically darting in every direction, making sure that none of the powder plumes were going to fall on him.
And then, just like that, it all stopped. The earth gave a loud groan, like a pained sigh, and there was no more shaking, no more rupturing, and no more creature or larva. Everything turned still.
“Aylme?” Cace called, dashing across the clearing towards the other two. He was pale, sweaty, and disoriented.
“Cace, Rolar’s seriously hurt!” Aylme sobbed, looking the older boy over. She turned his head so that she could see his face. His eyes were closed, but he was still breathing. “We’ve got to get him back home. Though I’m not–I’m not sure how we can fix this.”
There was dread in her voice. Rolar’s arm was bent at an odd angle, clearly broken, but even worse damage had been down in the next blow, which had hit him squarely on the back and head. No doubt he had a concussion, and perhaps a fractured spine. Maybe even damage to his internal organs.
Had they saved his life, just to watch him slowly succumb to his wounds?
Rolar shook his head. He didn’t understand what Cace meant. It didn’t really matter anyway. What mattered was that the beast was here now, and that it might prove to be an excellent source of food for them. Or otherwise they would be food for it! So Rolar turned his wrists, raising the bladed end of his staff to the ready.
“No, wait!” Cace exclaimed, but it was too late. Rolar charged forward with a shout. The creature, though blind, snapped itself around to face the youth. Rolar’s eyes flit from the left to the right, waiting to see which of its four arms the creature would attack with. As soon as it did he would swing the blade to sever it.
But the creature did no such thing. It bunched up those legs and sprang forward like a loosed spring, head first at the boy. Rolar’s eyes went wide, he swung his staff against the head, but it rang out as if he had struck stone, and the wood burst into a thousand splinters!
“Oof!” Rolar exclaimed as he the wide head buffeted him and sent him sprawling backwards, landing in a heap on the earth. He’d had the wind knocked out of him, but he still tried to roll out of the away.
No good. The beast landed above him and instantly seized at him with two of its long, wiry limbs. Rolar fought back, kicking and pressing with his arms, trying to keep himself out of the creature’s hold. But it was much stronger than him, and along with the grasping of its arms it began lifting its clamshell body and slamming the bottom of it into the ground, trying to crush him like a piece of steel between hammer and anvil!
Rolar twisted out of the way once, pushed off to the side to dodge the second blow, did a half-roll to get around the third…but the fourth blow fell on his wrist and there came the unsettling sound of something snapping. Rolar cried out, and the next strike hit him squarely in the back and he collapsed onto the soil. The monster raised itself high on its arms, about to slam itself down for the killing blow!
“Hey!” Cace shouted from behind. He had extracted the white stick that had been in the center of their trap and was holding it aloft with both hands. The monster didn’t regard Cace’s shout one bit, but then Cace started to apply pressure to the stick, threatening to snap it in two. And that the monster did acknowledge! It gave a horrible shriek and spun around on the spot, forgetting about Rolar entirely.
“That’s right,” Cace nodded. “This is a part of you, and you don’t want me to break it, do you?” He tapped the stick in his palm and the creature’s legs twitched beneath its head, wanting to lash out at Cace, but not daring to. But they weren’t twitches of pain, Cace realized, they were of worry.
A sudden intuition washed over Cace, another revelation from the Ether. He had been slightly mistaken…it wasn’t that the stick was a part of the creature’s body…it was something else. Cace looked down at the stick and saw how it wriggled gently, how it had little stubs along its underside in two even rows. This wasn’t one of the creature’s organs…it was one of its larva!
There was the sound of a dried leaf crinkling underfoot and both Cace and the beast looked to the side in surprise. Evidently Aylme had heard their commotion, and was stealing around the side of the clearing, trying to get to where Rolar’s broken body lay.
The creature’s clamshells opened and it gave a vicious shriek, then thrust two of its arms out, pinning Aylme down to the ground just as it had done with Rolar. Aylme fell with a cry, but kept her head about her enough to struggle against the arms and shimmy under a nearby overhanging boulder. The monster stepped forward and tried to slam its hard underbelly on her as well, but only came in contact with rock. It was undeterred, though. It had her cornered, and it continued to beat down, taxing the boulder until it would break.
“Hey!” Cace called again, giving the larva another twist. The monster hissed, but it didn’t turn back. It might despise Cace for having hold of its young, but evidently it had given up on it. The creature had been willing to use the larva for bait in the first place after all.
Cace stepped back and forth anxiously. Rolar and Aylme were about to be killed. Then he would be, too, as soon as the beast had finished with them. Cace wanted to help, but he knew he wasn’t strong, or fast, or knowing the right things to do. He didn’t even have any weapons or tools to help him.
“I hate this world!” he cried. “I hate not being able to do anything in it!”
Then, without even thinking about it, he held back his heartbeat and thudded it out in unison with the rhythm of the Ether. He didn’t even have to strain himself to find its cadence. Ever since last night’s excursion it had been constantly thundering in him, he had only been containing it beneath the surface.
But now he let it out. Now he let down his restraints and the trance washed over him in an instant. This time he didn’t lose consciousness in the real world, though. He remained standing with a leg in each. On the one hand he still saw and heard the beast crashing down on the rock over Aylme, but on the other he perceived how that same creature was only one of the many systems that existed in the Ether.
In fact, now Cace could perceive that even Aylme was a system in that place, and so was Rolar. As before, he couldn’t actually “see” them in the Ether, but he could sense them, was aware of their forms and interconnections. And as he looked over both worlds at the same moment he understood a great truth: there wasn’t anything in either world that didn’t also belong in the other. They were two separate systems, with different rules, but infinite interconnections in between!
Cace could not hide his hurt the next day. Even after a particularly deep sleep his face was gaunt and pale, with deep lines etched beneath his eyes. When he came out of the sleeping quarters Aylme took one look at him and her face fell.
“I want to help, Aylme.”
“By hurting yourself?”
“No…not by that. I thought I’d be able to do it safely. I was trying to flow in and out on my own…but it didn’t work. It…was even worse than before.”
Aylme shook her head sadly. “I know you mean well, Cace, but so did the Elders at the House of Olaish, and see what they brought upon us? I had thought that you of all people would see the folly in this. We’re simply not meant to walk between two worlds, Cace.”
That last sentence Cace could not agree with. Even more than before he felt that a part of him was still locked away in the Ether. He didn’t know how, but he was most definitely in two places right this very moment. But never mind that. No matter how much he burned with a desire to explore the secrets of the Ether, no matter how sincerely he believed he could use it as a tool to help the three of them survive, he had to face the facts that he didn’t have what it took to do that.
“Well I’m not going back Aylme,” he told her. “I still think it could have saved us…but it’s beyond me.” He hung his head and hurried away before she could respond. He went to clear his head by helping Rolar set some traps.
“Ah, Cace,” Rolar said without even looking up from his work. He could recognize the boy by his lighter footfalls.
“How do these ones work?” As Cace approached the older youth he saw that what he was working on was an apparatus of wood and vine.
“Very delicately…” Rolar replied, a bead of sweat rolling down his nose as he strained at the apparatus, prying two wooden meshes apart from one another. “This vine is surprisingly elastic, as good as a synthetic really!”
“So you just pry the wooden halves apart, but if they get disturbed they’ll snap back together…crushing anything inside?”
“That’s right. You pick things up quickly, Cace!…Grab that bracer for me,” Rolar nodded his head towards a fat, white stick laying on the ground.
Cace reached down and picked it up. There was a strange breaking of tension, as if it had been attached to some invisible membrane. But as if the breaking of that membrane wasn’t actually occurring under Cace’s fingers, rather it was centered elsewhere…somewhere far away. And now there was another strange and distant sensation, like the memory of an imbalance and dizziness. “Ohhh,” Cace touched his head and moaned.
“You alright?” Rolar glanced up, but then back down to the two halves he was holding apart with trembling hands.
“Yeah, I just…I just feel like something shifted.”
“I’m not sure what you mean, but I am having a hard time keeping these apart!”
“Right, right…sorry.” Cace tried to dismiss the strange uneasiness and wedged the stick sideways in the wooden mesh. “Okay, let go.”
“No,” Rolar panted. “Set it and pull your hand out.”
Cace could see the wisdom in that and hastily withdrew his fingers. Rolar nodded, then rolled his own hands over the edges of the trap. Both boys covered their ears in case the stick didn’t hold and the trap snapped shut…but after a few moments of squeaking it held.
“Excellent!” Rolar exclaimed. “That’s the trick with traps. You’ve got to make them sensitive enough to go off when the animal gets in, but not so sensitive to go off when nothing’s there. I’ve heard some ragouls in the night, and they’re about the size of two hands, so I figured–“
But Cace wasn’t listening. As soon as he had covered his ears and shut out the outside noise he felt that weird dizziness even more clearly. And he was starting to realize what it was.
When he had lifted that stick something had shifted in the Ether. Something there was tethered to that stick…and it in turn was tethered to something else that was here. And ever since that disturbance there was a rumbling sensation in the Ether that was growing stronger and stronger, louder and louder, nearer and nearer…an explosion that had not yet burst to the surface.
“It’s a trap!” Cace blurted out, jumping to his feet in a panic.
“What?” Rolar wrinkled his brow in confusion. “Well of course it’s a trap, what did you think we were making?”
“No, we’re being trapped. Come with me!”
“What are you going on about?!”
But Cace couldn’t wait any longer. He seized Rolar’s arm and hauled with a strength that belied his smaller frame.
“Cace, what are you doing?” Rolar asked as the younger boy lurched for the edge of the clearing, still tugging at Rolar’s arm every step of the way.
But then Rolar didn’t have to wonder anymore, for now he could feel it even in the regular world. The entire ground beneath seemed to wake up! It shook violently for a moment, and then the ground in the center of the clearing rose and burst apart, giving birth to a massive, brown creature from below. It looked like a sideways clam, with two plate-like halves that snapped the air wildly, seeking the boys that had been there just a moment before! At its back, where the two clam-halves hinged together, four sinewy legs sprawled out to the ground. When fully raised it stood nearly twelve feet tall.
“Get behind me!” Rolar gasped, pushing Cace to the rear and drawing his staff from his back.
The creature stopped snapping at the air, evidently understanding that its prey had escaped too quickly. So now it turned very still, slowly turning its head left and right, a warbling growl emanating from somewhere inside that massive mouth.
“What’s it doing?” Rolar whispered over his shoulder.
“It’s looking for us,” Cace responded. “That stick thing was its bait, and when we moved it it knew to come out.”
“How? The stick was just laying on the ground…there wasn’t any connection between them.”
“There was…but not here. They’re connected in the Ether.”
I thought it fitting that after having completed fifty short stories I am about to try something I’ve never done in my writing. At the end of my last story, The Favored Son, I expressed a desire to give it a second try, to rewrite it with a different plot and set of themes.
Not because the first try was a failure, I actually liked it pretty well when all was said and done, but because there is a very different experience that I believe I can grow from the bones of the first, and I just can’t turn down an opportunity like that! Like Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll or the scientists in Jurassic Park, just to imagine the experiment is to already be compelled to see it through. Never mind what the outcome might be, the question of “can I pull it off” must be answered!
Man’s Exceeding Reach)
But unlike those examples, my cobbled-together monstrosity probably won’t be trying to kill anyone!
Which is a very interesting pattern from those three stories. Each one of them is a fresh take on the same theme, one of the most common themes in all of literature: man should not deal with matters that are beyond him.
Frankenstein is trying to play God by creating new life. Though at first he appears to have succeeded, eventually he learns that making something walk and talk is not enough. Man needs a soul, strong morals, and innate goodness. This new creature lacks all of these qualities, and so is not a man, but a monster.
Dr. Jekyll learns a very similar lesson, though his attempt it not to create new life, but to circumvent human nature. What if instead of going through the long process of mastering oneself you could just drink a potion and amplify all of your best qualities? A tempting idea, but Dr. Jekyll learns the hard way that there are no shortcuts to self-improvement.
The scientists in Jurassic Park find a way to extract dinosaur DNA and use it to clone new incarnations of those creations. And in the words of one of the film’s protagonists, those “scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And…of course…they shouldn’t have. For soon the wildlife gets free, and then the humans learn that nature had given them a great gift in separating their species from these true apex predators!
But why is this the central message of these stories? Why have authors felt it so important to caution us against playing God? Magic potions and cobbled together bodies are pure fantasy, not reality. Are there any true-to-life examples of people unleashing unforeseen tragedies by reaching further than they knew how to control?
Earlier this year my wife and I watched the miniseries Chernobyl, which related the events of a nuclear power plant’s meltdown near the city of Pripyat in 1986. From the very outset this event was tragic on a local scale. An earth-shattering explosion in the middle of the night and engineers coming down with a strange illness and dying painfully. But beyond that an even bigger problem had just been let out of the bottle. There followed the spread of an inorganic disease, an intense radiation that could both kill instantly and over a lifetime, infecting thousands and rendering a thousand square miles as uninhabitable.
Just how many thousands have died or are dying from this nuclear fallout is unclear. Current estimates range as high as the tens-of-thousands. In either case, it was a man-made failure that was as lethal as a natural disaster.
And the question of course is, but why? What was it that caused this failure? That is the main mystery at the heart of the miniseries, and in the end the answer is simply that the people responsible were dealing with powerful forces that they did not fully understand. They created a disaster, simply by not knowing that their particular sequence of steps even could result in that disaster. They were trying to pinch at a beach ball with a pair of tweezers.
Perhaps this recent event was in the filmmakers minds when they made Jurassic Park, but what about for Frankenstein and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? There weren’t people making nuclear power plants back when those stories were written, so what horrible cataclysms did those authors have to caution against?
Or what about going even further back? As I said, this is one of the most prevalent themes in all of literature. Why does it show up in Icarus flying too close to the sun, in Pandora opening her box, in Prometheus stealing fire for mankind, in King Midas wielding the power of golden touch? Clearly the ancient Greeks had a deep mistrust of people dealing with elements that were beyond them! But why?
Because massive tragedy is not dependent on great technology. Perhaps there were no nuclear power plants in among the Ancient Greeks, no weapons of mass destruction, no international travel to spread globe-wide diseases…but there were always leaders who outstepped their bounds, and it was their people who then paid the tragic price for that.
For example, the Greeks only came into power at the sunset of the Persian Empire. The Persians were preceded by the Babylonian Empire, and before that the Assyrian. Each of these kingdoms pursued their conquest with a voracious appetite, overextending themselves, weakening their borders, and finally falling to their own hubris.
And the Greeks paid sharp attention to history, and they would not have missed this pattern. So perhaps their motivation for weaving that element of hubris into so many of their tales was to caution their own leaders from repeating the same mistake!
But…they did. And when the Roman Empire rose next, it was over the dead bodies and broken spirits of the Grecian populace. How ironic that the Greeks, of all people, could not resist flying too close to the sun.
A More Ancient Tale)
And perhaps these stories have their root in the very beginning of humanity. It has always been within us to build towers to reach to heaven, until God smites us back down to earth. It has always been our nature to reach for fruit that was not meant for us, and reap the consequences that follow.
It is an idea I intend to replicate in my remade version of The Favored Son. There were shades of hubris in the first, but with this second I intend to more fully make the villain’s downfall be one of toying with forces that he does not understand.
A sudden chill ran through the drummer and he spun around on the spot, just in time to see a stream of metal sheaves flowing through the center of the doorway and straight into him. He didn’t even hear the impact as he was flung him across the room and slammed into the wall. Still the shafts kept pressing forward, skewering through his chest and pinning him to the spot. The metal blades that weren’t pinning him began to spin and slide, morphing into an erratic form, somewhat like a metal hand, walking on its fingers.
Wincing through the pain the drummer gripped his hammer tightly and swung it in a wide arc. Or at least he tried to. He barely got it more than an inch before one of those metal fingers snapped out, bursting the hammer into a thousand pieces. The blades piercing the drummer’s chest drove in deeper. A humming sound came from inside the metal demon, and now the skewers began to push out in each direction, straining against the drummer’s core, trying to burst his whole body apart.
“What do you–? Why–?” the drummer’s voice came out strained and weak. He was vaguely aware of another of these strange demons bursting into the room and charging down the squealing teddy bear.
The drummer’s eyes fluttered rapidly, his vision floated in and out of focus. “I’m the maker,” he mouthed. Cracks were widening in his chest, snapping up his body, splitting across his lips. “I made every toy.” His body made a loud popping noise and the metal blades sprung partway open. The drummer’s few remaining fibers began to twist and divide. “I made the hands that made you,” the two separate halves of his mouth motioned. “I am you.”
There was a tremendous snap and the drummer’s body burst apart, his entire torso exploding into a cloud of splinters. All thoughts ceased within his mind, and what chunks of body still remained collapsed lifelessly to the floor.
And yet. With that snapping of his body, all of his silent words suddenly reverberated off the walls like a great, rushing wind. It pounded through the space and quaked through the core of the scowlie. Though it had not been fashioned with any ears, it heard it all, and the fingers it walked upon flailed about wildly. A spasmodic shriek emanated from its rubbing sheaves, and the blades started folding and turning, reassembling, fusing together in fervent heat. The edges became less sharp, the pallor less cold, the features less random. The whole being glowed bright yellow, lost entirely from view as it shone like a mortal star!
Sparks rained off of the fusing metal, and as they showered downwards they landed on the boots of a new, metal drummer. It was not merely similar to the wooden version that had just been destroyed, it was the exact image, fresh as the day the drummer had first created. Even his original coloring had somehow been baked into the steel. Though this new version stood in this room, still there also lay the broken and lifeless version of the drummer on the floor. The one that was crafted of cheap wood, stained black by soot, and cracked by heat. The one that still held the handle of the hammer in its glove.
The second scowlie, which had finished with the bear, turned and shrieked at the metal drummer, trying to discern if this was another target or not. The drummer turned and faced it back, unflinching.
“I am you, too,” he said confidently, then raised his baton and brought it down on the drum. It’s metal top resonated much more brightly than when it had been made of wood, and a spasm rippled through the scowlie. It gave one more shriek, then dashed out of the room.
The drummer nodded approvingly, then exited the room himself. He walked back to the hole that had once been a window. He ignored the ladder-bridge, and instead leaped out, falling the full four stories to the ground. He landed gingerly on his boots, then marched off down the street, heading in the direction that the knight had led the guards down.
It did not take him long to find them, the clatter of metal and wood soon echoed to him from a side-alley. There, at its end, he found the knight laughing in combat with the guards. He was outnumbered 20-to-1, but he was a well-made figure, cast from solid pewter. The guard’s thin blades were simply too weak to do more than scratch his armor, and so he danced about, systematically cleaving their spears in two.
“Charge him!” the Guard-Sergeant shouted. “Your weapons are useless, grab him with your arms!”
“His weapon isn’t useless!” one of the guards returned, not wanting to put his own, wooden neck anywhere near the knight’s sword.
“Cowards!” the Sergeant charged forward himself. The knight spun quickly and put a well-placed kick in the assailant’s chest, knocking him back to the ground.
“Haven’t we done enough of this?” the knight chortled.
“The scowlies will get you!” the Sergeant spat, slinking away while rubbing his chest.
Immediately the knight’s jovial nature turned dark. “What’s that?!” he demanded.
“Knight, don’t worry,” the drummer said, rushing to his side.
“I leave you toys alive and you’ll send scowlies after me next, is that about right?!” the knight continued after the Sergeant, pointing his sword at the toy’s chest.
“Knight, the scowlies aren’t a problem.”
“No drummer, you haven’t seen them. They absolutely are a problem. I know you won’t like this, but we have to break these toys now.”
“I have seen them. In fact, I am one of them.”
If the knight’s helm could have opened his jaw would have been agape. Instead he just cocked his head in a strange away, unable to fathom why the drummer would even say something like that. Even the guards cowering against the back wall stared to the drummer in bewilderment.
“You don’t know what you’re saying–” the knight began slowly.
Before he could continue the drummer closed his eyes, then his face split and his metal sheaves began to unfold, twisting and re-forming back into the shape of a scowlie.
“A trap!” the knight cried, driving his sword into the heart of the creature. The scowlie grabbed the sword lazily, and yanked it out of the knight’s grip. Then it shuffled again, reforming back into the drummer, holding the sword aloft in his hand.
“No, knight. It’s still me.”
The knight made a strange, flustered noise, and flailed his arms like he was in danger of losing his balance. “But–but all this time?”
“No, just now. When the scowlie killed my old body up in the Administration Building.”
“A scowlie…killed you…?”
“Killed the body. But I was in the scowlie, just as much as I was in that old body. Just as much as I’m in you. Just as much as I’m in them,” he nodded his head towards the still-cowering guards.
“You mean–wait, just what are you trying to say?…Surely not…the Maker?”
The drummer cocked his head in amusement. “Didn’t you say that the Maker put part of himself into each toy?”
“Did I? I think that’s what they say, yes.”
“I liked that part. So I decided that that was who I was. So I don’t think it’s just me who is the Maker. So are you, if you to decide to be. So is everyone. And if everyone decides to be the Maker, and brings their part together, we’ll finally be able to make him again.”
The knight didn’t respond. He took a few shaky steps over to the guards he had just been fighting, and sat down among them. All the toys stared at the drummer in a silent stupor.
“I thought you’d be happy,” the drummer frowned.
“I–I’m overwhelmed,” the knight’s voice was hollow.
“Because it…it…well it breaks everything I thought I knew.”
“So? Isn’t this better?”
“Yes, I suppose…if…”
“If it’s true.”
“So you don’t believe me?” the drummer sounded hurt.
“I don’t know. Really I’m not saying that. Just that it’s–overwhelming. You figured all of this out while you were up with the bear, did you?”
“See, it doesn’t come that easily for the rest of us.”
“It wasn’t so easy. I had to die to figure it out.”
“Oh,” the knight said stupidly, really not sure how to properly respond to that. “Little drummer, please don’t be offended. But it’s really going to take some time before I even know what I think about what you’re saying.”
“Oh…okay, I guess. We can talk about something else if you’d like.”
“Um, sure. Uh, did you find out where the dancer was?”
“No, I didn’t,” the drummer’s face looked troubled, then almost instantly brightened. “But I’ve just thought of a way to find her.”
“I’m sure you have. Why don’t we go find her, and maybe–maybe that’ll give me some time to just think about everything you’ve said along the way?”
“What about us?” one of the guard’s piped up.
“What about you?” the knight returned. “You’re free to go if you’ve had enough.”
“Or free to come with us if you want more,” the drummer added enthusiastically.
The Sergeant frowned at that, rose to his feet, and ducked down the alley with his head bowed. One-by-one the other guards followed until only two remained. Each of them looked to one another, and then back to the drummer.
“We’d rather come with you. Come and see–whatever it is you’re doing. Looking for a dancer, you said?”
“Yes,” the drummer nodded. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier, but she and I came up with a dance, and when I played the music for it we always knew just how to move together.”
“So follow me.” And with that the drummer whisked out his baton and brought it back down on his drum. Rump-a-dum-a-dum-a-dum! And as he struck out his old, familiar tune, his legs snapped to attention and whisked him down the alley. His rhythm reverberated loudly off the walls, and the knight and two guards fell into step behind him.
They marched out into the street, then made a turn and were off on their way. One street, then another, then another. The whole area was still reeling from the attack on the Administration Building, but whatever toys recognized the drummer and the knight were much too frightened to approach them. Instead crowds parted and stared wide-eyed at them as they passed. After a little while the marchers were past the heart of the city, and on their way into the next district.
Here the houses were more modest, and had wide spaces between them for growing groves of trees. The ground hadn’t been leveled here, and naturally rose and fell in little hills and dells. As more and more of the city-proper fell behind them, it became clear that the drummer’s dance was leading them in a straight line for the gutted remnants of an old town in the distance.
It was perched atop a steep rise in the land, an old suburb of the city that had been almost entirely consumed in a terrible fire long ago. There was no official community there now, only vagrants and gangs of criminals, competing with the local wildlife for a hole to sleep in. Of course the knight with his sword and the guards with their half-spears were already better armed than any peasant that they might find, and so the party wasn’t too worried as they followed the slope of the land into its blackened ruins.
No one tried to molest them anyhow. Indeed, they didn’t even see any of the toys, only the ratty bedrolls and smoldering fires of their camps. So strange in this place was the sight of the visitors, that the inhabitants had scurried for cover, and now peeped out at them in awe from their hiding places.
The journeyers marched straight down the central street, old rubble crumbling into dust beneath their feet. The drummer’s beat echoed unnaturally off the half-toppled buildings, as if it had been so long since those old walls reverberated sound, that now they didn’t quite remember how.
All at once the drummer felt his feet turning, taking him off the central road. He quickened his rhythm, beating a trail down a nearby alley. Over the moldy frames fallen out of the windows, and across the crunching beads of shattered glass. His feet began to slow, and presently he came face-to-face with a small apartment, its door hanging on just one hinge, yellow paint peeling off in chunks.
The drummer stilled his batons, then looked back to his accompaniment, they looked back at him, eyes unblinking. He turned back, swallowed, and pushed his way through the creaky door. The knight and the guards waited respectfully outside.
This last Monday I discussed the importance of self-reflection in a character, and how it is most often used to signal a fundamental change within them. I took a very literal route with that in today’s post! Previously the drummer chose to spare the bear, only doing so after he took a little look inside of himself and decided what he wanted to be.
Of course even though he had made that choice, he had still betrayed the fact that his heart was quite changed from what it once had been. Yes, this time he managed to restrain himself, but what about next time? I felt it was essential for him to have a token of grace, a chance to be reborn entirely. It was then that I decided his old, tortured husk had to die, and he would be remade, as clean and pristine as at the very start of his tale.
Now, having been restored, he is at last ready to rejoin the dancer. As I reread this segment I realized that I rushed things quite a good deal here at the end. I’m sorry about that, unfortunately I did not have time to correct this imbalance. At the very least I can pause here, and take the time to give our penultimate scene between the drummer and the dancer some proper breathing space. As such, the conclusion of this story is going to come next Thursday.
Before we get to that, though, I want to take a moment to talk a bit more in-depth about how my vision for this story shifted while writing this tale. I actually had a pretty clear idea of where I wanted it to go when I began, and then it got off the rails quite quickly! On Monday I’ll pull back the curtain on what my original intent was, how and why it changed, and how it then proceeded to change again and again several times throughout. I hope you’ll find it interesting, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
“So how can we find the dancer now?” the drummer asked as soon as the knight’s attention had returned to the present.
“We’ll have to ask around I suppose. You’ve got a description of her? And of the bear what took her? Alright, I know a few good places to float those out. Someone will have seen them, don’t you worry.”
The drummer still didn’t understand, but the knight seemed confident, so that was reassuring. He decided he would just wait and watch what the knight did, and then he would understand what he had meant.
So they ambled along, the knight trying to find his way through roads that he only half-remembered. He had been down in the factories for quite a very long time, and things had changed a great deal in the meantime.
“Things haven’t been kept up very well, have they?” he said as they hopped across a particularly pothole-riddled road. “I mean they were never very good here to begin with. But somehow they’ve gotten even worse!”
“This is not a nice place,” the drummer affirmed. “Is the city at the end of the main road nicer?”
“What? You mean the one they tell you to go to when you first get made? You can’t ever get there, y’know. Probably doesn’t even exist.”
The drummer came to a sudden stop, taken aback by hearing the knight echoing the exact same thoughts as the bear when he took the dancer. “Why do you say that?” he asked sadly.
“Oh…don’t listen to me,” the knight waved his hand dismissively. “People around here just say that, but they don’t know anything.”
“Why do they say that?”
“Listen, when I first went down that road I was quite committed to it. I passed this city and went a long way farther before giving up and coming back. And let me tell you, there is unquestionably something strange about it. Not a normal road at all! Really you get the sense that you’re not even moving forward after a bit, like you’re walking in place and the turns will never end.
“And that’s not just me, either,” the knight continued. “Lots of other toys got the sense that something wasn’t ordinary about it, too. Like some of them turned around and went back to talk to those chess pieces that first set you on the road. They could never find them. The road just seemed to keep stretching out forever in that direction once you got set on it. So don’t let me cast a shadow on your hopes, but I do say that that is no ordinary road.”
“I guess it doesn’t go to an ordinary place then.”
“What’s that? Oho! I rather like that, good point! Couldn’t be a run-of-the-mill road that takes you to the Great City, now could it? You’re probably on to something there.”
“The Great City is supposed to be something special then?”
“Of course! It’s supposed to be paradise! Now don’t ask me what that means, I thought I knew once, now I know that I don’t know at all. But it’s good. And special.”
“I see. Well once we get the dancer free, she and I will be taking the special road to find the special city. You’ll have to decide if you want to come with us or not.”
“I’m with you for as long as you’ll have me, Captain. I like you. So what if I don’t believe that there’s a city at the end of that road? I didn’t believe you could save up all those discs either, and see what happened there!”
At this point they had come to a low, dilapidated tavern.
“This isn’t a nice place, either,” the knight told the drummer as they walked up to the door. “But it was the best place for information back in my day, probably still is. You just keep close to me.”
The drummer didn’t need telling twice, and so the two went through as one, peering through the smoky dark until their eyes adjusted enough to take in the scene. There were a dozen rough tables strewn about haphazardly; the clientele were in the habit of moving them about as they saw fit, and the management was in the habit of not caring. Along the back wall were two counters, the one for buying food was greasy, and the one for buying drinks was splotch-stained. The only light in the place came from some chandeliers with candles set in a ring. The place was so smoke-filled that it seemed to choke the flickering flames, and bid them shine only dimly.
“This way,” the knight said after a moment, leading the way forward to the bar.
“What can I get for you?” the wind-up clock barkeeper asked as they draw near.
“Some information, my good fellow,” the knight said brightly, flicking a medium disc onto the counter. “I’m trying to find someone.”
“Mm,” the clock said, pocketing the disc and cleaning a glass with a rag.
“A dancer, a spinning ballerina in fact. Possibly in the company of a large, tan teddy bear. They would have come into town over a year ago.”
“Well I remember the bear, of course, but not the dancer.”
“The bear is well enough. Where is he?”
“You mean you really don’t know?” the barkeeper asked incredulously.
“Well, no,” the knight cocked his head, wondering just what it is that they weren’t cluing in on. “You see, my friend and I have only just came out of the factory. Been down there for quite a long while.”
“Oho! Hope you aren’t leading the guards to my nice establishment!”
“Not at all! We came out honestly.”
“Sure, sure. Well then you probably don’t know, but a little while back they started a registry. Made everybody sign up, and kept tabs on where they all were all the time. And all the newcomers had to sign it, too. Even if they was just visiting.”
“So that teddy bear is the last name in the book!”
“What? You don’t mean…?”
“I do! Hasn’t been a single other toy shown up since that day.”
At that the clock snorted. “Hardly. I mean some say so, but those of us with sense figure this finally proves that the Maker isn’t real. Course administration claims that he is, and rushed the bear straight up into their penthouse. They use him for a figurehead to push all their campaigns forward. That’s where he is if you want to see him, but good luck!”
“You said you’re from the factory? Any idea why its still running then? We sorta figured it would have shut down after the ‘Maker’ was found.”
“Well it’s not like my friend and I were privy to the board’s motivations…. But really a lot of us inside doubt that summoning the Maker was their real intention at all. Maybe at the start, but not for a long while now.”
“What then? Surely they aren’t trying to make the scowlies?”
The knight leaned in close, to be sure he wasn’t overheard. “Oh yes, indeed. They’re entirely committed to it now, trying to find ways to make them useful.”
“Train a scowlie? Why I never!”
“Only very basic things, you understand. They’ll never talk or reason like you and I do, but I’ve seen some tests run with them, where they had been fashioned for single, simple behaviors.”
“Well…” the knight drew back somberly. “Not very nice things. But enough of that for now. Thank you for the information.”
The clock clearly wanted to speak more with the knight, but already the knight had turned, shepherding the drummer across the room and out into the light.
“What is a Maker?” the drummer asked when they were out in the open again. “And a scowlie?”
“You mean all that time in the factory and you never found out what we were doing there?”
The drummer just shook his head.
“Well…the Maker, according to those who believe, is some great being who made all of us. That’s why none of us knows where we come from, because he makes somewhere else, puts some of his own life inside of us, and then places us secretly in the world. Now that’s a long-old religion, and people don’t really believe in that today. They don’t like the idea of anyone out there having that sort of unbridled power.”
“They’re afraid of him. See we all know he wouldn’t be too pleased with us if he saw us right now. And anytime something bad happens they say its him punishing us. So one day, long time ago now, some of the richer toys got together and built the factory. Said they were going to start making toys of their own. Take the responsibility from the Maker. Not only that, but they said they were going to make the Maker! Fashion him right here in toy form!”
“But…I thought you said they didn’t believe in him?”
“Well, they don’t…and they do. It’s confusing, I know. I guess you could say they wanted to make him here just in case. Because then he couldn’t be up there anymore if ever he did exist.”
“So how did they know how to make him?”
“They figured that if they made enough toys they might make one that looked just like him. And then he would sort of–transfer into it. I don’t understand it all, it was based on ancient manuals that had been written about the Maker. Something to do with: if you capture his image, then he will be in that toy. Don’t quote me on that, but that was the gist of it. Anyway, just think about it: then you would have the Maker of us all caught up in a box. If he still had any powers you could make him do whatever you wanted, or at the very least keep him bound down so that he can’t blast us all into dust.”
“I see…and now they think that the bear is him?”
“Well, you heard the clock. They do and they don’t, same as ever I suppose.”
“Well I think that I’m the Maker.”
“What?! Don’t say that!”
“It’s blasphemy. Well, I guess maybe you don’t know enough for it to be blasphemy. But a lot of people around here would find a claim like that insulting. They’d say you were being disrespectful to the Maker.”
“But what if I am him?”
“Well…no offense, but you just don’t seem the type.”
“What is he like, then?”
“I–I don’t really know…. Well, obviously he makes things, right? That much is clear. Can you make things like he can?”
“Sure.” The drummer reached down and stacked one rock sideways onto another.
The knight laughed and slapped the drummer on the back.
“Well who’s to say you aren’t, then! Really if any of us was, I suppose why not you?”
“Anyway…the teddy bear wasn’t even the last toy made either. I came after him, I just never signed the registry.”
“You what?! Well I guess that makes sense, you’ve already mentioned that you were around at the time.”
“And actually the dancer came even after me.”
“Well then maybe she’s the Maker!” the drummer laughs.
“I suppose she might be.”
“Curious that she wasn’t on the registry either…. Course, if the bear had her against her will, perhaps he was keeping her hid at the time.”
“But what’s a scowlie, then?”
The knight shuddered. “Nasty thing. See they couldn’t make anything proper in the factory. They couldn’t even make toys like you and I. They could make things that looked like toys, but they were just vacant and lifeless. They tried figuring out the secret of life, and that led them into…weirder experiments. The result were these strange, warped beasts. Random forms of metal, monsters really. And they weren’t ever really alive either. Just like I said in there, they can’t talk or reason, they just operate on one intent, usually a destructive one.”
“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”
“No, you don’t. Trust me.”
“But at least we know where the bear is now.”
Here the knight sighed deeply. “Sure, we know. But that’s a long ways from actually being there. You can’t just stroll into the Administration Building. Especially if he’s their precious figurehead, he’ll be safe from the public, somewhere locked down tight.”
“You don’t think we could get there?”
He shrugged. “Frankly I don’t know how…. But I imagine you will want to try anyhow?”
“Of course. And if that’s where your quest goes, then I will come along. Whether I can see success in it or not, I meant my pledge to you sincerely.”
“Well then…I guess the first thing for us to do is get a look at this place. Let’s go.”
On Monday I shared how story characters do not always progress towards the destination they are striving for, but that they should at least progress towards the conclusion of the story. They should be ever drawing nearer to their own, personal conclusion, even if it isn’t the one that they wanted.
This is certainly the case with our little drummer. He finally found his freedom, but still has yet to reach his long-lost dancer. In fact, he seems to have only grown further and further from her, the breadcrumbs are being laid down faster than he can pick them up.
That is an intentional pattern of this story, as I want it to have a theme of tireless pursuit, no matter how many discouragements he faces. With this I am taking cues from some of my most favorite heroic epics, stories that feature a very long way home. Come back on Monday where we will examine this theme more closely, and then on Thursday we’ll get to see the drummer and knight’s daring heist played out!
An hour later, down in the nearby valley, Reish stood immobile in the middle of his barracks. An hour ago he had felt the tremor, a signal born down to him by the third shade which he and Gallan both shared. Gallan was coming.
Reish didn’t try to fight it, he didn’t try to hide his location from Gallan at all. Let him come. Let all the reckonings happen here and now. And so he just stood there, silently waiting until there was a knock at the door.
“Let him in,” he ordered tersely.
The door opened and six guards entered with Gallan in their midst. They had taken the precaution of putting him in shackles, which Gallan now reached out to with his shade and systematically disassembled. The bonds dropped unceremoniously to the floor.
“Hey!” one of the guards roared at him.
“Leave it,” Reish sighed. “If he meant you any harm he would have killed you as soon as he’d seen you. Go now.”
“But, sir–” the guards were clearly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving Gallan alone with their leader.
“And if he meant me any harm I would have killed him before he even arrived,” Reish added. “Leaveus.”
The guards didn’t need telling a third time. Reish waited until the door had closed before stepping near to Gallan.
“Well, Gallan. I can sense that you haven’t come here to assassinate me…”
“Even if I tried it wouldn’t work.”
“No. It wouldn’t. So why are you here?”
“To offer you an end to our feud.”
“Hmm, well I hardly believe that you mean to join forces? No, of course not. But I also can’t believe that you’ve come to just lay down and die at my feet.”
Gallan smiled. “I will do exactly that…if you satisfy my demands.”
“Ah, yes, a deal. I should have realized. No doubt you’re worried about that little clan of yours. Alright then, you nobly sacrifice yourself and yes, I will let them go free.”
“Don’t lie to me, creature!” Gallan spat. He spoke directly to the placid beast-side of Reish’s face. “I have long known that you have one purpose, and one purpose only. Total conquest.”
For the first time the beast-side of the face flexed on its own, giving a cold scowl. “Very well, I will give them some time then. I will let them hold onto their hope for a season. And then, last of all, their end will be quick and painless. Is that what you want?”
Gallan shook his head in disgust. “You think I’m so crude as to deal in false hopes for them?”
“No?” the beast taunted. “I thought that was all you did.”
Gallan didn’t dignify that with a response. It was interesting to hear the beast say those words, though, for that same thought had been echoing in his head for some time. Now he knew where it came from, and strangely enough that made him feel more confident in himself.
“But if you haven’t come for them, what did you come for?” the beast demanded.
“I’ve come to trade myself for Reish.”
Reish was startled by that. “That’s not possible!”
“No, it isn’t,” the beast agreed. “You know his sins, I am owed his soul. He’s much too entrenched to ever be let go.”
“He might be… but personally I doubt it. You’ve had him for seven years and still you don’t have full control of his body. Clearly there’s something there that is resisting you.”
“Gallan, don’t do this!” Reish pleaded.
“I still don’t understand,” the beast interjected. “Trade yourself for Reish? So what…I get your body and soul and vacate his? I don’t see how that serves me any better.”
“You don’t get my soul, just my body. It’ll be one of your puppets.”
“And you get the third shade. Entirely.”
That gave both Reish and the beast pause.
“So…” the beast said slowly, weighing the options in his mind. “I get your body and the third shade. The full benefit of a shared shade, encased in a body that is entirely under my control…Meanwhile your soul goes on to the afterlife, and Reish leaves me, soul and body. That is your offer?”
“And Reish has no remaining ties to the third shade, no powers with which to challenge you.”
“While on the other hand, I could continue to string out our war, take over the third shade bit-by-bit, as well as Reish’s body and soul, and then kill you once the third shade will allow it…”
“Take over the third shade almost. Reish’s body and soul almost. Let’s not play games. Both of us know that you will never have the whole of them this way. You will always be fractured. If you could take them all the way you would have done it already. Like I said, there’s something still in Reish that you haven’t been able to take from him. And so long as you don’t have all of him, you won’t have all of the third shade.”
“But if I do things your way, then you die tonight. And then, you must realize, I kill Reish. And then I kill all your little followers.”
“That…is a distinct possibility.”
“Ah,” the beast crowed. “So that’s why you’re willing to do this. After everything you’ve been through you still have a glimmer of hope. Hope that somehow Reish and the others will find a way out of all this.”
“If ever they could, it would only be this way. With all ties having been cut. I don’t know that they will succeed. Frankly, I don’t know how they would. But yes, as you say, I do still hope.”
That was it, all the cards were laid out. If Gallan held back his true motives it would only make the beast skeptical about the deal.
The beast would know that Gallan’s logic was correct. A complete severance was the only way for the people Gallan cared about to ever go free. Yes, that would also unchain the beast, but that couldn’t be helped. The creature would at last be free to exercise its full potential, a being of power such as the world had never seen before. And so any victory for Gallan’s people was only theoretical. In practice their escape would be a virtual impossibility and Gallan’s hopes rested on the smallest possible of margins. The beast would consent.
“Gallan, no!” Reish shrieked. It was a great strain for him to speak, but he continued shaking his head, wresting for that control. “You can’t do this. I don’t want you to save me. It’s too late. I don’t want–”
“Don’t you remember, Reish,” the beast-side sneered. “You don’t ‘get what you want,’ now do you?”
“Gallan, please,” Reish pleaded.
“Well, beast,” Gallan narrowed his eyes. “Is it a deal or not?”
The beast met his gaze. “Do it.”
Gallan closed his eyes and reached out with his shade. He could discern the essence of the whole room around them. Not by its walls and furnishings, but by its atmosphere and spirit. It was dark, oppressive, and bleak. Three souls, two bodies, one demon. He could sense them all. The demon and the third soul were reaching out for him and he received them.
Gallan was flung to the ground with a cry. His body went rigid and then convulsed. The transference did not happen all at once, the darkness hit him in one wave after another. A cold hopelessness crept over him. Inch-by-inch it pried at his soul, seeking to take him over. It gave him visions of all the horrible things it had done, of the people it had broken, of the sins it had made them do. It told him he was a fool, that it would do all these same things to those he now died for.
Gallan’s fists clenched and unclenched rapidly, the nails piercing into his skin. A shuddering cry rose through his chest, but before it could expel another followed right after it. And another and another, as if he needed to vomit, but nothing could get out because the convulsions ran too near one another. Hot tears flowed silently down his temples and into his hair.
Still the darkness pulled at his soul, trying to pry it free of his body. Inch-by-inch. Gallan wanted to give up that ghost, but he couldn’t willfully. It wasn’t its natural time, after all, and so it could only be wrested out involuntarily.
The darkness beat at his heart, and he realized he had to let it in. Though it broke him to do so, he opened himself to it. It felt like a strong ropes running down his throat, splintering off into separate cords of black, that pushed at force through his veins to pervade every cell of his body. Before it had been a cloud around him, but now it was in him. It was him. He felt himself shamed and unworthy. His purity was gone, his nobility was broken. We was overcome by a wave of deep fear, and that led him into pure hatred. All he wanted to do was break and destroy the world so that he could rest in its ashes.
Then came the almighty slash. Now that the darkness was inside him it seemed to grab his soul like a claw and wrenched violently until it began to pry loose from his body. The soul tore and left behind great patches of spirit that shriveled into nothingness. The claw ripped again, and the soul was almost torn free.
Everything was fading around Gallan, the world seemed to be growing cold and distant. It was as if the world was falling away beneath him. He was vaguely aware of a tearing sensation, but it seemed far off, like the shadow of a struggle. Strangle enough there was a peaceful disconnect. In fact he was free now, and drifting to somewhere new.
“Gallan, Gallan,” Reish sobbed. “Why did you do this? Why? It’s already too late for me.”
Reish was huddled on the ground, his form quivering in ceaseless sobs. Gallan had been right, a part of Reish had managed to hold on all through the years. Though the beast took so much of him, a hope had always remained. But it had not been a hope in himself, he had lost that long ago. It was his hope in Gallan. No matter how far Reish sunk, no matter how many people were destroyed, he rested in the confidence that at least Gallan would be out there. It had always comforted him to know that there still stood a champion for the people, a last beacon of good.
But now that beacon was gone. And gone in exchange for him, the most unworthy of them all.
And yet, Reish could not deny that bit-by-bit, inch-by-inch, a freshness was returning to him. For the first time in years he had control of his own body again. That weighing oppression was slipping away, leaving him with a clarity and an innocence that he had long forgotten. It felt so strange to be his own self again. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it, yet here it was all the same. It felt like being born anew.
Reish wiped his eyes and looked up from the ground. Gallan was nowhere to be seen. Where he had fallen there now lay a full-beast. It was stark and gaunt, a hideous contortion of spindly limbs projected at strange angles. Its skin was pale and hairless, stretched uncomfortably over long bones. Its maw was flat, but very wide, and between its motionless lips one could see the vise of pointed teeth.
The creature’s chest rose and fell and its eyes turned beneath its lids. It would awake soon, and it would arise with one purpose: to hunt him. Though Reish was still reeling from the cacophony of emotions, he knew he had to flee. Trying to slay the beast as it slept would be to no avail. There was a ghostly aura all about it, the sign of the third shade. Though the creature was unconscious the shade would not be, and it would protect its master well.
So Reish stumbled to his feet, turned from the place, and walked out into the night. He would go and find Gallan’s people, try to reach them before the beast did. He would warn them. Most likely they would just execute him on the spot, they certainly had the right to. Well, then at the very least he could allow them that final service.
Or perhaps they would see more meaning in Gallan’s actions than he did, and they would let him live for Gallan’s sake. If they did that, then he would offer them what pitiful aid he could for as long as he lived. His soul had been repurchased, and his duty was clear. Though he was no Gallan, he would try to stand in that man’s ranks, no matter how hopeless the situation had become.
This is the end of Shade, though clearly not the end of the story for Reish, the beast, and Gallan’s people. But then, we didn’t see the beginnings of their story either, so it felt fitting to leave things in media res as well. Even if this short story has not been the entire story, it still shows a complete arc on its own. There has been a hero, a conflict, and a reclamation.
At the outset for Shade I made clear my intentions for the story: it was to create an unspoken expectation in the reader and then defy it. I attempted to do this by introducing Gallan right from the outset as a heroic character, one that the audience assumes will carry the torch through the entire tale. Reish, meanwhile, I introduced as the reluctant villain, suggesting to the audience that he might sacrifice himself for the greater good and thus reclaim his soul.
That reclamation does happen, but I flip things so that it is Gallan who is sacrificed and Reish who is left to carry the torch. Thus is there both the fulfillment and the subversion of unspoken expectations.
On Monday I mentioned that the previous section of Shade had been heavy on exposition, and that I wanted this one to invoke more feelings from the reader. This section did end up still having a considerable amount of expository dialogue, but at the end we do delve deep into the actual experience of the characters. My intention was that both their hope and their despair would come through and shadow the emotions of the reader.
Of course trying to make the reader feel both hope and despair at the same moment is an interesting paradox. Combining contrasting flavors is something I have spoken about in a previous post, and how an author can use it to arrest a reader’s attention. There is another side to this sort of juxtaposition that is worth examining, though: how a writer can both subvert and satisfy a reader’s expectations at the same time. That, ultimately, was my wish with Shade, to end it on a note of both triumph and defeat. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain this approach in greater detail, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
Strat recoiled in horror. How could Cirri have betrayed him like that? Like how he had betrayed her…
He shot his gaze out to the horizon, looking in the direction of the dust cloud. Already he could make out the community reforming upon it. They had found it, they were growing, they would be ready for him. Stratocirrus had left a guard to protect it, but that would have died at the same time as Cirri, when he Strat undid their pact.
Now was the time for decision. If he wanted, he might be able to run and hide. The community would no doubt hunt after him and seek their vengeance, but he might be able to find refuge in some migrating cloud caravan. On the other hand…he could try to challenge them for the resource. They would have the advantage, together they were larger, and they could take a defensive position. But still, it would be close. He might just be able to pull it off.
Strat’s face etched with hateful resolve and he spread himself to catch the wind. His tendrils groped about until one of them found a slipstream and hooked into it, rushing off towards the distant dust cloud and dragging the rest of him along with.
He kept his body stretched out like a javelin, maintaining maximum speed as he raced the distance to the community. They were drawing quite close now. He could already make out their sentries catching sight of him and scrambling to alert the others. If he wanted to perform a standard frontal assault he should start slowing down now. Instead he hurtled onward, rushing on the community before they could get up any defenses.
At the last possible second he spread his body out and stretched it into a mist. With his great velocity he continued streaking forward, piercing through to the heart of the dust cloud. Strat began congealing back together, and as he did so absorbed what dust particles he could into himself. Those particles bonded with stray water vapor in the air, and from that new cloud patches began to accumulate on him, slowly building up his body.
Of course the downside to his daring charge was that he was now smack in the midst of the cloud community as well, and they were descending on him with murderous intent. They had already become engorged in their brief period among the dust, and were large enough to have complete temperature and pressure control. They tightened themselves together, working as a unit to lower the temperature around them, causing mighty ripples of wind angled straight for Strat.
Strat groaned in frustration as the currents whipped his form. He tried to tighten himself, but that made the more powerful gusts cleave entire chunks off of him. If he let himself go limp then he would be more elastic, and would not lose pieces of himself, but then he would be blown away from the dust field.
Thinking quickly Strat clenched tighter and strove for some semblance of temperature control himself. He wasn’t so mighty as the community, but he was able to have some influence on the air around him. He hastily created a simple updraft and then dissipated himself into that wind.
The combined pressure of the community wind and his own updraft spun him up and out in a wide arc, moving him out of their line of fire. As soon as he was clear of them he thrust out his arms, separating half of his essence into a horde of Sub-Nimbos that descended on the front-lines of the community.
A vicious scuffle there commenced. The smaller, individual entities wrestled with one another, trying to overpower the consciousness of their foes. It was a strange battle, one where individual entities might be overpowered and change ranks many times over, an ever-shifting balance of power. Each side understood the basics of front-line tactics, things like giving way in the middle so that the enemy platoons would advance quickly there, then pinching inwards and cutting those platoons off of from the rest of their fellows, where they could be taken over in isolation. That then provided a center of strength that could thrust out at the other side.
And while there were fewer Sub-Nimbos, they had the benefit of sharing a core instinct. Each one’s mind was their own, but each could vaguely sense when their fellow was in distress. It was soon apparent that the battle was evenly matched.
But it was only a distraction. For while it raged on in the front, a portion of Strat and the community remained lurking behind, accumulating more and more mass into themselves. Strat was siphoning in the additional mass as quickly as he could. It resulted in a weaker bonding, and left him with imperfect control over himself, but he ballooned up impressively, far more than the community, who were accumulating at a slower, more controlled rate.
“No more trading,” Strat breathed out to his Subs, then he flung himself over their heads and into the heart of the community.
The Subs shifted their strategy according to their master’s instructions. Instead of trying to overcome the consciousness of their foes they now sought to tear them apart. Casualties would be permanent, the lifeless clumps of severed cloud entities tossed unceremoniously to the side.
Very quickly the community caught on to the change and began to respond in kind. The numbers dwindled quickly on both sides, but more so for the community. Strat’s Sub-parts were willing to fight more recklessly as their demise didn’t really mean anything, given that they were only clones. When each community member was torn to pieces, however, they were gone forever.
Strat wove in and out and around that community, snaking about like a terrible phantom, always in motion. He threw out a crunching fist here, he dispersed a mass of Sub-units there. He took daring gambles, losing much of his mass at one turn and then destroying more of the community at another.
Soon there were no front-lines or behind-lines at all. The two sides were completely entwined, fighting among a soup of friends and foes. Dead corpses were thrown every direction. The number of community members decreased, while the size of the living increased, thus balancing out the balance of the battle. Now they were only a score of souls.
And what of Strat? As his core was cleaved away and replaced with hurriedly siphoned matter he became more and more disjointed. His behavior started to become erratic. Sometimes he would drop entire chunks of himself, sometimes he would shoot out bolts of lightning without intending to, sometimes he would damage himself instead of his foes. He became less and less of a person, and more and more like a wild animal.
The battle shifted accordingly. It was now between the community and this feral beast. They positioned themselves around it and took turns jabbing out at its haunches, cleaving off what corners they could. At first it lashed out reactively to these attacks, but eventually its strikes became truly random. Many were thrust out into useless, empty space, but every now and again one would happen to zero in on a community member. And when it did, those thrusts came with such power and zeal that they could not be denied. The unlucky soul was crushed in an instant.
Two sides went into the war, but only hollow shells would emerge if anything at all.
The only real increase was that of the of dead matter. Everywhere stray puffs of lifeless cloud floated lazily. It got in the way of the battle, dampening blows until it was hastily thrown to the side. Usually to the same side, to a single quadrant of the sky that the battle remain apart from.
As that dead detritus accumulated in one place it began to compress and merge under its own weight. It grew colder and tighter and darker. Every now and again it would twitch when a stray synapse in its dead mass fired at random.
It was already larger than all the surviving community members and Strat combined, and whatever dust was not claimed by those warring sides naturally accumulated on this largest entity. And so its growth became exponential. Dead matter upon dead matter upon dead matter. Higher and higher it rose, becoming a wall extending nearly to the stratosphere. Its face clapped with blanket lightning and its core grew dark as night. Wind began to whip around it, a cold chill bursting out in gusts, and small droplets condensed in the air, hung for a moment, then fell for a final rest on earth.
Even in the heat of their battle the community members could not ignore the chilling bite in the air. As one they turned and witnessed the behemoth raising high, arcing forward, and forming a ceiling above them. Its underside was tumultuous and rumbling, about to burst.
They didn’t even try to run, it wouldn’t have made any difference.
There came a loud crack and then the deluge fell. Millions of raindrops every second, the entire mass giving itself away in a flowing torrent. Each raindrop plunged through the warring clouds like a tiny bullet. Inch-by-inch the entities were blurred and smeared. Though they tried to hold themselves together they could not resist the endless cascade, and eventually all streaked out into a rainfall of their own.
All of the remaining members of the community, all the fractured pieces of Strat, all the corpses, all the idle grains of dust still remaining in the air. All sins were washed away indiscriminately. It took time, the rainfall lasted for hours, but when at last the cleansing was done not a single cloud remained to be seen.
And so the unblocked sun shone brightly on the muddy ground and baked it with its heat. After a little while faint tendrils of steam could be seen lifting off the ground’s surface. Embryonic streams of water vapor lifting into the sky, invisible until some future time when they would condense into clouds.
Perhaps this next time they would manage things better.
I mentioned a couple of posts ago how I wanted to bring a monster into Once Among the Clouds. A monster that was formless and amorphous, and also that was a product of the main characters’ flaws. I was, of course, referencing the massive dead cloud that brings about the literal downfall of both warring parties.
Stories often include some tipping point where the momentum of a main character becomes a force unto itself. Up to this point that character might have changed his or her mind and turned from the path. But after this critical point there is no going back, because now gravity has taken hold and the consequences cannot be denied. In a heroic epic this is the point where the protagonist rejects the offer for a last retreat and commits to seeing their adventure to the end, come what may. In a tragedy this is the point where one crosses a line of such depravity that all hope for reclamation is lost.
In Once Among the Clouds I consider that point of hopelessness to be quite early in the story, it is the very moment where Cirri and Strat first decide to take the dust cloud for themselves. The destruction of them all was destined from that single decision.
In my last post I also talked about how even the most original of stories find their roots in the work of others. I personally think that the world and mechanics of Once Among the Clouds are incredibly unique and novel, but as I have just detailed, its characters and themes are as old as anything in literature. Even the ending, where the spent clouds are born anew as water vapor is simply a reinterpretation of the age-old theme of new beginnings. In fact, that metaphor perfectly encapsulates the work of creativity itself: simply giving new skin to old bones.
I’m about ready to close off this current series of stories, but before I do there is one last short piece I want to write. And in that story I want to examine a theme that has been present in all this series: that of the great, undefined something. Instructions Not Included, Cael: Darkness and Light, and now Once Among the Clouds have each featured something large, something unseen, something not understood. This is a common archetype of stories, and I’d like to take a closer look at it. Come back Monday where I’ll do just that, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
Monsters. They come in all shapes and sizes. Amorphous blobs, oversized insects, scaly reptiles, hairy beasts, underwater phantoms, undead humans, shape-shifting tricksters, killer robots, and hodge-podge creations. Some of them come straight at you, slow and meandering; some of them lurk behind you in the shadows, and still others fester right inside your mind.
Clearly there is a great variety in our literary depiction of monsters, yet there are a few things that remain consistent. Or at least mostly consistent. Each of the patterns I am about to mention surely have their exceptions, but they do hold as general rules.
Monsters are mindless. It isn’t just that you never see a monster making a painting or working through a mathematical equation, it’s that they seem incapable of any sort of creative expression. They might be cunning, it is true, but never for the purpose of inventing something new or advancing their understanding.
Monsters are evil. A villain can be sympathetic, but a monster cannot. To be a monster means that it serves no virtuous purpose. It is never engaged in an act of compassion or kindness, even to others of its own kind. A monster is commonly described as “menacing,” by which we mean it has evil and violent intent.
Monsters want to destroy you. The two above principles combine into this one. We began by saying that monsters are mindless, but perhaps we should instead say that they possess a single-track mind: one of violence. They want to destroy and that is all. And it is that monomaniacal thirst for destruction that makes us identify them as evil.
Monsters are therefore the antithesis of ingenuity and creation. They are pure agents of destruction. They are often used as an archetype that stands opposite to the creativity of the hero, and most often are defeated by that creativity. Think of Jaws, where the titular shark is defeated by the ingenuity of the hero using a tank of compressed air as a bomb.
Monsters are, of course, also associated with a specific form of destruction: death.
In the animal kingdom we have two states that define the endpoints of a creature’s life. There is the birth, which is an act of creation. Then there is the death, which is an act of destruction. We rejoice in the first, and assign to it feelings of love and peace. We agonize over the second, and assign to it feelings of hatred and fear.
Death can come peacefully, but inherent in all of us is a fear that it might not. There are few things that terrify us more than a savage end. A fear we not only share universally as a people, but with the entire animal kingdom. Every creature shows intense fear for its own demise. It is not a vain fear either, nature is full of those that seek to bring early and violent ends to every form of life. Nature is full of hunters. Which brings us to our next point: in the world of nature, death is almost always followed by eating.
Almost every monster we conceive of has some fascinating mode of ingesting others. In fact some of the most common characteristics among them are many pointy teeth and oversized mouths.
This act of a predator eating its prey is a true horror, but also a fascination. It couples something we dread with something we enjoy. Eating provides us our daily sustenance, after all. It is an experience we take sensual pleasure in. Psychologists have long been aware of the satisfaction of hand-to-mouth movements. To not eat would be to die.
Eating, then, is the nexus by which one entity’s death becomes the life-sustenance in another. Moments of contrast, such as this, are always the ones that grip our curiosities most strongly. It creates in us a strange mixture of feelings, one where we find pleasure in the very thing that horrifies us. We don’t want to watch…but we do want to.
The Loss of Self)
But what exactly gets eaten? Certainly the body in the simplest of cases, but our imagined monstrosities have become incredibly complex over the years. We have invented monsters to feast upon any component that we feel defines us. So the dementors swallow the soul, the zombies feast on the mind, and the one ring consumes the will. The soul, the mind, and the will; these are all things that we define our individuality by, and therefore things we fear having taken from us. Perhaps that part of us is destroyed, or perhaps it is assimilated against our will. In either case that core life force is taken from us and given to another.
Which leads to another interesting correlation between monsters and their preferred food. Many times the creature wishes to eat that which they are forever absent of, meaning they are an abyss that can never be filled. The dementor that sucks out the soul has no soul of its own. The zombies are defined by their own lack of any rational mind. The one ring is an inanimate object, and so has no personal will. Their sole function is to take what they cannot have, a ravenous hunger without end.
I tried to follow this pattern with my “void” monster in last week’s story Cael: Darkness and Light. Here the monster was a massive, undulating cloud, devoid of any specific form or definition. It crept forward and consumed all forms that it encountered indiscriminately, folding them forever into its nothingness.
Now I would like to that same idea again: create an entity that is devoid physical form and have it consume all other things that are better defined. This time, though, I am going to incorporate one final theme of monstrosity into it.
We Are Our Monsters)
A common interpretation of monsters is that they are our own worst parts, which if not kept in check will consume/ingest the good. Dr Jekyll gradually has all his kind qualities overtaken by the cruel Mr Hyde, and eloquent Larry Talbot transforms into the drooling werewolf.
In some ways this might be the loss of self that we fear most of all. And we feel it is not a quiet, peaceful loss either, one that can only occur by our worse nature violently taking the reins from our kinder spirits. Once that defeat occurs, all the goodness we once knew becomes fuel for the ravenous beast to grow on.
On Thursday I will present the first half of a story where damning character flaws create a conflict. Then, in the second half that conflict will give rise to a mindless entity that represents karma and reciprocal cause and effect. The actions of the main characters will lead to its perpetual increase to the literal point of bursting. Come back then to see how it turns out.