Glimmer: Part Three

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

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

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

It will restore itself. With time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It isn’t?”

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

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

And do you see the people?

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

“Can they move? Talk?”

If you keep watching them they might.

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

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

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

“Whom does she choose?”

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

“There is a war?”

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

“Oh!”

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

“What of Avaro?”

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

“Butyou said Elitra never recovers?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They will know my story?”

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

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

“YOU FILTH!”

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

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

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

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

“There is nothing here today.”

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

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

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

“And you…you create the conflict?”

“Yes!” Bolil hissed.

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

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

“You know the void?” Reylim asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s a murderer.

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

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

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

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

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

You cannot have her, void.

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

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

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

“To the Nexus, then?”

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

***

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

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

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

Glimmer: Part Two

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Reylim’s feet made loud echoes as they pattered across the stony plains. Now that Glimmer soared alongside of her, illuminating the way, she was able to move along far more quickly. She had settled into a well-practiced pace, one that she could maintain for a few hours if needed. Glimmer had explained to her that it was necessary for them to reach something called “the Nexus” which held a direct stream to all of the life on the planet. If Glimmer could imbue itself into that Nexus then it would be able to provide a spark to all peoples and creatures, awaking them from their current slumber.

As she ran Reylim kept turning different parts of her conversation with Glimmer in her mind. Suddenly a thought occurred to her that was so fundamental she couldn’t believe she hadn’t conceived of it sooner.

“Glimmer,” she queried, “you say that when your light enters the Nexus this whole world will become illuminated and people will be able to act and choose as they see fit. Similar to how things are on my world, Celsar?”

Essentially yes. The people here will be far behind in development and understanding, but their fundamental existence will be the same.

“Right…” she affirmed, coming now to her main point. “So does that mean that Celsar itself was once like this? And that someone helped you to ignite it as well?”

I assume so. I know of many things generally, but of specifics my understanding is limited to this world. And if things did occur in a similar way on Celsar it was done by another reflection of the Glimmer.

“Oh right…because you are not the core Glimmer?”

I am a reflection of Glimmer. Think of it as an individual spark from a fire, just as there is an individual spark of Glimmer in you as well. All of the sparks are merely extensions of the original flame, and yet they are their own fire as well And as you know many things naturally by intuition, such as the importance of goodness and virtue, yet there are many specifics that are known to the Glimmer but which remain hidden to you.

“And so you are specifically the spark of this world?”

I am meant to be, if we successfully ignite this world.

“Does a hero ever fail to ignite a world?”

The original Glimmer cannot fail, it cannot be destroyed, but we individual sparks can. I am keenly aware of my own fallibility and mortality. Therefore it is possible for a world’s intended intended spark to be killed, and then that world would be consumed into the void, torn apart into nothingness.

There was a pause.

And certainly a hero has failed before. Reylim, I must be honest with you. You are not the first to come here. Indeed, Nocterra has existed since long before your own world, Celsar. I remember watching Celsar burn into life many eons ago. And still no hero has been able to save this world. I think you will be the last, as the nether regions are already disintegrating into the void.

Reylim shivered. Her heart thumped, protesting the next question that dangled on the end of her lips, but she had to ask it. “And what is the void?”

Exactly as it sounds, a void. The more you try to define it, the further you stray from comprehending its pure nothingness. It is not right to call it living, as that would require the existence of some intelligent entity in it. It just absence, and that is all.

“If I fail, I will be consumed by it?” Reylim’s feet had slowed drastically, barely moving above a slow walk now.

I will not lie to you. Yes.

Suddenly Reylim wondered what she had gotten herself into. Of course she had been aware that her great quest would involve danger, but she had always been thrilled at the excitement of such things. It had all sounded so romantic, now the stark reality of it terrified her. She should not be here in such a place. How could the sentinels have sent her? What was one young girl and a dim spark against an eternal–

Please don’t think such things! Glimmer chided. You’ve already summoned it!

A cold thrill tore through Reylim’s as her eyes lighted on dark forms approaching ahead of her. They were tall and thin, and barely humanoid in form. Their edges were too sharp to be organic, though, forming sharp geometric edges. All the area around them appeared warped and stretched, as though the very matter and light around them was tearing apart at their presence. At their cores there was pure nothingness. They did not appear as three dimensional entities with a front, sides, and a back, but rather they seemed more like holes that had been punched clear through the eternities of space, reaching out to swallow Reylim.

“What do I do?” she begged, her voice shrill and panicked as she fumbled with the ceremonial dagger at her side.

Your weapons are of no use here. Get away from this place and calm yourself, I will try to slow the advance.

Reylim still wasn’t ready to put her dagger away, and she didn’t want to turn her back on these apparitions. Instead she awkwardly fumbled backwards, until her heel caught a rise in the rock and she fell onto her back. Then her panic fully set in and she scrambled back up to her feet and sprinted away.

As she went she shot glances over her shoulder, and she saw Glimmer rush up to the dark forms and begin encircling them with long streaks of light. Those streaks hung in the air as barriers which seemed to restrain the advance for a moment, before the light was dissolved back away into nothingness.

With her eyes turned backwards she failed to notice that she was running straight for one of the small ditches in the rock. For a brief moment she felt the shock of nothing beneath her feet, and then the thud of impact as she hit the ground beneath. She instinctively converted her momentum into a roll, tearing her robes and gashing her knees in the process.

She stumbled up to her feet, noticing that her breath was coming rapidly, almost hyperventilating. Glimmer had told her to get calm, and now she felt even further panicked as she tried to do just that and found that she could not. As fresh waves of despair began to wash over her she noticed new void forms materializing on either side of her. They began as small pinpricks of emptiness, only noticeable by how the world around them warped inwards as if towards little black holes. Then the voids widened outward, stretching out to her.

She wanted to run away but her legs were trembling so badly that she dropped back to her knees instead. Her mouth moved in the shape of the word “no” but no sound came out.

Please, Reylim, I need your help to diminish them!

A streak of light shone over her head and Glimmer spun around each of the void figures, binding them in light.

“I don’t understand,” she croaked.

Your fear and your despair cripple you. They take away your will to act and draw the void toward you. You need to leave here, but you need to do it calmly.

“I don’t know how.” Already the dark forms were breaking past Glimmer’s restraints.

Just stop focusing on them. Focus on yourself instead. What do you feel?

Reylim tried to stand once more, but her legs continued to waver uncontrollably. “Unstable” she flustered, unsure of what Glimmer’s point was..

What is unstable like? Glimmer continued dashing back and forth between the two dark forms, putting additional light barriers before them, each fell more quickly than the last.

“Like having no power,” she answered, but then realized that that wasn’t quite right. “Or maybe having too much power, but it isn’t going the right way.” As her mind shifted inwards her legs began to quake less, just enough that she could hobble to the end of the ditch. She put her hands over the edge, but when she tried to lift herself over found she still lacked the finesse to do so.

That’s good Glimmer encouraged. What else?

She tried to push the sense of danger from her mind, and instead closed her eyes, centering herself. “And I’m hurt,” she winced. “My leg is throbbing.”

Yes, there’s blood on it, can you feel that?

She paused. “Yes–I missed that somehow.” The warm liquid pooling down her skin, sticking to her robes. It was unpleasant. Reylim felt a rush of clarity and she easily swung herself up to the higher ground. Once above she opened her eyes again and saw the void forms following her out from the ditch.

Her heartbeat quickened and she tried to calm herself again. Her inhale came sharp and rapid, but the exhale was slower and more controlled. The void forms wavered.

Very good, now we need to do this next part carefully. Glimmer came bounding up from the chasm, resuming its perch above Reylim’s shoulder. Take in your surroundings. But keep calm.

Reylim slowly turned about and summed up her situation. The two void forms in front were being joined by the original three, and were fanning out to come at her from different angles. She looked to the left and the right and on each side there were another three forms approaching as well. Behind her, the way she had intended to depart, there came another six. They were all closing in.

Reylim’s heart began escalating again and she noticed the periphery of her vision starting to warp and darken.

Accept them for what they are. Let them exist, but apart from you. You are in danger. Say it, but say it calmly.

“I–” Reylim’s voice wavered and she cleared her throat. “I am in danger,” she forced out in a monotone. As she did it seemed more factual than emotional. Her heart returned to normal. She noticed that the calmer she was the slower and smaller the void forms seemed to become.

Good. Now if you recall, the widest angle of retreat was between the ones on your left and the ones directly behind. Move that way. You may run, but only if you can do so calmly.

Reylim exhaled slowly then turned in that direction. She walked forward, purposefully. Each step brought her closer to both danger and escape, but she tried to focus on the latter of those two. Behind her she could hear Glimmer leaving more streaks of light to guard her back. Then Glimmer moved forward and worked to restrain the ones ahead, slowing them enough that she would clear their gap.

At least, she thought she would clear it. It was going to be close. She quickened her pace to a light run. Her heartbeat quickened, but not from fear. She noticed that the throbbing in her leg had increased by the faster motion and she focused on that sensation, burying her consciousness into self-awareness. She glanced down at the ground in front of her, memorizing its features. Then she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, shutting out the sight of the nearing forms.

“Three steps,” she muttered to herself, “then a slight rise.” She leapt up onto the shelf. “And down the other side….Just another dozen paces and I’m clear.”

Rather than ignore the sound of Glimmer whizzing about her she noted it, projected from it where the voids must be, and so became aware when she had passed their perimeter.

She opened her eyes, listening to the sounds of Glimmer fading into the background. She did not stop, following Glimmer’s instructions to get away from that place. The further she ran the less light she had, and so she stumbled across the dark landforms. In time she slowed back to a walk, cautiously feeling her way forward and trusting that Glimmer would come and find her whenever it was safe to do so.

As if on cue, the area around her began getting brighter every moment. She spun around and saw Glimmer drifting to her. She was surprised to realize that Glimmer had lost a great amount of its luminescence and Reylim realized that its defenses of her had not been without cost.

“You’ve been hurt,” she said, her voice mixed with equal parts concern and guilt.

So have you. But we are safe.

“I’m sorry,” she looked down in shame.

Why?

“I shouldn’t have lost my head like that.”

Why not? You had just been given some very frightful news. Perhaps you needed to calm down, but there is no shame in that you needed to calm down.

Now that the immediate danger was past her, the deeper more abiding one took the forefront of her mind again.

“Glimmer, I don’t think I should have come!” she exclaimed, hot tears spilling down her cheeks. “I am not the hero that this world needs. I didn’t know what it was going to be like here. I’m just one small girl and the void is ageless and eternal. I can’t even fight it!”

And so you would rather curl up and hide from it all?

There was no judgment in Glimmer’s message, the question was sincere. Reylim nodded.

What would you curl up into?

“Somewhere safe. Somewhere quiet.”

Like a void?

Reylim paused, a moment of clarity washing over her. “That’s what you meant by saying I was summoning them? When I get panicky I feel paralyzed…and I just want to let go and hide…into nothingness.”

That is how the void works. Its only power is derived from what we give to it. You can fight it by your battles within.

“But how can I want it and be afraid of it at the same time?”

It sounds strange, I suppose, but you’ll find many people tend to be afraid of the very things they want. But another part of you wants to be a hero as well, and you are afraid of that also, aren’t you? The best part of you is afraid of the void, and the worst part of you is afraid of…

“Sacrifice,” Reylim said softly, staring downwards. “My whole life I’ve been trained to give my all for a noble cause, but it’s a very hard thing now that I’ve come to it.” Her vision was becoming blurry and she pressed her eyes shut to squeeze out the water. “I’m sorry, Glimmer. I really don’t want to let this world down and I think the lives that could be here deserve to have their chance…. But I’m just not the stuff that heroes are made of.”

No one is.

“What?”

No one is born with heroism already in their blood, no one becomes a hero first and then afterwards performs their great heroic act. Every hero only became one while feeling just as small and miserable as you.

“How?”

By not worrying about the ‘how.’ All you ever need to worry about is just taking the very next step.

Reylim paused, biting her lip and feeling the streams of tears continue to flow down her cheeks. “Can you please just promise me that I’m not the last chance for this world? Please…tell me that if even if I fail everything can still be alright. Tell me that the mission can extend past me.”

Child, Glimmer lowered itself to shine warmly on her face. You still do not understand. This world is not the mission, our igniting it is only a byproduct of our true mission.

“What is our mission then?”

You are the mission.

***

Click here for part one of Glimmer.

On Monday I promised that I would introduce new characters in this section of Glimmer, specifically the enemy of the story and the people that populate this world. Unfortunately I only got the first of those done this week, and it is possible that this story might end up being split into four parts instead of three. That’s alright, though, I don’t want to rush it faster than it should be.

In any case hopefully you were able to see how the competing themes and arc were expanded in this entry, with a few more threads yet to be introduced. Then, finally, all will taper together for a single climatic finish.

Having introduced the “villain” of the story I’d like some time to examine it in greater detail. This enemy is not a a traditional character, it is more of an eternal force. Sometimes these tides of power show up in stories, in fact they have been present in each of the short stories in this latest series. Come back on Monday when we’ll examine how they have been used, and what makes them useful when crafting a tale.

Glimmer: Part One

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“Nocterra is extinguished. No light of any sort can be detected there, and so the world has been plunged into perfect dark. Without contrast there is no perspective. There is no conflict and there is no becoming. It is known that life was prepared to exist, but without any driving forces it has been left in a form of perfect stasis.

“There is something else, too. Something deep and dark and hidden, an entity of nothingness that cannot be defined because it blends in perfectly with all the rest of the nothingness that surrounds it. It is what fuels the void there.”

The sentinel paused, and Reylim nodded to signify that she understood. In all honesty, she did not fully understand, but she grasped the main points at least. The land was dark. The people were frozen. It was the fault of that dark entity.

“You will be sent there to reignite the planet and allow the divine struggle to wage there. The light that you provide to it will serve as a catalyst towards virtue, whilst that dark entity will remain to pull towards vice. Evil will propagate, and so heroes will, of necessity, arise. You shall be the first hero, and the mold from which every other will follow. In time, they will be able to wrest the good out of the darkness, and secure their own peace and prosperity.”

Reylim nodded solemnly.

“And you will die.”

Reylim started at that, an involuntary shudder that encompassed her entire body. The sentinel must have noticed, but did not seem surprised or disturbed. Perhaps it was because her eyes held firm, even if now shining slightly, and she nodded solemnly once more.

“How am I meant to proceed?” she queried.

“The sanctity of your quest must be preserved,” the sentinel cautioned. “For it to mean anything, it truly must be your own. But, do not fear that you shall find your way. When you arrive you will know what to do.”

Reylim stared, the wetness in her eyes growing.

“What is it?” the sentinel asked.

“Might I fail?”

For the first time the sentinel dropped his severe tone and became the compassionate mentor Reylim knew. He bent down to lift her chin and stroked his other hand through her hair.

“For the sanctity of your quest, there must be an opposition. And if there is opposition there must be a risk of defeat…. But… you are ready.”

She smiled and blinked, the tears making marks down her cheeks.

“And you will not be alone.”

She furrowed her brow at that but the sentinel did not say any more. Instead he rose and began unbuckling his staff from his side.

“Reylim, daughter of the highest order,” he said impressively, twirling the white rod up and around before catching it firmly in his palms, “with your permission I will send you to the planet Nocterra, that you may bring fire and hope to all that live there.”

Reylim assumed a warrior’s stance and wiped the tears from her face. “I am ready.” She heard herself say the statement, and felt it ring encouragement into her.

“May your Glimmer guide you.”

The ball at the end of the sentinel’s staff glowed brighter and brighter, illuminating Reylim, and even overpowering her image. Her round face, still youthful and freckled lost its dimensions and became a white sheet. The raven tresses that curled under her chin glowed to the point of transparency, and all the loose folds of her ceremonial robes disintegrated into the scorch.

To Reylim, though, it appeared that it was the entire room that was bleeding into the white, every form and figure being consumed until all was pure brightness. Then, slowly, all began to fade in unison, passing through every shade of gray and finally to perfect black. She felt cold stone beneath her bare feet and a stagnant chill in the air. She was somewhere else.

Reylim shivered, unnerved by the stark transformation and unsure of what to do in such pitch emptiness. She brought her hands to her eyes but could not see them. She tossed her head around but could not even make out varying shades of black, only a complete and perfect void. Her lip was trembling and a faint whimper emerged from her lips. It was her first exhale into that strange world and it came out of her throat as a slightly glowing mist. She gasped in delighted surprise, and as her heartbeat quickened she noticed a soft illuminance about her core.

“My Glimmer!” she exclaimed. Though she had felt its stirrings within her at many times this was the first time she had ever been able to perceive it naturally. Perhaps it was faint, but it was hers, and she delighted to see that it was there. Slowly the light was spreading through her veins, each part of her becoming vaguely luminescent. Crouching down to the ground and placing her hand on the surface she was able to just make out the black stone that lay there, smooth and flat and slightly marbled.

In little grooves of the rock she could barely make out some tiny plants pressing out into the air. Her light was not enough to make out their proper color, but she could see that each had three round leaves that swayed ever so slightly whenever her light grew nearer.

So caught up was she with her little discoveries that at first she did not notice the pale gray light inching across the ground towards her until it crept across her outstretched fingers. Snapping her head upwards she tried to make out its source, but could not. The horizon was simply a dull gray in one direction, perfect black everywhere else. As surprised as she was by this development she was more so to find that her own luminescence was now pooling to the edge of her that faced that gray horizon, as if straining to meet it.

“May your Glimmer guide you?” she echoed. “I didn’t realize he was being so literal!”

She began making her way towards the source of light, but found the going very awkward. The sheet of rock she moved across was at times laid over by another slate of stone, a few inches higher than the previous. The first few of this transitions she tripped painfully over, before learning to feel the space in front of her before committing to the next step. It was hardly better than being completely blind, and her progress was incredibly slow.

At some points there were large gouges in the rock, too, depressions that dropped as her whole height and stretched twice as wide across. These she became even more wary of, dropping to all fours and feeling her way down into their recesses and then back up their other side.

With time, though, the going became easier. Slowly, but steadily, the illumination was increasing, by which she knew that she could not be too far from the source of the light. Before long the glow was bright enough to cast shadows. Very long shadows they were, too, strange and stretched forms that tangled together behind her. By this she knew that the source  of light must not be very high above the ground.

Between the clumps of light and shadow she gained a patchwork understanding of the terrain she traveled. It was a very long and flat stretch of land, extending far in every direction. And it was dry. She could see no source of water, and unsurprisingly no signs of animal life. The flora was almost nonexistent as well, only those tiny saplings that snaked out wherever the rock was cracked.

Most important, though, was the light, and soon she became aware of a single orb ahead, a concentrated ball that had to be the source. She was surprised to find that she could look at it directly. Indeed its core barely appeared any brighter than the splash of light laying across her feet. The light had a grayish-blue tint, and it was not perfectly uniform. Even from her distance she could make out little dark marks speckled around its surface, like little craters on a moon.

Of a sudden she realized that her perception of depth had been off, and what she had assumed to be a gigantic ball far in the distance was actually a very small sphere close ahead of her. All at once she was standing underneath it, close enough that she could reach up to touch it if she wanted.

It did not make sense that something so small and dim could have illuminated so great a stretch of land. And yet here it was, small enough to fit in the palm of her hand and gentle enough that she could stare directly at it.

Reylim slowly began to pace around it, taking it in from every angle and contemplating what to do next. Slowly, cautiously, she extended a hand out towards it, and as she did so a low hum emanated from the orb and the portion of it closest to her hand intensified in brightness. She drew her hand back again and it returned to normal.

She blinked a few times, then extended her hand out again, watching the sphere respond to her proximity once more. This time she also became aware that her own inner light was pooling up into her outstretched arm like a fluid, almost bursting out to meet the sphere.

Reylim paused, licked her lips contemplatively, then pressed her hand all the way to meet the orb. A crackling sensation rippled along her arm and small droplets of pure water began to shimmer along her skin. Then they ran down her arm like streams of pure liquid energy. Her own light had a yellowish tint, but it began to blend with the blue from the sphere, combining into a white that encompassed them both.

Reylim.

She was not startled, perhaps because she did not actually hear a voice. She only felt the words.

“Yes?” she responded.

I am glad you found me.

“Me too!” she almost laughed from relief. “It was quite dark here at first and I had started to think it would always be like that. They told me no light could be detected down here.”

It always would have been if you had not come. I had none to shine to.

“Oh…” she said, not really understanding. “And…what are you?”

You do not recognize me? Even though I am already a part of you?

Reylim paused to consider that. “Are you…one of the Glimmers?… My Glimmer?”

There is only one. ‘Your Glimmer,’ as you call it, and all others are reflections of the one.

Reylim’s heart pounded rapidly, and she began to shake. “You are the Glimmer?” she gasped. Of course everyone’s personal Glimmer was the mark of divinity, but this then was the divinity itself!

What you see now is, again, only a reflection. My entity is not constrained to a single place or time on your level. Though a sphere of light may appear here on Nocterra, and another on your own home-world, and still another within yourself, yet all are the same entity.

“Oh…” Reylim said slowly. “That is very different from what I was taught.”

You have been enlightened.

“I suppose I–hey!” she suddenly laughed as she noticed a pun in its declaration, then paused as she wondered if laughing was disrespectful.

I am glad you enjoyed that. Though she still did not hear an actual voice, she felt a warmth and even a mirth with the message.

She smiled, feeling the weight of formality relaxing from her. She allowed herself to pause just to let all of this information to sink in, contemplating what it meant. Glimmer did not try to interrupt her, and she felt certain it did not mind being patient.

“So…” she eventually spoke back up. “You said there was none other here for you to shine to? I was told there were people here, though. You can’t shine to them?”

No, the thought came heavily, I am not within them and thus cannot empower them. At least not now. But with your help that could be changed and I would very much like to shine to all that are here.

“That’s what I have come here for,” she exclaimed excitedly.

It is why you were sent, but is it why you came?

“What do you mean?”

Are you ready, Reylim?

She paused, the sentinel’s claim that she would die on this journey flashing painfully in her mind. Of course Glimmer would already know all of the hesitations in her heart.

“I–don’t know. I’m sorry.”

It is not wrong for you to be afraid.

“I am ready to have a quest, and I am ready to fight to help this land. But I do not know how far I am ready to follow that…” she felt both ashamed to admit it, but also relieved by the honesty.

Reylim, that is your quest and fight. To see how far your heart can go. It is good for you to be unsure, so that your journey may begin. But before we do anything else, I need to you to understand. You are not broken by being afraid. You are all right inside.

A bubble of pride swelled within her and tears moistened her eyes. “Then I am ready to begin.”

*

As I mentioned on Monday, sacrifice is a very powerful element to incorporate in a story. It is something that should not be played with lightly, and I specifically endeavored in this section of the story to give it the gravity it deserved. I think a good way to do that is with a character that does not want to be a sacrifice, that immediately makes their plight all the more pitiful.

One thing that I did intentionally was to spread Reylim’s hesitation to be a sacrifice across a two different moments in the story. In my experience if you want to stress a point, it is more impactful if you repeat it at a few different moments than to spend a long time on it only once. By this way you also create a layering effect, one where you introduce a concept, and then stagger its arc with others that are occurring beneath it.

That idea of layering plots, and particularly of staggering them, is one I’m going to delve into with my next post on Monday. I’ll also point out how I have been using this mechanic for each of  the stories this series: With the Beast, The Heart of Something Wild, and Glimmer. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

Main Character Exit, Stage Right

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One of the most common metrics people use when deciding the quality of a story is how it makes them feel. A story that makes one feel more is considered better than a story that makes one feel less. Interestingly, we even appreciate the stories that make us feel deeply negative emotions. A tale that ends in tragedy instantly seems to have an air of greater maturity and significance about it.

Obviously the most efficient way to bring great sadness to a story is through the death of a main character. This can give your readers quite the shock as well, because stories often reflect life the way we feel it is “supposed to be.” The two lovers come together, evil is defeated, and peace reigns supreme. So when a wrench gets thrown into this happy formula and a main character leaves their artificial world prematurely, we feel pretty shaken up.

When dealing with such powerful elements, though, authors need to exercise the utmost of care. Any craftsman can tell you that a very powerful tool can accomplish very powerful things, but only when it is used in the right way.

In my opinion our core emotions, such as fear, love, joy, and grief are powerful, sacred things. Because of their power it is easy for us to get addicted to them, and we may start looking for artificial ways to produce them. Authors should not be so profane as to take advantage of such readers.

Authors should instead take great care that they do not activate these core emotions without meaningful intent. It is fine for a story to evoke powerful feelings if it has a worthy point to communicate in the process, otherwise the story is disrespecting the sanctity of these feelings, likely to make a quick buck.

 

Meaningful Character Death)

Therefore it is important that if a character is to die that it feels appropriate. A big frustration of mine is when a tale shoehorns in a character death simply to try and give itself an importance that has not been earned.

The 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen features the antics of a family with twelve children. That family is quirky, to say the least, and much of the drama is based around their simultaneous love and embarrassment of one another. It’s a charming film, sprinkled with little provincial wisdoms throughout. “No person with inner dignity is ever embarrassed.” And then, at the end, the father suddenly dies.

Nothing in the film has been leading to this moment and nothing significant is obtained by it. Really it just feels like the story didn’t know how to end and figured a gut-punch was as good an option as any. Rather than landing with the intended gravity it instead just gives the film a disjointed experience.

An important writing rule you should live by is to never pen a plot point for the sole purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. You should never kill a character only to make the reader sad. When a character dies it should happen because it is fitting, because it is right for their arc, because it brings a satisfying closure to the whole.

Of course, for every rule there is also an exception. Consider the most classic sad story of them all: Romeo and Juliet. This story doubles the ante on most tragic endings by closing with the death of not just one, but two main characters! When we look for the narrative meaning to their deaths, though, we come up short. Their deaths seem senseless, the result of a mistake, and devoid of any point. And that, ironically, is the point. These deaths should not have happened, and that is the great tragedy of the story. When hatred kills love there is no closure or satisfaction to be found. Thus we are sad, but we are sad meaningfully.

 

Sacrifice)

If there is any plot device that can elicit a more powerful reaction than a tragic death, it must be the death that is also a sacrifice for some greater good. Sacrifice affects us on a level so deep that it seems to be sacred. We are moved by it, even if we do not fully understand why.

Once again, though, with such potent power there also comes a great risk of horrible misuse. The absolute worst way to employ sacrifice is to dilute it with overuse and cheap manipulation. Consider the stories that repeatedly pretend they are going to sacrifice a character so that the audience feels sad, only to flip the script at the last moment so that now the audience feels relieved at the character’s survival. It’s tawdry and manipulative.

Sadly, there are many stories that do exactly this. You need not look any further than comic book plots or old cowboy serials to find a deluge of this trick. The hero “dies” for their cause and everyone feels very, very sad. Then, suddenly, the hero comes back, and they were never dead at all. They were too tough to die, or too wily, or maybe just too lucky. As I said in my last post, this gimmick is one of my greatest pet peeves in stories. You might be forgiven for trying this once or twice, but stories ceaselessly repeat this stunt in a way that insults the intelligence of their audience.

This isn’t to say that a doomed character cannot be saved in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. A week ago I mentioned the Disney animated film Hercules for its portrayal of a hero fighting an uphill battle. This also happens to be a story where the main character intends to sacrifice himself but is saved by divine intervention, all while still respecting its audience’s intelligence.

You see Hercules only survives because he is sacrificing himself. His great dream is to be reinstated as a god, but is told that he cannot until he achieves the status of a “true hero.” Unsure of what that means, he continues along his way and ultimately comes to love a woman who dies and is taken to the underworld. He makes a deal with Hades to exchange his life for hers, fully intending to carry through with the bargain. It is that act of sacrifice, one which carries on right to the moment that the fates cut his thread of life, that defines him as a true hero. He becomes a god in the very moment of his demise and survives his own death. Not because he is tough, or wily, or lucky, but because he was willing to give his all for what is right.

Perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice though is the one story I’ve mentioned more than any other on this blog. In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton is hardly the character one would expect to be a martyr, he is a drunk and a cynic, a man of great potential that has squandered it all in purchase of misery and regret.

In the last chapters, though, he sees his chance to trade his life for that of the man he envies most, the man he feels he could have been. By carrying through with this sacrifice and bearing that man’s death it as though he has also earned his life. He becomes calm, confident, and content, and wishes for no more. In return for paying the ultimate price he reclaims not one, but two lives that day.

 

That idea of reclamation is truly at the heart of sacrifice, and stories can provide a duality of emotions by it. If a martyr wins the hearts of others through their own death then there can be triumph through defeat, and happiness in the same moment as sadness. That makes for a very fascinating narrative experience, and I’m going to try and capture it with my next short story. This Thursday I will post the first part of that story. That first portion will not include the actual act of sacrifice, but it will introduce us to the character that has been consigned to die for the greater good.

I’ll see you then.

The Heart of Something Wild: Part Three

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Khalil’s blood was pounding, his heart was racing, his hands were clenched in fists. Then, in almighty rush the sights and the sounds of the tribe flooded back into focus. Some people were shrieking in fear, gesturing to Urafiki’s strange and twisted figure at Khalil’s feet. Others were sobbing in heartbreak, reaching for Paki’s fallen form. Others, only a few, were shouting in anger, crowding behind Abasi. And between them all Khalil stood alone.

“He cheated!” Abasi spat. “He revoked his right to a companion! And a creature cannot fight in the blood duel!”

“Abasi, you are a fool!” one of the elders chided. “He has just saved your life.”

“That wouldn’t have been necessary if he had not brought that monster into camp!”

“Abasi you have nothing to gain,” one of the women spoke up, “the challenge is over and Paki is dead.”

“But he was not slain by a member of the challenge. It is not honorable!”

Most of the people looked over to the head priest, he was the final word on the law of their tribe. The man was shaking his head gravely, clearly uneasy with his burden.

“It does not…seem honorable,” he finally muttered, then looked earnestly to Khalil.

Khalil understood. The priest knew that this was a gray area, and was hoping that Khalil would resolve the matter for them.

“No,” Khalil agreed. “It was not.”

The tide let loose again.

“Then Abasi is our new chief,” one of the warriors standing off to the side spoke up.

“He was not a challenger,” Paki’s mother chimed in. “Only a companion. Paki was challenger and Paki is chief.”

“He’s dead,” another woman said flatly.

“Then his son inherits the throne.”

There was quite a rumble of dissent at that.

“Perhaps Paki was not honorably defeated, but he didn’t win the challenge either!”

“He had been going to.”

“Evidently not!”

“How are you all forgetting that Khalil saved us from that creature!”

As each side began to shout over one another Khalil noticed various members of the tribe glancing over to him expectantly. They wanted him to speak up, to make a claim, to settle the matter for them. But he knew that wouldn’t work, the rifts were too deep. He would just become another of the contending voices pulling the tribe further apart. Besides, he had already tried to give the tribe a peaceful resolution and nature had intervened, so who was he to say what was right anymore?

So much had gone wrong this night. Khalil should not still be alive. Paki should not have been killed. Urafiki should not have had to die simply for defending its friend. Paki should not have ever betrayed him. So many wrongs: against their tribe, against nature, against friendship.

But above the agony of Khalil’s losses was the matter of his continued presence and how it was driving that rift between the brothers and sisters that he loved. He had tried before to decide for the tribe what was in their best interest, now all he could think to do was to let them to decide on their own. And to do that, he still needed to remove himself from them.

“Hear me!” Khalil finally said and the tumult quickly hushed. “Our law has been broken. I don’t just mean violated…it is broken into pieces. Each of you tries to claim one of those pieces but it will not all fit back together anymore.”

He paused and could see in the people’s faces that they agreed with his summary.

“Therefore all that remains is to build anew,” he continued. “You must find a new law this day and become a new tribe… And as such, I am no longer your chief,” he reached up to his chest and undid the clasp there, dropping his ceremonial mantle to the floor. Gasps of shock rippled through the crowd.

“I am responsible for everything falling apart. I am sorry.”

Another slight pause.

“I hereby exile myself that you may find your own way to continued peace and unity. May you be guided by wisdom.”

Tears glistened in Khalil’s eyes as he turned away from his people. He could hear their rumbling whispers, but he could not make out the words. He did not try to. Slowly, purposefully, he hobbled away from the fire, past the huts and the crops, beyond the fringe of their clearing, and into the wild that lay beyond.

He was vaguely aware that the arguing in the center of the camp had picked up again, and he found himself praying that they would be able to find their way. Stumbling over the thick foliage in the dark he felt his way still deeper and deeper. On occasion he looked over his shoulder to see if he could still glimpse the bonfire or hear the tribe’s heated debates.

He continued until there was no more sign of his people and he was enclosed entirely in the blackness of the night. Groping in the dark he found a large boulder and lowered himself into a seated position on it.

The darkness of the jungle pressed close against him and now the tears began to flow. Some were for Paki, his lost friend. Some were for the hate he had felt, his desire to kill that very friend for his betrayal. Some were for Urafiki, whose only crime was loyalty and carrying out that which Khalil intended. Some were for his tribe, fractured by the drama of the night. And finally some tears were reserved for himself, alone and broken, a man at odds with his own nature.

He wondered how long he would be able to survive out here on his own. Should he try to find shelter and food? He had great difficulty hunting with his low stamina, but he could try gathering resources. Even so, it would only be a matter of time before he became sick or found by some larger predator, and then he could only help the end would come quickly….

He shook his head, trying to change those thoughts. Instead he found himself wondering what he was supposed to have done differently. Should he have let Paki stand with him and died together as friends? Should he have left Urafiki to die alone on top of the mountain? Even with the tragedy of that night he still felt he had only made the choices that seemed right. At least at the time.

As he sat in the darkness his eyes became sensitive to little pinpricks of light and he found himself captivated by them. First were the patches of starry night sky visible above the canopy of the trees. He stared upwards at the partial signs they made to him, the incomplete guidance they tried to impart. He looked downwards and saw the drifting glow of the fireflies, the random meanderings of life. As he watched their swirling forms he noticed that some of the fireflies were growing larger than the others. Confused, he closed his eyes and shook his head, then looked back at them.

He realized he had mistaken the depth of the points of light and that some of them were actually torches drifting in his general direction. He stood up, his heart racing. Had Abasi argued his way into chiefdom and sent warriors out to dispose of him?

But no. The lights were far too many for that. They only had a score of warriors in their tribe and he could now make out at least fifty torches, all spread out evenly in a fan to find him.

Slowly realization set in. The tribe was following him into exile. Rather than try to salvage the pieces of a broken law they were willfully abandoning their home to follow him into the unknown. Somehow he had earned their trust and now they wanted his help to begin a new legacy. He called out to them.

***

This completes my story The Heart of Something Wild. If you have missed the previous sections of the story you can find the entire work here. Furthermore, it is possible to access all of my previous short stories in their entirety on this page. That page can also be found by selecting Collections from the top menu.

On Monday I spoke about underdog stories, ones where the hero wins not by being the biggest and strongest, but by persevering in what they believe to be right. A common method for this is in their winning the hearts of the masses, who then combine their strength together to overthrow the opposition. This is often the martyr whose sacrifice creates a cause greater than themselves. Ultimately I knew that this was an element I wanted to use in bringing The Heart of Something Wild to its resolution.

Obviously, though, our main character does not actually die the martyr’s death in this tale. Perhaps he intended to, but was frustrated in those designs. That was a creative decision, one where I meant to suggest that he was trying his best, but some higher power intervened to reward him for his selflessness and give him something better. That higher power is left open to interpretation, it could be nature, the spirits of his ancestors, karma, God, or something else.

I would say this example is different from the many unfortunate examples of stories that pretend they are going to feature a heroic sacrifice, and then chicken out at the last moment. This is one of my greatest narrative pet peeves, and I feel strongly enough about it that I’ll be dedicating my entire post on Monday to it. Then, on Thursday I’ll be presenting a new short story. I’ll see you then.

The Heart of Something Wild: Part Two

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“Is it finally asleep?”

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

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

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

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

“About the challenge?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THUMP! THUMP!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pause.

“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”

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

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

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

“We’re past that now.”

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

“I do.”

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

Paki nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

THUMP!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Noble: Part Two

ancient antique armor armour
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A grave somberness lay heavy on the air, and time itself seemed to freeze until the slaves were drawn out of their reverie by the sound of Lenny riding back to their perch. Rather than dismounting he steered the horse towards the line of slaves, all the more to intimidate them as he spat out his obligatory threats.

“All of you take heed!” he snarled down to their still-bowed heads, the bloodlust lingering in his eyes. “There are never any second chances for escapees here. I will gladly ride into town with an empty rope than be made a fool of!” He reached the end of the line and found the only slave daring to look him in the eye. “You, however,” he pointed his finger to Jules and nodded approvingly. “You will be rewarded when we arrive at town. Not with money, your next master would just take that, but I’ll buy you a proper meal before the auction.”

Jules nodded appreciatively, then lay back down on the ground, determinedly turning his back to the other slaves so as to not meet their gazes. With a final curse Lenny circled his horse round and went back to the fire where Bartholomew and Harry were waiting. The three sat around the low blaze, muttering in dark voices until at last they were calmed enough to return to their sleep.

The next morning when Lenny roused the slaves to their feet he had the good sense to not ask about the fresh corpse at the end of the line. He simply cut Jules’s body free, and stomped back to his horse, anxious to move the party away from that place. Bartholomew had followed behind him with the key to unlock the prisoner’s fetters but Lenny barked at him not to.

“No more kindnesses for this lot!” he ordered, spinning around in his saddle to face the slaves. “You may thank your friend William for that.”

There came the tug on the rope and they all lurched into their march. Though they moved onwards, that spirit of death persisted with them as they went. Of course things would have already been grim for one of their own to be killed, but it was all the more so when that one was William Gray.

It was only now with his loss that they fully realized how deeply they had let him penetrate their broken natures. There had been a sense of hope in their lives again, though in what exactly they could not say. Something better, and strangely enough something internal. Something long dormant within them all had been awakened by William’s fire, and now that he was gone they were afraid to lose that part of them again.

The guards felt a weight, too, but for them it was a far more damning sensation. Though William had been only a slave there was a part of them that knew he was more elevated than they, and so it felt out of place to have claimed his life. Perhaps they had possessed his body, but they had never had power over his spirit as with the other slaves. Now that free spirit seemed to stalk them, judging and condemning them for his spilled blood. His memory brought to the surface all that they despised within themselves, and they became, if possible, more harsh and cold to the world. Almost frantically they drove the team onwards, anxious to reach their destination and see if the local tavern couldn’t craft a brew that might lift the spell they were under.

Over one hill and then another they marched, and as they went Robert did not lift his eyes once. Quite possibly he felt the weight of William’s absence most of all. He alone knew that William had intended for him to stand as defender for these poor souls and, fool as it sounded, he really wished that he could. Robert was discovering that a far worse fate than living as nothing was to believe that it could be otherwise. He was drawn out of these thoughts, though, as the line slowed to a stop and a few gasps of shock echoed from their party.

Looking up William saw that the hill they had been climbing was crowned by a small fortress. The layout of the walls and the five towers above them answered exactly to the form William had described of his regal home. There was even the red and yellow banner fluttering above the structure. Robert was so shocked by the manifestation of William’s dreams that it took him a moment to register that something was wrong about the image though.

This place was obviously deserted and uncared for, and clearly had been so for decades. Twenty, maybe thirty years judging by the way the vines had grown across the rock walls and even pulled patches of them down to the earth. Indeed, if William had not planted the idea of a lion holding a flower into Robert’s mind he doubted he would have been able to make out its faint form on the frayed and weathered banner overhead.

Robert did not dwell long on this mystery, though, for he now noticed the anxious way their three cruel masters were leaning into one another and conversing in hushed whispers. That riddle he understood in a moment: they were afraid whether they had, in fact, slain a lord the night before and whether it might become known. The three mercenaries finished their contemplation, and accordingly Harry and Bartholomew spurred their horses down opposite walls of the fortress, no doubt circling the place to make sure it truly was as deserted as it appeared. Meanwhile Lenny swung his leg out of the saddle and dropped to the ground, advancing on the slaves with a grim determination in his face.

“See here, now,” he menaced as he strode down the line, looking each of them in the eyes in turn. “I know that you’re wondering if this structure isn’t the very fulfillment of that fool William’s prophecies.” He spat. “Not a chance. Our dearly departed friend merely saw this place while traveling with his prior master, and in his delusions made up that he belonged here. His mind was as broken and empty as the walls of this place, so he found he felt it a true home to him. Do you understand?

Lenny had made his way to the end of the line, turned behind their backs and strode up the line the other way. He prodded each one of them firmly between the shoulder blades as he continued his speech, his voice becoming more strained with passion.

“I said it before. I am not going to be made a fool of by the likes of you. If any of you so much as breathe the name ‘William’ when we get to town I will haul you out in the public square and murder you with my bare hands!” His voice was screeching now, and rather than prodding he had taken to gripping them from behind and shaking. He reached the end of the line and turned back around, coming along their faces again, his own contorted in pure rage.

“Do you understand me?! I will kill every mongrel of you. Inch. By. INCH!”

Lenny had reached Maggie who squirmed under his glare. He gripped her in his rough hands and slid his fingers around her throat, slowly choking the life out of her. “DO YOU DOUBT ME?!” he frothed, and Robert knew Lenny was debating whether he should kill her to make an example to the rest of them or not. All the other slaves were numb with horror, but Robert’s own heart was racing. He didn’t feel the hopelessness the rest of them did, he had the terrifying and electrifying realization that he could resist this.

William would not have waited this long. The thought, unbidden, flashed across Robert’s mind, and without another pause he turned and bolted towards Lenny and Maggie, bursting his iron fetters off with a sharp snap of the wrists. He wrapped his freed arms around Lenny and tackled him to the ground, all of the other slaves staring in amazement at the miracle he had seemingly just performed.

Lenny roared like an animal, and began pummeling Robert’s sides with his fists. He got his foot up between the two of them and kicked out, sending Robert crashing to the ground a few feet away. Lenny curled up to a crouch, reaching down to his side for the hilt of his sword.

During their struggle one of the other slaves, Bert, had been looking back and forth from Robert’s open shackles to his own around the wrists. A question was in his face, and with a hopeful grin he thrust his arms apart, bursting his iron lock open as well. In a moment he had leapt to Lenny’s side and pinned his arm so that he could not draw his sword.

Robert was as amazed by this development as everyone else, and as he ran forward to help Bert wrestle with Lenny the other nine prisoners tried to burst their bands as well. They all broke free. With a laugh Robert realized William had stuffed all of their locks!

Four more of the slaves rushed forward to help secure their foe, but an angry voice called out, and they turned to see Bartholomew and Harry rushing at them with drawn swords! Casting his eyes around for an escape, Robert spotted a break in the fortress’s wall near to them. He called to his comrades to follow him as he dashed towards it. They thrust Lenny to the ground and rushed across the grass. As they reached the toppled rubble they scrambled into the courtyard on the other side and Robert continued casting his eyes around for their next avenue of escape.

He wasn’t searching for just anything, though, he knew what he was looking for, and at last he found it. “Just keep following me,” he assured the others as he took off towards the door at the base of the tallest tower. The rest of the crew followed him across the courtyard, and as they reached the door they heard the sounds of their three pursuers scrambling through the same hole in the wall that they had come through.

Robert wrenched the heavy door open and waited for his companions to clear the threshold. “Up those stairs!” he commanded, pointing to the steps spiraling upwards. “All the way to the top! Do not stop!” As the last of the slaves cleared the space he slammed the door shut. There were brackets on either side of the door to hold a restraining beam, and looking to the ground he saw the corresponding length of wood. He quickly slid it into place, just as a thump on the other side of the door signaled the arrival of their pursuers. The rotting wood would not hold them for long.

Robert bounded up the steps with an incredible energy, and as he reached the other slaves he quickened his pace still, moving to their front. After all he alone knew what it was he hoped to find at the top of this tower. Beneath them they heard the wrenching sound of the tower door finally breaking inwards.

Looking up Robert saw the trapdoor that signaled the end of their staircase and the entry into the crowning room. He heaved his shoulder against the barrier, but it wasn’t locked, and so he tumbled into a large, open room. He scrambled back to his feet as the other slaves filed into the room behind him, looking around at the majestic bedroom they had just entered.

A few decades ago it would have been ornate and lavish, but now the colors were faded and the perfumes were spoiled. Against the back wall there still stood a massive portrait, and on its faded canvas could still be made out the memory of a noble family. Both the lord and lady were beautiful and dark-haired, a deep contemplation etched into their eyes. In contrast to them was the young lad that sat on his father’s knee. His golden curls wreathed a face shining with pure joy and innocence. He could not have been any older than four or five.

Robert could not dwell on the image, though, he was already dashing to the corner of the room where his hopes were being answered in the form of a suit of armor, standing to attention on its wooden frame. Though it was coated in dust and grime, its fine craftsmanship could not be concealed. Ornate carvings stood sprawled across its perimeters, and its steel was overlaid in places with golden figures. The greatest of these figures was that of the lion with a flower in its mouth, emblazoned across the whole of the breast.

“Help me with this,” Robert ordered, lifting the helmet off and tossing it to one slave. He pulled up the cuirass and handed it to another two. There remained a coat of chainmail on the frame and Robert nodded to another two of the slaves as he held his arms out to receive the armor.

Understanding set in and soon all hands were at work, pulling the chain over his head and around his arms, buckling the cuirass over it, locking the helmet over his head. Meanwhile others were clasping the greaves around his legs and last of all the magnificent sword was placed reverentially into his open palm. The slaves stood back, marveling at the specter that stood before them now, a living embodiment of both rich history and hopeful future.

Robert took his first awkward steps, getting a feel for the great weight. He had no experience and no training, but the burden truly rested on his shoulders now and there was no time for second thoughts. Even now they could hear the footfalls of the slavers nearing their perch. Robert turned towards the trapdoor and raised his sword.

“All of you behind me,” his voice echoed from within his helmet, and the slaves did not hesitate to obey. He had no training or experience, but he knew he needed to calm his racing heart. He settled his frantic breaths into something long and controlled. He tightened his grip on the sword’s hilt and closed his eyes, listening to the footfalls growing louder. He discerned that there were three sets of them, and in his mind’s eye he measured the time before they would be spilling into their room. He counted. One. Two. Three. Four.

Eyes flashing open Robert charged. He barreled to the lip of the trapdoor and down the steps just as Bartholomew appeared at the top of them. Bartholomew’s wide expression of shock was visible for only a moment before Robert had collided into him and sent him flailing backwards down the stairs. Behind Bartholomew, Harry and Lenny awkwardly leapt over the body, leaving it to bounce violently down the stone until it came to a permanent rest some two dozen steps below.

Harry was next, and in desperation he swung his sword at Robert, but the blade clattered uselessly off the armor as Robert cut him down with a single, controlled motion. Lenny took a step backwards to assess the situation, and Robert could see that Lenny’s eyes roved over every gap in Robert’s metal. Beneath the helmet Robert ground his teeth together in determination, raising his sword to chest height as Lenny did the same.

At the same moment Lenny charged up the steps as Robert bounded down them. Lenny turned the point of his sword forward and jabbed it up, while Robert swung his in a wide arc. The two blades collided and Lenny’s brittle metal shattered into a hundred pieces. Unopposed Robert’s sword continued in its swing, passing into Lenny and cutting the cord of his life in a flash.

Robert stood panting, watching Lenny’s lifeless form fall away. His chest heaved and he reached his hand to the wall for support. He closed his eyes and whispered “thank you.” He let a few more moments pass, then turned and stepped back up into the bedroom, all the other slaves encircling him in awe.

Maggie came forward with a old rag she had found and reverently cleaned the bloodied blade. His hands free, Robert unclasped the helmet and viewed his fellow slaves. No, his fellow freemen and freewomen.

“We are The House of Gray” he declared.

“The House of Gray” ten voices echoed.

***

As I said in my previous post, my intention with this story was to give an examination of a character discovering his true self. Specifically I wished to examine the notion of a person discovering their true calling within another, such as Robert being given his duty and example from William. While William calls Robert to the work, though, it is Robert who actually does that work and therefore earns the noble identity he possesses by the end of the story.

Personally I am glad that I took the time to do this piece in two halves, and as I said on Monday I feel that that truly does a greater justice to the work than if I had to rushed it in half the time. In either case we have now concluded this series of stories, and next week we’ll return with an entirely new category. Have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you then.