The Favored Son: Alternate- Part One

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“…and this night the watch over the gate will be assigned to…” Master Palthio paused and squinted at his gathered disciples, “me.” At his last word all the youth gave a collective groan of disappointment.

Watching over the gate at night was the single most important responsibility in their small order. The most important responsibility that any boy from the inner fields could ever aspire to. Watching over the seventeenth gate was, of course, the shared responsibility of them all, but to be the solitary watchman over the most dangerous hours was something special.

To hold that watch meant that you had been elected by the Order, and the Order was elected by the District, and the District was elected by the City Core.

But tonight, as with every other night, it was old Master Palthio who was elected, not one of his acolytes.

“Do not be so dismayed,” Master Palthio shook his head at their reaction. “Yes, the night watch is considered a great honor…but you are acolytes, you are expected to have to learn and grow. Your time will come.”

“It’s just means you don’t trust us,” impetuous Bovik could not withhold his frustration.

Master Palthio cocked an eyebrow. “That is one way you could view it, I suppose: as a shameful punishment. Or you could believe what I have just said, that growth is part of every journey. Does a child carry his father’s sword until he is strong enough to bear it? No. But that is not because he is being punished, it is simply because he must strengthen over the years.”

“So…you would entrust it to any of us now?” Bovik asked. “But you’re just waiting for us to grow a little more first?”

“Well…except for you, Bovik. You I just don’t trust.”

All the boys laughed, even Bovik after he realized it was only a joke.

Of course, the significance of the night watch was mostly symbolic. All of them defended the keep together, no matter who was standing watch. That was the entire duty of their order, after all. The night guardsman was simply to raise the alarm.

And it wasn’t as if there was only the one night guardsman in all their district, either. There was only one for their gate and for their order, but every mile along the perimeter wall was another gate, another order, and another watchman. Seven in all for their district. Neither was theirs the only district. There were fifteen fringe-districts in all, which were collectively responsible for guarding the many different passageways to the City Core. Though the boys liked to pretend that the night guardsman was the solitary protector of the entire realm, it simply wasn’t true.

And it didn’t seem that the realm needed much protecting either. Yes, there had been the ancient wars, but then King Eidoron had driven the barbarian hordes back to their caves many generations ago. So soundly had the victory been, that even after the barbarians spread back out over the Waving Plains, they did not dare muster another attack against the City. They instead contented themselves with warring amongst themselves, fighting for scraps of land instead of kingdoms. So it had been for three hundred years. So it would surely be forever.

And so the boys shrugged off their disappointment when they left Master Palthio that evening. They would have their turn in the evening watch someday, and when that day came they would crow for finally being trusted as real men…but also when that day came they would know that the responsibility didn’t really matter.

*

“Swords ready?” Reis asked, marching back-and-forth in front of the other boys like a general on inspection.

“Uh, yeah,” Inol shrugged, looking to his side to be sure that his scabbard wasn’t empty.

“Oh?” Reis sneered, not at all appreciative of the indifference in Inol’s tone. “So if I ordered you to pull it out for inspection I would find it sharpened and rust free? Polished so that my face shines in it, as per Standard Regulation?”

“If you ordered me?” Inol furrowed his brow. “Just who do you think you are?”

Reis stammered in confounded rage. “I’m Marshall!” He exclaimed. “Today is the Fourth Drop? I am Marshall!”

“Sure, it’s your turn to play Marshall,” Inol rolled his eyes. “But you don’t see the rest of us becoming so serious when it’s our turn for it.”

“Tharol does,” Golu corrected from the side.

“Well yeah, Tharol does take everything seriously, too,” Inol agreed. “But he doesn’t become a self-adore about it all.”

“Fifteen hauls!” Reis spat.

“You’re joking!”

Fif-teen hauls,” Reis emphasized every syllable while pointing to a round boulder against the far wall. He looked Inol firmly in the eye, daring him to defy Standard Regulation once more. “Tell me I don’t have the right,” he whispered.

Inol shot him a dark look, but then walked over to the stone and pulled the leather straps that wrapped around it onto his shoulders. The other boys sighed and fell into more relaxed poses, idly waiting for Inol to finish running fifteen laps around the wall, the heavy boulder slung to his back. After he took his place back in line they fastened their swords back on and were ready for their patrol.

The patrols, like all of the rituals they performed at the keep, were mostly symbolic. Yes, it was obviously an important duty to sweep the surrounding area and identify any nearby threats. How could they hope to protect the City Core if they didn’t have a basic awareness of what they might be have to protect it against?

But the outcome of every patrol was always the same: nothing. Again, it had been generations since the barbarian hordes had mounted an attack, and so it had also been generations since there was evidence of an upcoming attack. So now each patrol simply served the purpose of reaffirming that the current status was still the status quo.

Thus the boys were known to be quite lax about it, idly strolling up and down the fields and lazily poking through the cave networks, looking for some entertaining diversion more than for signs of a threat.

Except when they went with Reis. Whenever it was his turn as Marshall he divided the boys into proper squads and ordered them to march in formation. He expected them to round each corner with swords drawn, to sweep every corner of an enclosed space, to dive for cover at any unexpected sound.

And it just so happened that there was one of those unexpected sounds on this day, right as the boys came to the cove of trees that graced the Western Slopes. It was only a rustle of leaves and a cracking of a twig, but it suggested that something was moving on the other side of the tree-line.

“Front line down!” Reis shouted and dove for the dirt. Inol and Golu slowly followed.

“Bolts up!” Reis ordered next and Bovik and Janeao lazily lifted their crossbows to their shoulders from behind.

“Who goes there?!” Reis demanded, though the other boys figured it was probably just a fox.

Much to the other boys’ surprise, though, it wasn’t. There was an actual person there, and that person spoke to them!

“I come in peace! I come in peace!” the raspy voice called out from behind the largest of the trees. Two hands emerged from either side of the trunk, hands open to show that they wielded no weapon. “If I had meant you any harm I would have already had you shot.”

“Had us–shot?” Reis asked slowly.

The left hand pointed to the boys’ right. They turned that way and saw a large, fifteen-foot boulder resting in the soft grass. Seated at the top of it was a soldier in dark armor, silently aiming his spread-fire crossbow at all the youth!

“Cover him!” Reis shrieked to Bovik and Janeao at the exact same moment that the two of them dropped their crossbows on the ground and raised their hands in surrender.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please,” the voice behind the tree placated. “As I said, I have come in peace…so long as you are willing to not be so hasty!”

“Why are you hiding yourself back there?” Reis shot back. “It’s hard to believe a man’s words when you cannot see his eyes!”

“I am not a man,” the voice said, and for the first time the boys noticed that the hands and arms had a more feminine quality to them. The voice had simply been too raspy to tell its gender. “And I am deprived a peaceful face. However…”

The hands dropped to the woman’s sides and slowly she stepped out from behind the tree. The boys frowned in confusion, unable to make sense of what it was that they saw. She slowly strode towards them, and only gradually did they come to realize that her face was stone! It appeared like a gray sculpture, etched many years ago, rubbed smooth by years of erosion, with deep cracks running from crown to neck.

That neck was where the stone finally transformed back to ordinary flesh, and as she spoke the throat bulged, vocal cords standing out, red and swollen from the strain of trying to resonate words through such stiff housing. Her face was permanently held in an expression of having just seen something alarming, with her eyes wide open, lips curled back, and teeth bared in a snarl.

“What?!” Golu exclaimed before Reis could hush him.

“Yes,” the woman sighed heavily, and it sounded like wind rushing through a canyon. “I am a person trapped betwixt.”

“Have you…always been like this?”

“I don’t know that I can recall.”

“How can you not–“

At the exact same moment Reis held up his hand and the woman spoke, both of them to cut Golu off.

“I don’t believe this is pertinent,” she scolded.

“Well what are you here for?” Reis asked. And he spoke he rose to his feet, sword still held in a defensive position. “You are very near to guarded realms, you know.”

“Very near to guarded realms,” she repeated with a shake of the head. “This is the attitude behind every conquest. Make your walls, define your boundaries, but then protect the outside of them until you feel you own those fringes as well. And so on and so on…. I care little for your petty border disputes.”

“Then what are you here for?” Reis repeated irritably.

“I have business within your walls. My companion and I have come to meet with a man who resides in your district.”

“Who?”

“You would not know him. He is an outsider.”

“There are no outsiders within the walls.”

“Oh really?” and though her mouth could not curl into a smile, there was an unmistakable amusement to her tone. “And here I thought I heard the accent of a Waylan in your voice.”

“The Waylans are officially recognized as a satellite contingent of the City Core!” Reis said defensively. “I’m as much a part of the communal as any of these others, it doesn’t matter where I was raised!”

“I truly meant no insult,” she placated, seeing she had struck a nerve. “My point is that you know full well that there are thousands of citizens living outside the walls, which enter and exit from the city every year. So do not pretend it is impossible for a pretender to have slipped in among the masses.”

“But we have a system. Precautions and–“

“And many other imperfect systems which can be broken or corrupted. I can see that you are too close-minded to hold a rational conversation with. Never mind. I will have to reserve my petition for someone that is more enlightened.”

And with that she turned to walk away. Without a word her bodyguard dropped down from his perch and started to recede into the trees with her.

“Should we…go after her?” Bovik asked Reis.

Reis frowned, then slowly sheathed his sword. “I shouldn’t have interrupted her. She had not yet requested anything illegal. If she had, yes, we ought to have taken her in.”

“Well even then ought we?” Janeao queried. “It seems that that was exactly what she wanted.”

“Hmm…” Reis nodded. “Who’s on patrol next?”

“We are,” Bovik pointed to himself and Inol. “Along with Tharol, Beesk, and Avro.”

“Good, good. You two did not say anything to upset her like Golu and I did. You should watch for her then and find out more of what she intends. We’ll wait to report the matter to Master Palthio until we get to the bottom of this.”

“Shouldn’t he be informed about it now? Wouldn’t that be Standard Regulation?” Inol sneered.

“No…” Reis shook his head. “What is the injunction of the daily patrol? ‘To assess and handle,’ and we still have some assessing left to do.”

“But–“

“Remember what Master Palthio said this morning? It’s time for us to grow up. It’s time we show him that we’re worthy of the night watch by taking the responsibility that’s been give us. This is what he’s waiting for. For us to prove that we’re men. We’ll take care of this one on our own.”

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

On Monday I spoke of stories where the characters are tampering with forces that are beyond themselves, bringing down all manner of unintended consequences on their heads.

There is only the beginning of this in today’s post. Reis is overly-eager to be in charge, to play the part of the ruler before he is ready for that responsibility. That arrogance manifests again at the end, where he chooses to take the matter of the strange woman under his own jurisdiction, rather than properly report it to his elder.

But as we’ll see later on, this is just the beginning of characters overstepping their bounds and dealing with matters that they do not understand. There is yet a much larger Pandora’s Box to be opened.

Before we get to that, though, I want to address an interesting experience I had while writing this piece. I tend to let my imagination run freely while writing these pieces, taking ideas that happen in the moment, and seeing where they take me. One of those was having the strange woman’s face be made of stone. That was something that I had no intention of until the very moment of typing it in. And part of the reason why it came about was because I was feeling uninspired in the material I was writing before that moment. I was becoming bored, and then that interesting novelty popped into my mind to entertain me.

With my next post I would like to consider the role of boredom in creative works, both as a catharsis for invention, but also as an early indicator for when your story is straying into a rut. Come back on Monday as I explore this topic in detail, and then we’ll have the following section of The Favored Son: Alternate next Thursday.

The Favored Son: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

As Master Foraou rushed through the air he pulled the sword back and plunged it clear through the heart of Talo. The boy slumped backwards without a cry.

The youth on either side of him shrieked though, and dove from their seats, scrambling across the aisle to get clear. Master Foraou’s eyes flicked left and right, deciding which side to go after first.

Over to the left and slightly up, Tharol gripped the hem of his tunic in terror. He was frozen in disbelief, unable to accept that what he saw was real. A part of him insisted that this had to be some sort of act, a theatric thought up by the elders that Talo had been in on. This simply couldn’t be true.

There came another shout and Master Solen broke ranks from the other elders as well. Like Master Foraou she took a leap into the stands, though she was angled towards the benches on the left…directly towards Tharol!

Tharol remained frozen in fear as Master Solen arced through the air, landed on the benches before him, and bellowed a single word at him: “RUN!”

Then Master Solen spun on the spot and leaped towards Master Foraou, drawing her sword and crashing it against his with a mighty cry.

She was…defending the acolytes.

All turned to chaos. The spell of immobility had been broken by Master Solen’s shout and all the students, including Tharol, sprung to their feet and dashed towards the back of the amphitheater. At the same time more than a dozen more teachers leaped into the seating, some cutting down students, others cutting down the teachers doing the attacking.

Tharol tripped on one of the steps and fell to his hands. He tried to stand up, but another student knocked him back down while running by. He spun around and found that he was the only student left in the main seating area, the others were escaping out the back. Two of the elders, Masters Dovi and Omil, caught sight of Tharol’s downed form and broke off from the rest. They charged him with swords drawn, their eyes filled with murderous intent.

Tharol winced in fear, but then a strange feeling surety took hold. Was this his elusive “center?” That inner tranquility that the elders had always implored him to seek? He closed his eyes and focused, trying to reach out to that core. Somehow he seemed to find it instantly, as if it was waiting for him. It even spoke to his mind with a voice.

Get up.”

Tharol pounded his feet into the ground, and to his surprise the ground pushed back with far more energy than he put into it, sending him careening into a backwards somersault, and up to a standing position.

His eyes snapped open as Master Dovi bore down, sword swinging near.

Take a cut. Claim it with your blood.

Tharol’s arms moved with greater poise than he had ever held before. He raised his right arm just enough to nick his flesh on the blade’s edge, but not so much as to seriously injure himself. His blood seeped onto the blade, which then melted into molten steel. It dropped through the air and reformed in his own hand. It was his. Tharol swung his arm out, watching how the surprise in Master Dovi’s eyes glossed over into a blank stare. Then both halves of the elder fell to the ground.

Tharol looked down in shock, unable to understand any of the things that had just happened. But he could not dwell on them, for Master Omil was already charging in from behind, sword held close to the chest and pointed forward in a straight thrust.

Tharol’s instinct was to sidestep, but somehow he knew Omil was expecting that. He knew that Omil would respond by jabbing sideways with a dagger hidden under his elbow. So instead Tharol stood his ground, lifting his own blade and swung it downwards with incredible force. Once more Tharol found that he could move with a grace he had never known before, and watched in awe as his blade perfectly sliced Omil’s right down the middle, sending the two halves clattering harmlessly to either side.

Tharol didn’t stop his thrust there, though, he continued swinging his sword down until the tip pierced wedged itself into the stone. He gripped the hilt with both hands and used it as an anchor as he powerfully kicked upwards and out. His foot placed perfectly in the center of Omil’s chest and sent the elder sprawling head over heels down the rocky steps.

The master made three full revolutions before crumpling to a stop. He did not try to rise, his body was too broken. Instead he looked up to Tharol, eyes shining with tears of regret.

“Forgive me,” he said sorrowfully. “I was too weak.” Then he closed his eyes, trembled his entire body, and grew fainter and fainter until he had disappeared entirely from Tharol’s view.

Utterly bewildered, Tharol looked back to the center stage, where the majority of the elders still stood in their original line. They had remained motionless, not trying to attack the students, nor defend them. Each of them had their hands clasped together at the chest, each was trembling, and one-by-one they were all slowly vanishing, just as Master Omil had.

One of them was different though.

Tharol found that Master Palthio was staring at him directly, a look of intense concentration on his face.

I’ve done what little I can for you,” the voice said within Tharol. “To continue would cause more harm than good.

The voice was growing fainter, the sureness of mind and body was dissipating from Tharol. He felt panic and despair creeping back instead.

“Wait!” he shouted audibly. “Tell me why!”

Always seeking answers,” the voice was barely a whisper, but a faint smile played over Palthio’s face. “When you find them you will know. Now…go!” Then Master Palthio vanished, like all the other elders standing in the line, but as he did so a tremendous shockwave emanated from him. It knocked every one of the fighting elders, friendly or foe, to the ground, but lifted Tharol upwards and rushed him towards the exit. Tharol needed no further encouragement, he turned himself about and flew the rest of the way to the top of the amphitheater and over the back wall.

Tharol clattered onto the paved-stone-pathway on the other side, half-expecting to meet the rest of the youth waiting there for him. But of course they hadn’t waited around to see if anyone was coming to murder them, they had all fled for weapons, or for safety, or for both.

Where would they have gone? Tharol felt in his heart is was of utmost importance that he find them. They needed each other right now. Needed each other in a way they never had before.

And then he realized that he knew exactly where they were.

*

“Someone’s coming!” Bovik hissed, and all the youth took a defensive stance. Some of them had had the sense to grab their swords before heading to the refuge, the others merely brandished sticks or rocks.

The stone wall before them all contorted in a strange way, both unfolding and refolding its parts at random. A single hand reached out of the fold. It twisted and the folds undulated enough to let the rest of the arm through. A few more twists and turns and Tharol spilled into the centrifuge at the heart of the stone hedge.

“So you lived,” Marvi said coolly he stumbled back to his feet and dusted himself off.

There was something about her tone that struck Tharol as odd, but nevermind, there wasn’t any time for that.

“Yes,” he said quickly. “How many of us are here? Bovik, Inol, Reis…who’s that back behind that column? Golu?”

“I don’t see why you should have such an interest in identifying every student who escaped, Tharol.”

It was Reis who spoke this time, slowly sauntering out from the center dais.

Tharol’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean? Of course I want to know who’s still alive! What’s going on with you all?” His eyes flit from one youth to the next, but everyone was avoiding his gaze. He had the sneaking suspicion that they had all just been speaking about him behind his back. “What is this?”

Bovik broke the tension with an exasperated sigh. “Come on, Reis. He’s no traitor. He’s one of us.”

“Then how did he escape?” Reis shot back. “Last I saw he had two of the elders coming right for him! And notice that he’s even carrying one of their swords, how do you explain that?”

“Wait, so that’s what this is about?” Tharol rounded on Reis. “You’ve been telling them all that I’m some sort of spy? A traitor?”

“To say nothing of how he wouldn’t strike hands with the rest of us,” Reis ignored Tharol and turned back to the other youth. “And how he wanted to start a secret investigation on you all.”

“I wanted to what?!”

Bovik looked searchingly at Tharol. “Tharol is it true? Did you really try to convince Reis that one of us was a traitor, and you needed to read our thoughts? To keep us safe in the new Order?”

“That’s a lie!” Tharol shouted, unable to believe what he was hearing. Even as he spoke his mind was racing. He had been aggravated at Reis’s pompous antics before, disagreed with him on many points, but this…this was different. Reis wouldn’t have a reason to tell brazen lies unless there was something he was hiding himself.

“Reis,” he said firmly, striding up to the youth with determination. “I need to talk with you. In private.”

“Why?!” Reid cried, and pulled back with unfeigned fear. That caught Tharol off guard. He didn’t know why, but Reis was genuinely afraid of him. “There’s nothing I have to talk about with you, Tharol. How many times have I tried to speak with you already, and you wouldn’t have anything to do with it? It’s too late now!”

Tharol paused and breathed bracingly through his teeth. He didn’t know why Reis had been lying about him, but right now he needed information, and for that he needed Reis to trust him. He couldn’t lose his tempter. “I’m sorry, Reis. I spoke with anger. But I really do want to talk now, as friends.”

“It’s too late.”

“No, it’s not too late,” Tharol said softly. He slowed his advance and stretched his palms out in a peaceful gesture, trying to calm Reis down. “Now’s the right time, Reis. Like I said before, I was just waiting for the right time for making a pledge, and the right time is now. I see that. I want to make a pledge to you now.”

“You should have before! We should have been united before it came to this!”

“You might be right.” Tharol reached down and set his sword in the grass. “But I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know what was about to happen. I was just as surprised today as you were.”

“I knew!” Reis licked his lips. “I knew something was coming. I didn’t know what, but I knew we had to be prepared…and you wouldn’t listen!

“I’m sorry, Reis. I really am. I didn’t know. But I want to work together now. I want all of us to be together. I’m unarmed, see? If you didn’t believe me you could have killed me already.”

Reis regarded Tharol for a long pause and swallowed deeply. “You–you want to make a pledge?”

“Yes…but first a private word.”

Reis glanced side-to-side, as if checking to see if there was some trap waiting for him. He thought a moment longer then nodded slowly. “Not far…just around that column over there…and you leave your weapon here.”

“Of course.”

“But Reis–” Marvi stepped forward anxiously.

“It’s alright, Marvi,” Reis held up his hand. “Let me handle this.”

Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I spoke of how this story was originally going to go a very different direction, one where the Trials that the youth had to face would simply be a series of contests and games to determine their standing in the new Order.

In those trials, Tharol and Reis would emerge as the most capable of all the students, and one of them would be destined to become the leader in the new order. Though Reis would be clearly inferior in terms of moral character, he would have the greater prowess in the Trials, as well as the heart of the other students, and even of the elders. He would be christened as the future leader, at which point Tharol would discover that Reis was secretly a disciple of an outside cult, one that sought to bring forth the Invasion with the hope of obtaining power by it. Obviously that is not the route I am going here. Reis still has the hearts of the other youth, but now he is more of a fool, driven by fear than being a cunning snake in the grass.

Perhaps the more significant change, though, is that with this new route I have lost the presence of Master Palthio, who was originally going to have ongoing philosophical discussions with Tharol, and was even aware of Reis’s treachery all along.

As I said on Monday, my need now is to drop all of those plans and craft a new plot that fits my new direction. But I find it very hard to let go of certain elements in my earlier plot. Some things, such as the conversations with Master Palthio, really can’t be reworked into my new track, and I still want to have those moments. I was excited to write them out, and I just can’t bear the idea of not doing them anymore.

But that doesn’t mean I want to stop with the current course I have either. I still don’t know exactly where it is going, but I really want to see it through.

And I run into this splintered story dilemma all the time. Any time I really get going with a project the tale begins with a single, solid trunk, which I then can’t help but branch off into many mutually exclusive possibilities. And now I want to develop each one, but what can I do with a story that has one beginning but a dozen different endings?

This sort of story-splintering isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, either. Consider how many times our culture has taken classic tales and branched one new idea from it after another. I’d like to examine more closely this idea of fractured story-crafting, and what an author is to do when they have two minds for how to move forward. Come back on Monday where I’ll discuss that in greater detail, as well as determine how to resolve the issue here with The Favored Son.

The Favored Son: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

The Second Recitation of Master Eidoron

Thus from that Void sprang Life and Invasion. Or using the terms of the Ancient Prophet: Creation and Destruction. And in them began the cycle of possibility and impossibility.

For Creation, or Life, cannot occur, unless there was first an absence of Creation. A space that was first dead or unformed must exist, so that there is room for the new Creation, or Life, to occupy.

And as the seeds of all Life thus find their roots in a place of death, so all Life has the tendency towards decay and death. That which we make comes of naught, and so must return to naught. And in its dead ashes we find again the space for new Life. Were it not so, all would be created, until there was space for Creation no more, and it would have defeated itself. Instead, inherent in Life is the force of destruction, the tendency to undo itself, the strife to unmake what has been made.

 

The Third Recitation of Master Eidoron

Thus any effort to prevent the Invasion is folly. Indeed the Invasion is encouraged by strife, thus any effort to prevent it is also strife, and to resist it is only to hasten its coming.

In the Realm of Theory only is it possible to prevent Invasion. And in that realm the Invasion could only be quelled by a life that was totally devoid of strife, which as we have seen, would be a force of Creation that was unrestrained until there was no longer any space for Creation, and all became motionless and dead. And in this paradox we see that the Invasion must be.

Of course this notion may naturally suggest despair to the mind. If the Invasion must be, then what is the value of effort? Why even attempt to maintain one’s independence from it?

   

The Fourth Recitation of Master Eidoron

The answer to this conundrum comes in retaining a clear distinction between the inevitability of the whole and the freedom of the individual. Yes, mankind as a whole will give rise to the Invasion time and time again. But just because that fate for mankind, as a whole, is predetermined, the fate of the single individual is not.

Thus entire societies may be lost within the Invasion-mind, yet a single individual within that society might escape. All about us may fall away, but it is not fated that we must fall away, too. This truth is made evident in the miraculous deliverances of Abji’Tolan, the Merchant of Azuyl, Popaiyoh and Seeve, and countless other stories in the Cryptics. All these examples show a great truth in common: We can concede the loss of the masses, yet still retain faith in the salvation of the individual.

  

The Fifth Recitation of Master Eidoron

In fact, not only can individuals prevail, they must. For if all were silenced within the Invasion, then all disparity would cease. All would be dead. All would be lost within one totality.

And if this were so, it would unmake the Invasion. For, by necessity, the Invasion requires there to be an entity outside of itself to oppose itself, otherwise there would be nothing to which it could perform its function of invasion. Thus all would be invaded until there was space for Invasion no more, and it would have defeated itself.

And so we have the greatest paradox of all. Life and Invasion, Creation and Destruction, each destroys the other, yet also depends on the other to exist. Each must try to prevail over the other, yet must also give ground to the other. And so conflict must continue forever.

  

Tharol sighed and lifted his eyes from the passage to look out the nearby archway. He was stirred by passages like these…but he could not claim to truly understand them. They seemed so full of contradictions, so impossible to resolve in the mind. No doubt Master Palthio would tell him to not try to resolve them in his mind, to simply let them be, but if he didn’t strive to understand them, then surely he would never understand them?

Strive. Even as he thought the word, it echoed to him from the passages of Master Eidoron. Was his “striving” to understand these passages only hastening the coming of the Invasion?

“Why do you read those if they distress you so?”

Tharol spun around, startled by the voice interrupting on his thoughts. Reis stood a mere arm’s length away, hands clasped behind his back, scrutinizing Tharol as he read.

“What?”

“I said why do you read those when they clearly upset you?”

“They don’t upset me.”

“Yes they do. I can see it on your face.”

“They–confound me, I don’t understand them–but I’m not upset about them.”

“Well even so, why read them then?”

“What would you have me do? We have to understand these, don’t we?”

Reis shrugged. “I don’t know. Master Abu’Tak says that he’s never been able to make any sense of them, and that hasn’t stopped him from being a part of the Order. I get the sense that each of the elders have their own personal doctrines that they are best attuned to, and their own blind spots that they can’t make sense of.”

“Interesting…Master Palthio said something similar to me just the other day.”

“We all have our own strengths Reis. That’s why we’re an Order and not a group of hermits, so that we can unite our different strengths.”

“Yes…I like that….But what then? Am I to just ignore the things I don’t understand? Not even try to better myself?”

“I would say put your strength when your strengths lie,” Reis said, now pacing back and forth like he was giving a lecture. “Why not put your energy where you get the best return on your investment? No one would deny that you do have other great talents.”

“Oh? And where exactly would you say that my strengths lie?”

“You’re a pursuer, Tharol. Once a thought arrests you, you chase it without relenting.”

“I suppose. So?”

“And we are in a dangerous time. As I was saying the other day, our Order is so close to changing hands, so close to being our own to run. And while that is exciting to all the other acolytes, I don’t mind telling you it makes me very nervous. It is a dangerous time, a time of uncertainty. If I were the Invasion-mind, this is the moment where I would attack.”

Tharol shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t trust the student body?”

“No. I know that I called them my friends there in the stone hedge. I had to win their trust, had to put on a face of confidence and try to unite them…but I have deep suspicions among them, don’t you?”

“I don’t–I don’t know. I think they all…mean well.”

Reis’s lips widened in a tight smile. “So you do see it. They ‘mean well?’ Yes, of course they do…but they’re fools, aren’t they?”

Tharol looked down.

“You don’t deny it. And you know as well as I do that fools who mean well can easily be made pawns for someone else. No, our peers aren’t malicious…but they are dangerous.”

“What is your point in all this? What does this have to do with my talents?”

“As I said, you’re a pursuer. And I trust your judgment. In our new Order I want you to be Master of Inspection.”

“What does that even mean?”

“You would be responsible for investigating the others, for identifying those who were suspicious and you would watch their comings and goings. There is no one I would trust more to find our traitors, to weed out our spies. No one I would trust more to protect the flock.” His broad grin made it clear that he felt he was offering Tharol a great honor. He extended a hand of friendship to Tharol.

Tharol’s eyes furrowed in intense thought. On the surface there was a great deal of truth in Reis’s words. Yes, their peers did seem susceptible to outside influence. They were vain and naïve. He always had felt bad that he saw that, worried what it said about him–that he was too judgmental?–yet he was sure it true even so. And yes, he could see how this was a dangerous time, one that required an extra dose of vigilance.

But spying on his peers? Perhaps Tharol struggled to understand the Cryptics, but even he could tell that this would be wrong. This would be acting under a motivation of fear, and by that fear he would be sowing doubt. This would be secrets and paranoia and division. This would be creating…strife. For a moment a smile crossed his face as part of Master Eidoron’s message finally made sense. This effort to control the Invasion could only hasten it.

He looked up to tell Reis as much, but as he looked into his friend’s face he realized the other half of what made him uneasy about the offer. Yes, their peers were susceptible. They were prone to follow a silk tongue, to sell themselves unwittingly to a devil. And as it was, the one who had them the wrapped around his finger most was…Reis.

Tharol closed his partially-opened mouth, and he did not take the offered hand of friendship. A deep scowl crawled across Reis’s face, and Tharol wondered how much the youth guessed of his private thoughts. Reis did not say anything, just stared back, summing Tharol up.

The tension of the moment was broken by the crashing of a cymbal. It was the summoning gong being rung from the inner sanctum of the abbey. They were being called by the elders.

“I–suppose we’d better go” Tharol said stiffly.

“I suppose we should.”

The two youth were nearly halfway to the amphitheater before Tharol realized he knew what they were being summoned for. Though he didn’t know why, somehow he could feel in his heart that they were about to begin the Trials.

The Trials were the culminating ritual for every generation of their Order, the crucible which would somehow see the old guard passing on and the new blood taking up the cause. Exactly how the old guard passed into the shadows had never been detailed to them, though. The way the elders spoke about it suggested that they did not simply take a back seat to the ruling of the new generation. Everything they said on the matter seemed to reinforce the idea that they would be permanently gone. But was that in exile?… Or in death?

The elders had never been forthcoming about how things were when they took over the Order, either. Indeed they never said a word about who their own mentors were. To the rising generation there was no other Order but the one maintained by their elders. The only clues they had of prior generations were the scriptures and recitations which their elders had chosen to preserve.

A stray thought crossed Tharol’s mind: was it possible that Master Palthio had personally known Master Eidoron? He did not know whether Master Eidoron wrote his recitations a single generation ago, or ten.

Tharol shook his head. He had far more pressing matters before him. Not only did he not know how the Trials brought in the end of an era, he didn’t even know what the Trials themselves were composed of! It was never spoken of in any greater context than its name. What was about to transpire between him and his other acolytes?

Tharol’s ruminations were interrupted as he and Reis stepped between the stone pillars and into the amphitheater proper. It was a wide, level circle open to the heavens above. The dirt was packed until it was hard as stone, with one side giving way to ascending seats. All the student body was in those seats, while the elders stood in a line at the center of the circle.

Reis and Tharol hurriedly took their seats, far apart from each other. All their fellow-acolytes looked forward in nervous anticipation, excitedly waiting to see what sort of tests they were about to be put to. They did not have long to wait, for Reis and Tharol were the last to arrive, and once they were seated Master Orish stepped forward to address the congregation.

“Pupils! Thank you for gathering here today. We welcome you to the End of Times. The Refining Scorch. The Trials! Today, we have brought you forward, that you may determine the future together. What that new horizon will be is yours to craft, and yours alone.”

There was no smile on his face. No light in his eyes. Though his words were impressive, Tharol could got the sense that this was not a moment of triumph. After a pause Master Orish continued.

“That future is not given to you, though. It must be claimed. And if it is not claimed…then it will not be. Some of you have assumed that your future is a free gift, that the Trials are merely a way to test yourselves against each other, to determine what role you will have in the new Order. But you are wrong. The Trial is to determine if you are even worthy to have your own Order. I give you a moment’s warning: defend yourselves.”

He turned his back and returned to the line of elders, each of whom stood motionless, heads bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped together and trembling. Tharol glanced sideways to his fellow acolytes, and saw on them all the same look of confusion and apprehension.

A bloodcurdling cry snapped the tension. It came from Master Foraou, who leaped past the line of elders, whipping a sword out of the folds of his tunic. He kicked off the banister at the edge of the field and flew through the air towards the mass of acolytes!

Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I spoke of stories that lead the reader to a particular frame of mind, and then, knowing what they are thinking, either affirm or subvert those expectations. In this section I attempted to setup a train of thought for the reader, and do both an affirmation and a subversion on it.

First I had the moment where Tharol because suspicious of Reis. In previous sections I have written Reis to be proud and insincere, and so I am leading the audience to suspect him of becoming the villain in this story. Thus they are already on the lookout for nefarious behavior from him, and his request of Tharol to spy on his friends is the affirmation of it.

Which affirmation is meant to create a moment of calm in the mind of the reader. They now know that they are in sync with the protagonist, that Tharol is pulling on the correct thread, that he isn’t missing anything that we think he should be picking up on. Thus there is danger, but Tharol is already alerted to it, and should therefore be able to handle it. And having thus created this sense of surety in the reader’s mind, I then subvert it with the horror of the elders unexpectedly attacking their own pupils.

You may find it interesting to know that I did not plan for this moment of surprise until the very moment I was writing it. It surprised me as much as I hope it surprised you! Originally the Trials were going to be something very different, and I had been trying to write the introduction to them without any success. The words just weren’t flowing, and I paused to ask myself what should be happening in this scene instead.

But we’re out of room here, and I want to look into this in greater detail. So come back Monday as we consider how an author can pause to consider what a scene needs, and go along with the answer, no matter how surprising it may be.