The Favored Son: Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

“Alright, you setup watch here,” Tharol whispered to Inol. “If you see anyone–“

“Why should I keep watch?”

“What?”

“Who put you in charge? Why should I be the one to keep watch?”

Tharol blinked quickly, trying to hold back his frustration. “Does it–does it matter?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bovik sighed. “I’ll keep watch.”

“Fine,” Tharol agreed. “If you see anyone, you come and get us. Don’t try to take an elder on your own. Doesn’t matter who it is.”

“Sure,” Bovik shrugged. “I’m not stupid.”

“I know, Bovik. And–thanks,” Tharol clapped the youth on the shoulder, then he and Inol stole to the end of the hall where the armory door was waiting. They had been tasked with retrieving the abbey’s Shraying Staffs, so that their little army would have a fighting chance against the elders.

There were other groups of youth running through the abbey as well. One was scouting out the locations of the elders, another was trying to secure the Ovayan Stone so that they could communicate with the outside world, and a third was roaming the dormitories for anything of value that had left behind in their initial retreat. Tharol didn’t think much of this tactic, splitting their numbers out when they were already too few as it was.

But then, Reis was insistent that this was the way forward, and Tharol had made a pledge to support him. Right now what really mattered was to keep the youth united. Tharol would swallow his criticisms for the greater good of them all.

“Alright, what are you waiting for?” Inol hissed as Tharol remained motionless before the door to the armory.

“I don’t–I don’t understand this. It’s changed,” Tharol whispered back.

“You said you knew how to get in!”

“I did! Or at least I thought so. I saw how Master Makile did it once. But at that time there was a keyrod and there isn’t one now. Just this panel!”

He tapped the metal plate that was over the center of the iron door. Inol frowned, pressed his fingers against the panel, and slid it sideways, uncovering the keyrod laying underneath.

“Oh,” Tharol said, feeling stupid. He took the keyrod in hand and spoke to it. “I approach at the dawn of day, and speak my words to he who listens.”

A mechanism turned in the depths of the door, and two large spikes emerged, hovering menacingly in the air.

“What are you–” Inol began, but Tharol raised a hand to silence him.

“I take the hands, cold and small. I show no fear for their ruggedness.” Slowly he stroked the spikes, letting his fingers trace right over their jagged tips.

Another sound of gears spinning in the door, and now an entire section opened like the maw of some great beast, complete with teeth above and beneath.

“I take my pillow in trust. I consign myself to the mercy of those I serve.” Slowly Tharol inserted his head between the metal teeth, eyes closed. There was a sound as if of breathing from the mouth, a rising growl from the center of the door. “Yet I am cunning as a snake,” Tharol’s eyes snapped back open, “and I ever preserve my life!” Tharol whisked his head back out from the machine-mouth just as the metal teeth snapped shut. There was a pause, then a clatter of turning gears on the other side of the door, and at last the whole thing swung inwards.

“What was that?!” Inol hissed in shock.

Tharol shrugged. “It’s the password.”

“And you memorized all that from one time watching Master Makile?”

“I think you’ll find that having seen it once now for yourself will be more than enough to make you remember.”

Together the two youth rushed into the hold. There was a solitary window set high in the wall as their only source of light. Groping in the dimness they found shelves on either side of them. They were dusty, and mostly barren, but on occasion their hands felt something long and cold lain out on them.

“Is it these?” Tharol asked.

“It must be. I don’t think they keep anything else in here. Just grab whatever you can feel.”

“They’re heavy!”

“Well they’re powerful, so that’s to be expected. How many do you have now?”

“I think five.”

“We need a lot more.”

“What’s that? The end of the aisle. Are there any other rows?”

There were not.

“Well that’s it, then,” Inol admitted. “We’ll just have to make-do with what we have.”

They felt their way back out of the room, then crept down the hallway, looking for Bovik.

“He was supposed to be here!” Tharol said in dismay as they came to the hall-end and found their comrade missing.

“Yes, well–watch it! Your staff is coming apart!”

“What?”

Tharol looked up, and for the first time properly took in the Shraying Staffs he was carrying over his shoulder. They were tall, onyx staffs, about the same size and weight of a beam of wood. None of the youth had ever actually seen one before, they just knew that they were the pride of the Northern Armies.

As Tharol examined the staff-ends hanging over his shoulder he saw what Inol was referring to. It appeared that some hinge had opened, and a few rods were starting to spill out of the beam. He was about to reach up to close it back up when he realized the rods were waggling back and forth, like overly large fingers feeling for something.

“It’s a spider!” Inol said. “A giant spider!”

“No, it’s–” Tharol looked to his companion and saw that the same overly-large fingers were reaching out of his staffs as well. And when Inol had spoken, the fingers had thrust themselves out towards his face, they were about to touch him now.

“No!” Tharol shouted, all sense of stealth thrown to the wind. He dropped his staffs and thrust his hand out, trying to block the machine-hands before they could touch Inol’s mouth!

As soon as he made contact with them, the most unusual sensation came over him. It felt as though there was a pin that had always locked his finger in place, one that he had never noticed before, and now it suddenly loosed and the digit was free for the first time in his life. And as he looked to his hand he saw it was so, for his finger was revolving on a hinge, folding up into his hand. And then all his hand seemed to be built of small, finger-like sections, all on pins that had been unlocked, all rotating and folding, all giving way to machine sections that were unfolding out of the staff to take their place.

“Oh no!” Inol cried. He dropped his own staffs to the ground, but not before another of them had reached its fingers out and begun bonding with his shoulder. Both youth watched in horror as the two staffs continued extending themselves until they covered each boy’s entire arm. Fortunately they stopped after they had consumed from hand to shoulder, and did not attempt to creep any farther along their bodies. Their arms were longer than usual now, with many waving, undulating tendrils, and large claws in place of hands.

“It’s a–it’s a part of us,” Tharol breathed.

“I’d always heard of them as bonding weapons, but I never understood that it meant like this!”

“I can–I can still feel my arm…in a way. Can you?”

“Yes, just sort of–folded up inside but still there. And I can feel the staff as well, like it’s a part of me.”

“Psst!”

Both boys nearly jumped for fright, then turned and saw Bovik stealing down the adjacent hallway towards them.

“Where were you?” Tharol asked.

“Do you have any idea how loud the two of you are being?” Bovik scolded.

“Sorry…we were…being shocked. But where were you?”

“I saw one of the elders. I was following her.”

“You were supposed to come get us if you saw one. She could have destroyed you!”

“No…I don’t think she was in a state to do that. It was like she was in a trance. Come on, I have to show you.”

Bovik turned right back around and continued back the way he had come, looking over his shoulder every few steps and beckoning the other two forward.

Inol and Tharol hurriedly picked the other Shraying Staffs off of the floor and hurried after Bovik. As they went Tharol continued to examine his malformed arm. He found that he could push on the different sections and fold them into the arm’s recesses. He could even unfold certain sections of them and bring back out portions of his ordinary, flesh-arm.

“Alright, just look over the banister.”

Bovik had led them to a hall which opened one one of its sides to the floor below. Tharol and Inol squinted curiously at each other, then slowly advanced to peer into the lower level.

“We’ve walked into the Cryptics,” Tharol breathed in awe.

There below them was one of the elders. They could recognize it as such because of the robes it was wearing, not because they recognized the face. For that face was completely blanked out, an empty slate with only the vaguest suggestions of eyes or nose or mouth. It stood with naked arms slightly raised on either side, and its limbs twitched now and again as if it was trying to move.

As they watched another figure approached the first. This one they could readily make out as Master Iliya, whose classes had covered herb care and medicinal treatments. Her eyes were closed, her hands held in the same partially raised pose as the other body’s. As Bovik had said, she seemed to move as if in a trance, drawing nearer and nearer to the faceless body. As she did so, the body’s form became less vague and more defined. Indeed it was changing to take on Master Iliya’s features.

The closer she drew to it, the more her own face reflected in its own. Both of their movements became more like that of a regular human being. Master Iliya’s airy trance-like steps became more intentional and the idle twitches smoothed out of the doppleganger.

“Circuit completed.” Master Iliya’s body moved like it was the one speaking, but it was the mouth of the copy that spoke the words. “There are fifteen with us.”

“Eight of us and fifteen with us.” A chorus of disembodied voices echoed around the room.

“Hey,” Inol hissed to Tharol. “There were fifteen of us youth who came into the building.”

Tharol paused for a moment. Inol, Bovik, and he made three. Reis and two others had gone to retrieve the Ovayan Stone, four more were scouring the dormitories, and another five were patrolling the halls. Fifteen.

So did that mean only eight of the elders were remaining alive after the battle in the amphitheater?

Master Iliya suddenly began to shudder. She took a step forward, body trembling like a leaf. The other body began to shake as well, its features blurring and distorting, combining with Master Iliya as she stepped forward into it. A moment later and she had been entirely ingested. The body continued to contort, though, and then Master Y’mish emerged from it.

He moved as if speaking, and the body behind him (which was now reflecting his form) spoke the words “Beginning my circuit.” And then he strode off and out of sight.

The boys watched until he was gone around the hallway.

“He was headed towards the gardens,” Inol observed. “We can get to it from this level if we go through the library.”

“I’d rather not,” Tharol whispered, but Bovik and Inol had already started off, and with a sigh he followed.

The three crept through the gilded doors of the library, stole between the aisles of books, and pushed open the windows at the back. Before them was the upper half of a stone statue, with the garden paths sprawled out beneath.

“There he goes,” Bovik pointed towards Master Y’Mish’s entranced form. “Down towards the orchard.”

“No way out but the same way in,” Inol observe. “Come on,” he stepped one foot out of the open window and reached for the arm of the statue.

“Wait, why?” Tharol asked.

“We’re going to take him, Tharol. Here and now, while he’s cornered and can’t alert the others. The three of us are going to kill him.”  

Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I wrote how certain areas can be returned to multiple times in a story, becoming a sort of familiar home to the audience. These places are often used to reset the readers emotions, or else to highlight (by contrast) how different the protagonists have become.

In The Favored Son, I have made the decision to make a familiar haunt out of the center of the stone hedge, laying on the outskirts of the abbey grounds. The abbey itself I have described as little as possible, leaving it shrouded as a place of mysteries. It’s an interesting choice, because to the students the abbey would be their common living area, the place they have spent every day in for the past many years. They must be more familiar with it than any other place.

I took this approach, though, because it fits the narrative better. This setup highlights the fact that the students have been kicked out of their own nest. They have become strangers in their own home. And so I focus on them discovering things that they never knew about this place.

At this moment they are trying to reclaim their home for themselves, but as one discovery leads to another, they’re going to have to face the fact that the place they thought their home was never actually existed. They’re going to look at these once-familiar halls and admit they never truly knew them. And once that pill is swallowed, there will be nothing left but to to uproot themselves, retreat back to the fringes, and set out to find a new home of their own. A place of belonging can only lay ahead of them, not behind.

But before we get to that, let’s consider what I did with today’s entry to make the abbey seem like such a foreign place, and the centrifuge more cozy by contrast. I made this by turning the abbey into a place of new and uncomfortable discoveries. From the strange multi-password ritual to enter the armory, to the Shraying Sticks being living machines, to its halls being haunted by the shells of their teachers, I tried to cram as many unpleasant surprise revelations into this post as possible.

And as already stated, this served the purpose of making it feel like the students are strangers in their own home, but it was also to accomplish another effect as well: that of entertaining the reader. My hope was that these strange discoveries are just plain interesting to my audience, and will make them want to continue with the story.

I think this idea of inventing new things in your story, and using them to entertain the reader, is very common. Most authors do it without necessarily thinking about it. But it is worth pausing to take a focused look at this tool of story-crafting.

To be sure, a story needs things like strong characters, interesting arcs, an engaging pace, and cathartic resolutions. But aside from all that, it also just needs to be fascinating in the individual moment.

Come back on Monday where we will explore the practice of inventing in a story, and how it is utilized in the best of tales. Then we’ll see how I have been employing that technique in The Favored Son.

The Favored Son: Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Reis and Tharol walked to the end of the central dais and to the other side of a wide column, which nearly shut them out of view of the other youth.

“Alright, what is it?” Reis demanded as soon as they were around the pillar.

“I don’t want to embarrass you, Reis,” Tharol explained, “that’s why I had us come here, you understand? I just wanted to ask you why you told the others those–those stories about me. That I was the one who wanted to investigate them, that that was my own idea and not yours?”

“It as good as was your idea. You made it clear that you don’t trust all the rest of them either.”

“Reis…that’s not true. I’m worried for them, but I think that they’re good. And it wasn’t my idea, not even a little. It was yours.”

“So that’s what you’re here for? To accuse me? Try and get some dirt to make the others doubt me?”

“Reis, please stop this!” Tharol sighed in exasperation. “No one is here to hurt you. I just need us to be on the same footing. Why are you so convinced that I’d be a traitor anyway? Why are you telling them things about me that aren’t true?”

“Well I–I still don’t know that you’re not a traitor–“

Reis!

“Well I don’t, I just know that someone is. It could be you.”

“What makes you so sure that one of us is? I only saw elders attacking us back there.”

“Raystahn…it told me!”

“It what?”

“It did!” Reis was speaking very quickly and excitedly now, unable to hide his eagerness to share his secrets with Tharol. It’s what I was showing to the rest of them here at the centrifuge after you left that day. There was that first set of symbols you heard about, the ones that change whenever you move, but there were also symbols that changed much more slowly. They would stay the same for days at a time, and then shift ever so slightly.”

“And you interpreted them?”

“Not all the way. I had my suspicions, but I wasn’t sure of them until I saw what happened today in the amphitheater.”

“What were the symbols.”

“Just shapes, circles and triangles. But the triangles were breaking the circles, pressing their points into them and splitting them in two! From when I first saw it I could tell whatever that meant it wasn’t good.”

“And after what happened today…you believe the triangles are the elders and we’re the circles? I suppose that could be…though it’s not sure. And I don’t see where the theory of a traitor comes from that either.”

“Because there’s always been another symbol among the circles. One that is also circle, but which has a triangle inscribed within it.”

Something about that struck Tharol very deep.

“I suppose you think that doesn’t mean anything either,” Reis shook his head. “But I can’t explain it to you. It does have a significance, I can just feel it.”

“No, I believe you,” Tharol said, his mind trying to make sense of his intuitions. “But–but it isn’t just elders against acolytes and a traitor in our midst–that’s close, but that’s not quite it.”

“What then?”

“It’s an invasion.”

If possible, Reis’s eyes went wider than before.

“You think–? You think this is what the Invasion looks like?”

“I–I think so…”

Reis looked skeptical. “But what the Cryptics described made the Invasion sound far more…extreme.”

“I think this is how it starts. And from here it gets even worse.”

“Well…then we would still have a traitor. Even worse, actually. Someone among us who’s actively being taken over by the Invasion.”

“And you assume that it’s me.”

“Well–yes? I didn’t think so at first, but then…you were the only one who wouldn’t make a pledge. And you ignored me when I told you about my suspicions.”

I didn’t agree with you, so you assumed I was evil. Tharos thought to himself in exasperation.

“But…you see the importance of what I’ve been saying now, don’t you?” Reis continued. “Now you understand why we need the pledge, now you see why we need to investigate and root out any Invaded. Don’t you?”

Reis was offering to let Tharol back into the circle, but Tharol couldn’t help but sense the implied threat if he didn’t.

“Well of course I see that things have to be different now,” Tharol said. “We’re on our own…we’re facing extinction. We need to be bound to each other, yes, of that I’m certain.”

“So you’re willing to make a pledge to me now?”

“A pledge to everyone. I want all of us to make a pledge to each other. Me to you, and you to me, both of us to Bovik and him to both of us, and so on and so on.”

“What? Well that wouldn’t mean anything,” Reis scrunched up his nose.

“That would mean everything. We’d all be bound in every direction. We’d all be equal, as we should be.”

“No, that’s not it. You just don’t want to follow my lead still. Why not?”

Tharol bit the inside of his cheek. Reis could be a pompous fool, but when it came to a shift of power, he didn’t miss a trick. He was right of course, the last thing Tharol wanted was to be directly bound to Reis. Reis was too proud, too distrusting, and Tharol would rather follow anyone else instead.

“It’s–it’s like you said before, Reis. We all have different strengths, and we’re meant to unite them together. This is how we do it, by sharing the responsibility together equally across us all.”

Reis snorted. “Please. The others need a leader and you know it. And that’s my particular strength: leading. That’s how we band together. Everyone else sees it. Everyone else has already made their pledge. Whether you like it or not, Tharol, the new order has already been formed, and the only question is if you’re with it or not.”

Reis was right, the other youth had already committed themselves. And if Tharol couldn’t convince Reis, there wouldn’t be any convincing them either. They would just defer to whatever they were told, and view any argument against Reis as an attack against them all.

We have to stay together, Tharol thought to himself. Even if it’s an imperfect banner, what matters is that we all stand united under it.

“Alright then, Reis. I’ll make a pledge.”

A few moments later and the two of them came out from behind the stone column, over to the dais where the rest of the youth were collected. Reis was practically beaming with his triumph.

“Well you were quite a while,” Marvi pouted. “I was starting to get worried.”

“It’s fine,” Reis waved his hand dismissively. “I told you that I’d handle things.”

“So what’s the situation with him,” Inol tipped his head towards Tharol.

“We’ve talked things over, and it seems there was a misunderstanding between us. Tharol sees the importance of what we’re doing here now, and he’s made his pledge to our new Order.”

“Are we really our own order now?” Bovik breathed in awe.

“Well certainly we’re not part of the old one anymore,” Golu said bitterly.

“I still don’t understand what happened,” Inol spoke up. “I just can’t believe that every order is supposed to end with its elders trying to kill all of their followers.”

“I don’t think it is,” Tharol shook his head. “They were supposed to just pass on. Did you see how most of them meditated into nothingness? That’s what they were meant to do, resign their lives so that there was space for us to take over.”

“But not all of them did.”

“Yes, well, clearly not every elder was as ready for such a sacrifice. I think Master Orish anticipated that when he made his speech. Maybe that’s how it is every time. Maybe there’s always those who would rather keep their place, even if doing so meant killing the next generation.”

“But why would those be the only choices?” Bovik demanded. “Why can’t they just live alongside us until they die naturally?”

“I…don’t know. Somehow it doesn’t work that way.”

“And would that mean that the elders who defended us were in the wrong, too?” Marvi added. “Do you mean that they should have just blinked away into nothing instead of helping us?”

“I don’t know…maybe.”

“Yes, he doesn’t know,” Reis cut in, frustrated that Tharol had become the center of questions. “And making idle guesses isn’t going to help us right now. What we need now is to act swiftly and strongly. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d say I saw five times as many elders trying to kill us as trying to defend us. It’s only natural to assume that anyone who was going to be a help is already dead. If we see an elder from this point on, they’re our enemy.”

Reis paused a moment to let that notion sink in.

“So…if we see an elder…you want us to kill them?” Bovik asked slowly.

“It’s kill or be killed, simple as that.”

“We could run,” Tharol countered.

“Not a chance!” Reis spat. “This is our Order now. Our chance to earn our future. You heard what Master Orish said, it’s ours, but only if we’re able to take it.”

“But we don’t know how to move and fight like they do,” Tharol shook his head. “They’ve had so many more years and learned so much more.”

“Yeah, they’re old! And weak! Sure, they got the jump on us earlier when we weren’t expecting anything, and things didn’t look so good then. But now, when we know what we’re facing, we’ll cut them to pieces! Or is that not how you escaped?”

“I…did kill two of them. But it wasn’t me. Master Palthio was helping. He was…honestly I don’t know how to say it other than he invaded me! But he was doing it to help, just for a very brief moment. I wouldn’t have had a chance on my own.”

“Well…I guess martial skills never were your forte,” Reis scoffed. “Plus you’re forgetting the most important matter of them all. This is the Invasion. I’ve seen it in Raystahn. So it wouldn’t matter if we were outmatched a hundred-to-one, the simple fact is we have a duty to do. We make our stand here and now. Stand to protect the world from being Invaded because we’re the only ones that have the training to do it.”

Tharol opened his mouth, intending to point out that fighting the Invasion just created strife, which the Cryptics taught could only further Invasion. But before he could say a word Marvi shouted “Hear! Hear!” and then all the other youth rushed in to join her.

Well that’s that, Tharol thought ruefully. The leader has spoken.

*

Tharol kept himself aloof from the rest of the conversation that evening, while Reis and a few of the others planned how they would retrieve weapons and launch a counterattack against the elders. Tharol felt muddled inside, more than ever before, and he preferred to have some time alone.

So he took up watch at the eastern edge of the centrifuge. There were two youth assigned to watch at every forty-five degrees of the clearing. One youth roamed outside the centrifuge, patrolling the halls of the hedge maze in that area, while the other stood within, demanding a password when the patrolling youth came back inside.

Then the two would swap places and continue their joint patrol/watch. Passing back-and-forth through the centrifuge was exhausting work. Every time you exited, the only way to return was through some totally new mechanic. It became a great mental taxation then, puzzling out one solution after another.

Perhaps the inconsistency of approach was the reason why none of the elders had attempted to invade the centrifuge yet. It couldn’t have taken them long to scour every other corner of the Abbey, and it wasn’t as if the youth’s fascination with the area was much of a secret. But how could the elders plan a proper assault where every member of the attacking party would have to come into the centrifuge by a different method, and thus break into it at different times? The youth would be able to cut them down one-at-a-time.

That was just as well as far as Tharol was concerned. The fact was that he had no desire to kill the elders at all. He had seen how Master Omil’s face had changed from hate to remorse right before he had vanished at the end. He felt that he had seen the real Master Omil in that final moment. Not a monster trying to eat him, but a man who was regretful and broken. Tharol got the sense that Master Omil had not been in his right mind when he attacked. There had been a shadow over his face, and it was that image which convinced Tharol most of all that this was the work of the Invasion.

And perhaps some of the elders had done something wrong. Perhaps they had not been vigilant enough. Perhaps the Invasion had taken them over because they were too naïve or stupid or careless. Perhaps it had taken advantage of their fears, had been invited in by their hesitancy to move on. But now were they to be executed simply for having been human?

“Brilliant,” Reis clapped Inol on the shoulder over at the central dais, praising him for some scheme the youth had just concocted. “They won’t be able to draw near without being cut to ribbons!”

Evidently so.

Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I spoke about stories that exist in more than one iteration. I even shared how I was considering releasing more than one version of The Favored Son, just so that I could explore all the possible different variations on it that I was thinking of.

And I may yet do that, but for the time being I will write this version to be the fullest, most complete vision that I can, and perhaps after I’ve done that I’ll no longer feel the need for a new interpretation. I’ll see when I get there, and until then I am free to write this first version exactly the way that I want.

That freedom has helped me a great deal to let go of the old ideas, and build on the new. And with that freedom I have worked a recurring pattern into the story that was not in my original design. And that recurring element is the youth in the centrifuge. The story began with them there, contemplating the changing of the Order. Then, after the attack they have returned to it to take stock of the situation and plan their next step. Next they are headed off to battle, and I will have them return to the centrifuge a final time at the end to review the aftermath of that effort.

Thus I will have used the centrifuge as a place for the youth to recollect themselves after every major plot development. It is a place to pause, reflect, and solidify themes and intentions. Of course, mine is not the only story to feature a recurring location like this, a safe zone where characters and readers can collectively gather their thoughts. This is actually a very common trope. Come back on Monday where we will examine the value of a recurring refuge in a story, and how it has been utilized in other tales.

The Favored Son: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well it was still a cheap move.”

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

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

“The centrifuge!” they concluded together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Tharol was standing before it.

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

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

“You understood right away?”

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

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

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

“It’s still growing?”

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

“But still no head on it.”

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

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

“Well I don’t like it.”

“Why?”

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

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

“Well I don’t like it.”

“So I’ve heard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A compass!” Talo exclaimed.

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

“A map, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Hated You, Jimmy

man sitting on door of school bus
Photo by Wesner Rodrigues on Pexels.com

It was years before I forgave my parents for dragging me to Jimmy’s funeral. It’s not like they had fond feelings for the boy, but they just kept saying something about “community” and “civic duty” and stuff like that.

You’ll notice, by the way, that I spelled his name out properly? Even at fifteen I knew that that “Jimi” moniker he wanted us to use was just stupid. You’re not important enough to rebrand yourself like some Rock and Roll Hall of Greats inductee.

In Loving Memory of James “Jimi” Watson…

I rolled my eyes when I read that obituary title, sitting in my pew, waiting for the services to start. I should have stopped right there, but I didn’t. I kept reading, and as I did my hands started shaking at the injustice of a revisionist history.

Friends remember James as a brave, yet tender boy. He was always so concerned about the smaller children at school, standing up for the underdog every day.

Perhaps you meant “standing them up” in their locker?

Jimmy spent his time slamming people’s faces, spitting in their mouths, and cornering the girls. He was starting to get old enough to be really scary, carrying a knife in his pocket and allegedly cutting someone on more than one occasion.

So as I read that obituary I started to wonder, were we really just going to sit here and pretend that we didn’t know the truth about what sort of person Jimmy really was?

I guess so. I sure wasn’t going to stand up and rock the boat.

I remember I felt guilty for feeling relieved. Relieved that my life’s biggest burden had just been removed. To be clear, I never wanted the school’s biggest bully to die in a car crash, I never wished any such thing on him. I had wished that his family would move, or that he would get thrown into juvie, but never that he’d get killed.

So no, this was not the way I had wanted to be liberated, but liberated I still was. And as I sat there I couldn’t help thinking how all the rest of High School was going to be so much smoother.

And you know what? It really was.

I had always told my parents that Jimmy had some personal vendetta against me and they always said that every kid feels that way. Jimmy’s timely death proved that they were wrong. Because sure, there were still other bullies, and they still sucked, but life was noticeably better ever after his drunk step-dad got the both of them killed.

Sorry, that was cold.

I’m not so used to expressing all my frustrations…. And really, now that I think about it, I lied earlier when I said I never wanted Jimmy to die. Sort of, anyway. You see I had thought the words “I wish Jimmy would just die” from time-to-time, but when it actually happened it wasn’t what I had wanted at all. I wanted the idea of Jimmy to die, but not an actual person. And ever since that accident I’ve been piece-by-piece appreciating that Jimmy really was a person.

Strangely enough I first started picking up on that fact one day when I was feeling particularly grateful to not have Jimmy around anymore. It was a couple years later in the back of the theater with Grace. I was still trying to work up the nerve to put my arm around her when she leaned her head down onto my shoulder. In that moment I was really, truly happy, and the thought occurred to me that the happiness was only complete because I wasn’t afraid of Jimmy being around to ruin it.

And then, out of the blue, the thought occurred to me that Jimmy wasn’t around to experience it either. I mean sure, he’d had his “honeys” as he called them, but he didn’t know what it meant to really want to care for someone else. For the first time in my life I actually felt older than Jimmy.

The next time I found myself thinking about Jimmy was a year later at graduation, while we stood in line for our diploma ceremony. With his last name being Watson, and mine being Watts, he would have been right in front of me in line, instead I now stared at the back of Berkley Warren’s head instead.

Would he have had plans for going to college? Would he have even made it to the end of High School? Quite possibly not. Jimmy certainly wasn’t the most gifted of students, he was already struggling even in the Freshman year. A fact that probably made him quite bitter.

Or maybe not. With all the other problems he had going on at home, his school performance probably didn’t even compare.

Those problems were ones we kids understood only on the surface at the time. We knew his dad had been abusive, had been taken away to jail, and that his new step-dad was abusive, too. But we didn’t have any clue what that term “abusive” really amounted to. It was just a word back then.

I had always been told that I was supposed to be nice, no matter what, every kid gets told that. So I had always felt that Jimmy didn’t have any excuse for not being nice, no matter what went on in his home. None of us knew what abuse meant, except the kids who were actually facing that stuff. Not even all of them knew.

I guess I still don’t really know what it means, do I? And I certainly don’t know what it meant to Jimmy personally. But I do know enough to respect the fact that Jimmy’s behavior towards me was driven by that weight he carried.

After High School I moved away from my childhood home and went to college. Life started coming fast and I didn’t spend much much time thinking about the people I had once known. I was shocked at how much time had already passed when I got the invitation to my 10-year High School Reunion. By that point I had a job, a wife, a child, and a home.

It didn’t take too much encouraging from my wife to decide that I would go, ever since the birth of our son I had been thinking nostalgically about my old childhood home. The time was right for a pilgrimage.

For the most part I was amazed at how much everyone felt just the same to me. A little more weight, a little more facial hair, some bags under the eyes, but still the same people I had always known.

At least so it seemed until I started talking with Blake Johnson.

At first I tried to pretend that I didn’t see him, he had been another of the bullies, after all, and I didn’t want to fake a smile and pretend that bygones were bygones. He came directly up to me, though, shook me firmly by the hand, and gave a very sincere apology. That was why he had come here, he explained, to try and make amends for being such a burden to others in school.

It caught me entirely off guard, and all my preconceptions began to melt. We stood there for another fifteen minutes, going over all the usual talking points of one another’s work and families. As we did, I found that he was indistinguishable from all the other people here. He had grown up, he had changed, he had become a healthy member of society.

We didn’t talk about Jimmy in that conversation, but still my thoughts turned to him as I sat in my car later that night. Rather than start my drive home I was wrestling with something inside, trying to understand something that I hadn’t before.

At last it came through and I realized that over the years I had allowed myself to feel sympathy for who Jimmy was when he died, but I hadn’t considered that today he could have been someone different. And maybe he wouldn’t have changed, maybe today he would be a hardened criminal stewing in some jail cell. But that wasn’t the point. The point is he never got his chance to decide. Blake got his chance, but Jimmy never would.

All I would ever know of Jimmy was a fifteen-year-old kid who really didn’t know a thing in the world.

I thought about my own son waiting for me back home. He’s a pretty good kid, but not perfect. I would hate for anyone to write him off before he’s had a chance to come into his own.

I had thought several times about Jimmy over the years, but the first time ever I cried about him. I cried for a soul interrupted.

 

I mentioned that one of my problems in Harold and Caroline was that the criticism only flowed one way. Caroline was too passive of a character, and so their relationship lacked a back-and-forth to its give-and-take. The thing was, sometimes your character should be passive. In today’s example, the narrator was definitely the victim of Jimmy’s bullying, and that meant he had to hold a more submissive role.

My solution, though, was to write this from the narrator’s perspective, where the reader could hear the sharp barbs in his thoughts, without having to hear them coming out of his mouth. From this view we can tell that he is fighting back against Jimmy, just from a more passive-aggressive stance. Also the fact that this is written from the perspective of an adult reflecting on the past gives him a maturity that Jimmy never holds. Overall I feel a lot better about how I maintained an equal tension between the two while still allowing one to dominate over the other.

 

My other concern with Harold and Caroline was how it didn’t use sideplots effectively. It would introduce new characters and motivations, keep them around just long enough to push the main plot forward slightly, and then drop them without any sort of meaningful resolution.

In today’s piece I wanted to cover more than a decade in a very short span of time, so I knew that meant utilizing the same vignette-style separate scenes. This time, though, I toned them down to the point that they were just backdrops that the main narrative marched continuously in front of. My main technique in accomplishing this was in not having any of the other characters speak. We learn a couple names, Grace and Blake, but because we only hear of them second-hand we never mistake them for central characters and then have our expectations in that disappointed.

As a whole I liked this piece a good deal more than Harold and Caroline. There are still criticisms I could make of it, but for now I’d rather move on to something else.

This story and Harold and Caroline were some of my more grounded pieces, stories where nothing supernatural occurred whatsoever. Perhaps the way things work out for the characters might seem a little convenient or contrived, but that’s as strange as things get.

Softer, slice-of-life tales and rollicking power fantasies have more in common than you might think, though. More often then not, they both deal with the same basic themes, just they paint them with different colors. Come back on Monday where I will explore this concept even further.