I Tried To Read The 5th Wave And Failed

I just can’t with this book.

I first saw the Fifth Wave in the bookstore a few years ago when it was brand new, and it seemed pretty interesting. It has a very good premise. It’s a dystopian YA novel (strange how that’s not only a genre now, but an oversaturated and cliche genre. What a weird time to be alive) about a girl surviving on her own in the ruins of Earth after aliens show up and destroy the place.

The alien assault comes in the form of “waves.” The first wave is an EMP blast that disabled all electronic devices and cuts off communication. The second wave is a series of bombs dropped into fault lines that trigger tsunamis which wipe out all human life near coastlines. The third wave is a virus, transmitted by birds, that not only causes people to die a painful and bloody death, but also lose their mind to the point that one victim is shown to have been chained to her bed while she ripped her own fingernails out.

The book begins after the fourth wave has begun. It has a pretty strong opening chapter, and I was hooked very quickly. The narrator, Cassie, switches back and forth between recounting the events of her life before and the way humanity dealt with the attack from “the Others,” and her current mission to travel to a nearby airbase where she believes she might find her younger brother, trekking along desolate highway while being followed by a sniper.

At first, Cassie’s tendency to wax philosophical is charming. I mean, if you can’t contemplate the futility of existence in an apocalypse that somehow manages to combine an alien invasion, a superflu, a zombie virus,, a worldwide flood, a super bomb, and the mass murder of all survivors, you really can’t ever find a time to contemplate anything. But as time goes on, it feels like author Rick Yancey was more interested in using the lens of an uber apocalypse to discuss human society than actually telling a compelling story.

And things only get more ham-fisted from here. Every point is driven home without a hint of subtlety, and simple messages that shouldn’t be difficult to grasp are slammed in with a sledgehammer. The most egregious example of this is a moment that made me roll my eyes almost out of my head. I had to put the book down and Google to see other people’s reactions because I was so incredibly annoyed.

At one point, Cassie is reciting her experience in a camp of survivors. They’re all struggling to survive and trying to figure out what the hell is going on, unsure if anyone is ever going to come and help them. Cassie herself makes a brief reference to religion before this scene, simply saying that when it comes to God, she feels like there’s some kind of a broken promise there. But leaving it at that would be subtle and understated, two things that this book is not. We’re briefly introduced to two characters surviving in the refugee camp: a religious fanatic nicknamed Mother Theresa by the others, and “the sole atheist in our camp, some college professor named Dawkins.”

Yeah, that’s a LITTLE on the nose, Rick Yancey. Let me talk about WHY I hate this so much. The point Yancey is trying (read: failing) to make here is that all fundamentalism is bad, both religious fundamentalism and… non-religious fundamentalism? I mean there’s a problem with trying to explain how someone could be a fundamentalist ahtiest when atheism is simply the rejection of a religious claim, but I get what he’s trying to say here. He’s saying that we should be level-headed in our approach to life, and not get lost moving too far to one side or the other to keep a clear view of the situation.

But this is an actual apocalypse story. The other survivors jeer at the atheist, telling him he’s going to hell, to which he reasonably responds, “How would I know the difference?”

What bothers me so much about this is not just that Yancey went with the most obvious and on-the-nose name choice possible for an atheist character by naming him after Richard Dawkins, though that annoys me too. And I won’t dwell on it for much longer, but I have now found two different interviews in which someone asked him about naming his character Dawkins, and in both of those interviews he chuckled and said “You caught that, did you?” Yeah, Rick. We ALL CAUGHT IT. It was not subtle, or clever, it was ham-fisted and graceless. Anyhow, that’s not what bothers me so much. What bothers me is the idea that in a world where all of the conceivable apocalypses have happened one on top of another, that an atheist would STILL be regarded with disgust. I mean, if you need any more proof that there is no God looking out for you, trying looking around at the nightmarish dystopian hellscape you live in. I get that people would probably turn to their faith for comfort, but like Cassie mentioned earlier in the book before this scene, it’s clear that if there was some sort of promise from God to keep people safe, he didn’t live up to it, and may as well not exist anyway. The idea that this ONE character is the SOLE atheist is ridiculous, particularly when Cassie more or less admitted to being an atheist only a few pages ago.

I did manage to get a bit of revenge when, later on when groups of soldiers arrive to take all young children away to safe houses, Mother Theresa demands that she be allowed to leave too, because “women and children should be taken first, that’s just how things are done,” seeming to go out of her way to throw everyone else under the bus. I might have enjoyed this jab at religiosity more if it hadn’t been countered by an incredibly flawed atheist strawman. Not that his Mother Theresa character wasn’t a straw man too, but at the very least, anyone could sympathize with the atheist character.

At any rate, just when I began to feel really interested in what was happening to Cassie, the story switches perspectives rather abruptly to another character called Zombie, previously Cassie’s high school crush, and his experiences becoming infected with the plague virus, and subsequent recovery. He’s hooked into a computer program called Wonderland that “maps” his experiences, basically downloading his entire personality, memories, feelings and thoughts into a computer, and then he’s sent to boot camp to train in becoming a soldier. Calling the computer program Wonderland is one of several cringe-worthy literary references that might have been clever if they weren’t so cliche. It reminds me of the villain in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series being named Valentine, or the way the Looking Glass Wars tried to turn the Mad Hatter and Chershire Cat into anime-style martial arts badasses. It just feels so… silly. There’s kind of a trend in this series of giving silly names like Wonderland, Zombie, Nugget, Razor, Poundcake, and Dumbo. Sometimes they feel like they’re supposed to be references to other works, sometimes they just feel like unfortunate nicknames.

The story switches back to Cassie and manages to get very interesting for a few chapters, because the sniper who had been following her is an alien. Up to this point, no one has seen the aliens, but it is known that there are aliens masquerading as humans and killing people, which is called the Fourth Wave. The Fifth Wave, by the way, is never explained or even mentioned in this book, and won’t be addressed until the final book in the trilogy, but I digress. So the aliens have basically attached themselves to people’s brains and possessed their human hosts, but they aren’t a conciousness which replaces the old one (a la Stephanie Meyer’s the Host), they are still the same person they always were, only they’ve been “awakened” to who they truly are. The alien, Evan, is having trouble deciding on what to do because during the time he was hunting and stalking Cassie, he became attracted to her and began to become obsessed with her, unable to bring himself to kill her, instead nursing her back to health.

Evan is a pretty interesting character. He’s conflicted and you can see that his humanity is ultimately overpowering the alien part of himself. It does however worry me that since he is set up as Cassie’s romantic interest, this book continues the disturbing trend in YA fiction of having a female protagonist fall in love with an abusive or obsessive male partner who gives off some distinctly rape-y vibes. Still, because I’m me, I was just happy to finally have a cute boy involved in the story who I could be vicariously attracted to, because what is young adult fiction without sexual tension?

This, unfortunately, is when the book grinds to a complete halt. Evan and Cassie end up sharing a kiss and he climbs in bed with her, at which point the camera fades to black and we switch to Cassie’s younger brother, a terrified seven year old named Sam, who is brought into the safe houses after being separated from a girl he meets on the bus, and the narrative returns to Zombie, who is now in boot camp. And the book goes Full Metal Jacket on us. And you know, I really tried with this part. Firstly, I find military stories entirely boring, particularly when they involve boot camp, because I tend to view boot camp as a very strange form of physical and mental torture that we as a society have sanctioned as perfectly alright, and this book continues to espouse the supposed virtue of emotionally and mentally destroying a person through weeks and months of torture before “molding them” into a soldier, which even in real life seems to have little effect but destroying a person’s natural empathy and replacing their personality with that of a cold and ruthless machine designed to serve it’s masters, sacrificing any humanity.

But again, I digress.

I have difficulty with boot camp stories because of the above mentioned reasons, but also because it’s really not what this book has been about up to this point. And exactly halfway through the book is a very strange time to take on such a drastic change in tone. I mean, yeah, it’s still the same hopeless dystopia as the first half, but at a certain point the utter hopelessness of the story becomes unbearable. I mean, there IS no victory for these characters. At this point, most of humanity is dead. Even if they somehow defeated the aliens, there’s nothing that can be done, humanity will not survive beyond this point, any attempt to survive is pointless. And Yancey has said that the point of this story is not about victory but about endurance, but still, how compelling is a story of endurance? I mean, at the end of Gary Paulson’s book Hatchet, the main character does eventually get to go back to society. His endurance pays off. Where is the pay off here?

The thing that really pushed me over the line is that the book goes into gruesome detail describing the fate of the people who died, particularly through the lens of Casssie’s younger brother. Not only does the narrative go through the horrific details of his mother’s death and the way he lost everything he ever loved, but it does so while retaining his point of view, so that characters are still called “mommy” and “daddy” and we can see his innocence shattering. It all becomes so incredibly depressing that it’s almost too difficult to bear. This whole book is just steeped in hopelessness, and that’s the problem with it. Once you’ve breathed a sigh of relief, things can only get worse. There is never going to be any payoff for these characters.

The little boy is thrown into boot camp, a ludicrous idea even for a dystopian novel, and the drill sergeant taunts him about the death of his mother, which is probably more monstrous and unforgivable than anything that’s happened up to this point. Now granted, this drill sergeant is an antagonist, but the scene is framed in such a way that it suggests boot camp is a GOOD thing, so what is the message being sent here? I don’t know, but honestly this is the point where the book became too much for me and I had to put it down. I skimmed summaries for the rest of the book and then the rest of the series to sate my curiosity about what happened next, and I’m going to talk about it now, so consider yourself spoiler warned.

This boot camp section carries on for a while, and the narrative doesn’t return to Cassie for a long time, which as I said, grinds the story to a halt, because even though Zombie has been introduced, the central story was still mostly about Cassie. Halfway through the book is a bad time to give this novel a deuteragonist. We’d already followed Cassie, Evan and Sam, and Zombie’s section had been brief enough that it didn’t detract from the overall narrative. Frankly, I just don’t have the patience for this kind of storytelling. I know it may be important to switch focus, but I had to keep willing myself to read on beforehand, through all the gloomy atmosphere, because the story was essentially pretty good and was rolling along. I don’t have it in me to put with a boot camp section, not now. The military aspects of the book seem to be glorifying the military and even though that’s another discussion for another time, it was just too harsh of a tonal shift for me.

So, I was genuinely curious about what the hell the Fifth Wave actually was, and apparently it isn’t even explained until the third and final book in the trilogy. The big secret is that the aliens were never on earth, they were always acting remotely, and the mothership doesn’t actually house the aliens so much as it houses their equipment and their weapons. They controlled people by mapping themselves through Wonderland and then uploading themselves into people’s brains. This is meant to pull the rug out from under you, but Yancey actually did a very weird thing in the way he told the story in the first novel. You see, we learn from Cassie that the military are actually alien-controlled humans, but we switch to Zombie and Sam being cared for by the military and being given explanations about what the aliens are, even though we as readers KNOW they are the aliens. But, the information they’re giving the protagonists seem to be true, so it’s kind of a triple-bluff. I wish that the author had picked a better method of explaining the central story than several info-dumps from the point of view of side-characters, given by unreliable characters. Worse, the villains mostly seem to be pretty good people, except for the two military drill instructor types.

The general theme for this book seems to be that we as the reader are shown something, and then the characters are put into a situation where we know what’s happening and they don’t. That’s a good storytelling method in and of itself, but unfortunately, things get wonky from there. Right when I as a reader think I know what’s going on, the “bad guys” are acting good, and we’re left to wonder who exactly is the villain here. And this isn’t done in an interesting, morally ambiguous way, like a political tale in which every player has their own ends and the lines between good and evil become blurred, it’s just clunky and indistinct, leaving me as a reader not sure if the antagonists are lying or telling the truth, and not sure if the narrative itself is lying to me or telling the truth. There are lies hidden within truths hidden within lies, but it’s spun in a very ineffective way, and just left me scratching my head and unwilling to keep slogging on once the focus of the book shifted halfway through.

In case you’re curious, the ultimate ending of the series apparently keeps piling cliche upon cliche, because the sole fault in the Wonderland program is that the aliens didn’t anticipate that LOVE would become involved, and basically, love can break the spell that the program has on people, as it did with Evan and his (creepy?) romantic obsession with Cassie. Yes, that’s right, it’s the old “love trumps everything” trope, but wait, it gets better.

The reason that the aliens sent their ship there was to destroy human civilization, because humans were destroying the environment and wiping out other species, and apparently the Others go from planet to planet, wiping out civilizations that pose too much of a threat to their environments in order to keep life going. But if that’s the case, what about the Others themselves? If they have this kind of sophisticated technology, then surely they must have developed and incredibly advanced civilization that DIDN’T harm the life around themselves, in which case they could use their technology to travel to planets and help other races to take care of their home worlds, share their own technology with them, or hell, even take over the planet and become benevolent dictators. It seems like the Others went through a HELL of a lot of trouble to wipe out the majority of the human race when inevitably another race will eventually evolve to take it’s place and create it’s own civilization. And from what I can tell from plot summaries of the rest of the series, the real origins of the Others are never explained and they’re never even communicated with directly. What a let down.

The Fifth Wave, by the way, is a series of child soldiers trained by the aliens, who go and destroy what’s left of humanity, by tricking them into thinking they’re killing alien-infested people. Even though the people training them to do this are actually alien-infested, but actually not because of the whole Wonderland thing and ugh, my head hurts.

Even worse, the ultimate end for Cassie is that she downloads the memories and personalities of thousands of long-dead humans into her own mind, basically becoming Super Cassie and going on an army-of-one rampage against the antagonists, ultimately beaming herself onto the mothership with a bomb in hand, blowing herself up and destroying the mothership in the process. I don’t know if this actually defeats the Others, because clearly if they’ve done this with other planets before, they must have more ships. Did this really accomplish anything? So we have a combination of the “love conquers all” trope, the “humans will destroy the planet” trope, and the “sacrifice yourself to save Earth” trope. It’s kind of sad to me that a story with such lofty goals ends with such cliche set pieces.

And then finally, the epilogue of the series involves Zombie and Sam wandering through the ruins of the old world, basically just continuing to survive, and having some philosophical discussion about what a realm is. And that’s it. Like I said, there is no victory. No matter how long Zombie, Sam, and the other survivors make it, no matter how many generations of their children survive, humanity is still dead, all of human history is still destroyed, all of the art and music and literature and memories of past generations is gone. And the world isn’t rebooted in an Eden awash with possibilities, it’s on a planet in which much of the life has been destroyed and what land remains is littered with waste. The end.

How incredibly unsatisfying.

And that’s the Fifth Wave. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, and honestly I’m kind of glad I didn’t. It set out with some lofty ambition, but ultimately feels pretty pointless. The point of a dystopian story is to try and overcome the dystopia, to begin rebuilding, to create a new and better world, but this? This is just sad, and hopeless from the very beginning. Pain stacked upon pain, often in horrifically morose detail. It’s strange to me that in the world of YA fiction, you can’t directly talk about penises or breasts and you can’t do any more than imply that sex happens, but you can spend chapters describing blood leaking from the eyes of children and infants dying in their cradles and bands of marauders murdering (and raping?) children. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs in general that we are so much more comfortable describing horrific violence in gory detail than talking frankly about something as natural and harmless as consensual sex. Not that that’s Rick Yancey’s fault, it’s just an observation, and it’s certainly not a new one.

And now, I can finally go read Mercedes Lackey.

The Changeling – Part One

So I accidentally started writing a horror story.

I was listening to a podcast called Lore which was creeping me out a bit, and which is narrated atop the sounds of soft piano music, and I heard something mentioned about an old legend involving fairies, and I just got a sudden surge of inspiration. I didn’t fight it, I just went with it.

So I sat down, put Moonlight Sonata on repeat, and started writing. Fair warning, this is a creepy story, and it isn’t finished yet, so be prepared for weird stuff going in. We’ll see what happens with this.

 


 

The fairy’s footsteps did not stir the twigs beneath her bare feet. The soft beating of her translucent wings did not make any sound in the dense night music of frogs and mosquitoes.

“Careful,” she whispered in a voice so smooth and soft that it was indistinguishable from the sigh of the night breeze, “We mustn’t wake anyone, or they’ll be onto us.” Next to her another fairy nodded, her eyes full of devotion. In the arms of the second fairy were a tiny bundle wrapped in fine silken cloth. Something moved inside it, but she took no notice.

The fairies crept closer to the small wooden house that stood amongst the trees. There were no lights on inside, and the moon shone brightly down, a spotlight illuminating that tiny house made of logs chopped from the trees of that very forest. A small wooden drawbridge passed over the stream next to which the house was built, and the fairies’ feet felt the warm texture of the wood as they passed over, with footsteps so light they may as well have been gliding.

They checked the window by the front door, but found it closed and locked. They crept quickly around to another side of the house and found it windowless, on the third side they found two windows. Behind the first one they saw a figure, a man with his back turned to the window. He was naked and the moon shone brightly upon him, illuminating his deep tan skin, his leg was thrown over something they could not see, and the curve of his buttocks reflected the light. The fairy holding the bundle suppressed a giggle. Her companion gave her a chiding look, and she nodded silently, her face falling back to an expression of utter seriousness.

They passed to the second window. Behind the glass they saw what they had come for, a wooden cradle, and in it a bundled child laying on its back. The fairies’ heartbeats both quickened at once when they saw the moonlight streaming in, illuminating the little infant’s face. Her eyes were closed, a wisp of blonde hair protruded from underneath the woolen cap about her head.

“Be ready,” whispered the fairy to her companion who held the bundle, “We must be quick.” The fairy who had spoken pressed her fingers against the cold glass of the window to find it locked. She narrowed her eyes, then turned to her companion, “Wait here,” she whispered. Her companion gave another wordless nod.

With the slightest flutter of her wings and the slightest push of her feet against the ground, the fairy flew up to the thatched rooftop, and glided swiftly to the chimney, which she leapt into with the grace of an otter into a stream, and her light body floated silently down the chimney. She scrunched her nose at the smell of the ashes, and as her feet touched the floor of the chimney she uttered the slightest cough, which would have sounded to anyone near like the sweet singing of a breeze through a crack. A large dog lay on a blanket by the front door, and for a moment it’s nose twitched, and the fairy clutched her own chest in fear, but then it exhaled and resumed the rhythmic breathing of sleep.

In a flash the fairy had glided across the room and through the open door to the nursery, and through the window she saw her companion, gazing steely-eyed at the child. She fluttered up to the window and, with more than a little difficulty, undid the latch, trying as hard as she could to be quiet, but the size and the weight of the thing were surprisingly hefty. Finally she had the latch undone, and she pressed her feet against the base of the window, pressed her hands against the sill, and with all the might in her body she pushed and pushed, until a last there was a loud creak and the window slid open, no more than a centimeter. She paused and took a breath, and then she tried again, opening the window a full inch. That was enough.

The fairy turned in fear and fluttered over to the doorway, peering out to see if the sound had roused the dog or the sleepers, but no, there was the creature still sleeping by the front door, and there was the even sound of two adults breathing in their sleep from the next room. The fairy fluttered back to the cradle, and saw that her companion had already slipped in through the open window, the bundle in her arms.

The fairies placed the bundle next to the sleeping baby, and then, they gathered the sleeping child up into their arms, one fairy holding it’s head while the other supported it’s lower body. The fairies were each roughly the same height as the infant, though far slimmer, and unlike the inanimate window, a living creature was infinitely easier to carry for a fairy. They nodded to one another and together they flew up into the air, and, unable to leave through the window, flew directly into the living room. They kept their eyes on the dog, which uttered a slight snore.

It was when they turned to look at the chimney that they started so hard they nearly dropped the baby.

The naked man stood in front of the chimney, facing the fairies, his face hidden in shadow. The fairies’ hearts beat frantically and, had they been less petrified they may have exchanged a look, but were presently too frozen with fear to do so.

The moonlight streaming in from the bedrooms cast a single beam across the man, and illuminated his broad chest, the thick hair on his stomach, and the tangles of hair around his groin, before he took a step forward and his face became clearer.

The man was looking directly at the baby, but the expression on his face was vacant. He took another step forward and then stopped. He kept staring at the baby, who did not move or make a sound.

Everything was silent.

Three seconds passed, then five, then ten. The man did not move, just stared, blank and unfeeling, toward the baby.

The first fairy glanced at her companion and something passed silently between them, until they both nodded and began to rise high into the air, the baby still held between them.

The man’s gaze did not follow. He kept staring at the place the baby had been.

The naked man took a step forward, then another, and passed directly under the fairies, moving toward the doorway of the nursery. The fairies shot to the fireplace as quickly as they could with their load, and then up the chimney. They passed up the dark, mucky place, each holding their breath so as not to cough up the stale air and drop the child, and as they broke free into the moonlight they each gasped the fresh night air.

The two fairies dropped down to the thatched rooftop and set the baby down on it’s flat surface, each taking a moment to breathe a sigh of relief. The first fairy spoke again, “Let’s be quick, now, the moon will fade soon, and we must bring the child as quickly as we can.” The companion simply nodded silently, as she had before.

The sleeping bundle between them, the two fairies ascended and fluttered on through the trees. The infant breathed silently and did not wake.

*

Emma jolted awake at the sound of the dog’s bark. She shot up in bed, her golden hair falling around her shoulders, and instinctively held the blanket up to cover her bare breasts. Her foggy gaze tried to find the doorway, and the shape of the large brown retriever standing in the doorway materialized, it’s tail wagging in agitation, it’s tongue hanging from it’s mouth. Emma looked to her left and reached out a hand for husband, but found his place empty. Her chest, hot with the fast beat or her heart, swam with relief as she realized what had happened.

“It’s alright,” she whispered comfortingly to the dog, “Daddy’s been sleepwalking again, hasn’t he?” She stood from the bed, and brought the blanket with her, drawing it close around her naked body for warmth and comfort, as she bent down to pat the dog on the head, “That’s a good boy. Now where is daddy?” she asked, and the dog immediately padded toward the nursery next door. Emma followed, and was momentarily disturbed by the sight of her husband, standing before the cradle and staring forward, blankly, out the window. Emma crept up quietly behind her husband.

“It’s alright,” she crooned silently, “The baby’s alright, Armand, I know,” and she slipped her arms around the warm flesh of her husband, the blanket coming with her and enveloping them both. She felt a little shudder of recognition from Armand. “It’s alright,” she said comfortingly, “You’re just walking in your sleep. You’ll wake up soon.”

Armand’s warm hand touched Emma’s. His eyes fluttered, and suddenly there was recognition in them. He lost his balance for a moment, but Emma steadied him. “It’s alright,” she whispered, “I’m here.”

Armand’s voice came to him. “Emma?” he asked tentatively.

“Yes, darling, it’s me,” said Emma, “You were sleepwalking again, it’s alright. Looks like you came to check on the baby.”

“Emma…” whispered Armand, “Emma…”

“What is it?” asked Emma worriedly, turning Armand to see a look of shock on his face, “What’s wrong, darling?”

Armand looked down at the cradle.

The blanket fell to the floor as Emma’s hands shot up to her mouth.

Something was inside the cradle, but it was not her baby. It was much smaller, it was the same as the size of the little doll that lay next to where her daughter should have been. It was wrapped in a white silk cloth, and it was moving.

Her head swimming with uncertainty, confusion, and fear, Emma reached down to the little thing which was now wriggling, and pinched the cloth in her fingers, pulling it back.

A little wooden figure, with two stumps for arms and two for legs, and a face with hollowed out carved eyes and a hollowed out mouth, smiled up at them, wriggling.

It’s little carved mouth moved, and a voice came from it.

“Mommy,” it crooned sweetly.

Emma’s heart stopped in her chest, her knees trembled, and then the world became red and pink and green around her, a swirl of colors until it all became an inky black, and she was lost to an abyss.

Fearies Awakening #5: Moonlight

(Special Request! I know that there are a few loyal followers who like my posts whenever I post something, and every post usually gets some attention from a few people. I’m not sure how many people actually take the time to read these blog posts, but I’m going to make a special request of you guys. If you take the time to read this, please take the time to comment, even if it’s something short and to the point.A long time ago, I read a post on someone’s blog that said said that if you’ve invested the time out of your day to read what someone has written, please also invest just one more moment to let them know what you thought of it. I almost never get comments on my blog and it means the world to me when people do comment, so please, if you like what you’re reading, leave me a comment and let me know what you think. Thanks guys, enjoy!)

 

blue

 

So I ran across a bit of a stumbling block with my last entry in chapter one. I was watching an Australian romantic comedy series called Please Like Me, and the energy of humorously awkward romance bled into my writing and it completely didn’t fit within the story. At least not at this moment in the story. I realized very quickly that I needed to take another stab at this chapter, and I’m really happy that I did. When I first wrote it, in addition to the tonal problem, I also ran across a real problem of getting my characters from one point to another: I wanted to talk about the library, but first I had to get them to the castle gate, then through the corridors leading to the library. But I don’t actually know much about the castle layout.

So how did I solve this problem? I did what I always do, I started in the middle. This picks up in the first draft right after Hephaestion tells Lucas to lead the way out of the town square, and begins inside the old library in the castle. I may come back later to flesh out how they got there, or since it isn’t terribly important, I may leave it the way it is.

Another big problem I’ve had is that some very important storyline things are about to happen right here in this library, and I have been very intimidated. My goblin is about to make his grand appearance to my protagonist, and things are going to begin being set in motion that will actually cause the events of the plot to begin to unfold. That is, surprisingly, a very daunting thing to write. I’ve spoken the scene aloud several times to myself in the shower or in other places, but I needed to get Lucas and Hephaestion into the library to make it happen.

Also, this is a note about editing, but I’m not really sure how important of a role Rex and Eric will play in the story. Because I’ve been so interested in Lord of the Rings lately, I had thought about making Rex and Eric a part of the main cast, at least in the beginning, to journey with Lucas, but I’m also considering leaving them out entirely. Rex was a spur of the moment character I invented to get Lucas to Hephaestion, and Eric is a redesign of an older character from the conceptual material. Still, I can’t say how any of this will go from here, but I’m asking you to disregard the last version of the library as no longer canon, and take this one as the truth instead. I know that editing and redrafting is something that typically happens later, but I was unable to move on with the story from where I left it before.

The preamble is a bit longer this time, but I’m happy to continue the story for you now.

Moonlight fell in blue shafts from the high, long windows of the old library, and in the illumination, the dust of a long-forgotten place danced and swirled. Lucas stood leaning on the railing that overlooked the floor beneath, where more high windows cast moonlight over the long tables beneath, covered in books that lay half open, as though they were abandoned in haste. Chairs were still pulled out and scattered among the floor, and on all sides of the room were the rows and rows of high, tall wooden shelves, filled with books whose spines stood strong and quiet in the desolate place.

The library was a part of the royal wing, and like the rest of the royal wing of the castle it had fallen into disuse and, eventually, abandoned almost entirely. Across the many shelves were gaping holes where books had been taken to be moved to the scholar’s library on the other side of the castle, where work was still done, and no doubt the lamps still burned as the night came on in full. Lucas found himself hypnotized by the site of old library, standing like a ruin in the quiet moonlight. A set of wooden stairs that had once gleamed with polish and now covered with a fine layer of dust led up to the landing where he stood, and behind him were even more rows of bookshelves, and shelves built into the walls, reaching higher than anyone could stand, and so there were ladders placed haphazardly around the area, where the scholars had cleaned out anything of particular interest long ago.

It had been ten years since Lucas had visited this place, and even in this dark state, where no lanterns burned in any corner, only moonlight and shadow, it still held it’s charm. Lucas smiled to himself and he turned around. He walked through a darkened aisle where nothing could be made out on the spines of the books, and then stopped at a shelf where the moonlight fell, and he ran his forefinger along the dusty spines.

Old leather-bound volumes with faint traces of color that had long since been worn away adorned the spaces that weren’t left empty, and he grabbed one at random to examine it, pulling it out, and in the illumination of moonlight seeing a cloud of dust erupt from it’s vacant space. The old spine gave a loud creak as he opened the book to the center and ran a hand across it’s yellowed pages. In the moonlight he could make out some of the text, but it seemed uninteresting: an old history book, and it was recounting a battle of Alexandria. Since it didn’t refer to the city as New Alexandria, it must have been outdated, and supplanted with more reliable information, so this old volume was left. He slipped it back into it’s place on the bookshelf, noticing that the two books on either side of the vacant space hadn’t budged at all, so used to sitting still and silent were they.

He explored his way through several more aisles, pausing to run his fingers along the dusty spines, but from the titles saw nothing that sparked his interest. Nothing fictional, no tales of adventures, no chronicles of great heroes. Mostly books about Alexandrian history and law. He saw littered against the stone columns scattered through the library glass cases under which terribly old volumes sat, their pages opened, the ink faded. He stopped in front of one, a shaft of blue light cast on it, and he peered down to see a crude drawing of a wolf, and some text beside it giving it a name. He wasn’t sure if this was a mythological story of an actual account of a hunter fighting a ravenous beast. It was still too difficult to make out much more than a few words.

Lucas heard a cork pop and it startled him, he turned quickly to see Hephaestion sitting against the far stone wall, just beneath a window and covered in moonlight himself. He had opened the bottle of brown liquid that he’d carried within his satchel. Lucas held the empty satchel over his shoulder, hoping that he would find something in the library worth bringing home, but so far nothing had spoken to him. He made his way over to Hephaestion and folded his arms with a look of false disapproval.

“Cadet,” said Lucas in a tone of mock authority, “Sitting about on the floor after hours in a restricted area, drinking pilfered liquor. What are we to make of you?”

Hephaestion grinned and turned the bottle up, taking one hardy swig before coughing and pressing his fist to his chest. Lucas raised his eyebrows. Hephaestion wiped his mouth and looked up, then croaked out, “Pretty good stuff.”

“Really?” asked Lucas in genuine curiosity, sitting down on the floor in front of Hephaestion, who handed him the bottle.

“No,” replied Hephaestion and cleared his throat, “Tastes like fried piss. But I think it’s supposed to.”

Lucas looked down at the bottle. Clear and a little dusty, with some words written across the front in ornate calligraphy that he couldn’t quite read in the dim light. He’d never really liked alcohol, though he’d drank wine at official dinners, and had been told by his father that to refuse the wine was an insult to the staff. He enjoyed the bitter red wine more than the sweet white wine, and he assumed from the sickening smell of this liquid that it would be bitter. He exhaled and bravely took a drink, upending the bottle the same way Hephaestion had, instantly choking, and then setting the bottle down and coughing, some of the liquid escaping from his lips as he did so. It burned his throat and seemed to remain hot as it settled somewhere in his chest.

“That is disgusting,” croaked Lucas.

Hephaestion nodded matter-of-factly. “Indeed, but I think that’s the idea.”

“Why would people knowing drink this?” asked Lucas, although he didn’t have to have an answer because even after one drink he could already feel his head swimming.

Lucas got up and walked over to the wall beside Hephaestion, who took another, more cautious drink, and kept it down this time. Lucas slid down the wall to sit beside Hephaestion, and the two passed the bottle between one another, drinking quietly.

“You know,” said Lucas after a few minutes, feeling suddenly very conversational, “There really is a magic to this old place, but the books don’t seem terribly interesting.”

Hephaestion finished a drink and shrugged, “I don’t really like reading all that much.”

Lucas felt a little puzzled, “Why not?” he asked, “Don’t you want to learn about things you didn’t know before?”
Hephaestion nodded, “Absolutely,” he said, “But I prefer to hear it from people older and wiser than me, I like to hear it spoken. I don’t mind learning about history and philosophy and even theology, I just don’t want to read it. Seems like when I read it, I’m left to sort out what it all means, but when a professor or a tutor explains it, they know how to make sense of it.”

“You just need practice making sense of things,” said Lucas, and realized his words were slurring a little.

“Do you think,” said Hephaestion, “Your father is going to be angry with you for sneaking out?”

Lucas pursed his lips and thought for a moment, then nodded, “Most definitely. I’m probably afraid. I don’t feel afraid, but I’m probably afraid. Unpleasant guy, my father.”

Hephaestion nodded in agreement, “He seems very stern.”

“He is,” replied Lucas, “And cold, and unfeeling, and demanding, and surprisingly boring. He commands respect everywhere he goes, and yet he never has much interesting to say. Always going on about politics and talking about the welfare of other people, but he doesn’t seem to show any interest in the welfare of people around him.”

“You mean you,” suggested Hephaestion.

“I mean me,” affirmed Lucas, “He absolutely could not care less about my interests, but he feels the need to have control over everything I do. I’m nineteen, I want to make my own choices.”

“It sounds nice to me, though,” said Hephaestion, “To have a parent to make rules for you. My only parents are the officers, and they believe in letting people learn things the hard way. If I want to go out in the middle of the night and get myself into trouble, I can do it, and then I can come home with a terrible headache and a black eye, and they just nod and tell me that I learned my lesson.”

“I wish my father were like that,” said Lucas, drinking bravely now, as the bottle was less than halfway full.

“No you don’t,” said Hephaestion with an edge of sadness in his voice, “I never got to know either of my parents, they died when I was so young that I don’t even know if my memories are real or if I’m just imagining them. I have this idea of what my mother probably looked like but I can’t be sure. And my father, I just remember him holding my hand and walking me around town, nothing much else. When they died, I was sent to the academy and raised by the officers.”

Lucas had heard about all of this before but it still saddened him. Even though he wished Hephaestion had had the chance to know his family, he wouldn’t have traded places with him and wished his own father on Hephaestion for anything.

“I don’t remember my mother, obviously,” interjected Lucas, “She died in childbirth. So I’ve truly never had a mother, as long as I’ve been alive. Except maybe for a minute or two. It was just my father and the nannies and tutors.”

Hephaestion snickered, “Nannies.”
“What?” asked Lucas incredulously.

“It sounds so pampered, doesn’ it?” asked Hephaestion, turning to look at Lucas with a smile, “Raised by nannies in a governer’s mansion.”

“It wasn’t our mansion until my father became governer,” said Lucas.

Hephaestion rested a hand on Lucas’ shoulder. Lucas’ pulse quickened but only slightly. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely, “It isn’t your fault your mother died, otherwise there wouldn’t have been any nannies. I shouldn’t have been so callous.”

Lucas shook his head reassuringly, “It really doesn’t bother me to talk about my mother,” he said, “For all purposes I’ve never had one. And in as much as I’ve had a father, well… he hasn’t done a very good job of being a father.”

Hephaestion turned away from the wall and laid out flat on his back, spreading out on the floor. The light from the window was fully illuminating him. His cotton shirt was coming up just above his waist and the bottom of his stomach was exposed. In the light Lucas saw the light sprinkling of fine brown hair along his lower stomach. He also noticed the small hill in Hephaestion’s trousers between his legs, and had a difficult time looking away, since Hephaestion’s eyes were closed and he didn’t notice. Lucas shifted and then reached between his legs to adjust himself. He took another drink. He was surprised to realize it was the last of the liquor.

Hephaestion sat up suddenly, and looked directly into Lucas’ eyes. The moonlight was illuminating his face perfectly. He looked so young. He was twenty, but he might have fourteen. His auburn hair framed his face in long, bright curls, and his eyes were chestnut, the perfect complement to the color of his hair, deep eyes that always showed so much genuine emotion, framed by thick eyebrows. His skin was an olive tan, his jaw was square and his full lips were in an expression of seriousness that was in no way menacing. His eyes always seemed to be pleading to understand, there was a strength to his taut body and square features, and a gentleness in the way he applied them.

“Do you hate your father?” he asked.

Lucas was a little shocked by the question. “Why would you ask?”

“You’ve told me so many awful things about him,” said Hephaestion, “The few times I’ve spoken with him when I’ve been to your house he’s had little to say, and he does seem very cold. He frightens me. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. And I just suddenly realized I’ve never heard you say you love him.”

Lucas thought for a moment. Did he hate his father? His immediate instinct was to affirm that he did hate him, but he wasn’t sure that hate was the right word. “I….” he began hesitantly, “I guess I just don’t really care about him. I don’t… love him. I don’t love him, but I don’t know that I hate him. I don’t care enough to hate him. I just want him to go away.”

Hephaestion looked up into the light from the window and an expression of thoughtfulness crossed his face. Then he asked, “He’s never hurt you, has he?”

Yes. In every possible way.

“Um,” said Lucas, “Well…”

“I mean physically,” added Hephaestion.

Yes.

“I, uh…” began Lucas again.

Hephaestion shook his head, “It’s fine. You don’t have to say anything. Just… I just don’t want to think of him hurting you. You deserve better than that. I want you to be safe.”

Lucas felt a warmth in his chest that came from some source other than the liquor which made his head churn. “Thank you,” he said, unsure of what else to say, “I… thank you.”

Hephaestion laid back down on his back, and spread out his limbs again. Lucas felt suddenly very brave, and he got down to his knees and crawled over, then curled up beside Hephaestion with his back to Hephaestion’s side, and Hephaestion reached down and put an arm under Lucas’ head. He rested his head on Hephaestion’s warm arm, after a few moments feeling the blood pumping a little harder to compensate for Lucas being there.

Neither of them spoke. Lucas felt warmth in his chest. He sighed contentedly. He thought he felt Hephaestion’s chest shake behind him in a slight chuckle. His eyes were heavy, and now that he was horizontal he realized the room was spinning. He shut his eyes, and the spinning stopped being disorienting and became comforting. The floor swam beneath him, and the warmth of Hephaestion’s body seemed to envelop him, and he fell asleep.

Naked

1034

“My heart is a chamber of darkness
My voice echoes in fear
I have lost all hope but still I call you
Hear me and grant me reprieve
Summon me from the night
Give me life.”

Chapter 1

He was naked.

His hair was a bright auburn that tinged itself with blonde, his eyes were a milky swirl of silver and blue. His body was lean and unintimidating, dusted with fine blonde hair across his belly and his legs and between them in a concentration above his groin. His face was something like handsome, though there was an emptiness behind his eyes. He stared forward but he didn’t seem to exist at all.

It wasn’t me.

This person was not the embodiment of the voice in my mind, this person was not my soul personified. But it was my body. And it stared back at me from a reflection in glass, like a stranger meeting my gaze. I didn’t entirely believe the reflection, I was sure that I’d still never seen my own eyes.

Dim light at the edges of my vision swirled about behind the figure in the mirror. Fire was moving through the air. I could feel it prickling the inside my head, I could feel it breathing. Fire, individual flames moving through the air in a rhythmic dance, slowly, breathing, breathing, breathing.

I closed my eyes. I almost imagined there were lights dancing in the darkness of my eyelids. I could feel the light from each flame as it danced along the air in a current that swirled around my body. I reached out with some kind of limb I didn’t understand and snatched the flames from candles that were placed in a circle on the floor around me. Come up, join the others. I pulled the flames from the wicks and they kept burning. They kept breathing. The little flames joined the larger ones in the silent song the fire sang, and they grew, breathing, hotter, and hotter.

Footsteps clicked in the hallway.

The flames whisped out, not one by one, not unanimously, some dying faster, but they all fell into sparks and died in the air.

The door to my bedroom was opened.

“Good afternoon, Lord,” said a friendly and companionable voice. Trust him not to knock before he enters. “I’d advise against standing about in the darkness without any clothes on, it’s unbecoming of royalty.”

The young man to whom the voice belonged strolled easily past me and pulled open two huge, thick velvet drapes, and sunlight burst hungrily across the floor and onto every surface of my room, and flooded my eyes, so that I saw a glimpse of the boy of with the light brown hair illuminated so brightly he seemed to change, and just as my eyes closed I could almost swear I saw someone else in his place, but I couldn’t place it, and my eyes were stinging, and the thought was lost.

“Honestly, you’d think you might remember you have a schedule,” said the young man impatiently, ruffling the drapes and smoothing them before turning and marching across the room to shut my door behind himself. “I leave you alone for one morning and you start having séances in the middle of the afternoon.”

I sighed and shook my head, “Eric, you know I can’t handle doing anything royal without you,” I said.

“That’s all very well,” he replied in a tone of trained annoyance that bordered between that of a disrespectful child and an overbearing mother, while strolling over to the drapes and unlocking the window latch, “But I’ve been your attache for two years and you’ve still to learn a thing about acting like an adult.” He whipped the window open and a chill that was not the breath of winter but not quite the sigh of spring whistled in and caught my bare legs, causing me to shiver and cross my arms in something like embarrassment.

Eric was already flinging open my wardrobe and grabbing undergarments, tossing them lazily on the bed behind him, though they landed in perfect order. I glanced below myself at the ring of burned out candles. The wicks weren’t black, still white. The fire had barely touched them. I wondered for a moment what Eric thought I was doing, he was too smart not to guess something.

But then, you don’t often guess that your master can wield fire with his mind. And if you do guess it, you probably don’t ask questions.

I sauntered over to my bed, which Eric suddenly noticed was completely unmade and almost rolled his eyes as he went to tuck the duvet back into the corners of the mattress. “One day you will learn to be something like self-sufficient,” he said in that same parental tone.

I realized that I was chuckling softly, standing there naked and looking like a fool, while Eric ran around behind me cleaning up my messes. He’d already managed to lay out my day’s attire on the bed and swept behind me to grab the candles from the floor. “But I can always rely on you, can’t I?” I asked.

“For a time,” said Eric, setting the candles down quickly and in neat order on a dressing table in the corner that I scarcely used for anything, “But you’re nineteen years old and you may be royalty, but you should still learn to take care of yourself. What will you do when I’m not around?”

“You’ll always be around,” I said defensively, grabbing a pair of short cotton briefs and slipping them up my legs.

“I wasn’t around until a couple of years ago,” he replied, “When the Chancellor appointed you a much smaller contingent of factotums,” Eric was already pulling a silk shirt over my head while he spoke, and I abliged him like a child who resented the act of being dressed, “Now I need you to try and act something near stately today, and tonight when we’re done with business you can pull off your dress clothes and roll around on the floor like a stubborn child.”

I giggled. I enjoyed Eric’s admonishment, because it was playful. He was incredibly skilled at his duty, he was loyal and trustworthy, and life had been a little easier to understand since he’s come into my life. His fingers worked at the buttons of a jacket he’d pulled onto me, and he clipped a green silk scarf onto the neck to trail behind me. “Do you have to add the scarf?” I asked.

“The accouterments of rank, lord,” he said kindly, “You’ll learn to live with it, one way or another.”

“You really do dote on me,” I said.

“And you dance upon my nerves, little princeling,” he said, “But I am older than you and you know to listen to your elders.”

“You are exactly seven years older than me, and as I see it you’re barely an adult yourself,” I replied.

He leaned in close to me and raised his eyebrows. “I set out my own undergarments in the morning, my lord,” he whispered, and he winked.

As breeches were hoisted upon my waist and a pair of stately black shining boots buckled and strapped at my feet, I stared back out the wide window that opened almost from floor to the grand tall ceiling of this vast chamber where I lived most of my time. I thought for a moment I could almost see something out there in the vast cloudless sky, like a small bird or maybe a large fairy tale pixie, but whatever I thought must have swam into the light of the sun because my eyes were stinging again and I looked away.

“Do try and behave yourself, Lord,” said Eric in a tone that sounded nervous, “And remember to rise when they say your full name and title.”

I rolled my eyes and announced it in a mock ceremonial voice, “Noble Heir to the Throne of Alexandria, fourteenth in the line of royalty since His Eminence King Hamlet, prince Lucas Ballanehim.”

“You’re the FIFTEENTH of the line since King Hamlet, Lord,” corrected Eric.

“Well I never met my father,” I said with an arrogant swivel of my head.

“And neither did I,” replied Eric, adjusting the belt about my waist and buckling it, “But I still know to stand when my name is called, and keep my mouth shut when appropriate. Learn from me.”

“Are you afraid I’ll get myself in trouble?” I asked

“I’m afraid you’ll get us all in trouble,” Eric said, and he almost yanked me forward and toward the door, “The conclave begins in less than an hour, so please, for me, practice being quiet while there’s still time.”