Friday, December 8, 2017

In Defense of Kingdom Hearts: A Series’ Maturity


I hate the unbridled scorn for Kingdom Hearts.

“I never even looked into this title because I assumed it was a kids [sic] game. I mean, it has cartoon characters, right?”1

“I just don't like the whole Disney idea. So, how corny is it?”2

“I always felt like it was more of a cash grab than anything else.”3

Comments like these run amok in the gaming community. Even fans harshly criticize the series!

“[T]he story has gotten so ridiculous…”4

“[Y]ou have a convoluted, conjecture happy [sic] plot,”5 which is “…needlessly disorienting…”6

“They kinda kept adding random details with so many side games that at this point, the story just really isn't all that good anymore.”7

I hate that people look down on Kingdom Hearts. I hate how it’s become trendy to poke fun at the series. But you know what I hate the most?

I hate that so many people are missing out on how special this series is.

I have a confession. I’m a huge Kingdom Hearts fan.

It seems like just admitting that takes courage these days.8 We Kingdom Hearts fans constantly brace for the inevitable:

“You actually like Kingdom Hearts? It’s just a stupid kids’ game!”

But it’s not. I truly think it’s a work of art.

Oh, but I can hear the comments now: “You seriously think something with that many plot holes, repetitive story lines, and incomprehensible dialogue is a work of art?”

Yes, I do. I won’t argue it’s perfect (and I plan on discussing its shortcomings another day). But the series really isn’t as bad as everyone thinks it is. The problem is that most of Kingdom Hearts’ critics haven’t truly experienced the series and all it has to offer.

Kingdom Hearts is woven with threads far deeper and more meaningful than most other games I’ve played. It’s made me laugh. It’s made me cry. It’s given me life lessons I treasure.

These games aren’t just for kids; they provide so much depth that I can’t stop talking about it.

Let me give you glimpse at the tapestry Tetsuya Nomura has woven.

Philosophical and Ethical Maturity

Philosophy is at the heart of Kingdom Hearts.

Kingdom Hearts asks hard questions—and lots of them. Sure, it sounds weird, but the same series with all those Disney characters also tackles questions such as “What is the nature of mankind?”9 and “What is the nature of good and evil?” In fact, that latter question is the focus of the entire Kindom Hearts franchise, as the series examines whether light can prevail over darkness or even if light can exist at all without darkness.10

Kingdom Hearts also addresses complex ethical questions like what constitutes a human being and how they should be treated, topics that are central to important discussions such as AI ethics11 and the abortion debate.

But Kingdom Hearts doesn’t just tackle mature concepts such as philosophy and ethics. It’s also a relationally mature series.

What do I mean by that? Well…

Relational Maturity

American culture has totally lost all sense of phileo (friendship) love—both what it is and how important it is. All we can focus on is eros (romantic) love. Romantic love is everywhere: romantic comedies, romantic films, romantic (and often downright erotic) content in games and literature and all over the internet. We take it for granted. We’re inundated with it.

But haven’t we seen the “boy meets girl” story enough? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to enjoy something different, something besides romantic love and all the drama that can go with it?

Enter Kingdom Hearts.

There are no canonical romantic relationships in Kingdom Hearts. The closest this series gets to a drama-riddled love-triangle is in the very first game, which is a mostly good-natured competition between two boys for their mutual friend’s affections. (This theme has not returned to the series in the fifteen years since.)

I believe this lack of romance is intentional, allowing the series to do what it does best: highlight just how important a friend’s love really is.

Kingdom Hearts is, at its core, a story about friendship. Almost every game focuses on a triad of friends and the trials they must overcome. Terrible circumstances and differences in opinions challenge these friendships or even tear them apart. Each character is left to sort through the rubble of choices and their dire consequences.

In the original Kingdom Hearts, Sora finds himself in a strange world, separated from his two best friends and hounded by the terrifying beasts that destroyed his home. His relentless search for his friends is rewarded when he reunites Riku.

Although Sora’s delighted to find Riku unharmed, Riku has been poisoned by Maleficent’s lies. Riku believes that Sora has been wasting his time with new friends and no longer cares about him or their mutual friend, Kairi. The rift widens when Riku discovers Kairi has fallen into a death-like slumber, while Sora hops from one world to the next with his “new friends.” Determined to prove his own devotion by rescuing Kairi at all costs, Riku pushes further and further away from Sora,12 forcing them to clash repeatedly. Riku slips into darkness while Sora tries to follow the path of light, both of them desperate to wake Kairi. As the end of the game looms ever closer, their friendship seems lost for good.


And that’s just the first game. The rest of the series doesn’t let up on the feels, either.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is even more tragic, following the tale of three young apprentices: Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, each of whom makes incredible sacrifices trying to protect the others.

This next section will contain spoilers.


You have been warned.


When their master is manipulated into attacking Ventus, Terra steps in to defend Ven. Their master refuses to stand down, and Terra is forced to kill the man he considers his own father. With guilt still haunting him, Terra hunts down the man responsible, Xehanort, to ensure the man can do no more harm to Terra’s loved ones. Although Terra falls to Xehanort’s schemes, he fights to protect his friends until the very end.

Knowing he is key to Xehanort’s plans, Ventus eagerly chooses to sacrifice himself rather than put Terra and Aqua in danger.

In the final battle against Xehanort, Aqua attempts to rescue her friends only to have Ventus and Terra stripped from her arms. In a final effort to save Terra, she finds herself banished to the shadowy Realm of Darkness, doomed to walk alone until she perishes or her memories fade completely.


The third friend triad feature in Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. This game chronicles the friendship of Roxas, Axel, and Xion, three members of a mysterious group called Organization XIII. While Axel is secretly manipulating events to keep his younger—and more naive—friends alive, it’s not enough to save them.

Roxas and Xion find themselves entangled in the Organization’s nefarious plans to try to take over Xion’s mind and use her as a puppet for their own designs. Xion eventually chooses to sacrifice herself rather than succumb to that fate and hurt anyone in the future—but at the cost of her very existence. All memory of her disappears, even from her friends’ minds. Adding insult to injury, later in the series Roxas sacrifices himself under similar circumstances, leaving Axel—who had been so desperate to save them both—all alone.


These characters’ bonds are palpable. Their friendships are their treasures, their motivations, their core. These characters know they wouldn’t be who they are without their friends. And it’s these friendships that make them strong and that make the world a better place.

“It’s always about your friends, isn’t it?” one of the villains taunts Ventus during their clash.

Yes. It is. Because “[m]y friends are my power!” as Ventus proclaims.13

And that is the crux of Kingdom Hearts.

Even though the series’ protagonist, Sora, is relatively weak and completely ignorant of the overall plot—he knows virtually nothing about the deep lore of the Kingdom Hearts universe nor the antagonist’s grand and terrible schemes—his priorities are clear. His focus is always on his friends.

If they need help, Sora will be there for them.

If they’re in danger, Sora will do everything he can to save them.

Even when he’s at his lowest point, Sora understands that it’s no legendary keyblade that gives his life meaning; it’s the love he shares with his friends. “I don’t need a weapon. My friends are my power!” he says, echoing Ventus’s proclamation.14

Emotional Maturity

Kingdom Hearts is almost obsessed with expressing the value—and weight—of memory. Two entire games (four, if you count remakes) center on how vital memories are: how they make you who you are, how they’re our only real connection with our friends. Once our memories are gone… who are we? Did our friendships really mean anything at all?15

But Kingdom Hearts doesn’t just use memories as plot points. Kingdom Hearts discusses what we should do with those memories… even the most painful ones.

Ironically, one of the most emotionally mature moments in Kingdom Hearts occurs in one of the (arguably) most shallow games, Re:coded [sic]. In the final cutscene, a girl named Namine confronts Sora about some particularly painful memories that have been locked away in his subconscious. It's imperative that Sora explore these memories, she says, but doing so will be difficult… and possibly more than he can bear. Namine’s words reveal just how emotionally mature this series can be:

“At times, the pain can be wiped away, but there’s also pain that always stays with you. There’s only one way to deal with that: you face it head-on, and then you accept it. And if it happens that the hurt is too great for you to bear it alone, well, then you turn to a friend close to your heart.”16

Kingdom Hearts doesn't pretend to have answers, but it does have advice for how to move on from the most painful of memories: confront them, don't ignore them; and walk through the healing process with a friend.

But maybe none of that means anything.

After all… it’s just a kids’ game.

Or so they think.


---
Notes and References:
  1. spazzz2k [sic], “Is this a kids’ game?” [sic], January 15, 2008, on GameFAQs.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  2. Akax, “So, how corny is it?” [sic], May 26, 2008, on IGN Boards, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  3. Gameclouds, “Why is the Kingdom Hearts series so incredibly popular and successful?” [sic, February 7, 2016, on Reddit.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  4. Wes- [sic], “KH3 Director: ‘Must have played all other games to appreciate story’” [sic], July 26, 2016, on IGN Boards, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  5. Traeyze, “Why is the Kingdom Hearts series so incredibly popular and successful?” [sic], February 8, 2016, on Reddit.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  6. Patrick Lee, “Unchained X might be free-to-play, but it’s Kingdom Hearts in every way” [sic], AV Club (blog), May 6, 2016 (12:00 a.m.), accessed December 6, 2017.
  7. splitmindsthinkalike [sic], “The ‘Convoluted’ Story of Kingdom Hearts,” June 23, 2015, Reddit.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  8. TheGamersJoint, “Kingdom Hearts Fans in a Nutshell!,” Video, directed/performed by TheGamersJoint, (2017; YouTube.com), Web.
  9. Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, PlayStation 3, Square Enix, 2013. Video provided by Gamer’s Little Playground, “Kingdom Hearts Game Movie (All Cutscenes) HD 1.5 Remix 1080p,” Video, (2017, YouTube.com), Web.
  10. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, PlayStation Portable, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep ‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  11. Glenn Cohen, “AI Are People, Too — It's Time We Recognize Their Human Rights,” Video, directed/performed by Glenn Cohen (big think [sic]), Web.
  12. Kingdom Hearts, PlayStation 2, Square Enix, 2002. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts:‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  13. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, PlayStation Portable, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep ‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  14. Kingdom Hearts, PlayStation 2, Square Enix, 2002. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts: ‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  15. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded [sic], Nintendo DS, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by Kingdomdragon, “Kingdom Hearts Re: coded [sic] Sora VS Roxas,” Video, (2015, YouTube.com), Web.
  16. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded [sic], Nintendo DS, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by ATRILEY, “Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded [sic] ‘The Movie’ +Secret Ending,” Video, (2014, YouTube.com), Web.
All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Kingdom Hearts and all related names and terms are the property of Square Enix Holdings Co., Ltd., which I am not affiliated with in any way, shape, or form.

From Him, To Him

Friday, December 1, 2017

How I Name Characters, Part 2: Word Associations Are My Friend


YOUR CHARACTER NAME NEEDS TO BE PERFECT—

—claims the internet, and I can already feel my heart rate rising.

“[The name] has to suit the character’s personality, makes [sic] sense for the era and, most important, be super awesome...” Oh, and by the way, “[y]ou need a name that ‘fits’ your character too” (Klems).

I’m already feeling overwhelmed. Anything else I need to consider? Oh, I know. How about rising anxiety, crippling uncertainty, and heck—throw in the kitchen sink. Or maybe the towel.

You’d think names make or break a narrative with this kind of advice.

Sure, finding the right name for a character can be hard, even without the crippling insecurity and perfectionism. I used to get stuck writing stories because I was too busy agonizing over how hard it was to come up with good names.

But I don’t suck at it as much as I used to. That’s because I’ve learned more than just one trick on how to generate cool and clever names. Yes, methods besides over-analyzing the character’s first initial.

Trick #1: Check for Meaning

Sometimes I’ll be lazy and search by name meaning on my trusted companion, Behind the Name, to find a meaning that relates to the character. This is bread-and-butter advice for writers; it’s a quick and easy way to express who the character is.

For instance, I once named a character Cailen—an embarrassing misspelling of what was supposed to be Cailean (Memory problems. What ya gonna do?). Cailean is a Celtic name that means “whelp” (Campbell, “Cailean”), another word for a young puppy. Since “whelp” is often used as an insult (implying an inexperienced child), it fit the young, naive, inexperienced Cailen perfectly.

He’s also the kind of character who makes you go, “Awww”

I like this trick because it works whether a reader knows the meaning of a name or not (Writer’s Relief Staff). Consider the following names, which sound as strong as they mean: Berk (“solid, firm, strong”), Jarek (from yaru: “fierce, strong”), or Magni (from magn: “mighty, strong”) (Campbell, “Names with ‘Strong’ in Meaning”).

And for those few times readers do know the meaning or even take the time to look it up, it’s pretty satisfying for them. I always feel like the author just shared a little secret with me. And who doesn’t like that?

Best part about this trick? Using it ironically. Remember my antihero criminal Cassius? His full name is Cassius Naevius Flavius: a fancy-sounding name that roughly translates to “vain man with a mole on his body” (Campbell, “Cassius”; Campbell, “Nevio”). Obvious jokes aside, the name highlights Cassius's tragic irony: he vainly struggles to rise above society’s labels and laws, while that same society keeps him in his place by refusing to see who he truly is or could become. In other words, they take him at “face” value.

*Cough* Moving on…

Trick #2: Play with Words

If I want to imply a name’s meaning rather than stating it, I might modify a preexisting word and use that as a name.

Long before I had exposed myself to Harry Potter and good old Remus, I had a character with a wolfish disposition whose name was also Lupin—the word lupine (“pertaining to or resembling the wolf”) without that pesky final e (“Lupine,” Dictionary.com).

I’ve also had fun with portmanteaus, combining two or more real words to form a name. For instance, if I wanted a character to evoke the image of both a bear and a wolf, I might make the character’s name Beolf.

Maybe that’s why I always imagined Beowulf as a huge, muscly, shaggy-haired guy…

Huh.

Trick #3: Get Inspired

Sometimes I’ll straight-up steal from people.

...For inspiration, of course. What did you think I meant?

I’ll start with a preexisting base word (or name) that captures the essence of what I’d like the new name to sound like. This method is pretty similar to the previous one, only this time, I pay more attention to how the base word sounds and less on what it means. This usually gives the name an even more subtle flavor.

I used this trick while coming up with a villain name recently. I started by assembling a pallet of words I liked: requiem, nocturne, and nocturnal. I wasn’t planning to directly reference these words’ definitions; I just liked how they sounded, so I used them as a base to begin my brainstorming...

...And my imagination took it from there.


Put It All Together

Regardless of the method I’m using, I’ll start by opening a new document and type out any inspiring words. As you can see with Nocture's brainstorming session up there, I’ll experiment by taking out syllables and adding new ones in. Sometimes I’ll toy with alternate spellings too. If I like the direction a certain name is going, I may tinker with it a bit longer, exchanging some syllables for more new ones.

In the end, I’ll have a long string of names and one winner, which I’ll use for the character I’m currently working on.

What about the other dozen or so names I’ve just created? I’ll save them for the future, either to use as-is or to serve as inspiration for a new brainstorm.

For instance, after I’d finished Nocture, I needed a second name. I liked the mystique Nocture’s name evoked, and I particularly liked one of the names I’d made during the Nocture brainstorm, “Nocten.” That name also brought to mind Prince Noctis from Final Fantasy XV, which was an appropriate connection, since my character was also a noble.

So I had “Nocten” and “Noctis,” but I knew it needed a little more. The final piece came in the form of a friend’s character, Nicht. I loved the sound of that hard “-cht” and knew it’d be the perfect addition to my new character’s name. In the end, I added the “-cht” to Nocten, making his name Nochten; “Nocht” for short. (After all, “Noct” is already taken. :P)

Regardless of what trick I use, creating names can be a long and arduous process. Still… I kind of have fun coming up with new names.

Which is a good thing, ‘cause I’ve got at least seven characters in TVB who need new names right now. And that’s not counting all the characters who remain nameless.

Hoo boy. Best of luck to all us namers out there.

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Works Cited:

Photos (in order of appearance):

From Him, To Him

Friday, November 24, 2017

Why I Love Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona) – And You Might Too


All Yona wanted was to marry the man she loved. But with one sword strike, she loses her love, her family, her throne, and her home.


Yona's sixteenth birthday bliss turns into a life-or-death flight in the wake of a deadly coup. Her only companion is her sole surviving loyal retainer, General Hak. As she's hunted in her own kingdom, Yona struggles to make sense of the chaos her world has become.

But as the fog of her trauma begins to clear, Yona discovers the resilience and love of her people. And it's these people that turn her disaster into determination: she's going to take back her to make it a safe place for these people.

I love Yona of the Dawn. And if you like medieval fantasy, exotic cultures, political intrigue, charming characters, and gorgeous scenery, you might too.


Hakusensha/Akatsuki no Yona Production Committee

Genre: Action/Adventure, Fantasy, Romance, Shojo
Year Released: 2014
Studio: Pierrot
Licensed By: Funimation
Director: Kazuhiro Yoneda
Episodes: 24 episodes, 3 OVA's

What You Might Like About... the Visuals

This show is gorgeous, and the character designs are lovely. Each of the main cast is designed with complementary jewel colors, telling you exactly who belongs in the main party at a glance. The backgrounds are colorful, vibrant, but realistic for the largely untamed landscape of a medieval-era kingdom. There's also plenty of variations between the looks of each locale that Yona visits, keeping things feeling fresh and new.

Hakusensha/Akatsuki no Yona Production Committee

What You Might Like About... the Writing

If you're someone who likes...
  • Quirky characters and goofy moments
  • Slapstick comedy
  • Teasing your friends
...This show might be for you.

If you're someone who likes political drama, this show's for you too.

If you're someone who likes mythic fantasy, this show is also for you.

Yona manages to get all these incohesive genres to not only play nice but work well together. This is a show that sets your expectations only to thwart them for hilariously entertaining or surprising effects. And I have no idea how it pulls this off so effortlessly. Though I know that its excellent worldbuilding, lush backgrounds, and exotic soundtrack certainly help make this kingdom feel as plausible and realistic as it is fantastic, you want to know where this show really shines?

The Characters

This show's colorful character designs don't just help set up the world; they're a delicate balance between something that feels historically-inspired and still adorably anime. You don't feel pulled out of the moment whether the characters are in an intense fight or if they're just ribbing each other in chibi form.

Hakusensha/Akatsuki no Yona Production Committee

And the characters play off each other well regardless of the situation, which only enhances their “d'aww” factor. There's so much variety among the main cast that there's bound to be a character you'll end up falling for.

Are you into the protective, earnest type who seems stiff before some coaxing reveals their true cinnamon roll nature? This guy's your man.


He's serious, earnest, and traditional... and he's also absolutely terrified of bugs. Like, freak-out level terrified.

More interested in the quiet, intense, and painfully socially-awkward ones? Check out this one.


He's nearly silent, he's a total enigma, he's agonizingly shy, and he's as pure as the fresh-driven snow.

More into the boisterous, flirty ones who could stand toe-to-toe with the Jack Sparrows of the world? Meet this guy.


Or maybe you just need some more adorable, bubbly, wise-beyond-their-years people in your life. This one's for you.


Granted, these guys don't have as much time to change and grow over the course of the series. But if you're like me and really want to see some character depth and growth, all you have to do is look to this show's two stars: Yona and Hak.

Now, I've already told you a good deal about Yona's story, and for fear of spoilers, I'll just leave it at this: Yona's transformation from spoiled princess to powerful woman is perfectly paced and intensely satisfying. If that's your bag, give this show a go.

Hak doesn't change so much over the course of the series, but he's one of those delicious characters who is so much more than what he initially seems. If you're into characters who seem aloof and goofy while still being able to skin you as quickly as look at you, Hak's your man.

And that's not even getting into the romance in this series... But I think I've said enough for now. ;)

The Conclusion

There's so much here to enjoy during the ride, plus the promise of things ahead: such as the mysteries surrounding Yona's family, the legend of the dragons and its implications for later in the series, and--of course--adorable rom-com moments.

Best of all, it's currently available to view for free on Youtube. Buyer be warned though: this is the first and only season of the anime, so the ending is a little jarring. Hopefully we'll see more of this anime adaptation in the future.

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Photos (in order of appearance):
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Yona of the Dawn and all related names and terms are the property of HAKUSENSHA.

Review format adapted from Curtis Bell's Iridium Eye. If you're bored of the usual flicks on Redbox or Netflix, check out Iridium Eye for a medley of movies and shows I can guarantee you've never heard of.

Interested in reading more about anime? Check out Drunken Anime Blog for some fun analyses. Of course, as you can probably tell from the title, this may have content not suitable for little eyes. Or your eyes, if you're sensitive to alcohol, sexual content, etc.

From Him, To Him

Friday, November 17, 2017

How I Name Characters: What First Initials Say to Me


I used to suck at creating names. That's kind of a problem when you want to write fantasy and don't want to rip off Tolkien or have names as scintillating as “John,” “Bob,” or “Henry.” (No joke, I actually used “Henry” for a big bad once. Ouch.)

Making up names seems easy. Slap some letters together and throw in a few extra vowels if necessary. Bam. New name. Right?

Ohhh, it's so much more difficult than that.

Your new name has to look and sound like it fits in your world. I wouldn't name a purple satyr “Bob” (unless I'm being cheeky). I wouldn't name a modern-day teenager “Thoracius Femblecrumb” either, unless I really wanted his life to be a living nightmare.

Making up names for fantasy can be particularly hard, but I often start with something as simple as one letter: the first letter, actually.

To me, a first initial says a lot about the character: it can elicit anything from their personality to their morals to how prominent a place they have in the story. I have some pretty strange and specific associations with certain initials. Note that this is only for fictional characters, not real people! I'm not going to judge you based on what letter your first name starts with. ;)

A – This character is an all-around good guy and a person of noble character; probably a main character.
See Aragorn, Arathorn, Aulë, and about a million other LotR characters. New Line Cinema and WingNut Films

B – This is a down-to-earth, probably burly, no-nonsense kind of character.
D – This character is probably a dude. I dunno why, I just associate the letter D with masculinity.
E – There's something unusual about this character. They aren't cut from the same cloth as the rest.
F – Probably a bad guy.
G – A rough or tough character of some kind. Probably masculine.
Like this statue of Gilgamesh. Doesn't it just ooze masculinity? Urban at French Wikipedia.

I – This character is refined, with more of a thin build. Can be downright feminine or is straight-up a female.
J – Generally the same as A; just a little less commonly used and a little less common of a person.
K – Probably a bad guy.
Q – How many names actually start with Q? This character's an unusual one for sure. Might be an all-out oddball.
R – A letter of strength. A strong-willed character for sure. Probably a good guy.
S – Much like R, a letter of strength and probably a person of noble character.
T – Even more powerful than R or S. May even have legendary stories written about them.
U – Not normally used. This initial gives me a sense that this character is large—either a large personality or a large body.
V – Almost absolutely a bad guy. If not a bad guy, then someone who tends to shake up the status quo.
W – Much like B, a very down-to-earth letter. Think your Wills and Williams.
X – Probably someone very mysterious, as in Xander or Xavier. Could be a cover name or code name.
See Professor X. Jim Lee / Marvel Comics.

Y – Someone unusual and mysterious. A smooth operator to reflect how the soft “y” sound flows off the tongue.
Z – Someone worthy of notice who may or may not be connected to fairies.

Any that tickled your funny bone? Do you have “first initial impressions” and if so, what are they? Are there certain characters you know of that fit my impressions or your own? Let me know in the comments below!

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Photos (in order of appearance):
Aragorn, Arathorn, Aulë, The Lord of the Rings, and all related terms are the property of Middle Earth Enterprises. Professor X and related terms property of Marvel Entertainment, LLC (The Walt Disney Company). And I am not affiliated with any of them.

From Him, To Him

Friday, November 10, 2017

Discussion: Reflections on "The Exodus"


Now that The Exodus is over, I gotta ask:

What'd you guys think of it? Did you like it? Hate it? How did you feel about the beginning? The ending? Anything you wished would have featured more (or less) in the story? Let me know in the comments below!

And cut. That's a wrap. That's the post for this week.

Kidding, kidding!

Finishing The Exodus was a little surreal. It's been almost a three-month journey for us, and I don't think any completed project has given me this much pause for reflection. But it's definitely confession time again, because writing The Exodus taught me something very important--and humbling: it's way easier to criticize than it is to create.

I suppose I should have known that already! Critiquing is easy. The worst consequence of writing a review is you may get backlash from fans (or haters).


Although it hurts pretty bad if even Eugene hates you. Snee-Oosh, Inc. and Nickelodeon, via GIPHY

Fan backlash can be a pretty big deal. But it's not usually as bad as getting your story ripped apart by people who forgot you're a human being.

So I kind of braced for impact as I sent The Exodus off, knowing it had plenty of mistakes.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a perfectionist. I want my stories to be as good as the great ones I've seen. So leaving mistakes because I don't know how to fix them kiiiind of leaves me feeling dead inside.

Part of this was a conscious choice to try and combat my incessant perfectionism. No story is ever going to be perfect, and I hear that most writers never feel like their story is "done"; there just comes a time when you have to send it off, ready or not. So I wanted to make sure to hit my deadlines and do the best I could rather than delay the story just because it wasn't as polished as I would have liked.

Perfectionism is, at its core, a fear. For me, it's the fear of being criticized--especially for something I knew was wrong all along. Maybe part of it is the fear of being "outed" as a bad writer. Sometimes I wonder if I suffer from imposter syndrome or if I really do just suck.

I knew it!

But that's enough moping from me! Mistakes are something to be embraced and learned from, not to be ashamed of.

So, why don't we examine The Exodus together? Now, fair warning: spoilers from this point on, so if you haven't read The Exodus yet, here's your chance to click off screen...






The remainder of this post will contain spoilers for The Exodus.



If you haven't read it yet, check it out here.

You have been warned.






Okay, you all caught up? Alright, let's go.

Character Development

 

The Good:

So you know Saundra? I'd made her on the fly, setting her up as a foil to the other characters' viewpoints, especially Alan's and Hannah's (who was initially going to serve an actual role in the story... Oops. Sorry, Hannah). I wasn't expecting her to be anything more than that person in the group who everybody hates.

However, during my revision process, Saundra practically started writing her own backstory. Instead of just being a coward who was terrified at staying at the safehouse any longer than the group needed to, she suddenly developed a reason for why she was so afraid of sticking around: her family.

Some of you may remember that Saundra is the one who mentions how her family was executed by the Vaerin. Having seen that brutality firsthand, Saundra is not only scarred and terrified for her own life--she's determined to make sure that their deaths weren't for nothing. To her, her survival (and that of any other remaining Caders) is a way to honor those she lost AND a slap in the face to the Vaerin who killed her family.

That extra depth actually transformed my opinion of Saundra; she went from from someone I hated to one of my favorites among the group.

The Bad:

The Exodus was originally going to be a 3-5 part serial. It ended up being a 10-part beast. Despite the added length, however, I never really slowed down to allow the characters to be, well, people.

When I eventually revise The Exodus, I will definitely put in more quiet moments so the Caders can interact and readers can learn who each character is. As it was, I kind of skipped over those moments thinking it would drag out the already long story.

But due to this lack of character development, much of the cast felt faceless.


Take Hannah for instance, who I mentioned earlier. In my early, amorphous concepts, I'd planned on Hannah bonding with Mara over their similar viewpoints and their mutual distrust and dislike for Saundra. But I didn't give myself time to develop that bond. I think it would have been interesting to draw out a side of Mara we didn't get to see (how she deals with friendships); in addition, it would have allowed me to build up Saundra's complexity a little more as the three women tried to figure out how to deal with each other.

I think the character that suffered the most from lack of development, however, was Ian. I'm so disappointed I never really let him serve as anything besides the spur for Mara. It worked, but I wanted the little guy to really shine as his own person.

I also would have loved to spend more time with The Magus, but I willingly made the decision not to. I knew he was one of those characters who could overshadow the story. Due to him staying behind, he would have only been able to feature in flashbacks anyway, and I didn't want to give the story an unbalanced feel by constantly looking backwards. I also wanted to keep The Magus at some distance from the reader so you'd feel a similar sense of loss as Mara--only instead of having that intimacy with him, readers would feel that just as they were getting to know The Magus, they lose him.

And You?

Was there a particular character you would have loved to see more? Who and how come? Would you be interested in me writing more short stories or scenes in the future that feature these characters?

 

Character Deaths

 

The Good:

I liked having Alan buy them time in the end. I knew I wanted at least one of the named characters to die, and it seemed fitting to have them die trying to help the rest of the group escape.

For a while I wrestled with the sacrificial character being Monroe, what with him being the brave leader, but the leader sacrificing themselves is also pretty predictable. I wanted to subvert expectations with Monroe. Plus, let's face it, the leader throwing himself in harm's way is not a great strategy, since that leaves the group leaderless.

(Or maybe I'm just making excuses because I really just didn't want to kill Monroe off. Sue me.)

The Bad:

Buuuut character deaths really didn't have the impact I felt they should have. Honestly, this is one of the flaws I feel the worst about, since I feel like I totally violated some of my own No-No's on killing off characters. Alan's death was the only one that felt like it had purpose, and Hare's was the only one I felt held any sense of tragedy (If we all took our own advice...). When unnamed characters died, it just felt like a bloodbath of nameless peons. And only three named characters died at all, leaving the impression that all the survivors wore plot armor.

Ouch. Not the impact I wanted character deaths to have.

What Do You Think?

Was there anything about the character deaths that you didn't care for? If so, what would you have changed?

Setup and Payoff

 

Setup and Payoff is when a story sets something up in the story that is later answered, explained, revisited, or satisfied. For example, a character asks a question that gets answered at a dramatic turn of events. Or someone casually mentions that so-and-so is really good at something, a skill that saves their butts later. It's a highly satisfying concept, and one I've only recently started thinking about as I write.

The Good:

I liked toying with the various flashbacks and only showing bits of each before revisiting them to "complete" the flashback. It was my first time experimenting with that kind of a flashback, and I'm pretty happy with the results. I felt like it added to the mystery, answering some questions only to leave others unanswered until later--and all without resorting to the "third character walks in to interrupt them" trope.

The Bad:

Still, I don't think I performed as much setup and payoff in The Exodus as I could have. I get this nagging feeling that there were things I unintentionally set up only to never have them answered or explained. Am I crazy?

The correct answer is "Yes."

What About You?

What parts of the story did you encounter that you felt were never resolved? How would you have liked to see them resolved or answered?

And hey, if there's anything else you want to comment on with regard to The Exodus (or heck, even my own ruminations on it), please, let me know!

Hope you enjoyed the journey through The Exodus, and looking forward to seeing you again next week!

---
Photos (in order of appearance):

From Him, To Him

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Unique Blogger Award


On October 20, Fiction and Fantasy was nominated for the Unique Blogger Award by my friend, Curtis! Thanks so much, Curtis, and thanks to all of my lovely readers! You inspire me every day to keep writing.

Ah, but there is a catch! In order to qualify for this award, nominees must:

-Mention and link to the person who nominated your blog
-Answer 3 questions from the person who nominated your blog
-Nominate 8-13 other people
-Give three new questions to those you have nominated

Without further ado, I hereby nominate the following blogs/bloggers (in no particular order):

1. Mary Corbet's Needle 'n Thread
2. Kate Wolford's Enchanted Conversation: A Fantasy Magazine
3. Satchell Drake's Satchbag's Goods (Yes, they're video essays, but that's basically a blog, right? He's too good to keep off my list. Check him out if you're interested in video games.)
4. Digibro's My Sword Is Unbelievably Dull (Buyer be warned, there is some language here not appropriate for little ears)
5. Out of Context DnD (Buyer be warned, there is some content here not appropriate for little eyes)
6. Ferisae's Art Blog
7. Matt Colville's Squaremans (Limited language not appropriate for little eyes)
8. CT Chrysler's Annie Mei Project

And a bonus mention/nomination to Curtis for his spectacular work at all of his blogs, including Iridium Eye, C. M. B. Bell Fiction, Ospreyshire's Realm, and Autumn Peal Media! He may have already gotten a nomination, but he certainly deserves it for his hard work and his dedication to the arts, whether it be prose, poetry, songwriting, instrumentation, photography, film, and more. If you're interested in foreign film, microfiction, indie/experimental music, or photography, check out one of his blogs!

Curtis asked me the following questions:

1. What was the bravest article you’ve posted on your blog(s)?

2. Which creative hobby would you most like to try? (keep the answers civil, please)

3. If your blog was a meal or dish, what would it taste like?

I'll admit, every article takes a little bit of courage for me to post. I'm naturally a pretty shy person, so even just gathering the courage to start this blog took a while (if you couldn't tell by my first post). But I think the "bravest" article I've ever posted was the first post in which I mentioned my faith and talked about God: my post on insecurity. Faith and self esteem are both incredibly sensitive and important topics, and for a while, I wasn't even sure if I wanted to write the post at all; it felt like I was opening up an incredibly controversial topic. However, I know that as a writer, I have to speak the words on my heart--words that I believe God has placed there. I know there are so many people out there that, like me, need to hear how precious--how vital--they are, even at moments they feel at their lowest.

There are so many creative hobbies I'd love to try, but the top one on my list so far has been beaded embroidery. I've learned a ton about hand-stitch embroidery from Needle n' Thread, and it makes me excited to branch out from simple hand embroidery with only thread to beads. I've loved beads since I was a kid; there's something about them that makes them feel like tiny glittering jewels to me. And what girl doesn't like bling?

If my blog were a dish, it'd be a taco: comfort food with lots of flavors, textures, and ingredients. You never quite know what you're going to bite into when you open up the new Fiction and Fantasy post, but I hope it's always fresh and delicious.

For my nominees, I'd love to know:

1. What got you started blogging? Was it a desire to share a newly-discovered hobby, out of frustration at the lack of content on the internet, or something else?

2. What was the most memorable experience you've ever had with your blog (a notable article you wrote, an interesting piece of research you came across, etc.)?

3. What's the best piece of blogging advice you've ever received or learned?

Thanks again, Curtis, and thank you to all the nominees for producing such quality content!

And not to worry, beloved readers. There will still be a new post this Friday! :)

---

From Him, To Him

Friday, November 3, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Finale (TVB Universe)


To Beginning (Part 1)

---

“Took me long enough to find you. Hello, Mara.”

Somehow, some way, she could hear The Magus, and it made her heart soar a thousand miles. She couldn't see him; she couldn't see anything but a brilliant white light enveloping her. But this was his audible voice, clear like crystal, just like all their voices had been here in the aether current.

Hello, my Magus.

“Mara? Can you hear me? Mara!”

Yes! Yes I can hear you! Suddenly desperate, she lashed at the brilliant white emptiness around her. “I'm here! I'm right here!” she shouted, spinning around.

“Ow!” She heard him hiss. “All right! I hear you now. No need to shout.”

It was him. Her chest felt like it'd burst, flooded with a thousand emotions she never thought she'd feel again. Love, ecstasy, a soaring hope.

“I miss you so much, Mara,” The Magus whispered, his own voice thick with emotion. “Feels like an eternity since I sent you away.”

Tears of joy filled her eyes. “I thought I'd never hear your voice again.” After all, the portal was a one-way trip. “I thought I'd never get to see you again!” But... if she could hear him in here, did that mean...? Mara spun, whirling around in the brilliant white light, searching for any sign of him. “Where are you?”

The Magus was quiet this time. Long enough to turn Mara's elation into icy fear.

Had... had he disappeared like the others had? Was she being pulled away from him? Could he no longer hear her?

Mara opened her mouth to repeat herself, to scream if need be, but suddenly The Magus’s voice returned: “Mara, I don't think we'll see each other yet. Not for a long time.”

All the joy and hope sank into her stomach.

“What do you mean?” Mara asked, still searching the brilliant white light for any sign of him… or anyone. But all she could see was her own body, floating in a sea of white light.

It appeared she was alone.

Her desperation returned with a vengeance. “You said I wasn't dying... Does that mean that you...?” No. He couldn’t be… Mara bit her lip. “We're not already dead, are we?”

This time, The Magus chuckled. “By all rights, I should be. We're both very much alive.” He paused. “I heard Him, Mara.”

His voice grew quiet, pondering, dreamy. “Nothing does Him justice. Maybe you'll hear from Him soon, too.”

Goosebumps ran up and down her limbs. No need to ask who “He” was. She knew. And the tears came back with a vengeance. Adonai…

“He let me come back.”

She brushed some of her tears away. “Come back?”

“I told Him I had to talk to you one more time; He asked me why. And, well, all I said was, ‘I’ve got something to tell her, and no, it can’t wait.’”

Mara feigned alarm. “Please tell me you weren't sarcastic to the creator of the universe...”

“I kept it civil! Mostly.” He cleared his throat. “You know, I didn’t have to come all this way to deliver a message in person. Are you going to listen or not? And this from the Academy’s most promising student.”

Mara giggled.

She could hear his smile even in his voice. “I love you, Mara. I always will.”

The words spread through her soul like warmth, like life. And I love you! She wanted to scream it, but all that came out was a whisper: “I love you, my Magus.”

“He did promise we'd see each other again. So take care of it, Mara.”

Take care of it? What was he talking about? “What do you m—”

“You’ll se—” he interrupted her question, but even as he spoke, his voice began to rapidly fade.

Panic. She lurched toward the receding voice. One moment he was there, the next he was so quiet his words were incomprehensible. “Wait! Magus, wait!” Mara yelled into the blinding white. “Don't leave yet!”

Don't disappear on me forever!

She swam as hard as she could, but it was no use. She couldn't keep up with the speed at which his voice pulled away from her. As quickly as his voice had come... he was gone.

All around her, there was only the white void.

Mara clapped her hands to her mouth, stifling a sob. Sorrow engulfed her.

Don't leave me alone...

The void sat in silence. Her heart was screaming.

But what did it matter? What did this empty light care? She’d been through blood and dark and fire and death. And now, one last persecution: to be lost, abandoned in this brilliant white void, alone.

No... not alone.

“Hello, Mara.”

It wasn’t an audible voice. It wasn’t The Magus.

But those two words blossomed like color in her mind. They blew through her like an explosion, whispered like a gentle breeze. The warmth she'd felt from before was no longer around her... it swept into her. It embraced her, inside and out.

It was love; love and acceptance and a peace she'd never felt before.

God. Adonai.

“You figured out the portal. And you saved them all. I'm so proud of you, Mara.”

Her heart quickened at His delight, but guilt hammered her chest in a follow-up swing. “Not all.” Sorrow mingled with the guilt. “I didn’t save them all.” Fresh tears slid down her face. He was here. But… “Where have you been?”

“I’ve always been right there, Mara. In the darkness and the smoke and the fires. Even in the pain.”

“But why couldn't I feel you?” As with The Magus, she couldn't see Adonai—couldn't see anything but brilliant white light—but she could feel Him all around her, embracing her.

“I'm sorry. Sometimes it's hard to feel me. But I'm always there, Mara.”

“Are you always there for everyone?” Her hot, angry tears stung. “You let the others die.”

“It was time to take them, yes.”

“But why me and not them?” she demanded. “Why not… him?”

“They have their own stories to complete. Yours is different.”

She felt pressure in her chest, felt the warmth of her tears coursing down her face. Mara wanted to bawl; she released a quiet sob.

“Mara, do you trust me?”

Did she? She'd asked that question a thousand times now. After every senseless death. After every overwhelming violence.

Mara looked around at the light, the warmth, the love swallowing her senses. The love that surrounded her, the gentle voice whispering in her ear, the peace that pressed on her heart. He said He'd always been there, whether she'd felt all this or not.

But what does that matter? What good is it if He's there and yet can feel so distant?

And yet…

This stunning, overflowing goodness—this love and gentleness and peace—this was who He was. He wasn't in the horrors of the world she knew.

He was this. And He was strong enough to overcome all the darkness.

Yet He'd allowed it. How could You possibly have allowed it?

He didn't give her an answer.

And that's Your prerogative. Mara felt her warm tears slide down her cheeks. And I understand that. I know I'll never be able to understand why. I may not like it, but you don't owe me an answer. And I can live with that!

I want to be able to live with that.

“I will never force you to do something. Never.”

I know.

“Even if that causes pain.”

I know that.

“But…”

But You'll still be there as it falls apart. And You'll be there to pick up the pieces.

“And I will never fail.

And that pain is never what I would have chosen.”

“You want light and love to reign.”

She knew all this, didn't she? That despite all the hatred, the violence, the flames, the death she'd seen... none of that was who He was.

And He was greater than all of it.

“You use the darkness to spark an even brighter light. Even if it comes in at the very end of all things.”

Again, there was silence. But then, she hadn't posed Him a question.

And she still hadn't answered His.

“Yes.” She paused, surprised at her response; but knowing that even now, even after everything she'd been through… it was true. “I trust you.”

“I wish they would have all chosen me, Mara… It hurts to be without them.”

Sorrow crushed her body as an image of The Magus floated through her mind. “I know what that's like.”

“You’ll see him again. I promise. Just not yet.”

Warmth seeped down her fingers to her toes.

“I've been working on something special, just for you. It’s ready now.” He sounded like a child, like Ian; eager to show her his latest creation he’d slaved over for weeks. “Do you want to see it, Mara?”

She looked around at the glory that engulfed her—at the light and the warmth, astounding and stimulating and leaving her with a quiet peace even after all the darkness she’d gone through. Had He made this, too? Did glory and love just drip off Him like condensation?

“Yes. Yes, please, I want to see it.”

The warm white light extinguished like a candle blown out. But Mara couldn't feel or hear any more aether; only the sensation that she was lying on solid ground again. There was something soft beneath her now, but what…?

Then it came to her. Grass. She lay on a patch of soft grass; it brushed against her cheek.

As Mara rose and stretched, she felt like she were waking from a dream... but she woke in the middle of the night. Wisps of purple cloud floated across a midnight-black sky above. A few twinkling stars were fading from view.

The stars... She'd never seen these constellations before. She couldn't place a single one. They were all sparkling and brand-new. Mara gasped in surprise and awe.

And although it felt a little more distant now, she could still feel the warm glow and the sweet love holding her gently. And she could see a light, like the brilliant white light from before, glowing from behind her.

Adonai? She wondered, but she was too afraid to turn and look—afraid it was Him and it would overwhelm her. Or afraid it wasn't Him and it would devastate her.

“You will be the first-born, then,” came Adonai's voice, as clear as day, melodic as music, but not from behind her—from all around her.

At the sound of his voice, a golden glow rippled on the horizon before her. The sky swelled with warm reds and oranges and crisp yellows.

The sunrise.

“I will make your brethren soon,” Adonai continued softly as the sunlight crawled over tall trees growing on grassy hills that stretched as far as she could see.

Seven other figures lay on the seven hills surrounding her; one by one, they stretched and woke. Although they were some distance apart, Mara could see at a glance that all seven of her fellow Caders were here.

Awe, joy, and relief filled Mara’s veins. She saw Ian's tiny form stand and stretch. He yawned as he turned to face the rising sun.

“Serve them,” Adonai whispered. “Use what you have endured, and ensure that no such harm comes to them.

“No more will you wander; I will give you a land to call your own. You will have wisdom and long life. And should you choose, the fires of prejudice will no longer burn you; for all people will look on you with wonder and fear. And I will always be here, hoping you will choose me.

“You will be a people of beauty and grace.” And, like a kiss, Adonai whispered: “And you will be called… Fárí.”

By now, the morning sun had grown strong enough to illuminate the new world: It was green and lush, flowering with plants Mara didn't know and blooms of rainbow colors. A little creek bubbled around the hills where Mara and the others stood.

“A land to call our own...” murmured Kale, as he spun slowly, taking it all in with wide eyes. He turned to the others. “Did you... you heard the voice too, right?” He couldn't stop staring at the scenery, in awe. In shock. He ran his hand through his hair. “It couldn't be...”

The others were equally lost basking in the beauty of the new world and had no reply.

Chortling like a bird, Ian came charging up the hill where Mara stood, fast as a bolt of living lightning. “Mara, Mara, Mara!” he shouted, beaming as bright as the sun and leaping into her arms.

She laughed and caught him, swinging him around midair.

Ian’s eyes suddenly went wide with wonder. “Mara...” he whispered, staring over her shoulder, gape-mouthed. “They're so pretty!”

And that was when she noticed them. As she twirled with Ian, she could just see the ends of what looked like brilliantly-glowing butterfly wings that could only be coming from her own back. They sparkled with white and argent light, pulsing with life.

But her attention was stolen from her wings as similar glittering wings, these ones shaped like a dragonfly’s, sprouted from Ian’s back. He giggled and wriggled in her arms. “It tickles!”

The others began to gasp as their wings fluttered to life, as well. Some were greens and golds and reds, and some were feathery, some thin, some tall—and some that looked less like wings and more like giant ribbons of light. But every pair of wings glowed with Adonai’s life and warmth and light.

“We're here,” said Monroe, his soft voice wafting across the grassy hills, down the flowering valley, and into the forests on the horizon. “Adonai’s given us a gift—another chance. But we can never forget the sacrifices of those we’ve lost. We could never have come here without the valor of Alan, who sacrificed himself to give us time to escape.”

Many bowed their heads. Mara felt more tears slip down her face.

“Mara,” came Ian's small voice as he tapped her on the shoulder. “That was really brave of Alan, wasn't it?”

She kissed Ian's forehead. “Yes, it was, Ian.”

“The others were really brave too.”

“Yes, Ian.”

“We'll never forget their names,” Monroe continued. “We will memorialize them here and now, and as long as Adonai allows us to live. So don't forget the courage of Jessica and David. Don't forget the sacrifice of Hare, Giorgine, and Chris. Never forget Albrecht. Remember the choices that were made.

“We choose to honor those who went before. And while time may steal away the memory of their faces, we will never forget their names, their suffering, and their story. We'll never forget the place we came from, so that we can eliminate suffering from this new world. We will never forget, so that no one in this world will ever experience the things we endured...”

“Just like what He said,” Kale murmured. He stared up at the sky, his brow furrowed in sorrow, confusion... wonder.

Just like You said, Mara whispered in her heart as she kissed Ian's brow again.

“Let us cherish this world that Adonai made,” Monroe finished.

You're real.

Monroe pumped his fist in the air. “Let us celebrate what He's given.”

You heard me all along, didn't you?

“And let's honor the Cader—no, the Fárí—who brought us here.” Monroe thrust his arm toward Mara, grinning from ear to ear.

Mara bowed her head as the others cheered, whistled, clapped, shouted her name. And some shouted praises to Adonai, collapsing to their knees and lifting their hands to the sky.

We're safe. Mara pressed her tear-stained face against Ian's as she laughed.

We're finally home.

---

Can't believe it's over? Want more? Check out the story from Ian's perspective on the TaleHunt app @Rynfyre

Photos (in order of appearance):
All originally posted on Unsplash.com.

From Him, To Him

Friday, October 27, 2017

Blog-Exclusive Fiction - The Exodus, Part 9 (TVB Universe)


To Beginning (Part 1)

---

WARNING: The following content may not be suitable for young readers or audiences sensitive to violent content.

“Toying with that kind of energy is far too dangerous.”

“More dangerous than using that same energy to shoot fire or manipulate water—like we do every day?” Mara teases.

“Yes, energy levels so high they’d tear you limb from limb are tame compared to tossing a magic water ball.” The Magus rolls his eyes. “And that's not the worst of it,” he adds. “If excess aether is leaking from another world into ours, then on their side, aether levels would be exceptionally low.”

“And?”

And there wouldn’t be enough aether for a return portal!” He shakes his head. “It’d be a one-way trip.”

He sighs. “I know how badly you want this, Mara. But please, don't let curiosity kill you.” He takes her hand, gently tugging it away from the page and pressing it against his chest. “Don’t disappear on me forever.”

#

I've never felt aether currents this strong.

It felt like acid boiling her alive: raw heat bubbled against her skin, tingling and burning and chilling her whole body.

But there was still nothing to see; it was pitch-black. There was nothing to hear; all she could focus on was the pain of raw energy engulfing her. The agony of a mother bearing a child and the child's suffering in the darkness of the womb all at once.

Mara floated through the aether, unsure if the journey felt more like floating through air or water or neither. She had no concept of direction—up, down, left right—only that she was being pulled forward at an alarming rate.

Finally she began to hear sounds in her tunnel of darkness—first a rushing sound like wind or the rumble of a waterfall. That had to be the flow of the aether itself, this rapid that was dragging her to who knew where.

But there were other sounds, too: of people weeping and moaning, all echoing around her. It sent gooseflesh down her arms and legs. Someone was choking nearby, a voice that floated so close Mara expected to see someone surfacing from the black abyss just within arm's reach. The ice of panic chilled Mara's veins as the sound of gagging engulfed her. It sounded as if someone was strangling them. But she could see nothing, do nothing. She was imprisoned in darkness with the horrifying sounds of death as her cellmate.

“Hello?!” Mara shouted, lunging into the darkness, for what little good it would do. “Hold on! I'm here!” she barked. And then, when the choking began to fade, she called out louder, “I'm right here! Let me help you!”

She lurched toward the sound of the dying voice... but felt nothing. The sound faded away as quickly as it'd come.

Please tell me they're not dead, Mara's heart quavered. Not another one. Please, don't let us die here!

A howl of despair echoed her fears, distant and yet crystal clear: “We're going to die in here!”

The darkness softened into a swirl of purple and blue, pulsing all around her. It was dim, but it was the first light she'd seen since the portal had closed behind her.

Now she could see the other Caders being dragged through the aetheric current, floating just like her: Monroe was the nearest, only a few meters ahead, and further on were the two young men, Erik and Kale, their copper and pale skin tones both eerily reflecting the aetheric light. Ahead of them was the man with the sad, hollow eyes—Albrecht—and the three other women: Hannah, Saundra, and Kitti. And far, far ahead—so much further than the rest that she could barely make him out—was Ian, leading the way.

But there were two people missing. Tears leapt into Mara's eyes as she whirled around. They should be ahead of me. She spun, scanning the aetheric flow as it continued to brighten. Purple and blues were becoming pastels. Where are they? Mara's vision blurred with tears.

Dead! They're dead!” shouted Albrecht. Again, despite him being so far ahead, his voice resounded as loud and clear as if he were speaking in Mara's ear.

But it was true. Mara's tears spilled over. Each one slipped off her face and then trailed in slow-motion as they fell behind her.

It's no use!” Albrecht wept. “Try to escape, and you just meet a worse fate!” He flailed his arms. “No matter what we do, death follows us. We're cursed! This world wants to swallow us whole. And it's doing just that! Can't you feel the burning?”

But the burning sensation on her own skin was fading, reduced to a gentle tingle. To Mara, it almost felt... soothing. Was it only her? Could the aether affect each person differently?

But a quick glance told her that no one had burns on their skin. In fact, all the burns and singes on her hands and arms were gone. Her fair skin looked cleaner than ever. She couldn't even see any soot nor smell any smoke. But how?

She had no answers.

Calm yourself, Albrecht!” came Monroe's voice, just as clearly although his back was to Mara. He spun his arms and kicked his feet, as if trying to swim... but it got him nowhere. He was still being pulled forward by the aether current, the same as everyone else, but he couldn't move of his own volition.

“I told you, Mara will get us out!” came Ian's voice cheerfully. Mara could just make out his silhouette turning back to face the others. “Don't be scared!”

More tears pooled in Mara's eyes. Why? Relief, because he was safe? Gladness, that he could still smile, despite everything he'd been through? Or maybe pride that he placed so much faith in her—and guilt she hadn't delivered the same to these people.

Mara got us cornered in the woods!” Albrecht barked, whirling around to gaze at the surrounding aether walls. “F-For all we know, we're already dead! Maybe this is hell.”

You didn't believe in hell,” came Kale's cool reply. He sounded composed, though Mara could see even at this distance that his eyes were wide with horror... and epiphany. Who knew what was coursing through his mind at this moment?

Albrecht flailed. “I want out! I want out of this place!” With each cry, he floated closer to the walls. “I won't die in here! I want to go back! I'll take my chances with the Vaerin over whatever torture awaits us in here!” Albrecht screamed, lashing out with his legs at the wall of the tunnel.

Light flashed at the impact. Mara's head throbbed. She clutched her temple.

Albrecht, don't give up!” screamed Saundra, her tears floating off her face and into the aether, as well. “Don't you dare let their sacrifices be for nothing!”

Saundra had lost family to the raids. Had Albrecht, too? Had they all lost someone they loved

Hadn't there been enough victims of violence and hatred?

You have to hold on!” cried Mara, though she hardly knew what to say. “Th-this leads somewhere, I know it. I did all the calculations, all the research—”

It won't!” Albrecht lamented. “It's hopeless!” His wail rang around them all. It stole Mara's breath away. “I won't let this never-ending hell take me!” He kicked at the wall of aether again and again. “Kill me! Kill me now!”

Albrecht, please!” Mara shouted.

Albrecht was practically foaming at the mouth. “We're burning alive! Mara's killed us all!” he shrieked.

Albrecht--” Monroe warned.

But he couldn't hear; Albrecht howled like a wounded animal. “Kill me! Kill me, you foul, cruel world! I won't be a victim of your abuse ever again! It'll be over...” His voice fell to an almost eerie calm as his arms and legs relaxed. “It'll all be over...” He curled himself into the fetal position, rolling slowly.

His body was fading into transparency.

Something had gone terribly wrong.

Albrecht!” Mara shrieked.

Albrecht's eyes suddenly locked onto Mara as his body stopped spinning. His face contorted into a terrifying smile. “You haven't seen what I have. You didn't see them die.”

He began to laugh—a hollow, callous laugh. His body pulsed in and out of sight. “Take meeeeeee! Kill meeeeeeeeee!” his voice echoed—before the choking began. Albrecht writhed, clutching his neck... and then he disappeared completely.

The tunnel went silent.

Albrecht...” Shock and sorrow overwhelmed her. Mara began to sob.

How many more need to die? Albrecht... And the others: Jessica and David here. Hare, Giorgine, and Chris outside of Torien's gates.

I've led them all to their deaths. But that couldn't be true! Surely they wouldn't all die like this! It couldn't end this way!

Please, everyone, I swear, this will lead us out,” Mara reassured, desperate, beggin, pleading. “Don't give up!” Tears fell down her face in currents now.

Monroe turned to face her, his mouth set in a grim line. Without a word, he extended his hand toward her.

Wherever Adonai seeks to take us,” Monroe said, “we'll go together. No giving up. Not ever.”

Hope flooded her chest. Mara could barely see through her tears as she took Monroe's hand.

Reaching back, Monroe also took Erik's hand. Erik reached for Kale.

Kale stared at the walls of aether, looking numb, distant, distracted, yet... filled with some strange understanding and awe. “There's no way to know what will happen next,” he murmured. “We've lost so many. And now Albrecht, too. But...” He reached toward the wall of aether, which began to glow with a soft white light. “We escaped the Vaerin,” Kale whispered. He reached out and touched the wall gently. It pulsed with a musical hum.

I didn't think it was possible,” Kale added, “but we did.”

Mara forced a smile through her tears. “They'll never be able to follow us again.”

Kale glanced over his shoulder to her. He actually smiled, despite the tears in his own eyes. Nodding, he clasped Erik's hand and reached ahead to the women.

Soon everyone was holding hands—a long chain of Caders floating in an endless corridor of light.

Slowly, the white light began to turn into drops of rainbow color they floated past. A new sensation struck Mara: at first it was like a hot drink that warmed—not burned—her, from her belly down to her toes. She shivered under that warmth.

Is this what it's like to die? Mara wondered as another tear slipped down her cheek. The tear quickly dried away under the rainbow-colored light.

Mara closed her eyes, feeling her whole body relax. She spread her arms wide, inviting. At peace. I wouldn't mind dying like this.

“You're not dying, silly.”

Mara's eyes snapped open at the sound of the voice. It had resounded crystal-clear way... but it hadn't been the voice of any of her friends.

“Took me long enough to find you, Love.”

Fresh tears filled her eyes.

“Hello, Mara.”

Hello... my Magus.


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Water tunnel path] by
Wu Yi; originally posted on Unsplash.com.



From Him, To Him