How “Soldiers of Halla” should have ended

I don’t write a lot of fan fiction, but I wrote this a) because I was in a rut regarding my own stories, and b) because I just finished reading the Pendragon series by D. J. MacHale… and I couldn’t handle the ending. Don’t get me wrong: I loved all ten books; they were un-put-downable. What always kills me with these sprawling fantasy series are the epilogues. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to read this genre and I’m used to that. But when you create your own universe with its own set of rules, you’ve got to follow the rules you set up, and IMHO, the epilogue had to break a lot of rules to give the hero what he wanted. I wished Bobby could have gone back to his old life when the adventure was over. He sure earned it. But the universe couldn’t allow it. So I wrote my own ending.

Feel free to skip this post if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Out of context, it’s not going to make much sense. Definitely skip this post if you’re currently reading the Pendragon books, because it’s full of spoilers. If you’ve already finished the series, read on…

Bobby Pendragon
Journal #38
Fourth Earth

Mark, Courtney, if you’re reading this, I should probably start by asking what you’re doing, snooping through my desk! Nah, I don’t really care if you are. There’s nothing here you don’t already know. There’s nothing we haven’t lived through together. There’s nothing on these pages that posterity will really care about, no new updates on the war with the demon traveler Saint Dane, no new tales of the most recent way I almost died. I don’t really need to be writing this journal at all. No one is making me. Nothing hangs in the balance if I don’t. That makes for a nice change, doesn’t it?

I know the adventure is over. Saint Dane is gone forever – I saw his spirit end; I watched his body shrivel up and fade like someone took a chalkboard eraser to him. I guess after all this time it’s just become habit to write things down. When I was pinballing between eleven different territories, I needed that reflection time to stay sane. Now that pinballing between territories is not only unnecessary, but impossible, well… I still need all the help I can get to stay sane. Let’s just say I don’t have a lot of practice putting down roots. We all know how things turned out the last time I got comfortable on a territory. For months, I convinced myself Ibara was home, was safe – and then Telleo, my closest ally and friend, turned out to be none other than Saint Dane’s right-hand woman.

At least I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Still, starting over on Fourth Earth has been an adventure all its own.

At the end of my last journal, everyone thought that was it for me. I mean, when the indomitable Courtney Chetwynde sheds a tear, that seems pretty final to me. I was going back to Solara. I would spend the rest of forever as some kind of all-knowing spirit, drifting in a bright cloud over… well, over whatever Solara looked like now that Saint Dane had been deposed and the spirit of mankind restored. I thought so; Uncle Press thought so. That was the plan, and the other nine Travelers went through with it. But it didn’t seem right. After we fought so hard to protect the lives and the worlds we’d grown to love, we never had the chance to return to those lives and those worlds. It wasn’t fair, I told Uncle Press. I didn’t think he could do anything about it. I just wanted him to know how I felt. After all the worlds and centuries I’d Traveled through, the only thing I wanted was a little more time on this one.

And I got it. I guess that’s kind of obvious if you’re reading this. I don’t think spirits write journals. Uncle Press let me make the final call whether to stay on Earth or return to Solara. There’s that free will we fought across seven worlds and three-thousand-plus years for. He gave me that choice…

But he couldn’t give me exactly what I wanted. Because exactly what I wanted was to return to Stony Brook, Connecticut the night of the biggest basketball game of my young life, date Courtney Chetwynde, grow up with Mark Dimond, and eat Garden Poultry fries every day of my teenage life like any normal kid. But Stony Brook and Garden Poultry are gone. Second Earth is gone, and even if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be the town I lived in three thousand years ago. For starters, back at the turn of the twenty first century, the world had just witnessed seventy thousand people getting sucked into a flume to another dimension. Ravinia was only getting started there. We just beat those guys! Like hell I’m Traveling three thousand years back to have to deal with them again!

Worse, Mark and Courtney, you wouldn’t be there, because you’re here. Even if we could somehow rewind things to the night Courtney showed up at my door and kissed me before the game, before I found out I was a Traveler, before the two of you got sucked into this whole mess… I couldn’t do that to you guys. We’ve grown up along a different path than we pictured, but you know what? Incredibly, we’re all still here, we’re all still friends, and yes, I did finally get my chance to date Courtney. It just took a few (thousand) years longer than I originally hoped.

All we’ve been through, as rough as it’s been and as many times as we wished we didn’t have to do it, well, I couldn’t take that away from you guys and force you to be your old selves. I couldn’t do it to myself, either. Maybe there are some things I would have done differently along the way, but I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything. Well, except maybe to have my family back. But they wouldn’t be on Second Earth, either, if I somehow threw myself three thousand years back in time. They’re in Solara now, waiting for me to return.

They’re going to have to wait a little bit longer, because we’re just getting started here! This is the future now. We’re living in it: Mark, Courtney, and me, Bobby Pendragon, one-time Lead Traveler, spirit of Solara, walking around in the flesh for a little while longer. This is not the way it was meant to be, but it’s the way it is – the way Saint Dane made it. For us to go back to Second Earth – supposing we even could – would change history again. It would only make matters worse.

These are the lives we’ve been given now, and we are going to make the best of them until our time is up. The big thing for me is not sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong. That’s where Saint Dane went wrong. It’s really hard for me not to tell everyone about the Third Earth that existed before Ravinia mucked around with history: the green hills and idyllic pathways rolling across the city’s footprint, the underground living space, the clean air. Those people had figured it out. I want to see this world look that way again.

But I’m keeping my mouth shut. The future of Fourth Earth will unfurl exactly the way it was meant to be, without any interference from the spirits of Solara. Who knows? Maybe the new future will be as green and peaceful as the old Third Earth. Mankind got it right one time. I have no doubt they could figure it out again. In the meantime, as long as I’m here, I’m just going to do my best to help as many people as I can.

The first thing the Ravinians wanted to do was blow up the wall around their conclave. It was more symbolic than anything. They’re free now to go, do, and think whatever they want – and what they want is not to rebuild on the site of the old conclave. I’m proud of them. Unlike us, they didn’t watch Ravinia sweep across the worlds and bring them to ruin. To them, it was an organization that brought them peace and wellbeing for their whole lives, and their parents’ lives, and their grandparents’ lives. Granted, that peace and wellbeing came at the price of freedom, but it wasn’t such a bad world for those living in the conclaves – and yet they’re so ready to shed every scrap that might still tie them to Saint Dane’s organization, beginning with the very name of Ravinia. I should stop referring to them as Ravinians now. Together, the old Ravinians, those exiled during the Bronx Massacre on Second Earth, and the rebels who lived outside the conclave with Mark have united under the name “the Founders.”

Once the wall was down, we started looking for a new place for the Founders to live. What with the old New York crumbling on every side, people generally agreed that getting out of the city would be best for the time being. There would be time later to figure out what to do there. For now, like the people of Ibara, the Founders want to get back to the basics before rebuilding the whole world. To that end, I think we’ve found just the place.

We wrangled everybody – Ravinians, rebels, exiles, men, women, and children – and moved west until we hit the shore of what I’m pretty sure is Lake Ontario. Once you get away from civilization, the world looks pretty much the same as ever. You can almost imagine Saint Dane never got his hands on the place. I guess he probably didn’t. His crusade was to break something within man, not the world itself. The cities were just a casualty.

Over the last few months, the Founders have spread out along the shore for miles. New little villages crop up almost daily, each one farther out than the last. Soon they will have settled the entire shore. There’s talk of naming the communities after the territories of Halla – I’ve even heard Founders referring to the water as “Lake Halla” – as a monument to the value and kindness due to all people of all worlds and walks of life.

The sentiment isn’t a bad one. It’s just that, personally, I think they’d be better off forgetting about the other worlds; the whole idea from the start was to keep the territories from mixing. But Ravinia painted these people’s imaginations with stories and images from across the universe for generations. Some things can’t be undone, and I swore I’d let them make their own choices.

Anyway, my objection is more selfish than anything. I can’t forget the places I’ve been, the people I met and loved there, and I probably couldn’t even if the Founders named their villages boring things like New Connecticut or West York. I can’t help but wonder if Spader and Gunny and Loor and the rest are happy in Solara or if they, too, would’ve liked the chance to live out the lives they fought so hard to win back. I have to wonder if the futures on Cloral or Zadaa look as bright as the one here. I wonder if the pilgrims of Rayne ever sailed out to heal the world of Veelox. I wonder if the tribes on Denduron found peace. Not knowing is hard. I find myself feeling a little jealous of the other Travelers who returned to Solara like they were supposed to. They know it all; they can watch it unfold.

But this is what I have chosen. I have chosen Fourth Earth; I have chosen Mark and Courtney; I have chosen an ordinary mortal life. And I am happy.

As I write this, though, I’m getting the traveling itch. I’ve been here too long. Adventure is a hard habit to break. The Founders know what they’re doing; they don’t need me.

But there’s someone else who does, and this is where the new story begins.

Two men showed up on our beach a few mornings ago, wearing rags and paddling a crude wooden raft that nearly fell apart when it touched land. One was black, the other, possibly Indian. If India’s still a thing. Mark and I brought them to our house and Mark worked his magic over the basic stove in the corner of our kitchen. That kid is keeping me alive. I would be dead if I had to cook without a microwave.

Courtney came out of her room, her eyebrows arched in an unspoken question. I shrugged and waved for her to come sit at the table. A minute later, Mark joined us with a plate of squash and potatoes someone managed to grow in our community garden. Our guests eyed the food suspiciously.

Courtney snorted and popped a slice of potato in her mouth. “It’s not Garden Poultry fries, but it won’t kill you,” she said with her mouth full.

The men watched her blankly. Then, slowly, one of them hazarded a taste. The other, the one who might have been Indian, looked at me steadily. “We are glad you are not Ravinians,” he finally said. “We have seen you building but were afraid to come over. We have been hiding on an island for generations, leaving only to gather food and supplies, and then only in times of great need. We feared the Ravinians would destroy us if they found us.”

“They would have,” Mark confirmed. “Luckily, Saint Dane’s not in charge any more. Bobby defeated him.” He jerked his thumb at me like it was no big deal. Mark likes people to know what we did, but I’d just as soon remain anonymous. The last thing I need is for strangers to fall down at my feet and do whatever I say; this world is theirs, not mine.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Rasheed,” the man answered, “and that’s Isaac.”

“You really killed Saint Dane?” said Isaac.

I winced. I didn’t like to think of it as killing, and I didn’t like to think of myself as the one who did it. In fact, it was dead wrong to let them think I’d done it. “No,” I said honestly. “You did. And Mark did. And the Ravinians did.” I explained how the positive spirit of mankind had crushed Saint Dane’s dark Solara, stripping him of power and life.

“Well that is good news,” Rasheed said when I was done. “Our families need to leave the island. Many of us are sick. We thought it was the end when we saw people on the shore, but nobody attacked us, which is why we came to investigate.”

“You’d never see a Ravinian here,” Courtney scoffed. “They never left the conclaves. Except to visit other conclaves.”

Rasheed shrugged. “So we had been told, but we did not know what else to think. We never dreamed the Ravinians could be overcome.”

“What you see here,” I said, “are the people who once made up Ravinia. They call themselves the Founders now. They want to build a better world, where people have value just for being people, not because they’re richer or smarter or more productive than anyone else. I’m sure they would welcome your families into their new world.”

It was with broad smiles and a patched raft that Rasheed and Isaac returned to the island this morning. A small flotilla of Founder canoes followed to help transport their families to the mainland. It didn’t take long. By dark, the islanders had settled right in to Denduron City. But their appearance leaves me with a bigger question: who else is out there? Who else still thinks the world belongs to Saint Dane? And how will they know they’re free unless we tell them?

So this journal marks my last night in Denduron City for the foreseeable future. Tomorrow, Courtney, Mark and I leave on our quest for the disenfranchised, the lost, the scared, the human.

There is still a lot of work to do.

And so we go.



Existentialism on tax day

The Reluctant “I” (Exercise from “The 3 A.M. Epiphany” by Brian Kiteley)

Write a first-person story in which you use the first-person pronoun (I or me or my) only two times – but keep the “I” somehow important to the narrative you’re constructing. The point of this exercise is to imagine a narrator who is less interested in himself than in what he is observing. You can make your narrator someone who sees an interesting event in which he is not necessarily a participant. Or you can make him self-effacing, yet a major participant in the events related. It is very important in this exercise to make sure your reader is not surprised, forty or fifty words into the piece, to realize this is a first-person narration. Show us quickly who is observing the scene.

Caution: Do not read if you are feeling depressed today. Close this window. Come back tomorrow.

The pallets roll in off the truck. Under the shrink-wrap are boxes. In the boxes are bottles, the slender, half-liter size filled with bubbly lo-cal sugar-free flavored water for rich, middle-aged white ladies. Hundreds of bottles, more bottles than any person should have to look at in a lifetime. I am a cog. The pallets move from the truck and the boxes from the pallets and the bottles from the boxes and the shelves fill up as if by their own volition. And then the bottles will move from the shelves into carts and into bags and into cars and into pantries and into mouths and into recycling bins. And then the plastic factories will take them back and grind them down and make them into new bottles inside of new boxes stacked on new pallets, and the same old trucks will bring them through the same old delivery door and the same old cog will put them back on the same old shelf again.

It’s all very existential, but it pays the bills.

For fifteen minutes I get to stand outside and have a smoke and feel a little bit better about things. It’s cold; the smoke could be pure breath. It smears together with the sky and the black smog pumping out of the back of the store. A delivery truck idles by the dock, churning out its own poison. More god damned pallets. Why do people need so much shit?

The truck roars to life. Even the dumpsters jump in surprise. Eighteen wheels strain against the stationary truck and it rips free from the loading station with an almighty screech.

The cigarette drops and burns a dead leaf to cinders before the wind blows it out. People are shouting, leaning out of the store and shaking fists at the runaway truck. Someone leaps out and runs for the cab. Idiot. An unsurprising gunshot rings out, and when the truck rolls aside there is a body in its wake. A strong body, until only moments ago; a thickset Hispanic man with a wide mouth that always looked like it was smiling, even when it wasn’t, who had dedicated four years to the machine.

He was a good cog.

Will and the Whale: Part 4

Last episode

From the beginning

Will and Turtle stared at the sky for signs of the birds returning. At last, as the sun was beginning to sink toward evening, the blue heron’s majestic outline appeared in the distance. Will jumped to his feet and clapped. “They’re here!” he shouted. He skipped up and down the beach, too excited to stand still and wait. The heron soared in for a graceful landing on the wet sand by Will’s feet.

“We have located your house,” he announced.

Will and Turtle cheered. Now all they had to do was wait for dark. Will could sleep in his own bed tonight! He watched impatiently as the sun sank lower and lower. “Can we go yet?” he begged.

“Not until the sun is out of sight,” said the heron. “The sting ray only turns into a human after it sets.” Will sighed and waited another fifteen minutes for the sun to disappear. Finally it was time to go. Will shivered as he waded out to his waist and climbed onto Turtle’s shell. It was a relief when they joined up with the others and Will could sit on Tony’s back without getting his feet wet at all.

They followed the heron for a long time. At one point, the bird made them slow down and skirt around the far side of an island with a roving light on it. “That’s the wizard’s lighthouse,” the bird explained in a whisper, perching on Turtle’s back so the wizard wouldn’t spy him. Herons, he explained, should be in their nest this time of night. If the wizard saw him, he would know the heron was up to something suspicious. But they made it around the island safely, and soon they were speeding along again.

Suddenly one of the little fish who had been following them let out a yelp. The other small fish squealed and bolted every which way, leaving Will, Tony, Turtle and Bertha alone. “What’s happening?” Will asked.

“Piranhas!” said Bertha. Turtle scooped her onto his shell for safekeeping. Mouths poked out of the water all around them, snapping hungrily.

“Hurry!” called the heron from the sky. “We’re very close! You can out-swim them!” So Tony and Turtle put on a burst of speed, breaking through the piranhas’ ranks. The hungry fish battered the whale’s sides, but Tony didn’t slow down. Will didn’t notice when Turtle and Bertha fell behind – until Bertha let out a scream.

“They got her!” Turtle shouted.

The heron acted at once. He dove at the water, sliced in with his long beak, and pulled the piranha out of the water, still holding onto Bertha with its teeth. “Hurry, follow them!” Will yelled. Poor Bertha! Will hoped she would be all right. After all the help she’d been, after all her motherly comfort, it just wouldn’t be right for something bad to happen to her.

Will caught up to Bertha and the heron in the shallow water. “Is she okay?”

Bertha smiled. “I’ll be good as new, hon. You go to your house.”

Will looked up. There it was! His house! With its blue paint and red door and white shutters, just as it had always looked. Well, maybe a little wetter and more beat-up from its ocean adventure, but it sure was his, and Will had never been so happy to be home. He ran up the front steps and opened the familiar door.

“Mom! Dad!” he called. “I’m home!”

Then the lights came on, and a knot formed in Will’s stomach. This wasn’t his house after all. It was a very good replica on the outside, but inside, everything looked different. The walls were made of stone and lit by torches that made the shadows flicker and dance. A cold draft was coming down the hallway. At the end, Will could see an eerie blue light glowing in the TV room, but it sure wasn’t coming from a TV. In fact, Will thought he could hear thunder down there. Even though he was afraid, Will also felt extremely curious. Could there really be a thunderstorm in his living room? He tiptoed closer to see.

What he found was not exactly a thunderstorm. Will clapped a hand to his mouth to keep from screaming. The room was full of ghosts! And the TV and lights were flickering madly as the spooky forms flew around in a frenzy. Will backed away slowly, only to crash into something – no, someone!

He had knocked over a skeleton, which fell to the floor with a loud crash, scattering its bones across the hall. Now Will really did scream. The ghosts had noticed him by now, so he ran for the front door. But it was locked! So he ran to the safest place he knew. Up the stairs, around the corner, past the bathroom and into his room! He shut the door and locked it and dove under the covers. His bed felt just as safe and normal as it always had. Will squeezed his eyes shut and wished with all his might that he would wake up now, and find out it had all just been a scary dream.

Something was rattling the closet door. No, this was no dream, and Will was not about to stick around and find out what was in his closet. He opened the window and dove into the ocean.

“Will!” Tony said nearby. “What are you doing back in the water?”

“House was haunted,” Will panted. “It wasn’t mine – it was a fake! Are the piranhas gone?”

“They left as soon as you went in the house,” said Tony. “It was like they just appeared to chase you there.”

Something spooky was happening to Will’s window. He held Tony’s fin tightly as the flickering blue ghost light filled the window frame and floated out into midair! It didn’t look so ghostly now, though. Now it had a pretty solid human form with a long white beard and a billowing black cloak fastened at the neck.

“William Williams,” said the man with a voice like thunder. “I am the wizard.”