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The Lost Dragon Chapter 15.1 (LMS VI)

by soundofmind


Chapter 15: Escaped But at What Cost[tm]

The beans were lukewarm, but James ate them. When he cleared the bowl, James pushed himself to his feet, forcing himself to move.

His body was stiff and sore, but he knew if he stayed still, he was likely to drift off again. The last thing they needed was to have their guard down, so he instead busied himself with whatever menial tasks he could manage.

It was difficult to silently shuffle around in the dark, but he managed to find Clandestine's empty bowl not far from her, and he took them both to the trickling creek. Sitting by the water, he dipped them into the water and rinsed out the residue the beans left behind, scrubbing away at anything that stuck with his fingers.

Things were a mess.

Now that he was closer to the water, he could see the dark patch of blackened grass on the other side. It still smelled of smoke in the air, and worry chipped away at James's nerves again.

He glanced over his shoulder at Clandestine and the horses.

If Clandestine hadn't come for him, he didn't know how things would've played out. He knew it wasn't productive to linger on what-ifs, but he couldn't help but wonder how differently things would've gone if it'd only been him and Alexander left to face each other.

Alexander had clearly been the better shot, but when they'd been in close quarters, they seemed evenly matched. If the fire hadn't entered the picture, it was very possible things could've ended quite similarly, with either of them on top of the other in a tense wrestling match, waiting to see whose strength would give out first.

Then again, it was just as likely that, had Clandestine not arrived, James would've been easily overpowered. As messy as it had been, Clandestine had at least served as a distraction.

Gods, what was he thinking?

Clandestine was a good person. He was just a dishonored soldier who only managed to do one worthwhile thing with his life.

For years he'd been running, and more and more, it felt like a useless chase. The only thing they wanted from him was the location of the lost library, and he was determined never to give it. And even if he did, knowing where it was wasn't enough to change anything about his circumstances. They'd kill him regardless. As for the library, he was sure that since he still hadn't come forward with anything, they'd long since assumed the information was inaccessible to him, meaning it was behind their borders. But that did very little to narrow down where it was.

His knowledge was the only thing that made him valuable, and the only thing that kept his posters from reading: "wanted dead" instead of alive.

James started scrubbing the spoons.

The only other reason the kingdom had reason to pursue him so persistently - and he realized, he'd neglected to emphasize this nuance to Clandestine - was that it was personal. Not only had he betrayed the trust of the king who'd practically treated him like an heir, but he'd betrayed his best friend, Carter Haddon.

At least, that was how Carter saw it. Or so James imagined.

They never did have a chance to speak of it since he last saw him.

From the start, James had mentioned that Alexander seemed to have been sent by a former friend, but as per the natural direction of the story, he'd never actually told her who it was.

Maybe it was for the best. He didn't really want to explain that painful goodbye.

James was in a hurry. Everything was already in motion.

The coffins were gone and no one had noticed yet. He knew that discovery was inevitable: it was only a matter of time. He'd managed to do as much of it alone as he possibly could and went out of his way to cover up his tracks - but he knew that it wasn't going to be that easy.

The king would be furious, and even if James wasn't the first to be accused, suspicion would turn to him eventually. There were a very select few who even had the key to the coffin and the secret library, not even accounting for the small number of people who knew about it. James knew he had to get out of the palace as quickly as possible. Any doubts he had about leaving were gone: it was no longer an option. Either he left now, or he was going to die.

Even with their history, he did not expect the king to have mercy on him. If anything, he'd treat him more harshly. A soldier was never supposed to betray the trust of the king. Not even if that king was corrupt.

But James wasn't interested in pleasing the king anymore. He hadn't been for quite some time, and as he secured the last of his runaway belongings in his bag, he steeled his nerves, set in his decision.

Just as he picked up his bag and brought it over his shoulders, he heard his bedroom door creak open.

"Going somewhere?" Carter's voice piped up behind him.

James turned and met Carter's eyes, putting on a practiced easy smile.

"Oh," he said. "I'm just going to visit a friend."

The lie was loose enough.

Carter's brows raised, and he leaned on the open doorway with a small smirk.

"Oh, what friend?" Carter prodded. "A lady friend?"

James faked a laugh, huffing through his nose.

"Hah," he said. "No."

He glanced at Carter, trying not to appear anxious to leave.

"Did you need something?" James asked with a small tilt of his head.

The moment he asked the question, something felt wrong. Carter's expression didn't change from its neutral state, but something in the room shifted. There was something in the way Carter looked at him that made James's skin crawl, and James noted that Carter was still in uniform, metal armor gleaming. If he was here, he was still on duty. He should've been at his post, working.

James was accustomed to Carter stopping by on occasion, but never so spontaneously, and never so coincidentally.

"I'm trying to do you a favor, Tiberius," Carter said, his voice lowering so it could only be heard in the three feet between them.

James stared at him.

"...What?"

Tension suddenly filled the room as James looked to Carter for an explanation.

He could sense one coming.

"As it turns out," Carter said with a small smile. "You didn't plan for everything."

James stiffened.

There was only one thing Carter could be referring to. Right?

"This morning," Carter went on. "The king called for a servant to fetch for you from your post, wanting to see you. But you'd gotten someone to cover for you, and as it turned out, you were nowhere to be found, even after quite a lot of searching. It wasn't until a mere few minutes ago someone saw you head for your room, but the whole palace has been sniffing around for your whereabouts all day..."

Carter looked James up and down like he was taking in the fullness of James's posture, his clothes, and his packed bag.

He looked as he was: ready to leave.

James knew he couldn't fall back on the lie that he was going to visit a friend. Even as he tried to practice it briefly in his mind, spinning up another story, he could see the knowing grin fading on Carter's face, as if James's hesitation confirmed something he already knew.

"Is that what you came here for?" James asked. "Just to tell me the king is looking for me?"

It felt like he was tiptoeing around the subject. No one was supposed to know.

"Don't play dumb, James," Carter said flatly, any sense of friendly countenance disappearing - as if something had snapped. "You stole the dragon. And you stole a whole godsforsaken section of the library on the Great War. Dragons above, what are you thinking? What are you going to do with it? Where did you even put it?"

A boulder landed in the lake of James's mind, and two unsettling realizations settled over him at once.

One: Carter knew.

Two: This wasn't the Carter he thought he knew.

For twelve years, they'd practically been inseparable. James had always thought of Carter like a brother, but the unveiled, layered hostility in his voice felt both foreign and familiar like it had been there for a long time, but he was only now seeing it.

James gripped the strap of his bag across his chest a little tighter.

"Who told you?" James asked, keeping his voice low as he watched Carter intently.

What had Carter come here to do? To warn him? To help him?

Carter almost guffawed at that, but his laugh cut to silence, and he let out a huff of a breath as he looked at James in dramatic disbelief and annoyance.

"You're serious?" Carter asked with a shake of his head. "Tiberius, we've been friends for years. I have connections. You're lucky that I was there to step in and do the digging for the king when he noticed the coffin was missing. It could've been someone else, and you'd have been caught hours ago. You wouldn't even be here right now."

So Carter had been buying him time - or covering up his tracks, at least, until Carter knew for sure. James had a sinking feeling that he should've denied the accusation entirely, but at this rate, it was too late.

James was rigid.

What was all of this, then? What was Carter's goal?

"So... what happens now?" James asked quietly.

It felt uncomfortable and unfair to be suspicious of Carter in this way. It was daunting to consider that this was anything other than his closest friend coming to bail him out.

"You know what has to happen," Carter said quietly, lowering his chin as he met James's eyes. "You're going to turn yourself in. You're going to do the smart thing and turn yourself in, return the--"

"But Carter," James cut in.

Carter had been there too. He'd been in the meetings. He'd been shadowing his own parents, just as James had been shadowing the king. Carter wasn't oblivious to all of the kingdom's lies.

"Everything we've learned--" James tried.

"Of course, it's a lie, James!" Carter hissed.

James stared when Carter used his real name.

Carter threw his hands up and rage rushed to his face, red and burning as he stared at James with more contempt than James had ever seen.

"What?" Carter went on in a fierce whisper. "Did you think everything you learned in school was real? Do you really think the kingdom cares about 'preserving the truth of history' and telling the people what really happened? You've been an ignorant fool ever since I met you, James. You're too trusting. You always have been."

"But you agree," James pressed. "That all of this is wrong. The entirety of the kingdom's military is built on--"

"You're the one who's been slow to see it," Carter cut in again, his glare piercing.

All of the guilt and regret of James's role in the military spun around his ribs like a thorned vine. James swallowed hard, unable to deny the painful truth. He and Carter had both walked away from the war with the same conclusion that the kingdom was deeply corrupt and deceitful. But why didn't it feel like they agreed? What did Carter mean that he'd been slow? What was Carter not telling him?

James felt the pull of time pressing on him.

His window to escape would close soon. He needed to leave.

"You want me to turn myself in and forget about all of this," James said. "But the world needs to know the truth. You said it yourself. Hundreds of mages are murdered every year and it's a horror both of us have knowingly permissed in our silence. I can't stay silent anymore, Carter. Not if I have proof--"

"You're not going to change anything!" Carter burst, his voice raising only for him to glower at James again, letting the volume simmer as the rage continued to boil behind his eyes.

"That's exactly the kind of naive, idealistic altruism I'd expect from you. But we both know my parents would never allow that information to see the light of day. Though they treat you like their own now, I can guarantee you they'll disown you, expose you, and blot your name from history in an instant if you try this now."

"My life is ruined either way, Carter," James snapped.

This was something he'd already accepted.

"It's just a matter of whether it's spent rotting in a cell or actually trying to accomplish something. I'm not going to throw it all away in surrender. It's too late now. The damage is done."

And at that, he pushed forward to leave. But Carter blocked his way, pushing him back.

James looked down at Carter, both of their expressions tensed. At that moment, James had the sullen realization that Carter may not have been there to reason with him or warn him at all.

He was stalling.

Panic rattled in James's chest, and he clenched his jaw.

"Carter," he said lowly. "Move away from the door."

Carter stared up at him with resignation, challenging him to move. Challenging him to try.

"I can't do that," Carter said cooly.

James's heart dropped into his stomach. He wasn't looking into the eyes of a friend anymore. He was looking into the eyes of a soldier who saw him as a traitor.

"Carter..." James said faintly, not wanting to fight him.

For a split second, Carter's eyes flicked to the side. He looked over his shoulder.

Something came over James, and he pushed forward, ramming Carter's shoulder with his own. The impact against Carter's armor was hard, but James threw himself forward.

Carter stumbled back as James burst through the door, making a run for it at full speed down the barrack hallway.

This wasn't going as planned.

How was he going to get out of this?

"Guards!" Carter shouted, his footsteps picking up behind him. "Traitor! The king demands his arrest!"


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Sun Jul 02, 2023 5:20 pm
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Kaia wrote a review...



Hello!
I just jumped in at this chapter to give this piece a review. I'm quite impressed by the amount of intensity and emotions you built up here. The character's reactions are also very lifelike and help to make this moment seem real. Obviously, there's some kind of internal betrayal between James and Carter, and I wouldn't be too surprised if these leads to a lot of trouble for James as I am guessing that he is in a lot of trouble with the king for doing something wrong...a deed only he and Carter know about. Clever spins there. :)

All right, I do have a few critiques to possibly improve this piece. The first is about the length of this scene. You did a marvelous job building up the intensity of the moment, but I feel like it's a little prolonged. There are some great dialogue snippets that really increase the drama, but I feel like it goes on for too long and the intensity of the situation is slackened because the reader gets used to reading the back and forth conversation between James and Carter. So maybe try to take the best pieces of the conversation and combine those into a shorter bit. That way you'll have a fast-paced super intense scene as opposed to a prolonged argument that might lose its flavor as it goes on. As contrary as it may seem, readers enjoy quick, impactful scenes as opposed to longer intense scenes. So, just try to break the conversation up a bit. ;)

Also, I noticed that you use a lot of backstory and storytelling tactic along with the characters thoughts, needs etc. to create natural breaks in the dialogue. I felt like a lot of that was good, but it ended up ruining good spots for some description and physical reaction for the characters. Like here...

His window to escape would close soon. He needed to leave.


And here...
James knew he couldn't fall back on the lie that he was going to visit a friend. Even as he tried to practice it briefly in his mind, spinning up another story, he could see the knowing grin fading on Carter's face, as if James's hesitation confirmed something he already knew.


Phrases like these are really nice-sounding and work really nicely in a slower scene, but I recommend pulling a bunch of these out because it slows the pacing. (Especially in example 2 where you have a whole paragraph before the next thing actually happens) Try to SHOW that that's how he's feeling. It sounds like he's getting impatient here. So, show that he's restless. What does he do while the conversation occurs? What are his hands doing? Is he pacing? Try adding some more verbs and action to replace these sentences where you are just saying what the character is thinking. Try to reserve those slower sentences for a slower scene. I wouldn't cut them all out, though because a little of that is okay. Just don't overuse it. ;)

I also felt like the beginning was kind of slow. The very beginning was really good and had me instantly right there, visualizing the scene which was nice.
(I'm talking about this part...)

It was difficult to silently shuffle around in the dark, but he managed to find Clandestine's empty bowl not far from her, and he took them both to the trickling creek. Sitting by the water, he dipped them into the water and rinsed out the residue the beans left behind, scrubbing away at anything that stuck with his fingers.

But then, I felt like things got slow because there was so much backstory. Try to incorporate backstory in another way. Although I don't particularly like this method, you could use flashbacks, or my personal favorite, drop hints via overheard dialogue or just dialogue in general. (Even better if the reader doesn't yet know what the dialogue has until later.)

Lastly a couple of Grammer critiques...

He looked as he was: ready to leave.

I think you put the colon in there for emphasis but it looks kind of strange. Maybe try ellipses points (...) That might get the point across a little better. ;)

"Is that what you came here for?" James asked. "Just to tell me the king is looking for me?"

For some reason a space slipped in between the opening quotation mark and the word "Just."

Okay, that's it. You're really good at words and phrasing, but I think just a bit of work on pacing could go a long way. :) That said, these are just my opinions and you don't need to change anything about your novel if you don't want to.
Keep well and keep writing,
-Kaia,
The Order of the Lily Flower




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Sun Jun 25, 2023 11:49 am
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Liminality wrote a review...



Hi sound!

General Impressions

The chapter ends on a tense note as James goes over the memory of a confrontation. I thought some parts were a little laxer as James was sort of going through plot points that have previously been covered like the location of the library, but the flashback scene felt more immersive and high-drama. I find Carter’s character to be interesting. His reasons for what he’s saying seem ambiguous – does he just view James as a traitor to the kingdom or is he so pessimistic that he blames James for throwing his whole life away for what he thinks is a futile pursuit?

Characters

His body was stiff and sore, but he knew if he stayed still, he was likely to drift off again. The last thing they needed was to have their guard down, so he instead busied himself with whatever menial tasks he could manage.

James is believably an ex-soldier. Something I like in this story is how consistently you portray that. Just like in this scene, he is always thinking of danger and planning around it, like he just can never let down his guard.

But James wasn't interested in pleasing the king anymore. He hadn't been for quite some time, and as he secured the last of his runaway belongings in his bag, he steeled his nerves, set in his decision.

I thought the word choice “wasn’t interested” was neat. It kind of emphasises how James at this stage won’t do something just because he’s obligated to or the law demands it of him. It’s his own ‘interest’ or lack thereof in a cause that drives his decisions.

"You're not going to change anything!" Carter burst, his voice raising only for him to glower at James again, letting the volume simmer as the rage continued to boil behind his eyes.
"That's exactly the kind of naive, idealistic altruism I'd expect from you. But we both know my parents would never allow that information to see the light of day. Though they treat you like their own now, I can guarantee you they'll disown you, expose you, and blot your name from history in an instant if you try this now."

This quote is super interesting, because the first line implies Carter knows something *should* be changed. He just thinks it isn’t going to happen. When Carter says “they’ll disown you, expose you”, there’s a lot of emphasis on what’s going to happen to James when his actions come out. That makes me think he’s still worried for him in a way, at least at this point in the scene. So it makes me question James’ assessment that this was not “the Carter he knew”.

Plot

As for the library, he was sure that since he still hadn't come forward with anything, they'd long since assumed the information was inaccessible to him, meaning it was behind their borders. But that did very little to narrow down where it was.
I
I wonder if the Moonlight Kingdom’s search for the books is going to come into play right in the next part of this chapter. If it is, then this little aside makes sense. If not, I do wonder if it would be more impactful to show the advisors discussing this through Carter’s POV, since we have had at least one chapter from his point of view so far.

The king would be furious, and even if James wasn't the first to be accused, suspicion would turn to him eventually. There were a very select few who even had the key to the coffin and the secret library, not even accounting for the small number of people who knew about it.

The fact that they found out so soon makes sense now! At first it seemed a bit iffy since James *did* do all that planning and it appeared successful, but this piece of information makes it seem reasonable that they’d be able to catch James.

Overall

I like how you’ve depicted conflict and contrasting worldviews between James and Carter in this chapter. I wonder how James escaped, and if something in the ‘present time’ is going to happen once this flashback ends. (Something involving escape, perhaps <.<)

Hope this helps – keep writing!
-Lim
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