Characters with magic are so difficult to put in peril

Posted by nightphoenix on September 17, 2011 in Novels, Output, Process |


Here’s the situation. Saeli, Raphel, Mora, and Kaladan are on a world that is, due to a series of unfortunate events involving three jealous goddesses, one naive god, and a very angry angelic…well, doomed. Said goddesses created an extremely infectious disease that eventually rendered every single female on the planet unable to bear children. The last generation has reached their mid-50s or so, and they’ve essentially lost hope.

Enter Saeli and Mora, two young women of childbearing age who, due to their not being born on Dheu, are immune to this disease. You can see how this might interest certain parties. The two women get kidnapped, and are currently trapped in a cave surrounded by twenty or so men who are so desperate to not be the last generation that they’re willing to rape female strangers and force them to live out their lives on Dheu bearing children.

Saeli and Mora are both trained in the art of using their qi to do all sorts of extraordinary things, like fire and ice and wind and teleportation spells. None of the men who have captured them have any such power. (Although half of them are what they call “spirit walkers”. They can essentially thrust their spirits out of their bodies and travel about the “spirit realm”, where they receive guidance from the angelics who live there. This is, of course, of no practical use whatsoever against someone who can lob a fireball at them).

The first obvious question: how did a couple of magically inclined characters get captured by a bunch of non-magically inclined characters in the first place? Especially Mora, who, being second-in-command of Raphel Kailar’s infamous cabal, should be neigh unto impossible to capture WITH qi. The answer? The two were taken by surprise and drugged. Saeli didn’t react in time because she’s never really been in a real fight before, even though she was expecting the attack and knew what the assailants were after. Mora didn’t react in time because Saeli hadn’t yet gotten the chance to warn her what was coming.

The drug, nepthas, is one that specifically neutralizes one’s capacity to draw qi. The idea of qi-altering drugs is not new to the overall story, having been introduced in the first book. It would make sense that what the spirit walkers of Dheu and the majahel of Verre draw from the same source of energy, and that the spirit walkers of Dheu would have discovered a means to keep novices from jaunting about in the spirit realm unsupervised. In high doses, nepthas renders the victim unconscious, and can actually stop the heart if too much is given. It allows a group of non-magic wielders to knock Saeli and Mora out for several hours and spirit them away.

So now they are in a cave…the drug has worn off and both girls are awake…Raphel and some others are on their way but haven’t arrived yet…and the men, not quite desperate enough to assault female strangers while they are unconscious (although they considered it), have been waiting for this moment.

Now I have to create an impasse. I’ve given Saeli and Mora back their qi for this scene, because I can’t have the men actually assault them until the cavalry arrives. Yet I cannot have the two girls whooping up on the men and escaping just yet, either…but given their powers, it’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which this realistically would not happen. You can’t just not have them consider using their powers because, well, it’s their primary weapon. It’d be like a trained swordsman stepping into a battle and forgetting he has a sword. Ain’t gonna happen, you know? And if they were to use their power, there’s really nothing the spirit walkers can do to stop them. So I’ve got to do something that will even the odds, at least until Raphel and Co. show up.

Even the odds #1: Reintroduce nepthas.

I had one of the spirit walkers throw a handful of nepthas leaves on the campfire. I’ve already established that nepthas is an inhaled drug (the first time they took cloths soaked in a wet mixture of the drug and slapped them over the girls’ faces)…so given that they are in a small space, it shouldn’t take too long for the tainted smoke to take effect and render Saeli and Mora helpless again.

Problems: It will still take time, several minutes at the very least. Saeli and Mora could easily escape in that amount of time. Rather than evening the odds, nepthas merely functions as a ticking clock.

Even the odds #2: Establish what can and cannot be done with qi in a small space.

The cave, while small, is nevertheless big enough to contain about twenty men and a small fire around the entrance area, and Saeli and Mora further back. (I’m going to have to assume the men stashed their horses elsewhere; perhaps in a nearby cave, with someone to guard them.) The roof is high enough for everyone to stand comfortably, although it may be *just* that high. If I wanted to be specific, I could have Mora’s head brush the roof. It is deep enough for Saeli to create what amounts to an electrified web between the two parties, where the men would actually have to approach to be zapped by it. So I’m imagining a space that is something like a crack in a wall: deeper and taller than it is wide. Let’s say at its narrowest (which is where Saeli and Mora would be)…wide enough for two or three people to stand with arms outstretched and fingers touching. Wider at the entrance.

I began to write some dialogue between Saeli and Mora, in which they each brought up and discarded various forms they could use to escape. It helped me sort of figure out in my own mind what can and cannot be done with qi, and how environment shapes that. There are basically two “methods” in which qi is used, once you’ve drawn up the appropriate elemental energy: 1) Use the energy to manipulate its physical counterpart; ie, using Air to make a breeze, using Earth to create an earthquake, etc. Easier. Faster. Or 2) Manipulate the energy itself. This is how majahel sight works, and how you create shields, like Saeli’s lightning net. Also, most anjahel skills rely on this method. Any qi form that does anything more complicated than moving matter around probably uses a combination of the two methods.

The physical element does not have to be present, but the energy does. Luckily, most latent energy sitting around contains the four basic elements, so finding sources of energy is not usually difficult. One might have a little trouble using Water in a desert, or Fire in a lake, but it would not be impossible. However, elemental energy =/= physical matter. One may be able to draw Water energy from a dry place, but unless there is an actual source of water on hand (even moisture leeched from the air), one will not be able to spontaneously create physical water. One may be able to draw Air energy, but one cannot create a breeze if there is no physical air to move. The single exception is Fire, which is why fire forms are popular among both Mantles and Cowls.

So, back to Saeli and Mora’s non-predicament. My goal was to run through every possible form and see if there was a logical reason why said form could not be employed (because that’s what any intelligent majahel would do, and I have to assume the reader will, too). Make sure there was no way someone could say, “Well, they can do ___ and ___, right? Why don’t they just  ____?” with me going *facepalm*.

I began with “put out the fire”. Saeli suggests blowing it out. Mora explains that the act of pushing all that air OUT of the cave will draw an equal amount of air back IN, along with all that tainted nepthas smoke. They’d drug themselves in the act. They discuss putting it out with water (Saeli has heard dripping water in the cave somewhere), but again, what happens when you dump water on a fire? Clouds of smoke. Putting out the fire will do no good if they render themselves helpless in the process.

Then they move on to “neutralize the men”. Blast them all out with air or water? They’d just come back in, and also, see above. If they used fire, they’d probably incinerate themselves in the process. Saeli is actually the one to suggest killing them all, but only in the context of “Gee, I’m surprised you didn’t suggest that right away, Mora”. Neither of them, especially Saeli (who knows more of the story), particularly wants to seriously hurt or kill the men…partially because they empathize with their problems, and partially because killing “cowens”, ie, non-magical people, is the moral equivalent of shooting an unarmed person with a gun.

But they could paralyze them (Snake Creeps Down). They could also freeze them (Cross the Courtyard + Water Flows Downhill). And those are forms that the reader has already seen, via Raphel’s battle with the High Priestess. They could bind them up with cords of air (also something we’ve seen Raphel do). Plus we know that Saeli knows how to put people to sleep and influence the mood of a crowd, per her anjahel abilities.

After about a page of writing, and a lot more thinking, I was forced to conclude that, while Saeli and Mora’s environment limits their options some, it was not enough to realistically keep them from escaping. So…now what? How do I contain two magic users who have a very, very good reason to want to escape, now? (The nepthas on the fire effectively eliminates the weak but semi-plausible “oh, let’s just wait for Raphel, we don’t want to hurt these guys and they can’t do anything to us in the meantime” solution).

Then I remembered a chapter from the first draft, one I’d planned to eliminate, where Saeli and Mora are being guarded by a dark angelic that the spirit walkers had summoned. Random tidbit about Dheuan spirit walkers (that only I know): they have the ability to summon angelics, just like Verre anjahel. They can enter the spirit realm at will, after all. However, since their whole society is built around conversing with, learning from, and building relationships with angelics, summoning is very much a forbidden practice. It’d be like treating your teacher with respect, but ordering his children or servants around like animals; it just isn’t done.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that no one does it. As it happens, Othau and a few others have learned how in secret. So it would make sense that, faced with a couple of magic users that they need to subdue (but not hurt), they’d summon up an angelic as backup. I decided upon a marilith, since it’s 1) the only other dark angelic besides vrock that have been mentioned by name so far in the trilogy and 2) they are bigger, scarier, and much more intelligent than vrock. Inadvertently, this beings a whole new dimension of problems, because marilith are difficult to control. Mora senses, correctly, that the spirit walkers don’t really know what they are doing (or they would have chosen a more suitable angelic!), and thus, their control over the marilith they summon is tenuous.

Even the odds #3: Introduce a marilith.

And this finally does it. Because now Saeli and Mora cannot afford to do anything that is going to hurt or even distract the summoner, for fear of loosing the dark angelic from his control. Now they even have to worry about what will happen when Raphel does show up…because if he charges in with qi blazing, he could cause as much damage as either of the girls. Also, having a dark angelic around will give our other angelic friend Isharyel something to do besides stand there and be all wise and stuff.

So that was the process I went through, more or less, to make this scene work. I guess the lesson here is, when you have to put magical characters in a perilous situation, there are two things you can do. Introduce limits to their magic, and make the environment play to those limits. If that fails, introduce a second magical force to oppose them.


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