Chapter 1

Chapter 1

A Chapter by Ethan Jobalia

He had been told there was an end. He had been told when he walked in that, while it may not have been likely, he still may have come out the other side. He had been told many things, but seemingly now none of them were true. He stood now, the doorway and his past behind him, only able to look ahead. He took a forlorn gulp of the warm dry air. As the doors closed, massive fifty foot metal behemoths yards deep, he heard the last sound from the outside he would hear in a long time - the chirp of a bird. A light song that floated on the breeze. His mind moved on quickly.

Squinting to adjust his eyes to the darkness, Santiago found the doors the least impressive part of the room before him. From the outside the house, could one even call it that, seemed to be impossibly large as if built by humans taller than an elephant. The house seemed to recede into the mountain, the largest known at the time, and extend to god knows what depths and wonders. The inside dwarfed this idea. From the inside it was amazing to think that even the mountain could contain all of this.

Up was the first direction Santiago looked. The vaulted ceilings, carved into an ornate cathedral styling, were launched hundreds of feet above Santiago’s head, but still each fresco and mosaic was large enough to see clearly from the ground. They must have been hundreds of feet across themselves. They depicted images of Gods and Goddesses, wars and famines, poetry and song, and all of the depths of human emotions that could not possibly have been captured in dialogue. Santiago felt each picture as his eyes scanned the sky, for a sky it was in its own right, and at each picture he rested a moment and thought of nothing else but what lay clear before him. Then as quick as it came on the novelty would wear off and all the familiar questions of “what is this place?” “Who built it?” and “Where did they go?” would come rushing back.

Scanning now towards the horizon before him, he almost felt a hesitance to look ahead. What would he see that could possibly lie in wait, where the face was meant to be directed? If the ceiling alone held so much power and authority, what would there be that could possibly triumph that? Instead, Santiago dragged his eyes back towards where he had come. As his eyes then head then body turned towards the massive doors, they scanned the walls. The room was dark, that had been sure, but there almost lied a pitch black between him and the walls of this mausoleum. They were distant and looming, but still present and ominous, as that of a volcano hovering over a city making its decision whether to let the town live another day. There was no such danger in these walls but just as much weight seemed placed on their shoulders.

The walls themselves were gray stone and plain, with lightly beveled arches carved into them. Each one, as with everything else surrounding Santiago, was large beyond imagination. The arches rounded off into long rectangles that extended far into the blackness below, a blackness that Santiago just discovered. There was no floor in most of this room, but only a thin strip of land that Santiago was standing on. It was too dark to see ahead on the path any supports under it, or even to really see much of anything, but from what he could make out there was only this to walk on, and it only went straight ahead.

Almost in stark contrast to everything else this path stood. A lone gray walkway cobbled with worn stone and weathered almost to gravel plodded its way forward in as straight a line as it could make through the black. This was no massive structure or looming bridge, but only wide enough for about two people to walk side by side on. It did not fit in with the grandiose and overbearing style of the rest of the room, yet somehow it also did not seem out of place in the slightest. Almost a yin of peace and smallness to the yang of the entryway of the mountain.

His eyes now following the path, Santiago now came to be looking straight ahead. Throughout the ascent of his eyes dread grew. He took his time studying each individual ground down rock paved into the path below until, as his eyes scanned away from his body, the individual stones ceased to be visible, and he instead took to investigating the path as a whole. Finally he made it to the horizontal and what he saw both soothed his nerves and made him fear more than he had been.

The path ahead simply faded into darkness. There was no visible end to this hallway. This settled him in allowing him to put off that end and what he may find, but also disheartened him. It was only about minute one of the journey and he was already facing the total unknown blackness. It could go on forever, but also it could end just out of sight. There was no way to be sure. The light itself did not radiate very far from the two brasiers that sat adjacent to Santiago, and, seeing no further light ahead, he thought it prudent to light his torch in the brazier rather than using up one of his matches.

It really made no difference to Santiago whether or not he used a match up, because there was no shortage. This was not because he had enough matches to last the entire trip, not nearly, but because the trip was supposed to be a lifelong one, and as such Santiago had been given all the essentials needed to be self sufficient in a place such as this. This made his pack heavy, but almost everything within it was necessary for traveling. As for matches, he had a few to start him off, but after he made his first base camp he would have to rely on twigs from the trees he brought with him.

Santiago walked ahead with his torch lighting the air around him. It was a dry atmosphere as if all the air in the room had the life sucked out of it. He felt the heat of the glowing torch beat slowly and constantly against his cheek. Walking ahead he awaited the arrival of the end of the bridge with each step. Without realizing it Santiago had slipped into almost a trance of pondering. He strode forward in long easy steps as if he had walked the path many times before.

He thought long and hard about his journey, and how he may never complete it. Had anyone completed it before him? Had anyone stood where he stood in the hundred or so generations since his town was established? Was the mountain even there then? These thoughts repeatedly bounced back and forth in his head to the point of battering his skull and giving him a headache. Santiago decided he should probably just focus on the road, after all, this was most likely the only thing he would have to focus on for many years ahead.

“It must’ve been done before,” Santiago stopped suddenly, “or else how would they know how long the trip was? How would they know what to send me with? How would they know the perils that lie ahead?”

Almost in answer the right side of his brain seemed to say, “Calm, friend, for there is a long road ahead, and you cannot afford to weary yourself now. They may not have known, but it is clear to any who look upon the mountain that the road through is perilous and long. The road around is near impassible in one lifetime, and why should the road through be any shorter? It may wind and twist and fall and rise and meander its way ever closer to the other side, that proverbial greener grass, but always stop short just at the outer wall. Be still, friend, and you shall find answers on the road.” He felt calmed by the wordless sentiments of his brain, his only company. 

It was at this point that a glimmer of hope sparked up in him. Not a glimmer because of any internal monologue or thought that creeped into his head, but one that came on from a sight. A light at the end of the tunnel. A doorway, so it seemed, had appeared far off. Santiago had been walking for only about fifteen minutes now, but to see a light that emanated from beyond the five foot sphere of heat that came from his torch was almost a promise of hope. There was something. His life was not condemned to years of walking this same pathway. Moreso, where there was fire there was someone to light it - hopefully. The air was particularly dry and musty in this ancient hall, and he was not sure what kind of magic resided within these halls.

Magic had long since become superstition in Santiago’s little village of Thream. Every so often a magic man would pass through, perform some minor illusions, entertain some passersby, and walk away with more than his fair share of gold. It was clear, however, that men such as this did not possess any real magic, if magic was real at all. Here, Santiago was not so sure. Something about the way the braziers had been lit when he walked in, as well as something about the mosaics, which he only caught a glimpse of when the light from his torch reflected off of the glass tiles just right every so often, told him that things here may be plausible that would not be plausible elsewhere.

Santiago, on thinking about his hometown, was brought to a vivid flashback to the point of almost reliving his childhood years. Perhaps it was the darkness, perhaps the warm dry air, or perhaps that same unseen force that kept the braziers lit. He saw from his own eyes as a child running with his friend Ibrahim and coming to a stop in front of the massive gates - gates he had stared up at all his life and now stood on the other side of. He saw once again the way they set into the mountain creating almost a jarring border between the rough hewn rock that jagged across the face of the mountain and the smooth masonry of the door with intricate carvings along the outer edge. The doors stood almost feet tall at the center and bowed out from a point at the top where the two doors met until at the bottom they reached . He heard Ibrahim call out to him. “Whatd’ya thinks behind these doors?” They were around eight at the time.

“I don’t know Abe, but I don’t think I want to find out.” Santiago spoke without moving his lips. He wanted to shout back to Abe, “Loneliness! Eternity! Nothing!” But the words that he was supposed to say, that he had said, were the ones that instead passed through anyway.

“One of these days Santi, we’re gonna explore the cave together. Fight the giants that built it and claim it as our own.” Ibrahim came into view with a wide smile on his face. He was a short skinny boy, with darkened peach skin. He wore a ragged shirt and shorts not for lack of money, but because he was so lost in adventure he ruined his clothes before he had time to get new ones. His gap tooth smile had always been especially entertaining for Santiago to look at. Not in a condescending way, it was just in a strange way aesthetically pleasing. His eyes held everything and behind them his mind held even more. Each sentence was a world in that mind, and only a microcosm of what he could have been thinking ever escaped his lips. Ibrahim had been the best friend a man could ask for, and Santiago knew it from the start.

Time moved on. A few years passed in the blink of an eye. Santiago was again standing in front of these grand stone doors, so close to where he stood now, but a lifetime a way if he were to try to make his way back there. He heard a voice to his side, this time more mature, slightly lower, but still with the same tenor and vibrato. Ibrahim. The voice was also out of breath. “You always act... so scared of this place... yet every time we race… you win and we end up… here.”

“I’m not scared, I’m just not crazy enough to go inside… unlike SOME people…” Santiago’s unwitting pubescent voice panted back. He knew now he must’ve been crazy, but then again, how could he call himself crazy when he was living Abe’s dream, almost carrying Abe with him.

“You can say what you want, Santi, but I know the truth.” He tapped the side of his nose twice with his index finger and snorted a chuckle, a habit he had picked up from a wandering merchant who had stayed in town the previous year. Ibrahim had loved that man like a father, having no father of his own, and had been devastated when he left. The merchant had to leave, though, as merchants do. Their job is the wind and they can only push up against a rock for so long before they blow by it. He passed out of town and Ibrahim’s life, and if he would ever be seen again was as chance as the same drop of rain falling again on one roof.

The merchants in Thream were few and far between. It was not that Thream was a poor town by any means, but was one mostly self-sufficient and one that had little to offer the outside world. Situated in a bit of a cradle between a large mountain range on one side and a vast desert on the other, separated only by a thin blue band that wove its way from one corner of the crescent formed by this region of the mountain range to the other corner of the crescent known as the Daltrava River. This river was fed by runoff from the mountains in the East, while in the West it formed a small lake buried within the mountains. This created a small strip of green across the barren and rocky land to the South that nestled up against the mountains in the North. It was along this strip that Thream was settled many generations ago for reasons lost to history.
The mountain Santiago was inside now, and the one that kept recurring in his vision, was the largest of the lot, and extended back to an unknown point in space out of sight of the village. It’s face held the door previously described, and within the town it had always been surrounded by myth. Built by seeming giants, for even the blocks were larger than a man, but still there were details of lattice work along the side of the doors so intricate even most people in the village could not have achieved them. Within the doors, unknown treasures lied. Unknown treasures, that was, and unknown dangers. Legends told that the mountain was empty, but even still, no one knew what was within it or what was on the other side. Santiago indeed had been the first in many generations to even pass the threshold.

This threshold he now viewed again, although almost with new eyes. It was not, in fact, the eyes themselves that had changed, but the mind behind them. Santiago recognized his six year old self, only two years prior to this in fact to the day. This was his sixteenth birthday and he and Ibrahim were once again at the gates. A sharp pang of sadness rang through Santiago’s body. He had been far enough removed from the other Ibrahims, the younger ones of his memories that were playing out vividly before his eyes, to stave off any sense of loss or familiarity. Those had been children, not the same people that exist now. Here, however, was undeniably Ibrahim in almost the full form of when Santiago last saw him. He knew nothing of what was to come, neither did. Santiago watched his life play out again before his eyes.

“Do you ever wonder what lies beyond the mountain Santi?” Ibrahim’s voice was significantly lower than it had been.

“Every time we wind up here you ask me that. Isn’t there enough in this town to satisfy you?” Santiago remembered the response well.

“This town is a seed, and from it everything that I have known grows. There are entire fields out there waiting to be discovered. Fields I may never know about, and to me that’s the saddest thing I could possibly think of.” Ibrahim responded quietly. He looked down for a time, and all was quiet. There was no need for words. All that was being said had been said before, and both knew exactly where the other stood. After a time Santiago sat on the green Earth, feeling the grass between his bare toes. He looked up at the sky and thought how nice the day was. He had been sure at the time that Ibrahim felt as he did, glad to be alive and in the presence of a friend, simply experiencing life as it passed over him, but watching this memory again he noticed something he did not before. He noticed within Ibrahim a sense of doubt, longing almost. After a time it passed and Ibrahim sat down as well.

“Where to next, Abe?” Santiago said as the memory drifted away before his eyes. He was left with nothing. The bright verdant greens and soft sky blues filled with wispy white clouds slowly melted away into the dull grays and blacks of the dimly lit pathway surrounded by the black of the untamed darkness, unhindered by any bridles of light to halt it’s advance or any whip cracks of fire to repel it from the unwitting innocents passing through its monstrous jaws.

Santiago also noticed that he had advanced considerably, and must have been walking along this path the entire time. He wondered what had just happened, and whether the corridor itself had put him into such a trance or whether he had simply been daydreaming and the lack of light allowed him a deeper experience. Either way, he was now back in the present, walking down a bleak corridor to a probably bleaker future. Everything seemed so lost all of a sudden, but then again, he had nothing left outside so he might as well press on. Should he get lost and die it may have been the same either way, or it may alter the course of both Thream and whatever may lay on the other side of the mountain. He was close to the braziers. What he would find once he made it he was unsure.

After about another fifteen minutes of walking surrounded by the chasm, Santiago finally made it to the end of the bridge. It looked exactly as the entrance of the bridge had looked, except this time instead of looming doors bearing down on him, Santiago found a small entry port. Small here was a relative term as it was about the height of a normal door, and looked similar to a cave entrance battered into the rock by whatever forces, natural or otherwise, may be present in this grand hall. Santiago looked back to find nothing but darkness behind him. Above him immediately was barely visible the mosaics on the ceiling, and as he looked around he noticed the path that he had been walking for the last few hours was slightly angled down. While this was only a few degrees, over the course of the walk that had been enough to drop his altitude considerably. If he squinted he could see the tiny pin pricks of light that were the braziers on the other side of the bridge, but they were so small and close together that they seemingly danced back and forth melting one into the other then back again, as things tend to do when obscured by darkness.

Looking forward now again Santiago took stock of himself. He seemed to be holding up fairly well and while it was a bit chilly, most likely a symptom of the altitude change and going deeper into the mountain, the air still held its dry constant tone on his breath. He took a few steps forward and looked at the entryway. He did not look through yet and, in fact, avoided looking through for fear of what he might find. He instead simply traced his eyes along the edge of the doorway and the surrounding wall, gray as the others, beveled with large shallow arches as the others. Santiago closed his eyes, sucked in a deep breath, and stepped forward through the portal. He had made it through the first room.

© 2020 Ethan Jobalia

My Review

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• A new writer just looking to improve my work

Improve? How? Damn few people on sites like this have sold their work to a publisher. So we know, going in, that they can’t help you write like the pros—which is your goal, right? Follow their advice to the letter and you’ll match their success. This is a place to get reaction, not advice. And even there, ask a hopeful writer about a piece of your writing and the natural inclination is usually, to say, in effect, “stop writing like you and write more like me.”

Here’s the thing. At the moment, you’re a victim of what I call, The Great Misunderstanding: Because you worked so hard on learning to write, and no one told you that all those reports and essays taught you nothing about the techniques of fiction, you naturally assumed that writing is writing, and that the word, “writing” that's part of the name of the profession, Fiction-Writing, refers to that skill. But it doesn’t.

Why? Because professional knowledge and skills are acquired IN ADDITION to the general skills we’re given in school. So if you want to improve your writing, there’s where you need to go.

Right now, you’re being fooled by a trap that’s inherent to the nonfiction, outside-in approach. When you read your own work back, because you already know the characters and their backstory, the setting, and what’s going on, it makes perfect sense. Added to that, you hear the emotion you intended to be in the narrator’s voice. The reader, though, gets only what you’ll hear if you have your computer read it to you (a great editing technique you should be using, now). They know nothing about the situation or the characters, and have understanding based only what the words suggest to THEM, based on their background, not your intent. Look at how different the story is to a reader if we view it from their chair rather than yours:

• He had been told there was an end.

An unknown, “he,” who lives at an unknown time and location, and who could be 9 or 90, was told by unknown people that something unknown had either ended, or would have an end.

What can a reader say in response but, “Huh?” They have context for nothing. Will it become clear, later? Who cares? You can’t retroactively remove confusion. Nor is there a second first-impression. Of course when you read it, you know who “he” is, and what has an end.

But back up and look at the critical words, “He had been told.” That’s a report, not him being told. If it matters to the story, take Mark Twain’s advice: “Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”

• He had been told when he walked in that, while it may not have been likely, he still may have come out the other side.

When he walked in? Walked in where? "The other side? Of what? And since we don’t know the smallest thing about the situation or the people, how do we know what is, or isn’t likely?

See what’s happening? Because it’s you talking, not him living, you don’t include what seems obvious to you, but which the reader needs if they’re to make sense of it.

It’s not a matter of how well you write, your talent, or even the story. It’s that you can’t fix what you don’t see as being a problem. And at the moment, you’re thinking in terms of the events being the “story.’ But story, when presented via the printed word, isn’t in the events, it’s in the protagonist’s reaction to them. As E. L. Doctorow put it: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” But...the moment you say, “He had been told,” you place the reader with you, not on the scene living the story. But without knowing HOW to place the reader into the story, all the enthusiasm, all the good intentions, and all the rewrites you may do leave you in the situation Mark Twain outlined with, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Some of the problems will seem obvious once pointed out. For example, take the line, “Up was the first direction Santiago looked.” That’s you telling the reader that up is a direction. But in his viewpoint, in the moment he calls “now,” it’s: “He looked up.” Three words replace seven, and it’s him doing it, not you talking about it.

Next, you say, “The vaulted ceilings, carved into an ornate cathedral styling, were launched hundreds of feet above Santiago’s head, but still each fresco and mosaic was large enough to see clearly from the ground.” That’s your opinion, not his observation. After all, he’s focused on where he’s going, so he may see and be impressed by the crap above him, but it’s irrelevant to his mission. You may be impressed by grandeur for a time, but after a while it, “Oh boy, another magnificent room. Who cares?”

And of critical importance, telling the reader about the things they would see were they there doesn’t make that reader see it. Ours is not a visual medium, so talking about things that the reader can't see just slows the action to a crawl. So focus on what matters to our hero enough to react to, not what can be seen. And let him react instead of you telling us he did.

As a side issue I had to comment that had you thought his through, as him you’d have seen a few teeny issues:

He’s supplied for a lifetime of roaming? Seriously? That’s a LOT of toilet paper to put in one pack. He would react to his pack being the size of a dirigible. And as someone who’s been camping a time or two, carrying enough calories to last a single week makes for a heavy pack, and careful planning. For a lifetime? No way. You can’t just assign things, you have to mentally live the scene as him to notice such things, and solve them. Unless you place yourself into his persona, in real time, and live through the events—as him—you’ll do things like this and never notice the problem. For why that matters so much, you might want to read this article:

So, on to more important things, like how to fix the problem and become a rich and famous author.

First, you need to understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction writing, and why it must be different. For an idea of that I suggest you check a few of the articles in my WordPress writing blog (link at the bottom of this) There’s a lot to it, and all of it matters. To see the things I talk about, in use, and to see if I know what I’m talking about, there are a few short stories there as demonstration pieces.

And if the articles make sense, pick up the book that most of them are based on, at the link below this paragraph. It’s the best I’ve found, and it the book that resulted in my first sale. I wish you the same.

So…I know you were hoping for at least a, “Hey, great story idea,” but I don’t, in general comment on the plots because a great writer can take a lousy plot and make you keep turning pages, while someone who has yet to learn the craft of the profession will take the best plot ever conceived and write something that’s rejected on page one.

But I will say this: You write better, now, than the majority of hopeful writers. Use the skills of the profession with that skill, and who knows?

So have at it. And while you do, hang in there, and keep on writing.

Jay Greenstein

Posted 10 Months Ago

Santiago x ibrahim! My otp!

Posted 10 Months Ago


Posted 10 Months Ago

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3 Reviews
Added on December 5, 2020
Last Updated on December 5, 2020


Ethan Jobalia
Ethan Jobalia


A new writer just looking to improve my work more..