An Unfound Door, Chapter Seven

Fhiad leaves the court and walks through the halls of the castle as he reflects on the circumstances that have brought him to Faloren. Guerig, the king’s secretary and acting regent, enthusiastically granted Fhiad permission not only to study the castle, but also to live there while supposedly doing research on the building’s architecture. Fhiad curses himself for being drawn into a complicated situation, but he has few resources and fewer choices. As he wanders, Fhiad’s thoughts reveal that he did indeed once study architecture, and that Faloren Castle is an architectural monstrosity whose continued existence almost certainly relies on powerful magic.

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An Unfound Door is written in limited third-person perspective, and this is the first chapter that focuses on Fhiad. As the B Story character, Fhiad represents the “upside-down world” of Act Two, which begins when the A Story character’s status quo is disrupted. Fhiad is the catalyst for this disruption, but his arc is also a mirror of Agnes’s character development. Fhiad and Agnes ultimately want the same thing – the power to choose the direction of their own lives – but their initial motivations and goals are drastically different.

Fhiad may have told Agnes that he intends to destroy Faloren, but what he truly wants is to understand what happened to him. He’s suffering from severe trauma that he hasn’t been able to process, and he alternates between distraction and intense anger. He attempts to distract himself from his grief by tasking himself with a quest. Meanwhile, his anger has no outlet save for Agnes, who became his target simply because she’s the only living person he knows. Fhiad is doing his best to survive, but he’s a hot mess.

More than anything, this chapter establishes how and why Fhiad is now living in Faloren Castle. It also provides a second perspective on the characters and setting.

What the reader is able to see through Fhiad’s eyes are two things that Agnes takes for granted. First, Agnes is subtly shunned by the members of her court; and second, Faloren Castle is impossibly large and labyrinthine. These two observations help justify the “fun and games” portion of Act Two, which will involve Agnes and Fhiad hunting for a hidden relic. In other words, Fhiad’s observations hint that Agnes is free to search the castle precisely because she doesn’t have many social obligations, and that her search is going to be interesting because it isn’t going to be easy.

Something else Fhiad has noticed is that there’s something suspicious about Agnes’s cousin Galien. This is fair, as Galien is hiding a number of unpleasant secrets. Still, Galien is no more a villain than Fhiad is. An Unfound Door is a “gothic fantasy mystery,” which means that everyone has secrets. This is why, at this point in the story, the main task of the characters is to learn how to communicate with each other.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Six

The summer court opens with a celebration attended by the wealthy families and nobility of Faloren. After the ailing king retires for the evening, Agnes is introduced to Fhiad, who claims to be a university student from Cretia studying architecture. Fhiad has altered his appearance and accent, and he pretends not to recognize Agnes. Later, when Agnes escapes to a shadowy corner for a moment of quiet, Fhiad approaches her. He initially seems kind but quickly becomes cruel and insulting. He tells Agnes that his homeland of Erdbhein has been destroyed, and he declares his intention to take revenge by visiting the same ruin on Faloren.

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This chapter is the transition between Act One and Act Two. Fhiad, the B Story character, has returned, and he establishes himself as an antagonist. He states his goal to uncover Faloren’s magical artifact with the intention of destroying the kingdom. In Chapter Eight, Agnes will state her own intention to solve the problem he represents by opposing him. Fhiad’s anger is not the real problem, however, and this is the wrong solution.

It’s always bothered me when a villain is angry about something legitimately upsetting, but then the writer has them kick a puppy to show that this anger is bad. What I mean by “kicking a puppy” is that the villain will do something excessively violent or disturbing that is either entirely out of character or framed in such a way as to make their actions seem irrational and done solely for the sake of being evil.

A villain typically represents a challenge to an established order, especially an order built on arbitrary divisions that inform a strict hierarchy. In the case of fantasy especially, there is often a class of “monsters” who are sentient yet still positioned as being okay to kill. When a villain wants to establish an alternate power structure in which “monsters” are not killed, it’s only natural to wonder if they might not be justified in doing so. The villain must therefore be shown kicking a proverbial puppy so that we do not begin to feel sympathy for them. Based on my observations of various fandom discourse wars, a surprising number of people take this puppy kicking very seriously as an indication that a villain is irredeemably evil.

It’s important to me that Fhiad is portrayed as a legitimate antagonist, at least at first. In this chapter, he proves himself to be two-faced, manipulative, and more than a little creepy. He invades Agnes’s personal space, physically threatens her, and mocks and insults her. He verbally attacks her at a vulnerable moment, and he says horrible things that are all the more hurtful because they’re true. Even worse, he’s cruel to Agnes precisely because he knows she can do nothing to stop him. In addition, the curse laid on him is still active, and it’s implied that he may no longer be entirely human.

Still, the root cause of Agnes’s problem – the decline of her kingdom – is not Fhiad, nor is it anything he’s said or done in the past or the present. Rather, this problem is a direct result of a horrible atrocity committed in the past by Agnes’s ancestor. I therefore had to make sure that what Fhiad does at the beginning of Act Two is upsetting but doesn’t fall to the level of puppy kicking. In other words, I attempted to create tension by means of the antagonist’s bad behavior while still being fair to the complexity of his character and his experience of justified anger.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Five

After returning to Faloren Castle, Agnes rises early the next morning in order to attend to the correspondence that has accumulated in her absence. As she dresses herself, she reflects on how her mother’s charm and social graces seemed to slow the kingdom’s decline. Unfortunately, her father has done nothing to alleviate the grim atmosphere of the castle since the late queen’s death. Agnes proceeds to her study, a dilapidated yet still handsome room where she secludes herself to work until interrupted by her cousin Galien. Galien encourages her to open the summer court, and Agnes agrees. She believes that a large and lively celebration will be an appropriate symbolic marker of her vow to rejuvenate the kingdom.   

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This chapter is about Agnes’s comfortable existence in the status-quo world. It is indeed a very comfortable and cozy chapter, if I do say so myself. I enjoyed writing it, and I enjoyed reading it again as I made edits.

Aside from establishing the scene of the next chapter, which will be the opening of the summer court, not much happens here. As I wrote in my notes for the previous chapter, it’s important for the reader to understand why Agnes is willing to remain in the status quo.

It seems as though Agnes is doing good work and making good plans, but none of this actually means anything. An astute reader should be asking the questions that Agnes is aggressively ignoring: How did she get out in the woods on the border of Erdbhein? Where did the demon come from? Who kidnapped her? Was it someone in the castle? Are they still there?

Agnes needs to start asking herself these questions soon, because Fhiad is going to come back and cause trouble. For the time being, though, it’s nice to have a small interlude of peace.  

I recently read a Tumblr post (here) regarding how the Gothic genre is all about taking four pages to describe a staircase, and there’s a bit of that in this chapter. I want the reader to see and understand how run-down and decrepit Agnes’s castle is, and I want them to have an opportunity to enjoy this state of decay.

All of the chapters in this story have titles, by the way. I’m not sure if I’ll end up using them, but I especially like the title for this chapter: “A Slow and Silent Decay.”

An Unfound Door, Chapter Four

Agnes returns to Faloren Castle under the escort of her aide Myla, who had been searching for her. She immediately goes to see her father the king, who is bedridden from a lingering illness. She is met at the door to his chambers by her cousin Galien. Galien has conspired with Myla to hide Agnes’s abduction, and he informs her that it was he who sent the knight Caelif to her rescue. Without inquiring further, Agnes visits her father. He does not wake, and Agnes reflects on the decrepit state of the castle. She excuses herself and uses a discrete servant’s passage to visit the kitchen. The head of the castle’s staff, Taibh, gives her bread and wine and asks no questions.   

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This chapter presents the bleakness of the status-quo world to the reader. There are no people on the roads. The castle town is depopulated. The castle itself is a mess. The king is dying.

Fhiad parted ways with Agnes at some point before the start of the chapter, and she seems to take it for granted that he won’t find anyone in his home kingdom of Erdbhein. This presents a mystery. Why does she think this? What happened there? In Chapter Six, Agnes will explain what she understands about Erdbhein, but the truth is worse. Erdbhein has gone full Dark Souls, and it’s filled with ruin and blight and zombies.

In terms of the Save The Cat story structure, this chapter establishes the “debate” of the main character. Agnes thinks about how she wants to leave Faloren, but she feels that she can’t. In the next chapter, the reader will see that she takes comfort in routines, especially when these routines make her feel smart, powerful, and in control. She ends her debate with herself in this chapter by saying that she needs to concentrate on “work,” which she is obviously using as an excuse for not allowing herself to imagine an alternative to the shittiness of her current situation.

This debate makes a lot of sense to me personally, because I used to be the same as Agnes. I was driven by a need to be “productive,” and I was always working. Those routines made me happy at the time, but they weren’t sustainable. This is all the more true because the busyness distracted me from more important issues, namely, that there was something deeply wrong with my environment.

I had to go through this cycle a few times – and I got very, very good at it – before I realized what it was. I thought I could somehow fix things by simply working harder, and damn did I work hard. Realizing that the cycle itself was the problem was extremely liberating.

I’m not saying that we should all quit our jobs to live our best lives or whatever. Nobody has the money for that. Rather, I think it’s good to at least consider a shift in mindset, and it’s important to chill out and allow room for new ideas and new perspectives.

I also think it’s worth considering that some environments are just rotten. You can try to keep the lights on, but this requires a lot of effort and yields diminishing returns. Sometimes it’s better to allow things to decay.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Three

Early the next morning, Agnes tries to light the campfire with an intonation used by Fhiad the night before. She reflects on how the kingdom of Faloren was once renowned for its sorcery, and how the suppression of magic following the war with Erdbhein led to the king punishing her for her childhood gift for spellcraft. Fhiad wakes up during her attempt to kindle the bonfire, and he mocks her lack of success. Agnes acknowledges that his disdain is not undeserved, and her sincerity convinces him to share more of his story.

Fhiad says he was unsuited to be an emissary and left of his duties to his cousin Lukhara while he studied Faloren legends in the castle library. His interest in a magical relic called “the Eternal Tear of Soreiya” was encouraged by the princess, whom he accuses of manipulating him. He was imprisoned shortly after uncovering a map of its location under the castle, and he claims that he is unable to remember much of anything that happened since then. He tells Agnes that he wants nothing more than to leave the past behind him, and she makes the decision to free him from the silver bridle. They agree to part ways as soon as they leave the forest but end the chapter on friendly terms.

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This is the chapter in which the theme of the character development is stated: Agnes needs to break the chains of the past and move forward in a different direction.

This theme is mirrored by the story catalyst: Agnes breaks the magical silver chain binding Fhiad. She decides to trust what she sees for herself instead of believing what she’s read in books. By doing so, she nurtures the seeds of doubt regarding her kingdom that lay fallow while she was still in the castle. This act is a “catalyst” because Fhiad is going to come back and cause a lot of trouble in the near future. Also, Agnes will never be able to return to her old way of thinking – although she’ll certainly try.

I’ve been keeping the initial chapters short and punchy instead of dumping exposition on the reader’s head, but this chapter contains the basic setup of the world of the story. As Agnes makes accusations and Fhiad corrects her, the reader starts to understand Faloren’s history and Fhiad’s place in this history. This chapter also presents a tiny bit of mythology, as well as the first glimpse into what happened in the past to make the present so terrible.

In addition, Fhiad hints that the main villain of the story is the princess of his era. He’s right. This woman is the sleeper villain, and she’s awful (and I love her). Hopefully Agnes will be able to make a different decision when faced with the same choices.

It’s very clear to me that this story sounds like Legend of Zelda. In my first draft of this chapter, I complicated the plot to disguise its origins. I decided to simplify matters in this draft, as I think stories like this work precisely because they’re so archetypal. Also, I think my dystopian interpretation of the Legend of Zelda lore is so niche that very few people are going to understand where I’m getting these ideas. And besides, I like to think that my version of Princess Zelda’s story is much more interesting than anything that actually appears in the games, so hopefully no one will complain even if they do see the connection.

An Unfound Door, Chapter Two

Agnes wakes to find that the boar demon has transformed into a young man who identifies himself as Fhiad of Erdbhein, a notorious criminal who was accused of high treason after attacking Faloren a hundred years in the past. He is cultured and well-spoken, but he doesn’t hide his frustration with Agnes, who refuses to free him from the silver chain that bound him as a demon. He tells Agnes that he never had any intention of attacking Faloren. He claims to have had no interest in her kingdom at all; rather, he was only serving as an emissary because he was ordered to do so. Agnes doesn’t know what to think of him, but she’s exhausted and decides to stop for the night.

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This chapter is about two tired people snapping at each other. Nothing happens aside from the reveal that the demon was originally a person, but I did my best to establish the geography of the world and its history without dumping exposition on the reader.

This is what I want the reader to take away from this conversation: Agnes is from a kingdom called Faloren, Fhiad is from a neighboring kingdom called Erdbhein, and there is someplace called Cretia far to the south. Fhiad, who has no concept of how much time has passed, thinks he recently returned from university in Cretia. This establishes him as being in his early twenties while establishing Cretia as a center of culture in contrast to the forest, which is all we’ve seen of Faloren. According to Agnes, Erdbhein attacked Faloren roughly a hundred years ago, and Fhiad supposedly instigated this attack. Fhiad denies this, but he won’t be forthcoming with more details until the next chapter.

In other words, this chapter establishes the broader conflict of the story through the small conflict between Agnes and Fhiad. This conversation sets up a dynamic of Agnes as the straight man who is pragmatic and emotionally grounded, while Fhiad is the funny man who is well-spoken but catty. Each character gets a “save the cat” moment during which, despite their bickering, their first instinct is to be kind to one another when it counts.

“Bickering” may sound like an inappropriate response to the situation, and it is. In the next chapter, the characters will have an opportunity to reflect on their circumstances, and the more serious aspects of the central conflict will be revealed and discussed with a more appropriate tone.

As an aside, there are a lot of shitty things about being in your twenties, but one of the nicer things is being physically fit by default and being able to walk for miles without thinking too much about it. For me in my thirties, I exercise every day but can still only walk for about 45 minutes before I need to sit down. Youth is wasted on the young etc etc etc.