Brave New Year

I haven’t written an actual blog entry in a while, so like many others, I figured the end of 2014 was as good an occasion as any to reflect on the year and set some thoughts to digital page. 2014 was a big year, full of some of the most important moments in my life thus far. Here are a few.

I got married to my best friend, Cassie, at an awesome ceremony in April! We celebrated together like we never have before and I expect it will go down in our memories as one of the most joyous times of our lives. It was simply a perfect event and whatever I could write here would fail to communicate my deep gratitude toward all of the family, friends, and staff that helped make our wedding truly special. Cassie is my most stalwart supporter, my source of endless love and confidence, and I am thrilled to now be able to call her my wife.

I started a podcast! A Knight Adrift has become so important to me personally that it’s difficult to explain without getting choked up. I’ve long struggled to find something like it – an artistic project I love enough to see it through to the end; that resonates not just with me, but that I think could inspire others. A Knight Adrift has given me personal purpose not just as a writer or storyteller, but as a person. It's the fairy tale I would have wanted to hear when I was a kid (and still do now).

Nothing is perfect, some of my work so far is a little shoddy, and I still have SO MUCH to learn about what the hell I’m doing here, but the characters and world of A Knight Adrift have so many stories to tell that I’ve never been more excited for a creative endeavor. My visual concept of Aveline alone has come a long way in a year. She started as a doodle and has grown into a full-fledged character!

Between the imagining, the writing, the recording, the editing, the art, the marketing, and more, I’ve hurled myself head-first into something that’s at times overwhelming, but so, so satisfying. I recorded over four hours of audio between 11 episodes and managed to develop a bit of a following.

I made podcasting friends whose work I love and have been honored to use in my own. I entered a competition and made it pretty far for a newbie. And I shook hands with one of my creative inspirations and idols in the form of Cecil Baldwin from Welcome to Night Vale. More importantly though, I have planned a tremendous amount for Aveline and her story in 2015 and I hope you stick around to join me on that journey.

I wrote several short stories as gifts for my friends! In case it wasn't clear: this year has been one of tremendous learning. Creating A Knight Adrift was not only a personal revelation in terms of fulfilling my own creative desires, but also in terms of clarifying for me just how important the love of friends truly is. The simple truth is that I still have very far to go, but I would not have made it even this far without the support of those closest to me. These short stories have been my way of saying "thank you for the inspiration," and I hope you've enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them.

From Cassie, I’ve received unending encouragement and a light in the dark. In Matt I’ve found a collaborator (go read his supplement stories and his personal work), much-needed critic, and kindred storyteller. From Meghan, Lindsay, and Oz I’ve received tremendous support, approval, and enthusiasm. From my brother, Brendan, I got a piece of art that opened up my ideas about broader collaboration. From Jaclyn I received a gift of a painting that reminded me darkness can be beautiful. From Feras I was given an awesome piece of art, an abundance of energy, and an assurance that it’s alright to be proud of your work.

I could seriously go on and on. And if I didn't mention you here or yet write you a story as thanks for being awesome, please know that A Knight Adrift would not exist without you. You likely don't even know how important you have been to me, but there's a good chance that a conversation we've had or personality trait of yours has somehow influenced or made its way into the world of Valerius. I'll refrain from mentioning which of you inspire the evil bits.

Anyway, enough of my sappy ramblings. Thank you for listening, reading, looking. Time to move with purpose into 2015... Aveline and I will see you there.


A Birthday Story - Saturn's Messengers

Another good friend’s birthday is upon me and I have to admit, this one’s story is a little more involved than the rest I’ve done. To explain: we haven’t always been close, but over the years Lindsay’s become one of my oldest and most beloved acquaintances. She’s also been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my A Knight Adrift project, going out of her way to give it a tremendous amount of (probably undue) attention despite my repeatedly assuring her there is no obligation. So, I felt this one had to be something special.

With her husband, Chris, Lindsay has a very young daughter (one year old at this point, I think) named Nora. To even someone like me, who generally dislikes children and especially babies, Nora is as charming as they come: almost always grinning, laughing, and in good cheer… So, I decided to look into Nora’s (fantastical) future and tell a story that like the others I’ve done incorporates some of Lindsay’s favorite things: Nora, Latin (she is now a teacher of the subject), and… Claudius, Emperor of Rome.

You’re probably wondering about that last bit, which is understandable for sure. I can’t say I totally get it myself, but Lindsay's fascinated by the remarkably tragic-yet-mysterious historical figure. Claudius was ill-regarded by his contemporaries, but has grown into something of a mythic character in modern literature and film, which is best exemplified by I, Claudius: a book written in the 1930’s that was later adapted into a 1976 BBC television series. Like many of Rome’s emperors, Claudius’s story is pretty nuts, very dramatic, and extremely entertaining, if you have a chance to check it out.

Anyway, I’ve been rambling too long and giving too much away. For reference, the "Clavdivs" spelling is a running joke. Enjoy the story! 

The Roman God, Saturnus

The Roman God, Saturnus

“Mom! Mom! You gotta see this! Your gift’s complete!” Nora shouted as she dashed into the kitchen. Her 16-year-old grin was broad, her blue eyes were shining with obvious elation. Below a tousled mess of golden hair, Nora’s face was smudged with motor oil and grease.

“What exactly are you doing down there?” Lindsay asked her daughter. The lights flickered overhead, as they had been for hours already. An apprehensive chill of fear shot up her spine. Finally, the bulbs dimmed and then were extinguished, their energy sapped by whatever Nora had concocted a floor below. A mechanical roar vibrated the tiles beneath her feet. “Let me guess: another experiment? I thought we made it clear after the fire that you’d take those out to the workshop. Your father built it for you – you should use it!”

“I know, I know. Right, I got it. But I needed to be close to the junction box in the basement,” Nora explained. From a pocket of her coveralls, she pulled a dirty hand towel and wiped her face, further smearing the grime there. “It’s your birthday, so I wanted to make you something special. You’re up here just reading a book. Nice celebration. Could you be any more boring? Come on, just come downstairs and see?”

Nora clasped her hands in supplication and peered at her mother with the sad eyes of a desperate child who knows too well how to get what she wants. Lindsay laughed out loud at the ploy, but threw her hands up in defeat. Not for the first time she wondered if her daughter would be her death.

“Alright! Alright. You got me. Let’s go see what you’ve got,” Lindsay said. Nora hopped as high as her heavy work boots would allow, then dashed from the kitchen toward the basement stairs. She raced ahead of her mother, eager to introduce whatever the mysterious gift was.

“Close your eyes! It’s a surprise!” Nora shouted back up the stairs as Lindsay approached the threshold.

“So you got me a broken leg for my birthday? Great,” Lindsay remarked sarcastically. Hearing her daughter’s exasperated sigh from below, she closed her eyes and started down the basement steps. Nora’s machine was louder now; its mechanical whirring stirred the air, which felt electrified and light. As she descended the steps, Lindsay could feel strands of hair rising from atop her head. “Nora, I hope for your sake this isn’t dangerous.”

“It’s fine! Don’t worry! Just get down here!” Lindsay stepped off the last of the stairs and held out a hand. Nora grabbed it, enthusiastically pulling her mother toward the center of the room. “Alright. Now, don’t open your eyes until I say the word! Wait here a sec.”

Nora let go of her mother’s hand to tinker with some tool or device. Lindsay could hear her daughter muttering to herself in grumbling frustration, then thrilled understanding. The mechanical whirring grew louder and louder, the air more charged with energy, until a faint click triggered some part of the birthday apparatus and all went quiet. Only the low hum of electricity filled the echoing space below the house.

“OK! Now get ready. On the count of three, open those peepers! One… Two…. Three! Happy birthday!” Nora cheered. As Lindsay opened her eyes, Nora threw up her arms and gestured toward an elaborate technological marvel. In the center of the basement stood a flat circle of space, ringed by a frame of metal and indecipherable instruments. The circle pulsed blue and white and swirled like a whirlpool of energy. Lindsay was unsure what to make of the gift. Whatever the thing was, it looked as if it had been conjured by her daughter out of a science fiction movie. For her part, Nora stood beside the machine, a smiling beacon of pride and joy.

“Um… It looks cool! What… Uh, what is this, Nora?” Lindsay asked, afraid to step closer toward the alien object.

“Oh, come on. A time machine, obviously!” The young inventor revealed, as if her explanation was self-evident. “Happy birthday, mom! Look, I’ve already perfected it. These gloves, we each get one. They anchor us to this time while we travel! Here, put one on.”

Nora held out a strange gauntlet to her mother. From what Lindsay could tell, the thing was little more than a mess of circuitry soldered to one of her husband’s gardening gloves. Lindsay frowned.

“This is all a bit much…”

“Here we go!” Nora shouted, baring her teeth in an indomitable grin. She grabbed her mother’s hand and dove toward the time machine. Without another word, Lindsay and Nora were swept into the crackling portal.

* * *

The Roman Emperor, Claudius

The Roman Emperor, Claudius

After a time, Lindsay opened her eyes. Mother and daughter awoke side-by-side on a cold stone floor, surrounded by tall marble columns. Below an immense statue of a naked man wielding a scythe, a group of much smaller, toga-clad men stood motionless and watched the time travelers in awe. Each of the mens' faces appeared frozen by shock and horror, the tablets and styli limp in their hands.

“Nora, where are we? This looks like a…” Lindsay asked. A note of trepidation and panic crept into her voice. 

Before Nora could answer, a gang of men wearing sculpted armor and carrying short javelins filed into the temple. The shining helms framing their grim faces bore elaborate plumage and horse hair above the brass and silver plate. Behind each a cloak of red snapped on an early morning breeze. Nora gasped in surprise and huddled close to her mother. 

“Confuto!” One of the men shouted at Lindsay. He raised a hand abruptly, then lowered it, and with the motion the soldiers’ spears pointed toward the strange interlopers. Lindsay gasped in surprise.

“Are they speaking… Italian? No! Latin? Nora, where are we?” Lindsay asked, now with increasingly urgency. It was obvious the time-displaced travelers were trespassing where they ought not to be. Visions of imminent violence flashed before her eyes. Her daughter would be the death of her after all.

“I don’t know, I programmed it for Rome! 46 AD,” Nora muttered. She tinkered with her gauntlet and confirmed her estimation. “Yes, it’s Rome, 46 AD. The reign of Clavdivs as emperor, I think. It was supposed to be a gift - I’m sorry!”

“Clavdivs!” Lindsay pronounced. Her mind was reeling. She could hardly believe this was happening. And on her birthday no less! The collection of noblemen and soldiers around her looked on in dismay and skepticism. Slowly the soldiers moved in upon their quarry. “Praetorian! Exspecto!” 

Lindsay held up her hand, feeling for a moment like a wizard. The words seemed to have some effect on the hard-faced men and with a sign from their commander, they paused in their advance. They looked on silently, waiting to hear more before executing the criminals. Lindsay thought fast. If this place was a temple, who was the god towering over them? She looked back over her shoulder toward the tall, bearded man carrying a scythe and a flash of recognition lit up her mind. The statue was that of Saturn; god of wealth, of renewal, of time. And this place, it must have been a temple devoted to the deity. The Temple of Saturn was famous even in her time, but in Rome it was the Senate’s Treasury. Of course! The guards here thought Lindsay and Nora to be bank robbers. But why the Preatorian guard? They only accompanied...

Lindsay yelped in equal parts dread and joy, certain hers and Nora’s lives depended on the next few seconds. She thought for a moment, took a deep breath, and addressed the crowd of soldiers in Latin with as authentic an accent she could manage (though it sounded slightly Scottish). 

“Wait, please. We are but messengers of Saturn. We have been sent from on high by that great deity. We seek an audience with your emperor, Clavdivs. We must speak of grave matters,” Lindsay announced. 

“E pluribus unum…?” Nora offered sheepishly. Lindsay glared at her daughter.

“Grave matters? Messengers of Saturn?” A voice arose from behind the spear-wielding guards and a look of surprise spread quickly through their ranks. From between the soldiers stepped a middle-aged man of unremarkable appearance. He put a hand to the shoulder of the Praetorian commander and with a sign the soldiers stepped back. “Then surely that would explain why you interrupted my inspection of this wretched treasury that so dishonors your master’s grandeur. We are, all of us, but humble servants of that time-crafting deity. I am Clavdivs, Emperor of Rome. How may I serve my celestial guests?”

The emperor bowed toward Lindsay and Nora, who stood stunned in amazement. Clavdivs adjusted his toga, which appeared far too large for his small, stocky frame. Lindsay shook her head and snapped her hanging mouth closed as she struggled to process everything the emperor's presence and everything he had said. Unable to comprehend any of the Latin, Nora looked around her, taking in what she could of the ancient temple, the clothes, and the armor. Her eyes were wide in wonder and curiosity, the machinery of her mind committing each detail to memory. Lindsay cleared her throat and attempted a response.

“Yes, um… Saturn wishes… to help the emperor become a better emperor! With the guidance of the gods, you can usher in a new era or prosperity!” Lindsay gestured toward the heavens and smiled. She looked at Clavdivs, trying to gauge the effect of her words. Clavdivs followed her gaze up to the ceiling, then returned to Lindsay and smirked.

“How long do you have? Such a task could take decades. I have acquired so many enemies and they daily grow ever closer,” Clavdivs chuckled. 

“Hey, when the hell can we get out of here?” Lindsay elbowed her daughter, then turned to Nora and frantically asked in English. Nora shrugged and tapped a button on her gauntlet. 

“I programmed the thing to retrieve us in 12 hours, so yeah. Um, half a day from now, I guess. Mom, I’m—“ Nora lowered her eyes as her mother put a gentle hand on her daughter’s head. 

“It’s fine. This is fun! Sort of…” Lindsay turned back to Clavdivs, who peered at Lindsay and Nora, fascinated by their speech. Lindsay gestured skyward again, then added in Latin, “We have less than a half a day here before we must return… to the heavens!” 

“Well, I must admit, you have excellent timing. After this inspection I intend to retreat from Rome to the country for a time. Would you do me the honor of joining me this evening? I desire greatly to hear your wisdom and you may as well enjoy the clean Roman air while you can,” Clavdivs said. With those words, he glanced sidelong out of narrowing eyes at the gawking faces of the bankers around him, as if he were not inclined to trust them. 

Shocked by this gesture, the bankers fled the scene and retreated to the inner chambers of the temple to count their coin. Lindsay breathed a sigh of relief, thrilled the threat of immediate danger had passed. 

“We would be honored,” Lindsay said. She bowed deeply, then smacked Nora to join her. The young inventor threw her head toward the ground and almost toppled over. Lindsay shook her head in dismay.

* * *

“So, my lovely messengers, what can Clavdivs do for great Saturn?” The emperor reclined on a long chaise and gestured for Lindsay and Nora to take their seats across from him. Throughout the expansive villa, his guests cheered and danced. Strings were plucked and candles lit; fragrant wine poured and steaming meat sliced. A server approached Clavdivs with a silver goblet and presented it with head bowed. The emperor looked at the cup, then raised a hand in refusal. “Not that one, no. It’s got elephants drawn all over it!”

Embarrassed, the servant retreated to find a more suitable goblet. Lindsay tried to stifle a laugh, but was unsuccessful. She still found it difficult to believe what she was seeing. The emperor peered at his guest and grinned. In a moment the humbled servant returned with another cup, this one larger and etched with a design of lions and swords. “Ah, yes! Excellent. Now, tell me, you said you come bearing advice. What do you make of my rule?”

Lindsay looked around her at the courtiers and attendants, all smiling, laughing and nodding with unnatural enthusiasm. To her the place felt toxic, stifled. Even here amid the rolling green hills and olive trees of the country, she could still feel a threat of violence from all those around her. She was safe in Clavdivs’s presence, but she recalled the portrayals of the man she’d seen in books and film. Was he truly a fool? Would his brief rule come to as abrupt and awful an end as the histories portended? Assassination brought the rule of Clavdivs, like so many before him, to an immediate halt. And the act committed by his wife, no less. Did any person deserve to be consigned so to posterity?

“You’re not what I was expecting,” Lindsay admitted. An attendant handed her a goblet of wine, over the rim of which she watched Clavdivs. Few spoke to him or even smiled in his direction. All were present and accounted for, but it was painfully apparent few were there for the man. From the emperor himself, Lindsay sensed little malice or ill-intent despite the court’s attitude. He, in fact, seemed perpetually discomforted amid the hangers-on. A bronze-skinned man with shining white teeth and bushy eyebrows rattled off a boisterous joke. All laughed uproariously except Clavdivs, who only flicked his fingers and scowled in acknowledgement.

“Few ever are,” Clavdivs replied after a long moment of consideration. He nodded at Lindsay, then Nora. With a casual flick of his wrist, a servant adorned in gold appeared by his side with a tray of figs. He picked two from the platter and tossed one to Lindsay. “Do I disappoint you, messenger? Tell me, have I done Saturn some disservice?”

“No, no. Saturn… Has peered into the future, your future. He has seen things there that displease him. Seen the way historians chronicle your efforts,” Lindsay said. She felt a spring of pity and sympathy rising in her chest. When she spoke again, her tone was confiding and melancholy. “Saturn does not think you deserve such treatment.”

“Since my birth the scribes have been decrying my legitimacy. As the issue of Drusus, as a noble of Rome. Too long have I lived in the shadows of those who would seek to eradicate my family’s legacy. Were it not for the Praetorian, the Senate would have had their way and my body would even now be rotting in some gutter,” Clavdivs grumbled. With every word, his voice increased in volume. His face deepened in color, suffused with embarrassment and rage. All those nearest to him braced for a storm of imperial wrath, but as suddenly as it had arisen, the emperor’s anger dissipated. “Ah, look at me. Furious with memory, like a child, and in the presence of such celebrated company no less. I must admit, your arrival and words put much in perspective...”

Clavdivs rose from his lounge and motioned for Lindsay to join him. She looked at Nora, who was busy tinkering with the circuitry on her time traveling gauntlet amid a gaggle of curious onlookers. Though the girl had accrued several admirers, the young inventor had eyes only for her work. Lindsay whispered her daughter’s name, who sprang up from her chaise and skipped to her mother’s side. The group of admirers released a crestfallen sigh.

Clavdivs, Lindsay and Nora made their way toward the villa’s balcony, through an arch wrapped with grape vines and past bust-adorned pedestals. Revelers and attendants parted for the esteemed guests, whispering gossip among themselves with relentless urgency. Once they were outside, the Praetorian guard stepped in behind their ruler to form a living wall, shielding Clavdivs and his guests from further attention.

“In truth, my friend, I fear Rome is beyond one such as I,” the emperor said. He sighed as he put his hands to the balcony’s railing and stared far out over the countryside. “I often wonder: had I been born a peasant would I not have been happier? For so much of my life I have lived in fear, debased myself so as to appear worthless, to appear below the effort of killing. I lived, yes... But at what cost? I see this same fear at the heart of Rome. It limps along, those in power fighting to control what little they can. Cursing the gods, praising the gods, making wives and husbands of enemies, disposing of those who have been used up. And yet, we who do these things barely suffer what we deserve. The common man, the man who comprises the living, breathing thing at the heart of Rome… How little he factors into the scheming and plotting, and yet how much does he suffer in our stead...”

Lindsay was taken aback by the anguished depth of Clavdivs’s solemn rhetoric. She was – like those the emperor had described – just trying to survive a dangerous world, if for however briefly. Glancing at Nora where she stood apart tinkering with her device, Lindsay smiled. Were they born in this time, she and her daughter would have likely been peasants themselves. Despite her ruse, she was not a god, but still she could not remain silent. What would she have said of her emperor? What would a mystical being sent by the gods say? A memory of words alit like an ember from the depths of her exhausted mind.

“In a time beyond your own, a wise woman said, ‘If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.’ Despite your misgivings, even you are capable of greatness, but you can't achieve greatness alone. By your own admission, the common man is Rome more deserving of your attention than any of those gathered here or in the capital,” Lindsay said. She gave silent thanks to J.K. Rowling as she gestured back toward the party. “Make allies of those many would consider your inferiors. Make allies of those for whom Rome is not backstabbing and poison and rot, but livelihoods, children, and home.” 

For a long time, Clavdivs said nothing in reply. He looked into the fields to the west of the villa, where the enormous golden orb of the sun was dipping beneath the horizon. In the distance the tiny silhouette of a man toiled away amid a crop of wheat, slicing energetically despite the coming night. Water began to fill the emperor’s eyes as his face was transformed by emotion. He stood up straight, turned to Lindsay, and put a shaking hand on his companion’s shoulder. 

“Long have I cast about in the histories of greater men than I, searching for purpose, scrabbling up a sheer cliff of what I thought was inevitable inconsequence. I’ve written… countless tomes… treatises, histories, journals, letters, struggling always to find the words to explain the yearning within my heart,” Clavdivs intoned gravely. A pair of tears rolled down his frown-lined cheeks. “Thank you, dear messenger of Saturn. Thank you for your guidance, for your grace. I must admit I was skeptical of your claim, but… Perhaps your counsel will do right by my office, and set this empire on the path to greatness once again. The greatness even a humble farmer deserves.”

“Well, that’s pretty awesome…” Lindsay muttered to herself. She could feel a heavy lump in her throat as she watched Clavdivs ponder her advice further. The time traveler smiled at her new friend and patted the man on the back. The emperor beamed in response, and the teary-eyed man’s grin appeared to Lindsay to be his most genuine gesture since their meeting. Suddenly, Nora skipped over to her mother, tapping her glove with uncharacteristic worry. 

“Mom, uh, it’s almost time to go,” Nora whispered as she grabbed her mother’s wrist. Lindsay nodded.

“Clavdivs, it’s been a true pleasure, but we must now part company. I must admit this birthday party was one I’ll never forget,” Lindsay said, before she realized her mistake. Her body shuddered beneath a cold sweat of fear. But to her surprise, Clavdivs only smiled more broadly. 

“Dies natalis felix sit, my friend. Be well and go in peace,” Clavdivs said. He lowered his head and bowed to Lindsay and Nora, who after a moment of shock bowed in return. Nora beckoned her mother to step back a few paces, away from the emperor and his guards, then tapped on her wrist and counted aloud.

“5… 4… 3…”

One hand entwined with Nora’s, Lindsay waved farewell to Clavdivs, then winked out of existence.

* * * 

When the pair of time travelers awoke again, they found themselves home, in their New Jersey house’s basement. Nora’s machinery stood idly by, quiet and inert after retrieving its designer and her mother. Lindsay shook her head as she rose from the floor, her own eyes now welling with tears.

“Nora, I…” Lindsay began.

“I know, I know. I’ll destroy it. This thing is WAY too powerful. But oh man, could you believe that! Rome! Clavdivs!” Nora could barely contain her enthusiasm. 

“No, that’s… Well, yeah, you should definitely destroy this thing. Immediately. But no. What I was going to say was… Thank you. Thank you for that awesome experience,” Lindsay said. She grabbed her daughter and held her close. After an awkward moment of surprise, Nora wrapped her arms around her mother, before she stepped back. From her work bench she picked up a small computer device and punched in a number of digits. 

“You’re so welcome, but now for the true test. You know, just to make sure we’re not crazy,” Nora chuckled. A few seconds passed, and then she held up the computer, laughing heartily as she did. “Look at THIS!”

Lindsay peered at the device’s screen. On it, Nora had brought up a Wikipedia article; one on Emperor Clavdivs of Rome. The dates describing his reign were different from what she remembered. If she recalled correctly, the man had only ruled for 13 years in the past, but now…

“47 years?! Clavdivs ruled Rome for 47 years?!” Lindsay nearly fainted in shock, but couldn’t tear her eyes away from the screen. She scrolled down, scanning the long list of the emperor’s accomplishments. The account seemed nearly endless in its depth and breadth. Lindsay could not help but laugh in amazement. There, toward the end of the article was a high resolution photograph of a coin stamped in Clavdivs’s time. Around the edge of the trinket was inscribed a maxim: “We are all of us equal,” it read in Latin.

Lindsay laughed again. “Bring up Amazon, get me every book you can find!"

“But I already got you a birthday gift…” Nora complained as mother and daughter trundled upstairs to find cake.


Birthday Story - A Nightmare Ends

They are pretty awful.

They are pretty awful.

It was another friend's birthday this past weekend and though it was belated (I attended New York Comic Con over the weekend and met my podcasting idol Cecil Baldwin of Welcome to Night Vale fame), I finally finished her birthday story gift! Oz is one of the strongest, most confident folks I know, so it's always kind of amusing to hear the things that make her uncomfortable or afraid.

She and my wife share a hilariously intense fear of "house centipedes," a large, million-legged insect that does on occasion rear its hideous head inside human dwellings. They're apparently harmless to humans and I've slain more than a few of the beasts myself, but they're now forever known among our friends as "nightmare bugs," a name lovingly bestowed by Oz.

Anyway, Oz is a bit of a badass who loves Game of Thrones, so I thought it'd be fun to tell a story about her taking on and conquering one of these creatures herself (with a little help from her husband, who she met at a medieval combat club) in a suitably epic setting. Check out the story below and enjoy! And if you have a chance, please visit Oz's awesome creative blog and board game project, Düdle!

A Nightmare Ends

“Ain’t never seen its like! A thousand legs, a twisting body! Crawling among the trees like a serpent!“ The sweat-soaked, grimy man at the bar growled into his wooden mug. His wild eyes stared with frightened urgency into each of the transfixed faces around him. His mouth hanged open in a horrified grimace as he thrust a trembling finger toward no one in particular.

Another, older man beside the first chimed in with solemn assurance, “Aye, the thing was enormous. We barely escaped with our lives. The thing still stalks those woods, looking for prey, looking for blood. Gods damn the aged. If only I were young…” The man slammed a strong, calloused fist onto the beer-soaked slab. A rusted fork clattered to the dusty floor, eliciting a frightened yelp from his crazed companion.

“Heard it eats anything it can!” A surly, steel-clad soldier shouted to all in the candle-lit tavern as she drained her fifth tankard. “Tramples anything it can’t! Won’t see me pursuing such misfortune,” she added, each of her words more slurred as they were spoken.

“It took Teelie the day before last… Bonio said he never saw it coming. Jabbering idiots, those two.” An old woman muttered as she polished an iron pan with an oily rag.

The old man stared headlong into the roaring fireplace, where smoldering embers flickered in his tired eyes. “Ain’t no one willing to slay this awful beast?” he asked the room. The frenzied chatter came to an immediate halt.

Two dozen villagers sat in awkward silence, unwilling to volunteer their cowardice. Outside, the pitch black of night descended on the beleaguered hamlet. A loud wind roared against the window’s shutters. None responded to the man’s question. With a frown of disappointment, he nodded and said, “Aye, that’s what I thought. We’ll never be rid of this torment. Need to find someone crazy or capable. Need to find a hunter..."

“You needn’t look far,” someone interrupted. A woman’s voice cut through the din with a confident tone. The speaker sat in a corner of the pub, booted feet propped up on a table. Weathered armor creaked as she raised a lit pipe to her lips, breathed in the sweet smoke and smiled when she exhaled.

The old man watched her with a skeptical eye, taking in the woman’s close-cropped blond hair and young face. “And who might you be, traveller?”

“You can call me Oz. Sounds like you’ve got a problem on your hands. Maybe I can help.”

“I’m not sure, young lady. Ye look… capable, perhaps, but this creature… It is a monster,” the old man responded. The bar’s weary patrons grumbled in agreement, all of them wondering after the bravado of this mysterious stranger.

“Oh, I’m familiar with its kind. Awful things. So many legs. In truth, I hate them. They disgust me,” Oz said. She pulled her boots down from the table and sat upright in her seat. Shadows played on her visage, the faint light of the surrounding flames illuminating two steely, determined eyes. The tiny metal plates sewn into her leather vest chimed like bells. She turned her pipe sideways and tapped its bowl into her empty cup, then continued, “But that’s why I’m here. Such vile creatures must be destroyed. Thousands of legs trampling your family and friends… I won’t abide it.”

The old man gasped in surprise and disbelief. The crowd listened to the exchange with rapt attention.

“You plan… to slay this beast?”

Oz grinned. “Already did.”

Half-drunk and terrified, the villagers erupted, unable to believe such a person could have accomplished so great a feat. Jeers and laughter spread through the onlookers. Oz only smiled, taking in the chaos with an amused expression writ across her face.

The old man, obviously respected among his peers stood up from the bar, wobbling on one wooden leg. A woman beside him held out a steadying hand, but he brushed it aside and staggered toward Oz where she sat. Their eyes locked in a steady gaze. “Silence, animals! Silence. My lady, I… I’m sorry, but that’s impossible! Have you proof of your alleged accomplishment?”

Oz gestured toward the tavern door as she rose from her seat.

“After you…”

Outside, the evening air was thick with the weight of impending rain. Clouds gathered overhead. Upon spilling out into the night, many of the patrons covered their faces with beer-soaked sleeves. A horrible stench suffused the area around the old tavern and many called to the gods in wonder of such an offensive stink. A gust of wind barraged the curious group, granting them a temporary reprieve from the olfactory assault.

Some paces away, a tall man wearing a beard and long brown hair stood beside a large wagon, to which were attached two strong horses. The man appeared to have seen many battles, and recently by the look of it. Dirt and blood streaked his face and weathered armor. Despite the gore, his eyes were steady and sure. A broad, long-shafted axe stood buried in the ground beside him. He whispered to the horses as he stroked one of their manes, smiling as he did so. The creature stomped and brayed in apparent joy, like the two had shared some joke.

For a brief moment, the old man leading the skeptical group stopped where he was and took in the scene. A gentle smile played on his wrinkled lips, as if he were recalling a fond memory of a time long past.

"Benn!" Oz called as she strode toward the wagon. The tall man turned from the horses and raised a hand in greeting. “I told you. They don’t believe me! Do it.”

The man she called ‘Benn’ chuckled and shrugged. Atop the wagon beside him, a gigantic, mysterious mound lay hidden beneath a canvas cover. Benn patted the nearest horse once more, before moving to untie the wind-flapping canvas from the wagon. Before long the knots were undone. Oz waited until the task was complete, then grabbed the strangely wet canvas.

“This proof enough for you?” she asked as she pulled the fabric back with dramatic gusto. A wide grin spread across her knowing face.

Atop the wagon, the bloodied body of an enormous, many-legged insect lay dead. As tall as a tree and many times bigger than the tavern, even in death the thing was imposing and terrible. Its skeletal appendages pointed toward the sky like fence posts. A long spear was embedded in the thing’s broad flank. The crowd exploded in a cacophony of surprise and horror. Some shouted unintelligibly, some fell to their knees, stupefied. The old man held out his arms to again silence the rabble without a word.

“This thing… This monster… I can’t believe it. To be so skilled. Young lady, young man…” The old man trailed off. Tears began to well in his gray eyes. He wiped them away, embarrassed.

Oz looked up at the blue moon half hidden behind the clouds overhead, exhaled a tired sigh, then wrenched her weapon free of the creature’s carcass. The long blade on the pole’s end dripped with the enormous insect’s black blood. Benn approached his wife and without a word put a hand on her armor-clad shoulder.

The old man approached the slain creature and reached out with a sure, broad hand to touch its thick carapace. He spoke again to the triumphant hunters, this time his voice warm and heavy, “There was a time when… When I would have died to join you on such a venture. The glory of combat, the pride of victory. Agh, but now my lot’s but to regret the ravages of age. It pleases me beyond words to know the brave and capable still yet fight. Tell me, young warriors, how can we repay you?”

Oz smiled at the old man, a bond of fellowship forged between them. The young warrior held out her hand. The old man grabbed it and they shook with child-like enthusiasm.

“It’s my birthday. Care to buy me a drink?”


Regarding the Ice Bucket Challenge

Well, it finally happened. I was nominated this week by a friend to take on the Ice Bucket Challenge.

In truth, I was hoping I wouldn’t be embroiled in this phenomenon because my participation would mean having to write a post like this (it originally appeared on my personal Facebook). Even if you’re only familiar with me through the A Knight Adrift project, I would hope it’s clear I am someone who believes in raising support and awareness for the plight of individuals suffering awful and debilitating circumstances. In that goal, I think the ALS’s challenge has succeeded admirably and I’m thrilled to see social media used for such a positive effort, regardless of how silly the challenge itself might be.

But I look at social movements like this primarily as an opportunity to simply help our fellow humans however we can, and though ALS research is a deserving mission, for me personally there are causes I believe more strongly in; causes that have, in my opinion, greater potential for the immediate, decisive, critical improvement of those suffering individuals’ lives. One of those causes is Doctors Without Borders.

I know my declining the challenge in this manner would be disappointing to some hoping to see me douse myself in ice – and I brainstormed a ton of ideas, most of them involving my cat somehow chucking cubes at me – but in lieu of a donation to ALS research, I will be foregoing the Ice Bucket Challenge and donating instead to Doctors Without Borders. I consider them to be one of the most laudable and worthy non-profit organizations operating around the world today, as do several charity-reviewing organizations. Their slogan is “Medical aid where it is needed most. Independent. Neutral. Impartial.”

I believe in their work. I think the organization's nothing short of a collection of heroes, some of whom are dying right now to help stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa. If you’re interested, I encourage you to check out their website to learn how you can help.

"That's great," you might be thinking. "But why are you sharing this?" Great question. I'll do my best.

I know everyone has a different opinion about the worth of monetary donations to charity, and I completely understand the debate. Everyone has a cause. Everyone has a problem. How do you know which are honest? Responsible? Worthy? Accountability and efficacy are always suspect with hard-earned cash on the table. These are all valid concerns and I can’t even tell you how many articles I’ve read in the last month tackling the issue from every imaginable angle. I'd donated to causes in the past, but with the popularity of the Ice Bucket Challenge, it seemed a good time to reconsider the questions above. I imagine many have done the same in recent weeks.

To be clear: I believe ALS research is just as worthy a cause as international medical aid to the impoverished and powerless. Real people suffer daily from ALS and it is, in my humble opinion, a horrifying disease. It’s my personal goal to one day support such causes with more dedication and clout than I can manage now. I’m happy with the ALS movement’s success least of all for the demonstration of how social media can productively and positively exercise its power for good.

It should be our collective goal to wipe out the evils that plague the most unfortunate among us. But right now, I won’t be pouring ice on my head to do so. Whether anyone does is entirely at that individual's discretion and I do not begrudge their decision, but my point is this: Someone somewhere needs help. It shouldn't take a social media phenomenon before we give it to them.

I guess I’m being a bit of a wet blanket here. I apologize for that. I wish I could temper this with a trying-so-hard-and-failing-it's-funny kind of joke, but the stream of awful occurrences in the world today is steady and endless.

With any luck, I’m not coming off as an arrogant, righteous contrarian and if you’ve made it this far without seriously reconsidering your opinion of me (I wouldn’t blame you), I thank you for your understanding. If this post can inspire someone to strike out on their own charitable mission without documented proof of icy embarrassment, I'll consider these words well spent.

My bellyaching aside, some of the videos have been tremendously amusing. Benedict Cumberbatch's Ice Bucket Challenge comes highly recommended.

You’re supposed to nominate three more people for this, so after careful consideration, I selected three friends to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge, or to donate to and spread the word about a cause near to their hearts. It’s an informal challenge, but I encourage you, dear reader, to consider the causes most important to you and with the Ice Bucket Challenge as the spark of motivation, consider donating time, money, or a social media phenomenon (good luck on that count!) to those efforts, whatever they may be.

As Carl Sagan said: “For creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Be a knight. Be well.