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.
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?”