OK, before I get to my story of serpents, rodents, and adolescents - a sad, but true tale this week! - let me mention that the launch party for my new novel is THIS SUNDAY, April 23, from 1 to 3 PM, at the Greenville Christian School Boardroom (across from the office) in Greenville, TX. If you are in the North Texas area and want a signed copy, please come on by!!!
And, if you are not in range to drop in, go ahead and order your own copy of THEOPHILUS: A TALE OF ANCIENT ROME, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or whatever online bookseller you prefer. Help me keep that sales rank up!! I'll furnish a link below, but for now, on with the story:
TERRI THE MOUSE
(and the not-so-hungry snake)
OK, I have three snakes as pets in my classroom. All three of them - Napoleon the corn snake, and Isis and Osiris, my two kingsnakes - have been prowling in their cages for several days now, indicating that they are getting hungry. Rule One of feeding snakes is that, unless you want the entire class to turn into a "Circle of Life" biology lesson, you DON'T feed the snakes when kids are in the room. I have a conference period right before lunch, so that gives me an hour and a half to complete the task with no juvenile witnesses to the demise of the Petco Feeder Mice.
Off to Petco I go, and grab three mice, getting back to the school by 11:10 (Lunch starts at 11:20). Fifty minutes for my trusty reptiles to do their work and dispose of the evidence. I even discarded the Petco rodent box in the trash can at the end of the hall. Napoleon is a voracious feeder, despite being over ten years old. His mouse was locked into a death hug within less than a minute of being dropped into the cage. Isis grabbed her prey right away, too, and began constricting it, so I sat and graded papers and gave a couple of make-up quizzes. Meanwhile Osiris is stalking his mouse all over the cage, striking repeatedly only to have the athletic rodent jump out of the way every time. Finally, he got disgusted and gave up. What I didn't realize is that after Isis hugged her mouse to death, she turned up her nose at swallowing it and left its limp body on the floor of her cage.
So the bell rings, and my seventh graders come pouring into the room. Worst . . . possible . . . class to witness a snake feeding! Immediately all the girls are like "He's so cute!" "Save him!" and "Let's name him Terri!" One of the boys offered me $20 for the mouse on the spot if I would pull it out of the cage and let him take it home.
I was like "Calm down, reptiles have to eat, let's get to work!" and finally they did. By this time Osiris had given up on the mouse; it was washing its face and putting on a show of cuteness for the kids while my poor hungry serpent sulked in the corner. Then one of the girls noticed the dead mouse in Isis' cage, and pandemonium struck again. I gave the still-warm carcass to Napoleon, who has no problem at all eating two mice in a day. He started swallowing it right away, and I had to redirect their attention AGAIN.
After they left, I informed Osiris he was a disgrace to snake-kind, and decided to drop "Terri" into Isis' cage to see if she found him more to her taste. That was when I noticed one of the girls had made a placard and put it in front of the snake's cage that read "PRAY FOR TERRI!!!" Well, Isis ignored this mouse, and I sat down to start grading papers, figuring maybe hunger would eventually do its work. Nope. Isis was NOT interested.
Moments later, most of the seventh grade came traipsing back in, with our art teacher, Mrs. Bragg (a very nice young first year teacher) in tow. They kept pestering me to save "Terri", and I said if he remained uneaten by the end of the day, they could redeem him. Mrs. Bragg began making a cage for Terri the mouse at this point. I'm glaring at my snake thinking: "Just eat the stupid thing already!" The seventh graders kept popping back in every few minutes to see if Terri was still hanging on to life, so finally I said "FINE! Take him!"
Of course, I was the one who had to catch him. Mrs. Bragg's cage proved to be a cardboard box with Seran Wrap over the top - any self-respecting mouse would chew its way out of that in a matter of minutes - so I pulled an old snake cage with a snap-on top out of my closet, dropped the mouse in it, and sent them on their way. So the art class acquired a new mascot, and I am still stuck with two hungry snakes.
Today produced a funny sequel to this episode. The 7th grade art class is making an illustrated children's book about Terri the Mouse, and sculpting action figures to go with it. They have already christened my likeness as "Indiana Smith."
NOW: Here is the Amazon link to my new book. Please, go buy a copy!!!
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
My new novel, THEOPHILUS: A TALE OF ANCIENT ROME, was released yesterday! It's already gotten one nice review from a beta reader who got an advance look at the manuscript. Now, you may be thinking - "I dunno. I don't really know much about Rome, I've never read any of your books, I'd hate to plunk down $21.99 for something I wind up not liking."
OK, fair enough. So here is a free sample of the marvelous adventure through the ancient world that awaits you when you purchase my newest book. This is the full prologue to THEOPHILUS. Read on at your peril - this blog post may fill you with an uncontrollable urge to buy the book when you're done!!
OK, fair enough. So here is a free sample of the marvelous adventure through the ancient world that awaits you when you purchase my newest book. This is the full prologue to THEOPHILUS. Read on at your peril - this blog post may fill you with an uncontrollable urge to buy the book when you're done!!
Rome: October, 64 AD
The last of the smoldering embers had been put out weeks before, but the city of Rome still reeked of smoke and death. The Great Fire had swept across the city like a scourge from the gods, destroying three of the fourteen districts of Rome and severely damaging seven others. Tens of thousands were dead, and many others still missing, their charred remains buried beneath the fallen houses and shops that sprawled across the seven hills of the Tiber. The Great Forum had been spared from some of the damage by the frantic demolition of the many wooden buildings that surrounded it, but still two temples had lost their roofs and some of the shops along the far edge of the plaza had burned to the ground.
The Senate of Rome had gathered in the Curia Julia, the meeting hall built for them a century before by order of Gaius Julius Caesar, the Divus Julius that many Romans still worshipped as a god. Barely begun before Caesar’s life was cut short by treachery, the Curia had been finished by his great-nephew and adopted son, Caesar Augustus, the first true Emperor of Rome. The hall was crowded when the Senate was at its full capacity, but the purges and executions carried out by Augustus’ three successors had nearly reduced the Senate to its original size of three hundred members.
The mood of the city was ugly, and the Senate’s mood reflected that. No one knew for sure how the fire had started, but rumors had swept the city for weeks – and the most persistent rumors involved none other than Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the Princeps and Imperator of Rome. Some said that he had set the fires himself, riding out incognito with a gang of young hellions that he enjoyed carousing with. Others said that he had ordered his minions to set the fires, and then stood on the balcony of his villa and played the lyre, singing about the sack of Ilium while Rome burst into flames all round him. The official story was that the Emperor had been away from the city, inspecting an aqueduct project in Antium when the fires broke out. According to his Praetorians, the Emperor had rushed back to the city, organizing companies of firefighters and relief efforts for those rendered homeless by the blaze. It was a measure of how much the people had come to despise Nero that very few people believed the official version of events. There were stories that the young emperor had been jeered and even pelted with stones by an angry crowd in the forum when he last showed his face, a month before.
So now this emergency meeting of the Senate had been called, and the Conscript Fathers of Rome waited impatiently for the Imperator to make his appearance. Laecenius Bassus, the senior Consul, shifted impatiently in his curule chair, glancing at his consular colleague, Licinius Crassus. During the days of the Republic, the Consuls had been the highest elected officials of Rome, chief executives who commanded armies and conducted foreign policy during their year in office. But since Augustus’ great reforms of Rome’s government, the Consuls had become senior magistrates who served at the Emperor’s pleasure. Nero had initially restored some of the Senate’s powers when he inherited the purple at the age of sixteen, but in recent years he had become more and more arbitrary and tyrannical, and neither Consul dared call the Senate to order without him.
The tramping steps of the Praetorian guards echoed across the Forum, audible through the open doors of the Curia. The murmuring of the crowds in the Forum swelled excitedly, and the members of the Senate turned their gaze to the bronze doors. The marching boots came to a halt, and then the slapping of sandals mounting the marble steps announced the Emperor’s approach even before he reached the doorway. The Senate stood in respect as he entered the chamber.
Nero, the ruler of a quarter of the world’s population, and the last surviving heir of Caesar Augustus, passed through the corridor that bisected the interior of the Curia Julia and took his place behind the two consuls on a raised dais. His marble throne was behind and above the curule chairs of Rome’s chief magistrates, but he remained standing for the moment, surveying the chamber nervously. He was not a popular man with the Senate or the People of Rome, and he knew it.
Nero was twenty-six years old, and he had ruled over Rome since the death of his great uncle and adoptive father, Claudius Caesar, ten years before (some said Nero had engineered that death, poisoning Claudius with deadly mushrooms). Once muscular and athletic, his over-indulgence in wine and fine foods had added a sheath of fat to his waist, but he was still taller than the average Roman, and broad-shouldered. His face had grown plump, and his nose was slightly reddened from too much drinking. His toga, once gleaming white and trimmed with the Imperial purple, was stained with soot, ash, and wine spills. His eyes constantly shifted back and forth, as if fearing an assassin’s dagger at any moment. His mouth was always in motion, going from a grim, straight line that bespoke determination and cruelty, to a quivering, soft orifice that reeked of fear and a desperate desire for popularity. His nose was not the proud, stern beak that Romans treasured, but rather was somewhat short and bulbous. Nor was he clean shaven, as the previous Emperors had been, but grew a short, scruffy beard that swept from his shaggy locks and met under his chin. Only the area immediately surrounding his mouth was devoid of hair. The Emperor of Rome was a petulant, angry, fearful, neurotic child, and the Senate and People of Rome paid dearly for his insecurities.
“Conscript Fathers,” he said, his booming tenor echoing from the marble walls, “The auguries have been taken and the omens deemed favorable. The pontiffs have given offerings to Vesta and Fortuna, to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and to the divine Emperors past, Julius, Augustus, and Claudius, imploring their blessing on the rebuilding of our great city, and their healing to the wounded hearts and bodies of our citizens.”
He shifted his weight from foot to foot, eyeing his audience to measure their response to what he said. Surrounded by slaves, prostitutes, and sycophants for most of his days, he had lost much of the oratorical skills that his tutor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, had taught him - mainly due to lack of practice. But as he spoke, the words came easier, and he seemed to gain confidence.
“The destruction of the City of Romulus was a great crime, the blackest crime our fair city has known since the foul murder of the Divus Julius,” he said. “I realize that there has been much speculation about the cause of the fires since that dreadful day in the month of the Julii when they began. Some of those rumors are simply too ridiculous to merit mention in such an august assembly, but I can assure you that no one has been more eager to find out the truth of this matter than your own Emperor. Ever since the last of the fires were extinguished, my agents have been scouring the city, seeking to find the culprits responsible for such massive destruction and bring them to justice.”
The Senators began to look at one another with interest. Many of them half believed the charges that Nero himself had set the fires, or ordered them set – he was already measuring one badly burned out area to see if it was large enough to contain the massive villa he wanted to build for himself. But, if not the Emperor, then who did set the fires? They returned their attention to Nero as he continued. His expression had grown more stern and commanding, as if he was remembering who and what he was.
“You notice that I say culprits, not culprit,” he said. “No one man, not even your Emperor, could have set so many fires in so many places at once. This was a vast conspiracy involving many evil men, and it very nearly succeeded in destroying our entire city! Who could hate the citizens of Rome so much? Who could possibly wish to destroy our Eternal City? Carthage tried and failed, the Gauls nearly succeeded once, four hundred years ago. The great Italian revolt during the Social Wars dreamed of bringing Rome crashing to the earth. But they failed! They went down into Tartarus with their dreams of our destruction unfulfilled. Even those Romans who have turned our own armies upon us – Lucius Sulla, Gaius Marius, and Julius Caesar himself! They marched on Rome not to destroy it but to capture it and win it over to their causes. So I ask again, who could hate the citizens of Rome so much?”
He cast his gaze around the chamber, his eyes narrowing above his pudgy cheeks. He had the Senate’s attention now, and even some of those who had regarded him with contempt as he entered were now watching him with renewed interest. He smiled grimly and continued.
“It took all of my Praetorians, as well as the work of many of my other agents, to ferret out the truth,” he declared. “The conspirators were diabolical in their cleverness, walking among us unnoticed. Their fanatical creed had drawn slaves, freedmen, and Roman citizens into its secret rituals. Wealthy plebs and even a few Senators and patricians were counted among its members! They did not speak openly of what they had done, but their attitudes and actions in the wake of the fires raised my suspicions, and vigorous interrogation brought out the truth. Now I have come to lay bare their foul plot! For this crime was not just an assault on the Senate and People of Rome, but an attack on our very gods themselves! It was our temples that drew the ire of these animals, and their fanatical desire to blot out the worship of every god whose image can be shaped with men’s hands!”
The Senators began to whisper among themselves. Could this be true? Could the fires have actually been an attempt by a band of fanatics to destroy Rome’s traditional religion? Nero watched their reaction and nodded to himself. He had them now, he thought to himself.
“So who did this thing?” he asked rhetorically. “Who tried, and nearly succeeded, in destroying our city? Who longs to end the worship of our gods? Who resents every sacrifice, every offering, every temple, and every attempt we make to appease our spiritual guardians?”
His voice rang through the chamber, high and clear now, echoing from the marble pillars. Seneca’s old lessons on oratory had been remembered, and the Emperor was putting on a powerful performance.
“It was the Christians!” he shouted. “Members of a disgusting cult of religious perverts who worship a crucified criminal! It is not enough that they engage in shameful orgies called “love feasts,” or that they eat and drink the bodies and blood of infants! Those things are despicable enough, but now they seek to destroy the very gods of Rome! So what shall we do with these animals, these monsters, these vile criminals?”
“Death!” cried one Senator. “Proscriptions!” cried another. The anger of the house had swung away from Nero and found a new target, and the Emperor smiled as he heard their angry cries.
“Conscript fathers!” he raised his voice, and the angry shouts died down. “I call on you for a measure that has not been taken in a generation. I call on you to pass an Ultimate Decree of the Senate and People of Rome, declaring all Christians to be hostis, their lives forfeit, their property confiscated and granted to whoever turns them in. I call on you to name all Christians as enemies of the state!”
Loud shouts of agreement echoed through the chamber. The Senate had become putty in the Emperor’s hands. Nero’s mouth turned in a cruel sneer, and he held up his hands one more time.
“But, it is tradition, before passing such a decree, that I ask if there is anyone here who might object to it. So I put the question before you now – will anyone here speak up for these degenerates? Is there any member of the Senate of Rome who will oppose the permanent criminalization of all Christians?”
Silence fell, and the Senators looked at one another for a moment. Nero soaked up his triumph, and then opened his mouth to speak again – when he was interrupted by a voice from near the back of the chamber.
“I will,” said a middle-aged Senator as he stepped out from the ranks and into the aisle. He was slim, but his shoulders were broad and he moved with the confidence that came with physical strength and grace. A faded, worn crown of grass was wrapped around his bald scalp. “I will speak for them!”
Nero shook his head and sighed. “Marcus Publius! I might have known,” he said.
Well, that's the free sample. If you want to read the rest . . . click HERE:
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Our last enrichment week story assignment was to write a pure fantasy story. This was a bit of a stretch for me - I'd written tales of horror before, but never a fantasy story. But then an idea struck me and it was off to the races! I hope you enjoy it!
And on a separate note, my all new novel, THEOPHILUS: A TALE OF ANCIENT ROME, releases on Tuesday, April 11!! Watch this blog spot for a link six days from now!
And on a separate note, my all new novel, THEOPHILUS: A TALE OF ANCIENT ROME, releases on Tuesday, April 11!! Watch this blog spot for a link six days from now!
THE DESTROYER AND THE MACE
A Short Fantasy Tale
By Lewis Smith
No one knew why Goza the Destroyer had returned. But return he had, as the old legends said he would. Four times as tall as a man, his scaly hide impervious to any weapon humans could forge; he had come rampaging from the Valley of Fire a fortnight ago, falling on Da Driscoll’s farm just before sunset. The old man had stepped outside to see why the cows were bawling and been picked up and devoured in a moment. His wife had come screeching out the door with a pitchfork, feisty to the end, trying to avenge her husband. The iron tines had snapped off as she tried to drive them into the beast, and she had followed her husband into its maw. Only their son Hoyer had survived, fleeing out the back window as the beast ripped the front door off of the house.
Goza did not devour all his victims, but he killed any who crossed his path. Only the swiftest could outrun him, and he rarely paused in his assault on humanity. The Driscoll farm was isolated, but by the next day the creature had found its way to Findale, the nearest village. Some twenty houses held the town’s population of nearly a hundred; by the end of the creature’s rampage fifty were dead and the rest fled for their lives.
Tyrone heard about the return of the Destroyer from the frantic survivors as they reached his own village of Doreton the next day. His father, the mayor, ordered the townspeople to pack up their possessions and be ready to flee if the monster turned towards them. He called on Cromwell the Mage to find a spell that might repel, if not destroy, the beast, and then he called on Tyrone.
“You are our scholar and scribe,” he said. “You alone have read the ancient chronicles that tell of Goza’s previous attacks. You must find a way to stop him, for otherwise the entire district – perhaps the entire kingdom - shall be laid waste!”
“There is only one way,” said Tyrone. “Only one weapon has ever proved potent against Goza, and it has been hidden for a millennia.”
“You think the Mace of Negation is real?” the mayor said.
“It has to be,” said Tyrone. “Three times since men began telling tales Goza has come to destroy us, and three times he has been repelled. While the details differ, all the stories agree that a legendary mace was used – a mace that simply erased Goya from existence. What it is, I know not, nor where it is hidden. But I shall delve into the chronicles and find out!”
“Dusty books are no good against a demon lord,” said Sir Frederick the Paladin. “Cold steel, a fearless heart, and a strong arm are the proper tools!”
“Unless you are more abundantly equipped with those than any of the heroes of old, you will fail,” said Tyrone. “Cedric of Coldwell himself went up against Goza, armed with his great blade Blackfire, and could not even wound the beast.”
“I will measure my blade and my heart against any hero of the Golden Age,” sneered Frederick. “Goza will feel the bite of my Dragonstinger and go fleeing back to his valley in fear of his life!”
The knight patted the huge claymore that was strapped across his back, Tyrell the Mayor looked at the paladin with admiration and sadness in his eyes.
“I think this foe is too great for you, my friend, but I also know that your honor compels you to make the attempt! May the Goddess guide your blade, and bring you back safe,” he said.
The entire town gathered to watch Sir Frederick ride off, and three local boys volunteered to act as his squires so they could see him take on the dread creature. Tyrone shook his head sadly and returned to his books. Late that day his father sought him out again.
“Any luck finding where the mace might be hidden?” Tyrell asked.
“I don’t know what it even looks like!” said Tyrone. “See, here is a copperplate illustration from five hundred years ago.”
He held up the heavy tome he’d been reading, and there was a stylized picture of Roger of Thornhill, the last knight to defeat Goza. He was holding aloft an ornately carved wooden stave, inscribed with ancient runes of power. Mounted in its head was a jet-black gemstone the size of a goose-egg that radiated beams of blackness at Goza, which ate away at his skin like acid, burning holes in the monster wherever they touched him.
“That looks like a mighty weapon,” said Mayor Tyrell.
“It does!” his son replied, “but look here. This chronicle, written two hundred years earlier, also has a picture of the mace.”
He flipped back to a much earlier page in the same book, and there was another picture of Sir Roger, this time holding aloft a plain wooden stave with a bright red ball, nearly a foot across, attached to the end. From it a beam of pure red light shot through Goza and burned clear through him, boring a hole in his midsection.
“That is not the same weapon,” his father said.
“No, it isn’t,” his son added. “But this is what the scribe wrote below it: the Mace of Negation is said to have disappeared shortly after Goza was defeated, and none alive today have seen it or have talked with those who have. The old tales say that it has the power to negate the very existence of Goza, hence the name of the mighty weapon, but what it may look like and what strange power it has over this otherwise indestructible daemon, none can say at this late date. In other words, father, the illustrator is simply guessing what the Mace looked like!”
“Are there any earlier descriptions of the Mace?” Tyrell asked.
Tyrone flipped back to the beginning of the book, running his finger down the dusty page.
“This chronicle was begun over eight hundred years ago, but that was still over a hundred and fifty years after the last attack by Goza,” he said. “There is a colorful description of Sir Roger’s battle with the beast, but not an actual description of what the mace looked like or how it was able to destroy Goza!”
His father looked over his shoulder.
“This is the Primary Chronicle, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Exactly,” said Tyrone. “It’s the oldest complete history of our kingdom. But there are some very ancient books in the cellar, crumbling with age. I shall search them next.”
But before he could move towards the cellar door of the town’s Great Hall, there came a shouting and commotion outside. The mayor and his son raced outside to see what was the matter.
It was one of the three lads that had ridden off with Sir Frederick that morning. His horse was slathered with sweat, and his tunic stained red with blood. Wild-eyed, he was gasping for breath, unable to speak. One of the young maids brought him a dipper of water, and he gulped it greedily.
“Sir Frederick is dead,” he said, “and the other two boys as well. Ah, Goddess, he was so brave! We rode six hours west, moving at a slow pace towards the Valley of Fire, when we saw it coming. I tell you, Tyrone, the old tales speak true. Such a monstrous creature never walked on two legs – huge, clawed legs, like a bird of prey, whiplike arms that lash out and wrap around and pull you into that maw – saints protect us, no creature needs that many teeth! It has no eyes – at least none that I could see – but it knew we were coming. Smelled us, I guess. It turned to face us before Frederick ever challenged it.”
“What happened then?” asked one of the young maids. Like many of the girls in town, she had been smitten by Frederick’s bravado and good looks.
“He rode straight up to it,” said the young squire, whose name was Wat Tyler. “Those snakelike arms reached out for him and lifted him right out of the saddle, but he was ready for it. He had Dragonstinger out of its sheath and raised the blade high over his head, and as the beast opened its mouth to devour him, he drove the blade as far down its throat as he could!”
“Did that have any effect?” Tyrone asked, curious.
“I think it did startle the monster,” said the squire. “It clamped its jaws shut with enormous force, and snapped the blade clean in half!”
“That’s impossible!” snapped Cromwell the Mage. “Dragonstinger was forged of vulcanium, the hardest metal known to man, melted with dragonfire in the days when the Great Worms still roamed this land and could be domesticated. No blade of vulcanium has ever broken!”
“I can’t speak to that,” said Wat. “I just know what I saw. That blade snapped in Goza’s mouth like it was a dried twig. I heard Sir Frederick screaming in protest just before the mouth opened again and bit him in half. His armor didn’t even slow those teeth down! All three of us charged in at that moment, crazed with anger and shock, I guess. I had a lance that Sir Frederick had given me; the metal head bent and the shaft shattered to pieces when it hit that monster’s hide. One of those flailing arms knocked me out of the saddle as it wrapped around poor Rupert, and I guess that saved my life. His horse wheeled and ran for it, and I swung myself up on its back while Goza swallowed Rupert. It grabbed Lee next, and was still chewing him up when it came for me. I barely managed to outrun it, but once I got clear I headed home as fast as I could.”
“As before, so again,” said Tyrell. “The mightiest warriors in the land have never been able to vanquish Goza without the Mace of Negation.”
“Nor has any mage,” Cromwell said, “But I think I perceive what their great mistake was.”
“What was that?” asked Tyrone.
“They tried to destroy Goza,” he said. “I shall merely seek to contain him. I believe I can succeed where they failed.”
“Let me know how that works out for you,” said Tyrone. “I am going back to the Chronicles. Finding the Mace is our only hope!”
“You to your craft, me to mine,” said Cromwell. “Goddess grant that one of us succeed.”
Tyrone dug for hours among the crumbling tomes and scrolls that were stacked in one corner of the Great Hall’s cellar. Tax records, letter, poems and stories of ancient times, but nothing about Goza beyond a few cryptic references. Finally, near the bottom of the stack, he found half of a leather-bound volume, its cover scarred and scratched but still legible. Excited, he dragged it up to the scribe’s table upstairs where the light was better. Mayor Tyrell was anxiously pacing the floor.
“What do you have, son?” he asked.
“This volume is entitled A True History of the Depradations of the Daemon Goza the Destroyer, with an Account of his Destruction by the Brave Knight Sir Roger of Thornhill, by the Venerable Scribe Dorman of Doyle. It looks old enough to have been written shortly after the event.”
He opened the book and began to quickly scan its pages, flipping them rapidly. Here and there he gave a nod or a grunt, but all too quickly he reached the end of the fragmentary volume. He sighed in frustration.
“Nothing here,” he said. “Roger was still seeking for the Mace where the story is cut off.”
“Is the other half of the book down there somewhere?” Tyrell asked.
“I went through the entire stack,” his son sighed. “It must have been tossed out years ago.”
“What’s this?” the Mayor asked, pointing at a piece of paper sticking out the top of the book.
“Just a folded piece of paper,” Tyrone said. “I think that someone was using it as a bookmark.”
“Perhaps we should unfold it,” his father said.
Tyrone shrugged and pulled the paper out. It was folded into fourths, and was actually quite a bit bigger than he supposed. Better yet, it was covered on one side with archaic writing. He squinted in the failing light, trying to make it out, then his eyes widened.
“Bring the lamp closer, father,” he said. “I think this may be what we were looking for.” His father set the oil lamp down on the table, and Tyrone began to read the letter out loud.
I thank you for your enquiry, Scribe Dorman, it began. As far as I know, I am the last man still living who saw the battel between brave Sir Roger and the foul daemon known as Goza the Destroyer. The Mace of Negation is the most potent of all weapons, its humble appearance notwithstanding. Indeed, it appears not to be a weapon at all, but everywhere it touched Goza, he simply faded from existence, until there was nothing of him left. But in his joy at the monster’s demise, Sir Roger brushed the weapon’s lethal end against his own foot, and it ceased to exist, just as the monster had – without blood or pain, simply being erased from existence. So on a crutch did he ascend, back to the cave of the Giant’s Blood, where he found it, and there the Mace awaits the first man who can pass the three challenges, that it may be wielded again when Goza returns. The cave’s location is well enough known, but the challenges should suffice to keep any man from taking the Mace until the true need of it is upon us once more.
“Father, where is the Cave of the Giant’s Blood?” asked Tyrone.
“My grandpap told me that was the original name of Lizard’s Deep up on the side of the mountain,” Tyrell answered.
“Lizard’s Deep?” said Tyrone. “That cave only goes back a hundred feet! I have been in it many times!”
“Maybe there is more there than meets the eye,” his father said.
“I guess I have to go find out,” Tyrone said. He grabbed a knapsack and threw a few pieces of bread, an apple, and a torch into it.
As he left, he saw Cromwell standing at the edge of the village, holding his staff high over his head and chanting words in an arcane language. It seemed that he could see sparks hanging in the air where the staff had already passed.
“He is trying to weave a Forbidding,” Tyrell said. “I pray his magic is strong.”
“He will not stop Goza,” said Tyrone. “The Mace is our only hope.”
It took him over an hour to hike up the mountainside to the point where the mouth of Lizard’s Deep faced to the northeast. From this elevated vantage point, he could see his village, and he could even see traces of the Forbidding that Cromwell had conjured hanging in the air just outside of town. But he could also see a trail of smoke and dust hanging in the sky, its source a massive figure many miles away, but still visible, going too and fro and destroying all in its path. It was only an hour or two from his village at the most. He lit his torch with a flint and tinder and hastened into the cave.
Lizard’s Deep was a narrow oval cave, perhaps a hundred feet at its deepest point from the opening. The back wall was somewhat flat and vertical, like a wall, but there was no sign that it was anything but a natural rock face. Or was there? Tyrone had been in the cave many times, but it seemed as if there was something different about it today. There was a very faint gleam seeming to come from parts of the wall, but the torchlight made it impossible to see clearly. He dropped the torch in the dust and kicked dirt over it until the flame went out, and then closed his eyes and counted to ten. Finally, he opened them and stared at the wall before him.
He gasped for breath. Hanging in the air before him were letters of orange fire, suspended in the air in front of the sheer rock face. Together they formed one word – a question.
He thought for a moment. His own name was the first thing to come to mind, but somehow that didn’t seem right. He said it anyway, just to see what would happen. The fiery letters winked out for a moment, and then slowly reappeared, not as bright as before. NAME, he thought. What name could it possibly want? Then, suddenly, it came to him. There was only one name that indicated that the mace was needed.
“Goza the Destroyer!” he said.
The letters blazed up to incredible brightness, and then faded. There was a rumbling groan as the back wall of the cave split in the middle, opening a new passage before him. The passage was dimly lit, as the very stones of the wall glowed with a faint blue light. He advanced for perhaps a hundred feet, until he came to another wall. There the same glowing letters hung in the air before the flat rock face. Another one word question:
“To destroy Goza!” he said confidently.
The letters flickered and dimmed, then slowly rekindled. He thought for a moment. Goza always came back, he reflected, therefore he could not truly be destroyed. That must be it.
“To defeat Goza!” he tried the second time. Again, the letters guttered out and faded, and took a much longer time to re-appear. He realized he might not get another chance. What could the purpose be? If he did not retrieve the Mace of Negation, then his whole village – indeed, the whole kingom! – was doomed. Then it hit him, and he clapped his hand to his head. How simple could he be?
“Negation!” he cried, and the letters blazed up to brilliance, and then faded as the second rock wall split down the middle and opened before him.
This passage was even more brightly lit than the first, and Tyrone fairly ran across the bedrock to the final wall. The letters of fire were even brighter now, hanging in the air before the last wall. One last barrier between him and the Mace, one last question posed in a single word:
He recalled the tales of the Mace’s awesome power, and realized that there was only one promise that could satisfy whatever forces there were that guarded the magic weapon. Otherwise the Mace could become a tool of oppression, a source of great evil in the land.
“I promise to return the Mace here as soon as Goza is defeated,” he firmly said. The letters blazed in fiery satisfaction, and the walls slowly slid apart before him. The chamber glowed with blue fire, brighter than the full moon on an autumn night, outlining every crevice and crag in silvery fire. And, resting on a massive stalagmite in the middle of the floor, was the Mace of Negation.
It looked nothing like a weapon. One end was vaguely pointed, but the tip was crushed and blunted from repeated impact. The shaft was wooden, painted a dull yellow, and carved into a hexagonal cross section. Some dull runes were carved into its side, but they were in no language that Tyrone had ever seen. The actual mace was rectangular, pink, and dull-looking. Curious, he reached out and touched it, and it actually felt soft beneath his fingers. How could this rubbery thing possibly be a weapon? Still, all the old tales reported that this thing was Goza’s bane, so he grasped the wooden shaft and turned back towards the distant cave entrance.
By the time he got there, he could see that Goza had approached almost to the invisible boundary that Cromwell had created. The wizard stood behind his Forbidding, holding his staff aloft and chanting incantations to preserve its power. Tyrone broke into a trot, determined to be there when Goza reached the magical barrier. The villagers were huddled outside their homes, horses saddled and wagons loaded, hoping the Forbidding would hold and fearing it would not. Tyrone shoved past them and watched as Goza drew nearer and nearer to the Mage’s creation.
Tyrone gripped the Mace tightly. It looked even less impressive in the light of the morning sun. How could this bizarre tool harm such a mighty beast? He prayed Cromwell’s forbidding would hold so that he would not have to go up against the monster with such a useless-looking weapon.
The prayer was refused. Goza reached the forbidding, and the magic barrier crackled and spat as the creature touched it. Sparks showered the massive creature, but the Forbidding failed to forbid. It didn’t even persuade – Goza tore through it like it was a spiderweb, and then grabbed Cromwell in its snakelike tentacles. The Mage shrieked a mighty spell and brought his staff down on the monster’s head as hard as he could. Blue fire crackled from the staff, but it rebounded back on the mage and burned his body to ashes without so much as singeing Goza’s scaly hide.
Tyrone swallowed hard, his palms sweating where they gripped the Mace. Then he stepped forward, right into the path of the most fearsome monster of legend and history. Goza the Destroyer stopped, swaying on its massive clawed feet, its snakelike tentacles whipping back and forth. Its mouth yawned wide, its hundreds of razor sharp teeth specked and clotted with blood. The young scribe had never been so scared in his life.
“Stop!” he said. “Turn back, Goza, or I shall destroy you!”
The massive beast stopped, its eyeless face regarding the youth in its path. Tyrone could not tell if it was afraid, curious, or about to collapse into hysterical laughter at the arrogance of this slight youth that barred its path with a glorified stick. Finally, one of its tendrils reached out, groping for Tyrone’s face. Closer and closer it drew, until he could see that every tiny sucker pad was in fact another mouth full of fangs, ready to latch onto his face.
“Why not?” Tyrone whispered to himself, and swung the mace at it. The pink rubbery rectangle swiped across the monstrous tentacle – and the section that it touched simply vanished. The severed tip fell to the ground, thrashing about wildly. It brushed across Tyrone’s ankle, and he drew his foot back and swept the pink rectangle across it. The severed appendage vanished as if it had never existed.
Goza shrieked and started to turn, but Tyrone leaped forward and swept the Mace across its mighty haunch. Monster flesh vanished at its touch, and the leg fell to the ground, severed clean. Goza roared in pain and confusion, its sole remaining leg propelling him in a circle. Tyrone swung as hard as he could, and everywhere the Mace touched, the legendary beast was negated, just as the old tales said. Soon there were only fragments of the beast lying on the ground, and Tyrone went from one to the next, busily scrubbing them out of existence as the villagers looked on and cheered. By the time the sun had climbed to noontide, there was no trace of Goza left.
When it was done, he held the Mace aloft, newly respectful of its power.
“The King will knight you for this, my son!” Tyrell said jubilantly. “You have saved us all!”
“Not yet, Father,” Tyrone said solemnly. “I have a promise to keep.” As the people of the village watched curiously, he began toiling up to the path towards Lizard’s Deep to return the Mace to its home.
Far away, in the Valley of Fire, deep in a remote cave, faint lines began to appear in the air. Gradually, they coalesced into a single, iridescent scale, hanging in the air. A few moments later, another scale began to appear beside it as Goza slowly reappeared. It might take a millennium, but he would be back.
“All right, who erased my monster?” the angry comic illustrator snapped.
His co-workers looked at his messy workplace and shrugged. One of them concealed a snicker behind a notebook he was holding.
“This isn’t funny, guys!” the artist said. “Three times I’ve drawn him this morning, and three times I step away from my desk and find him completely erased. If I catch whoever did this I’m going to kick their -”
“Stow it, Larry!” the editor snapped. “I think you just don’t want me to see this new creature of yours because it’s lame.”
“That’s not fair boss!” the illustrator whined. “Goza is awesome; just let me draw him again!”
He took the offending pencil with the big pink eraser on its end and chunked it in his drawer, then picked up a fine-tipped, freshly sharpened one, and began sketching Goza’s scales.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
During Enrichment Week, I taught a creative writing seminar class, and we wrote one story each day for four days. I took part as well, and this children's story was the result of a short story challenge - each person came up with a list of six random things that had to appear in the story, and then we swapped lists. This was my result:
Short Story Challenge – Required Elements: a bowl of talking fruit, a cat who eats leeks, a mental asylum, a giant bug fight, George Washington, and a self-moving car.
THE MAD SCIENTIST DAY CARE CLUB
A Short Story by
Lewis B. Smith
Timothy Snodgrass and Johnny Belcher waited impatiently for the school bell to ring, signaling the end of the day. The two fifth graders had been inseparable since they met on the first day of school three years before. Having odd last names had singled them out for a certain amount of ribbing by their classmates, but it had also bound them together in what they liked to call “the Rejects’ Club.” They had both become fairly popular over time, but they enjoyed each other’s company and the sense of camaraderie that the “club” had given them that first year, so they kept the name even if it didn’t exactly fit any more.
The clock’s second hand seemed stuck in tar, it moved so slowly, but finally it crawled to the top of its orbit once more, signaling that it was 3:15, and the end of day bell rang. At last! School was out! The boys grabbed their books and ran for the door, ignoring the droning voice of their teacher, Mister Longino, as he reminded them of the math assignment that was due tomorrow. That could wait, they thought, because it was Thursday, and that meant that they got to go to Doc Thrugmeister’s house!
Thrugmeister was an eccentric scientist who lived about five blocks from the school on the edge of a huge vacant lot. His house was a tall, rundown Victorian gingerbread monstrosity that had probably been quite lovely in its time. Doc had bought it cheap because no one really wanted to fix it up, and he frankly didn’t care what the outside looked like as long as his equipment stayed dry. Doc was a distant cousin to Tim’s mother, and he had agreed to watch the boys every Thursday so she and her husband could meet after work and have dinner. Since they were best friends with Johnny’s parents, they had decided earlier in the year to make the dinner date a foursome, and Johnny got to join his best friend once a week at Doc’s house for three hours after school.
Timothy thought that Doc was the coolest human being on the planet, because the man was an honest-to-gosh mad scientist. Thrugmeister wore an actual lab coat around the house and was always doing some crazy experiment or testing a new invention. The boys looked forward to Thursdays as the high point of their week because Doc was the one grown-up who talked to them like they were equals, and often let them help him with his experiments.
As they trotted down the street, the friends passed a tall chain link fence that ran parallel to the sidewalk. A familiar figure in a white jumpsuit leaned against it, his hands clutching the wire.
“Hey young goldfish! Off to Doc’s house again?” the tall man asked.
“Hi Crazy Joe!” Tim said. “Yeah, it’s Thursday, ain’t it great! Doc said his new invention should be ready today.”
Crazy Joe grinned at them. The fence was the boundary of the Calm Chowder Asylum, the local nut house, and Joe was a resident there. He spent nearly every afternoon when the weather was nice standing at the fence and staring out at the world, referring to all the kids he saw as “Goldfish” and all the grown-ups as “Sharks.”
“You little goldfish be careful. That Doc is one crazy old shark!” he said.
“I guess you would know, huh Joe?” Johnny said.
“Hey, I’m getting better,” the mental patient replied. “Just last night I was talking to my psychiatrist, and I said ‘Doc, you gotta help me! Half the time I think I’m a teepee, and the other half I think I’m a wigwam!’ You know what he said to me?”
Timothy had heard the joke before, but he also knew Crazy Joe loved telling it, so he played along.
“What did he tell you, Crazy Joe?” he asked.
“He said: ‘Your problem is, you’re two tents!’ Ha ha! Get it . . . too tense, two tents?” Joe cackled.
“You are one funny crazy guy, Joe!” Johnny said. There was no ill-will in the banter, the boys simply called life like they saw it. If Joe wasn’t crazy, he wouldn’t be in the asylum, they figured. Neither of them realized that he was actually an orderly shirking bedpan duty whenever he could by hanging out at the fence.
Passing the asylum, they briskly walked the last couple of blocks to Doc’s house and dumped their backpacks on his front porch. One of Doc’s rules was ‘No homework in my house!’ and they cheerfully respected it. He believed life was too short to waste conjugating verbs and multiplying fractions when the boys could be helping with do real science.
“Doc! We’re here!” Tim announced as they walked in.
There was a large bowl of fruit on the hallway table that had not been there the last time they visited, and as they passed it, the banana suddenly popped upright and began to sing the first stanza of ‘Yes, we have no bananas.’ Then the apple interrupted it.
“It makes no sense for you to sing that,” it said. “You are here, singing the song, so we obviously have bananas!”
“Well, first of all, I am the only banana in the bowl, so technically, the lyrics are correct -” the banana began.
“Orange you being over-literal?” the orange chimed in.
“No one invited you into this!” the apple snapped. “Why don’t you go contemplate your navel!”
“You just think you can get away with being rude because you’re all golden and delicious!” said the banana.
The boys stared at the bowl of talking fruit in wonder as Doc poked his head out of the lab. He saw the looks on their faces and cackled.
“There you are!” he said. “How do you like my new gizmo?”
“You made fruit talk?” Johnny asked.
“Hey, if a singing bass on a plaque can be sold into hundreds of thousands of homes, why not a bowl of wisecracking, argumentative fruit?” Thrugmeister asked them.
“So is this the invention you were so excited about?” asked Timothy.
“Oh no, that is just a gimmick to put some groceries on the table,” Thrugmeister said. “I already have orders for fifty of them! Come on into the lab and I’ll show you my greatest invention ever.”
They boys walked into the lab, eager to see what Doc was talking about. Mr. Beans hopped up onto one of the lab tables and meowed loudly as they came in. He was an elderly grey tabby cat with a large white blotch on one side shaped vaguely like a pair of nostrils. Timothy stopped to scratch him behind the ears.
“Beans is probably hungry,” said Thrugmeister. “Here you go, you greedy old boy!” He set a plate full of onion sprouts on the table, and the cat began chowing down enthusiastically.
“I thought cats liked meat,” Johnny said.
“Mr. Beans is mostly vegetarian these days,” said Doc. “He especially loves leeks of all sorts.”
“Wait – you mean, he likes to take a leak?” Timothy asked.
Doc rolled his eyes. “No, not leaks, leeks!” he said. “Onions, scallions, stuff like that!”
Timothy shrugged. “Weird cat!” he said. “So show us this great project of yours, Doc!”
Thrugmeister led them out the back door of the lab to a huge garage. Parked there was a 1978 Dodge Charger, painted gleaming black. A hole had been cut in its hood and a large, gleaming metal gadget protruded from it, with several colored lights winking on it. In the center of the steering wheel another metal plate with flashing lights had been mounted.
“So it’s a souped up Dodge,” Johnny said, sounding unimpressed.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Doc said. “I give you – the Dimensional Dodge!”
“Dimensional?” the boys asked.
“Well, trans-dimensional, to be exact,” Doc Thrugmeister said. “Hop on in and we’ll take her for a spin.”
The two boys climbed in the back seat, and Doc got in after them – on the passenger side!
“Wait a sec, who is going to drive?” asked Johnny.
“The Dimensional Dodge is entirely self-piloting,” Doc said. “Its operation requires adjustments that are far more quick and precise than any person can make.”
“Where shall we go today, Master?” a voice asked with an impeccable English accent.
“Let’s show the boys that planet we last visited,” said Doc.
“Wait, did you just say planet??” Tim asked.
“Indeed!” said Doc. “Off we go!”
“But I have to be back by seven!” Johnny said, but by then the garage had disappeared and the car was surrounded by the blackness of space and the comet-like streaks of stars flashing by. Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” was blaring on the stereo. In a matter of minutes, the car slowed, the streaks resolved themselves into dots of light – although arranged in a pattern that resembled no night sky either boy had ever seen.
“Well, boys, welcome the far side of our galaxy,” said Doc. “I should remind you that the Dimensional Dodge does generate a protective shield around itself; as long as you stay in the car you are safe from anything you see outside the windows. But don’t get out, no matter what you see!”
The boys were still trying to process how they got from a garage in Pennsylvania to wherever this place was when the ground began to rumble. Over the horizon, a gleaming black dome as big as a sports stadium drew into view. Underneath it, six giant legs, each one multi-jointed and several feet in diameter, churned to carry the enormous beetle forward.
“I hate bugs!” Johnny muttered.
Suddenly a booming chittering sounded from behind them, and another colossal insect – this one a mantis over a hundred yards in length - appeared and attacked the giant beetle. The two colossal arthropods grappled and rolled back and forth, trying to bring their mandibles to bear on each other. The boys shrieked in fear, but even when the giant bugs rolled over the car, the force field protected them from harm.
“Can we go home?” Timothy begged.
“Don’t you want to see who wins?” Doc asked.
At that moment the giant mantis got its claws around the beetle’s head and yanked with enormous strength, pulling the head free of the thorax. Foul smelling green bug juice sluiced out, soaking the car.
“OK, score one for the mantis!” said Tim. “Now can we go?”
“Back to Pennsylvania it is!” said Doc, and the car lifted off the planet’s rocky surface and rocketed into the sky. The stars blurred and shifted as they jumped across dimensions again. They set down in a snow-covered field next to a dirt road with a stone wall standing alongside it. In the distance a large barn stood, and some men clad in rather tattered clothes were huddled around a fire.
“Wasn’t it spring when we left?” asked Timothy.
“And where are the power lines?” asked Johnny.
“Dodge, where are we?” asked Doc.
“We are in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania,” said the car with the English accent.
“All right, then, only a few miles from home,” said Doc. “But what year is it?”
“It is January of 1777,” the car calmly replied.
“Why did you bring us back two hundred and forty years early?” Thrugmeister asked angrily.
“You said Pennsylvania, you did not specify a timeframe,” the automobile indignantly replied.
About this time a man on horseback approached. He was tall and imposing and somehow familiar, and he regarded the vehicle and its occupants curiously. Johnny rolled down his window.
“Where are you gentlemen from, and what is this contraption you are in?” the man asked. When he spoke, they could see he was missing several teeth.
“We are from Philadelphia, and this is our carriage,” said Doc before the boys could answer.
“What kind of carriage has no horses?” the man demanded.
“It’s a horseless carriage, just arrived from Germany,” Timothy said quickly. “Sir, are you -”
The man sighed, and a hint of a smile played at the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, I am General Washington,” he said. “Your vehicle made my soldiers nervous.”
“Well, then, we shall get out of your way,” said Doc. “Dodge, please take us back home!”
“Watch out for that Benedict Arnold!” yelled Johnny. “He’s a turncoat!”
“What do you mean? Arnold is one of my best -” Washington started to say, then fell silent as the car lifted off the ground and into the sky. The boys rolled up the window as the stars turned to streaks again.
Moments later they were back in Doc’s garage, and the boys came tumbling out of the Dimensional Dodge just as the doorbell rang.
“That should be your parents,” Doc said. “See you lads next Thursday?”
“You betcha!” Johnny said. “Do you think we can go look at dinosaurs?”
“I don’t see why not,” Doc said, and the boys ran for the front door to collect their backpacks, and another afternoon at the Mad Scientist Day Care Club came to an end.