Posts Tagged ‘A to Z Blogging Challenge’

A to Z Challenge Reflections 2018

May 7, 2018

It was certainly a long but interesting April, was it not? I tend to prepare for April months in advance and this year was no different. I worked fairly hard at picking my posts carefully based on what I thought would be fun to write about. On April 1, I was over two weeks ahead which was really nice. It gave me plenty of time to work on Media Update posts and to actually take a little break from blogging. During week 2 I wrote week 3 and then took another break and then I banged out the rest. For the most part, the writing went easily. Some of it was done at lunch hour at work, some on the train to and from the movie theater, but most of it was done from my couch.

This month was a little bit interesting for me because, as we all know, the real world does not stop while we blog. There was a little family get together for Seder and Easter during the weekend of April 1 so I was out of town. That’s what buffers are for. There was a much larger family get together two weeks later which was a memorial for my Great Aunt Tuta. I saw a lot of family that I had not seen for a while, some of them for at least over a decade. It was really fantastic to have a buffer built up so I could concentrate on hanging out instead of taking that time to write. I also started seeing a psychiatric nurse in April and tending more to my physical and mental health. I started on Zoloft last week.

I thought the posts I came up with worked out pretty well. Some of them ended up a little weirder than I originally intended. For example, Xenopus was a little slice of life story about a frog trying to date a human and realizing he never wanted such things. As with most one-shot stories I do, it is a reflection of what I was feeling at the time. I felt similarly odd about the story of a guy who gets dragged under a commuter train and then resurrects (Died on a Saturday). I also spent quite a bit of time doing some fan gushing about Critical Role, Undertale, NSP, and other favorites of mine. I usually never write such gushing posts but I felt like the challenge was a good excuse for it. I reviewed some movies I had I had been meaning to see. I reviewed the law (twice) and had a lot of fun doing so. Finally, I did three parts of a new as yet unnamed ongoing story.

I hate to talk numbers on my blog as I have stated over and over that I do not write this blog for page hits or views or anything. However, I was touched at how much this little blog was visited over the last month. The first year I did this challenge in 2015, I got 142 views which blew my mind. Last year, I got 398 views which really made me happy. This year, I got a whopping 528 views with 243 visitors and I am at 1000 views for the year. To put that in perspective, I am now at 2/3 of the visitors I had all year last year and it is only May. I am so glad to have all of you and that you spent even a moment on my shenanigans. Your kind words in your comments and your insightful questions were really encouraging. I hope I responded to all of you. I made a point of doing so.

I visited a lot of blogs this past April. I had a lot of fun reading your stuff and seeing how I could improve my own material. It felt really good to be so connected just like I am every year at this time. I always wish I could have done more and seen more every year but there is only so much time and energy in my day. I loved the utilization of Google Sheets to really lay out who was participating. I wish all of the links had worked but I feel that had a lot to do with people posting links before publishing the accompanying post. Once again, I feel like there is a divide between WordPress and Blogger. I wish the two linked together better but I think everything mostly worked out. I had to dust off the old HTML skills to post links in Blogger comments and I was glad to still have those skills.

I would like to give a shout out to the people who were particularly vocal in my comments and whose posts I also enjoyed:

Iain Kelly
https://iainkellywriting.com

Silvia Writes
https://silviatomasvillalobos.wordpress.com/

An Artist’s Path
http://artistpath.wordpress.com/

Beyond the Flow (Rowena)
http://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/

Donna B. McNicol
http://dbmcnicol.com/

Colette Bates
http://colettebates.wordpress.com/

And many more and also the people who visited but did not comment, I hope you enjoyed yourself!

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The Zoo

April 30, 2018

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So, I thought I would celebrate the end of this April challenge by taking a trip to the Zoo. Of course, you don’t know in what order I wrote all of these posts so you bought that line hook line and sinker. I picked the perfect Saturday to go to the Zoo. The sun was shining high up in the sky and there was not even a hint of rain on the horizon. It was about sixty degrees Fahrenheit (16 Celsius) and there was a cool breeze when I set out. I grabbed my phone and my phone battery pack and set out toward the Zoo. To get to the Zoo, I did not climb into my car. I instead decided to walk. Walking would bring me through the woods in Druid Hill Park. This always a slightly challenging but pleasant walk. This time it was filled with Frisbee Golfers. I warily watched them to make sure I did not get accidentally beaned by flying discs.

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To get to the Maryland Zoo, I had to actually walk past it first since the gate is on the far side of the park from my house. I walked the two miles to the gate and there was no line even though it was a nice day. It had been more than twenty years since I had been to that zoo even though it has never been far from where I lived (except when I lived in New Jersey). I had no idea where to go and it was way different from when I had last been. I climbed onto a tram that took me to the actual exhibits. The zoo’s land is very big and spread out and after two miles I was glad to sit in a tram for a few minutes. The ride over was pleasant and then I was walking in a sea of people, most of which were tiny children.

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The first things that I saw to my right were penguins. I had not really been expecting penguins as Maryland is only frosty part of the year. They were cute little African Penguins, though, not the larger varieties from the extreme South. They happily swam around as I took pictures and observed their shenanigans. I then took a trip to the Polar Bear area. The polar bears pulled a me and decided to stay inside and chill. However, right next to their exhibit is the Rise and Conquer exhibit. For those who do not know, Rise and Conquer are the names of the very real ravens that are brought to every home game of the Ravens football team. Between games and offseason, the two celebrities hang out at the Maryland Zoo in what I can only assume is a private bird apartment. Meanwhile, two celebrity lookalikes greet the crowds out in the public part of the Maryland Zoo. Over the years I have become a little obsessed with ravens partly because my hometown is so obsessed with them too.

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From there I pretty much went to grab something to eat since I had not gotten lunch yet. Food was expensive so I just got some cheese fries so I could keep going without overfilling my stomach. It was at this point that I realized that I was not only in a sea of humanity, but I was also in a menagerie of languages and accents. I do not know if this day was different but there were so many people speaking languages other than English. It truly was a melting pot of all these different cultures that were floating around. I definitely thought I heard Japanese, Spanish, and something that sounded Eastern European. I am not sure if the Zoo is a destination for tourists or if it is just a magnet for the more ethnic members of our city. Either way, it was a really interesting soundscape.

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After eating, I made my way into the African Journey section. I was ready to really see some animals. I walked along familiar wooden walkways to various animal enclosures and I saw animals from a whole other continent. I was a little disappointed because the leopard and the lions were being shy. I was especially keen on seeing the leopard because it is a variant of the panther which is the namesake of one of my current Tabletop RPG characters. However, there was a zoo employee in front of the cheetahs and she told us all about cheetahs who were busy pressing their noses against the fence as they watched the gazelles run around across the way. For example, I had no idea that cheetah claws do not retract and are therefore dull and are used more as cleats than as knives.

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I seem to remember all of the monkeys and apes being in cages in the open air but now they are behind glass in a cool little house. I do remember them fling poop as a kid so I suppose putting them behind glass removes that particular hazard. The place was dark and not exactly conducive to taking pictures as I tended to pick up people’s reflections instead. Still, the monkeys are definitely some of the most interesting because they are the most like us without being us. After seeing so much, I was kind of tired. I did not see anything on the map about a reptile house which used to exist. It was my nemesis growing up but I have since become fascinated with snakes (from afar). I decided that since I had been there for over an hour and the place was not far from closing that it was time to head home. I found my way back to the tram and ended up back at the prairie dogs and then I walked back out through the gate. After that, my home was just another walk away.

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As a side note, there were two reasons that I went back to the Zoo after all of these years. The first was that it was an easy Z word. I could have easily written a story about a zoo for dragons or I could have reviewed the movie Zoombies (Zombie zoo animals) but I felt like walking. The other reason was that I am still playing Pokemon Go and I have walked past the zoo enough to know that there are plenty of awesome pokemon in there. Yet again, Pokemon Go inspired me to exercise more than I would have. Thanks to the app, I know that I walked almost exactly 6 km altogether which is nearly 4 miles. There were a lot of hills and such along the way so I definitely felt like I got a good workout. I definitely recommend a trip to the Maryland Zoo.

Your Next Assignment

April 28, 2018

Robin yawned as she turned on her laptop. It was eight in the morning and she was busy shoveling eggs into her mouth as she waited for the computer to boot up. She had finished her previous temp assignment a few days earlier and she was starting to get nervous. She was sending out applications for real jobs but several days of no pay wore on her nerves. She could also feel herself getting too comfortable at home as the days passed from when she last went to a job and acted semi-professional. Her computer finally booted and she brought up her e-mail with her stomach tightening at the potential of interview requests or requests for additional information.

In fact, there was none of that. Robin did not have time to be disappointed, though, because the only e-mail she had received overnight was one from her contact at the temp agency, Stacy. It was really vague but it talked about a new assignment. She looked for a date and time and the other usual details but that was the odd thing. There was a request from Stacy for a meeting and it was not an address she was familiar with. She asked Robin to show up dressed casual and the time was ten in the morning on the current date. That last bit made Robin’s eyes go wide and she nearly spit out some eggs. That did not leave much time to get dressed and get to the meeting. Casual dress probably did not include pajamas.

After a quick shower and a change of clothes, Robin hopped into her beat-up car and headed toward the meeting. In the frenzy of getting dressed, putting on makeup, and climbing into the car, she had had no time to consider what this job might be. She was used to tedious office work which was occasionally interrupted by actual research work where she felt a little like Nancy Drew combined with Indiana Jones. This was way out of the usual parameters and Stacy usually let Robin know exactly what was happening. This was weird and it set Robin on edge. She had spent her life making sure that her interactions with weird stayed strictly in fiction. Experiencing it now gave her a sour feeling in her stomach.

She arrived at the address and it was a series of storage lockers with no sign and nobody around. It did not even look like a business and instead looked like the kind of place junkies would shoot up. She warily got out of her car and that is when Stacy stepped out from behind a wall. The mousy office girl looked totally out of place in the worn neighborhood.

“Hey Robin,” Stacy said, looking up from a clipboard. “Welcome. I’m glad you made it.”

“Just barely,” Robin said. “You’ve got me really curious about this job, Stacy. I’m kind of feeling weird about all of this.”

“Well,” Stacy said. “I can understand that. Unfortunately, the name of the employer that is contracting you is to be kept confidential.”

“Umm,” Robin said. “How am I supposed to get my orders?”

Stacy smiled. “Well, I do have a solution here. The employer has included a journal in the welcome package that they say will tell you everything you need to know.” She held out an old leatherbound book and handed it to Robin. Robin looked it over an flipped it open and the pages were blank. She was more confused than ever. “Additionally, I am to give you this key and point you in the right direction.” Robin took the key in her hand and instantly felt strange.

“Point me in the right direction?” Robin asked. She felt as if she was suddenly underwater, all floaty but under pressure.

“Yes,” Stacy said. “In there.” Stacy pointed at one of the storage units and Robin felt herself nod.

Robin started to shamble toward the storage unit without another word. The world started to tilt side to side but she kept an eye on that storage unit door. She was still clutching the key and the journal as she struggled to walk toward that storage unit. Each step became harder and harder. As she approached the sliding door it slid open and she found herself desperately walking into the darkness.

It seemed like a moment later when she woke up and she realized that she was in a speeding car, heading down a highway she had never seen before. She reached down to grab a cold bottle of water and sipped from it as she drove. She held onto the wheel hard as she tried to look for some signs or some clue as to where she was. She looked down and the key from before was in the ignition. The journal was open on the passenger seat but she had no time to inspect it further. There was a post-it on the dashboard that said “turn here” and she almost missed the exit. She kept driving until she saw an open field to drive onto and she turned off the car and tried to breathe.

After a while, she took her seatbelt off and opened the driver’s side door to get out. As she started to slide out, something nudged her leg. She reached down to grab it and found that it was the hilt of a sword. What the Hell was going on? She settled back into the driver’s seat and grabbed the journal and as she did she saw a pen and a stack of blank post-its. She wondered what that was about. She looked at the journal and where it was blank earlier, there was now writing. A passage caught her eye.

“To slay the beast, grasp the sword and do not back down”

She shook her head and slipped out of the car but grabbed the sword and drew it from its sheath. It looked really old so what was it doing in this car she had never seen before? She had no chance to think about it further as she heard a growl behind her. She turned to see some sort of dog creature, crouching in the tall grass. It charged and she dodged to the side as it sailed by. It lunged again and instincts took over and she slashed at it with the sword. It fell to the ground still and bleeding. There was a sudden pain in her arm as she watched a tattoo of the dog creature form. What was going on?

Xenopus

April 27, 2018

“And then the little girl says ‘No, what did it look like before it died?” Melissa said. “And then the guy goes” Then she made a great show of looking surprised and then she burst out laughing. I heard myself laughing but I know that it was not real. The joke was not all that funny and I was distracted. I was out of my element and more than a little uncomfortable.

I slowly cut into the steak in front of me and pushed each forkful into my mouth one by one. It was probably fine but I was used to a mouth full of earthworm instead. I thought of the delicious variety of worms that I had enjoyed at lunch which had been far superior to the steak. I understood that I was in the minority in that opinion. I knew very well that most would shake their head at me with a gentle yet smug smile and tell me that I would figure it out eventually. ‘You’ll see’ they might say as if I did not know myself.

“Do you get it?” Melissa asked. She looked expectantly at me and I smiled back at her.

“Yeah,” I said while nodding. “I got it. Very funny.”

It is not that Melissa was a bad person or that I did not enjoy her company. In another world, she could be my friend and I would definitely enjoy that. However, it was really the pressure of the situation. I was expected to be here. Not specifically the restaurant but specifically on a date. Which was weird because I did not want to be on a date. Yet here I was, talking to a perfectly nice person about perfectly nice things. All the time I was thinking about how I wished I was back home in the water, swimming around. The chair was uncomfortable and I felt dry.

“Is anything wrong?” Melissa asked. “You’ve been really quiet.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just not used to this fork and knife thing. I usually shove things in my mouth with my claws, you know?”

“Oh,” Melissa said. She blinked and looked back at her food, suddenly finding her salad very interesting.

This date was a setup. I could not believe that I had gone along with this. When Raina had suggested that I go out with her friend from work, I shrugged and tried to move to a different subject. She never got the clue and persisted to bug me about it. I could not shake her no matter what excuse I made and finally, I had been forced to give in. If I told her that I Was content, she probably would have shaken her head and told me that I was just being shy. Nobody wanted to believe that a guy could wake up alone and feel good about it. For the record, they did not believe a woman could do the same.

“So,” Melissa said. “Do you watch Blue Bloods?”

“What?” I asked. “Um, no, I don’t have a television. It’s a bit difficult with all of the water.”

“Oh,” Melissa said. She was clearly disappointed.

“What’s it about?” I asked, not wanting to take the air out of her balloon yet again.

“Oh!” Melissa said with a smile. “It’s about a family of cops and one lawyer. They fight crime and deal with family stuff.”

“Well, I can approve of fighting crime for sure,” I said. She did not immediately chuckle at that softball so I blurted out. “I had an uncle who was a lawyer.”

“Cool,” she said, clearly uninterested. “Do you get out to watch movies ever?”

“It’s hard to get out of the stream, really,” I said. “This is the longest I’ve been out of water for a while.”

“So have you seen any movies?” She asked, her opinion of me clearly falling lower every second.

I shrugged. “I’ve seen Die Hard.”

She laughed. “That doesn’t count. Everybody has seen Die Hard.”

I nodded and smiled, feeling like a complete jackass. Obviously, I had just failed some test. I searched my mind for something to talk about with this girl. She deserved pleasant conversation at a minimum. I was definitely failing at that task. I thought about every topic I was even remotely knowledgeable about and nothing seemed like it would be up Melissa’s alley. She was approaching something ‘normal’ which was a bit frightening to me. I am anything but normal. I am a freak. I am broken.

“This is a bad date, huh?” She asked. She smiled at me in a way that inspired honesty.

“Yeah, uh, it’s pretty bad,” I said. I tried to smile to soften the blow.

“Sorry,” Melissa said. “I made all the decisions for this date and now you’re not having any fun.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “I think it might be my fault a little bit. I didn’t want to come out and I did anyway. Maybe nobody’s at fault. We can’t blame Raina, for sure.”

“She’s great,” Melissa said.

“She really is,” I said.

“Do you have a thing for Raina?” Melissa asked as if that would explain everything. If it were true, it would explain everything. It also would be pretty danged convenient and I would definitely not be in the position I had put myself.

“No,” I said. “I don’t have a thing for anybody. There’s nothing wrong with you. I just don’t want this.”

“Don’t want what?” Melissa asked. She looked as confused as I often felt.

“Dates,” I said. “A girlfriend. A boyfriend. A significant other. To impress anyone.”

“Wow,” she said. “That’s really weird.”

“Tell me about it,” I said. “Are you going to tell me that I’m wrong.”

“No,” She said. “I don’t get it but I guess I get it.” She shrugged.

“Thank you,” I said. “Can I drive you home?”

“No,” She said. “I’ll just take the bus.”

I nodded. “Okay. Sorry.”

She nodded in return and walked out.

Faith of the Raven Pt. 3

April 26, 2018

The woods had been infested with the undead and human thugs. Carania knew that with the Raven Queen’s boons she could probably save the day but there was time to be more efficient about it. So, it was time to do a little recruiting. Few things banded people together like dealing with the undead and Carania was counting on that. After examining her map, she decided to head back toward the town of Thorncatch that she had previously just passed through. She found the road again and made her way back to the town limits. Along the way, she discovered her horse Rhiannon wandering on the side of the road. She had thankfully fled when Carania had been shot and killed. Rhiannon was particularly happy when Carania approached.

The two of them stood outside of the gate of the one manor at Thorncatch which Carania assumed housed the Thorncatch family. Most villages and cities in Eloria were built around and named after the noble families that lived there. However, the gate was fastened shut and there was not a bit of movement in the place no matter how long Carania banged on the gate and yelled. Admitting defeat, she headed to the only tavern in town which bore the name of The Grasshopper. Carania pushed her way inside and pulled her hood down and shook her hair free. The first thing she was confronted with was the warmth and smoke from a fire. The second thing she noticed that there was a bird in the rafters and it was a raven.

Carania stared dumbfounded at the bird and it turned its head to stare back at her as it cawed. Strangely, she saw intelligence in the birds’ eyes. Of course, she knew that ravens were intelligent birds in their own right but there was something more in those shiny, obsidian eyes. She looked down at her hand which had the symbol of the raven on it and then back at the actual raven. It was too much to just be a coincidence, right?

“I could draw you a picture,” a voice said. “before she pecks out your eyes for looking at her funny.”

Carania tore her eyes away from the bird and looked toward the source of the voice. “You see it too?” She asked. She thought maybe the Raven Queen had sent the raven as a sign.

“Of course I see it too and she’s a her not an it,” the young man said. “Her name is Grim, short for Grimalkin.”

“Wait,” Carania said. “isn’t that just a generic term for a cat? That’s a bird.” She gestured at Grim as she said it as if it was not an obvious statement.

“Very smart. She is my familiar,” the young man said. “Which means she can change. We all change. She was a cat when I first summoned her but she changed along the way.” Carania sensed there was more meaning here than the words conveyed but she felt it was not the time to probe that particular subject.

“Sorry for assuming so much about tour familiar,” Carania said. “So you must be proficient in magic then? Oh! My name is Carania Garion. What’s your name?”

The young man took a drag off of the herb he had been smoking and smiled. “Sure, why not? My name is Arne and yes I am a wizard.”

“Arne what?” Carania asked.

“Simply Arne,” he said with a hard look that said ‘drop the subject’. “What’s your deal, Carania Garion?”

“I’m a paladin of the Raven Queen and I came here to ask the Thorncatch family for help in hunting the necromancer in the woods near here,” Carania said.

There was a silence during which Grim cawed and Arne took another drag from his herb and then he blew the smoke out slowly. “That was pretty direct,” he said. “I like that. It’s refreshingly honest. Unfortunately, Thorncatch Manor is all closed down. Lord and Lady Thorncatch left one day to travel and never came back. Tough luck there.”

“I suppose I could attempt the hunt on my own,” Carania said. “but I was told to get help where I could get it.”

“Told? Is there coin in it then?” Arne asked. “I could be convinced to help for the promise of a challenge and sufficient pay.”

“Well,” Carania said as she thought hard about that. “it is sort of a holy mission but I bet that the necromancer will have some gold that you’re free to have a share of.”

“A holy mission?” Arne asked. “I’m not so sure about all of that. Don’t get me wrong. I am experienced but I am not a holy person and I have never been on a holy mission before.”

A dwarf sitting at a table alone spoke up. “You’ve never been on a holy mission? Truly? It’s a little bit like sailing with the wind at your back. Somebody out there wants you to succeed. My name’s Galath Windham and I’m a cleric of Pelor. I’m definitely available to help you on your quest.”

“Just like that?” Arne asked. “I guess my share just shrank, huh?” He stubbed out the burning herb he had been smoking on the surface of the bar. It was not the most polite thing to do but Carania did not see any member of the staff about to yell at the wizard and Carania was not about to ruin a chance by scolding him herself.

Carania turned back to face Arne. “So you’ve let go of your reservations then? You’ll join me as well?” She smiled at the young man who paused and made a face like he had been tricked.

“Like I said,” Arne said. “I enjoy a good challenge and it’s been a long time since one came along. You came here looking for help and you’re going to get it.”

“Thank you,” Carania said. “I seem to have lucked out in Thorncatch afterall.”

“I take it from your statement that you have taken me up on my offer of help as well?” Galath asked. “Will an elf take help from a dwarf?”

“Hmm,” Carania said. “I suppose I have little choice.” Galath looked a bit disappointed at that but then Carania smiled. “Aside from that, I have no bigotry in my heart. All who oppose undeath are welcome.”

“That’s definitely in my job description,” Galath said. “I’ll fight by your side.”

“And I’ll fight a little behind the both of you where I hopefully won’t get hurt,” Arne said.

“That’s fair enough,” Carania said. “Sleep well because we ride out at dawn.”

Vampire Brain

April 25, 2018

Living in Neptune had never been the most stable thing in the first place. It was a town divided by class warfare, those living in the fabulous 90909 zip code versus everyone else. Like most 09ers, Crystal had lived the high life thanks to her parents both being high-priced lawyers in high demand and a sizeable inheritance from Grandma. She had never wanted for anything in her life. Here parents’ wealth and the wealth of her friends was the eternal wellspring that would always be there. When the Hellmouth had opened in the basement of Caitlin Ford’s mansion, it had changed everything. Vampires were something sparkly in that movie with Robert Pattinson one moment and then they were suddenly real. The town of Neptune had changed. Instead of the haves versus the have-nots, it was humans versus vampires and demons.

Crystal had been at a party at Caitlin’s when it all went down. At the time, Caitlin was attempting to buy her way back into the hearts of Neptune’s finest. She had left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth when she had cheated on her boyfriend with a biker who later turned up beaten to a pulp. When the vampires arrived, they just started ripping through the mansion and feeding off of the wealthy guests. Crystal had been lucky to have been in the spacious backyard when it started. As she ran, she witnessed the infamous Veronica Mars try to fight the vampires and then the whole Sheriff’s office arrived. In the melee, Crystal had been forced to fight which is when she discovered that she had powers of her own. She was recruited by a squad of Buffy Summers’ slayers and taught that she had had potential which was realized when she was exposed to the Hellmouth’s magic. They brought her back to the Neptune Grand which would be a base for the Slayer Army and a refuge for survivors of the vampire attacks.

Although Crystal had become a lieutenant in this new army, she had recently been benched because she had violated the quarantine agreed upon by the Sheriff’s Office and the Slayers. She had let two scientists and some mercenaries in from Seattle. She thought maybe the scientists could help and the Slayers had agreed but she was still grounded for breaking the rules. She had decided to check in on the scientists while she was stuck on guard duty to see if any progress had been made. If they provided new information, maybe she would be allowed back on the front lines where it was not so boring. She took the stairs down from the roof and headed to the makeshift laboratory. The door was open but Crystal knocked on the doorframe. Almost getting killed and combatting the undead had somehow impressed the importance of politeness.

Ravi looked up from scribbling some notes in a journal and smiled at her. “Oh come in,” he said in that British accent “It’s nice of you to check up on us, Crystal.”

“Well,” Crystal said. “I’m excited that you might have news each time I visit.”

Ravi shrugged. “Scientific progress takes time. I know things are desperate what with the gaping doorway to Hell but I can only go so fast.”

Crystal nodded. “Has the vampire body helped? It’s strangely hard to kill one without it bursting into dust and ash so getting one intact like you asked was really hard.”

“It’s been fascinating so far,” Ravi said. “I have been able to figure out a little based on my findings compared to these Watchers journals. I always wished that magic could be real, I guess that kind of backfired.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Crystal said. She lifted the sheet a bit from the body and tilted her head to the side. “Hey, um, I notice its brain is missing.”

Ravi nodded and swallowed a bite of the sandwich he had been eating. “Yes, well, I dissected it.”

“And then I turned some of it into shish kabob,” a voice from behind Crystal said. She turned to see the pale woman with white hair that she had met before. Except that Olivia, the woman who she had thought was a scientist too, was now in a cage. Olivia smirked at her surprise. “And then I ate them.”

Crystal backed up, making sure she was out of reach. “Why would you do that?” She asked.

Before Liv could answer, Ravi stepped up to stand next to Crystal. He looked unconcerned. “Liv is a Zombie, Crystal.”

“A zombie?” Crystal asked. “Weren’t vampires and demons enough?”

“Zombies aren’t actually like they are in the movies and television,” Ravi said. “For the most part, zombies retain their personalities. Liv is completely harmless.” Liv gave him a questioning look. “Mostly harmless.”

“Then why is she in a cage?” Crystal asked.

“I’m a little drunk on vampire brain,” Liv said. “When I eat somebody’s brains, I can usually access their memories. The problem is that I also temporarily take on their personality too.”

“It’s been worse,” Ravi said. “She was a racist once. Actually twice.”

“The predator part of me only wants to get out and hunt so I volunteered to be put in this cage,” Liv said. “How does Veronica do this all of the time?”

Crystal felt the need to stand up for a fellow Neptune native, somebody she would never have given the time of day to in her old life. “Veronica Mars is a vampire but she has a soul,” she said. “We checked.”

“My working hypotheses,” Ravi said. “is that because Liv is getting this mindset from a vampire without a soul, her soul is not allowed to weigh in.”

“Have you learned anything at least?” Crystal said, looking Liv in the eye.

“I passed some locations of some vampire nests up the chain of command,” Liv said. “I had some visions and this guy got around. Hey, can I ask you something?”

Crystal took another step back and nodded. “Sure.”

“Are you in Major’s squad?” Liv asked.

“Major who?” Crystal asked.

“Major Lilywhite,” Liv said. “Major is his first name. He came in with us but he hasn’t visited in a while. You’re obviously not on the same squad.”

“Sorry,” Crystal said.

“If you see him,” Liv said. “could you tell him I’m looking for him? Also maybe mentioned that I’m a little tied up at the moment and I can’t come to him.”

“Sure,” Crystal said. “I’ll do my best.”

Undertale

April 24, 2018

Alright, this post is definitely going to get very spoiler heavy but for a computer game that came out over 2 and half years ago. If that sort of thing bothers you, I do not blame you if you step away right now. Also, if there is any chance that you would play a game that I will be actively endorsing (#notsponsored), go and play it first. The rest of you may stay and learn why I think that this was an important game that everybody should experience in some way. If the way you want to experience it is through reading this post instead of playing an admittedly frustrating game for hours then thank you for sticking around. That being said, let us get down to business.

The game is a combination of a roleplaying game and a bullet hell game. “Bullet Hell” is a genre that often leads to very difficult gameplay that often has a fairly sharp curve. In bullet hell games, literally a multitude of objects come at you and you must dodge them or die. Winning the fight is more about survival than actually attacking the target. The video below will illustrate what is generally considered hardest fight in the game, one I never even attempted. Most of the combat is easier than that. The other part of the game is roleplaying which means you spend a lot of time going to and fro and talking to people and fetching items while you are traveling from point a to point b. The closest thing I have seen to it is probably the Paper Mario games.

The thing about that roleplaying aspect is that practically everything that you do is a choice that you made which effects the way the story goes for the rest of the playthrough. The story begins as you play a small child who falls down from the surface to a cavernous world of monsters. In any other game, your goal would be to fight every monster you come upon to escape the monster kingdom. Except that your first clue that this may not be the case is that after you fall, you are taken in and fed by a kind sheep woman who wants to protect you. When you try to leave, she stands in your way and refuses to budge because it is too dangerous out there. Your first real choice is made at that moment. You can kill her to start your journey toward freedom or you can wear her down by being stubborn until she realizes that she cannot make the decision for you and lets you go.


This video brought to you by Holly Conrad and Ross O’Donovan.

This kind of sets the tone for the rest of the game. If you wait and see what happens, you are often rewarded with pacifist options to get through the rest of the game. Your next destination brings you to a monster village dominated by two skeleton brothers one of whom was friends with the earlier sheep lady. Their names are Sans and Papyrus (after the fonts Comic Sans and Papyrus). Papyrus talks a big game about wanting to kill all humans but when it comes down to it, he is a pathetic guy with few friends and is overjoyed to change his tune if you befriend him instead. Sans is a lazy guy who just wants to tell puns and live in peace. The fight against Papyrus is the first time where it is really difficult to tough it out until he becomes your friend. You are almost punished with harder gameplay for being nice which is a great mechanic. It is harder to be nice sometimes but it is ultimately more rewarding.

As you continue through the game in this “pacifist” route, you really start making friends instead of enemies. Befriending Papyrus allows him to help you befriend the hardcore soldier Undyne who is as intense about being your friend as she was in hunting you down. Having befriended Undyne, you will have an easier time befriending the kingdom’s nerdy, shy royal scientist Alphys because she has a major crush on Undyne. Finally, you reach the only exit of the kingdom but the King Asgore (scary name) stands in your way. You find out that he only wants to kill you because he can combine your soul with six other dead children to free his people from a magical barrier. He does not want to do it but his people will eventually die out trapped in the cavern and he feels they deserve to be free. He also wants to do it in honor of his son who died which broke apart his marriage to Toriel, the sheep lady from the beginning.

In the end, if you chose a pacifist run, you are able to defeat but not kill the king and you are to able to defeat and lay to rest the spirit of his dead son. In doing so, you are able to wield the energy from the seven hearts and break the barrier, freeing all of the monsters. It is such a touching moment as you look out over this new horizon with your new friends, all of whom have come to love and accept you. Through the game, you spend a lot more time talking to characters to get them what you want to achieve a peaceful resolution. In fact, the random monsters that pop up to attack you all can be disarmed by giving them gifts, telling jokes, complimenting them, petting them, or just running away. As I said, this makes the combat more difficult because you spend a lot of time dodging obstacles while not attacking. Instead, you spend time figuring out what each monster wants and how you can give it to them.

Of course, this is only if you do the pacifist run. To get the other half of the game’s experience, you have to finish what is called the “genocide run”. In the genocide run, you do what comes naturally in a video game. You go around and you kill everything and everyone. Doing so gives you EXP and LOVE and makes it easier to get through a lot of the bullet hell segments, at least early on. However, you later learn that EXP does not stand for “experience” and LOVE does not stand for “love”. Instead, they mean Execution Points and Level of Violence. The more creatures you kill, the more evil you become. Characters who could have become your friends now flee before you and the ones who tried to stop you in the pacifist run are even more desperate to do so. And you know what? You can sympathize with them. I actually wanted them to defeat me because I felt bad for them and their deceased friends.

Eventually, you reach the end of the genocide run and you have murdered everyone who did not run away from you. The level of power that you have absorbed from all of the blood you have shed takes a form separate from you as a malevolent murder spirit. It asks you if you want to join it in destroying the universe. Whether you agree to join it or not, it will go ahead and destroy the universe. In addition, two characters in the game (Sans and Flowey) know that they are in a game. Even if you start a new game, they will both remember that you finished the genocide run. Forever. It will permanently change any other playthroughs of the game even if you go on to be as nice as you can be. The game remembers that you were the real monster. Because, just like in real life, everybody remembers the bad things you do and you must learn to live with the mistakes you have made.

So why is this game so important to me? Why did I think it was important to let you know about it? I can answer that in one word: Morality. The game is a great example of what sticking to good morals can get you and the consequences of bad morals. You can be as wrathful as you want to be. It will probably get you money and things and power. However, it will not win you any friends of substance and you will ultimately be alone and angry. It can truly be harder to be nice and positive sometimes especially in the face of adversity. When being mean is a shortcut, we all consider it at some point. However, most of us know that we will not be able to live with ourselves afterward. This game left me with a lot to think about and hopefully, this small bit leaves you with something to think about.

Tales of Hoffmann (2008)

April 23, 2018

In 2005, I was on my way to graduating from college. The last thing I had to do was complete an internship somewhere in the field of Stage Management. I returned to my hometown of Baltimore and luckily got an internship at the now-defunct Baltimore Opera Company as a production assistant. It was an eye-opening experience because I had never really worked in opera. Everything was bigger than anything I had done before. The second of two shows I ended up working on was a show called Tales of Hoffmann. It is a French opera about a German poet. In pre-production, I was given the task of researching the show. This is called dramaturgy and it is something often done by big enough companies so they can know the ins and outs of a show before mounting their own version. Basically, I was providing as much information as possible so that the director could connect with the source material. That may have been one of my favorite weeks as it was actually my job to read German fantasy and write down my thoughts on it. I am not sure that my research came to anything but I will likely never forget it.

Spoiler Warning: Since I am going to be reviewing an opera for the first time, I have decided that I am not going light on spoilers. In opera, you often know the story before you attend. Knowing the end of the journey does not detract from the joy of it with opera. At least, that’s my opinion. The beautiful music and the staging are the main points of actually watching an opera.

As a side note, I was going to watch the 1951 film version of this show but I could not obtain it in time because I pussyfooted around. So instead, I picked the first professional-looking production I could find on YouTube with English subtitles. That means instead of two hours, I was up against a show that was closer to three hours. That’s perfectly fine with me. The music of the opera was made by Jacques Offenbach who was terrified because he had a vision of his own death. He felt that he would die before its completion and he was correct as he died with the manuscript in his hand four months before it opened. This matched the dark subject matter of the opera itself but he did not write it. Instead, the opera’s libretto (or lyrics and story) were written by Jules Barbier based on three tales by ETA Hoffmann. Barbier had already written the opera version of Hamlet so he was a great pick to adapt a non-musical author into a more epic artform. His dark prose and poetry mixed well with Offenbach’s dark yet lively music.

For the overarching story of the opera follows.  Hoffmann is a writer and the Muse wants to get her claws fully into him so she can get him to focus solely on writing and so she poses as his best friend. In the meantime, Hoffmann is to get together with Stella, a prima donna and is waiting for her at a tavern. The villain, Lindorf, convinces Hoffmann to tell stories while he waits. After telling the story of a dwarf named Kleinzach, Lindorf coaxes him to tell stories of past loves. He first tells the story of how he fell in love with a girl named Olympia, not realizing that she was a mechanical doll. Second, he tells the story of how he fell in love with Antonia, the daughter of an opera singer who has a condition where she will die if she sings. Third, he tells the story of how he fell in love with Giulietta, a courtesan who is planning to try to steal Hoffmann’s reflection. In the end, a now drunk Hoffmann forswears all women, realizing how love has done him wrong over and over. The Muse reveals herself and swears her love for Hoffmann and he gives himself to her service. Stella leaves the tavern with Lindorf.

As you can see from my quick rundown, the story is beautifully weird and dark. One of the ideas of the show is that the villain of each story and Lindorf are all incarnations of the same nemesis. In all of his incarnations, this nemesis seeks to take Hoffmann’s love away from him. The other idea is that all three women (Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta) are all aspects of Stella.  Since Stella is a prima donna (opera superstar) she is a courtesan, singer, and a prop all in one. What I find interesting about all of this is that Hoffmann does not really win. He loses three loves and forgoes his chance at the fourth. He never sees that he lost previously because he was sabotaged.  Also, the man who sabotages him always completely gets away with it. While Hoffmann decides to quit in order to break the cycle, finding a way to truly defeat Nemesis would be the traditional approach to the story. Speaking of the nemesis, he is a pure villain who never gets his comeuppance. I find that absolutely amazing and kind of refreshing. Even when the hero is a bit of a dope, you still expect him or her to win but not in this case. Well, he does decide to focus on his writing so he does not exactly lose either.

As for the production I watched, the orchestra did a fantastic job and really captured the craziness Offenbach composed.  While the subject matter can be dark and weird, there is also a lot of sweetness to the music. The performers clearly put everything they had into this production. Marc Laho is lovably goofy as Hoffmann and I found myself alternately really rooting for him and pitying him. Stella Doufexis has such a beautifully sweet voice as The Muse posing as Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse and she has such expressive eyes. The baritone of Nicolas Cavallier is perfect for the many incarnations of Nemesis as he makes it clear that he is a villain. He also does a really good job of showing how much he enjoys being a villain and his evil laugh was especially good. The three women who play the past loves are each fun in their own way. The set is rather minimalist but I loved the way it shifted around to fit the needs of the scene.  It made everything flow a little better between each of the five acts.  I was also thankful for the nude bodysuits rather than actual nudity (it can be surprisingly cold on stage). I definitely would recommend this particular production but I would encourage you to go out and find a production to see live if you can.

 

Spanish

April 21, 2018

Yo pensé que yo escribiría este introducción totalmente en Español porque yo estudió Español por siete años. Yo quiero el idioma Español. Es una idioma muy romántico y musical. Soy familiarizado con la cultura del Mexico porque esta cultura es muy excitante. En particular, estoy fascinado por El Dia de los Muertos. Adicionalmente, yo amo leer las leyendas de los Aztecas y los Mayas. Los dioses de estas culturas antiguo son interesante pero son contaminado por prejuicio. Yo espero disfrutó este pequeño fragmento de mal Español. Lo siento si ofendí. Yo soy un gringo de Baltimore, Maryland.

Whew! Well, I hope that any Spanish speakers enjoyed that and are not too mad that I messed up any of the grammar. It has been years since I spoke or wrote Spanish with any regularity. Allow me to translate for my fellow gringos. “I thought that I would write this introduction completely in Spanish because I studied Spanish for seven years. I love the Spanish language. It is a language that is very romantic and musical. I am familiar with the culture of Mexico because it is very exciting. In particular, I am fascinated by The Day of the Dead. Additionally, I love to read the legends of the Aztecs and the Mayans. The gods of these cultures are interesting but are contaminated by prejudice. I hope you enjoyed this small bit of bad Spanish. I’m sorry if it offended. I am a gringo (slang for a white boy) from Baltimore, Maryland.

I really do love the Spanish language. While most of my teachers were from the United States (and probably from here or the midwest) there was one exception. I am blanking on her name but I swear that her first name was Dora. Though, I could be confusing my history with a young girl who taught millions of young kids Spanish. Anyway, she not only taught us the language in sixth grade, she also tried to instill a love of the culture in us. I do not remember where she was from but she taught us a lot of songs native to South America and Central America. It is also the first I heard of the Day of the Dead festival and that is a tradition that I have loved ever since.

For those of you have not seen Coco yet, the Day of the Dead is a (mostly) Mexican holiday that happens to coincide with my favorite holiday Halloween (celebrated in Japan and the USA). The timing is fairly coincidental because the festival was moved to coincide with Western Christianity’s All Saint’s Eve, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day. That Western tradition gave birth to Halloween but has lost almost all of its religious significance. The Day of the Dead is instead a joyous and reverent occasion. Its purpose is to honor the dead ancestors of the people who celebrate it. It is believed that those ancestors are allowed to visit on those three days out of the year. Because they are visiting, offerings of food, candy, and other gifts are left for them at altars that bear their image. In the 21st Century, this festival was made even more popular when it became a Mexican National holiday as an effort to unify the northern and southern regions.

Later teachers tried to continue that tradition even though Señor Binford and other Spanish teachers were super white. At least Señor Castro was fairly Hispanic (I think?). Anyway, there was so much they had to teach us. I learned more about the contemporary culture of Mexico through Almodovar movies like Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de “Nervios” (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). I learned a new respect for Mexican pop culture that I would never have experienced otherwise. We read many plays written by Spanish-speaking (or just Spanish) playwrights. I read the entirety of Cien Años de Soledad (100 Years of Solitude) in Spanish. It is a Colombian novel about multiple generations that has a few fantasy elements to it which are the parts that really kept me reading.

In fact, every time that I walk by a Catholic church that is distributing ashes for Ash Wednesday, I think of Marquez’ book. This is a small spoiler for a book you may never read but it fascinated me. Basically, the book covers a family that is somewhat cursed. Three of their sons go to get ashes smudged on their foreheads like everybody else. However, when they go to wipe the ashes off later, the ashes will not come off. The book talks about how those seemingly permanent marks on their foreheads are like perfect targets for the government gunmen who later kill them. It is insinuated that the ashes clung to their foreheads and singled them out in a crowd because of the family curse. That sort of thing is a story element that almost always gets my attention.

I really do like the myths and legends of the Aztecs in particular. These were not really offered in the lesson plan for the various Spanish classes that I took. If I could have spoken about the pantheons of other cultures in Spanish class then I would have had way more fun. Of course, some of this was covered in various History classes but usually as a footnote to the discussion about the Greek and Roman pantheons. The first time I really learned about the Aztec gods was when I saw the preview website for Final Fantasy 8 where there was a summoning spell for “Quetzalcoatl”. Since I already knew that many of the summons were gods or mythical creatures, I decided to look up this new one. Quetzalcoatl is a winged snaked (which is basically a dragon) and a fixture in the Aztec pantheon of Gods. This is about the point where I usually got lost in Encyclopedia Mythica for entire lunch periods.

Anyway, it was fun to type some Spanish and then talk about my love for the various Spanish cultures (mostly Mexico). I really do hope that I did not mangle the language too badly. I mean, if I did it would feel like a bit of a waste of a private school education. I also really do respect other cultures and I do not want to insult anyone. I was going to write a whole post in Spanish but the thought of a one thousand word post in a foreign language was a little too daunting in a month like this. I hope you enjoyed this rambling post anyway.

Reunion at the New Moon Academy of Wizardry

April 20, 2018

Hollin Bellringer had arrived at the school reunion for the New Moon School of Wizardry a few minutes earlier. He was still tingling a bit hours after stepping out of the teleportation circle. He usually did not use teleportation as a mode of transportation but the invitation to the reunion had included a free round trip to Braddish which was only a long walk or a short ride to the school. He remembered making that trip with his friends late in his school days to eat lunch and try to sneak ale from the more flexible tavern workers. This time, the trip had been a bit shorter since he had hitched a ride with a carriage heading toward the school which had already been weighed down with others headed for the reunion. He had been hesitant about going at all but now that he had arrived, nostalgia had taken over and he found himself smiling.

They decided to hold the reunion outside in the Herald Memorial Courtyard. It was a full moon, of course, but those in attendance were also asked at the door to contribute some sort of light-producing spell for atmosphere. It was a little awkward when a non-magical guest showed up and had to inform the greeters but it was a nice idea all the same. The school could easily light the courtyard as there were magic lanterns already in place for safety and nighttime events. However, when Tritsi Highweather had volunteered to organize the event, the idea had caught on quickly when she suggested it. It was a way to show how much they had all grown from when a simple spell like Light was difficult to conjure. Hollin could see that Tritsi was quite pleased with herself over near the door, chatting away.

There was a tap on his shoulder and Hollin turned around to see Roxen Shadowend standing there in the dim yet festive light. Her floor-length dress showed off her deep blue skin and her hair was braided to highlight her prominent horns. Roxen was a tiefling, a race of humans who mixed their bloodline with dark, infernal or abyssal powers. Some saw tieflings strictly as servants of devils and demons but Hollin had been raised to give everybody a chance. It often paid to have an open mind.

“Roxy,” he said. “It’s been a really long time. How are you holding up?” She held out a long-stemmed glass which looked to be full of Blackwine and Hollin took it.

She smiled brightly, wickedly sharp teeth showing. “Things are great, Holls. I fell in with a monster hunting group a while ago and I have been having a blast.”

“Really?” he asked. “I can’t imagine getting used to all of that traveling. It also sounds like a dangerous line of work.”

“Of course it is,” she said. “but that’s part of the thrill. When you’re facing down a room of skeletons with only a few sellswords in between I just get goosebumps. It’s amazing.”

Hollin eyed her skeptically. “So you sleep in a tent?”

Roxy huffed and practically pouted, knowing where he was going with that question. “When I have to. There are inns all over the place too.”

“Sorry, Rox, I just know what family you come from,” he said, obviously teasing her a bit. “You had high standards back in school. You had a whole bed shipped in if I remember correctly.”

Roxen shrugged. “My parents allowed it so who was I to turn it down? Regardless, I’m made of stronger stuff these days.” She posed, making her right bicep bulge a little. It was not that impressive in general but for a wizard, it was pretty good. “What are you up to, judgy boy?”

Hollin was about to answer when he happened to catch sight of a dwarf making his way through the crowd. His red beard was out of control as usual but his hair was almost as well-braided as Roxen’s. “Thon!” he called out and the dwarf made his way over. “Thon Ironbeard, it’s been ages.”

Thon took a long swig from his pint of ale. “Too long,” he agreed. “I need to stand next to you so I look more handsome.”

Roxen rolled her eyes. “He looks fine,” she said.

“More than fine, I hope,” Hollin said.

“Hollin was just about to tell me what he’s been up to lately,” Roxen said. Both she and Thon looked expectantly. “Go on.”

Hollin nodded and smiled and sipped from his glass the pitch black but sweet liquid. “Well, it’s nothing as exciting as monster hunting. I just set up an enchanting workshop in Overbrook.”

“That’s kind of boring but not really surprising,” Roxen said. “You were always the fastest enchanter in our years there.”

“You were too good,” Thon said. “You must be raking it in. Overbrook has plenty of nobles and adventurers and the Guard pass through there all the time.”

Hollin smiled. “I do alright. It can get busy but most days are pretty laid back, the cost of enchanting is pretty limiting for the average person.” The truth was that Hollin had fallen in with the Broken Skull gang. They paid him quite well to enchant for them while he was still free to sell his services to whoever else came in the door. He was also their magic expert in that region and he consulted on a lot of their magical issues and problems. Of course, he would never tell even his oldest friends that.

A woman passed by and the hem of her dress brushed against Hollin’s leg which drew his attention. He watched her walk by, her auburn hair flowing loose and her green eyes sparkling. He knew exactly who she was and that is what surprised him.

“Is that Cassandra Oakspring?” Hollin asked.

“Looks like you don’t need glasses yet,” Thon said and took a big swig of his ale. “That’s her alright.”

Roxen looked around wildly until she spotted her. “Oh man, wow,” she said.

“Yeah,” Hollin said. “I wasn’t sure if she was going to come or not. She killed a dragon. I would have thought she would have better things to do.”

“Yeah but she lives here now,” Roxen said. “She’s definitely the coolest girl in school now.”

Hollin looked away from Cassandra and at Roxen with a smile. “Got a little crush?”

Roxen blushed. “No.”

“I’m thinking maybe she does,” Thon said with a grin. The two guys laughed and Roxen turned slightly away in mock anger.

It was great being back. Hollin found himself smiling brightly, far from his normally complicated life back in Overbrook. Part of him wanted to avoid Cassandra like the plague but another part of him wanted the thrill of talking to an officer of the law while working for one of the biggest thieve’s guilds in the country. This reunion was about to get interesting.


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