(Unfinished) The Flame by the Roadside

The traveler had been walking for miles without rest, determined to reach his destination before nightfall. Now in the dying light of the sun, the path had grown shadowed and  unclear, causing him to quicken his pace and grip at his coat to keep warm against the building wind. Despite his best efforts, these cliffs were unfamiliar and misleading, forcing the man to turn heel and retreat in search of a more reliable route. Ireland was tamed and fenced, but had not lost her wildness just yet.

By the time he had doubled back it was already late evening, the howling of wolves signalling the beginning of their hunt and the moon’s rising. A beautiful pale marble cast shaky beams of light through the canopy of birch trees, who stood themselves as ancient reminders from a different time. He could see his breath rising in uneven puffs of heat, and somehow this brought a flicker of light into view. Just off the path, a small campfire burned not too far away; certainly close enough to make the traveler shiver with jealousy. Cautiously, he approached, resigning himself to the fact that he may have to spend the night here.

The flames were well kept, dancing obediently within a small circle of wood and ash to provide heat. The traveler crept closer, trying to catch sight of the figure nearby, but struggling to see past their hooded and cloaked appearance. “Excuse me…” He said quietly, repeating himself when there was no answer. “Excuse me but I was hoping to warm myself by your fire, if I may?” He dipped his head, both in a show of gratitude and a sly attempt to see a face beneath the hood. Though he didn’t quite catch sight, the figure was revealed to be a man when they finally spoke back. “Oh ‘I mayyy’, is it? Well you may sit, you may stand, you may entertain us both with a jig if you prefer. Join me, my friend.” There was a kindness to that voice almost unheard of, with a natural warmth and booming depth that reminded the traveler of a father he had never known. Before he could respond, the man looked up at him, and gestured to a nearby stump.

“Thank you.” He said simply, regarding his new companion’s face with curiosity. It hadn’t seemed obvious at first, but this man was well over 7 feet tall, and even beneath a long cloak it was clear to tell he was strongly built as well. There was a smile on his face, but an almost tired expression that marked his skin with dry wrinkles that cut through a light dusting of freckles. His messy, copper beard reminded the traveler of the dancing embers below; spread like flame across the stranger’s smiling face. Even so, something about him didn’t feel right, and he found it impossible to shake the uneasy feeling in his stomach.

“I really don’t mind you staring at me like some clueless child, you know.” The tall stranger interrupted the traveler’s worrying with another volley of noise, before rummaging around in the tall grass by his seat. “But at least have something to eat first.” A modest little cauldron was eventually produced, and placed on the flame while the stranger retrieved a matching iron spoon. Both were blackened with use, and he hummed cheerfully as he stirred the contents. “Now that you’re my guest, I probably shouldn’t let you starve to death tonight. Not while there’s lamb and potato to be had.” He grinned toothily, allowing his hood to slip just enough to reveal thick, messy flame for hair, matching his beard. The traveler had barely spoken, though managed to nod by way of a meager reply.

A few moments passed in silence, the tall man busying himself with cooking and humming, while the traveler watched the mixture bubble against the heat. “You haven’t had stew in years, have you? Not since your Mother last made it.” The stranger spoke as if he had known this man all his life, nonchalantly stirring the pot without even bothering to look up. “No I…That’s not…” Again, the traveler was left struggling for words, and felt that unease build up again. In the light of the fire, bright green eyes shone like jewels, and for a moment it seemed as though the trees edged closer to the tall stranger. They offered their branches to him, their golden leaves practically wrapping around his shoulders. Something was wrong. “How could you know that..?”

“Eat.” The stranger demanded, dunking a bowl into the cauldron and passing it over to the traveler. “You’ll enjoy it, truthfully. Don’t act like it’s some kind of fool’s poison – see?” The stranger took a handful straight from the pot and slurped it down hungrily, just to prove his point. “If I can eat it, you can eat it…or I put you in the pot for tomorrow!” Thankfully a great, hearty laugh followed the threat, which hopefully made it out to be some kind of joke. The traveler certainly wasn’t smiling, but put his lips to the bowl and drank the broth out of hunger and no small amount of fear. It was delicious, beyond anything he had ever tasted before. That first sip soon turned into starved, desperate gulps for more, and chunks of meat and potato only added to the flavour. His senses lit up, his mouth watered and his body flooded with shivers of delight as the meal lasted a lifetime. Flashes of happy memories rolled by, of laughter in houses and comfortable beds, fireplaces and friends, a childhood by the ocean. In reality it had taken less than a minute to finish the bowl, but it had changed everything.

“Not bad at all, is it?” The stranger smirked, now appearing as a far younger man with a staff by his side. “Now, I believe it is time for a story. I know a good one.”

With a curious pause, he reached inside his cloak and revealed a handful of stones, displaying them for a half-moment before placing them down on a small stump by their side. “Good stories deserve a stage.” He mumbled, knowing that the traveller could now feel the stew warm his body and numb his concerns. It was enough to bring him some measure of peace and comfort, even as the dark stones began to shudder and take new shapes. The tall stranger continued to speak, his voice calling a thin mist to spread over the woods, and dance around this makeshift stage of stone and wood.

“On that day, great ships arrived on the horizon,  broad and strong. It was a massive fleet beyond imagining, piercing the clouds with determination, withobsession. The call had brought them from a distant land, to seek out this new, fertile home.” Four of the mysterious stones rolled neatly into line, a formation matching the tale as they splintered into new shapes. Sharp, jagged representations of ships slid across the uneven surface, the stone figures bobbing and lifting as if being shifted by the sea’s command. “Their journey was not one of water and storm, but of the air. These vessels were built with purpose, and wreathed in mist they arrived against the shores of Éire with a fleet that danced across mountains, far far off the ground.”

The stranger’s words echoed unnaturally, lifting the tiny stone ships into the air and surrounding them on all sides by a silken covering of dark mist. With wide eyes the sole audience member could only watch in amazement, and in his heart he knew this tale was true, however fantastical. To him, these stone ships were regal, worthy vessels for an ancient race, the story taking on a form of its own with visions of the past. Tendrils of smoke wrapped around his body, curled against the flickering embers of the fire to blur reality with this impossibility. The hooded stranger’s stage was far more than it seemed, and his story had only begun.

“And so we arrived.” His face slipped into an earnest smile, fondly recalling the details. “The Tuatha De Danann, finally home. It had been a long journey, but our ships swept against the shore as light as feathers, brushing the grass before slipping away entirely. Bare feet touched soil, we filled our lungs with air and the mist slowly parted.“ As soon as he spoke the words, that dense mist around the campfire began to fade away as well, leaving the stone ships in a new form. Like pewter chess pieces, they now represented tall, graceful humanoids in fine garb, though the largest seemed to wear only a simple, very familiar cloak. “But that’s…” The traveller found it difficult to speak, but somehow managed to muster up a few words before he was interrupted again. “Yes, it is. My name is Dagda.“ In an act of some vanity, the cloaked man lifted up the matching piece and held it gently in his palm, now clearly showing the similarities between them.

He turned it over, glancing at the detail with pride and tugging idly at a strand of hair from his beard. He allowed the fire to cast some light on the piece before setting it back down and continuing. “I have been here for quite some time… But we were not the first, nor were we the last. When we arrived, men of war and suffering arrived to greet us, The Fir Bolg. Their lifetime of grief and hard labour was worn clearly on their withered expressions, they were unable to hide it.” Suddenly, a long finger was pointed in the traveller’s direction, as Dagda spoke directly to him. “Have you ever truly fled from something? Have you hoped for more, and ran tirelessly to try and catch it?” The man froze, looking towards the ground to avoid further accusation. His silence was telling, and Dagda let it linger for a moment before speaking again. “We called them the ‘men of bags’, these Fir Bolg. Their lives had been spent as Greek slaves, labouring away in the scorching heat, backs hunched over from the weight of their burden. They were forsaken for having left Éire, in search of a brighter sun. They fled, and found it not to their liking.”

It seemed as though Dagda took some pleasure in recounting their story, perhaps savouring a feeling of superiority, but allowing a measure of sympathy to flow as well.

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Poem – Lost Hours

I found the place where we lost our hours,

abandoning grace in the sheer damp of the forest.

Walking for miles, familiarity shrouded itself in gold leaves

and swept up my footsteps.

 

Places like this convince you

that stories are carried page by page.

Invariably, they’ll flow when you aren’t watching.

 

The scrapes on our knees were compared then,

as boastful adventures found etched into skin.

Little branches – never veins. We were crude and brave.

At times I had to force the invulnerability.

 

We thought ourselves so powerful,

but fearfulness declared war

on the freezing river, for biting our ankles.

 

Now we’re beyond a peace treaty.

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Recent Interest

I’m not normally one to update frequently enough to comment on the comings and goings of my blog, but I’d just like to take the chance here now to say welcome to all the new followers I’ve somehow been lucky enough to earn lately. 

I think I owe it to some Nosleep attention, which is fantastic, but no matter the reason I hope you find something you like on here. Actually, I mostly hope that you continue to find pieces that you like! Updates won’t be set to a schedule, but there is definitely more coming, don’t worry about that.

This is an innocuous enough little post, but really this means the world to me so it’s absolutely worth mentioning.

I value you all, look at how much I GODDAMN VALUE YOU!!!

 

Here’s hoping I do everything but bore you.

Much love, 
Conor x

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Two Short Stories Now On /r/Nosleep

So to tide you over until my next update, I thought I’d let you know that I’ve recently posted two short (and semi-ongoing) stories to the horror subreddit /r/nosleep. 

Merger:  The story of a man trapped within his own town.

I write reality:  When a writer discovers a way to make his words really count, he                                      calls on readers to suggest how far he takes it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the forum, it’s a place for horror writers to tell a story to an audience encouraged to believe every word. As such, I’m constantly drawn to the place out of sheer fascination. Reading is one thing, but when suspension of disbelief is strong enough to take it as absolute fact, some really interesting things can be done.

Keep an eye on ‘I write reality’ in particular, as the fact that I ask for outside input means the story is likely to continue on for quite a while yet through updates and comment replies. I’m really enjoying it, taking on my character fulltime and immersing myself in this little idea I’ve created.

I hope you enjoy, and I’m sure I’ll be posting here in earnest soon enough. 

Much love!!

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Scene From A Bar

Shamelessly pretentious and inspired by the wonderfully filthy work of Charles Bukowski, this is an extremely short bit of something that resulted from me just wanting to write with a version of his voice. 

There were maybe six others in the bar. I sat in a booth at the back with a really terrible scotch and waited. That’s all I came for, just to wait. I treated the glass in my hand like an excuse to do nothing and hope that my day would just occupy itself, tucking itself in neatly with all the rest I had burned away in the dim light. It was going well so far.

A lot of people need a reason to drink, but my reason was the act itself. Liquor is a catalyst, it makes things happen. Not that I had faith in a cheap bottle of whiskey or anything, not at all. Whatever it was going to set up wouldn’t be worth the price of admission. Still, two mouthfuls and I had gotten used to the taste.

There was one girl in the place; pretty, with blonde hair pulled back too tight into a ponytail. The hum of the music was an annoyance, it distracted me from eyeing her properly. She was with a man who stomped his leg rapidly with either excitement or nerves, neither of which I was sure were justified. His hands painted ten messy pictures as he told her about his lunch or something, and she just looked right past him. She was a wall that he regaled with false stories of bravado and fabricated charisma. He had a routine all lined up and it didn’t matter which beats hit, he’d follow through. The girl pursed her lips after every sip she took, auburn clinging to those pillows from a bottle of house red. He never even touched his, it got in the way of his speech.

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A New Year

First things first, I hope everyone reading this had a long and happy Christmastime filled with far too much food and warmed by good company. Mine was lazy and pleasantly blurred, with days melding together into one very welcome break.

It’s 2014 now, and I haven’t shown myself on here for quite a while, I know. As of November I’ve been writing for Nintendolife.com as a news reporter and occasional reviewer. It’s been keeping me busy on my days off work, and if you’ve an interest in Nintendo at all then I genuinely can’t think of a friendlier and more informative site to recommend. The staff are amazing, and this sounds reallllllly self-serving as I’m now kinda one of them. Next I’ll be putting up banner ads and subliminal messagingVISITNINTENDOLIFE.COMor something.  Check out my profile, and a quick search of ‘Conor McMahon’ should bring up most of the stuff I’ve written so far.

So I’m aiming to get this blog a bit more active again, with a few opinion pieces and bits of fiction in the works for the near future. Today I’ll throw up a very brief piece alongside this, more to come soon as well. I want give my thoughts on the methods of storytelling, review and analyse different films and video games, and hopefully keep to some kind of schedule. This could even be my resolution, actually…

I ramble, so I’ll stop it here and wish you the absolute best for the new year. Make it a good one, do something weird and give up biting your fingernails or something. Though…that’s easier said  than done…

Conor X

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Thoughts on Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Within five months of its Western release and just under a year of its initial release in Japan, Animal Crossing: New Leaf has managed to rack up over six million sales. While undoubtedly a hotly anticipated title, it is nonetheless an astounding figure for a handheld game, particularly in a climate where many were quick to announce smartphones as the new evolution of mobile gaming. As one of those six million sales myself, I thought I would give my thoughts on the title, and question just where it fits in with modern contemporaries. 

Animal crossing is a game reliant on the player. It doesn’t do much to offer the kind of spectacular set-pieces and compelling story we’ve become accustomed to recently, and doesn’t even really give much in the way of missions or checkpoints to aim for. There’s a definitive beginning of course, the player’s initiation as Mayor of a perpetually quaint and cosy seaside village is a charming little ceremony, but aside from that the world is set out for you to create your own objectives. There’s no looming apocalypse, no alien threat or love interest to strive for. There is simply a cluttered little haven of cottages and wildlife for the player to mould as they see fit, and there is plenty to mould, no doubt about that. In the absence of a story, you’re left with a town to run and a population of animals to keep happy. From the beginning there is an even greater emphasis on choice and freedom than previous titles in the series. Tom Nook no longer forces you into employment, but simply suggests ways by which you can earn ‘bells’, the currency you’ll be hoarding like a miser worthy of a Christmas Carol. You don’t have to listen to his advice at all, as there are a plethora of ways to do so, but it does offer a guiding nudge for newcomers. What happens next is an experience that you make entirely your own. Some may focus on filling their museum with all the available bugs, fish and fossils, some will seek to expand as quickly as possible, and pump money into the local businesses to help them blossom and grow, some might even just want to make friends with their villagers. It’s a clever mechanic to release these possibilities bit by bit as villagers speculate over what additions to the town they’d like to see, or even upcoming events that are planned by a real-time calender system. Play the game on Halloween for example, and you can go ‘trick or treating’ for candy. Animal Crossing has always seemed to aspire to be a companion rather than an outright adventure, and it’s interesting to see this appeal to so many people. 

The elephant in the room for the 3DS has of course been the ever-growing success of apps, and there were many who dismissed the handheld as outdated and overpriced when compared to the slew of $1.99 titles that can be bought for your phone. It stands on a precarious middle-ground between home console and portable device, bridging the gap between two very different kinds of experience. This year it earned its place yet again though, and strength of sales from the 3DS alone has been a huge boost to Nintendo as they continue to struggle with the Wii U. In another life, Animal Crossing may indeed have even existed as an app. It shares some similarities with the hugely successful wave of management games on a small scale such as ‘Pixel People’ or  ‘Tiny Tower’, in that it encourages checking in on a regular basis to maintain the game world and reap the most rewards, albeit on a much broader scale. It requires a certain level of commitment, as neglecting the game results in progress slowing to a near-standstill, and those who put in the most time will more than likely have the most to show for it. Comparing it to the bite-size commitment of smaller, less expensive apps almost seems to negate a meaning for Animal Crossing to exist at all, but it’s more than just the expanded features that set New Leaf apart.

The tone of Animal Crossing has never been anything like the massive growth of an airline or an entire city that can be seen in similar titles. On the contrary, it never really grows any larger than what could be considered a village, emphasizing a break away from the urban environment and encouraging the player to instead enjoy the calmer moments of life. New Leaf is there as a refuge, a quiet break in the busy schedules that portable consoles were made for. It can be seen as the modern equivalent of a Zen garden; a place to be cultivated and appreciated under your control. It follows along with your day, so whether playing on the morning commute, at lunch or in the late evening, there is always an opportunity to take a walk through your very own forest, be it by sunrise or moonlight. Villagers will come and go, and New Leaf does a wonderful job of making you care about this fact. When your best friend in the town questions spreading their (often literal) wings and moving on, you feel a sense of panic that drives you to ask them to stay. Micro-transactions don’t even poke their head around the door here, and that is vital for the pacing of the experience. There will never be a ‘wrong’ way to play, the world is what you make it. The only way the game will ‘punish’ you for playing is if you sprint through forested areas. This will inevitably damage flowers, tear paths through your grass and even scare away wildlife, so the player is again encouraged to slow down and make the choice to get into a different, less immediate mindset. Strolling through your town in Animal Crossing is a calming experience, and a fairly literal break from the battlefield sprinting we’ve been inundated with lately. As such, it’s easy to see why many continue to play the title on a regular, often daily basis to this day. Whether for ten minutes, or a full day of renovation and exploration, Animal Crossing presents the player with a quiet little slice of existence that they can dip into for as long as they like, and now with a digital copy all they have to do is open their 3DS. It requires commitment, yes, but does nothing to make that a chore. You don’t play just to get through and earn another reward,  your village can be a place that you want to visit every day, even if only for a while. That, I feel, is something very special indeed.

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