A dragon’s paw ripped through the side of a building.
Crimson fire exploded from the beast’s mouth.
Wails of terror filled the air.
“Run for your lives,” cried a gray-haired coot.
He was scared, but he needn’t have been. The Dragonslayers were there to save the day.
Back in those days, when I was just seventeen, I could only watch them on a sad little TV that didn’t work every other day. I didn’t mind. For one, I was just happy to have my own room with my own TV. For the longest time, I had to share a room with my little sister. For another, the Dragonslayers were the coolest people on the planet to me back then.
Dragonslayer, Inc. was a prestigious company of talented hunters for hire. They would hunt any and all large, troublemaking creatures. Gargoyles, sea serpents, gorgons, chimeras; you name it, they’d hunt it.
But they were called Dragonslayer, Inc. for a reason. Their bread and butter, their specialty, their trademark was dragon-slaying. When the company were founded some two hundred and fifty years ago, human civilizations were being burned to dust with impunity by dragons.
The Dragonslayers solved that problem and became one of the richest, most powerful organizations in the world.
Dragons were rare creatures by the time I was a teenager, but I got to see the Dragonslayers on TV more than a few times. When a dragon ventured out of whatever cave or volcano or lake bottom it called home and attacked a city, the national government would dial up the Dragonslayers, who were on the scene in minutes.
This time, the city that was being attacked was Gesen. Back in those days, it seemed so far away. It was the easternmost major city in the continent. Beyond it was a mostly uninhabitable wasteland.
It was hip and modern, with skyscrapers and airports. Millions of people lived there. I should have been scared for their sakes, but I wasn’t. I knew the Dragonslayers would save the day.
And they did.
Descending from a golden helicopter on extendable metal poles, they brandished their weapons. Each of these weapons was different. There were axes, broadswords, and daggers. A Slayer a little older than I was carried a rapier. The most famous Slayer of them all, Ironwall, carried a war hammer.
These weapons glowed a late-evening blue as the Slayers swung them at the dragon, which raged and shook. One of the Slayers was head-butted. She went flying down the street. I never found out what happened to her.
Ironwall landed a direct hit on the creature’s stomach. The young Slayer landed another, and the dragon collapsed. They piled on top of it and finished the job. Thousands of citizens ran out into the streets and cheered them like they were the kings of the world, which they pretty much were.
Bouquets were tossed their way. They were given everything from food to computers, and though they didn’t need any of it, they accepted all of it. A teenage girl came up to Ironwall and asked him to marry her. He respectfully declined.
I felt a pang in my stomach. Quietly, I said, “I could be like them.”
I don’t know if I believed that at the time. I don’t remember. For the last couple years, I had been training with melee weapons. There weren’t a lot of places to train in Natura, but I made do. I found a hilltop clearing and brought a book called The Definitive Guide to Dragon Hunting. It was written by Ironwall. I was obsessed with him as a kid. The first time I ever saw a Slayer on TV, it was him, and he was battling the biggest dragon that had been seen in decades.
His book was a best seller, and I begged my mom to get it for me. She didn’t, but my sister, Acady, did, spending her allowance money to shut me up. I always used to annoy her with my antics. I’m surprised she didn’t hate me.
Once every week, I went up to that hill with that book and practiced until the sun went down. I didn’t know how good I was. No one saw me practice. I had to rely on my own instincts. I thought I was talented, but I didn’t know for sure.
The TV switched to the local news. I changed the channel, looking for more Dragonslayer coverage. I couldn’t find any, so I shut off the TV and stretched out.
My body limp on my bed, a bed that was too short for my lanky, gangly frame, I closed my eyes halfway. The light that came into my room through the windows was distorted. It looked like dream light: appropriate, considering my room looked like some sort of bizarre fantasy.
A couple of kids I used to hang out with had Dragonslayer posters in their rooms. My room had more than all of them combined. And it wasn’t just posters: there were figurines, hats, and bedsheets. Granted, most of it was second-hand, but I was proud nonetheless.
I got to look at it every night as I went to sleep and every morning as I woke up. That was pretty lovely. There are times when I miss those days.
Acady burst into my room. She was wearing a black blazer and a matching pencil skirt. “Ready for a Cabinet meeting?” I asked.
“Very funny,” she retorted. “You know student council’s in session today.”
I groaned. She loved dressing up for the most inane events. But she didn’t dress up for the sake of dressing up. She wanted to project power, confidence, and maturity. I remember telling her to chill out. I shouldn’t have bothered. She never listened to me. Maybe she was right to. At fourteen, she was smarter than I would ever be. She was going places, and she knew it.
“How is that possible?” I said. “It’s still summer.”
“For you maybe. I have to start early. There are a lot of preparations that need to be made.”
“And you’re looking forward to making them?”
“It’s better than spending hours on end deciding which Dragonslayer is the best.” She sat on my bed.
“You do you, and I’ll do me.”
“You’ll never change.”
“Got that right.”
We bickered like this all the time. In fact, we knew something was wrong when one of us wasn’t up for a little argument. But though I pretended otherwise, that line about me never changing hit hard. I’d changed, hadn’t I? I’d been getting better, I’d been learning new things. Didn’t that count for something?
I pretended like I wasn’t bothered and said, “Why are you here? Did Mom send you?”
“She wants to talk.”
“She could have come up here herself.”
“Yeah. She could have. But she didn’t. Come on.”
“Fine.” I sat up, shrugged my shoulders, and ran out of my room, down the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the living room, where my mom was waiting for me on the couch, a scowl on her face.
I tried to think of why she was mad at me, but I blanked. This was not the first time something like this had happened, but normally, I had messed up in some way. That was not the case here. I hadn’t done anything morally objectable in months. In fact, I hadn’t done much of anything at all the last few months. In hindsight, that may have been the problem.
My mother was a tough woman. She had to be. She had to raise both of us by herself. I won’t say she didn’t have a softer side, because she did, but I rarely saw it.
Her face was ragged and leathery, like a boot that had been left out in the weather for too long. Her eyes were cold and icy. Her nose had been bent downward. Her facial muscles were stiff, as if they had frozen in place.
There were times when I was slightly afraid of her. This was one of those times. Her stare froze me in place. She told me to sit down on a chair she had pulled in from the kitchen. I obliged.
“I’m not in trouble, am I?” I asked as innocently as possible.
“Do you think you’re being cute?” she replied.
“No. I want to know.”
“You’ve been lounging around this house like a bum. I’m tired of it. Stop watching those dragonslaying punks and do something useful.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Get a job. Volunteer. Tag along with your sister. Do something. Give me some peace and quiet.”
“So it’s a crime to know what’s happening in the world? The Dragonslayers aren’t punks, Mom. They’re heroes.”
“They’re foppish clowns who prance around like kings. I’ve never liked them. Who wants outrageous sums of money as a reward for saving people? They’re despicable.”
I surprised myself by standing my ground. “If it weren’t for them,” I said, “the world would be in ruins.”
“Just get outta my house.”
“No,” I said softly.
She slapped me across the face. I was shocked. I had a right to be. She had said some pretty awful things to me, but she hadn’t hit me since I was six, and even then, she had apologized profusely to me the next day and hated herself for the next week. I’d like to think something similar happened on this occasion. I never found out.
Acady ran down the stairs and saw me standing there with angry eyes and a red mark on my face. “What did you do?” she asked my mother, who didn’t answer.
“She wanted me to leave,” I said coldly. “She’s gonna get her wish.” I stormed out the front door and made sure to close it as hard as I could.
I didn’t plan to leave for more than a few hours. To the extent that I had a plan, I planned to come back around nightfall, go to sleep, and deal with my familial problems in the morning. I thought it was a good plan. It made sense to me. I fully intended to follow through on it.
Outside my house, hidden in a big hollow tree stump, were The Definitive Guide to Dragon Hunting and a cheap katana. I had left these there after my last training session. I took them with me and went up to that hill.
It was late summer. The grass was soft. I rolled around in it and thought about my mom and how I could have handled that situation better. Unable to come up with any good answers, I became utterly miserable. My emotions poured out of me like lava from an erupting volcano.
I screamed and shouted. I was tired of my life. I wanted a better one. It was as if I were being torn asunder by a lightning bolt.
Cursing myself for getting so upset, I tried to train. I cut through the air like it was my enemy. With every stroke, I got cockier. Eventually, I got too cocky and landed on my face. My katana smashed into a rock and broke in two.
“Why are we so poor?” I shouted, getting even more worked up. “Why can’t we have swords that work? Why can’t we have anything that works?”
Without any equipment to train with, I closed my eyes and went to sleep. I was too wrung-out to do anything else. I didn’t even feel like walking home. When I woke up, I felt better. I felt looser. I felt freer. I was ready to face the day, whatever it would bring.
There was only one problem: it was nearly morning. My first instinct was to freak out. But then I took a breath, crossed my legs, and relaxed. There was nowhere I had to be. School hadn’t started yet. I could do whatever I wanted. There was no hurry.
The sunrise that day was gorgeous. I can still picture it in the back of my mind. It was red, as usual, but it wasn’t a normal red. It was a florescent red, a ruby red, and it just sat there, eye-level with me, and I stared at it.
Staring at the noon sun blinds you. Staring at the early morning only disorients you. It’s not as bright, and it’s utterly captivating. Its glow reflected off my steel-blue eyes. “This is magical,” I said. “I want to stay in this moment forever. Too bad I can’t. Too bad I’ll have to go back. To bad I’ll… wait. Do I have to come back? There has to be another way.”
My brain fired up, calculating stats and opportunities and possibilities. I felt a rush to my head and my heart. I had never used my brain like that before. My fingers starting twitching. How could they not? For maybe the first time in my life, I felt like I was making an important decision, a decision that would change my life.
I did not consider the consequences of my actions. Perhaps this was not smart. Perhaps this was rash and childish. But if I had considered the consequences, I would have come to a different decision. I would have taken a few more minutes to relax and then went home, or maybe I would have read The Definitive Guide to Dragon Hunting for a couple hours to get my mind completely straight.
Instead, I picked up my belongings and walked off to join the Dragonslayers.