Chapter One – Dragonslayer
I killed my first dragon with a blunt sword and the engine block of a 1977 Volvo station wagon. It was my mom’s car. She still hasn’t forgiven me, but that dragon was a real asshole.
This all happened at Sword Regionals, maybe three years ago. I was competing in single-hand and shield, or sword and board as it’s known in my circle, and the tournament was going well. I’m not a big guy, tall and skinny and probably too gangly to be graceful, but for whatever reason I’m good with a sword. Call it a gift, or a curse, since there’s not a lot of demand for expert swordsmen this side of the 16th century. I always felt like I missed my time slot, like I should have been born in an age of knights and castles, rather than smartphones and fast food. These tournaments gave me a chance to connect with similarly displaced heroes and spend a weekend forgetting about the disappointing convenience of the modern world. I made some of my best friends at these things. Sometimes I wonder what happened to them all, if they think I’m dead or, worse, if I finally gave in to the mundanes and spend my weekends brewing mediocre beer or having opinions about politics. Thank the gods, nothing could be further from the truth.
Anyway, regionals. I fought my way through the first couple brackets, handling my opponents with ease and honor, never striking when they were down, always letting them reclaim dropped weapons or recover from slippery footing. The chivalry part of this is important to me. You can win and be a dick about it, but that’s just a more complicated way of losing. We’re grown-ass men and women out in a field hitting each other with wooden swords on the weekend. Might as well have fun doing it.
I did well enough in the initial rounds to earn a place in the finals, then sat nervously on the sidelines while the finalists for two-handed sword, polearms, acrobatic dagger, and siege bow fought their bouts. The champion for acrobatic dagger caught my eye; she was short and fast, rolling from shoulder to heel and up again, her black braids swirling through the air as she circled her opponent. Acrobatic dagger was supposed to be a combination of throws and dodges, but she never touched her opponent until her padded dagger went into the target on his back. It was a thing of beauty. The audience gave her the round of huzzahs that she had earned, then the marshal marched into the ring and raised his baton.
“Sword and shield!” the marshal called, and I scrambled to my feet. “For the Duchy of Elderwood, Sir John Rast, champion of the lists, bulwark of… of…” the marshal peered down at his sheet. Finalists usually had more accolades, but this was my first time in the big ring. The marshal gave up and flourished in my direction. “Sir John!”
There was a scattering of applause around the ring as I stepped over the barrier. “Get ‘em John!” someone in the crowd yelled, and I turned to see my friend Eric raising a stein in my direction. He had a girl on each arm, and three more circling. Typical. Eric was the kind of guy who only seemed truly alive at the faire. Real world Eric was quiet, obsessed with his art, and lived in the house his parents left him. Faire world Eric was witty, constantly surrounded by women, and perpetually drunk. It was something like magic.
I waved at him, then turned back to the ring. As my eyes swept the crowd I caught sight of dagger-girl. She was leaning against a tree, smirking as she juggled a dagger in one hand. When she raised her brows at me, I realized I was staring and quickly turned away.
My opponent was waiting on the other side of the barrier. He wore the bare minimum armor required by rule, preferring to show off the kind of body that a paleo diet and slavish devotion to crossfit will get a middle-aged man from the suburbs. His shield wasn’t much bigger than his fist, while his sword was everything Freud could have wished for, long and black and as thick as my leg. His chest was heaving, as though he had spent the previous twenty minutes screaming into a shoebox. The marshal waved his baton in the man’s direction.
“And for the Outlands, Kracek the Destroyer, Champion of the Feral Gods, Reaver of the Black Lagoon, Breaker of—”
The rest of marshal’s introduction was drowned out by Kracek’s war cry, a blood curdling scream that was quickly taken up by a dozen or so similarly dressed followers in the crowd. Kracek raised his compensation unit over his head, then kicked down the barrier and strode onto the field of battle.
Remember that thing I said about chivalry? Most folks feel the same way. But not all. Not Kracek the Destroyer, Champion of the Feral Gods, and extreme phallus rampant.
Kracek’s real name is Douglas Hosier, and he’s a property attorney from the suburbs. He drives a white Camaro, claims to date a Canadian model behind his wife’s back, and is fighting a losing battle against a receding hairline. I get the feeling Douglas expected more out of his life than what he’s gotten, and is channeling that frustration into Kracek. He and his band of emotionally damaged men have been expelled from every duchy and protectorate this side of Cairo but, being a bunch of lawyers, somehow kept finding a way into the lists.
The marshal glared at the damaged barrier, then walked to the center of the ring and raised his baton. We squared off, Kracek’s chest still heaving, my hands sweating through the thick padded mittens of my armor. Kracek grinned.
“I’m going to annihilate you, kid. I’m going to beat you so hard, your mother’s going to be sterile. You’ll be running back to—”
“Begin!” the marshal shouted. Kracek bellowed his disappointment at modern social norms and charged forward.
This was normal. Kracek and his type fought linearly, charging or charging faster. I gave some ground, presented my shield and winced as Kracek chopped at it. There were rules about force of blow, but Kracek always danced the line, a hair’s breadth away from disqualification with each attack. He forced me back again, then slammed his shield into my sword, nearly knocking it from my grip. The tip of his shield caught my hand. The marshal called halt, separating us with his baton.
“No blows with shield, a demerit and reset.”
“He swung, I blocked,” Kracek growled. “What’s the problem?”
The marshal didn’t answer. Kracek shook his head and slouched back to the middle. “Judge is on your side, little man. Cowards like you, always hiding behind the rules…”
“You’ve got issues, man,” I mumbled. He whirled on me, shaking that ridiculous sword in my face.
“I do! I do have issues! Screw you issues, that’s what!”
“You know what I mean!”
“No, I… I really don’t.”
“You’re gonna know! You’re gonna remember the might of Kracek!”
“Right, yeah… you mentioned that.” I glanced at the marshal. “He mentioned that, right? There’s not an echo or something.”
“Taunting!” Kracek shouted. “Taunting, one demerit!”
“Demerits are for me to give out, and for you to earn, Mr. Hosier,” the marshal said primly. “Now please reset before I am forced to disqualify you.”
“Stupid rules!” Kracek the Hosier yelled. He stomped back to his position, flexed in the manner of a man about to eject his bowels, and shouted. “Kracek!”
I was just bringing up my shield to the guard position when a column of fire erupted from Kracek’s mouth and slammed into me. The flames curled around my shield, licking at the cheap linen tabard my mother had sewn for me for my birthday. The heat crisped my eyebrows and filled my lungs. I backpedaled, dropping my sword and shaking my shield off my arm. The metal sizzled as it hit the grass, and pain prickled along the length of my forearm. My gloves were ash. I turned to stare at the marshal.
“There’s no way that’s legal!” I barked.
The marshal was staring at Kracek in disbelief. His baton was smoldering, and the shocked look on his face had as much to do with his horror as his lack of eyebrows. Then he turned and ran into the crowd.
“You’re just gonna… just run? Come on, man! I didn’t—” I glanced over at Kracek and shut right the hell up.
Kracek was hunched over, with molten fire dribbling out of his mouth. He was larger, and his pale, suburban skin was glowing like beaten copper. He tossed the rattan sword to the ground, then rolled his shoulders and looked around.
“Kracek’s true form has become apparent. Kracek is displeased,” he muttered, casting angry looks around at the crowd. “Kracek must fix this problem.”
“Kracek must be on drugs,” I said. “Seriously, man, get a therapist. You have some stuff that needs resolution. Honestly.”
“Kracek will start with you,” he answered. He took a step forward, and his boot burst open. Talons spilled out. Scales crawled up Kracek’s leg, and his shoulders heaved, splitting open to reveal mucus-slick wings. When he smiled, Kracek’s teeth looked like a band saw, as sharp and as bright as steel. Flames flickered in his eyes and across his black tongue. I took a step back.
“Or I’m on drugs. That could be,” I muttered. “Eric, am I on drugs?”
A scream went up from the crowd, joined by a hundred others, and the grassy field of the St. Luke’s Community Soccer Field and Recreational Facility became a stampede. Kracek grew and grew, arms elongating, belly bloating, wings stretching up until they topped the trees. He took a deep breath, and the stink of sulphur and ash filled the air. For some reason, I pulled out my padded dagger, then pissed myself.
A blur knocked me aside, sending me flying ten yards. I landed in a heap on top of the ale stand, breaking through the tent and smashing barrels of overpriced PBR. A flash of light filled the sky, and flames roared over my head. Even with my eyes squeezed shut, I could see blood-red flames. When I opened my eyes, dagger-girl was staring at me.
“Take a knee, mundane. The heroes have arrived,” she whispered. Then she hopped over the smoldering remains of the stand and bounded toward Kracek. Toward the dragon.
The dragon, I thought. What the hell is going on? What was in those turkey legs I had for lunch? When the council hears about this, they’re going to have a fit!
Then I looked around and saw what the dragon had done. There was a wide swath of burned ground in the middle of the soccer field, littered with black lumps that must have been chairs or barrels or… no. They were bodies. Black ash piles of dead bodies, white bones sticking out of crisp flesh, and the air smelled like barbeque smoke and burning grass. I put my hands on my knees and threw up, most of it splashing back into my face, since my helmet was still buckled down. I ripped the visor off and threw up again, kept at it until my stomach was more than empty.
The air sizzled over my head, and a stream of flame lashed through the air. It passed twenty feet above me, but the heat singed my nostrils and burned off the bile on my tongue. I spat and looked around. What I saw changed my life.
Dagger girl was dancing around the dragon, the same way she had danced around her opponent in the ring. Kracek (were his scales receding around the crown of his head?) followed her, craning his sinuous neck and spraying jets of flame, always missing by a second. He bellowed his frustration, and the trees shook. The girl landed on the dragon’s back, punched down a dozen times in the space of a second, then bounced away. A stream of viscous blood followed her through the air, trailing from the twin daggers in her hands. Kracek’s screams changed to pain, and he reared up on his hind legs and stretched his wings to the sky.
“Flimsy mortal! Kracek will sear your flesh from your bones and boil your blood in your skull! Flee before the might of Kracek! Flee before the champion of the Outland realms!”
“Gotta catch me first, snakeface!” the girl shouted. She landed in front of the dragon, crouching with both daggers spread wide like wings, that smirk still on her face. “You’re getting slow in your old age. Slow and stupid.”
“Respect your elders, child,” Kracek said. His voice hissed through my mind, and flames licked his teeth as he spoke. “I have been in this world longer than any of your kind.”
“And now you’ve overstayed your welcome,” she answered. “Time to go!”
She leapt forward, but just as her feet left the ground, Kracek poured a stream of fire from his jaws. Twisting, she was somehow able to avoid it, but as she tumbled away the dragon whipped his massive tail forward, catching her in the back. She flopped like a rag doll, bouncing through the charred grass before coming to a halt. Kracek laughed, crashed back down on all fours, and strolled languidly toward her still form.
“Oh man, oh man, oh MAN,” I whispered to myself. What do I do? I can’t just sit here and watch her get killed. I looked around at the smoldering stalls. The vendor next to the ale house was a weapon maker. None of the blades were sharp, but they were good steel, and had already shown their mettle against dragonfire. I snatched one of them up and ran at Kracek, waving the sword over my head and yelling.
“Hey, you scaly freak! Over here! We haven’t finished our match yet, you cheating son of a bitch!” Not my most eloquent taunt, but it served the purpose. Kracek paused and craned his horned head in my direction, then let out a derisive snort that scorched the ground at my feet.
“We are not playing games anymore, Sir Burbia. Go back to your foam swords and your weak ale. You have a cubicle to fill on Monday.”
“Sir Burbia? Did I just get heckled by a dragon? Is that what my life has come to?” I muttered to myself, then let out a furious roar and charged in. Kracek’s wing brushed the air above me, buffeting me, nearly driving me to my knees, but I kept going. His nearest leg rose up. I looked up at those blackened talons, sticky with blood, each one as long as my forearm and wickedly sharp, and I realized I was in over my head.
“For Elderwood!” I shouted weakly, my voice cracking as I swung the dull blade against his muscular claw. The steel sang in my hands as it struck scale. The sword snapped in half like an icicle. I stood there, holding the broken hilt, staring at my death. For the second time that day, someone else saved me.
Kracek’s claw fell on me, but just as his talons were about to reach my face, a blade of shining steel flashed between us. The tip of the dragon’s claw fell to the ground. Kracek shrieked and reared up, beating the air with his wings. A heavy hand fell on my shoulder and pulled me back. A knight, there was no other word, stepped between me and the dragon. He was in full armor, the steel of his plate shining with runes. His double-handed sword blazed with the light of the sun. He looked at me over his shoulder.
“Get outta here, kid. This is tough enough without trying to keep the idiots alive.”
I was about to answer when a pillar of flame fell on us from the dragon’s mouth. The knight didn’t have a shield, but as the fire roared close, a purple dome surrounded us. The shriek of burning air fell hush. I scrambled to my feet, nearly bumping into a black man in exquisite robes, carrying a silver staff. Tattoos of light swirled around his left eye, and glowing rings spun above his clenched fist. His pale eyes were fixed on the dragon.
“Clarence is correct,” he said. His voice reminded me of a professor, almost too precise, his enunciation as sharp as lightning. “You are no good here. Take your bravery and go home.”
I was about to protest when Kracek roared again, and another wave of flame singed the air. The knight howled in pain, and the mage flinched back. I turned just in time to see the knight, armor still smoldering, run up the dragon’s arm and start hacking at Kracek’s throat. I ran.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but I must have stumbled through the bodies of a lot of my dead friends. There were bones and ashes everywhere, and the ground was soggy with steaming blood. Realizing what I had done, the madness of trying to fight that thing with a hunk of dull steel, I nearly threw up again. It was only fear and an empty stomach that kept me running all the way back to the parking lot.
Most of the cars had already cleared out, though there were enough smashed bumpers and broken glass in the lot to indicate it had been a hectic scene. There were dents all along the side of mom’s Volvo, which would have taken some doing, considering that the thing was built like a tank. I tore open the door and dug her keys out of the glove compartment, then slammed them into the ignition and twisted. The engine grumbled at me, grating and clanging and sputtering with each turn.
“Come on! Come on!” I shouted. Stuff broke around me all the time, from cars to computers to expensive espresso machines. The only reason I was driving mom’s car today was because mine had finally given up the ghost at the last moment. She wasn’t going to be happy when I brought it home with a dent in the door. “Not like she’ll believe this story anyway,” I muttered. “Come on, you viking bitch, start!”
I was about to give up and just run when the engine roared to life. I shouted victory, slammed the door shut, and dropped it into gear. Glass popped under my tires as I backed out of my spot, then I cranked the wheel around and lurched toward the exit. I was halfway across the lot when a cacophonous wave of violence swept over the asphalt.
An explosion blossomed over the soccer field. I couldn’t see what was going on over the berm, but I could hear the screaming, and Kracek’s hideous laughter. The tips of his wings fluttered through the air, and bright, blinding flame washed across the field. The screams got louder, and worse. I slammed on the brakes and stared toward the field, fingering the transmission.
“Ah, to hell with it,” I muttered, and threw it in reverse, spinning the station wagon’s balding tires as I spun around. “Can’t take the car home in this condition anyway.” I pointed the hood toward the walkway that led to the fields, pulled the seat belt across my shoulder with one hand while I steered with the other, and floored it.
There was a barrier to prevent this very thing from happening, but it was made to stop ambitious suburban parents from driving their precious German SUVs onto the sidelines, not to stop a chunk of viking metal at top speed. I crashed through the barrier, slewed back and forth on the loose gravel of the path, then reached the field. The shocks bottomed out in the drainage ditch, and for a brief moment I was airborne, flying like a valkyrie toward the dragon, and destiny. I planted the nose in the mud, sawed the wheel back and forth as the tires bit into the sod, then lay into the accelerator and started screaming.
The heroes were in a bad way. The knight was down, dagger girl was on fire as she danced away from the dragon’s claws, bloody rents in her leather armor and desperation in her eyes. The mage, if that’s what he was, knelt beside the fallen knight. There was blood coming from his eyes. He turned and looked at me, his eyes going wide and white as I barreled toward him. Then he grabbed the knight and somehow rolled out of my path.
The dragon heard me at the last second. He was focused on the girl and her shining daggers, and gave no thought to an engine roaring ever closer, not until it was too late. Kracek swung his sinuous neck toward me, wide head just off the ground. His golden eyes flashed wider for just a second, and flames curled around his jaws as he breathed in, ready to obliterate me, mom’s Volvo, and the everything in between.
I put the hood of the car into his jaw, going about forty miles an hour. The front of the car crumpled, and I was thrown against the seatbelt, hands smashing the wheel as my head snapped forward like a whip. I saw the hood erupt and the engine, old and heavy and still spinning, shoot out of its moorings and through the dragon’s skull. The dragon’s teeth shattered like delicate china. The black slug of the engine tore through Kracek’s head and punched out the other side, taking whatever suburban frustration and mystical wisdom a dragon posing as a property lawyer might contain along with it. The dragon’s neck whipped through the air like a firehose, spewing molten flame across the field. He deflated, scales shuffling to the ground, wings withering like spiderwebs in the wind. Then he dropped to the ground and was still.
The Volvo kept going. It cut donuts in the soccer field, the wheel snapping back and forth in my hands, before finally skidding to a halt. With numb fingers I snapped the seatbelt open, shoved open the crumpled door, and got out of the car. The two people still standing stared at me with open shock. I tried to wave, lost control of my arm, my shoulder, and then my legs, following my hand to the ground. I lay there for what seemed like a long time, breathing in scorched grass and wondering if the ringing in my head would ever stop. A shadow fell across my face. I looked up and saw the mage and the girl, staring down at me. The girl looked furious.
“Who’s this guy?” the mage asked.
“An idiot,” she said. Then she turned away and ran to the fallen knight. The mage leaned over.
“Even idiots can be heroes,” he said. He pressed his palm against my forehead. There was a bright scarlet light, and then nothing.
I woke up in a very different kind of place.