There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.
I thought they turned out quite nice, but my cousin said they looked like malformed unicorns. In my defense, I only had tin cans, straw, and burlap to work with.
That was really all you could expect on the Island of Harmony. It may be more advanced than- say- the Island of Peace, but heaven forbid you could actually find proper training dummies there. Quite ironic, considering that- unlike many of the outer islands- we had woven every technological advancement that comes out of the capital into our agrarian life.
Of course, people would counter that I- allegedly- didn’t need practice dummies anyway.
If you want a place more centered on hero worship, look no further than the archipelago nation of Iresidine. Thousands of miles of ocean all around, hundreds of icons to grow up worshipping, and a million bedtimes worth of heroic tales.
The same can’t be said for a widespread need for the heroes though. Most threats- these days monsters and cells of masterless minions- found themselves centered in Pantheos, the shimmering capital city that all but consumed the Island of Unity.
But once upon a time- actually, only ten years ago now that I think about it- we all had to worry about dark lords. Even the Island of Harmony.
Well, okay, the only real “threat” that my little slice of nowhere had to deal with was Lord Cruxis marching down the street.
I was ten and hiding in the alleyway of the general store when I saw him. Nothing violent happened; Cruxis was just past the age for that. A large, solid man with black armor piled on him, but also pale and worn enough to get confused for something his necromancers summoned.
Said legion of loyal necromancers made up his entourage. Little similarity existed among their uniforms, outside a few shared colors. Some wore clothes as ragged as their auras, others formal attire as sharp as their glares.
Back then, it never occurred to me that what they radiated was the agony of rejection.
I later found out that the march was actually a cross-country attempt to inspire dread. Anti-morale in a war that mostly ravaged corners of Iresidine other than ours. Though I suppose- at this point and as far as the dark lords were concerned- it as less of a war and more of a last stand.
People later called the whole thing “the Last Struggle.” A pipe dream of good finally annihilating evil come true.
Ah, sorry, light finally annihilating darkness. Old habits die hard.
I think even Cruxis knew his and his fellow dark lords’ days were numbered. He barely had more than a birthday candle’s worth of light within his eyes.
The opposite being the case with her.
I had walked out of the general store with a monthly adventure serial magazine I bought like clockwork. A sudden breeze empowered by the alleyway slapped it out of my hand, the paper slicing into my palm. To my young horror, it slid to a stop in front of one of the pilgrimaging necromancers.
My heart rate reached blurring velocity the moment she picked it up and started walking towards me.
Her outfit was worn down and armor pieces sharped for maiming, but also had a stylish frill to it. Short indigo hair hung in flares, bright red lipstick and crimson eye make-up popping against her pallor.
I tensed up, very much fight over flight and not even noticing how much my palm bled.
Not until she got on one knee and offered me both my magazine and a handkerchief. She wrapped my crimson palm and said in a voice of velvet “Heaven help whoever gets in a fight with you, tough guy.”
I looked into her marsh green eyes and saw a brightness that matched her coy smile. She winked before rejoining her cluster, adults nearby swarming in to check on me.
I knew two things that day– that I officially was not into girls, and that this would be the story that I would tell my fellow heroes.
Those two things and her name– Belladonna Beloved.
I thought about her as I trained against my fake dragons. Not for the sake of violence. If I ever met her in battle, I would show mercy. That is, if rumor didn’t have it that she had vanished alongside Lord Cruxis during the Last Struggle. Back then, my mercy was only for the sake of kindness.
How could I have known that she played a part in my destiny?
At least, not one that I anticipated.
Either way, from the moment that Cruxis marched through my town, my dreams amplified into devotion.
Even if I could relate to other kids outside of mockery for my ambitions, I didn’t socialize much. I dressed every fitness class with my imagination and turned them into training sessions, doing the same with outdoor breaks between classes for good measure. I crammed volumes of study outside of school, dragging myself out of sick beds to get at least a few more pages in.
And, of course, work on my project.
My parents welcomed it, because it meant reading up on every block of technological manuals they had. Which, in turn and in their eyes, perhaps meant that I was slowly abandoning my lofty heroic dreams for a simple living at their machine repair shop. They couldn’t tell what I tinkered with, and I made it a point to only work on bits and pieces that didn’t remotely resemble the project as a whole.
I called it “Februus,” and had only refer to it as such or else my parents would’ve likely forced me to scrap it. I wouldn’t have blamed them, in retrospect; a thirteen year old making a technologically-enhanced sword didn’t exactly ease a parent’s concern.
I bought the base of Februus- an old sword allegedly forged from meteorite ore- off a traveling merchant who occassionally docked at our harbor. His silence costed a little extra, but I didn’t regret it. The old metal rippled with night blues and etherial cyans, churning something indescribable in the back of my brain. Looking back, I like to think it was our collective ancestors cheering me on as I sought to pick up the path my peers happily strayed from.
Which is why I immediately started saving money for a day trip to the Island of Honor at age fifteen, my alibi a school-run trip focused on sight-seeing. I left with a body sore from chasing down combat masters who could help me hone my spectramancy.
Spectramancy- that is, the ability to channel one’s life force into various actions- wasn’t anything unique in my village. Our ancestors had mastered it to the point of the ability living in our blood, but the days of combative spectramancy went the way of actual dragons in the Valley. Nowadays, children used it to pull pranks with life force winds. Bar flies played our local version of darts, which used spectral pin shots. Housewives manifested a double to corral one of the many, many kids they inevitably have if they never leave town.
After all, why would a domesticated cat have to hunt when food’s given to them?
On the day I sliced a practice dummy with a spirit slash made from Februus, I cried. Up until then, I feared myself too domesticated to pull that off.
And that’s what I became after that day. A blade. Sharpened. Cutting through anything in my path. I even added a few twists to techniques I desperately hunted, amasing quite the gallery of abilities by the time my parents finally found out.
They were livid, of course. But- miraculously- the village head ended up saving me. He turned me and my training ground into a pretty successful tourist attraction. (This is how our ancestors fought. Only 30† a pop to catch the show. 10† for children.)
It broke his heart to see me go back to the Island of Honor. This time, to Zepher Academy.
The hero business in Iresidine worked like this. On the top- in Pantheos- you had a group called “the Heroes of Humanity.” Currently lead by a statue of a man named Gil Wallace, this was the one true remaining guild. The one that usually stood between us and whatever forces of evil remain in the nation. (Again, not a lot these days, but I didn’t care back then).
Those that could have made the cut- had there been an empty seat in Pantheos- could only hope to snag one of the equally-exclusive spot in the Hero Reserves. They mostly handled small threats in the outer islands and warm the bench until- if- the Heroes of Humanity had an opening.
Zepher Academy, another exclusive body in itself, was the only way into the reserves, let alone Pantheos.
And I barely kept up. I didn’t realize how much of a house cat I actually was until I got my first taste of the wild. Warriors properly trained and smothered by emotional support. Inheritors of power worthy of a mythological tale. Would-be chosen ones with solid gold destinies.
But again, I had a destiny too, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time.
Sons of legacy went down in fights with me, utterly shocked and outraged. Prodigies groomed for greatness shrank when teachers posted my obstacle course scores. A classmate with a heroine’s pedigree decried rumors of Gil Wallace himself looking my way until she went blue in the face.
Suddenly- more against my expectations than I’d admit- my hard work seemed worth it, and my dreams not so foolish. Maybe- just maybe- all the people who made me feel so small and stupid would actually apologize.
Let me warm the bench. Let me be a house cat that can pace with the wild ones. I would’ve been so happy. I almost was.
Then he showed up.
Born on the Island of Joy to a lineage of proud underachievers. Passed notes in class instead of taking them. Considered liquor labels thoughtful reading. Had no future and no intention of getting one.
He arrived to the academy on a scholarship afforded by the power of an ancient sword. (One he found while chasing a merchant’s loose daughter through some woods during a party, as I later found out.) The change of scenery didn’t seem to inspire any determination in him. He didn’t display any technique outside of aimlessly charging. I overheard instructors venting their woes while I did work-study tasks in the archives. He couldn’t identify Cyrus Royce, the former leader of the Heroes of Humanity and his scholarship’s namesake. And one time- I’m being completely honest here- he picked his nose in class.
I didn’t consider him a real issue outside of annoyance until they started posting his scores. He edged me out by just enough points to jeopardize my place in the reserves.
I’d never admit this to anyone, but I started watching him more and more after this. Perhaps he had changed his ways. Started taking his opportunity seriously. It was a defeat that I could at least bittersweetly accept, being outclassed by someone who was at least trying.
At one point, Tristan caught me observing him and accused me of stalking. The idea that I wasn’t automatically enamored with him seemed inconceivable.
Even worse- up clos– he still didn’t strike me as a person who wouldn’t have known what inconceivable even meant.
I told him that I just wanted to see his technique. This did not silent his aching self-perception, and instead acted as springboard for a sparring match. A challenge I accepted out of a wish to see if he truly deserved a spot on the reserve.
No. No. That wasn’t entirely true. I also wanted to destroy that smug face and switch that annoying voice off. (It always had a small whiny stretch to it.) And, at the time, I actually thought that I stood at least a small chance.
The fight started pretty evenly, if not a little in my favor. But when I started landing hits- sending Tristan back with accusations of me “not being able to get a boyfriend this way or by stalking guys”- I started wondering why I could do this. I planned on starting the fight with conservative attacks, building up as my opponent slowly wore himself down.
But, a few minutes into the fight, Tristan already started sagging, the act of heaving breaths alone exhausting him further.
What was this?
He couldn’t have seriously used all his energy this early into the fight.
He shut his eyes tight, squeezing a few tears out. He gritted his teeth, shaking his head.
I was about to offer to end the fight in favor of rational conversation.
Tristan answered with a scream and grance stance to call the planet’s energy through is sword. He proclaimed that he wouldn’t let me put him down and shatter his spirit. That he would believe in himself and-
I almost dropped my own sword alongside my jaw at this part.
This was just stuff from the various action cartoons that I caught him binging on during study hour.
Crackling emerald and gold fire, he charged.
He missed, but only by just enough to singe my eyebrows. He swung like a mad man, blasts exploding more in empty parts of the arena than ones I darted through.
I squinted at him and realized why most of his attacks missed by long shots–
He had his eyes closed.
Perhaps the shock alone distracted me, because one of his random blasts hit me harder than I ever had been hit in my entire life.
My vision became stardust, my lungs unable to take any breath in. Every time I thought about counterattacking, an overwhelming rush of planet force knocked the idea out of my head.
But perhaps I still had enough of a hold on my mind, because a dreadful realization numbed me to the slaughter.
It didn’t matter that his technique never improved, because he had raw power and sheer luck. Nothing would change no matter how hard I worked, because this was the real wild. It didn’t matter how much ambition a house cat had; if something was big enough and wanted to eat it, it would be eaten.
I thought about these things as I skidded across the ground, effectively ending the fight.
Not out of surrender, I’d like to add.
As I laid there, I tried my hardest to summon enough spectramancy to attack. As a last resort, I laid what little expendable life force I could summon in the small area around me as an invisible trap. Tristan would have had to walk right up next to me for it to have enough effect to knock him out, but if he truly overindulged on those formulaic animations…
Sure enough, like some cliched animated hero, he started walking over. He began some brazen speech about how he believed in himself and how I needed to believe in myself and how my lack of confidence lead to me stalking him and how we could still be friends as long as I respected boundaries-
I wasn’t really listening, by the way. I focused more on counting the footsteps.
Right up until the moment I heard a snap and Tristan whining “Oh, crap, I totally just broke your sword. My bad.”
On the other side of my red vision, I found myself grasping for Tristan’s neck, unable to keep myself from snarling in some sort of caustic tongue. My fingers barely touched his flesh before a blaze of planet’s energy scrapped me across the ground, my wrecked frame just shy of the arena fence as I landed.
And beyond the shimmering orange curtain of energy stood Azabis, the personal assisstant and- quite often- talent seeker for Gil Wallace. Darkness took my vision just as he began walking away.
Though, in all honestly, darkness never really left it once I woke of in the infirmary, where I remained for a week. The healers couldn’t understand why it took so long for me to recover, and I lacked the strength to confess.
Forget that I lost the fight due to practically going feral. Forget that it would take weeks to get the rare minerals to fix Februus, let alone actually fix it. My return to class would only become me going through the motions.
But go through the motions I did. And I- foolishly- kept up a semblance of hope. Though- I guess- what else could I have done?
I had come that far, after all. I just had to pay off.
Guess who made the reserves after all. Not only that, but got a personal offer by Gil Wallace himself to join up in Pantheos. A personal offer accepted with a shrug, a grin, and a “why not?”
Guess who rode away on the traditional carriage and who had to watch their dreams from the sidelines like some sort of cruel out of body experience.
Come on. Guess.
I never did fully rebuild Februus, and I never did go back to the Island of Harmony.
No, after a mental breakdown in my dorm room, a nice soft room in a sanitarium on the Island of Contemplation awaited me instead. They didn’t even have to take my spectramancy into account; my abilities had abandoned me. I didn’t blame them.
I spent my bleached-out days floating on sedative clouds and my nights dreaming of a battle with a demonic Tristan or trying to swim to Pantheos. Everyone constantly watched for suspcious cuts or moments of eerie calm. I avoided mirrors- out of a reluctance to see my empty eyes- and letters from home that mentioned how the village head wanted me back as a tourist attraction.
I either would’ve stayed in the ward or gone home, had I not watched television that fateful day one year later.
Ministry intiatives ensured that even sanitarium rec rooms had televisions put in. (Can’t get a decent practice dummy in some places, but heaven forbid we be deprived of the new technological innovation sweeping the nation.)
I was in between drug doses when I happened to wander in and see Tristan bouncing on the screen, some of my fellow patients mistaking him- for the thirty-eighth time- as “my friend from school.”
I raised the pills to my lips, ready to officially kick off my surrender to my fate.
Which is when a familiar face entered the screen.
The pills stuck to the side of my dry throat. I coughed so hard that an orderly ran over and slapped me on my back, the pills landing at my slippered feet. I rubbed my fish bowl vision clear.
No mistaking it.
A little older sure, but very much alive. Very much taking up Tristan’s challenge across nation-wide television.
I feared for her at first, of course. Blind stupid luck was blind stupid luck, after all.
But it looked like it finally ran out for Tristan. Belladonna evaded his attacks like a crow darting through the air, frustrating him more and more. The moment she summoned a skeletal monstrosity, Tristan- scared out his mind- started running even before Belladonna sent him packing.
Great creator, Tristan even dropped that sword of his while fleeing.
The newsfeed cut off immediately, technical difficulties blamed.
I smiled so hard that I thought my face would split in half.
Technical difficulties. Yeah, for the whole nation.
It’s ironic that I probably truly went crazy that day, because I decided to recover and leave this place.
In between that and my miraculous release, I finally looked hard at the world I tried clawing my way into.
Take the news program Belladonna beat Tristan on for example. It wasn’t actually a news program, but a reality program centered around one Jade Harrington. Another recent addition to the Heroes of Humanity and a controversial one at that, due to her high-profile scandals and demands that cameras always be on her. In fact, that episode also featured a cameo from another newer member of the Heroes of Humanity- a robotic-suit driver named Maya Futura- who ended up destroying public property out of a “kooky technical malfunction.” An act of destruction only dwarfed by a wayward energy wave summoned by HoH veteran Masada Son, which blasted away half the soup kitchen Jade had community service at.
All things noticed by people who don’t have anything good in their souls, of course.
As they processed my release, I already started running inventory of all the things I could sell. My HoH memorabilia would go first, as per justice.
As I told my parents good-bye and put extra feeling behind my “I love you,” I wondered if “justice” was even the right word. I walked away from the local travel building with a decision that it didn’t even matter.
Call me crazy. Bitter. Foolish. Egotistical. You’re probably not wrong.
But can you tell me that what happened to me was fair?
Again, it didn’t matter.
Just like how it didn’t matter if this crusade of mine didn’t make any true sense to any sane person.
If something isn’t fair, it must be destroyed, right? That’s one of the definitions of heroism, after all. And, by the looks of things, Belladonna might just be the right ally for the job. And if she was alive, did that mean Lord Cruxis was alive too?
I was going to Pantheos after all.
Crazy, petty, stupid; either way, this was my destiny.
Even though- once again- I still didn’t graps it for what it was.
I didn’t know that this destiny of mine would help the world tighten like hands around a throat. Reach not just to Belladonna, but also far past Iresidine’s shores.
All the way to a monster huntress who went to the underworld and back, having to sacrifice body parts to spirits in the process.
All the way to a spectral queen who sought to destroy an entity that turned people in saints and- should temptation prove too much- demons.
And, of course, all the way to the dragons.
The real ones.