There weren't always dragons in the Valley. And that was a big problem for my family business.
No matter how many disclaimers and money-back guarantees we put in our advertisements and brochures, when a portal tourist from one of the other Worlds paid upwards of 500 gold pieces for a guided dragon hunt, they expected to at least see a dragon.
Before he died, Dad was the family expert at handling disgruntled clients. Right from the moment a new group of tourists arrived at our lodge on the outskirts of Rivercliff, Dad had a way of making clear that dragons weren't guaranteed.
His opening line was always something like "Hail traveller! Want to help us see if we can hunt down a dragon today?"
He often referred to a hunt as an "adventure" or a "quest". Tourists loved that. Whenever an anxious potential client asked if we would definitely find a dragon, his answers were always reassuring, but never committal.
He’d say something like: "Well, nothing is ever certain with dragons, but it's the right time of year for it." (Most portal tourists think of dragons as just big animals, and don't know that the lives of dragons, unfolding as they do over centuries, have little connection with the yearly cycle of nature. Whatever instincts or urges drive dragons, they have more to do with the magical cycles of the Ages than whether it's summer or winter. Dad wasn't lying, though. If all times of year are equally good for dragon hunting, then it's always the right time of year for it.)
Or he’d say something like: “I’ve been doing this getting on for three decades now, and if there’s a dragon to be found, we’ll find it for you.” (Definitely not a lie. If there was a dragon in the valley, Dad was the best possible guide to lead you to it.)
Sometimes, he’d just take a drag on his pipe and gesture towards the burnt-out Hempblood farmstead. (And that wasn’t technically a lie. Sure, the portal tourists didn’t know that the farmstead had burned down years ago because Longo Hempblood fell asleep over a bowl of pipeweed during a particularly dry summer. No dragons were involved. But tourists rarely asked any questions after that.)
I wish I could tell you exactly what my Dad said in those moments. But when I was little, I wasn’t paying much attention. Early on, all I can remember is that I sat on my Dad’s knee and waved at the tourists until Dad started his patter. Once he got into discussing the details of guarantees and up-front payments and weaponry, I would stop paying attention, and eventually I’d scamper off, either to climb the hunting stand and watch for flying realms passing over the Giantwalk ridge, or to look for pixies at the edge of the forest.
The dragon hunts didn’t concern me, because they were something for grown-ups. The only part of the negotiations I listened to was when they started talking about routes and camping and “duration”, because that was when I would find out how long my Dad was going to be away.
I wish I’d listened closer.
When I was little, as soon as I saw a portal storm gathering, I would run to find Dad, eager to ride at his back up the temple trail. But the year I turned twelve, I stopped going with Dad to meet the new arrivals.
The way I remember it, stopping was my decision. I distinctly remember Mum trying to coax me from my bed, seemingly incredulous that I didn’t want to go with Dad. But pretty soon, it was agreed that I could spend my time on pursuits more fitting to a growing lad: archery lessons with Edduin Summerbrook, learning to ride a horse by myself, that sort of thing. When I turned fifteen, I was excited to be allowed my own key to the wand rack, and I soon acquired the knack of telling how many charges were left in a wand just by picking it up.
In those days, nobody ever mentioned anything about taking over the family business, and I never asked. I suppose in the back of my mind I always assumed that I would grow up to be a hunter like Dad.
When the village kids talked about enlisting with the Imperial Regiments or running away to Gelthägen to become a merchant’s apprentice, I listened with interest, but the possible futures they laid out seemed no more real to me than the distant past you hear about in the heroic sagas of the Seventh Age.
But then, last year, there came the hunt that went wrong. Dad was gone, and suddenly I had to handle the clients.
The portal tourists from your World are the worst.
Back when the Age turned and portal storms became a common thing (at least in certain areas), most of the people who came through portals were from your World - at least, that’s what Dad told me his Dad told him. Even today, at least half of all portal tourists are from your “Earth” World. I don’t know why people from your World are so good at getting through the portals, but I’ve heard three main theories:
- Your weird magic - or craftsmanship, or whatever it is, I’m not a wizard - allows your dominant Empires (or even just certain rich merchants who can afford to hire the right craftsmen) to predict where a portal storm is about to happen.
- Some pre-existing magical resonance between our two Worlds ensures that portals are more likely to open from your World than from any of the others. I’ve heard tell that several notable figures from our World’s previous Age - when portals between the Worlds were almost unheard of - were inadvertent visitors from Earth, although nobody can agree on which ones. Hoffa The Mutinous, Earhart (a renowned explorer of the Overworld), the scribes Agatha and Ambrose, and the notorious bard Adele The Relatable are all names that seem to mean something to Earth tourists. (2a: Big point in favour of the magical resonance theory: your World’s “English language” is almost the same as our Common tongue, give or take a few words. That’s a big synchrocur - or, sorry, I guess you would say coincidence - if our Worlds don’t have some kind of mystic relationship.)
- You Earth people are just more inclined to jump through mysterious portals for your own inscrutable cultural reasons. Apparently your sagas have a lot of positive depictions of characters travelling through portals to other Worlds and having fun, exciting adventures, and few to no cautionary tales where somebody hops through a portal and immediately gets eaten by demons. (3a: Some unkind scholars suggest that Earth people are just - how can I put this politely? - dumb and aggressive. I mean, dumber and more aggressive on average than the average denizen of our World - I’m sure you yourself are very wise and calm.)
On the day when the story I’m trying to tell you really began, I had to deal with a particularly dumb and aggressive portal tourist. Who, by coincidence, just happened to be from Earth.
It started like a normal portal day (if any day marked by a magical storm that opens bridges between different realities can be described as “normal”). At dawn, the Rivercliff town watchman spotted the tell-tale signs of a gathering portal storm and rang out the customary warning pattern on the watchtower bell.
As soon as the bell woke me, I leapt out of bed, hurriedly got dressed and grabbed my cloak, then dashed out to the stables to get Patience, our mule.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I’m not one of those insufferably chipper morning people. If I followed my natural inclination I would have spent a quarter hour psyching myself up to leave the warmth of my blanket for the chilly dawn air, and before leaving the house I would have brewed myself a bowl of coffee (the best of the trade goods that come from your World, in my opinion).
Unfortunately, if I had done that, I would have been beaten to the stables by Hezi. Did I mention that I have an annoying older sister? Hezi was always way more into the “greeting potential clients” part of the business than I was. She had never stopped going up the trail with Dad, while still learning archery and horse riding and tracking and foraging and all the other skills that a hunt guide needs. Don’t tell her I said this, but she’s a little bit better than me at most of those things.
In the terrible days after the hunt that went wrong, when Mum gave me the speech about how I was the man of the house now and I had to take on the responsibility of running the business because it was what Dad had always wanted, Hezi was furious. I remember her and Mum having a lot of long, intense arguments, punctuated by Hezi making her read a lot of books and pamphlets from your World about the correct place of women in society.
In the end, the compromise we reached is that Hezi and I are both in charge of running the business, as equal partners. Which is fine by me. But I know that Hezi is lobbying to be in sole charge of the business. And that would be fine by me too, except it would make my annoying older sister my boss, which can’t happen, so I have to make sure that I do at least half the work.
I had Patience half loaded by the time Hezi strode up, that week’s new elaborate braided hairstyle bouncing in her wake. “Nice work, little brother!” she said cheerily (she had recently realised that it was way more annoying when she was cheerful and supportive).
Before the sun was even over the treetops, we had made it up the trail to the ruined temple where the portals open. Our hunting lodge is a fair way back towards Rivercliff from the temple, so like everyone else in the portal tourism racket, we set up a stall right by the temple steps with signs touting our services, as well as enticing artifacts like a real dragon’s claw, hunting wands, a crossbow, and a scale armour cuirass. (Tourists love to try on the armour, but when they feel how heavy it is, they don't want to wear it for the hunt. It wouldn't help much against all but the most juvenile dragon, anyway.)
When I was done setting everything up, I took a moment to mop my brow and look over the other stalls that had sprung up. There were now signs everywhere, most of them written to appeal to the sensibilities of customers from Earth.
LET US TAILOR YOU A GOWN WOVEN FROM REAL GIANT SPIDER SILK
TOUR OF RIVERCLIFF’S FAMOUS HAUNTED MINE WITH DRAMATIC WATERFALL VIEWS (HALF DAY HIKE, PICNIC LUNCH INCLUDED)
SPOT PIXIES AND GOBLINS FROM THE COMFORT OF A DELUXE CARRIAGE
AUTHENTIC FLAXEN GARMENTS REFLECTING A SIMPLER, MORE TRADITIONAL LIFESTYLE! #COTTAGECORE
DINE ON GOURMET ELVISH FAYRE AT CHATEAU NANDOR: TODAY’S SPECIAL - LOIN OF DIRE BOAR IN A HONEY-WINE JUS WITH UNDERWORLD MUSHROOMS. FREE GARLIC WAYBREAD WITH EVERY MEAL!
And of course:
ORIGINAL AUTHENTIC THUNDER VALLEY DRAGON HUNTING SAFARI
That wasn’t our sign. Ours read:
AUTHENTIC ORIGINAL THUNDER VALLEY GUIDED DRAGON SLAYING EXPERIENCE
The other sign belonged to our competition, the rival guided hunt run by Gerot Hilrub and his family. Despite what the sign said, ours was definitely the original: my Dad had been guiding tourists for years before the Hilrub clan arrived in Rivercliff.
Earth tourists love to hear that things are authentic, but I’m still not sure what authentic means. It’s one of the many puzzling things about people from your World. Here are the top three mysteries about Earth people from my point of view:
- Is it true that your World is round like a ball, rather than round and flat like a coin as ours is? Most of the Earth tourists I’ve spoken to insist that’s true. But one elderly man from a fiefdom called Arizona told me that Earth is flat after all, and all the people who think it’s a ball are under the spell of an evil cabal of wizards known as Nassah (not sure about the spelling). How do you all stay on a ball without falling off? Is it something to do with your advanced craftsmanship? But then if so, how did you stay on in the days before your craftspeople were so advanced?
- Why are you so weird about paying for things? To be fair, nowadays most of you come ready to pay in gold, even if the gold pieces you bring aren’t the standard Imperial size and are embossed with weird legends like SUUD AFRIKA or 1 DOLLAR 1861. But often in the early days of the portal storms, and sometimes even now, Earth tourists try to pay with pieces of thick shiny paper, or palm-sized rectangles of a substance that’s somewhere between a piece of leather and a scale, all of them embossed with numbers, names, inscrutable designs and mottos, and even realistic portraits. Do your bankers practice some form of dark coin-based magic? Certainly, when I ask Earth people about this, you seem to harbour a lot of enmity and even outright hatred for the bankers of your World, but I can never quite understand the reasons.
- Earth weapons are so strange. Many of the Earth tourists who come for a dragon hunt bring cruel-looking wands of dark metal, many of them inlaid with wood and usually adorned with protrusions of metal or the leather/scale material. When you test them here and find that whatever dark principle they rely on doesn’t work in our World, you often fly into a tantrum or become withdrawn and sullen. Those of you who bring the metal wands often carry knives of excellent quality. A few Earth tourists bring swords, but those are mainly flimsy and poorly-balanced, as if they are designed purely for ceremonial or ritual purposes. Is it normal in your World to play at being a swordsman, adopting the costume of a warrior, but never actually getting into a real sword fight? Sometimes I worry for you.
Anyway, on the day I’m telling you about, one Earth tourist stood out. Only a few minutes after we’d all finished setting up, he’d already got into a heated argument with Gerot Hilrub. He made a final dismissive gesture and began striding over to our stall.
You could tell that he was a rich noble or merchant by his sheer girth, which spoke of a life of wealth and abundance. His wife and three children, also of ample stature, trotted behind him.
Another indicator of his great wealth was the large bag of coin that he clutched in his left fist.
“Hey there!”, he shouted to nobody in particular when he was still a little too far away for polite conversation. He caught his breath for a few strides, then addressed me:
“What will it take to guarantee that I can kill a dragon?”
I glanced over at the Hilrub stall. I saw Gerot shaking his head in exasperation, before fixing on a new prospect. I saw Fairpe Hilrub, Gerot’s stunningly beautiful daughter, looking over at me. For a moment our eyes met. She raised her perfect auburn brows and tilted her head slightly. There was sympathy in her expression, and perhaps pity, but also a certain air of challenge. Over to you, her emerald eyes seemed to say. Let’s see what you’ve got.
I admit that, looking back on things, I might possibly have read too much into that momentary glance. It was hard to interpret her expression because, as I may have mentioned, she is stunningly beautiful (in my opinion), and so I looked away almost immediately.
I should have said “Well, nothing is ever certain with dragons, but it's the right time of year for it.”
I should have said “I’ve been doing this getting on for three seasons now, and if there’s a dragon to be found, we’ll find it for you.”
I should have said nothing, but just raised my eyebrows knowingly and gestured towards the burnt-out Hempblood farmstead.
But instead I said “I have an idea that will guarantee you a dragon.”
And that brilliant idea is how I, a novice dragon hunt guide, came to be hunted by the whole of dragonkind.
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