We all remember when the bombs fell. When the world was consumed in blood and ash. A century of violence, every man destroying his sister and brother for the last little resource left to them. Wars were fought until we lost track of who was fighting, and for what.
The true tragedy was when we lost the books.
I picked my way through the woods. The sun had just crested over the oaks, and if I wanted to get the work done before they left, I needed to hurry.
The staff was right where I left it, tucked away right by the brook. The branch had bumped into me when I ran here a few months ago. Tears had been in my eyes, and I couldn’t breathe except to stifle a sob. Nothing had been fair. I’d stood in the brook, determined to let it just carry me away to the sea, or the Wastes. Anywhere would have been better than home.
Instead, a branch had snapped over the brook, and hit me in the shoulder. I lashed out, looking for an unseen enemy, but there was only a stick. No, more than that. It floated in the water. It shimmered, catching the light that broke through the leaves.
That was three months ago. The branch was now a staff, almost. I just needed to finish the final rune work. I sat on the bank, and dipped my toes into the water. Cool, as always, with just a hint of glow. My new home.
Books were the first thing to go during the war. Paper burned, and it wasn’t until the fighting stopped that we finally realized what we sacrificed to kill each other. The worst thing was, so many books had been burned that we didn’t even know what was lost.
My family is one of the few in town that has a library, of sorts. Shakespeare survived, and the Bible could be found in almost every home. But my family was different. My great-great-grandfather had collected comic books.
Those were the bedtime stories for generations. Great heroes that flashed through the sky. They stopped wars, destroyed the bombs, made sure the world was safe.
It was fiction, and every McKay knew this at the start. But it gave us a hope that someday, the heroes would come. And even if they didn’t, we always had a story that was all ours.
There. I held the staff up, and smiled. The rune work was basic, but it would do. I had had to grab every tome and lesson from even the maddest wanderer that stumbled into town. Some of the symbols did nothing. Some I had to scrap because they were too dangerous. The others were on my staff.
I looked at my reflection in the water. My hair was braided, something mother always called a bright flame in the trees. My face was smooth, even when I frowned. Too kind, and I had to wear bulky clothes. I didn’t want my curves to distract from what I was doing.
But the staff never wavered. That was good, and I had time. I could get back.
I knew the heroes would never come. I had known for years. There was radiation enough, but no one rose out of the ashes to save the planet. No heroes falling from a dying star, or out of the depths of the shadows and sea. That was yesterday’s hero.
I spoke a word, and the staff glowed. I grinned, and rubbed the surface.
My name is Emelia McKay, and I have something better than superheroes. I have magic.
The sun was shining, and there wasn’t a single cloud in the skies. I knew it was going to lead to trouble. Good.
It isn’t as simple as I thought it to be. I live in a quiet little town, by a little brook, with little people leading little lives. In fact, the name is Littlebrook. As imaginative as could be hoped for in a town populated almost entirely by farmers and woodsmen. But the tavern was always homey, the store was well-stocked, and the people were kind to a fault.
I leaned against my staff, testing its weight. There was a slight bend, but it wasn’t supposed to be stone. And it didn’t seem anyone noticed when I walked through town.
“Young lady, are you supposed to be working on the dairy?”
“Light of my life…” No. Not that one. No one had anything of value to say. But they were running towards their duties, either towards the farmlands, or to the store to drop off goods.
Littlebrook is human, for the most part. Magic sent a few others our way. But magic’s been around enough that an elf or gnome wandering through doesn’t faze us. It’s when they try to stay that eyebrows are raised. But once someone puts down roots, they become part of the community. And hellfire will be raised if anyone tries to step in from the outside to bring harm.
Except for the Snake River Boys.
They were in town, that much was easy to know. For one, they could be heard in the tavern. I stepped lightly onto the main street, a little dirt gash through the stone and wooden buildings. Stopping for a rest by the barber shop. Catch my breath, and look around for the Boys.
I spotted their mounts. The Boys always looked for something a little more exotic. There were horses, to be sure, but the new members would trade them in for the special ones. Mares that had nubs at the shoulder blades, or a tail that fell to the ground. Even a stub of a horn was found on two of the steeds.
The women in the Boys were, if anything, more exotic. Maybe they needed to stand out. But if the steed looked like anything except a horse, chances were it was a woman. Not that it mattered to Scales if his Boys weren’t all men. The only requirement was ruthlessness in battle.
Magic was hitting everything, and everyone. Myths that had once just remained on the page, were stepping out into life. In another few decades, would those nubs become wings? The scaled one, would he become more lizard than horse?
I stiffened, and looked at the wolves. They stood taller than me at just the shoulder, a pair of males that challenged everything with their mere presence. Direwolves were the first to break out of the wild, and taming them was considered both a feat and insanity.
The Dire Brothers were here. Which meant Scales was in town.
My grip tightened around my staff.
The armory was having a sale when I walked past. Whenever the Snake River Boys were in there was a sale throughout Littlebrook. They were having a great time, and I hated it.
The Boys are always around twenty strong. Professional protectors of ours and a half-dozen other towns around the Snake River and its waterways. To their credit is a resume of fighting anyone who tried to come close to their territory. Elves, fairies, even the dwarves never once laid a hand on our hills. Anyone who tried to take over what we spent generations trying to build was sent packing with their tail between their legs. Everything we had was ours, and the Boys made sure of that.
We just had to help them along every once in a while.
Littlebrook really is just one street. It’s not paved, there are just some cobblestone sidewalks for convenience, or to put one of the kids to work who was looking like trouble. A few buildings, less than a dozen on each side. Some were stone, others brick, but most were wood with porches jutting out towards the dirt.
I sat on the porch for the barber shop. The Boys were milling about, laughing as they loaded up the horses. It was a good day, well lit and in a good town. They walked with Fredric, the store owner. They were always polite, and Fredric laughed whenever they ran into town.
It was easier for superheroes to pick out the villains in a crowd. I couldn’t. The entire horde wasn’t just some organization of bastards. In fact, the Boys for the most part were polite. No, they were more than polite, they were friendly, almost loving. Rensen and Carl had homes here. They sent money back for their wives and children. One of the girls…Shirley, I think, spent her days off fishing with the kids.
And if I had my way, they’d never come by here again. I asked myself again, was I about to do the right thing? If everyone was just like the Dires and Scales, would I be thinking this way? Or would I be too scared to move?
There was a smell of dog. The Dires walked out of the tavern.
Walked out. The Dires never walked when the could prowl. Sleek, dressed in black leathers and cotton, they let their strides slide with their gaze. There was a smirk on Davey’s face, while Tranc scowled. Both had been drinking, but Davey must have been winning poker at his brother’s expense.
The brothers were best described as wolf-like. Even rumored to have one as an ancestor. With this much magic, it was difficult to tell if that were just a story, or true. They sure acted the part, dark hair that hung down past their necks. And when they tore into a meal, it made one want to check their teeth. Just not too closely.
Unlike any of the other Boys, the Dire brothers never carried weapons. Between them and their dogs, they didn’t need them.
If the Dires were in the saloon, Scales must be just behind them. And there he was, bursting out of the bar. Dragging my dad with him by the scruff of his shirt.
No. no, he was supposed to let it go. Mom said she was going to talk him down.
She rushed out right after Scales. Her apron flew out behind her. Her hair was frazzled, and tears streamed down her face. No, mom. Don’t make a scene. Scales wants to make a speech, a spectacle. Don’t let him.
Scales loved a speech, loved being imposing. He kept the Dires next to him, just for the contrast. Where they were sleek and furry, the leader of the Snake River Boys was bulked and bald. Not a hair on an inch of his physique. Extremely muscled, it bulged out of his vest. Both arms were bare, to better show off the hairless body he took such pride in.
A tattoo of a dragon ran down the length of his right arm. Scales claimed it was an ancestor. I didn’t know what to think of it. Just let my dad go.
He looked pathetic next to Scales. The leader’s hand could wrap all the way around his neck. His face was red, could he breathe? His arms lashed out, hitting those muscles. Scales almost seemed to enjoy it.
“Brent, Brent, Brent,” Scales muttered. He looked around, and everyone silenced. Scales was about to make a speech.
“Why can’t you just play along? We like you, hell, I like you. You’re a good bartender. Always let my boys in, never gave a fuss. Why are you talking about something so hurtful as debts now?”
Dad gurgled. Mom sobbed. Davey Dire moved a step closer to mom.
“No, Davey,” Scales said. “Let Mary watch. She should have stopped her husband from being so… just so disappointing.”
He relaxed his grip, and dad gulped down air. My dad collapsed to the ground, and rolled onto his back, gasping.
I looked around, seeing if anyone was going to do anything. The Boys traded glances, and then gazed at all of my neighbors. Almost daring one of them to make a move. No one did.
Scales squatted down, and looked at dad. “Now, we do you a good turn, more than a good turn, Brent.” He waved his hand down past the road. “There are goblin raiders, elves, dwarves…not to mention whatever crawls out of those Wastes.”
Tranc snorted, and showed his teeth.
“We’re out there, out in the wilderness day after day, just to make sure you have a good life. All I ask in return is a little meal, a drink here and there, and to make sure we can do our jobs.”
He helped dad up, dusted him off. “Now, can we just go back to doing that?”
Dad looked him in the eye. “Did Davey touch that girl?”
Scales sighed. His fist lashed out, and crushed dad’s face in.
Mom screamed, and ran towards her husband. Davey made a grab for her, but Scales held a hand up. The Dires let mom crowd around dad. She cradled his head to her chest, blood and flesh peeling off into her clothes. She screamed again.
“Anybody else have something to say?” Scales shouted.
I stood up. I guess that was my cue.
I placed a hand in my shirt, and pulled out a green strip of cloth. I tied it over my face, two slits letting me see without difficulty. I gripped the staff, and steeled myself.
His head whipped towards me, and that glare was what got to me. I just watched my dad die. And this bastard, this piece of dragon slime was the one who killed him. He wasn’t going to leave.
I took a step forward. I shook all over, hoping it wasn’t showing. Too important not to keep going.
Scales sneered at the little girl walking towards him. “Who are you supposed to be?”
I stopped on the opposite side of the street. “Scales, you’ve hurt the last person in Littlebrook.”
He shrugged. “Didn’t hurt him. His brains were gone before it really started to hurt.”
I showed teeth, and tried not to growl. Dad was going to die, he always was going to. Once he decided to talk about Lacy in public, he was gone. Nothing was going to change that, and nothing did.
Scales stood up, and smiled. “Is that you, Emelia? Little Melly?”
Dammit twice. Secret identities are a lot harder when everyone knows your face. And I had had a Green Avenger speech all prepared. But Scales had to go and ruin that.
He laughed when I removed the mask. “It is! Oh, Melly, I’m sorry you had to see that.” He motioned to my mother. “Mary, why don’t you go with your daughter, go on home.”
Mary stared at me. Her eyes were dead, uncomprehending. Whatever reason she had had, was in her arms with dad. I don’t think she could have moved if a stampede was rolling straight towards her.
Scales motioned to the staff. “That’s a pretty thing for a pretty girl. You carve that yourself?”
I pointed it straight at him. “Scales, you and your wolf friends, pack up and leave. Never come back to Littlebrook. I won’t ask you twice.”
The shaking was getting even harder to control. I needed to focus, not on Scales and his size. On the rune work, on the oak in my hand. If he moved, I knew it had to be quick.
Sure enough, Scales smiled. He moved towards me. “Let’s have a talk.”
Superheroes only had one stupid habit. They let the villains off with warnings. It was mercy, right for such a civilized world. They lived in a land of laws, order. Higher values and ideals to be aspired to. Here good isn’t reached for, but clawed after. And magic’s given me talons.
I screamed my curse, and lashed out with the staff. All the rage burned out of me, straight down the staff and blazed out in an emerald fire at Scales.
It engulfed the bastard. For all his vaunted dragon blood, he cried out as the flames burned his flesh. The sound gave me fuel, gave me strength. I shouted again, and the fire redoubled its efforts.
The smell of burning cotton filled the air. Around me I could feel both the Boys and the townsfolk watch in agony. They couldn’t turn away, couldn’t bear to not see this.
Before I knew it I had to breathe again. I gasped, the spell ending in an instant. The staff almost shook out of my hand. I gripped it tighter, and let my arm jolt back and forth. I spasmed in front of the town.
My gaze snapped up. There Scales stood. Blackened, the clothes flaked away to nothing as they clung to his skin. He wavered, and collapsed on his back. He grunted, and sat up.
“I’m the dragon,” He muttered.
I hit him again. And again, and again. Fire poured out of me, forces of wind, it streamed out of my body towards that thing that dared step on my street. He killed my dad, I didn’t want him to even exist anymore!
In the end, when I couldn’t move anymore, there was nothing left that could be called Scales. A smear, that’s what remained. A smear of blood and charcoal that stretched from a scorch of embers that still flickered in the dying sun. when I got my strength back, I was going to get a bucket of water and wash that away, too.
My body was broken inside. It howled in pain. I needed to sit, to lay down on the dirt and just die for a while. I had beaten him, beaten the dragon.
But the minions were still there.
I leaned on the staff, and pointed my free hand at the rest of the Boys.
“Now.” I breathed. “Get out.”
The Dires howled. A low, keening sound that grew in volume till it broke against my eardrums. Their hands lengthened, fingers becoming claws. Behind them a few of the Boys hefted swords, crossbows, and wands. They started towards me.
I hoped they’d see what happened to Scales, and just leave. Mostly. The Dires had too much to answer for. I put my hand to my mouth, and whistled.
There was one thing about heroes that they did understand.
The roofs rattled, and everyone’s eyes looked upwards. They were behind me, but I knew they were there.
My team was assembled. And just spoiling for a fight.
Echo struck first. She had found a way to bend and mask all traces of herself. Sound, light, she could even disguise her own scent…though that was less about magic and more about rolling in sawdust and rosewood in preparation. Before the Dires knew what had happened she had stuck a silver blade in Davey’s ribs. He howled, and tore her throat out in one gash.
Tranc was at his brother’s side in a moment. It was far too late, for either him or Echo. She laid right next to the wolf, their blood pooling together in the dirt. No one besides Tranc wept for Davey. He had taken so much from Echo, taken as his due for the protection.
She had told me this was how she wanted to go. There was nothing for her but pain. She even felt a kick in her stomach, a parting gift that she had never wanted. Echo finally repaid Davey, and took his life first.
I smiled. The fire bug twins flamed onto the scene, setting down on the roofs in a blaze of glory in bravado. Fila was dressed in orange, her brother Nare was too, and if Fila hadn’t recently hit puberty I honestly couldn’t tell them apart. Their smiles, glaring red hair, and talent for pyromancy were just too identical. Especially since they used the same hand motion to set Tranc on fire. He yelped, and started to run.
“Get back here!” Nare shouted after the Dire brother. He snapped his finger, and a whip of fire trailed down from his fingers. “We were just getting warmed up!”
Fila rolled her eyes. She never was one for puns.
The Snake River Boys were scum, for the most part. I was sure of this. But they knew how to fight. The twins had to duck away as arrows and knives were thrown up. And even a few realized I was still there, exhausted after killing their boss. Oh, no.
I stumbled away, and tripped over my feet. I was spent. I doubted I could move up to the barber’s if I wanted to.
One of the Boys walked over, sword in hand. Perrin, was that his name? Damn it, one who was good with a blade. I couldn’t even lift the staff.
I coughed. “Maybe make this sporting, give me a few minutes to compose?”
Perrin shrugged. “Sure. Same as you gave Scales.”
Double damn it. “Shouldn’t you help your friends?”
“They’ll handle those- what the hell is that?!” he screamed, and backpedaled as something flew down.
The creature stood four feet tall. Coated in a light brown fur, she appeared shorter as she squatted in front of me. She stared at Perrin, and screeched. He backed away, and ran.
She turned to look at me. A face that would have been that of a young girl’s, it was marred by a bat snout and black eyes. Her ears stuck out from under her close-cropped hair.
“He didn’t like me, Mel,” She said.
“I know, Lana,” I said. I stood up, and leaned against the staff. “He’s just a dummy.”
It wasn’t Lana’s fault she looked that way. Her parents had ventured too close to the Waste, that scar of radiation that was once called New York. Lana had been born different, and was always going to be such. No matter that she could fly, and was the sweetest twelve-year-old anyone could ask for.
A purple blade tapped my staff. Good, Sela was here.
“Sela,” I said. I looked at the blade. “Does that mean sir Violet is ready to play?”
A woman ran her hands over the blade. She was twenty-three, pale, lithe with the kind of silver hair that seemed too good to be real. Sela was dressed in her duelist clothes, complete with the scabbard at her side for sir Violet.
“Sir Violet has been told that this is how life must go,” Sela murmured. She darted forward, and caught a sword in a parry. The two weapons were inches from Lana’s back.
“He is much more satisfied with running through such knaves that dare attack a lady of good repute,” Sela spun and stabbed Violet through the neck of one of the Boys.
“He wonders about your hearing, and apologizes for any crude language,” Sela said. “But I would like to just kill some people. May I do that, Emelia?”
I nodded, and leaned against the staff. “Stick close to me, Lana,” I commanded. The girl huddled next to me. “But don’t look away. Don’t shut away from reality. Accept it, and then move on to something better.”
I didn’t want Lana in the fight. She had been through her own share of scraps. If she ever ventured too far from Littlebrook, around strangers, they thought she was a bad omen. A sign of danger. I now knew the best way to mend a broken wing.
Broken. Everything seemed broken. My neighbors looked on in horror as Sela and the twins tore through the Snake River Boys.
The twins were dangerous, but Sela was skilled. Anyone who didn’t want to get cooked soon realized that Sela had won the duelist’s cup downriver for six straight seasons. And with sir Violet’s permission, she was allowed to vent her strange anger against unknown enemies. She dismembered her opponents with a question on her face. I don’t know if she truly understood what life was, or what happened to someone who lost an arm.
I cleared my throat, and tried to speak. “Enough,” I croaked. I was even more tired than I thought, if I couldn’t even shout. Tranc was dead, the Dires and Scales were gone. There wasn’t a reason to fight.
“Stop…” Weariness was settling in. Darkness clouding the vision, no! I was not going to pass out at this point.
“Lana,” I leaned against the staff, and grimaced. “Wake everyone up, please.”
Lana screeched. The sound was nails against the stones, right in my head. I fell, and clutched my head. Just keep conscious, that’s all I needed to do.
I looked up, and everyone else was also on the ground. The twins held onto each other, while the Snake River Boys just rolled on the street, groaning. The windows wavered, threatening to shatter.
Lana stopped, and nodded. “Got them, Mel.”
“That’s true.” I stood up. Nope, not happening. Lana was at my side, holding me up. “Now.”
One of the boys leaped up, and sliced a sword across Fila’s neck. She clutched at the neck, and looked at Nare. She didn’t understand. She was supposed to survive, be happy. They were heroes.
Her blood matched her hair.
Fila wasn’t supposed to die. Echo was, she wanted to die. Maybe me, too. I brought them together, and certainly deserved it for killing a man in cold blood. But Fila, no, she was life. She joined us because being a hero was fun. She would get a chance to help people, with her brother.
Nare held her head close. His mouth moved, whispering in his sister’s ear. The man with the sword raised his hand again. Nare snapped his fingers. A blast of heat, and his sister’s killer was ash.
Nare glared ahead, radiating heat. He held his sister close, and closed his eyes. No, Nare. Don’t, please don’t do that, it’s too much.
He exploded. A wave of flame consumed a dozen of the Boys before lighting the porches on fire. It was gone in an instant, just enough to start the fires going. The armory was sparking, but the tavern was more wood than stone.
“Get up!” I screamed. “The street will go up. Get the buckets!”
Sela ran off, picking up a bucket along the way. Lana raced after her. The Boys looked at me in confusion, and I had to turn and hobble after the girls. They lapped me twice, laden down with a full pail of water splashed against the fire.
I made it to the river, and Sela tapped me on the shoulder. I collapsed against the added weight, and fell into the river. Water, water all around me. Soaking in, oh good. I could think. Maybe if I lay down here, my problems would go away.
A hand snaked in, and gripped me by the wrist. No, just let me be nothing for a while. I needed to be numb, before I went back up to the town. I wanted to be away, far away before the reality sank in. about how many people I sentenced to death.
But the hand was firm, and I didn’t particularly want to drown. Sela pulled me up out of the water. With a plop, she set me on the bank, and started to wring out my clothes while I was still in them.
A rush of wind, and Lana was by our side. She sat next to the two of us.
“We won,” she said. Sela and I exchanged a glance. We survived, which I don’t think was on either of our minds. I had walked into that fight sure that Scales was going to kill me, and I would just get enough of him to let the rest finish the job. Sela, Echo and I would take the bastards with us. The twins and Lana would not even be needed. It was a good plan, just completely stupid.
“How many?” I asked.
“There are maybe a half-dozen of the Boys left,” Sela said. Her voice was soft, mechanical. “Somehow we saved the good ones.”
“They were the ones with enough sense to not get involved.” I raised a hand, and the girls helped me to my feet.
“Ready to survey the damage?” Sela asked. When I nodded, she started to walk with me in tow. I turned, and Lana was huffing behind us, gripping the staff.
Another thing superhero stories never truly got right was how much carnage there was in a battle. There would be rubble, and some broken bones, but too often buildings were either completely destroyed or not a scratch. First thing I saw was the burns. A scorch marked where the firebug twins laid. A pair of blackened skeletons, curled around each other. I wondered if Nare’s last thought was wondering if he was really fireproof.
The blood was next. It wasn’t just in the streets, it splashed against the posts of the buildings, the walls, the porches. Soaked into the street. Sela had been quick and vicious. Was it possible to trace her steps through the fight, following one patch of blood to another?
The townsfolk couldn’t speak. Our neighbors started shouting, hands raised in protest. The remaining Boys reached for weapons. No, I didn’t want to fight. Not again.
I raised my hands. “Peace, please.”
“Peace?” one of the Boys stood up, a woman in her thirties. Her blonde hair was matted with dirt and ash. “You and your friends just slaughtered us. You want peace now?”
“Always,” I said. “Just not with Scales and the Dires.”
“You killed my friends!” She screamed. “I’m going to gut…”
Sela drew sir Violet, and raised the sword up. “If I wanted, six more bodies would be on the ground,” She murmured. “If Emelia wanted, I wouldn’t even get close enough to wet sir Violet.”
They stared at her in contempt.
“We were just trying to help,” Lana said. She huddled behind the two of us, and passed the staff to me. I gripped it, held on for strength.
“What the hell did we ever do to you?” one of the Boys, a man this time, asked.
I shrugged. “Nothing to me. Not until Scales decided to kill my dad to make a point. Remember that?”
I pointed to my mother. She hadn’t moved from in front of our tavern. Her dress was scorched, blackened, and there must have been some sparks that caught in her hair. It smoked, but if it irritated her, she ignored it. She just held onto her husband.
“How about when Echo was taken ‘in payment,’” I asked. “Or any of you took a free meal as your due?”
I looked at mom. She was dead inside, I knew that. She was going to waste away, without dad. But that had nothing to do with what I did. Just what I had to do.
“We’re leaving,” I said. “Me, Sela…Lana.”
“We’re just going to let you go?” one of my former neighbors called out.
“You want us to stay?”
Silence. I thought so.
I probably should’ve said goodbye. But would mom have heard me? Was there anyone else I really needed to say farewell to? The only ones I cared about were right next to me.
We went to where Lana had packs left outside of Littlebrook. She knew she was going to leave, but there were six bags. We had to leave some behind, the boy clothes, anything Echo and Fila liked. I searched through my bag, and stopped.
“Lana, you grabbed the comic books?”
She smiled, and hugged me. “Helps us find the way.”
I ruffled her hair. Yeah, they’ll help along the way.
Sela looked over one of the books, and picked it up. “You mind if I read this one?”
“Go ahead,” I smiled. “We’re in this together.”
Sela rifled through it, and frowned.
“What’s a slayer?”
Copyright 2016 Jack Holder