As it turns out, slaying dragons is a bit like riding a bike; once you get the hang of it, you pretty much just need to worry about hanging on and not tumbling off.
Of course, I never really got the hang of riding a bike.
This thought flashed through my head at precisely the wrong moment, as I clung desperately to the handle of the sword. The scales around me felt just as slick as they looked, and offered little in the way of handholds. I just clung to the handle of the sword, feeling it sink a little deeper in the thrashing, bellowing wyrm with each stomach-dropping plunge through the sky.
“Just give up and die already!” I shouted, even though the rushing wind whipped the words out of my mouth before anyone else could hear them. “Go down! Down!”
Finally, the dragon couldn’t ignore the wound in its back any longer. It bellowed again, losing altitude and dropping down towards a raised highway below us. I risked a desperate look over its side. Weren’t we coming in a little fast…?
The dragon landed. I felt the impact rattle every single bone in my body, and lost my precarious grip on the beast. Somehow, at least, I managed to hold onto the sword, yanking it out of the creature’s tough hide as I tumbled across the concrete surface of the raised highway.
I scrambled back up to my feet, ignoring the aches of half a dozen bruises and drunkenly waving my sword in front of me. “That’s right!” I shouted at the dragon as it thrashed, apparently trying to twist its head to see the extent of its injuries. “Want some more?”
At my words, that huge head whipped around to glare at me, the mouth opening to reveal rows of cruelly hooked teeth. Oh. It did want some more.
Drunk on adrenaline and energy, I waved the sword in front of me, trying to convince my legs not to give out on me just yet. “Come on!” I shouted, charging in as the dragon drew in breath to hit me with a jet of flames.
Fifteen minutes later, I finally staggered away from the now headless corpse, trying vainly to brush some of the soot off of my clothes. I definitely wasn’t going to get these stains out in my apartment building’s crappy little basement washing machine.
I heard approaching sirens, but decided that I’d probably have to answer fewer questions if I wasn’t around when the cops and emergency teams showed up. So I picked my way down off of the highway, into the nearest neighborhood where it looked like I might be able to grab a drink.
I still had the sword, of course. Couldn’t leave that behind, especially not now. Not with monsters everywhere, making all kinds of trouble.
“If I find that old man, I’m going to see if he’s immune to you,” I muttered down to the sword, trying to shake the ache out of one leg as I hopped along on the other. “Didn’t have any problem with monsters until I got the sword, I’ll tell you that!”
Thankfully, the sword didn’t reply. If it had answered me, I definitely would have known that I was going crazy.
Reaching a location with potential, I wrenched open the heavy, ornately carved wooden door and stepped inside. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the gloomy interior, and I blinked a couple times as I tried to see into the dimness.
Well, I’d found a bar, at least – although it didn’t look much like the kind of bar that I usually visited. Those tended to be hip, trendy new places, with girls wearing tight outfits and drinks that cost twenty bucks a pop. Not that I particularly enjoyed how quickly I could drink away my paycheck, but getting rejected by some cute girl on a Friday night had become something of a weekly tradition for me.
This place, on the other hand, looked a bit like a movie set for a fantasy movie threw up inside an old barn. The bones of the building were exposed, huge wooden girders and beams that suggested a structure more stable than most of the condos on the market these days. The walls were decorated with shields, strange weapons, and stuffed animals of at least a dozen different species, from every single branch of the tree of life.
But most importantly, there was a bar – a huge, hulking construction of black wood that perfectly matched my current black mood. I made a beeline for it, dropping my sword on top as the bartender turned to me.
His eyes flicked to the sword, then back to me, but he didn’t say anything about it. Good. Last thing that I wanted to hear now was a lecture from some anti-carry nut. “Beer?” he asked instead.
I nodded, and found a tall, frothy mug in front of me seconds later. Decent service, at least.
Three mugs of the stuff later (hey, it was strong beer, and they were big mugs!), I nearly tumbled off of my stool as I finished telling my tale to the bartender. “So what, now I’m some sort of monster killer?” I groaned, gesturing towards the sword. “I didn’t ask for this!”
“You didn’t?” he replied, both of the twin bartenders blinking enigmatically at me.
“No! He just came up and shoved it at me! What was I supposed to do, throw it back at him?”
The twin bartenders shook their heads in perfect, blurry harmony. “The sword chooses one who is worthy, and who seeks adventure in his life,” he replied. “You might not have consciously asked for it, but you wanted it.” They frowned. “Although Xerxes not even giving you a briefing is strange. I wonder… he hasn’t been in yet today, but he’ll probably show up.”
That caught my attention. “Wait, the old man comes here?” I asked.
Both bartenders nodded. “You can stick around and wait, if you want,” they chorused.
I started to answer, but yawned. “Actually, I’m pretty exhausted,” I muttered. “You think I could just lay down for a bit somewhere?”
“There’s an apartment upstairs that I’ve been meaning to lease out,” the bartender answered. Now, there was once again just one of him, and he looked strangely eager.
“Yeah, sure. Probably more dragons in my old place, anyway.” A sudden thought occurred to me. “Oh, but I’ve only got this for payment. Will it work?”
I reached into my pocket and, with difficulty, tugged out the large item that had been threatening to tear the fabric from inside. The scale thumped loudly when I set it on the bar.
The bartender’s eyes seemed to light up with the same gold glow that the scale emanated. “Oh, yes, that will cover quite a good chunk of the yearly rent,” he assured me.
“And my bar tab?” I pressed. I’d seen the thing glinting in the tail of the dragon when it fell, and had taken a second to tug it loose before escaping.
“And your bar tab,” he promised. “Now, let’s get you up to bed. I’ll send Xerxes in when he shows up.”
I accepted his hand, letting him lead me up a set of narrow stairs around a corner at the back of the bar. “Hey, where’d your twin go?” I asked sleepily.
He didn’t reply, but unlocked a door and led me into the upstairs apartment. I didn’t even bother looking around past the sight of a bed. That was, after all, what I needed for now.
I thumped down in it, sword clattering on the ground beside me. I was out like a light, even before the springs of the cheap mattress stopped vibrating.