Rated PG for Mild Language and Bold Monsters.
A Non-Hero’s Guide to The Road of Monsters
By A.T. Greenblatt
1. The Siren
There are three basic guidelines that any idiot can follow when faced with a shape-shifting Siren hell bent on drowning you. One: Plug your ears and sit tight. She’ll tire eventually. Two: If easily visually swayed, use a blindfold. Three: Don’t be a hero.
Which around here is like telling people not to breathe.
The Siren guarding the bridge at the end of the road is a beauty in the classic sense and she’s relentless with all those brave, brave heroes attempting to cross the river. From the way her lips linger over syllables, I can tell she’s singing some slow, breathy song and between the lulls in victims, she brushes her radiant hair with a flimsy dollar-store brush and glares at me, challenging me to approach.
I don’t, of course, because unlike heroes, I’m not easy prey. Instead, I smile at her and wait, sitting in the hot, dusty road a healthy hundred meters away with my headphones turned up to deafening. (I forgo the blindfold because I do have a measure of self-control.)
But soon enough, a new hero crests the hill and the Siren’s appearance begins to morph; her hair becomes blacker, her features finer, her figure curvier. In short, one stunning beauty becomes another and that poor sucker running down the road doesn’t stand a chance.
This time, the hero is a girl who runs with such speed and grace a gazelle would be jealous. She almost makes it too; the bridge is within her reach but at the last moment, she veers and stretches out her arms towards the Siren instead. The Siren’s smile glimmers in the sunlight as together, hand in hand, she and her victim slip into the water, sinking lower, deeper, until the river swallows both of them whole.
Now, if I were looking to avoid a confrontation with a monster, this would be a perfect time to cross that bridge.
But I’m not.
A minute later, the Siren returns. Alone. She shoots me a glare so fierce and hostile that even from this distance would burn new holes in my tattered jeans if looks held any power at all. I reply with my most endearing smile.
You see, I’m not a hero. No old crone bothered to whisper a prophecy of greatness (or doom) over my cradle. My mother didn’t meet an untimely demise, and my father religiously reappeared for dinner every night. If I wanted to face monsters, I needed a better excuse than glory. I needed a real quest.
Luckily for me, I’ve scored a job on The Road of Monsters, the place where the rarest creatures are fabled to live.
Forty-three heroes approach the battered bridge this morning. Most are idiots, charging down the hill, weapon of choice in hand, bloodlust in their eyes. On average, they last about five steps before the Siren snares them. It’d be a massacre if heroes weren’t so unnaturally lucky when it comes to washing up on beaches half-drowned but breathing.
To be fair, not all of them were hopeless. A few jammed their fingers in their ears when they saw her. The really clever ones also closed their eyes and ran. One actually took out his phone and read the Wikipedia article on Sirens before approaching. Also, glared at me when I cheered.
But it’s only when the Siren’s lips are barely moving, when her brush sits idle in her lap, that I turn off my music and rise to my feet.
The Siren groans as I shake the dirt from my messenger bag, but she makes an effort to rally. She flashes me a smile full of sheen and angles, but it doesn’t hide the exhaustion. Or the skeptical look in her eyes. It’s the same look the heroes gave me when I stepped on the questing tour bus this morning: all those bright, eager, misguided souls staring at me. Me: with the flabby stomach and lack of gear, weapons, and peppy zip! Oh and the missing left hand.
But me, knowing that one, maybe two of these poor idiots might actually have a story worth telling after this. Me: who after five years of successfully questing, has long since learned that looks rarely mean anything at all.
Walking slowly, I hold up my palms (well, palm) in a gesture of peace. Also, to prove that wielding two-handed decapitating weapons isn’t really my style.
The Siren doesn’t buy it. She opens her mouth to sing.
“Don’t bother,” I say. “My ears are still ringing.” I tap the headphones around my neck. This isn’t quite true; I can hear the angry river rushing by only a few feet away, reminding me what a lousy swimmer I am. But I compensate for my shortcomings by being a good liar.
The Siren frowns, blinks. Then, she transforms. Now she’s a voluptuous brunette with intense gray eyes and facial symmetry a mirror would envy.
“And next you’re going to tell me those two are natural.”
Her frown deepens and she tries again. Her hair becomes darker, the curves giving way to sculpted muscles, pecs, and chest hair. Completing the package with honey brown skin and high cheek bones, and eyes the color of the earth.
“Well what do you want, hero?” she snaps, her voice hoarse and strained. “You can’t have my head. I’m still using it.”
I take a step back and hold up my hand again. Tired though she is, I’m pretty sure the Siren could pull me into the water by sheer force alone. And when I wash up on shore, it’ll be as a corpse.
Which is why most people wonder why I run a questing business.
“Okay, one: Not a hero,” I say. “Two: I don’t want your head. I want to get across that bridge. Three: But first, I’d like to see you without . . . all that.” I gesture in the general direction of the chiseled chest.
“If I do, will you tell me why you’re here?”
“Sounds fair to me.”
The Siren crosses her arms. “I’m not pretty.”
I nod. “Beauty is for the unimaginative.”
Her eyebrows shoot up and a faint blush warms her cheeks. Slowly, almost reluctantly, she begins to change. The fantasy in front of me melts; her pigments seep away, her features become unbalanced, her hair limp, and when it’s all over, only her earth-colored eyes remain the same.
I grin. So why do I bother running a business like this? Because monsters are remarkable, unexpected, and totally worth the wait.
“Nope, still pretty,” I say. “I’m here because a client needs me to rescue her hero at the end of the road.”
“You rescue heroes? Must keep you busy.” She grins back. Her teeth are pointed now, but the smile holds no malice. But then, it falters. “I can’t let you pass. I mean, I would, but you know, rules are rules,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
She squares her shoulders, bracing for a fight, and I take another step back. The water behind her is practically roaring.
“How about . . . How about I pay you a toll?” I snap my fingers, as if the idea just occurred to me.
“A toll?” she asks, like she’s never heard the word before. As if the dozens of heroes she floated down the river today weren’t payment for the few that crossed.
“Will these do?” I hold out a pair of gold earrings I took from my client as part of my fee.
Tentatively, the Siren reaches out and touches them. They shimmer in the noontime sun. She takes them, cupping them like eggshells, frowning slightly. And for one horrifying second, I think I’ve screwed up. She doesn’t like them. I’ve fatally miscalculated.
Then one by one, she slips them on.
“How do I look?” She gives her head a small shake.
“Like beauty itself,” I say, exhaling. “Mind if I take a picture for my blog?”
Okay, I’ll admit it; I’m monster hunting too. But unlike heroes, my victories don’t involve destroying someone else’s life. Actually, I hope my work is making these creatures feel a bit better. Because despite what those other adventurers think, most monsters are just as lonely and unhappy as the people who try to hunt them down.
So, as the Siren admires her reflection in the water with the most genuine smile I’ve ever seen, I tuck away my phone and cross the bridge, leaving no destruction or pain in my wake.
I just wish there were more questers like me.
2. The Questioning Beast
There are three general guidelines when meeting a vague monster of unknown size, shape, and demeanor. One: Be polite. Monsters like civility as much as the next person. Two: Keep your guard up, they’re called “dangerous” for a reason. Three: As always, being brave, noble, or generally valiant will be your downfall.
Which is probably why so few heroes have made it past this point.
One of the many, many advantages of not being a hero is that I have no shame in doing my research beforehand. Turns out, there are tons of attempted quests on The Road of Monsters, but the information past the Siren is . . . inconsistent. Heroes are notorious liars, especially on the internet, but I can usually parse a basic narrative.
But in this case, the only consistent piece of information is that the monster always sees you coming. And it has an eat-first-ask-questions-later sort of attitude.
Which, given how annoying adventurers are, I can’t say I blame it.
But I won’t lie; I love questing too. There are hundreds of monsters living in the forgotten niches of civilization, in the forests between highways and in the galleries of unfashionable museum exhibits. You can even catch a bus to the most popular quests.
At the next bend in the path, I duck into the long, towering trees lining the road like silent watchers, walking among the boughs until I hear the quiet but unmistakable sound of something large and asthmatic breathing.
I climb the nearest tree, which is not an easy feat one-handed, but what I lack in abs I make up in triceps and quads of steel. Within ten minutes, I’m sitting in the tree’s crown, looking down at the most amazing monster I’ve ever seen.
Forget its enormous size and its many, many talons on its many, many feet (that’s what heroes notice first, anyway), it’s neither a lion, hawk, snake, hyena, nor an overzealous newt, like some heroes have said.
It’s all of them.
From my perch, the monster looks like a starfish, with each arm containing the torso, forepaws, and head of a different creature. From the ground, depending on the angle the monster stood at, it would appear to be either one of these animals or a combination of them.
Now, most heroes would be shaking from nerves or adrenaline or whatever. But me, I’m wearing a smile stretching ear to ear. I have yet to meet a monster that I couldn’t reason with and this one was going to make a fantastic blog post.
“Excuse me,” I call down. “Would you mind giving me some directions?”
Right behind the massive creature, the road forks into three parts and I’m fairly certain there’s another ferocious beast waiting to be confronted at every option. Which is well and fine, if you’re just looking to complete a quest. But I’m not interested in any monster at the end of the road. No, I’m hunting the rarest, most elusive creature of them all.
Five pairs of eyes swivel upward and I . . . I can’t quite suppress a shudder. Their gazes are not of the warm and fuzzy variety.
“I can barter for the information,” I continue quickly, tightening my fingers around the branch I’m holding. “I have a few apples and some peanut butter cups. Oh, and a pretty good novel, if you like books.”
The creature with its many, many eyes says nothing, only blinks, as if my words were so thick and foreign they needed to be chewed and digested. The silence grows fatter, and for a moment, I think I’m going to have to pick a path at random after all. My stomach knots up at the thought. But then it says: “Do we look like we are easily bought, human?”
“No — no, of course not. I didn’t mean to imply that you were.”
The snake cocks its scaly head to one side. “No, you did not. We see that now.”
“What would you like then?”
“You,” says the hyena and licks its massive lips.
I manage to suppress the shudder this time. “Flattered, but no deal. I still need me, you know, for the rest of my natural life span.” I keep my voice light, but I tighten my grip on the branch a bit more.
“We’ve already eaten well today,” says the newt, laying a hand on its swollen belly. “We’ll show you the way if you tell us why a misbegotten runt like yourself is here.”
“Oh.” I exhale and relax my death grip ever so slightly. Oh. They just wanted a story. Stories are easy, especially when they’re your own. Even when you have to make some of it up.
But for starters, I begin with the truth:
So first thing you should know about me is I’m a professional quester. Despite my obvious lack of “heroic qualifications” business has been good to me. I have an office in my apartment with a view that overlooks the sea. The rent is inflated and my neighbors are all the heroic types, but the view is totally worth it. It’s a postcard scene, except my pictures never do it justice.
Point is, I can be selective enough these days to take the jobs that interest me. No more introvert ogres or fire-breathing wombats to make ends meet. So when this beautiful girl walks into my office, asking me to help her, who needs a better opportunity than that? I —
“Incorrect,” says the lion.
“No, see, I have a picture — ”
“You couldn’t care less about her looks.” The lion yawns. “She’s just the excuse you needed to walk this road.”
I shrug. The monster’s perceptive, I’ll give it that.
Excuse me, yes, you’re correct. I didn’t accept the job for her looks. Though she has the type of face that makes heroes want to fight battles for her hand or her honor or to get into her pants, if they’re being completely honest. But I did feel bad for her. She tried five different heroes before me and well, there she was sitting in my office. She was willing to pay double my usual rate, so —
“Yes, yes, you’re a half-decent liar,” the snake hisses. “We’re all impressed.”
“How — ”
“We see the truth in the spaces between,” says the newt, studying its webbed fingers. “Are you going to keep dawdling?”
I open my mouth. Then close it. The truth. Between spaces. No wonder the heroes lied through their teeth about this one.
I take a deep breath and try again.
“So, the guy I’m getting back for my client?” I say. “I know him.”
The hawk nods. “Better. But there’s more.”
“You and Nate were friends once, right?” my client said and glanced up. I think it was the first time since she stepped into my office that she’s looked me in the eye. “It was a long time ago, but that still means something, right?”
“If by ‘friend’ you mean ‘sidekick’ then yes, I was.” I made a point of scratching the stub of my left arm while she made a point to look away.
“If it’s money you want . . .”
“No, it really isn’t,” I said. “Trust me, if I was motivated purely by cash, I would have died attempting something stupid a long time ago. Take my last quest for example — ”
“You’re stalling,” says the hyena. “Quit it, or we will eat you.”
Below me, the asthmatic breathing of the creature is getting heavier. Hungrier, if you will.
“Seriously, what do you want?” I say, louder, more panicked than I mean to.
All five heads of the monster smile in unison and my stomach neatly ties itself into a knot.
“Like we said,” replies the hyena. “You.”
Call me a good-for-nothing hero, but for the first time in my life, I want to bolt from a monster. I want to sprint down the road, back to the bus and my blog and my apartment with its stunning view and never speak of this again.
“Wouldn’t a novel be more entertaining?” I force my voice to stay even and reasonable.
“Yes,” says the hyena, “but not nearly as much fun.” Next to it, the lion reaches out and gives my tree a good shake. The top sways violently and I’ve never been so grateful for my elbows and knees.
Of course, now I notice that around those many, many clawed feet, there’s a collection of broken weapons and gnawed-on sneakers littering the ground. I lean my forehead against the branch I’m holding, cherishing the rough texture on my skin.
You see, I have a sort of truce with my past — I don’t want to change it; it’s made me who I am and I like me. But that doesn’t mean I like sharing the history. In fact, I pride myself on not having an “About the Author” page on my blog. Besides, my work’s about the monsters, not me.
But right now there are five grinning heads and five gluttonous stomachs below me, and up in my leafy crown, my elbows and knees are aching from strain.
“Um, so, Nate and me . . . our relationship is a bit complex.”
The hawk tilts its head and blinks, in a way that clearly says Well, duh.
I take a deep breath.
“Has Nate ever told you why we’re no longer a team?” I asked her.
“Not in so many words . . .”
“This.” I squatted down and placed the stump of my wrist in her lap. Startled, she immediately pushed the chair back and half rose. She had the grace to look embarrassed about it a second later, and even then, I felt a twinge of guilt, but not too much. I can still feel the ghost of my fingers. Even after all these years.
“He’d said the monster was about to attack you. That it was only inches away.”
“He’s wrong. We were just talking. It was even letting me pet its head.”
“I . . . I didn’t know. But Nate doesn’t have a choice. If he doesn’t kill monsters, they’d kill him.”
“Bullshit. First of all, most monsters are not that interested in humans. Two: If it was just me and the monster that day, no one would have panicked and I would still be ambidextrous. And three: When it comes down to it, the majority of monsters don’t bother killing heroes. They’re not worth the mess”
“This one will,” she said quietly. “Nate’s stuck on The Road of Monsters.”
“Oh yeah? So how do you know he’s still alive then?”
She shifted uncomfortably. “He sends me texts. Every few days or so. But he won’t answer my texts or calls. He’s been there for weeks. Please, Devon, you have to help us. You can’t imagine what it’s like.”
Seriously? She was trying that line with me?
I knew I was being cruel, even then. But honestly, I was tired of people who couldn’t bother seeing what was in front of them.
“Look, you seem like a nice girl, good fit for Nate and all, but do you really want to know why I do this? Because there are days when I think the lonely monsters I profile are the only sane creatures breathing.”
At this, the beast below me begins to laugh, hard, its voices high-pitched and wheezing. I hadn’t meant to tell her — or anyone else — that. I hadn’t meant to repeat it ever again either. But the monster wanted me and it got what it asked for.
“So why did you change your mind?” the newt asks when it catches its breath.
“When Nate and I started adventuring together as stupid twelve-year-olds,” I say, “we swore we would defend each other, no matter what. And I guess, even after all these years, if I asked him to, he would still honor that promise.”
The monster doesn’t reply. For a second, I think my answer won’t be enough, that it will start asking me about my other reasons for being here. But then, the creature grins.
“He went that way.” All five arms point to the middle fork.
“Thank you,” I say, and I mean it. I’m already looking for a foothold down.
I consider pulling out my phone before descending, but decide against it. Now, there’s a monster out there that knows more about my motives than my mother. Like hell I’m going to post a picture of it on the internet.
When I reach the ground, I readjust my bag, and walk as quickly as I can past the beast without actually breaking into a full-out run.
But before I can even gasp, I’m fifteen feet from the ground, dangling, caught around the waist by two uncomfortably large talons.
“Leave the novel,” says the hawk.
I don’t even try to bargain as I surrender the book silently with a shaking hand. Sometimes there are monsters you can’t befriend. Sometimes too many questions are asked.
My client really did care about Nate, even I could see that. I should have let the issue lie, thanked her and escorted her out. But sometimes my curiosity is just too much.
“Wait, you said Nate’s been stuck there for weeks, right?” I leaned in. “How is he still sending you text messages?”
3. The Monster at the End of the Road
There are three things you should know about the last part of this journey. One: There’s a dragon at the end of this road. Naturally. Two: No one’s ever met a dragon — and lived long enough to post any useful information. Three: Meaning, I have absolutely no idea what to do here.
The entrance to the lair is unassuming: a neat, well-maintained abode cut from the living rock. You wouldn’t know a dragon dwelled here — except for the deep gouges in the soft ground. The talon marks are wide enough for me to put a foot in and deep enough to swallow my ankle.
For the first time in years, I wonder if I should change my tactics and instead of walking up to the monster in plain sight, try to sneak in. Trouble is, quiet and stealth like to flee when I get too close.
Screw it. It’s like they always told us sidekick types in school: “Play to your strengths.” So I enter the lair in strides.
The den is not nearly as damp as I expected, but it’s vast with a cavernous ceiling. It’s surprisingly well lit; dozens and dozens of lamps sit in alcoves in the walls, powered by . . . electricity. Well, that explains the text messages at least. But not much else.
Thick rugs cover the floor and hundreds of books are queued up orderly on rock-carved shelves and ledges. From the looks of it, this dragon hoards its privacy, instead of gold. And not for the first time, I wonder what it wants.
It’s not like I can ask, though. The lair is completely and utterly dragon-free.
I spin around and there he is. The hero himself. Nate doesn’t look all that different from his dazzling profile pictures, except more pale and ragged. But otherwise whole, hale, and unharmed. Naturally.
“Hi, Nate. Door’s that way.” I point to the entrance. Funny, I’d imagined our first conversation in years to go a little differently.
“I . . . I know that. I can’t leave,” says Nate.
“Why the hell not?”
“The monster won’t let me.”
I raise an eyebrow. “And where is the dragon now?”
“Hello, Devon,” says a voice behind me, and both Nate and I give embarrassingly high-pitched shrieks.
Where there were only empty rugs before now sits a dragon. It isn’t as large as the massive Questioning Beast, but it probably still eats elephants for breakfast.
“Does it always sneak up on people like that?” I whisper to Nate.
“Yeah.” His shoulders slump.
“Pardon my intrusion into your home,” I say to the now chuckling dragon. “I’m just here to retrieve this sorry excuse for a hero. I mean no harm.”
“We’ll see about that,” replies the dragon. “My guest here has told me about you.”
“Guests are allowed to leave,” mutters Nate.
I elbow Nate, hard, and keep my eyes on our host. Its scales have no color except when they reflect the light and every inch of its anatomy is designed for either defense or offense. But it’s neither tense nor hostile. Actually, it seems quite relaxed. Its eyes, of course, are bottomless and sad. And I can’t help but wonder why.
“I’m just a simple entrepreneur and blogger, I don’t want anything from you,” I say, elbowing Nate again in advance.
“You made it past the Questioning Beast and still are trying to lie?” says the dragon. “You’re tougher than you look.” It gives me a satisfied smile.
Damn, the heroes are actually right. This is the quest from hell.
“Truthfully, I was hoping to get a picture of you for my blog,” I admit, “but at this point, I’m tired, dusty, and frustrated and I just want to get home alive. How can we make that happen?”
The monster nods. “A straightforward speech, quite refreshing.” It lowers its massive head so it’s eye level with me. “There’s no way out for you and your friend, little hero, except by defeating me. Completely.”
“Hold on a minute,” I say, backing up. “First of all, I am no one’s hero. Second, ‘friend’ is a generous term for our relationship. And third, I really, truly, don’t want to kill you.”
“It doesn’t matter, those are the rules.”
“Wait!” shouts Nate. “You never told me what the rules are!”
The dragon gives him a measured look. “You never asked.” It draws itself up to its full, towering height. “I expect you’d like to get this over with as quickly as possible. There are a few old weapons in the cupboard over there. Arm yourself. I’ll wait.”
“Just — ” I start, before Nate grabs me by the collar of my shirt and drags me toward the cupboard. I try to protest, argue, reason, sit it out, but Nate has a strong grip
“Seriously? These were here the whole time?” Nate says, taking a quick survey of the surprisingly organized armory.
I look at all those sharp, shiny blades and feel sick. “Nate, what the hell are we doing here?”
“Why are we here?”
“Devon, I’m not sure this is a good time — ”
“No, it’s the perfect time, because if I’m going to die here, I want to know why you went on this stupid quest to begin with. And it better not just be ‘for glory’ because I will hand you to the Siren myself.”
“No, not for glory.” Nate glances away. “Um . . . you see, there’s this legend, that a heart of a dragon can cure any wound, no matter how bad.”
“And what wound do you have that can possibly be that drastic?” I ask. Then I realize he’s looking at the stump of my left hand. “Oh.”
“Are you two ready?” The dragon’s head is suddenly mere feet from us and both Nate and I shriek again.
“No,” I say, even as Nate thrusts a sword in my hand.
“Yes,” says Nate and attacks.
The monster rears back, just missing the arc of Nate’s blade. It moves slowly, its size both an advantage and hindrance. Nate notices the weakness and exploits the hell out of it. He dodges, ducks, and feints with ease and joy. Gods, I forgot how talented of a fighter he was. I almost don’t see the talons looming above my head.
I roll away, badly, but effectively. The talons bury themselves in the ground inches away. I rise to my feet and point my sword at the creature and snarl.
Please don’t confuse this for bravery. This is purely an act of desperation.
Strange, though, how those old sword-fighting lessons kick in, even though it’s been years and I wasn’t particularly good at it. My phantom left hand is itching with memory and I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m slightly off-balance, but here I am, dodging and parrying too, just like old times. Nate’s moves are flawless, while mine, not so much. The dragon opens its mouth and we both get the hint and retreat.
We might have ducked under the same table.
“You are a complete idiot, you know that, right?” I gasp.
“Hey, I’m not the one who’s always negotiating with monsters. It’s not like they won’t try to divide you up into five pieces and eat you anyway.”
“I — Wait, how did you get past the second monster?”
Nate flushes. “Um, I might have walked around that one. Once or twice.”
Gods, I hate this quest.
A second later, the dragon’s foot comes crashing down right outside our hiding place and we flee — in opposite directions, of course. It’s frightening how much of this is still muscle memory.
Nate grows more confident as the fight drags on; he’s attacking more than blocking now and the monster is forced to focus entirely on his fancy swordplay. Its jaw line brushes the rugs. Leaving its eye completely unprotected.
I have a clear shot.
The sword in my hand, my only hand, yearns for action. Its weight is the most honest thing in the world. The opportunity is perfect. My way home is clear.
But I’m not a hero.
Everything I am and know and believe in, I learned by meeting and documenting hundreds of monsters. And none of them, even the most vicious of creatures, deserved to die for someone else’s gain.
My sword falls and hits the floor with a disappointing clang!
“What are you doing?” Nate yells. Like a predictable hero, he refuses to let the opportunity slip and takes aim for the dragon’s eye.
And the dragon . . . flicks him away with a talon. Moving faster than it should have. Moving faster than it was even possible to see. Nate goes flying and hits the floor with a heavy thud.
Suddenly, I’ve never been so grateful for my lazy, pacifist lifestyle.
“Well, you don’t lie about everything at least,” the dragon says cheerfully.
I hurry over to where Nate is lying, roll him onto his side, and slap his face a few times, gently. He groans and I exhale. He’s okay, dazed and going to feel like hell tomorrow, but okay.
I rise to my feet and face the dragon. “I was serious when I said I wasn’t a hero.”
“But do you regret trying to be one of them?”
The monster’s gaze is wary and I realize I haven’t convinced it. Not yet.
Here’s the thing, growing up as the sidekick type, most heroes were never more than polite to me. But Nate, his friendship was genuine. Still is, actually. It might not seem like much, but what most people don’t get is that there’s a world of difference between not being cruel and being kind.
I glance at Nate. “It’s a bittersweet sort of thing.”
The dragon nudges Nate with a talon and he groans again. “Heroes are gullible creatures. Eating a dragon heart would only give you acid reflux. But if it could cure any wound, would you take it?”
I start to say something slightly sarcastic, but then swallow my words.
Because the truth is, there are days when I really, really hate the emptiness of my missing fingers, when I realize that I will never be able to learn to play guitar or avoid the stares on the bus. But it’s also forced me to adapt, get creative, and now it’s a more powerful tool then my sword ever was.
“I don’t know,” I say.
I ease myself onto the ground next to Nate and put my messenger bag under his head. It’s clear he’s going to nap through the negotiations. Typical hero.
“What happens now?” I ask, bracing for the worst.
“What would you say to an exclusive client?”
“Depends. Whose exactly?”
“Mine.” The dragon laughs at my startled expression. “I’m a fan of your blog. I was hoping to meet you sooner, but unfortunately, you needed a quest to come here. Turns out, the right hero just needed to hear the right rumor.”
“How . . . How long exactly have you been planning this?”
The monster smiles. “I’m patient.”
“So, what do you want?”
The dragon leads me to the farthest corner of its lair. Pinned up on the walls is a sprawling map of all the paths of all the quests ever rumored about. It’s bigger than the monster itself. I let out a low whistle. The great thing about questing is you’re always discovering how large the world really is.
“Leaving home is not safe for me. Not with all those heroes crawling around. I need someone else to do it for me.”
“But why me?”
“Because you won’t murder what you find,” replies the dragon as it turns its great, sad eyes towards me. “We great ancient beasts are a rarity these days and I want to know if there are others out there. I want to know, am I alone?”
This surprises me, though it shouldn’t. I get it, there’s a certain thrill in defying heroes and befriending monsters, and a certain power in being unique. Yet, there’s a terrible loneliness that comes with being the only one of your kind.
But maybe, with these new quests, I can change that. For both of us.
“Where do I start?” I ask, smiling because I’m already thinking about the blog post I’m going to write after all. The first in a series.
It’ll start with this simple, non-heroic guide to The Road of Monsters.
About the Author
A. T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia where she’s well acquainted with all four seasons and is known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and Clarion West 2017. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as other fine places. You can find her online at http://atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter at @AtGreenblatt.