Sunday, May 2, 2010

Faerie Hunter - Chapter 5: Dragon Enchantment

The dragon towered over me as I lay trembling on the ground, its red scales glinting in the firelight as if they were made of solid fire. Smoke poured slowly from its nostrils and from behind its razor sharp teeth. Huge claws dug into the ground, one tearing up a boulder as if it were made of sand.

My eyes met the dragon's, and I found I couldn't look away. Everything faded as I gazed into those eyes that seemed older than the ground I stood on. Dark thoughts began swirling through my mind. All the things I hated about myself, every bad memory I had came to me then, tormenting me, making me wish I had never been born. I began sobbing uncontrollably, convulsing on the ground, wanting desperately to just die.

After what seemed like hours of lying there, I slowly began to realize how ridiculous I was. If I really wanted to die, then I had nothing to fear from the dragon. I laughed through my sobs as I thought about that. Ignoring the despair, I stood up slowly, holding my knife to the dragon in defiance.

He stared back at me amazed, and his mouth spread wide in what I understood to be a smile. His sides heaved in low, booming laughter, and I nearly crumpled to the ground again as if struck with a blow. The voice made me feel a deep shame, and I wanted urgently to do something that would please the dragon, even if it were to walk toward him unarmed so that he could kill me more easily.

Instead I gathered my wits, gritted my teeth and yelled at the top of my lungs, "Why are you laughing?"

The dragon fell silent, then looked straight at me. I couldn't tear my eyes away from his.

"I find it amusing that you seem to think you are a match for a dragon such as myself."

His voice echoed through my head, and I felt that everything I had ever known or seen was a lie, that only a voice like his could speak truth.

"You stand there armed with a knife—or is that a toothpick?—and jeans. No shield to protect you from my flames, not even a shirt! I could think of thirty different ways to snuff you out before you even began to tickle me with your toothpick."

Every word he spoke was like a dagger in my heart. I felt ashamed as I stood there holding my puny knife toward him, and each derisive insult drove me deeper into despair. Thoughts of taking my knife to my own heart or dashing myself against the rocks came to my mind.

I desperately tried to remember something I wanted to live for. Finally, Sally came to mind, and my head cleared a bit. I had to live so I could save her.

"Oh, great one," I said, and though my words seemed silly and foolish compared to his, I went on, "It may seem that I am powerless before one such as you, but there is more to me than meets the eye."

I saw a glint of doubt in his eyes before he covered it up. "No man, woman, child or beast has ever bested me, foolish boy! I am dragon! I have lived countless lives of men. Hundreds of knights have fallen by my fire! An army was unable to destroy me! I have fought giants, trolls, men, dragons, demons, and none have overcome me."

Fear completely swallowed me so that I could hardly even see straight. "That doesn't sound too impressive." My tongue felt dry in my mouth.

"I am dragon!" he said again, anger swelling in his voice. "I am called Destroyer, Hellfire, Destruction, Flame of Death. Men pay tribute to me, gods fear me, I have been the death of countless men. I am the last thing you will see before you die. All who see me despair."

"But that's just it!" I continued, not at all believing what I was saying. "All who see you despair, and do they just cower and then let you kill them?"

"They despair, because they know they are completely powerless before me."

"Sure," I said, "But is your flame really as hot as they say? Are your claws really strong?"

At this, he roared loudly, and spewed a giant ball of fire above me in a blinding flash. He tore into the cliff with his claw, and giant boulders flew over me and crashed loudly into the water. He snorted and looked back at me.

"I suppose that's impressive," I said, as casually as I could. "I mean, I've seen worse."

At this remark he glowered at me, letting me know how dangerous this game was.

"But you know," I continued, a desperate idea coming to my mind, "All of that strength and fire are for nothing if someone just gets in a good thrust with a knife, or a bullet from a gun."

"Are you blind?" the dragon screamed. "Do you not see my scales? They are stronger than steel. Nothing can penetrate them!"

"I don't believe it. They can't be all that thick."

The dragon roared loudly, then took his claw, ripped a scale from his chest, and threw it at my feet. I picked it up. It was heavy, feeling vaguely metallic. I wasn't thinking about the scale, though; I was thinking about the spot that it left open.

"Right. Well I suppose a knife couldn't cut through one. But have you ever been hit by a bazooka?"

The dragon snorted. "Foolish is the man who thinks he can kill me with one of his toy weapons. I have lived thousands of years. Men have used countless weapons on me, and none have prevailed. Do you really think you will?"

"There is more to me than meets the eye." I said again, not really believing it.

His eyes narrowed at me, and he leaned close so that his face was only inches from mine. "You think that you are special? That no one before you has ever stood in front of me, pretending to defy me? How many do you think defeated me? How many have I spared, letting them walk home unscathed?" He began to laugh quietly. "Of course, mighty giant-human. You are different than the others. You are so clever that you have gotten me to take a piece off my armor with the vain hope that you might thrust your toothpick into my flesh. Is that not so?"

I stood there, staring blankly. He had simply been toying with me the whole time.

He laughed again. "Well, human? The hole is there. How do you propose getting the knife into it? But then, once I'm dead, what do you propose doing? Your sister is with the goblins, likely dead already, or worse. The goblins are not known for compassion. Your brother and your parents too. Do you really think they are still alive? You are dealing with a power greater than anything you could imagine."

I shifted uncomfortably, my heart beating fast as I realized how foolish I was to leave my dad alone. How did I know that some goblins hadn't stayed behind? And my mom and brother were far away and I could only hope that whoever had sent the goblins didn't know where I lived. But somehow they'd known what house we were staying at.

"Well at least you have the Hunter, James," the dragon continued, "He'll protect you, of course, from all the dangerous creatures, but—where is he now? Funny how when it comes down to it, he's never around to actually face the monsters. He'd rather let others do the killing for him."

He smiled widely and went on, "But the real question is, who is James trying to kill? Would he really send a kid who knows nothing about fighting to face a mermaid? Or let him fight goblins alone? Or a dragon?"

Doubt crept into my mind. It occurred to me that I didn't know James at all. Suddenly, the image of him in his chaps on the beach seemed menacing to me. His aloof attitude when I first met him now felt arrogant and scornful, his over-excitement an act. Why would he have shown up at that exact moment when the mermaid took Kyle? Why did he send me down to a mermaid without any warnings or protection? Did he really expect me to live? And why did the goblins show up at the house after he casually stopped over for dinner?

I had had enough. Sally was as good as dead with the goblins, my brother and parents were also likely dead, even my girlfriend—my ex-girlfriend, I reminded myself—was probably dead too. I truly had nothing to live for. All my hope was in vain.

The dragon laughed at me, interrupting my thoughts. Suddenly I realized that the despair I was feeling was not my own. It was being forced on me unnaturally. My mind was under attack. The dragon's real power was in his mind, and though I still felt no hope, I looked up at him in anger, ready to take my last stand.

I spat at the dragon, then jabbed my knife in his eye. He roared loudly and drew back his neck. The knife had done nothing, his eyes were as hard as glass.

A flickering light appeared at the back of his throat and I sprinted to the right just as huge flames enveloped the spot where I had been standing. I felt the fire lick at my back as I reached the cliff wall and ran alongside it toward the burning debris. The dragon stopped spewing fire and turned to face me again.

I grabbed what seemed like a long sturdy stick from the fire and turned to the dragon. To my surprise, he was so close I could feel the heat building in his throat as he prepared another burst of flame. I jammed the wood down his throat, and he doubled back, choking. I ran up to his chest, trying to get close to his missing scale.

There was a loud crunching sound above me. I looked up to see the dragon spitting splintered wood far out into the ocean. I looked back at his chest. A bit of pink flesh was staring at me from between his scales. I jabbed my knife toward him, but he turned, and the blade hit scales. His neck twisted around so that even though my back was against his side, his face was in front of me again.

I dropped to the ground and rolled under his body to the other side. I jumped up as he began turning to face me. I kept under his wing, following him as he moved. Suddenly he stopped and kicked his hind leg at me. I ducked and rolled under his body again. This time he thrust his weight downward at me while I was under him. I barely managed to roll way in time. I got up, but his face was right in front of me. With nowhere to go, I jumped on top of his snout. Surprised, he shook his head to get rid of me, but I held on tight. He jerked his head upward, and I did a back flip, losing my grip and sliding down his neck, falling to the ground just below his chest. Looking up, I saw the exposed flesh again.

I jumped up quickly and thrust my knife deep into the hole. The dragon jerked upward and I was thrown off my feet as I held on tightly to my knife, still stuck in the dragon. I grabbed onto one of his scales with my other hand, and pushed the knife harder into the wound. A desperate scream sounded from the dragon. The wings opened up, and he pushed off from the ground. Frantically I tried to dislodge my hand, but the scales were pinching my hand with the motion of his body.

Wind rushed around me as we soared high into the air. The dragon pitched from side to side, trying to rid himself of me. Finally he rolled over, and as I was facing the stars, my hand slipped out of his flesh and I found myself flying free. Then waves came rushing toward me, and I curled myself into a ball and hit the water hard.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Faerie Hunter - Chapter 4: Goblin Ambush

The wild face staring at me turned panicky, and I blinked hard to clear my eyes as the adrenaline washed over me. When I opened them again, it was gone. I jumped up into a crouching position on the bed and looked around the room. There was no one there. My eyes scanned it quickly, searching for the intruder. Suddenly something moved in my peripheral. I spun my head toward it, but there was nothing there. It was just a trick of my eyes. I stood up and something trickled down my neck. I reached my hand up to feel it. It was blood.

Now my mind was racing, and excitement built up in me. I looked around the room again, this time staring intently at every little thing in it. The nearly full moon was shining into the room, making strange shadows I kept jumping at, thinking it was the man. As I gazed intently at a picture of an 18th century ship on the wall as if it was about to come alive and sail into the room, I saw what I thought was a short man in the corner of my eye, but when I looked straight at the spot, there was nothing. I ran toward it and felt the wall behind where I thought I had seen the man. Feeling foolish once I realized there was nothing there, I turned around to look at the rest of the room.

"Just my imagination," I said out loud, trying to convince myself of that fact, but the shadows kept jumping out at me, and my eyes darted here and there still trying to figure out what was going on. Finally I closed my eyes to clear my head, but the face with the black eyes stared at me from the darkness.

"Nothing but a bad dream," I muttered squeezing my eyes harder and trying to think about something calming, like ocean waves. But mermaids kept popping up on rocks behind the beach. I shook my head to get rid of that thought. The image of the eyes staring at me came back to me. It seemed too real to be part of a nightmare.

A rustling sound caught my attention, and I opened my eyes quickly to look in that direction. This time the man was really there, straight in front of me on the other side of the room, looking at me as if surprised that I could see him. I rushed at him, and he drew out a short knife with a blade on one end, and jagged shards shooting out the other end. I didn't see it in time to move, and he slashed the blade across my bare chest. Pain tore through my brain, but I ignored it, and with my left hand grabbed hold of his knife arm, smashing his wrist against the wall. The knife went flying away. I threw a punch with my right, and the man crumpled on the floor. I jumped on him, holding his arms down with my legs.

"Who are you?" I yelled as he struggled to get free. "What are you after?" I noticed for the first time that his teeth were sharp and pointed. His slight body, hardly more than half my weight as well as several inches shorter, was covered only in a loosely fitting band t-shirt and plain blue jeans. There was a bulge in his front pocket, and I reached in and found the wad of bills James had given me.

"So you're just a common thief, then?"

"No!" he said nervously, in a high, raspy voice. "I mean, yes! I just came for the money, I'm sorry!"

"What do you mean, no and yes?" I asked, now suspicious of his motives.

"Nothing!" he squealed as I pressed down hard on his neck. "Just a little disoriented from being sat on, you know."

"Sorry if I don't trust you. You were standing over me with a knife to my neck and all."

He gave a funny snort, and I realized he was laughing. "Well, it's not me you have to worry about."

I loosened my grip a bit. "What do you mean?"

His gaze turned meaningfully to the doorway. I looked where he was looking, and with a shock, realized that voices and noises were coming from the other side of the door. It sounded like a whole group of people had just come into the house. Fear swept over me as I realized that Sally and my dad were both in danger. Suddenly, while I was distracted, the man twisted his body and kicked my groin. The wind was knocked out of me, but I knew that I only had one chance to take this man down before he got out the door and warned whoever else was out there. I took a deep breath, trying to ignore the throbs of pain and the desire to vomit.

The man was crawling toward his knife. I grabbed his leg and pulled him back, then stood up, and aimed a kick at his stomach. He rolled over, and my foot hit air. He then jumped to his feet with more agility than I expected. I gathered my strength and aimed a kick at his face. It connected, and he fell to the ground, hitting his face on one of the bed posts on the way down.

I leaned over him. He was unconscious, but still breathing; his face was bleeding, and a large bruise was forming over his eye.

All the pain I had been holding back came over me again, and I knelt to the ground for a second before I forced myself to remember that Sally and my dad were in danger. I stood up, took my pocketknife from my dresser, and went over to the door. After drawing in a quick breath, I opened it.

There in front of me was another man, the same size as the one laying unconscious in my room. The word "goblin" suddenly popped into my head. He turned to me, slowly it seemed, but it was really only a split second. There was no time to think about consequences: there were voices in the kitchen, and I needed stealth if I wanted to keep Sally and my dad safe. I leaped toward him and stabbed my knife into his chest, holding my hand over his mouth and letting him drop slowly to the ground. I didn't have time to consider what I had done, but slipped into my dad's room which was just next to mine.

My dad was lying on the bed, a goblin standing over him, choking him while my dad tried vainly to shove him off. I ran toward him, but something tripped me, and I stumbled to the ground. As I spun onto my back, a goblin who had followed me into the room jumped on top of me wielding a knife and screaming at me. I kicked up hard with my legs, flinging the goblin over me. Quickly I jumped to a stand as the goblin scrambled to his feet.

Suddenly I heard a whistle blow from the other room, and the two goblins in the room suddenly ran out of the door, leaving my dad and I alone. I ran to my dad, who was breathing heavily.

"Dad! Are you okay?" I looked down at him. His arm was bleeding badly, and one of his legs was broken.

He struggled to regain his breath, and I put my hand on his arm to try to stop the bleeding. He shoved my hand off and put his own there.

"Sally—" was all he could manage to say. And suddenly fear leapt into me and I raced away from him and into Sally's room. It had been ransacked, and Sally was nowhere to be found.

"Sally!" I yelled at the top of my lungs as I raced through the house, looking for her in vain. But I knew where she was. I nearly kicked down the back door as I ran to the porch and looked toward the ocean. I heard a scream, and saw a group of people running fast away from the house. I leaped over the porch rail, not bothering to use the steps, and sprinted toward the ocean.

They were far away, and I was only gaining slowly. Panic rose as I knew that I couldn't keep up a sprint forever. I closed my eyes for a moment and steeled myself, thinking only of Sally and what they planned to do with her. I sped up. Finally, the goblins were getting closer. I saw Sally in the middle of them, being carried by one of the goblins. Some glanced back worriedly at intervals. Suddenly, when I was only a few yards away, two turned around. I couldn't stop in time, and they slashed at me with knives as I passed them. I kept running, ignoring the burning in my sides. I had fallen back many yards, and I braced myself against my will and ran faster.

A cliff rose on my left and the beach narrowed. As I neared the goblins once again, three of them turned to face me. This time I was prepared, and they were the ones surprised as my knife found an eye on one, the neck on another, and slashed across the chest of the third. I kept running, but now I was even further behind, and my legs were wobbling. I gritted my teeth and ran on, but I could barely keep up with the pace of the goblins. Suddenly, a few hundred feet ahead, the cliff swung out into the water, effectively walling the goblins in. Hope rose in me as I thought that I had them trapped, and I sped up, spurred on by the thought.

But as I leaped over a pile of debris that lay across the beach, I saw that there was a rope ladder up the cliff, and the goblins were climbing it, escaping. Sally let out a yell as the goblin who was carrying her reached the top and threw her roughly onto the ground. I rushed toward the wall, reaching the ladder just as the last goblin was halfway up. I started climbing, but when I was twenty feet up, it was cut from the top, and I fell hard on the beach sand.

I cursed loudly and looked for another way up, but the face was clear of handholds. Suddenly I heard a loud roar from above and behind me. I turned and looked up, but saw nothing. The shriek sounded again, and I froze in fear. Without warning the debris I had jumped over burst into flame, and even though it was a hundred feet away, I felt the heat and began to sweat. The beach lit up menacingly, flickering as if the sand and the cliff were on fire too.

The roar came again, and I looked up, still seeing nothing. Suddenly I realized I had been set up, that this was an ambush. I looked out to the water. Waves crashed onto sharp rocks, making it too dangerous to swim. Behind me was an unscalable cliff, and in front of me a line of blazing fire. Above me flew some horrible creature, and I was armed only with a pocket knife. I was trapped.

A steady beating sound grew louder and louder in my ears. Wind rushed down on me from above. I looked up slowly as a large silhouette descended. The firelight reflected off the creature's scales, which covered its entire body from its long neck to its hulking stomach. The ground shook as it landed in front of me. I lost my footing and fell to the ground as its large, hideous eyes stared at me, laughing silently at my impending defeat as it looked down upon me. Its huge body took up most of the space between me and the fire, its tail nearly grazing the fire while its head was only a few feet in front of me. The wings folded into its side, and I knew what it was, though I had never before seen one. It was a dragon.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Faerie Hunter - Chapter 3: The World I Thought I Lived in

"What's going on, Brad?" Lizzy asked as I continued to stare at James, just disappearing from sight.

"Um, it's no big deal," I said, unsure of what to tell her.

"Are you sure? Why were you shouting at that guy?"

I finally turned to her. As always, she looked stunning, in her blue bikini top and matching mini skirt, her figure curving gracefully underneath them. Her brown eyes beamed softly at me with a smile, and matching hair fell in locks to just below her shoulders. I smiled, for a moment forgetting about James, or mermaids, or any of the other creatures I had just discovered existed.

"Well?" she asked impatiently.

I sighed as my head returned to reality.

"Well, there was an incident. Kyle nearly drowned."

"Really? I thought he was a pretty good swimmer."

"He is. But, you know, riptides and undertows..."

"Oh, yes," she said seriously. "I've always been afraid of those. They can kill the best swimmers. But Kyle is okay?"

"Yeah, he's a bit shaken up, but he'll be fine."

"And that man saved him? He looked kind of weird. Maybe even a bit creepy."

"No, he's cool. Yeah, he, uh, helped me with Kyle. We, um, both swam out when we saw Kyle go under. I was out there first, and I dove under the water and tried to pull him up, but I, sort of, ran out of—strength—and he came out and pulled us both up. His name is James." I finished lamely.

"Wow. Then it's a good thing he was there, right?"

"Yeah, really good." But I was probably thinking of different reasons than she was.

She put her hand in mine, and we walked toward the beach and along the water, letting the waves lap our feet.

"So this morning I talked to Sally, and she was drawing a picture of Rob, you know, Trisha's brother? I asked her about it, and I think she likes him..."

As Lizzy rambled on, my mind drifted to James and his unusual job of freelance monster assassination. I tried to imagine that sort of life, and wondered what kind of creatures he had come across and what they looked like. Or if they even really existed. I reminded myself that I had only seen a mermaid, nothing else.


Lizzy squeezed my hand and tilted her head as if to ask what I was thinking about. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to keep my mind in the present. I looked back at her and smiled, then splashed some water playfully at her as a wave came in. She squealed and ran away from the water like it was going to melt her.

"Don't do that!" she said indignantly.

I laughed. "Why? You're in a swimsuit!"

"It's cold!" she whined. "And all salty and yucky."

I rolled my eyes as she came back to my side. "You came out to the beach to do what again?"

"To get a tan!" she said, as if I should have known already. "And to listen to the waves. And to swim. I'll swim later, I just want to be salty as little as possible. And I came to be with you!" She squeezed my hand and smiled at me.

I smiled back. My thoughts once again automatically turned to James as we stood in silence staring out at the ocean.

"Brad, what's on your mind? You're not all here."

My smiled faded. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you and Kyle were out all morning. No one even knew where you were. And Kyle nearly drowned, and you don't have much to say about that. And who really was that man who saved him?"

I sighed. "Lizzy, if I told you, you'd think I was crazy."

"No I wouldn't!" Lizzy answered back confidently. I wasn't as sure as she was.

"Look, do you promise not to laugh, and to take me seriously? You have to agree to open your mind a bit."

She smiled. "I'm a very open person! Besides, I can't even imagine what you could say that would make me think you were crazy."

"Okay, well." I swallowed and took a deep breath. "This morning Kyle and I were out looking for—something—in the water. And then we found it. And Kyle swam out to it, but it—" This was harder than I thought. I knew she'd think I had gone insane the moment I said the word "mermaid." Lizzy was looking at me expectantly.

"It pulled him underwater," I continued, "And the man—James—gave me something to help me swim underwater, and I followed Kyle and it to a cave, and I, well, I got rid of it, and then I brought Kyle up out of the cave, but then the thing that James gave me wore off, so I started to run short on breath, and James came down and pulled us out." I stood there staring at Lizzy, feeling sheepish.

She gave me a confused look. "This thing that pulled Kyle underwater, it was, like, a rope or something he got tangled in?"

I shifted on my feet. "No, not really."


I took a deep breath and held it in for a moment. "It was a mermaid," I said quickly, and exhaled, half hoping she hadn't heard me.

"A what? A mermaid? Come on, don't joke around."

"I'm not joking." I said quietly.

She looked at me amazed. "A mermaid? Really? You really think you saw a mermaid?"

"No," I said, confidence building in defense of my own sanity, "I killed a mermaid. A mermaid sang to me, and to Kyle. There was a mermaid lying on a rock in the ocean, luring Kyle to her, and she took Kyle to her lair, and I killed her."

She dropped my hand and began walking along the beach again.

"Lizzy," I said as I ran to catch up to her.

"No, Brad, that's too much," she said. "I promised to take you seriously, and, I'm not sure I can, so let's just not talk about it."

"Okay, fine. I wasn't going to tell you about it anyway." I felt a bit betrayed, but I knew it was just because she couldn't wrap her mind around anything she didn't expect.

"I'm sorry Brad. It's just—let's just think about other things. There's so much more to talk about." She paused for a moment, before adding, "Like—remember when we first met, Brad?"

"Of course I do. It was the audition for the school play, and you sang with the voice of an angel."

She smiled. "And every time you kissed me in practice, I hoped you really meant it."

"I did. I really did."

The rest of the walk to the beach house we reminisced on old memories. As much as I tried to keep my mind focused, I couldn't stop thinking about the mermaid, but for Lizzy's sake I didn't mention it again. As we came to the house, we were met with the smell of food cooking in the kitchen.

"Hey you two," my dad greeted us as we walked into the room. He was cooking stir fry in a wok over the stove. "Brad, you've been gone a while."

"Sorry about that. Kyle forced me to come help him look for something this morning."

"Did you find what you were looking for?" he asked.

Lizzy muttered something about changing out of her swimsuit, and went to her room.

"Yeah, we did," I abridged.

"He seemed kind of upset or something when he came back."

"Um, well, there was an incident. He sorta almost drowned."

My dad looked at me with one eyebrow raised. "Yeah. That's about as much as we got out of him, too."

"Is it dinner time already?" I asked, trying to change the subject.

He raised his eyebrows even higher, but answered my question. "Just about. Usually I figure when I'm getting hungry like this it's time to eat. And you haven't had anything since breakfast, I'll bet, so you're probably twice as starved as me."

Actually, I hadn't eaten since the night before, and suddenly hunger hit me, as if my body knew that I had been too busy for food earlier, but now it was making up for lost time.

"How long till it's ready?" I asked.

"It's almost done. In fact, why don't you go get your sister? I think she's in her room."

"What about Kyle and mom?"

"They went home. Mom got called into work last minute, and Kyle decided to go with her. He seemed pretty shook up."


"Yeah. 'Oh.' They might be back tomorrow, as long as mom doesn't get stuck at work. Go get your sis, and the two of you can set the table."

I went to her room and pushed open the door. She was sitting on her bed, her skinny frame bent over a large sketchpad, drawing. Her long, brown hair was pulled back into pigtails, and she hardly seemed to notice me entering the room.

I walked toward her and peered over her shoulder at her drawing. It was of a small faerie flitting among the leaves of a tree. It was quite good, especially for a ten-year-old.

She cringed as I stood there staring. "Are you just going to keep breathing down my neck," she said, "or do you have something useful to say?"

I smiled. "I thought I'd just stand here watching you draw. It's really good."

"Ugh," she said, and closed the sketchpad, turning to face me with a look of scorn.

I rolled my eyes at her. "Time for dinner. We're supposed to set the table."

She stuck her tongue out at me, but jumped up and helped me with the chore.

Just as we had sat down and taken our first bites of dinner, there was a knock at the door. My dad got up to answer it, and Sally, Lizzy and I sat, listening to the muffled conversation in the hall. Finally, my dad came back in, followed by none other than James.

I stood up quickly. Lizzy looked pale.

My dad cocked his head funny and said, "Brad, this gentleman says he knows you."

"Yes," I stammered. "He saved Kyle. You know, when he almost drowned and all."

"Oh really?" my dad said as he turned back to him. "Well, you should have said something! You said your name was Jim, right?"

"That's right," James said. I noticed he was carrying an army backpack over one shoulder.

"Well, I can't even begin to thank you for looking out for my son." He reached out his hand to shake James'.

"It was nothing, really," said James. "Brad did most of the saving today. I did want to have a short word with him, though, if it's alright. I owe him some thanks too."

"Well, we're having dinner right now, Jim. Why don't you have a bite first? It's the least I can do to thank you, really. Sally, get a plate."

"Thank you, sir. I am a bit hungry."

"Call me Tom. And have a seat."

Sally brought a plate and silverware out, and my dad moved his chair to an empty spot, while getting a folding chair for himself. James sat down, dropped his backpack beside him, and began helping himself to the food.

"Jim, you know Brad, of course, but maybe you haven't met his girlfriend Lizzy, and this is my daughter Sally."

"Pleasure," he said as he nodded his head toward each of them in turn.

"So tell me Jim, how did you happen to be on the beach today at the same time that Kyle was drowning?" my dad asked.

"Oh, well, it was actually part of my job."

He stopped short when he glanced at me and saw my eyes widen in horror.

"Really?" said my oblivious father. "Now what kind of work do you do, then?"

"Oh, odds and ends," he said carefully, glancing toward me. "I work freelance, do things that others don't want to do, or can't do. Mostly it's extermination and pest removal."

"Oh yeah? You an expert with bugs? I gotta nasty termite problem at home. Sometimes if you put your ear up to the wall, you can even hear them gnawing on the studs."

James laughed politely. "Well, I might be able to do something for you. Where do you live?"

"Out in Portland. Far enough from downtown that it's a hassle to get to work, but close enough to smell the pollution."

"He thinks that a mermaid drowned Kyle." Everyone stopped eating, and stared at Lizzy as she said it. There was a long silence.

Finally my dad spoke. "Sorry, Lizzy, did you say mermaid?"

Lizzy's fork clanged loudly against her plate. "It's true! Ask Brad! He thinks he saw it too!"

There was a dead silence, and now everyone was staring at me. I sunk into my chair at a complete loss for words.

My dad broke the silence again. "Brad, did you see a mermaid?"

I took a deep breath, and looked at James, and then at Lizzy. She was more upset than I expected. Apparently her mind simply could not handle anything at all out of the ordinary. I thought that perhaps I could deny that I had ever seen the mermaid, say that I was joking. Or I could plod ahead with the truth. Either way, I knew suddenly that if I wanted to be with her, she and I would have to forever pretend that none of this had happened.

Almost against my will, I started speaking. "Yes, I saw a mermaid today. She lured Kyle out into the water, and then took him to an underwater cavern."

My heart beat faster as I realized what I had said. The words hung in the air, and I began to doubt myself. Maybe I was crazy, and the whole thing had really been a hallucination.

My dad spoke finally. "Well, Brad, you haven't lied to me since you were five. Any time you thought you were in the wrong, you've admitted it. And you've never before seen things that weren't really there. So if you say there was a mermaid that nearly drown Kyle, then there was a mermaid that nearly drown Kyle."

I smiled at my dad, relieved to know that he trusted me so completely.

"So Mr. Jim," Sally piped up, "You go around killing mermaids?"

"Absolutely!" he replied cheerily. "Not just mermaids, either. I deal with all sorts of faerie creatures. I'm a Freelance Monster Assassin, actually."

"Faerie Hunter," I muttered.

Sally leaned forward excitedly. "I stopped believing in magic years ago, but you're saying it's really true? I always hoped the faerie tales were real! Are you magical?"

James laughed. "I'm just human! But I work with magic a lot, yes."

"Can I see some?"

Suddenly Lizzy stood up, throwing her fork loudly onto her plate. "You're all crazy! You really believe there was a mermaid? You think this guy can just walk in and tell you, 'Oh! Magic really does exist!' and you all fall for it, like six-year-olds waiting for the tooth fairy to give them their quarter? What the crap?" she yelled, and before we could say anything else, she ran down the hall and out the front door.

We all stared after her, at a lose for words. James was the only one who didn't look astonished. He simply reached to his backpack and pulled out a lighter. He flicked it, and a small flame appeared, and to our surprise, began to grow in size, as if the fire was a tangible gas that, instead of fading into smoke, simply was pushed upward as more of it appeared. When it was nearly the size of a basketball, James put one hand underneath it, and turned the lighter off. The huge flame sat an inch above his hand writhing in beautiful, glowing yellows and blues. He then blew the flame in deliberate angles, and the fire spread, weaving an extraordinary pattern in the air, floating a few feet above the table. Then suddenly it grew bright white, and I felt the heat from it for a few seconds, and then it all disappeared into smoke.

"Wow." said Sally. "Can I have one of those?"

James smiled. "Sorry, kid. I only own one of these. And it's a bit dangerous for you to use, probably. But there might be something else you'd like in here I could give you. What sort of things do you like doing?"

"I like drawing!"

"Hmm." He rummaged through his pack. "Aha! I thought I still had one of these!" He handed Sally a pen. "It's for drawing temporary tattoos on yourself."

Sally looked questioningly at my dad, who asked James, "Temporary? I'm not gonna be spending hundreds of bucks later to get this scraped off her, right?"

James laughed. "No, it'll wear off in about a week, I promise."

At a nod from my dad, Sally pulled her left sleeve up and immediately began to draw something on her arm.

James leaned in toward me. "Now for business. Brad, today you did something that not even I have managed to do. You killed a mermaid after it sang to you. That shows something about you. You're tough, you've got a strong mind."

I shrugged. "I did it to protect my brother."

"Right. Well, I have an offer for you. It's a once in a lifetime sort of deal. I'd like you to come with me for a while, be my intern, so to speak. You'd help me with all my jobs, I'd teach you about fighting magic with magic."

I sat back, stunned. "What? You want me to do what?"

James leaned back and frowned. "I want you to be my apprentice."

"No, I couldn't do that. I've got a scholarship. I'm going to college."

"I'm not asking you to come with me forever. Just six months, or a year. Then you can decide whether you want to continue, or go to college."

"Six months?" I said incredulously. "I'm supposed to be in college in one!"

"Brad, understand that this really is a once in a lifetime offer. You have no idea how rewarding my work is. And not too many people are cut out for it. But I think you are."

"What I'm cut out for is college!"

"Wait a minute, don't be too quick, Brad" said my dad. "What does he get in return? Is this a paid internship type deal?" he asked James.

"Of course! Food, lodging and transportation will be entirely taken care of, and in addition, he'll get a percentage of whatever I make on a job."

"And how much is that?" I asked.

In answer, James reached into his backpack and pulled out a wad of twenties, pushing it toward me. "This is what I was given today for the mermaid's death, minus transportation and food costs for the trip here, and a few other overheads."

I picked up the cash. It was probably more than a thousand dollars.

James spoke again. "It's yours, Brad."

I looked up at him, surprised.

"You did the work, Brad. You earned it. That's about an average pay for a job. If you come with me, I'll give you twenty percent of the profits for each job, plus bonuses, if I think you bore the brunt of any one job. Consider this a bonus.

"You're just giving this to me?"


"But I don't think I can say yes to you."

"Well that's a shame, Brad," said James as he stood up. "You keep the money no matter what you decide. But don't make a final decision right now. Wait until morning. I'll come and see what you say then. Things are always clearer in the morning."

He made his way toward the hallway. My dad got up and walked with him to the door. I fingered the money I had just unwittingly earned. It was tempting, for sure. Even twenty percent of it would be a large chunk. But I kept thinking about my plans for college, and how they would go to waste if I took his offer.

I looked up at Sally, who was still drawing a faerie on her shoulder. The ink seemed to be glowing softly on her skin, shimmering and slowly changing colors. She looked back at me, and down at the money, her eyebrows raised.

I heard my dad shut the door, and before he came into the room, I ran to the back door, stuffing the money in my pocket, and stood on the porch that looked out over the ocean. I needed to be alone for a while. Too many things had happened in the last twelve hours. Sitting down in a chair, I stared at the sky above the ocean. Slowly, the sun fell toward the water as I sat, unmoving for almost a half hour, just thinking. Finally, the door opened behind me. I turned to see Lizzy closing it.

"Hey there," I said as she sat beside me. The sun touched the horizon and began to sink into the water.

"Hi, Brad. Listen, I'm sorry about running out at dinner."

"It's okay, Lizzy, don't worry about it. It's no big deal."

"No, Brad. I think it is a big deal. I'm sorry I acted so immaturely, but I realized something. I don't think we're meant for each other."

My heart dropped, and I sat up straight as I heard this.

"Brad," she said, her eyes looking sadly into mine. "I didn't get the scholarship to UC. I can't go."

"That's okay," I said quickly, "We can work it out, we can talk on the phone! I'll come back to visit," I said almost desperately as she shook her head.

"No. No, it won't work that way. Brad, you're just different than me. And I'm different than you. We shouldn't tie each other down."

"It's not like that!" I nearly shouted. "I want to be tied down to you! I love you!"

"No you don't, Brad. You're just really, really loyal. And you're an amazing person. But you're just not like me."

Yes I am! I wanted to scream. But words stuck in my throat. I couldn't believe this was happening. My whole life seemed to be crumbling into pieces. I had nothing to live for if Lizzy wasn't a part of my life.

A tear rolled down her cheek, and she got up, kissed me on the forehead, then ran back inside. I sat gaping at her as she left. I heard her car start on the other side of the house, and it hit me that she was really leaving. She wasn't coming back.

The last ray of sunlight disappeared under the water. Numbness overtook me as twilight deepened, until I finally got up and stumbled into my own bed. I found that I was utterly exhausted, and despite all the thoughts racing through my brain, I fell instantly asleep.

Wild dreams haunted me, and the image of the mermaid's bared teeth turned swiftly into the face of first Lizzy, then James, then back into the mermaid. I tossed and turned, but the dreams only got worse and more incongruent. As they went on, I felt something cold tickling my neck, which grew more and more prominent in my dreams, until I finally realized that it wasn't in my dreams at all, and I woke up. I opened my eyes, and right in front of my face were two dim, black eyes peering at me from a drab colored face. The tickle on my neck was a knife.