Zechariah, more commonly known as Zeke, blinked at the room that surrounded him. It was not a sight that inspired great joy. A misanthropic July haze had settled in the air, making the sunlight seem both over-bright and dusty. The oppressive heat had resulted in Zeke throwing off his sheets in the middle of the night, and they now lay in a sweaty, foot-entangling lump in the room’s exact center.
Zeke blinked again. A latent feeling of anxiety had driven him awake, leaving him to ponder fruitlessly about its cause.
10:57, the phone’s clock read dismally. The latent feeling of anxiety did a handstand inside his chest, and Zeke stared for a second at the numbers, striving to attach some meaning to them.
Red Robin, he thought. Work.
And with that, the latent feeling of anxiety exploded into panic, driving him out of bed, into some clothes, and into the street.
In five minutes, he was jogging down the sidewalk in full dishwasher’s regalia, dripping in the sweaty summer haze and still not fully awake.
In twenty minutes, he was panting for breath, staring into the darkened carcass of a closed restaurant and remembering that it was July 4th, and work was closed.
He wiped his forehead, rubbed his damp hand on his pants, and frowned at the sweat-stain handprint he’d left.
He needed a drink.
ENERGY PLUS, cried the labels garishly. PUMPED. X-TRA. ZERO.
The freezer had a pleasant cool breeze, but the myriad of colors and claims on the cans were making Zeke dizzy. He picked the blue one. The convenience store was tiny and oddly shaped; one of those places that seemed to have been designed for one lot and built on another.
Zeke set the drink on the counter, digging in his pocket for money.
The woman at the register smiled at him, pleasant wrinkles spreading across her weathered face. He smiled sweatily back.
“That’ll be $3.79, honey.”
Zeke fumbled with the money, trying to decide whether it was more polite to spend fifteen minutes looking for exact change or to pay with an all-too-large twenty-dollar bill.
He decided on the former, counting and re-counting his coins to find the ones that added up.
“Ah, hon.” the woman said kindly, watching his struggle. “some days just don’t fit, do they?”
“Yeah.” Zeke admitted nervously, juggling coins, bills, a pack of gum and a handful of old receipts. A penny dropped on the floor, and he frowned, looking down to find it.
“Um, I have a twenty…” he said, deciding to push the twenty-dollar bill in her general direction and make his escape, but trailing off as he looked up. Was she…glowing?
“I bet your days just never seem to fit, do they?” she asked, still smiling sweetly. “and neither do you.”
She waved at him, as if shooing him away. Something might have exploded after that; or maybe he fainted. Either way, the scene closed with an unexpected fade to black.
Leaves, Zeke thought. Why was he lying on leaves? Sunlight, clear and yellow, shone through a canopy of leaves high above his head. Trees swayed in a strong, wild breeze.
He was still clutching the contents of his pockets, and the energy drink lay on the moss beside him. He stared at it, the only familiar thing he could see, and realized he hadn’t even paid for it.
He was still processing this when a woman crashed through the underbrush, tripped over him, and sprawled headlong into the clearing.
“Hello.” Zeke said faintly. She stared at him, wild-eyed and breathless, and then pointed to the woods behind him, breathing a single, terrifying word.
Zeke turned his head in time to see the beast. Red and shining with jewel-like scales, it crashed through the trees, flattening anything and everything between it and the woman. When it halted, it was almost to big to take in; all wings and teeth, with an all-too-intelligent smile.
It didn’t even look at him, concentrating instead on the woman.
“Tired of running now, princess?”
The woman–the princess, Zeke amended–looked far too tired to be doing much of anything. Nevertheless, she pulled herself upright–trembling, maybe–but standing proudly and looking the dragon straight in the eye.
“I have no strength to fight you,” she said, pointing out the obvious in panting breaths. “Enact your treachery if you dare, upon a queen of a peaceful realm; but know, beast, that I have warriors and knights in my court such as would rejoice to slay a dragon. Kill me, and you will suffer for it.”
“Suffer?” the dragon said, looking amused. “on the contrary, I’m getting paid. All that lovely gold.” It mused, seeming to lose itself in a world of its own for a moment. Then it came back to reality, smiled blissfully at the stoic princess–or queen–and opened wide its unnervingly tooth-ridden mouth.
Zeke was confused, very confused, about a great many things just now; there were two things, and two things only, that he was completely and utterly certain about.The first was that he wanted desperately to go home.
The second was that if he didn’t do something soon, the stoical princess lady was going to be gobbled up by the evil dragon.
The dragon prepared to close his jaws around his tiny meal. He closed his eyes in preparation, imagining all the sparkly gold he was going to be paid. He was just about to bite down, already savoring the taste, when–
A half-empty pack of gum bounced off his nose, offending his senses with the sharp scent of mint.
With a growl and a snort of smoke, he looked around for the offender, finally resting on the cringing and somewhat unheroic figure of Zeke.
While there was a princess needing immediate rescuing, and while the dragon still hadn’t seemed to notice Zeke’s existence, throwing the contents of his pockets at it had seemed like a stellar idea. But as the dragon’s amber-eyed glare fixed on him, and as the receipts and bills (less satisfying projectiles) floated slowly to the ground, the idea seemed a great deal less stellar. Almost idiotic.
The dragon growled and took a step towards him, opening its mouth again to blast him with fire.
Zeke had only one weapon left.
The can of Monster hurtled through the air. Zeke had been aiming for the dragon’s eye–the only weak spot he could see–but missed.
The dragon snapped his teeth instinctively down on the strange thing that landed in his mouth, swallowing it without a thought.
“Raughh! Are you trying to poison me, little man? What was that awful stuff?”
“Ultra zero Monster energy.” He said, and the dragon bared its teeth angrily.
“What kind of witch-gibber is that? I’ll rip you to shreds, you insignificant, meddling–meddling… Ha.”
The dragon had halted, his expression shifting.
“Meddle. What a funny word,” He said dreamily. “It’s so…happy,” he giggled, flopping over on his side and batting the air with his fearsome claws. “meddling.”
Zeke ran to the princess–or queen–who was already getting to her feet.They exchanged confused looks.
“Whee.” the dragon said, blissfully knocking over a tree.
“We should run.” Zeke wasn’t certain how long the dragon’s caffeine high would last, and he didn’t want to be around when it wore off.
The queen–or princess–nodded. “this way.” she whispered, and bolted into the woods.
Zeke followed as best he could, struggling to keep up with her breakneck speed.
When his lungs had flattened themselves into burning pancakes of pain and the muscles in his side had tied themselves in knots, the princess disappeared into a tangle of tree roots.
The tangle of tree roots turned out to be a burrow, and Zeke slid into it after the princess, unintentionally showering her with dirt and leaves before collapsing into a panting heap on the burrow’s floor.
“That was a dragon.” He gasped. “A. Real. Dragon.”
The princess, elegantly brushing dirt off her velvet gown, nodded. “Strange indeed. They don’t usually come this far south.”
Zeke stared at her, the depths of his confusion too gargantuan to put into words. She smiled at him, not seeming to notice his incredulity.
“That was brave of you,” she said. “you don’t look like a knight, stranger; if my kingdom had more commoners such as you, I would be very proud indeed.”
“Zeke.” he said, realizing he hadn’t introduced himself. “and, um… Thanks.”
“Amelia Drakeburne. Soon to be Queen Amelia Drakeburne, if that dragon doesn’t find us.” She announced in a friendly way, holding up her hand. Zeke shook it awkwardly. She smiled at him again, oddly this time, and returned her hand to her lap.
“You wouldn’t happen to have bandages as well as dragon repellent, would you?” she asked, keeping her ironic half-smile as she shifted her skirt to show a booted calf.
Zeke gagged. The leather of her boot had been sliced open by the dragon’s claws, leaving a deep gash in the girl’s leg. Blood had soaked the leather, and was still trickling in sickly red streams, staining the dirt.
The princess winced as she unlaced the boot. More blood flowed, forming a small puddle.
Zeke concentrated, sick-stomached, on the burrow’s wall.
Bandages, he thought dully. Fabric.
Amelia looked up at him, startled, as he pulled off his shirt.
“What are you doing?”
Zeke, holding the shirt out in an awkwardly crumpled ball of potential bandage material, sucked his stomach in.
“It’s not much of a bandage, I guess, but it might help the bleeding.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
Zeke watched as his shirt, a martyr for a good cause, was systematically ripped to shreds and wrapped around the wound. Actually, he looked away for the wound-wrapping bit. The sight of blood still set his stomach roiling.
“I think the bleeding’s stopping.” Amelia said when she finished. “we can wait here until nightfall. The dragon will probably be asleep by then, and we’ll be able to return to the castle.”
There were castles too, Zeke mused. He probably should have guessed that.
“Your clothes are strange.” The princess continued, looking at him calculatingly. When he didn’t reply, she continued. “I thought you were some passing commoner, but you’re not, are you? You don’t belong here.”
The checkout lady apparently thought he had. Zeke was convinced she was responsible for sending him here, though he had no idea why. She’d said that he didn’t ‘fit’; whatever that meant, and then had helpfully sent him to be eaten by a dragon.
“I’m not from here,” he admitted, shifting uncomfortably. “maybe I don’t belong anywhere.” He added, half-believing it.
But the princess wasn’t noticing his hints of personal tragedy. Instead, she was staring at his shoulder.
“What is it?” Zeke asked, looking around and half-expecting to see an elf or a fairy or something perched on him. But no, there was nothing there but a birth mark, which however unsightly, was not really something that needed to be stared at.
“That mark.” She said, gesturing him to turn towards the light.
“It’s just a birthmark.” He protested.
“A birthmark, yes. But that–” she faltered. “that it the mark of the house of Bracken.”
They looked at one another, equally confused. Zeke was about to ask what the house of Bracken was, and how it could in any way be connected with a birthmark on his arm, but he didn’t get the chance.
Before he could speak, a hunting horn–a very loud one–sounded from the ground above.
“Find the princess,” roared a commanding voice. “that pusillanimous fiend of dragon hasn’t gotten the best of her, I’d bet my life on it; bring her back at all costs!”
Amelia’s face split into a joyful grin.
“They found me! Come on.” She said, scrambling out of the hole. It was Zeke’s turn to be sprayed with leaves and debris. He climbed, spluttering, after the princess and into the warm afternoon light.
It was a small hunting party, mostly foot-soldiers in brownish-grey leather and a couple of mounted knights. The sudden appearance of the ragged soon-to-be-queen in its midst was the cause of some surprise.
“Lord Bracken!” Amelia cried cheerfully, as a heavily armored man on a grey warhorse came forward. “Just the man I wished to see. You know of the dragon that so fiendishly attacked me; I was rescued–”
“I see that.” Lord Bracken interposed.
Zeke frowned, crossing his arms over his bare chest self-consciously. Everyone’s eyes were on the princess, but it seemed to him that no gaze was particularly friendly.
“Ahem. Yes,” Amelia said, disconcerted by Bracken’s interruption as Zeke had been. “I was rescued by–”
“And how unfortunate too.” Bracken said, allowing a smile to warp his finely groomed beard.
Amelia stiffened, looking up at the man on the horse with disbelief.
“If this is a joke–” she began dangerously.
“Ethred, call the dragon.” Bracken interrupted again, addressing one of the knights by his side. “if I’m going to pay that oversized failure of an assassin, he’s going to finish the job. Khy, Torvas, restrain her.”
Zeke was closer than either of Bracken’s brutes. He outpaced them, stepping forward to stand by her side, glaring at Bracken with fire in his eyes.
“Don’t you dare touch her, Bracken, or I’ll–”
He was about to say ‘kill you,’ mostly because it sounded dramatic, but then he wondered if it sounded a little too dramatic. He wasn’t really planning on killing anybody, and he should probably make a threat he could keep; but anything short of ‘kill you,’ didn’t seem threaty enough.
‘Hate you’? ‘Throw rocks at you’? ‘Try to spook your horse’?
He still hadn’t decided when Bracken’s guards reached them, restraining them both.
“Or you’ll what?” Bracken inquired from atop his horse, annoyed by the unfinished sentence.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Zeke said. “but it will be very bad.”
That did not sound anywhere near as threatening as he’d been hoping.
“My lord,” one of the guards said, staring at his shoulder as Amelia had done. “he bears the mark.”
‘The mark’ sounded pretty vague to Zeke, but Bracken seemed to understand. His face went white, and he looked at Zeke–not with disdain, not with malice, but–could that be fear?
“Who are you?” Bracken demanded.
Bracken’s eyes flashed as though he’d been insulted.
“Kill him.” He snapped. The soldiers pushed Zeke to his knees.
“Stop this right now!” Amelia demanded uselessly, struggling against her pair of guards.
“On second thought, wait.” Bracken said, not even noting the princess’s expostulations as he dismounted. “tie his hands. I’ll do it myself this time.”
It was then, with a thunderous thrum of wings and a great deal of crashing trees and breaking branches, that the dragon returned. The great beast made a messy landing of it, blinking at the assembly from a veritable nest of toppled trees once he’d settled.
“Sorry I’m late.” He drawled. “I’ve just been so…sleepy.”
So the caffeine had worn off, Zeke thought.
“Sleepy?” Bracken looked incredulous. “SLEEPY? What kind of dragon are you?”
The dragon was unoffended. “I am a very fearsome and powerful dragon. But right now I am sleepy.” He said, very clearly and precisely. He looked like he was about to fall over.
“Take a nap!” Bracken spluttered. “But first fulfill your contract! I demand that you devour the princess.” He pointed at her, like someone trying to get a dog to fetch.
“Right now?” the dragon asked blankly, looking at Bracken like a dog who hadn’t been taught how to fetch yet. “but I’m not hungry right now.”
“Aughh!” Bracken yelled, frustrated. “The princess can be dealt with later. But you,” he said, focusing on Zeke, “You, I will handle now.”
Sword unsheathed, he strode forward, and the two soldiers at Zeke’s side backed away. Zeke was left on his knees, hands tied behind his back.
Amelia, struggling against her guards, was screaming something that Zeke could not hear. Bracken, eyes alight, raised his sword.
No way out, Zeke thought, closing his eyes as the blade descended.
No way out but one.
He rolled back onto his tied hands, kicking at Bracken with both feet. The blade missed his neck; burying itself, instead, in the bone of his left heel.
Zeke was always told afterwards that this point in the fight had been punctuated by a horrible, gut-wrenching scream. He never remembered screaming, but his guts were certainly wrenching. For a moment, he saw nothing but white. Then he saw Bracken’s sword fall to the ground. He rolled on top of it, trying to saw the rope around his wrists against its sharp blade.
Bracken was on top of him in a heartbeat. Fingers clenched firmly around Zeke’s throat, sending black spots dancing across his vision, causing his brain to grow numb and his lungs to burn.
“Why did you come back?” Bracken demanded.
Zeke felt the quiet blackness creeping up his spine, into his ears, horribly warm and inviting. He could give up, it said. No more people trying to murder him. Not more days that didn’t fit. Just…lovely…oblivion.
The last thread of the rope broke loose, and his hands came free. He felt the hilt of the sword, solid and calming in his hands. He felt the pleasant weight of its swing as he brought it up to meet with Bracken’s head.
Something warm and wet splattered into Zeke’s face, but the hands around his throat loosened.
The air hurt, but he needed it; gasped for it, barely tasting the copper on his tongue.
And then the princess was there, sounding very close and yet far away at the same time.
“Stay awake, Zeke. Stay awake. We are safe now. Safe.”
And with that, Zechariah’s consciousness drifted away to some other plane of reality, and whether or not he and the princess were safe ceased to matter.
Three months later
Zechariah, more commonly known now as Lord Bracken of Brakehurst, blinked at the room that surrounded him. It was not a very pretty room; all stone walls and hard furniture and tapestries depicting bloody battles.
Also, a blue can of Monster Zero Ultra.
He sat up, careful not to bump his foot against the floor. It was healing up nicely, but not quickly, and the castle healer was constantly accusing that Zeke was too rough on it.
“A gift for your dragon.” A familiar voice said.
Zeke spun around. Sitting on an uncomfortable chair against the far wall was the checkout lady, still in her store uniform, smiling at him comfortably. “You do have a pet dragon? Or is that just peasant’s talk?”
Zeke blinked at her. “I wouldn’t call him a pet,” he said. “but…yes.”
“The glorious young Bracken, returned to his estate,” she said. “lost nephew to Bracken the traitor, transported across realms just so his uncle could grasp a little more power.”
Zeke shrugged. “that’s the story.” He said. She was looking at him narrowly, trying to find something in his eyes, but he didn’t know what. It made him nervous.
“Do you really believe that?” she asked.
“I–” he stopped, thinking. “maybe. I don’t feel like a Lord Bracken.”
“Do you want to go back?”
Zeke thought about his life now. Confusing, terrifying, uneasy; the farthest from safety he’d ever been.
“No.” he said. “I want to stay.”
“Good.” She said, nodding, and got up to leave. As she opened the door, she turned back, looking at him curiously.
“Do your days fit now, Zechariah?”
“No,” Zeke admitted. “but I do.”
“Ah.” she said. “as it should be.”
And with that, she disappeared.