“How’d you get the sword?”
“This thing?” The Hero asked, pointing at the sword hanging by his side. The two of us sat at the bar, having drinks.
Dumb-ass, I thought. Out loud I said, “Yeah.”
“Got it from Jewel,” The Hero said. “Not quite as good as the one her mother made me, but it does most jobs well enough.”
“Yeah, Jewell’s mother. Jewell Senior. She ran the shop — oh, I don’t know how long ago. A couple decades, maybe. And to a little thing like you, what’s a couple decades?”
“Not much, I guess.” It felt so strange. I was an elf, now. People treated me like a fucking elf.
“You guess? The elf that guesses,” The Hero asked. He let out a bomb of a laugh, which he only interrupted in order to guzzle down some more beer.
The bartender set my drink down.
“Thanks,” I said, but she’d already walked away. I looked at The Hero. “You don’t think Jewell is as good as her mother?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not looking to start anything.”
I leaned in a little bit. “I’ve been wondering something.”
The Hero smirked. It was the loose sort of smirk that only a drunk person could make. “You’re wondering if I’m The Hero?”
Truth was, I knew he was The Hero. I’d heard Beckett describe him so many times, there was no way I wouldn’t be able to recognize him. But sometimes it was better for people to think you stupid.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d heard about you, but I wasn’t sure, to be honest.”
“It’s me,” he said. He leaned over a bit, smiling wide. “I’m The Hero. It’s nice, in a lot of ways. Having people recognize you, I mean. Makes me feel important. Of course, I am important, but sometimes I can forget that. We all forget how important we are.”
“You’re important here?” I asked.
“I’m important everywhere,” he said. “Here’s just where I like to hang out. A place to drink, a place to sleep, a place to fight, a place to fuck.”
“A place to fight?”
“Sure,” he said. “We have fights outside in the parking lot all the time. New kid gets a weapon, we’ll ask if he wants to try it out.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“He doesn’t have to,” The Hero said, looking at me like I was crazy. “What’s wrong with you? Why you have to ask so many questions?”
“Nature of the job, I guess.” Realizing what I’d said, I tried to recover. “Elf Guard.”
The Hero laughed again. At this point it seemed like the laugh came out more due to reflex, than actual enjoyment. He put his hands in the air. “I’m sorry, Officer. Am I in trouble?”
“No,” I said. “Not with me, anyway.”
“I’ll have you know I’ve been a law-abiding citizen for…” he paused. “Well, it’s been a long fucking time. The number doesn’t matter.”
“Was it worth it?” I asked.
“Following the law.”
“Didn’t have much of a choice,” he said. “Not with so much attention being put on me. Hell, this Blake Reiner kid. He had it lucky. Played the part of a hero, then got to go home and keep his anonymity. Ha. No, I wasn’t so lucky. I saved the world — fought the War to End All Wars. That is, the war of gods against men. But what good did that do me? Personally, I mean. Oh, sure. I got a reputation. But every punk from here to the Celestial Wall wanted to beat the crap out of me, just to prove that he could. Heck, I didn’t even want to fight when I was young. But those damn Elf Ladies — no offense.”
“None taken,” I said.
“Those damn Elf Ladies,” he said, barely registering my presence at this point. “They said I had to be The Hero. So I was. But they didn’t say how much I’d wish to do other things, afterward. Fuck, I mean. If that bitch Beckett Winters hadn’t been so fucking honest, maybe I could’ve lived a real life, you know?”
He paused for a moment, looking at me, expecting me to say something. I didn’t want to argue for Beckett here and now. But I wasn’t going to argue against her, either.
He continued, “There was no way that had to happen. She had the story of her fucking lifetime — none of that alien shit. So I had to camp out here, forever. Hoped people would forget about me, and in a lot of ways they did. But not enough, and too late anyways. I’m old now, you know? Not by your standards, but I’m old. And there’s no going back. No becoming who I really wanted to be.”
“Who’d you want to be?”
He laughed, chewing his lip and looking away from me. “A tailor. I know it’s kind of gay, but I’m not, you know. It’s just that clothes are so important. They say a lot about a guy. Or a lady, too, I guess. That’s a nice three-piece suit, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I said, noticing his leather jacket and torn jeans. “Mind if I ask what your outfit says about you?”
He looked down. “Good question. Good question. You ain’t so bad, you know that? What this outfit is… What I’m trying to say. I don’t know. Nothing, at this point. My life’s so far gone. I gave up so long ago. Kind of like the cow this leather came from. I’m dead, but somehow still here.”
“Why here?” I asked.
“Everyone here’s looking for a fight, anyway. Everyone’s got weaponry, you know? Someone wants to start something with me, they also gotta contend with everyone else. It’s protection, really. Comfort, too, I guess. And of course, the drinking’s not bad.” He swigged it, then laughed, looking into his empty mug. “No, it’s not bad at all.”
I looked at my untouched beer and took a sip.
“Not a fan?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said. “If I’m going to drink piss, might as well just drink my own. That way it’s free, at least.”
He roared with laughter. “You’re funny. You’re funny. What the fuck you sitting around here for, anyway? You looking to fight someone? You’re not looking to fight me, are you?”
“No,” I said. “Looking for a weapon.”
“Wrong building,” he said, turning around and pointing in the direction of the smithy.
“Already been,” I said. “Jewell said she couldn’t help me.”
“You can’t get the weapon there, you can’t get it anywhere,” The Hero said. “What the fuck you looking for, anyway?”
“Blake Reiner,” I said.
The Hero snapped. “Leave the kid alone. Trust me. He’s done enough for this world.”
“Too much, perhaps,” I said. “He wants to get past the Celestial Wall.”
The Hero looked at me, incredulous. He caught the eye of the bartender and tapped his finger on the marble bar top.
“You’re crazy,” he said.
“I’m Elf Guard,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but I’m not doing it for the thrills. Really, I wish I wasn’t doing it at all. But I am, I’m here, and I need a weapon that can take down The Godkiller.”
“Impossible,” he said. But there was something odd in his eyes when I mentioned the Godkiller. A small change in his voice.
“You’re probably right,” I said. Took another sip of beer. Figured it might be a good idea to press the issue. “But there has to be something in the world that could destroy it. Nothing’s invincible. Everything can be destroyed.”
“Maybe,” The Hero said. The one-eyed bartender set a new mug down on the table. Without even looking, The Hero grabbed it and took a gulp.
“I think you know how to break the Godkiller,” I said.
“Ballsy,” The Hero said. “I can appreciate a lady with balls.” He scratched his chin. Looked at the bartender, then leaned in a bit. “You know, we talk about you at the bar sometimes.”
“I only just got here.”
“Elf Lady,” he said, and that was all too good of an explanation. “Came here once. Said someone like you was gonna come along. Didn’t say when or where or what you’d look like. But you’d want to break the Godkiller.”
“Gonna have a shitty time doing it.”
“What’s that mean?”
The Hero leaned in even closer and began to whisper. “That Elf Lady came here a long time ago — ten years, maybe,” he said. “Entered the smithy wielding a gun. The way the guy told it to me, it was around noon. She came in there, wielding the gun, and there were about three people there: two guys, and Jewell. Now, Jewell was probably crapping her pants, but she didn’t show it. No, she looked the Elf Lady right in the eyes and asked, ‘Can I help you?’
“The Elf Lady shot one of the guys in the head.
“‘No,” she said, ‘But I’d like to help you.’
“She unloads the gun on the guy’s corpse, shooting him six more times. Reloads the gun, does it again. Ends up shooting the guy forty-nine times.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Guy who told me said something about a prophecy. Apparently the Elf Lady said the Godkiller would need to be destroyed at some point, and the metal in those bullets would do the trick. Told Jewell to melt the bullets into a gun that could destroy the Godkiller. Of course, I never thought it’d be in Val’s hands when it had to get broken. Always figured it would’ve been stolen. Or maybe he’d have a shit kid that’d misuse it, or something.”
He began sagging a little, his shoulders beginning to fall, his eyelids beginning to droop, like gravity was too much to handle in this late day and age.
“So Jewell did it? She took the metal and forged a gun that could destroy the Godkiller?”
“Yeah,” The Hero said. “Sure. Keeps it in her drawer and everything. I’ve seen a lot of fucked up shit. I’ve seen a lot of fucked up shit. But nothing that seemed so damn,” he paused, took a deep breath, “shitty.”
“Yeah.” I nodded my head. “You alright to get home?”
“Just a flight of steps.”
“Alright,” I said, patting him on the back. “Thanks again.”
I walked up the steps, contemplating the impossible.
— — —
I dreamed. It was a better way of living.
Val was there, in the passenger’s seat. We drove, looking at long fields of green.
I had one hand on the wheel, the other holding a blunt. I took a toke, blowing it out the car window. “You ever think about The Hero?’
Val nodded his head, arm hanging out the window. “Sure.”
“I was just thinking, because you two are so similar and all.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Val said, “in one sense, at least.”
“You think you guys are different?”
“In some ways,” Val said, “though I understand your point. The Elf Lady said that The Hero would save the world, and he did. She said I would save the world, and that’s what I’m doing.”
“Beckett said he was a miserable bastard.”
“I wouldn’t put too much stock in that,” Val said. “Beckett’s the sort of person that makes people miserable. I don’t mean to disparage her — I know you like her. I just mean that in a broader sense of the term, miserable is a state of mind. And I’ve seen a number of people get into that state of mind because of Beckett. Loud, intoxicated, and ready to say something offensive works great for you, but not most people in this world.”
“Maybe,” I said. “That makes sense. I just think about what fame must do to a man like that.” I took another drag. “You go and kill all of Hostem’s kids — all ten of ‘em, each of ‘em the god of something or other, and then everyone rewards you for it. You’re used to killing gods, but you can’t kill the biggest one of them all — you can’t kill Hostem. You’ve lost all sense of purpose. What does that do, you know? How do you cope?”
Val shrugged his shoulder, eyes focused on the scene outside the window. “You drink.”
“You gotta do more than that,” I said. “You can’t just get drunk.”
Val shrugged his shoulder again. “From what I’ve read, that’s all The Hero does, these days. He goes to the bar and gets drunk, a godkiller among men. He sits there while I go to kill Hostem. He sits while I kill the ultimate enemy.”
“Must be sad.”
“For him, anyway.”
— — —
I woke up to the sound of knocking.
Was I drowning?
I took in a deep breath of air, only to feel something in my mouth. I spat it out, coughing. Felt like my face was cocooned. I scratched it, only to have dead skin come off.
I got up and saw half of my face on the pillow.
Don’t scream. Don’t scream. Don’t scream.
This is normal. This is what happens to elves. They shed.
The sound of Lusu’s voice: “I was having such a good dream, too.”
“Can you get the door?” I asked, feet on the floor as I tried scratching this dead skin off of me.
“Sounds like you’re already up,” she said.
“I’ve got to do something,” I said, making my way to the bathroom.
“This is a nice-looking door,” Jewell said, “but I’m not afraid to bust it down.”
Lusu got up and went to the front door, while I closed the bathroom door.
My reflection stared back at me. I didn’t like it.
“You try and break into my shop last night?” I heard Jewel ask, in the other room.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lusu responded.
“Someone hacked at the door of my smithy last night,” Jewell said. “Didn’t manage to break through, but that wasn’t for lack of trying.”
I should’ve been thinking about what Jewell was saying. I should’ve been planning on how to get that gun of hers. But instead, I merely met the glare of my reflection. I saw myself: the bleach blond hair, the button-down shirt, the body that didn’t belong to me.
“I’ve been here all night,” Lusu said.
“What about that elf you were with?”
“She was at the bar for a while, then came up and went right to sleep.”
“And where is she now?” Jewell asked.
“In the bathroom,” I yelled.
“I’d like you to come out here so we can have a chat,” Jewell yelled back.
“She’s shedding right now.”
“So?” Jewell said. “Elves shed, that’s just a fact of life. What sort of elf isn’t used to shedding?”
I bit my lip, holding back tears. Still couldn’t escape the gaze of the mirror.
This isn’t who I am. This isn’t who I am.
My hair looked all wrong. I could see why the elf had gelled it back: it was thin, oddly frizzy.
“She has a condition,” Lusu said. “Doesn’t shed as often as the rest of them. It’s a bit of a shock whenever it happens.”
“Well,” Jewell said, “I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m still going to need to see her. Someone tried robbing me the day after you two came into town, and that’s too much of a coincidence to just label it a coincidence. I need to look at that elf, look into her eyes and figure out if she’s the sort of thing that would try and steal.”
“You’re certain I didn’t do it?” Lusu asked.
“You don’t look like the sort of thing that would bust down a door like that,” Jewell said.
“Too innocent, or something?” Lusu asked.
“Or something,” Jewell replied.
I took a breath, then opened the bathroom door.
Jewell stared at me. It was almost worse, looking at her when she didn’t have the goggles on. I saw the anger in her eyes. I saw the pain.
“Did you try to break into my shop last night?” she asked.
“No,” I said. As soon as I said it, I felt regret: I sounded so unconfident, so hurt.
Still, Jewell said, “I believe you.” She turned for the front door.
“What now?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Jewell replied.
“You know we didn’t do it. So what’s the next step for you?”
Jewell sighed. “They’ll try doing it again. Eventually, they’ll either get inside, or they’ll get themselves in some deep shit.”
“Must be something real special, to warrant such trouble,” Lusu purred.
“I guess so,” Jewell said. She opened the door and left.
“I wonder what that was about,” Lusu said.
I stood there for a few moments, wanting to tell Lusu about the gun. I hadn’t gotten the chance to tell her last night, since she’d been asleep. But now, the words just didn’t seem to want to come out.
I stood there for a few moments, searching for words until I finally managed to spit out, “Yeah.”
I rushed back into the bathroom, slamming the door closed.
“You alright?” Lusu asked, on the other side of the door.
“Yeah,” I said. My breath felt short. My body felt short.
I ran a hand through my bleach blonde hair. Ran the other one through it, too. It was soft. Too soft. Just a little softer than it used to be. I pulled at it, just hard enough to make it hurt.
I let go, tears welling up.
Looked at the button-down shirt. I’d been wearing it to bed every day, since I didn’t have any other clothes. It was wrinkled. It’d looked so nice on somebody else. But now that it was on me? It just didn’t fit.
I wanted to tear it off, but refrained. Instead, I unbuttoned it slowly, each action revealing just a bit more pale elven skin. Seeing my breasts wasn’t shocking, just disappointing. My shirt fell to the cold bathroom floor.
I unbuttoned my pants. Unzipped them, and they fell to the ground.
I stood there, braless, but still wearing my underwear. This was the hardest part, wasn’t it? But it was necessary, if I really wanted to understand myself.
I slipped my fingers around the cloth of the panties. My hands were trembling. One of my tears hit the bathroom floor. I tilted my head upwards, closing my eyes to try and contain the tears. Took the panties off without looking.
I opened my eyes. Then, slowly, I turned my gaze towards the reflection.
Took in a deep breath, trying to ignore the absence in-between my legs. I reached out with my right hand and leaned on my reflection.