Thirty-five thousand.

According to Terrence, that’s how much the three of them could get for turning in a dead dragon. Not the big one, mind. The white, as Terrance called it was beyond them now. But the smaller forest-dweller, the one that had crushed the car the night before, would fetch that price. Split three ways, it wouldn’t be enough to fully pay the debt, but it would put a nice dent in it. Will could have laughed when he thought about his current situation. Had desperation driven him to temporary insanity? Is that why he now found himself in the car with too much older men, driving toward a supposed dragon battle? The want of money can do some strange things, he knew that better than most. But the more miles he drove, the more the feelings of doubt he’d had before came back in powerful waves. This is stupid, he told himself, this whole thing is stupid. All you’re going to find on this little excursion is a lot of nonsense. And yet, Terrence’s resolve, his crusade to make a believer of Will was undertaken with an absolutely unshakable resolve. He was dead-set on showing Will something, anything that would prove he wasn’t crazy. And if this crazy guy wanted so badly to help him save his diner, he figured he might as well give him a shot. But first, they would have to pick up a few necessary items. Will drove, with Terrence in front. Harold was in back, fidgeting little an excited child. -Terrence? Will asked. -Hm? Yes, Will? -You said we could get thirty-five thousand for this thing, right? -Yessah -From where? Or who? Where exactly does the money come from? -Ah, yes. We hunters aren’t just freelance crazies fightin’ these beasts for fun. We report to the Slayer Council. -There’s a whole council, huh? -Sure is. The chapter around here’s not as active as back home, though. At least they haven’t been. Now, though? This place has become a new hotbed. Incidents are all over the place. -Okay. And do they...y’know, keep the attacks out of the media? -I s’pose you could say that. -Good god! Harold said. Terry, is that your place? From the road, Terrence’s house looked just as large and imposing as Will remembered. The fact that he was actually about to enter the place seemed odd. Certainly not the only thing that was odd about this night; more like a cherry on top. -What exactly are we picking up? Will asked.

-Can’t fight the beasts without weapons, can we? -I guess you’re right. -Will, don’t tell me you still don’t believe? -I...look, until I see something with my own eyes-Oh you better believe, kid! Harold said. They’re real, dragons. I told you, I seen one m’self. -Yeah, you said. But you say a lot of things, Harold. -Now you listen, kid. I may be old, but I ain’t senile. Korea, ‘Fifty-Two. Me’n the boys were marchin’ onward to rendezvous with the rest of our men, when YAAAAAAH! Out of the forest there, out flies this massive thing! Huge, that thing! Wings, teeth, the whole shabang. Luckily, though, it was chasin’ some kinda wild-life. Cow, maybe? I donno. But since that day, I knew there was things we don’t understand. And since then, I always carry Lola with me. -Lola? -Yeah, my rifle, Lola. In my car all the time. It’s in your trunk now. -You put a gun in my trunk? -Well what was I supposed to fight a dragon with, Will? Want me to use a damned sling? I ain’t David, Will. That’s blasphemy and I won’t have it. Ha! Just fibbin’, kid. You know I never been all that religious. But, yeah, there’s a rifle in your trunk. Hope that’s alright. -Yeah. Yeah. -I admire the foresight, Harold, Terrence said. I just hope that it’s got enough power. -Don’t you worry, Terry m’man. Lola may be old, but she ain’t failed me yet. -Ah, good good. Will, make this turn and we’ll be up the hill. The ascent took a few minutes. The wind sheer as they neared the house was more than Will had expected. It was getting colder, too. The temperature had dropped ten degrees in that last few hours. A fresh layer of snow covered the roads, making the upward journey all the more difficult. Large flakes battered the windshield at break-neck pace. The wipers had little effect. They all got out, and made their way to the large double-doored entrance. As Terrence entered, an more aged man ran frantically toward the party. His white hair grew crazily from either side of his head. The top was shiny bald. His bespectacled eyes scanned all the men, but settled on Terrence.

-Master Terrence! His voice was hoarse, put powerfully projected. I was worried you would catch your death of cold out there! -Not to worry, Fredrick. Terrance removed his coat, and the old man swooped in to grab it. It’s no worse than Smolensk. Remember? I swore the bottom of the thermometer would explode! -Oh Smolensk! That was a cold to shatter the bones. Dear, dear, the things we do...oh, really, Master Terrence, you neglected to mention we would have guests! They look positively frozen. Both of you, coats to me, right this instant. Into the study with you all, warm yourselves by the fire. -Alright, alright, here y’go. Harold removed his coat, and handed it to the man. Will did the same, and Terrence led the three of them down the entrance corridor into the main atrium. The inside was as richly decorated as Will imagined. A large staircase supported by white pillars gilded to a regal sheen. The entire thing had an old-world feel to it, no doubt Terrence’s attempt to bring a little bit of home with him. Will’s eyes were drawn to a flash of white at the top of the staircase. At first he thought it to be a statue, but as he examined the sharp angles of thing the, he slowly understood what he was looking at. -Terrence? -Yes, Will? -Is that a skull at the top of the stairs? -Ah, that. Yes indeed. Big, ‘innit? That one came from Czechoslovakia, when it was still around. Biggest mountain dragon I’ve ever seen. Payed for that staircase. It was an odd moment Will had, standing there staring at the giant monster face. In a way, he felt like he was a child again, filled as he was with a sudden rush of wonderment. There was something in him that woke up after a long, long sleep. He walked upward, toward the mounted bone, and extended his hand. It didn’t feel like a statue. It had a roughness to it, the kind that he knew only bone could have. Rock was smooth, bone rough. He ran his fingers down the whole of the thing, touching the tip of the jaw, and the points of the teeth. So sharp, even after so much time. And the size of the thing! It was the biggest skull Will had seen outside of the dinosaur bones he’d seen in museums. The eye holes, empty now, would have held orbs the size of a his fist, maybe bigger. When he thought of the rest of the body, he shivered, not out of cold, but out of pure excitement. Was it true? Could Terrence have been telling the truth this whole time? The skull seemed to confirm it, against all thoughts he had to the contrary. His mind raced, filled all at once with possibilities. Could it be that everything he gave up on over the years, the little details that made the world such an exciting place weren’t just bullshit anymore? -I just have one question, Terrence.

-Hm? -Is Santa Claus real? -Will, that would be nonsense. -Right. But apparently, dragons were real, and that, at least, was something. III. There were armchairs ready in the study, as well as a roaring fire. Smaller skulls adorned the walls; young ones, Terrence told them, eager to protect their leader. A mistake, as it turned out. There were pictures, as well, most of them of Terrence with other adventurers. They were for the most part large, burly men wearing heavy furs, but there was the occasional woman. There wasn’t a real attitude of prejudice in the slaying business, but typically men were crazy enough to go out an risk their lives battling monsters. One wall was dominated by a giant tapestry; a knight with his sword aimed at a giant green serpent. -St. George. Terrence told them. -Heard of ‘im. Harold said. Must be a genuine hero to you and you guys, eh? -Not the first dragon-slayer, but he’s become a sort ‘a symbol for us. My thought’s that it’s the armor. Everyone wants to wear armor. Looks cool, yeah? -Don’t think I could pull it off. My joints? Uh-uh. -Like I said, it’s more the spirit of the thing. Reminds us t’ remain strong. -How did it all start? Will asked. The whole slaying thing? -Nature, I’d say, Terrence said. Been at odds since humans learned to walk upright. An old grudge. They didn’t take kindly to us takin’ Earth for our own. ‘Forehand, this was their world. But we were a mite more clever than they anticipated, I s’pose. Years passed, and they retreated to the wilds. That’s been the balance. But sometimes, they don’t want to stay hidden. That’s where we come in. -And how’d get into it yerself? Harold asked. -It was during my years in the publishing business, actually. I stumbled across a manuscript on the subject. Thought it to be a fanciful novel, and it caught my eye. I contacted the writer, and when I met with him, well things got interesting. It wasn’t a novel at all! It was a

guidebook to potential slayers that the council wanted to publish covertly. Subliminal-like. I was...intrigued. And the rest is history. -So it all started with a book? Harold laughed. Ha! That’s damned funny! -Aye. Lot o’ power in books, when you really think about it. Ah, Fredrick, tea? Thank you. Fredrick had entered soundlessly, carrying a metal tray with three cups, a kettle and a bowl of sugar cubes. He placed it on the table, his old bones creaking like loose floorboards. He let out a sigh, and moved back to standing pin-straight. -Thought you and the guests could use some warming up. So cold, so cold. How’s the bandage, sir? -S’alright. Changed it earlier. -I hope this has convinced you to cut back on the hunting. Can’t be fighting the beasts like you used to, not at your age. -Fredrick! I’m not an old man, not yet. My goodness. -You can’t blame me for trying. Will you at least be sitting down for dinner this evening? -’Fraid not. Myself and these gents here are braving the blizzard to find one of the forestdwellers. It’ll fetch a high bounty. -You...you’re taking these men on a hunt? -Yes, Fredrick, I am. The old butler made a face of apprehension. Clearly, Terrence had said something either offensive or disturbing. He got in closer to the hunter, squatting as if to tell a secret. He made no attempt at whispering, however. -Are you sure that’s a wise decision? Neither of these men are registered members of the slayers guild, sir. I’d know their faces if that were the case. The rules are clear: you mustn't put civilians in harm’s way. -The rules also state that a slayer may enlist civilians if he deems them able and worthy. Both these men have military backgrounds, to nothing of the fact that I find them to be honest, true gentlemen. -Damn right I’m a gentleman! Harold cheered.

-There, you see? Terrence gave the butler a pat on the back. You shouldn’t worry, Fredrick. Took me long enough to get established in the guild. I’ll not be throwin’ away my good standing by enlisting hooligans to fight the beasts. -Oh...phoo. Very well, sir. If you’ll not be eating, what would you require? -There’s a good man! The usual, if ya don’t mind. I’ve already sharpened the sword m’self, but I’ll still need my gun and everything else. Oh, and bring a gun for Mr. Trotter as well. He’s the young one there. Will gave a wave, Fredrick a bow. -How do’y’do, sir. Does this man need a weapon, sir? -Mr. Weiss? No, no, clever bastard’s brought his own! -Yes I did! Out in the car, waitin’ fer some action. Harold’s smile could have lit the room better than the fire. -Very well, then. Won’t be a moment. He left then, muttering to himself the items that he had to collect. His voice drifted out of audible range, and Terrence poured each man a cup of tea. They all applied sugar as they desired. -So. Will sipped his tea, organizing his thoughts. How exactly is this going to go? The hunt. -Will, Terrence said. I’m glad you’ve seen the light, so to speak. To answer your question, I can tell you it won’t be easy. Going headlong against any dragon, no matter what size, is essentially a death sentence. They’re simply too powerful. So, the trick is to lure them to right where you want them. You create a distraction, use a trap, that sort of thing. Or, you could use live bait. That sometimes works even better. -Hell, I’ll do it. Harold said. I’m not scared of nothin’, dragons included. -I believe you, Harold. But I think I’ll be the one. This is your first hunt, after all. Yes, I’ll be the distraction. Once we draw it where we want it, I’ll fire at it from the front. You two will then attack from the sides. -But what about it’s wings? -Hm? -Dragons have wings, right? -Oh, of course. Glad you asked. You’ll be given a gun for protection, but the main assault from the sides will come from harpoons.

-Harpoons? -Yes indeed. These are pretty strong. They’re a handheld, gas-powered model. You’ll fire at the wings, damaging them, and hopefully preventing takeoff. It’s worked for me in the past. Had I had a partner with a harpoon last time, s’likely I’d never have hurt my hand. He sipped his tea. He added another sugar, and stirred. Harold decided to get up from his chair, and went searching around the study. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just looking around, satisfying curiosity. -Terry, he asked after picking up an old-looking map. Gotta ask. What about the big one? I know you said it was out of our league, but still. -The white? That one will take time, patience and luck. Think about it; if it can change the weather, you have to expect that it’s got some power in it. And trust me, it does. I can think of only one other time in m’life that I ever heard of a white moving to a populated area. About twenty years ago, when I was still in England, word reached us that an entire town in Romania had been wiped off the map. Town only a bit smaller than this one. Same kinda thing happened there. It gathered smaller ones to do its bidding, started feeding on the denizens. Then, when it got tired of the place, it came down itself. Froze every living thing to death. Some people broke apart right where they stood, shattered to pieces. Buildings fell to disrepair, then ruin. Looked like a war had happened. A few of our slayers went to find the beast, before it could act again. They never came back, of course, so it got away. Hell, for all I know, this could well be the same one. They live a long, long time, after all. -My god... Will was wide-eyed, glued to his chair. -Wait, Harold said. I thought dragons breathed fire. Or’s that made up? -It’s real. All too real. I have a scorched left leg to prove it. -But whites are different? -They thrive on freezing cold, and that’s reflected in their breath. They’re unique ‘mongst the beasts in that respect. That and their color. A rare beast indeed, breathing cold fire. I’m sorry, Harold, I dodged your question a bit, didn’t I? If we want the white, we’ll have to draw it out. Kill enough subordinates, and it’ll come callin’. That was the mistake we made in Romania. We got there after the fact. The white was ready to leave. -Sir? Fredrick entered the room. I put the kitchen staff to work on the heavier items. I apologize, but my arthritis is paining me awfully today. Everything is just about ready. Will you stay longer, or shall I gather the coats? -I believe we’re ready. Gentlemen? -Ready. Harold said.

-Me too. Will got up from the chair, taking the last sip of his tea. Where’re we going, anyway? -I’ve been tracking its movements over the passed couple of days. I believe I know where it will be this evening. I’ll tell you once we’re in the car. -We’re taking my car on the hunt? -Unless you have some objection? He had plenty of objections, but this was not exactly up there. As long as it did not get crushed, like the one on Terrence’s last hunt, he would be alright. -I’m ready, boys! Haha, yessir! Harold was punching the air. He said he had bad joints, but the way he moved, no one would suspect. Hey Terry, when we kill this thing, ya think I could keep the skull?

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