When Sven feels his hand catch on the bottle’s neck, it takes all his resolve to convince himself that he hasn’t doomed everything. Door-Bend isn’t the sort of place where one can recover from a mistake. The neighborhood is wedged between a mountain peak and an armor heap, and reeks of barrel-fires. Because City Hall decided it wasn’t important enough to merit an administrative office, the pub is the only place to conduct a business meeting. It’s also the only place to conduct affairs, duels, seances, and general debauchery. Because of this, the table at which Sven sits is cratered with the detritus of ill-fated romances, resentments, and resurrections. Now, lakes of cheap wine riddle its surface. Across from him sits the alderman, who looks decidedly unimpressed.
Just before he and Glenn left their hostel, they had a long talk about the value of clumsiness as a character trait. “Sidekicks drop things,” said Sven. “Comedic relief trips over things that aren’t really there. But you can’t do those things and remain the sort of person who gets anything done.”
Glenn shrugged. “People think I’m creepy, if that’s any consolation. That’s not exactly the sort of thing you can base an epic upon.”
“Yes, but at least there’s potential in creepiness. After all, no one has any idea what you are. You could be capable of anything.”
“Well, there’s no point in bemoaning it. The real question is how to turn it into an asset. Boys are awkward. Men are…” Here, Glenn began pacing the perimeter of their room, his fingers worrying at the corners of his lips. “No, wait! That’s it. I have it. That’s it.” Glenn stopped mid-stride and turned back to Sven. “Men are angry.”
Going into the negotiation, Glenn’s counsel was to pass off any mishaps as manifestations of a rage that burns so fiercely, Sven’s own body breaks down under the stress of containing it. Anger, Sven thinks as he watches the wine cascade onto the floor. I am an angry person, with God-knows-what pent up inside me. I belong here. I’m not afraid of Door-Bend; Door-Bend is afraid of me.
This is a lie, but that doesn’t matter. Glenn tells him that, if he’s going to stand any chance of changing his fate, he’ll have to get better at believing things that aren’t true. Besides, Sven would wager that he feels more sorrow for Door-Bend than dread. The neighborhood lies on the outermost fringes of the Capital, and contains more mines than buildings. All the mines are empty, thanks to an anti-Eldritch ordinance that was enacted twenty-seven years ago. The new laws were supposed to reduce the rate of monster attacks, but Door-Bend never managed to develop an economy that didn’t entail enraging subterranean abominations. The roads are empty and narrow, and concede every advantage to the bluffs that flank them on both sides. Half the buildings are perched awkwardly atop outcroppings; the others, jammed haphazardly into niches carved from the rock. Most of them are empty. Nothing about the neighborhood feels like it’s supposed to be there. Its views of the capital’s central districts are unmatched, but Sven cannot imagine how anyone who lives there could gaze upon the lights and banners peppering the valley without feeling as if he’d been robbed of something.
Lately, there’s been talk of a Jabberwocky emerging from Door-Bend’s darkest depths to stalk the surrounding cliffs. Both Sven and Glenn are aware that it might be imaginary: after all, this is the sort of story that flourishes in the neighborhood. Virtually all of Door-Bend’s urban legends revolve around extinct beasts wreaking vengeance upon forgotten people living in a forgotten land. But City Hall has taken the claims seriously enough to issue a bounty for the beast’s hide, and the total amount of coin that such a haul would net them is enough to remake Sven and Glenn into anything they might desire. They could enroll in a magic lab, and become certified wizards; or invest in armor that hasn’t been scavenged from a heap, and audition for knighthood; or buy a unicorn, and try their hands at breeding faerie-creatures. In the Capital (that is, in the proper parts of the Capital, where more than one type of story roams the streets) all these things seem possible. Because Sven and Glenn can’t think of a time when they wouldn’t describe themselves as doomed losers, they feel comfortable in Door-Bend; but because they moved to the Capital as part of their resolutions to stop losing, they know that they need to strive for something better.
Unfortunately, bureaucracy is the lifeblood of the proper parts of the Capital. They’ll need to obtain a hunting permit from the alderman before they’re able to collect anything. This is why it’s imperative they win his heart: because they cannot think of any rags-to-riches story that begins with a failure to obtain paperwork.
“Let’s suppose this oil is blood,” Sven says, slowly. “The blood of the beast, that is. Here’s what our spell will do to it.” Raising a hand over the mess, Sven mutters a few words under his breath, and ignites it with a carefully-controlled blaze. As it so happens, this is not the same spell they’ll be using on the Jabberwocky; together, they’ve managed to develop an incantation that will transmute the beast’s blood into lead, and hopefully preclude the need for an actual battle. But Sven needs something to bewitch his audience, and has tasted just enough of desire to favor fire.
“You’ll have two days,” the alderman says, reaching into his jacket and producing a wad of papers. “One day to kill it, and one day to transport the carcass to the municipal sheriffs. Anybody who tries to claim the bounty during that time will be denounced as a poacher and treated accordingly by the authorities.” He slides the wad across the table, steering it around the right side of the blaze.
Sven didn’t imagine that his rags-to-riches story would contain such an anticlimactic sight, but tries to hide his disappointment. “Thank you, sir. We promise, you’ll be proud of what we bring back.”
The alderman snorts as he extricates himself from the booth, but says nothing substantive in reply.
Glenn, eavesdropping at the bar, flickers in-and-out of sight as the alderman trudges across the pub, out the door, and into the night. Whenever he can see him, he rewards Sven with a smile that nearly convinces him that what they’re doing is reasonable. Glenn is good at things like that. He has an uncanny talent for making the specious sound appropriate and natural. Really, he should’ve been the one to talk to the alderman, but he said that a role-reversal would be healthy for them.
After extinguishing the fire and pocketing the permit, Sven hurries towards the bar and asks him: “Do you think he believed it?”
Glenn frowns. “What do you mean, believe? Those were real flames, weren’t they?”
“So what’s to believe?”
“I…I don’t know,” says Sven.
“I—I don’t really know what I’m saying.”
“All of this still feels kind of…” Unable to think of an appropriate adjective, Sven pantomimes an object spiraling into the heavens and exploding.
“But that’s good,” says Glenn. “That’s how we want it to feel. If everything felt familiar, we’d be miserable.”
Glenn and Sven have known one another for six weeks, four days, and fifteen hours. They first met in Door-Bend (the only neighborhood in the Capital that either boy could afford to stay in), on the front stoop of their boarding-house.
During their first week in the city, a drunken rat-crusader had barricaded the door to their building, and refused to move until the tenants gathered enough money to petition City Hall to reinstate his knighthood. To resolve the situation, the proprietor was forced to bundle him in a rug and dump him in a sewage canal. Due to the proprietor’s weight and age, and the rat’s relative litheness, there’d been something of a struggle. While it resolved itself, the tenants were obligated to linger outdoors.
Those who could afford it decamped to the pub; those who couldn’t found outcroppings to sulk under. Sven and Glenn were the only residents who offered the proprietor any assistance, which was promptly rebuffed with, “Are you mad? How old are you, twelve? Both of you, get the fuck. If I wanted children to fight my battles for me, I’d move to some bumblefuck monarchy.”
After they’d trudged down the steps and back into the road, they stood in the shadow of the stoop and assessed one another silently. Each noted the scars; the weapons that hung from their belts (for Sven, it was a fire-wand; for Glenn, a truncheon that’d been outfitted with a projectile); the jackets emblazoned with emblems that neither could recognize; and the fact that, despite their youth, each travelled alone. Once he was confident that he’d taken Sven’s measure, Glenn broke it by asking him: “Well, are you?”
“From some bumblefuck monarchy.”
Sven shrugged, embarrassed. “The Kingdom of Vanwick, if you must know.”
“But that isn’t the crest of Vanwick on your breast.”
“Not as much, no.”
“So, what was it for you? An anarchist who convinced you to commit gunpowder-treason, a Dark Lord who seemed like a better bet than your King, or…?”
“A necromancer who resurrected everyone that’d ever stood against the Crown and rallied them into a rebel army,” said Sven.
Glenn whistled. “You know, that’s not half-bad.”
Sven felt obligated to shrug once again. “Well, I didn’t do anything. Really, I was mostly around to supply healing spells and the occasional fireball. In the end, I didn’t prove good for much else.” He paused, and—after he established that no agents of Vanwick’s Crown were lurking nearby—added: “But you’re right. It wouldn’t have been half-bad, if we’d succeeded.”
“I’m from New Edgerock, myself.”
Sven frowned. “I thought you all had a democracy out there.”
“In theory. In practice, we’re still over the knees of the same group of robber barons who’ve been running the country for centuries.”
“But couldn’t you just…I don’t know, de-elect them?”
“According to some. There are others who argue that blowing them up would be markedly more effective.”
“It sounds nice, having faith in the system,” said Glenn, defensively. “But it takes an ungodly amount of trust to sustain. You’ve got to convince yourself that there’s a point in being the prophet of someone else’s future. Unless you’ve been chosen by fate to have a knack for that sort of thing, it becomes suffocating.”
“And you weren’t, were you?” asked Sven. “Chosen, that is.” Between them, the silent implication: if you had been, you wouldn’t be here.
“No,” Glenn admitted. “No, I wasn’t.”
“Neither was I.”
The attraction was immediate and obvious, and neither one saw a reason not to act upon it. They moved into the same room, and spent their evenings lying atop one another and defending their lost causes. During their wars, neither had considered the possibility that his side could lose. Each had envisioned himself as the star of a coming-of-age story about a daring youth who saved his country from corruption, cruelty, and complacency. They still struggled to make sense of a world in which they’d lost so badly, they’d been forced to flee to Door-Bend. Mostly, this consisted of analyzing everything that went wrong, and listing all the things they could’ve done better. Sven bemoaned being anxious and accident-prone, and Glenn railed against himself for being too glad-handing and calculating. Whenever they tired of this, they kissed.
This could have gone on forever, if they hadn’t heard about the bounty. At first, Sven was reluctant. “Do we have to?” he said. Despite his disapproval of the idea, he made no move to extricate himself from the crook of Glenn’s arm. Instead, he remained nestled beneath him upon the mattress, staring at the stains on their ceiling. “They’re harmless. You know, there’s never been a Jabberwocky that’s actually killed anybody.”
“Really? I thought they were supposed to be the stuff of night-terrors.”
“Well, instead of teeth, they’ve got these…I suppose they’re portals? In their mouths, you see. And when they open them, all of these spidery little things come swarming out, and they’re the ones that kill you.”
“Consider this an operative difference, do you?” Glenn snorted.
“It’s not fair to blame the Jabberwockies,” Sven said, defensively. “They didn’t ask to have portals wedged beneath their palates.”
“As far as we know. After all, they’re otherworldly abominations. Their wills and ways are beyond our ken.”
“Anyway, I don’t even see how we could kill it. Spider-breath aside, they can jump thirty feet into the air, and can uproot a tree with a single kick of their legs.”
“Well, I think we should try.”
“You do not,” said Sven, scoffing. “You’re just saying that to be contrary.”
“Yes, but we need something contrary. Look at where our instincts have gotten us.”
In the early days of Sven and Glenn’s relationship, this is what it seems things will be like. Major decisions will be made in response to whims and impulses, and they will toss themselves off every precipice that presents itself and trust that something miraculous will happen before they hit the ground. Each believes that this is exactly what he needs. They view defeat as something that needs to be scrubbed away.
Their mistake is this: they forget that Door-Bend isn’t a miracle. They don’t account for the people who’d been there before they arrive, and spare no thoughts for the people who remain there after they leave. They move there because they believe it mirrors their states-of-mind, but fail to realize that its existence does not hinge upon their minds.
In all fairness, nothing disastrous happens as a result. In the end, they manage to get their hands on the Jabberwocky’s hide. Sven uses his share of the bounty to enroll in a magic laboratory, and Glenn uses his to bribe his way into an internship with the Hunter’s Guild. In five years’ time, Glenn learns enough about the inner workings of the permit procedure to catapult himself into a position at City Hall, and Sven becomes a member of a coven convinced it can develop a spell-powered engine.
The neighborhoods toward which their careers steer them know little about rats or mine shafts. Sven spends his days in the Vanguard District, where every other building is a dungeon that’s been converted into a laboratory, and Glenn spends his staking increasingly larger claims upon City Hall, which stretches four miles square and is large enough to constitute a neighborhood onto itself. In a concession to the existence of a life outside of power-plays and politicking, they buy a flat in Kingsend, on the main stretch leading to the ruins of the Old Castle. One wall is all windows, with a wrought iron balcony affixed to it. Sven and Glenn will take their tea out there, and listen to the babbling of young swordsmen and their love interests on the street below.
It’s a pleasant and fulfilling life they carve out for themselves. They have no objections to it, and cannot imagine themselves with anyone else. No one would look at them and call them losers.
But they hadn’t meant to never return to Door-Bend. To track down the Jabberwocky, you see, they’d plumbed the darkest depths of its deepest mine. And they didn’t make this journey in silence or solitude, despite everything that the words ‘deep,’ ‘dark,’ and ‘mine’ normally implied. The first five miles of the shaft were lined with shanties so numerous and elaborate that dubbing the construct a ‘town’ somehow seemed demeaning. The shacks alternatively protruded from the rock and receded into the rock and somehow managed to be cocooned by the rock. There was one shaped like a cupcake, and another shaped like a lighthouse. The lighting problem had been circumvented by a cavalcade of luminescent rocks, which washed the scene in a soft blue for which there was no equivalent aboveground.
The stigma of garbage wasn’t as inevitable as it normally would’ve been. In fact, the longer they spent down there, the more that the boys began to suspect that the shack-dwellers were onto something. Because they had detached just enough from the world to handle refuse with ease, they’d managed to build something over which you couldn’t help but marvel.
But before they could decide what this meant, they reached the end of the settlement, where the old tunnel suddenly dropped into darkness, and the scent of Jabberwocky choked anyone who loitered for too long. Of course, they kept pressing forward—what else could they do? But when the Jabberwocky failed to stir from its slumber, even when Sven conjured a flame and brought it dangerously close to its face—and when they noticed the light of the portal seeping out from its jaws, red and orange and yellow and green and blue and purple—they couldn’t help but wonder if they’d lost the thread of the story somewhere. Was this really where they were supposed to be? Wasn’t it possible that the actual climax would transpire elsewhere, and that the more time they spent with the Jabberwocky, the more risk they ran of missing it?
But they needed the money. And while they never saw the lights of the portal again, it was easy enough to dismiss all of that as a young man’s game. Even as they said this, however, they knew what their younger selves would say. They would dismiss it all as the most cowardly sort of compromise, and would swear that there was an entire world waiting for them, if only they had the nerve to seize it.
T. Rios is a writer, pacifist, and public-transit enthusiast. She lives .5 miles from a tailless squirrel whom she finds deeply inspirational. You can find her on Twitter at @InSetsofThree and at www.teenagecrusade.com.