Open your eyes: you must continue on your quest. You are on a ship in the middle of the ocean, but this time you remember boarding it. You remember every move that has led you here. Your only companions are monsters now, beasts you have managed to tame. They are strong, fierce, but they are not much for conversation, they don’t always listen to you. You remember spending hours alone in your room as a child, drawing monsters and robots, but that may have just been a dream. Now you draw the girl with the ribbon in her hair, imagine what she has grown up to be. You draw her like the girl in your dreams, the one you wanted to marry, with big headphones hung around her neck. You are starting to think there are no right moves to make, that if you’d tried to take a different path, the universe would’ve conspired to put you here, on this ship, on your way to the port city on the western continent. If you tried to stay where you were, nothing would happen, you would walk in circles and the world would stagnate, stick itself in time. Before boarding, you stared up at this massive ship. It looked like the ship you remember waking up on as a child. A woman told you that if you didn’t hurry, you’d miss your chance to board, but you weren’t sure you believed her. Maybe you could have stood there for hours, watching the ship rocking in the water, imagining all of the places it might go, but knowing it would only take you to one. When you arrive in the port city, talk to the sailors on the dock. They will tell you the voyage here was a one-time trip, at least for the foreseeable future. Sea monsters sunk the city’s ferry; this great ship is just on loan from a generous billionaire. You wonder if it is the same wealthy man you remember from your childhood, whose daughters you couldn’t stop stealing glances at. Compare them to the monsters you used to draw. Compare them to the girls in your dreams, who shave the sides of their head, who wear necklaces of bone, of bear tooth. You wonder what kind of people they have become. In the city, you try to interpret the graffiti on the walls but find no answers. In the tavern, there are rumors of a spell that allows you to return instantaneously to places you’ve visited before. You remember, in your dreams, a question you’d ask the girl you wanted to marry: What super power would you have? It was a game you played. You traded answers back and forth, different ones each time: the power to manipulate fire, the ability to split yourself in two, in three, to be multiple places at once, to be all the people you wanted to be, to lead all the lives you wanted to lead. But the game always ended with powers that brought you closer: she said if she could, she’d fly right to you, through your bedroom window. You said if you could, you’d teleport to where she was, right beside her, inside her. Remember: these are only dreams. There was a whole country between you. In the end, you don’t know what power could have kept you together, and then, you woke up, you opened your eyes. Remember: you have a quest to complete. You are still so far from the end. There are rumors of an ogre in the lighthouse, but maybe he’s just a lonely lighthouse keeper. Wind up the lighthouse stairs, to the very top, where the Cyclops bulb spins lightlessly in the bright afternoon. Look out across the world. There’s smoke rising from a far-off town. You have visions of cottages lit up by torches, that simple touch of fire. The monsters beside you, whichever you have chosen—the tiny dragon, the hooded hammer-man, the carnivorous plant, perhaps—they growl in sympathy, but you think maybe it is hunger. You think, if they wanted, they could devour you. In your dreams, there is a certain ache, a wish, to be consumed wholly by someone, to think of nothing but that person. You take your edged boomerang and carve deep into the white wall of the lighthouse, an image of a girl’s face, but you can’t quite make out the details, you can’t quite see who she is, and then the lonely lighthouse keeper, not an ogre at all, chases you, you vandal, down spiraling steps. You rush outside dizzy and panting, and everything, the whole world, it all seems so far away.
You meet a man from a village in the south. He’s looking for warriors, heroes. You are not the legendary hero. You are just a boy looking for his mother. But there is no talk in the port town about the legendary hero’s descendant, there are no clues that might lead to your mother, so you think maybe you should help this man. Maybe this is what the world requires of you before anything else can happen. Sit next to him at the bar. He says he’ll only tell you this once, but you are not sure you believe him. He says there is a monster terrorizing his village, tearing up the crops. They don’t know where it lives. That’s why they need you: to find it, to capture it, to kill it. When he finishes talking, he takes a sip of his drink and sighs. Does I need to tell you again? Of course he will repeat everything, word for word for word, if you answer Yes, just like everyone else, just to make sure you hear it. You want to find someone who will tell you something only once, who will have something new to say every time you speak to her. Answer No, and he will leave the tavern for home. Buy sharper weapons and harder armor, stock up on medicinal herbs. Walk south until you reach the farming village. You will see the ravaged fields. The terrorcrows ward off birds but their menacing visages of straw and burlap do nothing to stop the creature. The people of the village will tell you it is part-wolf, part-lion, that it comes in the middle of the night to feed. They fear for their lives, even though it has never harmed a person. If you arrive at night, you will see the shape of the beast in the darkness, but it will run away if you get too close. Maybe it was just your eyes playing tricks on you. Maybe its ragged breath was just a wrinkle in the wind. When you have listened to all the villagers have to say, all their fear and despair, travel west, where the mayor says there is a cave, a lair, a hideout for the beast. In the deepest depths of the cave, you find the monster, a giant cat with teeth like daggers. It is resting on a pile of hay, spoils from its nights in the village. A sword is stuck in the ground behind it. If you approach the beast, the beast will charge you. If you attempt to retrieve the sword, the beast will charge you. But look: no matter how hard you strike the beast, how many spells you cast, it will not harm you. It will defend itself. It will look like it is desperately trying to remember something. And then you remember something, or maybe you have known it all along. Take out the yellow ribbon, dangle it in front of the beast. He will catch her scent, he will lick your face, he will understand who you are, and you him; he was just a kitten when you saw him last, and you and her just children. Now he is monstrously grown, just like you, just like her, wherever she is. You and the girl with the ribbon in her hair adopted him, named him like you would a child, something like Saber or Leo or Spot. You wonder if the name you gave him affected the monster he’s become, the sharpness of his teeth, the sinews in his muscles, the dreams in his skull. You think of the girls in your dreams. You think of the girl you wanted to marry, the white-throated swallows she caught. You think of the girl with angles cut in her hair, the cat she rescued that followed her around. You think of the girl with the stone ring on her finger, the three giant mastiffs that bayed outside her bedroom door. You think of what it must be to take care of something, of someone, to be taken care of. The great beast is purring by your legs now, and you look to the sword stuck in the ground. It is your father’s sword, which the beast must have recovered after your father’s death. He has been protecting it. He has been surviving on the vegetables and tubers from the farming village, never hurting the people. You will take him with you. He will join you on your quest. The people in the farming village, they will not like it. They will cower in fear, scream at you, as you walk through the village with the beast slinking behind you. They will give you your reward but be forever convinced you and the beast were together from the start. It’s not true, not in the way they think it is. But he was there when your father was murdered, he remembers the girl with the ribbon in her hair, he was with you before you both became the aimless wandering beasts you are. You are not the legendary hero, of that you are certain, but finding this beast here, finding your father’s sword, what are the chances? There is a tapping tangled in your veins. There are soft hands running through your hair, hands you want to hold. You are imbued with that forgotten feeling of destiny, of fate, of living in a world that will take you exactly where you need to be. You look up expecting to see someone. God, maybe, or your father, or you, you looking down at you. Equip your father’s sword. It will make you stronger. Continue on your quest, continue, continue, there is so much left to do.
You return to the village where everyone knew your father’s name, only this time you return without him. This time, it is no longer a village. The houses have been leveled. The ground is covered in a toxic dust that stings your skin, makes you lightheaded whenever you inhale. Poorly marked graves surround the crumbling well. Sometimes a single wall remains standing, supported by air, sheltering nothing, hanging there waiting to fall with rain. All that is left of the house you once lived in are stairs leading down to the basement. You played in that damp darkness as a child. The remains of this village remind you of the dream where you are watching the Weather Channel, where violent winds become cyclonic, decimate the town where your dream parents live. In the dream, you are hundreds of miles away, unable to close that distance, to rummage through the rubble. In the dream, your mother calls you on the phone, but you cannot talk to her without crying, you cannot hear about the houses torn from their foundations, about the photo-covered walls of people missing, about the business cards and restaurant menus that blew fifty-seven miles north before touching down. You weren’t born in this once-village or in that dream-town, but they are the only places you know to call home. You thought, when you left this village, it would fold up in your mind until it was a single sentence, safe in your mouth, a thing you said if you ever said a thing: for a time, I lived there. Instead it has become something else. The church was spared, and there is a kindly couple running an inn within a cave. They tell you that soldiers from the castle set fire to the houses, let it consume the village, killed anyone who tried to run. This inn is not in the cave where your father died, but you cannot sleep in the beds, in this dark dampness, in these jagged echoes of the past. You dream again about the girl lying naked beside you in bed. In the dream, you know this to be a year after the storm that destroyed your hometown. You know that your dream life has changed in other ways since then: you are in a new place, another home you assume will be safe in your memories when you leave. But who’s to say? There could be heat waves, droughts. There could be sandstorms. There could be an untold number of catastrophes waiting to shatter your dreams of this place. Some of them may even be caused by you. The girl beside you, she feels important, but you are not sure why, you cannot see her face, it is shrouded in the smoke that billows from her cigarette. When you wake up sweat-drenched and gasping for air, light a candle. Shake the former prince awake. Take him with you to the river that winds snakelike into a cave. Your father was hiding something here, you are sure. Tunnel down the deepest tunnels, unearth the place where your father kept something secret, something safe. In the dream, your dream mother was safe. Your dream father was unharmed, too. They hid in a thin hallway while photos of your face, a sequence of four, rattled in their frames. They were lucky, but you know that not everyone was saved, not even under mattresses in porcelain tubs, not even in rooms without windows. In the depths of the cave, you find a letter from your father, your real father. He says he knows he is no longer by your side. He says in order to confront the unearthly darkness extending its grip into the world, you must find the legendary hero. Beside this letter is a sword. When you lift it, you are drained of your strength, your hands feel as heavy as lead. You can carry it, but you cannot wield it as a weapon. You are not the legendary hero, and this surprises you. Maybe it was foolish to assume that the tapping tangled in your hair was God or fate, guiding you to some destined glory, some glorious destiny. But now, you must find your mother. You must find the hero. There is nothing for you in this arsenic-swept village, nothing buried in its charred remains. Put the sword away. You cannot use it to cut through anything. Not even smoke. Not even wind.
Sam Martone currently lives in Tempe, Arizona, where he spends his evenings attempting to defeat the final boss of Dragon Quest V.