The taste of dirt. Under my nails, in my hair, the cold touch of water seeping through my clothes. The undercity. The lower quarter of the imperial capital of Harland. Out in the mud and blood – was me, Tanaka Tendo. A name that would raise eyebrows, because I wasn't from Harland, or anywhere else on this world.
I staggered to my feet and gathered myself. A crowd of onlookers witnessing the debacle that had led to my abrupt ejection from the high quarter of the city. My head, freshly shaved, bled from clumsy and imprecise cuts.
"Stay away from the councilman, or we'll cut more than your hair."
The guards who had accosted me laughed and jeered, before retreating back behind the tall pearl white gates that guarded the rich part of the city. A vulture tried to sweep in and rob me while I was down, I cracked his jaw with a punch.
That bastard. That absolute bastard.
After all I did for him, this is the thanks I get? Carrying the gear, healing the wounds, cooking the meals! I slaved away for that bastard for nearly a year and got nothing for it, except a figurative knife in the back and a literal boot out of the door.
"Tanaka!" A concerned voice cried, clutching my shoulder. "What the hell happened?" I held a hand over the wound and tried to wipe the blood out of my eyes with my forearm to no avail. "Alright buddy, hold on, I'll get you somewhere clean and get this stuff off you."
He led me through the streets until we came upon a wooden door. It unlocked with a loud clunk and we poured inside. He was a blur, gathering bandages and ointments to treat my injuries. He filled a bowl with clean water and poured it over me, soaking my clothes but freeing my eyes. He quickly set about stitching up the more egregious wounds and bandaging over the smaller ones.
"Maratain, he kicked me out."
Maratain shook his head, "Who did?"
"Hiro. He acted like he didn't even know me!"
He paused. "You knew the hero?"
"Yeah, in fact I'd say that we used to be friends!"
The bleeding has been stemmed. Maratain covered my head with a white towel to try and stop it from spilling everywhere. "They cut your hair."
"They did." Cutting a man's hair was a popular method of humiliation in Harland. A historical piece of symbolism tied to hundreds of years of war and conquest. "Hiro learnt about it from that fat man, Sedgewick. He must have gotten infatuated with it."
Maratain took a seat across from me and folded his hands together. "What happened?"
"We came back a few weeks ago, and Hiro was always busy. So I thought I'd give him some space since we'd travelled together for a year. I get a call to visit him in the upper quarter, and then this happens! He's there with his new rich friends, and he kicks my ass! Then the guards get their turn…"
"You have to sell a bit of your soul to live up there you know," Maratain murmured, his wrinkled face creasing with a sour expression. "I can't say I'm surprised."
Did the time we spend together really mean so little to Hiro? The fights, the life or death situations, the banter around the campfire. They were tough, that's for sure – but I'd never felt closer to Hiro when we finally slayed the beast that had terrorized the nation for years. The self-declared hero of Harland. A title bestowed upon the strongest warriors. Some hero he was.
We sat in sullen silence for nearly twenty minutes. My mind was a storm of thoughts, rage filled outbursts and a deep, deep sadness. It was only broken when Maratain pointed to my now bald head. "By the way, did you notice that you have horns?"
I stood and walked to the mirror that Maratain kept over his fireplace, and true to his word there were two small bones poking from the skin on my scalp. Above my eyebrows, but not low enough to see when my hair was as long as it was. Of course I'd run across them with a comb a few times, but I didn't have much time to think about the implications of them at the time.
"Can't say I ever did."
Maratin's eyes narrowed. "Now ain't that strange. A fellow never noticing that he has horns?"
"You've heard the rumours. Don't get started with that overly suspicious act."
"So… they're true?"
"Yeah, amazingly. They're true."
Maratain was taken aback by the news, "Incredible, the empire's magic truly is the greatest in the world."
"Do you know what these horns mean? I only know what I learnt in the past few years. Can't say I ever saw someone with anything like this."
"I have a theory, not sure if you'll like it."
"This day can't get much worse. What's one more kick in the teeth?"
"I remember you telling me that, no matter how much you trained, you never got any stronger."
"True, Hiro left me behind eventually…"
"And now, with the horns I think I know what was happening. "He turned to me and pointed his finger, "You my friend, are not human. You are a Gormalnhalf! The blood of a dragon runs through you! It's no question as to why you won't grow stronger, a dragon only grows with their wealth!"