When going to the zoo, you really don’t expect to be attacked by a creature that looks like it stepped out of a Picasso painting.
The fact that that’s exactly what happened to me is surprisingly unsurprising.
“I’m glad you agreed to this, Peter,” Dad said. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel to stave off the silence. He was taking me to the zoo. The zoo! Did he forget how to act around kids after I turned five?
“We haven’t had much time to see each other lately,” he said.
“So which animal do you want to see first?”
“Anything but lizards,” I said. “The last thing I want is to run into a dragon.”
Dad’s laugh was just a little too forced. “How many dragons have you killed? Three? Is that why you brought Excalibur?”
“I haven’t killed any.” I said, “Where’d you get a number like that?”
Dad shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “All these creatures—it’s pretty easy to lose track of what you have and haven’t fought.” He chewed on his lip. “So if you haven’t fought a dragon, why’d you bring Excalibur?”
“I mean, you never know.” I shouldered my backpack—Arthur’s old scabbard, enchanted into a new form. “It helps to be prepared.”
After twenty more minutes battling the silence teetering on the edge of our conversation, we arrived at the zoo. Dad half-dragged me in. The first thing past the gates was a petting zoo.
“That’s kid stuff,” Dad told me, “You don’t want to go there.”
Okay, I thought. Sure, don’t ask me. I’m just along for the ride. Dad decided to lead me to a section of the zoo filled with gorillas. A few of them were doing some obscene things behind walls of thick glass.
Two males roared at each other from across the exhibit, pounding their chests.
“What do you think?” Dad asked.
“Well, I’m wondering why those two monkeys are fighting.”
“Do you see that one way back there?” Dad extended a finger towards a gorilla watching the other two have temper tantrums.
“That one’s female, and the other two want to, um…let’s just say they want to have her.”
“They want to bang?”
I’d never seen anyone choke on air before that moment. “If that’s the way you want to put it.”
“But why would they do that?”
Dad glanced back at the gorillas. “I don’t know. Basic instinct, I guess.”
“Huh…” I muttered, “Weird.”
From there, Dad tried to take me to an exhibit on birds—but not before a few chimps thought it would be funny to bang on their cages as I passed by. We left them behind, their pounding growing quiet like an untalented drummer coming to a realization.
We never reached the birds. Before we could, we came to an exhibit where the air thickened. Lions and tigers stalked on either side of me. I locked eyes with a lion from behind the protective glass and felt a sudden dread that the barrier separating us was not as strong as it appeared to be.
We continued like that for some time. Dad had given up on trying to talk to me. At this point he’d probably decided to enjoy the sights.
That is, until we came to a place where the air was noticeably moist. My heartbeat pounded in my neck and my breaths went shallow.
Dad saw my face and wrinkled his forehead. “Peter, are you okay?”
I tried to say yes, but words were not a thing for me at that moment. Instead, I scampered over to look into a pit of rocks and water. I tried to point to him—to show him what I was afraid of.
A crocodile dipped underwater. I could’ve sworn it was a log a moment ago. It surfaced and slapped across the rocks towards another one—wait, wasn’t that one a log, too? How was I not noticing these things?
It turned its beady eyes on me, and I paled. My heart tried to sledgehammer its way out of my chest. “Dad,” I croaked, “Can—can we go somewhere else?”
Dad nodded, “Don’t worry, Peter,” he said, he rubbed my back in a way I will never admit to being comforting. “You’re safe.”
“I know, I just—”
“You just what?”
“I can’t stop wondering, you know? What if it’s enchanted? Like, what if it turned into a dragon after it saw me? I don’t think I can fight a dragon, Dad. I don’t think I can do it—”
Dad kneeled down to be at eye level with me. He put a finger to my lips. “Peter, I want you to stay calm. There’s nothing here that will hurt you. And even if there was, you have me here to protect you. Let’s move on, okay?”
A chill shook my lower back. My hands were all clammy and my face was wet with the moist air.
“Okay,” I said, “Let’s move on.”
We skipped a section on snakes entirely, but not before I saw a water snake gliding through a pool and forgot to breathe for a few seconds.
“Peter?” Dad said.
“Are you stressed?”
“A little bit.”
“Do you want to leave?”
And that’s when I saw Dawn Cross. She was wearing khakis and a green shirt with the zoo’s logo on it. She brushed her unfairly beautiful hair out of her unfairly beautiful face and said “Hey, Peter.”
I said something to the effect of “Ummmmmm…”
“What’s in your bag?” she asked, shouldering her own.
Oh, y’know, just the legendary sword Excalibur. “Nothing important.”
Dad frowned at us like he knew something we didn’t. “Do you want me to leave you boys alone?”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” Dawn said.
“Yes,” I said.
Dad laughed. “Meet me back here at the entrance by five, Peter.” He slapped my back and went off toward the lion’s den.
“Not a boy,” Dawn hissed under her breath. “Not a boy, not a boy…”
Dawn and I wandered the zoo in this kind of silence that I didn’t want. But every time I tried to speak words dried up in my mouth. Anything I said was guaranteed to worsen the situation.
Dawn broke said silence with the worst question to ever be asked in the history of forever. “So what was that business with Excalibur yesterday?”
My first reaction was to make a how the heck do you know that? face. The next was shock. I’d said two words to her since I knew her! Finally, I berated myself into saying, “What—what do you mean?” And then I hated myself for saying it.
Dawn looked at me as if I’d asked which type of dragon she’d prefer to be barbecued by. “You—you don’t know?”
Dawn rolled her eyes. She let her bag hit the ground with a metallic clang! Then she unzipped it opened it to show me the lance inside, dangling into the black space of the bottomless bag. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with a Sheath for my weapon.
“You’re a Descendant,” I said, then wondered why I felt the need to say it aloud.
“I thought the ring would be a good enough clue,” she said, “It was a gift from the Lady of the Lake, way back when. It protects against magic.” She took it off and handed it to me to inspect.
“I thought that was why you never talked to me,” she said. “You know, with the, uh, history between familial lines. I mean, is the lance not a big enough clue?”
Sometimes it takes a painfully obvious realization to understand how big an idiot you are. “Sooo…Lancelot? But how would that make us distant?”
“I mean it was either that or…uhm, this.” She waved a hand in front of her crotch. “And I really didn’t want to consider that option.” Her voice went strangled, “Please tell me I’m wrong. Like, actually tell me. Because I don’t like that option.”
“Of course I don’t want to be distant from you. Can I—can I not be?”
She smiled, “Please don’t be.” She hefted her lance, “Okay, so let’s not talk about this again ever.”
“Because reasons. Don’t ask. So, what brings you here?”
“My Dad, uh, brought me here for fun.”
“Some Dad,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she meant it as a compliment or not. “I got a job here a few months ago. My grandpa wants me working early. Paying for whatever I do after High School and all that.”
“Some grandpa,” I said, trying to match her tone. “So are you on break?”
“I’ve got a few more minutes, yeah.”
“Any places here you’d care to show me?”
“Sure.” We started off, glancing at people as we traveled by. There was only one problem. They didn’t seem…normal. Everyone was a blur, moving too fast for me to see. A feeling washed over me like my entire body had fallen asleep.
“You feel it, too?” Dawn asked.
“I take comfort that it’s not just me,” I said. “Wait—your ring!” I had forgotten to give it back. “You need it. Put it on and figure out what’s happening.”
Dawn snatched it, but she refused to wear it. “I’m not leaving you here alone. I’m going to help you.”
“So what do we do?”
“You want my advice?”
“Check your phone.”
I did. The minutes were passing by like seconds. It was already three o’clock.
“Peter,” Dawn said, looking over my shoulder at the time.
“I think I’m late to clock in. Do you know what’s going on?”
“Give it to me.”
“You don’t say!”
Minutes ticked by faster and faster until the hours were going by like seconds. In the space of a heartbeat it had turned six o’clock. The phone was beginning to fade as my skin started to tingle.
“Um…I’m late to check back with my Dad.” I said.
“I think that’s the least of your problems.”
The sun was going down and the crowd was thinning—no, fading. In a few seconds it ticked to nine and the tingling vanished. And the time ticked by normally.
I blinked, struggling to see my hand in front of my face.
“I think we’re in trouble.” Gradually, I began to see her through the darkness. I couldn’t make out the look at her face, and when I realized how long I’d been staring I asked, “Where are the lights?”
Dawn said something in Spanish that I think was a curse. “I don’t know. I think the power’s out.”
“Do you think we’re alone?
“This isn’t good.”
“You’re telling me you didn’t imagine your trip to the zoo going this way?”
Dawn punched my arm. “Focus, Peter. This is serious.”
“I can’t have a little fun?” I teased.
“No, I’m serious. Peter—”
Dawn was interrupted by a guttural growl like a bunch of pebbles caught in Darth Vader’s breathing machine. It came from behind us. We turned around to see a lion stalk toward us. It lowered its head and stared us down. Its tongue flicked to catch the snot on its nose.
Dawn pulled her shield off her back and hefted her lance. It was only a little bit longer than a sword. “You know something?”
“I’ve always been curious—magical weapons can’t hurt Regulars, right?”
“So what does it do to animals?”
I backed away. The lion’s tail swished. It fell back on its hind legs and then pounced.
Dawn raised her lance to the lion’s belly. It yelped and slumped forward on the point. The beast fell limp and hit the floor, using Dawn as a cushion. She looked at me with crazy in her eyes. “A little help would be great!”
“Right,” I muttered, and heaved the lion off of her. Dawn looked at her lance and tsked. “Broken. It’s a shame. I liked that one.” She pulled a sword from her backpack that was so bright I swear I had to squint to look at it.
“Arondight,” Dawn explained, “Lancelot’s sword.”
“I love it.” I said.
The lion stirred, which took me out of the trance my admiration for Arondight put me in. We backed away as it stumbled to its feet. The lion’s belly rippled like it was made of Jell-O. It sucked up the lance and spat it out its forehead.
A unicorn-lion. Fun.
“I have an idea.”
We dashed past iron cage after iron cage, ducking and dodging through corners and passageways. I didn’t even bother to worry about the crocodiles as we passed.
“Do you have a plan?” I asked Dawn.
She furrowed her brow. “How could I possibly have a plan?”
“I mean you seem like the type of girl to come up with these things.”
“Peter Pendragon, I am barely passing Algebra! Plans are not my style!”
We rounded a corner to see a monkey leaping toward a pile of—of something. It had a gorilla’s body and arms, with snakes writhing across its torso, and a crocodile head on lion’s shoulders.
The monkey climbed into the thing’s back, and then melted like hot wax into the giant monster.
“The Questing Beast,” Dawn and I said together.
See, over the years various mythical beasts have gone through this evolution where they’re drawn to Descendants, because apparently we’re the only ones worth killing. And they’ve evolved to create certain means to corner us. Including but not limiting to fast forwarding time, apparently.
And I’m guessing two Descendants of different Knights of the Round Table in the same place is like flashing a neon sign above our heads saying Attention All Mythical Monsters: Please Do Not Eat Us.
“You know, I think I’ll take my chances with the unicorn lion,” I said.
“Good idea,” Dawn muttered. We turned to run, but the unicorn lion was stalking around the corner. It bared it teeth at us and let out a grumble from the back of its throat.
“On a scale of vegetative-state to erased-from-reality-altogether, how dead are we?” I asked.
Dawn swallowed audibly. “I’d say we’re somewhere around eaten by a lion with a lance in its head kind of dead.”
“That is an incredibly specific kind of dead.”
“You’re telling me.”
Dawn and I stood back to back. She faced the Picasso beast, as I faced the unicorn lion. “At least there’s a bright side to this,” I grumbled.
“And what’s that?”
“It could be worse.”
I wrung my hands around Excalibur. “…Give me a minute. I’ll think of something.”
The lion was about to pounce when someone smacked it from behind with a piece of plywood. It yelped like a puppy in a thunderstorm and turned to face the attacker, only to discover its enemy had a nail gun, too. There were three shots. Pap! Pap! Pap! And the lion scampered off.
I then found myself face to face with my Dad, leveling a nail gun at the Picasso monster. “Stay away from my son.”
Dad looked up as if he just noticed me. “I thought I told you to meet me at five.”
I turned to face the Picasso-beast, which charged us. Dawn slashed her sword upward, while I went to jab it in the side.
“Can we discuss how grounded I am after we’ve been shredded to death?
The Questing Beast took advantage of my quip and swatted me onto dirt floor with its gorilla hand.
I stood, groggily. My legs were shaking as I rushed at the beast again. I went to slash at it, but I forgot about the monkeys. Two of them reached for me while I was in mid swipe, clawing for my sword hand. I danced back.
Unfortunately, I also didn’t account for the snakes. Two of them slithered across the torso, peeling off the gorilla’s chest to lash out at me. I blocked one with Excalibur, but the other got inside my reach. I reeled back and its tongue tickled my nose. I brought my sword up in a slash at the snake’s neck. It snapped back just in time and stared me down. Unblinking.
Actually, I’m not sure if snakes can blink. I may or may not have had a staring contest with an animal that does nothing but stare.
In a momentary glance I saw Dad drag Dawn away from the beast. “Kids these days,” he muttered, releasing Dawn and pulling me forward by my shirt collar. “You have to know when to fight and when to run!”
A snake went for Dad, but I brought Excalibur down on it. That should’ve beheaded it. Instead it slipped off the beast and slithered back to its cage.
We rounded a corner, the beast lumbering after us, screeching in a thousand animal noises.
We reached the gates to find them locked.
“Any other plans, Mister Pendragon?” Dawn asked.
“A few,” Dad said, trying to put on a brave voice. “Give me your ring.”
Dawn gawked for a few seconds. “This is a family heirloom—”
“I am aware,” the urgency in Dad’s voice was apparent, “My wife has told me all about it—I’d even say she envies it. But if what my wife has told me is true, that’s the Questing Beast behind us, and we’re locked inside with it. If you want to see the sunrise tomorrow you need give me your ring.”
Dawn scowled, but handed it to him. Dad readied his nail gun as the beast lumbered towards us. Dad fired his nail gun at them, aiming for one at a time. With each impact, the monster reeled back and an animal slipped off the hulking pile and ran back to its own exhibit. Dad fired at the thing like a madman, fury etched his eyes. “Stay away from my son! Keep away from him you—”
The beast roared, drowning out those last few words.
And then Dad fired again, and there was a click.
All that was left of the monstrosity was a peacock, a rabbit and a tiger. Dawn held out her hand, “My ring, Mister Pendragon?”
Dad relinquished it. Dawn put it on, drew Arondight and charged. I went to do the same, but Dad held me back. “No,” he said, “I want to see this.”
The creature prepared to pounce just as Dawn struck it with Arondight. It took two slashes and the animals all scurried away.
“What happened? Why aren’t they hurt? Why am I not looking at a pile of mangled animal bodies?” I asked, to nobody in particular. “Also please don’t think I want to look at a pile of mangled animal bodies.”
“The nails didn’t seem to hurt those things,” Dawn said, “I think they’ll be okay. Or will be in the morning.”
“What do we do now?” I asked
Dad waved for me to follow, “Come on. We need to stay busy.” To keep our minds off of what the heck just happened, Dad, Dawn and I worked till sunrise to make sure every animal got back to its proper cage. We snuck out the gate as the Realm crumbled around us and we made our way to the parking lot.
“Do you need a ride home?” Dad asked Dawn.
“I do, actually,” Dawn said, taking a sudden interest in the asphalt.
“Dad,” I nudged him, “We don’t know where she lives.”
“Well why don’t you ask then?”
I approached her, avoiding eye contact and rubbing the back of my neck. “So, um, I need your address.”
“It’s only a few houses down Second Street,” Dawn said, “it’s not too far.”
We rode home in a mixture of awkward silence and I’m too tired to make a sound silence.
Dad pulled up next to Dawn’s house and pressed the horn for whoever was inside. I hoped it was still dark enough to hide the red on my cheeks.
The man who exited the house looked like Santa Clause if he had quit toy making to become a biker. “Mister Pendragon,” he said, “A pleasure to finally meet you.”
“We’re just returning Dawn.”
Biker-Santa laughed and asked for Dad to come inside, but Dad waved the offer away.
“Say goodbye, you two,” Dad said, “And make it quick. Don’t want to keep your Granddad waiting.”
Dawn looked at her Grandfather, then looked at me. “How was today?”
“Life threatening. Adrenalin pumping. Dangerous. But I had fun when that wasn’t happening.”
Dawn bit back a smile. “Me too, Peter. Stay safe, all right? I’ll see you at school tomorrow.” She frowned. “No, today.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. See you at school.” She closed the car door behind her and I watched her run off to her Grandfather.
“Well,” I muttered, “Today was a mess. What was that you did back there with the nail gun?”
“A gamble,” Dad said. “The ring is supposed to protect the wearer from magic. I thought I might be able to channel the ability of the ring into the nails themselves. I think it worked.”
I settled into my seat and sighed. “Dad, that was amazing.”
“Yeah,” Dad agreed. “Don’t tell Mom.”
“Do you really think I would? She’d kill us both.”
“So how long am I grounded?”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.”
I grinned. “That’s a deal.”
“Do you know who did that—back at the zoo?”
Dad pressed his lips together. “I don’t,” he said, “but whoever did it—I’m gonna take care of them myself.”
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.