Realistic Fantasy is an Oxymoron

A few days ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who consumes fantasy novels at a rate I would not have guessed was possible had I not been witnessing it for twenty years. This is the woman who read all fourteen Wheel of Time books in about three months.

“I want to write a story about Elves,” I said. She responded by giving me a look that made me feel like a Victorian Age woman showing off her ankles.

“You can’t do that,” she told me. When I asked why, she began a lecture on how such concepts are outdated and that fantasy has “evolved” past that. She took it so seriously, and so personally, that I felt I had to at least dig into this.

Anyone who has read other articles I’ve written know I’m an incredibly trope-conscious person. However, I’ve consistently rejected the idea that tropes are inherently bad. Even ones as oft-misused as the Chosen One or the Dark One.

With that in mind, it never even occurred to me that some people might think it so egregious to write a story about Elves. The subtitle of this article is an inversion of this, which is that prompted me to throw my hat in the ring regarding Grimdark Fantasy. (Please note: Patrick Rothfuss was misquoted in this article. He has clarified, saying if you want to do them, be original.)

I decided to keep Moving Past Gritty Realism in the subtitle because, in short, it sounds ridiculous. As ridiculous as the article linked above.

Grimdark fantasy authors are commonly seen as the evolution of modern fantasy writing. They boast characters of gray morality and ambiguous sides. But what I have read seems little better than something in the vein of The Sword of Shannara or The Iron Tower trilogy. Except now, up-and-coming writers are using George R. R. Martin as their springboard instead of J.R.R Tolkien.

What separates Mark Lawrence from Terry Brooks? Aside from Lawrence’s superior command of the English language, that is. Both of them took the idea of the bestselling fantasy saga of their time, both simplified the core elements and both of them used a post-apocalyptic setting to make it sufficiently different. Both feature a struggle over a throne while telepaths twist the minds of rulers to their will, and all while a horde of the undead is on the horizon. While not as similar as Brooks was to Tolkien due to the first person presentation, why is Lawrence praised for setting A Song of Ice and Fire in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust while Terry Brooks is lambasted and downright accused of plagiarism for giving The Lord of the Rings in an apocalyptic setting?

What sets Joe Abercrombie Dennis L. McKiernan? Both seem to take place in a Diet version of Westeros and Middle Earth respectively. Why is one lauded and the other condemned?

I will grant that with the invention of the internet, the Martin Clones are much savvier in finding ways to rehash George’s ideas and change it enough so that they can stand on their own. To their credit, they arebetter at it than Tolkien’s clones.

But that does not change the fact that these books are Martin Clones. And the reason they are taken so seriously is because they write seriousfantasy. Some of the Martin Clones feature little to no humor because of how seriously everyone is taking themselves. With the amount of gore and grey morality they throw into their books, it’s easier to call it grown-up fiction. Yet even the concept of grey morality is laughable in many of these ripoffs. They despite the idea of black-and-white morality, but welcome black-and-blacker with open arms.

And many people praise Martin Clones because of their gore and how seriously they take themselves. Because of the R-rated fantasy world, the label grown-up fiction is proudly stamped onto their novels, as if that makes it inherently better.

I’m not kidding. There are people who think “grown-up fiction” is just inherently better than the Lord of the Rings. To quote Richard K. Morgan, “Tolkien’s general outlook on things is such that in this day and age you can’t really take it seriously as grown-up fiction. It’s full of enormously dodgy racial and cultural stereotyping, highly unlikely military tactics and ridiculously simplistic perceptions of good and evil.”

This is to say nothing of Michael Moorcock’s essay, The Epic Pooh.

And many of the Martin Clones seem to echo that statement of Tolkien’s world being something to enjoy as a teenager that inspires you, but that you must grow out of. “Black and white morality is unrealistic!” say the authors who make a conceited effort to make all their characters despicable in some way. The Ned Starks of these novels are seen as rarely as the Gollums and Denethors of the Tolkien Clones. “Tolkien has a childish perception of good and evil!”

To that, I would say that black-and-blacker morality is juvenile.

And now we come to the idea of the unrealism of Tolkien’s work. People refuse to read Tolkien anymore because it’s unrealistic. They demand so much grit and realism from their works that many seem to forget that they’re writing (or reading) fantasy.

Of all genres, fantasy has the most potential. Fantasy is the genre in which you can do anything you want. And you’re demanding fantasy novels evolve towards “realism?” If a fantasy novel is not realistic enough, some people will go so far as to refuse to even open it.

Have they forgotten that realistic fantasy is an oxymoron?

The Martin Clones and their most avid readers often love to poke fun at Tolkien Clones. The same people who deride them for being unoriginal refuse to accept a fantasy society outside the mold of a High School understanding of Medieval England.

And it is this juvenile hatred of anything Tolkienlike that leads to things like Elvish Fiction being outlawed. Sometimes they don’t even have to be named Elves to be labeled as Diet Tolkien.

….A lot of those claims sound ridiculous, don’t they? How does an epic like A Song of Ice and Fire have any similarities to such a self-contained work as A Prince of Thorns? Who has the right to say black-and-blacker morality, however it pertains to Lawrence or Abercrombie or any other fantasist–is a bad thing?

That sounds hypocritical, doesn’t it? What right do I have to say that these works are drivel or bad or similar by being even tangentially related to George R.R. Martin’s work? Why is a society based off of Medieval England such a bad thing? Even if it’s a High School understanding–it’s a made up world! All it has to be is consistent! There are clearly fantastic things being done in the context of these stories.

And that’s the problem with a lot of modern, lighter stories being labeled Tolkien Clones. How similar is Wheel of Time to The Lord of the Rings, really? Or even any of the Best Tolkien Clones? How are these novels related to Tolkien, aside from having things like pseudo-medieval settings, Dark Lords, Chosen Ones, Elves, Dwarves or something superficially related to Tolkien’s work?

Therein lies the problem. Many novels labeled Tolkien Clones simply feature elements that Tolkien used in his work. And it is ridiculous that a story about Elves be labeled Tolkien Clone because somebody out there read the back cover.

Perhaps that’s the very reason Grimdark exists–to distance itself from Tolkien. The man’s shadow is so large that it extends into Grimdark in its own twisted, meta inversion of the very comparisons many authors seek to avoid.

Fantasy is a world you can do anything in. Your Elves can be as powerful or weak or tiny or tall or nonexistent as you want. You can base your world off of England or create a nonsense world where the laws of physics go out the window. You can do a mix of both!

Don’t let the demand for grim, gritty and realistic fiction stop you from writing the story you want to tell. Don’t let the urge to go against what’s popular dissuade you, either.

Write your story. Forget about the publishing and what’s trendy and popular and have fun, dammit! You’re a writer! Isn’t this fun?

I think it is.

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of  Thomas Covenant was rejected anywhere from 51-58 times by various publishing houses, depending on who you ask. But I doubt Donaldson wishes he never worked on it. He had fun with the idea and shopped it around the publishing industry until someone bought it became a national bestseller. Don’t write something you hate because it’s easier to get published or because more people will like it. Write something because it’s fun.

And on a related note, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is heavily inspired by Tolkien, but it remains original enough to stick to its own themes and tell its own story and introduce absolute good, grey, and absolute bad morality in an original and clever way. All while having (and I’m not kidding) a Dark Lord named Lord Foul and, in the first novel, a subordinate named Drool Rockworm.

And by the same token, Prince of Thorns features characters of black-and-blacker morality, a bunch of Kings fighting over an Empire Throne, psychics and vague magic twisting nobles against each other while an unseen supernatural threat rises on the horizon still manages to be an engaging read with much humor, subtlety and even moments of humanity in the novel’s point of view character.

Whichever flavor of fantasy you prefer, I think we can all agree on one thing:

Dragons….man, they need a rest.

We’re All Fortunato

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I thought things were going well until my roommate put a knife to my throat.

That was two years ago. I felt like a fool back then, in that moment; when my then-best friend and roommate held a knife to my throat and shrieked, “Why do I let you speak. Why?”

I won’t get into the details of what happened. He’s long since been expelled from this school and my life, but looking back I can still see the signs. The things I did that may have pissed him off and led him to that point. Before that, I had always felt….how do I put this…fortunate to have a friend like him. I won’t get into the details about why he put that knife to my throat, but looking back, I as I’ve said, in hindsight, I can see the signs signs leading up to the incident. The things I said, and how that fueled his downward spiral. It all seems so obvious in retrospect.

It’s a good thing he didn’t want to show me his Amontillado. I understand this now: I was Fortunato, and he was Montressor. We were in a real life version of The Cask of Amontillado.

We never know why Montressor, from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado wants to kill his self-proclaimed friend, outside of what he, the unreliable narrator, says are a collection of perceived slights (personally I assume it’s because of his wildly ironic name). What could he have done to warrant a death that horrific from someone you deem your friend? What did he do?

The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. Maybe there is no answer. Not definitive ones, at least. Montressor is an unreliable narrator, so you can’t trust him, which leaves you to come up with your own conclusions.

And that’s where the terror is. By the end of the story, you’re put exactly in Fortunato’s shoes (fetters?). Fortunato doesn’t know what he’s done wrong. The terror’s in what isn’t said. He travels down underground into a proverbial Hell getting progressively drunker along the way, thinking he was having fun with his friend.

As you, the reader, go along for the unfortunate duo’s ride, you become lost in Poe’s prose, his intensely gothic tone, and Montressor’s repeated reminders to himself to remember what he’s there for.

But you never know why he does it. By the end, when you realize Fortunato’s dead, you’re just as much of a fool as he was. Because neither of you knew why Montressor would do something like that. How could Fortunato’s slights could go unnoticed for so long? Surely Fortunato would have mentioned them when he realized the fate his friend had condemned him to. Why did the slights not ruin their friendship before he was killed? The whole thing boggles the mind.

Again, the terror lies in what you don’t know. The lack of information outside of what is happening in that moment of the story puts your firmly in the bells-and-motley of Fortunato. The fact that we must put the pieces together and in the end still have no definitive answer as to the why of the act is a testament to Poe’s mastery of his craft.

There are even layers of irony. Fortunato has an ironic name, as mentioned; he’s dressed up as a fool, he’s a drunk, and you don’t know much about him aside from he’s a connoisseur and has apparently slighted Montressor.

Then there’s the fact that you’re in Montressor’s head throughout the story, but you never learn too much of his motives beyond, “He’s insane.” The injustice of Fortunato’s death only twists the knife.

I’m glad my then-roommate and then-friend didn’t do exactly that. If he had, I wouldn’t be here, writing this deliciously ironic analysis for all of you. I was Fortunato, in the end. And so are you. Since Montressor has no defined motive, you are free to imagine Montressor as anybody.

Which begs the question, if we are Fortunato, then who in our lives is Montressor? I know who mine was.

Do you?

8. The Zoo After Dark

The Heirs of Excalibur (1)

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.”

How?

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?”

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.”

 

7. The Picasso Monster

The Heirs of Excalibur (1)

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.

“Dawn?”

“Yeah?”

“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?

“Nope.”

“Me neither.”

“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?”

“What?”

“I’ve always been curious—magical weapons can’t hurt Regulars, right?”

“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.

“Dawn?”

“Yeah?”

“I have an idea.”

“What’s that?”

Run!”              

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 arithmetic ! 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 us Mythlings, 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 Mythlings descended from 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.”

6. The Lance in the Backpack

The Heirs of Excalibur (1)

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.

“What?”

“Are you stressed?”

“A little bit.”

“Do you want to leave?”

“Um…I actually—”

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?”

“Know what?”             

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.”

“Why?”

“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?”

“Lion’s den?”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.

“Yeah?”

“I think I’m late to clock in. Do you know what’s going on?”

“Best guess?”

“Give it to me.”

“Magic.”

You don’t say!

5. The Zoo of Death

The Heirs of Excalibur (1)

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.

“Yeah.”

“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.

“Why are they doing that?” I asked. “I mean, if there’s a girl gorilla somewhere back there, I think I know why, but like…why?” 

“Probably some courtship ritual,” Dad waved the question aside and led me on. He spared a single glance back at the gorillas. “I don’t know. Basic instinct, I guess.”

* * *

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 ever quieter 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.”