The following day, I headed over to Dylan’s Duplicates to get the sword fixed. This arduous task had been assigned to me, courtesy of Dad, of course.
It was Saturday, and the streets were unusually quiet. I guessed that most people found it too hot to be outdoors, preferring to stay in the cool shelter of their homes. Nearby at the corner of the street, a lone ice-cream vendor stood under his makeshift stall, working frantically as a large group of giggling kids crowded around him, looking for something to beat the heat. Save for the few people hurrying about on errands, the streets appeared largely deserted.
The shop was some eight blocks away, and the heat of midsummer afternoon was excruciatingly scorching. For the umpteenth time in fifteen minutes, I cursed my luck for ever inheriting the damned lump of steel from Uncle Frank. It didn’t help matters that the sword itself had been heated up to an unpleasantly high temperature and had roughly the same feel as a freshly baked potato.
It was therefore with considerable relief that I stepped into the cool shelter of the shop. Dylan’s Duplicates wasn’t really a smithy – those were practically extinct in most parts of the world. Rather, it was a shop that catered to otakus that had been caught up in the rising popularity of Japanese manga and anime. Nonetheless, Dylan was exceptionally skilled as a craftsman, and was widely acknowledged as the go-to person for quality metalworking in the county.
As my eyes struggled to adapt to the sudden dimness, I spotted the shopkeeper hunched over the counter at the back of the shop. Dylan was an old family friend – he and Dad had gone to college together, and they had served as partners in the military, too. He was a stout, potbellied man in his early fifties, with graying hair, blue eyes, and a thick beard that covered most of his mouth. I rather suspected that whatever was under that beard had not seen the light of day for years; such was its filthy and ragged appearance. Spying me, he swaggered over, a mallet clutched in his right hand.
“What do you want, boy? I was just about to close shop for the day,” growled Dylan in an irritated voice.
Crap. I’d forgotten that Dylan only worked half the day on weekends.
Being something of an otaku myself, I was a regular at the store, which also meant that I was immensely familiar with Dylan’s moody personality. This near to closing time, you had to push the right buttons to get Dylan to do anything; say the wrong thing, and you were liable to end up on your butt outside before you could say “anime”, family friend or not. Fortunately, I had a few tricks up my sleeve for just such an occasion.
“Howdy, Dylan,” I drawled, flashing him what I hoped was an affable grin. “Seen the latest issue of High School Magus? It’s selling like hotcakes at the bookshop two blocks down the street.”
Stubborn silence greeted my words.
“Come on, man, it’s a fine, sunny afternoon. What say you and I go down to the shop to take a look? I hear they have a discount for college students,” I continued in that maddeningly cheerful tone.
Dylan glowered at me, spearing me with a look that he usually reserved for obnoxious door-to-door salesmen.
Determinedly ignoring the threat of imminent death, I exclaimed excitedly, “I thought you wouldn’t be in the mood for it, this being such a hot day and all. So, being the kind soul that I am, I went to the trouble of getting you a copy! See here, this issue –“
“All right!” bellowed Dylan, snatching up the issue of High School Magus that I’d produced. “Let’s have a look at that lump of steel that you brought this time. I haven’t got all day, mind.”
What can I say? I can be really persuasive when I want to.
I grinned again, and followed him over to the back of the store where he kept his metalworking tools. After several minutes of rummaging about in a large, wooden chest, he produced a pair of tongs, along with a whetting stone and numerous strips of fine grit, both wet and dry. Dumping the mallet back into the chest, he plodded into a brightly-lit back room and over to his workbench.
“No mallet?” I asked, surprised.
“Hell, no!” exclaimed Dylan. “The blade’s only had some minor damage. I’m not re-forging the entire thing for a few minor dents and scratches like those.”
I watched as Dylan got down to business. First, he ran one cutting edge of the gladius over the whetting stone for a full length. This went on for numerous repetitions, until the edge had been worked back sufficiently. Then, he used the same stone to re-form the cutting edge of the blade and sharpen it. The same was done for the other cutting edge.
Holding the sword up to the light, he examined the edge of the blade and grunted his approval. He then used wet and dry strips of grit to polish the flat of the blade, alternating between the two. Dylan was a fast worker, and before the hour was up, the blade looked to be as good as new. He swung it in a small arc experimentally, and as it sliced the air, the sleek blade barely made a sound.
“All right, boy, here’s your blade as promised. I’ll charge you a discounted rate of fifteen bucks since you’re a regular,” said Dylan gruffly.
As I paid in cash, I grinned and said, “Looks like a little manga goes a long way, eh, Dylan?”
Ignoring me, Dylan continued, “You’ll want to take care of your blade. Be a shame for a fine one like that to end up rusting away. Remember, a little daily cleaning and oiling goes a long way.”
Smirking, I stepped out of the shop and headed off.
As I walked back down the block, I couldn’t help but admire the way that the blade caught the sunlight. It sparkled and shone with a golden light that seemed to radiate from the sword itself. One thing was for sure – you had to admire the painstaking effort that Dylan put into caring for his blades. Grouchy he might be, but I couldn’t help but admit that he was a phenomenal craftsman.
Eight blocks later, I turned a corner and hurried down the street towards the driveway of my home. The heat had only gotten worse in the last hour, and the first thing I had in mind was an ice-cold shower, followed by a chilled drink or two.
As I drew nearer, though, I sensed that something wasn’t quite right. The air was filled with a strange smell, which I soon realized was… smoke! I soon arrived outside the gate, and was treated to a hellish scene that seemed to have come straight out from a horror flick.
Flames rose from the parquet flooring of the house and licked at the parapet. Thick clouds of smoke filled the interior and billowed out from the windows in columns. Even as I watched, utterly stunned, the flames multiplied and grew at an increasingly frenzied pace. Within moments, the blaze had become an inferno and was spreading across the lawn, transforming it into a carpet of flames. An ambulance and fire engine came hurtling down the street and came to a screeching halt nearby – someone must have called the emergency services. Paramedics and firefighters poured out from the vehicles and set to work, the latter furiously fighting to subdue the blaze with jets of water.
At the sight of the escalating chaos, my brain finally snapped out of its frozen state and propelled my body into action. I sprinted across the smoldering grass, now doused in water, and headed straight for the side door. I realized, to my horror, that the shoe rack was packed with footwear, which could only mean one thing – my parents were trapped inside that scorching inferno.
“Mom, Dad! Where are you?” I screamed, throwing open the door. I attempted to make a dash for it, but a wall of flames and overwhelming smoke sent me backpedalling in frustration and sudden panic.
I don’t remember the next few moments clearly, because that must have been when I totally lost it and went hysterical.
I only recall snippets of what happened – retching on the ground violently; desperately attempting to find a way past the flames and failing; trying and failing to force my way in through the living room window; and finally, being dragged away by a group of firefighters. I must have passed out at some point, because when I next looked up, I had an oxygen mask on and a paramedic was leaning over me and telling me to breathe deeply.
Minutes later, in the waning light that characterized the day’s end, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a group of paramedics sealing up a pair of body bags. That was when I knew with morbid certainty that I had lost them.
A wave of despair overwhelmed me, and I sobbed until the darkness claimed me.