It was a warm day when her mother left.
Wynona doesn’t remember much, but she remembers this: The sun pouring through the door, the cloudless sky. She couldn’t see the water from where she stood, but even at that age she knew by the weather that the ocean would be still. A perfect day for sailing.
She remembers her father’s rough hand dwarfing hers.
The callouses that scraped her soft, small palm. And—
The stark silhouette of her mother against the door, blocking the light with the shape of her leaving.
“Please think about this!”
Her father rarely raised his voice. It scared her. She started to cry, to pull away, but he held her firmly. “You won’t make it, this won’t change anything—”
Her mother looked back. Wynona does not remember her expression. Did she look angry? Sad? Heartbroken? Did it hurt, to leave her only daughter behind?
And then she turned away.
Wynona let out a sob. Again, she tried to tug her hand away. Her father’s grip never wavered. “Don’t go,” he said, and this time his voice was quieter than she’d ever heard it.
The silhouette in the doorway was swallowed by sunlight. The smell of the salt rushed in to fill the space it left. By the time Wynona was able to tear herself away from her father’s side, sobbing, she was long gone. All Wynona could see from the cliff was the empty sky, the open sea.
She’d been on this island too damn long.
One week, Loch had said, Maybe two. Two weeks, maximum, and then Wynona would finally be sailing away from the only waters she’d ever known. Quick and easy.
But it had been over a month, and their team was still battling the monster that lurked in the depths of the lava of Tephra. They had all the right equipment; they’d laid out the most efficient plan. They were going to stick the creature through the heart and be done with it.
At least, that’s what everyone had said. But so far, it seemed like Gelata was tougher than they knew. When one limb was cut off, another regrew, and it was all their mechs could do to keep up.
We need more time, said Loch, That’s all.
That’s all. The strategy was flawless, the mechs were better than they’d ever been; they just needed time. It wasn’t like the Slayers didn’t know what they were doing. Right? Right.
Wynona frowned at that thought as she took another small step forward. Everyone at the outpost had been raving about something called “coffee” that they sold at this shop in the mornings, but was the ten-minute line really worth it?
Tephra was similar to Claybay in many ways, and the ways in which it differed did not interest Wynona. She couldn’t wait for the Slayers to finally get off the island.
Neither, apparently, could the Tephrans.
“First it’s one week… then it’s three weeks… now it’s ‘Once we deal with Gelata.’ When was the last time a sea monster ever caused trouble here?”
It wasn’t difficult to overhear the words—one of the people sitting by the window was being obnoxiously loud. They must have seen Wynona’s uniform and decided to bestow their oh-so-important opinion on the whole café.
“These ‘Sea Monster Slayers,’” the person continued, “are a bigger threat than Gelata ever was. Why do they even care what happens out here? And what’s taking them so long? I thought killing monsters was their whole thing.”
Wynona threw a glare toward the table. She couldn't even leave base for half an hour without some small-minded local spout complete nonsense about her profession. If the woman noticed, she didn’t react.
The woman’s buddy snorted. “Yeah. They might have been important, what, a hundred years ago? Now they’re just a nuisance.”
“The whole island is crawling with them, and I don’t trust a single one. If you ask me, they should just mind their own business.”
Anger flared in Wynona’s chest. Did they have any idea how much the Slayers were trying to help them? How much time they’d given up, how much energy they’d spent on making sure that monster never rose up to destroy this island? The Sea Monster Slayers didn’t put themselves in danger every single day just for people to mock them—
“Maybe if we’re lucky, that Slayer Killer will show up. I’d take Gelata over those idiot Slayers every time.”
Oh, that was it. Wynona spun around, ready to chew them out, to unleash the rage that had been building in her ever since the day she heard that the first stop on their journey would be Tephra.
“And for you, ma’am?”
Wynona whipped back around toward the cashier, flushed. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. I’ll get a—um, one coffee?”
“You want a latte or just a regular coffee? Cream or sugar?”
Wynona stared blankly.
The cashier sighed. “One black coffee, coming right up.”
Wynona paid and was soon handed a paper cup full of dark, strong-smelling liquid. “There you go. Next!”
“Thanks,” Wynona muttered, and, gripping the thin cup tightly in one hand, she stalked over to the table where the two Tephrans were still conversing loudly. One of them was laughing at a joke the other must have made while she was ordering.
She slammed the coffee down between them. They both jumped, startled, and for a moment there was blissful silence.
Wynona looked between them, her expression dark. They looked uncertain, maybe even a little afraid. Good. She took the opportunity to break the silence with full force. “You guys think I want to be here?”
At that, the particularly obnoxious one—the woman who’d called the Slayers a threat—seemed to recover completely. She gave Wynona a sneer. “What are you talking about, kid?”
“I said, I’d rather be somewhere else!”
I’d rather be on the water. I’d rather be halfway to the Spires. I’d rather be stuck in the belly of a sea monster—
The Tephran pushed her chair back and slowly stood. She towered over Wynona considerably, but Wynona had been with the Slayers a while now, and she was used to being towered over—by Loch, by lieutenants, by monsters. A little height difference wasn’t going to faze her.
The woman crossed her arms, grinning maliciously. “So go. Or are you Slayers so useless that you can’t find your way back to shore?”
Wynona hadn’t been put out on the field yet, not properly. Bad news for this lady: Wynona had been itching for a fight for a long time. She clenched her fists, standing on tiptoe to look the Tephran in the eye, readying herself—
“Wynona, come on. Let’s go.”
Loch was standing by the door with Trent, watching her with what Wynona already knew as his judgy eyes. He was in full “leader” mode, the most infuriating version of Loch there was—the crossed arms, the stick-straight posture, the low, commanding voice. As if he wasn’t barely a kid himself.
Trent looked a little more concerned. He had stepped forward, one hand reaching out as if to interrupt the fight. When Wynona looked at him, he cleared his throat and quickly tucked both arms behind his back.
Loch shook his head at her. At that, Wynona’s anger only grew. Why did he always have to get involved in everything? Didn’t he trust her to take care of herself? It’s not like she was going to beat up every Tephran running their mouth about the Slayers; if that was the case, she’d never get anything done. She’d just wanted to be able to defend herself and her team, just once.
Loch nodded toward the door. Cool and collected, as always. “We’re running late.”
There would be no point in trying to start anything, not with Loch watching. He would never let her hear the end of it—or worse, he’d report her to their superiors. Wynona scowled and stepped away from the woman, who was still smirking down at her. She snatched up her cup, hard enough to accidentally splash the two gossips with hot coffee, and stalked toward the exit. Loch and Trent were already out the door.
The day was muggy and warm. Magmathalos loomed in the distance, rising up from the clouds. There were people out, but most of them were heading toward the café or the market, not the volcano. It wasn’t difficult to spot the bright red of Trent’s hair a few yards ahead.
Trent glanced behind him and their eyes met; he waved, flashing her a warm smile. Wynona broke into a trot.
Even before she’d fully caught up with them, Loch was on her case. “What was that?” he asked, not bothering to even look in her direction.
Wynona flushed—with fury, mostly, but now the shame was starting to set in too. Loch would never have let something so stupid bother him. He held his head up high no matter what people said about him—Wynona knew, because she’d been criticizing him since the first day they met. He was so sure of himself, always. It was infuriating and terrible and she sometimes envied it. “It was nothing,” she insisted, “I just—”
“Don’t mess with the locals, Wynona.”
“I know, I know…” This wasn’t the first time Wynona had received this lecture. She wished she could say it would be the last, but she had never been one to hold her feelings back.
Wynona was quiet for a moment, staring down at her coffee. She knew she shouldn’t say what she said next, but she couldn’t help it. She was so frustrated. Wasn’t joining the Slayers supposed to ease her frustration? The tension she’d always felt, bubbling beneath the surface of her chest? It felt like she’d been on edge for a decade now.
She bit out the words. “Is this it?”
Loch didn’t answer, so Trent prodded: “What do you mean?”
Wynona thrust her hands out in front of her. “I mean, is this it? Is this what being a Slayer’s really like? No matter where we go, people distrust us. Dislike us. Hate us, even. I’m sick of it. We keep people safe, and this is how they treat us in return?”
Now Loch spoke up, his voice cool. “We don’t do this to be liked, Wynona. We do this because it’s our job. And it’s not a glamorous one, you know that. It’s not supposed to be fun.”
Wynona scrunched up her nose. “I never said—”
“The locals aren’t wrong that we cause trouble. The work we do… slaying these creatures, it’s disruptive to them. Not as disruptive as a sea monster attack, sure, but they don’t know that. For them, the immediate impact isn’t even clear.
“But trust me,” he said firmly. “What we do is in their best interest. Remember that, and it’ll keep you powering through the work. And the insults.”
Wynona stared down at the cup in her hands, watching wrinkles form in the paper where she pressed a little too hard. So she was supposed to put her life at risk for people who would just give her dirty looks on the street? It was true, protecting them was more important than her feelings. And it’s not like she was here to make friends. But she wasn’t just tired of the insults. She was tired of failure, and of being relegated to the back of the team, and most of all she was tired of knowing that her home was only a bridge away. The least she could ask for was a little respect. “I guess.”
The island’s central volcano, Magmathalos, had a cave tunneled into the center. They had reached the mouth of this cave now. Loch stepped inside. “Come on, let’s go.”
Trent followed close behind. He glanced at her sympathetically. “See you inside, Wyn.”