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           The fourth time Aruk was woken up by the sound of crumbling walls was the time that he decided he'd have to get up and deal with the problem himself.

            He was relieved, as he had been the three times before, that the crumbling walls weren't the walls of his family's home, or of their neighbors' homes either. But the noise was close enough that ignoring it was all but impossible, and even though he was wrenched from an afternoon nap by the sound, he was on his feet near instantly, hand wrapped around the handle of the battle axe he'd had since he was fourteen.

            The semi-urban area Aruk's family lived in had been overrun with destruction for more than decades by the time they'd settled there. The area, called Yosem based on an old road sign whose letters had faded off over time, stood in theory more than in practice; the rubble of hundreds of buildings remained scattered in and alongside the roads, and the residents could count more buildings that had fallen than they could buildings still upright.

            The dragon that routinely showed up to ransack the outskirts of town was not helping that statistic.

            By the time Aruk's bare feet hit the gravel, most of his neighbors were in the street, all frantically looking about to see whether their homes were at risk. Aruk's parents were outside as well, staring through the gap between their building and the next. When Aruk joined them, both pointed through the gap, toward the dragon clawing its way through another building.

            "Same one as always, huh?" Aruk asked, squinting to account for the shift in lighting from being inside.

            "Yep. Shame Garakh's not here, she'd probably have a blast with that one."

            Aruk sighed. "She would get bored of it, the same way she was already bored of being here after all these years, mom. That's why she ran off to be an adventurer in the first place."

            "She'd have stayed if you'd gone off and been an adventurer yourself, you know. You should have given adventuring a chance before you wasted your time on the piano," Baluk said.

            "It was what I wanted to do, though! Besides, she wanted to be an adventurer anyway, it's not like you get mad at her for following her dreams—"

            "She's a girl, Aruk," his father Archie replied. The human stood much shorter than Aruk or Baluk, but his voice carried even in the midst of the sound of buildings being broken. "She shouldn't have to be an adventurer."

            "But she wants to be an adventurer—"

            "She's an orc, just like you and I, Aruk. You both should be adventurers."

            "I don't want to be an adventurer," Aruk muttered.

            Archie spoke again, but this time his voice was drowned out by the sound of concrete chunks slamming onto the ground.

            "What did you say?" Baluk asked, peering down at Archie.

            "I said someone needs to take care of that thing soon. It's a problem in and of itself if the thing's just looking for food, but we can't lose half of what's left of this place just because a dragon feels like going around and knocking buildings down because it can!"

            "And what are you planning to do about it?" Baluk asked. "Are you going to try to take down that dragon that's definitely three times your size, Archie?"

            "Well, no, but at least if I was in my prime I could help take it down—"

            "I love you but you and I both know that's not true."

            "Hey! That's not a nice thing to say!"

            "But it is the truth—"

            "If it will get you two to knock it off, I will go deal with the dragon," Aruk interrupted. Both of his parents stared at him in surprise.

            "But you've never fought a dragon. Aruk, are you sure—"

            The lanky half-orc walked away from them and toward the dragon without responding, left hand clenched tight around the handle of his battle axe. He processed that they were speaking, but his eyes were focused on the dragon over two hundred yards away, and his mind was somewhere completely different.

            I don't want to be an adventurer.

            He felt like a failure, each step in his stride a rough reminder of the fact that he was not at the conservatory, each thump of his heart a cold reminder that he hadn't so much as made a single friend in the year that he'd been gone, the tight grip around the handle of his axe a firm reminder that he hadn't seen combat of any kind in years.

            I don’t want to be an adventurer.

            The words repeated in his mind as he traversed the fallen concrete, carrying him on mindlessly like some form of hypnosis, until he crossed the last patch of concrete and his feet pressed down onto rough grass.

            Yosem’s city limits were stark. There was a very clearly defined beginning and ending to the city, dictated mainly by where grass had begun to force its way through the streets and the concrete rubble—beyond that was a sprawling landscape that was once home to trees and an expansive lake. The trees, though long gone, left behind long-dead roots that still poked their way through the dirt in places; the lake remained more in spirit than in substance. There was enough liquid content still present to call it a lake, but the water was too unsafe to touch, much less sustain life.

            The lake officially sat on the far edge of a government-designated nature reserve, but no one ever came from the government to inform them of that. The only reason people abandoned the lake in the first place was from the pollution—all manner of oil, sludge, and radiation had drained into it from one source or another.

            Aruk trudged away from Yosem, feet carrying him on toward the nature preserve and the dragon that seemed to be in the middle of feasting on something. He couldn’t tell what, but it looked like half of a human carcass. Which half, Aruk wasn’t sure, and didn’t particularly want to find out.

            At first, the dragon didn’t notice Aruk, too invested in tearing through its meal to pay any mind to the half-orc. But Aruk made no attempt to sneak up on the dragon, walking toward it with his battle axe clenched tight in his left hand. The terrain was familiar to Aruk, his feet knew where to find purchase without looking. At his core he remained an outlander; places he’d been were etched into his mind like a well drawn map.

            I don’t want to be an adventurer.

            When the dragon finally shifted its focus to Aruk, he was in striking range. It reared its head toward him, threatening to spit fire, but Aruk swung his left arm swiftly, piercing through one of the dragon’s wings with his axe before he pulled the axe back, readying himself for the dragon’s retaliation.

            Caught off guard by the axe strike, the dragon’s head turned as he went to strike Aruk, breathing flames into the sky instead of onto the half-orc, though as it reeled from the blow to its wing, it lashed out with the back of a claw, striking Aruk and knocking him backward, skidding across the grass toward the lake.

            I don’t want to be an adventurer.

            Aruk scrambled to his feet, diving for his axe that landed a few feet away from him, trying to ignore the voice in his head reminding him that he wanted to be far from where he was at that moment. When the dragon lunged forward at him, he rolled to the side, feeling his knees make contact with broken chunks of concrete in ways that he knew would leave lasting bruises.

            I don’t want to be an adventurer.

            The second time the dragon went to claw at Aruk, the claw made contact with Aruk’s chest, digging a gash into his abdomen and nearly sending Aruk toppling into the lake in the process.

            Aruk stumbled backward, winded and struggling from the pain of the gash. He put his weight on one leg as his relentless endurance kicked in like a second wind, fueling him on even with the wound still stinging, and he lifted his axe once more as the dragon came toward him to strike him, shifting his weight back onto both feet and sidestepping in time to swing the axe into the side of the dragon’s head.

            I just want to play the piano.

            The blade of the axe cut through scales and flesh at an angle, but didn’t cleave fully through the dragon, stopping short and lodging in its neck, throwing the dragon’s flight path off and nearly dragging Aruk away with it in the process.

            I don’t want to be an adventurer.

            Aruk dug his feet into the ground, finding purchase when one foot lodged between two large concrete slabs and held him firmly rooted as the dragon flailed around. With a mighty tug, he grabbed his axe with both hands and pulled against the force of the dragon’s movement, managing to dislodge the blade and send the dragon skimming across the surface of the lake, until it stopped toward the center of the lake, then sunk like a stone.

            Letting out a deep, heavy breath, Aruk’s weight slipped backward as he collapsed to his back next to the lake edge. He could feel the gash on his chest sting with every breath, acutely aware of the fact that it would be several days or weeks before that particular pain would fade.

            “I don’t...want this,” he mumbled to himself, covering his face with his right hand. As he did, he realized that he could hear footsteps coming toward him, and he groaned. He knew those footsteps.

            “Aruk! Aruk, are you okay?”

            It was Archie who bolted toward him first, and Aruk reluctantly pulled his hand away from his face so he could make eye contact with his father.

            “I’m fine, it’s just a cut—”

            “Just a cut my foot! That thing clawed right through your chest, you’re lucky he didn’t cut deep enough to have half your organs pouring out—”

            I don’t want to be an adventurer.

            More footsteps. Aruk recognized these too, as his mother approached at a slower pace.

            “We saw the whole thing, Aruk. I’m proud of you! Taking down a dragon on your own is no small feat, even a medium sized one! I’d want to go find the body so we could keep the head as proof of your accomplishment, but I don’t know how we could get it out of the lake. It’s probably already started dissolving.”

            Baluk leaned into Aruk’s like of vision and smiled down at him. “Nice job, my boy. See, I told you that you’d be a great adventurer! You ought to take your second name from this, you know. This is the most impressive thing I think you’ve ever done. Maybe you should go by Swampcutter or something like that, since you split the lake open with that dragon’s body. I could probably come up with something better if I think about it, but it’s important for you to choose your own name.”

            Aruk grunted, but said nothing. He reluctantly pushed himself to his feet and picked his axe up off the ground, at which point he realized that a chunk of the dragon’s face was still attached to the blade, a tooth jutting out of it awkwardly. He pulled the tooth out of the flesh and held onto it, then wiped the rest off of his blade with the back of his hand.

            “I guess I’ll have to think on it, but I don’t…”

            “I know, Aruk,” Baluk said, nodding solemnly. “You’ve never wanted to be an adventurer, I’ve always known this of you. If you don’t want to pick a name then you don’t have to, it’s’s our tradition, you know.”

            Aruk sighed. He didn’t want to put that weight on his own shoulders, but he knew he’d never live it down if he didn’t pick a name, in part because of his mom’s disappointment, and in part because he knew that whenever Garakh came back, she’d never let him hear the end of it.

            “ about Wavesplitter? I mean, the dragon did cut right through the water when I got my axe out of it—”

            “It’s perfect! I love it! My son, Aruk Wavesplitter! It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it, Archie?”

            “It does, but while I don’t want to ruin this moment for you two, we really should get Aruk inside or at least away from the lake so we can treat that wound…” Archie said, staring directly at the gash on Aruk’s chest.

            “Please, by all means, ruin the moment,” Aruk replied with a grunt. He was already ready to be done adventuring.

Been playing D&D with some friends, and it's been a great help getting back into the swing of writing. This is a bit of backstory about my half-orc fighter, Aruk (who our DM described as "the MOST reluctant adventurer"), and how he came to get his off the wall last name. He probably should've committed to being a bard, but he didn't. His true love will always be the piano, though.

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February 20
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