Guardians of Dawn: Volume 1
Ryan pulled the jeep to a stop in a flat clearing.
“We’re stopping here?” Matt couldn’t see why, the sun was still pretty high in the sky.
“We’re setting up camp,” Ryan explained, climbing out of the jeep and unlatching the back. “It’s good to get things prepared before the sun sets.”
Ryan began unloading the truck.
“Um… is there anything I can do?” Emi asked.
“Ever set up a tent?”
She shook her head.
“Well, can you collect some sticks and twigs and stuff?” He pointed towards the forest edge. “We can use those to start a campfire!”
Emi nodded eagerly, happy to help.
Ryan clapped Matt on the shoulder. “Matt! You’ll help set up the tents, right?”
“Huh? But I’ve never done something like that either…”
Ryan smiled. He squeezed Matt’s shoulder a little more insistently.
“You’ll help set up the tents, right?”
“This is stupid,” Matt muttered to himself as he set up one of the tents. “Serena, why do I have to do something like this?! Just break the tent into pieces and put it together!”
Serena rolled her eyes, propping up part of the tarp. “It doesn’t work that way. I can’t just shape it nto whatever and make it solid, I can only return things to their original forms. Unless you’d like to sleep in a sandcastle.”
“Yep, it looks pretty impressive, but it’s just kinda flashy,” Ryan called from the other tent. “Not very useful.”
Serena’s eye twitched.
“…Shut up fish boy.”
Ryan fell over and took the tent down with him. “Hey! Serena! There are some things you can’t joke about, you know!”
“I-I’m back!” Emi returned with a bunch of sticks gathered up in her arms. She set them down in the tiny pit Ryan dug.
By the time they were done setting up the tents, the sun had started to set, and Emi had got a nice fire set up.
“Whoa, that’s great, Emi!” Serena applauded her.
“There aren’t a lot of Heat Orica back home, so we make home fires,” Emi explained, smiling bashfully. “Plus I used my magic to fan it a little.”
“I don’t see what the point is,” Matt grumbled. “It’s not like our rations need to be cooked, right?”
Emi’s jaw dropped. He was right! This was totally pointless!
“Ah, Matt, this is the problem, you just don’t understand!” Ryan sighed, shaking his head. “The campfire is vital!”
Matt raised his eyebrow. “Why? It’s warm out and we’ll just have to put it out before we go to bed anyway.”
“It’s the mood! Mood!” Serena said, slapping her hand. “Camping without a campfire?! Just stay home at that point!”
Matt was amazed that these were the seniors he looked up to.
Meanwhile, Emi had curled up into a ball. “Useless… my campfire… is useless… I’m useless… just toss me on the campfire and use me for kindling…”
“Can you imagine, Serena? Kids these days saying something so insensitive,” Ryan whispered.
“I know Ryan, calling her useless like that? He must be in his rebellious phase,” she whispered back.
“Come off it, I’m apologizing already!” Matt grumbled. He crouched down next to Emi. “Hey, um… sorry about just now. I didn’t mean it that way… I’ve just been in kind of a grumpy mood today. I think you did a nice job…”
“Really?” Her watery eyes shot up to him and her face brightened with joy.
“Y-Yeah, I’m just… not big on camping.” Matt hoped he made her feel a little better. He needed to go cool his head.
“Where are you going?” Serena called after him.
“Just for a walk,” he muttered, ambling down the path.
He paused. Someone was following him.
“Ryan? What’s up?”
“You forgot this.” Ryan held out a knife, identical to the one that had snapped in the earlier fight. “It’s dangerous to wander the Wildlands unarmed.”
Matt took the knife, but he didn’t expect it to be much use. “Thanks. Hopefully I break this one actually killing something.”
He turned to leave, but Ryan took his arm.
“You did good work today,” he said. “I mean it.”
Matt smirked. “Yeah. You guys keep saying that.”
“Because it’s true. Look, yeah, that knife was shit. But your instincts were spot-on. Next time you might even kill one.”
Matt glanced down at the knife. “Even if I did… what would it matter?”
Ryan blinked. “Huh?”
“Even if I can kill an Emergent with a knife… or a sword… or even a pointy stick… so what? My brother can take out a whole pack of Emergents without breaking a sweat, compared to him…”
Compared to him, what use was someone like Matt?
“Kanone Hearthome, he’s your brother, right?” Ryan asked, the smile leaving his face for once.
“There are… a lot of stories about that guy. The ‘Black Dragon’, the man who hunts Emergents for fun, even talk about how his Naturia is the strongest there is…” And Ryan didn’t even know half of it.
The Dragon Corps his brother founded was a specialized guild licensed by the kingdom for one purpose and one purpose only, the extermination of Emergents. United under the overwhelming power of Kanone Hearthome, they were known far and wide as one of the greatest guilds to arise in the last ten years.
With a brother whose face was on the cover of magazines and being touted as a symbol of the strength of the guilds, Matt couldn’t blame people for comparing the two of them.
But there was clearly no comparison.
“I think… I have a pretty good idea what you went through.”
Matt’s head shot up. Huh? What was he talking about?
“You wanted to hunt Emergents, didn’t you? That’s why you came here.”
Matt nodded. “…Yeah. The Guardians… are one of the most prestigious guilds in Autoria. I thought… that if I could make a name for myself here, if I could become as famous as my brother, then…” his voice grew softer and softer with each word, until it was barely above a whisper.
“…Maybe people would look at me that way, too.”
His heart ached in his chest. Familiar words came back to him.
“Kanone Hearthome’s brother?”
“Wow! Imagine the honor of teaching someone like that!”
“His Naturia must be just as amazing!”
“I should get close to him, then I can brag about knowing someone famous!”
The voices hurt. But confessing the truth hurt more. He felt ashamed of himself, just like yesterday in Sarah’s office.
“…It’s not… a very noble reason for joining, is it?” He admitted, slumping down.
“No, it’s really not,” Ryan agreed, shaking his head. “But like I said, I get it.”
Matt didn’t see how that was possible. “What do you mean you get it? How could you have any idea what it’s like, to have everyone looking at you, expecting you to be as amazing as someone like Kanone?! What do you know, huh?! Whenever I succeed, it’s always ‘as expected of Kanone Hearthome’s little brother’ and if I fail, they look at me like… like I…”
He forced his sadness into the shape of anger. “I’m not just Kanone Hearthome’s little brother!”
“Then why are you trying to emulate him?”
Matt was taken aback by the venom in Ryan’s words.
“You want to fight off Emergents without any weapons, you want to take on a whole pack of ‘em with just your Naturia. But you also want people to see you for who you are? Look, I’m not the right guy to say this, but if you just step out of your brother’s shadow, then maybe…”
“It’s not that simple!” Of course a laidback guy like Ryan who took everything easy wouldn’t understand! “Everyone expects me to be as strong as Kanone! If I don’t live up to him, if I’m not as good as him, then I-!”
“Who said you needed to meet those expectations, huh?” Ryan sharply interrupted.
Matt had to pause to let that sink in. “Huh?”
“Who was it that said you had to be like your brother? Was it me? Serena? Emi? Was it Sarah? Or that girlfriend of yours?”
“N-No, it’s nothing like that! It’just… if I don’t, then people will think…”
Ryan sighed and scratched his head. “Look, I’m not the smartest guy around, and I’m okay with that. And I’ve only been a Guardian for a little longer than you.” He smiled. “…But I know you definitely weren’t commissioned because you’re somebody’s little brother. Don’t you know our leader well enough by now to get that?”
Sarah’s smiling face flashed through Matt’s head.
“You aren’t ‘Kanone Hearthome’s little brother’. You’re Matt Hearthome. That’s the only expectation anyone here has for you.” Ryan patted Matt on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about what outsiders think. Be proud of what you can do yourself, okay?”
Matt slapped his hand away. Ryan’s words hurt so much he knew they had to be true. But he was too stubborn to accept something like that. “What the hell would you know about it?”
Ryan’s face hardened. He sighed. “I know because… my last name… it’s Banfield.”
It was a stunning answer.
“Banfield? But that’s…”
He nodded. “Yeah. You get it now? Sean Banfield is my father.”
Sean Banfield was a name every Autorian knew. Captain of the Royal Guard, possessor of the title of Sword Emperor. Ryan was the son of that Sean Banfield?!
“I… I don’t understand, then why are you… what are you doing here?!” Matt sputtered in disbelief.
“Not the sort of fit you’d expect from my background, huh?” Ryan laughed, giving Matt a sheepish smile. “But… I didn’t have a choice. You were talking about living up to your brother? Well…”
Ryan looked down at his hand.
“Ever since I could hold a blade, my father drilled swordsmanship into me. Hours and hours every day, filled with practice, practice, practice.”
Matt remembered seeing Ryan in action. He had swung that massive sword like it was nothing.
“But even with all that practice, it didn’t do me any good.”
“That… That’s not true!” Matt cried. “I saw you fight today, you were amazing!”
“Yeah, I’m pretty good, aren’t I?” Ryan grinned. But sorrow leaked back into his smile. “But that’s just it. I’m ‘pretty good’.”
“…Oh…” So that’s what it was…
“Every day, I would practice and get stronger. I wasn’t even half your age, and I could already beat grown men. But at the same time…” He closed his hand into a fist and pressed it against his forehead. “My father was simply that much stronger. And even though he always seemed so proud of my progress, all it took was crossing blades with him to remind myself that it didn’t matter. If I trained for ten years, twenty years, or a hundred years, I was never going to reach his level.”
In the few days he’d gotten to know Ryan, the older boy had been all smiles. But behind that wide grin was someone who had been through the same things Matt had.
“That’s… so what you’re saying about living up to expectations…”
Ryan shook his head. “Honestly, I don’t think my father ever minded. But I was still afraid of letting him down. And then it turned out I had a Naturia, I thought ‘this is it! Finally, I’ll be able to catch up to him!’ but that was a dud, too.”
Matt was seeing himself in Ryan’s smile in a way he’d completely missed before. He felt like the biggest jerk in the world.
“That… That stuff I said… about you not knowing anything, that was just-“
“No! Hey, it’s fine! Don’t worry about it!” Ryan grinned. He slapped Matt on the back. “Like I said, it doesn’t bother me! I realized a long time ago that I shouldn’t use my dad as a measure of my ability, and I should be proud of what I can do with my own hands!”
He ruffled Matt’s hair. “And you should be proud of what you can do, too.”
Matt felt lighter, looking at Ryan’s smiling face. His grin was as bright as Sarah’s.
That smile… it’s like they aren’t even looking at the bad things. Envy burned in Matt’s chest. I wonder… if I stay here… could I smile like that, too?