"Whatever you think you know about dragons, this world and its people, I want you to clear those conceptions from your mind. Where we are going, things are likely going to be different."
"As all of you should have realized by now, our kind is on the brink of extinction. We are all that's left in this dragon-infested world. Fortunately for us, our greatest minds have poured their time and effort into the construction of the Gateway. The Gateway, a teleportation platform that can send us into an alternate reality, another dimension. For all we know, the reality we will be escaping into may be dragon-free, peaceful or even void of humans."
"Now the Gateway can only transport so many people with the last our energy reserves and after much consideration, the lot of you present here have been chosen to embark on this mission. You are all young, perhaps nervous and scared, but you have been chosen because you're all bright, resourceful, trustworthy men and women. You are our last hope-"
"Sounds a little too melodramatic, don't you think?"
Anthem Cester looked up from his scrawny writing and glared at his best friend Corey Ashrose, who was leaning back smugly in his plastic chair. He was the only person seated in the meeting room aside from Jennifer Celeste. The trio in the dry, freezing room were the closest of friends and just hours before the activation of the Gateway, Jennifer and Corey had been nice enough to listen to the short speech Anthem was supposed to give to the dozen or so that were going to be transported into another dimension.
"In case you haven't realized, Corey, we are dealing with the complete eradication of mankind," Anthem sighed, "of course this speech is going to sound melodramatic."
The young dragon hunter looked to Jennifer for support and picked up a subtle nod of acceptance. Despite the dire circumstances they were in, Anthem and Jennifer had still found the time and need to fill each other's hearts. They had fallen in love three years ago, after an hour of talking in the mess hall which seemed to stretch on for ages. Jennifer had always stood out from the other girls: she allowed the dismal living conditions of the underground city of Bastion to roughen her features, caring less about her physical appearance and focusing more on survival and maximizing whatever little time she had in humanity's last stronghold. Her dark gold hair was tied but with minimal effort, dark patches around her eyes evidenced the late nights she worked in the food processing plant and her attire was always the same: dark blue work overalls.
Anthem, however, still loved her. She was a genuine person: what he saw and heard from her was what she was. There were no scheming, shallow personalities to be dug up under a façade of beauty and looks.
"Fine. I'm too much of a cynic," Corey held up his hands, "I think your speech is wonderful. Very motivational. As you can see, me and Jenn are deeply moved."
"Drag your ass over the hide of Spike Drake, Corey. And it's 'Jenn and I'," Anthem laughed.
"See, this is why you write the speeches, not me."
Anthem was about to object that this was the first time he had ever written such a speech but saw Jennifer standing up and motioning to him to look at the time.
"Going to prep?" Anthem asked.
"Yeah. I'll see you in the gate room."
Once Jennifer left the room, Anthem turned to Corey and felt sombre for him. Jennifer and Anthem had been fortunate enough to be selected for the transportation, to gain a second chance in life in another dimension. Corey, however, was not as fortuitous. Back when he still served as a dragon slayer, he had lost leg to a wyvern and had been considered more of a liability ever since. Only able-bodied youths who had a shot at re-establishing society were chosen to be transported.
Jennifer, however, was a special case. She was the only human in history to actually befriend a dragon, to tame the elusive beast and converse with it as though it were another friend. The said dragon had been killed by a pack of slayers but the legacy remained; mankind may be able to flourish in the alternate reality but if there was someone who could allow for both dragons and man to coexist, it was Jennifer.
"You had something to tell me?" Corey quipped. He looked at Anthem hopefully and teased a smile from his friend.
"It's my last surprise," Anthem grinned. He reached into the pockets of his grey jacket, struggling a little to fit his hand through the leather brace he wore across his chest and waist. He produced a lustrous steel ring, polished to near perfection and engraved with the words "Jenn and Anthem forever" in cursive. Upon presenting the ring, Corey let out a theatrical cry of joy:
"I do, Anthem! I do!"
"Go to hell, Corey," Anthem brought the ring closer for him to inspect the engraving, "see here, it ain't for you."
"Very nice," Corey admitted, "She'll definitely dig it."
"You think so?"
"She'll love it, man. When are you gonna give it to her?"
"Right before we are teleported," Anthem pocketed the ring and struggled just as he did trying to extract it out from his jacket, "it's not exactly a proposal though. I have not sought her mother's approval."
Corey winked at Anthem and chuckled: "you don't have to once you're on the other side."
Anthem helped him off the chair and onto his crutches. Seeing Corey in such a state always pained him no matter how many times Corey had told him he did not mind being a cripple or being left behind. Anthem knew there was underlying sadness and sorrow in every mention of the alternate dimension.
"You should get your lazy ass ready too," Corey retorted, thanking Anthem with a nudge to the shoulder as he held the door open for him. The two friends parted ways, with Anthem heading back to his quarters to retrieve his gear and Corey going straight down into the gate room.
And so the time had finally come. Sixteen young men and women, none of whom were older than twenty five, stood in a line before the Gateway. Amongst the fourteen were Anthem and Jennifer; though they were the oldest in the group, they were no less anxious. The Gateway was a massive construct consisting of a circular platform surrounded by three revolving pillars of metal, which towered over the fourteen and casted a shadow so long it engulfed each of them. The device was housed in a spacious room with a high ceiling; there were no fans nor decorations, only wires and crude incandescent light furnished the room. A single, slightly rusty vent in one corner made sure no one suffocated within the confines of the thick walls.
"The young man in front of the line! Step forth please!"
Anthem fiddled with his gloves as he watched a tall, dark haired individual enter the platform. The pillars whirred to live and started to slowly circle him.
"I think your speech went fine," Jennifer whispered over her shoulder to Anthem. She was next in line, followed by him. The order was arbitrary and yet somehow, the two found themselves together.
"Really? I was stuttering like a moron."
Jennifer turned around, breaking away from the mesmerizing action of the Gateway and lightly pecked Anthem on the lips.
"I said it went fine," Jennifer asserted. Anthem broke his gaze from the hypnotic pillars and smiled back at her.
He snuck his hand between their faces and held the ring close to her face. It took a moment before she realized Anthem was holding up something and she gasped the instance her eyes focused on the ring, which gleamed with a blue hue thanks to the glow of the Gateway.
"What? What is that? For me?"
"I know, steel isn't hard to come by," Anthem replied sheepishly, "but the guy down the refinery owes me a few favours."
The pillars zoomed around the young man on the platform at maximum speed and there was a sharp crack, followed by a flash of bright light. The Gateway had worked: the person on the platform was gone without a trace. A roar of triumph from those waiting in line and the other citizens of Bastion that had come down to watch the Gateway in action. Jennifer and Anthem, however, were trapped in their own small world.
"That's awfully sweet of you," Jennifer could not help but smile as she gingerly lifted the ring out of Anthem's hands, "I can't believe you- whoa. There's even some words here."
"To a new start, wherever we are going," Anthem kissed her on the forehead and turned to see Corey propping himself against the wall on the far end of the room. He shot Anthem a thumbs-up and mouthed the words: "told you."
"A new start. I like the sound of that," Jennifer stole a glance towards Corey but the young man feigned ignorance, "maybe on the other side, you wouldn't be so rash and kill every dragon you see or judge everyone you meet."
"You're better off telling a doctor not to treat anyone," Anthem joked. He saw Jennifer glaring at him and immediately exaggerated his smile to let her know he was kidding.
The man at the controls of the Gateway called for Jennifer and she reluctantly pulled herself away from Anthem, looking back at him with every few steps up onto the platform. She now wore the ring on her right ring finger, holding it up proudly for Anthem to see.
"Commencing transportation," the same man that had asked for Jennifer announced. At the sequential press of a few buttons, the pillars started spinning again.
Anthem froze at the sound of "dragons". Who had shouted those two words? He looked to Corey once more and saw him looking past Anthem, towards the set of heavy metal doors that barred the gate room from the rest of Bastion. A lone slayer had run in, sporting the same grey jacket and dark pants as Anthem except with bloodstains all over his sleeves.
"We have a breach! No less than a few hundred dragons!"
"They're here to finish us all off," Anthem muttered to himself. He caught Jennifer looking at him worriedly with eyes wide with fear.
"Hey! Get them all through the Gateway!" Anthem ordered the spectacled man at the controls and he stammered a soft but audible: "yes, sir."
"I need everyone here to help me hold off any dragon that comes through into this room!" Anthem addressed the entire room this time. A few dragon slayers amidst the crowd of onlookers eagerly joined Anthem by the Gateway as it furiously worked in the background, throwing menacing, tall shadows across the walls of the gate room with its revolving pillars. The slayers were all armed with long, silver metal rods with three-pronged hooks on one end. Anthem too was armed with one; these weapons were dubbed "Grapplers", and were able to fire their hooks with deadly precision and power. Dragons were typically killed with this deadly device by either firing the hook through their skull or neck; the hooks can then be reeled in using the motor built into the shaft of the Grappler.
"Anthem!" Jennifer called out over the noise of the Gateway, "you're coming, right?"
"Once everyone else is through!" Anthem replied without turning round. His two feet were planted firmly to the ground, ready to engage the first dragon that came through the doors. He could hear their roars, the scrapes of their claws and the screams of any human that got in the way of their jaws.
"Here they come."
A black dragon that was just slightly larger than a horse came running into the gate room and met its end with a well-placed hook through the centre of its skull. The slayer on Anthem's right had taken the shot.
"Keep them away from the Gateway!" Anthem ordered, stepping to the side and firing his Grappler at the throat of another similar looking dragon. He reeled the hook in and dragged the creature across the floor, ceasing its thrashing and flailing of limbs with a second strike through the throat. He pumped the side handle of the Grappler to ready the hook once more and took aim at a puce wyvern which had flown up towards the ceiling.
BAMF! The compressed air and spring within the Grappler sent the hook burrowing into the wyvern's leg. Anthem yanked the Grappler downwards and dragged the wyvern out of the air and onto the ground. He took a quick look around as the hook was reeled in and noticed that half his fellow slayers had been killed within the few seconds since the attack.
"There's too many, way too many," Anthem realized. He batted away a gaunt dragon with a strike to the side of its jaw and backed closer to the Gateway. Jennifer was still on the platform, yet to be transported into the alternate dimension.
Anthem saw that a bone white dragon had somehow found its way onto the teleportation platform and was now closing in on his girlfriend. Anthem held his breath and leaped just as a pillar whizzed past. Given different circumstances, he might not have been able to muster the courage to jump and avoid collision with metal columns that were as heavy as trucks but now, he was prepared to do everything and anything for Jennifer's safety.
"Over here you bitch!"
The pallid dragon turned and snarled at him. In one swift motion, the dragon whipped Jennifer with its thick tail and smacked her into one of the revolving pillars. There was the huge crunch of a hundred bones breaking simultaneously and Jennifer disappeared from Anthem's line of sight.
The dragon roared and pounced. Anthem slid under its body and jumped onto its back, screaming with rage as he drove his Grappler into the base of its neck again and again. The dragon's cries were deafened by Anthem's own and it was not until he managed to completely severed the creature's head did he stop, snapping out of his rage-filled reverie.
Anthem's pants were now utterly incarnadined with dragon blood and his vision was obscured by a concoction of tears, sweat and cruor. The drive that propelled him into combat deserted him as soon as it had reinvigorated him.
Anthem looked around and spotted her corpse across the room. Her lower torso had been twisted a hundred and eighty degrees about the waist and a massive scar tore her left cheek. All around her lay bodies of the other people that had been present in the room but Anthem could not focus on anything but her. His perfect girl, his partner in life and closest friend was dead.
Anthem choked on his own breath and collapsed onto his knees. Everyone in the room was dead and twenty-something dragons were now encircling the Gateway, hissing and growling at Anthem but afraid to leap inside. The metal pillars were revolving so fast they appeared as a blur, a vortex of steel and copper.
"I'm so sorry, Jenn."
Anthem buried his head in his hands and sobbed. He was alone once again and he knew he was going to die alone. Anthem had completely forgotten about the fact that he was on the teleportation platform, milliseconds away from being transported into another world. Now, he could only think about Corey and Jenn, the two most important individuals in his world that had helped him along and gave him something to live for.
"I'm so sorry."
Anthem finally forced his eyes open to confront his soon-to-be killers.
And then there was a flash.