A Hero at the End of the World

Advanced Praise For
A Hero at the End of the World

“Magic, friendship, destiny...three subjects I adore in a good fantasy yarn—and Hero At The End Of The World has them in spades. Absurdly funny and insightful, the trials and tribulations of Ewan Mao—a guy whose destiny just hasn’t worked out so well for him—will keep you totally engaged until the very last page.”


Amber Benson
, actress and author of
The Witches of Echo Park

“If you like your paranormal to be metareferential, and take your magical urban epics with a dollop of amiable self-satire—not to mention giant chickens, disco balls of doom, and a Ravager named “Ralph”—then the daffy, earnest and engaging A Hero at the End of the World is the book for you!”


Javier Grillo-Marxuach
, writer/producer of Lost,
creator of The Middleman

“With a mix of sharp, witty dialogue and a detailed, engrossing fantasy world, Hero at the End of the World reads like a Harry Potter novel written by Douglas Adams. A wonderfully imaginative, hilarious debut novel for geeks of all ages. Claiborne is an author to watch.”


Eric Smith
, author of Inked and
The Geek’s Guide to Dating

A Hero at the End
of the World

Erin Claiborne

Copyright © Erin Claiborne, 2014

All rights reserved

First published 2014

Original illustrations by Jade Liebes

Big Bang Press
Brooklyn, NY

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ISBN:
978-0-9904844-0-0 (pbk)
978-0-9904844-2-4 (ebk)
978-0-9904844-1-7 (Kindle ISBN)

1. Fantasy. 2. Magic–Fiction. 3. London–Fiction. 4. Friendship–Fiction

2014951169

Acknowledgements

This book would not have been written without the help of Aja Romano, who, in addition to editing, listened to me complain, pointed out plot holes, and told me which parts were terrible; and also Cecily Nowell-Smith, who held my hand, made terrible jokes, and picked over the final copy.

Thanks to Morgan and Gav at Big Bang Press for editing and putting this book together, and to Jade for her brilliant cover and illustrations.

Finally, this is dedicated to the many internet strangers who have shared the same spaces with me and loved what I’ve loved.

Prologue

S
eventeen-year-old Ewan Mao waited outside the great hall of the man he was destined to kill, wondering if his best friend was still alive.

His knees were shaking. He had a terrible burbling sensation in his stomach, and when he wiggled his toes in his trainers, mud squelched between them. His school tie had been lost somewhere between the antechamber and here, where Duff Slan had retreated after the fall of his last minion.

The only thing now separating Ewan and Slan was a heavy wooden door. Slan had to be tearing Oliver to pieces, judging from the screams and occasional thuds coming from inside. Yet Ewan stayed where he was, too terrified to move.

Ewan had meant to go in first, but then one of Slan’s minions had appeared out of nowhere and attacked him with a spell that had rent the air with a sharp crack and left him lying on his back next to a nearly headless statue. Oliver had left Ewan behind; he’d still been crouched on the ground as Oliver had charged past. Ewan had hidden behind a suit of armor until he could work up the nerve to do a banishing spell, sealing off the corridor after they’d left it. But even then he couldn’t bring himself to go inside. He’d been out here for almost half an hour.

It was time to go in, he told himself. He had to save Oliver from evil.

Ewan sucked in a deep, calming breath, clutching the carving knife he had brought with him. He had already used it twice today to give his paltry powers a slight boost, but all he needed was enough magic to wage a surprise attack.

His whole life had been leading up to this. He was ready. So what if his years of training had never prepared him for the actual reality of coming face to face with a dark lord? Slan had always been an abstract concept—he was someone Ewan had seen on TV and in the papers, his portrait in every house, office, shop, and school in the United Kingdom—but the prophecy had made it clear: Ewan Mao was the slayer of Duff Slan, and this was what he was meant to do. It was his destiny.

Now he was finally going to meet him face to face.

So long as he could still channel magic, he could do this. He knew his normal abilities wouldn’t be a match for Slan’s, and his totem might already have tapped the limit of how much power he could take in at once. But as long as Slan, too, had already drained himself and the totems of everyone around him like a pack of cheap batteries... and had hopefully sustained some sort of crippling head injury... and so long as Ewan didn’t pass out the moment he saw his face in person...

“Get on with it,” he muttered angrily to himself.

Slowly, Ewan put a trembling hand on the door separating the great hall from the rest of the castle. It emitted a long, deep moan as he pushed it open. The sound reverberated through his chest.

When there was enough room for him to slip inside, he stopped. There was no sound at all coming from the other side.

“If I die,” he whispered, “I’m going to
kill
Oliver.”

Bravely, he stepped into the darkness, right smack into—

“Hey,” said Oliver, steadying Ewan with a hand on his shoulder.

Ewan screamed. The knife in his hands clattered to the floor.

“Calm down,” Oliver said, “it’s only me!”

His heart battered against his ribs. “Are you—” Ewan asked, voice shaking. “Did he—?”

“It’s okay,” Oliver assured him. He gestured to a motionless lump on the floor on the other side of the enormous room—lair? Was lair the more appropriate word? Ewan didn’t know the best terms to use when dealing with evil. “I killed him.”

“Oh,” said Ewan. “Wait, you did
what
?”

One good look confirmed that it was most certainly Duff Slan there on the floor, his mouth curled open in a scream, his massive body twisted in an unnatural arc. Half the furniture in the hall was upturned, a broadsword was sticking out of an altar, and it looked as though a portrait of Slan had been taken down and smashed over someone’s head. All four of the great medieval tapestries had crumpled to the floor, revealing dark wooden paneling that matched the beams in the steepled ceiling. There was something that looked like a puddle of vomit beside the throne, which had once been leafed with gold and jewels and was now blackened by a fire conjuration.

Ewan didn’t know what he was feeling. “Oh,” he repeated.

There was a long cut along Oliver’s cheek, and it looked as if his nose had been broken, but otherwise he seemed okay. He certainly sounded okay. “I waited for you, but...”

“No, no, it’s all right,” Ewan said dully. “Are you okay?”

Oliver glanced down at his once-pristine jumper, which was now covered in muck and blood. His brow furrowed. “Bloody great. This is never going to come out.”

“Um, sorry to bring this up, but... well... you do know the prophecy said that
I
was supposed to kill him?” Ewan asked. “You know, Ewan Mao, the slayer of Duff Slan?”

“Yeah, but you were taking too long,” Oliver said, shrugging, and Ewan bit back a sudden rush of anger. “Sorry, mate. You can get the next one.”

“But I’m the slayer of Duff Slan,” Ewan repeated, his voice growing louder. “Remember,
On his seventeenth birthday, the boy born in Chiswick
...”

An annoyed look crossed Oliver’s face. “I said I was sorry. It’s not like I can go back in time and un-kill him.”

Well, he could, but they hadn’t learned that spell yet. That sort of thing was university-level.

“No, I mean, of—of course not,” Ewan stammered.

Oliver gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder. “Then what’s the problem?”

His palm had left a smear of blood on Ewan’s jumper. Ewan stared at it. His stomach roiled.

“No problem,” he said. “No problem at all.”

Part 1

Chapter 1

F
ive years later, Ewan Mao sort of, kind of, accidentally became evil. And then he helped destroy the universe, which was even more embarrassing.

It didn’t begin with a bang. It began with a slight annoyance.

On the morning that would be the first of the last days of the universe, Ewan was at work. He was one of three employees of Eine Kaffee, a coffee shop that made Viennese-style drinks without any magic whatsoever.
Artisanal
coffee, his manager, Sara, called it. He didn’t drink coffee himself, so he was never sure if it was better or worse made by hand. Considering that fact that they often went days without seeing any customers at all, Ewan guessed it was worse: all the other coffee shops in London’s West End were bursting with people from opening till closing, but Ewan had counted ten customers in three days, not including a group of tourists who had gotten lost on their way to Leicester Square.

Or maybe their lack of customers had nothing to do with the coffee at all, and was instead due to the fact that Eine Kaffee, for all its claims of innovation, had a rather bland interior. The counter was painted gray, much of the furniture was falling apart (several chairs were being held together by incantations and at least one rubbish bin had blatantly been conjured into a table), and Sara had painted all the artwork herself, which was so poorly done that it resembled fingerpaintings Ewan had done in primary school. The beige walls, meanwhile, were thin enough that you could easily hear the low murmur of chatter in the off-license next door. The shop wasn’t beautiful, like the higher-end coffee bars on the high street, or even trendy, like some of the other tucked-away cafés nearby: it was the sort of shop you only ever went to when everywhere else was full.

The only thing that they might have done to lure in customers was install a Wi-Fi router, but getting a license from the Government to carry it was more trouble than it was worth.

Ewan was right in the middle of a story in the free paper—about Parliament officially renaming Duff’s Tower, which housed Big Ben, back to the Clock Tower—when the bell above the door jingled.

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