That One Time I Went On A Quest

Kastor applied for a job he wasn't qualified for and got it. His employer? A woman known throughout the Realms as the greatest dragon slayer in the world.

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35. Catacomb of Giants (3/3)

At last, something different. How long as it been – days? Weeks?

Our endless march has led to a set of doors so disproportionately huge, Oon’Shei is maybe just under a tenth of its height. They are two slabs of obsidian, polished smoother than mirrors, and engraved upon them is the first image produced by the little giants that I have ever seen…

And now I wish I have never seen it: a fat dragon, crouched inside three talon-like obelisks, is surrounded by a concave of little giants kneeling in what has to be prayer. Behind the obelisks is a cliff, which gives way to a rippling ocean dotted with weird eye-stalks, kind of like snail eyes. At the top-right corner, in place of the sun, is what looks like a full-face helmet that closely resembles the type knights would wear to battle. A helmet, of all things?

Before the door, Oon’Shei is doing what those little giants are doing in the scene: kneeling with his head touching the floor. Oh how I wish Haylis is here. She could explain this with that condescending voice of hers and tell that panicking rat scurrying inside my head to stop squealing. 

‘My-my lady, what is that?’

‘I don’t know,’ replies Kathanhiel, her eyes drawn to the mural just like mine, ‘but it looks like the Stone Graves.’

‘What?!’

‘Well they do.’

‘But isn’t that where we’re going?!

Oops, that was too loud and too high-pitched. The stone corridor is now echoing mercilessly: “going…going…going,” as if that’s the single greatest word ever enunciated.

For the first time since forever, Kathanhiel’s lips curl up into a smile. It fades quickly, however, as a small, sloppy noise – like the scampering of wet feet – seeps from the other side of the door. There…and gone. But this is one thick door, which means that is no small noise.

Oon’Shei, his hands already in pushing position, freezes.

For twenty, thirty seconds the three of us remain absolutely still, listening. Even the horses have sensed the tension and are holding their breaths.

….

There it is again, clearer: Whoosh, whoosh. Scurrying. Soft crackling, like breaking eggshells.

Kathanhiel inhales sharply. ‘Up,’ she whispers, leaping onto the saddle; I follow suit. Oon’Shei is glancing back at her; he has picked up the scythe-blade. She mimes a running motion, then points forcefully forward: run, no matter what. Oon’Shei nods, giving her a thumbs-up, then throws his weight onto the door. The hinges begin to turn in complete silence.

‘Kastor, I’ve not been feeling well,’ she says suddenly. ‘Should I be forced to use Kaishen’s power, take it away from me.’

‘I...what?’

A tide of sweltering heat blasts forth from the widening gap. The great hall beyond looks enormous, as if an entire mountain had been gouged hollow. There are cracks and holes criss-crossed all over the floor like a demented puzzle, and they are all glowing a dull orange-red – magma below, has to be. Hundreds of gargantuan statues, with heads so far above the ground up they’re lost in the shadows, stand guard in twenty or so perfectly straight rows, facing toward us. Behind them, in the far, far distance, is the entrance to another tunnel.

Never mind all that. There is no time to appreciate the scenery, for the hall is saturated with the sound of beating wings. Strewn all over the ceiling and the walls, stuck fast with brownish grout that looks like remoulded rock, are countless blue-shelled eggs with helix-like yellow patterns. I’ve seen those, in books, in paintings; no creature would paint their eggs with such garish colours except for the dragon brood.

A lot of them had already been broken…but not all their occupants have left. Swarming in great clouds at the heads of the statues, spiralling around the lofty ceiling masquerading as flocks of harmless bats…so many. Ten thousand? Twenty?

How do they eat?! How do they get out?!

Sure enough, heaped high in shadowy corners and between the feet of statues are piles and piles of dead ones, being feasted upon by the living. The wet squish of flesh torn from bone is what came through the door, and it is so loud, so loud, an endless banquet for scavenging cannibals.

Bile, rising in my throat. Didn’t vomit on the highway, or at Iborus, but this place…this place…

Thundering footsteps: Oon’Shei has started running. Kathanhiel too, with a whip of the reins. Killisan, the best horse in the history of horses, is following Bobby without any direction from his rider, who is too preoccupied with trying not to throw up.

The stink. Oh the stink. The sulphuric fumes of bubbling magma mingled with faeces and decaying flesh.

The dragonlings are not reacting to the intruders in their home. We pass by four gluttonising flocks and not one even turns its head around. The flying ones too show no sign of descent. This…has to be an insidious plan of some sort; they are waiting for us to be in the centre of the hall, then they will block off the entrances and surround us and come in waves until we are exhausted then they will kills us and pile our corpses onto the piles and wait for them to rot and then eat eat eat eat

Nothing of the sort happens. Oon’Shei constantly spins his head about, the scythe-blade rising and falling, readying to strike and backing down as the dragonling flocks come and go in complete obliviousness. Kathanhiel, incredibly, has returned Kaishen to its sheath, and is running her hand through Bobby’s rippling mane: calm, calm, it says. The white stallion, as always, doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.

Maker the stink –

Killisan is floundering: dilated pupils, flared nostrils, sweat streaming down his back…this place is getting to him, as it me. After so many trials, he has finally reached his limit; his gait is wavering, weaving side to side as if dodging invisible walls. I remove the saddlebags and heaved them onto my back. Any moment now he might trip over and –

There it is.

His front hoof lands on a rock just large enough to be an agent of fate. A clean snap of breaking bone. The world flips over. Then the terrible neighing comes and stupid tears well up before I can tell them off. Sorry, it’s my fault, I made you come down here even though so many times you’ve saved my life. Goodbye, dear friend. Be sure to come to my hearth in the evergreen. The garden will be all yours – chew on whatever you want.

I’m flying again. A giant hand swoops in and snatches me up by the midriff; Oon’shei, reacting fast.

Something sticky is smeared all over my hands. Feels like…blood. Where does it come from?

All thoughts fade as that oh-so-familiar screeching returns, deafening, feverish. The great hall shudders as a putrid wind descends from the high ceiling, carrying with it the numberless apocalypse.

‘FASTER!’ Kathanhiel yells as she gallops ahead, hand clawing Kaishen’s grip.

Oon’Shei swings me about and holds me to his chest like a mother would her baby. He runs like the wind, the scythe-blade whistling in his right hand. That mighty weapon has a long grip meant for both hands; with the added burden of a useless little human he’s not going to be able to fight effectively. It’s happening again, my uselessness dragging everyone down.

Running…running…

We are almost there. The tunnel is directly ahead, not two hundred paces away. Can’t see what’s behind me, but the screeching is only getting closer. Oon’Shei is twirling the scythe-blade in a silvery storm, and already half a dozen dragonlings have shredded themselves on it. No sense of self-preservation at all.

Suddenly, darkness. The tunnel. In the far, far distance, glittering above us like the northern star, is a pinprick of sunlight. Almost there! Once we are out of the catacombs we will be…will be…

No. Not safe. Nothing is stopping the swarm from following us. Kathanhiel will be forced to use Kaishen, but I can’t let her, she told me not to let her, so it’ll have to be me – I’ll have to fend them off. But even if I somehow manage that impossible feat, killing so many newborns will certainly draw Rutherford’s attention. What will happen then? Will the Apex divert the brood from Iborus and send them after us? If it does…if they come…how many more times can Kathanhiel fight like she did on the highway?

It’ll be the end of our quest.

The tunnel is inclining. Up, up. The sunlight is getting closer – it’s a line now, straight-edged. Another set of those massive doors, hanging ajar as if someone had left them open just for us. If they are shut before the swarm reach the surface –

Two hundred paces. One hundred. Fifty.

Sunlight – weak, pale, with no warmth whatsoever – spills onto my skin, yet for a dizzying moment it feels as though we are still underground. The tunnel has led to a ravine surrounded by insurmountable cliffs on all sides, with a dozen twisting paths sliced into stone heading in every direction but up. Overhead, a thousand feet in the sky, is a stone bridge curved from left to right in a symmetrical concave, like an unnerving smile.

Guess that’s the Crescent Bridge. All the way up there.

Pulling into a full stop as soon as she’s cleared the tunnel, Kathanhiel dismounts with Kaishen in hand. Then the world turns into a kaleidoscope once more as Oon’Shei rolls me onto the ground like a lawn ball, bags and all in tow.

The unearthly howling rising from the tunnel is right at our heels. Shoving his scythe-blade into the ground, Oon’Shei puts his back to the door and pushes with all his might. Black-coloured veins pop up all over his bulging biceps as his heels carve trenches into the earth, fighting for purchase. His globular eyes are glowing faintly red, as if lit up from within.

Shivering with century-old dust, hinges screaming, the massive door slams shut just as the first snarling head reels into the sunlight. A squishy thud. A hailstorm of banging and scratching. Oon’Shei leans back hard, arms spread out as if to wrap them around the frame. There are no locks or bars on that door. Lifting his wrists, he does a small waving motion with both hands.

Leave, it says.  

 

The door is bulging. Solid obsidian is bulging.

There is a tremor in the earth, different from the senseless violence of that tunnel. It is the same feeling I had in the mines of Iborus, as we mourned the passing of Oon’Shang – the passing of emotion through the earth.

Oon’Shei is singing again.

He is eager to die.  

That thought appears in my head out of nowhere. My heart is racing, and it’s as if I could understand him. Absurd. No way am I hearing anything he’s saying.

His eyes, glowing so red. There is no way I can read them, yet…yet…

There could be other ways of holding back the flock, but he is choosing not to find them.

As if to confirm that idea, Oon’Shei turns his head toward me and gives a double thumbs-up.

A hand touches my shoulder. Kathanhiel’s. It is insistent, but it isn’t trying to drag me along. I look around. The great scythe-blade is stuck in the ground two feet away. When the siblings were parting for the last time, Oon’Shang did something with the…

Impulse takes over. I put my hand on the open blade and make a cut across the palm.

‘I…I won’t let you down.’

No way he heard me. I think he nodded but I can’t be sure. Something gets stuck in my eyes as Kathanhiel pulls me onto Bobby’s back. Hooves fly, and Oon’Shei starts to get smaller. Big doors, big giants…from a distance they don’t look so intimidating. They have never been intimidating. What was that stuff Kathanhiel said about little giants always working alone? That can’t be true. Those who are alone don’t have friends that cry because they are gone.

Bobby gallops full speed into a gorge to the right, and the door to the catacombs disappear behind a vine-encrusted cliff. 

‘Haylis told me,’ Kathanhiel speaks up, her voice not quite steady, ‘that when he headed down to the mines he had meant to stay there forever. But you changed his mind.’

I can barely speak. It’s not the throat. ‘But…I didn’t do anything.’

‘I would beg to differ,’ she says. ‘You have done much. For Haylis. For the siblings. For me.’

Moments later, we hear it: the great din of shattering stone. I can picture the scene in my head: his massive hands picking up the scythe-blade, spinning it in a whirlwind of defiance before the approaching death, and a song of joy he sings with each strike, echoing in the earth.

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