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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11. Dragon Fire (1/2)

Two days later we pass by an empty town. A lone wagon, stripped of wheels and decorated with bits of torn yellow fabric, sits in the middle of the street covered in wind-blown junk. Plastered on the walls of every building are yet fresh-looking flyers featuring cross-shaped lizards.

Every house is abandoned, their swinging doors dancing to the rogue bells atop the village chapel, which is only a stone’s throw from the edge of the highway. The chapel’s walls are splattered with what looks like green paint; someone had scribbled onto it two big white lines of profanity, declaring in colourful language the end of the world.

I shrink back from the window. The scenery has triggered a few unwanted thoughts that have so far been repressed by the comings and goings of the day. They’re very loud now, and louder still they’ll get as Iborus draws closer. 

There’s no variety to them; they’re simply ‘I can’t handle dragons’ and ‘this isn’t a good idea’ repeated a thousand times with differing levels of panic. An esquire of Kathanhiel shouldn’t think these thoughts. They’re cowardly, embarrassing, shameful…not to mention cowardly…and shameful…

But what am I supposed to do, with my steel toothpick and armour of leather?

Kathanhiel hasn’t said a word about how we’re going to proceed – our strategy and such. Every time I ask her this she just taps Kaishen on the scabbard and tells me to stay safe. 

The lack of reassurance is nerve-wracking, and every day the nerves get worse.

During that afternoon’s training I had landed a hit on Haylis’ hip – for the first time ever – and in return she punched me on the nose hard enough to move it sideways. Her horrified and apologetic face looked comical; that’s why I laughed at it, all high-pitched and out of breath and choking on my own blood.

She had sounded high-pitched too. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean to swing so hard I didn’t realise what I’m doing –’

Oh the hilarity!

Later, as I poured boiling water into Kathanhiel’s teacup, I forgot that I was pouring boiling water and emptied half the kettle onto my hands. She took it away before I could empty the other half, and said not a word.

Then, for the third time that day, I ended up in the horses’ room before remembering that Arkai had Killisan taken away. Bobby is not the same; a great white stallion is not a creature one could casually approach, never mind having a conversation with.

By night my hands were shaking again. They weren’t as bad in the morning, but now the pathetic dance routine is back.

Dragons. Dragons are coming. Any day now.

 

Another day, another morning with nothing to fight; despite having passed three abandoned towns now there’s still no sign of them. We are alone in the middle of the vast plains, running north on a highway that will never end. The flat greens stretching endlessly in every direction make our coach seem like a rudderless boat, drifting down a river of stone towards a great chasm just beyond the horizon.

This waiting has to be worse than actually fighting. It has to be.

Otherwise I’m more of a coward than I thought.

 

Yet another day of dreadful waiting later, we reach the crossroads. Here the highway intersects with a road that runs east to the Ford.

Smoke is rising on the eastern horizon.

After two minutes of gazing at it, Kathanhiel announces from the roof, ‘that’s not dragon fire; too fine and too scattered.’

‘What is it then?’ asks Haylis with her face pressed against a window.

‘Riots, most likely, as reported by the Ink Scouts. Too many scared people in one place.’ Kathanhiel says as she climbs down. ‘A shame. I’d hoped that…’

‘Kastor was going to tell you that he’s staying no matter what.’

I briefly consider roleplaying Arkai and telling Haylis to mind her own business.

Kathanhiel smiles. ‘Perhaps I was foolish to suggest the ferry in the first place.’ She comes close and takes my hands in her own. ‘Are you certain? Our road ahead will be…hurtful, and you may be asked to give more than you could.’

Don’t know what to say don’t know what –

‘I-I want t-to stay with you anyway.’

‘Why? Because there’s no longer a choice?’ she asks.

‘I won’t run away when you’re still here. I’ll not be Talukiel.’

‘But your hands tremble so.’

‘They do what they want.’ Shaking my head like a tambourine doesn’t make the stutter go away. ‘But I’ve made my decision and you can’t make me leave – I mean, you can but – I’d p-prefer that you don’t.’

‘What will you do when the dragons come?’ she asks.

There’s only one answer to that – the only one I can allow myself. ‘I don’t know.’

Her fingers, so smooth and strong, give my hands a firm squeeze. ‘I do. I chose you for a reason, Kastor.’

 

That night, the dragons come.

 

Kathanhiel, who has sat on the roof since sunset, suddenly calls out, ‘Haylis! HAYLIS!’

She comes running out of her room in a lacy nightgown. ‘What is it? Are they here?’

‘Tell the little giants that they’re not to stop, no matter what.’

Ah, finally. My cuirass, my sword – they’re right here, already warm from being hugged close.

‘Kastor, fetch my bow, then bring over every barrel of water we have.’

Moving. Barrels – no, bow first. It’s in her room. Here it is, leaning against her table and already strung, which is a relief; those steel sinews are beyond my strength. The bow is solid obsidian and heavier than a suit of armour – how strong must she be to use this?

Wait, where are the arrows? Where are they?

Have-have I even packed arrows? They weren’t in the quartermaster’s list of inventory. That means -

Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no oh no oh no.

‘Kastor, my bow!’

What do I say what do I say what do I say what do I say what do I say what do I say what do I say –

‘I-I can’t find the quiver! I must have left it some-some-no I forgot to-this is not happening –’

‘I don’t use arrows. Just bring the bow, hurry!’

I run out, shove the bow out through the roof hatch, and proceed to hunt down those pesky barrels with renewed vigour.

Water barrels. At the back, in the room with the horses. By the Maker these are heavy – come on you measly biceps; now’s the time to show off, not in front of a mirror!

‘Haylis, is everything secured?’ Kathanhiel yells, her voice riding above the wind.

‘Yes!’ ‘Cover yourself with shirts from my wardrobe, the ones treated with tundra essence. Kastor you do the same. Stay down, no matter what!’

I hear it as I secure the last barrel under the hatch.

The roar of dragons.

I’m alone, shivering and alone on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean, looking up at a sky roiling in dark rage, spitting lightning and hail. The wind knocks me the ground, and as I lie there frozen with primal terror, a great wave rises in the distance, thundering, infinitely vast. There’s no thinking of survival, no strategizing, only fear and awe and the inevitability of the monster that will swallow all in its path. 

That is the sound they make.

I dive under the pile of shirts and almost shove out Haylis. She instantly grabs my arm and clings to it as if that’s going to help. Her burning breath puffs onto my neck three times a second, and even the dragons couldn’t drown out the sound of her clattering teeth.

‘Kathanhiel is here!’ I grab her trembling hands with my trembling hands. ‘She’ll beat them! This isn’t even her final –’

Something huge slams into the side of the carriage. The steel walls buckle, and the sound of massive teeth grinding against it overwhelms my own screams.

Another, from the opposite side, SLAM, shattering two inner walls and a cabinet full of plates.

Then another. SLAM. And another. SLAM. The back half of the coach folds in as if clenched by a massive hand, and the whole carriage rears like a panicked horse, suddenly running on two wheels.

The horses. They’re trapped back there.

‘Kastor? Wh-where are you going? KASTOR!’

Haylis’s grip is so strong I’ve no idea how I shook it off. Walking on this floor feels like treading ripples. Nonsense! How does one tread ripples?! Why does that reedy scream sound like laughing and why is it coming out of my mouth?

SLAM, and the door to the back snaps from its frame and misses my shoulder by an inch. Bobby and Haylis’ horse are tossed – hooves thrashing, mouths foaming – against the far end of the room, right on top of the only exit big enough for them to get out from. My feet carry me forward; one stray hoof smashes into my shoulder but the pain passes quickly. Thank you, overly large shoulder pads.  

Come on now, edge across, one step at a time. The lever is right there. If I pull it the big door will open and the horses can try and run -

The opposite wall splits open with a metallic scream. A great jaw, filled with three gleaming rows of teeth and a purple snake-like tongue, shoves itself into the hole screeching and snapping at the air.

My eyes have never been so clear. The dragon has three incisors, a big one at the front and two behind waiting to replace it; all three are twice the size of the other teeth in its respective row and sinks deep into the dragon’s lava-bright gums, perhaps all the way through the jawbone. They’re also brilliantly white, which makes no sense – shouldn’t they be charcoal black from all the fire that’s –

Oh, the fire.

A blue sphere appears in its throat. Blue.

Can’t even close my eyes. Can’t raise my arms. I just stare at it, the sun in its mouth.

I haven’t even done anything –

A spear of flame descends from the roof and runs clean through those jaws as if the iron scales are cotton. The scream that ensues is like a thousand long nails scraping across steel.

Kaishen. It withdraws as quickly as it came but the dragon is already dead and falling out of sight. A meaty crunch, and the carriage heaves dangerously.

The horses. Move it!

That gap is too ragged to fit the animals through, but noises are coming in just fine. Individually, dragon roar sounds like those violent seagulls at the beach that snaps food straight out of people’s hands, except louder, hotter, and with a compulsive rage that means they’ll destroy anything put in front of them.   

Seagulls. How does that even make any sense –

‘I don’t knoowwww!’

The lever is right there, pull it!

The big door snaps open and breaks off its hinges immediately, tumbling into the night with a series of bangs. The highway is a blur; the horses might break some bones, but at least they’ll have a chance at living.

‘Hurry you two! Jump!’

They’re horses, idiot! They don’t understand!

Bobby is the first to get up. The night air must have encouraged him, for he doesn’t even hesitate before taking the leap, his mane fluttering in the wind as bravely as any king’s banner.

Ooph, that landing.

Haylis’ horse is backing up like a coward. Do I really have to kick you? Do I really – alright I kicked you now get moving!

The animal jumps for it; the moment it goes airborne a massive jaw swoops in from above and snatches it clean out of the air.

One blink and poof, gone.

I scramble from the doorway not a second too soon as a whip-like tail crashes onto that exact spot, shattering the floor and tearing steel from the wall like pieces of paper from an old tome.  

Then the gleaming rows of teeth return, and the room fills with fire.

 

The hay piles flash and turn to dust in an instant, the wooden trough shatters into black bits, and the ceiling, made from triple-layered steel, glows white hot and droops like a piece of tarp.

How am I still alive?

The wall of flames stands three inches from my nose, but instead of cooking the little human it just hangs there, roiling waves of orange and red and slithering tongues of blue. Its heat is surprisingly tame. Something’s holding it in check…but what?

SLAM. This one comes from the ceiling.

That’s no dragon’s head.

Long, thin, wreathed in fire, Kaishen plunges through the roof and into the room. Immediately the dragon fire doubles back on itself in a retreating wave, spiralling around Kaishen’s blade in ever tighter circles as if the sword is drawing it in.

It is drawing it in. Every bit of fire is plummeting into Kaishen like water into an infinite hole.

What? What?

Got no time for this. Stop looking and run.

Stumbling, crawling, I make it out of the fire and into a front room filled with smoke. Where is – there she is, under the table. 

The moment I hear Haylis coughing I immediately join in. The smoke is purple-black and putrid, filled with the ash of things that are not supposed to be made ash.

‘Can’t – breathe –we have to – open the – ’

Front door. If we open it the tunnelling wind will clear this up.

But the dragons will also see us.

Suffocation or incineration? There’s no sane choice here. For someone who is currently suffocating, there is no choice at all.

Drunken footsteps, punctuated with hacking coughs, hammer away on the floor. A moment later Haylis rips open front door, and the violent gust charging into the room clears it in seconds.

Breathe! Inhale!

So hard to open my eyes – the smoke makes them bloodshot and painful – but I can’t just walk blind into the middle of –

Horrors.

A swarm of small dragons, each the size of a pony, are clinging to Oon’Shang’s head and torso. These ones’ screeching really resemble seagulls, shrill and violent and utterly berserk. Claws are flying, jaws tearing, orange plumes puffing between their teeth, wings bashing against one another – more vicious than rabid dogs.

Oon’Shang is still running at full speed and pulling the coach with one hand. With the other she swats at the little dragons the way one would swat flies. One gets crushed against her back, all its bones instantly broken; two more are thrown to the ground and trampled.

One latches onto the back of her neck and bites into it just as she grabs its nail. A disgusting tearing sound ensues. Its body falls, but its head is still latched firmly onto her flesh, its teeth having sunk all the way through the muscle and into an artery. Blood starts cascading down her back in thick streams.     

A burst of red explodes from above, sending what sounds like a small mountain into the ground. A severed tail, longer than the entire length of the carriage, falls out of sight.

Can’t pay attention to that right now, whatever monstrosity Kathanhiel is keeping at bay.

Haylis has drawn her sword but there’s no getting close. The tails of half a dozen little dragons are thrashing before her face, slowing reducing the front of the carriage to woodchips. They’re like iron-cored whips; a single hit could break an arm.

‘What do I do?!’ she yells.

‘What do I do?!’ I yell at her.

Oh that’s not good. 

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