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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16. Four Days (1/2)

Absolute pandemonium. They come in waves; first the small ones, then the agile ones that easily dodge around Kaishen’s fire with graceful mid-air spins, then the small ones again, then the hulking mountains that blot out the sun.

Never knew there were so many dragons in the world. The Endless Ranges must be empty by now, with the parade of thousands churning up the earth and the sky all around our lonely coach. There hadn’t been nearly as many to begin with; the Thralls drew them to us, as Kathanhiel knew they would.

On the first day, the Thralls decimate the brood more effectively than any weapon. Unlike those miserly humans who had their brains burnt out, they have quite the different effect on the creatures they imitate. In their presence the dragons turn on each other, with teeth and claw and fire. Mingled in the rain is a red mist that sticks to the skin; vile screeching and the tearing of limbs soak through the clouds, as bolts of lightning cast upon them writhing, snarling shadows.

Hours and hours and hours pass.

No idea why the Thralls work this way and frankly I don’t care. Don’t care to ask either. Don’t care to look up. Don’t care to move a toe. Biting on my tongue stops the screaming, and putting hands over ears gets rid of about a third of the noise; these are the things I can do. There’s no room for thinking, reacting, or displaying great heroism and courage.

If only the same expectations could be applied to Kathanhiel; for her there is no reprieve.

From morning to sunset she stands on the roof holding Kaishen and the Thralls at the fore. At first she was shaking all over and barely standing, but now…now the redness of Kaishen’s fire has crept up to her shoulder, and the rain can no longer linger on her skin for more than a second before turning to vapour.

Shrouded in bellowing steam, she is now statue-still, her crystalline greaves shining like bottled stars; if not for them her feet would undoubtedly be sinking into the roof.

With nightfall comes a violent wind descending from the north, dragging a herd of rainclouds from the mountains, but the deluge that follows can rage on forever – drown the entire world even – and still the cry of the dragons would rise above it.

In the darkness, the light of Kaishen makes the distant shadows impenetrable…which is what catches Kathanhiel off-guard.

Another horn-headed dragon charges out of the gloom – not from the sky but the field in a full sprint – and rams into the coach before either of us could react. Crunch; amidst shattering steel its neck crumples like a stack of paper.

While airborne and comically flailing, I see that its eye sockets are empty and bleeding. Those are claw marks on its face.

Oon’Shang, bless her heart, catches me as one would a falling child. Still unable to stand up straight, she half-crawls into a dark grove on the side of the highway, outside the reach of Kaishen’s light.

Here, even though we’re not exactly hidden, none of the dragons pay us any mind; they seem to only care about one thing.

As Kathanhiel falls from the broken roof the Thralls disperse into nothing. The moment she lands on her feet, dozens of bull-sized silhouettes materialise from the dark fields, growling like starved hounds and surrounding her on all sides. Their wings are small and sickly yellow like broken cocoons, but the forearms to which they’re attached are as thick as their hind legs.

As they close in, prowling like wolves, the one in front begins to seizure: mouth foaming, chest heaving, legs bucking with such force that its spine snaps in two. With its last breath comes the ecstatic laughter of Rutherford, echoing as if across a great chasm.

‘Games, games we shall play, ere the herald comes!’

As one the rest charge forward, half-leaping half-sprinting and closing thirty paces with a single bound.

Kathanhiel pivots on the spot, Kaishen rising in a timid arc from left to right. As blade meets iron snout there is a bang like hot steel struck on an anvil; blinding white flares crack open their faces, sending the dragons flying with their heads turned to bloody holes.

The tip of her sword snakes out with inhuman speed, and the banging goes off like fireworks: twenty-two in five seconds, all in one pirouette. A third of the dragons fall headless in a ring around her, more with limbs missing, but there’s also a cape of red on her left shoulder, courtesy of a pair of claws that had slipped through.

The corner of her mouth lifts up in an impatience tsk. Normally composed to the point of emotionlessness, that one subtle expression might as well be a silent scream.

The dragons come again, feigning and dodging with terrifying speed, but it makes no difference. The moment they lunge Kaishen is there to greet them, always one step ahead, and upon its glowing edge they crush their own necks.

After the second round they all lay dead.

 

It doesn’t end.

After that it’s the swarming little ones descending in shrieking clouds, and after that the burrowing ones that burst from the fields with drill-like claws, and after that it’s the contest of fire between Kaishen and an inexhaustible line of Apex candidates, each lasting for hours.

All this time I keep expecting her to loose Kaishen like an arrow and nail one through the skull…but it doesn’t happen again.

At one point she attempts it, levelling her obsidian bow at one descending right on top of her. Kaishen is notched, loosed, and between the dragon’s eyes it lands, but without the brilliant white fire there is only a great explosion as Kaishen shatters its skull into a hundred pieces. As Kaishen returns to her through that strange pull she almost misses it, her fingers fumbling off the pommel. 

Instead of incinerating the little ones in a great inferno she strikes them one at a time; instead of instantly overpowering the Apex candidates she engages them in lengthy tugs of war. That whole night her sword doesn’t stop, not even for a moment, and as the red fire gradually blanket her body she begins to slow down.

From one second to ten, then to thirty, the dragons are living longer and longer before being struck down.

On the dawn of the second day there’s no more room on the highway for fresh corpses, and as a new wave of grounded dragons claw aside the bodies of their fallen brethren to get at Kathanhiel, the inevitable happens.

A second after sending a fiery arc into yet another swarm of little dragons, she spins around, ready to face the two great ones prowling up behind her...and her own momentum knocks her down. Comical, it looks, like slipping on a banana peel.

The pair of dragons – just your average run-of-the-mill house-sized types – dive in instantly, clawing and snapping at each other in a race to get to her first.

There’s no time to think ‘typical Kastor, useless as always’ or ‘so much for helping her, don’t make me laugh!’ There’s no time to think anything at all.

What happens next leaves no room for thought.

She rises. No, not standing up – that would imply being under her own power. She is dragged to her feet, as if an invisible giant is pulling her up by the sword and against her will. In her hand Kaishen is bursting with energy; sparks, streams of fire, beams of white light, they ricochet off the blade in all directions, igniting whatever they touched, be it stone, flesh, or cold steel.

The two dragons, as one, lunge with their mouths gaping in an attempt to swallow her whole…but they’re not the scary thing here.

It’s the way she moves.

Usually she’s fluid, disciplined, and lightning-fast, a stoic dancer performing a difficult routine and making it look easy. This time, she flings herself forward in an ugly tumble: shoulders askew, body twisted sideways and not facing the way she’s going. With a great and clumsy leap that looks like a human-size doll being thrown, she hurls herself into the dragon’s jaws.

I catch a glimpse of her face the split second before it disappears behind three gleaming rows of teeth. Her eyes are wide open, but they’re not lost in some far off place.

They’re empty.

Two agonising heartbeats later, the belly of the dragon bursts open, and what at first appears to be a ball of lava splashes down beneath it. From the smoking pile Kathanhiel rises – not stands, rises – covered in unspeakable entrails that are literally cooking on her skin, and levels Kaishen at her next target.

No, that’s not quite right either. She doesn’t point Kaishen; Kaishen points her, dragging her body around in an awkward arc with all the grace of a one-armed puppeteer.

With a ferocious lunge she tears into the next in line. And the next. And the next.

 

There’s a nonsensical noise echoing in my head, and in it swims a sickening thought.

She lied.

She didn’t mean it when she said she would cut them all down. She only pretended to get upset at Haylis for questioning her ability. They were lies she told herself; in her heart of hearts, she knew it couldn’t be done.  

But what choice did she have? The hero of the Realms couldn’t possibly give up – it’s not allowed. She’s here to save the world after all, and what is the point of a hero if not the solver of every problem in existence?

So with that peace of mind everyone proceeded to offer up their own burdens as gifts. Take them, my lady, they said. Help everyone, everywhere, all at once, and her pride, adamant its resolve, had agreed.

This is why Kaishen has taken over.

Kaishen does not break. Kaishen does not despair. The blade of Ush’Ra is propping up its wielder’s exhausted hand and pouring all its fire into her body.

A body of steel can fight forever. 

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