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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39. Heralds of Fire

Once more, down on this path of willow trees swaying in the lurid breeze. In the distance, a log cabin with a little red door. I can taste the scent of chrysanthemum in the air – so familiar, soothing too.

Walking. Walking.

Wait.

Is that…?

There’s a rocking chair on the front porch, rocking on its own. An open book is set upon it face down, slipping. With each sway it slips a little further to the edge. When it falls the person reading it will lose his place.

His? Why did I assume –

The book falls. The flipping pages appear to be blank.

I reach out but it’s too far away. Oh well. I can pick it up when I get there. The book has the patient to wait.

A hand catches it.

Her hair is so long, almost reaching her waist despite the cascade of curls. She puts the book back where it was, face down again. That…that won’t work. The chair is still rocking and sooner or later it’ll fall a second time and it’ll be the same thing all over again. Better tell her that.

A tremor. The whole cabin rattles. A tile falls from the roof and shatters on the porch.

She turns to me. ‘He has sensed Kaishen’s presence,’ her voice is younger, throatier. ‘It was warding off the cold, and that was enough.’

As she speaks, the book slips to the ground. She makes no move to catch it.

‘He is coming,’ she says. ‘We have but a brief moment. When I say so, I want you to turn around and let this place go. Whatever happens, remember that I am here. Kaishen is here. You are not alone.’

A violent gust hammers into my back. The willows bow away from it, as if trying to flee from the very earth. Gone is the pleasant smell of earth and flowers, replaced by the smoky tang of burnt firewood.

She turns towards me but her face is blurred, out of focus.

‘“Let it go,”’ her voice is fading in the searing gale. ‘That’s what I kept telling myself. But this refuge is not here because I want it to be. It is Kaishen’s gift – to me, and now to you: a small reprieve from all who dare invade the sanctity of your mind.’

Boom. Boom. Footsteps behind me, massive ones. I think I know whom they belong to; in lucid dreams such as these, there are no surprises. I must have fallen unconscious as it crept into my head. This is nothing fancy or unexpected – just the same old trick as last time.

Her voice is almost gone, her figure blurred beyond recognition. ‘I don’t know what it’ll do, I don’t know how long this will last, but I am by your side, always. Kaishen is here, holding your hand –’

Explosion. The willows are on fire. The path of stone turns into a stream of bubbling lava, and like the wick of a candle it sets the log cabin alight. Whoosh. The little red door shatters. Inside there is…there is…

‘– so take a deep breath, dear Kastor –’

…inside there is a silhouette, kneeling before the fireplace. A…man. In a fancy cloak. He’s holding forth a blade of starlight, as if giving it away –

‘– and let us face the enemy together!’

 

I turn around.

The eyes of Rutherford.

They are enormous, each the size of a newborn star. Its pupils are a putrid yellow, the colour of that tainted snow. The whites are jagged bands of crimson and black, shimmering as if lit up from within. They look familiar – not the weird combination of colours, but the expression. The emptiness. It’s looking at me but…not seeing.

Rutherford speaks, its words reverberating in my skull louder than a thousand clamouring bells: ‘Imposter, usurper of the righteous flame – how brave you are to have come this far.’

Fire blooms around me in an unfurling rose, taking over the sky, the earth…there is no more red cottage or gentle breeze, only a pit of flames and walls of lava pressing in from all sides – a furnace big enough to fit two stars and a little human.

Never have I felt so calm. Inexplicable.

‘I’m not here to fight you.’

Rutherford leans in.

‘Then die.’

The walls of lava collapse in a gigantic wave; the ground heaves, broken by a thousand blue-flamed geysers that sprout swarm upon swarm of little dragon heads, all snarling and baring their teeth –

Pain unbearable, a molten vice squeezing my skull. Those people enchanted by the Thralls, with smoke coming out of their eyes and ears – so this is what they had felt.

There is no final battle, no contest of fire; I’m just another worm, incinerated by the flick of a burning match and spared not a second glance. How else could it have turned out, really? The mind of Kastor the esquire against that of the Apex – right. Match of the century.

Doesn’t feel good though, dying like this. After having experienced so much I think I deserve a little better. Not so far as a fighting chance – that’s too much to ask – but just an acknowledgement that I am getting crushed by choice, that I, Kastor, esquire of Kathanhiel, am not getting annihilated by the Apex with his back turned. That would be nice.

So rude, to be brushed off like this. Like dirt.  

Sorry, I have to refuse.

I refuse to die like this.

A hand closes around mine. How familiar it feels, yet…different. With the last of my strength I tear my gaze from Rutherford.

Cradled in the firelight, she looks like a goddess. Her bronze-cast face looks youthful, almost child-like. Her golden hair is dancing with the flames. No gentle smile on her lips, only a wide grin that runs from ear to ear…like a hyena; what a terrifying expression, yet it looks perfect on her perfect features, as if she was born to grin like this.

‘At last, my calling,’ she says, jutting her chin out at me. ‘Quit shaking, coward. I detest weaklings like you.’

My jaw drops to the floor. She didn’t just say – but she couldn’t possibly – this can’t be her, even though she looks exactly…no, not exactly. Younger. She looks ten years younger.

‘Help me out here.’ She beckons at someone behind us.

(Of course she has two hands, one to hold mine and one to wave with. Why shouldn’t she?)

The curtain of fire briefly parts. A stranger walks up and stands by her side…a stranger? Why would I think that? Who else could it be but –

His face is a healthy, ruddy pink. The gaunt cheekbones I’ve always pictured him with are buried beneath a jawline that is a little too full. His dark hair is a lustrous pond of curls, his eyes, though razor-sharp, are brimming with laughter. And that is a beer belly. He can’t be over thirty yet. Not one inch of him looks like a warrior.

‘Kath, manners,’ he says, his voice jarringly deep. ‘Not everyone is as tough as you.’ He looks at me and sees me looking at him. ‘No wonder she picked you. We could be brothers.’

‘Ah! Here we are again!’

A young man with a bizarre orange-coloured eye-patch strides forth from the fire, taking the hand of the not-stranger. The uniform of the Ink Scouts makes him look like the world’s most dashing cavalier…kind of like…

‘Come forth, heroes of the Realms!’ He yells, staring straight into Rutherford’s eyes and laughing. ‘A worthy heir has arrived! Heed the will of Ush’Ra, and return this miscreant to the Darkness whence it came!’

Everywhere the fire breaks, receding. Hundreds of figures, men and women, young and old, materialise in the churning light, gathering before the wide eyes of Rutherford until they – we – become an army. A voice whispers to me all their names.

Heralds all, the heirs of Ush’Ra’s sword.

It’s the world’s most unlikely staring contest: on one side, the (ghosts? remnants? memories?) of heroes whose names have long been forgotten; the other, the singular mind that recognises them all and loathes them.

No…that’s a false assumption. Rutherford quails before their beaming faces, as if…as if they are too bright. In those yellow pupils there is no malice, no hate.

‘So be it.’

The world of fire shatters like glass. The rain of ash that follows is charcoal-black and full of cinder at first, but slowly, irreverently, the flakes are turning white and cold. A chilling gust; the mountain cold seems to be returning.

Rutherford’s closes its eyes. ‘If it is Ush’Ra’s will,’ it says, spitting out each word, ‘a contest of fire it shall be. Approach my throne, herald of fire, and upon my life your worth shall be judged.’

As Rutherford’s eyes fade into nothingness, so do the hundreds of noble souls that came to my aid. They grasp each other’s hands, wave at me as if passing by an old friend, and one by one merge with the descending darkness. All save one.

She is still here, still fading but for the moment her whispers still linger in my ear.

‘I like the Scouring,’ she says, grinning even now. ‘It lets us be together again. But it means nothing to you and your…living in the present, thriving on the moment. Oh I am so jealous. If only…if only…’

The blizzard chases her final words into the abyssal night.

‘Take care of me, won’t you?’

 

Rocking back and forth, back and forth.

Have I opened my eyes? Can’t even tell, since it’s pitch black and freezing either way. Oh but there’s warm skin against my face, smooth skin, smelling faintly of chrysanthemum.

Kathanhiel’s neck.

She’s carrying me on her back; short one arm, she’s holding her sword between her teeth. Even with the weight of an extra idiot she’s still practically gliding on the snow.

Kaishen. Where’s Kaishen?

Right here. My fingers have been slack but the grip is stuck firm against the skin. Figured. Just because it was missing in the dream doesn’t mean –

Alright, enough of being pathetically silent and silently pathetic.

‘What…happened?’

She pats me on the butt. Twice. Cheerfully, I think. She can’t speak because of the sword in her mouth.

The world brightens with yellow light. We have come out from the shadow of a tall building and the black mound is right in front of us, not a hundred paces away. Up close, the fiery glow of the Kalarinth Citadel resembles that of a giant bonfire, roaring in defiance of the very notion of winter.

Without warning Kathanhiel drops me to the ground. My butt lands on something jagged and before a yell of pain could come out one of surprise cuts in before it. The snow explodes around us; three prowling dragons, each the size of a giant mastiff, leap at Kathanhiel with balls of blue fire seeding in their throats.

The exchange lasts two seconds.

Her sword falls, edge twirling in mottled reflection. She snatches it up and drops to her knees. A crescent of deadly silver, too fast to keep track. A wave of heat blasts out as if ejected from a furnace, and the three dragons land in six pieces, all their heads severed precisely below the ear.

She promptly regains her feet, wiping her blade on the snow and leaving a crimson gash.

‘They kept coming while you were Scoured,’ she says, offering me her hand as if nothing happened. ‘Only stunted ones here it seems. We would be in trouble otherwise.’

‘So…what exactly…?’

‘Rutherford sensed you; he tried to overwhelm your mind.’ She pulls me up effortlessly. ‘One of the dangers of using Kaishen, consciously or not. Fortunately, the sword has a countermeasure for those who are fit to wield it.’

‘Is that what it was, the cottage in the willows, with the red door?’

Kathanhiel stumbles; I catch her by the shoulder just in time. ‘I…didn’t know it would show you…’ she looks at me with strange eyes. ‘It should have led you to a safe place, a sanctuary, but…but why had it been my…my…?’

I could only shrug. There is a more pressing concern.

‘I didn’t try…try to kill you did I, during the Scouring?’

She seems relieved, or just relieved to answer another question instead. ‘No. That’s something only I would do.’ She makes a sound that’s halfway between a chuckle and a sigh. ‘Come. We’re almost there.’

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