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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21. Iborus (1/2)

In the distance, between a pair of willow trees swaying in the sunlit breeze, is a log cottage with a little red door. My feet carry me towards it, each step deliberate and slow.

I'm going home; I've never seen this place before but my heart is racing – for too long I’ve wandered the world, not knowing where to go. It would be good to sit down. When I walk inside there'll be a rocking chair by the granite-laid fireplace, and there’ll be a book sitting on it, waiting to be read.

I reach for the door but a voice stops me – my voice: Don't. There's nothing here. Do you not see the wild flowers bursting from the walls of bark, the red paint piling up like shed leaves on the front steps? This place is abandoned. Empty.

But…

Where am I to go, if not here?

Upon the threshold I stand, arm half-raised, eyes helplessly fixed upon the old-fashioned keyhole. An eternity pass.

'I'm home.'

No one hears me. The sweeping willows bend low in the breeze, beckoning.

 

Soft sheets move against my skin. They smell of lavender – fresh ones, not the powdery twigs the palace cooks used to hang on the rafters.

There's shouting, coming from somewhere below. ‘Fly!’ someone yells, and an eerie whistling rides above the breeze – arrows?

A wet towel runs from my brow to chin, lingering unnecessarily long over the nostrils. Stop that. Water is coming up my nose and there'll be sneezing if you don't stop oh too late now –

'Tch!'

'You sneeze weird.’

Of course it's Haylis; a sensible person would've wrung the towel before rubbing it on the face of an unconscious person.

Argh, so bright – the room is overrun with sunlight. There are curtains on the window across the bed but Haylis had not drawn them. Where did the rain go? Judging by past trends it should be pouring every single day.

She is sitting on the end of the bed with the sinister towel in one hand and a jar of green liquid in the other. Next to her is a tray of surgical tools – bone saws and such – all mercifully clean-looking.

I look about the room. This is no infirmary, but some sort of private suite: bed, table, mahogany cabinet, and a bathtub fitted with porcelain taps. A gold-threaded tea set sits upon a corner table along with three paper satchels, each printed with the red seal of…Lord Maarakir of the Vassal States, I think.

'You're not allowed to drink that,' Haylis says as she swaps the towel for a spatula from the tray.

Drinking fancy tea is quite possibly the very last thing on my mind. 'How – where – what – why are you – what is going on? What is this place? Wait, no, before that, can I swap you for a real physician? No offense.'

'Why do you need one?' she asks with a raised eyebrow.

I open my mouth to tell her that I’m gravely injured and require urgent medical attention. Then I see my right arm: no cast, no bandages, only smooth skin with nary a scratch. Bending it feels like…nothing. There is, however, a dark patch on the sheets beneath it; in fact dark patches are everywhere.

Oh Maker don't tell me I've wet the bed during –

The tinkling of glass makes me look up; Haylis is stirring a pinch of yellowy powder into the jar. 'All the physicians are tending to Aunt Kath,' she says, 'even though there's little they can do for her now.'

My heart skips two beats. Haylis must've seen the shadow of death pass over my face, for she hastily adds, 'no no, not like that. She's fine – well not exactly fine but she’s in no danger.' Her hands fumble and almost let go of the jar. 'Wow. That look scared me. You sure you're not an imposter?'

She chuckles, but I don't hear it; in my head Rutherford’s voice is ringing all over again.

'Imposters will burn.’

She blinks. 'What?'

'Nothing.' There's the drill outside the window again: one, two, three, four, whistling sounds. 'We’re at…Iborus?'

'Why do you even ask?' Haylis frowns as she examines the back of her left hand. There are smudges of ink on there, as if she had tried to write on it. 'Whatever, I think I got it.' She shuffles toward me with the jar, crumpling the bed sheets into a messy pile. 'Drink this.'

I take the jar and almost retch; the stuff inside smells like curdled milk. 'What is it?'

'Suppressant, for your firestroke.' She looks serious. 'You're to drink it twice a day for a week, with at least fifteen pints of water per day. Orders from Aunt Kath.'

So that's what the wet patches are – sweat. With eyes squeezed shut I knock down the whole thing in one gulp. The taste is disgustingly familiar; someone must've been forcing it down my throat while I was out. Speaking of which –

'How long have I been sleeping?'

'Two days.'

‘Uh…come again?’

‘Two days.’

'That doesn’t add up. It would've taken at least four to get here from where we were, and I don’t remember anything in between.'

'Well...that's...' Haylis begins fidgeting with the bone saw, out of all things. 'But you walked…walked…you’re saying you don’t remember?'

'What?'

'I knew it,' she mutters.

'Knew what? I remember holding off the brood with...with the big Thrall, the roaring head. Reinforcements were coming and I...I drew the dragons' attention so they could use the white light thing and...then I passed out. They must've carried us back.'

Haylis looks at me. 'No they didn't. The company was annihilated. No one made it back except you and Aunt Kath.'

The room is suddenly spinning. What was it again, that dream I had? Three obelisks, and between them a dragon set in stone.

'But how...how...?'

'I was there on the wall, I saw you,' Haylis says. 'You walked up to the front gate carrying her on your back.'

Ten seconds of silence, of silent screaming inside my head.

A knock on the door.

'Ma'am, you're needed at the mines,' says an official-sounding voice.

Haylis gets up. 'Can't deal with this nonsense right now. You're right about needing a –' She raises her voice. 'I'll be right there. And call a physician.'

The voice calls her ma'am again – with complete sincerity – and marches off, boots echoing.

She gives me funny grin. 'Yeah, you heard it. Commander Kayran died a week ago and Arkai isn't back yet from...wherever he is now. Before Aunt Kath gets better I'm supposedly in charge so the Phalanx has someone to blame when things go wrong.'

I raise a hand. 'Wait, you can't just change the subject like that. What happened to me?'

'Ask Aunt Kath. She probably knows. Whole other deal to get her to tell you though...'

With that Haylis dashes out of the room, slamming the door shut only to poke her head back in a second later. 'Just talk to people if you need anything, and...and...' her face reddens; in the name of the Maker is she blushing?! '...and thank you for saving her.'

 

The white-haired physician explains – with a grating voice that could only come from chewing tobacco for half a century – that Kaishen had ‘modified the fundamental rhythm of your cardiovascular economy’, as if that’s supposed to make sense. The resultant shock to a body newly adapting to such a change might include (a list of long words that might mean something to someone who pretends to be clever).

'Arm looks fine. So does the rest of you.' Five minutes in the room and he's already packing up. 'Don't call on me again unless you fall out of a window. I have to look after the Lady.'

'Is she –?'

'Go see for yourself. What are you, waiting for permission?' he mutters as he walks out. 'Wasting my time…whole infirmary of wounded...ridiculous...'

He leaves me with two more doses of suppressant and a jar of skin ointment that smells of oven grease. I put them aside and stare at my hands for a good five minutes: they're red and covered in sweat, but otherwise perfectly healthy.

Have to find her. Ask her what happened.

Someone had dressed me with a sleeveless shirt and shorts while I was asleep. The material feels unnervingly smooth against my skin – treated with tundra essence, no doubt.

I look out the window.

Wedged between sandstone cliffs and the dusty plains to the south is a sprawling fortress girded by two rings of shiny walls. In place of spires and towers there are squat bastions – roofed with gleaming mirrors – built at intervals along the wall and the cliff face. This room, along with what looks like a hundred others, is hewn straight from the mountain rock.

The cliff bends around in a gentle concave, and directly opposite this window is a fast-running waterfall. It spills from the mountains in silver drapes and collects in a swirling lake just inside the first wall. A great canal, wide enough for two barges to pass abreast, leads off into the southeast through a triple set of sluice gates. There's not a single boat in sight; the dockyard covering a good third of the lake's surface must have them hidden.

Directly below is a great courtyard, in which soldiers clad in blazing red-white raiment are doing target practice in groups of ten. They carry no sword nor spear, only unwieldy crossbows and massive backpacks apparently filled with coils of rope. The targets they're aiming at are segments of tree trunks dangling from hooks, with bark still intact.

On the count of one they begin winding back the levers; on three they take aim; and on four they send great bolts flying into – no, around their targets. Apparently the long rope is used to tie the ends of the bolts together, and, loosed simultaneously like bolas, they coil with incredible speed around their marks. Some fly with timing so perfect that the strangling rope crushes the thick logs into splinters.

Just like Oon'Shang, crushing the dragon's neck with her bare hands.

As if answering that thought, a group of twenty or so little giants arrive in the courtyard with handcarts filled with what looks like tailings from a quarry. The one leading them practically explodes with muscle, while the rest are mostly lanky and shorter by at least a head – Arkai did get excited about seeing warrior giants. Guess they really are rare.

The warrior signals with a pair of black flags, and the others each pick up a fist-sized rock (their fists) and heave them onto their shoulders in shot-put position. Then the flags drop. A collective whoosh like swinging trebuchets; the rocks are thrown up so high they become invisible in the sun.

'Fly!' Someone shouts, and the crossbow groups immediately abandon what they're doing and send after the rocks a volley of bolts. The little giants have their heads raised to the sky, and one by one they start putting up their hands, all except one. A good twenty seconds later the rocks return and are caught by their throwers. The second giant from the left raises hers and shakes her head: no length of rope around its girth, not even a scratch.

A voice shouts, 'group eight, you’re all dead! Four laps around the curtain wall!'

No one complains. The group peeling off into a run – bags and crossbows in tow – look shame-faced and angry at themselves.

There's another knock on my door. Without thinking at all I walk to it and yank it open with the arm that’s inexplicably no longer broken.

A young woman, wearing a maid’s apron. She seems my age, with a tanned face and scab-covered hands. Her black hair is tied back into a neat bun with a sash, the same sash around the waist of the soldiers that wear the shiny raiment, except hers is tattered-looking and charred black on the edges.

The look of surprise on her face is quickly replaced by a polite smile. 'Sir Kastor, the Lady sent me to inquire upon you. She'll be glad to know that you've recovered.' From the basket hanging off her arm she takes out a bundle of fresh clothing. 'Please put these on if you wish to head out. I've taken the liberty of applying tundra essence. I hope they're to your liking.'

Her brisk manner of speech is at once intimidating and, for reasons I cannot possibly fathom, extremely attractive.

She tilts her head sideways a little bit. 'Sir Kastor? Might this be a bad time?'

Blood rushes to my face. I take the bundle from her hands like a knight receiving a lavish robe from the queen. 'No of course not I'm just distracted by your – by waking up, since you know I just woke up an...hour...ago?'

She looks apologetic. 'I'm so sorry, Miss Haylis told me –' the rest of that sentence disappears with an enigmatic grin. 'Might I make you some tea? We've plenty of Lord Maarakir's finest.'

'I thought...she said I wasn't allowed to...um...' drinking fancy tea is supposed to be the last thing on your mind, remember?! 'I – no, thank you, but I wish to see Lady Kathanhiel right away.'

She gives a brisk nod. 'Of course sir. She's in the commander's quarters.'

I take two steps forward before realising I have no idea where that is. In a panic I look down at my feet, and see my shirt and shorts drenched in sweat and sticking to my skin in transparent patches. A different kind of fire tingles up my arms.

'Could you...maybe...show me the way?'

'Of course sir.'

'Great! Just...let me...shut this for a second and...put these on...thank you.'

Later, I would realise that I had forgotten to ask her name. Too much later. 

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