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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18. Imposter (1/2)

Two days pass, during which I learn that cooked lizard taste like beef jerky dipped in toxic glue, and that dragon blood is liquid invigoration.

Kathanhiel, after waking up on the second night, gulps it down by the gallon. Ugly black shadows have dug in below her eyes, and her cheeks have the sallow, anaemic look of a corpse even though her chest is pounding.

‘Have they returned?’ she asks, her voice feverishly clear.

‘A few…but I think the crater scares them.’

The great inferno had not only taken out the road, but also a chunk of land big enough to fit a village in. Our carriage, our steel carriage, is a gooey box-shaped pile half-buried in rubble near its centre.  It’s completely submerged now; yesterday’s deluge has made a lake out of the crater.

Even though it stinks of death and probably contains a dozen diseases, the lake has kept not only Kathanhiel alive, but also allowed us a moment’s rest: couldn’t ask for a bigger mirror. Every time a dragon gets remotely close it immediately doubles back, twisting its head away in spasms.

‘Kastor…where is…where…’

‘Here.’ I put Kaishen in her hand.

She looks apologetic. ‘I’ve no right to…it’s yours now –’

Couldn’t shake my head any harder. ‘No no no no, no…no,I don’t even know how to use it I mean I can barely swing a normal sword let alone a – a –’

Softly she laughs, with blood foaming on the corners of her mouth. ‘I’ve not made it clear perhaps. Skill matters not at all. Kaishen will teach you.’

‘Uh…how does that work?’

‘Do you think dragons care for parries and ripostes? I employ swordsmanship because I am made of blades.’ She smiles again. ‘You don’t have to. You may…jog, swim, do push-ups, anything…as long as it makes you strong.’

‘So…is that why you picked – ’

She shakes her head, already fading. ‘Less question, more sleep. May I…may I keep Kaishen for a while? Take it if you need…to…’

I loathe to put her in the crater’s water – it stinks oh Maker it stinks – but the rain is too fickle to be relied upon; one moment it could be an ocean turned upside down and the next a leaky teapot. It’s been a day and her skin is still making puddles boil; she needs to be submerged almost constantly.

Ridiculous. Everything is absurd.

This broken-armed esquire is supposed to take care of someone on the verge of death when he’s not taken care of anyone his whole life, while at the same time fend off hundreds of dragons with a magical sword he knows nothing about?

I’ve not even buried Oon’Shang, not even had time to think about it. Despicable, really.

Kathanhiel sighs in her sleep as cold water rises to her shoulder. Despite her state of near-death she seems oddly restful, as if finally comfortable with lying down and closing her eyes.

‘I’m not going anywhere.’

What? Who did I say that to? She’s asleep, idiot, stop talking to yourself!

 

At first it seems strange that only a stray few are circling above our heads – the water’s reflection is not that scary, surely – but the more hours go by the more obvious it is that they’re onto something else.

Not until the third night, when the northern horizon starts glowing, does it occur to me that the brood have turned their attention elsewhere. Flashes of what looked like distant lightning turn out to be some kind of colourless fire, bursting mid-air in fireworks of pure white moonlight, only a million times brighter.

Dragons don’t make that stuff.

I nudge Kathanhiel awake. She looks at me all bleary-eyed, with pouted lips that said whatever dream she was having was better than real life; one glance at the where my finger is pointing sends a shock through her body.

‘No. Not like this.’ She tries to sit up, and would’ve fell back down without my arm behind her. ‘Has my fire waned so much –?’

‘What do we do?’

No hesitation. ‘We must draw their attention,’ she says, ‘so our friends have room to fight back. Take my – your sword.’ She shoves Kaishen a little too forcefully into my hand. The metal is still warm from her hugging it in her sleep. ‘Leave me and stand – don’t look so worried, I won’t die today – stand, good, now hold it with both hands. Both hands, Kastor. That arm is still mending I know, just put two hands on the grip.’

I do all that. Now what?

‘Now what?’

‘Now summon the Thralls.’

Oh of course, easily, piece of cake, no problem.

‘Um…’

‘Verbalising your goal should make visualising the outcome easier,’ she says. ‘In other words, just ask.’

I look at her. Asking makes sense (does it really?) – quite a few times now she has spoken to Kaishen like it’s a person. Remembering that doesn’t stop my thumbs from twitching though.

 ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be asking this of you,’ she says gently. ‘Give me a moment and I shall make another attempt.’

This is embarrassing: I’m worrying about whether a stick, a mindless metal stick, will lend an ear when I talk to it, while Kathanhiel, who can’t even stand, is treating my pitiful, laughable fear as a fault of her own.

‘No I…I can do it.’

I lift Kaishen into honour guard, the cold metal an inch from my brow.

‘I…I don’t know if speaking to you will do any good – I mean, you’re not a person – but this must be some kind of…some kind of self-conditioning, like lecturing yourself in front of a mirror, right? If that’s it then…then I’ve already failed. I can’t make the Thralls – that’s the end of it,’ deep breath deep breath, ‘but I’m going to anyway. I’m not letting her do it all alone. So help me. Help me.’

There is no transition, no hold-on-I’m-not-ready; Kaishen goes from dull to fiery red in two seconds. There’s suddenly a dreadful sucking on my grip, like I’ve just stuck my hands inside a barrel of leeches. Couldn’t let go…it won’t let me go.

Then the liquid fire starts pouring in through my fingertips and all thought of blood being sucked dry disappear. I’m holding a creature made of cinder, one that crawls up and up and up through my veins in painful bursts. For a second the heat pools around the bone that was broken, but one blink later it’s past that and digging at the back of my eyeballs with barbed teeth. Then comes heat unbearable.

It hurts oh Maker it hurts everywhere. Why aren’t my arms swelling? The yellow-red stuff is streaming inside them – like rivers of lava burrowed under my skin – so how can they look so normal so not on fire –

Struts, hot metal struts, are propping up my arms and neck and face like stuffing a crumpled coat with a hanger. Collapsing is not possible, no matter how much I want to; my legs, baked through and had the life sucked out of them, refuse to buckle…refuse to even shake. My broken arm is moving and that’s unsurprising: fire, not bone, is holding me up now.

‘Show your resolve, and let it go.’ I hear Kathanhiel say, her voice weirdly amplified.

What does she mean?!

Kaishen’s tip opens up, a flower of light in full blossom; hundreds of vertical white lines begin cutting apart the blade, forming roving strands that rise high into the sky with ephemeral grace and entwining into familiar, triangular shapes.

The Thralls are here to do the bidding of their new master. 

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