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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20. Kaishen's Chosen

‘Kastor…KASTOR!’

Someone…calling my name…

Come on, cowardly eyes. Open up.

A world of grey death, a storm of cinder and ash. Before me stands Oon’Shang, an immovable statue encased in black tar. The slab of rock on her back is nowhere to be seen, but her stance is still frozen as if carrying a great weight.

She’s not moving. Not moving at all.

Charcoal-back skin is peeling all over her body. Her globular eyes seem melded into their sockets. As I watch, her left arm detaches itself and shatters into charcoal bits as it hits the ground.

No. No no no. Because of me. Because of me she –

There’s a jagged hole in her chest, just below the neck. The sky is visible through it.

No. This is a dream.

Kathanhiel’s voice cuts across the dreadful silence. ‘Kastor! Call out to me!’

This is a dream it has to be what have I done to deserve having my life traded for hers –

‘KASTOR! STOP KIDDING AROUND!’

Her voice is tearing. First time hearing her scream liking this; not even with Rutherford did she sound so desperate, losing her mind.

Parting my lips is like peeling apart three layers of glue.

‘I’m here!’

The loudest yell I could manage is a breathless wheeze. Head so heavy. Eyes feel like they’re about to shrivel up and roll out of their sockets.

A minute or a century later, muffled footsteps seep through the mud and into my ears: slow-quick-slow-quick, the rhythm of a cripple. With it comes a wave of dull heat, like that of a dying furnace choking on ashen logs.

‘Oon’Shang…’ I hear her exclaim. A dull thud; she falls over.

Crawl, stupid, put your hand on that scab of rock and drag – no not that arm not that one, the other one – good, now crawl.

Seconds pass, and she’s not getting back up. That thought somehow makes me crawl faster.

The ash tastes disgusting, like acidic coaldust. The solidified earth cuts open hands, knees, and every piece of skin in between.

There she is, leaning against a jutted rock with a look of soul-devouring exhaustion. Her skin is steamed red but at least it’s no longer glowing. Somehow her shirt, made out of that slippery fabric, is still intact, along with her crystalline greaves that seem to have been dipped inside a volcano.

Her left arm is clamped onto a boulder, using it as leverage. The stone surface underneath is already a dull red.

Her right arm is ten times worse.

A gauntlet made out of charred flesh had grown out of her skin. Her hand is twice its normal size, an abomination of metal and flesh melded together by hundreds of blood-red veins. Angular flourishes that eerily resemble her crystalline armour had grown out of her elbows, climbing all the way to her shoulder in gnarly spirals. It’s also falling apart. A great chunk breaks off her upper arm, too big to be just the growth.

Kaishen, however, looks completely inert. Under the rain of ash it looks just like any other sharpened metal stick: dull, lifeless…unfeeling.

Kathanhiel sees me. Her eyes are drooping, as if fighting off sleep, but from them pour relief so palpable no one in the world should deserve it.

‘Thank the Maker. Thank all the gods that ever was,’ she whispers.

I stop two paces in front of her, coughing and regurgitating my lungs. So painful, but this is no time to be taking it eay.

‘The…fire…’

She leans forward, digging Kaishen into the earth as leverage. ‘When I slew Elisaad, this same contest lasted thirteen days.’

‘Thirteen…?!’

‘Kaishen did all the work,’ she says, looking at the sword the way an esquire would a great dragon slayer. ‘As ever, I am but a bag of flesh and bone dragging him down.’

Him…?

With a grunt she gets on her feet, anchoring on Kaishen all her weight. The exertion breaks a massive chunk off her right arm, but she manages it.

‘I hope it rains again,’ she says casually, offering her left hand.

Skin contact with her would probably set me on fire; my languid brain registers that fact but does nothing to help. All it sees is her gesture, and the instinct to reach out is skipping the brain altogether. Her hand is warm and smooth – sweaty too, which makes no sense. Just seconds ago it was hot enough to cook stone.

I look at her.

‘I thought so. You survived, after all,’ she says gently.

‘W-what?’

With strength far surpassing that of someone who has not rested for four days should have, she pulls me up. Her staggering is almost a relief; it makes her look human.

Oh no, I’m falling again. These cotton-stuffed legs, embarrassing me for the hundredth time with the cheap you’re-a-weakling trick. Wait, don’t fall that way, she’s standing there don’t knock her over –

 

Kathanhiel’s embrace feels heavy, suffocating even; being half a head shorter, my face finds itself squished against her neck, which is sticky with sweat and almost too hot to touch. In those two seconds of closeness, before my leather cuirass being set on fire ruins everything, she says: ‘Thank you.’

‘My-my lady I don’t know what –’

She pulls back and sways on the spot. Her eyes droop again. This time they stay shut for a full five seconds before she opens them again with a grimace.

‘They will return,’ she says. ‘Of this wave a few hundred still remain. They won’t stop coming until every last one of them lies dead or I do, which is fine by me. However –’ a faint laugh ‘– This is no enfeebled Elisaad unleashing mindless hordes. Rutherford knows what he’s doing, committing in waves, each just strong enough to push me further.’

I open my mouth say something stupid, but she shakes her head.

‘Now I must put you on the spot, Kastor. For this I apologise with all my heart. Please, do not think ill of me.’

‘My lady what are you saying – ’

She takes a step backwards and plants her feet upon clear ground, shoulder width apart. Kaishen she stabs into the earth, and upon its pommel her hands rest, right over left; a regal stance, one captured in countless paintings.

‘Kastor, esquire to the Heir of Ush’Ra and the Crimson Herald…kneel.’

‘What –’

‘Kneel, please. Make this easier for me.’

There’s a weird buzzing in my head, a nest of bees trying to find their way out.

I kneel.

As the eastern horizon brightens with yet another dawn, the merciless wind tears another chunk from her right arm.

She speaks, her voice echoing as if inside a great hall of marble. ‘Courage, loyalty, compassion – the intangibles in the mirror of the self, sought by those who enshrine these virtues so that others might think better of them. The blade of Ush’Ra does not tolerate pretence. Dragon fire devours the mind, and the devourer of dragon fire recognises only the true mirror, that of hate and love…for both are one and the same.’

Here she hesitates. Her grip on Kaishen tightens, her fingers digging into the steel handle with compulsive claws.

‘If he was here he would berate me for rambling on and wasting time,’ she sighs, ‘but that’s what happens when you part with the one you love; you think that perhaps, by saying one more word – delaying the inevitable by one more second – your fates would change, and your beautiful dream will no longer end with painful waking...that it will be real forever.’

Suddenly her knees buckle and she almost falls, barely leaning onto Kaishen for support. I begin to reach out but she stops me.

‘Stay where you are!’ She warns. ‘Or I’ll change my mind.’

Gently, as if caressing a lover, she runs her left hand upon Kaishen’s edge. Sparks, not blood, fly from her palm in golden bursts.

‘Look at me, clinging to this false ceremony as if it has any meaning,’ she says. ‘Foolish girl. Stubborn girl. Should’ve done this long ago.’ Her eyes snap to mine; they burn with feverish light. ‘Kastor, hold out your hands.’

My arms move on their own, even the broken one.

‘Cowardice, ineptitude, doubt…these are the intangibles in your mirror, pretences that have hidden your heart. The blade of Ush’Ra has them shattered, laid bare all that you are, and it has deemed you worthy.’

Sweating rivers and wheezing now with every breath, she pulls Kaishen out of the ground and places it flat on her hands.

‘Take it.’

 

Why is this happening?

Have I not been useless all this time, cowering in my hiding spot?

I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t move either, until Kathanhiel reached forward with the last of her strength and put Kaishen in my hands.

Careful it’ll be hot passes through my head in big, bold writing…but the sword is completely cool. The flawless and unadorned steel is a dull boring grey, and if stashed inside a barrel with a dozen other ten-crown swords one wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

I look up. Kathanhiel is smiling. What a lovely smile; bright as the sun, radiant, warm, unburdened by sorrow, untarnished by all that had come to pass in her life…or is it a pretence too?

‘Completely ordinary, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘Just like you and I.’

With the first ray of sun comes a sudden gust.

Her arm.

It disintegrates.

The wind breaks it into a thousand pieces, each chunk ember-red like fiery coaldust. They dance their way into the sky, into the approaching clouds, where they will dissipate into droplets of fire and return to earth again, eventually, as harmless dust. The people they hand on will have no idea.

Kathanhiel closes her eyes and collapses with the smile still frozen on her face.

‘My…lady?’

Is-is she…oh please Maker don’t let her be…

She’s breathing, laboured and feverish but still breathing. The red stump on her shoulder is slowly returning to the colour of flesh, though the wound itself has long cauterised.

I look down at the thing in my hands.

Kaishen, Bane of Dragons.

It’s raining again. The clouds are moving in, carrying with them the ichor of life. 

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