In my dream, a great wind carried them from the far mountains, a cloud of shrieking, maddening dark. At their head was a monstrous shadow that alighted upon the winter palace and swallowed it whole. As black mist oozed from the windows of once gleaming spires, I looked up at its majestic yet misshapen face, trying to find an echo of reason in its eyes.
There was none. Heat, dry and insufferable, had baked from its head the last thread of sanity, and its place was an insatiable hole, rimmed with fire but forever empty, for everything that could fit inside it had long been weathered to ruin by the sand of time.
As it opened jaws, the blue fire in its throat was a blooming flower wallowing in the lovely stink of sulphur, bright, beautiful. It had not the mind for talk.
Warm was the torrent of fire that spewed from its mouth, warm like the sun.
Waking up feels like breathing through a mask stuffed with putrid cotton. Groggy like a drunk is probably a better way of putting it, but I don’t even drink, except for that one time when the cousins came over and brought whatever that rank stuff in the barrel was.
That wasn’t a good day. Not being able to remember it isn’t good either.
Speaking of remembering, where is this? And what is that disgusting taste in my –
Oh I knew it.
‘Quit…quit it Haylis…’
The words come out feebly, warbles of an old man.
‘The medicine’s supposed to make you sleep,’ snaps a very loud voice, ‘so get back to it.’
‘Why…why am I eating med…med…’
‘Heatstroke and severe dehydration – in winter!’
It sounds like I’ve just won the annual Who’s-a-Weakling award.
‘It’ll visit in a few weeks. Just stay still and sleep.’
That sounds terrifying. ‘You didn’t…cut…cut it off…did you?’
She responds by flicking a finger at my elbow. That bolt of lightning, like being stabbed in a cluster of nerves with a harpoon, is no phantom pain.
‘Stop crying, you’re not even the one badly hurt.’
A lot of the foggy nonsense in my head goes away at that. Images of Kathanhiel kneeling naked in a pool of fire come rushing back – that was no dream.
‘Is – is she alright?’
‘Recovering. Her…fever...is so much worse this time. All night she spent sitting in a water barrel – the second one because the first dried up in an hour. Her skin is…her skin is…’ she shivers, ‘all cracked and…broken up like…’
Sitting up puts the world on a trampoline. One brief look at a jagged hole on the far wall (hastily patched up with wooden boards) is enough to bounce everything sideways.
‘No, you stay put.’ With a one-fingered bump on the forehead she sends me pillow-bound.
Booming footsteps; a huge eye peeks inquisitively through one of the many holes in the wall. Which little giant is that? Their eyes all look the same –
‘Don’t go anywhere,’ Haylis says as she pulls out her silent bells again.
I spend a confused two minutes looking around the room, which seems to be the centre cabin of our carriage with all the interior walls torn down. At some stage black soot had everything covered, but the many streaky wipe marks hint at the rigorous cleaning that had driven it back.
Rigorous but non-effective. Haylis, that’s not how you wipe, you need to gather all the soot to one spot, not smear them all around...
Next to a broken door is Kathanhiel’s shattered wardrobe. Her once neatly folded shirts are scattered about like colourful rags; neither she nor Haylis had thought to reorganise them. The crystalline cuirass sits in a corner, dull and unpolished, and the arced gauntlets that had shone so brilliantly are holding down a pile of straw, which by the looks of it is being used as a bed.
Kathanhiel wouldn’t sleep on there; she would set it alight.
At that thought the idea of lying down for another second becomes intolerable.
‘Where is she?’
Haylis turns around as the little giant moves away from the gap. ‘On the roof.’
‘And…inside a barrel?’ What an absurd image.
‘Oon’Shei made a lookout for her so she could stay in it up there.’
‘Why? Couldn’t she just sit inside or – ’
The rest of the sentence get swallowed up by her expression, that of not wanting to tell you the bad news but knows that it’ll have to be told sooner or later.
Something feels different.
You know that feeling when you start a conversation with someone a bit intimidating – maybe due to their size, posture, or just the fact that you’re plain awkward – and you want to talk about a topic of your choosing but just can’t, because with one sarcastic laugh the other person flies off on a tangent and never comes back?
Without realising it, that’s exactly how this quest has played out: you are bewildered, confused, intimidated by everything around you but despite all that you keep up, desperately paddling the water with those dog paws, because participating in this conversation is your life-long dream.
Then, unsurprisingly, you find yourself numb and disoriented like a stupid puppet strung along a corridor of mirrors. Nothing makes sense, not even what you thought you understood.
That’s when everything becomes detached.
The coming of the dragons had resembled a play, one that I watched from the unpainted rafters of some run-down theatre. Ah, a swarm of dragons! How terrifying! How shall the protagonist get out of this one?
Even when Oon’Shang had fallen, covered in blood, the instinct to help her had felt like a script, in which the puppeteer pulling the strings of this character called Kastor is telling him to go to her aid, because that’s what’s supposed to happen.
All that self-deprecating sarcasm, all those pointless jibes at Haylis even though she’s earnestly trying to be nice, all the instinctual dislike for Arkai, who has done nothing but give his all to Kathanhiel’s quest –
Gone. That feeling of looking over my own shoulder like a spectator is gone.
It wasn’t the fear of dragons that brought out this feeling of…realness. It wasn’t my little speech of heraldry; wasn’t the story about Talu either, though that had come close.
It’s that Kathanhiel is finally real.
Isn’t that the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard? Of course she’s real, how is that even an argument?
I didn’t really think so, you see. From our first meeting to her confrontation with Rutherford, she has always been perfect in every way imaginable, a picture of the hero I thought she was: strong, indomitable, beautiful, compassionate, has a great sense of humour…
Never for a moment did I question how her light is so bright, how she is able to shoulder the fate of the Realms all by herself – because she is the hero, so of course she could!
Meanwhile, she suffered under her own glow, prideful and stubbornly silent; it wore her thin, so thin that once you take away the fire around her she couldn’t even stand.
Of course she fell to her knees crying. That eternal hero sang by the bards throughout the Realms is not a flawless diamond; such a person does not exist.
How could I have been so blind?
‘Can you get me up there?’
Haylis raises an eyebrow. ‘Why?’
‘We have to talk to her. She’s not…she’s not thinking clearly. I can’t really explain it but I’m really scared for her after...after what happened. Do you know what I mean?’
She responds no but her eyes aren’t so sure.
‘I’m scared that the next time we fight the dragons she might…might…I don’t know what but something bad will happen.’ The memory of her clutching the burning sword against her breasts makes my stomach turn. ‘Kaishen is eating her. There’s no other way I can put it. It’s like she thinks the sword is a…a…’
‘A person,’ Haylis finishes, her eyes looking everywhere but at me. ‘She talks to it in her sleep.’ My face must look horrible for her to hastily add, ‘It only started after we ran into Talu, but it’s…it’s…I didn’t want to say anything because she must be under a lot of pressure and when you’re stressed it’s easy to –’
Stressed. Naked, burning, crying-her-eyes-out kind of stressed.
Should’ve realised. Should’ve realised long before the dragons came.
‘We have to talk to her. You have to help me Haylis – I don’t even know where to start.’
She nods after a moment’s consideration. ‘You’ll do the talking, right? You’re better at this…feeling stuff…than I am.’
What a strange thing to be complimented on.
Looking up from her prone position on the ground, Oon’Shang waves at us (‘she’s happy to see you awake,’ Haylis says, ‘and hopes that you won’t faint so easily next time.’) as her brother carefully set us down on the roof as one would a pair of kittens. We owe so much to the two of them yet I can’t think of a single thing to do to show my appreciation. Maybe I should cook them a meal. What do the little giants eat anyway?
During my spell of unconsciousness the coach had moved further up the highway, and now stands in the middle of what resembles the inside of a fireplace. Blackened earth and blasted trees, dotted with embers, flank the road on both sides and stretch forever into the north. Tired smoke, several days into its leg, struggle half-heartedly to rise against the insistent rain.
The highway itself is intact, the sturdy pavement charred but unbroken. Conspicuous piles of damp ash sit at intervals, poorly mimicking the shapes of wagons and, on occasions, people that have met a fiery end.
The back half of our coach, where the horses were, had been stripped of walls. A large pile of ash-mingled straw now sits on top of the chassis – Oon’Shang’s bed, probably. Hearing Bobby’s neighing causes quite a bit of elation; the animal, casual as always, is picking on a tiny patch of unburnt grass on the roadside. Just another day on the road for him.
That’s not even the most ridiculous thing I’m seeing. Kathanhiel is sitting naked in a barrel that had been lodged into a hole in the roof, with her arms hanging out loosely, looking relaxed. By her left hand is the obsidian bow, dark and inert; by her right is the still glowing blade of Kaishen, which she incessantly taps with the nail of her index finger, sending up puffs of steam.
Her skin no longer has that cracked-and-burning look, but prominent red lines are still riddled all over her back.
The way she sits doesn’t suggest a lookout. If anything, she could be enjoying a nice bath in a tiny barrel, except that her knees are squeezed tightly against her chest, which couldn’t be comfortable at all.
She looks around at our approach, and seems to wake up from an open-eyed dream. ‘Kastor? What are you – you shouldn’t be moving around yet.’
Smiling is more difficult than I imagined. ‘It’s just an arm.’ By the Maker the roof is harder and colder than a block of ice. ‘I can sit here. No problem.’
Kathanhiel spend one long second looking bemused, then says, ‘something feels different about you. Had an epiphany?’
Am I made of glass?
‘I-I want you ask you a few...I mean I have a few questions I want to ask you about if-if you have time, my lady...about...um...before?’
Hadn’t intended it to come out sounding so stupid, but that final high-pitched quiver really made it work. Haylis pulls a funny face as she tries hard not to laugh. Why don’t you try it instead, huh?
‘Must you? Could we not carry on as we are?’ Kathanhiel says softly.
Her eyes dim for the briefest moment – a blink, no more – but it was enough to let through a suffocating emptiness, one so deathly still and so ingrained into the arc of her brows it’s a wonder she’s still capable of being...her.
How broken you are, Kathanhiel. A body of ash, crumbling, reeking of anger. That’s what Rutherford said, but he has to be mistaken. She’s not angry at all.
‘The truth is, dear Kastor,’ she continues, putting her face against her knees, ‘I had wished for this quest to end before ever needing to...explain. Is it not enough for us to simply slay the Apex? Must we delve into the irrelevant past?’
Before I could answer she laughs at herself. ‘Of course we must. Everyone is depending on me yet here I am, drowning myself inside a barrel like a scared little girl. I’ve not grown up at all, not since...’ she points Kaishen toward where the sun hides behind the thunderclouds, ‘not since I inherited this sword from my master. It’s been ten years. Can you believe it?’
Rain streaks down the flawless blade, but none makes it to the hilt before turning to steam. It isn’t nearly as bright as it was on that night, but the glow is there, brighter on the protruding centre spine and duller approaching the edges. Her right hand is gradually turning red, almost melding with the grip, but she pays it no mind.
‘Ten years, during which I claimed the glory of slaying Elisaad all for myself, and pretended to be worthy of his mantle. Shame on you, Kathanhiel, shame shame shame shame shame.’ Her arm is shaking as the red heat creeps up to her elbow. ‘No wonder Talu forsook you. He only reciprocated what you did to your own master, foolish girl.’
She looks surprised as Haylis suddenly grabs her arm. Her left hand shoots out, impossibly fast, and breaks Haylis’s grip in an instant by twisting her wrist painfully around.
‘You have to leave it alone,’ Haylis growls. ‘We don’t need Kaishen right now so you can let it go!’
Kathanhiel immediately withdraws with a look of self-loathing. ‘Sorry I-I-my mind is adrift. Are you hurt?’
As Haylis opens her mouth lightning flashes across the sky. With my back leaning against the almost flat carriage roof it’s easy to take in the grey thunderheads stretching from one horizon to the other – still, one blink and I would’ve missed it.
There are hundreds of winged shadows lurking in the clouds, circling like buzzards.
The thunder rolling in couldn’t mask Kathanhiel’s voice.
‘I can’t let go just yet, Haylis. Our quest is not done.’