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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41. Rutherford's Wish (2)

Crimson light filters through the myriad holes in the high ceiling, illuminating a hall so vast its far walls are lost in the shadows. There are no pillars, no partitions to interrupt the infinite space; the low, rumbling groan that permeates the air sounds like the mourning of a hundred giants.

So this is the Seat of the Wardens: a great, empty belly in which all creations are left to rot.

And rot they have. All over the floor, from one distant shadow to the other, is a numberless hoard of things – machines, statues, little houses, little suns burning inside glass containers, bizarre trinkets of sizes so great the broken bits form a small hill or so small they are more trivial than grains of dust, rows upon rows of steel soldiers wielding great halberds, piles upon piles of gold, silver, obsidian, obsidian daggers, swords, great mountain-cleaving axes, gold-plated arms that hold said enormous axes, armies upon armies of diamond-carved giants, tumbled all over the floor like so many discarded dolls, half-buried in precious trash…

In the middle of it all, nestled upon a throne of obsidian shards that seem to have been melded together, is a dragon so disproportionately huge that it…it couldn’t possibly be alive. Its majestic head, from which sprouts a misshapen tumour of horns, is almost as big as its body, which is little more than a withered husk of ribs and peeling scales. The forelegs it has splayed upon the mountain of ancient junk are essentially bones wrapped in skin, the wings attached to them shredded and discoloured like the sails of a storm-beaten ship. Its tail, long enough to wrap itself around the body twice over, is all bone.  

The Apex, Rutherford, the mind behind so much screeching death, the scourge of the Realms and all things that live, looks like a skeleton from which all but the head had long decomposed.

From the broken balcony that seems to ribbon all the way around the wall, Kathanhiel and I stand still for a while, watching it in silence. There comes the breathing again: the many orifices on its snout – all nostrils, looking like fish gills – flutter at the intake of air, followed by a wet gurgling, the sound of lungs filled with water. Then, exhale, and a great plume of fire runs from its nostrils, its slack jaws, its hole-like ears, and washes over the hoard of stuff like a red flood, the heat almost unbearable even from up where we stand.

That puts the situation in perspective. There is no pitying such a creature no matter how tormented it looks: that half-dead sneeze could easily incinerate two hundred people.

Kathanhiel, her face an unreadable mask, speaks up: ‘Under its right wing – do you see?’

I squint hard. There is…something small squirming underneath, human-sized…

‘At long last, salvation.’

Rutherford’s voice crashes upon the balcony like an invisible tide, shattering the already crumbling masonry. It isn’t a big fall. Kathanhiel lands on her feet; I twist my ankle on a stupid rock and roll over three times.

Bad start. Can’t run away now even if I want to.

She pulls me up. ‘See me through to the end,’ she says, her voice quivering with emotion. ‘I need you, Kastor.’

Together, arm in arm, we approach the magnificent head, which is larger than the whole of an Apex candidate. Rutherford turns to face us, sending a river of junk cascading from its jagged throne. Its neck strains, flaky, withered-looking scales shedding everywhere – a quick turn and its spine might snap altogether.

‘Kathanhiel. Herald of fire.’

Kaishen rises in her hand, flame spitting along the length of the blade and crawling all over her body.

‘I have come to grant your wish,’ she says, her voice so very bright.

Rutherford laughs. This place has boundaries after all; ten thousand times the dragon’s mad cacophony resonate within the vast hall, turning its hoard into a floodplain of loose debris. A massive helmet with three glowing ridges slams into my midriff and all of a sudden everything’s slipping: the ground, my feet, the little fluttering of courage that had timidly chosen to stay –

Kathanhiel stabs Kaishen into the avalanche, and a cone of fire erupts between two tumbling statues, instantly fusing them together into a massive shield. Countless objects pile upon it, the metal ones sticking fast, the rest parting into two thundering streams. Blistering yellow-red lines race up from the base of her neck, ensconcing her lips and jaw like a twisted pedestal, as ridges of fire rise all over her treated shirt.

‘My lady!’

‘Don’t stop me,’ she says, her eyes locked onto Rutherford’s with chains of hatred. ‘This is what I have to do.’

As the avalanche subsides, Rutherford lifts its wings – so feeble-looking they are, as if a strong gust could rip them apart – and a figure rises from beneath it. There are tendrils of bluish smoke rises from his head, as if his skull is burning from inside out. His ill-fitting crystalline cuirass looks almost exactly like the one Kathanhiel had – must have been picked out from the hoard. That dark sabre he’s holding, however, has not changed one bit.

The fused statues are cast aside as if they weighed nothing. As Kathanhiel’s eyes happen upon her adversary, Rutherford’s voice rises in lustful eagerness.

‘One last game, before the coming of the Dark. Ah, the joy of company – my guests must be entertained!’

 

There is a cloud of stink around his body…was the food mule carrying –?

No, it doesn’t matter now. Kathanhiel is already charging forward, Kaishen blazing, and her silent foe has raised his sabre. The clash of steel rings across the vast hall, tinny and dull. They are duelling before Rutherford’s widening grin as if the rest of the world has ceased to exist.

That weird smoke is pooling around his head; a moment longer and he won’t even be able to see out of it. He hasn’t said a word, not to me, nor to the woman whom he had taunted so ceaselessly the last time they met. His face is completely blank; considering how animated he had once been, it looks so very wrong.  

That smoke…as if the inside of his skull is on fire…

‘What did you do to him?’

I just addressed Rutherford. I, Kastor, the clueless esquire who is slightly more useful than before but is still pretty useless, have voluntarily started a conversation with the Apex.

Those yellow eyes turn my way.

‘Fulfilled his wish: silence before the herald of fire.’

‘Why? What’s it to you?’

‘The Dark wills it.’

It’s as if I’m talking to a person. Take away the talk-in-your-head thing and the throaty rasp of its speech, Rutherford is human. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? This an ancient being is older than the mountains and the earth…but the hesitation in its speech is so distinct and intimately familiar; it’s the tone of not wanting to explain complicated stuff to an inferior mind.

‘The Dark wills…? No. You’re lying.’

Rutherford’s nostrils flare up. An amber-like luminescence is swirling in its pupils. I’m less than twenty paces from its massive incisors yet the Apex is somehow less intimidating than ever.

‘My time is nigh. The waning of the stars have foretold their coming, yet so worn I am, feeble I am, mind adrift in the crimson tide. My wings, they fly no more.’

‘Fire. Its warmth I no longer recall, yet blossoms its seed in the children. They let it slip through their tongues like water and stop them I cannot.’

‘Soon, the blessed silence shall absolve all who have strayed. Long have I waited for the herald of fire. At last…’

I…don’t think it’s talking to me anymore.

A loud clang. Talukiel’s dark sabre hits on the ground two inches before my feet, and as my body reacts to the fact about two centuries later by leaping back, Kathanhiel’s constricted voice rings out:

What is this?!’

I look up just in time to see Talu’s head tumbling from his neck. Those weird tendrils of smoke dissipate within seconds. Kathanhiel is frozen before the headless body, shoulders heaving, Kaishen quivering in her hand. Her lips move, trying to form words that the tears rolling down her cheeks have taken away.  

‘You…made him…hollow.

She turns to Rutherford with the ire of the sun in her eyes.

The hall is trembling again. This time, Rutherford’s laughter doesn’t end.

‘I have granted his wish, as you shall mine.’

It all happens so fast.

Every orifice on Rutherford’s head opens up; its jaws pull back with unnerving speed, revealing three rows of deadly teeth each as long as a spear. Its barbed tongue rolls into the back of its throats and materialises a blue sphere the size of a star; air begins pouring into its jaws in a raging torrent, carrying with it countless objects scoured from the junk-ridden floor. A giant-sized golden bust tumbles right into the sphere and is vaporised in an instant. That thing was solid metal.

My legs move on their own. Kathanhiel’s right there. Have to reach her before – no, no, she’s raising Kaishen above her head, the blade already glowing: dull red, orange, yellow…now brilliant white. A flash of blue; her treated shirt is incinerated, burnt away like paper. Already a pool of lava gathers around her feet. No, please, don’t go through with it, don’t do it don’t do it don’t do it, let me, let me it’s my responsibility now the heralds acknowledged me so please let it go if you don’t let it go you’ll die, you’ll die if you force yourself to keep going –

One step. Two. Three. Four. Moving so slow, too slow. There is so much useless trash in the way. The blue sphere is overflowing from Rutherford’s throat. My cuirass is on fire. My hair is on fire. The influx of air wants to pull me into its throat but my feet are half-glued onto the metal junk. My arms – red lines are all over them. Whatever Kaishen had put in me is responding to the gathering heat.

Almost there. Almost there. One more step. Hang on you stupid Apex don’t you breathe fire yet, don’t you do it when I’m the one who’s supposed to fight you not her, don’t you dare – no, no no no no no, you stupid dragon I said not yet, I said not yet HOW DARE YOU –

‘NO! KATHANHIEL!’

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