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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13. Shadow of the Apex

Watching the scene unfold is like being audience to some obscure and nonsensical play about dragons and heroes; none of it seems real.

The bearded dragon towers over the field, its head a battering ram of bronze scales and ash-encrusted teeth. A yellow-tinged cloud, thick with the stink of sulphur, blows out of its nostrils with every breath.

The voice of Rutherford, a guttural drawl thick with cackling ember, is that of thousands of voices speaking at once.

‘Long have I waited.’

‘Long have I dreamt of the silence and craved it.’

‘I see you, herald of fire, and behold a body of ash, crumbling, reeking of anger.’

Kathanhiel walks forward and, empathically, comically – even though it doesn’t look funny at all – levels a punch at the dragon’s flank. A dull thunk.

‘I’ve not come to listen to your rambling.’

A phlegmy choking sound escapes the dragon’s lips. Laughter.

‘The Dark has tainted your heart, you who is meant to break it.’

‘Yet it matters not, for our fates are hewn in stone: to madness shall this mind succumb, as it has countless times before, and by fire the herald shall set it free.’

A sudden jet of flame bursts from Kaishen’s tip and engulfs a nearby corpse, setting it alight. Flashes of white run up the blade like glares in a mirror, fast and blinding.

Kathanhiel raises it to her face. ‘Soon,’ she whispers, ‘one last effort for your girl, what do you say?’

The sword calms, if such a thing is even possible, and as its glow simmers down to a gentle red the flashes fade into obscurity. They are not gone, only blending seamlessly into the metal, pretending to be reflections.

Again the dragon laughs, booming and eerily lustful.

‘The sword of Ush’Ra grows restless...it knows what must be done.’

‘It knows nothing because it is a weapon,’ says Kathanhiel with bitter mockery. ‘You’re going to give me your head, and that’s going to be the end of it. That’s what we both want.’

The dragon shakes from the tip of its tail to the tendons on its jaws.

What sorrowful denial. Strike me down, for vengeance, fate, or for naught – all are meaningless, for ere the rise of the new sun I will return, and the cycle will begin anew. There shall be no end.’

‘But the sweet respite of that brief twilight – silent, serene, filled with light unending – that is to die for!’

Rutherford pauses.

Alas, such meagre salvation means nothing, for I am eternal, immortal, freed of the blessing of death and cursed to roam the skies forever. The heralds come, they strike me down, the heralds come, they strike me down...yet The Dark remains, and with it the gnawing madness.’

‘Dim are the days of Elisaad, of Allarissa before him, of Tiranus before her, of the world that was drowned in fire, then swallowed in ice. The face of dear Ush’Ra is but a mask of grey, featureless, impenetrable.’

‘Memories, fear, anger, love...the winds of the mountains have carried them away, never to return. In their place there is only The Dark.’

‘Deny your fate, pitiful Kathanhiel; struggle, for that is your wont. I have seen your heart, and it is empty.’

 

A hand is tugging me by the sleeve. Haylis has returned with the barrels.

‘What’s happening?’

That question does a better job at breaking the trance of terror than anything else could have, simply because it’s so out of place.

‘Haven’t you been listening?’

‘No I…at the beginning I was too scared, then it got kind of long and…kind of boring…’

‘Boring?! That’s Rutherford!

Her face turns white. ‘That’s the Apex?’

Argh, the pain. The broken arm is clamouring for attention. Incredulity seems to have woken it up.

‘No – Rutherford is speaking through that dragon, can’t you tell? Remember how their minds are connected?’

‘Why is it talking instead of eating us?’ she asks.

I don’t know is the only answer I could give, but I don’t want to give it.

‘Maybe…maybe Kathanhiel has it scared.’

It’s only right for the Apex to be scared after seeing Kaishen slice apart a mountain of a dragon in one hit. So many endless nights I’ve spent worrying over whether I can find the courage to fight the dragons, whether deep down I’m the same kind of inglorious coward as Talu, that the very fact that I’m having this conversation with a nonchalant Haylis, who claims to be bored, is ridiculous.

Everything is turning out exactly like the time Kathanhiel faced off against those assassins. Before the power of Kaishen, eater of dragon fire, slayer of an Apex candidate in one hit, all that fear and self-doubt becomes trivial.

It’s so…awkward, as if I’ve been running from a bully my whole life only to have a giant stomp on him by accident. What am I doing here, standing in a street full of stomping giants, where to them every obstacle is the size of a bug?

The broken arm, it hurts so much.

‘I don’t get it,’ I say.

‘Don’t get what?’ asks Haylis.

‘Anything. Everything. Why are we here, listening to a dragon and an invincible dragon slayer having a chat? Why is Rutherford telling riddles? Why is Kathanhiel listening to it telling riddles? Why does she listen, when Kaishen can just…blows everything up? Why does she need us, when blowing dragons up is all she needs?’

It hurts it hurts it hurts.

‘Do you know what I’m talking about at all?’

Of course Haylis is shaking her head. I don’t even know what I’m talking about. I never have any idea what anyone’s talking about.

 

While I’m having my little rant, the main actors are still immersed in the act.

‘You speak as if you know me,’ Kathanhiel says as her liquid armour slowly drips to the ground. Splat. Hiss. ‘You do not. I say again: tell me where lies your roost and I will give you peace, the peace you so crave.’

With great effort the dragon lifts its head. Blood is gushing out of its mouth now; the presence of Rutherford seems to be killing it.

‘I know you, more than you know yourself. The fire has laid you bare. Under that shell of embers you yearn for vengeance. The Dark has taken root, and upon your pain shall it feast until the end of your days.’

How you must lament the hours of waking, longing for the solace of dreams, so that which was taken from you may falsely return. I too have once dreamt. Like all else, they fade.’

Kathanhiel freezes. ‘So you remember – the one that came before me.’

Even though her fire is dying down, the unsteady warble in Kathanhiel’s voice has only gotten worse. Glowing streaks of melted steel are falling from her back, and underneath it her skin is riddled with yellow-red cracks that divides her back into dozens of serrated pieces.

The ember of the last herald, he who was consumed before my eyes...I feel it still,’ says Rutherford.

Kathanhiel staggers, as if receiving a blow to the gut.

Then she utters three words.

I don’t have the slightest clue what they’re talking about, but those three words sound dreadful, as if she had torn them from the depth of her heart with broken fingers. Her back is turned to me; I wish I could see her face.

She says, ‘give him back.’

To that, the dragon answers:

‘It was not I, but the sword of Ush’Ra that had claimed his fire. This you already know – for aught else do you hold it so dear?’

Kaishen moves like lightning. In a blinding flash its tip burrows into the underside of the dragon’s jaw, sinking all the way to the hilt. A second later the dragon’s face erupts in blue fire, turning its impregnable scales to hot crystalline dust. Yet despite that it’s still talking, for Rutherford’s voice – the humourless and bitter voice echoing across the burning field – comes from everywhere at once.

‘Tantrums of hatred…tears of love...how sweet their tainted music! Show me the conviction of your vengeance, herald of fire; come to me, and in your suffering I shall delight. Fail, and the world drowns in chaos; succeed, and your Dark shall be painted red for a single sunset.’

‘Ah, it begins! It begins! The game, the everlasting cycle, the fleeting salvation of Ush’Ra! This is our fate! This is why…we are alive.’

With a great sigh the dragon shudders, and becomes still with its final breath.

Kathanhiel shakes her head violently, as if possessed by denial. She’s completely naked now, with a puddle of congealing metal at her feet. Naked and shaking.

‘No, no you don’t. We’re not done. How dare you resort to silence?!

Kaishen, bound to her hand in a gauntlet of embers, comes down in a fiery arc and sinks into the dragon’s bleeding snout. Blood rains upon her face, her neck, her chest, sizzling on contact.

‘Ten years I’ve waited, ten years, alone all this time I’m alone waiting for this moment and just like despicable Elisaad you spout nonsense in my face. Despicable. DESPICABLE!’

Kaishen rises up. Kaishen falls down. The dragon’s right eye disappears under a steaming red fountain.

‘Damn you! Damn your stupid Dark! Damn your fate and cycles and stupid quests and this endless game! Dragons, dragons, dragons, how clever you are. How clever and DESPICABLE!

Kaishen comes up. Kaishen falls down. A great wing falls by the wayside, severed into three pieces.

‘I won’t stand for this. I won’t. Watch, O great immortal and eternal; I’ll take your head and the head of all your brood until your kind is corpse and carrion. Then we’ll talk. Then you’ll see how immortal you truly are and you’ll regret taking the one I love. You’ll apologise then, won’t you, O wise wyrm?! You will, you will stop this nonsense and beg for your life, because you’re a COWARD! COWARD!’

She’s laughing and crying and lashing out with all the fury in the world. She’s naked, her skin red and cracked, she’s covered in the steam of vaporised blood and the stink of the dragon’s gore and she’s weeping as if her heart had been torn into pieces.

‘Why do you not understand? Why do you ask the world of me, when I am so tired? I don’t want this life. I don’t want your life. All I want…all I want…’ her knees give way, and she falls to the ground hugging Kaishen to her chest. ‘All I want…is to have him back…so give him back, Rutherford, Elisaad, Allarissa, whatever you are. Give him back. Give him back. ’

 

Haylis is standing there slack-jawed, a luxury I cannot afford.

All the idiotic ramblings about why I’m here and why she would never need me have pulled back into a corner, cowering.

Look at her: does that look like someone who is in need of nothing?

She doesn’t want anyone to fight in her stead, because she can handle it; she doesn’t need her esquire to do anything for her, because she is more capable than anyone. What she needs – the only thing the hero of the Realms, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon, will ever need – is for someone to be there for the sake of being there.

Yet, intimidated by her brilliance, no one has dared approaching her.

Move it, stupid legs, stop standing around.

I reach Kathanhiel’s side. The heat baking off her skin is nigh unbearable; the cotton lining on my gauntlets turn black as I wave my good arm in front of her.

She doesn’t see me. Her voice has turned coarse, and with each word her cry becomes a bit weaker, a bit tireder.

‘Give him back…give him back…give him back…’

The yellow cracks are fading from her skin but their glow have only sunk deeper. Under the fire of the night she looks like a woman of clay, hardened yet more fragile than flesh.

I kneel next to her, skirting around the puddle of molten metal around her feet. The broken arm suddenly doesn’t hurt so much. ‘Rutherford is...is...is gone, my lady, but I’m…I’m –’ Breathe Kastor, breathe, you can do it, you have to, this is the moment. ‘– but I’m here. I’m here for you and…and so is Haylis. We’ll help you. Whatever you need.’

‘It’s no use.’ Kathanhiel looks at me, her face shrouded in steam as her tears turn to ignorant vapour. ‘He’s gone to his hearth in the evergreen, and left me behind.’

 

Now that this has come to pass, I almost wish things could go back to the way they were, with me grumbling and complaining about the chores, and Kathanhiel smiling.

The details aren’t important right now. In time, when she feels that I’ve earned the right to be trusted with the information, she’ll tell me, perhaps over a cup of camomile tea. Don’t know how I’ll feel when that happens; relieved, probably, because it’ll mean that I’m finally capable enough to share her burden.

Now’s not the time to think about this.

‘My lady…what should I do? Tell me so I can help you.’

Instead of responding she looks down the sword clutched against her chest.

‘I don’t need you. Kaishen is the only one I need.’

That felt like a hammer blow to the face. ‘But…but I need you.’

‘Take it back.’

‘What? Why?’

‘Because you’ve cursed yourself,’ she says quietly, ‘a curse that will tear you apart, when the one you love is overwhelmed by the burden of adoration.’ Her eyes turns to meet mine. ‘I hope that day never comes for you Kastor. It invites pain unending.’

‘But that’s why you chose me to be your esquire isn’t it?’ I say to her. ‘You chose me because I…because I love you.’

Nothing prompted that. It came out of my mouth as if it’s been self-evident all this time.

 What other merit do I have? I don’t know how to talk to people yet constantly think mean thoughts about Arkai and Haylis, neither of whom have done me wrong; I act like an idiot in every situation because I am an idiot; yet like a conceited bastard I endlessly complain about the chores that are a part of my job. There’s no practical reason for me to be here.

She said herself what the only thing that could make someone stand against the dragons is. It’s obvious, really. How did I speak in front of a frenzied crowd? How did I function when the dragons attacked? How am I crouching here, asking after her wellbeing, when my own arm is broken?

That word seems to wake her up from whatever spell that had taken hold. Her eyes struggle for a moment, dithering back and forth between the present and into herself. An eternity later they turn to my left arm, which is hanging all twisted and weird as if unsure which way the elbow is supposed to bend.

‘You’re hurt,’ she says, noticing it for the first time.

‘What?’ the pain hits like a dragon in the gut. ‘Argh. Yeah…’

She extends a hand, perhaps to assess the damage, but her index finger burns a smoking hole on my leather jerkin the moment she touches it. She flinches.

‘What…what am I…this is no time for self-indulgence,’ she says, and gives me a smile indistinguishable from her usual demeanour, even as more tears vaporise on the corners of her eyes. ‘Thank you, Kastor.’

I open my mouth to tell her that I’m happy to help but no sound comes out. A great weight collapses inside my head, a massive pile of books that’s been propped up with one arm all this time, and the world suddenly feels light as a feather. Too light, actually. It appears to be folding inward.

‘Haylis? Haylis! Are you alright?’ Kathanhiel yells as she spins around. ‘Good, thank the Maker, quickly, bring those barrels – and go find the medicine box!’ Her eyes fall upon the little giants. ‘Tell Oon’Shang to lie down and keep still – I can cauterise her wounds but her brother needs to stop tying those useless tourniquets. Tell them!’

Everything is suddenly spinning.

Nice job. Give yourself a pat on the back. She’s herself and everything’s going to be fine. Have a breather now – ignore that pain that’s not you that’s someone else – close your eyes and go back to that day in the palace garden, when you saw your dream come to life, perfect as a painting…that’s it…that was a good day…

Ah, how stupid I had been. Should’ve knelt down and kissed her hand instead of…whatever spilling tea on myself was.

Wish I could see her like that again, in the casual white skirt and sleeveless doublet, with all her scars old and faded, triumphs of a bygone age. That’s what she’s meant to look like: a victorious hero, enjoying a peaceful life.

Not this…not this….

Wait, now’s not a good time to sleep…there’s stuff to be done…

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