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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30. Talukiel the Blade (2/2)

The freezing wind cuts to the bone. As the lovable hostage and the demented kidnapper snail across the inner courtyard, hundreds of soldiers follow suit at a distance. Arkai is being carried on a stretcher behind the crowd, shouting instructions. Can’t hear what he’s saying at all, because Talu’s mouth is still shoved against my ear. ‘Do you feel it? She’s watching us. Why won’t she come out and play?’

 ‘There’s more of them in the barracks!’ I shout for the thirteenth time, trying so hard to ignore him and failing miserably. ‘They’re dressed like the Phalanx!’

‘Yes, yes!’ Talu chimes up in a nasally caricature. ‘The Champion of the Games, heir ordained of Ush’Ra’s blade, has returned! Flock to my rallying cry, ye spineless masses! My disciples shall herald unto you the will of the Maker!’ With a flourish he stabs his dark sabre at the sky. ‘Eustace of the Vassal of Lucia – show them!

His voice, shrill to the point of piercing, rises easily above the wind.

Two seconds later, a scream from up high, on the inner wall. A headless body falls from the ramparts. A soldier of the Phalanx is brandishing a bloodied sword and shouting some nonsense about answering the call. The soldiers around him react; a brief, violent struggle, and he collapses with four spears through his gut.

Muttered gasps ripple through the courtyard. Talu takes the opportunity to take two great steps toward the inner gate, dragging me by the neck. The soldiers barring his way hesitate for a moment, then make way.

‘Underwhelming. Had such high hopes.’ Talu mumbles, then raises his voice again. ‘How about you, Beatrice of the Green Isle?’

Right in front of us, not ten steps away, a sack flies into the air and spills open, letting out a cloud of crystalline dust – dry powder. Whipped by the wind, it instantly spreads out onto a throng of people, many of whom holding firebrands.

An explosion of white. If I hadn’t pre-emptively shut my eyes the flash would’ve taken them out; amidst the stabbing of thousands of invisible needles upon my eyeballs there are screams, dreadful screams, and the crackle of combusting flesh, of a dozen people turning to ash.

A shove in the back. Talukiel. But my legs refuse to budge. Before a swarm of dragons they had worked just fine, because I had been scared and wanted to flee. No fear now. No fleeing.

‘What’s the point? Iborus won’t be brought down by your dozen lackeys.’

Talu’s dagger is roving all of my jowls, more erratic with every stroke. ‘Point? Point? The nesting grounds, the Crescent Bridge, three months in the Stone Graves buried in claws and fire, the sound they make oh the sound they make when they’re starving, I hear them even in sleep they don’t stop the screeching is always there – but the sounds people make? That, is a sweet sweet lullaby.’

‘You’re not making sense –’

‘NO YOU LISTEN TO ME! I had to leave. I had to. I’m not afraid I have no fear because I am Talukiel the Blade!’ Jagged pain; his sabre sinks a fraction into my back, enough to draw blood. ‘But you know what that cursed sword told me, when she finally finally finally put it in my hands? It. Called me. A COWARD!’

 

I could picture the scene in my head: pressured by his insistence and her guilt for the Scouring, Kathanhiel gives Talu the sword of Ush’Ra, thinking that despite all appearance she might have found a worthy successor to her charge – he had stuck around, after all. The dragons, her Scouring…if those bitter trials couldn’t drive him away, then surely he was good enough.

The greed that must’ve poured from Talu’s eyes, as if he had earned the right to wield Kaishen simply by doing his job…

But greed wasn’t going to keep his hands on the grip. As dragon fire poured into his veins, Talu must have realised that you can’t pretend not to be scared in front of Kaishen: the heat, the weight, the all-consuming drain, and the mad voice of the Apex putting visions in your head…not to mention have to persist through all that to fight a swarm of thousands.

The illustrious, beloved Champion, who thought he was better than even the dragon slayer herself, had to face the truth: that he was afraid.

It messed him up. Just a little bit.

 

Violent winds have ushered in a storm. Amidst the downpour the inner gates are inching open. Talu shoves us through the gap a second before they slam shut. Two men, laughing at the top of their lungs, fall from the ramparts and splatter not ten feet away.

‘Twins from Cressia, such wasted talent,’ he laments.

The walls are ablaze with torchlight, illuminating rows upon rows of crossbows levelled at us. In the middle of the massive outer courtyard stands two great braziers piled high with bluish flame. A lone figure stands between them.

The right sleeve of her shirt is flying in the wind like a tattered banner; in her left hand her sword is a blistering purple-red, the dying gasp of the twilight sun. Rain crashes upon its slanted edge and reincarnates as bellowing clouds of steam, shrouding her face.

‘At last, at last!’ Talu whispers, dragging me forward.

Closer now, close enough to see burning in her eyes; they’re bright with hatred, brighter than fire. Her lips are taut and bloodless. Her feet, planted shoulder-width apart, are radiating red-hot cracks into the dirt.

Talu stops ten steps away. He’s shaking all over, yet his dagger hand remains steady. ‘Ten years I’ve dreamt of this night, in sleep, in waking,’ he declares, ‘and here you are, looking better than ever. How little has changed.’

Kathanhiel speaks, her voice flame-charged, polytonal and metallic: ‘Coward.’

Talu raises his face to the sky and laughs. ‘You hate them, don’t you? These pesky cowards, always running away from you. Why, then, did you flee from your own master?’

Kathanhiel’s body seems to expand. The brazier fires bend toward her like worshippers prostrating before a deity.

Talu is choking on his own words. ‘How insane – how absolutely insane – that we’ve nothing to say to each other! Oh I know – are you still weeping for him like a broken-hearted little girl? You are – you are! I can see it in your face!

Kathanhiel closes her eyes and slowly, deliberately, raises Kaishen into honour guard, dividing her face into two flaming halves. She speaks:

‘How I envy you, Talukiel.’

His eyes widen. ‘What?’

‘You could come to me to atone for your sins, but I…where am I to go?’ Her voice drops to a whisper; she’s no longer talking to him. ‘Are you still waiting for me, I wonder, at the window of your hearth, watching my parade of falsehoods? The hour is nigh; he who betrayed me has come to repent. Yet…this hate I feel…I despise this hate, for this is how you must have felt for me.’

A golden bloom, a twisting stream of light ephemeral and divine, rises from her blade, spiralling up and up and up until it’s far above the highest tower and effervescing into the clouds like so many stars. There are no dragon Thralls, no roaring heads, only a great warmth radiating outward like a sun-chased breeze flying over the prairies of the heartland.

Talu recoils from the light as if it stung him. ‘You’re not allowed,’ he whispers, trembling. ‘You’re not allowed to be like this. Not allowed. NOT ALLOWED!’

Louder and louder, with each more syllable shriller than the one before, Talu screams: ‘Pour your heart into that dumb metal all you want, foolish girl! Oh yes, that’ll bring him back won’t it?! That dream is gone, Kathanhiel! He is gone! Kaishen is dead! Kaishen is dead because YOU LEFT HIM TO DIE!!’

 

Chaos. The golden light erupts into a fountain of fire, spawning thousands of Thralls. They rove in every direction, scouring the sky, the walls, slinging onto the towers and the battlements, howling like savage beasts. Soldiers are collapsing everywhere, clutching their heads, clawing at their own eyes as the Thralls set them alight. Scores leap off the ramparts and die smoking before hitting the ground.

Talu is laughing. His eyes as well as mine are trained on the little dragons but on us they’ve no effect. ‘You see it? You see it don’t you, how little it takes to tear down her lies, how easily broken her body of ash?’ he breathes down my neck. ‘Mark it well: this is her true desire – annihilation. Death.’

He doesn’t see me shaking my head. I know this already, Talukiel, and I’m not going to despise her for it.

Kathanhiel takes two steps forward, levelling Kaishen and so many Thralls at Talu’s face.

‘Let him go.’

He inhales sharply, as if surprised. ‘Strike. What’re you waiting for?’

He probably doesn’t need me pointing it out, so I point it out. ‘Well, you’re holding a hostage.’

He barks: ‘She cares not.’

Kathanhiel’s face is a mask of unadulterated wrath, her sword braced in an overhead arc and ready to strike, her legs set for a great lunge…yet she’s not moving any closer.

‘No I…I think she does.’

Everything stills. The rain, pelting dirt into mud; the rolling thunder, a growl distant and hollow; the soldiers’ screams, their minds incinerated by the seed of dragon fire….they fade before Talu’s hushed whisper, the last thing I hear:

‘You. You…but not me?’

And the cold blade runs hot into my throat. 

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