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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27. The Last Day

A week goes by without incident. Maybe the cultists have had a change of mind, found enlightenment in the scrumptious scriptures of the Maker and put away their ills…or maybe they’re waiting for something.

Meanwhile, work on the Mirrors is almost done.

As I pull Kaishen from the keyhole-like slot on the western tower, Haylis speaks up from behind me. ‘Is the blade supposed to look so dull? It’s barely glowing at all.’

‘It hasn’t eaten dragon fire in…two weeks now,’ I reply as if I know all about it, ‘and I’ve been using it every day on these…uh…mechanisms.’

‘You know, that’s not really an explanation,’ she says, eyebrows perked. ‘How does a sword eat fire? How does it turn your arm into…that?’

Kathanhiel’s arm, breaking apart in the wind like so many withered pedals –

‘Because…uh…fire is put into you when you use it.’ That sounds lame and vague, so I offer her the sword. ‘Want to try?’

Haylis recoils like a cat, first leaping off the crate on which she was perched and then backing to the door. ‘Nope. Not at all. Aunt Kath gave it to you not me so leave me out of it.’

I pause for a moment to appreciate the ridiculousness of the situation: me, Kastor, offering Haylis the Bane of Dragons so she might try it out.

‘This is the last Mirror anyway, so no more chances.’ I ease Kaishen back into its expensive sheath, fumbling with the grip because it wouldn’t come off. ‘Did she mention anything else we should be doing?’

Haylis shakes her head. ‘Nothing. Finish the Mirrors, that’s it. I’m done too, since she’s back in charge now.’

‘Maybe we should go ask for more stuff to –’

‘Ooorrr, we could goof off for the rest of the day,’ she happily interrupts. ‘Come on, I want to swim under the waterfall.’

‘Uh…isn’t the water kind of freezing –?’

‘Cold dips are good for your lungs!’ She’s already charging out the door. ‘Hurry up! We can study and train and die tomorrow, or we can have fun and die all the same!’

 

Scouts returning from the Western Forest report only emptiness and silence; everything larger than a rat within a hundred miles has either fled or filled a belly. Just this morning, a dragon was sighted circling high above the northern cliffs, the first since the siege. The brood is gathering again, and Iborus will have to fend them off. That’s its job after all.   

The path just outside the inner gate leads to the dockyard, and from there it’s just a small loop to the waterfall. The dry dock and the piers are all empty now except for a few old dinghies; the ironclads have all departed, loaded with refugees and the wounded. Close timing too, for already chunks of ice are tinkling down the stream; a cold night and the whole lake might freeze over.

Ripe for a swim.

Haylis waves at me from up ahead, standing on a cute little peninsula that’s just out of reach of the downpour. ‘Look who it is – isn’t this just awkward!’ she yells.

Kathanhiel is lying on a lounge chair by the lake and wiping herself down with a towel, her skin a healthy, cold-water-certified red. On the chair next to her sits Arkai, propped up with cushions like an indignant doll. His hair had been tied into a ponytail again, but apart from that there’s no sign of his former self; the fresh bandages, the clean clothes…they do nothing to hide the deathly gloom on his face.

Kathanhiel’s maid is helping him with a cup of water; she looks up at me with a quick smile, then down again as her patient begins to sputter.

‘Slowly, Master Arkai,’ she says.

‘I am not a child,’ he says weakly, irritably.

Kathanhiel wraps the towel around herself and beckons at me. ‘Taking a break?’

‘No I…I just finished with the Mirrors and Haylis told me to uh…um…’ Kaishen is still in my hand. Why did I bring it to a swim? ‘I was going to give this back to you, my lady.’

I walk to her and put the sword by her side when she makes no move to take it from me.

‘Arkai, I’ve told you how Kastor saved me?’ she asks, looking around.

‘The Scouring, on his first try,’ Arkai mutters. ‘Hard to…believe…’ gasping for breath, ‘that there were no…consequences.’

‘He is different,’ Kathanhiel says. ‘Better.’

Pretending not to be awkward, I turn to Haylis with incredible enthusiasm. ‘So, swim?’

She blinks hard. ‘Sure. Strip.’

What? ‘What?’

‘Unless you want your jocks to freeze solid, strip.’

For no good reason my eyes stray over to the maid, who is busy checking Arkai’s bandages and doesn’t seem to be listening. Kathanhiel chuckles from behind me. ‘How fixated we are with the conventions of decency. Go on. Nothing I haven’t seen before, I assure you.’

This is terrifying. Haylis, who is already throwing off her clothes like they’re on fire, offers no reassurance. Three layers of colourful lace later, I find myself staring at her back; dozens of grey scars, all thin and jagged-edged, riddle her skin from shoulder to waist.

She looks around. ‘You haven’t seen these yet? Just some old souvenirs from before Aunt Kath found me.’

Diving into freezing water butt naked suddenly doesn’t seem that big of a deal. The initial shock plunges the world into painful black spirals, but after that, somehow, my limbs work just fine – no cramps, no sudden seizures. The freeze stops at the skin, and accentuates an unnatural warmth that is roving inside my veins like a fiery larvae.

There is fire in my blood.

That makes no sense.

Haylis has already swam to the waterfall. There’s a flat piece of rock just before it, barely protruding above the surface; she’s standing on it and soaking under the downpour as if taking a shower.

I climb on after her, slipping four times and nicking my hands in two places. Icy water hammering into my back, as it turns out, doesn’t feel bad at all. Kind of like a forceful massage.

‘Feels good right?’ Haylis says, leaning close. ‘I’ve something to tell you.’

She’s pressed up against me, skin to skin. How fortunate it is that cold water inhibits a few key bodily functions; since when did we become so intimate? I take a step back, but Haylis would not budge. She leans even closer, mouth against my ear.

‘I’m not going on with the quest,’ she whispers, almost inaudible over the waterfall. Her warm breath tingles pleasantly.

‘What’re you saying?’

‘I’ve told Aunt Kath already. When you two set off again I’ll be staying at Iborus.’

‘But…why?’

She stares at the water. ‘You know why I’ve been supervising the mines even though I hate it? It feels safe down there. I can’t fall asleep on my bed but in a vent shaft two hundred feet underground I can. I laugh at you for staring at the sky all the time but…I’m way worse. The brood, Talukiel, Rutherford…’ With a trembling hand she brushes wet hair out of her face. ‘I want my bed in the estate. I want to be woken up by my maid. I want my coffee in the morning. I hate tea, have I told you that? All you two drink is tea.’

‘But…the brood is coming to Iborus. It isn’t safe here either.’

‘I know, but seeking them out is different. I don’t have to seek them out.’

‘That makes sense.’

‘Does it?’

‘I…’

It’s not my place to convince her to stay. Plus, if she requires convincing then she shouldn’t be staying anyway, just like how no one could’ve talked me into staying put during those horrific nights on the highway.

What a shame. I think I actually might miss her.  

‘…I’m sorry.’

She slaps me on hard on the forehead. ‘Look at you, acting all mature. It’s only been what, two months? What in the Maker’s name happened to you?’

‘Uh…I don’t know.’

‘I almost like you now, can you believe that?’ She laughs at herself. Then, incredibly, as if the heavens have decided to turn upside down as a joke and didn’t tell anyone, she kisses me on the cheek. ‘Take care of Aunt Kath. She needs you.’

Staring at her for ten full seconds seems like an appropriate response.

Booming footsteps approach the shore. Oon’Shei is waving at us from across the water. Today he’s wearing a purple-coloured veil – that usually means he’s in a good mood.

‘Something good happened,’ Haylis says. ‘He seems giddy.’

We swim back to shore (cold so stupidly cold). Kathanhiel turns to us, her face animated. ‘The bridging tunnel has been completed ahead of schedule. We can now access the catacombs through an entrance in the mines.’

‘Uh…catacombs?’

‘The mining crew dug into it a while ago…on the day you woke up, actually.’ Haylis explains, throwing a towel around herself and grabbing her silent bells from a bag. ‘It’s not safe though. Who knows if there aren’t cave-ins or…or subterranean monsters…the expedition I sent off still hasn’t returned, what if they ran into trouble? What if…’

Kathanhiel takes her hand and gives it a gentle squeeze. ‘It is safer still than the mountain pass, and you said Oon’Shei knows the way.’

‘The catacombs…go through the mountains?’ I ask, idiotically.

Haylis looks at me like I’m an idiot. ‘Remember how the little giants used to live there? Their catacombs go everywhere, all connected for the great pilgrimages they used to have – their precessions used to go on for months and months.’

‘But…what if we get lost?’

She scoffs. ‘This isn’t some lost civilisation. Oon’Shei’s been through it a dozen times, and we have so many maps – how do you think we found a way in? Dumb luck?’

I look up at Oon’Shei, who gives me a thumbs-up probably because he can’t hear what we’re saying. ‘Are you sure going through the catacombs is...I mean, we don’t even know where Rutherford is. How do we know when and where to come out?’

Kathanhiel smiles weirdly. ‘A valid concern. Haylis, please ask Oon’Shei where the catacombs might lead us.’

While Haylis plays with the silent bells, I notice that everyone, Arkai included, seems to be looking at me.

Ten seconds later Haylis declares, ‘the Crescent Bridge!’

Kathanhiel nods, ‘Kastor, you recall where that is on the map I showed you?’

‘Yes, the Crescent Bridge…crosses the River Hei. The path to the Stone Graves.’

‘And that’s where we will go. The Stone Graves will offer us sanctuary and act as a central hub in our search for Rutherford’s lair. There is no safer place in the Ranges.’

I nod…but why is Kathanhiel smiling like that? Haylis, too, is pulling faces. Was it something I said?

Blandly, Arkai speaks up:

‘Kastor, clothes.’

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