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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9. The Prismatic Cuirass

I sit so still they could build a snowman out of me, and it’ll last the entire winter because there’s barely any air coming out of my nose.

Weather it out, don’t say anything, avoid eye contact and don’t ask stupid questions.

Haylis suddenly speaks up, her tone light and conversational.

‘Oon’Shang says there’s...’ she cups a hand to her ear, ‘...people, a huge group of people, camping on the highway. We have to slow down.’

Arkai dashes to the front of the carriage without another word.

Five seconds of silence.

With a shaky sigh Kathanhiel rubs her face with both hands. ‘What am I doing – why did I –’ without acknowledging either of us she goes after him.

I look at Haylis and she at me.

‘Nice,’ I say to her.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Never mind. What do you think we should do? Keep going in the coach and have the dragons chase us, or go on a boat and take it slow?’

She scoffs. ‘What a stupid question. Didn’t I make it clear I’m sticking with Aunt Kath? I wasn’t going on your stupid ferry ride in the first place.’

‘Don’t say anything if you’ve got nothing good to say.’

‘Just tell her you don’t want to leave. She won’t make you.’

That’s not true though. Unlike Haylis, my name, initials, and blurry thumbprint are all recorded on a contract that says I have to do whatever I’m told. Not that I’m unwilling. Am I?

The carriage grinds to a halt. The rooms begin to echo with the fleshy banging of panicky hands slapping against steel. Muffled shouting seep through the walls, louder than rain.

Arkai and Kathanhiel return, and lo and behold, they’re arguing again.

‘It’s not safe, the crowd is too agitated,’ Arkai says.

‘Safety is not my concern. Haylis, fetch my ceremonial set. Kastor, get into gear and herald my presence to the people – no more objections Arkai, I shan’t cover like some criminal.’

‘The cultists are here for certain. They’ll take advantage of the chaos –’

Kathanhiel silently points to the next room, her face set in stone. With an undisguised growl Arkai storms away, and for the first time ever I hear the clap of his boots on the floor.

‘You too Kastor, don your armour.’

I grab my bags and scamper after Arkai as the carriage rocks from left to right as if riding a high tide.

One peak through the window shows that Arkai is being quite reasonable. Thousands of people have gathered around the coach, a sea of grey and destitute faces shrouded by the downpour and the feeble sun. Their mouths are all moving wildly, yelling words that are yet indistinct, but the moment we open that door –

‘What’s happening?’

‘Refugees from the north,’ Arkai replies as he wraps a black scarf around his head, ‘or at least what appears to be.’ A swish of his cloak reveals two dozen throwing knives slotted into various pockets. ‘Keep your eyes on the crowd. I’ll have the doorway clear but if anyone suspicious get close don’t hesitate to strike first, and don’t get in her way if ill events should arise.’

With that he vaults to the ceiling and flings open a hatch that I didn’t even know was there, then slips out silent as a cat.

Get moving, stupid.

Leather cuirass. Studded gauntlets. The stupidly broad shoulder pads…no, should’ve put on the gauntlets last – tying knots in these is a nightmare. Fine, gauntlets off, shoulders on, then the greaves – nope, bending over in these shoulders is impossible. Should’ve put on the greaves before the shoulders. Don’t remember this being so difficult.

Now, the announcement. What were the words again? Should’ve written them down – no, no no no, that’s shameful, what kind of esquire carries around a script?

Behold, Lady Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms, slayer of Elisaad!

Seems a bit short, and lacks context. Pay heed to the presence of – no that sounds moronic how does one pay heed to a presence – pay heed to the words of the Lady – but is she going to speak? If she isn’t then this’ll put her on the spot…

There’s no time to mull over every word. The moment Haylis calls out to me I fling open the door like a gladiator charging into the arena, ready for a fight to the death.

Not the outside door; the door to their room.

My breath catches.

Kathanhiel’s ceremonial cuirass is made out of crystallised stars brimming with inner light. Angular arcs flourish from the ends of her glowing gauntlets like icy claws, and the white-woven lining on her thighs – atop winged greaves – is a constant shimmer of trapped rainbows. She wears no helmet, only a white circlet adorn with a rose-tinted diamond the size of a thumb.

She turns in my direction, and it’s immediately apparent that she’s naked underneath the armour. Those paintings that attempt to capture the forms of heroes of legend, they’re but doodles without imagination. The light emanating from her body, fiery yet ethereal, white but full of warmth, cannot possibly be put into drab paint, because no palette is worthy of it.

Kaishen hangs unsheathed at her side, its blade ember-red.

‘Haylis, the heraldry. Give it to him.’

A metal stick with a piece of cloth hanging on one materialises in my hand. I shove it to one side because it’s blocking the view. A hand reaches in and not-so-gently pushes shut the bottom of my jaw. Haylis is giggling.

‘Quit it idiot.’

‘I-I-I’m…you…how…wow…’

Normally Kathanhiel would smile at my slightly (well, not so slightly) perverted expression, but this time, in that brilliant star-forged armour, her face is one of intense concentration.

‘Kastor, as my esquire it is your duty to herald my arrival to the people. If you’re not ready for it Haylis can take your place.’

Of course I’m not ready for it. To speak in front of thousands of people is hard enough, let alone having most of them wanting to tear my face off. But at the same time, this is but a trivial task; when on a quest to slay the Apex, there is no time to get anxious and tongue-tied. This isn’t even the hard bit. So I give her a confident nod.

‘I’m ready.’

‘Haylis, please get the door.’

 

One moment the crowd is distant thunder, rumbling far away; the next, the coming of the high tide upon a rickety pier.

Frenzied faces, crying faces, faces desperately clinging to the last bit of sanity – they swarm forward in a wave of writhing flesh. The heat of thousands of bodies pressed together, the stink of sweat, thick with mud and rain, churns all coherent thoughts to pieces.

There’s no distinguishing one person from the next. They’re all grey, all drenched to the skin and shouting at the top of their lungs. ‘Get off!’ ‘Give us the coach!’ ‘My son, he is dying, please spare him!’ ‘Don’t leave us!’ ‘Not that way!’ ‘Take us south, please!’ ‘The carriage, the carriage is safe!’ ‘Help us!’

The little giants have positioned themselves on either side of the door, and in between them stands Arkai with two daggers in hand. Not two steps separate them from the mob, who are only keeping their distance because the little giants are each brandishing a javelin.

The crowd surges as soon as they see me come out. One catches himself on the handle of Oon’Shang’s javelin and is sent flying. Two others grab her legs like ants trying to fell a tree, but she simply picks them up by their tattered collars and tosses them as one would sprinkle seeds into a field.

‘Keep away! Mind yourselves!’ Arkai yells into the sea of voices. A man grabs him by the arm, trying to shove him aside. A flash of steel. Screams. An index finger falls to the ground. ‘I warned you! Keep away!’

‘Get him! Grab him!’

The mob piles onto Arkai, shouting and jostling, but the man is a shadow. Two hands slap onto his shoulders only to slip off as if they’ve grabbed a flopping fish. Someone charges at him, head lowered like a bull, but a swish of cloak later Arkai’s knee encounters his face. Blood flies, but cries of pain is only riling up the rest.

‘Stop! Stop!’ I can’t even hear my own voice. Those eyes – bloodshot and angry, so many and so mad – they don’t belong to human beings, but a pack of wolves barely held in check by sanity’s cage.

The little giants exchange a look. As one they stomp the ground with their left foot.

BOOM.

A shockwave ripples outward, etching cracks onto the highway and stumbling everyone on the spot. Creaking, the carriage begins to tilt sideways, but Oon’Shang holds out a massive hand and grabs it by the chassis.

There is a brief lull as people are distracted.

Now or never.

With one decisive jab I try to plant the heraldry into the ground only to realise that metal sticks can only be planted in dirt and not pavement. Cover it up, stupid; pretend you were stomping it to make emphasis!

I open my mouth.

Please, let words come out.                  

 

Kathanhiel gave me the gift of courage. I couldn’t say how it was given, or when it was received, but the moment I stopped pretending the heraldry in my hand is being held by someone else, it is there in my heart, warm and reassuring.

‘People of the north, calm yourselves! Beset upon us not with rage but piety, for your saviour has come! Cast aside your anger, and behold with eyes unclouded our Lady Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon!’

 

In her upraised hand Kaishen glows a fiery red, its red menace shrouded in a sheath of steam that rises in a billowing cloud, sheltering what must be a newborn sun cast from the sky. Its ardent light effervesces through her crystalline gauntlet and her cuirass of myriad stars until the very dawn is radiating from her skin.

With each step she takes comes a great wave of heat. The puny rain vaporises upon contact with her shoulders, sending up tendrils of white, and beneath her heels the pavement cracks, web-like and smoking.

Arkai is the first to kneel. Casting his daggers on the ground like pieces of scrap, he drops onto one knee and lowers his head. The blood on his mail wash away within seconds.

Then the little giants go to their knees and put their arms across their chests. Oon’Shei hesitates for a moment as the javelin in his hand snaps from the strain; he throws it away, carefully so as to not hit anyone with it.

My turn. Her light is so bright that looking at the ground between my feet is almost a relief.

A gasping silence runs through the crowd, then a soft swooping noise; the lost thousands, so filled with rage a moment ago, have prostrated themselves before her. Someone’s weeping, and never have I heard anyone weep so happily.

‘Why do you cry, good woman?’ Kathanhiel asks.

A shaky reply. ‘M-my lady Kathanhiel, I cry because you’re here at last, here to save us.’

The crowd murmurs in agreement.

She speaks softly yet her words somehow carry above the rain. ‘I’m sorry I’ve not come sooner. Your disheartened faces, they bring me pain unbearable, for it is I alone who should shoulder the consequence of my own tardiness, not you good people of the north. It is right that you’re angry. I am angry at myself.’

Many voices rise up in denial.

‘Though I deserve it not, this failure of a hero will give her all to regain your trust. The dragons will fall, and your lands shall be reclaimed; this I swear upon my sword and my life. Do you believe me? Are my words still of worth to you?’

The answer is yes. Men and women whisper it in reverence.

‘Thank you, kind folk. I’ve but one ask. In time many soldiers will come this way, and if you remain here they might render you harm in their haste. Will you continue south, for my sake? The King will provide for you. If he refuses, just tell him that Kathanhiel still has the knife in her boot.

A few laughs. Everyone knows that story.

‘Will you go? Will you rise in these hard time with solidarity and compassion in your hearts?’ More murmured agreements. ‘I am glad, and so very thankful, that despite so many hardships we can yet stand together in times of adversity. Rest easy now, for I am here, and I will not stop until these lands are free of the dragon plague, and your homes returned to you.’

Someone starts cheering, and in seconds everyone is on their feet whooping and clapping with hands possessed. A chant begins in the middle of it, driven by voices that have long shouted themselves hoarse.

She smiles and raises Kaishen above her head. A shower of red sparks fly from its tip.

The bards could never convey such a spectacle no matter how prettily they sing. In two short minutes Kathanhiel has turned the rioting masses into worshippers. Of course she did. She is Kathanhiel. I could’ve announced anything, really, and she would still win over every heart in an instant.

As the crowd disperses, many come up to kneel at her feet and kiss her hand. While that happens I stand awkwardly to the side with the heraldry, trying to keep my back straight and the smile on my face not so terrifying.

Arkai joins me, the scarf removed from his face. People still draw a wide berth around him.

‘You did well.’

Was that…a compliment? ‘I don’t think I did anything.’

‘It always feels that way, working with her,’ he says, looking at Kathanhiel with a soft expression, ‘because her brilliance eclipses us all.’

‘What’ll happen to these people?’

He sighs. ‘Years of vagrancy, of living from one meal to the next, of being ostracised by the people of the heartlands…but they have hope now. She has given it to them. She has gotten very good at giving it.’

‘At…giving hope?’

Arkai shrugs. ‘It’s her job.’

Without knowing what I’m doing I say to him, ‘the lady is glad you’re here.’

He looks at me. ‘How do you know?’

‘Well…she wouldn’t argue with you so much otherwise. She argues because she cares about your opinion, and thinks it as good as hers.’

‘Kastor, do me a favour.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Keep your thoughts to yourself.’

And here I thought I can like him too.

 

Neither of us pay attention to the man kneeling in front of her. I couldn’t recall his face at all; only the olive-green cloak, and the high reedy voice of one who would toss defaced coins at blind beggars, then laugh at them as they work out they’ve been toyed with.

Kathanhiel suddenly turns away from the crowd, the light of her cuirass dimming erratically. Arkai frowns, his scouring eyes immediately catching the green cloak slipping away between two elderly women, and his body jolts as if struck by lightning.

Never have I seen anyone move their hands so fast. Before the people around us could find their surprise two knives are already flying through the air, fast as arrows and completely silent. The green cloak, in an impossible display, snatches them up with two fingers without turning around, as if eyes grew on the back of his head. He then raises an index finger and shakes it: tut-tut, try again.

A second later the crowd reacts with exhausted panic. Without knowing why he did what he did, I put a hand on Arkai’s arm before he can draw his daggers.

‘Let go.’

‘Not now! Everyone thinks you’ll hurt them!’

He throws me off hard enough to stumble an elephant. For two seconds his thumb twitches upon the hilt. ‘Here, now, of all places,’ he mutters.

People are looking on with open fear; they’re one flying knife away from finding their insanity again. That severed finger is still on the ground somewhere, trampled and kicked around by tattered shoes.

Cursing under his breath, Arkai chases after Kathanhiel instead. As he walks over a puddle his right foot splashes down right in the middle of it, drenching the tail of his coat.  

When I look back at the crowd again the green cloak is nowhere to be seen.

 

I dole out half-hearted assurances to the crowd that yes, everything’s fine, but the lady’s time is short and we should really be moving on. Soon as they relent I hurry inside the coach with that finger-wagging gesture stuck firmly in my head. It seems so familiar.

Kathanhiel is pacing the room bare-legged, her crystalline greaves tossed carelessly into a corner. Her still gauntleted hands are clutching Kaishen by the blade and holding it against her chest. In the far corner sits Arkai, turning in his hands a charcoal-coloured broach shaped like a coiled dragon. He stares at it intensely, as if by doing so the little trinket might cease to exist.

‘Three ridges, the mark of their leader.’ Kathanhiel says. ‘And their leader is Talu. Talukiel. I saw his face. Tell me what I don’t want to hear Arkai.’

He struggles. ‘I’m sorry I should’ve –’

‘It’s too late for apologies. Just tell me.’

‘We...I...lost track of him three years ago, in the Ranges. I dared not tell you in fear of engendering distraction from your quest –’

Kathanhiel sighs. ‘I knew it. In my heart I knew. All this time I’ve waited for your word, fooling myself, thinking you’re still hunting him down, that his capture is but an inevitability, but of course I’ve been the fool all along, and you had no idea where he was and how he came to lead the Cult of the Dragon. Is there anything else?’

‘I…nothing,’ he replies with eyes downcast. ‘I had no idea he joined the cult.’

‘Grand, spymaster Arkai. Simply grand,’ softly she says. ‘Ten years it’s been since I asked you to kill him, the only favour I’ve ever asked of anyone. Ten years.’

Arkai’s ponytail trembles as he stands up, his right eye twitching. A mask of rage…but I know that mask; he’s angry only at himself.

‘I shall go after him at once.’

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