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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36. The Stone Graves

At the rate Kathanhiel is drinking suppressants we would run out by the week’s end, and now that I know how it’s made, she might as well be slowly poisoning herself. Finding an inn and taking it easy isn’t really an option though.

Three days now we have spent walking along this gorge, and it seems to go on forever. Looking up, the sky is a thin blue thread sown onto cloven stone; no way anyone – anything – could spot us from up there. There is a whole network of gorges like this in the Endless Ranges – something to do with ancient rivers, I think – and at least a dozen have crossed our path, but Kathanhiel always knows which one to take. Of course she does. 

Somehow, a week after a hole was put in my throat, I am fine with hiking from dawn to dusk. Heat pumps through my legs constantly – can’t be blood. Blood doesn’t feel like that.

The scab on my throat is still scorching hot.

I want to ask Kathanhiel about this; I want to ask her about a great many things – how we are supposed to look for Rutherford, what we could expect…but all that is trivial small talk. There is exactly one thing on both our minds:

‘Talukiel couldn’t have gotten away, my lady. The dragons, our people...’

Kathanhiel shakes her head. ‘I need to watch him die.’

‘Is it true, all that stuff he said? The Scouring at the Stone Graves?’

‘He told you, did he?’

She doesn’t say any more.

‘My…lady?’

‘What is there to say, Kastor?’

‘I…I don’t know.’

Right. There is no point. Regret feels the same, explanation or not; understanding doesn’t make it go away.  

We pass by a boulder of malachite that came from who knows where; seeing its bright hues stuck in the middle of this miserably brown gorge is like spotting a clown at a funeral. Carved on its surface, in a blend of blue, green, and chalky beige, is a sun with rays drawn on with dashed lines, and a crooked moon. The image is worn, almost indistinguishable.

Kathanhiel brushes her hand against it as we walk past, almost lingering. ‘Ten years ago, Kaishen led me along this very path,’ she says. ‘It is nice here – the quiet, the sense of security. In the cities it had not been so pleasant. People used to yell at him on the street: “How dare you debase such a beautiful maiden like a beast of burden?!” I was carrying his inventory, as befit an esquire, and that somehow had a lot of people upset. He said that if I looked like a hag no one would bat an eye.’

She laughs quietly.

‘Titles like Hero of the Realms, Slayer of…repulsed him. False names he used, always, so no one knew who he was. But he was from the House of Kai – at the time, the richest family in the Vassal States – and he was often careless about revealing his wealth. A young woman, travelling with an ill man with a fortune…easy prey we seemed. Eyes were always on us: thugs, bandits, traffickers…

‘You killed them all.’ The words escape before I could hold them back.

‘Of course I did.’ She shrugs. ‘I slew thirteen at the Ford alone. When he came into my room and saw the pieces…I wish he had yelled at me. He did not. He didn’t say a word. The next morning I was given a scabbard of quartz, cheap and shiny. He told me to wear my sword on the waist so that everyone could see it. I thought he had meant it as a compliment, that I should be proud of my skill.’

I laugh at that in spite of myself; she smiles in return. ‘Pardon me, rambling on like an old woman.’ She points ahead. ‘Not far now. By midday we’ll reach the Stone Graves, then we can take a break. Do we still have tea?’

‘Yes my lady, enough for a week at least.’

‘Excellent.’

 

The gorge falls away, revealing a giant crater sunk in the middle of jagged peaks. Three obelisks – obsidian-black and bent inward, facing each other like clawed fingers – stand in a circle at its centre, each as tall as ten little giants standing shoulder on shoulder. Atop each one is a black statue, tarnished by the mountain air but still distinctive, the one on the right especially: fan-like harness on her back, a sword in each hand, crossed over her head in ritualistic triumph.

‘Who…who are they?’ I point at the statues, finger trembling.

Kathanhiel indicates them in turn. ‘Kalarinth of the Earth, Ma’Tol the Hunter, and Ush’Ra the Godsmith, paragons of the little giants, personifying the virtues of faith, strength, and creativity.’

She is squinting, trying to decipher what lies in the deep shadow between the obelisks. The centre of the crater is a glassy black, like a single slab of rock polished and waxed; it’s glaring painfully under the midday sun.

‘There were people here,’ she says.

‘What? Where?’

‘You see the tracks, on the fused ground? The white prints.’ She points left and right, indicating what I couldn’t see. ‘People have passed through here recently. A group. Couldn’t be the mountain folk – they’re terrified of the obelisks. That leaves…’

‘Our people? Maybe Iborus sent a party ahead to…uh…I don’t know…’

‘Perhaps.’        

We approach the obelisks slowly, skidding on the pebbly trail that winds around the crater. The closer to the centre we get the more distinctly black the earth becomes, and more…stuck together, somehow. There is a subtle buzzing in the air, one that would not be noticeable if it isn’t so deathly quiet. It’s coming from everywhere at once. Sounds like…paper being crumpled or…glass beads being rubbed together…

A tent.

I rub my eyes but it’s still there. A tent, with solid black canvas, sitting in camouflage under the shadows of the obelisks.

Kathanhiel has already seen it. Detaching Kaishen from her waist she tosses it to me, scabbard and all. ‘Your sword, please,’ she says. ‘Remind me to stop carrying Kaishen. It’s yours now.’

I give her my sword, a completely ordinary weapon made out of ordinary steel. As for her request…

‘Do we have to fight?’ I ask. ‘If we just go around –’

‘That spot there,’ she points to the centre of the crater, ‘is where we must make camp. I know not how these pillars function – not even the little giants do, not anymore – but those who reside between them become undetectable. It is by far the safest place in the Ranges.’

‘Undetectable? You mean…invisible?’

‘You shall see,’ she says. ‘Whatever happens, stay close to me.’

As we draw near the obelisks the air begins to turn warm. A gust of humid and inexplicably organic wind rushes forth with the smell of sand and decomposing vegetation. Some kind of hallucination, must be; there’s not a single straw of grass as far as the eyes can see, and the earth is completely solid, fused together and not at all sand-like.

The tent only thirty paces in front of us yet the air shimmers all around it, as if it’s not really…there? But it has to be. There are steel pegs in the ground, taut ropes, and a smudging of tracks before its entrance flap.

Stepping forward…

The moment I pass between the obelisks, the world…changes. No other way to describe it. One moment, a silent crater closeted by desolate mountains; the next, a symphony of roaring waves, and a tide of earthly stink: wet sand mingled with the nauseating odour of a rainforest shrugging off a summer storm.

There is no mountain here, only an open horizon painted crimson with an imminent sunset. The wind – no, the sea breeze – feels refreshingly cool, for there is no winter here either, wherever here is.

The black tent is still there, ten steps ahead but now set upon brown soil thick with weeds. Around it the three obelisks remain, now covered in what looks like ten centuries’ worth of moss. The obelisks are set upon the edge of a cliff: below us, the ocean is shattering itself upon serrated granite; behind us, vegetation massive and strange encroach upon the cliff in a rampant wave, as if intent on invading the water. 

This place…

First there was that vision, then there was the mural in the catacombs, and now…I am here.

Kathanhiel puts her hand on my shoulder. ‘Do not be alarmed. It is safe here.’

Is it? Is it really?

Upon closer inspection, the brownish soil is made up of large earthen-coloured chunks that crumble to pieces upon contact. The wind, the humidity, the plants – they seem to be breaking them down. So shapely, these chunks; they remind me of…of…

Bones. You’re standing on a bed of bones.

Suddenly the tent flap opens. Kathanhiel raises her sword.

A young man, no older than I, with a head of flaxen hair and beautiful skin of bronze, pokes out his head. His eyes go wide for a moment, but there is no fear in them, only surprise as they linger on Kathanhiel’s empty sleeve. ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ he says. What a pleasant voice.

‘At whose behest?’ she asks, her sword unwavering.

‘The boss. The Champion,’ he replies, stepping out onto the dirt. The red sun makes his thin frame look skeletal. ‘He told me to wait for you here. He said you’d come eventually. I was worried about running out of food. There is nothing to eat here.’

Kathanhiel gives me an uncertain look. She has never done that before.

Quick, say something!

‘Um…uh…what’s your name?’ I ask him.

‘Kalaris,’ he says. From the corner of my eye I see Kathanhiel blink hard.

‘So…uh…Kalaris, Talukiel told you to wait for us here, is that what you’re saying?’

‘Yeah,’ he nods, tapping on his chest. Pinned upon his greasy shirt is a charcoal-coloured broach shaped like a coiled dragon. ‘I’m supposed to lead you to a trap.’

Did he just...?

‘They left this with me, said it would convince you to go where they want you to go.’ He takes out a worn metal gauntlet from his backpack: an intricate item, with rusted chains tied to the wrist and the ends of each finger, so that when pulled taut the gauntlet would clutch tightly whatever it is holding. There were a few pairs of these in the Iborus smithy, meant for wounded soldiers who couldn’t properly grip, but this one is far fancier, with an emerald-and-gold phoenix on the back piece and webbed cushioning on every fingertip.

The beautiful craftsmanship has a blasted look, with dark stains all over the steelwork, as if it had been through a furnace.

Clink. Kathanhiel drops her sword. Slowly she walks forward, holding out her hand. ‘You took it from his grave,’ she says, a statement of fact.

Kalaris offers no resistance as she tears the gauntlet from his hand. ‘If you go up from the north side you’ll see where they hide,’ he says calmly, almost bored-sounding. ‘Eleven of them, all trained by the Champion. Thought you’d want to know.’ He rubs his hands on the sides of his pants. ‘Well, that’s it. I better go home now, before…if they come back. What a shame. I like it here.’ Turning around, he lingers on the bloody sunset, muttering: ‘That sun never sets. Twenty-one days I’ve been here, every day the same. Nothing ever happens here. I like it.’

I turn to Kathanhiel wanting to ask thousand questions.

‘My lady? What are we going to do?’

At first she just stands there, staring at the gauntlet, turning it over in her hand until her fingers have traced its every curve. Powdery black stuff peel off from the tattered leather inlay, staining her skin.

‘Um…my lady?’

She inhales sharply. ‘A detour.’ Nodding to herself, she puts the gauntlet in my hand. ‘The hilltop above the river bend, half a day’s walk.’

Feels heavy, this old thing, yet judging by its size it was made for a hand even slimmer than mine.

Wait. Wait. Why did she give it to me?

Kathanhiel has picked up her sword.

No time to think; I take two quick steps forward and put my hand on her arm. ‘Don’t mind him, my lady.’ She shrugs me off without looking back but no I can’t sit this one out and pretend I don’t know what she’s doing, I can’t, not after everything she has told me. So I grab her sleeve. ‘He’s trying to help. We don’t have to kill him.’

‘Safer this way,’ she says, whipping her shoulder with such clever force that the sleeve slips through my clutches like a ribbon of silk.

…what am I to say? Tell her to not kill one of Talukiel’s cultists? That won’t ever work. But what she said in the gorge…that had to mean something.

I speak up.

‘Killing him is not what Master Kaishen would do.’

 

The mountains return the moment we step out from the obelisks’ shadow, and as the humid heat of that…place…fades away so returns the freeze draught. I look back and see Kalaris prying out the tent pegs with a tiny shovel, the kind children use to build sandcastles. Hopefully he’ll be gone by the time we get back. Please be gone.

As we crest the north side of the crater, Kathanhiel mutters to herself: ‘Tamara would pull her hair out if she ever finds out I listened to someone else’s advice.’

Have to tell her this now, so I can put to rest all these rampant ideas in my head. ‘My lady I…I’ve seen that place before. When we were stuck in the middle of the highway, Rutherford spoke to me. He showed me a vision of that place. There was a big dragon and…its stomach was filled with…’

Kathanhiel looks at me blankly; she has no idea what I’m talking about. ‘Rutherford, granting you visions? I didn’t know such a thing was possible. And he showed you the Stone Graves?’

I tell her about the bloated dragon, the circle of little giants, everything. What a weight off my chest.

For a while she remains silent. We are going up a steep incline with crumbling sandstone on one side and a great drop on the other. Even with my newfound fitness my calves are struggling; just a small hillock, easy, no problem, just an infinite fall if I make one misstep…

‘I know not the significance of what you have seen,’ at last she says, trudging ahead of me at a slow but oh-so-fast pace. ‘Rutherford must’ve shown it to you for a reason but…I cannot fathom…’

Running…out of breath…but this talk isn’t over, not when I haven’t asked about…

‘Are we…going to…Kaishen’s…grave?’

‘We have to return his gauntlet,’ she says, pulling further ahead. ‘If the cultists are waiting in ambush on the north side, which is what I suspect, then we’ll draw them out onto the pass. If not, if our curious friend was telling the truth, then we’ll take them out from the hilltop, with the bow, as they try to rush us. Either way, I’d prefer not to use Kaishen in this encounter, lest the heat draws the dragons’ attention.’

‘Ye…ye…yes…’

She turns around with an uneasy expression. ‘Sorry Kastor I…I’m not paying attention. Let’s take a break.’

As I lay spread-eagled upon a cool rock, it occurs to me that, to arrange an ambush meant for after Iborus, Talukiel must have had little faith in himself; it means that he had expected his plan to fail yet committed to it anyway.

What a miserable thought that is. 

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