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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15. The Thralls

Haylis gives me a fearful look; she too has seen behind the clouds. ‘What do we do?’

‘We cut them down,’ Kathanhiel says.

‘But –’

‘Right now there are excuses that I could make, ones that are beyond reproach…which is why I shall make none.’ Gathering up her weapons, Kathanhiel steps out of the water, waving off Haylis’ helping hand with a frown even though her legs are already trembling. As timid rain begins to fall, she raises her face to the sky with eyes closed and stumbles like one lost in a waking dream.

‘I know not what they’re waiting for – a signal from the Apex, perhaps – but we cannot stand idle as they regroup.’ She turns to Haylis. ‘Forgives me, dear niece, but there is an errand I must ask of you.’

Haylis’ eyes shift between Kaishen and Kathanhiel’s face. ‘What is it?’

‘Go to Iborus.’

‘But...what...aren’t we already doing that?’

‘Take Oon’Shei with you. Ride day and night. With Bobby’s speed you’ll arrive in four days. The commander will want to send the whole Phalanx, but you need to reject her offer and ask instead a small team armed with dry powder – two hundred would suffice. Have them come to me.’

‘What-what about – ’

‘You’ll find no dragons at Iborus,’ Kathanhiel says. ‘Judging by these numbers, we have succeeded in drawing them away.’ Her eyes turn to the sky. ‘I’ll remain here, keep them drawn to me for as long as we need, and wait for you to return with reinforcements.’

Haylis looks horrified. ‘But…you…by yourself…there has to be a way for us to stick together! Why can’t we just keep going on the coach? Oon’Shei can pull all of us –’

‘Haylis, you’re asking him to pull double the weight with half the crew.’

‘So what? He can do it. He told me.’

‘Of course he did, and when the dragons come he’ll be the first to die,’ Kathanhiel says softly. ‘He’ll die because you asked him to carry more weight than he’s capable of.’

Haylis’ face turns red. ‘Then…if not then…I can ride with you on Bobby and Oon’Shei can carry his sister and Kastor can…ride on his shoulder maybe…’

Kathanhiel shakes her head. ‘We’ll be too slow to spread their numbers.’

‘But if you’re staying here and not moving you won’t spread their numbers at all! Are you saying you’re fine with it as long as you’re fighting them by yourself?!’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh Aunt Kath –’

‘Enough, Haylis. We cannot sit idle and expect Iborus to come to us. I need you to go.’

‘Oon’Shei can –’

‘He cannot go alone. Any miscommunication –’

‘Then just don’t fight them at all!’ Haylis bursts out. ‘Just hide and let them all go away and do whatever they want –’

Kaishen clamours as it is strikes upon solid steel and sparks explode at Kathanhiel’s feet.  ‘Do not suggest such a thing again,’ she says coldly.

With rolling thunder comes a wave of tiny raindrops the size of tears. They hit the roof like sprinkled glass.

‘What if you – you don’t make it? What will I do?’ Haylis asks.

The corner of Kathanhiel’s lips rise up in a gentle smile. Already it feels like I’ve seen that smile a million times, but before now they’ve always been too…perfect, too perfect and radiant and benevolent to be simple expressions of joy. Now I see what it is: a mask.

Without knowing what’s going to come out, I open my mouth. ‘I’ll look after her. I’ll make sure we’re still alive when you get back with reinforcements.’

What – why – how are you – who do you think you are –

Both of them turn in my direction. Haylis, defying every law of nature and breaking every rule in the book, looks impressed. Kathanhiel simply looks at me.

 

Oon’Shei initially refuses to budge, refuses to even leave his sister’s side no matter how many times Haylis hit those bells. Oon’Shang telling him off with some forceful finger-jabbing and head-knocking quickly changes his mind.

Shaking his head, he kneels and lays down the sickle blade at Oon’Shang’s feet. She, in exchange, pricks her finger upon the five remaining javelins, coating their tips with her blood, and ties them onto his back with butterfly knots.

They take this simple ceremony seriously, as if doing it for the last time.

Although we’ve not been the best of friends, seeing Haylis leave is surprisingly difficult; after surviving that night together even mortal enemies would get along, and despite what I like to tell myself, so far she’s been ten times more helpful than I: working with the little giants, helping me after I passed out…and even though she whines constantly about having to do esquire-ly things, when the dragons came she stuck around. No whining about that whatsoever.

She receives two kisses on the cheeks from Kathanhiel, then gives me a rib-crushing hug that leaves no room for making a fool out of myself.

‘Don’t die,’ she breathes into my ear. ‘Think of the money you’ll make by not dying.’

‘Thanks, I won’t, I will.’

 

Haylis looks light as a leaf on Bobby’s back. She waves before going over the horizon…or at least I think she did – I could barely see her under Oon’Shei’s shadow.

Farewell, my friends.

I look up from my spot on the roof. The dragons are still circling and show no sign of departure…or descent. They’re not interested at all in the two that just went north.

Kathanhiel stands before me wearing a sleeveless shirt treated with tundra essence and the crystalline greaves from her ceremonial set, which would prevent her feet from sinking when things get…heated. She looks at me quizzically. ‘You seem calm.’

Do I? My hands are so sweaty they can sate a thirsty camel.

‘N-not really, no.’

She hesitates. ‘Regarding my...my decision to send Haylis away…perhaps I made it too rashly, in an ill state of mind. I was overly rude, certainly. I hope she will forgive me.’

Somehow the doubt in her voice feels…comfortable. ‘I don’t know what to say, my lady. It’s not the place of an esquire to offer opinions on...well...stuff.’

‘Yet you do it often, though often not through words,’ she says. ‘I see from your expression that you think me mad for taking on the dragons by myself.’

‘I – that’s not what –’

‘And of course you’re right.’ Her voice is perfectly calm. ‘It is mad, but it is also the only decision I could make. All of us have virtues by which we hold dear, the pillars of our being. Pride, vain and despicable in all its irrationality, is one of mine. So…Kastor, forgive me.’

My eyes are fixed on my feet but I can sense hers on the back of my head. It’s impossible to look up at first because of how easy and safe looking down feels.

But it doesn’t feel right, not anymore. So I look up.

‘Nothing to forgive, my lady. I don’t really have…meaningful opinions, and I’ll not pick and choose what I hear or pretend to understand what I don’t. What I’m…’ gulp ‘…what I’m saying is, I’m with you in whatever you decide to do.’

For a silent while she looks at me with inscrutable eyes…and nope, can’t do it, still too intimidating. I look down again.

‘What did I do to deserve such loyalty?’ she asks gently.

I must’ve shoved my face inside an oven; how else could it be burning?

‘I uh…don’t…nothing I suppose….but it’s nothing really I’m just…signed the…contract…and stuff…’

 ‘If that is how heroes are made, then the Realms would be teeming with them.’ She says. A soft hand props up my chin. Though rain is running lines down her cheeks, she is smiling. ‘Come, my esquire, let us stand against the enemy together. And after our foes are no more, I shall tell you the tale of a stubborn little girl who wanted to save the world.’

 

The moment the rain eases up, she raises Kaishen in honour guard.

 ‘Help me,’ she whispers at it. ‘I know I’ve already asked for too much, a lifetime of debts never to be repaid, but there is one I must not let down. So help me.’

At her urging Kaishen’s glow intensifies; strands of white lines effervesce from its tip and entwine into familiar shapes: triangular dragon heads, each with a slithering tongue. This time, however, they number not half a dozen, but in the hundreds.

Look away!

The temptation to stare is overpowering. The very memory of their little dance is forcing my head to the sky. Can’t wait to see them again, the cute triangles bobbing up and down, left and right –

Turning to me, Kathanhiel speaks, and her voice is louder than thunder.

‘You need only look at me.’

Her face isn’t yet glowing like the night before, but specks of gold are already shining in her pupils. Adorned with perfect eyelashes and irises that are at once blue and green and red and grey, they are alive and dancing – first time I’ve seen them like that.

 ‘The Thralls are not for human eyes,’ she says, ‘for they are the seeds of dragon fire, made to scorch minds.’ She smiles. ‘Your ardent gaze gives me strength, Kastor. I used to look upon my master the same way.’

‘Is he…was he...?’ I couldn’t finish.

‘I shall see his face again, when I go to his hearth in the evergreen and knock on his door as an intrepid guest,’ she says gently. ‘Perhaps he has forgotten about me. What will I do then?’

A memory comes: me, sitting inside the guest room, pouring over a hand-drawn map of the Endless Ranges. There had been a block of text under a stick figure wearing a circle-and-crescent hat, the same symbol that is tattooed on her stomach: I took from him the Bane of Dragons, and left my heart in its place. One day I shall follow the sound of its beating to his hearth in the evergreen, and muster the courage to ask for his hand.

The sudden pull in my chest demands that I say something.

‘He’ll be waiting for you, but he won’t be happy if you get there too soon.’

Kathanhiel slowly looks up. ‘Right. There is a promise I have to keep.’

The Thralls are rising, higher and higher into the sky, but I’m not seeing them anymore. They’re not real. 

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