That One Time I Went On A Quest

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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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14. Naked

Waking up feels worse than breathing through a mask stuffed with sweaty cotton. Groggy like a drunk is probably a better way of putting it, but I’ve never gotten drunk in my life, except for that one time when the cousins came over with whatever that rank stuff in the barrel was.

That wasn’t a good day. Not being able to remember it isn’t good either.  

Speaking of remembering, where is this? And what is that disgusting taste in my –

Oh I knew it.

‘Quit…quit it Haylis…’ Feeble murmurs of an old man.

‘The medicine’s supposed to make you sleep,’ snaps a very loud voice, ‘so get back to it.’

‘Why…why am I eating med…med…’

‘Heatstroke and severe dehydration – in winter!’ Comes the cheerful response.

‘My…arm…can’t feel…’

‘It’ll visit in a few weeks. Just stay still and sleep.’

That sounds terrifying. ‘You didn’t…cut…cut it off…did you?’

She responds by flicking a finger at my elbow. That bolt of lightning, like being stabbed in a cluster of nerves with a harpoon, is no phantom pain.

‘Argh!’

‘Stop crying, you’re not even the one badly hurt.’

A lot of the foggy nonsense in my head dissipates at that. Images of Kathanhiel kneeling naked in a pool of fire come rushing back – that was no dream.

‘Is – is she alright?’

‘Recovering,’ Haylis says. ‘Her…fever...is so much worse this time. All night she spent sitting in a barrel – the second one because the first dried up in an hour. Her skin is…her skin is –’ she shivers, ‘– all cracked and…broken up…’

Sitting up puts the world on a trampoline. One brief look at a jagged hole on the far wall (hastily patched up with wooden boards) is enough to bounce everything sideways.

‘No, you stay put.’ With a one-fingered bump on the forehead she sends me pillow-bound.

Booming footsteps; a huge eye peeks inquisitively through one of the many holes in the wall. Which little giant is that? Their eyes all look the same –

‘Don’t go anywhere,’ Haylis says as she pulls out her silent bells again.

I spend a confused two minutes looking around the room, which seems to be the centre cabin of our carriage with all the interior walls torn down. At some stage black soot had everything covered, but the many streaky wipe marks hint at the rigorous cleaning that had driven it back. Rigorous but non-effective.

Haylis, that’s not how you wipe, you need to gather all the soot to one spot, not smear them all around...

Next to a broken door is Kathanhiel’s shattered wardrobe. Her once neatly folded shirts are scattered about like colourful rags; neither she nor Haylis had thought to reorganise them. The crystalline cuirass sits in a corner, dull and unpolished, and the arced gauntlets that had shone so brilliantly are holding down a pile of straw, which by the looks of it is being used as a bed.

Kathanhiel wouldn’t sleep on there; she would set it alight.

At that thought the idea of lying down for another second becomes intolerable.

‘Where is she?’

Haylis turns around as the little giant moves away from the gap. ‘On the roof.’

‘And…inside a barrel?’ What an absurd image.

‘Oon’Shei made a lookout for her so she could stay in it up there.’

‘Why? Couldn’t she just sit inside or – ’

The rest of the sentence gets swallowed up by her expression: that of not wanting to tell the bad news but knowing that it’ll have to be told sooner or later.  

Something feels different.

Ever since the start of this quest there has been an awkward itch at the back of my head, the one associated with being intimidated. That by itself is perfectly fine – doubt anyone in the world could be unfazed by dragon slaying – but it has become a problem, one that I refused to acknowledge: I’m intimidated all the time.

Slowly, looking down at the ground became the norm. Stuttering and being strung along in conversations became the norm. Being detached to all that has happened – the ambush, the rioting crowd, the story of Talu, even the swarming dragons – became the typical demeanour with which I handled every situation. .

Bewildered, confused, and above all intimidated, I’ve come to view our quest through the eyes of a spectator sitting on the bleachers: from a distance, with a sense of disbelief.

This is ridiculous, this can’t be happening had been a constant thought.

No longer. That awkward itch is gone.

It went away at Kathanhiel’s tears.

She’s always been perfect in every way imaginable, a story sprung to life: strong, indomitable, beautiful, compassionate, has a great sense of humour… and never for a moment did I wonder how she’s able to shoulder the fate of the Realms all by herself.

She’s the hero, so of course she could!

That false invincibility wore her thin, so thin, but not once did she complain. Was it pride that kept her silent and suffering? Probably, but I don’t know pride. All I know is that the eternal hero sung in countless tales is no more an agent of the Maker than I am. She can break under the impossible burden that she took upon herself, and that is quite alright; she’s allowed to.

‘Can you get me up there?’ I ask.

Haylis raises an eyebrow. ‘Why?’

‘We have to talk to her. She’s not…she’s not thinking clearly. I can’t really explain it but I’m really scared for her after...after what happened. Do you know what I mean?’

She responds no but her eyes aren’t so sure.

‘I’m scared the next time we fight the dragons she might…might…I don’t know what but something bad will happen.’ The memory of her clutching the burning sword against her chest makes my stomach turn. ‘Kaishen is eating her. There’s no other way I can put it. It’s like she thinks the sword is a…a…’

‘A person,’ Haylis finishes, her eyes looking everywhere but at me. ‘She talks to it in her sleep.’ My face must look horrible for her to hastily add, ‘It only started after we ran into Talu, but it’s…it’s…I didn’t want to say anything because she must be under a lot of pressure and when you’re stressed it’s easy to –’

Stressed. Naked, burning, crying-her-eyes-out kind of stressed. How could I have been so blind?

‘We have to talk to her. You have to help me Haylis – I don’t even know where to start.’

She nods after a moment’s consideration. ‘You’ll do the talking, right? You’re better at this…feeling stuff…than I am.’

What a strange thing to be complimented on.

 

Looking up from her prone position on the ground, Oon’Shang waves at us (‘she’s happy to see you awake,’ Haylis says, ‘and hopes that you won’t faint so easily next time.’) as her brother carefully set us down on the roof as one would a pair of kittens.

During my spell of unconsciousness the coach had moved further up the highway, and now stands in the middle of what resembles the inside of a fireplace. Blackened earth and blasted trees flank the road on both sides and stretch forever into the north. Tired smoke, several days into its leg, struggle half-heartedly to rise against the insistent rain.

 The highway itself is mostly intact, the sturdy pavement charred but unbroken. Conspicuous piles of ash sit at intervals, poorly mimicking the shapes of wagons and people that have met a fiery end.

The back half of our coach, where the horses were, had been stripped of walls. A large pile of ash-mingled straw now sits on top of the chassis – Oon’Shang’s bed, probably. Hearing Bobby’s neighing causes some elation; the animal, unbothered by this dreary landscape, is picking on a tiny patch of unburnt grass on the roadside and swishing its pretty tail.

I look up.

Kathanhiel is sitting naked inside a water-filled barrel that had been lodged into the roof, with her arms hanging out on the side. By her left hand is the obsidian bow, dark and inert; by her right is the still glowing blade of Kaishen, on which she incessantly taps with the nail of her index finger, sending up puffs of steam. Her skin no longer has that cracked-and-burning look, but prominent red lines are still riddled all over her back as if she might shatter at the lightest touch.

At our approach she looks around, and seems to wake up from an open-eyed dream. ‘Kastor? What are you – you shouldn’t be moving around yet.’

Smiling is more difficult than I imagined. ‘I’m alright now. It’s no big deal.’

She spend one long second looking amused. ‘Had an epiphany perhaps? You’ve the look of one who is about to give a lecture.’

Am I made of glass? Her jibe makes me want to dash off this awkward roof and stuff my head under a pillow – or a guillotine – but I have to speak. It’s the only thing I could do. ‘I-I want you ask you a few...I mean I have a few questions I want to ask you about if-if you have time, my lady...about...um...before?’

By the Maker you sound like a moron.

Behind me, Haylis pulls a face and stifles a giggle.

‘Must you? Could we not carry on as we are?’ Kathanhiel asks softly, putting her face against her knees, ‘I had wished for this quest to end before ever needing to...explain. Is it not enough for us to simply slay the Apex? Must we delve into the irrelevant past?’

Before I could answer she laughs at herself. ‘Of course we must. Everyone is depending on me yet I’m a scared little girl drowning myself in a barrel. I’ve not grown up at all, not since...’ she points Kaishen toward where the sun sulks behind the thunderclouds, ‘not since I inherited this sword from my master. It’s been ten years. Can you believe it?’

Rain streaks down the flawless blade, but none reaches the hilt before turning to steam. The steel is still faintly glowing, its protruding spine a silver thread that diffuses onto the edges in so many radiant trails.

‘Hero of the Realms…they never called him that. People would brush shoulders with him on the street and they’d yell for him to get out of their way. He used to laugh at that, saying it’s better than being ignored all the time.’ Her arm trembles as the red heat creeps up to her elbow. ‘How he must’ve shaken his head when I chose Talukiel. How disappointed must he be, seeing me like this?’

Kathanhiel looks surprised as Haylis suddenly grabs her arm. Her left hand shoots out, impossibly fast, and breaks Haylis’ grip in an instant by twisting her wrist all the way around.

‘You can leave it alone,’ Haylis says through gritted teeth. ‘We don’t need Kaishen right now so you can let it go!’

Kathanhiel immediately withdraws with a look of self-loathing. ‘Sorry I-I-my mind is adrift. Are you hurt?’

‘No but we have to talk about this. You’re in no condition to –’

Lightning flashes across the sky. With grey thunderheads stretching from one horizon to the other, it’s difficult to see what’s up there; one blink and I would’ve missed them.

There are hundreds of winged shadows lurking in the clouds.

The rolling thunder couldn’t mask the iron defiance in Kathanhiel’s voice. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t let go just yet. Our quest is not done.’

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