Dae rested at the bottom of the ocean. Darkness and cold had swallowed her whole. The crushing pressure of the water was somehow less of a burden than the weight of her failed responsibilities though.
Joining the pursuit of the Paxmer ships had been foolish. They could have joined any of the other merchant ships to and snuck into Windsmer without attracting attention. Boarding the Fearless had been an act of pure ego. She’d known, or at least hoped, that there’d be a fight with the Paxmer ships. She’d known that the enemy was using dragons and she’d be excited by the prospect of facing one again. Terrified too, but for a brief moment she’d allowed herself to hope once more.
In the back of her mind, Dae questioned whether her failure at Star’s Watch was a fluke. The dragon there could have been unusually powerful. There could have been other spells in play. She could have been weaker at the time from her lack of experience.
Facing dragons on the sea had seemed like the perfect test, and in a sense it was. If there was anywhere that Dae was going to be able to beat Paxmer’s monsters, it was on the sea. They were far from their source of power and even their powerful flames could not overcome the vastness of the water around them. Dae was sure it was her best chance to prove that she could beat one of the beasts.
The ruin of the Fearless, and her own inability to act at all, proved that she couldn’t though. To Dae, the results of the battle showed clearly that she wasn’t strong enough to overcome the mortal terror the creatures could instill. It didn’t help that she’d never heard of anyone else being able to overcome dragon fear either, only that she’d failed to do so under even the most optimal of conditions.
Alari had given her a simply mission and once again, Dae lay amidst the wreckage of her insufficient strength. Kirios’ power was enough to shield her from the ravages of the deep waters, but even his best magic couldn’t protect Dae from the thoughts that tore away at her.
She’d been helpless. Again. If May wasn’t something inhuman, she would have died and Dae couldn’t have done a thing to stop that from happening.
She tried to tell herself that she wasn’t uniquely feeble. Despite the optimal conditions, none of the other crew members were able to throw off the effects of the dragon fear either. Not even the ones who were in mortal peril. Rational thoughts like that didn’t quiet the fear that echoed in her heart though.
Around her, the heavy wreckage of the Fearless lay strewn about the ocean floor. What little light still radiated from the glyphs and stray bits of glamour that clung to the ship gave the ocean floor the appearance of an empty afterlife filled with ghostly objects but no ghosts to be seen.
Dae tried to imagine what just giving up would feel like. Her spirit could linger forever in the quiet graveyard around her. Her failure would be buried beneath the waves and no one would ever need to know of it.
No one except her.
The idea of spending an eternity with the shame of her weakness weighing on her was an unbearable one. She’d failed. Facing up to that was difficult, but she’d done it before. On the Fearless, she hadn’t been able to move her limbs, but the waves had broken the ensorcellment the dragons laid on her.
So she stood up.
As a Pact Knight she had plenty of physical strength for the task but it was still one of the hardest actions Dae felt that she’d ever done.
Looking around, she saw that she wasn’t quite as alone as she thought. Curled into a tight ball and lying on her side, Jyl had survived by transforming into her armored form as well. Unlike Dae though, the young elf, hadn’t managed to get herself back on her feet.
Dae walked over to her companion and touched the motionless girl gently on the shoulder. Jyl didn’t stir and with her armor on it was difficult to tell if she was conscious at all. Dae stepped back and considered what her options were. They’d survived the Fearless sinking but they couldn’t spend an indefinite period of time beneath the waves. Eventually the magic of their transformation would wear out and need to be refreshed and eventually they wouldn’t be able to manage that without becoming berserkers.
Dae wasn’t sure if she could carry the weight of her own problems, but carrying someone else was another matter entirely. Gently, she lifted Jyl up onto her back and began to trudge to the east, towards Paxmer, and towards another chance. She’d failed to fight the dragons, but she hadn’t failed the mission yet.
A strange green wisp joined them, as Dae carried Jyl forward, one plodding step after the other. It wasn’t a comforting sight at first but since it seemed to be heading in their direction and offered them no opposition, Dae decided to consider it as at least ‘non-hostile’ and leave it out of her long list of worries.
About halfway to the enemy shore, Jyl finally began to stir. At first it was the quaking shivers of a residual dragon nightmare, but those eventually gave way to more deliberate movements and Dae let her stand on her own.
Under the waves, conversation was difficult so the two continued forward in silence and in the company of the green wisp.
Dae tried to imagine how Jyl was coping with the after-effects of the dragon fear, and what impact the battle might have had on May. In the latter case, Dae had a guess that she suspected would be confirmed as soon as they left the ocean. In Jyl’s case though, Dae could see too many possibilities to predict what state the dragon attack might have left the elf in.
There were more practical matters to worry about though, which helped pass the time they spent walking.
With the sinking of the Fearless, they’d lost an official means of entering Paxmer. That meant no dockmaster to grant them leave to enter the country and no travel papers which, as foreigners, they would be expected to produce anywhere they tried to do business.
They still had money, Paxmer coins even, which would help smooth their passage, but if they threw around enough gold to buy off a dockmaster they would inevitably attract a great deal of the wrong sort of attention.
That left them with only a few options that Dae could see. They could pretend to be escaped criminals from Gallagrin come to Paxmer to swear themselves to the foreign crown. That story plus their gold would buy them suspicion but the Paxmer nobility would see value in having agents with both a hatred and knowledge of the Gallagrin military structure.
The web of lies they would need to spin to make that option work would have been daunting for someone far more socially adept than Dae knew herself to be though, so she thought a simpler approach was required.
Pact warriors aren’t inherently stealthy by nature, but anyone can pass unnoticed through an area if they can hide well enough and chose to move only when no one else is around.
That would mean moving at night primarily, through terrain they were unfamiliar with and in search of a location they’d never been to. Dae kept looking for better approaches to the problem since there were probably tens of thousands of things that could wrong with the stealth option but throughout the long trek on the ocean bottom she wasn’t able to come up with a plan that seemed more likely to work out for them.
The most difficult part of the plan, that Dae could foresee, would be getting their initial bearing. They’d been sailing towards Windsmer, which was the largest trading city in Paxmer thanks to its relatively short distance from the Sunlost Isles. Dae estimated that they would make landfall somewhere near the city but whether they were to the north or the south of it could make a significant difference in the route they followed inland.
By the time they finally reached water that was shallow enough to risk rising to the surface, night had fallen. Escaping onto dry land promised to be easy thanks to the darkness but locating where they were at was likely to be impossible Dae imagined. Both her imagination and the promise of the dark proved to be false though.
When Dae poked her head above the waves, she saw they had arrived exactly at Windsmer. The town’s lights were ablaze and lighting up the night as though the sun had never set. While it was comforting to know where they were, it also meant that they were going to need to make a long detour underwater if they wished to emerge at a spot that was unnoticed by the city watch.
Neither of those facts captured Dae’s immediate interest though. She was more concerned about the dragons which were perched over the city.
She and Jyl were far enough away to be outside the aura of dragon fear the creatures radiated, but even so, seeing twelve of the giant lizards looming over the edges of the city was enough to set Dae’s hands trembling.
“Why are there so many of them here?” Jyl asked releasing her transformation at last as they quietly broke the surface of the ocean.
“I don’t know,” Dae said, feeling a wave of weariness pass through her as she released her transformation as well. “This can’t be normal though. They’d never be able to dock foreign ships here with those things in place.”
“Maybe they pull them farther back when ships are cleared to dock,” Jyl said.
“Possibly, but coordinating that many dragons is supposed to be extraordinarily difficult,” Dae said. “In the land battles, they never use more than one of the big ones at a time.”
“Do they ever need more than one of the big ones?” Jyl asked.
“It depends what they’re fighting,” Dae said. “The fear aura only goes so far. From outside it those things look like very nice targets for siege weapons.”
“Twelve in one place seems like an exceptional commitment,” May said. As Dae had guessed, the green wisp they’d traveled with had been May walking beside them through the spirit world analog of the ocean floor.
“I don’t really want to get anywhere near those things,” Jyl said. “What happened on the Fearless was not fun.”
“Agreed,” May said. “We did not control ourself well there.”
“You were able to move,” Dae said. “That’s all that counts.”
“It is more accurate to say we were unable to not move,” May said. “We did not mean to break the sword, or kill the man, or sink the ship, and we do not wish to lose our sense of self like that again.”
“We’ll be careful about that,” Dae said. “This isn’t how we planned to get here, but we can make it work.”
“We’ll sneak to your mother’s place?” Jyl asked.
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” May said. “The harbor wyrms have noticed me.”
“Harbor wyrms?” Dae asked, looking at the dragons that ringed Windsmer. None of them had moved.
“Not the dragons on the land,” May said. “The ones that await trespassers who arrive by sea.”
“There’re dragons in the water?” Jyl asked.
“Yes, and they’re coming for me now,” May said. “I’ll draw them off and buy you time to complete the mission.”
By which Dae knew that she meant she would sacrifice herself as dragon food since they seemed to be able to detect her farther away than they could people with more stable pact bonds.
“Wait,” Dae said. “Are these harbor wyrms like the other dragons? They can’t be, can they?”
“They are…” May squinted her eyes and concentrated before saying, “…not the same.”
“What’s different about them?” Jyl asked.
“If they’re in the harbor, they can’t be true dragons,” Dae said. “They’re half breeds or magical constructs but they can’t be as potent since they don’t have the dragon’s link to Paxmer. And they can’t have that damn fear aura or no ships would be able to dock!”
“So we’re going to fight them?” Jyl asked.
“No,” Dae said. “We’re going to befriend them!”