Jyl sat on the driver’s bench as the floundering sky carriage made its final approach to the alchemical monastery. The temptation to leap over the side and take her chances with a high speed impact with the ground was strong enough that she was squeezing the wooden seat with sufficient force to leave fingerprints in its surface.
“Permission to speak freely,” she asked through clenched teeth.
“Yes, I know this is a bad plan,” Dae said as she drove them onwards to their doom.
“Not what I was going to say, actually,” Jyl said.
“What’s on your mind then?” Dae asked as the sky carriage plummeted twenty feet before the Wind Steeds regained a semblance of solidity.
“Why me?” Jyl asked. “I mean rather than May. Not that being in the cabin will keep the dragons from eating me, but why not have the one person here who we know is capable of fighting them?”
“Because our only hope here is that we won’t have to fight them,” Dae said.
“The dragons all descended to the monastery when they saw us coming in,” Jyl said. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to fight them.”
“Mayleena’s not going to be able to handle them for us,” Dae said. “At best she’d be able to catch a couple of them before the third lifted off and roasted us all from the air.”
“That’s two more of them than we’re going to take out with this plan though isn’t it?” Jyl asked.
“That’s probably true,” Dae said and fought against a wild turn to the right as one of the Wind Steeds faltered and flicked away briefly. “Assuming we can even get there.”
“Honesty time, crashing into the side of the mountain’s not looking so bad right at the moment,” Jyl said.
“Can’t say I disagree, but our job’s not done here yet,” Dae said. “And for as much as what’s going to come next is going to suck, I promise you it’s worth it.”
Jyl clenched the shivering muscles in her torso and forced herself to draw in a deep breath. The air carried with it the scent of dragon fire.
“I can’t do this,” Jyl said. “This isn’t me. I was wrong to come on this mission.”
She felt herself coming unglued, like whatever tethered her to her body had dissolved and she was manipulating it at a distance. From that ghostly remove, only one course of action made sense.
She released her grip on the bench and tumbled off her seat. Her bond with her pact spirit was just as distant as her connection to her body, so she had no idea if she’d be able to manifest wings to fly safely to the ground but somehow that didn’t matter in the least. She welcomed the plunging feeling that meant she was going to escape the horror that awaited her at the top of the mountain.
Or she did until she felt Dae’s hand wrap around her arm like a steel coil.
“We’re going to get through this,” Dae said as the sky carriage tumbled in towards the landing platform.
Jyl fought to escape. She didn’t want to. She respected her commander’s judgment and power too much to try to assault her, but some part of her wasn’t interested in respect or rational judgment. That part of her needed to escape. She felt like it would have been easier to order her heart to stop beating than it would have been to deny that primal imperative.
Her first blow took Dae right in the cheek. It was a solid hit and would have knocked someone without a pact spirit completely off the driver’s bench. Dae’s head didn’t even rock backwards though.
“No more of…” Dae wasn’t even able to finish her admonition before the sky carriage touched down and the two of them were frozen in place by the aura of dragon fear that awaited them.
Coherent though, which had eluded Jyl the last time she encountered a dragon, remained in place this time. The only problem was that she became even more disconnected from her body than she had been.
I shouldn’t have hit the commander, she though. That might cause complications in the mission.
She tried to say something, offer an apology, or even drop her arms limply to her side to indicate that she wasn’t going to fight any further. Movement of any type was not an option though. Observing her body, Jyl didn’t think she was even breathing still.
Somehow though that didn’t seem like a problem. Holding her breath for a while was a basic survival technique for a frightened animal, and on some level that’s all that she was.
Humans, and elves, and dwarves, and all the other Mindful Races believed that they were special. That their intellects allowed them to be the masters of their world. From the magics of pact bonds to the technologies of steel wrung from the mountains, the bits of power that people had scraped together gave them the illusion that they were something greater than the primitive beasts that prowled the wilds or were yoked to toil for those who could think.
As dragon fear descended on her for the second time though, Jyl was forced to confront the fact that in the grand scheme of the gods’ creation, she was no greater than any other beast. Like any animal, she was driven by her desires and limited by her needs. Whatever she wanted, and whatever she thought was right didn’t matter. All that mattered was what she needed, and before all other needs came the need to survive.
To be helpless in the face of that need, was soul crushing. In the cold empty night of her her fear drowned heart, a spark of hatred flared. Hatred for Dae for keeping her on the sky carriage, hatred for Mayleena for not saving them and hatred for the queen for sending them on the mission in the first place.
Most of all though there was hatred of herself for being so weak. For pretending to be a person for so long when she was nothing more than an animal.
In the flames of that hatred she heard her sister’s laughter. It was a laughter that cut and sliced into Jyl, piercing through skin and muscle and into the marrow of her bones.
Her twin knew Jyl’s weaknesses and mocked them cruelly at every turn, so it was right and proper that the echo of her that lived within Jyl’s mind should laugh at this too.
Except, there were some things that they never tormented each other over. Some areas that were off limits. Jaan might kick Jyl when she was down, but somehow the kicks put Jyl back on her feet, ready to fight more, rather than grinding her down further into the mud.
Jyl knew her relationship with Jaan wasn’t a cornerstone of strength for either of them. Neither sister had ever supported or nurtured the other. Almost from exiting the womb there’d been strife and rivalry between the two. Anyone who watched the two of them would inevitably observe that the two were the most bitter of enemies, and Jyl and Jaan had done nothing to correct that belief.
As hatred tore into Jyl’s psyche though, and the dragon fear tried to unmake her image of who she was, she found strength in a simple paradox; she hated her sister and she loved her. She and Jaan were bitter rivals and they were also the ones that at the end of all other things each knew they could rely on.
Jyl was an animal. The dragon fear showed that there were parts of her that could be overwhelmed and driven to thoughtless, uncontrollable action.
But that wasn’t all that she was.
With her sister’s laughter in her ears, Jyl reached out to her body and climbed back into her life in time to hear Lady sur Korkin speaking with one of the dragon riders.
“Thank the gods you were here, Lieutenant, these women are operatives from Gallagrin, and they must be taken into custody immediately.”
“I will have to take everyone into custody, your Ladyship,” the dragon rider said. “Yourself included.”
“Of course,” Estella said. “We must make a full report to the queen’s inquisitors. There may be more Gallagrin agents within the country.”
“You wish to speak to the inquisitors?” the dragon rider asked, clearly surprised.
“As soon as possible,” Estella said. “Paxmer must be ready to defend itself, if this is the prelude to a larger invasion.”
“We are already preparing for an invasion,” the dragon rider said.
“They came to requisition our special blasting powders,” one of the alchemist monks said.
“We are fortunate in your timing then,” Estella said. “Without your dragons, I doubt we could have escaped from three Pact Knights. I must request that you bring the dragon’s full might to bear though, there remains one additional Pact Knight hidden inside the carriage.”
“The dragons will stay where they are,” the rider said. “Any hidden Pact Knight is already frozen by my partner.”
“The hidden one claims to have been responsible for the sinking of a Sunlost ship off the coast of Windsmer and the murder of two dragon riders,” Estella said. “I urge you to be extremely careful of her. They captured us unawares, and had a blade to my throat seconds after they saw me. I know you are not so powerless as we were, but while there is little my daughter or I could have done to resist them, I believe they may have some hidden strategies for dealing with our great protectors. I can’t imagine they would have dared our shores otherwise.”
“You make a compelling case,” the dragon rider said. “We shall burn the carriage, if you don’t object?”
Jyl could hear the dragon rider fishing for a measure of resistance to indicate that Estella’s loyalties had been compromised.
“I have no objections whatsoever to that plan,” Estella said. “The carriage belongs to the mayor of Windsmer. I’m certain she would rather see it burned that used by a Gallagrin infiltrator, just as I’m certain that questioning someone who could slay two dragon riders is unacceptably dangerous.”
Jyl felt herself hauled off the driver’s seat. She was rigid and still unmoving, but she felt an echo of familiarity from her pact spirit. This wasn’t a natural reluctance to move. It was a magical paralysis that was part of the dragon fear aura. She wasn’t too afraid to move, she was bond in magic that prevented her from doing so. And forced her to be terrified. So the difference was slight, but it was present and that, in some odd manner, reassured her.
“Perhaps I shall bring the other dragons in as you say then,” the rider said and signaled the other riders to bring their dragons in for a landing near the carriage. Jyl winced as whole new flavors of dragon fear scoured her mouth like boiling bile. “I want to know what sort of monster Gallagrin has created that can slay two of us.”
“Please, no!” Estella said. “I saw how easily they penetrated the mayor’s estate. I know our dragons are powerful, but you shouldn’t risk yourselves trying to capture them all alive. Certainly one of the other ones could answer your questions?”
“You wish to preserve the third one’s secrets?” the rider asked.
“I am more concerned with the risk you take, than with secrets,” Estella said. “I’ve already endured hours in their captivity. I don’t want some trick they have prepared to take you unawares.”
“You needn’t worry about us, your Ladyship,” the rider said. “We can handle any tricks three little pact knights might have in mind.”
And with that, the three dragons that were present exploded.
Bits of caustic blood and steel hard scale rained down over the entire landing pad and Jyl felt the dragon fear that had gripped her heart vanish in a flash. Where the dragon rider had been standing there was a particularly messy looking pile of what might once have been a man, beside which stood Lady Estella. Jyl watched her lower a long tube which was billowing black smoke from its far end.
“In your next life, consider that it’s the older woman who’s likely to know the most tricks, Lieutenant,” Estella said.