The alchemical monks were abandoning their home and fleeing from certain and fiery death, but they somehow still found time to offer Dae and her companions aid.
“We’re going to be traveling light anyways,” Monk Wunchlasse said. “So our extra food stores are yours.”
“Thank you, I can’t imagine it was easy to get all this up here,” Dae said, looking over the crates of rations and preserved foods that the monks had hauled out of their store houses.
“Easier than getting it down it turns out,” Wunchlasse said. “We had plenty of time to stock the storerooms, but precious little for the unloading.”
“Will you be able to carry enough to reach the Gallagrin border?” Dae asked.
“We should be good as long as we don’t need to take too many detours,” Wunchlasse said.
“When you get to the border, ask for sanctuary in my name,” Dae said. “The troops there should be briefed on your arrival.”
“You’re able to communicate with your queen?” Wunchlasse asked.
“No, but she foresaw that something like this might come up, so they’ll be expecting your arrival some time before the fighting starts,” Dae said.
“Let’s hope that she’s foreseen enough for us all to make it through the coming cataclysm,” Wunchlasse said.
“You should be safe in Gallagrin at the very least,” Dae said.
“If Haldri Paxmer gains the power you seek, I doubt we’d be safe anywhere in the world,” Wunchlasse said, her wrinkled brow furrowing even further.
“We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen,” Dae said.
Jyl wandered up to them in the company of one of the monastery’s scribes.
“I’ve got the maps that you asked for,” she said. “Can you figure out where we need to go from these though? They look different than the ones we have in Gallagrin.”
“Paxmer map notations are different from the ones we use,” Dae said, examining the largest map that Jyl had brought with her.
“There are fewer dwarves in Paxmer,” Estella said.
“What does that have to do with maps?” Nui asked.
“Gallagrin has one of the largest cautographs schools in the Blessed Realms,” Dae said. “Until about fifty years ago the school was open to dwarves only and they trained their students on the most exacting surveying techniques and equipment. Nobody else could match them for their accuracy and detail.”
“What happened to them?” Nui asked.
“Falling out among the heads of facuity that ran the school,” Dae said. “Squabbling, led to infighting and in the end the central guild they were all part of collapsed and the individual inot rectors set up a number of separate schools and started teaching a wider range of students.”
“So you’re saying our maps are wrong then?” Nui asked.
“No, not wrong, just different,” Dae said. “At least if you know how to adjust for the differences in representation styles.”
“And you do?” Nui asked.
“Hell no,” Dae said. “But Mayleena does.”
“She’s somewhat out of commission though, isn’t she?” Jyl asked.
“We’ll have to see about that,” Dae said. “Worst case we can use the maps we brought from home to at least get close to our destination.”
“You mentioned going from town to town on your journey,” Estella said. “That’s not the fastest path for reaching your destination.”
“I know,” Dae said. “But our queen insisted that it was vital once we reached this stage and confirmed that dragons were active in the area that we make every effort to ensure that the local population is not decimated by them.”
“Odd that the Gallagrin Queen cares so much about Paxmer civilians,” Estella said.
“She cares about people,” Dae said. “She always has.”
“Isn’t her first duty to the people of Gallagrin though?” Nui asked.
“Yes,” Mayleena said, emerging from the sky carriage at last. “But safety for one brings safety for all.”
Dae watched Estella’s expression turn contemplative, as though Mayleena’s words had provided the last piece to a particularly opaque puzzle. She wondered how much of Alari’s plan her mother had discerned and whether it really made sense to wait to reveal it openly. Alari and Dae had worked together carefully on the timing when information would be released so that the right bits would reach Haldri at the right times. With the plan in motion though, Dae could help but second guess the parts of it which she’d made cases for being true.
It was easy, sitting in the planning room of the castle in Highcrest, to imagine a flow of events, one triggering the other with contingencies for when each step went astray. It was very different though enacting those plans though and having to walk blind into traps that you could foresee.
Before Dae’s party left the alchemical monastery, Dae found a moment to pull Mayleena off to the side for a private discussion.
“How are you both holding up?” she asked.
“We feel like we are two strings on a violin on which different melodies have been played, badly,” Mayleena said. “We are regaining our harmony, but it is difficult.”
“Good,” Dae said. “We’re going to face more dragons before this is over, but from here on out you don’t need to hold back.”
“What about our cover though?” Mayleena asked. “If they discover we’re here, won’t they send more dragons?”
“They’re already sending more dragons,” Dae said. “At this point we just need to hope that the rest of the plan works out in our favor.”
The next step in the plan was to resume their journey, which the monks also helped with by allowing both the Queen’s Knights and the Resistance members to take the long sky carriage in the monk’s stable to the ground for its first trip down the mountain.
Sailing from the top of the spire the monastery as located on, Dae was able to put a real picture to the region which the conflicting Gallagrin and Paxmer maps displayed.
The border between the two nations was largely remarked by a series of impassable mountains with the occasional traversible pass which allowed for trade and travel to occur. Where the mountains continued well into Gallagrin’s lands though, in Paxmer they extended like a series of sharp and tall fingers that broke up the northern provinces of the realm.
Apart from the fringe of mountains though, Paxmer enjoyed tremendous plains, that left Dae boogling at how much land there was for people to tend to. Here are there stretches of forest dotted the landscape but these seemed like carefully tended sanctuaries rather than the wild growths which clawed life out of Gallagrin’s rocky slopes and meadows.
As they drew closer to the ground, the other thing that struck Dae was how much larger the distances seemed when confronted with their reality rather than simply a representation on a map.
She knew that they were looking at many days of travel to reach their destination. Easily over a week. Seeing the space they had to cross though left her wondering if even that much time would be enough.
If the plan’s going to work, it will have to be, she thought.
“Be careful when you get off,” the monk who was driving the sky carriage said. “There are fire drakes in these parts and other draconian half breeds and knock-offs. They usually stay away from people but with winter ending they’re at their hungriest, so it’s best to stay alert.”
“I presume Wunchlasse would like us to clear out any such creatures that are waiting in ambush?” Estella asked.
“She just said to warn you,” the driver said.
“The old fox never just says anything,” Estella said.
“It’s a fair repayment for their help,” Dae said.
“We’ll see if you think like that if we run into a sulphurmander,” Estella said.
Fortunately their travels took them past neither fire drakes or sulphurmanders. In point of fact, their travels took them past no animal or monster life whatsoever.
“I’m right to be creeped out by this aren’t I?” Jyl asked
“This does feel really weird,” Nui said. “We’re not far off from Hangarsford, but there should still be more animals around than this. It’s a warm night, there should be birds at least.”
“The beasts of the wild can sense the dragons as they gather,” Estella said.
“But it’s going to be weeks before the big lizards can all make it here,” Dae said.
“Their intent is focused here,” Estella said. “It’s not enough to bring their fearful auras to bear, but remember that dragons are more than just what you see them to be. They are a part of the magic which is imbued in Paxmer.”
“Can they sense us?” Jyl asked.
“Not directly,” Estella said. “And even when they’re commanded to move, the dragons who live under Haldraxan’s rule have little interest in showing initiative. They are uniformly self-absorbed, as Haldraxan’s insists they be.”
“So they won’t be searching for us either then?” Jyl asked.
“On when they’re ordered to,” Estella said. “And even then, only to the extent they are directed.”
“Meaning if their riders are new and don’t tell the dragons to sniff us out, then they’ll ignore any scents they catch of us,” Dae said.
“That’s lucky for us,” Jyl said.
“Not precisely,” Estella said. “The reason Haldraxan insists on that mindset in the dragons that he controls is that their lack of initiative means that they work flawlessly with their rider’s will and they are completely subservient to him.”
“So there’s no option to split their ranks, or defeat their morale,” Dae said. “In a sense they are already berserkers, just ones under Haldraxan’s control.”
“How could all of the dragons be like that?” Jyl asked. “Pact spirits are literally bound to us and they’re each unique. The queen can’t dictate what they do and there’s no Spirit King who commands and shapes them.”
“Paxmer magic is different from Gallagrim magic,” Dae said. “Each was crafted by a different deity to fit a different purpose.”
“That’s true, but it’s not the reason why our dragons are limited as they are,” Estella said. “The story that you told about Gallagrin’s lost Spirit Crown has a mirror in Paxmer, except Paxmer’s controlling artifact is not lost. It sits on Haldraxan’s brow. When the dragons were originally shaped from the earth, they were modeled after your Pact Spirits, but they were given physical forms so that they could collect their own experiences.”
“It sounds like there were problems with that?” Jyl asked.
“They were meant to be the guardians of Paxmer, and servants to the crown,” Estella said. “But over time they didn’t wish to fight in the wars the gods waged against one another, and certainly not the ones the Kings and Queens of Paxmer demanded they fight in.”
“That’s when Haldraxan was created,” Nui said.”
“And why he was given a divine tool to rule them with,” Estella said. “His rule is not so absolute as the Spirit Crown that you spoke of, but with his long centuries of experience, it works out to be much the same in the end.”
“So, why hasn’t he usurped the throne himself?” Dae asked. “Why take orders from a creature like Haldri Paxmer?”
“As he rules with the gem, so to is he ruled by it,” Estella said. “He is bound to the Paxmer throne by the same power that he uses to bring the other dragons into his own likeness. But it’s not a simple matter of subservience. Haldraxan and the ruler of Paxmer are joined by a bond. They are two beings but they share one appetite.”
“So everything rotten in Paxmer is Haldraxan’s fault?” Jyl asked.
“Not at all,” Estella said. “Haldraxan colors all of the rulers of Paxmer, but each one brings their own avarice to the relationship as well. In Haldri Paxmer we have a queen whose hunger for power cannot be satiated within the confines of our realm, and so, once again Haldraxan’s eye is turned outward. In a sense this has helped us. We’ve been able to build up our strength far beyond what it was when I returned her, but it also means that unseating Queen Haldri will not be enough to forge a peace for Gallagrin.”
“Haldraxan will just pass on her lust for power to the next monarch and we’ll enter the cycle all over again,” Jyl said.
“Unless we also destroy Haldraxan,” Dae said.
“But he’s immortal,” Nui said.
“No,” Dae said. “The gods themselves showed us, everything can die.”