Despite the fact that flying creatures and vessels were common in the Blessed Realms, the towns of Paxmer were ringed with walls of various sizes. There were a number of reasons for this, starting with the fact that while some things could fly over the top of the walls, not everything could and the crawling creatures that the walls kept out were one less threat that the citizens needed to be concerned would coming knocking on their doors in the dead of night.
As with many endeavors by the Mindful Races, what started as a purely practical concern become a canvas for artistic expression as well. Both in terms of the sculpture which adorned the tops of the walls and the tableaus which were painted on the large open areas the walls supported, the towns of Paxmer were as much art galleries as they were living spaces.
Across the wide, open plain, Dae saw the ramparts of Holders Keep rising up on the low hill the town had been built on. As a town that was relatively near the border, Holders had a long legacy of martial achievement, a fact which the walls bore clear testament too.
On top of the outer wall there were carved the figures of demons and humans, locked in battle. While the humans were depicted as winning each battle, it was the demons’ weapons which faced outwards to form a picket of sharp tips and spikes that would thwart those trying to scale the outer wall.
Below the battling statues, the wall was adorned the images of a cavalry in full charge, with the classic image of Paxmer dragons flying above them.
“Well, that’s tremendously inviting,” Jyl said.
“It took them ten years to get it fully painted,” Estella said.
“It would take about ten hours for it be scoured clean if the town came under seige,” Dae said.
“They’re not worried about being besieged,” Estella said. “Even if Gallagrin’s forces attacked en masse, the dragons riders would catch them long before they penetrated this far past the border. Or at least that’s the official doctrine.”
“Could you actually make it here?” Nui asked. “If you brought all the Pact Warriors with you?”
“Probably,” Dae said. “This would be a terrible spot to fight though. Assuming the town has a fighting force that’s worth half a damn they could keep an army out for long enough that the dragons would definitely have time to arrive. Then it’d be a fight on a open field against an aerial force that has a safe landing and resupply zone.”
“I can picture worse forms of suicide, but only because they’d take longer,” Jyl said.
“But you’re planning to march your army in here to get the Spirit Crown?” Zana asked. “It doesn’t sound like that will work out too well for you.”
“Our target area is in the mountains,” Dae said. “As a dwarf I imagine you know what that means?”
Zana frowned and pondered that for a moment.
“Rough terrain to move an army through, but your Gallagrin types have more familiarity with that then we do,” Zana said. “And you’d have more places to hide from the dragons.”
“Hard to burn something that’s got a wall of rock to hide behind,” Dae said.
“Hard but not impossible,” Estella said. “If Haldraxan takes the field, the mountains won’t be enough to keep you safe.”
“He can burn through rock?” Jyl asked.
“Yes,” Estella said. “But he’s smart enough that he doesn’t need to.”
“He knows all the caves here doesn’t he?” Dae asked. “He’ll just smoke everyone out.”
“Or burn up all the air,” Estella said. “I know Pact Warriors are durable but anyone without a pact spirit bound to them will probably object to breathing ash and flame.”
“Will that advantage be enough to convince the big lizard to expose himself?” Dae asked.
“I doubt it,” Estella said. “He can dispatch minions to accomplish the same effect.”
“Will he be that scared of us?” Jyl asked. “We haven’t exactly put up that much of a fight so far.”
“It’s not a question of fear,” Estella said. “In Haldraxan’s case, his governing principle seems to be laziness. He has lived a long time and very little is new or amusing to him. There’s fear there too of course, all dragons are motivated by it, but unless he sees a problem that requires his personal attention, Haldraxan will be content to wipe out those arrayed against him as a gamesman would, through the careful use of pawns where the outcome can allow for surprises without truly endangering him in any meaningful sense.”
“We’ll need to do something to change that,” Dae said.
“Do you really wish to face him?” Estella asked. “No one has seen him in battle in a century or more, but even his appearances with the queen are awe inspiring.”
“He’s the cornerstone of Haldri Paxmer’s power,” Dae said. “Awe inspiring or not, he’s got to fall.”
“There are some riders coming from the town,” Jyl said. “I think they’ve seen us.”
“That’s not a good sign,” Nui said. “They must be on alert already.”
“I’m not surprised,” Dae said. “If the dragon riders were waiting for us at the monastery then the word has probably gone out to all the surrounding towns as well to be on the lookout for a party like ours.”
“It’s not like there’s a lot of other people traveling at the moment either,” Jyl said. “This whole area seems barren.”
“They do not wish to parley,” Mayleena said. “Shall we treat them kindly?”
Dae looked at her companion and read the tension in Mayleena’s body language as a mirror of the eagerness Dae herself felt. Kirios, her pact spirit, was itching for a battle, having been suppressed for so long.
“We’re not going to fight at all,” Dae said. “They’ll have been sent to detain and question us.”
“And if they only wish to question some of us and do the rest harm?” Mayleena asked.
“Then we educate them,” Dae said. “Allow no harm to come to yourselves or to our guests, but give them no wounds or injuries that they will feel tomorrow.”
“I’m not sure if we can manage that,” Zana said.
“I’m sorry, you three aren’t going to be fighting at all if it comes to that,” Dae said, indicating Estella, Nui and Zana.
“There are eight riders coming,” Nui said, casting a skeptical glance at the makeup of the two parties.
“Eight riders and no dragons,” Jyl said. “That makes a big difference. Assuming of course that we can use our pact spirits for this?”
“Only if it becomes necessary,” Dae said. “Hold off transforming until I do, or if your life’s in peril. And Mayleena that means you’re life as you are now.”
“We are not sure we can be as precise as you require,” Mayleena said.
“Consider it a training exercise,” Dae said.
“There will be lethal consequences if our control should fail,” Mayleena said.
“That’s why you won’t fail,” Dai said. It was the role of a team leader to inspire confidence in their teammates but Dae found she wasn’t just mouthing motivational words. She believed that Mayleena was the equal to the task set before her. Mayleena had resisted the urge to lash out at the dragons on the mountaintop. She was almost certainly still on the edge from that encounter but there was a core of strength the two parts of her shared that was undeniable. Mayleena hadn’t had time to process her victories over herself yet, but Dae could see the tempering of the two spirit in Mayleena that the trials they’d been through had resulted in.
It wasn’t long before the riders from the town drew up to Dae’s party, the horsemen bristling with arms and armor.
“State your names and business travellers,” the lead horseman said.
“I am Daelynne Akorli,” Dae said. “And to save you time, we’re the ones you’ve been warned to look for.”
Her candor shocked the riders for a moment. They had been expecting denials, evasions, or an immediate counterattack, but Dae wasn’t playing to that script.
“Then you will surrender your weapons and be bound for examination,” the lead horseman said.
“No,” Dae said, and the riders readied their weapons. This was back closer to what they expected to hear. “Three of us are Pact Knight. You can no more take our weapons from us than you can ask us to surrender our souls. As for the others, if you give them cause to wish to use their weapons, I can assure you they will not have time to before the three of us have rectified the matter.”
“You leave us no choice but to subdue you then,” the lead horseman said.
“Of course you have a choice,” Dae said. “We wish to speak to your mayor anyways. You can escort us into town, and place as many guards around us as you wish. I offer you my word as the Knight of the Queen of Gallagrin that we will offer no one in your town violence unless we first offered it from you or yours.”
“You will submit to our authority, and reliquish your weapons,” the lead horseman said.
“Sergeant, you should take the Pact Knights offer while it offered,” Estella said. “This is the woman who stood against the dragon at Star’s Watch Keep. If she wished it you would all be dead before you could raise your weapons another inch.”
The horseman tried to swing his lance to point at Estella but in half a blink the weapon shattered into a thousand pieces. A blink later and all of the remaining lances burst into flinders too.
“You may escort us to the mayor,” Dae said. “We have no interest in a conflict with you, and the news we bring may prove critical to the survival of your town.”
The lead horseman looked to be at a loss for a moment. He still had his sword, but the wisdom of drawing it was questionable at best. Dae watched a series of emotions war across his face. First fear, then anger, then contemplation, a round of irritation and finally resignation.
“March ahead of us,” he said at last. “And do not try that again.”
Dae caught a glimpse of Jyl’s evil grin and frowned at the young elf. It was not the time for a flippant remark about how they couldn’t try breaking the horseman’s lances again because there were no lances left to break.
“If you need to signal the town, or if you wish us to wait outside while you determine if the mayor will meet with us, we won’t raise an objection or try to escape,” Dae offered as the mixed group of horse riders and walkers trudged towards the colorful walls of the keep.
“Our orders are to detain you and ascertain if there are others traveling with you,” the lead horseman said.
“In the interest of saving time then allow me to offer you this,” Dae said. “You have successfully detained us. How and when we depart from your town will be the result of our discussion with your mayor, so you have performed your duty in full in that regards. As for others traveling with us, my two companions and I are the entirety of the Gallagrin force in our group. That said, there is an army massing on the other side of the border which your superiors are likely already aware of. If not they should be informed that Queen Alari Gallagrin has commanded their deployment and that she has sent us, both my team and the massing armies, to deliver a message to Queen Haldri Paxmer.
“And what message do you bring?” The horseman asked.
Dae stopped and turned to face the horsemen.
“Queen Alari bears no ill will towards the people of Paxmer,” she said. “She believes that like herself, you have been victims of the mad excesses of the Paxmer throne. Given who our previous ruler was, Queen Alari is well acquainted with the madness which can grip monarchs and the damage they can do to their kingdom. As such she offers you her mercy and support.”
“And what message does she have for Queen Haldri?” The horseman asked.
“It’s a not a message that can be spoke in words,” Dae said. “It requires the edge of a blade across Haldri’s throat to get the point across with sufficient clarity.”