The Pact Spirit of Gallagrin did not speak. Alari had never once heard their voice. Had never once been able to draw wisdom or guidance from their long centuries of experience. The most they had ever given to her was raw mystical might, which she rarely drew upon, and the comfort of never being truly alone.
The spirit didn’t judge her, didn’t intrude, they simply waited and observed, offering strength when strength was needed, and a warm assurance that her life would be remembered by someone who cared about her realm and its peoples as much as she did.
There was no evidence that the Pact Spirit was kind, or merciful, or just. They had supported Alari’s father, the Butcher King Sathe, which argued against them possessing any of those qualities, but in Alari’s heart she felt a connection to the Spirit. They didn’t have words to speak to her, but Alari knew that the spirit felt a joy and kinship with her. That she was the one the Spirit wished to see upon the Gallagrin throne. It was a small thing in one sense, just a tiny emotional resonance, but having the confidence of an immortal observer who’d watched the whole history of Gallagrin play out was more than a little reassuring.
No matter how they felt about their current monarch though, once the Gallagrin Spirit’s name was called, and the throne was contested, there was little they could do to decide the outcome of the struggle.
The Spirit’s power was immense. It dwarfed that of any Pact Knight in the realm, and the bond they shared with the realms monarch was broader and deeper, allowing Alari access to more magic than anyone except another monarch of the realms. In balance against all of that however were the divine laws that bound the Spirit in chains far stronger than any mortal pact binding spell could achieve. The Gallagrin Pact Spirit was at once both the most powerful of the realm’s spirits and also the most limited.
Despite that, Alari felt a jolt of surprise and remorse that was wholly external to her as the Pact Spirit was called away. Her power didn’t fade all at once either. Tendrils of magic clung to her, refusing to be torn away.
They’re fighting against the call of their name not to leave me? Alari thought, surprised. She’d been too weakened by Halrek’s poisons the last time the Gallagrin spirit had been contested away from her, but this time she could feel it trying to hold on.
That didn’t make the loss of part of it any less agonizing though.
Alari slumped on her throne, and gritted her teeth, before raising her head to glare at Haldri. The Paxmer queen wore a small, satisfied smirk.
“I see the debate has finally concluded,” Haldri said. “So nice to see that your Dukes and Duchesses were willing to listen to reason.”
“Who…” The shaking weakness that was part and parcel of losing unfettered access to the Gallagrin spirit made forming words a nightmare, but Alari had bitter experience to draw on. When Halrek had made a bid for her power, he’d begun by dosing Alari with a poison so potent it could slay stones. Haldri hadn’t gone to that extreme. Alari had learned to protect herself from unsubtle ploys like that in the wake of her treasonous husband’s demise. There were some stratagems which she couldn’t defend against though.
“Who is stealing your throne?” Haldri asked. “Does it matter? In the end, the Gallagrin’s crown will be melted down in dragon fire and there will be only Paxmer.”
“Who made you think this was enough to defeat me?” Alari said, her voice strained and weak but her gaze was fixed on Haldri in an unbending challenge.
“Still a spark of royal authority left in you?” Haldri asked. “They did warn me that the process could take some time.”
“They lied,” Alari said. “They’re not going to take Gallagrin from me.”
“I’m pretty certain she already has,” Haldri said, her smile growing wider.
“I’ve fought for this spirit before,” Alari said, her breath coming in short spurts.
“But not like this,” Haldri said. “For however much of a failure Halrek was, he did manage at least one thing in his ineptitude; he showed us how strong you are with the support of those who back you.”
“My people are my power,” Alari lied. Partially. The citizens of Gallagrin were one of the pillars that her power rested on, and it was one that Haldri wouldn’t normally have thought to consider. They just weren’t the entire the only thing holding Alari up. That the Paxmer Queen was aware of the strength Alari and the Gallagrin Spirit drew from the support of the people of Gallagrin though was a worrisome sign. It suggested that Halrek had passed along a wealth of knowledge before Dae separated his lying head from the rest of his body.
“Thanks to my agents, they are now turning against you,” Haldri said. “Even as we speak, your nobles are holding a Grand Convocation. They’ve been called together to witness evidence of the massacre you ordered.”
“There has been no massacre,” Alari said. “Yet.”
“Of course there hasn’t,” Haldri said. “Or at least not one that you ordered. But in this case it’s not reality that matters but your nobles’ perception of it. They have been convinced that you are following in your father’s footsteps. That his madness lives in you as well. Given the smallest bits of proof, they fear you and cling to the one who offers to save them from you.”
“No one in Gallagrin will believe your lies,” Alari said.
“That’s why I am not the one to speak them,” Haldri said. “It is one of your own who has turned against you. Because you are weak and foolish. You thought to be kind to those you defeated, to bring them once more into the folds of a loving and just kingdom. You cannot offer forgiveness to those who hold only hate in their hearts for you though.”
“Gallagrin’s fields have been washed by enough blood,” Alari said.
“Clearly not,” Haldri said. “If you weren’t so spineless, you would have put down those who work against you today long before they became a problem. You think me cruel, but my reign has been long and unchallenged. My nobles know to fear me.”
“You’re people disagree,” Alari said. “They resist you every day.”
“They don’t matter,” Haldri said. “If their resistance could amount to anything Haldraxan and I would have crushed them long before now.”
“You champion can’t win the Gallagrin Spirit from me,” Alari said. In her weakness she still had to walk the line between keeping Haldri engaged and revealing too much of the plans that were in motion against the Paxmer throne.
“Perhaps not if we repeated Halrek’s plan,” Haldri said. “He tried to win support against you by shaming you. As though infidelity would unthrone you. He couldn’t see what really moves peoples hearts and that is why he failed. No one cares about the misdoings of their monarch. They expect us to be above them and beyond the laws that constrain them. No, we had to take the path you left open to us. We had to make them fear you.”
“You rule your subjects through fear,” Alari said, the details of Haldri’s plan beginning to click into place. “It seems like a strange tool to use to destroy my rule.”
“Ah, but I know how to work with fear,” Haldri said. “The fear my nobles feel is balanced against the strength they know me to possess. You have not demonstrated your power over them. They can be lead to fear what you will do without believing that they are helpless before you. And when people fear someone they believe they can tear down?”
“They destroy them,” Alari said.
“Yes, I see you do understand,” Haldri said.
“You sound like my father,” Alari said. “He thought he could keep his subjects in line through fear too. That didn’t work out for him.”
“He was mad, and the mad are no different than the foolish,” Haldri said.
“So why will my subjects fear me?” Alari asked.
“You’ve begun killing the nobles who disagree with you,” Haldri said.
“My nobles are all Pact Warriors. They are in no danger from you or your operatives,” Alari said.
“The corpses which my agent presented to the Grand Convocation paint a different picture than that,” Haldri said. “As do the witnesses who testify to seeing your forces arresting them and leading them to the slaughter. It’s not much I admit, but there were many who supported my brother. Many whom you should have put down when you have the chance. They need only the barest of pretexts to take up arms against you, and in the face of proof that you are sliding into madness, even those loyal to you will question your rule enough to let Sanli win the contest.”
“There is strength in me yet,” Alari said. “So you’re plans are not running precisely to your schedule I would guess.”
Beneath them, the view of the Gallagrin/Paxmer border was lit with blinding flashes of lightning and then the flames of dragons plummeting to crash into the landscape far below.
“Mine, on the other hand, seem to be proceeding apace,” Alari said. It was painful to catch her breath. The wounds she sustained the previous autumn were still mending and without the Gallagrin Spirit, the magics which strengthened Alari were fading away.
“What is this?” Haldri’s face was a frozen mask of shock. Paxmer dragons didn’t die. Not on Paxmer soil.
“Seige weapons,” Alari said. “Positioned deep enough in Paxmer territory to strike at the dragon army you’ve so graciously placed in their firing range.”
“A clumsy lie,” Haldri said with a snort. “You couldn’t have moved troops into Paxmer. Our patrols watch the border. They would have seen any force you marched into my lands.”
“And yet your dragons seem to have been felled,” Alari said. “I wonder if Haldraxan will send more? He’s a caring and compassionate protector isn’t he?”
Below them the clouds swirled and a flight of two dozen of the heavy dragon cavalry broke ranks from the main swarm of the dragon army and speed towards the mountains the lightning bolts struck from.
Alari felt her breath catch in her throat. She’d planned for this moment, but even as distant as she was, seeing the beautiful majesty of the vast reptilian defenders of Paxmer made it hard to imagine the raw power which Haldri commanded.
Twenty four dragons and their twenty four riders surged forward, only to meet a blitz of dozens of lightning bolts that flashed towards them from the mountains.
Many of the dragons managed to avoid the first barrage, but the ones who didn’t were knocked from the sky, wreathed in flames that continued to burn as they smashed into the rocky soil below.
“Not much of a protector of his own kind it seems,” Alari said.
“This is an illusion,” Haldri said, refusing to believe her eyes.
“You thought me your equal Paxmer,” Alari said. “You should never have made that mistake.”
More dragons and riders fell as the second barrage erupted from the mountain, and then the attack force was wheeling around in the air, turning to flee as fast as magical wings could carry them.
“You are going to die,” Haldri said, rage and madness dripping from every word.
“Keep watching,” Alari said, smiling despite the pain that wracked her body. “It gets better.”
Three of the largest dragons peeled from the swarm of the army as the stricken first wave returned.
Alari watched the riders weave spells that turned the scales of their dragons into sheets of glimmering metal.
Lightning bolts flashed out again as they drew close to the mountain but the dragons didn’t fall before them. The blasts battered the giant lizards but, despite the damage the lightning inflicted, the dragons flew onwards.
Fire blazed as the dragons came in range of the mountains, but it wasn’t until they landed at the mountain’s base that Haldri’s expression changed to a hellish grin of hate.
“Now it ends,” she said, triumph gleaming in her eyes.
The dragons poured fire against the mountain, but it was answered in kind with more lightning bolts.
“That’s impossible,” Haldri said. “They are within range to spread their fear. Your soldiers cannot be manning their weapons any longer.”
“That would be true if your dragons’ fear aura still remained,” Alari said.
“They are fighting on Paxmer land,” Haldri said. “They have all of their power to draw on.”
“They would, if you were right about that land belonging to Paxmer,” Alari said.
“What do you mean?” Haldri asked.
“Your dragons have driven your citizens across my borders,” Alari said. “I have given them shelter and my protection. For the time being, they are as much my subjects as yours and so, with my armies there to hold my claim, your lands are as contested as my throne is.”
The barrage of lightning bolts coming from the mountain hammered onto the three large dragons sending one of the dragon riders toppingly from their saddle. That was all it took to break their resolve, and the three dragons and two riders turned and fled as well.
“This isn’t a battle you can walk away from anymore Paxmer,” Alari said. “If you try to leave, those lands will become mine.
“I am not beaten yet Gallagrin,” Haldri said, glaring at the battlefield below them.
From the dragon army swarm, the largest of dragons emerged.
Haldraxan was taking the field.