When the first two dragon scouts fell from the sky, Jyl felt elated. When the next flight of dragons came swooping out of the cloud-streaked sky and met a storm of lightning from the catacombs-turned-fortress, she felt her nerves singing. The hymn of battle had begun and, as always, part of Jyl’s heart leapt to join the chorus while the rest urged her to the safety of silence.
It wasn’t until the three Dragon Generals began their assault though that her courage was tested.
From the back of her mind and the darkest depths of her soul, the memory of her ordeals as a captive to a dragon’s fear came back to seize her.
I can be brave this time, she told herself. I’ve weathered this before. I can do it again.
Those were just words though. She’d thought her first encounter with the dragons at sea would give her a resistance to further exposure, but that hope had been proven false when she encountered the dragons at the alchemical monastery.
Terror that reaches as deep as dragon fear does isn’t the sort of thing that leaves callouses in its wake. Each new encounter was a fresh wound dug deeper into the previous one. The only option Jyl saw for becoming resistant to that kind of pain was to lose the capacity for feeling entirely. In the face of monsters like the ones that were winging towards them, the capacity to feel anything seemed like a liability. Better to be cold and joyless than broken and terrified.
That was the easy road though, the path to be taken when the spirit was so injured that no other choice remained. Jyl refused to believe that designation applied to her though. She’d only fallen to dragon fear twice. She wasn’t so broken from those experiences that she couldn’t fight.
There has to be more strength in me than that, she thought. It was a prayer to herself, one that could only be granted by the faith that the fear she was facing undermined.
Seeking what support she could find within herself, Jyl transformed into her pact armor. Dae followed suit. Taking their queue from the Pact Knights, the others began strapping on the regular armor and weapons given to them by the Royal Army forces, except for Mayleena, who was quiet and almost completely still.
“Is everything ok?” Jyl asked her companion.
“We are not home, but we are close,” Mayleena said, not moving or shifting her gaze.
“What do you mean?” Jyl asked.
An instant later the Lightning Ballista thundered and Jyl whirled to see the Dragon Generals shrugging off the first battery of shots.
“Tough bastards,” Kemoral said. “But we weren’t planning to win this one with a single round now were we?”
The Lightning Ballista cracked again and the visor of Jyl’s armor dimmed the blinding light to a manageable level of brilliance.
The Dragon Generals were taking damage from the hits, despite the enchantments which their riders had woven into the scales. Singed and seared spots marked the giant dragons but didn’t deter them.
More volleys rang out, slowing the progress of the aerial monsters, but not stopping them.
Jyl’s breath caught in her throat. The Dragon Generals were approaching too quickly. In another moment they would be in range to spread their fear to the forces within the catacombs.
In a typical Gallagrin fortress the defenses were layered such that the outer siege weapons were positioned to strike incoming targets as far away as possible and the inner layers of the defense were capable of striking the outer layers without being in range of a dragon’s fear aura.
The catacombs were an excellent defense against fire and frontal assault but Jyl saw that their one weakness was their shallow depth, which placed most of the fighting area less than ten feet within the surface of the mountain. The solid rock walls of the catacomb would provide some shelter from the dragon fear but it wouldn’t be enough.
And yet somehow it was.
The Dragon Generals landed and belched forth an inferno of flame on the mountainside.
Flame, but no fear.
“What’s happening?” she asked, marveling at the lightness of not being gripped by inescapable fear.
“We got enough of the people to safety in Gallagrin,” Dae said.
“What?” Nui asked, looking at her sister. “Why does that matter?”
“Because it means that our draconic enemies are no longer on Paxmer soil,” Estella said, regarding her eldest daughter with a pleased smile.
“Wait, that’s why you had us stop in all those villages?” Nui asked. “To secure an advantage here?”
“No,” Dae said. “We stopped for exactly the reasons we claimed to. That dragon army is going to devastate the countryside around here. They were never meant to be banded together like that. We had to warn the people and get them out of the path of destruction.”
“And that just happened to give you an edge against the dragons?” Nui asked. “I mean I’m not complaining about you weakening those monsters but I don’t like feeling that you were playing with us, when we could have helped.”
“This was at best a theory,” Dae said. “My queen didn’t know if it was even possible to pull it off, or what effect it would have, but she had faith that we could do it so we had to try.”
“What is it that’s happened?” Nui asked as another exchange of fire and lightning crashed together outside the mountain stronghold.
“The land has become contested hasn’t it?” Estella asked.
“Yes,” Dae said. “It’s split between Paxmer and Gallagrin at the moment, and so long as both have a claim on it and we have forces here that are fighting to defend that claim, the dragons can not bring their full might to bear on us.”
“I thought the dragons couldn’t step into contested lands?” Nui asked. “Isn’t that all that’s kept Gallagrin from falling before their might?”
“They cannot abide on contested ground,” Estella said. “But while they are joined in battle they can fight on it, in a weakened state.”
“And dragons don’t like fighting at anything less than their full power too,” Dae said. “It’s too easy for them to die if they go into battle weakened.”
“Then why are they continuing to attack?” Nui asked. “Those lightning devices seem to be dangerous to them.”
The roar of dragon rage split the air, followed by the most intense exchange of fire and lightning that had been unleashed so far.
“They cannot stop,” Estella said.
“Right,” Dae said. “If the dragons flee from this fight, this land will become wholly a part of Gallagrin.”
“Couldn’t they just take it back later though?” Nui asked.
“They wouldn’t survive long enough for there to be a later,” Dae said. “The moment the land flips to Gallagrin ownership, they’ll be cut off from Paxmer.”
“Dragons are creatures of magic,” Estella said. “They would perish almost instantly if that were to happen.”
“And so they have to fight us here,” Dae said. “We’ve left them no choice. If they try to flee, the laws of Paxmer will destroy them. And if they can escape that, then they know there’s nothing to stop us from extending this invasion below the surface of their realm where there’s no chance of their dragon fire or their fear catching us.”
“What if they can destroy this stronghold though?” Nui asked.
There was another tremendous blast from outside and Dae looked away from the window.
“It doesn’t seem to be going too well for them so far,” she said, gesturing to the three Dragon Generals who were in full retreat. Only two of them had riders, which pleased Jyl to see.
The dragons were a deadly foe, but they lacked a certain capacity for subtlety. Before the Queen’s Guard journey had begun, before Jyl knew what dragon fear was really life, she’d believed that the reports about them missed a critical weakness – they couldn’t surprise their opponents.
Queen Alari had charged them to proceed through this mission with stealth, which was Jyl’s preferred mode of operation when facing a foe more powerful than herself.
She’d believed that she could gain the upper hand on any dragons they encountered by the simple expedient of hiding from them and striking at a time of her choosing rather than theirs.
She’d known of the plan for the Royal Army to assault the dragons from within a secure stronghold, but a part of her had wondered if that was really necessary.
Sneak in, slay the Dragon King, and then sneak out in the chaos which followed. That was the mission she’d imagined they would actually pursue. In hindsight she felt nothing but relief at being wrong.
Facing the Dragon King with an army at their back was a terrifying prospect. Her knees felt weak, her control of magic clumsy and her thoughts were leaping about like hunted rabbits with no clear path to safety. The idea of trying the same thing without the Royal Army behind them was inconceivable to her anymore.
As if in denial of her prayers to never have to face Paxmer’s defenders up close and personal, an enormous shape moved out of the draconic swarm that hovered beyond the range of the Lightning Ballistas.
The Dragon Generals had been larger than life, as tall five large men and just as broad. In terms of sheer mass, fighting one of them would have been like fighting a fortress.
The Dragon King dwarfed them, easily doubling their size in all dimensions.
He flew in, gliding on wings that trailed sparks of magic, his vast body kept aloft by more power than Jyl had ever witnessed in her life.
When he landed, the ground didn’t just shake, it fissured, crumbling which each step forward that he took.
Lightning bolts lashed out from all of the Gallagrin ballistas, slamming into every part of the Dragon King’s body and he met them without flinching.
Despite the fury of the bolts, they left no scars, no wounds, no mark on any kind upon the Tyrant of Paxmer.
And he advanced.
“Don’t let up!” Kemoral called. “Not for a second!”
The Lightning Ballista crews took up the call, passing it down the line and firing as fast as they could.
Haldraxan didn’t slow.
His breath when it came was a searing cone of white. Shutters were slammed closed against it, but still the people huddled behind them suffered.
In some places the rock heated enough to turn molten, running away from the mountainside and leaving the forces within exposed. No one in that unlucky position survived.
In other places the shutters grew so hot that they could not be opened again, and so the Lightning Ballista within them were silenced as well.
In the room that Jyl was in though, the worst of the effects was seen.
Unlike the other dragons, even a weakened Haldraxan still possessed his mantle of power. Even on contested ground, he blazed with the aura of his dragon fear.
Jyl’s elation at their early victories froze within her chest, a knife of terror slicing through her and pinning her in place.
On the other side of the curving mountains, she heard a cataclysmic crash. Haldraxan was ripping the mountain apart, his claws shearing through the cliff face and rending rock into ruin with each mighty slash.
From behind them, deeper into the mountain and down the tunnel which had been dug from Gallagrin, Jyl heard the regular troops and pact soldiers being strangled by Haldraxan’s dragon fear, screams and fleeing coming from all sides.
Haldraxan’s aura didn’t extend far, but it didn’t have to. Once he tore away the reinforced rooms that shielded the tunnel, his fire would fill the catacombs, burning through doors, and barriers inexorably before roasting every soldier who dared set foot on his lands.
Jyl struggled to get to her feet. She wanted to at least strike a blow against the Dragon King, to at least to buy some time for the others to escape.
Though the fear felt a hundred times worse than the last time, she managed to rise, managed to get to the doors to the next room but that was as far as she could go. With growing frustration, she howled against the magic and terror that held her, the vision of her sister, the one who could do no wrong, the one against whom she was constantly being measured, taunting her.
She tried to take another step forward, but a hand clasped her shoulder.
“Wait here,” Dae said. “You’ll know when I need you.”
And like this the Queen’s Knight was gone, leaping out of the ruined window of the chamber beyond, and plummeting down to confront the Dragon King in his own domain.