Dae didn’t leap from the window in the catacombs to do battle with Haldraxan. It wasn’t rage or courage or duty that sent her plummeting down the face of the mountain to land before a monster the size of a castle. The only thought in her mind that could fight through the Dragon King’s aura of fear was a desperate plea. Everything had gone wrong, so she didn’t pray for victory, she only prayed to be able to save those she still could.
The Lightning Ballista were weapons of terrible and irresistible power. From Gallagrin’s long history of warfare against Paxmer, the enchanters of the weapons had been able to promise that there was not a dragon alive who could withstand their power. A barrage from a full series of Lightning Ballista could slay any mortal creature. And that was the problem.
Dae saw the depth of their mistake as Haldraxan ripped apart the mountain with his bare claws. The ballistas worked as promised, but Haldraxan wasn’t a mortal creature.
On the ground, kneeling before him, Dae saw the Dragon King for what he truly was; not a living being, but a spirit, a construct of divine will, clothed in flesh that could be endlessly renewed.
They’d planned to slay the Dragon King by assaulting him with a power beyond what he’d ever faced, not understanding that he was power made manifest.
Dae drowned in that power, dragon fear coursing through her, tearing new channels through her mind for fresh agony to flow into.
Her baser instincts didn’t want to run. Flight wasn’t an option from so terrible a foe. Against the Dragon King, Dae’s demons wanted only to surrender and die. No hell that any afterlife could threaten was as bad as another moment of kneeling before Haldraxan.
Kneeling was intolerable, so Dae rose, transforming from her common arms to her Queen’s Knight regalia, feeling Kirios’s power wash over her as she was garbed in the strongest raiments she could summon.
The fear didn’t lessen as she stood and raised her eyes to the Dragon King, but it was joined by a single, low, voiceless, laugh from her lips. Standing before the worst of the dragons was the last place in the world she wanted to be, and also, somehow, right where she’d known she would end up when her quest began.
Haldraxan let his fire abate, seemingly pleased with the rivers of molten rock that ran from the face of the mountains and gazed down at the tiny knight who stood before him.
“Ah, at last the one who would insult my kingdom appears before me,” Haladraxan said, his voice an earthquake and a hurricane. “I will take my time breaking you I think. Let’s see how many centuries your fate can stand as a lesson to.”
Dae wanted to speak back, but Haldraxan’s fear aura held her immobile. As long as he spoke to her though, as long as he toyed with her, she was winning. It was difficult to believe that with her body and soul rebelling against the horror that stood before her, but in the depths of her mind, Dae counted out the seconds as they passed, giving to each one the name of one of the Gallagrin defenders in the catacombs.
The tunnel that led back to Gallagrin was as much an escape route as it was an assault path. Once the troops had fled down it, they could trigger a collapse that would reseal the Gallagrin/Paxmer border and protect themselves from Haldraxan’s might. Dae’s only hope was that she could buy them the time they needed, and that her mother and sister would be sensible enough to join the evacuation.
“There is only one of you here, not the hundreds I expected,” Haldraxan said. “So the Spirit Crown is only a myth then? That is a poor turn of events for you.”
Haldraxan lowered his massive head to gaze upon Dae more closely.
“If the Crown had been real, then what is to come could have been so much gentler for you,” Haldraxan said. “Well, perhaps not you personally, but certainly for those in your country. With the Pact Knights under my control, Gallagrin would have fallen in days with only those foolish enough to fight both Knights and Dragons needing to be put down.”
Haldraxan puffed out a tongue of flame, his eyes alight at the notion of destroying those who stood against him.
“Without the Crown though, we shall burn so many more,” Haldraxan said. “And I shall put your name on their lips before they die. Everyone we destroy, from the aged to the newborns will be told that you are the reason they’re dying. The memory of your deeds will be preserved long after those who knew you are dust and ash.”
Inside her armor, Dae narrowed her eyes. Moving forward was impossible. The magic of Haldraxan’s aura prevented it. She couldn’t threaten him at all, couldn’t put up even the mildest show of bravado to anger him or throw him off his game.
That wrankled in her breast. If she was going to die, especially an epic, lengthy and memorable death, she would have preferred to go down spitting contempt in her slayer’s face.
Spitting in the Dragon King’s face was impossible though. She lived at his sufferance, and despite his claims to the contrary, she didn’t foresee Haldraxan’s patience being especially long lasting. Each moment that Gallagrin forces remained within Paxmer’s boundaries was an insult to the dragon’s role as Protector of the Realm, and if history was clear on anything, it was very specific about how poorly dragon’s tolerated insults.
“Your ambush was well planned out,” Haldraxan said. “I will make sure that history remembers that too, and remembers that it was futile despite the planning that went into it. Songs will be sung of you standing there with your weapons smashed and your people cowering before me.”
Dae’s heart sunk hearing that. The people who were within range of Haldraxan’s aura were as trapped as she was. That included Sir Kelmor, her fellow Queen’s Guard and Estella and Nui.
Except her mother and sister wouldn’t be affected by Haldraxan’s fear. It couldn’t touch a citizen of Paxmer.
“The ones I shall take particular delight in destroying though will be the citizens of my realm that you have suborned,” Haldraxan said, as though reading her mind. “Those who aided you will die before your eyes after the queen strips them of their protections, and those who fled our realm will not evade my claws a second time after we conquer Gallagrin.”
“You will slay no one Dragon King,” someone said from behind Dae.
For a terrible instant, Dae wrestled with the urge to turn and see who had joined the battle, but against that urge rose the memory of her first battle against a dragon.
She’d stood to defend Star’s Watch Keep and it had taken one brief instant for everything to come unraveled.
Back then, she’d been a newly bonded Pact Knight, untried in battle, if well trained for it. She’d been put in an impossible position, and she’d risen to the challenge.
When a Dragon General had advanced on Star’s Watch during the Gallgrin civil war, Dae had stepped forward to answer the General’s challenge to one-on-one combat. The General’s pet Dragon had entered the fray as well, blanketing the defenders with its mystical fear, but Dae had resisted it.
Her keep and her people had lain behind her then, just as her family and her countrymen stood behind her in facing Haldraxan. She’d held fast at Star’s Watch, keeping the dragon focused on herself and preventing its advanced until, for just the briefest instant, she’d stepped backward.
That subtle, slight retreat had been all that was required for her defenses to crumble and for the dragon to shatter her spirit into shards that she was never able to put back together again as they had been.
If her previous encounters with dragons had not given her the wisdom to avoid further exposure to them, they had at least taught her one thing.
She couldn’t retreat.
The dragon fear might be able to mystically bind her from advancing on Haldraxan, but her own will still had a role to play. She couldn’t attack him, but she could stand where she was, as immovable as the remains of her spirit could manage to make her against the irresistible force of Haldraxan’s might.
“You hold no power over me,” Estella said as she advanced to stand in front of her daughter. “Not until the queen strips from me my rank and privilege.”
“Estella sur Korkin?” Haldraxan said. “How very fascinating. We thought you a tool too broken to even bother aiming at the heart of Gallagrin’s queen.”
“We are all broken Dragon King,” Estella said. “That is was makes us dangerous.”
Haldraxan booming laughter shook the ground and rumbled the mountains but Dae remained unmoving and the Dragon King didn’t take his gaze off her.
“You are no danger to me or any of mine,” he said.
“I carry more than my years with me Dragon King,” Estella said. “I carry an idea, a truth that you cannot deny. I know what our dragons were meant to be.”
Haldraxan stopped laughing.
“This is what you come before me with?” he asked. “This is what you think will save you? The dragons of old were failures. I am their judgment and their redemption.”
“You are a mistake,” Estella said. “You are the fearful reaction of a god who created subjects they couldn’t be bothered to understand.”
“Your words will gift you with long life Estella sur Korkin,” Haldraxan. “When the queen strips you of your protections, I will make sure that you take as long to die as this Gallagrin peasant.”
“She came her to slay you Dragon King,” Estella said. “But we both know that you cannot be slain can you?”
“I am Paxmer,” Haldraxan said. “I am as eternal as my realm.”
His gaze burned with a triumphant fire, burrowing into Dae’s will and trying to force her back. Trying to force her to kneel once again before him.
In front of Dae, it was Estella’s turn to laugh.
“And our realm is as eternal as the god who made it,” she said. “The god who broke and ran and fled this world. The god who slumbers now because they fear what this world has become, and who, in passing from the world, shattered not only the old treaties and compacts, but who also shattered you.”
A growl like rock pulverizing rock escaped Haldraxan’s lips a moment before a gout of flame burst forth.
The white hot fire slammed into Dae’s regalia and she felt Kirios feeding her a massive stream of magic to turn aside the inferno.
Estella was outside the protection of Dae’s shield, but when the blinding flames subsided, she still stood in front of her daughter, unharmed and unsinged. It was as though the fire had avoided her entirely.
“I cannot harm citizens of my realm,” Haldraxan said, reaching down and grabbing Estella between his claws. “Not directly.”
Dae couldn’t turn to see where Haldraxan placed her mother, but she could guess from what happened next.
Behind her, Dae heard Haldraxan slam the mountain face once again. His blow landed high enough that he probably hit one of the rooms that stored a Lightning Ballista. The mountainside crumbled in response to the attack and Dae heard a single cry from her mother as Estella was almost certainly buried beneath tons of rough stone.
“I cannot directly harm my citizens, but if they are in a war zone, I can not be expected to protect them all either,” Haldraxan said.
Dae’s heart cracked and she felt herself move at last.
Her mother wasn’t dead. She didn’t know how she knew it, but some fear addled corner of her brain told her that Estella sur Korkin was still alive and well. Somehow.
More importantly, her mother had shown Dae something. When Haldraxan had shifted his focus to Estella, just briefly, the unexpected had occurred.
When Dae moved, she hadn’t retreated. She hadn’t stepped back at all. She’d stepped forward. She’d advanced on the Dragon King.
He wasn’t a perfect paragon of power.
He was broken.
Just like Estella said.
Dae fixed her gaze on Haldraxan, who met her eyes, freezing her in place again.
The Dragon King had her in his mystical grip, but that meant she had him too, and neither one was going to be able to retreat from this fight.