Caught in Dae’s gaze, Haldraxan flared out wings large enough to cover the mountains in shadow. Dae’s knees wobbled like jelly under the renewed assault from the giant but she didn’t kneel or falter. Where her body was weak, Kirios stepped in with support, sending arcs of magic to give her the strength to stand under a weight that felt as vast as the whole world and the sky above it.
“Don’t think the quick death I granted sur Korkin is one you will share in little knight,” Haldraxan said. “My options are limited with Paxmer citizens but with you I can do anything I like.”
Behind Dae, a red glow came from the streams of rock that Haldraxan had melted to lava. The residual heat from his breath left the air hotter than a furnace and, in the wake of the inferno, a thick haze of toxic gases lingered, swirling green ribbons that settled into the ground to poison it for the foreseeable future.
Surrendered by a ruined landscape, Dae struggled against the unbearable weight of terror that Haldraxan pressed down on her, and fought the urge to survey her surroundings. Without breaking eye contact with Haldraxan, Dae saw that there was no hope for the mountains which shielded her troops, and she knew she was no mountain. Even in her regalia as the Queen’s Knight’s she had limits, and all the evidence around her showed that Haldraxan was beyond them.
“You have power, enough to survive a moment of fire,” Haldraxan said, his voice light and pleased and dripping with meance. “That is good. I want to see you burn by inches.”
His breath attack hit her like a ram, the flame carrying enough force to shatter the stone behind her. Kirios fed her power from the pool they gathered when Dae transformed and she raised her shield once more. With each moment the flames melted and shattered the edges of the barrier Dae conjured and into each crack Kirios poured more magic to repair and strengthen their defenses. When the blinding torrent finally finished, the air was left completely opaque with smoke and gaseous venom.
But Dae still held the Dragon King’s gaze.
With a growl that made the air visibly quake, Haldraxan stamped down with a foot the size of building, shattering the earth underneath him and creating a rolling ground swell that crested towards Dae like an ocean wave.
And still she held his gaze.
When the wave reached Dae, she adjusted her shield and let the rocks that were rushing towards her explode into dust as the stones were driven with overwhelming force against a barrier that refused to budge.
“Your defenses are resilient,” Haldraxan said, composing himself again. “But we both know you cannot overcome me, so please resist as long as you can. It’s so rare that I can enjoy myself like this.”
He raised a clawed hand to the sky and pulled down a handful of lightning bolts from the cloud above. The bolts struck through Dae’s shield burning her from within but Kirios was there magically restoring the damage done by the Dragon King’s attack before the lightning forced Dae to her knees.
Through all the attacks, Haldraxan never looked away from Dae though, and he never let up on his fear aura. If anything the terror grew more powerful the longer the battle lasted.
“My Knight stands for me,” Alari said. “I need no one but her.”
Dae heard those words as though they were spoken from hundreds of miles away and from within her heart at the same time.
They didn’t come as a revelation. Alari was not admitting to sentiments which she’d never voiced before. She was simply affirming them.
Somewhere far off, the Queen of Gallagrin was holding Dae very close to her heart. Unbidden, the image of a sleepy cottage, by a calm lake, in a sunlit wood, rose in Dae’s mind, reminding her of the promise she’d made to her Queen. To Alari.
They would be together again.
They would grow old with one another.
Whatever it took, Dae was going to make that happen.
The only problem was, she had no idea how she was going to accomplish that.
Haldraxan was right when he said she couldn’t overcome him. With each assault, his attacks drained the magic she’d gathered in her transformation. His strength wasn’t subject to mortal limitations, and hers was. Once it was expended, she could reach for more, but with the dragon fear pressing on her, Dae wasn’t sure she could manage even one additional recasting of her armor. Her mind felt as clumsy and unwieldy as her shaking fingers were.
She looked inside for the rage that carried her into brawls and battles before and found it cowering before the unimaginable might that Haldraxan wielded.
I can’t beat him, she thought and wrestled with the desire to look away for some other trick that could save her and the people in her care.
No, she said, refusing to so much as blink.
Instead she focused her gaze onto the eyes of the Dragon King, unwilling to cede even one step of the battle to him. Blades of fear punched into her in response, but she forced herself to look at him anyways.
She didn’t notice that Haldraxan stilled in response. All Dae saw was herself, reflected in the enormous black pools of death that served as the windows to Haldraxan’s soul. The Dragon king lowered his head, bringing it closer to hers, focusing his whole aura into the dread spotlight of his gaze.
Dae felt a physical force driving against her. It was raw mystical fear made tangible. Before it could push her back though, Kirios cast the last of their magic into her to give Dae the power to stand against it.
Rage wouldn’t come for her, but in Haldraxan’s eyes, Dae saw herself. She was only a tiny figure, clad in silver and glowing like a small star swallowed up by the deepest of nights. For all that the Dragon King had pushed at her, for all that the mind shattering terror he commanded had ravaged her senses, he hadn’t been able to change what she was.
She’d broken and fled at Star’s Watch, and in facing an even worse threat, she understood her younger self at last.
It wasn’t her fault that she failed. The fear that had consumed her wasn’t something she needed to be ashamed of. She didn’t have the strength to resist it then, because no one could have. Fighting both a Dragon General and his dragon at once wasn’t something any Pact Knight could do alone.
Alari had forgiven her long ago, and, at last, Dae felt like she could forgive her younger self. She’d been cocky, and she’d paid the price, but it was one that earned her the wisdom she needed. The pain and suffering she’d felt wasn’t noble or necessary or good, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t turn her recovery from it into something that left her stronger than she’d been. Maybe even strong enough to defeat the undefeatable for before her.
Haldraxan was great and terrible, more powerful than she or Alari could have imagined, but Estella had given Dae the key she needed, and Dae saw the truth of it in Haldraxan’s eyes.
For all his power, Haldraxan was just as broken as any of them were.
The Dragon King blinked and, for the briefest of moments, looked away, before the compulsion between he and the Knight Champion of Gallagrin drew his gaze back to her.
Dae was terrified. Inescapable magic added to sheer animal survival instincts ensured that, but she’d been terrified before. In a million different ways, and for a million different reasons. To be alive, to care about the world at all, meant being vulnerable to fear, and being able to cope with it, however and as best as you could.
Haldraxan was terrified for an entirely different reason.
As an incarnate spirit, his existence wasn’t limited to any mortal length. But he’d been created, which meant he could be destroyed as well.
In Haldraxan’s eyes, Dae saw the echo of the gods of old, before eternal slumber had claimed them. He was the order of the world as it was set against her, the impossible load that could not be thrown over or resisted. And yet somehow and somewhere, even if only for a few moments, she found within herself the strength to meet his divine magic and deny the old world the place it insisted on taking.
In Dae, Haldraxan saw something else. The Knight Champion of Gallagrin’s eyes held the end of eternity. Not the reality of death which was inevitable for mortal creatures but the loss of the uncountable days which Haldraxan should have been secure in seeing.
He blinked again, and Dae felt neither power nor adulation but instead a strange silence settle over her.
Without thinking about it, she stepped forward, easily. No fear barred her way. No magic held her heart in chains.
“You cannot stand before me,” Haldraxan said, his royal wrath hotter than the white flames that followed his words and split the air with a thundercrack.
Dae and Kirios were out of magic to stop the attack, but the calm, silence of her heart answered their need.
With long experienced hands, Dae reached out effortlessly to invoke another transformation and claim a fresh pool of magic. In serenity with her, Kirios moved as well, but rather than closing the transformation, they held it open and walked forward, suspended in that moment of infinite possibility.
Neither Dae nor Kirios conjured a shield or barrier, but Haldraxan’s flames parted around them, pushed away by the sheer mystical pressure of a Pact Knight in the midst of transforming.
To prolong the moment of transformation was a dangerous thing, Pact Knights who tried that routinely became mindless Berserkers.
But not Dae and Kirios. Not in that moment.
Haldraxan clawed at the clouds and threw lightning at them again but with a wave of Dae’s arm the bolts rebounded, searing burns into the Dragon King’s scales which even the Lightning Ballista had been unable to scratch.
Roaring with frustration, Haldraxan’s entire body burst into flame as he reached down and grabbed Dae in his left hand, his massive claws trying to crush her as they’d crushed the mountain behind her.
“You can’t hold me,” she said, still peering into his eyes, but with her voice as tranquil as the calm lake which the little cottage would be built beside.
Haldraxan’s arm exploded.
Transformation magic raced thirty feet up his limb to his elbow and then up to his shoulder before the entire arm was shot through with fractures which were immediately replaced by a cloud of sparks as the arm was reduced to nothingness.
“And you cannot hold that state for long,” Haldraxan said as a new left arm coalesced into existence from the mist that was leaking from his stump.
“She doesn’t have to,” Jyl said, a deep, almost evil, glee radiating from her.
Dae narrowed her eyes in confusion. How was the elf moving in Haldraxan’s fear aura? And why was she so happy?
Neither of those questions seemed as important as what happened next though.
Haldraxan took a step backwards.
Dae and Kirios allowed the transformation to end, returning to their Champion’s Regalia before looking to see what devilry Jyl had managed to execute.
Looking away from Haldraxan was no longer a problem. He still had his aura, and he still had his might, but he was on contested ground and he’d lost the contest. Dae knew he would never be able to overcome her in front of these mountains again. Then she saw what was in Jyl’s hands and knew that Haldraxan would never be able to overcome anyone else again.
The elf was smiling as she held forth the Divine Gem of Dragon Command which had once sat upon Haldraxan’s brow.
The Dragon King’s reign was ended.