Alari watched the Dragon King of Paxmer drown her Knight Champion in fire so hot it melted stone in an instant. Her heart clenched as the flames roared, on one level knowing Dae’s strength and trusting it, but on another terrified of the precipice of loss they stood on.
Gallagrin was slipping away from her. Sanli’s words were gaining support among the nobles and tipping the balance of power away from Alari with every passing second. The Duchess wouldn’t be able to secure the throne without defeating Alari personally, but, if she could gather enough backers to support her banner, the battle would be a very one sided one.
The prospect of losing Gallagrin was a distant second in her mind compared to the prospect of losing her knight though. A world without her crown was a bearable one. Sanli would be a terrible queen, but Gallagrin had survived terrible queens and kings before and it would doubtlessly do so again.
A world without Dae was a different story. Alari had spent too many years alone already. The vision of spending the rest of her life without the one she wanted to be with was terrible enough that Alari forced it from her mind.
Or she tried to.
Haldraxan’s attack was far more powerful than anything they’d planned on countering. The Lightning Ballista weren’t the only weapon the Royal Army had brought to the battle, but the devastation the Dragon King inflicted on the mountain had removed the support troops and their enchanted tools from the equation. Only Dae’s presence on the battlefield stood against Gallagrin’s total defeat.
“The end is coming soon,” Haldri said. “Are there any words you would like to be buried with?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Alari said, defiance and anxiety warring in her voice. “Your king is in more jeopardy than you know.”
“Do you think so?” Haldri asked. “Are you so blind that you can’t see that he is toying with your knight? It’s not often that my Haldraxan gets to play with a toy of her equal. Sadly he is not gentle with enemies that amuse him. He’ll only get in an hour or two of breaking her before there’s nothing left in the poor woman to experience the fear and pain that’s holding her paralyzed now.”
On the field below them, Estella sur Korkin appeared at the foot of the mountain. Alari watched Haldri and bit back a cold grin.
Haldri’s reaction was less suppressed. Surprise and fear flashed across the Queen of Paxmer’s face at the new turn of events. Her eyes sought to drink in the newcomer’s identity and determine if Gallagrin was unleashing a new weapon on her exposed co-ruler. The concern faded quickly into irritation and disgust though as she recognized her subject, the Lady sur Korkin.
“Betrayed by our own again?” Haldri said and sighed with weary displeasure.
Alari fought to keep the concern she was feeling foremost on her face as a mask for the relief bubbling below the surface. Haldri had missed something vitally important about Estella’s arrival.
The Lady sur Korkin was not a Pact Knight. She couldn’t have survived the fall from the lowest of the catacomb galleries to the jagged ground that lay at the foot of the mountains. There hadn’t been time for her to climb down either. More importantly, and unknown to Haldri, there was no chance that any of Alari’s forces would have allowed an ally like Estella sur Korkin to throw her life away confronting a monster like Haldraxan.
Alari wasn’t sure how, but she was sure that the vision of Estella sur Korkin who walked to stand before her daughter was not exactly real.
Alari was at a loss to explain how that was possible, but she was still sure it was true as she watched the noblewoman move casually over a landscape that was threaded with veins of molten lava.
Dae could survive there because she was Gallagrin’s premiere Pact Knight. Lava can kill in a variety of manners though and even apart from that, the ground was simply too uneven for someone to glide over as Estella did.
The Sunlost Isles had provided a cadre of glamour casters at Alari’s request. They’d helped hide the movements of the Gallagrin Royal Army, by creating the illusion that the army was gathering on the border between Gallagrin and Paxmer. That ensured that no one would suspect it was actually marching beneath that border, right behind a group of exceedingly proficient miners. Utilizing the Sunlost casters was in both countries best interest but it had still been prohibitively expensive. Somehow though, Alari reasoned, Dae had managed to find another glamour caster on her trip through Paxmer.
Haldraxan “killed” the Lady sur Korkin, showing the sort of ingenuity which Alari had suspected he must possess in terms of escaping the limitations which bound him from harming Paxmer citizens. Haldri smiled at that victory, though Alari also saw a crease of concern play across her lips. The Queen of Paxmer had, perhaps, not been aware of her Dragon King’s ability to work outside of her control.
On the field below, Haldraxan renewed his assault on Dae, and Alari watched as the woman she loved suffered in frozen silence from the ravages of the worst attacks the Dragon King could deal.
“I think that fool sur Korkin managed to annoy my King,” Haldri said. “He’s not going to forgive that. I doubt I will even be able to convince him to hold to our plan for a bloodless transition of power.”
If Dae’s strength failed, Haldri would be right. As the Gallagrin crown changed heads from Alari to Sanli, the realm would be weakened, and the Dragon Armies Haldraxan had assembled were more powerful than any force Paxmer had sent against Gallagrin before. Their victory would be all but inevitable.
But Dae wasn’t going to fail. Alari watched Dae refuse each moment to give up even an inch of ground. The agony of the dragon fear kept everyone else from venturing from the wrecked catacombs to stand by her side. No one in the Royal Army was capable of that. Being in the Paxmer’s Dragon King presence was an unbearable situation for anyone from Gallagrin, but even still Alari wished for nothing more than to be beside Dae, their hands locked together so they could face the insurmountable threat of Haldraxan’s rage as one.
“Your kingdom will fall in fire and madness, your allies will fall with it, and you will die alone and unmourned,” Haldri said, like one of the gods of old pronouncing a doom.
“My Knight stands for me,” Alari said. “I need no one but her.”
Alari’s fated life had been to be sold to another kingdom to buy her father an heir. She was done with dooms and portents and threats from those who would destroy her.
She rose from her throne, and strode with the strength she could still muster across the Grand Viewing floor.
“So you have something left in you after all?” Haldri said. “That is delightful to see. Maybe you will even manage to die with some dignity when you return home.”
“You’re strategy was well executed,” Alari said. “But the battle isn’t yet decided.”
“Of course it’s decided,” Haldri said. “Your knight doesn’t have unlimited magic. My king does. Their battle was over before it was begun.”
“Are you sure of that?” Alari asked, watching Dae withstand still more attacks, weathering a storm that was reducing the mountains to dust and the earth to a blasted wasteland.
“Yes,” Haldri said. “Just as I am sure that your death is going to change the world. No two monarchs of the Blessed Realms have ever taken a quarrel as far as we have. My victory is going to resound like the ringing of a great bell. My conquest of your realm will set the tone for how the realms handle conflict for all time to come.”
“And what tone will that be?” Alari asked.
“Once Gallagrin falls, the rest of the realms will go to war as well,” Haldri said. “Not instantly, but once Frost Helm discovers that realms can be overthrown they will start sharpening their axes for use on Sunlost. And Senkin will go the same with their eye on the Green Council and Inchesso. The next century will run with blood and fire and by the end of it, my dragons will fly free over all of the lands that are not reduced to ash and charcoal.”
“That’s the legacy you would leave in the world?” Alari asked, at once horrified and surprised at Haldri’s words.
“In Paxmer, our dragons are our legacy,” Haldri said. “They are the only thing which will survive the ages that grind us back to the dust we rose from.”
“In Gallagrin, it is our spirits that carry our legacy,” Alari said. “Each detail of our lives are remembered and inform, on some level, the generations to come.”
“And what will those generations says when their spirits are broken and scattered?” Haldri asked.
Alari blinked and glanced down. It wasn’t Haldri’s question that troubled her, but rather her own words. Revenge and rage had pushed her on, with reason supplying the justification and method for destroying Paxmer’s Queen and Paxmer itself in the process.
But Paxmer wouldn’t be the only realm to fall. Whatever the outcome of the battle, Haldri was correct. The next century would see the blood and warfare on a scale undreamt of in ages past. In loosing her anger, Alari was poised to show the world how a realm could be shattered and how the old guardians could die.
And yet, even knowing that, she couldn’t pull back and couldn’t regret her actions. Haldri Paxmer had to be defeated. Haldraxan and his Dragon Army had to be stopped.
Below them, there was movement on the ground. Alari caught it before Haldri did and wasn’t able to stop the smile that broke across her face like a new dawn.
“Your Dragon King is strong,” Alari said. “But that’s not enough to break her spirit.”
“Who?” Haldri demanded, new anger kindling in her eyes.
“My Knight,” Alari said. “And my beloved.”
They watched as Dae moved, one step at a time, impossibly forward. In a wave that rippled and distorted the air around them, Haldraxan’s fear aura buckled and rebounded on him as Dae pressed inevitably closer.
“That’s not possible!” Haldri’s scream was loud enough to be heard throughout the God’s Hall and could have carried to the battlefield itself if not for the privacy wards the gods had in place.
“That’s my knight,” Alari said.
Behind Dae, an illusion spell dropped away revealing Estella sur Korkin, a young woman who was clearly her younger daughter, and one of Alari’s Queen’s Guard. On the far side of Haldraxan, Alari’s other Guardian, Mayleena Telli stood, silent and inviting the massed army of dragons to descend and join the fray. None of the far off dragons seemed interested in doing so though.
There was a strange sparkle in Jyl’s hand and it took Alari a moment to understand what she was seeing there.
The gleaming gem was no ordinary stone. It burned with a light that Alari had only seen lodged within divine artifacts.
With Haldraxan’s attention completely focused on Dae, no one had been paying attention to the actions of one, small, invisible elf. Even Haldraxan himself hadn’t noticed when the dungeon delving adventurer had stolen one of the most powerful artifacts in the world from his brow.
“No!” Haldri’s rage was being pulled under by currents of fear as powerful as a dragon aura, but which rose from a wholly natural origin.
“Yes,” Alari said. “You’ve lost Paxmer. You dragons. Your power. Your throne.”
“I still have power enough,” Haldri said, her eyes flickering with restrained fire. “Only someone of Paxmer blood can wield that Gem, so my strength remains for now. You, however, are no longer fully a queen, Gallagrin.”
The Paxmer Queen, left her throne, her chest pumping like a bellows to fan her rage high enough to overcome her fear.
“The God’s Hall only allows the true monarchs of the realms inside,” Haldri said. “Which means it will only protect the true monarchs.”
Alari was doubtful that the gods had designed the meeting chamber like that, but with their fall many of their old enchantments had fallen or been fractured as well.
“You are not going to survive this, even if I must choke the life from you myself,” Smoke poured from Haldri’s eyes as sparks of flames crackled from her increasingly claw-like fingers.
Alari considered running. She held too little of the Gallagrin Spirit’s power to win against someone who was still the fully empowered regent of their realm. Running would buy her nothing though and so she simply locked eyes with Haldri and grappled with the enemy queen hand-to-hand when they met at the middle of the floor.
It was an uneven battle, and in desperation, she called for Dae, despite knowing that her knight could never hear her.
Little by little, inch by inch, Haldri drove Alari back and then down, until the Paxmer Queen had her hands around Alari’s throat and was able to begin choking the life out of her.
The royal murder was interrupted by a deep rumbling, which became a crashing tumult that sent tremors through the floor beneath them.
Alari looked up to find the source of the cataclysmic disturbance in time to see Haldraxan explode through the walls of the God’s Hall sending plaster and marble flying in every direction.
Fire was in his mouth and death was in his eyes, but on top of his head sat the Lady Daelynne Akorli, Queen’s Knight of Gallagrin, bearing the Paxmer Gem of Command that kept the mighty dragon completely under her control.