Category Archives: The Spirit’s Blade

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 47 (Epilogue)

Jyl watched as the broad plains of Paxmer fell behind them and felt an unexpected weariness sink into her bones.

“Don’t fall into a ditch now,” Merrin said. The transport guildmaster rarely drove wagons herself anymore, but for the cause of bringing home some of Gallagrin’s most celebrated troops, she was willing to pitch in for old time’s sake.

“I think I’m going sleep for a month when we get back,” Jyl said.

“I guess fighting dragons takes a lot out of you eh?” Merrin asked, glancing over at Jyl as the giant horse-goat hybrids that pulled the wagon navigated steadily up the mountainous path.

“The funny part is that I didn’t even fight them,” Jyl said, closing her eyes. “I just robbed them of their shiny loot. Or robbed him I guess. It was only one dragon.”

“Which one?” Merrin asked, turning her attention to Jyl completely. The grhoats could manage to pick a path on their own just fine. The driver was there to make sure they didn’t pick one that the wagon couldn’t follow.

“Haldraxan,” Jyl said. “The big one.”

“The Dragon King?” Merrin asked, her eyes shooting up her forehead. “I was in the same castle as him once and even that was too close for comfort. How did you steal from a beast like that? I thought her had some crippling fear aura.”

“He did, and it was worse than crippling,” Jyl said. “I can’t even describe what being in the range of his magic was like.”

“And you robbed someone like that how exactly?” Merrin asked.

“We started by tricking him to land on contested ground,” Jyl said.

“And that got rid of his aura?” Merrin asked.

“Not so you would notice,” Jyl said. “It was weaker, but still pretty much completely crippling.”

“Magic charm of fearlessness?” Merrin guessed.

“Sleeping Gods, I wish I had something like that,” Jyl said. “No, no magic courage for us. I was stuck helpless until the Lady Dae went out to face him.”

“The Queen’s Knight? I didn’t see the Commander at the marshalling grounds?” Merrin asked. “Tell me she didn’t get eaten by a dragon?”

“You don’t sound too worried about that,” Jyl said and asked. “And what’s with calling her The Commander?”

“I served with her,” Merrin said. “Back before I went into a more sensible business that didn’t involve letting people try to stab me. And, yeah, if a dragon ate the Commander, she’d just give it heartburn before tearing herself out of its gullet.”

“I could believe that,” Jyl said. “But no, she didn’t get eaten. She went out and faced down Haldraxan. Just stood there daring him to do his worst.”

“That sounds like her alright,” Merrin said.

“She didn’t exactly break his fear aura,”Jyl said. “It was more that she forced him to focus it down. Onto her. Alone.”

“That definitely sounds like her,” Merrin said.

“That left the Dragon King just a little distracted, so I was able to climb up his back and snatch his magic gem,” Jyl said. “After that we had all the dragons under our control and the fighting was over.”

“That sounds like it was much less simple than you’re making it out to be,” Merrin said.

“Simple isn’t the word I’d use to describe it,” Jyl said, shivering as the memories washed over her, “But I had a lot easier than Lady Dae.”

“So if she wasn’t eaten by a dragon, where did she wind up?” Merrin asked.

“She’s back in Highcrest,” Jyl said. “Flew there on Haldraxan after she rescued the queen.”

“Yay, I’m going to get paid after all then,” Merrin said.

“Paid?” Jyl asked.

“For services rendered to the crown,” Merrin said.

“What did you do?”

“Conspired with Queen Haldri to frame our queen for the murder of a royal family,” Merrin said.

“I’m going to need to hear that again,” Jyl said, narrowing her eyes, “With the part where you’re getting paid for that because Queen Alari lived.”

“Oh it’s simple,” Merrin said. “Haldri contacted my guild because she wanted high quality arms and armor for her troops. She was planning a big build up for a summer campaign and Paxmer metal working is bog bilge compared to what Gallagrin smith’s turn out.”

“And she needed you for what exactly?” Jyl asked, feeling lost and confused.

“We were supposed to smuggle some serious quantity of goods across the border so that the Gallagrin armed forces wouldn’t be aware of Paxmer’s martial buildup,” Merrin said. “Then Queen Alari put her plans into effect and that sped up the timetable that Haldri had to work under.”

“So she asked you to murder a royal family?” Jyl asked.

“No, the Gedli family is still alive,” Merrin said. “We just procured some fake dead bodies to look like they’d been burned alive in a ritual circle.”

“Is that what Duchess Sanli presented as evidence to the court when she made her bid for power?” Jyl asked.

“I believe so,” Merrin said. “When I was visiting Haldri to confirm our business arrangement, Sanli was there too. Haldri had been pretty eager to get me to come and I don’t think she would normally have risked the overlap of foreign minions like that unless she was pressured and putting her plans together as quickly as she could.”

“So, wait, were you arranging a weapon shipment for Haldri or providing fake dead bodies?” Jyl asked.

“Both,” Merrin said. “We delivered a few of the early shipments and she saw that we could get things done to her satisfaction so she decided to use us for the dead bodies part of the deal too. Not a huge risk I imagine since if we didn’t deliver then her agents could have just killed us, or killed the Gedli’s for real.”

“Yeah, why keep the Gedli’s alive at all?” Jyl asked.

“Leverage over Sanli,” Merrin said. “If Sanli won the throne on a lie, she’s always be vulnerable to having that lie exposed. So the Gedli’s were taken across the Paxmer border and probably stuffed in some secure little hole somewhere until they were needed.”

“So I still don’t see the part where you get paid by Queen Alari for all this?” Jyl asked.

“You didn’t think you were the only operatives she had at work in Paxmer did you?” Merrin asked.

“You were working for her the whole time you were selling weapons to Haldri?” Jyl asked.

“Sure, why not?” Merrin asked. “Queen Alari paid better.”

“And if Haldri had upped her offer?” Jyl asked.

“Alari gave us a no bid limit on this contract,” Merrin said. “However much Haldri offered, Alari pledged to offer that plus one gold coin.”

“That’s remarkably mercenary,” Jyl said.

“I call it reasonable,” Merrin said. “I do not make any claims to honor or station. Not anymore. Not after Star’s Watch. Money is much simpler to deal with.”

Jyl laughed.

“Thinking like that would have kept me from ever joining the Queen’s Guard,” she said. “And from ever even coming close to being eaten by a flight of dragons.”

“Maybe it’s not such a crazy path to walk is it?” Merrin said. “Just follow the gold and let honor and duty sort themselves out.”

“It’s tempting sometimes, but I don’t think it’s for me,” Jyl said.

“For what it’s worth, I miss your line of work sometimes,” Merrin said. “But then I see how much it takes out of the people who do it.”

“It gives things back too,” Jyl said, “We’re safer now, I mean all of Gallagrin, and Paxmer too I suppose, and I had a hand in bringing that about. And I’m one of the lucky one. I get to come back to my safer home and keep chasing after honor and duty.”

“I heard there were loses,” Merrin said. “Was it bad?”

“It wasn’t good,” Jyl said. “The catacombs were supposed to protect us, but when Haldraxan collapsed them we lost a lot of good people in the rubble and the lava.”

“Are they being brought back to Gallagrin?” Merrin asked.

“Some of them,” Jyl said. “The others are being laid to rest there.”

“They’re getting proper graves?” Merrin asked.

“The catacombs are being rebuilt,” Jyl said. “They’ll be a joint Paxmer and Gallagrin monument. The miners who dug the tunnels are pitching in to help the Paxmer craftworkers who were maintaining the place. They’re going to rebuild it bigger and tougher than ever before. I guess the idea is to turn them into an ongoing shared site and keep the land as a shared space between the two kingdoms.”

“That sounds complicated,” Merrin said.

“Relationships always are,” Jyl said and yawned.

“So what happened with the other dragons?” Merrin asked. “I mean why did they let you take the gem off their king?”

“That was Nui and Mayleena’s doing,” Jyl said. “Nui turned me invisible and Mayleena held back the dragons that could see through that illusion.”

“She held them back?” Merrin asked. “How do you hold back a flight of dragons?”

“You’d have to meet Mayleena for this to make sense I guess,” Jyl said, “But basically all she did was walk out beyond where Dae and Haldraxan were fighting and open her arms.”

“That doesn’t sound like it would hold a toddler back much less a dragon,” Merrin said.

“Mayleena’s kind of special,” Jyl said, “I think she was daring them to come fight with her. Or maybe she was projecting a fear aura back at them. All I know is that I’m glad she was there, and I’m very glad that she’s on our side.”

“I’m surprised she’s not heading back with you?” Merrin said.

“I am too,” Jyl said. “She had issues with dragon fear that were as bad or worse than mine.”

“That definitely sounds like a good reason to leave Paxmer then,” Merrin said. “Why did she stay?”

“I think she wanted to talk with the dragons,” Jyl said.

“No offense meant,” Merrin said. “But is she insane?”

“Strangely, I don’t think so,” Jyl said. “Or if she is, I think staying to talk with the dragons is a step towards reclaiming her sanity.”

“Is she fearless or something?” Merrin asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Jyl said. “More ‘part-spirit’, so I think she sees the dragons as a sort of kin to what she is now.”

“That sounds sort of crazy,” Merrin said.

“We live in a crazy world,” Jyl said. “We just do the best that we can to get by in it.”

“And that’s why I stick to gold,” Merrin said. “There’s no craziness with gold at all.”

Jyl frowned and raised an eyebrow until she saw the smile on Merrin’s face.

“And how much gold would it really take for you to sell out Gallagrin?” she asked.

“So long as Alari is Queen?” Merrin said. “I’m not sure anyone has that much.”

“Well then it’s a good thing that Sanli wasn’t able to take the throne I suppose,” Jyl said.

“I wish I’d been there to see the debate end,” Merrin said. “I mean there’s winning a contest through force of arms and then there’s landing a dragon the size of a castle right next to your castle and declaring that you’ve done the impossible and conquered another realm as proof of your fitness to rule.”

“I heard Sanli tried to throw herself from the royal balcony into the streets below,” Jyl said. “I guess that seemed better than letting Haldraxan get his hands on her.”

“Yeah, about that,” Merrin said. “What in the Nine Hells is the Queen thinking making Sanli a Royal Advisor?”

“Well, she stripped the Duchess of her lands. And her household. And her servants. And her privileges for Pact Spirits,” Jyl said. “So my guess is that she’s thinking the best punishment for Sanli is to make her serve the throne that she tried to steal for the rest of her life. Basically the same thing Queen Alari did to Queen Haldri. Also, Sanli was smart enough to engineer a coup that had a decent chance of succeeding. She probably can provide some valuable advice.”

Jyl yawned again, feeling the weight of the days and weeks of struggle sinking deep into her bones.

“That’s all stuff to worry about later I guess,” Merrin said.

“Yeah,” Jyl said. “For now we’ve got along trip back home.”

“Don’t worry,” Merrin said. “We’ll pass the miles faster than you know it.”

“Just so long as I don’t fall off,” Jyl said and rubbed her eyes.

“Lean against me, hero,” Merrin said. “I’ll make sure to get you back safe and sound.”

Together, and with all the rest of those who’d fought on Paxmer’s soil, they looked across the long miles and the stark clear mountains and saw the first flags of Gallagrin flying off the border keeps that still stood watch over their home and shelter.

“Let’s go,” Jyl said, slumping against her new friend. “It’s time I headed home.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 46

Dae enjoyed the feeling of sleeping in, even if she’d spent the past several hours in a state that was closer to a coma than to actual sleep.

As the early spring sunlight dappled itself across her eyes though, consciousness returned grudgingly as well. Underneath her, the soft, supportive comfort of a real bed told her that she was somewhere safe, and for a moment, that was all that mattered in the world.

“I could stay here for hours,” she mumbled, still clinging to the last wisps of sleep as they evaporated in the midmorning sun.

“And I would be happy to watch you for those hours and more,” Alari said, half playful and half teasing.

“What the?” Dae asked, sitting up abruptly and discovering what a terrible idea that was.

“Careful,” Alari said. “You’ve been through a lot, and we’re not needed anywhere for hours still.”

“Where are we?” Dae asked, settling back onto the bed to allow her head to stop spinning.

“Highcrest,” Alari said. “My room. I wanted to make sure no one would disturb you while you slept.”

“Tell me you didn’t watch over me all night?” Dae asked.

“You’ve done the same for me on many an evening,” Alari said.

“And I will do so again,” Dae said. “Whether or not the world decides to stop spinning at some point.”

“And that is why you are in the most secure location I could find in my realm,” Alari said. “You saved me yet again. It’s time to let me return the favor.”

“Didn’t think we were keeping score,” Dae said, and smiled as the world stopped wobbling and she got a good look at her queen.

Alari wasn’t clothed in royal dress. She was wearing the simple garb that she only permitted herself the luxury of when she was certain of her privacy. It was a good look for her, Dae decided. She liked the idea of Alari being able to relax and put aside, even if only for a short while, the burden of her position.

“That’s only because you’re so far in the lead,” Alari said. “I owe you more than I can ever repay.”

“Is that why I get royal recovery room privileges?” Dae asked, raising an eyebrow at Alari’s serious tone.

“No,” Alari said. “You’re here because I’m greedy.”

“Greedy how?” Dae asked.

“Greedy because I want to keep you all for myself,” Alari said. “Greedy because as long as you’re here, I don’t have to even think about letting you go.”

Dae tilted her head and felt curiosity roll over her like wave.

“Has anything made you think there’s even the slightest chance that you could get rid of me even if you wanted to?” Dae asked.

Alari smiled, and brushed away a tear that hadn’t yet fallen.

“You’ve been more faithful than I could have ever dreamed or hoped,” Alari said. “But there are other callings that you may want to listen to, and, in my more reasonable moments, I know that I wouldn’t hold you back from them.”

“Other callings?” Dae asked, bewildered.

“Your mother is here,” Alari said. “And your sister.”

Dae nodded, surprised they made the journey so quickly, but not feeling the need to question how they managed it.

“And?” she asked. The thought that she would leave Alari in favor of family in Paxmer was an absurd one. Alari was her family. They were a small family, but no less vital for being sol.

“And there’s the matter of your gem,” Alari said, glancing to headboard of the bed.

Behind her, the softly glowing Divine Gem of Command shone from a position atop the central spire of the headboard.

“We didn’t want to take it from you since it seemed to be enforcing your previous command on Haldraxan still,” Alari said.

“Haldraxan?” Dae said, as memory came flooding back to her. “Sleeping Gods! What happened with the Dragon King?”

“He’s in the garden. Where you left him,” Alari said. “He’s been motionless since you commanded him to land.”

“Oh,” Dae said. “Well, that’s, good? I guess?”

“It’s more than good,” Alari said. “You’ve ended it. The rivalry between our realms. The centuries of skirmishes and bloodshed? They’re over. Gallagrin and Paxmer are truly at peace at last.”

“That was more you than me,” Dae said. “This was your plan after all.”

“My plan failed,” Alari said. “I sent you into Paxmer on a mission that no one could have finished, and the Royal Troops paid the price for my arrogance.”

“It wasn’t arrogance,” Dae said. “What you setup worked perfectly. We just didn’t know how strong Haldraxan really was. Or what he really was. And there was no chance we could have. He’s been holding back for centuries. Even our ancient records didn’t hint that he was effectively indestructible.”

“And yet you found a method to destroy him anyways,” Alari said.

“Not quite,” Dae said. “He’s still alive after all.”

“You could change that in a moment with the Gem,” Alari said. “Just order him out of the garden and the nature of his magic will do the rest.”

“Just give me the word,” Dae said.

“I appreciate that, but it’s not my place to tell the Queen of Paxmer how to dispose of her resources,” Alari said, her eyes glistening, but her smile one of pride.

For a moment, Dae heard Alari’s words like they were a child’s gibberish before she was able to connect them together and understand what Alari was really saying.

“What?” Dae said, all her breath leaving her body with that one word.

Alari simply smiled and shrugged.

“No!” Dae said. “Not just no, Nine Hells No!”

“You control all of the dragons of Paxmer now,” Alari said. “You have noble Paxmer blood in your veins. The throne is yours to claim, and there is no one in the world who can oppose you.”

Dae recoiled to the foot of the bed.

“I don’t care,” she said. “I don’t want it. Get that thing the hell away from me.”

“I’m afraid if we do that Haldraxan may eat Highcrest,” Alari said.

Dae glanced from Alari to the Gem of Command and back again. If the Dragon King ate everything except for Alari then maybe that would be a viable trade.

Alari saw the look on Dae’s face and laughed.

“If you’ll be willing to hang on to it for a bit longer though, maybe we can find someone else who would wish to bear the load it represents,” Alari said.

Dae looked at Alari and Gem again, before relaxing by half a breath.

“Good,” she said. “I like that plan. Let’s do that.”

“You would really give up a throne of the Blessed Realms?” Alari asked, looking relieved more than astonished.

Dae pushed the covers that still bound her to the bed aside and climbed into the wide, comfy chair that Alari was seated in nearby.

“Is there some part of ‘I don’t want to leave you’ that’s unclear?” Dae asked. “It took me six years to wake up and realize what an idiot I’d been, I have no intention of making that same mistake again. Not for all the gold in Paxmer. Not for all the crowns in all the realms.”

Royal privilege meant that no one was allowed to touch a king or queen who was of lower standing. Dae ignored that, as she had a hundred times in the past, and pulled Alari close to her, welcoming both the softness and the strength with which Alari embraced her back.


Later, as the sun completed its rise into the sky and began its descent, Dae and Alari greeted the afternoon in the southeastern garden, under the shadow of the motionless Dragon King.

“His fear aura doesn’t seem to be affecting you anymore?” Estella asked as she, Dae, Alari and Nui took a lunch outside in the sunny day.

“There’s too little Paxmer magic in this small plot of land for him to project one,” Dae said. “If I hadn’t ordered him to motionlessness, he’d be consuming more magic than would be available to sustain him.”

“Are you going to order him to his destruction?” Nui asked, visibly unsettled by their choice of dining location despite her Paxmer immunity to dragon fear.

“No,” Dae said. “That’s a decision for the queen of Paxmer to make.”

“And who will that be?” Estella asked.

“Someone who knows Paxmer better than I do,” Dae said, and brought forth the Gem of Command.

She stared at the star-like jewel for a moment before extending her hand towards her mother.

Estella shied away from the gem, wide-eyed and rigid.

“Do you know what you’re offering me?” she asked.

“I’m offering you my trust,” Dae said. “Once this passes to you, you will control the loyalty of every dragon in Paxmer. With a thought you could send us back to war. Or you could turn inwards and make Paxmer a living hell for those still there.”

“And you would risk that?” Estella said. “I have done you terrible wrongs, Daelynne, and you’re handing me the power to do even worse, both to you and your realm.”

“I know,” Dae said. “But I’m not afraid of that anymore. What you do will speak to who you are, not who I am. And if you turn your power against us, you’ll get to find out what I know about your Dragon King.”

“Ok, that sounded ominous,” Nui said. “So maybe you should just keep the gem. The dragons have caused Paxmer nothing but trouble.”

“They weren’t always like that,” Estella said. “Before Haldraxan, the legends say that dragons were our peers and companions. Those who served to defend the realm did so willing and because it was their home as much as ours.”

“If you destroy him, will that free the other dragons from the madness and greed that consumed them?” Alari asked.

“No,” Estella said. “It’s not that simple. The dragons of Paxmer who live today are bond by the commands Haldraxan forged into them when he tempered them into adulthood. They are his creatures even when he is not around to command them.”

“Whoever bears this gem is going to have a hard path to choose then,” Dae said. “Destroy the dragons and cleanse Paxmer of their poisons or keep them and retain Paxmer’s ability to defend itself from the other realms.”

“There is another option,” Estella said. “It is slower and can only be chosen willingly but it offers the hope of a new dawn for our realm.”

“Paxmer will never be my realm,” Dae said. “My place is here and always will be. But what’s this other path?”

“Dragons are part spirit, part mortal creature,” Estella said. “They can transfer their awareness into new bodies and leave behind their old forms and bindings. It will take a generation to raise our dragons as free beings, but I believe it’s the task we must set ourselves to if there is to be a lasting peace between our realms.”

Dae sat forward and placed the Gem of Command in front of her mother.

“In a sense this as much my revenge as it is a gift,” Dae said, folding her hands in front of herself as she reclined back into her seat.

“What do you mean?” Nui asked, alert for a trap about to be sprung.

“Controlling Paxmer’s dragons means controlling Paxmer,” Estella said. “She’s offering me more than a gem, she’s offering me Paxmer itself.”

“A realm is difficult control, even under the tightest of rules,” Alari said. “That’s part of what makes the burden so heavy and also part of what makes it bearable.”

“You can turn away from it,” Dae said. “If you know someone better suited to the role, then turn it over to them.”

“This is a test isn’t it?” Estella asked, her hands still folded in her lap.

“Yes,” Dae said. “We missed a lot of years together, as many that I don’t know who you are now, but after these last few weeks, I think I would like to change that. So please, take Paxmer and show me the kind of woman that my mother is. I think it’s long past time that I got to know her.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 45

Haldraxan’s entrance to the God’s Hall shattered not just the walls but the divine firmament the sanctified space was built upon. Tremors grew in strength from the moment that he landed but no matter how violently the floor shook it couldn’t slow Dae’s progress towards the center of the room where the two queens were locked in a life-and-death struggle.

Blistering rage flared from her regalia in the form of incandescent ribbons that trailed off Dae’s arms and shoulders like smoke.

She called no warning to Haldri. She offered the Paxmer queen no terms and no option for surrender. One moment she was far across the room striding over ground that was tearing itself apart and the next she was at Haldri’s back, a decapitating swing of her blood drenched blood checked at the last microsecond by Alari raising her hand.

“No,” Alari said. “She needs to live.”

Dae froze into a statue, her every sense screaming to complete the work she’d labored so long and hard to accomplish. Only her love and faith in Alari stood against that primal need.

“She’s hurting you,” Dae said, her will balanced on the edge of her blade as she struggled to understand Alari’s words.

“Not any more,” Alari said. “Not now that you’re here.”

In proof of her words, she pushed Haldri away from Dae’s blade and away from herself.

Haldri was as frozen as Dae, her eyes wide with shock and horror, though she wasn’t focused on either Alari or Dae. Her attention was riveted on Haldraxan, disbelief twisting her features into a mask of horror.

“Why?” Dae asked, her blade trembling as the royal blood that dripped from it began to run black.

“Because we need them,” Alari said.

Dae lowered her sword. Even apart from the demands of love and faith, it wasn’t hard to trust her best friend. She knew the wiley twisting turns of Alari’s mind well enough to be sure in that moment that whatever the Queen of Gallagrin needed them for wasn’t going to involve letting them go free or regaining a position where they could hurt anyone ever again.

The moment her muscles relaxed though, the floor fell out from under them in a titanic roar.

Dae was plunging from into the open sky before she was fully aware of what had happened. Around the debris of the God’s Hall was falling, as were the two queens who’d met within it and the Dragon King who had shattered the barriers around it.

“The Gallagrin Spirit is contested!” Alari’s shout carried over the rush of wind as they fell and Dae understood the ramifications of that.

Without the Gallagrin Pact Spirit, Alari’s personal power was drastically limited. Moreover since the liminal stretch of sky leading to the God’s Hall was not bound to any of the realms, the favors she could call upon were limited as well.

No one had foreseen that the seemingly eternal God’s Hall would be brought low as part of their plans, so neither queen had contingencies in place for the eventuality of it. Dae however did had a Dragon King under her direct and absolute control and, being as large as a castle, he was more than capable of gently plucking all of the falling people from the sky. Flying however was another matter.

“The High Road is falling to pieces too!” Dae said as Haldraxan wobbled in flight from the aetheric turbulence. “Where do we go?”

“Head to Highcrest,” Alari said. “And declare my south eastern garden ceded to Paxmer as an embassy.”

“What?” Dae asked, her thoughts scrambled by the unintended acrobatics of Haldraxan’s flight.

“You still speak with the Queen’s Voice,” Alari said. “Sanli doesn’t know I authorized that so she can’t have contested it. You still have my full Royal Authority.”

“Can I speak against her then?” Dae asked. “Strip her of her citizenship?”

“No, she’s already bound by the magics of the contest,” Alari said. “Neither one of us can be banished, brought to trial or stripped of our position by other means until the contest is resolved. It takes priority over everything else.”

“In that case, I declare that the south east garden of Alari Gallagrin is hereby gifted to the realm of Paxmer to stand as sovereign soil for all of their uses both physical and mystical for so long as Gallagrin chooses to retain diplomatic relations between the two realm,” Dae said and then asked, “Will that cover it well enough?”

“That was perfect,” Alari said and hugged her knight.

“I do not understand,” Haldri said, blinking and coming out of the horror-daze that had stunned her senses away. “What are you doing with us?”

“I am bringing you to my castle,” Alari said.

“Why?” Haldri asked. “You could have tortured us anywhere. Oh, or will ours be a public execution?”

“I’m not going to execute you, or torture you at all,” Alari said. “In fact you’re going to be an honored guest.”

“A what now?” Haldri asked.

“That will be your official designation,” Alari said. “If you wish a clearer picture of your plight, then imagine yourself as a trophy I shall pose in my garden. You will spend the rest of your days a prisoner in a iron cage. Through you I will show the world what it means to cross me.”

“So there will be torture,” Haldri said, tired and expecting her fate.

“There will be no need for that,” Alari said. “Your life as a queen is over. You tested me, and you having nothing left as a result. No throne. No power. No options save for those which I grant you. Every day you live will be at my sufferance, until I decide I no longer need you as an example to others.”

“I still have power yet,” Haldri said and raced to leap from the side of Haldraxan’s back to her death on the ground below.

Dae’s sword flashed in the sunlight, burying itself through Haldri’s leg and into Haldraxan’s thick scales.

“No,” Alari said. “You don’t.”

Haldri screamed in rage.

“Why? Why do this? What do you gain?”

“You were right,” Alari said. “About the century of bloodshed the two of us were set to loose upon the world.”

“That cannot be changed,” Haldri said. “A realm has fallen, the god’s defenses are gone. Even their hall of peace has crumbled. All that is left for us is fire and death.”

“Spoken like a dragon,” Dae said.

Haldri glared at her for speaking to a queen so bluntly but with her injured leg and overall precarious position the former regent of Paxmer was wise enough to refrain from making any complaints.

“We are not going to tolerate years of violence,” Alari said, drawing herself up to her full regal height. Most of the Gallagrin Pact Spirits power was still lost to her, but even without it she could manage a royal bearing. “Your offense against us came to light two seasons ago. Before that time we bore you and yours no ill will. It was our hope that our two realms could be united in a peaceful spirit. In those two seasons, we conceived and enacted a plan which has overthrown your reign and opened your realm to our complete conquest and subjugation. What do you think think that will tell our peers?”

“I already explained how they will see today’s events,” Haldri said. “Even the dimmest among them will at last understand that they can profit from their neighbors weakness, or that their neighbors will be looking to profit from theirs.”

Around them the wind whistled as Haldraxan glided onto a new path, finding one of the High Roads which ran to the capital of Gallagrin. With support of the aerial pathway, the Dragon King’s flight grew more stable. Dae kept the giant beast on the upper tiers of the High Roads nonetheless to avoid the issue of being over Gallagrin soil. Too close in would be just as lethal as landing would be. Only the farthest, most unclaimed of High Roads could allow a dragon passage over another realm, and even then Dae could feel the lack of ambient Paxmer magic stealing away the Dragon King’s monumental strength. No lesser dragon could hope to match their king’s power and so none could hope to match his range.

“You misunderstand,” Alari said. “What will our peer learn of Gallagrin and our power when they see you brought low?”

Haldri looked puzzled for a moment and then understanding blossomed.

“They will be terrified of you,” Haldri said. “None of them will understand how you defeated us, and by keeping Haldraxan and myself alive you will make it appear that we are no threat to you at all.”

“They will be afraid of our power,” Alari said. “They will be daunted by the prospect of contending against us when so old and bitter an adversary was dispatched so quickly, but, they will be afraid of us.”

“How can they not be?” Haldri said. “You have done what no monarch before you has. They will be horrified at the prospect that you will do the same to them!”

“At first they will be,” Alari said. “Which is why I will speak to them. And why they will see you.”

“You would use me to show what their destruction will look like?” Haldri asked. “And my realm to show how badly damaged theirs will become?”

“No,” Alari said. “Your realm will not be damaged. There will be no plunder, no burning, no retribution. Not against your realm, or against your person.”

“That’s insane,” Haldri said. “Paxmer is full of wealth. There is power there to be seized with both hands.”

“Yes, we’re going to leave Paxmer’s wealth and power to those who follow in your wake. Let them repair the damage you have done to your realm,” Alari said.

“You don’t need it?” Haldri asked and again understanding lit her eyes. “You don’t need it. You’re sending a message to the other realms. You’re showing them that you conquered my realm simply because you could, because you chose to.”

“Yes,” Alari said. “And I will tell them that should anyone else try to conquer one of the Blessed Realms, we will stand in the defense of those who are imperiled.”

“And if anyone tries to conquer Gallagrin,” Dae said. “Our armies will be backed by the Dragons of Paxmer.”

“You can’t take our dragons!” Haldri said. “They can’t survive outside of Paxmer.”

“Of course they can,” Dae said. “I’ve seen them on your ships. So long as they have a bit of Paxmer territory to work from, they can strike almost anywhere.”

“Your plan can’t work,” Haldri said. “Without our dragons, Paxmer will be the weakest of the realms. Everyone will descend on us.”

“We are not taking the dragons away,” Alari said. “We will simply place their care in wiser hands.”

Haldri blinked at that and, surprisingly, relaxed. Dae unsummoned her sword and moved to bandage the wounded queen’s leg.

“I feel very light all of a sudden,” Haldri said.

“It’s the blood loss,” Dae said. “You’ll be fine, I didn’t hit anything critical.”

She spared a questioning glance at Alari, who smiled in return both at Dae and at Haldri, who was no longer queen and no longer a threat.

As Haldraxan flew onwards, Alari’s gaze went distant and she started to mumble as though reciting a conversation overheard from a great distance.

“Sanli is making her concluding arguments,” Alari said.

“How does the contest stand?” Dae asked.

“She’s claimed that I have brought Gallagrin only war and ruin,” Alari said. “That I am a danger to all and that no good has ever come from my misguided rule.”

“I’m not allowed to kill her, am I?” Dae asked.

“You won’t need to,” Alari said. “I think we can make a rather dramatic case of our own.”

Dae smiled and angled Haldraxan downwards towards Highcrest, eager to see the look on the noble’s faces when their true queen arrived.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 44

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.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 43

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.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 42

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.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 41

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.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 40

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.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 39

Alari looked at the world beneath her, a pale orb cloaked in the darkness of night. She stood so far above it, peering down from the God’s Hall, that only the fires burning in the largest cities of the Blessed Realms were visible.

The ‘Peace Conference’ with Haldri had become a waiting game, each queen cut off from her pawns, each waiting to see the next move play out. Communication with the outside world wasn’t impossible. There were various divine spells in place which would allow the monarchs to speak with their remote staff, to issue orders or gather information needed for discussions to progress. Neither Alari nor Haldri made use of these spells though. Each knew that those who served them were capable of fulfilling their assigned roles.

For Haldri, that meant relying on Haldraxan and the forces he commanded. Alari couldn’t imagine Haldri had any difficulty trusting an ageless dragon of nearly supreme power with exercising plans to reap more power for Paxmer. History provided ample evidence that betting on Paxmer’s Dragon King was a winning play.

Alari, conversely, was relying on little more than the strength of a woman who, in the eyes of the world, had already failed to stand up to a dragon younger and smaller than the Dragon King. In Haldri’s eyes, Alari saw a calculation of the odds that the Paxmer queen found to be entirely in the Dragon King’s favor.

By all rights Alari should have been doubting her plan and the capabilities of those she asked to enact it. There should have been a chink in her faith, a crack of doubt that Haldri could exploit and relish.

Instead, Alari’s heart was quiet.

Her fate was in Dae’s hands, and there was no where else in the entire world that Alari would wish it to be.

The world might question Dae. Dae might even question herself, but Alari didn’t. She knew the sorts of reserves that Dae had, she’d seen the kind of strength that Duke Korli’s daughter possessed and she knew how strong the bond between her Knight and herself was.

Being Queen of Gallagrin meant many sacrifices, and far from the least of them were the sacrifices Alari made in being apart from Dae, but if her position kept her from speaking the fullness of her heart, Alari knew she could prove by deeds that by which words was denied to her.

“The gods should never have entered their slumber,” Haldri said. “In their absence we are left with little more than the clay we see below us.”

They were the first words either queen had spoken in close to an hour and they took Alari by surprise. The rage and hungry eagerness to tear each other down had dimmed and cooled to embers with the long waiting. The depths of the night sapped at their will as well and lowered their defenses, something Alari knew that both of them had counted on to make the other easier to outmaneuver.  

Watching and waiting for the next pieces to fall though left a lot of time for reflection and observation.

“If you think so little of realms and their people, it is odd that you covet them as much as you do,” Alari said. She’s never understood how Haldri’s mind worked. Certainly it wasn’t the norm for a monarch to place the needs of their common subjectives on the same level as those of the noble families who aided in the governance and defense of the realm. If anything Alari was an aberration in that regards, but there were few, if any, rulers who drifted as far to the other extreme as Haldri did.

That notion, of the tyranny shown to the Paxmer people, had shaped Alari’s vision of Haldri since she was a child. Sitting across from her peer though, Alari began to chip away at the image of the Paxmer Queen as an icon of injustice. Haldri’s crimes were certainly real enough, but she wasn’t the nearly divine force of malice that Alari had built her up to be either.

“We are creatures of fathomless potential,” Haldri said. “The gods crafted us so, and even in their absence there is a wealth of treasure in each mind and heart that struggles upon our world.”

Alari frowned. There was a tone in Haldri’s voice that seemed out of place. It wasn’t sympathy, or any other gentle emotion. If anything it edged closer to disappointment and disdain.

“How strange that Paxmer grinds its treasures into the soil or roasts them in dragon fire then,” Alari said. She was puzzled by the more philosophical bent Haldri had adopted, but a part of her honestly craved some insight into the woman who had ravaged her life and her happiness so deeply. Forgiveness was not something that was on the table, but some measure of understanding might be possible.

“The treasures I speak of can only be forged under pressure,” Haldri said. “Left to their own devices, the peoples of the realms sink into lethargy, their potential squandered on frivolities which benefit no one.”

“And so you seek to save the world from the bane of people pursuing their own forms of happiness?” Alari asked. Haldri’s words were alien to Alari’s experience. Gallagrin had struggled so long in recent years to reach a barely tolerable level of sustainability, that the idea of needing to further pressure the realms’ people was preposterous.

In the same time period though, Paxmer had enjoyed long years of relative prosperity, largely because it hadn’t lost precious resources to a protected civil war and because with Gallagrin weakened it had been able to turn its attention to expanding its power across the seas to challenge Sunlost for the wealth of the outer world.

“I will see this world remade,” Haldri said. “Either in my lifetime or under the reign of my heirs.”

“Why?” Alari asked. “You see the lands that lay below us. Every one of the realms has more than enough problems to address within its borders. There has never been peace between Gallagrin and Paxmer, even when friendship would have lifted both realms higher than they could have been alone.”

“I would claim the last six years when my brother sat on your throne were peaceful, but you would disagree I imagine. The truth is that we were never meant to be friends,” Haldri said. “No one in our position can have friends. We stand alone, atop the pinnacles of the world.”

“That’s a pretty lie to justify the grossest of actions,” Alari said. “You are no more alone than I am though. Or doesn’t a Dragon King rule at your side?”

“I give no sleight to my Haldraxan when I say I stand atop the world alone,” Haldri said. “He is the world. In him lies the strength of the Earth, raw and undiminished by the passing of the gods, just as within us lies the strength of the world beyond. It is our dreams which light the road that leads to the future.”

“Then we need to have care of what dreams we cling to,” Alari said. “There are nightmares enough in this world as it is.”

“The only nightmares that matter are the ones which would frighten us from a greater destiny,” Haldri said. “You in Gallagrin cling to your spirits as armor and shield against the world, hiding away behind their protection, just as you hide away within your mountains from the world. If you walked with dragons as we do in Paxmer you would learn that hiding will never save you. Only by conquering your fear and daring to master the impossible can you rise above this world. That is the gift I will bring the realms and the lands of the outer world.”

“And when you find that the peoples of the world do not want your gift? That they don’t need it?” Alari asked. “Or that different people have different desires for the world? That there are those who do not wish to rise above it? That some can accept it as it is and see the beauty that already exists around and within them?”

“Have you ever seen someone melted in dragon fire?” Haldri asked. “There is no beauty within people. There is only horror and pain, concealed by a thin layer pleasant fictions.”

Alari laughed.

“Are you really that blind?” she asked. “Do you truly believe that because there is pain and suffering there can be no beauty and grace as well?”

“The one gives lie to the other,” Haldri said. “It is only the weak who cling to the illusion that this world is just and good so that they can shield themselves from the terror of its truths.”

“And what of those who make no claims that the world is just or good or terrible or a place of suffering, but rather view it for what it is?” Alari asked. “Look at the orb below us and tell me what you see.”

The sun rose from the east and its light spread across border between the two realms. The mountains were touched briefly with the gentle gold of a new day before swiftly settling into a patchwork of green pine forests and white snowcaps.

Time was passing far faster than it should have, another part of magics of the God’s Hall, which sat as much outside the flow of the world as it did within it.

“The dust and excrement of countless generations,” Haldri said, frowning at the tableau below them. “But in that soil lies the seed of the world’s rebirth.”

“A seed that must be watered with the blood of those you deem weak and unworthy?” Alari asked. With a wave of her hand she drew the vision of the world into closer focus. The vast view they’d taken rushed in to peer at one particular site on the  Paxmer side of the border. From all points south of that there were dragons winging rapidly north, almost to their destination, but hunting in wide circles as they flew.

Alari knew who they were looking for, and what would happen if they found their quarry. She took heart from the patterns of the dragon’s flights though. They hadn’t found Dae yet, and they weren’t going to. Not in time to stop her.

“It is their own actions which condemn those who fall before me,” Haldri said.

Alari laughed again.

“I hated you,” she said. “Paxmer has robbed Gallagrin of so much and you have robbed me of more than you can imagine. When I came here, I knew I would destroy you, and there is nothing that will change that. Now though? Now that I find that this is the root of your madness? This shortness of vision? These blinders that you cling to? Now that I hear the desperate emptiness that drives you? My hate seems foolish now. How can I hate anything so small as you?”

Haldri rose from her throne, the muscles of her face livid with renewed rage.

“I thought you a disappointment,” Haldri said. “For so long, I imagined you to be a skillful player of the game between us. I conjured the image of someone as powerful as I, someone whom I could truly test my mettle against. But that’s not who you are. The noose is around your neck already, My armies draw in on your forces and soon you will fall and it will have been so sadly easy. For a brief moment, I regretted the steps I’ve taken. Your dominion will be mine. Nothing can stop that. But I thought that if I’d known how weak you are, how foolish, I could have made your passing easier. Now though? Now I’m going to enjoy watching everything you have stripped away from you.”

“So we are agreed then,” Alari said. “Enemies, by design and by choice.”

“Yes, remember that as my hand closes in around your heart,” Haldri said.

Alari smirked and then felt a familiar stabbing weakness pass through her.

Haldri’s true gambit was at last sprung.

The Pact Spirit of Gallagrin was divided. Alari’s throne was contested and her claim to her crown was slipping from her grasp.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 38

Jyl was shocked when the dwarves appeared like ghosts from the stone walls, not because she hadn’t been privy to the plan that brought them to Paxmer but because a part of her had been certain that no one could pull off the undertaking that Queen Alari had asked the Mining Guild to attempt.

“Why…why are there dwarves here?” Nui asked.

Dwarves were, in Jyl’s experience, an acquired taste. To people who had little interaction with them, Dwarves were thought of as short, stocky, bearded creatures with a weird aversion to open spaces. This notion was true to the same extent as the notion that all elves loved the forests, which is to say, there were more exceptions than adherents to the rule but it didn’t stop people from clinging to their misguided preconceptions anyways. Dwarves, like Elves, were a disparate and diverse people, but there were some common aspects to their cultures too, from their shared heritage. Aspects that could be off putting until one learned to read the meaning of what was really being said.

As a dungeon delver, Jyl had spent her fair share of time learning from Dwarves who didn’t mind an overly inquisitive elf asking them an endless stream of questions. She’d learned almost the entirety of what she knew about the creation and maintenance of underground spaces from the Dwarves who’d leant her their time and their knowledge. Her family considered the knowledge useless, in what could be considered ‘typical elf fashion’, but it had been critical to her exploration and eventual discovery of the pact spirit name stones which had allowed her to become a Pact Warrior.

Without the training she’d received, she would never have known how to identify the small marks and tells that indicated where secret or obscured passages could be found, or where traps had been laid to ward off people like her. That same training had taught her two other things though. First that what the Queen had asked of the Mining Guild was impossible to pull off and second that if the Mining Guild said they were going to do it, there was at least some chance it would happen despite the obvious insanity required.

“They’ve dug a new series of tunnels from Gallagrin to Paxmer,” Dae said.

“Tunnels?” Sir Kemoral said. “You sell them short Lady Akorli. The guild has created highways through the earth.”

“Why would they do that?” Nui asked, struggling to keep up with the bizarre appearance of a small company of foreigners who materialized seemingly from nowhere.

That the dwarves were spreading out and inspecting various insignificant portions of the sheer mountainside made their presence even harder to understand, unless, like Jyl, you knew the purpose that lay behind the madness which brought them to Paxmer.

“They’re invading,” Estella whispered the words, hope and terror mixing in her voice in equal measures.

“They’re what?” Zana asked.

“Invading,” Dae said. “Claiming this land in the name of Gallagrin if they get the opportunity.

“And you will be providing that opportunity won’t you?” Sir Kemoral said. “Or was your mission unsuccessful?”

“It was successful enough that we should move this discussion inside the stronghold,” Dae said. “The battle we’re looking for is close on our heels.”

“We’re going in there?” Nui asked, rocking back on her heels as her arms went stiff.

“Yes,” Dae said. “In a few hours at most, it won’t be safe to be anywhere else if you’re within fifty miles of here.”

“Not that being inside is going to be perfectly safe either,” Jyl said.

“She’s right,” Zana said.

“Which one?” Nui asked.

“Both of them,” Zana said. “We know what’s chasing us, and the Queen’s Knight is right that we can’t stay out here waiting for them, but the elf is right too, there’s no way anyone dug tunnels from Gallagrin to Paxmer that are even half safe to be in.”

The leader of the Mining Guild, an elderly looking dwarf with skin like rough gnarled wood, stepped forward and scowled at Zana, the two dwarven women standing nose to nose and glaring into each other’s eyes.

“You saying my picks do sloppy work?” Xenda, the guild leader, asked.

The other people present tensed as though a death battle was about to erupt. Jyl would have too if she wasn’t intimately familiar with the Mining Guild’s rough and direct culture. As it was, she smiled and leaned back, curious to see if Zana was familiar with her northern siblings’ method of resolving disputes.

Zana headbutted Xenda and staggered back rubbing her own head. Jyl grinned. Zana may not have been a miner, but she spoke their language quite well.

“You’re damn right I’m saying it’s sloppy work,” Zana said. “You had to have cut every corner there is and made up a few more just to cut them to if you got a job like this done that fast.”

Dae had quietly called up her pact armor and Jyl watched Nui starting to weave a glamour, but the two sisters were cut off by Xenda’s uproarious laughter.

“Aww, you’re a damn sharp one then aren’t you?” Xenda said.

“And you’ve got a bunch of stone singers working for you, I’d wager, you mad bastards,” Zana said.

“They’re not going to be fighting,” Mayleena said, though whether she was disappointed or relieved Jyl couldn’t tell.

“What are stone singers? What are they talking about? What is going on here!” Nui said.

“Inside,” Sir Kemoral said. “We’ll explain everything inside.”

Despite her clear reservations, Nui allowed herself to be escorted into the sealed catacombs. Jyl followed after Estella and Dae entered.

The inside of the ancient catacombs had never seen better days. Far from the fallen down ruins that Jyl had expected to be greeted by, there were signs of serious work and renovations that had been performed recently.

“You’re honoring our dead?” Estella said. “With buttressing?”

“We do honor the dead who were laid here m’am,” Sir Kemoral said.

“But that’s not why you’ve reinforced the outer chambers, is it?” Estella said. Jyl saw a range of expressions flicker across the older woman’s face as she worked through the implications of what she was seeing.

“No, it’s not,” Sir Kemoral said.

“This is my mother, and sister,” Dae said, introducing them to Kemoral. “And one of the recruiting agents for the Paxmer resistance.”

“August company then,” Sir Kemoral said. “And part of your mission?”

“In a sense,” Dae said. “We wouldn’t have arrived here without their help.”

“What is here?” Nui asked. “Why are a bunch of Gallagrin miners in a Paxmer catacomb, invading our country? I thought we were coming to find a weapon to overthrow Queen Haldri, not claim land for a foreign queen?”

“I didn’t mislead you about our aims,” Dae said. “Only the means we plan to use to accomplish them.”

“The Spirit Crown was a lie you said?” Estella asked.

“More of a lure than a lie,” Dae said. “There is a myth about its existence, but it’s one which Queen Alari embellished heavily.”

“Why?” Nui asked. “Why go to all this trouble.”

“Because we needed to be able to force a battle on our own terms and at our own time and place, without Haldri or Haldraxan being aware they were being manipulated,” Dae said.

“I understand the general shape of your plan,” Estella said. “What’s missing are the particulars. How does pitching a battle here unseat our queen? What can our small group and some miners do that the armies of Gallagrin massed to the north cannot?”

“She is your mother, but do you trust her Lady Akorli?” Sir Kemoral asked.

“That’s a dangerous question,” Dae said. “Let’s say she deserves to know this.”

“Then allow me to reassure you,”Sir Kemoral said. “We have many more forces here than your party and then Miners Guild members who facilitated our transport,”

Jyl looked around the crypt they were in and out into the rooms beyond it. The catacombs were a warren of small, private chambers. Structurally, that had allowed the Paxmer builders to excavate as little of the mountain as they needed to, which meant far less labor than large elaborate chambers would have required. It also meant that the catacombs were as strong as any sort of subterranean dwelling was likely to be, moreso than ones where people actively lived and worked since the dead didn’t require the same sort of storage space as the living.

From a tactical perspective, the catacombs offered a resilent and compartmentalized area to fight from. Against a horde of dragons, you couldn’t ask for better terrain than to be protected by foot thick walls with doors at regular intervals which would block out both fire and any dragon riders that might enter the stronghold.

The catacombs served another purpose as well though. They hid the extent of the forces sheltered within them. From where Jyl sat, she could only see the two adjoining rooms, both sparsely furnished chambers similar to the one they’d been lead into. Those held more Miner’s Guild personnel who were working to reinforce the outer walls in preparation for the coming attack.

“How many more are here to fight with us?” Estella asked.

Sir Kemoral looked to Dae, who nodded her approval.

“Her Majesty’s Royal Army awaits within these catacombs,” Sir Kemoral said.

“All of it?” Estella asked, her eyes widening in disbelief.

“Yes,” Sir Kemoral said. “She is taking this matter rather seriously.”

“But I thought we had word that the Gallagrin Royal Army was massing at the border?” Nui asked.

“A misdirection,” Dae said.

“You are not the only glamour caster able to work beyond the bounds of the Sunlost Isles,” Mayleena said.

“That…is unexpected,” Estella said. “But what does your queen hope to gain with this battle? Surely your own keeps are as secure as this hasty fortification on foreign soil could be?”

“They are considerably more secure,” Sir Kemoral said. “And therein lies the problem.”

“I don’t follow,” Nui said.

“Haldri and Haldraxan and all of the Paxmer nobles know the barriers established between the two realms,” Dae said. “They know they cannot bring Paxmer’s principal strength to bear in an all out invasion of Gallagrin, at least not without sacrificing a massive quantiy of regular troops first.”

“Haldri Paxmer isn’t the sort to weight the cost of sacrifices like that,” Estella said.

“She may not count the lives lost as holding any value, but her dragon is clever and old enough to count the gains that can be made versus the risk of drawing Paxmer’s defenses low when Sunlost has reason to strike against them too,” Sir Kemoral said.

“So the plan was to lure them into a battle which they cannot turn away from and to draw in forces they would never commit to a war on the border,” Dae said.

“Couldn’t they just ignore you here until you came out?” Nui asked.

“To refuse to face us would mean ceding the land to Gallagrin and allowing it to become terrain that’s inimical to all of Paxmer’s dragon,” Dae said.

“And if you can move a force within the border this far, then you are capable of moving it even deeper into Paxmer if given sufficient time,” Estella said.

“So you made sure that Haldri called every dragon in the realm here?” Nui asked.

“It’s unlikely that we got all of them.” Dae said. “But it looks like we got the one that matters most.”

“Haldraxan,” Estella said. “What part does the Dragon King play in your plans.”

“It’s very simple,” Dae said. “Haldri’s reign is founded on Haldraxan’s dominion over the dragons of Paxmer. Slay him and the other nobles will turn on her and tear Haldri to pieces.”

“And the rest of the dragons?” Estella asked.

“You said it yourself,” Dae said. “They’ve been corrupted by Haldraxan’s greed. By massing them here, we can break their power once and for all.”

“You don’t know what your saying,” Nui said. “You can’t even fight one dragon much less the hundreds of them who are winging towards us.”

“Fighting dragons is a dangerous business,” Sir Kemoral said. “But we’re not as helpless as that.”

From his smile, Jyl guessed that the surprise they had ready for the Paxmer dragons was ready for deployment. As if queued by Sir Kemoral’s words, one of his lieutenants raced into room.

“Sir! Dragon scouts spotted!” the lieutenant said.

“Give the orders then,” Sir Kemoral said. “Primary volleys from positions three and twenty.”

“Primary volleys?” Estella asked.

“Easier to unshutter the windows so that you can see for yourself,” Sir Kemoral said.

The shutters in question were massive slabs of rock, but they moved easily enough once the latching mechanism was unlocked.

Through the viewing window, Jyl saw two dragons soaring high above the plains that lead up to the mountains. They were swooping in for a closer look at the catacombs when two enormous bolts of lightning leapt from the mountainside to strike first one and the other from the sky.

“And so our war begins,” Sir Kemoral said.

“No,” Dae said. “Our war began years ago, that just told Haldri that we’re finally ready to fight back.”