Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 17

Haldri Paxmer hated waiting. It was beneath the dignity of a Queen to wait on the appearance of a lesser being, and in the end everyone else beside Haldraxan was a lesser being when compared to the Queen of Paxmer.

“Oh good, you’re still here,” Merrin Quick said as she was escorted through the door that led to the queen’s Tactical Reception room.

“You are tardy,” Haldri said. “I do not know that I have business to do with a shipping clerk who delivers herself late to a scheduled meeting.”

“I would take offense at that, but I actually did start as a shipping clerk,” Merrin said. “You should try it. It’s very enlightening to see how an organization can run smoothly or poorly based on how well the management understands what they’re asking their workforce to accomplish.”

“I need no lessons in governance,” Haldri said. “What delayed you?”

“Late delivery of news on some sourcing opportunities,” Merrin said. “I thought you’d appreciate having the most up to date information for how much of your speciality materials we’ll be able to deliver.”

“I will appreciate the news only if its good,” Haldri said.

Merrin smiled and shook her head, either in disbelief or mockery. Haldri was tempted to forget the strategic value the Gallagrin guildmaster represented. Feeding Merrin to Haldraxan wouldn’t support Haldri’s plan at all, but it would make the queen feel marvelously better, or so she imagined.

“It’s not good news,” Merrin said. “It’s fantastic news. House Scor had its outstanding tax liens called in by the Gallagrin crown.”

“And why should we be concerned over something so trivial as Gallagrin coins moving from one noble house to another?” Haldri asked.

“It’s complicated,” Merrin said. “Are you sure you want the explanation?”

“You seemed to feel it was important enough to delay this meeting for,” Haldri said.

“I wanted to walk in here with the proper information,” Merrin said. “I don’t promise things I can’t deliver, and being aware of the current state of the market is a big part of that.”

“Then tell me why this affects your market,” Haldri said.

“House Scor was a supporter of King Sathe during the civil war a few years back. They backed him up till the end but when Queen Alari won the throne, they claimed they’d only backed Sathe because he held their heir and his two younger brothers as hostages against the house’s good behavior,” Merrin said.

“If they backed the Butcher King, why do they still exist?” Haldri asked.

“A lot of nobles backed Sathe,” Merrin said. “When the Queen ascended to the throne, her court was one quarter allies, one quarter enemies and the remaining half were people who were somewhere in the middle.”

“In Paxmer we have a solution to problems like that,” Haldri said.

“The Queen doesn’t have dragons to call on,” Merrin said.

“Of course you don’t,” Haldri said. “Just those foolish little spirit bonded warriors.”

“Yeah, and the Pact Knights are scattered among all of the nobles, so the Queen had to be careful with how she reconstructed the kingdom,” Merrin said. “One of the areas that’s produced a lot of friction is who pays for all the rebuilding. Even seven years out from the fighting there are still bridges that haven’t been rebuilt and fields that need to be recovered.”

“You make it sound as though the kingdom is in such poor shape that someone could simply walk in and conquer it by saying they did,” Haldri said.

“Probably looks tempting but I wouldn’t recommend it,” Merrin said. “Rebuilding the nation’s defenses has been a top priority. The Queen has invested a lot the country’s wealth in restoring both its economic and military viability.”

“And House Scor factors into this tale how?” Haldri asked. Because she was a queen, people seemed to uniformly consume as much of her time as they possibly could. Haldri was certain that Merrin would fall into that trap as well and explain the minutiae of Gallagrin politics and its economic conditions for as long as the queen allowed her to speak. It was better, Haldri decided, to keep the conversation on track lest she give in to the royal urge to throttle the inane prattling out of Merrin before another word could be uttered.

“House Scor was the recipient of a sizeable chunk of gold which went towards the production of just the sort of weapons and armor that you’re looking for.” Merrin said.

“And how does that do us any good?” Haldri asked. “We don’t need the Paxmer queen better armed. It’s a shame our brother left her with any arms at all.”

“House Scor was given the gold for prototypes,” Merrin said. “Which they produced using a new smelting method. They claimed the weapons and armor would be lighter, stronger and easier to maintain, and the initial testing of the prototypes proved that out.”

“How joyful,” Haldri said. “So Gallagrin has superior mundane weapons.”

“Gallagrin has the prototypes of superior mundane weapons,” Merrin said. “That’s all that the crown paid for. House Scor went on and began producing a sizeable quantity of their gear on their own in anticipation of heavy demand once the results of the prototype testing were released. That’s what put them in the poor position they’re in today.”

“The results were never released?” Haldri asked, finding herself delighted that someone had been double crossed. She could work with that sort of information.

“The results were contested,” Merrin said. “Poor testing methodology was the official reason given. At the same time, the crown decided it was time to call in the back taxes which House Scor owed since rebuilding a country is a costly endeavor.”

“Did they hope to seize the weapons as part of the tax payment?” Haldri asked. As much as she hated Alari Gallagrin, Haldri couldn’t help but smile at the properly draconic display of royal privilege.

“No,” Merrin said. “As weapons built from an untested material there’s no simple method of setting a price on them aside from an open auction.”

“And you intend to bid as a proxy for our interests at that auction?” Haldri asked.

“Of course not,” Merrin said. “With the news of the tests results having leaked out, that gear will go for a very high bid. Everyone will want to be able to say that their troops are equipped with the most fearsome weapons and the most durable armor the world has ever scene.”

“If you are not going to bid on them, then why does any of this matter to us?” Haldri asked.

“For two reasons,” Merrin said. “First because this represents an additional source of weapons and armor that wasn’t in play up until now, and second because I don’t need to bid on them to deliver them to you.”

“You plan to steal them?” Haldri asked.

“Bidding on them would require charging you a rate above and beyond the already high bids the weapons are likely to draw in. When you do business with me, I look out for your bottom line,” Merrin said. “Some guilds want to squeeze you dry on the spot. That’s good for them in the short term but not so much for a long term partnership.”

“And what does looking out for our bottom line get you?” Haldri asked. Despite her draconic heritage, Haldri was familiar with the concept of cooperative business arrangements. Because of her draconic heritage though she knew that cooperation was often a most effective veil at hiding someone’s true ambitions.

Merrin Quick seemed so delightfully uncomplicated on the surface. A pure streak of mercenary greed ran through her from top to bottom and side to side. She was the perfect tool for Haldri’s arsenal and that raised the Queen of Paxmer’s suspicions more than anything else. No one was as singularly focused on wealth acquisition as Merrin Quick seemed to be, and Haldri was used to judging that impulse against the standard of the dragons she knew.

Despite Haldri’s misgivings though, Merrin offered no resistance to any of the tests Haldri put before her. Merrin’s only criteria were that her workers were paid whatever she considered a fair rate for the requested task, and that the payment be made directly in gold.

“We’ll need to expand to fulfill the order you wish to place,” Merrin said. “I want to make sure that once this contract is complete, we’ve fulfilled it to the most exacting letter possible. If we can prove that no one else can offer service as good, or as cheap, as we do then you’ll be that much more likely to contract with us again, and having a royal client on our resume is a victory all on its own.”

“So how are you going to steal these weapons for us?” Haldri asked.

“Well, I’m not going to tell you that,” Merrin said. “Our methods of procurement rely on a high level of discretion, so I can’t give you the exact details. What I can tell you though is how we are not going to obtain them, and how, hypothetically, one might go about liberating the materials from the possession of House Scor.”

“We are more interested in how much you plan to charge us for these enhanced weapons and armor?” Haldri asked. Her own gold reserves were far deeper than Alari Gallagrin’s were, but Haldri had to fight the draconic compulsion against ever spending even a single coin she owned.

“These are items that are above and beyond the quantities which we agreed on the last time we spoke,” Merrin said. “They also carry an unusually high risk. I spoke with my ledger keepers and their suggestion was to charge double for these. I told them we needed to do better than that though. One does not try to profiteer off the Queen of Paxmer. According to the correspondence they sent today, with a ten percent surcharge we can cover the added risk for the weapons and still see a slight return on our time and investment.”

“And if we do not agree to pay the surcharge you speak of?” Haldri asked. She calculated what an extra ten percent charge on the weapons would do to her personal accounts and found that the sum was trivial. Irritating but trivial.

“That’s entirely up to you,” Merrin said. “We’ll be happy to supply the arms you requested at the original rates we agreed upon, without these additional items. All we need is a commitment from you and the down payment of gold as we’d talked about. If I can leave here with that today then we can get the delivery process started.”

“And if we delay the initial payment?” Haldri asked.

“Then you’re delaying reception of the goods, and incurring the risk that the inventory will be unavailable when you request it,” Merrin said.

“These blades will be used to spill the blood of your countrymen. That truly doesn’t trouble you though does it?” Haldri asked.

Merrin shrugged.

“No, why should it?” she asked. “A sword is created to cut and stab. I don’t see the point in caring about whose hand holds it. If it’s Paxmer troops killing Gallagrin soldiers or Gallagrin citizens killing each other with the blades you still wind up with a pile of corpses at the end of the day.”

“Then speaking of that, perhaps there is something else your guild can provide for us,” Haldri said.

“If the price is reasonable, we can get you just about anything you can imagine,” Merrin said.

“Excellent,” Haldri said. “And what would the price be on the pile of corpses that you mentioned? A large one.”

“That all depends on how many you need, who they need to be, and how freshly dead you want them at the time of delivery,” Merrin said. “Don’t worry though, we have a variety of options to offer in that regards. In fact we even have a price sheet made up for it.”

“You do?” Haldri asked.

“It’s primarily used by schools for chirurgeons,” Merrin said. “But we’re willing to be flexible.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 16

Standing outside, on the streets of Windsmer, Dae closed her eyes for a moment and struggled to put away the one thought that she couldn’t get out of her mind.

I don’t want to be here. She couldn’t voice that impulse no matter how terribly she wanted to. She had to be strong and sure. A leader that Maelynne Telli and Jyl Lafli could follow. They needed her to be brave despite the insanity of creeping through a city where a dozen adult dragons stood guard.

“We feel their shadows,” May said. “Even from this distance, their malice lies over us like a cloak.”
A single dragon would be hard pressed to cover a city the size of Windsmer in dragon fear, but twelve of them together were another matter.

“This is the passive miasma they spread,” Dae said. “They must have been on watch for a while now for it to have spread so far.”

“How do the townspeople stand it?” Mayleena asked. Her voice was calm, even disinterested, but Dae saw a shiver run through her teammate.

“It doesn’t affect them,” Dae said. “It’s part of the compact that forms the dragons. They can’t harm anyone who’s a citizen of Paxmer. Not directly anyways.”

“And indirectly?” May asked. She was still wearing her veil, so Dae had to imagine the strained expression under it. That wasn’t hard to picture given the subject matter.

The duo had emerged from the underground grotto to find themselves in a guard tower located on one side of Windsmer’s harbor. It was inhabited but so long as they weren’t discovered Dae and Mayleena were free to use their Pact Knight abilities to evade being spotted. They had a few close calls but, with the city under the protection of the dragons, the human and dwarven guards in residence weren’t paying particularly careful attention, especially for an attack via a route that was guarded by giant sea monsters.

“Indirectly, the dragons serve as a deterrent to internal strife by just being present,” Dae said. “All it takes is for someone with sufficient authority to revoke a person or groups citizenship and the dragons are free to roast or eat them alive. Paxmer’s throne has defended its position with that tactic more than once.”

“Windsmer is a trade city, is it not?” May asked.

“It is,” Dae said. “And normally strongly allied with the Paxmer crown. Which makes the dragons a strange sight.”

“Paxmer fears an attack from Sunlost?” May asked.

“Maybe,” Dae said. She turned them down a side street that wasn’t as brightly lit as the main thoroughfares.

“Can Sunlost glamour hold against dragonfire?” May asked.

“It didn’t on the Fearless,” Dae said. “Which is the problem.”

Dae motioned to May for silence and waited, unmoving for a pair of minutes. No one followed them down the alley, and from what Dae knew, Paxmer didn’t have any native magics that enhanced their ability to hide. It seemed like a safe bet that they weren’t being followed, so Dae resumed their trek away from the guard house.

“If Sunlost glamours cannot hold against dragonfires would that not be a good thing from Paxmer’s perspective?” May asked.

“Yes, it would,” Dae said. “Which opens the question of why they think they need twelve dragons to defend a single town when one dragon would probably be enough?”

“Perhaps they are not meant to defend the town?” May asked.

“Perhaps not,” Dae said. “Let’s find someplace to get a drink. I want to hear what the locales are complaining about.”

The dockside tavern they settled on was a lively establishment on the harbor side of a small park where musicians and performers were raising a boisterous ruckus.

“Got your papers?” the bartender asked as Dae slid onto a seat at the bar.

“Just got in, supposed to pick them up tomorrow,” she said.

“Supposed to stay in your ship until you get your papers,” the bartender said.

“There’s an excise tax if we don’t right?” Dae asked. International taxes were complex and, largely arbitrary, but direct personal bribes under a plausible cover had the ability to cut through all that.

“Yeah, there is,” the bartender said and dropped two glasses down in front of Dae and Mayleena. Dae fished out some of the Sunlost coins she was carrying and dropped a few in the bartender’s hand to cover the drinks. He motioned for more, and Dae doubled the number of coins, to cover the “excise tax”. She considered adding a few more as a “tip” but refrained. A sailor looking to get a jump on their drinking would certainly pay a bribe when required but they wouldn’t throw money away.

“What do you think we will find here?” May asked, raising her veil to sip from the drink the bartender offered.

Dae looked around the tavern and sipped her own drink before answering. The liquor burned as it went down, and Dae grimaced. She’d made a career out of imbibing terrible booze but Paxmer drinks were still beyond her ability to enjoy. Mixing hot pepper oil into a beverage meant to numb the senses was an insanity she swore she would never understand.

“I don’t know,” Dae said. “I guess I just want to hear what people aren’t talking about. What are the common folk here afraid of?”

“Will our companion be able to find us?” Mayleena asked.

“She should be able to. So long as we don’t need to go into hiding,” Dae said. “There’s only a few places we can go at this hour and an even smaller number of those that will serve foreigners without papers.”

“And what if she is delayed?” Mayleena asked.

“She’s resourceful,” Dae said. “If she can’t get away I’m sure it’ll be obvious where we need to go to meet her.”

Dae had faith in Jyl, but Mayleena’s words still dug in and hit some sensitive nerves. There were plenty of things that could go wrong with stealing papers for the three of them. If Jyl ran into any trouble, she was on her own in dealing with it.

The irksome part was that Jyl’s actions were the right move tactically speaking. By venturing off on her own, Jyl ensured that there was the lowest chance of someone noticing the burglary and, if she was caught no suspicion would fall on Dae or Mayleena.

It also meant that Dae was powerless to help which was a situation she hated being placed in.

“Should we be here?” Mayleena asked, putting down her drink after a second sip.

“No,” Dae said. “We should be out there, ready to back our friend up when she needs us.”

“Apologies,” Mayleena said. “I meant should I be here?”

Dae blinked and looked at her companion for a long moment.

Of them all, Mayleena had seemed like the one who’d handled the dragon fear, and the entirety of the trip, the best so far. She’d sat out the fight with the Harbor Wyrms but she’d been rational enough to understand her own limitations and sensible enough to make allowances for them. That was a pair of traits that Dae wished she possessed in greater abundance.

Watching Mayleena carefully though, Dae’s image of her shifted. Mayleena wasn’t an abomination of magic. Dae had put that notion behind her before they left Gallagrin. In its place, the image of Mayleena as an immensely powerful warrior had emerged. The veil that Mayleena wore stood as armor in Dae’s mind, not to protect Mayleena but to protect the world from the terrible power that she wielded. That image was flawed as well though.

Mayleena was a tremendously powerful individual as a result of her miscast pact bond, but she was also a woman who was younger than Dae and who’d grown up in a house ruled by the former Duke of Tel. Because of her pact bond, she affected an air of composure and calm, but in the metallic eyes that lay behind Mayleena’s veil there were storms raging.

Dae wanted to reach out and comfort Mayleena with soothing words, but she knew those would fall flat. May’s doubts were real and well founded, and they deserved to be treated as such.

“It’s dangerous,” Dae said. “This realm isn’t friendly to any of us and you’re more at risk than either Jyl or I are.”

“Should we go?” Mayleena asked. “It’s not too late to catch one of the departing ships.”

Dae watched her take another sip of the throat scorching liquid.

“Are you asking my opinion or my permission?” Dae said.

“Either, or, maybe, both?” Mayleena said. “Should I even need to ask this question? We should know what we want. Shouldn’t we? Like you do?”

Dae stifled a laugh before she spewed her drink across the bar.

She considered her response as she regained her composure and measured how open she could be with her speech. With the musicians in full swing it was possible to pick up on a few of the conversations around them but only because the drunken sailors in attendance didn’t seem to understand that they could speak any softer than screaming at the top of their lungs. For close conversation like Mayleena and Dae were having the odds of anyone eavesdropping on them were just short of impossible. One of the Sleeping Gods could manage it but Dae was reasonably certain none of them were in attendance.

“It’s a fine question to ask,” Dae said, recovering her composure. “I’m not the right one to ask though.”

“Your commands are ours to follow,” Mayleena said.

“My command, the one I was given, was to accomplish the mission and bring all of us home safely,” Dae said. “I would be a poor executor of that command if I insisted that you push yourself unrecoverably far past your limits.”

“You couldn’t know that though,” Mayleena said. “We don’t know what our limits are yet.”

“That’s why it has to be your decision to carry on or not,” Dae said. “I know this isn’t easy. I know the encounter we had at sea wasn’t one we weren’t ready for. This entire mission is probably one we’re not ready for.”

“Then should we all go?” Mayleena asked.

“Honestly?” Dae said. “Part of me wants nothing more. I don’t want to face those dragons. I don’t want to meet the person we’ve been sent to meet. I don’t want to be here.”

Dae breathed out a long sigh.

“I don’t want to be here, but it’s where I have to be,” she said.

“We met when I was young,” Mayleena said. “Or, we saw you at least.”

“When was this?” Dae asked.

“During the Butcher King’s reign,” Mayleena said. “You were a wise and powerful courtier of thirteen we guess?”

“I was far from either wise or powerful at thirteen,” Dae said.

“That’s not what we saw,” Mayleena said. “We saw you moving through the court as though none of it frightened you. The most powerful lords and ladies of the land had convened for an official function, and you walked through their ranks as though not a single one of them mattered.”

“Sleeping gods, I must have looked insufferable,” Dae said. “I was probably tagging along after Alari. I doubt I even noticed anyone else was in the room.”

“You loved her then?” Mayleena asked.

Dae paused.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It took me a long time to understand what my princess meant to me. Somedays it’s still a work in progress. I suspect the answer is yes, but whether I had any clue of that at the time I can’t say.”

“You let none of that show,” Mayleena said. “From afar all I could see was a girl I wanted to be just like.”

“I’m not sure that showing the world a false face is a skill I should feel particularly proud of,” Dae said.

“Perhaps it was not as false as you believe,” Mayleena said. “You have become the woman you were pretending to be then have you not?”

Dae smiled and sighed.

“Let’s say that some days, most days to be strictly accurate, I’m a work in progress too,” Dae said.

“And yet you carry on,” Mayleena said.

“I have to,” Dae said. “Alari is right. I have to face the dragons. I have to face my mother. Whether it’s to kill them or come to terms with them, I don’t know, but until I do one or the other a part of me is going to be stuck gnawing away at those memories. I need to know that I can be better than that.”

“Thank you,” Mayleena said. “We think you’ve given us the answer I needed. We too need to face this. We’re not ready, but we will never be ready. If my life is a testament to anything it is that things happen which we can never imagine or predict and that one must move on in their wake.”

“Here’s to pressing onwards then,” Dae said offering her glass up as a toast. “The road won’t be easy and we’re sure to have regrets, but they’ll never be able to say we let good sense hold us back.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 15

The wyrms returned the following evening and, to Dae’s relief, they returned alone.

The second meeting on the ocean’s floor between the Gallagrin Queen’s Guard and the Windsmer Habor Wyrms was similar to their first encounter with the exceptions that no blows were thrown and the chest of gold offered to the three wyrms was larger than its predecessor.

The wyrms once again waited a safe distance away from Dae’s team, clearly reluctant to step into any trap the three Pact Warriors might have devised.

“Tomorrow, same time, here again,” Dae said and lead her team away.

They trudged through the deep waters for a few miles until they were able to make landfall in the isolated cove that served as their temporary camp.

“Did that go well or poorly?” Jyl asked as they emerged from the surf. “I can’t tell.”

“That went very well,” Dae said. “I was pretty sure they were going to come back, but since it was only them and not a dragon rider or a battalion of Paxmer guards I think they got our message.”

“And what were we communicating to them?” May asked.

“Last night we told them that we’re not something they could risk using force on,” Dae said. “We closed that door, but we opened another one with the treasure.”

“The struck us as an odd gambit,” May said.

“It was a bit of a guess, and a bit of an observation,” Dae said. “I guessed they were probably close cousins to dragons, and there’s nothing that defines a dragon more than their greed.”

“And the observation?” Jyl asked.

“There are twelves dragons here guarding the city,” Dae said. “How much respect does that show to the Harbor Wyrms? Nobody likes to be upstaged.”

“So the gold was both a bribe and an offering of respect?” May asked.

“It says ‘you are important enough that I want to deal with your directly’,” Dae said. “If they’d brought their masters then the response would have been ‘our honor isn’t for sale so cheaply’. Instead they came alone which says ‘we are intrigued by your offer and wish to hear more’.”

“So why did we leave them alone?” Jyl asked.

“They’re not ready yet,” Dae said. “They’re still trying to trying to figure out what we’re after.”

“And what are we after?” May asked. “Aside from a method of entry to the city.”

The three had talked about their overall plan during the day they spent in hiding in the hidden cove, but this was the first time Dae was willing to share the details with them.

“A relationship with them,” Dae said. “Even if they’re ill treated, they’ll still have some loyalty that’s been whipped into them for Paxmer. I don’t want to simply enter the city, I want to start cracking open its defenses. Our queen will need to send others into Paxmer too and these Wyrms could become very useful allies if we invest the right time and interest in them now.”

“That seems like a risky play,” May said.

“It is, but Paxmer’s defenses are thicker than dragonhide and we’re only going to achieve our objectives if we can weaken those defenses everywhere they’re fragile or vulnerable.”

“I thought our objective was to regain a lost magic crown?” Jyl asked.

“I’m thinking a bit longer term than that,” Dae said. “Paxmer has been a malady that Gallagrin has suffered for too long. I think in assaulting Queen Alari through the Halrek’s actions, Paxmer made its final mistake.”

“Do you think they know that?” Jyl asked.

“No, I don’t think they do,” Dae said. “Haldri had a chance to make amends. She could have disavowed her brother and condemned his actions. If she didn’t like what he did, she could have stripped him of his name and heritage and issued a formal apology for Paxmer’s role in the affair. Simple things for a queen to do and we could have had decades of peace between the two countries. Instead she’s reaching out trying to grab everything she can.”

“Is that what’s happening with Windsmer?” May asked.

“And with the flotilla that was sunk?” Jyl asked.

“Yes,” Dae said. “Paxmer has a new power to deploy. The adult dragons that can sail. Any time a nation gets something like that they can’t help but use it.”

“They sank a Sunlost ship,” May said. “That ups the ante quite a bit, doesn’t it?”

“They’ve been planning for that,” Dae said. “The raids on ships heading to Sunlost was going to provoke an official response at some point. They want someone to launch an attack against them, so that they can justify taking even more aggressive action.”

“I didn’t think their navy was a match for the Sunlost Fleet though?” Jyl said.

“It’s not,” Dae said. “Or it wasn’t. With the dragons in play it’s hard to say what the balance of power looks like. That’s probably why Paxmer is pushing so hard now.”

“They wish to strike before their foes understand how powerful they’ve become?” May said.

“It’s more than that though, isn’t it?” Jyl asked. “The dragons rule first through fear. If they can strike hard enough to instill fear in the other nations, people will flee or submit rather than fighting back.”

“You do a good job of thinking like a dragon Lady Lafli,” Dae said. “Of course there are those Paxmer has wronged sufficiently that they’ll never flee or submit.”

“Like our queen?” May asked.

“They’re going to try to kill her again aren’t they?” Jyl asked.

“They’ll have to,” Dae said. “And soon.”

“Shouldn’t we be protecting her then?” Jyl asked.

“We are,” Dae said.

The next night, the wyrms returned again. This time they were ready to speak.

“Why have you invaded our shores?” the largest of the three asked. It spoke in a mixture of voices, male and female, all overlapping each other and slightly out of synch. It was an eerie and alien thing to hear, but Dae didn’t let it bother her. She’d taken the Harbor Wyrm’s measure in battle, so she knew where she stood with them.

“We have a quarrel with the tyrants of the land beyond these shores,” Dae said.

“And why have you brought us tribute?” the largest asked.

“Because our quarrel is not with you or anything in the domain you rule,” Dae said.

“You have assaulted us in this domain,” the largest said.

“Against your might, the blows exchanged were the most trifling of disagreements,” Dae said. The wyrm which Jyl had beaten to a pulp bore an expression which disagreed with that assessment. Dae counted on the creature’s pride and ego to keep it from debating the point though.

“You bring more treasure,” the largest said, indicating the new chest that waited at Dae’s feet. “Why?”

“It’s proper to give gifts to a region’s sovereign before proposing an alliance or arrangement,” Dae said. The wyrms couldn’t claim true sovereignty over the harbor. They were obviously beholden to not only the Paxmer crown but to whoever summoned or constructed them. Despite that though, it wasn’t something a treasure hungry, draconic creature was likely to deny, and the broad reality of the situation was that the Harbor Wyrms did rule the area under the waves in the vicinity of Windsmer.

“And what arrangement is it that you seek?” the largest wyrm asked.

“We wish to gain the friendship of your realm,” Dae said.

“They wish to plunder!” the smallest of them said. “They give the gold because they intend to steal it back!”

“It would be well if you did not besmirch our honor,” Dae said is a calm, even voice.

The smallest Harbor Wyrm drifted back behind the cover of it’s larger companions.

“To what end do you seek our friendship then?” the largest asked.

“We seek to pass through your domain in peace,” Dae said. “And we request your aid in entering the landed city beyond your boundaries.”

“You wish to invade?” the largest asked.

“Yes,” Dae said, with no attempt to embellish or excuse their actions.

“We are sworn to defend the waves and repel all the enemies who would invade our realm,” the third wyrm said.

“It’s not your realm that we wish to invade,” Dae said. “Your realm we wish to travel through peacefully, and at your sufferance as the ships which make dock in the harbor do.”

“And your plans beyond that?” the largest wyrm asked.

“Will do no harm to the waves you protect,” Dae said.

“And you would trade the gold you have given and the gold before you for this privilege?” the largest wyrm asked.

“No,” Dae said. “The gold given and the gold you see is offered as befits your station. For the privilege of your aid, there is another chest, larger than this one, whose location we shall reveal once we have been transported within the city.”

“What guarantee do we have that you will reveal the location once we have fulfilled our end of the bargain?” the largest wyrm asked.

“Our presence in the city on the shore must remain a secret,” Dae said. “If we fail to disclose the gold’s whereabouts, or if the gold is not where we say it will be, you can easily raise a hue and cry that we slipped past you in the night.”

“And why would you trust us not to do so?” the third wyrm asked.

“The benefits of our alliance need not end this night,” Dae said. “We must eventually leave Paxmer’s shores, and there are others we know who will be looking to form similar alliances and would be willing to offer similar or greater tribute for the privilege.”

“The city is not easily entered,” the largest wyrm said. “Even if we chose not to bar your path, there are wards which defend the entrances from the sea.”

“Can they be bypassed?” Dae asked.

“No,” the largest wyrm said.

“Not easily,” the smallest wyrm said. “But it can be done.”

“But you will not accept it,” the largest wyrm said.

“What is it?” Dae asked. “How can we get into the city?”

“By riding within someone the barriers will accept,” the third wyrm said.

“They need to eat us?” Jyl asked, a knife blade of panic edging into her voice.

“It would be a test of…commitment,” the smallest wyrm said.

It would also be a test where the three Queen’s Guards could end up dead, digested or worse. Dae looked over at Jyl, who gave an uncertain shrug, and at May who nodded in support of either Dae or the idea itself.

“We’ll do it,” Dae said.

Five minutes later she was reasonably sure the Harbor Wyrms were not going to swallow them, and also reasonably sure that she never wanted to try this form of transportation again.

“That was interesting,” May said ten minutes later when, true to their words, the Harbor Wyrms deposited them inside a stone grotto that lay beneath Windsmer. Neither Dae nor Jyl would have used anything like polite language to describe the experience, but they let May’s words stand, in deference to the wyrms.

“You’ll find the chest we spoke of three of your body lengths west of the sunken mermaid statue that is a half mile north of where we met,” Dae said. “When next we plan to be in your domain, we will send an initial tribute first and will meet where we did this time again.”

“You are surprisingly civilized, Knight,”  the largest wyrm said. “Bountiful waters for your invasion.”

“May your horde’s luster ever increase,” Dae said, as the two groups departed from each other and the grotto.

“Do you think we added significantly to their wealth?” Jyl asked.

“I think our gold may be the first they’ve been given for themselves,” Dae said. “And that, more than anything, may be what changes their world.”

“So now it’s time for us to steal some traveling papers right?” Jyl asked.

“Exactly,” Dae said.

“Leave that to me,” the young elf said, and with a hop, skip and a jump, she vanished.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 14

Jyl didn’t have to wonder if her boss had gone insane. That was a given. The Lady Daelynne Akorli was renowned for many things but the general consensus did not view her as a particularly calm and stable entity. Most of the nobles Jyl encountered had nice things to say about the Queen’s Knight for example, but they preferred to say them from as far away from the slayer of nobles and royalty as they could get. Jyl knew this when she signed up for the Queen’s Guard and had envied the respect Lady Akorli had garnered through deeds rather than position. It wasn’t Dae’s sanity that Jyl questioned as she heard the plan for taking on the incoming sea dragons therefor.

It was her own.

“We’re going to do what?” she asked, hoping that her ears had filled with seawater and she’d misheard her captain.

“We’re going to subvert the Harbor Wyrms to our cause,” Dae said.

“They no more than a few minutes away,” May said. “How will we convince them to aid us in that time?”

“Before they get here? We won’t,” Dae said. “We’re going to have to befriend them the hard way.”

“And that would involve what?” Jyl asked.

Floating in a dark ocean under a cloud dimmed sky, Jyl felt like she’d fallen into another world, and she wasn’t sure it was one that she liked.

“To be begin with, showing them that we make for a very disagreeable snack,” Dae said.

“The Harbor Wyrms are not small,” May said. “And they are not without power and perils of their own. I do not know that we can fight them in their own domain so easily.”

“We don’t get stuck with doing the easy things,” Dae said. “I don’t blame you for being nervous either. I think we can do this, but that’s based on a lot of guesswork.”

Jyl was more than nervous. In a moment of honest self-reflection, she felt the tremors that still ran along her spine. The long walk at the bottom of the ocean had given her enough time and distance from the dragon flight that she wasn’t paralyzed with fear, but it felt like pieces of those memories were embedded in her nerves like shards of glass.

“I don’t know if I can,” Jyl said. “Just getting here used up all the power I had available. I was almost losing it before we got to the shallows. I don’t think I have enough left to transform again.”

“I can not fight either,” May said. Her voice was soft but it carried over the lap of the waves.  “We are too close to our power. We drew too deeply on it and now we teeter at its brink. If we call on any more I will lose the part of us which is Mayleena. Maybe for a time, or maybe forever.”

“How many Harbor Wyrms are coming?” Dae asked. Her expression was unreadable to Jyl, which was in its own strange way comforting. If Dae had shown panic and fear, Jyl would have understood how alike they were. If Dae had shown anger or glee, Jyl would have appreciated that her boss was a monster, but one who was on their side. Instead Dae appeared neither calm nor panicked, neither angry, nor desperate. There was an intensity to the Queen’s Knight, a focused but relaxed energy that Jyl was familiar with from the best of her combat practice sessions. Jyl didn’t feel protected by that intensity, but rather inspired by it.

“Three,” May said. “They are no more than a minute away from us now. I am sorry, it is too late to lead them astray.”

“Don’t worry,” Dae said. “I’m not sacrificing either of you. We didn’t come here to die for Gallagrin. Now making other things die for Paxmer? That’s a different story.”

“Can you defeat all three of the wyrms alone?” May asked.

“Probably not,” Dae said. “I’ll need help with at least one of them, if my guesses are right.”

“We should have brought more troops,” Jyl said.

“You’re plenty,” Dae said. “The both of you are. Never, ever think otherwise.”

“I can’t transform though!” Jyl said.

“Maybe you can,” Dae said. “All you need is some extra magic to work with.”

“But if I call for any I’m going to lose control,” Jyl said.

“Then we just need to get you some magic without you having to call on your pact for it,” Dae said.

“That’s not possible,” Jyl said. “Is it?”

“May, you’re almost drowning in magic at the moment aren’t you?” Dae asked.

“We drew on too much, and if we use any of it, more rushes in to fill it’s place,” May said.

“What if you didn’t use it,” Dae said. “What if you passed it off to Jyl?”

“We could burn her to cinders if I passed too much,” May said.

“Wait, how would you give me magic?” Jyl asked. “I thought our magic came from our pact bonds?”

“That’s how we draw magic into this world,” Dae said. “But the pact bonds aren’t Gallagrin’s native magical gift. At its most fundamental level, our gift is the ability to shape and manipulate magic to change ourselves. The pact bonds safeguard us from changing the elements that define who we are or that we need to continuing existing, but as May has demonstrated its possible to live outside the limits of those safeguards.”

“Possible, but dangerous.” May said.

Jyl felt more tremors in her spine. Being terror-stricken by the dragons hurt enough that she wasn’t sure she wanted to risk anything like that ever again. If she accepted May’s help, she’d be plunged right back into the madness that had led to being helpless on the deck of the Fearless.

“Let’s try it,” she said, stomping on her thoughts and gritting her teeth. Jyl hated being afraid, she hated being weak, but most of all she hated giving up. Every time she gave up the same thing happened. Her sister won. In every race, in every test, in every competition, when Jyl faltered and gave up, her sister was right there, ready to take the prize from her.

Jyl knew it was her own personal brand of crazy that drove her since her sister was in no position to take anything away from her and there was no prize to be won beside survival, but she didn’t care. If life had taught her anything, it was that making your own personal brand of craziness work for you was often the only way to get what you wanted.

“Give me your hands,” Dae said and reached out to the other two women. “I’ll act as the buffer for Jyl.”

“We could burn you to cinders too then,” May said.

“You won’t,” Dae said. “I have a larger reservoir to hold your magic with, and I’ve spent more time doing stupid things with magic than either of you. I can handle this.”

Jyl’s elvish ears were just sharp enough to hear the “probably” that Dae whispered. Choosing to ignore that, Jyl took Dae’s left hand in her right and May’s right hand in her left.

For a moment nothing happened and Jyl was left to wonder how long they had before the Habor Wyrms showed up.

Then the magic started pouring into her.

When Jyl drew on her pact spirit’s magic, she had the image of drinking from a deep running stream. There was more power in her pact spirit than she could ever consume, and if she tried to take too much she’d easily drown. In walking across the ocean floor, she’d slowly drank the stream down to a point where to take more she’d have to lean out so far to drink from it that she’d tumble off the bank and be swept away by its current.

Taking in the power that Dae was funneling to her from Mayleena called for a different image though. Jyl was no longer drinking from a stream. Instead the ocean around her was trying to cram itself into her bones through every pore in her body.

Jyl had no idea what to do with that much power but fortunately her pact spirit did. Jyl had never worn Full Noble Regalia before, but she’d imagined it and her pact spirit drew on that to form a new set of armor around her.

She was soaring above the clouds before she came to her senses and felt the excess absorbed power burn off to the point where she could think clearly again. As it turned out, her heightened vantage point proved useful though.

From high in the sky, Jyl watched as the three incoming Harbor Wyrms caught sight of their quarry. They were magnificent creatures from a distance. Blue and green waves of light rippled down their enormous serpentine bodies, the faint glow illuminating the water around them and making the giant creatures stand out against the dark waves.

Jyl threw herself into a dive in order to join the impending fray, but checked her flight when she saw one of the three Wyrms turn tail and begin swimming at speed back to the docks.

“It saw May,” she whispered to herself, trying to work out the creature’s reasoning. “It’s going to warn the city.”

An alerted Windsmer meant a dozen dragons would be aware of their presence, and that wasn’t something Jyl couldn’t allow to happen so she sped after the fleeing Wyrm and prayed that Dae could handle the two other foes.

The fleeing Wyrm was easy to follow since it preferred to leap above the waves to make better speed than it seemed to be capable of while swimming through the water. With a body that seemed to be nothing but fluid muscle, it was almost able to outdistance Jyl as well.

Almost, but not quite.

When she hit the creature, Jyl fell on it like she’d been launched from a siege engine. Her force carried the wyrm to the floor of the ocean where she felt the beast twist around, seeking to grasp and crush the life from her.

They’d drawn close to Windsmer before Jyl was able to intercept the Harbor Wyrm and from the moment she hit her foe, Jyl’s mind was on the importance of not rousing the attention of the city watch, or more importantly the guardian dragons that were in place around the city. If the city was alerted then dragon fear would follow, and even the thought of that made her limbs tremble.

Dragon fear was not the primary danger she faced though. While Dae’s guess that the Harbor Wyrms were not the equals of the true Paxmer dragons was correct, the Wyrms were still formidable foes in their own right.

More formidable than Jyl found she could easily deal with in fact.

Each blow she threw hit for some effect, but not as much as she need them to if she was going to win the battle. She knew she was crippling herself with the fear of the dragons which lurked in the city above the waves, but even as the wyrm overwhelmed her defenses she couldn’t manage to push that fear aside.

“I can’t die here,” she said, reaching for anything that would get her past the sick feeling that was stealing her strength away. The power she’d borrowed from May rose inside her carrying with it the answer she sought. For an agonizing moment, Jyl wasn’t sure if she should accept the scalding flood of power that surged up, but looking into the electrified fangs of the Harbor Wyrm, she saw that she had no choice.

The next series of events were a blur to her. She felt anger sweep over her and directed it outwards. She was mad at her own weakness, but she was enraged by the creatures that had exploited it. The Harbor Wyrm was a lesser stand-in for a Paxmer dragon but as far as the madness was concerned it was an entirely acceptable target.

By the time Jyl was finished the Wyrm was a shattered wreck of its former self. The giant creature lay on ocean floor struggling to breathe and wimpering in pain. It was healing quickly, as magical creatures tended to do, but it still flinched away when Jyl advanced on it.

Exhausted, she nonetheless carried the great serpent back with her to where Dae and May were waiting for her.

The other two Harbor Wyrms were there as well, looking damaged though in better shape than the one Jyl had tangled with. With a glance at Dae for confirmation, Jyl allowed her former foe to drift over to its companions while she rejoined hers.

As Jyl settled into place beside her compatriots, Dae withdrew one of the chests of gold, a small one, from the backpack her Pact Knight armor had been conjured with.

Dae walked closer to the three wary Harbor Wyrms and placed the chest, lid open, before them.

The Harbor Wyrms weren’t dragons, but they’d been drawn from a similar template and had a similar appetite for treasure. The three exchanged glances among themselves and then spoke in tongues that sounded impossible and alien to Jyl’s ears.

After a short discussion, they reached some sort of agreement and held their position. Not retreating, not attacking, and not yet taking the proffered treasure.

Dae didn’t appear to be surprised by this. Instead she pointed to a nearby rock formation and said “Here, tomorrow, same time”. Her words were garbled by the water but the wyrms seemed to understand them well enough.

Without further discussion the three Queen’s Guards marched away, and allowed the Harbor Wyrms to decide if they were interested in obtaining more treasure. The bait had been placed, and in Jyl’s mind the only question was which side would be walking into the trap the next time they met.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 13

Dae rested at the bottom of the ocean. Darkness and cold had swallowed her whole. The crushing pressure of the water was somehow less of a burden than the weight of her failed responsibilities though.

Joining the pursuit of the Paxmer ships had been foolish. They could have joined any of the other merchant ships to and snuck into Windsmer without attracting attention. Boarding the Fearless had been an act of pure ego. She’d known, or at least hoped, that there’d be a fight with the Paxmer ships. She’d known that the enemy was using dragons and she’d be excited by the prospect of facing one again. Terrified too, but for a brief moment she’d allowed herself to hope once more.

In the back of her mind, Dae questioned whether her failure at Star’s Watch was a fluke. The dragon there could have been unusually powerful. There could have been other spells in play. She could have been weaker at the time from her lack of experience.

Facing dragons on the sea had seemed like the perfect test, and in a sense it was. If there was anywhere that Dae was going to be able to beat Paxmer’s monsters, it was on the sea. They were far from their source of power and even their powerful flames could not overcome the vastness of the water around them. Dae was sure it was her best chance to prove that she could beat one of the beasts.

The ruin of the Fearless, and her own inability to act at all, proved that she couldn’t though. To Dae, the results of the battle showed clearly that she wasn’t strong enough to overcome the mortal terror the creatures could instill. It didn’t help that she’d never heard of anyone else being able to overcome dragon fear either, only that she’d failed to do so under even the most optimal of conditions.

Alari had given her a simply mission and once again, Dae lay amidst the wreckage of her insufficient strength. Kirios’ power was enough to shield her from the ravages of the deep waters, but even his best magic couldn’t protect Dae from the thoughts that tore away at her.

She’d been helpless. Again. If May wasn’t something inhuman, she would have died and Dae couldn’t have done a thing to stop that from happening.

She tried to tell herself that she wasn’t uniquely feeble. Despite the optimal conditions, none of the other crew members were able to throw off the effects of the dragon fear either. Not even the ones who were in mortal peril. Rational thoughts like that didn’t quiet the fear that echoed in her heart though.

Around her, the heavy wreckage of the Fearless lay strewn about the ocean floor. What little light still radiated from the glyphs and stray bits of glamour that clung to the ship gave the ocean floor the appearance of an empty afterlife filled with ghostly objects but no ghosts to be seen.

Dae tried to imagine what just giving up would feel like. Her spirit could linger forever in the quiet graveyard around her. Her failure would be buried beneath the waves and no one would ever need to know of it.

No one except her.

The idea of spending an eternity with the shame of her weakness weighing on her was an unbearable one. She’d failed. Facing up to that was difficult, but she’d done it before. On the Fearless, she hadn’t been able to move her limbs, but the waves had broken the ensorcellment the dragons laid on her.

So she stood up.

As a Pact Knight she had plenty of physical strength for the task but it was still one of the hardest actions Dae felt that she’d ever done.

Looking around, she saw that she wasn’t quite as alone as she thought. Curled into a tight ball and lying on her side, Jyl had survived by transforming into her armored form as well. Unlike Dae though, the young elf, hadn’t managed to get herself back on her feet.

Dae walked over to her companion and touched the motionless girl gently on the shoulder. Jyl didn’t stir and with her armor on it was difficult to tell if she was conscious at all. Dae stepped back and considered what her options were. They’d survived the Fearless sinking but they couldn’t spend an indefinite period of time beneath the waves. Eventually the magic of their transformation would wear out and need to be refreshed and eventually they wouldn’t be able to manage that without becoming berserkers.

Dae wasn’t sure if she could carry the weight of her own problems, but carrying someone else was another matter entirely. Gently, she lifted Jyl up onto her back and began to trudge to the east, towards Paxmer, and towards another chance. She’d failed to fight the dragons, but she hadn’t failed the mission yet.

A strange green wisp joined them, as Dae carried Jyl forward, one plodding step after the other. It wasn’t a comforting sight at first but since it seemed to be heading in their direction and offered them no opposition, Dae decided to consider it as at least ‘non-hostile’ and leave it out of her long list of worries.

About halfway to the enemy shore, Jyl finally began to stir. At first it was the quaking shivers of a residual dragon nightmare, but those eventually gave way to more deliberate movements and Dae let her stand on her own.

Under the waves, conversation was difficult so the two continued forward in silence and in the company of the green wisp.

Dae tried to imagine how Jyl was coping with the after-effects of the dragon fear, and what impact the battle might have had on May. In the latter case, Dae had a guess that she suspected would be confirmed as soon as they left the ocean. In Jyl’s case though, Dae could see too many possibilities to predict what state the dragon attack might have left the elf in.

There were more practical matters to worry about though, which helped pass the time they spent walking.

With the sinking of the Fearless, they’d lost an official means of entering Paxmer. That meant no dockmaster to grant them leave to enter the country and no travel papers which, as foreigners, they would be expected to produce anywhere they tried to do business.

They still had money, Paxmer coins even, which would help smooth their passage, but if they threw around enough gold to buy off a dockmaster they would inevitably attract a great deal of the wrong sort of attention.

That left them with only a few options that Dae could see. They could pretend to be escaped criminals from Gallagrin come to Paxmer to swear themselves to the foreign crown. That story plus their gold would buy them suspicion but the Paxmer nobility would see value in having agents with both a hatred and knowledge of the Gallagrin military structure.

The web of lies they would need to spin to make that option work would have been daunting for someone far more socially adept than Dae knew herself to be though, so she thought a simpler approach was required.

Pact warriors aren’t inherently stealthy by nature, but anyone can pass unnoticed through an area if they can hide well enough and chose to move only when no one else is around.

That would mean moving at night primarily, through terrain they were unfamiliar with and in search of a location they’d never been to. Dae kept looking for better approaches to the problem since there were probably tens of thousands of things that could wrong with the stealth option but throughout the long trek on the ocean bottom she wasn’t able to come up with a plan that seemed more likely to work out for them.

The most difficult part of the plan, that Dae could foresee, would be getting their initial bearing. They’d been sailing towards Windsmer, which was the largest trading city in Paxmer thanks to its relatively short distance from the Sunlost Isles. Dae estimated that they would make landfall somewhere near the city but whether they were to the north or the south of it could make a significant difference in the route they followed inland.

By the time they finally reached water that was shallow enough to risk rising to the surface, night had fallen. Escaping onto dry land promised to be easy thanks to the darkness but locating where they were at was likely to be impossible Dae imagined. Both her imagination and the promise of the dark proved to be false though.

When Dae poked her head above the waves, she saw they had arrived exactly at Windsmer. The town’s lights were ablaze and lighting up the night as though the sun had never set. While it was comforting to know where they were, it also meant that they were going to need to make a long detour underwater if they wished to emerge at a spot that was unnoticed by the city watch.

Neither of those facts captured Dae’s immediate interest though. She was more concerned about the dragons which were perched over the city.

She and Jyl were far enough away to be outside the aura of dragon fear the creatures radiated, but even so, seeing twelve of the giant lizards looming over the edges of the city was enough to set Dae’s hands trembling.

“Why are there so many of them here?” Jyl asked releasing her transformation at last as they quietly broke the surface of the ocean.

“I don’t know,” Dae said, feeling a wave of weariness pass through her as she released her transformation as well. “This can’t be normal though. They’d never be able to dock foreign ships here with those things in place.”

“Maybe they pull them farther back when ships are cleared to dock,” Jyl said.

“Possibly, but coordinating that many dragons is supposed to be extraordinarily difficult,” Dae said. “In the land battles, they never use more than one of the big ones at a time.”

“Do they ever need more than one of the big ones?” Jyl asked.

“It depends what they’re fighting,” Dae said. “The fear aura only goes so far. From outside it those things look like very nice targets for siege weapons.”

“Twelve in one place seems like an exceptional commitment,” May said. As Dae had guessed, the green wisp they’d traveled with had been May walking beside them through the spirit world analog of the ocean floor.

“I don’t really want to get anywhere near those things,” Jyl said. “What happened on the Fearless was not fun.”

“Agreed,” May said. “We did not control ourself well there.”

“You were able to move,” Dae said. “That’s all that counts.”

“It is more accurate to say we were unable to not move,” May said. “We did not mean to break the sword, or kill the man, or sink the ship, and we do not wish to lose our sense of self like that again.”

“We’ll be careful about that,” Dae said. “This isn’t how we planned to get here, but we can make it work.”

“We’ll sneak to your mother’s place?” Jyl asked.

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” May said. “The harbor wyrms have noticed me.”

“Harbor wyrms?” Dae asked, looking at the dragons that ringed Windsmer. None of them had moved.

“Not the dragons on the land,” May said. “The ones that await trespassers who arrive by sea.”

“There’re dragons in the water?” Jyl asked.

“Yes, and they’re coming for me now,” May said. “I’ll draw them off and buy you time to complete the mission.”

By which Dae knew that she meant she would sacrifice herself as dragon food since they seemed to be able to detect her farther away than they could people with more stable pact bonds.

“Wait,” Dae said. “Are these harbor wyrms like the other dragons? They can’t be, can they?”

“They are…” May squinted her eyes and concentrated before saying, “…not the same.”

“What’s different about them?” Jyl asked.

“If they’re in the harbor, they can’t be true dragons,” Dae said. “They’re half breeds or magical constructs but they can’t be as potent since they don’t have the dragon’s link to Paxmer. And they can’t have that damn fear aura or no ships would be able to dock!”

“So we’re going to fight them?” Jyl asked.

“No,” Dae said. “We’re going to befriend them!”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 12

Dae wondered if it could be accurately be called sailing if the ship in question was born above the waves on the hands of powerful air spirits.

“Do even sky carriages fly this fast?” Jyl asked over the roar of the rushing wind.

“No,” May said, her veil hanging still and untroubled by the gale. “Sky carriage teams walk on the winds. They can’t outrun them.”

“First time on a Sunlost ship is it?” Noderick, the Sergeant-at-Arms, asked.

“First time on one that wanted to get somewhere in this much a hurry,” Dae said. Kirios noted the situation with delight. It was the first time the spirit had seen a naval vessel under such circumstances and new experiences were every pact spirit’s intoxicant of choice.

The Sergeant-at-Arms laughed a hearty bellow that fit his barrel-like frame.

“Count yourself lucky then,” he said. “We wouldn’t be going to these extremes if the damn Pax’ers hadn’t made such a nuisance of themselves.”

“Those weren’t the first ships they sunk were they?” Dae asked, keeping an eye on the Paxmer boats they were trailing.

“Don’t know if this lot here is to blame, but this is the third time we’ve scrambled to catch a fight and found only ash and char by the time we got there,” Noderick said. He was drawing a complex, interlocking pattern on the wide blade of his cutlass. His stylus was a black feather but it left a briefly glowing gold line on the blade as he traced it over the metal.

“Did you know anyone on the ships that sank?” Jyl asked. Dae envied the young elf’s natural balance. Jyl rode the turbulence of the Fearless’ wild ride above the wavetops with an unconscious ease. May was similarly untroubled though in her case, the stillness she displayed was oddly absolute, as though she was out of phase with the randomly bumps and waverings that passed through the deck.

“Knew some by name, some by sight,” Noderick said. “Not any I’d call friends, but the sea’s a dangerous place to name too many as friends. If it’s not the storms, it’s the beasts of the deep and if it’s not them it’s a careless accident, but whichever path she takes, the sea will pluck away all the souls from your life over time.”

“Why stay out here then?” May asked.

“For everything the sea takes, she gives back so much more,” Noderick said. “That and I’m not overly fond of people.”

“That why you’re the ship’s weapon master?” Jyl asked.

“And is that why you’re putting us on the ropes?” Dae asked.

“Yes and yes,” Noderick said. “Don’t take it personal, it’s just if anyone is going to get skewered or blown to flinders I’d prefer it be the newcomers who are as likely to be spies as they are to be interested in fighting for us.”

“That’s fair,” Dae said. “How many usually survive their first day on the ropes?”

“The one’s who know what they’re doing?” Noderick asked. “More than not. The others though? The one’s that can’t fight as good as they think they can? Well let’s just say they don’t suffer long before the sharks make fish food out of them.”

A thrill of fear tingled out to the ends of Dae’s fingers. For the battle, none of the three Queen’s Guards could afford to reveal their position as Pact Warriors, which meant no transformations. With Kirios’ overt aid, Dae was going to be much more vulnerable than she’d been in any battle she’d fought since she first formed her bond with him.

Jyl and May were in the same position, but in the former’s case Dae felt like Jyl’s natural aptitudes would be enough to see her through, and in May’s case, the former Duchess of Tel didn’t need to transform to draw on her pact spirit’s power. The difficult thing for May would be holding back enough to appear as nothing more than a normal, unenhanced fight.

“How far away is Windsmer?” Jyl asked.

“Not far enough,” Noderick said. “They’ve run faster than they should have.”

“Maybe they’re not eager to engage with us after their battle outside Brights Harbor?” Dae asked.

“That may be, but they don’t know we’re coming now do they?” Noderick said.

“They can’t see us?” Jyl asked.

“The wind spirits, the one’s that are moving the ships, they’re anchor posts for a glamour too aren’t they?” Dae asked.

“You’re a clever one,” Noderick said. “Don’t meet many from Gallagrin that understand how Sunlost magic works.”

“I had an erratic education,” Dae said.

“Didn’t know they taught Sunlost spell casting in Gallagrin?” Noderick said.

“It wasn’t a formal education,” Dae said. “I just read a whole lot of books I wasn’t supposed to.”

“Let’s hope those books told you how to fight,” Noderick said. “Cause how I see it, we’re not going to make berth in Windsmer before the Pax’ers get there.

“Why would we want to?” Jyl asked.

“To file a formal complaint,” Dae said. “Before the Paxmer ships get to unload any of their stolen cargo.”

“Would they honor a complaint like that?” Jill asked.

“They would if they want to stay on our good side,” Noderick said.

“They burned your ships,” Jyl said. “That doesn’t sound like they’re all that interested in your good opinion of them.”

“Oh they didn’t burn our ships,” Noderick said. “If they did that we’d raze Windsmer and collect our due from as many coastal town as we felt was proper.”

“The ships that burned were from Gallagrin weren’t they?” Dae asked.

“Yep,” Noderick said. “Bound for Brights Harbor to buy our good, so we’re out the coins they carried, but Paxmer hasn’t inflicted a direct insult on us yet.”

“But three indirect insults gets a little annoying doesn’t it?” Dae asked.

“A little privateering is all well and good,” Noderick said. “Keeps the crew’s morale up, and their pockets lined. The Pax’ers are getting out of line though, and getting as greedy as their blasted dragons. That’s ok though. We’ll put them back in their place and Gallagrin can send us some extra gold for the supplies they need.”

“If they have dragons on their ships, will not an assault on them go poorly?” May asked. She was looking forward, but Dae was fairly sure she wasn’t focusing on the same thing the rest of them were.

“They only bring the little ones with them,” Noderick said. “Tiny whelps are as big as your arm, but they can do a lot of damage with that breath of theirs.”

Dae frowned. If Noderick was right then the naval use of dragons was diametrically at odds with their land-based use. On land, only the big, adult dragons were employed in battle. Those dragons were roughly the size of a building and couldn’t possibly have fit on the Paxmer ships that were coming closer every minute.

From what Dae knew, the smaller dragons lacked many of their fully grown counterparts abilities, most especially the aura of fear which the adults could emanate. Having faced that power once, Dae was in no hurry to repeat the experience. Even years later, she could still feel the fracture lines in her mind from where she’d broken the last time she’d tried to stand against the supernatural malevolence of Paxmer’s primary defenders.

“They look bigger from here,” May said.

“She one of those Seers?” Noderick asked, addressing Dae.

“Something like that,” Dae said. “How soon until we’re alongside them?”

“I’d make it another hour,” Noderick said. “Might want to make sure those blades of yours are safe, and if you think your Sleeping God will wake for a spell, send a prayer or two their way.”

Dae didn’t pray. If Gallagrin’s Sleeping God ever woke, Dae figured that her list of sins would far outweigh any virtues that might earn her marks of Divine Favor. Trusting in her steel, her friends and years of repressed rage against the Paxmer military, Dae weathered the beginning of the battle as best she could.

The Fearless closed on the last ship in the Paxmer flotilla with a final burst of speed that made standing on the deck unsecured an impossibility (except for May). The glamour that cloaked the Fearless was torn to shreds by the maneuver, revealing the attack only a fraction of a second before the archers on the Fearless loosed their first volley.

The initial casualties on the trailing Paxmer ship were significant from what Dae could see. The sailors on deck were mowed down like tall grass under the scything rain of arrows that swept over them. The flaming arrows that were launched started small fires at various points on the ship, though none hit vulnerable areas.

In response to the attack a signal went up among the Paxmer ships and the course of the battle swung into the hands of the ship’s crews.

The Sunlost fleet outnumbered the Paxmer ships seven to three.  Of them, the Fearless was the only one in striking range for the first barrage, but each of the Paxmer ships had to contend with the prospect of facing the rest of the Sunlost fleet within minutes of engaging unless they continued to flee towards the safe haven of a Paxmer harbor.

Dae wasn’t surprised though when the Paxmer ships turned to engage the Sunlost fleet. Flight was only an option when you could outpace your attacker. She reasoned that the Paxmer ships intended to cripple or at least slow the Sunlost ships somehow before resuming their flight to Windsmer. It didn’t seem like a winning strategy, Sunlost had the best ships and crews on the sea, but sometimes a losing strategy that let you lose a little less than your opponent wanted to take from you was the only one that was available.

Being on the ropes still wasn’t a wonderful spot even with the Sunlost fleet’s numerical superiority but since crippling three Paxmer dragon ships was a win for Gallagrin, Dae was glad to be in a position to strike a meaningful blow in the fight.

She looked for Noderick after taking shelter from the Paxmer return volley and located him across the deck just in time to see fire bath the deck. Neither Noderick or any of the other sailors near him had time to scream as the gout of flame burned through the top of the deck and punched a hole clear through the bottom hull.

“The dragons are here,” May said, pointing upwards as two of the beasts flew over them.

Dae noticed two things, dimly and through a wave of disorientation. First, the dragons were larger than her arm. Second, they were large enough to have riders and passengers.

She tried to rise from her hiding spot as the dragon riders leapt to the deck of the Fearless, but her limbs were frozen.

Dragon fear gripped her heart and refused to let it beat.

She reached out to Kirios’ power and felt it far too distant to call on.  Jyl was in the same state, her eyes as wide as the moon and her breath caught in her throat. Even May was still, unhidden and unmoving.

Dae watched, screaming on the inside, as the three riders who dropped onto the Fearless prowled towards May with their swords drawn. No one else was moving on the ship, which made it easy for the dragon riders to dispatch sailor after sailor with quick thrusts of their blades. Men and women died as they curled into fetal positions or cringed frozen in terror.

Dae managed to force a breath out as the first of the dragon riders reached May. She knew she had to move. She’d faced dragon fear before. She’d withstood it’s power for a precious second and these dragons were nowhere near the terrors the one she’d seen at Star’s Watch had been. Even with that though, even knowing that one of her two charges was about to die, she couldn’t force her limbs to move.

She watched the sword blow descend towards May in slow motion, helpless to alter its course.

May however, wasn’t helpless.

Without drawing a weapon, the daughter of Tel slashed her hand downwards and the descending sword shattered into fragments.

So did the man who was wielding it.

And so did the half of the Fearless that May was facing.

As the real cold of the ocean surged around Dae, and the deeps reached out to claim her, the false chill of the dragon fear shattered, leaving her free but at the ocean’s non-existent mercy.


The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 11

The trip to the Sunlost Isles was far faster and more efficient than Dae wished for it to be. Once the Queen’s Guard had their orders and their plan worked out, the rest of the preparations had flown by with the help and support of various members of the Royal Cabinet.

The queen’s staff had been talented and far reaching enough in their influence to secure both transport and lodging for the trip for the entire route to the port city of Brights Harbor on the eastern edge of the Sunlost Isle.

Dae, Jyl and May had ridden quickly, and then sailed on a fast merchant ship, clothed in the guise of couriers until they reached the rooms reserved for them on the foreign shore of Brights Harbor. From there they were on their own though. Passage to Paxmer was, by necessity, going to require transit on a ship which had no connections to Gallagrin.

They’d arrived early on the tide and had found few ships heading out immediately for Paxmer, which meant a night spent at their apointed lodgings. It was an expected part of the trip but not one that any of the Queen’s Guard happy about.

“This is the first time we’ve been outside the boundaries of Gallagrin,” May said. “It is not an entirely comfortable experience.”

“That’s a good sign,” Dae said. “It says that you remember what home felt like. Hold onto that while we’re here, it’ll help keep keep you from getting entangled in any stray glamours.”

Kirios, Dae’s pact spirit wasn’t, able to rest easily outside the boundaries of his native realm and for May the unease was even more strongly felt. Despite that though, all three women and their pact spirits could function, unlike Paxmer’s dragons which were tied to their home or the magic weavers of the Sunlost isle who had no material to work with in other lands.

“I’ve never encountered a glamourist,” Jyl said. “I gather they don’t like my sort of people though?”

“Elves? No, glamour weavers are just fine with elves,” Dae said. “Or at least the few I’ve met were.”

“I thought they hated people who could resist their magics?” Jyl asked.

“It’s more complicated than that,” Dae said. “Elves are naturally resistant to glamour magics because they fit into the weavings so easily. If someone casts a glamour around you, you’ll be able to see it for what it is but that won’t harm the magic. It’ll welcome you into its folds. If they try the same thing on me, the glamour will probably shred, and the sleeping gods can only guess what’ll happen if they try to ensorcell May.”

“So we should basically all try to stay away from spell casters here then?” Jyl asked.

“That’s an excellent rule for life in general,” Dae said. “Each country has its own magics and none of us play all that nicely with the others.”

“That is by design is it not?” May asked.

“I thought it was only since the Gods Night that the Blessed Realms started fighting?” Jyl said. “The realms’ magics were designed well before then though.”

“Yeah, it’s almost like the Sleeping Gods weren’t so friendly with each other even while they were still awake,” Dae said. She thought back to the ancient tomes she and Alari had plundered from the Gallagrin castle archives. From the accounts of people who lived before the Gods Night, the “Divine Peace of the Blessed Realms” was more fiction than fact even when the divine patrons of the realms were still around to manage things.

“How hostile are the glamour weavers here likely to be?” Jyl asked.

“If they discover us as Pact Knights?” Dae said. “They’ll be a little miffed. Foreign agents traveling through a country without properly notifiying the authorities are technically considered spies. In practice though, as long as we’re not caught spying on people here in Sunlost, the local noble’s will turn a blind eye to us.”

“Don’t their interests align with Gallagrin’s in this matter?” May asked.

“That’s a delicate subject,” Dae said. “On the one hand, it’s not like Sunlost enjoys losing their trade with us. On the other, none of the realms can condone actions against another realm since that would threaten the ‘Divine Peace’.”

“We’ve spent centuries fighting with Paxmer over our borders though!” Jyl said.

“Border fighting is like a sport as far as the monarchs of the realms are concerned, apart from our queen that is, she doesn’t believe in playing games when it comes to people’s lives,” Dae said. “For the rest though, win or lose, it’s just a number of extra subjects more or less and some won or lost trade. It becomes steadily more difficult to gain terrain the farther into a country an army tries to advance and so far no crown has ever faced the possibility of losing their power to an outside force.”

“There is a great disturbance on the waves,” May said, her gaze growing distant.

“Yeah, the ocean is no one realm’s domain, so that’s where the most serious conflicts take place,” Dae said. “We can’t rule the waves themselves, but we can exact tarrifs for traveling through waters we control if our navy is strong enough.”

“I thought Sunlost had the biggest navy on the seas?” Jyl asked.

“They do, and they cast the widest net, but they also charge the highest tarrifs so ships still choose to sail through the waters we control,” Dae said. “Also they have a better chance of out running our tarrif ships than they do Sunlost’s boats.”

“I speak not of far off places or distant days, but to our immediate horizon,” May said and rose from the table in their private room.

Dae and Jyl followed her out of the door of the inne they were staying at and saw that the waves of the eastern horizon were ablaze with fire.

“Tell me that’s not what I think it is,” Jyl said, her almond eyes wide wide with  unease.

“Huh, gouts of green flame,” Dae said. “I guess that men’s they’re sending out the youngling dragons now.”

“Aren’t they a little close to Sunlost to be fighting a pitched battle?” Jyl asked.

“I would have thought so,” Dae said. “There must be something special on the Sunlost-bound ships for the Paxmers to have pursued them this far.”

In the distance, a series of bells started ringing.

“They’re calling for all the fighting ships in port to sail against the tide and aid the inbound ships,” Dae said. “Let’s head back to the harbor. This might be the opportunity we need.”

The ringing of the bells grew louder as they reached the docks and the bustle of the city turned into the pandemonium of an impromptu war exercise. Dae scanned the crowds and the ships that were being prepared for a minute before focusing on one of the larger boats that was berthed about a quarter mile down the docks from them.

“Let’s go see what’s happening out there,” she said and set off at a brisk jog.

Moving through the crowds took coordination and agility and strength (in Dae’s case) or a palpable aura (in May’s) or the ability to nearly vanish from view and slide through gaps too small for a full sized human (Jyl’s preferred method). Using their preferred techniques, each member of the Queen’s Guard managed to make roughly the same time through the crowd but it was Dae who arrived first and spoke to the Quartermaster in charge of loading the Fearless.

“What are we supposed to do to help?” Dae asked halting in front of the large, night dark quartermaster.

“Who in the hells are you?” he asked without looking up from his inventory list.

“New marines,” Dae said. “We were just signing up when the bells started ringing and we were told to come down here and do whatever you told us to.”

“Spit an iron spike in my eye, but that’s good timing,” the quartermaster said. “Each of you grab a crate and get it back on the ship. We leave these here and the wharf rats will eat us out of our bunks.”

Dae saw the quartermaster’s dilemma. The Fearless had to leave as soon as it could, but half its cargo was already unloaded onto the docks. In theory, since it was their berth, the cargo would be safe and protected by the dock patrol, but it was a rare-to-unheard dock patrol that could prevent heavy pilferage, especially in a chaotic situation like an unexpected battle.

To the quartermaster’s delight, Dae, Jyl and May managed to load in about half of the crates before the Fearless got underway.

With the tide against them, the ships in Brights Harbor were required to utilize alternate means of locomotion to reach the site of the ongoing battle. Like several others, the Fearless met the incoming waves with a host of water sprites at its sides. The human-sized water spirits grabbed onto the hull and hauled the boat along, providing enough force to put it in the lead as the makeshift armada rolled out to sea.

“Who are you?” the Fearless’ Sergeant-at-Arms demanded when he saw Dae and the others at the railing, looking at the battle they were rapidly drawing nearer too.

“New marines,” Dae said. “I’m Kor. Where are we supposed to fight?”

“Don’t know about any new marines,” the Sergeant-at-Arms said. He looked like he was going to tell them to take a flying leap off the ship, but then he saw May. “Beasts of the blue. Where’d they find you?”

“We volunteered,” May said with a disarming smile. The quartermaster blanched.

“You’re on the ropes,” he said, referring to the boarding ropes. That would give Dae the opportunity to be the first one to make it over to one of the Paxmer boats. It would also remove May from the quartermaster’s presence as soon as was practically possible. That the ropes were the single most dangerous position for a combatant during a boarding action was merely a necessary part of the job from Dae’s point of view and an added bonus from the quartermaster’s perspective.

By the time the Fearless reached the site of the battle though, the fighting had ended. In its wake, only the burning remains of a half dozen ships still bobbed on the surface, with a like number already sinking to their fiery graves below.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” the Sergeant-at-Arms said. “There’s no chance these ships were looted properly.”

“It looks like they burned them just to burn them,” Dae said, watching one of the fiery wrecks fall to pieces as the flames destroyed the integrity of the hull.

“Where’s the profit in that though?” The Sergeant-at-Arms said.

“They’re not looking for gain,” Dae said. “They’re trying to send a message.”

“And probe Sunlost’s defenses,” May said.

“This’ll mean war though,” the Sergeant-at-Arms said.

“Only if those were Sunlost ships,” Dae said. “I think we’ll find that they belonged to Gallagrin though.”

“I don’t think Gallagrin’s going to respond to it any better than Sunlost would,” the Sergeant-at-Arms said.

“From what I heard when last time I traveled through Highcrest, it doesn’t sound like there’s any love lost on Paxmer by the crown of Gallagrin,” Dae said.

“Typical continentals,” the Sergeant-at-Arms said. “Should be the best of neighbors but they can’t wait to kill each other. Savages.”

“It’s a savage world out there,” Dae said. “Makes it easier to make a living through fighting.”

“You’re too young to be that smart,” the Sergeant-at-Arms said.

“I got started early,” Dae said.

“Didn’t we all,” the Seargeant-at-Arms said. “When we get back to shore, let me buy you three a drink. I should get to know what you can do if you’re going to be fighting under our flag.”

“We’re not heading back to shore,” the First Officer said. “Orders from land, we’re to pursue the attacking force and identify the vessels involved.”

“They’ve got quite a lead on us,” Dae said.

“Not for long,” the First Officer said. “Keep sharp. We’ll be passing them within two hours. If the glamours hold, we’ll be berthed in Windsmer before they are. If not we’ll have a rather interesting battle on our hands.”

Dae considered that news, especially the fact that apparently the glamour weavers of Sunlost had discovered a method of working their magics outside their home realm. It wasn’t likely that anything good was going to come of that, but Dae tucked the knowledge away for later use anyways.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 10

Overthrowing a foreign ruler seemed like a tall order to Jyl for her first day on the job as one of the Queen’s Guard but the seriousness of her commanding officer’s gaze, and the pleasant, confident smile of her sovereign left her little doubt that this was how her tenure was going to begin.

“Our first stop in Paxmer will be at the estate of the Lady Estella sur Korkin,” Dae said, pointing to an area on the map before them that was along Paxmer’s northern coastal region.

The Queen’s Guard, all three of them, were assembled in the Royal Planning and Tactics room. The Queen sat at her usual place at the head of the enormous planning table on the elevated chair from which dozens of her predecessors had surveyed the shifting currents of the world.

Dae stood in the traditional position of the chief strategist; on top of the table, striding across the world as she made her points and called attention to the various areas of concern. The table’s surface was laid out as a near-perfect map of the Blessed Realms and some of the wastelands which bordered them. Usually armies were depicted, or trade routes, but for the meeting with the Queen’s Guard all that was stripped away.

Jyl saw only a handful of location markers on the map and, more worryingly, a set of figures depicting Paxmer’s dragons.

“We will need to travel quietly and without attracting notice,” Dae said. “That will be easy up until we reach here.” She tapped the port city of Windsmer. “We can sail to Paxmer on a merchant ship from the Sunlost Isles. That will get us into Paxmer. Getting to Lady Korkin’s estate is where we will need to exercise more care.”

“If we are to move in secrecy, then how shall I accompany you?” Lady Mayleena Telli asked.

Jyl frowned and considered the question too. May was not the sort of woman who could blend in with a crowd. Even apart from her unusual appearance, May had an aura that was unsettling. Something about how she moved, or breathed, or the noises that she didn’t make was enough to put people on edge. For anyone who was bound to a pact spirit the effect was even stronger.

Jyl had managed to avoid an insulting defensive reaction the first time she met May mostly because the Queen had explained May’s condition and prepared Jyl for what to expect. Since then the two had established a companionable rapport. Jyl’s twin loved to tease and torment her, which had given the young elf nerves of reinforced steel. Dismissing her pact spirit’s otherwise reasonable worries about May was child’s play compared to enduring her sister’s schemes.

“We need to keep our identities a secret,” Dae said. “I’m counting on you to help with that. You’re not going to strike anyone as a Pact Knight, and the more people are paying attention to you, the less they’ll notice either Jyl or I.”

“Pardon, but does that mean that we’re going to have make this trip without calling on our pact spirits at all?” Jyl asked, seeing the endeavor growing a dozen times more challenging than climbing climbing Gallagrin’s tallest mountain.

“See, I told you she was quick,” Dae said, glancing at the queen.

“Yes,” Alari said. “You carry our royal blessing, and Lady Akorli is empowered to speak in our voice, but for our plans to come to fruition no one can know that our Guard is moving against Paxmer until the time is right.”

“Lady sur Korkin is integral to this plan?” May asked.

“That is our hope,” Alari said. “We know that Paxmer has weaknesses. Every country does. Their dragons cover many of those weaknesses but Lady sur Korkin seems to have escaped their notice.”

“Before we discuss this any further though, there’s something you both should know,” Dae said. “Lady sur Korkin is my mother, she has betrayed her family in the past, and I am currently uncertain whether I will kill her when we meet.”

Jyl searched her commander’s face for a hint of humor and found nothing. No smile. No frown. No sign that the Queen’s Knight was anything except blandly serious. She looked to the queen and thought she saw a trace of worry and concern on her monarch’s brow but it was quickly hidden behind a cool, silent expression.

“That will change the parameters of our mission I presume?” May asked, all innocent curiosity.

Given her family life, it was unusual for Jyl to feel like the one sane person in a room, but she was fairly certain that was the case in this instance. The cause of the murderous madness was unclear however (apart from Mayleena who seemed to process things in her own unique manner).

Jyl hadn’t studied her commander’s history beyond what was commonly known; Daelynne Akorli was the childhood friend of the queen, and she’d willing taken a demotion after a fierce attack on a fort under her command. She’d then returned at the queen’s hour of greatest need and slain not only the rogue Duke of Tel but also the treacherous Consort King, beheading him in front of the nobles of the realm. She’d earned the sobriquet “The Bloody Blade” for that action as it was said that when she fully transformed her sword still dripped with royal blood.

“We’ll take a more fluid approach to destabilizing Paxmer if Lady sur Korkin…” Dae searched for the right words, “…provokes me.”

Jyl couldn’t fathom what Lady sur Korkin had done that had left her daughter so casually homicidal. Jyl’s own mother had been a guiding light in her life and had inspired her to be everything she had become. Without that support, Jyl imagined she was be far less put together than the Queen’s Knight seemed to be.

“What does Lady sur Korkin stand to offer us if she proves to be a tractable ally?” May asked, still innocently curious.

“Paxmer is ruled by dragons,” Alari said. “Some of them are giant reptilian beasts, but others walk in human flesh. Regardless their souls are as one. Their strength allows them to gather power to themselves, and dragons in any form do not share power easily.”

“That’s true in both poetic and practical terms,” Dae said. “Paxmer’s nobles are judged based on the size of the hordes they control. To build those hordes they concentrate the wealth of the country into their own hands to the greatest extent possible.”

“Haldri Paxmer knows that her people despise this, but she also knows that with her dragons she can safely ignore them,” Alari said. “Open revolt is impossible as all Paxmer needs to do is strip the rebels of their citizenship and then feed them to a flight of fire breathing monsters.”

“The citizens of Paxmer are as clever as any other nationality though,” Dae said. “So they’ve discovered methods to revolt in secret.”

“Bandit raids have become commonplace in Paxmer,” Alari said. “They strike primarily at the tax collectors and are believed to be amassing hordes of their own.”

“Lady sur Korkin cannot be known to have ties to them though, can she?” Jyl asked. She was familiar with the lengths people who possessed power were willing to go to retain that power.

“She holds no lands, and owns only a single family estate inherited from her father,” Alari said. “From what my agents have been able to discern, she leads a reclusive life and is scrupulous about paying her taxes, but she pays them directly to the Royal Paxmer Exchequer, in person each year.”

“That sounds as though she is quite loyal to the Paxmer crown,” May said.

“No, it doesn’t,” Jyl said, seeing the outline of the picture the Queen was illustrating. “That sounds like someone who doesn’t want to the tax collectors to inspect her estate. How old is the house that she owns?”

“Ancient,” Dae said. “It’s a family dwelling which stretches back to the founding of Paxmer as a nation.”

Jyl looked at the map.

“It’s not close to either the coast or the border,” she said. “The only roads that run by it seem minor too, if the depiction here is right?”

“My agents have confirmed the accuracy of the map in this area,” Alari said.

“The Lady Estella’s family has never been an important one in the political scene of Paxmer,” Dae said. “But they have managed to survive for centuries.”

“Which means they have hidden resources to draw on,” Jyl said.

“And they will draw on them for us?” May asked.

“That is your mission to discover,” Alari said. “If our suspicions are correct, then Lady sur Korkin has been working against the interests of the Paxmer crown for many years now. If we are incorrect, then it is at least very likely that she has contacts with the silent rebels as the number of bandit attacks in the region is low but the capture rate for the bandits is almost non-existent.”

“So someone is helping them coordinate and is ensuring that the area stays beneath the notice of the crown?” Jyl asked.

“Will our arrival be seen as a disruption of that cultivated state?” May asked.

“Yes, to both of your questions,” Alari said. “Disruption is necessary though.”

“That brings us to the Lost Hordes of Paxmer,” Dae said. “It turns out when you have a group of people blinded by goldlust and an obsessive need for secrecy, you occasionally wind up with families who are wiped out without all of their hordes being discovered.”

“We thought rebellions were impossible in Paxmer?” May asked.

“Impossible no. Difficult yes,” Dae said. “Most of the noble families who’ve been lost to history were destroyed by internal struggled with other Paxmer families.”

“No one can hate you like the people who know you best,” Jyl said, thinking of the toxic elements of her own family.

“The Lost Hordes are said to contain vast amounts of forgotten wealth, and, more importantly, certain mythical items,” Alari said.

“The mythical item that we’re most concerned with is the Spirit Crown,” Dae said.

“We are unfamiliar with that myth?” May asked.

“The story goes that there was once a crown given to the sovereign of Gallagrin which granted them absolute command over Pact Spirits,” Dae said. “This was from Gallagrin’s early days when the Royal Pact Spirit was much weaker than it is today and the possibility of revolt by the Pact Warriors of the realm was more of an issue.”

“That’s an artifact level creation. Who could make something like that?” Jyl asked.

“The Sleeping Gods,” Alari said. “Before they slept.”

“Like most other god tools, the crown was lost when the gods descended into their slumber,” Dae said. “Or not so much lost as stolen. The thief didn’t make it far out of Gallagrin before falling victim to further treachery though, and the crown was mistaken for a common piece of simply adorned golden jewelry.”

“You think it’s been rediscovered?” Jyl asked.

“More importantly, we want to make sure Haldri Paxmer does not place her hands on it,” Alari said. “If she were to gain the power to control Pact Spirits, her forces would become truly unstoppable.”

“Why would you believe it could be found in this area of Paxmer?” May asked, indicating the region of the map around Dae’s mother’s estate.

“In addition to the exceptionally low rate of bandit captures, there has been a steady and increasing amount of trade with the Sunlost Isles that has funneled through Windsmer,” Alari said. “The Paxmer people are buying far more than even their successful banditry can account for.”

“Which suggests that someone has found one or more of the Lost Hordes,” Jyl said, filling in the blank.

“And there have been rumors of a particularly deep delve that was opened,” Dae said. “One which holds treasures dating back to beginning of the current era.”

“Even apart from the Spirit Crown, treasures that old would be priceless,” Jyl said, trying to imagine what other relics of the lost age of the gods might be hidden in the depths of Paxmer.

“Oh, I think we can put a price on them,” Dae said. “I think they’ll cover the cost of overthrowing one of the Blessed Realms. We just need to be the ones to find it first.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 9

The Queen’s private wine reserves held not only some of the finest quality wines in the kingdom but also some of Gallagrin’s the most potent liquors.

“We will require our senses about us for the remainder of the day,” Alari said, filling a tiny thimble of a glass half full with a thick amber colored spirit.

“You are free to tap out whenever you like, Your Majesty,” Dae said, a wicked gleam of challenge in her eyes.

“Oh, is that how it shall be?” Alari asked, and poured the thimble glass into a flagon larger than both of her fists, before continuing to fill the flagon, and two others like it, near to the rim.

Dae had never managed to drink Alari under the table, but it hadn’t been from lack of trying. The two were careful when and where they held their impromptu contests, which limited the damage of people finding them in a less than coherent state when they discovered, and exceeded, their limits.

“This draught smells unique,” Mayleena said. “I don’t believe we’ve had its like before?”

“Odds are you won’t again either,” Dae said. “From what Her Majesty has told me, this barely qualifies as drinkable for most people.”

“And we are imbibing it why then?” Mayleena asked.

Dae inhaled the aroma of the Beesting Brew from her flagon and felt the sharp burning prickle spread up her nose and into her sinuses. It wasn’t an especially enjoyable sensation, but the warm afterwave that followed left her lightly swaying in a pleasant enough manner.

The trickle of magic that Kirios fed Dae was enough to easily throw off the more toxic effects of inhaling the brew. The same wasn’t going to be true by the time she reached the bottom of the flagon though, but that was what made the drink an adventure.

“My Knight is something of an inebriate and she demands company in her debauchery or she grows unbearable,” Alari said, lifting her flagon and taking a long pull from it.

“Our Queen, as is her privilege, omits to mention how it was she who placed me on the path of potable wickedness,” Dae said. “Or how she has always been my guide post and milestone. Also, if you are the sort to easily lose control, I think I would rather not be entirely sober when that happens.”

“Lose control?” Mayleena asked. “This is a test?”

“The Queen trusts you,” Dae said. “If we’re going to work together though, I need to know where your limits are.”

She took a long drink her flagon, matching Alari’s. The Beesting Brew was as bad going down as she remembered it being, and despite her familiarity with it, she had to swallow the liquer carefully to avoid choking on it.

“And if we refuse to drink?” Mayleena asked, staring at the beverage in front of her.

“That’s one option for ending the test,” Dae said. “It’s not a bad one either. I can appreciate someone who knows their limits or at least is willing to set boundaries to protect themselves.”

Mayleena took her flagon and drained a quarter of the liquid from it in a single swallow.

“Interesting,” she said. “This really is toxic isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Alari said. “For those without Pact Spirits to call on, it over stimulates the nerves and can produce paralysis or death. We are very careful whom we share this particular vintage with.”

“We are honored then Your Majesty,” Mayleena said.

“You’re also unaffected by the toxins you just drank,” Dae said, observing Mayleena’s reactions. “Would you care to provide a more elaborate explanation for what happened to you?”

Mayleena looked to Alari and the Queen nodded to her.

“I blamed my father for our state,” Mayleena said. “The truth though is that I can as easily blame myself for what happened to us.”

“Us?” Dae asked.

“You can see, and Kirios can sense, that we are not simply Mayleena Telli,” May said. “Our story begins when Mayleena sought a Pact Binding without her father’s approval, in order to avoid a marriage arrangement when she was fifteen.”

Dae noticed May call Kirios by name, something which no one other than Alari or one of the other people present at Dae’s pact binding could have known.

“Mayleena didn’t have the proper training,” May said. “But we were still compatible. She snuck down into the lowest basements of the Telli estates at Elinspire to perform the binding ritual alone. We discovered in the process that Oxina was first woken there.”

“That should have made the binding even harder though,” Dae said. “You were are the primary locus of the spirit’s power, right?”

“Yes, and that’s what made it ideal,” May said. “Mayleena’s natural talent was more than Onixa had bargained for and Onixa’s power was more than Mayleena could handle.”

“That sounds like the makings of a tragic disaster and yet you sit here at peace and more in control than I can imagine anyone in your situation being,” Dae said. She took another drink from her flagon and felt a slight wave of numbness wash over her head. Gone were the days when she wished to obliterate her consciousness and with the difference in quality between what she’d tried to drown herself in when she was an officer of the Nath Dawn March and what the queen’s private reserves could supply Dae was able to enjoy the sensation of the Beesting Brew as a reminder of the childhood misadventures she’d shared with Alari, which only added to the overall pleasantness of the experience.

“We are only a tragedy to those who would call us a tragedy,” Mayleena said. “Within ourselves we are complete and content.”

“Mostly content,” Alari said. “Tell Lady Akorli why you wished to pursue a place on the Queen’s Guard.”

“Our union is a unique one,” May said. “Onixa and Mayleena, from a certain point of view, no longer exist. We are both of them but we are more than that as well, and we need help in becoming our new self.”

“That doesn’t sound like a reason to join the Queen’s Guard,” Dae said. “It sounds like a calling to one of the meditation houses.”

“We have meditated for long enough,” May said. “When we first worked the binding, we fought against each other until it became clear that there was no future to be found in tearing ourselves to shreds.”

“You still think of yourself as being two separate beings though don’t you?” Dae asked.

“We try not to, but I find it difficult sometimes,” May said. “Mayleena’s reactions to a situation can be very different from Onixa’s and both can be different from what feels right to do when we’re confronted with an immediate decision.”

“What happens when your facets are too far out of alignment with each other?” Dae asked.

“We don’t go berserk,” May said. “Whatever I am, it’s only looks similar to a Berserker. If the parts of me disagree too strongly, I seem to fall apart briefly, with one side or the other holding greater sway over what I do.”

“That’s what we saw in the garden, wasn’t it?” Dae asked.

“Yes,” May said. “I was nervous about the meeting and lost my touch on this world for a brief while.”

“Where did you go?” Dae asked.

“To Onixa’s realm,” May said. “I have learned to control that, but not perfectly yet.”

“What was it that scared you about today’s meeting?” Dae asked.

“I was afraid you would say no to my application,” May said.

“Even if I did, the Royal Guard would definitely take you,” Dae said. “And the Queen is more than capable of overruling my objections on a candidate.”

“We would never overrule your objections on a matter like this, my Knight,” Alari said.

“That’s because all of my objections are excellent,” Dae said, taking another drink from her flagon. Alari rolled her eyes and took a drink from her flagon too.

“I’m afraid I am simply greedy,” May said. “The Queen’s Guard promises to have what I need most in this life; challenges.”

“It’s true that we don’t seem to be short on those, but why would that be so important to you?” Dae asked.

“I need to forge memories that are unique to me,” May said. “I need to do things that neither Mayleena nor Onixa could do on their own. When I feel two instinctive responses, I need to be able to pick the third path that’s true to what I believe, not just what Onixa and Mayleena can agree on. Without those memories, it feels like I’m going to fade away someday and then all that will be left will be the Berserker urges that live at the base of everyone’s mind.”

“What if those memories aren’t good ones?” Dae asked.

“I don’t understand?” May said.

“We’re the Queen’s Guard,” Dae said. “There will be people who hate us just for standing beside her. There will be people who we will very likely have to kill, and there will be people who survive them who will have every reason to hate us even more.”

Dae watched May’s face and saw recognition widen the younger woman’s eyes.

“People like Mayleena’s father,” May said, and looked down. “I hope to be able to live outside of his shadow, but I know it is a long one.”

“His crimes cast no shadows on you,” Alari said.

Mayleena coughed out a bitter laugh.

“We fear he will always darken our life,” May said.

“The past is hard to escape,” Dae said, casting a glance at Alari, who nodded in acceptance of the sentiment.

“That is another reason we were nervous for this meeting,” May said. “Though it isn’t something you should ever need to ask for, please know that you have our forgiveness and our thanks for your actions last fall. You saved my brother and stopped a man neither of us believed could be stopped. You even spared us from an ill-conceived marriage to the Consort King.”

“You’re thanking me for slaying the Duke?” Dae asked.

“Yes, neither Ren nor I could raise our hands against him, but it is still a relief beyond words that he is gone,” May said.

“From what I knew of the man, I’d hoped it would be,” Dae said, “There will be others like him though. Including people who are beloved by those they favor.”

“It seems like, with those people, discussion and diplomacy might work where they would have failed with my father,” May said.

“Sometimes that will be the case,” Alari said. “I believe my Knight is concerned that the Queen’s Guard will more often be called upon to deal with the occasions where peaceful means are not an option.”

“On those occasions I will need to follow my own heart,” May said.

“That may not be what the Guard needs,” Dae said.

“But it will always be what the Queen needs,” Alari said. “My Knight is pledged to support us beyond reason, as we are pledged to her. We do not ask anyone else to offer us such allegiance. From someone we do not know as well as Lady Akorli, we would mistrust such devotion. Instead we would ask our guards to protect us from all threats, including the ones we bring on our self.”

“I can pledge to do that with an unreserved heart!” May said.

“Then consider yourself part of the Queen’s Guard,” Dae said.

“That’s it?” May asked. “There’s no trial of battle? No other tests?”

“You survived the Duke of Tel’s reign, you were instrumental in freeing your brother last fall and a trial of battle would only confirm what I can already see,” Dae said. “The truth is, if I had to, I’d be arm wrestling Sir Kemoral in the town square for you to be on my team.”

“You only tell us this now?” Alari said. “We feel as though we have missed an opportunity for a diverting entertainment there.”

She finished her flagon of Beesting but thanks to the Gallagrin Pact Spirit was feeling no more of its effects than May was.

“You don’t want me to humiliate the commander of your Royal Guard, Your Majesty,” Dae said. “Think of what it would do for next year’s recruitment efforts.”

Kirios was able to take the worst of the Beesting’s bite away, but enough was left to quiet Dae’s fears of the mission that lay ahead of them. Even if it was only for one night, it felt good to be able to let her guard down, especially knowing that in Paxmer that would be impossible.