Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 4

Teo paced outside the cell that his husband was sleeping in. Ren could sleep through anything, and was probably going to sleep through his own execution. The thought of that made Teo see red. Specifically the crimson red of a fresh wound as his vampiric eyes filled with blood and rage.

“You’re getting worked up over nothing again,” Ren called from their bed.

Teo peeked in. He’d been moving with the preternatural quiet than only a magic fueled predator could manage and Ren had still managed to hear him.

“I’m not worked up,” Teo said, the words so short and clipped that he wasn’t even able to believe them himself.

“Are you under the impression that I know you less well now that we’re married?” Ren asked his husband. “I mean it’s not like saying our vows made me forget knowing you for the last decade.”

“I’m not worked up,” Teo said after a long, slow breath, sounding more composed than he had the first time.

Ren groaned and rose from their bed. Teo walked away from the door and sat down at the delicately carved table that served as both a work and dinner area. Rather than sitting in the chair opposite Teo though, Ren walked behind him instead.

“I may not be as mystically aware as you, but trust me, I still know when you’re upset,” he said, looping his arms around Teo’s shoulders in a loose hug. “You’ve been getting steadily more worked up for a month now. Jumping at shadows and problems that aren’t going to come to be.”

“I’m not worried about shadows,” Teo said, his fears and irritation mingling into a snap in his words that he wished weren’t there. “I’m worried about you. Queen Alari has held you prisoner here for a month now.”

“I’m not prisoner,” Ren said for what felt like the hundredth time. “The Queen isn’t holding anyone here as a prisoner. She’s just ruled that the Grand Convocation is to remain in session until she is able to address the nobles again.”

“She could have addressed the nobles weeks ago,” Teo said. “She’s holding you and all of the rest of them until she can decide how she wants to get her revenge on you.”

“What revenge?” Ren asked, throwing up his hands. “Queen Alari is not her father, she’s done nothing but good for this realm since she gained the throne, and she’s stood against the kind of mayhem you’re thinking of at every turn.”

“That was before,” Teo said. “She’s different now. The woman who sent me to find you last fall when your father was acting against her hadn’t been through two challenges to her rule in less than a year. She hadn’t been betrayed by her Consort or by her noble court yet. I’m telling you, the Queen Alari who returned from the God’s Hall is not the same person who gave you the Ducal seat of Tel.”

He turned to face Ren so that the fears that he couldn’t voice might at least speak through his gaze. Teo wasn’t a native to Gallagrin, though with his marriage to Ren over the winter he’d become a fully recognized citizen. In Teo’s homeland of Inchesso, those who supported a throne were often the same ones who made plays to claim its power when they felt the time was right. If they were correct then the crown passed to their head, if not then it remained where it was. In either case though, a head would roll away from its shoulders.

Teo had left Inchesso when he was young, but not so young that its values hadn’t settled into him on a level that was difficult to question directly. He’d been perplexed when Queen Alari hadn’t slaughtered her enemies after the Unification War. In time he’d come to understand the necessity of preserving the realm’s strength, especially in light of the threat the neighboring realms of Paxmer, Senkin and the Green Council presented, not to mention the political balance with the Sunlost Isles and the other Blessed Realms, each of whom had ties with one or more of the noble families of Gallagrin.

When Halrek the Consort-King betrayed Queen Alari, Teo had readied himself for the streets of Highcrest to run with noble blood, but with two exceptions none had been spilled. In retrospect, the Queen’s restraint had been understandable there too – the parties who backed Halrek and the Duke of Tel hadn’t done so publicly and the true source of Halrek’s machinations seemed to lie in Paxmer more than Gallagrin.

The latest betrayal though? That had been all too public and it had involved far too many of the noble houses of Gallagrin. The Queen had too many clear targets to ignore this time and too many reasons to abandon from her previous merciful demeanor.

“Queen Alari has been through a lot,” Ren said. “No one with any sense would claim otherwise, but it hasn’t changed her. Look at what she’s done. If her father was still on the throne, everyone in Highcrest Castle would have died the night Sanli’s challenge failed.”

“And then there would have been another civil war,” Teo said. “She’s smarter than her father. She can’t eliminate the nobles until their armies are brought under her control. That’s what she’s waiting for.”

“That’s not possible,” Ren said. “There are Ducal armies that will stay loyal to their families no matter what, and even the ones who would switch allegiance will take longer to do so than the Grand Convocation can be held for. It would be years, if ever, before Queen Alari could be secure in her reign without the nobles.”

“Then perhaps she’s just delaying long enough to be sure she can win the civil war that’s going to erupt,” Teo said. “It’s not like she shied away from causing one the last time the leadership of Gallagrin wasn’t to her liking.”

Ren shook his head and wandered over to the enchanted icebox their room was supplied with. Brunch would be provided in an hour or so, but if he was going to argue, he needed a full stomach to work with.

“There were fewer lives lost in the Unification War than the Butcher King would have killed in the same period of time,” Ren said. “I’m telling you, Queen Alari is not consumed by the madness which lead to her father’s downfall.”

“I want to believe that,” Teo said. “I do. But I look at this room and I know what it was used for under the Butcher King’s rule and I know what it would be used for in Inchesso. Whatever else happens, I cannot let that happen to you.”

“It won’t,” Ren said, placing a tray of food from the night before onto the table and reaching over to hold Teo’s hand.

“You can’t know that,” Teo said, frowning.

“But I can have faith that it’s true, based on the faith I have in the Queen,” Ren said.

“It’s a strange and unsettling thing to hear someone speak of faith in their monarch,” Teo said.

“Not like that in Inchesso?” Ren asked.

“It seems to be a rare thing here too,” Teo said. “Present company excepted, noble’s don’t seem to be worth the respect their given, much less a level of faith that would be worth risking your life over.”

“I’m not sure that I should be excepted from that reckoning,” Ren said. “Allowing Sanli’s challenge to proceed was not my finest hour.”

“There was nothing you could have done about that though,” Teo said.

“At the time I would have agreed with you, but in hindsight I’m not certain I can,” Ren said. “There were stratagems I could have employed, I think, to disrupt the event or at least delay the proceedings until the Queen returned from her meeting in the God’s Hall.”

“And would any of those plans have seen you alive at the end?” Teo asked.

“In theory, some of my ideas might have been survivable,” Ren said.

Teo stood up, and forced himself to breath.

“That’s not good enough,” he said softly. “I know I’m not being rational about this. I can’t be. Not with you. I can’t…you can’t…”

“I know.” Ren’s voice was gentle. “It’s who you are.”

“Because I’m a vampire,” Teo said, feeling the blood magic that bound him to Ren burning brightly in his veins.

Ren laughed at that, and the sound of him chuckling broke the vicious circle of Teo’s thoughts.

“Becoming a vampire just changed your diet,” Ren said and stood to face Teo, grasping his husband’s shoulders. “You’ve been exactly like this since the first moment we admitted we were in love.”

It was Teo’s turn to laugh, though his was more rueful than Ren’s had been.

“That sounds terrible,” he said. “How could you have married a creature like me.”

“Well you are uncommonly handsome,” Ren said. “And you can bend a sword into a pretzel, and you’re close to unkillable. So perhaps I simply married you for your body.”

“Oh, is that all it was?” Teo asked, a playful mood sweeping over him in response to Ren’s teasing. He pulled Ren in close so that they were gazing eye to eye from only a few inches away.

“Yes,” Ren said. “Purely physical,” as he traced his fingers over Teo’s chest.

“Then I suppose I needn’t worry about you at all,” Teo said with a look of mock indignation.

“But you will,” Ren said. “And for that I have an idea.” He pushed away from the embrace and watched a mix of surprise and wariness steal over Teo’s face.

“And am I going to like this idea?” Teo asked.

“You’ll like the outcome of it,” Ren said.

“But not the execution I take it?” Teo said.

“Probably not,” Ren said.

“What do you have in mind?” Teo asked.

“You’re worried about what the Queen is going to do with us,” Ren said. “So we’re going to head to her tower and speak to her.”

Teo looked at his husband blankly for a minute for asking “What?”

“We’re going to talk to Queen Alari,” Ren said. “We’ll see what she has in store for us and the other nobles.”

“I’m sorry, you said some words, but what I heard was ‘we’re going to commit a very elaborate form of suicide wherein we deliver ourselves straight to the one who is looking for an excuse to kill us’,” Teo said.

“That might indeed be what we’re going to do,” Ren said. “But if so, you have to admit that at least we’d be getting all the waiting and worrying done with, yes?”

Teo looked at him for another long moment, taking in the underlying seriousness of Ren’s demeanor.

“I can’t talk you out of this, can I?” he asked.

“No,” Ren said. “I think it’s well past time that we speak with Her Majesty. She’s never questioned me about that night and I don’t know if she’s gotten a full picture of what happened yet.”

“And if she does know everything that went on and doesn’t care?” Teo asked.

Ren shrugged.

“Then we’re probably to be the first to fall victim to a resurgence of Royal Madness,” he said. “If so though, we’ll still be doing Gallagrin a service.”

“How?” Teo asked.

“Like a canary in a mine, our deaths would signal to everyone that something is very wrong at the heart of Gallagrin and that might give our fellow nobles time to escape before the whole thing collapses.”

“Wasn’t this supposed to be an idea that I would like the result of?” Teo asked.

“I suppose it would be more accurate to say that in either case you won’t hate it,” Ren said.

“Not hating something because I’m too dead to feel anything at all isn’t my idea of comfort,” Teo said.

“Life with me is never comfortable is it?” Ren asked.

“Still better than what it’d be without you though.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 3

Iana gazed at the waving grains of gold, newly sprouted from the warm spring earth and felt hot rage surging through her veins.

The people of the rolling hills that spread out before her army thought that they were entitled to peace and effortless prosperity regardless of how they treated others. They thought Iana’s people were like fruit grown in an orchard the gardener had abandoned. Unprotected, unloved, and waiting to be plucked and consumed by anyone who chose to reach out their hand and take what they wanted.

The Green Council, Inara’s homeland, was the smallest of the Blessed Realms, but it was far from the weakest. Though their gods slumbered with the rest of the divines, the Green Council had delved more deeply into the mysteries of their magics than any other realm.

Senkin, their neighbor to the west had forgotten that. In their greed, they’d violated sacred treaties, and so it fell to Iana forces to remind them of the cost their insults incurred.

Move. Her command flowed through root and branch, spoken in the rustle of leaves and the heavy stomp of the Warbringer’s tread. Words weren’t needed for the army that she commanded.

Each realm has its legends. From the spirit haunted peaks of Gallagrin, to the sun-wielding glory of Light Warriors who guarded Senkin’s throne, those legends reflected the magics the realm had been gifted with by their gods. The tales of the Green Council spoke of the realm as a single, animated forest. The trees were said to possess a mobility and will on par with any of the Mindful Races while being able to grow and regenerate at supernaturally fast rates.

Iana smiled thinking about that. The other realms knew nothing of the miracles those of the Green Council were capable of performing. Let Gallagrin have its bonds to terrible mountain spirits. Let Paxmer have its dragons. The Green Council’s magic was deeper and stronger than any of them. She didn’t work with spirits or dragons but with the magic of life itself.

Life isn’t kind though. It’s rough and voracious and hungry, which fit her mood perfectly.

Senkin had expected the Green Council’s defenses to lie in the trees and brambles which filled the realm and made travel through it almost impossible for invaders. The enchantments which defended Iana’s homeland were far from its only protection though and as one of the prime commanders of the Warbringer squadrons, Iana intended to enlighten them, and the rest of the world to that fact.

That piloting her Warbringer in actual battle at last gave her a deeper thrill than any she’d experienced in her life was nothing more than a pleasant perk.

Flush with an intoxicating flood of excitement, she pushed forward, taking the lead position as was only natural for commanding her army.

The other realms called the Green Council’s magic “Nature Binding” and thought of it as nothing more than the ability to manipulate trees. It was an intentional misunderstanding the Green Council had been wise enough to foster in its neighbors.

Iana’s Warbringer was formed from material that could be mistaken for a tree. At a great distance. On a dark night. As she urged it down the hill into Senkin territory though anyone viewing it would have thought of the Warbringer as some sort of protean giant. It stood as tall as six large men, but hundreds of times more massive. Its gargantuan form was a composed of constantly rearranging vines and bark and exposed wood, with the only discernible features being the emerald bright fires that burned where its eyes and mouth should have been. For all of the wildness that lashed out from it though, the whole creation was under her complete control, which was the eeriest aspect the giant possessed. It didn’t move like a behemoth should move, and it was faster and more aware than anything its size had the right to be.

For as terrifying as Iana’s Warbringer was though wasn’t how it moved, but rather that it didn’t march alone.

Behind her came the warriors under her command, a dozen of them, each driving their own enormous engine of living destruction. Under their feet, the land trembled and through the air a sickly yellow mist spread.

There were border guards who stood before them. Loyal Senkin troops, who’d been exiled to the least glorious assignment in the realm. Purposeless for generations as they protected Senkin from a neighbor who had no interest in the world outside its borders. The last thing any of them could have imagined was being called to arms by a horn that hadn’t sounded in centuries.

Iana wanted to sweep over them like a tempest and grind them into loam for her Warbringer to feed upon.

She crashed forward towards them, hungry mouths with bramble spears for teeth opening on each finger of her Warbringer’s massive hands. Confronted with the onrushing horror of her approach, the Senkin troops lashed out with the solar fires they were gifted with.

Lances of light three times the width of a soldier’s arm punched through Iana’s Warbringer’s legs in four places. Two more beams crashed into her chest at the same time. All six attacks sparked fires and blasted through her form, burning into the Warbringers behind her.

Iana didn’t slow in the slightest. The damage to her legs was regenerated as fast as the solar fire could burn her. The chest of the mighty construct shrank slightly as material from it was consumed in fire but the hungry twisting of the vines pulled the flaming bits inside the main body and the emerald fire of its eyes and mouth flared briefly brighter.

Chaos erupted in the Senkin ranks as their attacks failed to damage the charging horde of tree-man-monsters. Some fled immediately, crashing into others who were racing to join the hastily assembled front lines. Others continued their futile attacks while one had the presence of mind to erect a wide shield of glittering golden light.

Iana was the first to reach the radiant shield and she met it with the fury that had been kindled inside her. Senkin had violated the peace between them. They were the enemy. The Green Council wasn’t weak, but Iana knew that on this field, on this day, she and those she commanded were the only ones who could stand against the Council’s enemies. Without her to protect her realm, years of sacrifice and the hopes of those who came before her would be lost.

Not today. Her heart’s vow was echoed by the other Warbringer pilots under her command.

She hammered on the shield and watched it flicker and fade where she hit it, only to be renewed as other Senkin guards took up defensive casting as well.

“Flank them,” Iana said, speaking aloud and knowing that no matter how far the Warbringers were from each other, their pilots would hear her without issue. “Make them spread their shields out.”

In the distance behind the shield, Iana saw people rousing and starting to flee the border town. She cursed as they escaped. They were enemies, even in flight, and to fail to stop them immediately meant that they would be back later with reinforcements.

The thought provoked her to a greater flurry of rage and, with the Warbringer’s spiked hands, she tore a hole in the projected shield and belched forth green fire.

The primary caster of the shield let the spell down at the last instant and summoned a smaller, personal shield. The two other casters who joined her were not as reactive though. Iana’s fire washed over those two, searing them to dust while the primary caster’s personal shield struggled to weather the storm that assailed it.

As the shield collapsed, Iana lunged forward, racing to catch the clever caster in her grip before the soldier could mount any new defenses. For as fast as the Warbringer was though, the Senkin caster was quicker. Fire shot from her hands and feet, blasting into Iana’s legs and slowing the Warbringer down while the caster flew backwards into the air, buying space and time.

Iana lashed out with long vines from the Warbringer, catching the Senkin caster by surprise. Another caster seared the vines away with another lance of light.

More vines poured from the Warbringer, which the flying caster evaded by soaring higher and the second caster destroyed with her solar lance.

Despite failing to capture the Senkin soldiers though, the vines accomplished their purpose. Both of the soldiers were too distracted evading or destroying the vines to observe how far Iana’s Warbringer moved.

The clever caster tried to conjure another shield the moment she noticed how much Iana had closed the distance between them, but Iana landed a solid smash from the Warbringers spiked hand on the flying soldier. The blow drove the Senkin from the air, sending her in a straight line to crash into one of the buildings in the border town.

Iana stomped on the other soldier, driving her into the ground and extinguishing the solar lance that the woman held.

A massive ram of blinding light smashed into the Warbringers chest, driving it backwards a few paces. With eyes of fire, Iana didn’t need to wait for her vision to clear and she saw the flying soldier struggling to rise, her hand dropping after the release of the incredible attack.

Iana stepped forward again, intent on finishing the job she started and ridding the world of an enemy of the Green Council. She couldn’t let these soldiers become someone else’s problem to deal with. She had to end each and every one of them so that those she was charged with protecting would never be endangered or lost.

Another massive blast of light knocked Iana backwards, though this time she was braced for it and wasn’t driven off as far.

The clever caster, flashed forward in a burst of golden light, stopped beside the other soldier that Iana had crushed into the earth. Iana saw blood pouring from a gash on the clever caster’s head, but the soldier looked at the Warbringer with an anger that matched Iana’s own. The other soldier looked broken but was still breathing.

For a moment it looked like Iana might eradicate both of the Senkins who were preventing her from pursuing the fleeing soldiers but then two other Warbringers caught up with her and the Senkin soldier cursed. Before Iana could strike, both soldiers disappeared in another burst golden light.

The Senkins had suffered casualties but far too few.  Iana knew that regardless of the days outcome there would be a reckoning. Senkins counterattack was inevitable. She didn’t fear that either for herself or for her troops. They would be victorious in every battle they fought, or they would fall and be replaced and join their gods in the slumber of the Wintering Green. It was the promise made to all of the warriors of the Green Council.

More flashes of golden light caught Iana’s attention, as the Senkin casters who were still able to move fled the town. They would be back, but Iana was determined that they would never reclaim their town.

Turning her Warbringer to face the building beside her, she sent roots and tendrils crashing through it, tearing the structure apart with an irresistible strength. Around her the other Warbringers commenced similar efforts of destruction and a town that had stood for centuries was torn down and consumed by the hungry forest in minutes.

Iana looked around at the work of her army when they were done and smiled. The yellow mist that was spreading over the hills was seeding the land with furious new growth and shrouding it, just as the Green Council was shrouded, from the hostile spells and scryings of any foreign power.

Gallagrin had shown the world that the gods no longer protected the lands of the Blessed Realms. The Green Council would show the world why it had never needed divine protection.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 2

Jyl Lafli envied the dragons of Paxmer. When a young dragon was ready to leave its creche and be properly trained, the adult dragon responsible for them was allowed, required even, to bath them in searing flame until the last traces of adolescent stupidity were burned away.

“This drill makes no sense,” Eorn Bromli said, dropping the sacks that she was holding out at arm’s length before collapsing to sit on the stone floor of the training room.

Beside her, the other newest candidate for the Queen’s Guard, Undine Kebrom, dropped the sacks he was holding and put his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. He looked over at Eorn and then at Jyl before offering a small, silent shrug.

Neither of them understood the point of the training, which was fine, since Jyl wasn’t primarily focused on teaching them. Instead, she was testing them, like Dae had tested her. The only problem was that neither of the new recruits seemed to be capable of passing the test.

“This next bit will make even less sense then,” Jyl said. “Pick the sacks back up, we’re going to start doing laps with them.”

She lifted her own sandbags and waited for the two Guard candidates to follow suit. Eorn scowled but forced herself to her feet without voicing her displeasure further. She didn’t exactly follow Jyl’s instructions though. Before picking up the sacks, she helped Undine get back on his feet and picked up his sacks for him.

Jyl refrained from commenting on the delay. In stopping to help Undine, Eorn was demonstrating how a member of the Queen’s Guard should think. For his part, Undine didn’t seem overly joyous for the help, but he accepted it with a begrudging smile nonetheless.

Without waiting for the new recruits to declare themselves ready, Jyl took off, setting a pace her trainees could have easily matched at the start of the work out.

The training room was large, but even so it only took two circuits around it before Jyl lapped Undine. Eorn was a few steps ahead of him, urging him on with glances and words of encouragement.

“You look like you’re reaching the end of your endurance,” Jyl said as she jogged easily past Undine.

“He’s fine,” Eorn said. “Just leave him alone.”

“Is that right?” Jyl asked. “Are you fine Kebrom?”

“Yes,” Undine said through gritted teeth. The word wheezed out of him, forcing a path through breathless exhaustion.

“Good, then we should be able to chat,” Jyl said, matching her speed to Undine’s.

“Ok,” Undine said and started walking.

“I said chat, not rest,” Jyl said. “Keep going. We’ve got eighty more laps to do.”

Undine stumbled but caught himself before he could drop.

“Ok.” he said again, cutting off the violent words that had gathered behind Eorn’s teeth.

“What are we doing here?” Jyl asked.

“Wasting time with stupid exercises,” Eorn said.

Jyl smirked and then turned around, running backwards to face Undine as they continued.

“And what do you think the point of this is?” she asked.

“You’re testing us,” Undine said. “You need to weed out the weak.”

“Good,” Jyl said. “Look at what we’re doing, both of you. Tell me what’s wrong with it.”

“You’re torturing us,” Eorn said.

“Am I?” Jyl asked. “You’re holding up.”

Jyl shifted her gaze from Eorn to watch a flicker of fear pass across Undine’s face. She knew the doubt that was eating away at him, and hoped he’d figure out how overcome it and pass her test.

“That’s not fair,” Eorn said. “I’m a stone giant, we don’t get tired.”

Jyl smiled, Eorn had a different set of issues than Undine did, and while correcting some of her misconceptions wasn’t going to be easy, the end result looked like it might be worth it. Burning the stupid out of both of them was still an option that Jyl wished was on the table, but the longer she worked with the two, the more she could glimpse of what Queen Alari saw in them.

“I’m going to remind you of that at lap fifty,” Jyl said. “What else is wrong though?”

“We’re hurting, but it’s doing us no good,” Undine said. “This is too much exertion for a training session.”

“That’s right,” Jyl said. “Even with accelerated healing you’re going to feel this tomorrow morning.”

“So you are torturing us?” Eorn said. “Does the Queen know about this?”

“This isn’t torture,” Jyl said. “It’s training.”

“You just said it was too much exercise for a training session,” Eorn said.

“I did,” Jyl said. “So what does that mean?”

“That you’re an…” Eorn didn’t get to finish her sentence though. Undine interrupted her.

“That this isn’t about training our bodies,” Undine said. “You’re testing us, or training us to think, or both.”

“So what’s the test then?” Jyl asked.

“We need to figure out something,” Undine said. “Something that’s wrong.”

Jyl could see his arms trembling with fatigue. Thinking through that kind of pain was no fun, but after her experiences in Paxmer, Jyl felt like the ability to focus and evaluate things even under the worst of circumstances was an invaluable tool that the Queen’s Guard had to possess.

Undine didn’t have the skill yet, but he was managing to buy time with his rambling thoughts and his words served another purpose; they inspired Eorn.

“Wait,” Eorn said. “There is something wrong here. How in the Nine Hells are you running along with sacks just as big as the ones we’re carrying? And you’re not even breaking a sweat yet.”

Jyl let a wide smile beam out from her face. The wheels were starting to turn in their heads and Jyl was starting to think that maybe these two did have a chance at working out.

Eorn was a stone giant, or mostly so. Her family had mixed heritage between humans and giants. Eorn favored the giant side of her ancestry, with the rock grey skin and close to seven feet of height that came with it. While it wasn’t true that she didn’t get tired, she was blessed with the sort of strength and stamina that was unmatched outside of Pact Spirit bonds.

Undine, by contrast, was human, and almost painfully thin. His whiplike body was quick and nimble and stronger than most gave him credit for being, but in terms of raw physical power he’d never come close to matching Eorn.

Neither of them were running the laps as effortlessly as Jyl though, despite the fact that as an elf, she was the shortest of three by a wide margin, and easily the weakest as well.

“That’s a good question,” Undine said. “Are you carrying feathers there?”

“I’ll trade you,” Jyl said, offering her bags to Undine.

He quickly passed his own to Jyl and took hers quickly, only to frown when he discovered that the bags she’d given him were heavier than the ones he gave away.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “How is this possible?”

“She’s cheating,” a new voice said.

Jyl felt a chill run down her spine as she whipped around to confirm her fears.

In the next door along the training room wall they were running beside, stood a woman who was Jyl’s mirror image.

“That’s the first rule with my sister,” Jaan Lafli said. “She always cheats.”

“Ignore her,” Jyl said, her lips freezing into a hard line as they ran past. Jaan was lounging propped against the side of the doorframe and watched them go by with a sardonic smile on her lips and a fixed gleam in her eye.

“But I’m right!” Jaan said. “Ask her!”

“Who is that woman?” Eorn asked.

“Someone who shouldn’t be here,” Jyl said, as their pace took them away from her sister.

“Are you cheating?” Undine asked.

“No,” Jyl said. “But think of what I told you.”

“You said no magic,” Eorn said. “We had to do this the hard way.”

“No,” Undine said. “She didn’t say no magic, she said no transformation.”

“It’s the same thing,” Eorn said.

Undine picked up her pace and let a weary smile lift his lips.

“No,” he said. “It’s not. Am I right?”

“I don’t know,” Jyl said, pride starting to kindle behind her eyes. “Show me.”

She watched as Undine’s eyes darted left and right, seeking knowledge and looking to his imagination for how to pull off the feat Jyl could see that he was contemplating.

Confusion and planning gave way to resolve and a fierce, joyful focus replaced the fatigue that had weighed his face into a mask of pain a moment before.

There was just the slightest crackle of magic that rippled along Undine’s body as he stood up straight and jogged easily past Jyl and Eorn both.

“What the?” Eorn asked, struggling to process the sudden change in her friend.

“The rules are that we can’t transform,” Undine said. “So just call for a little bit of magic whenever you feel tired.”

“We can do that?” Eorn asked.

“It’s not against the rules,” Jyl said. “Just don’t call so much that you go Berserker on us.”

“So you were cheating!” Eorn said as she called on her Pact Spirit for a burst of magic.

Jyl watched a pair of gauntlets form around Eorn’s wrist and shook her head.

“Cheating is manifesting any armor,” she said. “You’re back to a lap count of one.”

Eorn scowled and released her magic, dispelling the gauntlets.

“How are we supposed to pull off subtle casting while we’re running?” Eorn said.

“I thought stone giants didn’t get tired?” Jyl asked.

Eorn scowled and kept running without reaching for her magic.

They ran another fifty laps, with Jaan watching them the whole time. Jyl was happy that for once her evil twin was willing to stay silent, but with each lap, her dread of talking to Jaan rose. Jaan was their family’s favorite of the twins. Jyl had made the mistake of following her mother’s path and divorcing herself from her family’s politics, where Jyl had been a model grand daughter to their Duke. For Jaan to turn up uninvited meant that the family’s current political crisis was trying to land on Jyl’s shoulders and she wanted no part of that nest of vipers, and most especially no part of her sister.

“Is there another test here?” Undine asked, still keeping pace with Jyl but showing a level of fatigue that had little to do with the demands placed on his body.

“There is,” Jyl said. “But we haven’t reached it yet.”

“You’re not going to wear us out,” Eorn said through gritted teeth. The stone giant was breathing heavily but her shoulders were unbowed. Even without the ability to call on pact magic to refresh her strength, Eorn was keeping up with Jyl and Undine, though the cost of doing so was written on her face in clear lines.

“What happens if one of us doesn’t make it that far?” Undine asked, casting a worried glance at Eorn.

“We have to,” Jyl said. “There’s no option for failure here.”

“And do we have to run the laps?” Undine asked.

“We need travel around this room a hundred times, each of us,” Jyl said. “And the sacks we’re carrying be any closer to the ground than waist height or be left behind at any point.”

“Can we do more than a hundred laps?” Undine asked.

“We can do as many as we need too,” Jyl said.

“Perfect,” Undine said and added, “Eorn, catch me.”

With that, Undine, hopped up onto Eorn’s shoulders. The giant woman stumbled but didn’t fall down as the weight she was carrying tripled.

“What are you doing?” Eorn asked, gasping at the added exertion.

“This,” Undine said and placed his hands on Eorn’s arms. Jyl wanted to jump for joy when she saw a sparkle of magic pass from the human man to the giant woman. In response to the charge, Eorn straightened and breathed her first easy breath in minutes.

“Oh, that’s a lot better,” she said. “Why didn’t you do that sooner?”

“Just thought of it,” Undine said.

“Let’s finish this up then,” Jyl said, mischief lighting up her eyes. A moment later she vanished and was halfway around the training room.

“Oh, it’s on!” Eorn said, and with Undine feeding her magic the race began in earnest.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 1

Dae woke to the feeling of Alari’s arms wrapped around her and the soreness in her throat that told her she’d been screaming in her sleep again.

For a long moment the Queen’s Champion did nothing but force herself into a pattern of long, steady breaths while her heart quieted from its nightmare induced pounding. The image she woke from was always the same. One step. Just one backwards step. That was all it took. Her dreams rarely showed her what came next, but they were so clear on the moments leading up to it, perfectly capturing the memories of the pain and terror she’d suffered and mixing them with the fears that she’d never survive an encounter like that again.

“You woke faster this time,” Alari said, the words warm on Dae’s neck.

“And woke you again,” Dae said, trying to force levity into her voice. It was a hollow effort though and she added in a softer voice, “I’m sorry. It shouldn’t be like this.”

Alari squeezed Dae into a tight hug for a long moment before releasing the embrace and trailing her hand down Dae’s back. They were together in Alari’s personal chambers, in the tallest tower of Highcrest Castle. The room’s previous resident, the Butcher King, had ensured that the room was completely soundproofed. Most people assumed King Sathe’s motives for doing that were diabolic, but in the years since taking the throne, Alari had come to see that being able to block out the world was, at times, a priceless gift beyond anything else in her treasury could offer.

“You’re wounded,” Alari said. “And it was my plan that put you in harm’s way.”

The Royal bedroom wasn’t large as chambers went in Castle Highcrest, but there had always been an emptiness to it despite the personal touches that Alari added to make it feel like a proper refuge. In the early years of her marriage to Prince Halrek of Paxmer, they’d shared a bed in the room, and even conceived a child in it. There may not have been love filling that bower, but, at the time, Alari imagined that there was at least respect and camaraderie.

She and Halrek had weathered days of strife together and had tasted the fruits of victory after becoming the Queen and Consort-King of Gallagrin. With their unborn child, Alari had imagined that the emptiness in her world would at last be filled, but in place of filial devotion, Halrek had filled the room with poison. Literal poison. Administered so carefully and with such devastating precision that she’d nearly died and their child had been lost.

After that, the royal bedroom had been empty. Halrek had fled to other quarters “to allow her time to heal” and Alari had greeted each night as little more than an empty void of darkness where her dead spirit could lay unmoving until the time eventually came to go to her final rest beneath Gallagrin’s soil.

Dae had changed that. Even beyond slaying the abomination that Halrek Paxmer had become, she’s breathed new life in Alari’s world. With Dae’s bright fire burning beside her, Alari woke each morning to discover that she was far from dead. There was too much left in life for her to let the past steal away her future.

“You shouldn’t have to care for me like this,” Dae said, sounding more tired than even the lateness of the hour could explain.

Alari drew her back into an embrace and kissed her. Dae was cold for a moment, returning neither embrace, nor kiss, but by degrees she melted in Alari’s arms and carefully lifted her arm to drawn Alari in as tightly as Alari held her.

When they finally parted, it was Alari who spoke first.

“You’ve cared for me since the first time we met,” she said. “For all of my powers as princess and queen, I’ve never been able to return half of the love you’ve given to me, so, please, let me help you, don’t push me away.”

“Never,” Dae said, allowing a small smile to break across her lips. “But I’m not much of a knight for you if I’m so broken that even a little dream wrecks your slumber like this.”

Alari leaned her forehead to press against Dae’s.

“You will always be my knight,” she said. “What you are not, is giving yourself enough credit. You stood against the Divine Dragon of Paxmer. Your bravery is something no one is allowed to question.”

“It wasn’t really bravery,” Dae said, and dropped her gaze to the billowing white blankets that covered the bed they shared like an expanse of clouds.

“Whatever it was, whatever you want to name it, you came back to me,” Alari said. “And that’s all that matters.”

“I don’t like being like this,” Dae said.

“With me?” Alari said, asked in a lightly teasing tone. “In my bed?”

Dae looked up, and smiled, just in time for Alari to kiss her again.

“Ok, it’s not all bad,” Dae said twining her fingers in Alari’s hair, after Alari broke the kiss and let her breath.

“No,” Alari said. “Not all bad at all. But not all right either. You’ve been through a lot. No one’s ever done what you did. It’s not surprising that it came with a cost, and the need to heal afterwards.”

“Yeah, part of me knows that you’re right,” Dae said. “But that doesn’t make it any easier to feel so weak. Not when I’m supposed to be the strong one.”

“I don’t think this kind of thing can be easy,” Alari said. “And you don’t have to the strong one, I just need you to be mine, and you just need time.”

“Time sucks,” Dae said. “Not that I mind this particular time, or any time we get that’s like this, but I can’t feel myself getting any better. What if this is just how I am from now on?”

“Then we adapt,” Alari said. “I want you to feel whole and well, but in this case what I want doesn’t matter. What matters is what you need, and if you need me to hold you every night? Well I I’ll never get tired of doing that.”

“Thank you,” Dae said. “I know this can’t be fun for you either, but, thank you.”

“You really did wake up sooner this time,” Alari said. “It may not feel like you’re getting better, but I think you’re healing little by little.”

“That’s good,” Dae said. “I just wish Kirios was recovering at the same time.”

“He’s a spirit,” Alari said. “I’m sure he’ll be back to full strength soon.”

“Maybe,” Dae said. “But he shouldn’t be able to get injured in the first place.”

“Maybe he isn’t?” Alari said. “You did something incredible with your Pact Bond when you faced Haldraxan. Anyone else would have lost themselves to the magic and become a Berserker, but together you and Kirios held on. Maybe he’s not hurt, maybe he’s just drained. That had to be more magic that you would have normally channeled in a year. The poor guy might just be tired still, or whatever the spiritual equivalent of that is.”

“I’ve let him rest for a month now,” Dae said. “No transformations, no summoning, no magic at all, and it still feels like we’re tapped out.”

“Yet another reason to not push yourself,” Alari said.

“It doesn’t feel like the rest of the world agrees with that idea,” Dae said. “How much longer can you hold the noble’s here?”

“Till the last of the Nine Hells freezes over,” Alari said. “And, if they’re wise, not one of them will complain about it.”

“When was the last time one of your nobles was wise?” Dae asked.

“I’m not sure,” Alari said. “I’m also not sure I care.”

“I agree,” Dae said. “None of them are worth a moment of your concern, but I know you. As mad as you are at them, you can’t escape from thinking about the filthy bunch of traitors. Or feeling responsible for them.”

Alari closed her eyes and sighed.

“I’m not concerned about my responsibility towards them,” she said. “I’m worried at how much I want to throw that responsibility away.”

Dae leaned back and allowed herself to take in the tension that curled Alari’s hands into fists within the blanket.

“After we toppled my father, I forgave those who sided with him,” she said. “I lost allies by trying to treat my former enemies fairly. I wasn’t being weak or merciful. I wanted Gallagrin united so that what few resources we had could be used to build back the strength that my war took from the realm.”

“I saw what looked like for the common folks,” Dae said. “There was some confusion, but your people were with you,” Dae said. “No one wanted pockets of fighting to break out again.”

“No one except my allies who thought they’d grow rich on the plunder of the losing duchies,” Alari said.

“That would have been costly plunder,” Dae said.

“Yes,” Alari said. “Every life lost would have been another Gallagrin citizen I failed to protect. So I spent six years carefully juggling all of their competing interests, only for Halrek to build up enough backing to feel secure in trying to overthrow me.”

“And you forgave them again,” Dae said.

“Because I couldn’t prove who his backers were,” Alari said.

“Well, we knew Duke Telli was backing him,” Dae said.

“And you cut his head off,” Alari said. “Which I am still grateful for.”

“That suggests an obvious solution to the current problem,” Dae said. “I don’t need to transform to wield a sword. Or a headsman’s axe.”

Alari offer her a weak and conflicted smile.

“And that’s the problem,” she said. “I am tired of them. My allies and my enemies. All of my nobles. They all sided with Sanli. She tricked them with the simplest of ploys, not because she was a genius at deception but because they wanted to be tricked.”

“Some of them abstained from calling for the contest against you,” Dae said.

“So some of them were brave enough to admit that they hate me, and the rest are cowards,” she said, clutching the covers tight enough to her chest to turn her knuckles white.

“Most of them came to power under your father’s rule,” Dae said. “That doesn’t excuse them, but it does explain why we have such a rotten bunch to work with now.”

“And there’s the heart of my problem,” Alari said. “I know what to do with them. I even know where the headman’s axe that I should be putting into your hand is.”

“My blade’s already tasted royal blood,” Dae said. “Clearing the current slate of traitors off the board won’t dirty it any further.”

“The blood on your blade shows nothing more than your honor and your prowess,” Alari said. “If I slay my nobles, I will need to slay their families too. And their supporters. And those who would stand in their defense. Or who might take revenge for their loss. That was the road my father walked down, and more and more it seems that it’s the only one that’s open to me.”

“That’s not true. You’re better than he was,” Dae said. “You’ve always been better than him.”

“Am I?” Alari asked. “His madness waits in my blood too. I feel like with just the right push I’d slide down into the same abyss that he did.”

Dae reached out and took Alari’s hands in her own.

“That’s not true. You have been pushed farther than anyone I have ever known or heard of. You’re never going to be swallowed by your father’s madness.”

“Maybe,” Alari said. “But I still don’t trust myself to deal with my nobles yet.”

“What about the other monarchs?” Dae asked, changing the subject to a less fraught topic. “Are you sure that the council you’ve called is going to work?”

“Sure? No, not at all,” Alari said. “On the positive side though, the only other Realm monarch I’ve ever wanted to murder is locked up in my garden, and has become surprisingly charming.”

“Haldri’s plotting to escape then I take it?” Dae asked.

“Of course,” Alari said. “It’s one of the things we talk about.”

“I still find that amazing in a very disturbing sense,” Dae said. “But I think it also speaks to your fears too. You’re not going to become your father, and you’re not going to drown in the blood of Gallagrin’s nobles. Not if you could hold yourself back from killing Haldri Paxmer, and especially not if you could hold me back from killing her.”

“Well, tomorrow the formal invitations to the Council of the Realms go out,” Alari said. “So I suppose the Grand Convocation I’ve held our nobles under will have to start drawing to a close.”

“Whatever you choose to do, I’ll be there with you,” Dae said.

“That’s what makes it all bearable,” Alari said and snuggled deeper into Dae’s embrace as they watched the night slowly give way to the first light of a new dawn.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 47 (Epilogue)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haldraxan,” Jyl said. “The big one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Magic charm of fearlessness?” Merrin guessed.

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds like her alright,” Merrin said.

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

“That definitely sounds like her,” Merrin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paid?” Jyl asked.

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

“What did you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s remarkably mercenary,” Jyl said.

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

Jyl laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds complicated,” Merrin said.

“Relationships always are,” Jyl said and yawned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she fearless or something?” Merrin asked.

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

“That sounds sort of crazy,” Merrin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greedy how?” Dae asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Other callings?” Dae asked, bewildered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just give me the word,” Dae said.

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

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

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

Alari simply smiled and shrugged.

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

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

Dae recoiled to the foot of the bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“And who will that be?” Estella asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because we need them,” Alari said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A what now?” Haldri asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Alari said. “You don’t.”

Haldri screamed in rage.

“Why? Why do this? What do you gain?”

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

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

“Spoken like a dragon,” Dae said.

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

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

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

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

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

Haldri looked puzzled for a moment and then understanding blossomed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How does the contest stand?” Dae asked.

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

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

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

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

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 44

Alari watched the Dragon King of Paxmer drown her Knight Champion in fire so hot it melted stone in an instant. Her heart clenched as the flames roared, on one level knowing Dae’s strength and trusting it, but on another terrified of the precipice of loss they stood on.

Gallagrin was slipping away from her. Sanli’s words were gaining support among the nobles and tipping the balance of power away from Alari with every passing second. The Duchess wouldn’t be able to secure the throne without defeating Alari personally, but, if she could gather enough backers to support her banner, the battle would be a very one sided one.

The prospect of losing Gallagrin was a distant second in her mind compared to the prospect of losing her knight though. A world without her crown was a bearable one. Sanli would be a terrible queen, but Gallagrin had survived terrible queens and kings before and it would doubtlessly do so again.

A world without Dae was a different story. Alari had spent too many years alone already. The vision of spending the rest of her life without the one she wanted to be with was terrible enough that Alari forced it from her mind.

Or she tried to.

Haldraxan’s attack was far more powerful than anything they’d planned on countering. The Lightning Ballista weren’t the only weapon the Royal Army had brought to the battle, but the devastation the Dragon King inflicted on the mountain had removed the support troops and their enchanted tools from the equation. Only Dae’s presence on the battlefield stood against Gallagrin’s total defeat.

“The end is coming soon,” Haldri said. “Are there any words you would like to be buried with?”

“I could ask you the same question,” Alari said, defiance and anxiety warring in her voice. “Your king is in more jeopardy than you know.”

“Do you think so?” Haldri asked. “Are you so blind that you can’t see that he is toying with your knight? It’s not often that my Haldraxan gets to play with a toy of her equal. Sadly he is not gentle with enemies that amuse him. He’ll only get in an hour or two of breaking her before there’s nothing left in the poor woman to experience the fear and pain that’s holding her paralyzed now.”

On the field below them, Estella sur Korkin appeared at the foot of the mountain. Alari watched Haldri and bit back a cold grin.

Haldri’s reaction was less suppressed. Surprise and fear flashed across the Queen of Paxmer’s face at the new turn of events. Her eyes sought to drink in the newcomer’s identity and determine if Gallagrin was unleashing a new weapon on her exposed co-ruler. The concern faded quickly into irritation and disgust though as she recognized her subject, the Lady sur Korkin.

“Betrayed by our own again?” Haldri said and sighed with weary displeasure.

Alari fought to keep the concern she was feeling foremost on her face as a mask for the relief bubbling below the surface. Haldri had missed something vitally important about Estella’s arrival.

The Lady sur Korkin was not a Pact Knight. She couldn’t have survived the fall from the lowest of the catacomb galleries to the jagged ground that lay at the foot of the mountains. There hadn’t been time for her to climb down either. More importantly, and unknown to Haldri, there was no chance that any of Alari’s forces would have allowed an ally like Estella sur Korkin to throw her life away confronting a monster like Haldraxan.

Alari wasn’t sure how, but she was sure that the vision of Estella sur Korkin who walked to stand before her daughter was not exactly real.

Alari was at a loss to explain how that was possible, but she was still sure it was true as she watched the noblewoman move casually over a landscape that was threaded with veins of molten lava.

Dae could survive there because she was Gallagrin’s premiere Pact Knight. Lava can kill in a variety of manners though and even apart from that, the ground was simply too uneven for someone to glide over as Estella did.

The Sunlost Isles had provided a cadre of glamour casters at Alari’s request. They’d helped hide the movements of the Gallagrin Royal Army, by creating the illusion that the army was gathering on the border between Gallagrin and Paxmer. That ensured that no one would suspect it was actually marching beneath that border, right behind a group of exceedingly proficient miners. Utilizing the Sunlost casters was in both countries best interest but it had still been prohibitively expensive. Somehow though, Alari reasoned, Dae had managed to find another glamour caster on her trip through Paxmer.

Haldraxan “killed” the Lady sur Korkin, showing the sort of ingenuity which Alari had suspected he must possess in terms of escaping the limitations which bound him from harming Paxmer citizens. Haldri smiled at that victory, though Alari also saw a crease of concern play across her lips. The Queen of Paxmer had, perhaps, not been aware of her Dragon King’s ability to work outside of her control.

On the field below, Haldraxan renewed his assault on Dae, and Alari watched as the woman she loved suffered in frozen silence from the ravages of the worst attacks the Dragon King could deal.

“I think that fool sur Korkin managed to annoy my King,” Haldri said. “He’s not going to forgive that. I doubt I will even be able to convince him to hold to our plan for a bloodless transition of power.”

If Dae’s strength failed, Haldri would be right. As the Gallagrin crown changed heads from Alari to Sanli, the realm would be weakened, and the Dragon Armies Haldraxan had assembled were more powerful than any force Paxmer had sent against Gallagrin before. Their victory would be all but inevitable.

But Dae wasn’t going to fail. Alari watched Dae refuse each moment to give up even an inch of ground. The agony of the dragon fear kept everyone else from venturing from the wrecked catacombs to stand by her side. No one in the Royal Army was capable of that. Being in the Paxmer’s Dragon King presence was an unbearable situation for anyone from Gallagrin, but even still Alari wished for nothing more than to be beside Dae, their hands locked together so they could face the insurmountable threat of Haldraxan’s rage as one.

“Your kingdom will fall in fire and madness, your allies will fall with it, and you will die alone and unmourned,” Haldri said, like one of the gods of old pronouncing a doom.

“My Knight stands for me,” Alari said. “I need no one but her.”

Alari’s fated life had been to be sold to another kingdom to buy her father an heir. She was done with dooms and portents and threats from those who would destroy her.

She rose from her throne, and strode with the strength she could still muster across the Grand Viewing floor.

“So you have something left in you after all?” Haldri said. “That is delightful to see. Maybe you will even manage to die with some dignity when you return home.”

“You’re strategy was well executed,” Alari said. “But the battle isn’t yet decided.”

“Of course it’s decided,” Haldri said. “Your knight doesn’t have unlimited magic. My king does. Their battle was over before it was begun.”

“Are you sure of that?” Alari asked, watching Dae withstand still more attacks, weathering a storm that was reducing the mountains to dust and the earth to a blasted wasteland.

“Yes,” Haldri said. “Just as I am sure that your death is going to change the world. No two monarchs of the Blessed Realms have ever taken a quarrel as far as we have. My victory is going to resound like the ringing of a great bell. My conquest of your realm will set the tone for how the realms handle conflict for all time to come.”

“And what tone will that be?” Alari asked.

“Once Gallagrin falls, the rest of the realms will go to war as well,” Haldri said. “Not instantly, but once Frost Helm discovers that realms can be overthrown they will start sharpening their axes for use on Sunlost. And Senkin will go the same with their eye on the Green Council and Inchesso. The next century will run with blood and fire and by the end of it, my dragons will fly free over all of the lands that are not reduced to ash and charcoal.”

“That’s the legacy you would leave in the world?” Alari asked, at once horrified and surprised at Haldri’s words.

“In Paxmer, our dragons are our legacy,” Haldri said. “They are the only thing which will survive the ages that grind us back to the dust we rose from.”

“In Gallagrin, it is our spirits that carry our legacy,” Alari said. “Each detail of our lives are remembered and inform, on some level, the generations to come.”

“And what will those generations says when their spirits are broken and scattered?” Haldri asked.

Alari blinked and glanced down. It wasn’t Haldri’s question that troubled her, but rather her own words. Revenge and rage had pushed her on, with reason supplying the justification and method for destroying Paxmer’s Queen and Paxmer itself in the process.

But Paxmer wouldn’t be the only realm to fall. Whatever the outcome of the battle, Haldri was correct. The next century would see the blood and warfare on a scale undreamt of in ages past. In loosing her anger, Alari was poised to show the world how a realm could be shattered and how the old guardians could die.

And yet, even knowing that, she couldn’t pull back and couldn’t regret her actions. Haldri Paxmer had to be defeated. Haldraxan and his Dragon Army had to be stopped.

Below them, there was movement on the ground. Alari caught it before Haldri did and wasn’t able to stop the smile that broke across her face like a new dawn.

“Your Dragon King is strong,” Alari said. “But that’s not enough to break her spirit.”

“Who?” Haldri demanded, new anger kindling in her eyes.

“My Knight,” Alari said. “And my beloved.”

They watched as Dae moved, one step at a time, impossibly forward. In a wave that rippled and distorted the air around them, Haldraxan’s fear aura buckled and rebounded on him as Dae pressed inevitably closer.

“That’s not possible!” Haldri’s scream was loud enough to be heard throughout the God’s Hall and could have carried to the battlefield itself if not for the privacy wards the gods had in place.

“That’s my knight,” Alari said.

Behind Dae, an illusion spell dropped away revealing Estella sur Korkin, a young woman who was clearly her younger daughter, and one of Alari’s Queen’s Guard. On the far side of Haldraxan, Alari’s other Guardian, Mayleena Telli stood, silent and inviting the massed army of dragons to descend and join the fray. None of the far off dragons seemed interested in doing so though.

There was a strange sparkle in Jyl’s hand and it took Alari a moment to understand what she was seeing there.

The gleaming gem was no ordinary stone. It burned with a light that Alari had only seen lodged within divine artifacts.

With Haldraxan’s attention completely focused on Dae, no one had been paying attention to the actions of one, small, invisible elf. Even Haldraxan himself hadn’t noticed when the dungeon delving adventurer had stolen one of the most powerful artifacts in the world from his brow.

“No!” Haldri’s rage was being pulled under by currents of fear as powerful as a dragon aura, but which rose from a wholly natural origin.

“Yes,” Alari said. “You’ve lost Paxmer. You dragons. Your power. Your throne.”

“I still have power enough,” Haldri said, her eyes flickering with restrained fire. “Only someone of Paxmer blood can wield that Gem, so my strength remains for now. You, however, are no longer fully a queen, Gallagrin.”

The Paxmer Queen, left her throne, her chest pumping like a bellows to fan her rage high enough to overcome her fear.

“The God’s Hall only allows the true monarchs of the realms inside,” Haldri said. “Which means it will only protect the true monarchs.”

Alari was doubtful that the gods had designed the meeting chamber like that, but with their fall many of their old enchantments had fallen or been fractured as well.

“You are not going to survive this, even if I must choke the life from you myself,” Smoke poured from Haldri’s eyes as sparks of flames crackled from her increasingly claw-like fingers.

Alari considered running. She held too little of the Gallagrin Spirit’s power to win against  someone who was still the fully empowered regent of their realm. Running would buy her nothing though and so she simply locked eyes with Haldri and grappled with the enemy queen hand-to-hand when they met at the middle of the floor.

It was an uneven battle, and in desperation, she called for Dae, despite knowing that her knight could never hear her.

Little by little, inch by inch, Haldri drove Alari back and then down, until the Paxmer Queen had her hands around Alari’s throat and was able to begin choking the life out of her.

The royal murder was interrupted by a deep rumbling, which became a crashing tumult that sent tremors through the floor beneath them.

Alari looked up to find the source of the cataclysmic disturbance in time to see Haldraxan explode through the walls of the God’s Hall sending plaster and marble flying in every direction.

Fire was in his mouth and death was in his eyes, but on top of his head sat the Lady Daelynne Akorli, Queen’s Knight of Gallagrin, bearing the Paxmer Gem of Command that kept the mighty dragon completely under her control.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 43

Caught in Dae’s gaze, Haldraxan flared out wings large enough to cover the mountains in shadow. Dae’s knees wobbled like jelly under the renewed assault from the giant but she didn’t kneel or falter. Where her body was weak, Kirios stepped in with support, sending arcs of magic to give her the strength to stand under a weight that felt as vast as the whole world and the sky above it.

“Don’t think the quick death I granted sur Korkin is one you will share in little knight,” Haldraxan said. “My options are limited with Paxmer citizens but with you I can do anything I like.”

Behind Dae, a red glow came from the streams of rock that Haldraxan had melted to lava. The residual heat from his breath left the air hotter than a furnace and, in the wake of the inferno, a thick haze of toxic gases lingered, swirling green ribbons that settled into the ground to poison it for the foreseeable future.

Surrendered by a ruined landscape, Dae struggled against the unbearable weight of terror that Haldraxan pressed down on her, and fought the urge to survey her surroundings. Without breaking eye contact with Haldraxan, Dae saw that there was no hope for the mountains which shielded her troops, and she knew she was no mountain. Even in her regalia as the Queen’s Knight’s she had limits, and all the evidence around her showed that Haldraxan was beyond them.

“You have power, enough to survive a moment of fire,” Haldraxan said, his voice light and pleased and dripping with meance. “That is good. I want to see you burn by inches.”

His breath attack hit her like a ram, the flame carrying enough force to shatter the stone behind her. Kirios fed her power from the pool they gathered when Dae transformed and she raised her shield once more. With each moment the flames melted and shattered the edges of the barrier Dae conjured and into each crack Kirios poured more magic to repair and strengthen their defenses. When the blinding torrent finally finished, the air was left completely opaque with smoke and gaseous venom.

But Dae still held the Dragon King’s gaze.

With a growl that made the air visibly quake, Haldraxan stamped down with a foot the size of building, shattering the earth underneath him and creating a rolling ground swell that crested towards Dae like an ocean wave.

And still she held his gaze.

When the wave reached Dae, she adjusted her shield and let the rocks that were rushing towards her explode into dust as the stones were driven with overwhelming force against a barrier that refused to budge.

“Your defenses are resilient,” Haldraxan said, composing himself again. “But we both know you cannot overcome me, so please resist as long as you can. It’s so rare that I can enjoy myself like this.”

He raised a clawed hand to the sky and pulled down a handful of lightning bolts from the cloud above. The bolts struck through Dae’s shield burning her from within but Kirios was there magically restoring the damage done by the Dragon King’s attack before the lightning forced Dae to her knees.

Through all the attacks, Haldraxan never looked away from Dae though, and he never let up on his fear aura. If anything the terror grew more powerful the longer the battle lasted.

“My Knight stands for me,” Alari said. “I need no one but her.”

Dae heard those words as though they were spoken from hundreds of miles away and from within her heart at the same time.

They didn’t come as a revelation. Alari was not admitting to sentiments which she’d never voiced before. She was simply affirming them.

Somewhere far off, the Queen of Gallagrin was holding Dae very close to her heart. Unbidden, the image of a sleepy cottage, by a calm lake, in a sunlit wood, rose in Dae’s mind, reminding her of the promise she’d made to her Queen. To Alari.

They would be together again.

They would grow old with one another.

Whatever it took, Dae was going to make that happen.

The only problem was, she had no idea how she was going to accomplish that.

Haldraxan was right when he said she couldn’t overcome him. With each assault, his attacks drained the magic she’d gathered in her transformation. His strength wasn’t subject to mortal limitations, and hers was. Once it was expended, she could reach for more, but with the dragon fear pressing on her, Dae wasn’t sure she could manage even one additional recasting of her armor. Her mind felt as clumsy and unwieldy as her shaking fingers were.

She looked inside for the rage that carried her into brawls and battles before and found it cowering before the unimaginable might that Haldraxan wielded.

I can’t beat him, she thought and wrestled with the desire to look away for some other trick that could save her and the people in her care.

No, she said, refusing to so much as blink.

Instead she focused her gaze onto the eyes of the Dragon King, unwilling to cede even one step of the battle to him. Blades of fear punched into her in response, but she forced herself to look at him anyways.

She didn’t notice that Haldraxan stilled in response. All Dae saw was herself, reflected in the enormous black pools of death that served as the windows to Haldraxan’s soul. The Dragon king lowered his head, bringing it closer to hers, focusing his whole aura into the dread spotlight of his gaze.

Dae felt a physical force driving against her. It was raw mystical fear made tangible. Before it could push her back though, Kirios cast the last of their magic into her to give Dae the power to stand against it.

Rage wouldn’t come for her, but in Haldraxan’s eyes, Dae saw herself. She was only a tiny figure, clad in silver and glowing like a small star swallowed up by the deepest of nights. For all that the Dragon King had pushed at her, for all that the mind shattering terror he commanded had ravaged her senses, he hadn’t been able to change what she was.

She’d broken and fled at Star’s Watch, and in facing an even worse threat, she understood her younger self at last.

It wasn’t her fault that she failed. The fear that had consumed her wasn’t something she needed to be ashamed of. She didn’t have the strength to resist it then, because no one could have. Fighting both a Dragon General and his dragon at once wasn’t something any Pact Knight could do alone.

Alari had forgiven her long ago, and, at last, Dae felt like she could forgive her younger self. She’d been cocky, and she’d paid the price, but it was one that earned her the wisdom she needed. The pain and suffering she’d felt wasn’t noble or necessary or good, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t turn her recovery from it into something that left her stronger than she’d been. Maybe even strong enough to defeat the undefeatable for before her.

Haldraxan was great and terrible, more powerful than she or Alari could have imagined, but Estella had given Dae the key she needed, and Dae saw the truth of it in Haldraxan’s eyes.

For all his power, Haldraxan was just as broken as any of them were.

The Dragon King blinked and, for the briefest of moments, looked away, before the compulsion between he and the Knight Champion of Gallagrin drew his gaze back to her.

Dae was terrified. Inescapable magic added to sheer animal survival instincts ensured that, but she’d been terrified before. In a million different ways, and for a million different reasons. To be alive, to care about the world at all, meant being vulnerable to fear, and being able to cope with it, however and as best as you could.

Haldraxan was terrified for an entirely different reason.

As an incarnate spirit, his existence wasn’t limited to any mortal length. But he’d been created, which meant he could be destroyed as well.

In Haldraxan’s eyes, Dae saw the echo of the gods of old, before eternal slumber had claimed them. He was the order of the world as it was set against her, the impossible load that could not be thrown over or resisted. And yet somehow and somewhere, even if only for a few moments, she found within herself the strength to meet his divine magic and deny the old world the place it insisted on taking.

In Dae, Haldraxan saw something else. The Knight Champion of Gallagrin’s eyes held the end of eternity. Not the reality of death which was inevitable for mortal creatures but the loss of the uncountable days which Haldraxan should have been secure in seeing.

He blinked again, and Dae felt neither power nor adulation but instead a strange silence settle over her.

Without thinking about it, she stepped forward, easily. No fear barred her way. No magic held her heart in chains.

“You cannot stand before me,” Haldraxan said, his royal wrath hotter than the white flames that followed his words and split the air with a thundercrack.

Dae and Kirios were out of magic to stop the attack, but the calm, silence of her heart answered their need.

With long experienced hands, Dae reached out effortlessly to invoke another transformation and claim a fresh pool of magic. In serenity with her, Kirios moved as well, but rather than closing the transformation, they held it open and walked forward, suspended in that moment of infinite possibility.

Neither Dae nor Kirios conjured a shield or barrier, but Haldraxan’s flames parted around them, pushed away by the sheer mystical pressure of a Pact Knight in the midst of transforming.

To prolong the moment of transformation was a dangerous thing, Pact Knights who tried that routinely became mindless Berserkers.

But not Dae and Kirios. Not in that moment.

Haldraxan clawed at the clouds and threw lightning at them again but with a wave of Dae’s arm the bolts rebounded, searing burns into the Dragon King’s scales which even the Lightning Ballista had been unable to scratch.

Roaring with frustration, Haldraxan’s entire body burst into flame as he reached down and grabbed Dae in his left hand, his massive claws trying to crush her as they’d crushed the mountain behind her.

“You can’t hold me,” she said, still peering into his eyes, but with her voice as tranquil as the calm lake which the little cottage would be built beside.

Haldraxan’s arm exploded.

Transformation magic raced thirty feet up his limb to his elbow and then up to his shoulder before the entire arm was shot through with fractures which were immediately replaced by a cloud of sparks as the arm was reduced to nothingness.

“And you cannot hold that state for long,” Haldraxan said as a new left arm coalesced into existence from the mist that was leaking from his stump.

“She doesn’t have to,” Jyl said, a deep, almost evil, glee radiating from her.

Dae narrowed her eyes in confusion. How was the elf moving in Haldraxan’s fear aura? And why was she so happy?

Neither of those questions seemed as important as what happened next though.

Haldraxan took a step backwards.

Dae and Kirios allowed the transformation to end, returning to their Champion’s Regalia before looking to see what devilry Jyl had managed to execute.

Looking away from Haldraxan was no longer a problem. He still had his aura, and he still had his might, but he was on contested ground and he’d lost the contest. Dae knew he would never be able to overcome her in front of these mountains again. Then she saw what was in Jyl’s hands and knew that Haldraxan would never be able to overcome anyone else again.

The elf was smiling as she held forth the Divine Gem of Dragon Command which had once sat upon Haldraxan’s brow.

The Dragon King’s reign was ended.