The wide arc of craggy, insurmountable mountains that lay before them brought joy to Dae’s heart. A part of her hadn’t believed the group she led would make it to their destination. Even with all the power they held, the trip was a perilous one. If Haldri had set her pieces in motion just a little earlier, Dae and her team would have faced battles that it would have been dangerous to fight and, in some senses, more dangerous win. Somehow though, through a combination of Estella’s contacts and support network and the plans Alari had laid in place all through the cold and quiet winter, Dae had won through to the edge of completing her mission.
All that remained was to take the final steps. The ones that would shatter at least one realm.
“We can’t go any farther,” Nui said, gazing up at the forbidding peaks before them. The mountains that formed the border between Gallagrin and Paxmer were god-forged barriers. They looked impassable and deadly because two deities with differing ideas on how their mortal playthings should be managed had been of one mind as to keeping them (mostly) apart.
“It’s not much farther now,” Dae said. “We just have to start ascending the cliffs and look for a path into the catacombs.”
She drew in a deep breath, smelling the cold, pine-laden air. They were well above the plains they’d been traveling through, but it wasn’t until they reached the base of the mountains that they found the spot where the gods had gotten serious about demarking the extent of their domains. The cliffs Dae spoke of ascending were a sheer vertical face of rock polished to a glass-like finish. The years had pitted the rock in places but the process of erosion had only begun once the gods entered their eternal slumber.
“How do you even know that there are catacombs here?” Nui asked. “We’re a day and a half out from Halls Haven. No one would come this far to bury someone.”
“Halls Haven wasn’t always the closest town to the border near here,” Estella said. “Even within our lifetime there were smaller settlements that were maintained near here.”
“What happened to them?” Jyl asked. She wrapped a borrowed outer cloak around herself tighter. The light rain that had begun falling before dawn had turned to a freezing slush of rain and snow and hail. With her smaller size, the young elf had the least favorable surface-to-volume ratio of anyone in the group and so felt the turn in the weather the worst of them all. She hadn’t complained of the loss of her own winter weather clothes though. The children she’d given them to would likely have perished without gift.
“They were despoiled over time,” Estella said. “Each sorte against Gallagrin consumed a few and once the land is ravaged by a dragon’s appetite it will lie dead for many years, so there was little to pull anyone back here.”
It had taken Dae and her companions close to two weeks to reach their destination in the mountains. Two weeks of slow travel on foot. Two weeks of stopping in every village and town they could find. Of talking to mayors and village elders and anyone who would meet with them. In almost all of the cases they’d arrived before the forward patrols of Haldraxan’s army had swooped in.
They’d given warnings of the approaching dragons to the people they encountered. Many hadn’t believed them. Some had even tried to attack Dae (for being a Gallagrin operative) or Estella (for being a traitor to Paxmer). None of the groups they encountered had access to sufficient fighters though. None who were a match for three Gallagrin Pact Knights, a Paxmer glamour caster, a Resistance deep cover agent and whatever it was that Estella was, so the battles had been uniformly brief and merciful, with no serious injuries sustained on either side.
The only time blood was spilled was the village where they arrived late. Haldraxan’s scouts had already come and gone, a fact Dae was tactically grateful for since the alternative was a battle against dragon riders on their terms. That sort of fight was one where even if the dragon riders fell in battle, they could claim a victory in identifying where Dae and her team were.
As it was, Haldraxan was moving a massive army of dragons into the province in search of the Spirit Crown, but since there were thousands of old delves and ruins in the area there was no simple method of determining where Dae’s party was headed. That bought them enough distance from their pursuers to reach their destination ahead of the main body of Haldraxan’s forces, while their passage through the towns and villages insured that the dragon army would not be far behind.
Dae didn’t enjoy considering what effect the dragons would have on those towns. Especially not after she saw the remains of the town the dragon scouts had visited.
The townspeople had said they’d offered no resistance and tried to help the scouts as much as they could, but the continuing failure to locate Dae’s party had convinced the scouts that the locals had to be hiding the Gallagrin subversives. In truth, it was Nui’s glamours and the fact that the party was capable of traveling rapidly along circuitous paths which kept the Paxmer scouts from finding them, but the end result was much the same in terms of wearing down Haldraxan’s patience with continued reports of failure.
Dae, Jyl and the others had done what little they could to help the survivors of the town. The trek across the border to reach Gallagrin, which Dae had suggested in other towns, had turned into a treacherous journey since the full attention of the dragons had become focused on the province. Despite that, Dae still extended the people an offer of sanctuary in Alari’s voice. Even if they couldn’t make it to Gallagrin, she wanted them to know that if they encountered Gallagrin forces again, all they needed to do was mention that the Queen’s Knight had spoken to them and that they formally requested the sanctuary and protection of Queen Alari Gallagrin, and they would be welcomed in for the duration of the conflict.
There had been a bitter quarrel among the survivors as to whether to accept the offer or turn Dae and her party over to the dragon riders immediately. Half the remaining villagers argued that aiding Gallagrin spies, or accepting aid from them, was exactly why the village had been burned and their friends and family who tried to resist slaughtered. The other half pointed to those same events as the reason why they could never again trust in or rely on Paxmer or its military to protect them.
In the end, Dae helped both sides come to an agreement, by pointing out that Alari’s offer was still in effect even if the townsfolk reported the whereabouts of Dae’s party to the dragon scouts. She encouraged those who saw herself and her companions as the problem to make best speed to report that the Gallagrin operatives had been discovered. When some of the village’s less intelligent sorts had questioned why they shouldn’t just bring Dae’s dead body along with them, Dae had invited them to take their best shot at capturing her.
She’d fought that battle alone, and without even transforming, in order to assure the villagers’ consciences that there was nothing they could have done to capture anyone in Dae’s party.
There’d been a cost to that largess though. Some in the village remained unconvinced of the righteousness of Dae’s cause or the tyranny of Haldraxan’s reign. They’d sent a messenger out as fast as they could and so Dae and the others had been forced to leave. It was one thing to keep the dragon army on their heels, it was quite another thing to allow them to catch up and engage the six members of Dae’s band with a force of six hundred dragons.
That, in turn, had led to a moratorium on the usage of pact spirit powers. Mayleena had baulked at that but Dae had assured her it was possible. A few hours outside the destroyed village, the two of them had sat down beside a narrow backwoods brook the party encountered and performed a complex mediation.
It was a technique Dae had learned from one of the tomes Alari pilfered from an ancient library in Highcrest. Dae had practiced the mediation extensively in the years she spent alone after the fall of Star’s Watch Keepi. The mediation was intended to hone a pact warrior’s finesse with magic by working with the spirit to limit the magic available for transformations to the barest of trickles.
In Dae’s case that allowed her to develop much finer control than other pact warriors saw any need for, but which she desperately craved to combat the feelings that her failure had derived from a loss of self control. In Mayleena’s case, even the rudimentary grasp she attained on the mediation from her first try at it allowed her to dim herself and Onixa into a half-waking, twilight state where the palpable aura they usually radiated vanished.
The lack of active pact spirit magic and the addition of Nui’s glamors had been enough for the party to make the final sprint of their journey without encountering any additional dragons. That was the good news. The better news was that Dae couldn’t see any signs of the area around the catacombs having been disturbed recently. As far as anyone could see, no one had visited this particular location since the tombs that were carved into the mountains had last had a body laid to rest in them.
Dae lead party of Gallagrin operatives and Paxmer resistance fighters up a trail that lead to the catacombs entrace. It was a thin road, suitable for walking single file, slowly. That this also prevented thieves from empting the vaults within the catacombs quickly was, Dae guessed, likely the primary design consideration of a god who invested elemental greed into the heart of their greatest draconic creation.
As they arrived at the door to the catacombs, Dae’s heart soared. The door was completely sealed shut!
“What’s happened here?” Estella asked.
“Yeah, how are we supposed to get in?” Nui asked.
“We find the secret entrance,” Dae said, the edges of her mouth curling up into a smile as a vast weight was lifted from her shoulders.
“What secret entrance?” Zana asked. “This is a catacomb. People are supposed to be able to get in here whenever they need to pay respect to the dead. Someone’s clearly blocked this door over, and spent a lot of effort on it.”
“I thought the secret doors would start farther in?” Estella said. “They should be in some forgotten corner of the catacombs. This public portion of this site was in service long after your Spirit Crown was lost.”
“”The Spirit Crown was never lost,” Dae said. She glanced at Jyl and Mayleena who both nodded in agreement. They’d done the seemingly impossible and crossed Paxmer without being caught and broken on the claws of a dragon. Further, they knew that their stories had been overheard and that their words had drifted into the ears of Haldri and Haldraxan at the right times. The need for subterfuge was finally gone.
“What do you mean ‘it was never lost’?” Estella asked, her voice sharp as she put together the pieces for herself.
“I mean the Spirit Crown was never lost because it never existed,” Dae said. “We were directed by Queen Alari to travel here. There is also the story of a mythical artifact made for the monarch of Gallagrin which bears a striking resemblance to the real artifact made for the dragon king of Paxmer. The two things, our journey and the existence of the crown, are unrelated beyond the one giving implicit testimony to the other.”
“It was a trick?” Nui asked. “But why?”
“You’ve brought half the dragons in Paxmer down upon us and you have no means to fight them?” Estella asked, deepening horror drawing her eyes round and her breath short.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Sir Faen Kemoral said, stepping out from a passage in the rock that had a moment before appeared to be a solid, featureless stretch of wall. Behind him, a company of dwarves from the Gallagrin Deep Mining Corp stood, looking quite pleased at their handiwork.