Jyl was shocked when the dwarves appeared like ghosts from the stone walls, not because she hadn’t been privy to the plan that brought them to Paxmer but because a part of her had been certain that no one could pull off the undertaking that Queen Alari had asked the Mining Guild to attempt.
“Why…why are there dwarves here?” Nui asked.
Dwarves were, in Jyl’s experience, an acquired taste. To people who had little interaction with them, Dwarves were thought of as short, stocky, bearded creatures with a weird aversion to open spaces. This notion was true to the same extent as the notion that all elves loved the forests, which is to say, there were more exceptions than adherents to the rule but it didn’t stop people from clinging to their misguided preconceptions anyways. Dwarves, like Elves, were a disparate and diverse people, but there were some common aspects to their cultures too, from their shared heritage. Aspects that could be off putting until one learned to read the meaning of what was really being said.
As a dungeon delver, Jyl had spent her fair share of time learning from Dwarves who didn’t mind an overly inquisitive elf asking them an endless stream of questions. She’d learned almost the entirety of what she knew about the creation and maintenance of underground spaces from the Dwarves who’d leant her their time and their knowledge. Her family considered the knowledge useless, in what could be considered ‘typical elf fashion’, but it had been critical to her exploration and eventual discovery of the pact spirit name stones which had allowed her to become a Pact Warrior.
Without the training she’d received, she would never have known how to identify the small marks and tells that indicated where secret or obscured passages could be found, or where traps had been laid to ward off people like her. That same training had taught her two other things though. First that what the Queen had asked of the Mining Guild was impossible to pull off and second that if the Mining Guild said they were going to do it, there was at least some chance it would happen despite the obvious insanity required.
“They’ve dug a new series of tunnels from Gallagrin to Paxmer,” Dae said.
“Tunnels?” Sir Kemoral said. “You sell them short Lady Akorli. The guild has created highways through the earth.”
“Why would they do that?” Nui asked, struggling to keep up with the bizarre appearance of a small company of foreigners who materialized seemingly from nowhere.
That the dwarves were spreading out and inspecting various insignificant portions of the sheer mountainside made their presence even harder to understand, unless, like Jyl, you knew the purpose that lay behind the madness which brought them to Paxmer.
“They’re invading,” Estella whispered the words, hope and terror mixing in her voice in equal measures.
“They’re what?” Zana asked.
“Invading,” Dae said. “Claiming this land in the name of Gallagrin if they get the opportunity.
“And you will be providing that opportunity won’t you?” Sir Kemoral said. “Or was your mission unsuccessful?”
“It was successful enough that we should move this discussion inside the stronghold,” Dae said. “The battle we’re looking for is close on our heels.”
“We’re going in there?” Nui asked, rocking back on her heels as her arms went stiff.
“Yes,” Dae said. “In a few hours at most, it won’t be safe to be anywhere else if you’re within fifty miles of here.”
“Not that being inside is going to be perfectly safe either,” Jyl said.
“She’s right,” Zana said.
“Which one?” Nui asked.
“Both of them,” Zana said. “We know what’s chasing us, and the Queen’s Knight is right that we can’t stay out here waiting for them, but the elf is right too, there’s no way anyone dug tunnels from Gallagrin to Paxmer that are even half safe to be in.”
The leader of the Mining Guild, an elderly looking dwarf with skin like rough gnarled wood, stepped forward and scowled at Zana, the two dwarven women standing nose to nose and glaring into each other’s eyes.
“You saying my picks do sloppy work?” Xenda, the guild leader, asked.
The other people present tensed as though a death battle was about to erupt. Jyl would have too if she wasn’t intimately familiar with the Mining Guild’s rough and direct culture. As it was, she smiled and leaned back, curious to see if Zana was familiar with her northern siblings’ method of resolving disputes.
Zana headbutted Xenda and staggered back rubbing her own head. Jyl grinned. Zana may not have been a miner, but she spoke their language quite well.
“You’re damn right I’m saying it’s sloppy work,” Zana said. “You had to have cut every corner there is and made up a few more just to cut them to if you got a job like this done that fast.”
Dae had quietly called up her pact armor and Jyl watched Nui starting to weave a glamour, but the two sisters were cut off by Xenda’s uproarious laughter.
“Aww, you’re a damn sharp one then aren’t you?” Xenda said.
“And you’ve got a bunch of stone singers working for you, I’d wager, you mad bastards,” Zana said.
“They’re not going to be fighting,” Mayleena said, though whether she was disappointed or relieved Jyl couldn’t tell.
“What are stone singers? What are they talking about? What is going on here!” Nui said.
“Inside,” Sir Kemoral said. “We’ll explain everything inside.”
Despite her clear reservations, Nui allowed herself to be escorted into the sealed catacombs. Jyl followed after Estella and Dae entered.
The inside of the ancient catacombs had never seen better days. Far from the fallen down ruins that Jyl had expected to be greeted by, there were signs of serious work and renovations that had been performed recently.
“You’re honoring our dead?” Estella said. “With buttressing?”
“We do honor the dead who were laid here m’am,” Sir Kemoral said.
“But that’s not why you’ve reinforced the outer chambers, is it?” Estella said. Jyl saw a range of expressions flicker across the older woman’s face as she worked through the implications of what she was seeing.
“No, it’s not,” Sir Kemoral said.
“This is my mother, and sister,” Dae said, introducing them to Kemoral. “And one of the recruiting agents for the Paxmer resistance.”
“August company then,” Sir Kemoral said. “And part of your mission?”
“In a sense,” Dae said. “We wouldn’t have arrived here without their help.”
“What is here?” Nui asked. “Why are a bunch of Gallagrin miners in a Paxmer catacomb, invading our country? I thought we were coming to find a weapon to overthrow Queen Haldri, not claim land for a foreign queen?”
“I didn’t mislead you about our aims,” Dae said. “Only the means we plan to use to accomplish them.”
“The Spirit Crown was a lie you said?” Estella asked.
“More of a lure than a lie,” Dae said. “There is a myth about its existence, but it’s one which Queen Alari embellished heavily.”
“Why?” Nui asked. “Why go to all this trouble.”
“Because we needed to be able to force a battle on our own terms and at our own time and place, without Haldri or Haldraxan being aware they were being manipulated,” Dae said.
“I understand the general shape of your plan,” Estella said. “What’s missing are the particulars. How does pitching a battle here unseat our queen? What can our small group and some miners do that the armies of Gallagrin massed to the north cannot?”
“She is your mother, but do you trust her Lady Akorli?” Sir Kemoral asked.
“That’s a dangerous question,” Dae said. “Let’s say she deserves to know this.”
“Then allow me to reassure you,”Sir Kemoral said. “We have many more forces here than your party and then Miners Guild members who facilitated our transport,”
Jyl looked around the crypt they were in and out into the rooms beyond it. The catacombs were a warren of small, private chambers. Structurally, that had allowed the Paxmer builders to excavate as little of the mountain as they needed to, which meant far less labor than large elaborate chambers would have required. It also meant that the catacombs were as strong as any sort of subterranean dwelling was likely to be, moreso than ones where people actively lived and worked since the dead didn’t require the same sort of storage space as the living.
From a tactical perspective, the catacombs offered a resilent and compartmentalized area to fight from. Against a horde of dragons, you couldn’t ask for better terrain than to be protected by foot thick walls with doors at regular intervals which would block out both fire and any dragon riders that might enter the stronghold.
The catacombs served another purpose as well though. They hid the extent of the forces sheltered within them. From where Jyl sat, she could only see the two adjoining rooms, both sparsely furnished chambers similar to the one they’d been lead into. Those held more Miner’s Guild personnel who were working to reinforce the outer walls in preparation for the coming attack.
“How many more are here to fight with us?” Estella asked.
Sir Kemoral looked to Dae, who nodded her approval.
“Her Majesty’s Royal Army awaits within these catacombs,” Sir Kemoral said.
“All of it?” Estella asked, her eyes widening in disbelief.
“Yes,” Sir Kemoral said. “She is taking this matter rather seriously.”
“But I thought we had word that the Gallagrin Royal Army was massing at the border?” Nui asked.
“A misdirection,” Dae said.
“You are not the only glamour caster able to work beyond the bounds of the Sunlost Isles,” Mayleena said.
“That…is unexpected,” Estella said. “But what does your queen hope to gain with this battle? Surely your own keeps are as secure as this hasty fortification on foreign soil could be?”
“They are considerably more secure,” Sir Kemoral said. “And therein lies the problem.”
“I don’t follow,” Nui said.
“Haldri and Haldraxan and all of the Paxmer nobles know the barriers established between the two realms,” Dae said. “They know they cannot bring Paxmer’s principal strength to bear in an all out invasion of Gallagrin, at least not without sacrificing a massive quantiy of regular troops first.”
“Haldri Paxmer isn’t the sort to weight the cost of sacrifices like that,” Estella said.
“She may not count the lives lost as holding any value, but her dragon is clever and old enough to count the gains that can be made versus the risk of drawing Paxmer’s defenses low when Sunlost has reason to strike against them too,” Sir Kemoral said.
“So the plan was to lure them into a battle which they cannot turn away from and to draw in forces they would never commit to a war on the border,” Dae said.
“Couldn’t they just ignore you here until you came out?” Nui asked.
“To refuse to face us would mean ceding the land to Gallagrin and allowing it to become terrain that’s inimical to all of Paxmer’s dragon,” Dae said.
“And if you can move a force within the border this far, then you are capable of moving it even deeper into Paxmer if given sufficient time,” Estella said.
“So you made sure that Haldri called every dragon in the realm here?” Nui asked.
“It’s unlikely that we got all of them.” Dae said. “But it looks like we got the one that matters most.”
“Haldraxan,” Estella said. “What part does the Dragon King play in your plans.”
“It’s very simple,” Dae said. “Haldri’s reign is founded on Haldraxan’s dominion over the dragons of Paxmer. Slay him and the other nobles will turn on her and tear Haldri to pieces.”
“And the rest of the dragons?” Estella asked.
“You said it yourself,” Dae said. “They’ve been corrupted by Haldraxan’s greed. By massing them here, we can break their power once and for all.”
“You don’t know what your saying,” Nui said. “You can’t even fight one dragon much less the hundreds of them who are winging towards us.”
“Fighting dragons is a dangerous business,” Sir Kemoral said. “But we’re not as helpless as that.”
From his smile, Jyl guessed that the surprise they had ready for the Paxmer dragons was ready for deployment. As if queued by Sir Kemoral’s words, one of his lieutenants raced into room.
“Sir! Dragon scouts spotted!” the lieutenant said.
“Give the orders then,” Sir Kemoral said. “Primary volleys from positions three and twenty.”
“Primary volleys?” Estella asked.
“Easier to unshutter the windows so that you can see for yourself,” Sir Kemoral said.
The shutters in question were massive slabs of rock, but they moved easily enough once the latching mechanism was unlocked.
Through the viewing window, Jyl saw two dragons soaring high above the plains that lead up to the mountains. They were swooping in for a closer look at the catacombs when two enormous bolts of lightning leapt from the mountainside to strike first one and the other from the sky.
“And so our war begins,” Sir Kemoral said.
“No,” Dae said. “Our war began years ago, that just told Haldri that we’re finally ready to fight back.”