Category Archives: The Spirit’s Blade

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 37

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.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 36

Haldraxan drifted lazily on a passing current of magic that whipped off the nearby High Road. No creature as large as he was could fly by the strength of a pair of wings, or even several pairs of wings, no matter how large they were. Only power could hold a beast as mighty as Haldraxan aloft.

His existence was defined by power. The power he had over the lesser dragons of Paxmer, the power that was forged into him by the god who shaped him from the primal clay of the realm and the power that bound him as the realm’s servant.

In a sense those were all aspects of the same thing. His authority and might derived from the purpose he had been created to fulfill. From the day that he was first given life though, his mind was set to the question of whether those three essential aspects of his being were intrinsically linked.

Was it the yolk of Paxmer’s guardianship which granted him the force to dominate the creature’s beneath him? Or could he be free of that duty and still retain the privileges it granted him? It was a puzzle, and there was little that any dragon’s mind enjoys more than a puzzle.

If it had taken centuries for Haldraxan to work out an answer to the question, the delay could be attributed to the fact that the dragon king’s duty was only rarely onerous.

From Haldraxan’s point of view, Paxmer had been blessed with a long line of good and sensible monarchs. His definition of “good and sensible” began and ended with the litmus test of how much of his ‘advice’ they took. By and large, the little humans he shared a throne with had been wise enough to accede to his suggestions, preferring to rely on his centuries of knowledge in place of their own limited understanding.

That arrangement suited Haldraxan perfectly, but even so the limits engraved upon him by the divine will of Paxmer’s deity chaffed as the years rolled into centuries, and like a sore tooth, he couldn’t avoid returning his thoughts to it again and again.

“Sire, we have reached the next staging point,” Abroxis, one of Haldraxan’s newest lieutenants, said.

Far below them lay a spawling, walled town, one of hundreds along the northern border of Haldraxan’s realm. Like most such dwellings for Paxmer’s citizens, its primary purpose, in Haldraxan’s view, was to serve as a storage a refueling center for the forces under his command.

“The streets are oddly empty,” Haldraxan said. He was used to viewing the citizens of Paxmer as a constant flow of tiny specs on the ground. There were a few of the miserable ants moving about the city below them but their numbers were less than they should have been.

“Perhaps the enemy has already been here?” Abroxis asked.

Haldraxan flapped his secondary wings sending an impossibly strong gust of wind at the younger dragon like a slap of reprimand.

“No raiding force has ever set foot this far within my realm,” he said. “And none ever will.”

“Forgive me sire,” Abroxis said. “I know of no reason why the town should be so deserted.”

“Then we shall descend and learn the answer directly,” Haldraxan said, banking into a long, downwards spiral.

“You are gracing them with your presence Sire?” Abroxis asked.

“Yes,” Haldraxana said. “It is occasionally useful to remind the citizens of who it is they serve. And what the cost for failure to their duty is.”

“Do you wish an honor guard?” Abroxis asked.

“No,” Haldraxan said. “Land the entire flight. There is no need to push to the edge of our strength. We shall eat and rest so that we can come upon our enemies in the fullness of our strength.”

“The town appears to only have one butchers circle,” Abroxis said. “It wouldn’t be able to feed all of us.”

“No, it won’t be able to feed all of us twice,” Haldraxan said. “But there will be other towns, to meet our future needs.”

“What if the people resist?” Abroxis asked.

“The citizens of Paxmer are loyal,” Haldraxan said. “And if that proves to be incorrect, then we will have the satisfaction of teaching them the cost of disloyalty.”

The two dragons were following to the ground by a flight of close to a hundred more of the great lizards.

The town looked to have suffered from a relatively hard winter. Haldraxan looked over the walls as they landed and saw no more than a handful of people stumbling about their daily tasks, intentionally oblivious to the flight of dragons that was landing around their city.

“Lord Haldraxan, to what do we owe the honor of your visit to our unworthy dwelling?” Cauldrin, the mayor of the town, asked.

Cauldrin was a hefty, red faced man who was sweating despite the chill of the day’s air. Dragon fear held no sway over the citizens of Paxmer but there was a level of unquestioning deference which Haldraxan had grown accustomed to from his subjects. To be directly addressed by one, was an affront the scratched the dragon king’s scales in the wrong direction.

He picked a nearby house and swatted it with his tail. The building wasn’t empty, but it was devoid of people. That was the only reason that it became a pile of rubble rather than a giant tombstone.

“Where are the people,” Haldraxan asked, his voice calm and disinterested. It was a mystery but regardless of the answer, Haldraxan knew there would death and righteous vengeance rained down on the ones who were left. There was no need for that of course.

The dragon army could take a meager share of the supplies they needed and collect the rest of their requirements from the other holdings and towns that were within a day’s flight.

If the upcoming conflict was concluded quickly enough, the peoples of the northern provinces would feel no more than a few days hunger. Haldraxan could coordinate the logistics of the royal armies such that they did little long term damage to the natives of their provinces. He could, but he didn’t want to. The subtle glee of reducing an entire community to despair was too delightful to pass up. It was an expression of his power that was undeniable, and taking from others always helped satisfy, for a time, the eternal fire of greed that burned in the center of his heart.

Haldraxan always wondered what it would feel like to go further than that, but his power met its restraints beyond that point. He was compelled to ensure that Paxmer prospered, but working under the requirements of sustaining the realm gave the dragon some leeway.

Haldri had cast the gathering Gallagrin force as an invasion risk. That meant the future of the entire realm was at stake, and anything that Haldraxan could conjure up as being for the good of the realm was allowable with the strictures of his bindings. It was a tactic he had used before and one he was sure he would use again, even though he knew he was stepping well outside the spirit of his maker’s intent. There were limits even to that though, actions which Haldraxan couldn’t take even with the most clever of schemes.

Chief among those being that, no matter what the circumstance was, neither Haldraxan, nor any of his draconic forces could directly harm a citizen of Gallagrin. Indirect harm, or injuries brought on through ignorance weren’t restricted in the same manner, but the divine bindings did exert an influence that prevented Paxmer dragons for choosing to be willfully blind to the consequences of their actions.

That left Haldraxan able to enjoy his favorite pastime, destroying peoples’ mind and bodies, only when it was convenient for his co-monarch (such as when political opponents needed to disappear), and prevented him from eating the annoying mayor who stood in front of him.

“We have always been a small town Dragon King,” the mayor said. “This winter many of our families left us because our stores were low in the wake of the fall taxes.”

Haldraxan collapsed another building. Complaints about taxes were ones he had grown tired of hearing mere days after he had first been brought to life. For whatever reason the fools who had been placed under his care seemed to think that things could belong to them. Since that particular illusion seemed to inspire them to work harder, Haldraxan allowed them the comfort of clinging to it. In truth though, everything within Paxmer was his. He was the most powerful being there after all, and so, by right, all of the realms wealth and privilege was his.

And that was just. It was he who created the peace for the land. It was he who made Paxmer the greatest of all the Blessed Realms. And so he deserved its wealth, its adoration.

“These houses have not sat empty since the fall,” Haldraxan said and collapsed another one as he strode towards the center of the town, his footsteps shaking the bedrock it was built upon.

“Not all of them, sire,” Cauldrin said. “Other families are traveling in preparation for the coming of spring. Our stores are low and so they have gone to beg for what assistance they can get from our neighbors.”

“You are required to keep your reserves above a plentiful point,” Haldraxan said. “Your reason for existence is to serve as a supply depot for our forces.”

“But the extra harvest tax last fall…” Cauldrin started to say.

“Is of no concern at this moment,” Haldraxan said.

Cauldrin puffed up his chest, mustering an insane courage that was likely born from the belief that without Queen Haldri present to revoke his citizenship, Haldraxan was helpless against a citizen of the realm.

“You ask the impossible of us,” Cauldrin said. “You take our food stores, you pilfer our wealth, and then you complain that we’re poor? We have been nothing but loyal to you and the throne and all we get is heavier burdens to bear? We cannot support you. Not in this campaign and not in this manner of ruling.”

“How…interesting,” Haldraxan said, his eyes narrowing and a warm feeling of joy spreading from the inferno of his heart. “And what of your people? Do they share your views?”

“I speak for everyone in this town,” Cauldrin said. “We only want to be good, productive citizens of Paxmer, but you are starving us. We cannot live on the pittance that you leave for us.”

“If you cannot live on what we generously offer, then why do you not work harder?” Haldraxan asked. “Are there not others in your position who manage to survive?”

“There is a difference between scraping by day to day, always being on the edge of collapse, and truly living,” Cauldrin said.

“Yes,” Haldraxana said. “There is. To truly live one must have power, as you do not.”

“Maybe not,” Cauldrin said. “But we do have the power to refuse you. We will not share any more of our food with you. We will not pledge you any of our gold to pay for this foolish war. You will see no aid given from us.”

Haldraxan laughed. He couldn’t help himself. It was so delightful to be provoked in such a manner.

“You would stand your ground against me?” he asked.

“You give me no choice,” Cauldrin said.

“You are correct about that,” Haldraxan said. “And correct about a very many things.”

“So you will leave us then?” Cauldrin asked.

“No,” Haldraxan said. “But you are right that you will give us no aid. We shall take what we need, and our needs are more than you have, I promise that.”

“But you can’t just take things from us,” Cauldrin said.

“I am barred from taking your life,” Haldraxan said. “Everyone knows that. But nothing else is barred to me.”

With a gesture he called his dragons inward and they began to loot and pillage the town, burning it as they went to turn up what hidden treasures they could find.

“What are you doing?” Cauldrin asked. “You’re destroying us. We’ll never be able to give the crown anything again.”

“Not so,” Haldraxan said. “You are giving us a lesson which we will share with your neighbors. What is the loss of one rebellious town after all. Others will be glad to resettle and rebuild here.”

“And what of us? The people who live here now?” Cauldrin asked.

“You are part of the lesson,” Haldraxan said and signaled the dragon riders in his army.

Like hunting birds they descended on the people of the town, spears flashing in their hands. While the dragons could not harm the citizens of Paxmer, the riders they bore into battle were under no such compulsion, and so the dying began.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 35

Duchess Agresa Sanli considered herself a patriot, fighting for Gallagrin’s well being. That she defined “Gallagrin” as including only those nobles and their subjects who supported her position was not an uncommon stance among those she called friends. To their minds, Gallagrin belonged only to those who had made it great in the past and that was clearly people like themselves who were poised to make it great again.

That Sanli’s alliance with the Queen of Paxmer ran contrary to Gallagrin’s internal and external interests was a matter of debate which Sanli didn’t feel the need to enter into. The reality was that Gallagrin had been held in the grip of mad monarchs for far too long and that the current queen combined an insane desire to placate the peasantry with an intolerable willingness to defy the expressed needs of her noble supporters.

Sanli herself had sided with the Butcher King during the revolt until it became clear that his daughters faction had passed the crucial tipping point. Despite sensibly changing her allegiance to the winning faction before the battles were completed, the new queen offered Sanli no additional favors and no additional recompense from the losers stockpiles.

In the end Sanli had emerged poorer from the reunification both in terms of military forces and raw wealth. Six years of careful planning had positioned her at the verge of reclaiming all that and more, and then the queen had lost her mind once more. Rather than simply dying, she’d made a pact with some demon knight who’d come flying in to slaughter both Sanli’s ally the Duke of Tel and the Consort-King Halreck.

Sanli had learned from the long years of King Sathe’s reign to keep her alliances hidden and so no one had suspected her of being in league with Duke Telli and his plan to remove the queen from the throne. That had left her in the unique position of being able to review the failed plan and improve on the mistakes which Telli and Halrek had made.

The Gallagrin pact spirit had not let the queen die when Halrek betrayed her. He’d weakened her connection it, so it should have been possible to kill the evil witch, but she’d been able to draw on the pact spirit’s reserves to sustain her life long enough to reclaim its full power. As the Consort-King Halrek had been able to press a claim on the pact spirit, but his blood had been the blood of a foreign land and so the spirit’s had resisted the pull of his claim.

Sanli’s blood didn’t suffer from that weakness however.

That wasn’t what led her to believe she would succeed in ousting the Bloody Handed Queen however. In Sanli’s view there was a deeper flaw in Halrek and Telli’s plan than they’d lived to see.

Halrek had spent six years working to build a base of support among the Gallagrin nobility. Duke Telli had been instrumental in putting those connections together. When they’d struck at Queen Alari though, they’d done so through deceit and rumor. A shocking murder of a foreign prince with the hint of scandal attached to it.

The problem with that approach was that while it titillated the nobility to think that the Queen had been unfaithful to her husband and had been willing to kill to keep her infidelity from coming to light, those who supported her saw no reason to withdraw that support. Even those who stood against Alari’s policies and were willing to openly condemn her felt no personal concern over the murder of some minor Inchesso brat. If given the same choice many of them would have dispatched the lad with little thought or care as to the consequences. Inchesso was a weak, doddering country after all, full of corruption and violence. So long as its inhabitants stayed on their own side of the realms borders, Inchesso might has well have been a non-existent state in the mind of the Gallagrin nobility.

Moving in secret and through proxies against the Queen of Gallagrin was the safe play, but Sanli knew that crowns were not won through safe strategies. That was while she’d opened talks with the Paxmer Queen. Paxmer was a deadly dangerous adversary and its queen’s appetite for power was voracious but thanks to that, Sanli knew she could trust Haldri as an ally. After the murder of her brother, Haldri had the perfect excuse and motivation to move against Gallagrin in general and Queen Alari in particular, and that was exactly what Sanli required.

The early negotiations had been tentative and circumspect, an expression of condolence and an offer of lifting border taxes to allow good to flow more freely into Paxmer. That had been followed by an invitation to visit Paxmer to discuss mutual concerns.

In Haldri, Sanli had found someone as sharp and clever and driven as herself. In another life the two could have been the most hated and well matched of enemies but with the whims of fate that blew around them, they discovered that there was common ground to stand on.

Queen Alari had to be dethroned. They were both in absolute agreement on that point.

For Haldri it was a matter of principle. Alari had slain her brother. Without trial, without ransom and without hesitation. True the hand that had wielded the blade had not been Alari’s but it was undeniable that the pact knight who slew the Consort-King was of one mind and body with the Gallagrin Queen.

Alari had compounded her crime by selling her husband’s body to an Inchesso family for royal parts to add to their poison and had returned only a disgusting and disagreeable chunk of flesh to Haldri as a keepsake. If Alari had spit in the Paxmer queen’s face, she would not have as effectively called for war between the two nations.

For Sanli, Alari’s removal from the throne was a matter of practicality. Halrek and Telli’s attempt had been proof that Alari’s hold on the crown was tenuous at best. The Queen had spent the better part of the winter recovering from wounds she sustained during the failed coup. More important though was the talk among the nobles that had swirled up in the wake of Consort King’s slaying.

Those who’d been friendly with Halrek had openly questioned the manner of his execution. The queen’s story was a compelling one but any story can be twisted to serve the needs of people with an agenda.

It was the queen’s perogative to render judgement on any of her subjects, but traditions demanded that those judgements be rendered in an official tribunal where evidence could be presented and other voices allowed to weigh in and influence the decision.

Halrek’s “purported crime” had been against the queen personally, so those of his supporters who remained bold enough to challenge her explained that as she was the only witness to the crime her testimony couldn’t be trusted.

“For all we know,” they said, “she pitched herself out of the tower and used that as an excuse to do in a husband she was tired of.”

Even the nature of the queen’s injuries were debated.

“She’s hiding away in her room because she doesn’t want us to see that they were all faked.” “If she was really as injured as she claimed, she wouldn’t have been able to make it back to the castle which just proves that she was faking it.” “Everyone knows that water sprites are dangerous monsters, if they saved the queen who knows what kind of debt she owes them.”

No theory was too implausible or unrealistic if it cast the Queen Alari in a poor light, and that, more than her wounded body, or loss of her co-ruler, told Sanli that the queen had been weakened by Halrek and Telli far more than anyone knew.

The spirit of Gallagrin was still with Alari, but the spirit of Gallagrin’s nobility was moving away from her. The mistake Halrek and Telli had made was to try to wrest the spirit from her while there were still people who supported her.

Sanli knew better than to try that. To dethrone the queen, she would have to contest with Alari for the spirit of Gallagrin and to win that contest she would have to make sure that no one was still siding with the Bloody Handed Queen.

As she strolled towards the doors of the Grand Assemblage room in Highcrest, Sanli heard the roar and bustle of the assembled nobility who had been called to the session.

It had taken careful timing. Alari’s excursion to the God’s Hall to speak with Haldri was a fixed point which all of Duchess Sanli’s plans had revolved around.

In the end many things were imperfect about the night. There were supporters of Alari who weren’t present. There were ones who were present and had not been suitably prepared for the news Sanli was bringing them. Even some of Sanli’s own supporters weren’t positioned as she wished them to be, but none of that mattered. Those were all obstacles which Sanli knew she could easily overcome. Alari’s missing supporters would be pressured in the face of the united Assemblage into rejecting her. The one’s who hadn’t been primed would resist the evidence which Sanli presented but there was too much corroboration for them to retain their belief in their queen.

Sanli entered the Grand Assemblage and took the briefest of moments to enjoy the spectacle before her.

Well over a hundred nobles and their retainers were milling around the hall and within minutes each of them would be paying attention to no one but her.

The witnesses were waiting in the inspection room and would be escorted in shortly after her introduction. She’d spoken to each of them briefly, urging them to tell the truth of what they’d seen and they’d whispered to her of the outrage and carnage that had been perpetrated on the bodies of the noble Gedli family. The details of the childrens’ roasted bodies was particularly chilling and not for the first time Sanli had wished that they’d been able to proceed with the simpler plan of actually murdering the Gedli clan, but that would have presented more significant problems in terms of execution.

Sanli didn’t know where the guildmaster had procured convincing replicas of the Gedli clan but those details weren’t ones which she needed to consider in her presentation. Her story didn’t need that sort of embellishment, not when at its heart it was so simple.

Halrek and Telli had tried to convince the nobles that Alari was wicked at heart, but in the end no one had cared about that. She was a queen, of course she was wicked. They were all wicked, every last noble family of Gallagrin.

Sanli knew that getting the nobles to condemn Alari wasn’t the path to victory. Alari’s defeat required tapping into a deeper emotion. Fear.

The noble’s needed to believe two things for Sanli to win; that Alari was weak, which her long recovery and absence from the Grand Assemblage provided ample proof of, and that she was dangerous in her weakness.

People will strike out at nothing as fiercely as they will something which they believe threatens them and which they believe they are at least momentarily stronger than.

From the testimony of the death of the Gedli family, Sanli would weave a tale that Queen Alari had succumbed to the madness of her father. She was striking out at imagined enemies and, like her father before her, was a danger to all of the nobility, both those who opposed her and those who supported her as Gedli had once done.

Sanli’s witnesses would speak of seeing the royal army moving into the south lands (and unexpected stroke of luck for Sanli’s cause). They would speak of seeing a force of royal guards head into the fort to question Gedli (a simple enough matter for Sanli to arrange) and later of those guards marching out with a series of struggling captives, men, women and children who were all hidden under hoods despite being dressed in noble garb (an even simpler ruse for Sanli to arrange).

This capture of the Gedli clan would be supported by witnesses who saw the victims being moved along the road and out into the trees before ultimately being discovered burned and desecrated by magic deep in the forests beyond the keep.

Alari’s opposition didn’t need the grand tale to declare their support for Sanli’s cause but the “facts” she presented would be so irrefutable given the eyewitness testimony and the haranguing of Sanli’s supporters that even Alari’s most ardent followers would remain silent when Sanli proposed the Rite of Severing.

Tradition dictated that only the Pact Spirit could rule on Alari’s fitness to lead the realm, and Sanli would volunteer herself to contest with Alari.

If the traditions were true then the spirit would strike down the unworthy claimant and leave the just one in full possession of its might.

Given the reign of King Sathe, Sanli knew that the spirit of Gallagrin had little care as to the quality of the one whom it gave its power too, it was only concerned with who held the hearts and minds of the realm, and after the theater she was going to present, Sanli knew that person would be her.


The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 34

Baron Gedli had never been a brave man, but as he led his family down into the empty dungeons below their keep, he had to wonder if fleeing a stronghold when it stood unthreatened was an act of cowardice that he would ever be able to live down.

The tremble in his hand was easy enough to grip away. The important thing was that whatever cost there was, he would be alive to pay it, as would his family.

The dungeons below his keep should have been home to the criminals awaiting trial and transfer to a royal prison complex elsewhere within the realm. Gedli had been diligent about hearing cases over the last several days and had been exceedingly merciful so as to ensure that the all of the cells were empty. Most especially the one designed by the keep’s former lord. As a forward thinking individual, the previous lord of the keep had made sure that the cell a noble prisoner was likely to be placed in also included a secret escape door which lead to a long tunnel which ran out of the keep and into a maze of passages beneath the mountain the keep was located beside.

The tunnel was fiendishly trapped of course, but since its creator had left detailed notes on those traps, Gedli and his party suffered no more than minor injuries navigating their passage out of the castle that had become nothing more than a death trap in Gedli’s mind.

Paxmer was marshalling the largest force it had ever assembled for a rush into Gallagrin. It was converging on a single province, the one directly south of Gedli’s domain, and when it arrived no thickness of rock walls or shelter of slate roofs would be enough to ward off the might that was going to crash down on the border outpost Gedli was charged with protecting.

So he ran. Not from the blow that was coming but rather into it. There was no refuge for Gedli anywhere in Gallagrin, so the only choice he saw was to welcome Queen Haldri’s offer of allegiance.

It caught him as strange to be fleeing into the arms of the force that he feared, but little in life ran to his expectations he found.

Paxmer’s strike against Gallagrin was not going to be an unprovoked one. Day by day he’d seen the Gallagrin forces marshalling throughout the region. Queen Alari was planning some horrible and ill-conceived revenge against Paxmer for the slights against her honor by the fool of a Consort-King. Queen Haldri had spoken to him privately on the subject, sharing her concerns for her people and the people of Gallagrin who would be affected by Alari’s rash actions.

Gedli didn’t hold any animosity against the foreign queen. If anything she seemed to understand him better than anyone in Gallagrin had ever bothered to. She was in a difficult position of ensuring the long term safety of her realm, which meant that she couldn’t allow a Gallagrin force to rampage into her kingdom, slaying people and livestock and putting towns and ports to the torch without some kind of answer.

The strength of her answer, she explained to Gedli, needed to be carefully calibrated. She had no wish to destroy any part of her northern neighbor, but if she did not strike back with sufficient force then the more aggressive and adventuresome nobles of Gallagrin would surely repeat Queen Alari’s foolish endeavor.

Gedli knew her words were ernest ones. He saw the tremble on her lower lip as she spoke of the needless loss of life, and of how difficult it was to project an image of strength at all times, when all that you truly desired was peace and goodwill. Her evaluation of the nobles of Gallagrin was one he couldn’t deny though. They were an awful, miserable lot of greedy thieves, people who would stop at nothing to attain power in any form they could grasp it in.

So there would be war. Instigated by an insane queen, and finished by one who desired real peace. Standing between the two was not a position which held any future as far as Gedli could see, and so he cast aside an oath he had taken as little more than a boy, and then renewed in the face of overwhelming pressure from his peers.

He would no longer defend the lands assigned to him. He would defend himself and his family, as was right and proper.

They exited the ancient escape tunnel far from the fort they were leaving behind forever, and found that their appointed assassins were waiting for them, right on time.


Master Merrin Quick had worked many unsavory jobs in her life. Serving as master for a transportation guild was far from the worst of them, but she was still surprised how often she was called on to attend to distasteful tasks personally.

To be fair, those tasks also tended to pay exceedingly well.

Merrin didn’t consider herself a mercenary. That she was motivated by simple, straightforward concerns was a blessing which she felt other people could stand to emulate more. Money made things simple. It answered questions like “should she take this deal or that one” and “should she betray the nation she was a citizen of”. When it all boiled down to gold, the answers were very easy to determine.

Most people, for example, would have balked at the idea of transporting two wagon loads of badly burned bodies to a remote local. Desecrating corpses could have all sorts of nasty ramifications in a world where ghosts occasionally returned to complain about such things.

Placing the bodies in a special ritual circle was, in many sense, even worse, given that it would not only imply that the bodies had been violated but that any pact spirits they were carrying had been imprisoned in some manner.

To Merrin, those were valid concerns, the moreso because any competition she might have for the job would believe the issues to be problematic ones and she could therefore charge even more than her usual illicit hauling rate.

When one was drawing on a royal payroll, it was wise not to be too greedy of course, Queens had a tendency to be unforgiving with those who cheated them but even a monarch had to expect to pay premium rates for “special projects” involving multiple taboos.

Merrin was aligning the last of the corpses in their ritual circle when Baron Gedli and his family emerged from the escape tunnel they had fled down.

“So, you are here to kill us then?” the Baron asked.

“Already done,” Merrin said. “You’re the one laying in the center of the circle. The wife and kids are arranged around you.”

The Baron’s wife averted her eyes, but their four children looked on in rapt fascination at their charred dopplegangers.

“And the other bodies?” Gedli asked.

“Your retainers,” Merrin said. “They’re joined in lesser circles that orbit yours, which I think is correct, but the diagrams Haldri gave were a little unclear on that point.”

“And no one will be able to tell that these unfortunate souls are not us?” Gedli asked.

“Nope,” Merrin said. “They’re a perfect match for you, assuming you’d been burned for several hours and warped by the magic of the circle.”

“Where did you find them?” Gedli asked and then quickly added, “No, don’t tell me. Better that we not know.”

Merrin knew that meant the baron was happier to think of the corpses as nothing more than props. Facing the idea that close to a dozen people had been murdered specifically for his convenience was too weighty a burden for him to carry and so he clung to ignorance as a shield.

“If you say so,” Merrin said, suppressing a chuckle. From the look of horror Gedli was fighting to conceal, she knew that the authenticity of the bodies weren’t going to be questioned by anyone. Which meant that the corner cutting she’d done was not only saving her money but had been morally the right move as well, which was always a nice a perk.

Ultimately, after all, there always was a risk in violating taboos and if it paid just as well to appear to be violating them as it did to actually do so, then a little subterfuge was certainly in order.

The illusion spells that covered the hunks of seared cow carcass hadn’t been cheap, but they were infinitely less expensive than the cost Merrin would have paid for actually murdering a dozen Gallagrin citizens, and with the help of a few conveniently accessible Sunlost glamor casters, it had been faster to arrange the ruse than it would have been to find such close matches for the Baron and his family.

Merrin would, of course, still collect her full fee from Queen Haldri. It wasn’t like the Paxmer Queen’s gold would spend any worse for having been tricked out of the royal horde, and it would sit so nicely beside the matching stack of Gallagrin gold Merrin had amassed.

“So that’s our old lives finished then,” Gedli said.

“Your old lives finished, yes,” Merrin said. “I call this a day that ends in ‘y’.”

“Surely Queen Haldri must be offering you sanctuary as well though?” Gedli asked.

“She offered, but it’s not much good to me,” Merrin said. “I’ve got a guild to run. Can’t do that if I’m hiding out in a different country from it.”

“What of the war though?” Gedli asked. “It can’t possibly be safe to transport goods through a warzone.”

“Safe? No. Profitable? Like you couldn’t imagine,” Merrin said.

“How much gold is your life worth?” Gedli asked.

“The rate varies day to day,” Merrin said. “No price on my head at the moment, so I shouldn’t have to pay that much to keep it I figure.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Gedli said. “What’s the point of gold if you’re not alive to spend it.”

“What’s the point of living if you’ve got no money to survive with?” Merrin asked.

She could have answered his questions, but she knew that the Baron would never be able to see the world through her eyes. He was risk averse to the point where he would abandon everything in the face of a sufficient threat. Merrin knew that was no better than making a bad bet with fate and that sometimes even if your odds were poor, you still had to keep playing the game. In those cases you just wanted to make to cheat as much as possible.

“Tradesman,” Gedli said, shaking his head in disgust.

To Merrin’s ears the word translated as “useful” compared to “nobleman” which translated as “moneybag”.

“We’ll be traveling past one of the marshalling points,” she said, changing the subject. “So we’ll have to keep you hidden for bit.”

“Is that safe?” Gedli asked, a new flush of anxiety coloring his face.

“Perfectly,” Merrin said. “We’re all paid up on our bribes and the last three times we were searched it was so boring that the guards refunded us half the bribe.”

That wasn’t even vaguely true. Guards never refunded bribes. Only an idiot would believe otherwise.

So of course Gedli bought the story without blinking.

The truth was that the last three stations they’d been through had so few guards posted that nine out of ten of the wagons that came through were waved past with nothing more than a perfunctory glance.

That had bothered Merrin from a tactical perspective. The marshalling points were thronging with people. There should have been plenty of personnel to inspect wagons bound for the soon-to-be enemy lands. With a mob of soldiers as large as Gallagrin was assembling, a general shakedown of transports was a near certainty to help pay for the troops and their ravenous needs.

But none of that was in evidence.

As they wound past the growing encampment closest to the Paxmer border, Merrin marveled again at the ease of their passage. Something was not right about the force that Queen Alari had assembled but Merrin sensed that it would profit her more in this particular instance to remain blissfully unaware of what that might be.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 33

The mayor of Holders Keep kept an office in the center of town. As she was a reasonable woman she didn’t allow Dae’s party to come anywhere near her office. Instead she met them in the town’s jail.

“Just so we’re clear, we won’t be staying in here,” Dae said. She and her companions were inside one of the large cells, together because Dae had refused to allow them to be separated, but secured behind a locked and chained gate of bars. Outside the cell the mayor stood, flanked by a team of eight of what Dae guessed were the town’s best fighters.

“Yes, I understand that you warned my strike team of that,” the mayor said. She held a scroll in one hand and was reading over the contents, glancing up to compare them to the people before her in the cell.

She was roughly the same age as Dae’s mother, though the two woman bore no resemblance to each other beyond the years that lined their faces. Lorelaris, the mayor, had the heavy, hard muscled build of a former warrior in Paxmer’s army and the faint scars that spoke of wounds long distant. The years and her role in politics had softened the edges of her physique but Dae was sure that, despite her age, the mayor was still more than capable of hefting sword or spear to take an active role in the defense of her home.

“Hopefully they also explained that we’ve come to this meeting in peace,” Dae said.

“You are spies from Gallagrin sent on a mission from your queen to assault our realm,” Lorelaris said. “Nothing about your presence here is peaceful.”

“Technically we’re operatives, not spies,” Dae said, “But I won’t quibble with you about the distinction between the two. The important point is that we have not come to do violence to you or the people under your protection.”

The mayor frowned and raised an eyebrow as she looked up at Dae.

“My strike team tells me that there’s a Gallagrin army gathering just to the north of our border and you claim not to come bearing violence?”

“A gathering of dragons is marching to this province in a mass that hasn’t been seen in a century,” Dae said. “The violence they bring will be answered, but you and yours don’t need to be caught up in it.”

“The dragons you speak of are our dragons,” Lorelaris said. “We are bound by honor and duty to serve with them.”

Dae saw the guards with the mayor stiffen to attention at her words. Paxmer’s dragons were held in a different light than the pact spirits of Gallagrin. With the populace shielded from their aura of fear, there was only the natural tendency towards awe that remained.

In fairness to the Paxmer psyche though, that awe came from more than just an animalistic need to please creatures so much vaster and more powerful than the mortal citizens of the realm. Paxmer’s protectors possessed a slate of traits which could appear as good or bad depending on which side of the fiery breath one stood, not the least of which being the safety they guaranteed the realm and its citizens.

“Whether you serve them or not, the results’ll be the same,” Dae said. “The battle that’s coming? It’s not going to be a good one for the people on the ground.”

“Then are you suggesting that we should do our duty now, while there’s still time and eliminate you before you can cause any more trouble?” Lorelaris asked.

“No, you don’t want to do that,” Dae said. “It wouldn’t end well for you, and you’re going to need to catch as many breaks as you can if the people here are going to survive the coming year.”

“You are very confident of your power,” Lorelaris said. “And very contemptuous of ours.”

“My apologies,” Dae said. “There’s no contempt meant in my words.”

“Then why would you, an enemy of my nation, speak so,” Lorelaris asked. “What do you hope to gain out of surrendering yourselves like this?”

“She wishes to help us,” Estella said. “Gallagrin is not the one who has enslaved and corrupted our realm.”

“I have not been given your name,” Lorelaris said. “But if you claim kinship with Paxmer than your words are treason.”

“I am Lady Estella sur Korkin,” Estella said. “And my treason goes far deeper than mere words.”

“That is a not a compelling argument towards keeping you alive,” Lorelaris said.

“I am aware of that,” Estella said. “Which is why I have been careful about voicing the words until now.”

“And what makes you think that the current situation is one which is conducive to your turning traitor against Paxmer?” Lorelaris asked.

“I have not turned traitor against Paxmer”, Estella said. “My words and deeds are only treasonous against its crown.”

“The crown and the realm are one and the same,” Lorelaris said. “Are they not?”

“You are the mayor of a border town,” Estella said. “How often has the crown acted in your interests?”

Lorelaris frowned again and Dae saw her guards mirror her expression.

“Loyalty and honor are not bought by what the crown gives to its subjects,” Lorelaris said. “They are the qualities that ennoble us for giving them freely.”

“Yes, that’s the philosophy of the Paxmer crown, and there is truth in it,” Estella said. “But tell me, how many infants starved during the harvest months last fall?”

Lorelaris was silent in response to that.

“My estate is not so far from here that I am unaware of the hardships you’ve faced,” Estella said.

One of the guards glared at Estella, his face molten red with restrained anger.

“We survived the harvest months and the winter which followed,” Lorelaris said.

“There was a shipment which arrived at your gates before the first snows fell,” Estella said. “A merchant caravan which had encountered a party of bandits and overwhelmed them. They were carrying fat sacks of grain and chests of perishable foods. And better still there was a small supply of gold they liberated from the bandits. Enough to ease the burden of your suffering and prevent any more tiny mouths from going hungry to an early grave.”

The color drained from the angry guards face and confusion clouded his eyes.

“The turned their surplus over to you with only the demand for a lifetime contract to supply the city with more at a fair rate,” Estella said.

“How do you know of that?” Lorelaris asked. “The merchants made it a condition of the arrangement that no one would be informed of their deed or trading status otherwise their suppliers would tax them even more,  knowing that they could make up the difference on their profits from us.”

“Three years ago, you were in a similar state,” Estella said. “Then the food that was needed arrived before anyone perished from its lack.”

“That was different,” Lorelaris said. “We gambled on a shipment of supplies that were under a Harpy’s curse. No one else would buy them.”

“And did the Harpy’s curse ever strike down anyone who ate the fruit or vegetables or partook of the cured meats?” Estella asked.

“No, we found a traveling priest from Inchesso who had the counter-agent to the curse and dispelled it for us,” Lorelaris said. As she spoke a grim and horrible awareness began to spark in the darkness behind her eyes.

“There have been similar incidents throughout the years, have there not?” Estella asked. “When you’re need was great? Fate would step in with some good turn to blunt the edge of the crown’s avarice and allow you to carry through to the next spring?”

“We are a blessed realm,” Lorelaris said. “Fate provides for us.”

“No,” Estella said. “Fate sleeps with the gods who lie beneath us. Those merchants and the ‘cursed’ supplies before them did not come to you by accident. There have been those who have resisted the corruption of the Pxmer throne for years and tried to keep its people strong enough to survive the times that are upon us now.”

“That’s not possible,” Lorelaris said. “We are the first among the Blessed Realms, we are the land most favored by Fate.”

“If Fate were with us, would the needless slaughter of seven years ago have come to pass?” Estella asked. “Would Fate have sent so many of our bravest, strongest warriors to fight and die at the border to a realm we can never occupy?”

“We didn’t bleed and die in those mountains for nothing,” one of the guards said, old bitterness dripping from his tongue.

“That’s true,” Dae said, keeping her voice free of the answering bitterness that she felt from the war that was half a decade past. “You fought and bled so that the Paxmer crown could raise an agent of theirs up as the Consort-King of Gallagrin. Haldri Paxmer sent your people to die in a great show of ferocity to make sure that her brother Halrek would be seen as an acceptable alternative to war on two fronts during Queen Alari’s rise to power.”

The guards jerked forward at Dae’s words but the mayor held them back.

“That’s not a reflection on your bravery or honor,” Dae said. “Paxmer’s attack on Gallagrin seven years ago left both our realms poorer, for what in the end turned out to be no good reason.”

“No good reason except to offer Haldri Paxmer a chance to control the Gallagrin throne,” Estella said.

“Queen Haldri doesn’t care about your lives,” Nui said. “She doesn’t care about any of us.”

“And for this we should betray our sacred duty?” Lorelaris asked.

“You’re sacred duty is to your people,” Estella said, grasping the bars of the cell.

“When the dragons come, Haldraxan’s only interest will be for the assault Haldri has planned to launch on Gallagrin,” Dae said. “If you don’t prepare for that then there won’t be any convenient merchants or surprisingly curse-free food shipments to help you weather the time until the spring harvests come in.”

“And how would we prepare for the coming of the dragons?” Lorelaris asked. “If the Queen’s dragon is coming here then our choices will be to present them with whatever they ask of us or watch as they tear apart the town until they find it for themselves.”

“Think back to the campaign seven years ago,” Estella said. “When the dragon came in force then, they tore apart everything regardless of what was offered to them.”

“They didn’t get what was in the root cellars,” one of the guards said, grimacing at the memory of the lean times that had followed.

“That’s one path towards bracing for the worst,” Dae said. “You can also move your elderly and your young. Send them deeper into Paxmer to be farther from the fighting, or, if you will accept the offer, send them across the border to Gallagrin before the fighting starts. With Royal authority, I state that they will not be harmed or used as hostages, but rather sheltered and allowed to return to Paxmer when they wish.”

“Why would you make such an offer?” Lorelaris asked.

“My Queen cares for more than the people under her rule,” Dae said. “She feels a kinship with all who have suffered torments sent from the Paxmer crown. For myself though, the offer is made with purely selfish reasons in mind.”

“What selfish reasons could there be for taking in refugees?” Lorelaris asked.

“Fighting dragons is difficult enough,” Dae said. “I have no wish to fight brave people who are protecting their loved ones as well.”

Lorelaris breathed out a long sigh.

“You do know that the easiest choice to safeguard ourselves will be to turn you over to the queen’s agents, do you not?” the mayor asked.

“It would be if you had the power to make that choice,” Dae said. “Instead I offer you this choice; it might look better for you if we left a path of destruction in our wake to make it clear why you failed to hold us. Would you like us to do that, without injuring your towns people of course, or would you rather we leave quietly so that there is little proof that we’ve ever been here?”

The next day, Lorelaris put her guards to work repairing the ruins of the jail cell, while the rest of the town secreted away food stuffs and sent a contingent of those unable to fight north to the safe harbor of a foreign realm.



The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 32

Despite the fact that flying creatures and vessels were common in the Blessed Realms, the towns of Paxmer were ringed with walls of various sizes.  There were a number of reasons for this, starting with the fact that while some things could fly over the top of the walls, not everything could and the crawling creatures that the walls kept out were one less threat that the citizens needed to be concerned would coming knocking on their doors in the dead of night.

As with many endeavors by the Mindful Races, what started as a purely practical concern become a canvas for artistic expression as well. Both in terms of the sculpture which adorned the tops of the walls and the tableaus which were painted on the large open areas the walls supported, the towns of Paxmer were as much art galleries as they were living spaces.

Across the wide, open plain, Dae saw the ramparts of Holders Keep rising up on the low hill the town had been built on. As a town that was relatively near the border, Holders had a long legacy of martial achievement, a fact which the walls bore clear testament too.

On top of the outer wall there were carved the figures of demons and humans, locked in battle. While the humans were depicted as winning each battle, it was the demons’ weapons which faced outwards to form a picket of sharp tips and spikes that would thwart those trying to scale the outer wall.

Below the battling statues, the wall was adorned the images of a cavalry in full charge, with the classic image of Paxmer dragons flying above them.

“Well, that’s tremendously inviting,” Jyl said.

“It took them ten years to get it fully painted,” Estella said.

“It would take about ten hours for it be scoured clean if the town came under seige,” Dae said.

“They’re not worried about being besieged,” Estella said. “Even if Gallagrin’s forces attacked en masse, the dragons riders would catch them long before they penetrated this far past the border. Or at least that’s the official doctrine.”

“Could you actually make it here?” Nui asked. “If you brought all the Pact Warriors with you?”

“Probably,” Dae said. “This would be a terrible spot to fight though. Assuming the town has a fighting force that’s worth half a damn they could keep an army out for long enough that the dragons would definitely have time to arrive. Then it’d be a fight on a open field against an aerial force that has a safe landing and resupply zone.”

“I can picture worse forms of suicide, but only because they’d take longer,” Jyl said.

“But you’re planning to march your army in here to get the Spirit Crown?” Zana asked. “It doesn’t sound like that will work out too well for you.”

“Our target area is in the mountains,” Dae said. “As a dwarf I imagine you know what that means?”

Zana frowned and pondered that for a moment.

“Rough terrain to move an army through, but your Gallagrin types have more familiarity with that then we do,” Zana said. “And you’d have more places to hide from the dragons.”

“Hard to burn something that’s got a wall of rock to hide behind,” Dae said.

“Hard but not impossible,” Estella said. “If Haldraxan takes the field, the mountains won’t be enough to keep you safe.”

“He can burn through rock?” Jyl asked.

“Yes,” Estella said. “But he’s smart enough that he doesn’t need to.”

“He knows all the caves here doesn’t he?” Dae asked. “He’ll just smoke everyone out.”

“Or burn up all the air,” Estella said. “I know Pact Warriors are durable but anyone without a pact spirit bound to them will probably object to breathing ash and flame.”

“Will that advantage be enough to convince the big lizard to expose himself?” Dae asked.

“I doubt it,” Estella said. “He can dispatch minions to accomplish the same effect.”

“Will he be that scared of us?” Jyl asked. “We haven’t exactly put up that much of a fight so far.”

“It’s not a question of fear,” Estella said. “In Haldraxan’s case, his governing principle seems to be laziness. He has lived a long time and very little is new or amusing to him. There’s fear there too of course, all dragons are motivated by it, but unless he sees a problem that requires his personal attention, Haldraxan will be content to wipe out those arrayed against him as a gamesman would, through the careful use of pawns where the outcome can allow for surprises without truly endangering him in any meaningful sense.”

“We’ll need to do something to change that,” Dae said.

“Do you really wish to face him?” Estella asked. “No one has seen him in battle in a century or more, but even his appearances with the queen are awe inspiring.”

“He’s the cornerstone of Haldri Paxmer’s power,” Dae said. “Awe inspiring or not, he’s got to fall.”

“There are some riders coming from the town,” Jyl said. “I think they’ve seen us.”

“That’s not a good sign,” Nui said. “They must be on alert already.”

“I’m not surprised,” Dae said. “If the dragon riders were waiting for us at the monastery then the word has probably gone out to all the surrounding towns as well to be on the lookout for a party like ours.”

“It’s not like there’s a lot of other people traveling at the moment either,” Jyl said. “This whole area seems barren.”

“They do not wish to parley,” Mayleena said. “Shall we treat them kindly?”

Dae looked at her companion and read the tension in Mayleena’s body language as a mirror of the eagerness Dae herself felt. Kirios, her pact spirit, was itching for a battle, having been suppressed for so long.

“We’re not going to fight at all,” Dae said. “They’ll have been sent to detain and question us.”

“And if they only wish to question some of us and do the rest harm?” Mayleena asked.

“Then we educate them,” Dae said. “Allow no harm to come to yourselves or to our guests, but give them no wounds or injuries that they will feel tomorrow.”

“I’m not sure if we can manage that,” Zana said.

“I’m sorry, you three aren’t going to be fighting at all if it comes to that,” Dae said, indicating Estella, Nui and Zana.

“There are eight riders coming,” Nui said, casting a skeptical glance at the makeup of the two parties.

“Eight riders and no dragons,” Jyl said. “That makes a big difference. Assuming of course that we can use our pact spirits for this?”

“Only if it becomes necessary,” Dae said. “Hold off transforming until I do, or if your life’s in peril. And Mayleena that means you’re life as you are now.”

“We are not sure we can be as precise as you require,” Mayleena said.

“Consider it a training exercise,” Dae said.

“There will be lethal consequences if our control should fail,” Mayleena said.

“That’s why you won’t fail,” Dai said. It was the role of a team leader to inspire confidence in their teammates but Dae found she wasn’t just mouthing motivational words. She believed that Mayleena was the equal to the task set before her. Mayleena had resisted the urge to lash out at the dragons on the mountaintop. She was almost certainly still on the edge from that encounter but there was a core of strength the two parts of her shared that was undeniable. Mayleena hadn’t had time to process her victories over herself yet, but Dae could see the tempering of the two spirit in Mayleena that the trials they’d been through had resulted in.

It wasn’t long before the riders from the town drew up to Dae’s party, the horsemen bristling with arms and armor.

“State your names and business travellers,” the lead horseman said.

“I am Daelynne Akorli,” Dae said. “And to save you time, we’re the ones you’ve been warned to look for.”

Her candor shocked the riders for a moment. They had been expecting denials, evasions, or an immediate counterattack, but Dae wasn’t playing to that script.

“Then you will surrender your weapons and be bound for examination,” the lead horseman said.

“No,” Dae said, and the riders readied their weapons. This was back closer to what they expected to hear. “Three of us are Pact Knight. You can no more take our weapons from us than you can ask us to surrender our souls. As for the others, if you give them cause to wish to use their weapons, I can assure you they will not have time to before the three of us have rectified the matter.”

“You leave us no choice but to subdue you then,” the lead horseman said.

“Of course you have a choice,” Dae said. “We wish to speak to your mayor anyways. You can escort us into town, and place as many guards around us as you wish. I offer you my word as the Knight of the Queen of Gallagrin that we will offer no one in your town violence unless we first offered it from you or yours.”

“You will submit to our authority, and reliquish your weapons,” the lead horseman said.

“Sergeant, you should take the Pact Knights offer while it offered,” Estella said. “This is the woman who stood against the dragon at Star’s Watch Keep. If she wished it you would all be dead before you could raise your weapons another inch.”

The horseman tried to swing his lance to point at Estella but in half a blink the weapon shattered into a thousand pieces. A blink later and all of the remaining lances burst into flinders too.

“You may escort us to the mayor,” Dae said. “We have no interest in a conflict with you, and the news we bring may prove critical to the survival of your town.”

The lead horseman looked to be at a loss for a moment. He still had his sword, but the wisdom of drawing it was questionable at best. Dae watched a series of emotions war across his face. First fear, then anger, then contemplation, a round of irritation and finally resignation.

“March ahead of us,” he said at last. “And do not try that again.”

Dae caught a glimpse of Jyl’s evil grin and frowned at the young elf. It was not the time for a flippant remark about how they couldn’t try breaking the horseman’s lances again because there were no lances left to break.

“If you need to signal the town, or if you wish us to wait outside while you determine if the mayor will meet with us, we won’t raise an objection or try to escape,” Dae offered as the mixed group of horse riders and walkers trudged towards the colorful walls of the keep.

“Our orders are to detain you and ascertain if there are others traveling with you,” the lead horseman said.

“In the interest of saving time then allow me to offer you this,” Dae said. “You have successfully detained us. How and when we depart from your town will be the result of our discussion with your mayor, so you have performed your duty in full in that regards. As for others traveling with us, my two companions and I are the entirety of the Gallagrin force in our group. That said, there is an army massing on the other side of the border which your superiors are likely already aware of. If not they should be informed that Queen Alari Gallagrin has commanded their deployment and that she has sent us, both my team and the massing armies, to deliver a message to Queen Haldri Paxmer.

“And what message do you bring?” The horseman asked.

Dae stopped and turned to face the horsemen.

“Queen Alari bears no ill will towards the people of Paxmer,” she said. “She believes that like herself, you have been victims of the mad excesses of the Paxmer throne. Given who our previous ruler was, Queen Alari is well acquainted with the madness which can grip monarchs and the damage they can do to their kingdom. As such she offers you her mercy and support.”

“And what message does she have for Queen Haldri?” The horseman asked.

“It’s a not a message that can be spoke in words,” Dae said. “It requires the edge of a blade across Haldri’s throat to get the point across with sufficient clarity.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 31

The alchemical monks were abandoning their home and fleeing from certain and fiery death, but they somehow still found time to offer Dae and her companions aid.

“We’re going to be traveling light anyways,” Monk Wunchlasse said. “So our extra food stores are yours.”

“Thank you, I can’t imagine it was easy to get all this up here,” Dae said, looking over the crates of rations and preserved foods that the monks had hauled out of their store houses.

“Easier than getting it down it turns out,” Wunchlasse said. “We had plenty of time to stock the storerooms, but precious little for the unloading.”

“Will you be able to carry enough to reach the Gallagrin border?” Dae asked.

“We should be good as long as we don’t need to take too many detours,” Wunchlasse said.

“When you get to the border, ask for sanctuary in my name,” Dae said. “The troops there should be briefed on your arrival.”

“You’re able to communicate with your queen?” Wunchlasse asked.

“No, but she foresaw that something like this might come up, so they’ll be expecting your arrival some time before the fighting starts,” Dae said.

“Let’s hope that she’s foreseen enough for us all to make it through the coming cataclysm,” Wunchlasse said.

“You should be safe in Gallagrin at the very least,” Dae said.

“If Haldri Paxmer gains the power you seek, I doubt we’d be safe anywhere in the world,” Wunchlasse said, her wrinkled brow furrowing even further.

“We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen,” Dae said.

Jyl wandered up to them in the company of one of the monastery’s scribes.

“I’ve got the maps that you asked for,” she said. “Can you figure out where we need to go from these though? They look different than the ones we have in Gallagrin.”

“Paxmer map notations are different from the ones we use,” Dae said, examining the largest map that Jyl had brought with her.

“There are fewer dwarves in Paxmer,” Estella said.

“What does that have to do with maps?” Nui asked.

“Gallagrin has one of the largest cautographs schools in the Blessed Realms,” Dae said. “Until about fifty years ago the school was open to dwarves only and they trained their students on the most exacting surveying techniques and equipment. Nobody else could match them for their accuracy and detail.”

“What happened to them?” Nui asked.

“Falling out among the heads of facuity that ran the school,” Dae said. “Squabbling, led to infighting and in the end the central guild they were all part of collapsed and the individual inot rectors set up a number of separate schools and started teaching a wider range of students.”

“So you’re saying our maps are wrong then?” Nui asked.

“No, not wrong, just different,” Dae said. “At least if you know how to adjust for the differences in representation styles.”

“And you do?” Nui asked.

“Hell no,” Dae said. “But Mayleena does.”

“She’s somewhat out of commission though, isn’t she?” Jyl asked.

“We’ll have to see about that,” Dae said. “Worst case we can use the maps we brought from home to at least get close to our destination.”

“You mentioned going from town to town on your journey,” Estella said. “That’s not the fastest path for reaching your destination.”

“I know,” Dae said. “But our queen insisted that it was vital once we reached this stage and confirmed that dragons were active in the area that we make every effort to ensure that the local population is not decimated by them.”

“Odd that the Gallagrin Queen cares so much about Paxmer civilians,” Estella said.

“She cares about people,” Dae said. “She always has.”

“Isn’t her first duty to the people of Gallagrin though?” Nui asked.

“Yes,” Mayleena said, emerging from the sky carriage at last. “But safety for one brings safety for all.”

Dae watched Estella’s expression turn contemplative, as though Mayleena’s words had provided the last piece to a particularly opaque puzzle. She wondered how much of Alari’s plan her mother had discerned and whether it really made sense to wait to reveal it openly. Alari and Dae had worked together carefully on the timing when information would be released so that the right bits would reach Haldri at the right times. With the plan in motion though, Dae could help but second guess the parts of it which she’d made cases for being true.

It was easy, sitting in the planning room of the castle in Highcrest, to imagine a flow of events, one triggering the other with contingencies for when each step went astray. It was very different though enacting those plans though and having to walk blind into traps that you could foresee.

Before Dae’s party left the alchemical monastery, Dae found a moment to pull Mayleena off to the side for a private discussion.

“How are you both holding up?” she asked.

“We feel like we are two strings on a violin on which different melodies have been played, badly,” Mayleena said. “We are regaining our harmony, but it is difficult.”

“Good,” Dae said. “We’re going to face more dragons before this is over, but from here on out you don’t need to hold back.”

“What about our cover though?” Mayleena asked. “If they discover we’re here, won’t they send more dragons?”

“They’re already sending more dragons,” Dae said. “At this point we just need to hope that the rest of the plan works out in our favor.”

The next step in the plan was to resume their journey, which the monks also helped with by allowing both the Queen’s Knights and the Resistance members to take the long sky carriage in the monk’s stable to the ground for its first trip down the mountain.

Sailing from the top of the spire the monastery as located on, Dae was able to put a real picture to the region which the conflicting Gallagrin and Paxmer maps displayed.

The border between the two nations was largely remarked by a series of impassable mountains with the occasional traversible pass which allowed for trade and travel to occur. Where the mountains continued well into Gallagrin’s lands though, in Paxmer they extended like a series of sharp and tall fingers that broke up the northern provinces of the realm.

Apart from the fringe of mountains though, Paxmer enjoyed tremendous plains, that left Dae boogling at how much land there was for people to tend to. Here are there stretches of forest dotted the landscape but these seemed like carefully tended sanctuaries rather than the wild growths which clawed life out of Gallagrin’s rocky slopes and meadows.

As they drew closer to the ground, the other thing that struck Dae was how much larger the distances seemed when confronted with their reality rather than simply a representation on a map.

She knew that they were looking at many days of travel to reach their destination. Easily over a week. Seeing the space they had to cross though left her wondering if even that much time would be enough.

If the plan’s going to work, it will have to be, she thought.

“Be careful when you get off,” the monk who was driving the sky carriage said. “There are fire drakes in these parts and other draconian half breeds and knock-offs. They usually stay away from people but with winter ending they’re at their hungriest, so it’s best to stay alert.”

“I presume Wunchlasse would like us to clear out any such creatures that are waiting in ambush?” Estella asked.

“She just said to warn you,” the driver said.

“The old fox never just says anything,” Estella said.

“It’s a fair repayment for their help,” Dae said.

“We’ll see if you think like that if we run into a sulphurmander,” Estella said.

Fortunately their travels took them past neither fire drakes or sulphurmanders.  In point of fact, their travels took them past no animal or monster life whatsoever.

“I’m right to be creeped out by this aren’t I?” Jyl asked

“This does feel really weird,” Nui said. “We’re not far off from Hangarsford, but there should still be more animals around than this. It’s a warm night, there should be birds at least.”

“The beasts of the wild can sense the dragons as they gather,” Estella said.

“But it’s going to be weeks before the big lizards can all make it here,” Dae said.

“Their intent is focused here,” Estella said. “It’s not enough to bring their fearful auras to bear, but remember that dragons are more than just what you see them to be. They are a part of the magic which is imbued in Paxmer.”

“Can they sense us?” Jyl asked.

“Not directly,” Estella said. “And even when they’re commanded to move, the dragons who live under Haldraxan’s rule have little interest in showing initiative. They are uniformly self-absorbed, as Haldraxan’s insists they be.”

“So they won’t be searching for us either then?” Jyl asked.

“On when they’re ordered to,” Estella said. “And even then, only to the extent they are directed.”

“Meaning if their riders are new and don’t tell the dragons to sniff us out, then they’ll ignore any scents they catch of us,” Dae said.

“That’s lucky for us,” Jyl said.

“Not precisely,” Estella said. “The reason Haldraxan insists on that mindset in the dragons that he controls is that their lack of initiative means that they work flawlessly with their rider’s will and they are completely subservient to him.”

“So there’s no option to split their ranks, or defeat their morale,” Dae said. “In a sense they are already berserkers, just ones under Haldraxan’s control.”

“How could all of the dragons be like that?” Jyl asked. “Pact spirits are literally bound to us and they’re each unique. The queen can’t dictate what they do and there’s no Spirit King who commands and shapes them.”

“Paxmer magic is different from Gallagrim magic,” Dae said. “Each was crafted by a different deity to fit a different purpose.”

“That’s true, but it’s not the reason why our dragons are limited as they are,” Estella said. “The story that you told about Gallagrin’s lost Spirit Crown has a mirror in Paxmer, except Paxmer’s controlling artifact is not lost. It sits on Haldraxan’s brow. When the dragons were originally shaped from the earth, they were modeled after your Pact Spirits, but they were given physical forms so that they could collect their own experiences.”

“It sounds like there were problems with that?” Jyl asked.

“They were meant to be the guardians of Paxmer, and servants to the crown,” Estella said. “But over time they didn’t wish to fight in the wars the gods waged against one another, and certainly not the ones the Kings and Queens of Paxmer demanded they fight in.”

“That’s when Haldraxan was created,” Nui said.”

“And why he was given a divine tool to rule them with,” Estella said. “His rule is not so absolute as the Spirit Crown that you spoke of, but with his long centuries of experience, it works out to be much the same in the end.”

“So, why hasn’t he usurped the throne himself?” Dae asked. “Why take orders from a creature like Haldri Paxmer?”

“As he rules with the gem, so to is he ruled by it,” Estella said. “He is bound to the Paxmer throne by the same power that he uses to bring the other dragons into his own likeness. But it’s not a simple matter of subservience. Haldraxan and the ruler of Paxmer are joined by a bond. They are two beings but they share one appetite.”

“So everything rotten in Paxmer is Haldraxan’s fault?” Jyl asked.

“Not at all,” Estella said. “Haldraxan colors all of the rulers of Paxmer, but each one brings their own avarice to the relationship as well. In Haldri Paxmer we have a queen whose hunger for power cannot be satiated within the confines of our realm, and so, once again Haldraxan’s eye is turned outward. In a sense this has helped us. We’ve been able to build up our strength far beyond what it was when I returned her, but it also means that unseating Queen Haldri will not be enough to forge a peace for Gallagrin.”

“Haldraxan will just pass on her lust for power to the next monarch and we’ll enter the cycle all over again,” Jyl said.

“Unless we also destroy Haldraxan,” Dae said.

“But he’s immortal,” Nui said.

“No,” Dae said. “The gods themselves showed us, everything can die.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 30

Coming out of the grip of dragon fear was no easier for having managed it twice before Dae decided. She’d been able to isolate the emotional cataclysm the dragons inflicted on them somewhat better thanks to the foreknowledge of what they would be exposed to, but even with that she felt shaky and disoriented as the magical compulsion faded.

“Not that I’m complaining, but what killed the dragons?” Dae asked, pushing down a wave of nausea before she decorated the monastery’s landing pad in the colors of whatever she’d last eaten.

“Blasting powder,” Monk Wunchlasse, the old woman leading the other monks, said. “They came to claim our current stocks and ‘encourage’ us to make more.”

“I didn’t know that blasting power could be focused that well?” Dae said.

“It’s easier when you get to pack it carefully on your target’s backs,” Monk Wunchlasse said. “We’re lucky that these were young ones, both the riders and their mounts, though.”

“Yes, if their lieutenant had more experience he wouldn’t have fallen for my ruse,” Estella said.

“And the dragons might have survived the explosions,” Monk Wunchlasse said. “But come, there is much to discuss and put in motion and precious little time from here to work with.”

“I need to check on my people,” Dae said. She turned to find Jyl standing against the side of the sky carriage, panting to catch her breath but looking to have weathered the dragon fear as well as Dae had.

Inside the sky carriage, Dae found Mayleena folded over, hands wrapped around legs and forehead pressed to knees.

“The dragons are gone,” Dae said, keeping her voice soft.

“We know,” Mayleena said. “We need a few…we need time. Please. Don’t let anyone else open the door until we come out. We are…we’re not safe at the moment.”

Dae nodded, understanding.

“Take as much time as you need,” she said. “We have some questions to work out with the monks. I’ll check back in when we’re done, and I’ll knock before entering.”

“Thank you,” Mayleena said, her voice cracking into alien tones.

After the dragon fear, Dae couldn’t be sure if her apprehension at bothering Mayleena further was due to being off balance still or if it was the voice of self preservation screaming an entirely sensible warning. Mayleena had managed to stifle her natural reaction to dragon fear, and as a result hadn’t killed everyone on the mountaintop. The effort had cost her dearly though and from what Dae could see the reaction in Mayleena was still fighting to go out of control.

On the off chance that they survived the mission, Dae promised herself that she would make time to work with Mayleena in less fraught situations to help her hone the amazing amount of control she’d already clearly developed.

“How is she?” Nui asked as Dae returned to the gathered group of Resistance fighters and alchemical monks.

“She’s holding it together, but she needs time,” Dae said. “For the love of all the Sleeping Gods, no one go into the carriage or disturb it at all though. There won’t be a mountain left, or any of us either, if you do.”

“What is she?” Monk Wunchlasse asked, her aged face tightening in suspicion.

“One of mine,” Dae said. “And a good woman. Please treat her as such.”

“And who are you?” Monk Wunchlasse asked.

“Maricha, please meet my daughter Daelynne Korli,” Estella said.

The old woman took a step back, her eyes widening in shock.

“You’re less dead than I was led to believe,” she said, regaining her composure.

“It’s Akorli now, and yes, we’re working on discovering who it was that survived the events of twenty years ago,” Dae said. “Neither my mother nor I are precisely who we were then.”

“Well that explains why we had to save you I guess,” Wunchlasse said.

“How did you know to do that?” Jyl asked. “I was out of it there for a while, but it looked like you took the dragons completely by surprise.”

Wunchlasse glanced at Estella but Dae answered Jyl’s question before any awkward prevarications could be dreamed up.

“Hand signals, I think,” Dae said. “From where I was frozen I had a decent vantage point on Lady sur Korkin and I’m pretty sure the finger fluttering she was doing was not the panicked, overly emotional gestures the dragon rider mistook them for.”

“The resistance has gone on long enough that they’ve developed a whole language of gestures?” Jyl asked.

“Probably,” Dae said. “But probably better if we don’t know too much about it. They’ll be worried what we’ll say if we’re captured.”

“If I’m captured, I don’t plan on retaining the capacity for coherent thought,” Jyl said, “Much less the ability to betray any secrets.”

“I’m not sure it’s a comfort to them to know that if defeat seems imminent, we’re likely to unleash our Pact Spirits and self-destruct,” Dae said. “After all it won’t exactly be healthy for anyone within line of sight of us if that happens.”

“If defeat is imminent, I believe all of us would prefer a swift death, no matter how terrible, in place of the tortures Haldri Paxmer would have waiting,” Estella said.

“I have lived a good long life,” Wunchlasse said, “And I intend to keep living it for a good time longer, so enough talk about defeat. I want to hear why you’ve come and what sort of hell you’ve brought with you?”

Dae saw that the monks around them weren’t gathering to be part of the conversation but were instead rapidly packing up boxes and crates as though a surprise housing inspection were imminent.

“Our time table has shifted up somewhat,” Estella said as Wunchlasse led them into a room at the top of the spire.

“You’re rushing things because your daughter has returned?” Wunchlasse asked.

“No, we’re rushing things because of the army that she is bringing here,” Estella said.

“An army?” Wunchlasse asked, looking at the two Pact Knights in the room.

“Yes,” Estella said. “There’s an army massing just north of the border. These three are it’s vanguard.”

“You’ll be slaughtered,” Wunchlasse said.

“That’s not the army you need to worry about,” Dae said.

“She speaks true there too,” Estella said. “The queen has mobilized the largest flight of dragons since the War of the Split Throne.”
“That’s impossible,” Wunchlasse said. “That many dragons in our province would devastate the countryside. The royal army couldn’t possibly handle the logistics of keeping them all fed.”

“Impossible or not, the dragons are coming,” Dae said. “Haldri thinks they will be justified in holding off an assault from Gallagrin. She also thinks they’ll be sufficient to accomplish the task.”

“How could they not be sufficient?” Wunchlasse asked. “Even with all the Pact Knights in Gallagrin, you couldn’t beat a dragon army the size of the ones that were fielded during our civil war.”

“We have a lot of Pact Knights and with the right tools a single Pact Knight can defeat a dragon,” Dae said.

“It’s never been done before,” Wunchlasse said.

“We haven’t had the right tool before,” Dae said.

“There is an artifact, one that will allow a Pact Knight to push through dragon fear,” Estella said. “My daughter and her companions seek to acquire it before our queen gains control of it.”

“That’s why the queen has ordered the dragon army here then, isn’t it?” Wunchlasse asked. “With an artifact like that she would hold the upper hand over Gallagrin at last.”

“No,” Dae said. “She’s not interested in keeping Paxmer safe. She wants the throne of Gallagrin, and she’ll grab for any power that promises to give it to her.”

“We have more immediate matters to discuss though,” Estella said. “While I am deeply grateful for your assistance, I am afraid of the cost you must bear for rendering it.”

“It won’t be the first time I’ve fled from my monastery,” Wunchlasse said. “And at least this time it’s not on fire and collapsing on top of me.”

“Why do you have to flee?” Jyl asked. “Can’t we come up with a story for you? Maybe we killed the dragons in mid-air and then landed here, overpowered you and fled down the mountain after taking the supplies we need.”

“There are two problems with that story,” Wunchlass said. “First, our queen will not believe a story wherein a trio of Pact Knights got the better of a trio of dragons in an aerial battle and second, even if she did, she wouldn’t care.”

“Haldri Paxmer is not a forgiving monarch,” Estella said. “She’d slaughter everyone at the monastery even if the story you suggested was the pure and factual truth.”

“That’s insane,” Jyl said. “She must go through advisors like they’re fashion accessories.”

“No,” Estella said. “She’ll never give up a pretty broach once she has it. Her advisors enjoy much less guarantee of remaining in her good graces than that.”

“The monks are packing to leave already?” Dae asked.

“We’ve known the cost for the taking direct and lethal action against the queen’s representatives ever since the Resistance was founded,” Wunchlasse said. “Now is the time for us to scatter. The queen may hunt some of us down, but enough will survive to rebuild the monastery, in secret if we must, and continue forward the research that’s been done here.”

“Wait,” Dae said. “What if you didn’t have to scatter?”

“No one can be here when the next dragon riders arrive,” Estella said.

“Agreed,” Dae said. “But what if the monks stayed together?”

“Then Haldri Paxmer would only need to find us in one place to wipe us out completely,” Wunchlasse said.

“Not if that one place was in a spot where her power couldn’t reach,” Dae said.

“You mean for us to go to Gallagrin?” Wunchlasse asked.

“Yes, you could continue your research, together, as the community that you’ve become, with no fear of being hunted down,” Dae said. “And, once the current strife is ended, you could leave Gallagrin and return home.”

“We would be refugees,” Wuchlasse said. “Unless your queen could guarantee us our place in your country and the freedom to return to our own whenever we wish.”

Dae smiled and a light flashed across her eyes. When she spoke her voice was not her own.

“We grant the people of this monastery the sanctuary and protection of the Throne of Gallagrin,” Alari’s voice said from Dae’s mouth. “We grant too the right of transit so that none may bar them from leaving our realm when their sojourn within our borders is complete.”

“I’ve heard royal proclamations before,” Wunchlasse said. “You’ve been given the Gallagrin Queen’s voice to speak with?”

“Yes,” Dae said, reverting to her own. “Our offering of sanctuary is backed by royal will and is a binding pledge on both myself and the monarch whom I serve.”

“It will take us some time to reach the Gallagrin border from here though,” Wunchlasse said.

“Then we shouldn’t delay you any further,” Estella said.

“And where will you be going?” Wunchlasse said.

“We must head for the artifact which my daughter seeks,” Estella said. “The time of Paxmer’s destruction is on us sooner than expected but we must rise to play our role in it nonetheless.”

“Which means I believe you owe me a hundred gold crowns don’t you?” Wunchlasse said.

“You had a bet on this?” Dae asked.

“Your mother thought we would struggle on to our dying days with nothing ever changing,” Wunchlasse said. “I’ve seen the signs of this coming for years though.”

“Yes, well, remember that you’ll have to live through this in order to enjoy those gold crowns,” Estella said.

“You too little bird,” Wunchlasse said. “You bring the coins when this is all done and maybe I’ll share another bottle of the monastery’s Special Reserve.”

“I still don’t remember that week,” Estella said. “But another bottle sounds wonderful.”

“If you’re going to head directly to the border from here, I have a request,” Dae said.

“And what would that be?” Wunchlasse asked.

“Warn the people in the town’s that you pass,” Dae said. “We’ll travel overland and do the same. You’ve seen a cataclysm coming, let’s make sure everyone’s ready for it.”

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 29

Jyl sat on the driver’s bench as the floundering sky carriage made its final approach to the alchemical monastery. The temptation to leap over the side and take her chances with a high speed impact with the ground was strong enough that she was squeezing the wooden seat with sufficient force to leave fingerprints in its surface.

“Permission to speak freely,” she asked through clenched teeth.

“Yes, I know this is a bad plan,” Dae said as she drove them onwards to their doom.

“Not what I was going to say, actually,” Jyl said.

“What’s on your mind then?” Dae asked as the sky carriage plummeted twenty feet before the Wind Steeds regained a semblance of solidity.

“Why me?” Jyl asked. “I mean rather than May. Not that being in the cabin will keep the dragons from eating me, but why not have the one person here who we know is capable of fighting them?”

“Because our only hope here is that we won’t have to fight them,” Dae said.

“The dragons all descended to the monastery when they saw us coming in,” Jyl said. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to fight them.”

“Mayleena’s not going to be able to handle them for us,” Dae said. “At best she’d be able to catch a couple of them before the third lifted off and roasted us all from the air.”

“That’s two more of them than we’re going to take out with this plan though isn’t it?” Jyl asked.

“That’s probably true,” Dae said and fought against a wild turn to the right as one of the Wind Steeds faltered and flicked away briefly. “Assuming we can even get there.”

“Honesty time, crashing into the side of the mountain’s not looking so bad right at the moment,” Jyl said.

“Can’t say I disagree, but our job’s not done here yet,” Dae said. “And for as much as what’s going to come next is going to suck, I promise you it’s worth it.”

Jyl clenched the shivering muscles in her torso and forced herself to draw in a deep breath. The air carried with it the scent of dragon fire.

“I can’t do this,” Jyl said. “This isn’t me. I was wrong to come on this mission.”

She felt herself coming unglued, like whatever tethered her to her body had dissolved and she was manipulating it at a distance. From that ghostly remove, only one course of action made sense.

She released her grip on the bench and tumbled off her seat. Her bond with her pact spirit was just as distant as her connection to her body, so she had no idea if she’d be able to manifest wings to fly safely to the ground but somehow that didn’t matter in the least. She welcomed the plunging feeling that meant she was going to escape the horror that awaited her at the top of the mountain.

Or she did until she felt Dae’s hand wrap around her arm like a steel coil.

“We’re going to get through this,” Dae said as the sky carriage tumbled in towards the landing platform.

Jyl fought to escape. She didn’t want to. She respected her commander’s judgment and power too much to try to assault her, but some part of her wasn’t interested in respect or rational judgment. That part of her needed to escape. She felt like it would have been easier to order her heart to stop beating than it would have been to deny that primal imperative.

Her first blow took Dae right in the cheek. It was a solid hit and would have knocked someone without a pact spirit completely off the driver’s bench. Dae’s head didn’t even rock backwards though.

“No more of…” Dae wasn’t even able to finish her admonition before the sky carriage touched down and the two of them were frozen in place by the aura of dragon fear that awaited them.

Coherent though, which had eluded Jyl the last time she encountered a dragon, remained in place this time. The only problem was that she became even more disconnected from her body than she had been.

I shouldn’t have hit the commander, she though. That might cause complications in the mission.

She tried to say something, offer an apology, or even drop her arms limply to her side to indicate that she wasn’t going to fight any further. Movement of any type was not an option though. Observing her body, Jyl didn’t think she was even breathing still.

Somehow though that didn’t seem like a problem. Holding her breath for a while was a basic survival technique for a frightened animal, and on some level that’s all that she was.

Humans, and elves, and dwarves, and all the other Mindful Races believed that they were special. That their intellects allowed them to be the masters of their world. From the magics of pact bonds to the technologies of steel wrung from the mountains, the bits of power that people had scraped together gave them the illusion that they were something greater than the primitive beasts that prowled the wilds or were yoked to toil for those who could think.

As dragon fear descended on her for the second time though, Jyl was forced to confront the fact that in the grand scheme of the gods’ creation, she was no greater than any other beast. Like any animal, she was driven by her desires and limited by her needs. Whatever she wanted, and whatever she thought was right didn’t matter. All that mattered was what she needed, and before all other needs came the need to survive.

To be helpless in the face of that need, was soul crushing. In the cold empty night of her her fear drowned heart, a spark of hatred flared. Hatred for Dae for keeping her on the sky carriage, hatred for Mayleena for not saving them and hatred for the queen for sending them on the mission in the first place.

Most of all though there was hatred of herself for being so weak. For pretending to be a person for so long when she was nothing more than an animal.

In the flames of that hatred she heard her sister’s laughter. It was a laughter that cut and sliced into Jyl, piercing through skin and muscle and into the marrow of her bones.

Her twin knew Jyl’s weaknesses and mocked them cruelly at every turn, so it was right and proper that the echo of her that lived within Jyl’s mind should laugh at this too.

Except, there were some things that they never tormented each other over. Some areas that were off limits. Jaan might kick Jyl when she was down, but somehow the kicks put Jyl back on her feet, ready to fight more, rather than grinding her down further into the mud.

Jyl knew her relationship with Jaan wasn’t a cornerstone of strength for either of them. Neither sister had ever supported or nurtured the other. Almost from exiting the womb there’d been strife and rivalry between the two. Anyone who watched the two of them would inevitably observe that the two were the most bitter of enemies, and Jyl and Jaan had done nothing to correct that belief.

As hatred tore into Jyl’s psyche though, and the dragon fear tried to unmake her image of who she was, she found strength in a simple paradox; she hated her sister and she loved her. She and Jaan were bitter rivals and they were also the ones that at the end of all other things each knew they could rely on.

Jyl was an animal. The dragon fear showed that there were parts of her that could be overwhelmed and driven to thoughtless, uncontrollable action.

But that wasn’t all that she was.

With her sister’s laughter in her ears, Jyl reached out to her body and climbed back into her life in time to hear Lady sur Korkin speaking with one of the dragon riders.

“Thank the gods you were here, Lieutenant, these women are operatives from Gallagrin, and they must be taken into custody immediately.”

“I will have to take everyone into custody, your Ladyship,” the dragon rider said. “Yourself included.”

“Of course,” Estella said. “We must make a full report to the queen’s inquisitors. There may be more Gallagrin agents within the country.”

“You wish to speak to the inquisitors?” the dragon rider asked, clearly surprised.

“As soon as possible,” Estella said. “Paxmer must be ready to defend itself, if this is the prelude to a larger invasion.”

“We are already preparing for an invasion,” the dragon rider said.

“They came to requisition our special blasting powders,” one of the alchemist monks said.

“We are fortunate in your timing then,” Estella said. “Without your dragons, I doubt we could have escaped from three Pact Knights. I must request that you bring the dragon’s full might to bear though, there remains one additional Pact Knight hidden inside the carriage.”

“The dragons will stay where they are,” the rider said. “Any hidden Pact Knight is already frozen by my partner.”

“The hidden one claims to have been responsible for the sinking of a Sunlost ship off the coast of Windsmer and the murder of two dragon riders,” Estella said. “I urge you to be extremely careful of her. They captured us unawares, and had a blade to my throat seconds after they saw me. I know you are not so powerless as we were, but while there is little my daughter or I could have done to resist them, I believe they may have some hidden strategies for dealing with our great protectors. I can’t imagine they would have dared our shores otherwise.”

“You make a compelling case,” the dragon rider said. “We shall burn the carriage, if you don’t object?”

Jyl could hear the dragon rider fishing for a measure of resistance to indicate that Estella’s loyalties had been compromised.

“I have no objections whatsoever to that plan,” Estella said. “The carriage belongs to the mayor of Windsmer. I’m certain she would rather see it burned that used by a Gallagrin infiltrator, just as I’m certain that questioning someone who could slay two dragon riders is unacceptably dangerous.”

Jyl felt herself hauled off the driver’s seat. She was rigid and still unmoving, but she felt an echo of familiarity from her pact spirit. This wasn’t a natural reluctance to move. It was a magical paralysis that was part of the dragon fear aura. She wasn’t too afraid to move, she was bond in magic that prevented her from doing so. And forced her to be terrified. So the difference was slight, but it was present and that, in some odd manner, reassured her.

“Perhaps I shall bring the other dragons in as you say then,” the rider said and signaled the other riders to bring their dragons in for a landing near the carriage. Jyl winced as whole new flavors of dragon fear scoured her mouth like boiling bile. “I want to know what sort of monster Gallagrin has created that can slay two of us.”

“Please, no!” Estella said. “I saw how easily they penetrated the mayor’s estate. I know our dragons are powerful, but you shouldn’t risk yourselves trying to capture them all alive. Certainly one of the other ones could answer your questions?”

“You wish to preserve the third one’s secrets?” the rider asked.

“I am more concerned with the risk you take, than with secrets,” Estella said. “I’ve already endured hours in their captivity. I don’t want some trick they have prepared to take you unawares.”

“You needn’t worry about us, your Ladyship,” the rider said. “We can handle any tricks three little pact knights might have in mind.”

And with that, the three dragons that were present exploded.

Bits of caustic blood and steel hard scale rained down over the entire landing pad and Jyl felt the dragon fear that had gripped her heart vanish in a flash. Where the dragon rider had been standing there was a particularly messy looking pile of what might once have been a man, beside which stood Lady Estella. Jyl watched her lower a long tube which was billowing black smoke from its far end.

“In your next life, consider that it’s the older woman who’s likely to know the most tricks, Lieutenant,” Estella said.


The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 28

In a realm bound in peace by the will of the gods, battles were an anathema. That was, Alari decided, mildly inconvenient. She was engaged in a life or death struggle after all, and she had zero interest in allowing her opponent to survive it, the will of the absent gods be damned.

With the divine peace in effect though, the battle Alari fought against Haldri Paxmer was not going to be won by any delicious use of physical force. Crushing the Dragon Queen was something Alari would have to enjoy on a metaphorical level rather than a literal one.

Presuming of course that Haldri’s strategems didn’t prove to be the superior ones. That thought helped cool the blood that raged through Alari’s veins hotter than any Paxmer dragon’s breath could burn.

She’d spent years uncomfortably perturbed by the policies of her southern peer. Thanks to Halrek’s presence in her life though though, Alari had adopted the belief that Gallagrin deserved the full attention of its queen and any questionable practices the queen of Paxmer was engaged in were ones which Gallagrin had to accept as outside its realm of influence.

When the Sleeping Gods had walked the Earth and crafted the peoples and places of the Blessed Realms from the formless clay of the newborn world one of the first things they’d done was to divide the lands into dominions which each of gods took as they own. There wasn’t always peace between the gods, and in the fields where they fought an unholy devastation still remained millennia after divine blood was shed on the debased soil. From those early conflicts, accords had been forged between the surviving gods and the realms they controlled.

Peace was the highest goal for the immortal creators since only through violence on a cosmic scale would they ever perish. From the early accords, the God’s Hall had been raised, and terrible and binding oaths sworn to ensure no realm or god could ever assault another.

Those were oaths which many supposed were eternal, but which Alari knew had ended when the gods passed into their eternal slumber.

The Blessed Realms were meant to be blessed with wisdom, but it was an external wisdom. One enforced on the Mindful Races as though they were children who could never develop a true understanding of how to govern themselves.

In pursuing her revenge against Paxmer, Alari had questioned herself many times. She knew the high path was the road of forgiveness and reconciliation and that the gods would have enforced it on her if she still had access to their counsel. In that sense, the rage she felt was the rage of a child who’d been wronged.

But that didn’t mean that her anger was unfounded, or unjustified, or wrong to pursue.

The gods looked at their realms and cared only that their sandboxes were not disturbed too greatly by the toys they had put into play. Peace between the Mindful Races wasn’t a higher calling, it was simply convenient.

The problem with peace, or at least the peace Alari saw laid before her, was that it was an illusion. There was no peace for the people of Paxmer in their suffering under Haldri Paxmer’s tyranny. There was no peace for the people of Gallagrin who endured the endless feints and forays Paxmer sent to test the strength of the borders.

Alari had suffered directly from Paxmer’s hunger to expand and consume, but that alone didn’t give her the right to sacrifice her people or the people of Paxmer on the field of battle. Her pain was simply the fuel she burned to push onwards and confront a problem that was even larger than her power as a queen of the Blessed Realms could encompass.

Haldri Paxmer had brought the two countries to the precipice of war through her schemes, both the direct ones and the indirect machinations acted out by pawns like her brother Halrek. The Paxmer queen had played a long and dangerous game of baiting Gallagrin into an unrestrained military conflict both and so Alari’s actions were required to address that. Haldri had see the war she craved begin to form if Alari was going to get her to make the kind of fatal misstep that separate the royal head from the royal shoulders.

“It is an interesting view, to see the world from this far above, is it not?” Haldri asked, gazing down at the projection of the Blessed Realms that had replaced the floor below them.

“It seems a very divine choice,” Alari said. “To look at the broad curve of the world and ignore the small details which truly matter.”

“Getting lost in the small details is what our lessers are for,” Haldri said. “As sovereigns, our task is to attend to the global picture that escapes those below us.”

“The global picture shows none of the people below us,” Alari said. “We see none of the differences that make each realm unique beyond their simple geography.”

“Perhaps that’s a sign, a reminder from the divines that there shouldn’t be divisions between the realms,” Haldri said. “Perhaps the unity we see below us calls for but a single monarch to govern it.”

“Yours will never be that voice,” Alari said. “Your own people barely tolerate your rule, the other realms will never welcome you.”

“You sit so confident in the belief that you are beloved in your realm,” Haldri said. “I wonder what that must feel like?”

“It feels like a burden to be lived up to,” Alari said.

“And do you live up to it?” Haldri asked. “Are you truly as beloved as you wish to believe? They call you the Bloody Handed Queen do they not?”

“I call myself that,” Alari said. “Though some days I worry that my hands are not quite bloody enough.”

Within her breast, the Spirit of Gallagrin stirred. If there was anyone whom the pact spirit most wished to visit violence upon, it was the sovereign of Paxmer. Alari’s injuries were fresh, but the spirit remembered centuries worth of insults and blood that Paxmer owed to its northern neighbor.

“And I thought we came here to speak of peace,” Haldri said.

“There will be peace between our realms once this is concluded,” Alari said.

“A bold statement,” Haldri said. “And with what army would you enforce that peace?”

“What makes you think I need an army?” Alari asked.

“I think you need an army because I know the armies you believed loyal to you are not answering your calls to muster,” Haldri said.

Alari was silent, but glared at Haldri as though sheer disdain might be enough to stop the Dragon Queen’s heart.

“My mother spoke to me of the art of war when I was young,” Haldri said. “For a monarch to commit to a battle, they must know that they have already won it. Fighting against an enemy you do not understand means you will find the power of your attacks blunted. Fighting alongside allies you cannot control means you fill find your defenses unraveling when you are at your weakest.”

“The former queen of Paxmer was fond of prattling on I gather?” Alari asked. “Tell me, did she ever fight a real battle during her reign? Or did she just have your pets eat anyone who offended her?”

“Were we in Paxmer, I would see your body shattered to jelly by fear for speaking against my mother,” Haldri said.

“As I thought,” Alari said. “Though perhaps I’ll be in Paxmer before too much more time has passed and you will have a chance to see how that works out.”

“I imagine it will work out quite well,” Haldri said. “But don’t suppose that you will ever be allowed to enter Paxmer while breath remains in you.”

“Or in you,” Alari said.

“You are no longer young enough to be so foolish as to think you can unseat me,” Haldri said.

“I admit your position is a formidable one,” Alari said. “Your forces are powerful, even without the addition of your draconic troops.”

“Gallagrin has never witnessed what the assembled might of Paxmer is capable of,” Haldri said. “Even without the aid of our dragons, we can withstand any assault you would throw against us. And I believe we both know how very weak of an assault you are capable of mustering under the present circumstances.”

Alari let her irritation slip out along with her words.

“You have no idea what I am capable of mustering,” Alari said.

“I know you must speak of peasants and rabble,” Haldri said. “Or are my reports on the disposition of the Gallagrin Ducal armies in error?”

Alari was silent for a moment, visibly swallowing her anger.

“And you think I will leave my Dukes and Duchesses with the choice of whether to serve me or not?” Alari asked.

“If you could compel them to service they would be pressed up against my borders already,” Haldri said.

Alari laughed, a bitter, hate filled bark.

“You truly don’t know? Do you?” she asked.

“About the artifact that you seek?” Haldri asked. “Oh I am well aware of that fool’s errand but no simple trinket will buy you victory over your own people and the forces I can bring against you.”

“It is no simple artifact or trinket that will be delivered into my hands,” Alari said. “Have you never heard of the Relics of Myth? The tools forged by the gods when they were young and at the height of their powers. Before they were bound by treaty and accord.”

“Those have long since passed from the world,” Haldri said. “They are no more than stories for children.”
“We both know that’s not true,” Alari said. “Or has your little pet never revealed to you the powers of the Gem of Command that sits upon his brow?”

It was Haldri’s turn to stew in silence for a long moment.

“I’d like you to imagine something,” Alari asked her. “You know how thoroughly Haldraxan can dominate the other lizards which infest your realm. Picture a crown meant for the head of Gallagrin’s monarch which grants the same sort of influence over anyone who partakes of Gallagrin’s magics.”

“So that will let you convince the pact bound to fight for you,” Haldri said, her voice steady even as the color drained from her face. “All that means is that more Gallagrin blood will enrich Paxmer soil.”

“You don’t seem to grasp the puissance of this tool,” Alari said. “Of what value is the much vaunted fear your dragons can spread against a body that is driven by a will which is not its own.”

“Not even with all of your Pact Knights could you defeat the dragons of Paxmer,” Haldri said.

“Do you believe that such would be required?” Alari asked. “Or have you not thought to question just how deeply your fellow nobles fear and loathe you? Surely there’s been a night or two when you’d lain awake and speculated on what would happen if Haldraxan were to fall in battle?”

“Haldraxan has ruled for as long as Paxmer has stood,” Haldri said. “I have no fears on his account.”

“Haldraxan has never fought the sort of foes a tool of the gods can unleash upon him,” Alari said. “And so that you don’t misunderstand, I will need no army, because there will be no battle. Only a wave of unrestrained, unstoppable berserkers focused on one mission; destroying the one thing that lets you hold onto the reins of power. Once Haldraxan’s gone, all of my forces can step back, and allow the natural politics of Paxmer to secure my revenge. I don’t imagine it will be quick or painless but do you think they’ll send me a piece of you as a momento?”

Haldri was silent again for a long moment, but when she looked up and spoke there was a cold smile on her face.

“Bravo,” she said. “That is a fine scheme. Worthy of a noble of Paxmer. Sadly, I have been outwitting the nobles of Paxmer since I was a child.”

“It’s too late for you to outwit me,” Alari said. “You are trapped here until the dawn.”

“If I were as slow as you believe, I would have been devoured before I learned to walk,” Haldri said. “I have known of the forces you sent against me for weeks now. Only three of them, and one of them oh so dear to your heart. They may seek this Spirit Crown but all they will accomplish is to lead my elite forces to its location. Never before has someone presented me with as fine a gift as you have, dominion over an entire realm in one neat package.”

“You forget that my armies are still massed and ready to carve a path to my prize,” Alari said.

“And you forget that Haldraxan need not protect me while I am here,” Haldri said. “He lies in wait for your armies, and with him is gathered a force of more of our dragons than have ever been assembled before. Your armies will fail, your kingdom will fall, and when you are no longer queen you will be given to me so that Paxmer can reclaim the debt of blood owed by Gallagrin.”