Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 42

Dae didn’t leap from the window in the catacombs to do battle with Haldraxan. It wasn’t rage or courage or duty that sent her plummeting down the face of the mountain to land before a monster the size of a castle. The only thought in her mind that could fight through the Dragon King’s aura of fear was a desperate plea. Everything had gone wrong, so she didn’t pray for victory, she only prayed to be able to save those she still could.

The Lightning Ballista were weapons of terrible and irresistible power. From Gallagrin’s long history of warfare against Paxmer, the enchanters of the weapons had been able to promise that there was not a dragon alive who could withstand their power. A barrage from a full series of Lightning Ballista could slay any mortal creature. And that was the problem.

Dae saw the depth of their mistake as Haldraxan ripped apart the mountain with his bare claws. The ballistas worked as promised, but Haldraxan wasn’t a mortal creature.

On the ground, kneeling before him, Dae saw the Dragon King for what he truly was; not a living being, but a spirit, a construct of divine will, clothed in flesh that could be endlessly renewed.

They’d planned to slay the Dragon King by assaulting him with a power beyond what he’d ever faced, not understanding that he was power made manifest.

Dae drowned in that power, dragon fear coursing through her, tearing new channels through her mind for fresh agony to flow into.

Her baser instincts didn’t want to run. Flight wasn’t an option from so terrible a foe. Against the Dragon King, Dae’s demons wanted only to surrender and die. No hell that any afterlife could threaten was as bad as another moment of kneeling before Haldraxan.

Kneeling was intolerable, so Dae rose, transforming from her common arms to her Queen’s Knight regalia, feeling Kirios’s power wash over her as she was garbed in the strongest raiments she could summon.

The fear didn’t lessen as she stood and raised her eyes to the Dragon King, but it was joined by a single, low, voiceless, laugh from her lips. Standing before the worst of the dragons was the last place in the world she wanted to be, and also, somehow, right where she’d known she would end up when her quest began.

Haldraxan let his fire abate, seemingly pleased with the rivers of molten rock that ran from the face of the mountains and gazed down at the tiny knight who stood before him.

“Ah, at last the one who would insult my kingdom appears before me,” Haladraxan said, his voice an earthquake and a hurricane. “I will take my time breaking you I think. Let’s see how many centuries your fate can stand as a lesson to.”

Dae wanted to speak back, but Haldraxan’s fear aura held her immobile. As long as he spoke to her though, as long as he toyed with her, she was winning. It was difficult to believe that with her body and soul rebelling against the horror that stood before her, but in the depths of her mind, Dae counted out the seconds as they passed, giving to each one the name of one of the Gallagrin defenders in the catacombs.

The tunnel that led back to Gallagrin was as much an escape route as it was an assault path. Once the troops had fled down it, they could trigger a collapse that would reseal the Gallagrin/Paxmer border and protect themselves from Haldraxan’s might. Dae’s only hope was that she could buy them the time they needed, and that her mother and sister would be sensible enough to join the evacuation.

“There is only one of you here, not the hundreds I expected,” Haldraxan said. “So the Spirit Crown is only a myth then? That is a poor turn of events for you.”

Haldraxan lowered his massive head to gaze upon Dae more closely.

“If the Crown had been real, then what is to come could have been so much gentler for you,” Haldraxan said. “Well, perhaps not you personally, but certainly for those in your country. With the Pact Knights under my control, Gallagrin would have fallen in days with only those foolish enough to fight both Knights and Dragons needing to be put down.”

Haldraxan puffed out a tongue of flame, his eyes alight at the notion of destroying those who stood against him.

“Without the Crown though, we shall burn so many more,” Haldraxan said. “And I shall put your name on their lips before they die. Everyone we destroy, from the aged to the newborns will be told that you are the reason they’re dying. The memory of your deeds will be preserved  long after those who knew you are dust and ash.”

Inside her armor, Dae narrowed her eyes. Moving forward was impossible. The magic of Haldraxan’s aura prevented it. She couldn’t threaten him at all, couldn’t put up even the mildest show of bravado to anger him or throw him off his game.

That wrankled in her breast. If she was going to die, especially an epic, lengthy and memorable death, she would have preferred to go down spitting contempt in her slayer’s face.

Spitting in the Dragon King’s face was impossible though. She lived at his sufferance, and despite his claims to the contrary, she didn’t foresee Haldraxan’s patience being especially long lasting. Each moment that Gallagrin forces remained within Paxmer’s boundaries was an insult to the dragon’s role as Protector of the Realm, and if history was clear on anything, it was very specific about how poorly dragon’s tolerated insults.

“Your ambush was well planned out,” Haldraxan said. “I will make sure that history remembers that too, and remembers that it was futile despite the planning that went into it. Songs will be sung of you standing there with your weapons smashed and your people cowering before me.”

Dae’s heart sunk hearing that. The people who were within range of Haldraxan’s aura were as trapped as she was. That included Sir Kelmor, her fellow Queen’s Guard and Estella and Nui.

Except her mother and sister wouldn’t be affected by Haldraxan’s fear. It couldn’t touch a citizen of Paxmer.

“The ones I shall take particular delight in destroying though will be the citizens of my realm that you have suborned,” Haldraxan said, as though reading her mind. “Those who aided you will die before your eyes after the queen strips them of their protections, and those who fled our realm will not evade my claws a second time after we conquer Gallagrin.”

“You will slay no one Dragon King,” someone said from behind Dae.

For a terrible instant, Dae wrestled with the urge to turn and see who had joined the battle, but against that urge rose the memory of her first battle against a dragon.

She’d stood to defend Star’s Watch Keep and it had taken one brief instant for everything to come unraveled.

Back then, she’d been a newly bonded Pact Knight, untried in battle, if well trained for it. She’d been put in an impossible position, and she’d risen to the challenge.

When a Dragon General had advanced on Star’s Watch during the Gallgrin civil war, Dae  had stepped forward to answer the General’s challenge to one-on-one combat. The General’s pet Dragon had entered the fray as well, blanketing the defenders with its mystical fear, but Dae had resisted it.

Her keep and her people had lain behind her then, just as her family and her countrymen stood behind her in facing Haldraxan. She’d held fast at Star’s Watch, keeping the dragon focused on herself and preventing its advanced until, for just the briefest instant, she’d stepped backward.

That subtle, slight retreat had been all that was required for her defenses to crumble and for the dragon to shatter her spirit into shards that she was never able to put back together again as they had been.

If her previous encounters with dragons had not given her the wisdom to avoid further exposure to them, they had at least taught her one thing.

She couldn’t retreat.

The dragon fear might be able to mystically bind her from advancing on Haldraxan, but her own will still had a role to play. She couldn’t attack him, but she could stand where she was, as immovable as the remains of her spirit could manage to make her against the irresistible force of Haldraxan’s might.

“You hold no power over me,” Estella said as she advanced to stand in front of her daughter. “Not until the queen strips from me my rank and privilege.”

“Estella sur Korkin?” Haldraxan said. “How very fascinating. We thought you a tool too broken to even bother aiming at the heart of Gallagrin’s queen.”

“We are all broken Dragon King,” Estella said. “That is was makes us dangerous.”

Haldraxan booming laughter shook the ground and rumbled the mountains but Dae remained unmoving and the Dragon King didn’t take his gaze off her.

“You are no danger to me or any of mine,” he said.

“I carry more than my years with me Dragon King,” Estella said. “I carry an idea, a truth that you cannot deny. I know what our dragons were meant to be.”

Haldraxan stopped laughing.

“This is what you come before me with?” he asked. “This is what you think will save you? The dragons of old were failures. I am their judgment and their redemption.”

“You are a mistake,” Estella said. “You are the fearful reaction of a god who created subjects they couldn’t be bothered to understand.”

“Your words will gift you with long life Estella sur Korkin,” Haldraxan. “When the queen strips you of your protections, I will make sure that you take as long to die as this Gallagrin peasant.”

“She came her to slay you Dragon King,” Estella said. “But we both know that you cannot be slain can you?”

“I am Paxmer,” Haldraxan said. “I am as eternal as my realm.”

His gaze burned with a triumphant fire, burrowing into Dae’s will and trying to force her back. Trying to force her to kneel once again before him.

In front of Dae, it was Estella’s turn to laugh.

“And our realm is as eternal as the god who made it,” she said. “The god who broke and ran and fled this world. The god who slumbers now because they fear what this world has become, and who, in passing from the world, shattered not only the old treaties and compacts, but who also shattered you.”

A growl like rock pulverizing rock escaped Haldraxan’s lips a moment before a gout of flame burst forth.

The white hot fire slammed into Dae’s regalia and she felt Kirios feeding her a massive stream of magic to turn aside the inferno.

Estella was outside the protection of Dae’s shield, but when the blinding flames subsided, she still stood in front of her daughter, unharmed and unsinged. It was as though the fire had avoided her entirely.

“I cannot harm citizens of my realm,” Haldraxan said, reaching down and grabbing Estella between his claws. “Not directly.”

Dae couldn’t turn to see where Haldraxan placed her mother, but she could guess from what happened next.

Behind her, Dae heard Haldraxan slam the mountain face once again. His blow landed high enough that he probably hit one of the rooms that stored a Lightning Ballista. The mountainside crumbled in response to the attack and Dae heard a single cry from her mother as Estella was almost certainly buried beneath tons of rough stone.

“I cannot directly harm my citizens, but if they are in a war zone, I can not be expected to protect them all either,” Haldraxan said.

Dae’s heart cracked and she felt herself move at last.

Her mother wasn’t dead. She didn’t know how she knew it, but some fear addled corner of her brain told her that Estella sur Korkin was still alive and well. Somehow.

More importantly, her mother had shown Dae something. When Haldraxan had shifted his focus to Estella, just briefly, the unexpected had occurred.

When Dae moved, she hadn’t retreated. She hadn’t stepped back at all. She’d stepped forward. She’d advanced on the Dragon King.

He wasn’t a perfect paragon of power.

He was broken.

Just like Estella said.

Dae fixed her gaze on Haldraxan, who met her eyes, freezing her in place again.

The Dragon King had her in his mystical grip, but that meant she had him too, and neither one was going to be able to retreat from this fight.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 41

When the first two dragon scouts fell from the sky, Jyl felt elated. When the next flight of dragons came swooping out of the cloud-streaked sky and met a storm of lightning from the catacombs-turned-fortress, she felt her nerves singing. The hymn of battle had begun and, as always, part of Jyl’s heart leapt to join the chorus while the rest urged her to the safety of silence.

It wasn’t until the three Dragon Generals began their assault though that her courage was tested.

From the back of her mind and the darkest depths of her soul, the memory of her ordeals as a captive to a dragon’s fear came back to seize her.

I can be brave this time, she told herself. I’ve weathered this before. I can do it again.

Those were just words though. She’d thought her first encounter with the dragons at sea would give her a resistance to further exposure, but that hope had been proven false when she encountered the dragons at the alchemical monastery.

Terror that reaches as deep as dragon fear does isn’t the sort of thing that leaves callouses in its wake. Each new encounter was a fresh wound dug deeper into the previous one. The only option Jyl saw for becoming resistant to that kind of pain was to lose the capacity for feeling entirely. In the face of monsters like the ones that were winging towards them, the capacity to feel anything seemed like a liability. Better to be cold and joyless than broken and terrified.

That was the easy road though, the path to be taken when the spirit was so injured that no other choice remained. Jyl refused to believe that designation applied to her though. She’d only fallen to dragon fear twice. She wasn’t so broken from those experiences that she couldn’t fight.

There has to be more strength in me than that, she thought. It was a prayer to herself, one that could only be granted by the faith that the fear she was facing undermined.

Seeking what support she could find within herself, Jyl  transformed into her pact armor. Dae followed suit. Taking their queue from the Pact Knights, the others began strapping on the regular armor and weapons given to them by the Royal Army forces, except for Mayleena, who was quiet and almost completely still.

“Is everything ok?” Jyl asked her companion.

“We are not home, but we are close,” Mayleena said, not moving or shifting her gaze.

“What do you mean?” Jyl asked.

An instant later the Lightning Ballista thundered and Jyl whirled to see the Dragon Generals shrugging off the first battery of shots.

“Tough bastards,” Kemoral said. “But we weren’t planning to win this one with a single round now were we?”

The Lightning Ballista cracked again and the visor of Jyl’s armor dimmed the blinding light to a manageable level of brilliance.

The Dragon Generals were taking damage from the hits, despite the enchantments which their riders had woven into the scales. Singed and seared spots marked the giant dragons but didn’t deter them.

More volleys rang out, slowing the progress of the aerial monsters, but not stopping them.

Jyl’s breath caught in her throat. The Dragon Generals were approaching too quickly. In another moment they would be in range to spread their fear to the forces within the catacombs.

In a typical Gallagrin fortress the defenses were layered such that the outer siege weapons were positioned to strike incoming targets as far away as possible and the inner layers of the defense were capable of striking the outer layers without being in range of a dragon’s fear aura.

The catacombs were an excellent defense against fire and frontal assault but Jyl saw that their one weakness was their shallow depth, which placed most of the fighting area less than ten feet within the surface of the mountain. The solid rock walls of the catacomb would provide some shelter from the dragon fear but it wouldn’t be enough.

And yet somehow it was.

The Dragon Generals landed and belched forth an inferno of flame on the mountainside.

Flame, but no fear.

“What’s happening?” she asked, marveling at the lightness of not being gripped by inescapable fear.

“We got enough of the people to safety in Gallagrin,” Dae said.

“What?” Nui asked, looking at her sister. “Why does that matter?”

“Because it means that our draconic enemies are no longer on Paxmer soil,” Estella said, regarding her eldest daughter with a pleased smile.

“Wait, that’s why you had us stop in all those villages?” Nui asked. “To secure an advantage here?”

“No,” Dae said. “We stopped for exactly the reasons we claimed to. That dragon army is going to devastate the countryside around here. They were never meant to be banded together like that. We had to warn the people and get them out of the path of destruction.”

“And that just happened to give you an edge against the dragons?” Nui asked. “I mean I’m not complaining about you weakening those monsters but I don’t like feeling that you were playing with us, when we could have helped.”

“This was at best a theory,” Dae said. “My queen didn’t know if it was even possible to pull it off, or what effect it would have, but she had faith that we could do it so we had to try.”

“What is it that’s happened?” Nui asked as another exchange of fire and lightning crashed together outside the mountain stronghold.

“The land has become contested hasn’t it?” Estella asked.

“Yes,” Dae said. “It’s split between Paxmer and Gallagrin at the moment, and so long as both have a claim on it and we have forces here that are fighting to defend that claim, the dragons can not bring their full might to bear on us.”

“I thought the dragons couldn’t step into contested lands?” Nui asked. “Isn’t that all that’s kept Gallagrin from falling before their might?”

“They cannot abide on contested ground,” Estella said. “But while they are joined in battle they can fight on it, in a weakened state.”

“And dragons don’t like fighting at anything less than their full power too,” Dae said. “It’s too easy for them to die if they go into battle weakened.”

“Then why are they continuing to attack?” Nui asked. “Those lightning devices seem to be dangerous to them.”

The roar of dragon rage split the air, followed by the most intense exchange of fire and lightning that had been unleashed so far.

“They cannot stop,” Estella said.

“Right,” Dae said. “If the dragons flee from this fight, this land will become wholly a part of Gallagrin.”

“Couldn’t they just take it back later though?” Nui asked.

“They wouldn’t survive long enough for there to be a later,” Dae said. “The moment the land flips to Gallagrin ownership, they’ll be cut off from Paxmer.”

“Dragons are creatures of magic,” Estella said. “They would perish almost instantly if that were to happen.”

“And so they have to fight us here,” Dae said. “We’ve left them no choice. If they try to flee, the laws of Paxmer will destroy them. And if they can escape that, then they know there’s nothing to stop us from extending this invasion below the surface of their realm where there’s no chance of their dragon fire or their fear catching us.”

“What if they can destroy this stronghold though?” Nui asked.

There was another tremendous blast from outside and Dae looked away from the window.

“It doesn’t seem to be going too well for them so far,” she said, gesturing to the three Dragon Generals who were in full retreat. Only two of them had riders, which pleased Jyl to see.

The dragons were a deadly foe, but they lacked a certain capacity for subtlety. Before the Queen’s Guard journey had begun, before Jyl knew what dragon fear was really life, she’d believed that the reports about them missed a critical weakness – they couldn’t surprise their opponents.

Queen Alari had charged them to proceed through this mission with stealth, which was Jyl’s preferred mode of operation when facing a foe more powerful than herself.

She’d believed that she could gain the upper hand on any dragons they encountered by the simple expedient of hiding from them and striking at a time of her choosing rather than theirs.

She’d known of the plan for the Royal Army to assault the dragons from within a secure stronghold, but a part of her had wondered if that was really necessary.

Sneak in, slay the Dragon King, and then sneak out in the chaos which followed. That was the mission she’d imagined they would actually pursue. In hindsight she felt nothing but relief at being wrong.

Facing the Dragon King with an army at their back was a terrifying prospect. Her knees felt weak, her control of magic clumsy and her thoughts were leaping about like hunted rabbits with no clear path to safety. The idea of trying the same thing without the Royal Army behind them was inconceivable to her anymore.

As if in denial of her prayers to never have to face Paxmer’s defenders up close and personal, an enormous shape moved out of the draconic swarm that hovered beyond the range of the Lightning Ballistas.

The Dragon Generals had been larger than life, as tall five large men and just as broad. In terms of sheer mass, fighting one of them would have been like fighting a fortress.

The Dragon King dwarfed them, easily doubling their size in all dimensions.

He flew in, gliding on wings that trailed sparks of magic, his vast body kept aloft by more power than Jyl had ever witnessed in her life.

When he landed, the ground didn’t just shake, it fissured, crumbling which each step forward that he took.

Lightning bolts lashed out from all of the Gallagrin ballistas, slamming into every part of the Dragon King’s body and he met them without flinching.

Despite the fury of the bolts, they left no scars, no wounds, no mark on any kind upon the Tyrant of Paxmer.

And he advanced.

“Don’t let up!” Kemoral called. “Not for a second!”

The Lightning Ballista crews took up the call, passing it down the line and firing as fast as they could.

Haldraxan didn’t slow.

His breath when it came was a searing cone of white. Shutters were slammed closed against it, but still the people huddled behind them suffered.

In some places the rock heated enough to turn molten, running away from the mountainside and leaving the forces within exposed. No one in that unlucky position survived.

In other places the shutters grew so hot that they could not be opened again, and so the Lightning Ballista within them were silenced as well.

In the room that Jyl was in though, the worst of the effects was seen.

Unlike the other dragons, even a weakened Haldraxan still possessed his mantle of power. Even on contested ground, he blazed with the aura of his dragon fear.

Jyl’s elation at their early victories froze within her chest, a knife of terror slicing through her and pinning her in place.

On the other side of the curving mountains, she heard a cataclysmic crash. Haldraxan was ripping the mountain apart, his claws shearing through the cliff face and rending rock into ruin with each mighty slash.

From behind them, deeper into the mountain and down the tunnel which had been dug from Gallagrin, Jyl heard the regular troops and pact soldiers being strangled by Haldraxan’s dragon fear, screams and fleeing coming from all sides.

Haldraxan’s aura didn’t extend far, but it didn’t have to. Once he tore away the reinforced rooms that shielded the tunnel, his fire would fill the catacombs, burning through doors, and barriers inexorably before roasting every soldier who dared set foot on his lands.

Jyl struggled to get to her feet. She wanted to at least strike a blow against the Dragon King, to at least to buy some time for the others to escape.

Though the fear felt a hundred times worse than the last time, she managed to rise, managed to get to the doors to the next room but that was as far as she could go. With growing frustration, she howled against the magic and terror that held her, the vision of her sister, the one who could do no wrong, the one against whom she was constantly being measured, taunting her.

She tried to take another step forward, but a hand clasped her shoulder.

“Wait here,” Dae said. “You’ll know when I need you.”

And like this the Queen’s Knight was gone, leaping out of the ruined window of the chamber beyond, and plummeting down to confront the Dragon King in his own domain.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 40

The Pact Spirit of Gallagrin did not speak. Alari had never once heard their voice. Had never once been able to draw wisdom or guidance from their long centuries of experience. The most they had ever given to her was raw mystical might, which she rarely drew upon, and the comfort of never being truly alone.

The spirit didn’t judge her, didn’t intrude, they simply waited and observed, offering strength when strength was needed, and a warm assurance that her life would be remembered by someone who cared about her realm and its peoples as much as she did.

There was no evidence that the Pact Spirit was kind, or merciful, or just. They had supported Alari’s father, the Butcher King Sathe, which argued against them possessing any of those qualities, but in Alari’s heart she felt a connection to the Spirit. They didn’t have words to speak to her, but Alari knew that the spirit felt a joy and kinship with her. That she was the one the Spirit wished to see upon the Gallagrin throne. It was a small thing in one sense, just a tiny emotional resonance, but having the confidence of an immortal observer who’d watched the whole history of Gallagrin play out was more than a little reassuring.

No matter how they felt about their current monarch though, once the Gallagrin Spirit’s name was called, and the throne was contested, there was little they could do to decide the outcome of the struggle.

The Spirit’s power was immense. It dwarfed that of any Pact Knight in the realm, and the bond they shared with the realms monarch was broader and deeper, allowing Alari access to more magic than anyone except another monarch of the realms. In balance against all of that however were the divine laws that bound the Spirit in chains far stronger than any mortal pact binding spell could achieve. The Gallagrin Pact Spirit was at once both the most powerful of the realm’s spirits and also the most limited.

Despite that, Alari felt a jolt of surprise and remorse that was wholly external to her as the Pact Spirit was called away. Her power didn’t fade all at once either. Tendrils of magic clung to her, refusing to be torn away.

They’re fighting against the call of their name not to leave me? Alari thought, surprised. She’d been too weakened by Halrek’s poisons the last time the Gallagrin spirit had been contested away from her, but this time she could feel it trying to hold on.

That didn’t make the loss of part of it any less agonizing though.

Alari slumped on her throne, and gritted her teeth, before raising her head to glare at Haldri. The Paxmer queen wore a small, satisfied smirk.

“I see the debate has finally concluded,” Haldri said. “So nice to see that your Dukes and Duchesses were willing to listen to reason.”

“Who…” The shaking weakness that was part and parcel of losing unfettered access to the Gallagrin spirit made forming words a nightmare, but Alari had bitter experience to draw on. When Halrek had made a bid for her power, he’d begun by dosing Alari with a poison so potent it could slay stones. Haldri hadn’t gone to that extreme. Alari had learned to protect herself from unsubtle ploys like that in the wake of her treasonous husband’s demise. There were some stratagems which she couldn’t defend against though.

“Who is stealing your throne?” Haldri asked. “Does it matter? In the end, the Gallagrin’s crown will be melted down in dragon fire and there will be only Paxmer.”

“Who made you think this was enough to defeat me?” Alari said, her voice strained and weak but her gaze was fixed on Haldri in an unbending challenge.

“Still a spark of royal authority left in you?” Haldri asked. “They did warn me that the process could take some time.”

“They lied,” Alari said. “They’re not going to take Gallagrin from me.”

“I’m pretty certain she already has,” Haldri said, her smile growing wider.

“I’ve fought for this spirit before,” Alari said, her breath coming in short spurts.

“But not like this,” Haldri said. “For however much of a failure Halrek was, he did manage at least one thing in his ineptitude; he showed us how strong you are with the support of those who back you.”

“My people are my power,” Alari lied. Partially. The citizens of Gallagrin were one of the pillars that her power rested on, and it was one that Haldri wouldn’t normally have thought to consider. They just weren’t the entire the only thing holding Alari up. That the Paxmer Queen was aware of the strength Alari and the Gallagrin Spirit drew from the support of the people of Gallagrin though was a worrisome sign. It suggested that Halrek had passed along a wealth of knowledge before Dae separated his lying head from the rest of his body.

“Thanks to my agents, they are now turning against you,” Haldri said. “Even as we speak, your nobles are holding a Grand Convocation. They’ve been called together to witness evidence of the massacre you ordered.”

“There has been no massacre,” Alari said. “Yet.”

“Of course there hasn’t,” Haldri said. “Or at least not one that you ordered. But in this case it’s not reality that matters but your nobles’ perception of it. They have been convinced that you are following in your father’s footsteps. That his madness lives in you as well. Given the smallest bits of proof, they fear you and cling to the one who offers to save them from you.”

“No one in Gallagrin will believe your lies,” Alari said.

“That’s why I am not the one to speak them,” Haldri said. “It is one of your own who has turned against you. Because you are weak and foolish. You thought to be kind to those you defeated, to bring them once more into the folds of a loving and just kingdom. You cannot offer forgiveness to those who hold only hate in their hearts for you though.”

“Gallagrin’s fields have been washed by enough blood,” Alari said.

“Clearly not,” Haldri said. “If you weren’t so spineless, you would have put down those who work against you today long before they became a problem. You think me cruel, but my reign has been long and unchallenged. My nobles know to fear me.”

“You’re people disagree,” Alari said. “They resist you every day.”

“They don’t matter,” Haldri said. “If their resistance could amount to anything Haldraxan and I would have crushed them long before now.”

“You champion can’t win the Gallagrin Spirit from me,” Alari said. In her weakness she still had to walk the line between keeping Haldri engaged and revealing too much of the plans that were in motion against the Paxmer throne.

“Perhaps not if we repeated Halrek’s plan,” Haldri said. “He tried to win support against you by shaming you. As though infidelity would unthrone you. He couldn’t see what really moves peoples hearts and that is why he failed. No one cares about the misdoings of their monarch. They expect us to be above them and beyond the laws that constrain them. No, we had to take the path you left open to us. We had to make them fear you.”

“You rule your subjects through fear,” Alari said, the details of Haldri’s plan beginning to click into place. “It seems like a strange tool to use to destroy my rule.”

“Ah, but I know how to work with fear,” Haldri said. “The fear my nobles feel is balanced against the strength they know me to possess. You have not demonstrated your power over them. They can be lead to fear what you will do without believing that they are helpless before you. And when people fear someone they believe they can tear down?”

“They destroy them,” Alari said.

“Yes, I see you do understand,” Haldri said.

“You sound like my father,” Alari said. “He thought he could keep his subjects in line through fear too. That didn’t work out for him.”

“He was mad, and the mad are no different than the foolish,” Haldri said.

“So why will my subjects fear me?” Alari asked.

“You’ve begun killing the nobles who disagree with you,” Haldri said.

“My nobles are all Pact Warriors. They are in no danger from you or your operatives,” Alari said.

“The corpses which my agent presented to the Grand Convocation paint a different picture than that,” Haldri said. “As do the witnesses who testify to seeing your forces arresting them and leading them to the slaughter. It’s not much I admit, but there were many who supported my brother. Many whom you should have put down when you have the chance. They need only the barest of pretexts to take up arms against you, and in the face of proof that you are sliding into madness, even those loyal to you will question your rule enough to let Sanli win the contest.”

“There is strength in me yet,” Alari said. “So you’re plans are not running precisely to your schedule I would guess.”

Beneath them, the view of the Gallagrin/Paxmer border was lit with blinding flashes of lightning and then the flames of dragons plummeting to crash into the landscape far below.

“Mine, on the other hand, seem to be proceeding apace,” Alari said. It was painful to catch her breath. The wounds she sustained the previous autumn were still mending and without the Gallagrin Spirit, the magics which strengthened Alari were fading away.

“What is this?” Haldri’s face was a frozen mask of shock. Paxmer dragons didn’t die. Not on Paxmer soil.

“Seige weapons,” Alari said. “Positioned deep enough in Paxmer territory to strike at the dragon army you’ve so graciously placed in their firing range.”

“A clumsy lie,” Haldri said with a snort. “You couldn’t have moved troops into Paxmer. Our patrols watch the border. They would have seen any force you marched into my lands.”

“And yet your dragons seem to have been felled,” Alari said. “I wonder if Haldraxan will send more? He’s a caring and compassionate protector isn’t he?”

Below them the clouds swirled and a flight of two dozen of the heavy dragon cavalry broke ranks from the main swarm of the dragon army and speed towards the mountains the lightning bolts struck from.

Alari felt her breath catch in her throat. She’d planned for this moment, but even as distant as she was, seeing the beautiful majesty of the vast reptilian defenders of Paxmer made it hard to imagine the raw power which Haldri commanded.

Twenty four dragons and their twenty four riders surged forward, only to meet a blitz of dozens of lightning bolts that flashed towards them from the mountains.

Many of the dragons managed to avoid the first barrage, but the ones who didn’t were knocked from the sky, wreathed in flames that continued to burn as they smashed into the rocky soil below.

“Not much of a protector of his own kind it seems,” Alari said.

“This is an illusion,” Haldri said, refusing to believe her eyes.

“You thought me your equal Paxmer,” Alari said. “You should never have made that mistake.”

More dragons and riders fell as the second barrage erupted from the mountain, and then the attack force was wheeling around in the air, turning to flee as fast as magical wings could carry them.

“You are going to die,” Haldri said, rage and madness dripping from every word.

“Keep watching,” Alari said, smiling despite the pain that wracked her body. “It gets better.”

Three of the largest dragons peeled from the swarm of the army as the stricken first wave returned.

Alari watched the riders weave spells that turned the scales of their dragons into sheets of glimmering metal.

Lightning bolts flashed out again as they drew close to the mountain but the dragons didn’t fall before them. The blasts battered the giant lizards but, despite the damage the lightning inflicted, the dragons flew onwards.

Fire blazed as the dragons came in range of the mountains, but it wasn’t until they landed at the mountain’s base that Haldri’s expression changed to a hellish grin of hate.

“Now it ends,” she said, triumph gleaming in her eyes.

The dragons poured fire against the mountain, but it was answered in kind with more lightning bolts.

“That’s impossible,” Haldri said. “They are within range to spread their fear. Your soldiers cannot be manning their weapons any longer.”

“That would be true if your dragons’ fear aura still remained,” Alari said.

“They are fighting on Paxmer land,” Haldri said. “They have all of their power to draw on.”

“They would, if you were right about that land belonging to Paxmer,” Alari said.

“What do you mean?” Haldri asked.

“Your dragons have driven your citizens across my borders,” Alari said. “I have given them shelter and my protection. For the time being, they are as much my subjects as yours and so, with my armies there to hold my claim, your lands are as contested as my throne is.”

The barrage of lightning bolts coming from the mountain hammered onto the three large dragons sending one of the dragon riders toppingly from their saddle. That was all it took to break their resolve, and the three dragons and two riders turned and fled as well.

“This isn’t a battle you can walk away from anymore Paxmer,” Alari said. “If you try to leave, those lands will become mine.

“I am not beaten yet Gallagrin,” Haldri said, glaring at the battlefield below them.

From the dragon army swarm, the largest of dragons emerged.

Haldraxan was taking the field.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 39

Alari looked at the world beneath her, a pale orb cloaked in the darkness of night. She stood so far above it, peering down from the God’s Hall, that only the fires burning in the largest cities of the Blessed Realms were visible.

The ‘Peace Conference’ with Haldri had become a waiting game, each queen cut off from her pawns, each waiting to see the next move play out. Communication with the outside world wasn’t impossible. There were various divine spells in place which would allow the monarchs to speak with their remote staff, to issue orders or gather information needed for discussions to progress. Neither Alari nor Haldri made use of these spells though. Each knew that those who served them were capable of fulfilling their assigned roles.

For Haldri, that meant relying on Haldraxan and the forces he commanded. Alari couldn’t imagine Haldri had any difficulty trusting an ageless dragon of nearly supreme power with exercising plans to reap more power for Paxmer. History provided ample evidence that betting on Paxmer’s Dragon King was a winning play.

Alari, conversely, was relying on little more than the strength of a woman who, in the eyes of the world, had already failed to stand up to a dragon younger and smaller than the Dragon King. In Haldri’s eyes, Alari saw a calculation of the odds that the Paxmer queen found to be entirely in the Dragon King’s favor.

By all rights Alari should have been doubting her plan and the capabilities of those she asked to enact it. There should have been a chink in her faith, a crack of doubt that Haldri could exploit and relish.

Instead, Alari’s heart was quiet.

Her fate was in Dae’s hands, and there was no where else in the entire world that Alari would wish it to be.

The world might question Dae. Dae might even question herself, but Alari didn’t. She knew the sorts of reserves that Dae had, she’d seen the kind of strength that Duke Korli’s daughter possessed and she knew how strong the bond between her Knight and herself was.

Being Queen of Gallagrin meant many sacrifices, and far from the least of them were the sacrifices Alari made in being apart from Dae, but if her position kept her from speaking the fullness of her heart, Alari knew she could prove by deeds that by which words was denied to her.

“The gods should never have entered their slumber,” Haldri said. “In their absence we are left with little more than the clay we see below us.”

They were the first words either queen had spoken in close to an hour and they took Alari by surprise. The rage and hungry eagerness to tear each other down had dimmed and cooled to embers with the long waiting. The depths of the night sapped at their will as well and lowered their defenses, something Alari knew that both of them had counted on to make the other easier to outmaneuver.  

Watching and waiting for the next pieces to fall though left a lot of time for reflection and observation.

“If you think so little of realms and their people, it is odd that you covet them as much as you do,” Alari said. She’s never understood how Haldri’s mind worked. Certainly it wasn’t the norm for a monarch to place the needs of their common subjectives on the same level as those of the noble families who aided in the governance and defense of the realm. If anything Alari was an aberration in that regards, but there were few, if any, rulers who drifted as far to the other extreme as Haldri did.

That notion, of the tyranny shown to the Paxmer people, had shaped Alari’s vision of Haldri since she was a child. Sitting across from her peer though, Alari began to chip away at the image of the Paxmer Queen as an icon of injustice. Haldri’s crimes were certainly real enough, but she wasn’t the nearly divine force of malice that Alari had built her up to be either.

“We are creatures of fathomless potential,” Haldri said. “The gods crafted us so, and even in their absence there is a wealth of treasure in each mind and heart that struggles upon our world.”

Alari frowned. There was a tone in Haldri’s voice that seemed out of place. It wasn’t sympathy, or any other gentle emotion. If anything it edged closer to disappointment and disdain.

“How strange that Paxmer grinds its treasures into the soil or roasts them in dragon fire then,” Alari said. She was puzzled by the more philosophical bent Haldri had adopted, but a part of her honestly craved some insight into the woman who had ravaged her life and her happiness so deeply. Forgiveness was not something that was on the table, but some measure of understanding might be possible.

“The treasures I speak of can only be forged under pressure,” Haldri said. “Left to their own devices, the peoples of the realms sink into lethargy, their potential squandered on frivolities which benefit no one.”

“And so you seek to save the world from the bane of people pursuing their own forms of happiness?” Alari asked. Haldri’s words were alien to Alari’s experience. Gallagrin had struggled so long in recent years to reach a barely tolerable level of sustainability, that the idea of needing to further pressure the realms’ people was preposterous.

In the same time period though, Paxmer had enjoyed long years of relative prosperity, largely because it hadn’t lost precious resources to a protected civil war and because with Gallagrin weakened it had been able to turn its attention to expanding its power across the seas to challenge Sunlost for the wealth of the outer world.

“I will see this world remade,” Haldri said. “Either in my lifetime or under the reign of my heirs.”

“Why?” Alari asked. “You see the lands that lay below us. Every one of the realms has more than enough problems to address within its borders. There has never been peace between Gallagrin and Paxmer, even when friendship would have lifted both realms higher than they could have been alone.”

“I would claim the last six years when my brother sat on your throne were peaceful, but you would disagree I imagine. The truth is that we were never meant to be friends,” Haldri said. “No one in our position can have friends. We stand alone, atop the pinnacles of the world.”

“That’s a pretty lie to justify the grossest of actions,” Alari said. “You are no more alone than I am though. Or doesn’t a Dragon King rule at your side?”

“I give no sleight to my Haldraxan when I say I stand atop the world alone,” Haldri said. “He is the world. In him lies the strength of the Earth, raw and undiminished by the passing of the gods, just as within us lies the strength of the world beyond. It is our dreams which light the road that leads to the future.”

“Then we need to have care of what dreams we cling to,” Alari said. “There are nightmares enough in this world as it is.”

“The only nightmares that matter are the ones which would frighten us from a greater destiny,” Haldri said. “You in Gallagrin cling to your spirits as armor and shield against the world, hiding away behind their protection, just as you hide away within your mountains from the world. If you walked with dragons as we do in Paxmer you would learn that hiding will never save you. Only by conquering your fear and daring to master the impossible can you rise above this world. That is the gift I will bring the realms and the lands of the outer world.”

“And when you find that the peoples of the world do not want your gift? That they don’t need it?” Alari asked. “Or that different people have different desires for the world? That there are those who do not wish to rise above it? That some can accept it as it is and see the beauty that already exists around and within them?”

“Have you ever seen someone melted in dragon fire?” Haldri asked. “There is no beauty within people. There is only horror and pain, concealed by a thin layer pleasant fictions.”

Alari laughed.

“Are you really that blind?” she asked. “Do you truly believe that because there is pain and suffering there can be no beauty and grace as well?”

“The one gives lie to the other,” Haldri said. “It is only the weak who cling to the illusion that this world is just and good so that they can shield themselves from the terror of its truths.”

“And what of those who make no claims that the world is just or good or terrible or a place of suffering, but rather view it for what it is?” Alari asked. “Look at the orb below us and tell me what you see.”

The sun rose from the east and its light spread across border between the two realms. The mountains were touched briefly with the gentle gold of a new day before swiftly settling into a patchwork of green pine forests and white snowcaps.

Time was passing far faster than it should have, another part of magics of the God’s Hall, which sat as much outside the flow of the world as it did within it.

“The dust and excrement of countless generations,” Haldri said, frowning at the tableau below them. “But in that soil lies the seed of the world’s rebirth.”

“A seed that must be watered with the blood of those you deem weak and unworthy?” Alari asked. With a wave of her hand she drew the vision of the world into closer focus. The vast view they’d taken rushed in to peer at one particular site on the  Paxmer side of the border. From all points south of that there were dragons winging rapidly north, almost to their destination, but hunting in wide circles as they flew.

Alari knew who they were looking for, and what would happen if they found their quarry. She took heart from the patterns of the dragon’s flights though. They hadn’t found Dae yet, and they weren’t going to. Not in time to stop her.

“It is their own actions which condemn those who fall before me,” Haldri said.

Alari laughed again.

“I hated you,” she said. “Paxmer has robbed Gallagrin of so much and you have robbed me of more than you can imagine. When I came here, I knew I would destroy you, and there is nothing that will change that. Now though? Now that I find that this is the root of your madness? This shortness of vision? These blinders that you cling to? Now that I hear the desperate emptiness that drives you? My hate seems foolish now. How can I hate anything so small as you?”

Haldri rose from her throne, the muscles of her face livid with renewed rage.

“I thought you a disappointment,” Haldri said. “For so long, I imagined you to be a skillful player of the game between us. I conjured the image of someone as powerful as I, someone whom I could truly test my mettle against. But that’s not who you are. The noose is around your neck already, My armies draw in on your forces and soon you will fall and it will have been so sadly easy. For a brief moment, I regretted the steps I’ve taken. Your dominion will be mine. Nothing can stop that. But I thought that if I’d known how weak you are, how foolish, I could have made your passing easier. Now though? Now I’m going to enjoy watching everything you have stripped away from you.”

“So we are agreed then,” Alari said. “Enemies, by design and by choice.”

“Yes, remember that as my hand closes in around your heart,” Haldri said.

Alari smirked and then felt a familiar stabbing weakness pass through her.

Haldri’s true gambit was at last sprung.

The Pact Spirit of Gallagrin was divided. Alari’s throne was contested and her claim to her crown was slipping from her grasp.

The Spirit’s Blade – Chapter 38

Jyl was shocked when the dwarves appeared like ghosts from the stone walls, not because she hadn’t been privy to the plan that brought them to Paxmer but because a part of her had been certain that no one could pull off the undertaking that Queen Alari had asked the Mining Guild to attempt.

“Why…why are there dwarves here?” Nui asked.

Dwarves were, in Jyl’s experience, an acquired taste. To people who had little interaction with them, Dwarves were thought of as short, stocky, bearded creatures with a weird aversion to open spaces. This notion was true to the same extent as the notion that all elves loved the forests, which is to say, there were more exceptions than adherents to the rule but it didn’t stop people from clinging to their misguided preconceptions anyways. Dwarves, like Elves, were a disparate and diverse people, but there were some common aspects to their cultures too, from their shared heritage. Aspects that could be off putting until one learned to read the meaning of what was really being said.

As a dungeon delver, Jyl had spent her fair share of time learning from Dwarves who didn’t mind an overly inquisitive elf asking them an endless stream of questions. She’d learned almost the entirety of what she knew about the creation and maintenance of underground spaces from the Dwarves who’d leant her their time and their knowledge. Her family considered the knowledge useless, in what could be considered ‘typical elf fashion’, but it had been critical to her exploration and eventual discovery of the pact spirit name stones which had allowed her to become a Pact Warrior.

Without the training she’d received, she would never have known how to identify the small marks and tells that indicated where secret or obscured passages could be found, or where traps had been laid to ward off people like her. That same training had taught her two other things though. First that what the Queen had asked of the Mining Guild was impossible to pull off and second that if the Mining Guild said they were going to do it, there was at least some chance it would happen despite the obvious insanity required.

“They’ve dug a new series of tunnels from Gallagrin to Paxmer,” Dae said.

“Tunnels?” Sir Kemoral said. “You sell them short Lady Akorli. The guild has created highways through the earth.”

“Why would they do that?” Nui asked, struggling to keep up with the bizarre appearance of a small company of foreigners who materialized seemingly from nowhere.

That the dwarves were spreading out and inspecting various insignificant portions of the sheer mountainside made their presence even harder to understand, unless, like Jyl, you knew the purpose that lay behind the madness which brought them to Paxmer.

“They’re invading,” Estella whispered the words, hope and terror mixing in her voice in equal measures.

“They’re what?” Zana asked.

“Invading,” Dae said. “Claiming this land in the name of Gallagrin if they get the opportunity.

“And you will be providing that opportunity won’t you?” Sir Kemoral said. “Or was your mission unsuccessful?”

“It was successful enough that we should move this discussion inside the stronghold,” Dae said. “The battle we’re looking for is close on our heels.”

“We’re going in there?” Nui asked, rocking back on her heels as her arms went stiff.

“Yes,” Dae said. “In a few hours at most, it won’t be safe to be anywhere else if you’re within fifty miles of here.”

“Not that being inside is going to be perfectly safe either,” Jyl said.

“She’s right,” Zana said.

“Which one?” Nui asked.

“Both of them,” Zana said. “We know what’s chasing us, and the Queen’s Knight is right that we can’t stay out here waiting for them, but the elf is right too, there’s no way anyone dug tunnels from Gallagrin to Paxmer that are even half safe to be in.”

The leader of the Mining Guild, an elderly looking dwarf with skin like rough gnarled wood, stepped forward and scowled at Zana, the two dwarven women standing nose to nose and glaring into each other’s eyes.

“You saying my picks do sloppy work?” Xenda, the guild leader, asked.

The other people present tensed as though a death battle was about to erupt. Jyl would have too if she wasn’t intimately familiar with the Mining Guild’s rough and direct culture. As it was, she smiled and leaned back, curious to see if Zana was familiar with her northern siblings’ method of resolving disputes.

Zana headbutted Xenda and staggered back rubbing her own head. Jyl grinned. Zana may not have been a miner, but she spoke their language quite well.

“You’re damn right I’m saying it’s sloppy work,” Zana said. “You had to have cut every corner there is and made up a few more just to cut them to if you got a job like this done that fast.”

Dae had quietly called up her pact armor and Jyl watched Nui starting to weave a glamour, but the two sisters were cut off by Xenda’s uproarious laughter.

“Aww, you’re a damn sharp one then aren’t you?” Xenda said.

“And you’ve got a bunch of stone singers working for you, I’d wager, you mad bastards,” Zana said.

“They’re not going to be fighting,” Mayleena said, though whether she was disappointed or relieved Jyl couldn’t tell.

“What are stone singers? What are they talking about? What is going on here!” Nui said.

“Inside,” Sir Kemoral said. “We’ll explain everything inside.”

Despite her clear reservations, Nui allowed herself to be escorted into the sealed catacombs. Jyl followed after Estella and Dae entered.

The inside of the ancient catacombs had never seen better days. Far from the fallen down ruins that Jyl had expected to be greeted by, there were signs of serious work and renovations that had been performed recently.

“You’re honoring our dead?” Estella said. “With buttressing?”

“We do honor the dead who were laid here m’am,” Sir Kemoral said.

“But that’s not why you’ve reinforced the outer chambers, is it?” Estella said. Jyl saw a range of expressions flicker across the older woman’s face as she worked through the implications of what she was seeing.

“No, it’s not,” Sir Kemoral said.

“This is my mother, and sister,” Dae said, introducing them to Kemoral. “And one of the recruiting agents for the Paxmer resistance.”

“August company then,” Sir Kemoral said. “And part of your mission?”

“In a sense,” Dae said. “We wouldn’t have arrived here without their help.”

“What is here?” Nui asked. “Why are a bunch of Gallagrin miners in a Paxmer catacomb, invading our country? I thought we were coming to find a weapon to overthrow Queen Haldri, not claim land for a foreign queen?”

“I didn’t mislead you about our aims,” Dae said. “Only the means we plan to use to accomplish them.”

“The Spirit Crown was a lie you said?” Estella asked.

“More of a lure than a lie,” Dae said. “There is a myth about its existence, but it’s one which Queen Alari embellished heavily.”

“Why?” Nui asked. “Why go to all this trouble.”

“Because we needed to be able to force a battle on our own terms and at our own time and place, without Haldri or Haldraxan being aware they were being manipulated,” Dae said.

“I understand the general shape of your plan,” Estella said. “What’s missing are the particulars. How does pitching a battle here unseat our queen? What can our small group and some miners do that the armies of Gallagrin massed to the north cannot?”

“She is your mother, but do you trust her Lady Akorli?” Sir Kemoral asked.

“That’s a dangerous question,” Dae said. “Let’s say she deserves to know this.”

“Then allow me to reassure you,”Sir Kemoral said. “We have many more forces here than your party and then Miners Guild members who facilitated our transport,”

Jyl looked around the crypt they were in and out into the rooms beyond it. The catacombs were a warren of small, private chambers. Structurally, that had allowed the Paxmer builders to excavate as little of the mountain as they needed to, which meant far less labor than large elaborate chambers would have required. It also meant that the catacombs were as strong as any sort of subterranean dwelling was likely to be, moreso than ones where people actively lived and worked since the dead didn’t require the same sort of storage space as the living.

From a tactical perspective, the catacombs offered a resilent and compartmentalized area to fight from. Against a horde of dragons, you couldn’t ask for better terrain than to be protected by foot thick walls with doors at regular intervals which would block out both fire and any dragon riders that might enter the stronghold.

The catacombs served another purpose as well though. They hid the extent of the forces sheltered within them. From where Jyl sat, she could only see the two adjoining rooms, both sparsely furnished chambers similar to the one they’d been lead into. Those held more Miner’s Guild personnel who were working to reinforce the outer walls in preparation for the coming attack.

“How many more are here to fight with us?” Estella asked.

Sir Kemoral looked to Dae, who nodded her approval.

“Her Majesty’s Royal Army awaits within these catacombs,” Sir Kemoral said.

“All of it?” Estella asked, her eyes widening in disbelief.

“Yes,” Sir Kemoral said. “She is taking this matter rather seriously.”

“But I thought we had word that the Gallagrin Royal Army was massing at the border?” Nui asked.

“A misdirection,” Dae said.

“You are not the only glamour caster able to work beyond the bounds of the Sunlost Isles,” Mayleena said.

“That…is unexpected,” Estella said. “But what does your queen hope to gain with this battle? Surely your own keeps are as secure as this hasty fortification on foreign soil could be?”

“They are considerably more secure,” Sir Kemoral said. “And therein lies the problem.”

“I don’t follow,” Nui said.

“Haldri and Haldraxan and all of the Paxmer nobles know the barriers established between the two realms,” Dae said. “They know they cannot bring Paxmer’s principal strength to bear in an all out invasion of Gallagrin, at least not without sacrificing a massive quantiy of regular troops first.”

“Haldri Paxmer isn’t the sort to weight the cost of sacrifices like that,” Estella said.

“She may not count the lives lost as holding any value, but her dragon is clever and old enough to count the gains that can be made versus the risk of drawing Paxmer’s defenses low when Sunlost has reason to strike against them too,” Sir Kemoral said.

“So the plan was to lure them into a battle which they cannot turn away from and to draw in forces they would never commit to a war on the border,” Dae said.

“Couldn’t they just ignore you here until you came out?” Nui asked.

“To refuse to face us would mean ceding the land to Gallagrin and allowing it to become terrain that’s inimical to all of Paxmer’s dragon,” Dae said.

“And if you can move a force within the border this far, then you are capable of moving it even deeper into Paxmer if given sufficient time,” Estella said.

“So you made sure that Haldri called every dragon in the realm here?” Nui asked.

“It’s unlikely that we got all of them.” Dae said. “But it looks like we got the one that matters most.”

“Haldraxan,” Estella said. “What part does the Dragon King play in your plans.”

“It’s very simple,” Dae said. “Haldri’s reign is founded on Haldraxan’s dominion over the dragons of Paxmer. Slay him and the other nobles will turn on her and tear Haldri to pieces.”

“And the rest of the dragons?” Estella asked.

“You said it yourself,” Dae said. “They’ve been corrupted by Haldraxan’s greed. By massing them here, we can break their power once and for all.”

“You don’t know what your saying,” Nui said. “You can’t even fight one dragon much less the hundreds of them who are winging towards us.”

“Fighting dragons is a dangerous business,” Sir Kemoral said. “But we’re not as helpless as that.”

From his smile, Jyl guessed that the surprise they had ready for the Paxmer dragons was ready for deployment. As if queued by Sir Kemoral’s words, one of his lieutenants raced into room.

“Sir! Dragon scouts spotted!” the lieutenant said.

“Give the orders then,” Sir Kemoral said. “Primary volleys from positions three and twenty.”

“Primary volleys?” Estella asked.

“Easier to unshutter the windows so that you can see for yourself,” Sir Kemoral said.

The shutters in question were massive slabs of rock, but they moved easily enough once the latching mechanism was unlocked.

Through the viewing window, Jyl saw two dragons soaring high above the plains that lead up to the mountains. They were swooping in for a closer look at the catacombs when two enormous bolts of lightning leapt from the mountainside to strike first one and the other from the sky.

“And so our war begins,” Sir Kemoral said.

“No,” Dae said. “Our war began years ago, that just told Haldri that we’re finally ready to fight back.”

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.