The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 16

Surviving with a half dozen arrows run through your chest is impossible. Human organs have grave issues with being punctured by long shafts of steel tipped wood. Hearts in particular tended to be upset when plant-based obstructions like arrows interfered with their ability to pump blood to the other organs that were crying out for it.

Dae gave silent thanks to Kirios that she didn’t have to worry about that particular problem. Thanks to her Pact spirit’s power, her real body was still safely ensconced in the magic of the transformation and held in a dimension slightly offset from the material world. The illusions of the armor falling away from her was the sort of trickery that any suitably proficient Pact Warrior could pull off though very few ever had cause to, and even fewer ever practiced.

The bond between Pact spirit and their warrior was a crucial one, and determined how much power their fusion had access to in battle. For most Pact Warriors, training to improve that bond was a daily task in the early weeks of their association. Beyond the first few months though the Pact relationship was largely defined and further efforts to improve its scope yielded little results.

Little results were fine with Dae though. With few other distractions in her life, she was constantly fiddling with Kirios’ capabilities. Most of her “personal training” was unfocused and unproductive, but she still made headway in tiny steps.

It was thanks to that constant probing of the boundaries of their power that Kirios was able to configure his appearance to look like Dae as she lay on the roof and waited to see what the summoner’s next move would be. She was wagering on several gambles at once with her feint, from her adversary being at least slightly foolish, to herself being the better judge of the fight’s pacing. She didn’t need all of those risks to pay out, just any of the right ones.

If the summoner was of Inchesso stock, as she guessed they might be, the odds were that they wouldn’t be intimately versed in the capabilities Pact Warriors possessed. To the untrained observer, it should have appeared that Dae ran out of power and chose to drop her protection, or lost it while reaching for more. She couldn’t be sure of her acting prowess but she thought she’d put on a good enough show in wading through wave and wave of shadow archers, slowing down with each one until her final “collapse” to make the summoner’s victory believable.

Another Pact Warrior would have questioned at least a few elements of her performance though, not the least of which being why she chose to attack several waves of archers rather than flee faster than they could follow.

A novice fighter could easily find themselves locked into a mindless fighting pattern by pure bloodlust but Dae didn’t move like a novice. Anyone with her level of training would have known exactly how powerful a fighting retreat could be, and definitely would have been aware of the value of fleeing an ambush in order to engage the enemy on terms that weren’t so favorable to them.

Fighting a summoner on the grounds of their choosing meant giving them the benefit of whatever concealment they’d chosen as well as the lightest burden for resummoning their forces that they could setup. In a running battle it was much harder for the summoner to stay hidden and an exposed summoner against a Pact Warrior had a lifespan measured in milliseconds in most cases.

Which isn’t to say that there weren’t problems with running battles in the middle of a busy city.

“The rest of you I save because it’s convenient”

Dae’s words echoes in her ears. There was more truth in them than she wanted to admit. She avoided fighting through the city because she wanted to arrive at this moment, when her quarry made the mistake of thinking she had fallen, when they would feel safe enough to make a mistake. A side effect of the strategy was that the general populace remained unharmed.

Dae stilled her breathing and thought back to a time when her priorities would have been the reverse of what they’d become.

Another arrow thunked into her, interrupting her concentration but not forcing her to break the illusion of her death. The summoner wasn’t as foolish as she’d hoped, but it was only one arrow, so her guess as to their reserves of magic, or the lack thereof, was looking to be correct. All she needed to do was wait. Not that waiting was easy. Until she heard them move, she had to maintain her ruse and remain dead still or she would never lay her hands on them.

To ignore the damage that Kirios was holding at bay, Dae let her mind drift into her memories. The image of two girls racing through a long abandoned tower surfaced from the waters of Lethe that drowned her past.

“You’ll never catch me Alari!” the child Dae squealed as her strong legs boosted her up the wobbly stone stairs three steps at a time.

“Sleeping Gods you’re part mountain lion Adae!” the princess who followed Dae called out.

“Rar!” Dae said, doing her best impression of a creature she’d never actually seen as she flew up the steps even faster.

“You’re not getting away from me!” Alari yelled in a very unprincess-like fashion.

In her mind’s eye, the adult Dae could picture the enormous scale of the open room that waited at the top of the stairs. It wasn’t that large but from her younger self’s perspective it was vast area for potential mischief. The colors of the ancient carpet remained in Dae’s memory even after more than a decade and a half since she first saw them. There were worn golds that still shone with a shadow of their former luster, rich blues faded to pale watercolors where traffic had worn them down and reds that had once been vibrant as fresh apples but were long since brushed down to soft pinks. To her younger self, the carpet was an tapestry ocean that told hundreds of stories.

It was also quite flat. That detail stuck with her because of how badly Alari tripped on it when she entered the room and spied Dae on the far side of it, almost at the stairs leading to the next floor.

Alari’s fall wasn’t bad because it looked painful. If anything it was the lack of pain that gave it away. One step the princess was streaking across the room trying to catch her playmate and then next she was sinking to floor having “tripped”. Her landing was so gentle though that Dae knew it had to be faked.

“That’s cheating Alari,” Dae said, narrowing her eyes at her friend. Alari didn’t move. She didn’t even make a sound.

Dae crept a step forward, waiting for the princess to roll back to her feet and resume their race, but Alari didn’t budge.

“You’re never going to catch me like that,” Dae said and edged a few steps closer.

Still no response from the princess.

“Are you ok?” Dae asked, concern leaking into her voice.

Alari treated Dae like a friend, like an equal if Dae was honest, but Dae knew she wasn’t as important as Alari. The castle staff, and more importantly the King, tolerated Dae because Alari liked her. For as awful as King Sathe was, Dae saw feet swinging in the breeze, he at least doted on his daughter.

People said that the King changed when Alari’s mother died, but Dae didn’t think that was true. Queen Halia may have mitigated the worst of her husband’s madness but Dae had never known a time when the King’s name wasn’t spoke of in fear, and for good reason.

Dae took another step closer to Alari and reached for her. If something had happened to the princess, her protection of Dae would vanish. The thought was terrifying but it was only a small worry compared to the idea that something might actually be wrong with the princess. Dae knew for sure that Alari was faking, but if she wasn’t, if she’d truly been injured because of Dae’s taunting then the King wouldn’t have to kill Dae. He wouldn’t get the chance to.

Dae wasn’t Alari’s equal. She would never rule a kingdom like Alari would. She would never bear the burdens that her best friend was destined to live under. Alari’s destiny was to stand on a greater stage than Dae could ever act on, but that didn’t meant mean that Dae couldn’t support her.

In a very real way, Alari had saved Dae’s life by claiming her as a handmaiden. A moment latter and Dae’s feet would have swung in the breeze as well. The princess didn’t see it like that, but Dae and everyone Dae spoke to did. For that alone, Dae would have been grateful and given the princess anything she asked. Except Alari didn’t ask for anything.

As a royal of Gallagrin, Alari could have commanded Dae to do almost anything, but instead she’d asked, just quietly requested, Dae’s company each day, as though it were a new request each time.

Technically Dae was one of many handmaids but the rest were all sensible older women, ladies concerned with proper decorum and the needs of the court. Dae was supposed to follow their lead in all things, but when she could never bring herself to. From the first hour she was in Alari’s service she saw how everyone else treated the princess. It was like Alari was a crystal doll, too fragile to touch or even to be near for long. The castle, and Alari’s rooms in particular was a marvelous edifice but even as a young child Dae could see that they were little more than a box that the people of the castle were very content to leave Alari packed away in, safe, protected but also completely isolated.

That wasn’t driven by Alari’s needs or requests of course. It was the fear of her father that kept the handmaids and the rest of the staff at arm’s length or beyond. No one wanted to be the person who drew the King’s attention, even if it was for supporting his daughter. The Butcher King was too erratic to risk any chance of being noticed by him.

That was why Alari’s request for Dae to spend time with her were always phrased so that Dae could have easily refused. Alari wasn’t stupid. She knew how dangerous her father was and the peril that being with her entailed.

That, in turn, was why Dae never refused. She couldn’t understand how a monster like Sathe had an offspring as compassionate as Alari, but after what Alari did for her, Dae wasn’t going to let her stand alone. Not against anyone or anything.

In that moment of seeing Alari crumpled on the floor, the worst of Dae’s fears surged through her mind. If she hurt her princess or let Alari down, Dae knew she would never forgive herself. It was the one thing that would destroy her and so she reached very tentatively towards the princess’ motionless form on the carpet.

And Alari grabbed her arm.

Dae screamed, certain that ten years had been scared out of her by Alari’s move.

“Gotcha!” the princess said.

“Gods’ piss, you’re evil!” Dae didn’t even try to pull her arm free. She was too busy try to make sure her heart didn’t explode from the fright.

“I’m not evil,” Alari said. “I just do what it takes to win.”

That had proven to be more true than either of them could have guessed.

It warmed Dae’s heart to think that she was still learning things from her friend, even with the years that separated them. She wasn’t able to keep the smile from crinkling the edges of her lips as she heard boots that were decidedly more solid than a shadow archer’s crunch on the tile of the flat roof. Thanks to Kirios’ senses she felt the summoner draw close and bend down to inspect her fallen form.

“Gotcha” she said, grabbing his arm.

His scream was very similar to the little girl scream Dae had emitted years previous and, like Alari before her, Dae couldn’t help but feel a surge of triumphant glee as her plan brought her quarry to ground.

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