The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 22

The sight of the Dawn March leaving Nath brought on a festival atmosphere that was wholly at odds with the purpose of the company’s departure.

“The confetti almost makes me think they’re glad to see us go,” Kael said, brushing some of the colored paper off his horse’s head.

“I’m sure your bookies will cry themselves to sleep tonight,” Dae said, barely paying attention to the larger officer or his horse.

The throngs of people who turned out to watch the Dawn March leave made a perfect cover for another assassination attempt, but Dae was reasonably sure the Denarius Consortium wasn’t going to make an attempt on her life while she was surrounded by a literal army of backup. If they did they would doubtless injure or kill hundreds but the chance of taking out their target was vanishingly remote.

So she was safe. Except a nagging itch left her with the feeling that each step her horse took was a step closer to disaster.

The Duke’s carriage was behind the lead riders of the parade, and so out of sight from where Dae sat near the rear of the force. He’d insisted on accompanying the Dawn March since the murders had happened in his stronghold.

“I will not rest until the Prince’s family is safely within the Castle’s walls,” Telli said, ignoring the fact that their son had been killed within those same walls, and that the assassin’s had evaded all of the guards the Duke’s forces sent to search for them.

“I thought you said I’d get to sit this one out?” Kael said.

Despite the need for haste, the Dawn March was plodding out of the city at half the speed of a casual walk. There were simply too many of them and too much attention for a swifter march.

“If the commander hadn’t called up the whole damn March, you would have,” Dae said. Step, by plodding step, she turned the events of the last several days over in her mind. Moving the March out of Nath didn’t serve any logical ends as far as she could see.

The loss of the March didn’t leave the city undefended and there weren’t any forces within striking range who could threaten Nath even if its defenses were left for the civilian population to take charge of. With the Watch and the Duke’s own forces still in residence, it would take months of siege before the city even noticed there were attackers at the gate, much less was in any danger of falling.

On the other hand, taking the Dawn March to intercept Lorenzo’s family offered neither safety nor security. If the assassins were intent on killing more members of the Prince’s house they could easily outride the cumbersome Dawn March and finish the deed before the army was within miles of protecting  the Inchesso nobles.

Dae flirted with the idea that the Dawn March was being removed from Nath to get her far enough away to keep her from interfering in whatever scheme was going on, but her ego was’t quite large enough to accept that as a likely answer. The same result could have been accomplished by sending her on a mission to a distant province. She wouldn’t have actually gone of course, but her disobedience would have provided the Duke or Commander Ketel with other options for shuffling her to the side.

The hardest part to understand was the Duke’s choice to lead the expedition personally. If the assassin’s made an attempt against the Inchesso nobles, the Duke would have to fight. The pact spirits held by the Gallagrin’s reigning nobility were second only to those held by the Royal Sovereign. Against that kind of power, even a full guild of assassins would be hard pressed to survive the encounter much less terminate their target.

Telli’s presence was a powerful statement that he intended to prevent any further misfortunes from occurring in regards to Lorenzo’s family. It was also a condemnation of the Dawn March’s ability to protect the visiting nobility, but few within the March had any illusions as to the company’s overall competence. Their collective egos survived the rebuke largely because it was difficult to make people ashamed of a shortcoming they don’t care about in the slightest.

“Bet we trek out to the border and our guests are already dead or run off,” Kael said.

“Tempted to take that bet,” Dae said. The scenario of the Duke making a big show of force only to arrive too late by design didn’t float for Dae. The only purpose a show of force would serve would be to turn aside blame for the murders that had occurred. Failure to prevent more murders, especially when far more rapid help could have been dispatched wasn’t going to win the Duke any points at all. If anything it would make him look more guilty than he already did.

“How much should I put you down for?” Kael asked.

“I don’t know,” Dae said. “Someone hires you to put me down, I suggest you bleed them for all the money you can.”

Kael looked at her and shook his head.

“This is gonna be a long trip,” he said.

“But the company is so pleasant,” Dae said, tipping her broad brimmed hat low.

Standard operating discipline said that a Dawn March officer was supposed to stay alert and aware at all times. Covering her own field of vision was actually a punishable offense on the books, though barely anyone knew that. With the crowd as thick as it was though there was no sense looking for Consortium assassins, or killers of any stripe. In theory that still left Dae with the burden of riding out of the city but the parade was so slow that the horse was able to handle it all on her own.

 

***

The attack didn’t come until hours later, outside of Nath and on one of the long winding roads that generations of Gallagrin workers had carved through the mountains.

Without the crowds of civilians around, Dae was paying marginally more attention to the environment than she had been in Nath. It was difficult to feel endangered though when she was in a non-description position in a line of armored soldiers that stretched around the corners both in front and behind her.

The first sign of the Consortium’s ambush came from the sudden shuffling of the soldiers that were almost around the next bend. That was followed by a tremendous crashing, and a rumble that felt like the entire mountainside was tearing itself apart.

“Armor up!” Kael called out, which seemed like an insufficient response to a mountain falling but Dae called on Kirios nonetheless.

“The Duke!” one of the forward Lieutenants called out.

“The carriage, get lines for the carriage!” another yelled back to the nearest packmaster.

There was another crash and the unmistakable sound of a falling scream. Dae heard wood shatter and crack as something large and heavy dropped into the chasm around the bend that lay a hundred feet or more ahead.

“That’s not a good sign,” Kael said, looking around for any sign of their attackers.

“Hold my horse,” Dae said, and dismounted.

“Where are you going?” Kael asked.

“Up,” Dae said. “Someone just asked me dance.”

“The forward riders are on that,” Kael said. “Stay here or you’ll bring more of the mountain down on us.”

“The forward riders were in the Duke’s carriage,” Dae said. “Saw it on the downslope about two miles back. That puts them at the bottom of this ravine at the moment.”

“Ravine’s only about a hundred feet here,” Kael said. “They can survive that. Probably. Maybe.”

“Hold my horse,” Dae said and passed Kael the reins.

Then she leapt fifty feet up the side of the mountain and touched down on a rock ledge that offered a better view. In Pact Warrior mode, she had significantly more mobility than being on horseback offered her, but she held back on charging right into where the ambush was triggered from.

“An avalanche is a nice tactic, but you’ve got something better held in reserve or you’re suicidal,” Dae whispered under her breath.

She looked around for whatever that follow up blow might be but came up empty. Whatever other flaws the Denarius Consortium might have, they weren’t bad at hiding. That couldn’t be “Step 2” of their plan though since Dae wasn’t alone in scaling the mountain. Dozens of Pact Soldiers were climbing towards the ambush position and together they’d sweep the mountain with enough precision to find anyone corporeal that was lingering there.

Unless of course the hidden ambushers weren’t on the same side of the ravine as the Dawn March was.

Dae leapt higher for a better vantage point and calculated the firing arc a party on the opposite side of the trail would have had to work with.

The angles checked out perfectly.

Dae couldn’t disguise her approach, so she did the next best thing.

“On the far side!” Kirios amplified her words loud of enough that they would have caused physical pain to anyone standing next to her.

Then she jumped again.

As a Pact Warrior, there were still limits to how much force she could exert on her body. In terms of superhuman leaps both leaving the ground and landing presented issues.

“How in the seven hells did she do that?” Kael asked to no one in particular as he watched Dae’s armored form fly from one side of the ravine to the other.

The landing was more problematic than the jump. The mountain on the  other side of the ravine was steeper and more buffeted by the weather. Dae more “impacted” than “landed” on the slope and was then sent sliding down in a rough river of fractured stone.

A fall into the depths wouldn’t have proved fatal, but Dae avoided the inconvenience of climbing back up by ramming her Pact Blade into the mountain’s face and swinging up to stand on the narrow ledge the flat of the blade offered.

Above her position, she caught a glimpse of movement as a cloaking spell failed to completely cover the activities taking place beneath it.

From the other side of the ravine, other Pact Warriors and Pact Soldiers were copying her strategy with various techniques. Some used a charge down the mountainside to build momentum and others relied on their comrades to hurl them across the gap. Dae glanced back to where Kael was standing with the reins to both of their horses still in his hand. He offered her a small wave and made no further move to help.

“Can’t fault him for being inconsistent,” Dae grumbled.

There was no imperative driving her to be the first to engage the Denarius ambush party. Sound tactical doctrine was to send in the more expendable troops as the vanguard to spring any defensive traps the ambushers had setup around their position.

Concern for her Dawn March companions might have moved her, but she knew what motivated them and didn’t feel inclined to shelter their greed with her own suffering. The prospect of a fat hazardous duty bonus from the Duke which drove the other Dawn March wasn’t entirely unappealing to her of course, but when Dae sprang from her blade-perch, she was moved by an entirely unrelated force.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Lorenzo’s silent face gazed upon her. She couldn’t save everyone, and she couldn’t avenge all of the wronged dead either. The ambushers though weren’t part of the broad and nebulous suffering of the world. They were a threat who stood clear and present before her. The long, horrible crease they’d added to Lorenzo’s throat wasn’t the first they inflicted but the anger that powered Dae’s leap was driven more by an image she suppressed as quickly as it emerged. There was one throat, she would never allow to come to harm, no matter how far away from it she’d fallen.

Dae punched through the concealing spell that shrouded the ambushers camp, dispelling with the violence of her arrival. For the briefest moment, her heart soared in hunger. The Denarius assassins were doomed. Apart from her own wrath, they faced an incoming horde of pacted forces as well as the massed archery fire of the soldiers who remained on the other side of the ravine.

The villains had no prayer of surviving the forces massed against them.

Or at least it didn’t seem that they did until Dae took in their camp.

There were only two of them.

And a third figure in a coffin.

A coffin that was warded with seals that writhed with unnatural light.

Light that was fading.

From inside the depowered coffin, a man stepped forward.

Or something that had once been a man.

For one precious second, Dae tried to deny what she saw before her, but her survival instincts wouldn’t allow that to happen.

The Consortium had brought a Berserker into play and from everything Dae knew, none one on the mountain was going to escape alive.

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