The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 23

The tactical doctrine around Berserkers was something every Pact Warrior and Soldier studied. It was rare for a Berserker to emerge in the heat of battle, and for soldiers the need to be familiar with Berserker protocols was mostly non-existent. The doctrine was brief enough that it didn’t represent a major departure from their training schedule though so everyone was trained for it.

After explaining what a Berserker was (a pact warrior who was completely consumed by their pact spirit) and how to recognize one (they were the ones radiating power and killing everyone around them, friend or foe) the lesson on dealing with Berserkers commenced.

Run.

That was the beginning and end of the lesson. A combined force of arms could take down one of the rampaging monsters but if a retreat was available, that option was always preferable. In any engagement with a Berserker, normal Pact fighters were going to die. Left to their own devices though a Berserker’s rage would consume them from within.

As weapons of war, Berserkers were problematic tools in the best case scenarios. As assassins they were even less useful, but if you wanted to assault a marching army and you didn’t care about losing an underling or two, a Berserker would give you the edge and power you needed to at least make the attempt.

Dae wasn’t thinking about any of that though.

She was looking for places to run to.

A single leap carried her a hundred feet up the mountain but every instinct she had told her that wasn’t enough. Berserker’s routinely exerted force beyond what they’re bodies were capable of tolerating. They repaired the damage with rough magical bracing and pressed on to continue their fight. If the monster the Consortium unleashed saw her, Dae knew her chance for escape would drop to zero.

The other members of the Dawn March were struck by similar ideas as well, from what Dae could see. The swarm of pact soldiers who were bounding in on the ambush point rapidly changed direction. They all would have fled except for one small problem. The Duke’s carriage was still stuck in the ravine.

The soldiers who were manning the ropes to pull it back up onto the mountain path froze at the sight of the monster that the failing concealment spell revealed.

That’s when the dying started.

The first soldier that the Berserker reached was someone Dae had met but never learned his name. His death wasn’t pleasant but it was quick. With one swipe the Berserker shattered the minor pact armor the soldier manifested. Without his armor, the soldier’s body was exposed and vulnerable in precisely the same manner as a wad of wet tissue paper would be. The results of the Berserkers next attack demonstrated that fact with clear red highlights.

Dae hung from a narrow ledge, silent and still as the battlefield below her was splashed with blood as though a mad artist was redecorating the mountain in scarlet.

The two Consortium assassins fled up the mountain, away from the abomination they unleashed. It was a smart move but ultimately not a sufficient one.

After slaying eight of the Dawn March soldiers, the Berserker caught sight of the assassins. Each of the Inchesso killers was pact bonded. Each was moving as fast as they could. Neither got over the summit of the hill.

A full Pact Warrior’s spirit bond is more powerful than a Pact Soldier’s is. That was enough to allow the first assassin to survive the Berserker’s initial blow. Cornered and cut off from escape, the assassin turned to fight. To his credit, he did manage to put up some resistance, but it was brief and only served to showcase how hopeless the battle against the Berserker was.

Piece by piece, the Berserker took the assassin’s spirit armor apart. The assassin gave as good as he got though, shearing off the Berserker’s left arm with a series of blindingly fast strikes. The difference between the two was that the Berserker didn’t care about the loss of a limb and wasn’t slowed down by it in the slightest. The assassin on the other hand wasn’t quite that resilient.

The second assassin made no effort to help his guildmate. The few precious seconds that it took the Berserker to dismantle the first assassin into a piece of abstract art were enough to allow the second to escape to the top of the ridge. He might have made a clean escape if he hadn’t made the mistake of pausing to look back at the carnage below him.

From hundreds of feet below, the Berserker launched a trio of lashes, slick with red and pulsing with life, from its forearm gauntlets. The remaining assassin turned to flee but even the split second pause was too long. With a scream, he was reeled back down the mountain into the Berserker’s clutches.

Dae felt a silent, cold, calm reach out and still her nerves. There is the fear that makes people scream and then there’s the fear the comes when screaming is impossible.

Instead of a scream, a chuckle escape Dae’s lips. It wasn’t a happy chuckle, or a strong one. She knew this fear. She didn’t want to move against it, every bit of sanity told her not to move, but she knew she could. She’d been through worse.

Except she hadn’t moved then either. She’d been frozen by it. She’d watched a city burn. She’d heard its buildings fall and smelled its people being reduced to ash.

In the aftermath, she’d fallen too, her heart reduced to ash and her honor burned away. What price would surviving this encounter exact she wondered?

It wasn’t a question she had much time to contemplate.

Her chuckle gave away her position.

The Berserker screamed at her and Dae felt her paralysis shatter. The cold fear that gripped her turn white hot. Not rage. Not will. Some deeper, proto-human part of her mind where raw survival ruled all other instincts spoke in a burning tongue. She wasn’t capable of language at that level but it was easy enough to translate the primal speech.

Fight.

She leapt from her perch before she was aware she was doing it. Down into the striking range of the Berserker. Down towards a foe she couldn’t defeat in her present state.

There was a snarl on the wind, not hers directly, but Kirios speaking for her. To the Dawn March personnel who heard it, the battlecry signaled her arrival and against the Berserker they took it for a declaration of suicide.

Dae’s thoughts weren’t ones of self-destruction though. The baggage she carried and the loathing that lived inside her were silent as she flew down the cliffside. Determination, strategy, and duty, those were silent too. She was moving and she had a target. Everything else was emptiness.

The Berserker slashed at her, faster than she could parry. It did damage and tore away part of her armor but the Berserker’s attack cost him speed.

Dae pinioned his arm, skewering it on her blade.

His helmet opened its mouth, revealing a maw of metal spikes.

She grabbed his throat to hold him away and then crushed it.

The Berserker wrenched its arm through Dae’s blade, tearing muscle and tendon, and shattering bone to escape. He hit her with the half attached arm before she could parry and the force of the impact sent her tumbling twenty feet away. It also tore the Berserkers arm completely off but tendrils of magic caught the limb and affixed it back in place.

Dae shook off the impact and rolled back to her feet in time to hear a great crash of wood from the ravine below them. It didn’t have a bearing on the next two seconds of her survival though so her thoughts didn’t linger on it.

Two seconds gave her time to form a shield to go with her pact blade. It also gave the Berserker time to reclaim his other arm.

When his attack came, Dae was ready for it. The Berserker’s offense was predictable in its savage simplicity. Being able to predict an attack and being able to avoid or mitigate one are entirely different things though.

Dae met the Berserker’s attack with both sword and shield and both of her implements shattered. Blows that she could barely see slammed into her torso and only pure reflexes allowed her to roll with the barrage of attacks and soften their force to a survivable level.

The bits of her armor which the Berserker smashed off, she called back into existence, tapping on the magic Kirios manifested when she transformed. She felt as that pool dwindled rapidly. Drawing on more was dangerous, but standing against a Berserker without Kirios’ power was substantially worse.

The Berserker caught her by the throat before she could make that decision and slammed her into ground. Rock fractured beneath them and the Berserker slammed her down again. Over and over.

The clear emptiness of Dae’s mind began to cloud with pain. She wasn’t replacing her armor as fast as the Berserker was tearing it away so the damage was starting to leak over to her actual body.

Dae fought through the pain and managed to resummon both her sword and shield. The shield lasted only a fraction of a second but that was enough for Dae to spear the Berserker in the shoulder and drive the monster off her.

She pushed him up and off her, battering the creature’s head with the remnants of her shield until he recovered and backhanded her away again.

She wasn’t able to roll with that and it shattered the breastplate of her armor. The impact with the mountain path broke something and when she tried to rise an enormous wave of pain swept through her.

She reached out for Kirios to call on him for another transformation, but was interrupted by a Knight in luminous green armor landing behind the Berserker and running the monster through the heart with an emerald lance.

Dae blinked and fought her mind back to clarity for a second before she recognized the regalia of Gallagrin nobility that adorned the Knight.

Duke Telli had taken the field.

The battle that followed was one that Dae caught only fractions of.

The Berserker somehow tossed the Duke aside, but in the process a second lance appeared plunged through the Berserker’s chest.

The Berserker ignored the lances and shattered the Duke’s helmet. It gained two more lances for that and lost one of its arms again.

A moment later Dae thought the Berserker had ripped the Duke’s left hand off but it turned out only to be an empty gauntlet.

Over and over the two struck, the Duke an unyielding fortress of might and the Berserker an unrelenting storm of destruction. Some of the Duke’s guard tried to aid him but while they were able to buy him additional openings to wound the Berserker, they did so at the cost of their own bodies.

Ages later, but also all too soon, Dae saw the Duke begin to slow. Telli struck at the Berserker’s heart again and again. He shattered the monster’s armor and destroyed the flesh of the man that lay underneath.

But the Berserker would not stop coming. For all the Duke’s raw power, it didn’t look like he could put the Berserker down. The creature’s resources seemed limitless, but Dae knew that wasn’t the case. Even the most powerful spirit still had limits. The problem was that the Berserker was willing to exceed those limit to its utmost capacity where the Duke and the rest of the Dawn March didn’t have that option if they wished to survive.

The Duke took a solid hit and was thrown to the ground to suffer a series of additional bone crushing blows. The Berserker roared and spun about so quickly though that none of the Dawn March fighters had a clear opening on him.

In a moment, Dae thought, the Duke was going to die and then the Berserker would move on to a far weaker foe, such as the rest of the Dawn March combined.

The Duke had other ideas on that matter though. He rose to face the Berserker and laughed.

“You were slow that time,” Telli said. “And weak.”

The Berserker roared and shot a handful of tendrils at the Duke to pull bind him and pull him in.

The Duke sliced the restraints out of the air before they could reach him.

“Your power is fading at last,” the Duke said.

And Dae saw it. The Berserker still radiated malice. It was still standing tall and strong, but when it moved there were tiny hitches. Little pops where the pain that had been inflicted on it were starting to show.

“Good,” the Duke said. “I was waiting for that.”

A moment later, after a slash that was too fast for Dae’s eyes to follow, the Berserker lay on the ground. His body had fallen to the left of the Duke and his head to the right.

The battle was over.

 

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