The Noble Regalia of the House of Tel was backed by exactly the sort of formidable Pact Spirit which Dae had prayed she wouldn’t have to fight. The Telli were an old family, and one which had kept the same spirit bound to their service for all of the years they’d been in power. From each generation that had borne the spirit, it had absorbed an ever greater understanding of the mortal world and an ever greater sense of its own identity.
In practical terms that meant that so long as the current bearer of the spirit held goals that were amenable to the pact spirit, it could offer its own skill to the Pact Knight’s ability to call forth magics from the pact bond. It was an ability which only ennobled pact bearers were allowed to call on by the terms of the pact binding contracts. The early rulers of Gallagrin had forged that into an unbreakable tradition in order to ensure that none of the commoners they entrusted with pact spirits could rise up to easily overthrow them.
The Duke of Tel had never been an overly serious student of pact magics but neither was he talentless in that area. Combined with the accumulated skill of his Pact Spirit, Dae knew she wouldn’t have had much luck standing against him even if she’d been uninjured and fully rested. Luck wasn’t going to play any role in the battle though if Dae had her way.
“You don’t want to fight me,” she said as the Duke took up his position on the audience floor. The circular area in front of the throne and the curving seats of the nobles was too small to be a proper arena, but it was a venue that neither side would allow the other to leave alive.
That wasn’t a comforting point for the spectators. Everyone present was aware of the likelihood of the fight spilling out into the seats where the various nobles in attendance on the king sat. If that happened it was likely to be entirely in the Duke’s favor, since the nobles would be free to retaliate against an attack launched at them, but would need to consider the political cost of attacking the Duke.
Even if they supported Dae’s arguments (and more than a few of his noble brethren would have been happy to slip a knife into Duke’s Telli’s ribs) there was the problem of his heir who would be certain to retaliate for any injury done to his father.
“You have provoked this battle and made it all but unavoidable,” Telli said, waiting calmly as Dae limped into the open circle. “You should have stayed in the bed that was bought for you. You might have retained both your honor and your life.”
“I know the value of my life, and my honor,” Dae said. “What I don’t know is what you valued so much that you would sell your own country out to this Paxmer scum.”
“It’s a shame that berserker didn’t tear out your tongue,” Telli said. “I stepped in too soon apparently.”
“Feel free to explain that to the soldiers you let be slaughtered by that thing for your little stage show,” Dae said, reaching the edge of the arena and pausing for a breath. “If you happen to meet of them in hell that is.”
“You are broken already, in mind and body,” the Duke said. “This is no proper duel. Yield now and I promise you a quick and painless death.”
“Never,” Dae said softly, an unexpected feeling of quiet joy spreading through her. It didn’t alleviate her pain, but it did give her a new view of it. The Duke was right. She was too injured and too drained to kill him in her present state, but that didn’t matter. She’d lived for so long crippled by the fear of her own failure, and of having broken Alari’s faith, that being able to say that one word seemed like an impossibility.
For six years Dae hadn’t believe there was anything in her that could hold true to the vision Alari had of her. That the broken thing named “Daelynne Kor” who existed in the wreckage of Star’s Watch could never be Alari’s Knight. That in falling before the Dragon Fear, she’d revealed how ultimately selfish and cowardly she was, and that all of her dreams of being able to stand for what she believed in were just the naive hopes of a child who’d lost her father to the end of a madman’s noose.
Here, at what seemed to be the end of her life, she saw both the truth and the lie of what she’d told herself. She was selfish, and naive, and cowardly. Just not about the things she believed she was. And none of that mattered.
All that mattered was that she said “No”. That she didn’t run away this time. The past was gone. She knew she couldn’t take even one step backwards, and she knew that because she’d failed before. Her failures and her victories made her who she was, but it was the choices she made with each passing moment that determined who she was going to be.
Believing in herself was difficult, but in this one case she didn’t have to. All she needed to do here was to believe in Alari. That the girl she’d known was someone who was worth standing up for, that the love Dae felt for her Princess was worth everything that it cost, that even though they’d been separated by distance and time and life and death, the bond they shared was still a sacred one.
“If you won’t yield, then I’m not going to make this pleasant,” Telli said. “I believe I’ll start by tearing that lying tongue out of your throat.”
There was a burst of light where the Duke had stood and a blur that was too fast for any of the unaugmented eyes in the room to follow as Telli flashed forward across the dueling circle to strike Dae down.
His sword met an explosion of light as his opponent called on her pact transformation. The wild magics of the transformation, hurled the Duke back with so much force that he smashed through one of the pillars which stood at the outside of the makeshift arena. The pillar was solid granite, a foot and a half in diameter, and he sailed through it like it was dried kindling.
Stone chips went everywhere, blinding those nearby with dust and debris. The noble’s sitting on the opposite side of the arena, and Halrek who was in the middle of the great arc of seats were able to witnesses Dae’s transformation as dull grey plates of steel slammed over her body and she stood up, unburdened by the aches of her mortal form.
“You haven’t fought many other Pact wielders before, have you?” Dae asked, taunting the fallen Duke as he got back to his feet. “Always let others get their hands dirty, like with the murder of Prince Lorenzo.”
“The Queen had that boy killed,” Telli said. “It’s an open secret. Even the assassin involved confessed that much.”
“An assassin who never actually met his employer?” Dae asked. “Who worked for the same Denarius Consortium which you so kindly invited into Castle Nath and then provided passes to the celebration there?”
Telli flew at Dae again, but this time she didn’t have the sanctity of a transformation to call upon. She managed to dodge the entirety of his first blow since it was telegraphed from a long distance out but his follow up attacks were so rapid and strong that she was only able to parry or deflect slightly more than half of them, and even that required that she fight almost entirely from a defensive position.
For all of the strength of his offense though, the Duke was too used to completely outmatching his opponent to fight with both attack and defense in mind and Dae was able to turn one parried blow into a open that let her sink her blade through the armor at the Duke’s knee. If he hadn’t been transformed himself the blow would have taken the leg off completely. Instead it merely lamed him until he could pull out the sword which Dae left behind in the wound.
“Actions I did at the Queen’s command,” Telli said, yanking the summoned blade out of his leg and throwing it away. As his pact spirit repaired the damage to the conjured knee, Dae resummoned the blade to herself.
“Now who has the lying tongue?” Dae asked. “Everyone here has worked with Alari since the war. Most worked with her in the war too and those that didn’t were fighting against her. When they have a moment to think about it, none of them are going to believe that Alari ordered Lorenzo’s death.”
“She betrayed her father, why not her husband?” Telli asked.
“Alari would never betray someone she was pledged to,” Dae said. “But even if you all don’t know that, you know that if she wanted someone dead, she would handle it herself. With Gallagrin’s power she could annihilate a Page so thoroughly there would be no body to be found, and, after the war, it’s not like she hasn’t proven that she’s willing to get her hands dirty when the need arises. The whole lie of her seeking out foreign help to kill a page is absurd and everyone knows it.”
Telli responded to her words with another barrage of attacks. These were slower and more deliberate than the previous attacks had been. The strength behind them was overwhelming from Dae’s point of view, and that alone closed off a number of defenses that she could mount. She made the best of the maneuvers she knew that could still help though, and since she’d entered into her Pact early and been pitted against older and stronger opponents often, her knowledge on fighting superior foes was far from theoretical.
Knowledge and experience are vital tools, but there are levels of raw strength and power which they can have a difficult time adjusting for. Duke Telli’s Pact Armored form was an example of that level of raw might.
Where there wasn’t an opening in Dae’s defenses, he made one. When she tried to fall back to buy time to protect that vulnerable area, he pressed forward faster than she could react. Dae’ experience let her focus on and shield herself from Telli’s primary threats but in parrying his sword blows she had to leave herself open to his less deadly attacks.
So he kicked her across the chamber. Dae knew she couldn’t dodge the attack, so she used the split second opening provided by the Duke drawing his leg up for the kick to slid her sword into the eye slit in the Duke’s helmet. He’d adopted a look that allowed people to see his face, or the Pact Armored reflection it. Stabbing him there did little to actually kill him, but it was an annoyance that he was forced to deal with if he wanted to see the fight clearly.
Dae’s wasn’t in a better position though. When she hit the ground, her armor shattered on impact and it required a fair portion of her reserves to repair the damage kick did to her.
“That was a nice move,” Dae said as she rose from the ground. “If you’d used that and followed up, you could have put the Berserker down without anyone else being injured. But that wasn’t the point was it. You wanted an alibi for the time when the Queen was going to be attacked, and you wanted something to make it seem like the Inchesso assassins hated you.”
“A Berserker is nothing to trifle with,” Telli said. “Everyone saw what a monster that creature was. Even I was hard pressed by it. Do you think me such a fool I would expose myself to that sort of peril on purpose?”
“Yes,” Dae said. “You’re a poor deluded fool who thinks he has any chance of holding onto power still. And who thinks that bringing along the entirety of the Dawn March as backup when there just so happened to be a Berserker ready to ambush us isn’t a sign that he might have known what was lying in wait on the road he lead us all down.”
“Everyone knows that I am diligent in my preparations,” Telli said. “Of course I suspected trouble, and of course I prepared for it.”
“Really? So you always prepare for trouble do you?” Dae asked. “Then why did you flee towards the capital when you heard word of the Queen’s death at the hands of Inchesso assassins rather than towards the border where you could prepare to catch them if they chose to flee, or where you could prepare our defenses if this is to be a prelude to war as you and your Paxmer master plan to tell your fellows?”
The Duke glared at her, and Dae knew she’d scored a hit. The notion of war with Inchesso hadn’t been broached yet, and with what she’d said, any attempt to suggest it would make the rest of her words seem all the more true. If Telli or Halrek pushed for the war they’d so carefully tried to engineer, the nobles who opposed them would use Dae’s words to burn the pair at the stake.
Dae watched as the understanding of that flowed across the Duke’s face.
The next thing she knew she was lying embedded in one of the pillars. The Duke’s rage led him to draw extra power from his Pact spirit making him unimaginably fast. He’d hit her so rapidly that she hadn’t even seen him move.
Blinking, she looked around and saw him stomping slowly towards her. Savoring the final moments before her tore her limb from limb and crushed the life from her body.
With the power that he’d drawn, nothing could stop him. Nothing could even slow him down. Nothing, except for one specific voice.
“Hold! Stop this contest, upon our command!” Queen Alari Gallagrin said from the great doors into the hall.