The volley of arrow the shadow archers fired wasn’t enough to block out the sun. The summoner who called them was powerful, but even still there were limits to how many avatars they could manifest at any one time. Dae took that as a good sign. After she defeated one of their members, she wasn’t sure how the Denarius Consortium would react, or the kind of resources they would have to bring to bear.
From the reports she’d gleaned of the Duke’s celebration of the Royal Unification Gala, the Consortium had been composed of six “merchants” plus an equal number of “attendants” and a like number of hanger-ons such as Lorenzo. That made them one of the smaller parties invited to the affair, but by virtue of being foreigners, they stood out.
Dae was able to obtain testimony from a number of different party goers affirming that the Consortium claimed it was a newly formed business enterprise and that this was the members first time visiting Gallagrin. More than one of the guests reported a sense of unease at being in a Consortium member’s presence, and that the “merchants” seemed less interested in mingling and discussing business than they were with determining what activities their fellow Inchesso countrymen were involved in.
That wasn’t damning evidence by itself. All nations in the Blessed Realms relied on spies to one extent or another. Inchesso in particular was known for cultivating a rich intelligence gathering network. Its neighbors didn’t object much as the primary goal of Inchesso’s espionage efforts seemed to be spying on itself.
Gallagrin had a long history of internecine struggles between its nobles, but despite having hosted a full blown civil war six years prior, it was still a model of trust and camaraderie compared to its neighbor to the east. For Inchesso it wasn’t a question of whether a particular noble family had a blood feud with another family, but rather a which blood feud they felt like using to justify whatever act of betrayal they had planned at any given moment.
It never made sense to Dae how a country could sustain itself under that level of internal pressure, and to some extent Inchesso wasn’t sustaining itself. Once the most powerful of all the nations in the Blessed Realm, Inchesso’s influence had been shrinking for centuries as the blood of nobleman and commoner alike ran into the gutters and out to the Red Coast.
Inchesso’s decline was slower than its history suggested though, which told Dae there were powers at work within the country. Powers that shaped which feuds were carried through to bloodshed and which merely lead to unpleasant dinner conversations.
Whatever the goal of those powers were, Dae guessed they didn’t involve supporting the Denarius Consortium. If they had, if Lorenzo’s murder was carried out by a party with the support from whatever cabal actually ruled Inchesso, then they would have had much better resources to throw again two Pact Warriors than a single summoner.
Dae pondered that and watched as the arrow storm drifted towards her, their flight slowed to the pace of leaves falling on a windless day.
People who were unfamiliar with Pact Warriors tended to assume that the time they spent transforming was when they were at their most vulnerable. People who tried to take advantage of “opening” usually did not have a chance to learn from their mistakes.
Kirios, Dae’s pact spirit, had waited, patient as only something ageless can be, when Dae called him up. He sat on her shoulders as an invisible, insubstantial mantle of power. The moment she released him though that power unfurled.
Light flared out from Dae, radiating from eyes and mouth and chest and hands and legs. It was the energy of the pact spirit’s incarnation, a tiny fraction of the magic is brought into the world, radiating away. Kirios missed it less than Dae missed the road dust that she kicked off her cloak each night when she got home.
In the moment of transition, Kirios was the most fully at his peak. His power was released into the material world and the constraints of the Pact were, for the brief instant of the transformation, not yet fully binding.
The arrows in flight drew bolts of golden lightning which arced from arrow to arrow and then back to the archers that fired them. Nothing the lightning touched survived.
Dae had no say in that, and had to struggle harder to complete the transformation. If Kirios’ power was allowed to run out of control her attackers would certainly be destroyed but a worse fate than that awaited her.
Gritting her teeth, Dae forced the light streaming from her to coalesce into the rigid metal plates and mail of her armor. It wasn’t the armor she’d designed during her Pact Binding ceremony. That was lost to her. Lost with the fall of Star’s Watch.
In its place, she wore the mail of a commoner. It was armor devoid of any ornamentation or augmentation, just like her surname, and so it suited her. Ugly but functional. It was as much as she could aspire to but the gauntlet’s still felt subtly wrong when she looked at them, like they were incomplete.
Beside her, Dae watched as Kael transformed as well. His transformation was more theatrical than her own. Each piece of his armor materialized separately, slamming into place with a crashing, metallic, thud. To the uninitiated, it looked much stronger and more forceful than Dae’s since they could see the weight and power of each element of Javan’s attire. The extended duration of the transformation was a liability and a crutch in Dae’s eyes though.
By taking more time to transform, Kael was able to bind each piece of armor more easily. Novices pact binders performed the basic armor manifestation spells over a period of hours, working slowly to build their control of the magics in simple, clear stages. As their skills improved, the pact binders learned to accelerate the process, weaving multiple threads of control around their spirit’s power at once. The most skilled transformations were performed with little fanfare or displays of power at all, but Dae didn’t strive for that either. Too much care in transforming was a waste of time, but allowing the change to be visible and clear was useful on its own. More fights were won on the psychological battleground than by actual force of arms in her experience.
“What in the Holy Goat’s hairy butt was that?” Kael asked as his transformation completed. Above them, the archers that had been disintegrated by Dae’s lightning riposte reformed from the smoky clouds they’d been blown into.
“An ambush,” Dae said. “Topside now, unless you want to play pincushion down here.”
As though they’d practiced it, the two Pact Warriors leapt two stories into the air to land on the roofs of the buildings on the opposite sides of the alley where the shadow archers were firing at them from.
A swipe from Dae’s blade as she landed split the two nearest archers in half. Though they only appeared to be composed of dark smoke, cutting through them was like hacking trees in half. Fortunately for Dae, Kirios was more than capable of felling trees or shadow archers in a single blow. Unfortunately, the shadow archers were more than capable of reforming when their bodies were destroyed.
Parrying another volley of arrows from archers on the other side of the roof, she looked around to get a sense of the forces set against them. The odds weren’t grim, not with Kael drawing the attention of the archers on the southern building, but thinning the opposition’s numbers wasn’t looking like a promising option either.
“Why aren’t these things staying dead?” Kael asked, shouting from one building to the other.
“Summoner’s got to be nearby,” Dae said. “Must be resummoning as we drop them.”
An arrow clipped her directly between the shoulder blades. Kirios stopped the thorny bolt from penetrating her torso, but she felt his protection fade slightly in exchange for that. Two more shots hit her. One clipped her shoulder but lost its force to the curve of the plating there. The other struck her dead center on the side of the thigh. Kirios shielded her from that blow as well, but another drop of his secured power vanished in turn.
Dae leapt thirty feet, from the side of the building she was on, to the opposite corner and sliced through the trio of summoned archers who had landed blows on her. From the center of the roof another trio of attackers materialized though and plinked away still more of Kirios protection.
“This isn’t going to go well if we can’t make some headway,” Kael shouted as though Dae was unfamiliar with the limitation a Pact Warrior fought under.
The phenomenal power offered by a Pact spirit came with a price. Once the transformation was complete, the spirit placed as much of its power into the armor and weapons as the Pact Warrior could hold. That was far from the full amount of magic the spirit truly possessed though. As a Pact Warrior’s available magic ran down they had two options. The sensible one was to withdraw from battle, before the transformation ran out of magic and the protection granted by the spirit wore off.
The second option was to call on more of the spirit’s power. More Pact Warriors died attempting that than were ever killed directly by their enemies. The mildest form of failure was that the Pact Warrior’s call for magic would be unanswered and they would revert to their purely mortal form immediately. The more common failure mode was that the power would be given, but it would burn the warrior from the inside as they failed to control it. Occasionally the magic fire would be explosive enough to also take out their opponents, which was seen as at least a partial victory by some.
In the worst case though, the warrior would get the power they called for, but rather than the warrior controlling it, the raw, mindless, destructive force would control them. The resulting creature would often undergo a second transformation and would become a true monster. More than one grand battle had been called to a temporary and immediate truce when a failing Pact Warrior turned berserker and began slaughtering everything on the battlefield.
“Find the summoner and we can finish this,” Dae shouted back to Kael.
The problem with that strategy was that summoners knew they were the weak link of their forces and, as a result, learned to hide themselves well if they planned to live beyond their first battle.
The other problem with looking for the summoner was that they had the resources to keep Dae distracted. Resources in the form of a fresh horde of the shadow archers materializing to supplement the first group.
“Getting busier every second here,” Kael said, dispatching an archer with a series of five strokes that rendered it into well dispersed pieces. Behind him, two more archers materialized, launching arrows as they did so.
“Head to the ground, see if he’s hiding out there!” Dae said. Technically it wasn’t her place to issue orders to Kael. He outranked her. That was in theory. In practice though Kael was more than happy to get off the rooftop and dropped over the side and to the alley below without a word of backtalk.
He wasn’t going to find anything. Dae knew that. For the summoner to be calling in the unending stream of archers, they had to be somewhere which offered visibility to the rooftops. That limited the possibilities tremendously. There were only two buildings that were close enough and had the proper view of the roofs Dae had chosen to stage the fight near.
If she wanted to place the obvious bet, Dae would have picked the Casbel Grain warehouse as the spot where the summoner was. It was accessible, and it was slightly closer (which made for easier spell casting) and it offered multiple avenues of escape. A smart summoner would be hiding there with a small army of summons waiting in the wings in case anyone found them.
While Dae didn’t doubt her adversary’s intelligence, she was also reasonably sure they weren’t on the Casbel Grain warehouse.
Around her, the horde of archers swelled faster than Dae was taking them down. More and more arrows pounded through her defenses, chipping away bigger and bigger chunks of the Kirios’ magic.
Unleashing a burst of speed that surpassed sight, she flew to three corners of the roof and struck down the groups there before collapsing to one knee, panting.
As she caught her breath, the archers reformed and she sprang at them again. And again. And again.
A shot from one of the bows landed and shattered her shoulder guard. She downed the archer responsible and another arrow fractured a section of armor at her hip.
With one last rush, she cleared all of the archers from the roof and collapsed, gasping for breath. It took a long moment, but not as long as Dae getting her breath back, before a small contingent of archers reformed.
Dae rose unsteadily but as she did her armor fell away from her and arrow after arrow thunked into her chest, transfixing her like a target dummy.
As she fell to the roof, Dae forced a smile off her face. Everything was going right according to plan.