Dae was more than hurt. She was dying. Unfortunately it seemed that the Blighted Legion had medics among their unnatural ranks because they’d repaired just enough of the damage that they’d done to her that she was pretty sure she was going to live long enough for them to get her into a lab somewhere. Once that happened she was certain she wasn’t they’d repair all the damage to make sure she lived. The problem was that she was equally certain that living was going to be immeasurably unpleasant thereafter.
Consciousness faded in and out, as though the nights and days of her life were streaming by a thousand times faster than they should have. Focusing on the present was difficult but with the last scraps of her strength Dae fought to hold the narrative of her life in place, clinging to the hope that she could find some path that remained open to her.
The Gallagrin nobles hadn’t fared well in their battle against the Blighted Legion. Their morale had been tenuous at best and largely based on the ease of the victories they’d won against the Green Council’s regular forces during the battles in Gallagrin. Fighting on their enemies ground had been a far less inspiring experience.
Once the Blighted Legion showed up on the field, the Gallagrin advance had turned into a retreat. They could fight foes of the Legion’s caliber but not forever and the Legion showed no sign of tiring as it continually stole magic and strength from the Gallagrin nobles.
Dae remembered her position being overrun. She remembered trying to fight the Legionnaire that attacked her. She remembered screaming at Kirios that they needed to transform.
But they didn’t.
After that she remembered very little.
Forcing her eyes open, Dae saw that only a little time had passed since her capture. An hour, a week or a year though, to some extent it didn’t matter how long she’d been unconscious, if her magic was lost to her.
In darkness that followed as unconsciousness reclaimed her, a dream came to Dae, sweeping away the present and the pain of battle. With the easy, fluid logic of dreams, decades crumbled and Dae was a girl once again.
“It’s ok if I get sent away,” she said as she brushed Princess Alari’s hair. There were tears in the younger Dae’s eyes, but she kept their echo from appearing in her voice.
“No it’s not,” Alari said. She help herself rigid in the chair, her head bent down rather than looking up into the mirror in front of them, to watch Dae work.
“If the King blames me, then he won’t do anything to you,” Dae said, repeating in the dream the words she’d spoken so long ago that they felt like they belonged to a stranger.
“I don’t care what he does to me!” Alari said, whirling around in her chair to face Dae.
“But I do!” Dae said, meeting the fierceness in the Princess’ gaze with an unyielding determination of her own.
“Adae, he’s not just going to send you away,” Alari said.
“He won’t send me to the chopping block,” Dae said. Even in her dream Dae didn’t remember what their exact crime had been. There were too many things that the Butcher King reacted to with lethal force. It was probably reading from the ever growing list of forbidden tomes. Alari and Dae had long ignored the proscriptions against reading volumes written by “traitors and malcontents” since those tended to be the works that provided the clearest picture of the realm’s history and held the most interesting information on Gallagrin’s neighbors.
“No, he’ll send you to hard labor,” Alari said. “You won’t die in one stroke, but he’ll still kill you. It will just take weeks or months instead.”
“Better me than you!” Dae said.
Alari surged to her feet and shoved Dae backwards.
“Why!” she demanded. “Why is it better that you suffer than I do? He’s my father. What he does is more my fault than yours.”
“That’s insane,” Dae said, not daring to rise from bed she’d tumbled back on. Alari rarely got mad, so seeing her livid was ever so slightly terrifying. “Nothing the King does is your fault. Nothing at all.”
“I benefit from it,” Alari said. “And I’m going to inherit his throne, so if his sins land on anyone, they’re going to land on me.”
“No,” Dae said. “They won’t. What he does is on him. You can’t control him, you can’t stop him, and I don’t know if you can even influence him anymore. That’s why I need to take this punishment.”
“Why are you so determined to die like this?” Alari fought to keep her voice below a scream. “You don’t deserve any of this. You shouldn’t be punished at all! Why won’t you let me protect you?”
Dae met Alari’s eyes. There were things they’d never spoken of, secrets that had never needed words before.
“He might kill you for this,” Dae said, looking away, unable to confront the intensity in Alari’s eyes.
“So what?” Alari said. “Do you think I want to live if it means he kills you in my place?”
“I’m just a servant,” Dae said, her breath clenching in unbearable spasms.
Alari made a strangled squeaking sound and turned away before speaking again.
“Is that it?” she asked. “You want to protect me because I’m a princess, because of my royal blood, because I’m your ruler?”
“No,” Dae said, her voice little more than a whisper but somehow loud enough to fill the Princess’ bed room. “Even if you were stripped of your title, I would still have to protect you.”
“Why?” Alari asked again. “Why protect me? Why can’t you let me do this one thing for you?”
She turned back to Dae and stared with an unflinching gaze despite the tears in her eyes.
Dae swallowed. Blood was thundering in her ears and her mind was swimming in fear and doubt. She knew the truth, but putting it in words, even the three simplest ones, required more courage than she could ever imagine possessing.
“Please, Adae,” Alari said. “Just tell me.”
A moment of silence, silver and serene, stretched out between them as Dae drew in her breath and let the words she’d held back from even herself tumble out.
“I love you.”
“We say that all the time,” Alari said, her expression softening as her breath caught in her throat.”
“I can’t let the king hurt you because I love you,” Dae said. “Not as a friend, not as a princess, not as my ruler. I love you and I think I have for a long time now.”
Alari choked back a sob and put her hand to her mouth.
“I know I have no right to,” Dae said. “I know you can never be free to love me, I know I’m not special enough…”
She was cutoff by by Alari stepping forward and sweeping her into a desperate, passion soaked kiss that neither held back from.
“I love you too,” Alari said when they finally broke apart. “I may not be free to marry as I please, but you have had my heart for years now, and you always will.”
Dae couldn’t fight back her tears and found herself sobbing helplessly against Alari’s chest.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Adae,” Alari said. “I…I never thought you’d need to leave me, and I was never brave enough to hope that you’d stay if I told you how I felt.”
“I don’t ever want to leave you,” Dae said. “But I’m not going to let anyone hurt you, not even your father.”
Alari kissed Dae again, softer this time, not as urgent, but no less electrifying for either of them, and the dream dissolved back into the painful reality of Dae’s present.
The Blighted Legion was carrying her into the Green Council’s realm. Her and several other Gallagrin nobles.
In her pain addled mind she saw the Council’s plans. The best plunder from another realm was it’s magic and, with the Blighted Legion, the Council had the capability of continuously draining the strongest of Gallagrin’s magic from anyone they captured. She and the other nobles would be living wells that the Council would draw magic from at will.
The pain from her shattered body lanced through Dae sending her into a twilight unconsciousness once more.
“Why can’t I transform?” she screamed, though on some level she knew no one could hear her since she was trapped in a dream again.
“It’s not your fault.”
Dae looked up to find her father standing before her, the mists of death rolling away from him.
“Poppa?” she asked, “No, he’s gone. Who are you?”
“I needed a voice you would listen to.”
“Well you picked the wrong one,” Dae said. “I don’t listen to hallucinations.”
“I’m not a hallucination. You know me. And I know why you can’t transform.”
Dae looked closer and saw the spinning stars that filled her father’s eyes.
“Kirios?” she asked.
“Yes, that is the name you have given me,” the Pact Spirit said.
“What the living hell is wrong with you?” Dae was on her feet in the dream and holding the spirit by his shirt. “They need us. Transform me.”
“I cannot,” Kirios said and lightning crackled over his body. “I thought things would change after our battle against Haldraxan, that we could return to how we were, but I see now, through you, how impossible that is.”
“What do you mean?” Dae asked “What’s changed? Are you injured?”
“No,” Kirios said. “I can’t be injured, at least not as you conceive it.”
“It’s me then?” Dae asked, sparks dripping from her fingers. Fear tried to grip her stomach but she pushed it away, acknowledging that it was present but refusing to listen to it.
“You aren’t injured either,” Kirios said. “You’ve grown.”
“And that cost me your magic?” Dae asked, her anger came out as bolts of golden lightning that struck the ground at Kirios’ feet.
“Yes,” Kirios said. “You know the power we invoke when we transform into our merged state and you know the danger that lies in it.”
“Yeah, without our bonds the magic would overwhelm me and I’d go berserk,” Dae said. “But our bonds are strong, maybe stronger than anyone’s except Alari.”
“We have worked together well within them,” Kirios said, playing with the lightning that swirled around him and forming it into scenes from their shared past. “And I have learned so much from you.”
“We’re not done yet!” Dae said, lightning surging from her in vicious arcs. “Alari needs us! They all need us! I’m not going to become an experimental carcass in a Council lab somewhere. I have to save them. I have to save her!”
“I can’t give you anymore magic,” Kirios said, closing his hand and banishing the sparks that flew around him. “As much as I want to, as dear as you have made the Queen to me, I can’t give you the power to transform.”
“Why? What’s wrong with me?” Dae asked.
“You’ve outgrown our bonds,” Kirios said. “There is no fear left in you that can constrain the magic I could provide. If you call on me, and I don’t refuse, we will both be lost in a flood of magic.”
“I’ll go berserk?” Dae asked. “After I resisted Haldraxan, you’re saying if I try to transform again, I’ll wind up as a mindless Berserker?”
“No,” Kirios said. “I’m saying that if I give you magic the only thing left of either of us will be a mindless berserker. You won’t be part of it at all.”
“They’re taking us into the Green Council’s realm,” Dae said. “Even if we’re mindless, as a Berserker we could do enough damage to turn things around.”
“You would destroy yourself?” Kirios asked.
“You’ve been with me through my darkest hours,” Dae said. “You already know the answer to that.”
“You would destroy me too?” Kirios asked.
“You’re a spirit, I thought you couldn’t be destroyed?” Dae said.
“Most spirits can retain their core inside the maelstrom of a Berserker,” Kirios said. “But few Pact Knights have your prowess. Nothing of either of us would survive your Berserker.”
“Then I’m going to have to avoid becoming a Berserker,” Dae said.
“Thank you,” Kirios said.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Dae said. “I’m not giving up.”
“Without the magic I could give you, what is else left?” Kirios asked.
“I am,” Dae said and held up her hand that was blazing with a storm of lightning brighter than the sun.