The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 26

Teo’s flight from the royal castle of Gallagrin was by turns, literal, then figurative, then labored. Even the brightest surge of excitement could only sustain the vampire for so long and there were many leagues that separated Teo from Ren. He didn’t consciously think of the distance though. If he considered the terrain he had to cross, or the impossibility of finding one lost son of nobility in the vastness of Gallagrin’s eastern border, fear and doubt would have crushed Teo’s soul.

With the weariness that ran down into the marrow of his bones, Teo might have welcomed the embrace of true death that despair offered him, but where he’d exhausted all hope for himself, there was still a ferocious beast of will that bit back any thought of surrendering Ren’s future to those who would do the Duke’s second son harm. Most especially including the Duke himself.

A score of miles outside of Highcrest, Teo alighted on the road at a spot where it ran close to a swift clear stream. Vampire or no, he still retained certain human requirements and hydration was one of them. Under the star filled sky and the light of a sickle moon, Teo drank his fill and paused at last to let one relevant thought penetrate his awareness.

He’d sped from the castle and covered more ground than any human, or Pact Soldier, could have with only silence and surety as to his course.

“How do I know where I’m going?” he asked himself.

Neither the night nor the stream offered any answer to the question, but in his breast, Teo felt the pull that he’d been following since he left his audience with the Queen.

“Our bond,” he whispered and imagined that he felt the warmth of Ren’s smile echo in response.

He’d never been parted from Ren by as much physical distance as currently lay between them. For the years that they’d been together, Teo had always had a sense of Ren’s presence but it had felt all encompassing. It was as though Ren wasn’t contained within the limits of his skin, but existed everywhere that his voice could be heard or his influence perceived.

It was only at such a great distance where Teo had no hope of hearing Ren’s words, and could see no sign of ground they walked together over, that he could feel Ren as a distinct and singular entity.

“I guess I really will always know where you are,” Teo said, drinking another handful of water from the stream.

“Or at least what direction you are in.” he amended. Like a compass, Teo’s heart told him the precise direction to face to be looking towards Ren, but how far away his beloved was remained a mystery.

“If you are fleeing your father, then the Inchesso border will be your greatest hope for security,” Teo said, trying to place himself in the mind of a man who should have been an open book to him. “You will have no allies there though so perhaps you will keep to yourself.”

Without consciously deciding to, Teo began walking in the direction of the where Ren lay.

“No allies in Inchesso but possibly some enemies.” Talking to himself was not a habit Teo was accustomed to, but loneliness exacted a harsh price and if a little one-sided conversation would allow him to retain his wits for a while longer, he would gladly embrace the air of madness that came with it.

“Yes, if the enemies of my family were to discover you, they might still see you as a target for their wrath, or at best a tool to wield against your father.”

The prospect of Ren falling into the unmerciful hands of an Inchesso noble family sickened Teo and he quickened his pace. Every country in the Blessed Realms was renowned for different skills and specialities. Numbered among the list of Inchesso’s traits was a unique capacity at “interrogation”. Unlike the less creative sorts of torture which other nations employed, the nobility of Inchesso harbored secret methods that were capable of preserving the life and sanity of their “subjects” far beyond the limits which other countries could take a prisoner too.

“There’s still time,” Teo told himself. “They wouldn’t drag him straight to the confession chamber. Not until they were certain of his connections. And he is smart enough to obfuscate those for a little while at least.”

He thought about Ren matching wits with one of the old serpents who ruled the Inchesso noble families.

“By the Sleeping Gods, let him be clever enough,” Teo whispered and quickened his steps again into a jog.

It was also possible that Ren would pass among the commoners of Inchesso for a time.

“Yes, because he looks just like an Inchesso workman,” Teo said, chiding himself. Even if Ren could darken his tan skin to one of the native hues of the Inchesso people, the bone structure of his cheeks and chin and nose marked the Duke’s son as Gallagrin nobility.

“I am his only hope.”

Teo couldn’t believe that entirely though. Ren was more than a kind and giving man. He hadn’t inherited his father’s heartless malice, but his mind was no stranger to subtlety and of all the members of his family, none had Ren’s depth of intellect.

“He would be outside of his familiar domain if he was called to stand against one of the Inchesso elites, but I must have faith in my Ren,” Teo said. “Those vipers might well discover their fangs turned against their own flesh if they underestimate him.”

A bottomless well of pride offered Teo an additional cup of energy as he continued to put the miles between them behind him.

For a time he ran onwards, wordless, almost thoughtless, his whole being focused on the bright star that called to him. His limits were gossamer suggestions left behind on the floor of the Queen’s chamber, cut away from him by the command to follow his heart to its uttermost desire.

In some corner of his soul, Teo knew that he was burning the last vital reserves of his life. Each inhumanly fast step stole another thread from the skein of his life. Those were easy to sacrifice though. Just put one foot before the other and let hope and fear cooperate to set the pace for him. If he left his blood scattered in his wake then so be it. Blood was not so precious to his heart as preserving the one that it beat for.

He would have run to the far corners of the world in that state if the world hadn’t intervened to deny his progress.

The bar set to block his progress was a literal one. Across a mountain chasm which Teo lacked the strength to soar over some kind people had constructed a bridge. They were likely then pitched into the chasm by the greedier sorts who places a toll on the bridge and staffed it with a half dozen burly thugs who were capable of extorting the allowed fee as well as additional “donations” from passing travelers.

Teo had neither the time nor the funds to spare for such licensed brigands.

“You want to step out of my path,” he said, addressing the wall of meat who stepped casually forward to collect the bribe required for passage.

“You want to hand over your gold and hope you’ve got enough to convince me not to stab you with your own fangs vampire,” the thug said.

In his exhausted state, Teo had no capacity left to disguise his true nature.

“You want to step out of my path, now,” Teo said, fighting to keep his hands by his side.

“No, you don’t get it,” the thug said and jabbed a finger that resembled a fat sausage into Teo’s chest. “I’m not afraid of you. And neither are my boys here. We put monsters like you in the ground all the time.”

“You’ve never met anything like me,” Teo said. “Now step out of my path.”

He had no energy to fight with, and unlike some other bloodlines, slaughtering every one of the extortionists who stood before him wasn’t going to provide Teo with any useful blood to recharge his terminally depleted reserves.

“I’ve met plenty like you,” the lead brigand said and spit on the ground. “And I’ve broken them all.”

Teo looked up at him and saw that the leader must have been a half-breed giant. Though few of the towering folk were citizens of Gallagrin proper, they were still part of the country and held their own estates in the high mountain strongholds which the rest of the people of the nation ceded to them out of a neighborly desire to not aggravate creatures who had no interest living on hospitable terrain and a great interest in reducing encroachers into their domains to a jam-like pulp. Despite that level of surly isolationism, and the questionable physical issues involved, there were still the occasional dalliances between the Giant folk and the other Mindful Races, some of which even produced viable offspring.

None of that concerned Teo though. For him, the half-giant was nothing more than a ball of anger and violence waiting for an excuse to explode. Teo had run into that sort of barrier too often of late and had suffered under similar, if smaller, hands in the alley in Nath. He had no more suffering due on that account, he decided. He’d already paid for his failures and shortcomings and his registers were empty.

“You’re too late then,” Teo said. “I’ve already been broken.”

“Got a lot of lip left in you for somebody who’s broken,” the leader said and shoved Teo, attempting to send him sprawling backwards.

Backwards would have moved Teo father away from Ren though, and that was not going to happen. With a slight shift of his weight, Teo let the force of the half-giant’s push serve to pivot him a quarter turn as the half-giant stepped foward.

“This is your last chance,” Teo said, forcing the words out past waves of agonizing weariness. “Get out of my way.”

The half-giant huffed and grabbed Teo’s tunic with both hands.

“Shouldn’t have tried to play it tough vampire,” the half-giant said and hauled Teo off his feet. “Now we’re going to play guess how many bounces it takes you to reach the bottom.”

Teo looked at the half-giant and tried to see a man in front of him. He tried to see another sapient creature. One who might have a bright future if only he survived this day. One that might be a hero or a friend or a confidant to some person not here, some person who could see a side of the half-giant that Teo would never glimpse.

Teo tried to see the good in the half-giant but he was too spent. The road he’d walked had taken too much from him and all that was left in that moment of incipient violence was the creature that lived down at the base of Teo’s being. It understand violence and it understood need.

Teo needed to reach Ren.

Violence was being offered.

Violence would be given.

Though he wasn’t able to form clear memories of it afterwards, it was still Teo who reached up and shattered the half-giants arms at the elbows. It was Teo who dragged the tall brigand in close and forced the man’s head backwards at a sharp angle.

Teo could derive no sustenance from the blood of one he wasn’t close to, but throats were still an open target for his fangs and there was a primal satisfaction that came with tearing loose the life blood of a deadly enemy.

As the half-giant fell, Teo reeled back as well and the other brigands jumped to their feet.

Teo’s reserves had been non-existent and he’d drawn on them anyways. He’d pushed himself impossibly far, but even doing the impossible wasn’t enough sometimes.

In Teo’s addled and fading mind, the five brigands who assaulted him wore the same faces as the Nath watchmen who beat him in a lonely alley more nights ago than he could recall. Unlike that beating, he struggled against this one, but the results were largely the same.

A pair of the brigands fell before his teeth and claws but the blows of the rest sent him to the ground all too soon.

Looking up at the sickle moon calling him to the east, Teo tried to rise, tried to close the distance to Ren. Even if he had to crawl over the miles, he would do it without complaint he told himself. Another voice, a more sober one, told him that he wasn’t going to crawl anywhere.

Instead of dying in a lonely alley, he was going to die on a lonely road before an uncrossable chasm.

He reached out, knowing it was for the last time, to feel where Ren was, hoping beyond hope that he could feel even an echo of the gentle warmth Ren’s heart always radiated.

For a moment, a cold chill ran through Teo when he wasn’t able to tell which direction Ren lay in. Then he felt the familiar cocoon of comfort settle all around and the first of the remaining brigands fell silently to the ground.

Ren dispatched the two remaining brigands with an ease Teo had never seen the young noble possess.

Of course, Teo had never seen Ren in possession of a suit of Pact armor either.

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