The Queen’s command shook the hall, cracking the stones at her feet and quelling all other sounds. Dae had never heard Alari speak with that sort of power. She wasn’t sure anything human could speak that way.
“By what right is a trial held on my domain? And who dares to work violence upon one of mine?” the Queen asked.
Dae turned to look on her oldest and best friend and saw a woman wholly transformed from the one she knew.
Alari floated, wrapped in the translucent arms and bodies of a trio of river sprites. Her arms and legs bent in places they shouldn’t and didn’t seem to move with any purpose or will behind them. The Queen was dressed in no more than her bedding gowns which floated voluminously around her, whipping about in the current of the river sprite’s liquid bodies. Despite her damaged frame and lack of regal attire, the fire that burned behind the Queen’s eyes proclaimed her majesty and authority.
The creature who stood at the door to the hallway was dangerous and powerful. For Dae the question of whether anything remained of the woman she’d known was an unanswered one though. Halrek saw that opening too and launched the only arrow in his quiver that could give him a fighting chance.
“What manner of foul spirit is this, to come calling at the Royal Hall and claim dominion!” he said, rising from the throne to stand at the full height of his power. “It wears the semblance of our lost Queen, but we will allow no trickster wraith to dishonor her memory or abuse her good name!”
“Still your tongue betrayer,” the Queen said. “Your time draws nigh, but as your escape is impossible, you will wait upon your fate with the craven mouse’s heart that beats in your chest. We have more important matters to attend to.”
The Queen began to float down the processional path, her river sprite guardians carrying her more gently that even the smoothest carriage could managed.
“You have chosen an ill moment to appear fiend,” Duke Telli said, joining in on Halrek’s assault on the Queen’s identity as the one chance they had for emerging from the encounter without admitting to their guilt in her death.
“Tel,” the Queen said, fixing him in place with the force of her displeasure. “Your house is forfeit. Your lands, your wealth, all you have and all you are will be ground into dust and mixed with the offal of your domain. Continue to stand against us and and you will lose even that portion of our mercy.”
“I am sworn to this realm,” Telli said. “You hold no sway here, dead one. Turn back to your grave and abandon this false seeming you wear, or we shall turn the assembled might of Gallagrin’s nobility loose upon you.”
Dae blinked at that. From Alari’s state is was clear that she didn’t control the full power of the Gallagrin Pact Spirit. Dae had accused Halrek of putting the pact into a contested state to weaken the Queen enough to kill her, and the proof of her claim was clear to all to see. Halrek and Telli had supporters among the nobles, many supporters, or they wouldn’t have risked such a dangerous play as assassinating the Queen. That meant some portion of the room would be willing to help them strike down the Queen directly if they could be given enough of a cover story to claim that they were acting for the good and safety of the realm.
“A mantle of lies covers this room,” the Queen said. “And we see an arena has already been formed to prove them out. We will let this trial play forward, on one condition.”
She turned to face Dae, and Dae saw a wave of relief wash over the Queen’s face. For just a moment, Alari smiled out at her, real joy beaming from her eyes, before the mask and mantle of royal duty settled on the royal shoulders again.
“Will you continue this struggle? May I still call on you?” Alari asked.
Something hard and sharp seized Dae’s throat and she wasn’t able to make a sound in response so she nodded wordlessly.
“Then rise my champion,” Alari said. “I name you Queen’s Knight Prime, Daelynne Akorli.”
Dae’s breath caught and the sound of her own name echoed in her ears like a hurricane.
For six years she’d been Daelynne Kor, but she’d worn a different name at Star’s Watch. Three syllables to her surname before she’d broken and her name fractured to pieces along with her place in the world.
She’d held onto ‘Kor’ in memory of her lost family. It was the piece of her history that she could never run away from. She would always be a daughter of the house of Kor. Always the last scion of a disgraced and murdered family, her father one of the Butcher King’s many victims. No matter what height she ascended to or what depths claimed her, she would never be free of the shadow of the ancestors who came before her.
The suffix ‘li’ was an honor she’d never dreamed of reclaiming. It was the mark of Gallagrin nobility. The Duke of Tel being Duke Telli, the Queen’s Chief Justice being Duke Genli. For a commoner to appended that syllable to their name was to court a death sentence delivered on the spot by any member of the nobility who caught them in the ruse of pretending to be above their station.
Of all the pieces of her name though, it was the simple ‘A’ prefix that stole Dae’s breath away. The official definition for the ‘A’ prefix was as a signifier reserved for those in direct service to the kingdom’s sovereign. The Queen’s Guard were all directly under her control but they didn’t merit an ‘A’ prefix. That was given to those whom the sovereign placed their greatest trust in, which spoke to the ancient etymology of the prefix.
Before Gallagrin was ruled by a mortal sovereign, before the Sleeping Gods fell into their deathless slumber, those the gods chose to exalt were named with the ‘A’ prefix. Divine exaltation was granted only to a special sort of mortal, chosen for one quality alone, their closeness to the god’s heart, and so they were more commonly known as “The Beloved”.
Struggling to breathe, Dae looked at the Queen and saw Alari’s fierce pride in her. Alari had taken to calling her by various names years before any of special name had ever been made official for Dae, but looking back, Dae saw that that every one of Alari’s nicknames for her had always begun with that ‘A’ and that it had always been heartfelt. Even after the battle of Star’s Watch, even after Dae had cast herself away from Alari in humiliation and pain, the lonely Queen had called to her one last time and wished her ‘Adae’ well on her chosen path.
Six years, and the Queen had never abandoned her champion, her knight.
“Cast off those common arms and don the raiment of the one closest to our heart,” the Queen said and Dae felt Kirios shift as the bonds that stifled him into a commoner’s spirit fell away.
From the cracked and ruined pillar, she rose, light pouring from her eyes, her fingers and then radiating from every inch of her skin.
The armor that Kirios called forth was formed of brilliant white plates rimmed with silver and gold trim. It hung on her like gossamer but promised the sturdiness of unbreakable steel. Along every edge and across every surface, tiny, almost invisible, glyphs and images were etched into the armor. Names Alari had given Dae and reminders of the thousand occasions they had shared. On Dae’s shoulders a long cape settled, bearing the personal symbol of the Queen and on her faceless helm rested a laurel crown with wings of brightest silver-steel.
The Duke didn’t make the mistake of attacking Dae during her transformation again, though the end result wasn’t terribly different.
“So you have a pretty new set of dress ups,” he said. “Stand forth and be cut down you slanderous, cowardly…”
He never finished his taunt. Rather than letting Telli spew his verbal abuse, Dae sliced off his left arm and stabbed him through the chest. No one in the room, not even Telli, saw her move.
“You…” he sputtered as he fell back from her attack but he wasn’t able to finish that sentence either. Before he could get a second word out, Dae smashed his face so hard with her mailed fist that his conjured body lost the ability to create any form of coherent speech.
“You wanted to make this a test of might,” she said and kicked him in the chest, withdrawing her blade as Telli flew backwards into the side of the small arena. “Kind of a mistake on your part.”
Telli stood, his Pact Spirit restoring the monstrous damage Dae inflicted on him.
“You can’t…” he tried to say but Dae crossed the distance between them and laid a steel crushing blow into his solar plexus before he could speak.
“I can,” she said and shattered his face again with a rising knee strike as he was bent over from the hit to his chest. “Admit your sins and plead for mercy and I will ask the Queen to chose your fate. Otherwise you’re all mine.”
There was a surge of light from the Duke’s fallen, pain wracked form, and as the light twisted into sickly shades of red and purple, the former Duke’s answer arose in a wordless, mindless howl.
Where the Duke had fallen dressed in the Regal Arms of House Tel, a creature clad only in a nightmare of steel and flesh rose to take his place.
“You should have asked for mercy,” Dae said, her fear of the Berserker before her drowning in the wave of joy that carried her higher than the highest peak in Gallagrin.
The battle that followed painted the arena in blood, but none of it was Dae’s.
The two combatants were far beyond the ability of anyone else in chamber to follow in terms of the blows exchanged. To the observers there was a moment of calm, followed by the roar of the Berserker that had once been the Duke of Tel, followed by the roar of blows being thrown faster than the eye could perceive, followed by the terrible shriek of the Berserker reaching the limits of its magic and reverting to the vulnerable mortal form of the Duke which Dae destroyed in a shower of gore that left no question as to whether the Duke could recover, regardless of the magical healing provided or any hidden reserves he might have possessed.
“Only a Berserker could fight another Berserker like that,” Halrek said. “Stand true sons of Gallagrin! We will not fall to sorcery and deception!”
Dae looked to Alari for permission to act, which the Queen gave with a small nod.
“Two fearsome demons are no match for…” Halrek tried to say but he found it hard to complete his sentence with Dae’s hurled sword buried through his chest and the tall throne behind him.
“You can’t strike me down, I am the heir to Gallagrin!” Halrek said.
“I thought you couldn’t use Pact Magic,” Dae said, noting the Consort-King’s continued life in the face of what should have been a mortal wound. “That’s why you wouldn’t fight me.”
She leapt the distance from the floor of the blood soaked arena to land beside the Consort-King.
“I am blessed by Gallagrin,” Halrek said. “This is proof that I am your King!”
Dae drew her sword from his chest, freeing Halrek to fall onto his throne. With a single swipe she cut through his royal tunic and then reached inside his shirt to draw forth the fragment of an ancient stone tablet.
“And here’s proof that you’re not,” Dae said. “The missing piece of the Gallagrin Pact Spirit’s name.”
She held the tablet fragment aloft and saw recognition flare in the eyes of many of the older nobles. In Halrek’s eyes though there was only absolute terror. The tablet piece had granted him a portion of the Gallagrin Pact Spirit’s power and allowed him to contest Alari’s control of it. Without that, he was bereft any magics to call on or any means to prevent the Queen from reclaiming her full capabilities.
“My Knight,” the Queen said. “You made me a promise once. You spoke to what would happen to anyone who would dare visit harm upon me.”
Dae thought back to her words as young girl when she’d first declared herself Alari’s protector. It was the silly, thoughtless kind of boast of a child who knew no better. The kind of thing an adult would lose the conviction to follow through on in the face of the complexities of life.
Dae looked at the Consort-King. He was royalty in both Gallagrin and Paxmer. He had many allies and was loved by much of the kingdom. He and those who supported him would strike back powerfully for actions taken against him.
But he had hurt Alari.
Dae’s only regret was that the back of the throne hit the floor before Halrek’s head did.