Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 7

There are times when people make innocent, harmless mistakes which nonetheless cost them their lives. Trying to appear at Dae’s side in a nonchalant manner was nearly such an error in judgement on Teo’s part. Dae released a long slow breath, grateful for the warning Kirios had provided her. Without that she would have acted on reflex, and an unthinking response from a Pact Warrior could have lethal consequences.

“Hello Teo,” she said, keeping her voice neutral. “Why are you here?”

The continued to walk forward, passing through the crowded streets without drawing much interest from the people of Nath who scurried around them to errands and chores and the business of everyday life. In Dae’s case that was because her cloak covered all of the Dawn March heraldry she wore. As far as anyone in the crowds was concerned she was just another brown figure in a sea of brown and grey and green cloaks. Perhaps noticeably shorter than most humans and nearly a halfling when compared to the elves around her, but that made her even less of a concern to them.

Teo would have stood out more. He was tall and lean and handsome. And also a vampire. In particular point of fact, a starving vampire, so that his skin was drawn in and his eyes were solid red pools with throbbing lines of blood radiating from them like a spider web mask. People didn’t pay others much attention in Nath, but hungry predators garner interest no matter where they might be. Unless, of course, their features are concealed behind the sort of half-mask which nobles tend to employ when they need to venture out in the morning sunlight while bearing a terrible hangover. The wide brimmed hat Teo wore, to further shield himself from the day’s bright and clear rays, also served the dual purposes of practicality and camouflage. Beyond disguising him and reducing his exposure, it allowed him to blend in with the crowd easily as the look had caught on in Nath after His Grace the Duke Telli was seen favoring the broad and shady head coverings following his return from a trip to Paxmer and Inchesso.

“You’ve been to the castle,” Teo said. “Have a nice chat with the Duke?”

“No,” Dae said and stepped out into the road to move around a group of customers at a sidewalk sweets stall. The aroma of freshly ground monberry tugged at her, but her steps didn’t waver. The hot beverage smelled so delicious and yet tasted like rat vomit to her. People swore by its effects but the vile black goop held no allure for her beyond its damnable scent.

“That’s a shame,” Teo said. “I’m sure he found it stimulating.”

“Why were you following me Teo?” Dae asked. They were still a significant distance from the barracks. That complicated Dae’s desire to drag the vampire into a holding cell by his ears and shake him until he gave her the straight answers he clearly possessed.

“I wasn’t,” Teo said. For the day being a bright and sunny one, he was still moving well and able to keep up with her, despite Dae quickening her pace. “I was following the man who was following you.”

Dae felt her blood warm and the ghost of an old smile dance along her lips. She hadn’t expected the players to start moving so quickly, but then they’d already claimed their first victim, so the game was well along and it seemed she was the one who running slow still.

“And why were you following him?” Dae asked. She checked with Kirios but her spirit offered no sense of someone else observing them. Dae knew her Pact’s limitations though. She was not a bloodhound or a spy. Kirios could alert her to potential dangers, sometimes, but he was not infallible or preternaturally observant.

“Because I don’t trust him,” Teo said. “Or the company which he travels with.”

“And you’re telling me this because?” Dae asked. The crowds were denser along Riverman’s Road, which offered a chance to shake off anyone who was following her, but Dae held to the main thoroughfare. The Riverman’s Road was a terrible place for a battle, and Dae held a faint hope that Teo’s pursuer might prove to be both real and stupid enough to attack her before she reached the Dawn March barracks. She could learn so very much from someone who made that sort of mistake.

“Because no one followed you into the castle but someone followed you out, and they weren’t watching for me or anyone else who was following you,” Teo said.

Meaning the person who followed her from the castle wasn’t a guard or an unseen wingman.

“Where did you lose sight of them?” Dae asked.

“On top of the Chapel of the Green Mother,” Teo said.

“Were you both traveling by rooftop?” Dae asked.

“Yes,” Teo answered and split away from her to allow a mule and the wagon behind it to pass in the opposite direction. Dae kept her attention focused forward but she felt a pang that Teo wouldn’t rejoin her at the other side of the train of mule carts. If someone was working against her, they couldn’t afford to allow her any access to information and taking Teo out immediately would be the smartest play they could make.

Paranoia sounded could make her think things like that, but Dae felt a sense of calm that didn’t normally co-exist with with unreasoning fear. She’d been absorbing details and information since Javan dragged her out of her apartment and in the back of her mind small pieces were falling into place. It wasn’t accurate to say that gave her a picture of what was going on, more that she could see the outlines of the board the events were occurring on.

She walked forward, letting her awareness drift outwards and taking in as much as she could while one heavily laden cart after another passed her by, heading back towards the castle to restock the party deleted larders therein.

By her side Lorenzo Lialarus walked, if not in body or ectoplasmic ghostly form, then as a quieter sort of spirit. Through the small elements of his life and death, Dae felt the Inchesso prince speaking to her, helping her unravel the mystery that his passing left behind.

Hours in the water does hideous things to a body. So do knife wounds to the throat. More importantly though, Lorenzo said, neither was the result of impetuous action.

If the boy had angered someone enough to kill him in a fit of rage he would bear one or more stab wounds. That’s what people with sharp weapons did when their blood was boiling. The Dawn March chirurgeon would be able to tell her for certain, but Dae hadn’t seen signs of puncture wounds on Lorenzo’s body when castle workers pulled it from the moat.

The wound to the neck was singular and deep. The kind of cut that someone makes when they are very sure of what they are doing. A skilled fencer could manage a slice like that in certain circumstances, but the most likely explanation was that Lorenzo’s murderer had been able to get into position near the boy either via stealth or because the Inchesso prince had lacked any reason to suspect an attack.

A hand over the mouth, a blade drawn rapidly across an exposed neck, and Lorenzo could have been dead before he was even aware he was in danger. Dae hoped that was the case. Better that he perish at the hands of an expert than to endure the pain and terror of a fumbling attempt on his life which ultimately succeeded.

It would be impossible to know how quickly the work was done, only Lorenzo’s ghost and the one who held the blade could tell that tale, but there was another part to the story that might still be revealed; where the murder had taken place.

Lorenzo would have had no reason to venture outside into the storm wracked castle grounds. Not on a night of lively dancing and music. Even a brief trip out into the tempest would have left his clothes unsuitable for further merriment. By the same token however, he must have left the party at some point as, drunk though they might have been, the revelers would have noticed a sudden arterial spray in the midst.

If all had gone according to a usual festival plan, the boy would have departed the castle with the entourage he arrived with, the Denarius Consortium. They might tell any number of stories as to the boy’s fate. As his sponsors for the event there were only a few that might excuse them from responsibility for the prince’s demise.

Dae assumed they would try for a story that the boy had not left with them at all but had been beguiled by a Gallagrin noble woman and had left in her company instead. The request of a Gallagrin noble would be outside the scope of a foreign merchant company to refuse or contest and many judges would have sympathy for the lurid subtext of sending a young boy off with an experienced woman.

Whatever story the Denarius Consortium told though, their connection to Lorenzo was a thread to tease and pull on until the truth was revealed. Dae didn’t know if the Consortium held the boy’s murderer but she was certain they were connected to the matter somehow. What she needed was as many threads of information as she could find to help trip them up in the little lies they would feel compelled to tell.

“My apologies,” Teo said, rejoining her as the last of the mule carts passed. “There are so many about this morning that unimpeded traffic is difficult.”

“But you didn’t fly away,” Dae said  glancing over and catching his gaze. “That’s good.”

Teo’s eyes widened and his stride took him an extra inch or two away from her, the sort of positioning one might adopt if running away seemed unexpectedly called for but might also provoke a dangerous creature into giving chase.

“There is an unkindness in your eyes,” Teo said, looking resolutely ahead.

“That’s because I’m thinking unkind thoughts,” Dae said. She didn’t need to scare Teo, but she hoped her honesty might shake him out of his need to be cryptic and mysterious.

“Having seen what you’re unkindness can do, I find myself unsettled,” Teo said.

“Last night I was in a forgiving mood,” Dae said. “You haven’t seen me be unkind yet.”

“Perhaps that will be called for before this is over,” Teo said. “I merely hope that your ire will be well focused when directed at those who are deserving of it.”

“That’s a nice thing to hope for,” Dae said and changed course, leading them down a narrow alley which ran perpendicular to the road towards the barracks.

“I’m not sure this is safe,” Teo said. “I lost the man who was following you, but I cannot say that he was alone.”

“I hope he wasn’t,” Dae said. “But it’s looking like I might be disappointed.”

“Disappointed in what?” Teo asked.

“In you? In the person following me? Who’s to say,” Dae stopped and blocked Teo’s progress in the alley.

“What are we doing here?” Teo asked.

“We need somewhere to talk and before we do that, I need to know how you’re connected to all this,” Dae said.

“And so you chose this place to question me?” Teo asked.

“Look at the walls here,” Dae said. “What do you notice?”

“They are brick,” Teo said.

“Yes, and what don’t they have?” Dae asked.

“Oh, I see,” Teo said. “No windows, so no one can listen to us easily.”

“Also the roofs are high enough that someone perched above won’t hear us over the din of the street traffic,” Dae said.

“How do you know?” Teo asked.

“Because I’ve trailed people to this alley before and tried to eavesdrop on them and it was miserable,” Dae said. “But that’s not important. What I need to know is why were you in the Low Quarter last night?”

“I was searching for some men,” Teo said.

“And you found some, but not the ones you were looking for,” Dae said.

“This is true,” Teo said. “The ones I was looking for were foreigners from Inchesso. Dressed as merchants, but they were not.”

“And why were you looking for them?” Dae asked.

“Because they were dangerous and they seemed intent on bringing that danger to the Duke’s court,” Teo said.

Dae considered that for a long moment. Did she have any specific reason to trust the vampire aside from her instincts? Maybe. The beating he’d taken had been real and he still bore the signs of it. Of all the people in the city, he was the one person who couldn’t have killed Lorenzo.

“Why didn’t you warn the Duke of them directly?” Dae asked. “Or speak to the guard captain at least.”

“I am known to the Duke,” Lorenzo said, looking away from her. “He bears no love for me, though that is due to my own folly.”

“How did you offend His Grace?” Dae asked.

“Rendolan, his second son,” the words were slow to come, as though they had to cross a vast divide to reach Teo’s lips.

“I hadn’t heard of any trouble with Duke’s children?” Dae asked.

“Trouble comes in many forms,” Teo said. “Ren is my…was my…I am bound to him.”

“Bound to him?” Dae asked. Her lessons in vampires were sketchy enough that she couldn’t be certain that she knew exactly what he meant, and with magicked creatures it was never wise to be anything less than perfectly clear with meanings.

“When you offered to let me take your blood,” Teo said. “I couldn’t. I can only share in his life.”

The vampire looks up and though his eyes were the pure crimson lakes, Dae saw not hunger but fear and hope mingled there.

“So long as he keeps my heart.”

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 6

While the noble family connected to a castle might differ from other families, there were similar patterns that played out in the day to day running of any such fortress which Dae found comforting. In the wake of the Royal Celebration, the staff of Castle Nath was working at a rapid pace, cleaning up and restocking to return things to a semblance of their normal mode of operation.

Years, or a lifetime ago, Dae had loved the lazy, slow day the aftermath of a grand feast brought. With the excitement of the feast passed, the nobility could enjoy a brief serenity after days of hussle and bussle. The staff did not have that luxury though. The meals still needed to be made, the rooms still needed to be cleaned, and so cooks chopped and skinned and sliced and cleaners swept and washed and dusted.

With their near ubiquitous presence, any of the castle’s personnel might have been able to recognize the dead boy, and a large fraction of those could probably put a name to his face as well. The number who would admit that however was much smaller. Officially, the staff had no presence or interaction with the nobles or their guests outside of a few very specific roles the staff could play. To question them directly about one of the guests would be to pull them into a dangerous arena where anyone who was unhappy with their testimony was likely to be able to silence them without any real effort.

Being unable, or at least unwilling, to question the staff however did not mean Dae couldn’t observe them as she walked through the castle. The chamberlain had bid her to meet him at his office, an area she had yet to visit in her previous trips to the castle. While the chamberlain had provided clear directions, Dae found it enlightening to delay her arrival and get a bit lost inside the noble environs. With her Dawn March heraldry clearly visible, all she needed to do was walk as though heading somewhere purposefully and no one questioned her passing.

In her travels through the grand structure of Castle Nath, she observed a pensive air that hung around everyone from the groundskeepers to the candle tenders to the laundry women. People were quieter than they should have been. The feast would certainly have left everyone exhausted but in Dae’s experience that didn’t breed silence so much as grumbling and grousing.

Mulling it over, Dae didn’t think that even the murder would explain the behavior in question. Whoever found the body was likely horrified but for the rest of the castle, the dead boy wasn’t someone they would have had a deep personal connection with. Secrets lurked in Castle Nath, but then that was true of all castles. The question on Dae’s mind was whether she needed to care about those secrets, or whether she could leave the castle and its inhabitants to resolve them on their own.

She entered the chamberlain’s office with that thought occupying her attention only to discover that the chamberlain wasn’t the one waiting for her. In his place, Duke Telli, the lord of the castle, sat reading through the ledgers on the chamberlain’s desk. He looked up when she entered and favored her with a nod of acceptance as to her presence in the room. Dae offered the nobleman a smile return, though it was a grin driven by the thought of how mad Javan would be to learn that she was speaking to the Duke more than any genuine pleasure at seeing the man himself.

“Welcome, Officer Kor is it?” Duke Telli asked.

“Yes, Your Grace,” Dae answered and bowed as befitted a Pact Warrior addressing a lord of the realm.

“I hear there was some excitement in the castle last night?” Duke Telli asked.

“Yes,” Dae said. “And potentially a murder as well.”

“Potentially a murder?” the Duke said. “I was led to believe that there was a body in my moat?”

“There was,” Dae said. “The corpse is being taken to the Dawn March barracks for inspection, with no eyewitnesses to the murder however we can’t say if the killer committed the crime within the castle or not.”

“I see, and what have you ascertained so far about the killing?” the Duke asked.

“Very little,” Dae said. “I had hoped to meet with the chamberlain to see if anyone could identify the body. Once we know the victim’s identity, answering the question of who might want to kill them and why will become easier.”

“Was it one of my guests?” the Duke asked. “I thought they all left safely last night?”

“I won’t be able to say until the body is identified Your Grace,” Dae said.

“I will send for Kenal then,” the Duke said. He didn’t rise, but instead rang a small bell that rested on the chamberlain’s desk. Out in the hall, Dae heard someone, a page most likely, scamper off at the sound of the bell to fetch Kenal, the absent chamberlain.

“If I may ask Your Grace,” Dae said. “You appear to be in traveling clothes. Were you intent on leaving the city today?”

“No,” the Duke said. “I have just returned. Though we hosted a celebration here, I was called on to attend the principal festival in Highcrest.”

At the mention of Highcrest, Dae glimpsed the memory of a broad avenue leading up to the iridescent walls of the Royal Palace. Her first visit to Highcrest had been a tumultuous time, but despite all the pain that followed, that initial glimpse of the Gallagrin Royal Castle had left a deep and abiding impression of awe in her.

“You traveled by sky carriage?” Dae asked. Castle Nath wasn’t far from the Royal Castle as far as provinces and politics went but for to travel there and back in so short a time would have been difficult for even a noble’s ground carriage.

“Yes, fortunately we were blessed with clear skies on the trip out,” the Duke said. “The storm delayed our return till the morning which may be a kindness as well.”

“You traveled with your family?” Dae asked.

“Only my daughter,” the Duke said. “She is not one for loud parties, but I am pleased she remained at the palace. To return home to discover a murder had occurred on our very doorstep would trouble her greatly.”

Dae’s response was interrupted by the arrival of the chamberlain.

“Your Grace!” Kenal said. “My apologies, I was putting together a full briefing for you. I did not have word that you had returned yet.”

Dae frowned at that but held her disbelief off her face. If anyone would be alerted to the arrival of the Duke, especially via sky carriage, it would be his chamberlain.

“Hello chamberlain,” Dae said, in place of the impolitic questions she wanted to ask him.

“Officer Kor,” Kenal said. “I have questioned my staff as you requested, we believe we know the identity of the boy found in moat this morning.”

Dae hide her shock and amazement by feeling none whatsoever. Of course the staff knew who he was. That was why they’d dragged the Dawn March into the mess.

“Your Grace, I’m afraid that Prince Lorenzo Lialarus, one of the Queen’s pages, has been the victim of a heinous crime,” the chamberlain said.

Lialarus was a foreign name. From Inchesso if Dae remembered her lessons properly. Which made the dead boy a Queen’s Page and the prince of a wealthy and powerful foreign family.

“You are smiling Officer,” the Duke said. “Did you know the boy?”

“No Your Grace, I did not.” Dae said. “I merely find myself on familiar terrain.”

“I suppose investigating murders becomes routine for someone in your order,” the Duke said.

“Each one presents its own challenges,” Dae said.

In most cases those challenges involved simply finding the killer who had fled the scene of the crime. Usually people killed those they knew. It took a certain amount of familiarity to breed the kind of bone deep rage and hatred that led to taking another’s life. Unless of course money was involved. Chasing down highwaymen and bandits was not part of the Dawn March’s writ however so Dae had little cause to concern herself with that form of misery.

Lorenzo presented other challenges though. No one killed a Queen’s Page and a Prince over something trivial. The blood price for his murder would bankrupt anyone short of a lord of the realm. Which meant either someone very stupid had done in the poor prince or someone was playing a very specific sort of game. Dae often found cause to bet on stupidity in cases like that but the timing and the placement of Lorenzo’s body was particular enough to lead her to favor malice as the primary motivation for a change.

“The Queen will not be pleased with this,” the Duke said.

“I imagine she’ll be eager to find out who was responsible for the killing,” Dae said.

She left unvoiced that Queen Alari would likely be quite willing to authorize a great deal more killing in the pursuit of that information. She had come by her monicker as the Bloody Handed Queen in the most literal and direct way possible after all.

“Was Prince Lialarus particularly beloved by the Queen?” Chamberlain Kenal asked.

“The Queen loves all of those who serve under her,” the Duke said, repeating the statement as though reading it out of a textbook.

Dae knew the rhetoric the nobility used to keep the populace believing pretty lies so that they would stay docile enough to rule. She knew that few of the words which escaped their lips could be trusted. But she also knew the Queen. Alari did love her people. Through fire and pain and madness and blood, the one thing Dae knew down to the core of her soul was the passion the Queen felt for the people of her realm.

“We need to know who Prince Lialarus was here with and why he was in Nath rather than in Highcrest,” Dae said.

“Do you have the list of the invited guests?” the Duke asked his chamberlain.

“Of course lord,” Kenal said and produced a tome from the pile on his desk. After a few minutes of searching he added,  “I do not see the Prince’s name on the invitation roster.”

Which wasn’t surprising. Royal Pages, though in some senses high in station, especially when they were foreign princes, were not typically recognized as entities in their own right. Even Dae in her capacity as an officer of the Dawn March would have merited the attention of an invitation to a noble event before a page like Lorenzo. In his role as Prince Lialarus, Lorenzo might have have been extended an invitation but the fact that he was serving as a page meant that he was young enough to be considered little more than an appendage of his family. If House Lialarus had a reason to be present at the festivities, or needed an representative, Lorenzo might have been included but even that wasn’t a certainty.

“And in the registry of guests?” the Duke asked.

Chamberlain Kenal searched on one of the following pages of the tome he held for another minute before he located what he was looking for.

“Yes my lord,” Kenal said. “He is here. He is listed as appearing within your court under the invitation extended to the Denarius Consortium.”

“The Inchesso merchants?” the Duke asked.

“Yes, they brought a sizeable party last night, as requested by Your Grace,” the chamberlain said.

“We have the first link in the chain then,” Dae said. “I will speak with the Watch about bringing the people in their party in for questioning.”

“Agreed,” the Duke said. “But they will brought here.”

“I believe it would be in Your Grace’s best interest to allow the Dawn March to handle this,” Dae said.

“The Queen will expect more from me than to turn it over to another’s hands,” Duke Telli said. “If I am to carry news to her of a murder this foul then I aim to carry the culprit with me as well.”

Dae refrained from commenting on how Lorenzo’s murder was no more foul than any other, and quite a bit less so than some. The question of what value to place on spilled noble blood had been long since resolved for her after she’d seen it mixed together with the blood of commoners with no differences visible between the two.

“Once the consortium members are collected, one or more will need to be sent to the Dawn March barracks to identify the body,” Dae said. “Before formal accusations are made we should confirm that the boy wearing the prince’s clothes is indeed the prince.”

“That is prudent,” Duke Telli said. “I will also order the checkpoints closed until tomorrow. I do not want our murderer slipping away while we are struggling to find the trail to him.”

Dae offered no comment on that. With the murder having been committed the previous evening and the body not being discovered until after dawn, plus the time it took to get Javan and herself there, the killer had been given plenty of time flee the city already. The only reason he would still be within Nath’s borders was if he could be certain he would not be discovered.

“I need to get back to the barracks and inform Commander Kekel what we’ve discovered,” Dae said. She also wanted to check on what, if anything, the investigation into the corpse had turned up.

“I will send word to the Commander when we have the Consortium members rounded up,” Duke Telli said.

Dae took her leave of the Duke and his chamberlain and headed back to the Dawn March barracks on foot. In part it was to give herself time to think and in part because she had little desire to deal with either Kekel or Javan.

An Inchesso trading consortium might have reasons to move against an Inchesso prince that didn’t involve Gallagrin, the Queen or anything Dae cared about. It was just possible that her instincts had been wrong and the murder was part of a feud that didn’t touch on her at all. Questions nagged at her though. If it was an internal Inchesso feud, why make the body so obvious. There were dozens of better places to hide a body in Nath. Leaving the corpse in the moat had been designed to attract attention without making a specific statement. It was the kind of action that would turn both Inchesso and Gallagrin against whatever party was responsible. Dae knew most of the major political players in the Blessed Realms and none of them seemed like they would benefit from picking a fight with Inchesso and Gallagrin. That argued that some other plan was at work, but chew on it though she might, Dae couldn’t make a guess at what that plan might be.

Her pondering was disturbed by an awareness from Kirios, her pact spirit. Clearing the distractions from her mind she pinpointed the feeling that had called her back to the present.

Someone was following her.

“You return from the belly of the beast,” Teo, the vampire said, stepping up beside her casually as she walked down the street. “But do you return with true treasures or with delicately spun lies?”

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 5

A dead body makes for the sort of problem that doesn’t go away no matter how hard you wish it would. Dae knew that from repeated personal experience, but that knowledge didn’t stop her from closing her eyes, shaking her head and trying to will herself to be anywhere other than where she was.  Denial wasn’t a luxury she could afford though, and Dae’s history with wishes was spotty at best.

“Looks like we caught a nice simple one this time, doesn’t it?” Javan asked, bending down to inspect the deep slice across the corpse’s throat. Dae clenched her jaw and fought back a wave of anger. Javan held two decades more experience in the March than Dae did. The March wasn’t a physically dangerous duty on most occasions, but it still took a fair degree of wit to survive in it for as long as Javan had. That ruled out the possibility that he was stupid enough to believe what he’d said.

“Have the body wrapped up and delivered, with care, to the Dawn March barracks,” Dae said, addressing the castle’s chamberlain.

“I will have to clear that with the Duke,” the chamberlain said, looking at Dae and then quickly away from her.

“This isn’t a matter for the Duke,” Dae said.

“The murder was committed in his castle!” the chamberlain said. “I’m sure the Duke will want to see the matter handled properly.”

“Then you’ll work with us here,” Dae said. “We don’t know where the murder was committed, only where the body was found. And this boy wasn’t one of the Duke’s subjects. Which is lucky for the Duke. Trust me, he doesn’t want any part of this.”

“How do you know the boy isn’t the Duke’s subject?” the chamberlain asked.

“Does anyone here recognize him?” Javan asked.

The chamberlain turned and searched the crowd that had gathered but no one stepped forward or volunteered any information.

“You called us here to do our job,” Dae said. “Let us do it and there’ll be less headaches for everyone.”

The chamberlain wavered, the fear of his master’s unknown desires in the matter written in the worry lines that creased his forehead.

“We need to have the official chirugeon’s conduct their examination,” Javan said. “If the Duke wants the body back after that, I’m sure he and our commander can work something out.”

The relationship between Duke Telli and the Dawn March commander was well known, and with the reminded of it, the chamberlain breathed easier.

“We shall follow the official protocol in this case then,” he said and called for a wagon and sheets to transport the body in. While he and the castle guards made their preparations, Javan pulled Dae aside. The small wooden shed didn’t block out the sound of the crowd that had gathered but was enough to let them talk without people watching them. Javan tried to pin Dae to the wall, presumably so he could cow her into submission. It had never worked on her before, but Javan enjoyed enough success with it on other people that he kept giving the maneuver another shot in his dealings with his “partner”.

Dae side-stepped away from the hut and turned to give the proceedings with the dead boy her attention.

“Why do you want that body?” he asked. “We could rule on this and be off the case by the time we get back to the barracks.”

“It’s not going to be that simple,” Dae said. “It was never going to be that simple.” A murder at any noble family’s castle required an investigation by the Dawn March but with the cozy relationship between Duke Telli and Commander Kekel, that could have occurred over a bottle of fine brandy on an evening when neither was busy, presuming the victim was someone without connections able to make demands that would need to be addressed.

That the castle had called in the Dawn March so early meant someone knew who the boy was, or at least who he was supposed to be, and, in either case, who he was connected to.

“Cut throat’s a pretty simple verdict from what I’m standing,” Javan said.

“Cut throat’s not a verdict, it’s a cause of death, and it might not even be the real one.” Dae said. “A verdict is what we get when we find out who did the deed and can prove why they did it.”

“That asking a lot in a case like this,” Javan said. “You know as well as I do, with the body in the water that long, the chirurgeons aren’t going find much apart from the obvious.”

“I don’t care what they can find,” Dae said. “We just can’t let this corpse disappear until someone’s been able to identify who it is.”

“Who the hell’s going to steal a corpse?” Javan asked.

“If we’re luck, whoever killed the boy or was responsible for having him killed,” Dae said.

“You’re seeing something here,” Javan said. “Something I think neither one of us should be looking at all that closely.”

“Don’t really have a choice,” Dae said. “You saw the insignia the kid had on him, didn’t you?”

“Couldn’t tell for sure,” Javan said. “The muck from the river had it covered up pretty well.”

The tension around his eyes pleaded with Dae to drop the matter. Playing dumb was more than an excuse for laziness, in some situations it was a survival technique. The Dawn March had a lot of authority on paper, but in practice there were levels of society where their ability to enforce the law was far more limited than it was meant to be. Officers who probed too deeply into the wrong areas tended to wind up as a casefile that other, smarter, officers ignored.

Dae knew that, but she thought back to another man who’d plead ignorance as a defense. The image of feet struggling in the wind and, ultimately, swinging limply back and forth sliced through her mind, lancing into a deeper cut than the one on the boy’s throat.

She didn’t play dumb. Ever.

“The symbol was clean enough for me to recognize it,” she said. “If we’re extremely lucky, the rightful owner of those clothes is off somewhere else, and the poor thing getting wrapped in blankets over there was dragged into this to provide the original a chance to get away from a horrible family life.”

“That’s a pretty wild and unlikely theory you’ve got there,” Javan said, raising his voice to where the crowd noticed the two officers talking.

“Yeah, that’s cause I don’t want to think about the real one,” Dae said, keeping her voice low enough that only Javan could hear it.

“Why?” he asked, leaning in but lowering his voice as he did.

“Because if what I really think is true, I’m going to wind up killing a whole lot of people,” Dae said.

“It’s just one dead boy, Kor,” Javan said, stepping back. They’d worked together long enough that he knew Dae didn’t make claims like that as a mere expression. “It was a horrible thing, a terrible tragedy sure, probably a hefty blood price to be paid too, but no need to start a war over it or anything.”

“I don’t start wars,” Dae said. In her mind’s eye, she glimpsed the memory of a border castle burning. She didn’t start wars, and she didn’t finish them. No matter how hard she’d fought to.

“You try to blow this up into something big and you’re gonna make it your funeral,” Javan said.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Dae said, a smile reaching up to tug at the corners of her eyes.

“You pull me into your little death wish and I’ll make sure it’s a bad thing,” Javan said.

“You never did understand me Kael,” Dae said. “And anyways, stop whining. The commander wasn’t going to let this one rest with us saying it was murder, case closed.”

“That’s true, but it doesn’t mean he couldn’t put someone else on it,” Javan said. “I’ve got kickback money saved up just for an occasion like this.”

“Lucky you,” Dae said. “Maybe you can cut a deal once we get back to the back to the barracks.”

“You’re really not going to let this go?” Javan asked. “You know the commander wanted this to be simple.”

“I hope he gets his wish then,” Dae said. “It’s always possible I’m wrong about everything here right? I could just be jumping at shadows.”

“Yeah, sure,” Javan said. “All just shadows.”

They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, testing who would blink first. In the end it was Javan who rolled his eyes and sighed. If anyone was close enough to hear them, they might have mistaken the exchange for Dae giving in to Javan’s point. The mandate of the Dawn March however was to “chase away the shadows of corruption from the land of Gallagrin”. If shadows moved across the face of Gallagin and struck down one of the Queen’s pages, then it was the Dawn March’s job to stand against them, for the good of the realm.

Dae doubted the Dawn March had ever been quite so sterling an organization as to place the life of a page on par with the security of a nation, and she knew that most of the officers in the March’s ranks shared Javan’s opinion when it came to choosing between duty and personal prosperity. Even looking at herself, Dae held no illusions that a duty to Gallagrin called her to service. She’d tried to stand for her country, to be its shield against all enemies within and without and she’d broken. Shattered on the anvil of naivety and impossible dreams.

There was a life beyond those broken dreams though. For as bad as her worst day had been, the sun still came up the next morning.

“You want to play escort for the body?” Dae asked. “That’ll give you first shot at Kekel to ask about transferring off this case.”

“And what are you planning to do in that time?” Javan asked.

“If the boy was in the castle,” Dae said, leaving out ‘and we both know that he was’, “someone in there should be able to recognize him.”

“You’re going to interrogate the Duke? Alone?” Javan asked.

“I thought I might start with the chamberlain’s staff,” Dae said. “The Duke probably has no idea who was in attendance at the big party last night, but chamberlain’s people should know who the guests were.”

“Tell you what,” Javan said. “You promise me you’re not going to go hunt down the Duke and cause us a world of pain and I’ll take good care of the corpse until you get back to the barracks.”

“I’m going to talk to the chamberlain’s staff,” Dae said. “And if the corpse is missing or disfigured when I get there, I’ll know who to blame, won’t I?”

“Is that a threat?” Javan asked.

“Not technically,” Dae said. “I’d have to mention what I was planning to do about it for it to be a threat.”

“I’m older and smarter than you,” Javan said, “and my pact is a hell of a lot stronger than yours.”

“Then you’re probably safe, right?” Dae said. “But still, don’t let anything happen to the body.”

Javan rolled his  eyes again and turned away. The commander wasn’t going to let him buy himself out of the assignment, but he might get kicked off it (and out of the Dawn March) for leaving Dae all by herself near the Duke’s castle. That didn’t especially trouble Dae, but she did start formulating the questions she would need to ask the chamberlain’s staff, rather than the one’s she’d assault the Duke with if the need arose. Dealing with (or, rather, upsetting) Duke Telli could wait until she had a clearer picture of what his involvement in the murder might be. If that worked out in Javan’s favor then so be it.

Turning the questions about what had occurred over in her mind. part of Dae prayed that the Duke would turn out to be a hapless victim of circumstance and that the killing had been enacted in his domain because of a rare alignment of schedules brought on by the royal celebration.

Duke Telli was shrewd though and there wasn’t much that went on his domain that he wasn’t aware of.  If that were true, then it meant he was involved, and if he was involved then that said things about the relationship between the Tel family and the royal throne that Dae didn’t want to know but knew she had to discover.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 4

The Dawn March barracks were as abuzz with activity as a beehive would have been at the bottom of a lake of cheap wine. The major distinction between the two was that the cheap wine was on the inside of the various March officers who bothered to turn up that day. The general level of sapience was otherwise about the same though.

That didn’t bother Dae. It was typical behavior for the March after a major celebration. Except for her diversion with the vampire and Half-Cut Joe diluting his cheap whiskey to the point where it was indistinguishable from the Low Quarter’s general sewage, Dae would have been in the same state as the rest of the Dawn March officers. Instead she was conscious and alert and without any pounding internal headaches, which meant a lot of external ones were going to seek her out.

The one island of sobriety in the sea of half-asleep, drunken louts was the Dawn March’s commander, Sendrick Ketel. That boded poorly for Dae. Sendrick was as prone to excess as any of the personnel who served under him. If he was still clear headed it meant real trouble was brewing.

“The hell have you been Kor?” Sendrick asked, addressing Dae by her surname as she opened the door to his office.

“Derelict and absent from duty,” she said, sliding into one of the seats in front of Sendrick’s desk. Javan slid into the other chair and leaned it back. Like the rest of the office, and the barracks as a whole, the chair had seen better days. The padded leather cushions that were once meant to look posh and high quality were betrayed by the ravages of time which revealed the poor workmanship that went into their construction. Dae knew the kind of money the Dawn March collected from the royal treasury and knew the kind of furnishings the office should have boasted. Whoever was pocketing the difference was supplementing their income generously.

The same was true with whoever pocketed the difference in what was allocated for the Dawn March officers’ payroll and what the average officer actually received. Graft, bribery and general corruption did a reasonable job making up the difference, though there were always the holdouts like Dae who either didn’t care enough to sell out or had such low expenses that they didn’t see the need to.

Javan, Dae’s theoretical mentor, had worked for a few years to convince her to follow the natural order of things and find a family to put her “on retainer”. He never quite gave up on that, but Dae’s dull and disinterested lack of a response to his suggestions made it a difficult matter to pursue.

“Do you know why you’re here?” Sendrick asked.

“You sent your errand boy here to demand my presence,” Dae said.

“I sent your partner to bring you in,” Sendrick said. “And do you know why I did that?”

“I’m sure you’re going to tell me,” Dae said.

“Well you’re wrong,” Sendrick said. “Kael, explore to Officer Kor why she is here.”

“The commander was concerned for your safety,” Javan said.

“That was nice of him,” Dae said. “Clearly he is dedicated to helping each and every one of us.”

“It was bring you here or turn you over to the Watch’s custody,” Javan said.

“What does the Watch want with me?” Dae asked, fishing to discover what the Watch had told the March.

“There were multiple assaults on watch personnel by a Pact Warrior bearing the March’s heraldry,” Javan said.

“That sound just tragic,” Dae said. “I hope they catch the guy who was masquerading as one of us. Sounds like he’s really dangerous.”

“I’m glad we see things the same,” Sendrick said. “Supposedly the assaults happened within the vicinity of one of your favorite haunts. Don’t suppose you saw anything?”

“I’ve seen lots of things,” Dae said. “Last night I remember seeing the bottom of a very cheap bottle of whiskey, and some truly unpleasant whiskey dreams. If the Watch wants more than that you would probably need to bill them for my time as an investigator right?”

“Hey now, we have a good understanding with the Watch,” Sendrick said. “Professional courtesy between organizations. Normally that’d means we’d help them out however was required.”

By which Dae heard him saying that normally he’d turn her over to them unless she made him a better offer.  Something wasn’t normal today though, in fact it was abnormal enough that her commander was willing to forego a chance at a cheap payoff. That captured her full attention.

“Professional courtesy only goes so far though right?” Dae asked.

“Today anyways,” Javan said.

“What’s special about today?” Dae asked.

“Today we’re being called to the castle,” Sendrick said.

“Called to the Castle?” Dae asked. “Didn’t know we worked for the Duke.”

In theory, the Dawn March reported to a royal overseer. In practice, each of the central barracks was given a wide autonomy in how it managed its affairs and that generally meant that the commanders were effectively employees of the Dukes whose territories they served in.

“You don’t seem to work for anyone,” Sendrick said. “But you know how to curtsy, so you get to head up to the castle and see what the fuss is all about.”

“Aren’t you lucky?” Javan asked.

“You’re going with her,” Sendrick said. “We’ve got a nice understanding with the Castle Guards too. I don’t want to have to extend them any Professional Courtesy, if I make myself clear?”

“Yeah,” Dae said. “If we have to assault the Castle Guards, we’ll be sure to be professional about it.”

Without waiting for a dismissal, Dae rose and left Sendrick’s office. As a Pacted officer, Dae warranted an oversized carrel where her desk and the paperwork that she was ostensibly responsible for waited. Since most of the paperwork on the desk had been there six years prior when she joined the Dawn March, she saw little need disturb it unless she needed writing space and that happened only rarely.

Most of the “work” of a Dawn March officer involved the implicit threat their presence in a city represented. People knew that if they stepped outside the rules they would have to pay for it. Of course the Dawn March’s rates were pretty reasonable so long as the rule being broken wasn’t one which would cause mass rioting, or one which a wealthier power wished to have enforced.

“You’ve got a talent for landing in trouble don’t you?” Javan asked as he caught up with her.

“Maybe trouble’s got a talent for finding me,” Dae said.

“Could be,” Javan said. “Either or, you’re a miserable specimen to hang around.”

“Never said I needed a partner,” Dae said.

“Try proving that to the commander,” Javan said. “He still seems to think you need a babysitter.”

“He’s not worried about me,” Dae said.

“Of course not,” Javan said. “He’s worried about next week’s gratuity from Duke Telli. If you screw that up there’s going to be nine hells to pay.”

“That would be a terrible shame,” Dae said, digging her official Dawn Watch paraphernalia out of her desk. “What’s the deal with the Castle though? If we’re going to pay for nine hells, I’d at least like to know if we’re walking into one of them.”

“Sounds like they’ve got a dead body they want us to check out,” Javan said as he strapped on a shoulder guard with the Dawn Watch logo emblazoned on the side.

“Sounds delightful,” Dae said. “Anything special about this dead body?”

There was something special about every dead body of course, but Dae blocked those thoughts from her mind with practiced ease. She had too many memories that were “special” in that precise manner to allow herself to dwell on the “special” things a corpse gave testimony to.

“That’s why they want us there I imagine,” Javan said.

“Bet you next week’s wage they want us there because someone’s head is going to roll and they’d rather it be ours than theirs,” Dae said, securing her shoulder guard in place. Neither she nor Javan needed the shoulder guards for armor. The ceremonial swords they wore on their hip which boasted beautiful filigree and glass-steel blades were similarly unnecessary from a tactical perspective.

Their use was meant for outside of combat though. Pact armor and weapons were surpassingly powerful, but not even the greatest Pact binders could hold the transformation indefinitely. Not without losing memory, mind and personality at least.

Instead, the Dawn March relied on their heraldry and symbols. The logos and recognizable blades reminded the people the March  interacted with of the officer’s considerable power. The physical reminder was surprising effective too. Intellectually, someone might know that the person before them was gifted with vast and terrible abilities, but the message was more viscerally understood when that someone had a sword inches away from their throat, even if the sword was more ornamental than practical.

“That’s not a bet,” Javan said.

“And yet we’re going to head there anyways, aren’t we?” Dae asked.

“You got anything better to do this morning?” Javan asked.

“Nothing and no one,” Dae said, kicking the lowest drawer of her desk closed. It closed with a too familiar hollow thump. Dae frowned. She wasn’t a desk.

She spent the trip to Castle Tel working on that frown, layering ever more unpleasant thoughts on top of each other.

A body at the Castle was likely to be one of two things; it belonged to a servant, in which case involving the Dawn March was unlikely, or it belonged to a member of the Telli family, in which case getting involved was exactly within the Dawn March’s wheelhouse and entirely outside of Dae’s interests.

She thought back to her interactions with the Tellis. They governed the province of Tel’Ap’Sai. Duke Telli  had been in power even back when Dae was at the Royal castle so she’d seen him a number of times, though only from a distance. He was a weaselly sort of man in her estimation, shrewd and calculating (which weren’t necessarily bad qualities in a nobleman) and disrespectful towards any he considered his lesser (which wasn’t necessarily an uncommon in a nobleman).

If the corpse was his, Dae knew she would not have been assigned to the case. Sendrick would have handled the matter personally in order to ingratiate himself with the next ruler of the Telli family.

The Duchess Telli was also not a possibility, as Dae recalled, having died in birthing her third child.

One of the children then perhaps? Not the heir certainly. There’d be a true investigation if an heir was killed. So that ruled out the first born son.

The daughter, second born was a more plausible alternative. Dae didn’t recall much about her except that her debut at court had been delayed twice for “reasons of health”. That was over a decade ago however and while the daughter hadn’t married yet, it wasn’t uncommon for a nobleman like Telli to reserve an asset like that until a suitably strategic engagement could be made which would benefit the family.

The most likely option though was the third child, the younger son. Just important enough to demand an official investigation, just unnecessary and useless enough that a half-hearted effort would suffice for all involved.

Dae remembered meeting the boy, Ren, when she was at the Royal Castle. He was quiet and reserved, in every measure the opposite of his outspoken and entitled brother. Where his elder brother took after their father, Ren seemed to avoid that fate, to his own detriment.

Dae wondered if perhaps a worse fate had befallen him. And on the evening of the Royal Unification Gala. That didn’t bode well at all.

The carriage that Javan and Dae rode in reached Castle Telli minutes after they left from the Dawn March barracks. The High Quarter was situated close to the Castle for a variety of reasons, easy access to their paid enforcers being one of the many minor perks the nobles routinely overlooked.

When the two Dawn March officers arrived though they were not taken within the castle. Instead the chamberlain and a party of minor officials led them a quarter of the distance around the castle moat to where a crowd had gathered.

Floating in the water, face down was the body they had come in search of.

“We wanted to leave it as it was so that you could examine it for yourself,” the chamberlain said.

Dae praised the silent and hidden stars. It was exceedingly rare to find someone as sensible as the chamberlain in charge of a death scene.

Javan had the chamberlain clear away the crowd and together they spent a solid twenty minutes observing the body and recording the details of what they saw. It was the basic foundation work any sort of good investigation was built on and which most bad investigations would file and ignore forever.

Once they had spotted all that they could and made what measurements they could make, Dae called for the body to be lifted ashore. A group of burly workers from the crowd stepped forward to earn a copper coin each by pulling the body onto the banks. When they settled it onto the shore and turned it over Dae discovered several unsettling things.

First, the body did not belong to any of the nobles of the Telli family. He was a young boy, younger than the youngest Telli son and barely into the beginnings of his manhood, from the neighboring country of Inchesso if his bloated and swollen features were still enough of a clue as to his origin.

That meant he was someone special and outside the purview of Dae’s familiarity which left her in uncertain waters.

What wasn’t uncertain though was the thin line that ran across his neck. From where they found the body, the boy could have been killed by a fall into the moat from the castle parapets. Or drowned if he’d slipped in from ground level. However he entered the moat though, it was slash across the throat which claimed his life. No accident created the corpse that lay on the ground at Dae’s feet and suicide wasn’t a possibility either.

For as worrisome as that was though, a small flag on the shoulder of the boy’s uniform filled Dae with even greater dread.

The boy bore the heraldry of a Queen’s Page. Only the elite were allowed to become direct servants to the Queen, and for a foreigner to hold that position meant that he was someone very important in his home nation.

Dae stared down at the corpse and bit back each of the thousand curses she knew. No matter what they found, this wasn’t going to be a simple case.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 3

Daelynne and her vampire baggage arrived at the Sleeping Courtier well after both had been soaked to the bone. Their entrance to the inn was remarkable only because so few in the Low Quarter chose to brave the weather that night. The sight of someone being carried in on someone else’s back drew little interest and less concern though. Anyone who noticed whatever problem the two were having had to fear that they’d be drawn into the matter and no one wanted that.

It came as no surprise to Dae that her vampire backpack had chosen a room on the second floor. She briefly considered transforming into her armor, but before she could commit that transgression for a second time in less than an hour, the vampire spoke up.

“You’ve done enough,” he said. “I don’t think either one of us wants to go up the stairs like this.”

“I could manage it if they would hold still for a second,” Dae said.

“I assure you that is not necessary,” the vampire said. “I am recovered enough to walk on my own.”

He slid off her back and rose to stand on his own. With his first step though he pitched forward, clutching his side in pain. Daelynne caught him before he crashed to the ground but had to fight to retain her balance as the world drunkenly bobbed before her eyes.

“Almost recovered enough,” he said and leaned on her, forcing his breathing to an even rhythm.

“You can recover in your room behind a locked door,” Dae said and dragged him towards the stairs. The vampire winced as they moved but managed to keep up thanks to Dae supporting most of his weight.

“Are you always this painfully stubborn when helping people?” the vampire asked.

“I can just be painful if you’d prefer?” she said.

“No, that’s alright,” the vampire said. “I believe I have painful covered quite well already.”

At the epic conclusion to the odyssey of “climbing the stairs”, the two of them were out of breath and in need of a long rest. Daelynne pulled the vampire down the hall without pausing though, intent on maintaining what little momentum they had built up.

“The second door on the left,” the vampire said.

“You went for one of the cheap bunks?” Dae asked.

“It seemed sufficient,” the vampire said.

“It’s not,” Dae said. “There’s no lock on the doors for the cheap rooms. Gods above, you were determined to get yourself killed tonight weren’t you?”

“I can take care of myself,” the vampire said.

“Clearly,” Dae said and shook his arm off her shoulder. The vampire remained standing but just barely. “Wait here, I’ll get the key to one of the private rooms.”

Without waiting for the inevitable argument the vampire would make, she spun on her heels, lurched left, lurched right, caught herself on a wall and used that as a guide to make it back down the hallway to the stairs.

Due to the storm, the inn was doing poor business for the evening despite the royal holiday. Thanks to the storm though, the inn’s proprietor knew that anyone seeking shelter at his establishment was more desperate than the usual traveler. Daelynne escaped her encounter with him richer by one room key but poorer by a noticeable chunk of the coins she’d taken from the watchmen.

By the time she returned to the second floor, she expected to discover that the vampire had slunk away either into the room he claimed he’d rented or back out into the night. Instead she found him sitting right where she left him.

“Get up,” she said. “You’re room’s down at the end of the hall.”

The vampire groaned but did as he was told.

“You are not what I expected,” the vampire said as they reached the door to his new room. “And for that I am grateful.”

“You’re welcome,” Dae said. “Now don’t die and don’t get lost. If I have to come find you when I need a witness, I’ll be grumpy about it.”

“I imagine that would be unpleasant,” he said.

“Not for me,” Dae said. She smiled but it wasn’t a warm smile or a deep one. “Here’s the key, for the love of every sainted thing, keep the door locked, especially at night. There’s things out there that are a lot worse than you and most of them walk on two legs and know how to turn a door handle.”

“I understand,” the vampire said. “In a general sense at least. I’ll take tonight’s object lesson to heart.”

“A heart? You still have one of those worthless things?” Dae asked.

“Of course I…” the vampire started to say and caught the smile that had reached Dae’s eyes. “Definitely not what I expected.”

“Good night vampire,” Dae said.

“Good night Warrior,” the vampire said. “And my apologies, I didn’t mean to be mysterious before. Only careful. You may call me Teo, though if you need to file any official reports I believe your suggestion of Joe will do perfectly well for those.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking it probably will,” Dae said. She nodded her head, which was as close as she could get under the circumstances to a formal bow without toppling over, and then staggered off down the hallway.

The storm outside the tavern had not changed its overall mood though it had lost some of its rage and spite. Dae entered its embrace cold, wet, and miserable and arrived at her rooms in the High Quarter in much the same condition.

As a member of the Dawn’s March, Dae had no claim to royal position, but she was expected to represent a higher caliber of personage than the denizens of either the Low Quarter or the Tradesmen’s Wards. The Low Quarter offered comfort and escape in that sense because it meant her chances of encountering one of her fellows from the Dawn’s March was low and even if she did neither would be inclined to acknowledge the other in such circumstances.

Stripping out of her sodden clothes, Dae grabbed a towel from her small bath area to dry off. The collection of purses she had liberated from the downed watchman sat on the simple desk that shared space with her bed and the chest where she kept her better garments and valuable personal belongings.

“That was a stupid thing to do,” she said, regretting the rotten whiskey, the pointless indulgence in violence and most of the rest of the evening. Royal galas didn’t put her in the best of moods, but she’d walked the road she was on enough times to know that it never lead anywhere good.

“They’re probably still there,” she said, knowing that the watchmen were probably long gone.

“I could go back and drop their money on them,” she said, knowing that she wouldn’t.

“No one would care then,” she said, knowing that it was too late to take back her mistakes.

The watchmen had been found already. The ones that fell down easy were already awake and telling their story. They’d only seen her in armor but they’d know she was with the Dawn’s March from the heraldry she wore. Their injuries were deeper than the wounds on their bodies. In breaking the watchmen, Dae had bruised the Watch’s pride, and worse, she’d punched them in their most tender spot. Right in the wallet. The theft of the purses was one thing. That was chump change and everyone knew it. Paying for the chirurgeon to set broken bones wasn’t cheap though. Nor were the extra shifts for already overworked Watchmen to cover the leave time for the injured. For that the Watch captain would raise a fuss. Which meant Dae’s commander would raise a fuss.

The world spun around her, but it was merely annoying rather than overwhelming. Dae fought against the induced dizziness and grabbed a fresh set of clothes from the closet that contained her day to day wearables. Once she’d possessed an array of nightgowns and fine undergarments. She’d maintained that frivolity longer than she should have perhaps, but her time to enjoy the soft things in life was years in the past, cut off from her by blood and fire and betrayal.

Possessed by a host of maudlin thoughts which ran in that vein, Dae stumbled out into the receiving room of her apartment, verified the door was locked, bolted and braced and then stumbled two feet backs toward her bed before settling on the couch as an acceptable alternative.

She didn’t want to dream, that was part of the reason for the bottle she’d downed, but her ghosts and demons didn’t care to indulge her and couldn’t be submerged under the thin layer of intoxication she’d covered herself in.

When the dreams came there was no sense to them. No narrative to lead her to a moment of clarity once she woke. They tore at her with crazed images, distorting her into a thousand different forms and people. She was butcher and the butchered, fallen hero and risen monster. Each image, each tableau, was wrapped in so many layers of symbolism and indirection that only the raw emotions they held touched on reality.

In the midst of the maelstrom of despair, pain, and rage, Dae found one image that she couldn’t approach at all and it made the least sense of any of them. She stood in a castle room she’d never been in and which never existed. The room was filled with crawling, scuttling things, but she knew with the certainty of a dream that none of them were an issue. She could best any monster in the room. It wasn’t the monsters that scared her though. It was a simple panel of wood. It rested against the wall of the room and beyond it lay something that froze the marrow of her bones. It was nameless. Unknowable. Except Dae knew what it was. It was annihilation. It was the thing her strength didn’t exist against. It was the foe she could never be victorious over.

She reached out for it and then saw what she was doing. With a scream, she put all of her will into stopping her traitorous hand, but against the force that drew her towards the other side of the wooden plank, she was like a child trying to wrestle with the tide.

Where her mind couldn’t save her though, her heart did. It stopped. For a too long beat she was paralyzed, dying, and then sleep shredded around her and she drew in a fresh breath.

A minute later her breathing was still ragged but under her control.

“Better than the last three times,” she whispered and clenched her fists.

She twisted and forced herself to sit on the couch, becoming dimly aware in the process that the sun was long risen. That wasn’t a good sign. She had the early shift to report to and while actual attendance for duty was not a habit among the Dawn March elite, failure to be available when her commander expected to lay into her for the problems of the prior evening was likely to raise his ire even further.

With the unpleasantness of her dream before waking, Dae had little desire to crawl into bed and wish the world away, but it was still a struggle to make it to the kitchen and pour herself a glass of water for her breakfast.

On the back of her left hand she felt a restless buzz. Kirios, her pact spirit, was restored and energized by the night’s activities. The banter with the vampire. The crazy maelstrom of her dreams. Every intense moment she experienced, good or bad, fed the spirit’s appetite.

It was why the spirits joined with the Pact Makers in the first place. To share in their lives. To feel and grow and experience things when by their nature they felt nothing, they changed only with the passing of the ages, and across those ages they held no connection to the world as it changed around them and molded them into new forms.

Attached to one of the Mindful Races, the spirits came as close as they could to the mortal world and as close as they could to living. Through the lives they shared together, the Pact Makers gained wondrous powers and the spirits gained memories and a sense of self, bounded in both cases by how much each was capable of unifying with the other.

In the wake of her dreams, Daelynne did not feel very unified with her spirit though. It craved more excitement, more misery, more everything, where she just wanted to forget the past twenty four hours and move on to as quiet a day as she could find.

The series of hammer blows that rang out against her door thrilled Kirios therefor while filling Dae with expected dread.

“Wake the hell up, the commander wants you at the barracks an hour ago,” Javan Kael, her “mentor” in the Dawn’s March called out from the hallway.

Sighing, Dae went into her bedroom and grabbed the pouches. Her clothes were wrinkled from sleeping in them but no one was going to care about that. All they’d be interested in was getting their cut of the loot she’d taken from the watchmen. That wasn’t the kind of fight that Kirios was looking forward to but Dae was pretty sure it would keep him content for a while anyways.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 2

When Daelynne was a young girl, she’d dreamed of glorious battles and amazing feats of prowess. Though clad in the fine gowns of a royal handmaiden, she’d raced through castle halls and along stone parapets reenacting the wildest tales of daring the court bards dared tell in her presence. If the guards allowed that sort of behavior at all, it was only because the princess was there with her, and was often the one leading the charge.

Alari, then a princess, now a Queen. Then so close, now so distant. The rain wracked alley in Nath wasn’t far from the royal castle when the miles were measured by a bird on the wing. From where Daelynne stood though, a gap wider than the Uncrossable Ocean cut her off from the life she’d once known.

That was her own fault, the product of her own failings. She knew it to be true but she still missed the dreams she once had.

In their place, the years had shown her only cold, unforgiving reality. The battle against the watchmen who interrupted her drinking held no glory or amazing feats. They were six poorly armed, if violent, men and she was a Pact Warrior. The outcome of the battle was no more in doubt than if she had sparred against particularly fragile training dummys.

“There’s no need to slay them if you’ve come for me,” the vampire said. He struggled to push himself into a seating position and orient his gaze on Daelynne but he wasn’t able to keep his head from swaying irregularly.

“They’re not dead,” Daelynne said. “Dead’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

She reached down to the nearest watchman and cut his purse away from his belt. It was lighter than she hoped but there was still a good handful of coins inside.

“My apologies,” the vampire said. “I thought you were with the Dawn March. I’m afraid I don’t have any coins on me. I would guess that everyone tells you that though.”

“I am with the Dawn March,” Daelynne said. “And this isn’t a mugging.”

Or at least she wasn’t planning to take the vampire’s money. She needed him to play the part of “the innocent victim” that she was defending.

“Why are you here?” the vampire asked. His head was wobbling less but from his expression that was through a sheer act of will.

“They skipped out on paying their bar tab,” Daelynne said. “Can’t have the watch cheating the locals. That would be unjust.”

She collected three more purses and found their contents similarly wanting. Either the men laying sprawled at her feet were intensely bad at managing their money or they had families to support. Daelynne reflected on those options and decided there was no reason both couldn’t be true. Even in that case though, it was unlikely the coins in their purses were intended to support children or spouses. More likely was the scenario where the men would waste the coin on cheap entertainment as they’d tried to do tonight or spend the money on the chirurgeon who tended to their wounds.

The shards of Daelynne’s dream of being a great champion of justice cut into her again, for the ten thousandth time. She’d been kind, in a sense, to the watchman. None of them were dead. Just broken and bleeding. A few might recover in a week or so, but the rest would be a month or more in healing from their injuries. In theory the Nath Watch had provisions for dealing with wounded watchmen, but in reality those provisions often took the form of official reprimands for poor performance of their duties and an early termination from the force.

Even if the men themselves were terrible and they deserved such a fate, Dae wondered if the same could be said for their families. A watchman losing their position would mean more than the loss of a single week’s pay for their families. A loss like that brought with it hunger, insecurity and, from the worst individuals, violence.

It had been just for Dae to stop the men from brutalizing the vampire. It was just for her to take their wealth to pay off their debts. It was even, arguably, just for her to extract recompense for her own time and effort. All of that justice though wasn’t going to prevent more people from being hurt.

With a frown, Dae pushed the thought from her mind. She couldn’t save everyone. She’d proven that already. If tonight she could save herself, a vampire and a dwarven bartender, that would be enough. It was all she could do, so it would have to be enough.

“Am I free to leave?” the vampire asked. He watched Dae with an expression of disbelief and confusion overwhelming the pain that was etched into his features.

“Are you capable of leaving?” she asked. For as bad of a beating as she’d given the watchmen, they’d inflicted a worse one on the vampire.

“Not currently,” the vampire said and looked away from the fallen watchmen.

Dae thought back to her lessons. The ones she wasn’t, technically, supposed to have been taught. The musty aroma of the castle library came unbidden to her nostrils as she teased forth her knowledge of the creature that sat with his back pressed against the alley wall.

“You look terrible,” Dae said. “When did you eat last.”

“I don’t kill people,” the vampire said and tried to rise by bracing against the wall. His strength wasn’t up to the task though and, before he was able to rise even halfway, he collapsed back into the sitting position he started from.

“That’s obvious,” Dae said. “Here, take what you need.”

The vampire turned to find that she’d released her Pact armor and was offering her naked wrist to him.

“I can’t,” he said and turned away again.

“You’re going to have to,” she said. “You don’t want to be here when the on-duty watchman arrive.”

“I can’t feed with you,” he said.

“What’s wrong with my blood?” Dae asked, offended. Being fed on by a vampire wasn’t a thrilling prospect but she’d pledged to save at least him and Half-Cut Joe. “You need to heal. You can’t do that without taking in some life force. Or is there some crime that you’re starving yourself in penance for?”

“No crime,” the vampire said. “But feeding’s not like you think it is.”

“Yeah, if you lose control you could hurt me,” Dae said. The prospect was unpleasant but also unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

“No,” he said. “Each bloodline is different. I can’t share in your life force. I’m already pledged to another.”

Dae closed her eyes and shook her head. This was typical luck for her. Completely typical.

“Do you have a room somewhere?” she asked, trying to think of the easiest option she had for making this someone else’s problem.

“Yes,” the vampire said. “It’s not far away. I’ll be able to make it there in little bit.”

“You don’t have a little bit,” Dae said. She bent down to lift him up and had to fight not to topple over herself. The transformation to her Pact Warrior form had cleared away most of the intoxication she was affected by when she changed, but there was still a lot of alcohol in her system and it was happy to begin retoxifying her brain as soon as she left the embrace of her mystical armor.

“You can’t carry me,” the vampire said.

“Watch me,” Dae said and hoisted the tall man onto her back.

Neither of them was happy with the arrangement. For Dae, the vampire weighed a ton and was an unwieldy package that reduced her walking speed tremendously. For the vampire, Dae was a horse built of rocky muscle whose back crushed into his wounded ribs while she pulled his arms out of their sockets to keep him in place. Despite the awkward arrangement though, they did manage to get out of the alley without crushing any of the watchmen in the process.

“Why are you doing this?” the vampire asked.

Dae was silent for a long moment until thunder boomed over their head.

“The storm’s getting closer,” Dae said. “Where’s your place?”

Another rumble of thunder covered the vampire’s lack of an answer, but the splattering rain which followed was insufficient to disguise his continuing silence.

“Hey, no passing out,” Dae said and shook the vampire on her back. “And no dying either.”

The vampire chuffed out a tiny laugh.

“That’s an unusual request to make given what I am,” he said.

“I don’t really care what you are,” Dae said. “I just care that you’re breaking my back here.”

“Put me down then,” he said.

“No problem, just tell me where you’re room is.”

“First tell me why you’re doing this,” he said.

“You’re pretty demanding for a nearly dead guy,” Dae said. “Listen, if I leave you out here then my story of protecting you from the watch is going to fly to pieces. Oh, and you’ll wind up dead before this storm passes. As long as you’re alive I’ve got a witness who can support my side of the story and in this case that’s all I need to make the idiots go away.”

“So, I’m your alibi?” the vampire asked.

“Sure, we’ll go with that,” Dae said.

“I can’t testify in court,” the vampire said.

“You’re a citizen of Gallagrin aren’t you?” Dae asked. “You’ve got a bit of an Inchessian accent but it’s mild enough that you must have lived here for a while right?”

“You’re correct,” the vampire said. “I’ve lived in this country since I was a young boy.”

“Don’t suppose anyone gave you a name at some point did they?” Dae asked.

The vampire paused for a long moment before responding to that question.

“I’m noone important,” he said at last.

“That’s the wrong answer,” Dae said. “But I’m tired of standing in the rain. Tell me where your place is or I’ll bring you back to mine and tie you up in a box until I need you.”

“I have a room at the Sleeping Courtier,” the vampire said. “It’s at the next plaza down the road on our left.”

“I know where it is,” Dae said.

The next plaza was significantly farther away than either of the two remembered, thanks in part to the glacial pace the encumbered Dae set.

“You are an unusual member of the Dawn Watch to know this part of Nath so well,” the vampire said after they had traveled for a minute in silence.

“That’s me,” Dae. “Unusual.”

“What did you mean before?” the vampire asked, “About my answer being the wrong one?”

“It was stupid,” Dae said. “You can’t pass yourself as a normal guy. If the watch thugs back there didn’t drive that point home, then take a look in a mirror at some point.”

“I didn’t say I was normal,” the vampire said. “Just unimportant.”

“Right,” Dae said. “And that’s stupid. It screams that you’ve got something to hide. Regular people would just give their name. Smart people would make up a name. Try Del, or Joe. Those are fine names. Nice and generic. But no, you’ve got to be mysterious.”

“My apologies,” the vampire said. “I am confused and I think my brain is addled.”

“That’s good,” Dae said. “Much more believable. It’s not true, but it’s at least a decent lie and I appreciate that.”

“You saw the wounds I was given,” the vampire said. “The watchmen were not gentle with their blows.”

“I would hope not,” Dae said. “It was six on one, but they still needed to make sure they kept their edge on you.”

“Then why would you say I am lying?” the vampire asked.

“Because you’re following this conversation perfectly well,” Dae said. “No slurred words, no loss of focus, your responses are quick and on point. In short, even if they did mess up your brains, you’ve taken the time to fix the damage back up.”

“Can you blame me?” the vampire asked.

“Of course not,” Dae said. “But given that you fixed the trauma to your head before the rest of your body, I would guess that you’re more concerned about revealing something than being caught by the watch. And given what the watch would definitely do to you if they caught you, that tells me you’ve got a secret that you’re willing to die for.”

“Or perhaps I’m merely stupid, as you suggested,” the vampire said.

“Can never rule that out,” Dae said. “But it’s bad to count on that too. I think the most likely scenario though is that you don’t trust me, despite the fact that I saved your life.”

“They wouldn’t have killed me,” the vampire said. “They just wanted someone to vent their frustration on.”

“That might have been true if you were human,” Dae said. “But you’re not a person to them. You’re a corpse that’s still moving around.”

“But I’m not dead, that’s a misconception,” the vampire said.

“Do you think they care?” Dae asked. “You must have grown up somewhere very sheltered if you think violence like that has a limit.”

“You seem able to discern so much about me,” the vampire said. “I can’t imagine why you would need my name.”

“I don’t,” Dae said. “But I am curious why you hate the Dawn March so much?”

“But…I…” the vampire said. “I don’t hate them.”

“Really?” Dae said. “I do.”


The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 1

Daelynne’s attention didn’t leave her bottle of celebratory whiskey when the vampire entered the tavern’s common room. His arrival only registered in her awareness because of the spray of rain the raging wind outside carried in before he could close the door. Nature had little joy to share on the night of the Sixth Unification Gala it seemed.

Or maybe the tavern was sunk under Daelynne’s own personal little storm cloud. A faint upwards flicker tugged at her lips. She could appreciate a little hate from nature. It would fit her mood so charmingly.

So would more whiskey, she decided. She reached for the bottle to refill the cheap glass she was forcing herself to sip from. Drinking straight from the bottle would have been more efficient, but she’d done that before and the bottle always emptied out well before she was ready to stop drinking. The forced pacing of filling the shot glass ensured that she’d get to enjoy every miserable, bitter drop of the nameless rotgut she hadn’t yet paid for.

It also ensured that Half-Cut Joe, the dwarf who ran the place wouldn’t try to double charge her, claiming he’d taken the first bottle away and brought her a second one. She’d had a discussion with Joe about that sort of thing before, but since they’d only broken each others faces and not any of the furniture or liqueur stock, Daelynne was still tolerated as a patron and Joe wasn’t doing time in the Watch’s jail.

The vampire intruded on Daelynne’s consciousness again when he made the mistake of bumping her table. To his eternal good fortune, she’d just lifted the whiskey bottle but hadn’t yet begun pouring the next drink.

Daelynne snaked a hand out, fast as a lightning bolt, to catch the empty shot glass. That she managed to do that only after the table tumbled over and shot glass glass hit the floor was a was a reflection where the missing two thirds of the bottle had gone, but she wasn’t in the mood to contemplate that.

Sparks of rage flared in the depths of her soul as she looked up at the vampire and forced the wheels in her mind to turn.

He hadn’t slammed her table intentionally. The idiots standing to his side had shoved him. These were the same idiots who’d been bragging all night at their prowess with women when not a single one of them was with a female on a night of authorized excess and wanton abandon.

“Watch it,” Daelynne said, the drink rendering her voice deeper and more hoarse than she’d guessed it would.

“My apologies,” the vampire said.

He was tall, but thin and pale, like many of his kind were. Daelynne didn’t look many people in the eyes, and vampires in particular were dangerous in that regards, but she scanned his face anyways.

His features were solid and handsome enough. A good balance and symmetry between cheeks and eyes, nose and mouth and chin. A touch too angular to fit Daelynne’s tastes but he could have been popular enough based on appearance if not for the overwhelming red of his eyes and the pulsing red veins that spread outwards from them.

The vampire was smart enough to close his mouth after speaking but Daelynne knew his fangs would show the moment he spoke. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t a threat.

Satisfied with his answer, she turned her gaze away from him and focused instead on the bottle in her hand. The vampire hadn’t feed in days from what she saw, but the tavern wasn’t a place for feeding. She wasn’t in any danger and, more importantly, neither was the whiskey, so she could let him slip away, the same as she wanted the rest of the world to do.

“That’s right you’re sorry,” one of the bravos from the other table said.

The vampire tried to ignore the men, but another one of them grabbed his hand as he

started to walk towards the bar.

“We don’t like your kind here,” the second bravo said, in case his gesture was mistaken for a mark of affection.

“Then let me pass, and I will be out of here sooner,” the vampire said and snapped his hand free from the bravo’s hold. Without waiting for an agreement from the table of boisterous men, the vampire crossed the room to the bar and began speaking quietly to the bartender.

Daelynne looked around for her shot glass, but it had rolled somewhere, or shattered, or possibly both. She was two thirds of a bottle past caring, and since her plans for pacing her consumption had fallen through so tragically, she got to work on disposing of the unsightly third that remained.

“Should have made him leave right now!” one of the men at the table said. He made sure his voice was loud enough to resound to the bar and back. Everyone in the small tavern had to hear what he wanted to say, most especially the target of his ire, who was ignoring the men in favor of his conversation with Half-Cut Joe.

It was a mistake. Daelynne wasn’t interested in either party, but she could see the mistake the vampire was making even from the depths of the bottle she was plumbing.

Ignoring the men wouldn’t get him anywhere. They were too worked up. It was a gala night, a kingdom-wide celebration of the beginning of the king and queen’s rule six years ago. People were supposed to be partaking in wild, unruly fun and yet the men were stuck in a meaningless little bar, drinking the same horrid crud they drank every night, with the same horrid, cruddy company they were always saddled with.

It’s always possible to fall farther in life. Even hitting rock bottom allows people to keep digging their hole deeper, but that wasn’t the problem these men had. They had jobs and lives and responsibilities but that wasn’t enough. They wanted power, and in the vampire they found a target they could abuse with little expectation of societal scorn.

Daelynne was willing to bet that half the men across from her truly believed that they were in the right to be up in arms against the intruder. Vampires had a terrible reputation and there were certainly ones that strove to live down to the worst that was said about them.

The one at the bar wasn’t in that mode though. He might have been terrible on any other night, but either natural inclination or his present circumstances kept him restrained. The men who were convinced of their righteousness wouldn’t believe that, and the other men didn’t care in the first place.

Whiskey sloshed around Daelynne’s mouth and no burning sensation followed it. It was just sour, bitter, foul swill that should be spit back into the bottle it came from. The cap had rolled away long ago though, so Daelynne swallowed and took another swig. No matter how awful the stuff was, it was never quite awful enough.

Another few sips and at the bar, the vampire and Half-Cut Joe concluded their brief business. Daelynne didn’t bother looking to see if either was happy. No one else in the tavern was, and there didn’t seem to be a reason for them to be the exception.

While Daelynne struggled to down another gulp of the ruinous sludge in her bottle, the vampire left, taking the side door in preference to another encounter with the table of belligerent drunks. Sensing their prey escaping, the men stood in unison, a silent signal passing between them, the collective urge towards violence given release and form.

Duty tugged on Daelynne’s unwilling sleeve. Beneath her cloak, the sigil she wore called to her to stand up, to stop what was absolutely about to occur.

The weight of duty’s tug was less than the weight of the bottle in her hand though, and far less than the weight of the contents she’d already imbibed. No one would care. Either way. She could sit in the bar or she could venture into the storm. No would comment or even notice what course of action she chose.

Once, maybe, the sigil of the Dawn March had been a true promise, an unbroken oath. If so though that was far before Daelynne’s enrollment in their ranks. Since she’d donned the All Seeing Badge, it had looked outwards with nothing more than a blind eye. The mark of office on her breast was so tarnished that it’s call was drowned by even the last falling drops in an empty bottle.

With a sigh, Daelynne sagged into her seat and tipped her head back. The swimming, falling, emptiness that she sought eluded her though and her thoughts remained. She was trapped with herself until whatever pitiful dregs of alcohol there were in the whiskey could rally and overwhelm her senses.

“Want another?” Half-Cut Joe asked. He was clearing the table of the men who’d left but had an eye on Daelynne’s empty bottle.

“Sure, reinforcements are always good,” she said.

“Fine,” Joe said. “Pay for that one and I’ll find its twin.”

Daelynne grunted. The idiots had left without paying, so Joe was worried about the night’s take. Somehow, everything always become her problem.

She reached to her waist and slumped into her chair further. The commander had docked her pay for the last week, and so she’d run up dry. Through the too-thin haze of the cheap whiskey, she remembered her empty purse being the reason she’d settled on Joe’s place to spend the gala evening.

“Just bring the bottle,” she said. “I’ll pay for them both later.”

“Got a shipment coming in tomorrow,” Joe said. “You’ll pay now.”

“Two bottles now, and I’ll pay you for four,” Daelynne said.

“You’ll pay now or I’ll have those Watch boys back for your hide,” Joe said.

“Those guys were Watch?” Daelynne asked, her lassitude and disinterest taking on a new hue that was speckled with a dollop greed, and a smattering of repressed aggravation.

Nominally speaking the Dawn March’s charter involved oversight of the local Watch. So it was Daelynne’s professional responsibility to ensure the Watch was acting in an ethical and responsible manner. More importantly though, the Watch was paid before the gala. Which meant each of those men were flush with their week’s pay.

Daelynne rose onto feet that should have been more unsteady and rolled her shoulders.

“Where are you going?” Joe asked.

“Need to get your money,” Daelynne said, looking towards the door the vampire and the men had left through.

“That’s the Watch you’re dealing with there,” Joe said.

“I don’t think they ever told me that,” Daelynne said. “Maybe one of them will mention it if it’s important.”

Half-Cut Joe looked up at her and rolled his eyes.

“Bring back enough for their drinks too then,” he said.

Daelynne threw the hood of her cloak up over her head and didn’t make any promises. A full purse was nice to have, and Joe’s accounting for the watchman’s tab would inflate based on however much he could guess she took from them.

It didn’t take the “All Seeing Brilliance” of the Dawn March’s motto to observe where the vampire and the men had gone. The road was empty thanks to the pounding storm, but the sounds of a struggle were clearly audible over the rain and thunder.

Whispering simple words, Daelynne advanced on the alley and felt the mantle of her Pact settle into the material world.

Mystical energy coursed through her, energizing her body and mind as she soared through an inner transformation and joined with the slumbering spirit bound to the glyph on the back of her left hand.

When she stepped into the alley, she saw the half dozen men of the watch and she saw the vampire. The watchmen were smiling, demon grins of violence and power and the lust for both surging from their hearts. The vampire was not so cheerful. He lay against the wall, pain etched in every corner of his face and throughout his body. The watchmen hadn’t been able to work on him long, but they’d begun their task in earnest and without reservation.

That’s what Daelynne saw when she entered the alley. What the watchmen and the vampire saw was something very different. As Daelynne stepped into the mouth of the small space, they saw a figure clad head to toe in armor. In her hands lay a blade of flat iron with a seething glow. When she moved, she didn’t so much walk forward as slice through the air and space between them.

With six on one odds, the men had felt comfortable in their chances against a starving vampire. Against the Pact Warrior who stood before them, they would have fled even if they’d had ten times their number.

But she was blocking the only path out of the alley.

The Journey of Life – Ch 32 – Inherit the Stars (Part 3)

A galaxy is made up of vast, dark spaces. Wide gulfs of nothing sprawl throughout all of existence, but those aren’t the bits we see. The light years of emptiness and separation in the cosmos yield to the brilliance of the stars and the lives that make up the worlds around us. Across eternity, the light of a single sun, or a single person, can reach out and touch places and hearts that seem impossibly far away.

Kai reflected on how far her reach extended as she drifted cradled in a sky ablaze with life. Surrounded by the unending vastness of eternity it was hard to picture that she could ever touch enough of it to matter.

“I didn’t think it would end like this,” she said. Around her, the wreckage of seven moons and a Class VI planet danced like a shower of swirling snowflakes. Superheated snowflakes made of molten rock, but it made for a lovely backdrop nonetheless.

“We’re not done yet,” Mel said to her daughter. Despite being surrounded by the emptiness of space without a ship in sight, they weren’t in any danger or distress.

“Seriously Mom?” Kai asked. “What is ever going to be hard than this?”

The two of them were floating in a shield bubble while below them a Elder Wyrm the size of the entire star system hung dead in space.

“Try having two kids at once,” Mel said. “It’s all been easy going from there.”

“Yeah, I’m seventeen now,” Kai said. “You’re going to have to give that one a rest someday.”

“Maybe just for today,” Mel said. “Happy Birthday dear.”

“It doesn’t seem real,” Kai said. “My whole life feels like it’s been leading up to this one thing, this one fight, and now it’s done. All the different death cult attacks, all the training, all the work with you, and Aunt Bo and Grandma, and we’re here. We actually survived it.”

“You had a little help,” Galen pointed out over their telepathic link.

“Seventeen Crystal Star Battle Ships worth of help,” Fari said. “In addition to us of course.”

“That’s kind of a once in a lifetime sort of thing too isn’t it?” Kai asked.

“Well…” Mel said and scratched the back of her head with a terrible grin on her face.

“That depends a lot on what we find in this one,” Galen said.

“And a lot on how the Empress’s negotiations go,” Darius said.

“Wait, what do you mean ‘how the Empress’s negotiations go?” Kai asked. The dead cosmic beast that floated thousands of miles below her and filled the sky from one end to the other did not seem like the sort of entity one could negotiate with.

“You called this Elder Wyrm into our space right?” Galen said. “You’ve got to know there’s more than one of them right?”

“No,” Kai said, “No, I don’t have to know that.”

She looked again at the beast that an army of the Crystal Empire’s most powerful forces had only barely managed to defeat. One Crystal Star Battle Ship had enough firepower to obliterate a planet. Seventeen of them were an inconceivable force to marshal against anything. Or at least anything smaller than a creature that literally spanned the length of a star system.

As Kai watched, the Galactic Devourer’s impossible physical form warped the orbits of the planets in the Bithrion System. Even the star they orbited around drifted into the endless body of the Elder Wyrm. If any of the planets had been capable of supporting life, the battle of Bithrion would have been the greatest tragedy of the Crystal Era. Of course if the battle had been lost it would have been the end of the Crystal Era, but Kai and Mel and a million other people had worked to ensure that neither was the case. They’d selected the day and the location with care and precision. They’d trained and put into place a thousand contingency plans.

Sooner or later, this Elder Wyrm, a galaxy eater, was going to surface into the Crystal Empire from the realms beyond warp space. Aetherial future sight predicted it. Scouts sent into warp space saw the portents of the impending arrival. Even basic physical readings of the the material realm showed that trouble was coming. The signs were all there and the all pointed to the same conclusion.

However the Imperials tried to maneuver things, the arrival of a the Galactic Devourer was an avalanche that couldn’t be turned fully aside. Once that was clear, their plans changed. Kai’s training accelerate and the venue changed to locations remote enough to allow her to experiment with the Void summoning magics that she was particularly talented at. If they couldn’t stop the Elder Wyrm’s arrival, they could at least dictate that it happened on their own terms.

Summoning the terror from beyond the stars was the hardest thing Kai had ever attempted. It was an impossible spell to cast, and everyone knew it. So no one asked her to do it alone. Millions of spell casters lent their power to the effort. Five of the former Jewels of Endless Night, each filled to over-capacity levels combined their power and placed it under Kai’s control. Most important though were the people who stood with her inside the summoning circle on the planet that had been more than a shower of pretty molten snowflakes prior to the Elder Wyrms arrival into the material realm.

From Mel, Kai drew her strength, from Galen she drew clarity and focus, from Fari; vision and balance, from Darius; energy and drive and from within she found a desire for life she hadn’t been aware of before.

Together with her family and all the other casters, Kai spoke, and through her, a vast chorus called out. With one voice, they laid a challenge before the Elder Wyrm and it rose up in full hubris to answer and consume them.

Hours later, its corpse lay cooling in an abandoned solar system. It had the chance to retreat. It could have fled, though doing so would have meant existing in a diminished state. Instead it battled on to the bitter end, certain at every stage that its victory was assured by its incalculable power and eternal nature.

Power and history failed it though, both succumbing to the knowledge the Imperials gained about the cosmic beast through investigations into the far distant galaxies which Elder Wyrms had ravaged in previous ages. Thanks to the work and sacrifice of countless people, the Empire had been ready for their foe and while the solar system scale battlefield was reduced to ruins, no civilizations were lost, and no people were displaced.

But that was from a battle with a single Elder Wyrm.

“How long have you known there was more than just the one of these things?” Kai asked.

“A few years now,” Darius said.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Kai asked.

“Because the other ones aren’t your problem to deal with,” Mel said. “You opened the gate. That was an impossible task to put in front of you. You didn’t need to be distracted by the rest of what’s going to come next.”

“And what is that?” Kai asked. “What is going to come next?”

“That depends on the Empress and on the Elder Wyrms,” Fari said. “You opened the gate that shielded us from them, but that was also the gate that protected them from her.”

“What is she doing?” Kai asked.

“Speaking to them,” Grandma Kai said.

“Just speaking?” Kai asked.

“Sometimes words can carry a lot of weight,” Fari said.

“In this case, think of it like someone speaking, where every word is a spell,” Grandma Kai said.

“Even that’s selling it short,” Zyla said, joining their telepathic link.

“We can see the after-shadows of their conversation,” Yael said. “The ‘words’ they’re speaking can shatter stars.”

“And they’re still being ‘pleasant’ with each other from what we can tell,” Zyla said.

“What happens if the discussion doesn’t go well?” Kai asked. “They could still attack us couldn’t they?”

“That’s the best outcome from some points of view,” Hanq said.

“Being attacked by an army of these things is a good outcome?” Kai asked.

“We know their weaknesses,” Hector said. “The Elder Wyrms should be very grateful that the Empress is here to keep us in check.”

“Birthrion just became the wealthiest system in the galaxy in terms of sheer material resources,” Osgood said. “We already have half of Titanus planning to fly out there and start excavation work!”

“So wait…we’re going to farm these monsters now?” Kai asked.

“Only if they’re foolish enough to attack us again,” Guardian Opal said.

“If the Empress’s discussions go as she hopes, they’ll agree to a more symbiotic relationship,” Guardian Raychelle said.

“The plan is that we would work together against any other similarly large scale entities that might want to devour either them or us,” Mel said.

“There’s other things the size of an Elder Wyrm?” Kai asked.

“Oh there’s much larger entities out there than Galaxy Devourers,” Grandma Kai said. “Once you get significantly beyond the scale of an Elder Wyrm though they don’t tend to be able to interact much with this dimension. We become too small for them to even perceive.”

“And if the Elder Wyrms don’t go for that offer?” Kai said.

“Then we have a lot of fighting ahead of us,” Bo said. “And the galaxy is going to become unimaginably wealthy.”

“I don’t know if I can process that,” Kai said. “Nothing’s going to be the same again, is it? Either we get an army of these things to fight with, or we’ve got an army of them to fight against.”

“Nothing ever stays the same,” Mel said. “That’s what our lives are. We change things and change with them. And with each other.”

“The trick is that to make the changes turn out for the better,” Darius said.

“By whatever definition of ‘better’ we can come up with and make stick,” Fari said.

“Of course a few missteps along the way are to be expected,” Hanq said.

“And sometimes it can take a lot longer to make a change than it really should,” Yael said.

“And some changes have permanent consequences to deal with,” Grandma Kai said.

“But that’s why we have each other,” Hector said.

“So can I suggest a change then?” Kai asked.

“It is your birthday,” Mel said.

“And mine too!” Galen said.

“Seems like we have two birthday wishes to grant then,” Darius said. “What were you going to ask for Kai?”

“Well…” she said.


“We raised two very good kids, didn’t we?” Mel asked as she sipped from her tiny-umbrella’d drink and lounged against Darius on the warm sands of Abyz’s most beautiful beach.

“I’d rate them as noticeably above average,” Darius said.

“Getting Bo to charter an entire town for the after-battle celebration for everyone who took part in the Bithrion Encounter was pretty clever,” Fari said. “But I have to wonder if this didn’t have a little bit of the leg work done up front.”

“You know how those two are,” Mel said.

“More to the point you taught Galen half the evil tricks he knows,” Darius said.

“Closer to 80%, but it’s true, those two are dangerous,” Fari said.

“As dangerous as we were?” Mel asked.

“What you mean ‘were’?” Darius asked.

“She’s trying to lure us into a false sense of security,” Fari said.

“Which means she has a plan,” Darius said.

“And that it’s a terrible one,” Fari said.

“I was just thinking…” Mel began.

“We should really stop her right there, shouldn’t we?” Darius asked.

“But you know we’re not going to,” Fari said. “I mean we never have before right?”

“This is true,” Darius said.

“Right, so I was just thinking, a dead worm the size of the one we left in Bithrion will probably attract an even bigger fish before too long right?” Mel said.

“And you want to find a way to catch that fish too don’t you?” Fari asked.

Darius settled for sighing in amusement.

“You know me so well,” Mel said.

Without another word, the three packed up their items, slipped out the party-city and, with no one the wiser, rocketed away in search of their next adventure.

The Journey of Life – Ch 31 – Inherit the Stars (Part 2)

The rear engine coil was dangerous. Sparks of energy had a tendency to fly out when the Horizon Breaker performed any taxing maneuvers. Getting caught in the anima streams had sent more than one of the ship’s techs to the infirmary, and as a result Kai’s mom had declared it and the rest of the engine room off limits to Kai and Galen from the day they took their first steps.

Which made it the perfect place to hide.

“No fair if you’re hiding up high where I can’t see you,” Galen said over their private telepathic link.

“I’m not!” Kai said. “But you’re still never going to find me.”

In a sense she was cheating, given that she was using an out-of-bounds area for her hiding place, but the last time she and Galen played according to those rules Galen had been too young to form actual words.

“No moving around either,” Galen said, the undertone of his thoughts betraying that he was at a loss for where Kai might be.

The twins spoke to each other almost exclusively through telepathy. Neither remembered when they’d started doing so, though the Aunt Fari was pretty certain it hadn’t been in the womb. That was something of a relief to Kai. Her brother was already considered enough of a prodigy, she didn’t need for him to be any farther ahead of her than he already was.

Of course, most of his skills came from the special lessons he had with Aunt Fari. Kai knew that if she had classes like that, she’d be a wizard with Mental anima too. Her mistake had been speaking too early.

Like most kids Kai had begun experimenting with language from the moment her brain pieced out that the sounds the friendly giants were making might mean something. She didn’t remember any of them, but Mom and Dad had told her the story of how happy they were the first time she’d put together a sound that could be called a word.

Apparently they’d bet on whether she’d say “Ma” or “Da” first and she’d stumped them both and gone with something that sounded like “Faawi” (and so her Aunt claimed victory.) After that she’d been an immensely chatty baby. Galen teased her that he’d been so silent because she never let him get a word in edgewise.

His silence didn’t escape attention though. First there’d been discussions. Then regular doctor visits. Then special doctor visits. Kai overhead the grownups talking about Galen and asking if he might be developmentally impaired. They were afraid he might never start speaking, and Kai laughed at them.

For as talkative as she was externally, Kai could never match how much Galen rambled on over their private connection. The grownups questioned her about it and that’s when she learned that the link between her and Galen wasn’t something everyone had and that it was exceptional even as far as Mental anima spells went.

Aunt Fari said that their telepathy was so efficient that it bordered on a natural, rather than supernatural ability. The scans she did only managed to discover the link when Fari knew exactly what to search for and Galen and Kai were actively chatting on it.

That was a great day, because Kai finally felt like she was part of something special. Between her parents, her aunt, Uncle Captain Hanq and all the other people they knew, it seemed like everyone was amazing in some manner. Everyone except Kai. Because she was still little.

The tests that Aunt Fari and Aunt Opal put Galen and Kai through weren’t always fun, but Kai loved them. At least up until the point where it became clear that the special telepathy spell was one that Galen alone was responsible for.

He was the gifted one. He was the prodigy, the one who got special classes with Aunt Fari to help him learn to use the natural talent at Mental anima that he’d been born with.

Kai, meanwhile, got to do the regular workouts that they’d been doing since they were little.

It wasn’t bad, training with Mom or Uncle Captain Hanq or even Dad sometimes, but Galen got to do that too. He wasn’t as good as she was of course, he spent too much time doing brain exercises, but he was good enough for his age and that was all that Mom asked of them.

Which was almost the worst part.

Kai knew she should be able to cast spells already, but her mother didn’t seem to care whether she could or not. From what Uncle Captain Hanq said, it sometimes took into adulthood before some people developed actual proficiency at spell casting. He tried to assure her that the Energetic anima cantrips she was able to shape were a sign of early skill, like her Dad had shown, but the little puffs of fire and lightning she’d managed to conjure seemed utterly worthless compared to things she saw the crew being able to do.

Little bits of Energetic anima casting were never going to let her fly, or tackle a Dragon Comet on her own. All she could do was little stuff like bending away the sparks the came off the engines while the Horizon Breaker was in flight.

That plus Mom, Dad and Aunt Fari being absent from the ship while they were off on a mission meant that it was the perfect time to use the engine room for Hide and Seek. Uncle Captain Hanq wouldn’t agree but he was much less likely to catch them than Aunt Fari, who seemed omniscient when she was on the ship, or Mom or Dad who could somehow see right through even her best stories.

“I’m not gonna give up!” Galen said. “I know you’re someplace dumb.”

“Maybe I’m in the galley,” Kai said. “Sneaking all the candy while I’m here.”

“You wouldn’t tell me that if you were really there,” Galen said. “And if you’re sneaking the candy, I want some too.”

“Why would I give candy to someone who calls my hiding place dumb?” Kai asked.

“You gotta when share I find you,” Galen said. “That’s how this works.”

“If you find me,” Kai said. “I might get safe first.”

In this particular game of Hide and Seek, the safe spot for the Hider was back inside their cabin. The children made it more challenging by locking the door and letting the Seeker carry the key. That would slow Kai down, but she knew if she could lead Galen far enough astray she could manage to get inside in the time he spent looking in the wrong place.

Kai’s plan was simple, solid and quite workable. It wasn’t her fault that it backfired on her almost completely.

One moment she was taunting her brother and the next the engine room was engulfed in flames.

“Kai! What was that!” Galen screamed.

“Something’s wrong,” Kai said. The world spun upside down and Kai noticed that she was pressed face first against the floor but that it felt like the ceiling was “down” instead. With white knuckled fingers, she clutched onto the grating of the floor but despite the disruption of her sense of gravity she didn’t even begin to plummet towards the ceiling.

“I’ll get people there!” Galen said. “Don’t move!”

“There’s fire,” Kai said. “I think I have to move.”

“No wait, the fire fighting spells, they’re supposed to put it out!” Galen said.

“Maybe, yeah, ok, but these flames are like frozen,” Kai said.

All around her, purple, green and magenta tongues of fire as tall as she was stood around Kai. None of the moved but all of them gave off a terrible heat.

“I’ll go get Hanq!” Galen said.

Kai had no idea what the Captain could do about these weird flames, but having him on the case was infinitely preferable to trying to handle it alone.

“I’ll try to stay here then,” she said.

The moment she spoke the words though she began revising her opinion on the matter. That’s because that was the same moment she saw a cowled man materialized out of the flames.

“The Dark Bomb worked,” the man said. “It looks like we caught a break too. The child was in the engine room when it went off. Their ship is crippled for a short while.”

Kai slid silently back behind one of the Warp Crystals. She knew those things were tough. No tiny bomb was going to break one of them, so she hoped it would protect her from the man who was surveying the engine room.

“All personnel in room are inert,” the cowled man said. “Shall I proceed with termination?”

He waited for a response Kai couldn’t hear.

“They’ll be conscious again in minutes if I just leave them here,” the man said.

Another pause and Kai watched the man’s shoulder’s slump.

“Understood, the child is the priority. Will verify termination and then exit through the flame portal. Abandon me here on schedule if I’m not done in two minutes.”

“There’s a guy here,” Kai said to Galen. “I think he’s looking for one of us.”

“Is he bad?” Galen asked.

“Of course he’s bad!” Kai said. “He just blew up the engine room!”

“Kai, stay hidden and stay away from that person,” Uncle Hanq said after Galen added him to their link. “Gold Team will there in a minute.”

That sounded like a really long time to Kai. The Horizon Breaker was big, but Gold Team had teleporters. She couldn’t think of why they couldn’t be with her right away. Then she saw the glittering film that covered the walls, floor and ceiling of the engine room. Kai didn’t believe she was much of a spell caster, but she’d been well educated in the various types of spells she might encounter, including teleportation interdiction fields.

Her breath jammed up in her throat when she understood what the glitter meant. Gold team wasn’t going to be able to get to her, not super fast like they should, and that didn’t happen by accident.

“This guy thinks he can find me in two minutes,” Kai said.

“How good is your hiding spot?” Galen asked.

“It’s dumb,” Kai said.

“Listen to me,” Hanq said. “Hide as best you can. If he does find you though, stall for time. Tell him you’re a Tylaxrian and that you’re the chief engineer. Tylaxrian’s are as short as human children.”

“Do they look like kids?” Kai asked.

“They do if you say they do,” Hanq said.

Kai didn’t have the opportunity to try subterfuge though. The attacker zeroed in on her like the warp crystal and machinery between them wasn’t there at all.

“Target discovered,” the man said. “She survived the Dark Bomb somehow.”

“Wait, I’m…” Kai began but the man wasn’t listening to her.

“Returning target to the Void,” the man said. “Eternal Slumber Bless Thee.”

Kai recognized the last four words as kind of sentence that could serve as the verbal completion element for an elaborate spell ritual. She hadn’t learned much about big spells like that except that they were dangerous and very fragile.

The man’s entire body was transformed into a cloud of gray and purple smoke.

Void anima.

Or one form of it at least.

Kai tried to scream and back away. Void anima was something her mother had been very specific about.  It was ultra-dangerous and she was to avoid any Void casters at all costs.

Unfortunately, despite the speed Kai’s fear gave her legs, the Void anima man was faster. He leaned forward and caught her head in a talon of pure life stealing death.

And everything in the world faded to a singular, silent darkness for Kai.

“No!” she screamed.

“Kai!” Galen said. “What happened!”

“He got me!” Kai said. “Everything is all dark now. Am I…”

She couldn’t process the words, couldn’t even think of it being true.

“No, you’re not lost granddaughter,” a woman said from the darkness.

“Kai, who’s there with you? What’s happening?” Galen asked.

“Someone has made a terrible mistake,” the woman said. “And I am profoundly grateful for it.”

“Who are you?” Kai asked.

“I am Kai,” the woman said. “The Kai who you were named for, your grandmother.”

“What are you doing here?” Kai asked.

“That’s a long story,” the elder Kai said. “For now, let’s just say I’ve been watching over you two from here in the shadows in case anyone was foolish enough to try something like this.”

“Something like what?” Kai asked.

“To kill you with a Void anima attack,” Grandma Kai said. “I thought someone should make sure you had some defenses against that since they’re hard to come by. I see I didn’t need to be worried though.”

“What do you mean?” Kai asked.

“I didn’t have to save you granddaughter, you managed that all on your own,” Grandma Kai said. “I’m just here for the moral support and encouragement.”

“I saved myself?” Kai asked. “You mean I can cast Void anima?”

“Apparently so,” Grandma Kai said. “You’ll need a lot of practice with it, and it’s usually hard to find a tutor but as it turns out I think I can speak for at least three who would be happy to work with you, myself included.”

Kai reached out into the darkness and felt a chill wash over her. She could sense the empty hunger of the anima around her but as she moved, it flowed away, pushed off by her will and imagination.

“Oh wow,” she said and stood up. With a blink, the world returned, and through Void anima  covered eyes she saw it in a brilliant kaleidoscope of colors. All of the anima, all of the life around her.

Including the man who tried to attack her.

“If you’ll pardon me for a moment?” Grandma Kai said.

Kai watched as a dark form shot through with stars wrapped itself around the man before her. She had to back away a moment later as the Void anima surrounding the man grew solid and deeper. The anima spun and the pair sank down into deep into the empty darkness without even the hint of a scream escaping from the man.

A minute later, Gold team burst into the engine room but by that time Kai had clear away most of the frozen flames.

“Where’s our intruder?” Hanq asked.

“He’s been dealt with,” the elder Kai said, appearing beside her granddaughter.

“And the people he was working with?” Hanq asked.

“Outside my purview,” Grandma Kai said. “But he won’t be coming back at least and I doubt they have many who can pull off what he could.”

“Will you stay anyways Grandma?” Kai asked.

“Of course dear,” the elder Kai said. “You Aunt Bo is making plans to come here now. Since your Mom is busy, we’ll show you a few things about how to use your new gift.”

Despite the fear and shock she was suffering, Kai heard those words and it was like the stars burned brighter just for her.

She was getting special classes too!