Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 24

Even with the support of a Pact Spirit, there are beatings that a body can only partially endure. In the wake of trauma, recovery requires rest. A Pact Spirit won’t knock their partner out during a battle, or while danger is imminent, but afterwards, when it’s safe, they won’t do anything to keep the Pact Warrior on their feet either.

Dae knew that. She was familiar with the sort of post-battle coma that accompanied serious injuries from direct and repeated personal experience. The one bright side to the period of extended helplessness was that Kirios was able to share some of his magic with her while she slept. He was able to allow slightly more of his power to flow through her while she slept than he could while she was awake, though it was still only a trickle compared to the raging current they drew on in their transformed state.

Among other benefits, the small drops of power that Kirios fed her allowed her to heal quicker and more thoroughly than an unbonded human, elf or dwarf could manage. “Quicker” however was very relative.

“You don’t look half as bad as you should feel,” Kael said from a fat, comfortable chair beside Dae’s recovery bed.

“Comes from all that clean leaving I do,” Dae said and blinked her eyes open. As a Pact Warrior she had a private room, but certainly not a lavish one. The bed she lay on looked like it had been in use for the better part of half a century. On the bright side, the sheets had been washed at least once in that time period, which was better than her usual flops could manage.

The Duke’s generosity was limited to the projecting the appearance of gratitude more than the pricier substance of it. Dae was neither surprised nor disappointed. She’d slept on finer sheets in her life and she’s slept in places she didn’t care to (or in some cases have the capacity to) remember. A private room was better than the shallow grave she’d anticipated resting in.

Glancing at herself under the covers, Dae noticed she was still in her traveling clothes. Despite the violence of the encounter with the Berserker, her mundane clothing showed little sign of the blows she’d taken. Lifting the top of her shirt up from her chest, Dae saw that the same couldn’t be said of her torso. Her body wasn’t literally one giant bruise but the black and blues were winning the war for real estate on her torso over her normally lightish brown tone.

Testing her lungs with an experimental breath yielded the sort of pain that said she’d either badly bruised or mildly fractured a few ribs. Flexing a few muscles, she could still feel pain everywhere down to her toes which was reassuring after the beating she took. Pact Spirits could compensate for a lot of things but full paralysis was more than even an experienced Pact Warrior wanted to contend with.

Dae tried to sit up and felt a stabbing pain scream up her leg.

“The Chirgeon said you broke your leg,” Kael said without looking away from the stack of reports he was reading. The slight smile on his face betrayed the joy he felt at getting to mention that after she discovered it for herself.

Dae indulged in some choice cursing before adding “did she leave any other gems of wisdom?”

“Yeah,” Kael said. “She splinted you up. Said to stay off it for a few weeks. It was Gunnelle though so she knows you. Said when you don’t stay off it, you can hop off to hell on stick because, and I quote here, ‘she’s not going to fix your hide up again if you’re going to keep breaking it like that’, unquote.”

“Wonderful,” Dae said. “I’m gonna have to hobble over to Hentel’s place when we get back to Nath and pick up a keg for her.”

“Hentel’s?” Kael said. “You never get the good stuff for me!”

“You should try being useful sometime,” Dae said.

“This is the thanks I get for guarding you in your hours of weakness?” Kael asked.

“You got my coin pouch,” Dae said, not bothering to check if it was still on her. “That should have covered the first hour. How long have I been out and why are you still here?”

“You’ve been out for the better part of a day and I’m here because of the Commander’s orders,” Kael said. “Seems the Duke was impressed with how you jumped in on that Berserker. Wanted you properly taken care of.”

“And I’m still alive?” Dae asked.

“Through no fault of your own, yes,” Kael said.

“What kind of line did they sell the Duke?” Dae asked.

“What do you mean?” Kael asked.

“About the Berserker,” Dae said. “You were in position to see it. You know I didn’t have a choice there.”

“There’s always a choice Kor,” Kael said. “From where I was sitting there was plenty of fodder you could have thrown at that monster to slow him down.”

“Aside from the Duke, there wasn’t anyone else on that mountain that had a better shot at surviving that Berserker than I did,” Dae said.

“Didn’t look like your shot was all that great really,” Kael said. “Might have been a bit better if you’d tripped him up with a soldier or two.”

“Might have been a bit better if another Pact Warrior had helped out,” Dae said, frowning.

“You’re too beat up to be that naive Kor,” Kael said.

“Didn’t say I was planning that they would,” Dae said. “Just pointing out that March’s fine tradition of courageous service is looking a little yellow these days.”

“Can’t say I mind yellow,” Kael said. “Best gold we get paid’s got a nice yellow tint to it, and with the combat bonus on this little outing, we stand to gain a hefty pile of it.”

“Huh,” Dae said, a half formed thought bubbling up into her mind.

“Aww, we were having a nice little conversation here and then you had to go and start thinking, didn’t you?” Kael asked.

“Just wondering about something,” Dae said.

“Stop,” Kael said. “Don’t wonder about anything. The Commander keeps ordering me to keep you out of people’s hair. You’ve got a busted leg now. Take that as a clue and stop stirring up a nest of trouble.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Dae said. “Just trying to figure out which got hurt more in the attack; the Duke or his purse.”

“From how he looked after the fight?” Kael said. “I’d say his purse had to hurt at least a dozen times worse than he did.”

“Interesting, don’t you think?” Dae said. “How many did we lose?”

“A couple dozen,” Kael said. “Nobody special though.”

“They’re all special Kael,” Dae said. “Doesn’t matter if you don’t believe that either. You know the commander will sell it like that to the Duke.”

“That true I suppose,” Kael said. “Death benefits for the ‘best and brightest among us’. March’s coffers should be filled to overflowing after this.”

“Doesn’t seem like the kind of expedition the Duke should feel happy about financing,” Dae said, the pieces of her idea falling into place as she spoke. “What’s he been up to since the battle? And where are we?”

“We made it to Pell’s Gate while you were snoozing away,” Kael said. “Turns out Lorenzo’s family got in just after us. The Duke’s been with them ever since.”

“That must have been a fun meeting,” Dae said.

“They’re swearing at him through a translator,” Kael said.

“How long have they been talking?” Dae asked.

“A few hours now,” Kael said. “Probably get blind drunk and wake up best friends tomorrow.”

“Their son’s dead,” Dae said.

“You or I might care about that, well, ok, you might, but these are Inchesso nobles,” Kael said. “They’re not just foreign, they’re alien.”

Dae snorted. The Inchesso were no more alien than anyone else. Plenty of them worshipped the same golden coins that owned Kael’s soul and plenty of them had the same naive noble ideals that Dae had held dear in her youth. Different features, different colors, different races and different languages, but otherwise so very similar to their Gallagrin neighbors than you could barely squeeze a sheet of paper edgewise through the gap that separated them. Dae knew exactly how deaf Kael’s ears were to any explanation of that so she didn’t bother fighting him on it. Instead decided to use Kael’s views against him.

“So the Duke is fraternizing with aliens who hate him and paying out a wagon load of gold, and managed to stumble into the one fight that might make it look like he was legitimately in trouble.” Dae said.

“Hasn’t been his week I guess,” Kael said.

“Yeah, guys like him are known for bungling things so badly that they cause an international incident and wind up paying in blood and gold to fix it,” Dae said.

“I don’t like what you’re insinuating there,” Kael said. “You make it sounds like the Duke doing the right thing was wrong somehow.”

“Nah, I’m sure this was all about doing the right thing,” Dae said. “The Duke is such a generous and giving sort of fellow.”

“Always has been when it comes to keeping us flush,” Kael said. “And anyways, he’s not even the one who caused the international incident.”

“Is there a better candidate?” Dae asked.

“Your friend their Biago? Yeah well, his story got out, so now everybody knows the Queen’s involved with this,” Kael said.

Dae closed her eyes and sighed. She wanted to leave Biago outside the March’s control but her own option had been to put him Kael’s charge and as soon as the lucrative recall order had arrived, Kael had dragged Biago back to the barracks and made him repeat his story before locking the Inchesso assassin in chains in the March’s prison.

“The Queen’s not…” Dae started to say but Kael cut her off.

“..not behind this,” he finished for her. “Yeah, you made a great argument in favor of that. Problem is, no one’s heard it and even if they did, they’re happier thinking about the Queen two timing the King.”

“That’s idiotic,” Dae said, her words hotter than she meant them to be, especially since she knew Kael’s words were true. She’d said something similar to him herself before they left Nath. Part of her spirit still rebelled at the notion though. “She sold herself for Gallagrin. We just celebrated the anniversary of her killing her own father.”

“That was six years ago,” Kael said. “No royal heir in six years has plenty of people thinking the Consort from Paxmer maybe isn’t “consorting” like he should. Or maybe he is and the Queen’s the problem. Whichever it is, if there’s a scandal to be had, people will just eat it up.”

“Do the Inchesso know about that rumor?” Dae asked.

“Who knows?” Kael asked. “And honestly, who cares? Let’s say the Queen did kill off one of her pages. What are they going to do about it? Inchesso’s got a Senate, so they don’t have anywhere near the power she does.”

“They’ll have enemies too, people who are all too happy to use any loss on their part to cut them down,” Dae said.

“Right, so what are they going to do? Send assassins after her?” Kael asked.

“She’s Pact Bound to Gallagrin,” Dae said. “Even Telli couldn’t stand against her in combat. No one in Gallagrin could. That’s what doesn’t make sense about any of this. With this kind of setup, someone would have to be planning a lethal strike against her, because she will certainly respond with lethal force of her own when she uproots the problem. But Telli’s not in a position to lay claim to Gallagrin’s Pact Seal and without that, any attack on her person will fail.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Kael put his papers down. “Even if all your crazy ideas are right, the Duke can’t be part of this.”

“I’m afraid that’s not correct,” Teo said as he glided into the room like he was skating on air. There was a renewed vigor to the vampire’s features, a vitality which Dae had never seen in him. A moment later she discovered its source as the Duke’s youngest son, slid into the room and closed and locked the door.

“The Queen is in terrible danger,” Ren said. “And my father is going to bring ruin to us all.”

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 23

The tactical doctrine around Berserkers was something every Pact Warrior and Soldier studied. It was rare for a Berserker to emerge in the heat of battle, and for soldiers the need to be familiar with Berserker protocols was mostly non-existent. The doctrine was brief enough that it didn’t represent a major departure from their training schedule though so everyone was trained for it.

After explaining what a Berserker was (a pact warrior who was completely consumed by their pact spirit) and how to recognize one (they were the ones radiating power and killing everyone around them, friend or foe) the lesson on dealing with Berserkers commenced.


That was the beginning and end of the lesson. A combined force of arms could take down one of the rampaging monsters but if a retreat was available, that option was always preferable. In any engagement with a Berserker, normal Pact fighters were going to die. Left to their own devices though a Berserker’s rage would consume them from within.

As weapons of war, Berserkers were problematic tools in the best case scenarios. As assassins they were even less useful, but if you wanted to assault a marching army and you didn’t care about losing an underling or two, a Berserker would give you the edge and power you needed to at least make the attempt.

Dae wasn’t thinking about any of that though.

She was looking for places to run to.

A single leap carried her a hundred feet up the mountain but every instinct she had told her that wasn’t enough. Berserker’s routinely exerted force beyond what they’re bodies were capable of tolerating. They repaired the damage with rough magical bracing and pressed on to continue their fight. If the monster the Consortium unleashed saw her, Dae knew her chance for escape would drop to zero.

The other members of the Dawn March were struck by similar ideas as well, from what Dae could see. The swarm of pact soldiers who were bounding in on the ambush point rapidly changed direction. They all would have fled except for one small problem. The Duke’s carriage was still stuck in the ravine.

The soldiers who were manning the ropes to pull it back up onto the mountain path froze at the sight of the monster that the failing concealment spell revealed.

That’s when the dying started.

The first soldier that the Berserker reached was someone Dae had met but never learned his name. His death wasn’t pleasant but it was quick. With one swipe the Berserker shattered the minor pact armor the soldier manifested. Without his armor, the soldier’s body was exposed and vulnerable in precisely the same manner as a wad of wet tissue paper would be. The results of the Berserkers next attack demonstrated that fact with clear red highlights.

Dae hung from a narrow ledge, silent and still as the battlefield below her was splashed with blood as though a mad artist was redecorating the mountain in scarlet.

The two Consortium assassins fled up the mountain, away from the abomination they unleashed. It was a smart move but ultimately not a sufficient one.

After slaying eight of the Dawn March soldiers, the Berserker caught sight of the assassins. Each of the Inchesso killers was pact bonded. Each was moving as fast as they could. Neither got over the summit of the hill.

A full Pact Warrior’s spirit bond is more powerful than a Pact Soldier’s is. That was enough to allow the first assassin to survive the Berserker’s initial blow. Cornered and cut off from escape, the assassin turned to fight. To his credit, he did manage to put up some resistance, but it was brief and only served to showcase how hopeless the battle against the Berserker was.

Piece by piece, the Berserker took the assassin’s spirit armor apart. The assassin gave as good as he got though, shearing off the Berserker’s left arm with a series of blindingly fast strikes. The difference between the two was that the Berserker didn’t care about the loss of a limb and wasn’t slowed down by it in the slightest. The assassin on the other hand wasn’t quite that resilient.

The second assassin made no effort to help his guildmate. The few precious seconds that it took the Berserker to dismantle the first assassin into a piece of abstract art were enough to allow the second to escape to the top of the ridge. He might have made a clean escape if he hadn’t made the mistake of pausing to look back at the carnage below him.

From hundreds of feet below, the Berserker launched a trio of lashes, slick with red and pulsing with life, from its forearm gauntlets. The remaining assassin turned to flee but even the split second pause was too long. With a scream, he was reeled back down the mountain into the Berserker’s clutches.

Dae felt a silent, cold, calm reach out and still her nerves. There is the fear that makes people scream and then there’s the fear the comes when screaming is impossible.

Instead of a scream, a chuckle escape Dae’s lips. It wasn’t a happy chuckle, or a strong one. She knew this fear. She didn’t want to move against it, every bit of sanity told her not to move, but she knew she could. She’d been through worse.

Except she hadn’t moved then either. She’d been frozen by it. She’d watched a city burn. She’d heard its buildings fall and smelled its people being reduced to ash.

In the aftermath, she’d fallen too, her heart reduced to ash and her honor burned away. What price would surviving this encounter exact she wondered?

It wasn’t a question she had much time to contemplate.

Her chuckle gave away her position.

The Berserker screamed at her and Dae felt her paralysis shatter. The cold fear that gripped her turn white hot. Not rage. Not will. Some deeper, proto-human part of her mind where raw survival ruled all other instincts spoke in a burning tongue. She wasn’t capable of language at that level but it was easy enough to translate the primal speech.


She leapt from her perch before she was aware she was doing it. Down into the striking range of the Berserker. Down towards a foe she couldn’t defeat in her present state.

There was a snarl on the wind, not hers directly, but Kirios speaking for her. To the Dawn March personnel who heard it, the battlecry signaled her arrival and against the Berserker they took it for a declaration of suicide.

Dae’s thoughts weren’t ones of self-destruction though. The baggage she carried and the loathing that lived inside her were silent as she flew down the cliffside. Determination, strategy, and duty, those were silent too. She was moving and she had a target. Everything else was emptiness.

The Berserker slashed at her, faster than she could parry. It did damage and tore away part of her armor but the Berserker’s attack cost him speed.

Dae pinioned his arm, skewering it on her blade.

His helmet opened its mouth, revealing a maw of metal spikes.

She grabbed his throat to hold him away and then crushed it.

The Berserker wrenched its arm through Dae’s blade, tearing muscle and tendon, and shattering bone to escape. He hit her with the half attached arm before she could parry and the force of the impact sent her tumbling twenty feet away. It also tore the Berserkers arm completely off but tendrils of magic caught the limb and affixed it back in place.

Dae shook off the impact and rolled back to her feet in time to hear a great crash of wood from the ravine below them. It didn’t have a bearing on the next two seconds of her survival though so her thoughts didn’t linger on it.

Two seconds gave her time to form a shield to go with her pact blade. It also gave the Berserker time to reclaim his other arm.

When his attack came, Dae was ready for it. The Berserker’s offense was predictable in its savage simplicity. Being able to predict an attack and being able to avoid or mitigate one are entirely different things though.

Dae met the Berserker’s attack with both sword and shield and both of her implements shattered. Blows that she could barely see slammed into her torso and only pure reflexes allowed her to roll with the barrage of attacks and soften their force to a survivable level.

The bits of her armor which the Berserker smashed off, she called back into existence, tapping on the magic Kirios manifested when she transformed. She felt as that pool dwindled rapidly. Drawing on more was dangerous, but standing against a Berserker without Kirios’ power was substantially worse.

The Berserker caught her by the throat before she could make that decision and slammed her into ground. Rock fractured beneath them and the Berserker slammed her down again. Over and over.

The clear emptiness of Dae’s mind began to cloud with pain. She wasn’t replacing her armor as fast as the Berserker was tearing it away so the damage was starting to leak over to her actual body.

Dae fought through the pain and managed to resummon both her sword and shield. The shield lasted only a fraction of a second but that was enough for Dae to spear the Berserker in the shoulder and drive the monster off her.

She pushed him up and off her, battering the creature’s head with the remnants of her shield until he recovered and backhanded her away again.

She wasn’t able to roll with that and it shattered the breastplate of her armor. The impact with the mountain path broke something and when she tried to rise an enormous wave of pain swept through her.

She reached out for Kirios to call on him for another transformation, but was interrupted by a Knight in luminous green armor landing behind the Berserker and running the monster through the heart with an emerald lance.

Dae blinked and fought her mind back to clarity for a second before she recognized the regalia of Gallagrin nobility that adorned the Knight.

Duke Telli had taken the field.

The battle that followed was one that Dae caught only fractions of.

The Berserker somehow tossed the Duke aside, but in the process a second lance appeared plunged through the Berserker’s chest.

The Berserker ignored the lances and shattered the Duke’s helmet. It gained two more lances for that and lost one of its arms again.

A moment later Dae thought the Berserker had ripped the Duke’s left hand off but it turned out only to be an empty gauntlet.

Over and over the two struck, the Duke an unyielding fortress of might and the Berserker an unrelenting storm of destruction. Some of the Duke’s guard tried to aid him but while they were able to buy him additional openings to wound the Berserker, they did so at the cost of their own bodies.

Ages later, but also all too soon, Dae saw the Duke begin to slow. Telli struck at the Berserker’s heart again and again. He shattered the monster’s armor and destroyed the flesh of the man that lay underneath.

But the Berserker would not stop coming. For all the Duke’s raw power, it didn’t look like he could put the Berserker down. The creature’s resources seemed limitless, but Dae knew that wasn’t the case. Even the most powerful spirit still had limits. The problem was that the Berserker was willing to exceed those limit to its utmost capacity where the Duke and the rest of the Dawn March didn’t have that option if they wished to survive.

The Duke took a solid hit and was thrown to the ground to suffer a series of additional bone crushing blows. The Berserker roared and spun about so quickly though that none of the Dawn March fighters had a clear opening on him.

In a moment, Dae thought, the Duke was going to die and then the Berserker would move on to a far weaker foe, such as the rest of the Dawn March combined.

The Duke had other ideas on that matter though. He rose to face the Berserker and laughed.

“You were slow that time,” Telli said. “And weak.”

The Berserker roared and shot a handful of tendrils at the Duke to pull bind him and pull him in.

The Duke sliced the restraints out of the air before they could reach him.

“Your power is fading at last,” the Duke said.

And Dae saw it. The Berserker still radiated malice. It was still standing tall and strong, but when it moved there were tiny hitches. Little pops where the pain that had been inflicted on it were starting to show.

“Good,” the Duke said. “I was waiting for that.”

A moment later, after a slash that was too fast for Dae’s eyes to follow, the Berserker lay on the ground. His body had fallen to the left of the Duke and his head to the right.

The battle was over.


The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 22

The sight of the Dawn March leaving Nath brought on a festival atmosphere that was wholly at odds with the purpose of the company’s departure.

“The confetti almost makes me think they’re glad to see us go,” Kael said, brushing some of the colored paper off his horse’s head.

“I’m sure your bookies will cry themselves to sleep tonight,” Dae said, barely paying attention to the larger officer or his horse.

The throngs of people who turned out to watch the Dawn March leave made a perfect cover for another assassination attempt, but Dae was reasonably sure the Denarius Consortium wasn’t going to make an attempt on her life while she was surrounded by a literal army of backup. If they did they would doubtless injure or kill hundreds but the chance of taking out their target was vanishingly remote.

So she was safe. Except a nagging itch left her with the feeling that each step her horse took was a step closer to disaster.

The Duke’s carriage was behind the lead riders of the parade, and so out of sight from where Dae sat near the rear of the force. He’d insisted on accompanying the Dawn March since the murders had happened in his stronghold.

“I will not rest until the Prince’s family is safely within the Castle’s walls,” Telli said, ignoring the fact that their son had been killed within those same walls, and that the assassin’s had evaded all of the guards the Duke’s forces sent to search for them.

“I thought you said I’d get to sit this one out?” Kael said.

Despite the need for haste, the Dawn March was plodding out of the city at half the speed of a casual walk. There were simply too many of them and too much attention for a swifter march.

“If the commander hadn’t called up the whole damn March, you would have,” Dae said. Step, by plodding step, she turned the events of the last several days over in her mind. Moving the March out of Nath didn’t serve any logical ends as far as she could see.

The loss of the March didn’t leave the city undefended and there weren’t any forces within striking range who could threaten Nath even if its defenses were left for the civilian population to take charge of. With the Watch and the Duke’s own forces still in residence, it would take months of siege before the city even noticed there were attackers at the gate, much less was in any danger of falling.

On the other hand, taking the Dawn March to intercept Lorenzo’s family offered neither safety nor security. If the assassins were intent on killing more members of the Prince’s house they could easily outride the cumbersome Dawn March and finish the deed before the army was within miles of protecting  the Inchesso nobles.

Dae flirted with the idea that the Dawn March was being removed from Nath to get her far enough away to keep her from interfering in whatever scheme was going on, but her ego was’t quite large enough to accept that as a likely answer. The same result could have been accomplished by sending her on a mission to a distant province. She wouldn’t have actually gone of course, but her disobedience would have provided the Duke or Commander Ketel with other options for shuffling her to the side.

The hardest part to understand was the Duke’s choice to lead the expedition personally. If the assassin’s made an attempt against the Inchesso nobles, the Duke would have to fight. The pact spirits held by the Gallagrin’s reigning nobility were second only to those held by the Royal Sovereign. Against that kind of power, even a full guild of assassins would be hard pressed to survive the encounter much less terminate their target.

Telli’s presence was a powerful statement that he intended to prevent any further misfortunes from occurring in regards to Lorenzo’s family. It was also a condemnation of the Dawn March’s ability to protect the visiting nobility, but few within the March had any illusions as to the company’s overall competence. Their collective egos survived the rebuke largely because it was difficult to make people ashamed of a shortcoming they don’t care about in the slightest.

“Bet we trek out to the border and our guests are already dead or run off,” Kael said.

“Tempted to take that bet,” Dae said. The scenario of the Duke making a big show of force only to arrive too late by design didn’t float for Dae. The only purpose a show of force would serve would be to turn aside blame for the murders that had occurred. Failure to prevent more murders, especially when far more rapid help could have been dispatched wasn’t going to win the Duke any points at all. If anything it would make him look more guilty than he already did.

“How much should I put you down for?” Kael asked.

“I don’t know,” Dae said. “Someone hires you to put me down, I suggest you bleed them for all the money you can.”

Kael looked at her and shook his head.

“This is gonna be a long trip,” he said.

“But the company is so pleasant,” Dae said, tipping her broad brimmed hat low.

Standard operating discipline said that a Dawn March officer was supposed to stay alert and aware at all times. Covering her own field of vision was actually a punishable offense on the books, though barely anyone knew that. With the crowd as thick as it was though there was no sense looking for Consortium assassins, or killers of any stripe. In theory that still left Dae with the burden of riding out of the city but the parade was so slow that the horse was able to handle it all on her own.



The attack didn’t come until hours later, outside of Nath and on one of the long winding roads that generations of Gallagrin workers had carved through the mountains.

Without the crowds of civilians around, Dae was paying marginally more attention to the environment than she had been in Nath. It was difficult to feel endangered though when she was in a non-description position in a line of armored soldiers that stretched around the corners both in front and behind her.

The first sign of the Consortium’s ambush came from the sudden shuffling of the soldiers that were almost around the next bend. That was followed by a tremendous crashing, and a rumble that felt like the entire mountainside was tearing itself apart.

“Armor up!” Kael called out, which seemed like an insufficient response to a mountain falling but Dae called on Kirios nonetheless.

“The Duke!” one of the forward Lieutenants called out.

“The carriage, get lines for the carriage!” another yelled back to the nearest packmaster.

There was another crash and the unmistakable sound of a falling scream. Dae heard wood shatter and crack as something large and heavy dropped into the chasm around the bend that lay a hundred feet or more ahead.

“That’s not a good sign,” Kael said, looking around for any sign of their attackers.

“Hold my horse,” Dae said, and dismounted.

“Where are you going?” Kael asked.

“Up,” Dae said. “Someone just asked me dance.”

“The forward riders are on that,” Kael said. “Stay here or you’ll bring more of the mountain down on us.”

“The forward riders were in the Duke’s carriage,” Dae said. “Saw it on the downslope about two miles back. That puts them at the bottom of this ravine at the moment.”

“Ravine’s only about a hundred feet here,” Kael said. “They can survive that. Probably. Maybe.”

“Hold my horse,” Dae said and passed Kael the reins.

Then she leapt fifty feet up the side of the mountain and touched down on a rock ledge that offered a better view. In Pact Warrior mode, she had significantly more mobility than being on horseback offered her, but she held back on charging right into where the ambush was triggered from.

“An avalanche is a nice tactic, but you’ve got something better held in reserve or you’re suicidal,” Dae whispered under her breath.

She looked around for whatever that follow up blow might be but came up empty. Whatever other flaws the Denarius Consortium might have, they weren’t bad at hiding. That couldn’t be “Step 2” of their plan though since Dae wasn’t alone in scaling the mountain. Dozens of Pact Soldiers were climbing towards the ambush position and together they’d sweep the mountain with enough precision to find anyone corporeal that was lingering there.

Unless of course the hidden ambushers weren’t on the same side of the ravine as the Dawn March was.

Dae leapt higher for a better vantage point and calculated the firing arc a party on the opposite side of the trail would have had to work with.

The angles checked out perfectly.

Dae couldn’t disguise her approach, so she did the next best thing.

“On the far side!” Kirios amplified her words loud of enough that they would have caused physical pain to anyone standing next to her.

Then she jumped again.

As a Pact Warrior, there were still limits to how much force she could exert on her body. In terms of superhuman leaps both leaving the ground and landing presented issues.

“How in the seven hells did she do that?” Kael asked to no one in particular as he watched Dae’s armored form fly from one side of the ravine to the other.

The landing was more problematic than the jump. The mountain on the  other side of the ravine was steeper and more buffeted by the weather. Dae more “impacted” than “landed” on the slope and was then sent sliding down in a rough river of fractured stone.

A fall into the depths wouldn’t have proved fatal, but Dae avoided the inconvenience of climbing back up by ramming her Pact Blade into the mountain’s face and swinging up to stand on the narrow ledge the flat of the blade offered.

Above her position, she caught a glimpse of movement as a cloaking spell failed to completely cover the activities taking place beneath it.

From the other side of the ravine, other Pact Warriors and Pact Soldiers were copying her strategy with various techniques. Some used a charge down the mountainside to build momentum and others relied on their comrades to hurl them across the gap. Dae glanced back to where Kael was standing with the reins to both of their horses still in his hand. He offered her a small wave and made no further move to help.

“Can’t fault him for being inconsistent,” Dae grumbled.

There was no imperative driving her to be the first to engage the Denarius ambush party. Sound tactical doctrine was to send in the more expendable troops as the vanguard to spring any defensive traps the ambushers had setup around their position.

Concern for her Dawn March companions might have moved her, but she knew what motivated them and didn’t feel inclined to shelter their greed with her own suffering. The prospect of a fat hazardous duty bonus from the Duke which drove the other Dawn March wasn’t entirely unappealing to her of course, but when Dae sprang from her blade-perch, she was moved by an entirely unrelated force.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Lorenzo’s silent face gazed upon her. She couldn’t save everyone, and she couldn’t avenge all of the wronged dead either. The ambushers though weren’t part of the broad and nebulous suffering of the world. They were a threat who stood clear and present before her. The long, horrible crease they’d added to Lorenzo’s throat wasn’t the first they inflicted but the anger that powered Dae’s leap was driven more by an image she suppressed as quickly as it emerged. There was one throat, she would never allow to come to harm, no matter how far away from it she’d fallen.

Dae punched through the concealing spell that shrouded the ambushers camp, dispelling with the violence of her arrival. For the briefest moment, her heart soared in hunger. The Denarius assassins were doomed. Apart from her own wrath, they faced an incoming horde of pacted forces as well as the massed archery fire of the soldiers who remained on the other side of the ravine.

The villains had no prayer of surviving the forces massed against them.

Or at least it didn’t seem that they did until Dae took in their camp.

There were only two of them.

And a third figure in a coffin.

A coffin that was warded with seals that writhed with unnatural light.

Light that was fading.

From inside the depowered coffin, a man stepped forward.

Or something that had once been a man.

For one precious second, Dae tried to deny what she saw before her, but her survival instincts wouldn’t allow that to happen.

The Consortium had brought a Berserker into play and from everything Dae knew, none one on the mountain was going to escape alive.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 21

Dae arrived back at the Dawn March barracks with Kael and Biago in tow only to find the place had been transformed into a maelstrom of activity.

The main gate that led into the barrack’s training yard was down and a full squad of a dozen young Dawn March soldiers were standing guard in front of it.

“What’s going on here?” Dae asked Squire Telfin.

“I don’t know, maybe I took too long to find you?” Telfin said. Dae could see he was mentally calculating his trip time to and from the safe house to see if he could be held responsible for whatever was occurring.

“Not likely,” Kael said. “They’re expecting trouble, and, from the looks of it, the commander’s intending to go out and find it before trouble comes knocking on our door.”

“Your guildmates are stepping up their game,” Dae said to Biago. The Inchesso assassin didn’t reply but the grim set of his jaw and the tightness around his eyes spoke volumes to Dae.

She offered him an apologetic shrug. Both she and the assassin had expected his guild to make an attempt on his life, and both were disappointed to learn the Denarius Consortium had opted for a different plan.

“Not everything revolves aren’t your pet projects,” Kael said. “The commander wouldn’t put the barracks on lockdown for a group of assassins who killed one kid.”

Dae paused as they walked down the avenue that led to the barracks and weighed Kael’s words. The wind shifted and carried with it the cool chill from the mountains to the north. Kael was right. That, more than the wind, sent ice skittering down to her fingertips.

Trying to shake off the horrible prospect of Kael being faster on the uptake than herself, Dae inspected the barracks. If the building was on lockdown, the metal shutters would be drawn over the windows.

Just like they were.

Each pair of metal screens were locked in place with only the thin arrow slits in their center allowing any light from the outside into the barrack’s battle rooms. As much as it could, the Dawn March barracks had transformed into a fortress. That only happened when people were about to attack it, or when the Dawn March needed to be elsewhere and didn’t want to return home to discover that their gear had been completely looted.

A crowd was gathering in front of the barracks, drawn by the spectacle of seeing a dozen soldiers in the Dawn March’s heraldry bearing both arms and armor. Apart from the brief civil war at the start of the Queen’s reign, Nath had been at peace for so long that the only military actions the citizens ever witnessed were parades and the irregular public dress reviews. They therefor lacked the natural sense to scatter and flee when an army began gearing up.

Not that the Dawn March was a proper army. Taken as a whole, the Dawn March was one of the largest and most powerful armies in Gallagrin, but it was sectionalized so thoroughly by being assigned to a barracks in each duchy that there was no practical method for the Dawn March to bring its full forces to bear at any one time. Despite the staff assigned to each barrack being considerably smaller than the forces controlled by the Duke whose territory they were nominally meant to oversee though, the Dawn March held roughly equal footing with the local armies thanks to the higher than usual percentage of Pact Warriors the Dawn March was able to boast among its troops.

Dae reflected on that and tried to see what sort of crisis could be severe enough to warrant the activation of so many in the Dawn March’s employ. It had to be something serious or Commander Ketel never would have authorized the expenditure.

“We can’t take Biago in there,” Dae said.

“The hell we can’t,” Kael said. “Those are orders straight from the commander. Simple, plain and nothing we can do about them.”

“There’s always something you can do about orders,” Dae said.

“Give me one reason to disobey them,” Kael said. “Just one. I want to hear this.”

“Simple,” Dae said. “You bring Biago back to the safe house and stay there with him and you don’t need to have anything to do with whatever mess is going on up there. If anything goes wrong, it’ll be my fault, not yours. If I’m right and Biago shouldn’t be here though? Then you get to take all the credit.”

Kael opened his mouth, a sharp comeback catching on the edge of his teeth for a moment before he deflated.

“Ok,” Kael said. “That’s a good reason.”

“Telfin, go with Officer Kael,” Dae said. “This prisoner is in significant danger. If anyone assaults him, your orders are to run and bring back the story of what happened so we can react to it properly. No heroics, no going out in a blaze of glory. Just stay alive and keep an eye on these two as long as you safely can.”

“Begging your pardon,” Telfin said, “But I can’t do that. My orders came straight from the commander.”

“I’m issuing you new orders based on a change in the tactical environment,” Dae said. “In accord with section 14, page 24, paragraph 5.1A. Have you read that?”

Telfin looked perplexed but nodded hesitantly nonetheless. Whether his squire training had included memorization of the official Dawn March regulations or not, he was bright enough to at least pretend he was familiar with them in face of a superior who was clearly willing to take the blame for the matter is she was making things up.

“Ok, then get out here before someone sees you,” Dae said.

Kael was all too eager to leave and dragged a struggling Biago away with Telfin following close behind them. That left Dae free to investigate whatever calamity had befallen the barracks. She was tempted to renew her transformation and walk in with her Pact Warrior regalia on display, but thought the better of it.

Assuming there was a problem that legitimately accounted for the massed troops and the heightened security, Dae knew she might need Kirios again and she’d already drawn more power from him in the last 24 hours than a Dawn March officer was supposed to be capable of. Not as much as she could draw perhaps, but more than was necessarily safe even with their close bond.

One of the soldiers assigned to guard the gates recognized Dae as she pushed through the crowd that was gathering.

“Officer Kor!” the guard called out. “The Commander wants you inside immediately.”

“What’s all this?” Dae asked.

“We’re mobilizing,” the guard said.

Dae wanted to press him further. It was obvious that the Dawn March was mobilizing, what she needed to know was why. She nodded to the guard and passed in through the small iron door in the great gate. Even if the guard knew the reason they were moving out, which was unlikely, discussing it in front of the growing populace would probably not have been the wisest of choices.

Inside the barracks, she found the kind of chaos that only rapid readiness maneuvers could bring. She’d seen similar mad scrambles in each of the companies that she’d served in, though judging by those experiences, the Dawn March ranked at the bottom of the training barrel, somewhere between woefully inept and miserably under-prepared.

Squires streaked by carrying forgotten pieces of armor, while soldiers struggled to strap on armor which they hadn’t maintained in months. Various personnel were yelling orders but only a few people seemed to be listening or responding with any meaningful actions. With her unhurried and almost external perspective on the proceedings, Dae noticed that most of the Dawn March personnel were trying very hard to appear too busy to interrupt while at the same time doing nothing for which they might later be chastised.

The one path that was clear in the building was the one that led to Commander Ketel’s office.

“Kor? Where the hell is your prisoner? For the love of the gods tell me you didn’t let him get killed,” Ketel said. Dae noticed that his armor had a few missing straps, sacrifices to the necessity of containing his somewhat expanded physique.

In a real battle, the Commander’s extra girth and reduced stamina wouldn’t play as large a role as it would for the regular soldiers. His pact spirit would handle the physical labor of fighting and so in that sense it did no harm for Ketel to indulge himself in whatever food or drink he chose. As Dae had suspected when she commanded troops though, the dedication of the commander to personal discipline had an effect on those who served below them, and in her mind at least, the poor state of the Dawn March barracks had an obvious point of origin.

“Biago is still at the safe house,” Dae said. “I came ahead to see if it was safe to move him.”

“Where’s Kael?” Ketel asked.

“Watching the prisoner with the squire you sent,” Dae said.

“Typical.” Ketel managed to put enough irritation into the word to make it sound like a curse.

“”What happened here?” Dae asked. “Did we receive word from Highcrest?”

Dae couldn’t bring herself to directly ask if the Queen had sent for them. It was too unlikely and equal parts of her both did and didn’t want it to occur.

“Highcrest?” Ketel asked. “No, no word from the Royals yet.”

Dae felt relieved and terrified to hear that. The currents of relief that flowed through her came from thoughts as divergent as the joy that nothing was explicitly wrong with Alari yet to the relief that she wouldn’t need to confront Alari again. The shocks of terror threatened to drown those thoughts out though.

If the Dawn March wasn’t moving for a Royal summons, then Dae had no guess what might have occurred that could necessitate the expense of bringing so many people onto full active duty at once.

“Did the Duke call up his troops?” Dae asked. If there was to be a battle against the Telli forces, she had no idea which side Ketel would chose to side with. He had a close connection to the Duke, but the only force that Dae could think of that assault Nath would be the Royal armies and even Ketel’s well-bought loyalty might not extend to treason against the crown.

“No,” the commander said. “The Inchesso ambassador is dead.”

“The…what?” Dae asked, her mind struggling to catch up with how that fit in with the problems she was already aware of.

“The Ambassador from Inchesso,” Ketel said. “The fine gentleman with whom we maintain diplomatic ties with one of our nearest neighbors? The same man who was going to question your prisoner? Yes, well, he sent word that he wanted to question that Briago fellow you caught and then, as he was coming here, his carriage rode off a bridge and he, according to our official report, drowned when it sank into the river.”

“That sounds like a terrible accident but what does it have to do with…” Dae stopped as the pieces fell into place. “Oh seven hells, the Denarius Consortium killed him? Didn’t they?”

“I don’t know,” Ketel said. “The word I got back from the scene was that the Ambassador looks like he was dead before the carriage hit the water.”

“How did he die?” Dae asked.

“Throat cut.” Ketel said. “Don’t usually find that in drowning victims, but I don’t need the stress of explaining that to the public just yet.”

Dae sighed.

“They’re sending a message. The Denarius Consortium,” she said. “It’s supposed to look close enough to Lorenzo’s murder that even an idiot can put the pieces together.”

“With the assault on you and Kael, everyone who’s looked into that case has come under attack,” Ketel said. “And do you know who we have looking into it now?”

Dae thought for a second.

“Lorenzo’s family!” she said. “They’re already traveling here!”

“Right into the hands of a group that seems to be very successful at eliminating Inchesso targets,” Ketel said.

“You’re mobilizing the Dawn March to protect them?” Dae asked.

“At the Duke’s request and expense,” Ketel said. “He’s coming with us to make sure the Inchesso Prince’s family is duly protected from harm.”

Something about that idea left Dae feeling like she’d been completely outflanked.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 20

The Queen of Gallagrin sat with her hands folded in her lap. Her bearing betrayed no hint of support or disdain for the arguments which the Southern Miner’s Coalition advanced against the 3rd Fleet of the Gallagrin Navy. The issue under discussion was a complex one involving pre-established rights to buy worked ore, commitments on production levels and reciprocal review of accounts.

Alari wasn’t precisely bored by these discussion, nor was she overwhelmed by them. Under normal circumstances, the intricacies of how her people conducted their business with one another, the maneuvers and stratagems they used to come out ahead while remaining within the framework of the law, was fascinating and endlessly interesting to her.

Or almost endlessly. As it turned out, the prospect of an impending attempt on her life was enough to leave Alari’s thoughts in a jangle. Long years of practice hiding her emotions from view gave her the skill needed to sit in judgement even when she was distracted though, as well as the wisdom to know when not to make a decision.

“Your request is heard,” she said an hour later after both parties presented their final points. “We will appoint an auditor to review the facts you have provided and will render our decision when their work is concluded.”

It wasn’t the answer either the Miners or the 3rd Fleet wanted to hear. Both would have benefited from a quick resolution to the disagreements they put forth. An auditor would drag the case on for months, reviewing the figures and interviewing witnesses. In the end they weren’t likely to turn up anything more than the Queen could in ten minutes of questions the representatives, but anything they did discover would be well documented and make for a more thoroughly effective resolution that anything either party was likely to agree to on their own.

“Are you feeling well?” Halrek asked her after they departed from the audience hall. As the Consort-King, he had sat in on the meeting as well, though his presence wasn’t strictly required.

“Not entirely,” Alari said after scanning their small study to be sure no one else was lingering around the doors.

“What ails you?” Halrek asked, moving to get her a cup of water to drink.

“Presently, nothing,” Alari said. “But I don’t expect that to remain true for very long.”

“Chasing phantoms again?” Halrek asked. “You know the physician has said you should retain a more cheerful frame of mind.”

“I am positive,” Alari said. “I’m merely positive that someone is going to attempt to kill me.”

Halrek sighed, and let his shoulders droop.

“And what brings on this certainty,” he asked, his voice weary and put out.

“They have killed one of my pages,” Alari said.

“And thus you are imperiled as well?” Halrek asked. “I don’t see the connection  I am afraid.”

“It is the opening shot in a larger gambit,” Alari said.

“Or it’s an unfortunate tragedy,” Halrek said. “People do get killed for little to no reason sometimes.”

“My dear, sweet, King,” Alari said. “Have you lived here so long and still not managed to grasp the currents of Gallagrin’s high society? An attack on our holdings or people is an attack on us.”

“Then am I not as much a target as you?” Halrek asked. “Perhaps some conservative family still mistrusts the Paxmer Prince who shares the throne with you?”

“We know such families exist, but I do not believe this to be their work,” Alari said. “You are well liked by many of the stronger families. A move against you would face opposition from the very families most able to accomplish it, and, more importantly, it would leave the attackers open to my wrath and retribution.”

“And you think you are not just as supported as I?” Halrek asked. “That’s your fear speaking my Queen, not your reason.”

“It is not fear to acknowledge the truth,” Alari said. “You, they are free to love, for you came and turned the tide of the battle against my father by bringing Paxmer’s declaration of peace and support for our side. There is no blood on your hands, and no madness that they look for lurking in your blood.”

“And do you look for that madness as well?” Halrek asked.

“No,” Alari said. “For I know that my father wasn’t mad.”

“That’s a strange and disturbing claim for you to make,” Halrek said. “Wasn’t the whole campaign against his rule to cut short the madness of his reign?”

“Yes, his reign was a mad one, but it didn’t arise out of insanity, at least not the fractured, raving kind of lunacy of which he is most often accused.” Alari said. “He was not gibberingly insane, he was simply overwhelmed and incapable of admitting his own errors.”

“That might be close enough to mad that no line can be drawn between them,” Halrek said.

“If he was truly mad, he would not have been as tenacious a foe to our rebellion,” Alari said. “His mind never lost sight of what was real, he simply chose to interpret everything he saw under the worst possible light, and with no acceptance that he might be wrong.”

“Whereas you are looking at the murder of your page in a clear and open fashion you claim?” Halrek asked.

“I believe so, yes,” Alari said. “Consider the situation; either the murder was part of a greater plan, or it wasn’t. If it was then the plan must be unraveled and dealt with summarily. If it was not though, then there is still someone responsible, and they must feel the full weight of my judgment, lest others with reason to oppose me be encouraged to try similar avenues of attack.”

“You have conjured enemies for every eventuality,” Halrek said.

“You think me not so different from my father?” Alari asked.

“I am trying to perceive the difference,” Halrek said, “But it seems very slight.”

“It seems slight because it is,” Alari said. “But there is a crucial gap between us. Where I see the shadow of a plot against me, I conjure shadows of my enemies that I might study them and discern if anyone real can fill their likeness. My father conjured not shadows but names. When he sensed danger, he would assign its cause to whomever he disliked the most at that moment. He reasoned that they must dislike him as much and were the most likely candidates to do him harm.”

“That certainly speeds up the process,” Halrek said. “Though I expect that it catches the guilty only rarely.”

“I thought so as well, but I’ve since learned otherwise,” Alari said. “From letters and personal conversations after we took the throne, I’ve learned that many my father put to death were in fact in secret rebellion against him.”

“So you’re saying his methods were right?” Halrek asked.

“No, exactly the opposite in fact,” Alari said. “His methods worked only because he killed so many innocents at first that overtime he turned everyone against him.”
“But there were many Lords of the kingdom who fought under his banner?” Halrek said.

“True, but they fought for a variety of reasons,” Alari said. “Some sought to be on the winning side and saw our forces as unequal to the task of ousting a sitting king. Others wanted to slay my father but only on their own terms. And some merely wished to cling to duty and tradition above all else.”

“And what will your approach win you?” Halrek asked. “Seeing the shadows of enemies everywhere can not be good for your health.”

His words carried an unspoken barb to them. The topic of her health was one which came up frequently between them. Though he never spoke of it directly, Alari felt that he must blame her for the loss of their child. It was some weakness in her that had failed the small life that had grown within her. Halrek had fulfilled his duties in regards to the royal heir, but she had not, and if her fears were correct, never would.

“Perhaps not,” Alari said, as much to her own thoughts as to Halrek’s words, “But in this particular case, I suspect the shadows I see have more substance and weight than they ought.”

“But are they not still shadows?” Halrek asked. “Or have you found some proof to rest your fears on?”

“No proof as yet,” Alari said. “But I know that it is being sought.”
“By whom?” Halrek asked.

“By the Dawn March in Nath,” Alari said. A voice within her longed to give credit where it was due, but another remembered the dead, empty words of her last parting with her Adae. If Alari’s King had cause to hold her accountable for one life, her childhood friend had cause to bear witness against her for thousands more.

“Can their findings be trusted?” Halrek asked. Though he wasn’t native to Gallagrin, he still knew where the veins of corruption ran deepest.

“Yes,” Alari said, her words hotter by a degree than she’d intended. “To the extent that they can furnish proof,” she amended, cooling her passion so that it looked like irritation at being questioned at all. It wasn’t a kind stratagem, and she had no reason to hide the truth from her husband, but neither did she wish to reveal that specific vulnerability in her heart. To him or to anyone.

“But they have not provided any yet,” Halrek said.

“Not directly,” Alari said. “But it is telling that the minor witness they sent to me was attacked by an ambush lead by a Pact Warrior as they rode in a carriage bearing the clear heraldry of the Dawn March.”

“That is noteworthy,” Halrek said. “Were they able to capture the reported Pact Warrior?”

“I am awaiting a report on that presently,” Alari said.

“If they were able to take the assailant alive, he might be able to flesh out your shadows and place a name and face to them,” Halrek said. “Unless of course this was some dispute against the Dawn March which your witness was unlucky enough to fall into the middle of by accident.”

“I think I would find an accident even more suspect than a planned attack,” Alari said.

“That speaks to a need to see enemies where none exist,” Halrek said.

“You mistake me,” Alari said. “When I say I see shadows, I look for them so that I will not see enemies where there are none. I look to the shadows to see what information I can gather. I will not be my father. I will name no one my enemy until they have proven themselves to be such.”

“If you would wait so long, then why look for these enemies at all?” Halrek asked.

“I wish to be merciful,” Alari said. “But mercy without vigilance leads to becoming a victim just as surely as vigilance without mercy leads to becoming a tyrant.”

“You set yourself a heavy task, my Queen,” Halrek said.

“It is good that I need not shoulder its burden alone then, my King,” Alari said.

“Indeed,” Halrek said. “Though I suspect you spend more of yourself on vigilance than you know. You leave little room for me to look out for you with the attention to detail you show. Or perhaps you feel the need to be vigilant of me as well?”

“Of course not,” Alari said, ashamed at the thought. “You stood by Gallagrin in her darkest hour. If not for your sacrifice, my father would still rule this land and I would hang from a gibbet tree atop the highest tower here.”

“Our marriage was no great sacrifice,” Halrek said. “And Gallagrin has been kind to me.”

“Let us hope that continues,” Alari said.

“And let us hope that these shadows which you see shall prove to be nothing more than phantoms which vanish with the dawn,” Halrek said.

“I would wish instead for the dawn to come that I might see more clearly who it is that stands against me, and who still supports my cause,” Alari said.

Before their conversation could continue there was a knock on the door.

“Allow me,” Halrek said and went to open the door.

“My apologies Your Highness,” the courier who entered said. “News has arrived from Nath, the Ambassador from Inchesso has been found slain!”

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 19

Dae relaxed and tipped her chair further back, a warm sensation of certainty spreading from her toes up through all points of her body until it settled into her heart.

“The Queen’s your employer?” she asked the Inchesso summoner, just to make certain he was willing to stick with that claim.

“Yes,” Biago said. “Our contract carries the Royal Signet. So it doesn’t matter what you discover here, or where I try to run. The Queen will overrule your findings and my guild will restore my honor and expunge any witnesses they can find.”

“Can’t say I’m thrilled with the notion of fighting a whole guild that thinks someone as powerful as this one is an expendable pawn,” Kael said. “And you’re insane if you think any of us are going to stand against the Queen’s wishes.”

Dae steepled her fingers in front of her mouth to hide the vicious smile that was twisted her lips into a shark’s grin.

It had been six years since she last saw the Queen. She hadn’t been able to meet Alari’s eyes then, and their parting had been filled with a cold, aching silence broken only by the terse, formal words required between a vassal and her liege.

Joining the Dawn March was Dae’s idea. As was her change in title and name. Everyone from the Lord Marshall of the Dawn March down to the lowliest squire in the Nath barracks read that decision as having been “suggested” by the Queen.

Theoretically, the Dawn March was as close to Royal Service as Dae’s role as the commander of Star’s Watch Keep had been. Both the outpost commanders and the officers of the Dawn March reported to a chain of command which was directly controlled by the Regent of Gallagrin.

When she was a child, Dae was told more stories of the gallant hellions of the Dawn March than any other group. They were the brave souls who rooted out the worst villains in the kingdom and brought justice to those whom the law couldn’t otherwise reach. Dae dreamed of joining their ranks for years, even after she began to see that the reality of Gallagrin’s wealthy and powerful didn’t match the fairy tales she’d grown up on.

By the time she transferred to the Dawn March, she was able to enter it with the disillusioned eyes of an adult, but it was still her decision to do so, despite no one else believing that.

To the rest of the world, Dae’s transfer to the Dawn March was both a demotion and a dishonorable discharge from her military role. Where legends had once been told of the Dawn March’s daring and honor, the centuries of tarnish that had built up on the corruption fighting institution robbed it of its luster. The Dawn March was so well bought by the interests it was meant to stand against, that everyone knew it to be the place the bad and the worthless were cashiered so that they would do as little damage as possible.

At the time that had suited Dae’s desires perfectly. Somewhere she could be worthless. Somewhere she couldn’t do any harm. In the wake of Star’s Watch’s burning, that was what her soul cried out for and she was more than willing to oblige it.

From the first day she’d reported to the Nath barracks, she’d heard the whispers of how people chose to define her. Where once she’d been praised as a prodigy, the voices in the barracks called her a failure, and she knew it was true. Where once she a trusted member of one of the kingdom’s most elite companies, in the Dawn March she was surrounded by those who took no pride in either their position or the duties bestowed upon them and she became one of their number, taking pride in nothing. Those were the truths that ate away at her soul until she had had to replace the missing pieces with the spirits she could find in a bottle, but there was one rumor that she didn’t listen to, that she couldn’t.

The last meeting between the Queen of Gallagrin and the former commander of the Star’s Watch Keep was a private one. No one knew what was said between the two women, and so everyone speculated wildly on it. The general consensus was that the Queen had cast Dae out, and that Dae took the job with the Dawn March because she hated her liege and wished to join the one organization where she could retain her pact spirit and yet never have to see the Queen again.

Dae hadn’t corrected that impression. She hadn’t addressed it at all. It wasn’t something she could bring herself to even think of.

Sitting opposite Biago and hearing his claim of the Queen’s guilt in the Lorenzo’s murder filled Dae with warmth for one reason; she knew Alari hadn’t done it.

Her earlier reasoning about the deception Biago’s true employer would employ was solid, but not definite. It would have been foolish for his employer not to deceive the assassins in his employ but people made mistakes all the time, even very smart people and very stupid mistakes kept company with each other on a regular basis.

Dae’s certainty didn’t spring from her logic. It rose from something deeper and something much simpler.

She knew Alari. Six years separated them, but it could have been sixty years or six hundred and it wouldn’t have mattered. For years, Dae had been the only one Alari could share everything with, and Alari had been the only one whom Dae could trust completely. Dae had seen Alari on her best days and her worst ones. She knew Alari’s pettiness, her cruelty, and her malice as well as she knew her friend’s joy, and kindness and selflessness.

When Dae heard how the civil war ended, and of the sacrifices Alari had to make to secure the new peace, she hadn’t been surprised, only heartbroken. Dae knew the shape of Alari’s soul, she knew the actions her friend was capable of, the losses Alari could endure, and the burdens the new Queen could bear. What shattered Dae was the knowledge that Alari had been forced to act and endure and bear up without her. That in Alari’s very worst hour, Dae hadn’t been there for her.

Dae hid that wound and buried it under silence and sarcasm. No one knew her true feelings, and so she’d been drawn into the plot as a perfect catspaw. They mistaken her for someone too stupid to give up easily, someone who could find a believably well buried clue and someone who would be all too willing see the Queen burn.

Dae’s shark smile sent a thrill racing to the tips of her fingers. Whoever was behind Lorenzo’s murder had made a terrible error when they let Dae get involved in the investigation and it was going to be delicious watching them learn just how wrong they were to endanger Alari in an arena where Dae had anything to say about it.

“You’re forgetting something Kael,” Dae said. “We busted a forgery house two months ago. And another one six months before that. And two others a year ago.”

“You’re still thinking there’s a grand mastermind at work here?” Kael asked.

“Maybe not so grand, and maybe not so much of a mastermind,” Dae said. “Ask yourself though how hard it would be to fool a bunch of Inchesso assassins with a fake Royal Seal?”

“We verified the seal,” Biago said. “It was legitimate.”

“Verified through who?” Dae asked. “You don’t have the original Seal to compare to, and Inchesso counterfeiters don’t hold a candle to our local Gallagrin scum.”

“We have contacts in Gallagrin,” Biago said. “We are not stupid.”

“Those would be the same contacts who brought you commission? Right?” asked Dae.

Biago scowled at the accusation but didn’t try to deny it.

“Don’t feel bad,” Dae said. “You’re not exactly in a trust inducing line of work. That your guild has any contacts outside of Inchesso at all is a mark of prestige. You may not be top notch but you’re at least respectable.”

“Doesn’t sound like you respect them much,” Kael said.

“I respect them just as much as I respect you and the rest of my fellow officers,” Dae said.

It was Kael’s turn to scowl at that.

“I still think if the Queen’s involved in this we should just drop it,” Kael said.

“You want to let him walk?” Dae said. “It sits right with you that he and, what, a half dozen other professional killers, murdered a boy who was too young to shave?”

“I’m less concerned with a dead boy who isn’t going to get any deader than I am with my own neck, which I’d like to keep in its current, unslit, condition,” Kael said.

“You’ve got a pact spirit,” Dae said frowning at Kael in distaste.

“Yeah, and I’m old enough to know that it doesn’t make me invulnerable,” Kael said. “We’ve got Biago here on the hook now. If he tries to call up any of his little shadows we can take his head off his shoulders before he pronounces the first syllable of their name. We both know we’ve got to sleep at some point though.”

“We don’t have to worry about that,” Dae said. “Biago doesn’t want to kill us, he wants to die to restore his family’s honor. If we go to sleep, he’s not going to risk attacking us and having our pacts defend us. He’ll off himself with the fastest tools he can find.”

“I will not need to kill myself, my guild will come for me,” Biago said.

“And you’re counting on that because that’s how they can be sure that the job was actually done,” Dae said. “That’s an awfully strong fixation on honor you’ve got for a guy who was willing to murder a child.”

“You understand nothing,” Biago said.

Dae studied him for a long moment.

“You’re not worried about honor to gain your family’s favor are you?” she asked. “They have your family don’t they?”

“What do you mean ‘they have his family’,” Kael asked.

“Standard technique for the life bound assassin guilds,” Dae said. “Failure always ends with death. Either the assassin takes their own life or their family is killed in their place. And then the wayward assassin is killed as soon as the guild can find them.”

“Doesn’t seem like you’d get many recruits like that,” Kael said.

“You do if you’re giving out pact spirits,” Dae said.

“I thought only the Royal houses gave those out?” Kael said.

“It’s the same in Inchesso as it is here,” Dae said. “Everything’s for sale.”

“How do you know that?” Kael asked. “You never served in Inchesso.”

“I’ve read all kinds of things I shouldn’t have,” Dae said, leaving out the explanation that most of her knowledge on the underworld came from the intelligence reports that King Sathe commissioned and that Dae and Alari pilfered when no one was looking.

Reams of scrolls that the adults were bored to tears by became a secret treasure horde for the two girls, and the first of many rebellions that eventually tore the country apart for a brief period.

“Sounds like our assassin got a pretty raw deal then,” Kael said.

“Not as raw as the one Lorenzo got,” Dae said.

“I wasn’t the one who killed the boy,” Biago said.

“Sure you did,” Dae said. “Even if you didn’t hold the dagger, you were with them when your guildmate did the deed. You agreed to take the contract. Lorenzo lost a lot of blood. There’s plenty to cover your hands too.”

“You are right,” Biago said. “If you seek justice for the boy, then you should kill me too.”

“I’m not that kindly,” Dae said.

A knock on the door to the small apartment captured the attention of everyone inside it.

“Your guild a particularly polite one?” Kael asked.

“It’s not his guild,” Dae said. “It’s the other party that’s interested in talking to our friend here.”

Biago and Kael both looked at her in confusion but Dae simply gestured to the door, waving Kael over to answer it. The Dawn March officer looked at Dae, and then at the prisoner and then at the door, trying to decide which of the three was the least dangerous. With a renewed scowl he settled on the door as the safest option and walked to it calling out “Who’s there?”

“Squire Telfin,” a young man called back. “I’ve come from the barracks with new orders.”

“Your presence is being requested,” Dae said to Biago.

Kael let the squire into the room

“Commander Ketel said to bring the prisoner back to the barracks. The Inchesso ambassador is demanding to see him. The prince’s family is coming here and are requiring that the culprits be presented to them in chains when they arrive!”

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 18

Dae took a long pull of her sugared lemon water and felt the much needed hydration course through her body. Across the table, the summoner Biago glared at her. He’d taught her an impressive array of Inchesso curses already but after the first three hours he’d started repeating himself. Dae took steps to address the problem of his incessant babbling when she grew tired of it and while the gag he wore didn’t look particularly comfortable, even the summoner knew it was preferable to the state he would have been in if he’d been left to the Dawn March’s Chief Interrogator’s care.

“They’re not going to come for him,” Kael said.

“Want to put some gold on that?” Dae asked, taking another long guzzle to finish off her drink.

“You’ve already cost me enough gold with this whole mess,” Kael said. He stalked around the dining room of the “safe house” where they had transferred Biago after Dae dragged him bodily into the barracks and frog marched him through each step of the official arrest processing.

Getting the Inchesso summoner out of the barracks should have been difficult. There were all sorts of forms to fill out and special permissions to obtain to detain prisoners off site, especially prisoners who possessed Pact magics.

Dae had pushed through all of those procedures by the simple expedient of ignoring them and never letting Biago out of her grip. She’d made sure all of the requisite documents were filled and filed, for reasons that escaped each of the clerks she encountered. For similarly inexplicable reasons, she conducted the official interrogation session in the open arena where any of the other Dawn March personnel could participate as well. None had chosen to, but plenty had come to watch.

Biago had been less than forthcoming during the questioning, to the surprise of no one present. Many of the officers present had begun to wonder if Dae had simply dragged in a mute to abuse until she’d instructed Biago to demonstrate his summoning capability for the record. She also instructed him that if the summons attempted any mayhem, she would be displeased.

The summoner refused to display his power at first, but swiftly changed his mind when Dae explained that she was going to cut something in half and left it as Biago’s choice whether that was a summons or himself.

On discovering that Biago was an actual summoner, and was capable of spawning his creations at range, the crowd that was watching the interrogation found hundreds of things it needed to be doing instead. No one liked the idea of entering battle against a deathless foe who could appear anywhere, at any moment. Better to let the barrack’s designated crazy officer deal with that particular headache.

That sentiment was largely responsible for Dae’s success in extracting Biago from the Dawn March barracks. To Kael’s dismay, Commander Ketel had ordered him to accompany Dae to “ensure the safety of Dawn March personnel”. Everyone involved was able to translate that order to its actual meaning of “keep an eye on Dae and report whatever insane thing she’s doing so that no one we care about or have to report to gets caught in the backlash.”

“If you’d just let me squeeze him a bit, we could get out of this dump and spend the evening in more enjoyable locations, specifically ones far away from each other,” Kael said.

“He’s part of a life-bound assassin’s guild,” Dae said. “Failing and being captured is supposed to require their death.”

“Yeah, and?” Kael asked.

“Squeezing him isn’t going to get us any information,” Dae said.

“Doesn’t have to get us information so long as it gets us out of here,” Kael said. “If he’s not going to talk, I don’t see the point in keeping him around like this.”

“So you want to kill the suicidal assassin?” Dae asked. “That’s your idea of a good plan?”

Kael frowned and reached for his rancid malt drink.

“It’s a better plan that wasting a perfectly good night sitting here doing nothing,” Kael said.

“The door’s not locked,” Dae said. ”Nobody’s saying you’ve got to stay.”

“Wrong, the commander’s saying I’ve got to stay,” Kael said. “You’ve got him convinced you’re going to burn the whole city to the ground hunting these guys down.”

Dae was silent at that. Kael didn’t see her flinch at the mention of a burning city, and wouldn’t have understood if he had.

“Of course there’s another option we have here,” Kael said. “This safe house is supposed to only be for endangered witnesses. You and I both know that the barracks are were a scrot like this is supposed to be.”

“The barracks have a few big problems,” Dae said.

“That someone else would be in charge of the prisoner there?” Kael said and took another pull of the rancid malt.

“That’s one,” Dae said. “But there’s a bigger issue with putting this guy in a cell.”

“If he tries to summon anything, we’ll run a sword through his brain,” Kael said. “I hear that kind of thing tends to disrupt summoning spells.”

“Probably wouldn’t break your concentration though would it?” Dae asked.

“Funny Kor,” Kael said. “You know you don’t want to go a round with me.”

“No, no I wouldn’t want to do that,” Dae said, the ghost of a smirk tugging at her lips. “The problems not with our friend summoning things here though.”

“You sure about that?” Kael asked. “It looked like those archers did a number on you.”

“He certainly thought they did,” Dae said. “But look at things from his perspective. He was able to select the best position he could find, split us up to get a one on one fight, throw as many summons at me as he had the magic to power and he still got caught.”

Dae stood up and walked around the table to remove Biago’s gag and untie him from the chair he was strapped too.

“There,” she said. “Now you’re free to take another shot if you want.”

“Seems like he was in this same position for this first two hours we were here,” Kael said. “What’s different now?”

“Nothing,” Dae said. “Except that he’s had a few hours to cool off and consider things.”

“I have nothing to consider, you gallowscut,” Biago said, opting for a more international insult in place of the purely Inchesso ones he’d stuck to previously. Kael kicked Biago’s chair on general principal and the Inchesso summoner tipped over along with it.

Dae’s reflexes were quick enough and her strength sufficient that she caught both the chair and the summoner before they hit the ground. Without a grunt or a groan of strain, she lifted the two back to their normal seated position.

“You’ve got your whole life to consider,” Dae said.

“Which more or less amounts to nothing,” Kael said.

Biago scowled at both of them but remained silent.

“These last few hours you’ve been thinking,” Dae said. “There are certain inescapable facts of your situations that can’t have escaped you.”

“You stand against us,” Biago said. “So you are the one who cannot escape.”

“Do I look like I’m trying to escape?” Dae asked.

Biago glared at her but didn’t respond.

“That’s got to worry you just a little,” Dae said. “Doesn’t it?”

“I have no worries if you’re stupid enough to stay here and die,” Biago said.

“Why’s she going to die?” Kael asked, stepping away a half pace.

“Because Biago knows something,” Dae said. “And that’s the other problem with the barracks jail. They’re too secure aren’t they? You would actually be safe there.”

“Nothing,” Biago said. “You get nothing from me.”

“That’s brave,” Dae said. “It’d be more brave if you kept saying that after the Chief Interrogator got his hands on you, but I think you know you’ve got more to be worried about from me than from him.”

“You don’t scare me, scut,” Biago said.

“That’s good,” Dae said. “You shouldn’t be scared of me. I want you able to think.”

“Thinking’s just going to let him figure out how to get away from us,” Kael said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Dae said. “There’s nothing left for him out there.”

“You don’t know anything about that,” Biago said.

“I know your guildmates aren’t coming to rescue you,” Dae said. “But they are coming, and you know that too.”

“Why would his guildmates come here?” Kael asked.

“Because Biago failed at his assignment, now they’ve got to maintain their reputation,” Dae said.

“By attacking us?” Kael asked. “That seems profoundly stupid.”

“They’re not coming for us,” Dae said. “Although they’ll be happy to kill us in the crossfire if they can.”

“Wait, you said it’s a life bound guild?” Kael asked.

“Yeah, didn’t know that when I tangled with the first one but it’s kind of hard to mistake the effects of a suicide pill,” Dae said. “Had a bit of trouble getting this guy’s pills away from him but we came to an arrangement, didn’t we?”

“Let me guess, you agreed to not break any of his fingers and he agreed to not provoke you into trying?” Kael said.

“Something like that,” Dae said.

“So since you convinced him not to off himself, his buddies are going to swing by and do the deed for him?” Kael asked.

“That’s how it works, right?” Dae said, returning to her side of the table and locking eyes with Biago. He didn’t answer at first but he wasn’t able to meet Dae’s gaze for long either. Eventually he nodded.

“And that his problem,” Dae said. “There’s no good path out of this for him. Even if he killed both of us, he failed and was captured. The guild can’t trust him anymore and their contract rate will drop unless they can prove that any member who fails is terminated.”

“That’s a hell of a club to belong to,” Kael said.

“Hell of a paycheck that comes with it I imagine,” Dae said.

“It’s not about the money,” Biago said. “It’s never about the money.”

“Oh, it’s always about the money,” Dae said. “You’re just at a level where you’re not the one bringing it in.”

“My guild will come for me,” Biago said. “They will restore my honor.”

“No, they’ll come for you and they’ll kill you and then they’ll never speak of you again,” Dae said. “You’ll be forgotten and forsaken, a footnote they erase so that they can go on believing that they’re the best of the best and worth every bit of coin they get.”

“You can’t stop them,” Biago said. “They are the best.”

“I’m afraid not,” Dae said. “There’s around a hundred of assassin guilds in Inchesso, and at least a quarter of them require members to take the death pledge when they join.The best don’t need to take jobs like this though. You’re out of your element, you’re doing the dangerous work yourselves, and you’re understaffed for the task at hand.”

“Seems like having a summoner and a pact warrior ought to be plenty to assassinate one little page?” Kael said.

“They’re not here to assassinate Lorenzo,” Dae said. “Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that’s not the only reason they’re here.”

“You don’t know anything,” Biago said, but worry lines creased his forehead.

“If your contract was only on the boy, you would have left as soon as the killing was done,” Dae said. “If there wasn’t something dangerous in the vampire’s testimony you would have left him alone. And, of course, if you actually knew who you were working for, your employer wouldn’t have sent you against me on your own.”

“What do you mean?” Biago asked.

“You’re a summoner,” Dae said. “That makes you a strategic asset. Only an idiot would send you out unprotected. Of course there’s lot of idiots in the world, but it would take a truly special breed of stupid to send someone to attack me when I’d just beaten a high end warrior type.”

“My skills are different from the ones Sandros possessed,” Biago said. “If you were strong against him, you should have been weak against me.”

“That’s your problem”, Kael said. “She’s weak against everyone, you people just suck.”

“Weak or strong, anyone with an ounce of sense would have sent more than one of you against me the second time,” Dae said. “They just sent you though, which means, however strong you are, they weren’t really trying to win. They left you exposed rather than sending a team that was certain to be able to finish me.”

“We do not waste our lives like that,” Biago said. “I should have been able to kill you both.”

“There’s more of you here,” Dae said. “Is ‘should have’ the level of commitment the Denarius Consortium brings to their work? Or did your employer have a series of tasks that all needed to be executed at the same time and you were all they could spare for the vital function of killing Kael and I?”

Biago was silent, but his mouth was open as he searched for the words to deny Dae’s claim.

“You’re not our killer,” Dae said. “At least not in your employer’s eyes. Sure, he probably would have been delighted if you could have put us down. He might even have expected it was something you could possibly do. A skilled planner doesn’t expend resources on shaky odds though, not unless they can arrange things so that each outcome works out in their favor.”

“So how does it work out for this mystery employer if we catch him?” Kael asked.

“If he killed us, we’d be one less problem to deal with,” Dae said. “If we catch him though, he becomes a messenger.”

“And what kind of message would a guy who wants to eat a suicide pill carry?” Kael asked.

“You know how good the Chief Interrogator is,” Dae said. “No amount of training or devotion to the cause is enough to keep someone’s lips sealed when they fall into his hands. Not forever at any rate.”

“I would never speak,” Biago said.

“You would never give up your guild,” Dae said. “But the employer who betrayed them? The one who was toying with you all along and came to visit to mock you? The Interrogator would make sure those things happened and then you’d definitely turn them in.”

Biago’s dark skin couldn’t drain of color, but his expression spoke of his dismay clearly enough to communicate the same thing.

“I thought we could skip all that unpleasantness though,” Dae said. “You can’t tell me who your employer is, because you don’t actually know. The whole time you’ve been here it’s been secret meeting with people who spoke for your employer and relayed orders to your guild. None of that is interesting to me. What I want to know is who do you think you’re working for?”

Biago glanced over at Kael, and up at Dae.

“You’re life doesn’t need to end here,” Dae said. “The Queen brought Gallagrin close to Paxmer with her marriage. You can go to there, become someone completely new, leave everything you were behind.”

Biago chuckled at that and deflated.

“It will not be so easy,” he said. “It was the Queen who hired us.”

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 17

Duke Lares Telli balanced a gold coin between the knuckles of his left index and middle fingers. It took drawing on the magics of his pact to keep his hands steady enough to perform the simple trick.

“My lord,” Serk Ketel, his chief attache said. “We have not received further word from the Denarius Consortium and it has been an hour since their last report.”

The gold coin tumbled to the carpet and with a long, slow breath Telli retrieved another from his desk and began his meditation again.

“Their summoner has been captured then,” Telli said.

“Does this present a problem?” Serk asked. He stood to the side of his lord’s polished wood desk, his body still as a drawn bow string.

“An opportunity,” Telli said. “It’s early to spend one of our pieces on misdirection but that will perhaps make the summoner’s tale ring even more true.”

“The last member of the Consortium who was caught perished by their own hand,” Serk said. “Isn’t the summoner likely to pass in the same manner as well?”

“They’re likely to try, but I suspect our Officer Kor will be ready for that stratagem this time,” Telli said. The coin was balancing well but he felt a tremor in his hand that was threatening to send it plummeting to the floor to join the others. Power was the answer to that. The strength age had stolen from him, could be replaced, he just needed the daring to seize it.

“Is there anything I should prepare for the next phase?” Serk asked.

“No,” Telli said. “The pawns are moving, already dancing to the tune that we’ve set. This part of the game requires that we step back and give them room to fail as we’ve prepared them to.”

Serk was silent in response to that.

“I can tell that you wish to say something.” Telli said. “Speak of it, there will be no censure.”

There were few men who Lares Telli regarded as worthy of respect and none who he felt were his equals. In Serk, the Duke found not someone of his own caliber but someone who at least was sensible enough to have opinions worth listening too.

“I’m concerned about this Officer Kor,” Serk said. “She has been significantly more aggressive in pursuing this case than any other member of the Dawn March would have been. And she’s been more successful at it too.

“Our plan did call for a resourceful and dedicated investigator,” Telli said.

“Yes. I merely find it worrying that she has been a very successful one as well.” Serk said. “Isn’t there a danger that she will see through the disguise we have wrapped this situation in?”

“I’m sure she will,” Telli said. “In time.”

“I have our own assets standing by,” Serk said. “We can move to neutralize her as soon as you command.”

“It’s a tempting thought isn’t it Serk?” Telli said. “She is dangerous, and so we want to make her an enemy. And we want our enemies to be dispatched as quickly as possible. It keeps our lives simple to fit people into that category.”

“I believe she is intent on becoming our enemy regardless of whatever we might make her,” Serk said.

“Yes, because she believes we are dangerous, even if she doesn’t yet know who we are,” Telli said.

“She will have an easier time striking against us if she should discover the truth of our plans,” Serk said.

“Will she?” Telli asked. “Officer Daelynne Kor is one woman, alone, with no more support than the time-withered affections of a small group of old loyalists. She was a torch which sputtered brightly with the first blush of adulthood and then was snuffed to a lingering ember after her great failure.  Her power to accuse us or to make anyone listen to her is as broken and empty as her name.”

“Your Grace is doubtlessly correct on that,” Serk said. “My concern is chiefly with her lingering royal connections. She was able to transport her witness to the Queen despite our best efforts to prevent that.”

“Oh I won’t argue that she’s not resourceful,” Telli said. “If I’d had any idea that my son’s vampire would be in a position to cause me such strife I would have beheaded the monster rather than merely beating him.”

“I regret not counseling you to do so as well, my lord,” Serk said.

“But there too, Serk, we both would have been wrong,” Telli said. “The vampire is our enemy too, but an enemy without the power to strike back is what?”

“A tool?” Serk said.

“Exactly,” Telli said. “Thanks to Officer Kor’s heroic efforts we now have an Inchesso vampire to cast in the role of the agent for the Queen. No one will have any trouble believing the story that the Queen hired the Denarius Consortium to kill her own page because poor young Lorenzo saw her engaging in a tryst that he wasn’t supposed to witness. Not when she is engaging in private meetings  with a disowned vampire of Inchesso stock.”

“The Queen herself will believe the vampire’s tale though, will she not?” Serk asked.

“Of course,” Telli said. “But the vampire doesn’t know the details she needs to be warned of and by the time they come out, any defense she makes will seem like a belated set of lies to cover her scandal.”

“A vampire and a Dawn March Officer are one sort of prey,” Serk said, “With someone as influential as the Queen though, will the same stratagems really work?

“Before she was a Queen, she was a princess and before she was royalty of any kind Alari was a woman,” Telli said. “Once her virtue is called into question, her word will be as open to question as any common scullery maid. With an air of illicit love, and conspiracy, and murder to set the imagination ablaze, there will be too many who want to believe in her guilt for royal privilege to silence all of their tongues.”

“Perhaps where royal privilege fails, royal power will be exercised,” Serk said. “She is the daughter of the Butcher King after all.”

“Yes, and she earned her sobriquet as the Bloody Handed Queen quite fairly,” Telli said. “But her reign has not been what her father’s was. She has not invested in the bedrock of terror that Sathe’s rule stood upon, nor will she undo the strides she’s made in walking away from her father’s shadow just to quiet the tongues that speak against her. She will bid her time and look for the right moment to strike back.”

“If she finds that moment, her wrath will be terrible,” Serk said. “We saw that at the end of the Unification war.”

“We saw very little of what a royal is truly capable of then,” Telli said. “If the Queen could bring her power to bear, we would count ourselves lucky if she only chose to personally behead us. But that won’t be an issue.”

“Your plans proceed at your pace, of course, your Grace, but I would urge you to ensure that they proceed as quickly as possible,” Serk said. “None thought the princess could overthrow her father and become Queen, I mistrust leaving her fate to chance.”

“In that we are agreed my good attache,” Telli said. “Where we differ is only in the timing.”

“Your Grace?” Serk asked, sensing that his master held a secret from him still.

The Duke maneuvered the coin he was balancing from one set of knuckles to the next. It was a slow, deliberate move, without the flash that a young performer would have put into the trick but the coin moved as Telli willed it to nonetheless.

“So as to calm your nerves, I will share a confidence with you,” Telli said. “You see the Queen growing in awareness of our scheme and reading to move against us. Though she is blind now, still she seeks those shadows she can see rising against her. You fear that if we do not strike soon, she will strike first and we will be undone. In one part of this you are correct. Those who strike first are those who prevail.”

“Then you will accelerate the plans and move against her soon?” Serk asked.

“There is no need,” Telli said. “I won’t attack her directly at all. The Queen is already undone, already the shadows strike against her. Even if our plan were uncovered this very evening and we were hauled to Highcrest in chains tomorrow, the Queen’s life is already compromised. She will die before we ever stand before her in a trial.”

From the corridor beyond Duke Telli’s study the sound of rapidly approaching boots interrupted their conversation. The runner paused at the door and knocked soundly on it, as the Duke insisted his subordinates do regardless of the urgency of the news they brought.

“Enter,” Telli said and fumbled the coin from his fingers as he tried to grasp it and hold it still.

A tall, thin, whip of a man entered. Volk, one of Telli’s trusted messengers, though not so trusted as the chamberlain, looked to his Duke for permissions to speak. Telli nodded at him to get on with his report.

“News from Elinspire,” Volk said. “Your son, Rendolan, has fled the estate!”

“Fled?” Telli gripped the edge of the desk and fought to stay in his seat. “There was supposed to be a guard watching him at all times. How did he flee?”

“The guard captain says that Renaldo was a model son, compliant with your orders until the previous evening. Then he tricked Marcelo, the guard who was watching his room in the small hours of the night. Renaldo gave Marcelo the wine he hadn’t drunk with supper and slipped out while all the house was asleep.” Volk said.

The Duke listened to the tale and grew visibly redder with each word that was spoken. When Volk finished the Duke was silent for a long minute.

“I strive to protect my boy, and this is how he thanks me?” Telli asked. “Volk, tell the guards at Elinspire that they are to spare no effort to find my son. If any harm comes to him, I will have every last one of them whipped. Tell the captain that if my son is not safely home within the day, I will have he and his family flayed alive. Am I clear?”

“Perfectly your grace,” Volk said and disappeared out the door, his boots beating an even  faster retreat than their approach.

Telli picked up another coin and fumbled it. He grabbed it before it could fall completely and hurled it into the wall with enough force to flatten it. Forcing himself back to a state of seeming calm, he sat down at the desk again.

“All great plans must sail through uncertain waters,” Telli said, speaking as much for his own benefit as for Serk’s response.
“Here, again, we have an opportunity,” Telli said, grasping another coin in his hand and squeezing it between his thumb and fore finger.

“What opportunity is that my lord?” Serk asked.

“My son is integral to our plan,” Telli said. “The Consortium thinks they are working for the Queen and that I am her agent. Only by keeping them within our domain can I keep them out of her eyes, but that means many trails of inquiry will connect them to my house.”

“You wish to deflect that suspicion onto your son?” Serk asked.

“Not deflect no,” Telli said. “I will leave my son his good name, it would not do to cast aspersions on any who bear the name Telli lest we all be affiliated with their wrong doing.”

“But your son will provide you with a shield against the accusations of the other noble houses no?” Serk asked.

“Indeed,” Telli said. “In life Renaldo has ever been a disappointment. I hoped that as he came into his manhood he might find the spine that he misplaced as a child, but that was never to be. I have one good child Serk, only in my eldest son does the Telli blood run true. He will be a fit heir for me to hand power too when it is my time to pass. And my daughter, mad though she is, can be used to secure us a kingdom. Only Renaldo holds no value to this family, and so only he can I raise up and give the honor of shielding us from blame. Through his death at the hands of the Denarius assassins will we be cast in the victim’s light, our guilt washed to innocence by the blood he spills.”

A smile played across the Duke’s face, mirroring the fondness in his words. All would be as he had always hoped it to be, if only he could find his wayward son.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 16

Surviving with a half dozen arrows run through your chest is impossible. Human organs have grave issues with being punctured by long shafts of steel tipped wood. Hearts in particular tended to be upset when plant-based obstructions like arrows interfered with their ability to pump blood to the other organs that were crying out for it.

Dae gave silent thanks to Kirios that she didn’t have to worry about that particular problem. Thanks to her Pact spirit’s power, her real body was still safely ensconced in the magic of the transformation and held in a dimension slightly offset from the material world. The illusions of the armor falling away from her was the sort of trickery that any suitably proficient Pact Warrior could pull off though very few ever had cause to, and even fewer ever practiced.

The bond between Pact spirit and their warrior was a crucial one, and determined how much power their fusion had access to in battle. For most Pact Warriors, training to improve that bond was a daily task in the early weeks of their association. Beyond the first few months though the Pact relationship was largely defined and further efforts to improve its scope yielded little results.

Little results were fine with Dae though. With few other distractions in her life, she was constantly fiddling with Kirios’ capabilities. Most of her “personal training” was unfocused and unproductive, but she still made headway in tiny steps.

It was thanks to that constant probing of the boundaries of their power that Kirios was able to configure his appearance to look like Dae as she lay on the roof and waited to see what the summoner’s next move would be. She was wagering on several gambles at once with her feint, from her adversary being at least slightly foolish, to herself being the better judge of the fight’s pacing. She didn’t need all of those risks to pay out, just any of the right ones.

If the summoner was of Inchesso stock, as she guessed they might be, the odds were that they wouldn’t be intimately versed in the capabilities Pact Warriors possessed. To the untrained observer, it should have appeared that Dae ran out of power and chose to drop her protection, or lost it while reaching for more. She couldn’t be sure of her acting prowess but she thought she’d put on a good enough show in wading through wave and wave of shadow archers, slowing down with each one until her final “collapse” to make the summoner’s victory believable.

Another Pact Warrior would have questioned at least a few elements of her performance though, not the least of which being why she chose to attack several waves of archers rather than flee faster than they could follow.

A novice fighter could easily find themselves locked into a mindless fighting pattern by pure bloodlust but Dae didn’t move like a novice. Anyone with her level of training would have known exactly how powerful a fighting retreat could be, and definitely would have been aware of the value of fleeing an ambush in order to engage the enemy on terms that weren’t so favorable to them.

Fighting a summoner on the grounds of their choosing meant giving them the benefit of whatever concealment they’d chosen as well as the lightest burden for resummoning their forces that they could setup. In a running battle it was much harder for the summoner to stay hidden and an exposed summoner against a Pact Warrior had a lifespan measured in milliseconds in most cases.

Which isn’t to say that there weren’t problems with running battles in the middle of a busy city.

“The rest of you I save because it’s convenient”

Dae’s words echoes in her ears. There was more truth in them than she wanted to admit. She avoided fighting through the city because she wanted to arrive at this moment, when her quarry made the mistake of thinking she had fallen, when they would feel safe enough to make a mistake. A side effect of the strategy was that the general populace remained unharmed.

Dae stilled her breathing and thought back to a time when her priorities would have been the reverse of what they’d become.

Another arrow thunked into her, interrupting her concentration but not forcing her to break the illusion of her death. The summoner wasn’t as foolish as she’d hoped, but it was only one arrow, so her guess as to their reserves of magic, or the lack thereof, was looking to be correct. All she needed to do was wait. Not that waiting was easy. Until she heard them move, she had to maintain her ruse and remain dead still or she would never lay her hands on them.

To ignore the damage that Kirios was holding at bay, Dae let her mind drift into her memories. The image of two girls racing through a long abandoned tower surfaced from the waters of Lethe that drowned her past.

“You’ll never catch me Alari!” the child Dae squealed as her strong legs boosted her up the wobbly stone stairs three steps at a time.

“Sleeping Gods you’re part mountain lion Adae!” the princess who followed Dae called out.

“Rar!” Dae said, doing her best impression of a creature she’d never actually seen as she flew up the steps even faster.

“You’re not getting away from me!” Alari yelled in a very unprincess-like fashion.

In her mind’s eye, the adult Dae could picture the enormous scale of the open room that waited at the top of the stairs. It wasn’t that large but from her younger self’s perspective it was vast area for potential mischief. The colors of the ancient carpet remained in Dae’s memory even after more than a decade and a half since she first saw them. There were worn golds that still shone with a shadow of their former luster, rich blues faded to pale watercolors where traffic had worn them down and reds that had once been vibrant as fresh apples but were long since brushed down to soft pinks. To her younger self, the carpet was an tapestry ocean that told hundreds of stories.

It was also quite flat. That detail stuck with her because of how badly Alari tripped on it when she entered the room and spied Dae on the far side of it, almost at the stairs leading to the next floor.

Alari’s fall wasn’t bad because it looked painful. If anything it was the lack of pain that gave it away. One step the princess was streaking across the room trying to catch her playmate and then next she was sinking to floor having “tripped”. Her landing was so gentle though that Dae knew it had to be faked.

“That’s cheating Alari,” Dae said, narrowing her eyes at her friend. Alari didn’t move. She didn’t even make a sound.

Dae crept a step forward, waiting for the princess to roll back to her feet and resume their race, but Alari didn’t budge.

“You’re never going to catch me like that,” Dae said and edged a few steps closer.

Still no response from the princess.

“Are you ok?” Dae asked, concern leaking into her voice.

Alari treated Dae like a friend, like an equal if Dae was honest, but Dae knew she wasn’t as important as Alari. The castle staff, and more importantly the King, tolerated Dae because Alari liked her. For as awful as King Sathe was, Dae saw feet swinging in the breeze, he at least doted on his daughter.

People said that the King changed when Alari’s mother died, but Dae didn’t think that was true. Queen Halia may have mitigated the worst of her husband’s madness but Dae had never known a time when the King’s name wasn’t spoke of in fear, and for good reason.

Dae took another step closer to Alari and reached for her. If something had happened to the princess, her protection of Dae would vanish. The thought was terrifying but it was only a small worry compared to the idea that something might actually be wrong with the princess. Dae knew for sure that Alari was faking, but if she wasn’t, if she’d truly been injured because of Dae’s taunting then the King wouldn’t have to kill Dae. He wouldn’t get the chance to.

Dae wasn’t Alari’s equal. She would never rule a kingdom like Alari would. She would never bear the burdens that her best friend was destined to live under. Alari’s destiny was to stand on a greater stage than Dae could ever act on, but that didn’t meant mean that Dae couldn’t support her.

In a very real way, Alari had saved Dae’s life by claiming her as a handmaiden. A moment latter and Dae’s feet would have swung in the breeze as well. The princess didn’t see it like that, but Dae and everyone Dae spoke to did. For that alone, Dae would have been grateful and given the princess anything she asked. Except Alari didn’t ask for anything.

As a royal of Gallagrin, Alari could have commanded Dae to do almost anything, but instead she’d asked, just quietly requested, Dae’s company each day, as though it were a new request each time.

Technically Dae was one of many handmaids but the rest were all sensible older women, ladies concerned with proper decorum and the needs of the court. Dae was supposed to follow their lead in all things, but when she could never bring herself to. From the first hour she was in Alari’s service she saw how everyone else treated the princess. It was like Alari was a crystal doll, too fragile to touch or even to be near for long. The castle, and Alari’s rooms in particular was a marvelous edifice but even as a young child Dae could see that they were little more than a box that the people of the castle were very content to leave Alari packed away in, safe, protected but also completely isolated.

That wasn’t driven by Alari’s needs or requests of course. It was the fear of her father that kept the handmaids and the rest of the staff at arm’s length or beyond. No one wanted to be the person who drew the King’s attention, even if it was for supporting his daughter. The Butcher King was too erratic to risk any chance of being noticed by him.

That was why Alari’s request for Dae to spend time with her were always phrased so that Dae could have easily refused. Alari wasn’t stupid. She knew how dangerous her father was and the peril that being with her entailed.

That, in turn, was why Dae never refused. She couldn’t understand how a monster like Sathe had an offspring as compassionate as Alari, but after what Alari did for her, Dae wasn’t going to let her stand alone. Not against anyone or anything.

In that moment of seeing Alari crumpled on the floor, the worst of Dae’s fears surged through her mind. If she hurt her princess or let Alari down, Dae knew she would never forgive herself. It was the one thing that would destroy her and so she reached very tentatively towards the princess’ motionless form on the carpet.

And Alari grabbed her arm.

Dae screamed, certain that ten years had been scared out of her by Alari’s move.

“Gotcha!” the princess said.

“Gods’ piss, you’re evil!” Dae didn’t even try to pull her arm free. She was too busy try to make sure her heart didn’t explode from the fright.

“I’m not evil,” Alari said. “I just do what it takes to win.”

That had proven to be more true than either of them could have guessed.

It warmed Dae’s heart to think that she was still learning things from her friend, even with the years that separated them. She wasn’t able to keep the smile from crinkling the edges of her lips as she heard boots that were decidedly more solid than a shadow archer’s crunch on the tile of the flat roof. Thanks to Kirios’ senses she felt the summoner draw close and bend down to inspect her fallen form.

“Gotcha” she said, grabbing his arm.

His scream was very similar to the little girl scream Dae had emitted years previous and, like Alari before her, Dae couldn’t help but feel a surge of triumphant glee as her plan brought her quarry to ground.