Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 33

With the death of the Consort-King there was an unsubtle exodus of the nobles from the royal city of High Crest. Those who’d witnessed the final battle had an understandable desire to place several miles between themselves and both the Queen’s Knight and the Queen herself, neither of whom seemed in a forgiving sort of mood.

For those who had been ready to back Halrek, that was likely a life saving choice. In time, and with the proper shows of loyalty, the Queen might be willing to silently overlook the unvoiced treachery of her nobles. Until that day dawned however, quiet obedience was the only shield that was likely to hold her wrath at bay.

Whether the Queen’s Knight was ever going to offer forgiveness or mercy to those who had supported Halrek was another matter, and one which no one was particularly eager to wager their lives upon.

“This wasn’t how I pictured our reunion,” Alari said as the river sprites who bore her broken body eased her back into a prone position as though she were resting on a bed. They’d carried her to one of the larger guest bedrooms at her request, and after she’d made arrangements for the audience hall to be properly cleaned.

“I…” Day started to say and then choked up. “I didn’t think I’d ever be back here.”

“If you hated me for marrying Paxmer, it seems that you stand proven correct,” Alari said, her voice quiet and bereft of royal privilege.

“Gods no!” Dae said. She had reverted by to her human form and stood to the side of the sprite’s watery bed. Her splinted leg was in slightly less agonizing shape than it should have been, thanks to Kirios’ upgrade in status to a Pact Knight’s spirit, but the broken leg was still far from healed.

“Halrek was a viper all along,” Alari said. “He laid his schemes from before the first moment we met and I saw none of them.”

“It’s my fault,” Dae said, looking down. A part of her truly believed that with the moment of madness passed, Alari was going to come to her senses. Without the rage against Halrek blinding her, Alari would take back Dae’s name, her status and any affection which Alari had ever felt for her. She could see the steps so clearly that lead from her failure years ago to the suffering Alari had endured in almost losing her throne.

“What? Adae, did Telli hit your head harder than it appeared?” Alari asked. “How can you claim any share of this misfortune?”

“Star’s Watch,” Dae said, knowing that Alari would see the whole miserable chain of failure that started with the trust that Dae had been too weak to uphold.

Alari blinked and then frowned, looking away as she spoke.

“I hoped you might have forgiven me for that,” Alari said. “But I understand if you cannot.”

Dae understood each of the words which Alari said individually, but as a group they didn’t make any sort of coherent sense. She tried to form a question to illuminate Alari’s meaning, but the concept was so alien to her mind that she couldn’t capture it at all.

“I was glad when you picked the Nath barracks to join,” Alari said. “It was comforting knowing that if you weren’t here, you at least hadn’t fled impossibly far away.”

“I couldn’t go any farther,” Dae said. “Anywhere else and I couldn’t get back to you if you needed me.”

Dae felt like she’d stepped off the bank of a shallow river and fallen into the center of the ocean. She’d imagined being with Alari again. Across thousands of night’s she’d woven dreams of how and why the moment might occur. She’d envisioned everything from tender words to seething rebukes from the one who meant more to her than anyone else in the world. Across those many imaginings, Dae had sketched a map of all the ways she might meet Alari again, but somehow none of them had proven accurate.

“I can ask no more of you than that,” Alari said, a sad smile gracing her face.

“You can ask anything of me,” Dae said. “Always and forever.”

“Then don’t leave me again!” Alari said, tears rolling down her cheeks and into the watery embrace she floated in.

“I…” Dae choked out again. “I failed…you didn’t need me.”

None of the lovely, clever words that she’d dreamed about came to her. None of the stirring arguments that would, in her brightest hopes, have been enough to win back Alari’s love found their way to Dae’s tongue. Despite years of practicing, without ever admitting to herself that she was doing so, Dae couldn’t find any of the carefully prepared strategies she’d created to convince her love to love her back.

But that didn’t matter, because of course you can’t win back something which you never lost in the first place.

The river sprites moved at Alari’s unspoken command, parting to allow the Queen to step forth in her Royal regalia. Her human form was shattered and broken and would be months or longer in healing, but Alari wasn’t limited by her broken bones and torn muscles.

With arms clad in gossamer, she drew Dae into an inescapable embrace.

“You idiot,” the Queen of Gallagrin said. “I have needed you since we were ten, and you’ve never failed me. Not once.”

Dae felt her knees buckle and give out. She could have blamed that on her broken leg, but her earthly pains were so far distant from where her mind and heart were that they had no say in anything that occurred.

“I lost,” Dae said. “I couldn’t hold them back. You had to fight Paxmer and Gallagrin because of me.”

“Gods Beneath Us!” Alari said. “That’s not what happened at all! How could you think that?”

“You gave me one duty, one command,” Dae said. “All I had to do was hold Paxmer off our borders so that you could fight your battle. You upheld the promise you swore yourself to. You freed Gallagrin from your father’s reign. But I broke my promise. Paxmer burned us. Your people died because of me. Thousands of them. Because I was too weak and naive and unworthy. And you fixed that too. And today the price you paid back then almost killed you.”

All of of the words Dae had ever feared Alari would say felt ready to come pouring out. Every accusation she knew Alari could lay against her struggled in Dae’s mouth to blurt itself forth, each more horrible than the one before it, and it was the best she could do to simply hold them back in silence.

Alari held Dae close and let her finish speaking, allowed the torrent of words to dwindle away, before she spoke.

“You’re right,” Alari said. “I gave you one command, asked for one promise from you, and that was just this; for you to come back to me. And now you have, in the hour of my greatest need. You came back to me, my Adae.”

Dae looked up at Alari but Alari laid a finger on her lips to halt any objections her Knight might make.

“All those years ago, I asked you to come back to me because I knew Paxmer could hit us harder than we could withstand,” Alari said. “I sent you to Star’s Watch in the case the worst came to pass, knowing that you would buy the precious time I needed and I hoped, beyond reason, that you would somehow pull through the terrible task I asked of you. I had no one else I could ask for that, no one else who I could trust, and no one else who I believed in as I did you and I still didn’t want you to go.”

“Why?” Dae asked.

“Why did I have to send you?” Alari asked. “Because to become the Queen, I had to act like one, and that meant putting the good of my subjects ahead of my own desires. Why didn’t I want you to go? Because I knew that if Paxmer moved in force against us you would give everything you had to stop them, and I was jealous. I was jealous of my country for taking away from me the one person I held most dear.”

“But I failed you,” Dae said. “I didn’t stand against Paxmer, I broke.”

“Star’s Watch burned,” Alari said. “Thousands died. But thousands more lived. I mourned those who were lost, but when I saw you afterwards, so shattered and angry, I knew I’d laid a heavier burden on those who survived. I sent you to a battle that could not be won, not with the forces I gave you, and not with the one’s I held in reserve. All the pain inflicted on you might as well have been done by my hand.”

Dae was silent for a moment before speaking again.

“The last time we spoke,” she asked, “did you feel like this then?”

“The last time we spoke I thought you hated me, and that I’d given you every just cause for righteous anger,” Alari said. “You didn’t want to speak and I could find no fault in that desire as I could see no forgiveness for what I had done to you and all the people of Star’s Watch I placed in your care.”

“I wasn’t angry at you,” Dae said. “I was afraid.”

“Of me?” Alari asked. “Sleeping gods why?”

“I was afraid you were going to order me away,” Dae said, a rueful smile breaking across her face.

“But you left,” Alari said. “You went away without a word of how I might convince you to return.”

“Yes,” Dae said. “In hindsight that may not have been the most sensible action I’ve ever taken. It just seemed easier. I knew I didn’t have a place at your side anymore. With the crown and the Paxmer Prince, I knew you didn’t need me any longer, but I couldn’t bear to hear you say it.”

“Adae,” Alari said. “You are a fool. And I am bigger one. I wanted so much to order you to stop, to command you to return with me, but I let you go because I couldn’t bear the thought of you following me out of nothing more than duty. I told myself that if I had broken your trust, then I didn’t deserve your company any longer. Halrek wasn’t my consolation, he was my punishment. The political burden that I was yoked to because I chose the path of the Queen despite the costs that others paid for me to ascend to that position.”

“I will never call you a fool,” Dae said, relaxing at last into Alari’s embrace. “But I see six years behind us where it seems that perhaps there were two somewhat foolish women who possibly should have spoken to one another more than they did.”

“I do not like those years,” Alari said. “I’m more inclined to look towards the years that are still to come.”

“I don’t know if they’ll be good ones,” Dae said. “I did sort of behead your husband. That’s likely to have left a mess that we’ll have to deal with.”

“In removing his head, you’ve taken a great weight off my shoulders,” Alari said. “And so long as I have my Knight, I will gladly face the storm that is brewing on that front.”

“There is also the small matter that I killed one of your Dukes too,” Dae said. “That will have a more local impact I believe.”

“The only shame there is that you stopped at just one,” Alari said. “The Telli family will need to be dealt with though, and I confess, that’s not a judgment I am overly cheerful to dole out.”

“If I may, my Queen,” Dae said, stepping slightly away from Alari to formally address her. “The Duke’s son Ren is blameless in this matter. It was he who uncovered the plot against you and gave me the evidence which I presented against the now departed conspirators. He spoke also of his sister helping him, not to mention a certain vampire with whom I believe you are acquainted?”

“If there is cause to proclaim amnesty for the family, I will gladly take it,” Alari said. “I believe they likely suffered the most of all from the Duke’s character.”

“There is the matter of Prince Lorenzo’s family as well,” Dae said. “Things may not go well with Inchesso in the days to come, though I can promise that no Inchesso assassins will live to get within twenty feet of you.”

“We are so recently reunited and troubles flock to our bower,” Alari said. “It’s good to know that somethings never change.”

Their clasped hands shifted and each entwined their fingers around the others.

“Always and forever,” Dae said. “For now though, cast off your Pact form and rest in soothing waters. You have much healing to do, and I’m going to make sure that at least for tonight no one bothers you at all.”

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 32

The Queen’s command shook the hall, cracking the stones at her feet and quelling all other sounds. Dae had never heard Alari speak with that sort of power. She wasn’t sure anything human could speak that way.

“By what right is a trial held on my domain? And who dares to work violence upon one of mine?” the Queen asked.

Dae turned to look on her oldest and best friend and saw a woman wholly transformed from the one she knew.

Alari floated, wrapped in the translucent arms and bodies of a trio of river sprites. Her arms and legs bent in places they shouldn’t and didn’t seem to move with any purpose or will behind them. The Queen was dressed in no more than her bedding gowns which floated voluminously around her, whipping about in the current of the river sprite’s liquid bodies. Despite her damaged frame and lack of regal attire, the fire that burned behind the Queen’s eyes proclaimed her majesty and authority.

The creature who stood at the door to the hallway was dangerous and powerful. For Dae the question of whether anything remained of the woman she’d known was an unanswered one though. Halrek saw that opening too and launched the only arrow in his quiver that could give him a fighting chance.

“What manner of foul spirit is this, to come calling at the Royal Hall and claim dominion!” he said, rising from the throne to stand at the full height of his power. “It wears the semblance of our lost Queen, but we will allow no trickster wraith to dishonor her memory or abuse her good name!”

“Still your tongue betrayer,” the Queen said. “Your time draws nigh, but as your escape is impossible, you will wait upon your fate with the craven mouse’s heart that beats in your chest. We have more important matters to attend to.”

The Queen began to float down the processional path, her river sprite guardians carrying her more gently that even the smoothest carriage could managed.

“You have chosen an ill moment to appear fiend,” Duke Telli said, joining in on Halrek’s assault on the Queen’s identity as the one chance they had for emerging from the encounter without admitting to their guilt in her death.

“Tel,” the Queen said, fixing him in place with the force of her displeasure. “Your house is forfeit. Your lands, your wealth, all you have and all you are will be ground into dust and mixed with the offal of your domain. Continue to stand against us and and you will lose even that portion of our mercy.”

“I am sworn to this realm,” Telli said. “You hold no sway here, dead one. Turn back to your grave and abandon this false seeming you wear, or we shall turn the assembled might of Gallagrin’s nobility loose upon you.”

Dae blinked at that. From Alari’s state is was clear that she didn’t control the full power of the Gallagrin Pact Spirit. Dae had accused Halrek of putting the pact into a contested state to weaken the Queen enough to kill her, and the proof of her claim was clear to all to see. Halrek and Telli had supporters among the nobles, many supporters, or they wouldn’t have risked such a dangerous play as assassinating the Queen. That meant some portion of the room would be willing to help them strike down the Queen directly if they could be given enough of a cover story to claim that they were acting for the good and safety of the realm.

“A mantle of lies covers this room,” the Queen said. “And we see an arena has already been formed to prove them out. We will let this trial play forward, on one condition.”

She turned to face Dae, and Dae saw a wave of relief wash over the Queen’s face. For just a moment, Alari smiled out at her, real joy beaming from her eyes, before the mask and mantle of royal duty settled on the royal shoulders again.

“Will you continue this struggle? May I still call on you?” Alari asked.

Something hard and sharp seized Dae’s throat and she wasn’t able to make a sound in response so she nodded wordlessly.

“Then rise my champion,” Alari said. “I name you Queen’s Knight Prime, Daelynne Akorli.”

Dae’s breath caught and the sound of her own name echoed in her ears like a hurricane.

For six years she’d been Daelynne Kor, but she’d worn a different name at Star’s Watch. Three syllables to her surname before she’d broken and her name fractured to pieces along with her place in the world.

She’d held onto ‘Kor’ in memory of her lost family. It was the piece of her history that she could never run away from. She would always be a daughter of the house of Kor. Always the last scion of a disgraced and murdered family, her father one of the Butcher King’s many victims. No matter what height she ascended to or what depths claimed her, she would never be free of the shadow of the ancestors who came before her.

The suffix ‘li’ was an honor she’d never dreamed of reclaiming. It was the mark of Gallagrin nobility. The Duke of Tel being Duke Telli, the Queen’s Chief Justice being Duke Genli. For a commoner to appended that syllable to their name was to court a death sentence delivered on the spot by any member of the nobility who caught them in the ruse of pretending to be above their station.

Of all the pieces of her name though, it was the simple ‘A’ prefix that stole Dae’s breath away. The official definition for the ‘A’ prefix was as a signifier reserved for those in direct service to the kingdom’s sovereign. The Queen’s Guard were all directly under her control but they didn’t merit an ‘A’ prefix. That was given to those whom the sovereign placed their greatest trust in, which spoke to the ancient etymology of the prefix.

Before Gallagrin was ruled by a mortal sovereign, before the Sleeping Gods fell into their deathless slumber, those the gods chose to exalt were named with the ‘A’ prefix. Divine exaltation was granted only to a special sort of mortal, chosen for one quality alone, their closeness to the god’s heart, and so they were more commonly known as “The Beloved”.

Struggling to breathe, Dae looked at the Queen and saw Alari’s fierce pride in her. Alari had taken to calling her by various names years before any of special name had ever been made official for Dae, but looking back, Dae saw that that every one of Alari’s nicknames for her had always begun with that ‘A’ and that it had always been heartfelt. Even after the battle of Star’s Watch, even after Dae had cast herself away from Alari in humiliation and pain, the lonely Queen had called to her one last time and wished her ‘Adae’ well on her chosen path.

Six years, and the Queen had never abandoned her champion, her knight.

“Cast off those common arms and don the raiment of the one closest to our heart,” the Queen said and Dae felt Kirios shift as the bonds that stifled him into a commoner’s spirit fell away.

From the cracked and ruined pillar, she rose, light pouring from her eyes, her fingers and then radiating from every inch of her skin.

The armor that Kirios called forth was formed of brilliant white plates rimmed with silver and gold trim. It hung on her like gossamer but promised the sturdiness of unbreakable steel. Along every edge and across every surface, tiny, almost invisible, glyphs and images were etched into the armor. Names Alari had given Dae and reminders of the thousand occasions they had shared. On Dae’s shoulders a long cape settled, bearing the personal symbol of the Queen and on her faceless helm rested a laurel crown with wings of brightest silver-steel.

The Duke didn’t make the mistake of attacking Dae during her transformation again, though the end result wasn’t terribly different.

“So you have a pretty new set of dress ups,” he said. “Stand forth and be cut down you slanderous, cowardly…”

He never finished his taunt. Rather than letting Telli spew his verbal abuse, Dae sliced off his left arm and stabbed him through the chest. No one in the room, not even Telli, saw her move.

“You…” he sputtered as he fell back from her attack but he wasn’t able to finish that sentence either. Before he could get a second word out, Dae smashed his face so hard with her mailed fist that his conjured body lost the ability to create any form of coherent speech.

“You wanted to make this a test of might,” she said and kicked him in the chest, withdrawing her blade as Telli flew backwards into the side of the small arena. “Kind of a mistake on your part.”

Telli stood, his Pact Spirit restoring the monstrous damage Dae inflicted on him.

“You can’t…” he tried to say but Dae crossed the distance between them and laid a steel crushing blow into his solar plexus before he could speak.

“I can,” she said and shattered his face again with a rising knee strike as he was bent over from the hit to his chest. “Admit your sins and plead for mercy and I will ask the Queen to chose your fate. Otherwise you’re all mine.”

There was a surge of light from the Duke’s fallen, pain wracked form, and as the light twisted into sickly shades of red and purple, the former Duke’s answer arose in a wordless, mindless howl.

Where the Duke had fallen dressed in the Regal Arms of House Tel, a creature clad only in a nightmare of steel and flesh rose to take his place.

“You should have asked for mercy,” Dae said, her fear of the Berserker before her drowning in the wave of joy that carried her higher than the highest peak in Gallagrin.

The battle that followed painted the arena in blood, but none of it was Dae’s.

The two combatants were far beyond the ability of anyone else in chamber to follow in terms of the blows exchanged. To the observers there was a moment of calm, followed by the roar of the Berserker that had once been the Duke of Tel, followed by the roar of blows being thrown faster than the eye could perceive, followed by the terrible shriek of the Berserker reaching the limits of its magic and reverting to the vulnerable mortal form of the Duke which Dae destroyed in a shower of gore that left no question as to whether the Duke could recover, regardless of the magical healing provided or any hidden reserves he might have possessed.

“Only a Berserker could fight another Berserker like that,” Halrek said. “Stand true sons of Gallagrin! We will not fall to sorcery and deception!”

Dae looked to Alari for permission to act, which the Queen gave with a small nod.

“Two fearsome demons are no match for…” Halrek tried to say but he found it hard to complete his sentence with Dae’s hurled sword buried through his chest and the tall throne behind him.

“You can’t strike me down, I am the heir to Gallagrin!” Halrek said.

“I thought you couldn’t use Pact Magic,” Dae said, noting the Consort-King’s continued life in the face of what should have been a mortal wound. “That’s why you wouldn’t fight me.”

She leapt the distance from the floor of the blood soaked arena to land beside the Consort-King.

“I am blessed by Gallagrin,” Halrek said. “This is proof that I am your King!”

Dae drew her sword from his chest, freeing Halrek to fall onto his throne. With a single swipe she cut through his royal tunic and then reached inside his shirt to draw forth the fragment of an ancient stone tablet.

“And here’s proof that you’re not,” Dae said. “The missing piece of the Gallagrin Pact Spirit’s name.”

She held the tablet fragment aloft and saw recognition flare in the eyes of many of the older nobles. In Halrek’s eyes though there was only absolute terror. The tablet piece had granted him a portion of the Gallagrin Pact Spirit’s power and allowed him to contest Alari’s control of it. Without that, he was bereft any magics to call on or any means to prevent the Queen from reclaiming her full capabilities.

“My Knight,” the Queen said. “You made me a promise once. You spoke to what would happen to anyone who would dare visit harm upon me.”

Dae thought back to her words as young girl when she’d first declared herself Alari’s protector. It was the silly, thoughtless kind of boast of a child who knew no better. The kind of thing an adult would lose the conviction to follow through on in the face of the complexities of life.

Dae looked at the Consort-King. He was royalty in both Gallagrin and Paxmer. He had many allies and was loved by much of the kingdom. He and those who supported him would strike back powerfully for actions taken against him.  

But he had hurt Alari.

Dae’s only regret was that the back of the throne hit the floor before Halrek’s head did.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 31

The Noble Regalia of the House of Tel was backed by exactly the sort of formidable  Pact Spirit which Dae had prayed she wouldn’t have to fight. The Telli were an old family, and one which had kept the same spirit bound to their service for all of the years they’d been in power. From each generation that had borne the spirit, it had absorbed an ever greater understanding of the mortal world and an ever greater sense of its own identity.

In practical terms that meant that so long as the current bearer of the spirit held goals that were amenable to the pact spirit, it could offer its own skill to the Pact Knight’s ability to call forth magics from the pact bond. It was an ability which only ennobled pact bearers were allowed to call on by the terms of the pact binding contracts. The early rulers of Gallagrin had forged that into an unbreakable tradition in order to ensure that none of the commoners they entrusted with pact spirits could rise up to easily overthrow them.

The Duke of Tel had never been an overly serious student of pact magics but neither was he talentless in that area. Combined with the accumulated skill of his Pact Spirit, Dae knew she wouldn’t have had much luck standing against him even if she’d been uninjured and fully rested. Luck wasn’t going to play any role in the battle though if Dae had her way.

“You don’t want to fight me,” she said as the Duke took up his position on the audience floor. The circular area in front of the throne and the curving seats of the nobles was too small to be a proper arena, but it was a venue that neither side would allow the other to leave alive.

That wasn’t a comforting point for the spectators. Everyone present was aware of the likelihood of the fight spilling out into the seats where the various nobles in attendance on the king sat. If that happened it was likely to be entirely in the Duke’s favor, since the nobles would be free to retaliate against an attack launched at them, but would need to consider the political cost of attacking the Duke.

Even if they supported Dae’s arguments (and more than a few of his noble brethren would have been happy to slip a knife into Duke’s Telli’s ribs) there was the problem of his heir who would be certain to retaliate for any injury done to his father.

“You have provoked this battle and made it all but unavoidable,” Telli said, waiting calmly as Dae limped into the open circle. “You should have stayed in the bed that was bought for you. You might have retained both your honor and your life.”

“I know the value of my life, and my honor,” Dae said. “What I don’t know is what you valued so much that you would sell your own country out to this Paxmer scum.”

“It’s a shame that berserker didn’t tear out your tongue,” Telli said. “I stepped in too soon apparently.”

“Feel free to explain that to the soldiers you let be slaughtered by that thing for your little stage show,” Dae said, reaching the edge of the arena and pausing for a breath. “If you happen to meet of them in hell that is.”

“You are broken already, in mind and body,” the Duke said. “This is no proper duel. Yield now and I promise you a quick and painless death.”

“Never,” Dae said softly, an unexpected feeling of quiet joy spreading through her. It didn’t alleviate her pain, but it did give her a new view of it. The Duke was right. She was too injured and too drained to kill him in her present state, but that didn’t matter. She’d lived for so long crippled by the fear of her own failure, and of having broken Alari’s faith, that being able to say that one word seemed like an impossibility.

For six years Dae hadn’t believe there was anything in her that could hold true to the vision Alari had of her. That the broken thing named “Daelynne Kor” who existed in the wreckage of Star’s Watch could never be Alari’s Knight. That in falling before the Dragon Fear, she’d revealed how ultimately selfish and cowardly she was, and that all of her dreams of being able to stand for what she believed in were just the naive hopes of a child who’d lost her father to the end of a madman’s noose.

Here, at what seemed to be the end of her life, she saw both the truth and the lie of what she’d told herself. She was selfish, and naive, and cowardly. Just not about the things she believed she was. And none of that mattered.

All that mattered was that she said “No”. That she didn’t run away this time. The past was gone. She knew she couldn’t take even one step backwards, and she knew that because she’d failed before. Her failures and her victories made her who she was, but it was the choices she made with each passing moment that determined who she was going to be.

Believing in herself was difficult, but in this one case she didn’t have to. All she needed to do here was to believe in Alari. That the girl she’d known was someone who was worth standing up for, that the love Dae felt for her Princess was worth everything that it cost, that even though they’d been separated by distance and time and life and death, the bond they shared was still a sacred one.

“If you won’t yield, then I’m not going to make this pleasant,” Telli said. “I believe I’ll start by tearing that lying tongue out of your throat.”

There was a burst of light where the Duke had stood and a blur that was too fast for any of the unaugmented eyes in the room to follow as Telli flashed forward across the dueling circle to strike Dae down.

His sword met an explosion of light as his opponent called on her pact transformation. The wild magics of the transformation, hurled the Duke back with so much force that he smashed through one of the pillars which stood at the outside of the makeshift arena. The pillar was solid granite, a foot and a half in diameter, and he sailed through it like it was dried kindling.

Stone chips went everywhere, blinding those nearby with dust and debris. The noble’s sitting on the opposite side of the arena, and Halrek who was in the middle of the great arc of seats were able to witnesses Dae’s transformation as dull grey plates of steel slammed over her body and she stood up, unburdened by the aches of her mortal form.

“You haven’t fought many other Pact wielders before, have you?” Dae asked, taunting the fallen Duke as he got back to his feet. “Always let others get their hands dirty, like with the murder of Prince Lorenzo.”

“The Queen had that boy killed,” Telli said. “It’s an open secret. Even the assassin involved confessed that much.”

“An assassin who never actually met his employer?” Dae asked. “Who worked for the same Denarius Consortium which you so kindly invited into Castle Nath and then provided passes to the celebration there?”

Telli flew at Dae again, but this time she didn’t have the sanctity of a transformation to call upon. She managed to dodge the entirety of his first blow since it was telegraphed from a long distance out but his follow up attacks were so rapid and strong that she was only able to parry or deflect slightly more than half of them, and even that required that she fight almost entirely from a defensive position.

For all of the strength of his offense though, the Duke was too used to completely outmatching his opponent to fight with both attack and defense in mind and Dae was able to turn one parried blow into a open that let her sink her blade through the armor at the Duke’s knee. If he hadn’t been transformed himself the blow would have taken the leg off completely. Instead it merely lamed him until he could pull out the sword which Dae left behind in the wound.

“Actions I did at the Queen’s command,” Telli said, yanking the summoned blade out of his leg and throwing it away. As his pact spirit repaired the damage to the conjured knee, Dae resummoned the blade to herself.

“Now who has the lying tongue?” Dae asked. “Everyone here has worked with Alari since the war. Most worked with her in the war too and those that didn’t were fighting against her. When they have a moment to think about it, none of them are going to believe that Alari ordered Lorenzo’s death.”

“She betrayed her father, why not her husband?” Telli asked.

“Alari would never betray someone she was pledged to,” Dae said. “But even if you all don’t know that, you know that if she wanted someone dead, she would handle it herself. With Gallagrin’s power she could annihilate a Page so thoroughly there would be no body to be found, and, after the war, it’s not like she hasn’t proven that she’s willing to get her hands dirty when the need arises. The whole lie of her seeking out foreign help to kill a page is absurd and everyone knows it.”

Telli responded to her words with another barrage of attacks. These were slower and more deliberate than the previous attacks had been. The strength behind them was overwhelming from Dae’s point of view, and that alone closed off a number of defenses that she could mount. She made the best of the maneuvers she knew that could still help though, and since she’d entered into her Pact early and been pitted against older and stronger opponents often, her knowledge on fighting superior foes was far from theoretical.

Knowledge and experience are vital tools, but there are levels of raw strength and power which they can have a difficult time adjusting for. Duke Telli’s Pact Armored form was an example of that level of raw might.

Where there wasn’t an opening in Dae’s defenses, he made one. When she tried to fall back to buy time to protect that vulnerable area, he pressed forward faster than she could react. Dae’ experience let her focus on and shield herself from Telli’s primary threats but in parrying his sword blows she had to leave herself open to his less deadly attacks.

So he kicked her across the chamber. Dae knew she couldn’t dodge the attack, so she used the split second opening provided by the Duke drawing his leg up for the kick to slid her sword into the eye slit in the Duke’s helmet. He’d adopted a look that allowed people to see his face, or the Pact Armored reflection it. Stabbing him there did little to actually kill him, but it was an annoyance that he was forced to deal with if he wanted to see the fight clearly.

Dae’s wasn’t in a better position though. When she hit the ground, her armor shattered on impact and it required a fair portion of her reserves to repair the damage kick did to her.

“That was a nice move,” Dae said as she rose from the ground. “If you’d used that and followed up, you could have put the Berserker down without anyone else being injured. But that wasn’t the point was it. You wanted an alibi for the time when the Queen was going to be attacked, and you wanted something to make it seem like the Inchesso assassins hated you.”

“A Berserker is nothing to trifle with,” Telli said. “Everyone saw what a monster that creature was. Even I was hard pressed by it. Do you think me such a fool I would expose myself to that sort of peril on purpose?”

“Yes,” Dae said. “You’re a poor deluded fool who thinks he has any chance of holding onto power still. And who thinks that bringing along the entirety of the Dawn March as backup when there just so happened to be a Berserker ready to ambush us isn’t a sign that he might have known what was lying in wait on the road he lead us all down.”

“Everyone knows that I am diligent in my preparations,” Telli said. “Of course I suspected trouble, and of course I prepared for it.”

“Really? So you always prepare for trouble do you?” Dae asked. “Then why did you flee towards the capital when you heard word of the Queen’s death at the hands of Inchesso assassins rather than towards the border where you could prepare to catch them if they chose to flee, or where you could prepare our defenses if this is to be a prelude to war as you and your Paxmer master plan to tell your fellows?”

The Duke glared at her, and Dae knew she’d scored a hit. The notion of war with Inchesso hadn’t been broached yet, and with what she’d said, any attempt to suggest it would make the rest of her words seem all the more true. If Telli or Halrek pushed for the war they’d so carefully tried to engineer, the nobles who opposed them would use Dae’s words to burn the pair at the stake.

Dae watched as the understanding of that flowed across the Duke’s face.

The next thing she knew she was lying embedded in one of the pillars. The Duke’s rage led him to draw extra power from his Pact spirit making him unimaginably fast. He’d hit her so rapidly that she hadn’t even seen him move.

Blinking, she looked around and saw him stomping slowly towards her. Savoring the final moments before her tore her limb from limb and crushed the life from her body.

With the power that he’d drawn, nothing could stop him. Nothing could even slow him down. Nothing, except for one specific voice.

“Hold! Stop this contest, upon our command!” Queen Alari Gallagrin said from the great doors into the hall.


The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 30


With the cooling steam from her fiery flight falling from her shoulders like a cloak, Dae looked over the assembled nobles, the ones not hidden in shadows at least, judging each one in turn with a glance, until her gaze rested upon the Consort-King.

“Where. Is. She.” Dae repeated. She didn’t enhance her voice with Kirios’ power. In the silence that gripped the room, she didn’t need to.

Halrek rose slowly from his throne, the only one willing to address the mad warrior who had disrupted the gathering.

“If you seek the Queen, she is dead,” he said. “Slain by Inchesso assassins last eve.”

“No,” Dae faltered, her weight pressing hard on the sword she used as a cane.

“The blood found in the royal chambers bears horrid testimony to our loss,” Halrek said. “We arrived too late to save her, and even too late to fully avenge her. With my own eyes I saw the assassins flee her room through the wards which their only foreign sorcery allowed them to breach.”

“No,” Dae said, pushing herself back up to her full height. “She wasn’t slain by assassins. You, Halrek of Paxmer, you faithless, honorless, traitor. She died at your hand. And now, you’re going to die at mine.”

Dae took a step forward and buckled halfway to the ground before catching herself. Even splinted and with a makeshift cane, walking on her leg wasn’t easy to manage.

“These are serious charges,” Duke Genli, the Queen’s Chief Justice, said. “And they are delivered in a harsh tongue unbecoming speech to your King. What evidence do you have to support such a claim?”

“He is not my King,” Dae said, and advanced another pace towards the throne. She was still too far away to be any threat but several of the nobles were settling back in their chairs warily. “And my evidence are witnesses who carry documents written by the traitor’s own hand, detailing his every machination against our Queen.”

“Why would the King write such an incriminating missive?” Genli asked.

“He needed to coordinate his plans with his accomplice, the Duke of Tel” Dae said. “They exchanged the messages in code. Probably didn’t consider that someone else might break it. Wasn’t too smart of the Duke to hang on to the messages either but if he’d kept them hidden I suppose they would have made a powerful lever to use on the waste of human flesh sitting on the throne there.”

“I have endured the dislike and mistrust of the people of this, my adopted realm, for many years now,” Halrek said. “But I will not be spoken to in such a slanderous tongue. Produce your witnesses immediately, if you have them. I will not have my name tarnished by the implication of wrongdoing. Not with grief so freshly upon me.”

“I’m not imply anything,” Dae said. “And I’m not going to tell you anything while your assassins are still on the loose.”

“First you say it was his hands that killed the Queen and now you speak of his assassins,” Genli said. “Which is it to be?”

“Both,” Dae said. “The traitor’s plans run deep, and broad, and the murder of the Queen was only the first step. He holds the reins of the assassins you saw. They’re a death sworn guild who will spend their lives carelessly for enough coin, which makes them the perfect tools for a conspiracy like this.”

“This is an insanity of lies,” Halrek said. “Against every question she posits greater and more convoluted schemes.”

“You had six years to prepare for this,” Dae said. “Perhaps we should send you home in six separate boxes.”

“I sit upon the throne of Gallagrin,” Halrek said. “You cannot threaten me.”

“I’m not threatening,” Dae said.

“No, you’re not,” Halrek said. “Who are you to stand before this assemblage? By what right do you accuse me? If you will provide no support for your claims, you must at least provide your name and rank so that we may know who it is we are to try.”

Dae paused her slow and painful progress towards the throne.

“I am Daelynne Kor of the Dawn March,” she said. “By the right and mandate of my position as watchguard for this realm, I accuse you, Halrek of Paxmer, and name you murderer.”

Halrek smiled broadly at that declaration.

“So I see,” his voice held a malicious satisfaction. “You are the one who sent the Inchesso Vampire to the Queen. The same Inchesso Vampire that was seen sprinting from her chambers and flying from the castle, shortly before she collapsed.”

“He should have stayed with her,” Dae said, bristling that there’d been a chance to save Alari and it had gone awry.

“Yes, I suppose you would want a foreign vampire at the Queen’s side when she took ill,” Halrek said. “That’s exactly the sort of thing someone in league with the assassins would be looking for.”

“Don’t try to place your sin on me,” Dae said.

“Except of course it is your sin exactly, is it not?” Halrek said. “The assassins were supposed to make a clean getaway from the murder. That’s what assassins do. But they were caught and identified. We know they hail from Inchesso and we know Prince Lorenzo’s family is furious at his loss. They had agents within the country to lookout for their son, clearly, and who better than a member of our own Dawn March to corrupt to their needs. I hear the March was once a noble organization, but the years have not been kind and many in it succumb to the temptation of gold. This one surely has a fortune stashed away for her role in the assassination but once it looked like the scheme might unravel and all her ill gotten wealthy flow away from her, she flew here with a wild tale to cast the blame off herself.”

Dae felt a sick drop in her stomach. It would be no effort at all for Halrek to make a sack of gold appear in her apartment before she could get back there. Kael might even volunteer one of his if it meant he wouldn’t have to work with her anymore.

“We don’t even need to look far for motivation,” Halrek said. “I loved my wife. I gave up my country for her. Everyone saw that. This one though? The Queen spoke of her, the woman who was her childhood friend. The woman who shut her out, who refused to see or speak with her after the Queen took the throne.”

Dae felt her knees sag for reasons that had nothing to do with the pain of her broken leg.

“There was anger, even hatred, which drove them apart after so long and close an acquaintance,” Halrek said. “For that distance to finally be closed at this hour, one too late for any proper reconciliation? It is clear that it was not charity or duty which moved Officer Kor to appear before us tonight. It was fear. Fear of discovery and fear of just retribution.”

Dae sagged even further where she stood, Halrek’s every word a thorn pumping venom into her heart. Through long dry veins the venom flowed, burning as it crossed over happy memories that lay buried in the reaches of her heart that Dae didn’t dare to look at anymore.

It was too late for those memories, but they rose to the surface anyways. Alari, mischief in her eyes leading Dae on an adventure. Alari, trembling with anger at her father’s cruelty. Alari laughing in the sun as it kissed her hair and framed her in a glowing halo.

They had spoken so many times, shared so many secrets and planned so long for their future together, but there were still words Dae hadn’t spoken. Not in the right way and not at the right time. With that time passed, Dae knew it didn’t matter what she said, but still, the words were there.

“I don’t fear you,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “I fear no discovery and no retribution.”

Exhaling, she pushed herself up once more.

“There is nothing for me in this world anymore,” she said. “I have lost my dearest friend. I have lost the one person in this whole sad plane who ever saw me for who I am. I have lost the woman I love, and will love until breath leaves my body, until my bones rot away, until my spirit turns to dust.”

“I did not speak with her, I did not seek her out, or stand beside her,” Dae said, and took another slow step. “I did not do these things and that was because I failed her.”

The glass from the shattered stained glass window crunched under her feet as she took another careful step towards the throne.

“She gave me one duty, to save this country from the ravenous hunger of Paxmer while she delivered it from the evil of her father,” Dae said. “And I failed. I failed Gallagrin, I failed Star’s Watch and I failed her. Instead of me defending her, she saved me and she saved us all by feeding herself to Paxmer.”

“You do the Queen a disservice even as you praise her,” Halrek said. “She gave nothing to Paxmer and gained the throne and the kingdom whole and undamaged in the process.”

“Not undamaged,” Dae said. “To win the throne, she had to let a rat into the palace to gnaw on Gallagrin’s heart. There was no chance that Paxmer could conquer Gallagrin, yet they launched an attack anyways.”

“That was a disaster averted,” Halrek said. “Paxmer could not allow the Butcher King’s power to grow unchecked and the civil war offered us the best opportunity to excise him from his throne.”

“And it was the only chance Paxmer had of gaining control of Gallagrin,” Dae said.

“Paxmer gained nothing,” Halrek said. “No land was usurped. No trade routes were ceded. All that Paxmer saw out of Gallagrin’s war was the loss of one of its sons.”

“Being rid of you is no loss,” Dae said. “Not when you planned for this day from the beginning. You knew you had to get this close to the throne to have a chance to steal it. You watched Alari battled for the rule of Gallagrin and you learned from her. It takes a strike from inside, from someone who can make a claim of authority over the spirit of Gallagrin and who holds one of the rune stones of its name. Without that, no assassin’s could overcome the power the Queen held.”

“The Inchesso have mysterious poisons,” Halrek said. “Who is to say that their magical brews wouldn’t be enough to overwhelm even the protections of the Gallagrin pact spirit?”

“The Inchesso would never waste a poison strong enough to kill a Queen on anyone but each other,” Dae said. “And they would never make it obvious that they’d used a tool like that if they had one. If they did, every kingdom in the Blessed Realms would descend on them. Otherwise there’d be a spate of regicides that would follow the discovery of any elixir that was that powerful.”

“And how come you to claim such knowledge of what the Inchesso are and are not capable of?” Halrek asked.

“Because if there was a poison capable of killing a sovereign of the Blessed Realms, then the Butcher Sathe would have used it on Paxmer long ago,” Dae said.

“That is supposition and nothing more,” Halrek said.

“It’s a truth that everyone here who ever met the Butcher King should recognize,” Dae said. “But none of that matters. Words aren’t going to conclude this debate. This isn’t going to end until one of us lies lifeless on the floor of this chamber.”

“There are ample guards and my noble brethren here who are quite capable of seeing this resolved then,” Halrek said.

“I don’t want to go through them to get to you,” Dae said. “So I offer you a Judicial Challenge. Your life vs. mine.”

“You are a Pact Warrior,” Halrek said. “Even injured as you are, I am not permitted to take up your challenge as I have no Pact spirit to call upon. Unless a Champion will step forward to take my place?”

Halrek turned to the assembled nobles, none of whom seemed overly eager to venture into a mortal duel on their soon-to-be ruler’s behalf.

“Since this slanderous one has named my house in her suit as well, I shall stand as your champion,” the Duke of Tel said, stepping out of the shadows, unharmed and in his full Pact Regalia.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 29

Everything was wrong. That was all Dae knew as she fell back onto her bed after Ren finished speaking.

“My father’s notes were in code, but he’s not as brilliant as he thinks he is and the King apparently had trouble with even the simple cipher my father worked out,” Ren said.

“Nine bleeding hells,” Kael said. “Why did you have to bring this here boy?”

“You were the closest agent of the Queen’s that we knew we could trust,” Teo said.

Dae was barely listening to them. Alari was in trouble. The plan that Ren had described could work. It was a modification of the one Dae and Alari had dreamed up as children. The one that had overthrown a tyrant king.

“Lorenzo was a smokescreen,” she said, numb and unthinking.

“Not quite,” Ren said. “My father’s plan covers more than capturing the throne.”

“What else matters?” Dae asked, her heart freezing with the certainty that she had learned the truth too late. As hard as she’d fought, as careful as she’d been, it hadn’t been enough. Once again, she’d fallen short.

“They’re going to set us on a course for war, my father and the worthless bastard King who’s going to be sitting on the throne,” Ren said. “In the time it takes for sky carriages to carry the official word to Inchesso and Paxmer, Gallagrin will be embroiled in a war with the first and an alliance with the second.”

“This is above my pay grade,” Kael said. “You should take this to the commander.”

“His loyalties seem to lie with the Duke, do they not?” Teo asked.

“You’re not going to the commander,” Dae said, staring ahead. Her voice was a dull monotone but there was an edge to it that suggested argument on that point was not a wise move.

“I still don’t understand how you discovered this plot in the first place?” Kael asked.

“My father foolishly left me alone at our estate in Elinspire,” Ren said. “I was looking for material to blackmail him with.”

“You were going to do what now?” Kael asked.

“Blackmail him,” Ren said. “I make no bones about it. My father only respects those who can help or hurt him. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to do the former, to be the good son who can win his respect and acceptance honorably. Then he beat Teo and cast him out. That’s what ended my desire to help my father. From that point on, I knew the only language he would understand was the promise of a blade at his throat.”

“How sure are you?” Dae asked.

“Of my father’s unwillingness to listen or compromise? Completely,” Ren said.

“No,” Dae said. “Of the translation. Could it have been anything else they were talking about?”

“They refer to Queen Alari by name,” Ren said. “This monstrosity is within  the reach of my father’s greed and his malic, and I’m not mistaken in my decryption of the text.”

“Everything that has happened has been to paint a picture where the Queen and Inchesso were set against each other,” Teo said. “All in preparation to explain both the Queen’s death and the need for war on Inchesso, the weakest of the Blessed Realms.”

“You can’t know that though,” Kael said. “Even if there are some nobles who would go along with that plan, not all of them are bad. It’s not the kind of thing that would really become an issue. Anyone smart enough to pull it off would be smart enough to see they’d never get away with it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dae said.

“See, that’s exactly what I’m saying,” Kael gestured towards Dae in agreement.

“No, the nobles who won’t go along with it don’t matter,” Dae said. “The people will be calling for Inchesso blood. Even the nobles who wish to avoid war will be pressured from within and without, or ignored altogether.”

“Doesn’t sounds like there’s much we can do about it then,” Kael said.

“How did you get here?” Dae asked, turning to face Ren and Teo at last.

“We ran,” Ren said. “After I found Teo, he was able to feed and regain his strength.”

“How did that not kill you?” Dae asked. “I saw Teo in Nath, he didn’t look good even then.”

“My Pact Spirit sustains me,” Teo said. “And my blood carries more than just my own lifeforce now.”

“Where did you get a Pact Spirit that was strong enough to withstand that?” Dae asked.

“From my sister,” Ren said. “She came to visit while I was imprisoned at Elinspire.”

“Pact Spirits aren’t children’s toys, where did she get one?” Dae asked.

“My sister isn’t a child, but she is…special,” Ren said.

“Maybe she could do something about your dad then,” Kael said.

“She has her own issues to deal with I am afraid,” Ren said.

“This is happening,” Dae said, addressing no one in the room. “My leg is broken, I’m miles away, and she needs me.”

“Nothing to be done for it then,” Kael said. “It’s almost like Duke planned for this.”

“He did,” Ren said. “He kept his own notes for plan in the same secure vault as the correspondence with the King. It was all buried under a ton of locks and hidden rooms within the archives. If I hadn’t been driven to leap at a wild chance, and only because I also had the time I needed to search for them properly, those papers would have never been found.”

“Why even keep them?” Kael asked.

“Blackmail,” Teo said. “And insurance against the king. If Duke Telli goes down, he plans to take everyone else with him.”

“Then there’s only one thing for it,” Dae said and moved the covers off the bed.

“Given it a rest Kor. You’re in no condition to walk, must less fight,” Kael said.

“Not planning to do my own walking,” Dae said and with a small and careful effort of will, she conjured her Pact armor.

Moving was easier after that. With her natural body help outside the bounds of the world, Dae was able to walk on solid and unbroken Pact armor legs.

Pushing herself past her visitors and the dumbstruck Kael, Dae strode out into the hall, down the stairs and out the door of the Inne before Teo caught up with her.

“You can’t challenge the Duke here,” he said.

“Don’t care about the Duke for now,” Dae said and cast her gaze skyward.

“You can’t carry a message to the Queen in the state you’re in either,” Teo said. “Let me do it. I ran most of the way here with only a few drops of blood in my body. I’m in vastly better shape now.”

“You’re not going to be able to keep up,” Dae said and then added with the whisper of actual warmth and gratitude in her voice, “But thanks. You had a rough time of it, I’m glad you didn’t give up.”

“What are you going to do?” Teo asked.

“Ask a question and hope I get the right answer,” Dae said. “While I’m doing that though, you have a job that you need to do.”

“What’s that?” Teo asked.

“Protect Ren,” Dae said. “If I come back here, there will be a vacancy on the Ducal Throne of Tel shortly thereafter. Make sure your man’s around to claim it.”

“He has an elder brother and sister,” Teo said.

“Yes, and that might even still be true when I’m done,” Dae said.

Teo covered his shock with a frown and then a nod. The Duke was a traitor to the kingdom. His life was already forfeit, the only thing that remained was the task of taking it from him. His treason was such that it threatened to bring down far more than just himself though. Anyone in his family who was privy to the conspiracy could be considered a part of it and would face summary justice as well.

“How are you going to reach the castle before your power runs out?” Teo asked.

“Like this,” Dae said and called on Kirios for another transformation.

This was a deeper and more profound change that her usual Pact Armor. Kirios’ power was still bound by her will and her station, but Dae gave the magics much freer reign in assembling her new form than they ever normally enjoyed.

The layer of plate armoring that covered her shrank away, revealing a long, featureless body covered in a down of quicksilver grey feathers. From Dae’s back, three pairs of wings unfurled. Where her helmet had been, there were only two long feathers of fire streaming on either side of an almost featureless quicksilver face. In place of eyes, molten coals burned and rivers of a hot, red, lava-like substance coursed down from loops below the fire feathers to streams that flowed to the end of Dae’s fingers and toes.

One moment, she stood beside Teo and the next a fiery trail blazed up into the air and across the sky.

Out racing the wind was something Dae had only dreamed of doing before, but she had dreamed of it for a long time. Ever since the day she was first called to be away from Alari, she’d planned for how she could return to her princess.

When Alari became Queen, those plans had been tucked away. Alari didn’t need her anymore, Dae believed. Between the new Consort-King and the mantle of Gallagrin’s power, Alari should never have needed anyone else, ever again, and most especially not a foolish failure who dared to dream that she was brave enough to always stand as Alari’s shield.

Dae thought back to the death of that dream. To the last day she was ever called by the name Alari gave her. To the day that she failed Star’s Watch, and her kingdom.

Dragon Fear was a supernatural power. No one contested that. It overwhelms mortal reason and forces the Mindful Races to flee from the dragon’s presence.

Except for Dae it hadn’t.

She’d been so focused on her battle against the enemy general, that she  hadn’t felt the first wave of the dragon’s power wash over the area. She hadn’t ordered the retreat when there was time to save the people of Star’s Watch.

Only when the dragon was upon them, had its influence broken through the battle haze she’d descended into. A strange calm had descended over the battlefield in that moment, when the dragon and Dae locked eyes.

For three breaths, neither side had moved. It was a memory that Dae had picked over thousands of times and in her heart she knew; if her spirit had been true, she could have held the dragon there. All it took was one person to stand against it.

For all their vast might and perilous mystical potential, dragons were creatures of caution. Being among the Undying, they bore the curse that a deep enough wound would be one they would need to suffer from for all eternity. Mortals fled from them because of the power dragons possessed. A mortal who refused to flee was either deeply broken or possessed of a power which was best studied from a distance before engaging with. In either case, unless circumstances compelled them otherwise, a dragon would generally yield the field to a mortal who refused to be swayed by fear.

Dae knew she could have saved Star’s Watch that way. All she’d needed to do was stand her ground.

For three breaths she had, and then the dragon had taken a step forward and its massive bulk had rumbled the landed. Dae took one step back, just one step, but that was all it took. Whatever strength she’d summoned to meet the dragon’s power evaporated and she knew nothing more until she woke up in the medical tent of the fallback camp.

The civil war was won by then and the Paxmer forces withdrawn. There were no more battles for her to fight. No possibility of making up for her failure and the lives it cost.

Alari visited her once, but Dae could barely look at her. She’d heard the stories of what Alari had been through, of the sacrifices she’d made. She’d asked Dae for one thing, to hold off Paxmer so that her kingdom wouldn’t face devastation from without. With Dae’s failure, Alari had been forced to turn to a union with a lesser prince of Paxmer who was looking to rise above his allotted station in life.

Bound by the mantle of Gallagrin to the country, and bound by politics to a wedding of convenience, Alari had no need for Dae anymore.

At their last meeting, Dae was curt and short with the woman she was no longer worthy of supporting, because however much Dae knew that to be true, she couldn’t bear to hear Alari say those words aloud.

She exiled herself before Alari could reclaim the honors Dae had received from her. It was cleaner like that, and easier for them both, Dae had told herself.

With no correspondence and no contact, Alari would never need to say the difficult words which Dae already knew were true, and Dae would never need to hear them, except as echoes of recrimination that played over and over in her mind, endlessly.

Flying toward High Crest and the royal castle, felt eerily similar to facing the dragon. Every sensible part of her told her to flee, but the built up self-hatred of six years of failure prodded her onwards. She knew her courage might break at any moment, as it did against the dragon, but still she flew towards her Queen, a song of joy stirring in her heart to finally be running in the right direction.

In the castle, Halrek was just sitting down to address the assembled nobles and give them the terrible news when a creature of fire and gleaming steel burst through the great stained glass window which stood opposite the thrones at the far end of the Royal Advisory Chamber.

Dae rose from ground, multi-hued fragments of glass running off her as she stood.

With the power for her flying form more than exhausted, the flames around her died away and she stood before the king and the nobles, balancing on a her sword as a crutch and asked the one question she cared about.

“Where is she.”

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 28

Alari woke up on her deathbed. Her mind was still clouded, she still struggled to keep the room in focus, to listen to her husband’s words, but she was clear on a few details nonetheless. She could feel the poison in her veins at last. She didn’t know how long it had been accumulating there, building up its strength until it finally overwhelmed her, but she was certain it wasn’t newly inflicted on her. Not all of it. That lead to the other detail.

She’d been betrayed.

It had to be someone she would never suspect. Someone who had no reason to act against her. Someone she wouldn’t guard against.

“This is a wonderful room your father designed,” Halrek said. “I do miss spending time here, it’s so quiet. So very…isolated.”

Alari tried to raise her head. To fight out of the bed and its cruel grip on her fading body.

“Is there anything that you need?” Halrek asked. “An antidote perhaps?”

He wiggled the little bottle he’d taken from her table, a broad smile on his face. Alari closed her eyes and tried to remember the last time she’d seen him so animated.

“Don’t fade on me just yet,” Halrek said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this day to come. Six years of putting up with the worst this country has to offer. Six years of playing the role of the exotic foreign prince. Six years of you.”

He walked around the bed and kneeled down beside her, swinging the bottle back and forth in front of her lips.

“I had no idea this would feel so good,” he whispered, mad joy flickering behind his eyes. “Tomorrow, I’ll have to go back into hiding. I’ll have to play the grieving King. But for today, for this one precious moment, I can be free. So let’s cherish it shall we? No more secrets. No more pretending. What would you like to know o’ my dying princess?”

Alari tried to glare at him. She tried to do significantly more violent things to him as well, but Gallagrin’s power was contested. She knew the feeling of the spirit’s power being held in abeyance by competing claims on its ownership. It was the same feeling she’d fought through when she usurped her father’s throne.

“Why?” she managed to gasp out between labored breaths.

“Why not.” Halrek answered. “That should be the whole of my answer don’t you think? It’s all that you deserve certainly, but it’s so very unsatisfying. It would be a form of revenge to leave you to die in ignorance and confusion, but we’ve been together long enough that I think I know you. I think it will hurt you much worse if you understand everything before the end. You won’t be here for what follows tomorrow, but maybe sending you to the afterlife with the knowledge of what awaits your kingdom with make your stay in hell even less pleasant.”

“Why?” Alari asked again, fresh stabs of pain radiating up her rib cage.

“When we met during the war, didn’t you think it odd that I just happened to appear at your darkest hour? And that as the third prince in line for the Paxmer throne I would have the influence to stop the war that had begun?”

“But you did stop the war,” Alari said. “You helped us.”

“No, I saved you,” Halrek said. “If not for me, your forces would have crumbled under Paxmer’s assault.”

“How can you do this then?” Alari asked.

“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Halrek said. “Think back to the war. What would have happened if I didn’t swoop in to save you?”

“My father could have won,” Alari said.

“Exactly,” Halrek said. “Maybe you could have beaten him, maybe not, but Paxmer couldn’t take that chance.”

“Why attack us at all?” Alari felt her breath growing weak.

“Because you were weak,” Halrek said. “But not weak enough to conquer. Whichever side won your war, was going to take control of High Crest. We couldn’t stop that and we couldn’t unseat a ruling monarch with that sort of power at their disposal. Not directly at any rate.”

“Then you should have left us…alone.” The poison surging through her veins left Alari feeling like she was melting from the inside out.

“But there was such a ripe fruit to be plucked,” Halrek said. “How could we turn that down?”

“What fruit?” Alari asked, her vision of the rooming swimming and lurching about as though she was on a ship at sea.

“Why you of course my princess,” Halrek said. “A poor, valiant hearted girl, fighting to undo the sins of her father. You were a storybook come to life and just about as easy to read.”

“I thought you didn’t want to see your people die?” Alari asked.

“I don’t,” Halrek said. “This is a far better method of conquest.”

“But you’re already have the throne,” Alari asked. “What more do you want?”

“I have nothing,” Halrek said. “Consort-King? It’s an insult. My place is not to sit below anyone from this wretched mound of goat crap, but to rule above them.”

“Years…” Alari said. “You’ve spent years working…with me…to put our kingdom back together.”

“I spent years working to prepare my kingdom for my rule,” Halrek said. “This was never about you. It was never about your war, or your people. I have always been a loyal and faithful son of Paxmer.”

“I never asked you to abandon them,” Alari said.

“You didn’t ask for your crown either,” Halrek said. “You took it.”

He stood up and began to pace around the room.

“You seized the throne with your own bloody hands,” Halrek said. ”I was there. I saw everything. And that was your mistake.”

“Wasn’t a mistake,” Alari said, fading back into her mattress to gather her strength.

“I’m glad you think so,” Halrek said. “Because that’s what showed me how a throne could be taken.”

He placed the small bottle he was carrying back on Alari’s desk and turned to face her.

“When my sister sent me on this little errand, it was only ever meant to be a ruse,” Halrek said. “She was Queen and I was the young and, for a time useless, Third Prince. I knew I was nothing more than a pawn, but she gave me such a unique role to play. I would secure the goodwill of Gallagrin and rise nearer to the throne than I ever could at home.”

“You were never true to me?” Alari asked, pain in her voice that went far deeper than even the poison could reach.

“All the times I told you that I loved you and you never wondered at how little I showed that with anything more than words?” Halrek asked.

“Our child…” Alari began to say but cut herself short. She didn’t want the answer to the question she was going to ask. Even knowing Halrek hated her. Even as her fondness for him turned to sickness and hate. She didn’t want to know what on some level she’d always suspected.

“That was an engaging evening,” Halrek said. “Passably fun for its novelty. Ravishing a princess isn’t something one gets to do everyday. I did have to be careful though, didn’t I?”

Halrek paced over to one of the bookshelves in the room and inspected the manuscripts stored there. Alari stayed silent, hoping no more would be said on the subject.

“I know you’ve felt under-appreciated since then,” Halrek said. “You’re a healthy young woman with no one to share your appetites with. Well, you were a healthy young woman. Think about it from my perspective though.”

Alari remained silent, struggling not to hear the words Halrek skewered her heart with.

“As I said, it was a very delicate situation. I couldn’t seem reluctant to get an heir to the kingdom on you. It was one thing to ask your nobles to accept me as a foreign prince. It would have been quite another to ask them to accept a Consort who refused to perform the most basic duty a Consort is expected to perform.”

Halrek selected a book from the shelf and walked over to the bed, depositing it beside Alari as though she’d been reading it before falling asleep.

“Of course the problem was, if you bore the kingdom a child then my problems simply doubled.”

“What problems?” Alari asked, conserving her strength as her stomach clenched and spasmed.

“The number of people between me and the throne,” Halrek said. “Please, just because you’re dying is no excuse for failing to keep up.”

He picked up a dagger from her table and eyed its blade and then Alari’s prone body. She more than half expected him to end his teasing and kill her right there, but instead he used it to cut open an envelope, which he placed within the book.

“Did you know, poisoning someone with a Royal Pact Spirit is a difficult endeavor?” Halrek asked. “Of course you do. It’s why you never worried about poisons as like an Inchesso noblewoman Inchesso would.”

He sat on the bed beside her again.

“Some think that the bearers of a Royal Pact Spirit are immune to poison. I know it didn’t occur to you to use one on your father, or perhaps you tried and failed and never spoke of it,” Halrek said. “The truth is you are still vulnerable to poisons of many types. I just needed to find the right one, and the right dosage. Too much, or too strong, and the spirit will recognize the toxin and expel it or neutralize it. Too little and the regenerative capabilities provided by the spirit will overwhelm the poison’s effects. If you have time though, and the proper subject, you can get the dosage just right.”

“Why didn’t you…kill me…years ago?” Alari asked, losing precious breath to the more precious need to understand the insanity that confronted her.

“Oh but I did,” Halrek said. “Or at least I practiced killing you.”

He looked down at her and pushed an errant lock of hair back from her forehead.

“Like I said, I couldn’t have two people in between me and my claim to the throne now could I?”

Alari scream and reached out a hand to choke the life out of man in front of her. She was weak and slow, but still faster than his eyes could follow and stronger than he expected.

With all of the strength she possessed, she crushed at his throat, seeking to shatter his spine and rip his head off. If she was going to die as the Bloody Handed Queen then she wanted to be painted in the right blood at least.

Gallagrin’s strength was not hers alone to command though. From his pocket, Halrek drew forth one of the Royal Summoning Stones which bore of a piece of Gallagrin’s name. With strength to match her own, he pulled her hand away and threw her back down onto the bed before hopping up and away from her.

“Oh that was perfect,” he said. “I’ve wanted to tell you that for so long now. The rage in your eyes is just what I hoped it would be. Though I must confess, seeing you moping about in misery, thinking that everything was your fault was delightful too. It made things so easy when you no longer sought any comfort in my bed.”

“You’re going to die,” Alari said.

“No, I’m going to be King!” Halrek said. “The real King. What do you think I’ve been doing for these last six years? While you’ve been preening about wasting resources on ‘improving the lives of your subjects’ in a futile effort to get them to love you, I’ve been building alliances.”

He massaged his throat and looked in a mirror to see what damage had been done.

“My sister wanted me to turn you against Inchesso, but when we saw that wasn’t going to happen, her orders were simply to keep you complacent,” Halrek said. “After watching how you destroyed your father though, I saw how much more I could strive for. All I had to do was build enough support that when you fell the nobles would rally behind me as the lesser evil to a return to civil war. Which brings us to today I suppose. We’re still close enough to your war that the wounds are fresh in people’s memory, as our annual gala has ensured they would be. Unlike six years ago though, your nobles see me as a moderating influence on you. I’m the one they can turn to when you wish to strip away too much of their power and prestige. After six years, they know they can work with me, and I know how to manipulate them.”

Halrek walked over to the broad and tightly shuttered windows and unlatched one of them without opening it.

“I should thank you for that I suppose,” he said. “You played your part adequately and with only minor coaching, so bravo for you.”

“You can’t take Gallagrin,” Alari said, feeling a deathly chill beginning to spread inwards from the tips of her fingers and toes.

“I already have,” Halrek said. “It’s just that few people are aware of that yet.”

“Who supports you?” Alari asked, fighting for even a few more moments of consciousness.

“Oh, shall I betray my allies?” Halrek asked. “It’s of no consequence I suppose. Their names will never be pried from your dead lips.”

He pushed the inner shutters securely shut.

“You suspected the Duke of Tel as the one behind the plot against you, did you not?” Halrek asked. “So his disloyalty can come as no surprise. It’s my hand that has slain you, but he delivered the means of your execution to me thanks to his contacts in Inchesso.”

“What does he gain?” Alari asked with the last of her breath.

“I’ll need a Consort-Queen once the official period of mourning is past,” Halrek said. “Telli knows he cannot be King himself. The other nobles would murder him on the spot. He has a daughter though, and giving his family a position in the court? That idea pleases him.”

Halrek listened at the shutters for a second and then turned back to Alari.

“Any other questions?” he asked.

She was silent as the poison crept up into her torso, stealing away life and heat.

“Perhaps you would like to know what will happen when you are gone?” Halrek asked. “We have staged a grand play to dramatize your passing after all.”

Halrek swept to the foot of the bed, out of reach in case Alari was feigning weakness again, and turned to her.

“As you know there has been an incident with an young Inchesso Prince whom you employed. Rumors abound that you have been conducting an illicit affair behind my back, rumors which I will denounce vehemently when you are gone of course.”

“But there is the matter of the Inchesso vampire you were seen holding a secret meeting with. He was not part of our plan, but we work with what we are given and honestly you could not have given us a better scapegoat if you’d tried.”

“In response to your presumed murder of the Inchesso prince, a guild of assassins has been employed to exact revenge on you by the prince’s family. No assassins have felled a sitting monarch of Gallagrin before, but Inchesso assassin’s know terrible secrets, so people will be all too willing to believe that your death is on their hands.”

Alari tried to will herself to her feet, to summon Gallagrin’s power to replace her failing body with one of indestructible Pact Armor, at least long enough to reclaim the summoning stone but she couldn’t manage to move at all.

“Oh don’t struggle, this is the good part,” Halrek said. “After you die, Gallagrin will feel besieged. There will be more attacks on the eastern borders, and in the end, war will be declared. But not a limited war. Not one to adjust the borders by a few miles or more. This will be a war of true conquest. Gallagrin will need to exact vengeance on Inchesso and Paxmer will stand behind it.”

Halrek resumed his pacing, checking first the door that lead to the solitary staircase which lead up to royal bedchamber and then the shutters once more.

“With two nations against it, Inchesso will fall, Gallagrin will have its revenge, but at a ruinously heavy price. With the Gallagrin throne safely secured in my hands, Paxmer will then march in and claim both kingdom’s as its protectorates.”

“With three kingdom’s under Paxmer’s banner, my sister, my eldest brother and I will form a ruling triumvirate and from our house will grow a dynasty which will rule all of the Blessed Realms.”

Halrek opened both the inner and outer shutters and then returned to the side of Alari’s bed and whispered to her.

“What’s supposed to happen next is that I leave and receive word in a few hours that an attack on you has been planned. I’m supposed to gather the royal guards as I race up to this room, bursting through the door just in time to confront the assassins who have already slain you. There will be a fierce battle, I’ll be injured, but despite that injury, the guards and I will kill every one of the assassins who murdered you.”

Leaning in closer, Halrek lowered his voice still further.

“I don’t like that plan though. A few hours gives you too much time.” he said, and hoisted Alari out her bed as though he were going to carry her over a bridal threshold. “Plus I’ve wanted to do this for so very long.”

And with that he took Alari to the window and threw her out.

The Royal Bed Chamber overlooked one of the most lovely scenes in the capital. Below the window the river Mundia ran, falling a thousand feet down into a chasm that served as an unpassable line of defense from attack on the city’s western flank.

Alari fell and in falling felt light at last. Adrenaline surged in her veins and brought her a few sparkling moments of clarity.

She saw the jutting rocks of the wide chasm walls flying by and knew that she was traveling much too fast to survive the impact that awaited her at the bottom. That didn’t stop her from calling out for Gallagrin’s power though.

Even split seconds from death, even destroyed by toxic wounds and poisonous words, Alari still wanted to live.

She entered the mist that roiled at the bottom of the chasm and felt fingers of wind and river spray try to catch her. Her fall slowed, but not enough. When she hit the bottom it was cold and uncaring stone which greeted her and she shattered against it.

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 27

Following her meeting Teo, Alari planned to conduct a strategic series of interviews with the castle staff. It wasn’t a queenly sort of business to engage in, but someone had to turn up information on the conspiracy that moved against her, and by doing the investigation herself, Alari know that she could trust both the results and the reaction to what was learned.

In theory she should have had minions to assign to the task, but in this instance it was those very minions who were impossible to rely on. As much as she wanted to push the burden of ferreting out the guilty onto someone else, whoever was moving against her had to have turned some number of her closest assistants against her. It was the only move that had even the faintest glimmer of success on the conspiracies part and it had to be someone she’d never expect would strike at her.

That also limited who Alari could trust to act on her behalf. Halrek, her King-Consort held few connections to Gallagrin, but as an outsider his reaction to learning someone was planning to assassinate his Queen was likely to be quite lethal. Alari didn’t object to killing the conspirators, but she knew they needed to keep at least a few of them alive to make sure the whole conspiracy was rooted out properly. That left the burden squarely on her shoulders and while discovering who had been turned against her was a task Alari longed to get started on, it was also one that she dreaded undertaking. She’d picked her staff carefully, and treated them well. A betrayal by one of them wasn’t just a blow against the kingdom, it was a blow against Alari’s ability to trust her own judgment, which was potentially more fatal than any other wound the conspirators might cause.

Unfortunately for Alari, she never got to carry out the grim duty she had in mind.

For all the precautions she’d taken, she was still one step behind the conspiracy.

The reality of that struck her as she organized the duty rosters for her staff after Teo departed the storeroom Alari had conscripted as her private interview chamber. One moment she was reviewing a sheet of times and locations where the palace staff was assigned and the next she was slumped over the desk. She managed to raise her head and bring her vision into focus just in time to see her chamberlain enter the room.

“Your Majesty?” the chamberlain asked, confused to find his monarch in such an unusual location and in such apparent disarray.

“We require your assistance Lord Chamberlain,” Alari said. “Fetch the royal chirurgeon.”

She wanted to say more, to explain that some foul magic had overwhelmed her, but darkness pulled her under before she could force the words out.

In a grey and soundless haze, her thoughts scattered in a thousand directions. There was one that she held onto though. She was Gallagrin. Pact bonded to the great spirit the Sleeping Gods had forged to watch over the realm and provide stability for the Mindful Races they built from flesh and sinew and breath and inspiration.

Gallagrin couldn’t be poisoned. Gallagrin couldn’t be slain. No assassin, and no army, could overcome Gallagrin. Even the Sleeping Gods couldn’t undo what they had made. Whatever was happening to her was wrong. It couldn’t happen to the Queen of Gallagrin.

But that didn’t change that it was happening.

Alari fought against the force that was pulling her consciousness down but it was like battling a tempest in her own blood. No matter how she struggled, the whirlpool of her dreams would not release her, and before she knew it, she’d been pulled under the waves of her subconscious.

Lost in her own mind, Alari dreamed about dreaming.

She was thirteen again and with her only real friend.

“So what are you going to do when you’re the ruler of the kingdom?” Dae asked her as they sat together on one of Alari’s many canopied beds, studying the history of Gallagrin.

In the dream, Alari couldn’t read the scrolls that were strewn about the bed but somehow the words she’d spoken and the promises Dae made echoed with crystal clarity in her ears even after the passage of more than a decade.

“I’m going to get everyone to love me,” the youthful, idiotic Alari had said. Hearing her own words sent a stab of embarrassment and pain spiking through Alari’s adult heart.

Her dream then had been to lead people about of the miasma of fear that her father spread over the country. She believed that all she needed to do was to offer the downtrodden and terror-striken people of Gallagrin her hand in friendship and love and she would be able to lift them all up to a brighter future.

When the time had come to ascend her throne though, her hands had been covered in blood and she’d learned that her people were far more broken than she’d ever known as a child.

“Everyone already loves you!” the youthful Dae had insisted.

It was true that everyone who came to court gave her the highest of compliments. There was a real shine of appreciation in their eyes and they paid attention to every word she said. She’d known even by age thirteen though that those compliments were as much for King Sathe’s benefit as they were for hers and that people attended to her because no one dared offend the princess given the retribution her father would exact.

“Everyone fears me,” Alari said. “The less time they have to spend with me, the more comfortable they are.”

“Well I love you,” Dae said. “And I’ll never leave you. Unless you tell me to go.”

“I can’t tell you to go,” Alari said. “Who would be my most trusted Knight?”

“You’ve got your pick of Knights,” Dae said, glancing away from her princess.

“I don’t want any of them though,” Alari said. “I want you!”

“Then you’ve got me,” Dae said. “I’ll protect you from anybody who wants to hurt you. If anyone tries to mess with you, I’ll chop their heads off! If anyone tries to take your kingdom, I’ll rally the troops for you! No matter what it takes, I’ll be there!”

“What if you have to fight a Pact Warrior for me?” Alari asked.

“Then I’ll get a Pact Spirit!” Dae said. “The biggest Pact spirit I can, and we’ll both protect you!”

Dae had gotten a Pact Spirit. It had taken years of work. It had meant that Alari had to be separated from the person who meant the most to her in the whole world, but it had been worth it.

When Dae returned bearing her Pact Spirit, both of the young women knew it was something special. Alari was unspeakable proud of Dae. No one knew that they’d substituted the Pact stones for Dae’s spirit bonding. Dae was Alari’s secret weapon, and Alari wasn’t willing to share her with anyone.

At the same time though, secret weapons are all the more powerful if their secrets are kept hidden.

Alari dreamed of seeing Dae off for her first command. As a Pact Knight, Dae was expected to serve the kingdom in a great capacity than a simple handmaiden to a princess whose life had never been in even the hint of danger since her father’s reign turned bloody and cruel.

“If you call, for any reason, I’ll come,” Dae said, holding Alari’s hands in her own.

“You’ll have responsibilities,” Alari said.

“I have one responsibility above all others, one that I swore myself to before all others,” Dae said.

“Go with my blessing, and my love,” Alari said and kissed Dae on the forehead. “I don’t know where our paths will take us, but you will ever be my most trusted Knight and my most beloved companion.”

“I am yours to command,” Dae said. “Always.”

“Then I give you this one command,” Alari said. “Return to me. Whatever perils you face, whatever trials you must pass through, you are not allowed to die without me, and you are not allowed to be taken beyond when I may follow. Come back to me my Adae.”

“Whatever it takes,” Dae said.

Alari had never called for her though.

The dream moved on to the civil war which Alari provoked and the height of the fighting between the forces loyal to her cause and those who clung to her father’s dying reign.

Alari wanted so many times during the fight for Gallagrin to call Dae to her side. There were so many battles that would have ended in decisive wins, if Alari had called for her Knight and the forces which Dae commanded.

But then Paxmer would have invaded.

Alari knew that would be a problem with inciting a civil war. Gallagrin’s neighbors were universally hungry to consume its resources. The rich mountains of metals and gems which were the foundation of Gallagrin’s wealth and prosperity lay temptingly close to its borders.

The Kingdom of Senkin to the north and the Green Council lands to the northeast had enough internal problems that Alari knew they couldn’t muster the forces to mount a serious invasion attempt. Before she even began her revolt, she’d secured those borders through careful diplomacy and the promise of future trade relations.

Inchesso was old and stagnant enough that they lacked the capacity to invade even if they could find a common will to attempt it.

Paxmer however was another matter. Vigorous and primed for expansion, Alari had heard rumors for a long time of Paxmer plans to become the first of the Blessed Realms to conquer one of the other realms.

Relations between the two neighboring states had never been especially cordial and during the time of King Sathe’s rule there had been insults and indignities hurled across both sides of the border. Sathe had been the first to truly overstep the bounds of international decorum though when he had the chief ambassador from Paxmer drawn and quartered and then sent back to Paxmer in a series of separate boxes.

The beginning of hostilities in Gallagrin had sent a clear and unambiguous signal to Paxmer that their northern neighbor was entering the weakest state it had been in for decades and so the armies of Paxmer had formed up and marched on the border.

Alari had barely enough resources to contest for the future of the country against her father’s troops. Fighting her father and Paxmer would have been impossible and so she’d made the only call she could make. She’d left Dae in place, on the border, against the full might of the Paxmer army.

Her dream shifted to imagination and she saw the border keep of Star’s Watch burning under the heat of dragon fire.

At the end of the civil war, Alari’s hands had been bathed in the blood of her father. They’d fought at the top of the tallest spire in Gallagrin, wrestled for control of the spirit of Gallagrin itself and when Alari had won, she’d torn her father’s head from his shoulders with her bare hands.

It was that image, the princess-become-Queen, striding to the parapets, her hands covered to the elbows in bright crimson blood as she held aloft the bodiless head of the former King which had marked the end of the civil war. It had also earned her the sobriquet of “The Bloody Handed Queen” but it wasn’t her father’s blood which she sought to wash away with every good deed she did and every kindness she could show.

In Alari’s dream, every drop of blood that ran down from her elbows to her fingertips came from one of the border people that she sacrificed to make her dream of ruling the kingdom better than her father come true.

In her dream, the spectre of Paxmer rose above the nation that she’d built. If Halrek hadn’t appeared late in the war and pledged his aid, Gallagrin would have entered the bloodiest war in its history as Paxmer devoured it while Alari tried to rebuild her forces in time to stem the tide of invaders.

In the end, Alari felt like she won her throne due to the gallantry of her Knight and the vision of her husband. Her own achievements somehow paled before the price that others had paid for her, and though she knew on an intellectual level that wasn’t entirely accurate, she couldn’t help but feel like it was an appropriate way to remember the events given all she’d attained in the process.

She was Queen in more than name. Gallagrin’s strength was her strength, but when she reached for that strength she found it was fading from her quickly.

The shock of that feeling allowed Alari to open her eyes once more.

She was back in her bed. Back in the royal chambers. Halrek was with her. He was the only one with her.

“You’re awake?” he said sounding neither surprised nor pleased. “There’s unusual strength in your blood.”

He walked to one of the tables and picked up a bottle she knew wasn’t one of hers.

“I’m sure you must feel terrible,” Halrek said. “No worries though, the chirurgeon has instructed that you be allowed to rest for the evening, so no one will be checking on you. No one except for the assassins who’ll be visiting shortly that is.”

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am his only hope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teo needed to reach Ren.

Violence was being offered.

Violence would be given.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mind’s Armor – Chapter 25

When Teo was summoned to the Queen’s chambers for his second visit, he was reasonably sure that he wasn’t going to leave the room alive.

He was a vampire. He was a foreigner. He was on the wrong side of a dispute with one of the Queen’s trusted backers. Each of those placed him in a poor position. Taken together, he couldn’t imagine how they spelled anything other than a death sentence.

The thought should have bothered him. On a hazy, intellectual level he knew that. It had been a long time since he’d last fed though and far from fearing for his life, Teo found that even the will required to place one foot in front of the other was almost beyond him. If his visit to the Queen was going to mark the end of his days, he felt like he could accept that. In one sense, his life had ended years before on an ill-fated hunting trip. In another sense it had ended when he was cast out of the Duke’s service and cut off from Ren. One last blow, the one that ended his shambling existence would be a mercy he might not even feel at all.

So he trudged onwards, stopping at the door to the Queen’s private audience chamber to allow the page at the door to announce his arrival. His attention wasn’t what it should have been, but as he was escorted in to see the Queen, Teo was reasonably sure his name hadn’t been called. He couldn’t see how that was possible though. It wasn’t like the Queen was going to be waiting for him to appear before her.

The page led him to a narrow desk. Many things were out of place about the room. It was much smaller than the audience chamber the Queen had used the last time they met, there were stacks of documents covering every available horizontal surface in the room, and the Queen was waiting in a simple chair behind the desk.

Teo paused as the page closed the door, leaving him alone in the room with the kingdom’s sovereign ruler. A sovereign ruler who was without her crown, her seal of office or any of her official regalia. The woman who sat before him wore only plain clothes and none of the jewelry or makeup which regularly adorned the monarch of Gallagin. Her hair was still set in a royal fashion, and her bearing bore testament to the power and responsibility she carried but someone passing her in the castle’s corridors could have been forgiven for not recognizing their Queen. At least not until she spoke.

“You look as though your health is failing,” the Queen said. There was neither sympathy, nor reprimand in her voice. Instead Teo heard a quiet calculation ticking forward inside her.

“I suspect that my looks are not deceptive in that matter,” Teo said. He remained standing because he had no guess as to what the proper protocols were for meeting royalty in such a situation.

“Sit,” the Queen said. “I would send for a physician but if my tutoring is correct, there is little any of them could do for you.”

“I fear you are correct Your Majesty,” Teo said and gratefully sank into the chair on the opposite side of the desk from where the Queen sat.

“I don’t believe they can help you, but perhaps I can,” she said.

“Forgive me, but my condition, my bloodline, is not easily aided by others,” Teo said. “I fear any help you could offer would do little to restore me.”

“I do not offer to feed you,” the Queen said. “I know the bond of intimacy which you require to regain your strength, but there is still something I can offer which might restore you for a time.”

“I would be your eternal servant, if you could ease this burden,” Teo said. He hadn’t the strength left to fight for his own life, but he hadn’t yet lost all desire to retain it. The world was still appealing if for no other reason than  Ren was still a part of it.

“I have enough servants,” the Queen said. “What I find myself critically short on are trustworthy agents.”

Teo took a moment to absorb that, struggling to imagine how he could possibly serve the Queen in his current condition.

“Once pledged, you may rely on my service and my discretion,” Teo said. “But I fear the services I am capable of performing for you are limited to such tasks as the youngest Page in your employ could handle with ease.”

“I know I am not engaging you at your best,” the Queen said. “But for the service I have in mind, I believe you will be able to rise to the challenge. I require you to save Rendolan Greis Telli, second reserve heir to the Duchy of Tel.”

Teo didn’t hear her words. Not clearly. His fatigue addled mind had played too many tricks on him already.

He tried to speak, to ask the Queen to repeat what she had said, but he couldn’t. For a long moment, Teo couldn’t form any words at all.

“Rendolan has vanished from his father’s estate and is the subject of a determined hunt by the Duke’s best soldiers,” the Queen said, continuing on as though no silence had fallen. “Where he flies, whether it is away from Gallagrin or towards his father is something no one seems to be able to determine. No one except, I believe, you.”

“I’m…I’m sorry, your Majesty,” Teo said. “You wish me to do what?”

Hope and fear and anger and love each grabbed a corner of Teo’s mind and tore his thoughts into an unruly hail of disconnected pieces.

“Find Rendolan,” the Queen said, making the matter clear and simple and impossible for Teo to do anything but agree to. “Save him from whatever peril he is in.”

“And then what?” Teo asked. He had no memory of standing up, but he was on his feet and they were anxious to turn towards the door and fly back to Nath, to Elinspire or to the gates of hell themselves.

“That will depend greatly on the circumstances you find him in and why he fled his father’s estate,” the Queen said. “It’s possible that he escaped the captivity his father placed him under for your sake. In that case I invite you to return to my protection.”

“That…” Teo stopped at a loss for words again. He felt as though he’d been parted from Ren for centuries and had lost track of any real count of the days. The beating Teo received from the Duke had been unnoticeable in the face of the pain that separation entailed. It wasn’t merely the empty days which passed that tore at Teo’s soul though. The vision of an endless future spent alone, growing ever more hungry and ever colder was the worst torment Teo had ever endured. Against the horror of that future, hope had carried him forward, diminishing with each day like a candle running down to the end of its wick.

That was why the Queen’s words didn’t fall on deaf ears, but rather disbelieving ones. There was so little hope left in Teo, that the offer she placed before him was beyond his ability to imagine as real. He couldn’t allow himself to believe in a future that included a real chance to even see Ren, much less save him from his father’s machinations. To allow himself to hope for such a thing opened up the door to losing the last irrational dream which sustained him, and Teo couldn’t risk that. It was all that he had left and literally the last thing that kept his heart beating.

He couldn’t risk losing that, but he did anyways.

It was barely a choice. On one side was an existence he couldn’t imagine continuing and on the other was the man he couldn’t imagine losing.

“That is very kind of you,” Teo said, forcing himself to breath. “But what if he did not escape for my sake?”

Teo’s love for Ren was an odd thing. It had begun when they were young and was as selfish and foolish and wildly giving as any young love is. Since rising as a vampire though, Teo’s bond with Ren had changed. He needed Ren on a more fundamental level than he ever had. He could have become possessive and controlling. The fear of losing Ren could have made Teo a miserable, greedy monster. Instead of fear though, the bond between them had become one of profound gratitude.

Teo knew what Ren gave up to be with him. For Teo their relationship was the cornerstone of his existence, but for Ren it was a choice. In all the years they’d been together, it had been a choice which Ren made freely and willingly and with joy in his heart. It was how their relationship had to be. If Ren resented his role, the emotional closeness which empowered Teo’s soul would be absent and any feeding the vampire tried to do would yield little more than empty blood.

Because of that, Teo had always insisted that Ren follow his heart. When they fought, which happened as it does in any relationship, it was within boundaries of respect and love (which didn’t always happen in relationships). Thanks to the communion they shared, their reconciliations were never that difficult though. Teo derived his happiness from Ren, and Ren from Teo. If Ren’s happiness had required it, Teo would gladly have starved to the point of extinction or burned on a pyre.

It was that level of devotion that allowed Teo to contemplate that Ren’s flight from the estate in Elinspire might have been motivated by a reason other than himself. Indeed, Teo’s heart prayed that Ren wasn’t suffering in attempt for them to be reunited. The thought of Ren injured, hunted, and frightened was abominable, but being the cause of that pain was an even a worse prospect.

“If my suspicions are true,” the Queen said, “then I believe you will find that Rendolan has acquired some rather damning information about the Duke of Tel. I can just about make out the shape of what he might tell you from the pieces which are laid before me but I need the precise details on what Telli has planned before I can act.”

“Forgive me Your Majesty,” Teo said. “But if you believe the Duke to be guilty of a crime, can you not recall him and force him to answer the charges which you can lay at his door already?”

The Queen smiled at that.

“I wish it were so easy,” she said. “Perhaps when I am an old creature and as firmly entrenched upon my throne as my father was I shall hold such power.”

“I believe you are already a greater sovereign than the late King was, Your Majesty,” Teo said. “Your people adore you.”

“Some of them, perhaps,” the Queen said. “But though I wear the Mantle of Gallagrin and can claim sole dominion of this land, I cannot and will not try to claim the hearts of its people. That was the mistake my father made.”

“The people were terrified of King Sathe from everything I was told as a boy,” Teo said.

“Yes, and thus he held their hearts in sway, driving them with fear as I would shepherd them with love,” the Queen said. “But my love is not as strong as my father’s fear was.”

“I believe it may be stronger than you know,” Teo said. “If you replaced the Duke with another, I believe the love of you people would ratify the choice more strongly than their fear of him would disapprove of it.”

“That may be true, but there are other nobles who would find the fear of similar treatment a most motivating factor,” the Queen said.

“You are Gallagrin though,” Teo said.

“Yes, and that is the central problem I am sending you to address,” the Queen said.

“Your Majesty?” Teo asked, confused.

“I am Gallagrin. I hold the Pact Spirit that is our kingdom’s heart,” the Queen said. “Whatever stratagem Telli has conceived, I should be secure in my throne against it. And yet, if I am right, the Duke of Tel has set himself upon a path where I have no choice but to destroy him utterly. So one of those two statements is in error, and, as yet, I lack the vision to see which it is. That is why I am sending you to do the one thing I know you must accomplish.”

The Queen locked gazes with Teo and the inflection of her voice changed. She spoke not as a woman, or a Queen, but as Gallagrin itself.

“Save your beloved and bring the information he carries to myself or my nearest agent. You do not have leave to fail in this duty.”

Teo was outside the castle before he was aware of moving. The strength that surged through his body came from his last reserves but he spent them without care. Even without the royal command, this was a mission he would not fail.