Iana squeezed the fingers of her Warbringer into a tight fist. In her years as a pilot, and her months in command, she’d never felt the need to question the Council’s orders. She’d learned what was taught to her, she’d done her duty, and she’d never raised a fuss about it. The rage she felt was a new experience therefor.
“Patience,” Dagmauru said. “This is not the time for the hasty actions of the Quick. This is the time to sink deep and seize the land below us.”
Dagmauru spoke to Iana through the Deep Root Speech. He was an Elder, and she a commander, so their discussions began in the privacy of the speech only accessible to those who were tied into the deepest level of the Green Council’s workings.
Iana knew that Dagmauru’s orders came from the Green Council itself but every fiber in her burned with the urge to disobey them.
“The Senkins are getting away,” she said, struggling not to scream. If they were listening, the Council could hear her words, but if she gave into the tumult of fear and hate which boiled within her then everyone in the realm would hear her words.
The same as everyone had heard the cries of the ones who burned when Senkin invaded.
“You seek to forestall the battle to come by ending it before it arrives,” Dagmauru said. “The war we fight is not one which can be avoided though.”
“I don’t want to avoid the war,” Iana said. “I want to win it. If we let the Senkin’s go they’re going to tell their troops about us. They’ll know how to hurt us.”
“You are thinking like one of the Quick,” Dagmauru said. She felt him extend vibrations of calm and certainty through the Deep Roots. “They will attack us again. It is what the Quick do. They will come in force and we will meet them. They will hurt us, but we will draw on more strength than they, because, in their haste, they will be only loosely tethered while we will be sunk deep.”
The Deep Roots brought more than just Dagmauru’s words to Iana. She felt the flow of the future that he foresaw. What was to come would be rapid, but one didn’t need to be quick to answer the changes before them. As with the arrival of an early snow, the key to surviving and overcoming was always to grow broader and deeper than that which sought to overwhelm you.
Iana knew this doctrine. She’d been nurtured on it from when she was first given to the Council’s Military Creches. It had long served the Council well in dealing with the monsters which prowled the many Lost Glades of their realm.
Those creatures were cast-offs of the Slumbering Gods though, failed experiments if somewhat deadly ones nonetheless. The Senkin weren’t anything like the monsters of the Lost Glades. The monsters might prey on the people of Iana’s realm, but there was no illusion of peace between them. Senkin was supposed to have been the Green Council’s friend, the realm most closely connected to Iana’s homeland through treaty and trade and centuries of shared history.
That had all been a lie though. The moment someone proved that the gods weren’t waiting to punish those who overthrew another realm, Senkin’s civility had fallen away like dead leaves caught in a fierce storm. In place of friendship, Senkin had shown its greed, raiding the the Green Council’s lands and slaughtering the ones they thought defended the border.
They had been wrong. Terribly wrong. The creche they burned didn’t hold the Green Council’s defenders. Only new growths and the newborn had been secreted there, along the shores of a secluded highland lake.
When the treachery was revealed, Iana’s forces were ranging deep within the Council’s lands, hunting a tribe of Blood Boars who had been driven mad after tasting the flesh of a traveling caravan. They returned triumphant only to discover the ruins of the fledgling creche. Iana world crumbled with that discovery, the embers of the ruined creche sparking a blaze within her heart that she knew would never burn wild or hot enough to subside.
“You will have a chance to answer the villiany of the Senkin soon,” Dagmauru said. “They will respond to our advance with haste and well before they have gathered their full strength.”
“And if they don’t?” Iana asked. She was stepping beyond her bounds, challenging Dagmauru’s advice so directly, but she needed to be right. She needed to do something.
“Then we will spread,” Dagmauru said. “Slowly. Inexorably. We will sink into the land and claim it as our own step by step. They will not win by trying to outlast those for whom the seasons pass as days do for the Quick.”
This argument struck a chord in Iana at last. The idea of taking the Senkin’s land, inch by inch, was appealing. There was no one neck she could wring or trunk she could shatter that would make up for what Senkin had done, but squeezing the life out of the realm and making its bounty into the Council’s own strength had the right sort of merciless ferocity to slake Iana’s need for vengeance.
“They can’t let us do that, but what if they strike across the border again?” she asked. “We’ve never fought a war like this, and their magics are strange.”
“The Senkin have always been dabblers with their arts,” Dagmauru said. “Theirs is a glorious and dazzling power which blinds them as much as it does their enemies.”
“You think we can beat them,” Iana asked. “Even if they all come at us at once?”
“The secrets of every long season are ours to command,” Dagmauru said. “We remember the deep mysteries and the words given to us by the divines who await our arrival in the Wintering Green. In opposing us, their defeat is inevitable.”
“We can’t let them win again,” Iana said. “Not even once.”
“There is no victory that can hold off the winter for all,” Dagmauru said. “You must embrace this and let it fill you. Your strength is not yours alone. You are part of our realm and even should you fall, even should you burn down to ash, the Green Council will remember you and your spirit will find shelter and renewal in the Wintering Green before returning to us.”
“I’m not afraid of the Wintering Green,” Iana said. “I will give my strength and my life for our realm, but I will not give anyone else’s.”
“You speak like a warrior,” Dagmauru said. “But you are no longer just a warrior. You are a commander. You must see your place and the place of those around you. We do not begrudge the falling leaf, but if the trunk is lost or the roots are torn up, then sorrow will follow. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Advisor,” Iana said. She knew what the Green Council needed of her. She had to spend the lives of those she commanded. She could shepherd them, she could refuse to waste their potential but when the need arose, she needed to send those beneath her to perish in her place. She needed to survive and carry out the will of the Council up and until those above her needed to expend her to further the strategy that would save the realm.
“Good, then we must continue this discussion in the High Roots,” Dagmauru said. “We have many plans to make with your company and…”
A scream along the High Roots cut him off.
Iana force her attention upwards, stumbly mentally back towards the light and the high vantage point of their winged sentries.
“The Senkin are back!” Wylika Selmondel, Iana’s second in command, said. She was rousing their forces, dragging the Warbringers back from their restorative slumber.
“Where are they?” Iana asked, scanning the fields where her forces had begun raising bulwarks.
“Above us,” Wylika said.
From the sky, chariots draw by horses of fire and shrouded in golden light descended from the cloud cover.
“They’re heading for the border keep,” Iana said. “Get the troops moving, we can’t let them dig in.”
“Yes commander!” Wylika said, the ground shaking with the departure of her Warbringer.
Iana dove her mind down to the Deep Roots again. She had to report in.
“They’re here. They’ve come back early,” she said, focusing on Dagmauru.
“As we foresaw,” Dagmauru said. “They come on swift wings which carry them only to their deaths.”
“If they take the border keep, they’ll be able to attack us whenever they want,” Iana said. “Our bulwarks won’t mean anything if they can just fly people right over them.”
“Trust the Council young one,” Dagmauru said. “This is all part of a greater design.”
With a vast effort of will, Iana stayed silent. Any design which called for allowing their enemy to attack them from a fortified position seemed like an idiotic design in Iana’s estimation.
“For now, you have the battle which you craved,” Dagmauru said. “Your part in the Council’s design is to slow and contain the Senkins. Assail their battlements. Turn their attention to safety and defense.”
“As you instruct Advisor,” Iana said and brought her attention back to her Warbringer.
Crashing across the landscape left her with conflicted emotions where it should have brought her joy. The battle to come quickened the blood in her veins and focused her mind, while the tangled skein of the Council’s plans left her vexed. She wanted to march to victory. She wanted to expend the immeasurable strength of her Warbringer on making her realm safe once more. Following orders which didn’t seem capable of producing that result was tearing her apart. Disobedience was unthinkable, but in the heat of battle not much thinking happened.
That was a dangerous thought though, and overstepping her boundaries was an ill-advised notion. What power the Green Council gave to her, it could also take away. So she obey. For the moment. She would engage the enemy. She would contain them. If any were foolish enough to expose themselves or try to break through her forces, then she would take advantage of the opportunity to its fullest extent.
“They’re starting to set up devices on the keep’s ramparts,” Wylika said.
“Must be some kind of heavy weaponry,” Iana said. “Tell the troops that we’re going to split and head in from different angles.”
“I’ll take the northern approach if you want?” Wylika asked. Her Warbringer was well ahead of Iana’s, it’s lighter structure making it faster though less powerful too.
“Take a quarter of the our forces,” Iana said. “I’ll take another quarter and approach from the south. I want the rest to stay back until we know what our foes are capable of assaulting us with.”
“Understood commander,” Wylika said.
Iana wasn’t thrilled with the idea of sending Wylika in on a separate attack vector. She liked the younger girl, and valued her as a Second-in-Command. Dagmauru had just warned her about thinking like a warrior rather than the Commander though, so she forced her heart to go still. She didn’t need to worry. She didn’t need to question. She just needed to do what the Council ordered her to.
A blistering bolt of light confirmed her decision. The Senkin felt secure enough in their fort to begin attacking. That was going to cost them.
Iana pushed her Warbringer forward into a thundering advance. Her giant arms absorbed more hits from the Senkin’s solar lances without breaking stride.
Stronger beams followed the solar lances cast by the Senkin defenders though. From the devices they’d setup atop the walls, torrents of concentrated white flame flashed across the battlefield like lightning.
When one hit Iana’s Warbringer, it blasted her left leg completely off and she fell hard into the dirt.
A great cheer went up from the Senkin ranks only to die out an instant later as vines from Iana’s Warbringer’s hip lashed out and reattached the plant giant’s severed leg.
More bolts and flares followed but despite the tremendous damage they inflicted, they couldn’t stop Iana and her forces from reaching the walls.
The border fort had stood for centuries for centuries but not been maintained in decades. Iana was still concerned about the protection it would provide the Senkins, but that was because she wasn’t comfortable with them having any protection at all. Against the might of her assembled Warbringer forces, she knew it wasn’t going to stand for very long.
The Senkins seemed to know that too, and at first she thought they were fleeing when their chariots took the air again.
That impression was dispelled when they wheeled around and began a low diving run on the Warbringers in Iana’s group. She tried to bring down the first that swooped towards her but the fiery shield around it vaporized the vine tendrils she threw at it before they could gain a hold on the chariot.
As it passed, the Senkin onboard dropped a small barrel which burst to pieces as it passed through the chariot’s shield.
White flakes fell from the destroyed barrel and the light wind carried them past Iana’s Warbringer. Her nearest subordinate wasn’t as lucky though. It caught a partial dusting of the white flakes and exploded in flames.
The pilot of the Warbringer sent it to the ground, trying to roll out the flames, but nothing would stop them.
Nothing would ever stop them.
Iana had heard of this weapon. The Senkin called it “Everfire” but that was far too pretty a name for the abomination that Iana saw before her. The flames it conjured never stopped burning, they would destroy the land itself if the magic powering them wasn’t undone. Not destroy as in reduce to ash. Things could grow from ashes. Destroy as in transform into energy that radiated away into nothingness.
Fresh rage kindled in her heart, and Iana lashed out with far more vine tendrils than she should have expended. She felt the knees on her Warbringer freeze up as the life was sucked out of them. It didn’t matter though. She was able to swarm so many vines around the chariot that she burst through its shield and crushed it into a shattered mess. The Senkins onboard it were an indistinguishable part of that mess, but her victory and their deaths brought Iana no joy. The stakes were rising too quickly.
That was when the Council’s Fell Birds arrived.
Magic-woven constructs of a size comparable to the Warbringers, the Fell Birds were only dispatched when a monster tribe had grown so powerful that it was a danger to an entire province. Iana looked up and was pleased with their arrival.
Then she saw they were carrying a new payload. Globes as wide as a man was tall, filled with a yellow-green liquid.
The Fell Birds made only one pass over the Senkin Fort. They weren’t particularly careful where they dropped their globes. Neither precision nor repetition were needed. Where the globes landed, large billowing clouds of fungal vapors blossomed, filling and overflowing the fort.
The yellow-green clouds energized Iana’s Warbringer where they touched it, but against the unprotected Senkins the mists had a different effect. As though being consumed by a billion starving insects, the enemy soldiers melted away as the clouds settled over them.
Her need for vengeance overwhelmed by the sight, Iana understood why Dagmauru had arranged for this scenario, or one like it to occur. There had to be observers watching this battle, and when they saw what became of their forces, there would be no more attempts to land troops behind the Green Council’s lines.
Her people were secure, but that didn’t mean that their advance was going to stop.