The fire blasted hellscape that surrounded Dae was only a vision. She knew that, but the memory was so strong and clear it wiped the rest of her senses away. The air of Highcrest Castle with its spring time medley of scents from the Royal Gardens was lost to the choking stench of ash. The warmth of mid-day was replaced by an oven-hot wave of residual heat. In an instant, the memory fruit had transported Dae from Gallagrin to one of the circles of Hell.
Except the tableau she looked out on wasn’t Hell. She stood within the Blessed Realms still. Within the Green Council’s lands, but close to the border.
She looked around and saw a broad river as the only unburnt feature of the land around for hundreds of yards in any direction.
“What happened here?” She didn’t expect an answer, but in response to her words the memory shifted. In a blur she flew forward, racing towards the distant treeline where flames still raged.
The Senkin troops at the fire front noticed her and shot her down with a lance of solar fire. As she tumbled from the sky, she saw them conjuring more flame to burn the forest back from the river’s edge.
Before she hit the ground her view shifted again, and she saw the scouting bird she’d been sharing memories with finish its plummet. From her new vantage point, she reasoned that she’d shifted into the memories of a creature that was built close to the ground. Unlike the scouting bird though, this was a creature who had been present when the fires began. It had run when the men wielding the power of the sun came, but not fast enough to clear the flames.
The memory fruit only carried a small portion of the creature’s pain but the burns were still agonizing. It tried to scamper farther away, but the effort of moving forced a hoarse cry from the creature’s throat.
It didn’t see the solar lance that ended its life, but the next set of memories Dae was shunted into had a full view of the small, furry creatures blazing demise.
These memories weren’t like the others though. They had a depth and richness the simple forest animals had lacked.
“What have they done?” a young girl asked. With the words came a flood of understanding.
The animals hadn’t understood the destruction they were seeing on anything more than a primal level. Iana, the girl whose memories Dae was sharing, knew exactly what she was witnessing though.
The Senkins were destroying the forest around the river in order to reduce the Green Council’s ability to control the flow of the waters. There had been disputes over the river for years, but they were small matters settled by people far outside of Iana’s sphere of influence.
Apparently those people hadn’t settled things quite so well as they believed though.
The sick terror that rose in Iana’s belly had nothing to do with the violation of the Green Council’s borders or the loss of their water rights. Those were trivial matters. What mattered was the area that the Senkin’s had burned and the precious treasure that it held.
Iana strode forward and Dae felt a staggering bifurcation of the memory. Still wholly in its grip, Dae felt Iana bring massive limbs to motion as she crashed across the hellscape. At the same time though she had the strongest sense that Iana’s body was motionless, floating in darkness and security.
Other memories rose, driving that awareness from Dae’s mind.
Iana’s memories were focused on that one concept. She moved her Warbringer at a run, but she was already far too late.
More memories flooded into Dae until she gasped and snapped back to the present, and her own view of it.
“What did you see?” Faen asked. Worry was carved into the deep creases in his forehead and Dae was glad that only the two of them were present in the room.
“The Senkins started the war,” she said. “We have to speak to the Council’s ambassador.”
“Wait, answer me this, why didn’t I throw you out of the training corp the first week you were in?” Faen asked, his eyes searching hers, looking for signs of the woman he knew.
Dae blinked, and then frowned.
“You never threatened to throw me out, not the first week or ever,” Dae said. “You did threaten to throw out Jacyn Kedomal though and I stood up for them as I recall.”
Faen released the breath he’d been holding and relaxed.
“That you did,” he said. “So the memory fruit hasn’t corrupted your mind?”
“If it did, it’s a more powerful agent than a simple question like that can dig up,” Dae said. “Tell me if I start behaving strangely though.”
“Ok,” Faen said. “If you do anything sensible or calm in the next day or so, I’ll know we have a doppleganger on our hands and act accordingly.”
“I should have tried harder to get thrown out of training,” Dae said.
Out in the receiving hall, Gala was waiting for their return with a nervous rustling of their leaves.
“I’ve seen the memory fruit,” Dae said without preamble, forgoing formal speech in favor of dealing directly with the problem at hand. “They burned them all didn’t they?”
“Yes,” Gala said. “We didn’t find any alive. The lucky ones were reduced to ash. The others…the others we have kept preserved as proof of the crime against us.”
“Who was burned?” Faen asked.
“A creche of Forest People young,” Dae said. “The Senkins came to clear the forest away from the river that flows from the Green Council to Senkin. In the process, they burned a huge swath of forest which included a nursery where the next generation of dryads, green shamblers and others Forest People were growing.”
“They burned children?” Faen asked, his eyes narrowed in disbelief as he tried to process the claim.
“And their caretakers,” Gala said. “Elves and dwarves lost their lives in the creche too.”
“Where were these creches?” Faen asked.
“They planted them in hollows beneath earth,” Dae said. “The dwarves made the spaces and their elven parents brought them nutrients and tended to the younglings themselves. They were trapped in the creche when the Senkin fires swept over them.”
“I don’t understand, if they were embedded in the earth, how could fire touch them? And could the Senkins even have known they were there?” Faen asked.
“It doesn’t matter whether their deaths were intentional or not,” Gala said. “Their deaths are a reality in either case.”
“The fires got to them through the root structure of the forest,” Dae said. “The Senkin’s weren’t using any natural form of fire. The solar flares they burned the forest with spread down through the roots of the trees and burst into the Creche from a thousand different points. Nothing they tried could put it out until everything it touched burned to ash.”
“Sleeping Gods, why would they do that?” Faen asked.
“They want our the waters of our realm that flow into theirs and they no longer see a need to abide by the treaties signed before the Sleeping Gods,” Gala said.
Dae felt a wave of rage rise up from her heart in echo of Gala’s words. The memories were too new and too raw for her to deny the feelings that Senkin needed to burn just as it had burned the Green Council. The sheer force of her anger gave her pause though. The memory fruit had been calibrated to make an impact on the person who consumed it. The Council had shared the memories of a young girl and that alone was enough to make Dae suspicious.
Why was a young human aware of what had happened? Why did the Council have children piloting their Warbringers? Most of all though, why give her a child’s eye view of the situation rather than an adult’s?
Iana had a lot of power, but the lens she saw the world through was a simple one. There was good, there was evil and there was very little in between them. Coupled to that was a child’s well of raw emotion. At least half the rage that Dae felt was an empathic reaction to the soul-tearing hate Iana carried as a result of what she’d been exposed to.
“We have to get the Queen back,” Faen said.
“Back?” Gala asked. “Where has she gone?”
Dae weighed the choices of outright lying to the ambassador vs. simply avoiding the question.
“She’s verifying the claims made by Senkin’s representative,” Dae said, deciding that simple and blunt played to her strength more than clever and politic ever would.
“She may be walking into a trap,” Faen said.
“You’ve known Queen Alari longer than you’ve known me,” she said. “Picture how things will fare if someone is foolish enough to attempt to trap her or those she travels with?”
Faen looked like he was about to voice an objection, but his expression of outrage fell as he considered the possibilities.
“Yes, I see what you mean,” he said. “At the very best, she might still have a few bits of mercy left to her. The Sleeping Gods help anyone who crosses her if she does not.”
“This is not acceptable,” Gala said and shivered their leaves in a gesture that Dae couldn’t map to any body language she knew.
“Explain,” Dae said. “What don’t you find acceptable?”
“Gallagrin cannot ally with Senkin,” Gala said.
“Queen Alari will not arrange an alliance with Senkin until she has also heard the Council’s version of the events,” Dae said. “She is not interested in another war. We’ve had enough of that in the last decade.”
Gala was quiet for a moment, lost in conversation with the rest of the Green Council, Dae guessed.
“That is not acceptable,” they said.
“Whether you find it acceptable or not isn’t going to change things,” Dae said. “Gallagrin is not going to enter a war without knowing the truth about both sides.”
“My apologies,” Gala said. “I was not expressing my personal sentiment. That was the majority voice of the Council.”
“What does the Council want then?” Dae asked.
“And why is it so important that we not talk to Senkin?” Faen asked.
“It is not the communication with Senkin which is the chief problem,” Gala said. “It is Gallagrin’s stance against war between the realms which the Council objects to.”
“That position is one neither the Queen nor I are willing to waver on,” Dae said.
“The Council claims that you were willing to wage war when it was to your benefit but now seek to deny anyone else the option to resolve matters with your techniques,” Gala said.
“Toppling Paxmer’s throne required rare luck and planning which no one else in the history of the realms has managed to pull off,” Dae said. “Without that, the devastation that you saw at the Creches will seem like a mild preview of what’s to come.”
Gala was silent for another moment.
“The Council says that the devastation will be inflicted on the aggressors, as justice demands,” Gala said.
“The Council has always been the most isolationist of the realms,” Dae said. “Your gods drafted treaties to guard that isolationism. Of all of the realms therefor, you know the least about warfare and have the most distant understanding of the costs it extracts from both the victor and the defeated. You do not want to insist on war.”
“They already have,” Gala said and shook from crown to root.
A long moment of silence passed.
“Damn them,” Gala said at last. “Gallagrin, I must ask for asylum.”
“Asylum? From who?” Dae asked, knowing there was only one real answer.
“From the Green Council,” Gala said. “I must sink my roots apart from theirs. They have lost the sun.”
“Please explain,” Dae asked, certain that she wouldn’t like what came next.
“I renounce the Green Council. I cannot abide by their decision. They have chosen war, with Senkin…and Gallagrin. My embassy is a failure. Now I must look to the future of all the Blessed Realms.”