Iana was familiar with anxiety, and anticipation and dread, but it wasn’t until her Warbringer was taken from her that she understood how sharp an emotion fear could be.
“She’s coming for me,” Iana said. “Dagmauru, she’s coming to find me. The one who took my Warbringer!”
“Calm yourself, Commander,” Dagmauru said. “The Gallagrin Queen can no more locate where you are than she could find one fallen leaf in all the forests of our realm.”
Iana wanted to believe Dagmauru. He was the Green Council’s War Advisor. He was her mentor. He had been right about the need to advance in a measured fashion and he had been right about the Senkin response to their invasion.
But he wasn’t right about the Gallagrin Queen.
Iana knew it down in the roots of her bones.
“Your consternation is understable,” Dagmauru said. “The arrival of so formidable a force at the battlefront was an unforeseen complication.”
“She destroyed our offensive,” Iana said. “She has power beyond anything we’ve faced before.”
“This is true,” Dagmauru said. “But the exercise of her power against your forces has won us this war.”
Iana had been trying to wiggle free of the control mesh that connected her across the distant miles to her Warbringer. She stopped, uncertain, but looking for reassurance in Dagmauru’s words.
Dagmauru pulled back to give her space, roots that had been entwining around her to hold her in place relaxing as Iana stopped struggling to escape her command bower.
“How have we won?” Iana asked, her fingers twitching at the controls for the Warbringer. At first, the connection had been numb, almost dead. Iana had lost Warbringers before though. Starved for magic on a long campaign, or caught in an unexpectedly ferocious ambush, the Warbringers were powerful but not indestructible. Whatever the Gallagrin Queen had done to Iana’s Warbringer though hadn’t destroyed it, and over time sensation had returned.
Iana could feel her Warbringer marching again, the difference was, she could no longer control it. That was the source of her terror. Not that she’d been defeated. Defeat was an inconvenience and an expense. Loss of control though was something else.
Warbringers took significant amounts of time to grow and develop, so the destruction of one was always a black mark on one’s record, and a blow against the controller’s pride. As a commander, Iana had proven herself better and stronger than her peers but even the best had their off days or runs of bad luck. In her hardest fought battle, she’d gone through three of the giant plant machines, but finally overcoming the massed army of divine rejects with a broken down and barely functional fourth unit that she’d scrounged from a regrowth pool that was within range.
Switching Warbringers wasn’t commonplace for a controller of Iana’s stature but it was always an option. Except the Gallagrin Queen had taken that option away.
In the command bower, miles from the front line, Iana’s actual physical form lay nestled in a safe and well protected net of roots and vines. Here and there, they enwrapped her, reading from her body and mind the actions to transmit to the Warbringer.
Or they had during the battle. Afterwards they had become a prison. Unresponsive to her touch and locked in around her, unwilling to let her go.
“We have won the war, because the Gallagrin Queen has committed her force improperly,” Dagmauru said. “Her presence was the daunting factor in our plans to invade Gallagrin if our southern neighbor came to the aid of Senkin. By striking where she did she revealed to us that her borders lie undefended.”
“Gallagrin still has armies doesn’t it?” Iana asked. She could feel the rumbling steps of the Warbringer as it surged closer. Her troops had hesitated after Iana’s Warbringer fell into the Gallagrin Queen’s hand. They probably couldn’t have stopped its advance anyways, not with the Queen protecting it, but they might have slowed it down. Iana wished they’d slow it down, because she felt like it was getting so near that she could feel the thunder of its footfalls with her own body rather than just through the link she retained to it.
“The Gallagrin armies are in disarray,” Dagmauru said. “They are not yet united following the coup that was attempted a month ago. The Queen’s move fails her country in another sense though. By exposing herself and venturing into our domain, she can be captured and Gallagrin can lose it’s divine gifts permanently.”
That drew Iana’s full attention.
“Is that possible?”
“For those who have delved deeply enough into the secrets of the Divine?” Dagmauru said. “Yes. All things are possible for the Council. The Gallagrin Queen made a grand gesture, possibly to win the Senkin’s favor. It will be the last such display she ever puts on.”
“But how can we stop her?” Iana asked. “She took my Warbringer. She still has it! And she’s locked me out of controlling it. If she can do that, can’t she take over everything?”
“I will not lie to you commander,” Dagmauru said. “That was a surprising achievement, and it did raise concern among the Council. We have analyzed the attack though. When the Gallagrin Queen usurped control of your Warbringer, she did so after being attacked with our own transformation mists.”
“I saw that, she breathed in the yellow mist and breathed something else out,” Iana said.
“Gallagrin magic is centered on the art of transformation,” Dagmauru said. “We believe she worked the transformation on the mist herself, and turned it into a control agent that responded to her will rather than yours. So long as we don’t give her any additional material to work with, she should not be able to repeat that trick.”
“Do we have a plan to defeat her?” Iana asked. “Will the Council be safe from her? She might still more of the mist and if she takes one of them…”
“Calm yourself commander,” Dagmauru said. “The Gallarin Queen will not be allowed anywhere near the Council.”
“Are we sure we know what her capabilities are though?” Iana asked. “That hurricane waves she unleashed on us were never mentioned in our briefings on Gallagrins troops.”
“The Gallagrin Queen is a force far beyond any of her soldiers, but even she has limits,” Dagmauru said. “She’s testing those limited, but we already know where they lie.”
“But we’ve never had a chance to study her, have we?” Iana asked.
“Our understanding of magic has advanced beyond the need for direct study,” Dagmauru said. “The Council can calculate, based on the fundamental principles we have discovered, exactly how much magic the Gallagrin Queen can invoke and exactly what she is capable of doing with it. Believe me when I say that we are prepared for the worst that she can offer us, and we are not concerned.”
Iana breathed in deeply. The alchemical mix of nature’s scents, from rich loam to growing moss to the dozens of fresh spring flowers that surrounded them reminded her where she was. Home. Among those who sheltered her and whom she sheltered in turn.
The rest of her troops were in their own command bowers, each safely isolated from the others so that a foe couldn’t stumble on a single command center and destroy the brains behind an entire army. That was how the Green Council was organized. Each part in support of the other, each bearing part of the load that was distributed to all. No matter what force the Gallagrin Queen could throw against them, the Green Council was safe, and so she was safe as well.
“Can you get me out of this command bower?” she asked.
“You need only release your hold on your Warbringer’s controls,” Dagmauru said. “We restrained you because tearing free would have done you great injury.”
“That’s what I need help with,” Iana said. “I’ve been trying to release from the Warbringer. It won’t let me.”
“That’s not possible,” Dagmauru said. “The Warbringer cannot be taken from you, but all you need to do is relax and you can disengage from it. We spoke of this in your first class. You were probably too scared before to properly relax. Try again.”
Iana took another long, slow breath and forced her muscles to go placid as a winter lake. She imagined the roots and vines that held her relaxing as well. One by one they would slacken and release her limbs, her body and finally her mind.
Her troops would wonder at the loss of their commander, but her second-in-command Wylinka would take care of them. Iana smiled at that thought. Her troops were good and Wylika was an excellent second. Based on her performance in this crisis, she could even earn her own command. Far from being jealous, Iana wished her second the best of fortune. It would be heart warming to be able to great Wylika as an equal rather than a subordinate.
With her body relaxed and limp, Iana waited. And waited. The control roots which should have been unwinding weren’t. The vines that tethered her mind to her Warbringer were not releasing her. Panic rose, but Iana slammed it down. She was trained better than that.
“I am relaxed. I am unafraid,” she said in a calm, measured voice. “The controls are not responsive yet though. Can we have an external check done on them. Maybe something is impeding their release?”
“I have your Tenders examining the linkages,” Dagmauru said. “Their reports agree with yours. The command net is not disengaging. I will have them try a physical override.”
Iana waited. She could still feel her body, something she occasionally let go of in the heat of battle, but she couldn’t feel anything being done to the roots that restrained her.
With great effort, Iana forced her eyes open. The bower was only dimly lit but long adaption to its confines left her able to see quite well.
The command bower was located in a small underground grotto. Water from a nearby river pooled at the far end and around her a wall of roots and solid earth rose just high enough for her to stand upright if she hadn’t been laying prone. Around the bower, various creatures, both humanoid and not, scurried. Each played a role in maintaining the careful weave of magics that connected Iana to her Warbringer and each one seemed to moving with the kind of panicked distress that Iana had only seen during a simulated calamity drill where everything conceivable went wrong at once.
“The physical override isn’t working,” Dagmauru said. “I am sorry Commander.”
“Sorry? Sorry for what?” Iana asked, the panic around her creeping in her voice.
“The command network is being corrupted,” Dagmauru said. “You were right. The Gallagrin Queen is tracking back to your position.”
“Sleeping Gods!” Iana swore. “How long do we have?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Dagmauru said. “We cannot allow her to gain access to the Deep Roots. If she can access our secure communications, she will have a method tracking the Council itself.”
“Cut me out then!” Iana said as she started to struggle to break free once more. Injuries be damned, she couldn’t let the Gallagrin Queen catch her.
“It’s too late for that,” Dagmauru said. “I am sorry Commander, but we have no choice.”
“No choice about what?” Iana asked, confusing making a fuzzy mess of her mind.
In response she saw two of the Fire Spider guards scuttle down off the ceiling. Their poison did more than kill their foe. It reduced the victim to ash in less than a minute.
“You’re going to burn me free?” Iana asked, calculating how much that was going to hurt. She didn’t have enough information to gauge it more specifically than “a lot”.
“It has been a pleasure advising you,” Dagmauru said. “You will be remembered.”
Iana’s eyes flew wide. Remembered? Dagmauru wasn’t speaking of freeing her. The spiders were going to burn her, not the bindings.
“No, wait,” she said. “The queen’s not here yet. Don’t do this.”
“We cannot take the chance of being compromised,” Dagmauru said. “We must remain pure.”
“But I am still pure,” Iana said. “Don’t throw me away. I’m still part of you.”
Only silence answered her. Silence broken by the clicking of the Fire Spiders as they slashed a path through the command web.
“No!” Iana screamed. “Dagmauru! Come back! Burn the bower, but get me out! I am still loyal. I can still serve you!”
The Fire Spiders began to spit venom to hurry their progress and Iana felt the searing heat of the flames roasting her skin. The nauseating stench of ash filled her nostrils and she lost the last of what little composure she had left.
“No! Gods No! Don’t do this! Dagmauru! Don’t do this! I’ve served you! I’ve always served you! Don’t let me burn! I don’t want to die! Not like this!”
The Fire Spiders were neither creatures of mercy or pity though. They tore the last of the restraints that shielded Iana from them and she saw her death reflected in their hundred eyes. It wasn’t going to be a good death, it wasn’t going to be quick and it wasn’t going to be painless.
In the end though, it also wasn’t going to be at all. Death and flame were both held back by a miracle.
The sound of Iana’s scream of undiluted terror was dwarfed as the walls and roof of the bower were ripped from the earth by an unstoppable force. Sunlight, pure and brilliant, flooded the hidden chamber and in the shadow of her Warbringer, Iana saw that the Queen of Gallagrin had come for her.