Alari didn’t like what she saw. She’d traveled deep into the Green Council’s territory, alone, tracking the connection from the Warbringer she’d commandeered to the leader of the Council’s forces that were assaulting Senkin. When the control lines that tethered the giant plant monster to its pilot lead to a small hillock under an overgrown tree, Alari had taken the only sensible course of action and ripped the tree and hillock apart before the Council’s General could escape.
From what she could see the General was long gone though. The only creatures within the underground command center were clearly support staff given how they were scurrying about and looking to everyone else for guidance on to react to a Warbringer breeching their secret lair.
The only person into the bunker who wasn’t scurrying around was a young human girl, maybe ten years old in Alari’s estimation.
The girl was suspended in a thick mesh of roots and vines which burned with bright yellow flames. Around her stood a pair of Fire Spiders, dripping lava-like venom as they prepared to finish the job they started.
“I don’t think so,” Alari said and waved her hand, calling on a negligible spark of the Gallagrin Spirit’s power.
Gale force winds snuffed the fire and blasted the Fire Spiders out of the bunker. The young girl wasn’t freed, the roots bound her too tightly, but the peril of the flames was averted at least.
Alari examine her, as the Warbringer stepped down into the remains of the bunker. The support personnel were fleeing, and Alari had no reason to pursue them. They would report her presence to their superiors, but the Council was already be aware of Alari’s movements. Eventually they would organize a response but, for the moment, the matter of an unexpected human girl concerned Alari more.
“What have they done to you?” she asked the girl. She stepped down from the Warbringer’s hand which she’d been standing in. Shock and awe was a fine tactic against enemy forces. Against ten year old girls however Alari had little interest in appearing as an all-powerful terror.
In response to Alari’s presence, the girl thrashed in her bonds, eyes wide as she tried to scramble away from both Alari and the Warbringer.
“It’s ok, I’m not here to hurt you,” Alari said. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
From the non-verbal whimpering the girl let out, Alari could see that she wasn’t afraid. She was terrified beyond the capacity for speech.
Assuming she could speak.
Alari prided herself on being a forgiving sort of person. Finding the good in others was important. People she couldn’t find the good in, she tended to decapitate with her bare hands. Granted that had only happened once, and everyone more or less agreed that the Butcher King’s head and shoulder needed to be several feet apart from each other at a minimum, but it was the sort of thing Alari didn’t want to make a habit out of. Or do. Ever again.
If the Green Council was raising human children underground and stunting their growth to the point where they couldn’t speak however? In that case, Alari wondered, if she might not have to make an exception to her general “no beheadings” policy.
Watching the child cower and shrink from her spurred royal rage at those responsible for placing the girl in such a situation, but Alari’s anger was drowned in the even greater waves of concern she felt. The Council was distant and a matter for another time. The girl was in front of her and needed aid immediately.
The Queen in Alari questioned her priorities. Was taking time to help one child appropriate with everything that was at stake? There were many children in danger. Thousands upon thousands that needed protection. In allowing events to proceed as they had, Alari was playing a perilous game with their lives, and it was likely that the game would not turn out well for all of them.
That was one reality. The other reality, the more difficult one for Alari to accept, was that even as the Queen of Gallagrin, even with all of her power, there were forces at work, tides of history, that were far beyond her ability to control.
She was playing the game as it was set before her. She was changing the rules and defying fate, but no matter how hard she tried, it wasn’t within her sphere to save everyone. She could only do the best she could, try the most clever plans she could conceive, and hope to protect and spare as many as possible from a future that would otherwise drench the Blessed Realms in blood so deep there might be none who could rise above its surface.
That was why the girl before her mattered. This was someone she could protect. Someone whose path was entwined with her own.
“It’s ok,” she said. “I won’t do anything to you. Not unless you ask.”
Alari turned her palms up and stepped back, gesturing the Warbringer behind her to step back as well. Alari’s retreat put her a few extra feet away from the girl. The Warbringer’s took it out of the bunker altogether.
The girl quieted and eventually stopped struggling against the roots that held her suspended above the floor of the room.
“Do you want to be free of those?” Alari asked.
“Go away,” the girl said, her voice harsher and deeper than Alari guessed it would be.
“I can’t,” Alari said. “I need to find the commander of this Warbringer and I need to ask them some questions.”
“I’m not going to tell you anything,” the girl said. “Go away!”
Alari blinked and tilted her head. With another blink she shifted her vision over to see through the Warbringer’s eyes. Lines of magic ran through the great plant machine and down into the earth. Each ran directly into the earthen bunker.
And directly to the roots which held the girl aloft.
Alari’s breath caught in her throat, the reality of the situation falling on her in a crashing tumble.
“You command the Warbringers,” she said. “The Council raised you for this, didn’t they? They made you into a soldier? A weapon? From when? When you were born?”
The girl had regained some measure of herself and while she still shied away from Alari, there was a defiance in her eyes that hadn’t been there before.
“You will not take me,” the girl said. “I am Raprimdel. You took my Warbringer, but you won’t get anything from me.”
Alari searched her memories. Raprimdel was one of the Council’s military names, as much a rank as it was a family name, something like a senior General. Alari didn’t recall the details but it seemed like an odd rank for someone so young to hold. Nevertheless, Alari adjusted her bearing. The girl demanded to be treated by her rank, and Alari would honor that.
“We do not wish to either take or compromise you, Raprimdel,” Alari said, flowing into the proper mode of formal speech. “We seek only your direct and unfiltered testimony.”
“You what?” Iana asked.
“We have spoken with Senkin,” Alari said. “We would speak with the Green Council as well before committing to a course of action.”
“I’m not on the Council, and you can’t get to them through me,” Iana said.
“We acknowledge that, and thank you for the information,” Alari said. “At present however we seek to gain your view and testimony of the events which occurred. What orders you were given. What reason you were told the Council had for invading their cherished neighbor.”
“I’m not going to tell you anything,” Iana said. “I’m not going to betray my people, no matter what you do! You can’t trick me.”
“Despite appearances, we are not your enemy, not yet,” Alari said. “Our actions on the battlefield, though taken against the Green Council’s forces, were intended to prevent greater loss of life on both sides.”
Iana remained silent.
“The swiftness of the Council’s assault suggests that their motivation for attacking Senkin is tied to some unforgivable breech on Senkin’s part,” Alari said. “We have spoken with Queen Marie of Senkin. She offered no information as to what Senkin might have done which so grossly violated the Council’s territory. The Green Council has not apprised its neighbors of this breech either, but to motivate its forces, we believe they would have told you why it was you were fighting. Unless they treat you as nothing more than a drone?”
“They didn’t have to tell me anything,” Iana said. “I saw what the Senkin did.”
“An act so horrible to provoke an invasion of another realm cannot be a state secret,” Alari said. “Gallagrin will not stand with those who perpetrate atrocities.”
“That’s what it was,” Iana said. “They murdered our children. Burned them all. An entire creche!”
It was Alari’s turn to be silent. She’d known the Council would claim some compelling justification for what they’d done, but she’d hoped it wouldn’t be something so dire. Some hopes are things to cling to though and some are not. With a slow exhalation, Alari let go of the hope that diplomacy and shows of force would be enough to resolve the issues behind the war.
“Let us free you from those bindings,” Alari said.
Iana blinked, squinted and finally nodded. Alari waved her hand and the roots that she’d usurped control over unwound from Iana’s body, releasing her gently onto the floor.
“What are you going to do to me?” Iana asked.
“We ask nothing more of you than you are willing to give,” Alari said. “The claim against Senkin is a grave one though and so must be investigated. If you can bear witness to it, we would hear your testimony. If you are not free to speak of what you have seen, then we ask you to tell us who can testify in support of the Green Council’s claim.”
“We don’t have to testify,” Iana said. “We’re not on trial. It happened. They burned the creche. Now they have to pay.”
“You speak with the certainty of experience,” Alari said. “We do not have that experience, but if evidence can support the Council’s claim, then we can act upon it.”
“You want evidence? You want to see the creche? Smell the burned bodies? It’s still there! We can go right now!” Iana said.
“If you will lead us, we shall follow,” Alari said.
“She will lead you nowhere.” From the earth, creatures forged of solid rock, carrying gems blazing with stolen starfire, emerged. There were an even dozen of them, a full squad, and from the lightning that flickered from gem to gem on their bodies, they had arrived ready for combat.
“We do not lay claim to this one as prisoner,” Alari said. “She is free to return to your ranks. If the Council wishes Gallagrin’s favor in its campaign against Senkin however, we require admittance to the creche Senkin is accused of destroying.”
“Your request is noted and rejected,” one of the Stone Warriors said.
“It is curious that the Council will not engage with Gallagrin on this point,” Alari said, watching at the Stone Warriors slowly repositioned themselves “Almost as curious as the Council’s choice to wage immediate warfare without declaration to any neighboring realms.”
“Gallagrin is unwelcome here,” the Stone Warrior said. “The Green Council is sovereign in these lands and will submit to no one’s review or censure.”
“The Green Council has always held itself apart from the affairs of the realms,” Alari said. “It has never been so foolish as to think it is not one of them though. An attack on Senkin, however well justified, must provoke a response from the rest of the realms, Gallagrin first and foremost.”
“Your response in irrelevant,” the Stone Warrior said. “You have sided with Senkin, you have violated our domain. You will be destroyed and your realm along with you.”
The attack from the Stone Warriors was instantaneous and overwhelming, but it was not aimed at Alari. On the spur of the moment, twelve of the Council’s most devastating units unleashed their full fury on the space where Iana stood, firing enough force to obliterate her completely.