The storm of energy unleashed by the Stone Warriors ended as abruptly as it began. As the smoke and debris it kicked up began to clear though, the light glowing from their target didn’t.
The Stone Warriors had directed their attacks at Iana but, where she stood, a pair of crossed wings were visible, shining with brilliant yellow light.
Alari rose a moment later, unfurling her wings as she did so that Iana could breath freely.
“The Council would be wise not to try our patience in that manner,” Alari said.
“We understand the nature of your magics,” the Stone Warrior said. “You have a far larger reservoir than your knights but all Gallagrin magic is inherently limited by the mortal the spirit is bonded to. You are powerful now, but each use of magic drains you, and without your homeland to call upon for support you cannot replenish yourself once you are exhausted.”
“You would plumb the depths of our strength and commit your realm to enmity with Gallagrin then?” Alari asked.
“Gallagrin has already chosen war, and in violating the sacred borders of our realm you have lost that battle whether you know it yet or not,” the Stone Warrior said.
“Are you receiving your orders directly from the Green Council or are you merely an underling interpreting their orders to your own ends?” Alari asked.
The Stone Warriors charged up the gems on their bodies in response, signaling that the time for diplomacy was finished. Alari sighed in regret. There were so many choices the Green council could have made. Their determination to head down the most miserable path for all was particularly frustrating though as, one after another, the options for a peaceful resolution to the conflict were removed from the game board.
The gathering charge in the Stone Warrior’s gem precipitated a lightning storm far worse that their initial assault but Alari didn’t allow them to renew their attack. She blurred briefly in place and each Stone Warrior exploded into a cloud of dust, their gems shattered to an irrecoverable mist of glittering powder.
“What just happened?” Iana asked.
“The Council tried to kill you,” Alari said, brushing off her shoulders. “Though it’s unclear why.”
“They’re afraid you’re going to use me against them,” Iana said. Her breaths were rapid and her eyes slightly unfocused.
“If the Council still holds your loyalty we will not ask you to act against them,” Alari said. “As the commander of the assault on Senkin, you were privy to details of the attack we needed to know, but the Council itself can provide that information as well.”
“I am not going to betray my homeland,” Iana said.
“Do you believe those who tried to assassinate you were working for the good of your homeland?” Alari asked.
“Maybe,” Iana said. “I don’t know what you can do with me, or how I would know if you were doing anything. If I’m exposing them, then…”
Her voice trailed off as she wrestled with the idea.
Alari let the girl ponder her situation. There would be deep roots of conditioning and loyalty dug into her psyche. Alari knew how hard those could be to throw off. For all the horrors her father had committed, she had always been spared from his madness. Choosing to challenge him for the Gallagrin Pact Spirit had been the hardest thing she’d ever done. She couldn’t imagine that asking a young girl who was raised for combat to turn her back on the realm she was sworn to protect would be any easier.
So she didn’t try.
“I do not believe the world will be better with you dead,” Alari said, slipping into casual speech. “And the Council is mistaken to think I would ever use you to get to them. My desire to speak with them is because I want to bring representatives from both nations to the peace table. Senkin and the Council, if they could be reunited, would be a shining beacon to the rest of the realms, showing how we don’t need the mandates of the gods to co-exist with one another.”
“That is a big goal,” Iana said.
“It has been noted that my aims sometimes exceed my reach,” Alari said.
“What do you do then?” Iana asked.
“Reach farther,” Alari said.
“That must be easy for you,” Iana said. “The earth and the winds answer to you.”
“Only at great cost,” Alari said. “And power alone isn’t everything.”
“There are many paths to victory, for some the cost is too high, for some the road is too long. Always strive for the victories that leave you most able to secure more in the future,” Iana said, as though reciting from a textbook.
“You’ve had military training your whole life, haven’t you?” Alari asked.
“It’s what I was born for,” Iana said. “It’s who I am meant to be.”
“Meant to be by whom?” Alari asked.
“What?” Iana asked.
“Who meant you to be in the military so young?” Alari asked. “If you started as an infant, it wasn’t a choice you made.”
“I am Raprimdel,” Iana said. “I worked for that. I chose that.”
“The Raprimdel are some of the highest class of soldiers in the Green Council’s armies,” Alari said. “Did you have any other choice of what to be though? Or were your only options whether the lead or follow?”
Iana scowled but her eyes filled with tears.
“I am Raprimdel,” she said again. “I worked hard for that. It’s what I am.”
Alari saw the gaping wound in Iana’s heart. The one Alari had put there hours ago.
Iana’s identity was bound up in her role as commander of the Council’s forces. Her defeat at the front lines cracked that sense of self, and then the Council’s betrayal had widened that chasm in her soul even further.
Ordinary failure is difficult. Failure when it feels like a judgement on your worth as a person is even worse. The hardest part for Alari was that she didn’t know if it would be possible to reach the young girl. Life had thrown them together at an odd angle and what Iana needed might not be something that Alari could give.
Since the only other option was to do nothing at all and watch the girl be assassinated by the next strike team the Council sent, Alari refused to back away. Instead she changed her approach.
“As Raprimdel, are you sworn to the realm or to those who sit on the Green Council?” Alari asked.
“They are one and the same,” Iana said.
“And if you discovered one member of the Council was working against the rest?” Alari asked.
“The Council stands united,” Iana said.
“The Council is united, they are justified in their war and they have earned your trust,” Alari said. “But they will not speak to the other realms with a single voice, not even to provide the easy justifications for the war they are raging, and they would slay you despite the loyalty you shown them now. What do you think of that?”
“I think you’ve taken everything from me,” Iana said. “Sacrifice is all I have left.”
“No, it’s not,” Alari said. “You have your realm and all of the people in it. You are their protector, but that also means that they are your support.”
“But they think I should be…” Iana choked on the word and turned away, shame flushing her face at the unintended display of emotion. “I’m a danger to them. I should be dead.”
“No, if you die, your realm loses a defender who has worked her whole life to be what she was needed to be. If you die, you won’t be able to speak of what you saw, and you won’t be able to stand against the next group who comes with fire in hand looking to burn the next creche to ash.”
“But if I die, then no one can get to the Council through me,” Iana said. “It’s my duty to listen to them. I have to obey their wishes.”
“No, you don’t,” Alari said. “The members on the Council are not the whole of the realm. Their wishes serve only themselves. If they cared about their people they would not rush into this war. They would rally the other realms together, they would demand justice from Senkin, and they would honor those who died by refusing to sacrifice the living under their care unless no other option remained.”
“You aren’t from our lands,” Iana said. “You don’t know what it’s like here. They made me. I owe them everything.”
“If I took over the Council, and put my own puppets in their place, would you then owe me everything?” Alari asked.
“No!” Iana said.
“Why? I would be the Council wouldn’t I? All in the realm would obey me?” Alari asked.
“You would be a false Council, you wouldn’t care about us at all,” Iana said.
“What makes you think that isn’t what’s already happened?” Alari asked. “Not that I’ve taken over the Council, but that someone on it isn’t who they appear to be.”
“That can’t be,” Iana said.
“Ask you yourself if this campaign fits with anything you know of the Council you grew up with?” Alari said. “Why would the Senkin come and burn your creche now? You’ve been the friendliest of realms for centuries. Even Paxmer and Gallagrin, who hated each other since the gods made us, never raided each other’s nurserys.”
“I saw the remains of the creche,” Iana said. “I saw the troops from Senkin burning it.”
“I know, I have to believe you, nothing less would explain the ferocity of the attack on Senkin,” Alari said. “But why now, and why won’t the Council talk about it?”
Alari could think of many scenarios to explain the Council’s lack of transparency, few of which were good. The idea that one or more of the members had been replaced a hostile party was far fetched, but from the change in Iana’s expression that didn’t matter. The girl had been pummeled by tidal waves of emotion, swept from the anchoring surety of righteous rage into a swirl of confusion and betrayal that threatened to tear apart her world. However crazy the idea of a usurper on the Council was, Iana looked willing to believe it, or at least pretend to until a better explanation came along.
“What can I do?” Iana asked.
“I still want to see the creche,” Alari said. “If you can take me there? There might be more to learn from it and even if not, if I can testify to Senkin and Inchesso and all the other realms that I saw the destruction with my own eyes. That will carry far more weight than reporting something second hand.”
Iana was silent for a moment, her eyes locked on the floor of the destroyed command center she’d lain in.
“You would do that?” she said at last. “You would speak to the realms about what you saw? Try to get them on our side?”
“I walked in here, alone, specifically to find you, to ask why you attacked Senkin,” Alari said. “To do that and then not listen to you would be idiocy of an order greater than even a queen can aspire to.”
“But what about telling the other realms?” Iana asked.
“The very best thing for my realm, and for me personally, is peace between my neighbors,” Alari said. “Peace cannot be built on lies, and it can’t be built on secrets. Those fall apart too swiftly. For the crimes committed, there has to be justice done, and atonements made. It is in every realms’ interest to see the truth of that, so I will tell them what I saw and what I will see no matter how they try to avoid me, or how little they want to listen.”
Iana was silent again before saying a simple “Thank you.”
“We will need to move out soon,” Alari said. “The Council will be sending more forces to wear me down.”
“They’ll probably try to kill me again too,” Iana said.
“I thought of that,” Alari said. “And I think I have an answer.”
The Warbringer stepped down into the remains of the command bunker and a large enclosure opened in its chest.
“I don’t want to be trapped in there,” Iana said.
“You won’t be,” Alari said. “Once you climb in, I’ll relinquish control back to you.”
“But I could run away, or attack you.”
“I know. That will be your choice,” Alari said. “If I’m unwilling to trust you though, how can I ever ask you to trust me?”