Alari held her breath as they cleared the edge of the forest, emerging from the thick undergrowth into a fire ravaged wasteland.
“This is it,” Iana said. “This where we found them.”
Though the sound was generated by the magic of the Warbringer, Alari could hear the thick tension in Iana’s words.
No ten year old should have been asked to contend with the carnage that lay before them. The charred skeletons of various forest creatures were still visible in the ruined wasteland and the thick carpet of grey ash had yet to sprout any growth.
“There’s no green left here?” Alari asked. Even in Gallagrin, there would usually be some errant weeds surging forth to prove their resiliency. It was impossible to imagine that the Council’s botanicals weren’t similarly hardy.
“The fire burned too hot,” Iana said. “Everything died.”
“But the winds, certainly they would carry new seeds to take root?” Alari asked, piecing together what she saw with what she suspected.
“Seeds that land on this soil wither and die too,” Iana said. “They left us with nothing here.”
Alari grimaced. She’d hoped she would find some signs of new growth. Some signs that the burning had been a tragic accident. The unbroken ash before her though spoke to a different purpose.
“Put me down,” she said. “I need to see something.”
Iana complied, bending the Warbringer down so that it’s should was only a few feet off the ground. Alari stepped down and walked into the ash. The burning odor was still strong, but underneath the physical aroma there was a scent she’d wished wouldn’t be there.
“There’s an enchantment that remains,” she said, the magic in her nostrils more revolting than the odor of the ash.
“What kind of enchantment?” Iana asked.
“I can’t say for sure,” Alari said. “Analysis isn’t my forte. All I can make out is that it’s Senkin magic and that it’s linked to the fire.”
“The fire’s gone,” Iana said. “We tore the one’s who were casting it apart.”
Another thing which no ten year old should have been asked to do. Alari knew she needed to remain impartial and calm, but her patience was starting to wear away on multiple sides. Senkin shouldn’t have been here, and the Green Council should never have been free to employ children in the capacities that it did.
“The casters are dead, but I don’t think their fire has left this field,” Alari said, focusing on the problem at hand instead of the broader ones that loomed on the horizons. “I’m guessing at this but it feels like the things that burned are still blazing on the spiritual plane.”
“What does that mean?” Iana asked. “They’re ash here, how can they still be burning. We stopped them!”
Desperation gripped the young girl’s voice, and Alari remembered the creche that had been destroyed.
“The things we see here that were destroyed are gone,” she said. “They’ve burned as much as they’re ever going to. The ashes that remain are a sort of spiritual conduit though I think, ready to channel the flames back to this world if something else tries to take root here.”
Alari couldn’t be sure that some aspect of the plants, or worse the children from the creche, weren’t still being torn apart by the fire, but she was reasonably certain nothing sentient was still suffering. Death had swept the ruined landscape, ending all pain and anguish for those it took as was its province. Alari knew that would be little comfort for Iana, since she found it only sparse comfort for herself.
“So nothing will ever grow here again?” Iana asked.
“Enchantments don’t last forever, but some of them do linger for a very long time,” Alari said. “Unless they’re broken.”
“Can you do that?” Iana asked. “Can you fix what’s wrong here?”
“Maybe,” Alari said. “This is well outside the reach of my dominion, and I’m not certain if I even should.”
“Why would you leave it like this?” Iana asked. “This is an abomination. There should be flowers here, or something. We can’t let them win!”
“I know,” Alari said. “I don’t understand why your Council hasn’t broken the enchantment already though, and that makes me cautious.”
“Maybe they didn’t know about it?” Iana said.
“The Council has better magic weavers than anyone else in the realms,” Alari said. “They know exactly what this enchantment is, and the exact cost of breaking it.”
“Maybe they’re not strong enough?” Iana asked.
“If there’s one thing your attack proved beyond a doubt, it’s that the Green Council is far from weak,” Alari said. “No, I think they’re leaving this here as an example.”
“To who?” Iana asked.
“Not to Gallagrin,” Alari said. “Or to Senkin. The Council wouldn’t speak to either one of us.”
“Who else is there?” Iana asked.
“There are the other realms,” Alari said. “Inchesso, Authzang. They’re the closest to being involved in this too. At least from the Council’s point of view. But neither of those will have any interest in entangling themselves in a war between the Council and Senkin.”
“Could they be waiting until we’ve conquered Senkin to use this as proof of why the conquest should be accepted?” Iana asked.
Alari turned and smiled. For a girl who’d been raised as a disposable weapon, Iana had the sort of insight and cleverness that Alari prized.
“That’s certainly possible,” Alari said. “A completed conquest is much more difficult to argue with, and this could help ease the burden of assenting to it after the fact. The only problem I see is that by waiting until the conquest was complete, when there would be no Senkin voices to respond to the allegations, there would be an inevitable belief that the Council fabricated this scene after the fact.”
“We would never do this to our own,” Iana said, her spirit rising in her voice.
“The history of the realms suggests that each of us would do far worse than this if it came to getting what we desired,” Alari said.
“We’re not…” Iana began to say but Alari cut her off gently.
“…willing to slay a loyal soldier in order to avoid speaking to a foreign queen?” Alari said.
Iana was silent for a moment before mumbling, “That’s different.”
“It is,” Alari said. “But it’s still wrong.”
“I failed them,” Iana said.
“You failed no one,” Alari said. “At every moment, you’ve been loyal to your homeland and worked to preserve and protect it. If anyone failed, it’s the one who commanded you.”
“I should have been stronger,” Iana said.
Alari let a small, weary sigh, escape her lips.
“That’s a lie,” she said.
“A lie? How can needing to be strong enough to win be a lie?” Iana asked.
“Because it traps you,” Alari said. “The idea that you need more strength. That if you can just grab enough power, you can make everything ok. That you can protect everyone and always win.”
“Isn’t that what you did though?” Iana asked. “You became queen and now you can beat everyone.”
Alari sank to her knees and reached into the ash, her mind falling back through a panoply of images. Halrek betraying her. Her noble’s rebelling against her. Her citizens dying one after another after another under her father’s barbarism. Her stillborn child. All of her failures. All of the things that rested inside her like blades of glass, never quite growing so dull than the memory of them couldn’t slice through her sternest defenses.
“I’m not here because I can beat everyone,” Alari said. “I’m here because I can’t.”
Iana was silent, waiting for Alari to explain.
“For all the power that comes with being a Queen, I can’t change the world,” she said. “Not on my own. I need people to work with me. To stop this war, I need the Council and Senkin to want to stop the war. To stop the wars that will follow, I need the other realms to come together and agree that they don’t ever want this to happen again.”
“They’ll do that though,” Iana said. “Won’t they? Once you tell them about this?”
“I hope so,” Alari said. “But that’s another reason why I am unsure about breaking this enchantment.”
“”Because if you do there will be less proof for the other realms to see what happened here,” Iana said. The sorrowful slump of her shoulders was writ large on the Warbringer she piloted.
“We don’t have to stay here,” Alari said, rising to her feet again. “I can bear direct witness to this before the other monarchs now. And I can speak to the enchantment on these ashes.”
“I understand,” Iana said, her voice small and hollow despite the booming depth of the Warbringer’s speech.
Alari looked around the ashed remains of the once verdant forest.
“This place serves as support for my words,” she said after a long moment. “But it’s not the only support they could have.”
“What else would convince the other realms?” Iana asked.
“Are you willing to speak to them?” Alari asked. “To tell your story whole and true?”
“They’d never listen to me,” Iana said. “I’m not important enough.”
“You have the Queen of Gallagrin’s on your shoulder,” Alari said, hopping back onto her perch. “You’ve led forces in one of the most important battles in the past millennia and you have personal experience and insight with the incident in question. Trust me, you are more important than you can even imagine.”
“Won’t the ashes be even more convincing though?” Iana asked.
“No,” Alari said. “They won’t. Walk us out into the fields.”
Iana hesitated and then took a step forward. The ponderous bulk of the Warbringer kicked up a cloud of soot that rose to the giant’s waist.
At first that seemed to be the extent of what they were accomplishing but as the Warbringer moved out into the field and the grey ash settled back to the ground, it became rapidly obvious that something in it had changed.
“Why are we leaving a swath of black in our wake?” Iana asked.
“That’s what the ashes should look like,” Alari said. “We’re disenchanting them.”
“What? How are we doing that?” Iana asked.
“Your Warbringer, it knows what the Council’s plant-life should look like, spiritually,” Alari said. “I’m using it as a pull the enchantment from the ashes. They can return to the soil and nurture new life again.”
“But why? I thought we needed to preserve the enchantment? For the other realms?” Iana asked.
“If the other realms won’t accept your word and mine as to what was here, then physical evidence will do little to convince them either,” Alari said. “Also, this abomination needs to be purged. If the land can’t heal then neither will its people.”
“Do you have enough strength for this though?” Iana asked.
“We’ll have to see,” Alari said. “So far it’s not proving difficult, but there’s a lot of devastation. Take us over to the far edge there and we can start working in rows.”
Iana stepped up the Warbringer’s pace, ash blackening into rich fertilizer for the soil with each step. When she reached the far side of the burned area though, she paused.
“What does this say?” she asked, pointing at a plaque on a small pillar at the edge of the burned area.
“Let me see that,” Alari said, jumping from the Warbringer’s shoulder.
She studied the pillar and the plaque for a minute before speaking.
“The writing is in Senkin’s script,” she said. “It calls this the ‘Treaty Stone’. What treaty is it referring to?”
“I don’t know,” Iana said, “but there’s a divine sigil on the back side of the pillar. One of ours.”
“So clearly a treaty between Senkin and the Green Council,” Alari said. “Not surprising given it’s location.”
“See if the pillar is hollow,” Iana said. “We store things in stone vaults like this sometimes.”
Iana twisted the top of the pillar, which came off easily. From the hollow core, she draw forth a tube of gold with the seals of both the Green Council and Senkin cast in the wax that held the tube’s top sealed shut. Without hesitation, Alari broke the seals and drew forth the scroll that lay within.
“What does it say?” Iana asked.
“It codifies water rights,” Alari said, her eyes narrowing.
“Water rights?” Iana asked, confused how something so arcane could be meaningful compared to the destruction that lay behind them.
“Yes,” Alari said, her gaze going distant. “The lake. It belongs to the Green Council, but it feed rivers that run down into Senkin.”
“So?” Iana asked.
“So the people of Senkin depend on those rivers to water their crops, and sustain their villages. The Treaty established Senkin’s right to depend on the rivers. The Green Council agreed never to dam them or restrict their flow.”
“There’ve been no dams built though,” Iana said.
“By the Treaty, the Council agreed to keep this whole area as undeveloped land,” Alari said.
“Wait, they saw our creche and thought it was a dam? So they burned it all down?” Iana asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Alari said. “If they knew something was here, they would have targeted that directly. They burned indiscriminately because they were trying to ensure that the Council couldn’t take their water away.”
“It’s been thousands of years though,” Iana said. “We’ve never taken their water away. Why would they do this now?”
“Because of me,” Alari said. “Because I showed the world that one realm can conquer another. I don’t know who on Senkin’s side did it, probably whichever Duke controls the province across the border, but they tried to steal a march on the conflict they saw coming.”
“By killing our young?” Iana asked.
“Yes,” Alari said. “Whether they meant to or not, that’s exactly what they did. And then failed to confess their sins when you invaded out of fear than Marie Senkin would behead them.”
“We killed the people burned our lands though,” Iana said.
“You killed the ones who wielded the flames,” Alari said. “The ones who ordered them to do it though? I guarantee you they remained safe at home.”
“Then we should slay them too,” Iana said.
“There is a deeper problem here,” Alari said. “Whoever authorized the building of the creche did so knowing that they were constructing it on land they’d pledged never to develop on. A Senkin wielded the flames that killed your young, but given how well your places are hidden, it’s likely they had no idea what they were burning. The people who chose to build here though knew that they were placing the younglings in unprotected territory.”
“Why would they do that?” Iana asked.
“Did you question the order to invade Senkin?” Alari asked.
“No,” Iana said, seeing Alari’s point. “And the Council was unanimous about it too.”
“Then that’s your reason,” Alari said. “Someone on the Council wanted this war and sacrificing children of the realm was an acceptable sacrifice in their eyes to make it happen.”
In the forest on the far side of the burned swath, something ominous rumbled towards them. The Council had caught up to them again, and Alari had to wonder how much farther they would go to keep their secrets.