The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 44

Alari watched as an army exploded from the forest before her. The Council hadn’t held anything back this time. Their troops were organized and well armed and coated in a sheen of green that marked them as touched by the supernatural.

No Warbringers were in evidence among the ranks of the Council’s forces. That didn’t surprise Alari though. She’d already proved that she could suborn those. Throwing more of them at her would accomplish little more than swelling the forces that Alari had at her disposal.

“What are those things?” Iana asked, the Warbringer stepping back in response to her unease.

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Alari said.

The green goo coated army advanced with a steady singularity of purpose, marching in the sort of perfect lockstep that only derives from external control.

Scanning the forces, Alari counted over a hundred of the elite warriors converging on her position. They were flying no flags that suggested they were interested in negotiations, or even in demanding her surrender. Instead their blades were drawn, their shields readied and their eyes fixed.

Or not their eyes. Where eyes should have been there were only empty voids. Alari looked at the lines of power that ran over them. Each was woven around the warriors in so many places that it looked like they could barely move, and all of them ran back behind the warriors towards a single point in the distance.

Her true opponent had entered the field of battle. Alari was sure of it. What seemed out of place though was that the ominous rumbling was behind Blighted Legion and still approaching.

“You should run,” she said to Iana.

“I can’t run, this is my home,” Iana said.

“Stay behind me then,” Alari said. “These aren’t here for you this time, but they’ll probably still try to kill you if they see the opportunity.”

“What are you going to do?” Iana asked.

“I don’t think they’re going to offer me many alternatives,” Alari said.

“Can you run?” Iana asked.

“That’s a possibility,” Alari gestured behind them. “But they’ve already outflanked us on the ground.”

A rustling to their rear resolved into another contingent of green goo covered warriors emerging from the forests on the Senkin side of the border.

“You can fly though, can’t you?” Iana asked, panic edging into her voice as the two armies drew closer.

“Yes, and I doubt they could catch me in the air,” Alari said.

“Then why are you waiting?” Iana asked.

“I can fly, but you can’t,” Alari said. “If I leave now there’d be no one here to stop them from killing you.”

Iana was silent for a heartbeat.

“You don’t have to stay,” she said at last, “I can take care of myself.”

“I’m sure you can,” Alari lied. “But I think this is where I need to make a stand anyways.”

With a quiet exhalation and a slow, focused gesture, she drew forth her royal scepter from thin air.

Many monarchs have symbols of their office. They are almost uniformly decorated in priceless gems were designed either by the gods or by a master craftsman in antiquity,

Alari’s scepter was an exception to that rule. It had spikes where other royal implements had gems. In place of a glass or crystal rod, the device in Alari’s hand had a shaft of enchanted steel. There was silver adorning the Gallagrin Scepter but it was there in a functional capacity, meant to provide an extra bit of insult should any were-creatures antagonize its wielder.

Few of Gallagrin’s monarchs had carried the Scepter of State. There were other, more elegant, symbols of the royal office. In Alari’s view though no other device captured the heart of Gallagrin as well as her scepter. It was a rough and ugly tool when viewed from far away. It spoke of a realm that valued harsh practicality over any sort of aesthetic beauty, and yet, when you looked closely at the scepter, a stunning level of detail work sprang to life.

There were etchings over every square inch of the scepter, beautiful depictions of Gallagrin’s people, monarchs and gods. From the base of the handle to the top of the tiny crown that was mounted on the great spikey ball at the far end of the scepter, the etchings told the story of Gallagrin’s history. With the right eyeglass, one could even see the miniature words each figure in the etchings was outlined in. Together, the icons and the scepter, captured some of the earliest years of the realm, and the lives of those who had first helped shape it.

As the first wave of the Blighted Legion charged them, Alari let her power flow into Royal Scepter and watched it burst to life as a sphere of electricity crackled to life around the spiky business end of the weapon.

The first member of the Blighted Legion to reach them received a lightning hammer blow to the face and fell back as a pile of splattered goo. Even his brief contact with the scepter was enough to drain away the lightning orb that surrounded its end though.

“Do let them touch you!” Alari didn’t look at Iana as she gave the order. She couldn’t take her eyes off the army that was coming them.

In the instant between felling the first of the Blighted Legion and destroying the next, Alari weighed her options.

They were constructs of some type. The evidence she could see pointed to that clearly. They were expensive to make though and the Council had a limited supply to work with. The testimony for that came from the late stage at which they were deployed, and the depth of magic they carried.

To absorb magic from a target, especially a foreign one, took a level of casting prowess Alari hadn’t known existed. Not as a certainty at least. From her first estimations of the geopolitical landscape following Paxmer’s defeat, the Green Council had stood out as a problem not because of past aggression or any special capabilities they’d demonstrated but because of how little change had been observed in them over the years.

Everyone knew the Council’s strength lay in life magic. Alari had read between the lines on the old reports she’d dug up and seen that of all of the realms, the Council’s was in some senses the most adaptable. The lack of visibility into those slow improvements told her that the Council had to be hiding some truly nasty surprises for the right moment.

She’d struck the twentieth Blighted warrior down when she saw that the first pull itself back together from the pile of slime it had been reduced to and begin maneuvering again for a strike at her.

Indestructible, magic stealing warriors with enhanced strength and speed certainly qualified as a nasty surprise in Alari’s book. Seeing their power though didn’t leave her overly afraid.

With a jolt of magic into her scepter she slammed the next warrior and watched them implode, sucked into the impact point faster than they could even scream. Around her scepter, a green glow swirled. It wasn’t easy transforming the Blighted Legion’s magic to reverse its course and expel magic rather than drain it. Only through sheer brute magical force was she able to win that contest, and as more of the Legion flooded onto the field, Alari gave serious thought as to whether she would be able to sustain that level of effort for long enough.

“I’m not letting you fight alone!” Iana said and stepped forward to ward off a Blighted Warrior that was trying to run a spear through Alari’s left kidney.

Iana’s Warbringer was close enough that she got its hand into the path of the blow. Alari watched as the Warbringer’s arm dropped limp and dead though, drained of the magic that animated it in exchange for the protection it provided.

The bad situation turned worse as the the Blighted Legion took notice of Iana’s Warbringer and spread out to focus their attacks on it as well.

Alari shifted into a faster form, channeling magic to give herself speed beyond the ability of the eye to follow. With hurricane winds in her wake, she tore through the battlefield, lightning arcing from one warrior to the next as merciless impacts exploded them into gross chunks which then imploded out of existence.

The Gallagrin Pact Spirit soared within Alari’s mind, joyful at the union with its host and willing to offer far more magic than Alari could hope to shape.

Panting and dancing on the edge of control, Alari exhaled and surveyed the damage she’d done. Her course of devastation had led her in a wide spiral around the battlefield. The ash that remained from Senkin’s destruction of the area had been swept up in her wake and had opaqued the entire region with a choking cloud.

With a leap, Alari rose above the cloud and hung in the air on wings of light.

Beneath her, the Blighted Legion was in full retreat. Alari could see the trails of magic that connected to each of them through the fog. They were mindless drones, but that didn’t mean their controller was willing to spend them needlessly.

Except their loss hadn’t been needless.

One moment Alari was surveying the threads of magic that directed the fleeing Blighted warriors and the next she was tumbling to the ground as a source of magic brighter than the sun blazed from the forest.

She didn’t feel the hit that swatted her from the sky. She barely felt the impact with the ground. It wasn’t that either of these didn’t hurt, the damage was simply too great to immediately process.

The Gallagrin Pact Spirit reacted in tune with Alari’s will, feeding her power to reconstruct the damage she’d taken and raise layers of magic defenses to prevent it from happening again. She’d been focused on moving quickly, which was critical when fighting an army. Against the new foe had arisen though speed was not sufficient.

As Alari stood, she felt the weigh of her defenses press her down. She outmassed Iana’s Warbringer by a factor of ten or more. With how bright the oncoming peril was though, she wasn’t sure if that would be anywhere near enough.

“What happened?” Iana asked, stomping the Warbringer to Alari’s side.

“The Council has something larger at their disposal than I’d expected,” Alari said.

“What is it?” Iana asked, scanning the treeline for foes. Without the ability to perceive magic directly though she couldn’t see the blinding radiance of the threat that approached.

“I don’t know,” Alari said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Even at the height of her battle with her father, as they both struggled for the heart of Gallagrin’s Pact Spirit, Alari had never seen power to equal the being that approached. A cool wave of fear washed down from her collarbone to her toes.

She’d made a mistake. A desperate, deadly mistake. She’d underestimated the Council as much as she’d counted on them underestimating her.

A voice whispered in her head telling her she was going to fail. All her clever plans would be undone through sheer brute force. She’d leave the world more shattered and bloody than it ever would have been without her.

And she wouldn’t see Dae ever again.

She stepped forward.

That wasn’t going to happen.

Whatever it took she was going to win.

Power like she had never gathered before coalesced in her scepter and combined with the green radiance she’d stolen from countless warriors of the Blighted Legion.

She readied herself to face the worst the Council could throw at her, and then, from the forest’s edge, something impossible happened.

A god stepped forth.

“The Green Council issues the Divine Sanction against Gallagrin.” The voice that spoke carried holy authority and its words became manifest as they were spoken.

Faster than Alari could react the world was enveloped in a blistering light. Divine force slammed her from all sides, ripping not at her body or mind but at the essence of her being. Flesh cracked and bones shattered under that pressure, but still a snarl escaped from Alari’s lips, until she was flung back, off the battlefield and into an unquiet darkness.

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