Iana gritted her teeth and forced her injured Warbringer to its feet. The Blighted Legion had ripped apart critical pieces of the giant plant machine and its self repair magics were struggling to undo the damage with only the barest trickle of the power they usually had to drawn upon. The Legions magic draining touch had made controlling the Warbringer feel like she was piloting a mound of mud, but if that was all she had, then Iana was determined to drown her foes in mud.
The good news, from her perspective was that the Blighted soldiers weren’t an issue anymore. Iana was free to sink fast growing taproots deep into the ashy ground and gobble the life energy that lay dormant there. Alari had destroyed the Blighted Legion in the blink of an eye. Even the Warbringer’s enhanced sensors hadn’t fully tracked what she’d done and they weren’t affected at all by the magic drain that depowered the ambulatory systems. Given time Iana knew she could restore the Warbringer to full fighting capacity.
The bad news was, predictably, that she was out of time. The Blighted Legion wasn’t the tool the Council had counted on defeating Alari with. The Blighted were expendable shock troops sent in to herald the arrival of a far worse threat.
Iana didn’t know what the Divine Sanction was, but she could feel its power radiating in waves across the ashed plain. Even the impenetrable bulk of the Warbringer was little more than a curtain of gauze between her and the unfathomable being that towered over the landscape.
It had appeared from the forest, and crushed Gallagrin’s Queen with an invisible blow. In the wake of that short conflict it had walked closer and then watched, waiting for Alari to regain her feet.
Iana found the behavior puzzling, as though the controller of the Divine Sanction was distracted. Then she saw it venting clouds of steam.
She knew what that meant for a Warbringer and guessed that whatever horror the Council had crafted, it used some of the same mystical techniques that were employed to make the Warbringers.
If so, the pilot wasn’t distracted. They were rationing the power they spent on controlling the Divine Sanction. For unskilled Warbringer controllers, there was a tendency to use far more mystical force than was required in order to direct and control the units. Fledgling drivers would force the units to retain balance by nearly levitating them, or expend tremendous amounts of energy on creating explosive visuals for attacks which inflicted relatively little damage to the target.
Iana took advantage of the lull to pull as much power back into the Warbringer as she could and rose only when the Divine Sanction began to stir again.
“You…were…supposed…to run,” Alari said from the bottom of the crater the Sanction had smashed her into.
Watching the Gallagrin Queen as she haltingly pushed herself back to her feet, Iana’s heart snapped. Each movement Alari made was interrupted by a spasm of pain or a jerk of agony but the Queen didn’t let the discomfort stop her. Though she was the smallest combatant on the field, Alari countered the awe the Divine Sanction was broadcasting with a poise and bearing that spoke of an indomitable regal spirit.
In response, the Divine Sanction swelled, growing vast at the challenge presented by Gallagrin.
Iana saw the tremble in Alari’s clenched fists and knew the Queen did not have the power to withstand another blow like the one that had felled her. Whatever Pact Magic was supporting her, it was being stressed to its limits just resisting the terrible gravity of the Divine Sanction.
Without thinking or choosing, Iana stepped forward, blocking the Sanction’s path to Alari, shielding the Gallagrin Queen with the one Warbringer in the world that was free of the Council’s control.
The attack, when it came, was apocalyptic. For miles around them, the ground simply vanished. All life in the blast zone across the border was extinguished in an instant, leaving behind only burned shadows.
But Iana was unharmed. As was everything sheltered behind her.
“Well, isn’t that interesting,” Alari said, a weary note of hope in her voice.
Another blast rocked the landscape, and again Iana and the area she protected stood unharmed.
“Who stands before us?” The voice came from the Divine Sanction but even with the horrible warping effect of the projected sound, Iana recognized it immediately as her long time mentor.
“Dagmauru! What are you doing? Why are you attacking us?” she plead, not trying to hide the anguish in her voice.
The Green Council wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to protect and nurture. The only thing they destroyed were the monsters that lurked in the Lost Glades and even then only the ones who posed a clear danger to the rest of the realm.
“Iana?” Dag asked. “Are you piloting that abomination?”
Iana flinched back. Abomination? There was nothing different about her Warbringer. Alari had taken control of it briefly but she’d relinquished her hold on it. The Warbringer wasn’t under any lingering magical compulsions, Iana had triple checked that.
And that was the problem. The Warbringer would only respond to her. It couldn’t be overriden by a higher authority. With Alari’s modification, it could never be used to trap her in its control web to wait for fire spiders to come and burn her alive.
Iana’s stomach turned sour, but the taste in her mouth wasn’t acid. It was betrayal.
“Yes. It’s me Dagmauru. I am in full control of this unit, and I require an answer immediately. Why are you attacking us. Do you have the Council’s blessing for this or are you operating under only your own authority.”
It was a formal declaration, phrased in the specific words Dagmauru had forced her to learn. It was as much an accusation as it was a question. Dagmauru’s actions were so grievously against the Green Council’s principals that she was asking him if she should treat him as a traitor to the realm or if there was some profound misunderstanding at work.
She’d been expected to make that request and declaration in the event of one or more of her troops turning mutinous or in the event that another commander rebelled against the Green Council. The idea that Dagmauru would be the one to turn against her realm would have been unthinkable, except for the evidence before her eyes.
“Stand down Commander,” Dagmauru said. “You are sheltering an enemy of the Green Council. Any further interference will be judged to be treason and you will be dealt with accordingly.”
“Why are you attacking us. Do you have the Council’s blessing for this or are you operating under only your own authority,” Iana repeated, not budging an inch.
“The Divine Sanction can only be activated by the will of the Council. The vote was taken earlier today. Now stand down and accept the discipline of your superiors.”
She said the word before she knew her mouth was moving. As she did the world collapsed into the singularity of that one syllable.
No, she wasn’t going to stand down.
No, they weren’t her superiors.
No, she wasn’t going to let Dagmauru murder Alari.
She’d denied the attacks Dagmauru had sent after her. She’d blinded herself to the reality of what being a Warbringer pilot meant. The early death she could expect. The coercion that was an omni-present part of her life. The lack of any future apart from being recycled into the green to make room for the next generation of recruits.
It felt like with one word she’d washed away the whole world that she’d built for herself. Despite being clothed in depths of the Warbringer, she felt naked, but, in the heat of the Divine Sanction’s glare, a wild madness gripped Iana and she embraced the feeling.
“No. I will not stand down.” She stepped forward, challenging the god that stood before her. “This has gone too far. I’m going to stop you or die trying.”
“If that is your decision, then die,” Dagmauru said, his voice heavy and dark with frustration.
Iana felt a new stab of betrayal. Dagmauru had been her mentor for all of her life. He was the closest person she had to a parent. She thought that he’d valued her. That she was somehow worthy of his attention given her elevation to the rank of Commander.
He was ready to cast her aside without any discussion though. The feelings of closeness and concern she’d experienced were a lie. Her whole command was a lie too, a convenient fiction to make delegating tasks easier, while the Council held her leash so tightly that she’d become numb to the constraint.
“Fine! If you want to kill me, then come and do it!” She was screaming, her short decade of life wrapped up in rage and unbearable sorrow to be spit like poison onto the wind.
“He can’t,” Alari said. “That construct. You woke one of your gods didn’t you?”
Iana shuddered. She was facing a god, one of her gods, in battle, and yet Dagmauru had managed to commit an even greater blasphemy. With the will and approval of the Council, he’s violated the most sacred of beings in the realm and turned them into a weapon for his war machine. Her vision of her homeland crumbled.
That the Council was capable of such a feat wasn’t surprising. They were the best magic workers in all the realms. That they were capable of choosing to perform such a feat did come as a shock though. The Green Council that Iana knew, or at least the one she believed in, could never have committed such a sin.
Which, Iana realized, meant that the Green Council she believed in didn’t exist. It had never existed. At least not as anything more than a fairy tale in a young girl’s unquestioning mind.
“Yes, the Divine Sanction is barred from doing harm to any citizen of the Green Council,” Dagmauru said. “It was the only option to ensure its terrible power wouldn’t be used against us. But I have more forces at my disposal than the Sanction.”
From the forest, a new wave of the Blighted Legion, stepped forward and from the sky Warbringers fell.
Iana didn’t recognize the Blighted Legion troops. They were all cut from the perfected forms of dead elves and humans and dwarves whom she had never known.
The Warbringers were another story though. She recognized those.
“Wylika! What are you doing here?” she asked, sending fresh roots out to connect with her former Second-in-Command.
“Commander Iana?” Wylika asked. “We don’t know! We lost control of our Warbringers when the transport Rocs arrived.”
“Can you get control back?” Iana asked.
“I think so,” Wylika said. “We’re on full ready status. The Warbringer’s have us locked out except for the sensors and communication systems, but that will change as soon as the order to attack is given.”
“Dagmauru, why are you doing this?” Iana called out.
“The fall of a commander is the fall of their troops,” Dagmauru said. “The Divine Sanction cannot damage you, but they can.”
“We’re not going to fight the Commander!” Wylika’s objection was echoed by a chorus from the rest of Iana’s troops.
“You will do as you are ordered to or the Council will be forced to recognize that Commander Iana’s corruption has spread to you as well,” Dagmauru said.
“What does he mean Iana?” Wylika asked.
“He’s the one who arranged for the creche to be destroyed. He’s the one who caused all the devastation around us,” Iana said. “Now he’s trying to use our gods to spread it further.”
“Is that true?” Wylika asked.
“This is on your Commander’s shoulders,” Dagmauru said. “Hers and the woman she protects. She brought a foreign power onto our soil. The Queen of Gallagrin, who none of you could stand against. Only I was able to protect us from her. Now strike your former commander down and prove your loyalty to the realm that gave you life!”
An eerie quiet settled over the battlefield and Iana felt her nerves draw as tight as harp strings.
“No,” Wylika said. “Our loyalty is to our sister and our leader. Commander Iana, what are your orders?”