Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 22

Dae looked over the broad table that dominated the Gallagrin Royal Command room. For years the milieu depicted on the table had been focused on Gallagrin alone, with the troop placements of the various noble houses being of primary concern because they were either busy murdering each other, or had to be positioned so that doing so was a less attractive option than staying where they were.

“We need to change the scale of the representation,” Dae said, speaking to Faen Kemoral and a small group of Alari’s military advisors.

“We have a standard projection map which shows us ten miles of space into the Green Council’s borders,” Faen said.

“We’ll need more than that,” Dae said. “How prepared is the Scout Corp for deep recon assignments?”

“We can handle it,” Ogma Daili, the acting chief of Gallagrin’s Reconnaissance troops  said. Like many branches of the Gallagrin military, command had rested until a month prior with one of the unlanded Gallagrin nobles. As those nobles were all under arrest, Gallagrin’s armed forces were following the next person down along each of the chains of command. Ogma at least seemed ready to handle the transition of power, though Dae knew she couldn’t depend on that being true in all cases.

“With all due respect to the Recon Corp,” Faen said, “You can’t know that. Recon has been tasked only with observation of Gallagrin’s internal state for close to a century, and their missions into the Green Council have never penetrated deeply into that Realm. Our troops will face obstacles they have no ability to foresee and potentially no ability to overcome.”

“Agreed.  These won’t be the kind of assignments Recon is used to, but we need their intel,” Dae said. “And not just on the Green Council.”

“Senkin is cooperating with us though, aren’t they?” Faen asked.

“Senkin is looking out for their own interests,” Dae said. “At the moment those seem to align with ours, and they’ve been bloodied enough by the Council that they’re not likely to turn any aggressive eye in our direction. We’ll let our ambassadorial staff in Senkin keep us up to date on conditions there. It’s Inchesso which we’ll need Recon to scout as well.”

“We have ambassadors in Inchesso as well though, and they’re not reporting any significant troop movements,” Faen said.

“Not reporting is not the same as not seeing any,” Dae said. “Especially in light of the embassy that Queen Alari dispatched to the Lialarus family, we should be seeing rapid mobilization of their forces in one direction or the other within the next forty eight hours.”

“Two days?” Ogma said. “How long do we have to infiltrate and setup observation posts.”

“Twenty hours at that outside,” Dae said. “And they need to be secure. The effort is useless if we lose our Recon troops in the process. We need a steady stream of information, not one heroic burst of it.”

“We will make it happen,” Ogma said, her eyes wide as she clutched the side of the table.

“How?” Faen asked, turning to Dae rather than Ogma. “Akorli, your wonderful at inspiring heroics, but overextending our forces here is the surest method of hurling ourselves into the jaws of defeat. We cannot afford to fight a war on two fronts.”

Dae sighed, but smiled as well. Faen Kemoral was a reasonable man and a seasoned soldier. His advice and tactics were tempered by years of experience and a mind that saw past the usual layers of obfuscation life presented. That he was running behind her on this occasion was solely due to the secrecy Alari had shrouded her plans in.

“Ogma, please seal the doors,” Dae said. They were closed but invoking the privacy wards meant the three of them were incommunicado from the outside world for the next hour at a minimum. Dae knew her luck. Something would go wrong in that time, something her authority was needed to resolve. Sometimes though it was necessary to embrace a bit of chaos in order to head off a much large set of problems.

“The Queen left secret orders didn’t she?” Faen asked, sinking in her chair and bowing his head.

Wordlessly, Dae passed a letter to him that bore the Royal insignia in the wax seal that closed it.

“Secret orders?” Ogma asked, after invoking the glyphs on the doors. “Why would she do that?”

“Because she knows Highcrest is filled with spies,” Faen said, weighing the letter in his hand like it was a sleeping serpent.

“Should I be present for this?” Ogma asked. It was too late for her to leave, but Dae appreciated the offer. Unfortunately for Ogma, she wasn’t going to escape the promotion Dae had in mind for her.

“Only members of the Gallagrin War Council are allowed to know these plans,” Dae said. “So yes, you are requested and required to be present for this.”

“What about the rest of the War Council?” Ogma asked.

“The War Council is fully assembled,” Dae said, causing Faen close his eyes and pinch the bridge of his nose.

“The Queen cannot expect the three of us to manage an entire war effort,” Faen said at last.

“She doesn’t,” Dae said. “We’re going to manage four war efforts.”

Faen scowled while Ogma’s expression melted into confusion. Dae simply gestured towards the envelope.

“She cannot possibly be serious,” Faen whispered as he completed the missive.

“You might have impressed her a bit too much over the years,” Dae said.

“Oh no,” Faen said. “No, no you don’t. There is nothing of me in this madness. This is on your head!”

“I am possibly somewhat guilty as well,” Dae said. “But please note who bears the title of Supreme Commander of Gallagrin Forces.”

“She only gave that to me because she’s all but made Queen in her place already!” Faen’s face had turned an amusing shade of crimson.

“I don’t understand,” Ogma said, glancing back and forth between the two senior commanders in the room. “What has the Queen instructed us to do.”

“She’s asking us to sink the realm,” Faen said. “We’re supposed to do the impossible or watch everything fall apart.”

“He’s painting a bleaker picture than is actually the case, strictly speaking,” Dae said. “The Queen’s not asking us to do anything impossible. Just very very difficult.”

“She wants us to fight a war with the Green Council, Inchesso, Senkin and Paxmer all at once,” Faen said. “That’s not possible for any for any three armies combined, and you might not have noticed, but we don’t even have one army at the moment!”

“Our lack of an army is a challenge, I will admit that,” Dae said. “But none of this is insurmountable.”

“No offense Lady Akorli, but have you been drinking the same water and eating the same food as the queen,” Ogma asked.

“We’re not poisoned,” Dae said. “And we’re not crazy. The Queen made a solid case for why we need to fight those battles. Now we need your help to figure out how we can managed it.”

“Well, let’s see,” Faen said. “First we’ll need a magical squad of flying armored sky carriages that we can assemble here by tomorrow. Then we’ll need Wind Steeds that can fly for endless periods of time off the High Roads. Oh and they’ll need to be combat trained so that when the Green Council launches their aerial defenses our forces can fight back.”

“We don’t have any forces like that,” Ogma said. “Wind Steeds can’t carry things off the High Roads for long and armor cuts into their range too much.”

“If we had that though, could you pull off the reconnaissance missions?” Dae asked.

“Well, sure, give us the right tools and we can do anything,” Ogma said.

“Excellent,” Dae said. “Have your troops ready tomorrow morning then.”

Faen narrowed his eyes as disbelief etched glacial valleys into his brow. Dae watched as those valley melted away and Faen worked out what her plans were.

“Please tell me I’m wrong,” he said. “Please tell me you are not intending to request aid from a realm we are also planning to declare war on?”

“Ok, I am not planning to request aid from a realm we are planning to declare war on,” Dae said. “I am planning on requesting aid from my mother.”

“Who is the next best thing to the current Queen of Paxmer!” Faen said.

“She’s very specifically refused that title,” Dae said.

“I am somewhat lost here,” Ogma said. “What can Lady Akorli’s mother do for us and why are we declaring war on Paxmer?”

“We aren’t declaring war on Paxmer,” Dae said. “Nor are we declaring war on Senkin.”

“But we are preparing to fight on four fronts at once,” Faen said. “Which is suicidal.”

“I agree,” Dae said. “We can’t fight enemies on all sides. That doesn’t mean we can afford allow ourselves to be attacked from any side though.”

“I’m not sure I see the distinction between those two in practical terms,” Ogma said. “Where are we going to deploy our forces?”

“Only where we need to,” Dae said. “Which is why the scouting mission is one I will ask the Paxmer Dragon Regent to assist us with.”

“Has it occurred to you that if your mother lends us the use of Paxmer’s dragons, those monsters will be in perfect position to ravage our countryside when we declare war on Paxmer?” Faen asked.

“The Paxmer dragons still cannot abide our soul, or Inchesso’s,” Dae said. “We’re in no greater danger from them if we work together than if we remain separate. Less in fact, since if we’re working together we’ll know where they are.”

“How will the dragons be able to help us?” Ogma asked.

“You asked from battle carriages?” Dae said. “Dragons are substantially harder to shoot down than any war carriage ever made, and they can travel much farther.”

“How are we going to get down…” Ogma started to ask but cut herself off. “Pact wings. We’re going to send the scouts who are pact bonded in on the dragons. They can fly to ground and perform reconnaissance there!”

“Exactly,” Dae said.

“And how will we get them out again?” Faen asked.

“That’s what the army will be for,” Dae said.

“That’s courting disaster,” Faen said. “The scouts will be deep within hostile territory. No support. No supplies. Just themselves and for each one we lose, we’ll grow steadily less able to reach and help the others.”

“Sir Kemoral, you just described the exact situation the Scouting Corp trains for,” Ogma said. “We will have a challenging time managing the number of volunteers we’ll get for these missions.”

“Since when is the Scout Corp the crazy one?” Faen asked. “I thought the Breachers were supposed to be our near Berserker units?”

“No offense to your troops sir, but who do you think goes in before them and tells them where to go?” Ogma asked, a satisfied smile gracing her lips.

“Sleeping Gods preserve me,” Faen said, shaking his head. “Ok, so we might be able to make the Scout missions work. We still have the problem where we’re about to be invaded by the Green Council and our army is in a state of complete disarray.”

“We do have some difficulties to work out there,” Dae said. “The Royal Army needs to stay here in Highcrest. The nobles would revolt for their freedom without those swords nearby to remind them how vulnerable their necks are.”

“The Ducal forces are on formal lockdown in the home provinces,” Faen said. “So far fear of the Queen’s wrath have kept them in place, but in the face of an invasions, it’s difficult to say how they’ll react.”

“There is one other force we can call on,” Dae said.

“A commoner levy will be slaughtered,” Faen said. “Even if we could somehow arm them, they lack the training needed for a serious military venture and none of them would carry Pact spirits.”

“Queen Alari would never authorize a war levy for those very reasons,” Dae said. “But you’re forgetting about a standing military that is still loyal to the Queen.”

“The Dawns March?” Faen asked. “But they’re not common troops. They’re meant to keep the nobles in check, and they’re all specialists.”

“Special circumstances demand special troops,” Dae said.

“There aren’t enough of them though!” Faen said.

“Then we’ll have to work out a way to supplement their ranks,” Dae said. “We’ve got a half hour at least before the doors open, so let’s brainstorm how we’re going to produce four armies worth of troops when we can barely pull together a quarter of one at the moment.”

“Is it always like this?” Ogma asked.

Faen broke out a rare smile as he turned to the Scout Commander.

“No, no,” he said. “Usually it’s much worse.”


The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 21

Eorn was pleased. People were pointing spears at her. Poisoned spears from the look of the oily green sheen on their wedge shaped heads. Hostility this early on meant that something had gone terribly wrong and she was going to get to release all the anxiety that had been welling up within her on the poor, likely underpaid, people who were babbling on in Western Inchesso.

“We are on a diplomatic mission from Her Majesty Queen Alari of Gallagrin,” Teo said in Western Inchesso. His tone and posture suggested boredom, but Eorn noticed that by slouching backwards he’d bought himself enough room that it would take the guards an extra quarter-second to reach him with their spears. A quarter second was barely more than the blink of an eye, but there was a lot that a vampire (or a Pact Knight) could do in that time.

Teo turned to Eorn and glanced at the spear tips that were thrust into their carriage.

“They seem to have issues with us being here,” he said in Gallagrin.

Eorn knew she was a provincial girl. She was proud of her family and her mixed blood heritage, but not unaware of how people looked at her family and the others who hailed from the high mountain crags. “Less cosmopolitan” meant “less educated” and “less intelligent” to a lot of people in Gallagrin. Eorn wasn’t sure how she matched up in terms of overall intelligence but she was smart enough that she’d never had a problem following the lessons of the various tutors her mother had brought into house. Tutors in history and math, language and warfare. Before letting her children out into the world, Eorn’s mother had armed them to the teeth in every manner she knew how, something Eorn had almost daily cause to be grateful for.

Speaking Western Inchesso was something she’d learned at an early age and excelled at, to the point where she could even mimic the accents of its more prominent sub-dialects. Letting people know that she spoke the language though seemed like giving away an advantage she had no need to relinquish under the circumstances.

“Step out of the carriage, with your hands raised,” the Lialarus family guard said.

“As it suits you,” Teo said in Western Inchesso, adding in Gallagrin to Eorn, “They want us to step out. You should be ready to put on your formal diplomatic wear.”

Eorn’s slight smile pulled back into a broad grin that exposed her canines. She was already wearing the official livery of the Gallagrin Queen’s Guard. If Teo, as the mission commander, was suggesting that she change into more official regalia, then he was not planning to go quietly with the people who were trying to arrest them.

Eorn nodded slowly in approval and gestured for Teo to allow her out first. She was along on the trip as protection for him. Allowing a nobleman’s husband to get skewered by the guards of a foreign would not reflect well on her service, even if he could survive it.

Teo shook his head though, and motioned for her to allow him to step out first. If he hadn’t been a vampire, Eorn might have refused, but since his fighting style probably relied on speed and movement, she acquiesced to his wish.

The guards pulled the spears out of the carriage, stepping back in time with Teo’s cautious, peaceful advance out into the light. As he did, the markings of his vampiric condition, the unusual cast of his skin and the unmistakable fangs revealed by smile became more visibly apparent and collective gasp for breath went out of the the Lialraus guards.

“Vampire!” a subcommander shouted.

“Switch to Inferno oil!” the commander barked.

It wasn’t the reception Eorn had expected but it was certainly one she was willing to answer in kind.

Eorn stepped out of the carriage as Teo shifted into fighting speed. Eorn took a fraction of a second to locate the combatants and register them on the mental model of the landing platform that she’d put together as they approached it.

“He’s attack…” the first guard began to say before Teo dropped him to the ground with an elbow strike that caught the guard right across the bridge of his nose. That was one target disabled. Plenty of others presented themselves though.

The landing platform was was an ornately decorated affair, as befit one of Inchesso’s prominent families. There were tall marble columns arranged in a broad circle on the raised pedestal of the platform. Each was etched with either overlapping geometric shapes or intricately carved scenes sculpted in bas-relief, with the markings holding a variety of low grade enchantments.

Atop the pillars, a flat ring of similar stone acted as the anchor point for several varieties of green and purple vines that hung like a sparse curtain around the platform. Seeing the cover the vines provided, Eorn doubled her estimate for the number of guards that they were likely facing.

The shock of Teo’s attack was just wearing off as Eorn finished cataloguing where their attackers were situated around the platform. Six were arrayed immediately around them. Three others were taking aim from the cover of the vines and, unless she missed her guess, there were at least two more who were approaching the other side of the royal carriage  with the intent to flank Teo and Eorn.

It wasn’t a horrible arrangement for the Inchesso forces, but Eorn could see the gaps in their thinking. They weren’t used to fighting foes with greater mobility than themselves or enemies that couldn’t be rendered unconscious by a whiff of sleep toxin. They were grouped too close together and the nearer ones were obstructing the sight lines of the archers waiting beyond the vines. Seeing that gave her a plan.

Step one was to let out a Bear Cry. It wasn’t strictly speaking magic. Anyone with the right lung capacity and training could manage it. The depth and volume of the cry seemed inhuman to the Inchesso troops though, as Eorn had guessed it would, and it focused all of their attention on her, as she’d hoped it would.

Step two was to begin her transformation. That further cemented the Inchesso guards attention on her, which allowed Teo to drop another one who’d lost focus on the vampire as a more immediate problem.

Transforming allowed Eorn to brush aside the expected volley of attacks the Inchesso guards both near and far launched at her. She was please that part of the strategy worked out well. Transforming demanded a lot of her attention since she’d yet to master it to the level Lady Akorli had or even Vice Commander Lafli.

The Inchesso guards were notably less pleased with the results though. Fighting an enemy you got the drop on and outnumbered was supposed to be a nearly pain free affair. Two of them were unconscious already though, and three of them were stumbling away with wounds, arrows, or both that had been meant for Eorn.

Those were the lucky ones.

The rest got to face Eorn in her full war form, and a Teo who was in the mood to make an example of someone.

Eorn crashed through them like thunder. The platform trembled as she stomped into two spear thrusts, shattering their shafts and blunting their tips against her Pact armor. One guard reacted to being disarmed by fumbling for their sword while the other decided that grappling a giant armor covered warrior was the brightest idea he could come up with.

The guard managed to wrap his hands around Eorn’s throat but even slightly denting her armor was a feat far beyond his capacity.

Or it should have been.

Eorn felt an inhuman amount of pressure gathering under the guard’s grip. Looking into his eyes she saw that they’d filmed over with a red liquid that glowed in exactly the manner that blood doesn’t. She couldn’t smell the guard’s breath but she was certain if she could, she’d be gagging on the stench of bile mixed with viscera and, oddly, cinnamon.

Where Gallagrin had the magic of Pact Binding, Inchesso was famed for its alchemical capabilities. Enhancing troops strength through the use of magical potions was considered common practice, though from everything Eorn had learned the potion enhancements were highly variable based on the skill of the potion maker.

From what she could tell the Lialarus family alchemist was quite talented though. Berserking potions were a common enough item, but in most cases they offered no more than an exchange of intelligence and reasoning for speed and strength. The Lialarus guards seemed to gain strength, speed and aggression with little cost.

That made extracting herself from the guards grasp more troublesome for Eorn. Picking him up and body slamming him to the ground failed to knock the fight out of him. Slamming him into one of the pillars similarly left him with some fight still in him. Even beating another of the guards unconscious with him didn’t dissuade the berserking guard from struggling to continue the fight.

So she threw him off the platform, hurling him down to the estate grounds twenty feet below and breaking both his legs.

“Never go berserk,” she said. “It never helps.”

On the platform, Teo was moving in a blur. He wasn’t killing any of the guards, but he wasn’t being remotely kind to the either. The vampire clearly had some anxiety of his own that he needed to work out. Watch the carnage, Eorn felt compelled to add, “Well, almost never.”

The last of the guards had fallen and Teo and Eorn had regained their breath by the time the next group from the Lialarus family marched up the long stone steps that led to the landing platform. Eorn hadn’t released her transformation, but seeing the new party arrived, she guessed she wasn’t going to need it.

“Oh no, the Gallagrin terrorists have overcome our guards and we are at their mercy,” the elderly Inchesso woman at the head of the delegation said without trace of concern in her voice. It took a moment before Eorn noticed that she’d spoken in perfect, unaccented Gallagrin.

“I assure you Eldest Lialarus, we are not terrorists,” Teo said, adding the polite inflections to his Western Inchesso.

“Oh of course you are,” Eldest Lialarus said. “Now come inside, there are too many snooping insects out here.”

She then turned and led the party of Lialarus retainers back down the steps they’d just ascended.

Eorn looked at Teo who appeared to be as baffled as she was. He shrugged and started to follow the welcoming party that hadn’t tried to kill them yet. Eorn fell into step with him, perplexed at the change in demeanor between the two greeting parties.

At the bottom of the landing platform steps, the Wind Steed stables lay, mostly empty except for a few mares which Eorn guessed to be the family’s personal steeds.

A party had already been dispatch to help the guard Eorn had thrown off the platform, and she saw a small group of medics waiting patiently near the stairs. Once she and Teo had followed the Eldest’s party far enough away, the medic scampered up the stairs to tend to the wounded on the platform.

Eldest Lialarus led them into the grand domicile and while it didn’t hold a candle to the spacious grandeur of the Gallagrin Royal Palace, it did remind Eorn of how simple her own upbringing was.

Her family was noble, but in their small, independently minded province that didn’t count for much. With the Lialarus family it was clear how much they valued power and wealth and how far above their subjects they held themselves.

“So,” Eldest Lialarus asked as she escorted them into a small receiving room. “What does my favorite queen of the Realms have for House Lialarus today?”

Teo smiled.

“This,” he said, producing a scroll from within his tunic. It was sealed with Alari’s personal signet. “We’ve come to talk about war. Specifically that Gallagrin will be declaring war on Inchesso within three days.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 20

Teo didn’t want to set foot in his homeland again. The political alliances that were arrayed against him as a child had shifted endlessly over the decades since he had last been in Inchesso, but he knew that there was one certainty he could rely on; people were going to hate him.

It wouldn’t be a personal hate. Not at first anyways. His years as an expatriate and his marriage into a Gallagrin noble family marked him as an outsider, and it was not in the Inchesso character to trust outsiders. At least not when it came to Inchesso nobles that is. Especially not the Inchesso nobles he was flying to met with.

“Do you speak their language?” Eorn asked. She had been silent for most of the trip, but the worry lines that creased her brow spoke volumes.

“I’m passable at the Traveller’s dialect,” Teo said. “I knew the Western Noble’s tongue when I was young, but I lost it years ago.”

“I don’t understand why Inchesso has so many languages,” Eorn said. “Gallagrin gets by just fine with one.”

“It makes it easier to hate each other when the Great Families can disagree on what basic words mean,” Teo said.

“Why waste their efforts on that?” Eorn asked. “Wouldn’t it make them more powerful if they worked together?”

“I’m not sure,” Teo said. “Perhaps you can ask that question to the Gallagrin nobles that our queen has locked up in her castle?”

“If Queen Alari was an Inchesso queen, the nobles would be locked up at the bottom of a river,” Eorn said.

“That’s the sort of tale other nations love to concoct about the Inchesso,” Teo said. “If the Inchesso nobles were as murderous as that though, nothing would ever get done.”

“I thought that’s what Inchesso’s problem was,” Eorn said. “It’s falling apart because nothing is done to care for it.”

“That’s how things appear, but Inchesso’s state is more complex than that,” Teo said. “Subterfuge is as much as part of courtly life as the air the nobles breath. There is value in appearing decayed and weak, both internally and to the other realms.”

“Appearing weak seems like an invitation for other nations to invade and destroy you at this point,” Eorn said.

“That is the general belief, and yet few serious attempts have been made to contest Inchesso’s sovereignty,” Teo said.

Below them the fens of western Inchesso faded into the cragged hills that surrounded Oloma, the capital city of the Lialarus family they were traveling to visit. It wouldn’t be long before their unannounced visit, potentially, became the worst diplomatic incident in either nation’s history.

“Gallgrin’s always had Paxmer to worry about hasn’t it?” Eorn said.

“Paxmer’s always been a concern but there were stretches of time where the two realms were peaceful enough that an assault on Inchesso could have been viable,” Teo said.

“What stopped that from happening?” Eorn asked.

“The consensus seems to be that everyone knows Inchesso is faking the amount of weakness and decay it’s afflicted with,” Teo said. “Hiding your strength is so common here that no one is able to get a good read on what sort of resources any of the families actually possess. The only constant is that whenever Inchesso’s defenses are seriously probed, the ones responsible suffer losses far in excess of any damage they inflict.”

“So none of the other realms are brave enough to engage Inchesso openly?” Eorn asked.

“Engaging Inchesso openly has never been a recipe for success,” Teo said. “Among the Inchesso elite, dealing plainly is the sign of an imbecile or a child. They place no value in a verbal agreement and will commit to written deals only with members of their own family.”

“How can a realm run like that?” Eorn asked.

“Much the same as any other,” Teo said. “Negotiations only work if both sides think they’re getting something they desire and the agreements last until one party or the other believes they can get a better deal elsewhere.”

“It seems like madness,” Eorn said, frowning but looking better for having something to take her mind off her other worries.

“It is,” Teo said, amused by the giant woman’s take on international politics. The Bromli family that Eorn hailed from was not one of the more cosmopolitan of Gallagrin’s noble houses, and apparently had few dealings abroad.

“Are we going to be able to negotiate with them?” Eorn asked. “If we can’t trust anything they say, how will we ever reach an agreement with them that has any substance?”

“You raise an excellent question,” Teo said. “It’s one I wish we could have raised with Queen Alari before she assigned this task to us.”

“You spoke with her in private after the general meeting,” Eorn said. “Didn’t she provide you with any further details to make this meeting a success?”

“The Queen is very trusting in my skills,” Teo said. “I have no idea why that would be the case though. I have never done anything like this in my life.”

“Why send you then? She had to give you some reason, didn’t she?”

“She said it was because she could trust me,” Teo said.

“Have you worked with her before?” Eorn asked.

“Only once, last fall, during the debacle with the Consort-King,” Teo said.

“Apparently you left an impression,” Eorn said. “I don’t understand why she didn’t send one of the castle’s ambassadors though? I mean there already are ones in residence in Inchesso aren’t there?”

“The current crop of ambassadors to Inchesso are long term appointees,” Teo said. “They’ve been there since King Sathe’s reign.”

“Why didn’t the Queen replace them?” Eorn said.

“Because they have experience in Inchesso which no one else possesses,” Teo said. “The result of which is that they’re more affiliated with Inchesso than they are with Paxmer these days. The Queen expressed her regrets over that but she’s had too many other important things on her agenda to fight that particular battle. At least until today.”

“Will one of the ambassadors be waiting for us when we land?” Eorn asked.

“No, there are none attached to the Lialarus family,” Teo said. “Which is one of the reasons we’re meeting with them.”

“How important of a family are they?” Eorn asked.

“They’re power has been waxing for several years now and was bolstered last year with the loss of one of their princes,” Teo said.

“How did that work?” Eorn asked.

“In reparation  for the prince’s murder, the Queen sent the majority of the Consort-King’s body to the Lialarus family,” Teo said.

“How did sending a King’s corpse repay making their son into a corpse?” Eorn asked.

“Partially it was a matter of justice,” Teo said. “Halrek was ultimately one of the ones responsible for Prince Lorenzo’s murder. More importantly though, noble corpses are of tremendous value for a variety of rare and powerful alchemical extractions.”

“So they turned Halrek’s body into what then?” Eorn asked.

“That’s the delightful thing,” Teo said. “No one knows. They could have created all sorts of hideous brews but it’s an open question of which ones they chose to possess.”

“Does that make them our allies, or very dangerous associates?” Eorn asked.

“More the latter than the former,” Teo said. “By the end of our discussion they may even prove to be out enemies.”

“That would be unfortunate I take it?” Eorn said.

“On a wide variety of fronts, yes,” Teo said.

“So how are we going to make the right first impression?” Eorn asked.

“Patience,” Teo said. “They’ll want to go through hours of formal greetings and rituals. We’ll probably have to survive at least three meals in the process. In the end though, once they’ve confirmed that we’re legitimate ambassadors from Gallagrin and have a sense that we’ve come to treat with them on serious matters, we’ll be granted an audience with whatever members of the family’s Elites are in residence.”

“What do you mean by ‘survive three meals’?” Eorn asked.

“They’ll try to poison us,” Teo said. “It would be poor manners for them not to.”

“I thought you said Inchesso’s lethal reputation was overstated?” Eorn said.

“It is. The most likely poison they’ll administer will be a suggestibility draught,” Teo said. “Expect all of the wine they offer to be laced with it. The more effective psychoactive mixtures will be applied to the food, or misted into the air though.

“They violate the laws of hospitality so freely?” Eorn asked.

“From the Inchesso view, anyone who doesn’t expect to be poisoned when visiting strangers needs to be taught an object lesson. In attempting to poison us, they’ll be acknowledging that we hold enough power to be worth trying to weaken or suborn while at the same time bowing to the reality that we’re strong enough to defend ourselves,” Teo said. “Also the mixtures aren’t entirely harmful. The suggestibility draught for example is said to grant the imbiber the most restful sleep they can possibly achieve.”

“While that sounds nice, is it true that we’re strong enough to defend ourselves? I mean, you’re immune to poison because you’re a vampire, correct?” Eorn asked.

“I am, similar to how you are granted immunity through your Pact bond,” Teo said.

“Pact Knights are more resistant to poison than immune,” Eorn said. “Queen Alari made sure to impress that distinction on us when we became Guardians.”

“We being yourself and the thin young man you’ve spent the flight worrying about?” Teo asked.

“Undine can take care of himself,” Eorn said. “He’s overcome a lot already.”

“But you’re still worried about him,” Teo said. “I know the feeling. Ren’s more capable that he’s ever been and yet I keep envisioning how this could all go terribly wrong for him.”

Eorn joined Teo in a rueful frown.

“I just wish I could help him,” Eorn said.

“Take heart,” Teo said. “If things go as well as I expect them to, we’ll probably be the ones who are in need of help, so maybe they can come to our rescue.”

Eorn laughed at that.

“Oh Sleeping Gods, I can just imagine,” she said. “Undine would do the stupidest things.”

“Not the stupidest, those would be reserved for my Ren,” Teo said. “I swear since he got his Pact spirit, he’s been getting progressively more foolish.”

“It can be hard to resist trying out the spirit’s powers,” Eorn said. “I was a little undisciplined when I was first bonded too.”

“I understand the excitability of youth, but sadly I never got to enjoy the same kind of wild and uninhibited phase that Pact bearers go through,” Teo said.

“I thought vampires had all sorts of amazing powers?” Eorn asked.

“We do,” Teo said. “But since, in my case, those powers tax my strength and my strength comes from the blood of the one I love, I’ve never been inclined to use them with abandon.”

“Will you be able to protect yourself from the poison?” Eorn asked.

“Easily,” Teo said. “That’s barely even requires magic since my physiology is so different from my original human state. Most of the compounds that will harm, incapacitate or influence a human are essentially inert in my body. I can combat the ones that do pose a threat with little effort, unless of course they target vampiric blood directly. Encountering one of those would be problematic.”

“That would be a somewhat exotic thing for the Inchesso to have on hand wouldn’t it?” Eorn asked.

“Yes, the mixtures are somewhat exotic,” Teo said. “I would guess the Lialarus family wouldn’t be likely to have more than a few casks of the proper draughts on the premises at the moment.”

“A few casks?” Eorn asked.

“There aren’t many organized undead in Inchesso, but the blood ravaging poisons are useful against more than just vampires,” Teo said.

“So either or both of us could die here?” Eorn said, as the sky carriage they were traveling in began its descent towards the platform at the Lialarus family estate.

“That’s the most important thing to remember when working in Inchesso,” Teo said. “Even if you are sure that you’re safe, be aware that you’re not.”

“I feel like I should be in my armored form already,” Eorn said as they touched down with the gentle grace that only a royal issue carriage could manage.

“Oh there’s no need for that,” Teo said. “I’m speaking in broad strokes. While we’re with the Lialarus family, we should be as safe as we were in Gallagrin. The worst threat before us will be the tedium of all the flowery greetings and silly compliments.”

Inchesso guards opened the doors on both sides of the carriage, brandishing spears that gleamed with a reflective green oil that sizzled on their tips.

“Gallagrin intruders, you are under arrest in the name of the Eldest Lialarus. Surrender your arms and come quietly.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 19

Alari felt a tingle of delight ripple from her fingers down to her toes. The Green Council’s army lay decimated before her. She’d shoved their toxic defenses back a mile into the territory they’d taken, and she had the key to converting their Warbringers her to do her bidding. It felt so good to not hold back any longer.

“You shouldn’t smile so much,” Haldri said. “People will begin to think you’re enjoying this.”

“People would not be incorrect,” Alari said. “But your point is a valid one. There is still much to do here, and many who are injured or worse.”

Limiting herself to formal Gallagrin speech was irksome. Alari had learned imaginative profanities for all sorts of occasions from Dae. Dae’s repertoire had even included a number of celebratory blasphemes which Alari was toe curlingly eager to use given the circumstances.

With a sigh, she composed herself though. She was the Queen of Gallagrin. Displays of power aside, she needed to maintain the proper facade to remind people of that at all times.

“The Council will not be happy that you are suborning its resources I think,” Haldri said, glancing at the giant Warbringer that stood at attention awaiting Alari’s orders.

It was that change, even more than her arrival on the battlefield and subsequent disruption of the conflict via tornado-class winds, which had halted the Green Council’s advance. The Council was willing to match its strength against her, rightfully, but was hesitant at allowing her steal the forces it had deployed against Senkin.

It was a shame. Alari was impressed with the size and power of the Warbringers. Stealing a small army of them would make dealing with a certain subset of her nobles much easier.

“We suspect you are correct about the Council’s feelings,” Alari said. “These devices are exceptional creations. The Green Council really should have taken better care of them.”

“Devices?” Haldri said. “So they are not intelligent creatures in their own right?”

“They do not seem to be,” Alari said. “The modified transformation mist I exposed this one to would not have controlled the mind of a sentient creature. It only redirected the flow of its magics so that they originate from land beneath it instead of the Green Council.”

“And it is loyal to you for this new freedom?” Haldri asked.

“It has no loyalty,” Alari said. “Whatever Guiding Will once directed its actions, their command of the device seems to have been severed when its energy source changed.”

“I see why the rest of the Council’s forces have pulled back,” Haldri said. “They will not remain disengaged for long though.”

“You believe they will attack again once their courage returns?” Alari asked. “Or you believe that they have a weapon they can deploy to counter our strength?”

“Most likely both,” Haldri said. “The Council has been ready for this war for a long time. They have doubtless taken Gallagrin’s interference into account as well.”

“They have made a mistake though,” Alari said. “Haven’t they.”

Neither Alari nor Haldri were privy to the inner workings of the Green Council, neither knew the hidden agenda of its members, but each step the Council took revealed details of its true intentions.

The simplest example of this was the speed with which the Green Council launched its attack. The Blessed Realms lived in harmony and peace with one another. This was by Divine Decree. Even when the Sleeping Gods were awake the level of observable peace and harmony between the realms was not always particularly large though. There were natural barriers and divine constructions which helped keep the worst of the inter-realm animosity under control and times of actual warfare between realms were rare as a result.

Gallagrin and Paxmer were typical in this regards, where the sharp peaks between them limited battles to scuffles over border resources and bloodshed in the name of honor or glory. Neither realm made serious attempts at conquest of the other until the time of Alari’s father, and neither made any real progress in the attempt until Alari and Haldri’s final feud.

Unlike Gallagrin and Paxmer though, Senkin and the Green Council had been distinctly peaceful allies. Their border was free of any divinely erected dividers to segment the realms. In place of physical barriers though, there were social walls that grew taller with the passage of time. The two societies were alien enough to each other that both sides found the other primitive and unappealing to associate with, so they stuck to their own sphere.

All of that meant that neither had any reason to maintain the sort of army which could invade the other. Military forces to deal with marauding monsters were one thing. All of the realms possessed those, but an army that was draw together enough to present an undeniable threat to a neighboring realm? That required planning and coordination, which in turn revealed intent.

There wasn’t time to raise an army the likes of which the Green Council had raised, with specialized supplies and a surplus of extremely powerful units, in the month since the conquest of Paxmer. The forces which Alari faced therefor were prepared and placed over the space of the winter in all likelihood.

Or in other words, the Green Council had observed how the events had played out with the Consort-King Halrek the previous autumn, and had learned of Alari’s response to Paxmer then. They’d seen the tides of war swelling and had wagered that the edicts of the Sleeping Gods would be tested by the conflict. They weren’t the only realm to notice that, just the one most prepared to act on it, from what Alari could see.

“Yes, they’ve made the same mistake I did, I believe,” Haldri said. “They think you crave dominion over them and will fight to take the power they possess. They’re going to marshall their forces against you, but you’re not going to be here are you?”

“Though our enemy you be still, we could ask for no sharper advisor,” Alari said. “You mind is all edges of a blade, brilliant from every angle.”

Alari meant both the compliment and the implied challenge in her words. Haldri was no longer queen, but her true power hadn’t been her command of the Dragon King Haldraxan. She was keenly intelligent and more observant than almost anyone Alari knew. Since her fall from power, the expression of that intelligence had begun to change, as though being cast down had given Haldri perspectives she’d long been missing to fill in the gaps in her awareness.

That didn’t make the former Queen of Paxmer less dangerous, or any kinder, but wisdom was a tempering force all on its own. It was the sum of that which gave Alari hope, but she was keenly aware of the other side of that knife edge, where opportunity and stored resentment could combine in Haldri to deadly effect. Alari’s spoken observation was therefor as much recognition of Haldri’s capabilities as it was a warning that Alari was ready for them.

“It appears the Senkin forces are as stunned as the Council’s,” Haldri said.

Behind them, the Senkin troops who had been in full retreat were paused and silent. They had been chased by dire plant abominations that looked like they stepped out of a nightmare. In place of the monsters two women stood before them, and the monsters seemed hesitant to move forward. Discretion easily overwhelmed valor in that situation as even the bravest in the Senkin forces chose to wait a few moments and take stock of the new arrival on the battlefield.

The only ones who were still in motion were the medics. The violence with which Alari scattered the Council’s forces had not left the Senkin troops entirely unscathed either. Troops and equipment had been blown around the battlefield and there were still plenty of wounded to care for.

“It’s difficult to blame the Senkins for feeling out of their depth,” Alari said. “They have no training for scenarios like this and, it seems, no leadership who are up to the task of devising successful strategies against a foe who presses attacks of this scale against them.”

“It seems fair to blame them for failing to meet the challenge which they were trained for in the general case,” Haldri said. “An aggressor seeks to claim their territory. There is complexity in how the answer to that threat is phrased but even with their greater might and coordination, the Council’s forces are not all that different from the monsters the Senkin fight routinely.”

“We are glad that you feel such sentiments,” Alari said, delighted to see a look of surprise flicker across Haldri’s face.

“I thought you held kinder hopes for the Senkins,” Haldri said, speaking to what she knew Alari was going to say next rather than responding to what she’d already said.

“On the turn of this moment, there is but one kindness we can bestow on the Senkin,” Alari said. “Though we imagine you already know of what we speak.”

“I am not sure that I do,” Haldri said, surprise still wrinkling her features.

“Time races away from us, so we shall be brief,” Alari said. “We shall depart this field, but you shall remain.”

“You give me my freedom now? Here?” Haldri said.

“No, you remain our prisoner by right of conquest,” Alari said.

“And what cage will you place me in to keep me so?” Haldri asked.

“You needed be caged to rightfully be our prisoner,” Alari said. “That is the only the legal truth though. In practice, your prison is this conflict.”

“And why by all the Sleeping Gods would this open plain serve to hold me in?” Haldri asked. “I have never held concern for either realm on this field. They were ever your neighbors and of little interest to Paxmer.”

“The Senkin need a leader,” Alari said.

There were many more reasons why she’d chosen Haldri for that role, but they went unvoiced. Alari didn’t need to tell Haldri that there was no one else she could give the task to, no one who held the necessary mix of cunning and charisma matched with experience in leading large groups of people.

She didn’t need to tell Haldri that Senkin and the Green Council were in every measure just as much prisons as Gallagrin was. As the former queen of Paxmer, Haldri was too valuable (and dangerous) a piece in the grand game to be allowed any liberty. The Queen of Senkin knew that Haldri was in her country and would not allow such a powerful bargaining chip to either escape or take up a quiet life hidden away somewhere.

Flight into the Green Council’s lands would be even more perilous. If they discovered Paxmer’s former queen in their lands, their most likely response would be to render her down to parts and sell those pieces immediately to the potion makers in Inchesso. Anything else meant risking playing into the kind of deep schemes which nobles can afford to spend a lifetime crafting.

By arriving with Alari, Haldri had been placed in support of the Senkin by association. Her best hope for survival lay in taking command of the local army and guiding them to victory. If nothing else that could earn her the loyalty of the troops she fought with, and at best would force Senkin’s Queen to bestow her royal approval on Haldri’s presence.

There were deeper reasons Alari had chosen this assignment for Haldri, but she believed they might have escaped the Dragon Queen. If so it wouldn’t be surprising as they were founded on little more than the fairydust of hopes and dreams. In some things the Gallagrin Pact Spirit could offer unconscious nudging from its vast wisdom, but the spirit had never seen a king or queen attempt what Alari was trying so it had no guidance to offer her.

The gaze Haldri leveled at Alari was not a happy one, but there was a resignation to it.

“I thought you were kinder than this?” Haldri asked and Alari knew she wasn’t referring to the fact that Alari was abandoning her. She was speaking of what she would be able to do to the Senkin troops.

“Perhaps it was not our kindness you were seeing,” Alari said. She didn’t place a hand on Haldri’s shoulder. Their relationship was not one that admitted such gestures.

“Do you know where you’re going?” Haldri asked.

“Yes,” Alari said. “This Warbringer was in charge of the rest. We will use it to find the Green Council commander who directed this operation and have words with them.”

“The Green Council forces may not allow that,” Haldri said.

“Then you will be able to defend Senkin very easily,” Alari said and turned from the Dragon Queen to march into the maw of the largest army the Green Council had ever assembled.


The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 18

Iana wasn’t afraid. With the crash and chaos of battle exploding around her, she had no song in her heart except for exhilaration. This was her day.

She’d trained with her troops for as many years as she could remember. The Council had singled her out for command from before she knew what commanding an army of Warbringers meant. All of the things she’d done in preparation, the long days working to understand her Warbringer, the longer days learning to understand those assigned to her. Discovering how to motivate people, how to keep her troops focused even when she was lost and unsure of what to do. All of that had been in preparation for the moment that was before her.

The Senkin opposition to her troops’ advance was fierce. The fighting was harder than any battle against the monsters of the Lost Glades. Senkin’s military fought with power and precision, they fought without mercy or hesitation, they gave it their all but despite that the Warbringers were winning!

Iana felt like her spirit was glowing with a light bright enough to cast shadows on the sun. She wasn’t just fighting, she was orchestrating. In her mind, the battlefront was one giant, multi-layered song. Discord threatened at every moment to shatter the anthem of victory that Iana was playing, but with each step forward she kept herself and those she directed singing a clear harmony. Thrusts against them became dramatic pauses in the music or dips into a minor key, only for the crescendo surge of her forces advancing again to stir her soul to greater heights of rapture.

In all the days she’d fought the monsters that gathered within the Green Council’s borders, Iana had always wondered what it would be like to face an equal foe. Or at least someone with the same level of resources and training and organization that her forces possessed. She’d lain awake after a long days of training, letting visions of what a real war would look like dance through her head. Would she be fast enough? Would she be smart enough? Could she protect the people she had to protect? How strong was she, really?

Strong enough it turned out.

A Warbringer lost its legs to a massed barrage of solar flares from the Senkin troops but before it hit the ground another Warbringer was at its side. The second Warbringer used the opening in the Senkin lines created by the Senkin attack to launch deadly, barbed whips into their midst. It was a spontaneous moment, the Warbringers acting in response to commands Iana had given them seconds earlier, but it played out like a maneuver they’d spent weeks rehearsing.

Without shields for protection, the attacking unit of Senkin soldiers disappeared in a shower of blood, just as the crippled Warbringer rose on new legs, striding forward into the gap in the Senkin ranks to to wreak more havoc on their numbers.

Iana saw both the ebb and flow of her troops power and called for feints and pushes, attacks and regroupings with such natural ease that it felt like she was fighting two battles at once.

Almost automatically, her Warbringer tore through the battlefield, shielding the seed pods that both destroyed Senkin’s control over the land and gave the Warbringers an inexhaustible well of power to draw on.

Above that battle though, another raged, one in which Iana wielded her troops with a single vision against the Senkin troops. The armies weren’t a collection of individuals but rather two vast fighters who danced slowly and gracefully around one another. Each struck with terrible force, but each was resilient beyond measure too.

When Iana sent a Warbringer to flank to the Senkin army’s north side it was as though she was probing her enemy’s defenses with a poisoned needle. A long Warbringer couldn’t do that much damage, but Senkin had to respond to the strike or else the poison of having a Warbringer cutting through their ranks would rot the formation from the inside out.

As the Senkin troops swarmed around the Warbringer, pinning it in place and burning out huge sections of its structure, a new opening was created in the Senkin defense, like a fighter parrying a low blow at the cost of leaving their head exposed. Iana jumped on that opening, sending in two of her Warbringers. She knew it wasn’t a true opening though and had two more Warbringers prepared to help draw fire from the ones she extended into Senkin’s weakened ranks.

The Senkin army’s shields and fire drove off the first two Warbringers but their efforts weren’t wasted. Other areas of the battle were shifting in response to the damage they inflicted, the Senkin troops falling back to regroup and bring their wounded farther from the fray.

Iana felt drunk with the power that coursed through her. She couldn’t believe how everything she’d been told about the Green Council’s inherent superiority was proving to be true.

Her earlier thoughts of rebellion were washed away by the tide of their impending victory. The Council had been right. By allowing the initial Senkin troops to escape, the force that had been marshalled to oppose them had been gathered too quickly. The Senkin army was a powerful fighting force, but the Council had fielded a more powerful one.

On their own the Warbringers wouldn’t have been enough. Even so mighty a collection of engines of destruction couldn’t defeat a greater number of enemies with similarly strong magics to draw on.  

That was why the Council had sent support.

The yellow fog was one of the deep magics the Council had discovered while the other realms were busy playing their little games. The opaque gas acted as a deadly toxin for the Mindful Races who encountered it, while at the same time providing fuel and power to the Warbringers.

Iana’s Warbringer and all of the rest weren’t operating at full power. They were processing well over the maximum amount of magic that any Warbringer could store.

Behind them, concealed and protected by the wall of yellow fog, the Green Council’s support troops labored. They had simple jobs. Prepare the Conquest Seeds. Load them into the Grand Catapults and keep firing them to where the Warbringers were or where they needed to advance to. Other support casters kept the fog wall advancing, claiming Senkin territory and providing the option of a refuge which Iana’s forces hadn’t needed to use yet.

Those and hundreds of other roles were part of the chorus that sang in Iana’s head and, in the heat of the battle, she loved every voice among them. She was with her people. They were in perfect unity. And they were winning.

Then a force from the sky struck the land and everything shattered into madness.

Iana was nearby, but not the closest to the impact site. Despite the vast weight of her Warbringer and the many enormous feet it stood on, she felt it being flung to the ground like a boneless doll.

The fall disoriented her for a pair of long seconds and by the time she rose a hush had fallen over the battlefield.

At the center of the impact crater stood a woman with wings of azure and sapphire and rose and silver radiating from her back.

Behind her stood a taller, older woman who gazed on the scene before her with the kind of disaffected, regal dignity that made Iana think of the eldest on the Green Council.

The winged woman, a native of Gallagrin based on her coloration and features, surveyed the landscape around her, focusing on the Green Council’s forces.

Iana felt fear creep into her heart, followed by rage. Her forces had been winning. They’d been moving in such powerful harmony and this new arrival had disrupted that? Iana wasn’t going to let that happen.

As quick as she could imagine it, her troops began converging on the new combatant. Iana knew she needed to wipe the winged woman off the board as quickly as possible.

It might even be the final winning play if she could defeat the winged woman and her companion. Surely, she reasoned, this was Senkin’s military pulling out its most powerful warrior as a weapon of last resort? If the winged woman fell then the rest of Senkin’s army might at last understand how outmatched they were and surrender without further fighting. That didn’t feel right but it was all Iana had to go on, so she clung to the idea.

The first Warbringer to make it to the winged woman shot a dozen razor sharp, briarthorn vines out when it was thirty feet away from her.

The winged woman caught the vines.

Then she pulled the Warbringer off its feet and sent it sailing through the air towards her.

As the giant plant monster fell on the winged woman Iana thought their job might be complete with the sacrifice of only one unit.

Then the winged woman punched it.

It was comical to watch. The woman appeared tiny next to the vast bulk of the Warbinger that was falling on her. The next moment though the Warbringer was nothing more than a pile of disconnected kindling twigs, each no larger than a toddler’s index finger.

Iana couldn’t process that for a moment.

One of her Warbringers was gone.

Destroyed in an instant.

Her mind was both frozen in silence and screaming in terror. Her orders sounded hollow and angry to her ears as she directed three other Warbringers to converge on her position as she raced to engage the winged woman as fast as a Warbringer’s colossal gait would allow.

Before they could reach the winged woman though, Iana saw her draw back her wings and take in a deep breath. It looked comical again, but Iana had no desire to laugh.

When the wings came forward something beyond wind came with them.

Air shouldn’t be able to lift wood and vines and water, not on the scale of a Warbringer, but this gale did. Tornado force winds a mile wide slammed into Iana and the rest of her troops blasting them backwards, head over heals.

Behind Iana, the fog curtain was driven back over a mile, revealing the support workers and the Senkin fort they were encamped around. They were exposed and vulnerable where a moment earlier they’d been in no danger at all.

Iana struggled to get her Warbringer to its feet again.

Whatever had landed on their battlefield, it couldn’t be a part of the Senkin army. Nothing could be that strong.

For a horrible moment, a sick idea occurred to Iana.

One of the Sleeping Gods had woken.

That didn’t seem possible and, if it was, Iana didn’t want any part of a quarrel between the gods.

“Now that we have some breathing room, perhaps they will listen to us?” the winged woman said to her companion.

“Their power is not yet spent,” the older woman said. “They will fight because they believe their reserves are not yet depleted.”

Iana wasn’t sure how the Sleeping Gods spoke, but that didn’t sound like what it should be. The older woman was right though. There was still fight left in Iana and her troops. This was her day even if it meant she had to fight the gods themselves to win it!

Alone, she charged forward, quick roots digging deeper into the soil of the converted land than any of her troops could have managed.

She’d built up a massive charge, torn from the newly converted land, by the time she reached the winged woman and she brought that force to bear in one mountain shattering blow.

The winged woman responded by lightly holding up her hand to catch Iana’s crushing attack. The impact fractured the Warbringer’s hand and arm, but the Winged Women didn’t move or flinch in the slightest.

“What is it that drives you?” she asked and pulled Iana’s  Warbringer off balance again to crash down face first. Before Iana could rise, the winged woman laid her hands on on the Warbringer’s back and tore it open.

The excess of magic the Warbringer stored burst forth in a surge of yellow fog. Yellow fog which the winged woman inhaled completely.

Iana watched the woman’s eyes shimmer for a moment, appearing like pools of silver rather than any living eyes that ever existed.

When the winged woman spoke a moment later, wisps of blue mist escaped her mouth.

“The Council’s been playing in our domain,” she said with a delighted smile. “Transformation belongs to us, not them. Not the brightest move on their part was it?”

Then she breathed forth more of the blue mist and Iana felt her control over the Warbringer go numb and freeze away completely.

With the last of her connection to it, Iana watched as the winged woman directed the Warbringer to stand and serve its new master rather than the Green Council.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 17

The flight from Senkin’s capital to the new border with the Green Council was a short one. The Council’s troops were still barely over the border into Senkin, but Alari flew on wings conjured by the Pact Spirit of Gallagrin giving her speed beyond the fastest wind in the sky.

“You could rival Haldraxan for mastery of the air,” Haldri said. Alari held her nemesis in her arms, the weight of the former queen of Paxmer and effortless burden to bear thanks to the strength Gallagrin granted her. “Odd that Gallagrin monarchs don’t routinely take the field.”

“Paxmer has always been our rival, but the other realms we share a border with have not always been our friends,” Alari said. “Committing the monarch’s might to any one struggle meant losing it to stand against the rest of the wolves. The tactically minded rulers were aware of that.”

“And the rest?” Haldri asked. The roar of the wind should have made speaking impossible but Alari’s magic shielded them from the worst of its effects.

“Cowards in some cases, or concerned about attacks closer to home in others,” Alari said. “As you saw, contesting a monarch’s reign weakens them greatly and if the monarch dies while weakened they claim is automatically forfeit.”

“So if anyone lays claim to your throne at this moment?” Haldri asked, looking at the hard ground that lay far below them.

“Then we die,” Alari said.

“You need to work on your lies,” Haldri said. “I know you too well now to be taken in as I was before.”

Alari smiled. The bond she shared with the Gallagrin was strong enough to make any counterclaims difficult to mount and the only people with a strong enough case were being held under Dae’s watchful eye. Alari didn’t want to let herself wipe out the Gallagrin Council of Nobles, but if they made another play her throne, she’d be more than forgiving if Dae did the work for her. And Dae would absolutely see anyone who tried for the throne buried in a deep and forgotten grave long before it became an issue to trouble Alari.

“We didn’t lie to you before,” Alari said, thinking back to the delicate and precise choices she’d made during her discussions with Haldri before the rule of Paxmer was changed.

“Of course you did,” Haldri said. “You made me believe you were a rage stricken youngster. Weak and foolish with hurt pride and lost love. You invited me to attack you knowing just how far I would overextend myself.”

“We were rage stricken,” Alari said. “That was no lie.”

Her old rage wasn’t forgotten. Even considering it made her picture dropping Haldri to the the stones below and the small joy that might entail. Once she wouldn’t have hesitated but time changes all things, even implacable fury.

“But you were not lost in it,” Haldri said. “You were not so off balance that you were blinded by that rage then, so I doubt you are quite what you appear to be at the moment either.”

“And how do we appear now?” Alari asked.

“You act as though you are terrified of the change you’ve made in the world,” Haldri said. “To the monarchs of the realms your flight here will appear as the action of someone desperate to maintain control and undo the damage they caused when I was removed from my throne.”

“But things appear differently to you?” Alari asked, hiding a smile. Haldri was old enough to be Alari’s mother, and while Alari could never forgive the former queen of Paxmer for the woman she’d been, there was a certain perverse satisfaction in having someone as accomplished as the old Dragon Queen recognize what Alari was truly capable of.

Where Dae offered support, Haldri offered a challenge. Dae would keep Alari from falling, would shield Alari from the gaps in her plan and take the blows Alari failed to see. Haldri would do nothing of the sort. She would push Alari over the edge in the blink of an eye and strike any fatal blows she could see a clear path to inflict.

Or she would have at one time.

In the intervening month since Haldri was deposed, Alari had seen a change settle over the former queen. She wasn’t friendly, she wasn’t trustworthy, but there was a respect that had grown between the two women. They both knew the weight of a crown of the realms and, unlike any monarchs before them in history, they’d been able to speak of the toll that burden extracted.

“You are young enough to play into people’s misperceptions of youth,” Haldri said. “The panic in you which the rulers of the realms see clouds their vision of the plans you’ve been working on for the last month, just as the control they see you scrambling to attain obscures the influence that you already wield.”

“Do you really think we are so powerful as that?” Alari asked as they flew into the wispy haze of a cloudbank. In their wake, the water vapor coalesced in the first raindrops of the storm the cloud held.

“Of course not,” Haldri said. “You’re far more powerful, but they don’t know that do they?”

“We should find it worrisome that our greatest enemy flatters us so,” Alari said.

“It’s not flattery though, is it?” Haldri asked.

“No, though we cannot tell if your words are meant as a warning or an inducement to hubris?” Alari said.

“And that is why they are true,” Haldri said.

By speaking with Haldri, Alari believed she was opening the former queen up to new ideas and new values. It was a tremendously prideful thing to conceive of – changing the mind of another was difficult enough, changing their soul was somewhere on the other side of impossible – and any evidence that it was working had to be weighed against Haldri’s skills at deception. Alari tried to quell her ego by telling herself that it was a game she and Haldri were playing. An intricate, deadly game, just as they had played before, but where the stakes had once been the fate of realms, in this struggle it was Haldri’s chance at a return to power (and Alari’s requisite downfall to allow that happen) against the redemption of a single greed and hatred tarnished soul.

On Haldri’s side, all she had to do was trick Alari into revealing the right moment of weakness. Even if Haldri couldn’t worm a path free of her confinement, even if she died in the process of destroying Alari, revenge would still be achieved and the broken pride of a queen satisfied. To reach that point though, she needed to make Alari trust her, and that meant behaving as though she could be trusted for as long as it took.

The two flew on together, passing so quickly over Senkin’s lands, that neither could make out many of the details below them. Vast croplands were shot through with streams and small forests before running into low hills and occasional deep valleys before returning to more croplands. Individual dwellings were gone in the blink of an eye, and even whole towns and cities passed from one edge of the horizon to the other without time to observe their unique character.

“You said we are flying to the battlefront,” Haldri said. “And not the Green Council directly?”

“The battlefront is where lives will be lost,” Alari said angling them down out of the clouds.

“Or are being lost,” Hadri said. “We have arrived too late it appears.”

Below them, a massive wall of yellow fog reached up to the sky. In front of the wall, on the Senkin side, a furious struggle was underway. What had once been a farming village was a burning collection of dwellings around which a sizeable troop of Senkin soldiers fought to keep the Green Council forces from advancing

Here and there around the battlefield, huge seeds, as a tall a human, were scattered. Most were blackened and burned but a few were billowing forth a yellow smoke which matched the wall  guarding the Green Council’s new border.

The Senkin army was rallying to destroy the smoking seeds but towering plant creatures, the Green Council’s Warstriders, were fighting them off.

Alari and Haldri watched as the Senkin army assaulted the Warstriders with blasts of fire and javelins of light. Despite the lack of a proper keep for shelter and protection, the Senkin were making a desperate attempt to defend their realm and had marshalled an impressively large force to halt the Green Council’s advance.

Unlike the battle which Captain Suncourt had described, the troops that had rallied to front weren’t the undisciplined force that had been demoted to guarding a border that was never contested. The massed Senkin troops moved with precision and unity, with the casters firing a steady stream of blinding attacks at the Green Council’s Warstriders while the shield guards fended off the attacks of the massive combat monsters as best they could.

Where the Senkin forces held the advantage in numbers though, the Green Council had them overmatched in terms of raw power.

Flares of solar fire burned through the Warstriders, but no matter where the flares hit, the Warstriders didn’t falter. New vines grew to file the holes and new energy coursed through them as the giant monster hammered at the shields erected to provide shelter to the increasingly overwhelmed Senkin forces.

Each Warbringer fought alone, guarding up to half a dozen of the yellow fog seeds. They couldn’t protect all of the seeds, but neither could the Senkin shield guards protect all of their comrades. With each shield a Warbringer shattered, and each moment that a seed got to pump out more of the deadly yellow fog, the Senkin’s lost more people and more ground.

“They should retreat,” Haldri said. “No matter how much they burn the plant monsters the Senkin can’t hold their lines together.”

“We agree,” Alari said. “The situation is untenable from their perspective. They cannot flee however.”

“Why ever not?” Haldri asked.

“They were making for a keep that is now lost behind the fog curtain,” Alari said. “There is nowhere else close enough for them to flee to. The Warstriders are faster than they look. If the Senkin break ranks to retreat they will be destroyed before they make it to the next river bank.”

“You need to think like a Paxmer,” Haldri said. “Not all of the troops are equal in worth and the Senkin stand to lose the entire army they have marshalled if they do not outdistance their attackers.”

“So you would have the commanders expend the weaker forces in a delaying action while the others escaped?” Alari asked.

“There are no pretty choices in war,” Haldri said.

“It would seem the Senkin agree with you,” Alari said. “Look at how their forces are being repositioned.”

Below them the Senkin army was executing a defensive retreat, ordering their forces into a wedge that fell back as the Warstriders pushed forward and more of the fog seeds were flung forward from behind the wall of yellow smoke.

“It’s a poor strategy,” Alari said.

“Only because they executed it too late and without sufficient boldness,” Haldri said.

“No, it’s wasteful,” Alari said. “Look, the troops that are being expended to cover the rear guard are too weak to provide any meaningful resistance to the Warstriders. The Senkin should have used their best troops to make sure the rest could escape safely.”

“But then they would be crippled for future battles,” Haldri said.

“Then they need to make their troops better,” Alari said. “Except not today.”

“You cannot negotiate a ceasefire to this rout,” Haldri said. “The Green Council has won and they know it. They will listen to none of your pretty words of peace.”

“We know,” Alari said. “That’s why we’re going to speak to them in terms that they will  understand.”

With that she pulled Haldri in close and spun into a steep dive, descending towards the battlefield like a comet wreathed in sapphire light.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 16

Jyl wasn’t surprised that her Queen intended to fly to the front lines and try to hold off the war that was beginning to rage out of control. She wasn’t surprised that Alari was bringing Haldri with her either. The Queen of Paxmer was a cunning old serpent and someone Alari was wise to never let stray for her sight too long. What did surprise, and aggravate, Jyl was that Alari had flown to the front lines and left the rest of her entourage behind.

“Why are we still here?” Jaan asked. “I came along on this mad excursion to act as a liason with the Lafli contacts on the Green Council, not to rot in a Senkin jail while we waited for the country to be overrun.”

“You came along because our Queen ordered you to,” Jyl said, forcing herself not to throttle her sister.

“Also, these accommodations are far from a jail cell,” Ren said. “Her Majesty Senkin hasn’t yet decided what to do with us and until she does I suspect we’ll enjoy a suitably posh existence.”

“Is that all it takes to woo you to their side Telli?” Jaan asked. “A little gold on the trim, some nicely burnished wood on the mantle, and your loyalty is bought?”

She brushed her hand along a finely worked silk throw pillow embroidered with the Senkin crest of a firebird rising to catch the sun in its wings. Jyl frowned. Of course her sister wasn’t impressed by the trappings of wealth and power, she’d been coddled and pampered her whole life.

“Well there are these tasty little hor d’oeuvres too,” Ren said. “Hard to find fault with a realm that makes such ingenious use of simple garden vegetables and pate.”

“And yet it makes such poor use of its troops, sending them into battle against a force they cannot beat,” Jaan said. “The Queen has abandoned us on the losing side. If we stay here, our necks will grace the chopping block before this war is done.”

“If you try to disobey Her Majesty, your neck will grace my chopping block before today is done,” Jyl said. Their position was tenuous enough with the loss of the Queen, any further defections from the ranks and they’d lose what little hope they had of negotiating a truce on Senkin’s side of the fight.

“As if you would, or could, defeat me,” Jaan said. “No, you will be the first to run away. Just like you’ve always done.”

Jyl felt a mad rush of heart blaze within her. A thousand unresolved fights and arguments surged to the foreground. When she was younger that anger would have swept away all reason and restraint. As children, Jyl and Jaan had waged epic battles against each other over the smallest of slights. Jyl didn’t remember winning many of those fights, but she couldn’t claim to have lost many of them either. When fighting your twin over petty issues fueled by raw emotions, there was little in the manner of victory to be secured. Such battles were concerned primarily with hurting the other and each of them were far too good at that.

“And you will stay huddled, too terrified of the powerful people around you to ever change anything unless they let you,” Jyl said. As much as Jaan’s words had cut into her, Jyl’s world hit the same sort of hidden fears and shames that lurked in Jaan’s heart. Even with all their armor against each other, no one could strike either as deeply as family could.

“And I will make no choice at all, as I apparently should have done the last time I thought the Queen needed my aid,” Ren said. “And we will all be true to our natures and the whole world will come to ruin and misery and pain because we are no more than beasts with delusions of free will.”

Ren punctuated each declaration as a player on the Grand Stage of Gallagrin would, full of overwrought emotion and sweeping gestures so the people in the cheap seats could still guess as to what the course of the action was. As he finished speaking he collapsed over the side of one of the couches landing face down in a cushion.

“Or,” he added in a conspiratorial tone that was muffled by the fact that he wasn’t looking up from the cushion his face was buried in, “we could step up and play the game before us.”

Jaan looked like Ren’s uninvited theatrics had put her on her last nerve. As much as she wanted to Jyl couldn’t entirely fault her sister for that. They weren’t faced with a situation where simple platitudes and a clever spirit would see them through. When the realms moved, the people caught between them inevitably got ground up. Jyl didn’t mind that. As a Queen’s Guard it was her duty to weather that kind of grinding. She just wished there was a purpose to it beyond allowing Alari to follow whatever mad vision possessed her. Also, she had a feeling that Dae was going to murder her in a new and profoundly imaginative manner for allowing Alari to venture off into extreme danger, not alone, but with her greatest enemy beside her.

“I have to confess, I don’t understand why the Queen left us behind at all,” Undine said. The junior Queen’s Guard spoke in a soft voice which but his question was one that roared loudly in everyone’s heart.

“She will have a better chance at diplomacy if she’s alone,” Jyl said, offering her guess as to Alari’s motivations.

“She doesn’t trust us,” Jaan said. “Too many conflicting agendas, too many unknowns. We represent complexity when she needs to certainty and simplicity.”

Jyl was sure that wasn’t right, but she could see why Jaan would assume it was. The eyes of the Lafli family always measured the trustworthiness of any potential ally or partner. For those outside the family, the judgment, in every case, resolved around when a betrayal would occur and who would be the first to break faith. With a strong partner it was assumed that they would betray you the first moment it was profitable to. With a weak ally it was assumed that a suitable occasion would arise when their help would no longer be required and the relationship could be mined for the fullness of its potential value.

Alliances within the family were fraught with similar calculations of betrayal but they were played out on a longer scale and for more critical goals.

Jyl had spent the early years of her life stewing in the cauldron of her family’s toxic expectations and understandings. She’d spent the years since trying to unlearn those lessons after discovering that they separated her from the people in her life that she truly valued. To some extent she’d been successful in changing her view of the world, so she knew Jaan’s argument was wrong, but she hadn’t come far enough that she could place why.

“I think perhaps she’s hoping to hold back,” Ren said and Jyl saw what he meant. Between herself, Jaan, Undine and Ren, they presented a concentrated amount of force that even a small army of another realm would be hard pressed to match. With such a squad to call upon and add to whichever army she chose, Alari would be that much more tempted to determine the course of the battle directly through arms rather than negotiating terms acceptable to both sides.

“Hold back? By flying into danger?” Jaan said. “That’s not what holding back looks like in any sane ruler.”

“And yet it is what our Queen is known for,” Ren said.

“What do you mean?” Jyl asked, intrigued by Ren’s theory though she couldn’t fit the pieces together quite properly.

“I mean that if you observe the pattern of our Queen’s choices over her life, she has only rarely used the full extent of the power available to her,” Ren said.

“She raised half the realm to fight against the half that was loyal to the crown,” Jaan said. “How is that refusing to use the full power she could call on?”

“Her father presents a special case I admit, but even there; what do you know of her battles?” Ren asked.

“That she was saved by the alliance with the Paxmer prince,” Jaan said.

“And did you learn that from your family?” Ren asked, amusement lighting his lips into a smile like a bear trap.

“It is common knowledge,” Jaan said, her pride ruffled at the insinuation that her view of history was not the inarguably correct one.

“Not so common outside a narrow circle of those most loyal the Butcher King,” Ren said. “If you study Queen Alari’s battles though what you observe is that many of them occurred days or weeks after her forces were in place.”

“She was afraid to commit to action even then?” Jaan said. “How did she ever win?”

“She won because she wasn’t afraid,” Ren said. “She focused the timing of each battle in order to maximize the impact her forces had on her father’s armies while minimizing the damage done to the populace or the towns they lived in.”

“She delayed to spare the lives of those who rallied against her,” Jaan said. “It must have been Paxmer’s influence that changed her fortunes.”

“Halrek of Paxmer did change Alari’s plan for the war, and he did speed it to the final battle, that is true,” Ren said. “But the ending was a foregone conclusion by the time he joined her ranks.”

“Then why would she need him?” Jaan asked.

“And why would she marry him?” Jyl added. From everything she knew, Alari and Dae had been madly in love with each other from well before the Unification War erupted. Whether they’d ever let the other know that was something Jyl was uncertain of, but she’d always wondered how Alari wound up with a sack of scum like Halrek when she had such a better option available to her. The pretty stories of a foreign prince rescuing the brave native princess had always seemed out of character even before Jyl got to know what Alari was really like.

“Marriage to Halrek of Paxmer ended the threat on Gallagrin’s southern border,” Ren said. “It allowed Alari to conclude the war against her father easily a year sooner than she would have had she been required to fight him and defend the realm at the same time.”

“A year earlier,” Jyl said. “That’s a year that Gallagrin got to start rebuilding rather than continuing to tear itself down.”

“And a year when we weren’t murdering each other any more,” Undine said.

“Yes, and I believe that took the realms more by surprise than the marriage between Gallagrin and Paxmer,” Ren said.

“You believe the other realms were planning to join Paxmer in pillaging us?” Jaan asked.

“No,” Ren said. “Or, well, yes, because the realms are a terrible place filled with terrible people. And also good people. Who are sometimes terrible people as well. And the terrible ones are sometimes good. And…what was I saying?”

“Pillaging,” Jyl said, trying to decide how much of the quasi-Duke of Tel’s manners were real and how much they were an affectation to keep people interested in his ideas, thereby preventing a return to the near lethal atmosphere that sprang up whenever Jyl spoke to her sister for longer than ten seconds at a time.

“Ah yes, pillaging. Pillaging wasn’t the problem,” Ren said. “Realms love a good border pillage but it’s very temporary wealth and so no one is too disturbed when is proves to be transient. The problem was we stopped killing ourselves, and that’s something that’s never happened before in the wake of a violent change of the monarchy.”

“Once the war was done, why would we continue killing each other?” Jaan asked.

“I’m not sure,” Ren said. “You’ll have to ask all of the monarchs who gained their thrones through violence why they chosen to execute the losing side. It’s more or less unheard of to spare them as Queen Alari did.”

Jaan looked disturbed at the thought, which gave Jyl a bubble of unkind happiness right in the center of her chest.

“By all rights, you and I and hundreds of other nobles should be sharing the same shallow, unmarked grave somewhere,” Ren said. “But our Queen likes to do things differently than one would expect, which I am quite grateful for. Another queen might not be so forgiving.”

On that cheerful note, there came a knocking on the outer door to their suite and a page appeared with an official summons.

“Queen Senkin wishes to meet with the Gallagrin delegation once more to discuss your fate.”


The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 15

Alari was pleased with the reaction her party provoked when the exited the Royal Sky Carriage in Senkladel, the capital of the Senkin realm. There was a fantastic flurry of activity as news of their arrival had somehow spread ahead of the fastest Wind Steeds.

“This is most unusual…” Senkin’s Chief Seneschal started to say as Jyl exited the carriage clothed in royal finery but not Pact armor. Alari followed immediately behind her Guard and made it down to the platform before anyone understood who they stood before.

“We would speak with Senkin at their earliest convenience,” Alari said, meeting the Senschal’s gaze with a pleasant smile. The Senschal’s expression rapidly melted from annoyance to pure terror.

Alari didn’t blame the woman. The unannounced arrival of a reigning monarch at the court of another monarch was unprecedented in the history of the Blessed Realms. The Senschal couldn’t be sure if this was the diplomatic event of a lifetime or the opening of a new front in the war which was sweeping up the realms. In a sense it was both, which was why Alari kept her instructions simple and brief.

“Who should I say…” the Seneschal began before the absurdity of the question silenced her. Alari doubted that her face would be recognizable by the majority of Senkin’s populace but somehow as highly placed as the person responsible for greeting new arrivals on the Senkin Royal Air Platform would be familiar with the royalty of the realms and their immediate families via portraiture and glamour facades.

“You may inform Senkin that Gallagrin and Haldri of Paxmer wish to enter discussions with Senkin on the matter of the the Green Council,” Alari said.

The Seneschal absorbed that and twitched as Alari finished, jerking her head to the Gallagrin Royal Carriage from which Haldri was exiting as though prompted.

Alari knew that Haldri was a dangerous choice for an ally. The former Queen of Paxmer was not well loved by any of the other realms. Worse, she still had every reason to hate Alari, and the loss of her realm was recent enough that hope still had to live within Haldri’s heart that she could somehow win it back.

When the former Queen of Paxmer stepped down onto the arrival platform though, she did so without theatrics, instead quietly walking to stand beside and slightly behind Alari in the position a favored advisor would take.

The rest of Alari’s retinue spilled from the confines of the large carriage, forming a small diplomatic strike force. That the two Queen’s Guards could easily overwhelm the entire defensive guard that was stationed on the platform was something neither Alari nor Haldri missed. Under normal circumstances that was a perfectly understandable state of affairs. With the onset of a war though, security should have been tighter. Unless Senkin did not believe that the Green Council posed a real threat to them.

“”I will inform Her Majesty the Queen of Senkin at once,” the Seneschal said and scurried off, leaving the Gallagrin party without oversite or supervision. That was also a testament of sorts. No one rose to the position of Chief Seneschal while being easily flustered. Not in Gallagrin or Paxmer at any rate.

Alari had never made as in-depth a study of her neighboring realms as she might have. There were simply too many problems with her own to leave her with the time to do so. Her instinct towards expediting involvement in the Senkin / Green Council conflict was driven less by her knowledge of her neighboring realms and more from an awareness of the shifting geopolitical landscape of the Blessed Realms as a whole.

Haldri maintained that their conflict had set the world out of balance. Alari didn’t believe that, but only because, to her eyes, the world had never been in balance. Not even before dreams took the Sleeping Gods from them.

History spoke of wars and border skirmishes between the realms. The wars were brought to an end by treaties between the gods. Fighting along the borders never ended though, with each realm slowly nibbling into its neighbors or being pruned back as the tide of leadership and strength for each realm ebbed and flowed.

And there was the Ocean Blue.

No Sleeping God had ever claimed dominion over the ocean’s waves and yet so much lay beyond the farthest horizon anyone from the realm could see.

With Paxmer’s fall, the Sunlost Isles were once again the masters of the Far Waters. The voyages were incredibly dangerous, with the lands beyond the Blessed Realms holding no fixed position to one another, but the rewards were a siren’s call for the courageous and foolhardy. Precious metals, rare spices, medicines of unparalleled potency, and magics the like of which the realms had never seen.

The Sleeping Gods had forbidden voyages to the Far Waters, but even during their reign that rule had been a loosely observed one. Alari imagined her descendants would one day tread those distant shores, but that was only going to happen if she could prevent the Realms from tearing themselves back to ruin and savagery.

“Should we wait in the carriage?” Jyl asked. She was scanning the platform they’d landed on and all of the vantage points around it, no doubt concerned by the variety of positions an assault could come from.

“That would reassure Senkin,” Alari said. “But that is not why we are here.”

She started to march to the door the Senschal had fled through.

“Shall we barge in on her directly?” Haldri asked.

“No, we shall visit the city,” Alari asked. “We wish to see how Senkin readies itself.”

It was a calculated move. Senkin’s Queen wouldn’t want Alari wandering around in the capital collecting intelligence for too long but also couldn’t afford to anger a potential ally. If the Queen of Senkin had planned to have a productive day of meetings with her staff, those plans were going to come tumbling down in flames. Alari didn’t necessarily want to sabotage Senkin’s war efforts, but she felt like the sooner she understood them the better it would be for everyone.

The Queen of Senkin apparently thought along similar lines. Before Alari’s party could reach the exit from the sky platform, one of the Senkin Royal Guard approached them.

“Your Majesty,” he said. “I see that Captain Suncourt has delivered her message to you and produced exceptional results. I am General Skybright Phillip, and I am to escort you to Her Majesty Marie the Queen of Senkin’s reception chamber.”

General Skybright led the party, including Captain Suncourt Corrine, into a large receiving room similar to the one Alari used for greeting official guests in Highcrest. The room was neither warm, nor comfortable, nor intimate. Polished marble seats were colored by the stained glass of the windows that bathed the room in a rainbow of light centered on the central dias where the Queen of Senkin awaited them with her advisors flanking her.

Wisely, in Alari’s view, there was also nearly a hundred Royal Senkin Guards arranged around the edges of the room. As a sitting monarch, the Queen of Senkin would be difficult to kill, but there was little reason to allow foreign visitors to even make the attempt.

“We welcome you to our realm, Gallagrin,” the Queen of Senkin said. “Your arrival was not anticipated or announced.”

Marie Senkin had sat upon her through since Alari’s grandmother had ruled Gallagrin. From all of the reports Alari had read the two women had gotten along well. Relations at the time between Senkin and Gallagrin were in a cool period due to some bad contracts between minor nobles on the two sides. Together Marie and Alari’s grandmother had sorted out the mess and returned the two countries to a stable and friendly footing.

The early part of King Sathe’s rule had seen a continuation of those policies but as the Butcher King descended into madness the warm relations the two realms enjoyed chilled until they froze. The lack of support from outside realms had been one of the contributing factors to Alari’s eventual victory, but in the wake of King Sathe’s overthrow Alari had found that her neighbors were still wary of connections with Gallagrin.

It had taken seven years, and a fair amount of gold, to build a new foundation for trust between the realms. Those were seven years Alari refused to toss away.

“We have heard your messenger’s words and we recognize how dire the situation is,” Alari said.

“As yet we face nothing more than a persistent foe at our borders,” Marie said. “A situation not unlike one Gallagrin struggled with until recently.”

Alari heard a faint huff of laughter from behind her. Haldri.

“You face a very different foe than the one Gallagrin did,” Haldri said, speaking out of turn and directly addressing Marie Senkin as though speaking from one monarch to another.

The Senkin Queen’s eyes took on a hard set.

“My advisor speaks the truth,” Alari said, before the Queen of Senkin could object. “Gallagrin and Paxmer skirmished with each other since since the reign of the Sleeping Gods. We knew each other’s strengths and limitations and weaknesses. Between Senkin and the Green Council there has been only peace for centuries. You are not ready for this war, and you never should be.”

“You came here in such haste to tell us this?” Marie asked.

“We came here with haste to listen and observe,” Alari said. “Your Captain Suncourt provided testimony to the start of the conflict. We wish a clearer view of the conflict so that we may help mediate a resolution, or failing that, joining cause with the aggrieved side.”

“This conflict is of the Green Council’s doing,” Marie said. “We have been assaulted and our borders violated. There will be no mediation until redress if made for those offenses. Had we need of Gallagrin’s forces to defend our border, that is the word we would have sent.”

Alari forced herself not to sigh and not to take offense. Senkin’s description of the conflict was like listening to her Inner Lords, the one’s who’s castles defended no borders and who rarely saw the need to draw arms. They, like the Queen, were unused to seeing the depths of violence the Mindful Races could sink to and were quick to deny evidence that any serious problems were occurring. As with them, Alari believed the answer to Senkin’s Queen had to come from a place of calm and patience.

“In times past those forces would have been lent willingly and swiftly,” Alari said. “Even today, there are bonds of friendship between our nobles that might pull some number of Gallagrin’s northern lords across your border to aid their partners and allies.”

She needed Senkin’s Queen to remember, in spite of the chaos of the day, that in Gallagrin she was dealing with a potential ally and not another complication to be resolved and discarded.

“Yes,” Marie said, memories of happier times flickering across the back of her eyes. “We may have aid whether we would call for it or not. As seems to be the case here.”

“If your court could provide us with the testimony and details that we require, we will be in the best position possible to intervene with the Green Council and work out the redresses which need to be made.” Alari didn’t want to promise anything specific until she’d heard the testimony of both of the realms, but she knew that for the war to end and not simply lie fallow waiting to blaze up again when it was stoked, there would need to be some restitution made by at least one of the parties involved.

“That testimony and evidence are being assembled now.” Marie said. “It’s possible that we will have resolved the threat the Green Council presents before the operation is complete however.”

As though in direct punishment for tempting fate, General Skybright reappeared in the room.

“Your Majesty, a message has arrived from the border,” he said. “The invasion is pressing forward and none of our troops can stand against them!”

“Senkin, in kindness, please expedite that testimony collection,” Alari said. “While that is being done, we will journey to the invasion’s front and speak with the forces there.”

“Our forces?” Marie asked.

“And the Green Council forces,” Alari said. “This invasion needs to end today!”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 14

The fire blasted hellscape that surrounded Dae was only a vision. She knew that, but the memory was so strong and clear it wiped the rest of her senses away. The air of Highcrest Castle with its spring time medley of scents from the Royal Gardens was lost to the choking stench of ash. The warmth of mid-day was replaced by an oven-hot wave of residual heat. In an instant, the memory fruit had transported Dae from Gallagrin to one of the circles of Hell.

Except the tableau she looked out on wasn’t Hell. She stood within the Blessed Realms still. Within the Green Council’s lands, but close to the border.

She looked around and saw a broad river as the only unburnt feature of the land around for hundreds of yards in any direction.

“What happened here?” She didn’t expect an answer, but in response to her words the memory shifted. In a blur she flew forward, racing towards the distant treeline where flames still raged.

The Senkin troops at the fire front noticed her and shot her down with a lance of solar fire. As she tumbled from the sky, she saw them conjuring more flame to burn the forest back from the river’s edge.

Before she hit the ground her view shifted again, and she saw the scouting bird she’d been sharing memories with finish its plummet. From her new vantage point, she reasoned that she’d shifted into the memories of a creature that was built close to the ground. Unlike the scouting bird though, this was a creature who had been present when the fires began. It had run when the men wielding the power of the sun came, but not fast enough to clear the flames.

The memory fruit only carried a small portion of the creature’s pain but the burns were still agonizing. It tried to scamper farther away, but the effort of moving forced a hoarse cry from the creature’s throat.

It didn’t see the solar lance that ended its life, but the next set of memories Dae was shunted into had a full view of the small, furry creatures blazing demise.

These memories weren’t like the others though. They had a depth and richness the simple forest animals had lacked.

“What have they done?” a young girl asked. With the words came a flood of understanding.

The animals hadn’t understood the destruction they were seeing on anything more than a primal level. Iana, the girl whose memories Dae was sharing, knew exactly what she was witnessing though.

The Senkins were destroying the forest around the river in order to reduce the Green Council’s ability to control the flow of the waters. There had been disputes over the river for years, but they were small matters settled by people far outside of Iana’s sphere of influence.

Apparently those people hadn’t settled things quite so well as they believed though.

The sick terror that rose in Iana’s belly had nothing to do with the violation of the Green Council’s borders or the loss of their water rights. Those were trivial matters.  What mattered was the area that the Senkin’s had burned and the precious treasure that it held.

Iana strode forward and Dae felt a staggering bifurcation of the memory. Still wholly in its grip, Dae felt Iana bring massive limbs to motion as she crashed across the hellscape. At the same time though she had the strongest sense that Iana’s body was motionless, floating in darkness and security.

Other memories rose, driving that awareness from Dae’s mind.

The Creche.

Iana’s memories were focused on that one concept. She moved her Warbringer at a run, but she was already far too late.

More memories flooded into Dae until she gasped and snapped back to the present, and her own view of it.

“What did you see?” Faen asked. Worry was carved into the deep creases in his forehead and Dae was glad that only the two of them were present in the room.

“The Senkins started the war,” she said. “We have to speak to the Council’s ambassador.”

“Wait, answer me this, why didn’t I throw you out of the training corp the first week you were in?” Faen asked, his eyes searching hers, looking for signs of the woman he knew.

Dae blinked, and then frowned.

“You never threatened to throw me out, not the first week or ever,” Dae said. “You did threaten to throw out Jacyn Kedomal though and I stood up for them as I recall.”

Faen released the breath he’d been holding and relaxed.

“That you did,” he said. “So the memory fruit hasn’t corrupted your mind?”

“If it did, it’s a more powerful agent than a simple question like that can dig up,” Dae said. “Tell me if I start behaving strangely though.”

“Ok,” Faen said. “If you do anything sensible or calm in the next day or so, I’ll know we have a doppleganger on our hands and act accordingly.”

“I should have tried harder to get thrown out of training,” Dae said.

Out in the receiving hall, Gala was waiting for their return with a nervous rustling of their leaves.

“I’ve seen the memory fruit,” Dae said without preamble, forgoing formal speech in favor of dealing directly with the problem at hand. “They burned them all didn’t they?”

“Yes,” Gala said. “We didn’t find any alive. The lucky ones were reduced to ash. The others…the others we have kept preserved as proof of the crime against us.”

“Who was burned?” Faen asked.

“A creche of Forest People young,” Dae said. “The Senkins came to clear the forest away from the river that flows from the Green Council to Senkin. In the process, they burned a huge swath of forest which included a nursery where the next generation of dryads, green shamblers and others Forest People were growing.”

“They burned children?” Faen asked, his eyes narrowed in disbelief as he tried to process the claim.

“And their caretakers,” Gala said. “Elves and dwarves lost their lives in the creche too.”

“Where were these creches?” Faen asked.

“They planted them in hollows beneath earth,” Dae said. “The dwarves made the spaces and their elven parents brought them nutrients and tended to the younglings themselves. They were trapped in the creche when the Senkin fires swept over them.”

“I don’t understand, if they were embedded in the earth, how could fire touch them? And could the Senkins even have known they were there?” Faen asked.

“It doesn’t matter whether their deaths were intentional or not,” Gala said. “Their deaths are a reality in either case.”

“The fires got to them through the root structure of the forest,” Dae said. “The Senkin’s weren’t using any natural form of fire. The solar flares they burned the forest with spread down through the roots of the trees and burst into the Creche from a thousand different points. Nothing they tried could put it out until everything it touched burned to ash.”

“Sleeping Gods, why would they do that?” Faen asked.

“They want our the waters of our realm that flow into theirs and they no longer see a need to abide by the treaties signed before the Sleeping Gods,” Gala said.

Dae felt a wave of rage rise up from her heart in echo of Gala’s words. The memories were too new and too raw for her to deny the feelings that Senkin needed to burn just as it had burned the Green Council. The sheer force of her anger gave her pause though. The memory fruit had been calibrated to make an impact on the person who consumed it. The Council had shared the memories of a young girl and that alone was enough to make Dae suspicious.

Why was a young human aware of what had happened? Why did the Council have children piloting their Warbringers? Most of all though, why give her a child’s eye view of the situation rather than an adult’s?

Iana had a lot of power, but the lens she saw the world through was a simple one. There was good, there was evil and there was very little in between them. Coupled to that was a child’s well of raw emotion. At least half the rage that Dae felt was an empathic reaction to the soul-tearing hate Iana carried as a result of what she’d been exposed to.

“We have to get the Queen back,” Faen said.

“Back?” Gala asked. “Where has she gone?”

Dae weighed the choices of outright lying to the ambassador vs. simply avoiding the question.

“She’s verifying the claims made by Senkin’s representative,” Dae said, deciding that simple and blunt played to her strength more than clever and politic ever would.

“She may be walking into a trap,” Faen said.

Dae smiled.

“You’ve known Queen Alari longer than you’ve known me,” she said. “Picture how things will fare if someone is foolish enough to attempt to trap her or those she travels with?”

Faen looked like he was about to voice an objection, but his expression of outrage fell as he considered the possibilities.

“Yes, I see what you mean,” he said. “At the very best, she might still have a few bits of mercy left to her. The Sleeping Gods help anyone who crosses her if she does not.”

“This is not acceptable,” Gala said and shivered their leaves in a gesture that Dae couldn’t map to any body language she knew.

“Explain,” Dae said. “What don’t you find acceptable?”

“Gallagrin cannot ally with Senkin,” Gala said.

“Queen Alari will not arrange an alliance with Senkin until she has also heard the Council’s version of the events,” Dae said. “She is not interested in another war. We’ve had enough of that in the last decade.”

Gala was quiet for a moment, lost in conversation with the rest of the Green Council, Dae guessed.

“That is not acceptable,” they said.

“Whether you find it acceptable or not isn’t going to change things,” Dae said. “Gallagrin is not going to enter a war without knowing the truth about both sides.”

“My apologies,” Gala said. “I was not expressing my personal sentiment. That was the majority voice of the Council.”

“What does the Council want then?” Dae asked.

“And why is it so important that we not talk to Senkin?” Faen asked.

“It is not the communication with Senkin which is the chief problem,” Gala said. “It is Gallagrin’s stance against war between the realms which the Council objects to.”

“That position is one neither the Queen nor I are willing to waver on,” Dae said.

“The Council claims that you were willing to wage war when it was to your benefit but now seek to deny anyone else the option to resolve matters with your techniques,” Gala said.

“Toppling Paxmer’s throne required rare luck and planning which no one else in the history of the realms has managed to pull off,” Dae said. “Without that, the devastation that you saw at the Creches will seem like a mild preview of what’s to come.”

Gala was silent for another moment.

“The Council says that the devastation will be inflicted on the aggressors, as justice demands,” Gala said.

“The Council has always been the most isolationist of the realms,” Dae said. “Your gods drafted treaties to guard that isolationism. Of all of the realms therefor, you know the least about warfare and have the most distant understanding of the costs it extracts from both the victor and the defeated. You do not want to insist on war.”

“They already have,” Gala said and shook from crown to root.

A long moment of silence passed.

“Damn them,” Gala said at last. “Gallagrin, I must ask for asylum.”

“Asylum? From who?” Dae asked, knowing there was only one real answer.

“From the Green Council,” Gala said. “I must sink my roots apart from theirs. They have lost the sun.”

“Please explain,” Dae asked, certain that she wouldn’t like what came next.

“I renounce the Green Council. I cannot abide by their decision. They have chosen war, with Senkin…and Gallagrin. My embassy is a failure. Now I must look to the future of all the Blessed Realms.”