Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 56

Alari looked across the table at two of the most powerful women in the world and felt strangely relaxed. She had no plan for this occasion, no grand scheme to enact, not even a secret trick to play. All she desired was the chance to dine with two fellow queens in an environment that called for no statecraft, no maneuvering, and no performances for the public.

“I suppose since I wear no crown, I should open the next bottle,” Haldri said.

Their glasses had run low and the first bottle was drained already.

“You’ll keep your seat,” Marie said. “There’s no servants here tonight, and I’m closer.”

“I meant to ask about that,” Haldri said. “The food is excellent, but this is the first time I’ve seen royal cuisine served buffet style.”

“It was my idea,” Alari said.

“You wanted to create a secret meeting between us so that people would have cause to wonder what hidden plans we’d concocted?” Haldri said.

“No, but I like that idea,” Alari said. “Honestly I just wanted a chance to sit down with you two and talk without having to worry about gossipers spreading what we say to the far corners of the realms.”

“So you do have a secret dialog in mind then,” Marie said, she poured from a fresh bottle into Haldri’s glass, then Alari’s, then her own.

“I suppose, though I have no great secrets to reveal I’m afraid,” Alari said. “The realms know fairly clearly where I stand on the issue of inter-realm warfare now.”

“Indeed, you put on a most terrifying show,” Marie said. “How much of it had you planned out in advance?”

“Very little I imagine,” Haldri said.

“That’s pretty much true,” Alari said. “I could see the general shape of what was to happen, and the broad strokes that would play out. The specifics though were impossible to predict.”

“Well now that couldn’t be quite true either,” Marie said. “The alliance you forged with Paxmer and Inchesso took some very specific insights to put together in time.”

“Less than you might think,” Alari said. “Inchesso has had a weak border for a while now. The only thing that’s kept them safe has been the cost of a long term occupation in a realm where everything is unpredictably toxic.”

“Yes, but once the Council launched the attack on my realm, what made you think they would pursue the mad course of attacking Inchesso as well?” Marie asked.

“It’s less mad than you might think,” Haldri said. “They could easily have taken Inchesso and drained it to fill their needs, then come back later to deal with it once they’d worked out the toxicity issues.”

“It wasn’t hard to see what the Council’s overall strategy was either,” Alari said. “Gallagrin managed a victory over Paxmer only because the Dragon King was both an absolute strength and a specific weakness in Paxmer’s defenses. Honestly, Haldri played that conflict better than I did – Paxmer only lost because my Champion did the unimaginable, and that’s something neither of us planned for.”

“Senkin doesn’t have that same issue though,” Haldri said. “You lack the control I had over my realm, and therefore also lack the weakness inherent in centralizing power like that.”

“Since the Council couldn’t count on a single point of failure, they had to hit you with overwhelming force and be ready to follow it up with something even stronger,” Alari said. “And that’s not inexpensive.”

“The Council has always been a realm of inventors, so it was obvious that they would have some creation that was hideously powerful,” Haldri said. “Hideously powerful also means magic intensive, at least in this context, and to operate it long term they would need steal from the easiest source of magic around.”

“The two of you both saw that?” Marie asked.

“She saw it more clearly than I did,” Haldri said. “But then I largely ignored the Council since Gallagrin stood as a buffer between Paxmer and any conquest related ambitions the Council might have.”

“However much you knew, it seems I still owe you both my crown,” Marie said.

“Be careful of the offers you make,” Haldri said. Her words were gravely intoned but the smile she wore cut their menace apart.

“You want my crown?” Marie said. “Half my nobles would be glad to give it to you.”

“You enjoy admirable support if half your nobles would see you keep your crown,” Alari said.

“The other half would only object because they wish to take it for themselves,” Marie said.

Alari smiled and sipped from her wine glass. Some problems were universal it seemed.

“Why on earth would your subjects want me to have your crown?” Haldri asked. “Is my reputation as the Dragon Queen sufficiently degraded that foreign peoples no longer fear me?”

“I’m afraid that saving Senkin’s frontline army in their hour of greatest need has left them rather enamoured with you,” Alari said. “Isn’t that correct?”

“Disturbingly so,” Marie said. “I’ve received several requests to name you the Master of Ceremonies at the Fire’s Day Festival.”

“What is a Fire’s Day Festival?” Haldri asked.

“The people want to see those responsible for torching the Council’s creche and provoking this war burned at the stake,” Marie said. “They’re planning to make a show out of it. Fireworks, various flambe dishes, and of course a new noble added to the roasting spit every hour until we run out of ones that were responsible.”

“Did we ever confirm why Senkin forces went in and burned the land?” Alari asked.

“Yes, apparently there was concern that the Council was doing earthworks to divert the river’s flow,” Marie said. “The local governors sent an ambassador to discuss the matter and they went missing, so they sent a fire team to make sure the river would continue to run and provide water for their province.”

“They did that without consulting you?” Haldri asked.

“They believed it easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” Marie said. “Given the ramifications of their actions though, they will be hard pressed to find any forgiveness no matter how hard they ask.”

“If I might offer a suggestion,” Alari said. “Perhaps turn them over to the Council for judgment and sentencing. Their crimes were against the Council’s citizens and performed on Council territory.”

“And what of the Fire’s Day Festival?” Marie asked.

“Celebrate it. Burn in effigy those found guilty and name them as dead to the realm,” Alari said.

“You’ll become known as the Merciful Queen if you are not careful, Gallagrin,” Haldri said. “And that is not a compliment. The world destroys the merciful.”

“The world destroys us all,” Marie said. “It just takes varying amounts of time to do it.”

“If the world can just come to its sense long enough not to destroy itself, I’ll count that as a win,” Alari said.

“Have any of the other monarchs responded to the invitation to your summit?” Marie asked.

“All of them,” Alari said. “It seems as though we will have all of the leaders gathered together for the first time in the history of the realms,” Alari said.

“And the estimated number of assassins that will be joining you?” Haldri asked.

“Presumably all of them as well,” Alari said. “Or at least all of the ones who can traverse into Divine Space.”

“I thought we destroyed the God’s Hall?” Haldri said.

“We did,” Alari said, nodding. “That’s why we’re going to build a new one.”

“There seems to be a small detail you’ve overlooked there,” Marie said. “You’re not a god. None of us are.”

“As it turns out the building itself wasn’t the important element of the God’s Hall,” Alari said. “The space they located it in was enchanted to enforce peace.”

“I distinctly recall attempting to strangle you in there,” Haldri said.

“Yes, I needed you to do that for a variety reasons and so we found a loophole in the prohibition against violence,” Alari said. “Our actions moved the God’s Hall out of the sacred space, but while we destroyed the building, the holy heaven it was located in remains. So we’re going to place a new building there.”

“You’re just going to build a meeting hall in the sky? It’s as simple as that,” Marie asked.

“No, not simple, but doable and that’s the important thing,” Alari said.

“Perhaps we should all move up there,” Haldri said.

“I think we’re better suited on the ground,” Alari said. “We make horrific mistakes down here, but we learn from them. Not always the right lessons, but bit by bit we move forward.”

“Is that why you think I should turn my errant governors over to the Green Council’s mercies?” Marie asked.

“That’s mostly meant as a peace offering to the Green Council to begin healing the rift between your realms,” Alari said.

“I don’t know if the rift can be healed,” Marie said. “There is literally a bottomless chasm where there used to be beautiful forests and fields and a river.”

“You’re going to lose that province aren’t you?” Haldri asked. “Without water for irrigation, the fields there will fail and your cities will dry up.”

“Yes, thanks to the Divine Sanction’s attacks, my governors have helped to create the exact problem they broke faith with our neighbors to avoid,” Marie said.

“That may not be the problem you imagine it to be,” Alari said.

“How could the loss of the primary water source to the eastern eighth of my realm not be a problem?” Marie asked.

“I’ve spoken with my Mining Guild contacts,” Alari said. “The chasm is deep, but it’s not truly bottomless, and it’s not that wide.”

“It was at least a half mile across,” Haldri said.

“We have bridges that span much larger gaps than that,” Alari said.

“How will a bridge help?” Marie asked. “I doubt there will be much desire for people on either side to crossover to the other for a friendly visit.”

“You might be surprised there,” Alari said. “What the Mining Guild is proposing isn’t a bridge though. It’s an aqueduct.”

“They’re going to recreate the riverbed? Across a half mile gap?” Haldri asked.

“They dug through a mountain range in a single season and moved an army across your border,” Alari said. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised at what they can do?”

“Why should I be. It’s a mad folly, of course Gallagrin will try it,” Haldri said.

“The land will still be weakened for this year,” Marie said. “Months without fresh water will leave the crops dead in the soil.”

“We can help there with shipments of food,” Alari said. “And Paxmer has pledged aid as well.”

“I would almost rather cede the land as a buffer state, to be ruled by neither the Green Council or Senkin,” Marie said.

“Who would rule such a realm?” Haldri asked.

“It seems like you would be a good candidate for the job,” Alari said.

“I am your prisoner though, am I not?” Haldri asked.

“The damages I can claim against you pale compared to the good you’ve done for the people here,” Alari said.

“You no longer blame me for the loss of your child then?” Haldri asked, an uncharacteristically gentle note in her voice.

“That was your brother,” Alari said. “I reviewed his correspondences with you from around that time. He only told you of the plan after it succeeded.”

“I wish I could say I would have told him to abandon it before he tried the first poison,” Haldri said. “Maybe, maybe I would have, from pride in Paxmer if nothing else. Certainly as a queen, empathy was a trait I thought I could ill afford.”

“To hear you speak such words leaves me feeling I could quite accept standing beside you as a neighboring monarch,” Marie said.

“There you have it then,” Alari said. “A crown awaits you once more, if you wish to take it.”

Haldri gazed at them both and Alari could see calculations and appraisals whirling behind the former-Dragon Queen’s eyes.

“Your traps are subtle and cruel Gallagrin,” Haldri said. “You offer me what I wanted most just when I’ve learned that it’s what I’ve fought to escape my entire life.”

“You don’t wish to take the crown of the new realm?” Marie asked.

“I appreciate the offer, but I’ve only recently escaped the burden of one crown,” Haldri said. “Since then I’ve enjoyed the sort of peace and calm I only dreamed of as queen of Paxmer. And that includes the time I spent fighting an unstoppable army for you. No, I think I’ve had my fill of bearing that particular weight on my brow. Let someone else be torn apart by the stress. I am a prisoner of Gallgrin, and I will happily return to my confinement as soon as my jailer sees fit to take me home.”

“You are welcome to return to my hospitality,” Alari said. “But I do not promise not to call on you from time to time. Idleness is nice for a while, or so I’ve heard, but your talents cannot be forever be wasted like that.”

“So long as it is someone else’s problem to deal with in the end, I will be happy to lend you any expertise or wisdom I have,” Haldri said.

The three queens toasted to that and to the start of a friendship which would outlast them all.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 55

Undine relaxed back into his chair and let the Duke of Tel’s fine vintage of wine wash over the aches that remained.

“Still feeling a few of those hits?” Ren asked, slumping back similarly in his own cushioned chair.

The two of them were waiting in the Duke’s apartment in the Royal Castle, and enjoying one of the Tel province’s better efforts in terms of winemaking.  Teo and Eorn were late, predictably so, but with a pleasant evening before them, neither Ren nor Undine were unduly troubled by the delay.

“The bruises have been healing up well since we got back yesterday,” Undine said. “I’d hoped to be blemishless by the time Eorn returned but I’m afraid the Blighted Legion lived up to their name a bit too well.”

“Indeed, I expect Teo to have fodder for months to come based on this,” Ren said, indicating the black eye he was still sporting. “Is it wrong to hope they come back sporting a mild amount of battle damage too?”

“They were at the front lines, the same as we were, and from all reports were not overly harmed in the fighting,” Undine said. “Some mild show of their efforts for us to chide them about wouldn’t seem unfair to wish for.”

“I hope their front lines weren’t like the one we fought on,” Ren said.

“And why would that be my love?” Teo asked entering the room with vampiric grace. Eorn followed shortly behind him, graceful in her own manner, but far more noticeable than whisper of Teo’s presence.

“Why because then you wouldn’t have as interesting a set of war stories to share as I imagine you must,” Ren said.

Teo dropped into the chair beside Ren’s and gestured for Eorn to take the last and largest of the deeply cushioned seats.

“Our stories are very dull,” Teo said. “Barely anything to speak of, it was all over and done with before we even noticed, isn’t that right Guardian?”

“Before you answer that Eorn, you should be aware that we have read the official reports and the redacted ones prior to the redactions,” Undine said, his eyes crinkling with the faint smile that played on his lips.

“Well, after you fought a god, who are we to compare our paltry little victory to yours?” Eorn asked.

“Oh, we were well away from the god-battle,” Ren said. “We’re not that senseless after all.”

“So you weren’t on the front line of a conflict between two realms, neither of which was this one?” Teo asked.

“Not at all,” Undine said. “The front line was, what, fifty or a hundred yards behind us?”

“Closer to two hundred I think,” Ren said. “We were moving pretty quickly after all.”

“You retreated from the battle?” Eorn asked.

“No, two hundred yards on the other side of the front line,” Undine said. “The enemies side.”

“What?” Teo said, leaning forward. “That’s not being off the front line. That’s being the front line itself!”

“The queen said something to that effect too,” Ren said and poured a glass of wine for Eorn and then Teo.

“Queen Alari reprimanded you?” Teo asked.

“No, Queen Senkin, and it was more a matter of offering us a position in her realm than a reprimand,” Ren said.

“Apparently there are going to be few less Dukes in her court as she works out which ones conspired with the Council agents who triggered the war,” Undine said.

“She offered me one of the Ducal rings if I would stay and defend the border,” Ren said.

“But you don’t want the Ducal ring that you already have?” Teo said.

“Which is exactly what I informed her of,” Ren said. “She wasn’t entirely pleased with the response but apparently was willing to offer a ‘Solar Star’ in its place.”

“A what?” Eorn asked.

“It’s a medallion,” Undine said. “I looked it up, it’s the highest award that can be given to a non-native of Senkin by the Senkin crown.”

“Did she offer you one too?” Eorn asked.

“Yes,” Undine said. “A dukedom and a Solar Star.”

“But you’re still here?” Eorn asked.

“I told her, regretfully, that I am as bound to Gallagrin as I am to my pact spirit,” Undine said.

“Sacred oaths to the queen?” Teo asked.

“Yes, and more sacred pledges to my friends and family,” Undine said. “Without them I likely wouldn’t be here today and I certainly wouldn’t be who I am.”

“So enough hedging and humility,” Teo said. “Tell us what happened in the battle for Senkin!”

“You know already how Queen Marie decided to make an attack into the Green Council in retaliation for their invasion and to confine the fighting and the damage to the Council’s lands rather than Senkins, correct?” Ren asked.

“Yes,” Teo said.

“What you probably don’t know is that Duke Telli was the one who convinced Queen Marie that the plan was feasible,” Undine said.

“I did nothing more than suggest it to one of her high ranking officers who in turn convinced her,” Ren said. “Unfortunately it was a terrible plan.”

“That doesn’t seem too likely,” Teo said. “You lived and the war is ended.”

“Both of those are true, and they are related but not through any merit of my designs,” Ren said. “When we arrived at the front line with Queen Marie we discovered that the Green Council had almost certainly set a trap for us.”

“So we decided to spring the trap,” Undine said.

“You rushed right into it didn’t you?” Eorn asked.

“How did you guess?” Ren asked.

“Is there a braver or more stupid thing to do?” Eorn asked. “No, no there is not, and as I know my friend, and know his ability to be a bad influence on people, the answer was all too clear.”

“It wasn’t an entirely bad idea,” Undine said. “We did succeed in triggering the trap.”

“Well, you are alive, so I suppose you showed some sense in how you went about it,” Teo said. “What did they send against you?”

“The Blighted Legion,” Ren said.

“A few hundred of them,” Undine said.

“I stand corrected,” Teo said.

“How are you still here?” Eorn asked. “We had to use dragons on those things and even that was a tough fight.”

“To be honest, we very nearly didn’t make it,” Ren said.

“The Blighted Legion had us surrounded and depowered when Queen Marie intervened,” Undine said.

“It seems the Legion’s ability to drain magic has an upper limit, too much and they sort of explode,” Ren said.

“Fortunately for us, they weren’t capable of absorbing the sort of power the Queen of Senkin has at her disposal,” Undine said. “It’s going to be an interesting subject in tactical classes for generations to come; the wisdom of designing and planning for the effects of the monarch themselves intervening.”

“So she saved you then?” Eorn asked. “Why was she willing to make you both Dukes?”

“Her rescue was somewhat incomplete,” Undine said.

“She was capable of overpowering the Legion, but it took time and energy and there were a lot of them. More than she could handle,” Ren said.

“We fought beside her for a while, Gallagrin’s magic combined with Senkin’s proving to be another design hole that the creators of the Legion hadn’t anticipated,” Undine said.

“Even with that though, we lost ground, and they managed to outflank us,” Ren said.

“That’s when support arrived,” Undine said.

“What kind of support had you called for? I can’t imagine there would be much available that would be more powerful than the queen herself,” Teo asked.

“You would be right,” Ren said. “But where one queen was not sufficient to turn the tide of battle, two proved most capable.”

“What other queen was in the area?” Eorn asked.

“More of a former Queen,” Undine said.

“Former? Wait, Haldri Paxmer saved you?” Teo said barely managing to avoid spitting his wine out.

“It may not have been her exact intention but I’m not going to argue with the results,” Ren said.

“I thought she lost her power when she was removed from Paxmer?” Eorn said.

“Mystical power? Yes. Political power? Also yes. Personal power though? Most decidedly not,” Ren said.

“She’d rallied the troops that had been left on the front lines and got them to one of the Senkin fortresses,” Undine said. “She made it so hard for the Council to dislodge them that the attack into Senkin was stymied until Queen Marie launched her counterattack.”

“Haldri didn’t stop there though,” Ren said. “She’s not one to do things by half measures it seems.”

“Apart from our queen, I’m not sure there’s a strategist alive who can match her,” Undine said. “The counter attack was the one chance for her forces to escape the fortress they were contained in, and she took advantage of that.”

“Why didn’t she just run away?” Eorn asked. “She didn’t have a stake in that fight did she?”

“Apparently the Council made the mistake of irritating her with their battle tactics,” Undine said.

“I think she just wanted a win under her belt,” Ren said.

“Whichever was the case, when she struck it was devastating force,” Undine said.

“She brought in every piece or air mobile conveyance the Senkin forces could scrounge up, and rained literal fire on the battlefield,” Ren said.

“The Legion has an absorption limit, and without long range attacks capable of piercing Senkin’s barriers they couldn’t make any answer to Haldri’s attacks,” Undine said. “Our desperate defense became much less desperate at that point.”

“That really does make our story sound a lot less thrilling,” Teo said.

“I know that can’t be true,” Ren said.

“You created an alliance of three nations and played a critical role in starving the Green Council of the resources it needed to tip the balance of the war as a whole,” Undine said. “That’s sounds rather thrilling to me.”

“Most of it was negotiations about logistics,” Teo said. “If it wasn’t for the ever present threat of our Inchesso contacts betraying or poisoning us for the novelty of it, it would have been a rather sedate trip.”

“You fought a battle with dragons. On your side! How could that possibly be sedate?” Ren asked.

“There were only three of them,” Teo said. “Dragons I mean.”

“It was a good thing that we had them though,” Eorn said. “They only sent a small contingent of the Blighted Legion after us but if we didn’t have the dragons I don’t think we could have beaten them.”

“Getting pulled off the battlefield in a dragon’s claws was an experience I’m not eager to repeat,” Teo said.

“Hold on a moment there,” Ren said. “You’re going to have to explain that in just a bit more detail. The dragons did what to you, exactly?”

“They got us back to the front lines,” Eorn said.

“Back to the front lines?” Undine asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.

“We might have been scouting for the enemy and engaged them far enough away from the main force we’d assembled that we required some help getting back into our formation,” Eorn said.

“Why did you engage them if you were scouting?” Undine asked.

“Engaged them in conversation,” Teo said.

“You talked to them?” Ren asked, disbelief floating his eyebrows up his forehead.

“We offered them terms,” Eorn said. “They didn’t like our offer.”

“So we unleashed the dragons on them.” Teo said.

“And the combined forces of Inchesso and Gallagrin,” Eorn said.

“It wasn’t a particularly long battle,” Teo said.

“It would have been longer if we’d burned out their eastern glades,” Eorn said.

“Yes but then Inchesso might have felt inclined to invade the Council and we’d have been fighting on the other side of that conflict,” Teo said.

Ren burst in out in laughter.

“To dear friends who lack a whit of sense between them,” Ren said, raising his glass.

The others joined in the toast cheerfully.

“Has the queen, our queen, said whether she’ll release you from your obligations as the Duke of Tel yet?” Teo asked.

“I haven’t had a chance to ask her,” Ren said. “She’s been rather busy with resuming the affairs of state after upending the world and keeping her nobles on ice for a month.”

“Also there are several new Princesses and Princes about which I gather has caused something of a stir,” Undine said.

“Yes, and that got me thinking,” Ren said. “Gallagrin has no blood requirement on inheritance. I can name anyone as my heir.”

“So all we need to do is find someone on the street who’ll take the job and you’ll be free?” Teo asked.

“I was thinking of being a bit more responsible than that,” Ren said. “I have a candidate in mind who’s shown the kind of nobility of spirit that even our best Dukes and Duchesses should aspire to. Someone I would trust with my province because I’ve trusted them with my life and not been in any measure disappointed.”

Undine’s mind raced through a variety of possibilities but each seemed far too outlandish. General Pentacourt had the same sort of conflict of interest that prevented a Gallagrin native from taking a position of power in Senkin. Teo becoming Duke would do nothing to let Ren escape from the pressures of a political life. Haldri Paxmer as a noble in Gallagrin was sufficiently ridiculous that even the thought of it made Undine smile at the imagined absurdity.

Then he noticed how Ren was looking at him and his mind went a little blank.

“What do you say Guardian Undine Kebrom,” the Duke of Tel asked, accenting his words into a formal offer. “Would you be willing to take up my mantle and join the nobility of Gallagrin?”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 54

When the Divine Sanction fell, Iana’s world was washed away in light. It wasn’t a blinding brilliance though. Her eyes felt more open than they ever had before.

“Hello daughter,” a woman as tall as the sky said. She was clad in all the shades of green and had traits from everyone Iana had ever known or seen in the Council’s realm.

Iana was so dwarfed by Telliakai that any emotion besides abject terror should have been impossible to feel.

Instead though she felt warm.

“Hello,” Iana said.

“Thank you for your courage,” the goddess said. “You have changed the world we made.”

“Is that ok?” Iana asked.

“Of course,” Telliakai said. She wasn’t the world encompassing figure she had been. She walked beside Iana as a human girl of Iana’s age and height but she was somehow no smaller than she’d been before.  “We left you this world. It is yours to mold and grow now. I am glad you chose to change it for the better.”

“I think it was pretty terrible before,” Iana said.

“Yes, it was,” Teliakai said.

“Why did you leave us then?” Iana asked. “Couldn’t you have stopped this from happening?”

“Yes, I could have controlled everything that occurred within our realm,” Teliakai said. “But if I controlled it all, there would be no you.”

“What do you mean?” Iana asked.

“If you speak my words and perform my deeds, if you can’t make any bad decisions or poor choices because I am there to correct them, then your life will be mine and there will be no trace of you within it,” Telliakai said.

“So we need to be bad to be ourselves?” Iana asked.

“No, you need to be able to choose,” Telliakai said. “That is one of many reasons why my cousins and I descended to sleep. To allow you to choose for yourselves the world you’ll create.”

“But we don’t all get to choose,” Iana said. “They made me into what I am.”

“Yes, they did,” Telliakai said. “And choosing to be different than what they willed you to be was difficult wasn’t it?”

“I don’t even know if I chose that,” Iana said. “I think I had to do what I did.”

“Many choices feel like that,” Telliakai said. “And that is why I thank you.”

“It feels like the forest is still calling to me, like I still need to obey it,” Iana said.

“You know you don’t though,” Telliakai said. “You’ve chosen to walk a path outside it. You can continue to make that choice, or you can return. Accepting the will of the forest can be as much of a choice as rejecting it is.”

“If I don’t go back, will it still hurt?” Iana asked.

“Yes and no,” Telliakai said. “You bear wounds which will need care to heal. That may come in time, or you may rejoin the Council and drift off into the embrace of what you know to fill the holes your masters carved into you. If you walk away though, you will find that distance will help you grow in new directions and become someone you can’t yet imagine you would be. Whichever you chose though, there will be no guarantee of a life devoid of pain.”

“I don’t want to go back,” Iana said.

“Then you will need to find a way forward,” Telliakai said. “I will grieve my realm’s loss in losing you, but celebrate the world’s joy at the happiness you may find.”

“What about the people I served with? Can you make it so that the other pilots have it easier?” Iana asked.

“The world is no longer mine to change, except in tiny bits perhaps,” Telliakai said. “But it is yours. If you wish to see their suffering averted, that is a task to set your shoulders to.”

“I don’t know if I can manage that,” Iana said. “My Warbringer is destroyed and I’m not much of anything without it.”

“You are more than you can imagine,” Tellaikai said.

It was difficult to deny the judgment of a god, and even as rattled as she was by the enormity of the events that surrounded her, Iana felt a kernel of joy bloom forth in her heart.

“What happened to the others?” Iana asked.

“There are many others who were affected by the events you played as role in,” Tellaikai said. “And many things have happened to them.”

“What about Alari? And Wylika? And Dagmauru?” Iana asked.

“The Gallagrin Queen awaits you when you leave my sanctum,” Telliakai said. “Your second-in-command is safe and rushes to save you even now, unaware that you are no longer in peril. As for my Undying One, Dagmauru is telling me all of what he has done while I have been asleep.”

“Are you going to punish him?” Iana asked.

“No, his punishment shall come from those he wronged,” Teliakai said.

“What about the children in the creche?” Iana asked. “He set them up to die. He wanted them killed so the Council would have a reason to go to war.”

“Under normal circumstances the burden would be upon you to speak for them,” Telliakai said. “In this case though, since he used my power without invitation, I have some additional leeway to work with. When he is called to account for his deeds, even the dead will be able to speak and render their verdict on him.”

“Will I get to see you again?” Iana asked.

“Though you may leave my realm, you will always be my child,” Telliakai said. “It is doubtful that we will meet in this fashion again, but if you look me, you will see my work throughout your world.”

“In the things you made in the Green Council you mean?” Iana asked.

“The Green Council was my realm, shared with my siblings,” Telliakai said. “But my siblings and cousins touched much more of your world than just our own realms. Though we eventually divided it up into our own pieces, your world began as a collaboration between many of us and is the stronger and the better for not being cast in any one of our images.”

Iana hugged Telliakai.

“I don’t want to go back there,” she said.

“We can stay here as long as you like child, but your life is outside my sanctum,” the goddess said.

Iana held her tighter, and Telliakai embraced her back softly.

Going back to the real world meant confronting Dagmauru over his betrayals. It meant acknowledging the Green Council’s mistreatment of her and all of the other Warbringer pilots. It meant acknowledging the things she’d done in her rage.

It was so much easier to stay wrapped in the warmth of a goddesses love, but after a long, timeless moment, Iana knew she had to let go.

“I can’t stay here can I?” she asked.

“Not and remain yourself,” Telliakai said.

“What if I don’t want to be me anymore?” Iana asked.

“Then we would have a different conversation,” Telliakai said. “But that’s not what you want, is it?”

Iana considered what it would be like to be a bird, or a growing vine, or even some other human girl. She wouldn’t have to deal with any of the problems that stood before her. She’d be free in her new life. She could leave her past behind in exchange for a fresh start, free from the wounds she carried and the sins she needed to atone for.

But she wouldn’t just be leaving behind her problems. She’d be leaving Wylika behind. And any chance to make up for the things she’d done.

“No, it’s not what I want,” Iana said, drying her eyes. “I want to go back. I want to be a better me the hard way I guess.”

Telliakai wiped away a tear of her own.

“I am proud of you, my daughter,” Teliakai said. “I may not change your world but I can give you this blessing; always and forever there will be someone who remembers you and who loves you and who is so very inspired by the child she helped create. You are your own person, but you will ever be in my heart and as you stood today against power that was stolen from me, so too will that which is mine never harm or hinder you.”

“I hope I can see you again!” Iana said.

“I can promise you will see me one more time, though perhaps we shall meet before then as well?” Teliakai said.

The light that embraced Iana faded away leaving her on the blasted plains, standing before the vast chasm that the Divine Sanction had torn into the lands with it’s repeated blasts.

“Iana!” Alari called out, appearing at her side and helping her to sit up.

Several feet away, the husk of Iana’s modified Warbringer sagged. A few taproots remained sunk into the earth, but the giant enchanted machine was too spent to be moved.

“Alari?” she asked. “Are we alive still? I think I just talked to one of my gods?”

“We’re all ok,” said another woman, the one who’d appeared in a flash of lightning.

There was a hardness to the woman’s frame, all solid muscles and sharp lines, but the joy that danced in her eyes was so soft and warm that Iana couldn’t believe she was the same person who’d stood before a machine with the power of a god and called for its wrath.

“How about you?” Alari asked. “You were at the epicenter of that blast and we didn’t have anything good to shield you with.”

“I don’t think I was in any danger,” Iana said. “Not from Telliakai anyways.”

“I’m pretty sure we’ve taken care of your problem with your boss too,” Dae said.

“Yes, Telliakai said she was speaking with Dagmauru,” Iana said. “I don’t think he’ll be any trouble from here on.”

“I’d kind of like to be a fly on the wall for that conversation,” Dae said.

“Given where we are, be careful what you wish for,” Alari said.

“Point taken,” Dae said, looking around the devastation that surrounded them.

“So what happens next?” Iana asked.

“I think I finally get to have the leaders of the realms come to my conference,” Alari said. “After this at least the Green Council, Senkin, Inchesso, and Paxmer should be deeply interested in establishing rules to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.”

“That’ll drag the other realms in too,” Dae said. “No one’s going to want to be left out and left vulnerable as a result.”

“What about with us though? Or are you going to hold the conference right here?” Iana asked.

“It’s tempting,” Alari said. “Maybe if they were forced to breath in these ashes the delegates and monarchs would be less likely to lose focus. I suspect for that exact reason though they’ll want it to be held elsewhere.”

“We’ll need to deal with the army we brought here,” Dae said. “If I know our nobles they’re already planning how they’re going to spend the loot from ransacking the Green Council. And whatever side trips they can get away with into Senkin.”

“I think we can dissuade them from that idea,” Alari said. “The Divine Sanction we fought isn’t the only one the Green Council has after all.”

“Yes, but…” Dae silenced herself. “Right, wouldn’t want to tackle with the other ones they have in reserve.”

“Are you going back to Gallagrin then?” Iana asked.

“That seems like the safest place to put a bunch of Gallagrin nobles” Dae said.

“Can I come with you?” Iana asked.

She couldn’t stay in the forests of the Green Council. She needed distance from what had gone on there. She needed to discover who she was without the next Dagmauru feeding her convenient lies.

“Certainly!” Alari said. “You have a place of honor in my realm, always.”

“I won’t take up much space,” Iana said. “We’re taught to live in our command pods for days at a time.”

“That’s ok,” Dae said, exchanging an unreadable look with Alari. “I think I know a family that can take you in.”

Relief flooded through Iana’s heart, only to be immediately replaced with further trepidation.

“I can’t leave my troops though,” she said feeling ripped in half.

“Those would be the fifteen or so pilots who chose not to fight you when you were protecting me?” Alari asked.

“Yes,” Iana said. “Dagmauru raised us as a family. I have to make sure they’re ok.”

“Do you think they would want to come to Gallagrin too?” Dae asked.

Iana nodded.

“I don’t think any of us will want to stay knowing what we do now,” Iana said.

“That should be fine then,” Alari said. “The family Dae has in mind shouldn’t have any problem taking on all of you.”

“Do you think the Council will oppose us on that?” Dae asked.

“They’re certainly free to try,” Alari said with a cheerful grin.


The capital city of Highcrest was like a living miracle in Iana’s eyes. So many people from so many places and so many different languages being spoken that she felt like she was standing within a song that had no beginning or ending.

Forest songs were like that in the spring when life was abundant and fresh, but Highcrest seemed to be like that all the time.

“What if the family the queen has set us up with turns out not to like us?” Wylika asked.

She and the other Warbringer pilots who’d been under Iana’s command had been released from their service to the Green Council with honors and applause. A new group of councilors were in the majority but even so none of the pilots wished to stay, which was just as well given that the Warbringer program was being decommissioned from what Iana had heard.

“Then we’ll go somewhere else,” Iana said.

“Can they really have room for all of us though?” Wylika asked.

“We don’t eat much or take up much space, and we’re trained, so maybe they’ll want us to act as guards or something?” Iana said.

Their carriages rolled through the merchant districts and into the nobles estates, which both relieved and worried Iana. She knew her troops weren’t adept at any of the merchant crafts and while that seemed like a nice and peaceful existence, she wasn’t sure that nice and peaceful would ever fight her properly.

The noble’s quarters frightened her in the abstract. Everything she’d ever heard about Gallagrin’s nobles was that they were a pack of bloodthirsty demons, an impression which had been all but confirmed based on the damage they’d done to the Council’s invasion force.

As the carriage rolled through the gates of the castle proper though, Iana began to wonder where their final destination would be.

Perhaps the Queen was going to personally introduce them, to ensure the small army of trained warriors from the Green Council was properly received by their new hosts?

She was perplexed when the carriages took a turn towards the outer section of the castle grounds and finally stopped before a large house that was isolated in one of the queen’s gardens.

“We will bring your personal belongings to your rooms if you wish?” one of the valets asked.

“Ok,” Iana said. She didn’t have much in terms of personal belongings and her mind was swimming at the notion that her room was anywhere near the elegant building before her.

The garden was woven into the building’s exterior with a skill that the grandest architect in the Green Council would have envied.

It was ridiculous of course. A pure expression of aesthetic beauty without any sort of functionality, as though the garden didn’t need to accomplish at least five purposes at once. As though it was allowed to simply be a work of art and that was enough to justify its existence.

“Is this where we’re staying” Wylika asked, sounding as entranced as Iana felt.

“Yes, they’re waiting for you inside,” the valet said.

Iana stepped through the main doors uncertain what sort of mad people her new family might be, to have a garden like that and to take in so many children they didn’t know.

“Welcome home,” Alari said.

“How was the trip?” Dae asked.

“You?” Iana asked. “We’re going to be with you?”

“Alari’s wanted children for a long time,” Dae said.

“And my nobles have been worried about my lack of them,” Alari said. “Hopefully they will enjoy meeting Gallagrin’s new Princesses and Princes.”

“I’m a Princess now?” Iana asked.

“You’re whatever you want to be,” Alari said. “But if you wish it, I would be honored to have you standing beside me.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 53

Jyl heard the screams from within Dagmauru’s chamber before they even reached the door.

“Well, that started early,” she said. They’d been creeping along so silently it felt like she was walking from one needlepoint to the next.

Lacking any better option, she, Jaan and Balmauru had decided to confront Dagmauru once more. If the Divine Sanction couldn’t be stopped then someone else would have to take control of it.

“No point hiding anymore then,” Jaan said. “Ok, troops, forward!”

Behind them over a dozen of the Council’s most skilled pilots threw back their cloaks and produced glowing blades that had been scavenged from the security forces sent to kill them.

“For Commander Iana!” Wylika said and the Warbringer pilots surged forth as Jy and Jaan broke into a run.

Inside the Divine Sanction’s command chamber they found no opposition. The various technicians sat in their chairs, silent, watching scrying pools and magical displays in shock. None of them even appeared to notice that the central control pod was missing.

“I don’t understand,” Balmauru said, catching up the assault force. “What has happened here?”

Jyl looked around for a clue but nothing made sense.

Images that were clearly meant to depict the Divine Sanction showed empty silhouettes. Readouts listed power consumption as a flatline and the pilot’s status as “no pilot detected”.

“Take control of the area,” Jaan said. “Get the technicians away from the controls and secure the guards.”

Wylika and the other Warbringer pilots followed the order. Jaan had no official authority over them but what she was commanding them to do made sense and given that they were in rebellion against their Council overlords anyways following the orders of someone else who was clearly a rebel too just seemed to make sense.

That Jyl and Jaan had saved them from the security forces sent to suppress their uprising had bought a certain amount of goodwill as well, even though that was mostly Balmauru’s doing.

He had been the one who heard of the defection of the Warbringer pilots. He was the one who knew where their command pods were located and he was the one who knew what the Council’s reaction would be.

“We have to save them,” Jaan had said, surprising Jyl with the unexpected outpouring of compassion. “We need an army, even a small one, and they need a leader.”

Satisfied that her sister hadn’t been replaced by a changeling, Jyl had joined Jaan and together the two of them had passed like ghosts through the Council’s domain.

Working with the Queen’s Guardians was an honor for Jyl. She enjoyed their company and felt privileged with the trust the Queen placed in her. Working with her sister was different though. However far apart their difference pushed them, there was still a common bond there, something unique that Jyl knew she would never share with another person.

Alone, Jyl was a terrifying force. The Council’s forests were her most natural environment and the magics her Pact bond gave her meant only the most observant of foes had a prayer of detecting her.

With Jaan at her side even those prayers went unanswered though.

The security force had expected to deal with fifteen highly trained young children. Dangerous if armed but manageable by virtue of their physical limitation. To combat the pilot, they’d sent thirty soldiers, armored in the Green Council’s best living platemail, and carrying an assortment of deadly weapons. Dagmauru’s allies were too close to victory to take chances, and a little overkill at the last minute had seemed only sensible.

The Lafli sisters hadn’t announced their presence. They hadn’t made any bold or dramatic gestures. The first sign the security forces had that there was more opposition than fifteen barely armed children was when their armor developed gaping holes in vital areas between one moment and the next.

Jaan struck with a cold, dispassionate clarity. Mercy was something for enemies that might potentially be allies later. Dagmauru’s supporters did not fall into that category, and so they were a threat to be ended permanently.

Jyl wasn’t as clinical. She saw a group of adults lining up to murder a group of children and let her natural instincts guide her. Nature is said to be red of tooth and claw. Jyl wound up covered in significantly more red than that.

With their army secured, Jyl are her companions had slipped back through the Green Council’s defenses to the heart of the Divine Sanction’s controls, again thanks mostly to Balmauru’s efforts.

Jyl had been certain she was leading them on a suicide mission. The Council would never let an hostile force take control of the Divine Sanction and they had to have countless failsafes and countermeasures in place to prevent that scenario. Forcing them to invoke one or more of those failsafes though seemed like the only option for buying Queen Alari the time she needed to escape.

Except it didn’t seem like there was anything to escape from.

The Divine Sanction was gone!

“Steward, report, what happened here?” Balmauru said, invoking an air of authority to snap the disarmed guard out of their stupor.

“They destroyed it,” the guard said.

“Destroyed what Steward,” Balmauru asked.

“The Divine Sanction sir,” the guard said. “It’s gone.”

“We can see that,” Jyl said. “Who destroyed it.”

“I don’t know sir,” the guard said. “It looked like the Gallagrin Queen and another woman.”

“A human woman?” Jyl asked, a guess as to the mystery woman’s identity forming in her mind.”

“I don’t think so sir,” the guard said. “She appeared in a flash of lightning, and she had incredible power. The Divine Sanction couldn’t hurt her. Our god couldn’t hurt her. They said our scans confirmed that she wasn’t a citizen of the realm. She didn’t have any natural protection, or that’s what the techs were saying. But the Divine Sanction didn’t work.”

“The sensors were fooled then,” Balmauru said, stomping over to one of the control panels.

“So the Queen and this other woman destroyed the Sanction. What happened then?” Jyl asked.

“We saw her,” the guard said.

“Who? The Queen? The other woman?” Jyl asked.

“No. Her. Tellaikai. We saw her,” the guard said.

“Who is Tellaikai?” Jyl asked.

“Our god,” Balmauru said with a voice was hollow and shaken. “Our god is free.”

Jyl’s spine froze solid in ice made of terror. A god was loose in the realm. She understood the deep and unrelenting silence of the technicians and guards.

“What, exactly, do you mean by that,” Jaan asked, her every word spoken in clipped, precise and perfect diction.

“Our god is free,” Balmauru said. “She who we bound to our service has escaped those bonds and is loose on the world with nothing to restrain her.”

It was a long and rambling version of “We’re doomed”, but Jyl was able to follow it well enough.

“Where is she now,” Jyl asked.

“They don’t know,” Balmauru said.

“She’s gone,” Dagmauru said. “She has left us.”

One moment the control pod had been missing from the center of the room. Nothing more than a vacant globe of space remaining as though it had been scooped out of the universe completely. The next moment Dagmauru sat where the control pod had once been.

He didn’t move to stand, and turn to acknowledge anyone in the room. His gaze didn’t seem to be resting on anything in the physical world at all.

“What happened?” Balmauru asked, moving over to kneel near Dagmauru.

“They freed her, the Queen and her love, they broke the bonds that kept her silent and she spoke a word and she was free,” Dagmauru said.

“She didn’t go berserk?” Balmauru asked.

“No,” Dagmauru said. “No, why would she? She is Tellaikai and she was our god.”

“Was?” Jaan asked.

“Did you speak with her?” Balmauru asked.

“Yes, and no,” Dagmauru said. “I…we walked with them before? The gods, we walked with them, worked beside them, didn’t we?”

“Yes, many times,” Balmauru said.

“We never knew them,” Dagmauru said. “We never knew their kindness. We are so small. So simple.”

“But we’ve spent centuries studying them,” Balmauru said. “We distilled their essence. We discovered how to control them.”

“No, we learned a trick, just a small thing and we built it into a weapon,” Dagmauru said. “We took something so vast and thought we understood it all, but she is so much more than we have discovered.”

“And you’re saying she’s gone?” Jyl asked.

“For now, yes, from me, always,” Dagmauru said. “She spoke to me.”

He turned to Balmauru, finally resting his gaze on someone in the room.”

“She praised me,” he said. “Told me I was clever and unique among her children.”

There was a pain in his voice that Jyl found surprisingly troubling to hear. Balmauru seemed to be of the same mind and reached out a hand to rest on Dagmauru’s shoulder.

“I told her what we’d done, what I had done,” Dagmauru said. “I tried to confess everything, but she knew. She already knew.”

“What did she say?” Balmauru asked. “What judgment did she lay upon you?”

“She didn’t,” Dagmauru’s voice was strangled with grief. “I am to be judged for my actions by those whom I have made to suffer. It will be their choice to forgive me or not.”

“You will call off this war then?” Balmauru asked.

“There is nothing left to call off,” Dagmauru said. “We are beaten. Our greatest sin lies broken and shattered, our forces have been driven back.”

“What about your allies here?” Jaan asked.

“They are done,” Dagmauru said. “With this loss, none on the Council will support them. We placed everything on this moment. It was our time to finally control the world and we would have destroyed it if we hadn’t been stopped.”

“You say that Tellaikai has left us?” Balmauru asked.

“She has left me,” Dagmauru said. “I saw her, gathering up the fallen, making the smallest of changes where her power had touched the world under our direction and I begged her to take me with her. But I am unworthy. She left me behind and she will never return for me.”

“She may not return but we are here for you still,” Balmauru said.

“I am not worthy of you either,” Dag said. “You have been brave where I have been fearful, kind where I have been cruel. You are the child Tellaikai wished for when she brought life to our realm. You walk the path that leads to her, and I have fallen so far from it.”

“Then walk with me and we will chase after her together,” Balmauru said.

“No, you shouldn’t stay with me,” Dagmauru said. “I have many judgments to face, many amends to make and punishments to endure.”

“And I will be there beside you,” Balmauru said.


By the time evening rolled around, the entire Council knew of the events of the day. Change is rarely a gentle thing but the shock from what had transpired granted the first evening afterwards a silent solemnity as everyone waited to see what the new day would hold.

Jyl was staring out at the stars from an ambassadorial suite’s balcony when she heard her sister enter the room.

“I’m surprised you didn’t lock the door?” Jaan said.

“Only worth locking it when you want to keep people out,” Jyl said.

“May I sit with you for a bit?” Jaan asked.

“Pull up a seat, there’s a nice meteor shower tonight,” Jyl said, gesturing to the second chair on the same balcony and the table with the bottles of wine and platter of food.

“You knew I would be coming by?” Jaan asked.

“No, didn’t know,” Jyl said. “But I wondered if you might.”

“I wasn’t sure I should,” Jaan said, pouring herself a glass of wine and refilling Jyls. “There seemed like a good chance you would still be angry.”

“Oh I am,” Jyl said. “I’m angry with you about so many things. Countless things. Everything I guess.”

“And yet you had a second bottle of wine brought up?” Jaan asked.

“I did,” Jyl said. “And it’s for you.”

Jaan stopped bringing the wine glass to her lips.

“And it’s not poisoned,” Jyl said, taking her gaze from the stars and offering her sister a smile.

“I can’t imagine why,” Jaan said, taking a long sip from the wine nonetheless.

“Maybe I owe you,” Jyl said.

“For saving you from Dagmauru?” Jaan asked.

“For being my sister,” Jyl said.

“I haven’t been keeping score but I suspect we would win few awards for sisterly devotion,” Jaan said.

“Yes, there are clearly people who do it better than we do,” Jyl said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that you are my sister. Horrible, terrible, miserable and mean as you are.”

“Those aren’t qualities one should forgive,” Jaan said.

“And I don’t,” Jyl said. “You’re a jerk, and you’ve been a jerk since we were little. But, what I’ve missed for a long time is that you’ve been more than that too.”

“I am also brilliant and beautiful,” Jaan said.

“And loyal, and protective, and supportive,” Jyl said.

Jaan chuckled at that.

“If you had to name the three things I am worst at, I believe you would have chosen the proper three there,” Jaan said.

“You hide it, and, like I said, you’re a jerk about it most of the time, but you grew up with our family so I understand the defense mechanisms there a little better than I did before I got away from them and could see things from the outside,” Jyl said.

“I’m not sure whether to feel flattered or abused by this?” Jaan said.

“Neither,” Jyl said. “I hated you for a long time. I blamed you for a lot of things that went wrong in our family. For Mom leaving and for all of the terrible things our grandfather did. Those aren’t on you though. Those belong to our family and they’re the ones who deserve the blame.”

“I seem to recall us fighting over things that had nothing to do with the rest of the family,” Jaan said.

“We did, and we will,” Jyl said. “You’re not bad, or evil, anymore than I’m good. You’re just you and I’m just me. I’m still more than willing to fight you if you act like a jerk, but I think I finally see that how you act and who you are aren’t intrinsically the same thing.”

“I don’t plan on meeting our gods, so I don’t foresee changing who I am like Dagmauru did if that’s what you are expecting?” Jaan said.

“Nothing like that,” Jyl said. “I just think the hate I was carrying was stupid. It was directed at the wrong person. I don’t want to hate you anymore, and I’m sad that I ever did. What I want now is my sister back. Maybe not like before, because before sucked, but maybe we can manage a bit better than that, if you’re up for trying.”

Jaan took a long sip from her wine and was silent for a moment, savoring it.

“I missed you,” she said at last. “After you left, I didn’t understand it at first. I was so mad. I stabbed your favorite pillow and burned down a bookcase.”

“Burned a bookcase? Why?” Jyl asked.

“I don’t know! Nothing made sense for a while there,” Jaan said. “You were gone and you weren’t coming back and somebody needed to burn, or be stabbed until things got better.”

“I don’t know if I should feel flattered or terrified,” Jyl said.

“Neither,” Jaan said. “I hated you too. For leaving me. For leaving the family. For being better than me.”

“When have I ever been better than you?” Jyl asked.

“Always! People would do what I wanted them to because they were gullible, or foolish, or charmed by the little elf girl, but you never used that. You always fought for what you wanted and you always got it!”

“Not always,” Jyl said. “You beat me half the time we fought.”

“That was only because you held back,” Jaan said. “And I knew it. You were too nice to go all out, and I wasn’t, so I won because you were letting me. Oh I hated you for that.”

“So why didn’t my leaving make things better then?” Jyl asked. “I thought that was what you wanted? To have the Lafli legacy all to yourself.”

“It was!” Jaan said. “I wanted that so much, just like any stupid, foolish child wants something. And then it all went wrong.”


“When I got it,” Jaan said. “Do you know what the first thing I wanted to do when grandfather officially named me his heir was?”

“Slip some poison into his drink or a dagger into his back?” Jyl asked.

“Ok, fair, the second thing then,” Jaan asked.

“Wear the ducal crown?” Jyl asked.

“No, idiot, I wanted to tell you,” Jaan said.

“To laugh at having won at last?” Jyl asked.

“To hear you laugh,” Jaan said. “That moment, right then, that was when I finally worked out what I’d lost, that was when I realized how much I’d been missing you.”

“That was a while ago wasn’t it?” Jyl asked.

“Yes it was,” Jaan said. “But what was I supposed to do? You were years gone at that point. Off carving your own path through the world, and I was tied down beneath a responsibility that felt more like a set of prisoner’s chains every day. Oh, and you hated me.”

“And now here we are,” Jyl said.

“A place where neither of our paths should ever have led,” Jaan said.

“And yet I’m kind of glad they did,” Jyl said.

“I am too,” Jaan said.

“You know we’re always going to rivals right?” Jyl said.

“The worst rivals,” Jaan said.

“But maybe we can be something more than that too?”

“Sisters again?”

“Yeah, now and forever.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 52

The light faded from Dae’s eyes and her vision cleared at last.

Gone was the ash filled wasteland and the towering Divine Sanction. Gone were the trees of the Green Council and the mountains of Gallagrin that had loomed in the distance.

Instead, all around her, Dae saw colors. Streaks of blue and red and green racing across the ground beneath her and through the sky above like a mad painter was splashing them across a canvas as wide as the cosmos.

“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” a woman said from behind her.

Dae turned to look at her and was dazzled. Every shade of green ran up and down the woman’s body. She stood clothed in first leaves and then bark and then a dress of tender fronds. As she moved her features changed, not distorting, but not remaining human either. From elvish ears, to a sylphs smooth face, to a dwarf’s broad nose, each aspect of her shifted without ever seeming like they belonged to anyone else.

“It is,” Dae said. She felt power, a raw radiance of awe, shining from the woman. The dragon fear Haldraxan had wielded was an echo of that power, stronger in some senses but so shallow by comparison. “Was I right about what would happen?”

“You are not one of mine, so I cannot see your thoughts,” the woman said. “You asked Gallagrin to trust you though and you were right in that.”

“Where is she? Where’s Alari?” Dae asked.

“Galllagrin is a foreign shore for me,” the woman said. “By compact and sworn vow, I may not choose to touch her.”

“You’re the god in the Divine Sanction though aren’t you?” Dae asked.

“I am Telliakai, and, yes, a part of my essence was bound in that machine,” she said.

“You hurt Alari then, where is she now?” Dae asked, sparks of anger pushing back at the radiant awe.

“My power did, though not under my command,” Telliakai said. “A curious loophole, but one which shall never be exploited again.”

“So Alari is safe from you from here out?” Dae asked.

“Safe from me? Yes, she has always been that,” Telliakai said. “Safe from those who call themselves mine? There is no contract in the world that can promise that. We left you mortals freedom enough to ensure such things couldn’t come to pass.”

“So where is she now?” Dae asked.

“Outside of this sanctum,” Telliakai said. “Safe for this moment, if that comforts you.”

“I want to see her,” Dae said.

“I cannot invite her here,” Telliakai said. “By long standing agreement, I will not reach out to Gallagrin or influence my cousin’s realm in any manner.”

“If you can’t invite her, or won’t, is there anything to stop me from doing so?” Dae asked.

“Nothing at all,” Telliakai said. “I should enjoy the visit and flirting with the taboo.”

“How do I bring her here then?” Dae asked.

“Speak her name, call to her, and perhaps she will hear you.”

“Alari,” Dae called out, with no answer.

“Queen Alari,” she tried, with no luck. “Princess?”

“This isn’t right,” she said.

“It does not feel like you are calling her name, the one that you would consider true for her,” Telliakai.

Dae stood quietly, watching the god, and trying to find the right variation on Alari’s titles that would work to bridge the gap between them. She considered and rejected a dozen historical variations on the Queen’s formal name. They had the outward sheen of a True Name, all elaborate and ornate methods of deferring to the supreme monarch of the realm. None of them were how Dae ever thought about Alari though. In the end only two words captured that truth.

“My love,” Dae whispered, her heart trembling at the judgment it felt like the universe was going to pronounce on her.

“Adae!” Alari shouted, stumbling into the god’s sanctum with a bewildered expression.

Alari’s confusion turned to relief and then joy. Dae was wrapped into Alari’s arms and drowning in her kisses before another word was spoken.

“That explains so very much,” Telliakai said when the two of them parted at last.

“Dae, is that a god?” Alari asked, sliding herself slightly in front of Dae as though ready to shield her from another divine blast.

“A pleasure to meet you Gallagrin,” Tellaikai said.

“Yeah, she was the one bound up in the Divine Sanction,” Dae said.

“So, does that mean that the Sanction’s not going to rampage and destroy the realms?” Alari asked.

“The Sanction is a machine, it will do as its wielder chooses,” Telliakai said. “But it will do so without my essence, so destroying the realms seems like an exceedingly tall order to execute. You mortals are endlessly surprising though.”

“You seem happy about that?” Dae asked.

“Of course! I’m delighted to see the cleverness of our children,” Tellaikai said.

“You don’t mind them binding you and forcing you to fight for them?” Alari asked.

“I admire the courage and insight that it took to accomplish the feat they managed to achieve,” Tellaikai said. “But please don’t think they ever bound me. What you saw was a distillation of the power that I left in the realms. I am not so small as to be captured by this world.”

“Why are you here now then?” Dae asked.

“This moment could last an eternity and I would not reach the end of answering that question,” Tellaikai said. “You doubtless know aspects of the truth though, so tell me why you think I’m here?”

“Here isn’t a space in the realms is it?” Dae said. “We’re in a place like the God’s Home that’s set aside for the divine.”

“Partially true,” Tellaikai said. “This space is divine. But it is not like the God’s Home. That was a meeting hall we designed within your realms so that we could talk and disagree without shattering the little things we were working on there. Like the continents.”

“This place isn’t a place at all is it?” Alari asked. “This place is you.”

Tellaikai smiled and the awe radiating from her was replaced with a sensation of pride and joy.

“Yes,” she said. “It seems our choice to sleep was a good one. Our realms have grown more bright and clever than I could ever have hoped.”

“Why did you bring us here though?” Dae asked. “I thought setting you free would let you go back to sleep.”

“It has,” Tellaikai said. “But before I turn my attention away from your world again, I had to speak with you.”

“Me?” Dae asked. “Why, can you fix me?”

“I can do nothing to you,” Tellaikai said. “You are not mine to harm or to heal.”

“Can she be saved still?” Alari asked.

“Saved?” Tellaikai said. “Saved from what? Neither of you are in any danger here.”

“From my power,” Dae said.

“No, nothing can save you from that,” Tellaikai said. “Even my cousins and I cannot be saved from our own power.”

“You’re still a citizen of my realm, Adae,” Alari said. “I can still command the power out of you.”

“No,” Dae said. “That’s not going to work this time. My magic isn’t Gallagrin magic anymore. It’s mine now. That’s why I had to let Kirios go.”

“It has to work,” Alari said. “I didn’t come this far to lose now. I refuse.”

“Gallagrin, consider your words carefully here,” Tellaikai said. “The possibilities here are broader than in your realms, but so are the costs.”

“I would pay literally any cost for her,” Alari said.

“Alari, you know I would never leave you, but there is no way in heaven or hell that I will let you destroy yourself for me either,” Dae said.

“Umm, what are you two talking about?” Tellaikai asked.

“She had to become a Berserker to save me,” Alari said. “And to free you. You owe her for that! Break the damn rules and save her already!”

Tellaikai chuckled and the colors swirling through the ground and sky rippled with her mirth.

“You do not want me to begin break rules,” she said. “And there’s one other small problem with your request.”

“What?” Alari demanded, wicks of flame starting to burn as a halo around her.

“She’s not a Berserker.”

“What?” Dae asked, blinking in surprise.

“You have met Berserkers haven’t you? Or at least heard of them?” Tellaikai asked.

“Yeah, one of them nearly killed me half a year ago,” Dae said, her voice slowing on each word as she processed the implications of what the god had said.

“Did they seem overly interested in conversation? Or at all concerned about their rapidly devolving state?” Tellaikai asked.

“No, that’s not how Berserkers work,” Dae said, unable to quite accept the obvious conclusion Tellaikai was leading her towards.

“Does she seem to be losing control?” Tellaikai asked Alari. “Is her power flaring erratically at all?”

“She’s not a Berserker,” Alari said, the fires around her winking out one by one.

“What…,” Dae said stumbling over the thought, “What am I then?”

“Again, we have eternity and I couldn’t finish answering that question,” Tellaikai said. “What I can tell you is that the power you have claimed does not define you. You define it. There are many names in many world given to those who have done as you did and can do what you you possess the ability to do. When I crafted the world I thought you would be called ‘Sorcerers’ but your names are you own to choose.”

“What is a Sorcerer, in this sense I mean?” Alari asked. The realms had casters called sorcerers already but they didn’t have anything like Dae.

“My cousin believed that our mortals could grow beyond themselves within the span of a single lifetime. It was a principal difference in the experiments we designed. In my realm, life advances from generation to generation. In Gallagrin, you transform into brighter, more powerful versions of yourselves every time you call upon the magic given to you.” Tellaikai said.

“That’s what I am now,” Dae said. “I stopped calling on Kirios for power and just called on it directly.”

“Isn’t that what a Berserker does?” Alari asked.

“Yes, except all they care about it power,” Tellaikai said. “Bound to a Pact Spirit they open themselves up a flow of magic they only partially control and cannot shut off and so they drown in it the flood of it.”

“I let Kirios go so he wouldn’t drown with me,” Dae said. “Is that all there is to it?”

“No, not all,” Tellaikai said. “That’s one reason why we are speaking. You are a clever and gifted creature. To break a pact bond out of love is a rare choice. To be able to call the magic without it is unique in this world so far. We hoped you, our children, would develop this far, but to see it come to pass is the fulfillment of millennia of our dreams.”

“So, just to be clear, this isn’t the afterlife, and I’m not going to die, right?” Dae asked.

Tellaikai laughed again.

“You will most certainly die, you have not lost your mortality, but it will not be in this moment,” Tellaikai said. “Or likely for many moments to come. Your magic is yours. It defines and reinforces who you are. If any on the battlefield you stand on would still seek your life, I feel very sorry them and the frustration they will face.”

“I’m going to live,” Dae said and staggered back a step. “Wow, that’s a thing. A good thing.”

Alari kissed her again.

“A very good thing,” Alari said.

“This moment could last eternity, but even eternities must end,” Tellaikai said. “It has been a joy to meet you, Sorcerer and Queen. You are not mine but I still offer you my blessing. Live and grow, in this life and in all the ones to come.”

And with that, the sanctum and Tellaikai were gone and the war between the Green Council, Senkin and Gallagrin was over.

From the ashes and raw earth, buds of life, impossibly spared from the devastation, began to bloom forth.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 51

Dae rose from where she had landed atop Iana’s Warbringer and surveyed the scene before her. They were standing in a blasted wasteland. Everything in sight in the direction of Senkin was a smoking ruin. On the Green Council’s side of the border, the trees were still lush with life though and the destruction was limited to a swath of ash that had been burned into the landscape.

And there was a chained god towering before them.

That was interesting.

She looked around for Alari and found her standing in the shadow of the Warbringer. Protected.

That was good.

A blast of divine force, irresistible and final, slammed into her.

She didn’t have the protection of being a citizen of the Green Council. She wasn’t a god herself. The destruction from the blast was almost absolute, rendering to particles anything it touched.

Dae waited for it to stop and rolled her shoulders when it did.

“That’s…” Dagmauru said, stuttering over the words, “That’s not possible.”

Of course it was. The blast was only “almost absolute” in its destruction.

Dae skipped down off the Warbringer and stood before it and Alari, shielding them both.

“What are you doing?” she asked, looking up and down at the massive form of the Divine Sanction.

The sight was, by some measures ridiculous. Behind Dae, Iana’s Warbringer rose like a giant, it’s roots and vines dwarfing her body. Before them both, the Divine Sanction rose into the sky, it’s form ever changing, sometimes suggesting a humanoid structure, sometimes suggesting a more primal, bestial nature. Compared to it, Dae was the size of a mouse, but her presence halted the Sanctions advance nonetheless.

“Defending my realm,” Dagmauru said.

Dae’s head twitched towards the sound and then looked away again.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” she said.

“I’m trying to defend the Queen,” Iana said, her voice a mixed bag of confusion, awe and hope.

“Thank you,” Dae said. “It looks like you’ve done a good job. But I want to hear from them.”

She pointed at the Divine Sanction.

“I am Dagmauru, I speak for the Green Council, and I demand to know what sort of abomination you are.”

Dae laughed.

“Still not talking to you,” she said.

“I believe she’s speaking to the god you have bound up in there,” Alari said, stepping forward to stand with Dae.

Her gait eased as she moved, turning from a pained shamble to a slightly stiff shuffle to a free and easy walk.

“Yeah, explain yourself,” Dae said. As addresses to a god went, it lacked a certain amount of reverence. Given what the god was demonstrably capable of doing it seemed exceedingly unwise to be so informal and blunt. Weighed against that was what Dae was demonstrably able to endure.

“They’re bound,” Alari said. “And the strongest bindings seem to be ones that silence them.”

“I cannot tell you how good it is to see you ok and in one piece. Wait, you are ok right?” Dae asked, letting her attention turn away from the Sanction at last.

“Better since you got here,” Alari said. “This didn’t play out quite like I’d planned for it to.”

“Yeah, we’re going to have a long talk about your plans when we get back to the castle,” Dae said. “I get veto rights on anything that involves you risking your life without me.”

“I find myself less inclined to argue that point after this little adventure,” Alari said. “If Commander Iana hadn’t been here, things might have gone somewhat poorly.”

“I officially love you Commander Iana,” Dae said. “Now the question is what do you want to do about this thing. It looks really dangerous.”

“It is,” Alari said. “In a few minutes it’s probably going to overload, kill its pilot and then wipe out a good portion of the Blessed Realms.”

“I’d rather that didn’t happen,” Dae said.

“You overestimate your chances,” Dagmauru said. “We have power to spare to keep the Sanction operational. You are not walking off this battlefield no matter what sort of enchantment you’ve wrapped yourself in.”

“I’m not enchanted,” Dae said.

“About that,” Alari asked. “What did you do to yourself? You’re…different.”

“Kirios wouldn’t give me any more magic,” Dae said. “He said it was too dangerous, that I’d become a Berserker if I lost control of it.”

“That doesn’t seem to have stopped you,” Alari said. “I can’t tell where your magic begins or ends. Your Pact Bond is completely obscured.”

“It’s not obscured,” Dae said. “It’s gone. I had to let Kirios go.”

“But you’re using magic still. How is that possible?”

“I promised I would protect you,” Dae said. “You know I’ve loved you since we were teenagers. Being apart didn’t change that. You being with the Bastard prince didn’t change that. I’m only myself, my best self, when I’m with you. You make me brave and strong. Being a soldier at Stars Watch didn’t change that, being with the Dawn March didn’t change that.”

Dae felt silent for a moment and Alari waited.

“Being a Berserker hasn’t changed that either.”

“Adae,” Alari said and reached toward her.

“It’s ok,” Dae said. “I needed the power to save you, and this was the best option I had.”

“Then you have failed your liege, warrior,” Dagmauru said. “We know of Berserkers. We have studied them extensively. We know your weakness. Time is your enemy. Before long you will succumb to the madness that swirls within you. We don’t have to do anything more than keep you here and you will be our agent of destruction.”

“How bad is an out of control Berserker?” Iana asked.

“I can shrug off this things attack’s,” Dae said. “How bad do you think it will be when I lose control?”

“It doesn’t have to come to that,” Alari said. “You’re still my subject, your magic is still Gallagrin’s magic, and thus mine to command.”

“Go ahead,” Dagmauru said. “Take away her magic. Save her from the Berserker’s madness. Commander Iana’s Warbringer is disenchanted, without your pet monster you will be defenseless before our power.”

“He’s got a point,” Dae said. “And there’s another problem, but before we get into that, we need to deal with him.”

“You being here has helped restore me a lot. You’re giving me a connection to Gallagrin that I can call on through the Pact Spirit,” Alari said. “Even with the piece of Gallagrin that you represent though, I don’t know that together we have enough power to take that thing out.”

“I said I came here to protect you,” Dae said, letting a broad smile spread across her face. “I never said I came alone.”

From the clouds, ships began to descend and beside them flew shining warriors.

“Who?” Alari asked, utterly befuddled.

“I raced ahead a bit, but your nobles wanted to show you that they had your back,” Dae said as scores of Gallagrin’s most powerful Pact bearers began to descend to the destroyed battlefield.

“But the ships?” Alari asked, visibly stunned at the support that was arriving.

“Just a little force from Senkin that we ran into,” Dae said.

“Senkin’s here too?” Alari said, her eyes going wide.

“Not the queen herself,” Dae said. “I gather she’s mopping up what’s left of Blighted Legion that attacked them. Apparently they can only absorb so much power before they explode. It turns out the force that saved the Senkin Queen was headed this direction anyway, so we grouped up with them.”

“The force that saved…” Alari began and then understanding lit in her eyes. “Haldri! Haldri saved Senkin?”

“And us,” Dae said. “The rest of our forces could never have gotten here in time without her. I guess after she had the brainstorm of bombing the Blighted Legion from the air, she decided to fly her forces into the Council’s land and make sure the job got finished properly.”

“You’ve delivered all of my enemies to me in one place?” Dagmauru laughed. “How will I ever thank you. With this my victory will be an unalloyed success.”

“Just one problem,” Dae said. “You have to go through us.”

“Oh,” Alari said. “Yes, I have a lot more power to draw on now. Thank you.”

With a wave of her hand she struck the Divine Sanction with a blast of force that sent it sailing a half mile back into the forest.

“You’re welcome,” Dae said. “This is for all those times I couldn’t find a proper birthday gift for you.”

The Divine Sanction sent an earthquake rumbling through the land as it regained its feet, steam billowing from its back as magic surged through it to move its massive bulk. It reared back a head that looked like a bear’s and belched forth another atomizing blast of divine power.

Dae met the blast in mid-air. She was a pebble in front of a raging torrent.

And the torrent stopped.

Or more precisely, though it was wider than a river, the blast funneled down into her outstretched hand, leaving a soft golden glow surrounding her as she landed gently beside Alari.

“No attacking the people who’ve come to watch you fall. What part of ‘you have to get through us’ was unclear?” she asked.

Dagmauru tried to crush Dae under the Sanction’s heels but Alari slapped him back again. Another wave of force rebounded off the Sanction’s chest as Dagmauru brought its defenses into play.

Again it lashed out at Dae, and this time Alari’s counter attack slid right off it.

The fist-like appendage that slammed into Dae didn’t move her in the slightest, despite the first being three times the size of her entire body.

Dagmauru threw another blow and another, experimenting with raw physical power where divine energy had failed. Raw physical power, in the end, didn’t do any better though.

“Keep punching me if you like,” Dae said. “Watching you get frustrated hasn’t gotten old yet.”

“This is not possible!” Dagmauru said. “Even as a Berserker there is no possibility that you have this much power. Nothing is more powerful than our gods!”

“Still think your magic reserves are deep enough to outlast us?” Dae asked.

“I have personal reserves as well,” Dagmauru said. “Powers untapped since the age of the gods.”

“They won’t be enough, but go ahead and try them anyways,” Dae said.

Dagmaura threw root spears ten times taller than Dae, followed by bile sprays, and a hundred variations of fire. None of them worked either.

“It would seem that your defenses are sufficiently formidable, for now,” Dagmauru said. “You cannot win though. You’re attacks are meaningless. Nothing can harm this incarnation of divinity.”

“Let’s put that to the test,” Alari said and drew back her hands, gathering a maelstrom of power between them.

Acting in unison with her, the Senkin lancers and the Gallagrin nobles pooled their efforts. At Alari’s command raw power streaked from her hands, joined by a blistered curtain of enchanted arrows and spears of light.

Over and over they struck, hammering away at the Divine Sanctions defenses as Dae watched, ready to defend against any return attacks.

The Divine Sanction was silent though. It soaked each of the attacks and returned looking none the worse for the wear.

“This is incredible,” Dae said.

“We’ll need more than incredible to beat this thing I guess,” Alari said.

“Oh, not that,” Dae said. “I mean it’s incredible that the bound god still isn’t talking.”

“The constraints the Green Council has them under are too strong,” Alarti said.

“We could always change that, couldn’t we?” Dae asked.

“If the Sanction slips out of control it will destroy everything in the Blessed Realms,” Alari said.

“Sure, that could happen,” Dae said. “But I think we might get to see something else instead. Do you trust me?”

“With my life,” Alari said. “Ever since you first confessed how you felt.”

All around them the world had gone silent, as though it sensed the moment that was to come.

“Then let’s end this threat,” Dae said and entwined her fingers with Alari’s.

The bolt that flew from them was formed of golden light and lightning. It smashed into the Sanction and did no more damage than the others had.

At least at first. The beam didn’t let up. Instead it started digging.

Not into the flesh of the god, but rather into the chain which blocked off the god’s mouth.

As the links severed, the world was bathed in a light so searingly bright that it washed away everything before it.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 50

Iana knew they couldn’t win. Dagmauru had too many of the Blighted Legion on the field and they were capable of disabling a Warbringer too easily. Wylika and the rest of her troops had another fatal weakness too. None of them were inside their Warbringers like Iana was. They were all safely back in their control bowers. Safely surrounded by their support staff, who were all safely under Dagmauru’s control.

“We were never taught the words I would need to tell you how grateful I am,” Iana said to her troops along the link she’d established with them. “When Dagmauru thought I was corrupted, he locked me in and sent fire spiders to burn me alive. I will not let that happen to you.”

“Wait Iana, don’t! Let us buy time for you to get away. You’re the only one of us who can escape,” Wylika pleaded. A hard lump formed in Iana’s throat. Wylika knew the peril she was in, they all did, and they’d chosen to stand against Dagmauru anyways. For her. They’d chosen to stand for her, and they were going to die for her.

“No. I won’t accept that. You cannot die. I won’t allow it. This is my order; do absolutely whatever it takes and live for me instead. Warbringer Command Override: Pilot Ejection on my mark. Mark.”

With the order given, every Warbringer on the field except hers slumped over. Wylika and the rest of the Warbringer pilots under her command had been spat out from their control bowers and, if Iana knew them, were about to start carving a path through any support or security that tried to capture them.

That didn’t mean they were out of danger. In truth, Iana had no idea how any of them would manage to escape the compound they were held in. There were too many troops loyal to Dagmauru and the Council around them. If Wylika could unite them, Iana’s troops, her family, might stand a chance but there was nothing left that Iana do to help them.

What she could do though was show Dagmauru what a bad idea it was to have her as an enemy. Iana knew she was going to lose but she wasn’t going to sell Dagmauru his victory cheaply.

“Clever,” Dagmauru said. “You’re the first person to defeat an entire company of Warbringers. You will also be the last.”

“I certainly hope so,” Iana said. “Unlike you, I care about the future of the Green Council.”

“You know nothing of our future,” Dagmauru said. “And you will see none of it either.”

With a gesture from the Divine Sanction, he ordered the Blighted Legion to attack. Iana was surprised that he didn’t have the Sanction join the fray but it seemed to confirm Alari’s guess about it’s limitations. Even in bondage the God of the Green Council’s wouldn’t act against one of their own citizens. At least not under the command that Dagmauru had been able to bind them with.

The Blighted Legion were under no such restriction though. They served because they were built to serve, as crafted and supernatural as the Warbringer Iana controlled.

When they’d first fought, Iana had engaged the Legion’s soldiers with the strongest defenses she had available. The problem with that approach was that the Legion could drain those defenses and claim the magic that powered the defenses as their own. Iana hadn’t faced an opponent like that before, but, unlike the Legion, she was no mere machine of magic. She could think, and react, and imagine new paths and strategies.

As the Legion advanced, thorns as tall and thick as a full grown dwarf sheared through them.

The Warbringer’s size was it’s primary combat advantage but they were a well matured and battle tested design which meant they possessed every advantage the Council had been able to afford to build into them. As a result, with centuries of research and development packed into her Warbringer, Iana had a very deep arsenal to draw on.

The first wave of Legion soldiers were splattered across the landscape by the thorns, but that didn’t keep them from regenerating. It also didn’t keep the second wave from advancing even faster than the first.

Iana waited until the second rank of Legion’s soldier had closed as near as the first rank had and unleashed her next volley. The shots flew faster, but with the homing spells from the Warbringer to guide them each of the thorn spikes found their mark.

And then exploded.

The force of the explosion was fueled by a pair of highly antagonistic chemicals that mixed together on impact. The Warbringer’s designers had liked that feature because it was very efficient in terms of the magic expenditure compared to a purely mystical fireball. Iana was pleased with the results because the blast offered the Blighted Legion no magic to absorb.

“Nice work,” Alari said. “If you can hold them off for a little longer we may be able to get out of here.”

“You’re not leaving this field, Gallagrin,” Dagmauru said.

“How much longer do you think you can hold it?” Alari asked. “I can see what the binding spells are costing you.”

“We have reserves that are deeper than you could ever dream of matching,” Dagmauru said.

“I don’t have to match them,” Alari said. “I just need to wait until someone on your side sees what a colossal waste this is.”

“By placing yourself as the prize to be won, you’ve ensured that we can afford to spend ourselves almost down to nothing if victory requires it,” Dagmauru said.

Alari laughed, but it was a laughter that was shot through with pain.

“I’m not the prize,” she said. “I’m the bait. I would have thought you’d have noticed that by now.”

“What do you think have you baited out?” Dagmauru said. “All of your actions have played exactly into plans I laid out before you were even born.”

“And that didn’t worry you at all?” Alari asked.

“What cause have you given me for worry?” Dagmauru asked.

“I did just what you thought you wanted,” Alari said. “Surely you’ve tried to implement schemes in the past haven’t you? Do they ever run according to your original plan?”

“They do when sufficient care is taken to adapt for the variables involved,” Dagmauru said.

The Blighted Legion were beginning to coalesce from the small bits Iana had blown them into. It was a slow process, given the damage she’d inflicted but also an inevitable one unless she could find a means to disenchant them.

“If I am a variable that you have adapted your plan for, then why are we having this conversation?” Alari asked.

“Because you don’t yet know that you’re beaten,” Dagmauru said. “For all your bluster, you are weakened and frail. Your magics can barely keep you standing erect and you cannot call for any more.”

“Well at least you noticed that,” Alari said. “I was wondering if everything was going to escape you.”

“I am not going to destroy you,” Dagmauru said. “But I can promise that we are going to learn every secret there is to know about Gallagrin’s magic and we are going to do so in the most efficient manner possible. You should be aware, in regards to that, of the techniques we possess for keeping you alive through experiences that mortals were never designed to endure. Since you seem to be talkative, perhaps we will learn something new about those states as well. Our usual subjects become quickly unresponsive when they are spread across a forest acre.”

“You could save us both that kind of pain if you surrendered now,” Alari said.

“Commander Iana’s Warbringer is serving as an admirable defense for you,” Dagmauru said, “But she is burning its reserves, and for as clever as she is, they won’t be enough to last more than another few minutes. She knows this, I know this and, if you are honest, you know this too.”

“I do,” Alari said. “It’s why I wanted her to leave while she could, and why I am humbly grateful that she stayed.”

Alari looked up at the towering behemoth above her. The colossal frame blocked her view, but Iana somehow felt like they were gazing directly into each other’s eyes.

“Iana, for what you’ve done here today, I offer you my thanks and the love of Gallagrin,” Alari said. “If you wish it, there is a place for you and yours in my realm and in my house, from today and ever onwards.“

“We probably need to survive this though right?” Iana asked.

“That would make the offer somewhat more meaningful, yes,” Alari said.

“You know that once this is done, Gallagrin will be mine,” Dagmauru said. “Or has it escaped you that without the Royal Pact Spirit, your realm can’t hope to stand against our power.”

“What makes you think they won’t have the Royal Pact Spirit?” Alari asked.

“Because in just a few minutes you will be captured, I will control the spirit and there will be none left who can threaten the Council.”

“Allow me to rephrase, what makes you think I will have the Royal Pact Spirit when you capture me?” Alari asked.

Dagmauru started to speak and then paused. For a long moment there was silence on the battlefield.

“What do you mean.” Dagmauru’s words were slow and deliberate.

“Exactly what I said. Did you really think I would come here if there was any chance it would endanger my realm?” Alari asked.

“You have the Pact Spirit,” Dagmauru said. “It is what allows you to stand in the face of the Sanction’s glory.”

“Yes I do, and yes it is, but that doesn’t mean I can’t relinquish it to my heir,” Alari said.

“That’s impossible, you have no children,” Dagmauru said.

“True, but I do have an heir,” Alari said. “Gallagrin law is quite open in that regards. The crown can name whomever they wish to speak for them or to act as their heir.”

“A convenient fiction. You have announced no heir to your people,” Dagmauru said. “Our spies in your court would have relayed the news.”

“The heir doesn’t need to be announced. Only the Pact Spirit needs to know of their status, so most monarchs wait to publicly name the heir. The heir represents a weak point in their reign since they can chose to contest for the throne at any time, but I have someone who I trust with my life, my heart, and my soul.”

“You planned on giving up your crown?” Dagmauru asked. “That’s absurd.”

“No, I planned on safeguarding my crown,” Alari said. “You will never discover the secrets of Gallagrin’s magics. Not from me, and not from anyone else. There is no prize for you to win here today, no return on the investment you’ve made. For that reason and dozens of others, you’ve already lost.”

“What else have you done?” Dagmauru’s voice was a low, primal growl. Iana had never heard that tone from him. Alari had struck a deep nerve there, Iana just wasn’t certain if that was a good thing or not.

“I expect you’ve attempted to invade Inchesso by now?” Alari asked. “How’s that the turning out for you?”

“What do you know of that?” Dagmauru asked.

“I know that Council are the most adept casters in the world,” Alari said. “I know you have magic reserves far beyond what the size of your realm would normally support. Most importantly though, I know how spell designers think. Good is never good enough, you always want to push the boundary farther, make your enchantments just a little stronger. If it costs an unsustainable amount of magic that’s a problem you fix once you’re out of the prototype stage.”

Dagmauru made a low growling sound but said nothing.

“Of course once a conflict shows up, you’re going to want to use your best and most powerful devices and sorceries,” Alari said.

“You know nothing about us,” Dagmauru said.

“Don’t I?” Alari said. “You showed up to fight a queen outside her own realm and thought the right weapon to fight with was a bound God. That’s absurd on a level most can even envision much less execute.”

“It looks absurd to you because of Gallagrin’s primitive skills with magic. For the Council this is well under our control.” Dagmauru said.

“I can see the magic you are burning to keep the divine forces under control. I bet it feels indescribable but, be honest, without Inchesso’s wealth, you can’t afford to keep that abomination active for more than another few minutes. Can you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dagmauru said. “Inchesso’s magics will be ours and Gallagrins as well. Even if you release the Royal Pact Spirit, we will simply take it from your successor.:

“Oh, you definitely don’t want to try that,” Alari said. “I gained the Royal Pact Spirit through sheer, bloody effort. Since then though I haven’t needed to call on its power often, so I’m not that precise in my use of the magic it offers. My successor though? She lived for years with her magic restricted to the level allowed to a peasant, and she practiced with it enough that she could slay a noble. If she gets her hands on this spirit, not even the Grand Assemblage of the Gods will be able to save you from her wrath.”

“We shall see,” Dagmauru said, and stepped forward as the Blighted Legion rose, renewed once more.

“No, you won’t,” Alari said. “Inchesso will not fall to your forces, and Senkin is protected as well. This field is the end of your journey. Surrender now and our judgement against you will reflect the wisdom you showed.”

“Your judgement and your vision are both fatally flawed,” Dagmauru said. “I will not offer you the same choice though. Your surrender is irrelevant. Legion, destroy them both.”

Iana met the charging forces with bursts of thorn fire that filled the air around her with an exploding cloud of death. The Legion soldiers were radiant with their own power though, greenish-gray light pouring from their eyes and mouths.

The thorn bolts did as much damage as they had before, but the enchanted soldiers reformed hundreds of times faster thanks to the additional magic Dagmauru gave them to draw on.

Iana tried to aim her bolts carefully, targeting the tiny spell cores within them when a Legion soldier was blown apart enough to make their core visible. Those soldiers she was able to permanently destroy, but there were so many that by sheer weight of numbers they were able to press relentlessly inwards, forming a tighter and tighter circle.

The Legion soldiers were being cut down less than a dozen feet away from where Iana’s Warbringer towered over Alari when Iana had to admit that the end had come.

“I’m sorry,” she said, taking advantage of her last remaining seconds. “I should have believed you sooner.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Alari said. “You bought us time.”

“Not enough,” Iana said as the Legion soldier closed the last few feet and touched her Warbringer again. Magical power began failing all through the goliath and Iana knew it would only take the Legion seconds to pierce the command capsule and drag her out to her death.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Alari said, looking skyward as a smile spread across her face.

“No one can save you now, Gallagrin,” Dagmauru said.

Lightning struck Iana’s Warbringer and the thunder clap that followed blew the Blighted Legion backwards, arcs of electricity incinerating them before they could touch the ground.

“I beg to differ,” Daelynne Akorli, the Queen’s Champion, said.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 49

Iana gritted her teeth and forced her injured Warbringer to its feet. The Blighted Legion had ripped apart critical pieces of the giant plant machine and its self repair magics were struggling to undo the damage with only the barest trickle of the power they usually had to drawn upon. The Legions magic draining touch had made controlling the Warbringer feel like she was piloting a mound of mud, but if that was all she had, then Iana was determined to drown her foes in mud.

The good news, from her perspective was that the Blighted soldiers weren’t an issue anymore. Iana was free to sink fast growing taproots deep into the ashy ground and gobble the life energy that lay dormant there. Alari had destroyed the Blighted Legion in the blink of an eye. Even the Warbringer’s enhanced sensors hadn’t fully tracked what she’d done and they weren’t affected at all by the magic drain that depowered the ambulatory systems. Given time Iana knew she could restore the Warbringer to full fighting capacity.

The bad news was, predictably, that she was out of time. The Blighted Legion wasn’t the tool the Council had counted on defeating Alari with. The Blighted were expendable shock troops sent in to herald the arrival of a far worse threat.

Iana didn’t know what the Divine Sanction was, but she could feel its power radiating in waves across the ashed plain. Even the impenetrable bulk of the Warbringer was little more than a curtain of gauze between her and the unfathomable being that towered over the landscape.

It had appeared from the forest, and crushed Gallagrin’s Queen with an invisible blow. In the wake of that short conflict it had walked closer and then watched, waiting for Alari to regain her feet.

Iana found the behavior puzzling, as though the controller of the Divine Sanction was distracted. Then she saw it venting clouds of steam.

She knew what that meant for a Warbringer and guessed that whatever horror the Council had crafted, it used some of the same mystical techniques that were employed to make the Warbringers.

If so, the pilot wasn’t distracted. They were rationing the power they spent on controlling the Divine Sanction. For unskilled Warbringer controllers, there was a tendency to use far more mystical force than was required in order to direct and control the units. Fledgling drivers would force the units to retain balance by nearly levitating them, or expend tremendous amounts of energy on creating explosive visuals for attacks which inflicted relatively little damage to the target.

Iana took advantage of the lull to pull as much power back into the Warbringer as she could and rose only when the Divine Sanction began to stir again.

“You…were…supposed…to run,” Alari said from the bottom of the crater the Sanction had smashed her into.

Watching the Gallagrin Queen as she haltingly pushed herself back to her feet, Iana’s heart snapped. Each movement Alari made was interrupted by a spasm of pain or a jerk of agony but the Queen didn’t let the discomfort stop her. Though she was the smallest combatant on the field, Alari countered the awe the Divine Sanction was broadcasting with a poise and bearing that spoke of an indomitable regal spirit.

In response, the Divine Sanction swelled, growing vast at the challenge presented by Gallagrin.

Iana saw the tremble in Alari’s clenched fists and knew the Queen did not have the power to withstand another blow like the one that had felled her. Whatever Pact Magic was supporting her, it was being stressed to its limits just resisting the terrible gravity of the Divine Sanction.

Without thinking or choosing, Iana stepped forward, blocking the Sanction’s path to Alari, shielding the Gallagrin Queen with the one Warbringer in the world that was free of the Council’s control.

The attack, when it came, was apocalyptic. For miles around them, the ground simply vanished. All life in the blast zone across the border was extinguished in an instant, leaving behind only burned shadows.

But Iana was unharmed. As was everything sheltered behind her.

“Well, isn’t that interesting,” Alari said, a weary note of hope in her voice.

Another blast rocked the landscape, and again Iana and the area she protected stood unharmed.

“Who stands before us?” The voice came from the Divine Sanction but even with the horrible warping effect of the projected sound, Iana recognized it immediately as her long time mentor.

“Dagmauru! What are you doing? Why are you attacking us?” she plead, not trying to hide the anguish in her voice.

The Green Council wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to protect and nurture. The only thing they destroyed were the monsters that lurked in the Lost Glades and even then only the ones who posed a clear danger to the rest of the realm.

“Iana?” Dag asked. “Are you piloting that abomination?”

Iana flinched back. Abomination? There was nothing different about her Warbringer. Alari had taken control of it briefly but she’d relinquished her hold on it. The Warbringer wasn’t under any lingering magical compulsions, Iana had triple checked that.

And that was the problem. The Warbringer would only respond to her. It couldn’t be overriden by a higher authority. With Alari’s modification, it could never be used to trap her in its control web to wait for fire spiders to come and burn her alive.

Iana’s stomach turned sour, but the taste in her mouth wasn’t acid. It was betrayal.

“Yes. It’s me Dagmauru. I am in full control of this unit, and I require an answer immediately. Why are you attacking us. Do you have the Council’s blessing for this or are you operating under only your own authority.”

It was a formal declaration, phrased in the specific words Dagmauru had forced her to learn. It was as much an accusation as it was a question. Dagmauru’s actions were so grievously against the Green Council’s principals that she was asking him if she should treat him as a traitor to the realm or if there was some profound misunderstanding at work.

She’d been expected to make that request and declaration in the event of one or more of her troops turning mutinous or in the event that another commander rebelled against the Green Council. The idea that Dagmauru would be the one to turn against her realm would have been unthinkable, except for the evidence before her eyes.

“Stand down Commander,” Dagmauru said. “You are sheltering an enemy of the Green Council. Any further interference will be judged to be treason and you will be dealt with accordingly.”

“Why are you attacking us. Do you have the Council’s blessing for this or are you operating under only your own authority,” Iana repeated, not budging an inch.

“The Divine Sanction can only be activated by the will of the Council. The vote was taken earlier today. Now stand down and accept the discipline of your superiors.”


She said the word before she knew her mouth was moving. As she did the world collapsed into the singularity of that one syllable.


No, she wasn’t going to stand down.

No, they weren’t her superiors.

No, she wasn’t going to let Dagmauru murder Alari.

She’d denied the attacks Dagmauru had sent after her. She’d blinded herself to the reality of what being a Warbringer pilot meant. The early death she could expect. The coercion that was an omni-present part of her life. The lack of any future apart from being recycled into the green to make room for the next generation of recruits.

It felt like with one word she’d washed away the whole world that she’d built for herself. Despite being clothed in depths of the Warbringer, she felt naked, but, in the heat of the Divine Sanction’s glare, a wild madness gripped Iana and she embraced the feeling.

“No. I will not stand down.” She stepped forward, challenging the god that stood before her. “This has gone too far. I’m going to stop you or die trying.”

“If that is your decision, then die,” Dagmauru said, his voice heavy and dark with frustration.

Iana felt a new stab of betrayal. Dagmauru had been her mentor for all of her life. He was the closest person she had to a parent. She thought that he’d valued her. That she was somehow worthy of his attention given her elevation to the rank of Commander.

He was ready to cast her aside without any discussion though. The feelings of closeness and concern she’d experienced were a lie. Her whole command was a lie too, a convenient fiction to make delegating tasks easier, while the Council held her leash so tightly that she’d become numb to the constraint.

“Fine! If you want to kill me, then come and do it!” She was screaming, her short decade of life wrapped up in rage and unbearable sorrow to be spit like poison onto the wind.

“He can’t,” Alari said. “That construct. You woke one of your gods didn’t you?”

Iana shuddered. She was facing a god, one of her gods, in battle, and yet Dagmauru had managed to commit an even greater blasphemy. With the will and approval of the Council, he’s violated the most sacred of beings in the realm and turned them into a weapon for his war machine. Her vision of her homeland crumbled.

That the Council was capable of such a feat wasn’t surprising. They were the best magic workers in all the realms. That they were capable of choosing to perform such a feat did come as a shock though. The Green Council that Iana knew, or at least the one she believed in, could never have committed such a sin.

Which, Iana realized, meant that the Green Council she believed in didn’t exist. It had never existed. At least not as anything more than a fairy tale in a young girl’s unquestioning mind.

“Yes, the Divine Sanction is barred from doing harm to any citizen of the Green Council,” Dagmauru said. “It was the only option to ensure its terrible power wouldn’t be used against us. But I have more forces at my disposal than the Sanction.”

From the forest, a new wave of the Blighted Legion, stepped forward and from the sky Warbringers fell.

Iana didn’t recognize the Blighted Legion troops. They were all cut from the perfected forms of dead elves and humans and dwarves whom she had never known.

The Warbringers were another story though. She recognized those.

“Wylika! What are you doing here?” she asked, sending fresh roots out to connect with her former Second-in-Command.

“Commander Iana?” Wylika asked. “We don’t know! We lost control of our Warbringers when the transport Rocs arrived.”

“Can you get control back?” Iana asked.

“I think so,” Wylika said. “We’re on full ready status. The Warbringer’s have us locked out except for the sensors and communication systems, but that will change as soon as the order to attack is given.”

“Dagmauru, why are you doing this?” Iana called out.

“The fall of a commander is the fall of their troops,” Dagmauru said. “The Divine Sanction cannot damage you, but they can.”

“We’re not going to fight the Commander!” Wylika’s objection was echoed by a chorus from the rest of Iana’s troops.

“You will do as you are ordered to or the Council will be forced to recognize that Commander Iana’s corruption has spread to you as well,” Dagmauru said.

“What does he mean Iana?” Wylika asked.

“He’s the one who arranged for the creche to be destroyed. He’s the one who caused all the devastation around us,” Iana said. “Now he’s trying to use our gods to spread it further.”

“Is that true?” Wylika asked.

“This is on your Commander’s shoulders,” Dagmauru said. “Hers and the woman she protects. She brought a foreign power onto our soil. The Queen of Gallagrin, who none of you could stand against. Only I was able to protect us from her. Now strike your former commander down and prove your loyalty to the realm that gave you life!”

An eerie quiet settled over the battlefield and Iana felt her nerves draw as tight as harp strings.

“No,” Wylika said. “Our loyalty is to our sister and our leader. Commander Iana, what are your orders?”