The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 42

Undine found the heart of battle to be a strangely comforting place. His pact blade sung a song of merry death as it sliced through the Council’s aerial assassins, and his heart sang with it.

It wasn’t the thrill of bloodshed that drove him onwards into the nightmare of chaos that surrounded Queen Marie. The enemy troops barely registered in his awareness as anything living at all. Each was nothing more than an obstacle, a moving challenge, designed and constructed to test his ability to execute the martial forms and magics he’d spent the majority of his lifetime practicing. Each one that fell confirmed that he was what he strove to be. Worthy.

“Forward flanks, fall back,” Queen Marie commanded.

She stood at the head of the largest single army Senkin had ever raised. From her hands solar power flowed like heaven’s wrath. When Queen Alari had joined the battle, she’d changed the conditions of the field with a wave of her hand. Marie didn’t fight like that. Senkin’s magic wasn’t centered on transformation. In Marie’s hands lay the fires of the heavens. Purification through destruction, and for the first time in millennia it wasn’t being restrained.

Undine speared a pair of giant hornet hybrids that had survived the general aura of devastation around the Queen. They’d been armored in mirror bright steel that turned aside the streams of star bright fire that raged across the battlefield. The Council knew what their foes powers were and had come prepared for them.

What the hornet troops weren’t prepared for though was a Gallagrin Knight in full battle regalia. Mirror armor could withstand the incredible heat of Senkin’s fire but the cold steel of a pact blade backed by the superhuman force of a Pact Knight punched right through their heaviest guards.

Undine danced back behind Queen Marie, turning to defend her from attacks from the rear. The Queen smiled as he moved and focused her attention forward, unleashing a rolling wave of fire that chewed through the yellow mist that had been closing on them.

“We’re clear to entered Senkin territory,” General Pentacourt said. His armor showed the sort of damage that often accompanied identifying a corpse, but the Senkin commander was unbowed by whatever wounds he carrried.

“That means we’ve reclaimed the ground they took from Senkin,” Undine said.

Up to that moment, everything they had done was unquestionably in defense of a realm. With the first step onto foreign soil though, all of that changed.

Undine wished the fight would pause for a moment. He wished that either side would raise a flag to allow for even one minute of diplomacy. By taking the battle into the Council’s territory, Undine was moving well beyond the writ Queen Alari had given him. She had brought him and the rest of her people to Senkin to facilitate a restoration of peace. What would she say of one of her own aiding in the conquest of another realm?

The question had plagued Undine on the trip to Senkin’s front lines and he hadn’t come up with a satisfying answer to the dilemma.

At least not before the battle began.

Once the violence began, there wasn’t time for dilemmas. There was only act and react and do it better than the things that wanted to kill you.

It was a relief, in one sense, to be stripped of responsibility by the urgency of the situation, but Undine was too good at what he did for even the ferocity of the battle to completely strip away his ability to reflect on what he was doing.

He could refuse to go forward. He could stay behind to protect the troops and civilians of Senkin from the Council’s reprisal. But he wasn’t going to.

Queen Marie’s fight was the real fight for Senkin’s future, and by extension the future of the rest of the realms. Conquering the Green Council was far more than Queen Alari had authorized any of her people to do, but if the realms were going to know long term peace again, Undine suspected they needed an undeniable example of how catastrophic it was to attempt to solve global problems with violence in place of diplomacy.

“The Green Council declared war on us,” Queen Marie said. “We shall make the argument for peace. If they are fortunate, the Council will even survive long enough to hear it.”

“Our forward flanks are ready to redeploy,” General Pentacourt said.

“If I may suggest. Your Majesty, hold them back,” Ren said.

He and Undine had been given “Special Advisor” positions in the Queen’s immediate guard.

In Undine’s case no one had any issues with that. The general consensus seemed to be that if he was proficient enough to act as a guardian to the Queen of Gallagrin, then he was a welcome addition to the ranks of those tasked with protecting Senkin’s Queen.

In Ren’s case, opinions started out more mixed. As a Duke, Ren’s position was one of inheritance rather than merit. Since Gallagrin’s nobility rarely entered the field of battle, most of Senkin’s forces were unaware of the power a Gallagrin Duke could bring to bear by virtue of the special bond they shared with their Pact Spirits.

The reservations against Ren’s presence had last for all of thirty seconds though after the fighting began. Queen Marie brought overwhelming force to bear but the Council’s army had grown since Alari devastated it and the battlefront was much larger. That Senkin managed to contain and push back the entrenched Council forces was due in part to the unpredictable attacks that Ren and Undine launched deep into the Council’s ranks.

“What patterns do you perceive Duke Telli?” Queen Marie asked. “Our window to advance shrinks with every moment.”

“The Council has had many defenses prepared and yet they quit this field with minimal losses,” Ren said.

“They have left behind a trap for us?” Queen Marie asked.

“Definitely,” Ren said. “They had to know it would be possible you would join the battle. You are Senkin’s best hope, so your defeat would our worst nightmare.”

“So they have a plan for our demise on this field. Or they are bluffing and hoping to stall for reinforcements,” Queen Mari said.

“That is possible too,” Ren said. “It’s a difficult situation to resolve.”

“It doesn’t need to be,” Undine said.

“What do you have in mind Guardian?” Ren asked.

“Traps rely on surprise and tend to fail if they are sprung too early or against the wrong targets,” Undine said. He eyed the open field before them. It wasn’t the prime location for an ambush. Or at least it didn’t appear to be. Which in turn might make it the perfect spot for one, depending on what magics the Council had to work with.

“You’re thinking that you and I can go spring the Council’s trap early I take it?” Ren asked. The look of amusement in his eye suggested that this had been his plan all along.

“I was thinking I would go alone,” Undine said. “Your company isn’t unwelcome, but I am not sure if I should be risking the life of a Duke on this venture.”

“You won’t be,” Ren said. “I’ll be risking my own life. No one is allowed to say I can’t do that.”

“You are wrong, Duke Telli,” Queen Marie said. “We are allowed say that. Senkin has its own personnel to handle reconnaissance. We do not need to risk ambassadors from our friend Gallagrin in this matter.”

“Your pardon, Your Majesty, but I believe you do,” Undine said.

“Explain,” Queen Marie said.

“If there is a trap, it will be configured for you,” Undine said. “Your subjects cannot draw on any powers which you don’t not possess in greater abundance than any of them. If the trap has a prayer against you, it will obliterate anyone with the same type of powers but who holds them to a lesser degree.”

“Guardian Undine and I on the other hand are a problem they have not accounted for,” Ren said.

“Sending two into an ambush meant for an army is suicidal,” General Pentacourt said.

“No one else can keep up with us,” Undine said.

“And the window of opportunity is still shrinking,” Ren said.

“Go then,” Queen Marie said. “The army will continue its advance in five minutes, find us at its head to report your findings.”

“We’ll be back before the army steps into the Council’s lands,” Ren said.

With a rush of wind both he and Undine vanished from Queen’s circle of advisors and protectors.

“What are we looking for?” Undine asked as they came to a stop on the far side of the Green Council’s border.

“Anything hostile,” Ren said. “If it’s powerful enough to pose a threat to Queen Marie then it should be fairly obvious.”

“Could it be something within the boundary of the Council’s forests?” Undine asked. “A ranged weapon of some kind?”

“Possible, but unlikely,” Ren said. “Marie should be able to incinerate any projectiles they cast at her.”

“What if it’s a ball of explosive fire?” Undine asked.

“That would be a monumental mistake on the Council’s part,” Ren said. “Senkin’s magic deals in light and fire. The Queen would literally grab the fireball from the sky and turn it to whatever ends she wanted.”

“Nothing aerial then,” Undine said. “And I just felt the ground shake.”

“I did too,” Ren said. “It’s something burrowing underneath us.”

“A lot of somethings,” Undine said as the ground shaking got worse.

“Let’s stop them here,” Ren said and summoned a dozen blades from his armor.

Undine did the same, working out the trick from seeing Ren do it, and they both launched a storm into the earth below them.

Swords don’t normally penetrated very far when thrust into stone. Swords are not normally composed of metal transformed from pure magic though, nor are they normally hurled with anything near the force possessed by a Pact Knight.

The ground exploded into dozens of puff of dusted rock as the hail of swords pierce the earth and burrowed through stone seeking their prey. The ground exploded again a moment later as hundreds of creatures burst forth. The swords had found their mark.

Undine had two precious seconds to wonder if the choices he’d made had possessed any wisdom whatsoever when he saw their enemies.

They were perfect replicas of the Council’s Mindful races. Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Sylphs. But they were hollow. Empty sockets gazed back where eyes should have been. Worse, a foul smelling sap oozed from shatter lines on their skin. They swarmed towards the two Pact Knights and each of their movements drew forth hellish screams that seemed to come not from their throat but from every rip in their skin.

“Hmm, wasn’t expecting that,” Ren said a moment before he was buried under a horde of thirteen of the supernatural creatures.

Undine accelerated, dodging past a half dozen of the monsters, as he started to choke on the stench that arose from them. For all their ruin and decay though, the Council’s newest troops were neither slow nor weak. Two of the creatures managed to grab Undine at once and stabbing each through the head produced no change in their behavior or capacity.

As both of the creatures dove forward, slime covered teeth barred, Undine willed his armor to grow serrated spikes. And retract them. And grow them again. Retract and grow, retract and grow, over and over, faster than the eye could follow. With the spikes each acting like a high speed rip saw, Undine was able to close the distance to Ren’s position the same as a cloud of insane knives would have.

Ren hadn’t been able to shear through the monsters attacking him as easily. Instead he lashed out with mailed fists, each strike knocking one of the creatures a hundred feet or more away. Normally that would have been enough to easily create a clear space around himself, but Undine noticed that something was wrong. Or rather several things.

First, the creatures showed no fear or hesitation at all. When one was cast out, two more rushed forward to fill their place.

Second, the Duke’s armor was not withstanding the punishment inflicted on it.

It was rotting.

All along the Duke’s arms and in several places on his chest and legs, deep patches of rust were visible.

Undine looked down at his own armor and saw similar damage was accruing. The spikes he summoned were shot through with rust and there were splashes of  dusty red decay splashed all over his chest.

He tried to call for a new transformation to repair the damage and found his magic was blocked. Or rather, the decay was eating it. And getting stronger the more he called on extra power since it all went to the rot rather than to him.

It took less than a second after noticing that for Undine to grasp that this was a fight they couldn’t possibly win.

“We need to leave, now,” he said.

“Yes,” Ren said. “They seem to disagree though.”

As in confirmation of that, another thirteen of the Blighted Legion joined the fray.

Undine wondered what his final thought would be and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was of Eorn. She wouldn’t be happy that he fell in battle, but if he had to go, at least it was in a manner and against a foe that she could feel proud of him.

He slashed and kicked and punched, determined to leave a monument behind that would be the envy of every other Queen’s Guard who would serve the Gallagrin or Senkin thrones.

The fatalism of his actions faded though as a beam of searing light as wide as a boulevard swept over the Blighted Legion.

Queen Marie and her troops had joined the fray!

Then the light began to fade as the Blighted Legion consumed that too.

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