The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 43

Dae didn’t like what she was seeing.

“Those things eat magical armor,” Ogma said. “That’s going to be a problem isn’t it?”

Below them, on the rolling, grassy field that served as the border between Gallagrin’s sharp cliffsides and the Green Council’s lush forests, armies marched. Armored nobles, the strongest warriors in all of Gallagrin, clashed against hollow abominations of green ooze shaped into the form of the Council’s dead humans and elves.

“Wasn’t something we expected to run into,” Dae said as she watched the battle churn and spin in front of her.

“We knew the Council was going to have special forces though,” Ogma said. “Didn’t we?”

Dae watched as one of the Blighted Legion grabbed a Duke and rotted his armor so badly that the transformation effect was undone. Two of the Duke’s companions stepped in bought him time to make a retreat but the fight was not going as easily as it had.

“We knew it would be more difficult once we tried to cross into the Council’s terrain,” Dae said. “Kicking them out of Gallagrin was always going to be the easy part. The key here is judging how far we try to take this fight.”

“Aren’t we moving in to rescue the Queen?” Ogma asked. “My scouts told us where she is after all.”

“That’s not what the nobles are fighting this battle for,” Dae said. “At least not most of them.”

“What? It’s all about greed?” Ogma said.

“Not all,” Dae said. “But the conquest and plunder of another realm is an intoxicating idea for a lot of them. If you look at what they were most unhappy about after the battle with Paxmer, it was that they weren’t given the chance to pillage the Paxmer’s countryside and claim new and exotic forms of wealth.”

“Isn’t gold enough for them?” Ogma asked.

“They didn’t get that either, but the most valuable loot another realm holds is its magic. Steal that and you gain all kinds of advantages.” Dae said.

“So this is an attempt to placate them?” Ogma asked. “The Queen’s plan is to let them pillage the Green Council and buy their loyalty like that?”

“That’s probably what they think is happening here,” Dae said. “Or it’s what they were thinking until the Council decided to get serious about this fight.”

“They sent thousands of troops across our border, how was that not being serious?” Ogma asked.

“It was deadly serious for the troops they sent,” Dae said. “But when you look at the quality of the troops they led with and the kind of equipment they carried you can see that the vanguard was far from their best.”

“Why would they send weak troops in to attack us?” Ogma asked.

“Lots of reasons,” Dae said. “To test our defenses. Because that’s all they needed as long as we stayed at each other’s throats, and, most importantly, because they were still more focused on Senkin.”

“Ah, that makes sense,” Ogma said. “They sent in troops to attack us so that we’d keep our armies at home for defense rather than sending them to join the war effort on Senkin’s behalf. That doesn’t seem like a great long term strategy though.”

“It’s not,” Dae said. “It leaves them divided and weak. Plus it pulled us into the war when we might have been willing to sit it out.”

“The Queen sort of destroyed the idea of Gallagrin remaining neutral when she invaded on her own, didn’t she?” Ogma asked.

“Queen Alari’s plan was to contact and speak with the Green Council’s leaders. Give them a chance to tell their side of the story and then verify if they were telling the truth,” Dae said. “Given that the fight’s gone on this long, it’s safe to say the Council wasn’t interested in talking the issue out.”

“At least we know where she is, roughly speaking,” Ogma said.

“Yeah, your scouts are going to deserve a medal for that.” Dae said.

“I don’t think they’ll want one,” Ogma said. “It was less a matter of ordering them in and more a matter of unlocking the leg irons I’d been holding them back with.”

“You work with some disturbing individuals,” Dae said. “And I want you to consider who’s saying that.”

“Can’t be all together sane if you’re idea of a good time is heading into enemy territory without backup or support,” Ogma said.

“You wanted to go with them yourself didn’t you?” Dae asked.

“Let’s just say I’m planning to ask for a demotion once this crisis is solved,” Ogma said.

“Based on the job you’ve been doing, I don’t think you’re going to get it,” Dae said. “Gallagrin needs people like you. Queen Alari needs people like you.”

“Do you think she’s going to be ok?” Ogma asked.

“She’s heading back to the border,” Dae said. “That wasn’t in the original plan, which is a bit worrisome.”

“Could something have gone wrong?” Ogma asked.

“Yeah, that’s a pretty safe bet,” Dae said. “It’s not surprising. Something always goes wrong with every plan.”

“So that means the Queen does need a rescue then right?” Ogma asked.

“Not necessarily,” Dae said. “The Queen can more than take care of herself. We’re just here to enact one of the parts of her plan.”

Dae wished she could have felt as certain of Alari’s invincibilty as she sounded. Intellectually, she knew that Alari had more power at her disposal that perhaps anyone else in the world. Dae also knew Alari had the wits to use that power well. Despite all the arguments for why Alari had to be fine though, the question of “But what if she’s not?” returned again and again to plague Dae’s thoughts.

She knew she had to trust Alari. It was far too late to walk back on that decision, but that did little to hold back the worry.  For as strong and clever as Alari was, Dae knew that there were still forces and people who could be a threat to her. Even with the full power of Gallagrin’s Pact Spirit at Alari’s beck and call there was no absolute guarantee that she would make it home safely and there was nothing that scared Dae more than that. If was the one fear that surpassed even the Dragon Fear she’d managed to overcome. The one fear that Dae clung to because the letting it come true would destroy her.

“Should we join the fray?” Ogma asked. “Or is it time to sound the retreat?”

“Not one hour ago, you threatened to tie me up in chains if I tried to do anymore fighting,” Dae said. “So we wait, and you get to see how fun being reasonable is.”

“If you would just transform, I’d wouldn’t need to break out the chains,” Ogma said.

“It’s not time yet,” Dae said. “And anyways I wasn’t too much of a burden fighting outside of my armor.”

They both knew that was a lie. Even with a lifetime of training, Dae was barely a match for the weakest of Pact Warriors and presented an insignificant threat compared to one of the nobles. She’d survived the battles against the Council’s forces that invaded Gallagrin through careful positioning and the help of the pact Bearers who fought at her side.

“We’re starting to get our butts kicked out there,” Ogma said. “When will the time be right?”

Across the battlefield the Gallagrin nobility moved like flashing stars, tearing into the ranks of the Blight Legion that advanced relentlessly towards Gallagrin’s border.

Each individual exchange was tilted heavily in favor of Gallagrin’s defenders. Pact Spirits were stronger and faster than the Blighted Legion. The nobles could flit in, rend one their enemies to pieces, and then zip away before a retaliatory strike could be made.

Most of the time.

The problem the nobles were facing was that they didn’t have just one opponent to fight. The Blighted Legion outnumbered them by a hundred to one and, despite the damage the Gallagrin nobles were doing, those odds weren’t changing. With each of member of the Blighted Legion that fell, the Legion regained the magic that had been animating its fallen warrior. Destroying one attacker simply meant that a new one would arise to take its place.

Given a Pact Knight’s endurance, that wouldn’t have been an insurmountable problem. What was turning the battle against Gallagrin’s defenders was that they were making mistakes. Only little ones, but they were small errors that the magic draining powers of the Legion made it difficult to make up for. Like the Duke whose armor had been rotted away, too many nobles were overextending themselves by inches and paying it for it with crippling damage to their Pact Armor.

What had started out as a fun adventure in the high fields of Gallagrin was turning out to be something very different at the Green Council’s border. The noble’s had descended from Gallagrin’s mountains drunk on victory and run into the most painfully sobering of foes. One that could withstand all of the damage they dealt and steal their strength in the process.

It wasn’t hard to see the change in the tenor of the battle. Without being ordered to, the nobles were forming up into strike teams rather than racing into the fray on their own. Where they’d begun the fight eager to take ground and push their charge into the Green Council’s forests, they were turning back towards the high ground that lay behind them. It wasn’t a rout, the noble’s Pact Spirits were too powerful for the Blighted Legion to manage that, but Gallagrin’s forward advance had been halted and was being pushed away, one fallen noble at a time.

“Why aren’t they retransforming?” Ogma asked.

“I don’t think they can,” Dae said. “Watch, you can see how some of them are trying to, but no transformation is taking place. The rot must be lingering on them. It doesn’t just steal magic or eat it, it creates a siphon.”

“So all they have to do is hit us once and we’re out of the fight?” Ogma asked.

“It’s a lot worse than that,” Dae said. “If I’m right, once the rot sets in, they absorb our magics. So we lose our transformations and they gain them.”

“But none of them are transformed!” Ogma said.

“None of them are transformed yet,” Dae said. “That would cost them magic that they can’t replenish except by draining it from us. If I’m right, they’ll do that sparingly.”

“Unless they can capture some of us,” Ogma said. “Then they’d have access to all the magic they wanted.”

“That would explain the lack of fatalities on our side,” Dae said. “Corpses can’t feed them magic. Or at least our corpses can’t do that.”

A Duchess a hundred yards away fell beneath a pile of the Blighted Legion. She was up a moment later but her armor hung from her in tatters. Before she could run, another wave of creatures piled onto her and dragged her back into their ranks.

“Signal for a retreat but order one of the strike teams to retrieve her,” Dae said. Coordinating the nobles was going to be no easy task, but with the fear instilled in them by the Green Council’s elite forces, Dae thought her job might be slightly easier than it otherwise would have been.

Fate, perhaps, disagreed with her.

“What are those?” Ogma asked, pointing to the sky.

Above them, giant birds, hollow eyed and covered in the same green ooze as the Blighted Legion soared overhead and rained down a deadly hail of soldiers.

“They’re cutting off our retreat!” Ogma said.

“They were waiting for us to start falling back,” Dae said. “This is bad.”

Several of the Blighted Soldiers landed inside the command post and leapt to attack the moment their feet touched the ground. Dae was driven up the steep slope by a figure that looked like a dwarven woman. Glancing around Dae saw that Ogma and the other people at the command post being pressed as hard as she was.

Struggling to stay calm, she reached out to Kirios, calling on her Pact Spirit to give her the magic she so desperately needed.

No magic came though and Kirios was silent.

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