Dagmauru watched the Queen of Gallagrin fall and felt a giddiness sweep through him that he hadn’t known since he was a child.
The Council had voted. They’d given him authorization to deploy a power no mortal, not even an Undying one, had dared harness before. Far away, but as close to Dagmauru as a second skin, a god walked at his command, fought under his control, and conquered the only being who could have opposed him.
Centuries of planning, of research, of tireless, focused vision all came together in the moment the Bound God struck down Alari Gallagrin.
The Warbringer controllers had to be taught to restrain their power. The awesome force of the giant plant monsters had sent more than one recruit on dangerous, intoxicated killing sprees. Dagmauru felt tremors of the same madness running along his roots and coursing up through his sap. It would be so easy to unleash the god’s full power and obliterate his foe. He could march forward and destroy Senkin. Not the ruler, not her armies, but the entire realm. Divine force was irresistible and with it under his control, no one could ever threaten the Green Council again.
There was blood on Dagmauru’s hands, but in his heart sang the chorus of all the future generations he’d saved by spending a fraction of the current one.
The Bound God writhed closer to the fallen queen, emerging fully from the cover of the forest and Dagmauru felt thrills of victory surge within him. Each movement was holy and profound and undeniably perfect.
With an effort of will, he wrenched himself from the control bower.
“Personality absorption was at 43% sir,” a Blinet said.
“Excellent,” Dagmauru said. “We beat the previous maximum by three percent.”
Harnessing the power of a god, even a Sleeping one, had not been without its costs. The earliest controllers had burned from within, hollowed out by holy fire. Redirecting the blasphemy inherent in controlling a god into reinforcing the god’s bindings hadn’t been easy but it turned out that anything could be made to hate itself. Even a god.
“This isn’t a triumph,” Balmauru said. Dagmauru shot up and turned to face the unexpected visitor. “The Divine Sanction was never supposed to be used for the destruction of others.”
“I haven’t destroyed the Gallagrin queen,” Dagmauru said. “You know that she’s worth far too much alive.”
“I do indeed,” Balmauru said. “The things we could do with that kind of transformation magic transcend imagination. My point still stands though. This isn’t what we made the Divine Sanction for.”
“Yes it is,” Dagmauru said. “This is what defending the realm looks like. This is what all of our plans have led to.”
“All of your plans,” Balmauru said. “I never believed the Council would authorize the Sanction’s use like this. I am, apparently, an overly hopeful fool.”
“No,” Dagmaru said and walked over to take one of Balmauru’s hands. “For all your hopefulness, you have never been a fool. Some part of you must have known that this would be required.”
Balmauru ran a hand through the sensitive flowers that presently adorned Dagmauru’s head.
“We have always disagreed on this, and we will continue to do so,” Balmauru said. “Just as you hope to convince me that we must be monsters to fight monsters, so too must I cling to the belief that you will see those we struggle against as people no better or worse than we are.”
“We have danced through this debate for a millenia,” Dagmauru said. “You believe our enemies are the same as we are and I am afraid of how true that might be.”
Balmauru stepped away, and sighed.
“I suppose congratulations are in order. No one else has ridden the Bound God for as long as you have, or braved the rigors of battle in the pilot’s web.”
“It is phenomenal,” Dagmauru agreed. “More than we ever could have dreamed it to be. But there are still dangers.”
“The fifty percent threshold?” Balmauru asked.
“Yes. If the pilot’s will loses ascendancy, the god may go out of control,” Dagmauru said. “We haven’t solved that one yet. Fortunately it’s easy to feel when the line is approaching.”
“What is it like?” Bal asked.
“Euphoria and agony,” Dag said. “It feels like perfection and absolute mastery, like the world is worshipping you, and at the same time you can feel yourself starting to burn. From the core outwards.”
“Are you injured? You rode for so long, I won’t believe that you aren’t,” Bal said.
“I was,” Dag said. “We have secondary magic feeds for the pilot though.”
“I thought you rejected that idea?” Bal said. “The cost was supposed to be prohibitive.”
“It is,” Dag said. “We’re burning a season’s worth of magic every second between the basic bindings and the restorative magics for the pilot.”
“So we need to shut down the Sanction then?” Bal asked. Their roots were drawn in and tense.
“We can’t,” Dag said. “We’re at the tipping point. We can either march forward or we’ll fall back and never be able to mount an offensive like this again.”
“But if we preserve our strength…”
“We will have lost the element of surprise,” Dag said. “Even if Senkin and Gallagrin are cowed into submission, if we show that this is the limit of our power, Authzang and the Sunlost Isles will turn their eyes towards us. This is our chance to establish our position for the next millennium or more.”
“We don’t have seasons worth of magic to burn every second though,” Bal said. “And you can’t survive the kind of damage that much magic is protecting you from. If our reserves run dry, you’ll burn in an instant.”
“Both of those are true,” Dag said. “That’s why we need to take the next step.”
“What next step?” Bal asked, eyes narrowing to slits.
“The Inchesso Initiative,” Dag said.
The three words hit Balmauru like a series of hammer blows.
“That’s impossible. We can’t open a third front in the war.”
“We have to. Neither Gallagrin and Senkin have the free standing environmental magic that we need. We can only get that from Inchesso. We don’t even need to conquer them. Not immediately. A strike force to secure the unguarded resources along their border will keep us supplied with the magic we need to complete this campaign and raise an adequate defense afterwards.”
“No, I mean you can’t open a third front in the war because there’s no time,” Bal said. “The Council is reconvening in a few hours, but they’ll debate for days over the idea of attacking Inchesso. You won the vote for the use of the Divine Sanction, but there are too many of us who will oppose you for a vote to attack Inchesso to be carried.”
“More people on the Council back my plans than you know,” Dag said.
“Perhaps, but even if so, mounting an assault on Inchesso will take weeks, which is time we do not have, by your own reasoning,” Bal said.
“I know,” Dag said, “The Red Grove Legion and the two Marshland Irregulars from the Deadwoods are at the border already.”
“What? When did they move there?” Bal shivered, alternately shifting towards the exit to Dagmauru’s command lair and staying rooted in place to hear the rest of the story.
“It was their training exercises for the the season,” Dagmauru said.
“But those aren’t under your purview,” Bal said.
“As I said, I have more supporters on the Council than you know,” Dag said.
“You’re going to attack without authorization from the Council,” Bal said. “You planned to this whole time.”
“I did,” Dag said. “I couldn’t let our future be squandered in deliberation.”
“And you didn’t trust me enough to tell me your plans.”
“No. I trusted you enough to know that I couldn’t tell you of them.”
“How is that trust?”
“Whatever else you become, however the centuries will change us, you will always be Balmauru,” Dag said. “I know your heart Bal. You could not have sat idle knowing these plans. It would have been the utmost cruelty to ask you not to interfere. If I told you what I planned, you would have worked against me, and I would have failed. I have too much respect for your ability and your charisma to think otherwise.”
“That is not respect you speak of,” Bal said. “Respect would have involved believing in me enough to share your vision fully.”
“I couldn’t risk it,” Dag said. “This is the moment we have spoke of for so long. This is the crux on which history will turn. You came here to sway me, to convince me to put away the Divine Sanction, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Bal said.
“I won’t,” Dag said. “The Gallagrin Queen is beaten. We can harvest her magic. The Senkin Queen and her armies will be drained dry by the Blighted Legion. With the fall of Inchesso we will have no neighbors left to threaten us and we will be too powerful for any realm to stand against our forces. By the next cycle of seasons, I will be able to give you more than safety. I will be able to give you the world.”
“I have never wanted the world Dagmauru,” Bal said. “And the world you describe can never be a safe one.”
Dagmauru shook his head and grimaced.
“A world out of control is a world that can never be safe,” he said. “Only once all of the realms are united can we be sure that no one will seek to do us harm.”
“And what of the harm we do ourselves?” Bal asked. “If you follow this path through to its end, if you conquer the world out of fear and bigotry, can’t you see what damage you will do to our spirit? We do not define ourselves as conquers. We are the ones who live and grow. We change with the seasons and become more than we were, striving ever upwards until the earth reclaims us and we pass on to a new life. The world you describe is not a safe one. It’s sterile. Swept clean of anything we don’t understand or that scares us. And if we should grow into something new, or something that scares you? We will be swept away too, over and over again until all that remains is you, alone. The most controlled world is a barren one. Life cannot prosper in that soil. It is not meant to be predictable. It must be free, or it will wither and pass away.”
“You speak from a position of faith,” Dag said. “You do not know your words to be true. You don’t know what limits life can endure. But we do know the death that chaos brings.”
“All things die,” Bal said. “Even we Undying, even the Sleeping Gods, are not truly immortal. We cannot let a fear of death poison our lives though. Whether it’s for a century, a season or even a single day, we have to make them as great as we can, and there is no greatness to be found in the destruction or subjugation of others.”
“Life feeds on life, Bal, we are no different.”
“Of course we’re different,” Bal said. “We are Mindful. We can see ourselves. We can understand each other. We alone of all the living things in the world can be better than our basest natures.”
“Someday, perhaps,” Dag said. “But you look forward to a day too far in the future. This day we know only war and strife. We cannot live as though a bright and peaceful future lays beyond the next sunset. We must met the tomorrow that we know awaits us and that means opening our eyes to the blood that has been shed and that awaits us.”
“You will not stop this madness then?” Bal asked.
“It is not madness, and no, I will not cease. Not until our victory is secured. But you knew that. So what is your next move, old friend? Will you strike me down? It is the only choice you have if you wish to stop me.”
“I brought a vial Winter’s Kiss,” Bal said.
“A good choice,” Dag said. “All you need to do is drop it and this entire command center will be frozen for a season. You can stop me without killing me. I applaud the foresight.”
“But I’m not going to,” Bal said. “As you know.”
“Yes, I do,” Dag said. “Though I must confess, I’m not sure why?”
“Because I need to do more than stop you old friend,” Bal said. “Violence against you will only energize your supporters. I haven’t convinced you yet, but I am not going to stop trying. You can be a reasonable soul. I have faith in that too, and even if you do this thing, I will keep that faith in you. You can be better than this, and you will be better than this, even if I have to die trying to convince you.”
“I won’t let you die Balmauru,” Dag said. “And maybe someday that will convince you. For now though, I have our victory to secure. There is no one left to oppose us, but I will not take any chances. By this time tomorrow, we will rule three realms and hold the greatest collection of power ever accumulated in mortal hands.”