Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 48

Dae was more than hurt. She was dying. Unfortunately it seemed that the Blighted Legion had medics among their unnatural ranks because they’d repaired just enough of the damage that they’d done to her that she was pretty sure she was going to live long enough for them to get her into a lab somewhere. Once that happened she was certain she wasn’t they’d repair all the damage to make sure she lived. The problem was that she was equally certain that living was going to be immeasurably unpleasant thereafter.

Consciousness faded in and out, as though the nights and days of her life were streaming by a thousand times faster than they should have. Focusing on the present was difficult but with the last scraps of her strength Dae fought to hold the narrative of her life in place, clinging to the hope that she could find some path that remained open to her.

The Gallagrin nobles hadn’t fared well in their battle against the Blighted Legion. Their morale had been tenuous at best and largely based on the ease of the victories they’d won against the Green Council’s regular forces during the battles in Gallagrin. Fighting on their enemies ground had been a far less inspiring experience.

Once the Blighted Legion showed up on the field, the Gallagrin advance had turned into a retreat. They could fight foes of the Legion’s caliber but not forever and the Legion showed no sign of tiring as it continually stole magic and strength from the Gallagrin nobles.

Dae remembered her position being overrun. She remembered trying to fight the Legionnaire that attacked her. She remembered screaming at Kirios that they needed to transform.

But they didn’t.

After that she remembered very little.

Forcing her eyes open, Dae saw that only a little time had passed since her capture. An hour, a week or a year though, to some extent it didn’t matter how long she’d been unconscious, if her magic was lost to her.

In darkness that followed as unconsciousness reclaimed her, a dream came to Dae, sweeping away the present and the pain of battle. With the easy, fluid logic of dreams, decades crumbled and Dae was a girl once again.

“It’s ok if I get sent away,” she said as she brushed Princess Alari’s hair. There were tears in the younger Dae’s eyes, but she kept their echo from appearing in her voice.

“No it’s not,” Alari said. She help herself rigid in the chair, her head bent down rather than looking up into the mirror in front of them, to watch Dae work.

“If the King blames me, then he won’t do anything to you,” Dae said, repeating in the dream the words she’d spoken so long ago that they felt like they belonged to a stranger.

“I don’t care what he does to me!” Alari said, whirling around in her chair to face Dae.

“But I do!” Dae said, meeting the fierceness in the Princess’ gaze with an unyielding determination of her own.

“Adae, he’s not just going to send you away,” Alari said.

“He won’t send me to the chopping block,” Dae said. Even in her dream Dae didn’t remember what their exact crime had been. There were too many things that the Butcher King reacted to with lethal force. It was probably reading from the ever growing list of forbidden tomes. Alari and Dae had long ignored the proscriptions against reading volumes written by “traitors and malcontents” since those tended to be the works that provided the clearest picture of the realm’s history and held the most interesting information on Gallagrin’s neighbors.

“No, he’ll send you to hard labor,” Alari said. “You won’t die in one stroke, but he’ll still kill you. It will just take weeks or months instead.”

“Better me than you!” Dae said.

Alari surged to her feet and shoved Dae backwards.

“Why!” she demanded. “Why is it better that you suffer than I do? He’s my father. What he does is more my fault than yours.”

“That’s insane,” Dae said, not daring to rise from bed she’d tumbled back on. Alari rarely got mad, so seeing her livid was ever so slightly terrifying. “Nothing the King does is your fault. Nothing at all.”

“I benefit from it,” Alari said. “And I’m going to inherit his throne, so if his sins land on anyone, they’re going to land on me.”

“No,” Dae said. “They won’t. What he does is on him. You can’t control him, you can’t stop him, and I don’t know if you can even influence him anymore. That’s why I need to take this punishment.”

“Why are you so determined to die like this?” Alari fought to keep her voice below a scream. “You don’t deserve any of this. You shouldn’t be punished at all! Why won’t you let me protect you?”

Dae met Alari’s eyes. There were things they’d never spoken of, secrets that had never needed words before.

“He might kill you for this,” Dae said, looking away, unable to confront the intensity in Alari’s eyes.

“So what?” Alari said. “Do you think I want to live if it means he kills you in my place?”

“I’m just a servant,” Dae said, her breath clenching in unbearable spasms.

Alari made a strangled squeaking sound and turned away before speaking again.

“Is that it?” she asked. “You want to protect me because I’m a princess, because of my royal blood, because I’m your ruler?”

“No,” Dae said, her voice little more than a whisper but somehow loud enough to fill the Princess’ bed room. “Even if you were stripped of your title, I would still have to protect you.”

“Why?” Alari asked again. “Why protect me? Why can’t you let me do this one thing for you?”

She turned back to Dae and stared with an unflinching gaze despite the tears in her eyes.

Dae swallowed. Blood was thundering in her ears and her mind was swimming in fear and doubt. She knew the truth, but putting it in words, even the three simplest ones, required more courage than she could ever imagine possessing.

“Please, Adae,” Alari said. “Just tell me.”

A moment of silence, silver and serene, stretched out between them as Dae drew in her breath and let the words she’d held back from even herself tumble out.

“I love you.”

“We say that all the time,” Alari said, her expression softening as her breath caught in her throat.”

“I can’t let the king hurt you because I love you,” Dae said. “Not as a friend, not as a princess, not as my ruler. I love you and I think I have for a long time now.”

Alari choked back a sob and put her hand to her mouth.

“I know I have no right to,” Dae said. “I know you can never be free to love me, I know I’m not special enough…”

She was cutoff by by Alari stepping forward and sweeping her into a desperate, passion soaked kiss that neither held back from.

“I love you too,” Alari said when they finally broke apart. “I may not be free to marry as I please, but you have had my heart for years now, and you always will.”

Dae couldn’t fight back her tears and found herself sobbing helplessly against Alari’s chest.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Adae,” Alari said. “I…I never thought you’d need to leave me, and I was never brave enough to hope that you’d stay if I told you how I felt.”

“I don’t ever want to leave you,” Dae said. “But I’m not going to let anyone hurt you, not even your father.”

Alari kissed Dae again, softer this time, not as urgent, but no less electrifying for either of them, and the dream dissolved back into the painful reality of Dae’s present.

The Blighted Legion was carrying her into the Green Council’s realm. Her and several other Gallagrin nobles.

In her pain addled mind she saw the Council’s plans. The best plunder from another realm was it’s magic and, with the Blighted Legion, the Council had the capability of continuously draining the strongest of Gallagrin’s magic from anyone they captured. She and the other nobles would be living wells that the Council would draw magic from at will.

The pain from her shattered body lanced through Dae sending her into a twilight unconsciousness once more.

“Why can’t I transform?” she screamed, though on some level she knew no one could hear her since she was trapped in a dream again.

“It’s not your fault.”

Dae looked up to find her father standing before her, the mists of death rolling away from him.

“Poppa?” she asked, “No, he’s gone. Who are you?”

“I needed a voice you would listen to.”

“Well you picked the wrong one,” Dae said. “I don’t listen to hallucinations.”

“I’m not a hallucination. You know me. And I know why you can’t transform.”

Dae looked closer and saw the spinning stars that filled her father’s eyes.

“Kirios?” she asked.

“Yes, that is the name you have given me,” the Pact Spirit said.

“What the living hell is wrong with you?” Dae was on her feet in the dream and holding the spirit by his shirt. “They need us. Transform me.”

“I cannot,” Kirios said and lightning crackled over his body. “I thought things would change after our battle against Haldraxan, that we could return to how we were, but I see now, through you, how impossible that is.”

“What do you mean?” Dae asked “What’s changed? Are you injured?”

“No,” Kirios said. “I can’t be injured, at least not as you conceive it.”

“It’s me then?” Dae asked, sparks dripping from her fingers. Fear tried to grip her stomach but she pushed it away, acknowledging that it was present but refusing to listen to it.

“You aren’t injured either,” Kirios said. “You’ve grown.”

“And that cost me your magic?” Dae asked, her anger came out as bolts of golden lightning that struck the ground at Kirios’ feet.

“Yes,” Kirios said. “You know the power we invoke when we transform into our merged state and you know the danger that lies in it.”

“Yeah, without our bonds the magic would overwhelm me and I’d go berserk,” Dae said. “But our bonds are strong, maybe stronger than anyone’s except Alari.”

“We have worked together well within them,” Kirios said, playing with the lightning that swirled around him and forming it into scenes from their shared past. “And I have learned so much from you.”

“We’re not done yet!” Dae said, lightning surging from her in vicious arcs. “Alari needs us! They all need us! I’m not going to become an experimental carcass in a Council lab somewhere. I have to save them. I have to save her!”

“I can’t give you anymore magic,” Kirios said, closing his hand and banishing the sparks that flew around him. “As much as I want to, as dear as you have made the Queen to me, I can’t give you the power to transform.”

“Why? What’s wrong with me?” Dae asked.

“You’ve outgrown our bonds,” Kirios said. “There is no fear left in you that can constrain the magic I could provide. If you call on me, and I don’t refuse, we will both be lost in a flood of magic.”

“I’ll go berserk?” Dae asked. “After I resisted Haldraxan, you’re saying if I try to transform again, I’ll wind up as a mindless Berserker?”

“No,” Kirios said. “I’m saying that if I give you magic the only thing left of either of us will be a mindless berserker. You won’t be part of it at all.”

“They’re taking us into the Green Council’s realm,” Dae said. “Even if we’re mindless, as a Berserker we could do enough damage to turn things around.”

“You would destroy yourself?” Kirios asked.

“You’ve been with me through my darkest hours,” Dae said. “You already know the answer to that.”

“You would destroy me too?” Kirios asked.

“You’re a spirit, I thought you couldn’t be destroyed?” Dae said.

“Most spirits can retain their core inside the maelstrom of a Berserker,” Kirios said. “But few Pact Knights have your prowess. Nothing of either of us would survive your Berserker.”

“Then I’m going to have to avoid becoming a Berserker,” Dae said.

“Thank you,” Kirios said.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Dae said. “I’m not giving up.”

“Without the magic I could give you, what is else left?” Kirios asked.

“I am,” Dae said and held up her hand that was blazing with a storm of lightning brighter than the sun.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 47

Balmauru left Dag’s control room with every fiber, root and ounce of sap trembling in frustration. Centuries of communication, every argument Balmauru could think to make, and it came down in the end that Dagmauru simply didn’t want to see the world as it was.

He hadn’t always been like that. When they’d stood freshly sprouted before the majesty of their gods, their roles had been so clear. The Council’s gift was the magic of life itself and so they were made to be Undying, able to endlessly renew themselves, living across uncounted seasons as the stewards of the will of the Green Gods.

Then the youngest of the Green Gods had fallen in battle. Authzang’s gods were victorious in that encounter but the pools of godsblood that splattered their realm proved to be the deadliest of toxins. The blighted horrors rose that from the those unhallowed sites still plagued Authzang and likely would until the ending of the world, but the damage done wasn’t limited to Authzang’s borders.

The loss of one of their own turned the Green Gods inwards. They were the avatars of life, diverse in their number as life itself must be. Death was part of the cycle they designed for mortals but not something that was ever supposed to come for them.

Under their focused scrutiny, the Green Council became the most magically adept of all the realms. It was a mystical might that was always held in check though. None of the Green Gods would allow their mortals to use their divine gifts against the other realms. No revenge for the fallen god was ever allowed or spoke of.

By the express order of their divine will, the Green God’s magic was for the Council’s realm and people alone. What trade occurred with the Council’s neighbors was limited to naturally produced items being exported from the Council in exchange for materials and foods which couldn’t be found within the Council’s realm. They weren’t cut off from the world entirely, none of the gods of the Blessed Realms would tolerate that, but from within the deep forests only a narrow slice of the rest of the realms was visible.

Balmauru regretted never trying to expand on that after the fall of the gods. It had taken so long though to accept that they were gone. So long to believe they had left their servants to fend for themselves. Some of Balmauru’s deep roots still quested for the gods. Still longed to hear their voices and feel the warmth of their regard. The Green Gods were not always kind, but their simplest gestures offered a greater security than anything Balmauru had felt in the centuries since they passed.

It had been that deep rooted desire for their presence that had made the idea of resurrecting them palatable.

To be fair though, Balmauru sighed, Dagmauru was also extraordinarily persuasive when he chose to be.

The Silver Pool was Balmauru’s favorite meditation room in the Council headquarters. It was far from Dagmauru’s command room but the long and winding path was so familiar Balmauru could walk it without paying the slightest attention. At its end, a familiar seat by the glittering pool sat waiting and open.

“Perhaps I need to clear my head more than I thought,” Balmauru mused, moving to the well worn perch.

Waiting beside the seat were two of the ubiquitous Blivets. They were the only ones in the Silver Pool room aside from Balmauru, which wasn’t surprising in itself. With the Council still technically in-session until the immediate crisis was resolved the other councilors and their support staff had more important tasks to attend to than a bit of quiet meditation.

Balmauru looked at the Blivets more closely though. It wasn’t odd, as a general case, to see them aorund, but these two in particular stood out. The first detail that supported that observation was their coloration. They were identical, and Blivet twins were extremely rare.

But these weren’t Blivets. Balmauru noticed that the moment they turned towards each other. Their movements were too similar. And their auras were all wrong for being Blivets.

“Who are you?” Balmauru had a guess as to their identities but it was such an unlikely scenario that it was still a root curdling surprise when the two dropped their disguises and stood revealed as Gallagrin Knights.

“I am Jaan Lafli, and this is my sister Jyl,” the one on the left said.

“We heard you speak before the assembly,” Jyl said. “We’d like to help you pull the Council away from its wartime footing.”

“You risk much in coming here,” Balmauru said, trying to take their measure. Pact Knights were dangerous, and the Silver Pool was an isolated enough location that any help was bound to arrive far too late.

“It was her idea,” Jyl said. “She claimed that you have connections with the Lafli family.”

“I have connections with many people,” Balmauru said. The Lafli family were one of the more voracious of the Council’s lost clans. They’d fled the Council’s lands during the diaspora that followed the Green Gods descending into their slumber. The Laflis already had strong ties to Gallagrin at that point and had managed to claim a noble position there.

In the centuries that followed, the Lafli’s had done little to distinguish themselves in Balmauru’s estimations. Opportunists and schemers to a fault. To find them present inside the Council’s domain at this juncture was sufficiently out of character for that family that Balmauru was more than half convinced they were nothing more than simple spies.

But what sort of simple spies could penetrate into the most tightly defended place in the Green Council’s realm?

“We aren’t looking for special consideration,” Jaan said. “Nor, I believe, are we acting against the best interests of the Green Council in this matter.”

“And what do you imagine the best interests of the Green Council to be?” Balmauru asked.

“Certainly not war with three of your neighbors,” Jyl said.

“And yet war is upon us,” Balmauru said. “It seems the time for words to avoid that has passed.”

“Maybe not,” Jaan said. “We heard the Council vote in favor of releasing the Blighted Legion and the Divine Sanction, but if those initiatives fail, there’ll be a window to call for an end to this madness.”

“A member of the Lafli calls war a madness?” Balmauru asked. “In my experience your clan has always stood ready to profit off conflict. I can’t recall the last time a Lafli attempted to suppress a war.”

“This isn’t a war we can profit from,” Jaan said. “That is what makes it madness.”

“More importantly,” Jyl said. “This isn’t a war that the Council can profit from either.”

“And how would you have me convince the rest of the Council of that?” Balmauru asked.

“When the Blighted Legion and the Divine Sanction fail, let us speak before the Council,” Jyl said. “I am one of Queen Alari’s Guardians. I do not carry her voice, but I can bear witness as to her intentions in crossing into your realm.”

Balmauru chuckled.

“Your words might indeed sway those not fully committed to this war, and there are enough of them to easily swing the decision back to peace. Alas you will never be able to address them.”

“Why?” Jaan asked. “If Dagmauru’s forces are the problem, we can deal with them.”

“It’s not Dag’s troops that are the obstacle,” Balmauru said. “They’ll need to be dealt with, but the primary reason you won’t be able to address the Council is because the Divine Sanction cannot be overcome.”

“Anything can be overcome,” Jyl said. “You just need to know what its weaknesses are.”

“The Divine Sanction has no weaknesses,” Balmauru said. “It is perfect, as befits its Divine Nature.”

“Divine nature?” Jaan asked. “What have you done?”

Balmauru saw the dawning of expression of horror on the sister’s faces.

“It is as you imagine. We have distilled the essence of our gods and brought them back into the world. The Divine Sanction has the harnessed heartfire of the Green Gods themselves.”

“That’s…” Jyl stammered, and blinked.

“ abomination,” Jaan said, her eyes colder than ice.

“Yes, an abomination. And the ultimate blasphemy. And a sacred working,” Balmauru said. “We have chained our gods and made them answer to our will. By some measures that is the greatest sin imaginable, by others it is the deepest expression of love.”

“In what insane world could that ever be love?” Jyl asked.

“For we so loved the Green Gods, that we did not let even death itself divide us from them,” Balmauru said. “This was the only choice we had to bring them back, and so bring them back we did.”

“Why?” Jyl asked.

“You never knew the touch of the gods. You never felt them speak to your soul. You do not know how empty this world is without their presence,” Balmauru said. “If you did, you would never ask why, or at what cost.”

“You didn’t just bring them back though,” Jaan said. “You weaponized them.”

“I could say that it was Dagmauru who did that,” Bal said. “I only wished for their presence, but I knew where our research would lead. Their power was meant to serves as a shield for us. To protect us and keep our realm safe as it had been before they left.”

“Doesn’t seem like it’s doing much protecting at the moment,” Jyl said.

“Not true,” Jaan said. “Dagmauru is using both the Blighted Legion and the Divine Sanction to protect the Council’s interests. But the Council’s interests are no longer ones that agree with what the Green Gods would have chosen for it, are they?”

“No, they are not,” Balmauru said. “But with the power of a god to enforce his will, there is nothing in the realms that can stand against Dagmauru.”

“The Divine Sanction can’t be perfect though,” Jyl said. “It may have distilled a god’s power but it was made by mortals and we’re nothing if not a bunch of screwups.”

“The Sanction is the product of the centuries of the greatest research ever performed by a Mindful race,” Balmauru said. “Even the few flaws it has do not work in our favor.”

“Why? How is it designed to fail?” Jaan asked.

“We brought our gods back for the defense of our realm,” Balmauru said. “Or pieces of our gods. Even with our greatest magics we couldn’t do more than summon simulacrums of our deities. The Sanctions are no mere copies though. Within them each lies a true spark of the Divine, and even that fraction of their power is still infinite.”

“That’s not possible,” Jyl said. “You’d never be able to control infinite power.”

“We don’t,” Balmauru said. “The god controls their power. We simply control the god via a series of transcendental binding spells.”

“And if those binding spells are broken?” Jaan asked.

“Then the one who controls the Sanction will burn in its power and the divine spark will rage outwards without restraint.”

“But if the power is infinite?” Jyl asked.

“Yes, with infinite power comes infinite devastation,” Balmauru said.

“The Council would be destroyed too though wouldn’t it?” Jyl asked.

“In the event of a catastrophic failure, yes,” Balmauru said. “Which is why the Divine Sanction was only to be used as a tool of last resort. If the Green Council faced an existential crisis then there would be little harm in risking annihilation to prevent it.”

“Except for the harm you’d inflict on the rest of the realms,” Jyl said.

“We have a serious problem,” Jaan said.

“Yes. Perhaps, if I keep you with my staff, I can arrange for some sanctuary for you once the fighting is complete.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Jaan said and glanced at her sister.

“You think our Queen can break the bindings?” Jyl said.

“You know her best,” Jaan said. “Based on what she’s done so far though, would that be so implausible?”

“No,” Jyl said. “No it wouldn’t be. That raises another question though.”

“Can she stop a god from going berserk and destroying the world?” Jaan asked.

“Nothing mortal can withstand the force of a Berserker God,” Balmauru said. “Even your Queen with all the might of a divinely gifted spirit is still not the same order of being as the Divine Sanction. No matter what is done to strike at the Council’s forces from this point forward, there can be no victory. Your queen has already fallen. Dagmauru will collect her for study unless she finds the strength to rise again, and if she can manage that, he will destroy her, of that there is no doubt.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 46

Eorn itched to transform. A skin of iron and a blade that could cleave stone felt like desperately good ideas under the circumstances. Conversely, sitting unarmed and unarmored atop a hill while an enemy army advanced on them hand felt like the opposite of a good idea.

“This is literally the worst plan you could come up with wasn’t it?” she asked.

“No, of course not,” Teo said. “The worst would be to greet them naked.”

“Without our pact armor, we pretty much are naked,” Eorn said.

“Think of the epic tale you’ll get to regale your family with then,” Teo said. “Who else in history has faced down a realm conquering army without so much as a dagger in their hands?”

“A large number of corpses,” Eorn said.

“That’s a valid point, but just because no one’s ever pulled off a scheme like this before doesn’t mean we can’t be the first,” Teo said.

“There are many gravestones that should have those words carved into them,” Eorn said. “I have to confess I was hoping mine would be adorned with something at least a trifle less embarrassing.”

“Well it looks like you’ll have plenty of time to pick out the phrase of your choice,” Teo said. “If things were going according to plan, there would be a thousand soldiers marching out of the Council’s forest at us already.”

“See it’s that part of the plan where I begin having problems with what we’re doing,” Eorn said. “A thousand soldiers seems like a low estimate for how many the Green Council send to invade another realm, but a much higher number than I’d want to be waiting for without any tools to defend myself with.”

She looked down the north side of the sharply sloped hill to where the thick forests of the Green Council had grown up like a wall, hedging the ancient realm in and all foreigners out. The hill they sat on ran for miles to the west, rising as it went, until turning into the foothills that lead to Gallagrin’s mountainous cliffs. To the east, the hill slowly dwindled in height before plunging into the Swamp of Tears that formed an all-but-impassable border between the Council’s lands and Inchesso’s northern provinces.

The dense undergrowth of the forest showed no signs of movement, but a preternatural shadow lingered under its canopy that could conceal almost anything and was definitely the product of some odd branch of sorcery.

While, they couldn’t see any movement from within the Council’s lands, Eorn felt like far more than a thousand pairs of eyes were trained on her.

“You’re probably right,” Teo said.

“That we should transform?” Eorn said.

“No, that a thousand soldiers is too low a total,” Teo said. “That was Queen Alari’s guess at the minimum force they would send, but on this scale a thousand soldiers amounts to a small raiding party.”

“I wish we could know how things were going on the other fronts,” Eorn said.

“It could be a good sign that we’re not seeing troops from the Council yet,” Teo said. “If Senkin is winning, or our forces have pushed in far enough…”

“Then communications wouldn’t be silent,” Eorn said, cutting Teo off.

“Yes, I suppose that’s true. That doesn’t mean we need to assume the worst has happened though.”

“It’s not the worst possible outcome I’m worried about,” Eorn said. “It’s all the horrible things that are more likely than that but not quite as bad.”

“I know,” Teo said. “I feel the same. Ren should be safely ensconced in the diplomatic wing at the Royal Palace in Senkin. He should be far away from danger and able to flee the country long before any of the Council’s forces can menace the capital. I’ve been reminding myself of that every five minutes or so.”

“He’s not the type to stay behind in safety though is he?” Eorn asked.

“No,” Teo said. “Sadly he is not.”

“Neither is Undine,” she said. “Maybe if we’re really luck they won’t be on the front line itself though?”

“Knowing Ren, that’s likely,” Teo said. “But only because that idiot will volunteer for a scouting mission that’s even more dangerous than frontline combat.”

“Ah, yes,” Eorn sighed. “And Undine will be right there beside him.”

“Is there irony in our complaining about our loved one’s putting themselves in danger when we’re sitting here?” Teo asked.

“Probably,” Eorn said. “But they deserve it.”

“Just so long as we’re agreed on that,” Teo said.

“You don’t have to sit with me by the way,” Eorn said. “It will only take one of us to spot the Council’s army and one of us to greet them.”

“That could as easily be me as you,” Teo said.

“Yes, but it’s my job to keep you safe,” Eorn said. “You have no such obligation in return.”

Teo rolled his eyes.

“Perhaps not by direct royal mandate, but we all have a responsibility to each other. That’s what the Queen is fighting for.”

“She’s not what I expected her to be,” Eorn said. “She’s so…”

“Thoughtful?” Teo guessed.

“I was going to say ‘soft’, but that works too.”

“Her ‘Bloody Handed’ nickname does seem like a poor fit,” Teo said. “But remember that she earned it in a literal sense. What you see as ‘thoughtfulness’ is a studied, self-willed trait. There’s more strength in her than many people ever glimpse. Too much I sometimes worry.”

“Worry? Why?” Eorn asked.

“When she held us, Ren and the other nobles, locked up, I think her ‘thoughtfulness’ was being tested severely. If not for the distraction of this war, I don’t know how events might have played out. Ren trusted her, but I’ve seen what power does to those who possess it and it hasn’t been a pretty thing in my experience.”

“But you still serve her?” Eorn asked.

“The answer is more complex than a simple ‘yes’ I’m afraid,” Teo said. “I stand with my husband, always, and he stands with her. More than that though, I serve the ideals she sees as the best part of Gallagrin’s spirit. Even if she falls short of them, those ideals are worth upholding.”

“Unto death?” Eorn asked, and gestured to the forest’s edge that was bristling with movement.

A faint smile crossed Teo’s lips.

“Well, unto someone’s death,” he said, fangs lengthening slightly as he watched the first of the Council’s troops stride forth from their supernatural cover.

The good news, Eorn decided, was that there weren’t a thousand soldiers in the enemy’s forces. At least not in the groups that marched out onto the broad open grassland at the foot of the hill she sat on.

The bad news was that there were an awful lot of giant plant monsters in their number – Warbringers if her briefing was correct – as well as a contingent of green goo covered people who were about as natural as a snowstorm in Paxmer in the summer.

“Interesting troops they’ve brought to visit us,” she said.

“Easier to move special forces around,” Teo said.

“Also harder for us to kill,” Eorn said.

“There is that too. Think they’ll be interested in talking before the violence begins?”

“I kind of hope not,” Eorn said.

Teo glanced over at her with a raised eyebrow.

“The sooner the violence starts the sooner I can transform,” she said. “Until then I am not going to feel safe.”

“You are a very unique woman, do you know that?” Teo asked.

“Lady Akorli seems to feel the same,” Eorn said.

“In my experience the Queen’s Champion is not a good subject to measure one’s sanity against,” Teo said. “But perhaps sanity is not precisely what’s needed at this juncture.”

“Perhaps not,” Eorn said. “It looks like a small party is advancing.”

“Seems sensible, they’ll want to know what we have waiting over the hill for them.”

“They’re bringing one of the Warbringers and two of the gooey people,” Eorn said. “Can we take a Warbringer, six regular soldiers and two gooey people?”

“Certainly,” Teo said. “It’s the hundreds of reinforcements behind them that may be problematic.”

“One problem at a time though, right?”


The contingent from the Council’s forces advanced without displaying a flag of parley or truce. It would have been within Eorn’s rights to transform and strike them all down the moment they stepped on the hill and entered Inchesso lands. That, however, was not part of the plan, so she held her place and sat uncomfortably, waiting for them to close to speaking distance.

“Inchesso citizens,” the leader of the Council forces called out in a surprisingly good version of the North Coastal Inchesso dialect. “This land and the magics contained therein are hereby placed under Divine Annexation by the Holy Order of the Green Council. Vacate our domain or be subject to Council law!”

“Divine Annexation?” Teo said, speaking in the same dialect and raising his voice enough to cover the hundred or so feet that separated them. “That’s a doctrine that slumbers with the gods, and even they put it aside centuries before they left us.”

“Your gods may still sleep,” the leader called out. “Ours do not, and by their holy will, this land is now ours.”

“What do they mean; they’re gods aren’t asleep anymore?” Eorn asked quietly.

“I have no idea,” Teo whispered back, not looking away from the Council army or allowing his smile to fade. “Sounds just wonderful for us though doesn’t it?”

“We have very different definitions of wonderful,” Eorn said, her frown deepening.

“So, these Woken Gods,” Teo asked in a loud, Inchesso, voice. “I don’t see any of them in your number there. I’ve always wanted to meet one, they’re not a bashful sort of god, are they?”

“Blasphemy against the Holy Order is punishable by death,” the leader said.

“I meant no blasphemy good Captain,” Teo said. “But come, advance closer. We are no threat to you at this moment, and I believe it would be good for you to see the land you hope to claim.”

The Council forces followed their Captain up the hill under they were standing just below the top of the rise.

“Welcome to Inchesso Captain,” Teo said. “Though I am afraid I cannot offer you a formal invitation for passage beyond the border. We are foreigners as well you see.”

“Who are you?” the Council Captain asked.

“You may address me as Sir Telli, husband of the Duke of Tel of Gallagrin,” Teo said. “My companion is the Queen’s Guardian Eorn Bromli, also of Gallagrin.”

“The reports were true then, Gallagrin did try to launch an attack on Inchesso before we could,” the Council Captain said.

“See for yourself,” Teo said and gestured to the south where two armies stood facing one another across an impossibly small divide.

On one side stood the massed forces of Inchesso’s Northern Regiments. On the other stood a mixed forced composed of Gallagrin’s Royal Army and Paxmer’s Far Riders. Each force was roughly triple the size of the Council’s army that lay to the north of the border awaiting the Captain’s order to march.

“We arrived just as you were about to begin a battle?” the Captain asked, confusion and disbelief warring for possession of his voice.

“In a manner of speaking,” Teo said. “More accurately though, you kept us waiting to start a battle. Now that you’ve so kindly stepped foot on Inchesso’s domain though, that problem can be rectified.”

At Eorn’s signal, the two opposing armies pivoted in place so that both sides presented a common face to the north, ready as a single force to engage with the Council invaders.

“You have some special troops with you,” Teo said. “Before that gives you too much confidence, allow me to direct your attention to the new construction on the far side of the battle field. Do you know what that is?”

“A weak wooden stockade of unusual height,” the Captain said. “That won’t be enough to slow my troops though, you have no idea what we’re capable of.”

“Oh, we have some idea I’d say. Word spreads fast from Senkin and Gallagrin’s northern border. What you’re missing though is that the structure over there is not a stockade. It’s an embassy.”

“An embassy? For who?” the Captain asked.

“Paxmer,” Teo said as a flight of dragons lifted into the air.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 45

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.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 44

Alari watched as an army exploded from the forest before her. The Council hadn’t held anything back this time. Their troops were organized and well armed and coated in a sheen of green that marked them as touched by the supernatural.

No Warbringers were in evidence among the ranks of the Council’s forces. That didn’t surprise Alari though. She’d already proved that she could suborn those. Throwing more of them at her would accomplish little more than swelling the forces that Alari had at her disposal.

“What are those things?” Iana asked, the Warbringer stepping back in response to her unease.

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Alari said.

The green goo coated army advanced with a steady singularity of purpose, marching in the sort of perfect lockstep that only derives from external control.

Scanning the forces, Alari counted over a hundred of the elite warriors converging on her position. They were flying no flags that suggested they were interested in negotiations, or even in demanding her surrender. Instead their blades were drawn, their shields readied and their eyes fixed.

Or not their eyes. Where eyes should have been there were only empty voids. Alari looked at the lines of power that ran over them. Each was woven around the warriors in so many places that it looked like they could barely move, and all of them ran back behind the warriors towards a single point in the distance.

Her true opponent had entered the field of battle. Alari was sure of it. What seemed out of place though was that the ominous rumbling was behind Blighted Legion and still approaching.

“You should run,” she said to Iana.

“I can’t run, this is my home,” Iana said.

“Stay behind me then,” Alari said. “These aren’t here for you this time, but they’ll probably still try to kill you if they see the opportunity.”

“What are you going to do?” Iana asked.

“I don’t think they’re going to offer me many alternatives,” Alari said.

“Can you run?” Iana asked.

“That’s a possibility,” Alari gestured behind them. “But they’ve already outflanked us on the ground.”

A rustling to their rear resolved into another contingent of green goo covered warriors emerging from the forests on the Senkin side of the border.

“You can fly though, can’t you?” Iana asked, panic edging into her voice as the two armies drew closer.

“Yes, and I doubt they could catch me in the air,” Alari said.

“Then why are you waiting?” Iana asked.

“I can fly, but you can’t,” Alari said. “If I leave now there’d be no one here to stop them from killing you.”

Iana was silent for a heartbeat.

“You don’t have to stay,” she said at last, “I can take care of myself.”

“I’m sure you can,” Alari lied. “But I think this is where I need to make a stand anyways.”

With a quiet exhalation and a slow, focused gesture, she drew forth her royal scepter from thin air.

Many monarchs have symbols of their office. They are almost uniformly decorated in priceless gems were designed either by the gods or by a master craftsman in antiquity,

Alari’s scepter was an exception to that rule. It had spikes where other royal implements had gems. In place of a glass or crystal rod, the device in Alari’s hand had a shaft of enchanted steel. There was silver adorning the Gallagrin Scepter but it was there in a functional capacity, meant to provide an extra bit of insult should any were-creatures antagonize its wielder.

Few of Gallagrin’s monarchs had carried the Scepter of State. There were other, more elegant, symbols of the royal office. In Alari’s view though no other device captured the heart of Gallagrin as well as her scepter. It was a rough and ugly tool when viewed from far away. It spoke of a realm that valued harsh practicality over any sort of aesthetic beauty, and yet, when you looked closely at the scepter, a stunning level of detail work sprang to life.

There were etchings over every square inch of the scepter, beautiful depictions of Gallagrin’s people, monarchs and gods. From the base of the handle to the top of the tiny crown that was mounted on the great spikey ball at the far end of the scepter, the etchings told the story of Gallagrin’s history. With the right eyeglass, one could even see the miniature words each figure in the etchings was outlined in. Together, the icons and the scepter, captured some of the earliest years of the realm, and the lives of those who had first helped shape it.

As the first wave of the Blighted Legion charged them, Alari let her power flow into Royal Scepter and watched it burst to life as a sphere of electricity crackled to life around the spiky business end of the weapon.

The first member of the Blighted Legion to reach them received a lightning hammer blow to the face and fell back as a pile of splattered goo. Even his brief contact with the scepter was enough to drain away the lightning orb that surrounded its end though.

“Do let them touch you!” Alari didn’t look at Iana as she gave the order. She couldn’t take her eyes off the army that was coming them.

In the instant between felling the first of the Blighted Legion and destroying the next, Alari weighed her options.

They were constructs of some type. The evidence she could see pointed to that clearly. They were expensive to make though and the Council had a limited supply to work with. The testimony for that came from the late stage at which they were deployed, and the depth of magic they carried.

To absorb magic from a target, especially a foreign one, took a level of casting prowess Alari hadn’t known existed. Not as a certainty at least. From her first estimations of the geopolitical landscape following Paxmer’s defeat, the Green Council had stood out as a problem not because of past aggression or any special capabilities they’d demonstrated but because of how little change had been observed in them over the years.

Everyone knew the Council’s strength lay in life magic. Alari had read between the lines on the old reports she’d dug up and seen that of all of the realms, the Council’s was in some senses the most adaptable. The lack of visibility into those slow improvements told her that the Council had to be hiding some truly nasty surprises for the right moment.

She’d struck the twentieth Blighted warrior down when she saw that the first pull itself back together from the pile of slime it had been reduced to and begin maneuvering again for a strike at her.

Indestructible, magic stealing warriors with enhanced strength and speed certainly qualified as a nasty surprise in Alari’s book. Seeing their power though didn’t leave her overly afraid.

With a jolt of magic into her scepter she slammed the next warrior and watched them implode, sucked into the impact point faster than they could even scream. Around her scepter, a green glow swirled. It wasn’t easy transforming the Blighted Legion’s magic to reverse its course and expel magic rather than drain it. Only through sheer brute magical force was she able to win that contest, and as more of the Legion flooded onto the field, Alari gave serious thought as to whether she would be able to sustain that level of effort for long enough.

“I’m not letting you fight alone!” Iana said and stepped forward to ward off a Blighted Warrior that was trying to run a spear through Alari’s left kidney.

Iana’s Warbringer was close enough that she got its hand into the path of the blow. Alari watched as the Warbringer’s arm dropped limp and dead though, drained of the magic that animated it in exchange for the protection it provided.

The bad situation turned worse as the the Blighted Legion took notice of Iana’s Warbringer and spread out to focus their attacks on it as well.

Alari shifted into a faster form, channeling magic to give herself speed beyond the ability of the eye to follow. With hurricane winds in her wake, she tore through the battlefield, lightning arcing from one warrior to the next as merciless impacts exploded them into gross chunks which then imploded out of existence.

The Gallagrin Pact Spirit soared within Alari’s mind, joyful at the union with its host and willing to offer far more magic than Alari could hope to shape.

Panting and dancing on the edge of control, Alari exhaled and surveyed the damage she’d done. Her course of devastation had led her in a wide spiral around the battlefield. The ash that remained from Senkin’s destruction of the area had been swept up in her wake and had opaqued the entire region with a choking cloud.

With a leap, Alari rose above the cloud and hung in the air on wings of light.

Beneath her, the Blighted Legion was in full retreat. Alari could see the trails of magic that connected to each of them through the fog. They were mindless drones, but that didn’t mean their controller was willing to spend them needlessly.

Except their loss hadn’t been needless.

One moment Alari was surveying the threads of magic that directed the fleeing Blighted warriors and the next she was tumbling to the ground as a source of magic brighter than the sun blazed from the forest.

She didn’t feel the hit that swatted her from the sky. She barely felt the impact with the ground. It wasn’t that either of these didn’t hurt, the damage was simply too great to immediately process.

The Gallagrin Pact Spirit reacted in tune with Alari’s will, feeding her power to reconstruct the damage she’d taken and raise layers of magic defenses to prevent it from happening again. She’d been focused on moving quickly, which was critical when fighting an army. Against the new foe had arisen though speed was not sufficient.

As Alari stood, she felt the weigh of her defenses press her down. She outmassed Iana’s Warbringer by a factor of ten or more. With how bright the oncoming peril was though, she wasn’t sure if that would be anywhere near enough.

“What happened?” Iana asked, stomping the Warbringer to Alari’s side.

“The Council has something larger at their disposal than I’d expected,” Alari said.

“What is it?” Iana asked, scanning the treeline for foes. Without the ability to perceive magic directly though she couldn’t see the blinding radiance of the threat that approached.

“I don’t know,” Alari said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Even at the height of her battle with her father, as they both struggled for the heart of Gallagrin’s Pact Spirit, Alari had never seen power to equal the being that approached. A cool wave of fear washed down from her collarbone to her toes.

She’d made a mistake. A desperate, deadly mistake. She’d underestimated the Council as much as she’d counted on them underestimating her.

A voice whispered in her head telling her she was going to fail. All her clever plans would be undone through sheer brute force. She’d leave the world more shattered and bloody than it ever would have been without her.

And she wouldn’t see Dae ever again.

She stepped forward.

That wasn’t going to happen.

Whatever it took she was going to win.

Power like she had never gathered before coalesced in her scepter and combined with the green radiance she’d stolen from countless warriors of the Blighted Legion.

She readied herself to face the worst the Council could throw at her, and then, from the forest’s edge, something impossible happened.

A god stepped forth.

“The Green Council issues the Divine Sanction against Gallagrin.” The voice that spoke carried holy authority and its words became manifest as they were spoken.

Faster than Alari could react the world was enveloped in a blistering light. Divine force slammed her from all sides, ripping not at her body or mind but at the essence of her being. Flesh cracked and bones shattered under that pressure, but still a snarl escaped from Alari’s lips, until she was flung back, off the battlefield and into an unquiet darkness.

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.

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.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 41

Jyl fought back a near overwhelming desire to spit. The paralytic gel was gone, purged from her system by her brief transformation to her armored state, but the taste of it remained on her tongue like paint made from a rotting animal carcass. Even that was more pleasant than the idea of working with her sister though.

We need to be careful, there are seals placed all around the meeting grove, Jaan signed, using the silent language of gestures they’d been taught as young girls. Before their lives had diverged. Back when they enjoyed speaking with one another.

Warnings about seals around a protected area were obvious, but for stealth work like breaking into a foreign government’s most guarded deliberative session it was important not to forget the obvious.

They had no plan, or at least no preparations, resources or contingencies to draw on, but somehow Jaan had convinced her that they needed to infiltrate the Council’s top secret planning session anyways. Intel from the Council’s emergency session could be the key to preventing a disaster for Gallagrin and for the realms in general.

Or at least that’s what Jyl kept telling herself. In the back of her mind, she knew that Jaan could have dozens or hundreds of other goals in mind, but they were so far behind enemy lines that didn’t seem to matter anymore. Let her sister have her schemes, it wasn’t important if the Lafli family came out ahead, again, as long as it wasn’t at the expense of Gallagrin’s sovereignty.

They’re using Chasm class defensive enchantments, Jyl signed back. Both sisters were familiar with evaluating and evading mystical protections, though they came by their knowledge by very different routes.

Backed by Basilisk enhanced detection spells, Jaan signed. And those are the ones we can see.

Yeah, there’ll be others, Jyl signed. Anyone who was paranoid enough to arm their detection spells with stoning petrification effects was the textbook definition of over prepared. Fortunately that could be as much of a liability as an advantage.

We can use the Blinet corpses to get by some of the traps. Jaan suggested.

And when we run out of corpses? Jyl asked.

Then we make some more, Jaan signed.

No, Jyl signed, we’re not going to murder ourselves into a peace agreement.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but peace is a long forgotten concept at this point, Jaan signed. Ever since our Queen invaded the Council we’ve been at war with these people.

War’s end, Jyl said, and they end sooner if neither side has a blood vendetta against the other.

So what’s your plan for getting through the Council’s defenses? Jaan asked.

How good are you at transformations? Jyl asked, the seed of a plan beginning to take shape in response to her sister’s challenge.

Better than you, Jaan signed, my spirit’s had centuries of practice with all the morphic spells.

Jyl’s Pact Spirit had lain dormant for generations, but ever since they’d bound themselves to each other, they’d practiced their magic to exhaustion almost every day. That was almost enough for Jyl to be sure she was Jaan’s equal.

We’re going to sneak right in the front door then, Jyl signed.

Are you insane? Jaan asked. I just saved your life, and now you want to throw it away?

We can’t penetrate their defenses, Jyl said. We don’t have the time to study them thoroughly enough and we can’t afford to have even one of them go off.

Several are going to trigger if we try to walk through the arch that leads into the grove, Jaan signed.

Not if we look and feel like we belong there, Jyl said.

All of the Councilors are accounted for though and the meeting is already in succession. There’s no one we can pose as who has the authority to…

Jaan cut herself off as she followed the path of Jyl’s gaze. She then turned to look at her sister and raised an eyebrow.

Them? Are you serious?

You didn’t even notice them until I pointed them out did you? Jyl asked, the plan, simple though it was, taking full shape. Below them, wandering in and out of the Sacred Grove, Blinet’s scurried on four legs or two, carrying important messages back and forth between the Councilors and their staffs.

They must be enchanted with some form of identity tracking spells though, Jaan signed.

Definitely, Jyl signed. We’ll need to steal those.

Probably not possible, Jaan said, With as paranoid as the Council is they’re sure to have failsafes against that. But that can work to our favor too.

Together the sisters worked out a more complicated, and therefore more fragile, version of Jyl’s original plans.

Ten minutes later, the guarded arch recorded its first intruder as one of the Blinets set off a series of alarms. The small creature was pounced on by the Council’s security forces and wrestled over to a holding area.

Then another Blinet set off the device. The security personnel were slightly less violent with this one.

Several more Blinet’s passed into the grove without issue before a third and fourth and fifth set off the security alarms again and again.

“This can’t be right!” the second Blinet who was captured said. “The detection spells on the gate must be overloaded.”

“Shut up, there’s nothing wrong with the gate,” the lead guard said.

Then the gate sounded the alarm when one of the guards passed through it.

“Excuse me sir,” the fourth Blinet to be detained said. “I work in Dagmauru’s Sorcery division, I can check the gate if you’d like? They go out on us all the time but they’re usually pretty simple to fix.”

“I can’t let you tamper with anything here,” the lead guard said.

Two more Blinets and another guard set off the gate alarms.

“I won’t tamper at all,” the fourth Blinet said. “I just know that sometimes, with how busy everything gets, people don’t always schedule the maintenance for the spells as often as they should. Do you know if this gate had its scheduled re-enchantment rituals performed this week. We had a shadowed Moon and that’s on the list of potential static spell disruptors.”

The guard frowned and looked away, his eyes scanning the area around them as though the gate’s maintenance manifest might appear miraculously to prove he hadn’t failed in his duties.

“It will only take a me a second to check it out,” the fourth Blinet offered.

“Fine, but only you,” the guard said.

And that was how Jyl entered the Sacred Grove disguised as the fourth Blinet and Jaan entered disguised as the sixth Blinet.

Inside the Sacred Grove they had to move cautiously. Neither wanted to be seen by Dagmauru, or any of the other Councilors. Their transformation disguises were good enough to get by a guard or a hacked gate spell, but that didn’t mean some of the ancients who ruled the Council would be fooled by them.

“Pardon me,” Jaan said, grabbing a sylph who was standing guard at one of the Speaking Box doors. “Do you know where I might find Balmauru? I’m new to service and my Master Dagmauru has given me a message to deliver.”

“Balmauru is in the third tier Speaking Box at the far east end of the Glade,” the guard said.

The Sacred Grove had been built up like a grand stadium with corridors that ran around its circumference. Jaan set off counterclockwise and Jyl followed closely behind.

“Why did you ask where Balmauru was? We don’t want to talk to any of these people.”

“Exactly,” Jaan said. “If we’re stopped we need to be able to give a plausible reason for why we’re not heading towards Dagmauru given that we have his livery wrapped on our backs.”

“I’m surprised you weren’t planning to kill and gut anyone who challenged us,” Jyl said.

“I am,” Jaan said. “I just want to make sure we can get them to lower their guard first.”

“Where did you go so wrong?” Jyl asked.

“I’m a Lafli,” Jaan said. “We make our own right and wrong.”

Jyl shook her head. Tempting as it was to argue philosophical points with her sister, ideally through the use of applied violence, the middle of the Green Council’s Sacred Grove was clearly neither the time nor the place for such pursuits.

On the top floor of the Sacred Grove’s stadium-like exterior, they found the privates boxes that had been set aside for future expansion and slipped into one sufficiently far from any occupied ones that they were able to enter and crawl to the front of the box without being seen.

“And that is why, my fellow Councilors, we must end this mad aggression,” the speaker wasn’t human or elf, so Jyl couldn’t place their age. Given the assemblage and the tone of the speaker’s worlds, she had to guess that they were ancient. The inflections on their words supported that, though Jyl’s mastery over The Green Council’s High Speech wasn’t so great that she could be sure of whether the Councilors words choice was formal, archaic, or both.

“This mad aggression was not started by us,” another speaker said.

That’s Dagmauru, Jaan signed. He was the one who captured you. He was also a House Lafli ally for the last several decades.

“This mad aggression was brought to us, it wounded us, destroyed the joyous days we planned for,” Dagmauru said. “We cannot sit by while our innocents are slaughtered by the greed of foreign powers.  We cannot and we have not, but we must press further.”

“We have gone too far already,” another voice said. “Thanks to your insistence that we give in to our rage and sorrow we have broken ancient treaties and provoked mighty enemies. Even if we succeed in our aims, we will have wounded the heart of our realm.”

“We were united in this,” Dagmauru said. “By the wound to our hearts. Or have you forgotten the loss we have endured, the pain that we as a realm still suffer.”

“There will be more loss, and more suffering, if we pursue this course,” the other Councilor said. “Already we have the Queen of Gallagrin rampaging through our realm, destroying the forces that we send to stop her. We were not prepared to fight against such a foe. What happens when the Queen of Senkin joins the fray? Or the Lords of Inchesso?”

“What happens indeed,” Dagmauru said. “This is the precipice we stand on. This is turn of the season into an unknown tomorrow. No matter what we chose here today, the future will never be the same as the past.”

Jyl rolled her eyes. From the murmur of the crowds, Dagmauru’s words were stirring up some form of emotion, despite their meaninglessness. The future won’t be the same as the past? How isolated did the Council need to be to think there was anything significant about that declaration.

“If that future is going to be different though, I say we must forge it to be a better one than we have now,” Dagmauru said. “We can’t retreat, we can’t hide. We must reach forward and shape that future into one where we can flourish.”

“We cannot flourish if our roots drown in the blood of the innocent,” the other Councilor said.

“With innocent blood, a drop shed is the same as an ocean,” Dagmauru said. “In both, we see whole worlds lost. The only refuge we may seek lies in the fact that they spilled the blood of our innocents first and that, when the last drops have fallen, we will have forged a stronger, safer world for the innocents of tomorrow.”

“Speak those words to each of the innocents you have yet to slaughter,” the other Councilor said. “Ask your hearts, all of you, if this is a burden we wish to lay on the innocents yet to come? Surely it is not. Surely we must end this madness now, before the price become unbearable.”

“The price is already unbearable,” Dagmauru said. “We have mobilized our armies to reclaim and protect our future. It is far too late to turn from this path. Our only choice now lies in whether we place value on the lives of those who fight for us, or in our cowardice refuse to support them to the fullest extent possible.”

“You speak of the Blight Legions,” a third councilor said. “They have never been used in battle before, not even in the Lost Glades against the worst of the monsters left behind by the Sleeping Gods.”

“And never before have we contended with so formidable an array of foes,” Dagmauru said. “In Senkin our forces are stymied, battling troops they should have easily overrun. Gallagrin presses our advance troops and has begun to fly into our realm. Even Inchesso’s forces have begun to mobilize for war.”

“The Blight Legions may grant us victory against those forces, but can even they stand against the might of the Gallagrin Queen?” another Councilor asked.

“No,” Dagmauru said. “I do not believe they can.”

“Then what hope do we have? None of the forces we have sent against her have survived longer than a handful of seconds.”

“The Blight Legions must be called to service, but they will not be enough,” Dagmauru said. “I called this session for a far more dire judgement. Councilors, we must invoke the Divine Sanction.”

A hush fell over the entire grove. Even the far off hustle and bustle went still.

“But that is our option of last resort, it is never meant to be activated,” a Coucilor said.

“It is as you say, but the Divine Sanction is the only hope we have against the power Gallagrin has brought to bear.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 40

Jaan waited for her chance to speak with the Green Council with an exemplary amount of patience. Her reward for waiting quietly though was the opportunity to wait ‘just a little bit longer’.

“Is there any word from the Council’s session?” she asked.

“The Speaking Glade is still under sequestration,” Tan-Orange-Maroon Blinet said.

“And there’s no scheduled time for them to emerge?” Jaan asked, dipping into reserves of patience that only dealing with her family usually called for.

“No Lady Lafli,” Grey-Emerald-Midnight Blinet said, “They meet until their discussions are resolved.”

Jaan sighed. Her position was precarious. She’d taken a massive risk in stealing the ledgers from Senkin, and a bigger one in fleeing from her sister. The two women were far too evenly matched for the outcome of that chase to have been anything close to a certainty, but the dice had fallen in Jaan’s favor. Across the Senkin border and into the Green Council’s terrain, they’d flown quicker than the fastest of birds. Even that hadn’t been fast enough to avoid all of the Council’s defenses though.

Jaan’s last bit of luck had revealed itself when the defenders who captured them turned out to be in the employ of one of her family’s primary connections among the Council. She was treated as befit her family’s amiable relationship with Dagmauru and her sister was restrained as the war criminal she was.

As a friendly ambassador, Jaan had naturally turned over her ledgers to Dagmauru’s staff and agreed to join him as he attended an emergency session of the Green Council’s leadership. It was a perfect offer, marred only by the fact the joining Dagmauru as he attended the Council’s meeting did not mean joining Dagmauru at the Council’s meeting.

Instead, Jaan was relegated to remaining behind, outside the sacred grove where the Council met. Her presence was known only to Dagmauru and those who swore deepest loyalty to his service. It wasn’t an advisable position to be in. It wasn’t a safe position to be in.

Jaan knew that the Council was undertaking radical actions and, in her experience, once a first set of boundaries were overstepped it became increasingly simple to overstep more of them.

While the Lafli family had enjoyed decades of close connection with several of the members of the Green Council, Jaan wasn’t under any illusions that she could look to Dagmauru as a friend. He was a foreign power and as such he had his own motivations. In general those seemed to line up with the Lafli family’s desires but in the tumult and chaos of an ever escalating war, it was all too possible that their interests might diverge.

The best shield Jaan could raise against that turn of fate was to connect with the other Council members the Lafli’s were friendly with. So long as their interest aligned with one of the powers in the realm, she could dance around her position as an outsider and reap the rewards  the chaos offered. If the whole of the realm turned against her though all hope of survival would be lost.

“The other Councilor that Dagmauru met with, are they within the meeting grove as well?” Jaan asked, looking for any path she could find to connect with someone other than Dagmauru.

Dagmauru hadn’t been unhappy with her arrival. Jaan had brought him information after all and, in times of war, information was often an invaluable treasure. Despite the warmth he received her with though, Jaan could see that Dagmauru’s attention was focused more on the meetings before him than the windfall that she brought.

If she couldn’t make contact with another of the Lafli’s friends on the Council, Dag’s friend Bal seemed like a potentially useful lever that she could use if the need arose. Or they would be if Jaan could manage to meet them and discern what their motivations were. It seemed like a safe bet that their desires didn’t align with Dagmauru’s since Dag had returned from their meeting bearing the kind of trembling silence that spoke volumes about how disagreeable the outcome was.

“I am sorry. We do not know the location of Balmauru,” Tan-Orange-Maroon Blinet said. “They were scheduled to speak to the assembly though so they are likely sequestered as well.”

And that was Jaan’s primary issue. Everyone with any clout or importance was in the Council’s meeting, and she was relegated to standing outside its walls. As much as she hated to admit it, there was only one ally she could count on under the present circumstances.

“Has my sister been transferred to the Council’s custody yet?” she asked.

“No, Lady Lafli,” Grey-Emerald-Midnight Blinet said. “With the start of the Council session we have not be able to meet with the proper representatives yet.”

“Who will be taking custody of her?” Jaan asked. She knew Jyl hadn’t been moved yet, but it hadn’t been clear from what Dagmauru had said as to which branch of government would take responsibility of a Guardian to the Queen of Gallagrin.

“She will be transferred to one of our research facilities,” Grey-Emerald-Midnight Blinet said. “We are forbidden from initiating unmonitored communications with them for the duration of the conference though.”

“But you can contact them?” Jaan asked, confused.

“No, the security protocols on the research labs disallow any monitored communications between them and the outside world,” Grey-Emerald-Midnight Blinet said. “They may only speak with Dagmauru personally.”

Jaan frowned. Dagmauru wasn’t going to use Jyl as a witness before the Council. He was going to bury her, perhaps literally, in a hidden laboratory, probably with an eye towards working out the secrets of Pact magic.

That was distasteful on a number of levels.

Jaan had turned over Senkin’s secrets. She never intended to turn over any of Gallagrin’s though. Gallagrin needed the advantages that Pact magic offered. It was a strong bargaining chip in the Lafli family arsenal. Also the other Council contacts that the Lafli family knew might take it amiss that Dagmauru had been given sole access to a magical research subject when such secrets could have benefited all of them.

Most importantly though was the point that Jyl was Jaan’s sister. Her twin. For all their competition and acrimony, nothing would change that.

“May I inspect her bindings?” Jaan asked. “She’s one of Gallagrin’s most talented Pact Knights. You may not have covered all of the methods she could use to escape.”

“She is still unconscious,” Tan-Orange-Maroon Blinet said. The creature looked confused as to how there could be any danger from their prisoner given that precaution.

“She may be, but that doesn’t mean her Pact Spirit is,” Jaan said. It wasn’t a lie, merely an extreme exaggeration. Only the most aware and potent of Pact Spirits could act in place of their hosts. The pact bindings made very sure of that and relaxing those particular restraints was the sort of thing that only a truly mad Pact warrior would attempt.

As Jaan expected though, the Blinets were unaware of that particular aspect of Pact magic.

“We shall double the guard on her,” Tan-Orange-Maroon Blinet said.

“You’ve seen what Queen Alari is capable of,” Jaan said. “Do you wish to see what one of the people assigned to guard her can do?”

Again, carefully managed truth was such a better tool than any outright lie would be. Let the Blinet’s imagine havoc on a scale greater than what Alari had inflicted so far, they didn’t need to know that the Queen’s Guardians were several times less powerful than the woman they protected.

“Why did you not speak of this sooner?” Tan-Orange-Maroon Blinet asked.

“Your defenses are formidable,” Jaan said. “They have held her till now. I seek only to augment them so that there will be no unexpected failures.”

It wasn’t unexpected if it happened according to her plan after all.

“Of course,” Tan-Orange-Maroon Blinet said. “She is being held in the storage compartments in the central underbelly. We will take you to her.”

The Trolliphaunt was a massive creature, made all the moreso by the structures that had been built as a shell around it. On it’s back there were various small buildings and a natural grove that looked to have several coffin size shallow holes. Apparently a mechanism for ensuring the health and maintenance of people with botanical biologies who spent long periods of time unaware of their corporeal bodies.

Beside the Trolliphaunt’s sides hung various additional buildings and ladders, one of which a Red-Orange-Brown Blinet led Jaan down to.

Inside the storage room, Jyl hung suspended in a tank of clear fluid. Her eyes were closed and she showed no signs of motion, not even breathing. It was a disquieting sight for Jaan. Like looking into a mirror and seeing her corpse reflected back.

“It’s difficult to tell if the spirit is still active,” Jaan said. A slight inaccuracy there. She wasn’t adept enough to even begin to tell if there was any active Gallagrin magic at work within the tank.

“We cannot remove her from the paralytic gel,” Red-Orange-Brown Blinet said.

“Not even for a short period?” Jaan asked, tumblers turning and falling in her mind.

“Our supplies were meant for transport,” Red-Orange-Brown Blinet said. “We do not have the proper anesthetics to hold an enchanted captive. This is a makeshift effort at best. Before she is approved for transport we will need to either dissect her and preserve the pieces individually or administer a military grade restraining solution.”

“I would only need a moment to determine whether the spirit is active or not,” Jaan said, carefully skirting a lie with the unspoken words that given a moment she was reasonably sure she could definitely say that, yes, the Pact spirit was active, and unleashed.

“We cannot risk even that,” Red-Orange-Brown Blinet said. “The paralytic could wear off within seconds if she was removed from it.”

“Thank you,” Jaan said. “That is exactly what I needed to know.”

And then she stabbed him.

People forgot that Pact Knights are never unarmed, despite a seeming lack of weapons or armor. It suited Jaan well.  Red-Orange-Brown Blinet would have disagreed, but as he was lacking functional lungs the sentiment came out as little more than a wet gurgle.

Another Blinet moved to sound the alarm, but Jaan pinned them to wall with a heavy throwing knife. She couldn’t fight the whole of the Green Council but a few support staff didn’t exactly present a challenge.

Being careful to avoid the paralytic gel, she tipped Jyl’s tank over and let the liquid contents spill out to the forest floor below. Jyl herself slid free but remained covered with a thick sludgy layer of the gel until Jaan splashed a bucket of cleaning water over her.

Waking up didn’t seem to be a pleasant experience. There were convulsions, vomiting of gel that had filled lungs and stomach, and flailing motions as mobility returned to various body parts. The process was cut short though by a blinding transformation, which Jaan knew would purge the remaining gel from Jyl’s system.

“Where are we?” Jyl asked, her armored eyes alight with rage and humiliation. “What have you done?”

“Saved your life,” Jaan said. “You may express your gratitude now or later.”

Jyl punched her in the face.

In fairness, it was something of an expression of gratitude that the punch didn’t carry the full strength of a Pact Knight behind it. Rather than turning Jaan to mulch, it merely knocked her back and bloodied her nose.

“You betrayed us,” Jyl said.

“I am ever loyal sister,” Jaan said. “Your continued existence is testament to that. Now shall we discuss our options?”

Jyl visibly writhed, shuddering as she fought to suppress the rage that radiated off her in waves.

“What do you want?” she said at last.

“The Green Council is meeting in secret to discuss their next move,” Jaan said. “They have already invaded Gallagrin but more importantly my contact here has decided to exclude our family from the Council’s considerations. That cannot mean anything good.”

“And what do you want to do about that?” Jyl asked.

“We need to enter the Council’s closed session,” Jaan said. “They are plotting the fate of the realms. That’s not their role. It’s ours.”