By Gottfried, Defence Editor for The Arendelle Guardian
NORTHULDRA; ARENDELLE – With Imperial Russia expected to declare war on Arendelle anytime in the New Year (which will mark the formal start of hostilities between the two countries), Honeymaren and Yelena have been hard at work mobilizing the forest to be ready for the fight of its life.
At stake is the very balance of the natural world itself, mediated as it is by the four spirits of the Nokk, Bruni, Gale, and the Earth Giants. While these great and ancient mythic beings have no interest in political squabbles – even those of Arendelle’s – they have already reached an understanding with Elsa. They will happily defend the forest’s ecosystem and tribal residents from the impending attack of Grand Duke Nykras, an ancient lich, whose undead legions threaten to corrode and corrupt the entire land.
Anna has stressed to her tacticians that should Katina Romanov seize Northuldra, her southward route to Arendelle would be open, leaving the kingdom vulnerable to a pincer attack from the northern land route and the westward naval bombardment by Grand Duke Yaraslaf’s Baltic Fleet. There is too much at stake – the tribespeople’s lives, the way to Arendelle, and the very balance of the natural world – to allow Northuldra to fall into Nykras’ clawed hands.
It’s no secret that Anna has been helping the Northuldra tribe to take its place alongside Arendelle as a co-governing body of a unified sovereign state. Key to this has been the formation of a Treasury, which allows the Northuldra to trade with Arendellian firms (such as trade minister Michael’s A&N freight business) and accumulate wealth to spread among the tribes’ families: a rudimentary taxation and public welfare system. However, much of this money must now be diverted into arming the entire tribe and preparing weapons, traps, and other means of defence. But Yelena told this reporter not to worry: “After all,” she said, “the invader will be fighting on our home ground. They have a few surprises waiting for them once they set foot in our home.”
While Honeymaren has been busy travelling back and forth since her recovery from the battle with Yaraslaf in Saint Petersburg, not much has been seen of her recently pardoned compatriot, Amira. Both she and Anna seem relatively tight-lipped about her whereabouts.
On the outskirts of Russia, the border between Arendelle and the Russian Empire. Midnight
The well-armed Russian sentry gurgled as a shadow struck his head from behind. He crashed to the ground, unconscious.
His fellow officer barely knew what had happened before he felt a slender hand slap a cloth smeared with sleeping herbs and oils over his mouth. He slumped onto the cold grass, snoring away.
The guard standing atop the tower of the Russian military garrison peered into the woodlands, unsure if he’d heard some scuffling, before feeling an arrow shooting cleanly through his neck. His corpse fell from the tower, silently.
One by one, the soldiers patrolling the outskirts of the camp fell, rendering it vulnerable and exposed.
Someone was on the prowl tonight.
Her fur cape trailing behind her lithe, nimble dress and quiver of arrows, Amira lifted back her hood, emerald, feline eyes glinting as she swung her hook up the concrete wall of the camp. She shot up and landed in a silent crouch on the fortifications. She ran to the edge and peered over into the camp, quickly identifying a train track in the middle of dozens of camps and chatting soldiers. There was a large train waiting, no doubt preparing to transport hundreds or thousands of Russian troops to Northuldra.
Amira licked her lips. Despite all of Anna’s diplomatic efforts and economic pressure on Russia, there was no stopping Katina from declaring war.
Now, Anna showed her ruthless and decisive streak by making amends with Amira and offering her a job only she could do.
This was no ordinary site. The Ravens, Arendelle’s spies, had told Yelena and Mattias that the camp was commissioned by Nykras himself, in preparation for a first wave of human infantry and cavalry into Northuldra territory. Katina would spare no expense or force in her arsenal to ensure victory. The Russians would demoralize and cripple Northuldra resistance with a show of superior military technology, with howitzers and artillery and modern rifles, before Nykras dealt the death blow with his overwhelming necromantic power.
Anna and Maren had already moved to foil Katina’s plan. Operation Fire Strike was on.
Operatives on the field?
Amira quickly vaulted over the fort and into the camp, and before any of the soldiers could spot her form, she whipped out several smoke grenades and hurled them far to her left, their loud explosions and hissing smoke sending most of the soldiers running to where she wasn’t. With the troops distracted, Amira sprinted silently to the front of the silent train, the intended transporter of death and destruction to her people. The bad news was that Russia had the ability to field generous numbers of troops across the Eurasian continent. The good news was that logistics and transportation networks were very costly, and a single disruption – such as the well-placed destruction of a train track – could delay a route for so long that it was often more cost effective to cancel it altogether.
She snarled to herself: “Eat this, harbingers of ruin,” as she slipped her hand into her pouch and revealed several Northuldra-patterned packets with the symbol of the Fire Spirit, Bruni. She tossed them under the train, into the middle of the tracks.
“You, Katina, call us savages, but we’re far more ingenious than you care to think,” she hissed, “for we have the very elements on our side.”
She dashed away and mumbled an incantation under her breath. At her command, bursts of Bruni’s pink, ethereal flames erupted from the rapidly wilting packets and set alight the base of the train, before spreading rapidly and eating into the metal. The bottom of the carriage exploded, the front of the train thrown up into the air as an inferno swept underneath it. The metal tracks began melting away into soft puddles while the wood was incinerated, going up in flames in a long and ongoing row as more and more of the train track caught fire. Cries accompanied the rising smoke and ashes into the dark night sky. The Russian soldiers ran back to the smouldering vehicle and the destroyed tracks underneath, shouting amongst each other in horror.
“Who did this?” A lieutenant could be heard screaming: “The enemy is in our camp! They must have thrown those smoke bombs to distract us! Find whoever it is and bring her to me!”
Mission success. “Get back to Arendelle right after you’re done,” Anna had told Amira before the latter set off for the Russo-Arendellian border. “We’re going to beat Katina at her own game by putting pressure on her before any of us even declares war. But your presence can’t be detected anywhere.”
But even amidst the growing chaos, Amira wasn’t finished. She slipped into the central tent, a few yards away from the melting tracks, nocking an arrow and raising her bow. To her surprise, the tent was empty, except for a plain wooden table and oil lamp. “Where the hell is Grand Duke Nykras,” she muttered in puzzlement, “or even any of his subordinates?”
She slowly shifted to the table, warily looking down at the map that lay silently on the wood. Her eyes widened. It was of Northuldra.
A chill descended on the tent, and Amira felt her bones tingling as the oil lamp’s flame died. She leaped back, wildly aiming her bow and arrow at the omnipresent whoosh. The cries and swearing of the soldiers outside seemed so distant as she felt a supernatural presence enveloping her. She quickly lowered her bow and drew her Northuldra blade, whipping around, but seeing no one. Before she could shout out her frustration, a bubbling puddle of malevolent liquid, like pungent tar, burned through the ground beside her. She instantly shot down and thrust her dagger into the opening, boiling ebony puddle, but a long hand with jagged, tendrilled fingers grabbed her curved blade.
Amira found herself staring at the deathly countenance of a horrific visage with red eyes, grinning skull’s teeth, and the wispy long hair of a corpse that should have rotted away completely long ago. On the lich’s head was an otherworldly crown. He was clad in medieval armour, and the landscape behind him was actually of a magnificent palace in Saint Petersburg.
Amira gasped as she struggled to pull away. Nykras wasn’t even here. He’d been watching all the way from Russia.
Nykras yanked at Amira, launching himself from the bubbling portal as he joined the Northuldra in the tent, looming over her as she let go of the knife and stumbled back in abject horror. She couldn’t help feeling chills down her spine as she gazed upon the Grand Duke, who stared back at her balefully.
“Ssso,” he hissed, his rasping voice a ghostly whisper. “You’ve dessstroyed my railway line into the Arendellian heartland and to Northuldra. My engineersss had only just been building the ressst of the rail line.”
He sneered. “Human forcesss really aren’t of much ussse, are they?” he declared. “A noble and sssuccesssful sssabotage, girl, but now I’ll sssimply forget my human legionsss and overlay myssself in Northuldra with my undead knightsss.”
He glided closer, the black puddle boiling and bubbling underneath his boots wherever he went.
“All you’ve done is sssave the livesss of Russsian men.”
“Let’s fight here and now,” invited Amira breathlessly, scrambling up and aiming her arrow at him, “and I’ll give you your long overdue death.”
“And ruin the gloriousss feeling of consssuming your entire foressst with my undead? Misss out on turning all your tribe into my zombie ssslavesss? No,” said Nykras, shaking his head. “Besssides, Northuldra woman, I’m alssso a warrior – or at leassst, I once wasss. A common sssoldier fighting the Mongol invasssions in Kievan Russs’ many centuriesss ago. I look forward to a true battle with you – fair and sssquare.”
He turned away dismissively, as if suddenly bored, slowly sinking back into his black puddle – and, presumably, through his portal back into Saint Petersburg. “I’ll let you have thisss night. I have my ordersss from Katina, and they’re not to move againssst you now. It’s a sssimple matter for me to appear in your foressst. I look forward to our meeting on that field of battle.”
“No!” screamed Amira, shooting several arrows with lightning speed at Nykras, but the lich had already sunk back into the ground, the deadened air in the tent suddenly feeling much lighter. She ran to the spot where he’d been standing, hardly daring to believe what the undead master could do. It was as if he’d never been here. Still shaken up by his visitation, she whipped around as she heard more and more voices congregating around her, and she burst out of the tent – everyone was still distracted with the exploded train and rapidly melting tracks, but she needed to escape quickly. She bolted for the garrison wall, shooting from tent to tent and blowing her sleeping dart into the necks of any nearby soldiers, before making a final sprint and hurling her grappling hook up the fort wall. She quickly clambered up the wall, hearing a voice in the distance:
“Hey – hey! THAT MUST BE THEM! THE SABOTEUR! HURRY AND STOP HER!”
Amira swore and climbed faster, leaping smoothly back onto the fortification as bullets from rifles shot past her, narrowly missing or hitting the wall. She didn’t want to be injured again so quickly after Saint Petersburg. She quickly abseiled down the opposite side of the wall, before abandoning her rope and hook and sprinting into the safety of the forest beyond the camp. Sweat ran down her face paint as she ran for her life, away from the shouts and firing rifles.
Operation Fire Strike, thanks to Bruni and Yelena and the tribal shamans’ methods of capturing the elemental powers, was a success. But Nykras’ confident words echoed unpleasantly in her mind.
“Whatever,” she muttered to herself. It was time to get back to Arendelle.
Time to get back to Northuldra, and warn everyone about the undead onslaught that was coming.