Featured image “Second Death,” by PURY (@puryartist)
Warning: Violent depictions
Late afternoon. Northuldra
Honeymaren was back in her more mobile Northuldra attire, crouched on a large tree branch as she scanned the foliage-covered forest floor.
“Clear,” she whispered, and a rustle of floating red and brown leaves blew gently around her, before rushing to another tree some distance away. Gale had taken her words and was blowing them towards the huntress Amira, who had also climbed a separate tree. She was covered in camouflage and had war paint on her face.
“It’s clear here, too. I guess we have no choice but to wait for the portal from Nykras to open,” said Amira, her voice betraying frustration as Gale blew away, taking her words back to Maren.
“Right. The moment there’s movement, we raise our voices and shout the battle cry,” replied Maren.
Northuldra’s elemental and human residents were cooperating to defend their shared home from its greatest threat yet.
The calm in the forest was ominous. What seemed like everyday sounds, sights, and smells – the fresh splash of the transparent streams, the twittering of songbirds, or the happy grunts of a reindeer flock – they all seemed to take on an air of foreboding as the Northuldra tribespeople took their positions, scattering about the expanse under the forest canopy to prepare their traps and hide their fighting-age warriors.
The time was soon. Maren had received intelligence from Anna in Arendelle that Grand Duke Nykras’ attack was imminent. There was no mention about the exact date, but Yelena had devised a unique strategy: identify the most counterintuitive time when the ancient lich would try to invade. Obviously, it would have been during the daytime rather than evening, but they’d lain in wait for the whole morning and now the sun was slipping downward in the west.
Maren’s throat felt dry. She never had any memory or personal knowledge of Runeard’s attack on her people. This was the first battle, let alone on such a grand scale, that she’d ever led her tribespeople in. She hadn’t met Nykras before, but Amira did have a brief encounter with him – and from what she’d told her, he sounded petrifying. She shook away those thoughts, doing her best to reinforce her courage with what Anna and Elsa had told her: that she was the future leader of the Northuldra; Yelena had planned for her to succeed her – and as Home Minister, her stewardship of Arendelle was just beginning. She had to defeat Nykras, for all these wonderful things to come to pass.
Then, all of a sudden, it happened.
It was a sight no resident of the forest would ever forget. An immense, unseen pressure seemed to bear down upon the trees, and the ground and the abundant shrubs began to rumble and shake. The gentle peal of afternoon sunlight gradually turned from a pleasant red-orange glow into a sinister black, enveloping the trees, leaves, and canopy in bubbling, necrotic darkness which began to eat away at the bark. Across the vast forest, bubbling black pools of sickness and rot began to eat at the soil and grass, the trunks of ancient trees, and the manifold shrubs. Wider and wider they spread, like hungry mouths opening to consume the very ground. Nothing seemed to be able to escape the rot.
From those expanding portals, which made every organic thing they touched wilt and crumble into dead matter, emerged shambling, half-eaten hands and medieval looking armour. They weren’t soldiers of the contemporary Russian armed forces. Resembling the terrifying draugr of Arendellian children’s tales told to frighten them into going to bed on time, the unliving soldiers had hollow sockets of glowing rime, outdated Varangian helmets and clanging spears and shields and pikes. They crawled out of the portals and shambled about in slow but disciplined formations, memories of battles from centuries ago reengaging their stiff bones and withered muscles. The Grand Duke’s necromantic magic animated them, calling them to battle as the undead began appearing in every corner of Northuldra, from the ruins of the dam to the edges of the Dark Sea. All around them, wherever in the forest they merged into from Nykras’ dimension, the natural landscape around their battalions rotted away, replaced by despoiled mulch, repulsive decayed slime on which life couldn’t grow or find nourishment for spirits-knew-how-long.
The nether overlay was beginning.
From one of the portals shot up an ebony hand, with macabre, inhumanly long fingers that seemed to fluctuate in their length and sharpness at their owner’s will. Up climbed the tall and lanky form of Nykras, who slithered from the black portal of the netherworld like a grotesque python. He was swathed in a red cloak that enveloped his plate armoured body, and a crown encasing an unholy relic sat atop his mummified head.
Long, wispy hair trailing behind him, the Grand Duke followed his undead soldiers, climbing out of the portal and drawing up at his full, majestic height, looking around as the army of the unliving army moaned and shuffled along the forest floor. Russia’s human army might have been destroyed by the Ottomans, but Nykras didn’t rely on human beings to win his battles. He’d been consuming lives, after all, since the days of Kievan Rus’. This day would be no different. Still, he felt rather excited to be assigned this crucial phase of the war. To be tasked to destroy an entire people and the spirits they worshipped, as well as to open a southern route to Arendelle, was a task Katina had trusted only him with. He didn’t intend to disappoint.
“Warriorsss of the old Russian principalitiesss. What are you all waiting for? You know our work here. For the Russsian Empire! For Princesss Katina,” he hissed in his raspy, entombed voice.
“Consssume and devour!”
The moment he said those words, a great cry arose from the trees across Northuldra. The voice of Maren’s brother, Ryder, rang through the trees: “From the sky we fall!”
A chorus, multilayered war cry rang out from the canopy, and almost as if perfectly rehearsed, from the trees all around descended Northuldra men and women, leaping from the branches and landing amidst the undead, immediately engaging them with fighting staffs, spears, and the newly imported armaments of rifles and bullets from trade minister Michael’s A&N freight company. They swallowed their revulsion and fear and threw themselves at the unliving soldiers. Cacophonies of gunshots, the clanging of steel against steel: Northuldra’s fighting men and women cut down as many undead as they could, stirred into a righteous fury by their desperation to protect their long-untouched home. To their much-needed advantage, the zombies were much slower than their nimbler Northuldra combatants, even though several Northuldra were unlucky enough to feel for themselves the weight and power behind the swing of an undead pike or spear: one swipe sliced open a tribesman’s bowels, sending him crumpling to the ground; another tribeswoman screamed as an undead soldier ran her through with a brutal, unstoppable thrust of his halberd. They, in turn, were quickly piled upon by angry Northuldra warriors, with knives and spears plunging into their half-decayed forms from all directions.
Amidst the cries and shrieks, Nykras glided among the tussling combatants, revelling in the corrupting influence of his serfs. All around them, the forest’s foliage and fauna were turning black. The animals had long fled, and they had nowhere to run, for his undead were everywhere. His skull-like eyes darted from side to side. Suddenly, the fingers on his right hand sharpened and elongated, and shot out with blinding speed, spearing five Northuldra through their chests, blood spraying along his lance-like appendages. Through a mere mental command, his fingers withdrew and reverted to a more recognizable length, leaving his victims to fold and collapse. “It feelsss good to be on the battlefield again,” he proclaimed, as he raised his arms once more, this time tend fingers shooting out to spear into ten more struggling Northuldra –
A loud CLANG rang through the forest as Alan of Arendelle’s longsword blocked Nykras’ attack, sending both the Grand Duke and Anna’s ally skidding back. “Damn you, Grand Duke.” Alan, usually one never lost for words, simply stared grimly at the lich, anger and trepidation roiling inside him as he adjusted his light armour and sprinted at Nykras, who scornfully raised his hand again.
“On your knees, mortal,” he snorted, as his black tendrils twisted and danced around Alan. Alan raised his sword in a defensive guard and managed to parry several of Nykras’ fingers, before one them bashed him aside, sending him rolling along rotting soil and grass. Alan winced as he rubbed at his cheek, feeling the repulsive stench of mulch staining his face. He scrambled up, just in time to see Nykras aiming his fingers at him directly again. His eyes widened –
“Nyyyyyykraaaaas!” came Honeymaren’s raging voice, prompting the distracted Grand Duke to raise his head. From the tree branches high above descended Yelena and, just above her, a furious Honeymaren and her compatriot, Amira. Nykras cackled as he raised his arms, fingers shooting with incredible speed upward like spikes, aiming to impale the three women. Yelena’s eyes widened as she spun her staff, deflecting Nykras’ fingers, while Maren and Amira landed in a roll and leaped up, surrounding the Grand Duke.
“What freak of nature are you supposed to be?” snorted Maren, spinning her own battle staff as Amira aimed her bow and arrow at Nykras.
“Caution, girls,” said Yelena warily, circling Nykras slowly. “Runeard doesn’t seem so bad compared to this fiend.”
“We meet again, Northuldra warrior,” hissed Nykras at Amira, ignoring Maren and Yelena. “You who ssstopped an army of Russsian soldiersss from completing our railroad into Arendelle – how doesss it feel to now witnesss the end of your homeland at my handsss?”
Amira instantly let loose a rapid succession of two, three, four arrows at Nykras, catching him off-guard as he snarled for the first time, unleashing a barrage of rotting projectiles at her. Amira somersaulted out of the way as Alan and Yelena charged, thrusting their weapons at the lich. Alan managed to stab Nykras in the midsection, purple blood spurting from his side, and the end of Yelena’s staff bashed into Nykras’ face several times, sending his stunned form reeling. Just as he recovered, Amira’s massive glade knife slashed along his torso, cutting into his armour and drawing yet more blood. He growled, raising his arms again. Yelena and Alan instantly dashed away, but rather than going after them, Nykras cackled as the spreading rot began to creep towards him, crawling under his medieval knight’s boots and visibly closing up his injuries.
“You’ve never fought a lich in your livesss, have you?” He cackled as Maren’s jaw dropped and Amira and Yelena looked at each other nervously.
Alan rushed up to Nykras from behind, roaring, and cleaved open Nykras’ back with a great swing of his sword, but the forest corruption was already nourishing the lich’s body, and his wound closed up almost as fast as Alan managed to inflict it. “Begone with you!” hissed Nykras, shooting a finger atAlan’s leg, aiming to cripple him. And Nykras might well have stabbed him through flesh and bone had Alan not dashed aside, Nykras just barely missing him. Still, the Grand Duke managed to cut his thigh, and Alan stumbled back in pain. Yelena hurried to his aid, only to be hurled back by the force of Nykras’ blast of necromantic energy. Hand sizzling with black magic, he turned his attention to Maren, forcing her back with a flurry of stabs and thrusts from his tendrils, distracted only by another hail of arrows from Amira. He snarled in annoyance, shooting several fingers at the huntress. They quickly swatted her bow and arrow away and coiled around her neck, entwining themselves around her throat before starting to apply ruthless pressure. Amira gasped, dropping her bow, and began to scrabble at Nykras’ fingers frantically, trying to break free from his implacable grip.
“NO!” screamed Maren, rushing forward with her staff at the ready. Nykras laughed as his fingers continued to slash at Maren’s spinning weapon from multiple disorienting angles, even as he kept choking a struggling Amira. Yelena tried to assist Yelena, but another blast of necrotic energy from Nykras sent her flying back and slamming painfully into a tree. Yelena fell to her knees, moaning in pain.
“Yelena! Amira!” Maren roared in frustration, desperate to get to Amira, whose feet were dangling several feet off the ground.
“I’m too old for undead fiends and nether creatures,” groaned Yelena to herself, struggling back up.
“You feel it, don’t you? Little lasss,” hissed Nykras. “The inevitability. The dessspair. The gradually dawning realization that your valiant effortsss are doomed.” He looked around him. Everywhere were the corpses of his soldiers and Northuldra tribespeople. But they were far from finished, as in the distance, there was rumbling from the Earth Giants moving in their direction. The wind howled with Gale’s angry presence, and the trees began to glow with pink light as Bruni’s fire lit up the canopy and night sky.
Nykras grinned with his lipless mouth and exposed teeth at the elemental display of might.
“Anytime now. The ssspiritsss of thisss land are coming to confront me. I’ll defeat all of you firssst, before confronting the Nokk and wresssting Ahtohallan from it!”
THE NORTHULDRA HAVE ENGAGED RUSSIA’S SECOND GRAND DUKE!
TO BE CONTINUED!