Featured image “Second Death” by PURY (@puryartist)
Warning: Violent depictions
You know who I am.
Grand Duke of Russia. Leader of this expedition into Northuldra. Faithful servant of Katina Romanov.
My name is Nykras.
Tell me, friend of Arendelle. Have you ever been stabbed from all directions by enemy blades, just as you watch your village burn before your your very eyes? To see women and children dragged away, their screams of terror and despair ringing in your ears even as you know you’re losing too much blood and haven’t a hope of catching up with the marauders that have so indiscriminately butchered and humiliated your people?
You haven’t? Then how could you possibly understand me?
How could Arendelle possibly understand the struggles we Grand Dukes went through in the name of defending our Slavic homelands?
Haven’t you heard of the age of the Mongol-Tartar Yoke? We sent terrified hostages and obeisant princes to a Khan we never saw. We paid taxes and tribute to fatten imperial coffers in a faraway land we never visited. When we overthrew the Golden Horde – when I wreaked my revenge by personally leading my undead armies against the last Khan – we resolved to be an even mightier Eurasian power.
We fought in wars much grander than your soft, inexperienced people could ever conceive of. Thousands, tens of thousands of soldiers. Across great expanses of plains, steppes, and tundra. From the Mongol hordes that became our overlords for hundreds of years to the Qing’s Kangxi Emperor, from Ivan the Terrible to Napoleon the Great… I’ve been there, leading the charge for the Russian crown. If the angel Sora is the guardian of the Romanovs’ inner court, then I’m the vanguard of the outer court, the face of death for all our foes.
With each battle I’ve grown stronger, consuming the lives of everyone I’ve killed and binding them to my nether dimension. My horde has become larger and larger over the centuries, to the point that I alone am sufficient for Katina’s battles. For my soldiers reside in me, countless lives stored in me, to be sacrificed at my whim and choosing.
Hundreds of years of vengeance and serving Her Highness’s clan has led me here. To this beautiful forest.
I see you now.
Little, fragile, girl. Amira, hunter of Northuldra. You’re not so strong, it seems. How soft your neck looks from this angle. How strained your vertebrae. I could snap you right now, and it would be as satisfying as placating an itch. It almost feels like a waste to kill you and your… girlfriend? Ally? Mentor? Who the hell knows. Honeymaren, Home Minister of Arendelle, bridge between town and woodlands – I can feel her bashing her cudgel against me desperately, her once-disciplined maneuvers now urgent and frantic. You tribespeople are putting up a good fight against my undead. You might even beat them. But you can’t defeat me. Your fate is already decided. What matters now is whether you show me the mortal spirit is of any mettle at all. I hope you prove my skepticism wrong.
After all, this immortal lich was also a common human soldier once… a long, long time ago.
You thought Yaraslaf was terrifying?
Let me give you a show…
“Guuuuh!” Caught in the grip of Nykras’ unrelenting tendrils of corrupting darkness, Amira twisted and thrashed as Nykras threw her struggling body across the forest opening, sending her crashing into a group of duelling Northuldra and undead. He lashed out against Yelena again, breaking several of her ribs and sending her flying back again, her back cracking against another tree. It was too much for Yelena’s body to take as she coughed blood, body thumping ominously on to the bloodstained grass and dirt. Unlike last time, she didn’t get up.
“Yelena!” cried Alan in concern, his sword fending off more undead that shambled toward them.
“Someone – someone get Yelena to safety!” roared Maren, fighting off Nykras’ free hand. The lich snarled as a battle staff came spinning at him, bashing against the side of his head and cracking his crown. Maren shouted in momentary relief as her brother, Ryder, swung down from the treetops, quickly scooping up the limp Yelena in his arms.
“Keep your filthy hands off her,” he cried, glaring at Nykras while masking his terror and trying not to visibly quake. The undead horror returning his stare wasn’t something he’d expected to ever see in his life. Yet here he was, in Northuldra, terrorizing the tribe with monstrosities that seemed to emerge from the recesses of old Northuldra folklore.
“Go,” shouted Maren, spinning her staff and backing away, gesticulating to any of hew fellow tribespeople she could see. “Everyone fall back. Yelena is hurt. Ryder, take over command.”
Ryder glanced at his sister and nodded. The battle continued to rage among the trees, by streams and shrubs, in clearings and under the leafy canopy. The corruption was driving animals away and with the spreading plague, the Northuldra felt their very bodies weakening – not enough for them to give up completely, but they couldn’t keep up with Nykras, with Ryder shouting the order for a tactical withdrawal. “If he thinks he’s won, he’s got another think coming! Look,” he cried, before making a run for it to save Yelena.
Across the forest, Northuldra cheered as the rumble of the Earth Giants’ footsteps could be heard. A pink inferno began spreading across the ground as Bruni raced at Nykras, and a wind that had scooped up red and yellow leaves blew straight at the Grand Duke. Nykras’ malevolent, glowing eyes widened in shock as Gale slammed into him, the force throwing his flailing body into the air like a rag doll and sending him shooting back to the ground. As he landed painfully on his back, several massive boulders hurtled from the sky and crushed his body, black blood spurting from under the stones. His limbs convulsed and twitched, and the final blow came when Bruni, the Fire Spirit, enveloped Nykras and the boulders in an intensifying inferno, the WHOOSH of white-hot, raging flames flaring into a pillar of flame that shot up into the sky, burning through the canopy above and causing a small fire to spread through the vicinity. Once more, another hail of massive rocks rained down on the convulsing Nykras, and Bruni and Gale hurled themselves at the Grand Duke, their dance exploding into a burning tornado as the whirlpool of flames slammed into the crushed lich, an overwhelming heatwave sweeping through the entire forest and setting on fire the trees surrounding the epicentre.
The Northuldra and Alan couldn’t help gasping in awe, raising their heads and opening their clenched eyes once the wave of fire and wind had subsided. No one – not even Anna and Elsa – had witnessed a combined attack by three elemental spirits before.
The Earth Giants rumbled as they neared Maren and Amira, smiling down at their human allies. Gale danced in the air as a great cheer erupted all around them. It was almost overkill. No foe could have survived a combined assault from the immortal spirits of earth, fire, and wind. Maren and Alan smiled at each other, relief washing over them. Perhaps the tide had turned after all.
But it wasn’t to be.
A slithering river of black blood seeped out from under the boulders and past the flames of Bruni. It slowly gathered in mass and volume, reconstituting and reforming into Nykras’ physical form. There wasn’t even a scratch on him. He hissed in pain, cracking his neck as Maren, Amira, and Alan stared at the lich in horror. “How cute. You actually thought I’d be killed ssso easssily,” drawled Nykras, spreading open his arms, as if taunting the Northuldra with a challenge. But then he clenched his face, and it became clear to the defenders that he was concentrating.
“BRUNI! GALE! Watch out,” shouted Maren suddenly. She had a bad feeling – an awfully bad feeling.
“Sssilence!” snapped Nykras. “I have you where I want you. We’ll sssee how sssmug you elemental ssspiritsss are when – ” He suddenly lifted his arms, gesticulating in a circular motion as bubbling, black, necrotic matter tore into the physical fabric of the world. ” – when you’re unable to sssave your people!” At his command and an eerie shriek from the sky, massive portals of darkness yawned into existence behind the Earth Giants – one for each – towering over the forest like the Earth Spirit did. The Earth Giants turned around, rumbling in fury, but they were much too slow as tentacles of darkness suddenly shot through the portals, grabbing the giants and pulling their colossal bodies into the gateways. Initially, the giants were far stronger than four or five tentacles, but then they looked around them in shock as more and more of the whip-like tendrils shot out and grabbed their bulky arms and legs, and even wrapping themselves around the Earth Spirit’s faces. The composite elemental rumbled in fury, struggling even harder and making the earth quake and many Northuldra scrambling for cover.
But it was too late.
Their struggling bodies made the ground quake and the forest trees shake away leaves. As the groaning giants were subsumed by the colossal portals above the Northuldra sky, Nykras quickly opened a smaller portal from which slithering tentacles shot out and caught the zipping, nimble Bruni, its irresistible gravitational force pulling the squealing salamander in, along with Gale, who was even lighter than the Fire Spirit.
Maren watched in helpless dread as the wide-eyed, crying Bruni and Gale were sucked in, the portal closing in front of them and sealing them away from sight. Amira gnashed her teeth. She’d seen this trick of the Grand Duke’s during Operation Fire Strike. Somehow, he possessed a kind of “pocket realm” that only he could control, and open and close at will. An “in-between” world that only a master of the undead could navigate.
Northuldra’s spirit defenders were trapped.
“I’ve sealed your ssspiritsss in my nether realm,” cackled Nykras, clapping his hands. His skull socket eyes glinted with a hellish red as he rejoiced at his victory. “They won’t be able to emerge unlesss you kill me. They might asss well be dead! I’ve just imprisssoned your best hope, your final line of guardiansss.” There were groans of despair as the Grand Duke exulted in the sudden apprehension and terror that swept over the tribe.
Nykras recommenced his attack, his tendril fingers suddenly elongating again and shooting through Alan’s shoulder. He shouted in enraged pain, unable to raise his sword in time to stop him. When he tried in desperation to cut at them, Nykras sent his free hand at him as well, tendrils shattering the knight’s blade altogether. Maren and Amira hurled themselves at him, but Nykras was too quick, hurling Alan aside as he went all-out on Maren and Amira, striking Maren repeatedly until his tendrils shattered her cudgel and lashed against her torso and face, the whip-like fingers breaking her jaw cleanly and sending her limp form to the ground. Amira fired a volley of arrows at him, before dashing at him and stabbing him repeatedly with her glaive-knife. He hissed in pain, unable to block Amira’s lighting fast offensive, until he managed to grab her throat again, choking the wheezing and terrified huntress until she briefly went limp in his clutches.
He scornfully threw the silent Amira aside. “You’re almossst too pathetic to even finish off,” he hissed. “No, my true target is the trusssted sssteed of the Sssnow Queen herssself!”
“Ah… Ahtohallan,” moaned Maren. “Oh, spirits. He wants to take Ahtohallan. He’s going to cross the Dark Sea!”
“Now the foressst isss alight, and my undead have ssserved their purpossse,” cackled Nykras, as Amira crawled over the singed grass and clutched Maren in her arms, with Maren returning her embrace as they glared at the Grand Duke hatefully. “The curtain fallsss on thisss mossst ancient foressst, and not even the elementsss can ssstop me now.”
He clenched his tendril fingers into a fist. “Now… to the Dark Sssea! I will kill the Nokk… and then I’ll take the sssource of power that sssustainsss the Sssnow Queen and all the elementsss, Ahtohallan, and finally march on Arendelle!”
A black portal bubbled into existence behind him, a dark oval door to nothingness. “You all fought well. That I respect. Sssurvive my remnant forcesss… if you have it in you,” he laughed. He quickly stepped back into it before the Northuldra could pursue him, and it closed up around him, winking him away from the forest and to his destination by the shores to the north.
The undead, stunned by the sudden disappearance of their master, were quickly made short work of by the remaining Northuldra warriors. One by one, they fell to their second deaths, cut, bashed, or blown apart by Yelena’s forces. In contrast, none of the defenceless among the tribe – unarmed women and men, children, and the elderly – had died. The Northuldra warriors, though having suffered heavy and gruesome casualties, had managed to stand their ground thanks to the armaments supplied by Arendelle’s trade minister. Still, Amira’s emerald eyes were alight in fury as she struggled back up. Alan had also gotten off the ground, but his sword was broken in two.
“Damn it. Amira and Maren, I’m going after Nykras,” he said woozily, although he was bleeding profusely from his forehead. He’d taken a direct hit from the lich lord, but had survived.
“You’re doing no such thing,” snapped Amira, who’d struggled back up with Maren. They held each other, supporting each other’s exhausted and injured bodies. “This is going to hurt,” whispered Amira to Maren, holding her broken jaw tenderly.
CRACK. The Home Minister screamed instinctively as the huntress performed an expertly executed twist of Maren’s head, cleanly resetting the dislocated bone. “You’re going to look after Yelena with Ryder, and make sure Yelena’s wounds aren’t fatal,” continued Amira, turning to Alan. As a true Northuldra survivor of the wild, resetting bones was no big deal to her.
“You’re no superhuman either,” shouted Alan. “We need to help each other.”
“No, I’m not,” said Amira. “But this is my land. My responsibility. I won’t disappoint Maren and Yelena again.” She turned her head and gazed at Maren, who was still rubbing her mouth. “Not when she had faith in me in my darkest hours.”
“I’m fine too,” groaned Maren, her voice unsteady. “I’m sorry, Alan. You did an amazing job, and thanks to you and Michael, our people haven’t suffered as much as we thought we would before Nykras’ attack. But now Nykras has revealed his real target – the River of Memories, the heartbeat of all our magic and what animates the mystical forces in our forest. If he gets his hands on Ahtohallan, the devastation he could inflict on us and on Arendelle itself… ”
She shuddered, not wanting to imagine the possibilities. “I’ll be going to stop him with Amira. And I agree with her that you need to stay. We’re going to defeat Nykras alongside the Nokk, and you need medical attention, like Yelena. Can you link up with Ryder, and see if you guys can help the wounded and retrieve our fallen? We’ve got a secret camp where everyone else is hiding. For now, I think it’s safe to shelter there if we can keep Nykras focused on Ahtohallan.”
Alan wanted to argue or even bargain with the two young women, but he was certainly badly hurt, and his very arms strained to hold his blade steadily. He reluctantly sheathed his broken sword. The Snow Queen probably would prefer him not to argue with someone as close to her as Maren – especially not in this desperate hour. “Maybe Elsa will join you guys if this involves the Water Spirit,” he speculated aloud. “You guys sure would stand a better chance.”
“We’re asking a lot of her, but I’d prefer it if she comes,” said Maren, letting go of Amira and moving to retrieve any unbroken weapon strewn along the ground. As it happened, there was another battle staff: perfect. Amira replenished her quiver with abandoned or fired arrows on the grass and soil and fastened her bow to her back. The corruptive plague eating away at the forest was starting to recede, with Nykras’ toxic presence no longer here. Still, the combined, cataclysmic attack by the spirits meant that whole regions of the forest were crushed by rocks, or still burning from Gale and Bruni’s fire tornado.
Alan smiled. “You can count on me.”
Honeymaren gave Alan a long hug, before letting him go and looking at Amira. The Northuldra women looked at each other, nodding in both apprehension and resolve.
This could well be their final battle.
“As before, when we fought against Yaraslaf – ” said Maren, taking Amira’s hand and squeezing tenderly.
” – I couldn’t imagine anything better than to fall alongside you,” finished Amira, eyes shining.
Nothing more needed to be said between the two women. Their pace quickened as they leaped into the trees, running among the canopy, leaping and dashing from tree to tree, graceful and beautiful. Their destination was north, the tumultuous shoreline of Northuldra. That was where Nykras would be. Beyond were the perilous, sinister seas that led to Ahtohallan.
Maren’s brown eyes flashed angrily. “It’s time to take down Nykras, and save the spirits!”
NEXT: A CLIMACTIC CONFRONTATION BETWEEN THE MIGHTY NOKK AND THE LORD OF THE UNDEAD!
PLUS: HONEYMAREN’S AND AMIRA’S FINEST HOUR!