The Wounded Witch by Jeramy Goble (Part Four)
The overall strategy for the invasions of Fordail and Hignriten was largely devoid of considerations for terrain and topography. It wasn’t an accidental omission. There was simply no need for Baralli to consider it. Henessa was a port city and was accessible immediately once the Nurudians made landfall. Their second set of seized targets, Messyleio and Carbunta in Hignriten, due north and northwest, respectively, were easily accessed from Henessa. The land in the region was mostly flat prairie land. And after a short incursion through the southern tip of Yubik—which Baralli intended to deal with later—the Nurudians would have their first test of terrain.
Baralli’s strategy was to split the northern half of the Kynpahl continent in two, to minimize the chances of nations joining forces against them. With Fordail and Hignriten seized, a victory in Acorilan would leave only Fyndol, Torguria, and Yubik to the north—strategically insignificant as far as Baralli was concerned.
Word of the Nurudian invasion on the continent reached Detsepera, Acorilan’s queen, at approximately the same time as the Nurudians engaged the forces in Hignriten. Knowing the Nurudians would likely approach Acorilan through Nontala Pass in the Danwenglen Mountains, Detsepera sent extra infantry and Ridgerazers—Acorilan’s Gift Warriors—to reinforce the pass and await the Nurudian armies. Twelve days after the Nurudians landed, they clashed with the Acorilinians for the first time.
The Acorilinian captain of the Nontala Pass infantry raced down the watchtower overlooking the approach and whistled for his men to gather.
“Men! Men! The Nurudians are minutes away! Remember, we’ve been ordered to stall them. Harass them. Delay their progress into the heart of Acorilan, but do not be careless with your lives! I’ve requested some additional infantry, as well as some support from the Bedrock and Spire, but I don’t know that they will make it in time. Once it looks as though we can’t hold the pass any longer, I’ll signal for us to pull back to the inner counties. Understood?”
“Yes sir!” the group shouted.
“Good!” the captain replied. “Get into place!”
The men shot to their places as ordered. Most took up defensive positions on cliffs overlooking the trail. Soon, the stillness in the air was interrupted by the scratching of shuffling feet and hooves climbing the trail. Minutes later, the last thread of the day’s peace was broken with the shout of a lieutenant’s “Loose!”
The Nurudians had brought their fight to Acorilan.
Arrows shot down from the cliffs. Muffled screams rang up from the trail. The ascending Nurudians condensed their marching column into a narrower one and brought their shields overhead. Acorilinians started grouping up to rock large boulders back and forth until they had enough momentum to get them rolling down onto the trail. Once the boulders had been released, they returned to nocking arrows.
As the Nurudians struggled to adapt to the various methods of defense from the Acorilinians, they faced down a new threat.
Marching down from the top of the trail came a heavily armored group of Bedrock—Acorilan’s elite, and sturdy, male honor guard—interspersed with a group of the lightly armored Spire—Acorilan’s elite, and more nimble, female honor guard. Soon after starting down the trail, the Bedrock and Spire began a quick march before sprinting into an all-out charge.
The regular Acorilinian infantry, previously unsure if any of their elite comrades would be joining them, erupted into shouts of bloodthirsty joy at the sight.
For the first time since their arrival on the continent, the Nurudians weren’t able to progress as they wished. From the cover of archers and the formidable wall of elite forces on the trail, the Nurudians could not break through. And the height of the top of the trail was such that there could be no support of the Nurudians from the base of the trail. But eventually, a shift in strategy made it up through the Nurudian columns.
The Nurudians broke out of their shield wall and widened their forces to stretch the width of the trail. With the Bedrock and Spire ahead of them and with archers resuming their volleys, the Nurudians immediately suffered heavy losses at the front. But the Acorilinians were quickly running out of arrows, and the Bedrock and Spire were growing tired. After the lion’s share of the day, the watchtower captain finally issued the order to retreat. The last four men down from the watchtower grabbed the flag meant to signal that an enemy was approaching, draped it over the tower walls, and ran down to join the rest of the retreating forces.
The message of the incoming Nurudians was carried via flag on subsequent watchtowers, finally making it to High Peak watchtower which overlooked the Acorilan capital of Morganon. Queen Detsepera looked up from her residence tower as the guards at High Peak’s tower sounded their horns.
“About three days until they get here,” Detsepera whispered urgently to her Chief Advisor, Pretovan.
“That won’t be enough time to finish assembling our forces from the other counties,” Pretovan said.
Detsepera shook her head. “No, it won’t be.”
“What about the Ridgerazers?” Pretovan suggested. “Their magic and understanding of the Gifts is unparalleled.”
Detsepera rubbed her lips aggressively.
“Even at their most rested, they still wouldn’t be able to overcome an entire army, and one with its own users of the Gifts,” she conceded. “No, we need something more powerful.”
Her eyes flexed wide as she turned to Pretovan.
“More powerful! Something older! I’m going to visit the Wardens and see if they can help!”
“The Wardens?” Pretovan asked, puzzled. “How can they do anything? They’re just guardians to the afterlife.”
“I don’t know,” Detsepera admitted, “but if there’s a chance that they can do something, I need to find out. Stay here and see to the organization of our people and strategy as they arrive. Is that clear?”
Pretovan snapped down in a quick bow.
“Regardless of the outcome,” she added, walking to Pretovan and placing her hand on his shoulder. “I will return before the Nurudians arrive.”
The queen flew out of the western edge of the city and made for Honor’s Crest, the mountain where Acorilan’s honored dead were laid to rest. There, one of the continent’s Gracewardens resided and ushered the spirits of the area’s cherished departed to Cylinnia—the final dwelling for the honored dead.
Detsepera climbed the ornate stairs to the mountain’s entrance steadily but respectfully, paying little attention to her feet.
She hadn’t been to Honor’s Crest in some time and was distracted by the intricate scenes carved deep into the stone steps. More than any other time she could remember, she was mesmerized by the wealth of history and culture of the Acorilinians, and became that much more determined to repel the Nurudians.
Her pace quickened as she approached the top of the steps, and soon she started to jog, and then run. After a time, she came to the great hall where the dead were set atop a large marble table so that respects could be paid before being buried. She came to a stop at one of the long sides of the table and scanned the room slowly in solemn respect at the scale and design of the glimmering room.
Set into larger and more ornate scenes of Acorilinian history were diamonds and gems that reflected and magnified the light from the numerous torches and grand chandeliers adorned with hundreds of candles. But the importance of the room snapped her back to reality, and to the importance of her visit. She ran to the narrower head of the marble table and began to breathe deeply.
She closed her eyes and began to summon the Acorilinian Gracewarden, but soon after beginning, her spell deviated from what was usually spoken.
“Master of light. Warden of Grace. Please stir within this chamber and inspect my heart. Please appear to me should you consider hearing my plea. Our lands and our people are under threat from an unprovoked attacker and we are in need of your help.”
Almost immediately, a crisp outline of bright energy flashed out from the floor and traced the pattern of a magic circle, just encompassing the table for the departed. A partially translucent image of a warrior in golden armor of indeterminate origin took shape, hovering some distance above the table.
Detsepera slid down the side of the table, landing on her knees, and holding onto the edge in respectful awe.
“Thank you for coming to me! Thank you for hearing me!” the queen began. “Please, have you heard my request? Can you please help us?”
The image of the armored Gracewarden, complete with helmet, hovered silently and said nothing.
“Please. You have appeared to me. Why will you not speak? Is there anything you can do to help us?”
Still, the Gracewarden said nothing. Detsepera pushed away sharply from the table and stood up.
“Say something! If you will not help me, will any of the other Gracewardens? Will no help come to us? Acorilan lives only to serve the light. To serve the Gifts! We need your help in preserving that light and those Gifts!”
As Detsepera yelled at the still figure, blooms of additional light started to take shape near her. One by one, the world’s other Gracewardens began to appear. Just as it registered to Detsepera that the other Gracewardens had come to her, a chorus of powerful voices started to speak in unison. The booming sound, though amiable in nature, bit slightly with annoyance.
“You needn’t raise your voice to us, Detsepera, current Queen of Acorilan. We have heard you and have given the requested consideration to your request. We must, however, decline.”
“What?” Detsepera shouted. “Why?”
The images of the Gracewardens began to fade. As they did, their voices grew softer.
“We must not tarnish or endanger Cylinnia by having an influence on those who come to it. We will not.”
“Wait!” Detsepera screamed. “Wait! No!”
The images of the local Gracewarden, and those distant, finally dissipated to nothing.
“Fine,” Detsepera bit through gritted teeth. She turned and began to march towards the exit. “If light and grace will turn their backs on me, maybe the darkness won’t.”
Once again, Detsepera found herself running through the halls of Honor’s Crest, racing to get out. Racing to abandon the temple of honor, grace, and light. Racing to abandon that which had abandoned her.
Outside once more, she mounted back up and galloped for the opposing mountain—the Vacant Grave. Only minutes away by horse at full gallop, the Vacant Grave was where the forgotten dead rested—those deemed unworthy of remembrance. Their remains were guarded and ushered to Zunnor, the realm for failed souls, by the Voidwarden.
Detsepera raced up the trail to the peak of the Vacant Grave, making as quick work as she could of the numerous switchbacks that grew narrower with each switch. But finally, she crested the top of the trail and sprinted into the mountain, racing down into its depths.
She flew down the steps, past countless corridors of crypts and altars. Growing angrier with each passing moment, the Acorilinian queen pushed the concern for what might result from her desperation to the back of her mind. Finally, she reached the deepest dregs of the mountain. Similar to her spell in Honor’s Crest, she began to beseech the Voidwarden.
“Master of darkness. Warden of the Void. Please stir within this chamber and inspect my mind. Please appear to me should you consider hearing my plea. Our lands and our people are under threat from an unprovoked attacker and we are in need of your help.”
Only the flickering of the sporadically placed torches along the wall responded. The shadows in the chamber ebbed and flowed throughout the room, seemingly mocking Detsepera and her needs.
Detsepera started to turn, furiously inspecting the empty room.
“What good are any of you? Any of the Wardens? Why devote these massive monuments to you and the dead when you do no good for the living? I would see these mountains destro—”
A new mob of voices crept into the cavernous room, interrupting Detsepera in the form of a creaking snicker. As the snicker grew into a chuckle, and then a guffaw, Detsepera watched the shadows slow. They consolidated and started to form distinct shapes along the wall. The voices spoke with a demented lilt.
“I will help you,” answered one of the shadows.
Detsepera’s head collapsed in exhausted relief before raising it back up.
“What are you? Are you one of the—” she attempted.
“Yes. I am Acorilan’s Voidwarden,” the creature began. “My fellow Voidwardens urged me not to reply, but I am tempted by stimulation beyond showing dishonored souls to Zunnor.”
Detsepera stood quietly, thinking on the Voidwarden’s words.
“How can you help? What do I need to do?”
A portion of one of the black shadows in the wall started to separate. To Detsepera’s eye, a smile of moldy and moist rock began to take shape.
Two days later, the Nurudians had been annihilated. After pushing through the pass, they made their way through eastern Acorilan and set up camp close enough to Morganon that they could be seen from the southern watch tower. But at dawn of the day the Nurudians had planned to besiege Morganon, a dark army of disease and malice tore through the area, killing any Nurudian it encountered. Only a fraction escaped.
As Colendra fled with the few other Nurudians that escaped death at the hand of the Voidwarden, she uttered a curse that would seal the fate of Acorilan for centuries.
Hate and fear of the world, I instruct you to obey me.
Feast upon my offering of the flesh and essence of my dead kin.
Take them and use them to see my vision through.
Discover that which has brought death to my people.
Nourish it. Teach it. Reward it.
Let that which has swallowed up my Nurudians also bite into the fate of Acorilan.