“Marm. It appears she’s building an encampment on the plains. It looks like a castle,” one of the scouts reported. “A twisted, ugly wooden building. And she has a barn of sorts. Carts go in one end, and…and their soldiers walk out the other end.”
Anteegha turned back to the war room table shaped like the realm of Nklamkas.
“Violette is settling in. That barn is where she makes her fighters. Stitching together man and beast.”
“General, we have reports of a horde marching toward the Moon gate,” Hugo added.
Anteegha walked to the bridge’s southern side and looked down at the inlet that met the lower side of the mountain fortress.
“The skull moon will rise in two nights.”
“I know my Celestry lieutenant. Seal the moon gate.”
“Marm.” Fuses buzzed away from the bridge in a straight line down inside the Sanctuary.
Minutes later, sixteen sequential thuds landed and reverberated throughout the mountain, even audible inside the bridge. Added to the sanctuary decades after its initial construction, the moon gate didn’t require two brave souls to be sealed.
“Marm. Tree Gate and Moon Gate are sealed.”
The General nodded and turned back to the windows.
“We have stores for decades and infrastructure for centuries. What now, Violette?” The General said into the distance.
The next night, a nearly full skull moon hung in the sky, and with it, the lowest tides of the lunar cycle. They’d be impassable for a human, but the inlet was reduced to a tide pool for the horde of monsters.
Scholars tried classifying the monsters marching toward the gates, but each report conflicted with another. Some reported seeing giants with the heads of bulls, others had seen trolls with the limbs of bears, while others reported seeing six-legged creatures with lion heads and feathered arms. Monsters rode mammoths, with antlers in place of tusks and long arms protruding from their necks. And that was to say nothing of Violette’s infantry. Each of the twenty thousand armed soldiers was at least half of something and half another thing entirely. Men, horses, stags, bears, and even pigs were stitched into the creatures standing guard for their siege force in the inlet below.
The General had taken to one of the bridge sight-scopes and was surveying the enemy encampment. She found Violette strutting proudly on the veranda of her makeshift castle. The gaunt woman was something to behold; thin as a rake and appeared taller than even the General. Violette’s wispy black dress waved around her while she spun her hands in widening circles at her side, her grave wand in one hand. She then propelled the wand in front of her, and a thud echoed from the first door of the Moon Gate, barely audible atop the lookout.
The monster horde had driven a timber battering ram into the first gate. It rattled but did not break. The General looked back to Violette and gasped slightly when she saw her staring right back at her through the viewfinder. A discomforting smile crept across the queen’s face, followed by another distant thud of wood on the gate.
“Three Owls and their fucking coven,” The General cursed as she paced. The General took a meal, used the lavatory and retired to her quarters for a quick nap. Sleep may not be afforded in the battle to come.
Luka arrived at the house of Mountains, Two-Trees and found it in ruin. At the town’s gates, a man lay propped up against the wall, his hands nailed above his head and his Banner draped on his chest. Luka pulled the heraldry aside to reveal mortal injuries. So cruelly inflicted that he’d likely die of thirst before the wounds.
“What happened?” Luka yelled, startling the man awake.
“You’re… you’re from the Sanctuary. I’m sorry, my lord.” He sputtered.
“I’m no lord, friend. Tell me what happened.”
“Called themself Valentine. Arrived at our gates with a small army…we stood fast, but….” The man coughed and did not finish.
“What does this Valentine want,” Luka asked.
“They said they were here on behalf of the queen. Said the Sanctuary is an affront to her. A bastion of life has no place in her world and wouldn’t rest until their precious Violette was satisfied.” The man was growing weaker. “Valentine… wears the skin of a demon.”
“Where is everyone?” Luka asked, fearing the answer.
“Told us we had a choice. We could stand against Violette and die, or we could join her. Some laid down their arms, and some of us stood to fight.” The man had a fit of coughing, and blood streamed from the corner of his mouth. “But everyone ended up in the pile or the cart just the same.”
“What do you mean?”
“There.” The man nodded with great effort toward a glistening pile.
“They butchered every last one of us. Three days, it took them. They put what they wanted in a cart pulled by a giant. That pile there is the leftovers.” He tried to point, but only his finger rose.
“I’ve been nailed here, watching. Do me mercy, scout. Kill me. Kill me now.”
Luka tightened his jaw and obliged the man with a quick blade to the heart. He didn’t have time for rites, so he found his horse and galloped back toward the Sanctuary, leaving the ruined town at his back.
“Marm, they’re through the first gate,” Hugo said.
“Fuck, where are the Banners.” At this pace, it would take months to breach the remaining gates, but that’s not what troubled Anteegha; their carpentry drew her ire.
She stepped out of the bridge onto one of the two cantilevered verandas offering a bird’s eye view of her domain. The monster horde smashing at the gates had retreated from the inlet when the tide came in. During their break, they acquired more timber and began to build. When the next Skull Moon came, the fruits of their labour became clear; They were making a cofferdam. The monster siege corp would no longer have to await low tides to attack the remaining gates.
Absent the welding of the Tree gates, water should have sufficed as a barrier, but no one expected an army with this level of scale or resourcefulness. The monsters appeared to have been butchered and re-assembled as if for this purpose alone. Violette and her necromantic ingenuity had cut the Sanctuary’s defence estimates by an order of magnitude.
“Fuck,” she said to herself again, her breath visible in front of her face. It was near winter, not that it mattered much inside the Sanctuary, but it was getting colder.
General Anteegha squinted to the horde below, then hurried inside the bridge.
“Get me a stormist. Now.” The General barked at Hugo. A messenger began the arduous journey down to the Sanctuary.
The stormist arrived in under an hour, and she told the General that frost was expected the next several nights. Stormists were usually at the beck of the Sanctuary’s farmers and gardeners but would gladly serve the military if called.
“Are you sure?” The General asked.
“As sure as we can be in predicting the weather, marm.”
“We need to slow them down,” She said in a question to Hugo. “We must separate the siege team from the forces standing watch.”
“The spigots, marm?” Hugo offered
“No, not yet. Tar and oil first. Let’s burn these abominations.”
Hugo nodded and notified the fusemen.
With the horde hard at work, hundreds of ant-holes opened and lobbed small vats of tar and oil on the siege team at the gates. From a second set of openings, archers loosed bolts of fire into the horde. They exploded in flame but to no immediate effect. The monsters made of monsters continued their ramming.
Eventually, the flames burned to the bone, and without any muscle or sinew to hold the ram, it fell to the ground. The horde grunted and shuffled to the opposite side. When they had no arms left to carry it, the seigers ran their own bodies against the gate.
More creatures arrived the next day, and the battering resumed. The coffer dam was fully functional, and the horde beat on the gates incessantly, slowing only at night when the temperatures dropped. The Sanctuary had tried to attack the dam, but the wood wouldn’t light and it was too far to oil.
“Marm, the Banners have arrived.”
“Two. The sister houses of Moon, Mountain, Tree and Tree, Mountain, Moon.”
“But the Skill Swords have arrived as well, marm. Theseus and Leonidas are among them. They’re stationed on the eastern side.”
“Alright.” Anteegha went to the table and moved her armies of homunculi. “The Skill swords will attack the horde from the opposite side here.” She pointed to the eastern side of the inlet, opposite Violette’s army of beastmen standing guard for the monster horde.
“Our forces will separate the main army from the monsters and drive them back. Under cover of cold, we’ll advance on them. The skill swords can keep the monsters occupied and penned in on the beach. Ready the spigots and the implosion.”
Her officers scuttled about putting the General’s orders into action. Anteegha worked her way back to the sight-scope toward Violette. Her adversary was already staring through the viewfinder, smiling, but her choreographed convulsions were different than before. The delayed sounds were different as well. They came from behind Violette this time, and they were rhythmic. A giant that made the other giants look like dwarves lumbered from behind a ridge and made for the moon gates. Its stride was twenty times that of an ordinary man.
“Send the soldiers through the Ant-holes and to their quartermasters,” the General ordered.
The defenders of the Sanctuary swarmed out of the mountain carrying hammers, swords, scythes and other long combat weapons and headed for battle.
“Would ya look at this big bastard?!” Leonidas said, taking in the Giant of Giants who had lowered itself onto the beach.
“You’ll owe me supper when I fell this one, Leo,” Theseus said, pushing his long grey-white hair back underneath his demon crown, a trophy of a past conquest.
Leo laughed, adjusted a strap on his demon husk armour, and pulled his brilliant katana from its sheath. Moonlight flowed down the blade, casting light on the determined, weathered face of the man holding it.
“We’ll see about that, Thes,” Leo said with a wink and took off toward the beach.
The giant of giants grabbed the battering ram in one hand and began to hammer it on the gate. Already damaged, it fell in one swing. He squatted into the corridor, pulled the mangled gate away and tossed it behind.
“Auron, would you handle that dam?” Leo called. Auron, a skilled but swordless mage, tapped his book and conjured a ball of fire in his hands. He threw it at the dam, and it erupted in flames.
“Skill Swords, On me,” Theseus called.
Though only thirty-three in their ranks, the Skill Swords were an imposing bunch. They launched themselves down to the beach and began to swarm through the monsters with impeccable speed, swiping with their katanas at the arms and legs of the beasts. Limbs fell to the ground, but they did not stop.
“Take their heads!” Leo shouted, his voice booming in the rocky arena.
The large giant swung the battering ram, unable to hit any of the fleet Skillswords. They jumped and ducked, each time rolling close to the giant and slicing at its legs. Eventually, he was felled to one knee, and the pace of butchery increased. No one attack was particularly damaging, but in sum, they would end the Giant of Giants. As Leo and Thes moved in, a warhorn rang from above, signalling the skill swords to exit. Not many creatures had been killed, but none remained without injury. Several companies of beastmen soldiers were throwing themselves down the cliff to join the fight, just as the Skill swords retreated back up the other side.
Up on the bridge, the General nodded.
“Release the reservoirs!” Hugo ordered. Two faint booms echoed in the underground city, followed by the sound of rushing water. The reservoirs were thousands of tankards of stored water and raw energy. They emptied into narrow tubes carved into the mountain and smashed out of two spigots atop the entrance to the Moon gates. The water took the feet out from any monster still standing, blasting them back against the burning dam. Weakened from Auron’s blaze, the dam groaned before giving way. Sea water flooded the inlet washing the monsters toward the gates first, then back out to sea with the spigots providing the thrust.
The giant of giants took a little longer to get pushed, but even it, struggling against the current, was washed out into the First Arm of Vasmir.
“A fucking tie,” Leo said in dismay.
“I took his leg out, Leo. I think that’s my kill,” Theseus rebutted before calling to the Banners and citizen army across the inlet.
“It’s been fun, soldiers,” Theseus shouted to the citizen army from the opposite side of the inlet. He gave a tip of the demon crown and rallied the skill swords to his side. They had no way to cross, and it would take weeks to circle the mountain. It was up to the Sanctuary and her Banners to carry the fight.
On the bridge, the General ordered her Banners to join the sanctuary soldiers and advance on the beastmen army. It was well into the night, and the temperature had dipped below freezing. The living men found motivation in the cold, a reason to swing a little harder in case annihilation wasn’t enough. The reanimated fighters could not react as quickly, their flesh slowed by the ambient frigidity.
Over the next several hours, the Sanctuary forces pushed back Violette’s army closer to her castle on the Hollow Plains.
“The Green Fire, marm?” Hugo asked.
Morning came, and the undead found new vigour with the morning sun but made little ground on the soldiers of Sanctuary. Heaps of bodies piled between the armies.
The second night of the offensive was colder than the first, and Violette had ordered her troops back in waves to warm around the pyres she had built. Any progress made in the cold of night was given back in the warmth of day. It was not a war of endurance but one of attrition. Every time a Sanctuary soldier fell, it bolstered Violette’s ranks shortly after.
“The green fire marm?”
“NOT YET! One more night.” The General replied.
“Marm, they’ve been fighting for two days straight. I don’t know how much longer–”
“For fuck’s sake, Hugo, I know that. But I know my men. They’ll hold one more night.” She said, staring hard while pacing between several sight-scopes. “We only have one shot.”
No progress was made during the day, but when night came, the living had pushed Violette’s army back to their pyres.
General Anteegha made the call.
A fuseman walked to the braziers installed on the verandas and poured a substance into the flame. It flickered and sputtered before turning a bright green.
“Should be less than an hour, Marm,” Hugo said gravely.
Luka was riding hard when he rounded a bend in the trail and caught his first glimpse of the Sanctuary at the horizon’s edge and the battle being waged before it.
He squinted at the bridge and stopped when he saw the green flames. He didn’t know how long it had been burning, but he should have heard the implosion. The Green Fire Battalions would not need long. With one eye on the distant green flame and one eye on the trail, he continued. The third Green Fire Battalion outpost wasn’t far, though they would have left their post to discharge their duty.
Still well short of the outpost, Luka brought his horse to a stop when he heard a noise that sounded like screaming. He dismounted and continued on foot, being sure to stay out of sight.
The outpost was situated near one of the far-off mine entrances northeast of the Sanctuary in an area of rocky terrain and thick scrubby forest. The screams had gotten louder before stopping entirely. He slunk through the woods and got to a rocky socket where he could covertly view the outpost.
Peeking over the edge of the rock, Luka saw a giant, similar to the ones he spotted from the nest, harnessed to a wooden cart. The cart was piled high with severed torsos and unidentifiable parts. Under the light of the moon, Luka identified the earthy-coloured tunics of the Green Fire Battalion. The giant sat casually, scratching himself while his cart dripped blood and his compatriots worked. Luka’s gaze shifted to the unit commander, a gaunt, tall figure with a black katana.
He brought it up and sliced through the midsection of a corpse so easy it could have been ripe fruit.
Luka watched the units sloshing around the outpost grounds and flinging body parts into either the cart or the pile.
The last man breathing, the squadron’s leader, was crawling away in a feeble attempt to escape. A four-armed troll picked up the legless squadron leader and held him up for Valentine. Valentine swung his katana and separated the Green Fire commander’s head from his body. Valentine collected his head and carried it to a gruesome beast in waiting. It had the form of a mountain lion but with an extra set of forelegs in its midsection. On its posterior, it had a second tail, longer than the other and fully articulated. Protruding from the fur was a second spine with large, sharpened vertebrae.
Valentine muttered something to the creature and put the bag of heads in its mouth. The lion-like beast bolted toward the battle with impeccable speed.
Luka shuddered and squatted back behind the rock. As he went, a bur in the rock snagged his scout pin and pulled it from his robe. Luka didn’t notice, and the pin fell silently onto a bed of moss.
Valentine took one last look at the outpost and then swatted the giant with the flat side of his katana. The giant rose and pulled the cart forward with a grumble. Valentine jumped atop his six-legged caribou and cantered off at the head of the raiding party.
They left camp with the giant pulling parts of 36 mutilated members of the Green Fire Batallion. The harem of butchers walked, trotted or crawled behind.
On the bridge, the General paced, stopping only to look through the sight-scope.
“How long’s it been, Hugo?”
Hugo just swayed his head.
The General wheeled the sight-scope toward Violette, who smiled and waved a disapproving finger, then held up the heads of the Green Fire Battalion squad leaders. It was a bouquet of defeat.
The General slammed the sight-scope.
“Drop the ropes. I’m going down,” she ordered, but no one moved. Hugo was the first to speak.
“General, you can’t do that. We will have to wait them out.”
“The fortress is secure, and our army is near exhaustion. We have no need of a General. Lower the fucking ropes. I’ll blow the mines myself.”
After being sure they were gone, Luka stood tentatively and left his hiding spot. He looked back at the green fire burning desperately on the bridge and then took off. He arrived at the overgrown mine entrance and pulled back the vines to reveal three large numbered dials. The mines were sealed with a code held in the heads of the slaughtered 36.
He looked back at the green fire burning on the bridge and then at the towers where he and Timo had first spotted the army.
Luka went to work.
General Anteegha had thrown off her overcoat and was readying her swords when Hugo called out from the sight-scope.
A flame was burning in the distance near one of the mines.
“Who is that?” She asked. “Hugo, get to the brazier. Hold something in front of it, and flash it three times.”
The distant flame sputtered and then burned a bright blue, causing a glint in the eye of the General.
“It’s the scout!” she exclaimed. “Hugo, stay there and do exactly as I say.”
Luka watched the green flame but kept his head on a swivel. an eye on the battle, keenly aware that his signal to the bridge would draw unwanted attention.
The green flame on the bridge began to flash.
Five quick flashes. Then covered.
Two quick flashes. Covered.
Seven quick flashes. Covered.
Then the flame burned blue.
Luka spun the dials to the order from the bridge, and the door began to make a series of small clicks, followed by the heavier clack of the deadbolts. It cracked open with a plume of dust, and Luka ducked inside, shutting it behind him and locking himself in.
He lit a torch, and orange light flickered off the corridor into the mines. After ten minutes of running through the underground maze, he entered a sizable, shallow room. He was under the battle now.
He lit dozens of fuses. They whizzed away into each and every tunnel like fireflies. Luka plopped down on a rock and took a deep breath. A few moments later, he heard a distant explosion. He closed his eyes and put his hand over his where his scout badge should have been. He smirked.
“See you soon, Timo.”
From the bridge, the first explosion boomed almost unimpressively on the battlefield. Then there was a second. Then another.
“The many outweigh the few,” the General said.
Hundreds of muted bangs dotted the plains in a pattern expertly devised by the realmists of the Sanctuary. The ground started to shake. Gently at first, but then tiny fissures began to open. They crept across the plains to meet each other, creating a web-like pattern on the land. They widened along a fault line, and the plateau began to tip toward the ocean. Some soldiers tried to jump back to safety at the sanctuary end, only to plunge into the widening crevasse. Dust and debris filled the air as the entire land mass shifted and broke apart. Living and undead soldiers slid across the land tipped toward the sea. The networked explosions continued to go off, blowing columns, supports and teeterpoints beneath the battlefield. Then a single, large explosion severed the plain entirely, and it crumbled and collapsed into the sea.
The following day, the General led the remaining troops to the edge of the implosion. Looking over the jagged and broken earth exposed the series of caves and tunnels, that had saved the Sanctuary. It had cost them part of their realm, the most fertile soil, but the Sanctuary would endure. There was no sign of Violette or any life from the night before.
The General’s first officer gave her a look of compassion, aware of the weight the General bore. She raised her chin and ordered a watch of the ledge to help any Bannermen or citizens that may have survived and to strike down anything else.
“Bless the few, marm,” an officer said, and the General nodded.
“Following the brightest nights are the darkest mornings, and those that won must live with what they’ve done,” she quoted the long-dead Sanctuary poet laureate.
She turned back to her army and raised a fist in the air.
“Many have given their lives to defend the Sanctuary. We will hang their Banners in black and tell stories of their valour for generations.”
“Here, Here,” came the chorus.
“No one can take the Sanctuary. It has stood for thousands of years and will stand for thousands more. The Sanctuary is our ancient home!” She said to cheers and whistles.
“Now, we return to routine. To preparation and to discipline. Cataclysm may strike, but we are the refuge.” A more subdued round of aye’s and yes-Marms came from the crowd.
The General began the walk back to the Sanctuary, her officers in tow.
“Marm, what of Violette?”
“I do not know. But let us hope she has died in the water,” she opined. “
“Until then. We prepare.”
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