As the last sounds of battle faded and the pitiful moans of the enslaved filled the air, Damien stepped up to survey his prize. He stood on a haphazard watchtower of lashed together logs and enchanted roots that jutted high above the sprawling forested valley below, offering him a god’s eye view of the land that would one day be his. The green tree tops swayed in a peaceful dance that tightened his stomach. So much wasted space. So much untapped power. Problems he would correct in time.
The vehicle of his victory stretched before him: a wide river that cut through the fertile lands below like a growing serpent, spreading its maw to spill into the deep lakes of the Wild territory. This measly outpost had been built to protect the mountain spring from Damien and his kin. Now it would serve as the staging grounds for his conquest.
When his work here was done, Damien’s corruption would span the entire forest that separated his lands from the stone tombs of the Guard, granting him dominion over a territory greater than anything his short-sighted mother had ever imagined when she had left his sister in charge of their failing kingdom. In one fell swoop, he would convert the denizens of the Wild into his own personal army and his sister would have no choice but to proclaim him the rightful heir.
A sudden gust of cold wind snapped Damien from his daydream and he began to see the rustling in the leaves. Shouts came from his own captains below and he heard his cultists begin dark chants to rally their vile beasts for battle as dozens of crudely-equipped forest warriors ascended the sloping hillside to face them. Damien laughed as the motley collection of savage beastmen and upstart peasants positioned themselves in the trees. He had hoped there would be a battle. Taking this outpost had been so boring.
Then her voice came echoing across the valley like a low, sweeping thunder.
“Foul creatures of the Plague. We have sought no war with you, yet you trespass upon sacred lands to defile that which feeds the valley. You have attacked our kin and sought to destroy that which we hold dear.”
She stepped out to a branch in the high canopy to reveal herself, her slight frame exuding an aura of wild power that seemed to stand out against the vast expanse of sky. Two huge bone gauntlets wrapped around her forearms, ending in a daunting set of claws carved from the jawbones of ancient beasts. A pair of blazing golden eyes burned from below a crest of dark feathers at her brow. When she spoke, it came with a quiet authority that penetrated the din of noise below.
“For these crimes, I will show you no mercy.”
Vianna, shamaness of the Wild, protector of the forest and its creatures. Of all the great warriors who laid claim to this foolish insurgency, Damien feared her most. She was said to be unflinching in the face of danger and merciless against any who dared trespass on the land they had claimed as their own.
Damien relished the thought of facing her. The battle would be hard-fought, but when he won, all would know that he was the only warrior they should fear.
"As much as Garrick liked to pretend he was a grown hero of the tribe, he was still a child. We both were back then."
“Vianna! How much further is it?!”
Garrick’s voice sounded far away, even though he was directly below the branch I had stopped on. The trees in this forest had grown massive since the great cleansing, when the first champions of the Wild turned the Witch Queen’s power against her and claimed this wilderness as our sanctuary from the fruitless war waged between the Plague and the Guard. From this high vantage, the hills rolled on in a continuous wave, swaying in the breeze like an ocean of green. In the calm of that moment, I could feel them all spreading their leaves to the warm noon sun, could hear the squirrels and birds dancing in the safety of their branches, could smell their old leaves bringing new life to the ground below. This was where I belonged, yet I rarely got to see it.
I was seven years old when I first learned that I would be the next high priestess. Mother and father held my hands under the sprawling branches of the great atlas tree as the elders laid a crown of woven heather and stinging nettle on my brow. The elders chanted words of sacrifice and hope as the atlas tree reached out with its surface roots to embrace me as kin. I felt no fear as it called to me in its old voice or as it encircled me in tangling wood. I mostly remember the itching pain that grew at my temples and the rough skin of my father’s palms as I tried to squirm away from the growing discomfort. It was a feeling that never completely went away.
My parents tried to prepare me for our separation. I’d always held a strong connection to the inherent magic of the forest, they said, stronger than any daughter of the Wild before me. I was chosen by the spirits to be their vessel. The maidens of the shrine would my new family and the high priestess my new mother. All of their words and preparation did little to ease the pain when I had to watch them walk away, never to return.
The high priestess, however, made certain that I did not have time to dwell on it. My tutelage began the next day and did not stop. The old maid was iron-handed in her insistence that I learn every facet of the power nature offered. From sunup to sundown, I was expected to be at her side, training my body to endure the magic that would make me a hero, training my mind to be unbendable in the face of corruption, training my spirit to endure the pain that was inflicted on our people. It was a life of isolation and concentration. The kind that makes a young girl want to run into the forest every once in a while.
A day like this was a perfect excuse. The summer solstice had brought the centaur clans to our shrine. In the days that followed, tribes from all over the Wild would converge on our little mountain hideaway to discuss a formal alliance in our battle against the invaders. It was to be a momentous occasion that promised a young shrine maiden like myself many chances to escape the drudgery of daily life.
As the morning mist cleared, I’d watched the centaur procession through the leaves of an old oak overhanging the maze of canvas tents set up in the stone plaza at the foot of the shrine. Banners and flags of every color fluttered in the cool breeze as an orderly line of barrel-chested men with the sprawling antlers and the well-muscled bodies of forest stags climbed the winding pathway to our hilltop sanctuary. They were a majestic sight to behold, all of them, but one stood out to me most. He was younger and smaller than the others with hair like golden silk flowing down his back, but something about his stance emanated power and freedom. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t trying to impress him when I tagged along on his patrol route.
I hopped down from my high vantage, enjoying the spring of the branches and the smell of jostled leaves as I made my way down the rough trunk. He was sulking with his arms crossed when I reached the bottom, golden tail swishing back and forth. He looked petulant, like a little boy who wasn’t getting his way. As much as Garrick liked to pretend he was a grown hero of the tribe, he was still a child. We both were back then.
“There you are,” he said, “I thought maybe you’d gone deaf. How much further are these ruins you wanted to show me? I need to finish my patrol and report back.”
I hopped up on his back and threw an arm around his neck, taking care to avoid the broad reach of his growing antlers, “Relax, Garrick. The high priestess is taking your herd through the ritual of seven blessings. It takes hours.”
“It’s been at least two hours already. What if we’re seen? What if someone follows us back to the shrine?” he asked.
“The shrine is warded by a dozen different spells to keep it hidden from outside eyes,” I said, “The Plague dogs wouldn’t even be able to see it unless they were standing at the gates. We’re totally safe out here.”
“Come on. What if this is the only chance you ever get to come here and see these ruins? It’ll barely take any time at all and it’s the most beautiful place. It sings with the energy of the forest,” I was lying. It was a long way off of his patrol route. It wasn’t even an especially beautiful place, but I was enjoying the company of someone who wasn’t a hundred years older than me. “They won’t even know we’re gone.”
"A deep anger gripped my chest like a vice. I felt Garrick move closer to me and put a hand out to steady myself on his arm, 'This is the corruption, isn’t it?'"
“Your high priestess did not seem like the type to let an absence go unnoticed,” he said, “especially the absence of her most important protege.” He was trying to play on my sense of pride and honor as if we were driven by the same impulses.
“What kind of a high priestess would let a brave warrior like you wander into our forest unguided? It’s my job to protect our most valuable resource.”
The fur on his neck bristled, “I can handle myself, you know? Back home, I go on patrols like these all the time.”
“You’re not back home, are you? This part of the forest can be very tricky. The old spirits here just love playing tricks on handsome young bucks like you.” I said, hopping off of his back and starting down the path, “The best thing you can do is stop fussing and enjoy this lovely walk in the woods knowing that I’m here to keep you safe.”
I was scrambling over gnarled roots and fallen limbs before he had a chance to respond, but I knew he was following. He was enjoying this as much as I was, even if he couldn’t let himself admit it.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky and we neared the end of our trail, I heard him snort behind me, “You really shouldn’t leave the shrine behind. The Plague is just waiting for any chance to retake this forest as their own.”
“That’s funny talk, coming from someone who spends all of his time ranging away from the tribes he’s supposed to protect,” I snapped a look back at him that was meant to be clever, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“That’s different. The Guard are constantly constructing encampments in our territory. Our warriors have to remove those threats to protect our people, but we never leave our home defenseless.”
“They’re not defenseless, they have your warriors and the high priestess! Have you ever seen her when she’s angry? There isn’t a monster in this world that would want to face that.”
“But if they did find the shrine, if they followed our herd or the villagers seeking help--”
I turned on him then.
“Let them come. I’m sick of hiding away from the world in the hopes that someone else will save us all. Let the whole world know that our shrine is a beacon of freedom and that they’ll have to face me if they trespass on our lands.”
Garrick’s look was a mixture of frustration and acceptance. I could tell that he only wanted to convince me to turn back, but something in me kept pushing. Was it just that I wanted some time away? Or was it that I wanted to prove that I was as important to the future of the Wild as he was? I was just about to admit that perhaps I was being selfish when something in the air changed. Garrick sensed it too.
“I smell something...wrong,” he whispered.
I crouched in the foliage and pushed aside a low fiddlehead fern. The wind shifted and an acrid mildew scent invaded my senses. Down the hill from us lay the old ruins, but they were not as I remembered. A blanket of black mold covered tree and stone alike, run through with thick fleshy tendrils that pulsed with an unnatural purple light. Within the mold, I spotted squirrels, birds, foxes; all manner of forest dwellers struggling against the noxious creeping carpet. At the center of the corruption was a great blue crystal, tended by a host of slinking figures clad in filthy cloaks. Dozens of the malformed figures moved among the area, anointing the creep with ornate swinging censers that billowed a thick yellow smoke on to the ground. The tendrils reached up as they passed, drinking hungrily at the noxious poison.
A deep anger gripped my chest like a vice. I felt Garrick move closer to me and put a hand out to steady myself on his arm, “This is the corruption, isn’t it?”
He nodded, “We have to get back to the temple and tell them what we’ve seen here.”
“Go back?!” The thought of letting them stay here and spread their filth in my home was too much to bear, “Think of the damage they’ll do.”
“We shouldn’t face them alone. We need help--”
I’d heard enough, “This is my land to protect and I intend to do it.”
“Vianna,” there was real concern in his voice, but I was done talking. “Be here when I get back.”
The sound of Garrick’s hooves beating the earth was the last sound I remember before I was lost in the fury and the death that was to follow.
The sounds of battle echoed across the valley as the two armies clashed on the mountainside and Damien drank deep in the excitement of it all. The soldiers of the Wild fought with wood, steel, and crude forest magic in their desperate attempt to stop the impinging corruption, but his armies had come prepared. Arcane horrors scrambled through their disorganized ranks, tearing at their soldiers with gnashing fangs, ripping at exposed flesh to feast on the meat within.
Vianna’s troops had charged up the mountainside in a clumsy attempt to reach the high ground of the outpost, where Damien’s shadow priests worked their black spells over the river spring. His creatures fell upon them in droves the moment they revealed themselves and the air of fear was breathtaking. These simple forest folk had never seen such wondrous carnage.
While Damien’s forces tended to the insurgents, he raced for their leader. The shamaness was lightning fast, dancing through the forest at a breakneck pace, but Damien was able to keep on her heels. When she stopped to cast a spell on one of her fallen warriors, he punished her with a slash of his scythe that she barely blocked. When she attacked a cluster of ghouls harrying one of her pathetic archers, he shattered the armor protecting her arm. When she freed one of her foolish beasts from the corruption’s creeping hold, he blasted her with a dark energy bolt that sent her flying. Even when she turned to fight him, her blows came weak and easily read, like fending off a child. Despite the tales of her prowess, she seemed to be running from him.
Damien taunted her, “Are you ready to turn and face me, witch? Or would you prefer I stab you in the back?”
She leapt across the river and skidded to a halt to face him. Her cheeks were flushed and sweat pooled at her collar bones. Without a word, she sprinted up the hillside toward his priests. Damien followed, laughing to himself the whole way. She was no champion. She was a coward.
"Garrick was covered in cuts and scrapes and his left antler had been shattered at the tips. In the fire’s light, he looked like a gallant warrior from the old tales, but I saw a boy’s fear in his eyes."
Somewhere over the throbbing of my own heart, I heard the man begging me for mercy. He pushed away as I stalked toward him, crawling across the blood-soaked mat of scorched mold until he was pinned against a pile of his former comrades. He collapsed there, tugging his mask away to reveal purplish skin with highborn features frozen in fear and caked over with drying blood. I felt a stab of pity for him, wondered what had been promised to him for performing this heinous act of defilement.
My voice came from far away, as if someone else were calling an end to this bloodshed.
“Go, if you can.”
The man scrambled to his feet and scurried into the forest and I felt...wrong. My hands were sticky with blood and ichor. I could barely hear the spirits’ voices above the sound of my own ragged breathing. The bone claws that had provided such a feeling of strength throughout my years clung to my wrists like leaden weights, shattered and broken from the violence they had wrought. I dropped them at the center of the once beautiful ruin and surveyed a scene that came from my worst nightmares. Singed earth and rotting death, all smothered by a sickening curse. It would take months to heal the damage done here. Possibly years.
In the midst of all that horror, I spied a hawk struggling to free itself from the creep. It was pinned there, desperately pecking and clawing at mold and tendrils that would not yield their unending consumption. The old words of our order began to flow through me. I reached out to touch its mind, soothe its fear, and mend the break in its wing as I drove back the last flailing tendrils of the corruption. In a jerk, it pulled free and beat its wings skyward, landing on a branch overhead to peer down at me with golden eyes. As it took flight, I felt a sense of order return, until the creep began to move at my feet. All around me, it wriggled and writhed like an upended centipede, and I suddenly felt very alone.
My trek back to the temple was long and quiet, as if the birds and insects had all taken the night off to mourn. I could feel delirium and exhaustion settling in with each aching footstep, but adrenaline kept me vertical. When the high priestess found out what I had done, they would know that I was a true champion. There would be no more lessons, no more sitting at home while brave soldiers risked their lives for simple tasks. I would finally be free to do what was needed for our safety. I was practically giddy when I crested the last hill before the temple, fully convinced of a hero’s welcome.
Instead, I found only smoke and the sound of metal echoing across the silent wood. The wards had been broken.
I raced up the cobbled pathway, past fallen bodies of centaurs and cloaked Plague cultists, until I reached the hilltop plaza and froze in disbelief. Everywhere I turned, there was fighting. The tents burned. The banners had fallen. The priestesses huddled together weaving spells against the darkness. Sparks and blood flew over hallowed ground. Battle waged in my home.
Two centaurs broke past me at a gallop, charging into a cluster of cloaked men and crawling ghouls in a thundering clatter of clubs and swords. I raced after them to help, but another robed man stepped in my way and I saw a glint of steel rising toward me. I threw up an arm to block the blow, but it didn’t come. I saw a glint of gold as a familiar figure landed hard on top of the cultist, smashing him into the ground with a thick crunch.
“Vianna! You made it!”
Garrick was covered in cuts and scrapes and his left antler had been shattered at the tips. In the fire’s light, he looked like a gallant warrior from the old tales, but I saw a boy’s fear in his eyes.
“Garrick, what happened here?”
“We think the attack in the valley was meant to be a diversion. The real force came here.”
“But the wards!”
“Broken,” he said, “They’ve known about the shrine for weeks. They were just waiting for all of us to be caught up in the revelry so they could catch us off guard.”
“The delegates from the other tribes are on their way here,” I said, “If we lose the shrine, they’ll be walking right into an ambush.”
He sighed, “I believe that’s exactly what the Plague had in mind.”
“We have to stop them. Where’s the high priestess? She’ll know what to do.”
Garrick’s delay put a lump in my throat, “She was injured in the initial fighting.”
The air in my lungs froze solid and choked my words away.
He grabbed my shoulders with firm hands, “Vianna, I know what you must be feeling now, but you have to stay with me. The troops are tired and the other shamans are fighting too many battles at once. Without the help of the high priestess, we will lose this fight.”
I looked around at the fallen warriors, centaur and human alike, cradling one another against rocks and stumps, watching their friends fall in battle.
“Can you get me to the atlas tree?”
Garrick frowned, then gave a curt nod, “Try not to fall off.”
Damien had to fight back a wave of frustration as the assault on this wretched girl dragged on under the harsh blue light of his cultists’ corrupting flames. The battle thus far had been a most distasteful affair. Though he had offered her many chances to turn and face him as a true warrior, the witch continued to evade her fate. Their dance had led them to the mountaintop spring itself, where she had done little more than cower behind the machines his army had hauled out to this accursed backcountry.
As she dodged another lazy swipe of his scythe and dove behind one of the black-cloaked cultists from his temple, it became too much for Damien to bear, “How dare you call yourself a warrior, you pathetic slug?! Face me and earn the death you so roundly deserve!”
He slashed straight through the man, barely heard his cry as his split in two, barely felt the spray of warm blood on his cheek. There was only Vianna. Only this insufferable witch.
Vianna backflipped to avoid his blows and threw a wide kick that had no chance of touching him. He pressed forward, driving her toward a wall of stone. He’d pin her there and end her quickly, just as he’d end these worthless rebels that called themselves the Wild.
She continued to back away as his assault grew in intensity and he felt the satisfying crunch of blade on bone as he knocked away a clumsy parry that shattered the remaining armor of her gauntlet.
Vianna’s back hit the rocks and she glared back at him with a petulant anger that reminded him of his sister. This farce had to end before Damien was consumed by disgust.
He lifted his blade for a final killing stroke, “You do not deserve a warrior’s death.”
In a flash, Vianna was in the air, flying over him with a spinning flip. A surge of new hatred flowed through him at her arrogance and cowardice and he screamed in frustration, “Why won’t you die?!”
Vianna had the gall to close her eyes and take a deep breath, “We’re not done fighting yet, little prince.”
"A fragile old claw reached out from beneath her sleeve and touched my hand. She regarded me with a smile that I would have found infuriating in any other situation, 'What is the high priestess’s primary role?'"
I clung to Garrick’s neck as he broke across the old plaza in a full gallop. The whole area was clogged with fighting as centaurs and temple maidens worked to hold back the onslaught of the cultists’ foul monstrosities. At the foot of the path to the atlas tree, there was a crush of bodies locked in mortal combat. Centaur warchiefs battled with hoof and blade to hold back the scrambling force of the Plague assault.
Garrick shouted over the wind, “We can’t get through that! Is there another way?”
I laid a steadying hand on his shoulder, closed my eyes, and stood up on his back. With the wind whipping at my hair, I found my balance and reached out to beg the spirits for aid. A surge of energy rose from within my breast as I felt their furious presence around me. They longed for revenge and I offered myself as their vehicle.
I began to howl in the night air as we thundered across the stone and the spirits did their work. Tangling roots shot from the ground, pushing through the stone to lash the cultists down. Great gouts of wind lifted the ghouls into the air and a whirling maelstrom of razor sharp leaves ripped them apart. I felt Garrick perk up beneath me as the energy enveloped him as well. He began gaining speed beneath my feet and turned toward the thickest fighting. The centaurs were regaining their footing, pushing back the encroaching monsters and laying waste to the ensnared cultists. The spirits had answered my call.
Garrick picked up a spear as we sped across the field and dove straight into the thick of the fighting, impaling two creatures in one powerful thrust. I leapt from his back as he came to a full stop, soaring high over the fighting to land behind the line of centaurs.
As Garrick pulverized the enemy’s back line, I turned my attention inward. With the aid of the spirits, I began to reach out to the fallen soldiers across the plaza, granting them my own energy to mend their wounds. As I pushed away the sound of battle, I began to feel them rise, one by one, healed and ready to rejoin the fight. The sound of thundering hooves echoed all around me as I continued my chants.
The next time I opened my eyes, it was dawn, and Garrick was standing over me.
“Vianna! Vianna, answer me!”
I felt the dirt on my back and pushed myself up to sitting, “I’m okay. I’m fine.”
I wasn’t. My head was throbbing. My limbs were impossibly heavy. I’d never used that much power before.
“We’ve won,” he said, “The shrine is safe.”
Garrick pulled me to my feet and put a hand on my back to keep me there.
“We won because of you, Garrick. If I hadn’t left the village, I could have prevented all the damage they did here,” I said.
The high priestess’s voice rang across the plaza like sharp gravel down my spine.
“Yes, you could have.”
Two stewards helped her across the plaza and the warriors parted. In the budding morning light, she appeared frail, little more than a hunched bag of bones in a loose-fitting robe smudged grey with the ashen remains of her life’s former work. The sight of it clenched my throat tight and all sense flooded from my mind.
“This is my fault,” I said, “I abandoned this place for my own whims. I let my anger overcome me when I thought the forest was in danger. I don’t think I’ll ever be strong enough to be the high priestess.”
A fragile old claw reached out from beneath her sleeve and touched my hand. She regarded me with a smile that I would have found infuriating in any other situation, “What is the high priestess’s primary role?”
“To protect the Wild.” I said.
“And what is the Wild if not its people?”
Silence fell across the plaza and I looked out on the faces of the warriors and priestesses who now stood huddled under a rising sun. They were faces smudged dark with blood and ash, faces that begged for guidance. The high priestess bowed her head and turned to them, “Our shrine has been revealed to the world. Our forest has been damaged. Yet, in this dark hour, we have seen two young warriors rise to the challenge. We have seen a new light born from the very bosom of our home.”
“Vianna and Garrick have proven themselves today. They have shown our enemy that we will not be shaken when they bring their armies. We will not falter in our protection of this holy land. As the dawn rises on this new day, let the word spread that our people are no longer content to hide in the great forest. Let them know that the guardians of the Wild will cleanse their kind from our great earth and we will follow our new high priestess into battle!”
A murmur grew in the crowd that soon turned to applause and shouts. The old priestess turned to me with a twinkle in her eye as she leaned in to whisper in my ear, “It’s your turn now.”
I felt Garrick lift me on to his back before I knew what was happening, saw the expectant eyes looking up at me as the crowd rushed in to congratulate us both. I have no memory of the words we spoke as the sun crept over the horizon, only a feeling of great pride as I looked out over the forest below.
This land, this great expanse of dense woods and tangled rivers, was the last hope these people had for peace. And I was their protector.
“Too scared to fight me alone?”
Damien grunted with exasperation as he smashed the back end of his scythe against Vianna’s guard, sending her rocketing through the air. She slammed hard into an old tree, splintering the bark with her impact before she crumpled to the ground next to a few of his own fallen abominations. The battle had left his forces littered across the ground, but Damien didn’t care. The Wild’s soldiers had all been wounded and dragged off into the forest. Once this pest was dead, he could continue the corruption on his own, perhaps more efficiently without the interruptions his lackeys would provide. In a matter of days, his forces would be renewed a hundred fold and this land would be his.
“I was told you might offer me a challenge,” he said, catching his breath, “Yet all you’ve given me is disappointment. I’d have a better fight with one of those worthless fiends you’re lying upon...”
“Sorry to disappoint,” she said.
Damien gritted his teeth in the approximation of a smile, “And yet that’s all you’ve done! You’ve disappointed me, witch. I’d have more satisfaction fighting one of my own ghouls. In fact, I think I’ll ask my necromancers to transform you into something special, just so that I can have a little bit of sport to punctuate this tedious farce of a battle.”
Vianna began to laugh as she pulled herself to her feet and the sound of it made Damien’s teeth grind in his skull. She steadied herself against the tree behind her and wiped the blood from her mouth, “Which fallen dead do you propose to use, little prince?”
Damien scowled and jerked his head around. Bodies littered the area around him, yet...they were all ghouls, abominations, cultists. His troops. No matter where he looked, he saw none of the Wild’s warriors. No centaurs, no rangers, not even an errant beast…
“I appreciate you giving me the chance to heal them all,” she said, “Though you could have made it a little harder on me.”
Vianna gestured to the woods and Damien saw them. Dozens of arrows bristled in the canopy above. Dozens of eyes peered at him from the shadows below. He was surrounded.
“They won’t hurt you until I command them to,” she said.
Damien spat, “Too scared to fight me alone?”
Vianna stood to her full height and swept the matted bangs from her forehead, “No, little prince. Now that your filth has been purged from my land, I intend to give you my undivided attention.”
By: Will Strode