Fallen Enchantress #4: The Pit of Lost Voices
Magnar has now lived in the Desolate East for over 140 years, and after eking out an empire under the harshest conditions, and both starting and finishing a war with the Kingdom of Gilden, the only obstacle that remains on the path to total dominion is the Empire of Resoln. Resoln’s sovereign, Oracle Ceresa, is not only aware of this fact, but she commands five times as many soldiers are Magnar, and she’s itching to land the first blow. In the summer of 295 A.C. (I have no idea what that means, and I suspect Magnar doesn’t either), she does exactly that.
If anything is clear in war, it’s this: nobody emerges unscathed. That didn’t turn out particularly true in my war with the Gilden, which ended with Lord Markin cold in the mud, his five cities annexed and their people forced into slavery, and the inhabitants of my core territories surprised at the celebrations heralding the end of a conflict they hadn’t even heard of. Oh, the frontier had some tense moments, sure enough, but for the most part the Gilden had been pushovers.
Unfortunately, they’d also been pushovers for Oracle Ceresa, who’d been happily experience-farming their lackluster invasions for the better part of a century.
We both hold significant advantages. I have the better ground in the sense that I surround Resoln. My native empire sits to their south, and although my lowland cities are ill-defended, any invasion of my core will require a march through Khaffara, which boasts the best garrison in my empire — a force second only to Magnar’s army itself. The only other route into my territory might be created if Oracle Ceresa were imaginative enough to flatten the mountains around my fortress at Hagadez and conquer it and my boom-town of Rilkaz all in one go, but after that she’d have to go through Khaffara anyway, and at any rate she isn’t imaginative enough. Furthermore, my newly-acquired Gilden cities — two each to both the north- and south-west — form a lobster claw around the western side of Resoln.
The same geography that has let me surround Resoln also gives Resoln its best advantage: there is a very real threat of them going supernova on me. They have dozens — and I mean dozens — of armies, all poised to explode outwards in every direction. I suspect Magnar’s army is basically unbeatable at this point, staffed as it is by Fell Dragons, Warg Mages, and high-level champions, but most of my armies are pathetically puny compared to Oracle Ceresa’s hordes, and my one unbeatable force can only be in one place at a time.
So the goal is to capture the Empire of Resoln’s most important cities and hope that Ceresa withdraws her armies from my wider territory to liberate them, letting me chew her up without too much thrashing to my empire.
It doesn’t go that way.
The first blow catches me off guard not only because it’s preemptive (who would have thought Oracle Ceresa would take the initiative?), but because it appears impossible. My most recent Gilden acquisitions are the cities of Sandraka and Tan-ta-Kreet, both located on a peninsula at the farthest northwest point of the continent. The only roads onto this peninsula pass through Sandraka, which is why all my forces are garrisoned there while Tan-ta-Kreet is entirely empty of defenders. The conquest of Tan-ta-Kreet feels cheap — either some sort of magic is at play or Ceresa had troops hidden somewhere on the peninsula. There isn’t time to investigate the mystery, though, because Oracle Ceresa’s conquest of the city hacks a wide gash in my flank, and means my forces in Sandraka can’t join the campaign on the Empire of Resoln’s homeland. Instead, they’re now stuck in an awkward stare-off, glaring at each other from an uncomfortably tight distance like two middle-school teenagers at the prom, both trying to get in closer but neither one brave enough. A few Resolnian companies blunder across the river and die in Sandraka, and a handful of my soldiers return the favor by dying in Tan-ta-Kreet. Neither side is going anywhere for a while.
At the same time, fifteen armies (I wish I were exaggerating) pour from Resoln’s mainland into the sandy desert, meaning they’ll arrive at my weakest cities by winter. All of them deftly sidestep Magnar’s army. I have him chase some down, and every battle he starts ends with slaughter and a few more boxed-up slaves, but there are simply too many for him to catch. In desperation, I unveil Plan B.
In the exact middle of the Desolate East is a ring of high mountains with only a single slender canyon leading into the valley in the center, called the Pit of Lost Voices. This canyon is blocked by multiple gates, each passable only by those who accept and complete the challenge etched above the frame. Years ago, when I was first expanding Magnar’s Empire, he accepted the first gate’s challenge and, although he succeeded in opening it, he also lost many of his soldiers. As each gate’s challenge is listed as more difficult than the last, I had decided to leave the seals alone for the time being — especially since the most recent gate strongly suggested that its challenge might include roaming demonic hordes. But right now, anything that might slow down Oracle Ceresa’s beeline to my weak lowland cities sounds great. A champion — left behind for just this purpose — moves north and accepts the challenge. Demon armies burst from the earth, and I poison my own land to save it.
Turns out Plan B wasn’t much help. These armies of Assassin Demons would have been fearsome some decades ago, but now they’re easily outmatched by the Empire of Resoln’s forces. I’d be surprised if they inflicted a single casualty, especially considering the strong makeup of Ceresa’s armies, composed of monstrous spiders, summoned demons of her own, and powerful Needlemen archers. Still, they clog up the main highway across the sandy desert, and slow down Ceresa’s march by a season or two. I take advantage of this brief diversion to move north and capture two of Resoln’s cities, hoping Oracle Ceresa will wheel about to face me.
She doesn’t. Instead, she hacks her way through my improvised defenses and sets the lowlands aflame.
All three of my lowland cities fall to Oracle Ceresa’s spider hordes, their garrisons helpless against her superior soldiery. In a shocking display of brutality, she robs me of the chance to retake them later: the magical universities of Mithrash and Havelkar are torn down, and Farhammer, taken at great expense from the Gilden years earlier, is razed to the ground. It’s easily the worst crime in the history of the Desolate East — nothing remains of civilization but a solitary outpost. I might enslave kingdoms, but the destruction and massacre of entire cities is below even me.
The other three theaters aren’t tipping in my favor either. Sandraka is still stalemated with Tan-ta-Kreet, and I need those soldiers elsewhere. In the southwest, a single army bypasses my defenders at Fargan’s Keep and takes Gildenshard, eliminating my sole source of wargs. Once my reserves are used up, I can’t recruit any more Warg Mages, meaning I’m back to hiring foot-bound Ash Mages, with their significantly lower initiative in battle. And the main theater, in the Empire of Resoln’s heartland, is pure chaos: armies chase each other back and forth, fight and die over worthless scraps of wild territory, and seize outposts only to retreat from superior forces that then retake them. Everywhere there are soldiers fighting and dying and fleeing and scouting, and although I’m not losing, I’m not winning either. My main army is still functionally invincible, though it’s slow going as they wade through one delaying force after another. I’ve just about made up my mind to raze the next city I take.
I try to offer Oracle Ceresa a temporary ceasefire, but she’ll hear none of it. Instead, she tells me that Magnar’s Empire is done for, and, as though to emphasize her point, she drives her army towards Khaffara.
It’s here that Oracle Ceresa will either win or be broken. I’m confident Khaffara can hold, though I’m not exactly going to sit around and count on confidence. I rush-purchase as many troops as I can, and one of my champions, a fire archmage, casts Wall of Fire around the city. Wall of Fire is a powerful enchantment that inflicts heavy fire damage to any attacking army at the start of combat. This turns out to be one of my best defenses, as many of Ceresa’s troops (other than her numerous fire demons) are susceptible to flames. Her spiders in particular wither at this attack.
Army after army crashes against Khaffara’s walls, and one by one they are turned back. Every season, fresh troops from Hagadez march south to replace those who have fallen. Oracle Ceresa’s assault is strong at first, three or more armies hitting the city every season, but soon the attack begins to falter to a trickle. My treasury is nearly depleted, but it seems that the Empire of Resoln is running out of resources as well.
Khaffara’s garrison now marches out to counterattack. Without the benefit of the city militia they take more losses than usual, but the last enemy forces are driven back, retreating across the sandy desert. I don’t bother following — the Empire of Resoln is tricksy, after all, and I don’t want any armies magically teleporting to Khaffara while the garrison is out.
All at once, my fortunes have reversed. I retake Gildenshard in the southwest, and conquer another two of Resoln’s cities. Tan-ta-Kreet is still under control by Resoln forces, but at least they haven’t sent any attacks at Sandraka in a while. Overall, it looks like I’ll win this war — eventually. Oracle Ceresa is consolidating her forces around her last handful of cities. The thought of having to force my way past those extra defenses to gain victory isn’t appealing at all.
So it’s serendipitous that right then I remember the Pit of Lost Voices, locked behind the gates at the center of the Desolate East.
It’s easy going all the way back to the Pit. Oracle Ceresa is all too happy to sign a ceasefire, probably chuckling to herself about what a dummy Magnar is to have not finished her off while he had the upper hand. Oh well, I figure. If this fails, I’ll be back to take your last two cities, you ninny.
Getting through the final gate is no trouble at all (I just have to go kill something nearby), and at the center is a man with silly horns on his hat standing next to a dragon. He says some such’n’such about how he’s ancient, even older than Magnar, and he holds all sorts of power and blah blah blah. “Get on with it,” Magnar probably says. I click past this new antagonist’s wall of text and jump into battle.
The dragon-rider is incredibly fierce. He takes out half of a Fell Dragon’s life in one bite, but even so there isn’t much he can do against two dragons, let alone their helpful backup warg mages and a whole slew of fire and death magic from Magnar’s champions. The battle is over before the dragon-rider even gets a second turn.
And when the dragon dies, it turns out that Magnar was right to stop attacking Oracle Ceresa’s Empire of Resoln, because this guy was protecting the artifact that grants its wielder complete power over the Desolate East! Magnar muses for only a moment on the lingering questions in the back of his head, such as If this artifact is so powerful, why didn’t that dude use it? and How does this thing even work?
No, he doesn’t think about that, because he’s too busy becoming absurdly powerful.
With that, the war is ended. Oracle Ceresa is killed as dead as Lord Markin, and all her followers join Magnar’s Empire — as slaves, of course. Magnar might be willing to concede that the manner of his victory could be considered a bit anticlimactic, but he’s too busy being fed grapes and fanned with palm fronds to much care. His future plans are to live a few more centuries in slave-fed luxury, then go out and conquer some other continent. And yes, ladies, he’s still available.