The crisp night air kept the stench of death at bay. Ice crystals blanketed the field and buried the bodies in a sea of white that sparkled like tiny diamonds beneath the moonlit sky. All was quiet except for the howling winds of winter tearing across the solemn plains. The only victor of this battle was Obidion the Ferryman, who was eager to transport the souls of the dead from this world to the next.
“In times of war, we wait for peace. In times of peace, we wait for the next war.”
—Herroclese The Elder
In the mountain Kingdom of Sansylgate, King Emmerick Wulfbrok sat alone in his library when a knocking upon the chamber door roused him from his reading.
“Who disturbs me at this hour,” the King said with enmity in his voice.
“It is I, Your Grace. Gilliam Chasetree.” His words—though spoken with great urgency—were softened by the solid chamber door. “I come with news from the battlefield.”
Chasetree, a stout man with tree trunk legs, a wide torso and short arms hardened with muscle, rushed into the library.
“Permission to speak, Your Grace.”
“Go on.” King Wulfbrok set the book he was reading on a small table and folded his hands in his lap. “Where do we stand?” he said, slowly encircling his wrinkled thumbs around one another.
“Well,” Chasetree started, dropping to one knee in front of his King. “It is not good, Your Grace.” He took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “There were no survivors.”
King Wulfbrok turned to his right and gazed out the window. The flames from the nearby fireplace danced in his clear black pupils, but his irises—gray like the sea after a storm—betrayed the fear he felt in his heart.
“So all is lost then?”
Chasetree rose to his feet and stood in defiant confidence. “No, Sire. As I said, there were no survivors. Not on our side nor theirs.”
The King pulled his attention away from the window and looked back at Chasetree. “You mean to tell me, not a single soul left the battlefield alive?”
“That is correct.”
“How can that be?”
Chasetree steadied his nerves the best he could. “It is most peculiar but not unheard of. I can only surmise to say that every man fought to the bitter end.”
“And the scouts’ findings?”
“They have not reported back yet.” Chasetree bit his lip. The King was not known for holding back his temper. “It was a Garnarian Sheepsman who reported the outcome of the battle to us.”
“A Sheepsman!” the King exploded. “We have the fastest riders of the Five Kingdoms and you tell me a filthy Garnarian Sheepsman learned of the outcome before our own scouts?”
“Your Grace, the weather conditions have not been favorable to—”
“To Hell with the weather conditions! This news should have been brought to my attention this morning.” He struggled to his feet. Chasetree attempted to help but King Wulfbrok smacked his hands away. “I need to meet with the Oracle. It is the only hope we have for salvaging what remains of our land.”
Chasetree cast his eyes toward the ground and King Wulfbrok watched as the man tried to conceal the worry spreading over his rugged face.
“The Oracle is available for counsel, yes?”
“Sire. No one has seen…” Chasetree paused. He knew any lie that passed through his lips could very well send him to the gallows. It would be best to tell the truth and face the King’s wrath. “The Oracle has made it known that She does not wish to speak with you.”
“What!” The King’s voice thundered with renewed anger. “How can she deny me my right to counsel? I am of Datretian blood spanning back 13 generations.” He slammed his balled-up fist on the wooden table next to him. “There would be no Sansylgate if it were not for the sacrifices made by my family. Their blood is one with the soil of this very land!”
“Yes, Sire. But there is nothing we can do. The Oracle’s word is Divine Law.”
The King’s white beard shook imperceptibly as the deep well of rage inside of him bubbled to the surface. “Why does she refuse me?”
Chasetree knelt upon one knee again. This time he bowed his head before the King. “Forgive me. She said the blood spilt upon the Holy Plains was the ultimate insult to the Gods.” He raised his head and met the King’s concerned eye. “The blood on your hands can no longer be washed clean, so says the Divine Law of the Five Kingdoms and beyond.”
“So that is how it is?” The King spoke softly as if all the fight had left his spirit. “I am no longer pure enough to speak with the Divine?” He looked down at his hands; scarred and misshapen from many years of battle. “Like all great men before me, the time has come.”
King Wulfbrok extended a hand to Chasetree. The commander took it and the King pulled him to his feet.
The King embraced Chasetree. “May death be kind to me, my son,” he whispered in the commander’s ear. “May it come swiftly.” His words grew louder. “And if I have truly lived a righteous life, I pray the Gods to grant me one honor. In death, I pray that in their great mercy, I shall finally know peace.”
With that, the King dismissed Chasetree and resumed his reading. Only, the words no longer held any importance to him. His mind was elsewhere; it was with the thousands of dead in the frozen field of Thodornia. And with any luck, he too would soon meet the Ferryman and be allowed to dine with his ancestors for all eternity.
If only the Gods so allowed it.
“Beauty can be found in any nightmare if you dare to search for it.”
—Doma of Medd
The morning sun warmed the ice-crusted field and revealed the horror of the previous day’s battle. Bodies—strewn about as far as the eye could see—groaned and twitched as the gasses of decay escaped the corpses. But it was a different sound, the collective murmurings of bewildered souls, that disrupted the morning peace.
High above the land in a remote mountain cave, the Oracle gazed upon the scene by using the sacred Orb of Medd. Normally inaudible to the living, the ethereal voices of the dead cried out from the mystical Orb.
Using the Orb to communicate with the Gods, the Oracle learned that when the death toll rises too quickly—such as when the Goddess of the Earth realm unleashes her vengeance upon man, or as with a massacre such as that of the Battle of Thodornia—Odidion is unable to clear the land of souls adequately; he is unable to ferry them all to the Netherworld before the portal between worlds closes.
The Gods further explained that in death when the soul is without a body for too long, it becomes restless and will wander the Earth. When this happens, the barrier between the two worlds—the world of the living and the world of the dead—breaks down and the harmony of nature becomes unbalanced. But what troubled the Oracle most was the revelation that when the lost souls belong to that of fallen soldiers, they might return to their bodies and wander the Earth as the Draugr: the undead warriors of legend who are impervious to pain and kill the living with their superhuman strength.
Through her milky-white eyes, the Oracle watched this terrible image materialize in the Orb then bowed her head in prayer. If these many lost souls interact with the living, a plague unlike any the world has ever known will decimate the Five Kingdoms.
“To thy great and benevolent Gods of the Five Kingdoms and beyond, please hear me now. The portal between worlds closes while souls numbered in the thousands remain in the world of the living. Honorable Obidion is unable to ferry every soul on his own, for the task is too large. I must ask of you now great ones, what are we to do? How can we rectify the insult that man has bestowed upon you by allowing such death to take place on the sacred plains of Thodornia?”
The cave was still. And it would remain so until the Gods responded or the Five Kingdoms crumbled.
All the Oracle could do was wait. Her prayers were as strong as ever but her body had grown weak with age. When she was young she could communicate with the Gods whenever it was required of her. Her mind and body had been extraordinary and her abilities unparalleled in the Five Kingdoms. But now, her only working tools were patience and her unwavering faith in the Gods she worshipped so resolutely—with her faith being the reason for choosing such a secluded location where she could pray in peace.
The stillness of the cave was a comfort to her—it always had been—but an unexpected sound disrupted its tranquility. The Oracle turned around but it was too late. Evil was already upon her.
Among the heaps of the dead, one shape began to stir. A moan of pain cried out beneath the gray sky as the figure—struggling against a mound of frozen corpses—rolled a Zuthunian soldier to the side. With a powerful thrust, a tall man with dark skin caked in gore emerged from the pile of severed limbs and bloody torsos. He breathed ice and shivered fiercely, but he was alive. If he were to search for whom to thank for his life being spared—whether in the form of God or man—he would need to look no farther than the dead who shielded his unconscious body from the unforgiving elements throughout the night.
The man got to his feet and braced himself on unsteady legs. He scanned the battlefield in every direction and a wave of despair washed over him. Other than the wind, hardly a sound broke the eerie silence of the all-encompassing dead.
Subscribe, contribute, or log in to read full story
Subscribe today to get full access to our growing library of premium content! Don’t want to make such a commitment? No problem! You can simply make a one dollar contribution to read the rest of this story.