“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.
He tried to yell out but had no voice. An intense numbness made it almost impossible to ascertain the severity of his injuries—which were no doubt numerous.
Bringing his hands to his throat, he came upon a rope pulled taut around his neck. And while he had no feeling in his fingers, raised edges of skin flapped loosely below the rope. The flesh was likely torn and raw.
With this discovery, brief flashes of memory returned to form a gruesome picture: the sound of galloping horse hooves cracked the frozen Earth, the burning pain of the jagged terrain stripped the skin from his back, and flickers of the gray sky faded in and out as the rope tightened around his neck. These fragmented images were like a bad dream reflected in the broken pieces of ice that surrounded him.
Who had dragged him through the battlefield? He did not know. Equally a mystery was how he had managed to survive the attack. But those were things he would have to contemplate later. For now, escaping this frozen wasteland of death was all that mattered.
The man tried stepping over a body and almost fell. Prolonged exposure to the cold had rendered his legs stiff and unresponsive. He knew he had to find shelter soon or he would succumb to the frigid temperatures.
With slow and deliberate steps he managed to get to a small clearing in the field; an icy patch of yellowed grass undisturbed by the previous day’s battle. Standing in the open space, he checked his legs and arms for physical damage. He had on wool-lined fur pants but the backside of the pants had been torn asunder and hung loosely from his bare legs underneath. Much to his surprise, his legs were undamaged, said for a few minor nicks and scratches.
His arms fared a bit worse, but the damage was minimal compared to what he had anticipated.
“Oh great Sebu, I shall not take this second chance at life for granted,” the man said to himself in a low, dry rasp.
With the frenzied desperation of a wolf facing starvation, he went about scouring the bodies for anything he could use: clothing, weapons, water and food rations. A Zuthunian dagger—chipped but still functional—proved useful in cutting the rope from his neck. Clutched in the bloodied hand of a soldier, he pulled loose a delicate piece of fabric. Lightly perfumed, it was no doubt a gift from the soldier’s wife or lover. Now it was repurposed as a head and face wrap to protect his exposed skin from the elements.
After some time, the wind regained its power and roared over the plains with an unbridled fierceness. Fortunately, the man had been able to cover his body head to toe with the garments and armor he had scavenged from dead. Even so, he still reeled back with each icy gust. It was time to leave this God-forsaken land before death took him as well.
Each step took great effort as a heavy snowfall soon accompanied the wind. Regardless of nature’s relentless wrath, the man managed to get free of the battlefield. He looked back only once to see an endless stretch of lily-white snow. All signs of the bloody battle had been buried and purified by the fresh powder; it appeared as if no battle had occurred at all.
If the man had been more observant, he would have noticed the slight tremor that rippled across the snow-covered field. He may have also hurried his pace once having seen the horror of what was rising from beneath the snow. Instead, he walked blindly forward, having no idea of the nightmare trailing not far behind.