“In the mirror, it looks like I, but staring back, is but a lie.”
—Excerpt from The Epic of Delvian
“Open your eyes, King Wulfbrok.”
The blue glow surrounding the Oracle pushed out the darkness and revealed a vision few have ever beheld. King Wulfblok opened his eyes and found himself lying inside of an ivory palace.
There were no visible walls and countless pure white pillars stretched to the heavens—pushing up, up, up into an unknown sky without cloud or color. The King could not fathom what he was seeing. No mortal could begin to understand this place.
“Where are we?” the King said with a shaky voice.
The Oracle was standing in the middle of four great pillars with her back to him. “Where? There is no ‘where’, foolish man.” She was gazing at a small gold sphere that she held in her hands. “Of course, I would not expect someone of your breed to understand.”
The King stifled his rage. He had little experience dealing with such indignation but did his best to hold his tongue. He wasn’t the ruler of this realm and he knew the fact well.
“You offered your blood? Your royal blood for my time?”
A chill passed through the King’s body as he stepped forward. “I… Yes. Yes, I did,” King Wulfbrok said, holding his head high in a proud display of his royal lineage.
The Oracle turned with a sudden burst of blue light. “What makes you think I, let alone the Gods, care about your pitiful blood?” The gold sphere she had been holding was now floating behind her without any support.
Knowing he had nothing else to bargain with, King Wulfbrok stammered, “I, I, I know little of what the Gods desire.”
In its infinite size, the room reverberated with the Oracle’s maniacal laughter. “Fool!” Her voice boomed like thunder. “Of course you know nothing of what the Gods desire. You, humans, do not possess the intellect.”
“You, humans,” the king repeated silently to himself.
It subsequently dawned on him that he had been tricked. The Oracle, with her magic and great wisdom, was still a human. She was still made of flesh and blood just like him. No, this being before him was not the Oracle. It was an imposter!
“What is this cursed place,” the King demanded.
“Oh, you shall find out, King.” The blue glow surrounding the Oracle turned blood-red. “You shall spend an eternity finding out.”
Ashur Kang rushed into the fray with a hint of madness in his eyes. His trusted slasher made fine work of the first group of undead soldiers.
Severed limbs fell free and heads rolled across the ice. Congealed blood oozed slowly from the Draugr warriors’ wounds and made the ground sticky with clotted gore. Still, they kept coming.
Hundreds surrounded Ashur and he fought them off valiantly. To his advantage, they moved slowly with their stiff, half-frozen bodies. But their numbers were vast and the fallen continued to rise or crawl or strike out in any way they could manage. No matter how many he slew, the living dead kept coming. Headless, armless, legless, they kept coming. If Hell was full, it was now springing anew on Earth.
A headless, legless corpse crawled blindly toward the warrior and lashed out with its sword from behind.
“Fiend!” Ashur screamed after the corpse sliced his calf diagonally.
With newfound rage, Ashur used the dagger in his left hand to cut off the headless corpse’s sword-wielding arm. It used its remaining forelimb to pull itself forward, so he stripped it of that as well—leaving it no more than a writhing torso. All the while, he swung the slasher in his right hand, felling any foe near him.
“You devils must try harder to kill a Cangrolese warrior!” he roared.
From behind struck another undead soldier. Its broken broadsword just missed its mark and instead shorn off Ashur’s right sleeve. Sweat glistened on his exposed arm and his cannonball-bicep flexed powerfully as he turned, swinging the slasher downward and braining the Draugr demon. The curved blade split the Draugr’s head clean in two but got embedded in the base of its skull.
The undead man waved his sword wildly as Ashur worked to pull the slasher free. Squeezing the handle with an iron grip, he kicked the Draugr’s chest with the power of a warhorse, sending the undead man flying backward. The slasher broke free from the Draugr’s skull but the brief delay was more than long enough for the horde to descend upon the Cangrolese warrior.
He fought with all his might but the numbers proved too great. Countless cuts stripped the flesh from his arms, legs, and torso. Ashur Kang dropped to a knee and the brilliant moonlight disappeared from his sight as a black shadow enveloped him.
He was prepared for death.
King Wulfbrok hardly managed to jump out of the way as the Oracle’s imposter rushed him. No mortal being could possess such speed, thought the King.
“No use in prolonging the inevitable,” the imposter said in a newly demonic voice.
The imposter spun around as if skating on ice. The King scrambled to his feet just in time to evade another onslaught.
This time he kept to his feet and was able to move out of the way without diving to the ground.
“What type of sorcery is this?” the King bellowed.
“Fool. My kind would never have a need for human alchemy.” The imposter whirled around once more and for a brief moment, its robe fluttered, exposing its feet levitating above the floor. “We would never degrade ourselves with your race’s cheap magic.”
It rushed the King again, but this time it feinted to the left and clipped his knee. He crashed to the hard ivory floor with a heavy thud.
King Wuflbrok grimaced as he struggled but failed to stand. “What is it you want from me?”
“Want? What makes you think I could ever want anything from a pathetic creature such as yourself?”
The imposter floated toward the King. It stretched its arms out in front revealing bone-white talons protruding from the tips of its skeletal fingers.
“Then it is for sick pleasure you brought me to this wicked place?”
The King hoped his words would delay the attack and allow him to regain his position, but the imposter looked intent on ending the skirmish without further discourse.
“Pleasure? No. Necessity.”
A great burst of hot wind blew past the King. He shielded his head with his arms as he lay on his stomach. The presence of the imposter loomed over him, but he refused to move for instinct told him that in doing so would mean certain death.
“Face me, coward,” the imposter shrieked in a hideous, guttural voice.
Like the fires of Hell, the air around the King was scorching. Sweat started dripping from his head creating a clear sheen upon the ivory floor. But he would not move. He could not move.
“Coward! I said face me!”
With an abrupt shift, the temperature plummeted. King Wulfbrok had no choice but to push himself from the ground before the sweat-slick froze his skin to the ground.
“Look upon me so I may feast on your fear.”
The imposter’s voice no longer held any resemblance to that of the Oracle. Only a demon straight from the endless depths of Hell could speak in such acid-laced tones, thought the King.
“I said look upon me.” The imposter erupted with another fiery gale. “Now, pathetic mortal!”
King Wulfbrok managed to rise to his feet. He kept his head down and eyes closed, but the furious wind nearly knocked him back down. Fortunately, the hot air had melted the ice and evaporated the sweat that had pooled on the floor. This allowed the old King to maintain his footing.
“Look at me!” screamed the imposter.
“You can kill me but I shall never do as you command!” the King roared back.
With a screech of fury, the imposter manifested a mini cyclone that encircled King Wulfbrok and launched him through the air. He hit the ground with a bone-crunching snap and slid across the ivory floor. The smooth surface did little to ease the rough friction burn against his skin.
For a moment the King blinked in and out of the dark confines of unconsciousness, and when he came to, the palace was eerily quiet. The imposter was nowhere in sight.
The King sat up—with his head spinning and eyes unfocused—he breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly. Once his senses returned to normal, he peered out into the dark recesses of the vast palace, but not a single soul stirred. Immense loneliness washed over him.
A glint of light snatched the King’s attention and he moved his gaze upward where the gold orb was floating directly above his head. Gingerly, he stood up to study the orb.
A gentle, calming warmth radiated from the mysterious sphere. It was impossibly smooth and crafted from a metal unlike any he had ever seen. Though he was hesitant, his instinct directed him once more. This time it told him to take hold of the golden marvel.
With the delicate touch of a master potter, the King reached out and laid a hand on each side of the orb. As soon as his skin made contact with the otherworldly metal, a blinding gold light filled the palace. He had no choice but to shut his eyes, and as soon as he did an image appeared. It was the Oracle. The true Oracle.
“You do not belong in this realm, my King,” the Oracle said in a voice that came from all directions.
“I was tricked. I thought it was you who led me to this place.”
The Oracle’s image fazed in and out of existence while the brilliant gold light framed her flickering face. “You were led astray by the shapeshifter known as Alakabaz. He used the power of the dark arts to entrap me in the Orb of Medd.”
“Was it he who refused my request for counsel?”
“I see.” A wave of warm energy pulsed through the King, revitalizing his aging body. “What is this place? Why did he bring me here?”
The Oracle’s image grew more vibrant. “This is the Hall of Yedimiah, the God of knowledge.” The lines of her face softened as if time itself was reversing. “I know not why Alakabaz brought you here. Perhaps when he stole my body and trapped me in the Orb of Medd, he was unaware that his powers would greatly diminish. Without your fear to feed upon, he is weak. I assume he could no longer maintain his form and had to return to where he came from.” The Oracle’s image finally steadied and revealed a young, beautiful woman staring back at the King. “The Hall of Knowledge is the halfway point between worlds. Alakabaz in his weakened state was unable to take you all the way to his castle in the Outer-Realm.”
“Are you aware of what has taken place on the lands of Thordornia?”
“I am. I was seeking guidance from the Gods when Alakabaz attacked me.
“Most of my army has been vanquished. How is Sansylgate to continue without my mightiest warriors protecting it?
The Oracle’s face dropped as if her age had suddenly returned all at once. “You ask the wrong question. It’s more like, how can Sansylgate continue while those men still fight.”
“What do you mean, ‘still fight’?” the King asked in disbelief. “We have gotten word straight from the battlefield. All lives were lost”
“Lost, yes. But their souls are not at rest. They have been blocked from crossing over.”
The King furrowed his brows. “I don’t understand. How can this be?”
“You sent your men to fight on the Holy Plains of Thordornia. The Gods forbade the spilling of blood on its sacred soil and you disobeyed. Because of this, they instructed Obidion to leave the souls of the dead in the Earth realm until a sacrifice is made to appease them.”
“Yes. They demand the blood of the one responsible for the battle.”
The King swallowed hard. “You mean my blood?”
The Oracle nodded. Her true age had returned and her image was beginning to dissipate.
“What shall I do?”
“When you thought Alakabaz was I, you offered your royal blood. But it is to the Gods your blood must be given.” The Oracle’s voice was hollow and her words seemed to float away as she spoke. “The only way to end this is for you to die with your men and lead their souls to the other side. But you cannot end your own life nor can a lost soul end it for you.”
The golden light had become unbearable and blinded the King to the Oracle’s image.
“The sacred soil must taste your blood. And there is a warrior who now fights on the holy land that is worthy enough to kill a king.”
“But how am I to get there if I’m stuck in this place?”
An icy rush of wind blew through King Wulfbrok’s hair and the golden light relaxed to a white glow.
“All you must do, my King, is open your eyes,” the Oracle said with the softness of a phantom. Her words danced upon the night air and disappeared as if they had never been spoken at all.
King Wulfbrok opened his eyes to see the world spread out beneath the moonlit sky with gleaming hills that were as white as pearls. But he had little time to admire the country’s beauty because directly ahead of him, a tall warrior in the throes of battle raged against an army of the undead. And it looked as if the army was about to claim victory.