Chapter III

Decree of Death

…At that moment, a new world revealed itself to us. We exited the Weitwood Forest in near pitch darkness; there was nothing but the light of Caelus to lead the way. I could hardly believe it; there I stood, little ol’ Holger from Enghor, at the base of the Eastern Mountains with Rüdiger and Anton on either side of me, and Otto pullin’ up the rear. After days of exploration eastward, we had finally reached our destination. These mountains stood remarkably taller than those back in Enghor, with much more jagged cliffs and steep drop-offs above. Unbeknownst to us what lie ahead, we journeyed on.

It was not so long after our departure from the forest that I heard the noises that still haunt my dreams to this day. Shrill squeals and hisses rang out around us. The sounds closed in, faster and faster, and all I remember before the onslaught was what Rüdiger yelled. It was the one word that changed my life forever, “Nightwalkers!”

They jumped down from the trees, bolted from foliage, and crawled out of caves in the cliff-side. They were next to impossible to differentiate from the darkness of the night, but I drew my old man’s sword and managed to behead the first one to reach my position. Otto had his bow drawn, and the zipping sound of arrows flew by, followed by thuds as the arrows took out a few nightwalkers closing in from the front. Anton and Rüdiger peeled off of their positions beside me, Anton with his two swords and Rüdiger with his axe.

From the corner of my eye, I watched as Rüdiger was gradually engulfed by the foul beasts. He swung and hacked at their soulless bodies, but their jet black claws tore apart his armor and ripped into his flesh. My closest friend was being mutilated beside me, but there was nothing I could do, for I found myself bogged down as I held off what must have been at least four nightwalkers. I was forced to fend for myself whilst listening to his screams of utter agony. I grew enraged, but was left helpless as even more nightwalkers flooded onto the scene with the scent of fresh blood in the air.

I saw Otto dashing forward, trying desperately to load an arrow whilst running at top speed, but it was too late for him as well, for the possessed creatures easily caught up to him and brought him to the ground. I refocused my attention and cut down yet another beast, spilling his tar-like blood onto the foreign ground. When I looked back, bloodied limbs were being tossed around, and the carcass of my cousin Otto was quickly devoured. I have no words to describe how I felt at the sight.

Anton and I reared toward each other and stood back to back. He was drenched in a mixture of sweat and nightwalker blood, as was I. Our only hope was for the sun to peak over the top of the mountains, but with upwards of fifteen beasts closing in on us, all hope seemed to be lost. I told Anton, I said, “Looks like the end, pal. It has been an honor to be your friend.”

That’s when he spun me around to face the forest. He showed me the shadows of the mountains slowly retreating from the trees. He simply stated, “If we can hold them off for but a moment longer, we can get outta here.”

“Right.” I remember saying. I turned back around as a group of savages turned in my direction after finishing off Otto’s remains. His blood stained the faces and bodies of the horrid beasts, and it was then that I knew I wasn’t going down. As long as Anton had my rear, and I his, we could get out alive. I would not let my companions die in vain.

From behind, I heard what could only be described as a warrior’s yell from Anton, and I joined in harmony while charging forward. My blade quickly found its way into the belly of a damned nightwalker and, as I pulled out my blood soaked sword, I swung it upward to meet the face of another charging toward me. As it fell, I cut down the next two with ease and had a brief moment to check on Anton. I could see him blocking claws and slicing torsos with his dual-welt swords. The steady thuds of iron on bone, accompanied by our enemies’ cries of death, were satisfying sounds. My satisfaction was short-lived, though, for I was forced to turn back around and welcome another three nightwalkers. I kicked the first on its back, spun to slice the torso of the second, decapitated the third, and impaled the first as it sprung back up at me all in a single, fluent motion. My years of training were paying dividends.

As the beasts’ black blood rained down upon me, I turned to help my friend and was met with a worrisome sight. As I turned, a nightwalker jumped from the back of a fellow beast getting impaled below, and tackled Anton to the ground. Anton was unable to withdraw his right-hand sword from the nightwalker he had gutted and, as he fell, attempted to swing across his body with his left-hand blade. It was too late. I sprinted over as fast as I could, but the nightwalker ripped his face in two and plunged its free claws into his neck. The involuntary, bodily sounds alone were more than I could bear, and what came next continues to plague my thoughts from time to time, even more so now as I recall it. The nightwalker reached its thin, leathery arm down Anton’s neck from the gash in his face, felt around for a moment, and slowly pulled out his heart through what was left of his mouth. I closed my eyes in horror as the heart continued to beat furiously in the claws of the beast.

From my world of darkness, I could hear the sounds of fangs sinking into the fleshy ball. I knew my time on Friedünn would soon come to an end as well. I fell to my knees on the unforgiving ground and dropped my sword in despair, and, not a moment later, the nearly one dozen remaining nightwalkers turned their foul heads in my direction as my sword rang out. They charged toward me, but, at this point, I welcomed their onslaught. I could bear the thought of my friends no longer. As they closed in, I clenched my eyes shut and gritted my teeth.

I could hear them coming, but as quickly as the sounds had neared, they stopped, and I felt a warm sensation creep up my spine. Was this death? No. I opened my eyes to see the nightwalkers retreating. The sun had come at last, but, in my eyes, it was a moment too soon. It did not save me; it tormented me, for its rays illuminated what remained of my fallen comrades and left me as the sole witness to their gruesome demise. I buried my face in my palms and wept as hard as a newborn weeps upon birth. The thoughts that then flooded my mind frighten me. They were not necessarily appalling at the time, but, thinking back, I recall thoughts of suicide. I remember looking intently upon my blackened sword lying silently by my side. The light of the sun reflected off of any metal that had not been doused in blood, and I considered, for a long moment, ending my suffering right then and there. Alas, the outcome is obvious, for you would not be reading my story now if I had gone through with it. Even still, I remained trapped at the base of the mountains alone, helpless, weak, and afraid. Those next few hours were by far my longest. As the sun rose high in the sky, the stench of death became too great to bear, and I knew I must move on. I did what I could to honor my fallen companions, but it wasn’t much. After what seemed like an eternity, I reentered the Weitwood Forest by myself and began the daunting journey back to Enghor as such…

“Oberon, I have a question for you.” Gomerick was seated in the sorcerer’s library while Oberon himself examined his most recent work at his desk. Many moons had passed since Gomerick’s appointment as Oberon’s assistant, and the two had gotten to know each other phenomenally well. Not only did they understand one another, but they got along tremendously as well. After taking a moment to find an adequate stopping point, Oberon turned to listen to Gomerick, who continued, “I have been reading Nightwalkers, by Holger of Enghor, and I was curious as to why feranox are afraid of the sun. I would assume it involves their third eye, but what exactly does it do?”

“Ah, that is an excellent question, my friend.” Oberon pondered briefly to make certain he could explain the answer as clearly as possible. “Feranox are, indeed, troubled by the sun, just as they are of any bright source of light. You were spot on with your assumption, as their third eye is the root cause. Now, I have a question for you. You know of the abilities granted to shivurna by the use of their third eye, correct?”

“Indeed, ‘tis how they communicate.”

“Precisely. For feranox, though, the ability of their third eye is less sophisticated in nature, just as feranox are less sophisticated than shivurna in all other matters. They do not communicate with this extra eye, but its function, nonetheless, acts as a key reason in the explanation of their flourishing population. With this eye, feranox are able to see the body heat of other creatures. Acting in harmony with their dark complexion, this eye makes them the perfect nocturnal hunters. That being said, with the sun as hot as it is, it makes sense that simply having this eye open during the day would incite an overload of brightness ten times that of if you or I were to look directly into the sun. The heat of the sun would scorch their sensitive, third eye, causing them significant pain, as well as permanent blindness in that eye, or so I understand. They would still be able to see normally out of their other two eyes, but they often rely heavily on the use of their third eye, for the two eyes that resemble ours, in placement, have poor vision.”

“So without this extra eye, feranox are, essentially, blind?”

“For all intensive purposes, yes. Is that all?”

“I do have one more question. It involves the validity of the books in your collection. Are these stories actual accounts of real adventurers, or are they to be considered false tales of high fantasy?”

It was to this question that Oberon stood up. He walked along his high and wide bookcases and ran his fingers gently across the spines of the books. “I see that you have been doing quite a bit of reading if you have already figured out my favorite type of book to collect.” He paused for a moment, inspected several works, and continued his walk. “Yes, many are actual accounts; they are embellished, perhaps, but true in essence. I have found in my time that many of those in Enghor have closed their minds to the realities that lay beyond the city’s walls. An entire world of mystical beings and odd cultures is only days away by horseback; alas, there is a reason Enghor’s walls climb so high. Beyond these walls is an inherent danger that comes with being exposed to the elements, which is why I remain puzzled at the king’s insistence of expansion. On the other hand, perhaps this will wake our people from their protected lull of ignorance.”

“It sounds to me as though you carry many regrets, and grow tired of remaining within the walls of Enghor.” Gomerick replied.

Oberon smiled, “I apologize for my feelings being so clear.”

Gomerick laughed. “I also believe you wish to prove to the people of Enghor that they are not necessarily as safe as they think they are, that Friedünn holds much more than they know.”

“Have I already become that easy to read? It is as if I am yet another book for you to enjoy.”

“A much more interactive one I might add.”

The two smiled at each other’s wit, but Oberon soon grew serious, and said, “I am glad at least one other person in this kingdom believes the truths of this world. I would love to venture beyond these walls one final time before my days are up, but it has been nearly half a century since Wilhelm’s rule began, and I have spent its entirety here.” He somberly bowed his head. “Reflecting on the past, I am unsure that anyone here still believes in the ways of old. Days of sorcery and adventure have eluded this generation, and I feel I have failed as Friedünn’s keeper. I am not sure if you are aware, but there is but one man and one shivurna at any given time that hold supernatural abilities. It is our duty to protect this world and steer its course from destruction. I simply hope I have not failed entirely and left it in its most vulnerable state yet.”

Gomerick rose to his feet and placed Nightwalkers down on his chair. “You have not failed, Oberon. I stand before you, a man humbled in your presence.” He knelt down and bowed his head. “When the time is right, I shall accompany you beyond these walls, and we shall protect these people from that of which they do not believe. Together, we shall write the history Friedünn will grow to know. I read your open letter, and I am concerned. I too believe something beyond our control is to happen, and we shall greet it as one.”

Oberon nodded, “When the time is right. I thank you, Gomerick, not only for believing in me, but for keeping an open mind. It will only help you throughout your life, I am sure.”

“A man closed to new ideas is a man foolish at heart. I realized this as a smith, and I refused to continue working only to allow the days to slip idly by. When I heard of the opportunity to assist you, I knew I could become a greater man than I ever thought possible. The smith who trained me as a boy made me promise to him that I would always strive to grow, and you have given me that opportunity. For this reason, I thank you, Oberon. He would be proud.”

“You are most welcome, my friend. I am pleased to hear we hold such gratitude for one another. Likewise, I am glad you realize we are destined to do great things together. Nevertheless, for now, you are my assistant, so I must ask you to assist me in getting back to my work that you previously interrupted.”

Gomerick grinned, “I suppose I did get you off topic. What is it you need?”

Oberon took a seat at his desk and swiftly scanned his work up to the point in which he had paused. “Actually, there is no need for me to bounce any ideas off of you; I should be able to wrap this up on my own. If you would be so kind as to give me silence for the remainder of the evening, that would be most appreciated. I may need more ink, but that can wait until the morning.” Oberon lit a candle to illuminate his darkening workspace.

“In that case, I shall retire for the night and retrieve a fresh bottle first thing come sunrise.”

Oberon waved his hand without picking up his head. “Very good, I shall see you in the morning.” Gomerick took his leave up the stairs and a seat at his own desk. He lit a candle as well, and dated the middle of a page that was half filled with writing. He had been inspired to keep daily accounts of his experiences as Oberon’s assistant: the things they had done and the ideas they shared. He hoped this journal would become an important piece of history one day, but none of that mattered if he failed to keep up with it, so he wrote late into the night before crawling into his makeshift bed.

Gomerick woke bright and early the following morning; it was habit after years of doing so as a smith. He traveled down the stairs, outside to the castle grounds, and beyond the gate to retrieve ink for Oberon. Twas a calm morning, but it would not remain so for long. He was just off of the main road to the castle when, all of a sudden, horns blasted through the still air, and bells rang furiously. “Make way, make way; the prince has been wounded! Make way.” Gomerick looked on as a soldier hastily rode his horse to the castle gate to have its keeper open it. Following closely behind were the frantic clacks of hooves on the cobblestone road caused by the steeds of two more soldiers, one soldier holding in his arms the bloody figure of Prince Rigoberto. Gomerick instantaneously began his pursuit, and managed to reach the men before they entered the castle.

“What has happened?” Gomerick yelled. The prince had been lowered to the ground, and Gomerick glanced down upon him. He immediately noticed the unmistakable gash in the prince’s chest and had his answer.

“Feranox. We were assaulted returning from Xyneth.”

“Follow me. I’ll bring you to the only man that can help.” Gomerick rushed to Oberon’s dwelling, bolted up the stairs, and pounded on Oberon’s door, but the sorcerer was already in the process of swinging it open. He had gotten dressed after hearing the commotion outside, and Gomerick panted, “The prince is dying. His chest was torn to shreds by feranox.”

Oberon nodded and swiftly replied, “I am not convinced much can be done at this point …” He grabbed his staff, “… But I shall see what I can do.”

The two rushed just outside the front door to the three men whom had laid the injured prince gently in the grass. Rigoberto was barely conscious, and his eyes were glazing over as he coughed up blood. Oberon raised his staff high in the air, and the black stone atop began to glow bright white. He flipped it upside-down and yelled, “On this world you shall remain, not to the underworld domain!” He brought the radiant staff down onto the wound of the prince, flooding the gash with white light and instantly cauterizing it. The three soldiers, as well as Gomerick, looked on in awe. Oberon stumbled backward and bowed his head. With a sigh, he uttered, “I am afraid that is all that can be done; now, we wait.” The prince continued to cough up blood as the tense moments passed, and his face only grew paler, despite the bleeding in his chest having ceased. There looked to be no hope for his survival.

One of the soldiers beside Rigoberto grabbed his hand and barked, “You better not die on me. You hear me? We agreed I’d be the one to pass first.” The soldier’s eyes welled up, and he tucked his face beneath his arm as he did all he could to hold back his tears. Gomerick had only met the prince once, but the scene pulled tears from his own eyes. He thought of losing his small friend, Amalrich, and he began to grow distant, immersed in thought.

Meanwhile, the prince, with a mouthful of blood, managed to mumble, “No, twas meant to be this way.” The soldier gritted his teeth and, a moment later, Rigoberto released his final breath. His eyes completely glazed over, and he grew still.

Oberon muttered, “He is no longer with us.” He quietly turned, entered his home, and shut the door.

Silence filled the courtyard, and blood soaked the ground upon which Gomerick and the three soldiers knelt. They all looked on with different emotions. It was clear that the soldier closest to Rigoberto was having the hardest time keeping his composure, but he remained hushed. Another looked on in shock. It was evident that he had admired the prince for one reason or another, and his death surely failed to register as reality. The third was clearly new to the group. It was possible that he was assigned to join their party back to Enghor and did not know the others well, for his gaze rapidly bounced between the faces of those who remained. It was this soldier that broke the long silence as he croaked, “Who’s to tell the king?”

The prince’s apparent friend, with red, watery eyes, replied, “I feel it is my duty. I had a chance to cut down the beast that got him, but I was busy fending for myself … a selfish move ending in selfish means.”

The second soldier quickly refuted, “When you say it like that, we are all responsible. We left as one, and we should return as one. Agreed?” The friend nodded through tears, and the third soldier apprehensively complied. They picked up the body and left without a word to Gomerick, who merely remained kneeling in a pool of blood with his hands stained red. He stayed in this position in a daze that was not broken until Oberon came out of his home wearing his most official robes.

“I must speak with the king, I am sure you understand.” Oberon scurried toward the castle and left Gomerick in his wake. He only turned to ask, “Clean up the mess, will you?” He then followed the trail of blood left by the soldiers and disappeared into the castle. The request took a moment to register, but Gomerick eventually shook his head and snapped out of his trance. He grabbed a bucket and filled it in the well out back as he attempted to wrap his mind around what had just happened. He did his best to dilute the blood soaking the ground by dousing it with water, but this required numerous trips back and forth. Still rather stunned, he methodically continued the process. Eventually, only a small stain remained, so Gomerick let it be and cleaned himself of the prince’s blood before entering Oberon’s home.

Time sped by as Gomerick awaited news, and day quickly turned to night. To get his mind off of the traumatic event that had transpired, he was reading as much material as he could on feranox, as well as other creatures of the east, in Oberon’s works. After a long while, his eyes grew weary, and his mind drained. He set down the book he was currently reading in order to get ready for bed when he heard the castle bell toll remarkably slowly. It rang out every few seconds. It began with a group of two, followed by a long pause, and then a group of nine. Together, the groupings were two and nine, two and nine; the prince’s age. It appeared that the king had, at long last, accepted his son’s death. Oberon returned home shortly thereafter holding in his hand a scroll. The expression on his face was a combination of apprehension and exhaustion, but with a touch of excitement at the same time. His eyes drooped down after a lengthy day with the king, but remained wide and offered themselves as a preview to what the words on the scroll proclaimed. With a look from Gomerick, Oberon did not hesitate to open the scroll and read it aloud:

A royal decree from King Wilhelm to the faithful citizens of Enghor,

Royal blood hath been spilt, and it is up to thee, the brave men and women of Enghor, to avenge it. With a heavy heart, I alone possess the duty to inform you, the people of Enghor, of the tragedy our kingdom has suffered. A short time ago, your prince, Rigoberto, was murdered in cold blood by a group of feranox whilst returning home from Xyneth. For this reason, I now declare that any feranox, or “nightwalkers”, encountered be pursued and slaughtered on sight.

Furthermore, I am troubled to confirm that the royal bloodline has been officially broken. Therefore, to any man willing and of age, I encourage thee to prove thy worth to me, your king, by leaving thy home, traveling to the far east, and retrieving the third eye of a shivurna whilst slaying any feranox foolish enough to cross thy path. As I am fully aware of the dangers involved in such a quest, it should come as great comfort to know that the reward granted to the first man to return with my prize shall be grand. Whomever is capable enough to complete this task first shall be granted my daughter’s hand in marriage, and inherit the throne upon my death.

The time these wretched beasts that live among us have on Friedünn is running out, and I have but you to thank. As I have previously stated, I encourage all to join in the effort to eradicate this world of feranox, so that no more tragedies befall the tremendous people of Enghor.

                                                                                                With royal blessings,

                                                                                                            King Wilhelm

Gomerick was lost for words, but Oberon was quick to ask, “Might any particular thoughts cross your mind?”

“What thoughts, thoughts of grief for the prince? Perhaps thoughts of the chaos that is sure to ensue from such a bold decree?”

Oberon’s patience was short, “Open your eyes to the possibilities, Gomerick!”

“What is it you wish me to think?” Gomerick shouted back.

Oberon grabbed Gomerick’s shoulders and shook him violently, “The possibility of you becoming king!” Oberon turned and put his hand over his face while Gomerick froze. “I do apologize if you have no interest in the matter, but your cooperation is necessary.”

“Oh no. No, no, no.” Gomerick began to pace across the room, back and forth. “For the love of all things good, please tell me it was not you who wrote this decree.”

“I am afraid, if that is what I told you, I would be lying for the most part.” Gomerick fell backward into his chair, stunned beyond belief. His face was whiter than a ghost’s, and he began to sweat. “Just ponder this for a moment … hear me out.”

Gomerick slouched down and waved his hand, halfheartedly stating, “Go ahead.”

“You and I have known one another for a short time, but I already know that you are unlike any living man I have met in my lifetime. You show an intrigue in things most men would hesitate to give a second thought, you are inherently driven to better yourself whenever possible, and you possess the skills necessary to complete any task you set your mind to. The stars have aligned in your favor, Gomerick. You would be a fool to ignore them, and I to allow it. As a sorcerer of Friedünn, it was my duty to encourage the king’s outpour of emotion into this decree and meddle with its formation. For goodness’ sake, I practically wrote the damned thing. The least you can do is consider, for a single moment, all the good you could do in this world as the King of Enghor.”

Gomerick was neither frightened nor swayed by the fervor in Oberon’s voice, and simply responded, “You speak with a tongue soaked in lies. You want the throne for yourself.”

Oberon was outraged at the accusation, “The throne for myself? Do you even hear the words spewing from thy mouth?” He took a deep breath and calmed himself the best he could. “I should not have raised my voice. Look, the reason I said you are unlike any ‘living’ man I have met is because you remind me of one thriving below; you remind me of Enghor himself.”

Gomerick remained skeptical, “How am I to believe this? Enghor has been dead for centuries.”

“That he has, but I have spoken to him once before whilst meditating in the Realm of Spirits, or the Northwestern Bamboo Fields as you know them. We conversed of many things, of the world of the living, the world you and I call home, of the underworld in which he reigns supreme, of Caelus, of Avideus … you name it. What I picked up from him is precisely the same as what I do of you. He is a smart man with an insatiable desire to improve, a man worthy to have a kingdom named in his honor. He is an exceptional leader, but, above all else, he is a man. A man that cares for all, a man that never wavers in the face of adversity, and a man that will do everything in his power to do what is best for those he loves. I know of your past, the boy you saw as your own. I know you would do anything to make his life better. Think of all the young boys in the kingdom that will be forced by their fathers to die with them on an impossible journey. You yourself have spoken to me of your aspirations to one day travel eastward. This may be your only opportunity to do so; do not let it slip by without at least sleeping on all I have said. I say this now because I grow tired of trying to convince a mule to budge. I am off to bed.”

Oberon exited the room as Gomerick remained in his seat. Midway up the stairs, Oberon paused to say, “I am more than willing to accompany you on your quest, not with you as my assistant, but as my friend. In the end, all I want is what’s best for the kingdom, and that would be you as king. Good night.” Oberon entered his room and closed his door.

Gomerick lingered in his seat as he pondered the situation late into the night. He knew Oberon was sincere, and he felt terrible for interrogating him the way he had. What plagued his mind were not thoughts of a horrid death or of failure, what worried him most was the possibility of success. Could he handle such responsibility, and would he even want to put such enormous pressure on himself? Furthermore, Gomerick doubted the new king would be a tyrant if he and Oberon did not journey eastward, but what if this were to happen? He would live with the mistake for as long as he remained on Friedünn, if not longer. A wealth of possibilities needed to be considered before a decision was to be made, but after hours on end of intense thought, Gomerick dozed off while seated upright in his favorite chair within Oberon’s library.