Chapter II - Arwold's Vow
Coming from a long line of renowned warriors, Arwold had grown up with a blade in his hands. On this misty evening, he bore his family sword, a magnificent two-handed claymore with a well-honed blade nearly five feet in length. A small crystal sphere capped the end of the leather-wrapped hilt. For a moment, a tiny spot of blue light glowed off-center in the sphere. Arwold, however, didn’t pay much attention to the glowing light. He was busy blocking an awkward punch from a crypt ghoul, an animated, flesh-eating corpse brought to life by a necromancer. With his considerable battle skills, it didn’t take long for Arwold to assess the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. He was confident this fight would soon be over.
The ghoul clawed at him with rotting, moldy fingernails. Arwold parried the blow and followed through by hewing the arm clean off his decaying foe. The severed limb flew at him, hit his steel breastplate, and made a reddish-brown smudge on his otherwise spotless armor. Arwold grumbled in disgust as he threw all his weight forward and swung sideways at the corpse. The claymore bit deeply into the rotting flesh and came out the other side, cleaving the ghoul in half.
Arwold frowned at the stain on his armor. Having no rags to wipe off the blood, he reached down to tear a piece of cloth from the upper half of his former opponent’s shirt and noticed both sections of the body moving toward him, evidently expecting to continue the battle. He grimaced as he sliced repeatedly into the remains of the creature until it lay motionless on the ground. It wasn’t right to bring such a creature into existence, but now he’d given it the peace it deserved.
Surrounding him, four mercenaries, somewhat less proficient than he, nervously battled a dozen more crypt ghouls in a small graveyard outside the town of Krof. Arwold was worried that the combat training he’d given them wouldn’t be helpful. His men would have done well against human foes, but fighting the living dead obviously made them uneasy.
The rank smell of the gruesome creatures was overpowering. Chunks of putrid flesh, barely clinging to the bones, gave off a stench of death that permeated the battlefield.
To make things worse, an unusually heavy fog was rolling in from the Sinewan River. Gentle mists were a normal sight near the river, occasionally drifting over the land on warm summer evenings such as this. Arwold knew this night mist was no coincidence and believed there was more evil to come.
His mercenaries fought valiantly at first, but as the sky grew darker and the fog grew thicker, they succumbed to their fears.
“We should return in the morning,” said a haggard fighter as he backed away from the river. “No man should touch the earth in a graveyard once the sun has set. It brings nothing but bad luck.”
The others nodded their agreement.
“We cannot let these unholy beasts reach the streets of our fair town.” Arwold positioned himself to take on two more of the creatures. “Stand your ground—good shall prevail on this night!”
His men looked about, trying to avoid becoming lost in the dense patches of fog that seemed to follow their every move. The ghouls pressed forward, oblivious of their surroundings.
As the haggard fighter was retreating, he chopped a hand off his opponent. Arwold smiled when the mercenary advanced on the creature with renewed confidence.
Suddenly, the warrior screamed in horror. The disembodied hand had grabbed his ankle and was inching up his leg. He shook his entire body, jumping up and down, but the hand refused to release its cold grip.
“Pay attention to your opponent,” shouted Arwold.
The frightened warrior ignored him as he reached down with the tip of his sword and frantically pried the hand loose. The ghoul lunged forward, causing him to lose his balance and fall backward under the weight of the creature. Two more ghouls dived onto him and ripped into his exposed flesh, devouring each piece as they tore it from his body.
The sight of this infernal feast was too much for the other three warriors, who threw their weapons down and ran screaming from the battle. Surprisingly, the ghouls didn’t pursue the cowards. Instead, they changed their focus to their only remaining foe.
Arwold was furious. First, the vile necromancer defiled Krof with his presence, and now his own men had deserted him. The tall warrior threw back his shoulders, fixed a strand of hair that was out of place, and bellowed, “Stand, men—we shall defeat these foul beings. You must not fear evil.”
Those last few words had come straight from his father, the great Ardune, “Fracodian-Killer,” who had spoken the exact same phrase almost twenty years ago.
As a child, Arwold had shown an interest in weapons since before he could walk. By the time he turned five, he’d begun his formal training. Many people in town thought he was too young, but his father knew he was ready.
Arwold took to the sword well and was soon able to best some of the more experienced warriors, validating his father’s judgment. At a time when other children were just beginning to read and write, Arwold was learning advanced combat techniques and practicing his form daily. Finally, after Arwold turned eight, Ardune had invited him on their first outing.
A small group of Fracodians had recently ransacked a caravan outside Krof. Most of the merchants had escaped with their lives, but the bandits had stolen their goods and horses.
Arwold’s father explained that the attackers must have been a small group of nomads because Krof’s militia had wiped out the entire Fracodian population native to the surrounding forest.
“Defeating the wayward Fracodians would be a trivial task for the captain of the guard,” said Ardune, “but this will be a good learning experience for you. We’ll handle the matter ourselves.”
When Ardune first told him about the mission, Arwold was thrilled. He’d always dreamed of fighting alongside his father. He bounded into the armory and equipped himself with his finest armor and sword. He’d prove his skill by killing more Fracodians than his father did. When the two of them were riding out of town on their warhorses, Arwold was proud. He sat up straight on his mount, smiled broadly, and waved to the admiring townsfolk. He imagined their shouts of “Ardune” were actually “Arwold.” Nothing could stop him. When they approached the Fracodian encampment, however, Arwold became aware of a new feeling. It began with the almost imperceptible turning of his stomach. The hairs on his arms and legs stood on end, and his heart beat faster. When he dismounted, his legs felt like two flakes of gold leaf, and he almost collapsed, recovering just before Ardune noticed. He straightened up, eked out a weak grin, and hoped his father didn’t realize he was so scared.
In the small clearing ahead of them, three pug-faced Fracodians sat around a campfire, making a disgusting scene as they dined on the remains of a few small animals. One tore a leg off, stuffed it into his mouth, and ate the whole thing, bones and all. Another preferred the ribs, crunching away on the tiny delicacies. The final Fracodian just ripped meat from the carcass and swallowed it without chewing.
As the father and son team approached, the Fracodians dropped their meal, grabbed their spiked clubs, and stepped forward with grunts of delight.
Ardune pushed his son out in front and whispered, “Capture one of them alive, Arwold. I want to know if they’re scouts in advance of a larger band of raiders.”
Arwold watched the hairy fiends closing in. Their muscles bulged, their menacing eyes sized him up, and their mouths drooled. The young boy froze. He wanted to move. He wanted to raise his sword in defense, but his limbs wouldn’t obey him. Try as he might, Arwold could do nothing more than stand and stare as they drew closer.
“What are you waiting for?” shouted his father. “Attack those filthy animals.”
Arwold wanted to teach the three evil creatures a lesson for assaulting the merchants and stealing their goods. He wanted to prove that he was a young man instead of a child. Most importantly, he wanted to impress his father, but it was no use because fear had paralyzed his body.
The Fracodians were a few paces away and advancing quickly. It would be seconds before they were upon him with their deadly weapons, and Ardune hadn’t budged from the spot behind his son.
“You have to overcome your fear,” said his father.
The first Fracodian raised its club with an evil smirk and mumbled, “Human scum,” its foul breath slapping Arwold in the face.
The young boy wrinkled his nose in disgust but didn’t otherwise make a single movement.
Ardune placed a hand on the hilt of his sword and spoke the infamous words: “You must not fear evil. It has no power over the good at heart.”
The Fracodian swung its weapon at Arwold’s head. In the last instant before the club hit his son, Ardune flicked his own sword, the family claymore, into its way. The two weapons bounced off each other with a clang. Continuing his swing in a circular motion, Ardune brought his blade up and around through the neck of the Fracodian.
“I’m disappointed, Arwold,” said his father as he dispatched the second Fracodian. “You’ll be disciplined for your lack of action.”
He knocked out the remaining Fracodian, pounding it firmly in the head with the crystal sphere at the base of the claymore, and hoisted the limp body onto his horse.
“Tie up the horses they stole, gather what you can of their loot, and return it all to the merchants. Don’t take long. You’ll have extra chores tonight when you clean and polish all of our weapons and armor.”
Ardune trotted back to town without a single glance at his son.
When his father was out of sight, Arwold finally moved. First, he screamed in frustration and anger. He cursed at himself and at the dead Fracodians. They were responsible for his punishment. He took out his own sword and violently hacked at the bodies on the ground.
“Never again shall I fear anything,” he swore.
Those memories made Arwold even more resolute in his stand against the crypt ghouls. With extra energy and a few well-placed blows, he minced the ghoul nearest to him.
Arwold turned to the creatures mauling the fallen warrior, kicked them away from the body of his comrade, and carved them into small pieces.
“Filthy beasts,” he roared. “You won’t feast on human flesh again.”
He no longer had any conscious thoughts about the battle; his body was a machine hacking away at the crypt ghouls. Mud, dried blood, and rotting flesh covered his previously shiny sword and armor, but Arwold was unaware of his appearance. He had but one overriding goal in his mind: Find and destroy the villain responsible for bringing these unholy creatures to life.
In the murky distance, the necromancer waved his arms in a mystical formation. He called out a few magical words, threw an object forward, and vanished into the darkness. The object, a large human femur covered in a sticky black liquid, seemed to hover in the air for a moment before it landed beside Arwold’s feet and transformed into a skeleton. It attracted bones from the dead bodies lying on the battlefield as if it were a powerful magnet and they were made of steel. Some came with sinew still attached, and others popped clean out of their former bodies. Bones from the feet, leg, hips, hands, arms, ribs, and a skull all merged into a single hideous entity a full head taller than Arwold.
With the last of the crypt ghouls destroyed, Arwold turned his gaze to the spot where the necromancer had stood only moments before.
“Hide if you must, wizard,” he shouted with his claymore in the air. “Upon this sword shall I bring you to justice.”
After it was fully formed, the skeleton grabbed the nearest weapon from the ground and attacked Arwold wildly. The tall warrior easily blocked the blade and followed with a swift counterattack, breaking a few of the skeleton’s ribs. If his cowardly men hadn’t left him to fight alone, he would have rid the world of this evil by morning.
Arwold had lost the necromancer again, but next time the wizard wouldn’t fare so well. His clean-shaven face showed no sign of emotion as he raised his sword for another attack. At least he’d have good practice finishing off the abhorrent creature.