"Often in this world, we find ourselves beset by circumstances beyond our control.
In such times, we may be called upon to make decisions that affect the rest of our lives.
The true test of character is the ability to make the decision when the opportunity comes.
Decision—the meager attempt to impose order upon a world of chaos—is the most powerful tool we wield.
In the end, it is not the choice that matters, but the choosing."
– Excerpt from The Book of Enos
There was something wrong with the day. All week a darkened pall had hung over the little island village of Glen's Hope, overshadowing the festivities leading up to the night of Rebirth. Jerren could feel it in his bones, in his hands, in the subdued singing of the children as their parents hushed them. All of the island's inhabitants could sense it. Almost every single one of the two hundred or so people was frightened by it.
The people wondered: What could be wrong? Did they displease Enos somehow? Even the Nightmares must be scared, for not a single one had manifested all week. The sentries sat nervously in their guard towers, afraid to be alone, while the people furtively performed their domestic chores. The lumbermen, hunters, shepherds, and miners all came home long before the sun set each evening, and the ringing of the blacksmith's anvil at the forge quickened to a frantic pace before finishing. Even the air itself seemed darker.
Jerren was on his way home after a long day out in the forest. The woodsmen all rode into town together in a big wagon, finding safety in numbers. After they passed through the big wooden gates, he bid them farewell and jumped out, slinging his pack up onto his back.
On the way back he passed by Abe's smithy. The open-air shop revealed the big man bent over something Jerren couldn't recognize from the distance. His curiosity was piqued. When Jerren stopped and enquired curiously what he was doing, the man straightened and looked about somewhat guiltily.
"Ah, hi, there, Jerren. Are you talking about this?" He reluctantly held up a long blade made of some kind of shiny metal. It looked like one of those weapons he'd heard called a sword. "I found an old book in the attic of Tonk's house. It spoke briefly of how to make steel. No one around here has made any for a long time, so I thought I'd try my hand at smelting it and see what I came up with." Abe tapped the rapidly cooling blade with a dirty knuckle. "I didn't set out intending to make this, but when I started working with the metal earlier this week it just kind of sprang into my mind. Maybe I'm just being a little skittish, but for some reason I felt like I ought to have a good sturdy weapon. This...is a sword. Beauty, isn't it?" Abe lifted the blade up to his face and scrutinized it, brushing away soot with a loving touch. "It was the craziest thing, but I feel like I've put my heart into this. I've worked like mad all week to finish it."
Jerren peered at the strange weapon. "What a beautiful blade. Looks like it's almost done," he said.
"It is. Just putting the finishing touches on now. Need to hurry to get it done by dark, though."
"Are you planning on selling it at the Festival of Rebirth?"
"Maybe. Not sure yet. If I do, it'll cost a fortune!"
"Fair enough. I'll let you get back to your work; I've got to get home. See you at the festival tomorrow!"
Abe bid him farewell and went back to work.
When Jerren opened the door to his family's house, he found his father in a state of distress. Tyrus was a big, strong man, firm of grip and firm of constitution. He was not one to be frightened easily, but tonight he was pacing nervously before the fireplace, obviously torn with some decision. Hands clasped behind his back, head bowed and forehead scrunched, he was lost in thought and didn't even hear Jerren come in.
"Dad, what's wrong?" Jerren asked as he slung his pack down in the corner.
Tyrus looked up and started. Blinking slowly, he said, "It's your cousin Patris. Av'ry says the sheep are all come in but he isn't home yet. What's more, they all came back in a straggling bunch, as if they'd wandered in of their own accord. She's worried he might have been attacked by a Nightmare."
"In broad daylight?" Jerren asked doubtfully.
Tyrus shook his head. "It's just this weather. Normally I wouldn't listen to her—she's always such a worrier—but today my skin just crawls every time I look out the window. Even this house isn't quite right. Here it is the middle of Juno and the place is drafty! I've had to keep the fireplace going all day just to keep us warm."
Jerren looked over Tyrus' shoulder to the large brick fireplace. A small, wan flame burned fitfully upon a pile of logs, casting sickly shadows out across the thick rug. "I won't disagree with you there," he said. "The skies just feel wrong today. It's a feeling I can't explain.."
Tyrus sighed. "I know what you mean, but if Patris doesn't return soon then we're going to have more problems than just a couple uneasy feelings. Av'ry's with child now, and you know how they can get. We have to find Patris, but no one knows where he's grazing today. You spoke to him this morning, didn't you?"
"Sure as rain. I know where he is, too."
"Oh, thank Enos. Where should I look for him?"
"I tell you what: I know you're busy getting our things ready for the festival, so how about I take a little jog out to his pastures and see if I can't find him? If he's out or lost a sheep then I'm sure he'll hear me coming and be glad for the help. We can be back by dark."
His father shook his head. "I'm not so sure how I like that, Jerren. It's awfully dangerous by yourself in the forest, especially in the evening. What if a Nightmare manifests right next to you when you aren't looking? Then whack, no more Jerren. It's better if I go."
Jerren went to the corner and took up his pack. "Dad, I've survived on this island my whole life," he said, "and now I'm almost an adult. I'm sure a freshly-born Nightmare won't long to bother me too much. I'll bring my sling and a torch, and they sure don't like either of those. Besides, I know where he is and it would be faster if I go myself. It'll be as difficult as a breeze. No big trade."
Tyrus shook his head resignedly. "Alright, just make sure you're back by sundown. And stick to the high ground. I won't take a fancy to having to look for you, too."
Jerren agreed, grabbed a bite to eat, and went out the door.
The sun was still a few hand's spans in the sky when Jerren left, but already the village was quiet and quickly emptying. Most of the merchants were closing down. But Abe the blacksmith was still steadily at work when Jerren passed by, grinding away furiously at his latest project. He waved to him and the smith waved back with a thin smile.
The smithy was on the furthest edge of town, right where the forest began. Jerren skirted the edges of the trees, feeling just a little uneasy at the dark and shadowy undergrowth, and began climbing up the path that led to the old mine. The dusty path, worn smooth by generations of feet, ended right before the entrance to the mine. An old, wooden door, locked with a rusty padlock, kept people out of the dangerous shaft.
He paused a moment at the top of the hill to turn and look down on his town. All of Glen's Hope lay spread out before him, the small and self-sufficient little village in which he was born and raised. Late in the evening after a village gathering, after the dancing and music died down, the elders would all get out their pipes and tell stories of Glenwell the Glorious, who had come to the island many, many years ago in refuge from the evil Empire and the war they brought. Glenwell brought with her a powerful sorcerer to hide the flight of the refugees, and shroud the island in a cloud of fog for all time, so that none may come, none may go, and that the people might be safe for all time.
The sorcerer's protection must have been strong, for to this day no one had found Glen's Hope. Well, except for the Seafarers, that is. But the Seafarers weren't really people... More like Nightmares than humans, they tended to vanish if you turned your back on them, and rarely ever spoke. But they traded well and came infrequently, so the elders decreed that they would be tolerated. Besides that, they were isolated and alone.
Jerren looked out over the bay. The Seafarers hadn't come in a long time, now that he thought about it. The ocean hadn't been any rougher than usual, but no sleek vessels had come floating into the docks for almost half a year. Jerren peered into the twilight, sweeping his gaze over the scattered houses and crisscrossed docks. Things just didn't feel right today.
When Jerren continued his trek and crested the hill he found Patris near the bottom of the other side, mending the leg of a fallen kid. The young goat was bleating piteously as Jerren arrived, trying to squirm away from Patris' firm grip as the man applied a splint.
"What ho, Jerren," Patris said as he approached. "Come to fetch me, have you?"
"Av'ry was worried," Jerren replied. "The whole town is uneasy, and father fretted almost as bad as she did when you didn't come home on time. What happened?"
"Ah. Well, this little one here wandered away and fell down a gorge. When I tried to come after her I fell, too." He turned a little, showing Jerren the sling around his arm. The man was a little pale. "Seems like I broke my arm and she broke her leg. Payment for her folly. Anyway, we both took some spirinta, so we should be okay until we can get home. Can you help us?"
"Certainly. Let me lend you a hand with that first."
Together they worked, lashing sticks onto the twisted appendage and tying them tight. Patris had been having a difficult time with only one arm, and he greatly appreciated Jerren's assistance. Jerren was just relieved that his cousin was alive and well.
Soon the kid was quieting, calming down as the anesthetizing properties of the medicinal plant began their work. Jerren gave Patris the torch and cradled the sheep in his arms. Together they started off toward home.
As he didn't want to carry the kid all the way up the hill and all the way down again, Jerren elected instead to go around and pass near the forest. "Don't worry, we'll be fine," he said. "It's still daylight, after all." Patris appeared uneasy, but reluctantly nodded in agreement.
Twilight was always an odd time. The sun passed below the hills, casting the village and forest into premature darkness, but still left enough light in the sky to fool the people into believing they were perfectly safe. The wind grew chill and the shadows turned ominous. Night was falling.
As they walked cautiously along the edge of the forest Jerren stared into the thick foliage. Ferns and trees and thick plants grew everywhere, providing a hundred and one concealed places for a Nightmare to lie in wait. As a child Jerren had been taught to not fear Nightmares, but to be very wary of them still. The control it took to master the fear and keep walking was still not so easy to come by.
The kid, once calm and sedated, began to bleat again, but this time with a different tone, one more nervous and urgent. She began to squirm. Ignoring her fractured leg, she pushed against Jerren's' chest, trying to jump away. "What? What's wrong?" Patris asked.
Jerren looked around, wondering how quickly he could drop the goat and ready his sling. The night seemed to be growing eyes, sprouting invisible terrors to watch him, waiting to spring upon them. He felt the fine hair on his neck rise. Then there was a pulse, a slight sensation of movement that came from inside his belly, as if he were a cork bobbing upon an unseen ripple passing through the air. He knew that sensation.
A dark shape exploded from the undergrowth, hurtling toward them with a howl. In a flash Jerren was spinning his sling, dropping the kid and taking aim at the hurtling beast. But it was upon them in an instant, all teeth and claws and black fur, leaping upon Jerren and bearing him to the ground. Jaws snapped in his face, saliva falling upon his skin, as he fought with all his strength to keep the massive beast at bay. With one arm he warded away the jaws, and with the other he punched the monster in the face and ribs, trying to get it off him. Long, sharp claws raked his skin, splitting the delicate tissue open. Grimly, he fought on.
The jaws were gaining on him inch by inch. He couldn't see Patris or shout at him to help, but knew the man was unarmed, injured, and couldn't do anything anyway. With one final, desperate push he summoned all his willpower to focus upon his fist and struck out, landing a solid blow on the beast's chest. He felt his skin tingle and sting painfully as waves of power rippled from him into the Nightmare.
There was a flash of blue light, and a crack like the snapping of a dry branch. The Nightmare let out a yelp and leapt backward, more surprised than hurt. Before it could regain itself a large, thick branch came swinging out from nowhere to slam into its side. The beast went tumbling away across the grass, skidding to a halt a few meters away. Patris raised the branch defensively, cradling his wounded arm.
Jerren quickly rolled to his feet, searching for his sling. The monster, looking around, saw Patris' kid trying feebly to flee up the hill. Abandoning for the moment the more dangerous prey, it ran after the goat.
Patris let out a cry of dismay as the beast tore into the kid, snapping its neck and ripping open its belly. Vital lifeblood went flowing down the hillside. The Nightmare lifted its head and let out a long, low howl, then began to glow as it consumed the life force of the dying animal. Patris raised his branch and stepped forward, but Jerren stopped him with a hand.
"Leave it," he gasped. "We must run."
Patris nodded grimly and dropped his log.
Together they fled back toward town, getting as far as they could while the Nightmare was kept busy. Jerren's leg burned from his lacerations, but he knew his bones were intact, so he ground his teeth and ran on. They had covered nearly three quarters of a mile before the howling began again. Over his shoulder he could see the black shape hurtling after them, moving with the speed of a monster who has tasted blood and was loathe to lose the chance at more.
The town walls loomed up before them. "Help, help!" they cried, hoping to alert the guards to their plight. Skidding to a halt, they pounded upon the strong wooden gates. The darkly etched symbols of protection seemed to glare mockingly at them as they sought entry. "Let us in, let us in! There is a Nightmare after us!"
No answer. They were probably changing the guard for the night shift. They whirled around. The beast was only a couple hundred meters away and closing swiftly. Jerren placed a rock in his sling and began spinning it, while Patris pulled out a little carving knife. It was better than nothing. "We only have to hold it off until the guard arrives," Patris said. Jerren nodded.
The beast came hurtling in at Patris. The man dived to the side at just the last minute and came rolling right back up to his feet, narrowly dodging the attack. The monster snapped its jaws and spun around to face him. Jerren moved to close on it from behind and trap the monster between them, just as he had been taught. With a whiz and a thump he let loose a good-sized stone into the monster's hide. It leapt and howled, whirling to face him.
Patris took the opportunity to attack, slashing timidly at the unprotected hide. Together they played the monster back and forth, Jerren swinging his sling with deadly force and Patris bloodying it when he could.
After a couple moments that seemed like hours, they heard shouting voices and footsteps. The gate swung open and a large, sturdy figure stood in its opening. Jerren's heart leapt. Tyrus LucPhor drew back on the string of his legendary longbow, touching the fletching of the arrow to his cheek. He fired and drew another, nocking and drawing in one smooth motion.
The shaft sunk deep into the monster's flesh, and it arched its back in pain. The most horrific howl split the night sky asunder as the second shaft clove into its skull. Then it fell to the ground, and in moments was dead. The sound it made was one Jerren would remember for the rest of his life.
"Dad!" Jerren called as he ran to his father.
"Oh, Jerren, are you okay? You look terrible."
Jerren clasped him in a fierce hug. "I'll be fine. It was a good thing you showed up. I thought the guards would never come."
"There was a town meeting. Everyone's down in the square I was worried about you and thought to come looking first. Patris, are you well?"
"Well enough, Tyrus. Although we both might be much worse off if not for a lucky branch and your son's gift, here."
Tyrus looked at Jerren. "Your sorcery?"
Jerren nodded. "It came to me. I was able to stun it."
"And just long enough for me to smash it with a log."
Tyrus looked past them to the corpse laying on the ground. It was already decaying, its black flesh dissipating into black mist, seeping back into the kardia from which it birthed. "That's my boy," he said. "Perhaps the story of this incident will get Tonk the One-Eyed to take you on as an apprentice."
"Maybe, if I can show him this time. For now I'm glad enough just to be in once piece."
"True." Tyrus went and stood over the Nightmare. Soon it was all gone, and all that was left in its place was a little blackened grass and two arrows. Tyrus retrieved them, and together the three went home.
The streets were empty and the lights were out in all the houses except for one. Patris waved goodbye to them as he went toward the lit house and his fretful wife. "Goodbye, Tyrus, and thank you again. Tomorrow, Jerren, I'll go back to the hill and fetch our things. But not until broad daylight, eh? And make sure to see to those wounds!"
"Fair enough," Jerren said, waving back. "Have Av'ry tend yours as well."
"Oh, she'll be tending to something, all right. See you tomorrow."
Patris went up to his doorstep, and the father and son passed him by. Silence reigned, broken only by occasional bursts of talking or laughter from the square. "What are they discussing, father?"
"Just plans for the festival tomorrow night. The elders have been making extra plans for merriment."
"Good. We need something to take our mind off things. Should we be there?"
"No. You are wounded and need some seeing to. First things first."
When they arrived back at their small, three-room cottage, Tyrus bade Jerren lie back before the hearth while Tyrus lit a fire and put a kettle on to boil. As he was crushing dried spirinta leaves he had Jerren tell the whole story to him. Afterward he nodded appreciatively. "So you say you were able to sense the Nightmare coming just a second before it arrived?"
"Yes. It was almost as if I could feel it spawning."
Tyrus shook his head and poured him a bowl of warm water to help wash the wounds. "Here," he said, handing the bowl and sponge to Jerren. "If only we could somehow train your talent. Such a gift of foresight would do miles of good for us all. We've got no lack of surprise when it comes to Nightmare attack. Some warning would be nice."
Jerren winced as he applied the sponge to his torn and weeping skin. "Lot of good it didn't do me," he said. "What's the use of knowing when an attack is coming if I can't do anything about it? I hate Nightmares so much."
Tyrus handed Jerren a steaming cup of spirinta tea. "Don't hate them. They're a part of nature, just like the wind and the trees and the grass. And they do their part in the natural cycle of things, just like disease, fire, and old age. You don't have to like them, but it won't do you any good to bear hate against them." With a deft hand he began tying bandages around Jerren's leg.
"Oh really? What about John Frader's son, who was eaten alive by Nightmares when he was no older than two summers? Or Isa and Rand, who took too long to get home one night and were killed just outside the gates? And don't forget the time when a Nightmare spawned right inside the village and killed three children before it was put down. Why did they all have to die? How come we can't stop them?"
Tyrus sighed. "I don't know, Jerren. I just don't know. I'd venture to guess that Enos took a liking to their souls and called them back to Paradise with her. No one knows why things are the way they are except that Enos said so. Maybe it's a way to test us and make us stronger. What woman has never had trials in her life? It's a way to give some challenge and excitement. After all, things would be much too easy otherwise."
He rose and patted Jerren on the shoulder. "Now you just sit down right here and finish your tea. It's warm, so you'll sleep well. I'll see you in the morning." With a yawn, he rose and walked into his room, shutting the door tightly behind him.
Jerren sat in silence, lost in thought for a while and sipping idly at his strong, bitter tea. Soon the pain in his legs faded away into a dull throb, and he felt relaxation creeping over him. The spirinta was doing its work well, and within minutes he was fast asleep.