Authors: Christian Warren Freed
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Coming of Age, #Epic, #Paranormal & Urban, #Sword & Sorcery, #Arthurian, #Teen & Young Adult
Book Two of the Northern Crusade
By CHRISTIAN WARREN FREED
All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Other Novels by Christian Warren Freed
The Northern Crusade Series
A History of Malweir Series
Beyond the Edge of Dawn
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A New War Approaches
The crunch of thousands of booted feet rang out over the empty plains. Deer and other animals fled at the sound. Night birds erupted from rocks and broken trees long dead. Stomp, stomp, stomp-stomp-stomp. Hobnails struck the ice-covered snow in a symphony of untamed aggression. Baleful horns bleated over the army, accompanied by the whips of the drivers. Ten thousand voices, cruel and filled with vengeance, were carried on the harsh echoes of long past winds.
They came from mighty Druem, an almost forgotten volcano in the heart of the Deadlands. The small kingdom lies north of the Darkwall Mountains in central Malweir, butted against the harsh coast. Ever since what remained of the Goblin race conquered the land
only doom flourished. Once, long ago, there had been a dragon under the mountain. The dragon was long dead but the great enemy continued to thrive.
Evil seldom needs much to take hold. The Dae’shan swept into the Deadlands and wasted little time in coercing the Goblin army to march west into the northern kingdoms. Cold promises were whispered over shadows. The promise of deposing kings and claiming long-forgotten dreams of power and glory enticed the Goblins from their caves. War had returned to the north, finally. Under the masterful manipulations of Amar Kit’han, the Goblin general Grugnak took his army west across the plains.
They marched for weeks on end, often grinding a grueling pace from sun up to sun down. Nothing enticed Goblins more than the prospect of killing. They came with axe and sword, mace and hammer. Scouting parties found villages along way and the army fell upon them with fury. Only bones remained for the vultures to pick clean.
Leagues went by. Ankles were broken. A few soldiers deserted after growing drunk on plunder. Grugnak didn’t slow the pace. Those too injured to keep up were killed and fed to the army. Goblins served no master other than their uncontrollable desires. Lesser armies would break, but not Grugnak’s. He used whip and spear. Fresh lands needed to be conquered. Lands where Men had forgotten the scourge the Goblin nation had once been.
The army crossed mountains and small rivers. Winter deepened, slowing their progress considerably. The Dae’shan returned every so often to check on their progress, berating Grugnak for his incompetence in the process. Each time one hundred Goblins died to sate their commander’s anger. Worse, they knew the war had already fallen on Rogscroft. Two mighty armies were engaged in an all-out war for survival. Grugnak scoffed at the notion of Men fighting. Neither side would know what to think when his ten-thousand-strong army came up behind and drove them into the ground.
They marched with audacity, daring any kingdom to rise up and repel them. None did. Word of desiccated villagers and ruined villages found way to the larger towns and cities. Kings ordered their armies to form but only in defense. No power in the north other than the Wolfsreik had enough strength to meet the Goblins head-to-head. Grugnak knew that. He placed trust in the Dae’shan, to an extent. They whispered promises of glory too rich to ignore.
The Goblin army presented a long, winding snake rolling across the countryside. Plague and decay followed. They moved at a murderous pace, covering nearly forty miles a day. Those too weak fell away or were killed outright. Ever the whips cracked and the drums pounded a brutal song. The promise of battle sang in their hearts. The time had finally come when the Goblin nation could return to rise again. All it took was a little push in Rogscroft.
* * * * *
An army so large was bound to draw attention, especially one as destructive as the Goblins. Scouts from a handful of kingdoms kept pace from a distance. Careful not to be seen, they counted numbers and whispered prayers to their individual gods. None living could recall the last time such a force emerged from the Deadlands. The portents for the future were ill, indeed.
Hidden among the sparse pines and gently rolling hills, three figures watched the Goblins with unusual scrutiny. They wore pale cloaks that blended with the freshly fallen snow. Leather-plate armor was form fitting and well used. Knee-high riding boots sank into the snow. Swords, lances, and bows jutted from a dozen places. Their sharp eyes peered intently from beneath their hoods.
“This is not good,” the tallest said flatly. “What reason have the Goblins for leaving the Deadlands?”
Their leader shook his head, frowning. “I don’t know, but no good will come of it. What kingdoms lie in their path?”
“There is naught but empty lands from here to the Fern River. After that is Rogscroft and Delranan.”
Cocking his head, the leader replied, “You forget Drimmen Delf.”
“The Dwarves will not intervene, despite their long-standing hatred of the Goblins.”
“Odd, considering they were once the same,” said the taller. “Are you sure we should get involved?”
“No war needs to be fought, or so I’ve long believed,” the leader said. “King Thord has asked for our aid and we are bound by honor to give it. The Dwarves are decent enough folk, for mountain dwellers. Our duties lay in Drimmen Delf.”
“What of the Goblins? That is a large army.”
Giving the enemy one final look, the leader said, “News will spread quickly. They head to attack the world of Men and Men must fight them. We ride for Drimmen Delf. Our war is separate.”
For now, at least
* * * * *
Arlevon Gale was a hallowed place, long forgotten by Men and gods. It was once a mighty city in an inhospitable land. Priests and holy men traveled across Malweir to come to the sole place of power capable of delivering their prayers successfully to the gods, for here the veil between dimensions was thinnest. Ever receptive of the cries and pleas of the people, the gods relished the attention. After all, how can a god exist without believers?
Now only ruins remained. The surrounding area was overgrown with thick, winter vines and heavy undergrowth. Trees broke through the original layers of stone
and rotted wood. Defaced statues stared accusingly, their features long worn away. They once guarded the paths to the inner citadel. Crumbling towers jutted up from the improvised forest. The stone, once an immaculate steel grey, now languished under years of neglect and grime. Empty windows stared out at the world like so many empty eyes, accusingly and sad. Most of the wood had rotted away, leaving a hollow shell of former splendor. Arlevon Gale was forgotten, but sometimes forgotten things refuse to die.
“This place hasn’t been used in centuries,” Kodan Bak remarked snidely. Concealed in his billowing onyx cloak, the Dae’shan floated inches above the ground. Flat red eyes glared from beneath his cowl.
Amar Kit’han’s frown was lost within the solitude of his own hood. “Humans are forgetful creatures, Kodan. Underestimating them will prove your downfall.”
“We have stood for ages, unchecked and unhampered by the plodding rituals of the mortals. They are an ignorant race incapable of maintaining any semblance of dignity.”
“You forget we were once human.”
“A fact I’d do well to keep forgotten. Mortal flesh was a hindrance. A means to an end if you will,” Kodan replied.
Amar Kit’han, eldest of the four Dae’shan, folded his arms across his chest and turned away. He’d endured hundreds of years of counterplotting and subterfuge from his subordinate. There was no doubt Kodan Bak wanted to be in control. His desires bled from his robes like venom from a snake. But what the lesser Dae’shan had for ambition, he lacked in execution. Kodan Bak was a creature of convenience and delay. Thus far the situation to usurp Amar hadn’t presented itself.
“Our former humanity is most assuredly a weakness, but can be used to advantage,” he said and paused. “If you are wise enough.”
Kodan ignored the rebuke. “Wisdom is relative to desire. Why have you brought me here?”
“This is where the final battle will happen. Arlevon Gale was once a place of immense power, rival only to the great nexuses.”
“Which have all been either destroyed or closed to us,” Kodan reminded bitterly.
Yet another reason to despise the blundering mortals and their determination to remain independent
“True, but the power within these ruins is enough,” Amar insisted. “There will be only one chance before the moment is lost. We must not fail.”
He stared down at the faint blue aura clinging to the ground. The power was ripe, aching to be accessed. With the collapse of the Mages nearly three centuries ago, a power vacuum emerged. Only a handful could access the true strength of the world. Amar Kit’han knew the advantages lay in his favor. But for one: Anienam Keiss, last descendant of the Mages and adopted son of the great Dakeb. A time of reckoning was fast approaching. A time when Dae’shan and Mage would end their long-running war. Only one would walk away, and even Amar Kit’han’s inflated sense of confidence wasn’t enough to convince him that it would be him.