Preview: The Land of Wicked Shadows

Let’s keep it rolling with book 3.


A New Journey

Temperatures continued to drop as the full swing of winter roared in well over a month too early. The cold was yet another devilish weapon from the Black Imelin’s deadly arsenal unleashed upon the Free Lands. Under the lackadaisical rule of the Hierarchy Imelin had turned traitor, made alliances with the darkling kingdom of Suroc Tol to the northeast, and unleashed a war the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the time of Ils Kincannon and the Knights of the Seven Manacles.

Aron Kryte, commander of a troop of Golden Warriors, the finest soldiers in the lands, thought long and hard on the ever growing powers of the Black. All the wizard lacked was the Staff of Life to rule. Fortunately, the Staff was well on the way to safety and away from the major fighting. Or so he prayed. There was no way to verify that until he reached the mountain city-fortress of Hyrast far to the north.

He failed to see anything short of the Staff being able to stop the Black. So much so that his mind couldn’t overlook the fact even as he and Jod Theron marched across the game trails crisscrossing Almarin. Thousands had already died with the promise of so many more yet to come. To the best of Aron’s knowledge his forces hadn’t so much as dented the might the Black displayed. So what were they missing? The fate of the entire world was hanging in the balance and everything he needed in order to succeed remained just outside of his grasp. The dilemma hounded him with each footstep.

Old man Theron took him from the obscurity of clouded thought with a gleeful chuckle as they arrived at a lone farmhouse. Aron slipped back to the moment and scanned the area. Soldier instincts took over and he searched for hidden threats. Odd, no smoke poured from the chimney. No smell of warmth. He heard the faint creaking of rusted hinges as the front door swung too and fro with the winds.

“Friends?” he asked.

Jod nodded. “Some of the few I actually have, yes. We help each other during harsh times.”

Anguish flooded him, clashing with predatory instincts. Aron sensed danger. “This is not right. I think we may have been beaten here.”

Jod stopped and tried to find anything obvious out of the ordinary. His sight at distance was failing, but his senses became more in-tuned the older he became. Never a soldier, Jod was well versed in the ways of the world. What he knew remained secret, so secret not even the young lordling would find out if he didn’t want him to. The dogs hunched down and sniffed the air. Their hair stood on end. Each growled in warning.

“We must be cautious,” Aron whispered and drew his sword.

He was moving before Jod replied, the warrior in him took over as he danced through the sparse grove of trees leading up to the farmhouse. Possibilities of what might have happened were endless. The great battle of the Crimson Fields had occurred less than a day’s journey north of here and not long ago. No doubt remnants of both the darkling and Galdean armies were moving through this part of Almarin. It took little imagination to think what might have happened to the farmers.

Thankful he convinced Jod to take him back to the stretch of the icy Simca River where he’d been found, Aron clutched his salvaged sword tighter. He shivered at the memory of plunging into those waters as darklings swarmed onto the fragile rope bridge to get to him. The rope broke and the river took them all. His last sight was of the horror on his friend’s faces as he went under water.

Knowing he wasn’t going to be able to keep up with a man half his age, Jod slowly made his way down the knoll toward his friend’s home. For a brief moment he doubted his decision to come out of seclusion and thought of going home to wait out the end. Deep down however, he knew it was well past time to return to Meisthelm. Those responsible for the ending of his old life were long gone, but there were still amends needed to be made.

The Golden Warrior wasted no time on thought. Flanked by Jod’s dogs, he was up on the porch and ready to burst inside. His senses told him whatever had happened was long past but there was danger in having a false sense of security. Aron’s fingers curled around the edge of the door. He pushed and stepped inside. The dogs slinked past and fanned out.

Aron found the first body in the archway leading to the kitchen. She was very young, and very dead. Telltale signs of a darkling attack peppered the house. His sorrow for the dead rose, for they never stood a chance. Snow blew in through one of the broken windows. No doubt the monsters came during the night. Surprise was complete for the wife yet wore her cooking apron. A bowl and wooden spoon lay beside her in epitaph.

The rest of the family lay scattered around the house. He couldn’t imagine being the last to die. The knowledge that all you held dear was already lost and your turn was next. Yet with that knowledge he found it odd that nothing in the house was disturbed. Nothing out of place. The house was in much the same condition as it was before the attack. This was a hunt for sport.

He finished his inspection and found Jod sitting in a rocking chair on the porch with his head in his hands. He was much too old to cry over the inevitable, no matter how tragic, though the pain of losing friends hurt deep.

“They were peaceful people. They didn’t deserve this,” he said without lifting his head.

“No one does,” Aron answered and spat onto the snow.


It was a question without an easy answer. How could Aron explain that this was all part of a madman’s quest to destroy the world? That without Imelin these monsters would still be trapped in Suroc Tol. Aron could only shake his head.

“There is no answer, my friend, but I can tell you this. The rest of the Free Lands will suffer similarly if my friends and I are unsuccessful. I fear this may be the final war.”

Jod sniffled once. “It is sad to watch what this world has become. Is there any way we can save ourselves from this insanity?”

“There are times when I think no, but the power in our hearts holds the key to survival. The only way to win is by destroying the Staff of Life and the wizard who seeks to wield it. Then and only then will we be safe from evil’s grasp.”

“Everything is moving against you,” Jod replied. “Not even an innocent family stands protected against a war they know nothing of. What offer of hope can you give these people when they discover you can’t save them from doom?”

“What can I say?” Aron answered after a time. “I have no family of my own but my friends. I will do anything to keep them alive and end this war.”

The hermit snorted. “By that logic casualties are necessary so long as they serve the greater good of the cause?”

“If it means defeating this darkness and returning the lands to the light which it needs? Yes. I would gladly sacrifice myself for that.”

“Congratulations, young man. You have just learned a very valuable lesson in the ways of the world.” Jod seemed oddly pleased.

“Do we bury them now?”

“No. We do not have time. Your friends are in need of you and every moment counts. I have already checked the barn. Whoever did this left the animals alone. There are a few horses and a quality wagon. We should get going as soon as possible.”

“But your friends…”

Jod’s smile was sad. “Are already gone. No further harm can befall them.”

Whoever Jod once was, Aron came to view him as a tactical man.

Together they left the blood stained floors of the farmhouse and saddled up the horses. The day was but half over and it would be many more before the pair reached Hyrast.

Much to Jod’s dislike, Aron decided to avoid every major hamlet and village on their trek north. The battle of the Crimson Fields was finished and with that ending came a flood of warring armies. Darkling and Galdean forces must surely be engaging in a series of skirmishes across the northern kingdom, leaving Aron with limited options. Troubles followed him like crows before a winter storm. He needed to get to Hyrast and his friends, recover the Staff of Life, and, well he wasn’t sure what then, without being discovered by enemy forces. A tall order for the stealthiest and most hale soldier. Given his wounded condition, Aron doubted he’d be able to accomplish it without a measure of hardship.

Jod didn’t disagree.

“Why don’t you like people?” the old man complained a day and a half north of the ruined farmhouse. “There’s nothing wrong with a hot fire and hotter food under a roof.”

“I’m already a target, and so are you,” Aron replied. “Unless you’d care to see more friends and innocents thrown into harm’s way we do it my way.”

“But there must be strength in numbers. A village could beat back these darklings.”

“You saw what they did to your friends. Would you have the same visited upon an entire village?”

Jod glowered. “Ridiculous. I think you give them too much credit. Darklings are beasts, nothing more.”

“Perhaps at one time, but now they are led by the most dangerous wizard in recent history. The less damage he causes the better.”

Jod remained unconvinced. “You are very young. I’ve lived through several wars and seen the worst men can do. This wizard of yours is the same villain for every age. It seems each generation is slowed by one person thinking they can dominate all. He will be defeated and, when those fools in the Hierarchy awake to realize that, will be shown as the charlatan he truly is.”

Now how would you know all that, old man? So far away from civilization one would think you would be extremely out of touch with current events. “You know of him?”

There was an uncomfortable, at least to Aron’s mind, silence as if Jod carefully thought out his next statement. “Of him personally? No, though the order is well known across the kingdoms. The Black have always been warlike. It seems their nature. One day this war will end and the cleanup will begin. Men like you will be necessary, if I am any judge of character, for the restructuring of the world, Aron Kryte.”

“Restructuring?” Aron asked, suspicious of the wording.

Jod merely shrugged. “What else can happen if all is as dire as you claim? One way or another, I doubt the Free Lands, or the Hierarchy, will be the same.”

And good riddance for it. The world has languished enough under the flaccid rule of the Hierarchy. Change is on the winds. I can taste it in the air. Will you be an agent of that change, Golden Warrior, or are you doomed to be devoured by it? Time will tell.

Horus awoke to the ground trembling. Plates and cups fell from the lone shelf running along the far wall to break into tiny pieces. Dust and snow trickled down from the thatch roof to cover his wild-looking hair and unkempt beard in a fine powder. Deep brown eyes stared in shock as his modest home threatened to collapse. What power in the world could ravage a land so?

His heart fell as cold realization settled in. The ground stopped shaking, but only after a large chunk of roofing fell to the dirt floor. Horus crawled from his bed of straw and old blankets. Stretching, he reached his full eight foot height. Horus was lightly muscled and covered in scars. Time, and life, had never been kind to him. He blinked away a thousand years of sleep and yawned. Great canines protruded from his mouth, giving him a Neanderthal appearance. He cracked his great knuckles, ignoring the thick mats of hair on the backs of his fingers, and scratched his jaw.

A cursory glance around the hut showed him his clothes and weapons. Twin war bars forged from the very finest metals and blessed by the last of his tribe’s shamans glittered from their decaying leather sheaths from their place on the wall beside his dust covered shield. Horus shivered in the cold night air and hurried into deerskin pants, well-worn moccasins, and a tunic made from the hide of an animal that had died out long before now.

Horus was the last of his kind. A remnant of a less civilized age when men warred with their animalistic nature. The victims of a wide pogrom across the kingdoms when the tyrants of the first Hierarchy High Council took power. Not that he could blame them. His people lived for millennia and were made of raw martial prowess, but they were never many. Low birthrates and political infighting kept their numbers low, making it easy for the Hierarchy to sweep in and eradicate them all. All that is except for Horus.

Despite the trials his people endured, Horus held no animosity against the Hierarchy. His vitriol diminished when Ils Kincannon was killed in battle. What cosmic powers allowed him to remain alive were beyond him for they did not consider his emotions when settling on him. Given the circumstances, he much preferred being naught but cold bones in a forgotten grave. Life was less than kind in the best of situations.

Sighing, Horus strode out his door to breathe the fresh mountain air for the first time in centuries. Why was he awake? Was it time already? Too many questions plagued his sleep addled mind. Horus inhaled a lungful of air. A tear filled his eye. After so long his time was finally come. The giant returned to his home and collected his weapons, a small pack, and a heavy wool travel cloak. His fingers curled around his aged walking stick and he was out the door.

Destiny awaited and with it the last adventure of the Mark’t people. Death was at the end of the road. Death he secretly craved. Horus took in the last of the winter wild flowers blooming among the rocks. He passed an unreadable look back at the prison that had once been his home before taking the trail leading down from the mountains. The fulfillment of destiny was somewhere on the plains below as was the coming of the man foretold who would be his executioner.

No, life was not kind at all.

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