Upon This World of Stone by James A. Hillebrecht on the Independent Author Index
THE SECOND BOOK IN THE PALADIN TRILOGY The Juggernaut has smashed its way across the Plains of Alencia to the very walls of Jalan’s Drift. But even as Darius rallies the forces of the Southlands to oppose it, questions begin to arise as a darker and more sinister purpose begins to make itself known. Mraxdavar the Great, Eldest of Dragons, heeds the call to render aid, but are dragons coming to the succor of their deadliest foes, mankind, simply at the behest of one human wizard? Duke Argus barters for the aid of the murderous priests of a renegade god, but are the blackest and most powerful summonings of their deity to be handed to a mortal lord merely for his personal advancement? And did the demonic scepter, the Ohric, actually exert all this time and power merely to enable a barbarian horde to break a single city, even one as large and rich as Jalan’s Drift? In this second novel of the Paladin Trilogy, Darius struggles to understand the significance of these questions, while the unlikely team of the thief Adella and Shannon, Darius’ teen-aged Daughter, is diverted to an isolated castle where the Tyrant Regnar holds the power that has enslaved the states of the Plains of Alencia.
Death was marching steadily, inexorably across the broad open prairie of the Free Lands.
A huge black shadow in man-form moved slowly forward in a relentless march, each megalithic footfall sending a tremor through the earth, the red eyes which blazed in its head bringing a thrill of terror to any who might be caught in that dreadful gaze. The Juggernaut had stalked over two hundred leagues from its ancient burial chamber deep beneath the Mountains of the Earth’s Teeth through every barrier that had stood before it, devouring flesh, stone, and distance. Above it, a thick black-green bank of clouds, the Canopy of Oblivion, protected it from the sun, green lightening streaking through the thunderheads, sometimes striking down to incinerate one of the small creatures that capered around the titan’s feet. The sprawling legions of the barbarian army of Northings which had crossed the Earth’s Teeth had been joined by an endless horde of Rock Goblins which sheltered with the Juggernaut beneath the vast canopy, and the prairie lay trampled and blackened for miles in their train.
But this mighty host had begun to slow.
The titan’s pace had fallen steadily for the last few hours, and the two armies had followed suit, the whole armada winding down towards a dead stop. The Juggernaut was once again running low of food, coming to the end of its first stage of life and preparing for a great change. The goblins, however, were striving desperately to stave off this metamorphosis. The creatures were dragging a wagon in front of the monster, a wagon containing several barrels of fresh human blood, and three goblin mages were levitating pails drawn from these barrels through the air to soak the Juggernaut, turning its black skin crimson for a moment until the blood was sucked inside to feed the fires within. The ghoulish buckets seemed to lure the titan forward, spurring it on as if reaching for that elusive…taste.
“A light breakfast before the day’s march.”
Alacon Regnar, Magician, Warrior, Tyrant of the Northlands, and Master of the Silver Horde smiled at his own words through lips cracked and bleeding. Nothing would stop him, nothing, not armies, not layered walls, not even a lack of human blood. Only a few days’ march away, the walls of Jalan’s Drift waited to be broken, and beyond them lay all the riches of the Southlands, enough wealth to make him supreme over all the lands for ages to come. All he need do was to carry the Juggernaut over the last hundred leagues, to keep it for just a few more days from dissolving into the black cocoon that would change it into its true form, a form even Regnar could not predict. And perhaps not control.
No. No, the change would not come, not yet at least, not while there was blood left to feed the titan. Regnar cradled the Ohric, the great green scepter and source of much of his power, in his arms and whispered, “Have you ever seen such loveliness?”
This supply of blood will not bear the Juggernaut all the way to the Drift, the Ohric said in its haunting, echoing voice. Did it sound the same in the dark abyss from which its demon lord had sent it forth to serve me? wondered Regnar. And could even the demon control it as well as I?
More blood must be found, persisted the Ohric.
“More will be found,” said Regnar complacently. “Even if it must come from Northing and Rock Goblin veins.”
His flesh, it seemed, had begun to rot, leaving tiny pools of mucus behind whenever he stood in a single place for long. It was an odd sensation, not particularly painful, to have his skin flow slowly off his arms like a warm liquid, but the degeneration was raising his senses to an incredible level. Now, he felt not just the wind but the flavors it carried from myriad things it had touched on its way to him. He could smell and taste the fear, the loathing, and the awe of the creatures that came to bow and scrape in his presence, could sense every emotion that coursed through their pathetic souls, every thought that passed through their limited minds. His eyes were no longer restrained by distance, seeing clearly what lay beyond the horizon, reaching now to the very walls of Jalan’s Drift, and his ears could detect the muffled curse of the smallest rock goblin in his army.
Physically, he had grown stronger than ever, able to throttle even the largest man with his bare hands if he chose, but it was far more gratifying to use the new-found power of his mind to strangle a victim, to watch the terror bulging from the eyes as the man’s face blackened and his tongue swelled. Nothing was beyond his grasp, nothing beyond his ability. The gods had withdrawn and left his power supreme over all the Earth.
Yet powerful as he had become, he had not yet been able to free himself of all concerns.
The Council of Lords is met while the Juggernaut still struggles across these endless plains, the Ohric said, exactly matching his own thought. There is still time for the armies of the Southlands to man the walls of the Drift before the titan can pound a way through the stone.
Regnar shrugged. “It is no matter. This traitor, this Duke Argus, will slow the Council and give us time to reach the city. And even if the walls be fully manned, what of it? My army shall roar through the breaches pounded by the Juggernaut and destroy all who oppose me.”
Perhaps, but the losses would be great, and this army is not endless, cautioned the scepter. We will have need of troops to hold what the Juggernaut gains for us.
Regnar looked out over the thousands of Northings, the tens of thousands of Rock Goblins. The ranks had been thinned by battle, but even more by the need to garrison the lands behind, to make certain the conquered states did not rise again after his army’s passing, and they were the absolute minimum he could spare. The nobility and aristocracy he had “invited” to stay at Nargoth Castle were a much better hold on the loyalty of the plains states than any garrison.
“We have gained many allies in our march across the plains,” he answered confidently, “and we will gain yet more with the fall of the Drift. The Great Plan continues to unfold.”
The Flaming Rage of Jaxar failed, and this Paladin, this Chosen of Mirna, lives still, the Ohric warned. While he is at work, no plan can be sure.
Regnar’s eyes narrowed at the memory of failure. He had unleashed one of the most powerful magics to seek out and kill this single warrior who had thwarted his intentions twice, and as the Ohric said, the Flaming Rage had passed without the gratifying screams of the Paladin as he was consumed by the living death.
“No matter,” Regnar repeated irritably. “When next this insect crosses our path, I shall deal with him myself. That is an end to it.”
A single thought silenced the scepter, and Regnar turned his eyes to the distant prize of the Drift, still many long, slow leagues away over the horizon. His teeth gleamed red in a gruesome smile. Death was in his hands and none could blunt his purpose.
Some three miles away, a patrol of rock goblins stomped their way through the prairie grass, taking what small pleasure they could in this endless march by killing any small animals their passing might flush. They were particularly fond of the large brown grass rats when caught away from their burrows, for not only did they squeal wonderfully during the kill, they also provided a quick and tasty snack as well.
The goblin walking the point for the patrol noticed something brown only a few feet ahead, and he quickly leveled his bow before the prey could bolt for safety. But the brown form was attached to a leg, a leg that was attached to a torso, a torso already rising out of the grass, and before he could do more than gasp a warning, a dagger came flying out of the grass to bury itself in his throat. The rest of the goblins wasted their lives by turning to look, convinced the empty prairie could hold nothing more dangerous than rats, not here so close to the Juggernaut and the Silver Horde, and they died with surprise on their reptilian faces as two dozen arrows came whistling out of nowhere.
The man who had thrown the dagger came forward to look down the gentle slope at the enemy below, and he was joined by the leader of the archers, two men who had perished long days ago, though their hearts still pumped within dead souls. But even they sucked air between their teeth at the sight of the feeding of the Juggernaut.
“So that is why they drag long lines of prisoners across the plains,” breathed Zarif as he studied the process with his one good eye. “To fuel that monster.”
“There is the end we seek, Dead Zarif,” said Exelar. “Let us cut a path through to that horror and kill all we may. Even if we break our swords upon it, we will at least have killed the ghouls who feed it.”
“No, Exelar,” Zarif replied. “We tested this giant once before, and I will not give my blood to feed the destroyer of Nargost. We can sell our lives more dearly. Come. We shall teach even the demons to fear the Dead of the Plains.”
With that, they slipped silently away, their archers vanishing with them, and there was nothing but a rustle of wind in the grass and a dozen goblin corpses to mark their passing.
Copyright© James A. Hillebrecht. All rights reserved.