Excerpt from 'Dark Horde Rising'


He thundered through the narrow canyon at such a reckless speed that the first wave of arrows missed him. He hit the line of goblin skirmishers before they were fully formed; his sturdy chestnut mare hammering the slim, rangy goblins aside. The grey skinned creatures screamed their anger, their sharp toothed mouths wide. Quickly, they drew more arrows, but by the time the second wave of arrows came raining down, Gael Pemarson had already thrown up a warding spell. The poorly made arrows shattered.

Frantically, he kicked his horse to further exertion. The brave mare gave a burst of speed that opened up a gap between him and his pursuers and once more he thanked all the gods of earth, sea and sky that goblins did not ride.

After a score of minutes, Gael was forced to slow his tiring mare to a walk. The goblins, although fast, would not be able to close the gap and it would give his mount time to regain her wind. However, Gael knew that he would have to push her hard if he were to give himself any chance of reaching Sironac territory. Thankfully, troll warriors could not move fast enough to be a threat or he would not have passed that last line; a group of heavily built trolls could have knocked his horse from its feet even at a full charge, yeti would have been even worse! Hopefully, he had left such terrifying creatures far behind.

How any of the foul creatures had got ahead of him again he didn’t known. It was almost like they knew exactly where he would be, which route he would take.

He had been riding hard for the past two days, heading south and west for the isolated town of Sironac. He had eaten his meals in the saddle and only rested the mare and himself for no more than three or four hours over the last two days. The goblins could never have run for long enough or fast enough to overtake him. They must have been sending messages ahead somehow, in an effort to cut him off. It seemed that they were desperate to prevent him from reporting what he had seen, but how could they know exactly where he would be?

Gael had been sent into the northlands by his master, the Archmage of Shandrilos. He had been working directly for the Archmage for almost eight years now and had become one of the best explorers the College had. Of course, only the Archmage and one or two other archivists and scholars knew of his activities. Gael knew that many of his fellow fighter mages at the college now thought him dead in the unknown North, he had been gone so long.

It suddenly occurred to him that they could well be proved right!

‘No’, he thought savagely, gritting his teeth. He would not fail. Too much was riding on this. As he rode on his mind was drawn inevitably back to what he had seen just a couple of days ago.

                                                                                                       *********

Gael had originally come to the northlands to explore. Once the elder races had dwelt in these lands; there were ruins to be investigated and lost magics to be rediscovered. Gael had sought out lore and artefacts and had discovered much that he had passed on to his colleagues at the College of Magic in Shandrilos. It was fascinating work and that was why Gael had stayed so long away from family and friends.

However, he was also here now because of the goblin threat. The grey skinned creatures were the main enemy of mankind. They were cunning and greedy; intent on raiding and killing to take what they wanted and drive humans from the north. The Archmage had thought it important to maintain a watch on them, to give warning of potential trouble and Gael had agreed.

Over the years, he had scouted a large area of the uncharted northlands. He had searched out rumours of alliances and petty warlords and even built up trading relations with some of the friendlier goblin tribes. He had learned something of their language and culture. What he had also learned was that things in the northlands were changing.

Goblins had always lived throughout these vast lands in tribal groups led by a chieftain or 'Gul'. In themselves these tribes were not a large threat numbering in the hundreds. However, from time to time, a warlord or 'Gul Dor' would arise, conquer and unify tribes. The last time had been almost thirty years ago and had taken all the forces of the Wildlands to stop a goblin horde many thousands strong as they rampaged south. Thankfully, for the Wildland provinces this unity amongst the tribes happened rarely. and usually broke up after a few seasons; goblins were too wild and when faced with any real resistance or hardship, their own vicious, and self preserving natures inevitably broke them. True discipline was rare except amongst the elite braves of the tribes. Even a 'Gul Dor' could not hold them together for long.

At least that was what all previous wisdom had said.  Gael Pemarson had learnt over the last few years that this was no longer true.

In the Bloodland Heights, on the edge of the true north, the goblins were slowly being unified. They were being forged into a nation! Goblins spoke in hushed whispers of a legendary figure known as Marog or 'Strongheart'. Gael had reported this to the Archmage, as had others, but so far no one had been able to get close enough to verify that he truly existed and if he did, what his plans were.

That was why Gael and his apprentices had come.

Gael had believed he had finally tracked down this elusive unifier, this great Gul Dor. Gael needed to take this opportunity to find out more and return to the Archmage with unquestionable evidence.

Gael and his apprentices had stumbled on a huge encampment almost by accident and quickly hidden themselves on a high ridge to see what was going on. They had not been prepared for what they saw!

They had lain on a high ridge overlooking an encampment of not just goblins, but also trolls, kobolds and yeti; all enemies of mankind. A gathering that was, by all he knew, impossible. Savagery, brutality and hatred were a way of life for these creatures and they hated one another as fiercely as they hated men. Nothing he'd known could possibly bring them together.

As he had slowly got past his shock, Gael had begun to realise the true magnitude of what he was seeing. He had watched and scouted among these creatures for nearly a decade. He had studied them for twice that length of time; there was no one who knew these creatures and their ways better. True, no one really knew anything of the secretive trolls save they hated all outsiders and killed on sight. However, the yeti and kobolds he knew were so primitive there wasn't even a concept of unity beyond the family or pack, and all outsiders were generally seen as food. Yet here they all were, along with goblins under a single banner, that of 'Gul Dor' Marog!

As Gael and his apprentices had watched carefully hidden, the chieftains and warlords of the different races had come together in the centre of the huge clearing below. Gael had seen them all clearly: the huge rangy yeti; the lumbering powerful trolls; the slim, cunning goblins; and the dog-like kobolds. They had moved to their allotted places as if guided by some hidden hand. They formed a large circle, all regarding each other with a mixture of distrust, fear and... something else, something akin to excitement. Gael noticed a powerful goblin, large and dominant at the fore. Marog!

Suddenly, Gael had felt magic called into being and within that sense came a feeling of such dread that he had almost turned and fled. Only his sharp whispered command had stopped his apprentices.

Down in the clearing, a grey wall had shimmered into being and Gael had recognised a portal opening. From within came a swarm of creatures Gael had never seen before; creatures that made even the monstrous denizens of the northlands look... ordinary. Giant insects-like creatures poured from the portal, hurtling across the hard ground of the clearing to freeze, insect limbs held ready, facing the circle of chieftains; then monstrous brutes, that made even the trolls and yeti look small, followed with black skinned goblins coming next; armed and armoured better than any tribal warriors of which Gael had ever heard tell. Finally, into the centre of all, gliding shadows moved, hooded and cloaked. They were the size of men, but no man moved as they!

The portal had then vanished and silence had fallen. Gael had shared a disbelieving look with his two apprentices. Not only were these creatures he had never seen, but the magic they could feel was of a power they had never experienced and evil seemed to lie on them like a cloak. Gael had never felt such malice, it made his stomach roil and his heart pound. Gael sensed power thrumming around the hooded figures, and the being in the centre almost blinded his mystic senses. Not even the Grand Abbot and the Archmage, the two most powerful magic users he knew, had approached this being’s power. The creature was evil. Gael knew no other way to describe the feeling of horror that seemed to pulse from the dark hooded figure. This went beyond Marog and the goblin unification, far beyond.

The figure had begun to speak.

It spoke of the Lords of the Night, the Dark Gods. Those whom all the denizens of the North both worshipped and feared.

The figure's message was simple but powerful. He was the disciple of the Lords of Night and he had come to unite all the servants of darkness in a divine war of conquest, a war of retribution to slaughter all their enemies, and to bring the Ata'Gon. The chieftains and leaders, led by the now undeniable Gul Dor Marog had prostrated themselves ecstatically, swearing allegiance with a religious fervour Gael had never seen. They had chanted the name over and over.

'Ata'Gon, Ata'Gon, Ata'Gon...'

The feeling of cold and dread had washed over Gael anew. He had no idea what he was seeing... sensing... feeling. The Ata'Gon. He recognised the name. It was the name used by the goblins for the Dark One. According to the old tales the Dark One was the most powerful of all the demon lords of old.

Gael’s mind had been momentarily overwhelmed with questions and, for a moment, he'd not been able to think clearly.

Where had these new foul creatures come from? Who were they? If they were supporting Marog, what was their goal? Were the Wildlands in danger? Could this Ata'Gon be a threat?

No, this Ata'Gon was a legend. Whoever the hooded creature was down there, he was using the beliefs of the goblins and the others to control them. Gael wasn't sure who these new creatures and their leader could be, but he was sure of one thing. The danger to the Wildlands was no longer that of a goblin invasion, but of something far worse. The unified goblins alone could have called together an army three times the size of all the forces of the Wildlands combined, but the leaders represented down there could call together a force many times that. If they were pointed south...

Gael had prayed silently to the gods, and slowly he had regained control of his thoughts. They had been misled. The Archmage believed the Wildlands faced a threat from some simple goblin warlord. A very serious danger, but he had no idea of the truth. Who could?

Whoever or whatever these creatures and their Lord were, or what their intentions, the Archmage must know of them. All the Wildlands must know!

                                                                                                        *********

Gael and his apprentices had made their escape, unseen, undiscovered... or so they had thought.

They had sensed no pursuit, seen no pursuers and yet there they were, suddenly, waiting! Only hasty magic had saved them, allowed them to slip away. Gael had then reluctantly ordered them to split up and head for Sironac by different routes; it would increase the chances of one of them making it home to tell what they had seen. He feared for his apprentices, but they were tough and well trained. It should have worked, yet Gael knew one of his apprentices was quickly tracked and killed, though the enemy could not have known which way he had headed. The link he’d had with young Hignar had snapped. They had not been separated long enough for it to have been distance that broke their connection. No, Hignar had paid the price they all had known might be the cost of coming to the northlands. Gael had grieved nonetheless, even as his horse had galloped onwards. He would not turn to avenge his apprentice, much as he had so burned to do. His duty to his people was more important. He hoped that his other apprentice, Tallan would make it. Tallan was the elder of his two apprentices, a full adept and a seasoned soldier.

                                                                                                        **********

Two days on and Gael was seriously starting to doubt if he himself would make it. However, he was now sure that he had at least left the last lot of pursuing goblins behind, but where would the next ambush be?

He had left the grassy plains yesterday and had now entered the Bloodland Heights. The land had risen around him. He knew that these ravines had been carved by ancient rivers that had flowed from the northern mountainous edge of the Heights. They had flowed down to the plains to merge with the great river Elder that wound through these lands into the unknown north. He had been riding through these steep sided canyons with dead ends and switch backs for almost a day now and he knew an ambush could be anywhere. However, what was most galling was that this confusing land should have worked in his favour, yet the goblin braves had found him four times already with relative ease! Gael knew they could not be getting ahead of him. Perhaps they were signalling.

Suddenly it hit him. The portal! If they had the power to create such portals then they could send warriors ahead of him with ease. As he strained both his normal and his mystical senses to their limit, seeking out any signs of life ahead, he frowned. That couldn’t be right. Using Portals still did not explain how they knew where to find him. This land was vast and he could have been anywhere. He had long ago developed the skill and discipline to hide his presence to magical scrying. He was an acknowledged grandmaster at the college. Still there was much they did not know of magic.

Abruptly, a noise came to him from behind. He turned and cast his senses back along the narrow ravines.

Pursuers, so soon, but not goblins, these felt different. Echoes started to reach his ears and he kicked his mount on, still looking to the rear. What were they? He looked forwards. The ravine split up ahead into three smaller steep sided canyons. His mare began to toss her head and he saw her nostrils flare in alarm, her ears laid back. She cried out suddenly in fear. Gael saw in the distance ahead, down the two canyons on his left, dust clouds rising as if a small army were galloping down both. They were trying to cut him off!

Gael’s senses screamed and he looked back to see the terrifying, gigantic insect creatures from the meeting he had observed, hurtle into view along the ravine. Their limbs pumped and whirled as they came on at a gallop. His mare bolted in terror for the last canyon ahead and Gael did not try to stop her.

A split second before it appeared, Gael sensed a portal. He threw up a shield of energy around himself and his mare just as the portal appeared. Out stepped a dark cloaked figure, even as Gael yanked his horse to the left. Energy swirled into focus around the shadowy creature and fire crackled around Gael. Acting on instinct, he cast his best fireball in riposte, but didn’t look to see its results as he desperately kicked his mount forward. More fiery energy slammed into him as he fled, but his shield held... just! Behind him, the strange chittering noise of insect limbs filled the ravine and he risked a look back. From the other ravines, insects appeared and turned to join those who had followed him. There must have been fifty of the things and they were spread along the canyon floor like a carpet of seething limbs, their shining insect eyes implacable. They were gaining. His brave mare

might have just outrun them had she been fresh, but she had been carrying him with barely a rest for two days and had recently run hard to out distance the goblin braves. He knew he wasn’t going to make it.

‘Damn it!’ he silently cursed. He drove his heels into his mount again, using the pain to spur her to new heights of exertion, hating himself even as he did it. He glanced back again. The giant insects were closer, but they were thinning out as he stretched them. Maybe there was a chance if he got far enough. He snarled at his mount and kicked harder. He knew he was pushing her beyond her limits, but more than his own life and his mount’s were at stake.

Looking ahead, he saw with dismay that the canyon ended in a scree slope and then a sheer wall of rock, maybe half a mile away. It was maybe ten metres high. He was trapped!

‘No...no,’ he thought ‘not trapped. This could be what he needed. If he could make it to the rock face he might be able to get up and out of the canyon before those insect fiends reached him! That might free him from this trap.’

He looked back. Yes, the insects were tiring. Only the fastest and strongest were still gaining on him. He was almost to the scree slope.

With a coughing scream, blood burst from his mount’s mouth and nose and she stumbled. Gael knew she had given her last. He silently saluted her effort and blessed her. As her front legs gave way, her brave head ploughed into the dry earth and Gael was flung from her back. He let himself be hurled forward and then rolled and came up running,

hitting the scree slope at a sprint. He was lightly armoured and his blades were strapped to his back. Nevertheless, he could not match his horse’s speed and felt like he was running through molasses. He pulled his blades even as he glanced over his shoulder. The insects rushed towards him with ferocious speed. Around half a dozen led the chase.

He turned to face them as he reached the cliff wall. He blasted the two leading insects with a prepared Stormburst spell and grunted in satisfaction as they were hurled back into three more. Muttering the keyword, he triggered the enchantment on his blades and saw the blue flames run along their length. Two more insects flung themselves at him, razor sharp jagged forearms raised to dismember him. He dodged the first, which crashed into the cliff face, and lopped the other’s arms off. A whistling scream almost deafened him as it reared back and he nearly lost his head to the first creature he had dodged as it threw itself back at him. He desperately parried its frenzied hacking arms as its partner slumped back down the slope. He backed away and then reversed his stride and sprang forward, blocking an inrushing arm and beheading the creature. Its shiny armoured head cracked as it hit the cliff face and bounced down.

With the skill of a practised master, Gael muttered the release cantrip for a telekinesis spell. He ignored the mass of insects that were heading for him and turned to face the cliff. He looked up, jumped and at the same time thrust down with a telekinetic burst. He shot up and forward, just clearing the ten metre sheer cliff. He landed hard, rolled and clattered wearily into an outcropping. ‘I can’t keep this pace up,’ he thought, knowing his magical reserves were starting to run dry.

Gael stumbled to his feet and risked a glance over the cliff edge. The mass of insects were flailing at the cliff, trying to climb, but finding no purchase. Gael smiled. ‘You might just make it,’ he told himself. He turned. A figure stood not twenty feet from him, regarding him like a child does a bug just caught in a bottle; head tilted, inquisitive. It was in full jet black armour, a shield with a screaming female of some kind was on one arm, a slim dark sword was in the other. Behind the figure stood more warriors in similar armour and Gael stopped in stunned amazement. It was a wonder indeed to find their kind here. Few humans ever saw them, they were so reclusive. His hopes rose. He started forward, his hand raised in greeting. It was then he noticed the two creatures in black hooded cloaks and stumbled to a halt! Gael glanced from one to another. It couldn’t be! These two could not be working together. It went against everything Gael knew. It made no sense!

Gael came to an abrupt halt. “You’ve got to be jesting!” he gasped in agonised disbelief, as the reality of his plight hit him. They were part of this, and they were here waiting for him. It was suddenly clear to him: if he got past the insects, these warriors were here to finish him.

Gael did not want to die, but there was nowhere to run. He clenched his hands tightly on his blades and defeat settled on him; he knew the reputation of the people before him. “So be it.” he snarled, but he would not go easily.

He screamed a battle cry and attacked, hoping by all the gods that his apprentice Tallan had fared better than he. 

Welcome to the World of...

by Iain Hope