In The Crusader Road, Michael A. Stackpole (New York Times best-selling author of X-Wing: Rogue Squadron) brings you a new novel of frontier adventure that offers a taste of the setting featured in the new Pathfinder Online massively multiplayer online roleplaying game. When the aristocratic Vishov family has been banished from Ustalav due to underhanded politics, Lady Tyressa Vishov is faced with a choice: fade slowly into obscurity, or strike out for the nearby River Kingdoms and establish a new holding on the untamed frontier. Together with her children and loyal retainers, she’ll forge a new life in the infamous Echo Wood, and neither bloodthirsty monsters nor local despots will stop her from reclaiming her family honor. Yet the shadow of Ustalavic politics is long, and even in a remote and lawless territory, there may be those determined to see the Vishov family fail...
A Dream Uprooted
Jerrad couldn't tell from which direction the scream had come. He'd been huddled beneath a blanket reading the wizardry text. Something about the words didn't require light for him to read—which made sense. Many of the spells were centered around illusions and projecting images into a subject's mind. The whole book, he decided, was primarily a practical text on illusion, and he devoured each lesson as the book choose to reveal it to him.
Don't move. He closed the book and trembled. Someone just had an accident. It can't be anything bad. Just stay here.
Someone else screamed.
He threw off the blanket. Silhouettes ran through the night—some normal people and some small, like children, but with enormous heads and ridiculously large ears. He resisted the urge to duck beneath the blankets again, and instead cupped his hands around his mouth. "Goblins!"
Jerrad grabbed his belt and fumbled with the buckle for a heartbeat or two before realizing he didn't need to wear the belt. His hand drifted down to the dagger, and he drew it just in time for one of the goblins to bound into his tent, peg teeth flashing.
Time died. The goblin had daubed its face with reddish mud and some yellow paste probably made from flowers. It had tied feathers to its biceps and just below the knees. A mangy skin made up its loincloth and the short cloak it wore. It had a rusty knife tucked into a slender belt, but never made to draw it.
The goblin hissed and leaped for him. Clawed hands reached for Jerrad's throat. The young man thrust the dagger forward—less as an attack than an attempt to fend the goblin off. His dagger plunged into the goblin's throat right above a necklace of bones. Hot blood shot up Jerrad's sleeve, and the goblin's dying spin tore the slicked knife from his hand. The creature stumbled and fell against Jerrad's cot.
The goblin's claws rent the pillow asunder, then the creature slumped amid a blizzard of feathers. It sighed as if settling down for a welcome nap.
Jerrad stared at his gore-drenched hand. A feather landed on it, drinking in the goblin's blood. What have I done?
Then he heard another scream. Serra! I have to find Serra! He dropped to a knee and yanked the dagger from the goblin's throat. Trailing feathers in his wake, he ran into the night, and heard her scream a third time.
Serrana ran pell-mell through the camp in a panic. She headed mostly west, angling toward the furthest of the root cellars. He raced after her, slashing goblins and pushing them out of the way. He didn't hurt many, but caught a couple solidly. They'd either not seen him coming or didn't care as long as there was loot to carry off. Odd, capering victory dances took precedence over fighting, adding absurdity to the night's horrific chaos.
Ahead, his sister tripped and fell against a pile of wood scraps. Three goblins moved at her. Two had knives.
"Hey!" Jerrad thrust his left hand high in the air as the goblins stared at him. This better work!
He cast the spell he'd been trying to perfect beneath the blanket. A brilliant light flared from his hand, rendering the goblins in silver and his sister in icy blue. One goblin screamed, dropping his knife, and clawed at his own eyes.
As darkness returned and a wave of fatigue washed over him, Jerrad let his run carry him into the nearest goblin. He bowled the creature over. His foe sank teeth into Jerrad's left shoulder, but the boy barely noticed. Hand tight on the dagger's sticky hilt, Jerrad stabbed again and again. His thrusts ruined the goblin's belly, but he didn't stop stabbing until the jaws slackened.
He pitched the body off and rose, blood coursing down his arm and dripping from the blade. He gave Serra a smile. "It's okay."
Her eyes grew wide and her voice rose with fear. "Jerrad, look out!"
He spun right into an avalanche of goblins. His knife sank into something solid and warm, but it didn't matter. A skull clipped his jaw, cracking teeth together. With horror contorting Serra's face, Jerrad sank beneath a wave of rending claws, biting teeth, and goblin flesh.
∗ ∗ ∗
Tyressa leaped from the battlements and landed in a crouch. She gathered her skirts and pulled the rear hem up between her legs, tucked it into her belt at the belly. Cool air chilled bare feet. Another two steps and she picked up a stout stick. Two more and she levered a hatchet free of the chopping block where they killed chickens. With one stroke she slashed the stick into a sharpened stake, then stalked into the night.
More screams drew her onward. She heard someone yell "Goblins!" and thought it might be Jerrad. At least he's alive. She killed the urge to run to him. Panic would slay her, and then she'd be no help to anyone.
The first goblin flew at her out of the darkness, screeching as it came. Tyressa twisted, thrusting with her left hand. The stake caught the goblin in the chest, but a skin vest prevented it from penetrating. The creature giggled at its good fortune, then grew quiet as an overhand blow with the hatchet split its skull.
Off to the right, one of the woodsmen cleaved a goblin in half.
The man looked up as she wrenched the hatchet from the skull, then ran to her, nodding as he came. "Goblins."
"I see. I'd prefer highwaymen."
"Bigger targets, and they don't bite." She raised her voice. "To me, Silverlake!"
Tyressa had meant the call to draw the settlers to her. A few came, one with an arm hanging limp and blood pouring from his shoulder. More quickly, however, came the goblins, chittering and gibbering, snarling and giggling insanely.
Off to the north one section of the wall ignited in a wash of flames. Goblin silhouettes writhed across the landscape. They piled up against the longhouse, standing on each other to get in the windows. Knives cut some, broomsticks thrust others away. Yet more ran around carrying off even the most inconsequential of trinkets. One had even slapped a boot on its head, lacing the floppy helmet on beneath the chin.
All this Tyressa took in with emotionless clarity. She didn't even allow herself anger, because letting in one emotion would open the way for others. She thrust and cut within her guard, remaining safe as her husband had taught her to do, yet missed no opportunity to kill. The hatchet's dull end pulverized what the blade wouldn't slice. A slap with the flat shattered bone. Goblins reeled away trying to press their faces back into shape.
The wounded man went down, and the goblins dragged him away. Tyressa closed ranks with the others. More goblins came in a wave that broke against the ferocity of the settlers' defense. Blood splashed. Sweat stung the countless scratches on her legs and forearms. Bones snapped. They weren't hers, but one solid hatchet stroke sent a shock wave up into her shoulder, and the dying goblin carried the hatchet away with it.
"They're running, my lady."
The woodsman was right. But that's not right. Tyressa frowned, wiping her brow and smearing blood across it. The goblins had thinned, scattering in all directions, but more were upright than dead or dying. Why would they break off the attack?
Then she felt it, through her feet. Tremors in the ground, matching heavy footfalls. Something crashed through the darkness, coming up from the lake. She couldn't tell what it was, other than big. Whatever it was, the goblins knew better than to be anywhere near it. And she'd have followed their example, except that she wasn't going to let anything drive her from her home.
∗ ∗ ∗
Welinn huddled just inside the southernmost portion of the wall, cloaked darkness. He could see plenty well through it, as could all the goblins. The problem was, he couldn't see anything but goblins. Attacking, looting, setting fires, dying, all he saw were goblins by the legion.
That wasn't the way it was supposed to have worked. He, being of the Brambleclaw Tribe, had gotten the blessing of his chief, then gathered a company of goblins. He'd told them all the things the manlord wanted, especially about the scaring and the girl. The scaring would be what earned him extra money, so he had stressed it to his fellows.
He'd had a special thought in that regard. The manlord had wanted the attack to come on the moonless night, but that made no real sense if scaring was the object. If men couldn't see the goblins, how could they be scared? They couldn't, so the plan had to be modified so there was enough light to allow the scaring.
The Brambleclaws had taken the news about scaring to heart. More than one approached him asking if they could invite a cousin, since more would be scarier than less. Welinn had accepted the first few offers, then started refusing, but no one had listened to him. Cousins had invited other cousins, and it looked as if every goblin between Thornkeep and Silvershade Lake had joined in.
Then he saw it. One of the goblins had gone to far with scaring. He invited Grakka.
The creature looked like an ogre, but Welinn had heard it was of mixed blood—human or elf, though looking at it the goblin couldn't have told which. The ogrekin lived alone in the wood, having been driven from or escaped from Mosswater. It came dragging the lower half of a sapling—complete with root ball, as it stalked up the slope from the lake. The footfalls sounded as thunder and the ground shook.
Too much scaring. The goblin made himself as small as possible. He waited for Grakka to pass, then Welinn snuck around the corner and darted into the night. It didn't matter how much gold money the manlord would give him, it wouldn't be enough to lurk within the ogrekin's bloody domain.
∗ ∗ ∗
Jerrad rolled and tried to heave a goblin off him. He might have succeeded, he didn't know. His push included his knife, but he didn't hear a grunt or scream. Then again, being at the heart of a ball of yowling, gouging, gnawing goblins meant he couldn't make sense of much at all.
I have to get free. He fought panic and bit. He drove his knees into things. He smashed his head backward into something which crunched. His left elbow slammed against hardness, and his left hand closed on something squishy. He yanked. That got a howl, then teeth closed on his right wrist and his knife went flying.
He lashed out with everything he had, but the goblins weighed him down. Any time he sent one flying, two more would pile on. He couldn't get a decent breath. And something had a hand on the side of his head, trying to work his head up to expose his throat. He fought it. Claws sank into his scalp. Blood ran. The grip slipped for a second, then moved down and hooked beneath his jaw.
Then it was gone. Something hit with a solid thunk, and that goblin vanished. Then another thump, and another. Weight left his legs, so he kicked. He arched his back, then twisted, trying to get his hands under him.
Another thump, and more weight evaporated.
And then he heard her voice. "Get. Off. Mouse!"
Jerrad wriggled from the pile. As he stood, two goblins came for him. An arrow splashed back to front through the throat of the furthest, then struck the other in the back of the head. The razored broadhead skewered the left eyeball on its way out. The goblin stiffened, viscous fluid streaming down its face, then flopped to the ground.
Beyond it stood Kiiryth, another arrow already fitted to his bow. He gave Jerrad a nod, then turned and sped another shaft into the night.
Between them stood Serrana, a four-foot length of pine sapling clenched tight in her fists. She whipped it up and around, spraying blood and goblin brains all over, then crashed it down. The blow pulped a goblin's bulbous head. The club rose again and struck the same goblin.
She looked up at him, feral fire burning in her eyes. Lips peeled back in a snarl. She flashed a grin, then whirled and battered another dead goblin's skull into wet mush. "Get. Off. Mouse!"
"Serrana, its okay, they're off me."
His sister stopped for a moment, a thick, dark slurry running down over her hands. "Mouse?"
"Yes, Serrana. You saved me."
"I saved you."
Kiiryth closed with both of them. "There are more to save. To the longhouse, now."
∗ ∗ ∗
Maraschal Sunnock stood alone in the chaos within the longhouse. He'd gone there to give some last-minute orders to his servants concerning the next day's journey. He'd heard the scream and seen forms running through the night before someone had closed and barred the door. And even when a goblin thrust its face through a window, he still couldn't believe it.
This is wrong, all wrong! His mouth went dry. I wasn't supposed to be here.
"You, help us!"
Sunnock looked up. One of the woodsmen had joined two other men at the door, pushing back against a horde of goblins. Boards began to creak. Nails squealed and worked free of the wood. The man waved him forward and, dazed by disbelief, Sunnock joined him.
The second his hands touched the door's wood, fear burst within his heart. Until that moment, the attack had been an abstract thing. Here, leveraging his muscle against that of the goblins, he could feel their insistence. They were avatars of gluttony and hatred and greed. A knot in a board popped free, striking him in the face. He stared out through it, eye to eye with a goblin.
Sunnock spun, slamming his back against the door. People warded every window, stabbing and battering goblins, shoving them back into the night. But there, toward the center, children huddled with older folks. Faces ashen with fear, they looked toward him. His presence gave them hope. They counted on him. He was their salvation.
For a heartbeat before he realized the pressure on the door had slackened, Sunnock felt like a hero. He understood that all the gold in the world couldn't buy the sensation of having someone look upon you with gratitude for saving her life. He was all that stood between them and the end of everything. His selflessness would live on forever.
And it was that thought, as yet untainted by wondering how he could turn that gratitude to his own advantage, which occupied his mind the very moment the massive root ball exploded the door. Sharp oaken splinters pierced him through and through. A heavy board crushed his skull. His lifeless body flew into the room, bouncing and rolling to the edge of the circle of people he had saved.
He never heard the terrified screams attesting to his failure.
∗ ∗ ∗
Jerrad arrived at the longhouse's far end just as the huge, ugly beast struck his first blow. Wood shattered. What had once been the door was now a jagged hole. People screamed from beyond it.
Jerrad choked down fear. "What is that?"
"Some unholy creature gotten on someone by an ogre." The archer's eyes narrowed. "Not full-blooded—usually called ogrekin—but just as nasty as the purebreds."
The ogrekin tugged its club free. Eight feet tall, with flesh the color of a bruised mushroom, the creature bulged with muscle. The sheer power it could generate was terrifying enough, but its face could only be described as blasphemous. One pointed ear sat lower than the other, and the pale blue eye on the left had to be three times the diameter of the brown one on the right. Yellow teeth were jumbled in a jaw that gaped open, and the nose had been broken so many times Jerrad had to cant his head to make the nostrils line up right.
Kiiryth's bow came up. The bowstring twanged as he loosed an arrow. It pierced the monster's left shoulder, the broadhead emerging out the back. Blood ran in rivulets down the arm and dripped from the arrow's tip.
The ogrekin didn't give the wound so much as a glance.
Tyressa, butcher knife in one hand and fishing spear in the other, appeared and whistled loudly. "You're not welcome in my town."
Mother! Jerrad started toward her, but Kiiryth grabbed his collar and held him back.
"You'd only slow her down."
The behemoth looked at her. Contempt further warped its face. It snarled, flashing a tangle of uneven teeth. The ogrekin reached for her with its left hand.
Tyressa ducked beneath the attempted grab and circled around toward the monster's back. It turned to keep with her, but its grip on the club slowed it. By the time the ogrekin had pulled the club from the longhouse, Tyressa had darted in and slashed the thing's right heel. Black blood sprayed from a deep cut over the tendon.
Tyressa danced wide, carrying her outside the range of the ogrekin's swinging club. The club came around and slammed into the longhouse's wall. It splintered boards and snapped the corner post. The longhouse shifted, the wood closing like jaws on the club, clinging to it with a fierce tenacity.
The ogrekin snarled and set itself, muscles bunching in shoulders and back. The monster heaved, trying to free the weapon. Wood groaned. Some nails squeaked as they came free, but the building didn't release the club on that first attempt. So the behemoth planted its feet and hauled back for all it was worth.
The damaged tendon popped. The creature's right foot slid out from under it. The ogre landed hard on the base of its spine. The tremor rattled teeth in Jerrad's head. The monster threw its head back and howled in pain.
And a little bit in fear.
The people of Silverlake boiled from the longhouse. Woodsmen chopped into the ogre's shoulders and wrists. People stabbed it, using knives, scythes, and even sharp sticks. Kiiryth shot arrows into any exposed flesh. Even Serrana charged in, battering it with her blood-stained club.
But Tyressa slew it. As others hacked at its limbs, Jerrad's mother leaped onto the ogre's chest. The monster's head came up. It hissed a challenge. Tyressa roared back, the stepped on its throat and thrust the fishing spear straight through the larger eye.
The ogre thrashed, ripping the spear from her hand and tossing her into the crowd. Its death throes crushed one man and broke several others. The people withdrew, weapons ready, as the monster thrashed out the last seconds of its life, then cheered as it lay still.
Tyressa emerged from the bloodthirsty throng bruised but otherwise unhurt.
Jerrad stared at her, and wasn't alone. You're my mother, but are you my mother?
Tyressa bent, resting hands on knees. She breathed heavily for a moment or two, then let her skirt hem slip down and straightened up. She looked around, then nodded.
"This is a terrible night, but you've all done well. See to yourselves. See to our wounded. Then we shall attend to our dead." She wiped her bloody hands on her skirts. "This is a night we mourn now, but shall celebrate in the future. And because of you, Silverlake will have a future."
Coming Next Week: Web Fiction will be going on hiatus next week due to PaizoCon, but stay tuned for an all-new story by Steven Savile in two weeks!
Michael A. Stackpole is an award-winning game designer, computer game designer, graphic novelist, screenwriter, podcaster, editor, and novelist. He got his start writing solitaire adventures for Tunnels & Trolls, so it was a distinct pleasure to return to a world of pure fantasy for this book. Mike lives in Arizona, teaches writing classes through the Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, and swing dances in his spare time. Visit his website at stormwolf.com.
Illustration by Robert Pitturru.