This marks my third voyage back to the world of Malweir in order to explain the rich history of the world that has become an almost household name in the Northern Crusade series. Enjoy and tell me what you think:
Kavan knelt beside the body and felt for a pulse. The trail of crimson on the pure white snow suggested the answer, but he still had to check. His perceptive eyes were immediately drawn to the growing blood stain in the middle of the boy’s back. His muscles tensed under his loose-fitting jerkin. Kavan felt rage. Sickness swelled within him. A closer inspection of the corpse showed him what he both knew and dreaded: teeth and claw marks.
It had been the same for the previous four victims. Kavan instinctively glanced about. The gesture was futile; if the beast was still here, Kavan held little doubt it would already have attacked. Still, Kavan let a hand drop to the hilt of his short sword. Even the fabled Gaimosian Knights could be caught unawares and killed. Kavan had no desire to fall into that category.
A cold wind blew across the open field. The tree line was a hundred meters in any direction. The beast had no fear; that much was obvious from the spot of the kill. Loose snow danced across the field, tickling Kavan’s neck and face. Kavan removed a glove and gingerly placed his fingertips in the wound. The blood hadn’t begun to dry yet. He smiled, cruel and wicked. The beast was close.
“I’ve got you,” he whispered to the gathering dusk.
The Gaimosian looked around again, this time for a trail. Snow had been falling for the past few hours, but it was still loose enough for him to just make out a set of prints moving east. Kavan looked up towards the forest edge. He could barely distinguish a thin plume of blue smoke rising into the grey skies. With night falling, he knew his task had just gotten more treacherous. The beast was dangerous enough in daylight. Night made it particularly lethal. Kavan drew his sword and left the body behind. The hunt was on.
He moved swiftly and with purpose. Everything he owned was on his back. He was a man without home or family. Revenge drove him and kept him warm at night when the harsh reality of the world threatened to claim him. He was a man lost, damned for the crimes of a kingdom that no longer existed. Hatred tainted his heart. He, and those few others remaining, roamed the lands eternally in the quest for vengeance. These were the Gaimosian Knights, travelling under the shroud of steel and mysticism. The world knew them as Vengeance Knights: the fallen sons and daughters of once proud Gaimos.
Now Kavan worked for money and the thrill of the hunt. A belief system instilled from birth bade him act in the sake of honor and righteousness. As such, he’d been hunting this beast for nearly a month. Every time he drew close, some form of devilry allowed the beast to escape. Kavan was determined not to let that happen again. He picked up the pace. What was left of the sun now dazzled a demonic red across the horizon.
Kavan viewed it as a good omen. Killing was always easier at night. The blood red sky felt right for the moment. He continued watching for signs of the beast as he got closer to the trees. His boots crunched softly on the under-layer of hardened snow. Stealth had never been his strong suit. He’d ever been one in favor of kicking in the front door and seeing how matters played out. Others of his kind had taken to the shadows and the lives of assassins since the fall of Gaimos. Kavan was better than that.
A howl rose from the mountains. Local wolf packs were on the hunt. Kavan smiled and entered the forest. It was a good night to kill. He paused beside an ancient oak tree and let his eyes adjust to the gloom. The heavy branches stretched far and covered large areas with darkness. He smelled the smoke now and knew he was close to the house, close to the beast and the end of the hunt. The twenty gold pieces promised by the villagers wasn’t exactly a king’s ransom, but they would more than satisfy his meager needs until something better came along. Anyway, after chasing this beast for close to a month, Kavan was ready to kill it for free.
The sounds of the forest echoed hauntingly. Winds rustled rotted branches and dead leaves not yet covered by the quickly accumulating snow. Kavan wanted the beast to know he was coming. He wanted it to know death approached. After so long, Kavan needed a fight. Low branches reached out to lash at his exposed face and arms as he stalked towards the house.
The smells of roasting meat and burning wood grew stronger. He was close. Kavan felt the shadows creep in around him the deeper he went into the woods. He tilted back his head and sniffed the wind. Death had already beaten him here. The thatch-roofed home came into view. Kavan spied the broken-in front door and lamented for the family. What remained of the door left a gaping wound marred by the invitation of a subtle fire in the hearth. A blood-streaked hand curled up in the doorway. The fingers were broken and gripped a thick tuft of fur.
Kavan instantly decided against going through the front. The beast knew he was coming and would be lying in wait for him to make the fatal error of charging in blindly. A woodpile lay just off to the left of the house. Snow powder covered the top rows. A crude bronze-edged axe rested deep in a large piece of oak nearby. Fresh snow partly covered dozens of tracks. Some were human; most weren’t. Dog tracks intermingled with the rest.
It didn’t take Kavan long to discover the fate of the rest of the family. A pair of corpses was stacked by the back door, both bodies savagely torn apart and callously dropped beside the carcasses of the dogs. They’d had their spines broken and throats torn out. Kavan swore under his breath. The dogs would have provided warning to the family, but it hadn’t been enough. Only death and evil remained inside the meager cottage. Kavan crept to the back door and stopped to listen.
He knew from experience what was going to happen next. Kavan ducked under the windowsill and crept right. Using the shadows for cover, the Vengeance Knight rose up slowly and peered inside. Only his right eye broke the silhouette of the stained window. He scanned the home for signs of his prey. The fire had burned low, offering just enough light for him to make out two more bodies. What he assumed was the father lay in the door while a child of five or six had been butchered beneath the table.
Enraged, Kavan resisted the urge to charge inside. He still didn’t know where the beast was. The murder scene was one he’d witnessed a hundred times. Their ordeal was ended. Nothing could be done to assuage their suffering now. Kavan needed patience. He thoroughly searched the rest of the ruined home before his eyes settled on a partially hidden corner by the front door. A shadow stretched just enough past the edge of the light and moved with the gentle rhythm of slow breathing. Kavan narrowed his eyes.
“At last,” he whispered.