Blacknail hit the ground hard after being thrown from Werrick’s horse. A shock went through his bones and he grunted in pain, but a moment later, he managed to roll across the ground and jump back to his feet. He didn’t feel like he’d been injured badly, although that might be because his entire body was already sore. Shaking his head, the hobgoblin chieftain looked around for Werrick.
The bandit lord had been thrown about twenty feet away and had also just managed to get to his feet, although he’d dropped his sword. It was laying on the ground a few arms lengths away. Seeing an opportunity to take down big game, three nearby hobgoblins snarled and charged at the man that had fallen amongst them. Two of them held spears while the third had a short sword and a primitive wooden shield with red tribal marks on it.
A raised arm deflected the first spear harmlessly to the side. As the surprised hobgoblin stumbled forward, Werrick reached out and grabbed him. A second later, that unlucky hobgoblin was sailing through the air right toward the other hobgoblin with a spear. They collided with a loud crack as their skulls met, and then they both fell unconscious to the ground. The sword wielding hobgoblin tried to slash at Werrick’s exposed back, but Werrick simply dodged back away from the strike and grabbed the hobgoblin’s arm. Pulling his startled opponent off-balance, Werrick then punched him in the face so hard that he flipped over backward. The hobgoblin landed in a twisted heap, and didn’t get back up. Ouch.
His attackers defeated, the bandit lord calmly walked over to pick up his sword and then turned to look at Blacknail, who was headed his way. A knight on horseback tried to ride up and hack at the hobgoblin chieftain, but Blacknail ducked under the attack and then slashed the leg of his mount. The horse screamed shrilly – which pleased Blacknail greatly – and then tumbled over. Its rider managed to jump free and land on his knees, but before he could get up, two hobgoblins attacked him. One stabbed him in the side with a spear while the other jumped on him and began hacking at his neck with a long wicked-looking dagger.
The arrival of his minions had changed more than the odds. The air was thick with fear now as the humans confronted a grinning inhuman foe that outnumbered them and had them surrounded. The dark stifling emotion leaked from the humans and was drawn to Blacknail by his mutant nature. Feeding on the terror, Blacknail felt his power replenish itself much faster than before. The magic boosted his strength and the overflow cycled through Blacknail before being released back out as an aura of dread, driving the humans’ fear even higher. He felt powerful.
As Blacknail kept walking over to Werrick, a dismounted human warrior charged out of the melee and lunged at him with his blade held up high. Glancing at the man and frowning, Blacknail drew his blade with startling speed and stabbed him in the chest. With a twist of his wrist, he then twisted the weapon around and pulled it out. There was a brief sucking noise as it came free and the human warrior collapsed. With his sword now dripping crimson blood, Blacknail made it the rest of the way to Werrick unimpeded.
Actively reinforcing himself with mana, so that his pain and weariness faded away beneath seething magic, Blacknail sneered confidently at his foe. “Nothing is going to save you this time. Today, you finally die.”
Werrick laughed darky without a hint of fear. “It is you that fate has conspired to keep alive. Your life should have ended at end of my blade long ago, you treacherous hobgoblin.”
“You betrayed me first! You’re more treacherous than me,” Blacknail shot back.
“So, you admit to planning to betray your allies!”
Scowling, Blacknail shifted topics slightly. “I won’t be dying until I’ve avenged my master and Herah. You took them from me, and I’ll make you pay in blood and bone. I’ll put you down like a mangy dog, Wolfy.”
“Blood and bone?”
“I’m going to use your skull as a decoration.”
“Your grudge is petty and pathetic both. You are nothing but a savage with no comprehension of what you do. My victory over Herad was fairly won and just another step along my destiny. The North will be mine; I have claimed it by right of steel and blood. You are nothing but a hobgoblin beast howling in the dark. I am a lord with backing of interests beyond your ability to understand.”
It was Blacknail’s turn to laugh. “The North is mine. Yours is the old way that has already failed. I am making something young and strong. Your men sicken and die as my hobs grow more numerous. Even now I’ve sent raiders to slaughter your men wherever they hide. When I leave the Green with the silver, your entire band will be already be dead or have surrendered to me. Your ambitions were doomed the moment you stepped into the Deep Green with me.”
“Then I shall simply kill you and your pathetic tribe of savages will turn on each other,” Werrick spat angrily. “The silver is all I need to rebuild my kingdom. My destiny will not be denied. Before the fall of Courolis, my mother’s family were the most powerful nobles in the North, and I’m an unmatched warrior. The gods themselves have blessed my conquest. Once I cut you down like just another mutant beast that threatens my domain, I will become the king I was always meant to be and rebuild the North to its past glory.”
“That’s not going to happen. I’ve built far more than you ever have, with all your talk of blood and destiny. No matter what, the North has changed beyond your ability to control. The old North is long gone, and it will have no human king. The boggarts and I have seen to that.”
“You are capable of nothing but ruin and will bring the people of the North nothing but suffering. What they need is a king, and my destiny will not be denied!” Werrick snarled as he finally threw himself forward to attack.
Blacknail stepped forward to meet him, and their blades crashed together with a loud clang that reverberated throughout the melee. Neither of them gave ground, so both combatants then began hacking and slashing at each other viciously.
Off to the side, Blacknail saw a fireball slam into a glowing shield. It detonated with a bang, raining fire down on several fighters. There were screams as the flames hit both hobs and humans, but Blacknail was too preoccupied to see any more. The important thing was that he hadn’t been hit, although it would also be nice to know if his mages were winning their fight. Right now, he had no idea. Stupid magic.
Ducking under a high blow from Werrick, Blacknail tried to slash the man’s shoulder, only to miss as Werrick stepped back. The fighters didn’t slow for a second. They both kept up a brutal of flurry of attacks while they attempted to find a weakness and seize the advantage. Their exchanges were so fast and powerful that everyone else fell back to give them room. Any normal soldier intruding upon their duel would have been cut down before they knew what happened.
Werrick and Blacknail seemed to be quite evenly matched. During their last bout, Werrick had held all the advantages, but Blacknail’s second transformation had fixed that. Their bodies were now around the same size, if you ignored the hob’s horns. Werrick was still the more skilled swordsman, with many more years of practice, but Blacknail’s mutant body was superior to that of Werrick’s. Compared to a human Vessel, Blacknail had both faster arms and eyes. He could keep up with all of Werrick’s movements, even the tricky ones.
Werrick stepped back and launched a flurry of air slashes at Blacknail. They flew out at the hobgoblin without warning, forcing him to spin and duck out of the way. A split second later, both combatants lunged at each other and their blades met again, sending vibrations down both their arms.
Both fighters were giving their battle everything they had, but as blow after blow was exchanged, Blacknail began to grow more confident. Werrick was beginning to lag, while Blacknail felt as if he could keep up this pace all day. Fear reigned across the battlefield, feeding him more and more power. Magic circulated through his body as thick as blood now, invigorating him. Meanwhile, Werrick was dependent on Elixir, and Blacknail didn’t plan on giving him a single moment to drink any. His assault was relentless. If he kept this a battle of endurance he would win. That was a good feeling. Blacknail had been waiting for this day for so long. His mortal enemy was in his power at last, and soon he would taste his heart’s blood.
Werrick didn’t appear too concerned though. He calmly matched every blow of Blacknail’s with one of his own, forcing the hobgoblin to keep absolutely focused on the fight. The man probably had at least one trick left. He hadn’t dominated the North and killed Herad by being predictable and easy to defeat.
Snarling as his memories of loss fed his rage, Blacknail picked up the pace. His blows became even more savage as he attempted to put his foe on the defensive and crush him. At first, Werrick managed to hold his own with a series of graceful yet powerful counters, but then he was pushed back by a brutal cleave attack that knocked his weapon aside in a shower of sparks.
Blacknail attacked again immediately, and Werrick responded by jumping to the side. At the same time, the bandit lord grabbed his own wrist and pulled something loose, a steel bracelet. A second later, Werrick tossed the bracelet at Blacknail. On guard for tricks, Blacknail immediately dodged to the side and scrambled away from the suspicious item.
It was the right move. As soon as it hit the ground, the bracelet exploded with a boom that sent dust flying in every direction. Shielding his eyes, Blacknail felt a rock hit him in the chest, cracking a rib and driving the air from his lungs. The blast had seemed like a less controlled version of Werrick’s power. The bracelet must have been designed to use it that way.
Ignoring the injury, Blacknail glanced back at Werrick. The man hadn’t attacked. Instead, he was chugging down a vial of Elixir. He finished a moment later, and after giving the hobgoblin a smug grin, he raised his blade and moved to attack again.
Their blades met with a metallic crash. His sore rib only slowed Blacknail slightly, but Werrick was also in better condition now thanks to his Elixir. Blacknail dodged a slash and feinted at Werrick’s left shoulder before being pushed back. It was a tiny edge, but now Werrick seemed to have the advantage. Blacknail found himself on the defensive as a reinvigorated Werrick hit him with one heavy blow after the other. Desperately, he only managed to block each blow at the last second, and his own attacks stopped completely.
Suddenly, a redheaded blur dashed out of the melee to Blacknail’s left and charged at Werrick’s back. It was Khita and she had her sword raised and ready to strike. Blacknail could only watch in surprise as she attacked.
However, Werrick saw her coming somehow. Spinning around, he unleashed a heavy horizontal slash at her chest. As Blackail jumped forward to help, Khita managed to block Werrick’s blow, but his strength was too much. It pushed her weapon aside and then his blade slammed into her side, slicing through armor and into gut. Gasping in shock and pain, Khita’s eyes went wide as she was knocked over and collapsed to the ground.
Werrick then spun back to block Blacknail’s savage strike. Their blades ground together and locked in place as they both pushed with everything they had.
“You’ll pay for that!” Blacknail hissed. He was furious that Werrick had slain another of his companions, but at least it had been Khita. She wasn’t that useful any more, since he had no problem getting other human minions now. Also, she was so annoying that he’d thought about leaving her alone in the Green to die many times. Blacknail still planned to avenge her though. Also, Herah would miss her.
“I’ll soon send you to meet all the lost souls you claim to care so much about!” Werrick growled back as he strained to overpower his attacker.
At first, they were evenly matched, but then Blacknail embraced his emotions. Cold power coursed through him, spiraling down as he drew on the terror in the air. Black rage and grief rose to meet it, burning like a terrible inferno. They swirled together as emotions seethed within Blacknail. He was going to tear Werrick apart! All his losses would be avenged by his own hand, and then when Werrick was dead, he’d never lose anyone he cared about again. Even Khita had – sort of – been his friend, he could admit that now that she was dead. She’d been annoying, but loyal in her own way. Not the right way, but a way.
Muscles straining, Blacknail hissed like a boiling kettle as his rage steamed out from him. Then, he gathered all his power and prepared to overpower his mortal enemy and finally slay him.
That was when Khita got back up and stabbed Werrick in the back. Dumbfounded, Blacknail could only watch as her blade pierced armor and slid past bone to sink deep into the warlord’s flesh.
Eyes wide in surprise, Werrick wobbled on his feet. “What? No! I’m supposed to become king. My destiny…”
Blacknail blinked as his arms grew slack. What?
“Shut up and die. This is for all of Herad’s band!” Khita said as she kicked the bandit lord over. The redhead then hacked at the man’s neck with her sword a few times to make sure he was dead.
“What did you do?” Blacknail asked in disbelief after he’d recovered from his stunned surprise.
Khita laughed arrogantly. “I’ve killed Werrick, the Wolf of the North, and taken my place in bandit history! Now I’m the strongest human bandit lord of all time.”
“Bandit history? That’s not how it works, and he was mine! I was going to kill him. I’d waited and planned for years to do it!”
Khita snorted rudely. “Please. He was knocking you around like a wooden top and would have cut you down soon. I saved you.”
“I was faking it! I was luring him in so I could finish him off!”
“Phew, sure you were.”
Blacknail sputtered angrily. Magic and rage still boiled within him, although it was fading. He really wanted to punch the redhead right in her smug face, but his hard-earned discipline stopped him. “How are you even alive? Werrick sliced you open like an apple, but you’re walking around as if you’re fine.”
Rolling her eyes, Khita lifted her bloody shirt to reveal her stomach and ribs. Her pale skin was splattered with blood, but her wound was covered in what looked like black scales. Blacknail recognized them instantly. The same growths had appeared over Herad’s wounds, protecting them and allowing them to heal much faster. It had been her Vessel power.
“When did you learn to do that?”
Khita shrugged. “Quite a while back. I’m using Herad’s Elixir recipe after all. It just never came up, and it’s not something I can just show off on demand anyway. Still, it’s a super handy magic power to have, since I tend get stabbed a lot lately. Werrick sure didn’t see it coming.”
“Why couldn’t you really be dead,” Blacknail quietly muttered to himself as he eyed the redhead darkly. This was just what he needed. Now Khita was even more difficult to kill. Ugh, the world wasn’t fair.
Looking around, Khita scanned the melee. “You should probably do something about the rest of this battle, so I can get on to spreading the legend of the Red Cat.”
“The Red Cat?”
“It’s my bandit name.”
“That’s a terrible bandit name,” Blacknail told her.
“It’s better than Blacknail.”
“Blacknail is my actual name! I didn’t pick it.”
“Whatever. We should probably focus on the battle.”
Annoyed at her obvious deflection, Blacknail nonetheless saw her point. He did still have a battle to win and some knights to mop up. They’d betrayed him and Sir Masnin, so technically they were targets of his vengeance as well. Blacknail tried to get worked up about that, but he couldn’t really manage it. Faced with Khita’s stupidity, his rage had drained away. Werrick’s death at Khita’s hands was just too depressing. He couldn’t believe that had happened. He’d been looking forward to doing it himself since forever.
“If you’re so tough, why don’t you end the battle?” Blacknail told Khita. “Go add to the legend of the Red Cat while I stay here and watch.”
She glared at him. “I just took a sword to the stomach. I may not be dying thanks to my amazing magic, but I’m not at my best either.”
Sighing, Blacknail studied the fighting around him. The stench of fear was even stronger now. It seemed like more than a few humans had noticed Werrick’s fall and word had spread through the bandit lord’s forces that their leader was dead. Many of them had already been cut down, although the fight was still ongoing. It looked like a few knights had fled off into the trees, but Blacknail knew they wouldn’t get far.
Feeling tired after the depressing end to his long-awaited duel with his mortal enemy, Blacknail simply wanted to get the rest of this battle over with. There were still things he had to do today, like deal with Myagnoir. Sigh. Was Zelena still around here somewhere? Leaving her alive would be a mistake.
After clearing his throat, Blacknail let out a stifling wave of magical fear and began yelling. “Alright, listen all you stupid humans. Werrick is dead! Surrender and I’ll let you live. Keep fighting and I’ll rip your limbs off and feed them to you.”
“Ya, and I’m the one that killed Werrick. Khita, the Red Cat!” Khita added proudly. “Fear me too!”
Blacknail gave her a look. He was so going to leave her behind when he went back south.
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