After the sudden conclusion of the duel in Khita’s favor, one of Sir Avex’s men insisted on returning south with his master’s body. Sir Masnin was unhappy about losing another member of the expedition so soon – they hadn’t even entered the Green yet – but he ended up agreeing. The idea of leaving a noble’s body to rot in the forest made a lot of the other noble’s indignant. Blacknail wasn’t sure why a corpse rotting in the forest was worse than it rotting anywhere else, but whatever. Humans did a lot of weird stuff. If he stopped to question that sort of thing, he’d never have time for more important thoughts.
Once the rider started heading south with Sir Avex’s body on another horse, it became time for Blacknail to finally lead the way into the Green. There were still a lot of humans that were uncomfortable about this though, especially after Khita had killed Sir Avex. That hadn’t made them more trusting of him.
Still, Blacknail just rolled his eyes and let Sir Masnin convince the doubters. He was already bored. So, since Ilisiti and Khita were standing near him, he asked them a question right as it popped into his head. “Why are so few of these human leaders Vessels? Aren’t they supposed to be big tough warriors? Isn’t that why we brought them?”
Khita laughed. “There are some real champions here, but none of them are leaders or high nobles like Sir Avex. As if those lofty fools lead from the front. I’m sure they consider themselves great swordsmen and strategists, but that’s all in their heads. They’re cowards.”
“Even the false power granted by their mages kills most of the men who attempt to claim it,” Ilisiti explained. “True power always has a cost.”
“Ya, they’re already rich and powerful. Why would they risk so much for so little gain?” Khita agreed. “Most Vessels are poor and desperate minor nobles. They have the connections to get the Elixir and those that survive serve as the champions of greater nobles, enforcing their every whim. Sir Avex was an arrogant waste of life, and I knew he was no Slosher. The prick probably never even considered that I might be one either.”
Blacknail frowned. “Huh, why don’t the poor Vessels kill the weaker nobles and take their stuff.”
Khita sighed and made a frustrated face as she tried to explain. “It doesn’t work that way for nobles. Um… other nobles would gang up to kill anyone that tried that.”
“So that their own servants don’t get ideas and kill them. Instead, the nobles reward their champions with lands and titles to keep them happy.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Blacknail admitted. Obviously, the southern humans were very set in their ways and lazy.
By this time, Sir Masnin seemed to have finished speaking with the reluctant nobles. They’d grown quiet, and he began walking over to Blacknail.
“We are ready to proceed. Please, go first and scout the way. We will all be right behind you,” the paladin told Blacknail.
“Alright, I’ll leave some hobs behind to lead you,” Blacknail replied.
The hobgoblin chieftain then turned and began giving out orders to his minions. A moment after that, he was slipping into the forest with several of his minions at his side. Moving carefully, Blacknail scanned his surroundings for any of the myriad threats that were common to the Green, but he didn’t find any. Thus, after sending a signal back to the humans for them to follow, he forged on ahead.
The forest here was entirely normal. A mix of tall trees and older shrubs, the likes of which were quite common. It was also easy to spot the old road. Not much of it remained, but Blacknail could still see a relatively flat stretch of ground that extended through the forest. On top of it, the vegetation was lighter. There were more bushes and the trees were noticeably smaller since the canopy overhead was younger than in the surrounding area. Luckily, it seemed like the old road wasn’t entirely unused though. Generations of animals seemed to have followed it, creating a trail that led in the right direction. That was good news. Having to cut through the brush would slow the humans and horses down far too much, so they needed a trail to follow.
After scouting on ahead for about an hour, Blacknail failed to find any signs of immediate danger. There were no troll tracks or recent harpy droppings around. It seemed like this stretch of forest was relatively safe, so he fell back and let some of his minions take point. They were more than skilled enough to detect or ward off mimics and other common threats.
That done, Blacknail crept back through the woods toward his human allies. He made sure to move quietly, since he wanted to observe them while they were unaware of him. Not only would this be a great opportunity to study them while they were in a new environment, but Blacknail really liked stalking people. Few things made him feel all bubbly and warm inside the way hunting humans in the forest did. Blacknail licked his lips and smiled. Watching your unsuspecting prey as you planned the inevitable bloody end of your hunt was simply so satisfying. He even had some cheese in his pocket! This was going to be so much fun.
It didn’t take long for Blacknail to find the humans. They were following in his footsteps and making a lot of noise. At the front was Sir Masnin and a hobgoblin guide. The paladin was dismounted and one of his men was leading both his horse and his own. Most of the humans seemed to have dismounted. There were more than a few low hanging branches here, so most riders had difficulty moving through the woods quickly.
Slipping to the side, Blacknail circled around the expedition. He was looking for Werrick. The humans were mostly travelling in a long line now that they had to follow a narrow animal trail. The Wolf and his servants were close to the back, although they weren’t at the very end. Instead, they seemed to have chosen a position that let them avoid anyone but their allies as much as possible. Suspicious!
There were plenty of bushes around, so Blacknail was able to shadow his supposed allies with ease from not too far away. His instincts guided him as he slipped from tree to tree. His eyes were constantly darting from Werrick and his men to the surrounding forest, but he was relaxed and at ease as he moved and listened in on Werrick’s group. This sort of multi-tasking came naturally to a hunting hobgoblin. It was what they did.
At first, Blacknail’s targets weren’t very talkative and didn’t say anything of importance. Instead, they simply marched along the trail silently and watched the forest nervously. Of course, despite this wariness, they failed to spot Blacknail. Humans really were very bad at this, although there were a few rare exceptions. No wonder they put so much effort into building cities and farms. Most of them wouldn’t last a day in the Green.
Eventually, the fearful silence was broken, and the humans began talking to each other. Blacknail listened carefully as the humans began discussing various things. It seemed that many of them felt the need to seek reassurances from their allies and make new plans now that they were in the Green. This served Blacknail’s purposes perfectly. From so far away, even his ears weren’t sensitive enough to hear what was being said when the humans whispered to each other, but he learned a lot just by observing who was talking to who. Soon, the factions among the humans began to become clear to Blacknail.
There seemed to be two main factions among the nobles. One group was mostly made up of northern border lords, and they were allied with Werrick. Blacknail didn’t know the details, but is sounded like he’d cowed them into supporting him with a mix of bribes and threats. With the King’s authority so weak in the north of Eloria, they hitched themselves to him. Their leader was Lord Adred, who was an older man with a grizzled face and a thin body.
The second group was comprised of southern nobles who really didn’t care much about what was happening in the North, but they’d come to see Werrick’s influence as a threat. They also looked down on the poorer border lords and viewed Werrick as a savage. Unfortunately, this was smaller faction and they weren’t outright hostile to Werrick anyway. Their leader was Lord Petryll, a portly noble with a beard who wore armor trimmed in gold. He seemed to enjoy flaunting his wealth, which Blacknail found stupid. Gold was for hiding. Wearing it only made it easier to steal and slowed you down if you had to run away.
Unfortunately for Blacknail, Werrick and his men were among the most closed-mouthed. The hobgoblin learned nothing of their plans. It was almost as if Werrick suspected he was being watched by someone unseen. That, or he simply felt no need to say much to anyone else at the moment. The Wolf was patient and careful.
After a few hours had passed, Sir Masnin called for the expedition to stop and take a break for lunch. They’d arrived at a small glade. There were relieved sighs from many of the humans as they began pilling into the clearing and sitting down. Blacknail watched them for a moment before circling back around. He wanted to rejoin the group from the proper direction, so that no one knew he’d been lurking and spying.
As he was moving next to a fallen tree, Blacknail saw two of Werrick’s men wander over to the edge of the clearing not too far from him and step into the forest. Curious, he moved over to see what was going on. It was probably nothing, but it would only take a moment to investigate.
The two men had messy hair and rough stubble on their faces. Their simple clothes had also seen better days. They were definitely some of Werrick’s thugs. The pair walked down a small animal trail next to some thick bushes before stopping. Then, the man in the lead stepped next to the bushes and grabbed his own belt, as if to begin unbuckling it. The man had obviously been looking for somewhere private to excrete, and his companion had come along to watch his back in the forest.
Blacknail grimaced as he watched. Humans were weird about their bodily functions and need for privacy, and it was going to cost these two. Seriously. Before the first man had gotten his belt pulled down and shown Blacknail more hairy pink flesh than he wanted to see, something reached out of the nearby bushes and grabbed him. As the man let out a terrified shout, long brown claws covered in green leaves pulled him toward the bushes and the hidden predator within them. Seeing this, the second man lurched forward to grab his companion who was tottering on the edge of the bushes. That was also a mistake. Immediately, a third claw shot out and grabbed him, and unlike his ally, he was instantly pulled out of sight. A split second later, his struggling companion also disappeared into the greenery. Pained filled screams filled the air for several long seconds as the mimic tore both of the humans apart so that it could feed.
Blacknail let out an appreciative whistle as he began walking away. It wouldn’t be a good idea to be found anywhere near a bunch of Werrick’s dead minions. Despite their limitations, mimics were very good at what they did. Too make up for the immobility, they were experts at choosing ambush spots that lots of animals passed by, including the occasional person. Also, the creature’s first attack had been a clever trap. It could have pulled the man in right away, but instead, it had used him as bait to lure in the second man as well. It was a good thing Blacknail and his hobs knew how to spot the creatures. The bug-tree-things were really nasty.
Werrick’s thugs had already stopped screaming, but they’d created more than enough noise to draw attention. There were shouts of alarm from the camp as people began mobilizing. Blacknail slipped around to the other side of the camp and entered it from the opposite direction, so not to draw unwanted attention to himself. He hadn’t been involved directly in the death of Werrick’s men, but he probably could have saved them. Their deaths benefited him though, so he hadn’t bothered. Also, the walk here had been boring, and this had lifted his mood.
It looked like Sir Masnin had quickly seized control of the situation. Instead of letting people rush into the forest to meet a completely unknown foe, he was holding them back to defend the camp. That was smart. As far as he knew, there could be anything in there.
Blacknail wandered over to the paladin’s side and gave him his best innocent look. “What’s going on?”
Sir Masnin looked relieved when he turned and saw Blacknail. “I don’t know. Two men wandered into the trees and started screaming. They haven’t come back out, but the screaming has stopped. Could you send someone to take a look?”
“I’ll go myself. It’s probably nothing. People scream and die in the Green all the time,” Blacknail replied as he started walking back toward the forest.
“Er, thank you.”
After a quick stroll over to the bushes the mimic was in, Blacknail took a moment to observe a few patches of blood and footprints. Even if he hadn’t watched the scene unfold personally, these signs would have told Blacknail exactly what had happened. Thus, Blacknail nodded to himself and then walked back over to Sir Masnin. Now, most of the camp was armed and ready for action. They all watched as Blacknail strolled into the clearing and over to the paladin.
“They’re dead. They walked right into a mimic.”
“Ah. May their souls rest in the gods’ arms,” Sir Masnin replied sadly. “Is this mimic a threat to use? Should we deal with it?”
Blacknail shook his head. “It’s not a threat to anyone else. Mimics rarely move, especially so soon after a kill, and they’re very slow anyway.”
Some of the humans wanted to kill the mimic and bury the remains of the fallen, but after some discussion, it was eventually decided to leave the bodies and move on. Werrick himself didn’t seem to care about his fallen minions, and Sir Masnin reluctantly agreed that their mission was too important for them to waste any more time. They were just common-born bandits. Blacknail was also happy with this outcome, or at least he was, until Werrick made a suggestion.
“I take full responsibility for the loss of my men. I told them to move in pairs and not to enter the forest, but apparently, I wasn’t strict enough. It would seem my men are too undisciplined. Thus, I would like to borrow some disciplined soldiers to keep the others in line.”
Sir Masnin frowned thoughtfully, and Blacknail scowled. What was this?
“Yes, you did just acquire quite a few troops after Sir Avex’s death,” Lord Adred added. “Some of them would be ideal for installing the proper respect in that rabble. You should lend Werrick some of them.”
Blacknail snorted. He wasn’t sure what was going on here, but he knew he didn’t like the people involved. “Werrick seems very bad at leading. They would probably just die like the others.”
Unfortunately, his amazing point was ignored, and after some more pressing by the northern nobles, half of Sir Avex’s troops were put under Werrick’s command. This annoyed Blacknail a lot, but there was nothing he could do about it. Stupid human politics. It complicated everything. How was it fair that Werrick got more troops after losing two and after Khita had killed his ally Sir Avex? Now all of Blacknail’s work had been for nothing. Even though he hadn’t done anything.
The expedition soon started moving again. This time, Blacknail didn’t bother creeping back to spy. Instead, he led the scouts and sent other minions back to watch Werrick and the others. He wanted his enemies under constant watch. Werrick had a secret plan to seize advantage of this expedition. Blacknail knew he did. He just didn’t know what it was. There was no way Werrick would have come out into the Green with Blacknail without one.
A few more hours passed by as Blacknail stalked ahead through the Green. He encountered another mimic hiding along the trail over the old road, but dispatching the creature was easy enough for Blacknail. He simply hacked it apart and moved on. Most of the more mobile predators seemed to be avoiding their group.
Eventually, it came time for them to begin looking for somewhere to camp for the night, so Blacknail sent out scouts to scour the nearby area. Soon, one of them returned with news.
“I found some rocks, boss,” the scout announced proudly.
“Special rocks?” Blacknail asked.
The hobgoblin nodded and held his hands out wide, as if indicating how big something was. “Yep, they’re huge and they’re standing up!”
“Oh, let’s see them then,” Blacknail replied before commanding his minion to lead the way.
Soon, they arrived at the stones, and despite his minion’s terrible description, they were exactly what Blacknail had expected to find. On a grassy hill stood a circle of standing stones. The weathered grey rocks were all vaguely rectangular in shape and at least a foot taller than any human. They looked ancient, like they’d stood upon this hill since the beginning of time. The forest was young and momentary next to them, almost as if it could fade away at any moment.
“This seems like a great place to camp,” Blacknail remarked as he studied the stones.
The entire expedition could fit within the stones and the ground there was hard and dry. It also wasn’t a bad defensive position, since there were no trees hanging overhead and the stones themselves could be defended. There was the scent of feral goblins nearby, but that wouldn’t be a problem. They would avoid unfamiliar hobgoblins like they would berserk trolls, for many of the same reasons.
Nodding happily to himself, Blacknail went and fetched Sir Masnin and the others. It didn’t take long for them to reach the hill.
The paladin closed his eyes and made a brief prayer upon seeing the stones. “Yes, we’re are truly blessed to find such shelter. There is an almost reverent feeling to this place. Who placed these stones here?” They are no natural formation.”
“I’m told it was hobgoblins,” Blacknail explained with a shrug. He felt a tiny spark of pride, but he had no real connection to the ancient builders of this place.
Sir Masnin gave him a perplexed look. “You don’t know?”
Blacknail just shrugged again. “I wasn’t around back then, and goblins don’t tell stories. Saeter said hobgoblins built these though, so we probably did.”
The paladin looked unsatisfied but nodded. “Well, let’s get everyone settled down. Nightfall is approaching and I don’t want a repeat of this morning’s tragedy.”
Free Bonus Chapter!
Get access to a 9000 word bonus chapter set in The Iron Teeth and a new world map by joining my mailing list today.