After spotting the ruins of Couroulis off in the distance, Blacknail returned to the camp to report what he’d seen. All the members of Sir Masnin’s expedition were relieved to learn that they were headed in the right direction and that their destination was in sight. After their flight from the dark woods and its spider inhabitants, some good news was welcome. As the humans rested around their campfires and tended to their wounds, many of them cheered. Blacknail was a little insulted by their doubt in his tracking abilities, but he supposed they were simply being cowardly city humans, and he couldn’t blame them for that.
As per Sir Masnin’s orders, the expedition didn’t start moving again until the next morning. By then, they’d had time to rest up and everyone who’d been paralyzed by spider venom had recovered enough to walk or ride. Blacknail selected a narrow animal trail for them to follow as they got moving. His scouts had explored it yesterday.
“Hmm, this trail is much smaller than the last. A larger one would allow us to travel faster,” Sir Masnin observed as he walked next to Blacknail near the front of the expedition. Everyone was walking in a line because the thick greenery and uneven ground made riding difficult.
“There aren’t any larger paths. The ogres are gone, and there doesn’t seem to be very many other big beasts around here, just lots of small ones.”
Sir Masnin sighed in disappointment. “Well, at least that means we should be relatively safe.”
Later that day, two human warriors fell off a cliff and died. They’d been lured to the edge by the unexpected sound of human voices – which had actually been made by a hidden harpy – and then another harpy had swooped down from concealment in the nearby trees and knocked them both off the edge. The tumble against the rocks killed both men, allowing the two harpies to swoop down and feast upon their bodies unimpeded.
There was nothing the other members of the expedition could do but continue moving. Climbing down the cliff would be dangerous and take far too long, and the harpies would simply see them coming and drag the bodies away if they tried.
However, as they were trudging on, Werrick walked over to Sir Masnin and Blacknail. There was an angry scowl on his face and he spoke far louder than he had to. “Another two of my men are dead. This would never have happened if this hobgoblin had been scouting the way properly. This is his fault.”
Sir Masnin looked unconvinced and Blacknail simply let out a rude snort.
“Use your brains. Harpies can move around by flapping their wings. It’s called flying,” Blacknail explained as he made a flapping gesture with both his hands. “No one can watch the entire forest for everything. I warned you and your men not to do anything stupid. Listen next time and keep better control over your bandits.”
“Bah, as if a hobgoblin could be trusted. Your kind likes nothing better than to watch humans die.”
“He has my trust,” Sir Masnin interjected as he gave the Wolf a severe look. Blacknail’s glare was even less friendly. There were some humans who he’d like to see die much more than others.
“Perhaps we would all be safer if you didn’t trust so easily,” Werrick replied coldly before walking away.
Blacknail was unimpressed, and he snorted again as the man left. Unfortunately, the hobgoblin knew he hadn’t been Werrick’s real audience. Glancing at the nearby nobles, Blacknail noted that they’d all been listening intently. He then sighed in frustration. Stupid humans. They were making this too complicated.
Thankfully, the rest of the day was uneventful. After hiking through the Green for many hours, they eventually came to a stop and camped for the night. Even better, no one else managed to get themselves killed over the next two days. Blacknail spent most of his time scouting up ahead of the rest of the expedition. He ran into quite a few mimics and other pests, but they were easy to go around or scare away. However, there was one concern. The mutant goat was still following him around. The creature would occasionally show up when Blacknail was alone and approach him.
Blacknail attempted to lure it in closer by holding out bits of cheese, but whenever he tried to grab it, the beast slipped away. Most the time it also managed to snag the cheese. It was very frustrating, but at least the creature didn’t try to attack him. Keeping it happy with a few scraps of cheese was probably a good trade.
On the third day, Blacknail stayed with the main part of the expedition. There, he spent most of his time walking near Sir Masnin or wandering through the trees next to the path as he listened in on other people’s conversations. He didn’t learn much. Most of the humans’ discussions seemed to focus on their desire not to be eaten by spiders or Myagnoir. That was understandable, but it wasn’t terribly interesting to listen to.
Giving up on hearing any secret plans that his enemies were making, Blacknail rejoined Sir Masnin. They talked for a while as they compared hunting exploits. Sir Masnin was one of the few people that could come close to matching Blacknail’s impressive list of kills. The paladin definitely had some very impressive stories, but Blacknail was sure that Sir Masnin was exaggerating some parts to show off and one up him. That was fine, though. He was just insecure.
However, the pair’s conversation was interrupted by an unexpected arrival. Without warning, the mutant goat walked out of the forest and stared at Blacknail. The hobgoblin grunted in annoyance as the entire expedition came to stop.
“What does it want?” SIr Masnin asked.
“Cheese,” Blacknail replied as he walked over and handed the goat a piece. It was probably better to give the beast what it wanted rather than risk it rampaging – or having its slimy tongue lick his face again. That had happened once before. The goat had been trying to get the crumbs clinging to Blacknail’s face, and it had been quite disgusting. Anyway, the beast really didn’t eat that much and he had plenty of cheese tucked away. Besides, the more he fed it, the more likely it was to lower its guard. Eventually, Blacknail would get the drop on it and teach it who was the boss. Any day now…
A nearby soldier made a face and pinched his nose. “That goat smells. Did it roll in something?”
“I think that’s the cheese,” the man next to him replied before making a gagging nose.
“Don’t be jealous. You’re not getting any,” Blacknail told them as the goat disappeared back into the forest.
The next day, the expedition crossed another river and then found themselves atop a hill that allowed them to see the walls of Coroulis off in the distance. They weren’t far now. Blacknail guessed that they were only a few hours away from the ruins of the city. Sir Masnin immediately called for everyone to halt and summoned all the leaders to him for a meeting. Blacknail was the first person he addressed.
“I want your scouts searching for even the smallest hint of drake activity as we approach the city. If Myagnoir is alive, I want to know it long before we see him.”
“Me too,” Blacknail replied with a nod. That was kind of important to know if he didn’t want to get eaten.
The mages were the paladin’s next concern. “I want you to check over your equipment and make sure all of it is ready to be used at a moment’s notice. When you’re done with that, every amulet and fire lance should be placed in the hands of our most capable warriors.”
“I’ll be taking one of those,” Ilisiti remarked.
Sir Masnin simply nodded. “I wasn’t thinking of denying you one. You’re without a doubt one of our deadliest fighters.”
“I want one too,” Khita said. She’d followed Blacknail here without really being invited.
The paladin made a sour face. “We’ll see.”
“I thought the beast was supposed to be long gone or dead?” a nervous noble asked. “That’s what we were told before we came on this expedition!”
“No, you were told that might be the case,” the paladin replied sternly. “Regardless, I plan on being prepared for the worst. Returning without the silver isn’t an option.”
No one had any arguments against that – that they were willing to voice anyway – so the meeting was soon called to an end, and the expedition started forward again. As per Sir Masnin’s orders, Blacknail headed out to lead the scout vanguard himself. He wanted to handle this personally anyway, so that he knew none of his minions were messing up.
However, despite a thorough search of the forest by Blacknail and his scouts, they found no conclusive evidence as to whether Myagnoir was still nearby. There were plenty of old trails, claw marks cut into bark, and toppled tree, but none of them seemed to be from within the last few years. A large drake had certainly been in the area, but not recently. That didn’t mean Myagnoir was gone though. It might have just moved on to a different hunting area on the other end of the city. Coroulis was a large city and the Green was incredibly vast.
When the expedition finally reached the outskirts of the abandoned city, Blacknail had to explain this to Sir Masnin, who was not happy to hear it. He frowned and glanced at the nearby bushes as the hobgoblin talked.
“I could circle around the city and check for tracks. That would answer your question, but it would probably take a day or two to do right,” Blacknail explained as the lead part of the expedition came to stop.
The gates of Coroulis loomed ahead of them. Made of grey stone blocks with a massive arch at their peak, they were an impressive sight, although it was obviously a ruin. The twisted remnants of its once mighty doors lay on the ground before it, leaving the way into the city permanently open. The forest had also creeped right up to the walls. Trees grew below its ramparts and vines dangled from its heights. Beyond the gates, the members of the expedition could see cobbled streets and crumbling buildings.
Sir Masnin stared into the city silently for several moments before replying. “No, we don’t have time for that. Before us lies a great monument to the fragile nature of human civilization, and that omen cannot be ignored. Every moment we delay costs humanity dearly and pushes us closer to the edge of annihilation. We will simply have to enter the city under the assumption that the monster still lives.”
“Good luck. I’ll wait out here for you,” Blacknail told him.
“I’ll need your help locating the silver and scouting the city.”
Blacknail sighed. Of course. He’d been expecting a reply like that. “I wasn’t hired to fight giant drakes. I’m here to guide you, that’s all.”
“And you won’t be forced to fight the Doom. However, there is still scouting that needs done, within the ruins.”
“What about if Myagnoir attacks me?”
“Flee or fight, that’s up to you. On my word as a paladin, I will aid you to the greatest of my ability.”
“Thanks,” Blacknail replied sourly.
When everyone had gathered, Sir Masnin addressed them. “We’ll be entering the city shortly. The main body of the expedition will stay together in formation so that we can respond quickly to any attack and protect our vulnerable members. Meanwhile, small scouting groups will search the city as we move. There is no reason to fear, our quest has both mighty warriors with supernatural strength and the most powerful mage-made weapons ever forged. Carry on, and soon we will be heading home as heroes to match any figure of legend.”
It was rousing speech that seemed to stiffen the spine of several humans, but Blacknail still found himself staring apprehensively at the gate ahead as the party began moving again. He didn’t much care for being a hero, and the derelict gate loomed like the maw of a great stone beast that was about to bite. Blacknail really wanted to stay on this side of it. His instincts were screaming that entering the city was a bad idea, but he didn’t have much choice but to do as Sir Masnin asked. His own plans demanded it.
The first thing Blacknail noticed as he entered the city was the quiet. The sounds of the living forest disappeared. The walls kept the sound from outside out, and the city itself was an almost silent maze of crumbling stone. Blacknail didn’t like it. It was unnatural for a place out in the Green. The forest and its inhabitants should have penetrated the city more.
Once the entire expedition was through the gates and had assembled itself into a box-like formation with the mages in the center, Sir Masnin motioned for Blacknail to head out. Blacknail scowled back at the paladin but did as he was told. If a giant mutant did attack him, he was definitely leading it straight back to the humans. That would serve them right.
Muttering darkly to himself, Blacknail wandered out into the city with Herah and half of his hobgoblins in tow. His other minions – minus Khita, who was useless – headed off in another direction. They weren’t alone. There were also two groups of human scouts as well. Blacknail hoped they got eaten first and screamed loudly enough to warn everyone else. Hopefully, the Doom would then go after the main formation and get burned to ash by all the fire magic they were packing. That would be the best outcome, but probably not what actually happened. Blacknail’s luck wasn’t nearly that good, especially when it came to mutants. They were always getting in Blacknail’s way.
Really though, how dangerous could one mutant drake be? Taking out a city this size seemed impressive, but humans were always having their villages and towns destroyed. The North was littered with their ruins. Sometimes they were even destroyed by human bandits, which weren’t all that scary. Famines were apparently a common problem too, which was rather embarrassing for the humans. Finding food out in the Green wasn’t that hard. Ya, Myagnoir couldn’t be all that dangerous. The humans had probably overreacted and gotten themselves killed while they ran around like terrified mice before a cat. Myagnoir probably wasn’t much tougher than some of the other mutants Blacknail had killed.
Feeling moderately better about his chances of survival, Blacknail continued his exploration of the vacant city. It was certainly an interesting place, and a nice change of scenery after spending so long in the forest. The old paved roads had seen better days and had a lot of grass and bushes growing up through their stones, but it was still mostly flat and easy to traverse. There were also a lot of hollowed out buildings with collapsed roofs and walls. A surprising number of buildings with slate roofs were still standing though. They were overgrown, but still looked sturdy.
Walking over to inspect one well-preserved home, Blacknail took a moment to look over the stonework. Some of it was rather pretty. Coroulis must have been quite the city back before all its humans died horribly. Now, the ruins had an eerie feel to them, although scavengers had long since disposed of all the human corpses, except for the occasional solitary bone. All the stone radiated cold – despite the sun overhead – and the entire place felt hollow. Hungry even. Blacknail didn’t like it. It gave him the jitters.
As he was studying the exterior of the house, something white caught Blacknail’s eyes, so he turned to study the shadows behind the house. Under some bushes, stood a small pile of snow and ice. The hobgoblin stared at it for a moment. Myagnoir was supped to have ice powers, right? There hadn’t been any ice out in the Green. It had long since melted… No, he was probably overthinking this. Blacknail stepped away.
There were surer signs of Myagnoir’s presence that Blacknail could look for. All the stone and bricks made finding tracks difficult, but far from impossible. Moving back to the nearest street, the hobgoblin began studying the ground. He quickly found what he was looking for. Claw marks and indentations on the stone where something incredibly massive had walked. Thankfully, none of the marks seemed recent. Blacknail ran a finger along one gouge and then licked it. That didn’t help with tracking at all, but the stone had some tasty salt residue on it.
Getting back up, Blacknail scanned the ruins of the city around him as his minions shuffled nervously. Crumbling buildings of various sizes surrounded him. Parts of the city had been built on a slope, so he could see many more buildings rising up off in the distance. One building in particular stood out, a massive stone keep. It looked like it used to have four towers, but only one was still standing. Blacknail stared at it for several seconds, and then started walking over to it. It was as good a place to look as any.
Warily, Blacknail and his minions walked around a street corner and past a tree that was growing up through the middle of the road. The keep was now directly ahead of him. He was planning to try to climb up onto its walls in order to get a better view, but he stopped upon noticing some more tracks on the ground in front of him. Bending down, he studied them, and a shiver went down his spine. These were fresh. Something with gigantic claws that could scar stone had been here within the last couple days.
“We’re heading back, now!” Blacknail hissed at his minions as he turned around.
All the nearby hobgoblins acknowledged his orders and started to follow him, but then everyone flinched as a cold breeze washed over them. Goosebumps rose on Blacknail’s skin and he had to bite down to stop his teeth from chattering.
“Did you feel that boss?” Herah asked him.
Blacknail had already picked up his pace. “Yes, run!”
Moving as quickly as he could without having his minions make enough noise to announce themselves to the entire city, Blacknail ran back toward where he had left Sir Masnin and the nobles. He wasn’t fleeing in terror. No, he simply had some very important information to report. Yes, that was it.
As the first human riders came into sight, Blacknail felt relieved. There was Sir Masnin at the front, looking strong and all shiny in all his armor. Behind him, rode over a dozen heavily armed human warriors, and behind them were the three mages with their fire staffs. Still more warriors held up the rear, including Ilisti and his men. Blacknail hurried toward them and safety… so that he could give his report. That was important.
Suddenly, there was a loud crack from behind Blacknail. Spinning around, he spotted something that caused his heart to skip a beat. A massive grey drake with a blue crest on its head was leaning on a building about two hundred feet away. With its front legs on the roof, it could stretch up and get a commanding view of its surroundings and see over all the nearby buildings, but right now its yellow eyes were locked directly on Blacknail. The hobgoblin went rigid as he saw the ravenous power lurking in the drake’s eyes, and then the beast growled. As a sound like boulders grinding against each other washed over Blacknail, it brought with it a wave of freezing air that stung his skin and chilled his bones.
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