Blacknail didn’t sleep well that night, despite the double watch ordered by Sir Masnin. He couldn’t even trust his hobgoblins to be diligent enough. The mutant goat had snuck up on him after all, and none of the other hobgoblins were near his match when it came to sneaking or detecting sneaks. His cheese was only really safe while he was personally watching it. Thus, Blacknail slept fitfully and woke up several times in the middle of the night. Feeling nervous, he’d then do a quick inspection of the area outside the cave before going back to sleep.
The next morning, despite the fact that none of his cheese had disappeared, he was in a grumpy mood. He couldn’t rest peacefully while that stupid goat was out there. Blacknail studied the nearby trees and bushes from the mouth of the cave for any sign of the beast. It was probably watching him right now, biding its time…
Blacknail considered slipping some cheese into Werrick’s backpack, just to see what happened. No matter how that encounter ended, it could only help him.
However, Blacknail couldn’t obsess over the creature forever. Sir Masnin eventually got all the humans up and ready to move, so Blacknail had to lead the vanguard again. That forced him to focus on more immediate dangers, although Blacknail was pretty sure he spotted the goat at least once as he moved through the Green. The creature was definitely still following him.
The expedition got lucky early that morning. About an hour after they’d headed out, the scouts Blacknail had watching the river stumbled upon a ford. Despite the raging waters caused by the spring melt, it was shallow enough for men and horses to walk across. Slinging a rope across the river made it even safer, and soon everyone had made it to the other side. However, while the water had been relatively shallow at the ford, it had still come up to people’s groins. Thus, everyone got very wet and cold, and they had to stop for a while to change clothes and dry out. Blacknail needed time to find a new path north though, so that was fine.
Once the expedition was moving again, they travelled for several hours without any problems, but then the forest ahead of them began to twist and change. Blacknail quickly spotted these warning signs and sent scouts out to study the area ahead. Then, he walked back to talk to Sir Masnin.
“We have a problem,” Blacknail told the paladin.
Sir Masnin frowned as he brought his mount to a halt, and all the riders behind him stopped as well. “What is it?”
“The woods grow dark and thick up ahead.”
Sir Masnin hesitated. “And what does that mean?
Blacknail sighed. These humans really knew nothing about the Green. “The dark parts of the Green are the most dangerous.”
“Ah, do trolls and mimics prefer the dark?”
“No, because of the spiders.”
Blacknail nodded. “Yes, the dark woods are full of spiders that are bigger than your head. The poisonous creatures drop down on people from above and paralyze them with their bites. Then, they wrap you up in webs so they can eat you later.”
Sir Masnin asked if they could go around the dark woods, but Blacknail informed him that this was a large stretch of old growth, and it would probably take days to go around it.
“It seems like we have been given no choice but to go through it then. Can you shepherd us through this treacherous expanse?” the paladin asked.
“Probably,” Blacknail admitted reluctantly.
“You don’t sound very sure of yourself.”
“I know how to keep safe in the dark woods, but I prefer to either avoid it or burn it down. That’s what most people do, burn all the spiders to death.”
“Perhaps, but we need to reach Coroulis and a wildfire would be even more of a barrier to our quest.”
Blacknail didn’t have a good answer for that, so he reluctantly began leading everyone toward the dark portion of forest that lurked ahead of them. A bunch of people were going to get bitten by spiders, but he supposed that wasn’t his problem.
Soon, the greenery near the ground began to grow sparser as the canopy overhead grew darker. Then, dead branches became common obstacles and all the groundcover disappeared, leaving the dark earth bare. Eventually, ghostly pale trees and thick shadows stretched out in every direction. This change was obvious even to the humans, and they started murmuring fearfully.
Only when the first spiderwebs appeared did Blacknail call for everyone to stop so that he could inform them of what they were about to face. Their fear would make sure they took him seriously. Sure enough, as the humans studied the webs stretching from branch to branch ahead of them, lit torches appeared in their hands and everyone pulled up their hoods. When possible, blankets and tarps were also put over horses. It wasn’t a sure thing, but the thick cloth would discourage any spiders that dropped down from biting. Meanwhile, the torches would hopefully mesmerize and blind the spiders so that their attacks were less accurate.
One of the riders behind Sir Masnin looked particularly nervous. He kept glancing up. “The hob is just messing with us, right? There’s no way spiders get that big, even out here.”
“I don’t know. Take your hood off and find out,” his nearest companion replied with a rude snort.
As the expedition advanced, the forest continued to grow darker until the torches in people’s hands were the only real source of light. Shadows filled the forest, stretching forth from twisted dead branches. The cobwebs also grew thicker, until shimmering white webs blocked off many of the paths between the trees. The resulting sifting gloom was incredibly unsettling and creepy, especially since it almost completely silent except for the occasional rustle of leaves from up above.
“I see why even rangers avoid these areas,” Sir Masnin remarked.
The paladin and Blacknail were walking next to each other as they led the way forward. Behind them, the humans and hobs had clumped together into small groups for protection. Many of the humans were also leading blanket-covered horses.
Blacknail opened his mouth to inform his ally that they hadn’t even been attacked yet, when a shrill scream from behind him cut him off. Spinning around, he saw a hooded human lurch out of a crowd while screaming. There was a large brown spider on his back with long legs that wrapped around his torso.
“Hold still! I’ll get it,” another hooded man yelled as he stepped out of the crowd after his ally and raised a sword.
The man with the spider on his back didn’t reply. Instead, he stumbled and fell on his face, which allowed his companion to kick the spider off and then hack it apart with his blade. That wasn’t the end of it though. Blacknail saw several more brown blurs drop down into groups of people, and more screaming followed. This time, it was joined by the sound of frightened horses as everyone began to panic.
Blacknail remained where he was as Sir Masnin ran over to help and prevent everyone from scattering in fear. Thankfully, things were soon under control and the spiders were killed before they could do too much damage. It seemed like only a single person had been bitten. He was paralyzed but could still be moved by slinging him across the top of a horse like a sack of grain.
“Some warning about the horses being so terrified of spiders would have been nice,” Sir Masnin remarked as he walked back to Blacknail. “We almost lost several of them back there.”
“I didn’t know. I’ve never been in here with horses before,” Blacknail replied with a shrug. He was actually on the spiders’ side here. As much as he hated the spiders, they were still more useful than horses, since you could extract their venom.
“Ah, very well. Regardless, do you think this is this worst we can expect, or will it grow more difficult as we penetrate deeper?”
“I’m not sure, but we should be able to handle it. The spiders aren’t a huge threat to large groups of people. They’d have to bite all of us,” Blacknail answered.
The paladin nodded and got the expedition moving again. Having faced the spiders and seen what they were capable of, most of the human warriors had gained some confidence and were no longer so afraid.
After a few more minutes of walking, Blacknail saw something out of the corner of his eye and pointed it out to Sir Masnin. “Look there.”
There was something large and black hanging in a huge web that had been spun near ground level. It looked like a huge insect shell.
“Is that a… boggart?” Sir Masnin remarked in surprise.
“Yes, it looks like a warrior.”
“How did the spiders manage to catch it? I thought they weren’t that dangerous.”
Blacknail shrugged. “It must have come in alone.”
The paladin frowned and pointed over to the left. “There are two more over there.”
The hobgoblin turned and saw that his ally was correct. There were indeed two more boggarts warriors hanging in another web.
“Hmm, I don’t like this. Maybe we should go back,” Blacknail remarked.
“You’re the guide,” Sir Masnin told him as both turned to look back over at the men they were leading.
Thus, they had a great view of events when a thick white line shot down from above and hit a man at the edge of the group. A moment later, he was tugged up out of sight into the darkness of the canopy above. He hadn’t even had time to scream, before he disappeared without a sound.
“Uh oh,” Blacknail groaned.
“Mages! I need light, as much as you give me, right now!” Sir Masnin yelled as he drew his sword.
Almost instantly, the mages obeyed, and several bright lights appeared as they activated their staffs. The illumination quickly pushed the darkness back, to reveal a spider the size of a large wagon hanging over the expedition. It’s many eyes glowed red with reflected light as it studied the prey beneath it.
The mages didn’t stop with just light. Two of them immediately launched magical blasts at the mutant spider – at that size, it had to be a mutant. Unfortunately, both blasts missed as the spider suddenly dropped down and hit the ground. It landed gracefully considering its size but still managed to crush several people. Everyone else recoiled and drew their weapons as they turned to face the monster in their midst. That was when more of the smaller spider began to fall upon the gathered humans, throwing things even more into chaos.
After Sir Masnin, Blacknail was one of the first to draw his sword, but he was also one of the furthest away from the spider. As he began to move toward it, it spun around and glanced at him with several of its menacing red eyes, of which it had an uncomfortable amount. It seemed to recognize Blacknail as a threat, because a moment later, it launched a large clump of web his way. Blacknail tried to dodge, but the web extended as it flew toward him, shifting into a wide net that caught him and then threw him backwards into a tree. He hit the trunk and stuck fast.
Surprised but uninjured, Blacknail tried to free himself, but his hands and legs were tightly trapped. He couldn’t even turn his head to see how the fight with the spider was going, which was sort of important. All he could do was listen in, and it sounded like a chaotic mess. People were shouting and screaming. There was even a loud explosion. Ugh, maybe spiders weren’t better than horses after all. Also, if any of his stupid minions could think properly, they’d be cutting him loose so that he could help. That, or lead the retreat.
As Blacknail was futilely trying to reach for his knife, he noticed movement. A spider was descending from the canopy toward him. Uh oh. He still couldn’t move. The hobgoblin redoubled his efforts to free himself, but he made no progress before the spider landed on his shoulder and stared him right in the face. It made a wet hissing noise as its mandibles twitched and its red eyes studied him. Hopefully, that was just drool leaking form the spider’s mouth, and not venom.
“Is anyone there? I could use some help,” Blacknail yelled in an even voice. He didn’t want to be too loud lest it trigger the spider to bite his nose. It was the most obvious target, and he really likes his nose.
From out of sight, Blacknail could hear the fight with the giant spider continue. It didn’t sound like it was anywhere near done yet. That wasn’t great.
“Ha, come get some you bug-faced freak!” Khita shouted right before another explosion went off.
There was no reply to Blacknail’s plea for aid. He could only watch as the spider on his side crept closer, until it was suddenly smashed away… by a hoof? Blacknail managed to twist his head around so that he could see his rescuer. It was the mutant goat. The beast gave Blacknail a blank look and then leaned over to begin chewing at the web holding him to the tree.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Blacknail asked. He was rather relieved that the spider was gone, but he wasn’t sure the goat was much better. Being eaten by the spider would probably be less painful.
The goat ignored him and kept chewing away at the webs on Blacknail’s back. Soon, the hobgoblin was halfway free and could wiggle around much more. Was the goat helping him? Why?
Blacknail stopped struggling and waited for the goat to finish whatever it was doing. However, a few seconds later, the beast stopped chewing webs and began routing through Blacknail’s now exposed backpack. Before Blacknail could react, it then pulled out a wedge of cheese and began scoffing it down!”
“You thieving slab of mutton!” Blacknail yelled as he began fighting to free himself again. “Don’t eat my cheese! I’ll eat you first. Stop!”
The goat tried to reach for another piece or cheese, but Blacknail managed to get one of his hands free and flail around enough to discourage it. Snorting rudely, the beast then gave Blacknail another blank stare before turning and beginning to walk away. For a woodland creature it was oddly droopy and apathetic.
“Come back here and fight me!” Blacknail growled at it.
As if it understood, the goat stopped and gave Blacknail an unimpressed look of challenge.
“Um, after I get free. Give me moment,” the hobgoblin quickly added as he tore some webs away. The goat simply snorted dismissively again and then vanished into the shadows beyond the trees.
It took a few more moment for Blacknail to finally rip himself free. Spinning around, he glanced toward the fight with the giant spider, but it was already over. The spider’s body lay on the ground and had obviously suffered quite a lot of damage. Several of its legs had been hacked off and corpse was on fire. It seemed the mages had managed to land at least one good hit. Most of the human warriors had been scattered after the attack – quite a few were laying on the ground or stuck to trees by webs – but most of those that were still standing gave a quick cheer upon seeing the slain spider.
“Werrcik! Werrick!” several of the louder people roared as Werrick raised his blade in response. He was standing next to the spider and had obviously been fighting it. The sight annoyed Blacknail deeply.
Blacknail wiped some more webs off his coat and stomped over. “Shut up! This isn’t the place to be loud.”
The hobgoblin’s point was made when a spider dropped down out of the canopy onto one of the celebrators. His companions rushed over to help him, which promptly ended the cheering. It put a smile back on Blacknail’s lips though.
Ignoring everyone else, Blacknail went to talk to Sir Masnin, who was also standing near the dead giant spider. The paladin quickly explained that the mutant had rampaged through the human warriors until Werrick had managed to cut off two of its legs. That had slowed the beast down enough that everyone could get clear and the mages could line up a shot to finish it off.
Sir Masnin was too busy to explain in more detail. The spiders’ attack had left the human ranks in shambles and he needed to get everyone reorganized fast. The mutant spider had killed two human warriors and wounded three others. The smaller spider had also taken advantage of the chaos to bite half a dozen men, paralyzing them all. It was a mess. Thankfully, Blacknail’s allies had been spared. Most of the hobgoblins had been guarding the flanks of the expedition while Ilisti had been holding up the rear. Khita was the only one other than Blacknail himself who’d managed to get herself into trouble. Blacknail found her webbed to a tree so thoroughly that she couldn’t even talk thanks to the webs stuck to her face. Apparently, it had happened right before the end of the fight, which she’d been a large part of.
It was tempting to leave her there and enjoy the silence for a few more minutes, but Blacknail cut her down instead.
Once all the wounded and paralyzed had been thrown onto horses, Sir Masnin decided to press on. They couldn’t go back, and after consulting with Blacknail, they decided it was unlikely they’d run into another mutant. The smaller spiders were annoying, but could be dealt with safely.
To everyone’s great relief, the expedition soon managed to make it out of the dark woods. The canopy overhead grew lighter and green plants sprung up all around them, returning color to their surroundings.
Sir Masnin then had them stop and make camp for the rest of the day. The wounded needed a break, and the paralyzed would recover completely overnight. Of course, the dark woods were hardly the only dangerous part of the Green. With the scent of blood in the air, Blacknail and his minions had to double their efforts to scout the area and guard the expedition.
While he was out scouting, Blacknail climbed a serious of hills and then stumbled upon a cliff that looked down on a vast stretch of forest. Peering out over the expanse of green and the snow-peaked mountains in the distance, Blacknail spotted one area that stood out. It was still very far away, but it was unmistakably a vast city with stretches of homes all surrounded by a tall wall. Even from so far away, it was obviously a ruin with holes in the walls, plenty of collapsed buildings, and odd patches of greenery. However, it was still an impressive sight and far larger than any city Blacknail had ever seen.
There was only one city out here. It was Coroulis; the expedition’s goal and the lair of Myagnoir, the most dangerous beast in all the world.
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