Smoke billowed out from the shallow trench the enemy mage’s blast had dug across the hillside. The haze made seeing difficult, but Blacknail peered past it as he observed the enemy. Around him, the goblins were in disarray but most of the hobgoblins were picking themselves off the ground or shooting at the humans that were now pushing their way through the bushes at the edge of the forest. Gob was leading the resistance down below. However, Blacknail was focused on the large formation of raiders that was staying out in the fields. That was where the enemy mage was, and where Imp’s magical projectiles were about to land. Even the most complicated trap could work if you lured the enemy to exactly where you wanted him and then trapped him there.
The enemy mage had already turned away from the goblins’ position and was issuing orders to the men around her. Another raider raised the alarm, and the mage spun around and looked up. Two blazing orbs were headed her way, and they left a tail of fire behind them as they fell.
The mage hurriedly raised her hand up in a defensive gesture. She seemed to recognize that the small fireballs were dangerous. Another blast of invisible power burst forth from her amulet, and there was a loud boom as the resulting explosion met the falling balls of fire and knocked them aside. One of the flaming crystals was thrown safely off to the side. It hit the ground and exploded without hurting anyone. However, the other fireball was only nudged off-kilter a bit. It spiraled down and fell at the edge of the raiders’ formation, where it detonated. A blazing sphere the size of a small home engulfed over a dozen men, and the force of its birth threw a dozen more raiders aside. Screams of shock and pain filled the air.
“Finally, a successful test!” Imp exclaimed happily as he smiled broadly and threw his hands up in excitement. “Boom! I’ve already learned so much. Look at them burn.”
“Very nice,” Blacknail replied as the flames reflected in his eyes. “But you need to do it again. Most of them are still alive.”
Blacknail was really coming to like magic. It made everything so much easier, especially blowing people up.
“Yeah, do it again, and hit the mage this time. That bitch has it coming,” Khita added as she climbed to her feet. She had apparently been unhurt by the mage’s attack but was feeling resentful.
Imp and his two assistants immediately launched another set of fireballs. Just like the last ones, the new projectiles soared towards the enemy formation. However, before they could hit, they were blocked by another blast from the mage’s hand. Both the fireballs careened harmlessly off to the side. As Blacknail watched, the mage then turned and pointed the tip of her staff right in Blacknail’s direction. The hobgoblin’s eyes went wide and he tensed up.
“Dodge!” Blacknail yelled as threw himself off to one side.
He was just in time. Flames shot forth from the end of the weapon and blasted the hillside again. A wave of excruciating heat washed over Blacknail and he was sent rolling across the ground by the explosion. The air was knocked out of Blacknail’s lungs as he came to a sudden stop and his back slammed into the base of a tree. Pain flared through his ribs and spine, and his head hit the ground hard. Dizzily, he blinked and looked around. Burning leaves were falling all around him. The ground was torn and broken. The blast had dug a burning trench where he had been standing a few moments ago. Luckily, other than Imp and his assistants there hadn’t been many goblins or hobgoblins nearby.
Everything looked blurry as Blacknail tried to gather his thoughts. He sat up but didn’t try to stand. His entire body hurt far too much for him to try and get up right now, maybe in a minute. He touched the side of his head and his fingers came away wet. He appeared to be bleeding. That wasn’t good.
From what Blacknail could see, he was alone now. Imp and his aides were missing or incinerated. No more fireballs were being thrown at the raiders, and they were charging into the forest unimpeded. Blacknail could hear the raiders cheering. The hobgoblins were being pushed back or had been spooked by the mage’s attack and were already running away. There was chaos as the humans pressed their advantage. In their enthusiasm, their orderly lines broke apart as they reached the trees and separated.
It seemed like Blacknail’s plan had failed. Stupid mages. Blacknail hated magic. It was unfair and impossible to predict. How was a hobgoblin supposed to kill a bunch of humans when they could blow up hillsides with magic fire? This was Imp’s fault, somehow. He should have been a better mage. Now it seemed like the only thing Blacknail could do was retreat and try to rebuild. He didn’t see any way of turning this disaster around, not while that mage was alive. Maybe he could sneak back later – after he had healed a bit – and try to kill the mage?
Blacknail closed his eyes for a second so he could rest them, and his other senses expanded, including his magical ones. They felt stronger than usual. Instantly, Blacknail could sense the minds of the people around him. They were mostly just tiny glimmers off in the endless dark, but they were there.
Oh, right. He had Elixir; that would probably make him feel better. Blacknail opened his eyes and reached down to pull out his vial of Elixir. Without a thought, he downed the entire container in one gulp. For some reason it tasted a little off. Well, it was probably nothing.
The familiar cleansing burn of Elixir surged throughout Blacknail’s body and he pulled himself to his feet. New strength was already building within him. Suddenly, Blacknail felt his mental sense expand again. The glimmers of fear all around him grew brighter and came into focus. He could feel both the minds of the humans and of the hobgoblins. They were very different. At the current moment, most the hobgoblins were more afraid than the humans, but at the same time they were capable of less depth in their fear.
“Ha, stupid humans,” Blacknail mumbled to himself.
Just as Blacknail was about to try and help the remaining hobgoblins organize their retreat, a sudden sensation burst into his mind. Cold terror stabbed its way through his skull and he gasped from the unexpected pain. Ugh, what was this? Blacknail couldn’t figure out the source the pain. He stumbled as he tried to clear his mind. Wait, was the source outside of himself? Blacknail reached out and sensed a mind that was blazing with terror. It was human and nearby.
Steadying himself, Blacknail scanned the forest for signs of the source. It didn’t feel that far away. Suddenly, he noticed a flash of red among the underbrush. For a second he didn’t recognize it, but then he did. It was Khita’s hair. The redhead was lying on the ground. The enemy mage’s blast must have thrown her there. As Blacknail watched, she shivered and moved ever so slightly. Until this moment, he had completely forgotten that she had joined his war party and been near the blast. He usually tuned her out.
Grimacing in pain, Blacknail walked over to her. He didn’t have much time. There were raiders searching the bush nearby. They were moving carefully but they would reach him in seconds. Khita turned and looked his way as he shuffled over.
“Hey, stupid. Stop being afraid, now!” Blacknail told her. His brain still felt like it was freezing over. It was uncomfortable and obviously Khita’s fault.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Khita laughed ruefully. “I can’t walk. My knee is all busted up and so is my arm. I can’t even get up. I’m going to die here.”
Blacknail stared down at her. He didn’t know what to say to that. Goodbye, maybe?
“You need to leave me, Blacknail. Just promise me you will survive and get bloody vengeance for me,” Khita told him as she groaned in pain. “I want these fuckers to bleed.”
“You’re terrified of dying,” Blacknail pointed out. He could feel it. Why was she pretending she wasn’t?
“So what! Just get out of here,” Khita hissed at him.
“I can’t leave you,” Blacknail replied angrily. This headache was seriously slowing him down. Trying to run with it would be risky. Also, leaving her to die felt wrong. She was a part of his tribe, sort of.
“Go! Everyone leaves everyone eventually. We’re all alone in the end. Even the bonds of family, gangs, and bands are just comforting lies,” Khita shot back as she clenched a fist angrily. “I only joined Herad’s band and then your tribe because I wanted to go out with a bang. At least I succeeded at that. Damn this bloody world! I’m happy to leave it behind.”
“This is one of those annoying rants about your brother, isn’t it?” Blacknail replied. Khita tended go on about his death when she got emotional.
“I thought you never paid attention to that!” the redhead hissed as she glared at Blacknail.
“I don’t, but I have good hearing, and you never shut up about it.”
“Leave already, you ungrateful bastard!”
“Fine, stay here,” Blacknail replied angrily as he turned to stomp away. It was insulting that she wanted to sacrifice herself for him, as if it gave her value. It was such a dumb human thing to do. In fact, another human had done it for him before, Saeter…
Blacknail hissed as new emotions warred within him. This headache was infuriating. The connection to Khita was much worse than the pain. He took a deep breath and tried to stifle Khita’s fear. His power reached out and pressed down on her mind, but her inner turmoil didn’t seize. Blacknail’s cold headache continued, so instead he tried something different. Instead of fighting the feeling, he embraced it. Blacknail immediately regretted this decision. He went stiff as terror such as he had never known tore through his mind. It hurt worse than being punched in the brain. Worse of all, it felt permanent, like he was being scarred. Was this what Khita was feeling? Was this what humans felt? It sucked. No wonder they were such weaklings.
New sensations clawed at Blacknail’s thoughts. He wanted it to stop! What was he doing? Stupid magic. He staggered again as he tried to reorient himself. Suddenly, he remembered something. There were raiders approaching. He felt them. Two of them had spotted him and were marching through the bushes toward him. Blacknail’s eyes narrowed. They were the problem. They wanted to take what was his. As annoying as she was, Khita was his. Blacknail growled, and the deep menacing sound echoed out into the forest. He flared his Elixir and the magic washed away his confusion. Suddenly everything was so clear. He had purpose and power.
“Wait, something’s off about his hob,” one of the raiders stuttered. He was a big man but he suddenly looked nervous and unsure of himself.
The other raider hesitated and looked at his companion. He must have sensed that something was wrong as well.
“It’s just a savage,” he replied. It was supposed to have been a reassuring comment but the man just sounded uncertain.
Both the raiders had their weapons drawn and were keeping an eye on Blacknail, but that didn’t save them. The furiously invigorated hobgoblin lunged forward with startling speed and attacked with all the power of his rage. He didn’t bother with drawing his sword. He ducked under the man’s weapon and then reached up to tear his throat out with his claws. There was a crunching noise and blood sprayed from the wound, but Blacknail was already turning to face the other man. With a panicked yelp, the raider swung at Blacknail, but the hobgoblin sidestepped the blow and jumped on his opponent. They fell together and Blacknail landed on top of the man’s chest. There were screams as Blacknail’s claws started ripping into flesh, and then silence when Blacknail pushed the man’s flailing hands away and took a bite out of the side of his exposed neck. The hobgoblin spat bits of flesh away and then looked around for more raiders. The taste of blood filled his mouth and it dribbled down his chin.
Ice and fire churned within Blacknail’s body. The Elixir burned through his blood as cold waves of alien terror washed over him. He couldn’t stand still. The pain was a minor thing now. He barely felt it. It had been numbed by the energy within him, and that wanted out. Blacknail screamed in rage. The chilling predatory sound echoed through the forest as he was propelled by momentum forward through the bushes. He had failed to save Saeter and Herad. Werrick had taken them. Blacknail would never see or learn from them ever again, but he wasn’t going to lose anyone else, not even a useless person like Khita. All of Werrick’s men had to die. He could think of nothing else.
Three more swordsmen rushed forward to attack Blacknail from behind, but he sensed them coming. He jumped away from the raiders and drew his own blade. As one of the men lunged and slashed at him, Blacknail twisted out of the way and sliced the man’s hand. He yelped and dropped his weapon. The second raider’s blade zoomed toward Blacknail’s chest. He stepped into the blow and blocked it with his own sword. There was a metallic crack as the blades met. A quick shove then knocked the man off balance, and Blacknail stabbed him in the gut. The third enemy backed off and was quickly reinforced by two other men who had noticed all the activity.
Blacknail eyed his opponents as they watched him in turn. They were prey and the world was his trap. Blacknail grinned as he took a moment to reach out with his power and clamp down on some of the minds he felt. There was a rustling from the bushes off to one side, and then three arrows zipped out and shot towards the raiders. Two of the whirring projectiles hit. One slammed into a raider’s arm and the other sank into a man’s chest.
“Ah, shit,” the raider who had been shot in the arm cursed as he dropped his weapon and cradled his injury.
There were still some hobgoblins hanging back to see what unfolded. The commotion Blacknail was causing was drawing them to him even as it caught the attention of the raiders as well. They had only needed a little encouragement in order to get over their caution and join the fray. Suppress one instinct and another would rise to take its place, bloodlust.
As the raider with the arrow in his chest toppled over backward, Blacknail attacked. He charged in and swung at the uninjured raider. The man grunted and raised his blade to block the blow, but Blacknail was already spinning away. The hobgoblin lunged sideways and stabbed the raider with the injured arm. His blade cut into the man’s side and bit deep before coming free.
“You bloody bastard!” the last raider cursed as he backed away from Blacknail.
The enraged hobgoblin met his gaze and growled. The raider quickly took another step back, and that was when an arrow pierced his thigh. As the man stumbled, Blacknail lunged forward and sliced his throat open. There was a thud as the body hit the ground, and Blacknail looked over his shoulder to see three hobgoblins with bows standing next to a tree. Blacknail grunted, turned away from them, and pressed on. Killing these grunts wasn’t good enough. He needed to eliminate the real threat, the mage. Only then would he be safe and satiated. Only then would the pain end.
The edge of the forest lay just ahead, and Blacknail could sense what was beyond it. He picked up speed. As he ran, he gathered his power. The burning magic of the elixir continued to boil his blood as icy rage seeped into his bones. Behind him, terror reigned. The hobgoblins that had been in retreat were now counter attacking the disorganized and stunned humans. Arrows flew and green figures leapt out of bushes upon men driven mad by fear. Blacknail’s power was spread all throughout the trees and it pressed down upon the minds on his enemies, but it wasn’t enough. Raw alien emotion rushed through Blacknail, subsuming everything but his uncontrollable drive to lash out at his enemies, the people that hurt him, the people he feared.
There was a whipping noise and an explosion of leaves as Blacknail burst out the bushes and into the clearing. Like a lightning bolt, he smashed into the force of raiders that were waiting there. He let loose a scream of rage and pushed out as much magic as he could. The power distorted the air around him. It rolled forth like an unrelenting wave of steam and enveloped everyone nearby. With it came terror and horror.
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