Only the fact that no one was yelling or screaming stopped Blacknail from panicking. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he peeked curiously out from his hiding spot so that only his eyes and long green nose were visible.
Within the light, he saw two men walking towards Red Dog. One was the man Red Dog had sent out a few minutes ago and the other was the plain looking deserter with the staff. The bright white light that was stinging Blacknail’s eyes poured forth from the end of the man’s weapon.
The staff didn’t look like a torch to Blacknail. The light it cast was a very different color from torchlight and much stronger. The hobgoblin had also never seen a staff like that before either. Dimly, he remembered some fragments of conversation he had overheard.
The light must be magic, which made the man a mage. The idea of real magic intrigued Blacknail. From what he had heard it was very dangerous and exciting stuff.
When the two men arrived the mage’s staff slowly dimmed until it went completely dark, and only the light from the campfire was left. There was a ruffling noise from Saeter’s tent as the older man stepped out of his tent and walked over to the mage and Red Dog. The light must have grabbed his attention, it had certainly grabbed everyone else’s.
Blacknail climbed out of hiding and back onto the crate. There didn’t seem to be any immediate danger. From his perch, the hobgoblin stared intently at the staff wielder. He wanted to see some more magic. He didn’t know much about it but he was pretty sure it could make things explode and catch fire, which he really wanted to see.
Meanwhile, Red Dog was giving the mage an indifferent look.
“If you were trying to impress me with that light show then you’ve failed. Even I know light crystals are the one type every single guild has. They’re the magical equivalent of dirt. It also seems like a bloody pointless waste of a crystal you’ll probably never be able to replace,” Red Dog said as Saeter walked up beside him and grunted in agreement.
The mage was an average sized man with short brown hair and brown eyes. Like all the other deserters he was unshaven and dressed in worn out Elorian military garb. As he listened to Red Dog an amused smile appeared on his face.
“Greetings, now that things have… settled down for a little bit let me formally introduce myself. My name is Mahedium, former combat mage for the Royal Elorian 2nd Infantry Brigade. I’m glad you called for me. As you can probably imagine, I’ve some questions I wouldn’t mind asking you,” he said.
“We have some questions of our own for you first,” Red Dog replied sternly.
“Ask away then,” Mahedium said as he turned his palms up in a gesture of openness.
“How and why exactly did a vessel and a mage end up deserting together? Life in the Elorian infantry isn’t fun for anyone these days but mages and vessels are the elite. They’re treated much better than most. Few of them ever end up deserting,” Red Dog asked.
“Ah, that is a perceptive question. Basghus, our former leader, was a very arrogant man. He may have been a vessel but he was still common born. He felt he deserved promotion but with no noble blood it was unlikely to ever happen. That didn’t stop him from trying though, and his persistence earned him many enemies. Eventually, he decided he would be better off striking out on his own,” the mage answered.
“What about you?” Saeter asked.
“My story is somewhat similar actually. I made some enemies among my… superiors. So, when I learned of Basghus’ plans I offered him my services,” Mahedium replied.
Saeter eyed the man and scowled. He seemed skeptical.
“Your guild suspected you were doing experiments on your own, and they were right, so you ran,” the old scout guessed.
Surprise flashed across the mage’s face for a second, and he twitched slightly. He quickly stifled it and forced a smile, though.
“Ah, yes. I have to say you two are unexpectedly insightful for um… outlaws. May I ask how you figured it out?” he said.
“It wasn’t hard. Combat mages aren’t taught how to actually make crystals. They’re only taught how to use them in combat. Yet, you were willing to burn a crystal to produce that light earlier. That’s something a mage with limited magic wouldn’t do, unless they were an idiot,” Saeter explained casually as he shrugged.
“Surely, there must be more to it than that?” Mahedium asked skeptically.
“You also mentioned having problems with your superiors. Asking the wrong type of question were you? I’ve known a few combat mages, and none of them liked being dependent on the guilds for their magic. Plus, you just seem like the sort who would try to pry into the secrets of the guilds even if it meant putting your own life at risk,” Saeter added.
Mahedium gave a self-depreciating chuckle.
“I see. You’re completely right. I used to be an apothecary, until I was drafted. During training I was tested for the mage gift and accepted into the Fiery Eye guild. Then they shipped me off to the front, and I realized I was nothing but a disposable tool to them. Without connections or money I would never be taught the real secrets of magic, and my ignorance would make me dependent on them for my power,” the mage replied bitterly.
“So you asked questions and experimented,” Red Dog remarked.
“Yes, and I got results! The formulas and processes involved in the creation of mana crystals are complex and tightly held secrets. Every guild has different ones it knows how to make. But, you were right when you said that the light crystal was the exception! The Fiery Eye was not too concerned about information on light crystals leaking. So with luck and a little experimentation I was able to learn to create them!” Mahedium declared victoriously.
“And now you’re on the run, but at least you can make magical torches,” Saeter replied sarcastically.
“That’s true for now… but not forever. With my knowledge of how to create light crystals I can experiment and discover other formula.” Mahedium declared excitedly.
“And blow yourself up,” Red Dog said with a roll of his eyes.
“I’m aware of the dangers involved, but I have some clues and ideas that should reduce the risk,” he replied defensively.
“Sure, as long as you do it well away from me,” Red Dog told him dismissively.
“Hmm, I hope I’ve answered all your questions. Now if you don’t mind I have some of my own?” the mage asked.
“Knock yourself out” Red Dog told him.
Mahedium threw an inquisitive glance Blacknail’s way. The hobgoblin met his gaze, even though it made him nervous. He was fairly sure the mage couldn’t set him on fire with his mind, or at least wouldn’t. Saeter wouldn’t like it.
“I must admit that I am extremely interested in your hobgoblin. As unusual as it is for mages and vessels to desert I have never even heard of a trained hobgoblin before. He was rather… effective earlier,” he remarked.
Saeter smirked with obvious pride. Red Dog rolled his eyes at the other man’s behavior.
“Not much to say. I found a goblin then trained it. I just had to beat some sense into it when it became a hob” Saeter replied
“If only,” Red Dog muttered. The mage gave them both uncomprehending looks.
“That’s it?” he asked Saeter.
“That’s it,” the old scout answered.
Blacknail scowled at his master’s words. He remembered things quite differently than that. For one thing he thought he deserved at least some of the credit.
“I see. Well, now that we have gotten to know each other I would like to ask for our weapons to be returned to us,” Mahedium told them.
“And why should we do that?” Red dog asked with a skeptical frown.
“It was only Basghus who didn’t want to join up with Herad. He just dragged the rest of us along with him. We have no reason to turn on you. Just like you said earlier the wilds are a dangerous place and…” Mahedium started to explain.
Blacknail yawned. He had grown bored with all the talk, and he didn’t think the mage was going to be doing any more magic. The hobgoblin stood up and decided to get some sleep. He wanted to use the tent he had taken as a trophy as well. It would probably be much nicer than sleeping on the ground.
As the night progressed, everyone eventually drifted off to sleep. When dawn came the deserters’ camp was busy with activity. Everything that could possibly be moved was being packed away so it could be transported to Herad’s base.
Soon, Red Dog, Saeter, and the rest of the bandits were on their way back. With almost double the amount of men they had started off with.
“Herad should be happy when we get back! Or at least as close as she gets,” Red Dog proudly told the others.
The bandit lieutenant was standing tall with his chest puffed out. Blacknail thought it made him look fat.
They were making their way through the woods and back to the road. The tall shady trees around them were alive with morning bird song. Every member of their group had a backpack stuffed full of supplies and loot, even Blacknail.
When Blacknail stopped for a second to look over a small patch of red mushrooms that had caught his eye a group of deserters passed him by. Most of them ignored him, or shied away from him and tried not to catch his eye. One bandit that was wearing a brown feathered cap gave him a disdainful look.
“Look, it’s got a sword. Ha, I’ll eat my hat if the critter can actually use it,” he muttered to the man beside him.
The other man’s eyebrows rose and he gave the speaker a disbelieving look.
“Don’t tempt fate, fool,” he replied before stepping away.
Blacknail ignored them. He was more interested in whether the mushrooms he was looking at were edible. The red color probably meant they were poisonous but it also made them look very tasty. With a sigh, he decided against eating them. He picked one to show Saeter so he would know for later, though.
The wind shifted and a breeze blew through the trees. Leaves rustled and the smell of healthy growing things surrounded the hobgoblin. However, under the more powerful scents something else lurked and drew Blacknail’s attention.
Instinct took over. The hobgoblin froze and his heart sped up. The sound of its pounding filled his ears. He twitched as he fought a sudden urge to run. Instead, he took a quick look around and forced himself to relax.
He saw nothing lurking nearby among the trees. With no signs of immediate danger evident he started walking up the line and passed the other men to find Saeter.
Saeter was up ahead talking to Red Dog at the front of the group. Mahedium and some of Red Dog’s men were walking right behind them.
After another quick nervous look around just to be sure, Blacknail moved up beside Saeter. He was trying to act calm but his movements were jerky and stiff. He didn’t want to alert anything that was watching that he had detected them.
Saeter broke off his conversation with Red Dog as the hobgoblin approached. He looked over and gave Blacknail a puzzled glance. Blacknail was fidgeting and clearly nervous about something.
“I smell the troll. It’s down wind, being sneaky,” Blacknail whispered to his master.
Almost immediately, he felt kind of stupid. He was fairly sure trolls couldn’t understand human speech so there had been no real reason to whisper.
“Shit,” Saeter swore.
He grimaced and closed his eyes for a second as he began to think things through.
“What is it?” Red Dog asked.
“That troll’s back, and it’s stalking us,” Saeter replied darkly.
Red Dog added a long string of his own curses to Saeter’s. Blacknail didn’t understand most of them but made a mental note to look into them later.
“We’ll need to prepare and make sure everyone’s ready,” Red Dog said when he had finally stopped swearing.
“If we can make ourselves look like more trouble than we’re worth it might back off without a fight. The trick will be getting ready without tipping it off,” Saeter added.
Red Dog nodded in agreement. He then turned around and called to the group behind him.
“Mahedium come up here for a second,” he said.
The mage gave them a curious look as he picked up his pace and walked over to them.
“What do you need?” he asked.
“That troll friend of yours is back. I want to know if you’ve got any tricks that might be useful, and don’t think of holding anything back just because you can’t replace it,” Red Dog told him.
The mage flinched fearfully before responding.
“For use against a troll? I have no idea what would work. They’re hardly my area of expertise. I mean I have um… a few heat crystals, and obviously I have light crystals I can use to blind it. I also have a force crystal I’ve been saving but that’s it,” he replied nervously.
“That’s all you got? You’re of the Fiery Eye, and they’re one of the most hardcore combat guilds around,” Red Dog remarked with an eyebrow raised doubtfully.
“I wasn’t actually at the front when I took my leave of the army. The Guilds only give combat mages the crystals they think we need, so most of what I have is support spells,” Mahedium explained.
“Fine, go for the heat then. Just be damn sure you have a clear shot before you fire. I’ve seen what those things can do to a man and I don’t want to see it again,” Red Dog told him.
“Probably your best bet,” Saeter added in agreement.
Red Dog began carefully giving out orders. As the line of bandits hiked through the woods he called several to him one at a time. When the men returned to their place in the line they whispered to their nearby companions.
While this was happening, Mahedium went to work as well. The mage quickly began dissembling his staff in a practiced manner. He replaced the white crystal within the staff’s mechanism with a red one, and then made some adjustments that narrowed the staff’s metal head.
Slowly, the bandit group began to split until it had divided itself into small units. The transformation was gradual but soon every unit had someone watching each direction, and every bandit had a hand ready to draw their weapon.
Just as the group furthest from the front was forming up, there was a scream. Blacknail whipped around in time to see something explode from the bushes. At first it was nothing but a green blur but then it smashed through a group of men in the middle of the line and slowed almost to a stop. Men screamed in pain and surprise as the green behemoth roared and sent clumps of earth, broken branches, and bloodied men flying.
Even while stooped over, the troll towered over the few men still standing around it. It had bizarrely elongated arms that reached all the way down from its broad hunched shoulders to the ground. Heavy muscles rippled under its greenish grey skin as it spun furiously and whipped its heavy clawed fists around to batter and break anyone unlucky enough to get too close to it.
The troll’s head was similar to a hobgoblin’s but with a thick extended lizard like snout. A dirty mane of brown hair grew from the top of its head and down its back. As it attacked, it opened its mouth to let out a savage roar, which revealed countless jagged yellow teeth and two massive blade like fangs that descended down past its jaw.
It wasn’t the troll’s strength or size that alarmed Blacknail, though. No, what truly frightened him was the beast’s speed. It seemed to jerk and twist as it moved but it did it so quickly it was almost impossible to keep track of. There was no way he could run from such a beast!
“Rally!” Red Dog shouted at the top of his lungs as he drew his own sword.
In a violent frenzy of motion, the troll ripped into the men that surrounded it. Its fists smashed them aside like paper dolls and sent them flying. They barely had any time to react or even draw their weapons.
Then the beast screamed in elated rage as it snatched up a shocked bandit in its claws. It brought the shrieking man up to its mouth and bit down on him. Its huge fangs sunk into its prey with a wet cracking noise, and the man’s chest seemed to just collapse in on itself.
With a mocking satisfied hiss and a powerful lunge, the troll broke through the scattered and bloodied men around it and charged off into the woods. It used it long arms and knuckles like a second pair of legs as it ripped through the underbrush.
Suddenly, just as the troll was about to disappear there was a hissing noise off to one side of Blacknail and the air rippled. A wave of heat washed over him and the hobgoblin cringed away. There was a sharp crack and the base of a tree near where the troll had been seconds ago exploded into flames.
Startled, Blacknail looked over his shoulder to see Mahedium standing frozen in place. Heat radiated from the metal head of his staff. Was this magic?
The mage wore a shocked expression and his knuckles were pale and white from gripping his staff so tightly, but he was pointing his weapon in the general direction that troll had gone. Apparently, magic could do much more than create light after all, but you still had to aim it properly.
All in all, the savage onslaught had lasted but seconds. All the dozens of bandits could do was gape in stunned horror and take in the destruction the troll had wrought around them.
For a moment the forest was quiet except for the moans of the wounded. Then as the shock dissipated, shrill screams of pain and panicked cursing filled the air.
Half a dozen men the troll had passed by lay strewn across the ground or had been dashed against trees. The air was thick with the mingled scent of blood and the putrid stench of the troll.
“Fire and damnation! Fucking trolls. Drakes are worse my ass!” Red Dog swore as he stomped off and began shouting orders. He had to yell at the top of his lungs to be heard over everyone else.
Nervously, Blacknail stood up from where he had instinctively crouched behind Saeter. His master gave him a hard unamused stare, and the hobgoblin gave him an apologetic smile back.
Erissa had fallen backwards in shock and landed butt first on the ground, where she was shivering in terror. Saeter crouched down beside her and began to whisper reassuringly in her ear.
Red Dog was still shouting, and he had even drawn his sword and started waving it around to get attention. Slowly, he managed to get things calmed down and somewhat organized.
Saeter got up from where he was tending to Erissa and made his way over to Red Dog. The other man was yelling at a small group of bandits. He pointed off in one direction and they jogged over to help the wounded. That left Red Dog standing there by himself and glowering darkly at nothing.
“We have a problem,” Saeter told Red Dog.
Very slowly, the bandit lieutenant looked over. Red Dog’s face twitched as a mix of emotions warred within him. Finally, he settled on an incredibly dark and hostile glare which he aimed directly at Saeter.
“I know we have a fucking problem! We have more problems than there are hells right now!” Red Dog hissed.
“But you don’t know the real problem,” Saeter replied calmly.
“Oh, and what might that be?” Red Dog asked with a snarl.
“That wasn’t normal troll behavior, not even close. That thing was an experienced man eater, with a taste for human flesh. It will be back, repeatedly. Even if we head home it will just follow us,” the gray haired older man explained.
“Of course it fucking is! Go slay the deserters, she says. It will be easy, she says. She just forgot to mention the bloody huge Slosher, the combat mage, and the man eating troll! I’ve had enough of this. We’re making a break for the base. Then the troll will be Herad’s problem,” Red Dog swore.
Blacknail liked that plan. He was sure he could outrun most the humans without a problem, and it was a man eating troll anyway. Not a goblin eating troll. Yep, his survival was practically guaranteed.
“If we do that we’ll lose a lot of men. The troll might even get you or me, since we can’t predict where it will strike,” Saeter told him.
Blacknail frowned. He didn’t like where this was going.
“You have a better idea, old man?” Red Dog asked.
“Yes, I’ll take a seven or eight of our more experienced men and trail the troll back to its lair. We’ll corner it there and finish it off. That will give you and the wounded time to get going,” Saeter suggested.
“Dangerous. You would be putting experienced men at risk to save the wounded and rookies. Do you really think you can do it?” Red Dog replied skeptically.
“This is what I do,” Saeter told him.
“Very well. Good luck then, and may all the gods bless your path, old man,” Red Dog replied.
Saeter nodded and then turned to Blacknail.
“Come on, we have a lot of hard dangerous work ahead of us,” Saeter told the hobgoblin.
Blacknail sighed. Of course his master didn’t like Red Dog’s plan, and of course his idea put him right in the most dangerous place possible. The hobgoblin was beginning to wonder if his master was trying to get himself killed, and take Blacknail with him.