Werrick’s sword cut through the air as it zoomed toward Blacknail’s face. However, the hobgoblin was ready. He ducked under the attack and stepped forward. Behind his wolf helmet, a brief frown appeared on Werrick’s face as Blacknail then stabbed upward at the man’s unarmored armpit. To ward off the blow, Werrick was forced to take a step back and swing his weapon around into a guard position. Blacknail didn’t stay still either. That would be stupid against such a powerful opponent. Still moving, he circled around to find a new opening in the man’s stance.
“There’s definitely something different about you,” Werrick remarked as the battle raged on around him.
Over his leather, the Wolf was wearing a chainmail shirt with steel pauldrons and bracers on his arms. He towered over Blacknail by over a foot – if you didn’t include the hobgoblins horn’s – and he must have weighed over twice as much. Blacknail didn’t care about that, though. He’d hunted big game before, and this was his greatest enemy. His only real rival and the killer of his master. He had to die.
Hissing with barely contained fury, Blacknail burned Elixir and feinted left. When Werrick moved to counter the feint, Blacknail quickly turned and slashed right instead with unnatural speed. His blade nicked Werrick’s arm and drew blood, although it was but a tiny wound. As Werrick raised his guard again, a look of dawning comprehension appeared on his face.
“Oh, I understand now,” Werrick laughed confidently. “You’re him, the Blacknail. I didn’t recognize you. All you green-skinned savages look the same, and there are suddenly a lot you around.”
“All you pink idiots die the same,” Blacknail hissed back as he looked for another opening. Time was on his side now. His reinforcements were a lot closer than Werrick’s.
Werrick just smiled. “Oh, I don’t think that’s true at all. I’ve seen my fair share of both humanity and death. Still, I must say, you’ve managed to surprise me quite badly here, with this ambush of yours. Mahedium warned me about you, but I didn’t suspect anything like this. You’ve raised an army from nowhere! If anything, you’re even more dangerous than the mage warned. This has become quite the mess.”
“You were a fool to let me lure you here. Underestimating me will be your last mistake,” Blacknail replied in a tone that seethed with anger. “Your first was daring to take my master from me. I will bleed you for that.”
“Now who is being overconfident?” Werrick countered. He didn’t seem impressed by Blacknail’s bluster. “I don’t have time to chat though. I admit you’ve placed me in a bit of an unexpected bind, so let me show you how I pushed back your big friend back there. You should be proud. Very few people have ever managed to make me fight seriously. Herad never did.”
Blacknail opened his mouth to shout back, but then something odd caught his eye. Werrick’s blade had grown hazy. It was almost like smoke was rising from it, creating ripples in the air.
Before Blacknail could figure out what he was seeing, Werrick took a step back and slashed. His blade cut empty air, but something shot out from the sword. The blur zoomed straight for Blacknail’s head, but he dodged to the side and it flew past him to collide with a hobgoblin that had been running over to join the fight. There was a spray of blood as the invisible force cut into the hobgoblin’s chest, and he dropped lifeless to the ground.
Blacknail grimaced and turned to focus on Werrick’s weapon. Was that a magic sword? Blacknail hated magic. It was never fair. Was Werrick a mage? No, you couldn’t be both a mage and Vessel, unless everyone had been lying to him. The man must be using the sword to channel his Vessel powers somehow.
Before Blacknail could give his situation any more thought, Werrick attacked again. He slashed the air and then charged forward with startling speed. Blacknail was forced to jump aside to dodge the magic slash and then hastily try to block Werrick’s actual sword. He barely managed it, but he was knocked off balance by the bigger man’s strength and stumbled. Bloody magic!
As Werrick twisted around to strike at him again, Blacknail decided to even the score. Burning the Elixir in his blood, he reached within himself and pushed a wave of mind smothering fear at Werrick. He growled and bared his teeth as he unleashed the magic. Halfway through the swing Werrick was aiming to decapitate Blacknail with, the power hit him. The Wolf flinched in surprise and stumbled, but quickly recovered. Blacknail had time to get his own balance back, but not enough to strike at Werrick in return. He’d been hoping for more, but Werrick was obviously resistant to magic. Most Vessels and mages were.
“What was that?” Werrick grumbled as he eyed Blacknail warily and readjusted his stance.
The Wolf didn’t wait for an answer, though. Instead, he immediately attacked again. Without bothering to use his magic, he unleashed a flurry of slashes at Backnail. Even with his guard up, the hobgoblin was hard pressed to stop the attacks. The crash of metal on metal rang out as their blades met. Werrick was fast and powerful. His attacks also had weight, and he was armored. Almost every advantage was his.
Blacknail jumped back away from a cut aimed at his face, and Werrick didn’t follow. Instead, the man slashed the air again, and a blade of air flew past Blacknail. Glancing over his shoulder, Blacknail saw two more his minions fall as the slash tore into them. They’d been about to join in the fight. Not that they would have been much help.
This confrontation wasn’t going the way Blacknail had thought it would. In his head, he’d pictured himself picking off a wounded Werrick or getting a surprise attack in that would quickly end the fight. At the very least, he’d thought he’d have help. Unfortunately, his minions were useless, and Ilsiti was stuck on the other side of the battle. Still, there had to be a way for him to win. He wasn’t going to let Saeter’s killer get away. Not when he was right there in front of him and in as weak a position as Blacknail could hope to arrange.
Snarling, Blacknail lunged forward and cut at Werrick’s side, but the man blocked the attack and replied with one of his own. His blade swung around and nicked Blacknail’s arm. The hobgoblin winced. The wound stung, but it wasn’t serious. Blacknail couldn’t afford any distractions, though. As Werrick took a step back, Blacknail was forced to follow him. Werrick was able to attack from a distance and Blacknail wasn’t.
With Werrick holding his ground, there was a clear avenue for his troops to move through, and more and more of them were retreating from the battle. Blacknail couldn’t stop them, and his irregulars had become useless. There were too few of them left to block Werrick’s retreat.
With no other ideas, Blacknail fought an aggressive defense. He kept within striking distance of Werrick but focused more on dodging and blocking rather than trying to cut his enemy down. He was simply buying time now, in the hopes that something would shift the advantage back his way. Off to the right, two hobgoblins managed to take down a bandit, but then two more bandits surged forward and scattered them.
As Blacknail dodged a slash aimed at his shoulder, the flow of the battle around him began to change. Most of Werrick’s troops had escaped the encirclement now. Only the line of troops holding back Ilisti and the hobgoblin spearmen were left, and they were retreating in a slow but orderly fashion. Soon, Werrick and his men would be completely out of the trap.
Blacknail hissed as he stepped forward and hacked at Werrick, but the man easily blocked the blow and then pushed. The force of the shove almost knocked Blacknail over, and he was forced to stumble backwards.
“Watch out, boss!” a voice suddenly yelled.
Blacknail glanced over his shoulder to see one of Imp’s assistants. He was holding a red mana crystal, which he immediately ignited and threw at Werrick. Instantly, Blacknail jumped out of the way of the burning projectile. Werrick didn’t stay still either. However, instead of dodging, he raised a gauntleted hand. As Blacknail watched, a rippling burst of force shot out his palm and hit the crystal, carrying it right back to the hobgoblin who had thrown it. The hobgoblin mage’s eyes went wide in shock. He barely had time flinch in surprise before the mix of force and fire hit him in the chest, pushing him backwards, and then it exploded. The air shook from the boom and pieces of earth flew in every direction. Blacknail winced as he saw that there was only a smoking crater where the hobgoblin mage had been standing a second ago. Ouch.
“I’m growing impatient. It’s time to finish this,” Werrick announced as he swung his blade at Blacknail again.
As Blacknail dodged the wind blade that sliced past him, he couldn’t help but notice that all his nearby minions had suddenly found other places to be. None of them were coming to help him. Instead, they’d found less deadly bandits to attack or had just run away. Stupid minions. This was what he’d created them for! They were being incredibly ungrateful. When this was over, they were all going to get the worst punishments imaginable.
Werrick didn’t give Blacknail any more time to think. Ilisti would soon arrive with his troops, so the Wolf went all out. Shoulder first, he swung his sword back and charged straight at his opponent. Blacknail tried to sidestep and take a slice at Werrick’s head, but the man didn’t dodge. Instead, he just brought his shoulder up and ducked his head down, so it was protected by his pauldron. Screeching, Blacknail’s blade scraped against the metal armor without penetrating, and then Werrick smashed into him. They were too close for Werrick to use his sword, but the force of the charge was dangerous enough. Werrick’s shoulder hit Blacknail’s chest, blasting the air out of his lungs and throwing him up into the air. The hobgoblin’s ribs warped and squeezed his organs for a second as the physical force of the blow passed through him. Instantly, pain seared throughout his body and his head whipped back, cracking his neck and making his vision go white for a second.
Unprompted and without thought, Elixir suddenly flowed through Blacknail’s veins. Its power burned through him, and a few pumps of his heart later, he gasped and was pulled back to consciousness. He wasn’t going to lose! The need to for vengeance still roared within Blacknail, and he fought to reorient himself.
However, that was when Werrick struck again. Blacknail was still stumbling backwards. All Werrick had to do was swing his sword. Blacknail saw it coming but he was too weak to react properly. The hobgoblin could only blink as the blade came around in an arc and smashed into his ribs. Cutting through his leather vest, the sharp metal implement cracked bone and tore into flesh as Blacknail was sent flying sideways. He hit the ground hard, and his limp body rolled across the grass, leaving a trail of blood.
Pain blazed throughout Blacknail as his rolling body came to stop. In its wake it left desolation and weakness. He felt cold and his vision had gone blurry. He was laying on his side, and he knew he couldn’t stay there, no matter how much he hurt. Grimacing and marshaling his strength, he tried to move, but he couldn’t manage anything more than a feeble twitch of an arm.
Despair blossomed throughout Blacknail as he realized that he’d lost. He was already dying. No, this couldn’t be the end! Dimly, red hot hate flared up and attempted to push away the smothering darkness of despair and the death that was pressing down on Blacknail’s spirit, but it was pointless fight.
Movement caught Blacknail’s gaze, and he noticed Werrick calmly walking his way. The man stopped a few feet away and looked down at Blacknail. There was an inscrutable frown on his face.
“So, there’s still some life in you. Impressive. It’s almost a shame I have to snuff it out,” Werrick remarked. “You’re the only real opponent I’ve had since I started this business. In a way, dealing with you was practically fun, but this is the last time you’ll surprise me. You’re far too unpredictable to let live. I still can’t wrap my head around how you built an army of hobgoblins, and they’ll be as dangerous as demons even without you around to lead them.”
All Blacknail could manage in reply was a hate filled gurgle. It burst out of his throat along with more than a few drops of blood. Stupid human.
Werrick laughed and raised his weapon. As the man slashed the air, something hit Blacknail’s chest. He spasmed as more pain ripped through him. Under this new assault, his body gave out. His vision blacked out and his muscles went limp. Consciousness began to fade…
Everything was dim and cold. Blacknail couldn’t quite remember where he was or why he hurt so much. Screams of pain and the ring of metal hitting metal echoed over him. Was he in a battle? Everything was going black, even the light of his own thoughts…
Suddenly, someone poked Blacknail’s shoulder, and his eyes flickered open. His vision was blurry, but he saw two figures leaning over him.
“Do you think he’s dead?” one hobgoblin asked the other.
“Dunno, do you think anyone would care if I took his pants?” his companion replied.
Blacknail groaned. He was slightly more conscious now. He still couldn’t talk but he could glare at them. Bloody minions. So useless. Why couldn’t any of them have taken some initiative and become healers? Really good ones. This was all their fault, somehow.
Without warning, Blacknail’s vision dimmed again and he lost his grip on consciousness. When it returned, he wasn’t sure how long had passed, but there were several new people around. One of them had red hair. Oh, no. It was Khita. She wasn’t even going to let him die in peace. So annoying.
“He should be dead already. There are two holes in his chest,” someone who sounded familiar observed.
“You need to fight, Blacknail. Don’t let death claim you. We’re here. We’ll get you wrapped up. Fight,” Khita shouted in his ear.
The redhead sounded quite distraught. Blacknail was glad he wasn’t the only one in pain. She was also quite afraid, Blacknail could sense it. In fact, he could sense a lot of fear from countless people. Their thoughts swirled around him, like sparks from a bonfire up into the night sky.
“Fight what? Wolfy gone,” Blacknail wondered aloud. His voice was little more than a quiet rasp. Werrick had gotten away. He’d walked right out of the trap Blacknail had spent so much time building. What was the point in struggling more?
Much to Blacknail’s frustration, Khita instantly began yelling again. “Fight to live! Fight to protect what you’ve built! Saeter would be so proud if he could see you now. Don’t let it all go to waste. We need you!”
Of course, they needed him. He was the leader. They couldn’t do anything without him, the idiots. Khita wouldn’t last a day. Blacknail sighed mentally. He wasn’t dead yet, despite the wreckage of his body, and that meant his spirit could still fight for life. But did he have the will to fight? What price was he willing to pay? There would be so much pain…
Was killing Werrick really all that mattered? An image of Ironbreak as seen from the hill overlooking it flashed before Blacknail’s eyes. He’d built that. It had been all him. If he died now it would probably fall apart as the hobgoblins turned on each other. Then what would happen to all his poor human minions? Saeter had wanted him to look after them. The old scout had always talked about his love for the North. Really, this wasn’t about Blacknail at all… Was that possible? What a weird way to think.
Blacknail took a deep breath. It hurt, but the pain cleared his mind. He was dying. He had to do something about that. His body was spent, so he needed a new source of power, and he had an idea. Blacknail burned Elixir and felt the burning power flow through him. Then, reaching out with his magic, Blacknail grabbed at the minds he felt all around him. He’d done this once before. Half dead, he remembered how.
Cold power flushed throughout Blacknail as he tasted the fear and terror of hundreds. It raged within him as it mingled with the usual fire of his Elixir. He was forced to take another aching breath. It burned like he was trying to hold ice with his brain, but he didn’t let go. This was magic. If anything could heal him, this could. Focusing, Blacknail sent the power flowing out into his body. A storm of potential.
Almost immediately, Blackail felt his body grow stronger, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough. So, the hobgoblin pulled in more power. He ripped at all the minds around him and dragged at their light, sucking in all their terror and hate. It was too much for his body and began to slip away, so Blacknail began forcing the power into one spot and compressing it. That worked. Power poured into Blacknail and raged throughout his body. As the maelstrom whirled and raged, his body expanded in response. Flesh healed, and bone reknit.
There were several gasps of shock from the onlookers, but then Gob spoke up from somewhere nearby. “We have to move him. No one must see him while he is weak. I do not trust the vympir or many of the hobs.”
“I’ll watch over him myself, and we can trust Herah,” Khita quickly responded.
That was all Blacknail heard. Without warning, his spirit suddenly gave out and he was consumed by darkness again.