Bane of Humanity 11

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Bane of Humanity 10

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Blacknail shuddered as an unnatural cold assaulted him. It burned as it stabbed through his flesh and seeped into his blood. Gritting his teeth, Blacknail steadied himself and looked toward the Doom of Coroulis. 

“Keep running!” he told his minions as he raised a hand to shield his eyes from the cold. They felt like they were freezing and cracking, but he could see fine.

The mutant drake was still perched atop the remains of the ruined home. Its intense yellow eyes seemed to focus on Blacknail as the other hobgoblins ran past him. Blacknail took a moment to study it in turn. It was gigantic, much larger than even many of the fancy homes of Coroulis. The mutant had the body of a grey-scaled lizard, but with a crest of blue feathers on its head that ran all the way down its back. The Doom was without a doubt unmatched predator. Its jaws were so thick and powerful they looked like they could crush boulders, and its magic abilities were made obvious by the blue crystal spikes sticking out of its skin. 

Saeter had mentioned this beast quite a lot, usually as some form of curse word. Saeter had never said it directly, he’d almost never talked about himself, but others had told Blacknail that his master had been here when the city had fallen. His master had also apparently seen the mutant with his own eyes, just like Blacknail was now. The Doom was one of his master’s enemies, which was one of the reasons Blacknail had agreed to come here. All his master’s foes needed to die. That was Blacknail’s mission. That was the hunger that drove him forward despite the pain and loss. 

“Form up and activate your amulets!” Sir Masnin yelled from down the street. As the same time, many other humans began shouting and screaming. They sighted Myagnoir.

Sir Masnin’s words brought Blacknail back to reality and reminded him that he had a heating amulet of his own, so he quickly reached up to activate it. As soon as his fingers squeezed it, he felt the oppressive cold retreat as warmth flooded out of the protective trinket. Blacknail would have felt relieved, but that was when the Doom decided to hop down from the building and began stalking his way. Right. He needed to get the hells out of here. He wasn’t actually planning on killing the Doom himself. That would be beyond stupid, like something Khita would try to do. 

Turning around, Blacknail sprinted toward the humans down the street as quickly as he could, which was faster than he’d ever moved before. The humongous predator behind him gave him plenty of motivation to push himself.

Up ahead, Sir Masnin was readying his force to meet the Doom. Taking advantage of the wide street, they’d formed up into two lines of riders, and Blacknail saw that many of them were armed with the mages’ heat lances. Lord Ilisti and Werrick both had them and were on either side of Sir Masnin. Behind the riders were the mages and warriors without lances. One of the mage’s was already holding up a glowing staff. It burned with orange light and the air around it shimmered lightly.

There was a loud crack as stone shattered beneath Myagnoir’s weight as he ran. Blacknail flinched and looked back. He was almost to his allies now, but the drake had closed the distance considerably, even if it didn’t seem to be moving nearly as fast as it could. Instead, it seemed aggressive but wary. 

In fact, Myagnoir slowed instead of charging straight ahead at the riders. It roared – shaking the air – and then the crystals jutting from its back glowed menacingly. Immediately, frost appeared on the ruins around the beast, the air above it swirled violently, and then two huge jagged shards of ice formed above the drake. Soon, they were both larger than a horse. 

As Myagnoir roared again, and the ice shards shot forth. The first went straight toward Sir Masnin and the other riders. There were fearful shouts as the icy projectile closed in on the humans, but then one of the mage’s responded. He raised his staff and it let out a pulse of roiling red flame. This wave of burning power washed over incoming spear of ice and disintegrated it. The humans were completely unharmed. 

However, Blacknail didn’t have time to feel relieved. The second icy spear had been hurled his way. Panic raced though Blacknail as he reached into his core and grabbed as much magic as he could. Shoving the magic into his muscles, he threw himself sideways out of the way of the ice spear. His body burned from the effort as a wave of cold overpowered his amulet and prickled his skin, but a moment later, the huge projectile flew past him. He’d dodged it! He was still alive. 

One of the hobgoblins in front of him wasn’t so fortunate. The spear slammed right into him. His body didn’t even slow it. He simply disappeared as the icy projectile slammed into him, and then they both flew into one of the ruined homes alongside the street. The impact threw a cloud of dust up into the air as the building collapsed in on itself. There was no sign of the now very dead hobgoblin, except a single boot he’d left behind on the street. It was just sitting there where he’d been standing a moment ago. Blacknail had no idea how that had happened, but he couldn’t spare it a thought. Myagnoir was still charging toward him. 

As the drake roared again, Blacknail resumed his frantic dash toward his allies. As he moved, he noted that Herah was already there. So much for her never leaving his side or whatever! He would remember this. 

A moment later, Blacknail reached the line of horsemen and quickly charged past them without stopping. He didn’t plan on being anywhere near them when the fight started. He wasn’t getting paid to fight city killing monsters. He’d found the thing for them, so now killing it was the humans’ job. 

Sir Masnin raised his lance and began shouting more orders. “Forward knights! For righteousness, and for humanity! Flank the beast like we’ve planned and target its weak underbelly as you pass.” 

As soon as he was done yelling, there was a determined cheer from the other mounted warriors, and then the paladin sprang into action. Shouting wordlessly, he urged his horse forward and it began charging toward the enemy. A moment later, the other knights and warriors followed. Splitting apart, the charging horsemen went up both sides of the road, leaving the center open. Obviously, they planned on flanking Maygnoir instead of facing him head on. This plan also had they advantage of giving the mages that had remained behind a clear line of fire, which they immediately took advantage of. Lances of searing flame and hissing fireballs shot toward the mutant drake. 

Seeing the incoming fire, Myagnoir roared again and the air around him began to swirl like a miniature cyclone. Then, the vortex was filled with swirling white shards of ice, turning the exterior of the cyclone into something that almost looked like a solid barrier that completely surrounded the drake. Blacknail felt the tip of his long nose freeze for a second before his amulet adjusted. The battleground had grown even colder. Now, white sparkling frost was everywhere, on both the ground and the nearby ruins. It was a good thing that the mage with the orange staff was shielding all the humans that didn’t have amulets. They’d all probably be dead without the shimmering haze of heat that was radiating from the staff. After the battle, Blacknail would have to look for an opportunity to acquire it when no one was looking. It be nice to have over the winter. 

Up ahead, the mages’ fiery spells slammed into the drake’s freezing cyclone, creating explosions of steam and throwing the cyclone into chaos. It grew more frenzied and chaotic as every blast hit it, until it began to shrink and fade.

Growling, Myagnoir eyed the charging knights and abandoned his cyclonic shield. As it faded, he came to a stop and smashed one of his front claws into the stone of the road. Immediately, the earth rumbled and an unnerving cracking filled the air. A second later, as everyone watched breathlessly, the road in front of Myagnoir erupted violently. Huge jagged shard of ice burst out of the ground, lifting up tons of earth and stone to form a huge wall right in front of Myagnoir. The mage’s fireballs slammed into the icy barrier and exploded without doing much in the way of damage. 

“Forward, for country and divinity!” Sir Masnin yelled as he rode past the wall. His subordinates streamed after him. Blacknail saw Ilisti and Werrick ride past the other side as well. 

Regardless of the ice wall, the knights were too close to Mayagnoir for the mages to keep throwing fire at the beast, so they lowered their staffs to watch like everyone else. 

Although the ice wall was partly in the way, Blacknail could still see almost everything. As he watched, the two lines of knights streamed toward Myagnoir. The massive drake growled and swiped at Sir Masnin with one of its claws, but the paladin and his horse managed to dodge the attack and make it past the beast unscathed. This also gave the other group of knights an opening that they ruthlessly exploited. Charging in, Werrick stabbed one of the mutant’s legs with his fire-lance.

Myagnor screamed in pain but reacted quickly and smoothly. The great drake spun around, so that its tail swiped at the knights from behind. Scattering, most the knights were forced to abandon their charge, and two of them were hit by the long scaly appendage. The impact sent both men and horse flying off the road and into the ruins. Judging by the loud snapping sound of armor and bone breaking he’d heard, Blacknail was sure they wouldn’t be getting back up. 

However, not all the riders missed their chance at the drake. Lord Ilsisti managed to duck under the tail and continue on. Before swerving away, his fire-lance bit deep into the side of Myagnoir, leaving a bleeding and faintly smoking gash. The drake’s scales were thinner near its belly. It was injured, but not enough to hamper it. Ice-cold malevolence radiated from its yellow eyes as it glared at the humans. 

Myagnoir roared in defiance and rage once the last its foes had streamed past. The beast seemed insulted at being injured by such tiny attackers, even if it had only taken minor wounds. However, the roar was more than a scream of defiance. A blast of freezing air surged away from the drake toward the retreating knights. Thankfully, they managed to dodge the center of the icy blast, and their amulets protected them from the freezing winds that swirled around it. This seemed to infuriate Myagnoir further, it scratched the ground with one of its claws – tearing up paving stones – and let out a low menacing growl. 

Turning away from the knights that were now attempting to reform for another charge, Myagnoir peered around the wall of ice and rubble it had made, and directly at Blacknail and the people near him. 

“Uh oh!” Herah remarked. She’d shamelessly made her way over to his side now that it was safe. 

“Bah, that stupid lizard can’t hurt us,” Khita said dismissively. She’d also wandered over from somewhere. 

“Ya, we’re probably fine,” Blacknail replied. There were over a dozen humans in front of him, including two mages. While they may not have been knights or Vessels, they were still heavily armed warriors. They also had plenty of defensive magic. If Myagnoir attacked them, he’d simply be opening himself to an attack from behind by the knights while he was distracted. Blacknail almost wished he would do that. 

However, Blacknail’s confident sneer soon grew lopsided. As he watched, Myagnoir took a step back behind the icy wall, spun around in a circle, and slammed his tail into a boulder that was sitting atop his wall. There was a loud cracking noise as the ice broke, and then the boulder was sent flying straight toward the center of the humans’ formation. Flying with startling speed, it was headed right at the mage with the orange staff. Immediately, the mages tried to defend themselves. A shield of fire rose into the air and a fiery lance shot toward the boulder. However, the lance shattered the boulder without stopping it, and the rock shards were blackened by the shield but not deflected. Before the mages could raise a more appropriate defense, the shower of stone slammed into the center of the human formation. Screams filled the air as the rocks tore into flesh and bounced across the road. 

Blacknail was out of the immediate danger area but he still threw himself further away, just in case. Herah and Khita landed next to him a moment later.

“Stupid lizard is smart,” Blacknail growled as he picked himself off the ground a few moments later. He should have known better than to ever agree with Khita. She was always wrong. Always!

Looking around, Blacknail saw that the mage with the orange staff was definitely dead. Both his body and his staff had been torn to pieces by the deadly hail, dissipating the heat aura he’d been creating. That was very bad. Blacknail saw that everyone nearby was already starting to feel the effects of the cold. He was the only one – other than the remaining mage – who had a protective amulet. 

“So cold! It’s freezing, boss,” Herah groaned as he climbed to her feet. She was hugging herself and shivering uncontrollably. 

Khita nodded in agreement. “Ya, it’s colder than a noble’s heart all of sudden.”

“Get out of here,” Blacknail ordered them as he gave Herah a push. She didn’t move fast enough, so Khita grabbed her arm and began leading her away. The redhead seemed to have some protection from the cold thanks to her status as a Vessel. 

Almost all the nearby humans were running or stumbling away now too. With the death of the mage protecting them, their entire formation had been destroyed and become a chaotic mess. Blacknail grimaced as he looked around. Although the Doom had turned back around to face the knights charging its way, this probably wasn’t the smartest place to stand. He was exposed and alone in the middle of street. Thus, Blacknail jogged over into the nearby ruined buildings to look for somewhere he could watch the action from. 

Blacknail found a perch on a nearby wall just in time to see Sir Masnin and the others make their second pass. The thundering of horse hooves grew louder as they approached with lances ready. The Doom growled at them and launched several small ice spears their way, but none of them hit. Two were blocked by a hazy shield created by a mage, and the other missed the riders completely. 

Sir Masnin lead the first group of knights that charged at Myagnoir from its left. The massive drake appeared to have learned caution from its last run in with the knights. Instead of the facing its attackers head on, it swiped at the paladin and jumped back. Sir Masnin tried to dodge, but he took a glancing blow from the claws. He swayed back, but didn’t fall, thanks to his heavy armor. A few second later, he rode past the mutant drake. The other knights attempted to stab the Doom, but it displayed a surprising amount of agility. Dodging away, it avoided the knights in the first group, and then it spun around again to avoid the second group trying to flank it. As they passed, it lashed out with its tail and sent another knight tumbling off his horse. Blacknail sighed as observed the conflict. This wasn’t going his side’s way. 

Sir Masnin seemed to have reached a similar conclusion, because he changed strategies. After turning around to face the Doom again, the riders shifted their formation and split into three equal sized groups. The third hung back behind the other two, who approached Myagnoir from opposite sides like before. Sir Masin and Ilisti led the forward groups, while Werrick led the back one. 

As they raced toward battle, Myagnoir attempted to raise another swirling shield of freezing air. However, as the vortex began to spin around him, a lance of hissing flame shot out of the ruins and slammed into it, scattering the winds and briefly washing over the drake’s hide. The surviving mage from Blacknail’s group appeared to still be in the fight. Good. Myagnoir was undamaged by the magical attack but snarled angrily as it turned to face the riders charging it. Its blue feathery crest rippled as if to display its rage at being challenged. 

Myagnoir tensed up as if in preparation to fight, but the approaching knights didn’t immediately attack. Instead, the first two groups split up and rode past it, before quickly turning around. Growling, Myagnoir could only watch as it was encircled, and only then did  Sir Masnin and Ilisti lead their forces in. They moved cautiously as the advanced all at once. Blacknail smiled to himself. It was obvious Sir Masnin was planning on pinning the Doom down so that the third group of knights could get strike a powerful blow. That was a good way to hunt something so big and nasty. 

The Doom of Coroulis didn’t like being surrounded. It snarled and hissed as it lashed out with its claws and tail. The riders under Sir Masnin’s command were being cautious, but they still took a few hits. Two knights were thrown off their mounts, although one got back onto his feet. As Blacknail watched, a third rider was bitten in half by a snap of Myanoir’s jaws. He wouldn’t be getting back up. 

The knights weren’t ineffective, though. Ilisti dismounted from his horse and rushed in on foot. Dodging a claw, he then countered with a slash of his own. His heat-lance cut through scales, leaving a smoking gash on Myagnoir’s leg. Enraged, Myagnoir turned to face him and hunched down as if to pounce. That was when Sir Masnin ran in and stabbed one of the beast’s back legs. He’d also dismounted. 

Startled, Myagnoir yelped and almost lost its balance as it flinched. Off balance, it lashed out at Sir Masnin with its tail. The paladin took a glancing blow and was knocked backwards. He then fell and rolled across the ground but got up a second later. He didn’t seem wounded. It was hard to hurt a Vessel in full armor. 

Taking advantage of the distraction, Lord Ilisti charged at the beast. Myagnoir responded by swiping at him with a claw, but the beast was still off balance, and the vympir was able to duck under the attack. He then stabbed the Myagnor in the chest with the lance. The weapon hissed and smoked as it sunk almost a foot into the beast’s flesh. 

Roaring in pain and rage, Myagnoir jumped back. Its eyes glowed menacingly as it gathered mana, and upon landing, there was a flash of blue light. Blacknail blinked. For second, it seemed like everyone had frozen in surprise, but that wasn’t right. Their upper bodies were still moving. Their lower bodies were simply stuck to the ground by ice that had risen up from the earth. 

Steam rose from the human’s boots as their amulets fought to free them, but they weren’t quite fast enough. Ilisiti pulled one foot free, but before he could get the other, Myagnoir spun and hit him with a swing of his tail. The was a metallic ringing and the vympir was sent flying. He hit a pile of stone next to the road, sending up a cloud of dust. 

Blacknail winced and then looked down the road. He sensed something was amiss. What was taking Werrick so long? 

Bane of Humanity 9

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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. 

Uh oh. 

Bane of Humanity 8

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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.” 

“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. 

Bane of Humanity 7

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“Why do you suppose the ancient hobgoblins built this circle?” Darlin asked as Blacknail and him walked out of the ring of stones.

The man was one of the combat mages attached to the expedition, and although he’d avoided Blacknail before this, he couldn’t resist questioning the hobgoblin about the standing stones. He was a solidly built man who wore a breastplate over his grey mage’s robe. From what Blacknail could tell, he was the leader of the combat mages. Despite that, he had a youthful face and short brown hair. 

Blacknail shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they’re for fighting in. Hobgoblins like fighting and I don’t know what else you’d use a big circle for.”

After their first day in the Green, the expedition to Coroulis had camped within the circle of standing stones over the night. Now, they were ready to leave and get moving again. 

“That seems unlikely,” the mage replied. “I think the stones have been carefully placed to line up with the sun. Did ancient hobgoblins worship the sun?”

“I don’t know,” Blacknail told him as he grimaced sourly. He was getting tired of everyone asking him about this stuff. He didn’t know anything about the standing stones but what Saeter had told him long ago, which was that they’d been built by hobgoblins. Humans hadn’t been around back then, and the forest people hadn’t built things from stone. 

Darlin glanced to the side. “What do you make of the carvings though? Surely you have an opinion on them?”

“They’re a bunch of blurry lines. I think I could draw much better than that.”  

Although the circle of standing stone was ancient and had been weathered greatly by time, some carvings on their surfaces had survived. Many of the humans had studied these carvings with great interest, even though they were little more than some collections of lines that vaguely looked like people and animals. Except for some little horn-like things on the heads of a few of the figures, you couldn’t even tell if most the figures were supposed to be hobgoblins. Many of them were indistinguishable from humans or forest people. 

Looking to get away from annoying questions about old rocks which he’d already answered, Blacknail left the humans behind and went out into the Green to scout the way forward with some of his hobs. Thankfully, Sir Masin was able to get everyone moving before too long, and the rest of the expedition was soon following in Blacknail’s footsteps. Really, what was the humans’ fascination with those standing stones? Blacknail had personally built – or at least ordered built – things that were much more impressive, like his mansion or Ferrar’s furnaces, and humans didn’t gather around those and whisper to each other. Homes and furnaces were actually useful, but they were far more interested in staring at some old rocks with badly drawn pictures on them. Stupid humans. 

It wasn’t like Blacknail hated the stones. Actually, he rather liked them. They gave off an aura of ageless endurance that he found comforting, and he enjoyed seeing proof that hobgoblins could build things to last, since many of his plans required that to be true. Sometimes he wasn’t so sure that was possible. Like every time Ferrar blew up his workshop, when his hobs started slacking off and fighting amongst themselves whenever he turned his back, or every time he remembered Scamp existed. Thankfully, that wasn’t often these days. Scamp was far away, working at the hunting lodges outside Ironbreak.   

It was mostly the humans’ reaction to the standing stones that annoyed Blacknail. They made everything about either humans or hobgoblins, like they were two big groups that all thought alike. That was clearly not the case, and dealing with their stupidity was annoying. He was just Blacknail. 

He could have done without the weird dreams though. They were also somewhat responsible for his bad mood. Despite their calming presence, there was something about the stones that had disturbed Blacknail’s sleep. He remembered fragments of the chaotic dreams. There had been a storm of snow. In the dream, Blacknail had followed a bloody trail towards it, passing snow-covered bodies along the way. The massive blizzard had spun and twisted in on itself as it tore apart everything near it. White had drowned out everything, except at the center of the storm. There, where it had been eerily calm, Blacknail remembered seeing a glowing pillar of ice. It had radiated cold blue light, and then the dream had ended.  

What a dumb dream to have on a chilly spring day! Why couldn’t he have dreamed of cheese and fur blankets?

Blacknail was following an animal trail that wound through the trees, when he noticed a patch of dried mud that was covered in prints. So, he took a moment to crouch down and study the tracks. Most of them were from rabbits, deer, or other critters. But, he saw one track that sent a jolt through his bones. It was clearly from a boggart. Looking around, Blacknail found several more boggart tracks nearby, next to bushes and tree roots. They looked to be almost a week old, but it was still concerning that boggarts were moving around in this part of the Green. 

Scowling, Blacknail headed back to report to Sir Masnin. He’d want to know about this development. 

“Show me,” the paladin replied as soon as he heard about the tracks. 

Blacknail simply nodded and led him and two of his guards over to the footprints. He then pointed them out for the humans, since he doubted they’d be able to find them on their own. 

“What do you think this means?” Sir Masnin asked after studying the prints in the dirt. 

“I might be nothing,” Blacknail answered. “Boggarts come up from the dark paths to hunt for food in the Green a lot. These tracks probably belong to a foraging party like that.” 

“We move on then, but be on the lookout for more signs of boggart activity, and report everything you find to me.” 

Blacknail nodded. “I will.” 

Sir Masnin then headed back to the main body of the expedition and they started moving forward again. 

Several hours later, Blacknail stumbled upon a new problem. The expedition had been following the old overgrown road north, but now the way forward was blocked by a raging river. The winding torrent of water had been flooded by the spring melt and was now impossible to cross. White frothy water gushed over its banks as it rushed along its path. There was no way anyone would be able to swim through that, and next to nothing remained of the bridge that had once crossed over the river. There were only a few stones left to mark where it used to stand.

Blacknail scowled sourly at the river before him. Well, it wasn’t like he hadn’t expected to run into this exact problem. All he could do was report back to Sir Masnin and then try not to roll his eyes when the paladin told him to go look for some other way to cross. 

Sir Masnin nodded sagely when Blacknail informed him of the river in their way. “It seems we have no choice but to find a new route. How long do you think it will take you?”

Blacknail didn’t roll his eyes. “I won’t know until I look. Could be hours, or it could be days.”

“Then you should get to it. What do you suggest our group do?” 

“I’ve sent some minions to head downstream and look around, but I think we should head upstream. That’s more the direction we want to go. My minions can catch up later, since you humans are so slow.” 

Sir Masnin looked calm as he nodded again. “It’s in the gods’ hands then. Lead the way.” 

After excusing himself, Blacknail did just that. He marched ahead and met with his scouts, who told him about another animal trail that the humans could use to follow the river upstream. Blacknail checked it out for himself and then sent his scouts back out while he waited for the humans to catch up. 

Sir Masnin stepped through the bushes and out into the path first, but he was swiftly followed by several of his men and then Khita. A long trek through the woods didn’t seem to have worn the redhead down at all. She was hyper and looked eager to explore. Her face brightened up upon seeing Blacknail. She’d been travelling with the rest of the humans, and he’d been avoiding her. 

“Er, this trail is much larger than the last. What sort of beast made it, exactly?” one of the armsmen asked as he looked around. The trail they were now on was quite tall and wide. Two men on horseback could ride along it without a problem, and there weren’t any branches hanging overhead either. 

“Ogres, mostly,” Blacknail answered. 

“Mostly?” 

Blacknail shrugged. “Drakes like to follow ogres around.” 

“I see,” the armsman remarked nervously as he peered into the nearby foliage as if drake might jump out at any moment. 

“Are we in any real danger from drakes?” Sir Masnin asked. 

“Probably not. They’re rare, and I’ve never been attacked by a drake. Then again, I’m a hobgoblin, not a human. Maybe you smell tasty to them.” 

“Hmmm, and what do you think we should do if we encounter a drake?”

Blacknail gave him a blank look. He wasn’t an expert on drakes, so he could only guess. “They like to chase large moving things. So, um… stay away from the horses and try not to look yummy?” 

Sir Masnin frowned with obvious dissatisfaction. “I was thinking of a more defensive plan where we either kill it or drive it away.”

“Well, you have a bunch of mages with drake killing weapons, so I suggest you use those,” Blacknail told him. 

“A fair enough point. I will speak to Darlin and the others,” Sir Masnin said before turning to go give orders to the men behind him. 

“I bet you and I could take a drake in a straight up fight!” Khita told Blacknail as she grinned happily.

“Sure, I’ll let you go in first,” Blacknail replied. 

Turning away from all the humans, the hobgoblin chieftain headed down the path. He planned on catching up to his forward scouts. Being around Khita for even several second had already depleted his reserves of patience when it came to dealing with the redhead. 

The going was very easy now, thanks to the wide animal path. It seemed like even the trees overhead were thinner here. Thus, the humans were making much better progress than before since they could ride without a problem. That meant Blacknail had to push his pace a little though. Following the path was easy, but Blacknail was also responsible for commanding the scouts. He had to keep eyes on the river so that they didn’t miss any possible crossings while also watching the Green for danger. 

After around an hour had passed, the forest path began to angle upwards and become rocky. The trees then began to thin out as the the forest transitioned into rocky hills that were covered in only a few stubby trees.  Soon, the ogre path veered away from the river, but Blacknail pressed on ahead regardless. He didn’t want to get too far from the water, and the rocky hills weren’t too hard to traverse. 

Climbing up the side of a rocky incline, Blacknail took a moment to look around. From up high, he could see the river peeking through the trees to his right. It was about a hundred feet away now. Up ahead and to his left were more rocky hills, several of which that were taller than the one he was on now. Jagged grey stone and the occasional scraggly bush jutted out of the hard earth all around him. In every other direction lay a sea of greenery atop towering trees. 

While he was taking in the scenery, Blacknail reached into his coat and withdrew a wedge of cheese. It was the last piece of his favorite flavor. He’d meant to make it last longer by eating other types of cheese, but he hadn’t been able to resist. Smiling, Blacknail looked back to see if anyone was catching up to him as he raised the cheese to his lips. 

However, before the cheese reached his mouth, there was a wet sensation on his fingers and the cheese vanished from his grip. Surprised, Blacknail spun around to see that had happened, and came face-to-face with a brown hill goat. It was a huge example of its species and it was chewing on Blacknail’s cheese. 

“Hey, that’s mine!” Blacknail growled as he glared at the wild thief. The large creature had a grey beard and sleepy eyes. It also had curved horns that were crystalline. A mutant! 

Blacknail reached for his blade. The huge goat simply snorted dismissively, and then in one swift movement, it spun around and kicked Blacknail in the chest. Caught off guard, the blow hit Blacknail hard, throwing him backwards. As his breath shot out of his lungs, he hung in the air for moment. Then, he hit the ground and began rolling down the hill. Rocks battered and stabbed him as he rolled, and he only came to a stop at the bottom of the hill. 

Groaning, Blacknail climbed to his feet and glowered at the goat atop the hill. Ow. His everything hurt now. There were rips in his clothing and he was scratched in several places, but at least he didn’t seem to have any serious wounds. 

“You will pay for this!” Blacknail yelled at the beast that had assaulted him and stolen his cheese. 

The goat just stared calmly down at him. Its face was expressionless. 

Drawing his sword, Blacknail began climbing the hill toward his assailant. Fighting a giant mutant goat right now probably wasn’t the brightest move, but some things needed done. It was the principle of the thing. Absolutely no one could be allowed to get away with stealing his cheese! If he let this goat do it without reprisal, then other goats might get ideas. 

However, instead of standing its ground, the goat just snorted again and began to walk away. 

“No, come back here, you smelly coward!” Blacknail cursed as he stomped after it.

The beast didn’t meet his challenge and just kept trotting away. Frustrated, Blacknail stopped and took a moment to think. He didn’t want to chase his new archenemy all across the Green. He was a little too busy for that at the moment.  

Thus, the hobgoblin sheathed his sword and reached into his coat to pull out another wedge of cheese. This one wasn’t quite as nice smelling as the last, but it was still quite fragrant, like musty herbs and old sweaty clothes. 

“You want this? Come and get it,” Blacknail yelled as he held the cheese out toward the goat. 

“What are you doing, boss?” a hobgoblin scout asked from behind Blacknail. He’d just stepped out of the trees. 

“Shut up and stay away,” Blacknail replied without turning around. The goat had stopped moving and had turned to look at the prize in Blacknail’s hand. 

“Sure, that sounds smart to me.” 

Slowly, the goat started walking back to Blacknail. The hobgoblin chieftain smiled. “Yes, that’s it. Come closer.”

When the goat was within Blacknail’s reach, he lunged forward and tried to grab one of its horns. He missed as the beast ducked to the side and then snatched the cheese from his other hand. The creature was swift and slippery. 

Growling, Blacknail reached for his sword, and was promptly kicked back down the hill again. The fall hurt even more the second time. 

Coughing, Blacknail climbed to his feet. Ow. His ribs felt one size too small. Also, some of them may have been knocked a little loose. 

“Fine, we’ll call this a draw. Consider yourself warned!” Blacknail yelled at the goat once he’d caught his breath. Charging the beast wouldn’t gain him anything, and really didn’t want to go through all that again. 

The beast’s face remained expressionless, but it licked its lips and drooled a little. 

“Are you done, boss?” Blacknail’s watching minion asked. 

“Yes, I was simply scaring away a vicious mutant. Look at it up there, too afraid to come down here and face me. You’re safe now.” 

“Thank you, boss.”

“You’re welcome,” Blacknail replied as he looked around for a new way forward that avoided the hill the goat was on.  

Focusing on his incredibly important mission, Blacknail resumed his scouting duties. If the goat bothered anyone else, he was sure one of the human Vessels could deal with it. Thus, the hobgoblin soon left the hill far behind. He didn’t manage to leave the goat behind though. The stupid thing began trotting after him. It didn’t attack or even get close, but it followed Blacknail as he moved over the hills and then back into the Green. 

“You’re not getting any more cheese!” the hobgoblin yelled at the goat, but it didn’t react. 

Blacknail tried yelling at it and shooing it away several more times, but to no avail. It would fade away into the trees only to reappear again some time later. Eventually, he gave up and just decided to ignore it until it got bored and left. 

As the day went on, the wind began to pick up and the sky overhead grew cloudy. Blacknail looked up at the sky and grew concerned. A storm was coming, so he headed back to meet with Sir Masnin and make preparations. 

The paladin nodded in agreement after Blacknail had explained his concerns. “If it begins to rain heavily then we will be forced to take shelter. I don’t think our sleeping tents will shield us from a real torrent or storm. We will press on for now, but I believe that finding shelter for us should be your priority.” 

Blacknail had no problem with that, so he immediately sent out word for all his scouts to search for caves or other features that would shelter them from a storm. It took a while. The expedition continued to travel parallel to the river for another hour before one of Blacknail’s scouts returned with news. He’d found a series of shallow caves that would stay dry during a storm. 

After questioning his minion to make sure the space was suitable, Blacknail waited for the humans to catch up so he could lead them there. As he waited, the wind picked up and black clouds filled the sky. A heavy storm looked inevitable now. 

“Have you found us shelter. A storm is coming!” Sir Masnin yelled over the winds upon reaching Blacknail. The rest of the expedition was walking or riding behind him. 

“Yes, this way!” Blacknail yelled back as he led them off the trail and into the Green. The sky had already started to spit a light rain that was making everything damp. 

It took quite a bit of effort to get all the humans off the road and safely to the shelter. They stumbled through the now shadowy trees, tripping over roots and bushes. Hobgoblins were required to shepherd them and keep the stupider ones from getting lost. This was made much more confusing because there were a series of ponds nearby. Not only did people keep falling into them, but hordes of spiny frogs had emerged from the water to enjoy the rain. The critters were loud, and their spines could go right though leather boots if you stepped on them. Thankfully, at least the trees protected everyone from the wind and rain. 

“It looks like we’ll be staying here until morning,” Sir Masnin remarked once everyone was in the caves and they were all out of the weather. 

The caves they were occupying were located in the side of a small cliff. It was right in the forest, so trees surrounded it. Sir Masnin had to lean out of the cave and peak through gaps in the leafy canopy overhead to see the sky. Most of the mounts had been placed in their own cave, and the humans had gone deeper into the cave to huddle and warm themselves.

“This looks like a big storm that could go all night,” Blacknail agreed.

Khita was standing nearby, and she suddenly raised a hand to point outside. “What’s that?” 

Glancing over, Blacknail saw a familiar shape out in the dark. It was the goat. Blacknail hadn’t seen it for a while, and thus he’d assumed that it had wandered off, but apparently not. The mutant’s yellow eyes glowed in the dark for a moment, and then its dark silhouette vanished into the shadows cast by the trees. Blacknail growled as he scanned the forest for any sight of it. He had no doubt that it was still around somewhere. The smelly monster was after his cheese!