There were gasps of horror from the people on the platform near Blacknail. It was swiftly followed by swearing and action.
“King’s blood! What just happened?” Geralhd whispered.
“He’s turned traitor!” Saeter roared. “That fucking bastard, I’m going to kill him!”
The old scout immediately dropped and began climbing down the ladder. His movements shocked his nearby companions out of their own paralysis.
“What do you plan on doing?” Vorscha asked him in alarm. “You’ll never get there in time.”
“I’m going to do whatever I have to!” Saeter spat back as he jumped down the final length of the ladder and started running.
Vorscha threw out a few more colorful curses and then turned to Blacknail. The hobgoblin was still in shock. What was going on? Was his glorious leader dead? This didn’t make sense!
“Don’t just hang there! Go watch his back!” Vorscha ordered Blacknail.
It took a moment for her words to penetrate the haze of uncertainty that had filled the hobgoblin’s mind. However, when her meaning became clear he quickly nodded, dropped down onto the ground, and started running.
His master was headed towards the fighting all by himself. That was dangerous! Blacknail needed to go after him. Why was his master always doing such dumb things? Why did he always follow him?
There was a mob of tightly packed enemies and allies between Saeter and Herad’s fallen form. Blacknail couldn’t even see her anymore from ground level. However, he could still see Werrick. He was much taller than most other humans.
Most of Herad’s fighters hadn’t seen her fall, and even if they had they were still stuck in the melee. Blacknail caught up with Saeter before he reached the fighting.
“What are you-ss doing?” Blacknail asked the old scout. “Do you have a plan?”
His master barely registered the hobgoblin’s presence. He spared Blacknail a brief glance before facing forward again.
“I’m going to get Herad out of there!” Saeter growled as he ran.
A wave of exasperation and anguish hit Blacknail and caused him to groan. That was a terrible plan! What did his master think he was doing?
“We should wait for help or find somebody else to do it,” Blacknail told his master. “Red Dog must be around here somewhere. This sound-ss like something he should do.”
Unfortunately, the hobgoblin got no reply. Blacknail seriously considered clubbing his master over the head and dragging him away. That was probably unnecessary though, because the way forward was blocked by a wall of their allies. There was no way Saeter would be able to press through it and into the center of the melee where Herad was.
Up ahead, Werrick was talking to Mahedium as he walked over to the mage. He then made a sweeping hand gesture in the direction of the thickest fighting.
With a nod of acceptance, Mahedium turned and began shooting bolts of magic at those of Herad’s minions that were still fighting. The battle quickly started turning against them as the yellow blasts of crackling energy thinned their ranks.
There were cries of despair as the force of bandits protecting the camp’s gate collapsed. Their leader was down and they had no protection from Mahedium’s magic. Overcome with fear and hopelessness, the remaining defenders broke.
Large groups of bandits turned to run. Werrick’s troops roared in triumph and eagerly gave chase. Many of Herad’s men were slain as they exposed their backs to enemy.
Other more organized squads of defenders held themselves together. Some of these tried to keep fighting and were swiftly surrounded and cut down as their allies deserted them. A few lucky larger groups managed to hold their attackers back and to start a fighting retreat.
The battle at the gates swiftly degenerated into a dozen smaller fights as Herad’s forces fled deeper into camp. It was into this mess that Saeter dove. Blacknail groaned again and then quickly followed him. The dissolution of the battle and the resulting chaos was allowing Saeter to advance.
There was very little organized resistance to Saeter’s dash into enemy lines, much to Blacknail’s annoyance. Why was no one stopping them? Even if the fighting had moved on, there were still more than a few scattered enemies around.
Well, it wasn’t like Herad or Werrick’s minions wore uniforms, and most of the enemies were confused by the fact Saeter and Blacknail were running towards them instead of away. Others were more concerned with settling grudges or looting than with the new arrivals.
A few enemies did try to intercept Saeter, but Blacknail leapt ahead and cut them down without mercy. The hobgoblin was adept at taking advantage of chaos, and he still had a lot of Elixir burning through his system.
As Blacknail’s blade gutted a man wearing particularly shoddy armor, Saeter ran ahead. They were only a few dozen feet from Herad now, and well out of what was left of the fighting. Those groups of bandits still resisting Werrick had already retreated into deeper into camp.
However, before the old scout could reach his destination, Mahedium turned and noticed him. The mage was standing guard over Herad’s prone form. The fallen bandit chieftain’s chest rose and fell as she drew breath and her fingers were twitching. She was still alive!
“Oh, it’s you two. I was wondering when you would show up,” the mage remarked as he leveled his staff in their direction.
“Die you traitorous filth!” Saeter spat in reply as he lunged forward with his blade held high.
A frown appeared on Mahedium’s lip as yellow energy once again burst out from his staff and slammed into Saeter. The old scout stumbled and collapsed. The sight of his master falling enraged Blacknail. Mahedium would pay for this! He would feast on the man’s eyes!
With an angry hiss and a new burst of speed, Blacknail managed to dodge to the side of a blast aimed his way. He rolled across the ground for a second before jumping to his feet and leaping at his magic wielding opponent.
“Hmm, you’re frighteningly fast,” the mage remarked as he grabbed an amulet on his chest.
When he touched the amulet, an invisible wall of air slammed into Blacknail. It whipped up clouds of dust as it raced across the ground and its impact threw the hobgoblin backwards. He soared quite a distance through air before smashing into a pile of crates.
There was a loud crash. Pain ripped through the hobgoblin’s back and his ribs felt like every single one of them had cracked. He whimpered, and his jaw started hurting.
Even though he was having trouble even breathing, Blacknail fought off the pain and tried to pick himself off the ground. Fury and adrenaline rose within him to drown out all other concerns.
This wasn’t the time to be sitting around! He had to save his master and the chief! He was Blacknail! It would take more than a treacherous mage and a big fat human Vessel to defeat him! He was an invincible killer and they would taste his blade!
The hobgoblin hissed furiously and stood back up. He shook his head to clear it and tried to think up a plan. He was good at sneaking so maybe he could get behind Mahedium and...
That was when a beam of energy slammed into the hobgoblin. Instantly, Blacknail lost all control over his body and began convulsing. His spasming limbs sent crates flying and snagged a tarp. By the time the convulsions stopped he was back on the ground and thoroughly wrapped up in the tough fabric.
Exhausted, Blacknail groaned in pain. Every muscle in his body was aflame and all his joints felt out of place. He phased in and out of consciousness for a few seconds as he tried to figure out what had just happened. He remembered it was bad.
Blacknail opened his eyes, which hurt in ways he hadn’t thought possible, and saw his master lying on the ground a fair distance away. There were several unfamiliar and unfriendly looking bandits standing around Saeter. The hobgoblin tried to reach out in his direction but his hands wouldn’t move.
“Just the man I was looking for!” a tall armored man announced as he walked over the fallen scout. “You’re right on time to see me kill Herad.”
It was Werrick. The enemy leader smiled broadly as he looked down at the old scout. Behind him, corpses littered the battlefield and the shattered remains of the camp’s walls loomed.
Saeter was laid out on the ground where he had fallen after being hit by Mahdium’s magic. He slowly turned his head to glare at Werrick. No one had touched him but he still seemed incapable of making large movements.
A dozen of Werrick’s troops surrounded him as he looked down at the old scout. There wasn’t a friendly face in sight, unless you counted some of the corpses that littered the ground. A lot of bandits had died in the fight at the gates.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while, White Raven,” Werrick told Saeter.
“Go fuck a pig,” Saeter spat vehemently in return. He was apparently able to talk now.
The old scout sounded winded and like he was in pain. As he wheezed, the man he had insulted grinned in amusement.
“I suppose I deserve that,” Werrick admitted. “I did just have you blasted by magic. It looks like it hurts a lot.”
“It’s only a brief stunning effect. There is no lasting harm done,” Mahedium interjected in explanation. “But it certainly keeps people down long enough for more permanent solutions to be achieved, although both Vessels and mages resist it. The length varies but Herad won’t be up for...”
With a wave of his hand, Werrick silenced the rambling mage. The victorious bandit chieftain then turned back to Saeter.
“Your old leader has been defeated and will soon meet her end at my hand. I’m willing to show you mercy if you pledge your allegiance to me, and I will also to extend that kindness to others you choose,” Werrick told him. “I’ve always been an admirer of yours and having the White Raven under my command would be useful.”
“No,” Saeter replied as he glared defiantly at his capture.
“I see I’m going to have to strengthen my argument,” Werrick mused.
With an exasperated sigh, the bandit leader turned and strode over to Herad. She was still breathing but appeared to be unconscious.
“I don’t suppose your offer extends to her?” Saeter asked scornfully.
There were hints of fear and concern concealed behind his veneer of contempt, though. The old scout’s stubborn resolve seemed to grow weaker as Werrick got closer to Herad.
“No, she’s too stupid to ever learn her place. Honestly, I don’t know why you would even ask. Look at her,” Werrick replied contemptuously.
When he reached her, the large man gave her a solid kick to the ribs. She flinched as the pain of the blow woke her up and then again when she saw the man looming over her.
“What?” Herad gasped as she tried to sit up.
“It’s rather simple actually. You’re the one that fell into my trap, not the other way around,” Werrick explained. “I’ve defeated your pathetic band and now I just need to deal with you.”
Herad coughed and looked around. Sometime after she had fallen, someone had stripped her weapons from her. Her sword was gone and after checking her clothes she didn’t find any daggers. Her actions didn’t seem to concern Werrick. He just watched her and made no move.
“I made a deal with your mage. He agreed to switch sides if I presented him with a perfect opportunity,” Werrick continued as he held his arms out wide to emphasise his surroundings. “And here we are. You led him right to me and set yourself up.”
“You fucking faithless coward. I hope demons drag you down to the deepest hells beyond the sight of the gods,” Herad cursed Mahedium as she glared at him.
The mage just shrugged without concern. He didn’t seem insulted.
“I simply did what was in my best interest. Just like when I first joined up with your band,” Mahedium explained without remorse. “Werrick has resources and connections that you would never be able to give me. Everything I do is to advance my work, and the Broken Wheel knows the true value of my knowledge and skills. There’s absolutely no reason for me to stay in your dirty little camp anymore.”
“Can you really blame him for betraying you? Just look at the mess you’ve made of things, and how pathetic your strategy was,” Werrick remarked. “Luring me forward? Again? Really? That was how you dealt with the Vessel I sent to test you.”
“So what are you waiting for? Kill me, you coward,” Herad growled as she collected herself.
Her cloak was torn and her leather armor was covered in dirt and grime. Her fall had even smeared dust over her face. She looked tired and defeated, although her eyes still burned with anger.
“I’m the coward? You’re the one that tried to use magic to subdue me! I simply turned your own ploy against you,” Werrick replied dismissively.
Herad opened her mouth to reply but then she finally noticed Saeter. Her eyes flickered with recognition and she hesitated.
“What are you doing here?” she asked in surprise.
“I came to see your victory parade. It could use some work,” Saeter replied sarcastically.
“And I’m currently trying to recruit him,” Werrick added in a smug taunting tone.
“I hope you’re both very happy together,” Herad remarked bitterly as anger flashed in her eyes.
“I haven’t decided on anything yet, although it’s definitely sounding like a better idea all of a sudden,” Saeter shot back.
As the pair glared at each other Werrick looked momentarily taken aback. It took him a moment to come up with something to say.
“He’s far less likely to run into obvious traps under me,” Werrick rebuked Herad. “Did you really think I would charge into your base unprepared? How pathetic of you.”
Herad glared furiously at her opponent as Werrick continued his speech.
“I suppose I’m being uncharitable,” he told her. “It’s not like you’re anything more than a petty bandit. I knew exactly what you were thinking every step of the way. I timed my attack so that you would have no chance to question your strategy or come up with a new one.”
“Enough with the pompous bragging, you bloody ass. Why am I still alive?” Herad asked. “I’d rather be dead than listen to you expel such rot.”
“You’re here because I don’t fear you in the slightest. You’re beneath me and I want there to be no misunderstandings about that left in your head, or those of your minions, when you die,” Werrick answered as he smiled.
Just as he finished speaking, a new group of enemies appeared and walked his way. There were four soldiers and they were escorting a nervous looking Red Dog. The bandit lieutenant had been disarmed and there was a gash above his eye that was bleeding. His face was inscrutable as he took in the scene before him.
When they got to Werrick, one of the men kicked the back of one of Red Dog’s knees. With a huff, the bandit lieutenant landed on his knees kneeling position.
“He surrendered himself as soon as he learned you wanted to talk to him,” one of the guards told their master.
Werrick nodded and then motioned for the newcomers to step back.
“What do you want from me?” Red Dog tentatively asked. His voice was full of fear but it was also edged with hope.
“While most the bandits you find in the North are nothing more than deserters and riffraff too incompetent or stupid to stay in the army there are a few exceptions. It would be a waste to kill such men when they could be of use to me,” Werrick told him.
“So you want me to join up with you?” Red Dog inquired optimistically.
“Perhaps,” Werrick replied. “First, there will be a demonstration, and then I shall test your loyalty.”
As everyone warily watched him, the tall Vessel gestured and one of his minions tossed him a sheathed sword. Herad flinched as her enemy drew the blade, but instead of attacking her he tossed it onto the ground and then took several large steps backward.
“What in all the hells are you doing?” she asked him.
“Proving a point. Pick up the sword and let’s have another fight. You can even have a few minutes to rest if you want. It doesn’t matter; you’re no threat to me and you never were,” Werrick replied as he drew his own blade.
Herad hesitantly reached out to pick up the blade and then climbed to her feet. When Werrick didn’t react, she quickly brushed her black hair from her face and then raised the sword defensively.
A ring of enemy soldiers surrounded her and Werrick. Saeter and Red Dog were dragged out of the way by some of them so that there would be enough room for the fight. Neither of them was allowed to stand and an armed guard stood behind them.
Nothing happened for a few seconds. Herad seemed to be taking her time to collect herself.
Then, Herad lunged. Her eyes blazed with hate and she snarled as she slashed at her opponent’s head. However, Werrick wasn’t caught off guard. He parried her attack, and his front foot kicked out to catch Herad’s leg. As she stumbled, Werrick’s sword came around and stabbed her in the stomach.
“No!” Saeter gasped.
Herad’s eyes went wide with shock as she collapsed forward onto her knees. She landed in a kneeling position with her forehead against the ground. There was a savage wound on her back to match the one on her front, and both of them bleed profusely. Werrick’s blade had gone right through her.
A moment later, the bleeding stopped and thick black scales appeared. They sealed the wound and replaced her torn armor. However, Herad groaned in pain and drew a wheezing breath. Her face was still pressed against the dirt. Her internal injuries hadn’t disappeared; they had only been patched over.
“That’s a convenient power but it’s not going to save you this time,” Werrick remarked as he raised his blade again.
“You damned butcher!” Saeter cursed him.
“It was a fair fight, or close enough,” the Vessel remarked with a shrug.
He then kicked Herad’s blade from her hands. She barely reacted, except to hiss in pain and pull her hands in close to her chest. A second later, she coughed and splotches of blood hit the ground.
There was an unexpected clang, as Werrick dropped the blade he was holding next to Herad. Red Dog and Saeter stared at it uncomprehendingly.
“Now you have both seen me defeat Herad both in terms of strategy and in personal combat. I am clearly the better master for you to serve,” Werrick told his captives.
Red Dog glanced at Herad’s fallen form and winced. He then turned to the enemy leader.
“I’ll take you up on your offer. I see no point in dying here,” Red Dog said.
“It’s not quite that simple. First you must prove yourself,” Werrick replied. “Pick up that sword and finish off your old boss. Only when her corpse lies before me will you be allowed to serve.”
There was silence for several long seconds as his word sank in.
“And if we refuse to bloody our hands and darken our souls on your behalf?” Saeter asked.
“Then you and everyone else in this band will die,” Werrick answered.