The clip-clop of horse hooves filled the air as the expedition to Coroulis made their way north along the road. All the humans were mounted. Blacknail and his hobgoblins were the only ones on foot. Horses and hobgoblins didn’t get along very well. The beasts bit and kicked any hobgoblins that tried to ride them. That was fine though, since Blacknail hated horses right back. He’d considered poisoning the foul creatures before they left, but Geralhd had convinced him they were necessary. He’d have to wait until the mission was over.
Blacknail kept up with human riders easily enough since they weren’t pushing their pace, and so did Khita, thanks to her own enhanced strength and endurance. Blacknail’s hob minions had to push themselves though, lest they fall behind.
As the expedition made their way north, Blacknail kept his ears open and ordered all his minions to spread out and do the same. The humans were all travelling in groups around each party’s leader, and they would occasionally talk among themselves. A lot of important information could be collected by listening in to their conversations, and Blacknail knew that any one of them could be planning on killing him once he was no longer useful. He didn’t know which ones had made a deal with Werrick. Thankfully, most of the humans didn’t seem to realize how good hobgoblin hearing was and they could listen in with ease.
For now, Sir Masnin was riding at the head of the expedition with his personal troops. He’d explained his plan for the first stretch of the trip before they’d headed out. They were going to keep following the road until they reached its most northern limit. There the old road to Coroulis started, but no one had used it in decades, so it had become completely overgrown. Following it wouldn’t be any faster than going through the Green, especially since sections of it had been wiped out by avalanches and floods, and all the road’s bridges had probably collapsed long ago. Those bridges had crossed several deep rivers that were now flooding. Blacknail would have to find them a way across when they got to them.
Once at the ruins of Coroulis, the expedition would load up their horses with as much silver as possible before returning south to organize a larger mission that could move much more silver. For that to work, the road would have to repaired by crews sent by the local nobles. There were plans to use river barges to transport the precious metal in the future, but the rivers were still dangerously flooded at the moment. For now, the main purpose of the expedition was to reach Coroulis and see if there were still any huge mutant drakes around. If there were, the humans would try to kill it, while Blacknail watched from a safe distance.
Herah was at Blacknail’s side as he walked on the left flank of the expedition with several of his other minions. As he walked, the hobgoblin chieftain was contemplating their mission and listening in to various conversations going on around him. He would have been in the center, but there were far too many horses there, and Blacknail couldn’t stomach being surrounded by the smelly beasts. They might be planning something… Also, occasionally, they’d shit as they walked, leaving the crap right in Blacknail’s way. Disgusting hateful things! Yes, they were definitely getting poisoned. His vengeance would be swift and terrible.
Blacknail’s fantasizing was interrupted when a horseman rode up next to him. Looking over, Blacknail instantly recognized Ilisti’s rather unique armor.
“Greetings, Blacknail. I think it’s time you and I had a talk,” the vympir announced.
“Sure, about what?” Blacknail replied. “I like cheese a lot. We could talk about that.”
“No. Rather I was thinking that we hadn’t discussed the transformation you’ve undergone since our last meeting and what I means for our long-term relationship.”
Blacknail sighed. The vympir had a point. Blacknail had transformed into a full-out mutant after he’d been wounded by Werrick during their last battle. Ilisti had been there, but Blacknail’s human minions had hidden Blacknail away after he’d been wounded for his own protection. They’d been worried about Ilisti’s reaction. The vympir was an ally, but his motivations were complex and somewhat mysterious. Geralhd was worried he’d see a hobgoblin mutant as a threat and rival in a way a mere hobgoblin vessel wasn’t. Vympirs were apparently a type of mutant that could empower themselves by infecting other humans. These victims usually slowly died instead of becoming another vympir, and their blood was harvested by their attacker to make something like Elixir. Both mutants and vympirs had a reputation for being incredibly territorial.
“Do you have a problem with me being me?” Blacknail asked.
Ilisti shook his head. “No, I see no reason that this should alter our relationship. It has been tremendously beneficial to us both. You helped me find my new domain and your hobgoblins keep the surrounding Green from growing too wild, while I have supported you in battle. Admittedly, I had doubts at first about your ability to control yourself after your ascension, but you have put those to rest. There has been no conflict between us, and you have remained a steadfast ally to me and mine.”
Blacknail eyed Ilisti. He wasn’t sure how much he believed that little speech, but their interests did still seem to be aligned, especially with the boggarts going around killing everyone and spreading the plague. Vympirs were also hated by the rest of humanity, so it wasn’t like Ilisti had any other allies, even if he disliked living so close to a hobgoblin mutant. That could change in the future though…
“Good, we should stay friends. Werrick is going to try and kill us before we get back,” Blacknail told him.
“Yes, I believe he will. That man’s thirst for violence and conquest surpasses even that of my bloodkin, and I have no intention of ever bending my knee to any man, especially not a wise-made pretender. Conflict between us is thus inevitable and this quest will provide us all with no shortage of opportunities to act against each other.”
“Want some cheese? I brought a lot so that I won’t run out,” Blacknail said as he offered the man a small yellow and green chunk. Talking about cheese had made him hungry but eating and not sharing could be considered rude.
“Thank you for the offer, but no,” Ilisti said as he leaned back away from the fragrant food. His voice sounded slightly strained.
“In fact, I should get back to my men,” he added a moment later as he began riding away.
As the day went on, and the expedition kept moving, eventually afternoon came and then night began to creep up.
“We’ll stop here and camp on that dry hill for the night. We’re almost at the northern end of this road anyway,” Sir Masnin announced as he brought everyone to a halt. “Tomorrow, we’ll head off to the Green, so prepare for that. Our pace will be much slower and more difficult in the forest proper.”
No one had any problem with that, so everyone immediately began unpacking their tents and sleeping rolls. Several of the nobles had brought huge colorful tents for themselves. Blacknail watched them set up with some amusement. One of them even had flags on it. Sure, the huge things were fancy and impressive, but they were really impractical in the Green. They stood out and wouldn’t be all that warm, unlike the small grey tent Blacknail had brought. If something attacked the camp during the night, the nobles would get eaten first.
Blacknail’s group set up their camp off to the side of the humans and next to Ilisti and his men. As Blacknail was putting up his own tent – no one else did it right – Khita wandered over to talk.
“This trip has been so boring,” the redhead complained. "I thought we’d get at least a little excitement! But, no. Nothing but walking. Boring! Do you think something will attack us when it gets dark? That would spice things up. This is supposed to be an adventure!”
Blacknail glared at her and sighed. “Shut up and go to sleep. If you’re looking for danger, we will be rushing through the Green tomorrow. I’m sure a lot of these dumb humans are going to do stupid things that will get them killed in interesting ways.”
“Ya, you have good point. None of those stuffy nobles and servants are experienced rangers like us.”
Another sigh escaped from Blacknail’s mouth. He’d lost count of all the times he’d had to save Khita after she’d almost gotten herself killed doing something stupid in the Green. She was not a ranger.
“Just go to sleep or I’ll bash you over the head and dump you in the forest,” the hobgoblin said as he waved her away.
Over in the center of the camp, Sir Masnin was organizing the building of a watchfire and setting up the sentry rotation. To reassure the nobles, he wasn’t including any hobgoblins in the main rotation, but he called Blacknail over to make sure there was always one hobgoblin watching the forest. Sir Masnin wasn’t stupid. He knew who his best scouts were.
As Blacknail was heading back to his tent, he saw Ilisti standing off to one side, studying the forest.
“Did you put yourself on sentry duty?” Blacknail asked him. That didn’t seem like something the vympir would do.
Ilsisti turned and grinned at Blacknail. The firelight reflected in his red eyes, making them glow. “No, I simply don’t need sleep.”
“Right, sounds nice,” Blacknail replied as he walked back to his tent. Even he found that creepy.
Shaking off the image of red eyes staring out unblinking into total darkness, Blacknail wasted no time in crawling into his tent. Herah was already curled up in there, but Blacknail didn’t bother her. Instead he just laid down beside her and closed his eyes. A lot of the other hobgoblins snored like hacksaws, and sometimes Herah was one of them, so he wanted to get to sleep before they started.
Nothing attacked them over the night, which didn’t surprise Blacknail. The scent of hobgoblin and several mutants was probably more than enough to scare away anything but the deadliest of creatures or a completely berserk troll. Although, even if a frothing-at-the-mouth mad troll had attacked the camp, Ilisti probably would have just punched it to death.
Early the next morning, Blacknail got up and had a quick breakfast with his minions. That done, he sat on his ass for over an hour and waited for the nobles to get up and ready. They were very slow. Even Sir Masnin got angry and eventually ended up sending his own troops over to help them pack up faster.
When they did finally start moving again, it was significantly later in the morning than Sir Masnin had planned. They followed the road for about an hour before Sir Masnin called for a stop at a bend in the road. Tall greenery rose up all around the party, making this particular spot much the same as pretty much every other bit of forest they’d passed.
“We’ve reached the northern tip of the road to Westwatch,” the paladin explained as everyone listened to him intently. “The old way to Coroulis used to begin here, although it’s not obvious. Still, following it should be easier than trying to head straight into the Green. It should be fairly flat if nothing else.”
There were some nervous murmurs from most of the mounted humans. Many glanced at the wall of brush and trees as if it were dangerous and might attack them. That was actually somewhat smart since it might do just that. The rough brush at the side of the road was a common haunt for mimics. Still, Blacknail found their fear amusing. The big armored human warriors on their big dumb horses were scared of the bushes. They must all be city humans.
Sir Masnin spoke confidently and with authority as he continued. “Blacknail and his hobs will now be taking the lead and ranging ahead. They are quite skilled at this and we couldn’t ask for better guides. Please do as they ask if you wish to avoid any problems we might stumble upon in there.”
“Have you ever been in the Green before?” a young man asked. There was nervous stutter in his voice.
“I have journeyed off the beaten path and into the deep Green several times as I hunted monsters, and despite the danger, I emerged every time.”
“Then why don’t you lead us?” another older noble asked. “Why are we even considering following a hobgoblin into the darkest woods of the North?”
“Blacknail knows far more of the forest and its dangers than I do. He enters its embrace almost every day. It is his home,” the paladin replied reasonably.
Blackail simply rolled his eyes. His real home was a mansion in the middle of a settlement, although the settlement was out in the Green.
“The success of this mission depends on his skills as a guide, and I believe him to reliable,” Sir Masnin concluded.
“It’s just… I can think of several folk tales that warn against people doing this exact thing,” a sorry sounding man replied. “The hobgoblin eats them as soon as they are deep enough in the Green that no one can hear their screams.”
“As I said, I believe Blacknail to be trustworthy. Also, this isn’t a folk tale. I met Blacknail years ago, and he’s still travelling with the same group of humans. I don’t think we have to worry about being eaten. Besides, he’s an enemy of the boggarts, and that makes us allies.”
“Or, maybe this savage is simply lying about his fight with the enemy. Maybe he made he made a deal with them!” one noble suggested darkly.
Next to Blacknail, Khita looked up and laughed. “Don’t be stupid. I’ve been with Blacknail for almost forever, and he never eats people. Sometimes he kills annoying people though.”
“You’re not helping,” Blacknail told her. If he really killed people just for being annoying, Khita would be long dead.
“I’m not going to take threats from a dirty half-wild peasant wench,” the noble announced as he turned to glare at the redhead. “I will have your head.”
Khita sneered back. “Try It and I’ll cut you to bits. You don’t have any army of conscripts to do your dirty work out here, blueblood.”
Blacknail sighed. The noble did have several knights and their retinue though, which was way more than Khita had. Contemplating his next move, Blacknail tried to remember who this particular human was. It was hard since a lot of humans looked the same. Hmmm, he was fairly sure this was one of Werrick’s not so secret minions. That gave him some leeway since he was already an enemy.
“Know your place, bitch!” the armored noble hissed as he drew his sword and urged his horse toward Khita, who was unmounted.
Sir Masnin quickly snapped his reins and begin guiding his own horse toward the noble. “Hey now, we are all on the side here.”
The paladin was quite far away though, and the noble didn’t stop. Thus, Blacknail felt the need to intervene. He stepped up beside Khita and put on his most savage grin. He wasn’t too worried about Khita, she was a Vessel, but he didn’t want things to get too messy.
“You can have the fat one that keeps opening his mouth; I’ll rip apart his little pink soldiers,” Blacknail announced as he grinned and drew his own blade. Even though it was quite massive, almost twice the length of the noble’s weapon, he easily held it up with one hand. This reminded everyone who saw it of what they were dealing with, a mutant with superhuman strength. Just to be sure though, Blacknail gathered a bit of mana and sent it at the humans facing him.
As fear washed over the noble and his escort, they hesitated. This allowed Sir Masnin to ride between the two groups.
“Stop, I won’t allow violence between members of this expedition,”
“I won’t stand for being insulted by a hobgoblin’s whore,” the noble replied. “My honor must be upheld.”
Khita just laughed. “If you don’t shut your fat mouth then someone is going stick you like a pig.”
“He should shut up and stop trying to pick a fight, or he will get one,” Blacknail told Sir Masnin.
Grunting, the paladin turned to the noble. “Drop your challenge. We can’t be fighting over every slight, or this expedition will be a short one and we will fail in our duties.”
“I will not. I’m not going to let a peasant slander me.”
“Then leave or get off your horse and fight Blacknail in a duel right now. There will be no lingering grudges in a party under my command.”
“I don’t need Blacknail to protect me,” Khita announced. “The fat tub of lard can fight me if he wants.”
“This will be quick,” the noble announced as he began dismounting.
Sir Masnin scowled. “You don’t think this is beneath your honor? You’re sowing discord before this quest has even truly begun.”
The noble just snorted rudely, so Sir Masnin glanced at Blacknail, who just shrugged. He was okay with this. Sir Masin gave the hobgoblin a look, but then sighed when he realized he couldn’t stop the fight.
“Very well. Let me lay down some rules down first though. This duel can’t be allowed to sabotage our mission. Regardless of the outcome, Blacknail and his guides will stay with us, and so will Sir Avex’s men. Should he die, they will join my own escort.”
Both combatants were confident of their victory and angry, so they quickly agreed. A small circle was then formed for the duel to take place in. Blacknail turned to study Werrick who had walked over to the opposite edge of the circle. Their gazed met, and Blacknail gave him a meaningful look, so that he knew Blacknail would be watching out for cheating. Blacknail knew Werrick had a bunch of little tricks he could use to influence the fight.
As everyone watched, both duelists lined up in front of each other with blades drawn. Khita looked far less impressive than her opponent. He was a large man in steel armor, while she was a smaller woman in dirty leather.
“Begin,” Sir Masnin suddenly yelled as he backed away from the fight.
Both combatants surged forward and their blades sliced through the air. Grinning viciously, Sir Avex slashed down at Khita with all his might. Surprisingly, instead of dodging, the redhead stood her ground and blocked the blow. There was crash of steel as the blades met, and the knight looked startled when Khita didn’t give ground. Instead, the redhead then calmly knocked his blade aside and stabbed him in the groin. Deep red blood spurted from the wound. Sir Avex stumbled back as his face went a deathly white. The color of the blood marked his wound as fatal, and a moment later the noble collapsed. Almost everyone was staring in shock now. The little redhead had outpowered the overconfident noble completely.
“A Vessel,” someone observed in disbelief.
"What a fool," another man added.
Blacknail snorted at how unobservant these humans were. Why did they think Khita was here?
“Well, that was amusing,” Blacknail laughed as he grinned at Werrick. Although the Wolf still had plenty of allies, he had one less now.