“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.
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!