Blacknail scrambled to a stop and turned to face the mounted knight that was leading the charge by Werrick’s force. Behind the hobgoblin, the fallen watchtower blocked the road. The long pile of shattered stone completely cut off Khita and his path toward the gate.
The lead knight charged forward until he loomed right above Blacknail with his sword raised high in preparation to strike. Blacknail met the eyes of the brown warhorse and grimaced. He was cornered now and had no other option but to fight madly with every shred of his remaining strength, like a trapped beast. He wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Blacknail’s body was tired and his mana low, but he still reached within and grasped as much power as he could. Shaping it with his will, he then pushed it out in one huge wave of rippling terror. The magic washed forward, hitting riders and mounts before seeping into their minds and overwhelming them.
As expected, almost all the knights resisted the mental assault, but the same could not be said for their mounts. Blacknail’s power tore into the minds of the horses, ripping thoughts apart and replacing them with raw terror. Screaming, the beasts attempted to escape from Blacknail, who loomed like a horrifying shadowy giant in their minds. Ha, if Blacknail was going down, he would take as many horses with him as possible!
Some of the horses tried to scramble to a halt mid-charge, while others suddenly jumped to the side. As a result, Werrick’s force immediately descended into violent chaos as riders collided with each other or were thrown off their panicking mounts. At least one man was trampled and many others barely managed to stay mounted. The riders ground to a halt before Blacknail, their charge ended as they dispersed and attempted to regain control of their mounts.
Feeling hollow and weak, Blacknail stumbled back toward Khita, who stepped next to him and raised her blade defensively.
“Are you alright? Can you keep running,” she asked in a worried tone. His weakness was obvious.
Glancing to both sides, Blacknail didn’t see anywhere to go. The buildings here had all collapsed. Trying to climb over them while being chased would be very dangerous. However, before Blacknail could reply to Khita, he noticed something rather unfortunate. One rider was pushing through the chaos and headed his way. It was Werrick. He had kept control of his mount and he looked quite angry.
“You will not escape me, vermin,” the bandit lord roared as he rode forward. “Today, you die and the North becomes mine at last.”
Blacknail tried to sense the mind of Werrick’s mount, and found it to be unusually bright and strong. It even seemed to contain mana. Was Werrick’s mount a Vessel? Such beasts did exist, although Blacknail had never seen them before. Looking closer, the hobgoblin realized that this wasn’t the same horse that Werrick had ridden on the journey here. He must have taken it from someone else. What a thief.
“I’m out of ideas, do you have something?” Blacknail asked Khita as he watched Werrick trot closer. He was sure she didn’t, but he wanted to hear her admit it aloud.
Khita just grinned. “Yes, we can take him together before the others recover. We got this.”
Blacknail groaned. What a stupid idea. He should have known better than to ask Khita anything.
Khita’s words seemed to concern Werrick though. Since Blacknail didn’t seem to be going anywhere, the mounted vessel brought his mount to a stop. Instead of attacking, he simply waited for his allies to recover so that he wouldn’t have to fight alone. Blacknail grimaced. What a coward. Now, he might actually have to follow Khita’s dumb plan. Attacking the bandit lord now would still be better than waiting to get overwhelmed by his entire force.
An unexpected clattering noise suddenly drew Blacknail’s attention over to his left. It sounded like falling rubble. Glancing that way, Blacknail saw a brown blur speeding his way. Flinching in surprise, he spun to face his new assailant, who he recognized a moment later. It was the mutant goat! Charging by Blacknail, the beast tried to grab at the hobgoblin’s backpack and tear it off his back. It managed to catch the fabric, but Blacknail didn’t let go of his prizes so easily. He held on to it as the goat’s momentum began pulling him away.
“I got you!” Khita yelled as she grabbed his arm to help steady him.
The goat didn’t slow and Blacknail felt his bag begin to tear, so he swiftly changed his approach. Spinning around, he grabbed one of the goat’s horns. However, this didn’t slow the beast. Almost instantly, he was pulled along after the speeding goat, so he loosened his hold on the bag and jumped on the goat’s back. This was made difficult by the fact Khita was still holding on to his arm, but after briefly considering kicking her in the face so she let go, Blacknail pulled her up behind him.
“What in damnation! Stop them,” Werrick yelled furiously as the goat continued its charge right up the tall pile of rubble along the side of the street. His only reply was mad excited laughter from Khita.
Leaping from stone to stone, the large mutant goat barely seemed to notice its riders. There was a surprising amount of muscle under its thick fur, but Blacknail bounced on its back painfully as bony bits stabbed into his soft bits. Still, he gripped the creature’s horns with everything he had. They were escaping!
Reaching the top of the rubble, the goat began descending, and Blacknail had to hang on for his dear life. How was it that people could ride animals like horses? This was obviously unnatural. Not to mention, incredibly painful. Blacknail’s thighs felt like they were being beaten by hammers, and the less he thought about his groin the better.
Upon reaching the ground, the goat began speeding toward the city gate. That was great, since Blacknail had no way to steer the creature, and if he fell off the beast now, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to walk for a while. Behind him, Khita was still laughing. It didn’t sound like she was in nearly as much pain as him.
Gritting his teeth, Blacknail clung to the goat’s back. They sped through the streets for a few moments, and then shot out of the city gates and into the forest. That was when their mount decided to try and rid itself of the annoyances on its back. Flinging itself about, the goat began trying to buck them.
Blacknail managed to hold on for about three seconds before being thrown off. Then, he was airborne for another second before hitting the ground face first. Thankfully, the ground was soft loam here, and thus the pain from falling wasn’t actually worse than what he’d felt while riding. Groaning, he decided to take a moment to recover and simply lay on the ground. That was when Khita landed on his back. As she rolled away, the hobgoblin coughed and groaned. So far, this wasn’t a good day.
Looking up, Blacknail saw that the goat was around twenty feet away and was ignoring everything around it as it tore into the hobgoblin’s bag in pursuit of the cheese within. Noticing Blacknail’s hostile stare, it turned and gave him a look full of contempt and utter disregard before going back to snacking. Blacknail had very mixed feeling about this mutant. Technically, it had sort of saved his life twice, but it was still an arrogant thief. He wanted to kick it in the face.
“Wow, that was incredible!” Khita laughed merrily from beside him as she climbed to her feet. “Can you believe how lucky we are?”
“No,” Blacknail hissed angrily as he carefully stood up. Just no. His everything was tender and sore. He didn’t want to start moving, but he had no choice. Werrick wouldn’t have given up. He’d be here soon.
Blacknail twisted around to stretch out, and his spine made several uncomfortable cracking noises. Ouch. He winced as he did a few more stretches. There was much to do. He’d had a run of bad luck, but his plan could still work. He was a tactical genius after all.
“Let’s go,” Blacknail told Khita as he began walking deeper into the forest and she fell in behind him. He didn’t quite manage to walk normally thanks to his sore butt, but he managed to limp along at a fair pace.
Leaving the trail and the goat behind, Blacknail attempted to disappear into the forest before Werrick’s force showed up. He headed for a big clump of bushes and then passed through them before walking past several shadowy trees. The day had grown late while the expedition had fought Myagnoir. It wasn’t quite so bright out now and the forest had grown dim. That was a small advantage to Blacknail since he was running away, and humans relied on sight so much to track.
He didn’t get far before he heard signs of pursuit. There was snorting from horses as they rode out of the ruined city gates and stomped over bushes. Glancing over his shoulder, Blacknail saw flashes of movement through the trees as riders spread out. The enemy was barely visible off in the distance, but they were determined and could catch up quickly if they spotted him.
Werrick’s enraged voice echoed through the trees. “Find them! They dismounted out here so they couldn’t have gone far. Do not let the hob escape! He dies today. There will be no more sulking about in the woods for him.”
There were several shouts of acknowledgement and then the riders flooded out into the forest. Blacknail could hear more than one of them headed in his direction.
“We need to move faster!” he whispered to Khita as he picked up the pace.
Racing ahead of the pursuers, the hobgoblin and the redhead hurried through the forest. Sticking to the shadows and bushes, they tried to stay out of sight as they ran. Since their pursuers were mounted, Blacknail wasn’t too worried about leaving tracks. He simply didn’t want to get run down.
Several minutes passed before Blacknail detected someone heading their way. His ears twitched as he heard someone crashing through the bushes toward them.
“Hide in here and don’t move,” he hissed at Khita as he pushed her into a crevice under a fallen tree trunk. He then threw some leaves and dirt on her, more for fun than for any practical purpose.
The redhead sputtered angrily, but Blacknail ignored her and ran over to a nearby tree. Moving quickly, he climbed up into the branches. His claws sank into the bark and wood, making the ascent easy.
Once up in the tree, Blacknail scurried out onto a thick branch and looked down. From the ground, he was hidden by some thick clumps of leaves, but he had no problem scanning the forest below for signs of movement. He didn’t have to look hard. Within moments, a knight rode into sight. His mount made a lot of noise as it stomped through the bushes.
As Blacknail watched from concealment, the rider pulled on his reins to slow his mount and began scanning his surroundings for any sign of his quarry. Like most of the warriors on the expedition, he was wearing a simple chainmail shirt over rugged padding, since heavier armor was too difficult for most of them to carry around all the time. He also had a steel helm on and a sword at his hip. Blacknail saw no sign of a lance, which would have been near useless in the forest anyway.
The knight approached Khita’s hiding spot at a slow trot, and Blacknail frowned. The man was moving too slowly. He couldn’t afford to waste so much time hiding since there were other pursuers out in the forest that would surround them before too long. That meant action was required, even at the risk of revealing his position.
Shifting his weight forward, Blacknail ever so carefully pulled himself over to another branch and then began creeping down it. A few moments later, the knight rode below him, so Blacknail grinned and dropped down on the unsuspecting human. His feet landed on the horse’s back as his hands grabbed the rider’s shoulders. Immediately, the horse bucked and whinnied in shock as it felt the unexpected weight on its back. Meanwhile, the rider held on tight and tried to turn to see what had grabbed him. Blacknail didn’t let him. Reaching up, he wrapped one arm around the man’s neck and drew a dagger with the other. As the rider struggled in his grasp, Blacknail pulled the man’s chin up and slit his throat. Blood poured from the gaping gash and the man flailed about for a moment before going slack from blood loss. As a result, his grip on his mount ended and he began to slide off the horse, taking Blacknail with him. Blacknail tried to hold on, but the horse bucked again, and he was thrown off.
“Vicious stinky beasts. You’re probably secretly allied with the boggarts” Blacknail hissed as he stood up and watched the horse run off into the woods. He’d managed to land softly on all fours this time, so he wasn’t hurt.
“Can I come out now?” Khita asked from her hiding spot.
“Yes, we’ve made too much noise. We need to run.”
“I didn’t make any noise,” Khita replied sourly as she crawled out from under the log.
“Just follow me,” Blacknail told her as he began running.
Already, he could hear shouting and the sound of running hooves echoing through the trees as some of Werrick’s forces began heading in their direction. Obviously, they’d heard the horses screams and were coming to investigate. Blacknail sighed as he ran. He could never catch a break.
Despite the quick pace the pair managed to set, Blacknail soon heard the pursuit grow closer.
“I see them. This way!” someone yelled from behind them.
However, instead of closing the distance, Werrick’s forces stayed back. Most likely they were waiting for their boss to show up and engage Blacknail personally. For now, they were content to keep an eye on them.
That was when Blacknail heard a familiar and yet out of place bird-song from up ahead. Right away, he replied using a different call as loudly as he could while still running. It was as signal from one of his minions who’d noticed the commotion, and Blacknail had told him to prepare for a fight. That was about as specific as he could get while communicating using bird calls. Hopefully, this wasn’t a lone minion that had retreated from Coroulis. Blacknail could really use some help. He wouldn’t be able to stay ahead of Werrick for long.
Beside the hobgoblin, a huffing and puffing Khita reached into a pocket and pulled out a vial of Elixir. She then chugged the entire thing down.
“No point in saving it now,” she grunted as Blacknail nodded in agreement.
There was another bird call from up ahead, so Blacknail shifted direction slightly and headed straight toward it. There was no way a single hobgoblin would be replying. By now, they’d have some idea of what was headed their way, and they were far too cowardly to risk themselves like that.
Glancing back, Blacknail saw a group of horsemen racing up along his left flank. They were too far away to engage, but they did cut off one of his retreat paths and threaten to encircle him. There was also another force of riders hanging back directly behind him. The bushes and uneven ground slowed their mounts, but they would catch up before too long.
The forest grew thinner and the bushes were swiftly replaced by thick trees with dark grey bark. The horsemen would catch up quickly such terrain. However, Blacknail had no real option but to keep running straight and hope for the best.
That didn’t work out so well. The flanking force sped up and pulled ahead as the pursuit caught up. Blacknail was forced to turn to his right where there was a rocky hill. This was an unwelcome development. Climbing it would be difficult, especially for Khita, and the riders could just go around it. Not to mention, Blacknail spotted a mage staff among the pursuing force. If they climbed the cliff, they’d be easy targets.
As they reached the edge of the hill, Blacknail and Khita reluctantly came to a stop.
The redhead through him a nervous look. “What’s the plan now?”
“Now we fight,” he replied.
“You know I’m always up for a good fight, but we’re a little outnumbered here,” Khita remarked as she stared at the approaching riders. The dirty knights looked quite menacing on their huffing mounts.
“Don’t worry. I have a plan.”
This earned the hobgoblin an unenthusiastic grunt in response, but he ignored Khita and focused on the enemy. Seeing that their quarry was seemingly trapped, the riders slowed and spread out to encircle them as much as possible, although the hill behind Blacknail and Khita at least protected their backs.
It didn’t take long for Werrick to appear with Zelena riding beside him. Taking the lead, the bandit lord rode up through his allies and stared at Blacknail suspiciously.
The hobgoblin sneered at him. “You’re a traitor. You let Sir Masnin die and let the Doom escape just so you could try to get me. You’ve betrayed your people and your oath.”
He then turned to glare at the other riders. His words had mostly been for them. Some of the knights probably were uncertain about these recent developments.
“Hold your tongue, beast,” Werrick told him. “Everyone knows your words can’t be trusted. I had nothing to do with Sir Masnin’s noble death, and we will deal with Myagnoir in due time. It is wounded and on the run. You are the more pressing threat to humanity. We know you were planning on killing everyone and seizing the silver for yourself so that you and your ilk can weaken humanity and take over the North.”
“No, that’s what you’re doing, you smelly liar.”
“I would never betray humanity to a threat as great as the boggarts or you, and I know I could never stand against the boggarts alone. Your pathetic and self-serving accusations don’t even make sense.”
Blacknail snarled. “You’re a murderous bandit lord and a coward. You’re only concerned about your own skin, and what you know is that you could never beat me without treachery. Your country and other humans mean nothing to you.”
Glancing over the enemies arrayed against him, Blacknail saw over two dozen horsemen. Counting Zelena, two of the riders were mages. That was horrible odds, especially since he was so tired and almost out of magic.
Werrick motioned for his troops to charge all at once, but Blacknail cut him off. “At least be brave enough to fight me yourself instead of sending the duped minions after me.”
Sighing, Werrick dismounted. “Very well. We’ve crossed blades before, and this will simply be another humiliation for you.”
“I’m not the same as before.”
“True, but that won’t be enough. I’ve killed bigger, faster, and smarter mutants than you. My blade will put an end to your slander while the gods watch in judgement,” Werrick replied nonplussed as he drew his blade and stepped toward Blacknail.