Blacknail smiled as his knife opened the helpless man’s throat. Blood poured out of the raw jagged wound and spilled down his chest. The man’s body jerked and twitched but the hobgoblin held it still. A few seconds later, he went limp and Blacknail let the body fall.
With an annoyed sigh, the hobgoblin bent over and began to roll the corpse over into a nearby clump of bushes, where it would be hidden. When that was done, he scuffed the dirt with his boot to conceal the blood trail. Cleaning up after himself was always such a pain.
This was the second sentry he’d taken out today, and it was probably far from the last. There were undoubtedly a few more around the perimeter of the enemy camp.
A lot of humans seemed to think that if they simply had lots of guards everywhere it would make up for the fact that they were all incompetent. It didn’t work that way.
The forest around Blacknail was full of thick green vegetation, and small hills lay scattered in every direction. This made spotting people difficult and hiding easy. To keep one step ahead of his prey the hobgoblin needed a better view.
Quickly, Blacknail pulled his boots and socks off. He took a second to wiggle his toes and flex his fingers before sinking his claws into the bark of a tall tree beside him. Then, he began to climb up into the higher branches to find a vantage point.
The tree swayed ever so slightly in the wind once he got higher but that didn’t bother him. Up there among the leaves, Blacknail made himself comfortable and looked around. His flexible light body gave him excellent balance.
Herad, Blacknail’s great and deadly chieftain, had ordered the hobgoblin to head out and scout around the base Werrick’s men had set up. The other bandit chieftain’s encroachment on her territory would be met with blood and fire.
Blacknail had spent two days skulking around the forest by himself to get all the information his mistress had wanted. He’d been told to avoid being seen at all costs, and he hadn’t even been allowed to kill anyone!
This was the North! Who would notice one or two missing humans? There were hundreds of ways they could have gotten themselves killed or vanished. Most humans were so dumb Blacknail was constantly surprised they lived long enough to breed.
Not his humans, though. They were remarkably intelligent, almost hobgoblin-like, really. Of course, Blacknail had only ever met one other hobgoblin, and he’d stabbed him to death several minutes after their first meeting. Still, that meant half the hobgoblins he’d ever encountered had been incredibly smart and handsome. He could not say the same thing about humans.
Well, that was the past. He certainly had permission to kill now. The time for scouting was over. Herad’s attack was underway.
Blacknail balanced on a long branch as he studied the terrain below him. From his high perch, he could see the steep hill that concealed the enemy camp. It looked like the way there was clear. However, a pair of Werrick’s men stood off some distance to his left.
“Hmm, difficult,” Blacknail mused.
It was practically impossible for someone to take down two sentries by himself without making any noise, and that meant it was sort of difficult even for Blacknail. The hobgoblin preferred easier targets, though. Why work hard?
With this in mind, Blacknail swung below the branch he was sitting on and climbed back down the tree. Once on the ground, he brought his fingers up to his lips and whistled. The sharp cry of a bird echoed out through the forest as he blew.
A few moments later, an answering bird call rang out from the wild greenery around him. Blacknail smiled as Saeter slipped out of the forest and walked over.
The old scout was dressed in brown leathers with a dirty green cloak. He held a bow in his hands and there was a full quiver on his back.
“We’re all clear here?” Saeter asked.
“Yes-ss, there are no enemies around-ss until we get closer to their camp,” Blacknail replied eagerly.
“Good, then let’s go together in case we run into a larger group,” his master suggested.
Blacknail opened his mouth to agree, but he was interrupted by the sound of another bird whistle. His mouth snapped shut in surprise. That was their signal!
“What? It’s not the right season for real grey warblers to make that cry...” Saeter remarked. “...and no one else could possibly know we were using it.”
“I don’t know,” Blacknail replied nervously. “Maybe-ss it’s an ambush.”
Together, the pair peered off into the forest in the direction the sound had come from. Slowly, Saeter drew an arrow and strung it on his bow. Nothing moved in front of them.
Instead, there was fluttering noise behind them. Blacknail flinched in surprise and jumped around. His long knife slid out of its sheath as he pulled it free in one smooth motion. Beside him, Sater moved as well.
The hobgoblin’s heart pounded as he scanned the forest for the cause of the noise. There was nothing there, or at least he didn’t see anything. Something had made the noise, though.
Suddenly, movement made Blacknail look up at the side of a tree trunk. Perched there was a harpy. Its human-like face looked down at Blacknail and Saeter with amusement. It flashed them a toothy smile and then a familiar mocking bird cry issued forth from it lips.
“Shoot it,” Blacknail hissed in alarm.
Harpies were dangerous. The large bird-like creatures had long talons on their feet and the tip of their wings. They were also very cunning.
Saeter raised his bow to take the shot. Before he could do anything though, there was another flutter from the direction they had just turned away from.
“Shoot it,” someone or something said.
Blacknail’s head whipped around and he raised his dagger defensively. A second harpy was standing on a tree branch not too far away.
“There’s another harpy behind us, isn’t there?” Saeter asked flatly.
The old scout hadn’t turned around. He had kept his arrow aimed straight at the first harpy.
“Yes, but two harpies aren’t much of threat-ss. I’ll take one and you can-ss take the other,” Blacknail replied as he took a step toward the second creature.
Before he could get near it though, the beast let out a muted screech and flapped its wings. Blacknail froze. They were still near the enemy camp. Raising a commotion would draw attention, and that would be bad.
“Don’t let it make so much noise!” Sater hissed.
“Fine, you shoot both of them,” Blacknail replied angrily.
What did his master expect him to do? The hideous creature could fly!
“I can’t get both of them at the same time,” Saeter grunted in annoyance.
“So much noise!” squawked the first harpy merrily.
“You shut the hells up,” Saeter told it.
“Ya, no one asked you,” Blacknail added angrily.
Both, Saeter and Blacknail stood there silently for a few seconds as they contemplated their next step. The hobgoblin scratched his nose as he warily eyed the harpies. They didn’t appear to be doing anything...
“What should we do?” Blacknail asked his master.
“I don’t know. The fucking things are probably just messing with us. I don’t think they’ll attack us,” Saeter replied cautiously.
The first harpy, who still had Saeter’s arrow pointed at it, slowly hopped down from the tree. It landed on the ground and then eyed the hobgoblin and his master. Blacknail thought it looked smug.
“I want to kick it in-ss the face,” the hobgoblin muttered to himself.
The harpy ignored him and began to crawl across the ground using the claws on its wings as another set of legs. Its motions were smooth and purposeful as it headed towards a familiar set of bushes.
“Oh,” Blacknail remarked in surprise as he watched.
The harpy slipped into the bushes and there was a tearing sound as it ripped into the corpse within them. Saeter’s eyes widened as he realized what the beast was doing. He spun and pointed his arrow towards the second harpy, which was still sitting in the tree.
“In the face!” the beast laughed merrily as it licked its wing feathers.
It didn’t seem concerned about the bow and arrow at all. Instead, it just continued cleaning itself while studying them out of the corner of its eye.
“The bloody fuckers!” Saeter growled quietly as he realized what was happening.
Blacknail’s eyes narrowed as he came to the same understanding as his master. The creatures were extorting them!
The harpies wanted the human corpses Blacknail had left in his wake, and if he tried to stop them they would create enough noise to raise the enemies’ alarm!
The hobgoblin grimaced and flexed his clawed fingers. Human corpses were worthless to him but he still didn’t like the idea of being outsmarted and bullied by a bunch of bird brains!
“Let’s kill them!” he hissed furiously to his master.
“No, stop Blacknail,” Saeter commanded him coldly. “Leave them be. They’re no threat to us and we have a job to do.”
The hobgoblin stared at the grey feathered creature that was up in the tree. It seemed to have completely dismissed them as threats and was busy cleaning itself.
“Ugh, fine. Let’s get out of here,” Blacknail replied broodingly.
Saeter nodded and the pair cautiously made their way away from the feasting harpies. The old scout kept his bow nocked but he let the string go loose.
“Job to do!” a shrill voice whispered mockingly from behind him as he walked away.
Blacknail clenched his fist but kept on walking. He’d killed harpies before and he would do it again. Next time, he was going to enjoy every moment of it, though.
Soon, they were away from the flying pests. Blacknail and his master scanned the forest for further threats. While the harpies hadn’t made too much noise they still had made some. It was possible they might have alerted someone. The pair of sentries he had seen from up above in the tree might not be the only ones around.
“We’re good,” Saeter remarked quietly a few moments later as he motioned Blacknail forward.
The hobgoblin ground his teeth together as he stalked forward through the forest. The base Werrick’s men had built lay before him and he fully intended to take his frustration out on its occupants. Oh yes, there was going to be blood! He might even booby trap the corpses as a surprise for greedy harpies.
Blacknail stepped up to an old thick tree that sat atop a hill. From there its branches hid him and he could look down on the enemy camp. Saeter joined him a second later.
The base was nestled in a large clearing. The tall dark trees of the forest surrounded it on all sides. The ground below was slightly sloped towards a small creak that ran through the middle of the clearing before disappearing into the forest.
The camp itself was mostly a massive collection of blue tents. They filled the center of the glade. Off to one side lay a hitch post were dozens of horses were tied up, and men could be seen walking everywhere.
“Hmm, it’s weird how they have all those tents. They look new. Did Werrick buy them all just for this attack?” Saeter mused.
“Does it matter? Let’s just find-ss the sentries and kill them,” Blacknail hissed.
It wasn’t the hobgoblin’s job to worry about such things. Herad could deal with it later. He just wanted to work out his bad mood.
Saeter turned and gave Blacknail a critical look.
“Keep your emotions under control or you’ll fuck this up and we will be the ones getting killed,” the old scout told him.
“Fine, sorry,” Blacknail grunted sourly in reply.
The hobgoblin knew he was letting his rage slip out of control. Having the harpies steal his trophies was simply infuriating. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t actually wanted a bunch of human bodies. They were still his!
“There is a sentry over by that log,” Saeter remarked as he pointed down below.
“I’ll go take him out so we can slip closer,” Blacknail whispered in reply.
The hobgoblin mentally worked through a few basic sword forms to calm himself down, as he turned towards his destination. Discipline had been beaten into him by his master during his sword training.
Suddenly, there was an outcry from below which caused the hobgoblin to flinch.
“Intruders! To arms! We’re under attack!” someone in the camp yelled.
A chorus of answering shouts soon joined it. As Blacknail watched in dismay, the enemy camp came alive and dozens of men emerged from tents. The sentry below was quickly reinforced by a fully armed squad of bandits, and together they all disappeared into the forest. Uh oh, this wasn’t good.
“We need to leave. Let’s get to the fallback route,” Saeter announced as he spun around.
“What? No! They couldn’t have seen us!” Blacknail whined in exasperation.
He wanted to hunt! This wasn’t fair. What had just happened?
“Less moaning, more running,” Saeter replied as he started moving.
Blacknail growled in frustration before following his master back into the forest. As the pair ran through the woods, Blacknail managed to get his emotions under control.
“What’s going-ss on? How do they know we are here?” Blacknail asked his master.
“They probably don’t, we aren’t the only ones here, remember,” Saeter huffed back as he ran.
Oh, right. Blacknail had actually forgotten that. Herad had sent several teams of scouts. Blacknail had just sort of assumed they would all hang back while he and Saeter did all the real work.
Shouting could be heard behind them as Blacknail and his master ran through the woods back to their rendezvous point. The hobgoblin’s long pointy ears also detected some closer voices.
“This is all your fault!” a female voice whispered angrily off to Blacknail’s left.
“Me? How could it be mine? I’m the scout here, not you!” a deeper male voice answered.
Blacknail sighed when he recognized the voices. He now knew why the enemy had been put on alert: incompetent people.
Saeter apparently heard the sound of nearby people trudging through the forest but not their voices because he turned to the hobgoblin and questioned him.
“Who is it? Enemies?” the old scout asked.
Blacknail grimaced in distaste before replying. He wanted to say yes.
“No, they’re... allies,” the hobgoblin replied hesitantly.
Saeter nodded in acknowledgement and then dodged left. Blacknail jumped over a fallen tree and followed him, as they both veered off towards the newcomers. A few seconds later, the pair slipped out of the greenery and met up their comrades.
Running out in front was the scout Varhs. His pet goblin Scamp was scrambling alongside him, and trailing them both was the young redhead Khita. Varhs looked shocked for a second as Saeter and Blacknail appeared, but he quickly calmed down when he recognized them.
“Ah, Saeter! Don’t surprise me like that,” the younger scout exclaimed as he kept moving.
“Oh, the boss is here,” Scamp commented excitedly. The little goblin had obviously heard them coming.
Blacknail squinted at the three running figures before him. He was pretty sure he knew who to blame for this mess and who had alerted the enemy. Varhs was a good ranger and at home in the forest. Scamp was annoying but he could at least stay hidden, especially if there was work to do. That left Khita, the most useless one.
“Why are you here? You’re not a scout,” Blacknail asked her.
“I convinced Varhs to let me come,” Khita replied. “Staying around camp was boring.”
The hobgoblin threw Varhs a questioning look. He was disappointed in him. Varhs seemed like a half decent ranger but he kept surrounding himself with idiots.
“She said she could keep up,” Varhs muttered in reply.
Saeter gave the other scout a cold glare.
“Next time don’t let a pretty face sway you,” he told him. “For now though, just keep running and follow me. It sounds like there are people right on your tail.”
Sure enough, Blacknail could hear the sounds of pursuit. Several people were yelling and crashing through the underbrush behind them. The hobgoblin made sure he was running near his master at the front, where it would be safest.
“Where are we going?” Khita asked.
“The rendezvous point. Just slow down for a second,” Saeter replied as he gulped down air.
The old scout was beginning to look worn out. His pace had slowed and he was wheezing for breath. Blacknail frowned in concern for his master. They hadn’t been running all that fast...
“Is that a good idea with this many people chasing us?” Varhs asked as he looked back over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, I have a plan. A good ranger always has an escape route prepared,” Saeter explained. “Just make sure you follow my steps exactly.”
Up ahead, the forest opened up to reveal a sunny clearing. The old scout headed straight towards it.
“Oh, this plan...” Blacknail remarked uncomfortably.
He remembered this plan, it was terrible. He really hoped his master knew what he was doing...
“Did you place traps here or something?” Khita asked as she ran up beside Blacknail.
The young woman was studying the long grass that lay ahead of them suspiciously. They’d reach it and be out of the forest within a few seconds.
“Or something-ss,” the hobgoblin hissed in reply.
He was too busy running to answer her more clearly and didn’t really care anyway. Although, if she wandered off the trail she would ruin everything... even more than she already had.
“Stay close behind me and you’ll be fine,” Blacknail added reluctantly.
“Alright, thanks,” the young woman replied.
The mismatched group charged out of the forest. Blacknail pushed a leafy branch away from his face and winced as the light from the sun hit him.
Saeter was ahead of him and already stomping through the grass. Blacknail frowned and looked nervously around as he followed his master. Behind him came Khita. Much to the hobgoblin’s annoyance, she seemed to be making a game of only stepping in his footprints.
Holding up the rear was Varhs and Scamp. The other scout didn’t question Saeter’s plan, but he had drawn his bow and was watching carefully for pursuers. Scamp was scampering along beside his master. The goblin looked more than a little spooked and hesitant to enter the clearing.
“Danger everywhere!” he moaned as looked over his shoulder.
Together, the group worked their way into the clearing. They were surrounded by long green grass and thick plants. Clumps of taller bushes and small trees spotted the glade, but Saeter led them away from those.
They had barely made it halfway through the clearing when their enemy caught up. There was shouting as over two dozen men burst out of the forest and stepped into the grass. The leader instantly spotted Blacknail’s group.
“There they are. The grass is slowing them down. There’s no way they can escape!” he yelled as he pointed towards them.
Unfortunately, Blacknail had to agree. The hobgoblin felt his stomach twist nervously. Saeter wasn’t moving fast enough, and cutting a path through the clearing was slowing them down. They wouldn't be able to get away without a fight.