What was pain? Blacknail contemplated the awful nature of the feeling as he led the way through the forest. Agony coursed through him. His injuries ached from walking but it was more than that. Something had been taken from him, and he knew he would never get it back.
The absence enraged him. How dare they take what had been his! Herad had been his chieftain and Saeter had been his one and only master! Blacknail wavered slightly as hate boiled through him. Rage filled him to such an extent that it seemed to want to burst out from his insides like vomit, and he had to fight the urge to scream and rip apart the nearest bush or human scapegoat.
The survivors of Werrick’s attack meekly followed behind the hobgoblin. There were thirteen of them, but Geralhd and Khita were the only ones Blacknail knew very well. Scamp was also following meekly behind Geralhd.
It had only been a few minutes since they had fled their old base. None of the humans were scouts so they didn’t question the path Blacknail had chosen. They reeked of mind-dulling fear and sweaty defeat. Blacknail ignored their weakness and forged on ahead.
“Did you see Varhs?” Scamp asked Blacknail as he run up to his side.
“No!” Blacknail hissed back with barely contained fury.
The little goblin’s eyes were huge and shiny with tears. He looked both terrified and sad. Blacknail had to resist the urge to kick him. His pain was so much worse than Scamp's! What did the spoiled little goblin know about suffering?
Herad was dead. His chieftain had seemed invincible but she had fallen in combat after being betrayed. He had thought her cleverer than that. How could someone so ruthless and powerful die?
Very little of her band remained after her demise. Vorscha was probably dead by this point and so was Saeter. The memory of his master’s fallen body enraged Blacknail again.
Even Red Dog had died. That wasn’t fair! Blacknail had wanted to kill him, and he had been saving him for a special occasion!
The hobgoblin snarled and squeezed his fists together. He had to fight to keep his rage in check. The idea of living without his master was... distressing. Did he want to stay with this other remnant of his tribe? What would be the point in that?
The humans behind him were weak and useless, especially Khita. Most of them had injuries that made them next to useless in a fight. Leaving them would increase Blacknail’s odds of survival, but where would he go after that?
Blacknail had never really understood Saeter. His master’s pink head had contained many weird human thoughts, but the hobgoblin had respected him. He had owed the man so much; Saeter had made the hobgoblin who he was.
Vorscha had also been a complete idiot, even if she had been strong. Why sacrifice yourself and look after useless people like Khita? Blacknail didn’t get it.
It was Herad that Blacknail had actually understood the best. The bandit chieftain had ruled as a hobgoblin would... just better. It didn’t take much imagination for him to know what she would have wanted him to do. Werrick had to die.
Was that what Blacknail wanted, though? Killing the human named Werrick wouldn’t be easy. It was possible a sneak attack might work but it would be risky and gain Blacknail nothing. He would still be alone and surrounded by enemies.
Other strategies would require he seek out help. The humans that he was travelling with right now had been overcome by fear and were useless. It was annoying how cowardly humans could be.
He didn’t want to travel all by himself, though. That sounded really boring!
Besides, the clumsy humans had one significant use. They served as a meat shield that would attract any attacking predators. That was important, because out here in the Deep Green there were a lot of things that liked people-sized meals.
A scent reached Blacknail’s nose. The hobgoblin stopped and stared off into the trees for a moment. He recognized it.
“What is it?” Khita asked him nervously.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back,” Blacknail replied as he stomped off into the bush.
The hobgoblin sniffed the air as he ducked under a branch. After a quick look around he located the source of the scent. It was coming from a cluster of roots at the base of a nearby tree. The tree itself was huge and its trunk rose up into the canopy where it blocked out the sun.
“Come out, you idiot. I know you’re under there,” Blacknail hissed impatiently.
There was a shuffling noise and a second later a head poked out from the space between two large roots. It was Elyias, and he didn’t look all that happy to see Blacknail. What a stupid human.
Elyias looked pale and scared. His eyes didn’t meet Blacknail’s and he kept looking off to the sides. He seemed both afraid of the hobgoblin and everything else as well.
“Oh, it’s you. I heard something and was afraid it was some sort of monster... other than you. Is it safe now?” he asked nervously.
A frustrated sigh escaped Blacknail lips. What kind of idiot hid in a stupid place like that just because they had heard some noise?
Instead of replying Blacknail stepped forward and grabbed the man’s shoulder. With a quick tug, he hauled him out of his hiding place. The young man was too petrified by fear to put up any resistance.
“There are some more people this way. Come with me,” Blacknail told him.
“Thank the gods. I was afraid that I was going to be stuck alone or with just... someone else,” Elyias whined fearfully.
The stupid minion had obviously run off into the forest all by himself as soon as Herad had been defeated. He wouldn’t have lasted a day if Blacknail hadn’t found him. Elyias owed him another favour now.
It was only a short walk back. Elyias trailed after Blacknail with a relieved expression on his face. They got a few looks as they approached the spot where the hobgoblin had left the others.
“Oh, a straggler. The bastard is lucky you found him,” one of the bandits said as they spotted Elyias.
“Ah, him. He’s that kid that kept losing at dice. Why do we want him?” another male bandit remarked disdainfully.
“We already have Khita. He won’t be any worse than her,” Blacknail explained.
The hobgoblin wasn’t quite sure why he had bothered going after Elyias. Had it been just out of habit? No, it was because Elyias was his minion. He had lost too many tribesmen today to give up any more. Anyone that tried to take what was his would have to pry it from his clawed hands!
“True enough,” the man replied. “I guess he may as well join us.”
“Hey!” Khita exclaimed. “I’m a better woodsperson than any of you asses!”
All the survivors started talking amongst themselves, but Blacknail took back his position at the front of the group and started walking again. He didn’t care about what they said.
“Um, Blacknail. Maybe we should stop for a second?” Geralhd told him as he hurried over to the hobgoblin’s side.
The hobgoblin turned to look at the man. He was standing right behind Blacknail with a nervous smile on his face. There were mutters of agreement from the other humans as well.
“We need to keep moving,” Blacknail hissed in response.
“I understand that, but we don’t even have a plan. Where are we going?” Geralhd asked him.
“We’re headed away from the people trying to kill us,” Blacknail explained condescendingly. That should have been really obvious to everyone.
“Yes, but that doesn’t tell us where we are headed,” Geralhd countered.
Out of morbid curiosity, Blacknail decided to ask and see if any of the humans had something in mind. He stopped walking and turned towards them.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked them.
Geralhd and the others started talking among themselves. Unsurprisingly, none of them had any good ideas.
“We should probably head in the same general direction as the road. It’s not like there’s anywhere else to go,” someone commented.
“But if we get too close someone might stumble onto our trail,” another replied. “Werrick probably has a lot of men out looking for us.”
This discussion went on for a few minutes before Blacknail lost patience. He grunted in annoyance and started walking again.
“Hey, where are you going?” Geralhd asked the departing hobgoblin.
“There is a place Saeter and I sometimes used as a campsite this way, and it will be dark soon. Follow me if you want. I don’t care,” Blacknail grunted without stopping.
After a few more seconds of arguing everyone decided to let him lead the way.
Despite all the dramatic events that had unfolded less than an hour ago, the forest was the same as always. Blacknail was still struggling to hold back the rage he felt but around him things were almost tranquil.
They were walking a path the hobgoblin had used many times before when he’d gone out hunting. Birds sang in the trees off in the distance. Leaves rustled as small animals scampered around out of sight.
The canopy overhead was porous on this trail, so the undergrowth was thick. As Blacknail was stepping over a fallen log, a crunching sound reached his ears. It had come from a fair distance down the trail behind him, and it was swiftly followed by a dull snap.
Instantly, Blacknail's heckles rose and he turned to scan the forest in that direction. He didn’t see anything but he knew something was there.
“What is it?” Khita asked him.
The concern in her voice disturbed the hobgoblin. He looked her and the other humans over. Some of them were wounded and they all looked exhausted.
“I think someone is following us,” he told her loud enough that everyone could hear.
Fear immediately appeared on most of the bandit’s faces. Several of them twitched and threw nervous glances backwards. Blacknail watched them and frowned. It was unlikely they would be useful in a fight. Their retreat had broken their spirit.
“What do we do?” someone asked with barely concealed panic.
No immediate answer was provided by Blacknail. He took a few seconds to mull over his options. He looked up at the sky overhead. It was starting to get dark out. The sun had almost reached the western horizon already.
“I will go back and see who it is. Keep following this trail until you reach the end,” Blacknail told everyone.
He then explained to them how to get to the campsite he had mentioned before. As soon as he was done most of the humans started hurrying away. They wanted as far away from any form of pursuit as possible.
“Are you sure you don’t want help?” Khita asked.
Blacknail snorted disdainfully in reply. Khita was incapable of being helpful. There was no way she could move through the forest unseen.
“No, I’m just going to take a look, scout stuff,” he lied.
The redhead nodded and without another word headed after the others. Blacknail watched her go for a second before stepping off into the bushes at the edges of the trail.
Before he could come up with a plan he needed to find out who was tracking his party. He had only heard one person but there could easily be many more.
Luckily, it was getting dark out now. In just a bit it would be too dark for humans to see properly, but he wouldn’t have that problem.
The forest was silent as Blacknail slipped through the trees. He headed away from the trail and then began moving parallel to it. With great care he kept to the shadows and out of sight. It was important that he not be seen, but he had to keep an eye on the trail.
Almost immediately, he heard another crack as someone stepped on a twig. The hobgoblin froze and went perfectly still. There was movement along the trail. From his hiding spot behind a fallen log, Blacknail studied the source of the noise. It was a group of humans.
Saeter would have found their movements sloppy but it was much better than that of most humans. They moved carefully and only the occasional sound betrayed their presence as they followed the trail and the signs left by the survivors of Herad’s band.
The enemy scouts were dressed much the same as Herad’s rangers had been. Most of them wore hunter’s cloaks and dirty leather clothing.
Seven of them were visible. Blacknail didn’t think they had any scouts out or backup nearby. They wouldn’t want to split up in unfamiliar territory.
Even without reinforcements, that was more than Blacknail would usually want to fight. However, this wasn’t a normal situation and he really wanted to kill something.
The hobgoblin considered running ahead and getting some help from his human allies, but he quickly discarded that idea. They would be too scared and tired to fight properly, and they would only give him away. Alone, there was no way the pursuers would be able to detect him before it was too late.
However, the most important consideration was the rage. Every second Blacknail watched the enemy, images of Saeter dying filled his head. He had been helpless before, but now this group of foolish humans had left the safety of their pack and entered his domain. There was no one to hold him back from taking his bloody vengeance.
Blacknail turned away and headed deeper into the woods. Once safely out of sight, the hobgoblin broke into a run. The trail curved up ahead so he could cut across the forest to get a lead. There was a good ambush spot down the trail he wanted to take advantage of.
After whipping through a patch of bushes, Blacknail jumped back onto the trail. He didn’t stop moving. He kept running for several minutes until he came to the place he remembered.
A huge tree had recently toppled across the trail here. The fall of the towering giant had opened up the canopy but the undergrowth hadn’t had time to thicken yet. Except for two more tall trees there was no real cover along this part of the path, and one side of the trail was blocked by a rocky ledge that was twice as tall as a man.
Blacknail slipped his backpack off and hurriedly began his preparations. First, he pulled out some rope and started setting a trap. He emptied his backpack, filled it with rocks from the ledge, and then tied the rope to it. With that done, he threw one end of the rope over a thick branch overhead and then scrambled up the other tree.
He chose a sturdy limb that was over a dozen feet up and stretched over the path as his hiding spot. The leaves of the tree made him almost impossible to see from below. From there, he made his final preparations and strung his bow.
Nothing happened for several long minutes, until there was a faint rustling noise. The first scout appeared below Blacknail and began carefully walking down the path. He didn’t look up, humans almost never did. It was a weakness of the species.
Soon, the rest of the party followed their leader out onto the path. The hobgoblin grew excited as he watched them. When they were directly below the trap Blacknail grinned and cut the rope.
The only warning the men below got was a slight rasping noise as the rope rubbed against bark. Surprised faces looked up just in time to see the sack of rocks drop on top of them.
Cries of pain were quickly followed by a sickening crunch as the heavy weight smashed into two men standing in the middle of the enemy formation. It knocked one man aside and hit the other dead on, crushing him.
The other humans panicked and threw themselves to the sides, away from the danger. Blacknail didn’t give them time to recover or figure out what was happening. He already had his bow drawn back and immediately let loose an arrow. It sank into one of the scout’s backs.
The twang of the bow was muffled by the commotion caused by the first attack. It took several moments for the hobgoblin’s enemies to realize another one of their comrades had fallen and how.
“Ambush! To cover!” a hooded scout ordered as he dove off the path and into some bushes.
His fellows were quick to scatter and seek the closest cover as well. None of them seemed to know where they were being attacked from but they knew the general direction from which the arrow had come.
The man that had been knocked aside by Blacknail’s trap was trying to get to his feet. He was struggling and had obviously been badly hurt. Blacknail reloaded his bow and shot him in the back. The man flopped down back onto the ground and went limp.
There were no more easy targets, so the hobgoblin dropped his bow and dashed further out onto the tree limp he had been perched on. He jumped off the branch, caught another one, and then threw himself sideways.
Branches whirred past Blacknail as he flew through the air and landed on an unsuspecting enemy’s back. The hobgoblin was not wearing boots so that he could climb easier. The long claws on his hands and feet sank into the man’s clothes and then the flesh beneath.
There was a shrill scream of pain as the man collapsed under Blacknail’s weight. A shock went through the hobgoblin’s arms as they both hit the ground, but the hobgoblin caught himself. Without hesitation, he quickly drew his knife, reached around, and cut the stunned man’s throat.
There were three enemies left, and they were scattered around the ambush site. This was going to be easy! Bloodlust rose within the hobgoblin and tinted his vision red. He almost spasmed with the need to bite and tear into his prey. It was time to make his enemies pay for what they had done.