As the fighting continued around him on the narrow path leading up the cliff, Blacknail raised his blade and lowered his center of gravity. He kept his weight balanced mostly on his back foot as the goateed Vessel lunged forward and slashed at him. There was a metallic ringing as the hobgoblin blocked the blow with a slash of his own.
The impact almost knocked Blacknail over. His lips curled up into a snarl as he struggled not to give ground. He had been hoping his enemy would still be too stunned to attack with his full force, but that was obviously not the case.
With a wordless cry full of hate and determination, the human Slosher pressed forward. His weight and power pushed the smaller hobgoblin back an arm’s length. As Blacknail recovered, the man launched a brutal series of sword strikes from every direction.
Each blow was stronger than the last and harder to stop. Blacknail’s opponent was now obviously burning Elixir without holding back. The clang of steel hitting steel rang out repeatedly, and Blacknail knew he was in trouble. He was fighting as hard as he could and using every ounce of power he could summon from within himself, but he couldn’t keep this up. If only he had taken the time to down some Elixir of his own!
“I’m going to carve my name in your hide!” the enemy bandit roared.
The shout was quickly followed by a wide swing from the left that smashed Blacknail’s guard aside. The hobgoblin stumbled, and the goateed Slosher raised his blade up in preparation to strike again.
A cold feeling of inevitability filled Blacknail as he watched the blade descend, but then one of the hobgoblin’s allies dove in from the side. The goateed man was forced to turn away from Blacknail for a second and block the newcomer’s attack.
A vicious toothy grin appeared on Blacknail’s lips as he took advantage of the distraction. He stepped forward and stabbed at the man’s exposed ribs.
The enemy Slosher saw the blow coming, but instead of trying to block it he took a deep breath and turned to look directly at Blacknail. Raw fury shone in the man’s eyes as he exhaled a searing burst of red flames.
The fireball shot towards Blacknail’s head. Instinctively, the hobgoblin raised his arms to shield his face and fell backwards. A wave of heat washed over him, and his ass hit the rocky ground with a painful thump.
Blacknail hissed in pain. His long experience with humans told him that they didn’t normally breathe fire. It must be a Vessel power. Why didn’t he have a cool ability like that?
The hobgoblin opened his eyes to see that his sleeves were on fire. Hurriedly, he smacked them against his pants until they went out.
“I hate doing that,” the enemy Slosher admitted bitterly as he kicked Blacknail’s surprised ally aside. “It burns far too much Elixir, and it tastes like ash.”
The man then turned towards Blacknail and raised his sword again. That was when the hobgoblin realized he had dropped his sword. Not good. The cliff edge to the hobgoblin’s right prevented him from rolling that way, and there were people to his left and behind him.
With a victorious grin, the enemy slashed down at Blacknail. The blade cut through the air, and then there was a loud crack as a rock smashed into the man’s head. Blacknail blinked. The Slosher’s eyes rolled up into his head until the whites showed. In slow motion, he fell sideways and rolled off the ledge and out of sight.
“Huh, that’s good,” Blacknail said as he stared disbelievingly at the empty space his opponent had been occupying until a moment ago.
The hobgoblin shook his head to clear it, and he looked up towards the source of the rock. The top of the cliff was empty. There was no one there.
None of Blacknail’s companions were anywhere near the spot that the rock had fallen from. They were in the opposite direction, on the far side of the pathway. Had the falling rock come loose on its own? That seemed unlikely...
The fall of their leader didn’t go unnoticed by the other enemy bandits. Their lead elements took a step back and stopped fighting, so that they could revaluate the situation. Most of them looked stunned.
Sensing weakness, Blacknail grabbed his fallen sword and rose to his feet. He brandished the blade as he growled menacingly as deeply as he could. It was bluffing time.
The hobgoblin’s aggressive move shook the remaining enemies’ spirit. The closest ones flinched and instinctively took a step back. Fear and uncertainly was plain on their faces.
“Time to feast!” Blacknail cackled as two of his minions took up position next to him and raised their blades.
“Let’s finish these scum sacs,” one of them suggested in a sinister tone.
Werrick’s men wavered. They didn’t know what to do. Nervously, one of the men at the front rank took a step back. It looked like they were going to run, which was good since Blacknail was exhausted. Continuing the fight would be risky.
“Hold your ground! We still outnumber the freaks,” a tall man said as he pushed his way to the front.
This new human was wearing chainmail shirt and was holding a two-handed war-axe. He was bald, and he looked particularly stupid when the rock dropped onto his head. With a hollow plunk, the man collapsed limply onto the ground and dropped his weapon. Everyone looked up, but there was still no one there.
“Curse this mess!” one of Werrick’s men swore as he turned and started pushing his way through his allies.
The rest of the enemies quickly did the same, and their formation dissolved into chaos. They fought amongst themselves as they fled down the cliff and back towards the ground. Blacknail and his companions watched them go.
“Ha, I win!” the hobgoblin bragged loudly as he puffed up his chest. He always won, even if he wasn’t always sure how. He was amazing like that.
“What just happened?” a confused voice enquired.
“Did someone race ahead to the top of the cliff and drop that rock?” another bandit asked as he looked up.
“No, there hasn’t been enough time. This side of the way is tough going,” Geralhd yelled from the other side of the break in the path.
“That’s weird. Maybe the gods are finally smiling down on us?” the man standing next to Blacknail suggested with a cheerfulness born of exhaustion.
“Well, if there’s anything up there we’ll see it soon,” Geralhd speculated.
“I just can’t believe we made it out of that alive. Let’s get the hells out of here” Elyias suggested.
“We survived because I’m such a great leader. Look at all the foes we beat, and we didn’t even lose anyone! I’m the best leader ever,” Blacknail celebrated as he grinned at the bodies of Werrick’s fallen men.
“We lost Marcus. He was cut down in the melee, and his corpse is right there,” Geralhd responded as he pointed towards the man’s body.
“Except for him,” the hobgoblin corrected himself. “And one person barely counts anyway.”
Every leader lost a minion here and there, even the best ones. Minions were like that, and Marcus hadn’t been important. Blacknail didn’t even remember him, since so many humans looked the same.
Since it was possible that the enemy could return with reinforcements at any time, Blacknail and the other bandits hurriedly climbed over to the other side of the path. As Geralhd had pointed out, the way past it was rough going. They had to scrabble over rocks and up inclines to reach the top.
It was hard work but they soon made their way to the top without any further incidents. This time Blacknail went first, just in case. While he sat down and took a break, the person after him helped the others up.
The forest continued on the top of the cliff. There was a thick line of bushes on the edge of the forest, where the sunlight got through, and then row after row of trees after that.
Down below the heights, the leaves of the trees looked like a green sea. Blacknail could see the river and the bridge they had used to cross it off in the distance. From up this high, he could see for miles.
“Let’s take a break here,” Geralhd suggested as the last man was pulled up to the top. It was Elyias, and he was still carrying Blacknail’s bags.
“Yep, sounds good, and that was my plan anyway, since I’m such an amazing leader,” Blacknail replied before yawning.
Exhausted from the fight and the climb, everyone settled down to rest. Packs and bags were put down, and flasks of water were passed around as people quenched their thirst. Most of the bandits looked out over the cliff at the view that stretched out before them.
“Thank the gods that we made it. I thought I was going to die! ” Elyias remarked in relief. “Do you think those bastards will chase us?”
“Eh, this cliff is easy to defend and it stretches a fair way in both directions. They’d be fools to try and go around it through the Green,” one of the female bandits replied.
“True, but what do we do now?” Geralhd mused aloud. “We can’t go back to the road and we’re almost out of supplies.”
There was a few seconds of silence as everyone digested this unwelcome bit of information. No one could think of a reply. Eventually, it was Geralhd that broke the silence again.
“We’ll have to find a trail and follow it North. It will be tough, but Blacknail should be able to keep us going in the right direction and find us enough food to get by,” he said.
“Of course, Blacknail can. We have nothing to worry about,” Khita exclaimed confidently. “Blacknail’s a hobgoblin and was trained by Saeter himself. He’s like the best scout ever!”
“That will take weeks of hiking through the Green!” Elyias protested. “Trying that without real meals sounds like nothing but a slow death to me, and who knows what we’ll run into out there!”
“We don’t have much of a choice. You’re welcome to choose a fast death, though,” a bearded bandit replied as he gestured significantly towards the cliff.
Elyias looked over the edge and at the rocks below, before stepping back away and slumping down into a sitting position in defeat.
“That’s what I thought,” the bearded man remarked disdainfully.
“Maybe we should ask Blacknail what he thinks,” Khita proposed.
At her words, everyone turned to look towards Blacknail. The hobgoblin was lying on the ground and using a knapsack as a pillow, but he noticed the attention and perked up.
“We will find a trail and go north,” he told his minions as he met their gazes.
He had only vaguely been paying attention, and he hadn’t really been planning anything, but Geralhd’s idea seemed fine.
No one had anything more to say to Blacknail, so after a few more minutes of rest, he got up to look at the nearby bushes. Staring at the view over the cliff had gotten boring.
Before he reached the shrubs at the edge of the woods, there was suddenly a rustling noise from within them. Blacknail froze as a stone spear abruptly erupted from the undergrowth and stopped an inch from his face.
“Uh oh,” the hobgoblin noted loudly as he stared cross-eyed at the weapon’s tip.
His voice drew his minions’ attention and most of them looked his way, just in time to see a swarm of goblins launch themselves out of the bushes towards them.
There was a loud outburst of inventive cursing as the bandits rose to their feet and reached for their weapons, but they were too slow. The goblins were upon them almost instantly. The green horde overran the humans, and a mass of stone tipped spears prodded the unarmed bandits away from their gear and towards the cliff.
Blacknail took a careful step back from the weapon that was hovering in front of his eyes, just as the snarling hobgoblin that was holding it emerged from the undergrowth.
“Ah, this makes sense,” Blacknail observed as he connected the mental dots. He had been wondering where those falling rocks from before had come from. Now he knew.
“Fuck me, we’re all damned!” Elyias whined hysterically as he dodged the stab of a goblin spear.
“Everyone hold still, and try not to provoke them,” Geralhd ordered everyone with uncharacteristic firmness before turning to Blacknail.
The humans had been pushed together by the swarm of gibbering goblins. They were surrounded except for where their backs were facing the empty air that lay over the cliff ledge. Fear and desperation was plain on their faces.
The goblins were mostly nude but a few of them were wearing loinclothes. Primitive bracelets and necklaces made from bits of string, beads, and feathers were common decorations.
The snarling hobgoblin leading them was also wearing a loincloth made of animal skin. Blacknail was instantly reminded of the last hobgoblin he had fought. Like that one, this one had messy grey hair and two black horns. His horns were much smaller and didn’t branch off like antlers, though. He also looked younger and wasn’t covered in scars.
“Are they hostile? What are they saying?” Geralhd urgently asked Blacknail. He sounded terrified.
“How would I know? It sounds like stupid grunting to me,” Blacknail responded crossly. “I’m not from here.”
This didn’t cheer anyone up.
“I don’t think they want to kill us,” Khita remarked.
“It’s a hobgoblin and a swarm of bloody goblins! Of course, they fucking want to murder us,” another bandit countered furiously. “I’ve heard this story; it ends with us in cook pot.”
“Blacknail’s a hobgoblin and he’s not our enemy,” Khita pointed out as she stared with great interest at the goblin poking at her with a spear.
“That’s right, Blacknail! You’re the leader, do something.” Geralhd told him fervently.
In response, Blacknail straightened up. Geralhd was right; he was the leader, so he had to do something. It was time for him to take charge and face danger head on.
A stern look appeared on Blacknail’s face as he stared at the hobgoblin in front of him. Uncowed, the hobgoblin returned the gaze and snarled menacingly. Blacknail didn’t respond. Instead, as everyone watched, he reached out and slowly pushed the spear aimed at his face aside.
The feral hobgoblin just continued to stare hatefully at Blacknail. Their eyes were locked as they regarded each other with careful consideration. Then, Blacknail hissed and stepped forward. For a split second, the feral hobgoblin hesitated at the unexpected move.
Seizing his chance, Blacknail sprang into action. He growled fearlessly as he raised a fist and smacked the hobgoblin over the head with it. There was a quiet thump, and the feral hobgoblin whined before collapsing onto the ground into a subordinate kneeling position. The goblins all went completely still.
Blacknail stood over his defeated opponent and bragged, “There, now I’m the goblin chief!”
No one said anything for several long seconds. They stared at the two hobgoblins with various mixed and complex expressions. Disbelief was common. So was confusion.
“That’s it?” Khita asked with incredulity. “You’re not going to fight?”
Blacknail turned and gave the redhead a condescending look.
“Why would we? I know him,” he told her.
“What, how?” Geralhd asked as one of his eyes twitched.
“I just do. I ran into this tribe before and beat some sense into them. The hobgoblin was just a goblin then, though,” Blacknail replied as he eyed the hobgoblin at his feet suspiciously. He recognized the the hobgoblin's scent. It was the same as a grey-haired goblin that had served as one of Blacknail's chief subordinates for a while.
What was he supposed to do with a hobgoblin minion? He had met one other hobgoblin before, and that encounter had immediately ended in a duel to the death. Blacknail suspected that all hobgoblins were kind of jerks.
Well, he couldn’t be worse than Khita, and he would undoubtedly be more useful. Blacknail would just have to keep an eye on him.
“So we’re not going to die?” Elyias asked with desperate unbelieving hope.
“Not unless you want to,” Blacknail replied dismissively.
Elyias had gone totally white with fear, but color started to reappear on his face. Blacknail ignored him and scratched his head where his horns were irritating his skin. He wasn’t sure what his next move was.
“Er, could you do something about these goblins?” Geralhd politely interjected.
“Oh, right,” Blacknail replied as he turned away from the prostate hobgoblin.
The goblins that were holding Geralhd and the others hostage were quickly dispersed with a little hand waving and angry yelling by Blacknail. They chattered senselessly as they scattered in all directions and then reformed closer to their old leader. With curious expressions, they carefully watched Blacknail interact with the humans.
Once no longer under immediate threat, the survivors of Herad’s band quickly moved to re-arm themselves and gather their gear. The humans then formed up into a defensive formation and started talking amongst themselves.
“So... um, what do the goblins want?” Geralhd asked Blacknail as he turned away from the others.
It took Blacknail a few seconds to come up with an answer to that question, and he blinked in surprise. It was like Geralhd was trying to be as confusing and stupid as possible.
“They want what I want them to want. I’m the chief now,” he replied patronizingly.
“Hmm, but why did they attack us?” Geralhd enquired.
“They’re goblins; this is their territory,” Blacknail explained. He was quickly losing patience.
Geralhd didn’t look any less confused or afraid after Blacknail’s answer. He opened his mouth to ask something else, but Blacknail ignored him and walked back to the other hobgoblin. He didn’t want to answer any more pointless questions.
The feral hobgoblin had gotten off his knees while Blacknail had been talking, but his eyes immediately shifted downwards in submission when Blacknail looked his way. He clearly didn’t want to fight.
As Blacknail approached, the feral hobgoblin grumbled something incomprehensible. Blacknail had no idea what it meant, but it didn’t really matter since he was in charge.
“I shall call you Gob. That’s a great name,” Blacknail remarked before motioning vaguely towards the forest and starting to walk again.
The goblins quickly fell in line behind him as he stepped into the trees.
“Hey, where are you going?” Geralhd called out in surprise.
“To the goblin’s den,” Blacknail explained without turning around.
“What! You’re just going to leave us here?” Khita asked.
Blacknail sighed in frustration before turning back to glare at the humans. Why were they so slow?
“No, you have to follow me! I’m the leader,” he reminded them. How could they not understand this?
“I’m not going anywhere with a swarm of wild goblins!” one of the bandit exclaimed fearfully in reply.
“The very idea is insane.” Elyias added hysterically. “We have to leave, now!”
There was a general mutterings of agreement from most the other humans. They were still looking at the goblins with poorly disguised hostility and fear.
“They have food and a place to rest,” Blacknail pointed out.
There was silence as everyone considered this. Blacknail didn’t wait for a response. He started walking again and pushed his way through the bushes into the forest proper. The grey haired hobgoblin followed after him and so did the goblins.
After a few minutes of walking, Blacknail glanced over his shoulder. His human minions had decided to follow him after all, but they were keeping a generous distance between themselves and the goblins.
“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” a female bandit announced. “Even the morons you hear about in campfire horror stories weren’t dumb enough to follow two hobgoblins and a tribe of goblins into the Green. We’re so going to die horribly.”
“So, stay here then, coward. I’m following Blacknail,” Khita remarked confidently.
“As long as they fatten us up before they eat us then I’ll die happy,” the bearded bandit added.
“I’m sure Blacknail isn’t going to betray us. He’s always been a loyal and stalwart comrade,” Geralhd added in an attempt to reassure the others. “I’m sure he has a plan.”
It took a few more minutes of walking for Blacknail to realize that he had no idea where he was going, so he gestured for the feral hobgoblin to take the lead. It also had the advantage of placing Gob where he could be easily watched; even being around him put Blacknail on edge. No one with a lick of sense would ever trust a hobgoblin.