Blacknail was walking through the woods at the edge of Herad’s camp. He had gone out to empty the rabbit snares and reset them, as he did almost every day. Today though, he felt a cold shiver run up his spine a few minutes after entering the forest.
The days had grown shorter and colder recently, but that wasn’t what had caused him to shiver. Blacknail had felt eyes on his back. Something was stalking him. His ears twitched ever so slightly as they detected the faintest hint of noise in the trees behind him. Make that at least two things that were stalking him.
He was careful to act normal, and not to reveal his awareness of the watchers, as he continued on his way to the traps. As he walked, Blacknail subtly scanned the forest around him.
The plants had grown throughout the year and reached their full height now, and most the flowers had disappeared as well. Here, in the sunnier part of the woods, the taller plants reached up to his chest. Their once colorful summer blooms had withered and been replaced by hard black seeds, or white fluff that took flight when the wind blew through the trees. Autumn had crept up and stealthily disposed of summer when no one was looking.
Of course not all the changes were bad. The trees had begun to bear fruit and nuts. These new treasures were hidden among the green branches of the forest canopy.
The hobgoblin had been completely unaware that food even grew on trees. The very idea sounded silly to him. Wasn’t food supposed to be harder to get? Now all he had to so was climb a tree, which was something he had recently gotten very good at.
When Saeter took Blacknail out to hunt or track he would show him which fruits and nuts were edible and how to harvest them. Being a hobgoblin, there were many things that Saeter wouldn’t touch that smelled delicious to Blacknail. Unfortunately, just because something smelled delicious didn’t mean it wasn’t poisonous. Blacknail learned that the hard way, after a night of fever and vomiting.
Blacknail approached the snares carefully. He was listening for any hint of movement behind him that would reveal the position of his stalkers. He frowned in concern when he didn’t hear anything. He knew they were there… somewhere.
Quickly, Blacknail gathered up the carcasses and started heading back. Around halfway there, he entered an area of the forest where the canopy was especially thin and the forest floor was bathed in sunlight.
The animal trail Blacknail was following wound its way through a small field of tall weeds. As soon as he entered it, the hobgoblin purposely slowed his pace. When he was sure he was out of sight of any watchers he ducked into a small depression where the weeds concealed him. It was time to turn the tables on his pursuers.
A few minutes passed as he waited. The only noise was that of morning birds singing, and then the shrubs rustled ever so slightly in the direction Blacknail had just come from. He tensed as he heard the sound of footsteps. His stalker was approaching!
Eager energy burned through him but he patiently waited until the source of the noise had moved past him. Then, he burst out of concealment and sprung towards his pursuer’s exposed back. As he leapt, his jagged claws closed around the back of Khita’s shirt collar, and she let a high pitched screech of shock as she jumped into the air.
She squirmed and struggled to escape his grip for a few seconds. Blacknail had to brace himself to keep his hold. He was stronger than her, but their weight was almost the same. She calmed down after a moment when she threw a look over her shoulder and realized it was him.
The young redhead flushed in embarrassment as she turned around and gave Blacknail a nervous look. The hobgoblin was frowning in disapproval as her held her.
“Master Saeter told-ss you not to go into the forest alone,” he hissed at her.
Most people found his hissing scary, but this insufferable female just found it ‘sharp’. She gave him a guilty smile, and shrugged her shoulders in a way that suggested she was trying to act composed.
“I wasn’t alone. I was with you… sorta,” she replied dismissively. “Besides, I was bored and thought a walk sounded like fun.”
“You’re stupid. You know the forest is dangerous, master Saeter has shown you. Still-ss you try to sneak around by yourself. You are not very good at it, and will die,” he replied accusingly as he continued to listen carefully to his surroundings.
“I’m used to danger, and I’ve got my sword here anyway,” she told him as she pointed to the blade at her waist.
Blacknail released her collar and continued to frown at her. Stealthily, he drew a stone from one of his pouches.
“A sword won’t keep you safe here,” he told her as he withdrew his sling and placed the stone in it.
Blacknail then took the rabbits he had tied together and thrown over his shoulder and dropped them on the ground at the edge of weeds. Khita frowned as she finally noticed his odd actions and distracted manner. Before she could say anything though, Blacknail spun around and whirled the sling in his hand. A whistling sound filled the air as he sent a stone flying off into the leaves of a nearby tree.
Twigs splintered and cracked as the projectile tore through the branches, and a high pitched squawk quickly followed. As both Blacknail and Khita watched, a small cloud of feathers and leaves fluttered down from the tree, and a large harpy took flight from where it had been hiding.
The grey feathered creature was almost the size of Blacknail or Khita and had a truly impressive wingspan. It screeched and gazed at them with its black hate filled eyes. The flapping sound of its wings filled the air as it fought to gain height. A surprised Khita took a step backwards and then another one behind Blacknail.
As the harpy screeched again, it’s eerily human like mouth opened to reveal its long needle like teeth and the black feather crest on its head straightened to its full dramatic height. The enraged raptor hovered in the air. It seemed to be preparing itself to dive bomb them.
Blacknail let out a deep menacing growl in response and stretched himself to his full height. He opened his mouth and flashed his own impressive teeth back at the harpy. The stupid ugly bird thing didn’t scare him. He was no longer a small weaponless goblin.
The harpy eyed him carefully for a second, and then apparently decided this was a fight it didn’t want to pursue. With one last squawk, it took off and vanished into the forest canopy.
Khita let out a relieved sigh. When he was sure the harpy had disappeared, Blacknail turned towards her.
“You’re not a sneaky human. Ugly harpy followed you and wanted to eat-ss you. It knew you were a stupid brat and was waiting for you-ss to make a mistake,” he explained disdainfully.
Khita grimaced and as she looked down at the ground. She avoided his eyes out of embarrassment.
“Creepy bloody things with their damned human faces. I could have taken it though,” She muttered nervously, as she looked up and scanned the canopy overhead.
“You see those claws? They’re like-ss knives and very sharp, no?” Blacknail asked her condescendingly.
The hobgoblin then drew another stone. This time he whipped it by hand into the bushes beside where he had dropped the rabbits.
There was a yelp of pain, and Blacknail pounced towards its source. Khita flinched and gasped at the unexpected quick movement. She was still high strung from the last surprise.
Landing in the tall weeds, Blacknail felt his claws grasp something soft and pudgy. Immediately, he yanked his prey from its hiding spot and up into the air.
Scamp hung limply in his hand. The goblin’s large eyes were wide and he had a nervous smirk on his lips. It reminded Blacknail of Khita’s expression when he had caught her.
“Ello boss. I gonna carry rabbits for ya,” Scamp told Blacknail hopefully.
The hobgoblin glowered at the little liar. He wanted to tell the goblin that Varhs was his master not him, but he couldn’t. Varhs was a terrible master. Blacknail was pretty sure he never beat Scamp at all! How was that supposed to work?
Blacknail shuddered to think about what would happen if he wasn’t around to keep Scamp under control. Why couldn’t Scamp be as well behaved as he had been as a goblin?
Unlike Khita, the goblin hadn’t actually been forbidden to enter the woods. He was just annoying and Blacknail didn’t want him around.
The stupid little runt had no fear of the forest since he had been born there. He was also borderline suicidal, especially since he kept trying to steal Blacknail’s rabbits. No matter how many times Blacknail caught and punished him he didn’t stop.
Unfortunately, the young goblin was also very sneaky and thus unlikely to actually get himself killed. The same couldn’t be said for Khita. Blacknail had to watch her like a hawk.
Awhile back, Khita had gotten bored and decided she wanted to be a scout. So she had bugged Saeter until he had reluctantly let her join them on a few trips out into forest. Blacknail had been secretly hoping that she had finally annoyed Saeter enough that they were taking her out into the woods to be disposed of.
He hadn’t been so lucky. Now Khita considered herself an expert at navigating the forest, which she wasn’t. To make matters even worse Vorscha had showed up and made it plain to Blacknail that she would be holding him responsible for Khita’s safety. How was that fair?
“You gonna drop me, boss?” Scamp asked as the hobgoblin held him up.
Blacknail’s arm was getting tired so he gave the goblin a quick growl and dropped him onto the ground. Then he gave him a hard kick. Scamp grunted as he was sent sprawling over to rest at Khita’s feet, but he quickly pulled himself back up. Goblins were hard to hurt.
“Stay with her,” he ordered Scamp as he began stomping back to camp.
“Okay, boss,” the goblin replied cheerfully.
“Hey, why did you do that?” Khita asked in disapproval.
Blacknail ignored her; he didn’t care at all about what she thought. She was stupid.
After he didn’t respond, Khita and the goblin immediately started following him. It wasn’t like they had anywhere else to go.
It took more than a few minutes to hike through the woods and get back to the camp. Khita was huffing in exhaustion when they arrived because Blacknail had set a quick pace. After a brief nod to the sentry on duty, who was no one important, they stepped out of the forest and Herad’s base came into sight.
The seasons weren’t the only things that had been changing. Herad had her ambitions, and she was working hard towards achieving them.
The camp was slowly but surely transforming. The small log buildings that the bandits had originally built had been expanded and several more of them had been constructed. Almost all the lean-tos had been torn down and replaced. Even the forest had been pushed back, both for lumber and safety.
Wooden watchtowers had been set up along the road at the edge of the woods, where they could be concealed by the trees. A small haphazard wall of wooden stakes was slowly being constructed along one side of the perimeter as well. All in all, the base was beginning to look more like a small woodland village than a bandit camp.
After a quick look back to make sure Scamp and Khita were still following him, Blacknail headed for his campsite. He had to start preparing the rabbits right away or they would go bad. Actually, he would probably make Khita do it. He would have made Scamp help, but the goblin would just eat half of them.
Blacknail didn’t have time to waste preparing rabbits. The larger base also contained more outlaws, and all those outlaws needed to be fed. Thus, Herad kept her scouts very busy hunting for food. Buying supplies from town was expensive and cut into her profits after all.
The bandit chieftain had continued to send out parties to recruit or wipe out anyone who dared operate in the territory she had claimed as her own. Since her territory was a rather large and poorly defined area she never ran out of targets. The base contained over two hundred bandits now, or it would have if men weren’t constantly being sent out and coming back.
As she had planned, Herad had stopped raiding caravans and was instead charging tolls now. Bandits were still sent out to intercept travelers on the road, but now they were under strict orders not to kill anyone who didn’t resist. They also weren’t allowed to rob anyone who paid Herad’s fee. Word of these changes and what was happening was spreading rapidly through the region.
However, collecting tolls wasn’t a job that Herad sent Saeter and Blacknail out to do. For some reason she thought they wouldn’t be very good at it. Blacknail was pretty sure it was because Saeter was so grumpy. They had more important things to do anyway.
On top of being her best pair of hunters Herad also used them for less dangerous jobs, like tracking down other bandits that encroached on her territory. Compared to some of the things that lurked out in the deep green killing a few humans and scaring the rest into submission was no big deal.
His first trip out to fight men who had tried to encroach on their territory had been by far the most eventful. Blacknail was just very glad they hadn’t run into any more trolls.
They reached the camp Saeter, Khita, and Blacknail shared. The hobgoblin turned and addressed the young woman behind him.
“Prepare the rabbits” Blacknail told Khita as he held them out to her.
“Why should I?” she asked him defiantly.
“So I don’t kill you and hide-ss your corpse in the mud-ss,” he replied with an annoyed hiss.
Khita just laughed, and gave him a cheerful smile.
“You wouldn’t do that. You’re all nasty on the outside but inside you’re soft as cloth,” she told him.
Blacknail snarled at her. He would totally do that! Well, he would if he thought he could get away with it. Unfortunately, if Khita went missing he would be among the first suspects. Then he would have to flee into the woods before Vorscha could smash him flat.
Sometimes he almost still considered doing it, though. At least it would be quiet out in the Deep Green.
“Do it, or I’ll tell-ss Vorscha you haven’t been practicing,” Blacknail told her.
“Hey, I have too been practicing everything she told me to,” she replied excitedly as she glared at him.
“I will lie-ss. She will believe me,” the hobgoblin told her as he gave Khita a smug smile.
“I take it back. You are nasty and evil on the inside,” Khita told him angrily.
Blacknail just shrugged and held out the rabbits again. Khita threw him a mad glare, but she grabbed them from him.
“Fine, come on Scamp let’s…” she started to say; only to stop when she looked down and noticed the goblin was gone. He had been there a second ago.
Khita gave a defeated sigh, and walked over near the fire pit between their tents and started to get to work. Blacknail could hear her muttering angrily to herself and saying rude things about goblins as she worked.
He ignored her and set off to find Scamp. He had a feeling the goblin was going to get into trouble unless he stopped him. Mostly because that was all the little pest ever did. For what was far from the first time, Blacknail cursed Varhs for picking the goblin up. Why couldn’t he have found a smarter goblin at least, or an attractive female?
Apparently, the scout had been out hunting when he had stumbled upon the young injured goblin and decided to tame it. Blacknail found this story very suspicious. He suspected Varhs had been out looking for a goblin to tame.
It would have been fine if Varhs had properly trained Scamp, but he hadn’t. The man was far too lax and undisciplined. That meant that if Blacknail didn’t want people getting a bad impression of goblins he had to discipline Scamp himself.
Blacknail scowled as he looked around and sniffed the air. Scamp’s trail wasn’t easy to follow. The odor of many strong scents such as blood and garbage lay thickly upon the camp, and it was sometimes hard to distinguish the goblin’s latest trail from his older ones. Luckily, the goblin had picked up some fairly pungent plant smells while he had been out in the woods.
After several false leads and dead ends, the hobgoblin found himself standing outside Mahedium’s cabin. This made him more than a little nervous. He wasn’t sure exactly what the mage did in there, but he was sure it was a bad place for a goblin to be running loose. Things might explode, more than they normally did.
“Hells-ss,” Blacknail cursed. He had been working on learning and using swear words lately.
After he had sworn to obey Herad and officially joined the band, Mahedium had quickly commandeered one of the cabins for himself. The former occupants had complained but the mage had managed to convince Herad he needed it for a lab.
The mage had rarely left the building except for one trip he had made to Riverdown for supplies. Apparently, he was scared to go into cities because he had very powerful enemies. Blacknail had heard him argue with Herad over the cost of the equipment he needed, and arguing meant Mahedium had begged and pleaded until he had gotten what he wanted.
Blacknail stepped up to the door of the building and opened it enough for him to slip inside. The interior was dark but there was enough light to see, even for a human. The cabin was a fairly large building because it had been originally designed to bunk a dozen men. The inside was only split into two rooms. There was a smaller front room and a larger one.
The floor of first room was packed dirt with a thin straw covering, and there were two small windows on each side of the room that let light in. A small bed was tucked up against one wall and there was a wooden table and chair against another. A few items and books were scattered around, but there was no one in sight.
Idly, Blacknail examined some of the things. He was surprised to find the weird rectangular things were full of word covered paper. What could humans possibly write about that would require so many words? He certainly couldn’t think of anything.
With a sigh, Blacknail put the book down and fought the urge to pocket some of the things lying around. Mahedium seemed like the type of person that would notice if things went missing and Blacknail wasn’t a thief anyway.
Since it was clear no one else was there, Blacknail moved over to the door on the far wall that led to the next room. Carefully, he opened it and went through.
The room on the other side was very different than the one he just left. A large table dominated the center of the room. The floor around it was straw free but looked like it had been mixed with clay or something before it had been flattened. It was much cleaner but also colder than the other room. A few smaller tables, a small desk, and some mostly empty bookshelves lined the walls.
The windows here were all shuttered up, and the only light came from a pair of obviously magical lamps that flooded the room with a pure white glow. They looked like simple metal oil lamps except the wicks and oil had been replaced by brightly glowing crystals. One of them hung from the ceiling while the other had been placed on the desk.
Seated in front of the desk was Mahedium. He hadn’t looked up when Blacknail had entered. In fact, he seemed completely ignorant that anyone else was in the room with him. Blacknail cast a look around the room for signs of Scamp, but didn’t see any.
Scattered across the tables and shelves were many glass beakers and cups of different sizes. Various fluids filled the containers, most of which were clear or muddy brown. Blacknail saw a few crystals, that he was pretty sure were magical, laying around as well.
The hobgoblin walked up behind Mahedium and coughed to get his attention. The mage quickly sat up and spun around towards the unexpected noise. When he saw Blacknail he gasped and flinched, which caused his chair to rock and then tip over. The surprised mage flailed and tried to catch his balance, but failed, and hit the ground with a heavy thud.
Blacknail frowned down the man. He hadn’t meant for that to happen.
“Sorry,” he told Mahedium, as the mage picked himself off the ground.
Mahedium scowled at him as he brushed the dirt from his clothes. Blacknail didn’t notice a difference; the man’s clothes were pretty dirty to begin with.
“Ah, Blacknail. You shouldn’t surprise people like that. Now what do you want? Normally I wouldn’t mind talking with you, you’re a rather fascinating creature, but I’m very busy right now,” he told the hobgoblin.
Blacknail decided to take that as a compliment.
“I followed Scamp here, and this is a bad-ss place for him,” Blacknail replied.
Mahedium blinked in confusion.
“The little goblin? Well, he can’t be in here. I would have noticed,” Mahedium told him.
Blacknail gave him a dubious look. He hadn’t noticed a hobgoblin walk right up behind him, so he stood no chance of whatsoever of noticing Scamp.
Before he could say anything though there was a flash of light and both Blacknail and Mahedium looked over to see Scamp reaching up onto a table to grab some crystals. One of the crystals in his hand had flared to life and was the source of the bright glow. The goblin gave them both a startled look as he unexpectedly found himself the center of attention. Blacknail growled menacingly.
“Bye bye,” Scamp blurted out, as he dashed for the door Blacknail had left open.
Before anyone else could react he had disappeared through it. Mahedium’s eyes had gone wide with disbelief, and he looked stunned.
“He shouldn’t be able to do that. It’s impossible,” the mage exclaimed in shock.
Then he froze and clenched his jaw tight.
“Oh oh, if we don’t get those crystals back right now this could be very bad,” he told Blacknail.
"How bad?" The hobgoblin asked suspiciously. He was beginning to suspect magic was more trouble than it was worth.
"They might explode and take out half the base... or worse," Mahedium replied.
Blacknail eyed the mage warily. Of course they would. As if explosions weren't bad enough.
The hobgoblin clenched his teeth and let out a low angry growl. When he caught Scamp the little goblin was going to get such a kicking.