Over the next two days, Blacknail took it easy until it was time of the reunion with Geralhd and the other humans. He kept his minions busy, though. As he intermittently supervised and napped, a lot of work was completed on restoring the abandoned village Blacknail’s minions had found. The well had been cleaned and cleared of debris. All the shrubs inside the village grounds had been cut back, and work had been started on fixing up the houses. Of course, they had focused on repairing a house for Blacknail first, he was the leader after all.
When the time came for the meet up, Blacknail led a dozen of his hobgoblins back out onto the road. He left the other hobgoblins and all the goblins behind to continue work on building his new forward base while he was gone.
After a steady uneventful march, Blacknail and his minions reached the rendezvous point without any trouble. When they got there, they didn’t see any sign of the humans, so they settled down to wait at edge of the forest. There, they could stay out of sight but see anyone approaching. Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait long. Less than half an hour later, Geralhd and the others walked into sight. Stretching to work out some kinks, Blacknail walked out of the forest to greet them.
“I was a little afraid that you wouldn’t be here,” Geralhd said as he gave Blacknail a relieved smile. “I’m not sure why. Events have simply been inconveniently chaotic lately, I suppose.”
Blacknail shrugged. “I’m glad you managed to return without falling into any holes. If you had taken much longer I would have had to go looking for you.”
Khita also said hello, but Blacknail ignored her and went straight to business. “While you were gone, what did you learn about this place and Werrick?”
It was Beardy that replied first. “Well, we were right about where we thought we were. As for the Wolf, we found a town and asked around, but they didn’t know all that much about the man himself and what he’s been up to, other than rumors.”
“We only know what some of his men have been doing locally, but I can guess at his plans based on what I’ve heard,” Geralhd added. “It seems like now that there are no credible threats to his authority, Werrick has been turning the remaining chiefs against each other by backing one side and encouraging them to take out their rivals. He seems intent on whittling down the number of bandits in his territory. Which makes sense to me. There are far too many armed bandits around for anyone to control. They can’t just stop robbing and pillaging, since they aren’t good for much else.”
Beardy nodded. “From what we heard, that’s what happened around here recently. One of the local bands was wiped out after their closest rival got some reinforcements and encouragement from Werrick.”
“Interesting,” Blacknail mused aloud. The Wolf was a cunning leader. His plan seemed like a great way to eliminate unwanted troublemakers and build loyalty among the scattered bandits around the North at minimal cost to himself.
Suddenly, Blacknail perked up as an interesting thought occurred to him. “Did any of those bandits survive? The ones from around here.”
“Probably?” Beardy remarked uncertainly. “I heard that some managed to flee, but surviving out in the wilds is tough for men like that. I doubt most of them will manage to hang on much longer.”
Blacknail grinned smugly. Perhaps the Wolf had made a mistake. His plan only worked flawlessly if there was no serious opposition to his rule left in the North.
“What are you thinking?” Gerlahd asked curiously.
“I think we should help out the poor people who have just found themselves in the same situation as we used to be. Right now, they are probably suffering all alone out in the cold. So sad,” Blacknail told him before sighing emphatically. Human emotions were fun to mimic.
Beardy rolled his eyes scornfully. “And how are we supposed to find these poor suffering professional murderers?”
“If you know the last place they were seen, my scouts will do the rest,” Blacknail replied as he flashed a toothy grin.
Geralhd was a little skeptical about the value of trying to recruit some unknown bandits, but he wasn’t completely against it. Beardy had long ago learned not to fight Blacknail about this sort of thing, so he simply shrugged and told him everything he wanted to know. Blacknail used that information to quickly come up with a plan.
“It seems that we will be staying here for a little longer,” he told Geralhd.
The man just shrugged. “That’s fine with me, my friend. I’ve still got plenty of coin left unspent, and a rather deep thirst for good wine that I suspect will never be quenched. How about we go back to the town and meet you back here the day after tomorrow?”
“That would be fine,” Blacknail agreed. Two days was probably plenty of time if he moved fast. However, it would help his mission if he had…
“I’ll go with Blacknail,” Khita suddenly said. Her unexpected interjection interrupted Blacknail’s thoughts and seemed to surprise Hassiol, the young man who’d been following her.
“I’ve already seen everything interesting that town has to offer, and I feel like more of a real adventure,” Khita explained as she suddenly became the center of attention.
Blacknail scowled at her. He wanted to tell her to go away, but he’d just been about to ask for some humans to help him communicate with any bandits he found, and to serve as proof that he didn’t eat humans. Thus, he couldn’t really turn her down and ask someone else to stay.
“Fine, you can come,” Blacknail told her before sighing deeply.
Soon after that, the humans turned around and headed back to the town they’d just come from. That left Blacknail alone with his minions, Khita, and the blonde kid that followed her everywhere.
“So, we’re going to go round us up some new minions!” Khita exclaimed happily.
Blacknail sighed again. “Yep, that’s the plan, but we will be going to my secret base to get some more supplies and minions first.”
“Sharp! A secret base. I can’t wait to see it,” Khita replied cheerfully as they began to walk.
“You’re probably going to be disappointed,” Blacknail told her. What exactly was she expecting?
He was wrong. When Khita got to Blacknail’s newest outpost, an impressed look appeared on her face as she looked around. What? She had come from a human settlement much more impressive than this place, even before it had become an empty decaying ruin.
“Wow, sharp,” Khita remarked as she stared down into the well.
Hassiol nodded. “It’s sort of neat.”
Blacknail glowered at them both. “Stop being silly. What’s neat about this place? It’s a wreck.”
“Lots. I’ve never visited an abandoned village before,” Hassiol explained. “The way it is all overgrown is spooky.”
“Do you think all the people that used to live here were slaughtered by bandits or mutants?” Khita asked speculatively.
“No, there are no bones,” Blacknail told her coldly. “And there is nothing special about this place. There are lots of abandoned human places everywhere. You’re very messy.”
Khita shrugged. “Huh, I guess we are. Where’s my house?”
Blacknail gave her a blank look. “Why would you have a house?”
“So, I have somewhere to sleep.”
“You can have any house you fix,” Blacknail told he dismissively before going off to find a better use of his time. Talking to Khita was making him dumber. He could feel it.
Thankfully, Blacknail had places to be and things to organize. After deciding to leave half a dozen hobgoblins behind, he mustered up the others and got them marching onto the road. He also brought along the hogs and the two humans. He had the last known location of the bandits he was looking for, so he could probably use that to track them down. First though, he had to get there. It was several hours away, even using the roads, so they would have to move quickly if they wanted to get back before their deadline.
Blacknail pushed the pace, and his group eventually closed in on their destination. It was a small semi-permanent campsite built next to the road, and it had been trashed. All the buildings and barricades had been torn down and burnt out. Blacknail thoughtfully frowned as he studied the remains. It looked like the camp had housed around fifty or so humans. However, judging by all the rotting corpses everywhere, only far less than that could have possibly survived the attack.
“Spread out and find me any human trails that lead out into the Green. I want survivors,” he informed his minions, and they quickly jumped to obey.
“There is no chance of running into the raiders that did this, is there?” Hassiol asked as he looked back at the road nervously.
“It could happen,” Blacknail replied neutrally. “But, they left several days ago, and we can always retreat into the forest if they return. Besides, we would hear them coming and human bandits could never track us through the Green.”
Instead of joining the conversation, Khita studied the nearby ruins with an uncharacteristically depressed expression on her face. That was odd. Violence and the destruction it left in its wake usually excited the young redhead.
“This isn’t much different than what happened to us,” she remarked morosely a moment later. At her words, Blacknail felt a twinge of loss, which quickly transformed into anger. Werrick…
“Not the same. We had a much larger base and fought much harder than these losers,” Blacknail replied dismissively as he waited for his minions to report back. “The bandits here were just prey for the Wolf. If Mahedium hadn’t betrayed us, Herad could have beaten him.”
“Ya, maybe,” Khita responded solemnly.
For the next few minutes, they waited among the devastation. The silence was awkward, but no one felt like speaking up. Blacknail just glared at everything. Thankfully, one of his scouts soon returned with news.
“I found you a trail, boss. Several humans fled into the Green, that way,” the scout explained as he pointed toward the far side of the camp.
“Gather up the others, then. We’re moving out,” Blacknail replied as he began walking. He wanted to get out of this place as soon as possible.
After giving the hobgoblins time to return and reorganize, the scout led Blacknail and the others over to an animal trail that led into the forest. They carefully followed the winding path through the trees. Blacknail led the way. As he walked, he spotted many signs of recent human activity. There were partial footprints in the dirt and broken branches along the way. However, he saw no signs of sentries or watchers.
Eventually, the trail led them down a hill and to a rocky stream. Leaning out from behind a tree, Blacknail sniffed the air and studied the forest for any sign of humans. He didn’t detect anything recent, so he carefully began to creep down to the stream. Once there, he looked around for more signs, and found some footprints headed upstream.
“I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t the raiders who took out the camp follow these people. They left a trail even I can see,” Hassiol asked quietly once he’d walked over to Blacknail.
“Lots of people get chased into the Green, but very few make it back out again,” Khita replied as Blacknail nodded in agreement. Even for trained scouts, the forest could be deadly, and most humans were complete idiots.
After following the stream for a while, the canopy overhead began to open up. Beams of sunlight pierced the leafy roof overhead and hit the ground around the stream, and clusters of tall bushes and young trees grew up toward the illumination. Blacknail immediately signalled for everyone to stop as he studied the greenery suspiciously. The scent of blood hung heavily in the air here.
“What is it?” Khita whispered.
“A mimic. Our targets probably ran into it and then fled. We’re going around,” Blacknail explained. He thought one tree in particular was suspicious, but when it came to mimics, it was almost always impossible to sure unless you got dangerously close .
Cautiously, Blacknail led the group around the edge of the sunlit area, and he soon found the humans’ trail. There were drops of blood on the ground now. At least one of them was wounded.
It didn’t take them long after that to find their quarry. The wounded humans hadn’t gone far. After escaping the mimic, they’d holed up in a nearby cave. Blacknail studied it from distance. There was one human keeping watch at its entrance, but he didn’t see anyone else.
“So, what do we do now, boss?” one of the hobgoblin scouts asked.
Blacknail smiled and turned to look at the two humans he’d brought. “Now we introduce ourselves.”
One brief conversation later, Blacknail left his hobgoblins behind and began leading his two humans over to the cave. They moved slowly, but out in the open where they would be impossible to miss. Beside him, Khita was vibrating with excitement, while Hassiol looked terrified.
“I can’t believe we’re just going to go talk to them,” the young man remarked.
Amused, Khita just grinned at him. “Stop being a baby. What are you afraid of? They have no reason to attack us. It would be stupid.”
“They attack everyone. They’re bandits!” Hassiol remarked in outrage.
“So am I!” Khita laughed as the blonde young man sputtered in disbelief.
By now, their approach had been noted. Several more humans appeared at the cave entrance, and they were all looking toward Blacknail’s group with obvious tension.
“Hello!” Blacknal yelled as he waved in their direction.
“Who are you and what do you want?” one of the survivors yelled back.
“To help you and to have a nice friendly conversation,” Blacknail shouted back.
The survivors immediately began furiously talking among themselves as Blacknail’s group drew closer. Blacknail wasn’t wearing a hood, and it seemed like his inhumanity had been noticed.
As the two parties met, all the survivors eyed Blacknail warily. They didn’t seem to know what to make of the two young humans with him, but their presence did relieve some of their suspicion, just as Blacknail had planned.
All the survivors looked worse for wear. Their already rough clothes were torn, and their entire bodies were splattered with dirt. Dark bags hung under their eyes and their faces were unshaven. Blacknail was fairly sure he could smell desperation and hopelessness on them. He could definitely smell a faint hint of sickness, although it was just what you would expect from humans with untreated wounds.
A brown-haired man stepped forward and eyed Blacknail. “Judging by how you're walking and talking, I’m guessing you’re the Man-Hunter, the hobgoblin they call Blacknail. I’ve heard of you.”
“Yep, that’s me. I used to work for Herad the Black Snake,” Blacknail replied as he gave the man a friendly smile. He was famous!
“So then, what have you come here for?” the man asked warily. “We weren’t exactly expecting guests.”
“You seem to have gotten yourselves into a lot of trouble, so I thought I’d help you out. We have the same enemies after all.”
“And what would you want in return for this help?” the man asked suspiciously.
Blacknail kept smiling. “I am currently looking for minions.”
“What if we’ve had enough of being on the Wolf’s bad side?”
“Then, you can stay here. I don’t want to force you to do anything,” Blacknail replied as indifferently as possible. “Die if you want.”
“Are you so sure we’d go alone?” another survivor asked angrily.
Chuckling, Blacknail let out a loud whistle. Instantly, hobgoblins emerged from out of hiding all around the entrance to the cave. Most of them had bows ready.
“Silly human, you don’t threaten me,” Blacknail laughed. “Alone, I have killed many more humans than you have here, and I’m far from alone.”
“And I’m here too,” Khita added.
The leader of the survivors gave the redhead a disgusted look. “What are you? His pet?”
There was a loud crunch as Khita’s fist impacted the man’s face. Blood streamed from his nose as he flipped over backward. Shocked, the other survivors froze and looked on in disbelief. The young woman had moved with startling speed and power.
Fuming mad, Khita glared down at the man she’d felled. “I’m no one you should be disrespecting. I’m a warrior and a Slosher, one of Blacknail’s fiercest lieutenants.”
Quietly, Blacknail hummed in disagreement to that statement, but he kept his mouth shut.
Looking up, Khita focused on the other survivors. “Some of you are probably thinking that going up against Werrick is stupid, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Blacknail commands an ever-growing army, and his scouts don’t fear the Green, as shown by how he tracked your sorry asses down. Werrick can’t touch him, and if you sign up with us, we’ll get you out of here safely. Then, we’ll fill your bellies and tend to your wounds.”
“Well, you have some good points there, especially in the short term,” one of the still standing survivors remarked.
On the ground, the group’s leader stared blankly into space for several seconds and then collapsed backwards into unconsciousness.
Blacknail looked down at him and sighed. “Someone is going to have to carry him now.”