When he finished off Malthus and his last two minions it would be a total of… seven human warriors! He couldn’t wait to tell everyone about how awesome he was. Saeter would be so impressed, Herad would give him more cheese than he could possibly eat, and everyone else would finally realize how much better at everything he was than them.
Up ahead, across a few dozen feet of thick bush, the three remaining assassins were slowly trudging back towards the city. They were slowed down by the need to check for traps and watch for ambushes. Much to Blacknail’s disappointment they’d already found and disarmed one that had been in their way.
The hobgoblin was keeping his distance from his prey for now, and waiting for an opportunity to appear. At the pace they were going they wouldn’t be able to escape from the forest any time soon, so he could afford to be patient. Rushing in would be stupid; Malthus wasn’t a human he intended to underestimate again.
After a few more minutes of watching, Blacknail stealthily moved up beside his quarry and narrowed the distance between them. The assassin to Malthus’ left was beginning to slow. Instinctively, the hobgoblin’s eyes picked out the fact that the man’s legs were dragging and his shoulders had started to slouch.
Blacknail’s heart beat sped up and his mind focused. Distractions and other thoughts were pushed aside as he studied his prey. He sensed weakness and that was an opportunity waiting to be taken advantage of.
He tore his eyes away from the man and turned to study the terrain. If the assassins kept their current course they would soon pass next to a small ridge. It was the perfect place for an ambush. Now he had both a place and a target. It was time to put his latest brilliant scheme into action!
The hobgoblin picked up his pace and moved through the underbrush to cut off his quarry’s path. He quickly crept through the trees until he reached the ridge. He then looked out from behind a large moss covered rock that sat at the very edge of the ridge. Malthus and his men were approaching so Blacknail quickly ducked back out of sight.
The trio of men were looking very nervous as they carefully moved through the brush. One of them flinched and jumped slightly when he was startled by the cry of a blackbird. He wasn’t Blacknail’s target though. The hobgoblin was aiming for the other assassin, the one that hadn’t reacted at all and looked tired.
As Malthus and his men drew closer, Blacknail took out his sling and silently loaded it with a stone from one of his pouches. He then peeked ever so slightly out from his hiding spot and watched hungrily for the right time to strike.
Below him, Malthus turned away to look off into the opposite side of the forest and the fatigued assassin slouched and looked down towards his feet. Blacknail made his move. There was a quiet rustling as the unseen hobgoblin rose to his feet and then a loud crack as his spinning sling unleashed its payload.
All three assassins flinched at the noise. The stone zipped through the air towards the off guard man’s chest, and instead of ducking or dodging he froze. Malthus acted quickly, though. The master assassin’s cloak whipped around him as he moved with lightning speed and tackled the other man to the ground.
Blacknail clenched his fists and hissed in annoyance as his projectile sailed harmlessly off into the trees. He didn’t have much time for regret though; Malthus was back on his feet within seconds and headed Blacknail’s way.
“Come face me, you cowardly abomination!” the Knifeman roared as he dashed towards the earthen ridge the hobgoblin stood atop of.
“Maybe later!” Blacknail yelled back as he quickly ran away and disappeared into the trees.
It took Malthus several seconds to climb up the small cliff that lay between them. The soil was loose and wet so by the time he got to the top the hobgoblin was long gone.
“Hells and damnation,” The master assassin cursed loudly to himself as he looked around.
He didn’t give chase, though. Instead, he reluctantly turned back around and rejoined his men in heading out of the bush.
“You’re just going to let that thing get away?” the anxious assassin asked.
“For now; there’s no bloody way I’m chasing that thing through its own territory. As far as I know the entire purpose of that attack was to try and lure me away and into more of those traps. No, all we need to do is get out of this damn bush and then we’re the ones with the advantage. I’m not going to underestimate that creature. It must be a hobgoblin, and I’ve heard stories about them,” Malthus replied.
A fair distance away Blacknail was hanging halfway up a slender tree. Its thick leaves hid him from below, but its thin grey trunk was still swaying slightly from his hurried ascent. It probably wasn’t the best hiding spot but he was stuck there now.
He waited there nervously for a few seconds as he listened for any signs of pursuit. When he didn’t hear anything the hobgoblin carefully climbed down and began to creep back after his prey. Now that he knew they weren’t hot on his trail he was safe, and he couldn’t let them get too far ahead or they would escape.
As he moved the hobgoblin’s eyes narrowed and his forehead grew lined. He had a problem he had to think through and solve. His ranged attack from ambush moments ago had been an obvious failure. He hadn’t managed to even wound anyone and he’d even had to flee for his life.
He was going to have to get closer if he wanted his next strike to succeed. That would be difficult though; he would need a new plan.
The assassins were terrible woodsmen but they weren’t blind or stupid. They knew what he looked like and would see him if he got too close. Hmmm, what if he changed his appearance, though?
Blacknail giggled and rubbed his hands together gleefully as a fun idea popped into his head. It was time to get down and dirty!
It had rained a bit earlier that morning so there were still a few scattered puddles and patches of wet ground around. The hobgoblin quickly headed over to the closest one he remembered and took off all his clothes. It had been quite a long time since he’d last run around naked, and it felt quite liberating, if a little cold.
The hobgoblin hastily and enthusiastically jumped into the muddy puddle and began rolling around. Mud and dirty water splashed up in to the air as he shifted his weight around.
It had also been quite a while since the last time he’d done this, and he’d missed it. The mud felt wonderful and cool on his skin, and so much better than wearing itchy clothes. Humans were so weird about covering themselves up. They’d probably enjoy the occasional mud bath if they tried it.
When Blacknail got back up the green skin that was stretched over his lanky frame was covered in muddy smears. The result was shifting patterns of green and dirty brown that blended in with the forest around him. After bundling up his gear and discarded clothes the hobgoblin headed back after his quarry. The mud on his skin was already starting to dry and flake off as he ran.
Once again, Blacknail circled around the assassins and got out ahead of them. Luckily, they had been slowed down because they’d run into a noose trap. The trap had done little more than snag one of the assassins’ feet and trip him, but it had prevented them from getting very far.
From a safe distance away, the very dirty and naked hobgoblin watched as Malthus cut his subordinate free and helped him back onto his feet. The third man was keeping watch in case Blacknail tried anything while Malthus was distracted.
Up ahead a thick hedge of thorny bushes cut the way forward off. There was only one real path through it. The tall briars had a gap in the middle of them that a human could easily walk through. It was probably some sort of game trail.
“Hmm, perfect-ss,” the hobgoblin murmured happily to himself when he saw it.
With one last look backwards to make sure the assassins were still occupied, Blacknail stalked through the trees and over to the pathway. A quick inspection of the area revealed a leafy depression that would conceal him, so he climbed in. He was only a few feet from the edge of the trail.
It was at moments like this that Blacknail really appreciated how bad human’s sense of smell was. It almost made things too easy.
Soon, his prey was moving again and the hobgoblin grinned in delight when they headed his way. From his hiding spot Blacknail waited for Malthus and the other men to pass by. He was both nervous and excited.
All three of the assassins were keeping close together, but the thin trail was only wide enough for one person at a time to walk comfortably so they were strung out in a line. Malthus was leading the other two and thus the first to walk by.
The master assassin made his way warily down the trail. He carefully studied the heaps of thorn bushes and other thick plants around him as he walked.
Then he stepped right next to Blacknail’s hiding spot and looked in his direction, but his eyes passed right over the hobgoblin. Nonetheless, Blacknail’s stomach twinged and he felt a flash of nervousness as he held completely still. He could have reached over and touched the master assassin.
Then Malthus was past the hobgoblin and walking away from him. There were still two more assassins left, but Blacknail relaxed and calmed down. Malthus was the one he was worried about.
The first of the two remaining enemies walked by without seeing anything either. The cloaked man didn’t even really bother to check his surroundings, most likely because Malthus already had. He just strolled along after his master. Now there was only the rearguard left.
The last of the assassins followed his companions through the gap. The nervous looking man was mostly focused on keeping an eye out for people sneaking up from behind, so he only looked in Blacknail’s direction for a split second before turning back around to stare anxiously at the forest behind him.
The assassin stepped next to Blacknail, and this time the hobgoblin reacted. The second the man’s back was turned the almost invisible hobgoblin silently stood up and stretched out his long thin arms.
One clawed hand instantly snapped down over the unsuspecting man’s mouth and sealed it, while the other reached around with a small dagger and quickly sliced open his pink throat. The hobgoblin’s victim tried to struggle and cry out but it was futile, his throat was gushing blood and Blacknail had him locked in a tight embrace. He couldn’t even fall over.
Malthus and the other man continued forward; they hadn’t heard a thing. As he carefully watched them walk away, Blacknail kept his victim’s mouth covered and slowly lowered him to the ground. He had to keep very quiet. The faintest of sounds would give him away.
The man’s now unmoving corpse touched the earth without making a sound, and the grinning hobgoblin took a few quiet steps backwards. The other two men still hadn’t noticed anything, so he wasted no time in dashing away around the tall thorn bushes and out of sight.
He’d done it! He’d snuck up right under that arrogant fool’s nose and killed his companion. Blacknail giggled to himself smugly. Who was the best assassin now? He was, that’s who! The hobgoblin giggled again as he dove behind the bush where he’d stashed his pants and the rest of his gear.
Mere seconds later yelling broke out from behind him as the dead man’s companions noticed his absence and his corpse was discovered. Oh how Blacknail wished he could see their faces right now!
“Shit, he got Janus! The monster was right here and we didn’t even notice. He must be flaming invisible. We have to make a bloody run for it now!” Malthus’ subordinate yelled with a voice full of fear.
He sounded one step away from full blown panic, which made Blacknail feel really special. Even fully grown human warriors were terrified of him! He was so amazing.
“Be quiet, he’s probably still somewhere nearby,” Malthus replied sternly. “You know why we can’t make a run for it. Not only are there traps scattered around this accursed place, but do you really think we could outrun a hobgoblin in a forest? One trip over a root or slip on some mud and we’d be done. We need to keep our heads together and make for safety slow and surely.”
“That’s not working, though! That thing… is out there and it’s just playing with us! It’s going to creep up behind us and slit our throats, and we won’t even see it coming. We have to run!” the other man stuttered loudly in response.
“If you run then I’ll kill you, and then you won’t have to worry about the hobgoblin,” Malthus told the other man coldly.
“Fine, you’re the boss, Malthus. You know what’s best so I’ll stay with you. That hobgoblin is probably no match for you anyway,” his nervous subordinate replied.
“Make sure you do, because I’m watching you,” Malthus remarked threateningly.
Over on the other side of the thorn hedge Blacknail had finished putting his clothes back on and was considering their words. He scratched his bald head as he considered Malthus’ behavior. The man sure was mean. He had threatened to kill his own companion if he tried to run. The poor man was obviously terrified!
Blacknail pulled his sling back out and sent a stone arcing over the bushes towards the assassins. It sailed through the air and tore its way through the greenery next to the assassins. It went nowhere near the humans but that wasn’t the point.
The last of Malthus’ minions yelped and jumped up into the air when he heard the unexpected noise. A second later he took off like a shot away from the bushes and Malthus.
The master assassin sighed deeply in annoyance and there was a whirring noise that sounded suspiciously like a knife being thrown. Oddly enough, it was followed by the sound of a blade sinking into flesh and a heavy thud. Blacknail grinned smugly; that was another one down.
“It’s just you and me now, hobgoblin! Are you ready to fight?” Malthus roared in challenge.
Blacknail didn’t reply. He wasn’t quite ready yet, so Malthus would just have to wait. Right now any confrontation between them would be far too much like a fair fight for his liking.
When no one replied the master assassin began trudging through the forest again. The hobgoblin followed closely behind him. Malthus was on his own now. He’d gotten rid of all the assassin’s minions but Malthus was by far the most dangerous of them all.
The man was a far better swordsman than the hobgoblin. Blacknail knew he would need a special plan to best the man. It was too bad he didn’t really have one... Oh well, something would probably pop into his head before too long.
Several minutes later Malthus was getting dangerously close to the edge of the vacant land and of returning to the city. Blacknail was running out of time. He’d been kind of hoping that Malthus would trip over a trap and kill himself, but that hadn’t happened. No dangerous forest creatures had inexplicably appeared and eaten him either.
As the master assassin walked out into small clearing that Blacknail recognized, the hobgoblin realized he had no choice. This was his last chance to stop the man from returning to the battlefield, and if that happened Herad would get very mad. With a regretful sigh, the hobgoblin walked out of the bushes and into the grassy clearing.
“Here I am, Malthus. Let’s fight,” he announced half heartedly as he pushed a branch out of his way.
“So the monster shows itself. What’s wrong; have you run out of tricks? I told you that I wouldn’t be done in by such petty traps or schemes,” Malthus replied angrily as he glared at Blacknail.
The assassin’s blade was already in his hand and he looked completely uninjured. He didn’t even seem that fatigued, although his cloak and clothes had become stained and dirty.
“I got tired of your smell. You’ve been upwind this entire time,” Blacknail replied as he drew his own sword and strode forward.
Malthus just smiled and carefully began to walk towards the hobgoblin. He didn’t seem ruffled by the loss of his men or the events that had happened in the forest. Blacknail couldn’t tell if it was an act or if he had been pretending earlier. It probably didn’t matter, though.
“I admit that I misspoke earlier when I said my victory over you would be just one small part of my legend. Instead, it shall be among my crowning achievements. In fact, I think I’ll have your head mounted and put on display,” the master assassin said as he took a fighting stance in the center of the clearing.
The hobgoblin raised his own blade and cautiously went to meet him. A gust of wind blew through the forest and into the clearing knocking autumn leaves loose from the trees and sending them swirling to the ground.
As the killers eyed each other and began to circle one another, both their cloaks caught the wind and rippled. Then there was a flash of silver as Malthus struck first.