The loud creaking of the wagon’s wheels was somewhat muted by the frequent thud of footsteps on the dusty ground of the road. The only other sounds to be heard were the wind through the trees and the restless rustling of leaves.
Blacknail the hobgoblin looked up from where he’d been absentmindedly inspecting a set of tracks next to the road, near a thick clump of coned reeds. The footprints had caught his interest but they had turned out to be from nothing more than wolves. The forests of the North contained many things much more dangerous than wild dogs.
A dozen men and women were walking alongside a wagon that had been piled high with goods. Their clothing was mostly tough looking leather and every one of them was armed. This wasn’t surprising, since they were bandits who had just robbed a caravan and were now taking their spoils back to their base.
“What’s the hobgoblin doing over there?” a nearby blonde man nervously asked the scarred woman walking next to him.
“He’s plotting to kill us in painful and humiliating ways,” the woman replied sarcastically. “Why are you bloody asking me? Why do you even care? He probably just smelled a rabbit or something.”
The outlaws had gotten some great loot. Blacknail knew this because he’d been happily looting the merchant caravan beside them. The bandits were his comrades and they all served under Herad the Black Snake.
Not all the humans liked him, though. Some of them were jealous of his good looks and superior murder skills. Happily, a few demonstrations of those same skills had silenced the hobgoblin’s most vocal critics. They'd been very impressed.
Recently, Herad had ordered all her minions to charge tolls instead of outright robbing people, but the bandits’ last target had been trying to sneak through her territory without paying. That meant they had to be made an example of, and so the hobgoblin had gotten to murder them and take their stuff. That was Blacknail’s favourite part of being an outlaw.
As soon as most the merchants were dead the hobgoblin had immediately sniffed out all the best loot and taken it for himself. After some hissing and snarling to scare away the other bandits, five wheels of cheese, a pretty red cloak, two roast ducks, and bag of shiny stones were all his.
He couldn’t wait to get home and show Saeter. The old ranger had been the one who had trained him and taken him in when he’d been just a little goblin.
“What have you got there?” a short cloaked man asked politely as he walked over.
The man was one of the scouts with the mission. Blacknail was the other one. They were there to help track down their target and to keep watch on the forest. Most of Herad’s scouts were friendly towards the hobgoblin, and greatly respected his master Saeter. The old ranger was the best scout in Herad’s band.
“Nothing-ss, just wolf prints,” Blacknail replied happily.
“Ah, there’s probably nothing to worry about then,” Wyre the scout said.
“Dunno, forest doggies aren’t that dangerous but there-ss are a bunch of people watching us from the trees behind-ss me,” the hobgoblin told him.
“What? How do you know?” the man asked as he jerked in alarm.
“I smell-ss their trail all along the road. They were just on-ss it but they ran off in that direction when we got close,” Blacknail explained.
The hobgoblin’s master Saeter would have been able to detect the watchers by observing the flight of birds, or something. Blacknail didn’t need to do that because most humans smelled like a pile of shit on legs. They were hard to miss.
Wyre frowned thoughtfully and took a few seconds to process this.
“How many of them are there and what can you tell me about them?” he asked.
“There are three men-ss, all in good health, and they were waiting here for a while before we-ss arrived,” Blacknail replied with a shrug.
“Fuck, they’re probably not friendly then,” the short man cursed softly. “I can’t think of a good reason for a small group like that to be hanging out here in the middle of nowhere. I have the unpleasant suspicion that they were waiting for us here.”
Blacknail nodded in agreement. As a general rule everything out here in the forest was dangerous and hostile. Humans were also a very violent race. They started fights over the weirdest things.
“What are they planning, though? Three men aren’t a threat to us,” the scout mused.
“Let’s go ask them. I like asking people questions,” Blacknail suggested.
After a brief talk with the other bandits, Wyre and the hobgoblin slipped into the bushes at the side of the road. Together, they stalked into the shadowy woods that bordered the road. They moved slowly and approached their target from the side to conceal themselves, but it soon became obvious their stealth was unnecessary.
“They didn’t stick-ss around. They all ran that way,” Blacknail mused as he examined a boot print in muddy ground.
The forest was still damp and wet from the spring melt. The mud made it easier to track their quarry but also harder to move. It also meant there were a lot of annoying insects flying around.
“That way leads back to the road. They must have slipped ahead of us,” Wyre pointed out as he swatted at an insect. “That’s not something innocent passersby would do. It would be much safer just to hide and wait until we were gone.”
“They were waiting-ss for us and they’ve gone to tell someone that they’ve found-ss us,” Blacknail suggested as he slapped a bug that had landed on the tip of his nose.
“Damn, I think you’re right. We’ve got an ambush waiting ahead of us. It’s the only thing that makes sense. They have to be out here for us,” the scout cursed in acknowledgement.
Blacknail got up and began moving back towards the road.
“Where are you going?” his companion asked.
“I’m going to follow them. You stay here. I’ll be right back,” the hobgoblin answered as he broke out into a run.
If these humans were going to meet up with their friends so they could all attack at once the solution was simple. He would just run them down and kill them before that happened. It would be easy. Humans were fat and slow while he was not only a hobgoblin but a Vessel as well.
Blacknail’s cloak billowed behind him as he raced through the trees. He crushed broad leaved plants beneath his boots and smashed through the slight branches that tried to block his path.
The hobgoblin could feel the Elixir in his blood simmer as he unconsciously tapped into it to boost his speed. The ability to drink Elixir and use it to strengthen himself was what made him a Vessel.
A shallow woodland stream appeared in front of him. It was flooded with water from the spring melt. Without stopping, Blacknail jumped across and landed on the other side.
Wyre was already out of sight behind him. The human scout couldn’t keep up with Blacknail.
A second later, Blacknail burst out of the forest and back out under the sun. He charged through the bushes and came to halt in the middle of the dirt road.
He took a second to sniff the air and listen. He could hear the creak of the wagon his tribe had stolen down the road. The rest of his companions were now far behind him.
He could smell the men he was tracking. The scent was old enough that he knew they were still ahead of him by a fair bit. With a gleeful hiss of anticipation Blacknail kicked off the ground and started running down the road after his prey.
At a full sprint, it didn’t take him long to catch up. The hobgoblin heard the pounding of their footsteps before he saw them. There was a curve in the path ahead that blocked his sight, so he slowed down and glanced around it.
There were three men in front of him, running down the dirt road at a steady pace. For a second Blacknail almost mistook them for members of his own tribe. Their clothes were the same worn looking mix of leather and rugged cloth. They also carried themselves the same way.
The hobgoblin didn’t recognize anyone of them or their scent, though. They were definitely strangers. Who were they? They were enemies but of what kind? Blacknail licked his lips as the urge to hunt flowed through him. It didn’t really matter who they were as long as they were acceptable prey.
Now wasn’t the time to think; it was the time to strike. The hobgoblin dashed off the road and back into the forest, where he was harder to see. He had a plan and he needed to get ahead of them for it to work.
Blacknail didn’t have time to move with absolute stealth so he made a fair bit of noise as he trampled through the brush. Even puny pink human ears would probably be able to hear him. Pink was a silly color...
“What was that?” the smallest of the men suddenly asked in a spooked tone as he heard something out in the forest.
“It was probably just a deer or something,” one of his companions replied dismissively.
“Just keep moving. I want to put more distance between us and Herad’s men,” the last man added.
With long strides, Blacknail passed the running men and moved ahead of them. Even out in the bush he could hear their footsteps. When he had a fair lead on them, he turned and moved back towards the road.
From the shadows, the hobgoblin watched the three unsuspecting men approach. As he waited, Blacknail reached into his coat and pulled out a vial of liquid.
The Elixir in the vial tasted unpleasant as it hit his tongue, like dirty water with a hint of sour fruit. It had been a while since he’d last had any. He’d been using only the traces left over since his last drink.
A familiar warmth spread throughout his body, from his toes to the top of his head. It was accompanied by a rush of energy, which mingled with his desire to hunt and drove it to new heights. His teeth ached with need. It was time to attack.
As the three men passed through an area where the forest encroached closely upon the road, Blacknail drew his sword and launched himself out of the bushes. There were only a few feet between him and the closest man.
The rustling of leaves as the hobgoblin charged alerted his prey. They didn’t have enough time to react, though. Blacknail was already upon them. The closest man’s eyes widened in horror as he fumbled for the blade at his hip.
Before he could draw it, Blacknail’s sword sank into his chest. The hobgoblin didn’t even try to pull it free, but instead immediately drew two long knives and whirled to the side.
The man to his left raised a sword and stepped forward. Blacknail reacted faster. Before his enemy’s boot was firmly planted on the ground, the hobgoblin kicked his foot out from under him.
“Arrh, fuck,” the man wheezed as he landed hard on his side.
A silver sword sliced through the air towards the hobgoblin’s head as the third man attacked. Blacknail dove under the swing. He slashed at the man’s arms as they went by. His dagger cut through the man’s sleeves and drew blood.
The wounded man stepped back but Blacknail stuck with him. The man’s slow block didn’t stop the hobgoblin from sliding to the side and slashing at his arms again.
Blacknail sniggered as kept up the pressure. He dodged the increasingly frantic man’s swings and attacked again and again. Soon, the man’s arms were covered in bleeding cuts. He was having fun now.
The second man climbed to his feet and charged the hobgoblin with his sword held high. Blacknail stepped back from the man he’d been fighting and spun out of the new attacker’s way.
Combat stopped for a second as everyone faced each other. Blacknail gave his two playmates a wide grin that showed off his sharp and long tongue. The two men took in his visage and they both flinched in fear.
“What the fuck is that? It’s not human,” asked with obvious terror as his face paled.
“I don’t know, just kill it!” the other responded as he raised his sword with shaking hands.
Blacknail giggled to himself merrily. That was so not going to happen. The scent of blood was thick in the air and he had to suppress a shiver of excitement. He could sense the fear that was starting to undermine his prey now and destroy their resolve.
The hobgoblin dove forward. One of his opponents countered with wide defensive swing but the other jumped back in fear. Blacknail’s move had been a feint, though. He bounced backwards out of the way of the sword, leaving the man overextended.
With careful precision, the hobgoblin stepped forward and knocked the sword down with one dagger. There was a hollow gasp of pain as the other dagger sank into the man’s side. The short steel blade parted flesh and slipped in under ribs as it cut its way into vital organs.
“You’re dead,” Blacknail whispered gleefully into his opponent’s ear as the man began to collapse.
The only remaining enemy’s eyes went wide in terror. He stuttered as he tried to raise his sword up into a defensive stance. However, his cut up arms shook and seemed to lose strength. With a moan of despair, the man’s sword fell from his grip. Blood flowed down his mangled arms and dripped from his fingertips.
The whimpering man immediately turned and ran. Blacknail laughed and then started humming cheerfully to himself as he pursued at a leisurely pace. His prey had no chance of escaping now. He had been hobbled and was leaving a trail of blood.
The terrified man was dashing madly down the road away from the hobgoblin, but he didn’t get very far. Soon enough, he tripped over his own feet.
Blacknail laughed again when the man’s attempt to catch himself failed. His arms gave out on him a second time and his face hit the dirt with a loud thud.
There was the sound of whimpering as Blacknail walked over to him. It was shame but it seemed the hunt was already over. His quarry had been no match for his Elixir powered speed and hobgoblin cunning. He was just too amazing!
Blacknail crouched down and poked the fallen fighter in the shoulder.
“I think-ss I’m supposed to ask you questions now,” he mused to himself.
“Don’t kill me! Oh, gods. Please don’t kill me,” the man sobbed weakly.
“No problem, just answer my questions. Who are you and why-ss are you out here waiting for me and my friends?” Blacknail replied cheerfully.
The man’s request was a simple one and more than worth the reward. Now that the hunt was over his own bloodlust was waning. He felt no need to kill this man.
“You have friends?” the confused man asked in disbelief.
Blacknail scowled and poked the man again. This human was kind of rude. His long fingernail jabbed into an open wound and the man spasmed in pain.
“The men from earlier. The ones you were watching,” the hobgoblin hissed in answer.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” the man moaned. “We were sent to watch the road in case any of Herad’s men came by. We were headed back to tell the rest of our squad you were coming.”
The hobgoblin took a second to think this over and lick his finger clean. It sounded a lot like an ambush. Who would be stupid enough to fight Herad’s men here in her own territory, though? His chieftain had a lot of warriors and was a dangerous Vessel as well.
“How many of you-ss are there, and who do you work for?” Blacknail asked his captive.
“Please, don’t eat me. There are thirty men at the camp. They’re just an hour down the road, and we work for Werrick,” the man quickly answered as the hobgoblin stared down at him.
Blacknail shifted in surprise. He knew that name. When he’d gone to the human city of Daggerpoint with Herad it had been mentioned a lot. A lot of the groups of bandits and human warriors they had fought in the city had been working for him.
“I’m not-ss going to eat you. I said I wouldn’t already. Now tell me, what does Werrick want?” the hobgoblin asked next.
Werrick was someone Herad really wanted dead, and the feeling was mutual. He was a bandit lord just like Herad, which explained why the men Blacknail had just fought seemed somewhat familiar.
“To kill Herad,” the captive replied nervously. “We’re just the tip of the spear. He’s coming here himself and bringing all his men with him, hundreds of them. He intends to destroy the Black Snake, and he has more than enough swords to do it.”
The man on the ground tensed as if expecting to be poked again. Blacknail just smiled instead. It sounded like there was a war coming. What fun!
The hobgoblin knew his chieftain. There was no way she would be taken down easily. Blacknail had watched her slaughter foes that outnumbered her before. This time would be no different.
Although, before he joined back up with her and his master Saeter he was going to have to escape the ambush waiting for him. He had almost forgotten about that...