It took several minutes for Wyre to catch up, and a few more after that for the wagon to arrive. Blacknail was seated on a rock at the edge of the forest. The hobgoblin hummed cheerfully to himself as he watched them come down the road towards him.
When his slow human comrades were close enough, he hopped off the rock and walked over to them. Wyre and the others warily drew to a stop as Blacknail came towards them.
“I see you’ve been busy,” Wyre remarked as he took in the bodies that littered the ground. “Are any of them still alive?”
“Yep, that one there,” Blacknail replied as he pointed. “I’m not stupid. I asked him a lot of important questions.”
“Oh, what did you learn?" The short scout asked with obvious interest.
“They don’t-ss have any cheese,” Blacknail answered with grunt of disappointment.
“Anything else?” The scout asked as he gave Blacknail an annoyed glare.
“Yep, these guys brought-ss a lot of friends,” the hobgoblin added. “They’re camped up ahead of us.”
Scowls and various looks of displeasure appeared on everyone’s faces. A pair of bandits turned and scanned the road up ahead, as if they expected attackers to appear at any second.
“Good thing you stopped them, then,” one of the bandits remarked.
“Yes, nice job, Blacknail. Did your captive happen to mention why they want us dead and who they are?” Wyre inquired.
The hobgoblin smiled at the compliment. He had done a good job! He was such an amazing scout and ranger!
“Yep, I asked that! They’re all-ss part of the army Werrick sent to kill us all,” Blacknail explained happily.
There was a shocked silence as everyone took this in. The hobgoblin gave the humans a few seconds so that their slow brains could catch up. Sometimes watching humans think was like waiting for someone to light a fire by striking two rocks together. It took a lot of time and effort to get a good spark.
“Ah, that would certainly make sense,” Wyre eventually mused aloud.
“What the fuck? Bloody hells, I hope that’s some sort of weird hobgoblin joke!” one of the other bandits exclaimed in shock.
“If it is then it’s not bloody funny,” another added.
“My jokes are funny,” Blacknail muttered to himself.
He didn’t make a lot of jokes but when he did people laughed. He was fairly sure they were laughing with him...
“Maybe, he’s making this up! Are we going to trust his word?” another scared sounding bandit added.
“Why wouldn’t we?” Wyre replied sternly. “He has no reason to lie about this.”
“I’m not a liar,” Blacknail hissed as he shuffled over and gave his captive a kick.
“He’s telling the truth,” the man on the ground grunted.
Blacknail gave the man who had questioned him a mean stare. Everyone else turned to look at the captive. They had forgotten he was still alive, because he certainly didn’t look like it. The man was lying on his stomach with his wounded arms beside him. His face was turned away from them and pressed against the dusty ground.
“See, you’re being paranoid,” Wyre told the blonde man.
“Bah, why are you defending a bloody hobgoblin? That thing kills everyone around him!” the blond man exclaimed.
“I don’t kill everybody!” Blacknail countered reproachfully. “That would-ss be pointless and a lot of work! Look, I left-ss the captive alive. We’re even friends now.”
“You’re friends?” Wyre asked skeptically.
The scout turned to look at the prone form of the cut up man Blacknail had chased down. The cuts on his arms had mostly stopped bleeding but the long scarlet gashes and the trails of blood they had created across the dusty road were still very visible. Even the slight rising and falling of his chest as he breathed looked painful.
“Yep, we are definitely friend now,” Blacknail announced loudly as he gave the man on the ground a light kick. “I saved his life, from myself.”
“We’re... the best of friends,” the man on the ground coughed painfully a second later.
“I’d hate to see his enemies,” someone muttered.
“I’m pretty sure that’s not how that works. You can’t save him from yourself,” Wyre pointed out.
“Then I saved him from you. If you had-ss caught him would you have left him alive?” Blackail added with undeterred enthusiasm.
“Probably not,” Wyre reluctantly agreed.
“Me neither,” one of the other bandits added as there were mutters of accord from the rest.
“I promised to let-ss him live and everything!” Blacknail added to support his argument.
He had kind of forgotten where he was going with this... but that wasn’t going to stop him.
“And that’s actually a promise you intend to keep?” Wyre asked with morbid curiosity.
“Why not? I have no reason to kill him. I’m-ss a nice person.” Blacknail responded. “Also, Saeter said lying was bad-ss. If you’re good and never lie then people will start to believe everything you say. That sounds amazing!”
Wyre blinked in surprise. He stared at the hobgoblin for several seconds. The scout’s face was completely blank and revealed nothing as the hobgoblin beamed at him.
“Ah, words of wisdom if I ever heard them,” he remarked deadpan a second later.
After a few moments Wyre turned away and walked over to the prisoner. He crouched over the man and began to ask him questions of his own. When he was done he turned back to Blacknail.
“Let’s get going now. Apparently, we have a hostile army to avoid. Do you just plan on leaving this guy here?” Wyre asked the hobgoblin as he stood up.
Blacknail hadn’t really thought about it. He wasn’t against Wyre’s plan, though. It certainly sounded like the least amount of work.
“Sure, he can-ss stay here. He won’t be able to catch up to us and no one-ss should find him for a while,” Blacknail reassured the other scout.
“Something will probably eat him, like wolves... or a hobgoblin,” one of the other bandits muttered.
Blacknail ignored the comment and turned back to the man on the ground.
“When-ss you do get back to your comrades remember to tell them how-ss scary I am. I’m frightening, you know!” Blacknail bragged.
“I know,” the man replied dryly as he turned and stared in fascinated horror at the hobgoblin.
Blacknail liked how his new friend was absolutely terrified of him. He should probably encourage this behaviour in others.
“Also, I’m going-ss to come back here soon and kill everyone in their sleep,” Blacknail explained cheerfully to his captive. “I’ve been told I’m good at that! Make sure you tell-ss everyone that. I’ll let you live again though-ss, because we’re friends.”
“Thanks, I think,” the man replied quietly.
He sounded somewhat delirious and out of it. Blacknail gave him an encouraging pat on the head to cheer him up.
“Come on, leave him,” Wyre told the hobgoblin. “We need to go. The longer we stay here the more likely it is they’ll send someone to check up on their lookouts.”
With a sigh of resignation, Blacknail nodded and got up.
All together, the bandits then started down the road again. One of them manoeuvred the creaking wagon around the bodies of the fallen. The horse pulling it seemed more worried about keeping an eye on Blacknail than anything else.
Before he got very far down the road, Blacknail suddenly stopped. He turned back towards the last surviving member of Werrick’s men. He’d just had a great idea!
“I’ll also spare people-ss who leave cheese out in the woods for me. Tell everyone!” he shouted before turning and jogging after the rest of his group.
When the hobgoblin had rejoined the others, Wyre turned to him and coughed loudly to get everyone’s attention.
“We slipped the noose just now, when Blacknail took out those scouts, but we’re still in danger. The enemy is between us and safety and our wagon is far from stealthy. They’ll spot it from a mile away,” he told them.
“Then let’s just dump it,” a nervous sounding man commented.
Blacknail gave the man a mean glare to shut him up. His cheese was still on that wagon! Wyre also scowled and shook his head.
“I’m not going to be the one to explain its loss to Herad. Are you?” he asked.
When no one replied, the scout continued talking.
“The roads the only way back, anyway. Blacknail and I might survive a jaunt through the forest but I doubt most of you will. No, we’re going to clear the route for the wagon and then make for safety as fast as possible,” he said.
“By clearing the road you mean killing people, right?” Blacknail asked.
“Yes,” Wyre answered.
“Good, I can-ss do that,” the hobgoblin replied confidently.
Wyre ignored the smiling hobgoblin.
“The enemy will have sentries posted somewhere along the road. I’ll take the North side and Blacknail will take the South. Together, we’ll sweep ahead of wagon and take out their sentries unseen.”
“You’re going to do everything by yourselves?” the sole female bandit present asked.
“If we need help we’ll come back and get it. If we don’t then you’ll just be a liability. It’s over either way if we get spotted,” Wyre explained.
No one else had any questions after that so they resumed their trek. Only when they got a little closer to where the enemy was supposed to be did Wyre signal for the wagon to slow. He and Blacknail then both stepped into the woods on opposite sides of the road.
The hobgoblin licked his lips as he slipped through the bushes. He was on full alert and excited as he stalked silently under the trees. Today was going to be such a great day! He was going to hunt, not once, but twice!
The speckled shadows of leaves cast by the branches above darkened the woods. Even though the road was so close the forest here was dark and oppressive. Only a light covering of small leafy plants grew across the ground.
It wasn’t so dark that the hobgoblin thought he would run into any giant spiders but he kept a look out for webs just in case. He really didn’t like those creepy things.
Blacknail came across a well worn animal path and stopped to sniff the earth. He could smell traces of rabbits and wolves. He also thought he detected a faint whiff of harpy.
Wolves and harpies could both be dangerous in large groups but Blacknail wasn’t too worried about them. Food was plentiful in the spring and neither would risk attacking him. Even without a steel blade in hand and magic lurking in his blood, a hunting hobgoblin was more than a match for them.
With his focused eyes full of forest green, Blacknail continued on. There was so little underbrush around he had to move carefully to stay out of the sight of any watchers. Tall tree trunks stretched out before him in every direction.
Soon, the ground began to slope upwards towards a hill. Blacknail eyed it carefully from below. He didn’t see any sign of enemies, but he couldn’t see the top of the hill and it would be a perfect vantage point from which to watch the road.
It would be difficult to make the climb undetected by someone above so the hobgoblin waited and observed for a while. Patience was often the key to catching prey. He couldn’t wait too long, though. The wagon was still moving down the road and would shortly come into sight.
His patience was soon rewarded. Blacknail heard a rustling sound and then a murmur of voices. The hobgoblin’s long green ears perked up. The noise was clearly coming from atop the hill. There were definitely people up there.
“Grab my bag when you go,” someone out of sight said. “If I’m going to be stuck here I want it. And don’t take too long. There’s supposed to be two of us here,”
Someone muttered a reply. Blacknail then watched intently from behind a thick tree trunk as a rough looking man with brown hair made his way down the hill. This was perfect!
Carefully, the hobgoblin drew his sling and loaded it with a rock. A second later, the unsuspecting man collapsed after a rock ricocheted off his head. Smiling smugly to himself, the hobgoblin dragged his victim’s body out of sight.
Blacknail then walked up the slope. At first he moved silently but then the last sentries back came into sight and he sped up. The man was preoccupied with watching the road and not looking his way.
“Do you have my stuff?” the sentry asked.
“Nope,” Blacknail replied as he bashed the man in the back of the head with a rock.
The hobgoblin then just had to wait a few minutes for the wagon to roll into sight. From atop the tree covered hill he watched it make its way across the road. When it was safely past the lookout spot, he jumped down the hill and ran to catch up with the others.
“You’re back. Murder anyone while you were gone?” the leading bandit asked Blacknail when he stepped out of the forest.
“Just two,” Blacknail replied as he held up a pair of fingers. “I found the enemy sentries.”
“Good, did you find the camp?” the man asked.
“Nope, I didn’t see it-ss. Maybe it’s on Wyre’s side of-ss the road,” Blacknail answered.
“It is and we need to move faster,” the aforementioned scout announced as he stepped out of the woods. “There were no sentries watching the road on my side but they had a few around the camp. I only got a quick look, but it’s not small or unorganized. It looks like a military camp and they have at least a few horses.”
“You think they’ll notice their sentries are missing soon and send riders after us?” the female bandit asked.
“Of course, the gods never miss a chance to mess with us mere mortals,” Wyre replied. “We’re simply going to have to move as fast as possible. It’s all we can do.”
“What if they just ride us down?” someone who sounded nervous asked.
Blacknail sympathized. Being chased by a bunch of horses with people on them didn’t sound like fun to him either. From experience he knew it didn’t usually end well for the person without a horse.
“Depends, if there are only a few of them then we’ll fight. If there are too many for us to handle then we’ll make for the woods. They’ll have to dismount to follow us,” the short scout explained.
There were a quick series of acknowledgements from everyone present and then they all picked up the pace. Wyre gave the chestnut horse pulling the wagon a slap on its flank. The beast snorted disdainfully in response and gave the man an annoyed look but it began moving faster as well.
Blacknail did his best to ignore the stupid creature as he jogged alongside the others.
“Can’t you humans go any faster? This is very slow.” Blacknail remarked after a while.
“We have to keep this pace up all day if we want to make it back to camp,” one of the bandits replied angrily.
“So? It’s still really slow. Stop being so lazy and go faster,” the hobgoblin told him.
“I’m not bloody lazy! This is as fast as we can go. We’re not all hobgoblins, Vessels, or batshit insane like you!” the man shot back.
“Huh, I guess,” Blacknail replied as he ran.
After a moment of thought he dropped back to talk to Wyre.
“What do you want?” the scout asked.
“We need to run faster,” the hobgoblin told him.
“Unless you know magic or at least an incredibly inspiring running song that’s not going to happen,” the man huffed in reply.
“No, but I do have a plan! I could go to the back and poke the slowest runner with a sharp stick until they go faster,” Blacknail explained.
“Tempting, but no. I’m going to have to pass on that,” Wyre chuckled in response.
“Ugh, fine,” the hobgoblin sighed.
With such slow idiots for companions there was no way the group was going to be able to outrun anyone. Blacknail picked up the pace. If they got chased down he planned on being at the front where it was safer. All the slow humans could take the brunt of the attack. Maybe that would motivate them to move faster...
The running continued for quite a while. The sun overhead slipped behind a cover of thick white clouds and its light dimmed.
All of a sudden there was a chill to the wind, as if winter hadn’t quite gone away yet. The air’s touch raised goose bumps along Blacknail’s exposed skin and he shivered slightly.
The creaking of wooden wheels and heavy wheezing from the nearby humans filled the hobgoblin’s ears. Up ahead of him the road made a sudden turn. A particularly tall tree stood on the very corner of the bend. Its long trunk had grown on a slant and its drooping branches hung over the road.
Blacknail was watching it out of the corner of his eye when he saw movement. As he focused, a figure stepped out from under the tree and froze in surprise. Several other people quickly appeared around him and pointed towards the hobgoblin’s group.
Uh oh, this wasn’t good.
“There are men ahead-ss of us,” Blacknail hissed in alarm as he skidded to a stop.
“Shit, I see them too,” Wyre swore.
The rest of their party stopped. The horse neighed when one of the bandits pulled on its reins to stop it. There was tension in the air as everyone stared at the new arrivals.
“There shouldn’t be anyone from Herad’s camp out this way,” Wyre commented.
“Whoever they are they’ve got us cut off,” someone added.
More and more people came into sight up ahead. There were at least as many of them as there were bandits in Blacknail’s group, and who knew how many more were still out of sight.
The hobgoblin heard one of the unknown men shout, and suddenly blades began to appear in their hands.
“Draw your weapons and get ready for a fight,” Wyre commanded everyone.
Blacknail drew his blade and threw a worried glance back at the wagon. It had finally happened... they had come for his cheese.