Geralhd frowned with obvious trepidation as he studied Blacknail. The hobgoblin simply smiled back in a cheerful manner. That always disarmed humans, or maybe it stunned them, Blacknail wasn’t sure. It worked. That was what mattered.
It was mid day, and people were walking past them on the street as they both stood outside a rather fancy looking inn that was located on a busy city street. It had stained glass windows and its sign bore the image of a wine bottle and a silver fork. Blacknail had his hood up so that he didn’t draw attention, and the other former members of Herad’s band had already gone inside.
“Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” Geralhd asked. “We’re planning on holding a celebratory feast, and it won’t be the same without you. You were our guide here. Let us reward you! We can rent a private room to help keep you incognito.”
“I was the leader, not just the guide,” Blacknail pointed out.
“Ah, yes. That too.”
Blacknail fel the urge to roll his eyes, but he suppressed it. That would be rude. It was amazing that humans were stupid enough to believe that he was stupid enough not to catch the nuance of their words. Did they think he was as stupid as they were? Well, whatever. Their reluctance to admit he was the best leader they had ever had wasn’t an issue right now.
“No, I got things to do, very important things. I need to visit some people I met here before. They will be very excited to see me.”
“Huh, I keep forgetting that you came here with Herad last year. But all that can wait. Think of all the food and drink you will be missing, and Khita is expecting you to join us. She wouldn’t have gone in without us otherwise.”
“I’m fine, and Khita can bother someone else for a while. I’m busy.” The young redhead had mostly recovered from the injuries she had acquired during the battle at Shelter, but the journey here had taken a lot out of her so she had gone ahead to sit down.
“There will be more meat pies than you can eat.”
Blacknail wavered. That was a tempting offer. He could eat a lot of meat pies. Maybe his plans could wait… No, he had to prioritize and resist temptation. He would just have to rob a store later tonight, when he was done.
“Sounds tasty, but I can’t. I will see you soon,” Blacknail responded before turning to leave. He had to focus on the mission. Pies were secondary to vengeance, most of the time.
“Good luck then, and try to stay out of trouble!” Geralhd called after him. The man was obviously torn between keeping an eye on Blacknail and finally getting the rest and relaxation he had been craving for months, but his impatience had won. All of the former bandits had filled their pockets with coin from the slain raiders.
“Of course! Don’t worry, I’m amazingly sneaky, and I will keep my head down,” Blacknail replied cheerfully as he turned to wave goodbye. He was going to do the exact opposite of what he had just said.
Without a shred of guilt, Blacknail turned back around and started walking away. The hobgoblin’s cloak trailed behind him as he moved down the street, and people got out of the way. He had engineered everyone’s return to Daggerpoint for a purpose, and it was time to get to it.
About three weeks had passed since the defeat of the raiders who had attacked Shelter. While Geralhd and the others had been resting and relaxing, Blacknail had hunted down the fleeing remnants of the raiders. He and his minions had stalked them through the forest and worn them down with constant surprise attacks until they were easy pickings. It had been both a necessary part of Blacknail’s grand plan and a lot of fun. There was just something so sweet and right about a good hunt with a bloody ending. It warmed Blacknail’s hobgoblin heart.
Once the last of the raiders were dead and no longer amusing, Blacknail had returned to Shelter and finally guided his companions east through the Green to Daggerpoint. The journey had taken a while but it had been mostly uneventful, until he had dropped them off at the inn behind him.
After walking past a tailor’s shop, Blacknail stopped at a corner. He brought his fingers to his mouth and whistled sharply. The shrill noise caused several people to look his way, but Blacknail ignored them, and there was soon a replying whistle from off in the distance. Blacknail headed towards the noise. He walked down the road, stepped behind a fruit booth, and slipped into an alleyway that was out of sight of everyone on the road. The side street wasn’t empty though, two dozen cloaked figures were standing in the shadows. They looked Blacknail’s way as he approached, and he saw into their shadowy hoods to get a good look at their faces. They were hobgoblins.
Blacknail quickly counted them to make sure they were all there. They were. “Good, you made it into the city without any problems.”
“Yep, it wasn’t even hard,” Scamp replied proudly. “We climbed the wall. All the humans didn’t even look our way, and they couldn’t smell us if we were sticking our fingers up their small pink noses.”
“Why do they even have noses?” another hobgoblin asked no one in particular.
Before leaving Shelter, Blacknail had assembled a group of hobgoblins and ordered them to follow in secret. Scamp hadn’t been Blacknail’s first choice for sub-leader, but Gob was needed back at their main base, and after Blacknail Scamp was actually the most experienced hobgoblin when it came to dealing with humans. He had also been raised in Herad’s camp when he was a goblin.
Blacknail took a moment to study his minions. Entering the city had affected each hobgoblin differently. The place was incredibly alien to most of them since they had been born and raised out in the forest. Some were excited while others were more nervous, but all of them seemed distracted and jumpy. Several weren’t even looking in Blacknail’s direction. They were scanning the shadows for danger or trying to peer past Blacknail to get a look at all activity on the street behind him. To remedy this, Blacknail hissed and slapped the nearest hobgoblin across the side of the head. That got their attention.
“Pay attention to me. I’m your leader,” Blacknail told his minions. “You don’t need to fear the humans here. They are blind and stupid. As long as you are with me you will be safe, so ignore all the delicious smells. I will get us all tasty food later.”
This speech reassured the hobgoblins a fair bit and they calmed down enough to give Blacknail their complete attention.
“What are we doing here, boss? Are we going to steal a whole bunch of tasty and shiny stuff?” Scamp asked.
“No! Stealing is bad,” Blacknail replied as he kicked a surprised Scamp in the shin. “We are here to learn from the humans, and then we will probably kill a whole bunch of them. If those people just happen to have lots of interesting items for us to take then that isn’t stealing because they aren’t using the stuff anymore, since they are dead.”
“That makes sense to me,” another hobgoblin agreed. A lot of other minions nodded, while Scamp winced and shook his sore leg.
“The first person we are looking for is a mage. He knows some fancy magic stuff I need.”
“So we are going to talk to him?” Herah asked as she stepped right up next to Blacknail and stared into his eyes.
Blacknail leaned away from her. He had considered leaving the female hobgoblin behind, but she was one his best disguise artists and voice mimics. She was one of the few hobgoblins who could sound completely human and she even had a blonde wig. Also, she had really wanted to come and he wasn’t sure she would have listened if he said no.
“Sort of. His name is Avorlus, and he probably won’t want to share his magic with me, so we are going to sneak into his house and ask him about it when none of his servants are around. We don’t want to meet his guards. They are tough fighters and rather unfriendly.”
Once all of his minions had fully grasped the details of the mission, Blacknail led the way deeper into the city. Avorlus lived near the center of the city where most of the big fancy houses were. To avoid unwanted attention, Blacknail chose to move through the back streets and less occupied portions of city. His cloaked hobgoblin minions trotted after him, as they moved through the shadows and grimy alleys.
It felt weird to be back in Daggerpoint. The city was the same. It was still a steaming heap of nose burning scents, both good and bad, but he was here under very different circumstance than his first visit. Then he had been one of Herad’s servants and now he was the leader of his own group. Blacknail’s right hand tightened into a fist as he suddenly felt the ache of Saeter’s absence. Soon…
The hobgoblins ran into people more than once as they stalked through the back streets, but after one glance at Blacknail’s party the people all quickly disappeared without a word. This was Daggerpoint and everyone here knew better than to go looking for trouble. It soon became obvious that there was no immediate danger of discovery so the hobgoblins began talking amongst themselves.
“There are so many humans here.” one remarked in awe.
“There is even more garbage,” another replied as he scowled down the unidentifiable substance he had just stepped in.
“Oh ya. The pinkies are everywhere. They have lots of cities all over the place. You just don’t see them out in the forest much because almost all of them are too stupid to survive there without being in a huge mob,” Blacknail replied as he kept walking.
The group passed an alley that led out into a street where several food vendors were hawking their wares. The aroma of the greasy food wafted out and enveloped the hobgoblins. Two of them instinctively moved to investigate, and Blacknail had to drag them back by their cloaks. After a couple of quick punishment swats, they kept moving.
All the hobgoblins with Blacknail had been thoroughly trained, but they were still hobgoblins. Each of them had been taught self-discipline the same way Blacknail had, through intensive and exhausting swordsmanship lessons. The only way to escape the embarrassing beatings was for them to seize control of their emotions and learn the skills necessary to fight. This self-discipline was necessary because hobgoblins were violent and anti-social by nature. In the wild, hobgoblins usually murdered each other at first sight. Those that failed to learn to suppress their urges were executed. They were too dangerous to keep around and of no use to Blacknail.
After observing his minions, Blacknail had also come to realize that a lot of the successful hobgoblins changed throughout their training. Some developed quirks such as nail-biting or making clicking noises when stressed, while others became obsessed with something. The hobgoblin walking right behind Blacknail would stop and tap his elbow every few seconds. Blacknail was glad he hadn’t picked up any weird quirks like that when Saeter had trained him.
Soon the hobgoblins reached an area where the houses were squeezed together and the back alleys came to an end, so they quickly stepped out onto a main road. It wasn’t particularly busy there, but there was more than a few people about, and Blacknail’s group drew a fair amount of attention. Cloaked figures were hardly rare in Daggerpoint, but although the hobgoblins’ features were hidden there was still something off-putting about them. Maybe it was the way they moved or maybe it was their height that raised people’s hackles. There were lots of humans as short as hobgoblins, but they didn’t usually wear dark cloaks and travel together in large groups.
Before they could draw too much attention though, Blacknail led his minions back down into an alley. No one raised an alarm behind them so they kept going. After a bit more walking they reached a tall wall that ran between two homes. Two by two, the hobgoblins jumped and grabbed the top so they could pull themselves up and over it. Once they landed on the other side they had reached the central district of the city.
The going here was tougher. It was the only place where the city watch patrolled, and although they tended to let most people enter and leave unmolested, Blacknail was sure they would be suspicious of his minions. They weren’t as good at disguising themselves as he was. The key to mimicking humans was to walk around like you were blind and about to walk right into something.
Blacknail peered out from behind the corner of a building and looked around. He didn’t see any guards so he motioned for his minions to follow. All together, they ran across the street and jumped into some shrubbery that bordered a yard. A few moments later, they leapt out and ran over to the neighbors’ place. Like this, they made their way down the street until they had arrived at their destination. In front of Blacknail was the fenced-in property where he had met Avorlus. Like before, the long path up to the house was barred by a metal gate, but now there was no huge glowering guard watching over the entrance. It looked deserted.
Carefully, Blacknail signaled for his minions to hold their position and then went to investigate. He nonchalantly walked over to the gate and looked around. No one stepped out to stop him, so he placed a hand on the iron gate. His gentle touch caused it to swing open on its well oiled hinges. Blacknail froze but no guards appeared, so he stepped inside and glanced towards the house. There were no signs of activity, so he signaled for his minions to follow him.
Once they were all past the gate, the hobgoblins crept up the pathway that led to the house. One side of it was bordered by a neatly trimmed hedge, so they kept their heads low as they moved. As they approached the door, Blacknail noticed that it had been left slightly open. He watched the windows of the huge mansion before him for any signs of movement as he stalked over to the door and carefully examined it. The lock had been busted. The wood was splintered around the metal plate and wouldn’t shut properly anymore. Blacknail grunted and peered inside. The house was dark and empty. This wasn’t going anything like he had planned. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but it didn’t seem likely that Avorlus was inside and off guard.
After his minions had joined him, Blacknail pulled the door open and they entered Avorlus’s mansion. The reception room was exactly as Blacknail remembered, except for the lack of people and the huge hole that someone had blasted through one of the interior walls.
“This is definitely the house of a mage. Something went boom,” Scamp remarked as he walked over to the hole and examined it. The edges of the rubble were burnt black.
“I don’t think Avorlus did that,” Blacknail replied as he reached Scamp’s side. “I’d bet that some other humans with magic attacked this place.”
The scent of blood was thick within the mansion and there were other signs of battle everywhere. As the hobgoblins explored the other rooms they found more blast marks, some rather extensive water damage, shards of black crystal jutting out from walls, and what looked like a bottomless pit in the middle of a hallway.
“Do you think this is supposed to be here?” a hobgoblin asked as he peered down into the pit’s black depths. The wooden floor around the hole had been cracked and torn.
“No, humans don’t like having holes in the ground in places where they walk a lot,” Blacknail replied. He knew this from experience.
More searching revealed quite a few interesting items that quickly disappeared into hobgoblin pockets but no signs of Avorlus. There were also a lot of books and bits of paper with writing on them scattered around the house, but none of the hobgoblins could read. Blacknail hoped the secrets he was looking for weren’t’ written on any of them. It hadn’t occurred to him to bring a human in case he needed someone to make sense of their scribbling.
“What do we do now, boss? I don’t think your magic man is here,” Scamp asked when they had all returned to the reception room.
Blacknail sighed and thought it over quickly. He needed to find Avorlus, even if it meant taking some risks. Hopefully the mage was still alive.
“Stay here,” Blacknail orders his minions.
The hobgoblin chieftain then went back to the largest and most luxurious bedroom they had found and started searching it. It took him a few minutes to find what he was looking for, several articles of clothing that smelled strongly of Avorlus. He grabbed them and then handed them out to his minions.
“What’s this for? I already took a nicer looking shirt. It has silver buttons!” a hobgoblin remarked as he held the brown shirt he had been given out in front of him.
“Smell it. I’m looking for the human that wore them,” Blacknail explained as the hobgoblins passed the clothes around and sniffed them. “I’m going to send a bunch of you to look for him.”
“You want us to explore the city by ourselves?”
“Yes, just stay out of trouble. Sniff around for signs of Avorlus and make sure no humans get a good look at you. If they do then kill them. Come back here when four hours pass or if you find Avorlus.”
All the hobgoblins immediately turned to leave. Most of them were grinning in excitement.
This didn’t amuse Blacknail. “No, not all of you! Some of you have to stay here with me. I will decide who gets to leave.”
There were moans from the hobgoblins as Blacknail chose three to remain behind with him. They watched the others leave with obvious disappointment. Both Herah and Scamp were selected to go hunting. Blacknail had wanted to keep them with him and out of trouble, but they were too skilled not to use.
“I’m going to find something nice to wear and maybe a new wig!” Herah exclaimed as she walked out the door.
Scamp was right behind her. “I want an entire tray of sausages, the spicy kind!”
Blacknail scowled after them. He had no way of keeping his minions on track once they left. All he could do was hope they remembered to actually look for Avorlus and not just stuff themselves silly.
“What are we going to be doing here?” one of the remaining hobgoblins asked as he gazed longingly after his more fortunate fellows.
Blacknail smiled fiercely as he answered. “We’re laying a trap. There is no way the people that attacked this place aren’t watching it. If we make some noise then someone will come to investigate and we can ask them some questions.”
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