Blacknail left Aris behind and walked up the line. Once he was up at the front of the column of soldiers, Blacknail led his scouts on ahead. That was the easiest way to avoid Khita and the others. Some of them might have questions he didn’t want to answer, plus they were annoying.
At his command, Hobgoblins fanned out into the woods on either side and jogged on ahead. Blacknail didn’t want to run into any surprises, and he wanted scouts out looking for signs of the unknown hobgoblins. Even with trackers out, it would take some luck to discover the location of the enemy hobgoblins. Most of the beasts in the Green would consider hobgoblins too dangerous to mess with, but there were some noticeable exceptions, so the feral goblins had undoubtedly hidden their lair somewhere out of sight.
The completely overgrown road continued on unabated until the sky overhead began to darken. At the advice of one of his scouts, Blacknail led his party over to the base of a rocky hill. They set up camp there, where it was dry and the face of hill protected one of their flanks. Their encampment took up quite a bit of space. Dozens of tents and sleeping rolls littered the ground where it was clear of rocks and tree trunks. The hobgoblins set up near the bottom of the hill – with the humans up above – and Blacknail joined them. He had the biggest tent out of all the hobgoblins, although Ilisti’s was bigger, for now. Anyway, Blacknail’s was big enough for three people and grey colored. He’d gotten it as a gift after asking its old owner for it very politely.
As Blacknail used one eye to watch a pair of hobgoblins set up his tent for him, and his other eye warily watched the hobgoblins he had assigned to guard Ferrar and keep him away from the campfire, Herah walked over.
“What do you want?” Blacknail asked the female hobgoblin.
“Can I sleep with you? Your tent looks comfy,” Herah replied as she gave him an eager smile.
Blacknail rolled his eyes. “No.”
“Alright, I’ll go sleep in another hobgoblin’s tent tonight,” Herah replied neutrally before walking away.
What? The ease with which Herah had accepted his command confused Blacknail. She usually begged and pleaded with him for a while after he shut her down, and what was this about sleeping with someone else? Who was she talking about? As Blacknail watched, Herah joined up with a grinning Khita. They both glanced at Blacknail briefly before moving on and disappearing out of sight behind a tent. Blacknail didn’t like this. Khita seemed to be a terrible influence on Herah. As Blacknail was considering this development, he saw Geralhd wandering over his way. Immediately, the hobgoblin got up and headed in the opposite direction. Blacknail had his own food now, and Geralhd was already doing what Blacknail wanted, so there was no point in talking to him.
Blacknail managed to avoid taking any responsibility for the rest of the night, and soon fell asleep in his tent. The next morning he awoke to the sound of birdsong. After taking a quick moment to stretch and enjoy the cool morning air, Blacknail then woke up the hobgoblins closest to him and got them up and moving. It took a little longer for the humans to start getting up, but the hobgoblins’ activity and all the noise they were making eventually woke them. Which had been Blacknail’s intention. He wanted to cover as much ground as possible today. Some of the small fires from last night were rekindled as people warmed up breakfast and packed up their gear. Soon after that, Ilisti’s troops were marching through the forest. Like yesterday, the hobgoblins ranged ahead and everyone else followed behind them.
Blacknail and several of his minions were at the very front of the group on the road. At first, he let the others trample down the brush, but then he grew bored and took the lead. Blacknail grunted as he pushed his way through some tall green plants that came up to his waist. Around him, the forest was quiet as he kept moving. The early morning birdcalls had died down, so that now there was only the rustling of the leaves in the wind and the thud of footsteps from back behind.
While walking, Blacknail noticed that the trees were growing larger and closer together. Huh. Here, almost all of the trees were a variety with smooth white bark and thick trunks. At first it was nothing more than an idle observation, but then the trend continued. High above, long branches stretched out across the path and shadowed everything in sight, while the plants and branches closer to the ground began to grow bare and stunted. Warily, Blacknail called for everyone to stop. He then looked up and began scanning the thick canopy overhead. Stray beams of light pierced the green barrier, but Blacknail didn’t see any movement. That wasn’t good. Normally, there should have been some critters moving in the trees.
As Blacknail was contemplating this, one of the scouts he’d sent up ahead returned and reported in. He told Blacknail that the forest got even darker ahead, and that he’d turned back instead of pressing on, which Blacknail considered to be the right move. While the hobgoblins were talking, the humans grew impatient. Both Ilisti and Geralhd walked over together.
“Why have we halted our progress?” Ilisti asked.
Frowning, Blacknail turned toward them. “Because the forest ahead is dark and dangerous. We should go around it, which means finding a new path.”
Geralhd sighed. “You want to leave the path? That sounds like that will really slow us down and might even get us lost. What is up ahead that has you so apprehensive?”
Blacknail pointed off to his left, where the rows of shadowy white-barked trees were clearly visible. “The forest is too dark here, and it grows even darker up ahead. That is a bad sign. Dangerous things lurk in the dark parts of the forest.”
Ilisti nodded in agreement but Geralhd just looked confused as he studied the trees. “Dark? What does the darkness have to do with anything? I guess I haven’t been in any parts of the forest quite like this before. The trees certainly are huge, and it’s a little strange looking, but are you saying something dangerous dwells hereabouts, such as trolls?”
“Trolls go wherever they want,” Blacknail huffed. “You’ve never been to a place like this because everyone avoids them, and for good reason. It’s the spiders that like it in the dark places.”
“Spiders?” Geralhd chuckled. “You’re worried about some small arachnids?”
As Blacknail gave Geralhd an annoyed look, Ilisti spoke up. “No, the hobgoblin has it right. Out west we avoid the oldest parts of the forest for the same reason. Canopy crawlers might not be a true threat to a large group of prepared men, but its still best to avoid their territory. There is no telling how large their territory is, and we could end up with more than a few of our men paralyzed for days or even dead if they get bitten multiple times.”
“Really?” Geralhd asked in surprise. “What kind of spiders are we talking about?”
Blacknail held out his hands so that they were a good three feet apart, which was a bit of an exaggeration. “Big ones that build huge webs. They live in swarms up in the tress and drop down on people. Very nasty. Their poison bites make people’s bodies go stiff, and then they tie you up in webs so that they can eat you later. It is a bad way to die.”
“Why has no one ever told me about these creatures before?” Geralhd remarked as he shuddered and threw a nervous glance at the trees. It was if he expected a swarm of spiders to burst out at any moment.
“Canopy crawler swarms stay exclusively in the oldest parts of the forest. They almost never wander out, so they are only a danger to people who enter the deepest part of the Green. If a swarm starts to build up near a village, they usually just burn it out,” Ilisiti explained.
“What he said,” Blacknail agreed, even though he hadn’t actually known most of that. He just knew the spiders were creepy and bad.
“Well, that’s a relief to learn. In light of this new information, I’m fully behind finding a way around the man-eating spiders,” Geralhd told them.
After a bit more talking, the two humans withdrew, and Blacknail went back to conversing with his scouts. He needed to find the best way around the old growth before they could start moving again. Eventually, he decided that it was better to go left, because the spider’s territory appeared to extend further to right. With this in mind, Blacknail led everyone off the overgrown road and into the trees.
Cautiously, the group made their way forward along the edge of the spider’s territory for over two hours. The going was tough because the ground was muddy and uneven in places, but fortunately, the old growth began to recede after that, and they were able to make their way safely back to the remains of the road.
As Blacknail was walking and studying an old twisted tree to his left, because the warped wood looked like a place that giant spiders might hide, movement from his right drew his attention. The bushes shuddered as one of the hobgoblin scouts he’d sent out to explore the forest returned. The hobgoblin saw his leader and gave him a sloppy salute, so Blacknail nodded and motioned for him to relax. Some of his minions were copying things they saw the humans doing. That was usually a good thing, but it was a little annoying that they all copied different things. Someone really needed to set up some standards. Stupid lazy minions.
The scout dropped his salute. “I found a goblin trail, boss. Several of the smelly runts are using it a lot, so it should take us right to their base.”
“Good job. Let’s see it,” Blacknail replied.
The scout immediately led Blacknail deeper into the forest, as the humans continued on down the path without him. After a few minutes of walking through the trees, they reached an old rotten log that was speckled with green moss. The hobgoblin scout rested one of his feet on the log and pointed at the ground on the far side of it.
“It’s there. Many goblin feet scratched the dirt here,” he observed.
Mildly curious, Blacknail leaned forward to look. There were indeed dozens of goblin sized footprints in the wet dirt beside the log.
“Go get the others. We will leave the humans and a few guides behind while the rest of us find the enemy lair. We can catch up to the slow noisy humans easily enough later,” Blacknail told his minion.
The hobgoblin nodded and ran off. While he waited for him to return, Blacknail searched the area. When he failed to find anything of interest, he sat down on the log and rested his feet. It took a few minutes for his minions to arrive. With Scamp at their lead they trudged through the woods and joined him. There were twenty of them in total, which was probably more than enough to deal with some feral hobgoblins. In fact, it was probably massive overkill. Blacknail could probably handle it by himself, but a show of force was always useful when you were dealing with hobgoblins.
Confident in his power, Blacknail didn’t send out minions to clear the way of any goblins that might detect his party’s approach. It was almost better for him if the enemy forces gathered, so he could deal with them all at once, and it was unlikely that any feral tribe of goblins that contained multiple hobgoblins would run from a challenge. Their leaders couldn’t afford to look weak.
After about half an hour of hiking, the goblin tracks grew more plentiful and fresher. There were also some larger prints that had clearly been made by a hobgoblin. Blacknail smiled to himself as he stopped for a second to study them. They were definitely headed in the right direction and would soon find their target. Indeed, after just a few more minutes, Blacknail’s party stumbled out into a huge clearing that was obviously occupied.
The trees had given way to a wide field full of short grass that was hundreds of feet across, and nestled between a tall hill and a large creek. It was a very inviting scene, but the truly eye-catching thing was the obviously artificial parts. Six small buildings stood in the middle of the clearing. They were primitive things, similar to the bark and branch huts Gob had first built, but they were far more than Blacknail had been expecting to find. Around the huts, the goblins had built barricades of wooden spikes that had been tied together. They were full of holes and didn’t block off every way into the village, but they would definitely hamper and annoy any beasts that tried to hunt down the goblins within. The goblins would also be able to dive through them to avoid and outmaneuver predators. Actually, as Blacknail looked back at the huts, he noticed that they all had sharpened stakes sticking out in a lot of places, and they didn’t have doors. Instead, the huts could only be entered through tunnels in the ground.
“I don’t see any of the goblins that live here,” Scamp observed as he looked around. After scanning the village he studied the forest around them, as if looking for an ambush.
“They probably ran away and hid the second they saw our glorious and handsome master,” Herah replied. She sounded proud of herself for some reason.
Blacknail scratched his nose. “If they are inside the huts then it will be very annoying to get them out. Going in through the tunnels would be stupid. They’d just stomp us to death one at a time, so we’d need to cut through the walls.”
“Just challenge them. If their leaders don’t come out all the goblins will know they’re cowards,” another hobgoblin remarked.
“That’s not a bad idea. I’ll go in alone. Wait here,” Blacknail told his minions.
The hobgoblin chieftain began walking out into the clearing. He felt confident. With six huts of that size, the village probably contained less than six hobgoblins and less than sixty goblins. Obviously, that was more than he wanted to fight at one time, but the feral goblins wouldn’t attack a hobgoblin without hobgoblins driving them. As for the feral hobgoblins, Blacknail was more than a match for them. He had Elixir, and a good steel sword that he had trained to use. A few feral hobgoblins with pointy sticks weren’t a threat to him.
When Blacknail had gotten within forty feet of the village, he stopped and coughed to clear his throat. He then yelled at the top of his lungs. “Hey! All you stupid runts who sleep in your own shit, are you just going to hide like filthy squirrels in a tree?”
Grinning, Blacknail studied the village. That ought to ruffle some feathers. The feral hobgoblins were probably shaking in terror while they hid in the dark. Still, they would have no choice but to come out and face him once they realized he’d challenged them alone. Suddenly, movement all around the village drew Blacknail’s attention. As he watched, six hobgoblins and a dozen goblins rose up from where they had been hiding beside the spike barriers. They were either naked or wearing ragged fur loincloths, but Blacknail’s attention was swiftly drawn to what they were holding in their hands. Those looked like slings…
Uh oh. Blacknail’s eyes widened as the ferals all turned to face him and raised their weapons. The slings began to spin. Perhaps he might have made a slight miscalculation here. Crack. A swarm of stones shot toward Blacknail as the ferals unloaded their weapons.
“Bloody piss,” Blacknail swore as he dove onto the ground.
He was a little too slow. He heard a dull thud as a stone hit his shoulder, and then pain exploded through his body. Rolling up into a ball to protect his head, Blacknail pulled out a vial of Elixir and downed the entire thing. Instantly, the pain that consumed his side dimmed. Shielding his face as he looked up, Blacknail saw the ferals preparing to launch another volley his way. As the fire of the Elixir burned though his blood, Blacknail hissed and pushed out with his mind. A blast of fear rippled out and slammed into the ferals just as they began shooting again. The wave of terror caused many of the ferals to flinch, making their projectiles to go wide, but Blacknail dropped back down on to the ground just in case.
By this time, Scamp and the others were reacting to the attack on their chieftain. Luckily, several of them had bows. They nocked arrows and took aim at the ferals. Three hobgoblins went down as arrows slammed into their chests. Surprised by the unexpected barrage, the feral goblins screamed and fled. The feral hobgoblins froze as Blacknail’s minions ran over to see if their boss was alright.
Blacknail didn’t wait for them. He rose to his feet and screamed in wordless fury at the remaining ferals. How dare they hurt him. They were nothing. He was going to rip them apart with his bare hands while he blasted their pathetic minds to pieces with pure terror! Blacknail’s voice shook the air. Its impact was almost physical, and caused all the feral hobgoblins to jump from fright. A moment later, the last of the visible ferals dashed off into forest. An arrow from one of Blacknail’s minions took a hobgoblin in the back, but the others got away.
Rather then go anywhere near their enraged chieftain, his minions ran past Blacknail and over to the huts. However, since they were lacking orders and didn’t know what to do with themselves, the hobgoblins stopped and held their ground once they had actually reached the goblin village. Glaring malevolently, but gradually cooling off, Blacknail stomped over to join them. It was vengeance time.
Eyeing his boss warily, Scamp spoke up first. “What do you want us to do now? I think we won.”
“Ya, great job boss. You were a very brave and incredibly skilled decoy. We are all in awe of your magnificence,” another minion added, which earned him a glare.
“Thank you. It was all part of my plan,” Blacknail told his minions. “Now I order you kill every feral hobgoblin you find, and make it hurt.”
“Even her?” Scamp asked as he pointed behind Blacknail.
Blacknail looked over to see a hobgoblin emerge from one of the tunnels that led into the huts. She immediately raised her hands in gesture of surrender, and her sex was obvious since she wasn’t wearing anything but a loincloth. Hobgoblin females had much smaller breasts than humans, but they could still easily be told apart from males.
“Alright, maybe not her,” Blacknail replied as he carefully studied the newcomer. He was still mad, but now other feelings were starting to build within him.
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