As Blacknail slipped through the trees and around the nearby thorny bushes, a bird sang out from up above in the trees and drew his attention for a second. It had been a while since he last remembered hearing such a sound. There weren’t a lot of songbirds among the dirty streets of Daggerpoint.
He could reminisce later though; right now he had people to hunt. Or were they hunting him? It was a little confusing…
The rustling of plants reminded the hobgoblin that Malthus was chasing him. Blacknail threw a quick look over his shoulder and was surprised when he saw nothing but living green plants and a canopy of leaves fading to red and autumn gold.
He could no longer see the shaped stones and squat buildings of Daggerpoint. The hobgoblin stretched and straightened his posture as he felt an unseen weight leave his shoulders. It was good to be back among nature and away from the places humans had made their own.
He reached up towards his face with a clawed hand and pulled his smiling mask off. The hobgoblin then tossed it aside into a bush where he could retrieve it later. This was not a place for wearing masks. His green angular face broke out into a wide toothy smile as it was exposed to the world.
In the wild, even in this little isolated patch of it, things were different, purer. There was nothing to hold him back or make him question himself. His thoughts could run free without restraint or the weakness that came from hesitation.
A branch snapped off to his left and the hobgoblin’s long green ears twitched as they picked up the noise. Without a doubt it was Malthus and his pack. The assassins were making quite a bit of noise as they moved through the woods, much more than Blacknail.
The area here was more brush than true forest. The trees were small and spread apart enough that there was no real canopy to block the light. That just made the undergrowth thicker, though. There were bushes and tall stands of plants everywhere for him to hide in, and walking in straight line was difficult.
The hobgoblin had assumed the assassins would be unaccustomed to wilder places, and it sounded like he’d been right. He was having no trouble keeping track of them and slipping ahead of them unseen.
He wasn’t even trying to conceal his trail but they didn’t seem to be able to follow it regardless. Thus, he would have to remember to make some noise every once in a while. The humans couldn’t be allowed to believe he had escaped. He needed them to follow him.
It was a delicate game he was playing with these hunters of men. There was an uneasy balance that had to be kept. To win and claim his prize Blacknail would have to prey upon their instincts and shape their desires to his own end.
He had to appear weak and vulnerable so to lure them in, and yet he couldn’t allow them to draw in too close. He had to get them to walk into his trap and believe that it had been their own idea. Luckily, most humans were very stupid.
As he approached a cluster of thin white barked trees the hobgoblin heard movement off in the bushes from a fair distance behind him. A second later he heard the rustle of leaves from out of sight and over to his left. Blacknail took a second to look over his shoulder and scan the forest behind him.
It really was quite easy to track Malthus and his men in here. He could hear their untrained footsteps crunching twigs and leaves as they pushed their way through the brush. The assassins were spread out but it sounded like they were keeping in sight of each other as they combed through the grass and bushes for any sign of him.
Right now his prey was falling too far behind for his liking. Blacknail coughed and sputtered loudly, as if he was in pain and couldn’t help it.
He wanted them to think he was wounded and vulnerable, and not thinking about how stupid of an idea it was to have followed him in here. The more they underestimated him the easier it would be to trick them. The coughing wasn’t really fake though, he had just fallen off a roof after all. That had hurt a lot.
A loud twang-like noise suddenly split the air behind Blacknail.
“Eep!” the hobgoblin squeaked in alarm as he dropped to the ground and covered his head.
A crossbow bolt ripped through the greenery with a whipping sound. There was then a loud crack as the projectile sunk deep into the bark of a tree trunk that lay several feet ahead of him.
The forest behind Blacknail suddenly echoed with the crashing and snapping of plants as Malthus and his men shot forward and pushed their way through the forest towards Blacknail. It was time to get going!
The startled hobgoblin jumped to his feet and dashed forward deeper into the trees. As he ran he snuck a look back and saw Malthus’ form burst out of a thicket of bushes and throw an angry look around. Blacknail quickly stepped behind a tree and out of sight.
Okay, maybe he had let Malthus get a little too close that time. Blacknail was glad the assassins only had one crossbow…
“Damn that bastard to all hells! I thought we had him this time,” Malthus hissed angrily.
The master assassin was standing next to where Blacknail had been a few seconds ago and staring hatefully at the crossbow bolt stuck in the tree.
“Do you want to turn back?” one of his men asked with more than a hint of nervousness in his voice.
“No, we’re right behind him,” Malthus replied angrily.
“I still think this is a trap,” the other man replied.
“Of course it’s a trap; we know that, and it doesn’t matter. Stop letting a little patch of bushes and trees unnerve you and let’s get after him,” Malthus commanded his men.
Blacknail took advantage of their discussion to slip away to the side and put some distance between him and his pursuers. He really needed to take care of that crossbow. It was too much of a wild card, and being shot would probably hurt a lot.
The hobgoblin crouched down behind a bush and squinted as he watched the assassins. All six of them had been close together while they talked but now they were spreading out again. It was the one on the far right that held the crossbow.
There was no way he could charge the man before Malthus intervened, and even using his sling would involve getting dangerously close and revealing himself. It also wasn’t guaranteed to take the man down in one hit, and it might convince Malthus to turn around and leave.
Well, it was probably about time to begin anyway. He had lured them deep enough. He would just have to position everything just right so that the crossbowman got taken out first.
The hobgoblin slowly got up and crept further away from the assassins. When he was far enough away that a screen of bushes and leafy tree limbs concealed him he stopped. Then he looked down, selected a fairly large twig, and stomped on it.
The twig snapped beneath his boot and a loud cracking noise echoed through the forest. Blacknail was already diving behind a tree. A second later another crossbow bolt tore through the greenery and sliced through the air where his chest had been mere moments before.
Blacknail picked himself off the ground and peered around the tree he had used as a shield. One of his eyebrows rose in surprise at how accurate the shot had been. That assassin was really good with a crossbow. The hobgoblin was definitely killing that guy first.
Blacknail hurriedly got up and began dashing through the forest. He made absolutely no attempt to be quiet about it, and instead just focused on keeping ahead of his pursuers. Underneath the sound of his own footsteps he could hear his pursuers. It was also important to keep the crossbowman too busy running to reload.
A large tree with dark droopy branches appeared on Blacknail’s left and he recognized it. With a cunning grin he ran up to it, and then threw himself onto the ground beside it. He coughed again loudly and then moaned dramatically.
Seconds later, Malthus and his men burst out of the bushes and saw him. Blacknail picked himself off the ground slowly as if he was in pain and had just tripped. The hobgoblin had discarded his mask but his hood was still up. It wasn’t quite time to drop that yet.
“I’ve got you this time! You can’t escape now, and no one will be coming to your rescue,” Malthus gloated smugly as he smiled.
Blacknail ignored him and stepped around the tree. Which way would each assassin go?
There was a click as the crossbowman began reloading and Blacknail’s heart skipped a beat. The trick here would be to predict exactly what the assassins would do. He needed to be careful though, Malthus had fooled him before by pretending to be too angry to think properly.
Malthus signaled to his men using a quick series of hand gestures that Blacknail didn’t understand. Immediately though, two assassin including the crossbowman started circling around to the left. Malthus and the other 3 men headed straight for Blacknail.
The hobgoblin turned to face them and drew his sword. The crossbowman raised his weapon so Blacknail took a quick step backwards. The gnarly trunk of the large tree was now in the way of a shot, but the crossbowman and his guard just started flanking Blacknail to cut off his escape as the rest of their companions descended on the lone hobgoblin.
Blacknail had them exactly where he wanted them.
“So much for the Faceless Assassin! When you die at my hands it will be just another chapter added to my legend. You weren’t even much of challenge, although I have to admit you’re a lucky fool and not half bad at running away,” Malthus bragged as he drew his own weapon.
“Things are not-ss always as they seem, Malthus. Perhaps you are the one that-ss is about to die,” Blacknail replied.
“I am the best killer in all of Daggerpoint and you’re just a creepy little freak. No man is my equal. I’ll take great joy in ripping that hood off your face and seeing what lies beneath it,” the assassin leader responded angrily.
Blacknail began to laugh and he didn’t bother trying to sound human. His shrill malevolent laughter rolled over the assassins and they flinched in surprise. Even Malthus looked startled by the sound.
“Stupid human, Herad is not a man and you ran from her. Soon, you will see my face and then you shall run from me as well,” the hobgoblin cackled.
“Shoot him!” Malthus roared impatiently but with a hint of fear. He had clearly been unnerved by the strange laughter.
The crossbowman aimed his weapon and began to take a step to the left to get a better shot at Blacknail. The hobgoblin leaned around the tree and gave him a toothy grin. The assassin stared in shock and his eyes widened in horror at what he saw beneath Blacknail’s hood. That was when the spear took him in the stomach.
The spear was a long sharpened branch that had been tied to a forcibly bent over sapling. It had been concealed in a bush and been triggered by the assassin’s foot hitting a trip wire. Saeter had taught him how to make them to hunt deer or wild boar but it worked on humans just as well.
The crossbow fell from the man’s slack hands and hit the ground. He gasped as he looked down at the wooden spear that was stuck in his guts and started shivering uncontrollably.
The rest of the assassins gaped in confusion as they tried to make sense of what had just happened. That was when the sling stone smashed into the forehead of the assassin standing next to the crossbowman.
There was a loud crack and a spray of blood as the stone tore through his flesh and slammed into his skull.
Blacknail was already burning Elixir and dashing forwards before either of the assassins’ bodies began to crumple. The hobgoblin laughed again as he ran towards the fallen man’s weapon.
It had worked! That was two men down. The first piece of the puzzle had fallen into place and now all Blacknail had to do was follow the rest of the plan. He was truly a sneaky super genius!
“Shit, what in all hells!” a surprised Malthus cursed as he sprinted after the hobgoblin.
The man was fast but not as fast as Blacknail. He may have been closer to his fallen companions but surprise had slowed his start as well.
Blacknail reached the weapon first and scooped it up. He spun around and grinned as he aimed it at the master assassin. Malthus reacted quickly this time and dodged away to the side, but Blacknail had predicted this. The hobgoblin shot the assassin that had been following in Malthus’ footsteps instead.
That was three down. The man shrieked in pain as the bolt punctured his chest and then collapsed a second later. Blacknail quickly tore the string off the crossbow. He then threw it straight at Malthus’ charging form.
The assassin flinched and batted the flying weapon aside with his blade. Blacknail jumped to the side and dashed away. The last two of Malthus’ minions that were still standing tried to intercept him and cut off his escape.
“No, don’t chase him. There are more traps!” Malthus roared suddenly.
His cloaked subordinates froze in their tracks and warily scanned the ground at their feet while keeping one eye on Blacknail. They didn’t want to be caught off guard by a shot from his sling.
The hobgoblin himself ran to the edge the bushes and then turned back around. He was a safe distance away now.
Malthus slowly and carefully walked over to his companion’s side. He looked calm but Blacknail could see rage smoldering behind his eyes. It amused the watching hobgoblin. He liked pissing off Malthus.
The master assassin suddenly whipped a throwing knife at Blacknail’s head, but he easily leaned out of the way. He was too far away for such knives to be much of a threat. Malthus growled as he stared at Blacknail.
“Do you think that just because you managed to take out a few of my men that you’ve won? Nothing could be further from the truth, Faceless One. As long as I live your days are numbered, and it will take more than a few traps made from pointy sticks to kill me,” he hissed angrily.
Blacknail just laughed again. The time for hiding who and what he was over. Now it was time to spread delicious fear and panic.
“I have just gotten started, arrogant man. You won’t-ss leave this forest alive. It was so very stupid-ss of you to follow me-ss here. Also, my name is Blacknail, and-ss I have a face,” the hobgoblin replied haughtily.
He grinned broadly and then reached up slowly to pull down his hood. His enemies froze as they got their first view of his green skin, pointy ears, long nose, and sharp jagged teeth. Blacknail could see the blood drain from their cheeks as they took in his inhuman visage. It made him laugh again.
“Cor-Dius’ cloak shield us. He’s not human,” one of the assassins whispered in horror.
Blacknail took a step forward and stared into the eyes of the closest enemy. The man stared back with wide eyed dread.
“Rawr,” the hobgoblin yelled as he lurched forward a step.
The man shrieked and fell over backwards as he tried to stumble away. Blacknail chuckled darkly at the stupid human and licked his lips in anticipation of what was to come.
He then turned to the still frozen Malthus and gave him a brief bow, before stepping into the bushes and out of sight.
“Soon…” the hobgoblin’s eerie voice promised as he walked away.
He shivered in excitement as he crept through the forest and circled around his prey. The humans had yet to move. They stood there for several seconds without saying anything.
“We should never have come here. We’re going to be killed and eaten!” one of the men whispered fearfully.
“Shut up or I’ll kill you myself,” Malthus told him as he stared his subordinate down.
The man was shivering in fear and he couldn’t meet his boss’ eyes. Malthus snorted in disgust.
“So he’s not human; it changes nothing! It won’t stop me from cutting his head off with my sword, and it actually explains a lot,” Malthus exclaimed.
“He’s right about one thing, though. We should not have walked into these woods,” the last man added fearfully.
Malthus grunted darkly in reply as he scanned the nearby greenery for signs of Blacknail. He was still looking more than a little pale and jumpy.
“That was definitely a mistake, but we’re far from finished. I’m not scared of a little green freak that likes to hide in bushes,” the master assassin told his men, but judging by their skeptical expressions they didn’t seem too reassured by his speech.
As Blacknail watched from his new hiding spot next to a pile of rocks and thorny plants, he smiled. Malthus was clearly lying. The wind reeked of blood and terror, and those delightful smells were only going to grow stronger…
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