Blacknail and the others stayed in Herstcrest for two days. They needed time to rest and recuperate after their journey through the uncharted Green, and no one was in a huge rush to get back to Shelter anyway. Herstcrest wasn’t a great place to visit. The walled town’s streets were still creepy and depressing, but it was a novel place to explore, and roaming the streets was safer than walking through the Green, probably. The people from Shelter were particularly curious, since some of them had never visited another town or city before. Ha, what a bunch of rubes. Blacknail himself had visited five cities and towns. That was a lot, probably.
Before departing Herstcrest, Blacknail’s party got a few things done. The hobgoblins got the feast they’d been promised, although since there was a local shortage, the fare wasn’t all that great and had mostly come from the supplies they’d brought. Blacknail was able to eat his fill, though. The hobgoblins also managed to find themselves a fair pile of loot, even if it was mostly junk no one else wanted. Ferrar also used this time to meet up with some human craftsman and pick out one to travel back with them. The fire obsessed hobgoblin really wanted someone to learn smelting from. Thankfully, Ilisti was quite generous about rewarding the hobgoblins for their help, and he gave them everything they asked for. He did have one request, though.
Since he was facing a food shortage, the vympr wanted some hobgoblin hunters to bring in game for him, and he was willing to pay them for it. Once the food from the wagon ran out, Hesrtcrest would start starving again. Blacknail readily agreed. It cost him nothing, and he was always looking to put some of his lazy minions to work. He had too many of them, and he didn’t like it when they hung around his base and ate up his food.
On the day of departure, Blacknail led his minions and allies through the gates of Herstcrest and out into the fields around the town. It was early in the morning and the wagon creaked as it rolled over the packed dirt path. The travelers had unloaded almost all the food that they’d brought, but they’d refilled the wagon with loot and equipment. Blacknail and Ferrar had scooped up all the axes and metal tools they could find, which was a lot. Herstcrest had plenty of steel shovels and similar things laying around inside its many abandoned warehouses.
Behind Blacknail, walked the hobgoblins that weren’t out scouting ahead of the main party. Geralhd and most of the humans from Shelter were walking around the wagon, while Khita and her followers took up the rear. Since the vympirs and their troops had remained behind, the party was much smaller now. The only new additions were the craftsman Ferrar had chosen and the small female he’d brought with him. Briefly, Blacknail wondered why Ferrar had chosen this particular human. His bland looks didn’t make him stand out from everyone else in Herstcrest, but then again Ferrar was weird. He’d probably picked the man based on whispers from the fire or something.
Soon after they’d entered the forest, they approached the dark woods that the spiders had taken over, and they had to leave the old overgrown road and head off into the forest. Luckily, they could just follow the path they had made to get to Herstcrest in the first place. Moving through the Green was slow, especially for the wagon, but they knew which way they had to go and what lay before them.
Soon, they passed close to the location of the goblin camp that Blacknail had conquered and occupied. Since Scamp and a few other minions were still there, Blacknail took some hobgoblins along and went to check on him. It was only a short walk through the forest, so they left the others with the wagon.
When Blacknail got there, he immediately noticed that the camp had undergone some changes. A swathe of small trees and bushes had been cleared around the edge of the camp, and a short stretch of wall had already been built on one side. The patches of herbs appeared unchanged, though. That was good. Blacknail had been a little worried about Scamp accidently killing them all somehow. Knowing Scamp, it wasn’t impossible that his mere presence might have caused all the plants to wither down to nothing.
The nearby goblins scattered as Blacknail and his minions walked into the clearing. One of the hobgoblins left behind was on the far edge of the camp, and he began walking over to greet Blacknail. Meanwhile, several of the feral goblins yelped loudly in excitement, which caused a sleepy looking Scamp to crawl out of one of the huts. He yawned as he got up and tried to figure out what was going on.
Blacknail walked right over to Scamp, stopped in front of him, and then slugged the surprised hobgoblin right in the face. Scamp yelped in pain and fell over onto his ass. This both amused and satisfied Blacknail, who grinned down at his minion.
“Good job! Keep up the good work,” Blacknail told Scamp. It was important to make sure everyone remembered who the real boss was, but also to give them positive reinforcement.
“Um, thanks?” Scamp replied as he rubbed his sore nose and climbed back to his feet. He didn’t sound too grateful for the praise.
“I’m just stopping by to see how you are doing. Where is the female hobgoblin?” Blacknail asked.
Scamp pointed back toward the hut that he’d just emerged from. “She’s still in there.”
“Ah, try to get at least some work done,” Blacknail replied with a frown.
Scamp smiled proudly. “Of course, I’m working super hard, boss! Soon, I’ll have the wall done, just like you asked.”
Blacknail rolled his eyes in disbelief. He doubted the wall would be complete anytime soon. It was a big project, and he knew Scamp too well to believe that he’d personally gotten his hands dirty working on it. Scamp was a lazy idiot, which was what made him a great sub-leader. He wasn’t a threat.
After a brief conversation to get the other hobgoblin caught up, Blacknail had his minions drop off a bunch of the tools they’d been carrying. He’d brought some axes and shovels to help the hobgoblins here build the wall. Steel axes made chopping down trees and cutting stakes much easier. Stone tools broke very easily so they had to be constantly repaired, which took time.
Scamp seemed fine with staying here now, but some of the other hobgoblins wanted to leave, so Blacknail switched a few of them around with the hobgoblins he’d brought. Ilisti had told him that moving his minions around a lot was an important part of keeping them loyal, and Blacknail could see why. It prevented them from getting too comfortable and forming cliques. Plans for keeping his hobgoblins loyal had been on Blacknail’s mind a lot lately.
“I’ll send some more workers from the main camp soon. Just keep building the wall and taking care of the herbs,” Blacknail told Scamp before heading back into the forest. He didn’t want to leave the humans waiting too long, lest they get into trouble.
Fortunately, when the hobgoblins got back to the wagon, everyone was still in one piece and nothing important had happened. Blacknail took a moment to speak to Geralhd and reassure him, and then they resumed their journey. However, when they got to the others side of the dark woods and reached the overgrown road again, Blacknail called for a stop and started rummaging through the wagon for some specific items he’d packed.
“What are you doing? There is nothing here but empty forest and the same endless greenery,” Geralhd asked as he walked over to Blacknail’s side. There was a confused frown on his face.
Blacknail pulled out a torch and a large flask of oil. “Just stay here. I need to go into the dark woods for a while, but be prepared to move quickly when I get back.”
“How long are you going to be?” Geralhd asked with obvious concern.
“Not long. I will be running back,” Blacknail replied as he looked over his minions.
Geralhd tried to ask him a few more question, but Blacknail didn’t answer. Instead, he selected two minions to come help him.
“You will probably want to see this up close,” Blacknail told Ferrar.
The other hobgoblin he selected was Herah. She followed him around everywhere anyway, and probably would attempt to sneak after him even if he tried to leave her behind. He’d caught her stalking him a few times. She clearly had way too much free time. With those two minions in tow, Blacknail started walking back down the overgrown road and toward shadowy trees that hung over it.
“I don’t like this place. It makes the back of my neck tingle,” Herah remarked as she looked up into the dark treetops. Any number of dangerous things could have been hiding up above them in the branches.
“Ya, it’s a bad place to visit,” Blacknail replied as he held his torch up and strode forward. The flickering flames pushed back the darkness but didn’t dispel it. In gloomy silence, the dark haze hovered around them. Shadows shifted and danced as the light of the torch hit the twisted trees.
“Then why are we here?” Herah asked.
It was Ferrar that answered her. “That’s obvious. We’re going to burn it all down!”
“What?” Herah exclaimed as she turned to look at him.
Ferrar shrugged and grinned excitedly. “That’s why he brought me, to burn things. This place is bad, but fire will fix that. Also, look at all this dry wood. Anyone who saw it would want to burn it all down.”
Herah gave Ferrar a doubtful look. She seemed concerned, and she turned to look at Blacknail. He just nodded in agreement though, which didn’t reassure her at all.
The forest around them had grown even darker. The trees stretched up high into the sky, creating a stifling sea of foliage above their heads that blocked out all the light of the sun. Closer to the ground, twisted white branches jutted out from the sides of pale trees. Some of trees were dead and dried out, like Ferrar had pointed out, but many others still had healthy canopies up above.
As he walked and held his torch high, Blacknail carefully studied the twisting branches that hung low to the ground. Was that glint of light as something reflected the illumination from the torch? Yes, it was. Blacknail instantly stopped walking.
As Herah and Ferrar stumbled to a stop behind him, he turned to look at the female hobgoblin. “Walk over to that tree.”
“Um, why?” Herah asked skeptically. The dark woods clearly made her nervous.
Blacknail gave her his best reassuring smile. “That’s an order, but don’t worry. I’ll protect you if anything happens.”
Herah hesitated but did as she was told. She began to carefully walk toward the tree as she scanned the surroundings for any sign of danger. She didn’t see any, but as she neared the pale trunk of the tree, something moved up above in the shadows. Then, there was the crack of a branch as a large blurry shape hurtled down at her from one of the branches overhead. It zoomed toward her exposed back with hungry purpose.
Reacting too slowly, Herah tried to spin around to face the threat. The shape was less than a foot from her head when Blacknail swatted it aside with a two-handed swing of his sword. There was aloud crack as the flat of his blade smashed the leaping spider and knocked it away from Herah. Instead, it hit the ground and bounced. Herah squeaked in fear and jumped back.
The huge grey spider hissed angrily as it jumped back onto its feet. It immediately tried to scuttle away, but while it was still stunned, Blacknail stepped forward and used the tip of his blade to impale its abdomen. The hairy grey spider hissed and squirmed, but it was stuck now. Dark fluid seeped out of the wound around the blade for a few seconds, and then it went still.
“What is that?” Herah shrieked fearfully.
“It’s a spider,” Blacknail replied as he removed his blade and bent down to examine his catch. The arachnid was easily two feet across.
“Is that why you wanted me to go to the tree?”
Blacknail hesitated. It was probably a good idea to not upset Herah any further. “Um, yes. Good job. You really helped me catch it.”
Herah wasn’t mollified. She looked outraged. “It could have killed me!”
“No, I was protecting you, and their bite isn’t deadly. They just paralyze you and wrap you up for later. You were safe with me here,” Blacknail told her as he picked the dead spider up. He wanted to show it to everyone. The stupid humans hadn’t believed him when he’d described them.
“Can we burn things now?” Ferrar interjected impatiently.
“Sure,” Blacknail replied.
Herah didn’t look mad anymore. If anything, she looked smug. Blacknail’s words had apparently calmed her down. She seemed to like the idea that he’d protected her, so he handed her the dead spider. Startled, she took it and then stared at it as if unsure of what had just happened.
Meanwhile, Blacknail took out his flask of oil and dumped its contents on the base of a dead tree. He’d asked Ilisti what the best way to burn out the spiders was, and the vympir had suggested this route. When the flask was empty, Blacknail lit it using his torch. The slick oil immediately burst into flames, and the fire quickly began to spread past the oil and onto the dry wood.
“We should run now,” Blacknail said as he stepped back away from the flames and smoke.
Ferrar grinned joyfully and his eyes reflected the red light of the burning tree. He nodded absently at Blacknal’s words, but he made no move to leave, so Blacknail grabbed his shoulder and pulled him away. Herah followed them with the spider still in hand. She still seemed to have no idea what was going on. As they retreated back the way they’d come, there was a loud crack and shower of sparks sprayed in their direction, causing everyone to pick up speed.
It didn’t take them long to reach the edge of the dark woods, but before leaving the shadows, Blacknail glanced back. Behind him, he saw the previously gloomy forest glowing with a sinister orange light. The fire was spreading quickly.
The hogoblins’ hurried run drew a lot of attention when they reached the wagon. Everyone looked in their direction, and most the people looked wary.
“Holy gods. That’s an incredibly large spider,” Geralhd remarked in surprise as he saw what Herah was carrying. There were mutters of agreement from most the other humans.
“Yep, I caught it myself, but we should get moving. Right now,” Blacknail told him.
Geralhd looked concerned. “Why? You’re not being chased by a swarm of giant arachnid, are you?”
“Don’t be silly. I set the forest on fire,” Blacknail explained.
“What? Why would you do that,” Geralhd asked in shock.
“Ilisti told me to, and he also said the flames shouldn’t spread out of the dark woods, but we should probably keep moving just to be safe.”
Herah dumped the dead spider on the wagon, as the party began moving again. Blacknail was pretty sure he could smell smoke on the wind now.
“I still don’t understand why you wanted to burn down the forest,” Geralhd told Blacknail as they jogged side-by-side. They creaking of the wagons wheels was loud behind them.
Blacknail frowned at the man’s cluelessness. “Because giant spiders live there, obviously! I wanted to clear the road so that we a get to Herstcrest faster.”
Geralhd huffed. “Well, let’s hope that Ilisti was right and the fire doesn’t spread out of the dark woods.”
After half an hour of hurried running, it appeared that Ilisti had been right. No roaring wall of flames consumed them, so everyone was rather relieved about that. However, back behind them, a torrent of black smoke began to rise up into the sky. Thankfully, it did seem like the blaze wasn’t moving in their direction.
Blacknail nodded happily to himself. He’d been right to set the fire after all. Not only would it get rid of the spiders and allow them to use the road, but it would clear all the brush from atop the road there as well. Once the fire died down, getting to Herstcrest would be much easier. Blacknail also planned on clearing the rest of the road, so that he could send minions to the other goblin camp quicker and safer. Maybe he could use the boars to do that?
The rest of day went by slowly as Blacknail’s party followed the old overgrown road back toward Shelter. When it started to grow dark, they began to look for a place to settle down for the night. Up ahead, there was a large rock formation visible from the road. Its sharp stone point pierced the top of the forest canopy, so Blacknail decided to take some hobgoblin scouts and go check it out. A quick exploration of the huge rock formation revealed an excellent place to set up camp at its base. The ground was dry, the rocks provided shelter, and it was easily defendable.
However, when Blacknail left his minions behind and circled around the rocks, he heard a noise off to his left. Frowning, the hobgoblin looked up over a boulder to see what had made the sound. There were any number of dangerous creatures that it could be, and setting up camp near them would be stupid.
As he peeked over the rock, Blacknail froze in surprise. A strange and completely unexpected sight lay before him. Were those giant bugs? He was looking at two creatures about the size of a hobgoblin, but instead of standing straight up they moved across the ground on six skinny legs. Faded black carapace covered their very insect-like bodies, and their mouths were flanked by protruding mandibles.
Both the creatures were walking backward as they dragged large objects behind them using their mandibles. One had a deer carcass, while the other was dragging a large green bush. Sensing Blacknail’s presence, they suddenly stopped and spun to face him. Their eyes were dark empty pits as they studied the hobgoblin, and then they both reared up and hissed aggressively at him.
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