“Oh shit,” someone mumbled in horror.
Before anyone could react the troll had already closed over half the distance between itself and the bandits. Any second now it would tear through them like a sharp knife through cloth, but with a lot more blood flying everywhere.
Then, the cavern was drowned in light as Mahedium unleashed his magic. It was so bright the edges of Blacknail’s vision whitened until they seemed foggy.
The effect on the troll was impressive. It screamed horribly, as it brought its claws up to shield its face. It tried to continue its charge, but it tripped over a large rock and then smashed into one of the cavern walls. Rocks were sent flying through the air and the entire cave seemed to shudder from the impact.
Most of the bandits were still too terrified or stunned to move, but not Saeter.
“Attack now, and stick to the plan!” he yelled as he shot an arrow into one of the troll’s legs.
At his master’s command, Blacknail burst into a sprint and ran past the fallen troll and deeper into the cave. The arrow Saeter had shot was tied to a climbing hook in his hand. By this point it was clear to the hobgoblin that his survival depended on the plan working.
The troll didn’t stay down long. Hissing and growling, it pulled itself to its feet. The green hairy behemoth seemed to fill the cave and tower over the humans as it rose.
Off to one side, Blacknail spotted a solid looking rock that protruded from the floor. He grabbed it and slid to a stop. Working quickly he pulled the rope tight, wrapped it around the rock a few times, and then attached the hook.
By this time, Saeter’s men had sprung into action. The other archers had started to lose their arrows, and Saeter was lining up his second shot. Other bandits were busy finding places to hook lines. Several ropes already led from the troll to the floor or walls.
To keep the beast distracted, three bandits moved in with swords and threatened it, but they kept well out of reach of the troll’s deadly claws. The blinded and enraged troll swiped at them as it stumbled forward, but they managed to avoid its distracted strikes.
As new arrows hit their marks, the troll slowed and began to thrash and pull on the lines that entrapped it. More arrows sunk into its hide every second, but it would take far more than a few hooks and ropes to hold its massive bulk.
Blacknail was the only individual who had managed to make it past the troll. The other bandits who were supposed to have joined him had all frozen in fear until it was too late. This meant most the lines only stopped the troll from moving backwards towards the hobgoblin. Blacknail was glad to see that this didn’t seem to be a priority for the troll; it seemed determined to reach the humans in front of it.
To prevent that from happening, several of the bandits began tossing lines past the troll and over to the hobgoblin. Blacknail rushed around to find solid places to attach them.
Saeter and the others had to retreat several times in order to keep the troll from reaching them. Several lines broke or were ripped free by the beast as it pressed its furious assault forward.
Eventually though, the troll ground to a halt as the lines Blacknail was securing started to arrest its movement. Blinded and confused, it roared in pained frustration. The archers weren’t taking any chances though, and they didn’t let up their barrage until they has used up every arrow.
“I wish we had some proper spears. Swords are really not the tool for this,” Saeter swore as he discarded his bow and drew his blade.
The other bandits did the same and began to encircle the troll. Blacknail unsheathed his own sword but decided to stay back and out of the way, lest he get in the way.
The beast itself growled and stared menacingly at its assailants, but it didn’t make any large movements. Every time it did more than sway slightly several lines would go tight and pull painfully on the steel arrows embedded in its flesh.
“Don’t try and get too close. Start on its arms and work your way in,” Saeter warned everyone.
With that said the men slipped around the ropes that crisscrossed the cave and descended on the entrapped troll from every side. The beast screamed and shuddered as they began to hack at it from every direction at once. It couldn’t even move enough to avoid most the attacks they rained down on it.
Blacknail was surprised at how little blood was visible, even as the troll was cut again and again. Its wounds seemed to fill with some sort of thick yellowish green fluid as soon as they were made.
The bandits continued their attack relentlessly. First, the screaming beast’s arms went limp and useless, and then it sagged and dropped to its knees.
Georgius moved in to deliver a powerful two handed swing to the troll’s exposed neck. The troll saw him coming and hissed defiantly.
Blacknail didn’t like the look of the raw hatred he saw in its eyes; it reminded him of the depths of his own berserk rage. Before he could yell a warning, the crippled troll lurched and then launched itself forward.
Arrows were ripped out of the green giant’s hide and lines snapped as the troll’s head shot forward and smashed into the unprepared Georgius. The impact of the headbutt sent him flying across the cave until he crashed into the wall. There was a loud smacking sound and then Georgius fell limply to the ground, revealing a bloody stain on the cavern wall behind him. He didn’t get back up.
With one last half hearted growl, the troll staggered and collapsed onto the ground. Its fall caused a loud thud and sent a wave of dust and grime through the cave. Blacknail and several other bandits had to shield their eyes for a second until the dust had blown past.
“It’s dead. Someone check on Georgius,” Saeter said after examining the troll for a few moments.
“What if it’s faking it?” someone asked nervously.
“Trolls don’t play dead,” Saeter replied with a condescending sneer.
With that said there was a collective sigh of relief, and the cave darkened as Mahedium dimmed the light of his staff.
Blacknail cautiously walked up to the dead troll. He nervously poked one of its big green feet a few times, but then relaxed when nothing happened. Moving closer, he examined the beast. It really was somewhat similar to a hobgoblin, but it was bigger and much uglier. It obviously had none of the charm and intelligence he had.
With a smug smirk, Blacknail scrambled up onto the huge corpse and managed to stand tall on top of it. How many hobgoblins had ever slain trolls? Probably none! That would make him the first ever!
“The greatest hobgoblin-ss ever!” he bragged to himself triumphantly from his perch.
The hobgoblin heard a quiet chuckle and turned around to see Saeter smiling at him. His sudden movement caused the corpse to shift under him, and Blacknail was sent sprawling to the ground.
The cave was now filled with chuckles as some of the other bandits couldn’t help but laugh. The thrill of victory had made Blacknail too giddy and light headed to be insulted. He just smiled back, and took note of who was chuckling the hardest for later.
Things quickly sobered up, though. The bandit that checked on Georgius pronounced him dead. His skull had been cracked open and his back was broken.
The somber faced bandits built the fallen outlaw a rock cairn outside using loose rocks from the cave. Then, after a quick moment of silence they left him there and moved on. Theirs was a profession where death was commonplace.
A quick exploration of the cave had revealed nothing but some trinkets and a few coins found on some of the troll’s victims. Blacknail claimed these; no one else wanted to dig through the grisly remains to get them.
The cave also went deeper than anyone was willing to explore. The troll’s lair ended but there was a small lightless side passage. The passage started with a steep drop so deep even Mahedium’s staff couldn’t pierce the darkness of its depths. All his white light revealed was the sharp rocks that made up the sides of the shaft itself. When a cautious Blacknail started sniffing around it his master stopped him.
“Careful, Blacknail don’t get too close,” Saeter warned him while he warily observed the opening. “Unless I’m very mistaken that leads down into the dark roads, and you really don’t want to go down there. It’s a strange place full of stranger beasts, and it’s very easy to get trapped down there,”
“It’s a doorway to the endless hells,” Blacknail heard one bandit mutter.
Carefully, the hobgoblin backed away from passage’s mouth. Saeter’s words had struck a chord with him. He still hadn’t gotten used to being trapped in the forest with all the terrible things that lived there, and these dark roads didn’t sound any better.
Saeter then had everyone pull out of the cavern. They were all exhausted, but no one wanted to spend another night out in the forest. So, after a brief discussion they decided to try and meet up with Red Dog. Since they had no wounded, Saeter thought they would be able to catch up.
Between the fast pace they set and the fact that it was faster moving downhill they managed to rejoin the rest of the bandits halfway down the road back to Herad’s base.
Red Dog was glad to see them return and to hear news of the troll’s death. If Saeter had failed not only would he have an angry troll to deal with but an angry Herad as well. Also in the North more numbers were always welcome; the roads were far from safe. It was entirely possible another troll could show up or even something worse, like bandits.
All together, the old hands, new recruits, and former deserters arrived back at the camp before dusk. Nothing of note happened and no one else got themselves killed. Some of the deserters seemed unsure of the reception they would receive, but everyone was still glad to have reached safety.
Saeter looked a little hesitant to enter the camp, though. He kept throwing looks back at Erissa, who had been staying close to him.
When everyone else began entering the camp, Saeter held himself back and stayed on the road. He was scanning the entrance to the camp as if looking for something.
“What are you doing, Saeter?” Red Dog yelled back at him.
“Nothing, be there in a second,” Saeter replied.
He then whispered something to Erissa and began pulling her over to a group of bandits who were loitering down the road.
“Efra, you owe me a favor,” he called out to one of them.
A bald woman with squinty eyes looked up as he spoke. She frowned at Saeter as he walked over.
“What’s this about, Saeter? You may have pulled me out of the way of that mimic but that don’t mean you own me,” she replied suspiciously.
“You’re heading to town right?” he asked her.
“Yep, in a bit anyway. Why?” she replied.
“I want you to take this woman with you. She’s my spoils, and I want to make sure she gets to Riverdown unmolested,” her told her.
“Why can’t you take her?” Efra asked uncertainly.
“I just got back, and I have to report to Herad,” he explained.
“Wait a second, Saeter. I’ve been walking all day. Why can’t I rest here overnight, and then you can take me back yourself?” Erissa asked the old scout as she moved closer and hugged his arm to her chest.
Saeter threw Erissa a distracted look, before turning back to the other woman. Efra looked confused. She obviously didn’t understand what he was thinking, and Blacknail didn’t either.
“If that’s what you want, then I guess I owe you that much,” Efra told him.
“It is, just make sure she gets there safely,” Saeter replied.
“She’ll get there if I do. I can’t do more than that,” Efra said with shrug.
“Saeter, why are you trying to get rid of me so suddenly?” Erissa asked with a bewildered expression.
“Now Erissa, this is for your own good. Do you really want to stay out here when you could be getting back to safety?” he asked her
“Well no…” she started to say before Blacknail’s master cut her off.
“Good, stay here and stick close to Efra. She’ll get you there in one piece. I have to go report in now, but it was a pleasure,” Saeter told her before spinning around and walking swiftly away.
The attractive woman could only gape in astonishment as her lover left her behind so suddenly. Blacknail didn’t know what was going on, and he didn’t really care. He just followed Saeter like always.
When they caught up to Red Dog and the rest of the party they were standing before Herad. She must have had word of their coming, and wanted to show off, because the bandit chieftain was at her most intimidating. Saeter and Blacknail quietly stepped up beside Red Dog.
Herad’s cold dark eyes gazed malevolently out from under her short dark hair as they swept over the deserters. They cringed under her attention, except for Mahedium who seemed relaxed and unworried. Herad’s eyes lingered on the mage and his staff for a few seconds before she moved on. She looked like she was trying to choose which one of them to make an example of, or someone to make a meal of.
She was dressed in her usual dark leathers, and a black cloak was draped over her shoulders. Even more knives than usual were holstered about her person, and her long sword was sheathed at her hip. She sneered as she addressed them.
“These are the fools that thought they could set themselves up in my territory?” she asked Red Dog.
“Yes, this is them, boss. There used to be a few more of them, though,” he answered.
“If they were anything like these scum they weren’t much of a loss anyway,” she told him.
“Well, their boss was a Vessel, but also an arrogant prick. With you around he would have just been a waste of elixir anyway,” Red Dog replied.
“I see,” Herad said as she turned away from the deserters
The bandit chieftain gave Red Dog a curious look before facing the deserters again. The mention of a Vessel had surprised her.
“It seems you scum are in luck. We’re currently in need of some new grunts. Otherwise, I would normally just have useless shits like you killed. Instead, you’re now the lowest of my lackeys. Now swear obedience to me and then we’ll see if you survive the month,” she told her new recruits.
Herad then had each of them take a simple oath of obedience. When that was done one of her men took the recruits away for inspection and billeting. Her eyes flickered over Mahedium again as she watched them leave.
When they were out of sight she turned back to Red Dog and Saeter.
“Report, now. How did you two manage to run into both a Vessel and a combat mage” she ordered them accusingly.
Saeter scowled at her tone of voice, and Red Dog winced.
“They were both just part of the deserters you sent us after,” Red Dog explained.
“What happened to the Vessel?” she asked.
That was when Blacknail saw his chance. He stood up tall and pointed to himself. He was so excited he was almost bouncing. Now, it was finally his chance to impress Herad!
“I did it! I killed-ss the big leader man. I scared the other men so badly they gave up! Was all me,” Blacknail bragged loudly to the chieftain.
“Helped kill the troll too, by doing what master told me,” the hobgoblin added as an afterthought.
Herad frowned at him, and then turned to Saeter and gave him a questioning look. She clearly didn’t believe the hobgoblin. It was Red Dog who answered, though.
“It’s sorta true boss,” he told her reluctantly.
Red Dog then began to give a detailed report of their mission. Despite herself when he had finished Herad looked somewhat impressed.
“Well you two certainly earned your pay this time. Especially that hobgoblin of yours Saeter,” she remarked.
The hobgoblin was confused by her choice of words and frowned. Pay was those shiny things a lot of the tribe had right?
“I don’t get paid,” Blacknail muttered.
His reaction caused Herad to laugh at him. That didn’t make the hobgoblin feel any better.
“I suppose you don’t, but that’s fixed easily enough. From now on you’ll get paid a grunt’s share of the profits. Oh, and Blacknail, since you call Saeter master you can call me mistress,” she told him with an arrogant smile.
“Yes, mistress,” Blacknail replied as he lowered his eyes and assumed a submissive posture.
Saeter looked surprised. It was unlike Herad to voluntarily part with money. Red Dog sighed, but it was a resigned sound instead of an argumentative one.
Blacknail was happy at the praise but still more than a little confused. He liked coins but wasn’t sure what he was going to do with more of them. He already had burrowed or picked up quite a few of them, and squirreled them away in various hiding spots with the rest of his shiny things.
Herad then dismissed them and they headed off to their respective campsites. Saeter had a thoughtful look on his face.
“I suppose if you’re drawing pay now then you’re a full member of the band and not my servant anymore, Blacknail,” he told the hobgoblin.
“He is at that,” Red Dog muttered.
Blacknail felt a mix of emotions suddenly rise up into his chest. It felt a bit like gas.
He had done it! Herad had accepted him as a member of her tribe. Apparently, that was what getting paid meant.
Coins were obviously some sort of measure of status among humans. Blacknail was going to have to make sure he hid his away carefully, somewhere no one would ever find them.
On the other hand, his recent rise in the tribe seemed like it was going to change his relationship with his master. The thought made him uncomfortable. The nervous hobgoblin turned to his master.
“I am always-ss your servant,” Blacknail told Saeter.
“Not anymore. Now you’re my subordinate. Don’t worry it’s much the same, just more work,” Saeter told Blacknail.
Blacknail blinked. He wasn’t sure if his master was being serious. Before he could ask his master anything though, Red Dog suddenly spoke up and interrupted their conversation.
“I’ll see you two around. No offense Blacknail but I’ve had enough of trolls, hobgoblins, and whatever for quite a while. Yep, I’m looking forward to some uneventful rest away from every sort of forest critter imaginable,” he said as he started to walk away from them and towards his tent.
Before he got more than a few feet away, there was a rustling sound from a nearby tent. As everyone looked over at it, a goblin burst out with dagger in his hand. It ran out in front of them, stopping only for a second when it saw Blacknail. Its eyes went wide and it dropped the dagger. It then scampered off behind another tent and out of sight.
No one said anything. Seconds later, a worried looking Varhs ran up to them. The young scout, who had helped Saeter with Blacknail’s training, was about to say something when he saw the dagger on the ground. After picking it up he turned to them.
“Did you see which way my goblin Scamp went?” he asked them.
Red Dog was twitching. He stared at Varhs with narrowed eyes and pursed lips. His face was growing redder by the second.
Before Red Dog could say anything, Saeter turned stiffly around and immediately began walking away. He clearly had decided he had somewhere else to be. After a few seconds, Blacknail followed him.
There was a goblin running around his camp! This was his territory. Varhs should have asked him before bringing in a goblin. He would have to show both the goblin and Varhs who was in charge later!
Right now though, sleeping sounded like a good plan. He had been walking a lot lately.
The tired Saeter and Blacknail immediately headed back to their campsite. Blacknail was already scheming about how to capture the other goblin and make sure it knew whose territory this was. When they got to their campsite they were surprised to see a second tent set up beside Saeter’s. Blacknail had yet to unpack the one he had won from the deserters.
“Oh hey, you’re back,” a cheerful voice called out to them.
Both the old scout and the hobgoblin looked over to see Khita approaching them.
“Whose tent is that?’ Saeter asked her suspiciously.
“It’s mine. Vorscha said she wanted some privacy with Geralhd, so she got me a tent of my own and told me to set it up here,” Khita replied happily.
Saeter groaned, and Blacknail hissed. Yes, when he woke tomorrow up he would definitely have to do something about all the annoying little things running around the camp.