It only took Saeter a few minutes to round up his pick of the men. None of them looked thrilled at being selected, although one or two agreed that it was necessary.
All the men Saeter picked were among the most experienced of the bandits and were familiar with the forest, except for Mahedium. The mage made his objections to joining the hunt clear but in the end he had no choice. Mage or not, he was still not even a proper member of the band.
Before Red Dogs’s group had gotten moving again, Saeter led his party after the troll. It wasn’t difficult to spot its trail. The troll had simply torn through the forest at full speed while carrying a human body. Branches had been snapped, the earth was torn up, and blood littered the ground.
Saeter led the way. He didn’t even have to stop and look for signs. He just had to follow the trail of destruction the troll had blazed. It was obvious to everyone which way to go.
Blacknail followed his master and scanned the surroundings for danger. Saeter seemed sure that the troll was long gone, but that didn’t mean the forest was safe.
Blacknail thought chasing a troll through the woods was an incredibly stupid idea even without considering what would happen when you actually caught it.
The easy to follow path soon ended when the party came across a wide creek that meandered through the woods. Cold water raced and bubbled over a stone filled streambed that was wider than a man was tall. Its banks were rocky and mostly clear of plants except for the occasional scraggly sapling or patch of grass. The beast’s trail stopped abruptly at the water’s edge.
Blacknail walked across the creek and sniffed the ground. He felt a nervous shiver work its way up his spine when he failed to pick up the troll’s trail again on the other side. The idea that the troll was both smart enough to lose him and could be anywhere now made him nervous. He looked up and scanned the forest for any signs of it.
The trees here were mostly tall evergreens with long needles instead of leaves. Close to the ground their smooth white trunks were mostly bereft of anything but the remains of broken dead branches. Higher up the tops of the trees were green and healthy looking, though.
The ground was rocky enough that in some areas the trees were forced to grow fairly far apart. These spaces were filled by sparse stretches of moss and a layer of fallen brown pine needles. There was no sign of the troll, and not a lot of places for something so big to hide.
Saeter’s boots got wet as he splashed across the creek after Blacknail. He examined the forest for a few seconds before saying anything.
“Let me guess, you’ve lost the trail?” he asked Blacknail.
“Yes-ss, it’s gone,” Blacknail answered with a frown.
Saeter didn’t seem surprised.
“It used the water to hide its scent, and it will be moving more carefully now. It’s probably more worried about another predator stealing its meal than us catching up with it, but the result’s the same,” the old scout explained.
“What do we do now?” Blacknail asked his master. He hoped this meant they would turn around and go home now, but deep down he knew better.
“We split into two groups. One goes upstream and the other down. It can’t have gone too far. A whistle should do as signal,” Saeter replied.
He then turned and cast a skeptical gaze over the other bandits who were loitering at the stream’s far bank.
“I’ll take upstream. Georgius, take some men downstream. Blacknail will go with you,” Saeter told everyone after a brief pause to think.
Georgius gave Saeter a mildly annoyed look. He was an average sized bandit with short blonde hair, and a jagged scar that stretched back from one corner of his mouth. It looked as if someone had shoved a knife in his mouth and tried to slice his cheek in half. The long scar made it seem like one side of his face was always frowning.
“Alright, whatever Saeter,” he replied. It was clear he was insulted by Saeter’s obvious lack of faith in his tracking ability.
Saeter split the group, and Blacknail followed Georgius as they headed downstream in the opposite direction as Saeter. Mahedium stuck with the old scout. The mage was clearly nervous to be out in the forest, and he kept throwing nervous glances at the forest around him.
Most the bandits walked on one side of the creek or the other. However, Blacknail had taken off his boots and kept walking through the water barefoot so that he could sniff both sides.
The cool water felt refreshing on the hobgoblin’s feet as it flowed over his skin. The stones and pebbles at the bottom of the creek were smooth enough that they didn’t poke his soles when he stepped on them.
Even though the water was very shallow except for the occasional eddy dug pool, Blacknail kept an eye out for snapping turtles. He hadn’t forgotten that lesson.
As long as he kept an eye out for the snappers, Blacknail thought the creek was probably a safer place to be than walking along the bank. If someone was going to stumble into a mimic or spider it wasn’t going to be him.
Of course, it was always possible that Saeter had simply forgotten to tell him about some sort of terrifying beast that lived in streams. That would be just like him.
Georgius seemed to be doing a good job searching for signs of the troll to Blacknail. He didn’t know why Saeter had doubted the man’s ability to track. Then again, Blacknail knew he was far from an expert on tracking by sight.
The hobgoblin hadn’t caught the scent of the troll or human blood yet. However, he had come across quite a few other interesting scents. He had smelled deer, rabbits, harpies, and some other things he couldn’t identify. They must have all come to the creek to get a drink.
Blacknail was just about to cross the stream again when he heard a whistle. He looked up but none of the humans seemed to have heard anything. They continued to follow the creek downstream while checking the bush for signs of the troll.
“Georgius, I heard-ss the whistle,” Blacknail yelled to the man.
Georgius turned to look at Blacknail and then back up the stream. He frowned and seemed to think things over for a second.
“Right, you have those long pointy goblin ears. Let’s get back then. It seems like we’ve gone the wrong way,” he replied.
He then called the other men over and they headed back. After a brief trek upstream they found Saeter standing in the forest a few feet from the water. The rest of the bandits were resting around him.
“Took you long enough. While you were off taking a stroll I found the troll’s trail,” Saeter remarked.
“I figured that,” Georgius replied dryly.
“Come on let’s get going. I don’t want to be hunting this thing in the dark,” Saeter told them.
“I don’t want to hunt-ss it at all,” Blacknail muttered to himself.
He then walked up to where his master was standing and sniffed the ground. Sure enough, he could smell the troll. This was definitely where it had left the water. The hobgoblin didn’t see a single visual sign though. He had no idea how Saeter had found it and before he could ask the gray haired man was forging ahead.
The troll had headed through the trees and uphill. Pines and a scattering of other scraggly trees grew from a rocky upward slope. Large stones jutted out from the sides of the nearby hills, like cold grey bones from torn flesh.
The way was steep and difficult because the rocky ground made for treacherous footing. It came loose and crumbled out from under the bandits’ feet as they tried to make their way up.
Soon, the climb began to take a toll on everyone, and they started to grow tired. Blacknail was the best off. His light lanky build made the journey easier for him.
Saeter called for a stop when everyone started to show signs of exhaustion. The heavy wheezing filled the air as all the nearby bandits tried to suck down as much air as possible. As they had made their way up the hill the trees had grown thinner and thinner, until mostly only bushes remained.
From where he had stopped to rest and sit on a rock, Blacknail suddenly heard movement from up above. He hissed in alarm and leapt to his feet. An image of a ferocious bloody clawed troll jumping down on him from above popped into the hobgoblin’s mind. It would massacre them all in seconds!
A small shower of rocks rained down on him from the ledge above as he moved. They banged loudly against each other and threw up dust as they fell. As Blacknail jumped aside to avoid them he got a better look at the ledge they had fallen from.
He felt a stab of fear in his chest when he noticed a creature staring down at him from there. Two large dangerous looking curled horns rose from its head and curled back behind its ears. Its body was covered in gray hair and it gazed at the bandits below with narrowed malevolent eyes. It even had a beardlike tuft of hair growing from its chin.
“Baaaah,” it growled angrily at the hobgoblin as it reared up onto its back legs in challenge.
Clearly, the savage beast was hungry for human, and goblin, flesh.
It had four hooves like a horse but didn’t look quite as stupid, evil, and twisted. Blacknail slowly reached for his blade and began to slide it free from its sheath. He intended to strike first and kill it before it could attack them, but Saeter walked up and placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
“It’s a wild goat, Blacknail. Relax, if you leave it alone it will leave you alone,” Saeter said with a hint of amusement in his voice.
Blacknail let his sword slide back into his sheath, but he kept his eyes on the beast. It stared back and their gazes met. Blacknail hissed and the goat let out another challenging growl of its own.
Then, with what Blacknail would swear was a condescending look, the goat turned and bounded higher up the hill. Its hooves kicked up more rocks and sent them raining down over the bandits as it jumped. Two smaller goats then burst from the bushes nearby and joined the larger one, before they all disappeared up the hill together.
“That’s good luck,” one of the bandits commented. “Rock goats and trolls are supposed to be enemies. Seeing them on a troll hunt is a sign of a god’s blessing.”
There were nods of agreement from most the other men. Personally, Blacknail doubted any god or spirit would bless someone by sending them an angry goat.
“Alright, enough lazing about. Time to get back to it,” Saeter called out a few minutes later.
There were quite a few grunts and sighs as the bandits got back to their feet and continued on up the hill.
The ground began to level out, and a few more ever green trees appeared. Saeter held up a hand to signal a stop. Up ahead, past a grove of trees, a large pile of boulders and rocks rose from the ground. Blacknail noticed a large dark crevice on one side of it. Behind the rocks the forest continued.
“I’m willing to bet good gold that’s where our troll’s lair is. The question is whether it’s in there right now,” Saeter whispered.
“There’s only one real way to find out, but before we go in there I’d like to at least have a plan with a half decent chance of working,” Georgius remarked.
“Fair enough,” Saeter answered.
He put his knapsack down on a log and removed several long lengths of cord from it. Then, he reached back into the bag and pulled out a bunch of wicked looking barbed steel arrows.
“We’ll go in all together. Mage boy here will be in the back. He’ll be lighting our way and when we see the troll he’ll turn the light up as high as possible and blind it. With our backs to him and with our eyes more used to the light we should be able to see fine. While the beast’s blinded our best archers will shoot it with these arrows,” Saeter told everyone.
Georgius have him a skeptical look. He didn’t seem impressed by the plan, and Blacknail agreed with him. This strategy didn’t seem troll proof enough.
“Trolls have hides tougher than good leather and their wounds don’t bleed properly, so they’re hard to put down. Arrows, even barbed ones, won’t do much,” Georgius remarked.
“True, but they don’t have to. The arrows will be tied by long ropes to climbing hooks. While the troll’s still distracted, another few men will find places in the cave to attach them. That’ll lock it down and prevent it from attacking us. Then when it’s all tied up we’ll go in for the kill,” Saeter explained.
“That sounds complicated and dangerous to me. What if the troll doesn’t do what you think it will?” someone replied uncertainly.
“Do you have a better plan?” Saeter asked harshly. “No? Then let’s get going.”
Saeter handed out the equipment, and once they had it all prepared they headed over to the cave.
“Remind me to train you with a bow sometime,” Saeter told Blacknail as they moved.
All the bandits, except for Saeter, looked nervous. Their skin had gone pale and Blacknail could tell they had started to sweat more by their scent. Every one of them had also drawn their weapons.
As they approached the dark mouth of the cave, Blacknail’s sense of smell was overwhelmed by the foul stench of rotten meat and troll body odor. It seeped from the cave so thickly Blacknail almost thought he could taste it with his skin.
He gagged, and he was quickly joined by several humans. One of them even vomited as he approached the cave mouth, and that did nothing to improve the smell.
Suddenly, the area grew brighter and the first few steps of the cave were stripped of shadows. Mahedium had activated his staff and it blazed bright with pure white light.
No one entered the cave. Blacknail threw a questioning look at the man next to him.
“You first,” the man whispered.
“No, you,” Blacknail hissed back.
One of his companions pushed the man forward. He took a stumbling step but then turned and glared at the other man without going further. Georgius sighed and stepped forward.
“Let’s get going,” he told the reluctant man in front as he poked him with his blade.
Together, the two of them took the first few steps into the cave mouth. A few seconds later, when neither of them was ripped apart, the other bandits and Blacknail followed them in.
A long rough gray rock corridor extended before them and curved out of sight a few dozen feet away. Rows of short stalagmites hung from the ceiling. The dirt floor was littered with bones and jagged rocks, but none of the rocks were nearly big enough for a troll to hide behind. It wasn’t there. Everyone let out a collective sigh of relief.
“It must be deeper in. Let’s go,” Saeter whispered.
The bandits began to slowly and reluctantly move forward. Maybe it was just the heat and vile stench but the cave felt humid and wet to Blacknail. He began to grow itchy, but he didn’t dare scratch himself. That would require use of one of his hands, and for him to lower his guard.
As they moved deeper underground, the air grew warmer and the troll’s kills fresher. Blood and gobs of flesh started to appear on the remains scattered all over the floor. Blacknail and the others had to go out of their way not to step on them. It was an unpleasant distraction from the hobgoblin’s focus on not getting killed and eaten.
Up ahead, on a small ledge against one wall, a large mound of dark wet earth was piled. A small forest of mushrooms grew atop of it. Crawling between the stems and colorful mushroom caps were the shiny forms of harvesters. They were apparently more common out here in the wild than in the sewers, where men trained goblins to remove them.
The mage’s radiant staff almost caused them to glow as their carapaces split the light and reflected it back in a rainbow of colors. The mouse sized bugs were busy carrying dirt and other less pleasant things around. Every once awhile one would appear from, or disappear into, small holes in the wall.
As they advanced through the twisted rock tunnel the hobgoblin saw several other harvester farms where the bugs were growing their mushrooms. They seemed to be thriving in the troll’s lair where there was abundant food and the beast scared other animals away.
Blacknail’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a loud sinister growl that echoed through the cave. The walls of the cavern almost seemed to vibrate as the sound washed over them. The man beside Blacknail stiffened in fear. The hobgoblin himself jumped as he felt a hand against his back.
He risked a quick look back to see that it was Saeter’s. His master was giving him a disapproving look, and Blacknail realized he had been unconsciously backing up. The hobgoblin gave his master a nervous smile then sighed and took a few, very small, steps forward.
The previous growl from deeper in the cave was joined by a deep thundering roar. Blacknail hissed in pain as the loud noise stung his ears. Then, an explosion of footsteps was heard from around the corner as the troll charged into view, and right at the bandits.
The charging massive beast’s eyes blazed with hate and mindless hunger, as it regarded the small weak creatures that had dared intrude upon its home. It opened its mouth to reveal jagged yellow teeth and the full length of its humongous fangs. Its dripping jaws seemed to grow ever larger and fill Blacknail’s vision, as the green juggernaut descended upon them.