Blacknail leaned forward and studied the vials of Elixir that Avorlus was holding. “Imp made those?”
“Yes, I supervised the work, but his hands are indeed the ones that crafted them,” Avorlus answered.
“And I won’t die if I drink them?” The Elixir looked the same as the stuff Blacknail usually drank, but that didn’t mean much.
“You’ll be fine. These are completely indistinguishable from what you’ve used before.”
With a reluctant sigh, Blacknail reached out and took the vials. He was going to have to trust Imp eventually if he wanted to keep getting Elixir. As Blacknail was tucking the vials into one of his pockets, the mage coughed to clear his throat.
“I’d just like to remind you that you don’t necessarily need to drink all the Elixir yourself,” Avorlus pointed out. “You could give it to another hobgoblin in order to empower a new Vessel.”
That hadn’t occurred to Blacknail. “Don’t most people who take Elixir die?”
“Usually that is the case. It is a necessary sacrifice. Although, it’s hard to tell if the same rules would apply for this particular recipe – since it hasn’t been tested at all – and for hobgoblins as a species,” Avorlus explained as he grinned hungrily. “I have no real experience dealing with the empowerment of inhuman beings. That’s why I would like to run some experiments, to clarify things. Understanding this will undoubtedly prove important to your future plans.”
Blacknail eyed the bearded mage. That sounded like a terrible idea. He really didn’t want more hobgoblin Vessels running around. They would be a threat. The only hobgoblin he would even consider giving Elixir to was Gob. Being a Vessel would probably help Gob keep the others in line, but it wasn’t worth the risk of losing him.
“No, my trustworthy minions are too valuable to lose,” he told the mage.
Avorlus nodded. He seemed to understand the unsaid implications. “What if we kept our experiments to goblins?”
Feeling conflicted, Blacknail frowned. “Fine, I guess.”
“Good. Thank you. Nothing of value was ever produced without equal sacrifice. I’m also working on some other projects that I will share with you soon,” Avorlus replied.
Blacknail turned to Imp. “Do you have any new magics?”
Imp looked thoughtful and then wandered over to pick up a staff that was leaning against the wall. “I’ve discovered a few new types of explosions, but mostly Avorlus has been helping me clean up my magic and use my new staff. I can use it to shoot fire now, like the human mages do.”
“Very nice, but what do you mean clean up your magic?” Blacknail remarked in confusion.
Avorlus coughed and interjected himself into the conversation. “Imp’s process was effective in so far as it could produce mana crystals, but it created too many flaws and needed refining. Clay pots are not a good container to grow crystals in. They contaminate their contents. When doing any sort of mana engineering clean tools made from glass or metal are far safer to work with.”
“We need more glass, though,” Imp added. “I only have a few pieces I took from Mahedium.”
Avorlus’ eyes narrowed angrily at the mention of the other mage’s name. “Yes, we need much better working conditions than this. Access to glassblowers and craftsmen not available here or Shelter is paramount.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Blacknail told them.
The hobgoblin chieftain then turned to the woman who was still sitting at the table in the far corner of the room. She had been trying to look inconspicuous but hadn’t been able to conceal the hateful glances she kept sneaking at him. Her posture went stiff as Blacknail walked over to her side.
“And what is it that you want?” Blacknail asked as he leered down at her.
The woman’s behavior amused him. Her intense fear was matched only by her hate, Blacknail could smell the power of her emotions, but she kept both under control and had managed to survive this long after being made a prisoner. The captive mage turned to look at Blacknail. She was a tall woman with a stern looking face and short messy blonde hair. Being a captive hadn’t allowed her to do much in the way of hair care.
“I simply want to survive,” the woman replied as neutrally as possible.
“That would make you unique among humans, I think. You creatures always want more than that. You can’t help yourselves.”
“We’re the creatures?” she hissed indignantly.
Blacknail chuckled. “Aren’t we all creatures? Also, that was a stupid thing for someone who just wants to survive to say.”
The woman grimaced and bit her tongue to hold back another angry retort before replying. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? Stop lying and tell me what you want. If you could ask me for anything, what would it be?”
“I’d like to be escorted safely back to human lands,” she quickly replied.
“Do you think you deserve such a reward? You came here to kill, and you lost a fair battle. You also have all my mages’ secrets and our location in your head. I know you have been watching and learning. That wasn’t very smart for a survivor,” Blacknail replied smugly.
“Why are you tormenting me?” she growled.
Blacknail grinned back. “I like to get to know my prey, to get in their heads and taste their insides.”
The woman held his gaze, so the hobgoblin just nodded and walked away. He was done with her for now, and she wasn’t going anywhere. He could enjoy her company later. Imp and Avorlus had nothing more to say to him either, but almost as soon as he had walked outside, another hobgoblin appeared. It was Ferrar.
“What do you want?” Blacknail asked as the hobgoblin hurried over.
“More fire,” Ferrar immediately replied. “Nice hat by the way, boss.”
Blacknail grinned. “Thanks.” No one else had said anything about his nice new purple hat. He had been wearing it all day, and he was glad someone had finally noticed how dashing it looked on his head.
“I don’t think I can give you more fire,” Blacknail remarked. Ferrar already had a lot. Way more than was probably useful, or even remotely safe.
“I can make my own fire,” Ferrar clarified. “I just need iron. There is lots around, but I don’t know how to use it. I talked to the people in Shelter, but the advice they gave me was bad. You’re supposed to be able to melt the rocks in a furnace, but what they told me was too vague. I’ve already lost two helpers.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for you,” Blacknail replied. He was feeling generous since Ferrar had complimented his hat.
“I want to go on your expedition.”
“You’re looking for humans and so am I.”
“That makes sense,” Blacknail replied as he dismissed Ferar and began to walk over to his cave. He was tired and wanted to nap now.
He’d had a long day, and was looking forward to getting off his feet. He suspected that the longer he stayed awake the more problems and requests his minions would dump on him, and Blacknail didn’t want to deal with that. He was the leader. His minions were supposed to do stuff for him, not the other way around. Circling around to avoid anyone looking for him, Blacknail reached his cave. He pushed the deer hide that was hanging over the door aside, and then entered. Almost as soon as he’d curled up under his blankets, he fell asleep.
When he awoke and stepped outside, it was early the next morning. The glowing red sun was just peeking up over the forested hills in the distance. There were also several goblins and hobgoblins outside, waiting for him. They were leaning or sitting on rocks, and they immediately jumped to attention as soon as they noticed their chieftain. Herah was among them.
“What are you doing here? It’s not to ask me for things, is it?” Blacknail told them sourly. He’d just woken up and was in no mood to help people out. They could solve their own problems.
A hobgoblin Blacknail had never seen before quickly hurried over. “No, highest of hobs. I’m here to give you a wonderful gift!”
“Really?” Blacknail asked skeptically. That didn’t seem likely.
“Yes, I have to come to offer my chieftain, that’s you, tribute.”
Oh, right. That was a thing goblins did. It had been a while since any of his minions had done this, since he had been travelling so much, but goblins needed to suck up to their boss and gain special treatment from him – or just avoid being killed randomly – somehow.
As Blacknail watched, the hobgoblin in front of him raised a clay bowl. Blacknail took it and looked it over. It was quite well made, and an impressive piece of work for a hobgoblin. Perfectly round, the bowl had a smooth exterior decorated by crudely drawn stick figures. The figure with the crown who was hitting everyone else with a stick was probably supposed to be him. Although it was crude compared to a lot of his loot, Blacknail found himself liking the bowl, especially since he didn’t have many bowls right now. It was almost like someone had snuck into his cave while he had been gone and studied everything he owned so they knew what to get him.
“I like it. Your bribe is accepted,” Blacknail told him. The hobgoblin then stepped aside and the next claimant hurried over.
“I bring you the finest hide in the camp!” the hobgoblin announced as he presented the item. Blacknail nodded and took it. You could never have enough blankets.
When it was Herah’s turn, she shuffled over nervously and held up a white silk shirt. It had long sleeves and fancy lace around the collar and the end of the sleeves. The shirt was remarkably clean for something that had probably been handled by hobgoblins for days or weeks, and it was nicer looking than anything Blacknail owned. Instantly, a picture of what he would like with the shirt on appeared in Blacknail’s head. It would go nice with his purple hat, but he was going to need shinier pants.
“Where did you get this?” Blacknail inquired. He hadn’t seen anything like it around.
“Another hobgoblin had it. He got it after the battle, but he didn’t wear it because it was damaged. After I hit him a few times he gave it to me. Khita showed me how to clean and repair it, so I made a bunch of goblins do that for me.”
“That makes sense,” Blacknail admitted.
“Do you accept my gift?” Herah asked in a pleading tone. Her eyes shone with hope as she looked up at Blacknail.
“Yes, I do,” Blacknail answered as he carefully reached over to take the shirt.
“Yeah!” Herah shouted as she bounced happily. “Do I get a hug now?”
“No hugs,” Blacknail replied firmly.
“I’ll bring you more fancy clothes,” Herah offered.
Blacknail scowled. “Fine, one small hug.”
Immediately, Herah lunged forward and wrapped her arms around Blacknail. He grit his teeth as she squeezed him tight. Although, she had a flat chest compared to human, Blacknail clearly felt her breasts press against him. It was uncomfortable in an awkwardly exciting way. Several seconds passed, and Herah gave no sign of ever letting go, so Blacknail squirmed to escape, and once he was loose he pushed her back.
“The hug is over,” he told her after taking a deep breath.
Herah didn’t seem disappointed. “Yeah! Khita’s advice worked. I wanted to bring you skulls, but she said that would be a bad idea, so I brought you clothes instead.”
Blacknail frowned. It sounded suspiciously like Herah and Khita were still conspiring against him, in their own stupid way. Normally, he strongly discouraged such behavior, but they were probably harmless, except to themselves, and he was getting gifts out of it, so he would continue to ignore them.
With Herah out of the way, the next few supplicants approached. They were mostly hobgoblins, although there were a few older and smarter goblins among them. His minions gave Blacknail a varied pile of gifts. The highlights included some spiced jerky that tasted much better than anything else cooked by a hobgoblin that Blacknail had ever had, and some stone arrow heads. They were inferior to human made ones, but the tribe was running low on metal arrowheads, so Blacknail was glad someone was making stone ones for hunting. Among the supplicants was another female hobgoblin. She eyed Blacknail, but didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Still, her sex caught Blacknail’s attention. Why were almost all hobgoblins male? He had no idea.
When everyone was done offering up their tribute to their grand and majestic leader, Blacknail made a brief speech about what he wanted from his minions in the future.
“More cheese and better cooking,” Blacknail explained. “Don’t steal it from Shelter, but any hobgoblin that brings me lots of cheese will become my new favorite. It’s a shame we can’t make it ourselves.”
When he was done speaking, Blacknail dismissed everyone. A small group of hobgoblins were talking animatedly amongst themselves about some sort of hunt as they left. Blacknail watched them go and then began to plan out the rest of his day. It would probably be a good idea to have a meeting between all his allies and minions. There were a lot of things that needed planned out, and if he held a meeting, other people would probably do all that work for him. To get things rolling, Blacknail went to find Gob. He had the other hobgoblin send out messengers to both Ilisti and Shelter. While he waited for everyone to gather, Blacknail went to the training grounds. It had been too long since he’d sparred with other hobgoblins. Undoubtedly, there were some new minions that needed his training and could use his help to achieve self-discipline and their full potential. Also, beating up other hobgoblins never failed to make him feel better about himself.
A few hours passed by fairly quickly as Blacknail exerted himself, and soon it was time for the meeting he had set up. He had chosen to have it during lunch, because he found both humans and hobgoblins to be more agreeable when they had a stomach full of someone else’s food.
Throwing on his best cloak and new shirt, Blacknail met up with Gob and headed to the meeting place, a campsite just outside of the settlement. Along the way, Ferrar and Imp joined them. A fire was already burning when they arrived, and goblins were piling up firewood beside it, as a pair of hobgoblins were finishing the setup of a large hide tarp, for shade. Dozens of chairs littered the ground around the fire, although they were all mismatched. Most of them were just carved stumps, although a few were obviously items from Shelter that had somehow been misplaced.
As goblins went to fetch the food and drink, Blacknail took the best chair for himself and sat down to wait for the other to arrive. Unsurprisingly, Ilisiti was the first to show up, since he had such a short distance to travel. He arrived with Garen and several other armsmen, although they weren’t armed, except for side-swords. The vympir greeted Blacknail and then sat down. Both Garen and him looked eager to get going. It took a few minutes for the people from Shelter to arrive, but when they did there were more of them than Blacknail had been expecting. Not only were Khita and Avorlus there, but Geralhd and Beardy as well, and they had brought along almost all the survivors of Herad’s band. Blacknail looked behind Khita, and saw several people from Shelter. What were they doing here? He hadn’t really wanted the people of Shelter to know about Ilisti and his men, but they seemed to already be informed about the westerners, since none of them looked surprised to see them.
Once everyone had taken a seat, Blacknail had some of his minions distribute lunch. This would buy him some time to study the attendees. Spit-roasted venison was served with squirrel and mixed root stew, that Blacknail was pretty sure wouldn’t poison anyone too badly. A lot of the humans reacted differently to being served food by polite hobgoblins. Some stared at it suspiciously, but then began eating alongside everyone else. Others chuckled or laughed, and some seemed completely indifferent. However, before long everyone began to relax. Blacknail smirked as he watched. Humans were clay in his hands. Ready to be molded… into bowls… or something. Whatever.
Geralhd was one of the first people to finish, and he quickly scooted over to Blacknail’s side. “What is going here? Why have you brought these people here? I thought we were hiding.”
Blacknail sighed and turned to face him. “It just sort of happened. They are really nice once you get to know them.”
Geralhd looked skeptical, so Blacknail went into greater detail. He explained to Geralhd that Ilisti was a useful ally against Werrick, and that he just wanted a place to hide out, where he could help people in need. As they spoke, other people finished eating.
“Why did Khita bring those people from Shelter?” Blacknail asked.
It was Geralhd’s turn to sigh in exasperation. “Khita has some idea in her foolish head about building her own crew. She’s managed to convince a few of the old band and some of the younger villagers that you have some sort of scheme to rule the world, and that they should get in on it by joining her.”
Blacknail turned to look at the redhead in question. She was talking to Avorlus about something and she was obviously excited, almost maniacal. The bearded mage reached into his coat and pulled out a vial.
“Yes, I actually have that Elixir on me, since I was going to show it to Blacknail. I was using it to test out some of the equipment I am forced to use here,” Avorlus told her. “It’s not a particular stable mixture, though.”
Reacting quickly, Khita grabbed the vial from him and jumped back. People looked over in concern as she jumped up on log bench, and Blacknail groaned. Before he could get up and confront the stupid thief, she downed the contents of the vial. Then, with a dumb grin on her face, Khita laughed loudly at everyone around her.
“Other people may be afraid of death, but not me!” Khita told a surprised crowd. “Herad’s Elixir won’t kill me. It will just make me stronger than ever before. I will inherit her will, and I’d rather be dead than stay the way I am anyway. I’m going to be great! I will take what I want from this world or I will die spectacularly!”
The redhead grinned madly at everyone for a few seconds, and then collapsed. Her head hit the bench with a loud crack as she fell to the ground. Blacknail frowned as he stared at her unmoving body. She was sprawled out on the dirt, and she didn’t appear to be breathing. Well, at least no one would be able to blame him for her death now.