There was a moment of hushed silence as everyone stared in disbelief at Khita’s unconscious form. It was as if no one could quite believe it was possible for anyone to be so dumb. As a student of human behavior, Blacknail knew better. He had been around humans – and Khita in particular – too long to ever be surprised by any new height of stupidity they achieved.
“Is she dead?” Garen asked from where he was sitting next to Ilisti. He sounded almost hopeful that she would be.
Instead of replying, Avorlus sighed and walked over to Khita’s prone form. Moving stiffly, he crouched down and studied her for a second. He then pulled another vial out of a pocket and held it under her nose. Immediately, Khita spasmed and let out a wheezing cough. When he withdrew the vial, she settled down again without opening her eyes.
Seeing this, Avorlus nodded to himself and stood up. “The young lady is still alive, despite her seeming complete lack of a survival instinct. However, she will be unconscious for a while and might die over the next few days as the Elixir works its way into her body. If she wakes up and is lucid then she will probably be fine.”
Looking distressed, Geralhd joined the mage. “What are her odds, and is there anything we can do to help?”
“I will do what I can. Keeping her hydrated and warm will help, but at this point she has already ingested the Elixir. Ultimately, her survival is out of my hands. Either her body will accept the power, or it will consume her from within.”
As everyone began talking to themselves or went back to eating, a bandit produced a blanket from somewhere and helped Geralhd wrap Khita in it. She was then carried over to a spot near the fire. Several of the people who had come to the meeting with the redhead went over to her side to check on her, but most of them looked embarrassed about being seen near her after her dramatic stunt. The exception was a blonde young man from Shelter that Blacknail recognized. He had a concerned and fretful look on his face as he stared down at Khita. He seemed barely aware of the other people present unless they bumped into him. Was his name Hassiol? He’d been one of the hostages they had taken to get into Shelter the first time.
Seeing that everyone was distracted, Blacknail scooted over to where Ilisti was sitting and leaned over to whisper in his ear.
“See those people from Shelter over there? I think they might like to know about our friendly scouting mission to see if Herstcrest is still around and to help them if they need it,” Blacknail told the vympir. He ended his speech with a meaningful wink, in case the vympir didn’t get it.
An amused looked appeared on Ilisti’s face and he nodded in agreement. “Ah, I can see why you might be concerned. Rest assured, I will inform these good people of our charitable mission.”
His objective complete, Blacknail smiled to himself and sat back down in his seat. He was just in time to overhear a bit of conversation between Gob and Geralhd.
The merchant’s son turned bandit sounded apologetic. “How have things been going here? It has been a while since my last visit, but I’m impressed by everything you’ve accomplished. I meant to stop in more and study what you’ve been doing, but getting here through the Green is difficult.”
“I just did as I was told by the boss,” Gob replied with an indifferent shrug.
“Ya, he’s one of my best minions,” Blacknail added as he walked over to join the conversation.
Geralhd smiled at Backnail and waved a hand toward the goblin settlement. “I never imagined that goblins could build such a large community. Even back before humanity’s conquests I don’t think you built villages like this. It’s huge.”
Blacknail grinned proudly. “I’m not a simple hobgoblin. I’m Blacknail, the wise and terrible! There has never been anyone like me.”
“True,” Geralhd agreed as he carefully studied Blacknail for a moment. It looked like a thought had popped into his head. “You’ve certainly learned a lot from Saeter and others, such as me. The ancient hobgoblins didn’t have that advantage.”
“Plus, I’m way tougher than they were.” Being the strongest was important if you wanted to keep others in line.
“That probably doesn’t hurt, although I think your intelligence and restraint explains your success much better. Merely being strong isn’t enough, as all the old philosophers explained at length,” Geralhd replied. “One of the most astounding features of the hobgoblins here is their self-control and ability to coexist so close to humans. I’ve tried to serve as an ambassador of sorts between the two settlements, but there hasn’t really been all that much friction to begin with.”
Gob nodded. “Hobgoblins are only allowed to visit Shelter if they are with me or the boss, and I only go there to trade. We have things they want and they have things we want.”
“Yes, your trading missions have done a lot to familiarize the people of Shelter to the presence of hobgoblins,” Geralhd observed before turning back to Blacknail. “Now that you’re here, there was one thing that I’m curious about. Does your village have a name?”
“A name? No.” Blacknail grunted in surprise. He had never thought about it. The place was simply his.
“You should think about naming it then,” Geralhd told him. “It’s an incredibly fascinating place. It’s history in the making, and I can’t wait to see how far goblins can develop their society.”
“Bloody terrifying is what it is,” Beardy the bandit huffed as he joined the conversation. “Getting all happy about the green savages learning to copy people and organize themselves is crazy. They were dangerous to begin with. Now they’re terrifying.”
“Hobgoblins are mostly just misunderstood,” Geralhd countered.
“No, that’s not true at all, you bookish fool. Live in the real world for once. It has always been obvious exactly what hobgoblins were, savage killers. It’s only now that Saeter’s experiment here is around that they are beginning to change,” Beardy replied as he nodded at Blacknail. “He’s got them under his thumb, and is making them dance to his tune. Now who knows what is going to happen. The only thing that is guaranteed is that a whole bunch of people are going to die!”
Blacknail didn’t think Beardy was wrong, but he was leaving an important bit out. “Humans are always dying anyway, and with me around you are less likely to be one of those doing the dying.”
“Ha, that’s the only reason I’ve stuck around so far. Don’t think I’m not on to you, hobgoblin. I know you’ve been messing around and manipulating us ever since Herad’s fall.”
Blacknail put on his best startled yet innocent expression. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know,” Beardy replied as he gave Blacknail a steady glare. “Our trip to Daggerpoint smelled fishier than a beached sea serpent, especially the way you hurried us into leaving. Plus, your explanation for bringing these westerners here doesn’t hold oil.”
“I think you’re being a little paranoid. I don’t believe that Blacknail is the type to weave grand conspiracies, do you?” Geralhd laughed dismissively. His naivety was adorable.
“We’ll see,” Beardy huffed before turning and walking away. Blacknail let him go and grinned to himself. It was far too late for Beardy to do anything about the plan. Everything was already in motion.
After talking to Gerlahd for a few more minutes, someone coughed politely behind Blacknail to get his attention. He turned around to see Garen, who nodded toward where Ilisti was standing next to the fire. Someone had carted Khita away while he hadn’t been paying attention, but that wasn’t important.
“My lord wishes to speak to you,” Garen explained.
“Alright,” Blacknail replied as he began walking over to the other vympir. Geralhd followed after him.
“I believe we need to plan out our immediate goals. You told me you wanted to find a village out in the Green,” Ilisti said as Blacknail approached.
The other nearby conversations died down as everyone else present listened in. They were all curious about Ilisti and his men, but most people hadn’t dared approach them.
“Yes, Herstcrest. I wanted to um… see if they had anything worth trading for, like steel. There have also been reports from my minions about strange hobgoblins in that area, so I want to check it out. If any of these other hobgoblins do anything bad, I don’t want to be blamed for it.”
Ilisti nodded and met Blacknail’s eyes. It was clear he wanted a commitment from Blacknail. “When were you thinking of leaving? It sounds like this town might be in quite a lot of trouble, with so many hobgoblins around, and could use our help as soon as possible.”
Blacknail scratched his chin. “In three days? We could all use some time to rest before heading back out into the Green.”
Ilsiti took a second to respond. “That seems like it could work. I’ll prepare my men to move out that morning.”
After carefully saying absolutely nothing that made it sound like that they were looking to go conquer one of Shelter’s neighbors, Blacknail and Ilisti separated. Around them, the other people present began talking and eating again. Blacknail sat down and Geralhd joined him.
“This stew is quite nice,” Geralhd observed as he finished off another bowl. “What’s in it?”
“Uh, it’s a secret recipe,” Blacknail replied absentmindedly as he stared into the fire. For some reason humans didn’t like eating squirrels, even though the were both nutritious and delicious.
“Are you sure we can trust this Ilisti fellow? Something about him bothers me. He’s obviously a noble in exile, so why is he here?”
“I told you, he is hiding from Werrick, like us. They are enemies,” Blacknail told him.
It took a little more convincing, but Geralhd eventually settled back down. He appeared to buy Blacknail’s explanation, although reluctantly. By that time the meeting was basically over. Everyone had separated and sorted themselves back into the groups they had arrived in, so Blacknail told everyone they could leave. As they left, he finished off the last of the stew in the pot. There was no more venison left.
Blacknail spent the next two and a half days lounging around the hobgoblin settlement. When he wasn’t eating or sleeping, he did random inspections of the camp. Blacknail wanted to make sure no one was slacking off. He had no idea what any of the occupants of the settlement were supposed to be doing, or what the purpose of the settlement even was at this point – he already had enough hobgoblin minions – but regardless, he wasn’t going let any stupid goblins get away with not pulling their own weight. Everything in the settlement belonged to him, including all the food, and he wasn’t giving it out for free.
While he fulfilled his duties as the leader, Blacknail considered several important questions. Firstly, Geralhd had made a good point about naming the settlement, but nothing good was coming to mind. Naming it after himself was the obvious answer, however that would probably confuse the stupider half of his minions. Secondly, Blacknail wasn’t sure he wanted the place to keep growing the way it was. He hadn’t planned for that, and he was worried about the settlement collapsing into chaos after getting too large. How many hobgoblins could you shove into one small valley before they began slaughtering everything in sight? Probably not that many, but Blacknail couldn’t think of any way to actually stop the settlement from growing without doing something drastic, like slaughtering every second goblin he saw. The problem with that was it might lead to all the goblins fleeing, and the hobgoblins turning on him. Blacknail thus decided to ignore his concerns about the size of the settlement for now. Nothing bad had happened yet, so everything would probably be fine from here on. Right?
On the third morning, Blacknail awoke and went to gather up a bunch of minions for the expedition, only to find Gob outside and everything already organized. Three dozen hobgoblins with backpacks and sacks were standing behind Gob, including an excited looking Ferrar, and a smiling Herah. Blacknail rubbed the sleep from his eyes, but they didn’t disappear. Huh.
“Where too, boss?” Gob asked cheerfully.
Briefly, Blacknail wondered if his input was even necessary, but then he dismissed the thought. Of course, it was. He was the leader.
“To Ilisti’s camp!” Blacknail explained as he began leading the way. He chewed the breakfast Gob had brought him as he walked.
Another surprise was waiting for Blacknail as they walked through the settlement’s gate. A group of humans were waiting for them, and it wasn’t Ilisti’s men.
“There you are. I was afraid I’d missed you!” Khita remarked happily. There were half a dozen people behind her, including the two young men from Shelter that she had once helped kidnap, but were now apparently her friends.
“Oh, you survived…” Blacknail remarked as he looked her over.
The last he’d heard, Khita had been taken to Shelter, where she had lain unconscious without showing any sign of waking up. Blacknail hadn’t sent a messenger to check on her health, or anything like that. He’d just been worried that her corpse might explode and damage Shelter. Anything was possible when magic was involved.
Khita appeared to be fully alive now, though. In fact, she seemed to be glowing with health. Did that mean she had survived the Elixir? Was there a chance she could still keel over? Probably not.
“What are you doing here?” Blacknail asked the redhead. She could have at least looked sick and miserable.
“I’m going with you, obviously,” Khita told him. “As if I’d let you have an adventure without me.”
“And why are you bringing those people?” Blacknail asked as he peered past her to look at her companions.
“They wanted to come, after I told them they should. Sitting around in Shelter is boring. Hassiol and Aris over there have never even left the village, at least not for real. How sad is that? It’s about time they lived a little, and this outing is just the opportunity.”
“Um, ya…” Hassiol agreed with obvious reluctance.
“And the others?” Blacknail asked as he looked at several former bandits and men from Shelter.
Khita grinned proudly. “They also decided to join up with me. I can be quite persuasive, and everyone loves adventure.”
“We’re here to keep on eye on the younglings and you,” one of the men from Shelter told Blacknail, as Khita rolled her eyes.
“They just can’t admit to themselves that they want more out of life than Shelter offers,” the redhead countered.
Blacknail sighed. “I suppose you can come. Just don’t slow us down.”
The hobgoblin chieftain turned away and headed over to Ilisti’s camp. When he got there, he saw that the vympir’s men had almost finished packing the entire place up. The tents had all been taken down and rolled up, while most of the soldiers were busy packing away their gear. Ilisti and Garen were standing at the edge of the camp and overseeing the work. They both turned to look when Blacknail and the others approached.
“We’re almost ready to move. Are those people coming with us?” Ilisti asked.
“She’s still alive?” Garen remarked in surprise when he noticed Khita. Speaking up while in his lord’s presence was unusual for him.
“They are bringing their own food, so they can come if they want,” Blacknail told Ilisti as he shrugged. Getting rid of them would be a bigger bother than managing them.
The vympir lord just nodded and went back to supervising his men. Garen stared at Khita for another second before scowling and turning away, and Khita chuckled at him. Soon after that, the vympirs’ men finished packing up the campsite, and the journey began.
A huntsman from Shelter pointed them in the direction of the road that had used to lead to Herstcrest, but it was now almost completely overgrown. It had only been a dirt path before so there wasn’t much left of it, but Blacknail’s discerning eye could see where it had used to be. There was clearly a strip that extended through the brush where no trees grew, and the undergrowth was a little thinner because of the hard ground. The going wasn’t that hard, though. Since the travelers’ group was so large, the lead elements trampled the brush down for the people behind.
As he was walking up to the front of the party, one of the people from Shelter stepped out of line to hail Blacknail. It was Aris, and Hassiol was standing right beside him.
“Um, you’re Blacknail, right?” the young man asked with a nervous stutter.
Blacknail turned to glare at him. “You can’t tell?”
How could anyone fail to recognize his magnificence? Was the kid stupid or blind?
Aris went pale. “No, I can. I just um… wanted to be sure.”
“So now you are. Did you want something else?”
“Right, I was wondering how dangerous this trip is going to be. I mean, we have all these men here, whoever they are, and we have you. Your hobgoblins can handle anything that tries to attack us, right? The Green is supposed to be dangerous, but it’s not that bad, right? “
Blacknail gave Aris a disbelieving look. “No, the Green is probably way more dangerous than you’ve been told. No one could have told you about the really deadly things inside it, because the men who saw them are all dead.”
Aris went even paler. “Khita said it would be safe.”
“And you believed her?” Blacknail laughed as he walked away. “Silly, human. If a drake or a big mutant attacks us then we are all going to die!”
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