“We need a plan,” Geralhd observed. “If these reclusive folk are as hostile as you suggest they are then we can’t just walk in unannounced and expect them to greet us with open arms.”
Blacknail, Ilisti, Garen, and him were still staring down at the town of Herstcrest from a hill out in the forest. They had come a long way to find the town, and now they had. Of course, some of them were here for different reasons. Geralhd thought the was tagging along on a scouting mission, while Ilisti was here to conquer the place.
“We could sneak in after nightfall and kill all their leaders in their sleep,” Blacknail suggested.
“Um, what would that accomplish, exactly?” Geralhd replied uncertainly. Garen and Ilisti didn’t look convinced either.
Blacknail smiled sheepishly. “It’s just sort of what I do?”
“Well, we will keep that option in mind,” Ilisti responded dryly. “However, I believe a less drastic first move would better serve our ends.”
Garen looked thoughtful. “We could just take the town. Even without the hobgoblins and their skill as infiltrators, our troops could undoubtedly march down there and seize that gate with minimal losses. The people are highly unlikely to be organized or effective soldiers.”
“We don’t actually know that these people are hostile yet. We just got here,” Geralhd pointed out firmly. “Striking first would be unconscionable. A lot of innocent people could easily be hurt by such a reckless course of action.”
Ilisti nodded. “I agree. I would rather not create any unnecessary grudges or resentments among the populace. When we move on the town’s rulers, it must be with secure motives and moral justification, so that we can maintain a good relationship with the common folk.”
“I think you mean if we move against the town’s rulers.” Geralhd replied warily.
Ilisti gave him vague nod before looking back at the town. “As you say.”
Geralhd frowned. “It’s obvious that we need to talk to them. A delegation is the obvious answer.”
“Sending in only a small group might be dangerous. We don’t know how they will react.”
“A show of force from our troops might keep them in line. We could march them out into the open. No one would get hurt then,” Garen suggested.
“Or such an action could easily frighten them into not accepting the delegation at all,” Ilisti mused thoughtfully. “They are obviously reclusive, and they might lock their doors at the slightest provocation. If we want to make sure they accept a delegation we have to make it look as harmless and valuable as possible.”
Listening intently, Blacknail sighed quietly. His assassination plan was sounding better and better the more he listened. This was getting annoyingly complicated, and in his experience, the best way to simplify things was to kill some unnecessary humans.
Oblivious to Blacknail, Geralhd nodded in agreement with Ilisti. “We could send some people in posing as traders or merchants. Secluded as they are, these people must be in desperate need of certain goods, like a decent vintage of wine. We have a cart here, and it could pass as a merchant’s vehicle. It would be easy enough to load it up with some of our supplies to complete the disguise.”
Garen was less enthused by this idea. “That doesn’t solve the safety problem. We are still sending this delegation into a dangerous situation we can’t predict. They will be greatly outnumbered, and their escape route will be cut off. What’s to stop these peasants from simply swarming them and taking their cargo?”
There was silence as everyone considered this problem.
“How likely is that, do you think?” Geralhd asked after a few long moments.
“Quite,” Ilisti replied. “As I pointed out before, those watch towers suggest that the community is tightly policed, and thus probably hostile to outsiders who might bring trouble with them. Also, isolated as they are, who would punish them for robbing and killing some travelers?”
Blacknail perked up. He had just thought of a solution, and this time it wasn’t to kill everyone in their sleep. “How about we send in our toughest fighters, then? Ilisti, Garen, and me could take some fat town humans, easy.”
Garen opened his mouth as it to object, but Ilisti cut him off. “That could work. Yes, there would be definite advantages to such an introduction.”
“Then let’s do it!” Blacknail exclaimed cheerfully. This sounded like it was going to be great fun!
Unfortunately, while the adults had been talking, Khita had snuck over to listen to their conversation.
“If you want to bring all the strongest fighters along, I should come too.” she announced as she walked up behind Blacknail. “I’m a Vessel now!”
“No,” Blacknail told her.
Geralhd shook his head at her. “You don’t have any Elixir and you are still new to your abilities, so I’m with Blacknail here.”
Khita scowled. “But…”
“No,” Blacknail told her sternly. “Stay with the villagers you brought. They are your responsibility.”
Khita didn’t look happy, but she shut up, and that was the important thing. Sighing, Blacknail turned back to the vympirs, who’d remained silent. “We have a plan, so let’s go!”
Geralhd coughed to get everyone’s attention. There was a doubtful look on his face. “What about the disguise? Do any of you know anything about the particulars of a merchant’s trade? You’re a noble, a soldier, and a hobgoblin.”
The vymprs and the hobgoblin looked at each other. None of them had a response to that, so Blacknail turned to look at Geralhd. “Alright, you can come with us. You’re from a merchant family, right?”
Geralhd’s mouth fell open in surprise. “Um, that wasn’t what I was getting at.”
“Don’t worry. You’re a big bad bandit, remember! You got this,” Blacknail told him.
“Yes, you’re the obvious choice to pose as the leader of this delegation,” Ilisti added. “Garen and I will be your guards, while Blacknail stays with the cart and serves as the packman.”
“Oh, good…” Geralhd remarked neutrally as he realized he’d walked into a trap of his own making.
With their discussion over, everyone got to work preparing their disguises and organizing the delegation. The supplies on the donkey cart were rearranged, and everyone put on long brown rain cloaks. When the cart was ready, they headed out into the fields. Geralhd drove the cart while the others walked alongside it. Unlike a horse, the donkey tolerated Blacknail’s presence, even if was obviously and rightly afraid of him.
After they had been on the rough dirt road that led to Herstcrest’s gates for a few minutes, Geralhd began to look really nervous. They were surrounded on all sides by uneven fields.
“I think I just saw someone run into the town. They must have been out working in the fields and seen us,” Geralhd said. From up on the cart, he had a better vantage point than the others.
“That’s to be expected. We don’t want to surprise them anyway,” Ilisti reassured Geralhd. Garen and him looked completely calm as they trudged along beside the cart.
“So, what’s the worst case scenario here?” Geralhd asked.
Garen huffed in annoyance. “That this place is ruled by an ancient vympir lord who immediately squashes us into paste. Try not to think about it.”
“There could also be an incredibly intelligent hobgoblin inside that sees right through our disguises and is so cunning that we are helpless before him,” Blacknail added. “Although, that’s unlikely since I’m the smartest hobgoblin ever.”
This got a chuckle from Ilisti, but everyone else was silent as they approached the gates. When they reached the wooden doors, they stopped and waited for something to happen. Blacknail used this time to study the town’s defenses. The wall was made of small stones that had been mortared together into a barrier that was about eight feet tall. It was certainly better at keeping things out than Shelter’s walls, but it still didn’t seem designed to stop a determined attacker. It was more like a really sturdy fence. Suddenly, someone yelled their way.
“Who goes there?” a man shouted down at them. He was standing on the wall, right next to the gate. Everyone immediately looked at Geralhd, who winced in an anxious manner as he was put on the spot.
“Ah, hello there!” Geralhd called back with false cheer. “I’m a travelling merchant. I got lost in the forest a while back and somehow ended up here, in front of your rather inviting looking home. I’d like to come in and sell some of my wares, if you don’t mind, good man”
“Who is that all with you?” the man on the wall asked. He sounded suspicious.
“These are just my guards and my packman. Travelling alone in the Green is a terrible idea, but don’t worry, they’re harmless. I basically pay them to keep me company on my travels. My packman is actually worse than them. He has been known to bite,” Geralhd joked. Blacknail found it funny.
There was no immediate reply to this, but the doors began to swing open.
“Am I the only one who finds this ominous?” Geralhd asked.
“Yes, get the cart moving,” Garen replied. Geralhd did as he was told, and soon they were passing into Herstcrest.
Before them, a paved street appeared that was lined by houses. Most of the visible homes were wooden with stone foundations. None of them looked new, and many were run down. Blacknail thought he saw movement at some of the windows, but the occupants were keeping out of sight. Directly in the cart’s path stood a small crowd of two dozen men. Blacknail immediately noticed that most of them were of the thuggish variety, and that there wasn’t a single visible woman.
One man was quite noticeably different from the others. He was shortest, and he was wearing a long purple coat. It stood out, since all the other men had on plain brown clothes. The short man was also standing in the very middle of the group, and he had a jovial smile on his face, while the others were glowering sternly at the newcomers.
After snapping the donkey’s reins and bringing the cart to a halt, Geralhd jumped down and turned to face the man in the purple coat. As per the plan, Blacknail stayed back by the cart, while Garen and Ilisti moved to stand behind Geralhd in as non-threatening a way as possible. The hobgoblin and the vympirs were still wearing their long brown rain cloaks to disguise their more alarming features.
Geralhd coughed politely to get everyone’s attention. “Hello there! This is a nice little town you have here. I like the um… quaint homes.”
There was a loud thud as the gate behind them snapped shut again, and Geralhd flinched. Meanwhile. the man in the purple coat studied Geralhd and his cart. “You’re supposed to be a merchant? It has been a while since any of your ilk chanced upon this valley. It seems the roads aren’t as well maintained as they used to be.”
The short man chuckled briefly as he finished speaking, and his thugs snickered along with him, although Blacknail hadn’t found his words to be funny at all. In fact, the thugs didn’t seem amused either. All of them looked gaunt and there was a hungry gleam in their eyes. Blacknail studied them carefully. Everything about them reeked of blood and barely constrained violence. Even most of the bandits he’d encountered had seemed calmer and friendlier by far. Something was wrong about them, although Blacknail couldn’t put his finger on what.
Geralhd smiled as neutrally as possible. “Yes, I noticed the poor condition of the roads, myself. How astute of you. I sort of stumbled into this place by accident, although there is no reason it can’t be a happy accident! I was following a road to the south, when one of my guardsman spotted a pack of desperate bandits waiting in ambush ahead of us. To evade them, we took a side route off into the Green, and thus promptly got completely and utterly lost.”
“Well, the outside world is certainly a treacherous and dangerous place. It’s much safer here in Herstcrest,” the man in the coat replied thoughtfully.
“I can tell from your noble bearing that you’re a man of some standing, but you haven’t introduced yourself yet. May I humbly ask your name and title? I’m known as Geralhd Delsavius.”
“Yes, how silly of me. You are quite correct, stranger. I’m the mayor of this little patch of heaven, and my name is Felsisio Melvarea. I’m pleased to welcome someone with such a discerning eye.”
“Yes, it would please me greatly to sell all my wares here in your wonderful town. Perhaps I could set up a stall or something?”
The mayor huffed in displeasure. “That would be pointless. I’m afraid you won’t find very many buyers among the townsfolk. They have little use for money anymore. No, I will browse your goods and personally do all of the purchasing, acting in my capacity as the representative of Herstcrest, of course. In particular, I’m curious as to whether you have any good wine on you. It has been a while since we’ve had a decent vintage.”
The news about the townsfolk lacking money seemed to unsettle Geralhd. He couldn’t keep a scowl from his face, and he muttered quietly to himself. “Greedy little toad. He plans on robbing me in plain daylight.”
Blacknail wasn’t sure why Geralhd cared. They weren’t really here as merchants. It was all a ruse.
Geralhd sighed and turned to look at the mayor again. “Then, perhaps we could discuss accommodations, before getting down to business? I’m sure my servants are looking forward to real beds and the safety of solid walls after so long on the road.”
“First, I must insist that you disarm your guards and hand over their weapons. There is no need for such violent tools within Herstcrest,” the mayor replied smugly. Behind him, his heavily armed mob of thugs loomed menacingly. The inconstancy of this didn’t appear to matter to the mayor.
“I hardly think that is necessary,” Geralhd countered warily. “My servants are no threat to you and your rather large personal guard, and my servants have a formed quite an emotional attachment to their weapons over the past few weeks.”
“As the mayor of Hercrest, I make the laws and I enforce them. There is no higher authority. Hand over your weapons.”
As Geralhd began politely arguing with the mayor, another group of people approached from down the street. Blacknail shifted his gaze to study these new arrivals. There were five of them, and they were all wearing loose green robes and had shaved heads. Like the mayor’s group, they were all male, and most of them were large and armed with wooden clubs. The exception was an older man at the center of the group. Even though he was bald, he had a short white beard and was hunched over.
As soon as the robed men arrived, the mayor turned to greet them. “Ah, Obdehi! You’re finally here. Thank you for coming.”
“It is no problem, lord mayor. These are the outsiders?” the bearded man replied as he turned to look at Geralhd. His eyes were dark and utterly without warmth, like a snake’s.
“Obdehi here is the high priest of Herstcrest, and a servant of the harvest god Dev-Methi,” the mayor cheerfully told Geralhd.
“Oh, It’s nice to meet him. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that god before, though.” Geralhd replied cautiously.
“He has only recently revealed his great glory to us simple mortals,” Obdehi explained with smug smile. “All he demands in return for his blessing is the occasional petty sacrifice.”
“Oh, good…” Geralhd replied awkwardly. Even Blacknail had found that speech creepy, and he knew next to nothing about human religion. Ilisti reacted as well. The vympir leaned over and whispered something in Geralhd’s ear.
When he was done, Geralhd turned to the priest. “And your god… can you see him, or is he more of an invisible presence?”
“He is with us in spirit, always. He watches us and rewards our fervor with the bounty of the earth. From his blood springs life,” Obdehi answered as he gazed at Geralhd intently.
The mayor took this opportunity to cut in. “I was just telling Geralhd here that his guards need to hand over their weapons.”
The priest nodded sagely. “Ah, of course, yes.”
As Blacknail watched, Obdehi immediately reached up to grab a chain around his neck, and he pulled an amulet up from beneath his robe. The piece of jewelry was made from gold and had a single large transparent crystal set in the middle of it.
As one hand closed around the crystal, the priest spoke up in a louder, more resonant voice. “You should do as the lord mayor commands and relinquish your weaponry. There is no need for such things here. You have never been safer than here among the people of feast and famine.”
It could have been a trick of the light, but Blacknail thought he saw a subtle light began to twinkle within the heart of the crystal. At the same time, he felt a wave of calm wash over him. Blacknail felt his fears and suspicions fade, but then something within his mind pushed back, hard. Immediately, Blacknail twitched as awareness and anger burned its way out of his skull and into the rest of his body. He had just been attacked by some sort of magic.
“Yes, I see your point…” Geralhd said aloud. He sounded confused and suddenly looked unsteady on his feet.
“I knew you would see reason!” the mayor replied with a confident smirk as he began telling Geralhd why he needed to disarm his guards.
Quickly, Blacknail glanced at Ilisti and Garen, who were standing to both sides of Geralhd. Thankfully, Ilisti looked back to meet his gaze, and the vympir seemed both unaffected by the magic and very angry. There was a grim scowl on his face and his red eyes were practically glowing. Seeing that Blacknail was still alert, he motioned for the hobgoblin to come closer. Cautiously, as to not draw any attention, Blacknail slowly walked behind Ilisti.
When he got there, Ilsiti spoke up without looking his way. “That priest is some sort of wise man, and he has assaulted us with some sort of mind numbing sorcery. That’s reason enough for us to consider the rules of hospitality violated.”
“So, what do you want to do?” Blacknail whispered back.
“Violence seems like the appropriate response. Garen will take the priest. Support me when I go after the mayor,” Ilisti answered.