The darkness of night enveloped Blacknail. Off in the murk, insects chirped and an owl hooted forlornly. Blacknail was leaning up against a tree and studying a distant source of light. Through the trees and down a hill, someone had lit a campfire. This was the deep Green. Humans didn’t camp out here unless they were very brave or very lost.
“Is that the man you are looking for?” Scamp asked. A dozen hobgoblins and two humans stood behind Blacknail.
“It’s a little too far away to tell,” Blacknail answered disdainfully. What a dumb question.
Khita stepped forward. “This is the right place. The villagers we asked said he was out here. Although, I guess they could have been lying. They were mucking hostile, like everyone else in this dumb place.”
“Let’s go see if it’s him,” Blacknail said as he began walking forward.
Blacknail and his followers had travelled west for weeks to get here. They had come to find one of the few famous bandits that still hadn’t allied with Werrick. There weren’t many holdouts according to what Blacknail had learned from Luphera, but they were far from Werrick’s territory here.
It had taken Blacknail a few days to rest after getting back from Daggerpoint. He had used that time to study all the changes that had taken place in the goblin camp and to plan for this excursion. There were a lot of new hobgoblins to intimidate and new building to explore. He had also visited Shelter and met with Tannin. The villagers had thrown him a feast! They had been grateful for all the gifts he’d brought them from Daggerpoint, especially the two cows. However, Blacknail had to leave and head east to fulfill the next stage of his plan.
After reaching the town of Westwatch, Blacknail’s group had resupplied and asked around. The people there had been more than willing to discuss the bandit chief that both raided the area and occasionally sent people to buy supplies there. Humans were weird. However, in the next village they had reached the people hadn’t been willing to talk to strangers. They had practically run Elyias and Khita out of town. Blacknail had thus been forced to track down the Red Hand himself, and their quarry had proven elusive.
“What do you want us to do?” A hobgoblin asked as he fell in behind his chieftain.
Blacknail kept walking. “Sneak around and take out any sentries you find, but don’t hurt them unless you have to, and don’t reveal yourselves. Anyone who gets caught will get a kicking.”
“Yes, boss,” the hobgoblin responded as he and several others dashed off into the shadows.
Soon, Blacknail reached the bushes at edge of the light. He hid among the leaves as he studied the figures around the fire. There were easily over thirty humans in the camp. Several had set up tents but most of them were sleeping under the outstretched branches of trees. Around half a dozen of them were still awake and moving around, most of whom were sitting around the fire.
Blacknail’s eyes were drawn to one man in particular. He sat alone, and Blacknail smelled leadership on him. Not with his nose, but with his instincts. It was obvious this man was the boss. Everyone else made sure to give him space, and they kept glancing at him out of the corner of their eyes, as if they were worried he would disapprove of something they were doing.
There was no doubt as to the nature of the men in the camp. These were Blacknail’s kind of people, bandits. Each of them was armed and they swaggered around like they owned the space they walked through and were daring someone else to say otherwise. In fact, most of them were better armed than Herad’s men had been. Blacknail saw several steel breastplates and bits of heavier armor.
Blacknail smiled. “Alright, let’s go introduce ourselves, Elyias. Everyone else stay here and watch.”
Elyias flinched. “What? Why me?”
“Ya, why him?” Khita asked. “I want to go.”
Blacknail rolled his eyes. Thankfully, he knew how to handle the young redhead. “No, you stay here. I need minions who can fight to cover my escape path. Use your bows if things get violent or if I give the signal.”
The hobgoblins nodded and the ones with bows readied them. Khita wasn’t happy about the orders, but she didn’t raise any more objections, and she stayed put with the rest of the hobgoblins when Blacknail and Elyias stepped out of the bushes.
At first no one in the human camp noticed them, and those that did dismissed them, but then someone realized they were out of place. By this time, Blacknail and Elyias were almost to the fire and had passed through half the camp unseen.
“Wait. Who are you two?” a tall man near the fire exclaimed as he jumped to his feet and drew his weapon.
“Intruders?” another bandit asked as he looked up. There was a nervous look on his face.
As all the nearby men reacted, Blacknail strode a few feet closer and then came to a stop. The bandit leader calmly leaned back and studied the newcomers. He was of average build and height, but he had a heavy presence. His shoulder length black hair had been slicked back and his eyes were hard and cold. They reminded Blacknail of Herad’s eyes, except they seemed gloomier, and also they were red. That was an unusual color for a human. Blacknail wondered if it meant something.
“You have a lot of guts to just walk in here,” the bandit leader remarked evenly. He didn’t seem concerned about their presence or even all that interested.
As Elyias trembled, Blacknail shrugged. “Thanks for the compliment. I came to speak with the leader of these bandits.”
“And what makes you think that we won’t just murder you?” a bandit asked.
“Because arrows kill people,” Blacknail replied as he signaled to the hobgoblins in the woods with a hand gesture.
Two arrows instantly burst out of the darkness and slammed into the ground beside the fire. Bandits swore and scrambled away from the impact site. Even Elyias flinched and he’d known they were coming.
“I’m not afraid of arrows,” the bandit leader observed. Blacknail believed him. He hadn’t even flinched. His cold eyes just studied the arrows for a moment and then moved back to Blacknail.
“So what is it that you want?” the leader asked.
Blacknail poked Elyias’ shoulder hard. This was his job! Elyias’ face was pale as a sheet. He sputtered and then quickly began reciting the speech Blacknail had ordered him to memorize.
“My master, Blacknail, is a notorious and terrible killer. He is a powerful bandit lord from the east and he demands a meeting of equals, so that he may discuss matters of grave importance with the bandit chief known as the Red Hand.”
“And where is this master of yours?” the man known as the Red Hand asked. He looked and sounded annoyed.
“I’m right here,” Blacknail answered.
The man frowned and looked the hobgoblin over again. “Really? You’re a little odd, aren’t you?”
“True, a lot of people say things like that about me, some of them even more than once, but it’s usually because of my skin color,” Blacknail said as he lowered his hood. “I think most of them are just jealous of my handsome nose.”
There was a moment of shocked silence as all the bandits took in Blacknail’s face. It was green, and it definitely belonged to a hobgoblin.
“Hells, what is that?” someone cursed. There was muttering from several more men as they flinched away or reached for weapons.
“This is a new twist,” the leader said as he stood up. “None of the other messengers have been hobgoblins.” He looked interested now.
“I’m not anyone’s servant or lackey. I’m a leader,” Blacknail huffed. “I also haven’t sent any messengers.”
“A man representing the Wolf showed up. I killed him,” the black-haired chief replied with cruel smile. Blacknail couldn’t help but notice that he had rather long and pointy teeth for a human.
Blacknail stood tall and smiled back to show off his own impressive teeth. They were even pointier. “Good, I hate that guy. That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, killing him together. Also, what should I call you? The Red Hand sounds silly.”
“My name is sir Ilisti Vang. You may address me that way, hobgoblin. This sudden interest in me from people in the east puzzles me. Why now?”
Blacknail shrugged. “Things are changing. Werrick wants to become king of the North, while everyone in the South is too busy fighting to stop him. Also, there is me. I’m doing some stuff.”
“The Silent Reaches change little. It has stayed much the same over the centuries. It was set up that way by the original settlers.”
“That’s this place?” Blacknail asked. He’d never heard that name before.
“That’s what we westerners call our lands. It is a place of refuge for exiles. We don’t much like outsiders – such as you – prying into our business.”
“Well, I’m not here to pry into your embarrassing secrets. I just want to help you make friends, conquer new lands, and kill the Wolf.”
Ilisti looked skeptical. “Why would I want to ally with you? Are you offering me anything more than vague promises?”
Ah, a negotiation. Blacknail scratched the side of his head. He didn’t have a lot of practice with these, except for the ones where he offered not to kill people in return for material reward.
“I’m a great ally. You help me and then I’ll help you kill your enemies. I’m the most dangerous killer in the world, and I have a lots of hobgoblin minions. We could have killed half your men before you knew we were here and then slipped away into the night.”
“And you think I need your help to slay some enemy you imagine I have?” Ilisti asked as he crossed his across his chest.
Blacknail’s grin deepened. “I know enough about humans to understand that they don’t like hanging out in forests with dirty clothes and almost no women around. You’re here because you have a powerful enemy.”
A hint of smile appeared on the man’s face. “That’s a fair enough point.”
“I have lots of points. Now, how can I help you? Who is this man that needs to be murdered?”
Ilisti frowned and rubbed his chin. His posture relaxed as he fell into thought. Warily, Blacknail watched him. The hobgoblin had been smiling and talking freely, but something about the man in front of him put him on edge. His scent was a little off, and he reeked of blood.
Without warning, Ilisti lunged forward. His blade flew free of his scabbard and sliced toward Blacknail’s face. Blacknail jerked backwards and burned a bit of Elixir he had ingested back in the forest. The sword’s tip barely missed his nose as he drew his own blade. It slid free just in time for him to block Ilisti’s next attack, however Blacknail was slightly off balance and the strength of the blow knocked him backwards an inch. He grimaced and desperately shifted his weight in preparation for the next blow, but it didn’t come. Cautiously, Blacknail held his sword up high in a guard.
“Not bad. I was expecting worse,” Ilisti remarked as he took a step back and sheathed his weapon. “You’re even faster than you look and certainly stronger than your scrawny frame suggests.”
“You’re fast for such a fatty,” Blacknail hissed back as he lowered his blade slightly. He didn’t like being surprise attacked. That was his thing.
Ilisti smiled. “It was a test, nothing more. I wanted to see if you were as formidable as you claimed you were.”
“It was rude,” Blacknail replied.
“So it was. I apologize. It has been a while since I entertained proper guests.”
All the nearby bandits were on their feet now and several had drawn weapons. Ilisti turned to them and motioned them away. “Give us some space. I wish to talk to the hobgoblin alone.”
“As you wish, sir,” the closest man replied. All the bandits then bowed and hurried away, leaving Blacknail alone with Ilisti at the fire, except for a still frozen Elyias. Blacknail waved him away, and he ran off into the forest.
“I believe we were discussing our enemies,” Ilisti said as he sat back down.
“You first,” Blacknail replied as he also took a seat across the fire. He was still wary.
“Very well, you were right. I do have a powerful enemy. I was not always a landless exile. In my youth I was heir to my family’s ancestral lands, but a powerful neighboring noble stole my birthright. My family’s blood sworn knights fled the castle with me while my father bought them time.”
“And you want me to kill this noble?”
Much to Blacknail’s chagrin, Ilisti laughed. “You would find that difficult. I don’t doubt your might or skill, Blacknail, but my enemy is an ancient Vympir. His wounds heal in seconds and he is strong enough to rip a man in half. It is said his gaze can kill, that the darkness obeys him, and that he once killed a troll with his bare hands.”
That did sound difficult, and it raised some important questions. Blacknail sniffed the air and frowned as an unusual but familiar earthy scent filled his nostrils. “He’s a mutant, like you.”
“That is a rather unflattering way to describe the hallowed power granted by the ancient blood, but not completely inaccurate,” Ilisti admitted with shrug of his shoulders.
“If you don’t want my help killing your enemy then what do you want?” Blacknail hadn’t known that humans could become mutants. Could hobgoblins? Suddenly, he had a lot of questions that need answered.
As he leaned back, Ilisti sighed dramatically. “There is nothing for me here in the West. With what remains of my Bloodsworn, I have spent years surviving on the fringes while I wait for my blood to grow in strength and for some other noble to grow weak so that I mays seize his lands. That hasn’t happened, and I grow weary.”
“So?” Blacknail asked. He was getting a lot of information he hadn’t asked for.
“In normal times, I would never even think of going east, but your presence suggests an opportunity. My people have remained apart from the eastern kingdoms for good reasons. The cults tend to dislike our existence and your gathering of the wise agrees with them. They are jealous of our power, so they turn the lowborn against us and hunt us, but I don’t think they are your allies either.”
“No, I don’t like those people much, but it hardly matters. They rarely show up in the North. It’s mostly just the farmer type of humans and violent stealing types. Although there aren’t a lot of people outside the cities anymore.”
“Yes, which suggests the time is ripe for me to visit and perhaps carve out a place for myself. My kind have long thrived were we can offer our protection to the abandoned and forgotten.”
Blacknail shrugged. “It’s what everyone else is doing. Help me kill the Wolf and I’ll help you take some land.”
“That sounds a profitable basis for an alliance,” Ilisti remarked with a smile. His eyes had warmed up a little, but they were still dark and brooding.
Blacknail agreed with him. It sounded like Ilisti’s interests aligned with his. Werrick wanted to rule all the North and it didn’t sound like the Vympir would ever willingly serve the Wolf.
“There is one thing I should probably mention,” Ilisti said. “As a Vympir I occasionally need to feed on the blood of other men.”
That sounded inconvenient. Blacknail frowned. “You can’t just eat animals like everyone else? People don’t taste all that good.”
“It’s not a matter of taste, but of need. My bite paralyses people, and slowly changes their blood, so that I may return later and feast upon it.”
“More like slurp. Blood isn’t a food, it’s a liquid,” Blacknail mused aloud.
The Vympir sighed. “I would not tolerate such disrespect from a man, but I have no idea if you’re being serious.”
Blacknail ignored him. This new bit of information did create some problems. He had been looking for a human to serve as a figurehead because humans didn’t seem to trust hobgoblins, but a Vympir would also probably not inspire trust. Still, Blacknail had found a useful tool here. He would just have to find some other human to be his puppet. He liked puppets.
“Alright, I will be your guide east,” Blacknail said as he looked up. “I can explain how things work there and introduce you to some people. I’m also an expert at hiding, so you won’t have to worry about the cults or anyone else.”
“Good, then we have a deal. I will help you fight the Wolf,” Ilisti said as he stood up.
The Vympir walked over to Blacknail’s side and extended an open hand. Blacknail stood up and took it. As they shook hands to seal their agreement, their inhuman eyes met and they both smiled. Blacknail liked Ilisti. He seemed like a straightforward guy.
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