After Blacknail and Ilisiti had finished their conversation, the vympir went to prepare for the journey he had agreed to undertake. Since all his men were glaring suspiciously at Blacknail and none of them looked like great conversationalists anyway, the hobgoblin wandered off into the woods to meet back up with the minions. They were right were he’d left them.
“Oh, good. You didn’t run off into the forest,” Blacknail remarked when he saw Elyias was with the hobgoblins and Khita.
Khita huffed in annoyance. “He tired. I grabbed him before he got himself lost.”
“That man was a monster. A vympir!” Elyias exclaimed as he stepped forward. He was still pale and shaking.
Blacknail put a hand on Elyias’ shoulder to steady him. “What do you know about vympirs? They seem like mutant humans to me.”
An excited gleam appeared in Khita’s eyes. “Really a vympir? Those are real?”
“I just said they were. What do you know about them?” Blacknail responded. Her sudden enthusiasm was a little unsettling.
“Just that they’re evil,” Elyias explained darkly. “Most people think they’re myths from hundreds of years ago. There are lots of tales of evil nobles with strange powers who prey on peasants, or of strangers who arrive in a village and pick the people off one by one.”
“I like the stories about vympir princes who fall in love with maidens and abduct them so they can be together forever. Usually the woman dies horribly, but it is still romantic!” Khita added as she smiled manically.
“They are terrible monsters that devour people and cause disasters,” Elyias hissed. “They hunt people at night and feed on them like beasts!”
“So, you think they are a lot like hobgoblins, eh?” Blacknail replied thoughtfully.
A startled look appeared on Elyias’ face. “Er…”
While Elyias tried to figure out what to say, one of the nearby hobgoblins took the opportunity to speak up. “So does this mean we won’t be attacking them and taking their stuff? They have some nice stuff.”
“No, they are probably our allies now,” Blacknail told him.
The hobgoblin picked his nose. “So, what do you want us to do with the sentries we caught?”
Blacknail had completely forgotten about them. “You better let them go.”
“What about their stuff? Can we keep that?”
“No, give it back. We don’t want to upset our new allies.”
“I think one of them is coming over here,” another hobgoblin remarked as he stared past Blacknail at the camp behind him.
The hobgoblin chieftain turned to see what his minion was talking about, and sure enough there was a human walking out to the edge of the forest. He was easy to see with the fire behind him, and he cast a long shadow. It was a man with a sword at his waist, but he didn’t look like Ilisti.
“My lord has sent me to talk to the one known as Blacknail,” the man announced formally once he reached the trees. His eyes roamed the darkness in search of the hobgoblins, and he didn’t seem afraid of the forest or the hobgoblins within it at all.
“I’m right here,” Blacknail replied as he stepped out of the shadows. He was feeling festive and light hearted. It wasn’t every day that you made an important new ally, and he was glad that coming to this depressing place had turned out to be productive after all.
The young man took a second to study the hobgoblin. He was calm, and didn’t flinch or look afraid at all. Blacknail found that unflappable demeanor to be annoying. He was used to getting reactions from people. Physically, the young man had short black hair, a clean-shaven face, and a patient look that spoke of a type of discipline most bandits lacked. He was shorter that his master, but he had the same red eyes.
“You’re a mutant too,” Blacknail remarked inquisitively.
“My name is Garen, and I’m a vympir, not a mutant. To call us such is an insult to our bloodline, and will not be tolerated.”
“How many of you are there? Mutants don’t usually get along.” In the wild, Blacknail had never encountered more than one mutant in the same place. He’d always assumed they ate each other.
“I am the only vympir in service to lord Vang, and as I said, we are not simple mutants. Ours is an ancient power that stretches back to the first emperors of man.”
“Oh, that sound impressive. How did you become one?” Blacknail asked. He wanted to know what he was dealing with.
“In my childhood, I was offered up by my village as a sacrifice to my lord’s family. However, I survived the offering of life and the ancient blood took root in me. Since the young lord Vang had no bond servants I was put into his service, where I have served him loyally ever since,” Garen explained. “How did you become such as you are? You are an uncommon hobgoblin.”
Blacknail frowned. No one had ever asked him that before. It was sort of a complicated question. Although, most of it probably wasn’t important.
“I was taken in by a bandit named Saeter to be his helper. He taught me everything I know, like how to fight, but he died, so now I’m trying to get revenge.” That covered the important bits.
Garen nodded in understanding. “Seeking vengeance against the enemies of your slain lord is a true servant’s duty.”
Blacknail nodded along. “Also, I’m very angry with them and want to enjoy pulling their tongues out with my claws.”
“Traditionally, I believe grim determination is the appropriate emotion for such tasks, but I don’t think anyone has ever actually said you can’t have fun doing it.”
“That’s good, but those rules probably don’t apply to me. Most rules don’t.”
“Ah, you might have a point there. Most rules of honor weren’t designed with hobgoblins in mind,” Garen admitted as he looked thoughtfully to the side.
“What were you here for, again?”
Garen looked embarrassed. “I apologize. I was momentarily distracted by your unusual demeanor.”
“Plus I look funny,” Blacknail added helpfully. If he couldn’t scare the man then he could still catch him off guard in other ways.
“Er…” Garen seemed rather uncertain of what to say now, but he collected himself and determinedly pressed on. “I was sent by my master to ask about several of our men who have disappeared.”
“Oh, them. I just gave orders for them to be returned. They should all be fine.”
“That is good. I would hate for our alliance to be marred by the stain or blood.”
“Ya, the smell is hard to get rid of, and you humans bleed everywhere.”
“…Yes.” Garen replied with careful neutrality.
Silently, Blacknail and him stared at each other for several very awkward seconds. The hobgoblin didn’t blink. Surprisingly, Khita took this opportunity to walk over and join the conversation. The surprising thing was that she hadn’t butted in earlier.
“So, you’re a vympir? Is that why your eyes are red?” Khita asked as she walked up beside Blacknail and beamed happily at Garen. “I didn’t think you guys were real.”
“Who is this?” Garen asked Blacknail. It was subtle, but he was definitely leaning away from the redhead. It was reaction the hobgoblin understood.
“She’s Khita. Someone fed her, so now she follows us around and won’t go away.”
Khita ignored the hobgoblin and focused on Garen. “I hear you drink blood. That doesn’t sound very appetizing. Does it taste different to you?”
“The taking of life is a sacred activity, that I shall not discuss with you,” Garen replied sourly.
Khita walked right up to him and looked him over. This caused Garen to look uncomfortable. Apparently, Blacknail wasn’t the only one who was used to being feared.
“Have you ever kidnapped a maiden?” Khita asked him.
A stiff smile appeared on Garen’s lips. “Having fulfilled my master’s request, I will be leaving now.”
“Bye,” Blacknail replied as the man walked out of the shadows and back to the campfire.
“He wasn’t very polite,” Khita observed as she watched him go.
With nothing else to do, Blacknail and his minions waited in the darkness under the treetop for Ilisiti to get back to them. It took almost an hour for him to appear at the edge of the light, but when he did, Blacknail went to meet him halfway.
“I just finished conversing with my subordinates and making plan. There is still lots to do, but I should be able to start heading east before noon tomorrow,” Ilisiti announced as he walked over to Blacknail.
“How many men do you have?” the hobgoblin asked.
“I have fifty-two armsmen in my service.”
“I thought you would have more. That’s not very many.”
“Quality is more important than quantity, little green monster. I could have more if I wished, but taking care of them would have been difficult. Once I’ve created a base of operations I can recruit from around my family’s old lands. There is no shortage of men there that would join my cause.”
Blacknail shrugged. “You can have both quantity and quality, big pink monster.”
An amused grin appeared on Ilisiti’s face. He seemed to have a much stronger sense of humor than Garen. “We will leave tomorrow, after I send someone to gather supplies from the village.”
“Will they deal with you? They were rather rude to us, and you’re a bandit.”
“I’m a vympir, even though they don’t owe me fealty, the people here know better than to aggravate me. The proper respect for the ancient blood has been instilled within them for generations. Being raided by me is practically an honor.”
“Neat. It would nice to buy some supplies before we leave tomorrow. How about you send someone with us?”
“Very well. I’ll send Garen with you. You shouldn’t have any problems with the villagers then.”
“Alright, that sounds good,” Blacknail replied. It also sounded fun. He should bring Khita. Amusement was hard to come by in the Green, and not to be wasted.
After talking to the vympir for a few more moments, Blacknail went off to set up his own camp. He didn’t fully trust his new allies yet, they had just met, and Ilisti’s men weren’t used to being around hobgoblins anyway. Sharing a camp overnight was thus probably a bad idea, so instead Blacknail selected a spot that was several minutes away. It was a defensible position in a small grassy clearing. They had checked it carefully for mimics before moving in, and found one right at the far edge. However, it was out of the way and mimics didn’t move much at night. If they set a watch the creature probably wouldn’t be a problem, and might even act as protection.
“What do you think of our new friends?” Blacknail asked his nearby minions when they had finished scouting the campsite. Around him, hobgoblins were trampling the grass and setting up the fire.
Khita shrugged. “I don’t see why we need their help, but they seem interesting anyway. We could do worse. It is sort of sharp to have vympirs on our side.”
“They’re vympirs! We can’t trust them,” Elyias shot back. “They will probably try to creep into our camp during the night and drink our blood while we sleep!”
“Don’t worry about that. Several hobgoblins will be watching over you while you rest,” Blacknail responded cheerfully. “From what I saw, my minions are better rangers and sneakers than the vympir’s.”
The hobgoblins in questions had just finished stomping down most the tall grass. Lurking animals could have used the plants as cover to approach unseen, so they had to be flattened.
“But you don’t know what they can do! They are mutants,” Elyias replied darkly. “Maybe Ilisti can turn into mist or put our sentries to sleep with magic!”
“Huh, that’s not a bad point,” Blacknail admitted reluctantly. He hadn’t thought of that.
Every mutant that Blacknail had ever fought had used some sort of weird magic. Vympirs undoubtedly had one as well. Did they each have different magic abilities or did they all share one?
The hobgoblin chieftain turned to look at Khita and Elyias. “You two have heard of vympirs before. Do you know any stories about them using magic like a mutant?”
“Nah, all the myths I’ve heard give them a whole bunch of abilities,” Khita replied. “In some, they turn into wolves or bats, and in others they can enslave people’s minds. Most of the stories are obvious shit meant to frighten children.”
“Sometimes they can fly or go invisible,” Elyias added after glancing quickly upwards. He still looked rather spooked. Blacknail didn’t see how vympirs were worse than any other mutants that lived in the Green. They certainly were far from the biggest.
By now, the hobgoblins had managed to gather a large stack of wood. They had also managed to get a small fire going, and the flickering light from the flames illuminated the clearing. Shadowy branches reached out from the trees at the edge. Blacknail turned to study the small tree that he knew was actually a mimic lying in wait, but it hadn’t moved.
“Maybe I can trick Ilisiti or Garen into telling me,” Blacknail mused aloud. He was rather smart.
“They might show their power if they get in a fight,” Khita remarked.
Blacknail turned to look at Elyias. “Do you feel like challenging Garen to a duel? If you insult his master I’m sure he would accept.”
“Ha! As if he would need to use some hidden power to beat me. You should do it. You’re the only one here who could give him a real challenge.”
Blacknail frowned. “That would probably ruin our alliance, so it wouldn’t work.”
“I’m sure we will see them fight before too long,” Khita pointed out.
Blacknail agreed with her, and since there wasn’t much else for them to discuss, he ordered everyone to bed down for the night. As everyone else fell asleep, he took first watch with another hobgoblin.
While his minion patrolled the edge of the clearing, Blacknail sat with his back to the fire and stared out at the forest. In the dark, the trees were a mass of shifting shadows. All the talk of mutants had put him on edge, and if anything was going to attack it would probably be during first watch. However, the forest was silent except for the chirping of insects and gentle rustling of leaves. Above the hobgoblin chieftain, the occasional cloud floated across the starry sky and briefly blanketed the moon and stars. Blacknail looked, but he didn’t see any vympirs flying up there.
Off to one side, Khita began snoring. Thankfully, a quick nudge from the toe of Blacknail’s boot caused her to roll over and shut up.
Now that there was no one else around to distract him, Blacknail begin to wonder if he was on the right path. He had a plan to get his revenge, and he was following it, but was that what he really wanted to do? What would Saeter have thought of his actions? Blacknail had no idea. Saeter had been a complex man. He would have wanted Herad to be avenged, but he hadn’t been a big fan of unnecessary violence. He had also seemed to care a lot about the people of the North.
Blacknail wasn’t sure if what he was doing benefitted the North the way Saeter had seen it. On one hand, he was about to start a war, but on the other he was making friends and protecting people! As Blacknail stared out into the darkness, he decided to just keep following the plan. He had already started it, and he couldn’t honestly think of anything else he wanted to do. Now that Saeter was dead, vengeance was the only force that propelled him forward. Without it he had no purpose.
The night grew colder, and Blacknail went to sleep after waking his replacement. Early the next morning, he led his followers back to Ilisti’s camp site. The vympir greeted them, and as promised, sent Garen to guide them to the village.
“They know you’re a bandit, right?” Khita asked as they walked off the main road and through the entrance of the village. Blacknail followed them with his hood up.
There were only a few people visible on the streets of the settlement, noticeably less than you would have seen in an eastern village at this time of day. There were also several other obvious differences. The buildings had a different style, with rounder sides and taller roofs. There were also weird fetishes made from twisted sticks in a lot of doorways and windows. Most of them were circular and braided into intricate web-like patterns. The entire place had an eerie feeling, as if something dangerous was hiding just out of sight, but it looked prosperous. The streets were clean, and the buildings were large and well maintained.
Geran shrugged as he answered Khita’s question. “They know I am of noble blood and that is all that matters. They fulfil their duties to us and we fulfill ours to them, even if my master doesn’t hold these lands.”
“What exactly are your duties?” Khita asked. “To only suck a few of them dry? To only feast on them when you’re really hungry?”
This earned her a scowl from Geran. “We protect them, from everything that would destroy them. Our might keeps both plague and the beasts of the forest at bay, and we rarely feed on villagers. Unless we are wounded or forced to expend ourselves, we can go over a year without having to take a new thrall, and most thralls are taken in battle besides.”
Two villagers that had been standing down the street noticed the newcomers. They both stiffened, and after a brief conversation, the woman hurried away while the man drew closer. As if they had received some subtle signal, all the other villagers slipped out of sight as well. As Garen and the others stopped in the middle of the road, the man hurried over. He was middle aged, dressed in a grey robe, and there was a soft cap on his head. He looked like some sort of administrator.
He immediately focused all his attention on Garen, and gave him a respectful bow. “How may I serve you, lord.”
Garen turned to Blacknail. “See, acquiring the things you need will be simple. Tell the man what you want, and we will soon be on our way.”
“Yes, it certainly is convenient to be so feared,” Blacknail replied.
Book 3 is Out!
The third novel in The Iron Teeth series is now out on Amazon. Please support the author and help promote the book by purchasing and reviewing A Bloody Road. Every review and purchase helps a lot!