As Blacknail grinned maliciously and pulled his sword out of the dissolving slime, Obdehi’s face went completely pale from fear. The priest was still sitting on the ground, but he quickly jumped up and bolted deeper into the mine. Instead of giving chase, Blacknail let him go. He was much faster than his prey, and it wasn’t like the priest could go anywhere. The passage he’d taken was completely dark, and Obdehi didn’t have a lamp on him. The priest had left his in the side chamber.
Stretching to work out some sore muscles, Blacknail turned to Garen. “You don’t want him alive or anything dumb like that, do you?”
Garen shook his head. “No, he’s too dangerous to let live, and we already have the mayor. Hurry up and get him before he falls down a shaft or something. I want to bring my lord the false priest’s head.”
“Sounds like fun,” Blacknail replied as he walked back to grab the lamp he’d put down earlier.
Pacing himself, Blacknail then began jogging down the tunnel, and Garen followed him. As a hobgoblin, he had much better low light vision than a human. Also, he had a lamp, so he was able to avoid obstacles and make his way through the dark at a much faster pace than the priest. Obdehi was not so lucky. From up ahead, there was a screech and the sound of rolling rubble as the priest tripped and hurt himself in the dark.
A few seconds later, the light Blacknail was carrying through the tunnel revealed Obdehi. He was leaning up against a wall, with one of his feet raised awkwardly as if he’d hurt it. He was also shielding his eyes from the brilliance of Blacknail’s lamp, so his face was hard to see.
“Foul creature, I will…” Obdehi began to shriek as the hobgoblin approached. However, his speech was cut off when Blacknail promptly stabbed him in the stomach.
“Ugh, no!” the priest gasped as the blade sank into his guts.
Sighing in irritation, Blacknail stabbed him several more times until he stopped making stupid noises and lay still. Even for a human, Obdehi had talked way too much. Blacknail wasn’t even a little interested in listening to him anymore. Even the pained squeaks he was making were annoying.
When Obdehi was most definitely dead, Blacknail turned to Garen, who had just walked up beside him. “If you want his head, you will have to cut it off and carry it.”
Sighing, Garen went to work, and Blacknail took a few steps back. He didn’t want to get any more splatter on his clothes. The ground around Obdehi’s corpse was already soaked in blood.
The streets were still empty when the pair emerged from the temple, but there was an expectant hush over Herstcrest as they walked back over to the front gate. Occasionally, Blacknail saw flashes of movement at windows or in alleys. It seemed the townspeople were aware that something important was going on, even if they were afraid to show themselves.
“There you are!” Ilisti called when he caught sight of them. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d gotten lost or if something unexpected had happened to you.”
The vympir noble was still standing in the middle of the square before the main gate of Herstcrest, and the bodies of all the fallen thugs littered the ground around him. Beside Ilisti, cowered the mayor. He looked terrified out of his mind, but didn’t dare run, even though Ilisiti was basically ignoring him. The wagon was also still there, however Geralhd was nowhere to be seen, and the gates of Herstcrest were now wide open.
“It took us a while because we had to kill a god,” Blacknail told the vympir.
A wicked grin appeared on Ilisti’s face. He looked like he was having fun. “And I missed it? There goes the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“It was a false god, but still a rather noteworthy battle,” Garen replied.
“The priest is dead, though?” Ilisiti asked him.
Garen raised the blood-soaked shirt he was using to carry Obdehi’s severed head. “Without a doubt. Henceforth, he will not trouble you or interfere with your plans, lord.”
“Good. I have been interrogating Felsisio, here,” Ilisti said as he nodded toward the trembling mayor. “It seems the priest was the real power in this place. However, he was also quite insane, and thus the mayor ran everything.”
Blacknail didn’t care too much about that, but he did have one question. “Where’s Geralhd?”
“When he’d recovered from the sorcery the priest placed him under, I sent him to go summon my troops,” Ilisti explained. “He should be back momentarily.”
As Garen reported to his master about the details of what had happened, Blacknail listened in and corrected the vympir when he failed to adequately emphasize Blacknail’s own contributions. He was the one that had actually killed the huge slime god, after all. Garen had just sort of helped.
However, before Garen could quite finish his tale, Geralhd and the others arrived. The formation of western soldiers led the way, while Geralhd and others followed them. At the very back came the hobgoblins. They stayed behind the others and out of sight as much as possible.
When they got inside the town, some of the people from Shelter looked shocked to see the bodies of the thugs, but Geralhd quickly began explaining what had happened.
“Ah, good. Now, we can begin,” Ilisti remarked cheerfully when his guard had joined him.
“What are you going to do?” Blacknail asked him.
“With the help of the mayor, I plan on introducing myself to the good people of this town in a way appropriate to someone of my standing.”
“You’re going to step on them?” Blacknail asked in confusion.
Turning away, Ilisti ignored the hobgoblin. Instead, he looked down at the mayor and gave the man a cold smile. “You have a way of calling your people to gather, do you not?”
The mayor gulped. “Yes, of course, I do.”
“Then, please do so. I wish to address the people of this place, so I will send some men to escort you while you attend to my will,” the vympir explained.
Since he had little in the way of choices, the mayor nodded in agreement as Ilisti handed him off to Garen. He was then escorted deeper into the town and out of sight.
There wasn’t much for Blacknail to do at that point but wait around, since wandering around the town would probably be a bad idea. With nothing better to do, he walked over to Geralhd.
“Do you have any snacks?” he asked the man.
“There’s a lot of food loaded up into the cart, remember?” Gerlahd replied distractedly. He was surrounded by the people of Shelter, who were still upset at how their visit to Herstcrest was going so far.
“Oh, right,” Blacknail acknowledged before turning around and heading toward the cart.
However, before he got there, some of his hobgoblin minions intercepted him. They quickly skulked out from behind their human allies and moved out in front of the cart. Being in such an obviously human place made them nervous.
“Boss, it’s good to see that you are safe. What is it you want us to do now?” Herah asked him.
“Are we going to loot anything? You conquered this place, so that means we get to loot it!” another hobgoblin added.
Blacknail shook his head. “No, I traded this place to Ilisti, so no looting. There will be a victory feast, though.”
This seemed to appease most of the hobgoblins. Given the opportunity to loot, they would probably have mostly taken food, and wasn’t like any of them had done any fighting. That had all been Blacknail.
“Just stay out of trouble. Stick with our allies and try not to scare anyone. The humans here look fragile,” Blacknail told them.
While the other hobgoblins were thinking this over, Ferrar stepped forward and met Blacknail’s eyes. “Don’t forget the iron man, boss. I need you to find one for me, so I can make shiny things for you.”
“Right, sure,” Blacknail replied as he scooted around his minions and over to the wagon.
He was only distracted from his rummaging through the cart for the tastiest bits of food when some of the people of Herstcrest began to arrive in the plaza. All of them came in small groups that seemed to huddle nervously together. They studied all the visitors with poorly concealed fear, and they kept their distance from them. It seemed like they were here only because something even more frightening prevented them from leaving.
Curious, Blacknail turned to study the townsfolk. Both men and women wore simple grey homespun clothes, that looked as faded as everything else in the town. Contrary to his expectations, none of them were fat, despite being lazy town humans. In fact, some of them looked slim even from the perspective of a hobgoblin.
The crowd grew larger as more folk arrived. Noticeably, almost all of the people’s eyes looked dull and hollow, as if they had been worn down somehow. Blacknail frowned. These townsfolk almost seemed inhuman to him. Their behavior was all wrong. Even the way they held themselves was too meek and fragile. Looking the people over, Blacknail saw a disturbing lack of curiosity and initiative. It was like they were damaged or broken. They seemed to have no ability to imagine anything but the same grinding repetitive fear and pain, even when confronted with a novel situation such as this. Weird.
After a few more minutes had passed, the group of armsmen Ilisti had sent to escort the mayor returned with him. There was another large group of townsfolk following them meekly.
“This should be enough people. I’m told the town isn’t quite as populated as it used to be,” Ilisti remarked when the mayor reached his side.
“Should we set up a perimeter?” Garen asked him.
Ilisti shook his head. “I don’t believe that will be necessary. I’ve never seen a people so downtrodden. I rather doubt they could muster the courage to do violence, or that they would be much of a threat.”
Without wasting anymore time, the vympir noble grabbed the mayor’s shoulder and dragged him over to the middle of plaza. There was a quite hush as everyone watched. At the center of the plaza, Ilisti could be seen by everyone.
“You probably recognize this man as your mayor,” the vympir noble explained as he lifted the surprised man into the air using one arm. It was an impressive feat of strength, and in his dark armor, Ilisti’s muscular figure looked powerful and dangerous.
“Today, his reign over this place has ended. He attempted to kill me and my allies just so that he could rob us of a few possessions, and this pathetic act led me to take up arms against him. He was not alone in this egregious assault. He was aided by a priest, a servant of a false god.”
As Ilisti pronounced those last few words, somehow the silence grew deeper. The entire crowd was paying apt attention to him now.
The vympir paused dramatically for a moment before continuing, and lowered the mayor. “This priest is dead, and so is false god he pretended to serve. Both lay dead and can no longer harm you!”
As Ilisti finished speaking, Garen unveiled the severed head he was holding and tossed it forward. It landed on an empty patch of ground where almost everyone could see it. Instantly, here were gaps of surprise and disbelief from the crowd. They began to whisper among themselves. Their reactions varied greatly. Some looked hopeful, others angry, and many seemed skeptical. There were even a few that didn’t appear to care. They stared ahead with empty eyes.
Ilisti didn’t wait for them to quiet. His booming voice drowned them out as he resumed speaking. “As of now, I’m laying claim to this domain. My troops are unchallenged and have complete control of the wall. Know that your lives will improve greatly under my authority. You will not need to fear capricious deities, hungry beasts, or famines brought on by incompetence. I will bring change to this domain, but I will also bring prosperity and restore some connection to the outside world. No longer shall you wither away in the Green!”
“I’m not sure we should be handing this place over to Ilisti,” Gerlahd remarked nervously as he listened to the speech.
Blacknail turned to give the man a dry stare. “We? You can try to stop him if you want.”
While they’d been talking, Khita had wandered over, and she chose this moment to join the conversation. “Ilisti conquered the place, so it’s rightfully his, unless you think you can take it from him. Hmm, maybe I should go exploring and find an old village to conquer for myself. There must be some more out there in the Green.”
As Khita and Gerlahd began to argue, Blacknail sighed and turned away. He felt no need to deal with their stupidity.
After a few more minutes of yelling, Ilisti wrapped up his speech. By this time, the crowd had grown far more energetic. They were talking animatedly amongst themselves now, even if fear was still the prevailing emotion.
Grinning confidently to himself, the vympir let go of the mayor. “Take me to your abode. I will need a residence in my new domain, and my allies will need somewhere to rest while they recover from the journey.”
The mayor quickly nodded and began leading Ilisti and his guard deeper into the town. Since he’d been invited, sort of, Blacknail went along as well, and everyone else followed. There was no point hanging around in the square.
It didn’t take them long to arrive at the mayor’s soon to be former home. It was a mansion located among the other large dwellings in the center of Herstcrest, and it was by far the largest of all of them. Interestingly, many of the larger houses they had passed were among the worse maintained and several were obviously abandoned.
The mayor’s mansion was built from grey stone and mortar. It was a rectangular building with a steep roof covered in brown tiles. Three chimneys and several windows with triangular peaks stuck out of the roof. It was surrounded by a large yard that was in turn surrounded by a low stone fence. In a few places, ivy grey up from the ground to cover sections of the mansion’s walls.
“Hmm, it’s not very defensible, but it will have to do. It is unlikely I will be able to get a proper keep built anytime soon.” Ilisti remarked as he stepped past the fence and onto the paved path that led from the road to the door.
For the next hour and a half, Ilisti and a few others toured the mansion. Blacknail and Geralhd were among the invited, along with Khita. The home had a dozen bedrooms, a huge kitchen, and a grand hall for eating and entertaining guests. At the end of the tour, Blacnknail had to admit that Ilisiti’s new home was a lot more impressive than his cave.
The hobgoblin scratched his nose as he studied a tapestry that hung in a hall. It portrayed a duel between two knights in plate-mail, but Blacknail wasn’t really focused on it. He was thinking about the best way to get a fancy new mansion. Could his minions build one? If not, was there someone he could kidnap?
Before Blacknail could think up an answer to his conundrum, Ilisti called for everyone to join him in the main hall. It was short walk there for Blacknail, and once inside he took a seat at the long table that dominated the center of the room. Almost everyone else was already there, but it took Garen a few minutes to arrive. He’d been sent to round up and interview all the mayor’s old servants and shove the mayor somewhere he couldn’t get up to trouble.
“Firstly, I wish to thank everyone in this room,” Ilisti announced as he walked over to stand behind the chair at the far end of table. There was a pleased grin on his face that contrasted greatly with his normal self-control.
“You’re welcome,” Blacknail replied. That was the polite thing for people to do.
Ilisti nodded at the hobgoblin. “Your contributions, in particular, are worthy of note. You have fulfilled your end of our bargain with remarkable speed, and I am greatly pleased. So, I wish to grant you a boon.”
“That means he wants to give you a gift,” Geralhd whispered helpfully in the hobgoblin’s ear.
“You already promised to help me kill Werrick,” Blacknail mused aloud as he considered his options.
This first thing that popped into his mind was asking for all the cheese in the town, but that wouldn’t be very practical. What he really wanted right now was a mansion, but those weren’t very easy to carry around. Could he ask for something to help him build one? It was Ferrar that would probably know about that sort of thing. He’d made all the bricks and furnaces back at the goblin settlement. Wait, hadn’t Ferrar wanted something?
“I would like to borrow someone who knows about melting iron rocks,” Blacknail announced.
Ilisti gave the hobgoblin a puzzled look. “That is a rather unusual request, and not at all what I was expecting.”
Blacknail shrugged. “I promised one of my minions that I would find someone to teach him. He’s always looking for new things to set on fire.”
“Well, I’m sure we can spare you a smelter, if that is indeed what you are asking for. This settlement once operated a large mine, so there is probably more than few around, even though the place has fallen on hard times.”
“So, you and Garen are going to stay here from now on?” Geralhd asked the vympir. He hadn’t been invited to some of the prior strategy meetings.
“Yes, I think these people need me,” Ilisti explained. “Their lack of proper authority has obviously come close to ruining them.”
“Well, you certainly can’t be worse than their old leaders,” Geralhd admitted reluctantly. “What will you do here?”
“There is a lot that needs done, urgently so,” Ilisti replied. “I have no plans to reopen the mines until I get the agricultural situation in hand, which will probably take a while. There is clearly starvation within the town. I may even have to order some of my guard to help tend the fields. They won’t like that, but they will do as I command.”
“And after that?”
Ilisti shrugged. “Once I have things organized and under control here, I will send Garen back West to recruit some settlers from my old lands. There are plenty of vacant homes for them to take.”
“What about Werrick?” Blacknail asked suspiciously. The vympir had promised to help him.
Ilisti looked toward the hobgoblin and nodded. “My swords are yours should you call for them, and from what I have heard of the man named Werrick, I’m willing to bet that we will be hearing from him soon.”