The gathered horde of hobgoblins and goblins continued to feast until the last bit of food was gone. Too stuffed to move, most of them sat around the bonfires and relaxed. The scratchy sound of goblin conversation could be heard over the low sound of the drums, and a few hobgoblins even began singing. Acting swiftly, Blacknail used a club and excessive levels of violence to stomp it out before it started. He didn’t want to listen to that. Hobgoblin throats were not made for singing.
Once everyone had been given some time to digest their meals, Blacknail announced the next event. The night wasn’t over yet. Not even close. Now, Blacknail would be publicly testing the first few hobgoblins that wanted warrior marks. As everyone watched, an area next to the bonfires was quickly cleared of goblins and a circle was drawn in the dirt around it.
When the ring was complete, Blacknail and one of Gob’s minions entered the circle. Both of them wore leather armor and were holding blunt short swords. Blacknail was planning on putting on a show, so that everyone was reminded about how awesome he was. The test itself was simple. The applicant would duel the examiner and try impress him with his sword skills. Once the duel was over, the examiner would decide if he passed or failed. Harming the examiner was forbidden, but Blacknail had taken a swig of Elixir just in case. You couldn’t be too careful around hobgoblins, and it was more than possible for them to be dangerous because of stupidity or incompetence rather than malice.
Raising his blade, Blacknail smiled at his opponent. The hobgoblin seemed nervous and unsure of himself so Blacknail took the initiative and attacked first. He opened with a few easy and controlled swings that forced the hobgoblin to concentrate and dodge. After several of his blows were blocked, Blacknail increased the speed and power of his attacks. However, the hobgoblin was able to block or dodge them all using the basic sword techniques he’d been taught.
“To pass you need to attack me,” Blacknail said as he advanced.
The hobgoblin grimaced but moved forward to meet Blacknail, and after dodging his chieftain’s next attack, he slashed at Blacknail’s arm. Blacknail easily stepped out of the way of the attack and countered by extending a leg and tripping his off-balance minion. The surprised hobgoblin stumbled and Blacknail easily tapped his back with the tip of his blade.
“You need to do better. Try again,” Blacknail laughed as his embarrassed opponent nodded and steadied himself.
They sparred for a few more minutes without the hobgoblin getting a blow on Blacknail. That was to be expected, though. Blacknail had trained for much longer than any of his minions, was a Vessel, and was also a total genius at everything. Still, this hobgoblin had shown a solid understanding of the basics, so Blacknail ended the fight and awarded him with a pass. Smiling in relief, the hobgoblin initiate bowed to Blacknail and then stepped out of the ring. The nearby hobgoblins shouted encouragement as he passed. Watching the fight had gotten everyone excited.
After a quick break, the next hobgoblin looking to be tested entered the circle and began to spar with Blacknail. This fight and the next both went very similar to the first. The hobgoblins passed, but they weren’t able to hit Blacknail or even challenge him all that much.
The fourth hobgoblin to enter the circle was quite tall. Much to Blacknail annoyance, he was even slightly taller than him. Ignoring his height, his head was decorated by two curved horns and short brown hair. He also didn’t seem as nervous as the others had been. Instead, he was actually smiling in excitement. Weird. Looking him over, Blacknail decided that he wasn’t going to go quite so easy on this applicant. A few smacks would probably do him good.
As soon as his opponent had taken up a guard position, Blacknail rapidly glided forward to attack. He unleashed a swift slash at the hobgoblin’s head meant to force him to block, so Blacknail could push him off balance with the next move. However, much to Blacknail’s surprise, the tall hobgoblin didn’t try to block. Rather, he managed to lean out of the way of the attack and counter at the same time. The hobgoblin’s blade sliced toward Blacknail’s side and he was forced to jump back. Scowling, Blacknail brought his guard back up and reassessed the skill of his opponent. Clearly, this hobgoblin was better than the ones before.
Aggressively but not without caution, the tall hobgoblin stepped forward to keep the pressure on. Blacknail didn’t give ground, so they quickly exchanged a series of blows and slashes, with neither of them gaining the advantage. Blacknail stopped holding back. Without burning Elixir, he used all his speed and power. When his opponent failed to buckle under the pressure of his blows, he then began to use every dirty trick he knew. Although a few techniques caught the tall hobgoblin by surprise, he swiftly adjusted and managed to avoid being hit. The fighters danced around the circle as they relentlessly hacked and slashed at each other. Their blades sliced through the air and met with violent clangs that caused the myriad watchers to flinch. The rowdy mob of watchers that encircled the ring began to grow quiet as everyone became entranced by the fight and the dance of flashing blades.
However, Blacknail eventually began to tire, since this was his fourth match. How could this hobgoblin possibly be so good at sword fighting? Where had he learned to fight like this? It didn’t make any sense. Blacknail grimaced as he deflected a stab toward his gut. As the leader, there was no way he was going to back down. He still had a trick or two left anyway.
Scowling in determination, Blacknail pressed the attack. He launched a series of quick feints and slashes at the space around his opponent’s head. The hobgoblin dodged the first few strikes but was eventually forced to take a step back. That was what Blacknail had been aiming for. Instantly, he swung his blade around and slashed at the hobgoblin’s trailing front leg. His sword sliced through the air but missed its target by less than an inch as the hobgoblin pivoted on his back leg. At the same time, his sword came back around and struck toward Blacknail’s shoulder.
Cold surprise shot up Blacknail’s spine as his eyes locked on the incoming blade. For a timeless moment, the sword seemed impossible to stop and Blacknail stood frozen. Then, Elixir burned away Blacknail’s doubt as he tapped into its power, and he burst into motion. With new speed, he leaned away from the blow as he raised his weapon, and then he struck. His blade leapt toward his opponent’s side and hit him squarely in the ribs. At the last moment, Blacknail pulled the blow and twisted his sword so that he hit with the flat of the blade, but it still struck with enough force to send the hobgoblin stumbling backward, and there was a loud thud from the impact.
Grinning in satisfaction – even though he’d maybe, sort-of cheated a little tiny bit -Blacknail let his blade drop. He’d won, and that was the important thing. Of course, it hadn’t really been a competition… Well, whatever. He’d won.
As a cheer broke out and the watching mob began screaming Blacknail’s name, the fallen hobgoblin groaned and stiffly climbed to his feet. He kept his blade arm low and clutched his injured side, so it didn’t look like he wanted to keep on fighting. That was fine with Blacknail.
“So, did I pass, boss?” the tall hobgoblin shouted so that he could be heard over all the shouting.
Oh, right. This was a test. Blacknail nodded. “Ya, good job. Where did you learn to fight like that? You’re much better than everyone else but me. It’s a little weird.”
The hobgoblin shrugged, and then winced as the action caused him pain. “Lots of people taught me. I’ve been learning from every human and hobgoblin that would teach me, and fighting all the people who wouldn’t. The redheaded human female has been very useful.”
“I doubt that, but good job. Your swordsmanship is impressive,” Blacknail replied. He was one of the few hobgoblins Blacknail had ever met who would probably be able to defeat a human in a fair duel. Was he some sort of genius or something?
The hobgoblin bowed his head in thanks. “The shinning sword is all. The way of the blade is the knowledge you gave us. It had allowed me to be better than my rage. It has transformed me. Now, I am the blade itself. I have given it my everything and it has given me my everything in return.”
“Neat,” Blacknail replied with a tight smile. Ah, so he had another one of these. At least it was a very straight forward and useful obsession. Most the others were much more roundabout when it came to using them for murder. Although, the tricky part was going to be not getting murdered himself.
“Hmm, I don’t know your name. Do you have one?” Blacknail asked.
The hobgoblin nodded. “They call me…”
Blacknail cut him off with a wave of his hand. “I shall call you Slashi. That’s your name now, and it’s a great one, so you should thank me.”
The hobgoblin now known as Slashi looked unsure and hesitated a moment for replying. “…Thank you?”
“No problem. I’m awesome at naming things!” Blacknail replied as he gave Slashi a friendly pat on the shoulder.
Unsteady on his feet, Slashi then departed the ring and the last challenger entered. Blacknail scowled as he realized who it was. What was Herah doing here? Had she always been part of the event? Blacknail had no idea if she was any good with a blade. Wait. Was that Khita standing over by where Herah had come from? Seriously, why was she here? The stupid redhead had definitely not been invited. No humans had been.
“What are you doing here?” Blacknail asked Herah as she walked over with blade in hand.
She gave him a curious look. “I’m here for the test. I want a warrior mark.”
“Alright fine, but Gob didn’t mention that you were one of the candidates. I would have probably remembered that.”
Herah shrugged. “Yes, one of initiates he suggested was injured in an unfortunate accident, so I volunteered to replace him.”
“What exactly happened to this unlucky hob?” Blacknail asked. He was suspicious.
“Something hard hit the back of his head and knocked him unconscious,” Herah answered deadpan.
“I see…” Blacknail replied carefully. “Well, let’s get the test started.”
He wasn’t sure what Herah was up to, but Khita was undoubtedly involved in it up to her scrawny pink neck. Why else would she be here?
Herah nodded in acknowledgement and raised her blade as she took a stance, so Blacknail did like-wise. A moment later, he began the spar with a high slash meant to draw her out. She hesitated but didn’t take the bait, so Blacknail pressed the attack.
The sparring match continued for several minutes after that. Herah seemed to be at the same level as the first two hobgoblins or maybe slightly higher. Blacknail quickly began to get tired, so he wrapped the fight up fairly quickly. After tapping Herah’s shoulder he stepped back away from her.
“Fine, you pass. You can have the warrior mark,” Blacknail told her as he took a few deep breaths to fill his lungs and speed his recovery.
A happy grin appeared on Herah’s face. “Oh, thank you, great chief. You are as wise as you are handsome!”
“I know,” Blacknail replied as he turned away from her.
There was a loud chorus of cheers from the watchers around the ring as they realized the fight was over, and Blacknail went to find somewhere to sit down. His arms were stiff, and he was breathing heavier than normal after all the sparring.
Herah happily trailed after him. When he turned to look at her, she gave him a friendly grin. “Would you like some food, boss? I can grab some for you.”
“Why would you?” Blacknail asked suspiciously.
“You’re the chief and I’m your minion. I live to serve you, and besides, you worked so hard to set up the test.”
Blacknail considered her words for a moment. “Alright, fine. I do feel like having some more meat.”
“Right away, boss!” Herah replied. She winked and then turned to run off back the way she’d come.
Feeling a little confused, Blacknail went to find a place to sit. There was a nice wooden bench sitting just the right distance from one of the bonfires. The only problem was that it was occupied by three hobgbolins, but that was easy enough to fix. Yawning, Blacknail simply walked over and shoved them off the bench from behind. Once the startled hobgoblins saw who it was that had pushed them, they swiftly vacated the premise without a word. Blacknail nodded in satisfaction as he sat down on the bench. It was nice to be respected properly.
After Blacknail had been sitting down and enjoying the waves of heat coming off the fire for a few minutes, Herah returned with a plate of meat. Blacknail wasn’t sure were she’d gotten it since almost everything had already been eaten. She must have had it squirrelled away somewhere.
“Here you go, best boss,” she said as she handed it to him.
“Thank you,” Blacknail replied as he took the plate. He had to push himself up since he was lying on his side.
Herah quickly sat down beside him and gave him another grin. “Do you want me to feed you? You seem very tired.”
“Hmm, alright,” Blacknail replied after thinking it over. Her idea would prevent him from having to get up, and it was unlikely that she was trying to poison him. He was fairly sure he hadn’t done anything to enrage her lately. In fact, she had been unusually quiet these past few days.
Without delay, Herah began cutting up the meat and using a fork to bring the meat up to Blacknail’s mouth where he could eat it. She smiled down at him as Blacknail ate, and Blacknail got a whiff of her scent. It smelled like she’d been rolling in flowers or something. Weird. By the time the plate was empty, Blacknail was feeling very full. His belly stuck out and felt heavy. He had already eaten earlier after all.
Looking around, Blacknail saw that the field around the bonfires was emptier now and the sky overhead had become pitch black and peppered with stars. It had grown late and many of the goblins and hobgoblins had wandered off back to their homes. Since Blacknail had already eaten as much as he possibly could, it was probably time for him to do the same and head home for the night. Groaning, Blacknail begin to get up.
“Where are you going?” Herah asked with a pout. She seemed to have been enjoying herself, although Blacknail had no idea why.
“I’m going to sleep now. See you tomorrow,” Blacknail answered as he began to walk away from the bonfires and out into the darkness.
Instead of staying behind, Herah quickly followed after him. “I’ll walk with you.”
Blacknail waved her away. “No, stay here.”
As Herah stopped and pouted again, Khita suddenly emerged from out of nowhere and walked over. “She can come with me. I’m going to the cave as well.”
Blacknail stopped in his tracks and turned to scowl at her. Khita had a bed in his cave because back when he’d first claimed the place it had been one of the only safe places she could have slept, but she had rarely used it lately. Still, it was obviously too dark for her to go back to Shelter now, and she had to sleep somewhere.
“Why are you even here?” he asked her.
“I never miss a party or a fight, and this was both. Where else would I be?” the redhead replied with a smug smile.
“Fine, whatever. Neither of you better ruin my sleep, though,” Blacknail replied as he began walking again.
For some reason this made Khita laugh as she joined up with Herah. Together, the pair strolled after Blacknail and whispered quietly back and forth. Blacknail’s ears twitched as he tried to listen in, but he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Blacknail huffed in annoyance. It was probably stupid nonsense anyway.
When Blacknail got to his cave and walked inside, Khita and Herah both followed him. Narrowing his eyes in suspicion, Blacknail sat down on his bed and stared at them. It was obvious that they were up to something. The pair were obviously co-conspirators in some sort of scheme, although Blacknail wasn’t sure what the goal of it was.
As Blacknail watched, the pair whispered to each for a few moments, and then Khita suddenly spoke up. “Sure, you stay here. I’ll go grab the comb. I want to show it to you anyway.”
The redhead then turned and gave Blacknail a quick mischievous grin before running out of the cave. Suspicious! Blacknail’s brow wrinkled as he watched her go. What was she playing at? He hoped it wasn’t going to interfere with his sleep. He didn’t have the time or patience to deal with all this nonsense right now.
As Blacknail focused on Khita leaving, Herah tentatively walked his way. Blacknail frowned and turned to look at her, and she gave him a nervous smile.
“There’s something I want to show you,” Herah announced.
“What is it?” Blacknail asked.
That was when Herah pulled off her shirt of and untied her belt. Both her shirt and her pants hit the floor at the same time, revealing her naked body. Blacknail stared, too surprised to think.
“My breasts have gotten bigger, haven’t they?” Herah asked as she put her hands on her hips.
Slowly, Blacknail brain began to work again. He’d figured out what was going on now. It was an ambush! The problem was he wasn’t sure he even wanted to avoid the trap.
“Do you like what you see?” Herah asked him as she stepped closer and wiggled her hips. Even in his current state of mind, Blacknail knew there was only one answer to that question.
“Yes, you’re nice to look at,” Blacknail found himself saying. It was true. Herah’s chest had filled in a little, even if it was still nothing compared to that of certain humans’, including one that Blacknail wasn’t even going to think about right now. Bad idea.
Blacknail hesitated as Herah leaned in closer, and he smelled the flower scent again. It wasn’t particular strong, but it did smell refreshing. Stop. He had to focus, and not on Herah’s enticing green body. Something else.
Was it safe to mate with Herah? Blacknail had been sure that he’d had good reasons not to… but he couldn’t remember what those were right now. Most importantly, it seemed unlikely that this was a plot to assassinate him. Herah was loyal, and would gain nothing from killing him since everyone would know it was her. Unless someone else was behind the plot… but who?
Suddenly, Herah’s lips met his own, and Blacknail’s brain shut off again. Burning need blazed up from below his core and sent his heart into overdrive. He growled softly as the feeling consumed him, and he reached over to pull Herah’s thin body closer