Blacknail stared at the goblin in the cage before him. The creature was hard to see in the shadowy corner of the lab. The only light was pale and came from the magic crystals across the room. Beside him, Mahedium continued talking.
“I keep it locked up most the time,” Mahedium explained casually. “I was afraid I was going to have to drug it or have it trained, but that hasn’t been necessary. For some reason it seems mostly content as long as I keep it up high where it can see most of what’s going on.”
The small creature in the cage was thin for a male goblin, but not unhealthily so. Its lanky form was hunched over as it regarded the hobgoblin that had suddenly appeared in front of it.
Its eyes were what drew Blacknail’s attention. Not only were they bright red but they shone with something more than animal cunning: patient intelligence. Blacknail didn’t like that one bit.
As the two stared at each other, a smug grin suddenly appeared on the goblin’s lips. Blacknail growled softly in response. How dare this pipsqueak smirk at him! He was like three times his size!
A second later, the goblin turned away and laid down in the far corner of the cage. The hobgoblin frowned at the unexpected action. Was that a sign of submission? Was it just crazy? Blacknail wasn’t sure...
Anyway, why had Mahedium brought this weird goblin here? This was Blacknail’s territory. Humans shouldn’t be bringing goblins into camp without asking him!
He wanted to yell at the stupid human but he tried to keep calm. He had seen the mage blow up buildings before and set dozens of men aflame. There was no telling what type of Mana crystals he had tucked away on him and Blacknail didn’t want to find out the hard way. It would be better to keep things polite.
“Stupid human! Why do you need a goblin? There are enough goblins here!” Blacknail asked with a hint of anger in his voice.
“Red Dog would agree with you,” Mahedium chuckled. “Don’t worry, I only take it out for short walks and experiments. I have to keep it healthy if I want to draw blood from it. It’s very convenient to have another source of mage blood and not have to constantly cut myself. Maybe I should get an apprentice? Anyway, my fingertips haven’t been this smooth in years!”
Blacknail glanced at the lock on the cage door. It was a double latch. There was no way the goblin didn’t know how to open it! The only reason it was still in the cage was because that was where it wanted to be!
“It just watches you do magic-ss and stuff?” Blacknail asked doubtfully as he turned to face Mahedium.
“I guess. It’s just a feral goblin though, so it probably doesn’t even know what magic is. It probably just likes the fire and flashing colors,” the mage replied with an indifferent shrug.
Blacknail threw a quick glance over his shoulder, back towards the cage. The goblin within was staring intensely at Mahedium’s bubbling glass jar and the crystal inside it, but it quickly looked away when it noticed the hobgoblin’s attention. The complete fascination and intelligence in that gaze unnerved Blacknail.
The hobgoblin was more than willing to bet that the goblin understood a lot more than Mahedium thought it did. Stupid humans! How could they be so blind?
“It even responds to one or two basic commands,” the mage added appreciatively.
“I see,” Blacknail replied flatly.
This goblin was deeply suspicious! Goblins didn’t normally act like that! The hobgoblin squeezed his fist shut as he tried to rein in his anger.
“I don’t like it. Can I kill it?” the hobgoblin asked politely.
Killing the goblin would simplify Blacknail’s life greatly.
“What? There’s no need for that. Here I’ll show you,” the surprised mage replied.
The mage then reached down and unlatched the cage. The door swung open with a creak but the goblin didn’t attempt to leave. Instead, it just looked up and gave Mahedium an inquisitive look.
“Out. Heel.” The mage ordered it.
Almost immediately, the little goblin stepped out of the cage and scampered over to Mahedium’s side. It looked up at him with a dutiful expression, which didn’t fool Blacknail for a second. Suspicious!
Much to the hobgoblin’s surprise the goblin then raised a green arm and offered it to the mage. Mahedium just shook his head, though.
“Hmm, I don’t need to draw a blood sample today. Good boy, back into your cage now,” the mage said as he pointed towards the pen.
Sure enough, the goblin quickly hustled back into the enclosure it had just come out of. It kept its eyes downcast in a sign of submission to both Blacknail and the mage the entire time.
“See, the little thing is remarkably well behaved and incredibly beneficial to my research. Including the production of your Elixir,” Mahedium told the hobgoblin proudly.
Blacknail sighed in annoyance. The new goblin was a lot more obedient and useful than Scamp. Of course, Blacknail couldn’t shake the feeling that it was just bidding its time until it could murder everyone in their sleep. No one was perfect, though.
The goblin was more of a prisoner than a member of the tribe, no matter how well it behaved, so Blacknail didn’t feel the need to beat the snot out of it so it understood the hierarchy. He was just going to have to keep an eye on the creepy little thing.
Anyway, he’d delivered the letter so he didn’t see any reason to stay around here. Blacknail eyed the bubbling liquid on the table warily. Something might explode, and not in a fun way but more likely in a burning liquid in your eyes kind of way.
“Fine, it’s your problem-ss. I’m leaving,” Blacknail told the mage.
The hobgoblin then threw the little goblin an annoyed grimace and stalked out of the room. It was getting late now, so he decided to look for Saeter. His master should be starting to cook supper soon.
By the time Blacknail arrived back at his tent, he’d somehow managed to pick up a few new interesting trinkets, including a small coin pouch. It was weird how people just left them laying around everywhere...
Blacknail found Saeter seated next to his campfire. The old scout was stirring the contents of a big iron pot with a wooden spoon. The smell that rose from the pot as it cooked above the flames was heavenly. The hobgoblin’s mouth immediately began watering.
“You’re making stew!” Blacknail exclaimed happily.
The hobgoblin loved his master’s cooking! Usually, he had to make his own food, and it was never as good as the stuff Saeter could cook.
“We’ve done a fair bit of walking recently, so I thought we should put some weight back on our bones,” the old scout replied.
Blacknail eyed the big iron pot. It was almost full. That was a lot of food! It was time to stuff himself silly.
His delicious thoughts were interrupted by the sound of people approaching. Blacknail had to fight a sudden urge to spin around and hiss threateningly. It was his food! They would have to fight him for it!
Instead, Blacknail just looked over his shoulder and scowled at the newcomers. It was Geralhd and Vorscha. What did they want?
Vorscha was his sword instructor, so he knew fighting her could only end badly for him. Geralhd also had to be handled carefully. The man kept Blacknail well supplied with snacks. Blacknail didn’t want to scare him away. Hopefully neither of them was after his food.
“What are you two doing here?” Saeter asked suspiciously as he looked up from the pot.
“Do we need a reason to visit a good friend such as you?” Geralhd countered courteously.
“Yes,” Saeter grunted in reply. “You weren’t invited.”
“It’s too nice of an afternoon for anyone to be spending it alone. We just felt like stopping by and enjoying the pleasure of your company,” the younger man explained with a smile.
“Plus, you make really good stew, and I’m hungry,” Vorscha added. “we could smell it from across the camp.”
“Too bad,” Saeter told them. “Leave.”
“Blacknail wants us to stay,” Geralhd told the old scout.
The hobgoblin frowned. He really didn’t want any such thing.
“I doubt that,” Saeter replied gruffly.
“Do you?” Vorscha asked as she grinned smugly and winked at Geralhd.
“Blacknail, we brought cheese scones!” her lover announced.
The hobgoblin ears perked up and oriented themselves towards Geralhd. The rest of his head quickly followed. His eyes instantly locked onto the bundle of cloth the younger man had just taken out from behind his back.
“They can-ss stay!” Blacknail declared quickly.
Saeter glowered at both visitors, highlighting the lines of his weathered face. He looked like he was trying to think of some way to get rid of them.
“Ugh, fine,” he sighed in defeat a few seconds later.
“Yeah, scones!” Blacknail giggled happily.
This meal was going to be so great, maybe even the best ever! Rabbit stew with cheese scones! He couldn’t wait.
Vorscha smiled and Geralhd placed the rolled up cloth on a rock next to the fire. The pair grinned at each other as they settled down on the other side of the campfire from Blacknail and his master.
Saeter’s fire pit was a quite large, even if it was just a shallow hole in the ground surrounded by a ring of round stones. Two nearby flat rocks could be used as chairs, and there was also a nearby collection of cut up logs for people to sit on.
Wait, why did his master have so many seats around his campfire if he didn’t want visitors? Blacknail couldn’t figure it out. Was the old scout going to use them for something?
“Bah, I suppose I cooked enough food to share,” Saeter grunted as he started stirring the stew again. “It goes bad quickly, anyway.”
His master’s speech, and the intense stare Blacknail was directing towards the yet unwrapped scones, distracted the hobgoblin enough that the voice from behind him was a surprise.
“What’s going on here?” a newly arrived woman asked.
“No!” Blacknail hissed in alarm as he realized who it was and spun around.
It was Khita! She had probably come to steal some of his delicious scones and stew. Well, he wasn’t going to let her! She was useless.
“There you are,” Vorscha announced as Khita walked closer. “Take a seat.”
“I didn’t say she could-ss come,” Blacknail whined.
“She’s with us,” Vorscha replied as she gave the hobgoblin a flat stare.
Blacknail froze under her gaze. Good natured or not, there was a steely edge to her gaze. She clearly wasn’t going to accept any complaints from him. Why was the big woman always sticking up for Khita? She was useless.
“What’s one more mouth to feed? She may as well join us,” Saeter remarked sarcastically as he sat down on his favourite stump.
“Thanks, your stew usually tastes nice,” the young woman remarked.
Saeter frowned at Khita and pursed his lips. Clearly, he was insulted.
“Nice...” he huffed as he shook his head. “I’ve been perfecting this recipe since before you were a fire in your father’s loins.”
“It’s the nectar of the gods itself, if that’s what you want to hear,” Vorscha told the old scout as she rolled her eyes.
Khita took a seat next to Blacknail. The hobgoblin groaned and shuffled away. The cheese scones had better be bloody delicious!
“Hey, Blacknail! How did your last mission go?” Khita asked Blacknail. “Herad and Vorscha never let me go on any important missions. I’m either stuck here in camp or Vorscha is watching my every movement.”
“It was alright. I snuck around, met a new friend, and killed a bunch of people,” Blacknail remarked offhand as he waited for stew.
He didn’t mention the food he’d looted from the wagon. He wouldn’t put it past Khita to steal it.
“Sharp! That’s what I’m talking about,” the young woman exclaimed happily. “I want to go on a mission like that!”
“I don’t think killing people is a good measure of success,” Geralhd interjected unhappily.
“It is if you’re a hobgoblin,” Saeter told the other man.
“Is the food ready? The smell is making me hungry,” Khita suddenly asked.
“Close enough,” Saeter replied as he got up.
The old scout reached into a sack and pulled out a bunch of wooden bowls. One by one he filled them with stew from the pot and passed them out.
While he was doing that, Gerlahd finally unwrapped the cloth bundle he had been holding to reveal the scones within. It only took a few seconds for him to toss them around. Blacknail grinned as he caught his and took a bite. They were bloody delicious, so cheesy and yet so smooth and rich.
There was silence as everyone ate, if you didn’t count the hobgoblin’s smacking. Blacknail thought that this was fine, but Geralhd apparently found it awkward. The young man looked thoughtfully around at everyone else seated by the fire.
Up in the sky, the sun was starting to set behind the western clouds. The clouds glowed a deep red as darkness started to set in. All around, the shadows grew thicker as flickering firelight filled the camp.
“So Saeter, what do you think of our current situation? From what I hear, Werrick is coming and he’s bringing more than few men,” the young man asked to break the silence.
“I think there is going to be a fight,” Saeter replied stonily.
“Ugh, I don’t want to discuss fighting right now,” Vorscha interjected sourly. “Here we are enjoying a great meal among friends! Why bring up violence?”
“Imagine what will happen if she wins, though,” Gerald pointed out. “She’ll basically hold dominion over all the North! All its wealth will be at her fingertips and part of that will be ours!”
“That’s a good point,” Vorscha remarked as she smiled. “Retiring from the bandit life with a chest full of gold sounds great to me. I could really use a nice mansion full of servants.”
“That does sound nice,” Geralhd mused.
“It would have to be in Daggerpoint, or somewhere else beyond the King’s writ, but it would still be much nicer than my current cabin. Especially if you were there with me,” Vorscha told her lover.
He looked uneasy and smiled sadly before responding.
“That does sound wonderful. Unfortunately, as you know, I need to be heading home as soon as possible. My parents and sister need me back down South,” Gerlahd replied.
“You’re still a wanted man,” Vorscha pointed out.
“The warrant for my arrest will eventually expire, especially if I get my hands on enough coin to grease the right hands. Bribes are the only reason I was ever charged in the first place. All I did was win a fair duel!” the young man complained.
“And kill a man,” Vorscha added dryly.
“There are duels all the time where I come from, back in Eloria proper. Some of them are even to the death, yet rarely is anyone arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment,” Geralhd exclaimed angrily.
“Ha, you’re all lazy or cowards. I don’t plan on retiring ever! I’m going to work my way up to become Herad’s most trusted lieutenant and maybe even eventually be her successor!” Khita bragged.
There was a lot of eye rolling and skeptical looks from everyone else present. Blacknail tried to picture Khita as the leader of anything and failed. How could anyone ever be stupid enough to accept her as their chieftain?
“I don’t think Herad trusts anyone, especially not her lieutenants,” Saeter grumbled to himself as he got up and refilled his bowl.
“I don’t think that’s very likely. Everyone retires eventually,” Vorscha told Khita. “You really should be trying to figure out how to escape the criminal life.”
“It will be an adventure!” Khita replied defensively. “Besides, I won’t be alone. Blacknail won’t be retiring to some stuffy mansion. He’s a hobgoblin and they know how to have fun!”
Blacknail looked up from where he was eating the last of his scone. Bits of crumps fell off his chin.
“I’ll go where Master Saeter goes,” he replied simply.
This caused everyone to look Saeter’s way. The old scout just frowned and sat back down.
“Bah, having dreams like yours is just a good way to be disappointed. Only fools believe in happy endings. You’re better off just accepting things the way they are,” he told the others.
Blacknail put his empty bowl down and gave his master a questioning look. He seemed to remember Saeter saying something else a while ago.
“I thought your wanted-ss to make Herad Queen of the North and kick the southern king person in the balls. Didn’t you say that? I think-ss you did...” Blacknail mused aloud as he tried to remember.
Gerlahd suddenly snorted in amusement and a huge grin appeared on Vorscha’s face. For some reason, Saeter’s face grew noticeably redder. The old scout winced and looked off to the side.
“I never said anything like that! Stop lying, Blacknail. You’re imagining things, you stupid hobgoblin,” he quickly argued.
“Ambitious, but I like it,” Vorscha remarked.
“Ha, so much for not having any dreams!” Geralhd laughed. “I should have known you had a reason for sticking around here.”
“I wouldn’t mind kicking a king or two in the nuts,” Khita mused as she smirked. “Those fancy bastards have never done anything for me.”
“That was just something I said once as a joke,” Saeter protested.
“Of course it was. Don’t worry, Saeter. We all know you didn’t mean it,” Vorscha joked.
As Saeter glowered, Blacknail looked around at everyone’s smirks. He didn’t get it. What was so funny?
It quickly grew dark as the bandits talked and laughed. Soon, the only light was from their campfire or that of other nearby groups. By the time Saeter’s guests left, almost everyone else in the camp had turned in for the night.
With happy yawn, Blacknail went to bed. An owl hooted off in the trees as he walked over to his tent and crawled inside. Feeling comfortable, Blacknail curled up and fell asleep.
However, his rest was disturbed by unpleasant dreams, and Blacknail tossed and turned in his sleep.
A green maze of twisted trees surrounded him, and there was only a single path through it. Skulls and swords littered the ground as he walked. Coins slipped from his fingers no matter how hard he tried to hold them and eventually he was all alone in the darkness. The hobgoblin looked up and saw a white light shinning down the forest path in front of him. He reached out towards it...