Now that Garen was with them in the village, Khita and Blacknail were able to buy food and gear in no time. The middle-aged man that had rushed over to meet them organized everything. Blacknail was sure that he was also trying to get them out of the village as soon as possible and away from the other villagers, but that was fine with him. He was used to behavior like that, although this time they didn’t even know he was a hobgoblin. The villagers were worried about Garen, even if they showed him nothing but respect.
When they were done shopping, they headed back out into the forest to meet up with the others. Not long after that, Ilisti was ready to move. Blacknail’s hobgoblins acted as scouts for the vympir’s men and guided them East. Ilisti’s men had packed their camp up and were transporting it using several horses – which Blacknail chose to ignore - and a small cart. Blacknail was fairly sure there were two corpses wrapped up in blankets on the cart, but who was he to judge?
At the front of the main group, Blacknail walked beside Ilisti. Khita, Elyias, and Garen strode behind them. Both the vympirs had horses, but they had chosen to travel on foot with their new allies for now. They were making their way along a dirt road that cut through the forest. At this pace it would take them almost two weeks to get back to Shelter.
The sky overhead was cloudy as they walked, and the wind was still. Most of the road was shaded by long branches that extended out from the forest on either side. The smell of wet earth and growing things hung heavy in the spring air, although the clouds up above were white and fluffy, so it didn’t seem like it was going to rain anytime soon. That was good. Rain would have turned the dirt road to mud and slowed them down considerably. Although the walk wasn’t too bad, Blacknail was bored so he decided to have a friendly chat with Ilisti.
“What’s your favorite way of hunting people?” he asked him.
“Excuse me?” the vympir replied as he gave the hobgoblin a surprised look.
“You’re a vympir. I’m a hobgoblin. We both hunt people. Everyone says so. I was wondering if you had any tips for me,” Blacknail explained.
“Um, no. Sorry. I’m not some beast out of an eastern folk tale, terrorizing villagers at night. I’m a lord of the ancient blood. I don’t hunt my prey. I earn my thralls in combat or they are offered to me by my gracious subjects if I am in need.”
“Well, if you ever want to start hunting people then feel free to ask me for tips. I’m very good at it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Ilisti replied dryly.
Just then, a hobgoblin scout slipped out of the trees up ahead. Blacknail watched with interest as the scout jogged over to him. Had the scouts found something?
“What is it?” Blacknail asked. He hoped it was interesting.
The hobgoblin gave a little bow before answering. “Tracks, boss. They aren’t like anything we have seen before, and there are lots of them, everywhere.”
“What kind of tracks?” Blacknail’s minions weren’t all that experienced, so it was possible they were just confused.
“Weird ones, boss. The feet look small, but they have three long claws, and the way the tracks are clustered together makes us think the things have six feet. That’s a weird number of feet.”
“It is,” Blacknail mused. That description didn’t sound like anything he’d seen or heard of before, especially if these things travelled in groups. Maybe these creatures only lived in the West?
“Do you know anything that fits this description?” Blacknail asked Ilisti.
The vympir frowned thoughtfully and then grimaced. “Only one thing comes to mind, and I’m far from an expert on them, boggarts.”
“What are those?” Blacknail asked. He’d never heard of them, except it sort of sounded like something humans yelled when they stubbed their toes.
“Come up here and inform our ally,” Ilisti said as he turned back to look at Garen.
“Yes, lord,” Garen immediately replied as strode forward to join them.
“I thought boggarts were made up, like house spirits” Khita remarked as she invited herself into the conversation.
“Up until the last few years, most good people would have agreed with you.” Garen admitted. “However, that has changed. It all started with a sudden uptake in the disappearance of livestock. At first, harpies and goblins were blamed, but then herders and farmers began to find tracks similar to the ones you described. Hunters and foresters began to notice other things as well, like a sharp decrease in sightings of other creatures in certain areas, particularly goblins.”
“Huh,” Blacknail remarked. He didn’t like where this was going.
Khita shrugged. “So, you’re just giving the name to some new pest? Has anyone actually seen these things?”
“I’ve heard that a few bodies have turned up, although I’ve never met anyone who has seen the beasts themselves. However, the rumors describe insect-like creatures the size of large dogs with twisted bodies and incredibly sharp claws and teeth. They are also supposed to live underground and come up above to hunt. Maybe they hail from the Dark Paths”
“Ugh, nasty,” Khita remarked as she stuck her tongue out in disgust.
“How fresh are the tracks?” Blacknail asked his scout. He wanted to know if there were any swarms of goblin eating monsters around.
“We think they’re from yesterday,” the hobgoblin replied.
“Tell the others to be cautious and careful anyway. We don’t know much about these boggarts,” Blacknail said. There was a big difference between hunting goblins and hobgoblins, but maybe boggarts were too stupid to realize this for themselves.
The scout nodded and hurried off back into the forest.
“I’ve never heard of boggarts attacking a column of men, so we should be safe,” Garen remarked as they watched the scout leave.
“Yes, and I don’t imagine anything will be getting the drop on us with a screen of hobgoblins out there keeping watch,” Ilisti observed cheerfully. “From what I’ve seen, they are remarkably proficient scouts, as only true creatures of the Green can be.”
Blacknail nodded in agreement. “I taught them everything they know.”
The rest of the journey that day was uneventful. No horde of semi-mythical boggarts materialized to attack them. When it began to grow dark, the humans and the hobgoblins set up camp next to each other. Ilisit’s men were still uncomfortable sleeping right next to hobgoblins, and Blacknail thought it best to keep the hobgoblins out of trouble. However, before everyone started tucking in for the night, Ilisti and Garen visited Blacknail’s campfire.
“Greetings, I just wanted to stop in before took my night’s sleep,” Ilisti said as he walked over.
Blacknail, Khita, Elyias, and several hobgoblins were seated around the fire. Elyias immediately shied away from the vympirs, while everyone else greeted them.
“We’re just sitting here, discussing our favorite foods. Mine is old smelly cheese.” Blacknail replied. “You eat food, right? You don’t just drink blood, do you?”
Garen winced but Ilisti took the questions in stride and answered matter-of-factly. “We eat normal food, yes. The blood of thralls is simply the source of our power. We consume it rarely.”
“Good. The world is full of tasty things. I would hate to have an ally who couldn’t enjoy it. I’ll bring you some cheese when we get back.”
“I shall look forward to it.”
“You really shouldn’t,” Khita muttered darkly to herslef. Ilisti seemed to intimidate her in a way Garen didn’t, so she didn’t usually speak up around him. Blacknail didn’t get it. They were both vympirs.
“You humans usually don’t make your food taste strong enough,” Blacknail remarked. “I find letting it age awhile almost always makes it taste better.”
Ilisti frowned, and Blacknail didn’t think it was because of his culinary advice. “We vympirs don’t really consider ourselves humans, and most men agree with the distinction.”
“That’s silly,” Blacknail huffed. “As someone who really isn’t human, I know what humans look like. Having red eyes and magic doesn’t make you all that different. Mutant wolves are still wolves, and they usually lead wolf packs, sort of like you and your men.”
The vympir looked uncertain but then a moment later he nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps you are right. You certainly see the issue from a fresh perspective. Huh, you have given me something unexpected to think about, my unusual green friend.”
“I like being unexpected,” Blacknail replied cheerfully. It made it easier to take things and stab people.
“Well, I should get back to my own men. I bid you goodnight,” Ilisti told them all before nodding and walking away.
Garen stayed until his liege was out of sight, and then he frowned at Blacknail. “He lets you get away with so much. Your inhumanity protects you. You are outside all our social norms, and he doesn’t hold your ignorance of them against you. He has killed men for a fraction of the disrespect you show.”
“Plus I’m handsome!” Blacknail added.
Garen scowled disapprovingly at the hobgoblin, but then Khita leaned closer and smiled at him. The vympir hesitated and then beat a quick retreat.
“He’s very flighty for a monster from legend,” Khita remarked.
Blacknail rolled his eyes. “You can annoy anyone or anything.”
Soon after that, everyone tucked in for the night. Their sleep was uninterrupted by attacks by unknown terrors from the Green, and they woke up the next morning ready to continue on their way back to Shelter.
Sometime after noon, Blacknail found himself leading the main body again while his hobgoblins were out scouting. Garen and Khita were with him, but Ilisiti was at the back somewhere, and Elyias was actually with some of the hobgoblins. He had apparently decided they were less threatening than vympirs. The way his mind worked was a mystery. Khita was doing her best to draw Garen into a conversation, while Garen did his stoic best to ignore her.
Walking so much was beginning to bore Blacknail. Movement in the forest up ahead drew his attention, but it turned out to just be two hobgoblins. They pushed through the bushes at the edge of the forest and headed over to report to their chieftain. They looked to be in a hurry, so something was probably happening.
Blacknail sighed in resignation as he watched them approach. “I sort of miss doing my own scouting, but I’m an important leader now. I don’t get to explore the forest and almost nothing exciting happens without someone telling me about it beforehand.”
“I think that’s the entire point of having scouts,” Garen remarked dryly.
Blacknail shrugged. “They are also more people for me to boss around.”
The lead hobgoblin raised an arm and shouted. “Boss! Trouble. There is a troll lurking about in the forest nearby. It has seen some of the humans and is stalking them now.”
“I’ll go get my lord!” Garen exclaimed as he ran back toward the other humans.
Blacknail watched him go and the turned back to the scout. “It is probably looking for an easy target, so we have a bit of time. Where is Elyias?”
“He’s with the scouts we sent to watch the troll,” the scout explained.
“Huh,” Blacknail remarked. That didn’t sound like something Elyias would do. “Did you tell him that was where he was going?”
“No. We wanted it to be a surprise.”
“Good job,” Blacknail replied as he gave the hobgoblin scout a thumbs up.
“I hear we have visitor!” Ilisiti yelled as he ran over with Garen at his side. He was wearing a chainmail shirt with long sleeves and armored boots.
“Yes, I was just thinking about how we were going to scare it away,” Blacknail replied. Trolls mad him nervous.
“Nonsense, it has been too long since my last troll hunt,” Ilisti countered. “Just point me in its direction and I will kill it.”
What? Blacknail couldn’t believe his ears. His jaw hung slightly open, as he turned and gave Ilisti an uncomprehending stare. “You want to fight it? For fun?”
“Yes, trolls aren’t too dangerous for a vympir as long as they don’t grow overconfident,” Ilisti explained as he smiled in anticipation. “I will have my weapons, armor, and men-at-arms with me to contain it and drive it off if I become injured.”
“Troll hunting is traditional for western lords. It impresses on others their might and power,” Garen added.
Blacknail shook his head in disbelief. “It works. I’m impressed.”
“Do they not hunt trolls in the East?” Ilisti asked curiously.
“Not unless they have no choice,” Blacknail answered. “I’ve hunted one with my old master once, but only because it was stalking us and we had to kill it before it killed us.”
“I wish I could have been there, but that was before I joined,” Khita remarked wistfully. “At least I will get to see a troll today! I’ve never seen one before.”
“You don’t hunt drakes, do you?” Blacknail asked the vympirs. That was the only beast more dangerous than trolls that he could think of.
Ilisti laughed. “Ha, no. Even the ancient blood has limits, and being swallowed alive by a giant lizard is one of them.”
“Good,” Blacknail remarked in relief. He wasn’t planning on going anywhere near a drake anytime soon, and he didn’t want a suicidal ally.
As they were talking, a squad of a dozen men hurried over. They were carrying various pieces of equipment including armor and several long lances. The men immediately began strapping the armor onto Ilisti. When they were done, one of them handed the vympir a steel helmet with a full faceplate and decorative bat wings on the sides.
Ilisti tucked the helmet under his arm and turned to Blacknail. “Alright, take me to the troll. It would be shame if it decided to wander off before we got to it.”
Blacknail looked over at the scouts. The lead one shrugged, so Blacknail sighed and motioned for them to lead the way, which they promptly did. They headed over into the forest at the side of the road, and everyone else followed them, including a dozen of Ilisti’s men who held long spears.
Blacknail noticed that Ilsiti moved surprisingly quietly considering all the metal he was wearing. He avoided branches and soft earth with ease. It must have been because of his vympir strength and great balance. How strong were vympirs? Blacknail had been assuming they weren’t much different from vessels, but if they hunted trolls then that might not be the case. He hoped they weren’t too strong. He had come here looking for an ally that needed him, not a new rival he didn’t understand.
The forest was fairly open here next to the road. The trees were tall with rough brown bark, but they had no branches near the ground and there was enough space between them that you could see fairly far. There was also next to no bushes or tall plants to block people’s sight.
After a few moments of walking, the mixed group of men and hobgoblins encountered another pair of hobgoblins that were warily watching the forest up ahead. They gave the newcomers a quick glance and then turned back to watch the trees.
“The troll beast is just on the other side of that hill,” their guide explained quietly
“Good. I’ll handle it from here,” Ilisit remarked with a smile. “Hunting trolls isn’t complicated. I’ll go in first to get its attention, while my men and you surround it. It will focus on me.”
“Do you want us to do anything?” Blacknail asked him.
“Just help out my men if they engage. Otherwise stay out of the way. Garen and my men know what to do.”
“Not a problem. Good luck!” Blacknail told him. He was planning on staying as far back possible and seeing what happened. It would at the very least be an interesting show.
As everyone watched, Ilisti lifted his lance and began walking forward. Garen and his soldiers let him get twenty feet ahead and then fanned out after him in a loose formation. All of them were walking carefully with raised spears, including Garen who held two long lances. Blacknail gave them a few seconds and then followed with his minions in tow. Those hobgoblins that had bows readied them, although arrows wouldn’t do much against a troll. The only vulnerable spots on trolls were their small eyes, and they didn’t hold still so you could line up a shot.
Ilisti stopped atop the slope, and there was a rustling sound from down below. Blacknail tensed as Ilsiti began edging forward. The human men-at-arms began spreading out to encircle the target, and the hobgoblin stayed atop the hill so that they could see what was happening. Below, the troll emerged from behind a large tree.
The beast was huge, as all trolls were. Standing on two legs, it towered over even Ilisti, who was very tall himself. Its thick hide was splattered in mud and had tufts of brown hair. Its elongated arms hung almost to the ground, and long black claws sprouted from its thick fingers. It gazed at the vympir before it with beady red eyes that were set below a thick forehead, and boar-like tusks protruded from its lips. All in all, it looked like what it was, an unthinking killing machine.
“It’s a bit of a runt,” Ilisti remarked in disappointment as he studied it.
A thunderous snort exploded out of the beast’s nostrils as it stepped towards him. It seemed slightly confused by the vympir’s behavior. The human wasn’t running and it didn’t seem frozen by fear, however that didn’t matter to much to the troll. It had only one real reaction to almost every situation anyway, hunt and kill. With startling speed, the troll reached out with its claws and lunged at Ilisti. Blacknail held his breath.