Branches and leaves were shredded and brushed aside as the troll leapt through the forest at Ilisti, and the its long deadly claws reached out for him. Killing intent radiated out from the beast. It was unrestrained violence in motion, and it moved almost too quickly for Blacknail to keep track off, but Ilisti was ready. In one fluid motion, the vympir stepped to the side and lowered his stance, as he brought up the tip of his lance. The troll’s claws missed him by mere inches and caught only empty air, but his weapon sank into the flesh beneath the beast’s shoulder, pushing it back. The force of the blow was incredible, but the butt of the lance was set against the earth, and although it shivered, the sturdy weapon did not break. It kept the troll away from Ilisti.
Roaring savagely in pain, the troll swiped at the vympir with a claw. Its eyes were wide with hate, and its thunderous voice ripped through the forest as its mouth stretched opened to reveal countless jagged yellow teeth. Ilisiti ducked and raised an arm to protect his head. There was a terrible scratching noise as the troll’s claws scrapped against his armor. He was knocked slightly back by the force, but he quickly righted himself and kept his balance. The troll hissed as it tried to press forward and snap at Ilisiti with its jaws, but its body was held back by the rooted lance. In front of the deadly monstrosity, Ilisiti didn’t freeze or hesitate. He was unflinching as he drew a long knife from his waist, and he grunted loudly as he rammed it up under the troll’s ribs. It sank up to the hilt, but the troll didn’t bleed. Thick green fluid oozed out of the wound for a second and then it dried, sealing the wound.
Dumbfounded, Blacknail could only stare at the spectacle. The power of both combatants was unreal. Their might defied belief, and dwarfed that of humans or hobgoblins. One of swing of the troll’s claws would have sent Blacknail flying, even if he had been wearing armor, and the idea of standing in front of charging troll was ludicrous, but it had appeared to work.
The combat didn’t let up. Ilisti stabbed the troll again with his long knife. Trolls weren’t the smartest of creatures, they didn’t need to be, but this one knew it had to try something else. Its claws weren’t doing much damage to the armored vympir who was enthusiastically trying to gut it. Eyeing the lance keeping it at bay, it raised a fist and smashed down on the weapon’s shaft. The wood splintered, and Ilisti jumped backward out of the way.
“Lance!” he yelled as he raised a hand.
Immediately, Garen pressed forward and threw him a new weapon. Ilisti caught it and leveled it at the troll. The red-eyed beast wavered as it studied its unexpectedly tough opponent, but it was a predator and it didn’t flee from creatures that were so much smaller than itself. Instead, it made a hissing noise like a kettle full of very angry snakes and stepped forward again.
The beast moved with new wariness as it slashed at Ilisti with a claw, but the vympir deftly stepped aside and responded with a stab of his lance that forced the troll to back off. Frustrated, the beast swiped at the weapon, but Ilisti danced the lance out of the way and then slashed the troll’s lead leg. It was a superficial wound, but it annoyed the creature.
“It’s too cautious. Harry it forward,” Ilisti yelled as he launched a series of quick stabs that failed to damage the troll but distracted it for several seconds.
Immediately, most of the arms-men that had been hanging back behind Ilisti rushed out to flank the troll from both sides. Garen led half of them as they circled behind the beast. Once in position, they began stompin their feet and yelling. The troll growled at them but didn’t dare turn away from Ilisti. However, this new threat unnerved it. It didn’t like being surrounded, and it wanted out. Its eyes locked on Ilsiti as it realized that the vympir was now standing alone. The green giant roared again and charged forward, with the intent of battering Ilisti aside. The vympir had other plans. He rushed to meet the charge and ruined the beast’s angle of attack. Instead of coming at Ilisiti from an angle, the two combatants hit each other head on.
Ilisti ducked under a swipe from the troll and raised his weapon. The troll’s bulk barreled forward, and the tip of the weapon sank into its gut. Quick as a snake, Ilisti managed to set the butt of his weapon against the earth, and once again the trolls own power drove the lance through its tough hide and into its soft flesh. It shrieked in pain as it tried to back away, and one of its flailing limbs hit Ilisti square in the chest. The heavily armored vympir was sent flying sideways and hit a tree before falling to the ground in a shower of leaves.
Watching from a safe distance away, Blacknail winced. “Ouch.”
However, Ilisti didn’t stay down. Almost immediately he climbed to his feet. The troll had taken a few a few steps past him, but its injuries obviously pained it and hampered its movements. It walked with a limp, and there were now two lance shafts sticking out of its body. Garen ran over and handed his lord a longsword, and then Ilisti began stomping over to the troll.
Realizing it couldn’t get away, the beast stopped trying to flee and turned to face its challenger. Its voice shook the trees as it roared again, but Ilisti kept coming. It slashed at him, but he dodged back and cut at the troll’s arms. The creature was definitely moving slower now, while Ilisti didn’t even seem tired, despite his crash into the tree.
The combatants exchanged a flurry of blows, which resulted in the troll gaining a series of small wounds all over its body, all of which instantly closed up, but then the troll stumbled. Halfway through a swing of one of its arms, its back leg gave out. Ilisti seized the advantage. He spun around the beast’s outstretched arm, and raised his blade up high. With all his power, the vympir chopped down at the trolls neck. The blade sliced through air and into flesh. There was a wet thud as metal hit bone and cut into it. As Ilisti pulled his blade free, the long ragged wound began to fill with green ooze, but that didn’t stop the troll from falling. There was another thud as the beast hit the ground face first amid a small cloud of dust. It shuddered a few times and then went still. Was it dead? Blacknail wasn’t sure. He was still shocked, and he hadn’t seen many dead trolls.
Ilisti seemed to think he was victorious. He dropped his blade and stepped back away from his fallen opponent. An arms-man ran over to pick up his lord’s sword, while two others approached and poked the troll’s sides with their spears. It didn’t move.
Taking off his helmet, Ilisti turned to give Blacknail a satisfied look. “Not a bad hunt. The troll looked a little gaunt, though. Which is strange for a healthy adult. They rarely have trouble hunting in forest such as this. The area must be short on game for some reason. Still, it’s a shame I have no hall to hang its head in. It wouldn’t be a bad trophy”
Blacknail snorted. “I’m sure you’ll get a hall for yourself eventually. I know some that wouldn’t be all that hard for you to take.” In fact, if the bout he had just seen was any indication, Blacknail wasn’t sure he had ever encountered a building that Ilisti couldn’t have taken with ease.
Ilisti grinned. “True, but keeping it is the problem. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere that I would have to deal with constant attacks by your cults or paladins.”
“They aren’t my paladins,” Blacknail replied with a roll of his eyes. “I’ve only ever met one, and now that you mention it, I’m not even sure what they’re supposed to do.”
“Ah, that’s right. I keep forgetting about your… unusual upbringing, even if you’re an Easterner.”
“The fact that I’m green should remind you,” Blacknail pointed out dryly.
“Ha, yes. However, you can also talk, which sometimes confuses me. Did the paladin by chance survive your meeting?” the vympir asked. He was clearly fishing for information. He’d perked up the moment Blacknail had mentioned meeting a paladin.
“It was a long time ago. I wasn’t allowed to kill him, but we ended up exploding a giant snake together, so it all worked out.”
Ilisiti’s eyes grew unfocused for a second. “Um, good?”
“I liked it,” Blacknail replied with a smug grin. He wasn’t going to give too much away without getting anything back in return.
The vympir’s men began cleaning up, and Blacknail sent his scouts out to make sure all the noise hadn’t attracted anything else dangerous. Trolls were solitary creatures and their presence usually scared most other beasts away, but not everything. It was possible a mutant or a drake would come looking for the source of all the commotion.
When they got back to the road and rejoined the others, Blacknail took a moment to think over what he had just witnessed. It was obvious that he’d underestimated his new vympir ally a lot. Ilisti was an incredibly formidable fighter. He was both very fast and far stronger than any vessel Blacknail had ever encountered. He would make a useful ally, but also a terrible rival.
Blacknail didn’t like being the weaker partner in an alliance. He was supposed to be in charge, but it seemed likely that Ilisti would eventually try to assert authority over him. The man was very proud and forceful. The only reason he really need Blacknail was for his expertise and skill as a guide, and over time that value would slip as Ilisti established himself in the East. However, Blacknail didn’t have any intention of giving up his position as boss. He would have to take steps to keep Ilisti in check and to learn more about him and vympirs. They must have some sort of weakness he could exploit. They probably weren’t immune to being killed in their sleep, and fire killed almost everything.
After Ilisti had taken off his armor and everyone involved in the hunt had taken a quick break, the expedition started moving again. Men called out, and the cart creaked as the horse pulling it began walking again. It was still a long way to Shelter. Blacknail took up his position at the front of the group, while Garen and Ilisti kept to the back for a while. It wasn’t until the late afternoon that the vympirs reemerged. With Garen in tow, Ilisti approached Blacknail.
“Greetings. How fare you?” Ilisti asked as he walked over.
Blacknail rolled his eyes before turning around. “I’m tired of walking and annoyed that I have to keep doing it for days. My feet hurt and the world is too big.”
“Ah, perhaps. I hope you enjoyed the hunt earlier.”
“You certainly outsmarted that starving troll that my minions found, and it was fun to watch you stab it a lot,” Blacknail replied. He was feeling a little surly, but he tried to keep his tone respectful.
“Thanks,” Ilisti responded in a dry tone, while Garen glared at the hobgoblin.
“Did you want something else?” Blacknail asked.
“Yes, I find you to be an interesting conversationalist, despite your peculiarities, or maybe because of them. Talking with you is always amusing and sometimes surprisingly illuminating. Also, allies should get to know each other.”
That suited Blacknail’s purposes so he nodded. “What do you want to talk about? I know a lot about quite a few interesting things, like all the best mushrooms you can eat.”
“Ah, I’m curious about the East. I must admit to never having travelled past Westwatch, although I’ve heard a lot about it. It must be quite different than the West.”
“The people are friendlier, if they don’t know you’re a hobgoblin, the trees are the same, and there are fewer vympirs,” Blacknail explained as he began to describe some of the other difference he had noticed. He hadn’t seen all that much of the West but he had noticed a few things.
“Oh, and the people in the West smell less like sweat and more like bitter herbs. They must eat a lot of onions,” Blacknail finished before asking a question of his own. He thought it was particularly important to describe exactly how everything smelled because humans had such useless noses. “What’s it like being a vympir?”
Ilsiti stood up straight and spoke in a reverent tone. “The burden of our responsibilities and power weighs heavy on us, but we have a sworn duty to protect our people.”
That didn’t tell Blacknail anything he wanted to know, although he hadn’t expected the vympir to just blurt out his secret weakness. The hobgoblin asked a few more questions but didn’t learn anything important, and after talking for several minutes both parties fell silent and concentrated on walking.
The next two days were rather uneventful, but on the third they neared Westwatch. While everyone else set up camp on a hidden hill in the forest, Blacknail sent Khita and Elyias into town to look around. He had been gone a while now, and he had a lot of new faces with him, so he didn’t want to run into trouble. Going himself would be riskier since he would have to go in disguise. It would also have required him to walk around, and his feet deserved a break.
Blacknail was sitting on a log next to a campfire and wiggling his bare toes to get his blood flowing, when he saw Khita and Elyias return. They looked aggravated, which wasn’t good and probably meant that they had something bad to tell him.
“We have a problem,” Khita announced sourly to confirm the hobgoblins’ suspicions.
Blacknail let his foot drop and sighed. “You never bring me good news. Why do I send you places?”
“That doesn’t make sense. I’m not responsible for what I find.”
“Maybe you should be,” Blacknail responded. He would get more good new that way.
“Are you going to actually listen to what I found?”
“I suppose I’d better. It’s my duty as your leader. What did you see in the town? Was it more trolls? A drake? Two drakes?”
Khita glared at Blacknail. “Why would there be a troll or a drake in a town. No, it’s Werrick’s men. They’ve taken over the place.”
After listening to what Khita said, Blacknail immediately put his shoes on and went to find Ilisti. The vympir needed to hear this.
“So, what seems to be the problem? We haven’t even truly left the West yet,” Ilisti asked once Blacknail had gotten everyone together.
“My enemy Werrick has been moving quickly while I was gone. His men have taken Westwatch, and his troops watch the roads now,” Blacknail explained.
This news caused Ilisti to frown and look thoughtful, while behind him, Garen kept his expression neutral and unreadable.
Khita gave the noble a cautious look and then spoke up in a respectful tone. “It’s not just here in this town, either. I talked to a bunch of people on the street and everyone is saying that the Wolf is taking over everywhere. He has troops in all the important towns and villages, and he is even collecting dues now!”
“No one is doing anything to stop him,” Elyias added. “They’ve all just rolled over like dogs. The bastard is actually doing it! He is setting himself up as some sort of king.”
“That is upsetting, and not just because of the consequences to the plans we discussed,” Ilisti remarked carefully. “There has always been an unspoken agreement about this place, that no one would claim it. Thus, your cults and lords have touched it only lightly, and those of the ancient blood have avoided it. Westwatch has always served as a buffer between lands.”
Khita shrugged. “I guess no one told Werrick that, and technically he is still just a bandit, even if everyone works for him and he also wants to be king. He probably sees no reason not to take it like every other town.”
Ilisti nodded. “Such is the way of tyrants; however, his ignorance is not an excuse. There will be repercussions for this action.”
“Like what?” Blacknail asked. He didn’t get it. From what he’d heard the western nobles didn’t exactly get along with each other, or even talk all that much.”
“A powerful noble might attempt to conquer the town and wrest it from this Werrick, while claiming it was self-defense, and his peers may look the other way now. They would have quickly acted to remove him before, so that he wouldn’t draw too much attention to the presence of the ancient blood.”
“Huh, are you thinking of giving it a shot?”Khit asked.
Ilisti chuckled dryly. “Maybe, but not anytime soon. I don’t have the forces to hold such a prize as of this moment, to say nothing of placating the populace.”
“So, what are you planning on doing about all this?” Khita asked Blacknail. “You’re the boss.”
The hobgoblin chieftain scratched his nose and began thinking. “We could probably slip past their patrols on the road, after killing only a few of them.”
Ilisti coughed politely to get everyone’s attention. “But then we would have to worry about their presence behind us, and whether or not they can get a message out. It is possible they might coordinate and set up a blockade in front of us.”
Blacknail shrugged. “I can lead us around any other humans that show up.”
“I’d rather not waste time running and hiding. It is not in my nature, Ilisti replied. “This Werrick has overextended himself here. He obviously doesn’t expect a creditable challenge to emerge, and his position seems weak. I believe the best move would be to smash his local forces, and then move on with our rear secure. My men can easily handle the troops the young woman saw within the city.”
“Sure, we could do that,” Blacknail agreed. It sounded like Ilisit’s men would be doing all the hard work anyway.
“Hmm, there is one thing I didn’t mention, but probably should if we’re going to start a brawl,” Khita added. “Rumor has it that Wolfy’s men have two combat mages with them.”
Ilisti frowned. “Wisemen? I don’t know much about them, or their capabilities in combat. In the West, they are considered dangerous and their powers are shunned by both the nobles and the common folk.”
“Smart,” Elyias huffed quietly to himself as he gave the vympir a critical look. He obviously wondered why they tolerated vympirs.
“Mages blow stuff up a lot. They point their staff at you and then boom! Fire or lightning shoots out and you die,” Blacknail explained before reciting some of his more exciting experiences fighting mages. It was kind of weird that he had done it so many times…
Ilisiti listened patiently before speaking up again. “It sounds like my plan is still viable, with some alterations and a little aid from the hobgoblins.”
Blacknail licked his lips and smiled eagerly. “Yes, let’s sack a city. I’ve always wanted to do that.”
Werrick had made his move, so now Blacknail needed to make one of his own. The people of the North only obeyed Werrick because they were afraid of him, however they would soon learn that the Wolf was far from the most terrifying warrior around. It was time for Blacknail to announce his glorious self to the world. Joy! He could already taste the blood and ash.