It took a bit longer than Blacknail had hoped to track down all his hobgoblin minions. He had ordered them to show themselves off to the townsfolk and to sow chaos, and they had gone about it with great enthusiasm and inventiveness. Following the sound of screams, Blacknail had found one hobgoblin chasing a shrieking woman down the street. Judging by his slow pace and the grin that had been on his face, the hobgoblin hadn’t been trying to catch her, but the chase had amused him greatly. Another hobgoblin had been chopping down someone’s front door with an axe, while the occupants huddled inside. Apparently, the family had just finished baking a pie, and the smell had drawn the hobgoblin. Blacknail also found a pair of hobgoblins carrying a bunch of crates full of chickens back toward the gates, and lastly, he’d found Khita ransacking a jeweler’s shop with two hobgoblins she had convinced to help her. They had gathered up quite a large sack of loot before Blacknail’s arrival.
While Blacknail had herded his followers back to the gate, Ilisti and his men had shattered the town’s defenders. Like a force of nature, the vympr had cut down or crushed every man who had dared come within reach of his long deadly blade. Faced with such a juggernaut, the terrified defenders had broken ranks and run. Unopposed, Ilisiti had then moved on to complete the next part of plan. He led his troops deeper into the city and burned the enemy stronghold to the ground. Deprived of a rallying point and their supplies, the remaining enemies would have a much harder time reorganizing or following Blacknail’s allies when they left.
Despite Blacknail’s paranoia, the second mage never showed himself. He had either been killed before he’d had a chance to cast any magic, or he was hiding somewhere far away from the fighting. Battlefields were messy places, and in Blacknail’s experience battles rarely went as planned. He was just glad chance had worked in his favor this one time. It was probably the first time ever. Still, Blacknail kept an eye out as he rejoined Ilisti and led everyone out of the city. You never knew when random people would try to kill you.
Although Ilisti’s men had taken some time to loot after the fighting, most the takings had been plundered by the hobgoblins. Blacknail planned on making his minions share, though. In particular, there was a barrel of pickles and a sack of meat pies the humans would probably enjoy. There were also quite a few bags of coins and other shiny bits they could share. Blacknail was getting tired of having so much money, and coins were surprisingly heavy and hard to carry in large amounts. Also, he never did anything with them anyway. Sure, they were nice and sparkly, but at this point he preferred more unique or useful items. The opportunity to spend money almost never came his way for some reason. It was weird.
Blacknail’s favorite new acquisition was thus a purple hat. He loved it, and he was wearing it right now. The hat had a wide-brim and a white feather sticking out from the top. Stylish. It wasn’t even loot, and it definitely wasn’t stolen. Blacknail wasn’t a thief. Rather, the hat had been a gift from an admirer. A man whose house Blacknail had wandered into had thrown it at him before running away. Obviously, he’d wanted Blacknail to have it, probably because he’d thought it would look much better on the hobgoblin’s head. Purple and green looked great together.
Once back on the road and well away from the city walls, the victorious force stopped and took a moment to catch their breath and reorganize. As Blacknail chased a pair of hobgoblins away from the loot and yelled at them to go out and scout, Khita jogged over to him. She was hauling around a small sack of loot and there was a satisfied grin on her face.
“That’s the most the fun I’ve ever had. What a sharp party!” she shouted happily.
“It was alright,” Blacknail replied as he reached up to adjust his new hat. He was keeping an eye on all the surrounding activity, in case something went wrong. It usually did, especially when Khita was around.
The redhead’s grin grew wider. “We need to do this again soon! Joining Herad and becoming a bandit was the right choice after all. This is the life!”
Blacknail rolled his eyes. He had been under the impression that she had joined Herad’s band because all her old gang friends had been out to kill her and she had needed to flee her old home.
“Say, I’ve been thinking, Blacknail,” Khita said in an excited but quiet voice.
“Try to keep it simple so you don’t get confused,” Blacknail remarked helpfully.
“Ha, very funny. You should be a minstrel,” Khita told him as she huffed in annoyance. “What was I talking about? Right. This is what I want out of life. To be the baddest bitch around, like Herad was. I’m sick of following others around. I’m want to show the world how great I am! I want to conquer with sword and fire!”
“You’re terrible with a sword,” Blacknail replied.
“I am not, you green ass. Sure, I’m not as good as Herad was, almost no one is, but I’ll get better with practice.”
“You also don’t practice,” Blacknail pointed out. He trained a lot more than her, almost every day. It helped him quiet his emotions and it reminded him what was important.
Khita glared at him but kept talking. “I’m not going to stay a nameless minion. I’ll find a way to make a real name for myself. Life isn’t worth living if you don’t seize your dreams, and cut down every asshole who tries to stop you.”
“Sure, sure. Go ahead,” Blacknail answered with a nod of his head. Agreeing with her was usually the best way to shut her up.
Khita scowled at him. She seemed to suspect that he wasn’t really paying attention, but before she could say anything more Blacknail spoke up. “We need to get moving, so I need to go do important leader things now. Come see me when I’m done. We can talk as we walk.”
Without waiting for a response, Blacknail then hurried away. If Khita did come to see him later while they were marching, he could always pick up the pace until she was too tired to talk to him. It was one of the many strategies he’d developed to shut her up.
Soon, the combined force of hobgoblins and men were once again headed east toward Shelter. Ilisti was able to get his men moving at a quick pace, and this spurred the hobgoblins on. Much to Blacknail’s delight, Khita didn’t manage to say more than a few words to him along the way. They travelled the rest of the day and then set up camp when it began to grow dark. In the wild, it was important to scout out a good site and secure it properly, lest you run into unpleasant surprises during the night, such as mimics or boars.
After a few more days of travelling, they passed by Riverrun and entered territory that Blacknail was more familiar with. They avoided the town by crossing the river at a shallow point downstream, and then they hiked back over to the road. Their group was way too suspicious looking to enter the town. They wanted to avoid being sighted by anyone who would report back to Werrick.
As they were walking down the road, an abandoned village came into sight to their left. It wasn’t the first one they had passed either. Thick bushes and slender trees surrounded its derelict buildings and covered what was left of its fields. The sight seemed to interest Ilisti. He stopped at the edge of the road and studied it for a moment, so Blacknail slowed down to wait for him.
“I had heard that the East was starting to fray at the seams, but I had not expected to see such obvious signs of ruin,” Ilisti mused aloud. “Out west, we usually think of these lands as richer than our own, although we don’t like admitting it. Seeing it like this is odd.”
Elyias was walking behind Blacknail, but he stopped to reply. “Ha, things did use to be blessedly good in these parts. The harvests were bountiful, and everyone had a smile on their face when I was young. That stopped after the wars started. Way down south, Teshura and Deveshur went at each other like cats in a sack over trading rights or something, and it didn’t end there. The kings of Eloria and Hulgaron decided to join the fray - because crowns apparently turn men’s minds to mush - and everything has been a bloody mess since. After the Doom of Coroulis, small villages like this one couldn’t defend themselves against the bands of deserters coming from the South or the beasts coming down from the mountains.”
Ilisti nodded and began walking again. “Yes, that makes sense. I suppose the rigid ways of my people are useful sometimes.”
The next day, they left civilization behind and headed off into the Deep Green, for no real roads led to Shelter. The only way there was a long trek along a narrow trail through the wild forests of the North. Even with a guide, it was a rough and dangerous journey. Thankfully, everyone in the group was used to hard marches through uneven terrain, although Ilisti had to leave his cart behind. The most important cargo was tied to the horses, and the rest was thrown away.
“You’d better not be leading us to our doom,” Ilisti remarked jovially as they hiked through the forest. Despite the difficulty of their travel he had kept up a good mood.
“I get that a lot,” Blacknail replied as he scratched his noise.
“That doesn’t surprise me, although I hope it isn’t always from new people.”
Blacknail threw the vympir a wicked grin. “It usually is. I make friends easily.”
Ilisti laughed and kept walking. Behind him, Garen looked uncomfortable, but that was normal for him.
“These woods are not so different from my family’s old lands,” Ilisti remarked. “You said that there are hidden villages still surviving out here? That sounds like a perfect place for me to claim. I will need a base of operations if I am to help you.”
Blacknail nodded. “You can’t have Shelter, that’s mine, but we can find you another village. I’m sure there are some around that need saving. All the humans around here keep dying. They need smart and tough leaders like us to look after them.”
Another day passed, and they began to grow closer to their destination. With the hobgoblins scouting out ahead, they climbed rocky hills and skirted dark bogs that were full of buzzing insects. As if sensing their strength, the creatures of the forest avoided the travelers and kept their distance. That made Blacknail nervous. He had a feeling that something bad was going happen. Ilisti had slain a troll, one of the fiercest beasts of the North, but no matter how dangerous you were there was always something nastier in the Deep Green. On the third day, Blacknail’s suspicions were proven right. Midstride, he froze as the hunting cry of a drake echoed through the trees. His spine shivered in response to the sound and all his hair stood up straight. The humans noticed his reaction and stopped as well.
“What is it?” Elyias asked nervously.
“A drake,” Blacknail explained as he glanced about. The trees were old and had grown tall in this part of the forest. This made it hard to see far, because although there wasn’t much growth near the ground, the thick canopy overhead made the forest dim and shadowy.
Elyias shuddered. “What do we do?”
That was a good question. Blacknail wished he knew the answer. Saeter’s only real advice about drakes was to avoid them, which wasn’t very helpful. The massive predators were rare and tended not to bother hunting small prey such as humans or hobgoblins, but if they did decide they wanted to taste you there was basically nothing you could do about it. They could outrun people with ease and were strong enough to topple trees.
Blacknail carefully listened to the now muted sound of the forest. “I don’t think it’s nearby. We should keep moving.”
Ilisti nodded and began walking again at a slightly faster pace. He was no stranger to the ways of the Deep Green. “Yes, that seems like the wisest course. Loitering around here would be foolhardy."
Thankfully, there were no more drake screams or any other sign of the fearsome beast. The next day, just before the sun reached the apex of the sky, Blacknail and his companions reached Shelter. Gathering at the edge of the woods, they looked out at the walled village across the fields.
“So that’s Shelter, eh? It’s not a bad size for a town,” Ilisti observed. There was a hungry gleam in his eyes that Blacknail didn’t like.
“You stay here. Having a whole bunch of new people show up might startle them and your red eyes stand out,” Blacknail replied as he began walking across the fields. “I’ll go see what has happened in my absence.”
Khita followed him. “I’m coming with.”
“Don’t forget to inquire as to the location of any other nearby towns that might still be alive,” Garen called after them.
Tired from the long journey but excited to be back, Blacknail approached the town gate. Once there, he called out to get the guard’s attention. The villager on duty let them in after a brief moment of hesitation. He was surprised to see the hobgoblin after such a long absence and a little nervous, but he opened the gate for Khita and him.
Blacknail immediately headed for Tannin’s house. The village elder would be able to answer all his questions. After a knock on the door, it opened to reveal the bearded middle-aged man. There was frustrated scowl on his face at first, but a surprised smile appeared when he recognized his guests.
“Huh, you’re back, eh? I was wondering where you’d wandered off to.”
Before Blacknail could reply, Khita spoke up. “We just went for a hike.”
Tannin gave her an amused look. “That was a long hike. You were gone for weeks.”
“We also went South to do some shopping, because we got bored.”
“Oh, did you get anything interesting? Other than that gaudy misfortune of a hat,” Tannin asked as he eyed the purple hat that was still perched on Blacknail’s head.
“Yes, but the hat was the best part,” Blacknail replied sincerely.
The hobgoblin quickly gave the town leader a completely fabricated account of where they had been. After finding out that everything had been quiet around Shelter, Blacknail subtly steered the conversation to a new topic so he could ask Tannin same questions.
“Say, there aren’t any more villages still around in this area, are there? That are full of living people and not corpses or wolves or worse,” he enquired.
“That’s a bit of a weird request. What’s with the sudden interest?”
“I was just thinking of doing some exploring.”
“Well, there used to be a few nearby settlements, back in the day. However, I know the people in most of them packed up and moved south to live in the larger cities where they thought it would safer, and we lost contact with the rest of all our old neighbors years ago. I don’t imagine any of them are left. It’s takes real grit to survive out in the Green like we do,” Tannin replied with more than a little pride.
“You survived, so maybe some of them did too. Which village do you think has the best chance of still being around?”
Tannin’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he pulled gently on his beard. “Probably Herstcrest. It was the largest, other than us, but they were always a bit stuck up and unfriendly. If they have somehow survived I wouldn’t suggest going there. Isolation will have probably made them jumpy and paranoid, and you’re you. They probably want nothing to do with a hobgoblin.”
“Which way was Herstcrest? I can’t avoid it if I don’t know where it is,” Blacknail asked.
This earned him a skeptical look from Tannin, but he gave the hobgoblin directions anyway. Herstcrest lay about a days travel to the west. There had used to be a small dirt road, but it had been overgrown by the forest years ago. After listening, Blacknail thanked Tannin and departed.
As they were leaving, Khita turned to Blacknail. “I’m going to stick around here. I got some stuff to do in Shelter, and one of us should stop in and talk to Geralhd and the others.”
“Alright,” Blacknail replied without stopping. He was hardly going argue with her.
“I need talk to some people and get some things organized, so I can do what we talked about earlier,” Khita yelled at his back.
Blacknail had no idea what she was talking about so he just waved and then walked away. He needed to meet back up with Ilisti, and head over to the hobgoblin settlement. Biting his lip, Blacknail felt a nervous twinge. He had been away from most of his goblin minions for too long. Without his leadership, they were probably causing all sorts of damage, and he had to make sure no one was conspiring against him. That happened a lot with hobgoblins. Gob was good at weeding most of them out but he wasn’t perfect. After he was sure everything was alright at the goblin settlement, and he’d had some time to rest, he needed to go looking for Ilisti’s village. Hopefully, this Herstcrest place was still around, and not full of terrible monsters. That would be a nice change.