Although some of Ilisti’s men wanted to visit Shelter, Blacknail convinced them that wasn’t a good idea. Instead, he guided them back into the forest and toward his goblin settlement. The hobgoblin chieftain and the vympirs made plans as they walked. There were some grumbles from the men - they were tired from walking - but they obeyed their leaders without question.
“And you think this town of Herstcrest is our favored bet?” Ilisiti asked.
“Sounds like it. It’s not too far away, and it was big and rich,” Blacknail replied. “The people should still be there, but if it is gone we can just look somewhere else.”
“Very well. My men could use a day or two of rest, but after that I’d like to get moving as soon as possible. There is no point in lying around.”
“Alright. You can camp outside my base. This is my territory. We have lots of food for you and it will be safe.” Or at least Blacknail hoped that was the case. All the stupid lazy goblins ate way too much, and they might have emptied the food stores while he was gone. Useless things.
The walk to their destination took a few hours, but regular use had beaten down the dirt and created a fairly smooth path between Shelter and the goblin settlement. That made the going a little easier, although they still had to climb a few hills and cross some streams. When they reached the top of the hill that overlooked the settlement, there was near silence as the men and hobgoblins took a moment to take in the sight below them. The only sound was the wind blowing through the nearby trees and rustling their leaves
It was Garen that eventually spoke up first. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but I must admit, in my head, your base was much smaller than this. I did not think that hobgoblins could build things such as this.” He sounded slightly worried.
There were grunts and mumbles of agreement from the other men, and Blacknail as well. The hobgoblin chieftain was more than a little surprised by what he saw. His base had expanded and grown during his absence. The forest around it had been chopped down and pushed back another hundred feet, and the area inside the wall was now stuffed full of buildings, except for where the rocky hills jutted out of the ground and where the training ground was. Most of the structures were made of clay bricks, although there were still some that had been rigged together using wooden poles and stitched animal hides. There was very little organization to the placement of the buildings. They looked to have been built wherever there was an open patch of level ground, and what must have been hundreds of small green figures could be seen moving around inside and outside the walls.
Sighing, Blacknail stared at the mess. That was a lot of mouths to feed, although it looked like Gob had worked and planted crops in most of the cleared ground outside the walls. Blacknail hoped that the harvest would be enough to feed everyone through the winter. It wouldn’t be surprising if there were a thousand goblins living in the settlement. You could really cram a lot of goblins into a small space if you had to, but that was still a lot. Well, at least it hadn’t all burned down. Blacknail had been a little worried about Imp and Ferrar’s dangerous activities, and all the other goblins and hobgoblins probably weren’t much better. All of them would probably enjoy burning down a few buildings just to see what happened. They didn’t have his wisdom and self-control.
As Blacknail watched with interest, he noticed a group of about a dozen goblins burst out of the forest below and head toward the gate, which was guarded by three hobgoblins. The goblins seemed to be yelling something that got the guards' attention, because one of the hobgoblins ran inside, while the other two looked up at Blacknail’s position. It seemed like their arrival had been noticed. Hopefully, that was a good thing.
Blacknail began to climb down the hill, and his hobgoblin minions followed him. “You humans stay here. I’m going to go down and explain who you are, so that no one tries to throw rocks at you, but keep your helmets on just in case.”
By the time he got near the gate, all the goblins had fled out of sight. At first, the two remaining hobgoblin guards drew their weapons and eyed him suspiciously, but then they recognized him and visibly relaxed.
“What, you don’t know your own leader?” Blacknail asked them crossly. “Why are you raising your weapons at me? Do you think there are lots of other enemy hobgoblins wandering around out here?”
One of the guards looked sheepish as he sheathed his blade. “We’re sorry for not recognizing your handsome and wonderful face sooner, boss. We’re at war, though, so we’re a bit jumpy.”
Blacknail frowned in confusion. “You’re at war?” What was that supposed to mean?
“There have been some strange goblins and hobgoblins about. They attacked some of the tribe’s goblins while they were out hunting, so Gob ordered everyone to keep a watch out for them.”
Before Blacknail could ask any clarifying questions, Gob arrived with a small mob of hobgoblins in tow. He grinned in excitement when he saw Blacknail, and immediately bowed. This sudden movement surprised the hobgoblins running behind him, and they almost ran right into him, and had to jump back. As other hobgoblins copied Gob and bowed, their formation dissolved into confusion. Blacknail sighed and motioned for Gob to step forward and speak, which the hobgoblin quickly did.
“Supreme one! Your return fills me with overflowing joy! I stand ready to fulfill your commands,” Gob said as he gave Blacknail a sloppy salute.
“Thank you, this place is still standing, so I suppose you’ve done a good job in my absence,” Blacknail replied. “Now what is this about a war?”
Gob scratched the side of his head and looked embarrassed. “I had hoped to destroy these pests before your return, so I could present their skulls to you as a trophy. I’m sorry for failing in this, wise leader.”
Blacknail rolled his eyes. “Fine, but who are you talking about?”
“Some of the goblins started to come back from foraging with injuries they said were from fighting other goblins. I told them to hunt in larger groups so they could drive these invaders away, but the enemy responded in kind. Now there are big fights between dozens of goblins all the time, and there are reports of hobgoblins among the enemy.”
“From goblins? Only a few goblins have seen anything?” Blacknail asked Gob skeptically. This was all sounding very vague to him, and not something a true leader would be worried about.
“I sent out hobgoblins to be sure. They found some tracks, but they had to come back before they found anything else. The cowardly enemy is hiding very far away, at the edge of your territory, boss.”
“How far away?” Blacknail asked.
Gob shrugged. “About half a day of walking.”
Blacknail sighed again. He hadn’t even known his territory was that large. In fact, it sounded like some of Blacknail’s ever growing horde of useless minions had entered the territory of another hobgoblin. His goblins were the invaders!
“Let’s not worry about that right now. We have more important things to do. I brought a bunch of humans with me,” Blacknail said. As far as he could tell this war existed almost completely in his minions’ heads. They were being paranoid, and causing him grief.
“Yes, the sentries said they saw a lot of tough-looking humans approaching, and here you are leading them,” Gob observed proudly. “Are they your prisoners?”
Blacknail grunted. Gob sure was confident in his leader. “They are some new allies I hope to use against our human enemies.”
“So, you tricked them into fighting for you. I see. You are the cleverest of all hobgoblins. None are your equal,” Gob replied with wide eyes full of adoration.
“That’s not… not true,” Blacknail replied thoughtfully.
Just then, Herah pushed her way through the hobgoblin’s behind Gob and lunged at Blacknail with wide open arms. Blacknail raised a hand and held her back before she could hug him.
“You’re back, boss!” she yelled in excitement as she struggled to get closer to him. There was a wide excited grin on her face, and she was practically drooling.
Keeping his arm stiff, Blacknail studied the female hobgoblin. She hadn’t changed much since he’d seen her last. She was still incredibly annoying, although he had to admit she wasn’t unattractive, even if the drool didn’t help. He probably wouldn’t have minded her attention if the idea of letting another hobgoblin get so close wasn’t so off-putting. All hobgoblins were dangerous, and Blacknail knew that if he fooled around with Herah then he would never be rid of her. She would cling to him and never let go. Besides, he was a very busy leader, with little free time. He was always doing important things, like napping.
“Calm down,” Blacknail said he shoved her back. He then took a step sideways so that Gob was between them.
Gob didn’t appreciate being used as a shield, but he just frowned resignedly before addressing his master again. “Do you need anything from me, boss? I live to serve you.”
Blacknail nodded. “Our guests will need food, and I don’t want anyone bothering them. Take care of it.”
“As you command, greenest. I also have a message from Imp and the human mage for you. They wanted you to visit when you got back.”
“Alright,” Blacknail replied as he began to walk to the mage’s hut. Had Gob just called him greenest?
Blacknail wanted to get off his feet, but it was undoubtedly a good idea to check on the mages as soon as possible. Who knew what they were getting up to? Probably nothing good.
“Do you have more questions for me?” Gob asked as he moved up alongside his chieftain.
Looking around at all the buildings, Blacknail took a moment to think before answering. There was one thing that was bothering him. “How many hobgoblins are in my tribe now?”
Gob smiled proudly. “A hundred and three.”
Blacknail stared at the other hobgoblin. He didn’t understand. What was he supposed to do with a hundred hobgoblins? How was this settlement still standing? Why wasn’t Shelter a burnt-out wreck? How was he going to feed them all? He could feel a headache coming on.
“How are you keeping them all in line?” he asked Gob in disbelief.
“I use the wise ways you taught me. The sword training weeds out the untrainable hobgoblins and teaches them to obey, and I task the most useful with keeping the others in line. They are my direct subordinates, and not part of a home.”
Blacknail blinked. “Part of a home?”
Gob nodded and pointed at several nearby buildings. “Every home in the camp is run by a hobgoblin, who is in charge of everyone who lives there. They are like small tribes in the larger tribe. Sometimes hobgoblins fight for control of a home, but we stay out of it unless it affects whole tribe. This keeps most of the other hobgoblins busy while I lead tribe for you.”
Much to Blacknail’s surprise, that sounded like it might actually work. Weird. “And all the home leaders listen to you?”
“I kill them if they don’t, and someone else takes over their home. You have many loyal followers, but the homeheads don’t get along with each other, so they have no allies. The only reason they don’t fight is because we don’t let them.”
“Huh, it’s great that I thought of all that.”
“Yes, boss. You’re the wisest and strongest of leaders,” Gob agreed. His eyes glowed with complete sincerity, which Blacknail found a little unnerving.
Suddenly, there was a loud squealing noise from just out sight. It sounded like it had been made by some sort of large animal.
“What’s that?” Blacknail asked as he turned to look for the source. Dangerous animals shouldn’t have been able to get into the base undetected. That was why they had a wall and guards.
“Those are your pigs,” Gob replied. “We’ve been taking care of them, as you ordered.”
Blacknail frowned. It took him a moment to remember what Gob was talking about. Those beasts were still around? He had completely forgotten about them.
“No one ate the piglets?” he asked in surprise.
Gob scolwed fiercely. “Who would dare do such a thing? You commanded us to take care of them forever!”
“True,” Blacknail admitted, but he’d only said that to annoy Khita. She hated the animals.
“Well, lets go see them,” Blacknail said as he headed in the direction the squealing had come from. The piglets were probably big enough to eat now, and he was hungry.
As soon as they circled around one of the nearby brick houses, a different kind of structure came into sight. It was a small shack made of wood and bark, and there was a crude post fence around it. The inside of the fence was full of mud and several pigs. Blacknail blinked in surprise when he saw the animals. They were huge. None of them were the size of the giant boar Blacknail had fought, but some of them were looked like they weighed more than a hobgoblin already. As he studied them, one of the beasts looked back. It regarded him beady black eyes set above a twitching pink snout. Its thick fur was dark brown, and two long yellow tusks jutted out of its mouth.
“They must eat a lot,” Blacknail observed. He knew he’d been saying that a lot, but it was important. Somebody had to make sure there was enough food to go around, and for the occasional feast.
“Gunkit lets them roam around outside the walls,” Gob explained. “The pigs tear up the ground and eat their fill there, which helps with the planting. They also eat the bushes. They are very thorough.”
Blacknail was about to ask who Gunkit was, when a hobgoblin appeared at the edge of fence. Blacknail had failed to notice him before because he was covered in mud from the tip of his head to his toes. The hobgoblin – presumably Gunkit – saluted, and Blacknail leaned sideways as mud was thrown into the air and almost hit him.
“So, you’re in charge here?” Blacknail asked the hobgoblin. He had a weird hunched-over posture that made him seem much shorter than most hobgoblins.
Gunkit smiled and grunted proudly. “I tamed them, boss! They are good beasts. I fed and played with them every day. Together, we roll around in the mud and dig up roots out of the ground for eating.”
“Gunkit lives here with them,” Gob added.
Blacknail scratched his head. It sort of seemed like the beasts had tamed Gunkit, instead of the other way around. With his mud splattered body and hunched-over posture he was almost more of a boar than a hobgoblin. Two of the pigs made an almost affectionate noise as they ran over to the fence and stared at Blacknail.
“They remember you,” Gunkit exclaimed happily.
Blacknail walked over to the fence and gave both the pigs a quick pat on the head. They were soft to the touch, and their snouts tickled him as they sniffed his hand, before he withdrew.
“Well, keep up the good work,” Blacknail told Gunkit before turning to leave with Gob. It didn’t seem like he would be eating roasted pig anytime soon.
“He’s a little weird, isn’t he?” Blacknail remarked to Gob as they resumed walking over to Imp’s hut.
Gob shrugged. “He is a hobgoblin who is both useful and loyal, boss.”
“True, that is very weird,” Blacknail agreed. He couldn’t really complain about his minions being odd.
It didn’t take them very long to cross the village and arrive at their destination. Imp’s shack had changed a lot. In fact, it was obviously a completely new shack, since it was larger and all the wood had been replaced by mud bricks. Gob shouted to signal their arrival and Imp almost immediately appeared in the door.
“Oh, you’re back. Good, good,” the hobgoblin mage exclaimed happily as he squinted at Backnail. “I have a lot to tell you, I do.”
“I see you’ve improved your hut,” Blacknail observed after he told Gob to leave and take care of the tasks he had given him.
Imp smiled and waved him inside. “Ah, yes. Brick is good. Less likely to burn down. Although, you could still melt it with green fire…”
Blacknail hesitated in the doorway, but then stepped inside. The interior of the building was bright. It had two large windows that let in sunlight, two active mage lights, and a small fire burning in a bowl on a table. The walls were lined with shelves that held all of Imp’s magical equipment, and there was a large table in the center of the room. Blacknail was pleased to see Avorlus standing near a shelf. He hadn’t been sure if the bearded human mage was going to be here.
“It’s about time you got back,” Avorlus grumbled. “I don’t appreciate being left here so long. I may have learned some interesting things, but this place is a heap. Walking back here from the village is tiring, and I can’t risk doing any real work somewhere those ignorant peasants might stumble upon it.”
Before Blacknail could reply he spotted another person sitting at the table behind Avorlus. Surprisingly, it was a human woman. She scowled angrily at Blacknail as he glanced her way, and he recognized her. It was the mage he had captured during the fight with the raiders.!
“What is she doing here?” he asked Avorlus.
“Where else would she go?” the mage replied with a shrug. “She knows she can’t escape from a hobgoblin encampment out in the Deep Green, so she is trying to extend her life as much as possible by being as helpful as she can.”
“She is useless. We have much better mages than her,” Blacknail remarked coldly. She was a just a combat mage. They were soldiers, and they knew far less about magic than Imp or Avorlus.
“Be that as it may, she can still contribute. I’m too old to be cutting myself and drawing blood from my veins, and having another pair of human hands around doesn’t hurt.”
“Use a goblin.”
“I remain unconvinced that goblin blood and that of humans are perfect substitutes. There might be minute differences in their composition that could taint my careful formula.”
Blacknail sighed. He had mostly understood what Avorlus had just said. “Fine, whatever. I see you gave her clothes back.”
There was wordless growl of rage from the woman, and Avorlus laughed. “Yes, having her around in the nude would have been quite the distraction.”
“Is she what you wanted to show me?”
Avorlus grinned and pulled several vials of dark liquid out of his coat pocket. “Ah, no. She is of little import. I wanted you to know that I have completed my part of the bargain, and taught Imp here how to make your Elixir. These are the first fruits of his labor, and we also have some other concoctions to show you.”