There was darkness. It enveloped everything in impenetrable silence. The dreamer’s eyes couldn’t pierce it at all. He hung there, floating in the black. Yet, the dreamer knew he was being watched. Despite his blindness, he could feel countless eyes on his skin. Their gaze prickled at his awareness as they examined him. Both close and far, the eyes were beyond number and yet one. There was no escaping their sight.
The dreamer remembered fear and hate. Around him, the darkness stirred. He had called out and been answered. The watching presence closed in. Invisible, it pressed against him and sank into his flesh. It filled him, like a deep invigorating breath, and he began to rise. He was pulled upwards and the dark gave way before him. The dreamer’s eyes were already open, but he opened them again. He saw. A ring of tall grey stones emerged from the darkness. Weathered and worn by untold ages, they still projected the endless strength and weight of the earth. The dreamer recognized them. He had lain eyes on them in the waking world long ago. Painful nostalgia pressed against his heart, although he couldn’t remember why he would feel this way. Sadness. His thoughts were hazy, and he could remember little of the waking world.
Suddenly, the ring of standing stones shifted. The unseen earth rumbled as the smooth stones fell and new rocks appeared. Soon, the dreamer was looking at a circular stone wall. But, the scene wasn’t done changing. The sound of crashing and roaring waves echoed out of the darkness. The powerful noise intensified as the source rushed toward the stone walls, seemingly from every direction at once. Then, the distant dark began to twist and turn with furious energy. A wave was coming. It rolled forward with incredible force toward the stone wall. As the crushing power of the dark water approached, the unseen earth shook. A solid thicket of spears burst out of the ground in front of the wall, breaking the wave at the last moment. All was chaos. Water was tossed in every direction as spears were torn apart. Slowed, but not stopped, the wave reformed and smashed into the wall. Cold water was suddenly everywhere. Its freezing embrace pulled the dreamer away from the stone wall. Shocked, he gasped and flailed as he was carried away.
The dreamer’s eyes were already open, but he opened them again.
Blacknail woke up with a cold jolt that made his heart miss a beat. At first, the complete lack of darkness and freezing water surprised him, although he wasn't sure why. In fact, there was a roof over his head and it felt like he was lying on a dry bed. Curious, the hobgoblin sat up and looked around. It looked like he was in one of the small huts at the forward base he’d built. Sunlight was coming in from a small window, and it wasn’t morning. The light was bright enough for noon. He must have slept in. Wait, had he just been dreaming? He remembered dark water… Maybe? Yawning, Blacknail tried to gather his thoughts. His mind was chaotic and confused. Everything was a mess. Fragmented scenes from every period of his life kept pushing themselves to the fore. He remembered looking up at Saeter for the first time and sitting by a campfire at night while surrounded by human rangers. He remembered the hundredth time he’d contemplated stabbing Khita and dumping her body in some bushes. That didn’t help. Even now Khita was an annoying distraction, and he still had no idea why he was in bed.
Focus. How had he got here? What was the last thing he remembered? Wait, he’d been in a battle. Yes. He’d been fighting Werrick… but he couldn’t remember the end of the fight. Uh oh, that wasn’t good. He was the leader, and none of his minions were nearly competent enough to win a battle without him.
A faint rustling sound drew Blacknail’s attention downwards. There was a hobgoblin lying on the floor beside his bed, and it was Herah. What was she doing there? It was creepy.
“Get up! If you’re on guard duty you’re doing a terrible job,” Blacknail yelled at her. He wanted some answers.
Instantly, Herah jumped up and turned to face Blacknail. She blinked in confusion for a few seconds before coming fully awake. The female hobgoblin was Blacknail’s… They sometimes had sex. However, that didn’t mean she was trustworthy. She was a little too obsessed and no hobgoblin was trustworthy. That was why he’d kept her at arm’s length until recently.
“Boss, you’re not sleeping anymore!” she announced happily. She looked genuinely delighted to see him and almost surprised. He must have been quite badly injured.
“Yes, I’m awake now,” Blacknail replied dryly as he began to think about what to ask her first. There were a lot of options.
However, the sudden commotion inside the hut drew attention from outside. The door of the hut flew open and Khita stepped through it. Seeing Blacknail, the young redhead grinned happily. She must have been standing just outside.
“You’re awake!” Khita announced as she rushed over to Blacknail’s side.
Blacknail scowled in annoyance. He knew he was awake. Stupid humans were always repeating the obvious. What had he been thinking about? Right, he needed to clear up the holes in his memories. There’d been a battle.
“What happened to Werrick? Did I win the fight?” Blacknail asked the redhead. She probably knew more than Herah and could explain it better.
A troubled frown appeared on Khita’s face and she looked off to the side. “Er, sort of.”
“That doesn’t help. Explain better,” Blacknail hissed at her. This was important.
“We technically won the battle, because the enemy fled,” Khita explained. “But, they managed to flee, which was bad for us, because we really wanted to stop them from getting away, you know. So, we didn’t get Werrick and he wounded you before he left. That was very bad, but now you’re fine, so yeah!”
It took a few seconds for Blacknail to sort through that tangle of words and pull something like meaning out of them. When he had, he almost preferred ignorance. He’d failed. Blacknail grimaced as he felt ugly self-loathing boil up inside his guts. Blacknail’s old master, the ranger Saeter, was unavenged and Werrick still lived. Even worse, Blacknail had exposed almost all his secrets to the enemy now. Werrick was no longer ignorant of Blacknail’s true strength and knew about Blacknail’s hobgoblin forces. That would make the Wolf a much more dangerous foe. He wouldn’t be walking into anymore ambushes. Ugh, this wasn’t fair. How could this have happened? He’d been so close to finishing off the enemy bandit lord only to be cut down at the last moment. It was probably one of his minion’s faults, or all of them. They obviously hadn’t fought hard enough.
However, staying in bed wouldn’t help. Grunting in displeasure, Blacknail shook off his negative mood, slid out of bed, and stood up. Immediately, he noticed two things. One, his body felt unsteady and clumsy from weakness. Two, he wasn’t wearing pants.
“Did someone steal my pants?” he asked as he looked down and frowned. He seemed to remember something about that…
Blacknail suddenly swayed as a moment of vertigo hit him. Catching his balance, he looked down and studied his own legs and feet. They looked unusually far away. Was he sick? Maybe he was still dreaming…
“Why would anyone want your pants? They were basically rags,” Khita remarked as she blushed and looked away. “No, we took them off so we could get at your wounds, and then we threw the dirty things out. Besides, you outgrew them.”
Herah didn’t look away, but it wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen before, so Blacknail ignored her and looked around for something to wear. He didn’t much care about the human concept of modesty, but he’d gotten used to wearing pants and his lower body felt drafty without them now.
As Khita handed him a pile of clothes that had been set aside on a nearby chair, Blacknail noticed something else odd. Had Khita and Herah both gotten shorter? It certainly looked like they had. Neither of them was taller than the height of his nose. Wow, how had they managed that? They must have been up to some crazy stupid stuff while he was asleep. What weirdos.
“How did you get so short?” Blacknail asked as he hopped on one leg and pulled on his pants. His movements were clumsy, and in particular, his head felt oddly heavy. Herah looked slightly disappointed when he’d covered himself up.
“Um, what?” Khita replied as she threw Herah a confused look.
“He’s taller,” Herah pointed out.
“Oh, right…” Khita drawled as she suddenly understood.
Blacknail glowered at them both while he waited for one of them to finally get around to explaining it to him. Maybe he needed to go find some smarter minions to ask.
“You’ve gotten taller. We didn’t shrink,” Khita told him a moment later.
That didn’t sound likely to Blacknail. His hobgoblin body had stopped growing a while back. “How long was I asleep?”
Blacknail began trying to pull on a shirt, but it didn’t work. Instead, his head was jerked sideways as his clothing got tangled in his horns. Had they grown too? They certainly felt longer and larger. Was that why he was so off-balance? Probably. Hmm, he was going to need a looser shirt, but there wasn’t one here.
Khita grimaced in frustration before answering Blacknail’s question. “You were out for only about a week, but you changed because of um… magic and hobgoblin stuff.”
Sighing, Blacknail put the shirt down and headed for the door. Yes, he definitely needed to find someone smarter to talk to. Was Geralhd around?
Blacknail’s silent question was answered a few seconds later. As soon as he’d opened the hut door and looked around, he noticed Geralhd running over his way. He must have heard that Blacknail was awake. Good, the merchant’s son turned bandit was without a doubt one of the smartest people around, even if he did say a lot of nonsense. As Blacknail stepped out to greet the man, Khita and Herah followed him.
“Blacknail, it’s so good to see you up and about!” Geralhd remarked happily before leaning closer to Khita. “He’s not murderous or anything, is he?”
“Not so far. He’s just grumpy and impatient,” the redhead replied.
“That could change. Explain!” Blacknail interjected as he glared at them both. What was this now? Someone had better start actually explaining things.
“Um, I was just a little concerned about your condition,” Geralhd told him.
“Which is?” Blacknail asked irately as realized that he didn’t have a blade on him. That was too bad, because in his experience the best way to get answers out of humans was by putting a knife against their throats.
Gerald suddenly looked nervous and uncertain. “Right, that’s a good question. I mean, we’re not completely sure, and I’m not an expert, but we believe you used too much magic after your battle with Werrick. You managed to heal yourself, but you also seem to have undergone magical mutation. So, you’re a mutant now.”
Blacknail blinked. What? He knew what mutants were, of course. They were large magical animals that you sometimes came across in the Green. Usually, they were very dangerous. But, how could he be one? Blacknail couldn’t picture that. Could you be a mutant and not know it?
“It’s why you’re taller. Most mutants are significantly larger than normal, although I believe that normally happens gradually,” Geralhd continued. “In your case, it’s almost like the initial mutation triggered your goblin to hobgoblin transformation again. Maybe because hobgoblin bodies are used to that kind of rapid change and responded to it as if it was a similar natural process?”
Slowly, things began to make sense to Blacknail, even if Geralhd was spouting a lot of nonsense. He did sort of remember burning all his Elixir and pulling in as much magic as possible when he’d been wounded. Still, it was overwhelming to think about. He needed a moment to clear his head.
“Is Gob around?” Blacknail asked. Another hobgoblin might be easier to deal with.
Geralhd shook his head. “No, he left once he was sure you were recovering from your wounds. Someone with some authority had to go back to Ironbreak to hold things together there.”
“Argh, fine. I’m hungry, so I’m going to go find something to eat. Unless there is some reason I can’t do that? Mutants eat, right?” Blacknail asked sarcastically. He was fairly certain mutants ate normally.
“Um, go ahead,” Geralhd replied.
Blacknail hadn’t waited for his permission. He had already sighed in frustration and turned to begin heading for the building that served as the forward base’s larder. His stomach grumbled as he walked, and he realized that he really was starving. For some reason, he’d simply failed to notice his hunger. Blacknail supposed that there had simply been too much going on.
The two hobgoblins on guard duty outside the larder jumped out of the way as Blacknail approached. Snorting rudely, Blacknail stepped past them and into the hut. Once inside, he looked around and began gathering up everything that looked tasty, including the only wheel of cheese. Then, he sat down at a table and started stuffing his face. That went on for a while, until even he was surprised by how much he managed to cram into his stomach. A whole wheel of cheese and two large rabbits went down his gullet. Apparently, a lot of his increased height was to make room for a much bigger stomach. Useful.
While he’d been eating, the others had been giving him some space and patiently waiting outside the door of the larder. So, when he was done satisfying his hunger and feeling a little better, Blacknail went out to talk to them again. They turned to study him as he approached.
“What exactly happened to Werrick and his men? Where are they now?” Blacknail asked Geralhd. That was the most important question he could think of. It had been weighing on him since he’d woken up.
“He fled, and we haven’t heard anything from him or his men since,” Geralhd explained. “After your um… fall, Werrick rallied all his men and marched them right out of the territory you’d claimed. That flare his mage sent up alerted his other nearby force and our scouts reported that they were on their way, so we all decided to retreat. Honestly, we expected him to hold his ground, but he just left. Word is little unreliable out here, but we’ve heard that he headed all the way back to his stronghold in the east and has remained there.”
Blacknail frowned as he began thinking. The Wolf had beaten him and escaped his trap, but he’d also just received a huge shock and almost been killed. The idea of a hobgoblin army would have thrown him off balance. He’d probably never even considered it possible. They were monsters from stories, and for all his strength and power, the Wolf was still human. He would want to retreat home and gather his courage, like a human would. The other option was trying to hunt down an organized army of hobgoblins through the Green. Blacknail wished he’d been that dumb. He knew exactly how good Werrick’s rangers were. Not nearly good enough.
“Hmm, what will he do next?” Blacknail mused aloud.
Geralhd quickly spoke up. “Ralphi seems to think he is pulling back until the Spring. It’s already Fall, and he says starting a campaign against a mobile and irregular opponent like us would be difficult to wrap up before Winter begins. He must also believe you dead, and thus he’s probably hoping our band falls apart.”
Wait, who was Ralphi? It took a moment for Blacknail to remember. Right, that was what Beardy had changed his name to. What an idiot. Beardy was a much better name. However, his thoughts on strategy made more sense to Blacknail. He nodded as some of the mental and physical tension he hadn’t been consciously aware of having slipped away. It was nice to know that Werrick wasn’t going to be launching an assault on the forward base or Ironbreak anytime soon. Given time to prepare, Blacknail could salvage this mess he found himself in. He’d bet quite a lot on being able to kill Werrick in their last encounter, but unfortunately that hadn’t happened. Still, in a lot of ways, time was on Blacknail’s side. His minions were growing in numbers and were easily replaceable. Sure the Wolf had huge armies and now knew about Blacknail’s hobgoblins, but he couldn’t know anything about the goblin settlement of Ironbreak. For all the Wolf knew, the army he’d faced had burst fully formed out of the Green.
“Werrick will move cautiously,” Blacknail mused. “He will try to learn more before he attempts to attack us. We can simply harass him and flee into the forest if he does show up, and then Winter will stop him for us. He is no threat until the Spring.”
“Alright, that reasoning makes sense,” Geralhd admitted before grimacing sourly. “However, that only buys us some time. Werrick is practically the King of the North already. He has massive armies, rogue mages, and support from an entire society of corrupt merchants with enough gold to bury a small city. How in damnation are we going to survive when he does come for us in the Spring? What do we do?”
Blacknail just shrugged calmly. “We have no choice. We will fight. If it is a war he wants then we will give him one.”
“Now that sounds like fun!” Khita exclaimed with a wide excited grin. “I can’t wait to have my chance at taking Werrick down. He fled before I could get to him last time, but I’m a Vessel now so I bet I can take him!”