"I wish I could think of a better solution to our problem,” Geralhd remarked after Blacknail had told Khita to stop yelling nonsense. They were still standing outside the hut that served as the forward base’s larder and kitchen and had been discussing what to do about their inevitable next conflict with Werrick.
“You don’t have to worry about thinking. I can do it for you, since I’m a genius,” Blacknail pointed out helpfully.
Geralhd sighed. “I certainly hope you are, because I have no idea what you’re thinking most the time, and we need every advantage we can get. However, now we should focus on what our more immediate plans are.”
“I need to get my minions back to work,” Blacknail said with a shrug. “We can’t let Werrick learn anything about us while we prepare to fight. He is human, so he will fear the unknown, and that will make him hesitate and buy us some more time. We want that time, so we have to make sure no one tells him anything.”
“Spies are probably our number one concern right now,” Geralhd agreed. “Werrick is undoubtedly trying to find out everything he can about us, but Ralphi and I have been careful to keep any of the new human recruits from learning too much about our presence further North. That should keep them in the dark about most the important happenings.”
“What about the vympirs?” Blacknail asked. They were the next thing on his mind. Ilisti and his men had fought beside Blacknail’s troops against Werrick, but they weren’t loyal to anyone but themselves. They were also very dangerous. Blacknail had once watched Ilisti tear apart a troll one-on-one. It had been impressive.
“When they found out you were unconscious they headed back North to Herstcrest,” Geralhd told him. “Honestly, none of us have any idea what Ilisti is thinking. It’s apparent that they do things quite differently in the West.”
Blacknail didn’t understand them either, so he just nodded. “Then we continue here as before. We will patrol the roads in our territory and demand tribute from travelers. If Werrick does attack then we will just hide and harass him until winter.”
Geralhd frowned thoughtfully. “What about new recruits and refugees heading north? I wouldn’t have believed it, but word continues to spread of opportunities up North and we’re still attracting deserters looking to join up with us and families fleeing the wars to the south.”
“Were else are they going to go?” Khita pointed out. “Those inbred fools that pass themselves off as nobles keep fighting down south, and Werrick isn’t recruiting anymore. Even he can’t afford to pay every deserter that heads North.”
Snorting, Blacknail gave them his opinion on the refugees. “They won’t be a problem. Any human who goes north will just have to stay there. My hobgoblins will find anyone that flees long before they escape, if they even last a day in the Green.”
Personally, he didn’t think it was likely any humans would get far if they tried to move through the Green on their own. Even a veteran ranger wouldn’t try that journey alone.
“Alright, so we’re fairly secure for now, but we’re still simply reacting to Werrick,” Geralhd told him. “You haven’t given us much in the way of details yet. They’re kind of important if you really want to wage a war against the Wolf. We need a real strategy for when he attacks in force. You know he will, and he won’t come alone. There will be a massive army at his back. Werrick is setting himself up as King of the North and he can’t have us challenging his rule.”
That was the problem. Blacknail hadn’t come up with the details just yet, although he was sure he would soon. He was a genius after all. He also apparently had plenty of time to come up with them while he gathered new resources. It had taken less than a year for Blacknail to build up the forces he had now. With a few more months, he could do a lot more.
“Don’t worry. Werrick will find us a difficult foe to defeat. I’ll come up with a new plan, much better than the last one. I have many surprises left, and I’m the best leader ever,” Blacknail assured his human minions with more confidence than he actually felt. Even though he wasn’t burning Elixir, he could feel Geralhd’s fear, like a faint whisper scratching on his awareness.
Letting out a deep breath, Geralhd relaxed a little. “Well, at least you’re back up and can deal with the hobgoblins. Ralphi has been trying to keep them busy working on construction so that they’ll stay out of trouble, but I believe they’ve been getting rebellious. You’re their real leader, and it has been too long since they’ve seen you.”
“Oh? I’ll deal with them in a bit. I want to get some exercise first,” Blacknail replied as he turned to scan his surroundings.
He was standing in the middle of the forward base right now. It had been built over the ruins of a human village that had been swallowed by the forest. Most of the buildings in sight were stone and mortar huts that hobgoblins had repaired and rethatched. None of the wooden buildings had survived. However, off to one side, stood several large log structures. They were barracks for troops that Blacknail had ordered built, and they were where most the hobgoblins lived. Another log building was currently under construction, and there was a wall made of lashed together stakes being built around the entire place.
As far as Blacknail knew, there weren’t any mirrors around, so he headed for the stream at the back of the base. He wanted to get a good look at himself. He’d been told he looked different now, and his horns had certainly grown longer. His nose hopefully hadn’t changed, though. It had been beautifully shaped before. The perfect mix of long and pointy.
Blacknail passed several hobgoblins as he made his way to the stream. All of them froze in surprise when they saw him, but Blacknail ignored them. Soon, he was out of the base and kneeling at the edge of a pool of water. Tall tees surrounded him, but there was enough light for him to see his own reflection in the running water.
His nose was still perfect, so Blacknail let out a deep sigh of relief. He’d been really worried about that. Some of his other features had changed, though. The first change was incredibly obvious. His horns were more like small black antlers now. The way they curved around his head and had branches jutting upward was almost crown-like when seen from the right direction. Blacknail liked it, even if they were rather heavy. He was going to have to try headbutting someone soon. They looked hard and pointy enough to do some real damage.
Below his horns, Blacknail’s eyes had changed color. They were no longer mud brown, instead they were a startling dark violet. Huh, weird. The other changes he noticed were less dramatic but still noticeable. Both his face and his body had filled out, giving him some more weight. His arms and legs were also longer and thicker. He felt powerful. Patting himself on the head, Blacknail figured he was about the same height as an average human male now, and probably weighed about the same as well. That was… exciting. Blacknail had grown used to being smaller than most humans, but he never really liked it. Size mattered.
Grinning, Blacknail turned and headed back to the base. It was time for a workout. He wanted to test this new body of his, so he headed over to where the log building was being constructed. Several hobgoblins were working there, but they quickly got out of his way as he sauntered over to a heavy log on the ground. Blacknail then grabbed the end of the log with both hands and began to lift. At first, his muscles strained without effect, but then the end of the log began to slowly rise. With his muscles burning, Blacknail managed to lift the weight up to stomach level, before he let go. He then stepped back and grinned in excitement as the log hit the ground with a heavy thud. That was equal to any feat of strength he’d ever seen a human do, even a big angry one that had been stabbed a few times! Also, Blacknail hadn’t even been burning Elixir.
Ready to try a new experiment. Blacknail turned his attention inward and tried to reach for the power of a Vessel. Nothing happened. Blacknail frowned in confusion. Was he completely out of Elixir? Before, he’d always been able to sense at least a hint of Elixir in his blood, even if it was just useless fumes. However, now there was absolutely nothing circling inside him. Had he used it all to heal or something?
“Work harder!” Blacknail commanded the nearby hobgoblins before turning and leaving. He didn’t know what they were doing, but they could always do it faster.
After thinking for a moment, Blacknail went to find Geralhd. Maybe he knew where the vials of Elixir Blacknail had been carrying had ended up. Unfortunately, the man had left the larder, so Blacknail had to search the camp. Eventually, he found the man in the hut that served as the local command post. It was where all the important people sat around to talk about important stuff, and also where they went to eat lunch and avoid dumb questions from their subordinates. Thus, minions weren’t allowed inside.
As Blacknail entered the front room of the hut, he noticed that Geralhd wasn’t alone. Both Khita and Ralphi were there. They were all seated at a table in the main room and looking at a map. Blacknail wasn’t sure Khita belonged. Well, it was impossible to keep her out of anywhere, so he let it go.
“We gave you all the Elixir we could find when you were wounded,” Geralhd explained after Blacknail had asked him about his vials. “We hoped it would help you heal, so it’s all gone. You were in bad enough shape that holding any back seemed foolish.”
Blacknail grunted sourly. He couldn’t really blame them for that, although he was tempted. Not having any Elixir was annoying. Still, he probably didn’t really need any right now. His new body was already quite strong and fast without it. He would just have to wait until he could get more from Imp at Ironbreak. The hobgoblin mage knew how to make his Elixir.
“It’s good to see you up and about. That means I can hand you back all the tough jobs and relax for a while,” Ralphi remarked. He’d been carefully studying Blacknail since his arrival.
“No, I’m not doing that. I’m leaving,” Blacknail replied matter-of-factly. “I need to get back to Ironbreak right away.”
“What? I hope you don’t expect me to continue looking after this place while you’re gone!”
Blacknail gave him a smug grin as he channeled his inner Herad. “I do expect that. You work for me now and that’s your job. If you don’t like it, you could always run away and see if Werrick has a better offer for you.”
This statement earned the hobgoblin an angry glare, but a moment later Ralphi just grunted sourly in acknowledgement. He really didn’t have any other option but to do as Blacknail said.
“Trust my new plan,” the hobgoblin chieftain told the man.
“Is it better than your old one? Because that didn’t go so well,” Ralphi replied in a cold tone.
Blacknail just grinned. “My old plan worked great, even if the end part needs reworked a little. I’m alive, stronger than ever, and I still have a growing army.”
Ralphi snorted with obvious scorn. “We will see if that’s enough when Werrick shows up.”
“We will,” Blacknail agreed. “So, you’d better do your part and build up this base as much as possible.”
Once again, Ralphi could only glower at the hobgoblin, which made Blacknail chuckle.
Khita smirked along with him. “Ya, Blacknail’s got the right idea. We didn’t manage to beat Werrick, but we’ve still got our hands in the jar!”
“Your optimism is appreciated, but hard work is definitely going to be more helpful,” Geralhd told her. “We have quite a few challenges waiting for us if we wish to survive.”
“Which is why I’m going to Ironbreak,” Blacknail replied with a nod of agreement. “I can’t do much here.”
He felt the need to get to work. He had to be ready. Something was coming…
After talking to the humans for a few more minutes, Blacknail headed back out to prepare for his journey. He needed supplies and an escort. Thus, the first thing he did was round up some hobgoblins. The barracks were the obvious place to look for hobgoblins that weren’t doing anything, so that was where he went. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone. Khita followed after him.
“Geralhd told me to make sure you don’t overexert yourself,” the redhead told him as they approached the barracks. It was a large building made from horizontal logs.
“Good for you,” Blacknail grunted as he opened the door in front of him and stepped inside. As usual, it was best to ignore the redhead as much as possible.
The inside of the barracks was dim and tightly packed. Small mismatched beds were everywhere. Some of them were hastily built wooden frames, but most of them were simple hammocks that had been hung between the outside walls and posts. In a lot of places hammocks had been set up on top of each other so they took up less room. Bags of loot and tools were scattered around as well, and the interior had a strong musky hobgoblin smell. That wasn’t a surprise since there were over a dozen hobgoblins in the building. They had been chatting loudly among themselves and watching two of their members wrestle in the center of the floor, but they all immediately stopped and stood up straight as soon as they noticed Blacknail. There was sudden silence they stared at him intently.
Sneering haughtily as if he found them lacking, Blacknail met their gazes and looked them over. “I need some minions to take me back Ironbreak, so you’re going to do it.”
The hobgoblins quickly glanced at each other and then one of them took a step forward. “We would be honored to serve you, our undying lord.”
“Good, get moving and packed up,” Blacknail told them. He’d never been called undying before. In fact, he’d never even known that was a word.
“Are you planning on walking back? That sounds pretty strenuous to me. Remember, you shouldn’t exert yourself too much,” Khita told him. Apparently, she was taking Geralhd’s advice seriously.
Blacknail sighed and turned to face her. “Do you have a better idea? Carts can’t go through the Green and the road isn’t done yet.”
The hobgoblin spokesman coughed to get his boss’ attention. “We could carry you on a litter. It would be our honor, supreme one,”
“I will allow that,” Blacknail agreed after thinking it over for moment. He wasn’t a huge fan of walking anyway. Too much work.
Less than an hour later, Blacknail’s party was ready to move. Both Khita and Geralhd were coming along so that they could get back to Shelter. They’d only been staying at the forward base in order to watch him while he was recovering. There were also a dozen hobgoblins coming along, four of which were carrying the litter. It was a simple hammock that had been tied between two long poles, but Blacknail found it quite comfy. The going was bumpy, but the cloth was soft, and he could lay down or sit up depending on his mood. All in all, the journey to Ironbreak was the most enjoyable ever for Blacknail. He decided that he needed to get carried around by his minions more. In fact, he might never walk anywhere again. This was how real leaders travelled!
“What are you going to do once you get back to Ironbreak?” Khita asked as she walked over beside Blacknail’s litter.
Sitting up, Blacknail gave her a suffering look. “Everything. I’m going to be very busy. I need to make sure nothing has gone wrong and that all my minions are keeping busy.”
“I must admit to being concerned about Ironbreak as well,” Geralhd added as he followed Khita. “Without you around to keep things orderly, who knows what has transpired. Some of the hobgoblins are… well-meaning, but they need firm leadership. Their proximity to Shelter also worries me. There is too much opportunity for a misunderstanding to arise between the two settlements.”
Blacknail nodded in agreement. Geralhd had mentioned only a small fraction of the things that had already occurred to him. There was the possibility of rebellion, cave-ins, drake attacks, mutant swarms, or that someone had stolen all his cheese. If Blacknail arrived at Ironbreak and his cheese had been stolen, a lot of people were going to die.