Blacknail lazily studied his surroundings. The birds were chirping merrily in the trees as the sun rose off in the distance. It was still spring, so there was chilly bite to the early morning air, although that would probably vanish as the day went on and the air warmed.
Around Blacknail, there was a flurry of activity on the road right outside the castle as men prepped for the long journey ahead of them. Sir Masnin stood in the middle of the crowd of men and horses. He was constantly talking to people and yelling orders. Blacknail approved. Yelling loud enough that you were impossible to ignore was about half of good leadership.
“Waiting for these people is so annoying. They should move faster,” Khita observed. She was sitting on a rock over to Blacknail’s left, with the rest of the hobgoblin’s minions.
Today was the agreed upon time of departure for the expedition north. Blacknail’s group had gotten here yesterday. After the meeting in the castle with Lord Lavista and the other nobles, Blacknail had rushed back over to the village he’d conquered, Aldhara. He’d needed to meet with his troops and send out a lot of messages and orders. If he was going to be gone on a long expedition, he needed to make sure everything was still running smoothly in his own territory. Thankfully, that had turned out to be the case. There had been no reports of boggart attacks or any other disasters at Daggerpoint or Ironbreak, despite the problems facing everyone else.
All the settlements in Blacknail’s territory were actually running smoothly. In fact, Gob had headed back to Ironbreak to help train all the hobgoblins that were appearing there, and the forges were still working non-stop to produce spears and arrows for Blacknail’s troops. Although Ironbreak was still expanding and more longhouses were constantly being built, it was always packed full of hobgoblins. Gob had to keep sending them south to reinforce other areas or to hunting lodges. It seemed like while everyone else was reeling from the plague, his forces and holdings were the only ones that were growing stronger.
At the same time, more refugees were showing up and seeking shelter. Most of them were either penniless farmers fleeing the war – and now the plague as well – or deserters looking to escape a short brutal life in a noble’s army. No one else seemed to want them, but Blacknail was happy to take them in. He had a use for both fighters and farmers. A core of skilled human soldiers would definitely help Blacknail organize his hobgoblins and stiffen their spines. Also, since Blacknail’s hobgoblins forces were constantly expanding, he needed to worry about keeping them feed. Goblins and hobgoblins weren’t the best farmers. They got bored too quickly unless closely supervised, including the overseers themselves, so Blacknail had consulted Geralhd and quickly come up with a more dependable system. He’d had land cleared for refugee farmers and provided them with everything they needed to survive in the short term, such a hut and some tools. The farms also used goblin labor and were protected by hobgoblin patrols. In return, Blacknail claimed most of their crops. There were some more details about loans and tribute, but Blacknail let Geralhd worry about that. He was just glad to get a reliable source of food.
Reassured about what was happening back home, Blacknail had then returned to the castle to meet up with Sir Masnin. He’d arrived late in the afternoon, reported in, and camped outside for the night. The next morning, Sir Masnin had come out of the castle and organizing the rest of the force. That was what Blacknail was watching now. His forces were already up and ready.
Khita turned to glare at some people on the other side of the crowd, but then she giggled as a smug grin broke out on her face. “Look at him there. He looks like he’s got a big stick up his ass and can’t get it out.”
Blacknail followed her gaze until his eyes locked on Werrick’s face. The man was clearly grimacing in frustration at everything in sight. He looked quite displeased to be here, which obviously delighted Blacknail quite a bit. The hobgoblin let out a vicious little giggle of his own.
“Don’t do that. It’s creepy beyond words,” Ralphi remarked from where he was standing next off to the side.
“It wasn’t a compliment,” the bandit grunted sourly.
Werrick had remained in the castle the entire time that Blacknail had been gone. Without a doubt, he’d spent that time scheming with the nobles he had under his influence and making plans of his own. Still, Blacknail was sure he still had the upper hand. There was only so much Werrick could do while on the expedition. They would be headed off into the deep Green. That was Blacknail’s home territory, and not only would he have every advantage out there, but the Wolf would be completely cut off from reinforcements. Werrick wouldn’t be entirely without resources though. He was bringing his own escort, and most of them were standing around him right now. Eleven mean looking thugs formed Werrick’s personal guard, and he was also bringing one blonde woman, Zelena.
Blacknail reached down to scratch his ass as he studied Zelena. She was an odd choice for an excursion into the wilds. All her clothing, from her long fur cloak to her grey skirt, was neatly tailored and expensive looking. Her long hair was also artfully done-up, and jewelry decorated her entire outfit. She looked more like a noble lady than anyone else in the castle, but there had to be more to her than was obvious. She wouldn’t be with Werrick if she wasn’t dangerous.
Blacknail wished he could say the same about his own escorts. Sighing, he turned to look them over. He’d brought the most skilled hobgoblin warriors and hunters he could get his hands on. Also, Khita had invited herself. The redhead had just laughed when Blacknail had told her she wasn’t invited. Although to be honest, Blacknail hadn’t tried all that hard to dissuade her from coming. She was a Vessel after all, even if she was annoying and was probably going to mess everything up somehow. Ralphi and Geralhd were only here to see Blacknail off. Their talents would only be wasted on an expedition into the Green to hunt a monstrous drake.
The hobgoblins that stood out among the members of the expedition were Herah, Imp, and Slashi. With such a small group, Blacknail didn’t need any of his sub-leaders like Gob along. They were better managing other hobgoblins elsewhere. Instead, Blacknail had concentrated on bringing competent and dangerous hobgoblins that had experience as hunters, could use magic, or had fought both beasts and humans. Herah wasn’t the most skilled swordsman in the tribe, wasn’t a mage, and she was a sub-par hunter, but she was one of the most experienced fighters since she was always shadowing Blacknail when he got into trouble. Plus, he could have sex with her. That was a nice bonus since this was going to be a long trip.
Of course, although Werrick and Blacknail were both only supposed to be bringing a dozen escorts each, Werrick still had more men that he could call on. The bulk of the force Sir Masnin was leading was made up of nobles and their escorts. In total, four noble were coming along, and as Blacknail had seen in the council room, some of them were working for Werrick. Blacknail recognized two of them as men who were obviously his enemies, but he didn’t know about the other two. They were southern nobles and they seemed to only be interested in completing the mission so far. Looks could be deceiving though. They could secretly be working for Werrick. To finish up their group, Sir Masnin had a dozen men of his own, who were probably not in league with Werrick.
Suddenly, a commotion over to Blackail’s left caught his attention. He glanced that way and saw a hobgoblin jogging his way. It wasn’t one of his chosen followers, so the hobgoblin had to be a messenger. By the looks of it, the message was important. The hobgoblin had a determined look on his face and was moving at a quick pace. Blacknail really hoped this wasn’t bad news. A lot of things could have gone wrong, like a swarm of boggarts overwhelming Ironbreak.
“What is it?” Blacknail asked as the messenger drew closer.
The hobgoblin stopped and sucked down a deep breath before answering. “He’s coming!”
“Who?” Blacknail asked as he made a funny face. He honestly had no idea who they were talking about. Werrick was already here, and he was the big threat.
“Ilisiti the vympir. Gob sent me to tell you that he is on his way!”
“What?” Blacknail remarked in surprise as he sat up. Why would Ilisiti be coming here? Also, wasn’t he really far away in Herstcrest?
“He is riding here with some of his men right now. They will be here in less than an hour.”
Blacknail made a face like he’d just swallowed something rotten, and not the tasty kind of rotten. This was an unforeseen complication. Just what did Ilisiti want? Well, whatever it was, Blacknail needed to do something about this development before it got out of control.
“Why is he coming here? Do you know?”
“All I know is he said he wants to join the hunt.”
“Let’s cut him off at the road and see what he wants before he gets in sight of all these touchy humans,” Blacknail decided.
“What’s all this now?” Ralphi asked as he leaned over to listen.
After giving his minions a brief explanation of what was happening, Blacknail led them down the road away from the castle and any sentries it had out. Thanks to the hills surrounding them, they were soon out of sight of the castle. Blacknail kept them moving for a bit longer though. There was no reason to take chances.
A few minutes later, the first sign of approaching riders appeared. Dust rose up from behind the hills and the thump of hooves reached Blacknail’s ears. Frowning, the hobgoblin chief stopped and waited. It didn’t take long for Ilisiti to ride into sight. He was a large man and unmistakable in his unique heavy armor. His helm had two small batwings protruding from its sides and its faceplate was quite menacing. Decorative steel ridges surrounded the eye holes, making it look like the wearer was always glaring with inhuman intensity. The rest of the armor plate was also quite ornate and had a antiquated look.
Upon seeing Blacknail’s group up ahead, Ilisti and the other riders began to slow. As they approached and came to halt, Ilisti studied the people in front of him for second before pulling his faceplate up.
“Ah, Blacknail. It is good to see you. I was hoping that you’d intercept us,” the vympir said as he grinned. “I was wondering if I was in the right place, since I’ve never been this far south and no one on the road stuck around long enough for me to get directions.”
“That depends on what you’re trying to do,” Blacknail replied.
“I’m here to join you in your hunt for the beast of the North. Why else would I speed here?”
“You want to try and fight the Doom, on purpose?” Blacknail asked. Why would anyone join this expedition by choice? He was only here because of the rewards and the chance to murder Werrick, and he was hoping to avoid any mutant drakes they encountered.
Ilisti laughed heartily. It sounded odd coming from someone who was usually dour and reserved. “I enjoy testing myself against all manner of beast, as you well know. How could I possibly resist the chance to join in the hunt for the greatest quarry in all the world? No, this is where I shall make my legend.”
“How did you even find out about this?”
“One of my men at your forward base sent me a bird.”
“Yes, a kingshrike. In the West, they are specially trained and bred to navigate the Green safely. It is how we keep in touch with our holdings.”
Sighing, Blacknail took a moment to think. Would Sir Masnin and the others accept Ilisti’s assistance? There was only one way to find out. “Fine. Leave your men here and I’ll take you to see the leader, Sir Masnin. You can ask him to join yourself.”
“I trust you’ll put a good word in for me,” Ilisti replied as he nodded in agreement.
“Sure,” Blacknail said as he began leading his ally down the road. The vympir dismounted so that he didn’t stand out from the rest of Blacknail’s minions too much.
They made it over to Sir Masnin without anyone raising the alarm, but the tall vympir did get more than a few looks. His fearsome armor made him hard to miss, but he was surrounded by armed hobgoblins and Blacknail, so the appearance of one guy in armor didn’t appear to concern anyone much. They didn’t appear to believe he was much of a threat in comparison to the hobgoblins around him. They were wrong. Blacknail had once seen Ilisti take a troll apart in a one-on-one fight.
Sir Masnin was arguing with a noble about supplies when Blacknail approached him. Glancing over, the paladin frowned when he noticed Ilisiti. He then turned back to the noble and dismissed him.
“Hey, there’s something I need to talk to you about,” Blacknail told the paladin.
“So, I see,” Sir Masnin replied before turning to look at Ilisti. “That’s some interesting armor you have there. It’s of western origin, unless I’m very much mistaken.”
Blacknail grunted in annoyance at being ignored but let Ilisti answer for himself.
“You are correct, sir knight. This armor has been passed down in my bloodline for generations, and I do hail from the West. My name is Ilisti, I’m a powerful ally of Blacknail the hobgoblin, and I’ve come to aid you in your expedition. With your permission I will join you with a dozen of my arms-men.”
“Where exactly do you hail from?” the paladin asked with obvious skepticism.
“I used to be from past Westwatch, but I find myself more to the east these days, along the border of Blacknail’s territory.”
“So, you’re another bandit lord looking for legitimacy?”
“I care little for the approval of eastern kings. I’m here to join the hunt and test my might against that of the greatest magic-born creature alive. I look for no reward for this but glory rightfully earned.”
“He’s very strong. We could use his help and he knows his way around the Green much better than any of those fools,” Blacknail said as he pointed toward where some nobles were arguing with their servants.
“But I don’t believe he’s quite human, is he?” Sir Masnin answered in a steely tone.
Ilisiti huffed in annoyance and raised his faceplate to reveal his pale face and red eyes. “I haven’t sought to hide anything from you. I know that a false-blooded pretender in service to a cult such as you would recognize one of the old bloodlines.”
“You humans have this all confused,” Blacknail added. “Ilisti is as human as you, and he’s as much a human as I’m a hobgoblin. None of my minions go around saying I’m not a hobgoblin just because I’m a mutant.”
“You don’t bite your hobs so that they get infected by your mutation and then harvest them for Elixir as they slowly die,” Sir Masnin explained. Blacknail grunted in reply. Was that how being a vympir worked?
“Your perspective on what my kin do is skewed by your own false teachings,” Ilisiti countered. “We kill no more than the eastern lords do, and those that survive our touch are raised up to the nobility.”
Sis Masnin sighed. “Is your thirst going to be a problem?”
“No, I have made preparations for this journey,” Ilisti replied. “Like your own, my power can be stored in vials for later use.”
“Very well. You may join us. Someone of your strength would be useful, and we are nothing if not desperate. Perhaps the hobgoblin is correct, this new threat we face certainly would include you among the members of humanity.”
“We have always been the best of humanity. We defended it long before the rise of the last empire or the rule of the mages, for all that most of mankind has been ever ungrateful.”
Sir Masnin grimaced as if he disagreed, but before he could reply, something off to the side drew the paladin’s attention. Blacknail glanced that way as well. It seemed that the vympir’s presence had drawn Werrick’s attention.
“What is going on here?” Werrick demanded as he approached.
“We have some new arrivals that wish to aid our mission,” the paladin answered calmly.
“That’s not up to you,” the paladin replied coldly. “This expedition is under my authority and mine alone. Now go ready your men. We are setting out now.”
Ilsiti pulled his faceplate back down and turned to face the Wolf. “I remember you, or at least your back. You fled before me rather than do battle the last time we met. If you disapprove of my presence here and wish to prove you aren’t a vile coward, feel free to challenge me at any time, pretender.”
Werrick’s snorted rudely. “Removing oneself from an ambush by a numerically superior foe is hardly an act of cowardice, and fighting you now would be foolish. I look forward to seeing how you fare against Myagnoir.”
That said, Werrick turned and began walking away.
Sir Masnin sighed as he looked at Blacknail. “Watch out for yourself. Forcing that one to join our expedition was a risk. I have no idea how many nobles and troops he has turned to his side, but I would guess most of them. I can trust only my own personal forces, and the wolf is crafty. He will have many hidden cards prepared to deal with you.”
Blacknail grinned. “I have a few cards of my own and no one is craftier than me.”