“Oh, hello,” a suddenly uncertain Blacknail told Luphera.
What had he just walked into? Her unexpected inclusion in this talk had thrown him badly off-balance. Regardless of his complicated past with her, the woman’s presence meant that this meeting wasn’t going to be as simple as he’d hoped it would.
Luphera pouted. “Really? That’s all I get in the way of greeting. Aren’t we intimate allies and close friends?”
Er, Blacknail really didn’t know what his relationship with Luphera was. Sure, he’d killed some people for her, but that was nothing special. He killed lots of people, sometimes just because he could. The fact that she’d seduced him once also didn’t mean much to him. In fact, he suspected it had all been part of a dastardly scheme to manipulate him. He blamed her perfume for messing with his head. Usually he wasn’t attracted to humans – even thinking about it was icky – but that scent had clouded his mind and roused his blood.
Cautiously sniffing the air, Blacknail didn’t detect Luphera’s usual scent. She was wearing a different perfume. No, wait. The mind-altering scent was there, just faint and buried under the other perfume. Blacknail didn’t feel it affecting him yet, but he would need to watch himself carefully.
“Sex doesn’t make us friends, and I don’t know if we’re still allies. Why are you here?” the hobgoblin asked the woman. He wasn’t going to let his guard down.
At his words, both Ralphi and Geralhd winced as if they’d just imagined something they’d rather not. Blacknail didn’t understand why. Luphera wasn’t bad looking for a human. Just very… pink.
Luphera just smiled. “So cold. I’m here to see you obviously. I wanted to do some catching up with my favorite hobgoblin. It’s been rather dull here without you. I like what you’ve done to yourself by the way. You have a handsome amount of muscle now.”
Beside Blacknail, Herah had been glaring at Luphera intently. Now, she growled loudly enough that everyone heard her, which earned her a curious glance from Luphera.
“Oh, I see. A female. I couldn’t tell at first,” she remarked a moment later as she gave Herah a smirk. It was easy to tell that she found Herah rather unimpressive.
Blacknail couldn’t help but glance at Herah’s body out of the corner of his eye and compare it to Luphera’s. The hobgoblin was skinnier, shorter, and had far less curves. She was also wearing far bulkier clothes which were similar to what all male hobgoblins wore. Luphera on the other hand had on a flowing dress that accented her body, and she was wearing expertly applied makeup that wasn’t obvious unless you looked for it.
Sensing the woman’s casual disdain, Herah’s glare deepened. “Oh, you’re a human? I thought a pig had wandered in to be butchered.”
From somewhere near the back, Khita giggled. Blacknail just grimaced. Should he be saying something here? He really didn’t want to though. Getting between the two females seemed like a bad idea.
“Feisty one, isn’t she?” Luphera remarked as she glanced at Blacknail.
Herah tried to take a step toward Luphera, but Blacknail stretched out his arm to stop her. He couldn’t let this come to actual blows.
“Careful,” he told them both. This caused Herah to actually snarl so that her teeth showed, so Blacknail wasn’t sure she’d been listening.
Luphera just laughed. “Ha, I’m not the jealous sort. I simply think she should at least put some effort into cleaning herself up, if only so that she doesn’t drag mud across the floor.”
“Not everyone makes their living on their back,” Khita huffed not so quietly in support of her friend.
Blacknail couldn’t help but glance at Herah so that he could compare her to Luphera. They were very different, which wasn’t a surprise since they weren’t the same species. He found them both attractive, although he was far more comfortable with his desire for Herah. Being with a human was strange to even think about, even if Luphera’s curvy body was delightfully soft and bountiful. Blacknail was fairly certain a whole bunch of his instincts were getting messed up when he was around Luphera, and some of them had more to do with hunting than sex. Luckily for her, Luphera could take care of herself and wasn’t afraid of taking charge, even if that had embarrassed Blacknail a lot in the past. Ugh, he didn’t want to think about.
Still, embarrassment aside, Luphera had without a doubt had a huge impact on Blacknail. After being with her, Blacknail had no longer found female goblins attractive at all. They were too small now that he was a hobgoblin, and he was even bigger now. Female hobgoblins were built much more like human women though… He was never going to mention this to anyone, especially not Herah.
Since he wasn’t deaf and blind, the Governor sensed the building tension in the room. Thus, he coughed and stepped forward. “The purpose of this meeting is so that Blacknail can inform me of why he’s seen fit to visit my city. At her request, I allowed Luphera to join us, but now is not the time for idle chatter. You can dally or claw at each other somewhere else.”
Neither Luphera or Herah looked at him. Their eyes remained locked on each other. Somewhat off put by this, Blacknail decided to get this meeting over with as soon as possible.
“I’m here to save you,” he told his host smugly.
The Governor frowned. “Save us? You are the only dangerous element affecting my city at the moment. Your presence threatens to destabilize the balance between the bandits and plunge my city into chaos. If you remain, Werrick’s local lieutenant will have to strike against you, and he has the largest force in Daggerpoint.”
“I have a bigger one on the way.”
A spark of anger appeared in the Governor’s eyes. “So, you plan to wage war here? You may outnumber the Wolf’s men, but all the local bandit troops have sworn themselves to him and would also rise against you. You can’t fight them all.”
Blacknail chuckled. “No, I’m not here to fight humans. Like I said, I’m here to save you.”
Grinning broadly now in a way that showed off his teeth, Blacknail reached into one of his coat pockets and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. He straightened it out and brushed it off a few times before handing it to the Governor.
“The dread plague,” Blacknail answered as the man began reading. Luphera looked over his shoulder. They were both visibly paler by the time they’d finished reading. This was amusing.
Grimacing as if he was in pain, the Governor looked back up at Blacknail. “This is real? No, you couldn’t have faked these seals. It must be true…”
“I got it from the paladin myself. Everything there is true,” Blacknail explained. He’d requested an official letter from sir Masnin explaining the situation in the South. It also vouched for Blacknail himself, although that part was vague. It was all part of the plan.
Luphera looked unusually disturbed and was biting her lip. “My sources have reported outbreaks down south, but I had no idea it was this bad. I had assumed rumors were flying wild, especially in regard to these boggarts. I thought them figments of peasants’ imagination.”
“I can also vouch for the veracity of the letter,” Geralhd added helpfully. “It seems like the situation in Eloria – and possibly elsewhere – is quite dire indeed.”
The Governor nodded and turned to Blacknail. “Well, I thank you for bringing this to our attention, but I don’t believe you came here as any sort of messenger.”
“No, I came to save you from the plague,” Blacknail agreed. “The boggarts are spreading it and must know this city is here. The creatures are smart and have been preparing for a long time. They want all humans dead.”
“I don’t imagine your help will come without a cost?”
Blacknail smiled. “Only a very small one. You just have to let my men inside and promise to help them. They will need food and shelter, but they aren’t picky like humans.”
“Let in an army of hobgoblins? I don’t see how that is necessary. We have our own methods of detecting and dealing with the plague. Hounds and Vessels among other things.”
“The southern humans had hounds and Vessels, but it wasn’t enough. The boggarts were able to kill them easily. Also, you have less Vessels than you did. Avorlus made all of yours and he works for me now.”
“I had wondered what had happened to him after his disappearance,” Luphera remarked.
“If we did agree to your terms, what of your conflict with the Wolf and his forces in the city?” the Governor asked.
Blacknail shrugged. “To work, my men would need to be safe from ambushes by Werrick’s men. You’ll just have to kick all of them out of the city.”
“I don’t have the men or the authority to do any such thing.”
“Then get the other bandits and gangs to do it. They will need protection from the plague too.”
The Governor frowned. “Perhaps that could work, but this seems like quite a lot to take on faith.”
“You don’t need faith at all,” Blacknail told him. “I’m willing to bet the plague is already in the city, spreading from human to human as we talk. My hobs can track it down within a few hours and show it to you up close.”
The Governor’s eyes widened in surprise, and what smelled like more than a little fear. “Already? You believe these boggarts are already spreading the plague within the city.”
“Yes, there is no reason they wouldn’t be. I chased them away from my territory, but Daggerpoint isn’t in my territory.” Yet.
Now the Governor looked very uncertain and afraid. He hesitated for a moment before saying anything more. “Very well. If you find any infection within my city, I will back your plan completely.”
Luphera chuckled grimly. “It’s not like you’re giving us much choice. It seems we are completely dependent on you now. If the southern lands are truly being ravaged by the ghoul plague and these boggarts, we stand little chance on our own.”
“Yep, you need me,” Blacknail replied happily as he turned to leave. It would be silly to stick around now that he had the cooperation he needed. Every second he wasted, the plague was spreading further through the dark alleys and ramshackle buildings of Daggerpoint.
“I’ll send a man with you, so you can contact me if you find something,” the Governor called after him.
Heading back out the front door, Blacknail and the others met up with the rest of their force on the street. One of the Governor’s men in red followed them as they headed back to the alehouse they’d just left. It would serve as a fine headquarters from which to begin their search.
“Who was that woman?” Herah asked in a suspicious tone as she walked up right beside Blacknail. Khita was right behind her but hung back to listen without actually joining the conversation.
Twitching nervously, Blacknail turned to look at her. “Um, just an ally from long ago. She helped me kill someone, so I killed someone for her.”
Herah pouted. “I help you kill lots of people, but you’ve never killed anyone for me!”
“Um, is there someone you want me to kill?”
“That’s not the point!”
Blacknail had no idea what the point was. Thus, he deflected. “I’ll get you a gift. There’s lots of nice stuff in this city.”
This seemed to satisfy Herah for the moment. She smiled happily and nodded, but then Blacknail noticed her turn and glance hostilely back at the Governor’s mansion. It was obvious what she was thinking.
“Don’t go trying to kill her. I need you with me, and you don’t know the city. There are many dangers here and she has a lot of skilled minions,” Blacknail told her.
Herah sighed in disappointment but nodded reluctantly. She then grabbed Blacknail’s arm and pulled him close so that they were walking arm-in-arm. Normally, Blacknail wouldn’t have allowed that, but he knew better than to say anything right now. It was a small price to pay for not getting stabbed in his sleep.
Once they’d burst back into the alehouse and startled the barkeep so that he dropped the platter he was carrying, Blacknail had a quick snack and then began organizing the search for the ghouls. It had been quite a while since he’d encountered any of the twisted humans, but he clearly remembered what they were capable of. Images of Herad’s fight against them flickered through his mind. The creatures had emerged from the forest at night and charged the bandits’ campfires. It was then that Blacknail had first seen Herad go all out. Her blade had reflected the firelight as she’d cut into the ghouls, but it had been a close fight, even for her.
Blacknail also clearly remembered what the creatures smelled like. It was a nasty oily smell that was tinted by rot, and yet still very human-like.
Forming up several packs of five hobs and one human minder, Blacknail told them what to look for. He also assured the humans that they weren’t supposed to go anywhere near any ghouls. They were simply along to keep the hobs out of trouble and deal with any distractions that came up. The humans were understandably afraid of the dread plague. Not everyone who was infected showed obvious signs but any exposure to infected body fluids could spread the plague. All the infected also eventually became monstrous ghouls with claws and teeth that could slice into flesh and spread the plague that way. The only known cure was an expensive elixir made from silver.
Blacknail himself stayed behind in the alehouse so that his minions could find him once they’d detected the scent of the plague. While he waited, he snacked some more. The barkeep had done as he was told and gotten some more cheese. There were also meat pies.
“So, who was that flirty lady? You seemed to know her quite well,” Khita asked as she took a seat next to Blacknail.
The hobgoblin chieftain frowned. “No one important.”
Khita huffed in disbelief. “As if. Come on tell me!”
“No,” Blacknail replied as he shoved her chair away. Stupid Khita. She was annoying as a bug that had gotten stuck up his nose.
Thankfully, Blacknail didn’t have to ignore Khita for much longer after that. One of the groups he’d sent out returned to report.
“We found the scent you were seeking, boss,” one of his gobs explained after hurrying over to his master’s side. “There’s a big abandoned building in a place few humans go. It smells exactly like you said.”
Blacknail put down the rest of the drumstick he’d been eating and got up. “Alright, let’s get ready then. The others should be getting back soon.”
All the hunting parties he’d sent out had orders to return every half hour, even if they didn’t find anything. To contain a ghoul infection, Blacknail was going to need them all, so he headed outside to wait for them.
It took fifteen minutes, because one group was late by over five minutes. Blacknail didn’t have time to punish them though. They had to move fast. Thus, at his command, the hunters who’d found the trail began leading the way into the city. Following behind them, Blacknail took his two dozen hobs, Khita, and the messenger in red with him. Khita was immune to the plague because she was a Vessel, but any other humans would just be a distraction. They could meet up with him once he’d dealt with the infection.
The hunters led Blacknail and the others down several twisting alleyways that ran between the dirty buildings of Daggerpoint. There was grime and garbage everywhere, as well as several unconscious drunks and a lot of rats. The drunks didn’t move, but the rats scrambled away from the hobs and disappeared into junk or gaps between stones. Several hobgoblins eyed the vermin hungrily. The rats here were fat, but from experience, Blacknail knew they didn’t taste great.
The lead hunter suddenly stopped and raised a hand to point at a large building up ahead. “There, that’s where the trail leads and the scent is strongest.”
Blacknail studied the structure. It was obviously derelict, since it had a huge sagging hole in its roof. Before being abandoned, it looked to have been a workshop of some kind. It had a big central section that was two stories tall and several smaller side sections as well. It had probably never been pretty looking, but now it was rather dark and forbidding. Most the buildings around here weren’t in much better shape though. Many of them were abandoned and run down too. Only a few seemed like people ever visited them. This was one of the parts of Daggerpoint that had been left to molder after the bandits had taken over.
Sniffing the air, Blacknail easily detected the scent of ghouls. The foul oily smell was thick here. Cautiously, Blacknail studied the dank and shadowy alleys that surrounded him. It was possible that there were ghouls hidden all around this area. If he attacked any of them, the others would rise up and attack him from behind. This hunt was going to require careful planning. Despite how they looked, ghouls had dangerous and cunning instincts.
The messenger in red was still cowering at the very back of the group, so Blacknail sent him back to his master with a single hobgoblin as an escort. That way the Governor would know exactly where the infection was. That done, Blacknail began giving the others orders in a hushed voice. Most the hobs were to stay outside in pairs and make sure no ghouls fled, while Blacknail went in with a few minions to guard his back.
“I’ll stay out here and make sure none of them get away,” Khita volunteered.
This earned her a look from Blacknail. He’d expected the stupid redhead to insist on joining him. Now that he was paying attention, she did look out of sorts. She was paler than usual, and she kept glancing at all the nearby shadows.
“What’s the matter?” he asked her.
“Ghouls creep me out,” the redhead whispered back. “I’m also not great haunted buildings.”
Blacknail frowned. “You’re immune to the plague now.”
“Sure, but they can still just kill and eat me. I mean, they used to be people, but now their blood is black and they’re all starved looking. It’s just wrong,” she replied with shudder of dread.
“Fine, stay out here,” Blacknail replied with a sigh. Of course, even her fears were stupid.
A shuffling noise drew Blacknail’s attention, so he glanced over to his left. There, a previously unnoticed figure wearing rags was crouched next to a pile of junk. However, now it had drawn attention by moving to look toward the hobgoblins. At first, Blacknail thought it was a beggar or another drunk, but then he met its gaze. Its eyes were pitch black pools full of shimmering hunger. Slowly, the ghoul began to rise, revealing its long claws and the emaciated body that lay under its filthy rags. A mouth full of twisted teeth and black mucus became visible as it opened its mouth to scream and summon its pack.
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