Bane of Humanity 2

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Bane of Humanity 1

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There were two guards standing outside the gates of the castle. Both of them were wearing bright chainmail with purple tabards over it. They also wore steel caps that reflected the light from the setting sun off in this distance. This made them some the cleanest and fanciest soldiers Blacknail had ever seen. Looking clean seemed to be as important to them as actually guarding the gate, maybe more, considering how bored they looked and how unobservant they were being. 

Neither guard noticed Blacknail’s approach until he was right on top of them. One second, the road leading to the castle was empty, and they were having an uneventful day, the next, there was inhuman creature looming over them.

“I have been invited,” Blacknail announced. He was dressed in his best armor and wearing his best cloak, which had been made from a mutant wolf he’d slain. The setting sun was behind him, so his face was dark and his antlers caught the light and cast a mess of creepy shadows. 

“Holy gods!” one of the guardsman yelped as he jumped back. The other simply froze and stared at the dark figure before him with wide eyes full of terror. 

“I am Blacknail, and I have been invited by your leaders,” the hobgoblin told them. He was used to this. Most humans needed to be told everything repeatedly. It took several long seconds for the guardsman to process this, which was another annoying human trait. 

One guard fumbled with his sword, but Blacknail simply stepped forward and put a hand on the man’s arm so that he couldn’t draw his weapon. “Bad idea.”

The other guard hesitated but then recognition appeared in his eyes and he relaxed a little. “Right, we were told about you.”

“So, are you going to let me in?” Blacknail asked. 

The guards looked at each other uncertainly. Letting a huge hobgoblin in through the front gate seemed like the exact opposite of their usual duty.

“I suppose that’s what we we’re ordered to do if you showed up,” one of them remarked a few seconds later. 

“Good, then open the gates,” Blacknail replied with forced patience. He wasn’t here to talk to these idiots but smacking them around wouldn’t help. If anything, it would make them stupider. 

One of the guards hesitantly walked over to the gate. Once he was there, a head-high slot opened and he began talking to someone on the other side. This went on for a while, so Blacknail sighed and studied his surroundings. 

The castle that loomed behind the two guards was quite impressive, and like nothing Blacknail had ever seen before. Its outer walls were not only taller than any other he’d seen, but they were made from thick stone that fit together remarkably smoothly. They looked like they would resist even the most powerful of magical blasts or even a charge by a horde of ogres. 

All the pointy towers that had been built on the wall were also imposing. Anyone within them would have a commanding view of the area around the castle, which had been built next to the only trail that went through a series of very rugged hills.

The keep rose up from inside the outer walls. Made up of more stone, it was squarish in shape except for its triangular roof and five towers. There was a tower on each corner of the square, and one taller one in the center. All in all, it had a very simple and functional design. This building was a defensive structure meant to repel invaders, not look pretty. 

It would have been very difficult for Blacknail to take this castle with his troops. Sure, he might be able to sneak over the outer wall and open the gate after fighting the guards, but even if his minions took the outer walls, the keep in the center could easily be sealed up tight. Against a determined force of human defenders, it would be next to impossible to conquer.

Yes, this castle was very different from the crude fortifications that most settlements in the North used. That was to be expected though. This castle had been designed to stop real armies, not just forest beasts and bandits. Also, everything humans made in the South was supposed to be bigger and better, and this castle was located on the northern border of Eloria. Technically, once he was inside the castle, Blacknail would no longer be in the North. 

The guards were still debating someone on the other side of the door, so Blacknail sighed and let his thoughts wander. The march here from Daggerpoint hadn’t taken that long, but they’d had to move quickly to get here in time for the meeting. Not that he’d minded leaving Daggerpoint as quickly as possible. The friction between Herah and Luphera had grown worse until it was quite uncomfortable for him. Blacknail wasn’t even sure why they were fighting. He wasn’t interested in Luphera anymore, and even if he had been, there was more than enough of him to go around. 

Anyway, Blacknail had ended up leaving quite a few troops in Daggerpoint, and had decided against leaving anyone important in charge of them. Whoever he left, they’d just end up doing what Luphera wanted anyway. Thankfully, her interests seemed to align with Blacknail’s, so he didn’t need to kill her. He had more important things to deal with than her games, like boggarts and Werrick. That was why he was standing in front of this impressive heap of stone.

Finally, the guards finished their conversation and the gates began to creak open. Blacknail waited until they were completely open, and then he turned and motioned toward a nearby hill. Immediately, over a dozen figures detached themselves from the shadows and followed him in through the gates. The guards jumped in surprise again, but a glare from Blacknail – backed by a little fear magic – made them both instantly shut their mouths and go rigid with fear. They said nothing as a dozen hobgoblins and three humans made their way into the castle. There were more guards on the inside, but they either decided that the hobgoblins had all been invited in or that this wasn’t their problem. 

“Please wait here, someone will be along meet you soon,” one the guards told the newly arrived party, and Blacknail gave him a nod in reply. 

Khita stepped forward peered around the gatehouse. “I’ve never been in a castle before. Slums and city markets were more my thing.” 

“I defended a castle out on the eastern border during a siege once, back when I was in the army, but we conscripts were never let in the keep itself,” Ralphi said. 

“I visited one or two for family business when I was young,” Geralhd added. “There usually isn’t much to them. Just a lot of stone corridors and drafty halls.” 

Blacknail nodded. “Lots and lots of stones. I’m actually impressed that someone got a bunch of humans to do this much work.” 

“The nobles definitely know how to motivate the common folk,” Ralphi remarked sourly.

Blacknail looked over at him and gave him an interested look. “Oh, how do they do that?” He could always use more efficient humans. 

Ralphi just sighed. “Never you mind. It’s not important.” 

Before Blacknail could press the point further, he was distracted by the arrival of someone new, a man in neat purple clothing. 

“Blacknail the hobgoblin, I presume?” the man asked. He had a very emotionless manner and rigid posture. 

“Yep, that’s me. I can show you my black toenail if you want,” Blacknail answered with a smile. He was rather proud of his black toenail. It was why Saeter had given him his name. 

A hint of grimace briefly flashed across the man’s face. “No, that won’t be necessary.” 

“Your loss,” the hobgoblin remarked with a shrug. The man had just lost his only chance to see the toe that terrified the North. 

“Perhaps. I’m to escort you to see the royal councilor. He wishes to speak with you. Please leave your weapons here.” 

Geralhd coughed politely as he stepped forward and gave a little bow. “We would be very grateful for your service. Please lead the way.” 

Blacknail just nodded along. As a mutant, he wasn’t too worried about being disarmed, and Geralhd probably knew what he was doing since he was the fancy human ceremony expert. Blacknail had just been making everything up as he went along, which only worked because he was so amazing at everything. 

After everyone had handed over most of their weapons to the gate guards – Blacknail knew several of his party still had daggers hidden away – the herald began leading the group of hobgoblins toward the keep. They exited the gatehouse and went through the courtyard before reaching the main entrance to the central keep. There were a lot of human troops around, more than Blacknail had expected to see. The soldiers manned the walls and could be seen moving through the dusty courtyard on various tasks. It seemed like there was a small army stationed here right now. 

Passing some more guards, the herald led Blacknail’s group into the keep. It was made from the same cut grey stone, but now there were tapestries and glimmering mage lights on the walls. They also passed the occasional servant, who all fled once they noticed Blacknail. 

After a little walking, they arrived at a small sitting room with a closed door on the far wall. Fancy tapestries featuring roaring lions and human knights decorated the walls. Blacknail also saw one featuring a harpy with wings outstretched and a very human face, but there was a conspicuous lack of hobgoblins. Well, it wasn’t like humans were known for their good taste. At least, there were plenty of soft-looking chairs and couches present.  

“Please be seated here, the lord will call for you soon,” the herald announced as he made a slight bow and then disappeared back the way they’d come. 

With nothing better to do, the group of hobgoblins and former bandits sat down on the available chairs. There was enough for all of them as long as they squeezed as many hobgoblins as possible onto the two couches. Blacknail and his lieutenants all got their own comfy chairs, of course. The hobgoblin settled down to wait as his minions began to mutter among themselves, and twenty minutes went by without any word from their host. 

“Why did that purple man bring us here just to sit around and do nothing?” Blacknail asked his humans after his patience wore out. 

Geralhd sighed. “I believe he’s asserting his authority over us by showing us that he can keep us waiting. It’s a very common tactic for humans, especially among the nobility, who get off on these sort of petty power games.” 

There was a grunt of agreement from Ralphi, and Blacknail frowned thoughtfully. 

“That seems rather rude,” Blacknail announced as he got up and walked over to the closed door. A quick jiggle of the handle revealed that it was locked. 

“What are you doing?” Geralhd asked in concern. 

“I’m being as petty as possible to win the game,” Blacknail replied as he began knocking on the door.

“That’s not how it works…” 

Blacknail kept knocking for several long moments, until there was a click as someone unlocked the door from the other side. A moment later, it opened slightly and a young man in the same purple outfit as the herald peeked out. He flinched visibly when Blacknail leaned sideways to meet his gaze – they were only about a foot apart – but he didn’t withdraw. 

“Yes, can I help you?” the servant inquired with a stutter. It looked like he was trying to be angry but was way too scared to pull it off properly. 

Sensing weakness, Blacknail leered at him. “Is the noble guy I’m supposed to meet in there?”

“Er, yes, but he’s busy. Please, wait until he’s ready.”

“No, I’m busy too,” Blacknail replied as he reached out and pushed the man out of the way, so that he could peer into the next room. 

It was a small chamber with a large wooden table in the center. There were four people around the table. An older man, two guards, and one other that Blacknail recognized instantly. It was Sir Masnin. All of the occupants of the room were staring at the intruding hobgoblin, so Blacknail gave the paladin a friendly wave. 

There was a deep sigh from the elderly man standing next to Sir Masnin who was wearing a long purple robe with silver trim. “Very well, just let the hobgoblin in. We’re just about ready for him anyway.” 

The servant Blacknail had pushed out of the way nodded at the elderly man. He then composed himself and turned to the hobgoblin. “You may enter and attend the lord. Your retinue must wait outside though.”

Blacknail eyed the servant. He found it highly amusing that the man little thought he could tell him anything. “I need one of my men to come in and be a translator.”

The servant scowled. “Your command of the Elorian tongue seems more than adequate to me.”

“I don’t need him to translate words,” Blacknail explained with a sigh. “I need him to tell me what humans mean. Your thoughts are all squishy and hard to understand.”

“Squishy?” 

“Yes, like mushrooms or pie.” 

The servant considered this for a moment, but only appeared to grow more confused the more he thought about it, until it looked like his eyes were trying to go off in different directions. He glanced toward the noble, who rolled his eyes and nodded. 

“Er, very well,” the servant conceded as his neutral expression reappeared. He was obviously far more comfortable with taking orders than thinking for himself. Humans, they accepted authority too easily and weren’t properly ambitious like hobgoblins. 

“Geralhd, get in here,” Blacknail told his human minion before he stepped into the room

Smiling in what he hoped was a friendly manner, and not hungry-looking, the hobgoblin approached the table. “Hello, nice to meet you.”

The man in the robe gave the hobgoblin a tight smile. “So, you’re the infamous Blacknail. I must admit that I’d been looking forward to meeting you in person. It’s not every day that I encounter such a unique individual.”

“Well, now you have,” Blacknail replied. He felt like he should say more, but human small talk wasn’t one of his strengths. “Why did you invite me here? It’s a nice castle, but you probably want something, right?” 

Gerahd suddenly stepped up beside Blacknail – and slightly in front of him – and bowed. “Greetings, lord. My I have the honor of knowing who I am addressing?”

The noble nodded. “I am Lord Lavista of the King’s Council. You may rise.”

Geralhd stood up straight as commanded. “Excuse my companion. He is not schooled in the proper etiquette.” 

“Ya, that’s true,” Blacknail agreed. He wasn’t even entirely sure what etiquette was. Something about not eating with your hands? 

“I was not expecting you to be,” the noble told the hobgoblin. “Honestly, your own station is not entirely clear because of the novel nature of your existence. Thus, for now, you operate outside of normal social interactions anyway.” 

Blacknail was fairly certain that was a good thing, but just in case, he replied only with a vague nod.

“Regardless, more pressing matters seek our attention, and I can thus put up with some ignorance of protocols in the name of expediency,” the noble continued. “You are the last of the invitees to arrive for this summit, and there is no reason to delay it any longer, so I summoned everyone to the council chamber a while ago. Sir Masnin – whose opinion I trust – tells me that you can be worked with and trusted to adhere to simple bargains. However, I did want to converse with you before we met up with the others so that I could take your measure for myself. Due to the unprecedented crises facing my nation, I have been given the complete authority of the crown. Still, the upcoming negotiations will be difficult, even disregarding complete unknowns like you and your faction.”

As the noble finished talking, Sir Masnin spoke to Blacknail. “I’ve informed the lord about all our interactions and what I know of the situation here in the North. It is far more complex than he had suspected. Down south, they tend to ignore everything that happens up here.” 

Lord Lavista nodded. “That ignorance might have cost us dearly, especially since some say the black demons originated from these parts, but Sir Masnin has informed me of most of what I need to know about local conditions and actors. However, despite his good descriptions of certain aspects of your character, you still remain the most unpredictable and mysterious of the locals. I am told you control significant territory and have access to far more resources than most would suspect. What is it that you want?”

Blacknail really wanted to kill Werrick, who was probably in this castle right now. Even now, the fervent desire ate away at the hobgoblin’s insides like black boiling acid. He wanted nothing nearly so much as to see the man die horribly and then to chop the man’s body up for trophies. The hobgoblin wasn’t sure if he should admit this though. He hesitated. Would they accept shiny things as an answer? 

Thankfully, Geralhd once again proved his use and covered for Blacknail’s hesitation. “Allow me to give some small answer here. I have spent quite some time among Blacknail and his kin, and let me assure you, they’re not so different from the human denizens of the North. Although primitive, they simply seek to better their lives and learn from humans so that they may live as well as we do. Blacknail himself is merely following in the footsteps of his now deceased mistress Herad.” 

Blacknail smiled. That wasn’t entirely true. Living easier and better was nice, they’d occupied him completely as a goblin, but turning into a hobgoblin had changed that. Now he thirsted for the hunt and conquest far more than comforts. Blacknail had built his tribe and was copying humans in order to forge soldiers and weapons that would help him kill Werrick. Still, it was a better answer than he could have come up with. It seemed like Geralhd thought that they should pretend to be simple bandits. Blacknail would play along. They weren’t sure what this noble wanted yet after all, so it would be best to give him what he expected. 

“Yes, I simply want to keep the territory I’ve taken and trade with you humans. I can’t do that if boggarts kill everyone,” he told the noble. 

The noble frowned subtly and studied Blacknail. He didn’t seem entirely convinced, but Blacknail just kept smiling as disarmingly as possible. He knew it was difficult for most humans to read him, or even stare at his face for too long. 

“How very wise of you,” the man finally remarked as he grimaced and looked away. “Very well, thank you for humoring my enquiries. Head back to the sitting room. A servant will take you to the council chamber now, where I will address everyone.”

“As you wish, lord,” Geralhd immediately replied with another bow. 

Blacknail stayed standing straight, but he let Geralhd pull him back toward the sitting room. Once there, Geralhd turned to the hobgoblin, rubbed his forehead, and groaned. “You only got away with that discourtesy because they need you, and Lord Lavista considers you little better than a violent savage that couldn’t know better.” 

“I am a violent savage, so they better not leave me to wait in any more empty rooms,” Blacknail huffed in reply. 

“That’s not how it works.” 

However, before Geralhd could argue any more, a servant appeared and began leading them down another corridor. They didn’t have to go far, and soon they walked through a doorway and entered a large antechamber. The room was full of colorful hangings and impressive furniture. There were also lots of humans present, but Blacknail’s gaze was drawn to one man in particular. Werrick. Blacknail growled as he laid eyes on his mortal enemy and rage surged up within him.  

Interlude: Where It All Began

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The ruins stretched on as far as the eye could see. A once mighty city that had been brought low some time ago. Broken buildings lay alongside shattered streets and fallen towers. Plants and bushes grew wild and thick among the ruins. Bits of snow still also clung to ground in the shadows, although most it had long since melted in the sunlight. The air here was heavy and cold though, eerily so. 

It was also silent. There was no twittering birdsong or other animal sounds. There was no hint of human activity either. Although some buildings looked intact, there was no laughter or clatter of industry. All was unnaturally silent. 

Then, a sound like a mighty wind echoing through a canyon reverberated through the ruins, blowing swirls of dust and rustling the leaves of the scraggly trees growing through the stone, as it bellowed out from the remains of a fort-like building near the center of the city. There, a huge gaping hole had been torn though one of its thick stone walls that was large enough for an ogre to walk through. 

Only a little light from the dim sun up in the sky managed to find its way inside the building, so it was dark and shadowy within. However, as another rasping breath echoed out, there was movement from inside as something massive stirred. 

A single eye flickered open in the darkness. The size of a human head, it glowed as it reflected the remnants of light from outside. Lethargically, the slited pupil at the center of the eye swerved to take in its surroundings as if the creature it belonged to had just woken from a long sleep. 

Rubble began to shift and clatter as the beast rose to its feet, and there was a flash of grey scales as they caught the light. The massive drake growled loudly enough for the air to tremble as it stepped outside into the ruins of the once grand city. Rows of jagged crystals ran down its back, marking it as a child of magic and something far more than most of its lesser kin. As the humongous beast surveyed its devastated domain, its belly rumbled like a storm that was about to break. Feeling the pain of hunger, it hissed in annoyance and unleashed a small burst of magic. Immediately, the crystals on its back glowed faintly and a wave of cold washed forth. The air crackled as all the moisture in it froze and white frost crept across all the nearby weathered stone. Its frustration vented, the great beast began to walk down the street in search of the sustenance it craved. 

The world watched in terrified silence. For the greatest enemy of man, the true tyrant of the North, the Doom of Coroulis had awoken and it was time for him to hunt. 

Twists and Turns 10

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The boggart workers swarmed out of the dark tunnel and into the abandoned building’s basement. Blacknail stepped forward to try to hold them back, but although he managed to cut two of them down, the rest pushed him back with the weight of their armored bodies. 

Behind Blacknail, his minions quickly stepped up to join their leader, and together they formed a combat line that met the boggarts head on. The hob holding the lamp was the only one that fell back, since they all needed that light to see. 

Lashing out with his blade, Blacknail mangled a worker and then skewered another. His forces were managing to hold their ground, and this limited the number of boggarts that could swarm out of the tunnel. The creatures were tightly packed though, and they didn’t hesitate to climb over one another as they threw themselves at the hobgoblins. Boggart after boggart was slain, but their attack didn’t relent. Obviously, there was a large number of the creatures in Daggerpoint. Blacknail had expected that, since he’d heard that the creatures had been attacking anyone who tried to hunt or quarantine ghouls in the South. Thus, Blacknail had decided to beat them to the punch and hunt them down first. A boggart managed to lunge forward and bite Blacknail’s ankle. The hobgoblin chieftain suppressed a screech of pain, and violently stomped the creature’s head until its skull shattered. Yes, this was all going according to plan. Mostly. 

Suddenly, the mass of boggart workers shivered and moved to make room for two tall warriors. The bigger boggarts had spears held out in front of them as they emerged from the tunnel. Blacknail grimaced. This development wasn’t a surprise, but it was still annoying. The plan would still work. 

Remaining behind a rank of its own smaller brethren, who served as shields for him, one of the warriors lashed out at Blacknail with his spear. The hobgoblin was forced to duck under the blow and then kick away a worker that tried to attack him at the same time. He hated when boggarts did this. 

Meanwhile, the second warrior used his spear to attack a hobgoblin to Blacknail’s right. The hob tried to block the attack, but it still grazed his shoulder, and he was forced back. This opened a hole in the hobgoblin line, allowing the workers to surge forward. 

“That’s far enough, you tiny black beetles,” Blacknail roared in response. He knew he needed to do something now. His minions were in serious danger of being overwhelmed. 

So, as the hobgoblin chieftain snarled at his foes, he reached into his core and pulled out as much mana as possible. He then shaped the power into a wave and hurled it at the boggarts before him. The magical power hit the creatures and soaked into their minds, bringing cold terror and mind-numbing fear with it. The boggart horde rippled and faltered.

“I’m going to rip you apart!” Blacknail screamed as he began striking at the mass of enemies before him. 

The power of Blacknail’s magic infused blows sent mangled boggarts flying, and as he yelled, he assaulted the boggarts with another wave of magical terror that attacked their minds. This was too much for many of the stocky workers. Their attack stopped as the swarm fell into chaos. Many of them began desperately trying to flee out of the range of Blacknail’s long sword. 

As the enemy broke before him, Blacknail grinned madly and pressed his own attack. He kicked one of the last workers directly in front of him out of the way, and then he slashed at the warrior with the spear who’d attacked him before. The warrior blocked the blow, but Blacknail didn’t care. Growling hungrily, he used a burst of strength to push the warrior off-balance and then punched it in the face. There was a crunching sound as Blacknail’s fist impacted the carapace, and the boggart spasmed. Thankfully, the carapace on the creature’s face wasn’t very thick, although the strike had still hurt Blacknail’s hand more than a little. The pain was a minor concern though, and it was barely noticeable through the excitement of battle. 

Taking advantage of his foe’s stunned state, Blacknail quickly raised his blade and decapitated the boggart with one swift strike. At the same time, the other hobgoblins rallied and trampled over the workers in their way as they threw themselves at the second warrior. One hobgoblin went down with a spear wound to his arm, but then the warrior was overwhelmed by a flurry of blows from the other hobs. 

As the last warrior went down, the workers broke completely. The last few that were still trying to fight turned and fled. Soon, the entire mass of boggarts was fighting itself as all the workers attempted to push their way back into the tunnel all at once. This gave the hobgoblins plenty of opportunity to attack their backs, and dozens of workers were quickly hacked apart. By the time the last living boggart had managed to escape, the floor of the basement was littered with boggart corpses and bits of shattered black carapace. It was a rather satisfying sight. 

With his bloodlust slowly fading, Blacknail looked around and then eyed the tunnel. It didn’t seem like there was going to be another attack, and he had no desire to chase the boggarts underground into unfamiliar caves. 

“Let’s get out of here,” Blacknail told his minions as he turned and began walking to the stairs. He wanted to see what was going on above. 

None of his minion’s objected to that plan, so they all hurried after Blacknail as he exited the decrepit and ruined workshop. The streets outside were much the same as the last time Blacknail had seen them, although there were a few more humans in red around. They were all keeping their distance from the workshop though, which made sense considering the danger the plague posed to them. Blacknail sheathed his weapon and began walking over toward Khita’s position. 

“Oh, you’re back? Are you done this time? I’m tired of sitting out here, doing nothing,” Khita said as he approached. The three guards in red beside her were silent. They still seemed nervous. 

Blacknail gave the redhead a look. “Then you should have come with me into the building or not come with me to Daggerpoint at all.” 

Khita just huffed indignantly, as if Blacknail hadn’t told her the simple truth. 

Suddenly, Blacknail felt someone tug his shoulder and yell in his ear. “Get down!”

Surprised, he let himself be dragged down toward the ground by Herah. This probably wasn’t a weird assassination attempt by her. If she was going to kill him like this, she would have done it right after the meeting with Luphera.  Around him, several other hobgoblins all ducked at the same time. 

This turned out to be the right thing to do, as a blast of swirling energy flew over Blacknail’s head a moment later and then smashed into a building behind him. There was a deafening boom as the magic exploded and then clattering noise as broken stone and brick rained down around the hobgoblins. 

Shocked, Blacknail glanced toward the source of the attack, and saw a boggart warrior wielding a glowing staff. It was standing in the entrance to another abandoned building. However, as he watched, it stepped aside, and boggart workers began streaming out of the building. 

“Stupid Khita,” Blacknail hissed as he climbed back to his feet. If he’d been hit, it would have been all her fault since she’d been distracting him with her stupidity. Normally, he would have sensed the attack or something. 

Unsurprisingly, everyone else was just standing around with stupid looks on their faces and no one seemed to be doing anything about the mob of boggarts that was swiftly building in size, so Blacknail had to. Typical. 

“Form up on me! Anyone who misses this fight will be beaten like a drum,” Blacknail yelled as he drew his sword and flourished it up above his head. There were still groups of hobgoblins scattered around the street, and he wanted them at his back. 

Hobgoblins quickly began hustling over from various buildings and alleys, but Blacknail knew that many wouldn’t make it in time. From a ramshackle hut over to Blacknail’s left, another wave of boggarts suddenly emerged. These new attackers charged right toward Blacknail and reached him within seconds. A melee quickly broke out as the hobgoblins and humans defended themselves. Soon, the streets were full of chaotic fighting between scattered groups. 

Blacknail slashed at several boggart workers that tried to swarm him, but he was forced to jump back as another blast of force zoomed by. The magical attack hit a hobgoblin and a worker that were fighting beside him, sending them both flying. Ouch. 

Hissing in frustration, Blacknail eyed the enemy mage. He had been keeping an eye on him, but now he knew the creature needed to be dealt with right away. Blacknail couldn’t fight effectively if he had to worry about incoming magical attacks, and the boggarts could probably afford to keep trading workers for hobgoblins. It seemed like the boggarts had everyone else outnumbered. 

Leaving his allies behind, Blacknail immediately broke out into a run as he charged across the street toward the mage. Boggarts moved to intercept him, but he dodged them or kicked them aside with ease. The mage itself tracked Blacknail with the tip of his glowing staff. Apparently, he knew who the greatest threat was. 

As a blast of rippling power shot toward him, Blacknail threw himself sideways. He managed to dodge the attack by inches, but the swirling air around the blast knocked him off balance. He staggered for a moment, before recovering and resuming his charge. 

A mass of a dozen boggarts formed a line in front of Blacknail, but he didn’t slow. Instead, Blacknail threw a wave of terror inducing mana at them, cut two down, and then pushed straight through the rest. Now, there was nothing between him and the mage. 

Caught off guard, the boggart spellcaster hurriedly tried to shoot another force blast at Blacknail, but the hobgoblin was quicker. He grabbed a nearby boggart and tossed it at the mage. The creature squealed as it flew through the air. This surprised the mage, throwing his aim off. His magical blast hit the worker, sending it flying, and then zipped harmlessly past Blacknail. 

Sensing sweet victory, Blacknail grinned as he lunged forward and slashed at the mage with a fierce two-handed swing. His blade came down on his opponent’s staff, knocking it aside. A swift follow-up slash then planted Blacknail’s blade in the boggart’s torso. It spasmed and made a gurgling sound as the hobgoblin pulled his blade free, and then it flopped over. 

The fight was far from over though. Turning around, Blacknail saw that his minions and the local guards were still fighting a lot of boggart workers. Several tall black warriors had also appeared from somewhere. Growling angrily, Blacknail headed back to help his minions and Khita. He wasn’t too worried about himself, but there were so many enemies that he was probably going to lose a lot of minions before the battle was over. He really hadn’t expected the boggarts to be here in such force. They were supposed to relying on the plague to destroy the city. 

Over to Blacknail’s right, a group of a dozen workers ran out of a building. They were headed right for Herah, so Blacknail quickly intercepted them. Charging among them, he hacked and slashed at the black figures until they were forced to stop and deal with him. One jumped at Blacknail, but he reached out and caught it in mid-air, dashed it against the ground, and then stomped on it for good measure. A quick blast of magical fear then sent the survivors of the group skittering back into the shadows. 

With the nearby boggarts all fleeing, Blacknail had a clear path to rejoin his minions. They were struggling against a mob of boggarts that outnumbered them two to one, including a single warrior. That didn’t last though. Blacknail hit the back of the boggarts like a charging boar. He screamed as he launched a savage horizontal slash at the warrior’s back. His blade cut down, smashing through carapace and parting the flesh beneath it. The force of the blow knocked the creature over, and the blade continued on, hitting a boggart worker. Pulling his sword back up, Blacknail stepped over the fallen boggarts and rejoined his allies. His presence quickly turned the fight against the boggarts, and more of them began to fall. 

There was no shortage of reinforcements for the swarm of black creatures though. Other groups of guardsmen in red went down under mobs of vicious black boggarts, and more were still emerging from the shadows to join the fight. Slowly, the black tide began to push Blacknail and his allies back. 

A hobgoblin to Blacknail’s left fell as a boggart landed on his back. Reacting quickly, Balcknail stabbed the creature in the side and tossed its twitching carcass away. He then kicked another worker that tried to gore the fallen hobgoblin, which gave him time to reach down and pull the hobgoblin back to safety, where he could recover. As the fight continued, Blacknail found himself having to focus more and more on protecting his minions as they grew tired from the boggarts’ endless assault. This couldn’t last. Soon, they would be overwhelmed, but there was little Blacknail could do but keep fighting. He didn’t have nearly enough mana to use fear magic constantly. His core already felt low on power. 

Beside Blacknail, Herah suddenly slipped on some wet boggart blood. As she fell, he caught her and used his arm to block a boggart that tried to bite her face. Herah’s face was one of Blacknail’s favourite parts of her, so he didn’t want it damaged.

The boggart’s fangs pierced Blacknail’s thick leather jacket, but only barely. Growling in anger and pain, Blacknail swung the creature around and used it to smack another boggart out of the air. Herah then put a dagger in the boggart’s eye and it came loose. 

That was when a new swarm of boggarts appeared and charged toward the hobgoblins’ flank. Blacknail grimaced in frustration. He couldn’t be everywhere. This was going to hurt his minions a lot. In fact, it might be time to consider grabbing his most useful minions and retreating before he got encircled. 

Blacknail’s cynical thoughts were interrupted by a fresh bout of yelling from down the street. The voices sounded both very human and quite angry. It also sounded like there were more than few of them. Glancing over that way, Blacknail saw a wave of heavily armed humans charge down the street and slam into the boggarts. Most of the men were wearing the red uniforms of the Governor’s men, but there were more than a few men who looked like generic ruffians and bandits mixed among them. 

The massed line of heavily armed humans hit the smaller boggarts hard and immediately began pushing them back and trampling them. The gathered mobs of boggarts that filled the streets hesitated under this new assault. Their own attacks faltered as they tried to adjust and figure out what was happening. Blacknail took advantage of this pause to lunge forward and began cutting down every boggart within striking distance. Half a dozen fell within a few moments, but then the swarm finally reacted. As one, all the boggarts suddenly turned to flee. They scuttled away into the shadows, leaving their backs exposed, but Blacknail let them go. His own troops were exhausted, and in no shape to give chase. Several collapsed the moment it looked like the fighting was over. 

The human force that had just arrived spilled past Blacknail and moved to seize control of the streets. Blacknail eyed them warily and had his minions back up against an alley so that they had an escape route, but they weren’t attacked. Blacknail had thought that unlikely, but it was better to be safe when unpredictable humans were involved. 

Soon, the Governor and Luphera appeared, and a squad of men escorted them over to Blacknail. Interestingly enough, they both had their own guards. The Governor was surrounded by his soldiers in red, while Luphera was protected by several large men in black, who resembled the other human fighters who joined the battle. It seemed like Luphera had brought her own troops. 

“What’s the situation here? I’ve ordered my men to stay away from all the buildings, lest they be exposed to the plague,” the Governor said as he met up with Blacknail, who was hard to miss thanks to his height and horns. 

“I was right. There are ghouls and boggarts here,” Blacknail bragged. “I just saved your city.” 

The Governor frowned and looked down at one of the nearby boggart worker corpses, of which there was no shortage of. “So, I see.” 

“We did just rescue you in turn,” Luphera pointed out, which earned her a nasty glare from Herah. 

“Without me and my hobs you’ll all get the plague and die,” Blacknail huffed in reply. He’d been paying close attention to Luphera – her face, not her other more distracting parts, like her huge breasts – and he was certain he knew why she was being so difficult. It was an act. 

Luphera sighed over-dramatically and nodded. “That does seem to be true, so let’s get down to business, shall we? We all have a lot to do if we want to save the city.”

“Yes, please tell us exactly what happened here. This situation needs contained,” the Governor added as he followed Luphera’s lead. As the man was talking, Blacknail saw Luphera turn and give him a wink. Yes, she was definitely playing a game here. She’d also noticed that he’d noticed, or something. 

Blacknail felt a headache coming on. Human social interactions could be far too complex. Honestly, he wanted to stab someone, because that would simplify everything in a way hobgoblins naturally understood. There was also nothing like the iron scent of blood to clear the mind. 

Turning away from Luphera, Blacknail quickly explained the situation to the Governor. 

“Well, it does seem like we will require your services if we are to face this new threat,” the Governor admitted after Blacknail had finished speaking. 

“Without a doubt,” Luphera agreed solemnly. She then turned to give Blacknail a subtle grin. “It seems like Daggerpoint is going to be undergoing some changes.”

The Governor turned to her, and her poker face instantly reappeared. “So, you will support me if I attempt to uphold the new laws required for our… treaty with Blacknail to work?”

Luphera nodded. “I will, and I’m sure I can convince some of the chiefs to go along.” 

Blacknail watched Luphera out of the corner of his eye. It seemed like she wanted Blacknail’s forces in the city for some reason, and she didn’t want the Governor to know that. Well, he was just glad she was his ally, probably. Had her hostile behavior toward Herah also been some sort of manipulation? Ugh, he had no idea. This was why he avoided Luphera, or one of the reasons anyway. 

The Governor sighed. “Then, I suppose we shall soon see what fate the gods have in store for us in these dark times.”

“I have a large force of hobgoblins arriving soon,” Blacknail told the humans. “They should be able to hunt down any ghouls that the boggarts create and fight off any more boggart attacks as long as you support them. They will need food and probably some money too.”

“This alliance is sounding more and more like an occupation,” the Governor muttered to himself. 

“I’m sure we can afford to pay these forces a basic amount for their services,” Luphera reassured the man. “I’m sure they won’t demand much. 

“What about you?” Luphera asked Blacknail. “How long will you be staying?”

“Not long. I’m very important and I’m needed elsewhere,” he answered. 

“Oh, then who will be leading the troops you leave behind?” 

“One of my smartest hobgoblins, and he will have several human helpers.” 

Luphera grinned eagerly. “I can’t wait to meet them.” 

Blacknail frowned. Hmmm…

Twists and Turns 9

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With every shred of speed he could muster and every bit of magic he could pull out of his core, Blacknail launched himself toward the ghoul. Like a striking snake, his blade flew out of his sheath and sliced through the air toward the ghoul’s neck. The creature’s mouth was already wide open as it sucked in the air necessary for it to scream and alert its pack. However, just as a shrill screech began to echo out of the ghoul’s throat, Blacknail’s blade slammed into the side of its neck. The blade cleaved through the deathly pale flesh effortlessly and sent black blood flying as it decapitated the ghoul in one powerful strike. There was a wet plop sound as the ghoul’s body fell over, and its head hit the ground a moment later. 

Blacknail stared at the body for a moment, before looking around for something to clean his blade off with. Ghouls were weird, but he was fairly certain that decapitation killed them, so he wasn’t too worried about it getting back up. He really didn’t want to leave any black stains on his sword though. Ghoul blood smelled foul, and there was the small matter of it spreading the plague. 

“Good job, boss! You’re the fastest ever,” Herah congratulated her chief. Blacknail gave her a nod, because she was right. 

“Did you get him in time?” Khita asked. She sounded a little shocked. 

“I think so,” Blacknail answered as he used a nearby rag to clean his blade. “The plan can continue without change.”

The redhead nodded. “Right, so I’m staying out here, away from the haunted building full of ghouls.”

“Whatever. Just make sure you don’t let any fleeing ghouls get past you,” Blacknail told her before turning to his hob minions and selecting the ones who would be entering the abandoned workshop with him.

The building loomed ahead of the group. Its wood was so rotten there was a large gaping hole in the roof, and its stone foundation was stained with dirt and other fouler substances. The windows were all uncovered, but there was nothing but impenetrable darkness to be seen within them. Blacknail thought it was rather inviting and comfy looking. It would have made a great hideout for hobgoblins if it hadn’t already been taken by ghouls. Also, he didn’t really need a hideout, since he was a glorious leader these days. Mansions were more his thing now.

“Alright, let’s go,” Blacknail told Herah and his guards as he started walking toward the building’s front door. Behind him, Khita and his other minions began to spread out to form a perimeter around the target. 

Moving carefully and quietly, Blacknail and his minions approached the entrance to the abandoned workshop. The door had fallen off its hinges long ago, and only a small pile of wooden scrap on the ground was left of it. Blacknail’s hobgoblin eyes could pierce the heavy darkness that lay beyond the entrance, but there wasn’t much to see, just more rotten wood and shadows. 

Blacknail moved in complete silence as he stepped through the door and looked around. The building’s interior was eerily quiet, even to his sensitive hobgoblin ears. There was a hallway to his left and a vast workshop full of junk to his right. It was hard to make out any details in the dark though. A multitude of ghouls could be hiding nearby. The creatures were stealthy and prone to concealing themselves and sleeping during the day. Although, Blacknail wasn’t sure ghouls really slept like normal animals. It was more like they lurked unmoving for long periods of time, conserving their strength as they waited for a chance to strike. 

Frowning thoughtfully, Blacknail decided to head into the workshop, and ignore the hallway for now. He drew his sword as he began to creep forward, and his guards followed carefully after him. 

The large room had once contained rows of shelves and lines of tables. Now, all the shelves were broken scrap and most the tables had collapsed. A bit of late afternoon light got in through some small windows on the walls, but not a lot. The room was very dark and shadowy, and the remains of machinery had been piled up in one corner. Thus, there were plenty of places where ghouls could be hiding. 

As Blacknail moved further into the room, he had to move very cautiously. The floor beneath his feet was rotten and weak. Not only was there the danger of making a loud noise, but it wasn’t impossible that placing his foot in the wrong spot would send him falling down through a new hole in the floor. 

Blacknail’s magical senses weren’t registering the presence of anything alive. They weren’t the most consistent way to find enemies, but they usually gave him at least a little warning that he wasn’t alone. Blacknail was sure there were ghouls here though. He could smell them for one thing. Their corrupt oily stench filled the air. Ghouls probably didn’t trigger his magical senses because they didn’t feel fear. Blacknail thought this was because their brains were so rotten. Any part of their mind that didn’t help them spread their foul infection was long gone. 

Unfortunately, not all of Blacknail’s minions were masters of stealth like him. After the group had made it about twelve feet into the room, a misplaced foot by one of the hobgoblins made the floor creak loudly. Blacknail froze and glanced back over his shoulder. All of his minions had frozen as well. It wasn’t clear who had messed up and made the noise, so Blacknail gave them all an angry glare before turning to scan his gloomy surroundings. Had they given themselves away?

At first, Blacknail detected no change in the environment. Everything was still. Then, his ears twitched as a subtle new sound reached them. It was very quiet, but it was there. Blacknail heard the rustling of cloth and something scrapping against wood. Even worse, it wasn’t all coming from the same direction. Several similar noises were coming from all around the workshop. 

Resolved, Blacknail raised his blade and peered around the gloomy room. He was no human, so he feared neither the darkness nor the touch of ghouls. Hobgoblins such as him were predators and the shadows were their home. These ghouls were rivals and were trying to prey on humans that belonged to him. 

Suddenly, all at once, four figures rose up from out of sight and turned toward Blacknail. Their features were difficult to make out in the darkness, but their bodies were thin, and their clothes were ragged. Ghouls. The unnatural creatures seemed to study Blacknail for a moment, and then they all screeched simultaneously and threw themselves at him. 

“Kill them all. Hack them to bits!” Blacknail roared as he planted his feet on solid parts of the floor and got ready to meet his attackers. 

Even as the first few ghouls closed in, Blacknail could hear other ghouls began to move in other parts of the workshop. Soon, they would all flood into this room as well. 

A ghoul in stained rags hissed furiously as it threw itself at Blacknail. It reached out to gore him with its jagged claws, which were caked in grime. Unimpressed, Blacknail cut the creature’s arm right off with a swing of his sword and then kicked it in the chest, sending it flying backward. However, almost immediately, two more ghouls attacked him, and these ones were armed. One swung at him with a long club made from broken wood and the other had a rusty axe that looked like it had once been used to cut firewood. At the same time, Blacknail could hear several of his minions shout from behind him as more ghouls engaged them. 

Lashing out, Blacknail sliced the rusty axe being swung at his chest in half with his blade. He then ducked under the club, brought his weapon around, and gutted the ghoul holding the broken axe shaft. Black oily entrails spilled out of the ghoul as it screamed furiously and fell over sideways. Blacknail’s blow had cut deep enough to damage the creature’s spine, but it didn’t sound in pain, just very angry. 

The ghoul with the club swung at Blacknail again, but the hobgoblin chieftain blocked the blow and then punched the monster in the face. Its head snapped back from the impact, but it recovered almost instantly. Dropping its club, it lunged at Blacknail with both of its claws outstretched. Even a magic empowered blow to the head from a mutant wasn’t enough to overcome the ghoul’s immunity to pain and shock. 

The ghoul was in too close for Blacknail to hit him with his sword, so he let his blade fall. At the same time, he reached down to his waist with one hand and drew a dagger. Stepping to the side and away from the ghoul’s sharp claws, Blacknail then jammed the dagger up through the bottom of the ghoul’s jaw and into its brain. Despite the way the transformation into a ghoul twisted a human’s flesh and fingers, their bones were basically the same and had the same weaknesses. 

Glancing back, Blacknail saw that his minions were holding their own against half a dozen ghouls that were trying to overrun them. Herah in particular was fighting viciously to hold her ground. As he watched, she savagely hacked apart a ghoul that tried to jump on her. It was good thing Blacknail had trained his minions so well. 

Blacknail didn’t have time to watch other people’s fights for long though. Two more hideous ghouls emerged from a side room and charged him. One of these new assailants was actually clutching a pitchfork. They hissed as they threw themselves forward, so Blacknail hissed right back, before swinging his sword with such force that it sent the pitchfork flying away. That didn’t deter the ghouls, so Blacknail stabbed one of them in the gut. His blade sank deep, but then he realized his mistake. That would have been a killing blow against a human or hob, but the ghoul simply ignored the blade lodged in its stomach and tried to claw at Blacknail. 

Grunting, Blacknail kicked the ghoul away, which deprived him of his own weapon. That gave plenty of time for the second ghoul to throw himself atop the hobgoblin. Blacknail felt claws rake across his coat and the unprotected back of his head, drawing blood. Thankfully, it felt like the ghoul’s claw had gotten entangled in Blacknail’s horns before they could do too much damage. 

Although the hot rage of battle was burning within Blacknail, the wound still hurt, enflaming the hobgoblin more. Roaring in fury, Blacknail grabbed the offending ghoul and slammed him into the floor. There was a crack from the rotten wood, but that didn’t stop Blacknail from following up his throw with a powerful stomp to the ghoul’s head. There was a louder crack as the force of the blow drove the ghoul’s skull right through the rotten floorboards. The creature also stopped moving. It looked like the hobgoblin had broken its neck.

Still angry and looking to take his wrath out on his enemies, Blacknail stepped over to the ghoul which had his blade stuck in it. He gave it several heavy kicks that cracked bones, and then ripped his blade out of the creature’s gut and decapitated it. 

That done, Blacknail turned and went to the aid of his allies. Although there were a lot of dead ghouls surrounding them, the hobgoblins were still fighting over half a dozen of the creatures. More ghouls had swarmed in from other areas of the workshop to join the fight as it dragged on, and despite the ease with which Blacknail had dispatched them, ghouls were not easy opponents. The creatures attacked without any regard for their own safety and had no mercy. They also had startling speed and strength to match that of the most dangerous humans. Most dangerous of all though, they completely ignored any wound that didn’t outright kill them. Their only weaknesses were their lack of martial skill and inability to make complex plans. Even ghouls that had once been warriors seemed to lose their weapon skills, even if they could still wave around simple tools. 

Blacknail could understand how these things were such a threat to human cities. If his minions hadn’t been immune to the creatures’ infection, this fight would have been a nightmare. 

Herah was warding off two unarmed ghouls with her sword, so Blacknail stepped forward and struck down one of them down with a sword slash to the chest that knocked the creature sideways and ripped open its ribcage. This gave Herah a chance to finish off the other ghoul with a series of quick slices that disabled its limbs and then tore its throat open. After that, the hobgoblins began eliminating the ghouls one-by-one with their chieftain’s help. The last two tried to disengage and run back into the shadows, but Blacknail bounded after them and cut them down from behind before they got far. 

“What now, boss?” Herah asked when the last ghoul stopped moving. 

Blacknail grunted and looked around. “Now, I think the humans are going to have to burn this entire building down.” They’d sort of gotten black blood everywhere and that stuff stained. The hobs’ clothes would also probably need to be burned too. Oh well, some considerate humans had probably left some clothes around somewhere. 

“I meant, what should we do next?” 

Blacknail thought about that for a moment. “We should do some exploring before the Governor gets here. I want to see the basement.”

“You think there will be more ghouls?” Herah asked. 

Blacknail shook his head. “Something else.”

A quick exploration of the rest of the building revealed the stairs leading to the basement. They were behind a door in a back hallway. Blacknail and his minions stood at the top and stared down into pitch black darkness at the bottom. 

“So, did anyone bring a light?” Blacknail asked his hobs. There was a quick chorus of nos. 

Blacknail sighed. He really needed to remember to get better minions that would remember this sort of stuff. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. 

Since Blacknail didn’t really want to go down into the basement without a light, he decided to station some guards outside it and head back outside to wait for the humans. Hopefully, they would bring a lamp or something. 

This proved to be a good idea, because when Blacknail left the workshop and found Khita, she was standing next to several men in the Governor’s colors, and two of them were holding lanterns, probably because it was getting dark out. Apparently, the Governor moved quickly and efficiently when ghoul infestations were involved. 

“Only one ghoul tried to escape, and some of your hobs got it. They’re standing guard over its body now,” Khita yelled his way when she saw him. 

“Good, we’re almost done inside.”

All the guards in red tensed as Blacknail approached, but he ignored it and held out a hand toward the nearest one. “Give me your lantern.” 

The man froze from fear instead of replying, which annoyed Blacknail. He didn’t have time for all this constant human stupidity. Khita was also apparently very unimpressed.

“Geez, what a coward,” she announced as she reached out to grab the lantern from the man’s hand. 

Once she had it, the redhead handed the lantern to Blacknail, who immediately took it. The hobgoblin then gave her a grateful nod and hurried back to the stairs inside. It was nice to be reminded that there actually were more useless humans than Khita. It was hard to imagine, but he could have been stuck with someone worse. 

As Blacknail arrived back at the stairs, his hobs gave him a bunch of mistimed salutes. That was a little random, but whatever. 

“Come down after me,” he told them as he held the lit lamp up with one hand and drew his sword with the other. 

“At your order, boss!” one of the hobgoblins answered. 

“I’ll never leave you,” Herah added. Blacknail chose not to dwell too much on her choice of wording.  

The old wooden stairs creaked ominously as the hobgoblin descended. His lantern pushed back the darkness, revealing grimy walls made of loose stones and disintegrating mortar. The floor was packed dirt and there was rubble everywhere. There were also lots of cobwebs. Idly, Blacknail wondered if they were made by the crunchy type of spider or the poisonous type. It was important to know the difference if you didn’t want your tongue inflating to three time its normal size. 

There was more creaking from the stairs as Blacknail’s minions and Herah descended to join their chief. Blacknail quickly glanced their way before turning back around.

Most of the rubble in the basement wasn’t nearly big enough to hide a ghoul, no matter how sneaky they were. Blacknail also checked the ceiling, just in case, but there were no ghouls hanging up there either. There were footprints in the dirt, but it seemed like all the ghouls that had been hiding down here had come up during the fighting. 

Blacknail wasn’t here to look for ghouls though. Lifting his lantern high, he began to walk around the room and inspect the walls. He soon found what he was looking for, a spot where the dirt was very loose, as if it had recently been dug up. 

After taking a moment to sniff the air, Blacknail handed his sword to one of his minions to hold, and then dug up the dirt a little. It soon became obvious that something had tunneled in under this wall, so Blacknail stopped playing around in the dirt and instead kicked the bottom of the wall as hard as he could. The stones gave way and collapsed outwards, to reveal a hidden passage. Blacknail kept kicking, and soon the entrance had been widened to the full size of the passage beyond it.

The newly discovered tunnel was wide and tall enough for a man or a hobgoblin to walk through, and it seemed to have been dug through the dirt. It didn’t look natural though, the walls were too regular. 

“What dug this? It doesn’t look like human work,” one of Blacknail’s minions asked as he peered past his chief. 

Blacknail didn’t need to answer him. Instead, there was a familiar hiss from the darkness of the tunnel and the shadows began to shift. A moment later, a swarm of angry boggarts emerged from the darkness and threw themselves at the hobgoblins.