Twists and Turns 8

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“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.”

“From what?”

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. 

Twists and Turns 7

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Sir Masnin nodded. “I see you are aware of these creatures. Boggarts are an old wives’ tale, but I’ve heard some of the local people call this new threat by that old name. Whatever they are, the creatures are truly twisted and evil. The havoc they have unleashed is unprecedented since the fall of the old empire and the burning of Jakhra on the sea.”

Blacknail gave him a blank look. “Sure.”

“Are things really so bad?” Geralhd asked in surprise. He apparently got the reference.

“Yes, the plague is decimating the capital and several other cities. Eloria has never faced a crisis such as this, and it may not be alone. We have nothing but rumors so far, but the plague may be hitting other countries as well. It may well be affecting the entire continent.”

There was a moment of silence as all the humans shared a moment of dreadful reflection. They looked down and some of them murmured prayers. Blacknail joined in, since he didn’t know what else to do. Really, this seemed like someone else’s problem.

After a few seconds had passed, sir Masnin looked up. “The creatures do appear to be less of a problem in this area though. It’s strange. If anything, there have been less attacks on isolated villages, yet these boggarts appear to dwell in the wild places, and there is no shortage of that out here in the North.”

Blacknail grinned proudly and stood up straighter. “Ha, that’s because I chased them away and cut them into tiny black bits. They were bothering my hunters and miners, so I tracked them back to their nest and destroyed it.”

Sir Masnin turned to stare at Balcknail with sudden intensity. “You’ve actually fought these creatures and seen their lairs?”

“Yes, I slaughtered hundreds of the creepy bug things in a big battle. There are three different types and I’ve killed them all,” Blacknail explained. He was glad a human was finally listening to him about this.

“This information could be invaluable to my cause. Would you tell me of this battle?” sir Masnin asked with obvious interest.

“Sure, right after you finish explaining why you’re here. What exactly do you want from me?” Blacknail told him. “We should talk about that first.”

Despite his own willingness to brag, Blacknail wasn’t going to let himself get distracted. If his guests wanted something from him, they had to give him something first.

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Twists and Turns 6

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Blacknail faced the paladin. “Yes, hello. I remember you. You’re um…”

Grimacing, Blacknail tried to think of the man’s name. This was a bit embarrassing. He knew this human, but he’d met too many humans to remember all their weird human names, and most of them looked the same.  Really, the most memorable thing about an individual human was the uniquely bad smell every one of them had.

“If you’ve forgotten, my name and title is sir Masnin, and I have the honor and responsibility of being a paladin in service of the Order of Helio-Lustria,” the knight replied humbly and without any sign of anger. “First, let me offer my condolences. I was genuinely saddened to hear of your mistress’ death. She was a woman of… strength and determination.”

Despite how much time had passed, Blacknail felt a twisting surge of grief and anger well up within him at the reference to Herad’s death. However, he quickly suppressed the feeling and gave the man a polite nod. Stabbing a random guy wouldn’t be constructive. “Thank you, but don’t worry. I’ll kill all her enemies for her.”

The paladin winced visibly. “Perhaps, that’s not the wisest course. Maybe you could honor her memory better by serving a greater good?”

Blacknail smirked and gave the paladin an amused look. There was no way he actually believed that. He’d met Herad.

The paladin sighed. “I suppose not. Forget I said that. Anyway, thank you for coming to see me. I was afraid you’d avoid me, so let me reassure you that I have not come to seek battle or to slay you.”

Blacknail decided to get right to the point. He wasn’t one for small talk. “So, why are you here if you don’t want to kill me? You’re a paladin, and I’m the worst inhuman around here.”

The paladin turned to glance at the priest. They shared a grave look and then he faced Blacknail again. “Word of your deeds has reached many ears to the south, and in Eloria in particular. Thus, due to my familiarity with you, I have been sent to make contact and appraise your behavior and reasonableness.”

“Why do they care about me? They’re very far away,” Blacknail asked as he tilted his head to the side in an inquisitive manner.

“Er, certain events to the south have made the ruling council nervous. They want reassurances and some sort of agreement to secure their northern flank if possible.”

“Your explanation of your mission and the proceedings that made it necessary seem a little vague to me,” Geralhd interjected. “What are these ominous ‘certain events’ that you are speaking of?” 

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Twists and Turns 5

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“Why in all the hells would we do that?” Ralphi asked as he scowled at Blacknail furiously.

Geralhd and Khita also looked unconvinced that attacking Daggerpoint would be a good idea. Obviously, Blacknail needed to better educate the humans about why they were so wrong.

“We need to attack something, and it’s there. He won’t be defending it,” the hobgoblin explained, as if it wasn’t obvious.

“There is a good reason for that. He doesn’t technically own it,” Geralhd pointed out.

“He has more troops there than anyone else and everyone else has to do what he says. He owns it,” Blacknail countered.

“That’s not really true, and attacking people who technically don’t work for Werrick will make you enemies. You’re supposed to be trying to separate them from Werrick.”

“They all work for him, even if they pretend they don’t, like little cowards. They think that makes them safe, but I’ll show them it doesn’t.”

Ralphi grimaced. “We wouldn’t be able to seize the city, let alone hold it. We don’t have enough men to deal with so many civilians and so many buildings where hostiles could hide. Your hobs also would make a terrible garrison. That wouldn’t work at all. We’d have revolts before the first day was over.”

“So, we raid them and leave before Werrick even hears about it. Lots of loot there we could win.”

“But it’s all hidden away or in the hands of organized cutthroats. We’d lose a lot of troops if we let them loose to loot.”

“I’m the boss here, and I think it’s a good idea. It would be impressive,” Blacknail told them defensively.

“It would make everyone reconsider how much of a threat you were, and thus their own loyalty to Werrick,” Geralhd admitted.

Ralphi shook his head. “That’s not really enough payoff for something so risky.”

“I have a lot of hobs sitting around not doing anything. I can’t just wait here for Werrick to move next year. That would be more boring than watching food get moldy.”

Blacknail’s human followers raised a few more objections, but he’d already stopped listening and quickly dismissed them. He was the leader, so they had to do what he said. If they didn’t agree, they were wrong. 

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Twists and Turns 4

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As his minions took the mayor’s family away to be questioned by Geralhd, Blacknail lounged on their couch, which was quite comfy and soft. By the time he had finished eating and gotten up, his forces had seized complete control of the streets of Aldhara. He received reports as the remaining enemies were cornered and cut down, fled into Green, or took shelter inside homes. There was no more serious resistance, so Blacknail had plenty of time to decide what to do next.

First, he had the houses that the enemy were hiding in surrounded so that he could deal with them later. If he let his hobs storm inside and start dragging people out, it could get messy quick. None of the villagers were resisting his takeover anymore, and he wanted to keep it that way.

Second, he sent a few hunting parties off to track down and finish off the enemies that had fled into the forest. That wouldn’t be particularly hard for his hobgoblin scouts. Few humans would even see them coming in the Green, and even the most aware ones had to sleep sometime. Really, very few of them would have gotten far without being eaten by wildlife even without hobgoblins chasing them.

Once those two things were done, Blacknail had his lieutenants join him in the mayor’s home, which was his now. He liked it, although there was too much lace on the furniture. That could be torn or chewed off easily enough though.

The half-dozen hobgoblins and humans all easily fit in the house’s sitting room. To Gob and Ralphi, he gave orders to handle the last scattered groups of Werrick’s men. Geralhd already had a job, finding someone for Blacknail to blame for the villagers’ resistance. That left Khita and Imp. Imp didn’t have any interest in anything that wasn’t magical and could be ignored, but Khita was another story. Blacknail only wished he could ignore her.

“You’ll stay here with me and Herah, in case something important happens,” Blacknail told the redhead. He actually just wanted to keep her out of the way. She wasn’t useful enough to help him with anything important that came up, but she had a knack for getting into trouble when left alone.

Surprisingly, Khita shook her head. “You’ll have to do without me. I need to go recruit some more followers before anyone beats me to it. There are several fools that think they could do a better job than me and become one of your lieutenants, and I can’t just kill them all. I got to stay ahead of them.”

Blacknail grunted sourly. “That’s nice, but you have to do what I say, since I’m the leader.”

“You don’t even want me for anything, and this is important. How am I supposed to become a great bandit if I don’t recruit followers? I’m going,” Khita said as she stuck out her tongue and then turned to leave.

Blacknail scowled at her back. He could order some of his hobs to stop her, but then she’d get all whiny and annoying for days. It was better to let her do what she wanted.

“Fine, you can go,” he told her as she walked out the door. She didn’t look back, which made Blacknail’s scowl deepen. Stupid Khita. Everyone else was afraid of him, as was proper. She was just too stupid to know better. How had she survived this long?

After waiting with Herah for a while, Blacknail grew bored with scratching the furniture. Thankfully, that was when Geralhd returned. He’d found the people responsible for inciting some of the townsfolk to fight Blacknail and his minions. Apparently, the ring leader was an innkeeper who’d accepted coin from the leader of Werrick’s men in return for promising to whip up a mob to help them fight. Geralhd now had the man under guard, which pleased Blacknail, and finally motivated him to leave the sitting room.

Heading outside, Blacknail went to check on Gob and Ralphi. Before he could move on to the fun stuff, he needed to make sure he had complete control of the town, so all of Werrick’s men needed cleaned up. Thankfully, that job was almost done. After Blacknail had sent them out, Gob and Ralphi had quickly moved to order squads into homes where enemies were hiding. If they resisted or attempted to take hostages, they were cut down, but those that surrendered peacefully were taken captive. Human minions were used, since sending hobgoblins into peoples’ homes tended to provoke negative reactions.

When Blacknail met up with Gob and Ralphi they only had two more houses to deal with, so Blacknail watched them finish up. It was quick and bloody work. When they were done, Blacknail gave them a nod of approval and then ordered them to marshal the local population so that he could talk to them in the town square.

It took a while for this to happen. The people of Aldhara were reluctant to come out of their homes and gather outside now that Blacknail’s forces were in control of the town. Blacknail had to go get the mayor and have him tell people it was safe, and even then it took a few hours.

However, a decent size crowd eventually gathered in the town square. They looked nervous and whispered fearfully amongst themselves, but they didn’t try to run or riot. Instead, they fell silent and listened as Blacknail began speaking. Many of them seemed surprised that he could talk, which was amusing. Humans could be so stupid. There was no way they hadn’t heard about him by now. He was kind of a big deal.

After a brief introduction, Blacknail informed the townsfolk that he was now in charge of the village but that he wouldn’t be killing any of them, except for the innkeeper, who he promptly beheaded for inciting violence against his troops and as a warning to the others. That done, he told the townsfolk to go about their business as usual, except large gatherings were prohibited and he’d be taking all their cheese. There was a price to pay for losing a battle. If they didn’t want to lose all their cheese, they shouldn’t have let Werrick conquer them.

Still, now that he’d gotten rid of the humans who were too stupid to live, Blacknail planned on generally leaving the others alone. This was mostly because he didn’t really need the townsfolk for anything. He was only here because the town had strategic value in his fight against Werrick. He’d burn the place down, but that would disturb his human allies, who were always looking for reasons to distrust him.

Things settled down after the crowd dispersed, leaving Blacknail with the task of finding places for his troops to set up for the night. There were too many of them for them to all sleep inside, so most had to set up their tents outside, like they had when they’d been marching. Blacknail slept in the mayor’s house with Herah of course. He was the leader.

The next morning, Blacknail got up early to receive reports from his scouts before calling his lieutenants to another meeting. There were so many meetings involved in war… Seizing Aldhara and eliminating the troops there was simply the first step in Blacknail’s plan. Now that he had a base of operations and knew more about the local situation, it was time to continue the attack. His plan depended on a series of lighting fast strikes, so that was what he was going to do.

According to his scouts and the locals his minions had interrogated, Werrick only had small forces in the nearby villages and towns. That meant Blacknail could split his forces and take them out quickly before Werrick even knew what was going on. Of course, each force he sent out would need a competent and dependable leader, which was a problem. Blacknail had three targets in mind and planned on staying in Aldhara. He also only had two lieutenants he really trusted to lead anything more important than a work crew, Gob and Ralphi. Blacknail had been planning on sending Geralhd and one of his more trusted hobgoblin warriors to the third town, but Geralhd had apparently managed to trip and hurt his ankle last night, so he wanted to stay here.

“I’ll go in his place!” Khita suggested eagerly. “I’ve got more than enough men to take a town or two.”

“But do you have the brains…” Blacknail mumbled sourly.

The redhead gave him a look. “What?”

“It’s just one town. I only want the one town taken. Don’t go looking for more towns to attack,” Blacknail said with a sigh. “Can’t you just… stay out of trouble and not be so annoying?”

“I’m a deadly bandit mistress, I’m supposed to get into trouble!”

Blacknail sighed again. He didn’t have anyone more competent to send, and how badly could she really screw up such a simple job? Really, Blacknail didn’t care much if she ended up destroying the village completely, as long as it clearly her fault and not his.

“Fine, you can lead the third team,” Blacknail told her.

“Yes! My first conquest! Soon, there will be many more,” Khita laughed as she ran off to gather her followers.

“She worries me sometimes,” Geralhd remarked.

Ralphi chuckled. “She has always worried me. Something isn’t right in that girl’s head.”

Blacknail nodded in agreement before giving his other lieutenants some more details about their mission. Khita should have been here too, but she’d ran off before anyone could say anything. What a fool.

Soon, over half of the troops in Aldhara were marching back out onto the road. The sudden reduction in power made Blacknail slightly nervous, but he had scouts out watching the roads and there had been no sign of any movements from Werrick. He was probably safe.

When Blacknail’s lieutenants were all gone, there wasn’t much for him to do in Aldhara, beyond lounge around in the mayor’s house and eat the townsfolk’s food. The locals were terrified if him, and after the execution of the innkeeper, they all obeyed his edicts. When an entire day went by without anything interesting happening, Blacknail seriously considered making up some new, more difficult rules for the townsfolk to follow. It would be amusing to watch them run around and fail, just so he could punish them. Unfortunately, Geralhd managed to convince him that would be a bad idea.

Thus, the only real productive thing Blacknail could do was go over reports that his scouts brought in. They didn’t tell him much. The roads were clear and there were no signs of enemy troop movements or reconnaissance. There was actually less traffic on them then was usual for this part of the year, just a few merchants and woodsmen.

This left Blacknail with a lot of time to worry about things beyond his control. Khita’s mission in particular worried him. Who knew what crazy nonsense she’d end up doing? The complete lack of movement from Werrick was also starting to concern him. He’d expected to hear something from the bandit lord by now, but there was simply nothing. Blacknail began to suspect a vast conspiracy of stupidity was misleading him. Maybe Werrick was nearby, and all his minions were too incompetent to notice. Should he go do some scouting himself?

Thankfully, word began to arrive from his lieutenants. This distracted Blacknail enough to prevent him from running out into the Green to search for hidden armies.

The first message reported that Gob had easily conquered his target and taken out the few bandits Werrick had tasked with guarding it. He was on his way back now. The message from Ralphi was a little more worrying. Apparently, Werrick’s men had abandoned the village he’d gone to attack. They’d pulled out right after the snow had melted and gone back east. Apparently, the village itself had suffered over the winter and was barely worth taking anymore. Ralphi’s report was a little lacking in details, but he promised to bring more information with him when he got back.

Khita didn’t send a message at all. This worried Blacknail at first, but then she showed up in person with all her troops.

“Didn’t I give you a mission?” Blacknail said as he met her at the town gates.

“And I tried to do it. I simply ran into a small problem along the way,” Khita replied with a scowl. “When I got to the village you wanted me to conquer, there was no one there. The whole soggy village was unoccupied.”

Blakcnail sighed. He’d been worried about this. “You can’t just kill everyone and pretend it didn’t happen.”

“That’s not what happened! It really was completely empty when I got there! The entire place had been ransacked weeks ago, but there were no bodies in sight. Everyone was just gone. It was emptier than a drunk’s bottle.”

“Humans don’t just disappear. They always leave a mess,” Blacknail told her. He was an expert on this.

“Some of your hobs found traces of old boggart tracks,” Khita told him.

Huh, that made more sense. Blacknail supposed that boggarts could have taken out the village. Apparently, they were far away enough from Ironbreak that the creatures thought they didn’t have to worry about him. He’d have to find some way of teaching them otherwise. This was his territory now, not theirs. He’d conquered it properly. They didn’t get to come in and steal his food and humans without a fight.

Still, ignoring the boggarts, this was a third village where there had been no sign of Werrick. The Wolf was supposed to have fortified this area, but only Aldhara had contained a proper garrison. There was no way Werrick would think that was enough to hold the entire area and support an attack. Blacknail was really starting to worry now. It was swiftly becoming obvious that there was something going on that he wasn’t aware of.

Ralphi and Gob returned the next day. Ralphi came in first and a disgruntled Blacknail met him at the gates. The hobgoblin chieftain wanted an immediate report.

“There’s not much to say about Werrick’s troops,” Ralphi explained with a shrug. “There were only about thirty of them, and they fled the village as soon as the roads were clear enough of snow for them to march.”

“Why?”

“A man on horseback arrived with orders. No one knew exactly what he said to them though.”

Frustrated, Blacknail scowled. “Strange. That doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe he guessed you were coming and decided not to leave men around for you to pick off.”

“Then why not fortify Aldhara more? That would be the smart thing to do, and Werrick isn’t dumb,” Blacknail hissed angrily. There was a plan! It had taken him a long time to come up with, and it was supposed to be the best way to deal with Werrick. Had he been tricked?

“Did you see or hear anything strange?” Blacknail asked Ralphi.

“The villagers did mention some disappearances.  Mostly of animals, but two people did go missing. They also said they saw large shapes moving around in the shadows at night, but it was probably nothing, or a hungry bear. These villages in the middle of nowhere get quite superstitious.”

“More boggarts,” Blacknail grumbled thoughtfully. Was that the answer?

“Those things? They aren’t that dangerous. Just pests really.”

Blacknail gave Ralphi an annoyed look. “They can be very dangerous. I chased all the ones around Ironbreak away after I defeated their swarm. That was a tough fight. Here, they’ve been free to hunt people though. They must have a nest nearby.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Ralphi remarked reluctantly. “Even wolves will pick off people if they get hungry during the winter.”

Instead of replying, Blacknail ignored the man and started thinking. From experience, he knew that humans wouldn’t believe him if he told them all about his war with the boggarts. For some reason, they always thought he was exaggerating about the size of the boggart swarm and all the weapons it had wielded. They couldn’t accept the idea of boggarts using tools or magic. They seemed to think both those things were hard to figure out. They weren’t. Even goblins could do them if they had someone to copy. Really, humans weren’t nearly as unique or smart as they liked to think they were.

Could the boggarts be responsible for Werrick’s withdrawal from the area next to Blacknail’s territory? Had the creatures attacked Werrick’s men, causing them to retreat somewhere safer? No, that probably wouldn’t be enough. Blacknail hadn’t seen any indication that the boggarts here had been a threat to a large group of armed bandits. Hmm, except for the village that had been wiped out.

Blacknail scratched his nose. He needed more information.

Over the next few days, Blacknail sent men out to interrogate everyone that passed by nearby and had scouts head east to look for signs of Werrick’s troops. It took a while for him to begin getting information back, but then a picture quickly began to emerge. Werrick had pulled back and was fortifying his own territory. He seemed to no plan to attack Blacknail at all. There were also countless rumors swirling about boggarts and demons. People were worried.

“Huh, what do we do now?” Khita asked. Blacknail had called a meeting and all his lieutenants had just gone over the scouts’ reports.

“I have no idea,” Blacknail admitted as he scowled sourly. He’d been sure that Werrick would attack him.

“Isn’t this good news?” Geralhd asked. “It means we have more time to establish ourselves. That’s what we wanted.”

“But Werrick knows that too, so why is letting us have time? The Wolf is ruthless, and never just sits around like a pig in the mud. It makes no sense. It’s a stupid ass thing to do, and he isn’t stupid.”

Geralhd shrugged. “Any yet that is exactly what he’s doing. We have confirmation from multiple merchants that have dealt with him directly and some refuges that passed through villages he controls out east. There is no sign that he is planning to move.”

“Then he knows something that we don’t, which I don’t like much.”

Blacknail growled in agreement and clenched a fist. This wasn’t fair. Sure, this wasn’t bad for him strategically, but he wanted action and blood! Now he was going to end up sitting around for months, worrying about what Werrick was up to. He was supposed to be slowly closing the trap on Werrick using a series of clever attacks and daring escapes. Instead, he had no idea what was going on and felt stupid. Not fair.

Khita perked up. “I know! I could infiltrate his forces as a spy and find out all his secrets. That way we’d know exactly what to do.”

“No,” Blacknail replied as Ralphi rolled his eyes. Blacknail didn’t care if Khita got herself killed in such an insane scheme, but she knew too much to be put at risk of being captured.

“What do we do? Just sit here and build up?” Geralhd suggested. “It wouldn’t be a bad plan.”

Blacknail shook his head. “No, we can’t do what Werrick thinks we will, or we will lose. He is too smart. We must attack the prey in a way it doesn’t expects.”

“So what? Attacking Werrick in his own territory is a terrible idea. He has strong fortifications, knows the area better than us, and outnumbers us by quite a lot.”

An idea occurred to Blacknail. He hadn’t thought it through yet, but it sure sounded fun. “We will attack Daggerpoint!”