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?”
Sir Masnin glanced at him as the priest frowned. “Unfortunately, that’s all I’m allowed to share for now. Only after you have been deemed… trustworthy can I speak freely on such matters.”
Blacknail immediately had one important question. “What about Werrick?”
“I can answer that question,” The priest replied. “The crown has also been in contact with the Wolf.”
“And who are you?” Blacknail asked.
“My name is father Jamhl. A high priest of Azur-Waj.”
Things were beginning to make more sense now. Blacknail eyed his two visitors suspiciously. Obviously, Werrick’s strange actions had something to do with this, and Blackail wanted to know what. “How do you plan on knowing if I’m trustworthy? You humans aren’t always great at observing.”
“I’m already pleasantly surprised. You certainly seem far different from a normal hobgoblin. Yes, you actually have a solid command of our language, and you’re certainly bigger than any hobgoblin I’ve ever heard of.”
Blacknail resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He doubted this priest had ever seen a hobgoblin before, let alone tried to talk to one. They were rare down south and tended to avoid people, for obvious reasons. Also, his skull hadn’t been bashed in by a rock. Feral hobgoblins weren’t exactly friendly.
The priest continued speaking. “As for the next step, we would like to inspect this town you’ve taken.”
“So we can judge how you treat humans you’ve… began to rule over.”
“Fine, as long as you two come in alone.” Blacknail sighed. He wasn’t sure what they were looking for, but he wasn’t worried about them deciding he’d treated the town too badly, and he could keep most his troops out of sight. Oddly enough, compared to most human bandits, he was almost harmless. Blacknail had also heard a lot about all the atrocities that human nobles regularly committed.
The priest bristled. “We would need at least a small guard.”
Blacknail pointed at sir Masnin. “He’s already a big guard, and a Vessel too.”
The priest didn’t really have a rejoinder for that, so he eventually accepted the hobgoblin’s conditions. When that was done, Blacknail sent a messenger inside with orders for his troops. Some of them were to move out of sight of the path through the town that Blacknail intended to take his visitors along. This didn’t seem like a trick, but there was no point in allowing them to count his troops. Also, most the horsemen had dismounted and were resting after their journey, so there would be plenty of warning if they decided to charge the gate for some reason.
Thus, a few minutes later, Blacknail led the paladin and the priest into Aldhara. Sir Masnin and his bulky armor had a little trouble squeezing through the barricaded gate, but a helpful shove from Blacknail got him through.
Once inside, both the visitors stopped to study the two formations of troops Blacknail had left nearby to guard the gate. There was a unit of about fifty human bandits led by Ralphi and a similar sized unit of hobgoblin spearmen led by Gob. Both the groups were formed up into orderly ranks, but it was the hobgoblins that drew the visitors’ attention.
“To hear about it is one thing, to see it is another. Unbelievable,” the priest muttered.
Sir Masnin nodded. “Even for me, this is the first time seeing more than one hobgoblin in a place. They almost don’t seem like the same creatures. Hobgoblins in formation. My mind refuses to accept what my eyes are showing it.”
Blacknail smiled proudly. “They do whatever I say. I beat sense into them after they transform from goblins, and they all know where the good food comes from.”
“Those spears aren’t military issue, so you didn’t loot them. Where did you get them from?” Sir Masnin asked.
Blacknail shrugged. “Some of my minions make them. We have forges and stuff.”
The paladin’s eyes widened slightly. “I see.”
“Hmm, they certainly look sharp, if a little crude,” the priest added after taking a brief look. He seemed far less impressed than the knight.
Next, Blacknail took them to the town square near the center of the settlement. As they walked, they even saw a few townsfolk that were going about their business. Since Blacknail had taken over, they’d remained skittish, but they couldn’t hide inside all the time. They had jobs to do and lives to live.
Both the paladin and the priest asked Geralhd several questions about the rout of Werrick’s forces, and Geralhd answered as diplomatically as he could. Blacknail let him handle that, since dealing with other stuck up fancy people was what he did best.
Sir Masnin seemed pleased that Blacknail had killed very few of the townsfolk, although it was a good thing he hadn’t asked about looting. Blacknail had to give Geralhd credit for how he handled the conversation. He’d also been right about how to deal with the resistance. Not executing a whole bunch of people without trial had paid off.
While they were walking, sir Masnin stared at some of the houses and then turned to Geralhd. “Has there been any sign of the dread plague in these parts?”
“No, not at all. Why do you ask?” Geralhd replied as he blinked in surprise at the abrupt question.
The knight shrugged stiffly and looked away. “I was simply curious. This part of the world has seen much turmoil, which is a fallow bed for the plague to grow upon. Cleansing such taints is one of my holy duties.”
Blacknail eyed the paladin discreetly. His explanation made sense, but the hobgoblin felt he was hiding something. Sir Masnin wasn’t a great liar.
“I’d like to see the local temples,” Jamhl told them once they’d reached the town square and looked around.
“Sure,” Blacknail told him. That seemed like a harmless request. “Geralhd will lead the way.”
Geralhd frowned. “Actually, I don’t know the way either, or even if there is a temple to any of the gods in Aldhara. There probably is, but I haven’t seen it.”
This left them very little choice but to ask someone for directions, but they soon got themselves sorted out and headed in the right direction. It didn’t take them all that long to get to their destination, a converted home with large double-doors on a residential street. If it wasn’t for the large symbol hanging above the door, it would be almost impossible to tell from a normal house. That explained how the building had been overlooked by everyone.
Once there, the Jamhl stepped inside to talk to the local priest, and sir Masnin followed behind him. That left Blacknail and Geralhd alone outside for a moment, giving them some time to conspire.
“This makes no sense to me. You’re a human. Why do you think they are really here?” Blacknail asked his lieutenant.
Geralhd frowned thoughtfully. “I’m not sure. I thought the way he mentioned the plague was odd, but I’m not sure what it means, to be honest. It all comes down to the fact that they were sent by the king’s council, and they normally wouldn’t concern themselves with the likes of us. Perhaps the war has been rekindled and has turned against them? They might be seeking either mercenaries to fight for them or to secure their northern border with treaties, so they can pull more troops away to the battlefront.”
“Why send a priest and a paladin for that?”
“I have no idea, and that is troublesome. This whole situation smells rather fishy. I can’t wrap my head around it, but my rather varied life experiences have given me half decent intuition, and it’s telling me to expect bad news. Lots of bad news.”
The priest and the paladin stepped back outside a few minutes later, and the priest flashed them a smile. “Everything seems in order. I must admit to being slightly worried that you hobgoblins would profane places of worship.”
“Nope, we don’t do that,” Blacknail told him. At least, he was fairly certain they didn’t. He didn’t actually know what profane meant.
A sudden spark of interest appeared I the priest’s eyes as he leaned closer to Blacknail. It was weirdly intimidating. “If I may ask, who or what do you worship? Do you follow the imperial gods, or do you have your own?”
Confused, Blacknail threw a look at Geralhd, and the man quickly stepped forward. “Goblins seem to have loose belief in natural spirits without any specific god-like entities.”
“Oh? And what do you ask of these spirits?” the priest inquired as he turned to the hobgoblin.
Blacknail shrugged. “Er, we don’t ask them for much. That would be silly since they never listen to us. Mostly they give us someone to blame when stuff goes missing or something bad happens.”
The priest nodded. “I see. A very primitive belief system indeed. However, you have been exposed to human religion for quite some time, do you believe in any of the imperial gods?”
“Yes. Tar-Ghald, the watcher in the Green,” Blacknail replied immediately.
“Really?” Geralhd asked in surprise. Clearly, this was news to him.
“Saeter believed in him, so I do to,” Blacknail explained. How could his master be wrong? Besides, the Green God had never sounded like anything but a huge spirit to Blacknail, although instead of stealing people’s socks, he watched people from the Green and whispered on the wind. Blacknail suspected he also responsible for those rustling noises in the woods that Blacknail could never find the source of, but the humans apparently hadn’t caught on to that yet.
Unaware of Blacknail’s thoughts, Jamhl nodded in approval. “I’m glad that you’ve discarded some of your people’s primitive superstitions and are learning some of the greater truths that humanity holds.”
Geralhd threw Blacknail a look that he instantly understood. It meant play along and maybe he’ll tell us what we want to know. Blacknail had no problem with that. Honestly, the part that had bothered him the most was referring to all goblins as his people. That was a weird thing to even think about. He was just Blacknail. Humans were dumb.
The priest made a brief spiel on the nature of the gods. Blacknail just nodded and pretended that he understood, but that appeared to make the man happy. He probably wasn’t used to much more from humans either.
After that was done, the paladin and the priest walked a few feet and had a brief private conversation before returning. Blacknail had heard everything they said with his amazing ears, but none of it had been important.
“It certainly seems like you’re more than capable of coexisting with humans and forming some sort of pact with the kingdom of Eloria,” Jamhl told Blacknail. “When I came here, I was half expecting to die in service of my god while trying to preach the edicts to savages. Being eaten by savages would be a terrible way to die.”
“You humans don’t taste very good. We have much better food these days,” Blacknail muttered. Why did people keep bringing this up? Even starving feral hobgoblins probably didn’t leave witnesses, so why were humans so sure hobgoblins wanted to eat them?
Geralhd quickly coughed to get everyone’s attention. “We’re glad you decided that we’re worthy of dealing with honestly. Such a relationship requires trust though, so why don’t you tell us why you’ve really come here?”
Sir Masnin let out a deep sorrowful sigh. “I suppose we should. Although it brings me misery even to think of it.”
Jamhl nodded and then looked down and mumbled a brief prayer. Everyone else waited for him to finish, which took a moment.
When the priest was done, sir Masnin finally began explaining why he’d unknowingly interrupted Blacknail’s attempt to attack Daggerpoint. “You’re probably wondering why a priest and a paladin are here as emissaries of Eloria when we’re supposed to independent of them. The answer is simple. We’re here to negotiate and seek accord, not only as representatives of a kingdom, but also of all humanity.”
“What it is that supposed to mean?” Geralhd asked doubtfully. Blacknail understood his confusion. As a member of humanity, he ought to already know.
“It means that this isn’t a political issue between kingdoms or crowns, but one that concerns all of the civilized nations. Which is why I’m here, instead of helping down south, where I’m sorely needed. As a paladin, I’m a perfect representative of severity of the situation and can convey that this goes far beyond the interests of Eloria alone. I serve and protect humanity instead of kings or crowns.”
Geralhd looked slightly dumbfounded now. “And what dreadful event has required this to be necessary?”
“A truly great evil has brought me to you, and though it be far distant, it’s effects will ripple out across all the world. While King Namirius of Eloria was away at war, his country has been subsumed by the black plague of undeath. Ghouls and even worse monsters now stalk the streets of almost all the major cities of Eloria. In the entire of record history, we’ve never seen an outbreak like this. It sprang from nowhere, and every attempt to contain it has failed.”
“Oh…” Geralhd replied in shock. He suddenly looked a little green, which Blacknail thought was a good look on him.
“You still haven’t explained why you’re here talking to us. This doesn’t seem like something I can help you with,” the hobgoblin pointed out. He was immune to the plague twice over since he as both a hobgoblin and a Vessel, but he as still only one warrior.
Sir Masnin sighed again. “Normally, we would quarantine the cities involved and send Vessels in to cleanse them, but we’re stretched thin by unexpected eruption in several populated areas and that has been unsuccessful. We suspect that the plague is not spreading naturally.”
“It wasn’t me,” Blacknail told them. He had lots of witnesses that could tell them he’d never left the North.
“We know it wasn’t you. The plagues is not the only threat we face. There have been many reports of strange black creatures with many legs moving among the infected. Isolated villages have also come under attack by these creatures, although we are still trying to gather more information of their movements. It is difficult to track them.”
“Boggarts,” Blacknail said as he narrowed his eyes angrily. Maybe now the humans would believe him about how dangerous they were.