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.
“Ah, very well. As you know, we were sent here by the king’s council, who are ruling in his name while he is away at the border. The situation at the capital is quite desperate, and the council realizes that they must resort to desperate measures. With this in mind, they gathered up all the allies they could find. Then, together with the local mage guilds, they came up with a dangerous plan.”
“And this plan somehow involves both the North and our humble selves in some manner?” Geralhd inquired.
The priest nodded. “Yes, the chances of success go up if we can secure the cooperation of the northern bandit lords. However, we weren’t informed of all the details and a lot of information about this threat is still coming in from distant cities. Now that we’ve judged you capable and trustworthy, we’re simply here to invite you to the meeting where further details on this emergency will be discussed. There, you will meet a representative from the council itself and he will answer your questions.”
Blacknail put on his best polite face. “That’s nice, but why would we go out of our way to help you so much? This plan of yours sounds dangerous and I’m not afraid of the plague or boggarts.”
Neither the priest nor the paladin looked surprised by this reply. Sir Masnin simply nodded. “Cooperation will not go unrewarded. On top of gold and coin, the council has said they are willing to consider granting helpful northern bandit chiefs official recognition of the dominion they hold and perhaps even peerage.”
Geralhd perked up, but Blacknail was unimpressed. The hobgoblin didn’t feel the need to acquire permission from some southern humans for anything, especially ones that were desperate for his help. He did what he wanted.
“The meeting itself will be held in Redcliff castle, along the border. Of course, safe passage and all the courtesies of guests will be granted to you and all your subordinates when you come, even if you choose not to grant us your aid,” the priest explained before turning to Geralhd. “The bounty on your own head has been rescinded as a courtesy by royal decree as well, although your crime is as yet unforgiven.”
“Thank you, I am not ungrateful,” Geralhd told them as he grinned.
Meanwhile, Blacknail was thinking through the implications of everything he’d just been told. This definitely changed things, and it certainly explained Werrick’s lack of movement. The Wolf was probably busy dealing with boggart attacks on villages in his area and avoiding any outbreaks of plague. He couldn’t afford to lead troops after Blacknail. He was also probably preparing for the meeting with the representative of the king’s council. From what Blacknail knew of Werrick’s ambitions, there was no way he would pass up a chance for official recognition. So, if Werrick was going to be there, then so would Blacknail. If nothing else, it would be chance to mess with Werrick and insult him in front of other important humans.
“Fine, I’ll go to your meeting,” the hobgoblin announced.
The priest smiled. “That’s good to hear. These are dark days, and I hope we can all work together to end this horrid crisis.”
“We’ll be going then,” sir Masnin told them. “Now that we have your cooperation, I must move on. My duty calls me south, where my blade is sorely needed.”
“I’ll be leaving right away too,” Blacknail agreed.
“Really? You’re riding out so soon?”
“Not riding, no, but leaving yes. I need to go prevent the plague from spreading to the people here in the North.”
The paladin nodded solemnly. “It is good that you plan on taking care of the small folk in your territory. It says much about the nature of your soul and your ability to rise above your savage origins.”
“Sure, letting the plague spread would hurt and kill a lot people,” Blacknail replied. The sick and the dead weren’t very useful to him, he much preferred his minions healthy. Also, the paladin had misheard him. Black sensed an opportunity here to easily gain some new land. After all, his territory was any place he could force the inhabitants to admit it was his, and he could be very convincing.
“Fighting the dread plague is one of the most important duties a paladin fulfills, for the plague can cause untold devastation if it and the ghouls it creates are left unchecked.”
Blacknail gave the man a toothy smile. “Then perhaps there is something you can do to help me fight the plague.”
After a bit more talking and saying a formal goodbye, the priest and the paladin were escorted out of the town and back to their men outside. The horsemen then got back on their mounts and started to ride away. Blacknail and Geralhd watched from the gate.
“So, what now? This throws all your plans into chaos. It looks like we won’t be going to Daggerpoint after all,” Ralphi remarked smugly as he walked over.
Blacknail just snorted disdainfully. “It does no such thing. I’m too smart and my plans are way too good to be ruined by something like this. Really, it’s easier and will be faster now, since I’m a genius.”
“So, we’re still going to Daggerpoint?” Geralhd asked. “Surely, we have more pressing matters to deal with?”
“Nope, that’s the most important thing of all. This is the perfect time to conquer Daggerpoint,” Blacknail replied. “It’ll be easy, and Werrick won’t be able to do a thing about it. He’ll look weak and I’ll look strong when we meet the council.”
Ralphi scowled. “That’s nice, but you still have to actually conquer the city, not just talk about it. We just finished explaining to you why that’s next to impossible. You don’t have enough troops to hold Daggerpoint.”
Blacknail just gave him a smug grin. “Don’t worry. I have a plan.”
This answer didn’t satisfy anyone, but Blacknail refused to enlighten them. He was the leader and they had to do what he said. They’d learn his plan as he was putting it into action, mostly because Blacknail wanted to see their faces when they realized how amazing the plan was and how incredibly smart he was.
Since Blacknail had already been preparing his troops to move before he was interrupted by sir Masnin’s arrival, it didn’t take all that long for him to get an expeditionary force ready. He took about half the troops he had available and left the others behind in Aldhara for now.
“How do you solve the problem of not having enough troops by taking even less soldiers,” Ralphi asked grumpily as they began marching out onto the road.
“By being as smart as me,” Blacknail replied. “Also, we will be taking an even smaller force and running ahead. We don’t have enough time to wait for everyone. We need to move fast.”
“Of course," Ralphi muttered sourly before walking off.
Blacknail’s vanguard force was made up of a dozen humans and twice that many hobgoblins. They had to reach Daggerpoint as quickly as possible, so they planned on using alternating mounts. The humans took turns riding on half a dozen horses. The hobgoblins also had several boars which were being used as mounts. Blacknail just ran. He was more than fast enough to keep up with all the animals on foot, and he wasn’t so sure the boars made good mounts. Even the hobgoblins involved in caring for and training the beasts frequently fell off them, and some of them then got trampled by the beasts’ hooves. Ya, running was much easier. The boar trainers were optimistic about being able to eventually work out the flaws in the boars’ training so that they’d become better mounts, but Blacknail wasn’t.
Even moving as quickly as they could, it took a few days to reach Daggerpoint. The vanguard quickly left the main body of troops behind though. However, moving so quickly wasn’t easy or fun.
Everyone begsn to develop sores and grow tired. They had to sleep on the hard ground next to the forest. There, every outstretched branch looked shadowy and dangerous at night, so it was hard to sleep restfully. Only a skilled watch by hobgoblins kept the beasts of the forest at bay so that they could get any sleep at all. The going was so rough and tiring, Herah didn’t bother Blacknail for sex at all. No one talked much either, not even Khita.
Over the course of the journey, they also left two unconscious hobgoblins in the ditch next to the road. The poor fools had been trampled by the boars after falling off while riding. Hopefully, the main force would pick them up, although Blacknail thought it more likely they’d be carried off by harpies.
Once they got close to Daggerpoint, the small force began to pass the occasional traveler or merchant headed in the same direction. No one travelled to Daggerpoint without being able to protect themselves, as it was a lawless place full of bandits. However, despite that, most the travelers that spotted Blacknail’s group immediately fled into the forest. Blacknail regretted not having the time to stop and root through the wares some of them left behind. They were practically gifts, and he was sure some of them had cheese hidden away somewhere…
“Finally! My ass has never been so sore,” Geralhd whined when the gates of Daggerpoint came into sight over the hill before them.
“You should have run with me then,” Blacknail told him.
As Geralhd threw Blacknail a unamused glare, Ralphi spoke up. “So, we’re here. Are you going to tell us how you plan to conquer the place with just over two dozen men? What exactly is our next move?”
“We’re going to walk through the gate, punch anyone who tries to stop us in the face, and then find somewhere to settle down where everyone can find us. I’ll leave that up to you since humans are very picky about where they rest and sleep.”
“Fine, whatever. Let’s get this over with,” Ralphi replied with a sigh as he began riding toward the gate.
There were several guards at the gate, but the disheveled men didn’t try to stop Blacknail and his minions. Technically, all bandits were welcome inside the city, but most bandits weren’t hobgoblins, so the guards had to think about they were going to do. Apparently, thinking wasn’t their strong suit. Several of them went rigid with terror while others broke ranks, dropped their weapons, and fled as fast as their legs could carry them. None of them got in in the way though, or tried to close the rickety gate, so Blacknail rode into the city without a problem.
Ralphi then took point and led them deeper into the city as the streets in front of them became conspicuously emptier with great speed. Not quite everyone fled, but those residents that remained in sight stood in tight groups and were heavily armed. That was hardly odd behavior for Daggerpoint though. The city was full of rival gangs and remorseless killers who were always eyeing each other warily. There was no law in most of the city to stop them if they came to blows.
After a few twists and turns down various streets that were lined by rickety buildings, Ralphi led them up the front door of a large alehouse. Jumping off his horse, the large bearded man grumbled loudly to himself and then barged through the front doors without announcing himself.
“Alright, attention everyone! Our crew is taking this dive over. Everyone but the staff should bugger off right now if they know what’s good for them, and the staff better stay put if they don’t want worse,” Ralphi yelled as he entered the building.
The first floor of the alehouse was occupied by large wooden tables and a bar. There were also several patrons, who simply stared at Ralphi in confusion at first. However, several hobgoblins walked in behind the bearded man, and they provoked a very different reaction. The sound of gasps and sliding chairs filled the room as the patrons got up and hurried for the back door.
Ralphi snorted and pointed at the man behind the bar. “Stay! We’re buying drinks.”
The barkeeper hesitated and eyed the back door of the pub longingly, but he didn’t try to run. Instead, he simply grimaced and gave Ralphi a reluctant nod. The barkeeps of Daggerpoint were used to a lot of weird and dangerous stuff, but this one was clearly near his limit.
Grunting in satisfaction, Ralphi strode over to one of the tables and took a seat. Hobgoblins and human bandits quickly followed after him and began occupying tables. Most of the hobgoblins glanced around with amused grins as they imitated their human companions. Only a few of them had ever been in an establishment like this.
Blacknail took a seat on the far side of Ralphi’s table and the rest of his lieutenants joined him. Ralphi gave his chief an annoyed look but didn’t ask anymore questions. Instead, he yelled for the barkeep to bring him ale, and when the man brought it over, he focused on drinking. Ignoring the poisonous human liquid, Blacknail simply leaned back and waited. This earned him a few curious glances, but everyone appeared content to take a moment to rest after such a harsh journey.
As he had expected, it turned out that Blacknail didn’t have to wait long. Less than an hour later, a messenger arrived. The man was dressed in red – the governor’s color – and tepidly stepped through the front door and looked around. The man hesitated and eyed the gathered hobgoblins cautiously before putting on a resolute expression and walking over to Blacknail. The hobgoblin chieftain was hard to miss. He stood more than a head taller than any of the other hobgoblins and he had an impressive crown of antlers. Some of the other hobgoblins had small horns, but nothing like their chieftain’s. Blacknail knew he looked almost as important and impressive as he actually was, almost.
“Greetings! I have come with a message from the Governor,” the man announced as he reached Blacknail side.
“Yes, I know. That’s why you’re wearing so much red and bothering me,” Blacknail replied in an amused tone as he eyed the man.
The man flinched but then calmed down after realizing Blacknail probably wasn’t going to bite him or anything. “Er, yes. He wishes to know what your intentions are in coming to this city.”
“I’d love to talk to him about that. In fact, we should meet face-to-face as soon as possible, like very soon. I have very important news to share with him.”
“Um, you could just tell me and I’ll inform him of anything you wish.”
“Inform him I want to meet him right away. He can come here, or I can start walking to his big fancy house,” Blacknail replied.
The messenger considered this for a moment and then gave Blacknail a quick bow. He’d apparently decided that this wasn’t his problem to solve. “I will relay your wishes.”
Turning around, the messenger then exited back out the front door and disappeared from sight.
Over the next hour, Blacknail and his minions lounged in the alehouse and messengers ran back and forth between the hobgoblin chieftain and the Governor. The man was reluctant to meet face-to-face, but Blacknail was stubborn and more than willing to force the man’s hand. Thus, the Governor eventually conceded and invited Blacknail to his mansion in the central district of Daggerpoint.
“Alright, let’s go,” Blacknail told him minions as he got up out of his chair.
“All of us? We just sat down,” Geralhd whined.
“Yes, I don’t trust you to stay out of trouble while I’m gone,” the hobgoblin replied.
There were groans from many of his human and hobgoblin minions who were enjoying ordering various new drinks and snacks from the now very overworked barkeeper and his two servants, but no one dared disobey. After informing the barkeep that they’d be back soon and to stock more food, Blacknail’s group headed back out onto the streets.
Moving quickly, the group headed for the center of the city. Soon, they left the markets and dirty alleyways behind. The central district was different from the rest of the city. The homes were larger and better kept, and the streets were far cleaner. The main reason for this was obvious. The Governor’s men patrolled the central district. Clad in steel helms and breastplates, the guards and patrollers carried short spears. This was the one area that bandits and criminals weren’t allowed to run wild.
Blacknail and his minions got a lot of mean looks from the guards, but they weren’t stopped. Thus, they soon arrived at their destination, a huge mansion with a large yard that was surrounded by a stone wall. The entire grounds was neatly landscaped, and two more guards stood outside the entrance.
“Most of your… men should stay out here,” one of the guards told Blacknail.
The hobgoblin chieftain just nodded and selected Herah, Geralhd, Khita, and Ralphi to come with him. Normally, he’d use some excuse to exclude Khita, but he wanted to show off.
As the guards moved out of the way, Blacknail and his retinue entered the mansion. There was a large hall full of tasteful ornaments and marble statues on the other side of the door, with a crystal chandelier hanging in the center of everything. It was all very pretty and shiny. Blacknail wanted a chandelier of his own now. What type of human did he need to make one?
The Governor was also present in the hall. With his trim white beard and distinguished posture, he looked the same as the last time Blacknail had seen him. He also wasn’t alone. Several red-clad servants stood behind him, but they weren’t important. There was a familiar woman in a long white frilly dress at the Governor’s side.
Luphera gave the hobgoblin an overly friendly and quite suggestive smile. “It’s so nice to see you again, Blacknail. I must say, you’ve grown much more rugged looking, and I’ve been too long without the unique pleasure of your company.”
Her voice sent a shiver down Blacknail’s spine. Ugh, this wasn’t part of the plan.