There were two armed guards on either side of the door Blacknail had just walked through, and he’d been disarmed. Thus, he didn’t immediately charge Werrick, despite the rage that had suddenly boiled up within him. He took a deep calming breath instead. Vengeance would be his eventually, as long as he stayed in control of his emotions.
Werrick was seated at a table that dominated the middle of the room. It was oddly shaped, like a half-circle. Over a dozen chairs sat all along the round edge, while only a single one had been placed in the middle of the straight side. Since Lord Lavista was occupying that lone chair, and facing all the others, Blacknail assumed this was another human intimidation thing, and promptly chose to ignore it. He was unimpressed. It was rather weak compared to the normal hobgoblin intimidation technique of killing someone and impaling their head on a stick.
“Please have a seat at the table. Your escorts can sit at one of the side tables,” the servant that had led Blacknail into the room said as he motioned to the side. There were several small tables scattered at both ends of the room. Some of them were empty, but there were people sitting at others. They had the look of minions, so Blacknail ignored them and turned back to Werrick.
“Your translator can also join us,” Lord Lavista added from where he was sitting. He had two guards standing behind his chair, and one of them was Sir Masnin.
“I want to sit at the big table with the important people,” Khita said. “I’m one of Blacknail’s most important lieutenants and deadliest fighters, after all. Soon, I will rule a massive territory of my own, and everyone will tremble at the mention of my name!”
“Not a chance,” Ralphi snorted as he grabbed her shoulder and dragged her over to an empty table. “There’s already way too much that could go wrong here for my liking, even without you introducing your particular brand of messy stupidity.” Everyone else in Blacknail’s group except for Geralhd followed them to the table.
Werrick looked different than the last time Blacknail had seen him, mostly because he wasn’t wearing armor or his wolf helm. Instead, his clothing didn’t stand out from any of the other people at the table. He wore a grey shirt and some black trousers that looked simple but stylish. Blacknail guessed that he was trying to fit in among the other humans from the south. His rough face and penetrating gaze made him stand out though, especially now that he was scowling at Blacknail. The hobgoblin met his gaze and grinned savagely.
Despite his resolve, Werrick flinched at the raw hunger that shone through Blacknail’s eyes. He quickly recovered, but he was clearly rattled by the hobgoblin’s appearance. That was to be expected. The last time the two had met, Werrick had cut down Blacknail and left him for dead on a battlefield. However, not only had Blacknail survived, but it was that brush with death that had triggered the hobgoblin’s transformation into a mutant. Blacknail was significantly larger and more dangerous now. The fires of his hatred also burned stronger.
“Ah, you’re alive after all,” Werrick remarked. “Hobgoblins must be made of different stuff than men.”
“I’m just special,” Blacknail replied.
“So, I can see,” Werrick said as he glanced at the hobgoblin’s horns. “I’ll have to keep that in mind.”
“You won’t have to worry about it for long…”
Lord Lavista interrupted the pair’s staring contest. “Blacknail, please have a seat so that we may begin the meeting.”
“Hmm, sure,” the hobgoblin replied as he turned his attention to the other people at the table.
Two were clearly mages from two different guilds. Their amulets and robes marked them as human spellcasters. There was also a man who was clearly a priest and quite a few people that looked like nobles of some sort. Some of them were dressed in frilly and colorful clothing that made what Geralhd usually wore look plain, but some wore more practical clothing that marked them as having martial experience. Except for Werrick and sir Masnin, Blacknail was sure he could take them all.
“I don’t think it will matter who we sit next to,” Geralhd whispered. “None of these people are likely to see us as peers or treat us courteously. Just choose a random place.”
Nodding, Blacknail led Geralhd toward the closest two empty chairs. As he moved, he considered his next move. He knew he had one huge advantage over Werrick here, he didn’t care what these southern humans thought of him at all. They were idiots, and he only needed their cooperation in the short term, while Werrick was obviously planning on starting a permanent relationship with them. That had always been the Wolf’s plan to cement his rule, but Blacknail had other resources he could tap.
Suddenly one young noble in a red jacket spoke up as Blacknail walked past him. “We’re dealing with disgusting savages now? I must protest!”
Oh, good. A challenge! Smiling to himself, Blacknail stopped and turned to look at the man. There was complete silence from everyone else in the room as most people tensed up expectantly. Even Lord Lavista seemed willing to wait and see what Blacknail did.
Sneering, the noble that had insulted Blacknail raised a hand as if to punctuate his next words, but Blacknail acted first. Quickly and smoothly, he stepped closer and leaned down so that his face was only a foot away from noble’s. Then, he grinned savagely as he seized an invisible blob of magic from his core and slammed into the man’s mind like it was an iron spike.
“Move,” Blacknail hissed right before the man squealed and toppled over backward.
The magical terror had caught the man completely off guard ripped into his mind without resistance, overwhelming him and making incapable of controlling the fear that now surged within him.
The stupid noble hit the floor back-first and then scrambled away. Still smiling, Blacknail simply grabbed the man’s chair and pulled it closer.
“Thanks for the seat,” Blacknail giggled as he sat down. Geralhd sighed and took the seat next to him that had also suddenly become vacant.
Looking around the table, Blacknail saw that most the humans present were studying him. Their expression varied from shock to outright hostility. Lord Lavista was the only person present who hadn’t really reacted to his little display at all. He still had a carefully neutral expression that conveyed authority and control.
“Now, let the conference officially begin,” Lavisita announced as he stood up and gave everyone before him a cursory examination. “You all know why you are here. A time of great trial and tragedy has engulfed Eloria. The plague threatens all of humanity and it is being spread by these black creatures that some call boggarts.”
“Has that actually been confirmed?” one noble asked respectfully.
“Yes, beyond a doubt. Our agents have observed them transporting diseased flesh and captured ghouls from city to city in order to weaken us for invasion,” the lord answered. “It is no coincidence that our forces engaged in fighting the plague are ambushed by boggarts either.”
There was murmuring from gathered humans as they took in this information.
“So, why are you here dealing with us? Shouldn’t you be back at home fighting these things?” someone eventually asked. “I can’t see how the answer to your problem lies in the North, and you’ve never cared about this land before.”
The King’s representative simply nodded in acknowledgement. “That is true. However, this is everyone’s problem, and we are reaching out to all our neighbors. We’ve even ended all conflict with Hulgaron. Communication is ongoing, but it seems likely that a full peace treaty will be signed soon.”
This caused everyone to begin talking amongst themselves even more. Geralhd whistled as if impressed. “I suppose it would take something as catastrophic as a massive plague outbreak and an invasion by unknown monsters to stop that war. The death of countless thousands certainly didn’t seem to concern them much. I suppose even the nobles realize they need some peasants alive to rule over and that the plague won’t discriminate against blue blood.”
Oblivious to what Geralhd was whispering, a porky noble in a frilly red shirt spoke up. “But what brings someone so high in the king’s esteem here to see us? Many of us are already owe Eloria our fealty and the others are no real threat to the realm, especially now.”
“I am here for several reason. First, I come seeking information. Rumor and speculation say that the boggarts emerged from the North,” the councilor replied.
“If anything, it seems there are less boggarts in the North,” a stern looking older noble replied.
The fat man in red shrugged. “Maybe they don’t like the cold.”
“How bad is it near the capital, I haven’t heard any details. What exactly are we dealing with?” someone else enquired.
This time it was Sir Masnin that answered. He looked sullen as he spoke. “Almost every city of note is struggling to contain a full ghoul outbreak, while raids by boggarts striking from below ground weaken us. Already, the city of Persepulis has fallen to the dread plague and the royal army was forced to set it aflame to contain the infection and prevent a horde of ghouls from being released on the countryside. Many other cities are predicted to fall soon as well if nothing changes.”
There was deathly silence as everyone contemplated the paladin’s words. Many of the humans looked pale. Even Werrick looked shocked by the dire straits of the southern cities. Blacknail wished he could have been there to see the fire. He had always wanted to see what a human city would look like after being set aflame.
“And the boggarts aren’t content to simply let the plague devour us either,” the elderly councilor added. “Our scouts report that the creatures are building structures above ground. They are consuming everything from timber to farm animals in order to build settlements of some unknown black material. Where once there were farming villages, now eerie black spires are beginning to rise.”
“And the royal army is doing nothing?” a noble asked in disbelief.
“They were caught off guard by this sudden attack,” Sir Masnin explained. “As you can imagine, most of the army was stationed at the border or actively engaging in action against the Hulgarons when the plague first appeared. They were swiftly withdrawn to help contain the outbreak but are now busy with that duty and have no time to spare to assault these new fortifications.”
“These creatures seemed to have planned this all disturbingly well,” a scowling noble with a military bearing observed.
“Yes, we are not dealing with mindless beasts here. This is a well-organized campaign by minds that understand long-term planning.”
The fat noble looked very nervous now. “What can we do against that? No one here has armies to spare, despite out relatively secure position here. If the plague does strike, we will have a demon’s time just containing it.”
Lord Lavista nodded. “Yes, but the council has come up with a plan that will require your aid. Thus, as our first order of business, I would like to secure everyone here’s cooperation and get an official oath of alliance. Eloria will reward you handsomely for your effort, of course.”
Everyone began talking amongst themselves again. Blacknail couldn’t help but notice that the old man hadn’t specified what aid he actually wanted. The hobgoblin was thus willing to bet his weight in cheese that it was going to be costly or incredibly dangerous. It would be best not to get tricked into making any promises.
Suddenly, Werrick broke his silence. “That’s why I’m here. Your messenger mentioned getting official crown recognition of the lands I hold. Is that still on the table?”
There was a nod from the councilor. “Yes, take the oath and the king will acknowledge your holdings and grant you title over them.”
“You’re a bandit and a murderer. You shouldn’t be demanding anything of the nobility,” a southern lord huffed dismissively at Werrick. He was a middle-aged man who was starting to go bald, but he was wearing more jewelry than anyone else, as if to display his wealth.
“Now, let’s not be to hasty. Someone as useful and powerful as the Wolf would make a great ally, regardless of the situation,” a younger - and less impressively dressed - noble countered. “What does recognition really cost the crown? Nothing.”
“Bah, you’re simply saying that because you basically work for the Wolf there already. Don’t think I don’t know about the deal you’ve made with him or the gold he sends your way. Dealing with bandits, despicable!”
Many of the nobles began arguing. Blacknail watched with interest. It appeared that Werrick had a lot of influence on the poorer northern lords, but that most the southern lords looked down on him. Of course, Blacknail was unpopular with everyone, so he was in an even worse position. Lord Lavista also noticed the pull Werrick had with certain parts of the nobility, and he didn’t appear to like it. He frowned thoughtfully as he studied the bandit lord, who seemed willing to let others argue his case for him now.
“What about that green savage sitting right over there!” someone suddenly yelled, drawing Blacknail’s attention. “Surely, having someone like the Wolf on the border is a much better option than letting an inhuman monster like him squat there. Why is such a creature even here?”
Off to the side, Werrick smiled. Blacknail was fairly certain this noble was acting under the Wolf’s orders.
Lord Lavista quickly spoke up though. “The hobgoblin is here because I wish it. He is a power in the North, as well as a vital source of information. In fact, I have heard that he engaged the boggart creatures in battle and vanquished them before they even launched their campaign against Eloria.”
A noble sniffed disdainfully. “Of course, the monster knows much about other monsters.”
Blacknail said nothing. No one had actually asked him a question yet, and he was busy studying all the humans. They were all looking at him now, including Werrick who was nodding in sudden understanding. He seemed to have made some connections.
The king’s councilor didn’t remain silent for long. “Now, before I go on, I must get oaths of alliance from you. We will be discussing many secrets and vital plans, and those that refuse the oath must leave.”
“King Namirius already has my allegiance. My sword is yours, to do with as you will,” one noble immediately replied as he stood up and gave the older man a formal bow. Several others immediately did the same before sitting back down.
“If you hold to you word then I will aid you,” Werrick added. “We should stick together in these hard times regardless.”
“What about us border nobles that already have land and title. What are you offering us?” a scowling man in shabby clothing asked.
“When this time of chaos is over, there will be plenty of land where the owners have fled or been lost to the plague. Those that aid the king can expect first claim when these lands are reassigned.”
This offer quickly got the rest of the attendees to offer the councilor their allegiance, which left only Blacknail. Lavista gave the hobgoblin an enquiring look, but Blacknail kept his mouth shut. He was probably necessary for Lavista’s plan, so there was no chance of him being kicked out. He could afford to play it safe and not offer any sort of promise that could land him in trouble later. He’d hate to have to lie or murder someone to get out of a badly thought out promise.
When everyone else had agreed to the oath, the elderly councilor looked toward Blacknail, and everyone else followed his gaze. “To start, would you tell us about your clash with the boggarts and all you’ve learned about them?”
Frowning, Blacknail considered this question. After being insulted so much he wasn’t feeling very helpful, but Lord Lavisita seemed to be the only person here who’s opinion really mattered. Being unpopular with the other noble’s wouldn’t affect his plan at all.
“Alright,” Blacknail replied a few moments later. “I ran into boggarts several times last year, but it was this winter that that I first really fought with them. It doesn’t count as a real fight unless people on both sides die.”
It took Blacknail quite a while to finish recounting his battle against the boggarts, especially since he had to go into so much detail about his own fighting skills and how he’d used them to turn the tide of battle several times. He was amazing.
Also, he had to remember to leave a lot of things out of the story, like about the specific types of magic his mages wielded and about the forest people and lurkers. That stuff would just have distracted the humans, and he didn’t want Werrick knowing of all his capabilities.
“And were supposed to believe this fairy tale is even remotely related to the truth?” a noble asked in an exasperated tone once Blacknail was finished. There were murmurs of agreement from many of the other people present.
Lavista quieted them with a glare. “Several parts of my guest’s tale have been independently verified, and it also contains scraps of knowledge about the boggarts that we’ve only recently discovered ourselves. For instance, some of our agents have sighted these humanoid boggarts from a distance. I would not have wasted your time with this story if I didn’t believe it to be true.”
“I find all this mention of uncontrolled magic disturbing, even if it is in inhuman hands,” one of the mages remarked.
The fat noble in red make a thoughtful noise. “The hobgoblin’s story would explain why the creatures are rarer in the North, which no one else has an explanation for.”
“In fact, the closer you get to this Blacknail’s territory the less reports of boggart activity you get,” the militaristic noble added.
“Yes, because I hunted the boggarts down through the dark paths and slaughtered them in their nest like vermin,” Blacknail explained as he rolled his eyes.
“But why haven’t they moved against the North since then?”
“They are probably busy fighting you now. Also, they need food, like everyone else. I destroyed the underground farm near their nest and my hunters kill the scavengers they send out into the Green. They can’t grow an army without food.”
“They might have trouble moving one without readily available scavenge as well.”
“Yes, well none of us are in any position to flood the dark paths with troops or even send hunters out on mass to stalk the Green. That would be folly. The dark paths are no place for men.”
“And most humans make terrible rangers and hunters,” Blacknail added helpfully.
“Some cities use goblins to keep sewers clean of sewers. Could we use hobgoblins for something similar in the dark paths?” one of the southern nobles suggested.
The fat man snorted. “Gee, what a wonderful idea. Let’s just flood the tunnels under all our cities with armed hobgoblins. That would solve our boggart problem alright, and what could go wrong?”
“Order please. This conversation is long past the point of usefulness,” Lord Lavista announced in a commanding tone.
“Then get to it already please,” the fat man replied coldly. “You’ve been awfully vague about what you want from us, but we’ve all taken your oath, so why don’t you tell us what you are really here for?”
The councilor scowled in displeasure at the tone, but he nodded a moment later. “After much deliberation, the king and his council have come up with plan to help secure our cities. We need silver to create the cure for the plague and fortify our troops against it. Only then can be risk going on the offensive against the boggarts. However, there has been a shortage of silver in the southern realms ever since the fall of Coroulis, where most of it was mined.”
Lord Lavista paused for a moment before continuing. “Thus, I am here to launch an expedition to Coroulis in order to seize the silver we need.”