Even the most oblivious humans eventually started to notice the dark atmosphere that was building up. Everyone began to look nervous, and they instinctively joined together into small familiar groups for protection.
Herad didn’t like it. She wasn’t sure if the situation had somehow leaked or if everyone just sensed something was wrong. Whatever the reason though, everyone was clearly not acting normally. Her mood got fouler and she scowled at everyone as she waited for nightfall.
She had ordered the watch tripled and had her most trusted men making other preparations as well. These included another huge bonfire in the middle of the camp and a large pit she had some of the bandits digging. The fire was supposedly for a celebration and the pit was officially for storage, but even Blacknail could tell that most the bandits sensed something was off about that explanation.
Blacknail also noticed that an unusually high amount of bandits were armed with new looking spears, and the men that had them were always standing around together. That was more than a little suspicious.
The weapons must have come from the hoard that Herad had stolen. Spears were not a popular weapon with the outlaws normally. They were awkward to carry around.
Blacknail observed all this with interest from where he was helping dig the pit. He liked digging, but this hole was getting sort of large. It was already deeper than he was tall. As he dug into the earth with his claws and dodged wayward shovel blades, he wondered what they were going to bury in it.
Every once in a while the goblin would climb up and peek out of the pit to make sure he wasn’t missing anything exciting. Nothing had happened yet, but everyone seemed to be holding their breath nervously and jumping at shadows.
Soon, it grew dark enough that it was hard to see, so fires were lit to brighten the clearing. Not only the big bonfire was set aflame, several smaller fires around the clearing were lit as well.
Finally, the pit was finished. It had been dug as deep as a man was tall, and was wide enough for a dozen men to squeeze into. After they were done, Saeter and Blacknail wandered over to Herad.
The bandit cheiftain was standing at one corner of the camp and gazing out into the woods. Around her the sick and wounded were gathered beside a small fire. There were always a few of them around. Some of them recovered, and others didn’t. Blacknail could smell the stench of rotting flesh under the sharp tangy smell of various herbs as they approached.
“So, what do you think?” Herad asked Saeter.
She didn’t turn to look at them, instead she kept scrutinizing the woods at the edge of the clearing. The light from the fires pushed the shadows back all the way to the trees but didn’t penetrate them.
“It’s a half decent plan, as long as you don’t mind risking yourself and the wounded,” he replied doubtfully.
“Ah well, I have less to worry about from ghouls than most. The magic that runs through my veins will make sure of that,” she answered him as she turned and grinned arrogantly.
“Don’t be overconfident. Even Vessels can fall prey to a ghoul’s more mundane weapons,” he told her. Blacknail thought he sensed a tremor of concern in his voice.
“Just take your position and wait, old man. If you’re worried about me then just make sure you don’t shoot me in the back,” she replied scornfully as she turned back towards the woods.
Saeter then did something unexpected. Instead of his usual farewell grunt he very quickly gave Herad a slight bow, and a humorous grin flashed across his face.
“As you wish,” he told her before spinning around and walking off.
Confusion was plain on Herad’s face as she gazed after Saeter inquisitively. When her eyes fell across the sword at his hip they widened in surprise, if only for a brief second before she recovered.
Blacknail and his master left her there as they headed over to a pile of nearby crates that had been placed under a tarp strung up between several poles.
Once there, Saeter took a seat in a shadowed corner, where he could see most the camp but was hidden from sight. He placed his bow in his lap and went still.
Blacknail groaned. He had a pretty good idea where this was going, nowhere. Saeter was obviously laying in wait for something, and it sometimes took hours for his prey to show up.
With a sigh, Blacknail sat down next to his master. His mind wandered. They were hunting something, probably those ghoul things. Did that mean the ghouls would be coming right into camp? That seemed very stupid unless ghouls were ridiculously tough, and if that were the case then what good would a bow do?
The camp slowly ground to a halt around them. As nervous and afraid as most of the bandits were, the majority of them still weren’t going to stay up the entire night. Eventually, the ground was littered with sleeping bodies. Most of them were huddled around brightly lit fires.
Herad’s extra guards patrolled the border of the camp in large groups. As he sat there, bored out of his mind, Blacknail noticed that they seemed to be avoiding the part of the camp where Herad and the wounded where. Herad herself seemed to be just sitting by the fire and resting.
His master had mentioned something about bait. Blacknail sniggered quietly. Were they using Herad as part of the bait? That was ridiculous. No beast could possibly be stupid enough to go after Herad. That would just be suicide, but if they did try it then it would certainly be amusing!
Blacknail yawned and thought about trying to sleep, but he quickly decided against it. He wanted to stay up and see these ghoul things, and Saeter would probably just wake him up anyway. That’s what he usually did when they went hunting.
As the campfires began to die down, Blacknail watched a group of bandits emerge from the dark woods and stroll over to the wounded area without much interest. He was beginning to think nothing exciting would ever happen, until the sound of cloth shifting from behind startled him.
Saeter had leaned forward and was watching the new group of bandits very carefully. He slowly prepped his bow. Blacknail’s eyebrows rose in surprise, and he threw another look at the group of approaching men.
They seemed normal, and were probably just coming back from relieving themselves in the forest or something. At least that’s what he thought at first, but as they moved closer to the dimming light of the fires Blacknail began to notice several oddities.
Their clothes were very similar to the rough and dirty outfits most the bandits wore but they were in even worse shape. It was hard to notice in the darkness but these men were wrapped in little more than rags.
Maybe these bandits had been attacked, and that was why they were headed to the wounded area. That might explain Saeter’s interest in them.
The next odd thing the goblin noticed was how the men were weirdly in synch. It was subtle, they moved like they were aware of each other at all times, like a pack of predators, or even one single being. Humans didn’t move like that, Blacknail realized with a shock.
The things that looked like men were almost upon the wounded now. A small gust of wind blew past Blacknail, and brought a new scent with it. It smelled human but also of sickness.
Blacknail realized that the scent had been around for a while, but he hadn’t recognized it before now. It had been too slight.
“Not men!” Blacknail whispered nervously to Saeter.
His master apparently believed him because he nodded and strung an arrow to his bow. Then, he rose to his feet and sighted on one of the things.
The call of a night bird issued from Saeter’s lips mere moments before an arrow flew from his bow. The arrow hissed through the air and impaled itself into the chest of one of the man things, knocking it down to the ground with a hollow slapping sound.
Soon, another dozen arrows leapt out of the darkness towards their targets. Saeter’s bird call had been the signal to attack.
The sudden shower of arrows fell upon the things Blacknail assumed to be ghouls. Arrows slammed into the ghouls’ bodies and heads. Most of them fell to the ground and twitched.
Blacknail was actually sort of disappointed. He had been expecting something much more exciting to happen. This was too easy.
Then, the ghouls began to pull themselves back up onto their feet. The arrows sticking out from their bodies didn’t stop them, or even slow them down. One after another, the thin ragged figures rose.
A cacophony of inhuman hisses filled the air, as the now obviously inhuman creatures burst forward towards their targets with unnatural speed. The nearby bandits and the wounded shouted fearfully in alarm.
Herad rose to meet them from where she had been hidden among the injured. Her sword leapt into her right hand as a long dagger appeared in the other. Her black cloak flapped behind her and her blades flashed through the air as she lunged forward to intercept the ghouls.
Beside Blacknail, Saeter cursed and leapt to his feet, as he drew his own blade. The goblin heard other outlaws react behind him.
“There are more of the bloody damned things than we thought,” Saeter spat angrily as he rushed towards the ghouls.
Blacknail tentatively followed his master from a few paces back. It wasn’t that he was scared; obviously, he just didn’t want to get in the way.
Ahead of them, Herad had engaged the ghouls in a lightning fast melee. She danced around them and their wild attacks. Her blades sliced into them and sent spurts of unsettling black blood into the air, but she didn’t seem to be doing any real damage to the creatures. They just kept coming.
There were seven ghouls and only four of them were armed with any sort of weapon. Two had swords, one wielded a long dagger, and one clumsily swung a lumber axe around. The unarmed ones seemed perfectly happy to attack with their bare hands, and they made up for their lack of skill with pure speed and inhuman ferocity.
As Blacknail followed Saeter closer he got a better look at Herad’s assailants. Every one of them was skinny and their exposed skin was a pale wormy white that reminded him of maggot flesh.
The hoods and scarves that had been covering their faces had fallen from several of them as they fought, to reveal hairless heads and horribly gaunt faces with black eyes empty of everything but mad hunger.
The ghouls kept throwing themselves forward in a ravenous berserk rage, while ignoring any damage they took in the progress. Herad ducked under a wild axe’s swing to counter with a knife stab to her opponent’s chest. She had to quickly withdraw though, as another ghoul came up from her other side and slashed at her with its rusty dagger.
She threw herself back to avoid the blow but ended up off balance and too close to another ghoul. Its jaws stretched wide as it screamed ravenously and swung a clawed hand at her face. The blow connected and sent her spiraling across the earth.
While the creatures appeared to be unthinking berserkers, they fought so well together they almost seemed to be in formation. The pack of ghouls split in two as three of them circled Herad and the other four broke off and made a dash for the injured and sick.
Those of the wounded who could move were now running, but not all of them were so lucky. Screams of terror and pain filled the night as the ghouls tore through the wounded bandits.
Herad pulled herself to her feet as she eyed the ghouls circling her. She raised her dagger hand to wipe her face, and scowled as it came away covered in blood. She had a bloody gash down the side of her face. The bandit chieftain spat towards the closest ghoul, raised her weapons, and then threw herself back into the fight.
By this time Saeter had reached the ghouls who were feasting upon the still twitching corpses of the injured. They were between him and Herad. He rushed over and launched a series of slashes at a ghoul that was bent over and stuffing its mouth full of bloody human flesh.
His attack only gave the pale monstrosity a few superficial cuts and forced it to take a step back. Then all at once, the nearby ghouls hissed, and rose from where they had been frantically eating their grisly meals to face him.
Luckily for him, the closest patrol and Vorscha were right behind him. The spearmen drove the ghouls back as the creatures all tried to rush teh old scout. The bandits thrust their spears forward all together. A wall of iron blade tips pushed the outnumbered creatures back.
Half the ghouls almost immediately ended up impaled on several long spears that held them in place. The other two made it through.
The first ghoul knocked a spear aside and leaped over the rest in a frightening lunge attack, but Vorscha was ready and her spear punched right through its chest before it could land. She then swung the stunned airborne ghoul around and slammed her spear’s tip into a nearby barrel. The ghoul flailed and spat, but was stuck and couldn’t move.
As the second ghoul attacked, a bandit shoved his spear tip through its guts. It kept coming; the creature started pulling itself up the now black and bloody spear shaft to get at the weapon’s wielder.
The seemingly unstoppable ghoul was finished off when Saeter brought his blade down in a two handed swing that cleaved into its neck. The creature shuddered violently and vomited up black blood that smelled like putrid meat. Then, it went limp.
Meanwhile, Herad was desperately trying to keep the other three ghouls at bay. She had broken out of their encirclement but had to constantly keep moving and attacking to prevent them from regaining it.
The bandit chieftain had also managed to disable the arm of one ghoul with a heavy strike, and it now hung uselessly at the ghoul’s side. Another limped as it chased after her and black blood oozed from a deep cut on its thigh. However, it was clear that she was getting slower while the ghouls appeared incapable of pain or exhaustion. They just kept coming and would eventually drag her down.
Saeter looked up from where he was fighting and saw that Herad was in trouble. He stepped back from the spearmen and moved over to get a clearer view. He then sheathed his sword and took up the bow he had across his back. Carefully he set up a shot.
As the uninjured ghoul fighting Herad stopped to screech, Saeter’s arrow took it through the side of the head. It fell over and begun to flop around on the ground like a huge desiccated maggot. That left Herad fighting only the two injured ghouls.
She whirled in to attack the ghoul with only one working arm from its vulnerable side, before the limping ghoul could catch up. Her sword bit into its undefended neck, and black blood sprayed out as it collapsed. The limping ghoul then lunged at her in an attempt to catch her off balance.
Herad saw it coming and whipped her dagger through the air and into the ghoul’s eye socket. It screamed and shuddered for a few seconds before stepping forward to resume its attack.
That was all the time Herad needed. She turned, drew another dagger, and then unleashed a whirlwind of slashes at the last ghoul. It tried to ignore them and charge her but Herad slid easily out of its way.
The mass of little cuts all over its body and the knife embedded in its eye began to wear the ghoul down. It faltered and Herad’s sword tore its throat out.
The pale creature started twitching but remained upright as it gazed malevolently at Herad. Blood gushed from its torn throat as it launched itself at Herad yet again. She dodged to the side, as the ghoul collapsed mid-leap. Now, none of the creatures were left standing.
Herad slowed and stopped moving. She was breathing heavily and the gash down her cheek was bleeding steadily.
She stared at the three disabled ghouls on the ground in front of her for a few seconds to make sure they weren’t going to get back up. She then groaned and dropped her weapons.
“Well, that’s the easy part out of the way,” she told Saeter, as he ran up and tossed her a bag of medical supplies.
The scout grunted in reply and she began wiping herself off and applying a salve to her face.
Once she was done Herad ordered the spearmen to keep everyone away from what was left of the ghouls. Blacknail tried to get a closer look at the remains but the spearmen shooed him away. The goblin wasn’t too upset, the creatures’ mangled bodies smelled really bad anyway.
Herad then had some of her men use their spears to push the ghouls onto a tarp, and had the tarp dumped into the pit Blacknail had helped dig. Everything touched by the ghouls or their blood was thrown in the pit.
This included clothes, even Herad’s. She stripped off her leathers and threw them in as well. Blacknail got a brief glimpse of a thin, muscular, and scarred body for a second before Vorscha draped a clean cloak over her boss’ shoulders and handed her some new clothes.
“Damned ghouls! I liked that armor. At least we shouldn’t have to worry about further infection now,” Herad cursed.
“True, but we still have to worry about those already infected. Those ghouls probably already infiltrated the camp several times before they got hungry enough to start abducting people,” Saeter responded.
He then cast a disturbed look towards the remains of the wounded who had been used to lure the ghouls out. He clearly didn’t like that they had been used as bait.
“What about you? How do I know you’re not infected?” Herad asked him with an upraised eyebrow.
“I always carry a flask of powdered silver and garlic extract on me just for occasions like this,” Saeter replied.
“Expensive and paranoid, I approve. If I wasn’t already immune I would have to steal it from you,” Herad said as she flashed him a quick grin.
“That’s the only reason I told you. Just don’t ask me to share. I barely have enough for myself,” he said.
“That’s too bad. Here I was hoping to skip this next part,” she responded as she began walking towards the center of the camp.
“I’m afraid that’s not going to happen,” Saeter told her. “We’re still going to have to lock the camp down and isolate everyone as much as possible. You won’t know who is infected until the disease progresses enough that silver and garlic start burning them, and even then you have worry about the turned breaking out and spreading the disease further.”
“How many ghoul attacks have you seen Saeter?” Herad asked him with sudden curiosity.
“Three now, and that’s far too many,” he answered with a scowl.
Blacknail was trailing his master. They walked by a group of shocked looking bandits who were seated around a fire. The goblin was glad to be away from the creepy ghoul things. They didn’t act like animals at all.
Blacknail took a deep breath of clean air to calm himself, but sneezed violently when a unwelcome scent tickled his nose. Instinctively, he turned to look at one of the nearby bandits and began sniffing. Curious now, he moved closer to get a better scent.
Saeter stopped and gave the goblin an inquiring look.
“What are you doing, Blacknail?” he asked the goblin.
“Smell ghouls,” Blacknail replied as he gazed intently at one man who was sitting nearby.
The bandit was now staring back at Blacknail with a very concerned look on his face. Before the man could say anything though, Herad walked over and gave him a look. The man wilted under her attention. It was impressive how without even speaking she could give orders, like shut up or I’ll stab you.
“You can smell infection?” she asked the goblin.
It was the first time she had ever addressed Blacknail directly. The goblin froze as he suddenly became the center of everyone’s undivided attention. The bandit chieftain’s dark stare was making him very uncomfortable and upsetting his stomach.
“He smell little like ghoul,” the startled goblin replied, and Herad smiled viciously at his response.
“Well now, I guess you’ve finally made yourself useful,” she told him.
A pleased Herad quickly had Blacknail tour the camp and sniff everyone. If someone smelled wrong, or if Blacknail just didn’t like them, several of Herad’s goons dragged them away.
The infected were isolated until they could be tested. Archers were put into position around the infected zone to kill them from a distance if they tried anything. None of them did. Herad made it plain what would happen to people who tried to run, and no one wanted to test her.
Eventually, the disease progressed enough that the bandits could be tested. Blacknail watched with interest as a small silver knife was applied to their skin. The flesh of the infected burned and rose into red welts at its touch.
Then came the killing, the burned couldn’t be saved. Herad either decapitated them or they were brought down by archers as they tried to flee.
Their corpses were then thrown into the pit along with stacks of firewood. As everyone watched in silence, a stone faced Herad dropped a torch in the hole. Roaring flames burst out and consumed all trace of the dead.
The camp was quiet and morose for several days after that. Between the raid on the weapon caravan and the ghoul attack the population of the camp had been drastically reduced. Many of the bandits had lost friends or comrades, some of them had even taken a hand in their friends’ deaths.
There were exceptions to this, though. As usual, Herad revealed no attachment to anyone but herself, and Saeter thought most of the bandits were scum anyway.
Oddly enough, these events caused Blacknail to make some new friends. A few of the sick had been identified early enough that they were able to cure themselves with powdered silver and garlic. Without the goblin’s warning they would have never known they were infected.
Blacknail thus became popular with several bandits. They even began sneaking him treats, and he started putting on weight. Not only was he getting yummy food, but he also started to feel like a real member of the tribe! Herad herself had told him he was useful. She never told anyone that!
Then one night, Blacknail the goblin curled up and went to sleep next to his master’s tent for the last time.