Blacknail coughed as he studied the swarm of boggarts that lay before him. The battle in the giant mushroom cave had been going on for a while now. Although the boggarts had been knocked off-balance by the hobgoblin’s initial charge, they were beginning to push back, and hobgoblins were starting to fall. The smaller boggarts were tough to deal with, but the real problem was the taller warriors with spears.
“I got it, boss! Magic can probably help,” Imp suddenly yelled from somewhere behind Blacknail. The “probably” was worrisome.
Regardless, the hobgoblin mage pushed up beside Blacknail and leveled his staff at the nearest enemy warrior. Immediately, all the nearby hobgoblins ducked out of his way, including Blacknail. Unlike the other magic users, Imp had a mechanical staff that he’d taken from a human mage. The device allowed him to channel magic from mana stones and shoot it, instead of using the mana stones themselves as explosives. This gave him a little more control and finesse.
The light crystal at the tip of Imp’s staff had been replaced by a blue one. It glowed brightly for a moment, and then a rippling lance of blue energy shot out. The magic flew past Blacknail and slammed into the boggarts. All the smaller specimens in the front line were blasted away, and then the lance hit one of the warriors. The creature took the blow to its stomach. Instantly, it crumbled from the impact and then was knocked violently sideways. The blue beam then shifted as Imp swung his staff around, and the deadly magic hit two more warriors before fading away. Both the tall boggarts were thrown off their feet and into the rank of workers behind them.
For a brief moment, Blacknail just watched the spectacle. Then, he grimaced in distaste. His mouth felt icky. The blue light did taste like fish. Weird.
Suppressing the urge to start spitting and coughing, Blacknail raised his blade and charged into the hole in the enemy ranks. “We end this now. Minions, forward!”
As he ran, Blacknail used his power to stifle the fear of his minions, so they’d follow him with more enthusiasm and less pesky self-preservation. That was a terrible trait for minions to have. At the same time, Blacknail also unleashed another wave of magical terror at the enemy. The boggarts had probably adapted to the magical fear already, but it couldn’t hurt.
Stunned by magical force and fear, the boggarts before Blacknail stumbled as the hole in their ranks widened. This exposed the tall spearmen at the back, so Blacknail lunged forward into the gap. He sensed weakness and his predatory instincts drove him to strike at his stunned foe and take full advantage. He was time to sink in fangs into his prey and taste victory.
Magic power rushed through Blacknail’s body as he charged. He spun as he ran, and his blade lashed out at two nearby smaller boggarts and cut into them. Both the workers fell as the steel weapon found gaps in their armor and tore into vital organs, but Blacknail was already moving past them. Ahead of him, was an enemy spearman. It saw Blacknail’s approach and reacted quickly. Its long spear swung around and then its blade shot straight toward Blacknail’s head as the warrior struck. Blacknail saw the spear’s tip zoom toward his face, before he sidestepped the blow. Keeping his forward momentum, Blacknail then lunged forward and slashed at the warrior’s exposed side. His blade sliced through the air with intense speed, but the warrior jerked backwards, and Blacknail’s sword bounced off its carapace with a loud crack.
The force of the impact vibrated up Blacknail’s arm, slowing his response, and giving the boggart warrior time to react. It retracted its spear and then slashed at Blacknail. The hobgoblin chieftain grunted as he blocked the attack. This boggart was tougher than it looked, but he was even stronger. The only problem was getting through the creature’s annoying armor.
However, Blacknail wasn’t fighting alone. As he pushed back against the boggart, two of his minions surged forward to join the fray. They took full advantage of the boggart’s preoccupation with their chief, and flanked the creature from both sides. The boggart could only flinch as they both attacked. One sliced at its head with a sword while the other stabbed at its chest with spear. As Blacknail watched, the sword ended up glancing off the boggart’s armor, but the spear found a gap and sank deep into flesh.
Blacknail didn’t waste any time. There was a battle going on. He shoved the weakened boggart’s spar aside and slashed the base of the creature’s neck. His blade found soft flesh and tore through it. Dark blood erupted from the wound and the boggart fell backward.
Grinning from the satisfaction of a good kill, Blacknail turned and cut down another boggart worker that tried to jump him, and then moved on to challenge the next warrior. All around him, hobgoblins were engaged in a brutal and bloody melee. The hobgoblins had the momentum again, but the boggarts were very hard to kill. It usually took more than one hobgoblin to finish off even the workers. To Blacknail’s left, a hobgoblin was slashing at a defensive worker, when another worker emerged from nowhere and tackled him to the ground. The hobgoblins screamed as the boggart’s claws raked his face, but then another hobgoblin arrived and impaled the attacking boggart with a spear and drove it off his ally.
Blacknail ignored his minions and focused on his chosen target. The boggart was stabbing at another hobgoblin that was hurriedly defending himself, but it stopped and turned toward Blacknail as it saw him coming. The two combatants eyed each other for a moment as they drew closer, and then Blacknail whipped his blade around and hacked at the creature’s elbow. Stumbling back, the boggart avoided the blow. Blacknail kept moving. He stepped up beside the creature’s outstretched weapon and punched it in the face. There was a loud crack as the boggart reeled backward and tripped over a worker that had been standing behind him. Grabbing the creature’s weapon with one hand, Blacknail pulled himself closer and stabbed the creature in the chest. The boggart’s black eyes didn’t convey much emotion, but to his own satisfaction, Blacknail felt surprise and fear flood through his opponent as it died.
As Blacknail looked around to find a new worthy opponent, the boggarts’ behavior suddenly changed. All at the exact same moment, every boggart disengaged from the fighting and turned to flee. Blacknail froze in surprise as all the nearby opponents scuttled away at full speed. Still moving as one, they fled into the mushroom forest.
“Form up and follow me. We’re going to make sure they’re gone,” Blacknail yelled as he began jogging carefully after the boggarts.
Those minions that were still on their feet reluctantly obeyed. Imp took the opportunity to throw another blue blast of force at the enemies’ backs. It slammed into them, throwing several aside and knocking over a huge mushroom, but the affected boggarts simply picked themselves up and raced to rejoin their fellows.
A minute or so later, Blacknail led the way out of the other side of the mushroom forest. Ahead of him, the creatures were running toward the shadows at the edge of the cavern. It was difficult to see the edge of the cave because there were no glowing mushrooms there and Blacknail’s light-bearing mages were behind him. However, just as the fleeing boggarts were disappearing into the shadows, a light suddenly burst into being among them. Blacknail blinked in surprise as he brought a hand up to shield his eyes. Was that a mana stone? Yes, peering at the center of the light, Blacknail saw that one of the workers was holding up a short staff made from the same dark material as the warriors’ spears. At the top of the staff was a glowing mana stone.
Well, that wasn’t good. Blacknail grimaced as he watched the boggarts disappear into a passage at the far side of the cavern.
“That looked like magic,” Imp remarked curiously as he walked up beside his boss.
“I noticed that,” Blacknail replied in a sarcastic tone.
Gob walked over and grinned happily. “We won, boss! Not that anyone doubted we would. Your brilliant strategy led us to great victory. What now, greatest of warlords?”
Blacknail just grunted sourly as he eyed the tunnel the boggarts had disappeared into. He was unhappy about this complication. “I’m going to need a lot more hobgoblins, a lot more magic, and a lot more… everything.”
The implications of recent events seemed to have escaped Gob, but they hadn’t escaped Blacknail. If the boggarts were capable of gathering large mobs, crafting weapons, and using magic, then Blacknail and his tribe were in serious danger. There was a deadly swarm of unknowable might lying in wait beneath their very feet. One that could match almost every trick they had. That was bad. The only real advantage the hobgoblins had was Blacknail’s own incredible genius and leadership, but even Blacknail wasn’t completely perfect. He knew he’d fallen into a pattern recently and become far too dependent on magical barrages. If he wanted to survive, Blacknail was going to have to come up with some completely new tricks for his minions to use in combat. Even when properly trained, hobgoblin infantry and bandit riffraff just weren’t tough enough to go head-to-head with all of Blacknail’s enemies. Stupid useless minions.
Frowning thoughtfully, Blacknail wandered over to examine the corpses of the defeated boggarts. Piles of them littered the ground. The dark soil around them had been torn up by both feet and explosions, and there was also the occasional dead hobgoblin. Blacknail’s forces had suffered a dozen fatalities and twice that many injuries. It had been far from a bloodless victory. So annoying. Blacknail was supposed to be building his forces, not losing them.
At least the corpses of the boggart warriors were interesting. The creatures looked dangerous even in death. They sure were big, and their claws looked like they could do nasty things to goblin flesh. Also, their solid black eyes had no pupils and reflected the light, making it seem like they were still watching their surroundings. It was creepy, but Blacknail pretended not to care. He walked over and kicked one of the dead warriors. That made him look tough, and the corpse’s lack of reaction also reassured him that it was really dead.
After poking the dead warrior in front of him and stabbing it in the chest once just to be sure, Blacknail’s gaze fell upon the creature’s fallen spear. Excited at the unexpected opportunity for some looting, he grinned as he picked it up to examine. What he saw surprised him. The spear was made from a single smooth piece. Had it been carved from a branch or something? Blacknail moved closer to Imp’s light and ran his finger along the spear’s blade. No, it was way too sharp and strong to be wood, and it was the wrong color. Too black… Wait, was the spear made from a carved piece of boggart carapace or bone? Was that possible? Blacknail frowned as he sniffed the weapon. It smelled like boggart, which wasn’t a surprise. Also, the smell and feel of the weapon reminded him of something else. Right. It was very similar to one of his bows. The one he’d gotten as a gift from Saeter in Daggerpoint. It had come from some hooded man at a stall… What was the connection there? Blacknail had no idea, so he made a mental note to show the weapon to Geralhd later. Hopefully, he wouldn’t forget.
Now that the battle was over, and the mushroom forest was secure, Blacknail had Imp collapse the tunnel the boggarts had fled into with a blast of his staff. That probably wouldn’t keep them out for long, but it would give Blacknail some time to prepare. It was obvious he was going to have to tighten the security of the tunnels beneath Ironbreak even more. Unless Blacknail was very mistaken, a full-on invasion of boggarts with magical support could start at any time, especially now that he’d smacked the dumb bugs around. They were probably mad. Hmmm, Blacknail wished he hadn’t sent so many of his troops away now. Recalling them now would be slow and dangerous.
Some exploration of the mushroom cave revealed a large pool of water in the center of the chamber. As Blacknail studied it, wispy streams of white vapor rose up from the water and floated away. The water was warm to the touch, although not quite hot. Obviously, the heat and moisture from this pool was what allowed all the mushrooms to grow so large. Blacknail also found another tunnel leading off into unknown depths. However, it looked too narrow for the larger boggarts to slip through, so he had some rocks piled up to block it and then moved on.
By the time Blacknail and his minions returned to the entrance to the mushroom cave, the trogs had reappeared. The pale critters cautiously emerged from the shadows and approached Blacknail. After a moment of hesitation, they began groveling and bowing again. Blacknail snorted dismissively at their antics. The creatures annoyed him, but they might be useful. They obviously planned on staying in Blacknail’s new mushroom forest, which meant they were his minions now. The trogs were weak and stupid, but most of Blacknail’s minions were. At least the trogs knew the darks paths and might make good scouts if they could be trained properly. Blacknail was in desperate need of more information about boggarts, so he’d take what he could get. Also, Blacknail wondered how similar to goblins trogs actually were.
Gob was standing right next to Blacknail and waiting for orders, so Blacknail gave him some. “Make sure the mine workers begin taming these trogs. I want to be able to talk to them, and they should be put to work. They won’t be getting free meals anymore.”
“As you command, lord!” Gob replied with a salute.
With that done, Blacknail returned to the mines and then made his way back up to the surface. The bright sunlight hurt his eyes as he emerged from the cave, but it still felt great to be back outside. The caves had been very dark and dreary, and the sun felt nice on his face, even if it was brisk outside.
Unfortunately, Blacknail didn’t have time to take a nap in the sun. There were things that needed to be done and his minions were all too incompetent to do them without him. More troops had to be rounded up and sent down into the mine. Naturally, this meant hunting down a lot of goblins and hobgoblins that would prefer to avoid notice from their superiors and also anything like work. Tracking them down and getting them organized into squads was difficult. Stupid lazy minions.
There was also the issue of getting the mine back up and running. Blacknail handled this from the comfort of his mansion’s dining hall. As he sat on a chair next to the blazing fireplace, messengers and lieutenants came and went with news. Ferrar was in charge of the mine, but all the new underground activity had created a shortage of mages and light stones, so Imp had to be brought in as well. Soon, all the leadership gave Blacknail a headache, but he had to put up with it. There was more that needed done, and no one else to do it.
“There’s also the matter of bad air. With more workers going underground this will become a bigger problem, even if goblins can usually smell and avoid it,” Ferrar explained.
Blacknail sighed. Having lived in a sewer years ago, he knew quite a bit about bad air and the problems associated with it. “What do you suggest?”
Ferrar shrugged. “Lots of mushrooms help clean the air, but they also attract nasty critters that bite and sting workers. They also only grow in damp warm places. A lot of the best mining spots aren’t like that.”
“Give me a magical answer,” Blacknail said as he turned to face Imp.
Imp smiled. “We could try blowing up…”
Blacknail instantly interrupted him. “No, something else.”
“Well, if the problem is bad air, I might have something else. When I was working with Avorlus a while ago, we accidently made some green air crystals.”
“How do those work?” Blacknail asked curiously.
“They seem to suck up air as they grow, and then they release it all in one big explosion.”
Blacknail gave Imp a stern look.
“…however, with Ferrar’s help, I might be able to make a device to release small gusts of good air that goblins can breathe.”
“Alright, that sounds about right. If bad air becomes a problem, then you should do that. Do you have any more magics that might help the tribe mine or fight underground. This is very important.”
“Um, I’ll study my collection again when I get back to my workshop.”
“Show everything to Ferrar. He might see something you don’t,” Blacknail told the mage. Imp and Ferrar were dumb in complimentary ways.
With that problem solved, Blacknail had his minions focus on the defense of Ironbreak. None of them seemed to consider the boggarts as mush of a threat as Blacknail did, but Blacknail was the leader, so he didn’t have to put up with their stupid opinions. However, after some discussion, it quickly became apparent that none of them had any good ideas that Blacknail hadn’t already thought of. Recalling some troops was the best they could come up with. Blacknail needed some smarter minions. It was a shame that all the humans were at Shelter. At least they usually thought differently than hobgoblins.
Eventually, Blacknail had Gob summon several messengers so that he could order them out to recall the troops he wanted. However, when the messenger arrived there was a problem.
“That might be difficult for us to do, greatest of leaders,” the lead messenger explained reluctantly.
“Why?” Blacknail asked suspiciously.
“It’s snowing, mightiest one.”
Oh. Instantly, Blacknail jumped up and hurried over to his mansion’s door and threw it open. A cold gust of wind washed over him as he peered outside, and it contained more than a few flutters of white. Blacknail groaned as he confronted the wall of white before him. Outside, heaps of fluffy snow were falling from the sky. The air was thick with it, and it was already building up on roofs and the ground. There was no way his troops were going to be able to make it back now. Stupid weather.
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