The mob of giant crabs scuttled over the rocks that littered the cavern floor as they headed straight for Blacknail’s party. The hobgoblin guards that had come along eyed them nervously. The creatures weren’t that tall, but they had thick carapaces, and claws that were powerful enough to crush limbs. Even with spears, they would be dangerous opponents for normal hobgoblins.
“Want me to blow them up, boss?” Imp asked as he held his glowing staff up high. Its white light was illuminating the depths of the cave around them.
“No, I got this,” Blacknail answered confidently as he began walking forward alone. No one tried to stop him as he headed down the rocky incline, and he hadn’t expected them to.
The sound of moving water filled Blacknail’s ears as the underground river in the middle of the cave continued to ebb and flow. Now that he was in the huge cavern, the cool energy that had drawn him here was even stronger. It washed over him, making him feel stronger and invigorated. As a result, confidence filled Blacknail. There was an excited grin on his face as he drew his blade and stepped forward to meet the first crab.
The creature made an angry gurgling sound as it slashed at Blacknail’s chest with an open claw. However, the claw snapped shut on open air. Blacknail easily sidestepped the blow. He then leaned forward and stabbed the tip of his sword into the creature’s mouth. It tore through what little shell was there with ease and then sank deep into the crab’s flesh. Grunting with effort, Blacknail pushed forward, and his blade slid even deeper. The crab instantly quivered and began to fall as its insides were shredded by sharp steel, so Blacknail withdrew his blade and jumped back. As he moved, a claw swipe from another crab missed him by a hair. The stupid things were faster than they looked.
However, Blacknail’s movement were even more quick and powerful. He was still drawing in the energy around him, and it was making up for his lack of Elixir. Actually, it felt somewhat similar. Jumping sideways to avoid two charging crabs, Blacknail slashed at a third. His blade sliced into its arm at the joint – where there was no carapace to protect it – and the creature’s claw was cut right off.
Unfortunately, the other crabs had used this time to surge forward and surround Blacknail. The hobgoblin just grinned, though. He wasn’t worried. The unknown power had seeped into Blacknail’s body. It pooled in his blood in a familiar way, so he used it. With an act of will, Blacknail ignited the energy in his blood and pulled it up into his head. He then pushed it out as an invisible wave, which washed over the gathered crabs. The result was exactly as if he’d been using Elixir. The magic tore into the beast’s minds, filling them with unnatural terror. Blacknail could feel the power go to work.
Inhuman hissing filled the air as the crabs began stumbling backwards. Two of the creatures even collided and fought briefly as they hurried away from Blacknail as fast as they could. Soon, the entire mob was scuttling away at top speed. As he watched, the crabs separated and disappeared back into shadows or slipped into the river.
Ferrar made his way down to Blacknail’s side and picked up a severed crab arm. “I bet these taste great if you cook them right.”
He was swiftly followed by the other hobgoblin’s, including Imp. Now that it was safe, they all descended the rocky incline and made their way to their chief.
“Why did we come down here, boss?” Imp asked as he joined Blacknail. “The mines are the other way.”
Blacknail had been studying the far reaches of the cavern, but now he turned to face the other hobgoblin. “I wanted to explore. There is something here, and we’re going to find it.”
There were some openings in the wall over to Blacknail’s left, so that was where he headed. The cavern he was in had plenty of passages leading out of it, but many of them were on the other side of the river and crossing that waterway would be dangerous. Not only would it be a treacherous place to swim, but it was full of strange creatures such as crabs and giant predatory salamanders. There might even be much worse things that had yet to reveal themselves.
Luckily, the crabs kept their distance as Blacknail’s group crossed the cave. When they reached the passages there, Blacknail studied them. One was a short dead-end, while the second just felt wrong. The third looked promising though, so he jumped over the rocks in front of it and then helped Imp up. As his minions climbed after him, Blacknail then headed inside.
The passage was tall but tight and the walls were a smooth rock that was so dark it was almost black. Water had worn channels in the floor but only a few small stalactites hung from the ceiling. Imp followed right behind Blacknail, but the winding nature of the tunnel meant they couldn’t see too far ahead. However, after a few minutes, the passage widened significantly until the entire group could have walked through it side-by-side. Natural shelves appeared on the walls, and most of them weren’t empty. A colorful assortment of mushrooms grew from heaps of dirt that had been piled on them. The light from Imp’s staff also glinted off the shiny rainbow-colored shells of harvester beetles as they moved among the fungus or flew through the air.
“I’ve seen these bugs up in the forest, eating leaves,” a hobgoblin observed as he leaned down to study a cluster of mushrooms. “You can’t eat them.”
Blacknail snorted before haughtily correcting his ignorant minion. “They don’t eat leaves. Harvesters bring stuff down here to make these piles, then they eat the mushrooms that grow. Also, you should watch out. Sometimes bigger bugs with venomous tails hide in those mushrooms.”
“Oh, you sure are smart, boss,” the hobgoblin replied as he carefully stepped back.
“Of course, I am. I’m the smartest,” Blacknail explained as he looked around.
He hadn’t come down this passage to look for harvesters, and now the energy he’d been feeling was weaker. They must have gone the wrong way. Blacknail turned to head back the way they’d come, but Ferrar stopped him.
“Look, there on the ground; tracks,” the hobgoblin said as he pointed at a spot up ahead.
Frowning, Blacknail leaned down to get a better look. He almost immediately saw what Ferrar was talking about. The ground here was very dusty – probably because of the harvesters dragging dirt in – and there were some obvious scuff marks. Some of the them resembled footprints. In fact, they sort of looked like goblin tracks.
“Do goblins live down here?” Blacknail wondered aloud. He’d never seen any.
“None of my workers have mentioned seeing ferals down here,” Ferrar replied.
“None of our goblins would ever come here. They’d get eaten,” Imp added helpfully. Several hobgoblins nodded along. They seemed worried about getting eaten themselves.
Blacknail sighed. Of course, none of his minions were helpful. He had to do and learn everything himself. Leaning down, Blacknail sniffed the ground, but all he could smell was rotting plant matter, dung, and mushrooms. The rich scent of the harvester farms was too strong.
“We’ll follow these tracks for a bit before heading back. Be silent; we’re hunting,” he told his minions as he began walking further down the tunnel. There was really only one way the makers of the tracks could have come from.
Moving with stealth now, Blacknail’s party crept forward through the tunnel. Imp fell to the back of the group and dimmed his light until it was only a meagerest of glows. Hobgoblins had great night vision, but they couldn’t see when there was no light at all. Around them, some of the mushrooms began to give off their own glows in response to the return of darkness. It was still difficult to see in such dim light, though. Blacknail listened intently as he carefully navigated through the maze of shadows and rocks. His ears twitched overtime the heard a drip of water or a tiny critter skittering through the dark, but he stayed focused.
They continued on this way for several minutes, until Blacknail thought he detected a hint of light up ahead. Motioning for Imp to stay behind, he stalked forward through the dark until he reached the end of the passage. Another large cave chamber opened up in front of him, so he hid himself behind a large rock and peered out.
Thankfully, Blacknail’s eyes had grown used to the gloom, so he was able to study the scene before him. It was a large cavern, and it looked to be full of huge mushrooms, some of which were glowing. The size of the fungus surprised Blacknail. He’d never even heard of anything like it. It was difficult to see, since only a few of the mushrooms were glowing, but some of them had to be as tall as people. As he watched, Blacknail also saw small dark figures move among the shadowy forest of fungus, but he couldn’t tell what they were. They were about the right size for goblins, though. Weird.
After a few moments, Blacknail’s minions joined him, including Imp, who’d completely shut off his staff. Blacknail considered his options for a moment, but then decided he’d seen all that he could from here. It was also unlikely that he’d be able to sneak closer undetected, so he turned to Imp and signaled for the mage to light the way. With a nod of acknowledgement, Imp did as he was told. He raised his staff and it burst to life. Bright white light radiated forth, lighting up the cavern before them.
Shielding his eyes to protect his vision, Blacknail quickly stepped out from behind his rock and looked around. He was now able to see a lot more of the fungal forest. Mushrooms of all forms and sizes rose up from a dark mass of rich-looking dirt that covered the floor of the cave. Above them, shinning droplets of water dripped down from stalactites. However, Blacknail was looking for movement. The sudden burst of light had startled the inhabitants of the cave, sending them running. Blacknail was only briefly able to glimpse a bunch of pale grey forms before they dashed away. He hadn’t gotten a very good look, but they’d been vaguely goblin-like, even if they were the wrong color. All the goblins he’d seen had been some shade of green.
“Were those goblins?” a hobgoblin asked.
“I don’t know,” Blacknail replied as he walked forward to study the mushrooms.
Almost the entire cave was full of towering fungus. A few skinny tubular ones were almost twice as tall as a hobgoblin, and they were a startling purple color. There were also plenty of capped mushrooms of various colors, and even a few big white balls that were too perfectly spherical to be rocks.
“That’s a lot of mushrooms,” Ferrar remarked in an impressed tone. Blacknail nodded in agreement. He wondered if they could be used as an emergency food supply.
“Do any of you want to try eating some mushrooms?” he asked his minions.
“Which ones are poisonous, boss?” one of the guards asked.
“I have no idea,” Blacknail admitted. He wasn’t sure if these giant mushrooms were the same as the smaller type, just bigger, or if they were completely different.
In the end, no one decided to try eating any of the fungus, so Blacknail led his party back the way they’d come. There was no way they were going to run down any of the pale creatures now, so there was no point in sticking around. He still wanted to track down the source of the energy as well, and this was definitely the wrong way for that. The energy was even weaker now, although it was still around. Underground, it never seemed to vanish completely.
A brief hike led them back to the river chamber, and once there, Blacknail selected another passage to try exploring. This one was wider and wetter. The ceiling dripped, and as a result pools of water were scattered around the floor. However, using Imp’s light, they were able to navigate it easily, while only getting a little damp. As they walked, it soon became obvious that the tunnel sloped downward, deeper into the earth. Blacknail also quickly realized he’d chosen the right passage. The energy in the air grew noticeably stronger as they headed down. It felt good.
“How far are we going?” Ferrar asked nervously after a while.
“I’m the leader. We go until we find what I’m looking for,” Blacknail replied testily without slowing.
Soon after that, Blacknail saw the light of Imp’s staff reflect off something in the wall. Excited, he peered at the object. It was a blue crystal, and it was growing straight out of the wall.
“A mana crystal,” Imp observed. He sounded excited as well.
“Yes,” Blacknail agreed as he turned to peer down the tunnel in front of them. He thought he saw more glints of light up ahead, so be began walking again.
Sure enough, the walls of the cave further down were studded with small crystals. Blacknail briefly looked them over as he walked past. Imp and the others were forced to hurry after him, and soon they came to the end of the tunnel. A rocky round chamber about the size of a house lay in front of them. There was no way to continue on, but there was a large crack in one of the walls. It was surrounded by crystals, and it was obviously the source of the strange energy. The air was thick with power here. It tingled Blacknail’s skin as it washed over him.
The crack was too tight for anything thicker than a finger to fit through. Blacknail studied it for a moment from afar and then began to walk over to get a closer look, but then a noise caught his attention. There was clatter of falling stones from the opposite side of the cave. Blacknail turned to look, and saw a huge white salamander slide out from behind some rocks. He’d been too focused on the crevice to notice it, and its skin had camouflaged it in with the stone.
Blacknail had seen the predatory salamanders that lived in these caves before, but this one was different. While it was the same pale white as the others and completely lacked eyes, this salamander was much bigger. It looked to be at least three time the weight of a hobgoblin. The reason for its size was obvious. It had a rows of translucent crystal spikes running down its back. It was a mutant, and undoubtedly it had been drawn here by the same energy as Blacknail.
There was silence as the hobgoblins studied this new threat. Then, all the minions began backing up slowly. Apparently, they’d decided to let their chief deal with the problem. Blacknail glared at them for a moment, but then had to turn and focus on the salamander. What a bunch of useless cowards. Well, whatever. They wouldn’t be much help anyway, and Blacknail was feeling confident. The energy from fissure was flowing through him, and he wanted to test out his new body. He felt like pushing his limits would help him grow. Also, if he started losing, he could always order Imp to blast the thing into bloody pulp.
Stepping forward, Blacknail drew his blade and met the salamander’s gaze. They stared each other down, like beasts before a kill. Er… Blacknail stared at where the creature’s eyes would have been if it hadn’t been born eyeless. It knew he was there, right? Blacknail was going to feel silly if he was posturing for no reason.
Suddenly, the creature reared up and hissed at Blacknail, revealing rows of needle-like teeth. Apparently, it could sense the hobgoblin’s location. Blacknail had mixed feelings about that.
“Stay back,” Blacknail told his minions before lunging toward the mutant.
The hobgoblin chief held his blade ready as he charged at his foe. The salamander reacted by hissing again and then rearing back as if to strike. However, before Blacknail got anywhere near its striking range, the mutant’s head jerked forward, and it opened its mouth. Confused, Blacknail stared at its countless pointy teeth and pink gums. What? That posture was just making the salamander vulnerable…
Then, as the hobgoblin continued to move closer, the empty space between the beast’s jaws began to ripple and glow. Blacknail reacted instantly. He stopped his charge and threw himself to the side. He was just in time. A blast of green flew through the space he’d been occupying a second ago and hit the cave wall. The power splashed against the stone and started sizzling as it dripped down. As Blacknail rolled to the side, he glanced over and saw the green liquid begin to bubble as it ate through the rock. He instantly decided that not getting hit by that sludge was his new number one priority.
Blacknail jumped to his feet and raised his sword, but the blind salamander hadn’t remained still after launching its first attack. With eerie precision, its eyeless head tracked Blacknail’s movements, and then it opened it jaws again. Blacknail was paying attention. The second he saw the air distort, he jumped to the side. Another green missile shot past him as he charged the salamander again.
The mutant apparently couldn’t fire its magical blasts in quick succession, because Blacknail was able to close the distance without having to dodge again. The salamander just hissed and readied itself to meet him. Running past several tall rocks, Blacknail raised his blade and then slashed down at the creature’s head. It reared back and opened its mouth, as if to try and bite down on the blade, so Blacknail adjusted his swing. The hobgoblin grinned as his sword sliced right toward the mutant’s exposed neck. It didn’t connect. Without warning, he salamander’s tail came out of nowhere. The long appendage slammed into Blacknail’s side with a loud crack that knocked the air from his lungs, and he was sent flying away.