As fireballs flew through the darkness of the huge cave, the horde of hissing boggart workers tore into the line of hobgoblin warriors. Light stones held by hobgoblin mages or hanging near the twisted black spires that filled the cavern were the only other source of light. A hissing boggart worker scuttled up and bit Blacknail’s boot, so he gave it a kick that sent it flying back and then spun around to cut down another boggart that had jumped at him. That done, Blacknail turned to strike his next opponent. There wasn’t one. Unexpectedly, the boggart horde had stopped advancing.
Blacknail took a moment to catch his breath and regain his balance. Had he scared the creatures away with his deadly skills and incredible might?
That was when Blacknail noticed a black beam shoot out of the boggart swarm and hit one of Imp’s fireballs that was flying overhead. The fireball simply disintegrated, leaving nothing but darkness. The beam then flashed several more times, clearing the sky of fireballs.
“Come here, Imp!” Blacknail yelled as he stepped back into the ranks of his exhausted troops. He didn’t like this new development. Stupid magic. It never worked the way he wanted it to. Was an unstoppable yet easy to use weapon too much to ask for? No, he just needed better minions.
Imp quickly ran over to his chief’s side. “What do you want, boss?”
“What was that black stuff?” Blacknail asked him.
The hobgoblin mage just shrugged. “It was probably magic.”
Blacknail sighed. He’d figured that much out. “Can you do anything about it?”
“Hmm, I can’t think of anything.”
Blacknail sighed again. Yes, he definitely needed better minions. They were without a doubt holding him back. Feeling annoyed, Blacknail gazed toward the source of the beams. He thought he could a see a group of taller boggarts making their way forward through the ranks of workers. One of them must be the mage.
The group of taller boggarts swiftly got closer, and it became apparent they were a group of about two dozen warriors. Blacknail couldn’t tell which one the mage was though. He also had no idea what they were planning. Why stop the workers’ attack?
Imp – or one of his helpers – didn’t wait to see what was happening. Blacknail nodded in approval someone hurled a fireball straight at the group of advancing warriors. It zipped through the air towards the boggart, but then vanished as another black energy beam shot up to intercept it. With fireball gone, the beam then shot up and hit the ceiling for a split second before disappearing without leaving a mark.
This lack of effect disappointed Blacknail, but it didn’t stop the hobgoblin mages from trying something else. A moment later, a purple death beam lashed out from Imp’s position and toward the boggarts. However, right before slamming into the gathered warriors, a shimmering circle appeared. The round barrier reflected the beam like light off a mirror or still water. When the beam hit it, it was thrown back at the hobgoblins. Blacknail had to duck as the purple energy slashed through the air above his head and hit some of the hobgoblins behind. Thankfully, the beam almost immediately flickered out of existence as the mages stopped powering it, but it still left several hobgoblins dead. Glancing over his shoulder as he climbed back to his feet, Blacknail looked over their unmoving bodies and frowned. This was some seriously powerful magic. He’d never seen anything like that mirror shield before, not even during any of Herad’s battles. The boggarts were obviously more capable then he’d thought.
Blacknail turned to face the boggart swarm and growled. Magic was so unfair.
Once they reached the frontline, the wedge of boggart warriors split apart, revealing a new figure that had been concealed among them. Blacknail grunted in surprise when he saw the newcomer. It was nothing like any boggart he’d seen before. It had a far more terrifying and intimidating form that sent a cold shiver down Blacknail’s spine. The creature looked like a human woman. She was covered in the black carapace that all the boggarts had, but she stood on two legs and had an undeniable feminine shape. Her carapace also didn’t look like armor, it almost seemed to have been styled decoratively. In many places there were wide gaps in her carapace where pale flesh showed. Her face was also quite different from a normal boggart’s. It was almost completely bare of carapace and unsettlingly similar to that of a human’s, although her eyes were a creepy solid black and her mouth and nose were concealed by a carapace mask. She also didn’t have ears, making it obvious that this was no real human, merely something mimicking one.
The weirdly female boggart was armed with a long mage staff that had probably been the source of the black beams. Her gaze swept the line of hobgoblins as if she was looking for something. Blacknail studied her in turn, and their gazes soon met and locked. It appeared that she had been looking for him. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Was it too late to step back into the ranks of his minions and hide?
“We see. Much is explained. We are glad we came to investigate the reports ourselves,” the human-like boggart suddenly said in an oddly clear and harmonic voice.
“Huh, you can talk! I didn’t think you boggarts had the parts for it,” Blacknail remarked in surprise. Despite her appearance, he hadn’t expected that to have changed.
“Our noble form was bred to mimic the old enemy closely so that we could learn their strengths, just as other forms were bred for other tasks.”
“Er, alright,” Blacknail remarked with a frown. This lady-thing sure was creepy.
“You are the anomaly, a rival progenitor of the green ones. The old vermin.”
“I’m Blacknail.” He was almost certain he’d just been insulted.
The woman creature didn’t blink. “You are an unexpected complication to our progenitor’s great plan and our coming vengeance. Your existence is a problem.”
Blacknail snorted. “Too bad for you, because I’m going to stomp you like fat icky bugs under my boot.”
“We need not be enemies. Our peoples have many commonalities in both desire and origin,” the creature announced in sudden shift that threw Blacknail off. “In the ancient days before the progenitor, when we dwelled among the Green, your kind and ours coexisted without conflict.”
“How about this. Stop with the crazy talk. I want you to go away and leave my territory. It’s mine and you’re stealing my food.” Blacknail hated thieves in general and food thieves in particular.
The boggart noble didn’t blink. “The host sees much to respect in you. Like our own progenitor, you have seized control of your kind and raised them up into something new and powerful. You have begun something grand, as very few have, the greatest of works. Join with us against the human invaders, who drove us both from our ancient lands. We will slaughter them all and show them that we have grown into new shapes that are far more than we were. We have learned from them and taken their strength as our own.”
Blacknail frowned thoughtfully. At last, she was making more sense. “Well, there are a few humans I would like to see dead. I wouldn’t say no to having you help me with that as long as you stop stealing my food.”
The boggart noble nodded. “All of the humans must be cleansed so that our host may grow.”
“All of them? That seems like a lot of pointless work, like a lot,” Blacknail replied as he gave her an incredulous look. The walking alone…
“The humans are now inferior to the Host, they will be slaughtered so that the Host can grow. Their ancient conquest made us and now we take back our lands. The Host must grow.”
Blacknail sighed. What nonsense. This lady-thing was crazy. As if Blacknail cared about things that had happened way before he’d been born to people that weren’t him. Humans weren’t some big herd with one leader. Sure, you had to kill a lot of them, but many others were useful tools and minions. The species of a minion didn’t matter, only how useful they were. It was really a sort of food balance thing. They had to produce more than they consumed…
The boggart noble seemed to sense Blacknail’s resistance to her plan. “Setting yourself against us would be foolish. The Host’s numbers are beyond counting and we are mighty enough to crush you.”
“There are too many humans to count as well. That doesn’t matter. Stay out of my territory or I’ll mount your head on pole as a warning to other thieving boggarts.”
The boggart noble hissed angrily with surprising volume. “If you will not serve the Host’s purpose then you will feed it!”
Off balance, Blacknail took a second to formulate a reply. He had to remember that he was quite outnumbered here and thus needed to be at his cleverest if he wanted to survive with most his army intact. He needed his army for later, so losing it wasn’t really an option. A plan was required, something super clever.
“Maybe I should help you. What will you give me in return?” Blacknail asked in order to buy time.
This seemed to calm the boggart leader down. “If you serve our purposes we will allow you to remain within our territory, although you must leave the dark paths and go back to the light world. We will also only hunt a few of your people for food.”
“Hmm, interesting,” Blacknail mused aloud. Wow, that was a terrible offer.
Instead of answering right away, he turned and whispered some commands to Imp. The hobgoblin mage nodded in assent and stepped over to his helpers. Blacknail then whispered several orders to his nearby soldiers and got them to pass them on.
This delay did not please the boggart leader. “We grow impatient. What is your choice? Submission or death?”
Blacknail glanced up and frowned. Looking down a moment later, he stepped forward and put a smile on his face. “Sure, I don’t want to die. Let’s be friends instead. You can even have a gift, to show how much this alliance means to me.”
“That would be acceptable. It is good that you know your place in the hierarchy.”
“Good, then here, have this sack full of… presents,” Blacknail told her. What did boggarts even like? He had no idea.
At Blacknail’s command, one of Imp’s helpers then reluctantly stepped forward. He moved slowly and was holding the aforementioned sack, which he simply held out in front of him.
“Throw it on the ground,” the boggart noble told him. Obviously, she wasn’t completely without suspicion.
The hobgoblin did as he was told and dropped the sack before stepping back. Blacknail risked another glance upward and then sighed before turning to look as a boggart worker emerged from the swarm’s ranks and approached the sack. It pulled the bag open and looked inside for a few long moments before turning to look at the noble and making a series of short clicking noises.
A confused frown appeared on the noble’s face and she turned to look at Blacknail. “Why have you given us a bag full of rocks?”
“Don’t you like rocks? I thought boggarts loved them. Isn’t that why you live underground and keep raiding my mine? To steal the rocks?” Blacknail replied as he gave her an embarrassed smile. He had to resist the urge to look up.
The boggart noble tilted her head slightly to the side and gave Blacknail a pensive look. “No.”
Blacknail sighed. This was taking too long. The noble wasn’t going to be distracted forever. “Oh, sorry then. I was going to give you lots more rocks too. Are you sure you don’t want them?”
“We are not sure if you are as odd and stupid as you seem, but if you are attempting to fool us somehow, we will be forced to punish you. Do not test us, green ones,” she replied as she glared at the hobgoblin and pointed the top of her staff in his direction. Blacknail really didn’t want to find out what sort of magical attack she had prepared.
“How could I possibly hope to trick you? I’m just standing here, trying to give you gifts. It’s not my fault you kept doing things that made it seem like you wanted rocks. What would you like as present instead?”
The noble’s deep black eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Food. You will tell your forces to drop their weapons and you will kneel before us.”
“Sure, sure,” Blacknail replied as he held up his hands. He didn’t move though. There was no way he was ever going to do that.
“Now,” the boggart noble said after several long seconds had passed. Her voice was full of cold anger.
Blacknail glanced up and then gave her a cruel smile full of malice. “I don’t think so. Instead, I’ll just kill you, destroy your stupid army of bugs, and level your icky black city. You shouldn’t have come into my territory.”
The female shaped boggart stepped forward threateningly. “We were here far before your time, vermin! Prepare for…”
Blacknail didn’t get to hear the end of her speech, because that was when several tons of rock slammed down on top of her. The rain of stone hit the cluster of boggart warriors and the workers around them like the foot of an angry god. There was a cataclysmic boom that rang in Blacknail’s ears, and he and all the hobgoblins near him stumbled back as a wave of dust rose up and slammed into them, blocking their sight of the impact site.
Still off balance, Blacknail glanced over his shoulder at Imp’s location. The hobgoblin mage was standing behind the ranks of hobgoblin warriors with his assistants, and although he was shielding his face with one hand, he still had his staff pointed up at the ceiling. At his chief’s command, he’d loaded the stone melting mana crystal into the staff and had been using the nigh-invisible ray it produced on the ceiling. While Blacknail had kept the boggart noble distracted, he’d been working on freeing the stalactite that had been hanging from the cavern ceiling directly above her head.
Grinning victoriously, Blacknail turned back around. The strategy had been risky. His distraction had been growing rather thin by the end, but he hadn’t been able to come up with anything else that might work. The boggarts had outnumbered them too much for a head to head battle to work, and the bug lady’s magical defenses had obviously been too strong for Imp to defeat. Thus, Blacknail had been forced to use his legendary cunning, and it had worked like a charm. He was so amazing.
The cloud of dust had yet to completely dissipate, but Blacknail could see more now. A pile of broken rubble towered over where the group of warriors had used to be, although it was impossible to say how many of them had been crushed. Around the rubble, the swarm of workers were in chaos. Many of them had frozen up, while others were running away or climbing over each other in their haste to escape.
Blacknail’s own forces weren’t exactly orderly either though. The hobgoblin formation had dissolved into loose ranks and many of them looked shocked. Blacknail had told some of his minions to spread word of his plan, but apparently not everyone had been informed.
A flash of movement near the rubble drew Blacknail’s eye. As he turned and peered through the remaining dust, he saw a tall dark figure pull itself up off the ground and stumble away from the fallen rocks. It looked like at least one boggart warrior had survived the destruction. Blacknail then saw another figure appear in the dust. He frowned as he studied it. It looked vaguely feminine.
“Toad slime!” Blacknail cursed. The boggart noble was still alive. That was no good. What was he going to do? If she rallied her swarm of workers, then she could still drive Blacknail’s army away.
Blacknail eyed the boggarts stumbling through the dust ahead of him. There was only one way to make sure things were done right this time. Looking around, Blacknail saw Herah over to his right.
“Gather your squad and follow me. I’m going in!” Blacknail told her. She blinked in surprise but nodded along, so he turned around and began running toward the boggarts.
Sword already out, Blacknail headed straight for the enemy noble. Unfortunately, there was a boggart warrior with a spear in the way. As he dove into the dust, it saw him coming and quickly moved to intercept.
Blacknail didn’t slow. Instead, he adjusted his charge to meet it. As the creature stabbed at him with its long spear, he sidestepped the blow and ducked in closer. In response, the boggart warrior reared up and tried to slash at him with its sharp front claws. Surprised, Blacknail was still fast enough to throw himself sideways out of the way of the second attack and then counter with a powerful two-handed stab of his own. The blow hit the boggart warrior in the flank and tore through its carapace before sinking deeper.
The boggart warrior shrieked and began toppling over, so Blacknail pulled his blade free and stepped away. That done, he started looking for the noble again. Herah and his bodyguards caught up to him just as he spotted some movement up ahead. It was the noble.
Grinning in excitement as magic and bloodlust flowed through his veins, Blacknail immediately charged after his target. Sprinting around some fallen rocks, he quickly closed the distance. The boggart noble was still stumbling, as if she’d been injured. Sensing weakness, Blacknail laughed as he ran toward her. She turned and gave him a cold glare as he closed in. It looked like she’d lost her staff. That would make this easier.
Unfortunately, that was when another boggart warrior emerged out from behind a nearby pile of rock. Its four feet clawed at the rocky ground as it shot forward and stabbed at Blacknail’s chest with its long, deadly spear.
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