Dust hung thick in the air all around Blacknail as he jumped back to avoid a blow from a boggart warrior that had just charged him from out of nowhere. Up ahead of him, the boggart noble stumbled away through the stone rubble that had fallen from the ceiling thanks to Imp’s magic and his master’s genius.
Snarling angrily, Blacknail drew on his magical strength and leapt at the warrior. His furious flurry of blows pushed the creature back. It staggered just as Herah joined the fight. She jumped in from the side and sliced open the creature’s neck with her shorter blade. Black blood squirted from the wound as her sword came free.
“I’m helping!” she announced happily as she landed beside Blacknail and the boggart collapsed.
“Just a little. I could do this by myself though,” Blacknail replied as he saw a small pack of workers appear and begin heading his way. He pointed at them. “Now, take your squad and hold them off. I need to get their leader.”
Still grinning, Herah nodded as her squad arrived and took up position around her. Blacknail left them to their job and charged off at the noble again. This time, no new arrivals got in his way. He was able to close in on her before she got very far. She was still stumbling away, but as he neared, she spun around to glare at him. There was a hateful snarl on her face and her black eyes shimmered with rage. Creepy.
“You are vermin! You are nothing before the Host. We are countless and unending,” she yelled. “This nest is but one of dozens, and we are ever growing. We will destroy you and all your disgusting people for daring to strike at us.”
“Shut up and die, bug lady!” Blacknail hissed as he dove in. She was like a terrible combination of everything he hated. Human women, freaky bugs, magic, and people that talked too much.
Instead of accepting her inevitable death, the bogart noble raised her hand and pointed at Blacknail. There was a small black amulet with a transparent stone set in it clutched between her fingers.
The trinket looked dangerous, but rage swirled through Blacknail, driving him forward. Thus, instead of trying to dodge whatever effect the amulet would produce, Blacknail attacked with everything he had. Magic flowed up from his core and raged through his body as he unleashed all the energy he could. It’s burning might quickened his movements as he struck, and at the same time, he let out a savage growl as he slammed a wall of magical terror directly in her face.
The boggart noble staggered as the magic tore into her mind and began thrashing about. As this was happening, Blacknail attacked with lighting quick speed. His blade sliced through the air and then came down on the boggart noble’s outstretched arm. A moment later, the hand that was still clutching the strange amulet hit the ground, leaving a bloody stump.
The boggart leader shrieked as she fell to her knees and clutched the remains of her arm to her chest. Without mercy, Blacknail kicked her in the shoulder so that she flopped over onto her back. He wanted to make sure he had a good view of her remaining hand, so she couldn’t get up to any more mage tricks.
“You will all die for this! Your petty victory here means nothing,” she hissed as she glared up at Blacknail hatefully. “This was but one small nest of many, and we number beyond counting. The Host will consume all who dare stand against us!”
Sighing, Blacknail stabbed her through the chest with his sword. There was a gap in her armor-like carapace between her breasts for some weird reason. That was a very impractical spot for a gap, but whatever.
Apparently, Blacknail’s first blow didn’t kill the boggart noble right away. She tried to say something more, so he stabbed her in the chest again. That did the trick. She shuddered and then lay still. Huh, now that she was dead and mangled, she looked a lot less like a human and more like a boggart. It was probably because of all the black blood.
Anyway, with his mission complete, Blacknail withdrew his blade and looked around. Herah and some of his bodyguards were still fighting some scattered workers, but there was no real organized resistance left in sight. Not that Blacknail could see very well with all the rubble and dust around. He should probably return to his troops before they decided he’d died and ran away.
“We’re falling back to the others,” Blacknail announced as he sheathed his weapon and begin walking. His bodyguards quickly moved to dispatch their remaining opponents and follow him.
Herah had a satisfied look on her face, not to different from the one she wore after sex. Apparently, slaughter pleased her in a similar way. That was a little off-putting, although Blacknail couldn’t really judge. There was probably a similar look on his own face.
The hobgoblins quickly jogged back toward the rest of Blacknail’s forces, which were holding their position. The mass of hobgoblin warriors had reformed their lines now that they were no longer under attack. As Blacknail approached, Gob and Imp quickly pushed their way through the ranks and ran over to meet their chief.
“Wonderous one! You have returned, and the terrible enemy has been beaten back. What do you wish from us now? We will leap to obey!” Gob exclaimed reverently. This earned him a sour look of disagreement from Imp, but the hobgoblin mage didn’t say anything.
Blacknail gave Gob a smug grin. “The enemy leader is dead. I killed her myself.”
Gob nodded. “As expected of the greatest warrior ever. What now?”
In the corner of his vision, Blacknail thought he saw Imp roll his eyes, but he probably imagined it. There was no way the hobgoblin mage wasn’t in awe of his chieftain’s amazing accomplishments.
“Now, we destroy this nest of overgrown bugs,” Blacknail said as he turned to face Imp. “The troops will protect you as we move closer to those twisty boggart spires. Then, you will bring them all down with your melty magic.”
“Sure thing, boss. That sounds fun,” Imp said with a smile as he glanced over at the black towers of the boggarts.
Under Blacknail’s command, the destruction of the boggart nest quickly proceeded. He marched his troops closer and cut down the few remaining pockets of resistance with ease. With their leader gone and their swarm shattered, the boggarts were a disorganized mess. Even when Imp began bringing down the spire one after the other, no real threat materialized.
Soon, the hobgoblin army stood in a huge dark cavern full of rubble and boggart corpses. All the remaining boggarts had fled into the darkness. Blacknail grinned happily to himself as he surveyed his work. Sometimes he impressed even himself.
“You have slain the foul. So, it begins,” Grey announced as he materialized out of the shadows behind Blacknail.
Spinning around, the hobgoblin chieftain almost jumped out of his skin at the unexpected sound of the lurker’s creepy voice. “Ack. Don’t do that! Also, where were you during the battle? I didn’t see you do any fighting.”
Blacknail had expected more from Grey. He’d put a lot of effort into raising and training the former little trog into a proper minion. The least he could do was fight a bunch of horrible monsters for his chieftain.
Grey didn’t seem defensive though. He met Blacknail’s stare without flinching. “I was killing in the dark. Where I am best. Among the many is not my best place.”
Blacknail grunted sourly. That made sense, sort of, and it wasn’t like he hadn’t contributed. This victory wouldn’t have been possible without Grey’s scouting. “I hope you got a lot of them.”
“Not all, yet,” the lurker replied as his eyes narrowed with determination.
“Well, work on your hobbies some other time. I need you to lead the way back to Ironbreak,” Blacknail replied dismissively as he turned back to his regular troops. It was time to head home and Grey needed to focus.
Grey quickly agreed with a nod of his head, so Blacknail got his troops moving back through the caves toward Ironbreak. Now that the boggarts were dead or driven away, there was nothing for them here. There wasn’t even much in the way of loot, despite the size of the boggarts’ settlement. The creatures didn’t appear to use many tools or have any money. Imp took some light stones and other mana crystals off the bodies of fallen boggart mages. and some of the hobgoblins grabbed spears from dead boggart warriors, but that was basically it. Blacknail had no idea how the boggarts had even built their towers and weapons without proper tools. He was also confused about how they measured status since they didn’t seem to collect shiny objects. Maybe they simply buried it all? Weird.
The journey back to Ironbreak was an uneventful hike through the dark tunnels. Blacknail was starting to get sick of dark tunnels. Thus, once Blacknail was sure none of his minions were going to mess up too spectacularly – like wandering down the wrong tunnel and getting lost – he left Gob in charge of getting the returned troops settled down and went to his mansion to take a nap. All the fighting, killing, and long walks through unending darkness had made him sleepy.
When he woke up the next morning, Blacknail took it easy and just loitered around his mansion. He’d spent a lot of energy yesterday and his muscles were sore. He’d earned a nice relaxing rest. Also, going outside was just annoying. It was cold and there was snow everywhere.
Thankfully, Blacknail had some well-trained minions that could take care of things and report back to him properly, so there was no need to overexert himself. Imp, Gob, and Ferrar all knew their stuff.
Thus, one day of rest quickly became many, and Blacknail idled away an entire week. He only went out to check on Grey and when he felt like finding someone to yell at. This was surprisingly difficult since the streets were usually empty of minions thanks to all the snow and cold, so he had to use his tracking skills and put some effort into it. That almost defied the point!
As the days went by, one consequence of Blacknail’s victory over the boggarts quickly became apparent. Not only did the hobgoblin mine guards stop reporting any sightings of the creatures, but so did all the hunters and scouts that went out into the forest. With their base destroyed, the boggarts seemed to have deserted the entire area. Blacknail threw a feast in his mansion to celebrate his victory and invited all his lieutenants. Ha, he’d shown those dumb bugs who the boss was! It was him. He was the boss.
One morning, after Blacknail had gotten up to have breakfast and then gone right back to bed, he heard a commotion from downstairs. Immediately, he decided to ignore it. Pulling his blanket up over his head, he tried to get back to sleep. The noise didn’t die down though. Instead, he heard someone begin to come up the stairs. A few moment later, someone began knocking loudly on his door. He kept it locked, so that no one could come in and kill him in his sleep.
“Go away. I’m sleeping!” Blacknail hissed as he glared at the solid wooden door.
“It’s me, Khita! I came to visit you,” a cheerful announced from the other side of the door.
“Okay. Go away! The visit is over now.”
“Ha, very funny. Open up. I’m not going anywhere.”
Grumbling, Blacknail got up and put some clothes on. He then walked over to the door and opened it. Instantly, Khita’s grinning face confronted him. He glared sourly at her as he considered slamming the door shut again.
Khita glanced at Blacknail’s disheveled state and sighed. “Gods, you’re so lazy. We came all the way here through the snow to see you, and you can’t even get up to greet us. I bet you’ve been napping since the first snow fall and haven’t accomplished anything. Obviously, you need someone around to motivate you, like me. I thought Herah would keep you on track, but apparently I was wrong.”
Blacknail glared at Khita and hissed. “I haven’t wasted any time. I keep my minions working hard! Anyway, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I just fought a war and won! Lots of people died and there were explosions. Big ones.”
“Who was it against? The dust bunnies in your home? Because if so, I’d say it was a draw at best.”
“Go back to Shelter,” Blacknail growled as he continued to glare at the redhead. Why was she here?
“No, it was hard to convince Geralhd to make the trip once, and I’m cold. No one is going anywhere until we warm up.”
“Ugh, fine,” Blacknail said as he stepped past here and began walking downstairs.
Geralhd was waiting for him in the main hall. He was standing next to the stone fireplace and warming his hands. One of Blacknail’s minions usually lit all the fireplaces in the morning and kept them fed so that the entire place didn’t get too cold. Humming an annoying tune, Khita followed Blacknail into the room.
“Ah, Blacknail! There you are,” Geralhd exclaimed happily as he turned away from the fire.
“Yep, it’s me. Why’d you come all the way here in winter? It’s a tough trip. You didn’t destroy Shelter did you?” Blacknail asked. You never knew with humans. They were always doing dumb things and getting into trouble.
“Shelter is fine, it a little boring, and the trip here wasn’t so bad. Despite the cold, the weather was nice and sunny, and it hasn’t snowed in a few days now. We just dressed warmly and stuck to the road you so kindly built.”
“If Shelter is still fine, why go through the trouble?”
“We were getting a little tired of just hanging around Shelter all the time, and we wanted to see if you were getting along fine here,” Khita replied. As he turned to face her, Blacknail blinked in surprise at how short she looked. Now that he was standing straight, it was obvious that he towered over her.
“I’m a great leader, so everything is going great. The only big problem was the boggarts, and I dealt with them,” Blacknail bragged proudly.
Geralhd nodded. “Ah, some of the men from Shelter had been saying they saw boggarts around, but all the sightings stopped a week or two ago. You must have sent out some hunters to deal with the pests.”
Blacknail gave the man an irritated glare. “No, I had to lead an army into the dark paths and destroy their nest. It was a lot of work! There were hundreds of them. They had magic and a city. One of them could even talk and looked like a woman.”
Neither of Blacknail’s human guests seemed to believe him. They glanced at each other and smiled like they’d just heard a joke. Blacknail glared at them both. Stupid humans. They thought they knew everything, but they didn’t understand how hard he worked.
“Here, I’ll show you,” Blacknail replied as he grabbed Geralhd’s sleeve and began dragging him out the door.
Geralhd and Khita tried to protest, but Blacknail didn’t let them. If they were going to come to his base and bother him, then they’d have to listen to what he said and do as he commanded. He didn’t have to put up with their ignorance.
Soon, after a brief walk through the snowy streets of Ironbreak, they arrived at Ferrar’s workshop. His work area was actually comprised of several large buildings now, but there was still one main building. Thick smoke was pouring out of the many nearby chimneys as they approached, and hobgoblin workers were running around on various tasks despite the snow. Some of them were pulling sleds full of charcoal while others were carrying various other materials as they rushed from building to building.
“Wow, it certainly is quite busy here. Frantic even. What are these hobgoblins doing?” Gerlahd asked as they neared the door.
“Most of them are making weapons for my warriors, although there are lots of other stuff they make too, like tools and clothes,” Blacknail replied.
“Are you going to be doing this all winter?”
Blacknail sniffed. “Of course. That’s what Ironbreak is for. All my minions have to work. Why else would I allow them to stay in my territory and eat my food? Remember Werrick? We have to fight him in the spring, and I plan to be ready! I keep getting more hobgoblins and they all need new equipment.”
“Hmm, that’s true. I guess some many peaceful days spent in Shelter have made my soul too tranquil. It’s easy to forget that the rest of the world still exists beyond the haze of white that has fallen over everything,” Geralhd admitted.
As they stepped inside the workshop, Blacknail and the humans were hit by a wave of hot dry air. The entire room was full of glowing brick furnaces and hobgoblin workers. As Khita and Geralhd looked around in surprise, Blacknail walked over to a small table and picked a spear offit. He then returned to his guests.
“This is a boggart weapon. They have big warrior types that use them,” Blacknail explained as he showed the humans the weapon.
“Hmmm, this certainly doesn’t look like anything of human construction,” Geralhd admitted in surprise as he studied the spear.
Blacknail nodded. “No, it’s all one piece, and it’s made from some weird black stuff that’s like boggart carapace.”
“Huh, it does look very weird,” Khita remarked grudgingly.
“Yep, there were lots of huge boggart warriors with these weapons and even some mages with staffs like this.”
Khita just smiled again in a dubious way, while Geralhd looked unconvinced. Why were they being so stubborn? Stupid humans. They should just believe everything he told them! He never lied… Well, whatever. Blacknail wasn’t going to run around just to convince some humans of their own stupidity. He knew he was right.
The visit to the furnace filled workshop quickly heated up Khita and Geralhd, so they headed back to Blacknail’s mansion. After some more conversation, they decided to go to bed early so that they could rise and return to shelter in the morning, weather permitting. Blacknail had no problem with this plan.
It failed to snow overnight, and the weather was pleasant come sunrise, so Khita and Geralhd prepared to leave while they could. They’d accomplished what they’d come to do, check up on Ironbreak and the hobgoblins. Blacknail gave them some provisions and accompanied them to the gate. After waving goodbye, he let out a sigh of relief when they were out of sight. He was glad Khita’s visit had been so short. She was way too annoying.
That done, Blacknail wandered out to go for a quick morning walk and take a piss. At the edge of the forest, he selected a nice-looking tree and began to unbuckle his pants. That was when the tree suddenly turned to look at him.
“We see you at last,” it said from a human-looking face that appeared from nowhere.
Very carefully, Blacknail buckled his pants back up and stepped away. Obviously, this wasn’t really a tree, and it wasn’t mimic. Mimics didn’t talk or have human-like faces. Blacknail had run into these things before though. They hadn’t attacked him then – they’d actually killed a troll he’d been fighting – so he probably wasn’t in immediate danger. Then again, who knew how talking trees thought?
The shape of the camouflaged creature grew more distinct as it stepped out from the greenery. It was vaguely humanoid in shape, although small leafless branches protruded from its upper body. Brown carapace that looked like bark covered most of its exterior. After further examination, Blacknail thought the creature’s face seemed more like a wooden mask than a real face. It was too stiff and artificial looking, even if its expression did move a little.
“You walk among the trees so now we greet you,” a soft breezy voice said from directly behind Blacknail.
The hobgoblin jumped and he spun around to see another tree-creature standing behind him. This one had a more feminine body with a thinner waist and human-like busty chest. Wait a second! Now that he was thinking about it…
“You’re a lot like the boggart nobles!” Blacknail exclaimed as he took another step back from his visitors.
The female just nodded stiffly. “The dark ones that fled the light and the Green. Once we were one, long ago, before the coming of men. The ancient bearers of fire and steel drove them under the earth while we stayed hidden among the trees.”
“Alright, so why are you here?” Blacknail asked. He didn’t like being cornered and surprised. This situation was making him uncomfortable. He wished he had some bodyguards with torches and axes.
“You are interesting, a new thing and yet very old. Useful perhaps?” the first creature replied simply.
The female nodded again. “We are slow and few in number, but still we watch what happens in the world around us. The dark kin prepare to strike. We know you have met them and won.”
Blacknail grinned smugly. “Ya, I stomped them. They weren’t so tough.”
“They will crush you in time. They are many, and if they seize the above places, they will outnumber the stars in the sky. Ever stronger they will grow now that their long transformation is complete.”
“They are not as they once were. Closer to us they used to be, but their cruel master has breed them for war and conquest. Our people are quick to change, both from one spawn to another and when we seek to grow new flesh and bone. He used this. Now they are no longer equals, or even one people. They are several, all bent to the nobles’ will.”
Blacknail hadn’t really followed that. Were the tree people and boggarts able to control how their bodies grew somehow? Was that how the boggarts made their tools?
Wait, something clicked and fell into place in Blacknail’s thoughts, connecting several of his memories. Had some of the tree people made his bow in a similar way? Had the man Saeter had gotten the bow from been a tree person in disguise? Suddenly, Blacknail had so many questions. He needed to focus on the important stuff though.
“Why are you telling me this? What do you want from me?” he asked. Everyone always wanted stuff from him.
The two tree people glanced at each. The female then turned to Blacknail and answered. “You must prepare for more struggle. Come the spring, the dark kin will spill forth from the earth like a tide across all the land. They will devour everyone, even us. For they think us weak and old. Thus, we came to warn you to keep this greater threat in mind always.”
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