There was no sign of any living boggarts in the tunnel ahead of them anymore, so Blacknail began cleaning his weapon and checking his minions over. After he was sure the injured had been treated, he led his troops over to the fallen guard post. The boggarts had completely demolished the barrier during their attack. It needed to be repaired right away, so Blacknail had some of the nearby hobgoblins grab the trogs that had shown up and get them working. Proper supervision was the key to efficiency when you were dealing with minions. You just had to make sure everyone was watching everyone else. Then, none of them would dare slack off.
Leaving the workers and a fair number of guards to their task, Blacknail headed back the way he’d come. Since he was down here already, he wanted to go check out the crystal cave again, to make sure no other mutants had shown up to steal his energy. It was still his by right of conquest, even if he wasn’t there to use it.
Heading through some tunnels, Blacknail and his guards made their way through the river cave and soon then reached their destination. Blacknail left his guards at the entrance and entered alone since he wanted peace and he didn’t sense anything dangerous within. As before, the energy flowing out of the fissure in the wall was somehow both calming and invigorating. It felt wonderful. Taking, a seat on a large flat rock, Blacknail shut his eyes and let his core begin drawing in as much energy as possible. Soon, he felt himself grow completely relaxed and his mind stilled. The sound of his deep breaths filled the chamber as Balcknail relaxed and restored himself. It was quite nice in this cave. He ought to come here more often. Unfortunately, he had pressing matters to attend to, so he couldn’t stay forever. Sighing, Blacknail eventually gathered his will and climbed back to his feet. He wasn’t sure exactly how long he’d been resting, but it was possible that several hours had passed since he’d first entered the cave, or ten minutes.
Grumbling about lazy minions, Blacknail led his guards back into the river cave. Since he was feeling wistful and invigorated, he actually took the time to examine and study his surroundings as he walked. The river cave was really a rather impressive sight. It was the biggest cavern Blacknail had ever seen, larger than even the mushroom forest cave. The most notable features were the rushing river that ran through it and the smooth stone columns that reached up from the floor to the ceiling. The columns seemed to have been worn down by untold centuries of water. Looking down, it was fairly obvious that the smooth but uneven floor had been worn down by water as well. Wait a second…
“This cave floods!” Blacknail announced in surprise as he stopped and looked around.
His guards were momentarily confused and almost walked into each other, before coming to a stop as well. They glanced at one another, and then one of them looked at Blacknail and shrugged. “Ya, probably.”
Blacknail grunted sourly. “If the river floods then I won’t be able to get to the crystal cave or the mushroom forest.”
“Yes, boss,” the hobgoblin replied with careful neutrality. He obviously didn’t know what else to say and wanted to avoid annoying his chief by saying the wrong thing.
“What am I going to do about the flood?”
This time none of his minions replied. They wisely kept silent instead, so Blacknail glowered at them for a moment before turning to study his surroundings. This was a serious problem. The water would probably rise in the spring when the snow began to melt. Blacknail couldn’t lose access to two such important caves for who knew how long! There might be another way to the mushroom forest, but the crystal cave was only accessible directly from the river cave. Being able to recuperate and gather energy there might save his life in the future.
Scowling, Blacknail studied the river bank. He wasn’t sure what needed to be done, but he knew it was going to be a lot of work. It was a big cave, and the flood would contain a lot of water. Hmm, someone was going to have to build something. That seemed like Ferrar’s thing. Yes, this definitely seemed like a job he should dump on Ferrar.
Having decided on a course of action, Blacknail immediately began heading back to the surface. On his way up, he moved through the twisting tunnels of the mine and passed several work parties. He also encountered some small groups of trogs that were just hanging around. Apparently, there were some idle paws around. Good.
After dragging Ferrar away from a hot forge, Blacknail took him down to the river cave and showed him the problem. Ferrar briefly considered building a raised bridge, but that seemed problematic and dangerous, so he eventually settled on a long flood wall as the only real possible solution.
“Seems like a lot a of work,” Blacknail observed.
Ferrar sighed and gave Blacknail disgruntled look. “It will be a lot of work, but it would also help with security. A wall would keep the crabs and salamanders out of our territory. Sometimes, a crab will wander into the mine and scare the goblins. Also, some of the miners have seen a salamander creeping around. He might be eating goblins, but he doesn’t do it when any hobgoblins are looking, so we aren’t sure.”
“Huh, the critters all avoid me, but I suppose a good wall would also prevent boggarts from sneaking in,” Blacknail observed. The river cave had a few tunnels on the far side that hadn’t been explored or guarded properly.
“It will also serve as practice to make Ironbreak’s aboveground fortifications, which we can’t make in the snow,” Ferrar replied as he scratched his nose thoughtfully.
Getting work on the flood wall started turned out to be complicated. Rounding up some trogs and goblins to haul rock over wasn’t that hard, but that was just one part of the plan. It turned out that Blacknail had to personally be present to keep the predators away. Salamanders and crabs lurked in the waters. Only Blacknail’s fear power was capable of warding them off and preventing them from grabbing workers that got too close to the water.
There was also the matter of actually building the wall. A lot of mortar would be needed to stick the rocks together and make the entire construction water proof, and Ferrar’s ovens would take a long time to make so much mortar. Thankfully, Ferrar had another solution.
“Imp has some stuff in his lab that could work. It was very smart of you to get him to show me everything he had, boss.”
Blacknail nodded in agreement. “I’m very smart.”
After sending some minions to drag Imp out of his lab and away from anything that might explode, the hobgoblin mage was brought down to the river cave. At Ferrar’s suggestion, he’d brought his staff and several mysterious bags.
“What’s this secret magic?” Blacknail asked as Imp put his gear down.
“It’s not a secret, boss. These stones just don’t explode, so I thought they were useless and was going to have my helpers throw them away,” Imp replied as he put a grey mana stone in the slot atop his staff.
Blacknail sighed. “Don’t just throw away mana stone. That’s a bad idea. Also, not everything has to explode.”
“Explosions make everything better,” Imp replied confidently.
“No, they don’t. I’ve been in many situations where explosions made things worse. Too many,” Blacknail told the mage in serious tone. “Anyway, what’s this magic do, and how is it going to help me build a wall?”
“It slowly melts things, like rocks.”
“Huh, why is that useful?” Blacknail asked as he gave Ferrar an enquiring look. Rocks needed to be hard, or a stone wall was kind of pointless.
“Simple, boss. Imp can use his staff to soften rock until it’s like clay, after that it will slowly harden back to the way it was. We can use this magic to stick rocks together and to replace some mortar.”
“Oh, that does sound useful. How many of these mana stones do you have?” Blacknail asked Imp.
Imp sighed. “Not enough, although one stone can be used for a long time. I’ll have to get my helpers making a lot more right away. It’s a good thing I wrote the recipe down and have lots of helpers to take blood from and tend the pots.”
“You can read and write?” Blacknail remarked in surprise. He hadn’t thought that any of his minions had picked up that skill.
“I’ve learned a bit from the humans,” Imp replied with a distracted shrug. “Making magic is a lot easier if you can take notes, boss. There’s too much to remember. I have dozens of experiments going and lots of finished recipes.
Stupid educated minions. Blacknail was a little jealous of Imp’s ability to read. Even he’d never had the time to pick that skill up. Oh well, it was easy enough to find humans to do his reading and writing for him. As the leader, he had more important things to do anyway. Yes, reading was more of a minion skill.
Having finished his preparations, Imp showed off the power of his melting magic on a nearby rock. A dull greyish light seeped out from the tip of the staff and washed over the rock. This didn’t appear to do anything, so Blacknail had to agree with Imp. This magic was quite underwhelming. Ferrar disagreed though. Once Imp was done, he smiled in excitement and walked over to nudge the rock with his boot. The stone deformed slightly under the pressure, as if it was clay.
“See!” Ferrar exclaimed proudly as he pointed at the rock.
“It’s very… interesting,” Blacknail replied carefully. Imp just sniffed disdainfully, as if annoyed by the lack of explosions or colorful beams that tasted like strange things. Real magic stuff.
As unimpressive as the demonstration had been, the magic obviously had potential when it came to building things. Using the staff, workers were able to stick rocks right to the floor. Soon, dozens of trogs were busy building the flood wall, as Blacknail and two teams of heavily armed hobgoblins watched and protected them. After a while, Imp passed the staff off to an underling and went to make more of the softening crystals. Ferrar supervised the work on the wall for an hour or two, but then had to go take charge of other work parties back on the surface. The project was still going to need lots of mortar, so he had to get his furnaces pumping the stuff out. All the construction materials also needed to be moved down into the cave. Thus, teams of trogs and goblins had to carry it all. Because of the rough terrain in the caves, this was done mostly using pots and simple barrows that were between two long poles and carried by two workers. They were crude and heavy, but Blacknail had plenty of goblins and trogs to carry them.
The first stretch of the wall soon began to take shape. It was a crude looking barrier of stacked rocks about as tall as a hobgoblin, but when it was finished it probably would be enough to keep both the water and the creatures out.
Eventually, Blacknail decided that work was done for the day and dismissed the workers. He would have let his minions keep at it, but he had to personally be present to guard everything and he needed a break. Standing around had gotten boring fast.
On his way back up to the surface, Blacknail noticed a lot of trogs lying together in piles along the way. Did they just sleep in the mine like this? That was no good. It was messy and inefficient. The trogs needed a proper sleeping place. That way they could be nice and rested for work tomorrow and also easier to track down so they could be put to work.
Blacknail chose a suitable side chamber near the surface to be the trogs’ new barracks. It was large, warm, and dry. He then had some straw, hammocks, and blankets brought down for them. It was all very basic, but still far better than what trogs were used to. Apparently, the little critters used almost no tools. Living underground limited their access to materials such as wood and prevented them from using fire. Smoke was incredibly dangerous in such closed in spaces.
When the new barracks had been thrown together, Blacknail placed some food inside, and then had his hobgoblins go around grabbing sleeping trogs and throwing them inside. After they recovered from the shock, the trogs appeared to like the place. Most of them seemed confused by the hammocks, but they loved the blankets and straw. Watching them roll in the straw and hide under the blankets brought a smile to Blacknail’s face. Not that he cared about anything but getting them to work harder though, because he didn’t. Yes, he was smiling because he was looking forward to how much more useful they would be now that they were happier and could get some proper sleep.
The next day, Blacknail got up early and began organizing further work on the flood wall. Despite the winter chill, Ironbreak was thrumming with activity. The surface might have been covered with snow, but now all of Ironbreak’s resources and attention were being focused downward, below the ground. The flood wall wasn’t the only project underway either. There was also the experimental mushroom farms and mining. Above ground, wood was also being chopped, charcoal was being made, and furnaces were burning almost nonstop to supply the settlement with the materials it needed.
As Blacknail was headed down to the river cave so that construction could resume, a pair of hobgoblin guards intercepted him.
“Here, you said you wanted one of these,” one of them declared as he held out a limp trog. Even with a nearby light stone, the cave was dark, so it was hard to see the creature.
“I have lots of trogs. Way more than I ever wanted,” Blacknail told them.
“Er, this one is unconscious and won’t wake up. We found it hiding in a pile of straw, but it’s still breathing and everything!”
“Does it have a lump on the side of its head?” Blacknail asked with sudden interest.
“No, we checked for that too.”
“Alright, gimme,” Blacknail said as he reached over to take the trog.
To get a better look at the creature, Blacknail turned and held it up to the light his mage escort was holding. It looked like a sleeping trog. Yep, it had pale grey skin, big eyes, and a tiny little tail… Wait, where was its tail? This trog didn’t have a tail. Blacknail squinted as he studied the creature. Now that he was looking closely, this trog’s skin had a slight green tint and it looked a little fat. It was almost goblin-like. Hmm, was this trog part goblin? Was that why it had started to transform? Well, whatever. All Blacknail cared about was getting a useful minion that could direct trogs and explore the underground.
Smiling, Blacknail hurried over to the river cave. There, he found Ferrar standing next to Gob, who had come down to check things out.
“Look, I found one!” he exclaimed as he shoved the unconscious trog in their faces.
“Incredible, boss,” Gob quickly replied. Blacknail wasn’t sure if he knew what was going on though.
“It’s a trog that’s becoming a hobtroglin!” he explained. Ferrar winced and even Gob’s smile seemed to tighten.
“A simpler name might be better,” Ferrar remarked diplomatically. “Let’s wait until he actually wakes up before we name anything.”
Blacknail shrugged and passed the trog over to a guard so that he could be taken somewhere comfortable and safe until he woke up. “Fine, whatever.”
After that, Blacknail stood back and chatted with his lieutenants while he supervised the work on the wall. Only one trog got eaten by a particularly vicious salamander that lunged from out of the water, but Blacknail was quickly able to get everyone back to work. By the end of the day, a few dozen more feet of wall was nearing completion.
Since they’d worked so hard, Blacknail decided to further motivate his new trogs minions by cooking them a hot meal. How could they be expected to work so hard on nothing but mushrooms and bugs? Blacknail quickly ran into some problems though. Basically, you couldn’t cook underground because of the smoke, and he wanted to do the entire process in front of them, so that the trogs would be impressed by his skill and know he was the one that had made the wonderful food.
With that in mind, Blacknail went to find Imp. The mage probably had a magical solution. His lab was full of weird equipment.
Imp sighed deeply when Blacknail had finished explaining what he wanted. “Yes, boss. I do have some heating stones I use to boil Elixir smoothly, but all my helpers are already at their limit. I’m bleeding them dry to make all the magic stones you want.”
“Get more helpers.”
“I’m already testing all the goblins I can find for the mage gift. There aren’t more.”
“Test the trogs. You don’t have to be smart to be a mage.”
Imp scowled and gave Blacknail a mean glare, but he nodded a moment later. “Fine, it will be an interesting experiment anyway.”
Having sorted that out like a true leader, Blacknail headed back down to the trogs along with a goblin mage carrying a small metal heater powered by a red mana stone. With the goblin’s help, Blacknail was able to get cooking without another problem. The cauldron he set up in the center of the chamber was soon bubbling away and filling the entire room with a delicious aroma, which probably wasn’t dangerous.
The smell drew in dozens of trogs until there were almost a hundred of them in their new barracks. They watched with worshipful eyes as Blacknail finished up the first batch of stew and began serving it in small clay bowls to the trogs that begged the hardest and looked the cutest.
“It’s a shame you can’t learn to cook like the goblins did,” Blacknail mused as he passed a trog a clay bowl. “None of you want to come up above ground.”
Blacknail had plans for these weird little critters beyond using them as laborers and miners.
The problem was that living in caves was very different from living on the surface. That really limited the trogs’ development, and Blacknail didn’t have the time – or the will – to run their lives for them. No, Blacknail was pinning his hopes on the trog that had started to transform. Hopefully, he would become a half decent minion and be able lead the other trogs, without Blacknail having to get too involved. As the leader, he was already way too busy.
Book 3 is Out!
The third novel in The Iron Teeth series is now out on Amazon. Please support the author and help promote the book by purchasing and reviewing A Bloody Road. Every review and purchase helps a lot!