A week went by without any further scuffles with the boggarts. There were a few sightings of dark figures lurking near the guard posts, but they didn’t attack again. Instead, they seemed content to watch the hobgoblins and bide their time. Blacknail really wished he knew what the creepy creatures were thinking. They acted nothing like either humans or hobgoblins.
Meanwhile, work continued on the underground projects at a fast pace. The trogs were good workers when properly motivated by hobgoblin taskmasters and occasional food scraps. Under Blacknail’s watchful eyes, they worked diligently on the floodwall in the river cave.
It was during this time that the transforming trog woke up. He’d been wrapped in a blanket and stashed away at the back of the trogs’ barracks with a goblin guard. The moment he opened his eyes, the goblin ran off to get his hobgoblin supervisor, who then ran to find Blacknail.
Blacknail immediately suspended the work on the wall and went to check on his newest and most unique minion. The transformed trog was indeed awake and lucid. In fact, he was naked and sitting on the fur blanket he’d been sleeping under while staring in disbelief at his own hands.
Like most newly transformed hobgoblins, he was so skinny his ribs were clearly visible and he had an extremely lanky build. His skin was a pale – almost white – grey with only a barely noticeable green tint. He was also bald and hornless, which made several ways he seemed different from a normal hobgoblin more noticeable. His pointy ears were longer and slightly floppy, and his eyes were bigger than normal too. Also, his nose was rounder and shorter than that of a proper hobgoblin, which made him look quite ugly to Blacknail. As the transformed trog licked his lips, his teeth were revealed. Like a trog’s, they were very needle-like and spaced far apart.
Smiling, Blacknail walked over to his newly awakened minion. “Hello, you’re not going to try to kill me, are you? A lot of new hobgoblins do that, so I have to punch them in the face until they stop.”
Looking up, the transformed trog just blinked at him in a confused manner, and then he went back to staring at his own hands.
“Hmm, I see you can’t talk yet. Hopefully you aren’t too stupid to learn,” Blacknail mused aloud. The transformed trog’s features definitely gave him a sickly appearance, so maybe he was dumb too. There were a lot of humans that combined both those traits, and a few hobgoblins as well.
Blacknail spent a few more minutes poking and studying the transformed trog, but he just sat there and looked confused, so Blacknail quickly got bored. He left and ordered another hobgoblin to go take care of the new minion and teach him to speak and follow orders.
When he wasn’t monitoring the construction of the floodwall, Blacknail frequently stopped in to visit the transformed trog. On the fourth day, the trog had learned to speak and understand most of the basic commands. Apparently, he wasn’t dumb after all. Thus, Blacknail threw his minion some warm clothes -including his first pair of pants – and then took him out on a tour of Ironbreak.
None of the trogs ever went above ground. They seemed terrified of the light and open spaces, so Blacknail waited until night, before having a pair of guards drag the transformed trog up into the settlement proper. When he realized where they were going, he tried to resist, but that wasn’t an option.
A chilly night breeze was blowing out of the snow-covered forest as they emerged out under the starry sky. Blazing fires of all sorts dotted Ironbreak, but it was still mostly a shadowy maze made up of ramshackle buildings covered in snow. Once he’d given up trying to claw his guards’ eyes out and flee back underground, the transformed trog began to take in the sights.
“Lots of high lights,” the hobtrog whispered as he blinked at the stars and stretched out a hand toward them.
“You can’t touch the stars. They float way above the earth and never come down.” Blacknail laughed. What an amusing simpleton this new minion was. He sure had a lot to learn.
As the overawed hobtrog walked around, his already huge eyes grew larger and rounder in awe. Everything from basic tools to the larder impressed him. He had to shield his eyes with a raised hand when they led him to the forge, but the sight of hobgoblins and goblins making tools obviously impressed him beyond his simple vocabulary’s ability to convey.
When the tour was over, Blacknail had the sickly-looking minion escorted back to his cave. He still needed more language lessons. Also, it was getting late so Blacknail was getting sleepy. He was a busy chieftain and needed regular naps to do his job properly.
Three days later, the stone wall Blacknail’s minions were building in the river chamber finally stretched all the way from one side of the chamber to the other. Blacknail nodded proudly as he inspected it. The long construction of stacked rocks that had been mortared and melted together by magic would not only keep out the water when it rose, but it would also keep out all the dangerous predators that lurked in the river. Trogs and goblins could now move to mushroom forest safely. Still, just to be sure, Blacknail had some of his minions begin building a scaffolding behind the stone. He wanted to be able to have patrols with lights walk from one end to the other safely.
With the biggest and most labor-intensive project complete, trogs and minions became available to work on other activities. In particular, Blacknail wanted to know if they could get mushrooms growing underground during the winter. A lot of rotting wood, feces, and food waste was carried down into the warmer caves, but the experiments were still ongoing and had yet to succeed.
Over the past few days, the transformed trog had been spending his time learning to speak and wandering around the caves. He never went far, but he did sometimes go up above ground when night fell. He just shyly crept around and watched hobgoblins go about their business.
“He seems very… timid,” Gob remarked.
Blacknail frowned. “He’s a little different than a hobgoblin, and he’s facing many new things. It would be strange if he was as overconfident as a usual new hobgoblin.”
All of Blacknail’s lieutenants were meeting at his mansion and seated around the big table in his dinning hall. The fireplace on the wall behind Blacknail crackled and glowed with warm light, keeping the cold from outside at bay.
“We should give him a name, to make talking about him easier,” Herah pointed out. Lately, she been in charge of a lot of the underground patrols. She earned the position by beating up the old patrol leader one day when she’d been bored.
“I was just going to call him Hobtrog,” Blacknail said with a shrug.
“Isn’t that you’d call all big trogs?” Ferrar pointed out.
“No, those are hobtroglins.”
There was silence for a moment as everyone digested this. Grimaces appeared on many of their faces, which annoyed Blacknail. His minions sure were uppity. Even Gob winced and turned to give Herah a meaningful look.
“Um, let’s see if we can come up with some better names,” she suggested carefully.
Blacknail glared at her. He could see what was going on here. “What’s wrong with those names? I made them. They’re great!”
“Er, they’re a little hard to remember? Maybe pick something else?”
Blacknail scowled in disbelief, but there were nods of agreement from all the other hobgoblins present, so he didn’t refute her. Obviously, his lieutenants were a little dumber than he’d thought they were.
“So, what do you want to call them then?” If they were going to be so picky, Blacknail didn’t know what would please them.
“We could just call him Ugly,” Ferrar suggested. “His face is all sloppy and grey.”
“No, I call a lot of people ugly,” Blacknail pointed out.
Imp looked up. “How about we give the big trog the name Grey and call others like him lurkers, because they lurk in the dark. Those are nice simple names. Easy to remember.”
There were more nods of agreement from all the hobgoblins present, so Blacknail just sighed and went along with it. His minions were terrible at naming things but fighting them over this would be more work than it was worth. The meeting went on for a few more minutes before Blacknail got sleepy and sent everyone away so he could take a nap. The weather made him want to stay inside all the time, so it was difficult to spar and train.
Thus, Blacknail spent a lot of time with Grey over the next few days. The transformed trog might have a stupid name, but he was still the most interesting thing around at the moment, since the boggarts weren’t attacking. He was also smart, despite his stupid looking face. Grey quickly gained better mastery over the human language that the hobgoblins used and began learning to use their tools. Soon after that, he began teaching the trogs what he knew and organizing them. This pleased Blacknail since it was what he’d been hoping would happen. The key to being a good leader was finding people to do all the work for you.
With that in mind, Blacknail decided to take charge of Grey’s sword training. It had been a while since Blacknail had taken charge of a hobgoblin’s basic sword training, but he needed an excuse to get off his ass. Also, with his pale grey skin, the lurker still looked quite unhealthy. He seriously needed to put on some muscle, and he wouldn’t make a very good scout and leader if he couldn’t fight.
After a few sessions of careful sword training in a well-lit cave, Grey’s stopped hunching over quite so much and begin standing straighter. He also began to move with more confidence. However, sword fighting obviously didn’t interest him all that much. During his free time, he preferred to watch the hobgoblins working above ground or explore the mines.
Eventually, Grey selected an empty cave that was near the entrance to the mine and close to the surface and moved into it. At first, Blacknail thought he was making it his private lair, but then he invited several trogs to move in with him.
“What are you doing?” Blacknail asked him after looking around the cave.
“Building a making place. Trogs want to make stuff, like you,” Grey replied after bowing before his chieftain.
“Why here?” Blacknail asked him.
“To dig up for good air. Need fire.”
Huh, that was interesting. Blacknail gave the lurker his approval and then went to find a craftsman to help the trogs build their new lair properly. It probably wasn’t a great idea to let them mess around unsupervised.
Over the next few days, when Blacknail visited the cave for sword training, he saw the trog’s workshop develop. Soon, they managed to dig into one of the walls and then all the way up to the surface. They then turned this shaft into a large fireplace.
Unfortunately, the trogs still faced several problems when it came to actually using their new fireplace. Firstly, the bright light from the flames hurt their eyes. Eventually, Grey had to wrap his eyes in cloth to dim the light when he was working around the fire. Secondly, there wasn’t a lot of fuel to be found underground. You could burn pieces of dried mushroom stalk from the underground forest and dried feces, but neither made for great or plentiful fuel. Blacknail had to have wood brought down. This wasn’t a problem for him, there was plenty available, but Grey was disappointed that the trogs couldn’t find their own fuel below ground.
Access to a steady source of heat and light allowed the trogs to try several new activities such as cooking, boiling water, and drying things. Fire safety was an issue, but after the first few trogs burnt themselves and ran around screaming, the rest grew more cautious. Despite a few burns, their new fire meant the trogs were living far better than ever before.
Blacknail also gave them some practical gifts, weapons. After some consideration and discussion with Ferrar, he gave the trogs a bunch of solid wooden clubs to use for self-defense. They were simple enough that the trogs could use them without hurting themselves, and they seemed like a good way to crack open boggart armor. Only a bit of drilling and a demonstration using a piece of black boggart carapace was required until they got the general idea.
Imp came down and tested the trogs for mages. He found several, proving they could have the gift, but he wasn’t sure what to do with them since none of the trogs would leave the caves. If they wouldn’t come up to his lab, they were basically useless to him. Blacknail let him figure it out.
With the river wall completed, most of the trogs were put back to work in the mines. Most mining had been put on hold since all the miners had been busy elsewhere. However, some of the trogs were ordered to work on the experimental mushroom farms. They built soil beds by piling rocks and carried down all the organic material for filling them. If harvester beetles could grow mushrooms, then Blacknail thought Ferrar would eventually figure it out.
After another week of this – and only a few sporadic boggart sightings – Grey grew confident enough to take some trogs out to explore the darkness beyond the caves the hobgoblins controlled. Like the trogs, Grey could move silently through the darkest of caves without making a sound. His hearing and dark vision were incredible. Even the smallest bit of light from a crystal or glowing fungus was enough for him to see by. In fact, Grey kept a small vial of glowing fungus in his pocket for just such a purpose. The transformed trog also scavenged up some other gear, besides the simple clothes Blacknail had given him. He had his sword, a long shirt, and a dirty old black cloak with several holes in it. The cloak appeared to be one of Blacknail’s old ones, although he had no idea where Grey had found it. The dark clothes helped cover his pale skin, so he could blend into the darkness better.
Despite all his preparations, Blacknail nervously watched Grey go out on his first foray into the tunnels beyond the mine. It would be terrible if something happened to Grey. Blacknail had put a lot of time and effort into raising the lurker. Where was he supposed to find another one? None of the other trogs had shown any sign of transforming.
Thankfully, Grey never failed to return from his scouting missions. On their third trip, his small party even returned with the mangled corpses of two boggart workers. They ambushed the creatures in the darkness and bashed them to death with clubs before the boggarts could properly react. Blacknail could only beam proudly at the trogs as they chattered and displayed their new trophies. This was exactly what he’d been hoping for. Trogs were perfect disposable minions he could use to harass the boggarts and explore the dark paths.
Soon, more and more trogs were arming up and heading out to fight boggarts in the unexplored tunnels. Although, Grey usually led them, they sometimes went out without him. Blacknail was actually surprised by how eager the trogs were to confront their enemy now that they had weapons and a safe place to retreat to. The trogs really hated the boggarts. Even Grey grew sullen and practically growled when the creatures were mentioned. His eyes narrowed and smoldered with hatred. There was obviously some history there.
Of course, the occasional ambush of a worker in a dark tunnel was hardly a real threat to the boggarts, but the creatures were still forced to withdraw their scouts. The hobgoblin guards Blacknail had stationed at the edge of the mine reported a complete stop to all boggart sightings. The hunters he sent out into the forest aboveground still ran into boggarts, but the occasional trophy brought back a group of returning trogs was the only sign that they were still down in the tunnels.
When Grey returned from an expedition dragging the twisted corpse of the boggart warrior behind him, Blacknail could only stare. He was beyond impressed. Behind Grey, several trogs were also carrying the severed heads of four workers.
“Huh, good job. How did you kill the warrior?” Blacknail asked as he walked over to Grey.
“The foul ones don’t know to fear our scent yet. We swarmed them in the dark. Many of the tribe fell but we beat them,” Grey answered with a grim smile. His thin needle-like teeth and wide eyes gave him a deranged look, and the dim light of the of the cave gave him an incredibly sinister air.
Blacknail looked the dead warrior over. “I’m surprised the boggarts sent such a large party near our territory.”
Grey sniffed disdainfully. “They didn’t. We went far to find their hiding places, where they thought they were safe.”
“Huh, good for you,” Blacknail remarked in surprise as he looked up at Grey.
The lurker was creepy but even more effective than Blacknail had thought he would be, even if having him around led to some unforeseen consequences. Blacknail studied Grey’s cloaked form and ugly visage. In fact, it was beginning to seem like he may have helped create some sort of unnatural abomination, who had then started a brutal race war. Not bad. There was some real potential here.
Grey returned Blacknail’s grin. “We also found it.”
“The foul things’ nest. I saw it myself after we killed their guards.”
Blacknail’s smile grew wider. Yes, there was a lot of potential here.
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!