Surprised, Blacknail took a step back as a tingle of fear shot up his back. In front of him, the large insect-like creatures continued to hiss and glare. Blacknail had never seen anything remotely like them before. Saeter also hadn’t mentioned anything similar, so he had no idea how to react. Were they dangerous? Should he run away or stand his ground and try to scare them into retreating? Blacknail had no idea what the right action was. Although, he vaguely remembered that Ilisti had mentioned some mysterious creatures that sort of resembled these things. Boggarts, he had called them.
Both the black beasts began to scuttle forward, so Blacknail reacted instinctively. No giant bugs were going to chase him away from this place! He had already claimed it as his own.
“Enemies are here. To me, my minions! Fight for your great leader,” Blacknail yelled as he drew his sword.
Since he didn’t know how to properly handle these boggarts, the safest bet was just to kill them. He could probably manage that easily enough. Not only was he super strong, but he had allies nearby.
Almost immediately after Blacknail’s shout, there were replying yells from the nearby hobgoblins who were just out of sight, and they began to run over. While that was happening, the two boggarts hissed and threw themselves at Blacknail. Their front limbs came up and reached for him, revealing three long curved claws on the end of each foot. Their large black eyes shone as their jagged mandibles opened wide enough to bite down on a human’s head.
Blacknail quickly dodged to the side and slashed at one of the outstretched claws. His blade hit the limb and knocked it aside but didn’t appear to do much damage. Hmm, that wasn’t good. A frown appeared on the Blacknail’s face as he caught his balance. The creature’s shiny carapace was strong and thick. Playing it safe, Blacknail retreated a few steps to buy time for his allies to arrive, which they promptly did. Behind him, two hobgoblins ran around the spire of rock and then toward the fight.
The arrival of more hobgoblins didn’t appear to intimidate the boggarts. If anything, it seemed to infuriate them. They hissed loudly like boiling tea kettles and shook with anger. One of them reared up on its back legs and clawed the air aggressively. It only stopped when the reinforcements reached Blacknail’s side and became an immediate threat. Readying themselves to fight, the two boggarts crouched down as if they were about to leap.
“Oh, what are these things?” one of the hobgoblins asked in shock as he raised his weapon to guard Blacknail’s flank. The second hobgoblin took up position on his chief’s other side.
“It doesn’t matter. Just kill them,” Blacknail replied as he leaned back to avoid the swing of a claw. It didn’t look very clean.
Following his orders, both the other hobgoblins immediately slashed at the boggarts and went on the attack. Their swords bounced harmlessly off carapace, but Blacknail took the opportunity to step forward and kick the enemy to his left. The toe of his boot slammed into the head of the boggart, stunning it. Grinning as the thrill of the fight filled him, Blacknail didn’t let up. Fiercely, he stabbed his sword down into one of the creature’s shoulder joints. The blade caught for a moment, before sinking into the thin strip of pale flesh between the armor segments. The boggart immediately shrieked in pain. The shrill scream assaulted Blacknail’s ears. He winced as he tugged his blade free and stepped back, but the pain felt like sweet victory.
The wound seemed to cripple the boggart. Its arm went slack, and slobber began dripping from its mouth. It tried to attack again, but even its working front limb moved slowly and weakly. Blacknail grunted disdainfully as he blocked the blow, and then he kicked it in the head again. There was a wet crunch and the boggart collapsed onto the rocky ground.
The remaining enemy was busy fighting the two other hobgoblins, but its companion’s fall seemed to enrage it. The boggart ignored a blade aimed at its head and charged. The surprised hobgoblin’s blade bounced off its armor as it leapt on top of him, and its mandibles clamped down on his arm. As the hobgoblin yelped, Blacknail pulled out a dagger and stabbed the boggart in the eye. The blade effortlessly sank deep into the creature’s brain, and it began to spasm uncontrollably. Immediately, the hobgoblin it had tackled pushed it off himself and stood back up. His wounded arm was bleeding quite badly and he was covered in scratches.
“Huh, I thought they’d be tougher. Ilisti made boggarts sound scary,” Blacknail remarked as he studied the fallen creatures. They hadn’t been weak, but there were a lot of things more dangerous than them in the Green.
The injured hobgoblin made a pained whine and cradled his arm. It was difficult to say how bad his injury was, but most the hobgoblins had been taught basic first aid, so he would probably live and recover. If he didn’t, it wasn’t Blacknail’s problem. Back at his base, more goblins were transforming into hobgoblins all the time. He honestly didn’t know what to do with them all.
Blacknail started to sheathe his sword, but a clattering noise drew his attention. Still on edge, he turned to look over at the edge of the rocky formation. There were several tall boulders blocking his sight, but as he watched, a group of dark shapes ran out from between the rocks.
“More enemies!” Blacknail yelled to get his minions’ attention.
He counted five boggarts this time. That was bad. Even if he defeated these, he couldn’t be sure there weren’t more on the way. The five boggarts took a moment to study the hobgoblins and their fallen kin, before scuttling forward to attack.
“I don’t like these things,” Blacknail observed sourly as he readied himself to fight again.
Judging by their behavior, it seemed like boggarts were territorial and moved in large packs. It also looked like they didn’t care much about individual survival, which wasn’t a good trait to encounter in an enemy.
The five boggarts hissed and spat angrily as they determinedly charged the hobgoblins. Blacknail and his two minions stepped closer and raised their weapons as the boggarts closed in. Blacknail grimaced as he studied the enraged creatures. This was going to be a hard fight if his own reinforcements didn’t arrive soon. Just then, there was yell from behind Blacknail.
“I’m here to join the fight! Wow, what are those? They look mean,” Khita shouted excitedly as she ran over to join Blacknail and his minions.
Blacknail grimaced and sighed in exasperation. Why did it have to be Khita? Anyone but her would have been much more useful. She was useless.
However, quite unexpectedly, the scuttling mob of attackers suddenly stopped just outside of the reach of the hobgoblin’s weapons. Instead of charging the surprised hobgoblins, they froze in place and threw a series of surprised glances at Khita. Uncertainty shone in their large black eyes as they studied the human girl. When she reached the hobgoblins, the boggarts began furiously clicking at each other, and then they backed away and fled back the way they had come.
“What? Why?” Blacknail exclaimed angrily as he watched them go.
Why had they chosen to flee all of a sudden? Was it possible that they been afraid of Khita but not him? No, that was impossible. Khita was as weak as her skinny arms and fat head made her look.
Apparently, Khita had simply been the first of Blacknail’s allies to arrive. From the same direction, a mix of humans and hobgoblins rushed out from behind a pile of rocks. Glancing over his shoulder, Blacknail saw Geralhd among them.
“Ha, look at those creepy things run,” Khita laughed as she put a hand on Blacknail’s shoulder. “I sure scared them away. They're no match for us!”
“No, you didn’t scare them away. Don’t say that!” Blacknail replied as he brushed her hand away. The boggarts were now completely out of sight, but they hadn’t fled from Khita.
“What in all the hells were those things?” Geralhd asked as his group joined up with Blacknail’s. Several of the humans looked spooked.
“They were boggarts,” Blacknail explained authoritatively. He was fairly certain that was right, and no one else here would know more than him.
“I thought those were a myth, and a lot smaller,” one of the men from Shelter remarked in surprise. “Weren’t those supposed to steal chickens unless you put out old shoes for them?”
The humans began talking amongst themselves nervously. The two dead boggarts were still laid out on the ground alongside the bush and dead deer that they’d been dragging.
“They don’t even have real feet. What would they do with boots?” Khita observed as she pointed at a carcass.
Everyone ignored her, and Blacknail took a moment to lean down and study the fallen creatures. They were certainly strange looking. Like bugs, their bodies were divided into three segments and they had hard shells. They also reminded Blacknail of Mimics, especially their eyes, although their body shape and coloring were completely different. They also lacked anything that resembled a Mimic’s fake foliage.
Sniffing one of the dead boggarts, the hobgoblin’s nostrils were filled with a rich earthy musk. It had an undercurrent of what smelled like a mix of decaying matter. Strange. Blacknail was reminded of the piles Harvesters made, but these creatures were obviously not related to the beetles at all, despite a few small superficial similarities.
“Do you think those creatures – the boggarts or whatever- will be coming back?” Geralhd asked.
Blacknail frowned and stood back up before beginning to walk toward the rocks that the boggarts had disappeared behind. “Good question. Let’s see where they went.”
A lot of the humans from Shelter seemed confused. One of them scratched his head as he spoke up. “I still don’t understand. Aren’t boggarts like evil spirits? I don’t think they’re supposed to be real… or this ugly.”
“These are boggarts. Do you know more about the Green than me? I’m the ranger here,” Blacknail replied as he reached the rocks and glanced behind them. Stupid confusing humans. Obviously, he was an expert on boggarts, even if he knew next to nothing about them.
There were no boggarts behind the boulder, just a lot more tall splinters of rock. After signaling for his hobgoblin minions to come up and cover him, Blacknail began to sniff out the fleeing boggarts' trail. He followed their scent around the huge stone pillar and the through the smaller boulders for a few moments before it disappeared into a slender fissure. Blacknail stopped and stared warily at the dark opening. It was located at the base of a pile of boulders and its black interior was impenetrable to his sight.
Geralhd arrived and looked over Blacknail’s shoulder. “The boggarts went down into there?”
“Yes, that’s why I’m staring at it,” Blacknail replied dryly.
“So, what does this development mean for us, exactly?”
“It means we shouldn’t camp anywhere near here and that we should double our night watch,” Blacknail replied as he turned away from the hole in the ground.
There were several things about this situation he didn’t like. Most importantly, he had no idea how many boggarts were down there in the deep roads. There could be dozens or hundreds of them just waiting underground for the right time to attack. Secondly, the creatures obviously had no problem seeing in the dark, which meant a night attack was likely.
No one disagreed with Blacknail’s plan to leave the area even though it was getting dark. The two boggart corpses were a plain reminder that something strange was going and that they weren’t safe. Everyone immediately began packing up and they were soon back on the road. The sun was almost halfway under the horizon now and it was starting to get difficult for the humans to see, but they didn’t have any other choice but to put some distance between themselves and the rock formation.
Luckily, after about half an hour, the scouts found another good camping spot, on a hill next to the overgrown road. It wasn’t quite as nice as the old one, but a quick exploration revealed no nearby caves or angry boggarts.
As everyone else was settling down for the night, Blacknail stood at the peak of the hill and looked around confidently. Geralhd and Khita were with him, and it was truly dark out now. The stars and moon both shone overhead in the black sky.
“Yep, we should be safe here. As both the leader and our best ranger, I led us to a good spot,” the hobgoblin remarked proudly.
Geralhd grunted and looked over the trees to the west. “I wish the horizon wasn’t still on fire, though.”
Blacknail frowned. From atop the hill, they could all see that a long stretch of forest off in the distance was burning brightly. The orange glow of the flames was obvious in the dark of night.
“It’s not moving in our direction, and it won’t spread beyond the old woods. Ilisti said so,” the hobgoblin remarked with more confidence than he truly felt.
Khita just laughed. “I think it’s as pretty and sharp as silver. It’s definitely the biggest fire I’ve ever seen, and I’ve burned down a few buildings. You can see the light reflecting off the clouds.”
“It’s beautiful,” Ferrar agreed as he emerged from the darkness to join them. “The burning is so bright, yet so far away. I wish I could feel its heat.”
“I believe that would almost certainly be fatal,” Geralhd observed dryly.
Since there was little else for anyone to say and it was starting to get very late, everyone went their separate ways and laid down for the night. Amidst the other hobgoblins, where it was safest, Blacknail snuggled into his blankets and went to sleep.
The next morning, Blacknail woke up and got everyone moving. It only took a few kicks and shouts into lazy peoples' ears. Once that was done, a quick chat with his sentries revealed that no one had spotted any strange activity during the night, but there was no reason to stick around. Blacknail shuddered as a shiver went down his spine. He had a bad feeling in his gut about the boggarts. Their black armor and segmented bodies were creepy and icky, but it was more than that. He couldn’t explain exactly why they bothered him so much, but his instincts were telling him that they were dangerous, and that he hadn’t seen the last of the cave dwelling scavengers…
The party and their creaky wagon travelled along the old overgrown road for several hours before nearing their goal. Except for a flight of harpies flying overhead and the distant bellowing of an ogre, they didn’t encounter anything dangerous.
Once the forest parted and the fields around Shelter came into sight, the group split up. Most the humans headed for the town, while the hobgoblins began hiking over to their camp. The humans took the wagon, but almost all of its contents were divided up among the hobgoblins for them to carry. The only human travelling with the hobgoblins was the smelter from Herstcrest that Ferrar had chosen.
“I’ll be along to check on you soon,” he told his mute daughter before handing her off to Geralhd.
Geralhd gave the man a dignified nod. “I promise that she will be well cared for. Shelter is a rather safe and welcoming place. The people there are rustic but well-meaning. She’s in good hands. You won’t find better.”
“I’ve talked to some of the men from there, and I believe you’re right,” the man replied before giving his daughter a reassuring smile. The little girl gave him a sad nod back and clutched her doll.
Ferrar had been rather stubborn about making sure the craftsman came with them right away, instead of going to Shelter first. Blacknail didn’t care, but Ferrar was apparently quite impatient to get to work and hadn’t been willing to accept any delay.
“I’m going to go with them to Shelter. I need to make sure my underlings are taken care of and stuff. Some of them have been complaining about the adventure we just went on,” Khita told Blacknail. He didn’t care.
Once Geralhd’s group was moving, Blacknail led the others to the goblin settlement. Weighed down by loot and gear, it took the tired hobgoblins a few hours, but they got there without a problem.
As usual, before entering through the gate, Blacknail climbed up one of the nearby hills so that he could look down on the entire settlement. It was much the same, a crude wooden wall around a bunch of rocky hills and primitive structures, but he noticed two things that had changed. The longhouse that had been under construction when he’d left was done and the beginnings of a completely new one had been put down. Blacknail sighed as he studied them. So many hobgoblins…
“Huh, I was actually expecting much worse than this,” the bearded craftsman remarked matter-of-factly as he stared down the hill. “I can see some smoke rising from those clay furnaces over there. You weren’t lying about that.”
Blacknail sighed. “It keeps growing. I can’t stop it.”
“I built those furnaces,” Ferrar announced proudly.
The man grunted and began walking toward the gate. “Well, let’s get going. I can’t say I ever thought I’d be doing anything like this, but I’ve been expecting to die in misery for a while now, and this can’t be worse. The gods have given me hope, so I’d be a fool not to grasp at it, no matter how treacherous the way through the dark is.”
Ferrar laughed with gleeful excitement as he followed after the man. “The light is from a fire burning bright. I can’t wait. We’re going to burn so much together! It will be so very glorious.”