Blacknail rather enjoyed being carried by four hobgoblin minions on a litter. He only dismounted from it when his party reached Ironbreak’s gate. Being carried around was nice and relaxing, but it was time to stretch his legs. Yawning, Blacknail rolled off the litter and began walking toward the gate. Several armed guards quickly followed after him, since they had nothing better to do. There were four hobgoblins guarding the gate in front of Blacknail, but they immediately bowed to their chieftain and then moved out of his way. Blacknail gave them a brief nod as he walked past. He was happy to see that things hadn’t descended into chaos or rebellion here yet. He’d been a little worried about that.
Ironbreak was new settlement. It had been built by goblins and hobgoblins at Blacknail’s orders, and thus most of the construction was crude. The wall that encircled it was made from long sharpened stakes meant to keep beasts out. Inside the walls, what had once been an empty clearing containing a few rocky hills and caves was now a fair-sized settlement. Mismatched buildings filled almost every space. None of them seemed to have the same style, and they were made from various materials. Clay bricks were common, but so were huts made from woven branches, and a few of the larger and newer buildings were made from horizontally stacked logs. The nearby roofs were covered by thatch or layers of long bark strips. The result was chaotic and savage looking, but also completely functional. Humans might have found it dirty and distasteful, but it was far better shelter than goblins were used to.
The arrival of Blacknail and his party quickly drew the notice of Ironbreak’s inhabitants, of which there were plenty of around. Goblins were everywhere. There were too many of the green critters to count. Dozens of them were running around between the buildings, while others lazed around in the shade, and there were even a few sitting leisurely on the nearby rooftops. Scattered around the scene, there were also a few hobgoblins, who mostly ignored their smaller kin as they went along on their own business. However, all that changed as Blacknail stepped through the gate. Almost instantly, he became the center of attention. Ignoring his new audience, Blacknail looked around. He’d sent a runner ahead to spread word of his arrival, so he soon found who he was looking for. Gob and several other hobgoblins were over to one side, and they were already walking over to meet him.
“You have returned, great one! It is a blessed day,” Gob exclaimed happily as he dropped to his knees and bowed deeply in front of Blacknail. Some of the other nearby hobgoblins copied him.
Gob was Blacknail’s second in command, and while he was unquestionably loyal, he was also way too overdramatic about everything. It was frankly a waste of time. Before Ironbreak had been founded, Gob had been the first hobgoblin to swear fealty to Blacknail. Back then, Blacknail had been wandering the Green after the defeat of Herad’s bandits by Werrick. That hadn’t been their first meeting, though. There was no way Blacknail would trust a strange feral hobgoblin. No, Gob had also been a member of a small goblin tribe that Blacknail had helped out a while back. He’d saved them from some harpies while he’d been travelling to Daggerpoint.
“Get up,” Blacknail told his minions with a frustrated sigh.
Gob immediately did as he was told and climbed back to his feet. Blacknail was instantly reminded of his own recent transformation, because Gob looked shorter than he remembered.
“I stand ready to obey your every word, master of all goblins!” Gob shouted loudly. Blacknail winced. He had sensitive ears and Gob was being too loud. Also, becoming the master of all goblins sounded like it would be way more trouble than he would ever want.
“Good. I’m going to be giving out a lot of orders,” Blacknail told Gob. There was definitely a lot to do in preparation for the coming war with Werrick.
Gob listened intently as Blacknail began explaining what he wanted done. There were two areas that Blacknail was most focused on, the mines and food. You could never have too much food. Behind Blacknail, the humans that had travelled with him walked over and then wandered off to do their own things. At the same time, several other hobgoblins arrived. Blacknail easily recognized Imp and Ferrar. As was usual, Ferrar’s reddish-brown hair and eyebrows were singed, and Imp was carrying a tall staff he’d taken from a defeated human mage. The mechanism in the staff allowed him to channel and control the power of mana crystals.
“Wow, you sure got bigger, boss!” Ferrar remarked in surprise.
Looking intrigued, Imp stepped in close and stared at Blacknail’s horns intently. Blacknail found this behavior rude, so he snorted and lightly shoved the hobgoblin away.
“Oh, sorry, boss,” Imp said after he’d regained his balance.
Blacknail just rolled his eyes before addressing all his lieutenants together. “I’ve got work for you. We need to rebuild the walls using the extra stone from the iron mines, and I also want some real gates that can close. Having a big hole in our walls is just dumb.”
They would need better defenses to repel Werrick if he ever showed up, although Blacknail wasn’t sure why he was set on stone walls… Well, whatever.
“Is someone or something going to attack us?” Ferrar asked as he frowned in concern.
“We are probably safe for now, but we will need better defenses eventually. All the big human towns have better walls than us, and we’ve been lucky. There are things in the Green that would smash right through our walls, like a drake. Also, it’s not like we’re short on workers. There are too many goblins just lazing around here,” Blacknail explained as he motioned towards all the nearby goblins. Lazy minions annoyed him. They just sat around eating his food…
Grimacing, Blacknail turned to Ferrar. “You’re in charge of mining. Are you digging up enough stone to make a wall?”
When Blacknail had left to fight Werrick, Ferrar had been the hobgoblin in charge of Ironbreak’s smiths and craftsmen. By extension that meant he’d also been in charge of acquiring raw iron from the caves below the settlement. All the furnaces and smithies in Ironbreak had been built by the fire-obsessed hobgoblin.
Ferrar frowned in response to the question. “Work below slowed down after you left, boss. Getting stone isn’t hard, we’ve got the tools and goblins, but we’ve had to go deeper down to find more iron, and that’s gotten dangerous.”
“Dangerous how?” Blacknail asked.
“Goblins keep getting hurt or attacked by the beasts that live down there. When we block off a passage, something always opens it,” Ferrar explained.
This news didn’t surprise Blacknail. He’d been down in the caves a few times, so he knew how dangerous they could be. Not only were there lots of hungry predators underground, but mutants seemed more common down there as well. Normal hobgoblins couldn’t be counted on to fight mutants.
“We need both iron and stone, so I’ll have to clear the tunnels,” Blacknail told his minions. He didn’t see any other option.
He then turned to Imp. “I will need light crystals and mages.”
Imp nodded in agreement. “Of course, boss. I’ve got lots of apprentices and light stones. Making them is easy for me now, and I’ve already been sending mages to light the tunnels for the miners.”
That reminded Blacknail of his Elixir shortage, so he immediately asked the hobgoblin mage to bring him some. Imp gave a quick bow and then hurried off to retrieve the magical liquid. While he was gone, Blacknail went over some details with the others, but he didn't have to wait long. A few minutes later, Imp returned and handed Blacknail a small glass vial. He shook it and watched the familiar dusky liquid inside slosh around, before uncorking the vial and downing its contents. The Elixir tasted exactly the same as always as he gulped it down, and he felt a tingle as the power began to seep into his body. Yes, he could feel himself growing stronger. It felt…
Without warning, Blacknail gagged and vomited all over Imp. As Imp unhappily began wiping himself off, Blacknail swayed and wobbled. He tried to steady himself, but it was all he could do to stop himself from vomiting again.
“I think you messed that vial up,” Blacknail remarked as he slowly began to feel better. Normally, he’d punish Imp for such a failure, but he was undoubtedly already regretting his mistake.
Imp used a finger to wipe some vomit off his face and then tasted it. “My Elixir was fine. That vial was part of a batch you’ve taken before.”
“Good Elixir doesn’t make me sick,” Blacknail pointed out.
“It didn’t use to, but now…” Imp said as he gave Blacknail’s changed body a meaningful look.
Blacknail frowned. This wasn’t good. “Can you make me a new Elixir?”
“Maybe, I’ll need some of your blood,” Imp told him. “What exactly happened after you drank the Elixir? Do you feel magical at all?”
That was a good question. Closing his eyes, Blacknail focused on the state of his own body. Hmmm, he actually did feel like there was some new energy flowing through his blood, but not a lot of it. Less than what he usually got out of a vial of Elixir. Huh, he could also feel that power draining away to somewhere. Opening his eyes, he explained this to Imp.
“Avorlus would know more. All I can do is test your blood and tweak your Elixir, boss,” the mage replied.
Grunting in displeasure, Blacknail agreed to visit Imp’s workshop later and to send a message to Avorlus. The human mage was an expert Elixir maker and owed Blacknail a lot, but he’d gone to Herstcrest to study a crystal cave they’d found there. That was inconvenient. Blacknail was beginning to get really frustrated about not understanding how is own body worked. Unfortunately, he hadn’t really been to curious about mutants in the past. All he’d had to know was how to kill them.
Blacknail had been planning on doing some sparring, to show off his body in front of his minions and find out his own limits, but now he didn’t feel like it. It could wait until he felt better. Drinking that Elixir – and then vomiting it up – had made his stomach more than a little queasy. However, he didn’t have time to rest. There was still lots to do.
“How are the road crews doing?” Blacknail asked Gob. He’d ordered large work parties to build roads to all the nearby settlements a while back. Last time he’d checked, they’d only finished the one leading to Shelter and were still working on the one heading to Herstcrest.
“The way to Herstcrest is half done, but the minions get lazier the further from the base they are, so it has slowed down,” Gob quickly explained.
Grunting, Blacknail considered his options. It sounded like he’d have to go there personally if he wanted to speed things up, but he didn’t have time for that right now. “Let’s focus on the wall.”
“Then we need the caves cleared so we can send more miners down there,” Ferrar pointed out.
“I’ll go take a look down there now. Imp will come with me,” Blacknail said with a deep sigh. His stomach was feeling better, and he was only planning on looking around, so he wanted to get it over with.
Imp acknowledged his chieftain with a nod. “I have everything I need on me and I live to serve, boss.”
“I’d like to come too, so I can examine the mine and what needs done,” Ferrar added.
“You could also take a few hobs with you, chief,” Gob suggested as he motioned for three of the nearby hobgoblins to step forward. “You are too mighty to fear anything, but Imp and Ferrar could use some guards.”
Blacknail agreed with his minions’ ideas, and his small party was soon headed for the largest cave in Ironbreak. It was where almost all the mining was done. The entrance to the cave had used to be at the bottom of a steep rocky hole in the ground, but it had been dug up to make it easier to access. Now there was a wide dirt ramp leading down. Blacknail walked down to the cave entrance and peered inside. The cave was dark and gloomy, but he thought he saw some light coming from deeper within it, and there was also a steady clanging noise echoing out.
While Blacknail was studying the cavern, Imp began fiddling with his staff. The hobgoblin mage turned a screw a few times and then the crystal on the top of the staff came loose. He then removed the crystal and replaced it with a new one from a pouch. After tightening the screw again, Imp raised his staff, and the cavern was flooded with white light. This allowed Blacknail to get a much better look at the way forward.
“Alright, in we go,” Blacknail announced as he began walking. His minions quickly followed after him.
There was nothing but rocks and hanging stalactites in sight as they moved through the first part of the cave. At first, Blacknail couldn’t see the glimmer of light from before because of a bend in the tunnel ahead and the radiance of Imp’s staff. However, the source of the light and noise came into sight when they passed the bend. The tunnel continued on, and up ahead of them was a goblin work crew. Four goblins were attacking the cave wall with picks, while two more goblins were gathering up some of the rubble they knocked loose and putting it in sacks. Behind them, a hobgoblin with a spear was standing guard while a goblin mage with a crystal in hand was providing them all with light.
None of the work crew noticed the newcomers right away, but as they walked over, the hobgoblin guard noticed Imp’s light and glanced their way. Seeing Blacknail, he immediately saluted and stood at attention.
“Carry on, we’re just inspecting the cave,” Blacknail explained as he stopped to study the miners.
“They’re mining gold, not iron,” Blacknail observed a moment later. Wasn’t iron far more useful?
Ferrar stepped up beside him and nodded. “Yes, we were running low on gold. We’ve been trading it to the humans for tools and lessons. Building your mansion requires a lot of help from humans and gold is used for some of the decorations.”
“Oh, that’s fine then. Carry on,” Blacknail replied before walking past the workers and heading deeper into the cave. It sounded like Ferrar knew what he was doing, and Blacknail’s mansion was important, even if he’d almost forgotten about ordering his minions to build it for him. A true leader needed to a have magnificent house that would impress all the lesser people.
“Where do you get the iron?” Blacknail asked Ferrar as they walked. He’d never actually seen it mined.
“We got it from loose rocks up above at first, but we used that up quick. Now we get it from another cave up ahead,” Ferrar explained. Instead of replying, Blacknail just grunted in acknowledgement.
There was a pile of rocks up ahead. It had used to completely block off the way forward, but some time ago the pile had collapsed, so now there was a way around it. Blacknail remembered fighting a slime here when he’d first come this way, so he studied the shadows cast by the rocks suspiciously, but he didn’t see anything.
As the party travelled deeper into the caves, Blacknail noticed signs of activity that hadn’t been there before. Goblin tracks were visible in the dirt and there was more loose rubble around. Soon, they came to another bend in the tunnel, and Blacknail saw a huge new crack in the wall that hadn’t been there before. When had that appeared? Frowning, Blacknail carefully crept over to the hole and peered within. However, the chasm was too deep for Imp’s light to penetrate. It was impossible to see where it led.
“We should probably seal this up with rock,” Blacknail muttered before continuing on his way.
“We have before, something keeps opening it,” Ferrar replied.
Moving on, they soon reached a familiar fork in the tunnel. From experience, Blacknail knew that the route to the left continued on into deeper tunnels, while the other led to an underground river.
Ferrar pointed to the left tunnel. “Our miners all go this way. It’s where the iron is.”
Blacknail nodded as he studied both passages. They’d come down here to see the mines, so obviously they should go left, but he hesitated. With narrowed eyes, Blacknail studied the rightward tunnel. He felt something coming from that direction, something strange. It was almost like a cool breeze on his skin, except the air was still. The feeling made him intensely curious. What was it?
Without bothering to explain anything to his minions, Blacknail began heading toward the underground river. Something was pulling him that way, and he wanted to know what it was. As Blacknail walked, the feeling grew stronger. His skin began to tingle ever so slightly. It was invigorating, like a breath of fresh air after he’d been holding his breath.
Soon, Blacknail and his followers reached the entrance to the cave that contained the underground river. As the gentle lapping of water on stone reached their ears, Imp and Blacknail stepped forward and cautiously looked into the chamber using the light from Imp’s staff. It was a huge open space and Blacknail knew it was dangerous. He’d run into giant crabs and huge predatory salamanders here before.
The white light from Imp’s mage staff radiated out into the dark expanse of the cave, illuminating a large part of it, but not quite reaching the far end. An uneven rocky incline led down from where Blacknail was to the main floor. There, the river shimmered with reflected light as its flowing length cut the cave in half. Around it, dozens of tall stone columns jutted out of the ground. These rocks cast a host of deep shadows that practically anything could have been hiding in.
Suddenly, the shadows next to one of the closest columns shifted and a shape emerged. It was a crab the size of a very large dog or pony. It had long spindly legs and a pale grey shell. Two powerful-looking claws hung beneath its round body, which had two beady black eyes set in it. As Blacknail watched, the creature skittered closer to his party. At the same time, there was movement from other nearby spots. Three crabs whose rugged shells had disguised them as rocks rose up while two more slipped out of the darkness. The creatures quickly formed a small pack as they headed for the hobgoblins.