After the feast with the humans from Shelter was over, Blacknail invited Herah up to see his new bed. They then had a lot of sex on it before falling asleep. It was a great way to end an enjoyable day, because Blacknail had finally managed to show off his new home. It was bigger than everyone else’s, except for Ilisiti’s mansion in Herstcrest, which didn’t count, for reasons.
The next morning, Blacknail got up early and shoved Herah aside. He had to go do leadership stuff. There were a bunch of stupid minions that needed him to make decisions for them. Thus, after a hearty breakfast at his new table, Blacknail spent the morning talking to scouts and work crew leaders that were looking for direction. Most of the answers he gave them were simply encouragement to do what they already knew was the right response, but a lot of hobgoblins felt the need to ask Blacknail for permission and advice every time the slightest problem came up. Blacknail supposed it was because he was so smart and such a great leader. Most the news he got was about supplies that had been bought down south from passing merchants being brought north. The preparations for winter continued.
Not all the reports Blacknail got were pointless though. Scouts brought him word of several more boggart sightings. The creatures seemed to be growing more active, which was a rather unwelcome development. Blacknail had been hoping the creatures would disappear back underground, but that didn’t seem to be happening. Even if they didn’t start attacking his minions, they were competing with them for prey and food, and that could lead to serious problems over the winter. Blacknail was going to have to do something about them eventually, but he had no idea what.
A messenger also brought him interesting news from one of the parties that had been sent out to form a hunting lodge. Apparently, after making their way through the Green and reaching the edge of Blacknail’s territory they’d stumbled upon a small goblin village. The settlement was made up of three huts that had been built next to a river. It had been led by a single hobgoblin, so it had been easy for Blacknail’s minions to rush in and conquer the place. After the brutal killing of the feral hobgoblin, all the goblins had immediately submitted to their new rulers. The settlement wasn’t much and needed a lot of work, but it was far better than any lodge the party could have built before the first snowfall. It not only came with a bunch of goblins that could be put to work, but it also had a plentiful food source. The local goblins frequently fished the river using sharpened branches to spear the fish. Just off the top of his head, Blacknail could think of several ways to improve their catch.
Avorlus also finally returned from his visit to Herstcrest. The mage had gone there to study the crystals Blacknail had found in one of the mines behind the city. Herstcrest was much larger than Shelter and probably would have been a more comfortable place for Avorlus to spend the winter, except that Hercrest was ruled by Ilisti. The vympir lord was very vocal about his distrust of mages, so staying in Herstcrest hadn’t really been an option for the mage. Out west, in the isolated lands where Ilisti and the other vympirs came from, there didn’t seem to be many mages. Putting two and two together, Blacknail thought this was because the vympirs had killed them all, which was understandable. Even ignoring all the random explosions mages caused, it was obvious why vympirs would have a problem with mages. Vympirs ruled through fear and power, but even though they were very dangerous and incredibly tough, a big enough magical blast could kill anything. It was a good thing Blacknail didn’t have worry about that. He was in charge because he was better than everyone at pretty much everything.
Upon his arrival, Avorlus immediately came to see Blacknail at his mansion. The old mage looked rougher than the last Blacknail had seen him. His clothes were simpler and dirtier, and his beard wasn’t so nicely trimmed, but his stiff posture still radiated pride. Blacknail had first met Avorlus in Daggerpoint. The white-haired old man was an Elixir specialist. He was also a rogue mage, since he wasn’t affiliated with any of the mage guilds. The mage guilds didn’t like that, so they sent some hunters to arrest Avorlus. Luckily, Blacknail had been nearby. He’d taken some of his minions and snuck past the guild guards. Then, he’d grabbed Avorlus’ unconscious body and carried him off into the Green where no one would ever be able to find him, and he could spend his days making useful Elixirs for Blacknail’s tribe. Blacknail was such a great guy.
“Ah, how very interesting,” Avorlus remarked as walked right up next to Blacknail and begin studying his new body. The mage hadn’t even said hello first.
“You’re a little close. It’s rude.” Blacknail frowned. The old mage didn’t smell great, and was spreading the smell through the house. Maybe he needed to set a pail by the door for humans to use for washing. He could also get a tub for his guards to throw people in.
Avorlus blinked in surprise and stepped back. He then gave Blacknail an apologetic grin. “Oh, sorry. I let my curiosity get the best of me. I’ve studied Vessels and mutants all my life and rarely do I get the chance to see such a unique specimen. Usually when a subject is exposed to a properly stabilized Elixir it will either die or become a Vessel. Only if the Elixir wasn’t made correctly will the subject fully mutate, and then there is usually obvious mental degeneration. From what I’ve heard and seen, it doesn’t seem like you degenerated at all. Maybe the opposite. Hm…”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Blacknail asked suspiciously. Had he just been insulted?
“Oh, nothing much. It’s simply curious that you managed to become a mutant after being a Vessel for so long. Of course, there have always been rumors of warriors drinking too much Elixir and going berserk until they become mutants, but I’ve never seen any actual evidence of it before now. I thought rumors were all they were.”
“What’s mental degeneration?” Blacknail asked. He’d never heard that term before, but it sounded important.
“Ah, degeneration means to weaken. In the case of mutants, it’s a reference to how they seem to lose the ability to think rationally and become more governed by their passions. In particular, traditional mutants appear to become obsessed with feeding and fighting.”
Blacknail gave Avorlus a thoughtful look. “Have you been turning people into mutants on purpose?”
“Er, not on purpose exactly…” the mage replied defensively.
Blacknail rolled his eyes. “I don’t care about your human city rules. I was just wondering if you actually know what you’re talking about when you mentioned mutants getting dumber, or if you were just talking about rumors again.”
“I’m very sure. I was quite thorough in my… tests,” Avorlus admitted matter-of-factly.
“Hmm, how safe are your experiments. I was thinking of trying to turn some of my hobgoblin minions into Vessels.” Using hobgoblin Vessels was a risky strategy, but Blacknail knew he needed every advantage he could get now, and it sounded like turning hobgoblins into mutants would be an even worse idea.
The idea of doing some experiments on hobgoblins seemed to intrigue Avorlus, and he quickly agreed to Blacknail’s proposition. That done, he asked Blacknail to come by Imp’s workshop later so that he could draw some blood. Blacknail had heard that giving mages your blood was a bad idea, but Avorlus said it was necessary for the tests, so he reluctantly agreed. Also, it wasn’t like Avorlus was going anywhere.
When Avorlus left, Blacknail found himself alone in his mansion, except for the silent guards outside and his almost invisible housekeeper. It seemed like there were no more messengers to listen to or reports to go over. Huh. It was chilly outside, so Blacknail decided against going out there. Instead, it was probably time to take a well-deserved break and enjoy all the luxuries of his new home. Repeatedly telling people things they already knew was tiring work.
The main hall’s fireplace was already lit. Blacknail could easily get some hot tea from the kitchen and a blanket from wherever they were kept. Then, he could just sit down next to the fire and relax. Yes, that was how he should spend most of the winter. So comfy and warm. When it snowed, there wouldn’t be much for him to do. Travel and most work would become almost impossible. Every day, he could sleep in and come down to curl up next to the fire…
There was as sudden crash as the door of the mansion flew open. A cold wind blew into the hall and washed over Blacknail – sending a shiver down his spine - as a hobgoblin stepped inside and looked around before focusing on Blacknail. There was a panicked expression on his face.
“We’re under attack, boss. They’ve invaded the mines!” the hobgoblin screeched.
The words washed over Blacknail and he immediately felt a painful headache flare to life inside his skull. Just why? He had a really bad feeling about this already. Implications and possible interpretations of the hobgoblin’s words flashed through Blacknail’s mind, each of them more annoying than the last. There was a reason his head hurt. It was a premonition of a dream lost.
“Close the door before I skin you alive and bury you in an ant hill,” Blacknail hissed. Surprised, the hobgoblin jumped to obey and then knelt on the ground in supplication.
“Now, explain what is happening,” Blacknail told him. He wished he could just throw the messenger out and ignore this intrusion. Maybe Gob could handle it. Maybe it was an invasion of rats, or tasty bunnies!
The messenger looked up from where he was kneeling on the floor. “Yes, boss. A swarm of vile creatures have attacked and chased all the miners out of the caves. They aren’t like anything the miners have seen before.”
Blacknail sighed. So much for the bunny theory. “Are they boggarts?”
“No, great one. They are too small. Just goblin-sized, but they attack in huge swarms. The filthy invaders sneak through the shadows and attack the mages with rocks from afar before rushing in.”
Hmm. Blacknail was glad it wasn’t boggarts at least. If boggarts were invading the mines, then Blacknail would have found himself in heaps of trouble. Not only were boggarts dangerous opponents but they were mysterious and sometimes moved in large numbers. Having them attacking would be a real threat, and quite possibly a permanent one, since there was no way to completely secure the mines.
“Alright, does Gob know?” Blacknail asked as he began stomping over to the door. It would be best to deal with this quickly.
The messenger climbed to his feet. “Yes, boss. He is the one who sent me. Gob is at the entrance to the mine and is gathering warriors and mages while he waits for your command.”
“Good. Good. I’ll go right there to lead the counter attack. Join me,” Blacknail said as he walked outside.
The hobgoblin messenger quickly followed after him, so Blacknail broke out into a run as he headed for the main mine entrance. This was an invasion after all. He shouldn’t waste time, not even for a snack, even if it sounded like no one was fighting right now.
Gob was right where he was supposed to be, outside the mine with two dozen armed hobgoblin warriors and Imp. The hobgoblin mage was holding his crystal-tipped battle staff. At Blacknail’s arrival, they all gave him a quick bow, although they all did it slightly differently and at different times, so they ended up almost falling on top of each other. Blacknail sighed as the last one regained his balance. Did he really have to find someone to train them to bow properly? Ugh, minions…
“What’s going on?” Blacknail asked Gob.
Even though he’d just bowed, Gob threw Blacknail a sloppy salute. “All the miners and guards have been forced out of the mine. Many of them were injured by rocks, claws, and bites, but none of them seem to have been killed. The enemy targeted all the mages with lights, forcing them to retreat.”
“All the mages were just goblins?” Blacknail asked Imp.
Imp nodded. “Yes, I only have two hobgoblin mages, and I don’t send them to work in the mines. For carrying light stones, little goblin mages work fine.”
“What about Scamp?”
Imp scowled for a second. “He’s not a proper mage. Too little brains.”
“Fair enough,” Blacknail admitted. What had Scamp been up to recently anyway? Blacknail hadn’t seen him around.
“What’s the plan, greatest one. Bless us with your wisdom,” Gob asked.
Blacknail smiled. “We’re going to go in there and fight the invaders!”
“Er, surely there is more to your wisdom…”
Blacknail shrugged. “All these invaders did was chase away some miners. I think proper hobgoblin warriors can handle them and protect our mages from some small critters in the dark.
Gob and several other hobgoblins didn’t seem too reassured by their chief’s words, but Blacknail wasn’t worried. He had a good idea of what they were up against. He confidently began leading the way into the dark mine, and all his minions reluctantly followed after him. Thankfully, Imp’s staff flared to life almost immediately, throwing back the shadows and illuminating the cave. There wasn’t any sign of the invaders yet.
With his blade out and ready, Blacknail continued on deeper into the cave until his party reached the cavern’s first major intersection. That was when he finally noticed movement in the shadows at the edge of the light, so he came to a stop and peered into the darkness ahead.
“Give me more light,” he ordered Imp without turning to look at him.
The hobgoblin mage instantly obeyed, and the light from his staff brightened. The darkness was pushed back, giving Blacknail a quick glimpse of pale grey limbs and small skinny bodies, before the creatures hissed in alarm and retreated.
Blacknail nodded at the sight and then began walking again. “Alright, let’s keep going.”
The creatures that had invaded the mine stayed in the dark and fled ahead of Balcknail’s force, but they didn’t disappear. Instead, the sound of their skittering steps and hisses grew louder as more of them gathered out of sight. Some of the hobgoblins began to grow nervous as the hidden creatures grew in number. All of Blacknail’s party had their weapons out now and were on guard.
Suddenly, the light from Imp’s staff revealed a large patch of mushrooms growing on a pile of dirt, and the invader’s hisses grew louder and angrier. Blacknail signaled for everyone to stop as the gathered creatures began to stalk closer to the light. Almost immediately, a barrage of rocks shot of the darkness and flew at the hobgoblins. Blacknail’s troops were ready for this though. They easily batted the small projectiles aside with their weapons or used their armor to block them. Although many of the rocks were aimed at Imp, none of them got close to him.
This staunch defense angered the creatures even more. Their hissing and growls grew furious, and then they charged. Dozens of the creatures burst of the darkness and ran straight for Blacknail and his minions.
Blacknail just laughed as he readied his weapon. In the light, the true face of the invaders was finally plain to see. The creatures were small humanoids with pale grey skin and useless little tails. They all had completely bald heads and unusually large eyes that were mostly closed to protect them from the light. Also, despite the obvious differences, they were without a doubt close relatives to goblins. They general body shape was similar, even if they were skinnier and had stubby tails.
As the first of the attackers leapt at Blacknail, he sent it flying away with a swift kick. He then knocked another out of the air by clubbing it with his sword hilt. The attacking creatures outnumbered the hobgoblins over three to one, and they tried to use their numbers to swarm them, but the hobgoblins stayed in formation and easily held their ground. The attackers were cut down or smashed aside with ease. Several jumped on hobgoblins and tried to claw or bite them, but they almost all failed to penetrate the hobgoblins’ armor. The attackers made a lot of noise, but they were exactly as effective as you’d expect unarmed feral goblins to be against armed and armored hobgoblins. They were ruthlessly crushed in seconds, and quickly lost their nerve. Soon, their angry growls turned to terrified howls and the survivors turned and fled.
“See, that wasn’t so hard,” Blacknail remarked.
Gob nodded solemnly. “Truly, I was wrong to doubt you for even a moment, wisest of all beings. I am unworthy to serve you.”
Blacknail sighed and gave Gob a look. “That’s alright. Most of my minions are even unworthier than you.”
With the invaders scattered and broken, Blacknail and his minions were able to press on and scout the mines without facing any more resistance. Occasionally, they heard movement and familiar hisses echo out of the shadows, but the creatures didn’t attack again. Usually they encountered the invaders near patches of mushrooms, which made Blacknail suspect they were what the goblin-like creatures were after. That didn’t answer all of Blacknail’s questions though.
Blacknail frowned as he trudged through the twisting caverns with his retinue behind him. While he had defeated the enemy with ease, he didn’t think he’d solved his problem. The invaders hadn’t fled from his mines. It would still be unsafe to send goblin miners back to work, but the invaders weren’t likely to attack Blacknail’s party again. With that in mind, Blacknail led his minions over to long passage full of mushroom patches that would have attracted the creatures.
As expected, as soon as Blacknail’s group approached the first pile of fungus, there was a movement in the darkness. Blacknail grinned as he led his troops further in. He’d chosen this particular passage for a reason. It was a dead end, which meant he could trap the invaders in it.
There were hisses as the creatures fled before Blacknail’s group, until they reached end of the tunnel. Then, the light from Imp’s staff hit the far wall, shredding the last shreds of darkness the invaders were using to hide. Once again, they were revealed. About two dozen of the goblin-like creatures cowered against the far wall of the cave. They squinted and shielded their eyes from the light.
Instead of ordering his troops forward to slaughter them, Blacknail took a moment to study his pathetic foe. Something was bothering him. Why were these creatures here? They were obviously cowards, so why did they attack his miners? They are terrified of hobgoblins, Blacknail could sense it clearly, and yet they’d attacked him. Hmm, since they were so goblin-like, Blacknail thought he should be able to understand how they thought.
As Blacknail studied the creatures cowering before him, one of them reacted to his lack of aggression. Shaking from fear, it slowly approached him and knelt on the ground. The wretched and sickly colored thing looked skinny and malnourished.
“Trog!” the critter whined as it cowered.
When Blacknail failed to react with violence, several other of the creatures moved to join their fellow in surrender and begin whining as well. Feeling annoyed, Blacknail just scowled down at them. The surrender of these… Trogs meant nothing. Without a doubt, they’d scamper off the first chance they got, and Blacknail would never find them in the endless tunnels of the Dark Paths. Still, something was bothering him about this whole situation.
Turning to look back the way he’d come, Blacknail’s scowl deepened. Several unwelcome suspicions had begun to form in his mind. The first place he’d encountered the Trogs had been the huge mushroom forest. Why had they left it and come here, where there was danger and slimmer pickings?
Unbidden, a swirl of half remembered thoughts rose in Blacknail’s mind. Had he dreamt last night? He thought he remembered a gnashing of teeth and a skittering of black claws in the dark. Endless hunger and countless mouths…
Blacknail grimaced and turned to Gob. “Go gather up as many troops and mages as you can find. I want a full war party ready as soon as possible.”