After sending Gob and Imp outside to get reinforcements, Blacknail and several minions waited for them to return at the first intersection in the cave. An unknown number of trogs warily watched from the shadows beyond the light. One of Imp’s assistants had remained behind with a crystal. Blacknail ignored the shifting darkness and the hissing of the unseen trogs. They weren’t important now. He had much more dangerous things to worry about. In fact, the presence of the Trogs was reassuring because it meant nothing more dangerous was around.
Thankfully, Blacknail didn’t have to wait in the dripping darkness all that long. The alarm had already been raised earlier up above, so Gob was quickly able to round up more troops and return. As Gob and Imp’s group came into sight, Blacknail counted thirty more hobgoblins and three more mages holding glowing light stones. Half the hobgoblins had the warrior mark, but all of them were armed with swords or spears. Blacknail almost felt like waiting for more, but decided it would slow them down too much. Imp’s magic should be enough.
Once he reached his chief’s side, Gob immediately stopped and saluted. Blacknail gave him an approving nod. “Good job.”
Blacknail then turned to Imp. “Did you bring your best battle magics? Every enemy we blow up is one less enemy trying to kill us.”
“Wise words, boss. But, you said not to get anything that would kill everyone in the cave or bury us under rock,” Imp replied with a frown.
“Fine, did you bring the best magic you can actually use without killing us all?”
Imp nodded. “Probably. We tested it once and nothing too terrible happened.”
“Just be ready to attack at my command,” Blacknail replied with a sigh. He hated magic.
“What enemy do you think is down here?” Gob asked as he studied the surrounding darkness with a frown. There wasn’t much to see.
“Like a great leader, I’m always expecting enemies everywhere,” Blacknail replied vaguely before ordering his troops to form up. There was a chance that his suspicions were wrong, and he didn’t want to look silly in front of the minions. There was also no point in spooking them by revealing the truth. Hobgoblins weren’t known for their bravery.
With Imp at his side to illuminate the way, Blacknail led his troops deeper into the caves and toward the underground river. The heavy thud of footsteps echoed behind him as his troops marched in a three-hob wide column.
When they reached the huge cavern that contained the rushing river, Blacknail led them down the rocky incline beyond the entrance and into the cave proper. Crabs and other beasts shuffled as they hid among the stone pillars that dotted the cave, but they didn’t attack the passing hobgoblins. Blacknail used his power to terrify any beast that got too close, but he barely had to do anything. Such a large formation of tightly packed hobgoblins wasn’t exactly a tempting target. There was easier prey for even the hungriest of creatures. Thus, Blacknail’s troops reached the other side of the cavern and the passages that lay there unmolested.
Blacknail called for a stop as he eyed the tunnel that led to the mushroom forest suspiciously. “We’re going to move quickly now. Turn up all the lights and keep in formation. Expect attacks from the shadows. Don’t even think about hanging back though. Anyone who falls behind will be gutted and left for the crabs.”
After sharing some nervous glances, the hobgoblins climbed up the rocks at the entrance to the tunnel and then swiftly fell back into formation. Immediately, Blacknail urged them forward and they begin moving at a brisk pace.
“We’re not going to try and be sneaky?” Gob asked as he marched beside Blacknail.
“No, most of the minions aren’t used to the darkness down here. They’d just trip and hurt themselves in the dark, or blunder right into an enemy. Light and speed will serve us better.”
At Blacknail’s command, the mages had brightened their mana stones, so the long cave passage was flooded with light. This helped the hobgoblins move over the irregular stone floor and navigate through the rocks at a quick jog, but Blacknail knew it would also give away their approach. Most likely, the enemy already knew they were coming. All they could do was give them as little time as possible to react, and hope that the light would blind their sentries.
As they neared their goal, Blacknail saw the darkness up ahead swirl as something large slipped away. The movement was confirmation of his suspicions, but he wasn’t pleased. He wished he’d been wrong. A few seconds later, a cluster of shadows in the passage ahead of the hobgoblins shivered as something within them moved and then scuttled out into the light. At first, the twisted shapes looked like they were actually made from living shadow, but Blacknail’s eyes quickly made sense of them. Their shiny black carapaces and many-legged bodies marked them as boggarts. There were five of them, and their empty black eyes shone as they scuttled forward to block the hobgoblins’ advance.
“Keep moving and kill them!” Blacknail yelled as he charged forward and drew his sword. Its blade shone brightly with reflected light from Imp’s staff as it slid free from its sheath.
Without apparent fear of being so outnumbered, the boggarts held their position. They reared up and raised their front limbs menacingly as they balanced on their four back limbs. The creatures were smaller than hobgoblins, but they were covered in thick black carapace. Their claws and mandibles looked as sharp as daggers and they were almost as long.
As he lunged at the center boggart, Blacknail sent a pulse of terror at the creatures. He then slashed at a gap in the carapace on his target’s neck. The boggarts stiffened in shock as the unexpected magic washed over them, which allowed Blacknail to strike true. His blade sank deep into unprotected flesh. Blood spurted from the wound and the boggarts spasmed and fell, so Blacknail wrenched his weapon free and turned to face his next opponent.
The first rank of Blacknail’s minions joined the fight, just as he struck at his second target. Unfortunately, this time his blade was deflected by a thickly armored forearm. The power of the blow did knock the boggart off balance though, so Blacknail kicked his opponent in the side, and then tried to stab it in the face. It was time to stomp some creepy bugs.
The five boggarts had formed a tight line that blocked the way forward, but with one of them already down, the charging hobgoblins easily managed to draw the creatures out and flank each boggart. The creatures were tough and difficult to hurt, but as they’d been trained, the hobgoblins didn’t fight fair. They worked together to surround and harass the boggarts until one of them could get in a killing blow. Feeling proud of his minions’ skill, Blacknail helped. He quickly finished off his second opponent and then moved to help his minions kill a third. By that time, the other boggarts were down as well. The fight ended up lasting only around a minute.
“That wasn’t so hard,” a hobgoblin warrior remarked as he kicked a dead boggart.
“Keep moving! These boggarts were just buying time for the others,” Blacknail remarked as he began running again.
“The others?” Gob asked.
“Yep, it’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Blacknail’s minions quickly hurried after their leader, although their formation was much rougher looking now. Still, it only took them a few moments to reach the entrance to their destination. Sword still out, Blacknail slowed for a moment to let Imp catch up, and then they stepped into the next cave together.
Instantly, the light from the glowing crystal that was atop Imp’s staff shone out into the cavern before the hobgoblins. It was a huge chamber that you could fit a village in, and it was full of all different sorts and colors of mushrooms. The tall fungus formed something very like a forest, and it blocked Blacknail’s vision in several directions, but he could see enough. The mushroom forest had changed noticeably since his last visit. A dozen stumps jutted up from the dark soil that covered the ground where entire mushrooms had been removed, and there were dark shapes running around everywhere. Boggarts.
Behind Blacknail, the hobgoblin troops were hesitating and getting stuck in the entrance, so he took a moment to order his troops forward and back into formation. That done, he turned back to study the enemy. There were a lot of them running around in every direction, although it was hard to count them as they darted around through the darkness. There were dozens anyway. For now, they looked unorganized, but that wouldn’t last. Every time he’d met them, boggarts had shown themselves to be very social and smarter than normal beasts. He needed to pick off as many of them as possible before they could rally.
“Follow me and kill everything that gets in our way!” Blacknail roared before marching toward the forest.
The nearby boggarts scattered before the hobgoblins, but Blacknail kept his troops together. He was tempted to let them rampage, but he wanted them all nearby until he knew exactly what he was facing. It would be too easy to lose control of the situation if his minions ran into the trees, and boggarts unnerved him. The shiny bug things looked and acted far too freaky for his liking. Why couldn’t they be as ugly-cute as humans?
“They’re all running away, boss,” Imp remarked as he held up his light.
Suddenly, a loud chorus of buzz-like screams echoed out of the fungal forest, and all the boggarts shifted to begin scrambling in that direction. They didn’t seem so unorganized now. Blacknail growled and peered into the shifting mess of fungus and shadows that lay in the direction that the sounds had come from. As he watched, a mass of about thirty boggarts appeared. It was headed right for the hobgoblins and it was growing as more boggarts rushed out of the trees.
“That’s a lot of enemies, great one,” Gob observed.
Blacknail grunted sourly. “That’s why I brought the mages. To blow the bugs up. I’m not planning on fighting fair.” He’d had bad luck when it came to fair fights.
“Just say the word, boss,” Imp interjected eagerly. “They won’t know what hit them. No one will.”
Before Blacknail could reply to that, he saw something that drew his immediate attention. There were several tall shapes in the middle of the boggart swarm. Most of the boggarts were scrambling across the ground on all six of their limbs, but these new figures looked to be as tall as hobgoblins, if not taller. That couldn’t be good. Blacknail’s eyes narrowed. What were they?
“Ready your magic. I’ll give the command to strike when they’re too close to run away. I want to squash these bugs,” Blacknail told Imp as he studied this new threat.
The boggarts were closer now, so there were less mushrooms blocking Blacknail’s vision. The tall figures were definitely boggarts, but larger and with a slightly different shape. They had longer front limbs and a heavier lower body, as if they were built to move on only their four back legs. A cold shiver went down Blacknail’s spine and the hair on the back of his neck rose as he noticed other differences. These new boggarts looked to be bigger than hobgoblins, and they were carrying spears. Tools. Blacknail’s most paranoid fantasies had been proven true. Boggarts were more than just mere beasts. They were a true threat to his entire tribe. One he couldn’t ignore. They had to die.
“Fire now! Aim at the tall ones,” Blacknail told Imp.
The enemy mob was only about twenty seconds away now, and there were about forty normal boggarts and ten large ones in it. That was way more than Blacknail wanted to face head on. A hobgoblin warrior could take one of the smaller boggarts, but probably not two, or one of the larger version. Hmm, it depended on how good they were with those spears.
Imp barked a quick command and all his assistants hurled mana crystals at the center of the boggart mob. There was no need for slings since they were so close. The crystals fell and vanished into the crowd of shiny black bodies, before exploding with a series of loud booms. Blue light flashed though the shadowy forest. As per Blacknail’s instructions, the explosions weren’t all that large, but they were more than powerful enough to throw boggarts in every direction. The enemy mob stumbled to a sudden halt as it was pummeled by blue magical power. Clods of dark earth and clumps of fungus were also thrown into the air. Most the boggarts weren’t hit directly, but over a dozen of them went down, including three of the big ones. Many of the others were stunned and their swarm now had huge holes in it.
“Good work, but those just looked like force blasts, but bluer. Do they do something special?” Blacknail asked. He loved magic. It was so useful.
Imp nodded. “Yes, they’re from a batch of flawed force crystals that are weaker than usual, create blue light, and taste like fish. That makes them useful for down here though."
What? Fish? Blacknail felt like he should ask about that, but he had a charge to lead. It would be stupid to give the enemy time to recover. They weren’t finished yet.
“Charge! Don’t leave a single bug alive!” Blacknail yelled as he ran at the stunned enemy. They were only about twenty feet away.
The other hobgoblin warriors roared and raced after their chieftain. Blacknail lunged forward and cut off a boggart’s arm. It squealed in pain as the front rank of hobgoblins slammed into the boggarts beside him. Blacknail began slashing at another nearby enemy, but even though it was still partly stunned, it was hard to kill. The stubborn boggart fell back and shielded itself with its arms, which presented Blacknail with an almost solid wall of black armor. After a few more fustrated swings, Blacknail managed to find a gap and kill the boggart, but most his minions were having the same problem. All around him, hobgoblins were slashing at defending boggarts. That didn’t last long. The boggarts quickly recovered and pushed back. The surviving tall warriors pushed the smaller ones away began stabbing at the hobgoblins with their long spears. The reach of their spears allowed them to strike from behind the front rank of smaller boggarts. It was an effective maneuver, and several hobgoblins fell back with bleeding wounds.
The hobgoblins’ advance ground to a halt before the wall of black armor, and the fighting grew bloody and brutal. The smaller boggarts were more than just tough. If a hobgoblin dropped his guard, they would leap forward and try to rip their opponents’ green flesh apart with their razor-sharp claws and mandibles. Several hobgoblins went down this way. Blacknail had to stab the exposed armpit of small boggart that had pulled down one of his minions and then kick it off him.
Growling in fury, Blacknail begin hacking and slashing at the nearby enemies. This battle was not going as planned, and he needed to do something, because his minions were so useless. Eyeing a nearby boggart spearman, Blacknail drew power up from his core and kicked the small boggart that was in his way aside. He then unleashed a blast of fear at all the nearby enemies and lunged at the spearman.
The tall boggart was a little shorter than Blacknail’s new body, but it was obviously heavier. Not only was it covered in thick carapace, but it had an abdomen and four legs. The boggart warrior reacted slowly thanks to Blacknail’s magic, but it still saw him coming and tried to knock him aside with a swing of its spear. Magic flowing through his body, Blacknail ducked under the blow and then slashed at the creature’s exposed elbow joint. After a moment of resistance, his powerful strike cut through the vulnerable flesh and severed the entire limb. The boggart screeched like a teapot full of bees as it was left holding its spear with only one arm.
However, Blacknail’s attack had left him vulnerable and ahead of his minions. A small boggart rushed him from one side as another enemy warrior stabbed at his chest. To avoid the attacks, Blacknail was forced to jump back to safety. He hit another hobgoblin as he landed back among his troops, but he just shoved the unfortunate minion aside. Stupid minions should have seen him coming and gotten out of the way.
Damaged by Imp’s magic barrage and the hobgoblin charge, the outnumbered boggart mob nonetheless kept up their furious attack. There were still six of the tall warriors fighting, and they lashed out at the hobgoblins with startling speed and power. The swarm of smaller workers around them made it impossible for the hobgoblins to try and flank them. Blacknail had to throw himself back into the melee when the hobgoblin to his left was tackled to the ground by two smaller boggarts.
“We need to take out the big bugs!” Blacknail yelled as he rescued his fallen ally and then kicked him back away from the fight.
This fight was still far too close for Blacknail’s liking. The hobgoblins’ charge had been stopped, and more boggart workers were still creeping out of the forest of mushrooms to join the enemy’s ranks. Also, they were in a very large cave, but the fighting was beginning to cause the air to grow thin and dusty. Blacknail wheezed as he drew a deep breath. It was becoming hard to breathe. If they didn’t do something soon, the boggarts would gain the advantage, break the hobgoblins' formation, and then rip them apart. Stupid giant black bugs!