Blacknail wanted to scream in frustration, but he’d been doing a lot of that lately, so his throat was sore. Thus, instead he just glared irritably at everyone who dared approach him.
Over a month had passed since the first snowfall of winter, and Blacknail had barely had any time to rest and relax. One nap a day wasn’t enough for him. He wasn’t some useless minion. As the big chief, he should be sleeping almost constantly.
That first snowfall had lasted several days and left the ground covered in a white blanket that came up to Blacknail’s knees. That had made it impossible for Blacknail to recall any of his troops and been a complete hassle in many other ways. Even moving around through Ironbreak had been difficult until Blacknail had personally gone and dragged his minions out of their warm homes and forced them to work on clearing the streets of snow.
That had just been the beginning of Blacknail’s problems. None of the hunters and gatherers had wanted to go out in the cold, so Blacknail had been forced to ration the food stores until the lazy fools got off their asses and went to find fresh food. Of course, having the hunters out in the snow led to other problems. There’d been an increase in boggart encounters, which had led to several hunters never making it back. Blacknail had no idea how many goblins were being picked off, but he did know that wild game had been growing scarce, since the hobgoblins and boggarts were both hunting in the same area. Something needed to be done about that.
There were also sightings of boggarts below ground. After their defeat and rout from the mushroom forest, they’d avoided open conflict, but they still seemed to be creeping around the edges of his territory. They might be scouting for an attack, but Blacknail really had no idea how boggarts thought or what their plans were. They might just be acting randomly.
There had been some good developments, but they were the sort of good developments that meant more work for Blacknail, so they were really mixed at best. Despite the boggarts creeping around, the mines had been reopened and their defenses had been reinforced successfully. All the passages big enough for boggarts to use were defended or sealed up, and the entire place was regularly patrolled to make sure no new tunnels had been dug. If the boggarts did invade, they’d have to get past barricades and armed guards with lights that would immediately send for reinforcements. Several hobgoblins were also trying to figure out how to set traps for boggarts, but it was proving tricky. They’d had yet to get one.
At least the taming of the trogs had been going well, even if Blacknail had to get involved in that as well. The pale creatures were actually easier to deal with than goblins. Once they learned a few basic commands, it wasn’t hard to convince them to work for their meals. They did share one serious flaw with goblins though. Once you started feeding them, swarms of them came out of nowhere looking for handouts. Honestly, no one had any idea where they were coming from or how they were getting into the mine undetected, but there were easily several times as many trogs in the mine as there had been when Blacknail had first gone down there to deal with their invasion.
Thankfully, they seemed more than happy to eat the mushrooms that grew underground as well as some bugs and worms. Thus, by controlling access to the mushroom forest, it was easy for Ferrar to get them working in the mine. Ferrar was also trying to train some of them to be scouts, but that was more complicated. Trogs seemed to be even worse than goblins when it came to languages.
“There are no signs of any immediate boggart attacks, and the mines are secure,” Gob reported.
He and Blacknail’s other lieutenants were in a meeting with their chieftain at his mansion, which was nice and warm thanks to its several fireplaces. They’d all been discussing their various projects and duties. As usual, Blacknail was concerned about their food supplies.
“The boggarts might be scaring away all our game to starve us out.”
Gob didn’t look convinced. “We have plenty of supplies stored away, and we’re still catching lots of small critters like squirrels and rabbits. We don’t need much big game.”
“Boggarts probably eat rabbits. They both live in the ground, and we can’t survive on squirrels,” Blacknail pointed out.
“We could eat mushrooms from underground. The trogs seem to like them,” Ferrar suggested with a shrug.
Blacknail scowled at him. “If we get too many trogs they will eat all the mushrooms. Also, the boggarts could overrun the cave forest and the mines if they really wanted to. They have numbers, weapons, and magic. They only reason they haven’t is because they’re a bunch of dumb bugs.”
“So, what do you want us to do?” Ferrar asked.
Blacknail turned to Imp. “We need real mages at the guard posts. To blow up enemy swarms and defend us from boggart magic.”
“Blowing things up underground is a bad idea and defending against magic is difficult without a staff and special crystals,” the mage replied skeptically.
“Find a way to kill them without blowing everything up then. I’ve seen mages shoot death beams.”
“Ya, the magic hits them and then they just fall over dead.”
Imp frowned. “That sounds very boring, but I might be able to come up with something.”
Blacknail gave the mage a glare. “Do it. No excuses, and if your minions need staffs or something, then get Ferrar to make them for you. Together, you should be able to figure it out.”
“Yes, boss,” Imp replied as Ferrar nodded in agreement.
“I could get more of the trogs working to build defenses underground. I have more of them than I can use,” Ferrar suggested. “They will work all day for food and protection from hungry beasts.”
“Hmm, I wonder if we can use them to make food.” Blacknail liked making problems into solutions. Solutions were usually less work.
Gob opened his mouth, but Blacknail cut him off. “We’re not going to eat them.”
“Could we farm mushrooms underground?” Ferrar asked. “I think all we’d need is a warm cave, water, and dirt.”
“It’s worth a try,” Blacknail replied. “And we have trogs to do the work, and there’s no point letting them lay around like drunken humans.”
“There are some caves that are warm and wet enough. The rock in most of them shows that they flood a lot, but we can do something about that.”
“Good. Good. Do that.” Blacknail replied impatiently. He’d already lost interest.
“Is there anything else you want to know, boss?” Gob asked.
“Have any of the trogs fallen asleep and not woken up? They’re a lot like goblins. I want to know if they can become hobs.”
“No one has seen anything like that yet, boss.”
The meeting lasted for a few more minutes, but then Blacknail dismissed them. They’d gone over everything important and talking to his lieutenants was getting annoying. They needed to start doing better. Really, they should be predicting his orders. Herah had rewarded some of her minions for doing that, so obviously Blacknail needed to start punishing his until they became just as good. Also, it was almost snack time and he didn’t want any of them around when he went to get the cheese he’d stashed away in his secret cheese compartment. He’d had the human workers build it, and then sworn them to secrecy. If they violated his trust, he’d made it very clear that he’d kill them and their entire families.
Two days passed by without too much happening. Just the usual constant supervision of idiots. However, when Blacknail put on his heavy furs and stomped around outside, he was greeted by the sight of a very different looking Ironbreak. Snow covered the sprawling settlement and smoke rose from dozens of chimneys. There were also a lot less goblins running around. They’d all found warmer nooks and crannies to shelter from the weather in. Those that didn’t have places in longhouses with fireplaces had done what feral did during the winter and dug themselves burrows where they could huddle together with other goblins for warmth.
Although there was snow everywhere, paths had been cut through the deeper parts and stomped down. The settlement was very much still active. Those goblins that had warm clothes still ran about on chores, and hobgoblins were still required to report for duty. The mine and most of Ferrar’s workshops and smithies were still running at full production. Teams of lumberjacks were also constantly going out to get more wood to feed the many fires. Carts had trouble in the snow, so boars were used to drag simple sleds instead. Blacknail was even considering taking a sled to Shelter. After being away from his human minions for so long, he’d come to miss their unique perspective on life. Also, they were much more fun to torment than hobgoblins and the look on their faces when they were scared or confused was just too amusing.
Wait, what had happened to Elyias? Blacknail hadn’t seen him in forever. He should still be around somewhere… The little bastard must have fled somewhere while Blacknail had been injured, and then he’d been too busy to notice. Well, at least hunting Elyias down come spring would be amusing.
On the third day, while Blacknail was inspecting some of Ferrar’s forges – which just happened to be the warmest place in the settlement – there was a loud cry from outside. Rushing to the door, Blacknail threw it open and stepped out to listen. The cry soon repeated itself and it was loud enough for the entire settlement to hear. It was a hobgoblin sounding the alarm. The mines were under attack.
Immediately, Blacknail began screaming for all the nearby warriors to join him as he began running over to the mines. There was no time to waste. A boggart swarm could quickly slaughter their way through the tunnels and do severe damage to Ironbreak’s underground operations. Thankfully, Blacknail had properly instructed his minions of the fate of any hobgoblins cowardly enough to try and avoid a general call-to-arms. Only marked craftsmen with other duties were exempt. Thus, hobgoblins with weapons were soon stumbling out of longhouses and moving to join him, as they pulled on their primitive armor.
This time, Blacknail managed to beat Gob and the others to the entrance of the mine and the howling hobgoblin standing outside it. Seeing his chieftain arrive, the hobgoblin stopped yelling long enough to tell Blacknail what had happened. He was a little excited, and thus hard to understand, but it sounded like the boggarts had attacked a guard post on the far side of the mine, near the mushroom forest.
Imp still hadn’t shown up, but there was a hobgoblin mage with a light stone present, so Blacknail didn’t waste any time. Leaving a messenger behind with instructions for Gob, he rallied the gathered hobgoblins and led them down into the tunnels. Two dozen hobgoblins should be enough to at least delay the enemy before they got too far into the mine.
Moving at a quick jog through the caves - which was as fast as he could and not stumble over something or fall into a hole in the floor – Blacknail headed straight for the lost guard post. The barricades that protected the underground entrances to the mines were simple tall barriers of piled rock secured by sharpened stakes. Each of them was guarded by three hobgoblins and a goblin mage to provide light. In case of an attack, two of the hobs were supposed to stall the enemy at the barricade while the third ran to get reinforcements.
As they moved through the twisting tunnels, Blacknail’s troops passed groups of frightened goblin miners that were fleeing to the surface and confused packs of trogs that quickly got out of their way. Several of the goblin work parties contained hobgoblin leaders that Blacknail ordered to join him. Before they got to their destination, a wounded hobgoblin stumbled into sight alongside a terrified looking goblin that was clutching a glowing light stone.
“The black bugs are coming, boss. They killed Nosy, and they’re right behind me!” the wounded hobgoblin announced as he stumbled over to Blacknail’s side.
“How many?” Blacknail asked.
“Too many for me to count in the dark, and they have some of the big warriors with spears,” the guard replied.
Blacknail grunted sourly as he came to a stop and peered down the passage ahead. That wasn’t very helpful. At least this passage didn’t have any branches that led into the mines. If he stopped the enemy here, he could stop the attack completely. It was too bad Imp wasn’t here with a death beam. That would make this a lot easier. He really wanted a death beam.
However, Blacknail didn’t have long to think about his minion’s failures. After only a few moments, the first of the boggarts burst into sight. A mob of a dozen black workers scuttled around the bend in the passage ahead. They slowed when they saw the waiting hobgoblins, but this only gave the other boggarts behind them time to catch up, including several looming warriors. Thus assembled, the boggarts didn’t stop. The moving mass of black carapace hurtled toward the hobgoblins.
“Get ready to stomp some dumb bugs,” Blacknail laughed cheerfully. His minions needed some reassuring, so at the same time, he reached for the power in his core and used it to steal some of their fear.
As his minions readied themselves for battle behind him, and the enemy closed in, Blacknail drew his weapon from the sheathe across his back. The long sword came free with a quiet hiss. It was a new weapon that Blacknail had chosen after his battle in the mushroom forest. His old blade just hadn’t been big enough for his larger body and had been holding him back. This new weapon was a long two-handed sword that allowed Blacknail to fully use his new strength and gave him some impressive new reach. It had come from his stash of looted weapons taken form dead humans.
The mob of boggarts was almost upon them now, so instead of waiting, Blacknail roared and charged forward to meet them. His sudden attack caught the front rank of workers off-guard, and his magically enhanced speed didn’t give them any time to react. Two boggarts were almost instantly knocked aside and mangled by Blacknail’s first swing, and a third worker lost a limb. The wounded boggarts were quickly trampled by the row of boggarts behind them, throwing the enemy’s ranks into chaos. Boggarts stumbled over each other as Blacknail swung his blade around again and unleashed a blast of unnatural fear at them.
The enemy warriors managed to react first. At the same time, two of them raised their spears and stabbed at Blacknail. The hobgoblin chieftain just grunted and batted both spears aside with a swing of his new weapon. This opened him up to an attack by the shorter boggart workers, but as they leapt forward to tackle Blacknail, they were intercepted by his minions. Hobgoblin spears and swords made quick work of the aggressive boggarts.
Having fun now, Blacknail lunged forward and swung his long blade around at a warrior’s chest. Stuck among the ranks of its fellows, it couldn’t dodge or back away quickly enough. Blacknail’s weapon smashed into it, sending the warrior crashing sideways with a huge gash in its armor.
A spear from another warrior came out of nowhere and sliced past Blacknail’s shoulder, giving him a shallow cut, but Blacknail ignored the wound and kept on hacking and slashing at everything around him. Unlike at the battle in the mushroom forest, the tight confines of this tunnel and his longer weapon allowed Blacknail to dominate the fight. With his minion’s behind him, the boggarts couldn’t get at his flanks.
After a few more hectic moments of battle, the boggarts seemed to realize they were at a disadvantage. With their usual creepy precision, the creatures suddenly stopped attacking and began backing away. Blacknail laughed and jumped forward. As he landed, he brought his blade down on the head of a worker, crushing its skull like an egg. At this point, the boggarts abandoned their careful retreat and all turned to flee at full speed. Which was when they were hit by a hail of rocks. The thrown stones did no real damage to the boggarts as they slipped away, but Blacknail glanced back to see who had thrown them. What he saw surprised him. There was a small mob of trogs huddled behind his hobgoblins. They’d been watching the fight and had thrown the stones. Huh, throwing rocks seemed to be trogs’ go to move. Well, that was more bravery than goblins usually displayed anyway.
Snorting in amusement, Blacknail turned to make sure the boggarts were all gone. Which was when he was surprised again. There was one boggart warrior left in sight. It was standing up ahead, right at the bend in the tunnel, and it looked to be calmly watching Blacknail. Its black eyes shone with reflected light as the menacing creature studied its foe. Blacknail’s own eyes narrowed as he met its impenetrable gaze. He really didn’t like these things.
The two enemies eyed each other for another few seconds, until the boggart warrior suddenly looked away and scuttled out of sight. Creepy.