The Gopher King: Chapter 9

Malindra’s keen senses told her that there were living beings milling about the old winery. She paused and gave careful consideration to her physical form. In the wink of an eye she reverted to her natural form. She shrank ever so slightly from her voluptuous human form and took on the appearance of a hideous ancient crone, complete with jutting chin and nose. Her skin changed to a dark violet-blue hue. Her greasy jet-black hair went wild in all directions like an unkempt porcupine. Her eyes glowed like burning red coals, and her fingers and nails grew to almost comically wicked proportions. She wasn’t sure who she was going to find in the winery, but she was going to strike the fear of Hades itself into their souls and give them plenty of pause should they think that attacking her was a viable option.

Malindra arrived at a gate in a low wall that went around the back of the winery buildings. There were a number of hobgoblins standing behind the wall, and the wall was short enough that they could peer over it they were standing on a small barrel or crate. They had spotted the night hag from a distance off and one of them called out to her in a sort of pidgin Geldenspeak, “Who goes there? Identify yourself!”

The night hag didn’t pause but continued walking in her stooped over manner. “I am one third of the hell that governs your wretched lives!” Malindra called back. Her voice was piercing and strong but was otherwise that of a broken old woman. “Open the gate and let me in or else I’ll smash it down and ride your cursed souls into oblivion!”

There was a commotion on the other side of the wall and the gate swung open. A couple dozen hobgoblins in shiny black leather armor stood ready for a fight just in case somebody tried to get in after the night hag gained entrance. One of the more battle-scarred hobgoblins saluted Malindra and said, “Welcome home to the shady side of damnation. We knew you or your sister would show up eventually to set this right.” The other hobgoblins closed and secured the gate.

“Are you the goon in charge here?” Malindra snapped. These pitiful beings had served her sister well as soldiers, but it was important to keep them in their place. The night hag had to reassert her authority and get some control over things in Maelonbourg. She tried to focus her thoughts on everything that wasn’t the larvae buried under the castle ruins a couple of miles away.

The hobgoblin nodded his head and said, “Yes, my queen. I am Captain Jorwan, and I have about forty troops that operate out of this property.”

“Where are the rest of Colldrenia’s thugs?” Malindra asked as she headed for the main building.

The hobgoblin captain followed her and replied, “Most have been killed and raised up as those horrors around the center of the ruined city. The rest of us scattered for defensible locales in the surrounding areas. The garrison in the far north has been overrun by orcs coming down from their stronghold in Oublier but the threat of the undead in the city have kept them at bay for the time being.” He chuckled sadly and added, “Good thing because we are in no situation to offer any real resistance.”

Malindra walked into the main building of this reclaimed manor. Standing in the main entry hall she took a look around at what she had to work with. “Captain, I want you to rally all of the hobgoblins you can find and set up posts to keep an eye on orcish activities. I want this estate to be as heavily defended as you can make it. Send word out through whatever channels you can to recruit more help. I will be working on completing the original plan that Colldrenia was spearheading. Set to work and inform me of anything that presents itself as an obstacle.”

Jorwan saluted sharply and set about calling some of his platoon to carry out the night hag’s orders. Malindra left them to it and explored what had once been the manor house of a wealthy vintner. It wasn’t even a fraction of the size that the castle had been, but it didn’t matter to Malindra. She was far less attached to things of this world than her sister had been. From here she could monitor activities dealing with excavating the larvae and keeping her prize secured. Malindra found a large chair with a tall back and had a hobgoblin move it to the main hall of the house to serve as her throne.

After seating herself in her makeshift throne Malindra dispatched another hobgoblin to keep an eye on whatever the Viceroy was up to back in the ruins of the city. The hobgoblin charged with this task would likely never be able to articulate just how fully and completely they did not want to do this. The fellow was easily over six feet tall and in every way the picture of lanky yet burly build that hobgoblins were famous for. His hairy hide was an ashen gray color and his face showed a reddish-brown color skin. His nose was a bluish hue, his eyes a bright yellow, and his teeth were a yellowed ivory color. He had a longsword that appeared to have been of elvish design and carried a coiled whip on his belt. His leather and steel armor was tinted black and he wore a cloak that was a bright red. Malindra learned from him that his name was Sheckner, and it was obvious to her from his body language that he would rather do anything other than going down to babysit a lich.

Sheckner did it anyway of course. Every hobgoblin in Maelonbourg knew how violently the night hags could react to having their orders ignored or disobeyed. Colldrenia early on established her control by tearing apart insubordinates with her bare hands and devouring them while the life ebbed out of them. In their natural forms, night hags were terrifying to all but the most hardened people, and hobgoblins were no exception. Sheckner steadied himself and set out for the ruined city to keep an eye on the lich. And the hordes of undead. And whatever else might be lurking about in the night in a land governed more by nightmares than reason. The more that Sheckner thought about it the less he liked it.

Like many people, and frankly a lot of living monsters as well, Sheckner couldn’t get that close to the Viceroy. As soon as he would have been able to make visual contact of the lich there would be an irresistible fear that grew in Sheckner’s heart. Sheckner had no way of knowing this firsthand of course. But as he entered the ruined city there was a feeling of dread that began to creep over him. He moved carefully, using his goblinoid infravision to identify where there might be undead lurking. He drew his sword and took care not to make too much noise or stumble in the scattered debris.

Before he laid eyes on the lich the hobgoblin could identify the neat and disciplined formations of his undead brethren standing at attention. There was one large group in front of him to the right and another somewhat smaller group ahead and to the left. Sheckner paused and wiped the sweat from his brow. Hobgoblins were a militaristic people and thrived on fighting. But this kind of unearthly horror wasn’t what any hobgoblin had signed up for. Plus it was ingrained in hobgoblin culture to fight as an organized force either in a small group or a goodly sized army. This sort of sneaking about and facing ridiculous odds if the undead should suddenly decide to attack wasn’t high on Sheckner’s list of things he eagerly anticipated doing.

Sheckner watched the two phalanxes warily for a while before he decided to test them out by throwing a rock near each one of them. The ghoulish sentries stood their ground and made no noise. Considering the available options of being butchered by these repulsive minions of the lich or else being shredded into oblivion by the night hag for not following through on his mission Sheckner finally summoned up enough courage to continue on and see if he could find the Viceroy.

Locating the lich wasn’t a particularly daunting task. Sheckner finally spotted the cursed mage hunkered over his experiment that laid upon the boulder in front of it. The Viceroy had his back to Sheckner, so the hobgoblin wasn’t able to see the lich’s face. But there was enough to be seen to send a shudder up Sheckner’s spine. Looking around quickly to make sure that nobody else was creeping up on him, the hobgoblin tried to ascertain what the lich was doing.

It was frankly impossible to tell at this distance. The aura of cold, bleak terror that surrounded the lich kept any living creature from getting too close. A person would have to be extraordinarily powerful to even contemplate getting close enough to look the Viceroy square in the eyes. There probably wasn’t a hobgoblin in the entire continent of Partum that could have sauntered right up to the Viceroy to see what he was doing. And even if you could get close enough to watch, why would you want to? What could a lich possibly be doing with a body; living, undead, or otherwise that anyone would want to observe? And assuming for one minute that the lich even let you get that close was a major leap of faith. Sheckner might not have had all that many life experiences but he was almost positive that a freakishly powerful undead conjurer wasn’t going to be the most hospitable creature in the Wenigzustand.

The hobgoblin stood in the darkness of the night trying not to give the lich any cause to turn around to see who might be creeping in the shadows behind him. Sheckner couldn’t see what was going on other than the lich was cutting up what must have been one of the zombie-like hobgoblins. The lich must have found out something with this gruesome exercise because he stopped what he was doing, stood there looking thoughtful for a while, and then with a swift chopping motion snapped the pathetic monster’s head off with the dagger in his right hand. Sheckner had seen worse things than that in the years he had spent serving Colldrenia, but it was enough to make him decide that this task had come to a perfectly natural stopping place. He backed away until he couldn’t see the lich anymore and then headed for the old winery to report what he had seen. There wasn’t much to describe. Hopefully there would be enough to please the night hag.

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