The Gopher King: Chapter 10

Facing Malindra the night hag was less of a treat for Sheckner than spying on the Viceroy. As it was for every one of the hobgoblins that had settled into life in Maelonbourg as the muscle for whatever ploys the night hags cooked up, Sheckner was accustomed to being threatened with violence for any misstep. Usually though there were seldom any executions among these followers of the sister’s coven. The hobgoblins were too disciplined and too eager to please the extraplanar witches that had proven themselves altogether capable of planning and carrying out their nefarious schemes. None of the hobgoblins could claim to comprehend the purpose of the night hag’s activities but they certainly respected their bloodthirsty ferocity. The night hags had been ruling the chaos of Maelonbourg for nearly a hundred years now and generations of hobgoblins had grown up in service to Colldrenia and to a lesser degree Malindra and Tragallia.

Sheckner was a third-generation member of Colldrenia’s cadre. He had never known any other way of life. The elves had been driven from Maelonbourg long before Sheckner’s father was born, and the humans herded into the dungeons below the wondrous castle in the heart of Maelonbourg City that was now a pile of magnificent rubble. There had been some concern among the surviving hobgoblins that Colldrenia’s demise meant the end of the good life in Maelonbourg. So ingrained into their psyche was this servile behavior towards the three sisters that not a single one of the hobgoblins had fully abandoned their posts in the wake of the destruction of the old royal elven castle and the partial destruction of the city itself. Sheckner had been stationed on the eastern border to keep tabs on those snobbish humans of Wientäler. He had seen some combat against the orcs of Oublier whenever they ventured to raid or probe the defenses that Maelonbourg had set up. For the most part though life as one of the night hag’s soldiers had proved uneventful.

Sheckner contemplated these things as he made his way from the city to the winery where Malindra had set herself up to govern whatever was left to rule. There were more hobgoblins here than there were when he left, representative officers from other units scattered about the nearby area. Captain Jorwan had been an active fellow in the last few hours. That could only raise his value with the night hag and anything she considered to be good news would hopefully make her more receptive to Sheckner’s feeble report. The hobgoblins milling about the winery grounds were decidedly cheerful. This wasn’t a state of being that the hobgoblins were accustomed to. They thrived on being the tough guys in the crowd. It was a breath of fresh air for them to finally have somebody back in charge. The presence of Malindra had gone a long way towards renewing the confidence of these warriors. It hadn’t yet been a full month since Colldrenia had been vanquished. Not enough time to have things slide completely downhill and yet too long for things to have remained within the accepted norms established by Colldrenia and enforced by her sheer force of will.

Finding his way to where Malindra had set herself up as Maelonbourg’s sitting regent, Sheckner waited until he was called upon to present his findings. He wasn’t the smartest man in the world and his brain was working overtime to come up with synonyms for “I didn’t see anything of note because that freaky lich scared the ever-loving hell out of me” but there probably wasn’t a hobgoblin in the entire country that knew what “synonym” meant. He resigned himself to whatever wrath the night hag might dish out and stood at attention like a good soldier awaiting his turn.

Malindra did notice the return of the hobgoblin she had sent to see what the Viceroy was doing and motioned for him to approach. Sheckner stepped forward as boldly as he could and bowed respectfully. Malindra’s voice was even and strong as her glowing red eyes narrowed and burned with a chilling intensity. “What did you discover? Has our guest been busy?”

Sheckner nodded his head, and said, “He was cutting up one of the ghouls that were hanging out around the castle ruins. He seemed intensely interested in whatever he was doing, and when he had finished he cut off the thing’s head. And then I came back here to tell you.”

The night hag sat motionless for quite some time, just enough to make it awkward. When she did speak it was more of a muttered utterance under her breath. “That cagey ancient evil bastard has discovered something. He won’t tell me what it is either.”

Raising her voice enough to be clearly heard, Malindra waved her hand dismissively and said to Sheckner, “Tomorrow I may have another job for you.” The night hag then sat resting her head on her folded hands contemplating her next move.

Sheckner took his leave and found a place to sleep for a while. It was in one of the other buildings on the property, a large barn of some sort that had been used for storing the vineyard tools and holding crates of grapes before they were tamped into juice. There were a couple dozen hobgoblins in here doing the exact same thing; sleeping and resting before somebody demanded their presence elsewhere. Only upon laying down did Sheckner realize how exhausted he was. The last few hours had been something of an adrenaline rush and now that he was coming down off of it the hobgoblin felt as though he was wearing a hundred pounds of chain wrapped around his body. He was asleep before he knew it.

Malindra was tired as well, but she had too much to do to rest just yet. She spent the rest of the night having any hobgoblins that were present when her sister was killed rounded up for interrogation. The goblinoids were scattered all over the place so getting them wrangled was going to take several hours. She had entrusted Captain Jorwan with supervising this duty and while that particular hobgoblin was honored to be elevated to being the night hag’s right-hand man it meant that Jorwan wasn’t getting as much rest as he had become accustomed to recently. None of the hobgoblins were taking it easy now that a night hag had her hands on the reins again.

It was dawn before reports began trickling in from the pockets of hobgoblins that had holed up in whatever fortified manor houses, towers, and little castles they could find in the aftermath of Colldrenia’s demise. There weren’t many of them left that had firsthand knowledge of those specific events, though. The majority of the soldiers that were on hand for what was rumored to have been an epic battle of sorcery and swordsmanship had been killed and reanimated by dark necromantic power into the ghouls that thereafter haunted the ruins of Maelonbourg City. Jorwan was able to locate three men and half a dozen women, all hobgoblins, that could attest to what had happened that night. They were all on their way to see Malindra now.

This put Malindra in a bit of a bind. She was too excited to learn what had happened for her to sleep but was exhausted from the events of the last three days. Malindra hadn’t been altogether well rested before she had been granted an audience before the Diosian Lodge and she had done little more than sit down in the time since then. She was also ravenously hungry and there wasn’t anyone she could tear into. The hobgoblins that served her might be content with scrounging carrion and eating dried food as a soldier in the field would but Malindra craved bloody meat. A small hunting group had been dispatched to find something or someone that Malindra could feast on but the plight of Maelonbourg was such that there weren’t a lot of options available. All she could do was wait and she wasn’t any good at waiting. This was further agitated when she was tired and hungry.

The Viceroy meanwhile did some digging of his own. He started with having some of his newly controlled minions dig around the perimeter of the crumbled castle to find any remains of hobgoblins or others that might have been killed outright instead of being turned into ghouls. Their first find was a crushed corpse that looked to have been one of Colldrenia’s hobgoblin soldiers. The body was smashed up pretty good, but the Viceroy rubbed his hands together in a decidedly sinister fashion as his unearthly voice began to laugh chillingly. Holding his hands out to his sides, he began to cast a spell and a faint green fog began to gather around the flattened body. With an eerie calm and grace the swirling mist began to form into the shape of an upright humanoid hovering just inches over the dead body.

Casting another spell that allowed the Viceroy to communicate freely with the summoned shade, the Viceroy began to question the spirit. Normally this was a frustrating task for either a diviner or a necromancer because the dead seldom give a straight answer to anything. Those that have passed beyond the mortal realm find being summoned back, even briefly, to be the upmost in inconvenience and discourtesy. But in this regard the Viceroy had a crucial element in his favor. The Viceroy wasn’t technically alive, and his draw on negative energy from the netherworld provided him with a uniquely strong bargaining position. Any attempt by the spirit to circumvent a question or obfuscate an answer could prove detrimental to the entity in the afterlife because the lich could easily reach across the planar boundary via sorcery to punish the erstwhile soul from afar and for as long as the lich pleased. This particular spirit was aware of what had summoned it and wasn’t going to cross the long-dead necromancer’s investigation.

The Viceroy took a moment to insure that he wasn’t being eavesdropped upon. A quick spell verified that there wasn’t a living creature within range of his voice, so the Viceroy began his questioning. “Did you witness the destruction of this castle?”

The green fog shimmered slightly, and the spectral mouth began to move. The voice was hollow as though whispered through an old log that had the insides rotted out. “Yes, my master.”

Chuckling, the lich asked, “Did Colldrenia survive this attack?”

As if shaking its spectral head the shadow replied, “No, my lord.”

The Viceroy then asked, “How many were involved in the attack on your mistress Colldrenia?”

Shifting a bit the specter replied, “There was a group of nine that infiltrated our defenses, my lord. A tenth one joined after the attack was commenced.”

The lich thought for a moment contemplating his next question. He had a limited number of questions that he could ask before the shade would dissipate and no further contact would be easily made with this same entity. “What races were the attackers?” the Viceroy asked.

The shade answered in its hollow voice, “There were two black-skinned elves, four hobgoblins, three quasits, and some kind of orc, my lord.”

Sensing he was on the right track with there being two dark elves and finding the presence of their peculiar magic being used to create the ghouls the Viceroy now asked, “Who would have orchestrated this attack?”

The Viceroy anticipated the shades response, but he felt it needed to be asked if there was any hope of quickly getting to the bottom of this mystery. True to form the ghostly image replied, “It is beyond my knowledge to ascertain this, my lord.”

A common misconception among the living whether or not they are interested in seeking out via divination information from those that have shuffled off their mortal coils is that all of the dead know everything there is to know about the living. The Viceroy knew this was nonsense and had known it since he himself was a young man long before he became the horror that he was now. The spirits of the dead can relate only that information that they themselves knew while living. Once they had expired in this world and their spiritual essence was reclaimed whence it originated there was no more for them to learn. They did not hang out in the great ever after and socialize, swapping notes and gossiping about what had brought them to their dooms.

Adjusting his tack somewhat the Viceroy asked, “Who would Colldrenia have blamed for this attack?”

The shade seemed to laugh but it was as if a bellows were blown over a whistle. It answered with, “She would have laid the blame on the Marquis of Chute de l’Ombre, my lord.”

The Viceroy now had a name to go on and even if the spirit couldn’t absolutely say with a hundred percent certainty that this Marquis was to blame it was at least something to go off of that Colldrenia had made it known to her minions that she and the Marquis were enemies. If these lowly foot soldiers knew that Colldrenia would blame the Marquis of Chute de l’Ombre then it would behoove the Viceroy to look into him being responsible as a distinct possibility.

The Viceroy shifted his approach yet again and he asked, “Did all of the attackers escape?”

Flickering in the darkness the pale green shade replied, “Yes, my lord.”

This was more annoying than it was anything else and the Viceroy next asked, “Where can a person find quasits around here?” The question was in line with the thoughts already circulating in the Viceroy’s mind although anyone eavesdropping might not have made any sense of it right away.

The specter replied in its deadpan unexpressive tone, “They had belonged to Colldrenia, my lord.”

Clapping his hands together in a rare expression of joy, the Viceroy asked, “Which of these attackers had managed to wrestle away three quasits from the power of Colldrenia?” the answer was going to be one of the dark elves, the Viceroy was certain of it, but he needed to hear it confirmed.

“One of the black-skinned elves, my lord.” Answered the shade, just as the Viceroy had predicted.

This answer, while obvious to the lich, posed more questions that were undoubtedly beyond the knowledge of the spirit, but that were going to prove especially important to the Viceroy. He would need to seek out another means of divination to get at those answers. Sensing his time was drawing to a close to get further information from this shade the Viceroy asked it, “By what name were you known in life?”

The specter shuddered a little and replied, “Threrk, my lord.”

The Viceroy made a mental note of this and asked his final question, “Did Colldrenia have a rivalry going on with the dark elves?”

The shade seemed to be laughing again as it answered, “Not as such, my lord.” And with that the pale green fog began to dissipate into the air.

Having gotten some answers had settled the Viceroy on a number of things and had given him a direction to go in to find out more. For now he was content and could focus on exploring the things he had uncovered. Should Malindra turn up some method of payment the Viceroy could now give her a little information about what had happened. Until then the Viceroy would continue looking for answers because he didn’t have anything else to do. And if there was something that the Viceroy did not do well with it was boredom. If he had a small dark room to sit in he could remain all but motionless for months. But there were curious things going on in Maelonbourg and the lich found himself being inexorably being drawn into them.

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