Back at the old winery there was more information being bandied about. The morning sun was crawling into the sky and reports were rolling in from the dispatched hobgoblins that had been sent out to all of the encampments scattered around the southern half of Maelonbourg. The overall tone of these reports was optimistic now that there was a night hag back in charge. There wasn’t a lot of good news to be had outside of this, though. For the most part the defenders had been overwhelmed by the orcs from Oublier simply because of sheer numbers. Orcs were much more likely to band together in vast numbers than were hobgoblins, and while hobgoblins were taller, stronger, and more intelligent than their orcish cousins there wasn’t a lot that a group of two hundred hobgoblins could do against two or three thousand orcs. The hobgoblins that had been positioned in the northern half of Maelonbourg hadn’t squandered their defenses, but a coordinated and disciplined retreat ended up being their only reasonable option in the absence of centralized leadership. Luckily for hobgoblins they are naturally inclined to discipline and cunning warfare, so while they might have had to surrender half of Maelonbourg they were able to keep their numbers largely intact while inflicting horrific damages on the orcs that were invading.
For now things were in a stalemate. The orcs had been slowly making their way southward through the rugged mountains. Hobgoblin defenders had made the orcish invasion as painful as possible, but there wasn’t much they could have done about preventing it entirely. There were signs that the orcs might try and take more of Maelonbourg but there wasn’t a great deal of value south of the mountains they were bogged down in. The north had a number of valuable mines, but the southern half of the country had been an agricultural area and the blight of the night hag’s curses had turned it into a nearly barren wasteland. Maelonbourg City would have been an enticing prize for the orcs, but it had already been extensively looted, and the castle knocked down. The castle would have been a fine defensive position had it been left standing. Now it was just a huge pile of rocks and only the night hags had a vested interest in what lay buried beneath it.
The reports coming in indicated that the orcs hadn’t begun fortifying their positions because they hadn’t even been in place for more than a few days. There were the occasional forays to test the hobgoblin defenses, but these had been met with intense violence to keep the orcs from thinking that they were going to just waltz into the rest of the realm. The hope of all of the hobgoblins was that Malindra would set things right and come up with a way to drive the orcs northward and restore the balance of power.
The nine hobgoblins that were firsthand witnesses to the events that led to the destruction of the castle in the heart of Maelonbourg City arrived at the old winery early in the morning. Malindra decided to cut straight to the chase and have all of them come in at once to answer her questions. There was a palpable air of nervous concern among the witnesses as they came into the room. Malindra had chosen a half dozen of the biggest hobgoblins in her employ to serve as guards and they stood ready to attack should the need arise. Malindra had remained in her natural form to enhance the fear being felt by those she was seeking to gain information from. She was going to use whatever resources she had to get the answers she sought before she had to rely on the spellcraft of the Viceroy.
The three male hobgoblins that had been there when Colldrenia was attacked were named Wrusz, Kraaz, and Chalagz. All of them had been stationed at the front gate of the castle and their positions had allowed them to be in a prime place to flee once the castle began to crumble. The female hobgoblins had all been maids or kitchen help and while they witnessed some of the chaos that had taken place they were not ideal to describe the nature of the attackers or their methods. Malindra motioned with her hands for them to approach her, and said, “The three of you men step forward. I am told you were on duty in my sister’s castle when it was destroyed. Is this true?”
All three of the men stepped forward and nodded their heads. These were not high-ranking troops in the night hag’s militia. Malindra stared at them intensely and leaned forward as she spoke. “Tell me about who did this. What did you see?”
The trio of hobgoblins looked at one another, and at the other hobgoblins in the room before one of them, Kraaz, cleared his throat and replied, “We were on duty in the evening, and had a quasit with us that called himself Qirt. He was one of the three imps that served as your sister’s spies and enforcers. A cruel little creature, fond of inflicting pain. Well, he was hopping around like he always was when a group of strange hobgoblins approached with a couple of black-skinned elves. I think they call themselves drow, my queen. Anyway, this bunch of hobgoblins had with them the other two quasits that served your sister. I don’t know why they were with them, but we knew better than to ask. Those imps all had the authority of your sister to do whatever they pleased and that was good enough for us.”
Malindra scowled and hissed, “What made these hobgoblins appear to be strange?” she asked.
Kraaz shrugged and replied, “Well, only one of them was a proper warrior. The rest were women, and one of them appeared to be blind. But all of them were armed to the teeth and equipped for battle.” Kraaz knew that Malindra was familiar with hobgoblin society, perhaps not as well versed in their customs as had been her sister Colldrenia, but enough to know that female hobgoblins rarely were spotted in the guise of warriors. This was just not their way.
Malindra continued staring at Kraaz while he talked. The night hag gave away clues to her demeanor though as she gritted her teeth and moved her jaw around as though she was chewing on her skepticism. She made no other motions and said nothing while she listened.
Wrusz began to take up the story now and said, “One of the drow elves was a man, and looked to be of tremendous age. He begins to sing this little song, this weird little song. Qirt perks up, all attentive like, and starts clapping his little hands. The quasit gets this sick grin and he starts dancing over to the singing elf. The other two quasits are dancing around too, like they are having some kind of imp party. It was the creepiest thing. So the hobgoblins that are with the elves say to us that they are here to see Colldrenia about the tapestry she had been after and these elves are emissaries or something from the underdark. Well, they have the three quasits hopping around and who are we to deny entry to them? Only one of the hobgoblins was a guy, and he seemed to be in charge, so we just let them go on in.” Wrusz shrugged his shoulders. “They had the imps so what were we supposed to do?”
Malindra didn’t answer but everyone could sense that her anger was boiling up. She kept her cool though because she needed to get a fuller picture of events before she could give rein to revenge and retribution. Malindra shifted her focus to the one fellow that hadn’t yet spoken.
Right on cue Chalagz began to share more of the story. “So this group goes in and the quasits lead them right into the heart of the castle where your sister is, the old throne room. She spent a lot of time in there pacing about and coming up with stuff for us to do. So I go along with them to make sure they are on the up and up because the whole thing isn’t feeling right, but the wicked quasits are all in on whatever this is so there has to be something to it. That’s our thinking, right?” Chalagz looked at the other two men who seemed in no hurry to lend themselves to this theory in case it wasn’t to Malindra’s liking. Chalagz cleared his throat anxiously and continued on with his tale.
“They come right in here, and she has guards all around like always. And there are guards up above in the mezzanine too, so Colldrenia feels like she has the upper hand against these visitors, right? She always had the upper hand anyway. Weapons never had any effect on her, and magic bounced off of her like throwing gravel at a turtle. All it does it annoy the turtle, right? So Colldrenia starts in with wanting to see the tapestry and the hobgoblin guy that was leading this bunch draws these swords and starts making like he is going to attack. And then the old black elf casts this spell and a ball of lightning flies out from his hand and bounces from one guard to the next all around the room. It was wild and all hell broke loose. The women hobgoblins start drawing their weapons too and begin attacking everything in sight. The whole time these quasits are hopping around all agitated and clapping their hands and being goofy. The lady black elf kind of slinks back and I decide I better do something, so I draw my weapon and go after her. She hits me with some kind of magic and my muscles all lock up. I am completely paralyzed, and I fall down right there next to the door. She hauls out right past me and the weird hobgoblins are all trying to attack Colldrenia. Their weapons don’t do diddly-squat against her and there are spells flying all over the place. That black elf old guy casts another spell and all of the guards that had been killed by his lightning start animating and the whole atmosphere changes. They attack responding guards and anyone else passing by. Everyone these things kill rise up immediately too and start in with attacking responders.”
Chalagz took a deep breath and continued. “So this black elf fellow keeps casting spells and Colldrenia is getting hurt like nothing I have ever seen. She tries everything to break away and get loose of them, but this guy’s magic is too powerful. She is zapped until she falls flat right there in the center of the room. Then the raiders that started it all turn tail and haul out past me. On their way out one of the quasits bites me on the wrist. See?” Chalagz holds his hand out to show the partially healed wound on his wrist. “That was a month ago or so and it still hasn’t healed. But it released my paralysis, and I got up and got the hell out of there before those ghouls got to me too.”
Wrusz jumped in now and begin talking. “These people ran right out the front gate, yelling and hollering and raising all sorts of havoc. Those of us at the gate weren’t sure what was going on, but we start to run in when we see Chalagz running towards us with all of these ghouls right on his heels. So we turn tail and try and get clear of them, right? And no sooner do we get into the square in front of the castle than there is this earthquake, and everything starts rocking back and forth. I wasn’t going to stick around to see what was going to happen next. There were ghouls running around now and the hobgoblins in the city were running all over too. It was a mess. And the castle starts falling apart up at the top and the towers begin toppling over. The black elves went east out of the city with those odd hobgoblins and they had a big orc with them. Not really an orog, but bigger than an orc. He had this air about him, but I’d never seen him before. And the bunch of them just keep running. We tried to keep pace, but they ran like the devil was after them.”
Kraaz made a move as though he had more to add and then thought better of it and just looked a bit sheepish. Malindra held her hands together in front of her face and studied each of the hobgoblins in front of her. “Do you women have anything to add?” she asked somewhat quietly. One of the women raised her hand timidly, and Malindra looked at her. “What is your name?”
“Soshea, my queen.” The woman answered almost in a whisper.
Malindra eyed her carefully and asked, “What do you have to add to this, Soshea?”
The woman shifted uncomfortably and said quietly, “I saw the orc, my queen. He was a rat and was skittering around when the fight started. He turned into an orc and started fighting too. He was the first to land a hit on your sister with his sword.”
Malindra was surprised by this turn in the story. “A rat?” she asked incredulously.
Soshea nodded her head emphatically. “Yes, my queen. A fat rat. I worked in the kitchen and we had a lot of rats. Sometimes we would cook them for stew. But this one was cagier than the rest and never got close enough to be caught. He had some speckles on him that set him apart.”
Malindra blinked in confusion. “So you had interaction with this rat before all of this happened?” She could hardly believe that she was asking about a rodent, but the oddity of it all had especially struck her.
“Oh, I never fed him or anything.” Replied Soshea quickly. “But I had noticed him here and there in the castle.”
Malindra narrowed her gaze and gritted her teeth. “Where did you see him most frequently?” she asked with a touch of hiss in her voice.
Soshea bit her lip and then said, “In the old throne room, my queen. He was around there quite often I think.”
Malindra thought about this for a few moments and then asked the group, “What kind of orc turns into a rat? Or rat that turns into an orc? Who has ever heard of this before?”
There was no response, but the hobgoblins seemed to shrug collectively and tried to avoid making eye contact with the night hag. Sensing she wasn’t going to get much more than this, Malindra waved at the group dismissively. “Out you go. Make yourselves useful and get this place straightened up.” The hobgoblins left, and the night hag was alone with her thoughts and the guards in the room. Her eyes moved from place to place as she contemplated what she had been told. It seemed to her that everywhere she looked she saw rat droppings.