The Gopher King: Chapter 13

Sleeping away the day suited the night hag perfectly. As her identity suggested she was much more comfortable in the darkness. Returning to her seat in the main hall of the house, Malindra summoned Captain Jorwan to see what information he might have to sate the night hag’s endless curiosity. Night hags had two passions in their otherwise cruel and degraded lives; turning evil humans into larvae and seeking out knowledge. Wherever possible they sought to combine these goals. Ideally they would lock their sights on a selfish scholar and funnel whatever wisdom they had attained into their own bank of information before turning the hapless intellectual into a quivering larva to enhance the night hag’s wealth and power in the Gray Wastes.

Captain Jorwan was no slouch and he had served Colldrenia in a similar function to the one he now found himself serving for Malindra. He hadn’t been this close to Colldrenia, but then there had been a lot more hobgoblins in her service than were now serving Malindra. Living hobgoblins, at any rate. Rumors had begun to circulate that the undead scourge that had devastated the number of living goblinoids in Maelonbourg were now harnessed completely under the iron grip of the lich that had shown up here with Malindra. This was what could best be considered a mixed blessing for the night hag’s minions. It was a relief to not have to worry about the weaker undead running amok and fouling up their plans to make Maelonbourg a haven for the discipline loving warriors that had flocked to the banner of the night hags. But the downside was that there was a freaking lich lurking about Maelonbourg now. The night hag was a strong leader and a force to be reckoned with. A lich was even more powerful and far more terrifying.

For the moment Jorwan set aside his fear of the lich and focused his attention on the night hag seated before him. He saluted smartly and stood at attention awaiting her command.

Malindra was still a little groggy and more than a little hungry. “Captain Jorwan, you know a good deal about the goings on during my absence from Maelonbourg. I have heard mention of a tapestry that my sister sought. What is this all about?”

The hobgoblin gave a half-hearted shrug and replied, “There was a bit of a blow-up over some magical tapestry that the orcs of Oublier stole from some elves or something. The orcs were going to auction it off to the highest bidder and the green dragon of Forêt Verte and Colldrenia were maneuvering into position to acquire the thing for themselves. But a fight started between us and the orcs and while we were dealing with that the elves stole the tapestry back. I don’t know where it is now but Colldrenia had a burning desire to get her hands on it.”

The night hag sat quietly for a bit before she asked, “Who would know more about this tapestry?”

Captain Jorwan adjusted his helmet and after a moment of careful contemplation answered with, “Colldrenia confided in Tragallia, and she was here briefly while you were away. She also bounced ideas off of her quasits but all three of them were killed following the attack that killed Colldrenia. I’m not sure who else might know.” Jorwan stood awkwardly for a minute and Malindra wasn’t sure if he was done speaking or not. She decided to say something but before she could Jorwan held up his hand and raised his eyebrows to indicate that he had just thought of something potentially relevant. Malindra sighed and nodded for him to continue.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Marquis of Chute de l’Ombre might know something. Colldrenia was convinced that he was behind the fight with the orcs.” Jorwan stood there smiling ever so slightly that he could pin some level of hostility on the Marquis. The hobgoblins hated the Marquis and everyone in his domain. They had dealt with his infuriating schemes for decades. Recently some of his allies had taken on a greater significance in the Wenigzustand and the hobgoblins were all on high alert should they interfere in Maelonbourg. They may have been the ones that concocted the raid that took down Colldrenia. They were a sneaky bunch.

Malindra whispered the Marquis’ name under her breath. “Devious Maximus.” She raised her voice a little louder and asked Jorwan, “Why did my sister think the Marquis was behind the conflict with Oublier?”

Jorwan’s smile faded quickly as he said, “There was something about the Marquis having found a way to change people into orcs and hobgoblins.”

Malindra growled and closed her eyes. She rubbed her temples with her iron-like claws as she absorbed this information. “Where is Tragallia?” she asked, opening her eyes and putting her hands down on the arms of her chair.

Jorwan was at a loss for this question. He hadn’t the foggiest idea where the third night hag was. His mind raced to come up with a believable answer. Nothing was forthcoming. He finally had to end the silence with, “I do not know, my queen.”

The night hag sighed and asked, “Where had she been when she showed up here the last time she came through?” She drummed her fingers impatiently.

The hobgoblin clenched his jaw and finally thought of an answer. “Trésor, my queen. I believe she had been lurking about Ange Déchu trying to find more slaves.” Jorwan wasn’t sure that sounded like he really knew so he added, “Or hobgoblins. There might have been a source for more of us up there.”

Malindra gave it some serious thought. She had no way of knowing where Tragallia was, no easy way of contacting her even if she did know, and the one person that could clear all of this up with a couple of spells wasn’t going to lift a single bony finger to assist unless she had some means of paying for it. She drummed her fingers for a little bit longer and then said to Jorwan, “I need you to round up anything even remotely resembling treasure and bring it to me. Gold, gemstones, books or anything else that might bring a goodly sum of money. Anything but actual money. I need something more valuable than coins.” Malindra paused and then added, “Anyone that balks bring to me. I’ll offer them as sacrifices to the Diosian Lodge and let that sort itself out.”

Jorwan gulped and saluted smartly. “As you command, my queen.” He then made a quick exit and started howling orders to his underlings. There wasn’t a lot of loot to be had in Maelonbourg, but he was relatively certain that they could come up with something. The country had largely been stripped of its treasures when Colldrenia had first seized power and began bringing in the hobgoblins to solidify her hold on power. What hadn’t been given to the goblinoid soldiers as payment had been used to buy more humans from orcish slave traders in Oublier when Colldrenia had run out of nonhumans to exchange. Some of the hobgoblin clans had squirreled away more than others had so Jorwan had a little room for optimism.

Malindra took the hobgoblin’s exit as a good excuse to feast. She ordered the servants to bring out the food they had prepared and tore into it like a ravenous creature. As a proper monster it was expected that a night hag should be savage in things that civilized folk were more restrained at and eating was no exception. Malindra even ate the bones in the not-fully cooked carcass that had been set down before her. Colldrenia had often made a display of her own feasts when she had first taken control of Maelonbourg. But in those days the main course was frequently an elf or half-elf that had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such occasions were designed to inflict terror in those watching and not once did they fail in that purpose. Malindra wasn’t above using such tactics herself should she have the chance to tear into a sentient being. For now it was enough to get some nourishment.

In the top room of the tower overhead the Viceroy had finished his studies and now sat in the dark reflecting on the tasks before him. There had been a number of interesting things that piqued his interest recently. The lich sat silently and mulled over the details he knew and the conclusions he suspected. He needed to find out more information about the Marquis of Chute de l’Ombre. The Viceroy needed to know just a little more about this person. He tapped his fingers with one hand while he propped his other hand under his jaw. There were a number of options available to the lich. For now he was content to sit and think about how this Marquis could have turned hobgoblins against Colldrenia. It had been the lich’s understanding that the night hags had locked down the allegiance of every hobgoblin in the region. How then did another person manage to turn even a few of these creatures? The Viceroy would need more to formulate an opinion.

As the lich sat in almost total silence letting his mind race over the puzzle pieces he had bouncing about in his mind the hobgoblins were frantically seeking anything worthwhile enough to present to Malindra to satisfy her request. They had in fact squirreled away more loot than they had thought possible. There were some books that hadn’t been confiscated by Colldrenia and plenty of gemstones as well as a handful of artistic treasures. The item that delighted Jorwan the most was a golden staff. The endcap was missing whatever was meant to set in it, but the staff itself was otherwise in fine condition. It had originally been a part of the Maelonbourg trove of royal regalia serving as the symbol of office for the King’s chamberlain. The hobgoblins hoped that it would be enough to please the night hag.

The night hag was delighted. The books alone would have sufficed, but the staff was what Malindra thought would really do the trick. It was gold and it looked just like something the Viceroy would want to wave about. Now Malindra had to think about what it was exactly that she wanted the lich to do in exchange for the staff. For that matter she had to think of what she would use the books to pay for. There was so much going on and enough things she needed done that she would run out of methods to pay for it all fairly quickly. As she plotted her course through the myriad of goals she had swirling against one another she decided that the first thing she needed to do was to find out who precisely had buried her priceless larvae beneath a mountain of rubble. That would in itself uncover who had killed her sister and that goal would be accomplished at the same time. The night hag could then work on her revenge against the perpetrators without resorting to bribing the lich for help. That would free up resources further down the line for something more important in the scheme to get the larvae and the remaining night hags to the Gray Wastes.

Malindra was tired but decided to present the Viceroy with the staff and try to get the lich to agree to finding out who the perpetrators were. She held the staff in both hands, feeling the weight of the golden item and smiling despite herself. Malindra walked determinedly up the stairs in the tower of the old winery, pushing aside the debris that the lich had tossed down. She somewhat resented the lich taking the upper room in this spire of sorts for his lair. She also resented that she was for the most part at the mercy of this arrogant undead wizard. In the Gray Wastes she wouldn’t have to listen to his foolishness. There she would be the more powerful of the two and it would likely be the lich that quaked at the sound of her hateful and demanding voice. For the time being though Malindra had to be mindful of her mortality even though she could live for many more years than all but elven folk. Running the risk of having her days cut short by the Viceroy was not going to be an issue for the night hag as long as she kept her cool and didn’t push her luck with the lich.

The night hag used the tip of the staff to knock on the trapdoor that led to the lich’s room at the top of the spiral staircase. The Viceroy was aroused from his meandering thoughts and cast a minor spell. He motioned towards the trapdoor with one of his fingers and the portal opened as if by an invisible hand. The night hag walked up the stairs and stood before the seated lich. She had decided to appear in her normal form rather than that of a beautiful and desirable human woman. Malindra knew from past experience that the wretched undead took no pleasure in such things nor would it be an enticement for it to be more cooperative as it would a living, breathing man. Malindra cackled ever so slightly as she stepped towards the seated lich and held the staff out in both hands.

“If you will take on the task of discovering who killed my sister and laid our castle to waste, I will give you this staff in payment.” The night hag smiled as reassuringly as she could manage and awaited the Viceroy’s response.

The lich stared at Malindra with his unflinching green pinpoints of light, diverting his gaze now and again to the staff in her hands. What foul calculations might have been running through the twisted and depraved mind of the ancient sorcerer Malindra could only guess at. There was no telling because there were literally no facial expressions from which to gauge a reaction.

The Viceroy stood and stepped towards the night hag. Placing his hands on the staff she presented he said in a raspy near-whisper, “This pleases me greatly. I shall find your culprits.”

Malindra released the staff and watched in surprised delight as the Viceroy examined the staff closely, turning it over in his hands as he did so. He spoke again saying, “I will have answers for you quickly. Tell me what you have learned from your minions and I will set to work immediately.”

The night hag set aside for the moment her annoyance that the Viceroy knew she had already been indulging in her own investigation and had surmised that she had been unable to solve this mystery on her own. Malindra was a clever and intelligent creature in her own right and there were not many clues that would slip by her quick mind. It perturbed her that the Viceroy viewed her as less than capable. Nevertheless Malindra filled the Viceroy in on everything she had learned from her hobgoblins. She included everything about the dark elves, the shapeshifting orc, Colldrenia’s errant imps, the issue of a tapestry that might or might not have been a point of contention for Colldrenia, and the renegade hobgoblins that might have been operatives of the Marquis of Chute de l’Ombre utilizing some sort of polymorph magic. Malindra provided the facts and didn’t include any of her own suspicions or conclusions. It was imperative that the lich earn his pay if he was going to be so obstinate in demanding it.

The Viceroy listened intently and when Malindra had finished speaking he held the staff at his side and said, “I will set out momentarily. I only require one detail.”

Malindra cocked her head and raised her right eyebrow as she asked, “What do you need to know, my lord?”

The Viceroy would have smiled had he been capable of the act as he replied, “Which way to Chute de l’Ombre?”

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